CHAPTER FOUR

 

Snake and Rain paused for a quick wash of hands and face, and a long drink of water, then wheeled around the corpses, over the bridge, and on toward Napa. Toward the end of the day, the two bicyclists arrived at what appeared to be a dilapidated and long-abandoned wooden shack.  The single building, of weathered, unpainted wood, was half-covered with growing vines and bushes, and looked as if the first strong wind would reduce it to separate boards.  Snake followed Rain up to the sagging doorway and stopped.  "This is it?"      

Rain smiled.  "Almost."  He dialed the numbers on what looked like a rusted combination lock, gave a push, and the rickety-looking doors slid back easily on well-oiled tracks to reveal a tidy garage.  It held an old but well-maintained pickup and a green Volkswagen.  Between them was an open stretch of concrete which had once, Snake deduced, housed the delivery truck Rain had abandoned down south.  Shelves and sections of pegboard, covered with tools, hardware, boxes and bags, lined the walls.  Rain lifted a kerosene lantern off a hook near the door and lit it, then he and Snake wheeled their bikes into the room, and Rain shut and locked the door behind them.  By the light of the lantern, Rain led Snake to a door in the windowless wall, and through it to a small room in back.  Two single beds and a table and chairs, set on colorful rag rugs, a waist-high bookshelf filled with magazines and paperbacks, and a kitchen/pantry area created a cozy space.  One corner of the room held a wood-burning stove and a neat pile of fuel for it.  "We can sleep over here," Rain said.

"Where's this Group of yours?" Snake asked as he settled into one of the chairs.  He gave a sigh, shook his hair out, and leaned back, closing his eyes.  The dull pain that was always there behind his bad eye seemed to get worse when he was tired.      

Rain started the process of laying and lighting a fire in the wood-burning stove, his back to Snake.  "This is just the garage.  The settlement's a lot farther up in the mountains.  There's no road, just trails, and it's a long way in.  Takes most of a day to get there, even if you know exactly where you're going."  He closed the door on the stove as the fire caught, and turned to smile at his fellow traveler.  "We try to make it as hard to find as we can, and once in a while, we lose it, too.  The beds and stuff are here because nobody wants to try to follow the trail in the dark, and if you get here too late in the day, it's better to sleep over."

"Place looks like a good wind-storm would take it out."

"Give the wall a whack," Rain said.  Snake complied, and his fist connected with unyielding wood in a solid  thump.  "It's a lot stronger than it looks.  The guy who built this, back in the seventies, was a genius at this kind of stuff.  Worked for some movie company - Industrial Light Something - before he dropped out to join the commune."  

The fire was beginning to take the chill and damp off the room as the two men rummaged in their bike-trailers and pulled out rations to heat on the stove's flat top surface.  Ran hung up several more lanterns on hooks set into the wall, adjusted the ventilation ducts in the walls, and they ate in the cheerful golden light.  "Lots less creepy than the chemlamps," Rain remarked.  "Those things always make everything look all green and weird."    

Snake had to agree.  He found himself relaxing in the comfortable little space.  After dinner, he spent a while leafing through a pile of old magazines he found in one corner: The Animal Agenda, Whole Earth, Kindred Spirit, Pangaia, Raise The Stakes, and at the bottom of the stack, a few dog-eared copies of Anarchy.  He snorted softly and set them back down unread, after noticing that the address labels had been carefully peeled off the covers.  He was getting a mental picture of the people who had stocked this place: left wing, counter-culture nature nuts, detail oriented and paranoid.  Tree huggers.  He picked up a tabloid with a clenched-fist logo holding a monkey-wrench, and reconsidered.  Tree spikers was more like it.  Eco-terrorists.  He paged through and found an interesting article on sabotage.  He ignored the rhetoric, concentrating on the practical suggestions.

They slept soundly in the comfortable beds.  The next morning, Rain spent some time refilling the lanterns and restocking the woodpile, then dug into the storage area to find two large metal-frame hiker's backpacks.  "Can't get the bikes through," he explained.  "We pack everything in by horse or on foot.  Leave everything you don't really need here."  They transferred the contents of the trailers to the backpacks, leaving most of their food and water on the shelves for the next occupants.  Reluctantly, Snake left the bicycle-mounted gun, but insisted on salvaging the rest of his weaponry and the bottles of Scotch he had liberated from the winery.  Rain spent a few minutes looking around the front section of the garage before they started out, smiling to himself.  He patted the truck's dented fender.  "Junk," he said cheerfully.  "Scrap metal.  From now on, the world belongs to feet again."  Snake gave him a sour look and said nothing.   

A barbed-wire fence set the shack off from the land behind.  Rain lifted one of the fence-posts from its socket, laid the wire flat, and stepped over it.  When Snake had followed, he replaced the post, leaving the fence looking solid and undisturbed, and started out confidently into the unbroken wall of vegetation beyond.  Rain never faltered, although if there was a path, he was the only one who could see it.  They climbed steadily upward, farther into the mountains, ducking and winding between redwoods and pine trees, through underbrush, over narrow, fast-flowing streams bridged with rocks or fallen tree-trunks, where sword fern grew thick beside the foaming water.  After several hours, they came out into a clearing and Rain stopped.  "Midway point," he said.  "Rest here."                                                           

"Here where?" Snake asked, sitting down on a fallen tree.  He was glad to note that his wounded leg was not giving him much trouble, and he was keeping up with Rain even over the difficult groundcover.  He looked around at the featureless tangle of trees and vegetation.  It looked the same as every other featureless tangle they had passed.  "You sure you're not lost?"

Rain nodded.  "We're still several hours out.  See that tree?"  He pointed. "Lightning damaged.  We're beyond the ridge behind that tree, across the next valley.  I've been back and forth this way a lot."

"No wonder Ormsby sent you to track me."

It was late afternoon, and the sun had slid down behind the tops of the trees, by the time they reached the commune.  Rain turned onto a faint deer track that wound a barely visible path through dense stands of trees, up and down steep slopes covered with slippery fallen leaves and lush winter foliage.  They crested a final hill and halted by a big redwood tree overlooking a valley covered in an unbroken carpet of green.  "There it is," Rain said.

"There what is?" Snake said wearily.  "All I see is more fucking trees."     

Rain grinned at him triumphantly.  "That's all you're supposed to see."  He cupped his hands around his mouth and produced a complicated liquid trill, like some exotic bird call.  "I want to warn them we're coming before we get into bow range," he explained.  "Some of the security shoot first and identify the body later."

Snake eyed the interlaced branches in front of him with a distinct lack of enthusiasm and tried to imagine himself reproducing the sound.  "Can't you just yell, 'Hey, you?"

Rain laughed.  "Everybody has his own call.  That way, they know, not just that somebody's coming, but who it is.  You can use 'hey, you.'"  A variation of the call was repeated from a distance in front of them, and Rain added, "That's Linden."

A lithe figure slipped out from between the trees ahead and ran toward them, light-footed on the slippery leaf groundcover, long brown hair and homespun cape flowing out behind her.  Over her shoulder she carried a crossbow like Rain's.  "Rain!  You're back!"  She threw herself into Rain's open arms and hugged him fiercely.  "I'm so glad to see you!  We'd just about given you up for lost."   She turned to Rain's companion and her expression became wary.  "And you are...."   

"Lin, meet Snake Plissken," Rain said with a note of pride in his voice.  In a few quick sentences he related the events of the last month, finishing up with, "We rode up to the garage on some bicycles we got from DMZ and walked in today."

Linden eyed Snake soberly.  "Snake Plissken.  You're the one who shut down the Machine, aren't you?"  At Snake's nod, she continued, "Gwen was monitoring the News Channel when it happened; she told us about it.  You pressed that remote at Firebase Seven, and all the power quit; everything just stopped.  It took a while for it to sink in, that the Machine was really gone for good.  Thank you.  Mother Gaia may just have a chance now."  She reached forward and took Snake's hand in a light clasp between her own hands, then released it, smiling at him.  "Welcome to Rivendell, Snake."       

Linden turned and disappeared into the trees again to take up her post on watch, and the two men continued on their way down into the valley below.  Snake found himself uneasy and irritated.  Once again, he was coming into alien territory wearing somebody else's identity with his name attached to it.  He remembered pushing the button, his feelings of rage and disgust.  To give Mother Gaia a chance?  He snorted softly to himself.  Not fucking likely.  His shoulders prickled with the feeling he was being watched every step of the way by armed and invisible defenders of this place.

He and Rain passed a few outlying buildings nestled among the trees: storage sheds, workshops, two- and three-room cabins with neatly cultivated kitchen gardens and  a few plump chickens clucking and scratching around the fenced enclosures.  A large orange cat lifted his head and yawned as they passed, then curled back into sleep on the porch of his cabin; a dog wagged a greeting and came over for a sniff and a scratch behind the ears from Rain; a tame crow cawed from a gatepost.  Wild finches squabbled around a big feeder, and a squirrel frisked up the trunk of a tree to watch them fearlessly at eye level.  As they went by, people called and waved, then came down to the winding path to welcome Rain back.  They greeted Snake with a wary neutrality.

A clearing at the center of the settlement held a larger building, a rustic, circular hall sided with vertical redwood boards and topped with a conical shingled roof.  It reminded Snake of a giant water tower.  "The Lodge," Rain identified it, as he pushed open the door and invited Snake to follow him inside.  "We have to let everybody know you're here as a guest," he explained to Snake, "Or somebody might take a shot at you in the woods."  Snake's ever-present paranoia ratcheted up a notch.

Inside, the Lodge was warm and welcoming, the wooden walls decorated with handmade quilts and macramé hangings, Navajo blankets, and pictures.  Two wide stone fireplaces stood at opposite points around the circle, and a cheerful blaze crackled in one of them.  Baskets of dried flowers and feathers, and potted plants, stood on the floor or hung from the ceiling, while braided rag rugs in bright colors were scattered over the broad floorboards.  A wide alcove held kitchen equipment, including a big wood-burning cook-stove.  Large and small wooden tables were scattered around the room, along with handmade chairs in several styles and sizes.   As they entered, a general cry of "Rain!" went up from the six or eight people engaged in various tasks inside, and the young man was buried under a loving avalanche.  One little red-headed girl danced up and down, eagerly tugging at Rain's sleeve, as the young man struggled out of his backpack frame and set it down against the wall of the room.  Snake followed suit, as a matronly woman with a ruddy complexion and long, dark braids came over to hug Rain.  Rain kissed, hugged, laughed and greeted in return as the people crowded around him.  Snake backed away toward the wall, looking for breathing space.

"Enough.  We have a visitor."  A firm voice cut through the hubbub, and the group fell silent as Snake turned to see a tall, slender, elderly woman striding toward them.  Snake took in her olive complexion, strong, determined features, dark eyes, and mass of fuzzy gray hair caught in a single thick braid.  The woman wore a russet tunic belted over a full, ankle-length green skirt, and sandals.  She carried herself with an unmistakable air of competence, and the rest yielded to her with what seemed to Snake to be an almost unconscious deference.  "Come with me, please," she said, gesturing to Snake and Rain, and led the two to an area near the fireplace with a desk and several chairs.  The rest fell back slightly, out of immediate earshot, and returned to their former tasks, although Snake could see them casting sideways glances in his direction.  "Please, sit.  Be comfortable."  The woman settled into a large armchair and Rain took the one next to hers.  Snake lowered himself to the edge of another chair, feeling anything but comfortable.

"It's good to have you home safe, Rain.  We all feared the worst, with you down south," she began, then looked over at Snake.  "Snake Plissken.  Do you seek sanctuary with us?"  The words had the cadence of a ritual formula.

"Who are you?"

"I am Ray Lee," the woman answered.  "We don't have 'leaders' here, but I am one of the elders of this Group.  My partner and I were among those who founded Rivendell Commune, back in the 'seventies."  She looked down for a moment at her hands folded neatly in her lap.  "It seemed like poetry then: the Last Homely House East Of the Sea, the hidden place with strength to resist and defend against evil.  But now, with a very real Dark Power risen all around us...."  Her voice trailed off, and she raised her calm gaze again to Snake's face.  "Snake Plissken, do you seek sanctuary with us at Rivendell?"

"I'm thinkin' about it," Snake responded.

"Snake was hurt getting out of L.A.," Rain supplied.  "The blackbellies shot him."  Reaching into his jacket pocket, he produced a folded, tattered paper and handed it to Ray Lee.  "The blackbellies want him real bad."  Snake glowered at him: Idiot.   

"Yes, Rain; we all heard."  Ray Lee scanned the faded paper, then put it down.  "That's quite a reward."  She looked at Snake.  "You know, what you've done has created a nexus point for radical transformation.  You are a catalyst, an agent for changes we can't yet even begin to imagine, for good or ill.  The consequences are... beyond anything Gaia and her children have faced for centuries."   She shut the paper in a drawer of her desk and sat down again.  Snake thought about asking for the wanted poster back, and then shrugged mentally.  Ray Lee continued, "But there is hope in this for the Earth.  If you ask for sanctuary, no one here will turn you over to the authorities, and if they trail you to this place, you will be defended."

"I take care of myself," Snake said shortly.

"I have no doubt of that.  But here we all take care of each other.  If you choose to stay, we will ask you to help with our defenses or contribute in some way, but that can wait until you have recovered from your injuries.  We have a traveling doctor due by here soon, if you want to see him."  She paused and assessed Snake with a level, considering gaze.  "You have a reputation as a dangerous and violent man, and I believe it is deserved.  I will ask for your assurance that we, here, are safe from you.  Give us your word, and we will accept it."

Snake was used to being considered dangerous, but it had been years since anyone had offered to take his word for anything.  It threw him off-balance.  After a moment, he answered, "I have no quarrel with anybody here.  Leave me alone, I'll leave you alone."

Ray Lee's mouth turned up slightly at the corners, but her voice did not change.  "It may not be that easy if the blackbellies come looking for you here.  But they are our enemies, too.  We'll give you as much space as we can while you're with us."  

Snake was not sure whether or not that sounded like a threat.  He frowned in Ray Lee's direction.  For now, he had nowhere better to go, and the blackbellies were hot on his trail.  Time to hide out, and wait to see what developed.  

"He can stay with me," Rain offered.  He turned to Snake.  "If you want to."  Snake paused, then nodded once.

"Very well, Snake; I'll take that as a 'yes.'  I'll put it before the Meeting.  If the consensus is against you, I will have to ask you to leave as soon as your wounds are healed, but I doubt you will be turned away."  Her eyes shifted pointedly to the Magnums in Snake's holsters.  "You may want to leave your weapons in your cabin if you aren't working security."

"No," Snake said in a tone that left no room for negotiation.

"As you wish.  Most of the people here, especially the older ones, don't like guns."  Ray Lee looked as if she was trying very hard to keep her face and voice neutral.   She turned to Rain.  "Morgan, I believe, has an extra bed."

"I'll ask her if I can borrow it," Rain said.

He started to stand up, but she made a "wait" hand gesture, and he paused.  Her expression turned somber.  "We can use you on security tomorrow, Rain.  I wish I could give you more time, but we had raiders here while you were gone.  Storm was hurt, and we lost Sequoia."        

"They killed Sequoia?"  Rain looked away and down for a moment, then back at Ray Lee.  "The raiders?"

"Buried where we put the last batch.  Nobody got away; we're safe.  Sequoia, we buried under his favorite thinking spot at the Rainbow Circle.  Rhiannon moved in with Storm.  They were handfasted at Meeting."

Rain nodded slowly.  "I'm glad I'm back."

"We're glad to have you back.  We need you, Rain.  Go and get settled in."  She turned to Snake, and added, formally, "Welcome to Rivendell, Snake."

Snake and Rain picked up their packs, and Snake followed Rain to Rain's home on the outer edge of the settlement.  The snug little cabin was set in a cut between two outcroppings of rock, part way up the side of the hill, and behind it a winding trail led toward the top of the mountain.  "Sniper blind's up there," Rain said as he pointed up the path.  As they climbed, Snake was able to get a better look at the settlement from above.  Cabins and outbuildings, including a large greenhouse, dotted the valley in no particular pattern, clustering along a stream that wound through the bottomland.  Farther off was a corral and a shelter for several horses, and a similar one for a small herd of goats.  Some distance farther on was a group of boxes on stilts, which Snake identified, after some puzzling, as beehives.  On the other side - Snake stopped dead as he figured out what he was seeing, and took a longer look.  Fields for growing crops had been cleared, leaving a sprinkling of trees among the curved rows of cultivated land.  A series of light camouflage nets had been spread from tree to tree, masking the signs of human activity beneath from casual aerial surveillance.  No wonder the valley had looked like untouched forest land as they had come over the top of the hill.  Simple, low-tech, and effective, Snake thought to himself.  "Won't have to worry about that any more," he said, pointing toward the nets.

"Right," Rain answered.  "We'll get a better yield with more sunlight.  That'll be a point in your favor at Meeting."

Snake snorted softly, and they continued up to Rain's unlocked cabin door.  Rain opened it and took a lantern from a hook by the door, then lighted the fat white candle inside.  "C'mon in, Snake," he said, and gestured the other man inside.  Snake stepped into the single oblong room and looked around.  The last light of twilight came through the windows' open shutters, joining with the warm candlelight on unpainted wooden walls and worn board floors spread with more of the woven rag rugs.  In the center of the room was a wood-burning stove, and at the rear, a door to a bathroom with a Clivus Multrum composting toilet.  One corner held a bed and a wardrobe, and along the same wall was a rack of knives, throwing blades, crossbows and bolts, and equipment for taking care of them, plus a target pad on a stand.  The other side of the room held a table, chairs, and a cabinet/bookshelf.  Rain pulled them down toward the door and pushed them closer together, creating an open corner opposite his own sleeping area.  "You can put your stuff there," Rain said.  "I'll go get that bed for you."  He trotted out the door and off down the path toward the valley floor.

Snake shrugged out of his pack and set it down against the wall, then took off his jacket.  He'd hidden out in worse places, over the years.  He remembered the dump in Cleveland he'd shared with Carjack and Texas Mike, where roaches ran out when he lifted the telephone receiver, and a crop of mushrooms sprouted periodically next to the shower.  It would feel good to stop moving for a while and let the wound in his leg heal.  He could still feel an ache deep in the damaged muscle.  He sat down in one of the handmade wooden chairs and stared at the stove, weighing the effort required to light a fire.  These people might run interference between him and the blackbellies if the USPF came looking for him, but.... .  He thought about the long journey through the woods and wondered where he would go if he had to run.  Instead of a refuge, this place could be a trap.  He sat there thinking for a while as the twilight deepened outside.

He heard the sound of voices, and opened the door.  Rain and a sandy-haired, middle-aged man were struggling up the path carrying a single mattress.  Behind them was a teenage boy with the metal bed-frame slung over his shoulder, and behind him, a woman who looked like the boy's mother, carrying a wooden chest and, with her, a half-grown girl holding the chest's two drawers.   Snake stepped back, and the group trooped into Rain's cabin and deposited their burdens on the floor, leaning the mattress up against the wall.  Rain said, "Thanks again, you guys."

They trooped out again, heading back down the path, and the older man paused at the door.  "You're welcome," he said, smiling.  "Since we fostered Raven out, this stuff has just been sitting in the back room.  We won't need it till spring."

"Where's your new one coming from?" Rain asked him.

"Oregon, I think," the man replied.  "The doctor said there's a boy there that wants to foster here."  He eyed Snake, who was leaning casually against the wall, his hands at his sides near the gleaming twin Magnums he was still wearing.  "Well, I'll be going.  I know you're tired.  Anything else you need, Rain, let us know."  The man eyed Snake sideways again.  "Ray Lee's called Meeting for before dinner to decide on..." he paused, as if a bit embarrassed, then finished, "...on Sanctuary.  She asked me to see if you wanted to speak, Rain."

"Yes, I do."  Rain went to the door, then turned back toward Snake.  "I'll be back in a little while.  I don't think there'll be any problem.  Make yourself at home, Snake."

"Fuck that."  Snake picked up his jacket.      

"If Meeting is deciding on a membership, the person isn't supposed to be there, so everybody can talk freely with no bad feelings afterwards.  Snake," Rain said urgently, "If you try to crash the Meeting without being invited, they'll turn you down for sure."           

Snake struggled briefly with himself, then let his instinct for survival win out.  Rain knew more about the dangers here than he did.  Snake watched the two men heading down the trail, his nerves tingling as he shifted into fight or flight mode.  Who the fuck did those assholes down there think they were, trying to play god with his life?  Too angry to sit still, he turned to setting up the furniture crowding the cabin.  The new mattress and bed-frame went in the corner opposite Rain's bed, and the two-drawer chest next to it.  This final effort, on top of the long day's walk, drove home his bone-deep weariness. He sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed, feeling the heavy ache all through him, the more specific throbbing in his damaged leg and in his head.  He shook back his hair, sighing, and closed his eyes.  

After a few minutes, he got up again and went to light a fire in the wood-stove.  Evening chill was creeping in on the mountain air, sharpening the pain in his leg-wound, and his whole body wanted food and then sleep, but he was too restless to relax.  You're losing it, Snake, he thought; never even considered that they might not let you stay.  The kid had seemed so certain.  Stupid asshole.  The anger shifted: stupid fucking asshole Plissken; don't you ever learn?  Keep making the same fucking stupid mistakes, trusting people.  What happens if they decide to kick you out?  You know they're here now, the one thing they've gone to so much trouble to hide.

"Buried where we put the last batch."  Snake pulled out his Magnums one at a time and checked them.  He took out the Barret, loaded it, and laid the assault rifle on the bed.  Finally, he clipped the elegant little automatic in its holster to the waistband of his pants, hidden at the small of his back, and slipped the pullover on over it.  He found himself pacing back and forth from one window to another, trying to see into the gathering darkness quickly becoming full night, and stopped himself.  Waste of effort.  He took a breath, felt himself slipping into that single-minded, knife-edge focus on the next sixty seconds that carried him through action, as he settled on his unmade bed facing the door, rifle ready, coiled and waiting.

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

Rain climbed slowly up the dark path to his cabin, feeling tired and drained.  Meeting had been intense.  He had been surprised and disturbed to discover how much opposition there was to having Snake stay at Rivendell, and he'd had to argue hard before the consensus to grant Sanctuary had been reached.  He mulled over the opposition's points and admitted, reluctantly and with a touch of fear, that they made a sort of sense.  Snake was violent and paranoid; he had a quick and savage temper, and tended to settle arguments by casually blowing his opponents away.  He had no reason to be loyal to Rivendell or the Group's people.  Sociopath a ghostly voice from the Police Channel whispered in Rain mind.  He had brought Snake back with him because he could not bear to leave him behind in danger.  Back at Rivendell, with his responsibilities for his Group's safety heavy on his shoulders again, it seemed almost a foolish act of self-indulgence.

As he neared the cabin, Rain walked more heavily, deliberately making noise.  He  stopped outside the closed door and called out, "Snake, it's Rain."  The door swung open and Rain found himself staring down the barrel of the leveled assault rifle he had been half-expecting.  Stamping down his own defensive reaction, Rain froze.    "It's O.K., Snake," he said in a deliberately calm voice, "I'm alone."

Snake eyed Rain over the weapon.  "What'd they say?"

"They said you could stay."  Rain breathed out, but remained standing still until the gun barrel lowered and Snake backed away from the opening.  Moving with an air of unconcern he did not feel, Rain slipped in and closed the door behind him.  His mouth quirked.  "I told them you weren't going to go around pointing guns at people."

Snake snorted and said, soft and cold, "What conditions?"

"Probationary."  With a sigh, Rain dropped into a chair and unzipped his jacket.  "Most of them are afraid of you, because you're from outside and because of what they've seen on the Police Channel.  A lot of them think what you did at Firebase Seven was a good thing.  They're glad you shut down the Machine, for the sake of the Earth, but they want to be grateful to you from a long way away.  They wish you'd go someplace else.  Best I could do was wait and see."  He paused, then added in a neutral tone, "Can you blame them?"

The man across from him silently shook his head.  He set the rifle down on his bed and leaned forward with a long, slow exhalation of breath, then reached with one hand to knead the muscles at the back of his neck.  Rain could read the weariness and tension in him from across the room.  The hard edge and hair-trigger reflexes that came out of Snake's constant battle with the world were bought at a great price.  Snake lived with the safety off.    

At the thought, Rain was flooded with desire and a fierce tenderness.  He imagined what it would be like to have Snake's strong body under his hands, working the knots out of Snake's back and shoulders, easing him.  He imagined that soft, intense voice rough with passion, and the sweet flavor of Snake on his tongue.  He wanted to make love to Snake.  The phrase - making love - curled through him like narcotic smoke and dissolved into nothingness.  Rain drew in a breath and shook off the image.  Living here in such close quarters with Snake was going to be every bit as uncomfortable as the cabin on the Afternoon's Delight.

"Dinner's in an hour," he said.  "I think we ought to eat at the Lodge.  I don't have anything here."

"O.K." Snake answered.   He set about moving in with a maximum of efficiency.  The bed, chest, and a chair established the boundaries of his territory, setting off a smaller square within the larger square of the room.  He made the bed, using sheets, pillow, and blanket from the drawers of the chest, tossing the unzipped sleeping bag over it for warmth, and unpacked his backpack, stowing clothing in one drawer and gun supplies and cigarettes in the other.  The pullover and automatic returned to storage.  The boots from his stealth outfit went under the bed, along with the Barret and the salvaged bottles of Scotch, and, finally, the pack and frame itself.  He removed a lantern from its peg above his bed and set in on the table, creating a place to hang his gunbelt within easy reach, then sat down again on the bed.    Meanwhile, Rain did the same with the contents of his own pack, trying not to watch Snake as the other man moved, reached, stretched, and bent over.  

They went to dinner, heading down the trail by the faint light of moon and stars toward the brighter golden light of the settlement below.  Rain moved surefooted and confident; Snake followed the unfamiliar trail more cautiously.  As they stepped through the door to the Lodge, a wave of warm air met them, carrying mingled scents of piney wood burning in the wide fireplaces and good cooking, along with the sound of cheerful chatter.  Many candles filled the room with flickering light that was surprisingly bright once their eyes adjusted to it.  Snake and Rain headed over to a loaded table to pick up plates and food set out pot-luck style.  Snake was alert and unsmiling as he studied the gathered population of Rivendell.  Rain tried to see the group with a stranger's eyes.  Thirty-five or so people filled the room, a few older, a scattering of children, several knots of young people clustered by themselves, talking animatedly.  Many of the older women wore flowing skirts and blouses like Ray Lee's.  Most of the others were in practical jeans and workshirts, enlivened with colorful scarves and jewelry.  Rain smiled to see Snake's reaction to the three or four men also dressed in skirts among the crowd.  Most, men and women alike, had long hair down their backs, with, here and there, a close-cropped head in deliberate counterpoint.  I don't know, Rain thought, we just look like us.  He wondered what Snake thought of them.  The man's expression was guarded and non-committal.

"Food looks good," Snake commented as he loaded his plate.                                                  

There was a hint of surprise in his tone, and Rain remembered Josh's comments about Tofu Gulch.  He grinned.  "Yeah.  Vegetarian isn't just bean sprouts and steamed veggies."  He filled his plate, too, with spaghetti in a thick homemade sauce, fresh salad with wild mushrooms, cornbread, garden vegetables, and warm apple cobbler with goats'-milk cream.  They headed for a pair of empty chairs at one of the tables, followed by many pairs of eyes.

Ray Lee rose from her seat at one of the tables.  "Friends, let us take a moment," she said.  Conversation stilled, and when she had their attention, she continued.  "We thank those who helped prepare this good food, and those who planted and reaped the harvest, for their hard work.  We thank Mother Gaia for the gifts of her bounty. We thank all of you for your contributions."  She turned toward the spot where the two men sat, and smiled.  "Today, especially, we welcome back Rain, who has returned to us safe and sound.  And as you know, we have someone who has sought and been granted sanctuary with us, Snake Plissken.  He is a friend, and we welcome him.  Thank you, Snake, for giving us new hope."  She paused.  When

Snake said nothing, she finished with, "Let us eat together and share our strength."  

She sat down, and conversation resumed around them.  Snake ignored it, concentrating on his meal.

As Snake and Rain dumped their empty dishes into the double tubs of hot water where the clean-up crew were washing up, the little girl they had seen earlier at the Lodge came up to them.  She stood looking up at Snake thoughtfully.  "Daddy says you steal stuff.  Do you?"

Snake eyed the child for a moment, then said in a neutral tone, "Yeah."

"Why?"

Rain thought of all the possible answers to that, and trying to explain to a child the difference between stealing stuff and fighting the System.  For a disillusioned second he wondered if there was one.

Snake's voice roughened with an ironic honesty that seemed more for his own benefit than for that of his audience.  "Because I want to."  

"You're not supposed to steal stuff.  That's bad."  The girl pointed toward the Magnums holstered at Snake's sides.  "You got guns.  Like the bad guys who came.  Mommy said you kill people."  The child frowned and seemed to come to a conclusion.  "You're a bad guy!  I don't like you."

Snake turned to go, his voice darkening.  "Good.  Then stay out of my way."

The girl persisted.  "Are they gonna kill you back?"

"Yeah.  Eventually."  Snake picked up his jacket and began to walk off.

Rain looked around, wondering where Astrid's mother was.  Astrid hurried after Snake and caught up with him as he and Rain threaded their way toward the door through the maze of tables and people.  "Can I see your guns?" she asked.

"Astrid!" A heavyset woman appeared out of the group of people and caught hold of the child's hand.  "Come on, honey."  Her face and her tone were darkly suspicious as she faced Snake.  "I don't want you talking to my daughter."  Rain could see the muscle in Snake's jaw tense in response, but the other man did not answer.

"He's a bad man."  Astrid trotted alongside as her mother started to lead her away.   "Can I watch when they shoot him?"

The mother turned to stare at Snake, but he had already slipped outside.  "No, you can not watch when they.... .  They're not going to shoot him!  What did he say to you, Astrid?" Rain heard fading away behind him as he went to catch up to Snake.

The door to the Lodge closed behind him, and he stepped out into the sharp chill of winter evening.  He shrugged on his fleece-lined denim jacket.  Snake was ahead of him, a dark figure silvered by the moon.  Light caught on the pale flesh of his bare arms and glinted on his guns.  "Snake!" he called.  Snake slowed marginally, shrugging on his own jacket, as Rain caught up to him.  "Why'd you say that to Astrid?" Rain asked.  He never explains himself, Rain thought.  Snake paused and turned to face Rain, his head thrown back and cocked at an angle, his whole posture expressing sardonic cynicism: Why not?  "Sociopath" suddenly had a concrete meaning.  Snake, Rain realized, had rejected not just one System, but all of them.  Rain felt a chill.  Knowing it was the wrong thing, he said, "Look, we're trying to teach Astrid and the other kids that stealing and killing are wrong."  

Snake's direct gaze focused on Rain.  His face was white against the darkness, the patch a black slash across it.  Moonlight glittered in his good eye.  His soft snort was eloquent.  All of Rain's potential justifications sounded ridiculous, sanctimonious, even to himself.  He fell back on honesty, hoping Snake would understand.  "They have to believe that.  We all do.  We have to be able to trust each other, or Rivendell and the Groups would fall apart.  We can't depend on the law or the police here."

"I don't give a fuck about your Group."

"But, Snake," Rain said, trapped in an argument he knew he could not win,  "Society depends on -"

"Society's just another name for somebody else's rules."

"Was that why you pushed the button?  To get rid of the rules?"  That made sense to Rain.  The old image of the romantic outlaw surfaced: Snake as the clear-eyed rebel fighting to bring down the lying, hypocritical System.  Of course he did not trust them at Rivendell yet.  He had been hurt and betrayed too often.  Trust would take time.  Something dark and bitter moved across the outlaw's face as Snake turned away, without answering, and started back up the path.  Rain followed.  If Snake went to sleep like this, he'd surely have another of his nightmares, Rain thought.  A practical idea struck him: the baths.  It was where he had always gone, since he had moved to Napa, when he was too tense and upset to fall asleep.  He caught up to Snake again.  "Snake, I've got an idea."

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

"Was that why you pushed the button?  To get rid of the rules?"  

Fuck it.  Get your own answers.  Memories of tortures and beatings, deaths and betrayals, stirred in Snake.  There were so many reasons, all of them personal.  He eyed the young man across from him on the moonlit path, the young man with the quick gestures and the looks that reminded him of Taylor, but who was not Taylor - who would never be Taylor - and knew that Rain would not understand, and that it was not worth trying to explain.  Rain was too young.  He still thought in terms of causes and idealism.  There were no causes.  There was only survival and revenge.  Pain flared behind his bad eye and knotted in his tense muscles, riding on a weariness too deep for easy sleep.  He needed to work it out.  He heard Rain suggesting a visit to the hot mineral baths, and decided that it couldn't hurt.  He followed Rain as the young man turned in a different direction.  

A path threaded its way down toward a hollow near the base of a hill, where lantern-light glowed from narrow openings around the roof of a low redwood building.  As they entered, warm air swirled around them, and Snake drew in a breath of thick, slightly sulfurous, vapor, halfway between fog and steam.  He coughed hard, fear rising in him, and hesitated as pain flared again in his head.  Rain turned a concerned look toward him.  "It's all right, Snake.  There's no gas in the water.  The vents go down a long way."  

Snake stared at him for a moment, then decided to accept this.  He looked around at the large, dimly-lit room, where men, women and children splashed in several pools carved into the rock.  Most of them were naked, a few wrapped in towels, as they chatted casually, sitting on the edges of the pools or the redwood benches lining the wall, or floated, or played in the water.  At one end, a low barrier along the floor sectioned off a group of communal showers that reminded Snake of his Army barracks.  Cubicles, some of them filled with clothes, lined a wall at the other end.   Snake noticed that there were no doors on the storage boxes.  At least, he thought, he could keep an eye on his stuff while he soaked.  He had no intention of letting his Magnums out of his sight.  As it was, he would have to give the guns a good cleaning to get rid of the moisture they had picked up from the air.  

Ignoring the other people in the room, Snake stripped off, folded his guns inside his shirt, folded his shirt inside his pants, added his underwear and boots to the top of the pile in one of the wood wall-boxes, and covered it all with his jacket.  Rain followed suit, then waved in the direction of the showers.  "We have to wash first," he explained.  Snake nodded, remembering the Japanese baths he had visited in New Vegas, and complied.  It felt wonderful to get rid of the mud and grime of the journey.  Afterward, he slowly lowered himself into one of the pools, next to Rain.  His body gradually adjusted to the steaming-hot water as it crept up to the middle of his chest, then to his shoulders.  Snake settled onto the bench carved along the side of the pool and leaned his head back against the smooth rim, feeling the heat soak through him, easing his tight muscles, pulling the tension out of him.  He sighed and half-closed his good eye.

After a few minutes, he asked, "Where'd this all come from."  The wave of a dripping hand took in the whole building.        

"They only put this in about twenty years ago," Rain answered.  He wore a blissful expression of total content as he lounged chin-deep in the hot water.  "Blasted the pools out of the rock, capped the geothermal steam vents to use the pressure for heat and power.  The hot water is mixed with cool water from the spring that feeds the river.  It's filtered through a lot of rock that pulls out most of the gas, and the temperature's high enough, the rest fractions off.  That's about all I know about it: the water's safe.  There used to be a lot of resorts and spas up in this area, but most of them went out of business because of the war."  

Snake grunted an acknowledgement and relaxed into the all-enveloping hot water, trying to let his mind, except for the segment keeping track of his guns, go blank.  For the moment, he refused to let anything bother him, not even the gawky teenage girl he noticed casting sideways glances at him from two pools over.  He came back to attention abruptly as a new woman entered the room.  Her graceful, swaying stride caught Snake's eye, and he breathed out raggedly, instantly aroused, as she slipped out of her cloak and long skirt and blouse.  Her naked body was spectacular: long legs, rounded hips curving into a slim waist, full breasts that quivered enticingly as she lifted her slim arms to tie up long, thick hair the color of prime Scotch.  A natural blonde, Snake noted, as he caught sight of the soft golden triangle below.  She was perhaps in her early thirties.  Snake focused on her as she glided to the edge of the central pool and slipped into the warm water.  "Who's that," he asked, his voice low and rough.

"Dawn.  Our Healer," Rain answered, in a tone that begrudged the information.     

The woman greeted people around the room, chatting briefly with several of them, as Snake watched her.  She turned in his direction, and hesitated as Snake raked her with a frankly predatory stare.  Her expression shifted to nervousness, and, a moment later, to anger and disgust tinged with fear.  She turned away, climbed out of the pool, pulled her clothes on quickly, and walked out of the building without looking in Snake's direction again.

Snake thought briefly about following her, and then thought, why bother?  The look on her face had been enough.  A wave of overwhelming exhaustion swept through him, and he felt almost too heavy to move.  He went with it, not fighting.  Getting older, he thought with a sort of fatalistic resentment, slowing down, not bouncing back the way he had after Leningrad or the Max, or even Cleveland.  He looked down at himself, naked under the water: not bad for forty-six, but forty-six he was.  There was only so long he could count on his body to give him what he needed in the crunch.  Sooner or later, they get everybody.  The scars, the battered features, the eyepatch and four-day stubble, were enough to scare off any woman.  Body's not too bad, but the face is for shit.  No wonder she took off.  He gathered himself together, and said gruffly, "I'm going."

He climbed out of the water and dried off with one of the big, fluffy towels from a pile on a table near the cubbyholes, then dressed, feeling glad to be rid of the vulnerability of nakedness.  The satisfying snap of his gunbelt locking back into position made him feel whole and complete again, and as close to secure as he ever got.  His freshly washed hair tickled the back of his neck, and he pushed it away impatiently, readjusting the strap holding his patch in place, then picked up his jacket and walked out into the darkness.  The trail he had taken down from Rain's cabin was clear in the bright moonlight, and he retraced it easily.  Rain followed.  Behind them, sounds from the Lodge of guitar, harmonica, rhythmic handclapping, laughter, and singing faded out into the quiet of the night.  They reached Rain's cabin and shut the door behind them.  The two men undressed in weary silence and climbed into their respective beds.  Snake slept, restlessly, and dreamed of drowning.              

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

                                                  

The teenaged girl who had seen Snake at the bath pulled on her clothes and dashed down the path to the Lodge.  She found her little clique of girlfriends in their usual spot, an isolated table they had moved to an alcove near the kitchen preparation area.  After the dinner cleanup, it provided as much privacy as could be found anywhere in Rivendell.  Here they gathered to giggle and talk, exchange gossip and confidences with each other, away from parents and boys.  The girls were poring over a tattered piece of paper, talking eagerly.  

"Aspen!  Summer!  Feather!  Guess what!"

"What, Sierra?"

"You'll never, ever guess who I saw!"

"Who?" came the chorus.   

"HIM!"  Sierra said.  She pointed dramatically at the image of Snake Plissken on the wanted poster from Ray Lee's desk drawer, which had migrated through successive hands until it reached this table.

Running fingers through her long dark hair, Feather put on a bored expression. "So?   Hef deal.  We all saw him, at dinner.  My Mom says they argued like cats fighting at Meeting over letting him stay."

"He sat four places away from me," said Summer, trying for the same tone the older girl affected.  "All he did was talk to Rain and stupid Astrid."  

Aspen leaned over to whisper conspiratorially, "He was wearing guns.  Two of them.  I saw them."    

"Of course, you dube!  For protection.  They're after him."  Feather picked up the wanted poster and read from the grimy page: "Reward. Two Million New Dollars for information leading to the capture of  S.D. 'Snake' Plissken.  Do not attempt apprehension.  Suspect is armed and considered extremely dangerous.  Notify USPF if sighted."

"Wow - bluebacks!" Aspen said.  "He must really be dangerous."

Feather smiled with superior adolescent cynicism.  "They always offer a big reward and say the person they're after is just so bo-kew dangerous.  It makes them look better when they catch one of them.  They're just mad 'cause Snake demagged their drive."

Impatiently, Sierra waved her hands in the air, fingers splayed.  "No, I saw him... in the baths."  She leaned over Feather's arm and pointed to the line on the paper under the glowering image of the wanted man: "'S.D. "Snake" Plissken.'   I know why they call him Snake!"

Feather snorted.  "Yeah.  It's 'cos he slithers outta trouble so easy.  Police Channel said that years ago."   

"Nuh-uhh, Ms. know-it-all Feather-brain," Sierra taunted.  "It's his tattoo.  It's a... snake.  A cobra.  And it's..." she paused to whisper in Feather's ear.

"NO!"

"Yes!"

"What?" demanded Summer and Aspen in unison.   Feather turned and whispered to Aspen, who gasped, "Ewwwww!  That is so toxic!"

"What is it?" Summer demanded, bouncing in her chair in frustration.

"You're too young to know," Feather said with a bored roll of her eyes.

"I'm going fostering soon!  I'm meg old enough!  Tell me!" Summer cried.

"Pin it, Summer," Feather said, "two years isn't 'soon.'"

"Oh, tell her, Feath.  She's gonna bug us until we do," Aspen sighed.  She wound a light-brown curl around her fingers and then pulled it straight again.  It fluffed back into place.

Sierra beat the other girl to it.  "It's on his... penis!"

"That wasn't the word you used to tell me," commented Feather, smugly.

Summer sat, stunned into silence, for a moment, and then whispered, "The whole thing?"

"Well, the head is on his stomach."  Sierra gestured, descriptively.  "It goes down all the way and the tail is...."  She grinned wickedly and made a curling motion with her forefinger.

"I don't believe it," Summer said.  "Nobody would put a tattoo there.   It'd hurt too bad."

"Maybe that's why he's so 'dangerous'."  Aspen clapped a hand over her grinning mouth, and the entire group broke into a gale of embarrassed giggling.

"Bet he isn't really.  Anybody who isn't into 'Peace, Love and Understanding' is dangerous, according to my folks," Feather retorted when the giggling died down again.  "Haz-mat old retros!  Snake is totally bo-kew dreem, and I bet he isn't anything like the poster says, or my folks either."

"Anybody wrung enough to get his choad tattooed isn't 'dreem'.  He's gassed," Aspen said firmly.

Summer sat silently for a few minutes, staring down onto the surface of the table as she chewed pensively at one side of her lower lip, then she looked up at her friends and said defiantly, "I'm going to see it.  Private showing."

"Tack away!  How?" Aspen cried.  "Don't tell me you're going to march up and ask him.  Nobody's that gassed."

"Only way to get up close enough to Snake Plissken to really see that tattoo," Feather drawled, with an attempt at ever-so-adult sophistication, "is to sleep with him."

Sierra adjusted the black velvet ribbon she had begun wearing around her neck with what she hoped was an air of provocative sexiness.  "Hey, he can park that dreem bod in my bed any night!"

"Then that's what I'll do," Summer said; "Sleep with him."

The three girls stared at Summer with shock and disbelief.  Feather flounced and made a moue of disgust.  "Oh, virtual!  Like you would."  Her eyes narrowed and she lowered her voice.  "I dare you, Summer!"

"Watch me," Summer said firmly, and got up to leave.

The little group watched her depart with determined chin held high, then broke into scandalized and disbelieving chatter for a little while longer, before returning to their separate homes for the night.  Feather slipped into her bed and settled down, pulling the hand-made blanket up to her chin.  If Summer really did get together with Snake, it would sure make the rest of them look like for-sure dubes.  But she wouldn't.  Summer was just a kid.  Plissken wouldn't be into anybody like that.  And he really was scary, even if he was extreme-dreem sexy.  Summer would chicken out, like she did with most of her wild plans.  Feather smiled to herself, and drifted off to sleep with misty fantasies, vague on concrete details, about what nights with the exciting newcomer might be like.

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

Snake woke in the morning to a muted chorus of animal noises from beyond the shuttered windows of Rain's cabin: hooting of mourning doves and twittering of finches and sparrows from the trees right outside, quarrelsome honking of geese and crowing of roosters from down in the valley, the distant bleating of goats and barking of dogs.  Rain opened the shutters as Snake sat up and reached for his patch, and scent of wood-smoke drifted in along with pale dawn light.  Snake lit one of his dwindling supply of cigarettes from DMZ, wondering how long he could stretch them and when he would be able to get more.  He'd seen no evidence that anyone else at Rivendell smoked tobacco or traded for it.        

Rain was already dressed and preparing his crossbow for his shift on Security.  "Forget sleeping past the critters' wake-up call," he said cheerfully.  He watched Snake shove the clothes he had worn since their purchase at DMZ into a corner of his bedroom space with his foot, and reach into his dresser drawer for a new set, and he smiled.  "If you want to get those clean, I'll show you where the wash-house is on the way down to breakfast."

Might as well try looking a little less feral, Snake decided.  He dressed, combed out his hair, and shaved with water heated on the top of the wood-stove, using the mirror hung on Rain's wall, then the two men headed down to breakfast at the Lodge through the crisp morning air.  The lack of a lock on Rain's door bothered Snake, but he settled for drawing the door closed and pulling down the cross-bar latch.  Green leaves flickered around them, moving in the light breeze, as they descended, and, below, the clear stream, flecked with whitewater, glinted silver where the rising sun climbed over the hilltop to fall on it.  A crow cawed a warning to its fellows as they passed under its tree, and a smell of clean damp earth and pine-needles rose from the red-brown path before them.  Snake saw Rain drawing in deep, appreciative breaths and smiling, clearly glad to be home.  As they passed the door near the kitchen area of the Lodge, Snake noticed a flock of chickens, mixed with a few geese, crowding around it, as a middle-aged man with Hispanic features scattered food-scraps to them.  Snake spared them a quick sideways glance.  They were the first live, unconfined chickens he had ever seen.

Rain caught his look.  "Chickens will eat anything.  Even better than pigs.  Anything we don't compost goes to them."

"When do we get chicken on the menu?"   

"We don't kill animals unless we have to, for protection or something like that.  We use some of the eggs, but we let a lot of them hatch," Rain answered.  Snake took note of the intent expression on the younger man's face, and remembered the fish catch on the Afternoon's Delight.  More of this crazy animal stuff, he thought.  

Snake studied the flock.  "How many's 'a lot'?"

"Predators get some of them, either eggs or chicks: foxes, owls, hawks, coyotes, sometimes the cats.  The hens are pretty good at defending their nests, though --

I got pecked a lot when I was on egg-collecting duty as a kid."  

Snake stopped and turned to stare at Rain.  A scattering of Rivendell residents detoured around the two, heading into the open door toward breakfast, as they paused.  "Predators?  You don't kill them off?"

"No.  It's their home, too.  We're all part of the balance, part of the pattern Gaia is weaving out of our" -- Rain waved a hand, clearly searching for the right word -- "relationships.  There's a mountain lion who lives up farther in the hills and raises cubs every year.  The cubs move on, but she stays.  Every so often, she gets one of the goats or a horse, but she keeps the deer from overrunning our crops, too.  The coyotes take some of the fawns, and help keep the cats under control.  The cats take mice and rabbits that eat our crops, and some of the birds.  The birds eat our seeds and fruit, but a lot of insects, too.  We don't use chemical pesticides for the insects: that would kill off the bees that give us honey and wax, and pollinate the crops.  There's a pair of hawks nesting on the ridge up there" -- he pointed - "and turkey vultures down by the apple orchard.  Raccoons, possums...."  Rain shrugged and broke off with, "It all fits together."

"You're overrun with them," Snake muttered.  "It's a zoo."

Anger flashed over Rain's face and he answered sharply, "Not a zoo!  Not a farm, either.  Rivendell is part of the forest.  We live with the plants and the animals.  We share with them, we don't just use them."  

Snake snorted.  "Everybody gets used."  Images of  New York Max rose in his mind. Everybody's somebody else's dinner.  He started to walk on.   

Rain's expression shifted, and he held out a hand to slow Snake down.  "Snake, don't you see?  In the city, everything is buried under concrete and glass, under buildings hundreds of stories tall.  Underneath, the Earth is totally dead.  You can feel it: Gaia crying for her lost children, crushed under the cement.  For me, living there would be like suicide.  But here, the dying gives life.  It's part of the pattern."     

Snake snorted again, and turned away from Rain, without speaking, to enter the Lodge.  Rain seemed to take Snake's reaction as a hint.  The two of them filled their plates in silence from the buffet, then took seats at one of the tables scattered around the room.  Once again, Snake noted, the food was very good.  There was fruit, fresh bread with jam and honey, hot cereal, eggs, and cheese, along with goat's milk and coffee.  Rain ate hurriedly, his eyes on his plate, and after a few minutes stood up again and shouldered his crossbow.  He walked off, his back stiff.

Snake ate slowly, stretching the activity as long as possible.  He was at dead stop.  For a month, he had been pushing himself all-out, without rest, to reach this place, and now that he was here, he had nothing to do.  He observed the inhabitants of Rivendell as they bustled in and out for breakfast, eating quickly and departing again immediately as soon as they were finished.  In this hard-working farming community, which grew or made most of what it needed, no one had much spare time for socializing during the precious daylight hours.  A few people greeted him with a cautious smile as they passed, most ignored him, and a few seemed to be deliberately avoiding eye contact.  No one spoke to him.  Snake felt as out of place here as he did everywhere else.  He refused to let it bother him.

"Hi," said a light, hesitant voice at Snake's left elbow.  

Snake's head snapped in the direction of the voice, and he saw a girl with a breakfast tray in her hands.  He took in the wide blue eyes and cascade of brown hair half-way down her back, the clear skin with its dusting of freckles over her little nose, and the slender but rounded figure.  Nice, he thought.  

"Can I sit here?"

Snake nodded permission, reserving judgment but inclining toward welcome.  The girl slid her tray onto the table beside his, and sat down in the chair next to him.  He noticed she had a clean, flowery scent, like lavender soap.  He tried to guess how old she was.  Once, he would have said eighteen, but it was impossible to tell any more.  She wasn't exactly his type, but she was definitely attractive, and apparently interested in him.  It had been a while.  His mouth relaxed slightly, taking on a less grim line.

"My name's Summer," the girl went on in a slightly breathless rush.  "I saw you when Ray Lee introduced you at dinner last night.  I always thought from the vid you were about seven feet tall."  She studied him.  "You're lots better looking than your pictures."

Snake was suddenly glad he had shaved that morning.  "Never thought about it."  

"I bet they pick the really bad pictures, 'cause they don't like you," Summer said.  She looked down and then back up at him with innocent flirtatiousness, and favored him with a smile that sent a twinge through Snake's groin.  "But I do."  Summer pushed her food around on her plate with her fork for a moment, as if at a loss, then looked at Snake again.  "If you need an extra blanket, I have one you can have.  I do weaving.  Blankets, shawls, rugs, stuff like that.  They're really warm.  I could bring one by your cabin."

"Sounds good, baby."  Snake finally smiled in return.  That was as clear an invitation as he'd ever heard.  No reason not to take her up on it.  "When?"

Summer hesitated, seemingly startled by the direct question.  "Uh - soon."  She stood and picked up her tray, clattering the dishes together in her haste, looked away toward the door and then back at Snake.  "I've got to go."  She paused and then said quickly, almost as if it required an effort, "See you later."  She dumped her tray by the cleanup area and hurried out, brushing past a dark-haired girl standing near the door.  

Snake watched her go, admiring the way Summer's long hair bounced against her back above her cute little ass.  Nice body.  Definitely fuckable.  She was young, but she looked old enough, older than a lot of the hookers he'd seen on the streets of Bangkok and New Vegas.  He'd never gone for the kids.  He wanted a woman, and one with experience, but he wasn't in the mood to be picky.  With a pretty girl coming on to him, forty-six didn't seem nearly as old as it had last night.  This one knew what she was doing, he was sure of that.  You want it, baby; I'll give it to you.  'Soon,' eh?  It's a deal.

He smiled to himself as he dropped off his own dishes and went out into the winter sunshine.  He caught the dark-haired girl scowling in his direction, and ignored her.  He had more pleasant thoughts on his mind as he walked down the path through the center of the settlement in as upbeat a mood as he ever achieved.  The day was bright and cool, painted in brilliant shades of blue sky, green plants, and red earth, the air fresh, and the sound of the brook nearby a soft rushing noise accented by birdsong.  In this place, Snake thought, Rain's ideas might make some kind of sense.  He'd explore, scope out the lay of the land.  He smiled to himself again at the mental pun.  Yeah, he'd have Summer show him around.  There were probably a lot of private spots out of sight in the forest around here.

"Snake!"

Snake turned at the sound of the voice to see a man a little older than Rain, who, he remembered, had been seated some spaces down from him at dinner last night.  With him were two other men and a plain-faced, rather chunky woman.  Snake stood still, wondering what they wanted from him.

"'Morning, Snake," the man said, shifting the weight of the ladder he was holding to his other flannel-clad shoulder.  Snake eyed him silently.  In spite of Snake's lack of encouragement, the man seemed to feel the need to introduce himself and his little group.  "I'm Roberto.  Yarrow, Mark, Sky," he pointed to each in turn.  "We're going to take down the camo nets over the fields.  Thanks to your, uh, efforts at Firebase Seven, we won't be needing them anymore.  I wanted to thank you for that."  He grinned as if Snake's success had been his own.  "Come on and give us a hand, and see what you've done for us."  As Snake hesitated, his automatic negative streak rising to the surface, Roberto added, "I heard you got shot up pretty bad in L.A.  It's O.K.  We'll do the climbing and take 'em down.  You and Yarrow can fold.  C'mon, Snake."  He waited, smiling in friendly invitation.

"Yeah, O.K.," Snake said at last.  He was irritated at the suggestion he was too crippled to do the job.  He had a half-conscious, purely animal, need not to appear vulnerable among a group of strangers who might be potential enemies.  He followed the group out of the houses and into the wide, tree-sprinkled fields he had seen on his climb down into the valley.  They were surrounded by a thick, high hedge of thorn-bush with gates at intervals.  Natural fencing, Snake concluded.

Yarrow, a shorter, older man with oriental eyes, fell back slightly to walk at Snake's side.  "Roberto and I spoke up for you at Meeting," he said.  "When the power went off, I knew things were going to turn around at last.  We've been waiting a long time, hiding.  Now, we can start to take back the earth for Gaia, make things the way they ought to be."  Snake remembered a similar conversation he had had with Rain.  Evidently there was a militant group here at Rivendell who wanted to see him as some kind of hero.  He regarded the idea with considerable misgiving, answering with a skeptical, non-committal little snort.  He tucked it into the back of his mind as he helped take down and fold camouflage nets, listening to the conversation around him among the others and storing information about them.

Snake spent the next few days sleeping, resting his wounded leg, recovering, and settling into the routine of life at Rivendell.  In the cold mountain mornings, he felt every scar and every half-forgotten wound.  Here were peace and sanctuary of a sort, but he never counted on any good thing lasting.  He would take it as it came, day by day, survive and heal.          

                               

                                                             

    

                                                            

                                                     CHAPTER FIVE

Somewhere near Los Angeles:

Rance Farris trudged along the pot-holed road toward Firebase Seven.  He had set out a little over three weeks ago, when news reached him of Snake Plissken's escape from Los Angeles and the final broadcast setting off the Sword of Damocles satellites.  Rance had been tracking Snake for a long time, following up on cold trails that led nowhere, from one false Plissken-sighting to another.  Now he had a solid lead, and he was determined not to lose Snake again.  Plissken owed him, and he planned to collect, no matter how long it took.  The bluebacks the USPF was offering were only the down payment.  The real reward would be seeing Plissken die, preferably slowly and painfully.  

Plissken had been badly wounded, they said, in Los Angeles, and he couldn't have gone far without transportation, now that the satellites had knocked out the power.  Vicious satisfaction twisted in him: shot yourself in the foot again, didn't you, Lieutenant?  Took everybody with you again, like you did before, you fucked-up bastard.  This time, when I find you, you'll finally pay.  Rance had heard rumors of a man in Los Angeles who might know something, somebody connected with the dead revolutionary, Cuervo Jones.  When he got to the island, he would start there and take up the trail again.

                

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

Over the next few days, Snake spent most of his time sleeping, and the rest studying the Rivendell group while keeping his distance.  He avoided the social gatherings in the evenings, and seldom talked to anyone except in response to greetings, whose friendliness seemed forced and artificial to him.  They seemed to be addressed to a Snake Plissken who did not exist except in the minds of the radical segment of Rivendell society.  He knew he was being watched, the potential threat they saw in him tracked by many pairs of suspicious eyes.  The pretty girl who had come on to him seemed to have disappeared.

By the time she reappeared, Snake had had enough sleep that he felt almost rested and the inactivity was beginning to grate on his adrenalin-junkie's nerves.  He was sitting on the log bench just outside Rain's cabin one morning, trying to will himself into stillness without great success, when he saw Summer climbing up the path toward him, carrying a square gray bundle.  As she stopped in front of him, he noticed she was breathing a little fast and there was a trace of heightened color in her cheeks.  

"Snake, you're awake!" she said.  "Remember?  What we talked about?  I brought you something."  She smiled self-consciously as she unfolded a beautiful gray blanket with a pattern woven in blacks, whites, and dark reds.  "It's a pattern from the First People.  I got it from a book.  It's called Sky Rattlesnake.  See," she pointed, "that's the rattlesnake, and those are the lightning flashes and the clouds.  I made it for you."

Snake reached out and touched the pattern lightly.  "You made this for me?"  He looked up at her.  The last time he had been given anything, just as a gift, was beyond memory.

"Well, I started it last year, but I didn't finish it.  After we talked at breakfast, that day, I got it out again and finished the background and the edges.  And I signed it."

"How do you sign a blanket?"

"See that triple band of dark blue wool at the edge?  That means I made it."

Summer traced the black and red zigzag of the rattlesnake image with her fingers. "Sky Rattlesnake is a sacred pattern, the book said."

Snake picked up the lower edge of the mohair blanket and let it flow through his hands.  It was soft and thick, warm and almost weightless.  His fingers brushed Summer's, and he smiled at her, letting the contact linger, feeling her quiver slightly under his touch.  "This'd be great to... share on a cold night...."   He put invitation into his one good eye.

Summer inhaled, then exhaled sharply, and sat down next to him on the bench.   "Yeah," she breathed, moving over toward Snake.  He spread the blanket over their laps and slid an arm around her to bring her closer, reaching up with his other hand to stroke her long hair.  His fingers tightened in the silky mass, turning her face up toward his, and he lowered his mouth to hers in a kiss.  It built in intensity, turning hard and demanding as he felt his body begin to respond to her.  She turned and melted against him, raising her arms to hug him in turn.  She made a soft sound as her hands opened on his shoulders.  He pressed her back toward the bench.  His arm moved down, tightened, circling her, pulling her to him.  He felt her stiffen, and realized that he and Summer were sitting in a very public area, in full view of the settlement below.  He loosened his hold and said huskily, "Want to go inside?"     

Summer hesitated, drawing back slightly, out of breath from the kiss.  "Oh, god, Snake, I... I I want to... but, can we make it later?" she stammered.  She paused, wide-eyed, her mouth slightly open, then added quickly, "It's... umm, you know... that time...."

Snake was mystified for a moment, then caught on.  "Hell, I don't mind," he murmured.  His hand shifted, moving under her jacket to cup a rounded breast, and his thumb brushed across the hardened nipple beneath her shirt.    

"No, I can't," Summer said, more firmly.  She put her hands on his shoulders, pushing.  "Let's wait... 'til later, OK?"

She started to back away, shakily, but Snake caught her hands.  He looked down into her eyes, unwilling to let her go so easily, annoyed by her sudden reluctance.  He hadn't had a woman blow hot and cold like this with him since his dimly remembered dates in high school, before he discovered the more satisfying simplicity of hookers.  He didn't understand it any better now than he had then.  "That's later, baby, not never, right?" he rasped softly, in the rough, warm lower registers of his voice as he squeezed her imprisoned fingers.        

Summer's voice was uncertain, close to tears.  "Snake... y you're so beautiful!  I... I I want to...bebe with... you, honest.  Just... just... later.  Please.  Let go!"  She tugged at his grasp, and he did let go.  She turned and all but ran down the path.

Snake started to go after her, but, with an effort, restrained himself.  He sank back on the bench, harsh breath hissing through clenched teeth.  He was a stranger here, an outsider, and Rivendell might be possessive about its women.  He'd never had to force a woman, and he wasn't about to start with this one.  If she wanted to wait, he'd wait.  But only so long.  The functioning of a woman's mind and body were largely a mystery to Snake, but his own familiar body was telling him in no uncertain terms exactly what it wanted.  He lifted the soft mohair and held it to his face, inhaling Summer's scent there like an animal tracking prey, and growled under his breath.  He carried the blanket back inside Rain's cabin and spread it over his bed.  Sky rattlesnake, he thought, and saw the sleek black Gulffire in his mind's eye.  Yes.  He reached into his drawer for a cigarette and lit it, as frustration slid into baffled anger.  That at least was familiar, and, in a strange way, comforting.

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

Summer fled down the path, shaken and confused.  She had had every intention of  going inside with Snake, but a sudden wave of fear had drowned her plans: fear of herself, of Snake, and most of all, of the unknown.  Her whole self was still electric with reaction.  She had felt her will draining out of her, the core of her body turning molten, and the sheer intensity of her response to Snake had terrified her into flight.  She climbed to the place she went when she wanted to be alone, high up the hill where a waterfall that fed Rivendell's stream tumbled down toward the valley, and sat there, heart pounding, while she tried to gather her thoughts.

It had started with the tattoo, wanting to see the tattoo, wanting to beat Feather at her game of "I'm so grown-up and sexy."  She had never expected it to become something like this, something that would reach right down into her center and trouble her in ways she didn't understand.  They said that when she was fostered out to a new group she would find someone and have sex with them, some day find someone to partner with.  She hadn't expected this to find her here.  It wasn't time, it wasn't right.  This stranger who disrupted the whole world of Rivendell drew her in a way she could neither completely refuse or accept.  She couldn't think.  It was too confusing, and her heart was beating too hard.

She saw him again, the sun glinting red in his hair, his hard body and strong face full of self-confidence and experience.   She tasted the memory of his alien tobacco-flavored mouth, and heard his voice that sounded like her mohair felt: soft and rough and warm.  She remembered the feel of his hands.  The boys she knew at Rivendell all seemed suddenly ridiculous.  Snake wasn't a boy.  He wasn't any known quantity at all.  He was a man, and she wanted him.  She was scared to death of him.  She relived the kiss and felt herself go liquid again.  She had acted like a little kid, running away like, she was sure, her friends had all predicted.  Next time, she wouldn't.  Please, let there be a next time!  She'd prove to him she wasn't a little girl any more, and prove it to herself.  And she had to see that tattoo.  She huddled on the mossy stone, feeling miserable.

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

                                                            

When Rain poked his head inside the cabin door some time later, he found Snake stretched out on his bed on top of the new gray blanket, staring at the ceiling.  Several cigarette butts and a half-empty glass of Scotch occupied the dresser-top next to him.  Snake sat up as Rain entered.  "Snake," the younger man said, "the circuit doctor's here.  You need to see him."

"No, I don't," came the flat reply.

"Yes, you do.  He wants to vaccinate everybody here.  He says that cholera, typhus, all kinds of stuff, are starting up in the cities and the refugees are bringing it with them.  Plus, you need an exam by a human doctor instead of a vet."  

"Bullshit."

"Come on, Snake," Rain said, "You need to find out what those fuckers at Firebase Seven really did to you."      

Rain could see uneasiness creep into Snake's face, and congratulated himself on finding something that would convince Snake to go for medical attention.  He wondered just how long it had been since Snake had voluntarily visited a doctor.  "Shit," Snake growled; then finally, "Yeah, O.K."

"I'll have him come by the cabin later tonight," Rain said.  One look at Snake's truculent expression made it obvious Snake was not going to stand in line with the rest of Rivendell's population.   

Better warn the doctor he's going to have a less-than-cooperative patient, Rain thought, as he made his way back down the trail to the Lodge, where the circuit-riding doctor was setting up his treatment area.  People were already gathering outside as Rain slipped in by the side door to talk to the doctor alone.   "Hi, Spence," he called out to the short, gray-haired man in jeans and flannel shirt who was setting plastic boxes out on the long serving table by the fireplace.  Rain broke into a wide grin as he caught sight of the doctor's assistant, a broad-shouldered young man with coffee-colored skin.  "Kestrel!" he cried, "What are you doing here?"  The two men hugged and exchanged a brief kiss, and Rain added, "Are you with the doctor now?"                      

The doctor greeted Rain, then turned back to his preparations as Kestrel explained, "Yeah.  I'm going to be his apprentice."  He smiled.  "I got tired of the winters in Idaho."  The two men had grown up together, and Kestrel had been fostered out from Rain's home Group to one in Idaho about the same time Rain had been fostered to Rivendell.

"He's going to take over for me some day," the doctor said, smiling over his shoulder in the direction of his new intern.  "I can't keep on doing this forever you know."

"I decided I wanted to learn about medicine," Kestrel said.  "Spence says he's going  to teach me himself, because the medical schools and hospitals are going to be really screwed up for a while."  His dark eyes sparkled.  "Gods it's good to see you again, Rain!  We've got to get together tonight."  

"Definitely!" Rain said.  "I can come over to the guesthouse after dinner."  He trusted Kestrel, but he preferred to keep Snake's presence at Rivendell on a Need To Know basis.  He turned to Dr. Spencer.  "How are you, Spence?"

"Fine, fine," the older man answered.  "It's good to see you again.  Your mother and father say hello.  Oh, and here."  He fished in his bag and brought out several envelopes.  "Mail."

Rain took the envelopes and pocketed them.  "How long are you here for?"

"A few days.  As long as I'm needed.  You'll have time to write replies, but don't take too long.  I'm not hanging around for you to finish."   

"I'll have them ready by the time you leave," Rain said.  He drew the doctor away a few feet and lowered his voice.  Kestrel tactfully tuned them out.  He was learning medical ethics already.  "Will you have time for a private exam?"

"I can make time.  What's the matter, Rain?"

"Not for me.  It's for... the person staying with me.  He had a badly infected wound, and he's been really sick with the Plutoxin-7 virus."

"Plutoxin-7!  How did somebody here get exposed to Plutoxin?"  

"It's... a a long story.  I'll let him tell you about it, if he wants to," Rain said.

The doctor nodded and dropped the subject.  "Anybody else here come down with it?"

"Not as far as I know, Spence."

"Good.  I'll come to your cabin as soon as I'm done here."

Late in the afternoon, Rain and the doctor, his medical bag slung over his shoulder, climbed up the path to Rain's cabin and knocked on the doorjamb beside the open door.  Snake looked up from the book on woodcraft he had picked up to read from Rain's limited library, and gestured unenthusiastic permission for the doctor to enter.  Rain started to follow.  Dr. Spencer turned to him with a smile.  "Rain, you're hovering," he said.  "I'd like to talk to the patient alone."  Rain went to sit on the bench outside.                                                       

Dr. Spencer was frowning slightly as he stepped inside.  Plutoxin was nothing to be dismissed lightly, especially now.  If Rain's guest really had it, he could start an epidemic.  As his vision adjusted to the lower light level, he got a good look at the man standing in the center of the room.  The doctor's glance flicked from the brace of Magnums hung over the peg on the wall to the grim eye-patched face in front of him.  Could it be...? ?  He deliberately cut off speculation.  If this was the outlaw the USPF wanted so badly, it was none of Dr. David Spencer's business.  The man was here as a patient.  On the other hand, Snake Plissken had a reputation for deadly and explosive violence.  He would proceed with caution.     

"I'm Doctor Spencer, most people call me Spence."  He held out a hand, which the other man ignored.  "Rain tells me you wanted to see me.  What can I do for you?"

The suspicion in the other man's good eye was balanced by the closed neutrality of his face.  "Gunshot wound," Snake rasped, "Almost healed."  He took a breath.  "What've you got for headaches?"

"That depends on what's causing them."  Dr. Spencer began to unpack the case of medical equipment he had brought with him.  "Since the power went," he said into the interior as he dug around inside, "It's interesting to see what I have that still works."     

"Nothing electrical," Snake offered as he sat down on the edge of the bed, watching the doctor intently.

"No.  That's what I discovered.  You know," the doctor continued, "In some ways, this gives us back something we'd lost, with all our technology.  I think a lot of doctors today aren't comfortable unless they have machinery between them and the patient."  He smiled wryly and quoted, "'Look upon it as a challenge.'"  

Dr. Spencer kept up the cheerful chatter as he assessed his patient, trying to put Snake at his ease, with what appeared to be limited success.  Plissken  -- he was all but sure now that it was Plissken  -- was smaller and lighter than the posters and the televised images had led him to expect.  Powerful, compact body, good reflexes, alert: the man looked healthy, if slightly weather-beaten.  Dr. Spencer relaxed  and concentrated on the receptivity he needed to conduct a good exam.  He kept his manner calm, telegraphing his movements; he doubted this was a man who liked surprises.  He checked the one good eye, ears, nose and throat.  The other man's responses to touch and voice were guarded, but rational.  Not the gas case the late, unlamented Police Channel warned us about, then, he decided.  He picked up his stethoscope, and Snake silently removed his shirt, displaying a patchwork of old scars and the tattoo that confirmed his identity.  Dr. Spencer listened carefully, frowning: the heart was strong, with the slow, steady beat of the athlete, but the lungs could be clearer.  "I'd like to see the wound," he said, and Snake complied.  Front and back, it was closed and healing well.  "It looks fine," Dr. Spencer said; "Whoever patched you up did a good job."

"It was a goddamn vet," Snake growled.

"A good one, I'd say."  Dr. Spencer smiled.  "Well, I've done my share of emergency surgery on the non-human members of the Groups myself.  In some ways, we're all a lot alike.  We're all animals."

Snake snorted as he pulled up his pants and started to shrug back into his shirt.  Dr. Spencer held out a hand.  "Are you up on all your inoculations?"      

"I don't like needles."

"I don't blame you."  Dr Spencer laid down his stethoscope and looked directly at Snake, all pretense dropped.  His face darkened angrily.  "I've heard about what happens to prisoners of the USPF.  Damned blackbelly bastards!"  Snake started and his hands twitched reflexively, as if reaching for his guns, as his good eye narrowed again.  The doctor went on in a calmer tone, "There are needles and there are needles.  I think you know this is necessary.  There's a lot of disease starting up in the cities, and it's spreading.  I can't force you, and I wouldn't if I could, but...."  He picked up a syringe and a transparent vial.  Snake nodded once, silently, his expression sullen.  The doctor completed the injections, and Snake finished pulling on his shirt.  He dropped the used needles into his sharps container and faced his patient squarely.  "I'm recycling needles when I can.  They're going to be difficult to replace.  Have you been exposed to... anything contagious?"  

Snake hesitated, scowling.  Dr. Spencer waited, patient but inexorable.  "Plutoxin-7," Snake rasped.  "Before I went into L.A."

"Hm," Dr. Spencer said.  "There were rumors the USPF was experimenting with it.  We were lucky it didn't get loose when they bombed Sandia during the war.  Nasty stuff."   

Snake looked away, then back.  "They said it would kill me in ten hours."  A sardonic smile flickered across his mouth.  "Government propaganda."  

"The original virus certainly would have.  Apparently this one's been modified -- or it's mutated by itself."

"What does it do to you?"

"Long term?"  Dr. Spencer looked him in the eye.  "I don't know.  I do know you can't get rid of it; it stays in the system permanently, like a retrovirus.  It depresses the immune system.  Beyond that, it hasn't been around long enough for anybody to find out.  We aren't even completely sure how it's transmitted.  You're a carrier, but I don't know if you're infectious, or how, or for how long."

"Shit."

There didn't seem to be anything Dr Spencer could add to that assessment.  The two men were silent for a few moments, then the doctor gave a short sigh and moved on.    "You say you have headaches?  How often?"

"All the time, but they've been getting worse."  

"Do they concentrate in any one area?"

"Left side and back.  And lately..."  Snake hesitated and then continued with obvious reluctance.  "...Lately, I've started getting flashes, like lightning.  Never happened before."

Dr. Spencer tried to keep the concern he felt from coloring his voice.  "They're probably from your injured eye.  May I..."  He reached out a hand, tentatively, and  stopped.  Snake removed the patch, flinching.  His eyelid snapped shut by reflex.  He forced it open again, and the pale, puckered socket watered violently.   

"Sorry," the doctor muttered.  "It'll just be a minute."  No wonder the man had headaches.  He had only seen gas injuries to the eye this severe in a few casualties from the front, early in his medical career, and most of them had not survived.  The usual treatment was to remove the eye.  He nodded, and Snake slipped the patch back in place with obvious relief.  "Well," Dr. Spencer said dryly, "I think we've found the source of your headaches."  He was rewarded with a soundless laugh from his patient, and relaxed a bit, hoping that meant he was gaining Plissken's trust.  He  girded himself for the announcement he dreaded making. "I hate to say this, especially with conditions as they are, but you should have that left eye removed."

"FUCK that!"  Snake exploded.  

"Has anyone warned you about what can happen?  You're at risk for a pressure buildup in the damaged eye, or sympathetic ophthalmia.  You could go completely blind."

"Nobody touches my eye!" Snake snarled.  He leapt to his feet, grabbed his guns and his jacket from their pegs, and slammed out of the cabin.

Dr. Spencer followed.  He stopped on the flat rock just outside the cabin door which served as a stoop.  Rain got to his feet.  The two watched Plissken disappear into the trees, and the doctor commented, "That didn't go well."

"He's really touchy about medical stuff.  I can try talking to him, but...."   Rain looked worried.  "He could really go blind?"

"You were listening," the doctor said, annoyed.  "Yes, he could.  Ophthalmia, glaucoma - they're both possible with that eye.  Tell him to watch out for sharp pain, reddening, or any signs of infection in either eye.  That's the best I can do."  Dr. Spencer went back into the cabin, reached into his bag, and took out a packet of pills.  He handed them to Rain.  "Give him these.  Demerol, for the pain.  They're all I can spare.  Drugs are running out fast, and I don't know when I'll be able to get any more.  No electricity means no labs, no drug companies.  We're back to the days of wise women and herbal medicine."

"Dawn does a lot with herbs," Rain offered.  "When I fell and ran that branch through my arm, she treated it with arnica and goldenseal and pennyroyal, and it healed fine."

Dr. Spencer smiled.  "They weren't called wise women for nothing.  There's a lot of value in traditional medicine too.  It wouldn't hurt to have your friend visit Dawn.  Maybe she can help him."  He paused, then added, "Mark my words, Rain: the human race is in for some tough times.  This has given us all a new chance, a new hope.  Maybe it will all come out for the best in the long run.  But one thing for sure - it's going to get a lot worse for humanity before it gets better."   He shouldered the strap of his medical case.  "Tell your friend I'm not coming after him.  There's nothing more I can do, and he'd make a very unpleasant enemy.  I'll give your love to your parents when I see them."  He headed off down the path, back toward the settlement.       

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

   

Snake strode angrily away from Rain's cabin.  He chose a half-overgrown trail at random and followed it, bulldozing through the brush and ducking under overhanging tree-branches, until he came to a clearing with a rough circle of old logs arranged around a firepit.  New grass was sprouting among them, and the smudge of old ashes and charred bits of wood were mingled with fallen leaves and wind-blown debris.  It was obvious the place had not been used in some time.   

Snake sat down on one of the logs, his head pounding and his bad eye throbbing from its exposure to the light during the doctor's examination, wishing he had brought his cigarettes, wishing he'd been able to con the medic out of some decent painkillers.  He considered going back for the smokes, but decided against it.  He'd had more than enough contact with people for a while.  He shut his eye, willing the pain into submission.  Background noise.  Baseline reading.  Recalibrate the instrument.  In the dark behind his closed eyes, the wood around him was full of elusive sounds: wind moving through the needles of the pine above him, rustlings in the dead leaves, sudden trilling of birds.  Cool air brought him the smell of wet earth and old wood.  He shifted on the tree trunk beneath him, ignoring the damp cold of its bark, and absorbed the solitude, welcoming it.

Dr. Spencer's warning came back to him, and he pushed it aside.  Just leave me the fuck alone!  Images of the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills surfaced, of the trays of body parts, the bright blade reaching for his face, to steal his eye.  His whole self revolted at the memory: nobody's going to cut on me!  He saw Taslima and the dark expressive eyes that had drawn him.  So pretty.  So dead.  The future is right now.  That's all there is.

The pain in Snake's head eased gradually, and he opened his good eye.  He felt as though he were becoming invisible, safe, as he listened to the sounds around him: the squawk of scrub jays, the resonant drumming of a woodpecker on a nearby tree, the sound of something, maybe a deer, moving through the brush.  As he watched, sitting absolutely still, a skunk ambled across one section of the campfire circle and stopped to hunt for grubs under the flaking bark of the logs.  It sniffed in his direction, then wandered off grumbling to itself.  The cool air deepened into evening chill as Snake watched the trees turn into black lines of silhouette against the sunset sky.  The quiet of the place was almost nourishing, and he drew back from the need to return to the human world.  A loud crackling in the underbrush, heading his way, brought him out of his reverie.  He thought about the mountain lion Rain had mentioned, rose and drew his Magnums, realizing that there were dangers even here, among the deceptive peace.  He stared tensely into the deepening twilight until he heard Rain's voice.

"Snake, it's Rain; don't shoot."   The younger man stepped into the clearing as Snake lowered his guns and reholstered them.  

"Thought maybe you were the lion."

"If I had been, you'd never have heard me.  They stalk silently and they hit you from behind.  But you don't have much to worry about unless you're a deer."  In the deepening dusk, Snake thought he saw Rain stifle a smile at his reaction.  "Spence finished the vaccinations.  He'll be leaving soon."

"He'll keep his mouth shut?"

"Yes.  You can trust him -- we all do," Rain said seriously.  "He just said watch out for sharp pain or infection in your eyes."  He chuckled softly.  "You made him kinda nervous."

"Returning the favor," Snake growled.  He gestured, indicating the area around them now sinking into full darkness.  "What's this place?'            

"This was the old Rainbow Circle campfire, where the first Group used to meet before the Lodge was built.  Before they found the geothermal vent, everybody lived on the other side of the hill, in the old cabins down by the lake."

"Anybody there any more?"

"No.  They're pretty primitive -- no running water, no plumbing, no heat.  Full of black widow spiders.  Nobody goes down there."

The description appealed to Snake: quiet, isolated, with a bit of danger to keep nosy people out of his way.  He decided to check it out in the morning.  Rivendell was too fucking crowded.  He moved toward Rain's dim shape in the dark.  "Let's get back."  He needed to sleep.   

            

                                     

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

December.  Los Angeles.  Evening:

The man sat, with the still patience of a hunting spider, in a darkened corner of a dive on Hollywood Boulevard, a glass of oily gin by his hand on the cracked Formica tabletop.   Flaring torches and lanterns provided fitful illumination and added their smoky reek to the thick air.  Another man slipped into the seat opposite him, a skinny creature with the quick, nervous movements of a jackal, his face a crosshatch of fresh burn scars, his nose recently broken, and one arm, broken and badly set, cradled at an awkward angle against his shallow chest.   

"You Rance Farris?" the jackal asked.  The other man nodded, his face lost in shadows, and the newcomer grinned in satisfaction and held out a hand.  "Map-To-the-Stars Eddie.  You want anything in this town, I'm the man to see.  I've got connections, man - A-list people.  I hear you're after Snake Plissken.  You want him, Baby, you got him.  He breezed into town, lookin' for a comeback.  I handled him.  We were goin' places; makin' it happen.  He was hot, I'm tellin' you, man.  Then he dropped me and left, just like that.  You want his ass, it's yours.  All I'm askin' is twenty per cent, and a photograph of the body when you bring it in for the bluebacks.  He owes me.  The man has absolutely no loyalty.  Hey - we had a deal!  I loved the guy like a brother.  Treated him like a prince.  Gave him everything, and he screwed my client and blew me off.  He's dead in this town, man!"

"So where can I find him?"

"I know somebody you've gotta to see.  Talk to Saigon Shadows, man.  They hate Plissken.  He had big plans, gonna be a real smash hit, he said.  Suckered 'em into backin' him; deal fell through, and he left 'em holding the bag.  The Shadows want Plissken's nuts on a platter, I'm tellin' you.  I can introduce you...."

Farris rose, pushing back the chair abruptly.  "I'll find them myself.  Here," he threw down a handful of greenbacks.  "Buy yourself a new line of patter.  You need it."

"Hey!"  Map-To-The-Stars Eddie stared after Farris, open-mouthed.  "Hey - you can't just take off like that.  You need somebody to show you the ropes, put you in touch with the right people.  You don't get anyplace in this town without connections, man."  

The bounty hunter ignored him and walked out into the milling crowd on Hollywood Boulevard.  Now he knew where he was going.  It was only a matter of time before he found Plissken.

    

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

Over the next few weeks, Snake found himself restlessly exploring farther and farther from the settlement, avoiding people, avoiding the necessity of making a decision on how he would pay for his room and board.  He felt as though he were being gradually wound 'round and 'round with gossamer but inescapable threads of spider-silk, like an insect in a web.  His instinct was to back away.  Trust was an invitation to betrayal.

He located the cabins Rain had mentioned and explored them, finding them run-down but still solid and weather-proof.  Something in him responded to the forest solitude and the quiet of the deep woods, away from the irritating whirl of human activity at Rivendell.  When the headaches got bad, the silence was healing. With nothing to distract him from it, the pain behind his injured eye flared up toward the level he had known during his early days in the hospital in Helsinki.  He finished the Demerol and started, reluctantly, working his way through the bottles of liquor he had liberated from the dead blackbelly's house.  He hated using the expensive Scotch as a painkiller.  His uncertain temper was fraying toward the breaking point, and after he had been on the receiving end of it several times, Rain suggested it might be a good thing if Snake went to see Dawn.  Grudgingly, Snake agreed to visit the Healer.

Dawn lived alone, in a small cabin in the midst of a neatly-tended garden, its soil now brown and bare with winter.  Snake knocked and ducked inside.  One quick glance took in a cluttered space filled with bottles, books, boxes, and tables covered with objects that meant nothing to him.  A fire crackled in the hearth at one end of the room, and the warm air was sweet with the scent of the dried herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling in bunches.  The Healer was decanting something into a number of miniature glass bottles as Snake entered.  She rose from her chair at the wooden table in one fluid motion as Snake stepped through the door.  Her hands clasped in front of her long sage-green skirt, the fingers twined tightly together, and Snake recognized the apprehensive expression on her face as one he had seen turned his way many times before, but when she spoke, her tone was controlled and level.

"Do you come to me for healing?"

"Yeah."

"What is your complaint?"   The voice was soft and slightly husky, like velvet, and Snake found himself responding to the sound more than the words.

"Headaches.  I need something for the pain."

"Come.  Sit down...uhuh...."  She gestured toward a chair next to her massage table.

"Call me Snake."  His voice was dry and feathery, as soft as her own, but far less gentle.

"Snake."  She seemed to find some disturbing significance in that, beyond the simple fact of his identity.  "Yes.  Well... there are many herbal painkillers.  Willow - that's salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.  You probably need more than that.  Syrup of poppies - that's opium, morphine.  It's addictive, of course.  Cannabis, to relieve the pressure in your eye.  You're already treating yourself with tobacco."  Her nose wrinkled.  "I can smell it on you."

Snake snorted lightly.  He had never thought of tobacco as a medicinal herb.

"Here, take one dose of the syrup now," Dawn said.  She poured thick liquid into a glass cup and held it out to Snake.  "Swallow it quickly - it's very bitter."  Snake did so, tasting the bitterness under the honey.   Dawn hesitated and her small white teeth caught at her lower lip.  "I think I should examine you, see if there's anything I can do with massage, acupressure.  Maybe aromatherapy.  I want to read your aura and see how badly your chakras are blocked.  Let's see...."  She inhaled, obviously nerving herself, and reached toward Snake's blind side.

As her slim fingers touched the strap of his patch against his head, Snake's hand snapped out and caught her wrist in a hard grip.  He pulled her hand away.  Her skin was smooth and soft, the blue veins shadowy in the milky flesh next to his thumb.  "No," he said, a breath of cold menace.  Dawn startled, eyes widening.  For a moment they stood frozen as Snake studied her.  He was half annoyed, half aroused by the vulnerability he read in the woman.  It called to a place in him that had not taken prey in a long time, and even the relentless pounding now ebbing in his head was no match for his rising desire.  This was a woman completely to his taste, far more so than the young girl who had given him the blanket.  Wavy red-gold hair.  Full lips.  Ripe, curved body.  Snake remembered the look of her naked body in the baths, imagined what the round, full breasts rising and falling under her light gauze blouse would feel like under his hand, and moved, almost unconsciously, toward her.

"Snake!"  Dawn's voice was sharp, anger over the fear now.  Snake released her and she took a step away, then held her ground, rubbing the red mark on her wrist absently.  With obvious effort, her face cleared and her voice returned to a studied calm.  "I want to help you, but you're going to have to cooperate with me."

Snake nodded impatiently.  Go along to get along.  Taylor used to say that.

"Take off your shirt."  Snake did so, and Dawn came up behind him, running her hands lightly over his head and neck.  She chose a spot, pressed down, and sharp pain flared in Snake's head.  He twisted.  "Hold still!" Dawn said sharply.  She held the point, then released it.  Pain receded.  "How does that feel?"

Snake considered.  "Better."  Between the syrup of poppies and this pressure technique, the pain in his head had declined to a bearable level, better than it had been in some time.  He was feeling almost human, and very aware of the woman behind him.

"Good.  A lot of your pain comes from tension in your muscles.  Let's try a massage.   Undress and lie down on the table over there."  Dawn began warming a bottle of scented oil over a candle stand, watching him carefully.  She pointed to a table next to the larger one, draped in deep-blue velvet and scattered with crystals and stones.  "Pick out the stones on that table that feel good to you."   

Massage... yeah.... .  Snake's experience with massage had been limited to the garish and sleazy establishments in the various red-light districts he had visited, which had, indeed, relieved some of his tension.   Swiftly, he was out of his clothes and padding naked to the table.  Maybe he'd found the perfect cure: a gorgeous, sexy blonde to work the kinks out of his muscles -- all of them -- and smooth the fire from his brain.  He was already half-hard at the thought.  She was still waiting for him to pick out some of the fucking rocks.  Impatiently, he scanned the collection, then set several of them aside, choosing quickly and without thought: a bright yellow citrine, gold tiger-eye, deep-red garnet, obsidian, a silvery chunk of metallic rock.  His hand came to rest on a rutilated quartz pyramid.  He picked it up, holding it in his palm, staring at the fiery gold threads streaking through it, feeling drawn to it in a way he did not understand.  It reminded him of something he felt he should remember, but there was nothing except vague unease.  Disturbed, he set the pyramid down.  

"Interesting.  Yes."  Dawn looked over his selections, gave a satisfied nod.  "You've chosen all reds, golds, and black.  And a meteorite.  Firestones.  Sun.  Aggressive masculine energy."  She glanced away from him again, unease flickering over her features, then hurried on in a professional tone.  "O.K., I'll select for the higher planes.  You're badly blocked."

Snake paid no attention to her choices: blue, green, white.  Aside from the deep cerulean of the sky around his Gulffire, the white of clouds, the dangerous green of the earth far below his craft, those colors meant nothing to him.  He lay down on his back on the table, drew a breath, and smiled at the woman next to him.  "I'm ready.  How about that massage."                            

"Turn over.  I have to reach your chakra points."

He continued smiling at her, trying to put the sexual invitation into his expression that had worked with Summer, with other women.  "Don't I have any on this side?"

Dawn sighed in exasperation.  "Roll over, Snake.  I need you on your stomach."

Irritated and frustrated, Snake did so.  Dawn began stroking his back, moving up from the base of his spine, to his shoulders, out and back down, the touch barely grazing his flesh.  Her strong hands pressed down on his shoulders, kneading hard into the clenched muscles there, down next to his shoulder blades, up the back of his neck.  Pain flared and flowed away, tension loosening.  Snake gave a long sigh.

"Good," Dawn said.  "Now you're more relaxed, I can read you better."  Her fingers touched the base of Snake's spine, almost between his buttocks, and he felt his breathing deepen.  "Here," she said, "Base chakra: Muladhara, basic survival.  It's wide open.  That's good.  Most people's are, you know."  He felt her massaging warm oil into his spine, pressing harder now, then she laid something on the spot, balancing it in the hollow of his back.  "Kundalini energy here.  We can raise that energy up your spine and open you.  I'm putting a garnet there to establish the flow."   

Snake felt himself tensing again under her touch as the warm oil-coated fingers worked their way up his back, gently probing.  "Manipura.  Second chakra," she said.  "Your sexual center."  She pressed gently, and Snake felt sudden heat.  He shifted uncomfortably.  He was fully hard now and definitely wanting more than a fancy backrub.  Come on, woman.  Get to the point.     

"Don't move!  You'll disturb the stones.  Your second chakra's open, but it's wildly out of balance."

"Let's balance it."  Snake's voice sharpened and he sat up, scattering stones.

"Snake!  I haven't finished!"

"Enough of this bullshit.  You're too pretty to play stupid like this."  Snake stood up, his good eye dark with frustrated anger, as Dawn backed away from him.  "First you get my clothes off and start rubbing me, then you cocktease me.  Doesn't work with me, baby."

Dawn stood holding the bottle of massage oil in front of her like a shield, her face frightened but determined, filled with an anger that matched his own.  "Snake, I know you would like to have sex with me..."  Her eyes moved from his erection and the cobra tattoo that seemed to rise from it back to his face.  "... but you're too unbalanced.  You're way over into the fire end, fire and air.  I'm earth.  If I let your energy into my aura, it would be destructive and dangerous for me."  She held out her flattened hand, warding him off.  "You need Kundalini work, you need...."

"Hey, hey, hey!" Snake protested, clenching his fists.  "I know what I need, and it's not this bullshit!  What's wrong with the women in this fucking place?"  He grabbed for his clothing, and began dressing with short, irritated movements.  Yanking his shirt over his head, he snapped  "You get one free ride, baby!  I only take that answer once!"  He snapped on his gunbelt with an angry click.

"Snake, I meant what I said.  As you are, you're unbalanced - dangerous and destructive.  I can't help you."  Dawn reached into a drawer and pulled out a square of orange silk, dropping it over the clear pyramid with the fiery gold lines inside.  "Maybe this will.  Take it.  It's... it belongs to you.  Look into it, use it to unblock your flow.  And here," she set a medicine bottle down next to the orange square.  "Take some of the poppy-syrup, too.  Now go."

Snake reached for the stone, trying to close his hand over hers, but she drew back, evading his touch.  He glared at her for a moment, then shoved the stone and the bottle into his pocket and stamped out, slamming the door as he went.

Shivering, Dawn sat down hard next to the velvet-covered table and ran her hands over the stones there, seeking calm.  She tasted again the image of Snake, his guns at his hips, the colors of danger surrounding him: too much red and orange, not enough blue; too harsh, too violent, the colors of danger.  She felt again the darkness that welled up out of him under her hands, remembering the way his aura flamed and grew darker and hotter as he moved.  No, she couldn't help him.  The violence and pain were too strong in him.  She knew how close she had come to succumbing to the forces of destruction swirling within him.  He was more than just fire.  There was a black vortex there, something she was not sure was entirely human.  She turned away from the thought, cold with fear.  This was something beyond her power and her training.  She knew just enough to know she had touched the edge of something much larger and more dangerous than she had ever dealt with.  She was glad, now, that Snake hadn't been interested in deeper chakra work.  There were things there she could not control, things that should not be opened.  She wanted no contact with them.  She hoped Snake would leave Rivendell soon.  She took a shaky breath, and went for the salt and oils to clear her crystals, thinking that she would need a long soak in the hot baths to feel clean again.

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

Snake remained in a vile mood for the rest of the day, tension clawing at his nerves and his eye lancing at him, the pain catching him off-guard.  Bitch, he thought; Why are the pretty ones all such cunts?  He didn't care, at this point, what it looked like, he wanted a piece of ass.  He'd take that girl, Summer, up on her promise, and she'd better not try to play the same game with him.  I only take that answer once.  He slipped down to the old cabins again, looking them over as a plan formed in his mind.

When he returned that evening to the quarters he and Rain shared and threw himself down on his bed, he landed painfully on the point of the pyramid stuffed, forgotten, into his rear pocket.  He pulled it out and unwrapped the scrap of orange silk to study it more carefully.  Bright-gold hair-thin threads snaked across the inner depths of the stone.  As he watched, they seemed to flicker like lightning across a cloudy sky.  The stone fascinated him, bringing up vague fragments of forgotten dreams, and he sank into contemplation looking into it.  He came back to himself hearing Rain calling his name, asking what was wrong.  "Nothing," he said shortly.

He rewrapped the pyramid and dropped it into his pack.  "Outta balance," he said to the air; "Prickteasing bitch!"  Disgusted, he went to wash the perfumed oil from his skin.

For the next several days, Snake kept an eye on the path to the Lodge, and his patience was finally rewarded one afternoon when he saw Summer making her way down after lunch toward the weaving-house.  Snake caught up with her.  Summer," he said softly, trying not to startle her.  When she turned toward him and broke into a smile, Snake was relieved.  He hoped she wasn't regretting her promise.  He matched his pace to hers as she slowed, and said, "Are you... uh... feeling better?"

"I feel great.  Why?"  She stared at Snake, brow wrinkled, for a moment, then the confusion seemed to clear.  "Oh, that.  Uh... yeah."  Pink colored her cheeks, and she looked down.  "Sorry."  She stopped and looked back up at him.  "I'm O.K. now."

Careful.  Easy.  Don't blow it this time, Snake.  "Good," Snake murmured, "Because... I've been busy.  I've got something to show you."  He smiled at her.  To distract himself from his pain and frustration, he had gone down to the other side of the hill and found a cabin that was in better shape than the rest.  He had strained his meager carpentry skills to the maximum, re-hanging a door and patching the roof, then channeled his thwarted energy into a broom and dustpan, soap and water.  The results had surprised even him, and he felt the place was ready for a private party.  It wasn't the Ritz, but neither was it the backseat of his old Mustang,and it was still his secret.  He hadn't shown it to anyone, yet.

Snake spent the rest of the day with Summer, deliberately slowing his pace and reining in his impatience, encouraging Summer to trust him.  She seemed to glow under his attention, responding eagerly to his somewhat rusty attempts at conversation.  Snake had always been blunt and straightforward with women, and those he had slept with had seldom required much in the way of suave persuasion, but he was determined not to let Summer get away.  All his restless, driving energy was channeled into pursuit and capture of the objective.  She wanted him, too, he could tell, but in a skittish, uncertain fashion that confused him.  The women of Rivendell were confusing and strange, unlike the equally straightforward women he was used to, but he had no doubt Summer would serve his purpose as well as any other woman.  After they ate dinner together, Snake told Summer to wait for him at the Lodge and slipped off quietly to the cabin he shared with Rain to pick up a lantern and the sky rattlesnake blanket.  For luck.

"Where are you off to?" Rain asked.  He was re-tipping his crossbow bolts at the table.

Snake paused at the door.  "I'll be out.  All night, if I'm lucky."

Rain looked up, an expression of mild alarm on his face. "Don't go crashing around in the bushes at night, Snake.  Security'll put an arrow through you."

Snake snorted softly and walked out without answering.  Rain's concern, with its faintly proprietary air, was beginning to get on his nerves.  He met Summer behind the Lodge and, with the lantern shedding a soft light along the rough path, he led her to the top of the hill beyond the Rainbow Circle and started down the other side.   A narrow trail twisted between silvered tree trunks and pools of shadow, down to where moonlight glinted lightly on the surface of the lake and the weathered-gray wood of the old cabins' roofs.  A flickering shimmer showed the spillway where the lake drained out, running down to join the river below Rivendell on its path to the sea.  Mist curled around the edges of the dark water.

Summer drew back and stopped, turning her face up to Snake.  When he put his arm around her, he could feel her shivering slightly under her yellow jacket.  "Snake, we aren't going to the old cabins, are we?  They're full of spiders and snakes."

"I fixed one up.  For you.  Come on, Summer."  Snake tightened his arm around the girl's shoulders and drew her down with him toward the buildings.  He pushed open the door to the cabin he had chosen and ushered Summer over the threshold, pausing a moment for them both to contemplate the results of his hard work.  The interior was swept clean, the walls and floor patched and polished, the double bed he'd found, abandoned in another cabin, made up with clean linen "borrowed" from the washhouse, and the last bottle of his good whiskey set on a rickety table along with two glasses from the Lodge.  Snake hung the lantern from a peg on the wall and, with a flourish, shook out the handmade blanket and laid it atop the bed.   "What do you think?" he asked softly, and before she could answer, drew Summer firmly to him.  He wasn't waiting any longer.           

Summer's breath caught as she came willingly into Snake's arms, pressing herself against him.  He bent his head, claiming her mouth in a long, fierce kiss, and her lips opened under the insistent pressure of his tongue, hesitantly at first, and then more eagerly, following his lead.  He ran his lips down her neck, feeling her heart beating, hard, in the soft hollow of her throat as he ran his hands over her, reaching down to cup her rounded ass in her tight jeans, upward to the curve of her waist and her small breasts, warm under the thin fabric of her T-shirt.  The kiss broke, and Snake pulled the hem of her shirt free.  "Get outta that," he growled softly, releasing her.  Summer nodded, breathless, slipping out of her jeans, jacket, and shirt as Snake pulled off his own shirt, unclipped his gunbelt, and sat down on the bed to unfasten his boots, and remove his tight-fitting pants.  He slid out of his briefs in one quick motion and his cock sprang free, hard and urgently demanding, as he pulled back the covers on the bed.     

Summer looked up from untangling her legs from her jeans and paused, a surprised and disconcerted expression crossing her face.  An amused surge of pride tickled Snake: Nice big one, eh, baby.  She started to step back, but he caught her hand and pulled her insistently to the bed with him, and then his hands were all over her body.  He bent his head and began licking and nipping at her delicate soft breasts, holding himself back with difficulty from entering her at once.  He felt her hand under his hair.  Tension on the thin cord of the eyepatch told him what she was doing, and he caught her hand quickly.  "No," he breathed, "No.  Leave it."  He kissed her again, his body demanding her.  She kept pushing at him, trying to get him on his back, but he resisted her.   

She touched his cock and slid her fingers around it.  Snake moaned deep in his throat and shuddered at her touch.  It's been so long!  He guided her exploring fingers, shivering with the little explosions of pleasure.  Now. NOW!  He thought of her mouth on his cock.  There was no time for that.  He wanted inside her.  He was aflame, wanting her hard now.  He rolled her over, roughly, and slid over her, holding her down with his weight and his hands on her.  She seemed to startle, hesitating.  He pushed her legs open with determined knees and began to slide into her.  "Snake..." she whispered, "Snake!"  He didn't hear her through the blood pounding in his ears as he pushed violently into her.  He threw his head back and began thrusting vigorously into the tight hole between her thighs.

"SNAKE!"  Her voice rose to a scream as she pushed against his shoulders, dug at him with her nails, scratching his back.  He stopped her mouth violently with his own, muffling her as she bucked under him.  Her hand tangled in his hair and pulled, hard.  The sharp pain on his left side roused him, anger and adrenaline surging together into a savage need to take the woman under him.  He grabbed her hand, pinioning it to the bed.  You want it rough, Baby? You got it!  Lust raged in him, his cock hard inside her as he built, violently, toward his explosion.  Her flesh, where he thrust into her, was suddenly wet against him, deliciously slick.  He surrendered to the insistent voice of his own desire, blocking out everything else until he came explosively, shuddering hard, and finally collapsed on top of her body, panting raggedly.

"Stop!  You're hurting me!  Let me up!"  Summer was crying now, the high pitched sobs of a child, as tears rolled down her face.  She pulled herself out from under him, backing away across the bed and gathering the sheets around her as Snake raised himself on his forearms and rolled off of her.  She sat up as Snake moved away from her, bewildered.  "I don't want to do this," she gulped.  "It hurts!"

"Hurts?" Snake floundered. "I thought..." ...thought you wanted it rough.

"It's my first time!" she wailed.  "I didn't know...."

Snake stopped, frozen by her words.  Horrified, he looked down to see the smear of  bright blood along the length of his cock, flecking the dark hair above it: a deflowered virgin's blood.  He had never been anyone's first before, and an almost superstitious fear and distaste filled him.  "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded. "Shit!"  He slammed a fist against the log wall of the cabin.  "Shit!  You fucking lied to me, bitch!"

"Don't you call me that!" she cried angrily.  "I've played around with guys, but I never... I thought... you'd be nice!"

"You sure as hell played around with me!" Snake snarled at her.

Summer sobbed into the gray blanket.  "I o-only wan-ted to see the tat-too...."

Outraged, Snake exploded into fury.  He backhanded her, sending her sprawling on the mattress.  Fucking goddamned cunt!  Wanted to see the television star, the sexy outlaw, the fucking TATTOO!  I'm not real to any of these people.  I'm just a picture on a wanted poster, something from a Police Channel broadcast.

Summer scrabbled backward, pressed against the wall, her eyes wide, her voice rising to a hysterical shriek that Snake finally deciphered as, "You raped me; you raped me!"  

That did it.  Snake whipped a hand around and grabbed her by the hair, pulling her head back hard as she cringed and cowered.  She pushed against his wrists in a useless, ineffectual gesture.  "Listen, you fucking cunt," he grated in a savage whisper, "You fucking lied to me.  Led me on.  Then when you get in over your head, you blame it on me.  Bullshit!  I don't rape women.  What you got, you asked for!"  With a powerful shove, he sent her onto the floor and got to his feet.  "Get your clothes on and get out of here."       

Summer scooted across the floorboards to her clothes and gathered them to her, then huddled there, looking up at Snake, shaking, sobbing, too frozen with shock to put them on.  The terror on her face, her thin young body, her keening wail, snapped Snake into a memory from long ago:

Snow and smoke.  Burnt wood and twisted buildings, fragments of a shattered world, sharp and black against glaring white.  Acrid pall of gas-filled mist in his respirator; cold searing his lungs, numbing his hands and feet.  Novosibirsk.  Black Light Squadron on a search-and-destroy.  The feral, starveling Russian children, doomed survivors, foraging like elusive ghosts in the bombed ruins for a bit of food or firewood.  Most fled from him, but he remembered one bundle of rags with a little girl's face running toward him, holding out her hands wrapped in lumpy cloth, calling in a high, desperate voice, "Amerikanske!  Amerikanske!" Whether it was for food, or safety, or to detonate a grenade in his belly, he never knew.  He remembered the flash of fire as he shot her and she crumpled at his feet, crying in the high-pitched scream of a fatally-wounded child.....

Suddenly, suspicion darkened Snake's face.  "How old are you?"  Summer looked back at him through disheveled hair.  "Hey, hey, hey!" his impatient voice cut through her hysteria.  "How old are you?"

"Twelve," she whispered.

Shock seared cold-hot through him.  "Shit," he breathed, then louder, "SHIT!"  He should have asked; he should have known.  Horror, fury, betrayal clawed at him.  She had done this to him, the lying bitch.  "I ought to frag you, cunt," he snarled, dropping into a sandpaper whisper, "You wouldn't be the first kid I've killed."  He was momentarily gratified by the stark terror in her eyes as she was jolted into silence, her mouth open on an indrawn breath.  Then something in the huddled, childish figure touched a part of him even deeper than the rage.  Snake drew back.  This wasn't Siberia; this wasn't a partisan child.  She was no threat to him.  She was, he grudgingly admitted to himself, an innocent.  In a more controlled tone, he said, "Get your clothes on.  I'm taking you home."       

"I can go by myself," Summer began, quavering.

"No!"

Summer dressed quickly, sniffling to herself.   Snake slid into top and pants, boots and jacket, and strapped on his guns, silently raging.  He wanted to blow the bitch away and drop her in the lake, but he knew he couldn't.  He was going to be in enough shit with the Rivendell group as it was.  If she died, it would be even worse.    How was he going to get out of this one?  He grabbed the bottle from the table and took a long pull off of it.  His head was throbbing again.  Taking another swallow, Snake slammed the bottle back down on the table, grabbed the lantern, and shoved Summer roughly out the door.  They walked back to the clearing by her cabin in silence.  Summer cast occasional glances in his direction, but didn't dare the set rage on Snake's face.  When they stopped outside her door, he grabbed her arm and spun her to face him, glaring at her.  Shut her mouth.  Cover your ass, Plissken, he thought, but the words of explanation, of apology, of justification, of threat, stuck and died in his throat.  He couldn't think what to say.  Finally, he released her and shoved her toward the cabin.     

Shaking with reaction, Summer glared back at him.  "They were all right: you're gassed!  No wonder everyone's scared of you!  Go away!"  Bursting into fresh sobs, she ran into her cabin.  Snake heard a man's voice, muffled, demanding information, then another, higher female voice joining it.  Snake didn't even bother to look back as he stalked away.

Snake retraced his route to the lakeside cabin in long, angry strides, crashing through the brush.  The whack of branches across his arms, his legs, were like cane-cuts beating the reality into him, the pain almost welcome as a brief distraction from the pain inside him.  Yes, it happened.  He threw open the door, slammed it behind him, hung up the lantern, grabbed the whiskey and dropped onto the bed that was still crumpled and smelling of his scent mingled with the girl's.  He drank straight from the bottle, wanting to drown in it.  No wonder everyone's scared of you!  He choked on the whiskey, shotgunning it.  Go AWAY!  Go AWAY! Go AWAY!  Raw pain welled up in him.  All the hurt, the loneliness, the grief for Taylor, his men, his parents, his lost hope, his dead idealism, rolled over him, burying him under a dark wave of memories breaking through the barriers he had set against them.  He felt shattered.  It was more than the sex, more than the girl, more than the searing memory of the dead child in Novosibirsk: you did it again, Plissken, you stupid fucking asshole!  Hadn't he learned: don't trust anyone, don't open himself to anyone?  Don't give them a chance to get into you.  How many times does it take, you stupid fucker?  He lay on the handmade sky rattlesnake blanket and drank, soundlessly screaming his rage at the world and, most of all, at himself.  He was still screaming inside when he blacked out.      

His Gulffire's weathered wings were shuddering and creaking, the fuselage cracking under the strain of over twenty years in flight.  The craft yawed and pitched wildly as Snake fought the stick for control, looking for a place to land.  Alaska, Mexico, San Francisco had refused him clearance.  He could hardly remember how many fields had turned him away already.  His instruments blinked phosphorescent green, indicating a landing strip some miles ahead, and he flew for it.  He was exhausted; it was time to set down.   

"Napa Tower, Delta Tango Foxtrot Four Five Niner, requesting landing clearance, over," Snake said.

"Delta Tango Foxtrot... negative on that; you are not cleared for landing; do you copy?"

"Napa, where am I to land?  Please advise."  

"Delta Tango Foxtrot...  if you try to land, I'll shoot you down!  If you climb out I'll burn you off that wall!  Get moving, Plissken!  Go AWAY!"

Gas-filled rain beat against the canopy of the Gulffire, icing the fragile wings, weighting him down, dragging him toward earth.  The aging glider shuddered.  He had no choice.  He had to set down.   Snake turned in a wide arc and flew on.  His men were gone.  Even his partner, Taylor, had been given landing clearance.  He was the only one left aloft.  Wouldn't he ever find a place to set down?  His instruments  showed a level area large enough to land the Gulffire.  No identification.  No voice answered his request for clearance.  "Fuck it," he snarled to no one in particular, and wearily began his descent.  At last he would stop: stop running, stop flying, stop struggling.  As he committed to landing, he saw that beneath him was a bombed and blackened city.  Updrafts of smoke and cinder from the smoldering ruins tossed and bounced him, pushing him out of control.  He tried for forward momentum to straighten out and gain altitude, but the fuel in the glider's tail jet was gone and even his anger couldn't push the craft upward.  He bounced once as his wheels touched down, and rolled to a stop.  An orange flash, and fire exploded, filling the cockpit. "Get the trucks rollin'.  We're on fire.  Shit.  SHIT!"  Snake ducked and whirled, slapping at the flames, but the entire craft was burning now.  His body went up in flame as his goggle cracked and fire seared his left eye, burning it from the socket.  He felt the eye explode and melt, as his hair caught and blazed and he became one with the fire, a part of it.

Desperately, he thumbed the cockpit hatch release and the canopy slid back.  Around him were broken buildings black against the snow, black against the rainy sky, and scattered at his feet on the runway, the bodies of the men of Black Light, his men, in twisted shapes of death.  He crawled from the cockpit, over the wing of the Gulffire, trying to reach them, and as his burning foot touched down, the tarmac beneath  flamed into fire.  A sheet of fire spread out from him, covering the ground, as his dead men caught one by one, flared briefly, and disappeared.  His burning moved out from the ruined city to cover the world with flame.  The holocaust raged out of control as the one-eyed outlaw lay on the tarmac, unable to move, charred now and guttering into ash.  A Russian child with a rattlesnake blanket thrown around her thin shoulders walked out of the sheet of flame that was the world.  Her hair was red as fire, her eyes blank and empty as burned coals.  She pointed at him and said in a sweet, high, childish sing-song, "You RAPED me, Snake."The name's Plissken."No, it's not," she said; "you did it," and pointed again.  He looked down and saw she was pointing to a bloody wound hacked into his belly.  It was in the shape of a rearing cobra.                   

Snake woke with a strangled shout to find his clothes and hair soaked through with cold sweat.  He rolled to the edge of the bed and vomited miserably onto the floor.  His bad eye stabbed at him, re-igniting the fire in his head, as he sat up, shivering in the damp morning cold.  Where am I?  He looked around the cabin and remembered.  Shit.  The kid's parents and everybody in the fucking Group were probably out with dogs and guns after the brutal child-rapist, Snake Plissken.  "Shit," he spat forcefully, and winced.  He picked up the nearly-empty bottle of whiskey, chugged the remainder, and threw it against the far wall, where it shattered with a sharp sound that pierced his aching brain.  He felt as if he could hear every glass sliver as it fell to the floor.  

Feeling utterly wretched, he stripped naked, climbed to his feet, and staggered outside and down to the lake.  In the gray early-morning light, it was shrouded in thick mist.  The water beneath was gray-green, choked with weeds, moving slowly in waving patterns that set up an uneasy response in his unsettled stomach.  A boulder stretched out into the water.  Steeling himself, Snake walked to the edge, stepped forward, and plunged feet-first into the water.  The force of the drop took him completely under, and icy water closed over his head.  He hit bottom, his bare feet sinking to the ankles in slimy mud filled with sharp fragments, stirring up puffs of greenish debris that swirled around him in the dark water.  Cold hit him like an explosion, paralyzing him momentarily.  With his breath held and eyes shut, he thrashed to the surface and swam for shore.  He touched solid ground and climbed back out, soaked and shivering violently in the November cold, but lucid.  He returned to the cabin, shaking the water and bits of pond-scum from his hair as he went.  It wasn't the Finnish sauna, but the effect was the same.  He was sharp and functional again.  He dried himself sketchily on the bedsheets, dressed, strapped on his guns, grabbed the rattlesnake blanket and wrapped it around himself, then sat down to think.

He could infiltrate the settlement, pick up what he could, and just disappear, but this was unknown terrain.  He had a general knowledge of California geography and basic survival skills, but it would be hard going through featureless woods, in winter, without map, guide, compass, or supplies.  He could stay here and defend himself.  There were no police here, no prisons.  Would they come after him to lynch him?  The cold weight of his Magnums reassured him, and he smiled sourly.  Forty untrained civilians, most unarmed, most non-combatants, couldn't drive him out if he wanted to stay and hold this position.  Either way, he wouldn't explain.  What had happened was between him and the girl, and the only person he had to explain it to was himself.  This fucking Group didn't own enough of him to deserve an explanation.  They didn't own any of him.      

Snake heard a voice, distant and distorted, calling his name.  He sat up abruptly.   For a moment he wondered if it was his imagination, then it sounded again, nearer: Rain's voice.  Quickly, he stood up, checked his guns, and stepped out onto the cabin's porch to scan the area, keeping a wary hand on his Magnums.  Two figures were descending the trail to the lake, a taller one in long brown skirt and shawl, carrying a hiking staff, a shorter one in gray-green jacket and pants.  He recognized Rain and Ray Lee.  Neither one was apparently armed.    


"Snaaaa-aaake!  It's OK... It's me, Rain," the voice came again.  Snake grimaced.  Rain was making damn sure Snake knew who it was before the people approaching came into range of his guns.  Not a good sign, though Snake didn't blame him.  

"I hear ya," he called back.  His head rang with the sound of his own voice.

Snake stood eyeing them silently, his face impassive, as they came up and stopped in front of the porch.  Ray Lee seemed a trifle winded by the climb, but stood as tall and steady as ever.  "We want to talk with you about last night," she said.  "May we come in?"  

Still silent, Snake moved aside and allowed the two to step up to the porch and into the room behind him.  Belatedly, he realized the place wasn't exactly his best advertisement.  The table was overturned, the bed in disarray, pieces of shattered glass from the bottle were everywhere.  The stale air reeked of vomit and whiskey.    Ray Lee hesitated for a moment, then took a seat gingerly on the edge of the tangled bed.  Rain set the table upright and went to join her.  Snake leaned against the wall next to the open door, watching them coldly, his fingertips brushing his holsters, keeping his line of escape open and waiting.    

Ray Lee cleared her throat.  "When Summer Martin came home last night, she told her parents that you raped her.  This morning, I heard her side of the story.  I want to hear your version, Snake."  Her tone was not accusing, but calmly neutral.

Anger, suspicion and hostility glittered in Snake's good eye.  "Why?"

"Because you wouldn't do that!" Rain burst out passionately.  "I told them you wouldn't do that!"  

Several confused, only half understood, only half acknowledged, emotions collided  in Snake's mind, paralyzing him.  So you believe in me, do you, Rain?  Fucking asshole.  Figure you stand up for me and I owe you.  Fuck that!  Don't hang your shit on me.  His whole self revolted against anyone trying to confine him within their expectations.  Shadowy guilt flickered beneath the resentment: I did it.  Yeah, I raped her.  Anger, familiar and heartening, flared immediately, shouting down the guilt: She fucking set me up; she lied to me!

"I wasn't going to let them do this to you without hearing your side!" Rain continued in the same furious tone.

That kicked Snake's ever-present paranoia into high gear.  "Do what?" he grated.    

"This is preliminary to a full Meeting on the matter," Ray Lee said calmly.  She folded her hands in her lap and studied Snake without expression, clearly reserving judgment.

"I don't give a fuck about your Meeting," Snake spat, as automatic defenses snapped defiantly into place.  Let them think what they want.  Doesn't mean shit to me.  Every instinct in him screamed to brazen it out.  No explanations.  He heard the rasp of Rain's breath, turned his glance in that direction, and the look of desolation on the young man's face hit Snake, in spite of himself, like the icy lake water closing over him again.  There was something in that look that destroyed his defenses as no direct attack could.  He looked away from the other two and ran a hand through his wet hair.  In a low voice he said, "She came on to me and I took her up on it."                                        

Ray Lee nodded.  "Summer told me she only wanted to see a mark, a tattoo, you have.  I understand why that made you angry.  Summer realizes now that what she did to you was wrong, and she was partly at fault.  She violated the principle we try to teach our young people here about not objectifying others."  The older woman sighed softly.  "Snake, we don't have an 'age of consent' here.  We feel everyone has a right to control his own body.  Our young people begin sexual activity when they feel they are ready, and go at their own pace.  We will not make anyone, even a child, the property of another person.  But giving people freedom means they have the chance make mistakes.  Summer didn't know exactly what she was doing.  That was her mistake, and she admits it."

"She's twelve, goddamn it!" Snake rasped.  He thought of the pitiful painted children he had seen on the streets of New Vegas.  She didn't look twelve, he thought to himself, resenting the thought and the need to think it.    

"Somebody could have told him!" Rain burst out.  Snake smiled wryly to himself.  No excuses.  Plissken, you asshole, you could have asked.  But I wanted a piece of tail, and she came on to me.  

"Yes."  Ray Lee frowned, ignoring Rain's outburst.  "It's a problem.  Pollutants, chemicals, gas in the air: we don't know what it is, but young people are growing up earlier and earlier.  Girls reaching puberty at nine or ten.  Unfortunately, mental development doesn't keep pace with the physical."  There was understanding in her face, neither sympathetic nor condemning.  "Snake, I'm a generation older than you are; it's even harder for me.  You're a stranger here, and you don't know us the way we know each other.  You reacted the way any man might in the same situation, and the fact that you walked Summer home shows you didn't intend to harm her.  But you did hit her and frighten her, and you did have sex with her.  That was wrong, and that is your responsibility.  You are an adult."  You should have known better.  You should have had more self-control was unspoken but clear in Ray Lee's words.   

"I'm getting the fuck out of here."

"No."  Rain and Ray Lee chorused.  The older woman continued, "I blame myself, as well.  I should have taken Summer aside and told her to be more careful.  I should have told you she was young and inexperienced.  Snake, we're not going to make you the villain.  We're all of us involved in this.  We should put this before Meeting, explain what happened, and settle the matter."      

"Fuck that.  I'm gettin' out of here," Snake repeated.  The idea of having this experience rehashed in front of the population of Rivendell and letting them judge him had all the appeal of a month's vacation, unarmed, in the sewers of New York Max.  "Rain, I'll get my shit from your cabin."    

"Snake, no...."   There was a desperate note in the younger man's voice.  "Ray Lee...."

The woman's voice cut across Rain's, effortlessly silencing him.  "Snake, our Group functions on the basis of voluntary compliance with certain rules agreed upon by the entire community.  Any disputes or problems are settled by the Meeting, and everyone agrees to abide by its decision.  We will not hold anyone here against his will.  If you set yourself outside the Group, we cannot, and will not, punish you or judge you.  Or judge for you against anyone who has injured you.  We will revoke the Sanctuary you asked for, and received, when you first arrived.  If you refuse to go before the Meeting, you will be outside our help and protection."

"Good."  Snake's tone was cold and satisfied.

"Snake...." Rain began.

Ray Lee cut him off again firmly.  "Rain, it's his choice."  She turned back to Snake.  "If you want to stay here in the old cabins until spring, we won't drive you out.   And, since you're leaving unexpectedly, we'll provide you with some basic supplies..."   Snake stirred in protest.  Ray Lee held up a restraining hand and continued before he could interrupt.  "...as a gift.  You will need them.  After that, you're on your own... Mr. Plissken."

Rain shifted in his seat, opened his mouth, and closed it again as both of the others turned uncompromising looks in his direction.

"Good," Snake said again, with finality.  "Just stay away from me, all of you."  His fingers shifted on his guns in unspoken but unmistakable threat.  Standing in a room full of silent evidence of his destructive anger, with  lank, wet hair stinking of pond-scum, slept-in clothing, and grim, unshaven face, he looked every inch the dangerous, violent psychopath of the Police Channel broadcasts.

Ray Lee returned his stare with the unruffled determination that had faced down generations of Rivendell's enemies.  "Very well.  We will leave you strictly alone.  I won't even mention our conversation today.  I hope this place will be healing for you, Snake Plissken.  You have more wounds than are apparent on the surface.  Come on, Rain."  She rose, picked up her staff, and walked out.  Snake heard the sound of her footsteps going across the porch and down the step.

Rain started to follow her, but hesitated just outside the door, looking back at Snake.  "Snake, I'll get your things and bring them over here.  But I really wish you'd come back with us."

Snake dropped his voice, even though Ray Lee was already some distance down the trail.  "Rain, don't tell anybody over there I'm still here.  Tell 'em I left."   He paused.  "Fuck it.  I'll go as soon as I get my shit."    

"Where?"

Snake eyed Rain for a moment, debating whether to respond, and then said grudgingly, "North.  Canada."                                

"In winter?  On foot?  Snake, the roads won't even be cleared any more.  You can't go north until spring.  That's insane!"

Snake gave a bitter little snort of laughter.  "Who said I'm fucking sane?"  After a moment of thought, he added, "I'll stay 'til spring.  But don't tell anybody I'm here."

"O.K.  If that's what you want."  Rain radiated worry and unhappiness.  "Snake, if there's anything you need...."

"Go!"  Snake's voice was a low snarl.

Rain went.  Snake watched suspiciously until he and Ray Lee had gone over the top of the hill and were out of sight, then he turned and went back inside the cabin.

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

Even at a discouraged trudge, Rain soon caught up with Ray Lee.   She smiled ruefully at the expression on his face and said, "Well, unfortunately, Snake Plissken seems to be living up to his legend."

"He looks awful," Rain said.  "I'm worried about him.  I wish I could do something."

"He looks angry.  Furious, in fact; and that's understandable.   He feels he's been set up, betrayed, and unjustly accused of a horrible crime.  And I suspect he's feeling guilty and defensive as well."  She stopped and turned to face him.  

"It just isn't fair!" Rain said through clenched teeth.  

"Fair?" Ray Lee said.  "He raped Summer.  He broke his word to us.  I don't believe he meant to do it, but he should never have allowed the situation to get to that point.  I think we're being quite fair to Mr. Plissken."

"He said she led him on."

"Rain, Summer is twelve.  Snake is a grown man.  That's not an excuse."  Ray Lee regarded Rain gravely until he dropped his eyes.  Her face softened with affection for the young man across the path from her.  "He can take care of himself, you know.  He's survived everything the USPF could throw at him for more than twenty years.  That takes formidable intelligence and extraordinary anger.  And considerable luck."  Her expression sobered again.  "To shift the entire world onto a new course... that takes a remarkable man."    

Rain nodded unhappily.  "What can we do?"

"Support his decision: provide what he needs, as a start, and leave him completely alone afterward.  Don't underestimate his strength, Rain, and don't make him into a martyr.  He'll be all right."  She set off again down the trail, and Rain followed her.

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

His head pounding, Snake retrieved the towels he had taken from the communal bathhouse from the spot where he had shoved them out of sight, and moved around the cabin, mopping up liquids and collecting broken shards of glass, making the beginnings of long-range plans.  If he was going to live here, he had to get the place weather-tight and fixed up.  Defensible, too.  After what the old woman had said, he doubted anyone from the settlement would come after him, but he didn't want to be an easy target.  Shutters for the windows and bolt-locks on the thick wooden door should take care of it, unless they tried to burn him out.  He doubted they would.  The work would take his mind off the pain.

There were fish hooks in his boot knife handle and he still had plenty of ammo.  The woods were full of game; there were ducks on the lake; Rain had showed him the trails near the orchard where the deer came down for the windfall apples.  He could rig up a smokehouse in one of storage sheds.  There was the stone barbecue pit at the lake edge, a fireplace and some old pans in what had been the mess hall, where he could boil the lake water to purify it.  Piece of cake.  Time to revive his Special Forces survival training.  Snake finished cleaning up the worst of the mess and took the towels outside.  He stood in the afternoon winter sunlight and looked out at the green hollow of forest that held him like a cupped hand, open but secure.  He took a long, slow breath of the clean and silent air, and a lopsided smile twisted his mouth.

                                                              

                                                      CHAPTER SIX

Rain brought Snake's belongings over the hill and left them where Snake could find them at the edge of the clearing by the lake.  Snake disappeared.  Rain suspected he slipped in sometimes, long after everyone in the settlement had gone to bed, to use the hot-water baths.  On nights Rain was on watch, he occasionally saw a dark Plissken-shaped figure moving like a shadow through the settlement, and afterward some useful supplies would turn up missing from the storage areas near the Lodge.  Rain knew he should challenge the intruder, but he could not bring himself to do it.  Occasionally, Rain heard the crack of gunfire in the distance, and now and then he found a snare, which he carefully disabled, set in the bushes.  He knew Snake was subsistence hunting.   He's gone feral, Rain thought.     

What Happened At The Lake, as it came to be known, was a topic of conversation in the settlement for a month, and then was replaced by newer gossip.  Summer's friends giggled and whispered behind her back for a while, and then seemed to forget the matter, while the adults sympathized with her and told her to see it as a learning experience.  When her period came, right on schedule, she was relieved but, secretly, just a trifle disappointed: carrying the outlaw's child appealed to her sense of the dramatic.  It was agreed she would foster out as soon as possible.    

In the months that followed, Rain found himself thinking of Snake frequently, even as he settled back into the routine of life at Rivendell.  His casual encounters with the young men he occasionally slept with were pleasant but strangely unsatisfying, and he found himself fantasizing that his partner was the auburn-haired, unshaven outlaw.  His best friend, and frequent bed-partner, Lynx, learned to recognize, by Rain's familiar distracted expression, when Rain had Snake on his mind.                                                             

"Forget about him, Rain," Lynx commented impatiently.  They lay next to each other on the two single beds pushed together, near the woodstove's crackling, flickering warmth, in Rain's cabin, after a lazy evening of sex.  "You told me he was straight, and he treated you like shit.  You're obsessing.  It's not healthy."    

"I don't know what it is.  I really don't.  It's just -- the whole thing seems so stupid."   Rain sighed and propped his head up on one elbow.  "I hope he's O.K."

"Aren't you getting enough?  I'm doin' my best."  Lynx's tone was teasing, but there was a bite to it underneath the surface lightness.  He ran a hand gently down Rain's back and cupped his ass.  "You want some more?"

Rain returned Lynx's kiss and they began exploring each other again.  As he moved into the rhythms of sex, Rain wondered: it felt so good ...why wasn't he content?  His body responded to the man whose arms were around him, but his mind kept returning to the shadowy figure in the night.  When Lynx rolled over and fell asleep, Rain lay beside him for a while, musing.  He was tired, but not sleepy.  At last he got up and walked over to the window, pulled back the shutters, and stared out into the blackness in the direction of the lake.  Faint light from the woodstove's fire behind him made the blank square a misty mirror reflecting dim images of himself, the cabin, and the indistinct shape of the man sharing his bed.  Rain's mind wandered into fantasy.

"Rain," Snake's voice came from behind him.  Rain turned to see Snake standing by the bed, looking at him.  "C'mere," he said in a soft, predatory tone, like a tiger purring.  Rain waited a minute, letting the energy build between them as he ran his glance up and down Snake, naked in the firelight, savoring the image: the sweep of Snake's broad, defined chest and rounded biceps, the flat belly, and the beautiful cock already half-hard between corded, muscular thighs.  The cobra curved across Snake's belly and down his thick rod to where the wide black band of the tail circled the head.  It was an image as dangerous and deadly as the man who wore it.  Warm chiaroscuro made the compact, athletic body a figure of shadows and bronzed highlights.  "Come on, come on," Snake said, rougher now, more urgent, commanding.  Rain crossed to Snake and pressed himself against the other man as Snake wrapped an arm around him.  He slid a callused hand up under Rain's hair and grabbed hold, pulling Rain's head back until Rain's mouth met Snake's in a passionate kiss.  Sandpaper stubble rasped Rain's chin as Snake's tongue thrust into him like a promise of things to come, and Rain tasted the bitter flavor of tobacco and scotch.

Snake's strong arms were still around him, holding him tight, as Rain moved his own arms up the hard, smooth curve of Snake's back.  He clung to Snake, dissolving into the power of Snake's body and Snake's will.  Snake's mouth moved to Rain's throat, nipping down to the hollow where Rain's heart beat, as Snake lowered Rain, with effortless strength of bunched muscles, to the bed's surface.  He followed him, holding Rain down with the weight of his body.  Snake shifted, sucking Rain's nipple in, rolling it between lips and tongue, then nipping lightly.  The twinge of pain roused Rain farther.  He twisted, and Snake released the nub of sensitive flesh, shifting to the other one, flicking it lightly with his tongue, then sucking it, too, into his mouth, biting down painfully.  Rain writhed and groaned, feeling the sensation through his whole body.  The solid muscles of Snake's shoulders were warm under Rain's clenched hands, Snake's long, thick hair a silky weight against the backs of them, and Snake was all around him, an irresistible force.     

Snake let go and laughed softly.  He rolled over on his back and pulled Rain after him, then shoved Rain's head downward.  "Do me," he rasped, his voice low and intense.    'Get me hard for you, baby,' Rain heard in his mind, but even in fantasy could not imagine Snake saying it.  He slipped down eagerly between Snake's thighs, breathing in the warm, rich scent of Snake's body, feeling himself growing hard at the sight of Snake's impressive erection.  The heavy shaft jutted up strongly out of a tangle of wiry auburn hair, and a drop of pre-cum oozed from the slit to glisten on the wide mushroom head.  Below were round, full balls.  Rain leaned down and slid his lips over the wonderful cock he wanted so badly.    

Snake's strong hand reached down and twisted painfully in Rain's hair, holding his head at the angle Snake wanted, pushing his mouth down on Snake's shaft, as Rain savored the sweet, mingled flavors of male flesh, clean sweat, and pre-cum.  His eager tongue found the slit, teasing it open, tasting the faint salty flavor, then swirled round and round the satin head.  Rain opened his mouth wider and slid down all the way, taking the entire length of Snake's manhood into the back of his throat.  His tongue caressed the shaft as he moved up and down, up and down, licking and tasting.  With his other hand, Rain reached down and lifted Snake's heavy round balls on his palm, rolling them lightly in his hand, feeling the soft warm suede of them.  He stroked the little hollow behind them with his fingers as his tongue stroked the sensitive underside of  Snake's cock down to the base.  Snake was fully erect now, unyielding satin and steel.

Snake's hand  in his hair pulled Rain's head up, pulled Rain's mouth off that beautiful cock.  "Now, baby," Snake said, and Rain rolled over on his back, raising his knees as Snake prepared to take him.  In the dim firelight, Rain could see Snake's rough, fierce face, intent, unsmiling, dark with stubble; see the black slash of patch, the hot, feral glitter of desire in the other bright blue eye.  There was nothing in that face of gentleness or tenderness even in love-making, only determination, strength, and passion.  Rain yearned toward him, wanting to feel Snake inside him.  Impatient fingers slick with lubricant shoved into Rain's asshole and started working it open.  Rain moved into Snake's hand, wanting it, feeling his tight hole loosen and welcome the invasion, stretching to take Snake's fingers to the knuckle. He hooked his knees over Snake's shoulders as Snake dug iron fingers into Rain's ass-cheeks and dragged him peremptorily into position.  Snake shifted one hand to his cock, positioned himself, and drove himself into Rain's ass.  Sudden pain became ecstasy as Snake began thrusting in deep, long, hard strokes, putting his entire weight behind them.  Rain heard the rasp of Snake's breathing as Snake pushed into him, slamming against Rain's ass-cheeks.  Rain braced himself, arching to meet each thrust, taking Snake into him until Rain felt that the other man was at his very core.  His breath caught in his throat, and his whole body felt flooded with liquid light as his hand moved on his own cock, and he exploded into orgasm.

Snake collapsed on top of him, gasping, and Rain felt the final throbbing of Snake's cock inside him before Snake pulled out and rolled over on his back beside Rain.  The older man gave a low, rasping growl of satisfaction deep in his throat, and exhaled in a long sigh.  He smiled at Rain, holding the young man's glance with his own for a long moment, then turned over and pulled his blanket up over his own shoulders.  When he could tell by Snake's even breathing that the other man was asleep, Rain turned toward him and raised himself on one elbow.  Looking down into Snake's face, as he had in the house on their journey, Rain reached out and lightly laid the tips of his fingers against Snake's cheek.  The outlaw stirred but did not wake.  Rain bent down and brushed his lips, feather-light, against Snake's mouth in a kiss.  The words he wanted to say, the pledge he wanted to give, sank into silence unspoken.                   

                                             

Rain turned away from the window and moved on silent feet back across the room.  He stood for a moment looking down at the lightly snoring figure of the man sharing his bed.  No, he thought; all wrong: the hair too light, the body too tall and slender, the face too young and unmarked.  Then his perspective shifted and he sighed softly.  Lynx was a good friend, a good lover.  He was sweet and generous, fun to be with, and he cared about Rain.  Why wasn't that enough?  Rain sighed again, slipped under the covers, taking care not to wake Lynx, and lay down to sleep, contemplating the winter of his discontent.       

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

        

Early January, Newhall Pass, California      

Rance Farris had found the trail.  He learned from the Blackbellies at Firebase Seven that Plissken had been sighted, traveling north, immediately after the helicopter crash.  They filled him in on the Sword of Damocles Network, the President's last broadcast, and the destruction Plissken had wrought when he pushed the button on the weapons prototype.  The USPF was swamped with the aftermath, fighting the invasion from Los Angeles, trying to re-organize without computers, motorized transport, or even telephones.  They were happy to enlist bounty-hunters to chase the criminal that had brought civilization to its knees.  They gave Ferris what they could spare: a couple of horses, some supplies, and a handful of gold coins.  "Bring him back, dead or alive.  There won't be any questions," Malloy said.  "You'll earn the gratitude of every decent American."

Malloy gave him a list of suspected criminal elements who might possibly try to help the fugitive escape justice, and Farris followed up on the leads.  He came up dry until he checked out the country estate of a rich businessman believed to have mob connections, some twenty miles north of the USPF base.  For a price, Farris learned from one of the stable-hands that the wounded Plissken had been there about two months previously, and had spent some time recuperating there before leaving, a month and a half ago, with a second person.  The stable-hand had heard something about a group 'up north', but was vague on the details, and guessed that the two had headed for Canada.

It had been twenty-one years, but Farris would finally get the man who had stolen everything that should have been his.  If it hadn't been for S.D. "war hero" Plissken, Lieutenant Farris would have led the mission to Leningrad.  The decorations and honors that "Snake" had thrown away would have been his.  Instead, he'd been cashiered, and Plissken had led Black Light Squadron, his squadron, to their doom. It was all Plissken's fault.  Vengeance was slow, Rance Farris thought, but it would be his.  It was what he lived for, all he had left.  He set out northward, riding up the coast road, heading for Santa Barbara.  He would find Snake Plissken.  He was sure of that.

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

As time passed, Snake stopped counting days, weeks, or even hours.  He rose with the sun, checked his traps, did whatever needed doing, then slept.  For hours at a time, he simply existed in the unthinking patience of a wintering animal.  The solitude of the redwood forest soothed and healed nerves scraped raw by too much human contact.  His nightmares diminished, and he slept more easily.  Sometimes, after nightfall, he would climb the hill separating his cabin from the settlement, and sit in the darkness watching the last human stragglers heading home to bed, or listening to the sounds of music and laughter from the gatherings at the Lodge.  He observed, uninvolved, and at the first sign of being noticed in return, he slipped back into the trees.  Often, he saw Rain walking to and from the Lodge in the company of a taller, lighter-haired man, and once he saw them kiss in the light from the Lodge's windows.  As winter deepened, Snake was constantly cold, a feeling as much internal as external, but he grew used to it, and, finally, indifferent.

One night, as he watched, he noticed an unusual amount of activity in the settlement below.  The Lodge blazed with lights for hours longer than usual.  Everyone in Rivendell seemed to be bustling back and forth, carrying things, laughing and exchanging greetings in noisy, excited voices in the central square.  Snake puzzled over it for some time, until a memory from the world he had abandoned came back to him and he recognized the ritual.  It must be Christmas, he thought.  He slipped away, back to his silent cabin, wanting to put as much distance as possible between himself and the unwelcome commotion.      

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

Below, in the Lodge, the Year End celebration was winding down as Rain and the rest of the clean-up crew finished washing the dishes and putting away the leftovers.   "That was a beautiful sweater Paul and Jennie gave you, " Tina was saying as she separated out food scraps for the animals.  "It looks really warm."      

"It is," Rain said, looking over at his little pile of Year-End presents with the bulky moss-colored garment of mohair from the commune's goats folded on top.  "Jennie knitted it.  My old one is just about worn out."  He smiled, thinking fondly of the older couple, who reminded him of his grandparents back in Humboldt, and continued, "That was some dinner!  This has been a wonderful Year Ending."  He and Oak, one of Rain's fellow Security, started turning the large extra tables on their sides and folding them to go into the storage room, while Lynx put chairs back into position.  Rain looked around at the warm, lighted hall filled with hand-made decorations and evergreen branches twined with holly and ivy.  The remains of the big Yule-log still crackled in the fireplace, sending out spicy pine scent to mingle with the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sage.  This wasn't quite like the celebrations of his Humboldt childhood.  He missed the songs and customs his parents and his Group had taught him, growing up, but the laughter and camaraderie of Rivendell filled him with a new sense of home and belonging.   

He finished storing the tables and stepped outside the Lodge's front door for a moment of quiet.  The clear, cold winter air was like crystal, the stars bright in the sky, and he breathed in deeply, savoring the silence as counterpoint to the cheerful chatter from inside.  In the midst of his own happiness, his mind turned to the solitary outsider in the dark cabins by the lake, and he wondered what Snake was doing for Year End.  He suddenly realized that Snake probably didn't even know what day it was.  He remembered the silent, secret figure he had occasionally glimpsed slipping like a shadow, lightless, through the night.  Somehow, darkness and Year End were incompatible, contradictory, impossible.  Rain's heart wrenched at the thought.                    

He went back inside.  "Tina, do you have some of that casserole left?  And the yams?"

"Don't tell me you're still hungry," Tina laughed.

"No, it's for... for later.  Could I have some of the cookies?"

"Sure.  Take whatever you want, Rain. There's plenty left over."  

Rain packed up some of all the festive dishes, then gathered decorations and greenery, and stashed the collection out of sight in the storage-room.   When everyone had finally said good night and scattered to their homes, Rain went back down to the darkened Lodge.  He took a table and set it up outside the door, spreading it with a cloth, scattering it with pine branches, and arranging the food neatly in the center.  He added several fat beeswax candles from his own store and a jug of lantern-fuel, and set his new Gerber blade in its belt sheath next to the plate.  On impulse, folded the gift sweater and set it beside the pile.  He thought of leaving a note, but discarded the idea; Snake would know who the things were for.  Rain was sure the outlaw would also know who had left them for him.

Most of Rivendell slept late the next morning, tired out by the excitement of the celebration.  Rain spent a restless night tossing and brooding, and, in the early gray light of pre-dawn, slipped out of his cabin to return to the spot where he had left his table of gifts.  The food and the rest of the presents were untouched, but in the dirt beside the path were the unmistakable prints of Snake's boots.  Rain stood staring at them.  He was so lost in thought that he jumped when he heard a cheerful voice from behind him.

"What's up?"

Rain whirled.  "Oak!"  He exhaled sharply.  "Don't do that!"

"Do what?"

"Sneak up on me like that."  

The other young man raised his eyebrows.  Rain was not usually the sort of person it was easy to sneak up on.  Oak shifted his crossbow to the other shoulder of his camo jacket, further disarranging his untidy brown hair, and jerked his head toward the table.  "What's all that stuff for?  Do you know?"                                    

Rain hesitated, then answered reluctantly, "I... uh... I left it for Snake."  Oak had mentioned glimpsing the shadowy figure of the outlaw occasionally during Security rounds.  "He came by.  See the prints?  But he didn't take any of it."

Oak grinned.  "For Snake?"   In an affected Old Prospector imitation he rasped, "Waah, they'll nevvah ketch Ole One Eye.  He's slicker'n the Currumpaw Wolf.  Trap-wise an' pizen shy.  Bin roamin' these here hills sence...."

"That's not funny!" Rain snapped.   He started picking up the items on the table and putting them into a box he had brought with him from his cabin.  

"Oh, come on, Rain," Oak said.  "He's an antisocial jerk.  He steals stuff from the Lodge.  He's fucking gas-violent!  After what he did to Summer..."

"Nobody got his side of that," Rain said angrily.  "Snake was...."  An inner warning sounded and Rain trailed off.   He knew Snake would not want him discussing what he had heard on his visit with Ray Lee to Snake's cabin, or making what Snake would consider, Rain suspected, excuses for his behavior.  He let it drop.  

"Hey, I know you've got the serious hots for Snake.  Everybody knows it.  But you're making him into this big fantasy thing.  Give it up, dude.  He's not really like that."  Oak paused, looking into Rain's scowling face, shifted from one muddy boot to the other, and blurted out, "Look you've got a good thing going with Lynx.  He's a nice guy.  Don't blow it."   

Rain silently finished packing up everything he had brought and moving the table back inside the Lodge, as Oak watched.  When he was done, he said shortly, "O.K., Oak, it's all out of your way, so forget it."  He picked up the box and walked away, back toward his cabin.   Oak shrugged and headed off in the opposite direction to continue his patrol.     

Rain's steps slowed gradually as he started the climb.  Finally, he came to a complete stop and stood, holding the box, looking across the valley toward the green ridge of forest that hid the lake from his view.  He wrestled with himself for a while, then came to a decision.  Nobody should be alone and without friends at Year End.  He turned back and headed for the trail to the old cabins.  The sun crept over the top of the surrounding mountains and sent long shadows down the path in front of him.  

Some time later, Rain crested the hill and stood for a moment looking down at the blue lake cupped in the dark-green tangle of evergreen and eucalyptus.  Most of the area looked untouched, but the space around Snake's cabin had been cleared of brush, the roof repaired, the door and windows straightened and solidly fitted into their frames.  A heavy bar-lock, made from a tree-branch, was propped next to the cabin door.  The lakeside barbecue pit had been cleared of leaves and debris, and there were new ashes in it.  The root cellar and one of the old storage sheds showed similar signs of renovation.  Snake seemed to be settling in and making some kind of a home for himself here, Rain thought.  He set off down the hill in a slightly more cheerful mood, calling Snake's name loudly in warning of his approach.  As he stepped up onto the cabin's porch, he noticed that the formerly sagging and rotted railing had been replaced by new wood solidly nailed in place.  So that was where the missing axe and hammer and the box of nails from the storage room had gone.   "Snake?"  He knocked firmly on the cabin door.  "It's me, Rain."  

After several repeated calls from Rain, there were muffled sounds from inside, the cabin door slowly moved, and Snake appeared in the opening.   He stared silently at Rain for long minutes and at last, in a voice low and rusty from long disuse, said grudgingly, "Yeah?"  

"It's Year Ending.  We had a big party.  I thought you might like some..." Rain paused, "...some of the food."  Rain stood studying the man in the doorway.  Snake was thinner, his hair longer, uncut but carefully combed, and as thick and wavy as ever.  His beard was dark and full, and the good eye still as suspicious, as startlingly blue and intense, as Rain remembered.  Rain shifted the box in his hands.  "Can I come in?"     

Snake stepped back and silently allowed Rain to enter, then positioned himself leaning against the wall.  The inside of the cabin was neat and clean, the bare plank floor swept, the bed made, the few items in the room organized with the orderliness of a military barracks.  The Magnums still hung, pointedly, next to Snake's bed, within easy reach.   Rain set his box on the table and, after a second's hesitation, sat down on the bed's gray blanket covering.  "I should have come up here sooner," he began uncertainly.  The unwelcoming expression on Snake's face gave the lie to Rain's words even as he said them.  "Snake, I'm sorry.  I've...."  

"Don't."

"Don't what?  Come up here, apologize, or bring food?"  Rain tried a smile.

Snake's silence lengthened uncomfortably.   Rain looked away again, around the room, avoiding the other man's impassive stare, trying to give him space.  Snake's jacket hung to one side of a built-in storage area, and on the shelves next to the clothes-bar were Snake's meager supplies.  Among them, Rain recognized items looted from the settlement: coffee, salt, a few bottles and cans, some dried vegetables, a plastic jug of drinking water.  Rivendell's missing tools hung in an improvised rack on the wall.  In one corner, neatly cut snares were stacked beside the assault rifle Snake had bought from DMZ.  On the table by the bed sat a crystal pyramid.  It looked strangely out of place in the utilitarian setting.

"If there's anything you need, I can bring it over for you, Snake."  Rain wished the older man would say something.  Snake seemed to be waiting, listening, for something.  Rain wondered what it was.  He tried again: "Are you going to stay here from now on?"

"'Til spring."

"Where are you headed, then?"

Snake did not answer.  Rain thought back to the last time he had been here.  "If you're going north to Canada, you'll need supplies and provisions, and information.  Ray Lee has maps for the trails the blackbellies don't know about.  The Drinking Gourd Trail is the one we use.  Let us know before you leave, and we'll give you directions."    

"Who's 'we'?  Who knows I'm still here?"

"Nobody except me and Ray Lee.  Everybody else thinks you're gone."  With reluctant honestly, Rain amended, "Well, some of the Security people know you're still around somewhere, but nobody wants to go looking for you."

"Good."  Snake's voice was low and husky, intimidating.

"Here."  Rain reached into the box he had brought and took out a big chunk of lasagna, corn pudding, and some honey gingerbread.  "I thought this stuff would make a nice change from..." he looked at the snares and away again "...from what you've been having."  At sight of the set and unresponsive face opposite him, he faltered.  "At least take the sweater and the knife."        

I refuse to owe you anything Rain read in Snake's closed face.  "Leave me alone," he said, soft but deadly serious, "All of you."     

Rain reluctantly got to his feet, leaving the items on the table.  "O.K., I'm going.  No obligation, Snake; this is just extra stuff I found when I cleaned out my closet."  He paused, feeling that he was going to burst if he didn't give vent to some part of what was in his heart.  At last, he said rapidly, "I won't run out on you, Snake.  Take it or leave it.  It's my promise to myself."        

Snake shrugged.  "Your choice," he said.  He crossed to the door, opened it, and stood looking at Rain.  

Rain left quickly.  As he hiked back the same weary way he had come, he felt frustrated and sad.  He had hoped the gesture might let Snake know he wasn't totally alone.  Instead, Snake had driven him away.  If Snake wanted to be left alone, Rain thought, he would not intrude on him again.  He said goodbye, rather wistfully, to his warm hand-knitted sweater and his new knife.           

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

As the short days lengthened toward spring, Snake felt himself growing into the forest, finding a place in its wordless and innocent cycle of life and death, where concepts like "war hero."criminal,"psychopath," and even "Snake Plissken" no longer had any meaning or power.  He explored the area he had claimed as his own around the lake valley until he was familiar with every inch of it, and polished the foraging and hunting skills he remembered from distant Special Forces survival training.  After some experimentation, he mastered the technique of smoking the extra meat.  Even though someone from the settlement was determinedly destroying his carefully-set snares whenever Snake did not hide them well enough, Snake found he had no trouble harvesting enough game to eat well in the mild California winter.  He killed quickly and cleanly, taking no joy in it.  His war was with mankind, not the animals.  He made occasional forays into the settlement for necessary supplies, moving even more cautiously now that he knew he had been seen, and taking only small amounts of any one thing, trying to avoid a recognizable pattern.  Nobody intruded on his solitude, and Snake stopped listening for voices from the settlement.  Occasionally his thoughts turned, briefly, to Rain, the only one from the world of humanity who still haunted him, and the puzzle of the young man's strange, uninvited promise.  More and more, Snake avoided the community below and, instead of watching them, would climb to the top of the hill and spend long hours simply sitting, drinking in the forest around him, and looking northward, ever northward, toward Canada and freedom.

In the silent, self-sufficient round of unmarked days and nights, Snake healed and hardened.  His hair and beard grew thick and full.  Long hikes exploring the valley, running trap lines, hunting, hauling wood and water, keeping up the cabin and storage sheds, burned away whatever excess flesh his body had ever carried and honed him to pure muscle.  His leg wound became a scar, and even his headaches diminished as the tension behind them receded.  Deprived of cigarettes and alcohol, his senses of taste and smell grew keener and his lungs cleared and strengthened.  His good eye's vision sharpened, accustoming to wilderness distances and natural dark and light.  He slept deeply for long hours, getting fully rested, and, on a diet of wholesome food and clean water, he regained a state of fitness he had hardly known even as a young Special Forces lieutenant.  He would be forty-seven years old in the spring, and he had never felt stronger.

Snake learned to recognize the plants and animals around him, although he often had no name for them, and see the ways they interacted with and sustained each other.  They, in turn, seemed to accept him as one of themselves, part of the pattern.  Rain's long-ago words began to make a certain amount of sense to Snake.  One bright, crisp morning, as Snake was out checking his sets, a flash of color and movement caught his peripheral vision.  He looked up to see the mountain lion he had heard about, but never seen, jumping up onto the horizontal branch of a dead tree some distance from him.  The rising sun glowed on her tawny fur as she stalked down the branch.  The big cat, eight feet of sinuous strength in her full prime, stretched out and began tearing at what she had been carrying in her jaws.  Tufts of gray-brown fur floated down, and Snake realized it was a rabbit.  As he stood motionless, she raised her head and gazed at him with the amber eyes, alert and curious but untroubled, of an innocent killer.  Snake saw her, beautiful and perfect, in one clear moment of understanding and fellowship.  She licked the rabbit's blood from her paws, then rose and stretched on the snag branch, sharpening her claws on the wood.  With a last glance at the human a handful of yards distant, she leapt to the ground and trotted away.  Later that day, Snake found the snare she had raided, but he didn't begrudge her the rabbit.  They were both just predators trying to survive.   

                           

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

Early February.  Monterey:  

Farris's trip up the California coast had been slow and unrewarding.  He asked at each town he passed, but there was no word of the one-eyed outlaw or his traveling companion.  He began to wonder if Plissken had given him the slip again, but in the confusion following the breakdown of civilization, news was spotty and unreliable, and the roads were full of nameless, desperate refugees.  The man could be anywhere.  Farris decided to stop in San Francisco to replenish his supplies and try again to pick up the trail.  If Snake was going to make contact with confederates in the underworld, it would probably be there.  The City was full of malcontents and criminals.   

His need for revenge fueled Farris's resolve like a slow-burning, subterranean peat-fire.  Once, he had envied Lieutenant S.D. "Snake" Plissken, back before Leningrad, when Snake still had both eyes.  Farris had tried to copy and outdo the war hero, tried to insinuate himself into Snake's circle of admirers, even had a similar tattoo done.  People had commented on how much alike they looked, and Farris had traded on that, first as a joke and then in all seriousness.  Farris was taller and had gray eyes, but with the tattoo, he found he could pass as Plissken well enough.  Now, after all these years of hard living, tracking his prey across the country, always a step behind and a little too late, he was as timeworn and weather-beaten as the man he followed, and all but indistinguishable from him.  Dark hair, worn nearly shoulder length, and unshaven stubble completed the effect, except for the missing eyepatch.  Farris still had two good eyes.  Ex-lieutenant Ransom Farris, formerly of Lt. Plissken's Company, was one of the unit's only two remaining survivors, bound to that identity by his hatred and his purpose.  When he finally killed his former commanding officer, Farris would become all that was left of Black Light.  Now, that was all that mattered to him.         

Farris began his search for a certain weapons dealer whose name one of his contacts in Los Angeles had given him.  If Snake had been looking for ammunition in San Francisco, Farris would soon know about it.

               

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

Shortly after Snake saw the mountain lion, the northern California rainy season arrived in earnest.  Water poured down day after day from a leaden sky onto sodden ground.  The creek flooded, every hollow became a mud-bottomed pit-trap, and every incline turned into a rivulet.  On the days it did not actually rain, the air was thick with fog and drizzle.  Snake retreated to his cabin as much as possible, but even there he could not escape the bone-chilling damp that filmed the unheated wooden walls.  He clothes and bedding never seemed to dry out.  Stoically, he endured.      

In the endless hours spent listening to the downpour on his roof, Snake searched for things to occupy him and take his mind off his fear of gas in the water.  He cleaned and repaired every piece of  equipment, took apart and reassembled his guns several times, braided snares, worked on the interior of the cabin, and at last ran out of projects.  In his boredom, Snake's mind turned to the crystal pyramid he had set down on his table and all but forgotten until now.  He spent long periods of time holding it, looking into the strange, clear shape where golden threads twisted like lines of fire.  Often he found that his mind had gone blank, and time he did not remember had passed before he came back to reality, stiff and chilled, with an odd sense of disorientation.  Still the pyramid fascinated him.

He stared into it:       

He stood on a wide, featureless basalt plain slicked with rainwater, looking out over a world burned down to clean rock.  Black walls of night formed a triangular space around him and rose to a peak far above his head.  No sound, no motion, marred the perfect stillness.  No life smeared its stain and stink of decay, like a slug's glistening trail, across the pure dark surface.  He breathed in the thin, cold, untainted air.  He was one with it, at peace, empty of pain and struggle.  His fire had gone out.  Below his feet, the rock shifted and a crack appeared like a burning line.  It widened, opening as he stepped back to avoid falling into the growing gap.  Below, a red lake of lava moved and swirled.  He felt the life in it, eager and malevolent and powerful, straining toward him.  He screamed and backed away.  Fire surged upward from the crack.  The edge of it touched his foot, and he burst into flame.  The fire burned like a flaming Phoenix.  Its white-hot talons sank into him as it leaped  into the black air, carrying him with it.  Sheets of incandescence, like great wings, beat around him, bearing him upward.  He knew if he was carried to the peak above him, he would burn utterly to ash and be no more.  Fear shot through him, and he writhed in the fire-being's grip.  As he struggled, fear turned to anger.  His rage flared up, scorching the being clutching him with his own stronger, hotter fire.  It released him, and he fell like a blazing comet, burning brightly toward the distant world.  

Snake came to himself abruptly, feeling the sky rattlesnake blanket solid and clammy under him once again.  The dream drifted away from him like smoke even as he tried to grasp it, and all that was left was vague images of fire and the memory of the anger.  With a cold shock of fear, Snake realized he had not been asleep.  Hastily, he put the crystal pyramid he was holding back down on the table and pushed it away.  Hallucination, gas-craziness his mind screamed at him.  He had seen too much madness.  He brought up vivid images of the shuffling, filthy crazies crawling out of the subways of New York Max, coming after him, hunting him for meat.  His stomach lurched.  He thought of the mountain lion ripping the rabbit to pieces, and his fear sharpened.  He had seen himself in her, seen their similarities.  ...just another predator, trying to survive.... .  No! he thought; he would not sink down into that.  His self was all he still had.  If he lost the driving will that made him who he was, Snake would be dead, even if some mindless, shambling hulk still wandered through these woods.  Wind gusted, driving loud pattering drops against cabin window, and Snake flinched.  The fucking gas was everywhere, in the water, in the air.  There was no escape from it, not even here.  He could escape people, but he could not escape the world.  If he stayed here, he would go gas-crazy, and never even know it.  To save himself, he had to get out.  If he stopped running, stopped fighting, lost the anger that fueled him and kept him sane, he would die.  Snake would be destroyed and become one more burnt-out cinder between the teeth of an indifferent world.  A nagging inner voice questioned: am I still sane?  Impatiently, Snake dismissed the question.  Fuck it; if I can still ask, it doesn't matter.    

Snake looked around the cabin.  Suddenly, it was too small, too closed in.  The rain beat down heavily on the roof and the dank air pressed in on him, smothering him. Before, he had slept away the torpid, wet days; now he refused to surrender to any of it any longer.  Rage, deep and real, blazed up in him, and an inner voice snarled: Plissken, you goddamn asshole, you're not going to let them do this to you!     

Snake glared down at the zigzag lightning pattern on the gray blanket under him, remembering the fierce anger that had driven him here to this place outside human society.  All the various "thems" of his past rose up in his mind and he revisited them, gathering his issues around him, fueling the flames.  Black Light Squadron:  The government had sacrificed his men uselessly for a lie.  A scrap of memory chanted in the back of his mind, "Forty-nine will not rest 'til the fiftieth dies!"  He thought of his house, burned out, his parents, dead and buried in a single pauper's grave; thought of the medals they had given him to shut him up, that he had thrown back in their faces.  He thought of Taylor, gunned down in the hummer station like a fucking stray dog.  Snake began pacing the confines of the room, ricocheting from anger, to loss, to grief, to paranoia and back to anger.  He was alive again.                       

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

Farris found the arms dealer whose name he had been given in the South of Market slums.  He bought ammunition and an old Tokarev pistol from the thin, scarred man.  "It's all I got.  Cleaned out.  Nobody's got anything these days.  Best you're gonna do in the City," the man said.

Farris paid him what he asked, then threw down a few extra coins on the scratched glass countertop.  "You seen Snake Plissken?" he asked. 

"I ain't seen him, but I heard he went through here two, three months ago, on a bicycle.  Blackbellies chased him all the way down Market."  The man shrugged.  "I never heard nothin' more, so he must've got away."

Farris's letter of introduction from Malloy gained him the cooperation of the San Francisco USPF.  They told him there had indeed been a sighting and a pursuit, but the criminal had eluded capture.  Plissken had been seen last heading for the ferry building.  The city-wide dragnet hadn't picked him up.  He had been alone, they said, and heading north.  They named an astronomical sum that had been posted as reward for Plissken's capture, and promised Farris any assistance they could offer.    "We really want that son of a bitch Plissken," the desk sergeant said.  "Bring him in and you can name your price.  Alive, if you can do it; we've got plans for him.  But we'll take him any way we can get him."    

Farris got a USPF escort through the Oakland war zone and headed north.  The trail was warm at last.   

As soon as Farris had left, the weapons dealer took the money he had made on his sale and headed for DMZ.  For what the out-of-towner had paid, the merchant could buy some good stuff from Josh and peddle it down in Daly City, outside DMZ territory.   He made his way across Market to the fortified Victorian enclave at the Mint, and rang the bell.  "Hey, Raff!" Josh greeted him genially when he had been ushered into the DMZ office, "What can we do for you today?"

After the deal had been negotiated to both parties' satisfaction, Josh and Raff settled back to share some of Josh's high-grade contraband cigarettes and exchange City gossip.  There was never any way of knowing what useful information might come out of stray tidbits dropped in casual conversation.  "So, anything, like, interesting going on down in your neck of the woods?" Josh asked.       

"Been pretty quiet lately.  Got a man comin' through this morning, though, askin' after that one-eyed guy, Plissken.  Unloaded that old Tokarev on him, as a matter of fact.  Man, I thought I was never goin' to get rid of that piece of crap!  Got three hundred for it, too."  Raff chuckled in satisfaction at the way he had suckered the rube.

"A blackbelly?"

"Nah, I don't think so.  Looked like a bounty hunter to me."

"He should've turned you in for ripping him off like that," Josh grinned ironically.  "Genuine entrepreneurial spirit, Raff.  Bill Gates would've been proud."     

"You and your big words, Shaw," Raff grumbled.  "Them and ten dollars'll get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks."

Josh managed to keep a light tone in his voice and a smile on his face as he exchanged idle chit-chat for a few minutes more and finally bade Raff goodbye.   The moment the weapons dealer was out the door, Josh went to find Wolf.    They had to get someone up to Napa to warn Snake, as fast as possible.

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

Snake made his decision: he was leaving as soon as the weather broke, going north to Canada.  He organized and checked his weapons, equipment, and change of clothing, discarding everything that wouldn't fit into his backpack, and began building up supplies of smoked meat for the trip.  He was glad to be active, planning and working toward a goal again.     

Canada was as close to a home as Snake still had.  Taylor's people lived in a small village just across the border in Ontario, and the pair had often hid out there when things got too hot for them in the United States.  Snake was not a wanted man in Canada.  He had no quarrel with the Canadian government, and he had been careful not to violate any local laws.  The Canadian government had never agreed with the United States' ideological shift to the right, and turned a blind eye to the stream of  political exiles and expatriates traveling back and forth from one country to the other.  Many of them were U.S. fugitives from the USPF, seeking temporary refuge or a base for revolutionary activity against the U.S. government.  For many Canadians, memories of the Vietnam era were still vivid, and attitudes on both sides of the border, familiar.  Snake knew he had a safe hideout in Canada, if he could reach it.  

On the first day when the deluge let up temporarily, Snake slogged along the muddy path over the hill and down to the Lodge in Rivendell, looking for Ray Lee.   He found her studying a diagram of the settlement's fields, trying to decide on a proposed planting schedule to present to the next Meeting.  At the sound of booted footsteps on the Lodge's wooden floor, Ray Lee looked up from her drafting tablet to see a bearded, long-haired figure striding purposefully toward her.  It took her a second or two to identify this vigorous-looking man as the same Snake Plissken she had last seen at the old cabins by the lake.  She quelled a momentary twinge of alarm, composed her features in a familiar, carefully cultivated, expression of calm neutrality, and waited.  Let him make the first move, she thought.  He was no longer one of theirs, and she need offer him no more than common courtesy. 

"I'm leaving.  I need maps for the trails north, and supplies.  I'll pay, gold."                                                           

Ray Lee swallowed annoyance at Snake's brusque tone.  The man was as abrupt and overbearing and overwhelmingly macho as she remembered.  This was the kind of patriarchal male, she thought to herself, that Rivendell had been created to eliminate.  She had been willing to overlook Snake's attitude when he first arrived, in gratitude for the healing gift he had given Mother Gaia, but the events since had strained her forbearance.   She would be happy to see him go.  In fact, she would be happy to do anything she could to get rid of him.  

"Very well... Mr. Plissken," she said gravely.  Snake did not correct her.  Ray Lee reached into a drawer of her desk and took out a page photocopied from an old atlas.  As Snake watched from the chair next to her, she spent some time outlining two routes on the map with a fine-line yellow overliner.  When she finished, she looked up.  "I will ask you not to let this fall into the wrong hands.  If you are captured by the USPF, destroy it.  You understand there are people's lives at stake."

Snake nodded sharply.

"All right," Ray Lee continued.  "There are two routes north we use.  One is the Drinking Gourd Trail.  That one runs through rough, unmarked, uninhabited terrain, mostly forest, all the way up into Canada."  She outlined the winding line on the paper with her forefinger.  "The other way is much easier, following the old interstate,  but it does pass through a number of towns, and it's a lot less safe.   We've had people picked up on it.  I would imagine, though, that the USPF surveillance is less effective now."  She smiled briefly, and Snake echoed it with his little breathless snort.  "If you're traveling without an experienced guide, I would advise you to take the inland highway.  You'll go through Calistoga and Clearlake, and, just past there, take the right-hand road, here."  She indicated it on the map.  "Then follow this route."  She finished tracing it on the map with her finger, then pushed the piece of paper over in front of Snake.  

Snake stood up, folded the map, and put it in the zippered pocket of his jacket, then reached into a compartment on his gunbelt and tossed three heavy gold coins on the tabletop in front of Ray Lee.  "O.K.  We're even."        

Ray Lee considered refusing the gold.  What was a new hope for the earth worth, balanced against some stolen supplies and a map to safety for one man?  But she could tell from the determined expression on the outlaw's face that the payment was as much symbolic as anything else for Plissken.  He was buying his way free of any obligation to them.  Well, she thought, that can work both ways.  Unsmiling, she picked up the coins and dropped them into her belt-pouch, returning his challenging look levelly.  She deliberately did not thank him.  "This is worth more than what you stole from us," she said, her voice intentionally matter-of-fact but uncompromising.  "We can make up the rest with supplies for your journey."   

When they had settled on the items Snake wanted to make up the difference, he picked up the cardboard box Ray Lee had packed with them and turned to leave.   She looked at him expectantly.  He ignored her and started toward the door.

"Mr. Plissken."  When Snake did not respond, she repeated, firmly, "Mr. Plissken!"   He turned to look at her.  His face was a hard, unyielding mask that conceded nothing.  "Will you be telling Rain yourself that you are leaving, or shall I let him know?"

Snake eyed her coldly.  "No."

"You're not going to say goodbye to him...."   There was absolutely no expression in Ray Lee's voice, not even an inflection.  Snake turned and walked out of the Lodge without answering.

Ray Lee stood looking after him, turning over in her mind what had just happened, and came to a decision.  Snake's response, or rather, lack of it, to her final question gave her the answer she needed, and stilled her doubts about what she had determined to do.  She felt a rush of relief: they were rid of Plissken at last.  He had been a source of trouble and discord in Rivendell since the first acrimonious Meeting had agreed, unwisely, to grant him Sanctuary.  That was partly her fault.  Yet what else could they have done then, except offer Sanctuary to the man who had shut down the Machine?  Now, by Plissken's own choice, that debt was paid and they were free, with, she was sure, the blessing of Mother Gaia.  Ray Lee bent her head in a brief wordless thanksgiving to Her.

She could understand Plissken's appeal to the young ones like Summer and Rain.  She had felt something of it herself at her first meeting with the legendary outlaw.  He had a charisma that drew people to him, like the dark and dangerous gravity field of a black hole.  For a spirited young man like Rain, chafing under the dull routine of the familiar, it would be all but irresistible.  She could remember so well the same adventurous spirit in her own life partner, when the two of them were young.  That restless spirit had taken her from her family and her old life, and sent her and her partner, with a handful of other restless young people, to San Francisco, and then, when the Scene turned ugly in the Haight, to Rivendell.

But she wasn't a girl any more, and she would not make the same mistake with Rain that she had made with Summer.  She felt fierce protectiveness well up in her.  They were all her children, here at Rivendell, and she would not let Snake Plissken hurt or destroy any more of  them.  Rain was young and inexperienced, and not ready yet to know his own mind.  If she told him Plissken had left, he might want to follow him.    She had seen, just now, how selfish and unloving, how utterly insensitive, Plissken was, and how little he cared for Rain or Rain's welfare.  She had a duty to protect Rain from himself, until he was old enough to understand that Plissken would mean nothing but heartbreak for him, and he, too, was well rid of the destructive outlaw.  It would be best for everyone if she did not tell Rain that Snake Plissken was leaving Rivendell.  It was for his own good, and someday Rain would understand.

She wished the words didn't sound so hollow, even to herself.       

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

                                                     

Snake thought about saying goodbye to Rain, and discarded the idea almost at once.   Rain was the asshole who had suckered him into coming here in the first place, trying to turn him into a hired gun for this flock of fucking gas-crazy sheep.  Snake never wanted to have anything to do with any part of Rivendell again.

He spent the rest of the day preparing for the journey.  He tossed the crystal pyramid into the pile of things he was leaving behind, but every time he passed, his eye was drawn back to it.  Finally he picked it up and studied it for a moment.  It was small, no more than three inches across at the base, and not heavy.  It wouldn't take up much room in his pack.  It seemed to have some significance, some connection with him, he felt, but couldn't identity.  That's bullshit, he thought to himself, but what the hell.  He wasn't going to leave it behind for the bitch who had cockteased him to get it back.  He tossed the pyramid into a corner of the large metal-frame hiking backpack he would be carrying.  The sky rattlesnake blanket went in on top of it.  No sense in throwing away a light, warm blanket that would be useful on the trail, Snake's practical mind insisted.  Everything he was not taking, he buried in the woods or burned, clearing the cabin of any sign that he had ever lived there.  He didn't plan on leaving anything behind that might provide a potential pursuer with any clues on how to track him.    

As soon as it was light, Snake shouldered his pack and headed out through the foggy drizzle, swinging along with purpose and determination, glad to be moving again.  As he passed the settlement and headed up the cow-path toward the highway, he caught sight of a shadowy figure muffled in a waterproof poncho, all but hidden among the trees, watching him out of sight.  Rivendell "Security," Snake thought.      

He ignored it and went on.  When he reached the settlement's garage at the edge of the paved road, he spent a few minutes studying possible ways of entering, and finally decided on the simplest.  Stepping back a few paces, he sighted with his Magnum and blew off the lock.  An hour later, he had retrieved his bicycle, packed as much of the freeze-dried rations on the shelves as would fit, lashed his backpack to the trailer, and pedaled off down the road.  Having the swivel-mounted gun on the handlebars in front of him again put Snake into a mood that could almost be described as cheerful.                                      

The road was fairly easy in his fit and rested state, and he rode along at a comfortable pace, taking his time.  The drizzle lifted, becoming no more than dark clouds and a light wind.  He slept that night in the woods, and the next morning, stopped briefly in Calistoga to buy matches and the few miscellaneous items he still needed to complete his supplies.  The only store still open in the nearly deserted town, an old Seven-Eleven, was full of half-empty shelves and seemed to be hanging by a thread.     

"I'm going to cut my losses and close the store, soon as my stock runs out," the storekeeper commented as he accepted the handful of metal change his taciturn customer offered, after refusing one of Snake's remaining bluebacks.  "Move in with my son-in-law, on the ranch.  At least me and the wife'll eat.  You're the first customer I've had in three days."  He nodded toward the bicycle and trailer Snake had pulled into the center aisle.  "Nice bike.  Looks like you're packed to travel.  Where ya headed, buddy?"  Snake didn't reply as he unzipped one of the compartments and stowed the items he had bought in his backpack.  "Hope you're not heading north," the chatty clerk continued with a sort of gloomy enthusiasm.  "I hear it's bad up there.  Lot of people froze during the cold spell in Oregon and Washington State, and it's even worse in Canada.  Bodies piling up everywhere, and no way to get rid of them.  He laughed shortly.  "If they ever catch that guy that shut down the power in the middle of winter, they're gonna string him up for sure."          

"Where'd you hear that?" Snake asked, keeping his voice casual.

"People from there, passing through.  Everybody that can get out is heading south.   Reminds me of the refugees during the war.  It was a bad winter, and they didn't have any time to get ready for it before everything got knocked out by those satellite things.  No heat, no fuel, no way to ship in food, no way to get word out asking for help.  Not that it woulda done them any good; there wasn't any way to help.  No trucks, no planes.  I hear the death toll was in the millions in Canada."     

He reached down under the counter by the register and produced a large poster with an old picture of Snake on it.  "WANTED" it screamed in large hand-blocked type.  "By the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: S. D. Plissken, alias "Snake," for the destruction of world civilization.  Fifteen Million New Canadian Dollars Alive Or Dead."

"Fella brought this in couple of weeks ago," the shopkeeper said.  "Wanted me to put it with the old one, but I didn't get to it yet."  He jerked a thumb, and Snake noticed for the first time among the dusty clutter on a back wall, tacked on a bulletin board layered with old flyers and 3x5 cards, one of his old USPF wanted posters.  "'Cept for the beard, you look kinda like th' guy," the clerk said, examining Snake with a considering expression.  "Bet everybody tells you that, huh?  Must be the patch."  He laughed.  "Better not let the Mounties get their mitts on you.  Be kinda hard to prove you're not him, what with all the computers down."

Snake stared at the image.  A younger, fuller faced, less weather-beaten Snake Plissken stared defiantly back at him from the piece of paper.   "I'll remember that,"  he said ironically.    

The poster haunted him as he pedaled on northward.  Towards the late afternoon, he slowed and finally halted, thinking about making camp for the night.   He'd been moving on inertia all day, Snake realized.  There wasn't any point in going on in the direction he was headed.  The unthinkable had happened, something he had never included in his plans: his safe bolt-hole had been slammed tight shut.  Snake Plissken was as wanted, as hated, as hunted, in Canada as he was in the United States.  Worse, he thought morosely, the Mounties were far more dangerous and efficient than the buffoons and crazies of the USPF.  Snake came to a low stone wall along the side of the road, dismounted, and sat down to think.  If not north, where?   Return to Rivendell commune was impossible.  He had no place there any longer.  He had no place anywhere, no plan, no haven.  He was completely out of options.

With half an ear, Snake heard the sound of hoofbeats heading in his direction down the paved road.  In his dreary state of mind, it took a minute for his usual paranoia to kick in.  The tempo of the hoofbeats increased, shifting into a canter, and Snake looked up in sudden alarm.  When he saw what was bearing down on him, Snake leapt to his feet, grabbing for his gun.  The opportunity was lost before it cleared the holster.

"Wouldn't do that, if I were you..." growled the rider as he reigned his horse to a stop, drawing a bead on Snake with an assault rifle.  Snake froze, assessing the situation.  "Drop the gunbelt, nice and slow, and back up."  Raging inwardly, Snake did so.  A gloating note entered the rider's voice.  "Well, 'Snake,' you and I are going back to Los Angeles...."    

Snake stared hard at the man.  The voice hadn't changed.  "Rance Farris," he rasped.  Shit.

"That's right, 'war hero,' the man covering Snake drawled.  "Rance Farris, who should've got those medals you threw away.  Who could have saved Black Light, if you hadn't pulled rank on that last mission."  The voice turned hard.  "Down on your face, put your arms out in front of you.  Do it slow."  Snake stretched out on the ground.  A second later, the butt of Farris's rifle connected with Snake's head on Snake's blind side, stunning him briefly.  Snake returned to consciousness a moment later to find his hands cuffed behind his back and his face shoved into the dirt by the force of the blow.  "Don't move," Farris's voice came again from behind him, "Don't even breathe hard.  You're slowing down, 'Snake,'"  Farris added mockingly.  "I couldn't have done that twenty years ago."         

He couldn't have done it now, if you hadn't been sitting there on your dick like a fucking lame-ass, shit-for-brains idiot, Plissken, Snake thought to himself.  He shifted his head to one side, spitting out mud, trying to ignore his rising apprehension and concentrate on forming a plan of action.       

Farris had wrapped a length of rope around Snake's wrists, knotted it, and snugged the other end around the pommel of his Western saddle.  He backed the chestnut horse a few steps, pulling the rope tight and wrenching Snake's shoulders painfully.  Snake tried to squirm toward the horse to ease the strain on his arms.  A bullet smacked into the ground beside him, and he lay still again.

"You're worth a lot of money to me, and I plan to collect it.  You're the President's pet project, you know that?" Farris said.  "He wants you alive, as a trophy - wants to drag you around the country, show you off, see just how many games his crazies can play with you before you die, and take photos of your execution.  Should be quite a show.  Maybe they'll pickle your corpse and take it on the road as a traveling exhibit: Snake Plissken, Public Enemy Number One, the greatest mass murderer of all time."

Mass murderer.  The words slid into him, through him, like the beam of a laser, painless at first but deadly.  Snake ignored it and concentrated on the moment of now, bracing himself, keeping his full attention focused on anticipating Farris's next move.

Farris's mouth twisted into a cold smile as he eyed his prisoner.  "I've got a few plans for you myself, first, before I let the USPF have fun with you.  I've been looking forward to this for a long time."  Farris approached Snake's prone body, stopping just far enough away to be out of range of Snake's kick.  "No MPs, no stockade, no court martial, no pulling rank this time... Lieutenant Plissken.  Just you and me.  Not such a smart-ass now, are you?"  Farris's booted foot lashed out, catching Snake in the ribs, and Snake curled forward in pain.  "Maybe I should just drag you back to Los Angeles."

"Little hard on the horse," Snake wheezed, trying to breathe.   

Farris brought his quirt down hard on Snake's ribs, twice, and kicked him again, moving back out of reach just in time as Snake swept his legs around to try to catch Farris's feet in a scissors grip.  Snake lunged after Farris, flopping on his back like a landed fish, then gave up when he saw it was impossible.  "Go on, Farris," Snake grunted between gasps.  "Fuck me up good enough, asshole, and you'll have to carry me back to L.A."  He managed an ironic sneer through the pain.  "You always were a stupid son of a bitch."   

"Shut up!" Farris backed off and stood glaring at Snake.  Snake could tell he was furious, but the logic of Snake's comment had evidently penetrated whatever passed for Farris's brain.  Good.  If he could keep Farris from beating him to a pulp in a fit of pique, Snake thought, maybe he could figure out a way to get loose and get out of here.

"You're gonna walk every inch of the way back to L.A., 'Snake'.  Play nice, or that'll be crawl."  Farris tugged sharply on the rope.  "Now get up."

Snake stumbled to his feet as Farris watched, covering him with the rifle, then the bounty hunter prodded Snake into a walk ahead of him.  Farris found a spot where they were hidden from the sight of any passing traffic behind a stand of trees and set up camp for the night.  He cuffed Snake's hands securely behind him around the trunk of a small tree, and went back to wheel Snake's bicycle out of sight as well.  "You and me, we got a lot of stuff to talk about, eh, Lieutenant?" Farris said as he moved about, building a fire and tethering his horse.  "We're going to make up for lost time, old buddy!  I've been after your ass ever since I got loose from the Service, and you know what?  Now I've got you, I'm gonna make every minute count.  You're gonna pay for what you did to Black Light.  What you did to me."  He opened his rations and sat down next to the fire to eat.  He didn't offer any to Snake.   

Snake twisted his hands behind the tree, trying to feel out possible weaknesses.  He caught Farris looking at him and stopped, returning Farris's stare with cool contempt.  Farris scowled.  "Forget it.  You're stayin' right there until morning, unless you can pick that tree up and walk off with it.  Wanna try it?  Always used to think you could walk on water, didn't you, 'Snake'?  Acted like your shit came in baggies."  He laughed shortly.  "I don't think so.  You're stuck, fucker.  This time I'm giving the orders."  Farris opened his bedroll and slid into it.   "Sleep tight, 'Snake'."    

For a while, Snake struggled, fighting the cuffs, then accepted the inevitable and stood still, conserving his energy.  For now, he was, as Farris had observed, stuck.    Snake slid himself down to the base of the tree and took up as comfortable a position as he could manage to wait for morning.  He shoved aside the prickling agony in his shoulders and bound hands, the sharp pain in his side, the pounding in his head behind his bad eye, and tried to think.  There had to be some way to push Farris into losing it, making a mistake, and giving him an opening.

He thought back to when he had known the man.  Lt. Ransom Farris had been a wet-behind-the-ears shavetail, just out of the OCS wartime crash-course with a shiny new commission.  After the heavy losses in the Russian campaign, the Army was taking just about anything, even the marginal crazies like Farris.  The newcomer had resented S.D. Plissken, the war hero and involuntary media star, from the moment he was assigned to the Company where Snake was senior lieutenant, and had tried to beat Snake at everything Snake did.  When he found out about Snake's tattoo, he had even had one done to imitate it.  Snake snorted mentally at the memory.  Typical of the ball-less wonder, Chickenshit Farris had puppied out when it counted.  Farris's tattoo was a rearing cobra, all right, and above the waist it looked just like Snake's.  But the tail ended on the lower belly.          

Farris had taken to letting hero-worshipping civilians and men from other units mistake him for Snake when Farris went off-base, and Snake had often ended up taking the blame for Farris's public fuck-ups.  Shortly before the Leningrad Ruse, Farris had been picked up by the MPs for killing a civilian in a drunken fight in a Helsinki whorehouse.  The Army brass had tried hard to hush it up, but it had gone public.  Farris had been scrubbed from the mission, and eventually cashiered.  When Black Light hadn't come back, Farris had blamed Snake.

Snake remembered Farris throwing it in his face, when Farris had come to see him in the hospital at Helsinki, bitter and accusing.  Farris claimed he should have led the mission; claimed the brass had told him it was his.  Said that if he'd been in command instead of Snake, he would have achieved the objective and gotten his men out safely.  In Farris's mind, Snake had stolen what rightfully belonged to him.  Ransom Farris, not S.D. Plissken, should have been the war hero.     

Occasionally, Snake wondered what would have happened if Farris had taken his place.  The Leningrad Ruse had been a suicide mission, intended purely as a diversion.  No doubt the men of his unit would still have died, but the blame, the medals, the searing shame and anger, would have been Farris's.  Snake would have died in the blood-soaked Russian snow with the rest of Black Light.  There were  unwary moments when the memory blindsided him, and he longed to join his men in that cold peace, but the burning core of rage in him would not let him surrender until he had gained justice for his dead.

Justice.  The word fell into an empty place inside him and woke ironic echoes.  Snake twisted in the cuffs, trying to ease the pain in his shoulders that would not let him rest.  Greatest mass murderer of all time.... .   Farris's words came back to him, and he thought of the shopkeeper and the poster in Calistoga: wanted for the destruction of world civilization.  This time he could not take refuge in the iron moment.  The cold, clear-eyed, self-accusing realist in him, the one who hated bullshit, faced it squarely.  "He did it... he shut down the Earth!" Utopia's voice quavered in remembered darkness.     

How many innocent deaths, Plissken?   It had been so easy.   He remembered the wall of fire from the crashed helicopter, the USPF circling his hologram image, Malloy gabbling at him, "For God's sake, Snake, don't do it!"  He remembered the slight pressure on the remote, a humming more felt than heard, and then silence and blackness as the lights cut out and the engines died, everywhere.  Snake felt his soul icing like the wings of his Gulffire.  Images rose in his mind of pilots fighting suddenly unresponsive controls, their instrumentation useless, as their planes plunged earthward.  How many aircraft had been in flight when he pushed the button?  How many passengers had died in the impact?  He pictured autos and trucks crashing as electronic brakes failed, subway trains thrown from the track, hummer-cars crumpled against underground concrete walls.  Those who had died instantly had been the lucky ones.  He thought of hospitals, babies in incubators, people on life support, surgeons in the midst of operating; thought of workers trapped in buildings with electronic doors and no windows, thought of people crushed by the heavy machinery they were operating when the power failed suddenly.  He saw the shopkeeper's face again, and remembered the man's story of refugees coming down from the north, fleeing the second wave of death from starvation and cold.  Megadeath, gigadeath: dry military terms for the unthinkable came back to him from his training; wave upon wave of death: the image crashed over him and he felt himself drowning under it.  He had stopped both armies and disappeared, temporarily, but he had not considered the rest, the millions of innocents who had died, who would die.  Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot: his toll had passed theirs already, with more to come, unintended civilian casualties in his war.  Reality wavered at the impossible image.  "What d'ya have to say, Plissken?"  the memory of an arrogant, accusing voice asked in his head.       

There was no answer.  He should have known there would not be.  Snake never answered questions.

Anger rose in him, driving out accusation.  The Sword of Damocles was a government prototype weapon, no different than any other weapon.  The President's engineers  had designed it, and the President had intended to use it.  Cuervo Jones had stolen it and had intended to use it.  Whoever had managed to grab hold of the fucking thing would have used it, eventually, just like the atom bomb or the gas.  It was just the luck of the draw that Plissken's finger had pushed the button first.   

He had no intention of letting the fucking murdering USPF assholes with the blood of Black Light, of his own dead - their own dead -- on their hands, call him on this one.  In his mind, he faced his accusers: you have no right to try me; I refuse to recognize the authority of this court.  Only Snake Plissken had any authority he recognized to judge, convict and punish Snake Plissken.  The verdict on his life was already rendered, long ago: "I thought you were dead." "I am."  He shoved everything down into the inner core guarded by his rage.  Chewing on himself like this, now, was a luxury he couldn't afford.  Focus on the moment, the next sixty seconds.  Justice would come, if at all, later, and it would be his justice, not theirs.  

Exhausted, Plissken settled himself for the night as best he could, crouched with the rough bark of the tree behind him scraping his back raw, and stared into the darkness, watching time pass.

 

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

Rain woke abruptly, some time past midnight, to the sound of someone pounding on his cabin door.  He pulled a T-shirt over his head and padded over on bare feet to answer the knocking.  "What?"   

He opened his door to see Linden dancing impatiently on his stoop.  "Rain," she cried, "You have to come to the Lodge, quick!  Somebody's after Snake!"

Rain threw on his pants and boots, and bolted for the Lodge.  When he got there, he found Ray Lee, looking sleepy and tousled, with her long hair down around her shoulders and an old bathrobe belted over her nightgown.  With her was a disheveled man in sweaty, travel-stained clothes.  It was Michael from DMZ.  

"I got here as fast as I could.  I was held up at the bridge, and I got lost on the trail in," Michael panted.  "A bounty hunter came through San Francisco six days ago, looking for Snake Plissken.  If he's here, he's in danger!"   

"He's safe," Rain said. "He's living in the old cabins over by the lake."

Ray Lee shook her head.  "No.  He left here about three days ago, going north."  At the sight of Rain's stricken face, she added, "Rain, I'm sorry."  

Linden's fist flew to her mouth and her eyes widened.  "Oh my god!  I saw him that morning."  A sheepish look crossed her face.  "I didn't report it.  I... I didn't want to get Snake in trouble.  He never takes much, just a couple of candles or something...."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Rain demanded.

"He... asked me not to," Ray Lee said.  Her voice sounded tightly controlled.

"Was he on a bicycle?" Michael asked,

"He was on foot when I saw him," Linden put in.

Rain spared Linden an annoyed look.  "Maybe he took the bicycle we left at the garage on his way out," he said.  His mouth set in a determined line.  "We have to find Snake and warn him.  I'm going."

"I'll go with you, Rain," Michael said.

Rain took in the rumpled, exhausted figure.  "No, you're tired out, and you don't know the way as well as I do.  I'll be faster by myself.  I'll find him."  He turned and started toward the door to the Lodge,   

"Rain."  Rain stopped, halted by the familiar quiet authority in Ray Lee's voice.  He looked back at her, his face hurt and angry under his impatient fear for Snake.   "I'm sorry, Rain," Ray Lee repeated.  Her voice was calm and even, but Rain could hear the pain in it.  "I was wrong not to tell you."  She considered for a long moment, then said slowly, reluctantly,  "Plissken told me he considered he had paid his debt to us, but we can never pay ours to him, for what he has done for the Earth.  I was wrong about that, too.  Rain, if he will come back here...."

She got no farther before Rain burst out furiously, "He'll never come back here!  Not after the way all of you treated him.  And I'm not coming back either!"   

There was a look of sad resignation in Ray Lee's eyes.  "I understand," she said.  "Go on.  I won't try to hold you here."  She raised her hand in a formal gesture, her face solemn.  "Gaia bless and guard you, Rain, and guide you on your path.  May you find everything you seek."       

Rain plunged out the door, with Linden right behind him, before Ray Lee had even finished.  Linden hurriedly saddled Rain's black mare, while Rain threw some supplies into a saddlebag and grabbed his weapons, crossbow and bolts.  When Rain came back from his cabin, Linden was already mounted on her gray gelding, her own bow on her back.  The horse sidestepped nervously and tossed his head as Rain came running up.  "I'm going with you," Linden said firmly.

Rain hesitated a second, then nodded.  "O.K.," he said.  He fastened his saddlebag on the mare's back, took the rains from Linden's hand, and vaulted into the saddle.  "Let's go, then."  The two of them took off at a canter down the path out of Rivendell .

Ray Lee was still standing on the front step of the Lodge when Rain and Linden came flying by, mud spattering from their horses' hooves.  She watched them out of sight down the path, then turned and walked slowly back to her cabin.  She poked up the banked ashes in her woodstove, added a few sticks of firewood, and sat down in her chair, drawing her robe around her, shivering in spite of the fire's warmth.  I should have known better, she thought.  I wanted to protect Rain from... from all of it.  From life, I guess.  Rain loves Snake.  Or thinks he loves him.  He wouldn't believe me if I tried to tell him what Plissken really is.  I lied to him.  Betrayed his trust.  He'll never trust me again.  Never believe in Rivendell again.  Rivendell is built on trust, on honesty; I should have remembered that.  If Plissken is dead, Rain won't come back here.  He'll track the bounty hunter and kill him.  If Plissken is alive, Rain will follow him, wherever he goes.  Whatever Plissken really is, Snake is Rain's heart.     

She pulled a well-worn volume off her bookshelf and held it in her hands, tracing the title on the cover with her thumb as she stared into the dancing light of the stove.  The book fell open on its own to a familiar page, and she glanced down at it, reading the words as much by memory as by sight: "Your children are not your children.  They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.  They come through you but not from you.  And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.  You may give them your love but not your thoughts.  For they have their own thoughts.  You may house their bodies but not their souls.  For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."  Yes, Ray Lee thought, and the shadowy text blurred with unshed tears.

You have to follow your heart, no matter what it costs.  Memories of herself as a slim teenaged girl with long, ironed hair, in tie-dyed skirt and sandals, came back to her.  She saw herself standing in the doorway of her parents' house, Jess's Volkswagen van revving in the driveway, and her father shouting at her.  They had lied to her, burned the letters Jess had sent, tried to keep her from following him.  Even now, over half a century later, the pain was still fresh and sharp when she remembered it.  She couldn't do that to Rain.  It had been wrong to lie to him.  Your children are not your children.  She hoped she had finally made it right by sending him on his way with her blessing.  Gaia keep him safe; please keep him safe, she repeated to herself, feeling her throat tighten.  Please grant that I'm wrong about Plissken.  Please make it work out for Rain.  She wondered if her parents had ever forgiven her.  Not that it mattered.  She had forgiven them long ago.

She went to the small alcove where she kept her chest of treasures, and took a long strand of colorful glass beads out of the top drawer.  Where have all the flowers gone...?  Sorrow and memory were bittersweet.  Where have all the young men gone...?  she hummed softly;  gone to soldiers every one.  When will they ever learn?   She fingered Jess's love beads.  "Sleep well," she murmured to the dead man, and the long-ago memory.  "I miss you."

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

Rain and Linden slowed to a trot, and then a fast walk, when they reached rough ground, but they kept moving, stopping only briefly to rest and water the horses, pressing them as hard as they dared.  When they saw the broken lock on the garage at the edge of Rivendell territory and discovered that the bicycle with the mounted gun was gone, Rain gave a shout of triumph.  Now he knew which route Snake had taken north.  "If he's not pushing it, he should be a little past Calistoga by now," Rain said, and Linden nodded.  They remounted and headed north, riding hard.    

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

Snake came fully awake, coughing, as a cloud of dirt kicked at him by Farris stung his face.  "Come on, you one-eyed bastard, wake up!" Farris snarled.  "You and me, we got a lot of ground to cover."

Snake's whole body ached from his cramped position against the tree trunk.  His arms were numb, and his head pounded violently.  Spitting dirt, he struggled to a standing position, levering himself upward on scratchy bark that crumbled into sharp little fragments and made its way, as a further annoyance, down the inside of his shirt and pants.  He made it upright, and stood glaring balefully at his captor.

"What are you looking at?"  Farris strode over to the tree, scowling, and kicked Snake's feet out from under him, slamming Snake's falling weight down on his backward-strained shoulder joints.  Snake grunted with pain and lashed at him with a foot as he went down.  Farris evaded it easily.  "Don't look at me like that, you hear me?"  

Snake slowly climbed back upright, and spent the next half-hour watching Farris eat a quick breakfast and rifle through the contents of Snake's backpack.  The bounty hunter took the guns and ammunition, and as much of the preserved food as he could fit in his own saddlebags, then pushed the bicycle into a bush and left it.  Snake made a mental note of the bush's location.  When he had finished, the bounty-hunter gingerly released Snake from the tree.  With a gun in Snake's ribs, Farris ran a rope through the chain between the cuffs, whipped it across Snake's throat, and then ran it back through the cuffs and jerked the rope taut.  It gouged into Snake's windpipe, and he breathed shallowly against the rough fiber.  Snake's opinion of Farris, reluctantly, went up a notch.  The simple but fiendish length of rope assured that if Snake wanted to take a deep breath, he would have to hold his bound arms upward in an awkward and uncomfortable position; if he lowered his arms, he would half-choke himself.  That would definitely keep his mind occupied during the walk back, he thought sourly.  

Farris dribbled some water into Snake's mouth, which somewhat relieved Snake's raging thirst, then tied Snake again to the pommel of the saddle and shoved him into motion back down the road in the direction they come.  Snake trudged along numbly, gritting his teeth against the pain.  Periodically, Farris yanked on the rope, sending a wave of fire through Snake's shoulders.   

When they reached Calistoga, they stopped at the Seven-Eleven where Snake had bought matches.  At Farris's halloo, the storekeeper came out.  He grinned broadly when he caught sight of the bounty hunter and his captive.  Farris leaned down from the saddle and tossed the man a handful of coins.  "Just like you said, Pops," Farris said, "I got him!"

"Thought maybe it was him," the older man laughed.  Then to Snake: "told ya if they nailed the guy responsible for all this, there'd be hell to pay.  You know, if I was a younger man, I'd help take you down to San Francisco and turn you in.  You've screwed up your last planet, Snake!"  He looked at Farris.  "Remember, you promised me fifty thousand, when you get the reward."  Chuckling, he went back into the store.  Snake had no doubt the storekeeper would never see any of the money, and he suspected the other man knew it as well.

"Get moving!" Farris barked at Snake.  

The day's march was a painful blur in Snake's mind.  Farris's harassment as he yanked Snake along was as bad as anything the blackbellies had ever dished out.  Snake considered trying to jump Farris, or spook the horse into throwing its rider, but the rope tied to the saddle stopped him.  Being dragged by a runaway horse was a nasty way to die.  Disarmed and helpless, but coldly, furiously, determined to survive, he kept up the pace Farris set for him in front of the horse and rider.  

When evening fell, they were halfway between Calistoga and the turnoff to Rivendell commune.  Farris, again, fastened the cuffs around the bole of a large tree, forcing Snake to spend another exhausting night half standing, fighting the agony in his wrenched shoulders.  Farris finally spoon-fed him a few bites of food and gave him another drink, then left him.  Snake's misery was compounded by the damp stain soaking his pants.  Farris had not released him from the cuffs even to take care of his most basic needs.  Snake thought, sardonically, that he ought to feel flattered that Farris was so afraid of him, but he really could have done without the compliment.

The next morning, Farris boiled up freeze-dried stew for breakfast before setting out on the next day's march.  Snake's empty belly cramped at the smell of the food, hunger fighting for attention with the pain in the rest of his abused body.  From his seat near the fire, Farris taunted Snake.  "Quite a reward the USPF's offering for you, eh, 'Snake'?  Up to ten million now."  He chuckled.  "Never thought you'd be so popular, did you, Plissken?  Everybody wants you.  Maybe I should hold out for a better price.  What d'ya think I could get, top dollar, for a terrorist scumbag who fucked up the whole world?  For a one-eyed fucking loser like you, huh, Plissken?"      

"Maybe they'll give you a medal," Snake grated.

Farris scrambled to his feet, his face contorted.  "Yeah - you got medals -- and you threw 'em away.  Think that makes you a big man, don't you?  I got shit."  He   advanced on Snake. " I know why you threw 'em away, too.  Even you didn't have the nerve to keep 'em after what you did, you lying son of a bitch!  Only reason you made it back from Leningrad was, you ran out on Black Light, War Hero.  Ran out on your own men, you gutless bastard!"

Rage and grief, and a survivor-guilt he could not escape, flamed into a blank, red impulse to attack.  Snake threw himself toward Farris, twisting in the cuffs, tearing his wrists open on the metal and wrenching his shoulders.  The rope tightened across his throat; his vision grayed.   He kicked toward Farris, and this time felt his boot connect solidly.  With a yelp of pain, Farris backed off a pace, smashed his hand into Snake's face, slamming him back into the tree, then drove a fist hard into Snake's belly.  Snake grunted, doubling over, blood dripping from his damaged face.  Farris lunged for the quirt hanging from his saddle, raised it, and, with a yell, advanced once again on his prisoner.

There was a sharp snap and loud rustle in the bushes on the edge of the campsite, and, a second later, a harsh sound like the muffled tearing of heavy cloth.  As Farris dropped the quirt and whirled, grabbing for his gun, a crossbow quarrel hit him in the throat.  A second bolt smashed into his head; he crumpled to the ground, flopped once, and died.  The bushes parted, almost silently, and Rain stepped through the gap into view.  A few seconds later,  Linden followed.

Snake sagged against the tree.  "Shit!" he breathed out in a gust of relief.

Linden crossed to the body of the bounty hunter as Rain hurried over to Snake.  "He's dead, Rain," the girl's clear voice announced calmly as she rose to her feet again.

"Where's the key?" Rain asked.

"Left back pocket," Snake answered.  Linden shoved the dead body over, fished out the keys to the handcuffs, and threw them to Rain, who fielded them and unlocked Snake's bonds.  He pulled the rope loose from around Snake's throat, frowning at the deep burn it had left in the flesh.  Snake took a few staggering steps, hissing on his inward breath as he pulled his arms back around to the front of his body.  Rain gave an angry exclamation when he saw the torn flesh on Snake's wrists.  Snake straightened, moving more certainly, pulling away from Rain's supporting hands.  He stumbled over to the fire and sat down abruptly next to it.  He smiled wryly at Rain and Linden.  "Hell of an entrance," he said.  

"You O.K.?" Rain said

"Yeah."

"You don't look O.K.," Linden chimed in indignantly.  

Snake and Rain looked at each other, and understanding passed between them.  "What happened to the bicycle, Snake?" Rain said.

"Left it back in the bushes at our last camp," Snake answered, "along with my pack and most of my shit.  Not far."  He gave a concise, military description of the location in a few quick words.

"We're going to need it."  Rain turned to the girl and said, "Linden, you go get the bike and bring it back here.  I'll stay with Snake."

Linden looked from one to the other of them.  Finally, she grinned indulgently.  "O.K., guys.  I'll give you some time to yourselves for a touching reunion.  Enjoy."   She looked over Farris's sturdy chestnut and swung into the saddle, taking up the reins of her own lathered gray to lead it as a packhorse.  "I'll take it slow, and give the horses a rest," Linden said.  "See you in the morning."  She moved off at a trot.        

Snake took a deep drink of water from Farris's canteen, then slowly spooned the bounty hunter's breakfast stew into his own mouth.  "What the hell are you doing here?'

Rain continued unsaddling and wiping down his tired horse.  He took one of his own canteens off his saddle and poured water for the horse into a fabric feed-bag.  The horse slurped noisily.  "DMZ sent Michael up to Rivendell to tell us this bastard was after you."  Rain nodded at the body of Farris.  "I've been tracking you for two days."    

Snake stared at him.  After a long, slow moment, he said softly, "Why?"

Several emotions chased themselves across Rain's face, and finally settled as ironic humor.  "Shit, Snake, I couldn't let him take you back in and turn you over to the blackbellies.  Not after all the trouble I went to last time.  Gotta protect my investment...."

Snake snorted softly.

Rain's expression turned serious.  "I'm going to Canada with you," he said flatly; "I'm not going back to Rivendell."  He put the horse's feed-bag down again and tied the black mare to a tree.   

"I'm not going to Canada."  

Rain sat down beside Snake, looking into his face.  "Why not?"

"They had a hard winter.  When the power went out, a lot of them died."

Rain whistled softly.  "Shit, yeah," he said.  "Bet they froze by the thousands."

"Millions.  Froze and starved.  Storekeeper in Calistoga had a wanted poster he got from some Canadian guy coming south.  Fifteen million dollars reward, in gold, for me.  Dead or alive."  His mouth snapped shut in a grim line.   

"So, where are you going, then?"

"Somewhere."  Snake shifted his weight, threw back his head, winced at the pain, and ran his hand through his long, tangled hair.  "Farris got his info on me from the blackbellies in San Francisco.  They know I'm alive, and where I was headed.  Soon as they get their shit together, they'll be after me."

Rain chuckled.  "No problem.  We can settle down here and die of old age first."

Snake remained grim.  "Farris wasn't the only bounty hunter out for the reward.   The whole fucking world's on my ass this time."  For the first time, Snake looked in Rain's direction.  "Get out of here, Rain.  You're not in this any more."

"You're not listening, Snake," Rain said with relentless patience.  "I said I'm going with you."  His tone took on a sudden passionate intensity.  "No matter where you're going.  I won't run out on you.  I'm giving you my word, here and now."  

Snake stopped cold.  He stared at the younger man with such concentrated attention that his face looked blank.  "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Snake...," the younger man seemed to be struggling to find the proper words.  "Snake, I swear... I'll guard your back.  I'll stick by you and I won't run, no matter what.  I promise!"

Snake hesitated, stopped by the raw urgency in Rain's words.  "Hey, hey, hey," he said, almost whispering, "Don't go postal on me."  He fixed Rain with his single piercingly blue eye and spoke slowly, spacing each word singly.  "Everybody who sticks by me, dies.  You come with me, you end up fucking dead."  

Rain matched his tone.  "It's my life."

Snake gave his little breathless snort.  "Yeah.  It is."  The two men faced each other, testing each other, glances locked, challenging.  ...You really mean it?  You understand what you're saying?   ... Yes, I do... yes, I do, Snake... you can't scare me off.... .  Finally, Snake nodded.  His grim expression softened.  "By the way... thanks."  Rain's declaration was accepted in the silence which, for Snake, was more meaningful than words.

Rain grinned.  "No problem."  His tone turned businesslike.  "If I remember right, there's a stream along here somewhere.  I'll go get some water."  His nose wrinkled.  "In case you hadn't noticed, Snake, you stink."  He shared a laugh with Snake.   He stood up and headed toward his saddlebags for a canteen.  As he passed the dead body of the bounty hunter, he nudged it with his foot and added, "I'll hide him."   He reached down to pull the body over to the edge of the campsite.     

"Rain..."

"What?"

"I have a better idea.  Take a look at his chest."

Rain pulled up the dead man's black shirt and studied the cobra tattoo on the pale flesh.  "What the fuck?"

"It's a copy of mine.  He had it done to piss me off, when we were both in the Army."

"You knew him?"

"Yeah.  He was always giving me shit, even back then.  Fucking crazy."     

Rain looked at Snake.  "I guess I don't want to know."

Snake climbed painfully to his feet, feeling each individual wound and bruise stiffening and protesting.  He limped over to the body and stood glaring down at it.  "You're going to impersonate me one more time, asshole." 

"Huh?" Rain said.

Snake produced a fair imitation of the female Police Channel reporter who had announced his entry at Firebase Seven:  "You see before you the corpse of the most notorious outlaw in U.S. history.  War hero, criminal, the Force's most wanted man."  A beat  "Snake Plissken."  

There was a moment while Rain digested this, then he said, "It'll never work.  He has the tattoo in the wrong place.  His eye..."

"None of the descriptions of me have the exact location listed."  Snake was thinking aloud.  "Just a 'cobra tattoo' on the belly.  And unless someone's seen me without this," he indicated his patch, "they won't know what my left eye looks like."  

Rain cocked his head dubiously.  "Fingerprints.  Retina scans."

"Electronics.  Information system's down."

"Snake," Rain said, weakening visibly, "All they have to do is look at his face."

Snake raised a booted foot and smashed it down on the corpse's head, twice, hard, hearing the body's facial bones snap with a wet, pulpy sound under his heel.  He glanced from the ruin of Farris's face to Rain's, his own face expressionless except for a glitter of savage satisfaction in his good eye.  "No problem."  He paused.  "I'm officially dead.  I've got the fucking USPF off my ass.  We've got ten million."

"Shit," Rain said. "It could work..."

Rain found the stream he remembered and brought back water, which he heated over the fire to clean Snake's wounds.  Snake skinned out of his stinking clothes, sponged himself off, and scrounged through Farris's saddlebag for a clean shirt and pair of pants.  They fit him fairly well.  Snake retrieved his gunbelt from the corpse, muttering, "I'll take my guns back now, asshole," and pulled his case of spare patches from a zippered pocket inside the belt.  "He's got to have a patch, one of mine."

Rain leaned forward, intrigued. "OK. What's the difference?"

Snake held up the patch.  "Thin cord instead of elastic."  He put the new patch on, tying the cord around his own head, feeling the new fabric stiff on his face, then took his old patch and went over to the corpse.  "Eyes aren't quite the same shade as mine, but they go kind of colorless anyway, once they're dead a while.  Help me with this before he gets stiff."

Rain and Snake dressed the corpse in Snake's discarded clothes.  On the slightly larger frame, they were snug, but not too much so.  All of Black Light Squadron's pilots had been assigned based partly on compact body size.  With reluctance, Snake surrendered his boots as well to the cause.  It took some force get them on, but the boots' new owner didn't object to the rough treatment.  Snake tied on the worn eyepatch and arranged the corpse's hair around it.

Snake hefted his gunbelt in his hand.  If this ruse was going to convince the USPF, Snake Plissken's famous modified Magnums had to go along with his dead body.  After a brief struggle with himself, Snake removed the most valuable items in the belt's compartments, snapped the fastenings shut around the cold form, and slid one of the Magnums into the holster.  "Tell 'em the other one's lost."  He snorted.  "They'll expect you to keep it anyway."  He narrowed his good eye, putting all the force of his command presence into it.  "I want this fucking belt and the goddamn gun back.  Part of the reward is a year's grease on possession.  Tell 'em it's a goddamn trophy, and make it stick."  He eyed his handiwork critically, decided it would pass, and reached down to pick up the case holding his remaining spare patch.  As always, he paused momentarily before replacing it to glance at the faded Presidential Seal embossed on the cover.  It was the case his medal had come in, the award for the Leningrad Ruse.   Snake stuffed it back into his pocket.

Snake took Farris's bedroll, Rain unrolled his own, and the two men settled down around the fire to wait for morning and Linden's return with the bicycle.  Finally, they banked the ashes and turned in for the night.  Even with the pain of his wounds and the ache in his arms and back, Snake slept soundly, surrendering to his weariness.

Morning dawned cold and misty.  Snake stumbled painfully into the bushes, and returned from his necessary trip to find Rain standing over Farris's corpse, toeing it speculatively with one booted foot.  The body was stiff and wet.  "It's soaking," Rain commented.  "It's going to really rot as soon as the sun hits it.  Going to stink like hell, too.  I have to take this... thing... into the City?"  He sounded as if he was only half-joking.     

Snake grinned wolfishly.  "More it rots, harder it'll be to identify exactly.  Nobody'll want to do a thorough search of it, either."

"You're enjoying this way too much."

The outlaw tipped his chin at the body, his good eye sparkling.  "Hell, I've been waiting for that asshole Plissken to die."

Late in the morning, Linden returned.   Snake's bicycle, trailer, and backpack were strapped to the chestnut gelding, and she was riding her own gray once more.  When she heard about the plan to take Farris's body in for the reward, she crowed with delight.  After they had rested her horses for several hours, they distributed Farris's supplies between Rain's and Linden's horses and Snake's bike-trailer, and loaded the corpse onto the long-suffering chestnut.  Snake dug into his pack, found the map Ray Lee had made for him, and fed it to the flames, then doused the campfire and scattered the ashes.  Rain mounted his black mare, leading the chestnut, Linden took the gray, and Snake climbed aboard his bicycle.  Snake was pleased to see that everything he had brought with him, including the mounted gun, was still in place.  They moved off slowly down the road, adjusting the pace to Snake's still-sore muscles.  As he warmed up, he found the going easier, and by the time they had been under way for an hour or so, he was almost back up to speed.     

They reached the turn-off to Rivendell and halted to pick up Rain's bicycle and trailer, shift supplies to it, wrap the corpse in a tarp, and strap it on top.  Rain paused for a brief leave-taking with Linden.

Hesitantly, suddenly awkward, she said, "Don't you want to go back to Rivendell and pick up your stuff?  Say goodbye to everybody?  Aren't you going to take Moonwind with you?"  

"No," Rain said firmly.  "I've seen all I ever want to see of Rivendell Commune.  There's nothing there I need any more."  He smiled sadly and stroked the black horse's soft muzzle.  "Moonwind will be better off here.  I don't know if I could take care of her on the road.  She's yours now, Linden."

Linden choked and her eyes were suspiciously shiny as she said.  "Thanks, Rain.  I'll take good care of her for you."  She bit her lip.  "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too, Linden," Rain said.  His voice was a bit unsteady.  "Yeah... well... I'll let you say my goodbyes for me.  He swallowed, "Tell Lynx... tell Lynx, I'm sorry.  It just didn't work out."

"O.K., Rain," Linden said.  She mounted her gray, took up the lead-ropes of the other two horses, and, with a final glance back at Rain and Snake, trotted off down the faint trail leading back toward Rivendell.

Rain mounted his bike.  "What do you say, Snake?  You want to wait for me at the old winery while I take... you... into the City?"   

"Sounds good.  I'll have a chance to liberate that good hooch if it's still there."

Rain grimaced.  "Hello, my name is Snake Plissken and I'm an alcoholic..."

"Bullshit!" Snake snorted, and actually smiled.



Part Four

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