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Cally's War: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, July 18, 2004 01:20 EDT



Charleston, Wednesday, May 15

    It was a few minutes before six and the edges of the scattered clouds were a brilliant pink when Cally got off the city bus at the Columbia gate of the Wall.  She had her backpack, one rolling suitcase, and had teamed an old pair of cutoff shorts with a t-shirt, complete with garish beach sunset, and a bright yellow Folly Beach visor.  She wore an expression of slightly desperate hopefulness as she scanned the vehicles lining up for the morning convoy.  She started towards a rather battered white van, but one scowl from the female driving it had her looking for another.  Towards the end of the line she spotted a VW van that must have been damn near eighty years old.  The tie-dyed patterns painted on the panels showed different degrees of fading, but had also clearly been carefully touched up over the years.  The skull with roses coming out of the top was absolutely perfect, as was the lovingly painted legend that she knew even before she got far enough past the other vehicles to see all the words. 

    Before approaching, she took care of the buckley, turning voice access and response off and running the emulation all the way down to two, tucking it back into her purse.  Wouldn’t do to have him saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

    The driver had long, blond hair including a full mustache and well-combed beard.  He was build like a small bear.  As she approached, she could detect a faint whiff of oak leaves and patchouli over the salt and fish from the tanks in back.  The music from his cube player reached a good way from the open window and his fingers were tapping to the beat on the sill.  “...gotta tip they're gonna kick the door in again.  I'd like to get some sleep before I travel...”

    “Hey, bitchin' shirt.  You surf?”  He noticed her as she dragged the suitcase up.

    “I've caught a coupla waves here and there.  But I usually head out to L.A. for that.  For the waves here, I didn't even bring my own board.  Didn't have the cash or the time to go out that far this trip.”

    “Bummer,” he sympathized.  “Too much of everything's about money, man. But you gotta make a living, so what can you do. You ridin' out on the bus?”

    “Well, actually, I was kinda hoping I could find somebody I could hitch a ride with.  I spent a little too much and I could afford the ticket, I just, you know, would have to go real light on meals till I got back to campus.”

    “Oh man, that sucks, say no more.”  He leaned over and unlocked the passenger side door.  “By the way, I'm Reefer.  Reefer Jones.”

    “Marilyn Grant. Thanks, dude.”  She lugged her suitcase around the front of the car, stowed it behind the passenger seat, tucked her pack in the floorboard under her feet, and got in, carefully not wrinkling her nose at the salty, fishy smell.

    “Oh, we've gotta figure out some way to square you with the paperwork,” he grimaced apologetically.  “Sorry, but my boss can be a pain in the ass about hitchhikers.  Hey, I don't suppose you can shoot, can you?”

    Cally fumbled in her purse and handed him a very sincere range certification from a local Charleston range, dated a few days ago, rating Marilyn Grant an expert, non-resident.

    “I went on a lark.  Hadn't shot in years, but my mom made me learn, you know?” she said.

    “Yeah, mine too.  I think the war like affected that whole generation.  But it was okay, I mean, if I ever meet a steel postie pop-up target, I'll know how to kill it,” he laughed and scribbled something on the clipboard.  “Okay, I put you down as a freelance guard.  The boss'll be cool with that.  Lived in Urbs his whole life, came to Charleston for the money, man, old fart is scared to death of posties.”  He shrugged, easing the van up in the line that was finally beginning to move.  “I've been drivin' this route for five years and there's never been a postie get close that those guys,” he gestured to the machine-gun turret mounted on the top of an eighteen wheeler, “didn't saw in half before it even got close to us.”

    “Does that happen often?”  Her eyes were round.

    “Nah.”  He offered her a stick of gum, popping one in his own mouth.  “About every other run.  It's a pain in the ass because then the whole convoy has to stop while they take the head for the bounty.”  He made a gagging gesture.  “Well, we usually don't actually stop.  They just lose their place in line and we slow down a bit.”  He gestured to the trucks again.  “Every one of those guys has a boma blade tucked away up there, so it doesn't really take any time at all.”

    They had pulled up to the gate while he was talking, and he handed the guard her range card and his own, showing the guard the Colt .45 by his seat and the second one in the glove box.  “The boss won't mind you because the extra shooter drops our convoy fee,” he shrugged and took their cards back from the guard, handing her hers and tucking his own back in his wallet.

    It took another fifteen minutes for the guards to clear the other vehicles and the group to begin the drive back to real civilization.

    “Next stop, Columbia.”  He cranked the volume on the stereo slightly, glancing at her curiously.  “So where are you headed, anyway?”


    “Oh.  Well, you can, like, ride the whole way then.  That's cool.”  He looked uncomfortable for a minute.  “I'll just have to pretend you got out in Knoxville, when the convoy zone ends.”

    “Will I get you in trouble?”

    He thought a minute and shook his head.  “Nah, not really.  The boss isn't too bad a guy.  If he finds out I'll just tell him it was part of your fee for riding guard from here to Knoxville.”

    “So what do you haul?”  She asked politely, glancing over her shoulder into the back of the van where several packed aquariums bubbled away, air exchanges sticking up several inches above the sealed lids.

    “Blue crab.  Like, live, you know?  Buncha rich dudes in Chicago like their fresh seafood,” he shrugged.

    “So why you and why not one of them?”  She waved at the lines of semis ahead and behind them.

    “Oh, like, it’s a niche market.  They’re carrying frozen stuff, and, well, some of ‘em have iced down live oysters and clams and stuff.  Crabs are just incredibly fussy about live travel.  But a little of the right stuff in the water so they aren’t too crabby,” he grinned, “and you can pack a lot of the little buggers into the tanks.”

    “So, what, they’re too drugged up to rip each other to bits?  What’s that do to them as food?”

    “Basically,” he agreed cheerfully.  “Like, put ‘em in a clean, salt-water tank and in like six hours or so they’re clean.  And crab valium doesn’t really affect humans, anyway, you know?”

    She politely ignored that the inner dimensions of the back of the van seemed to her practiced eye to be just a bit smaller than the outside would normally indicate.

    Business out of the way, he seemed more inclined to listen to his music than chat.  That suited Cally fine.  It must have been ten years since she'd had the time or need to take the overland route out of Charleston and she let her eyes glaze over watching the miles and miles of pine forest, punctuated by the occasional burn zone and abat-meadow.

    It was only as they approached Columbia a couple of hours later that the now mixed pine and hardwood forests gave way to cleared fields of cows and crops, each field bordered by widely spaced sensor poles.

    “I guess the bounties cover the costs of the sensors and the power to run them,” she said.

    “Those bounty farmers are some strange birds. Get at least half their money off stalking bounties, spend half of that fighting the abat and grat. Real loner kinda dudes.  Then there was one of 'em about fifteen years ago went totally off his nut and got caught breeding posties.  It was before my time, but he'd had a postie god king next to his land.  Seems he'd made a deal with it to deliver heads of postie normals just up from nestlings in exchange for half the take.  It was, like, really nasty what they did to him when they caught him.”

    “How'd they catch him?” she asked politely, since Marilyn wouldn't remember the story.

    “He was always delivering twice the bounty of the other guys around him.  I guess somebody just got suspicious.  Next time the postie god king made delivery, they had surveillance on him and everything.”  He stuck a fresh piece of gum in his mouth.  “What was real weird was when they traced the postie back to where it had been living.  Man, it was like a freakin' magpie's nest.  Tinfoil, polished pennies, chromed bike bars and car parts and stuff, even some gold.  The postie must have been bughouse nuts, too.  I mean, what are the odds,” he shrugged and they drove on in silence until the convoy began to slow as the front vehicles reached the gate into Columbia Trading Station.

    Entry through the gates was much faster than exit from Charleston had been.  The Columbia guards obviously wanted to keep the gates open as short a time as possible, admitting the entire convoy and closing the big steel slab behind them before beginning the paperwork.

    As he waited his turn to sign in he waved across the large parking lot to a squat building with gas pumps in front of it.  One of the tankers in the line had pulled around to the side of the building and was unhooking hoses.

    “I've gotta top off my gas after I get through here.  It's just the way they do this convoy thing.  Won't let you leave unless you're full.  If you want to go stretch your legs or buy a drink or, like, other stuff, this is the last stop until Spartanburg Station in three hours.”

    As a tourist, goggling was normal, so she took the opportunity to get a good long look at everything while she went up to the station building to wait in line for the restroom.  The place hadn’t changed much in ten years.  The asphalt of the big parking lot had been resurfaced at some point, but not too recently.  They hadn’t expanded the walls any--it would have just been more perimeter to man in an emergency.  Oh, the store was stocked a bit better, and there were a few more children trailing around with the occasional farm wife doing some shopping, but mostly it was the same old general store, feed and seed, and bounty processing center.  She bought a glass of apple cider and some ginger snaps and went back out into the parking lot.  The single mechanic’s bay was taken up with work on a tractor today.  Fortunately no-one in the convoy seemed to need it.  Over by the incinerator the bounty agent was paying off on a few postie heads.  She wrinkled her nose as the shifting wind wafted over the unforgettable stench of ripe, dead Posleen mixed with motor oil and exhaust fumes.  She took her snack back towards the van, farther away from the grisly trophies, walking past one of the refrigerator trucks that was offloading a few crates of fish and perishables for the station store and loading some crates of spring greens and assorted poultry and dairy products.  A semi was unloading a couple of crates of miscellaneous merchandise but, not being refrigerated, had nothing to take on to fill the space left.

    She looked around at the various trucks and buses, and the occasional car, and sighed.  It would probably be at least fifteen minutes before they got moving again, and there just wasn’t a lot more to see.  She pulled out her PDA and spent the rest of the break clicking through the daily news.



    The road to Spartanburg seemed quiet enough, the scenery by the side of the interstate passing from fields and cows near Columbia to dense stands of oak and poplar starting a few yards back from the Roundup zone.  The edges of the highway had earned the popular appellation from the tanker truck that came through at the back of the convoy every few months with a sprayer attachment to mist the roadside with the inexpensive herbicide.  Federal authorities had decided early on that it was easier, cheaper and safer than lawnmower crews for maintaining a small but adequate free-fire zone back from the road.  In the spring, runners from the underbrush reached back quickly to reclaim the tempting open soil and ready sunlight---it looked like another run with the sprayer truck was a bit overdue.

    The tender vegetation at the border was especially attractive to the herds of whitetail, who were no doubt accustomed to safe feeding times morning and evening when neither the convoys nor other traffic disturbed their peace.  Predation by the occasional feral Posleen kept the herd barely below starvation levels.  Healthy deer could usually smell, hear, and outrun a lone Posleen normal.  Unfortunately for the deer, this fact failed to stop feral normals from trying.  This became clear to the convoy when a yearling buck broke cover right in front of a church van from Nashville, causing it to slam on its brakes and take a bump from the semi behind it that could almost, but not quite, stop in time.

    The first indication Cally had that something was wrong was the crunch of metal behind them and the chattering of a machinegun, sounded like a one of the MG-90’s on top of the semis.  She grabbed the .45 from the glove box while Reefer swore and swerved as the bus in front of them hit the brakes and stopped in the middle of its lane, the van coming to a more gradual stop alongside the bus’s driver.  All along the length of the convoy, the approximately thirty vehicles that comprised it were pulling to a stop, the drivers and gunners first looking for Posleen, and then, seeing none, checking their detectors and getting on the radios onto channel nineteen for official convoy information.

    “Front door, this is truck seventeen,” the female voice had a distinctly Texan drawl.  “We got one dead postie, one dead medium passenger vehicle, and some minor vee-hicular injuries back here.  Negative on postie emissions and high grade equipment.  Negative crest.  Just another feral normal.  We’re gonna need a EMT and someplace to put ‘em, ‘cause their van ain’t goin’ nowhere, come on.”  Reception was extraordinarily clear for the simple reason that there was so little to compete with it.  Oh, there was a little crackle from sunspots and other unavoidable whatnot, but it was a surprisingly cheap method of keeping a convoy together.  Besides, it was traditional.

    “Ten-four, Seventeen.  Johnny, you got your ears on?”

    “Ten-four, Front Door.  Got my little black bag and I am on the way, come on.”

    “Ten-four.  Seventeen, get the healthies squared away along the line and have Johnny call me back once he’s got the bleeders stashed, come on.”

    “That’s a big ten-f--Larry, quit messing with that thing.  You can load the head up after we get them church folks on the…oops.  This thing’s still on.  Sorry Front Door, over.” 

    “Hey, uh, Marilyn?”  Reefer had walked around to the right side of the bus where she was standing with her back against it, looking outward.  “Might as well get back in and put that thing in the glove box, man.  I mean, like, I know it’s pretty bogus to have one of those postie dudes running out on the road and all, but honest, there’s like never been more than one at a time as long as I’ve been driving.”

    Cally walked back to the van, looked at the sensor on the dash and climbed back in.  She didn’t put the pistol back in the glove box, but Reefer just shrugged and popped another piece of gum.  Even twenty years ago the convoy would have circled up, instead of remaining sprawled out like a lunch line of gawking kindergartners.  Their complacency made the back of her neck itch, but as she watched the negative sensors on the dash and her PDA screen, tied into the roadside sensor net, the combat-chill gradually leached its way back out of her system and time resumed its normal flow.

    It seemed longer, of course, but it was actually only about ten minutes later that the convoy got rolling again, one van shorter but with no human fatalities.  On the far side of the highway, just inside the tree line, a yearling whitetail buck placidly browsed through the fresh growth.

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