Rain chuckled in response.   He took one final look backward toward the wall of green that hid the trail leading to Rivendell, then sucked in a breath and squared his shoulders.  When he looked back to Snake again, there was a new sparkle in his eyes.  He glanced over his shoulder at the bundle behind him and grimaced slightly as he pushed his bike into motion.   "At least it isn't summertime.  Maybe he won't smell too bad.  Off to the City.  Free and easy, Snake."    

At the words, Snake went cold inwardly.  He kept his expression carefully neutral as he pedaled along the road next to Rain, but memory rose from a dark place within him.  He saw his old blue Mercury cruising down the highway, Springsteen's "Born to Run" blaring from the car radio, Bill Taylor belting an off-key accompaniment at the top of his lungs, and Snake tapping the beat on the steering wheel as he drove.  "We made it, Snake; free and easy," Bill Taylor said as the song faded to its end, "Free and easy!"  At Snake's automatic "Bullshit," Taylor grinned and lit a smoke, pronouncing his partner "fucking pro-found."

Snake returned to the present and the similarly slight figure with long, dark hair, who was pedaling along next to him.  Rain was not Taylor.  Nobody would ever be like Taylor.  Snake shoved the thought back into hiding and concentrated on the road ahead.  At least he was moving again.  His mood lightened gradually.

The steady pace lulled them both into a contemplative state, and they rode on in companionable silence, each man lost in his own thoughts.  They finally stopped at the top of a grassy hill to rest and eat a light lunch from the rations.  Snake noticed Rain's thoughtful expression as the younger man sat watching Snake steadily working his way through a freeze-dried energy bar, chewing without really tasting.  Finally, Snake raised a questioning eyebrow in the younger man's direction.  "What?"

"I was wondering, Snake... what's it like?  Flying, I mean."

Snake thought back to his final training missions in that cool, damp Finnish spring, so much like this northern California spring.  For a moment he hesitated, unwilling to open something that was so much a central part of him to anyone else.  Taylor understood.  I never had to talk to him about shit like this.  At the same time, something starved within him wanted to connect with another man on the neutral ground of technology and machinery, where men talked to each other in a code that communicated more than words.  He paused to consider.  "Depends.  Powered flight's fast and noisy: riding the engines; going where they take you.  With a glider, you're more in control.  It's like the machine's part of you."  His face softened as he remembered the soaring freedom and exhilaration of flight.  "Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth... Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue...."."  The familiar poem quoted itself on his inner ear, in silence.  It was too personal to speak aloud.            

Rain was still listening intently, waiting for him to go on.  "In glider flight," Snake continued, in the dry voice he had used to instruct his new pilot recruits, "You use air currents, like a bird soaring.  Thermals, updrafts, mountain waves, fronts of rising air, carry you up," he gestured with his free hand, a flowing, palm-upward move, fingers curled,  "and then you descend in long arcs."  His hand turned over, flattened in a long sweeping glide.  "If you're good, you can stay up forever."  Snake smiled at the old joke.  "The jet jockeys used to give us glider pilots shit.  Said we couldn't handle the speed of a fighter.  We said it was like sex; it's all in the technique: you can do it fast, shoot your wad and pull out, or you can do it right and make it last, and come in for a landing when you want to."  Rain laughed with him at the image, and Snake backed away skittishly in automatic retreat.  "The only things that'll fly now are hang gliders and hot air balloons," he finished shortly.  No more Gulffire.  

They got to their feet, buried the remains of the ration packets, and moved on.  Carquinez Bridge was undefended this time.  As they crossed, Snake noticed a dead body washed up against a rock farther down stream. "Getting predictable around here," he said as he pointed it out.

Rain turned to him and grinned.  "Michael said he was held up at the bridge."

Snake snorted softly in acknowledgement, thinking back to the last time they had come this way.  Rain was a good man to have at his side in a firefight.  Not many marksmen could hit a moving target with a crossbow bolt or a knife with Rain's range and accuracy.  The younger man could think on his feet, act on his own, but coordinate an attack with him nearly as well as Taylor had, and he had good nerves.  Snake could almost see Rain and himself as partners.  Accomplices, the blackbellies would call it, Snake thought, remembering the pompous Police Channel reports on his exploits with Bill Taylor.  Snake smiled inwardly, then darkened.  Rain seemed to want more than that.  There was something in the younger man that made him press against the unspoken boundaries Taylor had instinctively respected.  With Taylor, he'd never had to explain that shit either, but with Rain.... .  Snake left the thought unexplored.  He wheeled onward, keeping pace with Rain, parallel but separate.

By the time they reached the old winery, it was midnight.  A cautious survey showed that it was still uninhabited, undisturbed, the gate and door still locked.  Snake found the key he had dropped in the bottom of his pack so long ago, and made use of it.  The bicycles and provisions went inside, the corpse of the bounty hunter, on the back porch.  It was already beginning to be fairly unwelcome.  This night there was no time for conversation by the fire.  Snake took watch, while Rain fell into bed for a few hours sleep before pushing on at first light.  Snake was tired from a full day's ride on the bicycle, but he knew he would have a day or so to rest while Rain rode on into San Francisco with the dead meat.

In the morning, Rain lashed the corpse onto his empty bike-trailer and moved out at a brisk pace.  "I'll be back as quick as I can," he promised.   If I make it back hung unspoken on the air.  If the blackbellies discovered the ruse, they both knew, Rain would never be back at all.  Snake deliberately did not watch Rain leave; some deeply buried superstition suggested it might be unlucky.  Instead, he set about systematically looting the house and preparing for the journey.   Snake avoided thinking about the question of a destination and concentrated on the immediate practical details.  He would wait a week, he decided, and if Rain did not return by then, he would decide where he planned to go.   

A search of the garage turned up two canvas sacks, which fitted in the bottom of his bike-trailer, and some useful, and expensive, camping equipment, which went into the pack.  He filled the bags with the last of the cans from the pantry and a whole box-full of self-heating meal pouches he found with the camping supplies, as a supplement to the dried rations.  The best of the remaining full liquor bottles, he wrapped in warm blankets from the bedroom.  If he was going to be sleeping outdoors for a while, he could use the bedding.  Then he went through the bounty hunter's pack, retrieving his belongings and repacking them. The cheap Russian pistol went into the discard pile, the bullets reclaimed for use.  Snake destroyed  everything that could connect him to the dead bounty hunter, taking a grim satisfaction in obliterating Farris and his belongings.  One more dead.  One to go.  Someday.  Snake stirred the ashes thoroughly and went back to looking through the house.

The large desk in the study yielded a handgun and more ammunition.  Snake tossed the gun, but kept the ammo again, since his trusted Magnums were designed to be used with a wide variety of bullets.  He was stockpiling, knowing that ammunition would be almost impossible to buy anywhere by now.   Rain had better bring back my other gun and the belt, he thought grimly.  Rummaging through the desk, he found the usual collection of items in the drawers below the now-useless computer equipment and telephone.  As he picked up the former inhabitant's address-book, a business card fell out, and, glancing at it, Snake read,  "Jules Diebold 156-4582" in scrawled handwriting across the back.  He was about to drop it back into the drawer when his instincts tapped him on the shoulder, and he took a second look.  No seven-digit telephone number started with a one.  Diebold?  Jules?  Smiling to himself, Snake picked up the card and began a thorough search, knocking on walls, turning pictures, examining the backs of bookshelves and closets.  Finally, he found what he was looking for.  Removing a heavy gilt-framed painting from the wall, he uncovered the safe.  A Diebold.  Snake allowed himself a soft exhalation of satisfaction.     

The next step was to get it open.  Snake preferred commercial safes or bank vaults, and high explosives, to residential burglaries, but he had targeted a few government officials' houses in his criminal career, and the experience came in handy now.  He studied the little card.  No spacing or commas gave him the numbering to the combination.  First, he tried dialing the final number and tugging at the handle. Sometimes, safe owners just left the combination set there for convenience.  The door refused to budge.  Shit.  Snake settled in for a protracted effort.  He drummed his fingers sharply on the wall to sensitize the tips, then, lightly resting his hand on the balls of his fingers, he began carefully turning the knob, listening and extending his senses 'into' the mechanism, trying to connect with the tumblers.  His mind blanked in an alpha state of concentration.   Periodically, he would stop and tap his fingers to regain the nerve edge required for successful safe cracking.

For half an hour, Snake methodically, and unsuccessfully, tried every spacing of the numbers on the card.  While notoriously short-tempered with people, he had the patient persistence of a glacier when it came to machinery.  He knew that on most residential safes the combination lock was factory-set for five turns, alternatively right, then left. This was something that the purchaser could change, but, in Snake's experience, nobody ever did.  All Snake had to do was figure out how the owner of the safe had spaced the pseudo-telephone-number in five turns.  Had the old bastard changed the fucking combo and not tossed out the card? Snake wondered, exasperated, as he sat back, staring at the smugly uncooperative mechanism.    Anyone stupid enough to leave the numbers lying around.... .   Suddenly,  Snake smiled again.  Anyone that dumb might think it was clever to.... .   He dialed the numbers in backward.  The first try, 2, 85, 4, 65, 1, was futile, but the second spacing, right 2, left full turn past 2 to 8, right 54, left 65, right  rewarded him with a sharp click and the door opened easily.  Ha!  Give the asshole a "C" for "clever," but nothing more.  Snake stretched his sore shoulders and took a moment to savor his success before turning his attention to the opened wall safe.  Hello "Jules"!

He sorted efficiently through the contents of the safe.  Several items that looked like treasured mementos -- a silver locket with a strand of hair inside, a class ring, two old tintypes, and a tiny, child-sized gold ring -- he left.  Their monetary value was nil.  He picked out the items of jewelry that looked valuable to his trained eye, and a collection of old gold and silver coins, then closed the door and spun the lock a few times to reset the tumblers.  With a grim sort of mischief, he took the inscribed card and set it on fire, dropping the paper into an ashtray as it burned.  If anyone else ever happened by this house, he'd make the asshole work for this shit.  Good, he thought, I'll have a stake, even if Rain doesn't make it back.  There was a lot that could happen, and ten million was a very tempting prize.  He wouldn't count on the younger man bringing it back, even if the blackbellies fell for the ruse.  Rain might still take the money and run out on him.

He completed his plundering expedition by lifting a wide-brimmed, waterproof hat, an English all-weather full-length overcoat, and a handsome pair of custom-made motorcycle boots from the bedroom closet.  The boots were slightly too big for him, but an extra pair of socks would take care of that, and the sturdy black leather was too good to pass up.  He cleaned out the medicine cabinet in the bedroom's master bath, scoring a big bottle of prescription pain-killers and some unexpired antibiotics.  A final search of the back of the closet also uncovered a carefully hidden box of premium, highly illegal, Cuban cigars.  Snake decided to quit while he was ahead.  He fixed himself a meal from the last of the cans in the kitchen, smoked one of the cigars, and turned in early, after setting up his crockery alarm system.  A good night's sleep in a comfortable bed was just what he needed.        

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

Rain rode for San Francisco at the fastest pace he could manage.   The sight of Snake's gunbelt and Magnum, and the dead body slung across the trailer, evidently convinced the residents of Oakland that Rain was not an appealing target, and he made it through the town without being attacked.  He crossed the Bay Bridge openly on the top level.  He was a successful bounty hunter with nothing to hide, bringing in the body of the notorious Snake Plissken.  The USPF guards at the bridge checkpoint cheered him on his way across the structure and on into the City, and assigned a uniformed officer to escort Rain and his burden to the central USPF headquarters in the Presidio.  Rain let the man lead the way, keeping a sharp eye out for any attempt by the blackbelly to ambush him and highjack Rain's prize for his own benefit.

It was high time to part company with the decomposing body of the bounty hunter, Rain thought.  A few blocks from the Presidio gate, Rain dismounted and strapped on Snake's gunbelt and single hand-gun.  It would be natural enough for a bounty hunter to wear the belt instead of leaving it with the corpse, and he intended to keep it on his body if he could, and out of any eager blackbelly hands.  The belt rode heavily on his hips, the one Magnum dragging at him, as he tightened the fastenings and swung up onto the bike again. He rode into the Presidio garrison, pulled up at the entrance guardhouse, and yelled, "Hey! Any of you in there want Snake Plissken?"

The effect was very much like kicking a hive of killer bees.  Black-uniformed police swarmed out and crowded around Rain's bike, deluging Rain with a flood of questions and loud comments as they dragged the body off the trailer and carried it jubilantly into the building.  The commander of the garrison, a large, rawboned man with the face of a dyspeptic sheep, came out of his office to greet Rain.

"I'm Commander Davis. Who're you?"

"Roy Patterson," Rain said, using the alias from his drug trafficking.  He had the papers to prove it, if they insisted.  They didn't.

"Where'd you find him?"  Davis eyed the smelly corpse dubiously from several feet away.

"I was up past Calistoga," Rain said, sticking to the essentials of the story. "I ambushed him.  The reward is alive or dead.  I knew I couldn't bring him in alive."

"Jesus Christ, it is Plissken!" cried one of the men.  He pushed the tight shirt upward on the dead body to reveal the tattooed cobra on slack, pale flesh.   "Kinda ripe," he muttered.  He backed away, rubbing his hands on his uniform trousers.

A blackbelly sergeant pointed at the gunbelt Rain was wearing.  "That his?  Looks like the one I seen in th' pictures of Plissken."

Rain laid his hands on the straps of the belt and gave the man a level, challenging look.  "Was," he said.  "It's mine now.  Right of salvage.  I'm keepin' this one -- as a little memento."  To his surprise, the bluff worked, and the blackbellies let him keep the rig after verifying from old photos of the outlaw that it was, indeed, Snake's.

"We'll fingerprint and photograph the body, just in case the computers ever come back up," Commander Davis told Rain.  "All the data's in L.A. or Lynchburg, but it'd be pretty hard to fake that old tattoo.  I'd say it's him, all right.  I guess we owe you the reward for bringing him in."  He pulled out a book of government certificates and started to write in the amount.

Rain shook his head.  "In gold," he said firmly.

Commander Davis gave him a crafty smile.  "We don't have that kind of money in gold here.  We'd have to have it transferred from the Denver Depository, and get an authorization from Lynchburg.  It'd take months, at least, to get a messenger there and back, these days.  Of course, you're welcome to wait...."."  His voice trailed off suggestively.

Not a chance, Rain thought.  "I'll take what you've got in gold," he said.

"Suit yourself," the blackbelly officer shrugged.  

Rain stood, looking menacing and dissatisfied, until the blackbellies brought out as much gold as they were prepared to turn over to him.  It was far less than the promised ten million, but still an impressive, and heavy, pile of metal.  Rain loaded as many of the small, flat ingots as he could carry comfortably into a canvas bag.  He lowered the bag into the bike-trailer, smiling to himself at the look on the Commander's face.  The other man clearly thought he was doing a brilliant job of cheating the gullible bounty hunter, and kept having to wipe the self-satisfied grin off his face every time he caught Rain watching him.  Rain managed, with  considerable effort, to keep his own expression greedy, dull-witted and apparently unsuspecting.  The Commander also handed over the "grease for a year" certificate absolving the bearer of all non-violent moral crimes for the duration.  Rain's alias and the dates were inscribed, along with the USPF seal and the Commander's signature.  "Use that wisely," Commander Davis said.   "A year goes pretty quick."

Rain nodded.  "Yeah, I know."  He patted the Magnum strapped to his thigh.  "And for my first grease, I'm hanging onto this."

The Commander seemed willing to surrender the gun to Rain to distract him from the issue of the reward money.  "Where are you staying, in case we need to contact you?" he said.  "You're a hero, you know; killing S.D. Plissken.  Everybody's going to want an interview."

"I'll be staying at the Westin St. Francis.  I can afford it now," Rain answered, with what he hoped looked like a convincing grin.  Right, he thought; as if I'd hang around and wait for you bastards to catch up with me.  As he strode out of the station, the blackbellies were cheering and the atmosphere was carnival.  The commander was twirling the eyepatch on a finger and several cops were arguing over whether they should bury the boots with the body or keep them as a trophy of the kill.  Keeping his face blank, Rain swung onto the seat of his bike and moved out, heading for Market Street and one last errand before leaving the City.

When Rain dismounted at the DMZ building on Haight Street and tugged on the bell-pull, Michael came hurrying down the steep flight of wooden steps to unlock the tall spiked gate and let him in.  "Rain! Did you...?"?" he began.

"Yes.  I found him in time.  I'll tell you all about what happened, but first I need to check in with Josh."

Rain stayed the night at the guest quarters at the Mint.  He went straight to bed.  It was late and he was too tired, he said, for detailed conversation.  He mentioned, casually, that Snake had gone off on his own after the rescue, heading north toward Canada.  Rain was already thinking ahead, covering tracks not yet made.  As much as he trusted the members of DMZ, what they did not know, they could not tell.   

The next morning, before he left, Rain joined Dan and Josh in Josh's big office on the Mint's second floor.  The City's gray winter fog curled thickly outside the window, and the sill was slick with drizzle.  Rain sat on the window seat built into the wide bay, looking down at the indistinct shapes of the entrance walkway below, thinking that the curled razor-wire barrier in the fog made it look like a scene from some old black-and-white war movie on late-night television.  "I owe you guys," Rain said.        

"Anything for one of our good customers," Josh responded with an expansive wave of his hand.  His swivel chair creaked as he leaned back and stretched his legs out in front of him.

"No.  I'm talking about money."

"What?" both of the DMZers chorused, and Josh's chair-back snapped upright.  "Rain," Dan began seriously, "Your people and ours are allies.  You would do the same for us.  What we did, we did out of friend...."."     

Josh cut him off.  "No, no, Daniel!  If the lad is mentioning money, I say 'hear him out'!"  A grin lit his face and his dark eyes sparkled.  "So-o, Rain, my good and loyal friend..." " a beat  "...what are we talking, here?"  

"Twenty per cent of the reward.  Gold." Rain said.

"What reward?"  Josh's eyes narrowed and his tone turned hard.

"The one I got when I turned in Snake's body."

"Uh... hold it."  Dan held up a hand, forefinger raised, and sat with his mouth open, as if trying to frame his question in exactly the proper words.  

Josh had no such problem.  He took a puff on his cigarette, stubbed it out in the overflowing ashtray on his desk, and leaned forward.  "Run that one by me again, Rain?"    

Rain was laughing silently now.  He loved seeing the quick-witted DMZ boss put off-balance, but hardly ever got the opportunity.  He outlined the events of the last few days, and described turning the dead body of the imitation Snake Plissken in to USPF headquarters.  He avoided mentioning his intention to rejoin Snake at the abandoned house.  He wanted to leave absolutely nothing behind him linking the two of them any further, and he wanted no suggestion that anyone connected with Rivendell might know anything about Snake's future plans.  For the safety of both Rivendell and DMZ, Snake had to disappear.

"If you hadn't sent Michael up to warn us, Snake would be dead," Rain said.  "I figure I owe you part of the reward.  Twenty per cent."  He shifted in his seat.  "I wish it could be more, but...."."  ...but I need it as a stake for Snake and me he finished silently to himself.

"No, no, Rain.  Twenty per cent is fine," Dan said hurriedly.  "I know things are tight at Rivendell right now."   

Rain dumped the gold ingots out on Josh's desk in a shiny pile, and the three men divided the money.  "Thanks," Josh said, when they had finished and Rain's portion had been returned to his canvas bag.  The humor had left Josh's expression, and he looked tired and worn.  "This will really help, Rain.  Things are falling apart in the City and we're fighting just to keep our heads above water.  The blackbellies are coming down hard, now that they're starting to get their shit together again.  It's getting ugly out there."          

Rain smiled.  "Glad I could do it."   He said hesitantly, "Maybe it's time for you to get out, go up north over the border."

Josh's expression hardened.  Rain turned to Dan and saw the same stone determination echoed in the other DMZ leader's face.  "No," Dan said softly, "Not while there are still some of our people here."  He gave the hint of smile.  "You know, that's what being a good top is all about: taking care of people who trust you and put their lives in your hands.  We always used to talk about that.  I guess now it's come down to proving it."

Josh nodded slowly.  "It was always about proving it, Dan. The blackbellies have raised the stakes, that's all."  He turned his head, stared out the window at the gray swirling dampness outside, then turned back toward the other two men.  "Besides, this is my city.  The damned USPF's not getting me out of here except in a body bag.  This one's my war."

Rain rose and shook hands with both of the others, feeling a resigned sadness within him.  These men had been good friends, and he would miss them.  He slung the bag with the remaining ingots over his shoulder, and walked slowly down the wide marble corridors of the old Victorian building, through the kitchen where he and Snake had eaten strawberries for breakfast so long ago, and out into the back garden where his bike waited for him.  He swung up onto the seat, pulled the hood of his jacket up over his head, and rode out into the rain-slicked city streets.  As DMZ headquarters disappeared around a corner behind him, Rain's heart lifted.  He'd be seeing Snake again soon.  

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

When he heard Rain calling his name, Snake jumped to his feet and headed for the door.  He watched Rain slide down, rather stiffly, from the seat of the bicycle and start unfastening the straps of the trailer-cover.  "Good," he said, as Rain handed him the gunbelt and gun.  Snake looked both of them over thoroughly and smiled fleetingly when he found them in good condition.  "The reward?"

"I got it.  Well, part of it."  Rain hefted the heavy canvas bag and carried it back to the family room at the rear of the house.   He dumped its contents out on the big game table, where the ingots gleamed dully in afternoon light from the overcast sky outside.  "I'll go pull the bike inside," Rain said, and retreated the way he had come.

Snake counted the gold, enjoying the smooth feel of the metal against his fingers, calculating value.  With inflation and the new worthlessness of paper money, each slender ingot was worth several times the amount stamped on its surface.  Still…. .  Snake looked up with a scowl as Rain came in through the door, stamping mud and grass from the front yard off his boots.  "This is way short.  They fucking screwed you." 

"Yeah, but I figured it was better to get what I could in gold."  Rain shrugged out of his jacket and dropped with a thud into a chair next to the table as he detailed his run-in with Commander Davis and his men.  "You want me to go back and argue with 'em?" he asked.  At Snake's ironic snort, he added, "Plus, I gave part of my share to the guys at DMZ.  They need it."

"You tell 'em where it came from?"

"Yeah." Rain's smile flickered.  "Josh says he hopes you stay dead.  Says it's safer that way."

"You tell them anything else?"

"No.  As far as they know, you disappeared on me, lit out on your own for parts unknown, and I have no idea where you went."

"Good," Snake repeated.  His face remained deliberately expressionless, damping Rain's broad grin in response to his laconic praise, hiding his irritation at the younger man's enthusiasm.   It's never as easy as it looks, he thought.

Rain opened a can of stewed tomatoes and a box of crackers that Snake had left behind in the pantry and sat spooning the contents wearily into his mouth.  "So," he said at last, "Where are you -- we -- going?"

"I'm thinkin' about it."  Snake stared silently out the sliding glass doors into the back yard for a long moment.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, and fat, wet drops began to patter down on the flagstone patio.  "Shit," Snake mumbled disgustedly.  He turned back to Rain.  "Someplace out of this fucking rain," he said with deep feeling.     

Rain laughed and nodded.  "Well…."."  He sat back, ticking off points on his fingers.  "Canada's out.  With the power gone, we'd better stay away from places with really cold, snowy winters."

Snake nodded.  He'd never been fond of cold and wet, and ever since Russia, he'd had a hatred and fear of snow that had only been offset, marginally, by the freedom of Canada.  Now that was gone, he never wanted to see snow again.  "Mexico's out," he said.  "I'm wanted there.  From before.  Political shit."  He didn't elaborate.   

"Back east is Blackbelly Central.  Crowded, full of cities, cops, nosy people.  Polluted as hell since the gas and the biobombs," Rain said.  "What about Oregon, or maybe Humboldt County?  I know that country.  My people…."."

"No!"  Snake's face darkened.  He had no intention of moving in with another bunch like the ones at Rivendell.  He cast about for some other place, as far away from Humboldt County as possible, and long-buried memories surfaced of his childhood in Arizona and his days as a young pilot at Luke Air Force Base, before they ran out of water and shut it down.  He grabbed at the idea.  "Southwest," he countered decisively.  "Arizona, New Mexico, maybe Utah.  Beautiful country.  Dry.  Good climate.  Not a lot of people any more."  

"Yeah, " Rain said.  "I guess the cities pretty much dried up and blew away when they tapped out the aquifers.  My teachers used to use it as a bad example of what happens when you don't live bioregionally.  I heard a lot about it when I was a kid."

"Nothin' left but Indians."  The Tribes never had much modern technology anyway, Snake thought to himself, remembering the bare, parched land around Window Rock.  They're dirt-poor, but they can still grow or make just about everything they need.  Live off their own land.  If anybody could get through this shit in one piece, it'd be them.  Reservations aren't even U.S. territory.  And they fucking hate the USPF and the  government.  Been screwed over by them for years.  Make that centuries.  

"Snake, we could hide out there forever!"  Rain was sounding eager and excited now.  "Just like the renegades and outlaws in the old days."

"USPF'll be back to posses on horseback, too," Snake said thoughtfully.  "Wild West shit.  No planes, no cars, no electronics.  Back to Geronimo and Billy the Kid."

Rain went on, elaborating details.  "There's old pueblos in the canyons and the cliffs, whole cities carved into the bluffs by the Anasazi, then abandoned.   One of the Groups found a place not even the archaeologists knew about, in New Mexico.  I went there once when I rode the Circuit, training to guide.  There's water.  We could grow food…. .  Slap on a coat of adobe, and move right in."  Rain grinned.  "No worse than those damn cabins down by the lake, that's for sure."

Snake considered for another long moment, and finally said.  "Yeah.  An old pueblo."  That's the last place anybody would think of looking for me.  Squelch this fucking Group idea right now, though.  "Not one of yours.  Someplace else."

Rain looked troubled, then seemed to come to a decision.  "O.K., Snake.  Anyplace you want to go."

Snake thought back with longing to the off-duty hours he had spent exploring the mesas around Luke on those long, burning summer days.  He remembered the silence, the vast space, the solitude, the brilliant colors of the barren rocks in the clear, bright air, the startling, sudden green of the occasional isolated bush, the crunch of ancient earth under his boots, the smell of the endless dry wind.  You can see for miles up there, he thought.  Closest thing to flying with your feet on the ground.  He nodded slowly.  "Arizona."   

Rain smiled. "Arizona it is.  We can figure out where when we get there, I guess."  He got up and dropped the flattened tomato can with a flourish into the blue basket in the kitchen closet, as if he were ridding himself of all of California with the gesture.  Why bother?  It's not like they're going to be coming around to collect the recycling any time soon, Snake thought, then smiled to himself.  Old habits.    

Snake was relieved to be rid of the horses for this trip, and glad he didn't have to talk Rain out of bringing them along.  He felt more comfortable with machines and his own muscle-power than with large, potentially uncooperative, pack animals.  He and Rain spent a while scouring the crowded floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the family room, and finally found the detailed atlas they were almost certain would be there somewhere.  They spent the rest of the day planning out their journey.  The

easiest route would be to take the central valley roads back south, avoiding the Sierra Nevada mountains, and swing east above Los Angeles, following I-40.  It would be a long, hard, dangerous trip, but they had all the time in the world.  Early the next morning, in a fine misting drizzle, they rolled down the driveway of the abandoned house and out onto the highway, heading back south on their heavily-loaded bikes.  As he pedaled along the rain-slicked blacktop, Snake thought to himself that he couldn't wait to get back into desert country.  He could do with a lot less water.

                                                       CHAPTER SEVEN                                                        

                                        

For the first leg of the journey, they followed the back roads and stopovers of Rain's old smuggling route to Ormsby's, conserving their supplies for the hard push across the desert, buying food whenever they could.  Rain did most of the negotiating, keeping Snake out of sight as much as possible, and often a hard-faced, narrow-eyed contact would find a little something he could spare and a place for them to spend the night when his old friend and pot connection, Rain, showed up at his door with hard coin in hand.  

A little less than a week's travel brought them to the turn-off above Bakersfield, and they swung east toward the gap in the mountains, the four-thousand-foot summit of Tehachapi Pass, and the Mojave desert beyond.  Constant biting wind swirled around them as they struggled upward toward the summit, walking the bicycles through the layer of mud and slush laid down over the road by the early spring runoff.  The air grew cooler, then cold, and the road became a narrow track of lumpy, hard-packed snow trampled down by the few travelers who had preceded them along this route.  A sheer wall of dark rock rose on one side of the road, and a sharp drop-off fell down toward an indistinct jumble of snow-covered scree, brush, and scrubby trees on the other.  A thin black line in the white at the bottom of the slope showed where a little stream was hidden under late-winter ice and snow.

Snake called a halt when a light drizzle began falling around midafternoon, and they wrapped their packs in the rainproof tarps he had taken from the old winery's  garage.  He and Rain pulled the hoods of their parkas up over their heads and slogged on through the wet, pushing the bikes, looking for a sheltered place to set up camp.  The drizzle became rain, which froze on the packed snow, and they slipped and slid on the slick, uneven surface, slowing their progress to a cautious walk.  Snake squinted against the flat whiteness around him, and Rain read, in the cat-footed gait of the body ahead of him, Snake's narrow, needle-sharp concentration on the next second, the next step, the next necessary shift in his balance-point.  The wind drove strands of his long hair across Snake's white face like tiny whip-strokes as he raised his head, scouting ahead, questing as if he smelled threat in the wet, cold air.  Rain found himself admiring the leashed power, the surefooted grace, of the other man as he moved.  His attention strayed, briefly, from his own footing.  

There was a scraping sound beside him, and Rain felt his bike slip and skid sideways toward the edge of the road.  He half-fell, half-flung himself, after it in a reflexive lunge, slipped on the wet ice, and slid into the slushy snow beyond the packed surface, losing his grip on the bike.  The machine and its trailer slithered down the incline and splashed through a thin layer of ice into the little stream below.  Snake made a futile grab for him at the same moment the bank crumbled under Rain and the younger man snowplowed downward.               

"Shit!"  Snake set his own bike's kickstand in a depression in the packed snow and edged to the overlook.  Halfway down the slope, Rain was struggling up out of a pile of slush, and, a good fifteen feet below him, his bike lay on its side in the freezing water, one of the trailer's wheels on the top side spinning slowly.  Rain braced himself against a scrubby bush, melting snow dripping down his face, and looked back up the hill toward Snake.                                                                      

"Stay there."  Snake dug into his own trailer and pulled out a length of rope.  He went to work a short way back from the edge, hacking at the hard ground with his boot knife until he had created two rough depressions in the frozen snow and rocks  where he could brace his feet, then passed the rope around his own waist and tied it off in a firm knot.   He called down the slope to Rain, "Can you tie a rescue knot?"

"Yeah," Rain grunted through teeth clenched against the cold.  He was shivering hard as icy water soaked through his clothes and trickled down the back of his neck under his parka.

Snake threw the free end of the length of rope down the embankment to Rain.  Fighting his rapidly numbing fingers, Rain doubled the rope, passed it through and yanked it firm into a three-looped  harness, then tightened it around his waist and legs.  He felt the harness pull against his body, and began climbing up the muddy slope, balancing against the rocks, feeling for footholds in the loose scree.   As the ground shifted under him and pebbles rattled downward, Rain could feel Snake's solid strength through the line, steadying him, pulling him upward hand over hand to safety.  Rain bellied over the shoulder of the road and struggled to his feet.  He pulled off the rope harness, taking a quick inventory of his battered body: nothing broken, as far as he could tell, just a few cuts, scrapes, and bruises, and a long, knife-like gash on one forearm, where his sleeve had slid up when he grabbed for the falling bike.  That'll teach you to keep your mind on where your feet are, Rain, he thought.  The two men stared wordlessly for a moment down the slope at the bike and trailer half-buried in slush and broken ice.  

"I'll go back down for it," Rain said at last.

Snake eyed him.  "You ever climbed in snow and ice?"

"No," Rain admitted.

"Right.  I'll get it."   

Rain's fingers and toes were wooden with the cold, and he could hardly feel his legs below the knees, where the icy water had soaked his pants.  There was no time to worry about that yet.  They had to retrieve the trailer before its contents became completely water-logged.  Working together, he and Snake anchored the rope around the largest outcropping of rock on the other side of the road, then Snake rappelled down the hill to the bike.  Rain watched as Snake unhitched trailer from bike, pulled both of them up onto the bank, then lashed the bike on top of the trailer and its pack and secured the whole package with a knot on the front hitch.  Snake stood for a few minutes looking back up the slope, then positioned the trailer pointing uphill.  He struggled back to the roadway, pulling hand-over-hand up the taut rope, then turned and braced himself in the improvised footholds he had cut into the ground.

"Snug it up," Snake called back over his shoulder in Rain's direction, and the younger man nodded.  Snake planted his feet and pulled slowly, steadily, guiding the heavy, unwieldy load of bike and trailer up the hill through the loose scree and brush to the surface of the road.  Rain kept the rope taut, adding his strength to the effort and wrapping the loose rope around the rock outcropping to secure it as Snake pulled the load gradually upward.  When the bike and trailer were safely back on the road, Snake and Rain stood for a moment, breathing heavily.

"Dry off," Snake ordered shortly.  There was a military snap in his tone, distant echo of a young Lieutenant Plissken.  Rain realized his brain, as well as his body, had been slowly going numb as the cold of his wet clothing sank into him.  He started toward his rescued pack, but before he could reach it, Snake was rummaging hurriedly through the contents.  He shook his head.  "It's all soaked.  You'll have to use mine."

Snake opened his own trailer, removed a blanket and handed it to Rain, then pulled out a set of dry clothing.  Rain undressed under the blanket, which cut the worst of the wind, and clumsily pulled on jeans, shirt, pullover, socks, and Snake's spare pair of boots, then his own waterproof parka.  He shoved his wet clothes back into his pack, as Snake reassembled Rain's bike and trailer, and the two of them moved a little way down the road until they found a wider area where they could set up camp on the upper shoulder.  The afternoon grayed toward dusk and the temperature dropped, as the rain turned to flurries of snow and then died away altogether.  The  wind cut like broken glass against Rain's face.  Numbly, he helped Snake stretch two of  the soggy blankets between some of the taller rocks and weight them down with stones to form an improvised windbreak, then gather some bits of dryer wood from the tangled bushes at the side of the road.  Pitching the tent on the opposite side created a relatively sheltered area where they were able to keep a fire going and thaw out slightly.  Self-heating foodpacks from the camping supplies helped warm their interior.  As they crouched near the little blaze, downing the last of their coffee, Rain glumly contemplated his clammy possessions.

Snake glanced up at the sky, where the wind above the peaks was driving away the last streaks of cloud.  "It's clearing,' he said.  "There'll be a hard freeze tonight."  He swallowed the last of his black coffee, shook out the cup, and replaced it in his pack.  "There's a trick I learned in Russia: spread your wet shit out on the rocks.  What doesn't evaporate will freeze, and we can shake it off in the morning."

Rain thought about this for a minute.  "Freeze-dried clothes."     

"You got it."  Snake almost smiled, and Rain was warmed by the hint of unspoken approval he thought he read in the other man's expression.  The two of them set about triaging the contents of Rain's pack.  They dropped the opened packs of food into the slush at the side of the road, where they would freeze solid and not attract animal scavengers, and repacked the sealed ones.  Soaked cloth was weighted and spread out over rocks, bikes, and scrubby bushes before they doused the fire and retreated into the interior of the tent for the night.  By the cold green light of a chemlamp, Rain set the rest of his damp equipment out on the floor of the tent to dry, as Snake unrolled his warm multilayer sleeping bag.  One of the casualties of the stream had been Rain's own sleeping bag, which was stretched over several tangled bushes outside.  Snake stripped to his underwear, ignoring the frigid temperature inside the tent, sat down on the edge of the sleeping bag to pull off his boots, then folded the bag up around himself.  As Rain hesitated, Snake growled, "Come on; get in here."       

Rain shucked Snake's borrowed garments down to the underwear, and slid into the sleeping bag next to the older man.  He curled against him, spoon-fashion, as Snake zipped the bag closed.  Rain laid his head down and closed his eyes.  Slowly, as their combined body warmth filled the narrow space, Rain began to thaw out, and his body relaxed.  A drowsy peace washed through him.  He shifted, feeling himself cupped in the security of Snake's strong, hard-muscled body.  He didn't have to try so hard any more.  Snake knew what to do.  He could handle this icy wasteland.  He could handle whatever they would meet; he and Snake could handle it together.  He, Rain, had steered them wrong every time he'd tried to take over, leading them to the disaster at Rivendell, leaving a trail for the bounty hunter.  From now on, Snake would make the decisions.  Rain smiled, feeling a great weight lift from him, and sighed softly, sinking toward sleep.  His body curved against Snake's.

With an abrupt shock, he came back to wakefulness.  The thick bar of Snake's erect cock was hard against him, pressing into his ass.  He tried to ignore it.  It's just some kind of reflex; it doesn't mean anything, he thought.  Snake's hand reached down between them and cupped Rain's buttcheek, then paused.  Rain felt the unasked question.  Why?  Why now? he wondered.  What's this all about?  Joy and wonder leaped in him.  Who cares why?  "Wait, Snake," he said softly.  He unzipped a corner of the sleeping bag and fumbled for his toiletries case, reached inside and fished out a little tube of lubricant.  He rezipped the bag, and slipped the tube down between them into Snake's questing hand.  He heard Snake's soft, half-laughing snort next to his ear.  After a moment, Snake's hand slid down inside Rain's shorts, and Rain felt the rough rasp of callused flesh gripping his bare butt.  Hard, slick fingers shoved into his asshole, working him open.  The request became demand, and Rain surrendered to it eagerly.

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

Snake felt Rain's body, cupped against his own, gradually warm and stop shivering, felt the rigid tension drain out of  it.  Faint residual glow of the chemlamp, turned to its lowest setting, picked out the dark mass of Rain's long, thick hair on the headrest next to his.  A stray strand was partway under his cheek, soft against his own bearded flesh, smelling faintly, not unpleasantly, of woodsmoke and snowmelt.  The   smooth silk of it stirred old memories, old responses.  The lithe, wiry body curled against him had a familiar shape and proportion.   Exactly Taylor's size…   The round curve of Rain's ass against his belly was inviting.  Snake felt his cock start to harden, felt the younger man tense slightly, then move closer into Snake's own body.   Make a decision, Snake.  Now.  He remembered Taylor lying like this against him, remembered what they had shared wordlessly and without any need of labels or explanations or definitions.  Never again; not like that.  Why did this kid make him think of Taylor?  Snake's mind jumped to Carjack, to the occasional other men over the years.  It's just sex. Yeah. That's all.  His mind brought up the bedraggled, dripping figure of Rain shivering on the roadway, waiting for Snake to give directions.  Rain wanted to take it up the ass from him.  That was a strength for Snake, not a vulnerability.  Snake could punk him, the way he had punked Carjack, and the kid would roll over for him.  It's just sex, Snake.  Lust surged through him and his cock hardened further.      

Snake moved his hand down between them and cupped Rain's ass, gripping it firmly.  He could read the surprise, anticipation, and uncertainty in the small movements of Rain's back and shoulders as the younger man reacted.  Snake smiled inwardly, knowing that Rain was probably scrambling madly for some explanation. Hph! Let 'im wonder.  Snake was going to enjoy himself, that was all.  He felt Rain twist, unzip his side of the bag and reach for something.  What?  Rain twisted back, handing what he had extracted from his small personal possessions bag, over his arm and shoulder, to Snake.  Snake squinted in the weak light at the small plastic tube of lube.  He snorted softly.  These faggots are always lookin' for it.

Snake kneaded the frozen tube and the gel within until it was warm in his fingers, opened it, and reached a hand down, running the lube over his hard cock.  Familiar, all of it.  He slipped lubricated fingers inside Rain's ass, worked it open, pushing harder into the slick passage as his hand remembered decades-old skills.  Snake slid his hips forward, wrapped an arm like an iron bar around Rain's body, and pulled the younger man to him.  His cock found Rain's asshole and slid home into it, thrusting, his body returning to rhythms it knew so well.  He felt Rain pushing backward against him, taking Snake farther into him, deepening the contact, and a fierce, pure, animal drive took Snake.  Eyes closed, mind blank, Snake's powerful body drove against Rain's and felt Rain respond.  Snake felt the lifting surge, felt it crest, felt himself cum, then slid hard, like his Gulffire down the front of a storm cloud, into the trough, gliding home on descending force to a stop.      

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

Rain was awakened by morning sunshine turned pale and milky by the blue walls of the tent.   He opened his eyes and, very slowly, shifted his position, turning his head to look at Snake.  Still asleep, his face relaxed, the man lay next to him breathing quietly.  Rain studied Snake's strong face. The eyepatch, still in place, seemed a part of him, like the scars and the weathered features.  Snake was a fighter who could never afford mercy for himself or anyone else, a fierce and dangerous man, an unsentimental survivor living on iron will, quick wits, and nerve.  But Rain thought he saw in the sleeping face a bone-deep weariness, a bleak loneliness, that was invisible in Snake's determined waking expression, and the younger man responded with a rush of confused emotion.  A strand of auburn hair, captured by the thin cord of the patch, lay against Snake's forehead, curled like a question-mark.     

Rain lay perfectly still, hardly breathing, but as his gaze touched Snake's closed eye, the other man awoke, effortlessly and instantly crossing the boundary between sleep and awareness.  Snake opened his eyes and looked back at Rain.  The visible eye was ice-blue and intense, challenging.  It was Rain who jumped.  "What?" the raspy, sleep-roughened voice inquired.

Snake's good eye tracked Rain as the younger man backed away.  Fabric tightened around the two of them, cold against Rain's back, and he heard the faint scrape of nylon on nylon in the silence, as the sleeping bag moved on the tent floor.  Warm air with the mingled scent of their bodies flowed up from the sudden gap between them.  It had happened.  Neither of them had dreamed it.  What was Snake going to do about it?  With an effort, Rain held himself completely still and quiet, keeping his face neutral, not forcing the issue.  Anything he did now could be a mistake.  Don't spook him.  He had to let Snake take the lead.

The cold challenge in Snake's eye did not change, but a half-smile curved his mouth, softening it.  Deliberately, he raised a hand and ran a thick strand of Rain's hair slowly through his fingers, giving it a little tug as he released it.  It was a sensual and somehow proprietary gesture, sexual but not in the least tender.  There were no words, but Rain was satisfied: Snake acknowledged what had happened.  Rain considered a kiss and quickly discarded the idea.  This was something different from what had been between him and Lynx, between him and Lanny.  There was a barrier between him and Snake that he did not understand and could not cross.  He knew now they would not talk about it, and realized that, strangely, that made it all the more real and meaningful.  The more important something is to Snake, the less he talks about it, Rain thought to himself.  He smiled warmly at the other man.  "I'm O.K., Snake," he said.

Snake snorted softly.  He unzipped the sleeping bag.  In a few forceful movements, he was out of the cloth cocoon and on his feet.  He picked up the clothes he had left on the tent floor the night before and dressed with economical efficiency.  Rain turned over and stared up at him.  "Time to get up," Snake growled, roughening his voice. "C'mon."  He turned and stepped outside, into the wind.  Rain watched the tent's entry-flap fall shut behind Snake's confident exit, then went to dress and begin the task of reclaiming his freeze-dried supplies, smiling to himself.                                    

As they moved out into the lowland basin, the problem became, not an excess of water, but a lack of it.  Days passed and winter shaded into spring, the temperature rising toward the killing heat of summer, the sun beating down through the clear air, scorching them with ultraviolet through the depleted ozone layer.  Miles that had whizzed by in hours by car took strenuous days of pedaling by bicycle.  Rain drew on hazy memories of his one trip around the Circuit, the summer before he had fostered out to Rivendell.  They were not much help.  Rain's guide had drilled him on the bioregion and the natural ecology of the route they were following, but he was surprised to find how academic the information became when he was faced with practical problems of survival: food, shelter, and, above all, drinkable water.  He found himself depending on Snake's distant memories of sketchy Special Forces training for fighting in Mongolia and Afghanistan, and even sketchier memories of his Arizona childhood.   

Rain rode along with his face set in a mask of fierce concentration, searching for the creek the map claimed was somewhere nearby.  Flat, tan ground stretched out in every direction, broken by an occasional joshua tree or scrubby creosote bush.  He tried to remember landmarks and connect them with the symbols on the flat paper surface.  Four years ago, coming from the opposite direction in a van, there had been a line of buttes.  Yes, there they were.  Or maybe they were some others that looked like the ones he remembered.  Anxiety settled in Rain's belly as it was brought home to him once again that if they failed to find water, both he and Snake might well die here in the unforgiving desert.

"Rest stop," Snake called over his shoulder from up ahead.  He squinted up at the angle of the sun in the afternoon sky, and pedaled more slowly, scanning the road, evidently looking for a good place to pull off and wait out the heat of the day.  At the top of the next shallow rise in the blacktop was a good-sized boulder casting a shadow, barely wide enough for two people, away from them.  The ribbon of pavement was visible for a distance in either direction, giving them advance warning of any other traffic along the road.  Although they often saw no one for days at a time along the desert highway, they both wanted to be cautious.  Rain drew up beside him as Snake dismounted and dropped the kickstand of his bicycle.  The older man sat down in the strip of shade and pulled off the wide-brimmed hat he had brought with him from the old winery in Napa, wiping sweat from his forehead with a khaki-cotton sleeve.  Snake had accepted that, much as he hated to have his arms and head covered, the UV was too bad here to travel for long in the open with bare skin exposed.  He took a sip from his canteen, rolling it in his mouth a moment before swallowing.  Rain knew Snake's water-bottle, like his own, was almost empty.  

"Hot," Rain said.  Snake gave him a look, disdaining to respond to the obvious, and fanned himself slowly with the hat as he studied the road.  Rain sighed once, and dug in his pack for his copy of the map.  He pored over it for a while, hunting for landmarks in the vicinity of the small creek they were looking for, and finally muttered, "Damn!"     

"What?"

"The creek's somewhere along here."   

Snake took the map from him.  "Here's that side road we just passed.  I remember the sign."  His forefinger, with its short, ragged nail, stabbed down on the paper, pointing.  "I'd make it, we're about here."  A fine, squiggly, blue line indicated an arroyo not far ahead.  "Wash should be another two miles."  

"Yeah, I see it."  Rain leaned over for a better look, frowning.  "I should be better at this.  I was being taught to guide, but this is my first trip without someone who knows the water stops."

"Final exam time."  Snake's tone sounded almost indifferent.  

Rain felt a chill along his backbone at the bleak fatalism he saw in the other's expression.  Here was a man, Rain thought, who had looked his own death in the face without fear and accepted its inevitability without surrender.  "Yeah," he repeated, feeling very inadequate.  

They rested through the hottest part of the day, and resumed their journey when the air had cooled a little.  Several miles farther on, they found the spot where a culvert passed under the highway, and tracked the fine gray gravel of the wash back to the creek.  Rain and Snake filled all their water containers, drank, and rinsed off in the tepid, ankle-deep liquid, then set up camp out of sight of the road, in the lengthening evening shadows.  They would take advantage of the little stream for a stopover, to conserve the water they carried.       

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

Snake sat down on a smooth, flat stone near the rivulet of spring runoff in the arroyo and rested, feeling the first faint breeze of evening across his cheek.  In the stillness, he could hear the almost soundless flow of the stream in its shallow bed of pebbles.  A flicker of motion caught his eye, and he turned to see a desert rattlesnake emerging from its daytime shelter under a large slab of rock.  Snake froze, perfectly still, absorbed in the sight, as the serpent began nudging at the rough edges of the outcropping, rubbing its head against the gritty surface.  The rattler seemed oblivious to him, intent on its own private purposes in its silent world where humans had no place.  If he did not bother it, Snake thought, it would not bother him, but there was no way he could reach it, except to call forth its angry defense.  

The snake pushed its head back and forth against the rough rock until dry skin split and came away from its jaws, then began gliding forward, struggling to work itself free.  As the translucent husk peeled back, Snake saw the new scales shining in glossy diamond patterns down its back and sides.  The snake gradually pulled itself out of its dead shedding, adding one more dark button to the rattles on its tail, and    Snake watched the graceful, gleaming creature as it turned and flowed away over the ground toward its evening hunt.  The last flick of its tail as it disappeared into the slanting light seemed like a salute or a signal.  How many lives, how many identities, had he gained and shed since the time, years ago, when he had watched the white cobra whose image he bore shed her skin?  Snake thought about the cobra circling restlessly within her herpetarium before a shed.  He remembered her, her eyes turned milky with old scales, bunting blindly against the invisible glass walls of her prison, looking for a way to free herself from the uncomfortable, too-tight skin that bound her in outgrown patterns.  Which was he, Snake wondered, the rattler or the cobra?  He looked over to where Rain knelt, blowing bits of brushwood kindling into a fire, and shrugged as he rose to go join the younger man.  Behind him, desert air plucked at a filmy remnant of shed skin clinging to the stone.     

A streak of brownish-gray exploded out of a low bush in front of Snake's feet.  Snake froze, following its path with his eye, and several yards farther on, the streak slowed and became a rabbit.  It looked around, nose twitching furiously, then hopped over to begin nibbling on some green leaves growing near the edge of the wash.                                                     

Dinner…. .  Snake dug in his pack for the elegant little automatic pistol he had taken from the shack by Carquinez Bridge, smiling to himself as he loaded the .38 and clipped on stock and sights.  There would be a lot of rabbits coming down to the wash in the evening to drink and look for tender green vegetation fed by the spring runoff.  He slipped off the safety with a satisfying click.

Rain was on his feet now, a look of alarm on his face.  "What are you doing?"  

"Want to see what a Magnum would do to a three-pound chunk of bunny? "

"No," Rain said, " I mean, why kill something?  We're O.K. on food."

Snake eyed him.  "We need to conserve what we've got."   Rain stirred and opened his mouth as if to protest, then closed it again, evidently defeated by Snake's unyielding expression and air of command.  "Stay put," Snake said shortly.  An image of the sprung snares he had come across in the woods around Rivendell rose in his mind.  "And be quiet," he added in Lieutenant Plissken's voice.    

Snake moved out along the stream-bed, scouting and stalking in the timeless patience of the hunter until he had the small brown form of a rabbit sighted in the .38's crosshairs.  He squeezed the trigger delicately, adjusting for the Walther's light action.  The recoil barely registered after the Magnum's familiar heavy kick.  The rabbit disappeared in a puff of dust stirred up by the bullet and reappeared an instant later flat on its side, head blown open, fur matted with fresh blood.  Snake felt a surge of grim satisfaction.  It was good to be taking control of his own basic survival again.  He walked over, picked up the still-warm carcass by a hind leg, and hefted it in his hand.  Not much there for a good meal.  Snakes get hungry after they shed.  Snake missed the next rabbit he shot at, but killed the third.  He skinned and cleaned them, leaving the pile of entrails for the desert scavengers, and carried his prey back to cook over the campfire.  

Neither man spoke as Snake spitted the meat, roasted it over the flame, ate it with evident enjoyment, and disposed of the bones.  The small fire of creosote bush and dry desert sage crackled in the silence between them, sending up a sharp scent to mingle with the savory smell of roast rabbit.  Glowing flecks of fire scattered upward into the growing darkness.  At last, they snuffed out the fire and rolled up in their respective sleeping bags for the night.  The silence lengthened as each man lay still, wrapped in his own separate thoughts.

The kid seemed to be learning to keep his mouth shut, Snake mused, with slow approval.  Maybe the Rivendell shit was wearing off.  Snake thought back to the night he and Rain had shared a sleeping bag on Tehachapi Pass.  They hadn't repeated it, and so far Rain had kept his own silence, the same kind of calm silence Taylor had given him.  Snake and Taylor had never needed words; they understood each other: two pilots on parallel flight paths.  They had been exactly the same distance apart on the day Taylor died as they had been nine years earlier when they become partners in Black Light Squadron.  Snake brought up memories of his graceful Gulffire.  Contact, in midair, was fatal.  Safety lay in maintaining perfect spacing.  Rain seemed to be grasping that.  Good.

His mind returned to the rattler he had watched shed its skin.  For the moment he, like the snake, seemed to have slithered free of all the identities other people created to hold him captive, all the glass boxes.  He turned his head to see the indistinct shape of Rain's sleeping-bag, a faintly darker blur against the pale desert floor.  How many more skins to shed?  Snake closed his eyes and sank toward sleep on the sound of the desert wind.  

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

At the same time, Rain lay staring toward the distant mountains, watching the first bright points of light fill the darkening sky.  Images of the limp, dead rabbit-bodies dangling from Snake's hand filled him with a churning mix of sorrow and pain, guilt and confusion.  He hadn't eaten any of the meat - at the thought, acid bile rose in the back of his throat and he swallowed hard - but he hadn't done anything to stop the slaughter either.  Why?  It wasn't just that Snake had told him not to interfere.  Rain shifted restlessly, staring up into the black void of the night sky.  Killing his own game, Snake had seemed so natural….

Rain thought back to the snares he had destroyed in the Rivendell forest, Snake's snares.  He's gone feral.  No, a conviction slowly formed out of the confusion: Snake always had been feral, always would be.  He was something more and less than fully human; he was a part of the wild world.  That was why Mother Gaia had chosen Snake for her great purpose, the destruction of the Machine.  Rain remembered his glib comment to Snake: "Here the dying gives life.  It's part of the pattern."  He had said it, but he had not really believed it then.  Now he did.  The owl and the mouse; the wolf and the deer: Snake was a part of that pattern, too.  In Gaia's wild world, as he had been taught, life created death created life: the rabbit who cropped the grass, and the fox who killed her, and the innocent swarming life forms that broke down all of their dead bodies into the rich humus out of which new life grew, and the equally innocent ones - Rain thought with a sudden chill of his conversation with Dr. Spencer - that brought disease and death to all of them.   It was all part of an interwoven pattern with Snake at the center, but the pattern, like Snake, was an alien and disturbing mystery beyond human understanding, beyond human definitions.  It was not his place to judge or interfere with the role Mother Gaia had chosen for Snake, Rain thought to himself.  An uneasy resignation, full of unanswered questions, settled over him.  He rolled over to face Snake's sleeping bag.  A faint smell of burnt ash from the scattered fire drifted to him on the light desert wind as he turned.  He noticed it was getting cold.  "Good night, Snake," he called softly into the darkness.  From the other sleeping bag, a neutral sound of acknowledgement answered him.  Rain closed his eyes and settled himself for sleep.

                    

  

They woke early and traveled on, riding in the morning, resting through the hottest part of the day, and traveling again late in the day when the air was cooler.  When the moon cast enough light, they sometimes slept by day and traveled by night.  They felt no need to hurry, and set no timetable.  Snake kept a certain distance, concentrating on the journey, keeping his flight path parallel.  He let himself become a part of the rhythm of movement, the sweeping open spaces, and the solitude.  The miles stretched ahead and behind, an empty ribbon of concrete carrying them farther and farther toward their goal.  They met no other travelers, now, on the road.  Either people were avoiding the desert crossing, or the whole world had died.  Snake told himself he didn't much care which.  Now and then they passed empty vehicles, cars or trucks, left abandoned on the road when the power had gone out.  The few big rigs had been opened, their cargoes rifled.  An occasional campsite, where one of the cars had been pushed to the side of the road and a makeshift shelter set up beside or beneath it, told a silent story.  Snake remembered the public service announcements he had seen printed and heard on the news channels: If your vehicle breaks down in a wilderness area, stay with it until help comes.  Don't leave your car.  Patiently, or desperately, hoping for assistance from the highway patrol, the passengers had obediently stayed with their cars, growing weaker and weaker as the days passed, until at last they had died there, waiting for the official help that never came.  Snake and Rain pedaled on past without stopping.         

A few miles past the ghost town of Barstow, a scatter of bleached human bones along the side of the road caught Snake's attention, and he stopped to examine them briefly.  The mysterious gnawed fragments left behind by the desert scavengers looked as though they had been there for months.  Still, he and Rain rode on warily, weapons at the ready.  A few miles farther, and Snake caught a flash of light reflected off something some distance from the road.  Glass? Snake wondered; metal?  Whatever it was might prove useful, or at least provide some answers.  He and Rain parked their bikes on the shoulder and approached the reflection cautiously.  They came over a rise to find metal chunks spread across the other side of the hill and down the slope into the flat land beyond, where something had plowed into the ground with considerable force and been broken apart by the impact.

"It's a plane," Rain said at last, pointing toward the tip of a wing standing half-buried in the sand like a giant metal surf-board.  

"Was," Snake agreed.  He studied the wreckage.  "Big one… transcontinental, looks like."  

They worked their way downhill between charred and crumpled pieces of metal.  One large section of fuselage was relatively intact, although fragments of bone and cloth still strapped into the seats showed that the passengers had not survived the crash.  A sun-faded strip of red fabric twisted in the fitful wind, drawing Snake's eye to the motion.  A cross-section of the compartment had flipped, leaving the seats attached to what was now the ceiling, and through the jagged metal semicircle created by the broken  hull, Snake could see the mummified remains of a woman hanging suspended from her locked seatbelt.  The dangling shreds of fabric were what was left of her clothing.  In the seat beside her was a smaller mummy, its dry brown flesh partially covered in rags that had once, apparently, been a blue dress.  It no longer had a head.  Snake looked down.  Next to his own boot, almost buried in wind-drifted sand, was a candy-colored blue plastic sandal, its strap broken.  Snake pulled his attention back to the passenger cabin.  An empty seat close to him had a newspaper shoved into the fabric seat-back holder.  Snake reached in, pulled it out, and unfolded the brittle sheets of paper.  At the top of one of the less-faded inside pages, he could make out a date: the Lynchburg Times, Early Edition, for October twenty-third, 2013.  The day he had shut down the world.  Snake dropped the page of newsprint, and it blew away across the ground on the wind.  How many planes had been airborne, Snake wondered numbly, when he pushed the button on the Sword of Damocles remote?  Out of the corner of his eye, Snake caught movement.  He turned to see Rain staring at what was left of a tattered stuffed toy he had picked up from the dirt at his feet.  Gingerly, the younger man pressed a control in the toy's back.  Nothing happened.  Everything had shut down when he pushed the button, Snake thought: planes, automobiles, computers, refrigerators, toasters... talking toys… everything…. .  Gone, all of them.

Snake and Rain looked at each other and silently turned away, heading back toward the place they had left their bikes.  They didn't bother to explore any further.  On the way they passed a burned-out section of the plane's tail.  Beyond it was a neat row of rocks with a chevron of rocks at one end, an arrow marker laid out on the sandy clay to show the direction the survivors had taken.  It pointed toward the road and the way Snake and Rain had come.              

The two men returned to the spot at the side of the road where they had left their bikes, and pedaled on without speaking.  Rain seemed subdued, and Snake was glad of the silence.  "The name's Plissken "…click…. .   Snake's imagination called up vivid pictures: the sudden silence of the jets, the downward plunge as the desperate pilot fought unresponsive controls, the shattering impact, the upward roar of consuming flame, then nothing.  He imagined the screams of the passengers, abruptly silenced, or, for the burned and mangled who survived for a time after the crash, less abruptly silenced.  For a morbid moment Snake wondered if the mummified girl's head had been ripped off by flying debris before or after he had lighted his American Spirit cigarette and stumped off into the dark to "disappear."  At the thought, Snake was flooded with a raw, sharp remembered craving for nicotine.  The last of the cigars had been smoked days ago.  No, he thought, it didn't just stop when I shut down the power.  It doesn't just end.  There are always consequences.       

Snake's hands, clenched on the handlebars, were like ice.  A corner of his mind said he ought to be able to see his breath; the air was so cold…. .  He saw the flaming ruins of Novosibirsk, the shape of his Gulffire, dark between fire and snow, and the child he had shot, dying at his feet.  Collateral damage… just collateral damage…. .  Memories of the black cold of November in New York Max, lit by flickering fires, of the charred wreckage of the President's plane, and Hauk's voice: "It's the survival of the human race, Plissken; something you don't give a shit about…."."   Visions of the frozen dead in the snows of  Canada.  Another voice: "So what happened to you, War Hero?  Whadda you have to say, Plissken…? ?  Snake pedaled grimly on, feet moving up and down mechanically as he drove himself forward, legs pumping furiously as if to outpace the images, the thin remembered smell of gas in his nostrils, his thoughts swirling and dissolving like smoke on the wind.  Welcome to the human race…. .   He heard Rain's voice behind him and slowed to allow the other man to catch up to him.  The two rode onward side by side in silence.

At last weariness forced them to stop and make camp for the night.  Banked clouds on the horizon suggested a rare spring storm might be in the offing, and they reluctantly pitched their tent.  They still had not exchanged more than three or four laconic sentences since leaving the site of the crash.  Snake chewed a few mouthfuls of something without tasting, before he and Rain unrolled their sleeping bags and smothered the last dying embers of their campfire.  Snake pulled the nylon close around him, trying to force himself into sleep, fighting the visions.  Sleep was a long time coming.  When it did come, he could not defeat his dreams.      

He stood at attention before the court martial.  Behind the judges, to one side, stood the American flag, the way it had stood on the day he had accepted his commission.  To the other side stood the standard of Black Light Squadron.  The judges stared at him coldly, their faces set in expressions of contempt and formal disapproval: his father, Colonel Robert J. Plissken, in his Air Force dress blues, the braid on his cap and his silver eagles glinting in the harsh light; to one side of him Colonel Bailey, commander of Black Light.  With puzzlement, he recognized the third figure: his ROTC instructor.  What was he doing here, among all the brass?  On the polished wooden tabletop was the black box of the Sword of Damocles remote, the red numbers glowing balefully 666.  He could feel the presence of observers behind him, but didn't dare turn around.  He looked down; the colored bars of his ribbons showed on his chest, and, farther down toward the floor, USPF rod handcuffs gleamed dully against his uniform.                                                                   

"Plissken, Steven David, Lieutenant."

Snake's head snapped up and he focused.  He had two good eyes.  The voice came again, crisp and precise: Taylor's voice, reading the charge.  "Lieutenant Plissken, you stand accused of crimes against humanity.  How do you plead?"  Snake's "not guilty" stuck in his throat.  The small, dark-haired man faced him accusingly: "Why'd you do it, War Hero?"      

"I… d don't know…" " Snake felt his words, burning dry and hot in his raw throat.  The sides of his neck ached.  He could feel pellets there, dissolving.

"You don't know!" his father's scornful voice mocked him. "You never do know, do you, Steven?  You didn't think, did you?  You live in a world of collateral damage.  The last man standing, aren't you, Steven?  The only one left alive."

There was a rising murmur from behind him, indistinct sounds, and Snake threw a look over his shoulder at the crowd of observers.  In the dimness beyond the courtroom railing they stood, bloodied and broken: the men of Black Light... Cabbie, his head a shattered mass... Maggie in her bloody dress... Fresno Bob, a skinned horror... Brain...a figure burned beyond recognition that might have been Carjack Malone... Taslima...a crowd of others.  So many, all his innocent dead.  Their voices rose wordlessly, like a wind, and they swayed like plants in an ocean current, blindly, holding out their hands in his direction.  To one side Dawn stood by herself.  As Snake watched, she raised her arm and pointed in his direction, her face grave and disapproving.  "What do you have to say for yourself, Plissken?" Taylor barked at him.      

Snake turned back, clenching his jaw hard, staring straight ahead, pulling himself up to more rigid attention.  At last he grated, "No… e excuse, Sir."  As he stared, bloody letters slowly formed, oozing from the shining oak paneling behind the judges' heads.  My Lai, they read, Andersonville… Wounded Knee… Dresden… Hiroshima… Baghdad …Moscow… more names, the letters scrolling down, blurring into each other.      Snake's ROTC instructor read the list in a droning, lecture-hall tone.  He stood and stretched out a classroom pointer, and the wall dissolved into a TV screen, flickering in black-and-white footage from a late-night documentary program: piles of emaciated corpses.  …. . Crimes against humanity…. .  The wall reformed, the letters on it glowing like liquid  fire.  As the blood dripped down, it began to bubble, steam, spark into flame.  "S. D. Plissken: Planet Earth," his instructor's emotionless voice finished the roll call.

"You self centered, irresponsible, arrogant bastard!" Taylor's voice dragged Snake's attention back to his old sergeant.  "You were responsible.  You knew."  The stark white letters on Taylor's name badge read "Collateral Damage."  A hard, painful knot coiled in Snake's belly, burning.  He heard an echo of another desperate voice: "For God's sake, Snake, don't do it!"

The gavel in his father's hand slammed down.  "Guilty."  "Guilty," repeated each of the other judges.  Snake felt his guts twist, felt himself choking as he struggled to catch his breath.  His searched the unrelenting faces of his accusers.  What punishment?   

"The sentence is death," came Col. Bailey's emotionless voice.  "Living death, among the death you have created.  You carry death with you: whatever you touch will wither; whoever trusts you, will perish.  You are the murder of the innocent."  The three chorused, "You are Destruction."

Taylor came forward in formal parade-step, his face like stone, and began methodically stripping Snake's uniform, tearing away decorations, insignia, cutting away buttons.  Military snare drums sounded a measured cadence, drumming Snake out of the Service, out of Black Light.  Shame and guilt raged in him, and a cold fear.  Snake heard the sighing murmur of the observers rising behind him.  The knife in Taylor's hand flashed upward.  Pain flared, and, as Taylor stepped back, Snake saw in his partner's hand, his now sightless left eye.  Blood flowed down Snake's mutilated face like tears.  Taylor dropped the eye into the snow on the courtroom floor.  He slipped a black eyepatch in place over the oozing wound, saying "Here.  To remember us by.  You lived!"

The figures flickered and disappeared into tainted mist rising from the snowy floor as the letters on the wall roared into a sheet a flame, turning the mist blood-red.  There was a wrenching agony in his belly and Snake looked down to see the white cobra rear up into life out of his flesh, "You are Plissken," she hissed, twisted, and lunged forward to drive her fangs into Snake's chest, pumping poisonous rage that burned like acid into him.  He heard the screams of the observers behind him as he struggled to free himself of the handcuffs, and, in a final moment of terror, he felt the capsules in his neck exploding.  The courtroom dissolved into bloody live steam thick with the stench of gas and putrefaction…. .      

Rain was jerked out of his own uneasy sleep by the muffled sounds from Snake's sleeping bag.  He reached over and turned the chemlamp on at the lowest setting.  In the dim greenish light, he saw Snake, still asleep, thrashing within the nylon cocoon, struggling with some creature of his own imagination.  Rain unzipped his sleeping bag and moved over toward the other man.  In the cramped space of the tent, the air was thick with the smell of Snake's sweat and fear.  It's a bad one, Rain thought.  "Snake," he called softly, "Snake, wake up."  Snake continued throwing his head from side to side and moaning, and Rain shifted across the nylon floor toward him.  He raised his voice: "Snake!  It's a dream.  Wake up!"  Finally, he reached out and took hold of the other man's shoulder, shaking him at first gently, then harder.  Snake's teeth were gritted as he strangled on bits of unintelligible words, shuddering toward wakefulness.  Rain felt the tremors in the body under his hands as Snake's gasping breath slowed.  "It's O.K., Snake," he said.  "It's all right.  It's just a dream."  Snake's intensely blue eye fluttered open.  He unzipped his bag part-way and struggled toward a sitting position as Rain released his hold and rocked back on his heels.  Snake ran a hand over his wet face and pushed back strands of damp hair, still breathing raggedly, staring fixedly at nothing.  Finally, his eye focused, and he glanced around the tent, his expression still confused and disoriented.              

"You O.K.?" Rain asked.  Snake gave a rasping cough but didn't answer.  Silence stretched awkwardly as the two men sat staring at each other, only inches apart.  Rain reached out and put his hands on the other man's shoulders.  When Snake did not pull away, his grip tightened.  "I'm here, Snake," he said.  "I told you I wasn't going to run out on you."  Snake was rigid in his grasp, except for a slight flinch as Rain's hands met Snake's flesh.  For a long moment Rain held the pose, willing Snake to feel, through his touch, his determination.  Whatever Snake had done, he, Rain, would not betray the pledge he had made to Snake and to himself.  Snake needed him.  There was nobody else.  The older man raised his hands slowly to Rain's forearms, moving like an automaton.  It was all the permission Rain needed.  He slid forward and wrapped his arms around Snake, pulling the other to him in a hard embrace.  Short, ragged nails bit into Rain's shoulders as he felt Snake's body shuddering against him, felt Snake's breath in sharp, warm gusts against the side of his neck, felt Snake's face buried in his hair against his shoulders.  After a minute, the shuddering stopped.

  

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

For Snake, it was a confused, chaotic slide from nightmare into wakefulness.  The first thing he recognized was the warmth of bare flesh and the feel of thick, silky long hair against his sweaty face.  At the touch, he was flooded with a desperate, angry hunger, and a mindless need to regain contact with the real world.  His body remembered other nightmares, and the waking nightmare of his life; his flesh    remembered fear and pain, darkness and blood, the putrid stench of New York Max, and all the other things, and remembered driving them down into the place where he could control them, conquered in the flesh of his willing partners, with his face buried in their hair.  The hair had been blonde, or red, or dark; the body female or male.  It made no difference in the moment of his need.  Snake pulled himself loose from Rain's grip and unzipped his sleeping bag the rest of the way open.  Desperate for simple contact, for grounding in reality, he reached out.  With a wordless growl, he turned Rain over, shoved him down to the tent floor, and took him with animal passion in that oldest of all communications.  The sex was rough, almost violent.  Snake was relentless, driving fiercely into Rain, biting his shoulders, his fingers digging deep, his thrusts slamming the breath out of both of them, his cock burying itself in Rain as if trying to merge with him.  Snake came hard, with a strangled shout, and collapsed across Rain's back, breathing heavily.  He pulled out, rolled off, and lay still with his eyes closed.

For a long moment Rain lay still also, as if stunned by the intensity of Snake's assault.  Then he turned and levered himself up on one elbow, looking down into Snake's face.  He breathed a shaky laugh and smiled slightly, then leaned down.  His lips brushed Snake's, lightly, quickly, and were gone again.  Snake felt too tired to object.  With a little voiceless snort, he pulled Rain against him, spoon-fashion, and zipped up the sleeping bag with both of them inside it.  Spent, lulled by the warmth of each other's body, the two men drifted into sleep again, a sleep, this time, without dreams.         

Snake was quiet the next morning as they struck camp, distant and preoccupied.  He seemed drained of all emotion, running on automatic.  He pedaled steadily all day, unwilling to stop until he and Rain put distance between themselves and the wrecked aircraft.  That night, the two slept together again, Snake silently motioning Rain into his sleeping bag and taking him almost mechanically.  By the next day, the older man's stoic air of self-control had resurfaced, but the remoteness in his good eye remained.  Both men maintained a deliberate silence.

A few more days travel brought them to a big truck stop on the outskirts of Needles, where they halted to reconnoiter.  Snake studied the wide, deserted slab of concrete and felt the hairs on the back of his neck slowly rising.  The instinct he depended on for survival was screaming at him that something was wrong.  The hulks of several dusty and sun-faded automobiles dotted the pavement, and two abandoned long-haul eighteen-wheelers loomed in the shelter of the big service bays near the gas pumps, their cargo trailers open and stripped clean.  Beyond them was the squat, rectangular shape of the station's convenience store, glass front wall shattered, shelves almost empty.  In the center of the bare end-cap facing them, just inside the open door, was a case of red-and-white cans of soup.   Rain started forward, but stopped before he had completed the first step and looked back toward his companion.  Snake had not moved.  Rain raised his eyebrows and a grim little smile curved his mouth.

Snake nodded.  "Yeah.  Bait."                 

The two men pulled their bikes behind the gas pumps opposite the shop and armed themselves.  Rain cocked his crossbow and steadied it across his handlebars.  Snake's Magnums were a comforting weight at his sides as he removed the Barrett's protective covering and shifted it into firing position.  They skirted the edge of the service plaza, pushing their bikes, like scouts moving into enemy territory.  A flicker of almost-invisible movement behind a side window alerted Snake.  He ducked sideways, with a quick hand-signal to Rain, a second before a bullet flew between them, then raked the building with return fire from the Barrett.  Chunks of stucco and glass flew as the big gun smashed a smoking hole in the side of the building.  Shattering sound was followed by tense silence, as the hidden gunman evidently thought better of the unequal contest of firepower.  Snake and Rain moved quickly out of range, and headed in toward the center of town for a last try at replenishing their supplies before the long, barren stretch to Flagstaff.                                                           

"How stupid do they think we are?" Rain muttered as he pushed his bike along.  

"Not stupid," Snake said, "Desperate.  Anybody coming in from the desert's going to be low on supplies."  He snorted softly.  "Needles always has lived off people passing through.  The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The pair moved on, cat-footed and alert.  Needles seemed deserted.  The houses, drab stucco squares set in bare, packed yellow dirt, were quiet and seemingly abandoned.  Here and there, a door hung open on its hinges and a rectangle of light slashed into a dark interior of dull-white walls and faded linoleum flooring.  Whatever else was hidden inside was invisible in the dazzle of sun on the street, but Snake had a crawling sensation that he was being observed by something in the silence.  He hoped it was his imagination.        

They came to a asphalt parking lot where red-plastic letters on a bigger stucco building identified BASHAS SUPERMARKET.  The store's windows were shattered and its doors jammed open to reveal an interior littered with ripped boxes, bags and cartons, empty tin cans and bottles, overturned metal shelves, and broken equipment.  Smashed glass and shards of plastic glinted on the floor.  A faint, disgusting odor that reminded Snake of a fast-food dumpster on a hot summer afternoon drifted out to where he stood.  Black stains on the walls and concrete in front gave evidence of an earlier violent struggle, but Snake saw no fresh blood.  By the doors lay a bicycle with a pack strapped to the rear.  A thin tire-track in the dust indicated that the bike had recently arrived, but there was no sign of its rider.  Snake and Rain exchanged glances, then lowered the kickstands on their bikes and began a wary exploration of the building's exterior.  Snake's hands hovered over his Magnums, and Rain's cocked crossbow was held at the ready.  As the two men rounded a corner of the building, three figures huddled over something on the pavement suddenly exploded into flight.  Snake caught a glimpse of staring eyes, matted hair, and filthy rags, wrapped in an unmistakable stench that instantly brought back memories of New York Max.  One of the group fired hastily over his shoulder at Snake and Rain before all three vanished around a corner of the store's wall.

On the ground lay the body of what looked like the bicycle's owner.  There was a bullet wound in the back of the skull, and deep knife-gashes carved into the flesh of his back where the dead man's denim shirt had been slashed  open.  A long cut in the thick muscle of the man's tanned thigh oozed blood.  Snake took another quick look around, then squatted by the body and touched it with the tip of his finger.  The corpse was still warm.  "Cannibals," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.  Rain nodded, looking more than a little green, but standing his ground.  Good man, Snake thought as he rose to his feet again.

Surreal images rose in his imagination of the bloody struggle that had taken place here between desperate defenders of the market and the town's starving inhabitants, fighting for survival.  Multiply that by the population of Chicago, London, Paris, Shanghai, Calcutta, Mexico City… every city, everywhere.  The whole world had become New York Max.  No trucks, no trains, no airplanes to bring in supplies: first had come hunger, and then worldwide starvation, millions dead, the survivors turning on each other.  Snake felt a thin chill down his spine as the dark vision brought back an echo of his dream.  He pushed it away, down into the hidden place where S. D. Plissken still existed.  

"We've got to get out of the open," Rain said.  His voice was emotionless.  

Right.  They'll be back for their kill.  And for us, Snake thought.  The two men backtracked to the supermarket's open doors and wheeled their bicycles inside, out of range of gunfire.  Snake noticed Rain's nose wrinkling.  The dumpster-stink of decaying meat was thick in the hot, still air.  "Watch out front," Snake said shortly, and went to investigate the interior of the market.  A quick reconnaissance was all he needed.  The store's shelves had been stripped bare of anything useful.  Bubbled linoleum, blackened concrete subflooring, and charred splinters of bone showed where the cannibals had lighted fires to cook their victims.  At the right of the entrance, Snake found what had been the store's deli.  Behind a bank of glass cases, wide metal doors to walk-in coolers stood open, and inside one hung a human body, headless, gutted, and rotting, with ragged chunks of flesh hacked away.  Battlefield memories rose in the back of Snake's mind.  He swallowed hard.  You never get used to the smell.  He turned and walked back to where Rain was standing next to their bicycles, watching the approaches to the building.

"Nothing here," Snake said.  "Let's go."  

"Yeah," Rain answered.  His expression suggested he was having a battle with his stomach, and would be as glad as Snake to get out of Bashas Market.  His mouth became a grim line.  "They're still out there."                                                                    

I'll see if I can get up on the roof," Snake said.  "You stay here with the bikes."  Sniper situation.  Snake thought back to search-and-destroy missions in the streets of Russian cities, and old training clicked into place.  Red swinging doors in the back led to the warehouse.  In gray light filtering through their windows, Snake saw  the store's back entrance.  Rolling doors to the loading lock were secured with thick looped and padlocked chains and barricaded with a heavy mechanized pallet-jack.  Everything that could be moved had been piled on top and around it.  Nothing was getting in that way.  Snake gave a single short nod of satisfaction and moved on.     

After a bit of searching in the dimness, Snake located the access panel to the store's roof.  He pushed the rolling ladder across the wall, its rusty wheel squealing along the track, until it was under the panel, and climbed up.  The panel was wedged firmly shut and locked.  Cursing under his breath, Snake climbed back down.  More searching uncovered a pile of tools that had been dumped out of one of the lockers piled on the pallet-jack, and Snake returned to the top of the ladder with a heavy hammer.  A few solid whacks broke the trap-door loose.  Snake pushed the access panel open, listened, then pulled himself through the opening onto the store's roof.  Hot, gritty tarpaper burned against his belly as he worked himself over to the edge of the flat surface.  After the store's dark interior, the street below was a dazzle of light on white stucco walls and pale cement.  Snake squinted, his good eye watering, until his vision adjusted.  He finally located three ragged figures crouched next to a wall across the street from Bashas Market, facing the supermarket's front door.  Waiting for us, Snake thought.  The one at the front of the huddle was holding a handgun, one held a knife, and the third clutched a black something that might be a length of pipe.               

Snake returned to where Rain was waiting for him.  He gave a short outline of the situation and finished up with, "Give me five minutes, then throw something out the door to get their attention and take it from there."  Rain checked his watch, and nodded understanding.

Snake climbed back to the roof, located his targets, and waited, guns drawn and ready.  Shortly after, a wooden produce box arced out from the inside of the market and thudded onto the parking lot.  The figure with the gun jumped and his weapon swung toward it, discharging in the direction of the box.  Snake smiled to himself.  Amateurs.  The first blast from his Magnums took out the one who had fired.  The one with the knife made the mistake of stepping out from the shelter of the wall, looking around wildly for the source of Snake's fire, and Rain's crossbow bolt caught him squarely in the chest.  As the third started to run along the wall in the opposite direction, Snake's bullets dropped him.

Snake rejoined Rain, who was still waiting near the bicycles.  In grim silence, they detoured around the dead cannibals and headed out of Needles, alert for any further attack.  At the edge of the Colorado River, they stopped and disarmed, replacing Snake's Barrett and Rain's crossbow in their protective coverings, and remounted their bikes to ride on.  Halfway across the bridge, Rain halted his bike again and pointed downriver.  "Look!"    

Snake squinted against the glare off the water.  Some distance down the bank they has just left, he saw a squalid little group of listing tents and knocked-together shelters in a trampled patch of bare ground and rubbish.  Earthworks surrounded the encampment, giving it the look of an ancient Roman bivouac or an archaeological dig.  Part of the area was set apart with another low earthen wall.  It was filled with mounds of dirt, some newly dug, to judge by the darker color of the soil, some older.  A few had crude crosses set at one end.  Graves, Snake realized.  In one corner of the enclosure were several cloth-covered heaps that Snake identified, after a moment, as bodies still awaiting burial.  A ragged figure sat slumped against the wall of the graveyard, a rifle lying on the ground next to his motionless hand.  Snake wondered if he was dead too.  Several vultures patiently circled overhead, riding the thermals.

"I think we found where the rest of Needles went," Rain said.  

"Yeah," Snake said, and pedaled on across the bridge.  After a minute, Rain followed him.  On the other side, they stopped to boil water from the river and refill their storage containers, then headed out into the long, dry stretch of road toward Flagstaff.   

Snake was glad to be leaving California and moving into Arizona.  The late-spring landscape, dotted with quick-blooming desert plants, seemed greener and warmer than he remembered from his childhood.  Dust in the air from the relentless bombing of the west coast was part of it, he supposed; there was a little more runoff.  The ban on red meat in the New Moral America had removed much of the market for the locust-like herds of beef cattle and sheep that had done so much to strip the range bare.  Now and then he spotted a feral cow grazing near the small groups of pronghorns in the distance, but that was all.  The sheep were gone.  Along the way they passed through the sad little ghost towns along Highway 40.  They searched the deserted, tumble-down motels and abandoned feed stores, but found almost nothing useful.  The drastic drop in America's population caused by war, gas, and the plagues, the shift to hummer and air freight for the few luxuries that still traveled cross-country, had dried up through-traffic except for a few long-haul trucks, and local mining and ranching had disappeared.  The ravaged land was slowly being reclaimed by its original inhabitants.  Rain eagerly pointed out the spots where a few patches of tough bunch-grass had sprouted beyond the mesquite and gray-green creosote bush.  Snake occasionally heard Rain humming cheerfully to himself as he pedaled along.

One morning, somewhere between Peach Springs and Seligman, they came over a rise to find the highway below blocked by the wreck of a giant truck.  A big eighteen-wheeler stacked with tiers of plastic crates had jackknifed across the pavement onto the shoulder and tipped sideways to lie like a sun-blasted metal wall, higher than their heads, across the road.  They stopped and dismounted, then went to explore.  Rain disappeared around the back of the trailer to check out the truck's cargo.  Snake climbed up to the cab and, with considerable effort, wrenched open the door.  Ignoring the long-dead occupant of the driver's seat, who was wedged between the steering column and the opposite door, he worked his way over the tilted arms and chair-backs, and pushed through the black curtain into the cramped sleeper box behind.  To his delight, he found that the truck had not been looted.  A search of the latched cabinets uncovered, among mummified packages of sweetrolls, candy, and potato chips, a good-sized cache of canned and dried food, juice, and soda.  Prying open the miniature refrigerator netted several cans of very warm beer and four large bottles of water, which had been protected from evaporation by the cabinet's airtight seal.  Snake wrapped the useful items in a blanket from one of the bunks and lowered his find to the pavement outside the truck, then went back for a more thorough search.  As he expected, he finally uncovered, hidden at the bottom of a drawer under some dusty T-shirts, the dead driver's pistol and a small box of ammunition.  Snake appropriated the ammo and climbed back down to the road's surface.  Rain was waiting for him.  The younger man's face had a strange expression that Snake could not interpret.   

"What's it carrying?" Snake asked.                                                               

"Take a look."     

The two of them crunched around the back of the overturned truck through the sand and stones of the shoulder.  The strip of pavement on the other side ran straight as a ruled line through gray-brown desert dotted with stubby scraps of grayish-green toward distant hills swimming in heat-haze.  Sun blazed down from the blank blue sky, bleaching the landscape to pastels in the glare.  Across the roadway and down  the gentle slope on each side were scattered hundreds of small crates jammed full of little skeletons.  Some of them still had shreds of dried flesh clinging to them, and even a few white feathers.

"Chickens."  Rain sounded as if he was pushing the words out past something stuck in his throat.  "It was a chicken truck."

Snake snorted.  That would have been useful, if we'd gotten here earlier.  Not any more.  

"Battery hens," Rain murmured, staring at the plastic boxes.  "From Chicken Hell."  He turned to look at Snake.  "They were the worst, the chicken factory farms."  He returned his gaze to the highway.  "They burned off their beaks, crammed them together shoulder to shoulder, standing on bare wire, living in their own shit, rubbing off all their own feathers, hurting and killing each other, until they were too worn out to lay eggs any longer.  Then they shoved the ones who survived into these little boxes to ship 'em to California for slaughter.  Days on the road with no food or water or shade."

"Sounds familiar," Snake rasped dryly.  There was no hint of sympathy in his cold blue eye.  "It's the same for everybody.  We're just in bigger boxes."  

"It doesn't have to be that way, Snake.  Don't you remember our chickens at Rivendell?  We took some of their eggs, but they were happy and free."

"And got eaten by coyotes.  What's the difference?"  Snake felt irritation rising in him, drawing a reluctant response.  Here, now, in the middle of nowhere, he couldn't just walk away.  There was nowhere to walk to, and he needed Rain.

"The difference was, we didn't kill them.  And they had good lives before they died, lives that were important to them."  Rain gestured toward the highway, his tone growing more insistent as Snake's grew deliberately flatter and less expressionless.  "Look.  Those were the last generation that's going to have to live like that.  When you shut down the Machine, you ended factory farming.  It can't exist without power and technology.  Chickens will still die, humans will still use them, but they won't have to live like this any more.  None of the animals will.  Maybe it was all worth it, just for that, for Mother Gaia.  Maybe She thought we owed our lives for theirs, for what we'd done to them."  

Snake stared at him, caught between disgust and disbelief.  His good eye smoldered a midnight blue.  "Bullshit!  I didn't do it for anything.  I just did it."  For a moment the automatic angry response surged up in him: don't tell me who I am; don't put your fucking hero bullshit on me!  Then what he had said became real to him and he felt a bleak emptiness.  I shut down the Earth - did all this - for nothing.  He turned away, cutting off Rain's answer, and walked back toward the bicycles.  He added the things he had taken from the truck to their packs in silence, fencing Rain out of his world, rebuilding barriers that had begun, slightly, to crumble.  He reached for his anger, bringing up images of Malloy and the President and the Blackbelly bitch who had given him the Plutoxin, of Eddie and Cuervo, and the President's stupid cunt of a daughter, and found something he could call a reason in familiar rage, but there was a new hollowness at the center of it.  …nothing…. .  Rain was silent too as they detoured around the wrecked truck and pedaled onward, but the last look he gave it could have etched glass.  Crazy talk, Snake thought, and deliberately pushed the whole subject aside.  Let the kid think whatever he wanted; all that mattered was their survival. 

They refilled their water containers at a wash just outside Seligman and detoured around the town, not wanting a repeat of the incident at Needles.  A few miles farther they came to an imitation Wild West trading post set at the side of the road, an attraction for passing tourist traffic in some happier time.  A sign, faded nearly blank, advertised, under a picture of a jackalope: Indian Trading Post/ Souvenirs/ Desert Wonders Museum and Zoo.    

Snake and Rain cast long shadows across the hard ground in the late-afternoon sun as they pulled up to a stop and studied the shabby building.  Finally, Snake drew his Magnum and exchanged glances with Rain.  "Let's take a look."

Rain nodded.  They stepped across the splintered, creaking wooden porch and pushed open the weathered door.  Inside was a deserted store filled with dust-covered junk: plastic turquoise jewelry, fake Indian drums and moccasins, Navajo rugs woven in Taiwan, T-shirts, post cards.  Shelves advertising cactus candy and pecan logs stood empty; the snack bar and glass-fronted refrigerator unit at one side were equally bare.  Snake snorted in disgust.  A door in the back opened into a storeroom with bare shelves and unoccupied living space for the store's former caretakers.  Snake holstered his gun.  A Formica table with a torn plastic tablecloth sat in one corner, under an uncurtained window, next to a chipped sink.  An experimental turn of the tap produced no water, and neither the light nor the stove was in working order.  Rain bounced on the edge of one of the two sagging cots on the other side of the room, grinning broadly and sending up a little cloud of gritty dust.  "Real beds, Snake!"   

A thorough search of the living area's cabinets and refrigerator uncovered nothing but a few empty jars and a container with a bit of petrified French's mustard at the bottom.  Snake unhooked the catch on the back door, pushed open the ripped screen, and the two men stepped down into the rear courtyard.  On the packed bare earth was a rectangle of board with a flaking painted sign.  DESERT WONDERS WILDLIFE PARK, it announced; LIVE ANIMALS LIVE!  Beside it was a row of small, dirty concrete-and-wire pens, each with its crudely lettered sign identifying the former occupant: coyote, rattlesnake, fox, javelina, pronghorn.  The cages were empty, the doors open.

Rain felt a rush of relief.  "Somebody let them go."

"Or had them for dinner."  Snake's sardonic drawl left no space for Rain to continue the conversation.  He turned on his heel and stepped back up into the building without glancing in Rain's direction.   

Rain stood looking out past the empty cages.  The swift desert night was falling, deep purple behind the silhouette of distant hills, black above sprinkled with the first bright stars.  Air against his face brought a faint cool scent with no tang of humanity in it.  Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, Rain's lips moved soundlessly, and he smiled to himself as he let the rest of the thought dissolve and float away.  Even the most city-bound humans had tried, with their little incantations, to reach out and communicate with the natural world around them, to make Her hear them.  Now, in the great silence Snake had created when he shut down the Machine, perhaps they could hear Her instead.  He hoped the poor captive animals in the cages had been released.  Snake had brought a new freedom for them and the whole wild world when he had taken away so much of Man's power to enslave Gaia's other children to his will.  The land was returning.  The Great Die-Off would, in the end, bring about a better, more equal balance, and healing for the earth.    

It was full dark now over the desert.  Rain turned to look back through the window behind him into the house.  He could see Snake sitting at the table, a dim shape in the chemlamp's glow.  He wished Snake could see the green shoot he had planted growing up out of the bare earth, wished he could show Snake some other world, some place that was not full of death.  He wanted to see the cold, closed face filled with something beside cynical bitterness or anger or the mask of indifference.  Snake was badly damaged, crumpled and twisted like his crashed Gulffire, but he had soared once, an idealist with a goal and a hope for a better future.  He had been able to believe in heroes, too, once.  He had been willing to be a leader.  Maybe, Rain thought, he could be again.      

Snake got up and moved away from the table, and Rain realized that the night air had turned cold.  Shivering, he stepped back inside.  Snake had already wrapped himself in his sleeping bag and turned his face toward the wall beside the cot he had chosen for his bed.  He was clearly not interested in talking.  Rain unrolled his own sleeping bag on the other cot and prepared to settle down for the night.  Before he turned the key on the chemlamp, he sat for a while moodily studying Snake's muffled figure, wishing he could understand how to reach him.  He knew better now than to try to push Snake or make a direct approach.  He would have to wait for Snake to make the next move.  He snapped off the light and drifted into sleep, wondering what it would take to span the distance between them.     

Over the next two days, as they pedaled onward, Snake was even more silent than usual.  He withdrew into himself, trying painfully to grapple with unaccustomed introspection.  On the second evening, Snake sat by their dying campfire gazing into the flames.  Rain had already rolled over and gone to sleep.  It was such a beautiful night they had not bothered to set up their tent.  A full moon above turned the world into bright silver and black.  Night was crisp and silent, elusively scented with pion.  The light breeze shifted, and drifting smoke sandpapered his gas-scarred throat, bringing back memories: the scene near Firebase Seven, beside the crashed helicopter: the sharp reek of burning fuel and flesh curling around his defiant form, roaring flame and darkness, and the remote held high in his hand.  For nothing.  His fingers remembered the slight resistance, the click of the button.  For nothing.  He imagined again the Sword of Damocles satellites opening like baleful nightflowers into the black sky and beaming down the end of technology.  For nothing.  His mind replayed the scene like a hamster caught in a wheel, spinning endlessly, pointlessly, as Snake brooded on the images.  And what had his last words to the listening world been?  What high-minded, noble phrase?  "The  name's Plissken."  A banal epitaph, surely, for the death of Civilization.  All for nothing.

Sleep was out of the question in his present mood.  Snake got to his feet, stretching chilled muscles, and walked slowly a few paces out beyond firelight into the moon- washed stillness.  He stood for a long moment staring out over the empty desert.  There was no sign man had ever been here; he had vanished without a trace, as if he had never existed.  Snake could almost believe, in this desolate place, that he and Rain were the last living humans in the world.

Uneasy, he glanced back in the direction of Rain's sleeping form and froze.  The moonlight, still bright and full, outlined the sinuous form of a huge diamondback rattlesnake moving toward Rain's sleeping bag.  Rattlesnakes were pit vipers, with delicate heat-sensing organs in their jaws, and this one was probably seeking a warm shelter from the cool desert night.  Snake felt his backbone crawl.  A sudden movement might startle the serpent into striking.  He had to wake Rain slowly.   Snake keyed his voice to a low whisper, hoping his gas-damaged vocal cords would not betray him.   

Rain stirred as Snake fought to keep his voice low and steady,  "Rain, don't move; Rain, don't move; stay perfectly still, Rain…."."   The rattler was inching closer to where Rain lay on his left side, no more than a yard now from the edge of Rain's sleeping bag.  Snake's soft rasp continued, more urgently, "Rain, wake up.  Do you hear me?  Rattler.  Don't move."

“Uh-huh," Rain breathed out through motionless lips.

“I'm going to shoot the fucker.  Don't move.  Close your eyes."  Snake sized up the target on the other side of Rain's body.  The man's back was to him.  He would have to chance a low shot over Rain's head and hope that a rock under the sand didn't ricochet the slug into his skull.  Snake moved a hand to the heavy butt of his Magnum.  Rain didn't move at the slow whisper of the gun coming free of the holster, the click of the safety coming off.  Orange fire exploded over Rain's head and a second later dirt, chips of rock, and blood spattered his face.  

Snake's hand closed on the other man's collar and yanked him backward, half out of the sleeping bag, lifting Rain nearly all the way off the ground.  Rain slammed into him and the Magnum flew sideways as the two of them fell backward.  Snake's breath was knocked out of him in a whuf as he made solid contact with a large boulder behind them.  He hit the ground with his left arm locked around Rain and his right extended to break their fall.  Sharp pain flared.  He ignored it.  His body was slick with adrenaline-sweat, his heart beating heavy and fast with reaction.  He felt Rain warm and solid against him, felt the younger man's quick breath shaking Rain's body, felt Rain's long, dark hair flowing over his hand as Rain turned his face up toward Snake's.  Enclosed within the shadow of Snake's body, hidden from the searching moonlight, Rain was safe.  Snake felt the contact at the center of himself.  His “You O.K.?" was a rough near-whisper.  

“Yeah," Rain breathed out raggedly.  “What happened?"

Snake pushed Rain into a sitting position and sat up himself.  His bruised ribs protested as he moved, and he grunted softly.  “Couldn't sleep."  He looked toward the shattered body of the diamondback and added, "Good thing you didn't panic.  One twitch and you'd have been wearing that fucker as a nose ring."  He felt, rather than saw, Rain smile at his rare compliment.      

The two men climbed to their feet and went over to examine the body.   After a moment Rain said, almost wistfully, “Beautiful snake."

“Yeah."

“Too bad you had to shoot it."  Rain glanced over toward Snake, and the moonlight showed Rain's expression as he added hastily, “I mean…."."  

“Yeah.  Too bad," Snake repeated, and saw Rain's face clear.  This bond of understanding they shared.  Deliberately, he added, “Him or you."  

“I hate choices like that, Snake."  Rain paused.  “But thanks."

Snake smiled slightly.  From somewhere he heard a distant echo in his mind: Welcome to the human race, Rain.  He studied the dead rattler, reluctant to let the moment pass, wanting somehow to capture it in something tangible.  On impulse, he crossed over to his pack and pulled out his knife, then returned.  He picked up the diamondback's tail and, in a few quick motions, scored, skinned and detached the long string of eleven rattles.  “Big son of a bitch," he said quietly.  Rain would have been plenty dead if this fucker had nailed him in the face.  He looked back at Rain.  For once, Snake had saved someone, instead of seeing him fall dead in front of him; for once he had given human life instead of taken it.  For once, he had shared an understanding with someone, instead of blank incomprehension.  That had to count for something.

Not since Taylor…. .  Snake stopped.  No.  There would never be anyone like Taylor again, but…. .  Snake stared at the rattles in his hand, fumbling with unfamiliar thoughts, at a loss to communicate to Rain what he, himself, only half understood, and could not articulate.  Finally, he went back to his pack and took out the envelope of thin black cord he used to customize his eyepatches.  He cut a length, pierced the rattles with his knife, strung them on the cord, and knotted it securely.  He held the necklace out, dangling from his hard, callused hand.  “Here," he said simply.  He fixed Rain with an intense stare.  C'mon, asshole, see it!

Rain started to shake his head, started to answer, then stopped, his eyes focused on Snake's face.  His glance flicked to the knife in Snake's other hand, and Snake's look followed his.  It was the knife Rain had given Snake on his Year Ending visit.  Their glances locked together again, and Rain slowly reached out and took the necklace of rattles.  A smile spread over his face.  Snake held on to the cord for a second, the two men's hands connected by it, tentatively, then he released it and watched as Rain slid the cord over his head and settled the string of rattles under his shirt against his chest.

“Thanks, Snake.  Thanks."

Silently, Snake walked over, picked up Rain's sleeping bag from the place they had left it next to the boulder, and brought it back to where his own lay on the sand near the ashes of the campfire.  He reached down and zipped the two bags together into one larger one.  Rain came over and helped Snake shake out the joined bags and lay them flat.  Snake took a few minutes to retrieve his Magnum from the place it had landed on the ground and set it on his trailer, to be cleaned in the morning, then made a quick survey of the campsite.  Not likely they would be bothered by any other wandering diamondbacks tonight, Snake thought; rattlers are territorial.  He unbuckled his gunbelt and shed his clothes, then glanced sideways at Rain.    

He slid into the sleeping bag, and Rain joined him as soon as he, too, could slip off the clothes he had been sleeping in.  Snake pulled Rain to him, and Rain molded himself against Snake as they began an unhurried exploration of each other's bodies, welcoming the warmth and the feel of each other.  This one is mine, Snake thought; This one won't run out on me.  I need him.  He took his time, letting the energy build between them, savoring that strange new certainty.

In the darkness of the single sleeping-bag, Snake claimed Rain's body with his.  His fingers found the small scar on Rain's arm, souvenir of a childhood injury, and traced it lightly.  He ran his strong hands over Rain's ass and thighs, memorizing the sleek skin and wiry shape, as Rain returned his touch.  Rain's long, thick hair was silk over suede as Snake stroked down the other man's back.  At the feel of it, Snake was hard, and every contact seemed electric.  He rolled the smaller man firmly over onto his side.  Rain complied, moving back against Snake's chest and belly, offering himself.  Snake hesitated a moment, then reached around Rain's hip, taking Rain's firm cock in his hand.  He felt the other man twitch and gasp at his touch as he gently kneaded Rain with his fingers.  Pre-cum slicked the tip of Rain's erect shaft and Snake gathered it onto his fingers, urging more.  He mingled it with some of his own, tasted the salt-and-bitter flavor of their joined maleness as he added a bit of his saliva, and slid his fingers gently into Rain's ass.  Rain pushed himself eagerly back onto Snake's hand, gasping with each movement.  At last, his own cock ready and hard, Snake slid slowly into Rain.  Wordlessly united, connected at a level too deep for thought or speech, he paused, poised, savoring the moment of anticipation, feeling it grow toward climax.  Then need swept him forward, and Snake thrust hard into Rain.  His hands closed on the curve of  Rain's hips, pulling him closer.  He leaned forward, and, driven by some primordial animal urge, nipped at Rain's shoulder, then caught the other man's flesh between his teeth, holding him in a primitive, intensely erotic grip.  The feel, the taste, the smell of Rain was everywhere.  If Rain felt pain, he never showed it, moving into Snake's fierce grip, onto Snake's cock, and moaning with each forward thrust.  With an inarticulate growl, Snake came deep in Rain's body.  As he started to withdraw, he heard Rain gasp, “No, please… s stay…" " He could feel the slight shaking of Rain's body as Rain worked to bring himself off, and seconds later Rain's hot cum spattered Snake's leg.  Together, they rested side by side in the warmth of the sleeping bag, satisfied, neither wanting to break the contact, until, without another word exchanged, they drifted off to sleep.

Over the next few days, they settled into a new routine.  By unspoken mutual consent, Snake and Rain zipped their sleeping bags together each night, sharing a bed and each other's bodies.  Snake knew that soon he would have to make a decision: north or east into canyon country.  They stopped for a day in a fold of hills where a little stream widened into a pool of water under a sandstone overhang.  They spread their bedding in the shade of a cottonwood tree, and spent the day splashing in the shallow water, bathing, washing their clothes, and refilling their water bottles.  

Midmorning  the next day, they were cycling along at a fairly good pace up the rising highway, when Rain pointed out something along the side of the road.  Snake followed the gesture, and they wheeled up to two gray suitcases, one on its side in the roadway, one on the sandy shoulder.  There was a small hole in one where some local animal had gnawed a way in, but no sign of any other disturbance.  Snake walked over to the other one and gave it a firm kick.  No angry buzz alerted them to a shade-seeking rattler, and Snake bent down to flick the latches up and let the case fall open onto the ground.  Clothing, a few pieces of silverware and jewelry, and several photographs lay exposed.  The two men exchanged  glances, then Snake turned to the other case, flicked up the locks, and pushed it open with a quick gesture.  Whatever had gnawed the hole had vacated the makeshift burrow, leaving behind more clothes, a couple of half-empty medicine bottles, toiletries, and a pair of high-top athletic shoes.  Bits of shredded plastic suggested the suitcase had once contained something edible, which had attracted the visiting animal.       

Nothing worth taking with them, Snake decided.  He shrugged and stood up, and the two men returned to their bikes and pedaled onward.  A quarter-mile later, they found a corpse, not long dead, lying in the middle of the road.  The body was already decomposing in the hot spring sun, covered with ants and sending up a thick stench of decay.  A sports water-bottle lay nearby, along with tooth-marked remains of a backpack filled with scraps of foil, plastic, and slick paper.  Snake sat on his bike, studying the scene.  Finally, he said, “This one didn't starve."   He fingered the butt of his Magnums, and, almost unconsciously, swept a glance around the surrounding ponderosas.

Rain nodded.  They pedaled on more cautiously.  Half an hour later, they came up on several more gnawed and decomposing bodies.  Five or six were huddled close together.  The rest, some ten in all, were spread out along the highway at intervals.    There was no sign of vehicles - cars or bikes - or any organization.  The group looked to Snake's practiced eye as if they had been straggling along haphazardly on foot, heading westward.  Why? he wondered uneasily as he studied the lifeless forms.        

Rain apparently had the same thought.  Silently, the younger man unwrapped his crossbow and arrows and slung the weapon over his shoulder, at the ready.  “Hph," Snake snorted approvingly as he watched Rain arm himself.  Snake's good eye narrowed as he took in the long, silver thread of highway stretching onward.  “Flagstaff up ahead, maybe ten miles."  He looked back at Rain and read his own question in his companion's eyes: what were these people running from?  Evidently not thirst or starvation, to judge by the food-scraps in the dead people's luggage and the full water-bottles on most of the corpses.  What then?  Snake felt the familiar adrenaline-rush of battle-readiness thrumming along his nerves as he pedaled slowly forward, alert for any sign of danger.  The high-desert forest landscape rolled by, blandly unthreatening and uninformative.      

They began to pass scattered buildings, the outskirts of Flagstaff.  Many of them had the look of  places abandoned for years, left behind as the shrunken city, driven by war, economic collapse, and ecological pressure, contracted toward its center.  Houses, set back from the highway, were sun-faded and crumbling, open to the pine-scented air, the broken windows empty and staring.  At last they came to a big road sign announcing: FLAGSTAFF City Limits.  The official green-and-white lettering had a huge X slashed across it in yellow spray-paint.  Below it, dripping yellow letters warned: Plague… Keep Out…. .       

Snake gestured sharply to Rain, and they halted the bikes.  Snake stared for a moment, tensing.  “…shit, SHIT!" he snarled, voice rising in intensity as he slammed a hand onto the handlebars of the bicycle.

“What do you suppose it is?" Rain said.    

Snake shrugged.  “Could be anything."  Anthrax, bubonic, something left over from the War, Snake thought.  His mind moved back to the ruined cities of the Russian campaign where public sanitation had broken down: typhus, cholera, typhoid.  Hell,  with the hospitals knocked out, anything contagious would spread like wildfire.  Dr. Spencer had been right.  The two men sat on their bikes, staring silently toward the center of the city, where, for the first time, Snake noticed a thin smudge of oily black smoke darkening the air over several areas.  Something in Flagstaff had been burning.  Large amounts of something.  “Looks like we go north," Snake said.  He consulted the map.  They found the turnoff and headed toward Route 89, avoiding the doomed city of Flagstaff.   

Several days' travel took them into canyon country.  Snake thought he remembered passing Navajo trading posts along this road on a family visit to the Grand Canyon, and wondered if there were any left where they might be able to get water and provisions for the final journey into the heart of the canyons.  He scanned the road ahead, looking for signs of human habitation, weighing his dwindling supplies against the danger of trigger-happy locals defending their homesteads.  

The next settlement they came to had been a thriving metropolis of four shabby mobile homes, a few shacks with boarded-up windows and junked cars rusting in their yards, and a combined gas station and trading post, its windows covered with fly-specked signs advertising Indian jewelry, ice, cold beer, and Lay's Potato Chips.  To one side of the trading post was a yard with a high chain-link fence topped with razor-wire.  Inside the fenced area stood a shed, a ramada with a hay-manger, and a tall, weathered windmill, its vanes turning slowly with a rhythmic creak in the minimal morning breeze.  At the windmill's base was a galvanized stock-watering tank half filled with greenish water.  A few chickens, scratching and pecking at the dusty ground, shared the yard with several sheep and goats.  A sign on the fence proclaimed, in broad spray-painted letters: “WATER: Ten Bullets a Gallon or trade.  No money."  A thin yellow dog on a chain rose to its feet and began barking loudly at their approach.

“Hold it!" came a harsh voice from the flat roof of the trading post.  Rain and Snake halted their bikes and stood still, holding their hands away from their sides, open.  They looked upward to see a large man in a faded denim shirt and jeans covering them with a hunting rifle.  “You from Flagstaff?" he growled, “If you are, keep movin'."

“Came down 64," Snake said.  “We're here to trade.  What about Flagstaff?"

The man ignored Snake's question.  He stood looking them over for a minute and finally, evidently, allowed greed to overcome suspicion.  “Weapons in the lockers," he barked, tilting his head.   

Snake and Rain followed the gesture to see a set of old metal storage lockers standing a bit beyond the end of the building's portal, keys dangling from rusting locks.  Snake reluctantly unbuckled his gun belt, shoved the Magnums into the nearest compartment, and locked it.  Rain followed suit, placing his knives on one shelf and taking the key to the unit.  “Hey!" the man on the roof prompted sharply.  A gesture of his rifle at the bicycles told them that Rain's crossbow, lashed to the trailer, had not gone unnoticed.  It, too, was stashed in one of the metal compartments, along with Snake's boot knife.  

Finally, the two disarmed men were allowed to enter the post.  Snake's bootheels were loud on the uneven plank flooring as he ducked to clear the rough wooden doorframe set in stuccoed adobe.  The inside of the building was dark, cluttered, and marginally cooler than the outside, smelling of dust and old wood.  Walls were hung with camping supplies, desert gear, ropes, and bicycle tires.  The store's original collection of Navajo rugs, moccasins, Stetson hats, Indian pottery, kachina dolls, fancy belt-buckles, pion incense-burners, Hillerman novels, and tourist guides to Colorful Arizona had been piled along two walls, and the shelves they had formerly stocked held a sparse collection of improvised containers filled with a variety of food and household goods.  Several old locking jewelry-display cases near the front of the store now held strips of dried meat.  Behind them stood a chunky woman in a shapeless print dress, her dark hair wound into straggly braids. “You wan dried meat," she greeted them in a flat voice, “ we got pronghorn, deer, five bullets a poun', dog, some beef, twenny bullets a poun', fresh eggs, five bullets each; chickens no' for sale."  She moved to one side of the case and stood, stolidly planted, watching them warily.  A gunbelt rode her wide hips, carrying a brace of holstered revolvers.  “We got a little milk, fresh cabrito.  What you got to trade?  Canned stuff, candy, cigarettes, booze, aspirin, anythin' like that?"      

“You got smokes?"  Snake tried to keep the craving that flared along his nerve-endings out of his voice.

“No," the woman answered.  “All gone."  

Shit, Snake thought.  Mentally, he weighed the value of their remaining ammunition against the dried meat.  Rain waited silently for Snake to negotiate the trade, studying a bicycle tire-patch kit on the shelves behind the counter, keeping one eye on Snake and the woman as he did so.  Snake selected several pounds of dried, jerked pronghorn meat, a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and some of the beef.  Rain added a string of chilis, some spring greens, several onions, and a recycled spaghetti-sauce jar full of dried pinto beans.  At the woman's order, a dark-eyed little girl brought each of them a mug of warm milk, fresh from the goats outside, and waited, along with the woman, as Snake and Rain drank it on the spot.  Snake could hardly remember when anything had tasted so good.  Under the watchful attention of the armed man, they returned to their bike-trailers, where Snake dug out a box of ammunition and two of the four bottles of scotch he had liberated from the abandoned winery outside San Francisco.  The woman eyed the Chivas Regal, checked the seal on the bottle, and then grudgingly added a few more items to Snake's pile.    

“Trade goods," Rain said blandly, poker-faced, and Snake turned a glower in his direction before turning back to the negotiation.

“How far to the back canyon country?" Snake asked the woman.

“Couple days cycling, you got good bikes." she responded. “You gonna need water 'n salt, too. You Snake Plissken?"

“I heard he was dead," Snake said evenly, his face impassive.  “We'll take five gallons and half a pound."  The woman's eyes narrowed slightly, but she gave no other sign of reaction to his words.   

“You got somethin' to put it in?"  The man from the roof was standing in the doorway, still holding the rifle cradled in his arms at the ready, but no longer pointed directly at them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Snake saw Rain moving to separate from him into a defensive position.  “On the bikes," the younger man said in an equally toneless voice.  The air was thick in the building, stifling, and heavy with mutual distrust.  

Rain went outside with the man to fill the containers with water from the stock tank, while Snake stayed with the woman as she counted out bullets, examining each one as she laid it on the countertop.  He tried haggling over the numbers, but the leathery woman ignored him.  Exchange completed, Snake gathered up his and Rain's trade items and turned to go.  A stray slant of sunlight through the front window bounced off the contents of one of the locked cases, still full of silver and turquoise jewelry, standing on the counter.  Some of the heavy squash blossom necklaces and bow-guards had the look of real Navajo work, old pawn.  Useless junk now, Snake thought.  Headache flared with the brightness.  Snake blinked hard, his good eye watering, and pulled his hat farther down over his eyes as he stepped out into the sun.  He felt depressed for some reason; depressed, tired, sweaty, and a little dizzy.  The whole world's turned into New York Max, he thought.  He had lost the outlaw's advantage.  Rain was standing next to their bikes, along with the containers of water, and the man had returned to the building's roof to cover them with his rifle as they packed up their supplies and reclaimed their weapons from the lockers.  Snake and Rain left the keys in the locks and rode on.

After long minutes of silence, Rain ventured, “We're almost to the Reservation.  What do we do?  Do we have to talk to somebody or something before we can go on to their land?"

“We'll get off the road before we hit the checkpoint, go around."  Snake made a wavy gesture with one hand lifted from his handlebars.  “Slide right in.  They'll never know we're here."  Rain gave a half-glance back over his shoulder in the direction of the armed and suspicious couple behind them at the trading post.  It sounded too easy.  He opened his mouth to protest.  Snake silenced him with an uncompromising glare Rain had learned meant the older man would not discuss the subject any further.  He closed his mouth again, shrugged slightly, and pedaled on.    

It was not much farther down the road that a wisp of sound caught their attention: a hoarse voice raised in a distant, droning chant.  Around a bend in the red sandstone rocks along the side of the road, a thin trail of smoke drifted up into the blank blue sky.  As they pedaled forward, the monotonous rise and fall of singing, muffled behind the intervening rocks, grew gradually louder,  Finally, Snake braked, and Rain followed suit even before the other man raised his hand in a silent signal to halt.  Snake cocked his head, listening intently.  The two of them exchanged glances that agreed: whoever it was couldn't be all that dangerous if he was making so much noise.   Snake dismounted from his bike and pushed it cautiously forward toward the curve in the rocks to see what was ahead of them.  Rain paralleled him.

“Navajo singing," Rain whispered, remembering all the reverent documentaries he had watched at Rivendell about the proud heritage of the tribes of the First People.  

“No," Snake muttered absently, as if to himself.  He seemed to be concentrating.  “Not Navajo."  He paused.  “What the hell….?"     

Rain looked at him in awed amazement.  “You know Navajo?"

Snake made a disgusted sound deep in his throat that neither admitted nor denied it.  “I spent every fucking summer out here."

“With the Navajos?"  Rain, still whispering, ended in something close to a squeak.   

“No."  There was scorn in Snake's tone.  As if driven, reluctantly, to make a point, he added, “My grandparents lived… on the edge of the Reservation."  They were both silent for a long minute, listening, as the relentless chanting continued on the other side of the rocks.  “Every summer," Snake growled at last.  “Goddamn Navajos."  A beat.  “Singing."  His mouth snapped shut as if that explained everything.

Rain was staring in the direction of the chanting with a strange expression on his face, somewhere between embarrassment and longing, combined with an almost religious reverence.  “Gaia's First People.  They were always talking about them at Rivendell, how we should try to be like them.  How the Earth is sacred to them.  I always wished…."."  His voice trailed off as Snake scowled and snorted.

“Losers."  A murky anger drove Snake into what was almost volubility for him.  “The First People.  Hpf; The first people the fucking government screwed over.  They lost the war.  Now they don't have shit.  One drop of Dineh blood, and they try to drag you down with 'em."  Snake loosened his Magnums slightly in their holsters and started off down the road in the direction of the chanting, pushing his bicycle with one hand while the other hovered over his gun.  

Rain followed.  The rigid set of Snake's shoulders telegraphed that it would be unwise to say anything further.  As the road took them nearer the singing, the wind shifted, carrying a gust of smoke with a sick-sweet undertone to it in their direction.  Snake coughed once and swore under his breath.  He knew that smell.  He secured his bike, slowed to a stealthy pace, and edged around the large red sandstone boulder blocking his view of the road in front of them.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rain was following his lead.

Ahead, in a cleared area off the side of the road among the spiky tufts of harsh grass and spring-blooming yellow rabbitbrush, a pile of wood and brush burned in the afternoon heat.  Thick smoke rose into the oppressive air from a dark bundle of rags on top of the pile, and a human arm dangling out of the concealing mass of cloth into the flames confirmed the smell Snake remembered from the burning ruins of Novosibirsk.  Beneath the smoldering corpse were papers, blankets, an ancient notebook computer, a backpack, camping goods, and bedding.  Snake swept a quick glance around.  Not far away stood the crumbling remains of a long-abandoned hogan slowly melting back into the earth, and a ramada that was now no more than  a few thin wooden slats on a couple of upright poles.        

Beside the burning mound stood a tall man in a blue chambray shirt and jeans.  He  wore cowboy boots that must have been expensive once, but were now scuffed and worn.  His dark face was a road-map of weathered wrinkles, framed in long salt-and-pepper hair that was tied into many small cloth-wrapped strands and gathered at the nape of his neck to fall half-way down his broad back.  He chanted in a steady, droning singsong, now and then pausing briefly as if to remember a line or compose one.  As Snake and Rain rounded the boulder, he flicked a glance in their direction that barely broke the flow of sound, and then, when they made no move to attack, ignored them and continued his chant.

Rain whispered to Snake, “What tribe is he?"

Snake shrugged.  “Don't know.  Hair's wrong for Navajo."  That in itself was a small point in the old man's favor, Snake thought sourly.  He eyed the singer for a moment, then made one of his quick decisions.  Whoever he was, he didn't look particularly threatening.  It had been a long time since Snake had been in canyon country; he needed information.  Snake resigned himself to waiting: he wouldn't get anything out of the man if he interrupted a sing.

Rain, seemingly entranced by the sight of a real, live Indian, showed no sign of wanting to leave either.  They pulled their bikes and trailers into a thin slash of shade at the base of the jumble of sandstone boulders, and Snake claimed a spot under a scrawny juniper struggling up out of a cleft in the rock.  He and Rain sat  silently watching as the day crept onward and shadows shifted.  Sun blazed down on the man next to the fire and sweat rolled down his face as he periodically added more gray slabs of old wood to the fire, but he seemed oblivious to the heat.  The smoky smell of burning human flesh was joined by the smell of burning rubber, plastic, and cloth, their own sweat, and the all-pervasive desert dust that was gritty in Snake's mouth and nose.  The rock under him threw back the heat of the sun that had warmed it earlier, and seemed to suck all the moisture out of him.  He took a swallow of tepid water from his canteen, and passed it to Rain, who did likewise.         

Still they waited as the old man's voice droned onward.  Finally the song tapered to an end, as he raised his arms in a gesture of closing.  Westering light glinted off a heavy thunderbird pendant strung on a turquoise necklace and a wide silver bracelet, as the man turned to face Snake and Rain.  “That's it." he said, simply, and moved toward the remains of the ramada, where he sat down with his back against one of the upright poles.  He nodded toward his audience, raising his voice to carry over the short distance between them.   “Come sit.  It's too hot to travel.  Besides, I'm going to need somebody to help me bury all that."

Snake shook his head fractionally, but, under the old man's steady gaze, moved to join him in the meager shade.  He leaned against one of the shaky uprights at the opposite end of the structure and stood silently, his face impassive.

Rain followed to stand next to Snake.  “I'm sorry," he offered diffidently.  “I'll be glad to help."  He settled slowly to the ground at the other end of the ramada from the old man, next to where Snake's dusty black boots were planted.

The man ignored Rain's comment.  “I am Joseph Looks-Away.  Welcome to the center of the world."  His eye caught Snake's.  “Everyone figured you'd show up, Snake.  Eventually."

Snake felt pushed off-balance by the old man's self-possessed certainty.  He stayed on his feet, keeping the advantage of height, and shifted his hands suggestively toward the butts of his Magnums.  He glared down at Joseph.

Mild amusement flickered across Joseph's weathered face. “Sit down," he repeated.  His tone was indifferent.  “The sun is too hot to be showing teeth and claws in.  You have no quarrel with me."  He took a long pull from a water bottle next to him and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Taking a bandanna from around the bottle, he wiped his face.  “Stand, then," he finished.  He cocked a sardonic eyebrow at Snake as he raised the water-bottle in his direction.  After a moment, he lowered it again when Snake made no move to take it.  He held the bottle out next in Rain's direction.  The younger man accepted it, took a sip, and handed it back.  Joseph gave him a half-smile and turned his attention back to Snake.

Snake felt faintly ridiculous under the steady, unthreatening gaze.  He eased himself down next to one of the rickety uprights.  “Why were you expecting me?"

“Snake Plissken?"  The old man shrugged, as if the answer ought to be obvious.  “We knew you'd be coming home.  We're both coming home, Snake.  Only place to be now that all the craziness is over."  He wrinkled his nose, turning his head toward the pyre as its sweetish stench came to them on the fitfully shifting breeze. "

Snake swept a look from the man with the wrapped strands of hair to the burning funeral pyre and back again, letting the challenge grow in his expression.  “You're not from…" "  He tilted his chin in the direction of the reservation in an unconscious gesture rising from some buried reflex of his childhood.

Surprise, and a hint of satisfaction, crossed Joseph's face and disappeared.  “No, I'm Mojave.  From California, near Needles."  He met the suspicion and distrust glittering in Snake's one good eye, in his hard face, without flinching, but finally turned back to the pyre.  The lumpy pile of ashes was still sending up a few wispy trails of smoke, but the fire was almost out.  “He wasn't a relative, but he was Mojave.  Friend of mine I met in the AIM.  We decided to come back here when you turned out the lights.  Way to go, Snake!"  A quick grin came and went instantly.

“Plague?" Snake cut abruptly across Joseph's words, trying to take command of the conversation.

Rain sounded almost apologetic as he put in, “We had to detour around a city that had been hit hard, from what we could see.  That's why we're concerned."

“Shit."  Irritation edged Snake's voice.  The last thing he needed here was Rain's ignorant “help."  Conversations with Indians, no matter what tribe, always had two texts, the spoken and the subtext.  Snake had never really mastered the technique, and it annoyed him.

“We were attacked by raiders a few days ago," Joseph continued, ignoring the interruption.  “They jumped us from behind, hit him, then took off.  Yesterday, he was… getting pretty bad, so I brought him off Dineh land.  Navajos got no need of Mojave ghosts on the Rez.  This morning…."."  He gave Snake a measuring look, as if trying to pry a particular reaction out of the other man, and continued, when Snake evidently did not provide it, with, “I'll bury him when I get my wind back."  He paused.  “Relax, Snake; he's burned."       

Joseph was needling him, Snake saw, suggesting, ironically, that he shared the traditional Navajo attitude toward the dead.  Typical Indian bullshit, he thought.  “Doesn't mean shit to me," he said evenly, deliberately.  I may get the hang of this subtext shit yet.

“Of course not," Joseph said, his voice elaborately calm, and Snake had the irritating feeling he had been subtly outmaneuvered.  “Then you can help me bury him.  Dead don't mean anything to a white man."

“Hpf," Snake's snorted, refusing to rise to the bait.  On Navajo land, he was white and nothing else.  He leaned back against the ramada upright and fixed Joseph with an obstinate glare.  Joseph answered him with a half-smile that somehow made Snake feel uncomfortably like a sulky little boy having a temper tantrum.  Snake made an effort to preserve his dignity by not noticing visibly.

Rain rose to his feet. “I'll help."

Joseph nodded an acknowledgement that was not quite thanks, his face neutral, and rose silently as well.  He picked up a shovel lying by his side of the ramada, and walked over to the shallow grave he had dug in the dry, sandy soil next to the heap of charred ashes, to start the slow task of moving the remains of the pyre into the pit and piling dirt over the top.  As he worked, Joseph took up his chant again, repeating phrases Snake thought he remembered from the earlier sing.  Rain pulled an entrenching tool from his trailer, and joined the old man in his task.  Snake paused long enough to make it clear he was acting on his own, for his own reasons, then climbed slowly to his feet as well.  Joseph still had something Snake needed badly: information.  Snake took out his own shovel from the camping supplies, and went over to join in the burial.  The men worked together in silence, except for Joseph's chanting, until all that was left of the pyre was a mound of tan dirt and a few dark flecks of ash.   

The hot afternoon was almost half over by the time the three finished and returned to the lengthening line of shade created by the ramada, to catch their breath and rest.  Joseph sat down with a heavy sigh, wiped his face again, and took a long drink from his canteen.  Snake and Rain drank from their own water bottles and settled down beside the old man.  Snake and Joseph eyed each other, while Rain sat with a carefully blank expression beside the two.  Joseph reached over to a denim jacket hung over a projection in the ramada's wood support, into an inside pocket, and pulled out a small pouch and a flat packet of  papers.  He removed a single leaf and, with grave concentration, poured a line of brown flakes from the pouch down the center of it, licked, and sealed it.  The sharp smell of tobacco clawed at Snake.  

Joseph stuck the finished cigarette into one corner of his mouth and extended the pouch and packet in Snake's direction.  “Smoke?"      

Snake reached out, took them, and nodded, unsmiling, in Joseph's direction.  He rolled a cigarette for himself and lit it from the pack of matches Joseph passed over to him, ignoring the almost imperceptible twinkle of amusement in the old man's dark eyes as Snake passed everything back again.  Rain shook his head as Joseph offered him the tobacco in turn.  The two men sat smoking for a long, quiet moment.  Snake half-closed his eyes as the sweet chemical fire flowed along his nerves, stilling his constant background craving.  This was good shit, the real thing, not ten-per-cent American crap.

Rain glanced uncertainly from Snake to Joseph, fidgeting slightly in the face of the other two men's stolid silence.  At last, he went over to his trailer and dug through the contents until he found a can of V-8 taken from the overturned truck.  He brought it back, and held it out toward Joseph as he sat down again in the shade.  “Would you like some juice?"

Joseph's face crinkled into a smile as he accepted the can.  He popped the tab and took a long swallow, offered it back to Rain, who shook his head, then Snake, and then finished the little can in one long gulp.  He licked his lips and wiped his mouth with a hand.  “That's good.  Thank you."  A beat.  “You are?"  

“Rain."

“Rain."  The twinkle in Joseph's eyes deepened, and Rain flushed slightly and dropped his eyes in evident embarrassment.

“Hippie parents," Snake deadpanned.  “Not his fault."

Joseph's eyes acknowledged the joke, but that was all.  “You going onto the Rez?" he asked.

“I'm thinkin' about it." Snake answered.   

“If you do, you'll need someone to speak for you."  Joseph paused, significantly.  

Snake finished the last of his cigarette and ground out the butt in the sandy soil beside his boots.  “Navajos aren't exactly fond of Mojave," he said, obliquely.   “Aren't you a long way from home?"

Joseph shook his head. “You're out of touch, Snake.  Government took the Mojave land for some hush-hush military project; ran everybody off the Rez."  His eyes accused Snake.  “The Russians dropped a major bomb on it, right after the war started.  Nothing left now but a crater."

Rain broke in.  “I heard about the government relocating First People from other tribes on Navajo land.  I heard…" " he stumbled “…nobody was very happy about it."

“It was either that or L.A.," Joseph said.  He took a last puff on his own cigarette and pinched it out between callused fingertips, then reclaimed the last few flakes of tobacco and shook them back into his pouch before replacing the entire collection of objects in the pocket of his jacket.  Snake waited, careful to betray no impatience or concern, until Joseph turned back to him.  “The Rez is patrolled and the Dineh are shooting trespassers on sight," he said.  “No non-Indians allowed on Dinetah, not any more.  You don't want a run-in with a bullet, you'd better talk to the people at the Center.  You related to someone?"

Snake stared out across the bare red-brown land, flecked with sparse green, toward the distant mauve and purple line of the mountains outlined against deep blue sky.  The sun behind them cast long shadows eastward.  It would be cooling down soon.  “Yeah," Snake said.  “Barely."  He rose to his feet, shook out his hair, and ran his hands through it in a gesture of anger and frustration.  “C'mon; let's go."  He strode over to his bike.   Rain gathered up his entrenching tool and water bottle and went over to repack them in his trailer, then stood waiting for the other two men to move out.   

Joseph evidently decided to leave it at that for the moment.  He climbed slowly upright, stretched, then walked around behind the earth-and-wood mound of the old hogan.  Several minutes later, he reappeared leading two horses.  He vaulted easily into the saddle on one of them, took the lead rope of the pack pony, gestured to Snake and Rain to follow him, and swung back onto the road.  The horses' hooves clattered on the hard surface as the other two men pushed off and rode on, following him.

The road led toward a line of hills, funneling the riders gradually into a gap between red sandstone cliffs as a canyon rose around them.  After a bit of hard pedaling, Snake and Rain reached the top of a rise where Joseph drew rein and they all halted.  Just in front of them was a checkpoint with a small guardhouse and a big white wooden sign stenciled in large black-and-red letters: “HALT!  DINETAH.  NO TRESPASSING," and below, in smaller letters: “Navajo Land.  Restricted."  The message was reinforced by tall chainlink fencing stretched from one sandstone cliff to the other on both sides of the roadway, blocking access.  Two grim-faced men armed with rifles stood between them and the gate in the fence.  Snake took a second to admire the tactical ability of the person who had chosen this highly-defensible spot.  “You got business on Dinetah?" one of the armed guards growled at them over the sights of his weapon.  

Snake dismounted, kicked the stand down, and stepped away from his bike, eyeing the two men.  Odds looked good.  He moved into a gunfighter's stance, his hands ready over his twin Magnums as he calculated the chances of taking the Indians down.  Two sharp clicks sounded, and the trio of travelers looked up.  From the sandstone cliffs, on either side, two more Navajos sighted down the barrels of rifles at them.  Snake recalculated the odds and froze.   “Like I said," the man in front of them said in a dead level voice, threatening in its very flatness, “You got business on Dinetah?"

“I am Joseph Looks-Away.  I live here."  Joseph produced a Reservation pass and handed it to the man.  “This is Snake Plissken and Rain.  They're with me.  I'm taking them to the Registry Office."  He accepted the card back from the hard-eyed Navajo after the man gave it a thorough examination.

The guard called something with “Snake Plissken" in it up to the men on the cliffs.  They lowered their guns, and he returned his attention to the trio in front of him.  He added something in Navajo, and Joseph nodded and answered slowly.  The other man nodded in turn, unlocked the gate, and pulled it open.  “You stay together until you get to the Office," he said curtly.  To Joseph: “You're responsible for them on Dinetah until then.  Split up, and somebody's going to get shot."

As the tall gate swung shut behind them and the three men moved on, Rain turned to Joseph.  “Are we on the Reservation now?'

There was a glint of satisfaction in the old man's eyes as he answered.  “Not yet.  The Council set up this checkpoint after Snake, here, shut down the power.  We're taking back our land, moving the borders outward as fast as we get enough people to defend them.  Nothing the whites can do to stop us."    

Rain actually grinned, his eyes sparkling.  Joseph's expression turned faintly disapproving before it blanked into neutrality again.  Snake watched the by-play,  disgust and irritation clenching his belly.  Shit.  Plissken the hero.  It's the hippies all over again.  Fucking Indian assholes.  

They rode on for an hour or so through the rust-and-tan landscape, dotted with the sparse green of late spring, until a cluster of low buildings became visible.  When they reached them, the main one turned out to be a modern, eight-sided stucco-and-glass structure which made a graceful nod in the direction of traditional hogan design.  In front of it, on the other side of a blacktopped parking lot, was a decorative rock-garden and a flagpole with the buff-colored flag of the Navajo Nation fluttering in the light late-afternoon breeze.  Several horses were tethered to a railing and one stood, harnessed to a wagon, to one side.  An identifying sign in front had been painted over, and now bore bright-red stenciled letters with a message in some language Snake assumed was Navajo.  A scattering of dark-skinned men with rifles slung over their shoulders or guns at their hips eyed the three newcomers suspiciously as Joseph rode up, dismounted, and tied the horses to the bike rack at the edge of the sidewalk.  Snake and Rain drew up beside him and climbed stiffly off their bicycles.     

Snake returned the stares.  “Stay here and keep an eye on our shit," he said to Rain in a low tone.  Rain nodded agreement and stayed with the bikes as Snake and Joseph went inside.  Beyond the glass doors was a sweep of lobby and a blond wood counter with the unmistakable look of a visitors center.  Gone were the rack of brochures advertising local tourist attractions, the signs announcing hours and the schedule of dance performances, and directions to the restaurant serving genuine Native American cuisine.  In their place was another stern stenciled plaque, this one forbidding entry to Dinetah without authorization, in English and several other languages.  Snake felt a prickly sense of deja-vu creeping over him.  New place, same old shit.  Fucking bureaucrats; there's no end to them, he thought.  He had to fight his first impulse to turn on his heel and walk back the way he had come, tell them to shove it, and head out for someplace else.  Where?  This was his last, best bolt-hole, for all the reasons he and Rain had come up with back in that abandoned house in California.  After a sharp inner struggle, Snake stepped forward with Joseph toward the long-haired young man, in faded jeans and businesslike gunbelt, standing next to the counter.    

“Joseph."  The young man nodded a greeting, then turned his attention to Joseph's companion.  “Who's this?"

“Hello, Bill," Joseph answered.  “I'm bringing this one and his friend with me on to Dinetah.  I need to speak with Elena.  Is she in?"

Bill looked Snake up and down, then answered, “O.K.; go on in."  Snake followed Joseph through a door and down a short hallway to a large office.  Through the open door he could see filing cabinets lining the walls and a middle-aged woman bent over a pile of paperwork on a cluttered desk.  The forgotten sound of a manual typewriter clattered in the hot, dusty air as she leaned forward to read something on the sheet beside her in the fading light from the office window.  She straightened as Snake and Joseph entered, her heavy necklaces settling back against the emerald-green velveteen of her blouse.  “Yes?"

Snake took the initiative, refusing to let Joseph speak for him.  “I'm coming on to the Land," he said, making it a statement rather than a request.

“Are you on the rolls?"  The answer was firm and equally uncompromising.

“The name's Plissken.  It's probably not there."  Snake considered briefly.  “Look for Walter Begay."

The woman nodded, on familiar ground.  “What are your clans?"

Snake hesitated, searching for ancient, long-buried data far in the back of his mind.  His grandmother had tried to teach him something about that once… s something about being born for, or to, or… but he had listened with half an ear, and had promptly forgotten most of it.  He had a flash of memory: a small boy fidgeting impatiently above the bright flower-patterns on the plastic kitchen tablecloth, kicking at the dinette table's thin metal legs as he listened to his grandmother drone on, and staring out the open back door to the bare dirt yard and the tantalizing blue line of mountains far beyond.  The breathless heat and blinding white light of those Arizona summers, filled with the pervasive smell of dust and softening asphalt, came back to him.  Snake shook his head silently.

With an air of patient persistence, the woman continued, following the form, “What was your mother's clan, and name?"

Snake finally pulled up a distant reference.  “Maria Begay Plissken… something about bad water."  He paused, then added deliberately, “My father's not there."

“Bitter Water?" the woman continued.  At Snake's nod, she flipped open a large book to a tabbed section.  “What was your grandmother's name?" she asked, her finger on one of the pages.  Reading upside down, Snake made out the printed heading at the top: To'dich'ii'nii.  Gibberish.  Information came slowly out of Snake like rusted nails pulled from a long-sealed coffin.  “Dorothy… uh… Gorman."

“And your grandfather?  I don't suppose you know his clan?"  The woman looked up briefly, then, at Snake's silence, returned to studying the large volume in front of her, flipping pages.  After a few minutes of searching, she asked, “Was he the brother of Lawrence?"   

“Hell if I know," Snake muttered.  “They lived out of Window Rock."  He delved further into childhood memory.  “Maybe.  There was an Uncle Larry… Lawrence, I guess.  I don't know anything about him."  

“Here you are," the woman said finally, with satisfaction in her voice.  “Steven D. Plissken, son of Maria, Bitter Water Clan, grandson of Walter, Towering House Clan and Dorothy, Bitter Water Clan.  Your father's not listed.  Non-Dineh.  Your grandmother put your name down.  You're Bitter Water Clan.  Children follow the mother."  She looked up and smiled at him.  “Welcome home, Snake."

Snake gave her his voiceless snort and a look which he hoped was sufficiently cryptic.

Her smile widened slightly.  “I had to confirm your background for chapter records.  Snake Plissken has a name here.  We've followed your war against the white government.  We share enemies."

“He has a partner with him, Elena," Joseph broke in.  “They're together.  He's not on the rolls, but we'll both speak for him."

She paused a moment, as if considering, then said, “Very well, if they're together.  What's his name?"

“Rain," Snake said.

Elena arched a sardonic eyebrow, and Snake thought to himself that Rain was going to have a hard time here unless he came up with a new name.  “Last name?"

Snake thought for a minute, finally remembered hearing it at Rivendell.  “Haven."

“Rain Haven," Elena said in a weary tone.  She reached into a lower drawer of her desk and took out a form.  “Have him fill this out and bring it back.  I'll add him."  She turned her attention to Snake's companion.  “You know how crowded we are right now, Joseph…."."  She let the sentence trail away politely.

“They'll be going with me into the back country, up in the canyon."

“Ah."  She seemed to remember something, and her expression shifted into sympathetic sorrow.  “And?"

“This morning.  I took care of everything.  His spirit walks free, off Dinetah."

Elena nodded.  “I share your sorrow."  She busied herself for a few minutes filling out paperwork, and at last handed two cards over the desktop to Snake.  “Here's an ID for each of you if you're stopped by the Guard."

“The Guard?"

“Things have changed, Snake," Joseph said.

He and Elena shared a look, and she continued.  “You may carry weapons," she nodded in the direction of Snake's twin Magnums, “but not concealed.  Joseph will show you the areas that are off-limits.  They're plainly marked.  Joseph…."

“I know."  Joseph smiled wryly.  “I'm responsible for them."

Elena's cheeks turned a slightly darker shade.  “Until they learn their way on Dinetah."  Snake almost imagined he could hear a capital letter on the word Way.

He and Joseph nodded a farewell to the woman and returned to where Rain was standing guard over the bicycles.  In a few words, Snake explained what had happened, and handed Rain his ID.  Responsible for me, eh, Snake thought, eyeing Joseph as the old man untied the reins and swung up into the saddle of his horse, Fuck that.  For a second time, he almost turned and rode away, then he gave a mental shrug.  He didn't have any better plan right at the moment.  He'd have to think about it.

Snake hoped there might be a motel or guesthouse where they could spend the night, but if there was, nobody mentioned it or offered them a room.  The armed Navajo guard in the front seemed no more friendly on the way out than he had on their way in, watching them in silence as Joseph led the way back to the parking lot.  The few locals who had been hanging around when they rode up had disappeared into the gathering dusk along with the horses and wagon, and the buildings around the former Visitors' Center were tight shut, unlabeled, evidently private.  Sandy-eyed and weary, his head throbbing more than usual, Snake resigned himself to another night camping along the road, and swung his leg over the seat of his bicycle.  It seemed heavier than usual as he pushed off,  pedaling to keep up with Joseph.  Rain followed uncomplainingly, silent and seemingly lost in thought.  They headed on eastward, along the road, into the Reservation.                

After a while, Joseph broke the silence.  “I live in the back country, a couple of canyons over, but we can stay on the road a little longer before turning off.  Easier for the bikes."

Snake felt his temper fraying under the influence of his headache, and was unenthusiastic about having to deal with any more people.  “You live by yourself?"

“Don't worry, Snake; you're welcome on Dinetah.  As Elena said, you have a name here."

“Bullshit!" Snake broke in, remembering the gauntlet of hard-eyed guards the trio had passed since they entered Indian-controlled land.

“Terrible name.  You should have stayed with Snake," Joseph said, his voice dead even.  Snake turned to glare at him angrily.  That was evidently the reaction Joseph was hoping for: his eyes crinkled with amusement and he chuckled softly.  Snake snorted, remembering how much he hated Indian humor.

“Look!"  Rain was pointing toward a mound of dirt and timbers not far off the road: the remains of an old hogan.  He pulled up to a stop and turned to Joseph.  “Raiders?"

Joseph shook his head.  “No.  Just somebody's old house."  

Snake gave a disgusted growl deep in his throat and pushed off again, coming down hard on the downstroke.  Rain pedaled after him.  The questioning look on the younger man's face fueled Snake's irritation, and he rubbed a sleeve across his sweating forehead.  “Wood's a major pain in the ass to get around here, and when somebody dies, fucking Indians break a hole in the wall and let it rot."  His gaze raked Joseph.  “Scared of the dead."  

“It is not the first time a white man mistook respect for fear," Joseph replied evenly.

Rain looked from one to the other, confusion on his face.  “But, the funeral fire I thought…."."

“From the remada."  Joseph tapped his mount into a faster pace.  The set of his shoulders suggested the subject was closed.  He rode easily in the saddle, his large frame graceful and relaxed.  “There's a wash with a spring not far from here.  We'll make camp there.  It's getting late."  He turned his horse off the blacktop as they came to a narrow unpaved road, not much more than a rutted track, that led downward into a deepening slot between two dry hills.  Snake and Rain followed, bumping over occasional rocks the sure-footed horses avoided.  As he rode along, Snake mulled over the disturbing new atmosphere on the reservation.  If there was a chance of being jumped by a gang of homicidal crazies, of one kind or another, three men would be safer than two on the road.  He'd split up with Joseph when he found a more defensible spot to settle.

They came out into a little hollow carpeted in silvery stipa-grass and dotted with stubby trees.  A dark line down one of the rock walls framing the desert meadow showed where a thin seep of water tricked down into a depression in the rock below to form a small natural pool.  Joseph drew rein and dismounted, and his two companions gratefully stopped pedaling and did the same.  Stars were glinting in the dark sky when the three men finished setting up camp and sat down to a meal of food pooled from their mutual supplies.  Sun-warmed water from a shallow spill-over pool below the main one had even allowed a sketchy wash before the sharp cold of the desert night descended and Snake, chilled, pulled on his jacket.  The pain in his head was worse than usual, and the vision in his good eye seemed to be blurring slightly, which disturbed him more than he wanted to admit to himself.  Silently, he sank down next to the fire, wondering if lighting it had been a good idea.  He shrugged: even if there were raiders in the area, the hills cupping this hollow would probably hide the light unless they were right on top of the camp.  The warmth felt good in the cold blackness.  Snake stretched out his boots toward the flames, and spooned hot pinto beans into his mouth.

Rain finished his own helping and set down the metal plate from his mess-kit.  He seemed to be chewing on something besides beans.  “Uh, Snake," the younger man began, “if your grandparents were Navajo, that makes you one-half…."."

Snake's almost-peaceful mood shattered.  “Fuck that!" he growled.  Murky resentment and anger rose in him, seeking a target, finding nothing concrete.  In exasperation, he slammed down his plate and stood up.   “I'll take first watch," he bit off.  He walked a short distance away and stood looking out over the little valley, running his hands through his long hair.  He could almost feel Joseph behind him elaborately pretending not to hear.  That was even more irritating.  Never give an Indian an opening, he thought.   Rain's voice, from his place beside the fire, carried to Snake in the vast silence of the desert night.  Fucking asshole kid….“.

“Joseph?'  Rain's tone was hesitant, almost apologetic.

“That question under your hair finally trying to get loose?" Joseph said.  “Well, what is it?"  Snake heard the scrape of a match and the sharp scent of tobacco drifted to him as the old man took the first puff of an after-dinner cigarette.  Snake gritted his teeth and refused to turn around.

“Snake says his grandparents were Navajo… H How much…?"?"

“How much 'Indian' turns a white man red?"  Joseph's voice was calm.  Any mockery was well concealed.

“Um… well…."."  The embarrassment in Rain's voice deepened, and Snake smiled sardonically to himself.

“Everyone's so concerned about percentages.  The US government even gave us CDIB cards: 'Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.,' as if souls can be measured out, divided up like a spoonful of beans.  Snake's blood is Dineh, but his heart…."."  Snake could hear the slight change in Joseph's tone as he shifted position.  “A man is what he thinks he is, to himself.  Snake is a white man.  For now."  Snake risked a look at the two figures outlined in shifting light and shadow by the fire.  Abruptly, Joseph pulled his sleeping bag up around himself and lay down with his back to Rain.  “I'll take next watch.  Sleep, now."  Rain made an inconclusive gesture in the old man's direction, and drew in a breath as if to continue the conversation.  Without turning, Joseph added over his shoulder, “Rain, some advice: never piss into the wind.  Never keep Joseph Looks-Away awake when he wants to sleep.  Both will get you into very much trouble.  Now, goodnight."  

Within minutes, the sound of steady breathing from the old man's bundle of cloth indicated he was fast asleep.  Rain sat watching him for a few minutes, turned a quick look in Snake's direction, and then rolled over, curled up in his own sleeping bag, and lay down next to the fire.  Somewhere, in a locked place within him, Snake felt a stirring of something like bitter satisfaction.  Rain had learned to read him well enough, and keep his distance at the right time.

He turned and looked back out over the silvery shimmer of long stipa in the moonlight, bending and rippling in the night-wind.  Wasted motion, Snake thought, going nowhere.  The grass goes where the wind pushes it, and when the wind stops pushing, it ends up back where it started.  Like me.  Joseph's hobbled horses were large, bulky shadows, moving slowly over the dappled surface.  The steady tearing sound of their grazing came to Snake over the soft drip of the water-seep into its rocky pool.  He could smell the tang of the mineral-rich water on damp stone.  He moved a little distance away, found a rock, and sat down on it, facing the fire.  The hills were a jagged dark wall around him, against a slightly grayer sky.  In spite of himself, he felt a sense of returning.  His dead grandmother's face came back to him: her elaborate jewelry, the way she wore her hair, her patient voice, her hands always busy with something.  “Everything is a circle," she had told him once; “The faster you run in one direction, the faster you get back to where you started."      

Snake watched the red glow of the slow-dying fire.  He had run for thirty years from this land: run to the Army, into war, out of that war into revenge and a different kind of war; run through Kansas City, New York Max, Cleveland, New Vegas, Los Angeles, and here he was, at the end of everything, back where he had started.  All for nothing…. .  Under his weariness, a half-forgotten anger stirred: not the familiar anger at the USPF and the Feds, but an older anger against mother and his father, the stern and unbending Col. Robert Plissken.  Almost every year, S.D. “Steve" Plissken -- Snake -- had ended up here when his parents fought, or made up, or he screwed up.  Arizona had been a threat realized each year in summer exile, and yet a refuge where he could disappear for days into the mountains and be free of people.  Snake startled as a log fell inward on the fire, with a soft rustling crash, and sparks danced upward.  The bright streaks against the black night sky reminded him of something.  He tried to pin it down, but the image faded before he could grasp it.  Snake pulled his mind back to his watch, pushing his memories down into the hidden place inside him where they were kept locked away.  His head hurt, and his good eye watered in the chill air.  He rose, stamped the feeling back into his booted feet, shrugged up his jacket-collar, and walked farther away from the two men sleeping by the fire, out into the cold white-and-black landscape.  It was so quiet he could hear his own blood moving in his ears.  As he watched, a mule deer doe stepped out into the open from behind the black shadow of a bush.  Ears twitching, nostrils flared, she moved slowly to the edge of the rock pool, paused, then lowered her muzzle to the water and drank.  She raised her head and stood watching Snake's still form intently.  Perhaps the wind shifted and she caught his scent, for a second later she turned, and, with a final flick of her tail, was gone again into the brush.  Snake smiled to himself, thinking of fresh venison.

Snake lapsed into almost-total silence during the next few days, as the three men worked their way into the maze of washes and canyons.  Signs of game increased: deer, an occasional family of elk, a lone bighorn, and, along with them, the quick brown-gray flash of a loping coyote or a tassel-eared Albert squirrel.  Once, they found the dried track of a mountain lion near another pool.  Another time they came over a ridge to see a little herd of eight shaggy, white-faced Herefords grazing in a grassy hollow, guarded by a busy cattle dog and an unfriendly man with a rifle who eyed Snake's Magnums and the crossbow slung over Rain's shoulder with suspicion.  Illegal beef, Snake thought, wondering if it had been someone like this who had provided Ormsby with his contraband streak.

Snake noticed Rain watching him, and tried to ignore it.  Bright sun stabbed pain through him, and Snake started wearing his sunglasses most of the time.  He pedaled steadily along, wasting no effort, fighting the slowly growing dizziness and nausea, trying not to cough as dry desert air rasped his lungs.  At night, he ate little and collapsed heavily into his bedroll after his stint on watch, to wake reluctantly the next morning, feeling no better.  He hung on grimly, looking for a good place to stop moving and settle.           

At last, one late afternoon, Rain fell back to pedal along at Snake's side.  Stored heat reflecting up from the potholed blacktop had joined his fever, and Snake's flushed face was glazed with sweat.  The sunglasses were a black horizontal slash echoed by a thinner slash of mouth below, framed in dark beard.  Damp strands of hair curled on his shoulders.  Rain stared at Snake, concern written on his face.

“Snake, are you feeling all right?"

Snake struggled with himself for a moment, with his purely animal desire not to show vulnerability, then gave way to a racking cough and admitted, “I feel like shit."      

“Plague," Rain said, his tone flat, frightened.

“No, it's not the fucking plague," Snake snarled, his voice edged with annoyance.  “It's that goddamned Plutoxin-7."   He trailed off into another bout of coughing.  

“What if it isn't, Snake?  What about those bodies outside of Flagstaff?  What if…."."

“It's not plague," Snake repeated, biting off each word, trying to put conviction into his voice.  All he needed right now was for Rain and the old man to panic and run out on him, before he found a place to hole up until he stopped hacking his lungs out.  All the same, he wondered uneasily if this was the first symptoms of whatever it was that had wiped out most of Flagstaff.  And who knew how many other people, his mind added, unbidden.  A sinking feeling grew in his belly.    

“Listen!"  Joseph's voice cut across Snake's thoughts.  The trio froze, and, in the sudden silence, Snake heard a hissing sound, mixed with mechanical clattering, heading in their direction from further down the dirt road.  “Sounds like the raiders who jumped… my friend and me." Joseph said.  “Get off the road.  Go!"

A wriggling dot appeared in the heat shimmer where the road touched the horizon, followed a second later by the glint of sunlight on metal.  Snake cursed under his breath.  If he could see them, those approaching had probably seen him as well.  They'd have to fight their way out of this one.  A surge of adrenaline overrode his body's malaise, and practiced reflexes kicked in as Snake looked around quickly for a defensible position.  Not far off the roadbed he saw a promising sandstone outcropping rising up out of the flat sandy ground, shielded by a tangle of spiky gray-green bushes.  Rain and Joseph were already moving in the same direction.  Joseph swung down off his mount, led the horses behind the rock, and whipped both sets of reins around one of the thicker branches of a bush.  Snake and Rain pulled their bicycles and trailers as far behind the rock barrier as they could.  They waited tensely behind the rock, weapons trained on the oncoming menace.

The wriggling dot gradually became visible as a battered old pickup truck converted to steam power.  Snake counted six passengers, all armed, as the makeshift assault vehicle, its boiler hissing violently, shuddered up the incline toward their hiding place.  Snake snapped the Heckler and Koch out of its handlebar mount and raked the vehicle with gunfire.  One of the passengers slumped over the side panel, and the others scrambled to take cover behind the truck as it ground to a halt on the road opposite the large rock outcrop.  The unpaved shoulder sloped down slightly into a patch of the same spiky grayish plants, forming a backdrop for the wheezing vehicle.         

“That's them," Joseph's voice came from behind Snake, and Snake nodded once, shortly.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rain shift his cocked crossbow to a better firing position, braced in a notch of sandstone at the opposite end of the outcrop.

“Hey, you -- get out here!"  The speaker, a scar-faced man in filthy Levis and a torn denim jacket open over his bare chest, stepped out from behind the truck.  His dark hair was long and wild, bandannaed like a movie Apache's, and a shriveled human hand hung, theatrically, on a leather thong around his neck.  He swung up the huge scattergun in his hands and fired.  Snake and Rain ducked their heads below the edge of the outcrop as rock chips peppered them.  “You don't come out, we come in an' get you," the man shouted.  “You die quick, or slow and painful.  Your choice."

A second figure popped up from behind the truck, waving his arms in the air.  One fist held a pistol, the other was a dented and rusting prosthetic with a bayonet crudely attached in place of a hand.  “Get 'em, Jack!" the raider's rat-faced cheering section cried.   There was a grunt and a thud as the figure disappeared again from sight, pulled down by someone behind the truck.  Snake fired, sending a heavy slug past Jack's head.  He corrected for heat shimmer rising off the blacktop and fired again, but by then the leader of the raiders had retreated behind his pickup.

Snake set down the rifle and started working his way crabwise toward a better vantage point farther up the back of the outcropping, using finger-and toe-holds.  He crouched in a shallow sandy depression, wedged between two sandstone boulders and a twisted juniper's trunk, and drew his Magnums.  The HK was more accurate, but at this range he preferred his own guns, trusted and familiar in his hand.  Below him, to one side, Snake could see Rain poised behind the sights of his crossbow, waiting for a chance to get off a good shot.  Joseph seemed to have melted into the landscape.  Snake spared him no more than a half-second's thought, wondering just whose side the cowardly old bastard was really on, before turning back to the battle.  He tried a shot over the back of the truck, and ducked as several bullets in response nearly took his hat off.  Rain loosed a crossbow bolt as one of the raiders raised his head over the side of the truck to return Snake's fire.  His target dropped, shot through the face, drawing an answering fusillade from his comrades.  Snake began a heavy barrage, attacking the pickup, and both tires on the side toward him exploded, as return fire peppered the rocks around him and Rain.  Standoff, Snake thought.                

The rat-faced raider bounced up again from behind the truck with something in his good hand.  An instant later, Snake recognized it as an old-fashioned grenade, as the raider yanked the firing pin with his teeth and threw it in his direction. Obsolete and surplus, Snake thought; Another souvenir of the government's damned War.  He watched the thing sailing toward him, and almost smiled.  But this asshole's no soldier.  He had plenty of time; Rat-face hadn't waited the count before sending the little present Snake's way.  The grenade bounced on the ground behind him and rolled to a stop against a rock.  Calmly, Snake scooped it up, stood, and with a sharp snap of his arm, lobbed the ball overhand, back the way it had come, into the center of the enemy group.  He heard a whuf of expelled breath from Rain's position, and flicked a glance in his direction just in time to see the look of semi-panic on Rain's face, as the grenade arced down between them, become something like awe at what Rain thought, Snake suspected, was Snake's amazing bravery.  Snake flashed amusement and irritation: fucking kid's still trying to turn me into his little tin hero, but it was no more than half-hearted reflex.  For the first time since Taylor's death, he realized, he had confidence in the man who was fighting beside him.  

A gratifying chorus of yelps and screams erupted from behind the truck as Snake yelled, “Down!" in Rain's direction and dropped, waiting for the explosion.  Silence.  Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… shit!  The grenade was a dud.  Or a fake.  Cursing inwardly, Snake pulled himself up to the top of his hiding place to see the ragtag men, who had scattered when the grenade landed, scuttling back behind the barrier of their truck.  The last one to arrive kicked the unexploded grenade out of his way with a curse and a derisive yell, “Yaaa!!  Didn't go off!"  He fired a shot as he dove for safety.

“It's your fucking piece of shit!"  Rain had an almost gleeful grin on his face, as the snap of his crossbow answered, and a quarrel clattered against the spot the man had been an instant before.  Snake found himself grinning too.  Score one, kid.

Snake studied the truck, his mind moving into high gear, and memories of New York Max surfaced.  While Rain kept the raiders occupied, snapping a crossbow bolt every time a head surfaced, Snake scrambled down the slope, back to his bike-trailer, loaded the heavy Barrett armor-piercing gun, and carried it back to his perch.  A bullet sang through his hair, taking his hat with it, as he sighted and fired, bracing against the recoil.  The truck wobbled on its deflated tires, door crumpling.  Ears ringing from the blast, Snake corrected, aimed for the boiler, and fired.  Just like New York.  Steam and boiling water fountained, sending the scalded raiders scattering again with a chorus of screams and curses.  From behind the sandstone outcropping, Snake and Rain picked them off one by one with Magnums, throwing knife, and crossbow, ducking return fire from the leader, who was still hidden behind the junked truck, yelling uselessly at his men to stay under cover.            

With a high-pitched scream, Joseph Looks-Away materialized out of the tangle of mesquite behind the truck, and Jack died in a spray of blood as Joseph's knife slashed across his throat.  The last of the raiders, terror on his face, scrabbled away toward the sheltering brush, dragging a mass of pulped flesh that had been his leg before Snake's bullets smashed into it.  “When you join him, tell your leader I killed him for Johnny Grey Owl," Joseph said.  He bent down and stabbed the man once, a clean blow like a hunter dispatching a wounded deer.  The man choked and died.  Joseph straightened, pulling his knife free from the dead raider's chest, wiped the blade, and sheathed it at his waist.  He walked over to the sandstone outcropping as Snake and Rain worked their way down the steep slope to meet him.

There was irony buried in Joseph's dark eyes as he greeted them with: “You two tired of playing Cowboys and Indians?"  Rain jumped down from the rock to land next to him.  Joseph's glance swept the young man's lean body from tan nylon-and-rubber hiking boots, over dusty khaki pants and shirt, to long, brown hair caught up with a band into a ponytail.  The wrinkles at the corners of the old man's mouth deepened.   “Where you grew up, it was 'Animal Oppressors and Native Americans,' and the good guys had the bows and arrows, right?"       

“First People," Rain answered, grinning as he caught the joke.  He sounded a bit out of breath.

“Right," Joseph repeated, dryly.  “And the Indians always came out on top, didn't they?"  An uncomfortable look replaced the grin on Rain's face, as if he were trying to understand what he was supposed to be embarrassed about.

Sturdy leather boots landed beside Rain's, as Snake finished his slower climb down the rock-face, hampered by the heavy Barrett.  He shifted the gun off his shoulder and replaced it in his trailer.  “In my day, the cowboys kicked Indian butt," he said deliberately, and looked over at Rain, adding, “You can't win with them."    

Joseph favored Snake with a sardonic smile.  He seemed amused by both of the others.  “No," he agreed; “Not in the long run."  

Snake almost doubled over as he gave way to a racking bout of coughing.  Now that the adrenaline-rush of  battle was over, he realized again just how bad he felt.  Sweat ran down his face as he straightened up, jamming his wide-brimmed hat back down on his head with an irritated gesture.  He glared in Joseph's direction.  “I want to find this canyon of yours and hole up 'til this is over."  Hard-hitting case of the flu, my ass.  Fuckers.  He noticed, and ignored, the look of concern Rain turned in his direction as Snake pushed his bike and trailer back up onto the paved road.   

“Let's move out," Joseph agreed.  He unwrapped his horses' reins from the spiky gray-green bushes, and the hollow clop of their hooves sounded on the blacktop as he led them up onto the road.  He paused beside the steaming wreck of the truck to tighten the pack horse's girth.  Rain followed with his own bike.

Snake, looking back at them, nodded in the direction of Jack's stiffening corpse and said sourly, “Stupid risk."

Joseph smiled at him, refusing to rise to the bait.  “From what I've seen on the Police Channel, you're not the one to talk, Snake."  He shrugged and finished tightening the strap.  “Had to be done.  The gun I had was my friend's.  It burned with him."  He started to swing up onto his lead horse, then stopped, evidently caught by the look on Snake's face.

“Wait."  Snake dismounted and rummaged in the contents of his bike-trailer to come up with the flat black case holding the Walther P-38 and its accessories.  He held it out in Joseph's direction.  “Here.  Don't burn this one."

Joseph took the case, opened it, and withdrew the expensive pistol.  It gleamed black in his hand.  He whistled.  “You giving this to me?"  He touched the shoulder stock, clips and shoulder holster, then took the sight and stared through it before replacing it in the case.

“Don't need it," Snake said.  His hands brushed the butts of his Magnums.  “I've got my guns."  He nodded toward the pistol in Joseph's hand.  “That's a rich man's toy, but it's a Walther."  He directed an ironic glance at Rain that included Joseph in the joke.  “Better than bow and arrows."

Joseph slapped a clip home in the butt of the small gun and smiled again.  “I've never shot an arrow in my life."  He laid his right wrist across his left forearm, steadying the P-38, and sighted.  “Watch out."  He fired, and the grenade still lying on the road some distance away detonated violently, cratering the blacktop and sending a wind laden with dust into Snake's face.  The horses snorted and shied, and the three men spat out grit and wiped their eyes as Joseph brought the animals back under control.  “First Air Cav," he said, eyeing Snake, “Vietnam."  He fastened the holster in place, shoved the P-38 into it, and swung up onto his lead horse.  “O.K.  Let's go."  The three of them headed out, riding parallel, taking up the width of the road.

In Snake's feverish state, it was a long trip into the canyons.  He memorized landmarks with a pilot's eye, as blacktop gave way to gravel, then parallel ruts, and finally became packed-down caliche and rock, with pockets of sand.  The horses picked their way carefully over loose stones, as the two bicyclists got off and pushed their heavily-loaded machines over the hard ground.  At last they came around a sharp bend in the high sandstone walls to find a steep slope leading down into a narrow slot in the rocks.  A shallow stream glittered at the bottom, clear water over rock.  “Here," Joseph said.  

Snake eyed the descent and exchanged dubious glances with Rain.  Joseph dismounted and, with considerable encouragement, led the protesting horses down, their hooves slipping and skidding on the rocks as they followed the narrow trail to the bottom.  They stood hock-deep in water, pawing occasionally at the mossy streambed, as Joseph looked up at Snake and Rain impatiently.  “Come on," he called up to them.         

“I'll pass the bikes down to you," Snake said.  Rain nodded, and worked his way down to a more secure rock about half-way to the bottom, where he braced himself.  Snake dug his boots in and, one by one, leaned over to lower his bike, then Rain's, then each of the trailers, down the slope, steadying them with an attached length of rope snugged around a rock at the canyon's rim.  Rain passed them on down to Joseph, then climbed the rest of the way down himself.  Snake half-climbed, half-slid down, hit a patch of loose scree, and ended up with an undignified skid and splash into the cold water at the foot of the cliff.  He picked himself up without comment and went to help Rain reattach the trailers to the bikes.      

The trio splashed along, ankle-deep in water, down the streambed, through the high, narrow slot in the sandstone walls, for perhaps an hour by Snake's reckoning before the canyon widened out enough to give them room to pull their bikes up onto a dry bank.  Snake checked to make sure the waterproof tarp had kept his cargo reasonably dry, then stood looking around while Rain finished a similar inspection.  In the deep afternoon shadow of the cliffs, the air was hot and still, full of the trickling sound of shallow water and the smell of damp sandstone.  Partway up the wall, a hanging garden of maidenhair fern and dropseed, sprinkled with clusters of white-flowered columbine, followed the line of a seep adding moisture to the little stream below.  As Snake watched, a gray lizard crept out from a cleft in the rocks, stood poised for an instant like a tiny dinosaur in a prehistoric landscape, then flickered and was gone into the vegetation.  Snake reached a hand down into a small pool in the rock-face which had been hollowed out by the dribble of water, and raised a questioning eyebrow at Joseph.

The old man nodded.  “It's safe."

Snake filled his cupped hands several times, drinking thirstily, then splashed his sweating face.  The water was cool, sharp with the taste and smell of dissolved minerals, a flavor from Snake's Arizona childhood.  He straightened, wiping his chin with the back of his hand.  “Nice place,' he said softly, “Get many visitors?"            

“The front door's about thirty miles downstream.  Eighty by the road, if you can call it that.  Coming in this way cuts at lot of time off the trip."

Rain also took a deep drink from the pool, then Joseph drank and watered his horses.  The sun was westering when the three men moved out along the jumble of rocks and gravel, dotted with occasional twisted trees and brush, that marked the high-water line of the wash.  It was hard going for the heavy bicycles on the uneven ground, and Snake's malaise deepened as he pushed his machine along.  He felt the bone-deep ache in his tired muscles, the throbbing pain in his head spiked with flashes from behind his damaged eye.  His vision blurred, sweat dripping down his face into his good eye, soaking his body, as he trudged on numbly.  Two more hours brought them to a spot where the canyon broadened out to create a wide grassy area above a fringe of cottonwoods along the bank of the wash.  The vegetation was thick and green in the wake of the spring run-off, greener than Snake could remember from his childhood explorations.

Rain evidently noticed too.  He was looking around, a big smile on his face.  “Look at all the grass.  It's beautiful!"

“Climate's getting wetter, so they say," Joseph said as he drew rein.  His horse blew and tossed his head, then ripped up a tuft of grass and began chewing.  “More water, more grass, more game.  Fewer cows; that may be the only good thing we ever got from the damned U.S. government."  He ran a hand along his horse's neck, ruffling the long mane.  “Some people think it's going back to the way it was when they lived here."  He jerked his chin in the direction of the opposite canyon wall.  The other two men followed the line of his gesture.  About a third of the way up the sandstone cliff was a deep overhang, and in the late-afternoon shadow beneath it, Snake caught an indistinct glimpse of masonry, intersecting geometric shapes rising out of a jumble of fallen blocks.      

“What's the name of the ruin?" Rain asked.  

Joseph shrugged.  “No name, not even a number on the University's antiquities registry.  Just one of the thousands of unexplored ruins hidden away in the canyons.  I don't think anyone's even been up there since the people who built it moved out.  If they have, I've never heard about it."

As Snake watched, the sun had shifted.  Now, in the last moments before sunset, slanting light struck the southwest-facing cliff in front of them, turning the upper section a flame-bright red-orange, the lower section the deep blood-red of glowing embers.  In the alcove below, the Anasazi ruin was the gray-and-black of burned ash.  Square doorways of the old houses were darker black-on-black, mysterious openings into some other place.  For a second, Snake thought he saw some reflected dazzle in the blackness, like faint streaks of light in the night sky.  He blinked and it was gone.  He made a decision.  “I'm camping here," he said, and turned to unpack his sleeping bag from his trailer.  Joseph and Rain exchanged glances, but there was such conviction in Snake's voice that they didn't argue.  

After dinner, the three lay wrapped in their sleeping bags, watching the fire die down inside its circle of stones and earth, not quite ready to fall asleep.  Above them the last streaks of sunset had faded, and stars blazed in a clear black sky.  The steady ripping sound of the horses grazing nearby mingled with the soft gurgling of the stream.  Snake was grateful for the cool air on his feverish face as the night chill deepened.  He took a deep breath flavored with woodsmoke.  From somewhere down the river came a sharp yipping cry, followed by another, answering wail.

“Coyotes," Rain said.  Snake could hear the smile in his voice.

Cupping his hands to his mouth, Joseph gave a high warbling cry in return, and when the two voices answered him, Snake saw the white of his teeth flash in the dying firelight.  “I really shouldn't do that," Joseph said, laughing a little.  “It confuses them.  I'm not of their nation."

“They're animals," Snake said.  “How could you be in their pack?"

Joseph's tone turned somber.  “I'm not; not here, not now.  When I was a child, at home, in the Mojave… before I went to the city to become white…."."  The sentence trailed away into a shrug.

“Ah," Rain said, a sound indicating agreement and understanding.  Snake could see the younger man nodding, and for some reason he found that irritated him.

Joseph's face was planes of dark bronze in the last of the firelight.  “I should have come back before.  I was wrong.  I wanted to be something I wasn't.  Now I'm returning."

“Is that why you're called Looks-Away?" Rain asked.  “Because you abandoned your people's heritage?"

Joseph sighed.  “No.  I was called Roberts in the Service.  I took Looks-Away when I left the Army.  I was sick of white names."

“What did you do in the Army?" Snake interjected.

“I was a medical corpsman."  Joseph smiled faintly.  “The Army didn't accept being an Indian activist as a legitimate reason for a CO exemption, and I wasn't about to go overseas to kill people for defending their land, in the name of a government that had done the same to my people."  

Snake's snort of disgust was eloquent.  He turned and looked out over the grassy area beyond their campfire toward the Anasazi ruin and the black wall of the sandstone cliff.  He didn't have to see Rain to know that the boy was nodding again, agreeing with the old Indian, regurgitating political bullshit that had been history before Rain was born.  Bullshit then; bullshit now.  Snake felt a familiar restless irritation rising in him.

Joseph seemed to sense Snake's mood and deliberately turn the conversation in a less dangerous direction.  Snake heard his voice shift as he faced the younger man: “Speaking of names, why are you called Rain?"

“My parents named me Rain to honor the earth.  Kind of like, uh… Native American names."

Joseph's tone took on an edge.  “What is Turtle Island?  Do you know?"

“Turtle Island is what the First People call the continent of America."  Rain sounded a bit smug.  “It was brought up by Turtle, an earth diver."  

“Your name's Haven; that's English.  Who were Audhumla and Ymir?"  

Rain was silent.  Finally, he said hesitantly, “I... I don't know."

“Why study Indian beliefs?" Joseph said.  “Don't your people have any of their own?  You steal our names, our history, our legends, our identity…."."

“I'm sorry…" " Rain said softly, sounding flustered.

“…And think because you've trapped something inside a book, you understand it," Joseph finished.

The irritation that had been building in Snake flared, and he turned back to the conversation.  “Hey, hey, hey.…  You want to guilt trip the white man, go after somebody who's really fucked you over!  At least the kid's trying."  Snake raised himself on one elbow and ran his hand through his hair in a gesture of annoyed frustration.  “Hell, the only difference between Indians and trailer trash is Indians have less money.  What did your stories ever get you?"

“Nothing you would find valuable maybe, Snake." Joseph said, wearily.  “I'm not angry at either of you.  Just sad.  Rain, you need to study your own past.  There is honor there, a heritage of your own.  Your names mean things, just like ours.  What was your grandmother's name?"

“Carol," Rain said.  “And my grandfather was Mark."

“There," Joseph said.  “Your grandmother's name means 'a song'.  And your grandfather was 'a warrior.'  Fine names.  You don't need to look outside your own family, your own heritage."  He turned to Snake.  “You weren't always 'Snake.'  What did your parents name you?."

Snake gave an almost-silent growl of disgust, pulled the sleeping bag up around his shoulders, and turned over, away from the guttering embers of the fire, to face the dark wall of the cliff.  

There was silence for a few minutes.  Then Joseph said gently, “You have no birth-name?  No family?  No past?  Then you are even poorer than the Indians you despise."  He stirred the fire with a stick, scattering the ashes and mixing them with sandy dirt, then lay back down and pulled up his own sleeping bag.  “Go to sleep, both of you.  Good dreams."  

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

Sun-dazzle sparked off the rock under the young boy's climbing feet.  He squinted up the canyon wall into the merciless Arizona sky, the color of his eyes.  The sun had begun its summer task of burning him brown and turning his hair, not yet darkened into its adult auburn, to flaming red.  He stopped to breathe and look back the way he had come, back toward his grandmother's little square stucco house in its patch of bare, hard earth.  He had escaped again, avoiding the boring chores she intended for him, to run free in the twisting labyrinth of canyons and mesas.  The heat was a palpable weight on his back, the dry air burning in his lungs, the ground under him almost white in the midday glare.  He shifted a sweat-soaked backpack-strap, scratched under it with fingernails bitten to the quick, and climbed on toward the mesa.  Something up there was calling him.

Part-way up the cliff was an old Indian ruin.  The doorways were black squares in sun-bleached walls, promising refuge from the sun.  He ducked under the low lintel into the darkness beyond.  For a minute he could see nothing, then his eyes adjusted, and he took a few steps, through a second low door, into the heart of the ruin.  A flickering light glowed up ahead, drawing him toward it.  As he stepped through the door, he saw the room was an old kiva.  He felt the power swirling in it.  At the center of the round space, a small fire was burning, filling the air with heat and the smell of smoke.  In the dim light, he could see a man, dressed all in form-fitting black, sitting beside the campfire.  The man raised his head and stared at him.  The boy looked back into the man's face, a harsh, scarred, lined face, thick with dark stubble.  One eye was covered by a black patch, the other glinted savage blue in the firelight.  “Welcome," the man said; “Come in, Steven."  The dark voice boomed, echoed, filled the kiva.  Steven Plissken raised his hands to cover his ears, staring into the black man's open mouth.  Horrified, yet somehow not surprised, he saw the mouth was full of fire.  The man in front of him was burning inside.  Steven turned to flee, but the burning man stretched out his finger, touched it to the floor in front of him, and a thin line of fire, like a rattlesnake's trail in desert dust, stretched out, circled around, across the doorway behind Steven, and back to the burning man's other hand, sealing the exit.

The figure spoke again, his  voice roaring flame: “This is your place.  You belong here.  COME… TO… ME…. .  COME…."."  He stretched out his flaming hand.  Steven   reached out across the narrow space and took it.  Fire flamed between them, joining them.  There was an instant of searing pain, and then they/he were pure light, pure energy, pure white-hot  flame.  He spread out his bright arms, and fire fell from his blazing fingers and roared up all around him.  The kiva disappeared, consumed in fire, and he stood, burning, on the edge of the mesa, on the edge of the world, against a night sky.  Flames spread out from him to cover the world ,and it was all his in its moment of destruction.  He laughed, shouting out his pure joy as he burned, and the world burned with him.                     

                                              

Snake woke abruptly, his dream scattering like sparks on the wind.  The air was cold, the deep chill of desert pre-dawn, and the cliff in front of him was a black mass against a slightly lighter gray; morning was close, but the sun would not rise over the rim of the canyon for some time yet.  As he sat up and unzipped his sleeping bag, he heard the shill cry of a saw-whet owl higher up in the cliffs.  Moments later, from somewhere further off, came a long, wavering howl.  Joseph's horses snorted and stamped at the sound, tossing their heads.  Snake frowned.  Even to his inexpert ear, the howl was too deep and powerful.  That was no coyote; that was a wolf, one of the descendants of the Mexican lobos reintroduced into Arizona in the 'nineties.  Snake looked around, expecting Rain or Joseph to wake, but both lay unmoving, fast asleep.  Snake untangled himself from his bedroll and got to his feet.  Absently, he buckled on his guns, grabbed the chemlamp, and picked up his eyepatch.  Without thinking, he shoved the scrap of black cloth into a jacket pocket.  Still without conscious decision, moved by some vague inner urge, he began to climb up the edge of the canyon wall, heading toward the Anasazi ruins.

Sometime after the ruins were deserted, a rockslide had brought down part of the cliff wall, creating an easy slope up to the level of the buildings.  Fifteen minutes of climbing brought Snake to the edge of the packed earth plaza, where he paused to  look around.  Part of the ruin's walls had broken and crumbled away, but most of the long bank of red sandstone blocks and rubble mortar was intact.  Except for a layer of buff-color dust everywhere, the old village looked as if its inhabitants had moved out no more than days before.  As he stood there in the chill pre-dawn gloom, Snake felt a sense of presence seeping into him.  The very air here was thick with time and phantom echoes of the past.  If he'd been a Navajo, Snake thought, it would have been easy to feel the place was full of chindi, ghosts of the Ancient Enemies, but he felt no sense of unease or foreboding, rather of completion, almost of coming home.  …here… some inner certainty said:… here is the place you are searching for…. .  Snake headed for the low door-window of the building in front of him, not surprised to see that it looked exactly as it had in his dream.  Air currents from within brushed across his face and his eyes watered slightly at the brief flurry of dust in the air.  For a moment, he thought he could smell smoke, but the scent faded almost before he noticed it.     

Snake ducked under the low lintel and stepped into the space beyond, turning the  chemlamp to a dim green glow.  As he moved through the ruin's interconnected rooms, something always just beyond the light seemed to retreat from him into deeper darkness, luring him inward.  His rational mind warned of rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, crumbling masonry and sudden drop-offs, but something stronger said here was safety and haven.  The restless urge that had driven him since he left Rivendell quieted.  He took a deep breath.  The air around him was comfortably cool, smelling of dust and age.  He felt it drawing the fever-heat from his body to warm the room he stood in: an exchange of energies, it seemed to him; a part of himself for a part of this place.  

Light from outside strengthened around him, and Snake turned to look out the door-window of the room he was examining.  Salmon pink and lemon-yellow showed above the cliff-wall, heralding true dawn.  The light stabbed his bad eye.  Snake fumbled his eyepatch from his pocket and slid it into place as he stepped out again into the plaza and snapped off the chemlamp.  He turned and looked back at the masonry walls, but the ruins had resumed their silent, impersonal sleep.  He touched his fingers to the dark cloth covering his blinded eye, adjusted the patch, and began his scrambling descent back to camp. 

He was met by the welcome smell of coffee drifting up into the cool air.  Rain stopped rummaging in the bike-trailer he was repacking as Snake strode in, and Joseph looked up from the pot of cornmeal mush he was stirring over the low flames.  “You've been gone a while," the old man said.  He jerked his chin toward the empty spot where the bedrolls had been the night before.  “We're packed.  Ready to head out after breakfast."    

Snake handed the chemlamp to Rain, whose face brightened as he repacked it in the trailer he had been searching.  “I'm staying here," Snake said flatly.  He ignored the surprise on Rain's face and the consternation he saw in Joseph's expression.  “Up there."  He waved a hand in the direction of the ruins above.

“You can't stay there," Joseph said.  “You can stay at my place, or in the pueblo down by the mouth of the canyon, either one.  Not there."

“There," Snake repeated in Lieutenant Plissken's voice.  Out of the corner of his good eye, he saw Rain stiffen.  

The Mojave rose to his feet.  He was bulkier than Snake, taller and heavier, but his glance slid away from eye contact in the way Snake remembered from his childhood among his grandmother's people.  “No," Joseph said, “That is a place of the dead."    

Snake's face set like cold iron.  “I'm dead," he growled.  Joseph flinched and drew away from him, and, in the background, he heard Rain inhale sharply.  “I'm staying."   

“If you do, you're a fool."  Joseph returned to the bubbling mush, and ladled it out onto their mess-tin plates with abrupt snaps of his wrist.  The three men ate a slightly burned and lumpy breakfast in silence, then Joseph threw his pack on one of his horses and saddled the other.  He hesitated, holding the reins in one hand, ready to mount, looking from one to the other of the two men.  

Rain broke the silence.  “Ah… you're sure this is a good idea, Snake?"  Snake fixed him with the same gunmetal stare he had used on Joseph, and, after a moment, Rain shrugged.  “O.K., Snake; I guess we stay here."

Sun flamed over the rim of the canyon.  In the slanting light, the ruins in the alcove above them glowed the color of red gold.  Joseph swung into the saddle and picked up the reins.  Still, he hesitated, then, almost in a rush, he said, “Use sage, lots of it.  There's sweetgrass, down by the river.  I have some red thread, if…."."   

“Indian bullshit," Snake snarled.

“For the scorpions, then, and the spiders."

Snake's answering snort, growled deep in his throat, was more eloquent than any words.  Rain looked from his partner to the old Indian and bit his lip.  Hesitantly, he said, “Sage?  For smudging?  I can do that.  I know the purification ritual we used back home in Rivendell.  It was Lakota, though.  Would that work?"

Rain recoiled from the nearly identical expressions of rage and disgust that Snake and Joseph turned on him, and fell silent.  An impatient jerk on the reins made the horse toss its head in protest.  “You're even more of a fool than he is, white man!" Joseph spat in Rain's direction.  He kicked his horse into motion and trotted away down the canyon floor.  He did not look back.

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

Joseph's anger lasted the hour and a half it took him to ride home, and simmered while he checked out the condition of his homestead after his absence.  His drooping garden would revive with a good watering, but stocks of dried meat, cornmeal, and beans were getting low.  He ducked under the doorway into the interior of his hogan, and stopped short.  In the center of his table, weighted down with his heavy ceramic coffee cup, was a note scrawled in black magic marker on lined yellow notebook paper, dated two days ago.  'Billy J. cut his leg' it read, 'Starting to look bad.  Come when you can.'  It was signed by one of the men from the pueblo at the mouth of the canyon, and Joseph remembered that the man had a nine-year-old son named Billy.  He checked his locked cabinet of over-the-counter and prescription medicines, scavenged on expeditions to Flagstaff and points south, and shook his head.  There was so little that was still useful, without real doctors and real hospitals, without labs and refrigeration and machinery.  A lot of the time, there was nothing he could do except give the sick person pain killers and first aid.  Back to antiseptics, sulfa, and aspirin, he thought.  Well, he could handle those, and they worked.  Sometimes.

As he packed up his medical kit, Joseph's thoughts kept returning to Snake Plissken and the boy.  It was a bad situation all the way around, this Navajo who didn't want to be one, and the white kid with the “Indian" name, the culture thief.  He remembered the outlaw's hard face and the fierce glitter in his blue eye, and felt a twinge of unease: restless ghosts were drawn to anger, and they were strong in the abandoned homes of the Old Ones.  He picked up a dark plastic bottle of Betadine, and laughed ruefully to himself as he put it in his backpack.  Here you are, Joseph Looks-Away, worrying about old ghosts and collecting modern antiseptics; who's the culture thief, I wonder?

He was still wondering as he rode slowly home from the pueblo the next afternoon.  The emergency had turned out to be a minor one.  He cleaned out the wound, and left Billy's worried father with a supply of sulfa tablets, sterile packaged bandages, and antiseptics, in return for the dried pintos and corn meal he needed.  He was no longer angry, and was beginning to feel a bit ashamed of himself.  Young Rain meant well; he was not arrogant, like so many of the whites who thought they knew Indian ways better than the Indians who tried to teach them.  He could learn.  And Snake… Snake was one of the People, whether he acknowledged it or not, and he bore on his body and his soul the mark of the Messenger, the go-between between the upper and the lower worlds.  He had started a work, but not finished it.  Joseph felt a chill, wondering if it was more than chance that had drawn Snake to the old ruins.  He seemed so certain.  What would the two of them do out there? Joseph wondered.  He owed them both a life-debt.  A part of Joseph's mind nagged at him that Plissken had been sick when he left, and might need his help.  

Send me a sign.  Joseph drew rein at the top of a little rise and stared out over the canyon.  It was so hard to tell.  His people's Powers didn't speak in the loud and flashy ways of the Whites' theatrical god; they spoke in the subtle voices of the natural world, and his ears and eyes were dulled by years of city living.  Joseph noticed a twisted juniper with the distinctive black slash of a lightning strike running down its side into a narrow fork near the base.  Surely, he thought, he should have noticed such a distinctive tree along the path he traveled several times a month, but he could not recall seeing it before.  The slash was shiny, almost wet-looking, although it hadn't rained in months.  Joseph dismounted, and went over for a closer look.  Something thin and mottled was caught in the bottom of the tree-fork, and, with a prickle along his spine, Joseph saw that it was the shed skin of a diamond-back rattlesnake.  Is this it?  Is this the sign?  What does it mean?  Instinctively, Joseph raised his head toward the deep blue Arizona sky.  There was a flash of black across his vision, followed by a loud cry.  A crow landed on a bush close to him and perched there, turning its head, fixing him with its bright black eye.  Caw, it said; caw, caw!  The bird took wing, circled him once, and flew away toward the top of the canyon, disappearing into the sun.  Shaken, Joseph watched it out of sight.  It was time, he thought, to Dream.  When he had Dreamed, he would go back to visit Rain and the one who carried the mark of the snake.                     

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

After Joseph's abrupt departure, Snake and Rain moved their supplies up the slope to the old pueblo and started settling into the rooms Snake had chosen during his earlier survey of the ruins.  The wooden roof and earthen floor were still intact, the thick masonry walls solid except for the door and the two small square windows high in the outer wall.  Old soot on one wall indicated the smoke-hole for the original inhabitants' hearth.  A trip back down to the river provided feathery lengths of grass which they tied into improvised brooms, and several hours' vigorous effort finished the job of clearing three small rooms of dirt, cobwebs, and the accumulated debris of centuries.  One of the front rooms yielded a tall ladder which had been used to climb to the roof of the next story.  Snake tested it by bouncing lightly on rungs, and found it still perfectly serviceable.  As the long, bright day wore on, Snake noticed that the inner rooms of the pueblo, sheltered from the direct glare of the spring sun, were considerably cooler than the heat in the open.  Good design, he thought to himself, feeling increasingly sure that he had made the right choice.  It should be even better in the full heat of the Arizona summer.  In the late afternoon, he and Rain took a break and went down to the river for a quick splash to cool off and wash the dust away, then refilled their water containers to carry back up to their new home.  Snake studied the ruins from the foot of the cliff, and was pleased to see that there was no sign he and Rain had moved in.  He planned to keep it that way.    

As they worked, Snake became more and more convinced that Joseph was right: this ruin had never been ransacked by grave-robbers.  In one room, they found a scrap of yucca-leaf sandal, and a fragment of feather-cloth that might once have been a blanket.  If there were any of the old Indian's ghosts here, Snake thought ironically, they probably hadn't been disturbed since they were left behind with the trash when the original owners of the apartment moved out.  He snorted and put the thought out of his mind.  

Rain returned from cleaning out the farthest room carrying a pottery bowl, its sides painted in an intricate geometric design.  “Look," he said, disappointment in his voice, “It's broken."  He held up the pot and turned it over to show Snake the neatly chiseled hole in the bottom.

“No," Snake said.  A hazy memory from childhood rose.  “It's cut, not broken.  Means the owner died.  Any bones with it?"

“No," Rain said.  He sounded puzzled.  “You mean it was a burial?"

Snake felt a prickling at the back of his neck that was gone almost before he acknowledged it.  He shrugged.  “I'll take it."  Rain handed him the bowl without protest, and Snake carried it out to the open plaza at the front of the pueblo.  He lifted his hand to toss the bit of old clay down the hillside, then stopped as a stronger prickle of unease washed over him.  No, he told himself, fresh potsherds would alert anyone passing by that someone has moved in here.  It seemed an unsatisfactory thought, but with that as a reason, he carried the pot to an undisturbed room further along the row and set it down there, intact.

Snake and Rain finished unpacking their trailers, spreading out the contents on the floor to take inventory of their remaining supplies.  At the bottom of his pack, Snake's fingers closed on the last, forgotten item, a hard lump wrapped in cloth.  He pulled out the rutilated quartz pyramid in its bright silk covering, unwrapped it, and held it in his hand, thinking for the thousandth time that he should just throw the fucking thing away and be done with it.  As he moved his hand, a stray sunbeam through the doorway caught on the pyramid and flashed light into his good eye.  He blinked.  As the dazzle faded, his eye caught a shadow he had not noticed before on the wall next to him.  It was a small niche, perhaps six inches high, four inches wide, and about the same depth, set into the wall.  Without hesitation, Snake reached over and set the crystal pyramid in the space; it fit as if the niche had been waiting for it.  Snake felt a fleeting twinge of satisfaction he did not try to explain to himself, as he turned away to continue organizing his supplies and moving in.

The next day, Snake spent several hours exploring the ruin in daylight.  It seemed strange, after so long, to stop moving and settle down.  He was nagged by a restless feeling that he was still camping out in temporary shelter, that he needed to make some gesture to prove to himself that he had finally reached his goal.  At last, with Rain's help, he set about constructing platform beds for the two of them, using solid lengths of wood from several of the old ladders lying around and vegas from a fallen ceiling in one of the rooms for a frame, filling in with a tightly-woven webbing of rope for flexible support, and several layers of folded tarp and tent fabric as an improvised mattress.  Rain took advantage of the time to soak some of the dried beans, and produced a reasonably tasty meatless chili after several hours of slow simmering over a campfire.  Snake thought about how much better it would taste with meat in it, and decided to check out the game in the area as soon as possible.  He watched a spectacular desert sunset flame red and gold over the canyon wall, to be replaced by blazing-bright stars in a clear night sky scented with woodsmoke, and lay down to sleep on his surprisingly comfortable new bed, filled with an immense and unfamiliar sense of content.  Even the Plutoxin flare-up was gone, leaving him with nothing more than the ever-present background pain from his ruined eye.  He listened to Rain settling down in the room next door, and was asleep almost before he finished hanging his eyepatch on a bit of projecting bed-frame next to his head.                 

The light bothered his eyes.

Snake blinked in the dazzle.  He shook his head, squinting, and saw that the white light came from the crystal pyramid set into its niche in the wall.  Gold threads, like a nest of fiery snakes, curled and writhed in the clear shape.  They grew, swirling out from the pyramid into the shape of a being who was burning darkness.  “Thank you, Snake," the being's voice crackled  and whined like wood burning, “It is good to be home."   

Snake sat up in his new bed.  He felt drawn to the figure's hearthfire warmth in the chill of the desert night. It seemed familiar, though he could not remember ever seeing it before.  “You live here?  Are you chindi?"

The being laughed like water hissing on hot stone.  “I said it was good to be home; I didn't say I lived here." He reached out a hand.  “Here I can touch you and speak to you.  There is Power here.  I have watched you for a long time.  You will complete me.  I will complete you, as it should be.  Join with me, Snake."

“Who are you?"  Snake said.  The light blazed white around him like a signal-flare, but there was no pain in his uncovered damaged eye.  The being wavered as both Snake's eyes tried to bring it into focus.   

“I am your purpose, Snake; the thing that drives you.  You are my bridge."  The being's fire-gold hair curled in the light breeze of its own burning. “You opened yourself to me when I found you, the one I had been searching for, in Novosibirsk."   The dark figure wavered again, like heat-shimmer, and became a small, ragged peasant girl bundled in snowy rags.  “Amerikanski!  Amerikanski!" she piped in a high, desperate voice.  A shock of surprise hit Snake, as the girl's voice deepened.  “Remember.  Remember the feel of the gun.  You took her with your bullets, there, and I found my home in your… soul.  Remember how it felt."   

Snake remembered: the shuddering thrill of his weapon on full auto, the roar in his ears, the smell of hot metal.  He remembered the flash, the girl's convulsive arc as his bullets filled her; remembered her cries as she lay dying on the ground.  He remembered, too, the sudden orgasmic rush that flamed in him as she fell; remembered and remembered forgetting.  “That never happened!" Snake snarled.    

The being reclaimed its original shape.  “Don't lie to yourself, Snake; not here, not in your own heart. Everything else is bullshit; this is the center. That was the night you took Taylor for the first time, and he made love to you.  You killed her, Snake - your first dead innocent -- and you enjoyed it."

“She was a partisan," Snake growled.

“No."

Snake stared into the burning eyes, responding on levels he had denied for decades. “Who are you," he repeated.  “What are you?"

“Call me… Snake."  The being's hissing laugh came again.  “Give me any name you wish.  I am whatever you want, but not human, for I am the destruction of humanity.  While you remain human, you will always fail.  When you are ready, I will free you of your humanity, and give you your revenge.  Together, we shall destroy your enemies utterly, and burn the whole world clean again."  The being's mouth opened wide and a tongue of fire, like a forked serpent's tongue, flicked outward.  There was a deeper hiss, a sharp smell of burning gunpowder, and the being drifted forward, into Snake, fitting perfectly inside his skin, filling the cold places.  Sudden fire flared in Snake's groin….

Snake woke, gasping.  His body was rigid, slick with sweat, his cock hard and erect, almost painful.  He could feel his heart beating.  The sensation was familiar.  For a moment, the narrow bed was familiar, too, and the dark room was the Helsinki BOQ.  Taylor…. .  No, his mind corrected, Rain.  Snake stripped off his black briefs in one quick motion, threw back the blanket, got to his feet, and padded into the next room through the open connecting door.  Clean-swept, packed-earth floor was smooth and hard under his bare feet.  Night was cool against his hot skin, with a faint flavor of old dust and new smoke, the still air heavy with a listening silence, but the former sense of presence was lost in Snake's urgency.  “Rain."  Snake's low rasp was rough with desire.  “Rain," he repeated, louder, more harshly.

Rain stirred, and Snake heard the sound of the young man's voice shift in the blackness as Rain turned toward him.  “What is it, Snake?" A second, as Snake strode toward the him, and dim green glow from a chemlamp outlined the figure on the bed in faint light and deep shadow.  Rain's blanket slid down as he sat up, revealing the smooth planes of the slim figure's bare chest and belly.  Snake dropped to his knee next to the bed and wrapped his fingers in Rain's long, dark hair.  His other hand closed roughly on Rain's shoulder as he began, wordlessly, to push him into position for entry.      

Rain leaned forward and his arms slid around Snake's back as Snake shoved him down on the bed.  For a moment they were a tangle of warm flesh, and Snake felt the young man's body full against his.  He grabbed Rain's hips and pulled him toward him, up onto Snake's thighs.  Rain wrenched his shoulders sideways.  “Snake… the lube…." he gasped.  Impatiently, Snake loosened his grip just enough to let Rain fumble one-handed in a clutter of items next to his bed, locate the familiar little tube by touch, and hand it over.  A second later Snake was working strong greased fingers into the welcoming ass under him with hard, abrupt strokes.  He felt it opening, surrendering to him, and with a fierce rush of lust, Snake clamped his arm around Rain's body and rammed his cock deep into the satiny hole.  The younger man bucked under him.  Snake came explosively in Rain's ass, and, with a rush of breath, pulled out and rolled over on his side, breathing hard.  He lay there for a moment as his breathing slowed, drifting in his own non-thoughts, savoring his body's sensations.  

Just as Snake was about to get up and go back to his own bed, Rain rolled over to face him.  For a second, the younger man hesitated, as if trying to come to a decision, then he bent his head and sucked Snake's nipple gently into his mouth.  As his tongue swooped and curled around the hard little knob, Rain slid a slow, skillful hand under Snake's thigh to cup his heavy balls, moving upward with feather-light, teasing strokes to the base of Snake's cock.  Rain transferred his mouth to Snake's other nipple, and as he moved, the silky waterfall of his long hair swirled down over Snake's chest, trailing across the suddenly cool, damp nub of the other, sensitized nipple Rain had just released.  Little electric shocks of pleasure stabbed through Snake's body and concentrated in his groin.  With a low growl, Snake reached up to grab a handful of Rain's hair, tangling his rough fingers in the mass of it, pulling it to his face.  Two colors, dark-auburn beard and umber strands, mingled as Snake drank in the scent of woodsmoke and clean sweat in Rain's hair.  The younger man turned his head to smile up through the dark curtain in the dim glow of the chemlamp, into Snake's face, then pulled free to begin sweeping his long, thick hair back-and forth across Snake's whole body.  One hand, slick now with lube, curled around Snake's cock and began the lightest of strokes up and down the still-sensitive shaft, urging it toward renewed hardness.  Snake's belly clenched as he felt himself stiffening again.  He moaned harshly and reached for Rain, trying to turn the younger man onto his side.             

To Snake's surprise, he felt Rain resist.  Impatient, half-angry, Snake increased the pressure.  “Snake," Rain's voice came, then, more urgently, “Snake!"  A quick, still-painful memory from Rivendell flickered at the back of Snake's mind and he checked himself momentarily.  He was no rapist.  “Snake," Rain's voice softened, floating out of the semi-darkness, “Take it easy.  Slow down."  Then, in a tone Snake had not heard in nearly twenty years, “Snake, I want to make it last.  I want to… make love to you."       

Something like panic flared in Snake; something broken and crippled inside of him cringed and poised on the edge of flight, caught in an old pattern.  He drew in a sharp breath and started to sit up.   Rain lay motionless beside him on the narrow bed, waiting.  Snake felt the tension in the other man's body.  Beyond it, somehow outside and inside him at the same time, he had a sense of  presences in the darkness swirling like gathering storm-winds, tugging at him.  Snake struggled briefly, resisting, then a barrier crumbled within him.     

Slowly, Snake reached out his other hand and ran the silk of Rain's hair through his fingers, feeling the heavy weight of it.  Rain turned to him, and began running his hands down Snake's back as Snake pulled the younger man to him.  The body in Snake's arms was familiar now: slender, wiry torso, sleek flesh, hard, callused hands moving skillfully over him, that mass of dark hair gliding across him as Rain laid his head against Snake's chest.  It echoed an older, deeper familiarity, a body memory that went all the way down into Snake's center.  He was half surprised not to smell the sharp scent of tobacco in Rain's hair, as he always had in Taylor's.  Snake closed his eyes as his defenses melted and flowed away.  It was Taylor… or damn like Taylor… or enough like Taylor that it no longer made any difference.      

Rain slipped down Snake's body, licking down his chest and across his belly until he reached  the thick shaft jutting up out of Snake's heavy tangle of dark-copper pubic hair.  Rain's mouth slid down on it, and his tongue began a slow, tantalizing exploration, sweeping from base to tip, swirling around the head, following the inked line of the cobra's tail, teasing open the slit, coaxing Snake erect and hard again.  Eyes still closed, Snake savored Rain's expert attentions, need growing in him as his whole world contracted to the feel of that warm, wet mouth moving on his cock.  On the edge of orgasm, he groaned and twisted.  Rain paused, waited, continued, bringing his partner to the edge again, the hot lust in Snake more intense, more demanding each time, until it reached the point of explosion.   Snake growled, low in his throat, and opened his eyes.  Now, his body demanded.  “Rain…" "  His rasping whisper was rough with a new urgency, insistent, and determined.  He reached for Rain and pulled him roughly forward.  With a last flick of his tongue, Rain's mouth slipped off Snake's cock, and Snake saw him grin as he obeyed, following Snake's lead eagerly.  The dim glow of the chemlamp sparkled in his wide, dark eyes as he swung one leg over Snake's body, kneeling over him, and lowered himself onto Snake's rigid erection.  Snake's hands clenched like iron on Rain's ass-cheeks as he thrust fiercely upward into him.  With a hoarse cry, Snake came hard, spurting deep in Rain's ass.  Seconds later, Snake felt the hot drops of Rain's own cum falling on his chest as the younger man rode him, bringing himself off on Snake's orgasm.  Snake was swept by a fierce, all-consuming satisfaction as the two men joined, united in a way he had not known since Taylor's death.  He slid his arms up Rain's sweat-slick body, pulling the other man down onto him, holding him in a ferocious embrace, pumping the last of his load into him.  For a long moment they lay still, gasping for breath, and Snake felt the heavy beating of Rain's heart as he held the slim body against him.  Rain started to roll off.  Snake tightened his grip again, pinning him like prey in a cobra's coils, and Rain quieted, lying motionless in Snake's grip until the older man's erection waned and slipped free of Rain's ass, and his hold loosened.  Rain slid sideways, molding himself to Snake's spent body.  Still Snake held him.

“Snake…?" Rain's eyes were bright with one last question as he looked into Snake's face from inches away.    

Snake studied Rain's face.  He recognized the expression; he had seen it before, on the blond girl in NY Max, on the handful of women who had touched him, briefly, over the years.  An unspoken request hung between the two men, for a final, unequivocal gesture.  Snake made no move toward Rain, or away from him, but allowed himself a faint half-smile: You want it, come get it…. .   Rain hesitated, then leaned forward and touched his mouth to Snake's in a lover's kiss.  A second.  Two.  Snake's hard hand came up and gripped the back of Rain's neck.  He firmed the kiss into something fiercer and more primitive, something that claimed and mastered Rain, even as it gave the young man what he wanted.  I'm in charge here,  and don't you forget it…. .  Snake felt Rain surrender to his touch, and broke the contact, pushing Rain gently away.  The curve of Snake's mouth, the glitter in his good eye, were a silent laugh.  Rain grinned back.  Plainly, he was content with things exactly as they were.  Snake released a leisurely sigh, then untangled himself and rose to go back to his own bed.  “'Night, Rain."

“'Night, Snake," followed him through the ancient masonry doorway.  “Sleep well."  Maybe tonight I will, Snake thought as he slipped back under his own blanket.  The door to the outside was a pale oblong of moonlight in the dark wall.  Snake's mind slid sideways into practical details.  He'd have to see about hanging a solid door before winter.    

When Snake woke again, moonlight had become the gray of approaching dawn.  He rose and dressed noiselessly, taking care not to wake Rain.  After last night, he needed space and solitude.  He grabbed a food-stick and a cup of water, and went out to sit on a section of retaining wall at the edge of the ruins.  Morning air was cool and sweet around him, and the silence almost a solid thing.  Beneath him, as his boots dangled over emptiness, the brush-covered rockslide sloped away into darker gray, down toward the stream below.  Across the gap, the opposite canyon wall was outlined against the lightening sky.  The first ray of morning sun struck the top of the mesa as he watched and ran like a line of bright fire along the edge of the red cliff, reflecting off the rock.  The flare of light sparked an echo of his dream the night before.  His dreams were becoming clearer and more vivid in his waking mind, and he was beginning to remember more of them.  It was not anything he welcomed.  There were things he wanted to keep locked in the place within him, where they fed the burning core of rage that was his survival.  He reached down, trying to find that place, and found it disconcertingly, almost alarmingly, elusive.  He threw his head back, ran a hand through his hair, and slammed the hand down on the ancient stone wall.  He studied the hand, trying to see beneath the flesh, remembering the strange fire-being in his dream that had shaped itself to his interior and spoken to him.  As the morning sun slid down the cliff wall, bright on the rock, Snake finally faced the whole memory of Novosibirsk.  

Yes, he had killed the girl, and it had been… good.  Better than good, Snake admitted to himself, with harsh, unflinching honesty.  No excuses.  It had been exhilarating, intoxicating, a rush deeper and more satisfying than good sex, more intense than the slam of stims kicking in.  Everything else was washed out and pastel beside it.  Lieutenant Plissken had felt and denied that lust for death, felt and denied it all through the war.  He had used it, the way Snake had used the sweet poison of amphetamines to get himself through New York Max.  And Lieutenant Plissken had been properly horrified… afterward.     

Snake took a deep breath and let it out.  God, how he wanted a cigarette!  He had discarded the guilt, along with the illusions and the medals, when he came back from Leningrad.  The rest he had taken with him, but it was colder.  There were no innocents in gunfighting-for-profit.  Snake felt sharp craving for nicotine crawl along his nerves; he could almost feel the crisp paper cylinder of one of Ormsby's cigarettes between his fingers and taste tobacco-smoke.  Now, since 666, guilt had risen like vengeful chindi to curse him again.  Sun had moved half-way down the canyon wall while he sat there, and was turning the tops of the cottonwoods by the river-bank to bright-green fragments of stained glass.  Leaves glittered as they fluttered in the light morning breeze.  Snake shook off memories of last night's dream; it was time for him to get moving.  He stood up and headed back toward the ruins to get his Magnums, thinking about the satisfactions of the kill and venison roasted over an open campfire.  

There were still no sounds of activity from Rain's room as Snake collected his guns; the young man was evidently sleeping in this morning.  Snake paid no particular attention, except to smile slightly to himself with a touch of smugness.  Wore you out, eh?  He headed downslope, out into the bright crystal morning.                   

Snake followed the course of the stream as it bubbled along the floor of the canyon.    Some of it was underground, detectable only by the lines of denser vegetation where roots reached down for subsurface moisture.  Here and there water spread out into a rocky depression to form a  pool.  Low thickets alternated with more widely-spaced brush and small stands of trees, as the sandstone walls turned and twisted in a meandering course, narrowing to steep, tall slabs of rock, then opening to wider flat areas with sloping margins.  This was good deer country, offering browse and concealment, refuge from the endless wind that muffled hearing and scent on the mesa above, and the open water that meant the difference between life and death in the desert.  Predator country, too, Snake thought: where there were deer, there would be cougars and, now, wolves as well.  He felt a tingle of heightened awareness, but no fear.

Along the edge of one of the deeper pools, he found signs of trampled vegetation and the dried print of a two-toed hoof.   Snake tested the wind-direction and settled down, hidden in a thick patch of brush, to wait.  The sun climbed slowly toward noon, growing brighter and brighter, bleaching the landscape to scorched pastels except where the dark slash of shadows crept forward across the ground, shifting as the sun moved.  There was no sound in the still air.  A beetle wandered across an outcropping of bare rock near Snake's boot, attracting his attention, but nothing else moved in the midmorning heat.  At last Snake gave up for the time being.  No animal much larger than the beetle would be coming down for water until evening.  He took a deep drink from the pool, splashed his sweating face with the clear, sweet water, and set off for a more complete reconnaissance of the surrounding area. 

Snake found himself angling upward, where he could, along the more gradual slopes, drawn out of the canyon's narrow slot toward the mesa above by an ingrained desire for distance and open space.  As he climbed, his thoughts returned to the young man he had left behind in the old ruins, and what had happened between them the night before.  The kiss meant something, he knew, to both of them.  He could not, or would not, define it; whatever it was flowed away shapelessly from his grasp like water through his open fingers.  But he knew, too, that Rain wouldn't settle forever for the nameless, unacknowledged understanding whose boundaries Taylor had respected and shared.   An old conversation echoed in his mind: “I'm gay.  Does that bother you, Snake?"/"Doesn't mean shit to me.  Long as you remember I'm not."  Rain didn't think like Taylor.  He would try to put a name on it, one Snake was unwilling to accept.  A rock under Snake's boot shifted and went rattling down the slope.  He grabbed for a firmer hold and barely saved himself from sliding after it.  Rain had learned to give him room and keep his mouth shut at the right time.  It would be all right.  Snake climbed on, upward.

At last he reached the surface of the mesa and stood at the edge of the drop-off.  Behind him, the canyon was a corridor of red sandstone, tan earth, and multicolored vegetation: grass-green, fir-color, chartreuse, russet.  On the other side of the narrow strip of  higher land, dun desert stretched away in a wide plain, scored by the twisted knife-cuts of canyons and washes, punctuated by isolated upthrust mesas, to a gray-blue line of mountains in the distance.  Looking out over the vast, bare expanse below calmed and centered him, filling him with almost the same sense of peaceful joy he had felt aloft in his Gulffire.  For Snake, safety had always been horizontal: open space around him, unobstructed line-of-fire, clear sky and a far horizon.  The paved trenches and tall buildings of cities like New York Max meant danger.  For a moment, Snake wondered what had happened to that city of the damned after 666, when the food drops no longer arrived.  He put the thought aside as distant motion caught his eye: a hawk riding the updrafts, a black dot against the blue of cloudless sky so clear it seemed to have no depth at all.  Snake felt an aching stab of envy as he watched its soaring flight.  The sky belonged to the birds alone now; man was leaden and earthbound once again.  He watched the hawk for a long time, as it circled outward on the thermals, and finally lost it in the sun's brightness.

Snake looked back down along the path of the canyon, and a flash of light made him blink.  He located the source: sunlight reflected off the metal roof of an old-fashioned house-trailer.  Downstream, at the mouth of the canyon, was a little group of trailers, houses, and storage buildings -- maybe ten or twelve in all --  scattered among green patches of cultivated plants and fenced areas.  A few corrals held tiny dots: animals of some kind.  A dusty track which had once been a road stretched away toward someplace where it would join up with paved highway.  That must be Joseph's “pueblo," Snake thought.  He turned away.  He might have to trade there for supplies, but he wanted no more contact with the place than absolutely necessary.     

As the sun started to slide down the sky into the west, Snake headed back toward the canyon floor.  The scramble down was slower going than the climb up, and it was several hours before he was back in his hiding place in the brush near the watering hole where he had seen deer tracks.  He settled into a comfortable position downwind from the pool, and willed himself into a meditative state of alert stillness.

He remained all but motionless for some time, perhaps an hour or two, as the sun dipped below the rock wall, shadows grew longer, and the small noises of the canyon coming to life stirred in the growing coolness.  He heard a faint sound and slid his eye sideways to see a pair of mule deer does, one with a fawn at her heels, stepping daintily along the trampled path down to the water.  As they stepped out into the open, they paused, testing the air, ears twitching back and forth, dark eyes alert in their narrow faces.                     

Snake waited until they lowered their heads to drink, then slowly shifted his Magnum to brace it on a larger branch.  The yearling raised her head, muzzle dripping, and froze.  Snake wondered if she was close enough to his concealing tangle of brush to hear his breathing.  He held his breath and sighted; the second doe lifted her head and stamped nervously.  A second later, the crash of Snake's gun sent the mother and fawn bounding back up the trail as the yearling doe crumpled with a clean shot to the head.  She shuddered once and lay still.

Snake gave his kill a thorough examination as he gutted and cleaned the carcass with the knife Rain had given him at Year Ending, noting that the doe appeared healthy and well fed, fat on spring browse.  Snake was gratified; he could survive here.  The work was familiar, and he remembered the peace he had found, temporarily, in the solitude of Rivendell's woods.  But here he was no longer completely alone; he had another presence to keep him human.  He washed himself and his blade in the pool, slung the game over his shoulders, and headed back toward the place he had made his.  

The first stars were appearing in the deep blue-gray sky overhead as Snake arrived back at the Anasazi cliffhouse.  He climbed over the retaining wall, put down the deer's carcass, and straightened up with a grunt of relief.  He stopped to study the dark and silent square shapes in front of him with slowly growing unease: there was no light, no sign of a fire.  He considered calling Rain's name, decided against it, and, after a moment, moved forward cat-footed into the ruin.  He paused outside the room Rain had picked for his own, his back against the masonry wall, Magnum drawn and ready, listening.  From inside came the faint sound of labored breathing and an almost-inaudible groan.  Snake stepped through the doorway and the cold tingle of battle-readiness died abruptly.  

In the last of the fading light, Snake saw Rain, lying on his bed.  The younger man didn't seem to know he was there.  Snake scooped up the chemlamp sitting beside the door, turned it on, and crossed the few steps to the bed.  The rattlesnake-rattles necklace he had given Rain, on its black cord, was a dark mass in the hollow of the younger man's throat.  Snake reached down to shake Rain's bare shoulder.  He felt the heat radiating from Rain's body; the figure on the bed was burning with fever.   At his touch, Rain groaned and shifted, opening glassy eyes that refused to focus.  “Snake… sick…."." he wheezed.

“No shit," Snake said.  He straightened up.

“…Thirsty…."."

Snake poured water from the storage jug into the metal cup from Rain's messkit and brought it over.  He pulled Rain into a semi-sitting position, braced against his shoulder, and held the cup to Rain's mouth as Rain tried to swallow.  A trickle of water ran down the side of Rain's chin into the tangled hair on his shoulders, and he coughed as a bit of the liquid caught in his throat.  This was worse than Snake's bout with Plutoxin in L.A.  Had the disease mutated?  A lot of  designer viruses from the war had a built-in instability factor.  Or was it just hitting Rain harder?  “Shit," Snake rasped.  He lowered Rain to the surface of the bed and stood up.

Snake went back to where he had left the deer's carcass.  The night was cool enough to keep the meat fresh until he could rig a smokehouse tomorrow.  He wrapped the cold carcass in a tarp and carried it into an interior storage room behind their bedrooms, where it would be safe from predators, then built a fire on the packed earth of the plaza, and, by the light of the chemlamp, cooked a piece of meat from his kill and ate it.  All the while, his mind was on Rain.  He had seen the same look  in the faces of men stricken by enemy bioweapons during the war.  Rain was dying.

 …running out on me…. .  Anger flared in him toward the sick man, and Snake tried to hold on to it as a shield against the fear that was sharp and desperate in his gut in a way it had not been since Taylor died.  In memory, Snake heard the sound of USPF gunfire, saw Taylor stumble and lurch forward onto the platform of the hummer station, saw the slowly spreading blood.  The image, the sound of Taylor's voice, (“Go on, Lieutenant!") was vivid, untouched by time.  Self-preservation urged him to run, but he couldn't force himself to leave Sarge behind, to die alone.  Snake clenched his teeth so hard the muscles in his jaw ached.  Taylor was the last person he had been able to count on; the last thing, except his revenge, he had to hold on to.  

Until now.  Snake smashed the side of his fist into the masonry wall next to him, and a small shower of adobe mortar slid down the surface.  He got up and went back into Rain's room.  The younger man was lying with his eyes closed, his head thrown back, his mouth open.  Each breath was a sandpaper gasp that ended in a liquid gurgle or a thick cough.  Snake shoved a bundle of clothes behind Rain's shoulders to raise him into a semi-sitting position and ease his breathing slightly, then poured some of their drinking water onto one of Rain's old shirts and sponged the younger man's hot face.  Rain muttered something without opening his eyes and sank back into silence, except for his labored breathing.  Snake settled down beside Rain's bed to wait.  He pushed the fear down into the secret place within him, building a patient battlefield calm around himself, brick by brick, like a wall.  That night, he slept in snatches, waking every time the rhythm of Rain's breathing changed.           

He waited through the next day, dividing his time between Rain's room and the process of constructing a smokehouse in one of the pueblo's enclosed interior rooms, where he wove together a drying rack of green wood from the trees along the riverbank and built a smoky, smoldering fire of mixed green and dry wood over which he hung the meat from the butchered deer to cure.  Each time Snake put a cup to the sick man's mouth, Rain drank a little.  Otherwise, he hardly responded to Snake's presence, tossing feverishly somewhere between sleep and waking.  Snake crushed some of the antibiotic tablets he had taken from the winery in California and added them to the water, wondering if the pills would actually do any good.  He remembered, vaguely, reading that viruses weren't supposed to respond to antibiotics.  He added them anyway.       

Hoofbeats alerted Snake to Joseph's return.  He watched from above as the Indian unhurriedly hobbled his horse and turned it out to graze by the stream, then slung his heavy pack over his shoulders and climbed up the slope to the ruins.  He nodded to Snake as he came even with him.  “You're O.K.," he said, his voice neutral.

“Rain's got it," Snake said without preamble.

Joseph brushed past him into the room where Rain lay, and Snake, following, saw how Joseph's nose wrinkled at the sickroom smell of the close little space.  He laid a hand against Rain's cheek, then reached down to the young man's wrist to feel his pulse.  Rain shifted slightly at the touch, but didn't open his eyes.  Joseph raised his head to face Snake.  “Plutoxin?"

“Yeah."  Snake paused, then added reluctantly, “I think."  

Joseph gave him a searching look that just avoided being an accusation, and Snake felt himself bristling.  He flashed back to his conversation with Rain just after his rescue from the bounty hunter: “Everybody who follows me dies.  Everyone.  You come with me, you end up fucking dead."  Anger flared.  Your choice, asshole.  He turned a glare on Joseph.  Yours too.  

Joseph returned the look.  “Doesn't matter.  All we can do is treat the symptoms."  He glanced around the room, then back to Snake.  “I'll camp down by the river."

Snake opened his mouth, angrily, to protest.  Rain shifted on the bed between the two other men, and exhaled on a painful sound.  Snake looked in Rain's direction and swallowed the words he had been about to say.  Silently, reluctantly, he nodded.

The two men circled warily around the central point of Rain for the next few days,  avoiding each other, all but silent.  Snake changed Rain's bedding, sponged him down with cool water from the creek, offered him water, with stoic, impersonal efficiency, but allowed himself no outward sign of concern.  He walled himself away, snapping all his practiced barriers against the outside world, and his inner fears, back into place.  Rain lay deadly still, or tossed and moaned restlessly, but hardly seemed aware of their presence.  Occasionally, Snake heard Rain muttering his name, but when he answered, there was no recognition in the glassy stare Rain's turned his way.     

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

Rain drifted in and out of fever-dreams.  His cramped room seemed full of presences, crowding him, shouting and gibbering around his bed, pulling at him.  There was something he had to do before they would let him go.  He opened blurry eyes.  Snake was an indistinct figure half-hidden in a shimmering haze of colors.  “Snake... have to tell you…."    

“What?"  Snake's face and voice were expressionless.

The room seemed full of heat-lightning.  “Love you, Snake… dying… have to tell you."

Neither voice nor face changed.  “Bullshit."

The figure above him faded into invisibility and Rain sighed, exhausted.  I told him,  he said to the room; I can go now.  He slid downward, flowing toward freedom.

The sea was cool and clear beneath sun-flecked billows.  Rain swam weightlessly, dancing in the dappled water with dolphins and whales.  He sang to them as they swirled around him, and they sang to him.  A sleek dolphin circled him playfully, smiling its secret smile.  It nudged him gently, shot away toward the surface, breached, then curved back in a stream of bright silver bubbles to the place where Rain waited.  

Rain started to swim after it, but something held him where he was, pulling him back toward the land.  Rain kicked his way upward.  The surface, as he breached, was boiling hot, scalding.  Through the veil of steam on the water, he saw that the whole shore was burning.  In the center of the flames was a black figure that burned with its own lightless fire.  It's features flickered, one moment Snake's, the next something inhuman.  It spread vast dark wings that seemed to cover the sky and lifted a clawed hand full of netted strands of fire, flinging it out toward him.  Rain dove, fleeing back into the cool water.  It would be so good to dissolve and become one with the sea, he thought longingly.  The sea was peace and freedom, and an end to suffering.  The dolphin was beside him again.  “Let me follow you," Rain said as he stroked its smooth side; “Let me join you.  Let me become your ocean."

<<No>> came the answer.  There was sorrow in the animal's dark eye.  <<I am not the fire-being whose fate is bound with yours.  He would die here, and you would die without him.  It is not yet finished.  You must return.>>

Fire-strands hissed through the water and dropped over Rain, dragging him back toward the burning shore, toward the painful heat and heaviness of the land.  He surfaced, struggling in the net.  Standing at the edge of the water was the form of Snake.  The flames died around it as Rain watched, and Rain surrendered to the pull of the net toward the shore.  I will give up the sea, he thought, for I cannot teach him to swim.  Perhaps he will teach me to fly.

Rain swam back to consciousness to feel cold water on his forehead.  Snake was silently sponging his face.  The burning fever had broken, and he felt worn out and weak, but clear-headed.  He vaguely remembered telling Snake something of great significance, something he had not intended to mention, and wondered what it had been.  “Did I… say anything, Snake?  While I was out?"

Snake's rough hands never hesitated.  “Nothing important," he said, his voice indifferent.  Satisfied, Rain slid down again into sleep.     

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

Snake met Joseph as the Indian climbed back up the slope carrying plastic jugs full of river water.  “Fever's broken,“ he rasped.  He waited until Joseph returned, smiling, from a quick look in on the sleeping Rain.

“Now we can do something, “ Joseph said.  “He'll be hungry when he wakes up.  I'll make some soup."  Joseph heated water on the cook-fire and threw in a package of supermarket dried soup mix.  As a warm, rich smell began rising from the simmering pot, Joseph dug into his pack again and retrieved a tupperware container.

Snake eyed it suspiciously.  “What is that shit?"

“Mystic Indian herbs," Joseph said, deadpan, “from my medicine bag."  He sprinkled half a handful from one baggie into the pot, as Snake snorted in disgust and glared at the Indian.  Joseph added a smaller quantity of leaves from another baggie, and a pinch from a third, to the bubbling mix, then looked up at the other man.  “Seriously, Snake, these herbs give strength, build up the blood.  They'll help Rain recover.  Plus…" "  Joseph wiped the last crumbs of green from his fingers onto his jeans, and sat back on his heels with a quick grin “…they make it taste better."   The Indian turned his full attention back to his task.  His expression became serious as he began an almost-inaudible rhythmic sound that could have been, to Snake's ignorant ear, anything from a prayer-chant to absent-minded humming.    

Snake turned and looked out over the gap of the canyon.  The sun was nearly overhead, and spring air was warm on his shoulders, filled with the chalky smell of red dust and a sharp hint of juniper from the slope below him.  The smell of cooking soup reminded Snake that he hadn't eaten since dawn.  He wrestled with himself briefly, then, coming to a decision, he walked down to the smoke-house and returned a few minutes later with a chunk of venison on a metal plate from his mess-tin.   He held it out to Joseph.  “Put this in."

Joseph looked up at him, surprise on his face.  “If I do that, I'll have to take Rain's share out."

“Put it in."  Snake's voice had a hard edge.  “Rain needs it."  …more than those fucking herbs… his mind added silently.  He could feel an inarticulate, unfocused anger building in him as he eyed the interloping Indian and the simmering pot of soup.

Joseph put a lid on the soup-pot and rose slowly to his feet.  “Rain doesn't eat meat.  He told me it's against his ethics."

“Fuck the vegetarian bullshit.  He won't know what's in it."

“I will."  Joseph's expression was suddenly cold and utterly focused.  “And I would tell him."

Snake stared at him for a moment, then opened his hand to let the plate fall.  The metal circle with its chunk of venison landed on the ground with a thud, sending up a tiny puff of pale dust.  Snake silently turned on his heel, his face set like stone, and headed down the slope toward the canyon floor.

Snake chose the quickest way to the mesa.  He blanked his mind, riding on familiar anger, and concentrated on the trickle of sweat down his face, the push and pull of muscle, the rasp of air in his lungs, the gritty texture of sandstone under his hands and feet as he climbed.  He reached the top, and stood in the thin desert wind looking out over open space on the other side.  There was no escape in distance.  The harsh simplicity of the barren land warred with the complex jumble within him and lost.  Rain was going to be all right, but he'd need taking-care-of for a while.  Snake tried to resent that, and failed, felt the resentment shift toward Joseph.  He wished the damned Indian would go home and get out of his way, quit catering to Rain's vegetarian bullshit.  Quit fucking with his, Snake's, partner.  Rain needed meat, whether he wanted it or not.  An officer was responsible for his men's lives.

But not for their consciences a ghostly thought countered.  Snake tried to ignore it, but it refused to go away.  All he wanted to worry about were the practical details of survival, but Rain's damned scruples and feelings kept getting in the way.  He didn't know how to care about shit like that, not any more.  He couldn't afford to care.  Taylor had never given him grief about it.  If Taylor had had any fancy ideas about ecology or philosophy or crap like that, he'd kept his mouth shut about them.  Having Rain as his partner was a fucking pain in the ass… but…. .  Snake remembered his anger at the Leningrad Ruse, at the dishonor and sense of violation he felt when his choices were taken away from him by a lie, and he clenched his teeth on unwilling guilt.  He had almost done the same thing to Rain.  Shit, shit, SHIT! Snake snarled internally, filled with frustrated, shapeless  rage.  He tried not to be grateful to the Indian for stopping him.

He stood looking out at the dun and gray landscape stretching away to the far mountains, and anger faded.  A thought from what seemed like a lifetime ago surfaced: can't depend on anybody; it cuts off your options.  Run alone and you're free.  That cuts both ways, Snake thought grimly: having someone depend on you ties you down even worse.  The thought seemed hollow.  Since he'd left the Service, his whole life had been about staying free, free of anything, or anyone, who tried to capture him.  He wondered, suddenly: free to do what?  Rob banks?  Blow up armored cars?  Sabotage USPF installations?  That world didn't exist any more.  In all the months since his escape from L.A., he had never considered where he would fit in this new world for which he had been the thoughtless catalyst.  Even Snake Plissken, The Force's Most Wanted Man, didn't exist any more; he was officially dead.  He had disappeared, found a bolt-hole and pulled the door shut behind him.  Now what? he wondered.  His mind caught on something practical.  Rain was going to need taking-care-of for a while.  He'd think about all this other shit later.  He stood looking out over the desert for a while, then turned and headed back the way he had come.                          

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

Rain woke a second time to find himself alone in his small sickroom.  The square of light in the wall across from him told him it was daytime.  Which day? he wondered.  As he struggled into a sitting position, a silhouette appeared in the doorway.  “Snake?" he said.  The sound was a weak croak in his own ears.     

“It's Joseph," the Indian's voice answered him, and a moment later the chemlamp's dim green light filled the room.  “How are you feeling?  Up to a little soup?  It's vegetarian."

“Where's Snake?" Rain said, feeling the beginnings of panic.

“He went for a walk in the canyon.  He'll be back.  I think he needed a little distance, now that he knows you're going to make it.  He hasn't been out of your room for more than a few minutes at a time since you came down with… this thing."   

Rain smiled in relief.  “That's Snake.  He hardly said two words to me, I think, since I got sick.  It's like he was annoyed with me for catching it.  And yet, every time I woke up enough to notice, he was there.  Did he get any sleep?"

“Not much," Joseph said.

Rain chuckled.  “And, now I'm better, he takes off.  I don't think he wants me to know he was worried about me."  He turned serious, searching Joseph's face in the low light. “But he was, wasn't he?"    

Joseph nodded.  “Yes, very worried.  He was really afraid, Rain, but a man like Snake, I think, he doesn't want to let anybody know he's given hostages to fortune.  I could see it in his face when he was watching you."      

Rain's heart lifted, and he noticed that he was ravenously hungry.  The bowl in Joseph's hands was sending up waves of delicious steam that made his mouth water.  “That smells wonderful," he said.  Smiling, Joseph handed him the bowl, and Rain starting spooning the thick, hot soup into his mouth, slowly at first and then faster.  It was delicious.  “Thanks," Rain said as he finished.  He lowered the empty dish and sat staring down into it, avoiding Joseph's eyes.  He felt he had to ask, had to hear the answer, but he was afraid of Joseph's reaction.  

Joseph sat down on the end of Rain's bed, letting the silence lengthen, waiting, without any sign of impatience, until Rain was ready to speak.

“Joseph…" " Rain began.  He glanced up quickly and back down.  “Was it because we moved in here?  Was that why I got sick?  Was it…."."  His gesture took in the whole of the ruins around them.  He felt acutely embarrassed and uneasy, hoping Joseph wouldn't think Rain was mocking him, humoring him, or somehow insulting the Indian's touchy pride in his heritage by bringing up the subject.  At the same time, Rain felt a cold prickling at the back of his neck.  Respect and awe for the First People and their beliefs had been ingrained in him since childhood.  Without Snake's presence, a lot of things seemed more possible. 

“Ghost-sickness?"

Rain nodded.  Joseph seemed to be taking him seriously.  He couldn't detect any hint of anger or contempt in the Indian's attitude, and the ironic undertone that had been in his voice since he first met Rain was gone.  

“No," Joseph said.  “I thought it might be, at first.  You, or Snake, either one.  You remember, I tried to talk him out of staying here.  I think, now, I was wrong.  I think you and Snake are here for a reason, and so am I.  If I am correct, this is all for a reason.  Snake is the Messenger, or marked by the Messenger… t the serpent.  The snake is his animal."  Joseph studied Rain thoughtfully.  “And I have made a very large mistake, I think.  I discounted you in this.  If Snake's purpose is so vital, there is a reason you are with him.  I spoke in anger to you, and ignored your words.  That was wrong of me.  And racist.  I labeled you, and accused you of labeling me.  I'm sorry."  Joseph reached out a hand and took the empty bowl out of Rain's loose grip, then set it down on the floor by the side of the bed.      

Rain stared at him in amazement.  “That's… that's O.K., Joseph.  I'm not mad at you.  Just as long as you're not mad at me."  Joseph shook his head.  Rain drew courage from the Indian's new affability to add, “But… what kind of special reason could I have for being here?  I just came with Snake."  

“I don't know yet."  Joseph fell silent.  Rain's eyes followed his to the earth floor beside the bed, where the print of Snake's boot was clearly outlined in the dust.  He smiled to himself, remembering the boot-prints he had seen beside the table at Year End at Rivendell.  Finally, Joseph spoke again.  “So, the snake is Plissken's guiding animal.  That's clear.  The hawk is mine."  The Indian's fingertips brushed the copper Thunderbird pendant he always wore strung on a strand of rough turquoise chunks around his neck.    

“…Vision, the gift of seeing…" " Rain murmured to himself, remembering something he had read.   

“Yes."  Joseph's face lit up in a genuine smile.  “And you, Rain - do you have a guiding spirit among the animals?  One who you feel leads you?"    

Rain hesitated.  “Well, there were a lot of animals at home.  We had chickens and cats, goats, dogs and horses... I really like horses... and then there were the wild ones: coyotes and crows and deer and so on, and the mountain lion.  I didn't see her very often, usually just her tracks.  I guess there really wasn't any one in particular, though, when I was a kid."

“What about the time you were traveling with Snake?  Anything special?" 

“I rode a horse part of the way.  I guess the horse would be… n no wait…" "  Rain remembered.  “Wait a minute! The buffalo!"

Joseph sat bolt upright, staring at Rain intently. “A buffalo?  Where?  What did it look like?  What happened?  Tell me everything."

“It wasn't a white calf or anything, just an ordinary buffalo."  Rain ran both hands through his long hair, pulling it back from his face, then closed his eyes to concentrate on remembering details.  “We landed at Ocean Beach, and went through Golden Gate Park.  There was this buffalo, from the paddock in the Park, I guess; a big, old bull.  He'd been wounded, probably by the crazies in the Park trying to hunt him for food.  I felt so sorry for him.  He walked in front of us, and stopped and shook his head and snorted at us.  Snake was going to shoot him, but I told him: leave the buffalo alone, and he'll go away.  There wasn't any need to kill him.  The buffalo just stood looking at us for a couple of minutes, and then walked away into the bushes."  Rain opened his eyes and shrugged.  “That's it.  Do you think it means something?"           

“Yes, I'm sure of it," Joseph said.  “It fits.  The buffalo represents… life, right spiritual relationship with the earth, right action.  He is the intercessor between the human and the spirit world.  Anyone who helps a buffalo receives his blessing and his help.  He gives sustenance and renewal.  You say he was wounded?"  Rain nodded, and Joseph continued, “That's clear enough, I'd say."  Rain nodded again.  Joseph was silent for a minute, rubbing his thumb absently across his chin, his vision focused inward.  At last, he said, “Rain is another intercessor, connecting earth and sky.  That's you.  And you are Two-Spirit -- gay -- aren't you?"  At Rain's third, confirming, nod, Joseph continued, "Two-Spirit people, what the Navajo call nagleeh -- are 'in-betweens' and 'go-betweens' and mediators, sometimes, between the physical and the spiritual realms."

Rain nodded again, and put in, “I read about that." 

Joseph went on, as if thinking out loud.  “I wasn't seeing, myself, what I was shown.  I should know better than to think things happen by chance.  Yes.  Two-spirit...male rain and female rain...the buffalo, the snake, and the hawk… darkness and fire… this place…."."  He focused on Rain again.  “The Sixth World is coming."   

Rain bit at a knuckle, trying to absorb what Joseph was saying.  “What is male rain and female rain?"

“Female rain is gentle.  She nourishes and replenishes.  She is like the buffalo.  Male rain is the thunder, the lightening: fire from the sky."

“Snake's a pilot," Rain said.  “And snakes are connected with lightning too, aren't they?"

Joseph nodded.  “Yes."

“So it all fits together - all of us.  We're supposed to be here together."  The cold prickling at the back of Rain's neck grew stronger.

“Yes," Joseph repeated.  “Snake knows it too.  When you were so sick, he stayed with you the whole time and gave me hell when I tried to get him to rest.  He insisted on staying here, in… this place."  Joseph's gesture took in the ruin.  “But he won't admit he knows it.  He fights everything.  Himself, you, me, the spirits, the world…. . “

Rain nodded ruefully.  “I can just see him 'accepting his destiny' gracefully.  He wouldn't listen to any of this.  He'd call it all bullshit."  And maybe he'd be right a skeptical part of Rain's mind added silently.

Joseph sighed, tugging absently on one of his many thin cloth-wrapped braids.  “It doesn't matter.  One way or the other, things are moving.  Moving toward resolution."

“Renewal," Rain said, “Healing.  That's what my people thought: Snake shut down the Machine and gave Gaia a new chance.  He got rid of the old world they were always bitching about and gave them what they wanted.  And they treated him like shit and kicked him out," he finished bitterly.    

“No."  Joseph emphasized the monosyllable with a flat slap of his leathery hand on the blanket next to him.  “That was only a sign.  The Sixth World is coming.."

“What does that mean?"  

“Nobody knows exactly."  Joseph turned his gaze out the square window in the room's ancient wall, looking into distance.  “I read about a lost ceremonial called the Sunway and the Calling Back Chant.  It was supposed to be the ceremonial that Changing Woman and the Talking God taught the people to use when the Fifth World ends, but evidently no one knows it any longer.  Some of the Hopis believe it will come when the Blue Star Kachina removes his mask when he dances in the square.  They say that there will be a great holocaust which will burn away everything, even the remnants, leaving only the people of good spirit… c coincidentally, the Hopi…."."  Joseph flashed a grin that faded almost at once.  “None of it has happened yet.  The Kachina hasn't removed his mask, and the Fifth World is still here.  Snake, I think, still has a lot left to do."  Perhaps, Snake is meant to die and take the world with him, Joseph thought.  He looked at the young man opposite him, and kept the thought to himself.

Rain eyed him dubiously.  “What is it Snake's supposed to do?  When is all this stuff supposed to happen?"     

Joseph shrugged.  “I don't have an answer.  I have to think about all this.  There is a lot that's becoming clearer to me, but I need to become open, myself, to receive it.  There is a convergence of many beliefs going on in this: Lakota, Hopi, Navajo, Mojave.  Maybe others.  Damn, if ever an Indian needed a telephone and the Internet!  I wish I had my books.  I wish I could talk to my teachers and my elders.  Let me get back to you on this, Rain.  I need to pray and ask.  I need to dream."

“What should I do?" Rain asked.

Joseph chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, then evidently came to some kind of a decision.  “Wait.  Just wait.  That's all we can do for now."  Joseph got to his feet and picked up the soup bowl.   

Rain pulled back the blanket and tried to stand up.  His legs threatened to buckle under him, and Joseph put an arm around him to keep him from falling.  “I'd like to go outside," Rain said.  “Sit in the sun for a while."  And wait for Snake to get back.  He felt that he had to get out into the open, where he could keep watch down the canyon.  Joseph helped him to a sheltered corner where he could lean against a wall and wrapped him in a blanket.    

Rain soaked in the afternoon warmth and dozed off and on.  Sometime later, he woke to see Snake returning up the canyon through the cottonwood trees.  He took a few minutes to study, unobserved, the compact figure with its predator's walk.  Dappled sunlight flowed over the sleek, powerful body in its close-fitting sleeveless shirt and pants, bringing out flaming red highlights in thick auburn hair and beard.  My man, he thought.  “Snake's coming," he called to Joseph.

“It would probably be better if I'm gone when he gets here," Joseph said.  “I'll be back.  There are things I have to do."  The Indian made his way down the slope in the opposite direction, and a few minutes later was trotting away homeward on his horse.    

Snake climbed up the slope and swung over the low wall at the edge of the pueblo.  He stopped short when he saw Rain, and the younger man saw Snake's face change: an unguarded expression of relief that smoothed itself into deliberate neutrality a moment later.  Rain smiled greeting.  Snake walked over to the cookfire, where Joseph's pot was still sitting in the warm banked ashes.  “How's the soup?" he asked, without preamble.

“Good."

Snake grunted a noncommittal acknowledgement and scooped out a bowl full, then sat down next to the fire and began eating.  Rain watched him, smiling to himself, and was content.  

Joseph returned a few days later with a pack-horse-load of extra supplies.  Without comment, he disappeared with them into one of the empty rooms.  When he came out again, empty-handed, Snake and Rain were waiting for him.  He ducked under the low door and straightened up to face them, wiping red sandstone-dust from his hands onto his jeans.  “I brought you a few things you're going to need to settle in here," he said.   

“Why?"  Snake's tone was flat.

“Call me eccentric," Joseph said, “but I tend to feel concerned about men I've shared a battle with.  Just something I picked up in 'Nam… Lieutenant."  Snake glared at the Indian over an awkward silence, a suspicious glint in his good eye.  Plainly, he didn't believe Joseph's explanation, but he had no better one of his own.  Joseph returned the look blandly.

“Thanks, Joseph, we appreciate it, “ Rain said.  “What did you bring us?"

“Sage and red thread," Snake drawled.  

“Just take the damn stuff, Snake!" Rain exploded.

Snake looked from Rain to Joseph and back again.  Whatever it is, you two are in on it together his expression said.  You both want something. After a minute, he turned  and walked away silently.

Rain and Joseph watched him go.  “I don't think I convinced him," Joseph said dryly.  Rain shook his head.  “We both know Snake isn't going to go for the idea that he's destined to bring the Sixth World into being.  I'm going to have to come up with something else."

“You said wait," Rain said.  “How long?"    

“I don't know.  Until it happens.  A season, maybe.  Maybe more."

“We'll have to plant a crop.  I'm not going to live off of Snake's hunting."

“You're a farmer?" Joseph sounded surprised.  The wiry, dark-haired young man with his skilled hand on the bow hardly seemed the type.

“Not really, but I grew up around it.  If I want to eat, I'm going to have to learn, I guess.  Will you help me?"

“Yes," Joseph said.  “I'll help you."  While I keep an eye on Snake.

The three men cleared rough squares of land in sunny areas beside the stream and on the mesa above, as the ancients had, and Rain planted a crop with seed Joseph supplied.  The drenching late-spring rains arrived on schedule soon after, and when they were over, Joseph and Rain moved into the timeless patterns of agriculture familiar to both of them from their childhood.  Snake helped sometimes, but he was no farmer.  He spent long, solitary hours roaming the canyon, on foot or on Joseph's borrowed horse, reacquainting himself with the landscape and gathering the edible plants he remembered from long-ago wilderness camping trips and survival training in the area.  He fished the stream where it widened into deeper pools near the head of the canyon, snared rabbits and small game, and grudgingly doled out an occasional bullet from his hoarded supply to bring down a deer.  Now and then, he thought about moving on, but something held him here in this place he had chosen, or that had chosen him.  There never seemed to be a good time, or a good reason, to leave.  Habit drew the three men into its orbit as the months flowed on like the stream's water, effortlessly, one blending into the next.      

By summer, Snake was familiar with weeding, though he was sure he would never enjoy it.  Early sun lay across Snake's bent back as he worked his way with a steady rhythm down a row of plants, his sharp eye noting differences in leaf-shape and color that indicated alien invaders among the young corn stalks.  Snake loosened the sandy soil, pulled, tossed a weed on the growing pile at the edge of the field.  Several rows over, Joseph and Rain were busy at the same task.  The three men worked in companionable silence until morning warmth became the scorching hammer-blow of mid-day sun, and they broke off to seek shade and water.  After lunch, Rain went off for a splash downstream, while Joseph and Snake settled down to share a cigarette.  Two thin trails of smoke drifted up into the leaves of the cottonwood over them as Snake and Joseph leaned back against the rough wood, studying, with some satisfaction, the field and the small pile of uprooted weeds withering beside it.

Joseph broke the silence.  “So, Snake, is this it?"  Snake gave him a suspicious look and remained silent, as the old Indian took a long pull on his cigarette and blew out a plume of smoke.  “What's next?  What're you going to do?"

“Plissken!  What are you going to do?"  Images of a sheet of red flame and the black silhouette of a wrecked helicopter came back to him, and the memory of Malloy's harsh, desperate voice.  Snake breathed out, the corners of his mouth curving upward in an ironic half-smile.  The answer he had given then was still good, and he repeated it in a flat rasp.  “Disappear."      

“Disappear," Joseph said. “Sounds good."  There was another silence.  Joseph reached down and tugged on a little bunch of wild grass by his feet, pulling it loose from the dry soil.  He slapped it lightly against his jeans-clad leg, knocking dirt off the roots.  Apparently addressing the grass, he said, “What a man has no use for, he calls weeds.  Pull 'em up, trample 'em down, let 'em dry out and die in the summer heat."  Dropping the tuft of grass to the ground, he turned toward Snake.  “You thought about what's going to happen when those boots of yours wear out?  When you run out of salt, or your knife-blade breaks?"

Snake glared at him for a moment.  He pulled off his hat and shook out his long hair.  “I'll think of something."

“You need to trade."  Joseph stubbed out his cigarette decisively.

“With who?"

Joseph gave him an exasperated look.  “With the Dineh, Snake."  He jerked his chin down the canyon.  “Out there."

Snake snorted softly.  “With what?"  A gesture of his hand took in the field and the walled slot of the canyon.   “What've I got the Indians don't have more of?"  Gunfighting and smoke-legging, and a talent for getting past bank security monitors -- not much of a market for that on the Rez.

“Knowledge."  Joseph smiled briefly at Snake's uncomprehending expression, then went on in a serious tone.  “I watched the news reports.  You've a talent for making trouble, Snake -- for the Feds, for the USPF. - but you didn't hit civilian targets.  In Des Moines, you released that bank president unharmed."  At the look on Snake's face, Joseph backed away from that angle of attack.  “The IRS agent - you killed him, they said."

“Yeah," Snake said.

Joseph paused, raising inquisitive eyebrows in Snake's direction, but Snake didn't elaborate.  None of the news stories had mentioned that the dead IRS agent had been found with a file folder on his shattered chest, a folder detailing the seizure by the IRS of all of the assets of the late Colonel Robert Plissken and his wife.  All the public heard was that Snake Plissken had murdered an IRS agent in cold blood.  The Mojave waited a polite amount of time, evidently decided no explanation would be forthcoming, shrugged.  “You and the People have the same enemies, Snake.  When you pushed the button and shut down the Feds' technology, you evened the odds a little and gave us back a fighting chance.  We're taking back our land." 

“You need me to teach Indians how to fight the Cavalry."  Snake's voice was completely flat.  So now I know.  Beats a repeat visit to The Max.          

“Exactly." Joseph's dark eyes sparkled briefly with mischief, then turned hard again.  “There are a lot of veterans on the Rez, but you're the only one we know of with Special Forces combat experience in gliders.  Having an air arm would give us a tremendous tactical advantage, and gliders and balloons are what we've got."

“I don't give a fuck about your war."  It was a weary echo, spoken by rote.

“Give us what we need, and we'll fight our war ourselves.  This is a business deal, Snake."  Joseph spread his hands in a storyteller's gesture.  “Down in Sedona, there was a big place renting balloon rides and gliders to the New Age tourists.  The Dineh sent a raiding party.  They got four hot-air balloons and about twenty-five gliders, built or in parts.  Bombers and fighters, Snake; dynamite and gasoline still burn.  We've got young men who can fly them.  What we don't have is an officer with combat experience in military glider tactics, who can teach those young men."  There was a deliberate pause, then Joseph added, “You could fly again, Snake."  

“Shit," Snake spat.  He started to climb to his feet.

“Snake," Joseph said, “It's not over.  You know it's not over."

Snake settled back slowly against the cottonwood's trunk with stiff, rigid motions that telegraphed his wariness and underlying anger.  It's not over; I told Rain that a long time ago.  It will never be over as long as I'm alive to remember.  He was not surprised at Joseph's words.  The old Indian was a veteran of different wars, fought for different reasons, but they shared a warrior's cynicism about peace and final endings, and Joseph's people, too, had long memories and old hatreds.  Snake realized that, without conscious choice on his part, a decision had happened.  “Who's involved in this?" he asked.        

“The Tribal Council asked me to talk to you."

Angry suspicion flared in Snake again, and he said harshly, “What did you tell them?"

“That I'd talk to you."  Joseph chuckled.  “Relax, Snake.  I'm the only person besides Rain who knows exactly where you are out here in the canyons, and the Council has agreed to leave it at that.  They'll contact you through me.  You don't have to join up, or play officer, or commit yourself to anything except coming in to the Cultural Center a couple of times a month and talking to some people about glider tactics."

“What do I get for talking?"

Joseph shrugged.  “Sugar, coffee, salt, tools, cigarettes... pretty much whatever you need out here."  

“How many?"

“Cigarettes?  Well, I don't know exactly, but...."

Snake made a disgusted noise deep in his throat.  “How many men am I teaching this shit to?"

“Maybe ten or fifteen.  They'll take what you teach them and pass it on to everybody else."

Snake uncoiled and climbed to his feet, settling his hat back on his head.  He stood looking out into the flat, hot blue of the Arizona summer sky, feeling the pain of an old wound waking.  “I'll do it."

“I'll tell them," Joseph said.

As the year wore on, Joseph visited regularly, bringing news from the rest of the Reservation, and whatever scraps of information and rumors from the world outside filtered into Dinetah.  Once a month or so, Snake made the trek, with Joseph and Rain, back to the Cultural Center to train pilots and pick up supplies.  With the breakdown of the U.S. government and local authority following Six-sixty-six, the Navajo Nation was becoming an independent power in more than name, moving to reclaim land on the edges of the Reservation.  The Cultural Center was crowded with hard-eyed, long-haired men bristling with weapons and an old attitude.  Snake's progress was followed by stories about his former hit-and-run raids on USPF installations and his dogged defiance of the U.S. government, and there were whispers comparing him to Geronimo.  Snake kept it on an informal basis, promising nothing from one visit to the next.  As soon as he had traded for the supplies he needed, he disappeared back into the maze of canyons and the isolation of his secret home.  Silently, he watched Rain as his partner slowly lost his awed shyness around the young warriors and started trading stories about fighting raiders.  Across the barrier of culture and history, each side felt a growing kinship.  The Navajos' bantering camaraderie and sense of purpose filled a space in Rain that had been empty since he left Rivendell, and his rides back to the Anasazi ruins were filled with his own silence.           

Without any formal invitation or definition, Joseph became a regular part of Snake and Rain's life in the Anasazi ruin.  The old Indian came and went on his own schedule, disappearing for days at a time, turning up unasked at the right moment to help with the heavy work of cultivation on their little fields.  Snake was, grudgingly, glad of the extra pair of hands.  Though he did not ask for the help, a  sense of obligation remained, annoying Snake into giving Joseph the only thing the Indian seemed to want in return: conversation.

The quartz pyramid occasionally turned up unexpectedly at the bottom of one of his pockets, and Snake would find himself running a thumb absent-mindedly across one of it's flat planes.  One afternoon, he and Joseph were sitting in the shade watching sunlight glint on a line of water creeping down their newly-dug irrigation channel toward a stand of thirsty corn plants when Snake felt a sharp stab of pain in his palm.  He pulled his hand out of his pocket, along with the pyramid he had not realized was there.  A smudge of blood smeared the pointed apex.  “Shit," Snake muttered.  He rubbed his injured hand on his pants and started to put the pyramid away, then paused.  He held it out into the sun beyond the scrap of shade he shared with the old Indian.  Golden threads flared and glittered in the clear stone as Snake turned it over, following the fine, interwoven traceries that seemed to shift and move like lines of fire in the pyramid's heart.   

Joseph's voice broke Snake's concentration.  “May I see?"  Snake shrugged and handed the stone over.  He thought he felt something like a tingle of static electricity as the stone passed from his hand to Joseph's, and decided it was his imagination.

Joseph turned it in his hands.  “Beautiful.  Lightning against the sky."

How did he know that? Snake thought, startled.  A second later, his mind added, How did I know that?  He flicked a sharp, suspicious glance in Joseph's direction, then turned back to the stone in the Indian's grasp.

Joseph seemed not to notice.  He lifted the crystal and looked through it at the sky.  “When I was a boy, I had a stone like this, an onyx pyramid.  The pyramid was called the benben stone by the ancient Egyptians… the place where the bennu bird stood when it burst into flame.  The bennu bird was the original of the Greek phoenix."  His eyes twinkled.  “Yes… I'm a city Indian.  I spent a long time reading about other people's Roots before I went looking for my own.  Thunderbird is much like the phoenix, and both are connected with fire."  He looked at Snake.  “Don't bring this to the roof in a storm.  You will attract lightning."

Snake snorted.  “It's a rock."

“More than that, I think.  You are here, in this place, for some reason, and the lightning stone as well.  It is a part of you."

“Bullshit, “ Snake said, but there was an edge in his voice.  Dawn had said the same thing, the exact words.  Where do they get this shit?  He could not resist asking, “What part of me?"

Joseph seemed to be considering.  In silence, he reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a battered clay pipe, then pulled a sack of loose tobacco from his belt-pouch.  Apparently ignoring Snake, he concentrated on the task of filling the pipe, tamping down the tobacco, lighting it.  He turned his head, slowly taking in the whole circle of the canyon around him.  Four times he paused, as if in thought, and took the pipe out of his mouth, gazing into the distance as smoke drifted up into the still, hot air.  Then he faced Snake again and shrugged.  “The part of you that wants to be free."

“I am free."  Snake reached for the pipe.

“Then it doesn't matter."  Joseph moved the pipe out of Snake's reach and set it down.  He pulled a pack of rolling papers out of a different shirt pocket and handed them to Snake, along with the tobacco.

Snake rolled a cigarette for himself and lit it with the matches Joseph handed him.  They smoked together for a while, as Snake tried to ignore the irritation rising in him.  He remembered that smug, stubborn Indian silence, and how much it had always annoyed him.  He wondered if Joseph knew more than he was saying, if there was anything more to know, or if it was all bullshit.  He'd be damned if he was going to ask.  He felt shoved off-balance.  Out of the corner of his good eye, he studied the prosaic figure in faded work shirt, jeans, and worn boots.  The only unusual thing about him was the many small braids wrapped in cloth and tied together in back in an incongruously Rastafarian style.  “Why do you wear your hair like that?" Snake asked, seemingly out of nowhere.

Joseph puffed on the pipe.  “'I am a man of consequence.  I wear my hair braided in forty strands, wrapped like a man's hair should be wrapped.  Only a woman lets her hair fly around her head to catch bad thoughts.'"  The ironic cock to his eyebrow  and the canted smile told Snake he was quoting something.  “If I were to wrap your hair, Snake, maybe you wouldn't be so cohiva michiva… s so unsettled inside."

Snake snorted.  “Man of consequence."   

Joseph's smile widened briefly, acknowledging Snake's deadpan sarcasm, then faded.  “Yes.  I'm an Indian, and descended from the Mojaves."  His free hand rested lightly on the strand of metal and stone around his neck.  “I wear the thunderbird to honor the Plains Tribes, the Lakota, the Cherokee; the turquoise to honor the Pueblo Nations.  I wear my hair as my grandfathers wore it.  I taught myself to braid it properly.  I only cut it off twice… i in the city and in the Army."

Snake stared at him for a moment, realization dawning.  “Then you don't know.  You got it all out of a book, just like Rain."

“None of us knows, really," Joseph said bleakly.  “So much has been lost or destroyed."

The silence lengthened and finally Snake broke it.  “Why?"

“Because to be empty inside, to be nothing, is to invite what the Gas brings," Joseph said.  “I can either be Indian, or mad.  I do not wish to be mad."

“You were Army."  Why did you leave?  

“I was a medic.  Then I came home.  A man needs to fight for his own land and his own people."  Joseph sighed and looked down at the ground.  “I told you: the government took the Mojave reservation lands for a military installation.  The Russians slagged it.  There's nothing there, any more."

Snake felt a cold shock of understanding and recognition slash through him.  Makes two of us, doesn't it, old man?  He breathed out on an angry growl.   

Joseph's dark eyes held sorrow and resignation, and a deep anger that matched Snake's own, as he raised his head.  “The whole Earth is wounded and septic, Snake.  It cannot be healed.  Soon the Destroyer will come and finish dismantling the web we have torn apart in our struggles to be gods." 

The tentative bond Snake had felt developing between himself and Joseph snapped like an overstretched rubber band.  He took a deep drag on the last of the homemade cigarette and ground the spark out in the soil by his boot-toe.  “What the fuck is the Destroyer?"

“The Thunderbird…" "  Joseph said, as if to himself.  He was again looking into the heart of the pyramid in his hands.  “…the Phoenix."  He shook himself and turned back to Snake, holding out the stone to him.  When Snake took it, Joseph got to his feet.

“Bullshit out of a book," Snake said.  His tone was indifferent.   

“I used to think so also, when I lived in the city," Joseph replied slowly.  “My white man's mind was sure of it.  Nothing but myth and superstition.  Now, out here…" " he spread his weathered hands slowly, “I'm not so sure.  Not so sure at all, Snake."  He turned and began walking back toward the place he had left his horse.  Snake snorted , a soft, disgusted sound, and pocketed the stone pyramid.

The year moved on toward harvest, and beyond into winter, as Joseph and Snake continued their prickly dance of words.  Their little crop was gathered and put up in the storage area left behind by the original inhabitants at the far end of the ruins, along with Snake's store of smoked meat and the goods he had traded from the Cultural Center.  Damp chill settled into the ruins, and Snake's headaches flared, along with his temper.  The cold air and bright winter sunlight stabbed through Snake's damaged eye, and, at last, as the first light snow of the season dusted the mesa-top, Snake and Rain moved down into one of the covered kivas in the center of the ruin, where the ventilation system allowed them to light a good fire and heat the enclosed space.  They shared sex and body heat through the long nights, lying together under one of Joseph's old quilts and the warm Sky Rattlesnake blanket.  In the close, smoky darkness, Snake's pain and his dreams grew stronger as he and Rain waited for spring.           

Joseph offered Snake what he had for pain, using one thing and then another, and Snake tried them one by one, with a sort of grim, dubious, and ill-tempered resignation.  One mid-winter morning, Snake and Rain heard Joseph halooing them as he climbed the slope up to their home.  They met him in a curve of knee-high parapet at the edge of the ruins; Joseph drew the line at entering the kivas.  It was one of those piercingly bright desert winter days, cold air in their lungs contrasting with the sun-warmed red sandstone of the wall in the sheltered spot, each individual sound and scent and sight sharply distinct in the crystalline air.  Snake squinted behind his dark glasses, trying to ignore the pounding in his head as the chill hit the back of his throat and stabbed upward.

“Tobacco," Joseph said as he sat down.  The two other men stared at him.  He started again: “ I want to try treating Snake's headaches with tobacco."

“What?" Snake said.

“What can you do with tobacco?" Rain added at the same time.         

“Tobacco was originally sacred."  At Snake's “hpf," Joseph smiled.  A sideways glance drew Rain into his amusement.  “Before the whites turned it into a carcinogenic recreational drug, it was a healing herb, a medicine that eased pain and opened pathways.  It still is, when it's used the right way." 

“What's the 'right way"?" Rain asked.

“Some bullshit Indian 'ceremony.'"  Snake's voice was toneless, but the look on his face was eloquent

“Think of the sweat lodge as a sauna with feathers," Joseph said dryly. “Heat and moisture, opening up blood vessels and lungs.  Sweating out toxins.  Relaxation techniques to ease tight muscles.  And real tobacco, a hundred per cent tobacco, not this cut and processed stuff.'  He bounced his tobacco pouch on the palm of his hand, caught it, and put it back in his pocket.  His eyes teased Snake.  “We can leave the feathers out of it…."."  

Snake glared silently at Joseph and Rain.  He could see by Rain's expression that the kid thought it was a great idea.  It was the same gullible, wide-eyed look he always got on his face when the old Indian came out with one of these things.  Snake snorted to himself.  Still… real tobacco…. .  The familiar craving clawed its way along his nerve-endings, reminding him of the sweet buzz Ormsby's smokes had given him.  Tobacco had always soothed his frayed nerves, sharpened his reflexes, eased the pain without dulling his edge.  The pure stuff would be… awesome.  A sharp stab behind his bandaged eye decided him.  Snake rose to his feet and stood silently waiting with his face a deliberate blank.   Joseph nodded, unsmiling, and stood up also, with a quick “stay put" gesture in Rain's direction.  Rain settled back to wait as the other two men walked away.

By tacit agreement, Snake ignored Joseph's ritual preparations, but he stripped and sponged off before going into the sweat lodge.  Just like the Finnish sauna: there was no point in getting his clothes soaked with sweat.  He sat down on a log near the pile of hot stones, feeling rough wood pressing into his bare flesh, as Joseph pulled the heavy tarp over the single opening, shutting out the light from outside.  The scent of desert pine filled the space, then the hiss of something wet falling on the heated rock, followed by the spicy smell of sage.  Snake's eyes watered in the thick, smoky steam, and he coughed  “You must be completely naked," Joseph's voice came out of the darkness.  “Remove your last covering.  Take the smoke into your body, into the place where your anger and pain are kept."  

Snake remained mystified for a few seconds until he realized Joseph's meaning.  The eyepatch.  “No."

“There's no light here.  Only heat and healing."

Snake's hand slid under his hair to find the thin band around his head.  He was thick and heavy in the warmth, feeling the itch of sweat already trickling down his overheated face, down his naked back, down through the damp hair of his chest.  His fingers traced the length of the cord for several moments, then slipped it off and closed the patch inside his fist.  Smoke stung his damaged eye, reviving terrible memories of the gas.  It had been cold, freezing cold, in Leningrad.  Stifling heat around him in the blackness disoriented Snake.  It should be cold.  He coughed again and pain lanced through his head as he raised his left hand to guard his injured face from the fumes.  

As Snake's vision adjusted, Joseph became a deeper black silhouette against charcoal gray.  The old man picked up a handful of broad leaves from a basket beside his feet, whispered something into their surface, broke them between his hands, and scattered them over the burning-hot rocks, adding a sprinkle of water from a gourd hung by the opening of the lodge.  A familiar smoky odor choked the air, almost solid in Snake's lungs as he inhaled deeply.  “Breathe the smoke.  Call it into you," Joseph said.  There was what sounded to Snake like a deliberate edge to the other man's voice as he added, “The Lakota call tobacco smoke the breath of Wakan Tanka."  

Snake snorted.  “You believe that shit?"  

“I am not Lakota," Joseph said evenly.  Snake felt a ghost of old irritation beneath the euphoria rising on the nicotine buzz.  Why couldn't the old Indian give a simple answer to a simple question? 

“Each man walks in the path that's laid for him.  What is your path?" Joseph said into the eddying smoke.

“Why bother asking," Snake growled, “You sound like you've already got the answer."  Your answer, not mine, old man.  

“I don't," Joseph said calmly.  “You do.  You need to find it.  What is your path, 'man-who-is-called-Snake'?  Who are you?"

Snake inhaled deeply, riding on the buzz.  He felt lightheaded, needle-sharp focused and at the same time diffuse and distant, fuzzy from the heat and the fumes.  His pain was easing, floating away with the smoke.  He inhaled again, and let his breath out in a puff of air.  He moved his hands over his arms and chest, rubbing the beads of sweat that filmed his body into his skin.  He felt better than he had in a long time.     

“Who are you?" Joseph prompted again, barely audible.

Snake relaxed, snorting a soft laugh.  “Stupid fucking question.  Everybody's already answered it."  He took a deep breath.  “American… Soldier… War hero... Call me Snake… Bank robber… Psychopath… The Force's Most Wanted man… Asshole…."."  He laughed again, soundlessly.  “Outlaw... Threat to Society… Gangsta... Savior of Mother Gaia… Rapist… The New Geronimo… thought you were dead...  Ought to be taller… the name's Plissken…."."

“That's who they see.  Who do you see?"

Snake's headache was gone, reduced to the dull pressure behind his damaged eye that was always with him.  He felt lighter, free of the boxes and barriers that hemmed him in, free of the chains that bound him to the past and the world.  “Fuck if I know."

“Look."

Snake shifted on the log.  His mind was a blank darkness.  Far below the surface, indistinct things moved, glittering and sparking like fiery cracks in the blackness of a spreading lava flow.  Images flickered, pictures from his past.  He considered and discarded them  They were bits of what he had been; not who he was.  Another something stirred, deep in the blackness, man-shaped but not human; something hungry.  With it came images of fire and destruction, and a seductive attraction that pulled Snake toward it's hotdark center.  Snake shied away, slamming his mind shut.  Then there was nothing but the meaningless fragments of his past flickering on the darkness like black-and-white pictures on a television screen.  Joseph was a shape among them.  “There's nothing there," Snake told the Joseph-shape.    

“Nothing," Joseph said in a low tone, as if examining the word.  “Hidden, or opened?"  Snake was silent.  “Is it the nothing of an empty place or the nothing of a closed door?" Joseph elaborated.  He seemed to be taking Snake seriously.

“Fuck this bullshit!" Snake suddenly grated, pulling the eyepatch back into place.  His headache was gone.  “I'm going."

“You haven't told yourself the answer to the question," Joseph said.  “What is the nothing?"

Snake pushed the flap away and stepped into air that was suddenly cold on his sweating, naked body.  He squinted against the light of bright desert sky.  Joseph was emerging from the dark opening of the sweat lodge as Snake looked back behind him.  Snake growled a curse in the old Indian's direction, then turned to walk down to the stream to wash off.  The shock of cold water poured over him cleared the fumes from his head, leaving him clear and sharp, and, for the moment, almost free of pain.  He came up, sputtering, out of the water to see Joseph still standing there, watching him with a sort of relentless patience.  Snake brushed past him without answering, and went to put on his clothes.

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

Snake stood at the rim of the mesa, watching his first class take off for a practice flight.  A steady wind out of a cloudless lapis-lazuli sky tugged at his snug-fitting nylon pants and jacket and whipped his long hair around his face.  Perfect weather for gliders.  His pilots launched themselves one by one, fanning out above the bare brown desert below, keeping careful distance apart as the hang-gliders wobbled and tipped under inexperienced  control.  Beside him, waiting for Snake's signal, Rain fiddled with the straps of his harness, checking them again, careful, as always, of his equipment.  Snake smiled to himself behind his impassive expression as he caught the motion out of the corner of his good eye.  He signaled the next man for lift-off.  Russell Tso's mahogany face was intent as he positioned himself on the edge of the mesa.  At Snake's downward gesture, he leaned into the wind, and Snake watched him float away, following his fellow warriors.  They were his students, Snake thought, but not his men; not yet, not ever.  Not like Black Light.  This was not his fight.  He was shut inside a glass box, walled away from these intense young men by invisible barriers of culture and commitment and polite silence.  He had not been asked to go along on the series of raids that reclaimed Winslow and Holbrook for the Navajo Nation, and sealed off I-40 to unauthorized through traffic.  Rain had gone along, without him.  Rain moved into position and was waiting, last in line, to take off.  He flashed a grin at Snake, his eyes sparkling.  With his skin burned bronze by months of work in the Arizona sun, his long, dark hair held back from his face by a headband, his high-laced boots, and the strand of rough turquoise wound around his neck, Rain looked no different from any of the others.  Gone native, Snake thought.      

Rain was still waiting for his signal.  Snake nodded, and Rain launched his hang-glider.  A gust of wind pushed him off-balance and Rain righted himself after a short struggle.  Not as easy as it looks, Snake thought, unsure whether he was referring to the Navajos, or Rain, or maybe both.  There were vague rumors filtering into Dinetah, third and fourth and fifth-hand rumors that included no names, no details, nothing definite, but hinted at gathering reaction against the Indians' campaign.  Snake distrusted good luck.  He studied the group of figures floating away from him, making mental notes.

Now Snake was alone at the edge of the mesa.  The wind still pulled at the fabric of his glider like impatient hands dragging him forward.  To the Navajos who had journeyed outward on that wind before him, Snake thought, it would be no figure of speech, but a reality.  It was easy to understand, here on this high place, how they could view the wind as a holy thing, a Power.  “I have... put out my hand and touched the face of God...."  quoted itself on Snake's inner ear.   He snorted softly... Get a grip, Plissken.  He threw himself off the rock and into the air; the hang-glider swooped, steadied, rode upward on the wind.  As the earth slipped out from under his feet, Snake felt an inner barrier of old scar tissue and cynicism dissolving into an unfamiliar, almost forgotten, emotion.  It was more a memory of joy than the  thing itself, a memory of soaring exultation and a young Special Forces pilot-candidate on his first solo flight so long ago, before the world turned to shit.  Even the memory was startling, vivid, and overwhelming.  Snake surrendered to it, riding on the power in the wind.  The deep electric blue of the sky surrounded him, calling him onward.  Sun glittered and flashed as he angled into it, turning the edges of his vision behind the lenses of his goggles to bright crystal sparks, as if the very air itself was on fire.  Ahead of him was a red sandstone butte, and Snake trimmed for the updraft it created.  Rising free, he slid over the invisible curve of air and soared, following a hawk rising on open wings on a thermal.  He found the air current, leaned into it, let it carry him in a sweeping upward spiral.  The glider felt like a live thing, on a living wind, under his hands and feet.  Far below, the jumbled landscape was a pattern of tans and reds and grays with patches of multicolor green.  A sudden flash of light caught Snake's eye: far off on the horizon he saw the bright, thin line of old railroad tracks shining in the sun.  Dazzled, he blinked and turned back to observing his class landing on the second mesa-top he had chosen as their objective.  He circled until he had seen all of them touch down, then landed.

         

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

The years turned and turned again, and Snake felt himself growing into this place in the canyon, in the old ruins.  Summers, he and Rain lived on the upper level in the rooms Snake had chosen.  Winters, they retreated to the warmer shelter and more vivid dreams Snake found within the ancient kiva.  The well-watered soil along the river produced a good crop which Snake supplemented with the fish and game he caught.  The dry earth seemed to be growing slowly greener in the empty land.  The Navajo Nation pushed its borders outward to reclaim the area between the four sacred mountains, and Joseph was always there, patiently waiting for something to happen.                   

Some mornings, especially after one of his recurring dreams of the burning man, Snake would wake early and go out by himself, while Rain still slept, to the edge of the ruin to watch the sun rise.  This blue-gray fall morning, the air was sharp in his lungs, stabbing through his head.  He cupped his hands around his mug of Navajo tea and swallowed the scalding-hot liquid, ignoring its burned-licorice herbal flavor.  Real coffee was only a wistful memory.  Snake rolled a cigarette and lit it, watching the gray-on-gray line of smoke floating upward join the thin trail of smoke from the cook-fire: tasting, smelling, seeing, the tangible echo of the fire and smoke that filled his dreams.  He sucked in a deep breath, and felt the healing rush of tobacco through his bloodstream, damping the pain behind his injured eye to a level he could ignore.  The bright line of sunrise touched the top of the opposite mesa, and a tall bank of massed cloud beyond turned brilliant white as the rising sun hit it.  Rain soon, Snake thought.  The fall monsoons that heralded the beginning of the winter season were almost upon them.   

In the silence, he heard the faint rasp of leather boot-soles on stone, and turned quickly to see Joseph climbing the last few feet to the edge of the cliff overhang.  The old Indian swung first one leg and then the other over the low stone guard-wall and straightened up with a soft grunt of effort.  “Long way up here."

“I like my privacy."

Joseph nodded, ignoring the well-worn exchange.  He slipped the strap of his saddle-bag over his head, set the leather pouch down next to his feet, and settled himself on the wall beside Snake to watch with him for a while as the cliff-face opposite them changed from charcoal to pale gray to salmon-rose, to dull-red sandstone in morning sun.  Finally he spoke again.  “Things are moving, Snake."

“What things?  Moving where?" Snake said.

“I'm not sure.  There are rumors, signs; nothing certain.  But it will be soon."

Snake gave him a look out of the side of his good eye.  “That's useful."  His voice was completely expressionless.

“Snake, when it comes, you will need to be able to see where you are going with both eyes.  You need to find the vision in your other eye, the one you keep covered."     

Snake snorted. “Hpf.  Nothing there."

“Yes, there is.  Come with me," Joseph said.  Snake remained stubbornly motionless.    Joseph squatted down on his heels next to Snake.  “Snake, you have to learn how to see through your other eye, instead of trying to see with it.  What is to be seen isn't in front of you, but behind you."  He paused.  “I've made another mistake, I think.  We've both been looking in the darkness, in the earth...the sweat lodge, your winter dreams down there."  Joseph gestured toward the entrance of the kiva, and Snake was sure his face betrayed his startled alarm.  How did Joseph know about his dreams?  A second later, he snorted in disgust at his own stupidity.  Of course, Rain had shot off his mouth to Joseph.  He could never trust that kid around Indians.  His flash of anger made him miss Joseph's next few words.  He came back to the calm voice saying, “...air and fire.  You will find your vision there.  Come with me."  The old Indian stood up again.  Snake gave him a glare and stayed where he was.  Joseph stood looking down toward where Snake sat with his boots propped against the red sandstone of the ancient wall.  “Humor me, Snake," he said.  “I'm right about this.  There's something you need to see.  Come with me."

Snake rose to his feet.  A practical part of his mind told him the only way he was going to get the old Indian to shut up was, indeed, to humor him.  Deeper inside him, in the place of darkness and fire and smoke where the burning man spoke to him in his dreams, he felt an echo of Joseph's certainty, and responded without consciously acknowledging it.  He brushed the gritty red sandstone dust off his pants, ducked back inside his room to pick up his gunbelt, nodded once, silently, and followed.  Joseph led him along the steep and winding trail the original inhabitants had made from the edge of the cliffhouse to the mesa above.  In places, it was covered by drifted sand and rockslide, in places it was no more than rough steps pecked into the rockface.  The two men came to a ledge that widened out to several yards across, and deadended at a vertical slot in the cliff.  Snake looked back the way they had come, down the rocky slope, to the silvery line of the stream far below, and took a firmer grip on the sun-warmed sandstone under his fingers.  “I've been up here," Snake said; “It doesn't go anywhere."

“Look again," Joseph said.

Snake studied the narrow space between the two sections of rock.  What before had looked like no more than random projections in the vertical rock walls he saw, now, was actually hand-and-foot holds carved into the soft sandstone to form a rough ladder.  At its base, motionless, coiled a huge diamondback rattler, it's brown-and-gray-patterned shape almost invisible against the mottled earth.  The serpent's black, unblinking eyes met Snake's.  It's long forked tongue flickered once.  Joseph started toward the animal, and Snake's hand went to the gun at his side.  “Watch it!  Rattler!"    

Joseph held up a warning hand.  “Don't shoot.  A bullet wouldn't kill him, anyway.  He watches this place."  He turned toward the rattler.  “I greet you, Grandfather.  I have brought him.  Let us pass."  The snake remained motionless, except for its flickering tongue, its rattles silent, as the old Indian walked around its thick, looped coils, and put his foot on the first step of the rock ladder.  He looked back at Snake.  “He knows his own people," Joseph said.  “Come on up."

Warily, Snake detoured around the rattler's body, as the reptile eyed him with apparent indifference, and began to climb after Joseph.  The ascent was slow.   The ancient sandstone steps were worn with wind and rain and time, and in places the two men had to brace themselves with hands and feet against the sides of the rock slot to keep from falling.  Fragments of stone crumbled under Snake's boots and bounced almost soundlessly downward.  At last he came to the top, levered himself out onto the surface of the mesa where Joseph was waiting for him, and stood up to take a look around.  Except for the wind, and the sound of his own breathing, it was completely quiet.  Snake could feel the bright, clear air sucking the moisture from his body, his sweat drying almost instantly.  He ran his tongue across his upper lip and tasted salt.  Silently, Joseph held out his canteen in Snake's direction, and, silently, Snake took it and drank, then handed it back.  The summit they stood on was a small, irregular space, perhaps an acre wide, weathered into a jumble of lumps and meandering hollows, a miniature version of the red canyon landscape below.  Here and there, a scattering of blackbrush clung to life on the barren ground.  In the lee of the tallest point, in a sheltered depression in the rock, where a little pocket of soil had collected over the centuries, stood a stunted and gnarled pinon.  Snake walked over to it, put his hand on the rough bark of the tree, and looked out over the edge.  The mesa ran like a wall in both directions.  Beyond it, across the deep gashes between, Snake could see in the distance on all sides, dozens of other mesa tops, like a series of upthrust defensive towers scattered at random across the landscape.  Above him was nothing except an endless blue sky and the bright clouds.  He let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding in a brief, explosive puff.

Joseph came up to his side.  His face was unsmiling and solemn.  “Look," he said, pointing down over the edge of the cliff.  Below the spot where the pinon's roots clung to the stone, Snake saw another set of steps carved into the rock face, leading down to the desert below.  “This is another way into and out of the canyon.  The Navajo, and the Anasazi before them, used it as a lookout and an escape route," Joseph said.  “It is a place of many kinds of vision."                

“No shit," Snake said.  From this vantage point, he could see for miles in every direction.  

“This is the place where your covered eye can be opened, if you will let it happen."  Snake turned his head to look at Joseph, his jaw set in angry disbelief, but the old Mojave ignored the other man's warning expression.  He held up a hand.  “Wait, Snake; listen to me."

Snake snorted.  “Looks like I'm a captive audience."  He turned to look back down the way he and Joseph had come.  “Long climb back down without a breather."  He sat down at the base of the pinon and settled himself in an attitude of deliberate indifference rather like that of the rattler they had seen at the base of the rock-cleft.      

Joseph settled himself on the ground beside Snake.  “It's not just something my people believe, Snake," he said.  “Odin, Horus, Mog Ruith: there are many stories of those with one eye and two visions.  A man with one blind eye sees hidden things, they say, if he's willing to look.  If not," he shrugged, “he's just a man with one eye."  Joseph reached into the pocket of sandy soil at the base of the pinon tree, picked up a handful, and let it trickle slowly through his wrinkled brown fingers.  “I told you, Snake, things are moving.  There is a great change coming, and you are at the center of it, but you have to see your path and follow it.  You are a catalyst."  

“Get somebody else."  Snake rubbed one callused palm across the back of his other wrist.  No handcuffs this time; no explosives, no Plutoxin.  You're shit out of luck, old man: I'm not volunteering.

Joseph sighed.  “Always the contrary.  When someone says, 'yes,' you are already thinking 'no.'"  He fell silent.  He seemed to be drawing into himself, listening to some inner voice.  Snake was about to get up and head back down the rock ladder when the old Indian finally spoke again.  His voice was stronger now.  “Long ago, you saw a path laid down.  You knew it was another's, and not yours.  You obeyed when you should have refused, and led many men who should have lived into morning fire and death.  You were given your covered eye for that.  At that point, you turned Contrary, never to follow another's path again.  You learned one lesson well."

Snake thought of Kansas City, New York Max, Cleveland, Los Angeles.  He threw back his head, ran a hand through his hair, then clenched the hand into a hard fist against his thigh.  “Then why do I get dragged into shit?"

Joseph smiled wryly.  “Perhaps because you have not learned anything since."

“What the fuck does that mean?" Snake said.

Joseph started to open his mouth, then paused and closed it again.  He hesitated for a long moment, as if listening for that inner voice he had found earlier, and Snake thought he saw confusion behind the dark eyes opposite him.  At last, Joseph spread his hands.  “I don't know."

“What?!" Snake demanded, anger rising in his voice.  “You drag me up here, dump your mystical crap on me, and then say you 'don't know?'"

“All I have are guesses, Snake.  I see events moving toward some great thing, and I see you at the center of it, but I don't know what it is you need to learn, to do what you are supposed to do."  Joseph lowered his head, and his wide-brimmed hat cast a shadow across his face.  

The other man looked older, stooped and shrunken.  Yeah, Snake thought, I was almost taken in by it; just like the kid.  He made a disgusted sound deep in his throat.  “So the Indian Medicine Man routine's for shit, too." Snake said flatly.  “Like I said, it's all bullshit."

“No, Snake."  Joseph's voice was calm.  “This is a place of visions.  Sometimes that involves recognizing how little one sees.  I can't show you anything, because I can't see though your eyes.  I can only bring you here to show you where to look for your own vision."  

Snake rose from his seat under the pinon and stood looking out over the wide sweep of the desert.  To his surprise, a sort of frustrated disappointment churned in him, and he felt humiliated by it.  Suckered again, Plissken.  What did you expect -- that the crazy old Indian really had any answers?  That you'd find something up here?  You should know better.  Automatic defenses, damped by the months of solitude, flickered into life from the smoldering core of anger inside him.  The magnificent view seemed to mock him. 'Place of visions'  Maybe you can get the New Age tourists to buy it, old man.  Not me.

Without another word, Snake turned away and started to descend the rock ladder to the Anasazi ruin.  He could tell by the rattle of rock fragments trickling down on him as he went that Joseph was following him back the way they had come, but Snake ignored him.  When he reached the bottom of the rock-cleft, the big rattlesnake was gone.  Snake paused for a moment to catch his breath, looking out over the green slash of the canyon below.  As he watched, fat cloud shadows flitted over the surface of the ground, and Snake looked up to see that a bank of darker cloud was building up over the western horizon.  Heat-lightning crackled briefly in the mass.  The long dry season was ending.       

Rain was waiting when they arrived back at the ruin.  The expression on his face shifted as the other two men came around the corner of the sandstone wall.  “What happened?  Where were you?"         

Snake jerked a thumb in the direction he had come.  “Up there."  A beat.  “Nice view," he added dryly.

Rain looked from Snake to Joseph and back.  “Is something wrong?"

Snake remained silent.  Joseph studied him for a moment, and then seemed to come to a decision.  He picked up his saddle-bag and slung it over his shoulder.  “I'm leaving.  Goodbye, One-Eyed Serpent; goodbye Rain."  He turned and walked away.

Rain followed by himself, and caught up to Joseph just as the old Indian reached the top of the path the three men had worn from the ruin to the canyon floor.  “You're leaving?  For good?"  Joseph nodded.  “Why?"    

“There's nothing more I can do here," Joseph said.  “I will go and sing World Ending."

“World Ending...."  Rain echoed, almost in a whisper.  “Is it...is it...now?  How do you know?"

“Sometimes, to Sing a thing properly is to make it happen.  Maybe if I do what I am supposed to do, you and Snake will do what you are supposed to do.  Maybe not. "  Joseph reached into his saddlebag, pulled out a wide slab of folded paper, and held it out in Rain's direction.  Rain took it without looking at it, his eyes still focused on Joseph's face.  “Here.  I picked this up at the Cultural Center; they're all over the Rez.  Maybe it will give you some answers.  Or some questions.  And Rain," Joseph paused for emphasis, “Remember what we talked about when you were so sick.  You have to stay with Snake.  Promise me."

“I... I will, Joseph," Rain said.  “I promise."

“Good.  Goodbye, then."  Joseph climbed down the slope to the grassy spot below where he had left his horse tied.  He mounted, turned to wave a final farewell to Rain, and rode off down the canyon.

When Joseph had gone, Rain unfolded the square of paper the Indian had given him and examined it.  It was thick and a little rough, with a grayish undertone -- it looked handmade - and covered with neatly-printed characters in familiar blocks of  headlines and text.  Rain raised his head and his dark eyes met Snake's cold blue one.  “It's a newspaper.  How would they..." he stopped in mid-sentence.  “...Oh...."

“Right.  Hand presses."  Snake took the paper from Rain and scanned it.  A banner headline on the front page caught his attention: BERRIGAN TO COMMAND NEW WORLD ORDER FORCES.  Shock and rage flared in him as he read on:

CHICAGO  -  In his first move to implement the New World Order agreement signed here last week by representatives of the United Governments Organization, President Mercer appointed former USPF Director-General, John Berrigan, as America's World Police Force National Commander.  The international conference, the first since the catastrophic destruction of technology by the world-criminal S.D. “Snake" Plissken, agreed to cooperate fully with the newly formed W.P.F. in restoring order throughout the Western world.  Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Russia, the European Commonwealth, and the Israeli Block have agreed to contribute troops to the new military force.  The conference also authorized an international commission to  develop alternative technologies not hampered by the continuing Sword of Damocles Pulse, including steam, wind, and solar power, and lighter-than-air flight."              

“In an interview following the ceremony, National Commander Berrigan (see sidebar) said...."  Snake's eyes flicked to the sidebar: “John Berrigan," he read, “Former Director-General of the United States Police Force, and commander-in-chief during the Summer Wars, first distinguished himself as commander of Operation Wolfhound during the Russian War.  His daring decision to sacrifice two gas-disabled former units of the U.S. Special Forces in a diversionary feint against Leningrad is generally considered to be responsible for the success of the Moscow Campaign...." 

Snake's vision wavered as he studied the photo at the head of the newspaper column.  He had seen the man in the picture before, in grainy press photos, and video news soundbites, and pre-flight briefings: Berrigan, the man who had ordered the Leningrad Ruse, and sent Snake's men to die for a lie in the fire and ice of the Russian winter.  Rain took the paper from Snake's numb fingers and flipped through the pages, making sounds which became angrier and more disgusted with each page.  He shoved a section of newsprint back in Snake's direction, and Snake followed Rain's pointing finger to a headline on the lower half of the page.  US TO RECLAIM FOUR CORNERS AREA it said.  He read on:

Acting against insurgent factions on the Navajo Reservation, a WPF expeditionary force under command of the newly appointed National Commander, John Berrigan, is moving to recapture American territory that has fallen into Indian hands.  Claiming the area as “part of Dinetah" and “sacred," terrorists have seized land along the borders of the Reservation, killing Americans and cutting off vital rail access across Arizona.

At his press conference today, Police General Berrigan said, “Before we can take on our role as leader of the New World Order, we have to clean up our own backyard.  As National Commander, I will make the campaign against these heathen terrorists my first priority.  We will no longer tolerate enclaves which claim to be independent of American authority on American soil.  The reservation system must, and will, be completely eradicated, and all so-called Indians made subjects of the American government.  Any opposition will be ruthlessly exterminated.  Our redskin enemy is hereby given notice that the New Moral America intends to use any means necessary to achieve complete victory."     

Snake and Rain raised their heads from the printed page and their eyes met again.  How the hell did this happen? hung silently in the air between them.

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

Chicago: Ten Months Previously:

After the capitol was slagged during the brief Third-World Invasion, the crumbling remnants of the U.S. government fled westward and regrouped in the more defensible heartland.  The President was dead, a suicide (or so Malloy claimed), and the vice-president a casualty in the fighting during the retreat from Lynchburg.  Most of Congress was scattered or killed.  The military took control, and declared the old city of Chicago the new capitol of the United States.  Once again, trade and communication moved by water, horseback, and a gradually expanding network of steam railroads, and, once again, Chicago was a natural center.     

The new national headquarters of the WPF was one of the few highrise buildings along Lakeshore Drive that had escaped major damage during the war and the Crazy Riots.  In his corner office there, overlooking the lake, Police Colonel Henry Carlton was studying sets of fingerprints from various police files on S.D. Plissken.  One, from the files of New York Maximum Security Penitentiary, was a perfect match for the set from Kansas City in '93.  A small scar crossing the tip of the left index finger was identical in each.  He picked up the folder with the set taken from Plissken before he had been sent into Los Angeles.  The scar was fainter, but still clearly visible.  Frowning, he turned again to the fourth set of prints, the ones taken from the corpse of “Plissken" turned in by the bounty hunter in San Francisco.  No, they definitely did not match the other three; there was no scar on the left index finger at all.  The frustrating, time-consuming process of locating paper copies of old USPF file records, and collecting them for comparison at headquarters, had proved worth the effort.  Carlton swore under his breath and tapped the mismatched prints with his magnifying glass.  “He's alive."  He pushed the folder across his desk, toward his assistant.  “Or at least he was then."       

Officer Dunleavy fielded the folder, but didn't open it.  He knew every thumb-print and typo already.  “The body matched Plissken's description.  The tattoo was the same.  Old, too; not like somebody added it later."

“Damage to the face was fresh, though, like the head had been kicked in.  Maybe revenge, more likely to hide the fact that the eye didn't match Plissken's.  The tattoo's a problem, but," Carlton shrugged, “nothing strange about two men having a cobra tattoo.  Plissken probably went looking until he found somebody with one, and killed him in cold blood.  What I'd expect from that gassed bastard."  Carlton reached across the desk to tap the folder again.  “No, that body was a ringer.  He's still out there, somewhere."

“You think it was Plissken, then?  Not the bounty hunter trying to cash in on the reward?"

“It was Plissken," Carlton said.  “Fits his standard pattern.  Everyone thought he'd been killed in Kansas City, and again in Reno, back before he went into the Max to rescue President Harker.  Then after the kidnapping in '02,  he disappeared and everyone thought he was dead until Cleveland.  Slippery son of a bitch.  This time, though, he screwed up.  We have a description of his accomplice, the man who brought the body in.  If we can identify him, we may have a lead."  Carlton leaned back in his blue swivel-chair.  “San Francisco.  Plissken was still in California.  The question is: where is he now?"  

“Canada?" Dunleavy offered.   

“I don't think so." Carlton said.  “He's wanted worldwide this time.  By now, he knows it.  No point in going outside."  He steepled his fingers and tapped them thoughtfully against his chin.  “I have a theory.  Look at Plissken's targets: they're all political.  He's hit banks - all federal.  Police installations.  Tax processing centers.  Internal Security facilities.  Armories and weapons depots.  I think that twisted crazy sees himself as some kind of American patriot.  Now that the power's out, he'll be figuring we can't track him.  He'll be overconfident."     

“Like he was in Cleveland," Dunleavy broke in.

“And New Vegas.  Yes,"  Carlton nodded.  “I've requested his records from the old Central Office.  When they get here, we'll have everything the USPF had on him, as well as the Army files.  And then…."." he paused for effect.

“Sir?"         

“And then, Martin, we get Plissken to come to us."  Carlton leaned forward again and slapped his palm against the desk.  “Offer him something he won't be able to refuse: a chance to finish what he started at Firebase Seven."

“Sir?" Dunleavy repeated on a slightly higher note that suggested alarm.  

“A trap, Martin; a trap.  Lure Plissken out of hiding, and grab him... alive, preferably... when he shows himself.  What I need is the right bait."  Carlton waved a hand in the direction of the stack of folders on his desk.  “It's somewhere in the paperwork; all we have to do is find it."

“Yes, Sir," said Dunleavy.

“I'll start on what I've got.  You," Carlton said, “will start in San Francisco.  Get packing.  The mail train leaves in three days."    

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

A few tattered seagulls soared and wheeled over San Francisco, borne on an updraft of warm air.  Below, black-uniformed WPF troops had cordoned off the Old Mint and fired it to drive out the criminals who had barricaded themselves inside and refused to surrender.  Dunleavy kept a close eye on his men.  His orders were clear: take the prisoners alive for questioning.  He could tell from the sulky expressions around him that his troops would rather use them for target practice.  He imagined bodies dancing under the thud of high-impact bullets, and felt a brief warmth in the pit of his own stomach.  He enjoyed that, the blood and the shattered bone, and, sometimes, the screaming, but that would have to come later, after they found out if the captives knew anything about Plissken.  The raid had netted six, maybe seven, prisoners.  One thin, sickly-looking fellow in a plaid shirt was learning on a cane and gesturing, trying to talk his way out of the arrest as one of the guards manhandled him into the back of a horse-drawn paddy wagon.  Next in line was the fat man with the dark curly hair and beard, the one who had taken out several of Dunleavy's men and then tried to shoot himself when they broke down the door.  He was cradling his arm, the one that had been shattered when the WPF sniper's bullet hit him.  That one seemed to be some kind of a leader among this rabble.  Dunleavy's glance moved on, rested on the big black buck standing between two of his men, his arms cuffed behind him, his legs shackled.  Pride and anger burned in the man's eyes, and a bone-deep hatred.  Dunleavy felt a stirring of anticipation.  Yes, there might be some sport in this after all; that one looked like he could take quite a lot of punishment before he died.       

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

Carlton pored over Plissken's file as documents trickled in, and a picture of his quarry began to form in his mind.  “Why'd you do it?" was a question many people besides Malloy had asked the one-eyed outlaw, but nobody had been very successful at finding an answer.  There were guesses, speculations, transcripts of inconclusive interrogations, including one under drugs by someone named Anderson, just before Plissken went into Los Angeles, but nothing conclusive.  Plissken, it seemed, had been remarkably good at keeping his mouth shut.  Criminal, sociopath, the Force's Most Wanted, America's Most Immoral... Special Forces, war hero, patriot, the best we had....  Somewhere, there was a link, a connection.  A turning point.  A motive.  Carlton searched backward down the years, looking for the place where Plissken had shifted from one identity to the other, and finally, he thought, found it.  His hunch was confirmed.  Plissken's command, Black Light Squadron, had been wiped out in a diversionary raid on Leningrad, where Plissken himself had lost his eye.  At the top of Plissken's Army file was a yellowed letter of protest, requesting a formal investigation of the incident, denied for reasons of national security.  Plissken's resignation from the Service was dated the day following his release from an Army hospital in Helsinki, two months after Leningrad.  As he searched, Carlton came across the same name again and again: a man named Berrigan, who had ordered the raid and the cover-up, and had Plissken's resignation reclassified as a dishonorable discharge for cowardice under fire.  Ah, Carlton thought: I think I have my bait.  Now I only have to figure out where to set the trap.                  

Carlton sifted through reports coming in from the field.  The California operation had managed to identify the “bounty hunter" who had brought in the body of the fake Plissken: Rain Haven.  Haven, it turned out, belonged to a commune growing illegal drugs in Napa, which had links to the nest of violent subversives Dunleavy had smoked out (Carlton smiled to himself at the pun) in San Francisco.  Dunleavy reported that his men had cleaned out the commune and captured several members of the group, who confirmed that Plissken had lived there for a while, then left with Haven.  The WPF tracked the two southward, following Haven's drug-running connections, then lost them for a while.  They picked up the trail again in Needles.  According to one of the surviving locals, Plissken had shot up the town, killed several people, then fled eastward by bicycle on I-40, along with a man fitting the description of Haven.  Carlton promptly dispatched more men to track the old network of highways.  A second sighting was confirmed north of Flagstaff.  There were rumors that the outlaw had gone to ground on the Reservation.  After several frustrating months, an undercover operative in Gallup reported a positive ID of Plissken and a possible on Haven during surveillance of the Indian hostiles' military training with hang gliders.  After that, the reports came thick and fast: Plissken was definitely on the Reservation.  Carlton prepared to spring his trap.           

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

Snake tapped the paper lightly with a finger.  “Too neat," he said in a flat voice.

Rain looked up at Snake's expressionless face.  “What's too neat?"

“This."  The paper in Snake's hand rustled as he folded it against the desert wind.  “Looks like a setup."  He went on, thinking out loud, as he sat down on the edge of the retaining wall.  “They're making these on hand presses; print run maybe in the low hundreds, local... but look at the datelines: Chicago, St. Louis, Europe.  All within a few days of each other, and way too recent.  It'd take weeks, or months, for the news to travel out here to the ass end of nowhere.  Then this..." he indicated the lead article “...says they're going to hit the Indian uprising.  Not even a blowhard USPF general's stupid enough to give the target that much lead time unless he had a reason, and the censor'd never pass it if he did.  And this: Black Light; Berrigan.  Everything in this paper is designed to get someone's attention.  Mine."

.“Come on, Snake," Rain said, as he sat down on the wall beside the older man, “You think they'd do all this to get you?"

“'World-criminal' Plissken.'"  Snake gave his voiceless snort.  “They'd get a lot of mileage out of a show trial."

“You're being paranoid, Snake."

“I've been running from the blackbellies longer than you have.  They must have compared my prints with Farris's."

“How would they know where you went?"

“Tracked us.  Somebody talked."  Snake gave Rain a somber look.  “Sooner or later, everybody talks if the Blackbellies want him to."  Or if he's a gassed Indian, Snake thought.  Deep anger flared, familiar, oddly comforting.  A strangeness made sense again: Joseph.  Shit.  Fucking asshole turned me in to the blackbellies to “make me do what I'm supposed to do" according to his crazy religious crap.  Ran out on me and left me here for them, just like Harold and Carjack.  The more things change, the more they fucking stay the same. Snake watched his words sink in, watched the gut-punched expression forming on Rain's face, and felt old.  He looked down at the headlines again, and laughed softly.  “Must be somebody new in charge; they're getting smarter.  Taking me out, here in the canyons, would be a real bitch; they know that.  They want me to come to them."

“And you're just going to go?"  The savage glitter in Snake's blue eye and the set of Snake's hard mouth gave Rain his answer.  “Why, Snake?"

“Berrigan.  If there's a chance it's really him, I want him."

Rain stared at him, his mouth open slightly, for a minute before he said, “Snake, it would take them forever to find you here in canyon country.  Even if they knew more or less where you were, there's a hundred defensible places in these canyons where we could hide out and fight them if we had to, just like the People did.  They're using this Berrigan guy as bait - you said so yourself.  If you go after him, you're doing exactly what they want you to do.  Getting yourself killed won't bring your men back, Snake.  Let go of it.  They're dead!"

“Yeah," Snake said, and the depth of bitterness in that one syllable stopped Rain's flow of words.  So am I, Snake thought.  “I thought you were dead/I am" came an  echo from his past.  Chindi the desert wind whispered as it stirred the ancient dust beside Snake's boot; you are chindi, a vengeful ghost.  It was the burning black core of rage, seeking vengeance, that gave him the illusion of life, that let him feel anything at all in the bleak darkness inside him.  Without it, the deaths of his men at Leningrad, all the deaths since, the destruction he had created when he shut down the earth, were all meaningless; as meaningless as his own death.  That rage had almost burned out once before in Napa, and then here in Arizona; he had almost lost it: the thing that made him real, that made him Snake.  Now he felt it uncoil hot again within him, providing familiar purpose and meaning, and he grabbed hold of it without giving himself time to think.  “Yes," he repeated, “They're coming to put down the Indian uprising: that has to be true.  They can't afford not to.  If they're stupid enough to telegraph their plans, it's worth a shot to kill Berrigan."  

“Then I'm coming with you."

“It's not your fight."  This was his, Snake thought, something that had been his from before Rain was born, and Rain had no part in it.  He didn't want Rain to have any part in it; that seemed almost a betrayal.  This was between Snake and Berrigan.

“It is my fight, because it's your fight.  I'm your partner."

Taylor was my partner.  Taylor's dead, Snake thought.

Rain continued, “I can't go back, Snake; there's nothing for me to go back to.  There's no place I want to go, except here.  I promised you - back in California, I promised you - I'd never run out on you.  You remember?"

“I remember."

“Do you believe me?"

“Yes," Snake said.  He scowled, his mouth twisting in a bitter parody of a smile.  “You remember what I said: you come with me, you end up dead."

“Maybe."  Rain gave him a young man's grin.  “Maybe not.  There's a lot of Navajos between here and Chicago."  The grin trickled away.    

Fuck the Navajos.  Snake studied the young man, with his long, dark hair braided in Indian fashion, silver and turquoise, gifts from the Navajo comrades he had fought with, glinting at wrist and throat.  Below the blue-green choker Rain wore hung the rattlesnake-rattles Snake had cut and strung for him, but to Snake they looked pale and shriveled against Rain's sun-browned skin.  Yes -- promises remain when everything else wears out, Snake thought.  But who else did you give promises to?  Who comes first?  With Taylor, it had never been a question.  Deliberately, painfully, Snake brought up a mental image of the wiry, dark-haired man bleeding to death on the floor of the hummer station.  Sarge?  Snake wasn't entirely sure what he was asking the memory, or why, but somehow the question was necessary and important.  The memory played itself out against his inner vision. “Go on, Lieutenant!"  Right, Sarge; this time I'll listen to you.  “O.K., Rain; you're with me."

Rain nodded.  “What are you - we -- going to do?"

Snake slid off the retaining wall and went to sit down in the patch of shade that was gradually spreading outward along the base of the ruins' walls as the sun shifted westward.  Rain joined him, watching him silently and intently as he waited for Snake to provide an answer.  Snake unfolded the newspaper, laid it out flat on the ground, and read through the articles again.  It had been years since ex-Lieutenant Plissken had thought about tactics for anything more elaborate than a small-scale grab-and-run guerrilla raid.  The phrase “vital rail access" jumped out at him, and he stabbed it with a callused and dusty fingertip.  “They'll be coming by train," he said.  Rail was once again the fastest way to move troops and materiel overland, and would bring the WPF directly to their main military objective.    

“Where would the Blackbellies get trains?" Rain asked.  The only trains he had ever seen were hummers and the electric-powered cars of the crumbling Bay Area Rapid Transit system.    

“Steam trains." Snake said.  “There are railroad museums all over back east - Illinois, Kansas, places like that.  They'd have tons of rolling stock to rebuild from."

“How did you know that?" Rain asked.

“Paper I did in college."

“But... but," Rain said, “Would the old trains run on the rails around here?  Weren't there different kinds of tracks?  Narrow-gage, like that tourist thing in Colorado?"

“No.  Most of them, when they switched over from steam to diesel, used the same cars and the same tracks.  Wasn't economical to rebuild the whole system.  They just switched engines."  By the time he finished the last sentence, an impatient Snake was already half-way through the doorway to his room.  He rummaged in a collection of items that had remained untouched since he and Rain had settled down in the old ruins, and emerged a while later with the map they had used on their bicycle trip.  He unfolded it next to the newspaper and studied it, frowning in concentration.  “Trains are no problem.  The problem is, trains go where the track is.  If we hit the track, they're fucked."  He paused.  “We can't do it alone."

“Joseph said these things," Rain indicated the newspaper, “are all over the Rez.  The Dine will be waiting for the Blackbellies when they show up."

Snake's nod of agreement was short and impatient.  “I'm going in by air, one way or another," Snake said, as much to himself as to Rain.  He turned his attention back to the map in front of him.  “If they've done the recon this looks like, the Blackbellies will be expecting gliders.  They know we..." Snake stopped and corrected himself.  “They know the Indians will try to blow the track, so they'll have to hit the Blackbellies farther east than they expect.  If there's the right kind of rock formation along the track, with a good updraft, it should be possible to derail the train just ahead of or behind it, then pincer the Blackbellies from three directions with a coordinated ground and air attack."

“Where's the right rock formation?"

“Fuck if I know."  Snake refolded the map and the newspaper, picked them up, and got to his feet.  “I'll talk to Yazzi."  Snake had developed a grudging respect for Jim Yazzi, Army veteran and commander of the Navajo raiding parties, in the time he had spent on the reservation.                       

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

Miles away, at the Galesburg Train Museum in Galesburg, Illinois, Police Colonel Carlton and WPF General Berrigan were consulting similar maps of Arizona and the Navajo Reservation.  Sounds from outside filtered through the brick walls of the old station building: the bark of orders, the stamp of feet, WPF troops boarding, the train crew shouting back and forth to each other, the refitted engine chuffing like a nervous dragon as it built up a head of steam, preparing to move out.

“Plissken will be with the redskins when they attack the train," Carlton was saying.

“If he's still on the reservation.  If  that psych profile of yours is accurate.  If he even saw the newspaper.  A lot of ifs."

“He'll be there, General."

General Berrigan raised a skeptical eyebrow.  He had been chasing the slippery

outlaw for a long time.  “If he's there, I'll hunt him down."

“Yes, Sir," Carlton said.  “Plissken's trial and conviction will give the New Moral America the psychological leverage we need to reestablish our moral leadership of the world."

“Screw moral leadership of the world," Berrigan said wearily.  “Plissken's been a royal pain in the Army's ass ever since Leningrad.  I don't like loose ends.  I want the SOB debriefed and dead."  I want it over, the General thought.  Plissken, the slippery bastard, was the last one unaccounted for, the last deep-conditioned sleeper from the Russian War who hadn't been terminated.  The sleepers had been the final suicide weapon, to be activated only as a last, desperate resort if everything else had failed, as human triggers to set off the Doomsday Device.  Snake Plissken, War Hero, had been intended to die at Leningrad, impersonated by the expendable and unwitting fuck-up, Ferris.  Plissken was then to go into deep cover as the hapless Ferris until he was needed.  The plan had been bungled, the real Snake had gone on the mission instead, and being Plissken, had made it back alive.  The deaths of his men had driven him over the edge, and he'd left the Service before his conditioning could be properly failsafed.  He should have been terminated then, when he resigned, but the sleepers were top-secret; nobody outside Berrigan's section knew they even existed.  As long as Plissken remained alive, he was a weapon primed to set off the programmed nuclear exchange which would slag the planet into a ball of molten glass.  But the Army had done its job too well.  The same unconscious conditioning that made him a trigger gave Plissken the overwhelming will to survive at all costs that had kept him alive through the War, New York Max, Cleveland, and L.A.  Berrigan had been chasing him since Leningrad.  “The Force's Most Wanted Man," Berrigan thought ironically; you don't know the half of it.            

      

There was a discreet tap on the door.  At the General's “come," it opened to admit Berrigan's aide, who saluted and said, "Everything's on board, Sir.  We're ready to go."  Berrigan stood fractionally straighter and exchanged salutes with Carlton, then turned on his heel and walked out of the stationhouse, bootheels thudding on the old plank floor.

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

The police colonel stood by the window to watch them depart.  It was out of his hands now; Berrigan had claimed this one for himself.  Carlton wasn't sure the General was much saner than the criminal he was being sent to capture.  They'd both taken a lot of gas in the war, in a lot of the same campaigns.  Not that we all haven't, Carlton thought; Maybe we just look sane to each other because we're all equally fucked up.  The general and his aide walked across the platform and stepped up into the last of the old train's passenger cars.

Carlton watched the train's engineer swing out of his cab, holding on to the handgrip, and make a final inspection of the tender-car, piled high with firewood, behind the engine.  There was a wide grin in the middle of the leathery middle-aged man's salt-and-pepper beard.  That non-regulation beard, which clashed badly with the crisp new USPF uniform the man wore, was an on-going annoyance to Carlton.  The Service had been able to commandeer the antique train, but he had been forced to bend a few rules to requisition the man who could drive it.  The old railroad fanatic had been practically ecstatic: not even the prospect of being shot at by hostile redskins could dampen his enthusiasm for taking his beloved engine cross-country.  Better him than me, Carlton thought sourly, contemplating the danger and  discomfort of a days-long journey in a nineteenth-century wood-burning train.  For bitter years as curator of the poverty-stricken Galesburg museum, an unappreciated Jake Stevens had devoted his life to these old engines, driving them around the museum's little circle of track for the entertainment of a few tourists with cameras and their ice-cream-dripping, upholstery-ripping, graffiti-scribbling kids, for whom the engine was only an afternoon's half-hearted curiosity.  Six-sixty-six had changed all that, and made Stevens's steam-engines vitally important again.

Carlton opened the door and stepped out onto the station platform.  The engine loomed above him like a dark metal wall.   The day was muggy and overcast, filled with the smell of smoke and hot metal, a fine rain of gritty ash from the firebox, and the hiss of steam as pressure rose in the boiler and tanks.  Two short whistle-blasts shrieked.  In the engineer's cab, pressure gages twitched fractionally in response.  A second signal followed -- full steam -- and Carlton watched as Jake Stevens nudged his iron horse backward down a length of track into the watery sunlight, and along the siding track toward the hump where the assembled train waited.  Engine and tender clashed into the opened coupling of the cars behind them, couplings closed, and the brakeman moved in to drop the coupling pin in place.  "Board!" came the cry from the rear.  The flag swung up and back in the traditional highball, and the engine moved out with a shock and rattle, then a steady pull forward.  Behind it clattered a full load of cars: eight passenger coaches of  USPF troops, two boxcars full of materiel, two covered flatcars, and the caboose.  Those two tarp-covered platforms were Carlton's ace, and he felt a sense of satisfaction as he watched them slide down the track after the engine, heading toward their distant rendezvous with the world-criminal who had tried to destroy the USPF and the New Moral America.  Plissken and his redskin allies, Carlton thought, would get more than they'd bargained for when the train arrived.   

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

Navajo scouts sighted the WPF train some eighty miles before it reached the de-facto boundary of Indian territory, and passed the information back to the main body of troops.  Yazzi went on the assumption that his men had been seen as well.  A few miles closer, and the train stopped to allow Berrigan to send out his own outriders.  The train chugged slowly forward by starts and stops in a cat-and-mouse game of mutual feint and reconnaissance, each side picking off the other's scouts when they could.

What are they waiting for? Snake wondered, as he rode the thermals rising over the mesa's steep red wall, circling for height on the updraft.  He squinted eastward into a dazzle of early sun reflected off white cloud-bank along the horizon.  Storm coming in part of his mind registered, calculating potential tactics for rain and wind.  An almost-invisible smudge darkened bright desert air beyond a rock outcropping where the track curved around the foot of the mesa, and he trained his binoculars on it.  Smoke.  Not Navajo signal.  Snake gestured, saw, out of the corner of his good eye, Rain  respond, and circled down to rejoin his glider squadron on the mesa-top.  Rain circled down behind him, and the two landed almost together.           

"Train's coming," Snake said.  There was a brief flurry as the little group of pilots ran final checks on buckles, lines, grenades and guns, and then a tense waiting stillness.  To the east, a long, quavering coyote-howl rolled on the air.  Another voice echoed it, and then both fell silent.  The moment stretched.  Pre-battle adrenaline-rush ran along Snake's nerves, making everything around him unnaturally vivid: red rock under his boots, smell of dust in the air, glitter of sun, whisper of cold morning wind, thrum of his own blood in his ears.  Snake raised his canteen and took a swallow of cool, metal-flavored water to wet his suddenly-dry throat, then clipped it securely back onto the glider-frame.  He checked his weapons, settled the comforting weight of his gunbelt, with its twin Magnums, securely on his hips.  As he ran his hand down the side of his pants, he felt something small, hard, and sharp-sided in the cargo-pocket.  A quick exploration of the shape with his fingers identified it as the rutilated quartz pyramid he thought he had left behind in his room in the Anasazi ruins.  How the hell did that get there? Snake wondered distractedly.  Two sharp coyote-barks sounded in the distance, and he forgot the question.  He turned to the men.  "Ten minutes.  I'll take point.  You launch when you hear the blast, and follow me."  Snake shifted, preparing to launch himself into the great emptiness below his boot-toes.

"I'll cover you, Snake."

Snake sensed, rather than saw, movement on his left, and turned his head to see Rain stepping up beside him, crossbow at the ready.  He traded looks with the slender young man.  Wind off the mesa plucked at Rain's khaki-colored pants and sleeveless shirt, and teased fine tendrils of dark hair loose from Rain's long braids.  Dark eyes were calm and determined in Rain's sun-browned face.  Snake nodded, and caught the beginning of Rain's answering nod as they launched their gliders off the edge of the mesa.  It felt good, Snake thought, to have a wingman he could trust on his blind side.              

Whump!  Air shivered with the sound of explosives detonating and the rumble of falling rock.  Seconds later, Snake and Rain felt the shockwave hit them, lifting their gliders momentarily higher as they fought controls in  the buffeting wind.  The flight of hang gliders rose into the air behind them as Snake and Rain cleared the mesa and caught sight of the WPF steam train and the wave of attacking Navajo ground troops, a surreal montage of Wild West and Roadwarrior.  Metal shrieked on metal and sparks scattered as the train's brakes locked.  Smoke and ashes belched from the smokestack and fanned out over the attackers as they swept down from behind the rocks on each side.  On foot and horseback, with guns, rifles, and highpower bows, men in a motley variety of jeans, desert cammo, traditional headbands, and kevlar surged in a screaming mass toward the train.  The engine shuddered and squealed as its cowcatcher snub-nosed with a crash and a cloud of steam into an avalanche of sand and dynamited mesa.  As Snake watched, three of the forward cars slid sideways in slow motion and derailed onto their sides.  Flames flickered as sparks from the engine's firebox caught on the broken wooden boards of the first car, and faint screams reached him from inside, mixed with the cheers of the Indians.                

Doors slid back on the remaining cars and blackbellies boiled out, returning fire.   One of the boxcars went up in a bright orange ball as a glider-pilot's grenade set off the ammunition inside.  A scatter of skyward rifle-fire showed some of the WPF had noticed the air assault.  Snake's glider-squadron responded with a barrage, covering the advancing Navajo troops and picking off the blackbellies who had climbed to the top of the railcars for a better angle of fire.  A bullet sang past Snake's ear.  He fired back in the same moment one of Rain's crossbow bolts flew past him, saw the blackbelly fall without ever knowing who had hit him, swung outward into a thermal and circled upward, out of the smoke, for another pass, looking for Berrigan.    

As he turned back, searching for height, Snake saw a detachment of WPF run along the side of the train and swing up over the edges of the covered flatcars.  On each one, a crew ducked under their comrades' covering fire to yank thick bolts loose, pull side-panels away, and uncover heavy field guns emplaced on the cars.  Snake heard Rain shouting something behind him, couldn't catch the words, as he focused on the crew loading the pieces, ranging.  Ground and air shuddered with the deep roar as the guns fired, and both sides checked, reacting to the first artillery salvo.  Antipersonnel rounds smashed into the Navajo ranks, smearing blood and fragmented bodies across the rocky ground.  The attack faltered, scattered.  Snake saw Yazzi waving a sweeping gesture for his men to retreat and regroup.  Snake's glider squadron followed, heading for the nearer mesa-top opposite to their launch site, from which they could launch another sortie.

"Come on, Snake!" Rain's voice came from behind him.  The younger man swerved, came abreast of him, gestured toward the retreating Indian pilots.  Snake ignored him as he banked, rising on the heated air of the shellfire, trying to get a clear view through the thinning clouds of smoke.  There: the knot of blackbellies near the artillery guns.  One of the black-uniformed figures...something familiar in the walk, the look, the arrogant attitude...something from the core of molten fire that spoke to him in his dreams...and Snake knew.  Berrigan.

Air currents, shifting with the explosions of the big guns and the hot air rising from the burning cars beneath him, buffeted Snake as he swooped.  He felt muscles clench hard as he struggled with the glider controls one-handed, firing his Magnum with the other, adjusting for the recoil.  He saw men below look up, shout, and return fire missed him by inches as he swerved away, upward.  He fought the urge to drop, land, and take the fight to hand-to-hand.  That was suicide.  Snake slammed the Magnum back into its holster and grabbed a grenade from his web belt as the glider yawed wildly in the turn.  He yanked the fuse pin with his teeth, calculated, threw, and seconds later the grenade detonated where the group of blackbellies had been, as they scattered, running.  A volley of rifle-fire rose from below, and Snake swerved away again, dodging and weaving evasive patterns in the air.  He couldn't tell if he had hit his target.          

The second wave of Navajo troops surged down out of the rocks, and the glider-squadron swooped down from the high mesa to give it air support.  Someone, Snake couldn't tell who, had taken command and was coordinating the air attack.  The flight of gliders reached Snake, swept him up in it.  Rain was still pacing him as his wingman, covering him, guarding his blind side.  He saw Rain get off a bowshot, saw it hit its mark, and caught motion out of the corner of his good eye.  In the time it took him to focus on it, he saw the shell rising in an arc toward them.  The flash blanked the sky with brightness for an instant.  Then, through the thinning haze, Snake saw the flutter of Rain's falling glider, the crash, and the sudden stillness.

Snake soared, totally focused, for a frozen moment outside time.  The broken body under the wreckage of Rain's glider was motionless, and the same certainty that had identified Berrigan told Snake that Rain was dead.  The next instant, a blast of air from below whipped at the fabric of his hang-glider and pushed Snake upward as his body reacted automatically to regain control.  He heard fabric tear, felt the glider shudder, and knew he was going down.  He braced for the plunge, felt the wings catch and hold instead, felt the controls responding sluggishly as he banked again and circled back over the train.  Most of the cars were burning now in a raging bonfire, and his damaged glider rose on the hot air.  Snake circled, straining for altitude as bullets sang past him, until he was high enough to catch the updraft off the mesa's face.  He cleared its top, barely, but as he maneuvered to make his landing, a sudden rush of colder air caught him from behind and the wind shear tossed him violently upward.  Snake risked a quick look over his shoulder as he wrestled with his machine's controls.  The sky behind him was dark with clouds; the storm-front was coming in fast behind him, pushing him ahead of it, giving him powerful lift that forced him higher.  In moments he was swept over the mesa he had launched from, and it was behind him.          

The storm-front drove Snake on westward, as he fought full-strength to avoid being slammed into the side of a cliff or dropped to the ground by a sudden wind-shift.  He could feel the frame loosening in his hands, the controls becoming less responsive as the tear in the fabric spread and the glider was shaken savagely back and forth.  All he could do was hold on.  At last there was another mesa-top in front of him, not too far below, and, with a tremendous effort, he managed to angle down and stall into a landing.  He struggled to free himself from the glider's rigging as wind pushed at him and he skidded toward the drop-off on the opposite side.  There was a gnarled and stunted pinon tree at the edge of the cliff-face, and Snake grabbed for it, almost dislocating his shoulder as his grip connected.  He slid across the ground, smashed into the tree-trunk, and stopped, bruised and gasping with the force of his impact, but, finally, stationary.  He shed the last of the glider-harness, and watched the fragments of his machine disappear on the storm-wind as he lay there catching his breath.

Snake slowly pulled himself to his knees, using the little tree for support.  He waited for a sharper stab of pain that would tell him he had broken something, and was relieved when it didn't come.  The pinon and the mesa looked familiar.  He could swear it was the same scraggly tree, and the same damned mesa, where Joseph had taken him to "find his vision."  Bullshit, Snake, he thought; it's your imagination.  But there was something familiar about the place.  He looked around, searching for definite landmarks.  Sky overhead was almost night-black with roiling clouds, and he could smell the coming storm on the fierce wind.  To the east, along the horizon, there was a veil of black silhouetted against a band of lighter sky, but whether it was smoke rising from the burning railcars or rain falling in the distance, he could not tell.

Is Berrigan dead? he wondered.  He didn't know; the inner certainty had deserted him.  For the first time since Leningrad, he found he didn't care.  He felt a wave of complete despair wash over him.  The whole thing, his whole quixotic campaign against the USPF, had been no more than a useless gesture.  Either way, he thought, there's no victory; there will never be any victory, or any vengeance for my dead.  Nothing he could do made any difference.  He stared at the veil of rain on the horizon.  No, not rain… Rain was dead… not rain, only water…. .  Snake shook his head, trying to clear it.  That was stupid.  "Shit," he muttered.

A net of lightning flickered across the dark cloud-face above him, and a bolt crashed to earth in the distance.  Snake started to back away from the pinon tree.  Got to get down from here, get away.  The tree's the tallest thing.  The crystal in his pocket was a burning-hot point of pain where it touched his leg.  He felt a crawling prickle flash up his body, lifting the hair on his head; looked down at his bare hands and saw the faintest glow on the surface of his skin.  The next instant, the world detonated around him, blowing fragments of wood across the mesa-top.  Snake collapsed,  deafened and stunned, his body convulsing uncontrollably in the lightning strike's field.  

Some time later, he opened his eyes and raised himself slowly to hands and knees, his ears ringing.  The pinon tree was a shattered stump.  There were bruises and bloody scratches where flying splinters had grazed him, but, miraculously, no serious wounds.  He smelled burned hair, and realized it was his own.  He struggled  to his feet, trying to get his bearings, and looked down over the edge of the mesa-top.  Under the cloud-blackened sky, the shadowed desert landscape below him was a dark and indistinct rocky plain.  He had seen it before, like this; he knew this place...it was....  

Time folded into itself, and he remembered his dreams, all of them.  The dark plain below was full of his dead: the men of Black Light...the men of his Navajo glider-squadron...Cabbie, Maggie, Brain, Fresno Bob, Taslima, Carjack Malone...the victims of the Damocles satellites, all of the millions of them, frozen, starved, killed, dead of plague, dead in so many other ways, all his dead...Taylor, dead on the floor of the San Francisco hummer station.  In the murky light, an image from his dreams seemed to move, visible: the one-eyed outlaw stumbling across a charnel-house world, dragging behind him Taylor's blackened corpse.  The vision shifted, the corpse became Rain, and they were both the same, bound to him by the same chains.  His dead were what bound him here in this valley of death, trapped on an endless wheel, helplessly playing out the same pattern of killing and suffering, again and again.  Each time the cycle turned with greater violence and wider influence, and he ended up back where he had started.  "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," he murmured.  Where had he read that?                             

A drop of water hit him on the forehead, ran a thin track down into his eye.  He blinked to clear his vision.  Another drop struck, and he raised his face to the dark sky.  Rain pattered down, soft and scattered at first, but gaining strength.  Lightning flickered again.  He looked up, no longer afraid, at the bright golden threads across the sky, as he had seen them in his dreams and in the crystal pyramid.  He felt his pocket.  There was nothing there but charred cloth; the pyramid was gone.  He didn't need it any longer.  He raised his arms to the fire-laced darkness as lightning-bolts streaked from sky to earth around him.  He saw them like the trails of missiles re-entering atmosphere in a nuclear strike.  Memories that had been kept over the years, stored for this moment, opened.  Snake stood in the downpour roaring around him and remembered the briefing room with its scattering of grim-faced soldiers, and Berrigan:

"Mutual Assured Destruction, gentlemen; the Doomsday Device.  It's completely self-contained -- power source, guidance and tracking, launch control, all internal and independent -- and shielded against all countermeasures.  Nothing can touch it, not conventional, not nuclear, not EMF.  That's the beauty of the system: once it goes up, nothing our side or the enemy can throw at it will take it down.  It's designed so that in an emergency, one man can by-pass the failsafes and set it off .  Gentlemen, any one of you may be called upon to be that one man.  In the event that this deep conditioning for which you have volunteered is ever activated, the situation will be desperate.  One man may well be the only thing standing between our country and total defeat.  You're  the best we've got, and we're depending on you to carry out your mission: under all circumstances, your personal survival must be paramount."         

What had been Snake Plissken stood in the middle of the lighting storm.  The core of fire within him blazed up, filling him as it had in his dreams, burning away the mask of his humanity.  There would be no justice for Black Light within the human world.  He was outside that now.  For the Destroyer, there could be no justice or injustice, no innocent or guilty, no cruelty or mercy; only death and survival.  All that was human must be burned away so that the world might begin anew, purified,  on the ashes of destruction.  He heard in his mind the echo of a girl's small, amazed voice: "He shut down the Earth."  Not yet; but this time, I will.  He knew now what his mission was.  He turned, and began searching for the way down into the canyon below, heading for Nevada and the Doomsday Device installation still buried deep and shielded in Area 51.  The pain in his head was gone completely.

On the mesa top behind him, rain spattered on stone.  In the sandy hollow under the shattered pinyon, the storm plucked at a black scrap of stiffened cloth, its thin strap burned through.  The eyepatch fluttered briefly in the wind, then, heavy with water, sank back onto the ground again, forgotten.

                                                                 END

           

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