Orlin Bach adjusted his headlamp and wiped the perspiration from his brow. It was a warm morning and the heat was now accumulating in the upper levels of the abandoned complex. Using the sweat from his forehead, he removed a layer of dust and grime from the solar panel he had just uncovered. The light on his head allowed him to locate the numbers in the top corner of the recovered unit. It was an ‘M-II’ model and would bring good supplies in trade. The lamp flickered and the hunter growled with irritation. Inserting the panel under his left arm, he tucked a crate full of goodies under his right. A wristband on this arm produced a steady flicker of pulsing green light that washed over his new treasures. This morning’s search had produced several dinnerware pieces, six glass jars for preserves, a rusty can opener and several plastic containers. The solar panel would have been the cherry on his pie if he hadn’t come across another treasure on the sixteenth floor.
Making his way to the stairs at the end of the hall, he couldn’t help but glance into the crate again. He smiled as the weak light enveloped a plain box nestled under two of the jars. Orlin was a thorough man, and once again, his dogged determination had provided for him. After tugging on a refrigeration unit for more than ten minutes, he had pulled the old technology from its housing. As sure as the moon would rise tonight, he had found the little box where it had toppled from its resting place upon the fridge. Covered in dust and cobwebs, he was at first uncertain of what he had found. It didn’t matter. It was a box that had been missed by all other scavengers. And this was why he searched. It was the excitement of that next treasure that kept him going. There was nothing else in this ridiculous world to get out of bed for. Upon opening the box, he had felt genuine joy –and that was rare enough in this rotten world. Here was a treasure he would not trade, but one he would keep all for himself. The sealed container enclosed eleven untouched cigars –all perfectly preserved. The cigars reminded him of his father Edgar Bach, who had also been a great hunter and scavenger.
Lost in thoughts of days gone by, Orlin started down the complex’s twenty-three flights of stairs. He recalled the first time he had shared a cigar with his old man. At first he had been hesitant to accept the burning stub, but at his father’s nod he had eagerly brought the offering up to his lips. Edgar later told him he had turned green after about three big puffs. Orlin wasn’t a quitter though and had managed two more tugs on that stogie before running off to be sick. Orlin grinned. God he missed that man.
Now half way to the ground level, Orlin’s lamp went out completely and he grunted again –already having expected the charge wouldn’t last. There were no windows in the stairwell and it would have been pitch black if it wasn’t for the eerie green radiance coming from his wrist. The throbbing beat of the wristband matched the man’s heartbeat and he used this soft glow to guide himself to the bottom of the rubble filled stairwell. As he neared the landing, bright daylight filtered into the ruined opening from outside. He was about to sit on the last step and enjoy one of his cigars, when a voice stopped him cold. “Hold there, old man,” it said.
Orlin turned slowly, taking in a shadowy figure that had taken up residence in the lower hallway. The man was bearded and thin and pointed a rifle at him. The newcomer stood beside the open door of the first apartment that Orlin had searched three days ago. The outlaw waved the barrel of his gun toward the courtyard beyond the entrance of the building. “I got him, boys!” he shouted through the opening. He stood less than ten feet from the hunter, and his look was grim.
“What are you waiting for, Tommy?” called a voice from outside. ’Shoot him already.”
Orlin had assessed Tom before the man’s companion was done speaking. After years of travelling the wilds, he knew when to draw down, and when a man might be reasoned with. “Don’t do it,” he said calmly. He half turned to the bearded stranger. Before the younger man could respond, Orlin nodded at him. His arms remained full with the solar panel and the crate of goods, but he spread his fingers wide to show that he was not an immediate threat. “You pull that trigger and we’re all dead men.”
“I doubt it,” replied Tom. “You won’t get to that machete on your hip or that shotgun on your back before I lift you.” He stared down the barrel of his gun, his eyes never leaving his target.
“No, I won’t,” agreed Orlin, “but if you kill me, I’ll meet you in the Euphoria all the same. Do you see this green light?” He twisted his wrist toward the man –even though it was already in plain sight. “It’s a dead man’s switch. I die and this light goes out.”
“So what?” said Tom. His tongue lapped at the corner of his mouth. It was a subconscious reaction as he contemplated the older man’s words.
“That’s when you die - both you, and your buddies who are no doubt pilfering my belongings as we speak.” Orlin lifted his chin, his eyes boring into the younger man. “You see, that wagon also has a green light up underneath the rear axle. I’m sure your pals missed it. No matter, it’s there.”
“Allah’s balls Tom, what’s the hold up?” called a second voice from outside.
Tom was silent as he digested Orlin’s warning. At last he spoke. “Says he’s got some kind of dead man’s switch on him.” Muffled voices were heard from beyond the opening. Tom’s eyes flicked to the doorway in the briefest of glances.
In that moment, the crate under Orlin’s right arm was released and his fingers sought the opening in his leather duster. His hand disappeared through a hole in the inner material and latched onto the Benelli shotgun that was anchored to his shoulder by a chorded rope. The barrel of the gun came up and a thunderous blast exited its muzzle just as Tom unloaded his own shot. The solar panel rocketed from Orlin’s grip, a murderous hole ripped through the costly equipment. Tom was smashed against the wall where he crumpled to the floor beside the open apartment door. Tom’s rifle was thrown from his lifeless fingers and it skittered down the hallway with a metallic warbling. A single refined hole in Tom’s chest, led to a gaping exit in the man’s back. Orlin was all too familiar with the damage caused by his most prized firearm and he ignored the body as it convulsed in an ever widening pool of blood. He pumped the spent shell from his gun and wiped the blood spatter from his eyes before making his way into the adjacent apartment.
The hunter ran to a grime covered window overlooking the yard outside. The dust and grunge on the glass was thick and he could hardly see into the courtyard. His eyes went to his Conestoga wagon as he heard one man shout something to the other. One of the bandits was using the wagon for cover and Orlin could see the man’s feet under the conveyance. Allowing the rope to take the weight of the Benelli again, he shouldered his way out from under the large pack on his back. Releasing the Stoeger coach gun from its custom sheath on the packsack, he levelled the double barrel shotgun at the unsuspecting man outside. “Have some Lefty,” he whispered, sighting in on the man’s shins. A report filled the apartment and a cloud of blue smoke blanketed his vision. When it cleared, the glass was gone and the man was down and screaming, his legs peppered with bird shot. Orlin’s fingers moved to the right trigger and another resounding concussion whomped in his ears as he released the slug from the rifled barrel on the right side of the coach gun. His target no longer screamed. The hunter dropped the smaller shotgun onto the pack and resumed his grip on the Benelli beneath his overcoat.
“Eddie?” The shout came from the right of the window. The downed man did not answer. “Easy now you old bastard,” called the man on the other side of the wall. Orlin did not reply as he swung back to the apartment door. He now knew the third man had crossed over beside the entrance of the apartment building. “Why don’t you stay in there and I’ll be gone? You don’t follow me and I won’t come after you. Nobody else needs to die today.”
“How do I know you’ll be true to your word?” called Orlin, entering the hallway. He didn’t wait for a reply and was already running down the length of corridor. He knew there was a second exit on the backside of the building.
“You don’t,” called the man. “I’ll have to trust you and you’re going to....” Orlin went out through the back door and made his way around the rear of the building. The sky was clear and the sun was hot. Insects swarmed through the thick grass along the back of the abandoned complex. The yard remained clear with only a few scattered trees for two hundred yards. Beyond that, the thicker woods of Old York loomed in the distance.
A gutted and rusted truck was parked near the corner of the building and Orlin used this for cover as he approached the western side of the complex. Coming up to the hood of the truck he peeked through the cab. The windows had long since been busted out, but this did not concern the man. He saw his quarry crossing the field and running for the depths of the old growth forest. The Benelli came up firing, but missed as his target jumped a dip in the field. Cursing to himself, Orlin lay across the hood of the old Dodge and fired another round as the man reached one hundred and fifty yards out. Orlin watched his quarry drop amidst a spray of red mist.
The hunter waited ten minutes before circling the man’s last known location. Now coming from the treeline, he approached the site where the man had dropped. He moved warily, his eyes scanning the tall grasses. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been shot by a downed opponent. At last within twenty feet, he located the body in the sward. The man was face down and motionless and a beat up Ruger lay beside the body. Orlin approached his victim and picked up the handgun. He checked the gun, noting three unspent rounds in the pistol. He pocketed the weapon and rolled the dead man over with the toe of his boot. Orlin exhaled to ease the last of his adrenaline and pulled a folded paper from his chest pocket. Kneeling beside the dead man he glanced briefly at the three men depicted on the sheet. Thomas Nells, Edward Guern, and Jack Neston. This one here was Jack Neston, proven by the fact he had only three fingers on his left hand.
Shouldering the corpse, Orlin made his way back to the clearing and his wagon. He dumped the body beside the Conestoga and noted that Eddie hadn’t moved from where he had dropped beside the wheels. The shotgun slug had killed the man instantly. Across the yard, Orlin’s two buffalo remained staked out in the grass and it appeared as if the gunfight hadn’t bothered them in the slightest. Orlin went to Eddie and nudged the bandit with his boot. The man was dead, but old habits die hard. A man only lived long enough to acquire old habits if he was cautious. It was something his father used to say.
Orlin removed Eddie’s rounded spectacles from his face and held the glass up to his eye. He sighted in on one of the smaller signs nailed to his wagon. He knew the words were ‘Keep Out’, but he wanted to see if the letters would come into focus beneath the glass. If anything, they were more blurred. Despite being of no value to him, he pocketed the glasses and went back into the building. Entering the foyer, he shook his head when he saw the busted solar panel. Lifting his Benelli so he could sit, he located the box of cigars and brought one up to his nose. Rooting in another pocket he came up with his father’s Zippo lighter. There would be plenty of time to load his treasures and the bodies. You never could tell when your time would be up, and now was as good a time as any to enjoy this days’ bounty.
* * * *
Kaylin Everies set her notebook on the desk and remained standing as the rest of the young ladies filed into the classroom. All of the girls stood at attention before their school bureaus. Kaylin’s brown eyes glanced to the row of windows and the morning sunshine warming the glass. Spring break had been wonderful, if not only for the warm May weather, but also for the blissful time she had spent with her mother. As if on cue she heard a snigger from behind her.
“Look girls, the cow’s got a new dress.” Quiet laughter came from either side of the speaker. Kaylin absentmindedly smoothed the front of her new blue dress. It was a simple dress of cotton that her mother had made. She didn’t have to turn around to know that it was Jenny who spoke. The two girls laughing to either side of her were Matti and Terri. She knew all too well why they called her ‘cow’. Born with vitiligo, the normally tan tones of her skin were splashed with white patches –like a jersey cow. Now almost sixteen, Kaylin was used to their bullying, though it didn’t make it any easier to endure.
Jenny’s father was one of the most powerful men in York. As an overseer, it was Ivan McCaulk’s function to manage the borough in which Kaylin and the others called home. As part of the council of York, only one position held more power – that of Grand Chancellor, Sovereign of York. With the title of Overseer came a large estate and access to all of the city’s wealth. Kaylin had read that absolute power corrupts, and this she had witnessed for herself. Living in the same quarter and attending the same school for ten years as Kaylin, had not diminished Jenny McCaulk’s air of entitlement.
A loud rap from behind them silenced the sniggers and Kaylin found herself straightening her back and thrusting her chest out a little further. “To speak is to disrespect,” said Sister Eva, marching along the row of desks. She was a short woman with grey hair and eyes of steel. When those orbs locked onto you, you fell in line – or else. She stopped at the desk behind Kaylin and though none of the girls turned, they all heard the tap, tap, tapping of her yard stick on the wooden bureau. The woman said nothing, her point having been made. She knew who it was that had disrespected her classroom. The head mistress continued to her desk where she placed two hardbound texts alongside a neat stack of papers. The woman’s movements were rigid, her posture perfect. And though not physically imposing, her demeanour left no doubt as to who was in charge. “Ladies,” she acknowledged, “you may be seated.” The girls sat in unison. “Today we will continue our studies on the fall of man. Since you have no doubt forgotten everything we covered before the break, we will recap from your texts. Open your books to page twelve and follow along.”
Kaylin opened the top of her writing table and retrieved the required textbook. As she was closing the bureau she felt something brush her hair. She frowned in irritation, but knew better than to turn around. Pretending to scratch at her ear, she removed the wet spit-ball from within her brown locks and subtly flicked the offending wad back at her antagonist. She had vowed during the break that she wasn’t going to take their mistreatment any longer, but now back in class, with Sister Eva patrolling the ranks, she was uncertain of how to accomplish her new goal.
“The Fall of Man, by Richard Krauss, page twelve, paragraph three,” began the sister. She remained standing as she read in a loud and even voice. “The invention of the “God helmet” led to the further development of a machine known as the “God chamber.” A device in which mankind fled to in their millions. Hooked into these hideous devices by feeding tubes and brain wave monitors, the occupant’s physical bodies withered and died, shrinking down to an emaciated sack of bones. It was not however their physical being which interested these Euphorites, but rather the spiritual realm of Euphoria.
“Here in a world of one’s own making, yet networked to the millions of other Euphorites, one can see and speak with loved ones past, create worlds in the blink of an eye and is filled with an inner peace and love that permeates the entire dimension. Having experienced the Euphoria for myself, I can attest that no sin is committed in that spiritual realm. All earthly mistakes are forgiven and love and understanding are the predominant moods of this mystic realm. Any of impure thought are quickly converted, and the evils of the physical world washed clean. Most will never wish to come back, caring not what happens to their physical self back in the corporeal dimensions of man. Why should they? They are in heaven. But are they really? This is the question to which I have devoted a lifetime of research –and still I seek answers.
“The invention of the God chamber led to the breakdown of human society. Once in their machines, the Euphorites refused to come back from the Euphoria. Were they addicted to the machine and the all-encompassing waves of love that exist in this manmade wonder or were they really in heaven and ready to shed their earthly bodies? All who enter the machine experience a soulful merging that is much more poignant than that of physical copulation in the corporeal world. I now know why countries turned on their governments –as was the case in China – where they were banned from experiencing the Euphoria. The régimes were overthrown and the people entered these ungodly apparatuses en masse. Only a handful remained to watch over the machines and the bodies within. These guardians are known as the Diligent.
“Economic, social, and physical infrastructures collapsed within five years of the invention of the God chamber. At first, larger cities supported themselves within a shrinking inner ring as the human race crumbled from the outside in. A new religion opposed to the use of the God chamber was formed, and these Humanists as they became known, went back to their roots, living in small clusters outside of the city centres and eking out a minimalist existence. The dwindling of the world’s population began to freefall - slowly at first as the above mentioned infrastructures were strangled, and then more speedily as starvation set in across the modernized world. No determined push to repopulate our city centres could take root without the means to feed a rise in population. The greed of the common man and the need for one to take care of his own family superseded any collective effort to rebuild. The world as we knew it declined rapidly. It is a speculative point in time, however most authorities will pinpoint the year of 2040 as the ‘Fall of Man.’
“We are left in a bleak world wherein pockets of humanity cling to the old technology where we can. Gasoline and oil production has all but ceased and those lucky few that remember how to work them, struggle to maintain solar charging stations. Those not so lucky have reverted to a life of wood and coal burning. Individual hamlets look out for themselves and the forest trails and cart paths that exist between havens are frequented by roving outlaws.”
Sister Eva slammed the text shut and lowered the book to the desk. “And why do we study the words of a non-believer?” An uneasy silence settled over the young ladies, none willing to risk the wrong answer and the ire of the sister.
Kaylin heard herself speak and winced inwardly. “So that we may know the mindset of those who oppose us?” she had to force herself to finish her thought.
To her surprise and most everyone else’s, Sister Eva nodded. “Know thy enemy,” she agreed, her eyes sweeping the young women before her. “The greed of the common man and the need for one to take care of his own family superseded any collective effort to rebuild. The world as we knew it declined rapidly.” Sister Eva’s eyes rested solely on Kaylin. “So you see?” she asked. “Mister Krauss’ words are no less true today than they were eighty years ago when he first penned them.” Kaylin remained silent, uncertain if the woman was seeking a response. “Who are we?” barked the headmistress, releasing Kaylin from her icy stare.
At this familiar prompting, the class answered in one voice and Kaylin sighed inwardly. “We are the watchers of God’s children. We are the Diligent.”
The sister nodded again. “We are the collective that keeps mankind from crumbling to dust. Here in the city of York, our sense of community keeps the wolves at bay. Every man, woman and child has a role to play in not only tending the Euphorites, but keeping our fellow citizens safe from the wilds Mister Krauss has warned us about in his text. The world outside of our city is indeed a lawless place ladies. We know a safety here in York that cannot be found outside of our borders. It is our duty to maintain our community and to spread the good word to non-believers. Those of Old York can be converted through our teachings, and shown the sin of their gluttonous ways. Now let us pray.” She moved around the desk to stand in front of it as her class stood in unison.
“Our Father who art in Euphoria,
Hallowed be your realm.
Thy kingdom has come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in Euphoria.
Give us this day our daily love,
As we watch over those who have gone before us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the wilds.
Soon our time will come,
As we join thee in Euphoria.
The girls were seated as Sister Eva rounded her desk to retrieve the second text book. As the older woman turned her back, Kaylin felt another wad of paper hit her in the back of the neck. The girl growled under her breath, but she kept her eyes locked onto the woman at the front of the classroom. ‘And lead us not into temptation,’ she repeated to herself.
* * * *
Orlin adjusted the strap of his heavy pack and grunted to himself. It would have been a perfect day if it wasn’t filled with people. He had parked his wagon and buffalo at the weighing station where he was forced to endure a conversation with the weigh-man and his apprentice. ‘What a fine day, and boy that’s quite a load,’ and the likes. All drivel as far as the hunter was concerned. In a bid to be done, he had helped them unload the wagon. Of course he wasn’t allowed to carry the steel and plastic through the postern and into their warehouse, but that at least gave him a reprieve from the younger man’s constant prattle when the two of them disappeared inside with a load. Now equipped with a final tally of salvaged goods, he walked the quarter mile up the old dirt track to where the quartermaster’s outbuilding sat outside the eastern gate of York. He carried the broken solar panel under his arm as he walked. ‘I should have waited for a rainy day,’ he thought. People never liked to gab in the rain. It was always straight to business and then on your way. He rubbed at the stubble on his chin and powered up the roadway. His pack remained loaded with specialty goods, the weight of it causing him to sweat.
The quartermaster’s outbuilding wasn’t so much of a building as it was a lean-to that was prepared each day with trade goods for outsiders coming through. Approaching the overhang, he peered through the gates and into the city as he passed. He could see several of the Diligent, all wearing their light blue clothing. They went about their business as if unaware of the rampant hardships outside of York. None of them carried weapons and four young people burst into laughter at some private joke as they went on their merry way. York was not unprotected though, and Orlin’s eyes drifted to another man standing by the entrance. This man was in his mid-twenties and was dressed in blue and grey camouflage from head to foot. He stood at attention and carried an automatic assault rifle. He nodded to the old hunter, if only to acknowledge that he was being glared at. Orlin was reminded of the fact that the use of automatic weapons by outsiders had been banned by the city’s officials almost a century ago and that they had written laws into their new constitution allowing York’s militia to shoot anyone on sight who dared to oppose them. He didn’t bother to return the gesture, but instead turned back to two other men at the lean-to.
The first man was stocky and balding, his black suspenders holding up dirty buckskin pants. The man’s shirt was chequered red on black and covered in numerous patches. An older rifle was strapped across the man’s back, a Browning 1885 Low wall. Despite the stock’s many dings and scratches, Orlin noted the gun was oiled and well maintained. The man hoisted a bear skin from a push cart beside him and spread it out on the counter. The second man, a tall fellow with a drooping yellow moustache going to white, ran his hands through the fur and nodded. The pair bartered for a minute and then the quartermaster retrieved a sack from under the counter and two more from across the shelter.
“I’ll be,” exclaimed the quartermaster as the trapper wheeled his cart out of the way. “Benelli Bach,” he said, thrusting his hand out for Orlin. The man’s blue eyes held a twinkle and his greeting was genuine.
Despite his dislike of people, Orlin found himself grinning and taking the other man’s hand. “Brushy,” he acknowledged.
“Still shooting I see.”
“Well enough to fill your notice,” agreed Orlin, releasing the man’s hand.
“Oh?” said Brushy as Orlin retrieved the hand sketched wanted poster of the three men. The white haired man pulled a set of glasses from his breast pocket and took the paper. “Which one?”
“You know me, I don’t do half jobs.” Orlin removed his mammoth pack and set it on the counter. His Stoeger remained snug in its sheath on the side of it.
“All three then?”
“I don’t come out of the wilds unless it’s worth my while,” continued Orlin.
Brushy eyeballed him in wonder. “How many men have you killed with that shotgun now?”
“Can I see it?”
“No one touches my gun, Brushy. You know that.” Orlin opened the top of his pack and pulled out the Ruger hand gun he had acquired on his latest travels. “You can see these though.” He retrieved Tom Nells .30-30 rifle and then Edward Guern’s sawed off shotgun from the thick canvas.
“I see they were armed to the teeth, as usual. How’d you take ’em?”
“I let them come to me,” said Orlin, thrusting out the paper with the sums from the weigh-man.
Realising that Orlin wasn’t about to elaborate, Brushy set the Ruger down and took the salvage list. “You’re not one to disappoint,” he admitted. “Two hundred pounds of steel, half that in plastic, and sixteen circuit boards. Do you need supplies today?”
“I want a bag of flour - a big bag mind you, and a bag of beans. My linseed oil and some of that Woodbury oil for my barrels.”
“A well-oiled gun is a reliable gun,” agreed Brushy. “The thirty-thirty for it?” At Orlin’s nod, Brushy reached under the counter and brought up a large sack identical to the one he had passed to the trapper earlier. This time he also produced a small tin with a red label that read ‘Woodbury’s Finest.’ Crossing the shelter he grabbed a bag of beans and tossed it to the counter. “I’ll get you a milk crate for that.”
Orlin reached into his pack again and retrieved four glass jars. Unfortunately he had discovered two of the six jars had broken when he had dropped them to draw down on Thomas Nells. Beside the vessels he placed a rusty can opener, the three rounds for the Ruger, and another four rounds for the rifle. “I’ll trade you these for canned goods,” he said.
Brushy finished laying the beans and flour in the crate and picked up one of the jars. “No lids?” he asked.
“No matter,” said Brushy. “Someone’s always breaking a jar. I’m sure we have extra lids.” He turned to his left and lifted a sheet from where it concealed a wooden shelf. “We have sweet pickles, beets, jam, preserved fish, freshly canned pork, and pickled eggs.”
“What kind of jam is it?”
“Strawberry or black current.”
Orlin thought on this for a moment, unable to decide. “I’ll take two beets, one pickle, and a black current.” Orlin watched Brushy place the full jars in the crate and then use handfuls of bundled field grass, to pack them. “Got any fresh meat?” he asked.
Brushy nodded and came up with a paper wrapped packet. “Toby already took this morning’s haul to the kitchens, but this just came in.” He unfolded the paper to show Orlin a small deer heart and liver.
“I’ll take the heart,” agreed Orlin. He wrinkled his nose. “I don’t eat liver. Tastes like piss.”
“Not a fan myself,” admitted Brushy. Transferring the heart to a second sheet of paper, he rewrapped it and added it to Orlin’s growing supplies.
Orlin tapped at the bounty sheet, his index finger pounding into the top of Jack Neston’s forehead. “This is my payment for my lumber as agreed,” he reminded the quartermaster.
“As agreed,” said Brushy. “Where are the bodies?”
“My place,” returned Orlin. “They were stinking.”
“Your word is as good as ever Benelli,” said the quartermaster with a nod. “I’ll send young Everies over to identify them. As you know, it’s protocol. He’ll want to see you at any rate.”
Orlin nodded in agreement and pushed Guern’s sawed off toward the other man. “This I’ll exchange for ten pounds of three inch nails and eight books.”
Brushy stroked his moustache before shaking his head. “The pistol and the shotty are barely passable,” he admitted. “I can do eight pounds of nails and four books. If you want to throw in that piece of shit Ruger it’ll pay for ten pounds, four books, two more preserves, and the deer heart.”
“When did you turn outlaw?” returned Orlin. His eyebrows came together in a frown.
“I’m as honest as they come,” said Brushy, looking hurt.
“Then why are you trying to rob me?” groused Orlin.
The two men locked eyes and after three heartbeats, Brushy looked away. “Fine,” he said and removed a key from under his light blue shirt. He wrestled with a lock under the counter and at last came up with three shotgun shells. “Fair enough?” he asked.
“The books?” prompted Orlin.
“Looking for anything specific?”
“The bigger the better.”
Brushy mumbled under his breath as he rummaged under the counter. Counting out six large volumes he set the shotgun shells on top of them and pushed the lot toward the old hunter. “We square?”
Orlin nodded. “Give me the eggs. I’ll take that strawberry jam too.”
Brushy retrieved the jars and packed them into the crate. Weighing out ten pounds of nails he bagged them and handed them to Orlin who buried them in his pack with the books. “I see you’ve got a panel there, let me have a look.”
Orlin had almost forgotten about the treasure at his feet. He lifted it up to the counter for the other man. “She’s got a slight problem,” he admitted.
“Slight?” chuckled Brushy, unable to contain his mirth. “The Ruger is worth more.”
Orlin shrugged. “I figured as much.” Scratching at the stubble on his neck, he flicked his chin at the taller man. “How about a pint of ‘Poor Man’s Euphoria’ for it?” he ventured.
Brushy flipped the panel over. “I’m not all that into solar technology,” he admitted. “It is an M-II and most of the guts are intact.” He stuck a finger through the bullet hole and wiggled it. “I don’t really know.” He scratched at the yellowish white hair on the crown of his head. “Maybe the boys can rip something useful out of it.” He considered it for another twenty seconds. “You got a deal,” he said at last. “Be warned though, you drink this at your own peril. It’s liable to make you blind.”
“It’s for my Zippo,” returned Orlin.
“Sure it is,” said Brushy, going back to the wooden shelf with the preserves.
A commotion at the entrance of the city caused both men to turn. Several shouts from inside the complex alerted the soldier at the gate that something was amiss. Orlin and Brushy watched as the camouflaged man turned from his post to glance into the city. Before he could react, someone rushed from inside the gates and lit upon him. The newcomer was bearded and scruffy, his clothes not of the Diligent. He grabbed onto the assault rifle and used it to swing the smaller guard around. Both men fell to the dirt with the bearded man landing on top. He wrestled the gun free and smashed the butt of the weapon into the soldier’s face.
Orlin slid his Stoeger from its sheath and rushed to a cluster of barrels at the corner of Brushy’s lean-to. The assault was committed so quickly he barely had time to register it was taking place. Now he waited to see if more attackers were coming. With the guard incapacitated, the bearded man stood and took aim into the complex.
“Hey,” yelled Orlin to get the man’s attention. The hunter was ignored. Three thunderous reports echoed through the gates in quick succession. Screams from inside the yard were followed by a fourth gunshot as the Stoeger barked out. The man fell forward, the assault rifle loosed from his fingers and landing a few feet in front of him. His legs and buttocks were peppered with bird shot and he squealed in agony. The incensed man crawled forward, going for the gun again. Orlin stood without hesitation, his finger seeking the trigger to ‘Righty.’ “Don’t do it,” he shouted, but again he was ignored. The slug was loosed with a rumbling concussion that cleansed the area of all activity.
At last Brushy appeared beside the hunter, his eyes big and round. “Holy shit,” was all he said.
Orlin cracked the barrels on his gun and reloaded them with shells from his belt; birdshot on the left and slug on the right. “Who was that man?” he asked, snapping the gun closed.
“I don’t know,” admitted Brushy and it was apparent he was still in shock over the whole affair. “I think he was one of those Humanist zealots that came through the other day.”
“Zealot?” asked Orlin. His eyes never left the bearded outsider as he watched for movement. Beside the bearded man, the soldier stirred and sat up. Thick blood matted his face and he struggled to rise.
“Fanatics from across the Hudson,” divulged Brushy. “Apparently they’re stirring up quite the movement against us Diligent. They want the machines turned off.”
“What else is new?” asked Orlin with a shake of his head.
“No,” said Brushy sternly. “This time it’s different.” The sound of voices from behind the gate was followed by additional shouts from deeper in the complex. Brushy tore his eyes from the body. “You better get your supplies and get out of here. You never know what these hot headed soldiers will do under the circumstances.” He didn’t say it, but his eyes told the truth. He wasn’t sure what Orlin would do either.
Orlin’s grey orbs measured the quartermaster in turn and he nodded. Securing the Stoeger in its sheath he shouldered the pack and buckled the strap at his waist. “I’ll be gone,” he said, “just as soon as you replace my two shotgun shells.”