Childers kneeled beside me as I jabbed the syrette into my arm and stared into my face. "The first time," he said. "It's a beautiful thing."
What he saw, I have no idea. What I saw was everything brand new. Take sand, for instance. It previously had seemed unvarying, uninteresting, but now it had been transformed into a tactical topography, areas of minimal exposure and good footing and so forth. People? I glanced at Lupe and instantly dismissed her as a threather face was a mask of weakness and fear. But Zee, though dying, was possessed of a supreme confidence that put me on the alert. I gauged everything in terms of its potential danger to me. Despite what had happened to Dennard, those things I saw that were truly dangerousblack riders, living sandonly supplied my amplified senses with fresh reasons for arrogance. My skin was hot, my heart rate accelerated, yet I felt indestructible. All my senses had been drastically enhanced. Sammy could see a sand-colored spider sitting on rock of the same color thirty feet away, a creature that would have been invisible to that cakeboy Eddie Poe had he been standing next to it. The fragments of Sammy philosophy I'd heard over the years suddenly seemed deep and seasoned ideas, and not the globs of reconstituted Bushido they had once seemed. Whereas before Childers had been somehow pitiable in his strength, when I looked at him now I saw an elder brother who was more adept and powerful than I, not of my blood but a pure relation, one who knew what I knew, who drank from the same reservoir of anger that I drank from, who heard, as did I, the singing of his blood, the whine of the circulatory system orchestrated into a music of red wires. In the back of my mind a voice was squealing that I had lost it, but after a minute or so I didn't hear it anymore.
"How's it feel to be human, Eddie?" Childers grinned, and I could not help grinning in return. "The stuff they used to hand out to our brothers back when the war started," he went on, "it was hardly more than juiced-up amphetamines. But this"he held up a pack of syrettes, then tossed it to me"this is the shit. Gets you there quick and keeps you there." His grin broadened. "You're going to love it."
I had to admit the drug was a perfect complement to our moonlit walk. Carrying Zee proved a snap. I was tireless so long as I shot up every couple of hours. Childers kept up a stream of chatter as we went, some of it designed as taunts, reminding me that I was a subordinate, an inferior, and some intended to help me adapt to the wonderful world of Sammy. Tips on how to focus, how to interpret certain sensory information that I'd previously been unable to perceive. I found I was able to compartmentalize his bullshit, store what was helpful, and at the same time to generate and consider my own thoughts, which were conflicted. I knew I was no more than a tool to Childers, and I understood this was his righthe was my commander by virtue of strength and experience, and I was part of a campaign, thus expendable. But despite buying this to a degree, I wanted to stay alive, and toward that end I tried to come up with a plan for killing him. (Perhaps this dichotomy was in part responsible for the middling success Sammy was having in a war against an outgunned, outmanned populace to the south.) However, I had no luck in developing a plan. I recognized that Childersaccustomed to derangementcould both outfight and outthink me in this condition. All I could do was hope for a circumstance to arise in which he was placed at a disadvantage. It would have to be a hell of a disadvantage if I was to stand a chance. Of course it was possible that the AI would kill him, but Montezuma's plan was even less in evidence than my own.
At dawn we stopped to rest in the shade of an enormous rock that stood by itself on a stretch of hardpan. Shaped like a Go counter, flat on top and bottom, with a smooth bulge all the way around its sides. It did not appear to be a natural formation, but Childers displayed no hesitancy in approaching it, and I deferred to his judgment. Frankie scurried up the side of the rock and disappeared. Lupe collapsed beneath the overhang. We laid Zee beside her. I sat down a few feet away, plucked a syrette from the pack and gave myself a boost. Childers chuckled. I imagined he was still wrapped in nostalgia, hearkening back to the infant stages of his own addiction. When I was done fixing, he said, "All right, people. I'm going to do a little recon, scope things out. I want you to stay right here. You move, and I will know about it. We clear?" Then he strolled off out of sight around the rock.
The sky above had gone the blue of old washed-out jeans, and the hardpan had turned blood red, and the sun, partway up, was already distorted by heat haze, a rippling crimson bubble welling from the horizon, heralded by tiers of low cloud stained mauve, peach, and burnt orange. Itthe entire panoramawas like a design on a flag, the one flying inside me, its colors and shapes knitted from the new feelings that were consuming the corpse of my former personality cell by cell, eliminating all but the essence of the human, the basic aggression and will to live that, in everyone but Sammy, had been drowned in softness. It was the emblem of a world in which I was the only thing that mattered. I cared nothing for anyone except for those who might help keep me alivethe trouble was, of the three people with me, I couldn't decide if any of them fit that category. I was calm. Anger was great in me, but I had no need for anger, and I was content to wait for an opportunity use it. To watch the shadowy hills in the west acquire detail and color, and the sky lighten to a frail blue. To feel a hot wind rise in the east an instant before a speckled lizard resting on the hardpan lifted its head in response to that same stirring.
We had been resting for about a half-hour when Zee began to talk. Nonsense at first. A few muttered phrases, and he lapsed. Then he started up again with a bit more coherence: "I don't
" He licked his lips, his eyes fluttered open, and he saw me. "The city," he said, and one of those beatific smiles washed some of the weakness from his face. "He has built you a city. And you will build him one."
Lupe was lying on her side, watching him not with journalistic intent, but with the mild curiosity of the exhausted.
"You make perfect mourners," Zee said. "Neither one of you have the capacity to mourn, and truly, there is nothing to mourn." I thought he was about to laugh, but he choked instead.
I had an Eddie Poe thought behind a Sammy-type perceptionthat Zee had told us the truth, and he was the same man he had always been. As the layers of life were peeled away, I could see he was the same all the way through and that he had been who he was for a very long time. That was what made him dangerous.
A tiny bird winged low overhead, its wings whirring. I saw its throat pulse as it passed, and its black eye glisten.
Zee faded out again, and Lupe once more closed her eyes. A vulture began circling a spot out beyond the edge of the hardpan, one marked by several organ-pipe cacti standing in partial silhouette against the lightening sky. Being Sammy was not without its aesthetic side. I was discovering that I had an appreciation for the desolate, the stark. This may have had something to do with the fact that such landscapes offered relatively unimpeded fields of fire, but I took immense pleasure in the desert view nonethelessit resonated with my own bleakness of purpose.
Childers had said that we would rest for an hour, but an hour went by and he did not return. My buzz was starting to mellow, so I did another syrette and felt that sweet heart-slamming rush heat my blood, boil away superfluous brain cells. I watched the world reorder into a map of strategic points and values. I heard Zee mumbling, but I was too exultant to care. Eventually I turned to him. His cheeks were sunken, gray. Dark crescents beneath his eyes, but the eyes remained vital, black lakes in a desert of flesh.
"So you are a soldier now," he said in a cracked voice.
This didn't seem to require a response.
Frankie, who had likely registered the sound of human speech, came scuttling down from whatever he had been doing atop the rock and pointed his lens at Zee.
"You will be a fine soldier," Zee said. "But whose soldier will you be?"
Wearily, Lupe hauled herself up to a sitting position. She looked at me, then averted her eyes. She leaned close to Zee and said, "Last night when the rider came to DennardI thought you said your Father couldn't see us."
Very weakly, a whisper, he said, "They are drawn to death."
Lupe leaned closer, as if to kiss him. "They're independent of the AI
"Let him die," I said. Death was something I was coming to respect in that it offeredas it had to Dennardnew possibilities for triumph.
A creaky syllable escaped Zee's lips. It sounded like "gay." His mouth remained open. So did his eyes.
Lupe felt for a pulse under his jaw and jerked her hand away. "Eddie," she said, and when I remained silent, she shouted, "Goddamn it, Eddie! Are you in there?"
"What?" I said. I think the shout engaged me on some military level, that I associated shouts with battle mode.
"You got to do somethin', man!" she said. "That puto Childers is gon' kill our ass. You got to help me, Eddie!"
Her use of the imperative, too, engaged me. She seemed to be in command. "What do you suggest I do?"
"Fuck, I don't know!" She pushed herself away from Zee's body. "The riders. Maybe we can use the riders."
"If they're independent of Montezuma," she said, "maybe we can get 'em to come help us."
"That shit you shootin' make you stupid? Think of somethin'!"
A glistening in Zee's left eye caught my attention. As I watched, it became a glitter. Lupe saw it and backed farther away. Within a few seconds, grains of glittering sand began to pour from the eye and down Zee's cheek, forming into a little heap beside him, about the size of an anthill.
Lupe crossed herself.
Once the last grains had issued from the eye, the glittering pile started to flow away from the rock, slowly at first, but gathering speed, until it seemed to zip off toward the south like a little silver snake and was gone. During most of the process I never twitched. No pile of sand was going to kick Sammy's assI intended to outface whatever danger it presented. But just before the silver snake picked up speed, acting on impulse, I sliced down with the edge of my left hand, chopping off its tail. I would like to believe the Eddie Poe component of my personality penetrated to the heart of the situation and caused me to act; but in truth I think it was a macho Sammy move that proved to be a brilliant stupidity. The sand grains pushed delicately against my hand, filmed over the palm, and then became inert.
"Scoop 'em up!" Lupe told me, staring at the inch of sand trapped against my hand.
I was not inclined to obey her.
!" She came to crouch beside me, and using the blade of a penknife she produced from her hip pocket, she carefully lifted them and deposited them on a pocket handkerchief made of the same red silky material as her blouse. Then she knotted the handkerchief and held it out to me. "Take it!" she said.
"What for?" I said.
"Eddie." She pushed her face into mine. "If your pale gringo ass is listenin', try and hear what I'm tellin' you, okay? In the handkerchief there's about a million little machines. I don't know why the hell they didn't swarm all over you. Maybe 'cause they come out of Zee, maybe they know you or somethin'. But if you throw 'em on Childers, maybe it'll fuck him up. Now take the goddamn handkerchief!"
I took it and stuffed it into my shirt pocket.
"You not gon' say nothin'?" Lupe jabbed two fingers at my chest. "You jus' gonna sit there?"
I made no reply, busy examining the potentials of the situation. The idea of going up against Childers with a pocket hanky containing a gram of machine dust did not strike me as wise.
Lupe tried to slap me, but I caught her wrist, squeezed until she cried out. I released her and she pushed herself to a safe distance. A tear held at the corner of her eye, flashing like a live crystal, then slid down her cheek.
"Please, Eddie! Please listen to me."
Her weepy tone did not move me, but then she grew angry again, and though her voice was still freighted with a weaker emotion, I was swayed to listen.
"Goddamn you! " she shouted. "We gotta kill this son-of-a-bitch, Eddie! Y'gotta help me!" She got to her knees, cradling her sore wrist. "You wan' me to tell you I love you? That do it for ya? I don't wanna deal with it, I don't fuckin' need it! But it's trueI love you! I do! Y'hear that, man? I fuckin' love you, okay?"
Beneath the layers of falsity that muffled Lupe's soul was something I had never seen before, a palpable force made visibleit seemedby her admission of love. Was it love I saw? I don't know. It could have been another of Lupe's games, the operation of some primal falsity. But whatever it was, it was very strong, and its strength along with Lupe's anger not only impressed itself on Sammy, it spoke to the flickering remnant of Eddie Poe and joined those two parts of me in a unity of purpose. Lupe seemed to be changing, acquiring the potency of an emblem, an icon, a soldier's reason for sacrifice. Her eyes were as depthless a medium as the black stuff of the riders. Her cheeks taut with strain, her red lips parted. All her weakness and lying substance appeared to be dissolving away like a skin being shed, revealing a new creature beneath. What I felt for her, Eddie Poe's infantile love and Sammy's chemically sculpted, perverted samurai honor, combined to form a dutiful passion. If Zee had been around, I could have told him whose soldier I was now.
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As we walked from afternoon into evening Childers' mood was buoyantZee's death had been a sort of "Oh, well" event for himand he told us stories about Guatemala. How his platoon had joined up with a larger force of pro-government Guatemalan troops to overrun a rebel village, killing everyone. After the victory they had found a huge vat of homemade beerthe marines squabbled with the Guatemalans over possession of the beer, and eventually they slaughtered them as well. He told us how Sammy had watched the souls of the dead rise from the battlefield and how he had seen strange anthropomorphic creatures in the jungle invisible to normal eyes. They were slender, very fast, their skins imbued with a chameleon-like quality that allowed them to blend in against the backdrop of bark and foliage. A member of his platoon had killed one, but they had been unable to preserve it. Insects had eaten everything but the bones. Childers had kept a fragment of bone and when he had it analyzed, it proved to be the relic of a human child.
"The citizens might say we shot us a regular kid," Childers said. "What do they know? You spend time in Guatemala, you come to learn that strange is normal in a place like that. The idea that kids could go mutant living in a jungle, it fits in with all the rest."
Frankie scooted ahead, shooting him as he talked, and Childers struck a pose, flexing his biceps.
"One time," said Childers, "we took some R&R in San Francisco de Juticlan, this garbage heap of a town on the Rio Dulce, right on the edge of the jungle. The town had grown out over the river. All these shanties set on stilts, connected by walkways. Most of the people living there were hookers. Pimps, bartenders, gamblers, and hookersthat's all there were. We'd been fighting Angolans the last couple of weeks. Tough bastards. They weren't great soldiers, but they were great killers, and we needed a party. We took over this mega-shanty out from the shore. Two stories, with dozens of interconnected rooms. We lit the place up. Threw all the local tough guys in the river and got working with the women. So anyway, I'm in a room with my señoritathe bitch couldn't have been more than fifteen, but she was an animal! And I heard Jago yell. Jago Wharton. One of my buddies. About six, seven of us found his room and busted in. He was lying on the bed, looking up into a corner of the ceiling and screaming. Terrified. We looked up to what he saw, and Christ! His whore was hanging upside down from the tin roof. Like a goddamn spider. She had black marks on her facelike her skin was splitting open and something was forcing its way out. Somebody shot her, and we pulled Jago together. I don't know what the hell the hooker was. Some kind of witch, maybe. We figured there must be more around, so we gathered up the rest of the hookers and examined them. Found four others just like the first. We were going to shoot them, but Jago"Childers laughed"he goes, 'No, man! Don't kill 'em!' And he starts telling us what an amazing ride the first one was giving him before she went into spider mode. It was unreal, he said. So we took turns screwing the other four. We watched them close so they couldn't pull any of their spider shit, and Jago was right. The bitches must have been triple-jointed. You could bend them any fucking way." He laughed againairily, lightly. "Almost any fucking way."
I tried to marry the things I had begun to seehalos around objects, phantom gassy shapes in mid-air, and so forthto Childers' stories. Would these mild hallucinations evolve into wild distortions of reality? Would I start seeing what Childers wanted me to see? It was hard to believe that he had actually seen the things he said he had, and I suspected that Sammy living at close quarters and under stress might come to see whatever they wanted to see. Such a quality would make the job easier on the conscience, but it didn't exactly prepare you for a return to civilian life. Then maybe there was something to the stories, maybe the world was many worlds that all interfaced in places such as Guatemala, and only Sammy knew their secrets.
I had no opportunity that night to introduce the dust in Lupe's handkerchief into Childers' bloodstream, and I'm not sure I would have taken the opportunity if one had presented itselfit might have been our only chance, but it was too much of a long shot, and I preferred to wait for a significant opening. Soon Childers either ran out of stories or of the urge to tell them, and we went in silence across the moonlit sand. Whenever we stopped to rest, he would sit far away from us or go out of sight completely. During these breaks Lupe made crazy suggestions about what we should do and urged me to come up with my own, but I ignored her and concentrated on focusing myself. I couldn't imagine a scenario that did not involve a physical confrontation with Childers, and I wanted to be ready.
Sunrise brought us to the top of ridge overlooking a lake of glittering machines with a village of adobe huts on the far shore, a few miles distant. The eastern sky was striped with bands of glowing agate, and the crimson sun was warped by heat haze into a convoluted figure, an Aztec Rose painting the hillsides and silhouetting the saguaro against a pale indigo sky. Childers stared at the village through binoculars for a long time, then handed the binoculars to me. There were thirty-one of the huts. Their shapes were strangely modern, as if they were hotel bungalows designed to reflect a native motif. People moved through the dusty streets. Indians. Most wearing white robes. I spotted a man on horseback. The horse was fashioned of a gray metal that looked to have the flexibility of flesh. Its eyes were raised obsidian ovals and it had obsidian decorations on its face and flanks. The man was holding a long-bladed spear in his right hand; from his left dangled the body of a whiplike black animal with a flat head that appeared vaguely feline. The scene had an atmosphere of ordinary process, but its details were almost entirely exotic, and that dissonance made me uneasy.
"This is it," Childers said, taking back the binoculars.
Lupe, who had sunk to her knees, said, "The AI?"
Childers paid her no mind. "All right," he said to me. "I want you to listen."
My sergeant, my enemy. As he spoke I studied the coarse map of his features, trying to read its micro-expressions, and I concluded that for all his bravado, Childers was afraid.
"We're going in," he said. "Give me any trouble, I'll kill you both. Bang! Just like that. No hesitation. Hear what I'm saying?"
He ported his rifle and gave me a cold, steady look. "Whatever you think of me, I'm the good guy here." He gestured at the village. "That thing out there has a plan for us. For all of us. It wants us gone. That's how it intends to guarantee its security. The Carbonells had the right idea. Montezuma wants to take our strength. It wants to be left alone, to do whatever it wants without human intervention. The easiest way to get rid of us is to turn us all into zoned-out freaks like Zee. Is that what you want? I don't think so. You want the right to screw up your life on your own. You don't need a goddamn machine to do it for you. So if you want to keep that right, if you want to return to El Rayo and be Eddie Poe again, then you better rememberI'm the good guy. I'm the hero. You've got two choices. You can die, or you can be a hero, too. Personally, I don't care which choice you make. I've got a job to dothat's all I care about. But you've got some thinking ahead of you."
To the north, several riders were moving along a ridgeline, and Childers tracked them for a second or two. "Fuck," he said distantly, as though speaking to himself. "I don't pull it off, the whole world's going to look like this."
I thought about that, about a world in which you lived on the shore of a machine lake in the light of the Aztec Rose, and rode steel horses in pursuit of shadowy beasts with whiplike tails. It didn't seem so bad, and yet Childers' words about self-determination stirred my blood. I had no real belief in the conceptas far as I could tell free will was as illusory as the patch of dark mist that currently troubled my vision. You made the best of what life handed you, yet you never really understood what you'd been handed. For that moment, however, I wanted to believe in it.
"They should nuke the motherfucker," said Childers. "So what if the economy collapses! It's the only sure way."
He dragged the butt of his rifle in the sand and studied the depression it had made. Frankie scuttled close to get an angle on his face, and I realized how many people must be watching our act. Did they believe we were actors in an End-of-the World skit? Or were they on the edge of their seats, recognizing that their fate might be up for grabs. Most of them were probably just tripping on the imagery, or thinking about switching to the soccer game, or hoping Lupe and me would get nasty before they had to go to work.
Childers flipped his rifle into the air and caught it by the barrel with his strong right hand. He grinned so hugely, his sergeant's stripes almost disappeared into the leathery folds of his skin. "Aw, hell! Let's go have some fun!" he said.
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