Authors: Sean McLachlan
Holding her close to him, Jackson cocked his head and looked down at her. She was a few years younger than his twenty-five, although no one know how much younger. She’d been found as a toddler, squalling and half-starved in the hills betwe
en the cove and Toxic Bay. The villagers took her in. Because she hadn’t been born of a mother who lived here she had been spared the worst of the toxins, but it was only a matter of time before they wrecked her health. Already Jackson caught little looks of pain she tried to hide when she made sudden movements, and he noticed she got out of breath easily. Their lovemaking had to be gentle, a quiet, warm thing that kept Jackson returning to this blighted place.
“Why the long face?”
“We need to talk.”
“About you moving here?”
“No,” Jackson said with a trace of impatience. They’d talked enough about that. “About you leaving. Trouble is coming. Big trouble. And I don’t think it will pass over Toxic Bay this time.”
Annette rummaged through a pile of sweaters at a market stall and shook her head. The selection got worse every year.
The only one even remotely her size was so full of holes she’d have to trade just as much for yarn to mend it as for the sweater itself. The clothes from the Old Times were running out, and more and more people were wearing homespun.
Roy stood at the next stall looking over a selection of eyeglasses. The vendor had a faded eye chart hanging at the back of his stall and an open book lying next to the reading glasses. Roy bent over the book, putting on one pair of glasses after another.
“Aw hell,” he muttered.
Annette turned to him.
Roy had on a big pair of glasses with bright purple frames.
“These are the only ones in my prescription,” he said.
hat’s wrong with them?” Annette asked.
“What, you need glasses too? Look at them!”
“Who cares what they look like?”
“These are women’s glasses!” Roy protested. The vendor looked irritated.
“Do you want to see or not?” Annette asked.
aybe I’ll keep my old glasses another year,” he grumbled.
“You need new glasses, Roy.
“Yeah I do,” Roy griped. “Can barely see the dial on this thing.”
He pulled out a small box with a dial and an earpiece.
“What’s that gizmo?” Annette asked.
“Isn’t it neat? It’s a radio that doesn’t need a battery. Our eye-gouging friend has heaps of them. Trading them for cheap. Everyone’s getting them.”
“Well, then you’ll be in fashion,” Annette laughed.
“Won’t compensate for these damn glasses,” Roy grumbled.
Annette’s ten-year-old son Pablo came running up to him, his brown eyes wide with excitement.
“What is it, kiddo?” Annette asked.
Pablo tugged at her arm. “Come on, I gotta show you something!”
Annette let herself be pulled through the crowds down one of the lanes of stalls.
Pablo stopped in front of a stall and pointed at a baseball.
Annette cocked her eyebrow and looked down at her son.
The ball was in almost perfect condition. It wasn’t going to come cheap.
Pablo showing so much interest also raised the price. She turned to the vendor. The man smiled.
“Hey, you’re the bouncer at that bar with the weird name. Nice job you did on that asshole last night,” he said.
“Um, thanks. How much for the ball?”
“Three meal tokens and three drink tokens
at your fine establishment.”
Annette turned to her son, “Sorry kiddo.”
Annette started to move
away. The vendor called after her, “OK, two and two. You don’t find these much anymore.”
“You’re trading a toy for food. One and one.”
“Two and one.”
“Two meal tokens and one drink token, you mean?” Annette asked.
She turned to her son. “You have to be specific in a trade to keep from having disagreements later.”
“Do we have a deal?” the vendor asked.
” Annette replied.
and the vendor shook hands. She took some tokens out of her pocket and handed them over.
“Thanks mom, you’re awesome!
” He gave her a big hug around her middle. Annette put a hand over her pistol.
“Watch the gun, kiddo. Oh, by the way, what are you going to trade for this?”
“Trade?” Pablo’s face was a study in shock.
“I traded for this ball with some of my pay, so what are you going to trade to get it?”
“I’ll sweep the bar tomorrow morning? You can sleep in.”
You’ll sweep the bar every morning for a week and wash the dishes today.”
“But there are heaps of them!”
“Welcome to the world of trading, kiddo,” she smiled and plunked the ball in his hand.
Another boy about
Pablo’s age came up to them. He was about to say something to Annette when Pablo held up the baseball.
“Look what I got!”
“Whoa! Can I see?”
“Did you have something to tell me?” Annette asked. The kid was a citizen.
The boy thought for a moment. “Oh, right! Abraham Weissman wants to see you.”
Annette bit her lip. Abe had to be her least favorite citizen.
“Let’s go play!” Pablo said. The two ran off.
“Hey, you have dishes to clean!” Annette called after him.
“You didn’t say when I had to clean them. You gotta be specific in a trade!” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared with his friend into the distance.
Annette shook her head and smiled, then turned and headed
toward the New City gate.
Abe waited for her at the gate.
While only citizens and associates were allowed through, any citizen could escort someone in during daylight hours and nobody would question Abe. The head of the Merchants Association and owner of the bakery and New City Radio, he was almost as powerful as The Doctor himself.
“Morning, Annette. Heard you had a bit of trouble at $87,953 last night.”
Annette shrugged. “Just a fight between two scavengers. Nothing serious.”
Abe inclined his head
toward the interior of the city. “Come on in. We’ll have an early lunch and we can talk.”
Annette handed her pistol to the guards and followed Abe inside.
He led her past a row of houses to the bakery, a low concrete building from the Old Times with a corrugated iron roof patched in several places. It sat near the cove in the shadow of the warehouse. Beyond it stood the shack for New City Radio, a tall antenna towering over it.
Inside the bakery t
he morning’s work was winding down. All the bread had been sent to the homes and market, and only a few workers remained to clean up. Some tables and chairs were arranged in the front room so people could eat within the warmth of the bakery walls, but Abe led her past these and into a snug little back office. Abe motioned to some chairs arranged in front of a metal desk and he sat down behind it.
He smiled and folded his hands in his lap. Those hands reminded her of a saying she had seen in books. They were “women’s hands.” Apparently back in the Old Times women had soft hands with clean, well-trimmed nails. No woman she had ever seen had hands like that, but Abe did.
One of the bakers brought warm rolls stuffed with sausage. Annette’s mouth watered while her mind raced. If Abe was serving her meat, he must really want something.
baker had left and shut the door behind him, Abe spoke.
“Everyone’s getting worried about this new group called the
Righteous Horde. Have you heard much from the scavengers?”
Annette shrugged. “Only rumors. They’re a pretty big cult, from what I hear, and some say they’re coming this way. You getting ready to defend the town?”
Abe nodded. “Clyde’s already on it. Word’s been sent to the families on outlying farms to keep watch and get packed in case they have to come in.”
“And the Burb children?”
“It’s not to that point yet. Don’t worry, if the Righteous Horde come close Pablo will get the first bed. It must be hard to raise a boy in the Burbs.”
Annette nodded. When she didn’t reply Abe continued.
“A mother shouldn’t have to watch her son grow up around a bunch of scavengers and tweakers. The Burbs are too wild but we don’t have the numbers to do much except keep a lid on it. Now you’re a decent woman, Annette, and I think you’d make a fine citizen.”
Annette perked up. “A citizen?”
Abe held up a calming hand. “Of course you’d have to be named an associate first. Everyone knows how well you keep the peace at Roy’s bar, and Roy would have sponsored you years ago if he wasn’t your boss. I’ve never agreed with The Doctor’s nepotism rules, but never mind.”
“You’d sponsor me?
“Why not? And o
nce you’d served at your place on the walls and shown your mettle against this latest bunch of savages, I’m sure everyone would see the value of naming you citizen. My nomination would pass the council easily.”
Annette was dumbfounded. This was what she’d been waiting for. Safety for
Pablo, a place within the walls. . .
“What do I have to do?” Annette asked.
Abe let out a little barking laugh. “There was a time when that wasn’t the standard response to someone doing you a favor.”
Annette shrugged. Abe studied her for a moment and went on.
“I want to send out a patrol.”
want to send out a patrol? Aren’t Clyde and The Doctor sending out a patrol?”
“I’m sure they are
, and I’m sure they’re picking the best citizens we can spare. But as head of the Merchants Association I feel I have an extra responsibility. Word is that the Righteous Horde is somewhere east of the mountains. Now they’ll probably come through one of the two passes, or maybe both if they have the numbers some people say they do. What I want to do is send out another patrol to go down the coast a bit, past Toxic Bay and a little ways on until you come to another pass.”
“I didn’t know there was another pass down there.”
Abe smiled. “Of course not. I don’t suspect you stroll through the old city very often. But this cult sounds just crazy enough to come that way, and I want to check it out.”
“And you don’t want The Doctor to know you’re doing it,” Annette said flatly.
Abe inclined his head.
“So what else is down there?” she asked.
“Something I want to scavenge,” Abe replied, more honestly than she expected.
“You don’t need to know right now.”
“That’s going to make it
tough for me to find it.”
don’t have to. I’m sending Mitch Evans and Ha-Ram Lee along.”
Annette blinked. Mitch
she could understand. The burly baker was almost as good a shot as she was, but Ha-Ram Lee was the technician who kept New City Radio going, along with helping out on anything else electronic. He was damn smart but wouldn’t be much use in a fight. Perhaps Abe was looking for some solar cells or an old generator.
Abe shifted in his seat and adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses. “There’s a third person I want to send along, but I can’t exactly ask him myself.”
“The Blamer? The guy who delivers water to Toxic Bay?”
Abe nodded. “He
knows the coast and the wildlands better than anybody.”
Annette snorted. “I don’t think carting water between the cove and that bunch of fisheaters makes him an expert.”
“Oh, he’s much more than a water carrier. His father used to be a big man in one of the old factions, and he has a topographic map.”
Annette’s jaw dropped. “Jackson has a topo?”
“That’s right. The only one I’ve seen in twenty years, since before New City was established. Got a lot of use out of it too after he got branded. Turned scavenger for a while.”
“Why hasn’t he traded it? He could get a frame house and have enough left over to eat all winter.”
“I asked him the same thing once. He said ‘information is power.’”
Annette shook her head. Abe continued.
“He’s a tough customer. He won’t slow you down.”
Annette remembered Jackson’s
branding after being found guilty of Blame four summers ago. He’d been tied to a post outside the walls and formally stripped of his citizenship in front of a gaping crowd. A member of the Merchants Association had bent the end of a piece of wire into the shape of a B, heated it red hot, and pressed it against his cheek. Jackson had glared at the citizens around him, winced as the wire seared his flesh, but never made a sound. He’d tried to make a speech then but the citizens gagged him and left him tied up for the rest of the day as a stark example not to break one of New City’s most sacred laws.
“Why do you think he’ll work for you?” Annette asked.
“For the good of the Burbs, which he still cares about. From what I’ve heard about the Righteous Horde, they’ll even lay waste to Toxic Bay.”
After what you did to him I hope you’re ready to trade a lot to get him to come along.”
“I am. Y
ou’re going to have to handle that, though. It won’t do for me to be seen speaking with him.”
“I’ll try, but we need to make our trade first,” Annette said.
“I’m sponsoring you for associate status, as I already said. Plus I’ll be supplying food for the expedition, of course.”