"Six months. That's all you've got."
Brad paused with his beaker of beer half-way to his mouth. The speaker's shoulder-length, grey-streaked hair stood in stark contrast to his own military regulation, shorn cranium and cast shadows making his expression hard to read. The sound of the party drifted through the trees, laughter from the nearby campfire, the bright moonlight and the copious quantities of homebrew had created a mellow atmosphere.
"Are you an economist, too, Steve?" he asked mildly.
Steve smiled. "Economists have a hard time predicting the present. This is based on an observation of an old friend of mine. He's dead now, but for all the redefinition of the word "recession", it's been spot-on throughout my lifetime and, according to him, right back to the 1980s. The next crunch is in six months time and it could be the big one. Get your assets out of stocks and the banking system in five."
They continued their stroll around the periphery of the fire. "What do you suggest as an alternative?" asked Brad. "Gold?"
"Perhaps as a stop-gap measure, so long as it's physical and not vulnerable to seizure. It might even carry a premium if vaulted reserves are commandeered but I was thinking in terms of more useful materials. Copper for power, nickel and iron for batteries and magnets, that kind of thing. Your first priority, though, is to buy some land and get the permaculture started like we just did."
"With the exception of the beer," Brad raised his drink, "it seems a very spartan, boring diet."
"Boredom is a luxury for the living," Steve countered. "While your society limps along, you can spend the surplus on luxuries, imported food or cheap Chinese junk if you prefer; having a sustainable alternative just gives you a plan 'B'. None of us has taken out massive loans we don't expect to repay, we just hedged our bets."
Brad smiled. "Chinese junk isn't that cheap any more, old timer."
Steve snorted his assent. The twenty-year age gap between himself and the twenty-year-old couple sometimes led to this mild teasing. "Then buy whatever fleeting distractions you whipper snappers suckle on these days!" he countered without rancour.
"I intend to!" insisted Brad, "People have always predicted the end of the world and yet, here we are."
"I can't argue with that except to break it down by civilization. Every society had its doomsayers and they were wrong every single time; except the last one."
"And you think this might be the last one?" he inquired, sceptically.
Steve shrugged. "Perhaps, perhaps not. Personally, I'm amazed that it's lasted as long as it has but it's certainly given us a desperately needed breathing space," he looked directly into Brad's eyes. "so long as we don't squander it, yet again."
Their route had brought them to the edge of a grassy clearing. About to cross into the open, Brad was steered back into the tree line by a light pressure from Steve's hand. As they skirted the open area, Brad caught sight of two writhing bodies on the far side. They circled the clearing in silence and continued into the woods.
"Wasn't that..." Brad began.
"Who cares?" Steve interrupted.
"Does her husband know?"
"Possibly," Steve's reply was guarded. "That's between the two of them."
"He has a right to know," Brad insisted.
Steve stopped in his tracks. "Does his wife have a right to know, too?" he demanded.
"Yes, I suppose she does."
"Why the hesitation? With all your rules you are so keen on applying to everyone around you, doesn't the same rule apply to all?"
"Well, that's not really..."
"Any of your business?" Steve finished for him. "No, it's not. Not at all."
"What kind of society do you hippy anarchists think you are going to have here?" scoffed Brad. "There need to be rules or conventions at least."
"There is the golden rule," insisted Steve. "'So long as harm nothing, your decisions are yours to make.'
It's the only one we have and yet already you are on the verge of breaking it."
"But they are cheating on their partners! They are the ones causing harm!"
"No, they are making choices. Your desire to cause trouble is what triggers the harm."
Brad glanced back towards the firelight contemplatively. Reading his reaction, Steve reassured him.
"Jen's not likely to be taking advantage of the situation, here. She's as uptight as you are!"
"I've seen the way Coyote looks at her, right in front of me!" Brad exclaimed bitterly. "It's really insulting. I ought to..."
"It's not meant as an insult, it's meant to be honest. Coyote is an honourable man – he'd not go behind your back. Storm, on the other hand, is more sleazy and waits until a woman's partner is not around. Not that any of that matters. I'm pretty certain that while Jen might be flattered, the end result is the same."
"But if she did, would you tell me?"
"Of course not! That's between the two of you!"
They wandered out of the trees and onto the track running across the property, back to the highway in one direction, into the hills with their neighbors in the other. A row of empty cars led to a motley collection of old RVs and battered trailers parked around the turning circle. Some of the mobile homes were lit, another rocking rhythmically and obviously in use. Brad no longer felt free to discuss his relationship and cast around for another subject. He gestured towards the firelight glow higher up the mountain. "What are they like, your neighbors?"
"Total rednecks," Steve replied. "They just use it as a weekend retreat with no plan or foresight. Fun to party with, though, unlike the fundamentalists across the valley."
"They both sound like we might have more in common than your bunch back there," Brad observed.
Steve finished his drink and shook his head. "I doubt it. The hicks just assume everything is going to return to normal, as if humanity's preceding two million years were the anomaly, and you know religious groups better than that."
"What's wrong with religion?" demanded Brad, defensively.
"What's wrong is that everyone needs to behave exactly like them in order to be 'good' and therefore accepted. We accept anyone who allows others the same freedom they desire themselves. You might have to adapt but I think you'll find it easier to do so here and there are still a few plots left if you want to buy in."
"I thought you had already bought it. Isn't that why you threw this party?"
"It's held in trust through the foundation. We each bought in as a group and we get first crack at who gets to buy the rest for the next few months. We'd like to populate the entire block among ourselves before it opens to outsiders."
"The Walker foundation?" exclaimed Brad. "I work for the government. There's no law against it, of course, but the military takes a pretty dim view of them. Besides, they are a rip-off. You'd better make sure you really own what you think you own."
"Spoken straight out of Fox News," scoffed Steve. "The foundation employs legal loopholes to keep all its assets in a legal limbo. The land is not ours, nor is it the foundation's and it can withstand any legal attempt to confiscate it from either. It's actual ownership is safely hidden in the legal quagmire the wealthiest citizens created to protect their own assets. The government or the military couldn't find your name on anything no matter how hard they tried."
"The Walker foundation, though," Brad insisted. There's something sinister about it. Nobody even knows who's in charge now that Walker's dead."
Steve smiled, knowingly. "Yes," he agreed. "That is a mystery that, I'm sure, will keep the intelligence services busy chasing hierarchies for a long time to come."
Brad examined Steve's face quizzically as they followed the road towards the highway. "Do you know something?" he asked.
Steve shook his head. "I know nothing more than anyone else but..." he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, "after you've worked with the organization for a while, you get a feel for how it works."
"Then what can you offer me as reassurance?" Brad demanded.
"Nothing but my gut feeling," Steve insisted.
Brad shook his head. "I'll feel better making my own arrangements, thanks. I'd rather not trust anyone I don't have to."
"Do you think you can make it alone?" demanded Steve, incredulously.
"That's a strange question from an anarchist."
Steve sighed in exasperation. "Anarchy doesn't mean no rules, it means no ruler. We have our rules that we either accept or reject. We just let each other know in advance what rules we're playing by and then make sure we stick to them."
"But it just can't work," insisted Brad. "My father was in Somalia..."
"I know," interrupted Steve. "We talked about it at your wedding."
Brad was surprised. "You did? He never mentioned it."
Steve smiled. "I'm not surprised; he didn't like the conclusions. I pointed out what a rough neighborhood that place was in. Congo, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone - all countries with endemic violence and strife. I asked how the locals felt, whether they wanted the old regime back. When he said they did not, I generalized the question to 'which is worse – bad government or no government'? He concurred."
"You're aiming to live like they did?" scoffed Brad.
"No. A decade ago, that might have been the only option but the foundation's research has left your private sector in the dust. Scaling down industrial processes for one thing, research into new materials for another. Whereas a corporation might have to do a million experiments to find a useful combination, we have a million people doing a single experiment and releasing the results, positive and negative, to all. The results speak for themselves."
"There's no way there are that many Walker-anarchists!" Brad protested.
"Probably more," insisted Steve. "but the foundation's philosophy appeals to many people. To us, anarchy is not a goal to be brought about. Having seen how close to the edge the rich are prepared to take us without compromise, it's an inevitable situation to prepare for."
"Are you prepared for someone trying to take it away from you?"
Steve looked at him sideways. "Why should they when they can produce their own? Look, let's suppose I have something you want and I'm not prepared to let you have it. I have nothing worth risking your life for. Even if you could take it and you kill me, there are others who don't want to be next in line so it makes more sense to deal honestly. Take a look around you. It's early days yet but it is working. For a word of advice: if you're going to set up your retreat, don't stock it with valuable, irreplaceable goods and make sure it's near people who care what happens to you."
Brad's sudden silence made Steve decide that Brad had already made such preparations and, in all probability, they did not fit with their own model. He kept silent; some people liked to keep their stash a secret. The overhanging trees cast shadows over the rutted track and they both focused on keeping their footing in the darkness. Brad paused to look back and assess their distance from the parked vehicles.
"I know you and Jen are close..." Brad hesitated.
This was a conversation that, for the past two years, they had avoided by unspoken, mutual agreement.
Steve squirmed internally. "Yes, we are. As unsuitable as I am, I'm her best friend as well as a non-threatening male she needed at the time."
"She told you?" Brad's hoarse whisper was barely audible.
"I didn't know either of you well, back then, but I knew something was wrong. I overheard her talking to Sam on the phone. Being her cousin, I suppose that was logical but for all her good points Sam is too butch to be good at female communication. I've probably spent more time in girl-talk over the years so what started as translation finally led me to take over."
"And she opened up to you?"
"Eventually. I asked the occasional question or made an observation but mainly I just listened. Sometimes she complained that I made her talk about it but I only let the conversation go where she let it."
"But I'm her husband!" spat Brad.
"You were deployed!" Steve snapped. "Besides, she needed you to be her husband and not her girlfriend. It's sad that I'm the best she could come up with but at least I was there."
"It helped," Brad admitted grudgingly. "It helped a lot."
Steve softened. "For what it's worth, Samantha made it quite clear that having sex with her cousin would be an instantly dumpable offense. There are lines she and I just don't cross." Silently he added, "although sometimes it feels like we just skipped over those bits."
"She sometimes jokes about my having 'the girlfriend, the mistress and the girl I spend too much time with'," Steve continued, "but she knows I wouldn't risk losing her."
"What about Kate?" asked Brad trying to disguise his suspicion. He had always been puzzled and a little resentful of their arrangement. Samantha was a big girl, as tough as any he'd come across in the army; a real Sigourney Weaver type. If it were just the two of them, he would have no doubt as to who wore the trousers, or carried the whip, in that relationship. Kate, on the other hand, was soft and feminine. A little overweight, not beautiful but bubbly and good hearted. He could imagine Samantha and Kate together with, perhaps, Steve, with his cultured mannerisms verging on effeminate, making the tea afterwards. Except that the only time he and Jenifer had shared space with them during a visit, neither had been interested in each other sexually. Their awkwardness at sharing the bed had showed him that they were not used to that situation. Apparently, their menstrual cycles were synchronized as they had spent a long while teasing Steve with complaints about feel fat, weird looking and ugly before collapsing into fits of giggles. Trust Steve to take the male dream and turn it into such a mundane reality – give him two girls and he becomes a third! Still, it did make him a little more comfortable with him around his wife.
"Kate was is a mutual friend, not a relative," Steve's response snapped Brad from his reverie. "Besides, that was Sam's idea."
"Yes. Kate was averse to getting into a relationship but getting to the level of frustration that leads to stupid decisions. Sam's exact words were 'for God's sake, Steve, will you help that poor girl!'"
Brad's eyes focused as he took this in and only Steve's pressure on his elbow reminded him that they had reached the narrow track leading back towards the fire. They turned into the avenue, blindly following the glow.
"Now you see why I love her so much?" asked Steve.
"One in a million," agreed Brad and stopped dead on the edge of the circle of firelight and his voice took on an edge of jealousy. "Will you look at that!"
The circle of home made seats around the fire was much as when they had left it, their occupants had changed or moved around slightly in the random motion of interactions but it was his wife who had caught his eye. And Storm sitting in rapt conversation showing unmistakable sexual interest.
"Yes, look closely at that," whispered Steve. "Particularly, Jen's face. You should know it well enough, so read the details."
Jen's shoulder-length blond hair was distinctive in the firelight in the chair next to Storm's straggly gray beard. She was smiling and paying attention to his advances but her glances around the perimeter indicated she was doing so awaiting their return. A leering comment elicited a brief flash of annoyance, quickly buried and another search. Against the bright firelight, the two of them were invisible in the shadows.
"Storm takes the scatter-gun approach of making a move on anything that moves in the hope that some day, someone will say 'yes'," Steve explained. "Jen, I suspect, is wondering whether it's worth tolerating him just to make it clear to you that she does not approve of you disappearing on her with who-knows-who."
"I'm just going to get another drink and ignore her," snapped Brad, petulantly.
Steve looked at the young man with disapproval. "That invites escalation. If you two insist on playing these games rather than being open with each other then you should defuse the situation."
Steve handed Brad his own cup. "Go to the beer table and get a drink for each of you, then hand hers over, give her a kiss and tell her what we were talking about."
A familiar, drunken roar of laughter drew Steve's attention to a small group standing upwind of the fire.
"Me, I think I'd better go and rescue Sam and Kate from our hick neighbor."
Big Jessie laughed again and asked "So how do you two get along?"
"We're both screwing the same guy," replied Samantha. "That gives us something in common."
The group laughed again and Kate peeled off at Steve's approach, welcoming him back with a kiss.
On a cold, gray afternoon the following spring, Brad drove his jeep back into the turnaround. He was surprised and a little annoyed to find it deserted. They disembarked and stood in the mud and drizzle.
"I thought you said they were here," he accused Jen. "That was a lot of gasoline to waste on a wild goose chase."
"The last I heard, they were," she retorted. "I haven't been able to get in touch with them in months so you know as much about their whereabouts as I do."
She sniffed the air. "Someone's burning wood. Let's check out the clearing."
They walked back along the road until they came to the side-track. The overhanging branches had been cut back far enough to accommodate vehicles and the surface had been embedded with rocks to provide a firm surface. They followed the makeshift road around the twists and turns until it reached the familiar clearing where it grew into a hundred foot loop around the periphery. Parking spots were built onto the outside at regular intervals. Three were occupied with recreational vehicles, one of which was Steve's familiar one.
It had changed a little since they had last seen it. Pipes and cables led to a nearby array of solar panels and a rack of wide eight-foot high perspex cylinders filled with a green, bubbling liquid.
"I'll be right back," said Brad and moved to the treeline to urinate.
The door to the RV swung open and Samantha looked out, her hand on the AK-47 hanging on the wall. She relaxed when she recognized them.
"Hey!" she shouted to Brad. "Don't waste that! That's perfectly good nitrates and phosphates, come and add it to the tanks!"
Brad stopped mid-flow and sheepishly adjusted his clothing. He and Jen walked to the vehicle.
"Sorry we didn't let you know we were coming," Jen apologized as they climbed the step, "but we couldn't reach you by phone."
"You should have tried the web," Samantha chided. "there's no phone signal out here so once they outlawed web connections to the phone network, there was no point in keeping our number. Coffee or homebrew?"
The interior was a little musty but the tiny pellet stove in the corner gave a welcoming glow and heated the small space nicely. Jen sat themselves at the table. "Coffee, please," replied Brad and used the toilet in the rear, self consciously closing the door.
"We haven't been able to afford that for a while," Jen observed. Real or imagined, the slight hint of resentment in her voice left Samantha riled in the effortless way only family members can achieve.
"We do without a lot of things you probably take for granted; utilities, services, police protection."
"Do you have much trouble with that out here?" asked Brad, returning.
Samantha, scooping the coffee into the permanent filter, shook her head. "One or two overly curious types but there's always someone around to make sure they won't come back in a hurry."
"Maybe you should move back into town," retorted Jen.
"And hand what little we earn to some landlord and utility company?" snapped Samantha. "We're better off trading among ourselves out here." She pumped up the pressure on the stove aggressively and ignited the burner.
Brad shifted uncomfortably in the presence of a family squabble and cast about for a change of subject. He pointed to the stove. "Gasoline? Alcohol?" he asked.
"Butanol," Samantha corrected. "Distilled from the digested algae in the tanks. It needs sterile conditions and the right mix of nitrates and phosphates but the yield is good, if a little slow. We've been keeping several different strains and selecting the best one as they evolve."
Jen's aggravated growl indicated that she had taken the comment as a personal slight against her beliefs and Samantha found herself in a non-reconciliatory mood. "It works," she stated, flatly. "That's why you are paying ten dollars a gallon and we're running our vehicles on smoke, pee and sunlight."
Stepping in, Brad said "Closer to fifteen, even with the military discount."
Samantha thought referring to a compulsory price cap as a "discount" was stretching the definition but let the comment slide. "It's not going to improve. Better to get out while the getting's good."
Brad shook his head. "Best to stay close to the center," he said. "By going to the periphery, you're setting yourself up to be cut off."
Samantha smiled. "We prefer to think of it as being left alone."
"That's not going to last," said Brad, darkly. "Congress is beginning to bat around phrases like 'under-utilized national resources'. Its meaning depends on who's using it but this setup of yours would probably meet most definitions. You need to start building something permanent here."
"We can't. This is zoned as recreational land. We had to install the well and leech field secretly. Even the food plants had to be grown around the existing trees."
Brad was shocked. "Then what's the point of having this place?" he demanded. "I thought this was supposed to be your refuge!"
"In the event that they can't enforce that law, it will. In the meantime, we keep a low profile and make sure we're ready to make the transition as and when required."
The water boiled and Samantha began pouring it through the coffee. "How about you two? Do you have an exit strategy?"
Brad shook his head. "Don't need one. They'll always need the military."
"They'll need a military, not necessarily the one they have now. Simply from the economic point of view, they can't afford it. I've heard that the pentagon is pushing through a massive reorganization and dissolving most of the battalions."
"Yes, but they don't want anyone to leave."
"Can they stop you?"
Brad shrugged. "Not as such but anyone who quits gets instantly recalled as a reservist which means half-pay." He laughed at Samantha's shocked expression. "It's academic. I like the job security. In fact, I might sign up for one of the new Homeland Security detachments; I've already had the urban warfare training. You might want to consider signing up for a civilian role before they start drafting. There's a lot of demand for programmers on this new crystalline technology."
"I'm not surprised. That's anarchist technology to get around the corporate stranglehold on processing. There are few who have a flair for it and, by definition, aren't going to be prepared to work for the state. Besides, there's no link between our online personas and their official government id. They wouldn't know who to draft." She hesitated and stared mistrustfully at him.
Brad raised his hands in a reassuring gesture. "Don't worry, I won't give you away but I am curious. Is it really so different to ordinary computers?"
Samantha relaxed and produced a tablet from a cupboard over the table. She pulled the wooden frame apart and held the foot square crystal sideways on to demonstrate the stratified structure. "Completely different. For one thing, the power requirements are so small that this lower layer generates enough from the ambient heat. The next layer is processing, then the display and the top layer reacts to touch. The processing capabilities are so great that biometrics are a freebie."
Brad's brow furrowed. "I thought I heard that it was much slower than real computers."
"For linear stuff, it is, but it's massively parallel. The greatest challenge was preventing everything happening at once."
"Yes, I remember Steve working on that."
Samantha shook her head. "Steve's an engineer. He helped come up with the design to connect the transistors into logical processing units. Programming those units to do something useful is a different skill entirely."
"Your department?" asked Brad.
"Maybe," replied Samantha, pouring four cups of coffee.
"Perhaps you can explain to me what 'Legion' is," Brad continued. "I'm not asking if you were involved with it but I keep hearing people talk about it. Some kind of negotiation software?"
Brad's face contained nothing but curiosity. Samantha's judgment was that he knew nothing of the fact that she was one of its key architects and kept her face expressionless. "Not really, it's a way of having a conversation with everyone at once. It balances a variety of inputs, splits and rejoins threads. It can be useful to find a common policy or simply create a new form of mass communication.
Jen had been getting increasingly exasperated, as was often the case when her cousin and her husband bonded over technical discussions. She accepted the proffered drink in poor grace and picked up the extra cup. "I'll take Steve his drink," she said, looking for a reaction from the other two. Brad was oblivious, as usual, and Samantha indifferent.
"He's up at the workshop," said Samantha. "Head for the north side of the clearing but stay on the path. Don't wander off."
Jen took the drinks outside and kicked the door closed behind her with slightly more force than was necessary. The sun was setting behind the trees and there was plenty of light to see the well-defined path even without the LED lights marking the trail head. She climbed the hill spilling some of the drink as she stumbled over roots until she came to a clearing containing a well-lit wooden frame covered in nylon tarpaulins. She stuck her head around the flap. "Steve?" she enquired.
A four-wheeled chasis sat in the middle of the floor and Steve was tinkering with an engine set on a crude workbench running along one wall. He looked up from his work as she entered.
"Jenny!" he smiled, "I didn't know you were coming!"
She leaned into his embrace but turned her head off to one side. He gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead.
"Brad's geeking out with Samantha," she said with a hint of resentment, handing him the coffee. Do you think there's something going on between those two?"
Steve smiled and shook his head. "No, she would have told me. She's very good about that."
Jen sat on a tree stump. "He just seems oblivious to me when she's around," she said. "The last time we were here he was wandering around in his underwear and then freaked out when I got back at him by getting changed under the covers instead of in the bathroom."
Steve was genuinely surprised. "I didn't notice."
"No, you two just stripped off oblivious!"
"You'd be the first of our friends to have never seen us naked. It's not a big deal."
"Not to you, perhaps."
"Poor Jenny," said Steve, not unkindly. "Trapped with a hippy mind in a repressed body or, perhaps, the other way around. You are going to have to let something go before you tear yourself apart."
It was a conversation they had had many times before over the phone. Jen smiled sadly. "I miss our talks," she said. "I miss my best friend."
He hugged her again. "I told you to set up a web connection. It's the only way to communicate out here and it's free of government interference."
"That's for pedophiles and spammers!" she spat.
Steve was irritated. "That's just propaganda," he insisted. "Even under the first version, networks like that were quickly isolated and reported. As for the spammers, they've ended up building the second version for us. They didn't know it, of course, they thought they could take it over like they did the first but ownership of their nodes was seized before they realized what was happening. It gave the rest of us a broader network than we ever had before."
He wiped his hands and produced a tablet similar to Samantha's. His fingers danced over the surface. "On the subject of which, touch here."
Jen stared at the screen. A simple confirmation message and a thumb-square was all that was visible.
"What is it?" she asked.
Steve winked. "Trust me," he said.
"No," she said.
He handed her the tablet. "Well, read it anyway," he said.
Holding the screen by its edge, she took the tablet and the message changed to an acceptance confirmation. She realized that the square was a decoy.
"What did you just do?" she demanded.
"Transferred ownership of one of my nodes over to you. Congratulations, you're connected."
Jen was apoplectic. "You have no right to do that! What if it gets traced? Brad could lose his job because of this!"
Steve was apologetic but adamant. "Relax, they can't be traced. Even without the encryption, every node is private property and requires a separate search warrant. Its contents don't even belong to its owner and information as to the exact ownership of an individual node simply doesn't even exist. They are in a legal limbo between private and collective property."
"The law can be changed!" insisted Jen.
"A fat lot of good that will do them," Steve reassured her. "It's physically impossible to trace them, let alone extract any useful information without being granted access. Keep silent and there's no way they will even know you have a connection."
"What if they trace the radio signal?" she protested.
"It's an ad-hoc network. You could be talking to any computer or peripheral in the house. If something else happens to pick it up and do something with it, that's not your fault." He placed his hand on her shoulder. "Trust me on this, sweetheart. There's no way I would take risks with your safety. Think of it as a potential lifeline in case things get really bad."
Unable to refute his logic, Jen accepted the situation albeit with bad grace. "As an emergency resort, then. I'm not going to draw attention to it."
"That's your choice," Steve stated. "There's no need to be concerned, though."
Mollified, she nodded to the engine. "What were you working on?" she asked.
"A power cube. A miniature generator capable of burning pretty much any kind of hydrocarbon and switching between machines. And that," he pointed to the chassis, "is the beginning of our next generation RV."
"What's wrong with the old one?" asked Jen.
"Too many parts that can't be easily replaced. This one is going to be built from the ground up so we know how to repair it and keep it running. The only real security is to have complete control over the supply chain."
"Aren't you taking things a little far?" she challenged him.
"If I am, what's the downside?" he retorted.
Jen shrugged. "Does everyone around here do that?"
"Those of us who have the time," said Steve. "Once I've completed the design, the others can make use of it at their convenience."
"Like Katie?" she asked with a hint of jealousy.
Steve's mental gears ground at the conversation's new direction. "Jenny," he said, levelly. "You and I are not lovers, nor can we be. Katie has got a place saved here. She comes up whenever she can but while she's still got a job, she spends most of her time in town."
Jen flushed. "I don't want to join your little harem!"
Steve winked. "Your invitation would take a lot of negotiating! Everyone is involved by mutual consent. What you see," he gestured around the workshop, "is all I have. I'm not taking advantage of anyone, nor do I have anything to offer other than myself. Come on. Let's head back down before your paranoia gets too dramatic." He immediately detected the hurt look that flashed across her face and softened. "I'm sorry. I know you have your reasons to be mistrustful in general but you are perfectly safe here. I'm sure we can control ourselves."
"Speak for yourself," she responded.
A look of mortification flashed across her face, unable to believe she had said the words out loud. Steve pretended not to have noticed and held open the flap to the outside.
"Let's get back to the others," he said.
She brushed away his proffered hand and they walked back down to the RV in silence.
The spotlight from the helicopter swept the neighborhood, stabbed through the closed drapes and briefly illuminated the naked bodies on the bed. Her head resting on Steve's chest, Jen squinted against the light.
"That's annoying!" complained Steve. "Does that happen a lot around here?"
"They're just looking for curfew breakers," mumbled Jen. "They could use infra-red but I think this is just for show."
Steve squeezed her shoulder. "No offense but it's going to be good to get away from 'civilization' again."
She looked up into his eyes. "Please don't go," she pleaded. "Brad's been posted to one of those temporary bases near a city, he can't tell me which one, and I hate being stuck here all alone."
Steve squirmed uncomfortably. "Has he mentioned you joining him?"
"He's been putting them off, supposedly while we sell the house, but they want all military families to move onto base."
"The word 'hostages' springs to mind," Steve commented wryly, "but it might be safer for you than out here."
Jen shook her head, sadly. "He couldn't say anything directly but he doesn't think so. If the army insist on buying the house from under us, he wants me to make for his refuge."
"I brought you all the fuel I could spare," said Steve. "It works fine in gasoline engines and it ought to be enough to get you three hundred miles or so if you drive carefully."
"That will be plenty. I just need to get to..."
Steve gently put his finger to her lips. "I don't need to know," he told her.
She smiled and took his finger into her mouth, teasing it with her tongue. Steve took a deep breath and slowly withdrew the digit. "Don't tease an old man," he chided. "I'm taken, not dead."
She grinned, mischievously. "You needn't worry. I made a pact with God to save myself for my husband." She stiffened and a familiar black expression crossed her face. Steve moved his hand from her breast and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"From what you've told me," he said, "I'd say God didn't hold up his end of the bargain."
She shuddered. "There was a time when I'd have argued with you over that. Why didn't you just leave me as I was? Why did you make me change?"
She curled up on his arm. Steve stared at the ceiling. "Think about how miserable you were, back then," he said. "You have a libido as big as mine and an upbringing at odds with your nature – a recipe for total self-loathing. The more you repressed it the worse it is when it explodes, not to mention dangerous. You needed to come to terms with your own personality before it tore you apart. It always puzzled me that the creator of the Universe didn't have anything more to concern Himself with than who you are having sex with."
"So, according to you, it's alright for us to sleep together?" she asked with a trace of bitterness.
"Me? Hell no. Samantha laid down the law on that – we can fool around as much as we like but no penetration. The wrath of God might, for some obscure reason, lie in the afterlife but the wrath of Sam is waiting for me when I get home. Best to stick to the agreement. I doubt Brad would be so flexible but at least I can leave you with plausible deniability. You two need to sort it out between you before involving someone else."
"I don't think Brad would go for that."
"Then you might have to reassess your own position because one way or another, that's where it's going to end up."
"It's not that simple," she protested. "I do miss him you know. Not just male company but him specifically. I would have joined him at the military compound but he says it's too dangerous. Besides, he'd want the same deal and I'm not sure I could handle that. God, that sounds so hypocritical, doesn't it?"
"Very," Steve agreed. "You can choose your rules but they apply to everyone."
"How would you feel if Samantha had someone else?" she challenged him.
"She does. Or at least I think she does. She likes to know in advance but my preference is not to know."
"Storm?" she asked.
Steve snorted. "No, he tries but I doubt she'd go there; that's just bad taste. I was thinking Bob. I know they've had a thing in the past so I can imagine if he had not other prospects..."
"How about Kate?"
"She'd be perfectly entitled to but I really can't imagine her doing so," he replied. "She's happy with how things are but, in a general way, it's anomalous to her nature."
"So what makes you so special?" she retorted.
"The ability to cross gender boundaries," he replied, levelly. "It's not exactly flattering to be considered 'one of the girls' but I figure my ego's big enough to take it."
"The same moves you used on me?" she asked, not unkindly. "What happened to her?"
"You don't want to know."
Jenifer leaned up on her elbow. "I've opened up to you," she said. "More than I ever have done to anyone. Why won't you tell me?"
Steve sighed. "I got a phone call at three in the morning," he sighed. "I checked her backside for damage."
"Christ!" said Jenifer, deflating. "It's a dangerous world out there."
"It was for him," said Steve, grimly.
"The foundation got him?"
Steve shook his head. "This was before Walker-anarchists started sanctioning reprisals. Even before she joined us. No, this was an unknown assailant with a personal take on karma."
He regarded her evenly, waiting for the question that was obviously on her lips. She shook her head. "You're right. I don't want to know."
He swung his legs off the bed and started pulling on his clothes. "We need to get going. It's going to be light, soon."
"Curfew doesn't end for another couple of hours," Jenifer protested.
"It's too conspicuous on the open road at night but it's easier to get past the checkpoints this close to town. It's better if we leave just before dawn."
"I'm not leaving, not yet," Jenifer objected.
"What?" Steve exploded. "Have you any idea the risks I took getting you the fuel? Untaxed fuel in an unlicensed vehicle and an unpermitted driver? I'd have never lived to see the outside of a prison!"
"Brad told me to have it ready for when the time comes. That's not now."
Steve's body shook in exasperation. "How bad does it have to get? If not now, when?"
Jenifer's stubborn streak hardened. "I'm not going!" she said.
Steve glared at her. "Then good luck. I've taken all the chances I dare. From now on, you're on your own."
He left her in the bedroom and walked into the garage. His car, squat and home-made with an electric motor at each wheel, a fully charged battery bank and a power cube under the hood stood ready and unloaded. The bright yellow stripes stood out starkly against the scuffed, black bodywork indicating that the vehicle would explode rather than submit to robbery and that there were others who would avenge any attack. The protocol, now known to all on the road, had saved his life more times than the tough shell or any weapons he carried. He turned off the light, opened the door and pushed it into the driveway before re-securing the doors. The house was lifeless, no face appeared at the window to say goodbye. Angry, he drove silently into the night.
Once clear of the checkpoints, he fired up the generator to recharge the batteries and drive the motors directly. Despite the muffling, the noise was loud in the early morning on a road deserted other than a few refugees emerging from their night-time hiding places. As depressing as the sight was, he stared blankly ahead and tried to think of something else. Such was his distraction, he almost missed the ambush.
Just over the brow of a hill, he came across the burned out remains of several vehicles across the road. He slammed on his brakes and shifted into reverse but there was no sign of movement in the vegetation around the road. One car had been violently pushed out of the way leaving a route through, all indications of an ambush that had gone wrong. He shut down the power cube and in the silence heard gunshots over the brow of the next hill. He crawled forward, stopping in plain sight until he could see what was going on. In the dip in the road a vehicle, an official looking vehicle, was stopped in a pool of radiator fluid. Its occupant was crouched by the front wheel, his leg sticking out at an awkward angle, sheltering from a volley of fire armed only with a pistol. The leg of his federal uniform was stained with blood and a shotgun lay discarded at his feet.
Steve assessed the situation through his binoculars. Ideally, he would detour around the trouble but he could barely spare the fuel. On the other hand, this did not look like it was going to last very long and experience marauders knew better than to attack a marked vehicle such as his own. They would, almost certainly, focus on their prize rather than antagonize the foundation. He suddenly caught a clear view of the defender's face and cursed. He set his tablet on the dash, recording and streaming the events although he was unsure whether his foolhardy behavior would warrant any response should things go wrong. Switching on his lights, he drove slowly and purposefully towards the fray. The facial recognition software picked out half a dozen antagonists, masked but, should the need arise, recognizable. The shooting died away as he approached, stopping next to but slightly back from the stricken vehicle.
The silence stretched out as he regarded the group, their anger mixed with uncertainty. He picked up the remote detonator, a dead-mans switch in clearly recognizable black and yellow, depressed the button and stepped outside holding it aloft in plain sight.
Steve turned to the defender. "If you want to live, put down your gun, Bill."
The officer did so and the leader of the marauders handed his rifle to a compatriot and stepped forward, his empty hands spread wide.
"What the hell, dude?" he demanded. "He's not one of yours! Why are you trying to make trouble?"
"This isn't foundation business," Steve conceded, "just personal interest. I figure his vehicle's not going anywhere, you've already got that, so I figure it's down to him now. You don't want him here, he doesn't want to be here and I'm prepared to take him away. Seems to me, that saves a lot of trouble all around."
"You want him?"
"I'll take him." Steve looked towards Bill and twitched his head in the direction of his vehicle.
"We want to search him first!" demanded the marauder.
"Don't push it," snapped Steve.
Bill made a move towards the rear of his vehicle intending to retrieve some of the contents. Steve glared at him. "Don't you push it, either."
With Bill safely in his car, Steve reset the switch, climbed in next to him and slowly drove on. Bill stared at the orgy of looting back at his vehicle.
"Bastards!" he snapped.
"You got off lightly," responded Steve. "I didn't think you guys were patrolling this far out any more."
Bill leaned back in his seat. "You sleep with the wrong guy's wife and suddenly your boss decides a check is in order," he responded wearily. "Thanks for getting me out of there."
"You've turned a blind eye to some of our activities in the past. I figured we owe you one."
Bill stared at Steve's face and recognition dawned. "I know you! You're with the group over by Beaver creek!"
Steve nodded. "We've always got along and I don't relish the thought of starting over with your replacement."
Bill laughed harshly. "I might be cutting my own throat here, but you've little to worry about on that score. Nobody cares what happens outside the towns any more and the cities have just become death traps. The official line is to leave you guys to it."
"That's reassuring," Steve observed, "so there's no reason not to make our camp more permanent?"
Bill shrugged. "Who's to say 'no'?"
They reached a side road and Steve slowed down. "There's a homeland security checkpoint about fify miles down that road. I could drop you off within walking distance, if you like."
Bill recoiled at the offer. "You might as well have left me back there as hand me over to those bastards!" he spat.
Steve was puzzled. "Aren't you both feds?" he asked.
Bill regarded him incredulously. "You really have been out of it, haven't you? There is no federal authority any more, everything's fallen in on itself. Sure we still get paid but that's just numbers on a computer, they're worthless. Nobody accepts them any more. Each town is pretty much a law unto itself. As for the HS, let's just say that the military-industrial complex has got simple. They've cut out the middle-man."
"Industrial?" asked Steve. "What's to make these days?"
"Food," stated Bill. "That's the only thing of value, these days and they are finding that nobody starves quietly. Genetic modification is taking up all the resources they have to get enough production out of the farmland within transportation distance. The biotech companies are the only ones to have come through this unscathed and they are at each others throats trying to put each other out of business."
"Out of business?" exclaimed Steve. "Haven't they moved on from that mindset yet?"
"They're on top of the heap, and want to keep it that way!" Bill explained cynically. "Once they improved the yields, they locked them into their own formula of fertilizer and started an arms race to sabotage the opposition and hijack their strains."
"What effect is that going to have on the heritage strains we use?" asked Steve.
Bill shrugged. "Nobody knows or cares. Not losing their residency permit is all that matters to them."
"They throw people out? That explains the constant flow of refugees."
"And now, I'm one of them," commented Bill.
"Any who make it out to our place, we give them a crystal tablet if they don't have one, starter pack of seeds and point them towards an unpopulated area," Steve explained. "If they make it, we have a new trading partner and if not then it's a small enough investment to write off. I figure we can do the same for you."
Bill shook his head. "No need, I'll be fine."
"How about your leg?" asked Steve. "Our doctor usually sticks to contraceptive stints in the vas but he's pretty good with bullet wounds."
"You have a doctor?"
Steve gave an embarrassed smile. "Actually, he used to be a plumber but he found the principal was the same. They do have a vet over at Greenwater if you prefer."
Bill examined the wound on his leg. "No, it's not deep. The bullet just grazed me but do you know the commune about twenty miles east of Greenwater?"
Steve nodded. "We trade with them all the time. Medical supplies, mostly. They find our distilled mistletoe abortificants as useful as the next lot but they're squeamish about producing their own. They're a good bunch but are you sure you would be welcome, there? I don't want to leave them with my problems."
"They owe me a big favor," said Bill. "My wife and daughter have been living there for months."
"Someone had a foot on both sides of the fence," observed Steve wryly.
Without chagrin, Bill replied "And when the fence went up, decided he'd be safer out here with you lot. It may not be pretty," he gestured towards a ragged group of refugees by the side of the road ahead, "but it's better than the alternative."
Bill stared sadly out of the window as they drove past. A woman with a child of no more than thirteen caught his eye. She grabbed the girl, pushed her forward and pulled down the front of her dress as the child struggled in terror. Bill screwed his eyes tightly shut. The gesture, the look of sheer desperation would haunt his nightmares until the day he died.
His voice shook as he asked, "How do you do it?"
For all his feigned indifference, tears welled in Steve's eyes too. "After you've done all you can, there's no alternative," he said. "You think you're hardened to it, but it never gets any easier."
The rest of the journey was silent and they drove into the commune in the late afternoon. The barricade was opened as they approached and they were both welcomed with little ceremony. Steve drove Bill to his encampment, a makeshift affair of lumber and tarpaulins, where his slim bedraggled wife burst into tears at his arrival and approached hysterics at his injury. His daughter, a dirty, ragged eight-year-old in a home-made dress, was sent for the medic.
"We'd better get some maggots on that to clean out the wound," he observed. "Let's get you to the medical tent."
Bill hesitated, looking distrustfully at Steve.
"If it makes you feel any better," Steve offered, "I'll sleep in the car tonight."
"I've had dealings with Steve before," the medic reassured him. "Your family will be perfectly safe with him."
"He's trustworthy?" asked Bill.
The medic hesitated. "Honorable," he opined.
Steve slept in the car that night, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding. There were sufficient relays between to communes to allow real-time communication and he told Samantha where he was and what he had learned.
"When are you coming home?" she complained.
"Tomorrow," he reassured her, "assuming I can scrounge enough butanol to make it in a single shot. Otherwise it might take a little longer. In the meantime, it sounds like we're on our own, now, so let's start moving on the defenses we talked about."
"The whole thing?" she asked.
"I don't see why not. Once they are in place, it will make it easier to set up the forge without worrying about giving away our presence."
Samantha nodded. "I'll let everyone know," she said. "Kate says 'hi'."
"Love to you both," said Steve. "See you soon."
After ascertaining that there were no complaints about his conduct, a formality, Steve was allowed to leave the next day. He received the fuel he needed in exchange for the promise to deliver several containers of phosphate compounds, used in the newly invented osmotic capacitors, north of his own settlement. It would involve an extra journey and refueling when he got there but it was a price worth paying.
It took most of the next day to drive home and half of the commune were at the bridge to greet his arrival. He was briefly flattered at the attention until he realized that it was not for his benefit. As he reached the far side and passed the watch towers, there was an explosion, the bridge collapsed into the creek. The group surged forward and began the long-planned process of assembling the drawbridge.
"Go and park up then give us a hand!" snapped Samantha. "Your vacation is over!"
The creek was wide and fast-flowing. A determined attacker could, perhaps, swim across but without the old bridge they were protected from vehicles. There were two drawbridges with a small island in between. The guard towers were on the far side and the island could be used by travelers, safe from the outside but no threat to within. Big Jessie came down from his territory with some of his group offering to help in the construction and was perplexed by the lack of enthusiasm with which it was received.
"I know we don't mix much," Jessie protested, "but we don't mind doing our share. It's for our defense too!"
Steve winced. By blind chance, he had stumbled directly onto the problem. He cast about for support but found everyone else had suddenly become very busy with their tasks.
"Not necessarily," he whispered and pulled the big man to one side.
"What's that supposed to mean?" snapped Jessie.
Steve hesitated. "You're our neighbors," he said soothingly. "We provided you with seeds, helped you get your crops established and even supported you with food while they matured."
"We know that and we appreciate it," Jessie replied. "So what's the problem?"
"We've also ignored some of your activities. Those forays outside by some of your boys, the ones where they return with more goods and less ammunition than they left with. We don't approve, we don't like it but we've let it slide up until now."
Jessie stiffened, "Now?" he asked.
Steve brought out his tablet, stroked the screen and handed it to Jessie. "Look familiar?"
The screen was cycling through a series of faces, usually staring down the barrel of a gun, complete with biometric information. They weren't even masked and were easily recognizable from Jessie's group.
"It was an accident, so they told me. They laid a mine in the road and he didn't stop when they tried to warn him."
"Of course he didn't stop!" snapped Steve, "Would you? They killed a Walker-anarchist! Whether it was through negligence or malice makes no difference – their faces are now marked."
Jessie looked around him, the tension was building and both groups were on edge, ready for trouble. His gaze returned to Steve. "What do you intend to do about it?" he asked with a hard edge to his voice.
Steves response was slow and deliberate, obviously much-considered. "You have put us in an uncomfortable situation. You are not one of us but we have treated you, by and large, as if you were. That, we can no longer afford to do. Strictly speaking, we should deal with it ourselves but then the survivors who weren't involved in the incident would have to fight back, there would be loss of life on both sides and everybody loses. Alternatively, we could just make their whereabouts known and let others take care of it, although we would be called on to meet our obligations and then the same situation arises. At the very least, if someone turned up at the gates regarding this issue, we'd have to let them in and offer any assistance they require. Even if we were willing, we cannot afford to side with you against the foundation."
"I it really an issue, though?" asked Jessie. "I figure they have bigger fish to fry and if they don't know where they are..."
Steve sighed. "You might last a while, there are more than a thousand individuals on the 'sanctioned' list, but six months ago, there were fifteen hundred and six months before that, nearly three thousand. The foundation was set up as an alternative society and it's coming into its own very quickly. If you could see some of the names on that list who have been dealt with, you'd realize just what low-hanging fruit you are."
To Steve's exasperation, Jessie's mind remained anchored to a single point. "Are you proposing to turn them in?" he demanded.
"Damnit, Jessie, I don't have to! Their raids have been logged, they have been identified and even a cursory glance makes it obvious that this commune is the center of their activities. The only question remaining is when they get around to it and what you are going to do, not us."
Jessie's mind raced. "How deep are we in? How does this work and what can we do about it?"
"They can't be found here," Steve insisted. "Cut them loose. We'll turn a blind eye if you feed them or supply them but do not shelter them. They're tough and this vicinity is pretty quiet, they can survive outside for a while but no more raids. Perhaps if things quiet down, it might be assumed that they have moved on."
Jessie's eyes lit up. "How long?" he asked.
Steve thought long and hard. "Okay, probably not," he admitted. "but, slim as it is, it's the only chance they've got."
That afternoon a small convoy of two vehicles left the commune. Its departure went unnoticed and unrecorded – all of the video pickups happened to be busy elsewhere at the time.
"It's gone! It's all gone!" A combination of weak relay links and Jennifer's near-hysterics made her words almost unintelligible even over an audio-only connection.
"Calm down, love," said Steve soothingly. "What's gone? What's going on?"
"There was no food, the neighborhood was on fire so Brad sent me to the retreat. It's been cleaned out, all the stuff he set aside is gone and now it's getting dark and there were these people on the road and..."
"Okay, stop!" Steve interrupted her. "You drove out there in the car, yes? How hard is the ground? Did you leave tracks?"
"Yes I did. I don't know about the tracks! What do I do?"
"Can you make it over here?" asked Steve, without much hope. "Even part-way, I could meet you on the road."
"No, the fuel you gave me is almost gone and there's nowhere else to go."
Steve forced down the concern and tried to focus on a solution to the problem. "First tell me where you are, the map co-ordinates for preference."
She did not have them but gave detailed directions as to how to get there. Steve was appalled, the combination of isolation, easy access from the highway and a valuable stockpile of irreplaceable goods was tailor made for the kind of theft that had taken place. "What the hell was Brad thinking?" he exploded. "He should never have set that place up, let alone sent you there!"
"Please, Steve. I'm scared. Those people on the road, they might have followed me."
"Okay, here's what you do. Find some bushes, push the car into them and cover it. It's getting dark so make sure you push it, don't start the engine. Take your sleeping bag and hide yourself as far away from it as you can. Stay in the bag, it makes you harder to spot in infra-red, don't start a fire or draw attention to yourself in any way. I'll arrange with Sam to come and get you."
Her voice sounded far from reassured but grateful. "Thanks, Steve. Tell Sam I'm sorry for being such a pain."
"Listen," said Steve insistently. "If there is trouble, if you can't stay hidden and they capture you then you are going to have to keep your head. The deal is twenty thousand calories in food if you are unharmed. Otherwise, it's a toss-up whether the HS or the foundation gets to them first. Remember that, repeat it to yourself until you can recite it by rote. Now stay quiet and safe."
Steve terminated the connection and leaned back in his chair. Samantha glared at him from the doorway. "Are you going?" she demanded.
Steve was torn. "What's your opinion?" he asked.
"It's a dangerous journey. She's not an asset, she's pretty useless and that food is a big chunk of our winter surplus. She's going to take us all down with her."
Her logic was irrefutable, her anger obvious. "We might have to trade for food over the winter," Steve conceded, "but we would manage."
"You won't get much sympathy," insisted Samantha. "They've all had to turn their backs on family."
"Is that what you think we ought to do? Hang her out to dry? This isn't a family squabble any more, it's life and death."
Samantha stared into his eyes. "You'd go anyway, wouldn't you?"
Steve squirmed uncomfortably, his mind racing through the possibilities. It had to be his decision. Even if he stayed, if he left Jenifer to her fate, he might end up resenting Samantha.
"I'd rather not find out," he said.
"Go and get fueled up," she replied in resignation. "I'll bag up the food."
Steve hated driving at night. The image intensifier gave a restricted field of view and the black and yellow foundation markings, no guarantee of safety at the best of times, were less visible. He had tried rigging up a light to illuminate them but found the interference limited his view still further. Progress was slow on the circuitous, debris-filled roads around the town and it was almost dawn by the time he reached the turnoff. He bumped slowly along the dirt track and his heart sank as he approached a fire in the middle of the road, a ragged bearded figure squatting on the far side. He stopped the vehicle and turned on the headlights to illuminate the scene. He emerged carrying the sack of food in one hand and his crystal tablet in the other, stepped into the firelight and turned full circle with his arms outstretched to show he was unarmed. The figure nodded his approval.
"You've got the food?" he growled.
Steve threw the bag at his feet without saying a word. The man flicked open the top and gave the contents a cursory glance.
"It's not enough," he said.
"It's what was on offer," stated Steve.
"It's not enough," the man repeated.
"Do you think I can turn around and get more?" Steve challenged. "That's the offer. Take it."
"Or leave it?" he grinned evilly.
"No, that's not an option," insisted Steve. "You can come out ahead on this or you can go bust. Your call."
"The girl tells a lot of wild stories. The HS and the foundation fighting over her? We found her vehicle and she's not HS. Doesn't seem to be foundation, either."
"She's not," conceded Steve, "but I am. Harm her and you only have me to contend with. Harm me and then you've got the foundation on your tail."
"And they are involved how?" he challenged.
Steve held up his tablet for inspection. "That circle I did when I first got here? There are three people whose faces got logged, plus your own, none of which are currently sanctioned for foundation attention. You'd better make sure nothing happens to me before I tag them with 'all clear'."
The balance of power had shifted. He gestured to the bushes nearby and a figure emerged holding Jenifer by the arm. Her tear-stained face was terrified but she carried no bruises and her clothing was intact. Steve kept up the pressure as his tablet beeped.
"Four," he said. "The deal was 'unharmed'. If you broke that, you should have run while you had the chance."
"We never laid a finger, or anything else, on her," snapped the man. "We're hungry! That's all that's important to us right now."
Jenifer broke free and buried her face in Steve's shoulder.
"Are you alright?" he asked, tenderly. She nodded with muffled sobs.
"Did they..?" She shook her head.
"They threatened to but they didn't."
"Go and wait in the car," he told her. He glared at the still-seated figure.
"So, we've kept our part of the bargain," he insisted. "Do you intend to keep yours?"
"Of course," Steve held out the tablet. "Put your thumb here."
The figure shied away. "What for?" he demanded suspiciously.
"To terminate the contract. You don't try to take her back and that food is what I claimed it was. That way, we're both protected."
Reluctantly, he thumbed the agreement. "So the foundation has no beef with us, right?" he asked.
"You've made no friends but nobody is out to get you," Steve assured him.
"How about the HS?"
"That's a different story. You kidnapped one of their wives and he's going to come looking for her. If I were you, I'd make sure you are long gone by the time that happens."
The man looked sick. "Those pictures..." he said.
"...are for foundation use only. They don't get released. Nothing gets handed over the the HS."
The man rose from the ground and started kicking the fire out. He made a circling motion in the air with his hand, ignoring Steve completely. "Get everything together and move out," he shouted. His four companions emerged from their cover and gathered up their belongings. The man scooped up the sack and together they cut across the fields, away from the road.
Steve joined Jenifer in the car and turned back towards the highway. She stared ahead, immobile.
"Are you sure you're alright?" he asked.
She nodded, dumbly with an air of irritation which annoyed Steve. It wasn't that he expected gratitude but... Actually, he did expect gratitude but Jennie hated being beholden to anyone. It was an admirable trait, he reflected, so long as you had the self-reliance to back it up.
"I hope you've got some proof of Brad's status," he said.
"He gave me one of his cards," she said, "but I don't want to jeopardize his position by bringing him into any of this."
"What you want probably won't come into it," insisted Steve. "I used too much fuel getting out here so we're going to have to take a more direct route back. This close to town, there's a chance we could run into a patrol."
Jennifer gasped. "If I'm seen in a foundation vehicle, that's going to cause him real trouble!" she protested.
Steve looked at her sideways, slightly bemused. "You really don't know how things work, do you?" he said, pulling over to the side of the road. "Let me see the card."
She handed it to him and he examined it carefully. It was a standard military business card with the Homeland Security logo emblazoned boldly across the top and Brad's details below. After a few experimental twists, Steve set to work bending, scuffing and twisting it. Jennifer squealed and lunged towards him. She stopped short, shaking with rage, and stared at him.
"Would you care to explain?" she demanded as he handed the card back.
"What does it say now?" asked Steve, restarting the car.
"It's barely legible!" she protested. "What did you have to do that for?"
"I was hiding his rank," Steve explained. Jenifer examined the card once more. A deep scratch had neatly and apparently by accident, obscured that part of the card.
"Why?" asked Jennifer.
"We'll see," replied Steve dismissively. "Keep it close and if we do hit trouble, leave the talking to me and back up anything I say."
For a while, it looked like they might be lucky. They skirted the town with its burned out suburbs encountering no military or law enforcement, only a few downtrodden residents trudging towards the fields and trying desperately not to draw attention to themselves.
As the ruined urban sprawl turned into farmland, they picked up speed on the cleared roads and hope was beginning to dawn as the fields became less intensively cultivated and centralized civilization receded. His hopes were dashed as they crested a hill to find a barrier across the road, backed up with an armored car – its canon pointing directly at them. Steve kept his head and slowed down, pulling up alongside a car that was already there, its latino occupant desperately waving papers to a circle of gun-toting guards. A circle of guns instantly surrounded the vehicle, an incredulous sergeant staring into the window. There was a substantial amount of antagonism between the foundation and Homeland Security resulting in a stalemate. While not apparently deliberate, they avoided each other rather than press the issue. The HS organized no systematic action against the foundation and their staff appeared on no lists sanctioned for reprisals, although there were rumors that such entries were hidden as being in abeyance. Even Steve did not know the outcome of this foolhardy endeavor.
Keeping his voice even, he asked "Who's in charge, here?"
Still puzzled the sergeant claimed that position.
"Then perhaps your men have somewhere they should be?"
Warily, the sergeant nodded to the circle and they moved to the other vehicle where voices were being raised. "Your papers?" he demanded.
Steve glanced at Jenifer, who handed over the card. He stared at it, turned it over to check the back and then glanced incredulously at them. "That's all she has? How about you?"
Steve shook his long hair and asked "Do I look like I'm carrying papers? Some officer wants his wife taken 300 miles across the wasteland safely and without fuss. He didn't exactly give me travel orders. When our escort left us five miles back, they told us we were on our own. You boys aren't even supposed to be here."
The sergeant squinted at the card trying to make out the details. To Steve's right, the driver of the other vehicle was hit in the stomach with a rifle butt, his papers blew away in the wind and the soldiers began beating him. Steve concentrated on the task in hand.
"Why didn't he send the escort all the way?" he demanded.
"Would you volunteer?" asked Steve. "I didn't."
The sergeant snorted and stared into Steve's eyes. "I'll just have to check your story, make sure she is who she claims she is."
His gaze did not waver as he waited for Steve to make the next move. Steve reached down beside his seat and slowly withdrew his hand as the sergeant's hand hovered over his sidearm.
"The colonel said you might need official confirmation, in which case he told me to give you this."
He handed over a golden krugerand, an ounce of pure gold. It vanished into the sergeant's hand with the skill of a magician.
"Everything seems to be in order," the sergeant announced loudly, returning the card. It was a piece of overacting that was completely lost on his men who were engrossed in their activity. He gestured the guard who raised the barrier and allowed them through. Steve drove steadily, keeping an eye on the group and ready to gun the engine if the armored car's turret so much as twitched. They were ignored. The sergeant walked calmly over to the prone figure on the ground, pulled out his pistol and shot the driver through the head while his men began to ransack his vehicle.
Jenifer was pale and Steve gritted his teeth. Non-engagement or not, he still felt like a coward.
With the borders secured, work began on setting up more permanent accommodation and the encampment slowly transformed into a small town. For defense, the houses remained together with their different territories radiating out to the creek or the cliff. Log cabins were by far the most popular despite a bottleneck in transparent polymer for the windows. Its manufacture was a byproduct of some of the plants they grew and, despite a year of stockpiling, it would be another two before they had enough. As a temporary measure, many of the vehicles were scrapped and their glass, along with many of their other parts, were scavenged into home construction.
Steve, Samantha and Kate kept their new RV, partly for transportation and trade but also as a private sleeping area. Unless they were particularly tired, the two girls alternated between the vehicle and the main bedroom. Jenifer spent most of her time in the RV but would occasionally join the main group for company.
Samantha spent much of her time working on communications and enhanced algorithms for the Web, Kate worked their crops and tended the animals while Steve researched new designs and built much of what the community needed. His pride and joy was the industrial facility.
While many of the processes were designed to be amenable to all with minimal specialized equipment, some still required high temperature and pressure. He built a forge, smelter, glassworks and bakery off to one side of the town center, making full use of the heat required for each. His design proved very popular among other communities as the word spread and, combined with Samantha's work, provided them with a very comfortable trade status.
As winter set in, the roads became treacherous and trade slowed, a notification interrupted their evening meal. It was Sue's evening to monitor the guard towers, a mainly automatic task that was mainly left to motion detectors and shape recognition algorithms, and she contacted them directly rather than raise the alarm.
Her face appeared on the screen as Steve accepted the call. "The HS are at the gate," she said, blankly.
There was an explosion of activity as Kate opened the gun cabinet and handed out the weapons. They were home-grown variants of the AK's simple design using separate propellant and projectiles. Most were low-speed hydrocarbon/steel combinations offering a good rate of fire but little penetration. Steve grabbed the sniper's hydrogen/shaped copper combination to keep the mix effective.
"How many?" he shouted across the room.
"Just the one," Sue replied. "He says we've got his wife."
All eyes turned to Jenifer, who blanched.
Brad was waiting on the island, the inner drawbridge was raised. Steve lowered the narrow footbridge and turned on the lights. Not the powerful searchlights but bright enough to illuminate the area. He gestured Samantha and Kate to remain and led Jenifer to the waiting figure. His uniform was crumpled and stained, his demeanor hard and his eyes dead. He ignored Steve and concentrated on Jenifer.
"I thought you'd be here," he said. "We found the scum that grabbed you and they told us a foundation vehicle had picked you up," a cold smile crossed his lips, "eventually."
He reached roughly for Jenifer. "She's coming with me, now. Come on." She darted behind Steve and put her hand on his shoulder.
"No!" she said. "I'm staying."
Steve stiffened and stood his ground.
"It's all over!" he snapped. "The HS are going to start pushing out, garrisoning your little communes and populating them from the towns. Your little hippy experiment is over, it's failed and you lost. Your only hope, now, is with me."
Jenifer looked back for reassurance but could see nothing in the darkness. She hugged Steve's arm. "Then I'll stay here. I'll stand, fight and die among people who care."
Brad's temper exploded. "Bitch!" he yelled, dragging her out from behind Steve. "Do you know what I've done for you? I set you up the retreat, I kept attention away from you! I even went AWOL to find you and you choose this man-whore over me?"
In a swift movement, he backhanded her across the face and reached for his pistol. Stunned by the sudden violence, Steve lunged for the weapon but too slowly and too late. A shot rang out, seemingly quieter than the sickening splat of bullet-in-flesh. Brad's body jerked backwards and he sprawled on the grass, his blood soaking into the mud. Steve turned to see Kate at the head of the bridge, her shaking hands holding the smoking rifle. Samantha crossed behind her and gently took the weapon from her unprotesting fingers. Jenifer stared at Brad's body in shock, her emotions broiling. His breath came in shallow, gurgling gasps, his eyes unfocussed and his limbs twitched. The silence following his death ratlle, stretched interminably.
Steve took a deep breath and turned to Samantha. "Take everyone back inside," he said reaching down and grabbing Brad's corpse by the collar. "I'll fire up the smelter."
He caught her puzzled expression. "I'll make sure there's nothing left," he explained.
Half an hour later, feeling that the smell of burning flesh would never leave his nostrils Steve returned to the cabin. The neighbors, wisely, had chosen to remain distant from the proceedings and he had been grateful for the solitude. Samantha was sitting alone at the table with her connection active.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Uploading the record of what Brad said."
Steve was appalled. "Was there any point in my trying to hide the evidence if you're just going to broadcast it?" he demanded.
Samantha smiled, pityingly. "My love," she said, "that's not how it works. I should know, I've been working on the foundation's Web since its inception. Nobody has access to those files."
Steve's brow furrowed. "They why upload them?"
"So that the Web can assess them and release conclusions. It balances Legion's inputs, among other things."
"But the Web is just data storage and communications," Steve protested. "What is there to process the files?"
Samantha shook her head. "Crystalography is not silicone. There's no difference between data and process. Think about how Legion works, don't you think it might keep former responses on file and apply them to new situations?"
"I suppose so," Steve conceded uncertainly.
"Now, can you say with certainty that you've ever uttered a sentence you haven't already heard before? Does that make your though process any less original?"
Steve considered for a while. "Are you saying the Web can think like a person?" he asked, finally.
"No, it thinks like the Web," said Samantha. "If there is going to be a war with Homeland Security, I want to make sure we're ready and the Web has already made contingency plans. Trust me."
Steve nodded and leaned against the wall in exhaustion. "I'll just take your word on that," he said. "Where are Kate and Jennie?"
Samantha nodded towards the bedroom. "Curled up in there. They're both in a state of shock right now."
Steve nodded and started to remove his coat. "I'll go and sleep in the RV, tonight."
Samantha put her hand on his arm. "I think they could both use the comfort," she said.
Steve looked into her eyes and saw nothing but tenderness and concern. "Go ahead," she said. "I'll join you later."