This is a redrafted version of a story that originally appeared in ‘Children, Churches and Daddies Magazine’ v.277.
Horse was starting to worry. He’d secured the IED to the best of his abilities, but they were climbing into the hills along the old interstate and half the time the truck felt like it was in the air.
‘You’re never gonna do it you wait any more.’
The man in the battered leather waistcoat and stetson of a lifelong road hog finished muttering to himself and flicked the switch he’d taped under the dashboard where the guards wouldn’t see. When the dust had cleared half a dozen trucks were stopped nose to tail in his mirrors.
There was the sound of running footsteps.
‘What’s wrong?’ came a voice from outside his window.
Morgue had appeared with the grin he wore all the time now stretched so wide it looked like it should be bleeding. All the scrubbed looked like that after a bit.
‘Don’t know, ‘spect I’ll miss extraction hour. Probably be here the rest of the day trying to find out.’
‘We can’t stay,’ said Morgue. ‘I ain’t so sure there’s nothing out here to bother you, but…’
Horse watched as the man raced back to his cab pumping his fist for the others to mount up. For a crew boss he was better than most. It was just the smile was a little off putting.
‘Be careful with that attitude Morgue,’ Horse shouted after the retreating figure, ‘they’ll wipe that grin off you next cycle if they catch you wearing it.’
But the convoy had already begun inching past with its passenger’s faces staring from the grills cut in the container sides.
‘Too late compadres, I’m sorry,’ said Horse.
He was kind of pleased the cargo had already had their ears blown by snap shells so they couldn’t hear.
It had to be the quickest engine problem Horse had ever not fixed in his whole life he thought to himself as he finished kicking debris away from the wheels. Although one glance in the frontiers direction told him he was far from done yet. He was only a few miles away and already the air was filled with the crump of exploding shells. These days the guard posts worked twenty four seven just keeping the kill zones clean.
He arrived just before dawn.
‘Quiet, now I said I’d get here didn’t I?’
When the shouting had died down a man with ribs like knives stepped toward the wire.
‘You came back. You first not to vanish, senor.’
‘Don’t tempt me,’ said Horse.
The spokesman must have carried water in his back like a camel, because he could still spit. Horse watched the fence as it fried the offering into steam.
‘I no know how much longer we last out here senor,’ The old man’s face didn’t move, ‘Our kids shouldn’t suffer like this, tú entiendes?.’
Horse nodded and pointed at the crackling fence strung between its pylons, ‘Time to do what you promised then.’
Something must have disrupted the flow further up the line, because sparks were shooting everywhere he looked.
‘You should watch,’ croaked the crowds spokesman, ‘and remember what we did if you ever thinking about going back on our deal.
Horse had been expecting some sort of homemade bomb or maybe something clever with ropes and grapples. But when he saw what they had planned he took a step forwards, palm’s outstretched like he wanted to push them back himself.
‘Come on, not like this.’
But the front rank had linked their arms until the starving men and women formed a chain in front of the fence. Someone started singing.
‘Tell the Therapist we made our own way through,’ the old man tried a smile, cracked teeth showing in his mouth for just a second.
‘The who?’ said Horse with his mouth dropping open as he really began to realise how many of them there were. It might work. The thought left a nasty taste at the back of his mouth.
Horse’s voice died as the crowd began to sing louder and the first ranks began to pop like seeds in a pan. Beams sizzled and sliced, but it didn’t stop the men and women pushing from behind as the refugees tore a hole in the fence with their bodies – only the Mill’s drones arriving did that.
‘Hurry,’ Horse stopped, and looked over the heads of the kids clambering across the charred corpses of their parents. He could see the damage being done to the people at the front way too clearly for his liking, ‘For god’s sake.’
But he knew as well as anyone else what those things up in the sky meant as their rail-guns opened up. Agony brought the Mill’s attention faster than flies to shit, and they were programmed to clean until the last living thing had been wiped from the face of the earth.
Horse couldn’t help breathing a little easier, anything was better than watching another hundred wailing figures get crisped like butter frying in a pan.
He jumped into the cab and drove as close as he could without attracting attention from the copters overhead. The drones wanted a kill count in Mexican flesh not what was nominally Mill hardware. Horse scraped at the bar code tatoo’d on his forearm. Back when the fence had first been built they’d tried driving through, until what it cost in equipment made them stop. No matter how much explosives you used no one ever got more than a few feet the other side. He revved the engine as the first kids ran toward him.
‘Get up here now.’
‘Pero mi Madre.’
‘I’m not arguing with you,’ snarled Horse. Truth be told he wasn’t far off being as scared as the kids. ‘Get in, or stay with what’s left of them.’
At least they grew up fast over the border. In fact they grew up fast pretty much everywhere now they had to watch their parent’s backs so much. It didn’t stop half of them staying to watch their families get torn apart before they joined them on the wire though as the drones finished the job. As far as Horse was concerned that would have to do – he’d been paid already.
By the time the first of the gambling conurb’s ruins appeared he was shaking too much to drive further. Most people had had discomfort and annoyance stripped from them, along with love and lust and pretty much anything else. But not Horse, empaths had learned to hide what they felt as the regime took shape. That was if you wanted to live. He popped the cap on another bottle of pills and poured a few into his mouth. The truck and its contents probably stood out like a sore thumb, but maybe the patrols sent to crush even the smallest flame of emotion were elsewhere.
‘You OK in there?’ Horse shouted over his shoulder before jumping down to check. When he pulled the door wide his cargo blinked in the sunlight, ‘Dame aqua senor, por favor,’ said a little boy at the front.
‘He needs water,’ The girl doing the translating was wide eyed and determined. ‘You’ll give it to us wont you? Our families wanted you to get us here safely.’
The kid next to her burst into tears.
Horse scowled, most of the survivors round here had forgotten how to show even that much emotion. It was why they were still breathing. ‘You let them see you doing that and you’ll be dead,’ said Horse.
He kept an eye on the skies as he continued, ‘Get yourself under control. They can sniff you losing it from the other side of the mountains.’
The bawling slowed to a snivel; most of those who couldn’t keep themselves in check had lost their lives long before they got to the fence.
‘Where are we going senor?’ said the girl who talked English. ‘Why aren’t we there yet?’
‘You’re not worried about your people?’
‘I lost mine a long time ago,’ her scowl deepened, ‘and you haven’t answered my question.’
‘We’re going to the undergroves sweetheart. Unless you want to get out here? The kids looked out the door at the broken tarmac and shattered neon. Horse grinned, ‘Thought not, they’ll be able to hide you there; for a while at any rate.’
‘Why are you doing this?’ that was the boy and by the look of him he’d have been happy to risk the badlands.
Horse was impressed; turned out the kid could speak his new countries language after all. He liked it when they had at least some advantage.
‘Because I get to play both ends against the middle,’ said Horse rubbing his fingers together. ‘You sabes?’
He’d let his contact explain how short their lives were likely to be when they got there. Horse shook his head, at least he’d only been paid to get them to the groves.
‘Be quiet this last stretch. Even the cockroaches are careful here.’
King was waiting on the surface when they got there. Horse ground the rig down a few gears before letting it come to a halt. He didn’t like the man much, but needs must when the devil drives as the saying went.
‘What took you so long?’ The man with the scars all over his face flicked his eyes over the container checking for damage. ‘We were expecting you months back.’
‘Pining for your new recruits?’ answered Horse with a the sort of grin that had very little to do with humour. ‘I thought ops we’re going well. It’s not like they can get to you with those everywhere.’
Horse pointed at one of the holes that had been cut into the ground around them. In its depths you could just see the top most branches of a tree. You dug deep here to be avoid the sun and the Mill’s drones, but none had dug as deep as King and his men.
‘How many now?’ said Horse.
‘Ten hundred maybe more,’ the scars round King’s mouth deepened for a moment, ‘some of the tunnellers went a little loopy after so long underground. We had to put them out of their misery.’
‘Then the area’s covered.’
‘Dunno if covered’s the right word; even the tallest only sticks out above ground an inch or two, but it’s not bad.’
‘The genegeneering works, that’s all I care about. No one’s seen a nightmare in months. The trees swallow them same as rain.’
Horse looked at the waxy leaves. If you didn’t know what lay inside them you’d have thought it was just another desert bush.
‘When you going to tell them?’ Horse gestured at the container. ‘They’re smoke King, at least half of them – more skin and bones than anything else.’
‘That’s the problem, we need them calm and well fed. The trees keep the predators away and we can deal with the machines, but that nth dimension shit is still way beyond us. Home grown hell is something we don’t need. You know what kids are like – imaginations like ticking bombs.’
‘Well you got your cargo. That should give the soldiers something to fight for.’
‘It’ll stop them shooting themselves before they go up top at any rate. You try telling men that have to face what’s up there that there’s nothing coming after them. No kids, no future, just fight ’till they die.’ He gestured at the container again, ‘They Ok?’
‘Won’t be we keep any longer in this sun. I’d let them out, but a signature that big is going to be picked up for sure. Even here with all the interference from the undergroves.’
‘I’ll have one of the lads come up and get them,’ said King.
‘First tell me why I’ve never heard of the Therapist before,’ Horse tried to sound casual but why the old man had said that before he died had been bugging him the whole drive. It was like ferrying the next generation across the border wasn’t the only deal that had been struck round here.
‘He’s the architect, one of the last,’ shrugged King. ‘He designed the Mill; before the regime killed his comrades,’ King’s grin got wider, ‘why you worried about him? Last I heard he emigrated somewhere off world. Just give us the kids Horse. It’s what you’re payed for. They’ll be fed here at least and we don’t send them out to do any fighting until they’re ready for it.’
‘What do you mean?’
King’s eyes went flat as mirrors, but all he said was, ‘we don’t let them loose while they can still feel.’
When the Therapist clicked off the screen; the fence and its outposts shimmer over his eyes well after he’d leaned back into the dark.
‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this.’
He rubbed his knuckles in his sockets. He wasn’t supposed to be in a prison uniform either. Except you didn’t have a lot of choice when empty faced men knocked on your door in the middle of the night. That had only been part of the journey that had brought him to the station. He’d never gotten to see his baby blossom in person. Instead he’d had to watch by remote. But through the camera’s he’d left behind he’d seen what it did to people just like he’d said.
‘The New World Order. We did it.’
The Therapist switched on another display.
‘Built to last, and it took a hundred lives in as many days,’ he said with paternal pride as its fans spun slowly through the view, ‘that thing stands on enough blood to fill a sea.’
A grin flickered over his lips as he watched another convoy head toward the Mill. This view was one of his best. He stared, counting the arcs cutting across the screen under his breath. It was hard to imagine he’d ever tried to hurt it.
‘You worked too well though didn’t you? Got us all in the end. Well…all except me.’
That had been a close run thing. The scrubbed hadn’t wasted any time removing the architects once the Mill had kicked in and its function had become plain to see. There hadn’t been so much as a bar fight in the territories since then, hardly a child born either. There wasn’t much call for it when all most people could be bothered to do was get up and work.
The Therapist cocked his head listening to the hiss from the blades he’d had built as they sucked the POW’s in their cages dry.
‘Don’t worry,’ he crooned, ‘Not long now; then all your problems will be over.’
Prisoner #284 aka ‘The Therapist’ shook himself. He should be worrying about other things. They’d get round to him eventually even here on the frontier.
‘Must have stuck a tracker on me back at the fence.’
Horse held up his hat and watched a dozen rounds punch holes through it.’
‘Get rid of it then.’
‘Bit late for that.’
Horse and King were crouched behind one of the undergroves trees waiting for enough cordite to accumulate to make a break for it.
‘How many did you count?’ said King.
‘Twenty, the kid who’d torn half his face off was the worst.’
‘That was the first. They must have got to them en-route while they slept.’
Bullets tore a crevasse in the wall opposite and Horse felt wood shudder against his back.
‘This isn’t going to protect us much longer,’ said the trucker. ‘We need to get out of here, they won’t stop till they’ve killed everything with a heartbeat.’
‘And run where? Up above isn’t going to be any better if the groves are dead.’
‘Not if we do what we aren’t supposed to.’
King turned bloodshot eyes on his companion, ‘We can’t; there’s nowhere near enough of us; especially after this.’
‘There doesn’t have to be,’ said Horse. ‘We’re not coming back.’
‘What do you mean we?’
‘You’ve seen what’s come out of the zones.’
If anyone had asked Horse he’d have told them he’d have liked not to. The footage the boy had given him had been out of focus half the time. But he’d seen what the Mills offspring were building. The valley that held the site must be filled to overflowing by now. Whoever the Therapist was he was important enough for someone to drag that information from the zones for him.
‘It’s time we talked to the traitors,’ said Horse.
‘You mean the border ghouls? They hate us almost as much as we hate them.’
‘Maybe so, but they’ll help us for a real chance at knocking out their employers.’
‘Why don’t they just leave?’
‘Neural inhibitors, the regime put some of their best surgeons on it.’
There was a crump as something blew deeper in the tunnels and King noted Horses expression.
‘Don’t worry, they’d have found a way to get to us eventually; you were a tool that’s all. Now…RUN.
In the end the desert swallowed ten rigs as a storm blew up. Ten trucks against an army.
‘Proximity alert; targets approaching.’
The Therapist frowned.
He’d watched a hundred die last night; scrabbling for a piece of the freedom they thought lay behind the wire.
‘No,’ said the machine’s voice, ‘targets are moving at approximately sixty miles per hour.’
Data scrolled down the monitors in front of the Therapist’s eyes.
‘What do they want?’ said prisoner #284.
‘Patience please…establishing contact.’
The outposts avatar fell silent until a burst of noise brought the Therapist’s hands to his ears.
‘This the Therapist?’ said a man’s voice.
‘My name’s Horse, sir. I have some friends here been wanting to talk to you. We’ve been looking for you a long while.’
There was a roar as engine noise blatted back and forth across the outside until even the cries coming from the fence were drowned.
‘What do you want?’ said the Therapist when it had faded as the vehicles cut off. ‘You’re not welcome here. In ten minutes your rides will activate limpet mines, a few seconds after that you, and them, will be so much flying junk.’
‘You do that, you’ll never find out where the other Mill they’re building is,’ said Horse.
The Therapist went silent, then he spoke again.
As soon as he reached the bottom of the ladder the convoy’s systems locked on. Pretty soon The Therapist had more sights zeroed on him than a coyote in hunting season.
‘Your mines are already dead, old man.’
A figure with the scars of a border crossing survivor on his face was standing by one of the trucks and a light clicked on in the cab. Underneath it was a soldier with a control pad in his lap; and a grin eating its way over his face.
‘We need something we can use against that thing you built,’ said the figure that had spoken first.
The Therapist thought for a moment before speaking, ‘And that would be?’
‘Codes, a virus, a back door at least.’
‘Assuming I’m the man you want, why would I help you?’
‘Because it’ll stop feeding if we destroy it.’
‘I already know that,’ said The Therapist. ‘But it can’t be done, unless…unless you use what you’ve got in those trucks. We can implant codeware in them, scrap sequences. Yes, little virus carriers aren’t they? That will fuck with the Mill enough to shut it down.’
‘Get in,’ the figure yanked the nearest trucks door open.
The Therapist was headed in their direction when the first searchlight found him.
‘Prisoner #284 you are in breach of the terms of your remand; return to your post.’
A round burst through the Therapist’s shoulder before he’d even opened his mouth to reply and Horse flung back his hood.
He was at the wounded man’s side in moments as round after round flung dirt against his heels, but he had covering fire. King had leaned round the trucks side and was pumping rounds into the nearest drone until Horse could hardly hear himself speak. This was too important to let die with an old man.
‘This is only the start,’ said the blood soaked thing Horse was trying to drag into cover. ‘Get them to the Mill, switch it off. It should never have been built; we actually thought we knew what we were doing.’ Bubbles popped from the Therapists mouth as he began to laugh. He was still doing it when the drones bullets found him again.
Horse was fast, but he only just made it to safety in time. He wiped the Therapist’s blood off his face and felt the truck shudder as bullets bounced off its roof.
An explosion made him look up. King was standing on top with a surface to air missile planted in one shoulder and the flames from the drone he’d taken out turning his face red as war paint.
‘We need to get to the Mill,’ he screamed. ‘Whilst we’ve still got a chance.’
‘You didn’t sound so keen before. What changed?’
King was opening his mouth to reply when the shell took his jaw off.
But Horse was talking to empty space as rounds churned through the red mist where the man had been standing. When something slammed into his side he didn’t resist.
‘Mr? You have to look where we’re going. Nobody’s been in this far before.’
Horse listened to the tick of pebbles bouncing off the truck’s chassis. At least it wasn’t the rattle of expended ammunition anymore.
‘Who are you?’ he said to the kid that had spoken.
‘You look about twelve.’
‘Thirteen Mr, ready to rock and roll.’
The kid gave him a salute that looked like he’d been practicing it in the mirror. To his credit he only looked a little startled when Horse laughed.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘Too late Mr. We all heard the man.’
The kid gestured at the dash monitors; every one of them was on and he could hear the garbled mass of voices as the drivers tried to keep themselves awake. The sound of the Mill’s rotors was close now. They had to be the only people not to have been scrubbed clean as slate to have gotten this near since they’d switched the thing on.
Horse was still thinking about what that meant when they stopped on a ridge and the valley opened out below. The Mill stood at one end with its fans cutting through the air and its feet anchored in the rock. It looked like it was using the human beings arrayed in front of it as welding rods – the figures in the cages guttering into husks like firecrackers.
‘They still alive after that Mr?’
‘They can still walk about,’ said Horse. ‘But ‘alive’ means something a little different.’
The kid was silent for a moment, and he didn’t look at Horse when he spoke next.
‘When do we go in?’
The trucks starting up must have sounded like an avalanche breaking free to the crowd filling the valley below, but not one of them turned round. Horse doubted they could even if they’d wanted to. They were staring at the Mill like they could see worlds in every sweep of its blades. Horse caught himself staring too, there was so much to look at as they went round, and round, never stopping, never pausing. He could barely take his eyes away. By the time the trucks reached it Horse had lost count of how many bodies he’d heard bounce under the bumpers.
‘What’s up with you?’ said Horse as he grabbed the nearest kid before they leapt from the trucks back. It was War Dog, and his eyes looked straight through him.
‘It’s Ok Mr. It wants us to go talk to it.’
‘Jeezus, what’s happened to you?’
‘Nothing that can’t be fixed.’
He was holding the hand of the girl Horse had talked to in the gambling conurb, and they were headed toward the sparks from the machine tearing men and women into scraps.
Horse didn’t know why he cared so much. The Mill had to be destroyed. Maybe the kids walking toward it would give him enough time to make the life bleed from it somehow.
‘Go then. You’re not my responsibility.’
There’d been something King had said before they’d left the undergroves. Right at the end as they’d pushed the last kid onto the trucks.
‘They’ll never get all of us Horse. I’ll make sure of that. They’ll never even see it coming.’
The bang was so loud Horse clapped his hands over his ears. A hole had appeared at the Mills foot and there was the imprint of two small shadows at its heart, a boy, and a girl, flaring like sunspots amongst the flames.
‘You weren’t joking were you King?’
Horse stared as the fans beat through the air skimming the heads off the figures crowding round its base as the Mill toppled. What was left fell to their knees to avoid the massacre and Horse barely had time to realise what was happening before the Mill’s blades began to hit the ground, one, by one.
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