Two sundered, nigh identical Earths merge. The union is cataclysmic. Portland police officer Nick Gates is one of the survivors. But for how long? In an altered world now patrolled by savage armies, inhabited by strange beasts and sorcerers, can anyone survive the Reunion? And can one Portland cop fight back?
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The earth shook. As a seismic event it was not intense in either motion or duration, just a momentary jostling. Truth is, I barely noticed.
I looked up from my coffee and the crossword puzzle in my lap, both illuminated by the penlight in my mouth. Through the windshield of my squad car I saw a brief shiver run down the brick wall of a four-story building. The ground floor was occupied by a convenience store. Through its large picture window I could see my partner stocking up on beef jerky. The window quivered but held as the ripple of motion reached the lower floors.
The lights in the store flickered, then winked out. So did the rest of the lights in the building, and the street lights standing sentinel along the sidewalk.
I unclenched my jaw to let the penlight drop, grabbed the heavy flashlight from the seat beside me, and exited the cruiser. I turned up my radio as I left to keep abreast of the expected chatter. Something was happening and I didn't like it. The hairs at the back of my neck were standing to attention. I could do with a few words of reassurance from the squawk box.
It was quiet. The radio, I mean. But the city around me was also still. And it was dark. This was an infrequently trafficked street, so no car headlights aided the bright cone of my flashlight. I ran the light across the store window. My partner, radio to his lips, averted his gaze as the beam rolled over him, and tossed a half wave in my direction. I pivoted slowly about heel and toe, scanning the building. I continued on to the next building along the street, and then across to the other side.
A row of genteel Victorian houses appeared to have birthed a what? A pyramid? Not precisely, not the Egyptian variety; it was more the South American type. A what would my buddy Gordon, who insisted on wasting his life as a college professor call it? A ziggurat? A ziggurat, if that was the word, that out-massed the building at my back. I could see coils and wisps of steam or smoke rising from the crushed remains of the houses.
Crushed? No, the bizarre edifice before me hadn't fallen on them. I certainly hadn't heard it, and the quick tremor I'd felt hadn't seemed sufficiently vigorous for such an aerial advent. And I certainly would have heard it. Looking closer, the gingerbread-work and trellis-bedecked Victorians seemed to meld into the cyclopean pastel-hued stones of the lower tiers of the ziggurat. The higher reaches of the step-pyramid receded upwards and backwards beyond the limits of my flashlight beam.
The silence ended about that time, or I just then noticed the resumption of noise. It consisted primarily of screaming. I backed towards the convenience store, feeling behind me for the door. The curls of smoke rising from the wreckage were multiplying, and I began to smell gas.
"...the hell?" I muttered. No, I wasn't seeing this. I wasn't hearing this. I wasn't smelling this.
Overwork. Too many night shifts. The tremor had just tweaked my senses for a moment. Temporarily. Just have a quick chat with my partner, get my head straight. When I looked outside again everything would be back in its proper place.
The expected electronic chirp failed to greet me as I pushed my way into to the mini-market, the equipment at the rear of my Sam Browne digging into my back and hips.
"Odd night, Sean," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I gave the store a quick sweep of the torch. Sean was the only customer. The clerk was blinking at the light, punching repeatedly and futilely at the buttons of the cash register.
"Subtle shit don't escape you, does it Nick?" Sean answered. "I can't get nothing from dispatch."
"Try Downtown," I said, then, "Interesting evening, Ngyuen," addressing the clerk, a casual acquaintance of several years.
He focused on my voice, something familiar to latch on to. "Going to play hell with the receipts tonight," he said. "What do you think happened?"
"I dunno," I said. "Earthquake, maybe. Mount Hood finally blew its stack. Any insights Sean?"
Sean paused his fruitless attempt at radio contact. We'd shared the squad car for years and had seen our fair share of the bizarre. Sean was senior to me by a half-dozen years and so had observed that much more. But this was a new one even to him. "Earthquake sounds good. But it beats me college boy." College boy? Still, after all these years. "You're the one oughta have insights."
Maybe. But I was fresh out of insights. Too little data to base any sort of hypothesis on. A little tremor. Power kaput. Some serious, instant, neighborhood renovation. I had no clue.
Well then. Time to face it. Was I out of my gourd or would Sean see it too? I took a deep breath. Exhaled. "What do you make of that?" I said, and pointed my beam out the window...at the mysterious ziggurat. Damn.
Sean had his head down, twiddling with the frequency knob of his radio. "One damn thing at a time, Nick." Then, as his head came up, "What the fuck?"
What the fuck, indeed. I could understand him employing the baffled, querulous profanity from what I'd already seen. And he'd seen it too. So, confirmed. But now, as if that weren't enough, marching in lockstep toward us came a troupe of renaissance fair players, or a troop of costumed combatants from some live-action role playing game.
The flashlight revealed them in clear detail: a half-dozen figures decked out in high gloss lacquered armor, the chest covered in small, orange and black checkered squares ceramic perhaps. The extremities were protected by interlocking pieces of a brassy hue, maybe actual brass, or highly polished wood, or shaped ceramics or god-damned plastic for all I could tell. Their faces were concealed by full helmets, elaborate, arching beehive affairs, like rounded ziggurats.
What concerned me more than the constituent components of their outfits were the spears they toted. Each five-foot shaft was topped with a blade nearly as wide as it was long, and slightly curved, the inner, concave edge sprouting hooked spikes or barbs.
"What the hell have we got here?" asked Sean. "Chinese army reenactment society?"
He pushed open the door and strode out to keep the peace. I followed, keeping my light trained on the advancing group.
Sean held out his left hand, palm up, keeping his right on the butt of his service Glock.
"Hold it right there gentlemen," he said, continuing to close the distance. "Go on back to your homes. I know you want to help out with whatever this is. But leave it to the professionals. Go on home."
I held my ground, giving him room, and edging to one side to keep my line of fire clear. I popped the restraining strap on my Glock. There was too much craziness going on at one time. I needed to focus on my job, let my training and experience guide me, and forget about what exactly the hell was happening.
An orange light blazed up away to my left, eastward, toward the Willamette, like a great ball of flame. A moment later a rolling rumble hit my ears, the sound of something massive hitting the ground in steady sequence, the tolling death knells of a tall building.
My light wavered briefly. The disturbance must have distracted Sean too, for when I brought the beam back on line I saw his broad profile, the white of one eye bright and wide. I also saw the platoon of make-believe soldiers if that is what they were breaking into a trot, then a charge. Their armor chimed a glassy tinkle. Sean pulled his piece free and took a two-handed grip, dipping to a slightly bent-kneed stance.
"Far enough," he said, then began to fire as it was immediately obvious they had no intention of complying.
He dropped two of them before he was lifted up off the ground. Six inches of bloody metal protruded from his spine.
My pistol was in my hands and I was firing. If I have implied I was acting without volition, that is very nearly the case. I cannot recall any deliberative process. One moment my Glock 21 was holstered, the next my right hand was pointed down range with a fist full of pebbled grip, my left hand crossed beneath illuminating the targets, and I was squeezing off double-taps.
The last of them fell at my feet, the chinstrap of his helm snapping as his head hit the road surface. I felt an absurd sense of relief that the face revealed was human. He could have been anyone, at least anyone with a taste for blue tattooing in abstract patterns. And, this being Portland...
I scrambled to Sean's aid. But it was too late. It had been too late the moment the blade tore through his ribcage.
"Officer down," I radioed.
Only static answered.
* * *
I've since felt bad that I left Sean's body there, but really, what was the point?
* * *
The mini-market clerk didn't answer my hail, nor did he appear in the sweeping beam of my flashlight.
I climbed into the squad car and tried the radio there. Still nothing from Central. I switched frequencies. The radio relayed panic, confused pleas, shouts, screaming, crackling that could be distant gunfire or flames, or static. I did not try to send. What could I contribute? And I was beginning to feel that I was lingering too long in the vicinity of the ziggurat and the dead soldiers.
I turned the key and to my relief the cruiser churned to immediate, vigorous life. I suppose some part of my mind feared that whatever had killed the power had also affected the engine's electronics. That was ridiculous, of course. My flashlight worked. The radios worked. Why wouldn't the spark plugs?
Then again, what was rational about any of this?
I pulled a u-turn, slowly, as I had only headlights to illuminate the road. The turn would take me past the bodies and the strange building, but that was the quickest route to downtown and Central Precinct.
I realized I'd just made a decision without any conscious debate: to check in with headquarters before checking in on my wife. Well, I'd make it brief.
The twin beams of my headlights picked up another squad no, a whole damn company of the armored spearmen double timing it down the street. They filled the street and sidewalks, the outer files up on the lawns carried orange torches that burned clean, with nary a flicker. They trotted straight toward me.
Well, let's see what they make of a ton of fuel-sucking, Detroit steel... I never finished the absurd rodomontade. The gas leaking from the twisted ruins of the row of once charming houses ignited in a window-shaking whoomp that left only charred human wreckage. I drove through and over it like meat speed bumps.
The burning houses augmented my headlights, displaying a chilling landscape. More burning buildings added to the hellish illumination as I picked my way eastward through what was no longer recognizable as Portland. Some buildings remained whole and familiar. Others were unfamiliar. The new structures of blocky, heavy geometry, uniformly of stone construction, but of varying architectural styles. Some of them squatted in what had once been the middle of the street.
They all looked alien to me.
The streets themselves were no longer trustworthy. Or even there. A wide flagstone plaza spread out in the middle of Eighteenth Street. Half a church aligned along one edge of the plaza was revealed in cut-away view by a tree burning nearby. I'd eaten lunch beneath that vast, shady oak many times when on day shift.
Sometimes I found myself driving over cobblestones, surprisingly smooth as though age worn. A creek crossed the road at a bias. I forded it gingerly, not daring to exit the perceived safety of the squad car.
The front tires dipped, descending to the center of the hubcaps. I held my breath. I felt the car level off, and I hit the accelerator, punching it up the far side. I couldn't see beyond the far bank, but it was worth the risk of striking an unseen obstruction on the far side to avoid getting stuck in the stream.
The cruiser bounced safely back onto asphalt and I puffed out the breath I'd almost forgotten I'd been holding.
I crossed over I-405 beneath the menace of another of those ziggurats. A scattering of arrows rattled off of the roof and hood, flushing a burst of profanity from my fear-clenched jaw. Much of the immediate neighborhood was completely unrecognizable. All of the familiar old buildings offices, hotels, restaurants had been replaced or somehow transformed. Bits of architectural features I recollected poked out from the sides of alien constructs. After a few blocks of this chaos I drove through the Portland I knew for a few streets running, the roads and buildings unscathed. I saw no fires here, but no electric lights either, and drove by headlights alone.
The beams caught brief snapshots of battling figures. More a massacre than a battle. Unarmed Portlanders were being hacked and stabbed by armored soldiers who displayed no mercy.
Somebody ought to call a cop, I thought, and knew I was bordering on hysteria. I pounded on the steering wheel. I had to get a grip.
I did not stop to help. I can explain that rationally: I did not know the tactical situation. I was heavily outnumbered. It was dark. I could just have easily shot a civilian as one of the invaders. It was my duty to get back to headquarters.
The rationalizations just kept coming. Maybe they were all true. Maybe I was scared and only interested in saving my own skin. Take your pick, it makes no difference to those butchered citizens. The entire journey had felt dreamlike, none of it seemed quite real, not even the people dying outside the illusory safety of my squad car.
I rolled up at long last to Central Precinct headquarters. It wasn't there. Well, part of it still was a corner of the structure rose up out of the beams of the cruiser's headlights, a corner protruding like the prow of an immense ship from the side of an even vaster construction. It was as if the two had collided at high speeds. I turned on the spotlight, and swiveled it up and around, taking in the hulking mass that stretched along several blocks of what had once been Second and Third Avenues. I could make out lights twinkling from windows along the stone wall, too reddish and flickering to be electric, the sentry lights of some colossal fortification.
What was my duty now? The answer came immediately and without reservation: home and Trina. Assuming I still had a house and a wife.
Was she safe? Was our house now a component in some alien amalgam?
I got moving again, edging around the edifice that currently blocked my route to the river. I thought briefly of working my way south toward the campus, making a quick check on Gordon, but dismissed the notion. Trina was unquestionably priority one, and I doubted any such thing as a quick check-in was still possible.
I hoped I would find a bridge still standing. But after all, Portland is Bridge Town. The Steel Bridge, at least, remained in place, though it now abutted the thick piers and wide arches of a stone bridge that would have made the ancient Romans sit up and take notice.
It was hard to be certain in the dark, but it looked to me as if the river was rising. I risked exiting the cruiser again, pulling up next to an abandoned Prius. I leaned over the rail and shone my light down.
Yes, the river was rising. Two sailboats were held fast by the current against the side of the bridge by the tips of their masts, both vessels threatening to capsize. That, however, is all they had in common. I was familiar with the gleaming fiberglass crafts always visible in the marina. The other was a wooden affair, elegantly curved fore and aft, with a single broad sail, and what looked to me like a bank of oars. Each boat appeared uncrewed.
A shout from the nearby stone bridge reminded me not to linger. I didn't understand the words, but I wasn't going to wait around to learn the language. A line of torches promised another company of soldiers, and I didn't want to risk more arrows.
* * *
The east side of town proved as fucked-up as the west. It was a slow, frustrating drive to my hillside neighborhood in Northeast Portland. I tried to put together some coherent plans while I drove, but I could not. The uncertain roads and frequent detours required my full attention. And whenever an open, familiar stretch of street allowed, questions unanswered and seemingly unanswerable toppled my constructed thoughts as rapidly as I assembled them. So I surrendered to useless anxiety over Trina.
That worry increased as I began ascending the rising grade near home. The houses and well-manicured lawns and topiary were now hopelessly merged with low, flat-roofed structures. My headlights allowed glimpses of unadorned pillars, narrow windows, and trapezoidal doorways melded into brick walls, picture widows, and gables. Had the same happened to my house? And what had happened to the inhabitants when it whatever it' was occurred? Had it happened to Trina?
I'd lost my partner. Was I to lose my wife as well? Was I being selfish? From the available evidence, anyone still living in the neighborhood hell in the whole city, in the whole damned world had lost someone.
Where did that come from? What kind of thinking had I picked up, feeling guilty about my own grief? So what if I was being selfish? What else could I be and still be human?
I reached the crest of the hill and turned into my driveway. My driveway was still there. That gave me hope. The headlights swept up the incline, then leveled to reveal my split-level ranch. Intact. Unmerged. Whole.
I parked, unlocked the shotgun, and climbed out of the cruiser, careful to close the door quietly behind me. It occurred to me that undamaged houses might soon become objects of interest. So why accelerate the process by loudly announcing my presence? Of course, force of habit would have been just as compelling a reason. I liked to let Trina sleep, and I prided myself on being able to ease into bed without rousing her.
I let myself in, removed my shoes, and tiptoed to the bedroom. I edged the door open, stepped in, and let my eyes adjust as far as possible. I could hear her before I could see her, the sweet susurration of her breathing assuring me that she was alive. I unclenched a previously unnoticed fist that had been squeezing my adrenal gland. I let myself relax just a touch, mind for the first time since the weirdness had commenced.
I now faced a new, lesser, dilemma. Did I wake her right away? Did I shake her awake and pour out the story of a twisted cityscape and untold deaths? Would it help? Did every moment count? Was there some unknown deadline to flee? Or would waking her only serve to ruin what might be the last decent night's sleep of her life?
I thought about it for a moment, standing there in the blackness of our bedroom and listening to Trina sleep. I fought every instinct that years of police training had instilled, the protective, proactive urges of the public guard dog to sniff and bark. The immediate neighborhood had struck me as relatively quiet. I'd seen no fires, no bodies. Perhaps the merger of the houses and strange buildings had done for all my neighbors as well as the...the occupants of those alien-looking buildings death and entombment in one efficient package. If any were left alive then, maybe, like Trina, they still slept. If so, perhaps we were safe for the moment. I could let her sleep, and, if I could manage, get a couple of hours myself. I could take stock in the morning, discuss the situation with Trina, and make plans in a less frantic state of mind.
I gave in to the temptation, unburdened myself of Sam Browne and uniform, and snaked into bed.
* * *
Trina is a picker. She finds blemishes bumps, tiny cysts, ingrown hairs, etc. and she worries at them with her fingernails. By blemishes I mean specifically my blemishes, which for a basically clear-skinned man in his early thirties don't amount to much. Hers (if such a dainty, porcelain princess could be said to ever endure temporary, minor skin imperfections) she treats gently. Me she picks at. I've had one spot on my left shoulder that is now essentially permanent scar tissue from her ministrations.
Now, in the clear light of early morning that flooded in through the gap in the curtain, she was steadily drawing blood. I doubt she was even remotely aware of it. She lay next to me in the bed, absorbing my story, and looking out the window at the Millers' back deck. The deck now terminated in a single story ocher and yellow structure, windowless on this side. The peak of the Millers' colonial emerged from the roof, the top half of the circular rear window tantalizing with the mystery of what lay within.
And all the while her fingernails worked at a purple pinhead of skin on my arm, currently oozing a dribble of blood.
"So Sean is dead?" she asked after long, silent reflection. "And...and the Millers? And Tom and Kathy? And...oh my God!"
The tears bubbled up then, and I held her, watching the light creep along the wall. I tried to imagine what terrors she was experiencing, what losses she was assuming.
Counting the dead.
Was she thinking of her co-workers at the restaurant? The people she would never help plan menus with again, never shop for at the local farmer's market. Was she missing her maiden aunt in St. John's? Was she mourning our friends, especially Tom and Kathy? That seemed likely; we'd been close throughout the duration of our relationship, both dating and marriage.
Or did she spare a thought for my old college buddy Gordon, the terminal student, academic, and third wheel? Did she piece together a series of snapshots of my night of horror from the narrative I'd given? I liked to think so, that she was thinking of the living, especially of me.
Finally she lifted her head, looked at me with eyes puffy but dry, and asked, "What do we do?"
There was my Trina, a few layers of sentimentality, irrationality, and spontaneity wrapped around a solid core of practicality.
"Good question," I said. "First, we don't panic. We think this through. We're still alive, so there's no reason to suppose that plenty of other people aren't as well. Second, we secure the house. Camouflage it somehow, I guess, make it look abandoned. We don't want a visit from...from whoever these people are. Third, I see if I still have a job."
"What? Nick, look outside. There's no more Portland. If there's no more Portland, there's no Portland Police Force. Nick! Nick, listen to me. You are no longer employed. Your job now is to serve and protect us."
"Integrity. Compassion. Accountability. Respect. Excellence. Service," I recited. "Protect and Serve is LAPD, not Portland PD."
"Goddammit, Nick! You said we need to think this thing through. You're the one not thinking. You're not a cop anymore. I'm not a chef anymore."
"I hear you Trina," I said, though it was exactly what I didn't want to hear. The foundation of my world was disintegrating beneath me. Dismissal of my core identity wasn't a subject I wanted raised. "Let's take care of points one and two, and worry about point three later."
I recognized the exasperated flare of her nostrils as she recognized my evasion. It meant she'd let it go for now, but the matter wasn't forgotten. Well, good. It wasn't forgotten for me either. After receiving my Criminology diploma from PSU I'd spent all my working years on the force. How could I just wake up one morning and walk away?
Walk away like I'd done last night, slinking away from my duty to the people I was supposed to serve.
* * *
We crawled out of bed and dressed. I took my time to carefully scan up and down the street. The desertion seemed complete, nothing moving except for birds going unconcernedly about their business. A pall of smoke from last night's fires thickened the air, carrying odors of destruction. But the occasional noise of mechanical nature promised that people were still alive: A car engine in the distance, a gunshot, and inciting a momentary burst of hope the far off rush of a jet.
When I was convinced we were unobserved Trina helped me push the car into the garage. I don't know if our new visitors had any concept of what a car in the driveway might mean, but I wasn't going to risk it. Then Trina began inventorying our food stocks and performing triage on the freezer and refrigerator. I went on a reconnaissance of our immediate neighborhood, riot gun under my arm.
Behind our house, on the other side of the fence, was the Millers' place. To the left of our house, as viewed from outside, was the Diaz ranch-style home, on the right the Martens' colonial. Across the street was the Clarks' craftsman bungalow, and to their right the sweeping brick pile of the Fultons' on the corner lot.
At least, that's how it used to be.
My house now rested within an open section of what appeared to be a rather dense housing complex. The blocky structures, mostly low to the ground, colorful, were now hopelessly intertwined with what had been the houses of Edgar Miller, Bernardo Diaz, John Marten, Adam Clark, and Mr. Fulton (I could never bring myself to call him Frank; he'd always exuded too much gray-haired dignity for first-name familiarity.) The structures brought to mind the Roman urban villas I'd read about in school, but with a colorful touch that reminded me of Mexico, or paintings of Babylon. I imagined that if I took the grand tour I'd find central courtyards in each of them.
I found a door, a thick wooden affair recessed about a foot into massive, salmon-pink stone walls. A section of wall and most of the upper floor of John Marten's place protruded through the door. His garage was now melded with what appeared to be a fountain, the base a series of gargoyle heads or some sort of abstract representation of humanoid beings that struck me as vaguely Mayan. The door I pushed open was to the right of the garage and situated where Karen Marten had tended her prized flower bed on either side of the Martens' front entry.
A maze of stone walls and drywall confronted me. I could edge my way here and there, though I suffered a faint twinge of claustrophobia. I found a few open spaces, emerging gratefully into about eight square yards of the Martens' living room. Later I stumbled into a more or less equally sized section of a sparsely furnished sleeping chamber, with a low bed frame stretching taut a closely woven leather mattress.
I doubted I would get very far, and it wasn't long before intersecting walls of the two merged buildings blocked my progress. But I didn't want to go any further anyway, because emerging from the side of a stone wall, fresco-ed with a geometric wave pattern, was the lower half of the Martens' bed and the lower half of the Martens.
I leaned against the corner where two alien walls met and I retched.
As I let my arms take more of my weight I felt a section of the wall shift. Glad to take my mind off of the Martens' demise, I set down the shotgun and probed further, pushing at either side of a square block of stone. It seemed that it had loosened when the two houses interlocked. I found that I could work it free, scattering bits of mortar. The piece was pretty heavy, about forty pounds at a guess. Too heavy, at any rate, to manhandle back out of this maze. But if I could find similar weakened spots outside the buildings...
* * *
By early afternoon I'd convincingly disguised the front of our house. With blocks piled on blocks it now appeared that yet another of the strange houses was folded into ours. I boarded up the windows for good measure.
We ate a terrific lunch that Trina had assembled from the perishables. And then we went looting.
I wanted to go alone. I knew firsthand how dangerous these newcomers were, not to mention the hazards of the altered roadways. But Trina persuasively argued that it would also be dangerous for her alone at home. Well, it wasn't persuasive; she almost certainly would be safer hunkered down and unnoticed. But I could see the panic growing in her eyes at the thought of being alone permanently. Widowed.
She wasn't going to leave my side until she'd adjusted to the new status quo. So I pretended to be convinced. Honestly it was a bit of a relief. It was absolutely selfish of me. She was my wife and her safety should be paramount, but I felt awkward without a partner watching my back. I was glad to have her along but felt guilty about it at the same time.
During the night the altered landscape had been terrifying, the unseen or hinted amplifying the strangeness that I could see. During the day the new world we lived in was horrifying horrifying because in the stark light of the sun it was now so undeniably real.
We rolled down the hill quietly, the transmission in neutral. I could see Trina staring about her wide-eyed, taking in the new neighborhood that had supplanted her own overnight.
Turning right at the bottom of the hill I was forced to yank the wheel hard to avoid an unexpected obstacle: A towering pine had toppled, unable to bear the burden of abrupt merger with a statue, or idol, of Olympian proportion. Both lay sprawled now, fragments and splinters of wood and stone strewn across a broad plaza of closely spaced flagstones. Amidst the flagstones appeared the tops of fire hydrants, cable boxes, and mail boxes. The head of the statue had remained almost intact, rolling free of the wreckage. It was about the size of my patrol car, presenting a visage reminiscent of the faces decorating the base of the fountain outside the Martens' house.
The public square, or whatever it was, had cut through the foundations of the neighborhood houses like a scythe. The houses, deprived of support, had pancaked, roof sections splaying out from the collapsed ruins. I had seen pictures of earthquakes that had caused less devastation.
Trina clutched at my arm as we drove by the first body. The upper torso of young woman emerged from beneath the remnants of a fallen deck. Had she been coming home late from a night out? I cut off that line of inquiry as we saw the next body. And the next. That kind of speculation was unproductive. They'd died. How wasn't immediately relevant.
I picked my way across the plaza, threading the cruiser through a maze of fallen houses, then taking another left, I picked up an untransformed street that descended through a burned over swath of land.
Not even the weird stone buildings whose advent had caused the conflagration had escaped unscathed. Their walls were scorched a uniform tarry hue and were misshapen from the heat. No one, newcomer or resident, could have escaped this firestorm alive.
God. How many thousands had died here? How many people had perished instantly, suddenly become a physical part of one of these strange buildings? Had the population of Portland been cut in half overnight? Or was the possibility of half remaining alive an optimistic assessment?
The torched zone terminated at a blackened wall of stone, probably twenty feet high. The street we were traversing passed under an archway in the wall, or at least one lane did, the other half of the road now one with the huge, shaped blocks that composed the wall.
The driver's side of a Kia Soul jutted out a couple of feet, the driver forever stuck within the curve of the archway, like an ornamental feature.
Beyond the wall appeared small, well tended gardens sprouting from manicured lawns, and squat stone houses melded into Colonial Revivals and Cotswold Cottages. And amidst this confusion lay strewn the remnants of a pitched battle, a chaotic scrum that had been fought in the darkness between the baffled survivors.
I could only imagine the terrible struggle that had ensued as bewildered combatants met by flashlight and torchlight, exchanging blows with baseball bats or axes. Here lay a man on his back, a pitchfork protruding upwards from his chest like a shrimp fork from an appetizer. He still clutched a shotgun in one hand. The five corpses sprawled about him, unclad save for blood soaked linen kilts, told a grim tale.
After a few seconds Trina looked down at her hands folded in her lap, and stared fixedly at them, saying nothing until I'd passed through the battlefield.
Just past the last of the bodies I glimpsed movement. An old woman in a shapeless white tunic was sitting on a triangular, three-legged stool, fanning herself with a wide-brimmed, shallow hat. The stool rested against the wall of one of the low, simple stone buildings that I was beginning to suspect meant "peasants live here."
In front of the house was a Prius. A shirtless man was gruesomely in the car, his head and shoulders emerging from the roof, his torso melded with the front seat. A cow was similarly fused, its head and front legs emerging from the hood and front bumper.
The old woman just sat there and fanned herself, as I imagine she'd done all morning since emerging from the front door and seeing her man's grotesque demise. She did not look up as we neared.
I pulled to a stop. "What are you doing?" asked Trina.
What was I doing? Responding to situation, a citizen in distress? These people, whoever they were, were the enemy. And I was no longer, according to Trina, a cop. Still...
"She's an old lady," I said, "looks near catatonic. I don't think I'm in any danger. Maybe I can learn something."
I got out and approached her. She didn't notice until my shadow broke her concentration, or fixation. A sunburned, wrinkled face peered up at me from beneath the straw hat. It was a weather beaten face, but one that suggested it wasn't quite as old as I'd first guessed. This was a woman worn down by hard labor and neglect, not age.
"Your husband?" I asked, nodding my chin towards the macabre display.
Her shoulders pulled in slightly and her face shrank back a fraction beneath the shade of the hat. However, other than this expression of fear, I received no reaction. I hadn't expected her to understand, but know your enemy.' Anything I could glean might be useful.
I squatted on my haunches. "Is that your husband?" I pointed with my finger this time. Nothing. I pointed at myself. "I'm Nick. Nick. What is your name?"
This first contact shit sounded stupid to me, and I guess it did to her as well. She stood up without a word, turned her back, and walked back into her house.
"You were right, I was wrong, Trina," I said, climbing back into the cruiser. "It was a pointless exercise."
She rewarded me with a smile and a condescending pat on the knee.
We rolled on through Wonderland, passing out of the new belt of agricultural land and back into the disastrous melding of two alien urban environments. The frequency of corpses rendered them just another aspect of the scenery. The I-84 freeway made a gentle curve south here, just to our right. But now it appeared that the freeway was sharing space with a canal, the road surface submerged beneath thirty feet of sluggish brown water.
Trina and I got out of the cruiser, and walked to the railing. Things dead things bobbed in the murky current, spinning in slow orbits about each other. They bumped gently, linking temporarily or drifting off on different tangents.
A barge, a heavy timbered affair with a single squat deck house at the stern, crept by low in the water. A single crewman stood on deck, looking up at me open mouthed, the long pole in his hand, temporarily forgotten, beginning to slip behind. He was shirtless, wearing only the peasant kilt, though I noticed this one was a pale green. I gave him a little wave as he floated by.
We drove on, hoping at least one of the freeway crossings remained intact. We entered a small pocket of normalcy, a half a block that appeared unaltered, though not untouched. A body lay splayed across the hood of a car, the back of his head stove in, the back of his Trailblazers jersey a stiffening mess of crimson.
A man emerged from the front door of a split-level ranch as we crept along the street. I recognized the expectant look of hope. He'd seen the patrol car. Someone to help him. Authority. Stability. I saw that look fade as he neared and took in the lack of uniforms.
I lowered the window. "Good afternoon, sir," I said.
"Are you a cop?" he asked with a last flicker of hope.
"No, he is not," said Trina, leaning across my lap.
"Are you OK? Did anyone else survive?" I asked.
He nodded. "My wife and daughters slept through the whole thing. I heard a commotion and got up to check." He pointed at the body. "I saw LeRon fighting with a bald-headed dude in a robe and two guys in skirts. One of the dudes in skirts busted LeRon's head with a hammer. I tried calling the cops, but you know." He gestured with both arms, taking in the totality of the new circumstances.
"Yeah, I know. Look, gather in what supplies you can, but keep a low profile. Watch out for these, whatever they are, especially any wearing armor and carrying spears or other weapons."
"Aliens, man. Fucking aliens."
"OK, watch out for the aliens. Do you know 62nd, 63rd Avenue, around Davis Street?"
"Well, it's pretty much burnt to the ground. Good lines of sight now, you can see anyone coming for a long way. If you can, go there tomorrow, about eight in the morning. Maybe we can find other survivors, start organizing."
"Yeah, OK. Thanks." He turned and shuffled back to his house, his shoulders stooped from disappointment.
* * *
"They're not aliens, Nick," Trina said as we drove away.
"What?" I was lost in half-baked plans of armed resistance and building a new society, a jumbled mess of conflicting concepts and nonsense.
"I don't think we should call them aliens. I mean, they're obviously human, we both see that. That's not what I'm talking about. I think..." She stopped or a moment, allowing her thoughts to coalesce into words. "I think they belong here, or something like here, or some other here, just as much as we do."
I didn't precisely follow her, but I was getting used to a constant state of befuddlement and let it go.
"What do we call them, then?" And what did it matter anyway? Other than convenient nomenclature for our use, what was the point in assigning appropriate names? Was she worried about offending them? It seemed important to her, so I tried to mask any dismissiveness in my response. Keeping certain thoughts to myself, and not betraying them by pursed lips, raised brow, or other facial signs that women are so adept at reading, was a skill I'd long practiced. I won't go so far as mastered.'
"I don't know. But not aliens. It's like when I was in the dorm, I was assigned a roommate. Neither of us wanted the other to be there, we were just forced upon each other."
"I'm not calling them roommates," I said.
"I'm not suggesting that. I'm just trying to explain what I'm feeling about the situation. I mean, from our point of view they are interlopers. Maybe from their point of view, we are."
"It's a little early for me to begin feeling empathy," I said. I steered around the fire gutted remnants of a church and something that reminded me of a warehouse (though what the elongated, colorful stone edifice might have stored I couldn't guess.) One end of the warehouse' was thrust across the entire width of the street, forcing me to drive onto the sidewalk to bypass the obstacle.
"They probably don't want to be sharing Portland with us, but where can they go now? They're like refugees living in an abandoned building. Squatters."
"We called them adverse possessors' in crim," I said. "I never thought that was accurate. It was like the instructor was compensating for not making it through law school and kept trying to shoehorn inappropriate euphemisms onto half-remembered concepts." I eased the cruiser off of the sidewalk and back onto pavement that was now checker-boarded with broad paving stones. The alternating stone slabs of slate gray and dusty rose glittered with specks of quartz.
"Neither of those are quite right, anyway," Trina said. "We're like competing claimants for the same land."
"Well, those claimants are going to lose the competition,"
I don't think my words carried conviction. Fair enough. I was far from convinced myself. And I don't think it mattered at the time. I think we were both talking just to avoid thinking too closely about what we were viewing outside the car. The sight of bodies was becoming commonplace, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. Thinking about why or how all these people died only led to maddening whirls of speculation.
Better to just talk.
* * *
We found the 39th Avenue (or Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, as I was slowly accustoming myself to refer to it) freeway overpass still in one piece, apparently unaltered. We crossed, and turned westward again, driving down the remnants of Northeast Broadway, looking for likely shops to ransack while picking our way closer and closer to the shops at Lloyd Center.
Broadway proved at first as much of a hopeless amalgam as most of the rest of the city, the buildings no longer discrete, coherent units, the roadbed comprised of varying surfaces. After a few hundred yards I noticed a row of stone buildings flanking one side of a section of cobblestone street the type of structures I was now beginning to think of as Claimant buildings.' These particular edifices stood two stories tall and were narrower than the peasant housing or the elaborate villas I'd mostly observed today.
A trio of men sat on a neatly fashioned stone bench. All three were kilted, but these weren't bare-chested. They wore short tunics, and one bore a leather apron over the top of that.
I kept my speed constant, cruising slowly by. Their heads turned as we rolled past, faintly lifted eyebrows suggesting a certain dulled curiosity, but nothing more.
A fourth man emerged from the door of one of the Claimant buildings. He was adorned in an embroidered, split-skirted robe of turquoise hued silk. A small, three-lobed hat reminding me of a matador's headgear perched on his head.
He displayed none of the others' dull curiosity; his response was unhesitating. He roared out something to the three spectators. They leapt to their feet with alacrity, demonstrating the sort of instantaneous, ingrained obedience I associated with recent boot camp graduates. They sprinted after the cruiser, workman's tools clutched in their fists: a heavy pair of shears, a hammer, and some implement I couldn't make out.
I gunned it and left them behind.
"Did you see that?" Trina asked.
I assumed it was a rhetorical question, but I answered anyway. "Yes. Those guys sure hopped to it. Whoever the Claimant in the hat was, he sure had some juice with the other three."
"I think he was a priest, a Claimant priest. When I see a robe and a hat, I think priest."
I could see by her grin that she was pleased I'd adopted her appellation for the newcomers.
"I am in awe of your analytical powers, professor," I said. "Robe and hat."
I pulled to a stop at what I can best describe as one-third of an auto-parts store. I'm not sure what the other two-thirds consisted of now. Maybe it was a bakery. The upper section was more rounded than I'd come to associate with Claimant buildings, and it appeared open at the top, like a chimney.
I managed to salvage a half-dozen car batteries. I figured a quiet power supply could be useful.
"Nick!" Trina called.
The urgency in her voice brought me sprinting. The last two batteries swung from my hands by their handles, threatening to dislocate both shoulders.
Incredibly, the three Claimants hadn't given up. Trina had spotted them jogging down the street. Had they just assumed we'd continue along the same road? Or had they carried on running because they'd had no orders to the contrary? "Go," they were told. And they went.
I didn't know and I didn't wait around to speculate. They didn't worry me; I could just shoot them if I had to. But I certainly wasn't going to let it come to that, especially with Trina along for the ride. So I cranked over the engine and pulled away from our frustrated pursuers.
* * *
Shopping for the apocalypse was not something I'd prepared for and the vast cattle pen now inhabiting the same space as the mall didn't make it any easier.
I found a place to park underground near one of the entrances to Sears. By that I mean I backed up to the door and opened the trunk.
Neither of us were prepared for the smell that assailed us when I pried open the locked doors. It was a musty, wet, earthy smell the scent, we soon discovered, of feces and frightened cows. Some lowed and stalked in bewildered fashion past the Binyons, Hot Topic, and Banana Republic. Others floundered helplessly across the ice-skating rink.
There was something odd about the cattle, other than the setting that is. I'm no country boy, but I've seen cows, and these seemed bigger than the grazing dairy cows I'd glimpsed through car windows.
Still, we carried on looting as efficiently as we could manage.
I caught a glimpse of another group of shoppers' in Sears. I waved, but upon sighting me they scrammed through the nearest exit.
"What the hell?" I said.
"Think, Nick. Even out of uniform you still scream cop.'"
Smart woman, my wife. I guess the new paradigm hadn't sunk in. These folks in the midst of a massive five-finger-discount junket saw a police officer. I guess I shouldn't be surprised they didn't stop to think that law and order was on hiatus. They didn't stop to consider that I was doing the same thing they were.
I began to wish I'd boosted a pickup truck; the cruiser's cargo capacity was limited. I manhandled a small gasoline-powered generator into the trunk and added an assortment of tools.
Trina stockpiled blankets and warm clothing for the winter. We weren't going to have the luxury of relying on central heating. We ransacked the outdoor department. We picked our way through wandering cows, giving the massive bulls a respectful distance, trolling the shops for any oddment that struck us as useful. It was a spree, a downright guilt-free lark. I found myself grinning foolishly, tried to hide it, and then gave up when I caught the same gleeful expression on Trina's face.
After cramming the car full from floor mats to ceiling liner, we found we still had a bit of room on the front seat. And with the bungee cords I'd picked up, we could make even more space by strapping a few items to the roof. So we drove across the street to the grocery store, loading up on non-perishables and pharmaceuticals. Anti-biotics and the like.
The shelves, I noted, were already conspicuously sparse. A positive sign I hoped.
"Don't forget condoms and birth-control pills," Trina said.
"Huh?" I replied. I'm not stupid, I don't believe, but at times I do open my mouth before taking time to ponder my words.
"I don't think I'm going to be able to receive a new birth-control injection anytime soon. I don't really think we want to bring a baby into this situation. Do you?"
"Oh, right. Condoms and the pill, check."
The sun was beginning its decent behind the West Hills when we commenced our drive home. I noticed evidence of looting at some of the other more-or-less intact storefronts that we passed. I was amused by the conflicted response the smashed plate-glass windows evoked in me. I was relieved by this additional sign of survivors, but the cop in me was irked at such lawless, uncivilized behavior. I mean, sure, people needed the supplies. But did they need to break the windows?
Is it possible to be both consistent and human?
Points of light glowed on Mt. Tabor, like candles on a giant birthday cake, growing brighter as dusk deepened and we wended eastward toward that ancient volcanic remnant. I wondered what had ignited these new fires.
Nearing home we stopped at an unscathed liquor store. By the orange light of the increasing conflagration we stuffed the remaining crannies of the cruiser's interior with looted booze. The end of the world was nothing to face sober.
The next day I enlisted the first recruit of my rag-tag, rough-and-tumble resistance force.
Trina was opposed to the idea from the beginning.
The recruit wasn't LeRon's neighbor; he didn't show up at the rendezvous. I did show up, a little bleary eyed from a late night of unloading the car a labor that demanded frequent liquid relief from a recently liberated bottle of top-shelf bourbon.
I hid the cruiser in a garage that now abutted what I took to be a grain silo judging from all the grain inside though it looked nothing like any silo I'd ever seen. Toting the riot gun, I moved from shelter to shelter until I reached a concealed observation point from which I could survey the rendezvous point and its environs.
Nothing moved. Nothing stirred the blackened ashes of this once vibrant stretch of Portland but the occasional gentle breeze. I sipped a bottle of water and pondered the demise of the world I knew.
Trina had been resistant to my traveling alone. But our excursion the day before had demonstrated that while it was by no means risk free, it wasn't suicidally perilous. Trina was used to my daily absence on patrol a job that was never entirely free of danger so solo excursions in this new world were really just a matter of degree. I hoped that she was at least resigned to the idea, even if she didn't entirely buy my argument. Given the recent upheaval I was going to be compelled to forage on my own if we were to survive. It was best that she accustom herself to the inevitable now.
Or so I consoled myself while waiting and nursing my morning-after flu.
* * *
I first caught sight of Jim Cantrell limping along the blackened remains of the street, supported by a baseball bat he was using as a cane and stirring up a dark gray trail of ash in his wake. The barrel of the deer rifle slung over his shoulder bobbed in rhythm with each halting step.
I observed his gradual progress for ten minutes, wary of I don't know what. Perhaps the Claimants were using him as a stalking horse to flush out other survivors. Maybe hell, maybe anything. At this point paranoia struck me as a vital survival skill. So I let him hobble along unaided until I felt reasonably certain he was alone and not being pursued.
I figured he was likely to be a bit jumpy I was and I could see he was armed. So I kept to my concealment behind the bed of a gutted pickup when I hailed him.
"Sir, are you OK?"
The rifle was off his shoulder and traversing toward me in an instant, one-handed but relatively steady.
"Relax, I'm not one of them," I said. My voice was calm, but I wasn't about to move from cover.
The barrel wavered for a moment. Then he swung it back to a shoulder arms position. "Hell, you're speaking English. I guess you couldn't be one of those bastards. You startled me is all."
His words came in an easy going flow but were slurred a trifle by swollen lips. At this distance I could see he was mottled with contusions and webbed with abrasions. He'd either been in a car wreck or a fight.
I laid the shotgun across one corner of the bed of the truck in a gesture of peace before I hoisted the rest of me into sight. "Yeah, whatever language they speak, it isn't English," I said. "I'm Nick. Nick Gates"
"Jim Cantrell." He limped over, slipping the sling of his rifle back over his shoulder.
"You look like you took on the Winterhawks and lost," I said.
"I feel like it too." He eased his butt down on the bumper of the pickup and leaned back against the scorched tailgate.
"What happened? I mean to you, not this," I said, clarifying by an all encompassing gesture.
He laughed. "I know what you mean. I saw it happen, though, but I couldn't tell you what happened."
"You were awake? I was too, but I didn't actually see any changes."
"Yeah, I was, and I did." He paused, and I don't think the pain I saw cross his face was entirely from his injuries. After a moment he said, "kay, here's the story from the top. Understand that times have been a little rough for me recently, and I'm not talking about this shit. Job, wife, house gone. I'm not going to bore you with it, don't worry. A friend of mine let me stay at his house with him and his wife while I started putting my life back together. I was up late when it happened. Greg my buddy was up with me, not letting me brood and drink alone."
He stopped again, and I waited patiently. One of the things you learn as a cop is how to listen and, anyways, I could appreciate the picture he was sketching with only a few lines. I have or had only a few good friends, but I could imagine the best among them staying up late with me if my life had utterly collapsed, listening and keeping me from falling into solitary, alcoholic mopery.
"Greg was standing in the den, beneath the rack of the big six-pointer he'd bagged last season. Then the air sort of thickened, like it became water or something. It rippled. And then, where Greg was standing, there was a stone wall, painted a sort of salmon pink. The ends of antlers still poked out, and below them, the tip of Greg's nose and his shoes.
"One second he was alive, the next he was part of a wall. No time to scream, no time to think here it comes.' Just dead, like that." He snapped his fingers.
"So," he continued, "I discovered that Greg's house was now part of another building, all mashed together like. It was a temple, I think. And I wasn't alone in it. I worked my way through the mish-mash of walls, like a maze you know, and I ran into some skinny dink in a robe and a funny hat what?"
"Nothing, just got something down my wind pipe. Go on."
"Anyways, he starts yelling some gibberish and two guys in armor, toting spears, come running. I'm in this big hallway lit up by torches, with these big gargoyle-looking idols throwing shadows. Spooky, you know. Anyways, I turned around and ran back the way I came. Greg's gun case was in the den. It hadn't been...absorbed. I grabbed the 30.06 and loaded it before the tin soldiers could catch me. They tried to stick me with their spears, so I shot them. I filled my pockets with cartridges and tried to get out.
"It... it wasn't easy. There were a lot of them." He didn't elaborate. He didn't need to. The marks on his body told the tale well enough.
"Do you have a place to stay, Jim?"
"You cruising, Nick? I know I'm pretty."
I laughed. I told him my story as we drove back to my house.
* * *
"Trina, this is Jim Cantrell. Jim, my wife Trina."
"Oh, God. Come in, sit down. I'm sorry, we have no ice. Let me get some disinfectant and bandages. We just looted a pharmacy, so we should be able to fix you up." Trina can ramble a bit when flustered, but simultaneously she's thinking rapidly, working through the problem. She disappeared into the bathroom to rummage through our now fully stocked medicine cabinet.
"I like her," said Jim as he eased his battered frame onto the couch with a grunt of pain.
* * *
I recruited my next two freedom fighters two days later while Trina was nursing Jim back to health. She declared that he needed a crutch in place of a baseball bat a reasonable request.
I was glad of the excuse to get out of the house. I'm a restless sort, and I was reluctant to face having to bunker down, either in hiding or under siege (a question more of when' than if'.) I determined to take advantage of as much freedom to roam as possible.
I once again navigated through the weirdly altered thoroughfares of Portland, this time working my way south and a bit west. I stopped once to siphon gas from a parked Subaru Forester. The house behind, a rundown Craftsman Bungalow, was now merged with a shrine and public fountain. Frowning statues slightly in excess of life size stood guard over a bubbling font and square stone catch-basin. Each statue was posed with outstretched arms terminating in cupped palms. I was beginning to recognize specific facial types in the statuary.
There was an orderliness, a sameness, about the Claimants' architecture that was at odds with Portland's eclecticism. Soviet-era apartment blocks as designed by ancient Egyptians, looming idols standing in for the commies' colossal figures of heroic workers. What kind of people built like this?
The medical supply store I'd intended to plunder was now a burnt-out shell, as were its immediate environs. So I continued south, steering for a convalescent center, and hoping the Mt. Tabor fires hadn't engulfed the entire hill.
I was happy to discover that the conflagration had not been total. The convalescent center rose into view, seemingly unharmed, as were the buildings and trees nearby unharmed, though not entirely unchanged. I was not happy to see the top tier of a ziggurat peeking above the pines farther south.
I was staring at the ziggurat as I crept nearer to my destination, so I almost didn't notice the young woman who leaped clear from her hiding place behind the decorative hedge framing a bus-stop shelter.
I hit the brakes before I hit her. Luckily, my recent habit was the slow crawl. The streets were too hazardous now to drive the posted speed.
Over a no-longer white, ribbed tank top she wore an oversized denim jacket with the sleeves rolled back. Her dark hair was pulled back in a pony tail. She was flagging me down with both arms, unnecessarily at this point.
I kept the engine running, but lowered the window. She came around the side.
"Thank God," she said, then, "Are you a cop?"
"Up til a couple days ago." I still kept the motor chugging and my eyes roving.
"Tonio, it's OK. Come on out," she called over her shoulder.
Another figure appeared from behind the topiary. He was dark complected, didn't stand much taller than she, and was dressed much the same. I noticed the leather sheath of a machete emerging from beneath the hem of his jacket. He kept his head on a nervous swivel. I didn't blame him a bit.
He came around to her side. My hand eased down to rest on the .45 at my hip.
"Luisa, I told you, anybody could be driving a cop car," he said.
"Yes, but not one of them," she answered.
I made my decision. "I'm going to pull into the lot. Let's talk out of the street. It's too exposed here."
They walked behind me as I maneuvered the cruiser to a spot in the parking lot between a panel van and a Mercedes SUV. I grabbed the riot gun and got out. "C'mon. Talk to me while I hunt for a crutch. And whatever else useful I can find in here."
They exchanged glances. "A crutch?" she said.
"Just as likely to find one of them," he said.
"Maybe so, but the wife said I need to bring home a crutch, so I'm going to bring home a crutch." Besides, it couldn't hurt to augment our pharmaceuticals. And now I had a couple of vigilant sorts watching my back. Probably.
We climbed the stairs to the old brick pile and entered the front doors. It smelled like death inside.
"I told you," said Tonio, though to the best of my recollection I don't believe he had. "They were here. They've been hunting us down, fucking hunter-killer patrols, man!"
I didn't betray any nervousness, I don't think, though I did bring the shotgun to a ready position. "Why don't you tell me your story? I don't think there's anyone here alive but us right now. You'd have noticed."
"I think he's right, Tonio. And anyway you've got, like, animal instincts; you always see them coming." Something in her tone suggested to me that her compliment was barbed.
We moved through cavernous, antiseptic corridors, walking over buffed white floors scuffed by the impact of some sort of hard soled shoes. We breathed the odor of dried blood and the early stages of decay, deliberately staying in the hallways and avoiding the rooms. Tonio and Luisa began relating their story of surviving the change.
"We were staying with Tonio's parents," Luisa said.
"They had an apartment on Stark, over that way," Tonio said, "with two bedrooms."
"We didn't see it happen, we were sleeping."
"We was tired, man. Luisa, she work two jobs, and I work overtime every day last week."
"But we woke up near dawn when the screaming got too loud."
"It was fucked up, man. Houses burning and shit. Buildings just different. You know."
"Tonio's mom and dad were sitting on the couch in front of the TV."
"It wasn't even on and they were just, like, staring at it."
"We sat with them until dawn. Then we went outside to take a look. All four of us."
"We saw that big pyramid, like they have in Mexico, you know?"
"And we saw lots of soldiers. Not regular soldiers no guns, no camo uniforms."
"Big fucking spears, man. And they were killing everybody!"
"They were just marching down the street. And at every house four or five of them would break off from the group and knock down the front door."
"Every house that was still a house, and not one of those Fred Flinstone-looking places."
I didn't think his description of the Claimant's construction was very apt. The stone structures were elegant, in their way. They were regularly and exactly constructed, and elaborately decorated, not the crude huts of Bedrock. But I let it go.
"Tonio's folks went back into the apartment. We went with them to grab some stuff."
"They didn't want to leave, man. They was just hugging each other and crying. Luisa got some food in a grocery bag and I got my machete. Then we tried to drag my papa and my mother downstairs. He was hitting me and she was crying..."
"We had to let them go. Tonio did everything he could, but they weren't moving. It wasn't your fault, baby. The soldiers were almost there."
I found a likely looking room. Glass windows sandwiching a wire protective grid allowed a glimpse of stocked shelves. I went in, giving my two young companions a moment to compose themselves. I stuffed my pockets with small bottles, the labels of which I didn't bother reading.
I saw no crutches. But there was another door. I pulled that open. There I found a wheelchair, and, leaning in a corner several pairs of crutches. But I didn't notice those for a moment.
What captured my gaze was the old man sprawled on a bed, arms flung wide. A cloud of flies hovered over the corpse, centered above a gaping slash in his abdomen from which dangled a loop of intestine. A splatter of dried blood tracked along the floor leading to a door that would adjoin the main hallway.
I stood motionless for several minutes. I was piecing together moving images from Tonio and Luisa's story with what I'd imagined had occurred here in the convalescent center. The soldiers themselves I could picture easily; they were permanently engraved in my memory. I could see them trooping in lockstep down the center of the street, a column streaming from the front entrance of the ziggurat, gaping like the mouth of hell. Their wide-bladed pole arms glinting above them, like the flickering points of light across a river's ever shifting surface, and their armor rippling like the scaled fish darting below. The front of the column begins peeling off left and right, like the mouth of a delta, each separate strand flowing into a house. Blood then puddles from beneath the doors and out each window. I could see them filing into the convalescent center, tramping down the halls, smashing open doors and butchering helpless old men and women in their beds. It was all remarkably vivid, a lucid daydream.
"Hey, man, you OK...oh, shit!"Tonio said, from behind my shoulder.
I stepped to the corner and grabbed a pair of crutches. "Yeah, I'm OK. Let's get out of here. Luisa doesn't need to see this."
But I was too late. Her eyes grew wide, and then narrowed into slits of pure hate.
"Come on you two. Like you said there is a ziggurat nearby. In that case, we've been in one place too long." I placed one hand gently on her elbow and shifted her about. She didn't resist. Tonio was already moving.
"Do you have a place to stay?" I asked as we descended the front stairs.
"No," Luisa answered, "we've been on the move since...damn!"
I followed her glance and concurred with her epithet. We had been in one place too long. About two dozen Claimant soldiers marched toward us, still about two hundred yards away.
Tonio stepped in front of Luisa and dragged free his machete.
"The hell with that, Tonio," I said. "There are too many of them. Get in the car."
We hustled. Tonio crawled into the back seat and I tossed the crutches in with him. Luisa hopped in beside me and I left thick streaks of rubber to memorialize our visit.
Reaching ramming speed and tearing through the Claimants like bowling pins was tempting, but foolish. I'd seen what they could do with those spears of theirs, big ungainly things like something out of a badly dubbed martial-arts movie. It wouldn't take too much for one of them to take out a tire, or smash through a window to cleave open one of our heads. No, it was back home with two more foundlings. I wondered what Trina would say.
Despite my best intentions the little horror docudrama I'd just envisioned wouldn't stop running through the projector in my head. And I remembered the rage in Luisa's eyes. And I remembered Tonio's grief as he described leaving his parents to be slaughtered.
I pulled a u-turn, gunned the cruiser toward the marching soldiers, then with a practiced ease that would have made my police academy driving instructor proud I spun the wheel and slid to a stop perpendicular to the head of the column.
I lowered the window, leaned as much of my head and shoulders out as I could to ease the impending noise inside the car. Then I leveled the barrel of my shotgun at the front rank and hammered them with five rounds of buckshot, leaving four Claimants sprawled on the asphalt, bleeding out.
Then, listening to the cheers of Tonio and the delighted growls of Luisa I drove us home.
* * *
"Well," said Trina, "it will be nice to cook for several people again. I was beginning to miss it a little bit."
I hugged her close. "You are the best, baby," I whispered. "All these people I'm just dropping them on you without warning."
She smiled a we'll talk about it later' smile and took Luisa under her wing like a sister.
We set up Tonio and Luisa downstairs. The front of our house presented only a single story facing the street. But a slight depression in the hillside opened like a bowl behind the house, dropping at a steep enough angle to allow us two stories at the rear of the house. Jim bunked in the spare bedroom (den, study, library, whatever the hell it was) upstairs. Sitting in the living room after a terrific supper Trina worked wonders with canned food and rice I could envision the house beginning to feel a might cramped soon.
We were plenty cozy in the living room. The couch and padded reclining chair required augmentation in the form of a couple of chairs from the dining room table. We sat grouped around the coffee table. I sat with Trina on the couch facing the fireplace with the antique Civil War saber hanging above the mantle. That was Trina's one concession on the living room furnishings. She felt that instead of it being unduly masculine it added an old fashioned character to the room, providing a hint of class from a bygone era that elevated the IKEA dominated decor a notch.
We'd avoided discussing the day's unpleasantness over dinner. Now Trina and Jim listened Trina horrified but trying not to show it, Jim enraged and not bothering to hide it as Luisa and Tonio recounted their story again, adding the new details from the convalescent center.
"What are we going to do about this, Nick?" Jim asked. "I mean about the Claimants? Do we just hunker down and wait for them to come kill us?"
Trina gripped my arm, hard. "What are we going to do about it? Nothing. There is nothing we can do. This is too big a problem for five people to solve. We hide. We wait."
"Wait for what?" Jim asked again. "You heard Tonio and Luisa. Those Claimant soldiers aren't waiting."
"We wait for our own soldiers," said Trina. "We heard a fighter jet the other day. That has to be ours. The Claimants don't have that kind of technology."
"I don't know, Trina," I said as gently as I could, placing my free hand over her two white-knuckled hands. "Maybe if we were up in Seattle. Fort Lewis is right down the freeway from them. Assuming the whole base didn't get transformed into a lake or something there's probably enough left to start fighting back. But we don't have a big military presence nearby. There's the Air National Guard stationed at PDX that's probably where the jet came from. And there are a few Guard and Reserve units scattered about, but they aren't active they aren't staffed round the clock with armed men."
"So we wait for the troops from Fort Lewis," Trina said, but I could hear the doubt in her voice. She was a realist if you probed far enough beneath the surface.
"Waiting doesn't sit right with me," said Jim. Tonio nodded and Luisa growled.
"Baby, I don't know," I said to Trina. "If there were more of us, maybe we could bunker down, defend ourselves when they come. But there are just the five of us. We can't hold the house for long against a real assault. Five are too many to really hide for long, and too few for a big fight."
"Then what does that leave us?" asked Trina, still looking for a safe resolution.
"Hit-and-run," said Jim. "Guerrilla tactics."
I nodded. "Keep them off balance. Make them worry more about their security than hunting down survivors."
"Sweetheart, you were a cop, not a soldier," Trina said. "You weren't trained for this." She turned to face Jim. "You going to tell me you were a Green Beret, or a Seal, or some shit?"
"No ma'am. I served, but I'd never lie about a thing like that. I just fixed tanks. Didn't drive em, didn't fight em. Just fixed em. But I know one end of a rifle from the other. I shot Expert every time. And I imagine if we put our heads together we can figure out a way to do some damage and get away clean."
"What about you two?" Trina asked, turning on Tonio and Luisa. "Do you know anything about fighting?"
"I wasn't in no gang," said Tonio defensively, as if Trina had accused him of something. "I ain't never shot a gun. But I can learn."
"Good," put in Jim. "You won't have to unlearn anything. Gang-bangers can't shoot for shit."
Trina ignored him. "Come on, Luisa. You're not seriously thinking about this."
It was a fruitless search for an ally. Luisa locked eyes with Trina and to me her reply sounded earnest and unfeigned. "I'm dead serious. You didn't see what they did to that old man in the hospital. I'm sure you've seen enough of the bad stuff that happened. Maybe it wasn't on purpose. This whole thing could be some big accident. But what they the Claimants did after it all started...I just want to hurt them."
"Nick, it's not safe," Trina tried, a faltering, rear-guard gambit.
I lifted her hands off of my arm and held them both gently between my own. "Baby, you know I never wanted to change the world. I never worried about leaving the world a better place. I just wanted to make a good life for you and me, and maybe help a few people, get a few bad guys off the street. But now, if there is any hope left of making a good life for us, I need to try to change the world. Or at least a little part of it."
"What a load of horseshit, Nick," she said. "What movie did you steal that speech from?" That hurt and she saw it. So, being Trina, she added, "Still...maybe somewhere, buried under all the crap, you have a point."
"Not buried that deep, baby. You won't need hip waders. I'm preaching nothing but the truth. If we do nothing, eventually they are going to find us and kill us. If we take the fight to them maybe, maybe, we can buy enough time for whatever is left of the armed forces to get its act together and save our asses."
She sighed and leaned her head on my shoulder.
"So," asked Jim, "how are we fixed for guns?"
Ken Lizzi is an attorney and the author of an assortment of published short stories. When not traveling and he'd rather be traveling he lives in Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife Isa. He enjoys reading, homebrewing, exercise, and visiting new places. He loathes writing about himself in the third person. Reunion is his first novel.
TTB title: Reunion
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Reunion Copyright © 2014. Ken Lizzi. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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Format: Trade Paperback
"Ken Lizzi's novel puts a fascinating spin on the time-honored post-apocalypse tale. There is action a-plenty, and the writing is adept and engaging. It's refreshing to see something other than evil vampires or mindless zombies threatening humanity. Nice job, Ken, I look forward to seeing your next effort."
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Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2014. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved. Cover art © 2014 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved. This page last updated 01-15-14. Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.
Format: Trade Paperback
"Ken Lizzi's novel puts a fascinating spin on the time-honored post-apocalypse tale. There is action a-plenty, and the writing is adept and engaging. It's refreshing to see something other than evil vampires or mindless zombies threatening humanity. Nice job, Ken, I look forward to seeing your next effort."
Back to the Featured books
Back to Twilight Times Books main page
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2014. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2014 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 01-15-14.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.