Entering the Counterforce
Clayton and Robert were out in the middle of nowhere. Well, maybe not the middle of nowhere per se; they were on a road which they knew the name of, but they had no clue where to go next. To make matters worse, the sky was beginning to shed its blue hue and was rapidly taking on a new form. They were beginning to lose hope. A night sky with inadequate moonlight wasn’t the travelers preferred conditions when trying to find an unknown location.
Robert tried to counter his self-doubt by thinking of Francine. Why couldn’t he have spent this night like the night back in Spotsylvania? He would be much more content if he had just stayed back there for a few days until this whole thing blew over and PR forgot about the deserters. Maybe he could stay longer than a few days; maybe he could stay a few weeks and just forget about going back to Washington altogether. He could move in with Francine and spend the rest of her days at her farm. That didn’t sound too bad, and as the night progressed, it was sounding more of realistic possibility than trying to find a bunch of deserters in a darkly lit forest.
Despite the hopelessness of the situation, ten minutes beforehand they did experience a glint of hope. It occurred when they passed the railroad crossing that Gerald had told Robert about. Robert knew for sure that it was the one because there was a farmhouse visible from the tracks that had a neon orange flagpole with an upside down Republic of America flag out-front. Every Homestead has this same flag – right side up of course – on top of their train station, so the upside down flag must signify to the deserters on the train that they are now entering the counterforce. Clever and subversive, thought Robert. What a way to spit in the face of their old ‘masters.’
Regardless of figuring this out, neither Robert nor Clayton had seen anyone walking about. Since they passed the crossing ten minutes ago, they expected to see at least someone by now. They were right where the X was on the map, yet there was no commune, or cult, or coop or whatever. Robert was beginning to get worried. He didn’t want to come all this way and come up empty handed.
“It’s the scale,” said Clayton to cheer up Robert. “How are you supposed to find a lil bitty camp in an area as big as this red X. Going from a map to real life is difficult. You ought to know that by now.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he’s wrong about the whole thing. Maybe that red X should be here,” Robert points at a random spot on the map, “or here or here or here.” If only his index finger were thinner then he would’ve punctured four holes in the map. “Gerald Clarke said he knows about the location from his informants. This whole thing could just be a crock of shit.”
“Hey man, don’t bag on Gerald. The G-man is a stand up cat. He would never lie to us. He treats all his visitors with dignity and respect. He’s got alota heart too. I swear, after you left, I seen him save a troubled boy out of a well. You just don’t know him like I know him.”
Robert laughed. Clayton eventually succeeded in cheering him up, it just took a bit longer than he had expected. A sarcastic Gerald comment was all it took.
Ever since their meeting with Gerald, their preferred conversational material has been Gerald jokes. Whether it’s been making jests at his personality, his weight, his bulldog looks, or his appetitive, everything has been fair game. Neither Robert nor Clayton has experienced such a vulgar human being, so picking him apart was a good way of passing the time on the road. It was also justifiable.
“First of all,” said Robert, “The G-man is probably incapable of being a stand-up guy because in order for someone to be called that, they have to be able to stand up. Secondly, you can’t call him a cat. Cats are flexible. Gerald, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of flexible. He probably hasn’t been able to touch his toes for over 20 years. Shit, he probably hasn’t even seen them for that long.
“But to your defense, he probably does have alota heart. However, that big ole heart of his probably doesn’t tick like it used to. All those fatty foods and cholesterol –cause we all know he’s been eating more than his share of butter – has probably made his arteries look like a sewer filled with sludge. And lastly, but also related to the last comment, do you think for a second that he could fit down a well?”
“Do they make express wells?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Those Homesteads probably have a diameter restriction.”
“Then no, I don’t think he can fit his fat ass down a well. Unless,” Clayton rubbed his chin for a moment, “you threw a hot dog down there and gave him a jackhammer.”
“Now Clayton, that’s just absurd. He could’ve just went to the cafeteria and got himself a dozen hot dogs. There’s no need for him to do all that work. But come to think of it, Gerald on a jackhammer would be quite a show. You could call it ‘Jiggles for Giggles’ and charge people to watch it.”
“Now you’re thinkin’ like a business man.”
“Gerald taught me to think that way.”
This could go on forever. Clayton realized this and thought that it would be in their best interest to come up with a plan. “I don’t want to change the topic or anything, but what should we do?”
“If only we had the guiding power of Gerald Clarke to get us out of this predicament.”
“You’re forgetting something: he got us into this predicament. But for really, should we camp out, or keep looking for this place? What’s the deal?”
“Hmm. It’s getting pretty late, hey? I think we should probably play it safe and just camp out before we get too lost. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see anything anymore. The road’s surrounded by trees, and if they’re supposed to be off the road, how are we supposed to find them? We can just continue on tomorrow morning when we can actually see farther than ten feet.”
“Alright,” responded Clayton. “I’m just gonna go get some things out of the trunk.” He left the vehicle and as he starting walking towards the rear, he glanced to the right. He noticed some light flickering off in the distance. His glance turned into a stare. The light was blocked by a row of trees, yet enough of it was getting through for Clayton to realize what it was.
He ran to the passenger door and opened it. “Robert, Robert, you gotta come see this.”
“Geez man, what’s got you all worked up?”
“Just come and check it out.”
Robert left the vehicle and followed Clayton to the spot where he saw it.
“Look, look. Can you see it?” said Clayton excitedly as he was pointing into the thicket.
“Nope. You know my eyes aren’t the best. I’m an old man after all.”
“You can’t see it?”
“Everything’s a blur to me right now. Just a dark blur.”
“It’s a fire.”
“A FIRE? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Robert ran back towards the buggy. Just before he could take refuge in the hybrid, Clayton said, “No, not a fire fire, I mean a campfire.”
“Well, maybe if you made it clear. I thought you meant a forest fire. Now I feel like a sissy.”
“Just a non-threatening campfire. Should we check it out?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Clayton was lucky enough to find a large enough gap in the trees for the horse-and-buggy to fit in. The gap was continuous and from what he could make out, it looked as though it was a road to wherever the campfire was. It wasn’t much of a road, it being tremendously bumpy and all, but nevertheless, it got them closer.
As the distance between the buggy and the campfire diminished, Robert began to here live music. Robert hadn’t heard live music for years. It felt strange; almost like a new experience. Hearing music wasn’t odd; one could simply pick up an ARTifact and play some recorded music, but being able to hear live music, now that was a rare event. Robert could make out an acoustic guitar, some percussion, and as he got closer, he couldn’t faintly make out a female singing.
“You hear that?” asked Robert.
“Yah. I think we’ve found the place.”
As they moved closer, it was possible to make out voices. They could hear people talking and laughing. It sounded as though everyone was having a good time. It sounded as though a party was going on.
They heard a tap on the driver side window. Clayton opened the door. A male voice spoke up, but the source couldn’t be seen in the darkness. “You guys are late for the celebration. I’ll go get a torch so I can lead you guys to the stables.”
Clayton stopped the horses, and about a minute later, there was a bright light in front of them. The light was enough to make out the backside of the torch bearer and the side road that they have been traveling on, which were basically two hardened trench-tracks with some vegetation in-between. Clayton let Slush and Mudd follow the torch bearer, where eventually they stopped out front of a structure. Neither Robert nor Clayton could make out what the structure looked like in the dark, but from the smell they could tell it was a stable. So, they both got out the vehicle.
“Alright, that will be ten dollars,” said the torch bearer. His face looked quite menacing because the torch was lighting his face from below. Shadows consumed his nose and forehead while the flame made his chin and cheeks red. Overall, the torch light gave him a satanic appearance.
The travelers glanced at each other with puzzled looks on their faces. They didn’t have any money. All they had were their Alpha badges and they didn’t think that this guy was going to accept that as payment.
“I’m just pulling your chains,” said the torch bearer. With these words, the tension went from unbearably high to almost nonexistent. What a relief. “If you don’t mind, I would like to get back to the party. Tricia and her band are playing some new stuff that they wrote.”
“Fine by mine,” replied Robert.
“But take this torch first. I can find my way back no problem. Don’t worry about me.” He handed the torch over to Robert. “As for you guys, you can put your horses in there,” the torch bearer pointed towards the stable, “and you can probably just leave your vehicle where it is. I’ll see you at the party.”
Robert thanked the guy as he left.
“Can you give me some light here,” said Clayton. He was trying to unhook Slush and Mudd. Robert gave him some light. Clayton thanked him then said, “What a day to come. They got a party going and everything. You think it’s for us?”
“You think they can look into the future?”
“I was just joking.”
“Yah, yah. I guess we’ll find out soon enough who the party’s for.”
After getting the horses into the stable, Robert and Clayton made their way to fire. It turned out to be larger than what they had expected. Robert could see half of a tree burning inside of it and the bonfire was throwing off so much heat that no one dared to stand within several meters of it.
Beyond these several meters, however, was a huge crowd of people. Robert could count the number lining the fire, if he had the patience, but he wouldn’t be able to count the people that resided behind the lining. Judging from the time it took to make his way through the crowd to the edge of the bonfire, and then extrapolating the same density of people to the areas of the crowd that Robert hadn’t gone through, Robert guessed that there were a lot of people in attendance. How scientific of him. Clayton’s ballpark figure: around 600 or so.
“What do we do now?” asked Clayton.
Robert couldn’t think of an immediate answer. What was there to do? Were they supposed to immediately go to the nearest Homestead, spend the night there, then get the word out to Washington that a large security force was needed to deal with the situation? No. That wasn’t possible. It was way too late travel to the nearest Homestead, and once they got there, nobody would be awake to get the message across.
Robert didn’t think a party was going to be happening. He didn’t expect to get here this late either. He thought that he would be able to get to the place, ask for the leader, then get some information out of him and reason with him. Tell the leader to tell all of his people to go back to the Homesteads; or something like that. But things weren’t as easy as he had planned.
“I don’t know,” Robert finally responded. “I guess we should ask for the leader or something.”
So they tried. The first group of people they asked looked at them strangely and asked them if they had been drinking too much. The next group just laughed at the question. Robert asked a few other people and got similar replies. He was having no luck.
He then realized that it must’ve been the question that was throwing people off. Only extraterrestrials ask: “take me to your leader.” He might’ve not said it exactly like that, but these people must have interpreted that way. Finding out who’s in charge was going to be harder than he expected, so he threw in the towel for the night.
“Hey Clayton. I’ve got a new plan.”
“What is it?”
“Just enjoy yourself tonight and we’ll deal with everything tomorrow.”
“Amen, I can get down with that.”
After peering at the crowd to decide their next move, Robert and Clayton both noticed that a majority of the people had a glass in their hands.
“Looks like there’s some booze to be had,” said Clayton.
“Well, these people are having a good time, aren’t they?”
“Yah, well, I wonder how they got it?”
“Let’s find out.”
Clayton started talking to the nearest person. It turned out to be a man in his late twenties named Rex who was surprisingly articulate, despite the fact that he was intoxicated and most of his education was probably completed in a Homestead. When asked what the celebration was for, Rex told Clayton and Robert that is was improvised celebration. Rex then went on to say that earlier today a man from the ‘north settlement’ was out salvaging in Suffolk when he came across a liquor deposit. The north settler apparently found it in a mansion that had a cellar. The salvager also found a harp in the mansion, which Rex wanted to hear because he had never heard a harp in real life, and then he wondered if anyone at any of the settlements could play a harp. Rex realized he was getting sidetracked by the harp, and continued telling the story of the celebration. The salvager hadn’t checked out the whole cellar before getting a horse-drawn cart, but when him and his crew came back to load it, they realized that the salvager had made quite a discovery. “It was like a liquor mine,” said Rex. So they brought it all back to the North settlement, which took several loads, stored most of it there, then surprised everyone in this settlement, the south one, by bringing some over. That’s how the celebration started.
“Is there still some left,” asked Clayton once the story was finished.
“Last time I checked there was plenty. The liquor that they brought over is under that tent over there,” he pointed somewhere off to the right. “Go nuts.”
Clayton and Robert took Rex up on his invitation. The went over to the liquor tent and were surprised at the organized manner of the improvised celebration and the variety of drinks. Behind a table was an informal bartender, and behind him were bottles of whiskey, wine, beer, vodka, rum, and probably a few other types of liquor. This selection said a lot about whoever used to own that mansion. And if this was just a part of the cellar, than that cellar must have been the Fort Knox of alcoholic beverages.
“What’ll it be?” asked the improv bartender.
“I’ll have a Jack and Coke,” said Robert. “Wait; scratch that. You guys probably don’t have any cola. I’ll have,”
“No, we got cola,” interrupted the bartender. “What would the kids be drinking tonight if we had no cola?”
“I’m hoping not whisky,” said Clayton. He got a laugh out of Robert and the bartender.
The bartender got the travelers their drinks then sent them on their way. Soon after, Robert and Clayton decided to part ways. They had spent the last four days together, so they figured that it would best for them to separate. Their motives for the party were different as well: both of them wanted to enjoy the celebration, but Clayton was determined to woe a lady whereas Robert couldn’t care less.
After departing, Robert ran into a group of people that were all originally from Minneapolis. They talked about their days growing up in the city, going to Twins games; how much better Minneapolis was than St. Paul; what their favorite Minnesota lakes were; and a whole other set of Minneapolis related topics. Robert was hit by a wave of nostalgia. He was enjoying the conversation, and his drink was going down easily. But because of this, he soon had to depart his fellow Minneapolitan expatriates in order to visit the liquor tent once again.
When he returned from the liquor tent Robert couldn’t find his new friends. Maybe the group had dissolved, or maybe Robert wasn’t even in the right place; the crowd had been thick near the group so Robert didn’t know exactly where they had been before. But he didn’t seem to mind. Robert guessed that this crowd was full of non-bureaucrats who weren’t afraid of showing some personality, so he figured that he would run into more interesting individuals.
And that he did. His next conversation was with a lady from Colorado that used to be a hang-glider instructor before the Restructuring. Robert had never gone hang-glider, nor even thought about going, but talking to this lady made him regret not trying it. Her description of floating through the sky with mountains, hills, trees, lakes, and other natural features thousands of feet below made it sound like a truly liberating experience. Robert was enthralled by how she spoke so adamantly about her past occupation and passion, yet soon enough, his glass was empty again. Back to the liquor tent.
Next he talked to someone named John, but Robert couldn’t quite remember where John was from. He did remember that they had a good conversation about movies. John was really into cult classic films, which Robert had enjoyed a fair bit so they got along well. Soon enough though, Robert noticed that his glass had been drained. Back to the liquor tent.Upon returning from the tent, Robert had talked to a woman, but he couldn’t quite remember where she was from or what her name was. He may have even caught a glimpse of Francine, but that he couldn’t be sure of it. His lack of memory and his delusions at this point could probably be attributed to his whiskey intake. Robert had never been a heavy weight in the first place, and combined with the fact that he hadn’t much to drink in the last fifteen years meant that the night was beginning to be a blur.