The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time

 

by Karen Winter and Sylvia Stevens

 

Dedicated to Nan Mack. She kept clapping her hands until we came back to life.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

He'd thought Snake Plissken would be taller. The battered, unconscious figure on the bed looked nothing like the menacing outlaw on the Police Channel broadcasts, or the romantic desperado with the sexy sneer and arrogant swagger who led off each week on the Public Enemies List on America's Most Immoral. For as long as Rain could remember, Plissken had been the brilliant criminal who successfully thumbed his nose at the USPF. His colorful hairsbreadth escapes and daring criminal career had brought excitement and a thrill of vicarious fear into the drab living rooms of Middle America. Rain recalled the endlessly repeated grainy clip from the security cameras at the Denver Federal Reserve Depository, and the more recent footage from Plissken's trial. Snake had stared out at the news cameras with contemptuous unconcern, steadily refusing to respond to the prosecution's accusations and questions. For long periods while the anchors rehashed and rehashed, Rain had turned off the sound and watched the man on trial. Plissken set himself, with unwavering defiance, against the entire mechanism of the State and faced it down, and his conviction was more a victory than a defeat for him and his legions of covert supporters.

Rain shook his head, remembering the filthy, disheveled, half-delirious figure he'd found in the forest. The man he had tracked might as well have sent up a signal flare. He'd left an obvious, unmistakable trail of footprints, broken branches and blood that ended in finding the fugitive only half-hidden under a scrubby bush, feverish and stinking of sweat and sewer water. Rain had brought him back draped unceremoniously over his horse like an old saddle-blanket. Only the eyepatch and the face, older and more damaged than it had appeared in the ubiquitous broadcasts, convinced him this was the person he had been sent to find rather than some homeless drifter or gas-crazy refugee. Rain watched the man tossing feverishly in the restraints and tried to decide what he thought of him, and how to reconcile the media image and the reality of the helpless body in front of him.

Rain was confused and a bit disappointed. The man on the bed didn't seem very dangerous or romantic now, but there was something that kept Rain studying him, trying to solve the puzzle. He would be cautious, and make no assumptions; after the stories heëd heard, there was no telling what Snake Plissken might be capable of.

******************

Snake returned to consciousness, clear-headed at last, struggling up out of darkness. He lay very still, eyes closed, and kept his breathing slow and easy, listening. It was never a good idea to give up the element of surprise until he had to.

Checklist: Under him, smooth cloth with a smell of soap and bleach; a pillow. He was in a bed. Faint smell of disinfectant. Overriding it was another, stronger scent of warm grass, eucalyptus, and living earth. Not a hospital, then. Prison? Unlikely. Hint of a breeze across his face. Silence, except for distant sounds of birds. The wound in his leg was still painful, but the searing agony had been replaced by a dull throb, and he felt as though his raging fever had broken. The knife-cut across his chest itched and his head ached, and he was tired. Infinitely tired.

He opened his eyes a slit. Bright fire stabbed through his damaged eye, and he flinched involuntarily, breathing out on, "Shit!" His patch was missing. Daylight flooded the blown pupil, permanently fixed at full dilation; without the black cloth that filtered light to the paralyzed iris of his left eye, his field of vision became a blazing white blank that slammed in the afterburners on his headache. He swallowed sudden nausea. As his hand moved reflexively to cover his eye, he was brought up short by a tug against his wrist. With rapidly mounting apprehension, Snake tested his other wrist and his legs, pulled, twisted, lunged upward, muscles bunching with the strain as he tried to regain control of his body, then stilled, breathing hard. He was immobilized in four-point restraints, blinded and captive. He heard the scrape of a chair. So much for the element of surprise.

"Hey — easy. EASY," came a calm tenor voice.

"Gimme the goddamn patch."

The fingers that replaced his patch were callused, as if they were familiar with tools or weapons. Snake wondered if they belonged to the voice, or if there was more than one of them. Band slid into groove worn into his skin, patch slipping back into place, familiar if not quite comfortable even after all these years. At least the thing no longer reeked of his own sweat and L.A. sewer water. "You were feverish, thrashing around. We were afraid you'd hurt yourself.... Or somebody else."

There was the snick of a quicksnap being released, and Snake's arm, the cuff still buckled around his wrist, was free on his left side — his blind side, Snake noted. This guy was taking no chances. Snake reached over, felt around, found the wide nylon band of the other cuff on his right wrist, found the buckle on the inside, and opened it, releasing his right arm as well, all the while trying to focus.

His headache retreated from excruciating to merely unpleasant: background data, base-line reading. Snake ignored it. By the time the dazzle in his damaged eye faded enough to allow him a clear view, the person who had released him had moved out of reach. Snake lowered his hands to the blanket covering him, making no sudden moves, and considered his position as he unbuckled the cuff on his left wrist as well, and pulled off the nylon band.

The first thing he noticed was the powerful crossbow, cocked and ready to fire, pointed unwaveringly at his head from across the room, between him and the door. The second was the young man holding it. Long, dark hair caught at the nape of his neck with a band, body wiry but well-muscled, sun-browned skin, regular features. It was an unremarkable face except for the grim mouth and hard eyes, an expression Snake had seen turned his way many times, but seldom with such self-confident conviction. Snake gave himself an inch or so, perhaps twenty pounds, and maybe twenty years experience on the kid. That might make up for the faster reflexes of youth if Snake's bum leg were healed, but right now he didn't want to push his luck. The boy was wearing brownish-gray, dust-colored pants tucked into laced hiking boots and a sleeveless vest of the same material. Snake suddenly realized that, under his blanket, he was completely naked.

"Who're you?"

"Let's just say we're not blackbellies," the boy answered.

Great, Snake thought; they're not blackbellies. That's one down. Now which of the many other assholes he'd pissed off recently did this bunch belong to? And why was he still alive?

"He's awake," the boy was saying over his shoulder in a louder voice, never taking his eyes off Snake. "Go get Jack."

"O.K." another voice floated back from somewhere out of sight, followed by the sound of departing footsteps.

Snake moved his right hand slowly down, pushing aside the blanket and sheet, eyeing the boy with the crossbow, trying to stare him down and take control of the situation by sheer force of will. The boy stared back, expressionless, but made no move to fire as Snake uncovered his legs, and, with glacial deliberation, unbuckled the restraints on first his right, then his left, ankle, keeping his hands in plain sight the whole time. That accomplished, he moved the sheet farther aside to get a look at the wound in his leg. Just how much of a handicap was this fucker going to be, anyway? Gingerly, he lifted the loose bandage to look underneath. He could not see the entrance, but the exit wound on the front was visible. A neat incision ran about two-thirds of the way down his right thigh, surrounded by purplish bruises and the brown-red stain of Betadine on the puffy flesh, and an inch or so of gauze drain protruded from each end of the cut. It stank of infection. Shit. He wasn't going anywhere fast under his own power, not any time soon.

Snake fell back against the pillow with a snort of frustration. After a minute, he levered himself into sitting position again for a more complete survey of his surroundings. His guard was still regarding him silently, crossbow no longer aimed at him but cradled in the boy's arms ready for action. At least this kid wasn't the gabby type. Snake was tired of people he'd just met telling him they thought he was dead — or taller. This looked like some rich asshole's guest bedroom, all polished wood and colors like washed-out desert khakis. By the side of his wide bed was a nightstand littered with medical-looking crap. Across from him was a big no-color chair, next to a no-color table, in front of a set of heavy no-color drapes framing an open, screened window with something green outside. The whole place annoyed him.

There were several sets of footsteps heading in his direction now. They stopped in front of the closed door, and a new voice with the brusque tone of authority sounded from outside: "Rain?"

"It's O.K.," the boy responded. He tapped the stock of the crossbow once, lightly, with his fingertips, reminding Snake of his vulnerable position with an economical movement. At the faint sound, Snake's glance flicked back to the weapon. No need for theatrics, the gesture said; we understand each other.

As Rain stepped aside, the door opened to admit three men. Two of them moved smoothly to flank and cover the third, a heavy-set, middle-aged executive type with beautifully tailored sport shirt and slacks, and an air of understated menace. Mob boss, Snake read him: Not to be fucked with. He'd run cigarettes for men like this. The man gave him a knowing smile. "Relax, Snake; Jack Ormsby."

"Jack Ormsby. I've heard of you." Ormsby was reputed to be one of the top bosses on the west coast, head of the Dayglo organization which owned most of organized crime in California and Oregon. "Why am I here?"

"Paul Frees hired you for the job in New Vegas. He works for me."

Snake nodded. "What happened?"

"Paul got away clear. We got the money. We lost what we would have made on your other matches, but that was chump change. All the fuss over capturing the notorious Snake Plissken kept the blackbellies busy while Paul and the others made an exit by the back door. We owe you."

Anger flashed through Snake. "You set me up to cover another deal!" He started to lunge for Ormsby and was brought up short by a wave of pain as he tried to move his injured leg. It gave him time to become aware of the two handguns and crossbow leveled at him, and he fell back, glaring at Ormsby and panting. Ormsby made a gesture and the guns disappeared again.

"Knock it off!" Ormsby growled. "I don't treat my people like that. We set up a pickup for you in Hollywood. You never showed."

"I got sidetracked."

"Better late than never." Ormsby smiled again. "Not everybody slags the whole network when his hit series is cancelled. We saw that business on the Police Channel, then everything shut down. No power, no phones, no computer. Everything's dead. What the hell did you do?"

"Pulled the plug." Snake made a low sound of satisfaction, deep in his throat. "Massive electromagnetic pulse. Shut down the power, all over the earth. Every fucking bit of it. The whole goddamnn world..." he made an eloquent gesture, "...blown away."

"The whole world...?" Ormsby's voice was almost a whisper. "Permanently?"

"Happily ever after." Beneath the controlled surface of Snake's features, something moved with deadly, predatory joy, and his good eye glittered.

"Jesus Christ! Talk about the ultimate cosmic fuck!"

Snake bared his teeth slightly, somewhere between a grin and a snarl. "The bitch was asking for it."

A faint hiss of indrawn breath from the direction of the boy with the crossbow drew Snake's attention back to him for a moment. There was a look of masked ferocity and a bone-deep lust for vengeance that matched Snake's own in the boy's expression. For a moment, surprised and uncomprehending, Snake felt himself sharing an unwelcome and unintended intimacy with this stranger in their mutual hatred, whatever the reason behind the boy's reaction.

Disturbed, Snake pulled his glance away and back to Ormsby.

"How did I get here?"

"When we saw you push that button, we knew every USPF goon in southern California was going to be on your tail, so we sent people out to find you before they did. Rain, here, found you under a bush, about fifteen miles from where your chopper went down. We nearly missed you; you'd done a good job of getting under cover before you passed out. But Rain's their best tracker."

Their best tracker? Who's 'they'? Snake wondered. So this boy wasn't one of Ormsby's thugs. "I'm all choked up by your concern for my safety."

 

"Don't flatter yourself, Snake," Ormsby said wearily. "You know too much about my organization. My contacts told me you didn't sing while you were in custody, before you went into L.A. That's why you're still alive. " He shrugged, elaborately casual. "The blackbellies are a little slow, but sooner or later they put two and two together. Once they got it through their tiny brains that you and I might be connected on the business in New Vegas, they'd have beaten it out of you. I couldn't take that chance."

Snake nodded slowly. That he understood. "So here I am," he said. "Where's here?"

"You're just a bundle of questions, aren't you? I don't trust you that much. Now get some rest. If you promise to be a good boy, I won't have them put the restraints back on."

Snake glared at Ormsby's departing back as the boss and his two men turned and walked out, imagining Ormsby's brains splattered against the wall. No gun, his leg for shit, stark-ass naked, under guard in Ormsby's fortress in the middle of god-knew-where. He'd seldom felt so defenseless, and it pissed him off big time.

Rain uncocked his crossbow and lowered it to his side. "Take it easy, Snake. You're going to be here for a while, so you might as well take advantage of the hospitality. I'm going to go get you something to eat; you've been living on an IV since I brought you in."

Snake looked down, noticing for the first time the bandaid on the back of his hand and the gray lines of dirty adhesive residue on each side of it, then back to Rain. "You want to try tyin' me down again?"

Rain shrugged. "You're not going anywhere on that leg. If you want to try crawling down the hall and out the door without being noticed, be my guest." He walked over to a door, opened the closet, and rummaged around briefly. He threw a pajama top in Snake's direction, and Snake's rough fingertips caught on the silky fabric as he fielded it. Rain draped a heavy, luxurious robe, the same no-color as the rest of the room, over the foot of Snake's bed. "Bathroom's over there." Rain gestured toward the room's other door. "If you want to make the effort. If you don't, urinal's in the nightstand top drawer. Enjoy."

"Fuck you," Snake grated.

A brief half-smile flickered across the boy's face, and his look held Snake's for a moment. Still testing me, Snake thought, and dismissed it. Rain turned and stepped briskly out the door, and Snake heard the snap of a lock as the thick slab of wood closed behind the boy. Snake settled back against soft, clean sheets. It had been awhile, and he was very tired. His eyes closed almost before he could complete the thought, and he slept.

 

 

For a while, Snake did very little except eat and sleep. He was not sure exactly how many days passed as time compressed and expanded like a liquid to the rhythms of his pain and weariness and the process of healing. The total lack of privacy fed the paranoia within him. He felt vulnerable, exposed, and the need for a gun, for some tangible means of defense, was an emptiness inside him, a physical craving stronger than his need for nicotine. The medic came and went, handling him like a piece of meat. Just like the hospital in Helsinki; God how he hated hospitals. Only the knowledge that he couldn't run with his leg out of commission kept him from trying to strangle the man when he came within Snake's reach, and escape. Any day now, Ormsby might decide he'd made a mistake, that Snake was worth more dead than alive. Plug him, hand the USPF his head on a plate. Shut his mouth for good, and earn Ormsby some brownie points that would divert suspicion from the old bastard. It was all so obvious.

The only one who didn't seem to be a part of it was Rain. He was never there when the humiliating medical procedures and nursing care were going on, but he knocked on Snake's door occasionally, and, when grudgingly invited, slipped in with a meal tray or a clandestine cigarette. He never stayed long or said much, and in spite of the fact that Rain always seemed to be watching him, waiting for something, Snake discovered the boy had a remarkable talent for not making him feel crowded. As Snake began to recover slightly and find himself awake for longer periods, more clear-minded, he decided it was time for a little intelligence-gathering, and that Rain was the obvious place to start. Reconnaissance.

The next time Rain brought him a cigarette, as the boy turned to leave, Snake motioned to the big chair next to his window. "Sit." He fished out the matches hidden in his bedside drawer, lit the cigarette and took a deep drag, then extended it in Rain's direction. "You smoke?"

"Not tobacco." Rain shook his head. " I can't stay long." He stayed where was.

"Leave when you have to." Snake paused, wondering how to get the kid to open up. Pumping uncooperative informants without the help of a shotgun was not his best subject. He closed his eyes, riding on the nicotine buzz. This was the real thing. He hadn't felt it like this in years. After a minute, he opened them again. "Ormsby said you brought me in." The boy nodded. "How'd you find me?"

"I know that country around Firebase Seven. I found where your chopper went down and started moving out in a circle from there. When I found where you dropped the camera thing and the black box, I just followed your trail from there. Wasn't too hard. You were moving like a bull elk. I can't figure out how the blackbellies missed you." He snorted softly. "'Course those USPF shitheads couldn't find their own dicks in the dark with both hands and a map."

Snake chuckled appreciatively. "Quite a welcoming committee Ormsby set up here. Medic—"

He got no farther before Rain broke in. "Oh, Mendez isn't a human doctor."

"WHAT?"

"Nah — he's a vet. He runs Ormsby's stables, and takes care of his animals. Ormsby gets his jollies showing. Carriage horses." Rain's voice turned cold and vicious. "I hate fucking breeders." The last word came out through clenched teeth. He sighed. "But he's not as bad as some of them. And we have to work with him."

"I'm being treated by a goddamn VET?" Snake's voice cut across Rain's last few words. He dropped the cigarette on a dish amid the clutter of his nightstand and sat up straight.

Rain shrugged. "A wound is a wound." The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

Snake's smoldering paranoia burst into flame. He struggled toward the edge of the bed. As he started to rise, a wave of dizziness broke over him. "I want out of here. Now." I want a gun. He stood, tried to put weight on his bad leg, and pain lanced through him. He grabbed hold of the headboard to steady himself. "Shit." The leg gave out under him and he fell back against the bed, his head swimming. Sudden cold sweat stung his good eye as he lowered himself to the surface of the bed again and sat down. His breathing slowed gradually. This was more than the infection in his wound. So Plutoxin Seven was just a fast case of the flu, eh? It wouldn't be the first time the government had underestimated collateral damage on a new bioweapon: Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, anthrax, Compound R, probably more he didn't know about. Maybe the blackbelly bitch at Firebase Seven had lied to him twice. The irritation he felt transferred itself to the young man in front of him, and Snake glared at Rain, waiting for some suggestion of "I told you so" from the boy in response to his failed attempt to stand up.

Rain's face remained carefully neutral. "As soon as you can travel, I want you to come with me up north, to my people. It's too hot around here. There's already blackbelly patrols out on the roads, knocking on doors and asking questions, looking for you. One of 'em showed up here two days ago. They're offering three million dead and seven alive, no questions asked, and a Morals Exemption for a year to whoever brings you in."

Snake let out a breath. Grease for a year. Freedom from prosecution on non-violent morals infractions: smoking, drinking, women, meat, gun possession. The cynical carrot that went along with the government's legislative stick. Snake could think of twenty men he'd worked jobs with who'd scan him in for that kind of loot. Some of them in Ormsby's organization. He retrieved the smoldering remains of his cigarette, knocked off the ash, and drew in a deep lungful of nicotine. He held it for a long minute, then released it in a plumed sigh.

Rain was continuing. "You'll be safer up north. It's mostly forest, isolated, lots fewer people, and we keep to ourselves. Nobody will notice you coming or going. Nobody knows much about us, and we like it that way."

Snake dragged his injured leg back onto the bed, breath hissing painfully between his teeth, then lay back. His head hit the pillow and he exhaled sharply, his eye closing briefly. He opened it again and regarded Rain suspiciously. "Why? You got something to hide?"

"We're growers." Rain smiled faintly. "Government wants to shut us down; raiders want to steal our crop."

Snake considered. Growers. "Marijuana?"

Rain nodded. "Ormsby buys our crop. I was down here on a delivery run when you decided to push the button." He crossed his arms, leaned against the door frame, and added lightly, "Thanks. You really fucked up my schedule. My truck isn't going anywhere; I'm going to have to borrow a boat to get home."

Snake gave his little guttural snort. "I'm cryin'."

"Yeah, I know," said Rain, grinning. "So there'll be room for another passenger if you want to come along. Think about it. I won't be leaving for a few days. It beats walking on that leg."

Snake heard the sound of distant footsteps approaching down the hall outside. He snubbed out his cigarette in the saucer and started to dump it behind the headboard. Rain was there before him, holding out a hand. "Let me get rid of that." Snake surrendered the ashes, and, regretfully, the unsmoked butt. Quickly, Rain dropped the remains in the toilet, flushed, ran the saucer under a sluice of water, and slapped it back on Snake's nightstand in one smooth movement.

"Ormsby hasn't given me any heat about raiding his stash," Rain said. " I haven't asked and he hasn't told. I'm not even sure he's noticed. But I don't want to shove it in his face. Bad manners to steal a man's dope if you want a repeat invitation." He crossed to the door and stepped outside, intercepting whoever it was that was coming down the hall. After a muffled exchange of words, he reappeared with Snake's evening meal tray, set it down on Snake's bedtable and settled it over his lap as Snake struggled into sitting position. Rain backed up a few paces, his nose wrinkling. "Damn stuff smells — you know that?"

Snake snorted. "Smells better than that fucking ten-per-cent American shit. Tastes better, too — it's prime. Real Turkish. Ormsby's got a good supplier. Wonder how much he cuts it for sale."

Rain shrugged. "I dunno; that's not my end." He smiled. "Wait'll you try our grass. It'll blow your socks off."

"I'll pass." Snake bent over his tray and started enthusiastically cutting thick chunks of the rare beef on his plate and forking them into his mouth. It had been a long time since he'd been able to afford anything except gray, cardboard-flavored textpro. Frozen. With the power off, refrigeration's gone. Ormsby's using it up before it goes bad. I'll bet he's righteously pissed; this shit's worth its weight in gold on the black market. He smiled around a mouthful of steak that suddenly tasted even better.

An expression of revulsion passed over Rain's face. Snake looked up, paused, fork in hand, and glared at him. "You got a problem?"

Rain looked away and swallowed. "Vegetarian," he muttered. "I have to go now." He paused with his hand on the door, took a breath. "Anything else you need?"

"How about some firepower?" Snake's tone was artificially light, belying the intensity of the need within him and his sense of vulnerability. He's not buying it.

Rain regarded him levelly. "I'll see what I can do." He turned, walked out, and the door clicked shut behind him.

Snake finished his meal, shoved aside the water carafe and pill bottles on his nightstand, and set down the empty tray. He lay back against the banked pillows, thinking regretfully of the cigarette stub that had disappeared down the toilet, and closed his eyes. He could feel the deceptive comfort of the bed under him, of the smooth, soft pajama top he wore, of the clean bandage, the good food in his stomach, and the painkillers in his system, trying to lure him into letting down his guard. This place was a deathtrap. He was wearing a For Sale sign a yard wide and, no matter what Ormsby said, it wouldn't be long before somebody decided to take the blackbellies up on the offer. He had to get out of here. Soon. But should he go with the boy? Was it just another trap? He shifted, feeling the slow, rhythmic beat of his pulse in the throbbing pain in his leg, in his head. Sometimes you just had to go on instinct — grab the first thing going in the right direction. Or what might be the right direction. Better to be a moving target; it made you harder to hit. Doing something — anything — was better than lying here and waiting for them to come and get him. He made his decision. He was going with Rain.

 

 

******************

 

 

After he left Snake's room, Rain made his way to Ormsby's study in the other wing of the vast house. His knock, slightly louder than a deferential tap, was answered in Ormsby's firm tones, "Come." Rain opened the door and stepped in, his feet silent on the thick Oriental rug. The room was part library, part office. Wooden filing cabinets ranked along one wall faced tall oak shelves crammed with books. A Mario Puzo novel lay open beside a leather wing chair next to the fireplace. Ormsby sat at a huge desk in the opposite corner. A scatter of papers lay before him, and beside them, a dead computer terminal covered in Post-It notes. The older man looked up. "Yes?'

"Plissken's not happy."

"I'd be amazed if he were. What's the problem?"

"He wants to leave. He wants a gun. I think he may try to take off on his own."

Ormsby sighed. "Mendez says he's treated herd stallions with colic who had better tempers. He's a little afraid of him. Plissken will stay put for a while, though. He's not a fool. That's why he's lived long enough to become a legend."

"Legend?" Rain said. "He doesn't look much like a legend lying in that bed. He didn't look much like a legend when I brought him in to your house. I keep remembering the way he looked on the Police Channel. I watched the trial. I wonder how much of it was real, and how much was the blackbellies building him up just to make themselves look good when they caught him. You and I both saw him being marched into LA. Not very impressive. He didn't even put up a fight."

"But he made it back out. You saw the results. I'd say that was impressive enough." Ormsby's glance traveled to the monitor screen and back to Rain. "Plissken's no coward. He's reckless and he's got a temper, but, as I said, he's not a fool. He plays the hand that's dealt him and waits for an opening. Don't count him out." Ormsby leaned back in his chair and picked up reading glasses, signaling the end of the interview. "Oh, about the gun. Don't worry. String him along and I'll settle it when he leaves."

He turned back to his work and Rain slipped out quietly. On the way back to his guestroom, he turned Ormsby's words over in his mind. Ormsby hadn't gotten where he was by hiring the wrong people, and he'd put a lot of effort into saving Snake. And there had to be something to that legend. He couldn't believe it was all government propaganda. There were some things impossible to fake.

 

 

******************

 

 

By the end of the following week Snake was able to move, painfully, on his injured leg as long as it was tightly bandaged. He reluctantly accepted the aid of a...stick (not a cane...he wasn't an old man yet), but drew the line at a pair of crutches. He stumped back and forth across his room, then up and down the hall outside, pushing himself, dealing with the pain as he always had by turning it into anger, and the anger into strength and purpose. Rain watched his progress and began to see what Ormsby saw in the man. There was something of the legendary outlaw he had expected in Snake's grim, uncomplaining battle with his uncooperative body. When Snake could make it from one end of the house to the other in one effort, the two of them decided it was time to go.

Ormsby met them by the front steps, this time alone. Even this far south of the giant naval munitions-works at Santa Barbara, the air had a faint yellowish tinge and a sweetish, acrid undertone beneath the masking scent of eucalyptus. Snake found himself breathing shallowly at his body's memory of the smell of gas. He coughed once, his good eye watering, then steadied. Wraparound dark glasses replaced his trademark patch, filtering the gray winter sunlight, and beneath them, his bad eye was protected by a dressing taped to his nose and the side of his cheek. A soft cap with his hair secured under it, a long waterproof winter coat, a shapeless workman's shirt, loose jeans, and worn workboots borrowed from one of Ormsby's grooms completed Snake's disguise.

They were traveling by day. If they did meet anyone, it would be easier to explain a group of stable hands out exercising a team of Ormsby's show horses than the same group driving a horse carriage along the remains of Highway 33 by night, and the local authorities were well paid not to be overly curious. A forest-green, four-seater phaeton and a matched team of bays was drawn up to the mounting-block. As Snake struggled into the rear seat, one of them shifted from one back leg to the other, blowing softly. Snake sat down carefully and gripped the side edge as the carriage bounced a bit. Rain lifted first his own, then Snake's, backpack onto the floor next to Snake's feet, then swung up into the front seat next to the driver.

"There's a drop point up beyond Ventura, off old 101. Pete knows it." Ormsby said, nodding in the direction of the driver. "There's a shipment due tonight. They know Pete. They'll take you north." He reached into a pocket, pulled out a stack of bluebacks, peeled off several, and handed them to Snake. "Your cut from New Vegas. Traveling money."

Snake eyed him, invisible behind his shades. "Less two weeks room and board, and medical."

"Consider it operating expenses," Ormsby said.

Snake recognized the claim Ormsby was subtly trying to make on him. He thinks I'm part of his organization now. He let it pass. This wasn't the time to make an issue of it. "I'll take part of it in smokes."

Ormsby chuckled. "You got part of it that way already. I keep a close eye on my personal stash. Here." He handed Snake three packs of the blue-wrapped cigarettes Rain had brought to Snake's room during his stay. He turned to Rain and added, "Next time, ask. I'm a reasonable man. I never try to get between a man and his habit." Snake's mouth quirked as he and Ormsby shared the joke at Rain's expense. Rain's face remained carefully impassive, but he squirmed slightly in his seat. Ormsby turned back to Snake. "Make 'em last. Just one more thing." He went back inside the house, returning a few minutes later with a familiar piece of leatherwork draped over his arm. Snake's stomach lurched as he recognized his gunbelt. In the formerly empty holsters were two new Cyclops .357 Magnums. In the crook of Ormsby's arm was a box. He passed the gunbelt over to Snake, then set the box down on the seat next to him. "Ammo," he said. "Better make it last, too. After your little caper, every source from here to the East Coast is going to come up dry."

Snake breathed out, a soft sound. I owe you, Ormsby. Big time. A second thought followed instantly: shit but I hate that. He checked the safety and the cylinder, slid one handgun into the inside pocket of his coat, then unchambered a round in the other and dropped it into his pocket, lowered the hammer over the empty chamber, reset the safety, opened his pack, and folded the gunbelt with the remaining gun into the clothing inside and added the box. He looked across at Ormsby, composing and discarding sentences in his mind.

Ormsby smiled. "The word you're looking for is 'Thank you.' Don't sweat it. It's a matter of perspective. I picked you up, dusted you off, and handed you back your life. But the way I see it, I'm just making a good investment. There's more involved here than your little one man war. A lot of people have decided that this scumbag President and his government are bad for business, and they're doing something about it: corporations, industry, my...organization...."

"And I just pulled the plug on all of 'em," Snake said. A beat: "You don't seem too broken up about it."

Ormsby snorted softly. "Every major organization — every one that's going to survive — has a file of doomsday contingency plans. This is probably covered in at least three of mine. I run with the big dogs, Snake. And they're backing you."

"Why me?"

"You're doing what needs to be done. If you pay off, you pay off big. If you don't... I'm out two guns, some ammo, and a few smokes. Now go on. The boat will be waiting."

Ormsby's driver clucked to the team, slapped the reins, and the carriage moved off down Ormsby's driveway and out onto the remains of Highway 33. War and earthquake had detoured around Casitas; the road was mainly intact. The horses trotted along easily over the cracked pavement. Snake gritted his teeth at each jolt, in spite of the carriage's good springs. He opened the thick woolen lap robe folded on the seat beside him, stuffed a section under his injured leg as padding, and braced his other foot on the backpacks to cushion impact. They rode for a time in silence, except for the driver's low-voiced conversation with his horses, who responded with occasional flicked ears and tossed heads. The driver, a burly man with large hands and a shapeless outfit topped by a battered felt hat, ignored his passengers, concentrating on threading a pathway between the major potholes.

Rain finally broke the silence. "It's good to be moving again. I'll be glad to get home."

Snake grunted a noncommittal sound. It had been a long time since the word home had any meaning for him.

Rain continued, "You know, Snake, pretty soon those bluebacks aren't going to be worth much. Banks are down — ATMs, credit cards, all that stuff. People aren't going to trust paper money."

"Better see if we can trade 'em for something useful before everybody else figures that out," Snake said. "Maybe this guy with the boat's been out of touch." He went back to staring at the dusty yellow areas of parched grass growing along the road. Wonder if those gold coins I picked up in Mexico are still stashed in the belt.

Two and a half hours of travel down the deserted road brought them to the junction with U.S. 101, the coastal highway. It had been battered by enemy bombs and sabotage, outlying tremors from the L.A. quake and pounding waves from a Pacific Ocean that no longer matched its name. Long stretches of the shattered road had been dragged aside and piled up in untidy mounds, replaced by rammed earth that served nearly as well. Most north-south traffic had moved inland, away from the worst threat of enemy offshore shelling and USPF fortifications around L.A. Even before 666 there had been little movement along this stretch of coast; now there was none. They met no one on the road, and Snake began to think his elaborate disguise had been a waste of time. Here the carriage slowed, the horses picking their way carefully between upended chunks of concrete too large to be moved and occasional abandoned vehicles, some of them new, some of them rusty hulks.

Another hour's travel northward brought them to a barren stretch of beach with absolutely no distinguishing characteristics that Snake could identify. Pete pulled the carriage off what was left of the road and unhitched, then opened a storage space under the front seat and took out water for the horses and a lunch for the humans. So that's where he hides what the ship brings in, Snake thought as he watched.

Snake dug in his pocket, pulled out his patch. He stowed the dark glasses in the pack, removed the dressing over his bad eye, and, with eyes closed, replaced the patch. He was tired of hiding. He looked around. The sky, sea, and sand were hardly less colorless with the glasses off: a dull expanse of overcast overhead, dirty, oil-streaked rocks and gritty shore, slate-gray waves moving in and out, crested with leprous white foam. The stench of rotting seaweed and dead flesh, the smell of polluted water, filled the air, which felt vaguely greasy against Snake's skin. There was no sound but the crash of water: no cry of gulls. The air tasted metallic against the back of his throat as he inhaled. The place bothered him, but he could see no immediate threat. He finished eating his thick slab of bread and cheese, wiped his fingers, and settled back against the side of the phaeton, lighting up one of Ormsby's smokes. Hurry up and wait. Just like the Army.

The afternoon dragged on as Snake dozed uneasily and Rain explored the shore for some distance around the carriage. No one passed on the road. Towards evening, a sail appeared on the horizon, slowly becoming a ship that moved in and anchored a short distance offshore, as Pete harnessed up his team and drove the carriage up onto the paved surface. "You'll have to get down now," he told Snake, "We gotta load." Snake climbed over the side of the phaeton and worked his way slowly across the shifting, uncertain dry sand to a large rock, where he sat down. Snake watched as the ship lowered a rowboat loaded with boxes and the crew rowed in toward shore.

She had been a beautiful boat once, a trim little sailing yacht, someone's weekend pleasure cruiser. Now she was battered and shabby, her paint dull and weathered, her sails and hull patched with mismatched repairs. Snake remembered a news item he had read once, back when such things mattered to him. War and a crumbling economy had destroyed the sport of sailing. Many of the former pleasure boats had been sold to small-scale fishermen and converted back into the fishing boats from which their design had originally been derived. As the price of fuel rose, they turned more and more to sail, sliding back into the technology of the nineteenth century. The big, ocean-going fishing trawlers with their mile-long drift nets no longer existed; the fishing grounds were empty, fished out. These small-scale fishermen eked out a miserable living harvesting the few remaining trash fish still to be found in the off-shore waters. Most of them, Snake knew, supplemented their income with smokelegging and smuggling.

The two men in the rowboat jumped out and pulled it up onto the sand. Pete and Rain went down to meet them, and Snake strained to hear fragments of conversation over the sound of the waves. He caught, "Ormsby...passenger...yeah, he's guaranteed...." The taller of the two men nodded and made a gesture toward the loaded boat. All four joined in, working quickly to unload the rowboat's cargo, carry the boxes up the beach, and stow them in the hidden compartments under the front and rear seats of the phaeton. The horses stood quietly with their reins tied around one of the larger chunks of concrete along the side of the road. When the cargo had been transferred, Pete handed an envelope to one of the men, who opened it, leafed quickly through the contents, and slipped it into an inside pocket of his jacket. They turned to the silent figure sitting on the rock, smoking a cigarette.

The man in the lead, the one who had accepted Pete's envelope, was a gaunt fellow with a lined face the color of old rope and pale eyes, who looked as worn and beaten as his boat. Iron-gray hair escaped from under his cap and straggled down to the collar of his weathered oilskins. Snake estimated his age at somewhere between sixty and death. "Pete says you and the young fella are looking for passage north," he said. The voice sounded like sandpaper.

Snake debated getting up, and decided it wasn't worth it for this one. He angled his glance toward the speaker. "Yeah." Smoke drifted up into the man's face.

He studied Snake for a moment, then his puzzled expression shifted into recognition. Snake caught the look and felt his usual twinge of irritation. "Snake Plissken," the man said. "I heard you'd been deported, on the news. I figured you'd be in Mexico by now."

"Goin' north. Ormsby said you were...reliable...."

Rain broke in. "We only need to go with you as far as San Francisco Bay."

"Maybe." The man looked at them sideways and his expression hardened. "It'll cost you."

"Two thousand. Bluebacks," Snake said.

"Let's see it, Plissken."

"Snake." A beat. " On board. Half now; half when we get to Frisco."

The man drew himself up. "And if I decide to take all of it, right now?"

A feral glitter lighted Snake's good eye and he smiled slightly, but he made no move for his gun. "Yeah," he breathed, barely above a whisper, "Come on...." Snake heard Rain inhale, about to speak, turned a glance on him, and silenced him with a stare. Rain subsided, looking confused and a little awed.

The man relaxed, spread his hands, and a genuine smile cracked open his face. He gave a half laugh which conceded the point, and said, "O.K., Snake." He held out a hand. "Name's Tomlinson." He gestured with his head in the direction of the ocean: "That's my boat, the Afternoon's Delight."

Snake rose to his feet, flicked away his cigarette, and took the man's hand. "Pleased to meet both of you."

Tomlinson turned to Pete, who had been standing, silently observing them, next to the phaeton's team. "You'd better be getting back, Pete. Tell Ormsby it'll be the same time next month, same deal."

"Right," Pete said. He climbed back into the driver's seat, picked up the reins, clucked to the horses, and headed back in the direction he had come.

Tomlinson turned and walked back toward the rowboat. The second member of his crew approached Snake. "Jacobs," he said. He gestured toward Snake's pack. "C'n I give you a hand with that?"

Snake nodded. "Thanks." He headed toward the boat, standing a little straighter, moving a little more easily. Rain shouldered his own backpack and followed him.

 

 

 

******************

 

 

 

Rain followed Snake to the tiny forward cabin which had been allocated for the two of them. It had probably been used as a storage space, Rain decided: the once-beautiful oak paneling was dull and scored with scrapes and grooves, as if heavy objects had been dragged over the floor and shoved up against the walls. A miniscule triangular sink in one corner was cracked and gray with dirt that suggested it hadn't been used in a long time. Both Rain and Snake had to duck their heads to clear the overhead, and when Tomlinson showed them how to pull down the bunks, there was hardly room for one person to walk sideways between the two beds. Snake took the bunk to the left, as Rain hesitated, and each man shoved his pack under the shelf-like object. Chain supports sang as Snake dropped onto the bunk, on top of the gray-green Army blanket, and stretched out, the bulkhead brushing the top of his head and the soles of his boots. He seemed at home in the cramped quarters that gave Rain a sense of claustrophobia.

"Dinner at six o'clock," Tomlinson said from the open hatch. "You don't make it, you go hungry. This is a working boat." He backed out and walked away without waiting for an answer.

Silence stretched between them, and for the first time, Rain was uneasy with it. The exchange on the beach had changed something, for him at least, but he was not sure exactly how to handle the new tension within him. The one across from him, almost touching him, was no longer a helpless sickbed patient or a problem in logistics. He was a strong man with an air of command as natural as breathing, and, Rain realized as he ran his gaze over Snake's compact, muscular body, damned attractive. Rain felt a stirring in his cock, and was glad he was wearing loose fatigue pants. He pushed the thin pillow up against the bulkhead at the head of his own bunk and put his booted feet up on the bed. He wished he had a magazine or something.

Snake gave a sigh and opened his good eye. Rain noticed how blue it was, how intense. Snake rolled over toward the edge of the bunk, dragged out his pack, opened it, and rummaged inside. He pulled out the gunbelt, removed the second gun from inside his coat and put it back in the empty holster, then hung the rig within easy reach over the chain supporting his bunk. He dove back inside the bag, pulled out the medkit, and set it down on the bed, then stood up, balancing on his good leg, and shrugged out of his coat. He opened the small storage compartment over his bunk and stowed the coat inside, shut it again and closed the latch. His zippered fly was inches from Rain's face.

Snake unbuckled his belt and let his pants drop, revealing tight black briefs. Rain was acutely aware of the corded muscles of Snake's thighs, pale against the dark cloth, and the auburn hairs, like short coiled wires, that escaped from the elastic around each leg opening and spread in a fine powdering across the firm flesh. Above them was the thick log of Snake's cock, mounding the cloth in a wide, straight column, and, below it, the rounded outline of Snake's heavy balls. The rich scent of Snake's crotch rose to meet Rain, and his mouth opened involuntarily, the tip of his tongue reaching his lower lip before he realized what he was doing and hastily shut it again. His own cock was hard. He could feel the rough cloth of his pants pressing against it, massaging him almost like a hand, and the painful fullness in his balls. He swallowed. He sat up, took off his own jacket and laid it as casually as he could across his lap.

Snake seemed utterly oblivious to Rain's distress as he sat back down, spread his legs, and carefully removed the dressing over the exit wound in his leg. He snapped the catch on the medkit, opened a small foil packet from inside it, wiped his hands and the area with an antiseptic towelette, then used another to smear a thick layer of yellow antibiotic salve over the area. Snake's shirttail threatened to drag across the sticky stuff, and Snake unbuttoned it and took it off. Rain felt his balls tighten further at the sight of Snake's broad chest and flat stomach, the strong definition of his solid pecs and arms. Snake's breath caught and released as he pressed the salve firmly into the edges of the wound. Rain knew that it had to hurt, but he spared it only a little attention, concentrating on the way Snake's cock shifted under the briefs between Snake's wide-open legs, as he turned and moved, added a clean dressing, taped it down with adhesive.

When he was done with the front, Snake twisted to look at the smaller entry wound on the back of his thigh. He evidently realized he couldn't reach this one properly, because he looked over at Rain and held out the medkit in his direction. Rain accepted the kit automatically. "Do it," Snake said softly, then rolled over on his left side.

OhGodOhGodOhGod... The beautiful round globes of Snake's firm ass burned their way into Rain's consciousness. He wanted to feel them between his hands, to feel himself thrusting into the sweet hole he knew was hidden between them, and he knew at once it was completely impossible. He couldn't imagine this powerful man bottoming to anybody. Not now, not ever. Rain's perspective shifted, and he imagined himself on the receiving end of Snake's big cock. He bit his tongue to avoid making a betraying sound, as he felt sticky wetness soak the absorbent cotton of his shorts. For a moment he was almost light-headed with relief, then he turned thankfully to the practical task of dressing Snake's injury. When Rain had finished taping the dressing in place, Snake pulled his pants back up, fastened his belt, lay back against his pillow, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit up, drew in a deep lungful of smoke, held it, and then slowly breathed it out. His face smoothed, and he sighed again. Rain also lay back against his own pillow, feeling the throb in his bitten tongue, grateful for the distraction. It was going to be a long trip to San Francisco in this cabin.

 

 

******************

 

 

 

It was the last cigarette Snake enjoyed spontaneously for some time. He and Rain joined Tomlinson and his crew of three for a meager meal of textpro and boiled vegetables. Snake and the rest chewed their way steadily through the dinner, refueling. Conversation was restricted to laconic exchanges of information about the state of the ship and demands for the salt. The crew seemed uninterested in their passengers and incurious about their identity. Whether this was a pose, or they were simply too dispirited to care, Snake could not tell. In either case, he was glad of it. Rain seemed subdued also, keeping his eyes on his plate as he pushed the tasteless food around with his fork. Snake surveyed the crewmen briefly, cataloging them. The single chemlight lantern cast a cold greenish glow over their tired faces. Besides the shriveled Jacobs, whose pointed red nose and blinking eyes reminded Snake of the rats he had seen in New York Max, there was an older black man with a missing little finger and a gray tone under his dark skin that suggested gas-poisoning. The last crewman was a scrawny teenager with lank, shoulder-length blond hair and acne. Snake wondered, momentarily, who was piloting the boat, then remembered the lurch he had felt her give as he sat down at the table. Without lights or functioning instruments, he realized, they must have had to drop anchor until morning light allowed them to navigate by sight. There were too many bits of stray debris in these clogged coastal waters to depend on the charts.

Jacobs looked up from his plate and cleared his throat. "We gonna run out t'nets, t'morra, Skipper?"

Tomlinson nodded. "Sure, run 'em out. We may as well pick up what we can. It don't get any better until Vancouver."

Snake downed the last gluey bite of a jam duff that was mostly flour, leaned back, and reached into the pocket of his flannel shirt for his pack of smokes. He tapped one loose and then looked around at the crew once again. Poor bastards ran smokes, but probably couldn't afford them, themselves. Some half formed impulse made Snake raise the pack and look around in silent offer. The boy declined, but the other two accepted, taking one each from the pack.

"Take 'em topside!" Tomlinson barked. "No cigs belowdecks!"

Fucking asshole. Who the hell are you? Snake's glare seared Tomlinson, as he shoved his chair backward abruptly and started to walk out.

Tomlinson bristled. "Look, Plissken, fuel gas is heavier than air. Any of it leaks, it lies in the bilge and fills up the whole boat. You light a match in the wrong place below deck and you'll blow us to Kingdom Come."

Snake stopped, gave the captain a long, unintimidated look, then nodded briefly. Shit. I'll have to go up on deck every time I want a damn smoke. This fucking cruise couldn't end too soon for him. He stalked out of the room and headed for the ladder.

The crew followed him up into the night. The air was still and close, heavy with the smell of the water, hardly more refreshing than belowdecks. Snake handed matches to the other men, then took another one to light his own smoke. The Black man, who stood nearest him spoke first. "You military, ain'tcha?" he said in a thin voice that had been roughened by long bouts of coughing. Snake looked at him, nodding almost imperceptibly. "Won't go three on a match," the man continued, and laughed in a way that sounded all too familiar. " 'Sif these cancer sticks won't kill ya fast enough. Now we got the damn gas, too. It's a bitch. You Air Force?"

Snake drew a long breath, enjoying the nicotine buzz. He knew he'd have to taper down eventually. Not now. He ignored the other man's effort to draw him out. One cigarette was the extent of Plissken's hospitality. He remained silent as the man tried again: "Radio's out. And the motor. Instruments. You know anything about that?"

"Why would I know?" Snake's tone was neutral.

"Figured you'd been on land the last few weeks. Maybe heard something. Something's going on."

Jacobs came closer. "Your lousy repair job's goin' on, Nap." He hawked and spat over the railing into the fetid depths. "So you're Snake Plissken. Still runnin' eh?" He grinned ingratiatingly, revealing bad teeth. "Slicker'n greased eels, that's you, Snake! Nearly got your ass whopped in Cleveland, so I heard. Ain't heard much since. Only two thing stayed t'same all along: one, we all gonna die; t'other, they ain't NEVER gonna ketch ole Snake Plissken. Hell, Snake, I'd buy ya a drink 'f we's anywhere that had good booze." He turned back to his shipmate. " Radio's yer problem, Nap. Keep fuckin' with'er 'til you get 'er fixed. You don't get that sucker in workin' order soon, you gonna lose another finger."

"You going to bite it off, Jacobs?" Nap shifted his attention to Snake. "Plissken, eh? I heard the name. H'm. Well, keep on running. Heard what you did in Chicago, too. Time somebody stuck it to those bastards." He took a weary breath. "I better go see what I can do with the fucking radio. We're going to have to put out hard cash to get this tub patched up this time. Hell, give me twenty bucks, and I'd scuttle the bitch myself. If it ain't one thing, it's another." He dropped the butt of his smoke into the water and went back down the ladder.

Snake had had enough of this depressing floating party, and wanted solid land under his feet. The meal he had eaten rolled slowly in his stomach, keeping time with the Afternoon's Delight's steady motions. As a pilot, Snake had never been prone to motion sickness, but something was definitely making him feel queasy. Maybe Rain had been right to eat as little as possible. Wordlessly, he nodded goodnight to the crew, and started for the ladder to belowdecks, thinking about getting some sleep.

Rain was already asleep in his bunk when Snake returned to his cabin. He felt his way in the darkness to his side of the tiny space, located the hard slab that was his own bed, and sat down to pull off his boots. He stripped to his briefs and dropped his clothes on top of the footgear into the space below the bunk. He hesitated, then slid the thin band of his eyepatch off of his head, pulling it free of his wind-tangled hair, and hung it through one of the links in the chain supporting his sleeping platform, next to his guns, inches from his fingers. What little air there was felt good on the sweaty flesh of his cheek and the damaged eye. His background headache seemed to ease slightly. Probably his imagination, he told himself; the damn thing couldn't weigh a quarter of an ounce, but the patch was leaden on his face when he wore it. Gas damaged nerves, that was all.

He slid his feet under the blanket and pulled the thin, rough cloth up over his shoulders, more for the illusory sense of protection it gave him than because he was cold. The rise and fall of the boat around him in the darkness disoriented him, making him feel strange and alien, out of touch with his own body's responses and sense of balance. There was something hypnotic and almost drug-like about the steady, rocking motion in a world without sight. He drifted somewhere in limbo until his trance state deepened into sleep.

Snake dreamed.

Black sky above, filled with rolling clouds. He stood on a rocky promontory, staring overhead. A chill wind blew, high and fierce; a wind from the end of the world, carrying with it the smell of a dying planet heavy with the weight of too much life. Hair-fine lines of fire streaked from horizon to horizon, glittering gold from an inner light-source. His vision widened to take in the vast plain below him, filled with crawling human creatures. Corruption flowed out from them like a noxious tide, covering the earth. He reached upward toward the blazing threads, and his eyes filled with the light. As if in response, they swirled, coalesced streaking toward his outstretched fingers like streamers of starfire. Lightning swept down his arm, down his spine, filling his body, becoming himself. He was burning, and he danced in the flame, welcoming it into him as it filled him, reached the frozen, black core at the center of his being and destroyed it. Flames pulsed, curved, and began to whirl around him, passing through flesh and bone as if he were made of smoke. He was at the center now, fire in the whirlwind, and the flames swirled higher, sparks spinning outward from his body, covering the whole earth, burning it clean as sun-bleached bone, purified. His hair curled and flamed in the wind of his burning. He drew a long breath, filling his lungs with fire. The ecstasy of destruction filled him, and he shouted aloud. This time, he would remember! Now he could carry the vision back with him to the shadow world where the one-eyed outlaw clawed and struggled uselessly amid the cinders of civilization. It was time, now.

"Snake!"

Plissken snapped awake, hand going for the gun. He paused a second, orienting himself. The bed rocked, its chains creaking with the motion of the boat. There was a splash of the waves against the hull. Right. He shook the smell of fire from his nostrils and heard Rain again.

"Snake... It's just a dream. Sorry to wake you," Rain was a voice in the darkness, "But you were thrashing around.".

"Yeah." Snake tuned him out, trying to return to the dream, to recapture the feelings, the images... Fire... The blazing 'copter over L.A.? The crash, the sheet of flame behind him as he pushed the button? He felt no lingering unease, as with a nightmare, but rather the spent emptiness which followed his infrequent dreams of sex. A dull sense of loss filled him, as if he had been dragged away from... something.... Snake gave it up and rolled over to sleep again. He had a lingering memory of threads of fire, unconnected to anything else. He puzzled over it for a brief, half-waking moment, then dismissed that thought also and it faded. The steady motion of the vessel rocked him into sleep, this time without dreams, and his breathing lengthened into muted snores.

 

 

Snake hated the waiting. It would be three, maybe four, days, as this ancient rustbucket tacked its way laboriously against the prevailing winds up the coast to San Francisco. The ship wallowed in the light breezes, trying to find a good heading in the thick gray air that seemed too heavy, too clogged with water and chemical sludge, to move at all. Everything was in-between: it was too cold to be called hot, too hot to be called cold; the blood-warm air weighed him down, making even breathing an effort. The dim light that filtered into the cabin Snake shared with Rain was like twilight, neither night nor day. Everything he touched felt sticky, as if it was covered with a thin film of oil. Or worse. Snake shifted on the hard, scratchy surface of his bunk. It felt like everything was covered with some kind of organic residue. Fish guts, maybe. That's what it smelled like. The whole damned boat reeked of rotting fish.

He heard the sound of activity overhead, the thump of feet, the rattle of some kind of machinery, then a heavier thud and a scraping sound as something was dragged across the deck above. There were muffled voices back and forth, then Snake heard Rain's voice raised in a furious shout. He could not make out the words, but there was no mistaking the tone of rage and pain. Snake's guts twisted. What was going on up there? His boots hit the deck as he snatched up his gunbelt. He reached the ladder just as he heard a rumbling sound, a few splashes, and a putrid stench broke over him like a wave. Snake gagged, grabbing harder at the railing as he climbed, ignoring the protests of his injured leg. He hit the top of the ladder with his gun drawn, his finger on the trigger, and ducked behind the hatch, looking for a target.

He stopped short. The deck was covered with flopping fish. Tomlinson and his crew, in slickers and tall rubber boots, were wading through them, pushing at them with brooms, turning over individual fish with gloved hands, now and then picking one up and throwing it back over the side of the boat. Snake looked for Rain. He could still hear Rain's voice, at intervals, in a kind of choked cry, from across the deck by the opposite hatch, hidden from his view. No one else seemed to be paying him any attention. Snake took another, more thorough, survey, and saw nothing but the crew and the fish. Now that he had a better look, he could see that there was only a thin scattering of them over the surface. He flipped the safety on his gun — he didn't intend to blow his own foot off if he slipped on this mess — but kept the pistol at the ready as he made his way carefully over decking slick with an oily, iridescent film of fish slime and polluted seawater.

Tomlinson gave him a quick look as Snake passed him, then returned to calling out orders to his crew, who were bagging up the fish and dragging them down the rear hatch toward the hold. "Get 'em in the salt, Kenny," Snake heard Tomlinson shout down the hatch opening, as the two of them reached it, almost at the same time; "Got another load coming in!" The captain turned to Snake. "Put that thing away," he said; "your damn kid's freaking out, that's all." Snake eyed him for a moment, then holstered his gun.

Snake looked down. Rain was standing with his head bent, his forehead against the side of his arm, one hand clenched on the hatch-frame, the other balled in a fist. As Snake watched, Rain smashed his fist into the bulkhead, once, twice, three times, with an inarticulate, strangled sound.

"Rain! Hey! Rain!" Rain looked up at him. Snake saw the boy was shaking, his face set in a snarl of fury and hatred. "What the fuck's wrong with you?" Snake added in a slightly lower tone. Rain didn't answer. Snake jumped down to the lower level, next to Rain, and a bolt of pain ran up his bandaged leg as he steadied himself on it. Rain reached out toward Snake and Snake brought his forearms up inside Rain's, turning his hands to grasp Rain and hold him steady, immobilized. "Talk to me, Rain!"

"The bastards; the bastards!" Rain gritted, "The fucking bastards! Look; look what they've done! They're killing her!"

Snake released Rain and stepped back a couple of paces, pulling out his gun and flipping off the safety in one smooth movement. This sounded like gas talking. He stared at the boy, searching for some hint of rationality, ready to fire if necessary.

Rain's glance shifted from Snake's gun to his face and back again. He was suddenly very still. "I'm O.K., Snake," he said. To Snake's practiced ear, there was forced calm, but no suggestion of insanity, in his tone.

"Then what the fuck are you talking about?"

Rain took a deep breath. "Mother Gaia — the World-Ocean, Snake. She's dying. The water's being poisoned, all over the whole earth." Snake eyed him suspiciously, puzzled, and Rain pressed on. "Snake — look at the fish!"

Snake slowly holstered his pistol, but kept his hand close to the grip as he backed a pace or two, then swung up one step on his good leg for a quick look over the hatchway to the deck. As he did so, he heard Tomlinson calling, "Watch out — here she comes!" A second netfull of fish swung over the side on the rattling winch and deposited its scanty load on the decking. The crew moved into their dance among the bodies under the captain's direction. Slowly, Snake's hand fell away from his side as he stared at the catch. The fish were a patchwork of mismatched pieces, shriveled here, bloated there, with crippled or missing fins and strange, diseased colors. Eyes bulged like tiny, distended balloons, or disappeared into the distorted heads. Some fish listed sideways on the flat surface, supported on huge puckered tumors; others were covered with fungoid growth, or had mouths held open in a perpetual gape by the white cottony stuff emerging from their interiors, and some were covered with open, rotting sores. A rank wave of sickness and decay from the pile rolled over Snake, and he breathed shallowly through his twisted mouth. Snake remembered a picture he had seen in one of his college courses years ago, a surreal vision of Hell by a painter named Hieronymus Bosch. The creatures in it had looked like this.

Snake made his way to the top of the ladder and out onto the upper deck. Tomlinson was watching him, a sardonic half-smile on his face. "Horrible, aren't they?" he greeted Snake; "Wouldn't eat 'em, myself."

"What do you do with them?"

"You ever had Mrs. Foster's Frozen Fish Sticks?"

Snake nodded queasily, remembering the familiar blue-and-white box that had been a childhood staple in his mother's kitchen.

Tomlinson continued, "We salt 'em down; take 'em into port, and sell 'em to the big packing companies. They boil 'em down into mush, so nobody can tell what they look like, and make 'em into all kinds of frozen food. About fished out down here, though; there's not even much of this stuff left. Figure in a year or two, we'll have to go north." Tomlinson sighed and leaned over the railing as his crew bundled the last of the fish below and started washing down the desks with sea water only marginally less malodorous than the departed catch. He stared into the distance. "I've fished these grounds since I was Kenny's age. Used to be beautiful out here. Blue sky, clean sea. Used to make this run with the dolphins racing us, playing in the water. Then the big boys with the drift nets got into it, and took it all. Don't see 'em any more — the dolphins. Nor the whales. Nor the sea-lions. They're all gone. Hell, even the gulls are sick, dying out. Used to be hundreds of 'em when we made a catch — now look."

Snake looked up at the sky. Three or four gulls circled, crying. One of them landed at the other end of the deck and hopped to a scrap of flesh, pecking at it. The bird's neck was as bare as a vulture's, and one leg was a stump without a foot. "Gas in the water?" he asked.

"Maybe. Some kind of pollution. It goes into the plankton, concentrates in the fish, moves up the food chain."

"Can't you do something about it?" Tomlinson and Snake turned to look at Rain as he spoke from behind them. The boy had climbed up to join them. He looked calm, the furious outburst become smoldering rage and deep sadness visible in his eyes.

Tomlinson shook his head slowly. "We used to take Polaroids of the weirder ones and send 'em in to the govermint, hoping somebody'd do something. Nobody ever did. They all look like that now. Toss back the good ones, if we catch any, hoping they'll breed. Doubt they do, though."

"Then where do you think those...things...come from?" Rain was almost whispering, staring down at the water like someone watching a horror movie, waiting for the demented slasher to leap out from hiding.

The crippled gull gulped down a last morsel and clumsily flapped away. Tomlinson watched it as it disappeared into the overcast gray sky. "There's some healthy ones — well, healthier ñ up north, up into Canada and Alaska. We don't fish there much; been saving them. Don't eat your seed corn, y'know? Maybe some out in the deep ocean, too. Maybe not. Nobody knows." Tomlinson's voice grew more distant. "I thought someday my son would inherit this boat. He died in the war, off the Bering Sea. Enemy subchaser. Annie, my wife, was killed in the bombing. Gas got my daughter and her baby. Now I don't have anything left. When they're gone here, we'll go north and fish it out up there."

"You can't!" Rain protested.

Tomlinson rounded on him angrily. "I can't? Look, boy, I hate like hell t'sell this crap, but there are people these days fishing off the docks in L.A. and Frisco with bent safety pins, and eating what they get if they catch anything. For a lot o' people, what I catch is the difference between life and death. You tell some mother, her kid dyin' from kwash, she can't feed it that last fish. Who d'you think you are, you snot-nosed little Greenpeace punk?!"

"You're the ones who did this!" Rain retorted, his voice rising steadily with passionate anger. "It was your generation, your technology, that raped the land, killed the forests, poisoned the oceans. Killed all the animals. You left nothing for us. You laid the world waste. Now we're living in the garbage dump you created!"

Snake's voice cut across the argument, silencing it. "Fuck the fish," he said, Mrs. Foster's Frozen Fish Sticks weighing heavily on his mind, "What about the people who eat this shit?"

They both turned to look at him. Rain was panting with fury. "Who cares?" he snarled. "Let them all die and get out of the way. Give the rest of the world a chance. Mother Gaia's killing us off, and good riddance. We deserve it." He turned and stalked off down the deck to disappear into the forward hatch.

Tomlinson glared at the boy's back. After a minute, the captain calmed, dropped his eyes, then looked back out over the railing. His former air of weary resignation returned. "Yeah. The people. Lot of 'em go crazy, bleed out, go blind. But it's not just the gas in the water. There's cancer. They get all crippled up from the mercury and stuff. And they say something in the fish makes you sterile." He shot Snake a challenging look. "I didn't do it, somebody else would. People gotta eat." He turned and went down into the hold.

The Afternoon Delight's crew finished cleaning fish slime off the deck and separated to their various duties, detouring around Snake's spot at the railing. Snake stood for a few minutes watching featureless gray sky and metal-color waves swirled with oil-slick green, hearing the faint shrieks of the gulls overhead. He reached into his pocket and ran a finger over his pack of cigarettes. What the hell. Living is fatal. The wound in his leg hurt and he wondered if his jump down into the lower deck had pulled loose any stitches. It didn't feel as if anything major had let go, he decided, as he worked his way back across the deck and below. He was healing, getting back up to speed, getting so he could trust his body again. His mood lifted slightly as he made his way to his cabin. The stench from the hold was overpowering at first, but his sense of smell dulled as it adjusted. It was livable. Barely.

Rain sat on his bunk, staring intently at nothing with a look that could bore through bulkheads. His jaw was set, and he was biting his lip as if only pain could prevent rage turning into tears. Snake recognized the expression. He sat down on the opposite bunk with a grunt as his leg twinged. "Somebody ought to give a shit, right?" A beat. "They don't." Hard lesson, Snake thought. Rain looked up at him. Snake recognized the sense of despair that threatened under the rage, and wondered if Rain himself was aware of it. Give up and you die now rather than later, kid.

"I care," Rain said. "I don't want to let those bastards just get away with it." Rain slammed his fist into the bulkhead. "But nobody else does. They just don't care. They don't do anything. They just stand there with their thumb up their butt like fucking Tomlinson. God damn, I hate them!"

"Welcome to the real world. You're on your own out here." Can't depend on anybody; cuts off your options. Run alone and you're free.

Rain dropped his hands into his lap and stared down at them. His shoulders sagged. "Then what can you do? Give up? Die?"

A bitter, humorless half-smile and a snort. "Not ëtil you get me where I'm going. You don't run out on me, Rain." Snake could see himself, twenty-six years earlier, in the kid. He'd asked himself the same questions. "You want to die, die. Your decision. But if you do, they win."

Rain's shoulders straightened again, and his bent head came up. He looked directly into Snake's single cold blue eye. "You hit the button. You shut it all down; you fucked all of 'em. You won!"

"A skirmish. Not the war. They're still out there." Snake paused, and a dark satisfaction crept into his voice. "But I evened the odds a little. Yeah, like you said, let 'em all die. We're going the same way, Rain. Different reasons, maybe. Same target." There was a tentative question in the intent look Rain was giving him, and Snake answered it. "Carry your own weight, though; I travel light."

From where Snake sat, it looked as if Rain was thinking about it, but at least the boy wasn't going belly-up on him. He'd won one. Maybe they would make it to this bolt-hole of Rain's. The grim line of Snake's mouth softened, though he did not go so far as to smile. He rose stiffly, favoring his bad leg. "All that shit goin' on up there, could've ripped something loose. Want'ta take a look at it for me?" He reached down, pulled out the medkit, and extended it in Rain's direction, then unbuckled his belt, skinned out of his jeans and stretched out on his bunk.

The bandage didn't appear bloody. Snake watched as Rain carefully peeled the dressing back and found that the stitches had pulled sharply, but hadn't torn free of the flesh. The wound was reddened, but sound. Rain cleaned away minor blood seepage and rebandaged the front and rear wounds, smearing them with more antibiotic salve. The tube of yellow goo was almost empty.

"Looks a lot better," Rain said, and started putting the medkit back together.

"Good."

"Suppose Captain Tomlinson'd feel any better if he knew about the satellites?" Rain asked as he snapped the lid closed on the medkit. Snake got the impression the boy was feeling a little bad about his run-in with the skipper.

"No. And don't you tell him."

"But, hell, Snake... you got the fuckers who screwed up his ocean. He probably wouldn't care that the bluebacks aren't worth anything any more. He'd probably be happy."

"Bullshit."

"You don't trust anyone, do you?"

Snake sighed inwardly. "No. Especially when I've got this big a price on my head. How long d'you think it'll take Tomlinson to figure out he can retire if he hands us over?" Rain startled, and Snake's mouth twitched in amusement. "Yeah, you too. Accessory after the fact. Aiding and abetting." Rain remained silent, a thoughtful expression on his face. Snake finished pulling up his pants and leaned back on the bunk. "I'm going back to sleep." The more of this damned cruise I can spend unconscious, the better. A vagrant thought followed: There was a dream.... He dismissed it, and closed his eyes.

Rain slipped out of the cabin and back up on deck. He was too restless to sit watching Snake try to sleep, too distracted by Snake's body so close to his, as he tried to sort through his scattered thoughts and emotions. He stood at the railing, watching the curl of foam as greasy waves slid past the bow. The smell of fish, the sound of the gulls and the crew, had faded. The pale, blank sky and darker-gray sea were a silent, luminous bubble floating in nothingness.

He hadn't really thought about what a danger Snake Plissken would be to his own community if he brought the outlaw back with him to Napa, and he had no way now of getting in touch with them to bring it up before the Meeting. All the phones were out. Maybe he should leave Snake in San Francisco, go on alone. He wondered how things were going at home. He was late from his delivery run — very late. He knew they would be worried about him. But with everything that had happened, they would have plenty of worries of their own, too. There would be refugees spreading out from the cities soon, if they weren't already, looking for food and a safe place, or a place to plunder. His people would need him and his crossbow.

If he could persuade Snake to stay with them, Snake would be a real asset in defending Rain's home group. He was a strong man, skilled in weapons, decisive. Rain remembered the scene at the beach with Captain Tomlinson. Snake was a man others would follow, if he were willing to lead. Rain continued the thought into half-reluctant fantasy, remembering the alpha-wolf authority in Snake's cold blue stare, remembering the beauty and power of Snake's body. He let himself, for a brief moment, imagine his mouth on that impressive cock.... He felt his own body begin to respond. No; there was no time for that now. He shoved the thought aside.

But hero Snake was, after all. He had shut down the machine. He had provided a new beginning, a chance for Earth to heal from the savage wounds humanity had inflicted on Her bleeding body. How could those who had pledged to fight for Mother Gaia refuse to give sanctuary to the man who had given Her, for the first time in centuries of Man's destructive hegemony, a faint, green-sprouting hope? The Group could not turn Snake away. He would take Snake with him to Napa, if Snake was willing to go. After that, it was up to Snake.

He wondered how Snake Plissken felt about gays.

 

 

******************

 

By early the next morning, the Afternoon's Delight had cleared the deserted ruins of Carmel and Monterey and was coming up on the outskirts of San Francisco. Snake made his way abovedecks to watch their approach to The City from the starboard railing. Highway 1 was an occasional crumpled streak of silver visible through gaps in the sheer cliffs. He had dreamed again, but he could remember nothing of it except jumbled images of fire and destruction and a strange sense of satisfaction. Fog drifted, thickening to a slight drizzle, hiding the shore. The bombing and a major earthquake in 2010, an echo of the one farther south in L.A., had decimated the once magnificent and exciting city he remembered. Snake's thoughts turned to the last time he had been here, to the hummer station and Taylor. Sadness crept out from a place he usually kept under guard, and engulfed him. Sarge. Only man he could ever really trust, the only one who had not run out on him in the end. Snake felt a cold sense of loneliness and loss. It had been sixteen years since his partner's death at the hands of the blackbellies, but the pain was as fresh as the day he had stood watching Bill Taylor bleed to death on the station floor. Violent anger swirled and his hands tightened on the railing.

Time was deceptive. Sixteen years was an eternity, over in an instant. More than twenty years of fighting and running. With Taylor it had been ... not glorious, but certainly less cold. Isolation had distilled the rage and focused it, but to what purpose? He could recite the names of his men killed, years ago, as he had done so many times. Each name was a promise, a pledge not to forget or forgive, but Snake knew that would never bring the men of Black Light back, nor would they be properly remembered as long as the system that had destroyed them and created the outlaw survived. There would be no justice until he brought it down, or died trying.

He remembered Rain's triumphant cry: "You got the fuckers!" Had he? No. Life wasn't a movie where the victor walked triumphantly away, ending the tale. Life went on. The world had not ended when he pushed the button. It was only a matter of time until the survivors crawled out from under the rubble of technology and began again. He would have traded ten years of his life, just then, for a ten-minute talk with Taylor. Rain was too young, too new — untested and uncertain — but the rage was there, true and strong. The boy was headed in the right direction. Maybe they could make the journey, or part of it, together. Or was that just the loneliness talking? Was he willing to allow the boy to follow him, just to have someone to talk to? The ache rose dangerously, threatening his equilibrium. From habit, he turned it into anger. He felt the darkness rise within him, expand to fill him, then collapse like a black hole to a burning core of rage. He'd need that strength later, but for now back it went into the empty places where it lived, alone. He smoothed his mood back into contemplation of the foggy San Francisco coast.

Rain came silently to stand beside him. Snake flicked a glance at the younger man. "Hell of a fuckin' world," Snake said softly, pushing the last remnants of his mood back into their accustomed place. "Place is for shit, now."

"Yeah," Rain said. "The City used to be a beautiful place, back in the old days when they had hippies and disco and freedom. My grandfather told me all the stories. He and my grandmother lived there then; that's where my mom was born. They named her Free Bird, after the song." He sighed. "City's a real wreck now. Ever been there?"

Snake made a low sound in his throat but didn't answer. Rain gave him a puzzled look and continued. "The USPF took over, and then the army re-garrisoned the Presidio, and shut down the national park. Everybody else has pretty much either cleared out or dug in. Crazies have Golden Gate Park. We'll have to go through the Park, down Haight, up Market, all the way to the Ferry Building to get across the Bay. Place is crawling with police. But I know some people, a place we can get supplies. We get our weapons and bicycles from them. If we get separated, go to the DMZ Group: 45 Haight Street. Near Market. Tell 'em you were with me and ask for Josh. They'll get you out of the City."

Snake looked at the young man with new respect. "We'd better get our shit up here. Tomlinson said he'll be dropping us off at Ocean Beach."

 

Part Two
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