The Invasion of Crackland

I. The death of Aaron Arvicher The Grand Vizier of the Autonomous Monarchy of Crackland and its Associated Territories, once Stanford University professor Aaron Arvicher, was somewhat relieved at age eighty-five when he was diagnosed by one of Crackland's few physicians as having an inoperable brain tumor. "Now I can finally take off this ridiculous costume," he muttered with reference to the long, flowing purple robe, embroidered with moons and stars, that he had

habitually worn since the inception of the monarchy, of which he was the principal architect. As the last days of his life drained away, Arvicher was being conveyed by electronic train to a sort of hospice at the far end of the inhabited settlements of the realm. He was accompanied in a private car by his understudy, a former graduate student name Donny Seabrink, who knew many of the secrets to Arvicher's power as well as many of the deceptions Arvicher had concocted to perfect the absolutist role of his former prom king turned sovereign, Zack Hammer-Twift. Arvicher had been content with establishing a monarchy in Crackland because he had felt long ago that kingdoms had been the most durable and efficient forms of human governance ever known on the surface. His lifelong model had been Louis XIV of France whose seventy-two year reign had made his nation the most powerful and stable in the world. Likewise, in

his waning years, Arvicher had been somewhat dismayed with the transformation of the monarchy into a kind royal Fascist state, modeled roughly on the Germanic Prussian-cum-Nazi model. The constant Fascist marches played over the territory's countless loudspeakers at all times during night and day troubled him, as did the uniforms, flags and constant parading of the Midnight Riders who had been converted into goose-stepping storm troopers from their former pose as a vicious and uncompromisingly harsh motorcycle club. The kingdom required a less ludicrous police force, Arvicher had thought. Also, the Fascist states of the mid-Twentieth Century had been short lived and driven out of existence within less than two decades. An absolute monarchy based on the House of Bourbon was far more lasting and would inspire much more awe in the eyes of its subjects that a plumed coterie of pseudo-Nazis marching about to old Prussian war songs and brandishing side arms. This he had told to Donny Seabrink numerous times and had

convinced his acolyte that King Zack, now quite obsessed with plasticated Fascism, may have outlived his usefulness. He urged Seabrink to purge the realm of Zack in the most painless way possible, which was a planned suicide, and install in his place the Bastard Micah, son of the former queen Xenia and her topside Hudson River Valley lover Taz Ten Tolen--both long ago fallen victims to political intrigue and Butch McGreevey's well-worn headsman's axe. Micah was thirteen now and kept in both seclusion and luxury in a place called the Forbidden City, which to noblemen like Arvicher and Seabrink was not forbidden. Spoiled and appropriately stupid, Micah could assume kingship seamlessly after Zack's contrived suicide and could restore the realm to the awesome charisma of total monarchial rule. Seabrink, a true apprentice to state management, had listened intently to this plan and vowed to carry it out as soon as possible after Arvicher's imminent death. The suicide would be easy to arrange, especially with the help of the loyal Midnight Riders, who had

grown tired of wearing Germanesque pickelhaube steel helmets and ten-button tunics and who longed for their old leather motorcycle vests and horned bike headgear. Micah was at an age, Seabrink knew, where he would be malleable too. Seabrink would see to that, no problem. Growing weaker and weaker, Arvicher rolled over in his train car bed and stared out of the window at the always sunny and verdant Crackland panorama which passed noiselessly outside of his private coach. Electronic trains had been one of the great achievements of the early corporate founders of the pristine subterranean territory, and, as all sorts of other private vehicles had been long ago proscribed by royal edict, the trains went everywhere. It had been proposed by the original founders, Arvicher's employers, as an ecological move to preserve the unspoiled nature of the natural underground Earth fault, and there was something about this plan that Arvicher needed to

communicate to his replacement before dying. He wondered whether he would have time to do it. He tried to sit up in order to punctuate the importance of his words to Seabrink, but failed and slouched backward into his bed. He tried to make his rheumy yellow eyes as dramatic as possible as he spoke: "Donny," he began weakly and gasping, "there are few other things you should know about Crackland and its founders, so just listen and take note. Remember at all times what I am about to tell you." At that moment the loud strains of the Prussian Coburger March broke out across the central aisle of the speeding electric train. A Midnight Rider, posted to guard the Grand Vizier's private cabin, clicked his steel-booted heels and snapped to attention.

"Close the goddamn door and shut that music crap off," groaned Arvicher. "We've had enough Nazis for the day. Now listen." Obediently, Seabrink motioned to the guard and closed the coach door. He settled closer to the dying Arvicher and nodded for him to continue. "I knew John Crack," Arvicher began, wheezing. "I met him in 1958 just after the discovery and early colonization plans were made for this dominion. We have always out of necessity vilified Crack and his explorer companion Jabari Cutler---now Jabari the Magician, who I don't think is even alive any more, but needs to be in order to add a diversional threat to our monarchy. I met Crack in San Francisco in order to discuss exactly how we were planning on taking over and populating his newfound virgin territory. Crack was a member of the International Geological Survey. That is how he found this

place to start with, a natural subterranean crevasse under the crust of the Arctic. You know all that, but what you don't know is this. Crack was very possessive of his find and not a bad man at all. He wanted to keep the realm unsullied himself, but for a different reason. He confided to me in a beergarden on the waterfront one day that the territory we now have as Crackland, named in his honor, had not always been entirely vacant and devoid of population." Seabrink, who had always been taught otherwise, straightened up in his bedside seat and raised inquisitive eyebrows. "No. Crack was far from being a bad person. In fact, that was why we needed to dispose of him in 1969. He wanted to throw this place open to the whole world, but most of all he wanted intelligent men to live in harmony with the

original species who inhabited the place. Yes, that is right. I said species. Now what I can't tell you is what exactly this species was or what it looked like, but Crack claimed they were intelligent and indigenous. He and Jabari knew all about them, and they both wanted to preserve the lives of these whatever creatures. He wanted settlers to live in accord with them because, apparently, the aborigines were no threat to mankind at all. The corporate consortium which moved in to govern the realm thought otherwise. Now here is what Crack told me. He said that electromagnetism would destroy this nameless species. He strongly advised against the huge power grid that we have developed, the thing which runs these electric trains---which may someday stop. That is why by early royal edict every household here, including the palace itself, has so many torches, kerosene lamps and candles. There was always a fear that this species may return and destroy the power grid."

"We have the hugest hydro-electric generating plant on Earth," said Seabrink, "larger than the Hoover Dam. We have our immense free-flowing underground river, the Delsmain." "Yeah, named after that old one-legged bitch, Aurora," sighed Arvicher with disgust. "She's the old dowager who financed the dam. Whatever the original species was, it could not tolerate our power grid. It either killed them or drove them away. I learned a year or so ago that the latter was mainly the case. They went to the surface somewhere. Somewhere where there is less mass produced electromagnetism. I have no idea where, but recent informants have told me that they are planning a comeback. An invasion, if you will. If somehow they return, the first thing they will do is cut off the power. These trains will stop cold, and our only mode of transportation will be either the private motorcycles of the Midnight Riders or the horses and mules of the

pioneers. There have been cryptic announcements posted in several places around the surface that they are regrouping. My informants have told me that much. I don't know where or when this invasion is going to take place or how to tell you to prevent it, but the power grid must be constantly guarded. Post as many Riders as you can around Delsmain Dam and keep your eyes open for electrical disturbances. Make sure no one shuts off the power, night or day. Whatever this species is, it has been displaced from its natural homeland and is desperate to come back. I have heard that they---whoever they are---have found a way to do this." With this Arvicher motioned for Seabrink to go out and let him sleep. As the miraculously lush and abundant green landscape of the flowering subterranean fault rushed past the open cabin window outside of the Grand

Vizier's bed, Aaron Arvicher looked at it one more time and was content. "I have created a paradise," he hoarsely whispered to himself. Then in great and untroubled serenity, he rolled over and died. Seabrink's return found only a corpse, and a shriveled one at that. And so three days later a state funeral conducted with great pomp and flourish was held on the palace grounds. National emblems fluttered from every flagpole and eave of the sprawling knotty pine royal dwelling. Loudspeakers blasted martial tunes from morning until late into the silky Crackland night. At the majestic entrance of the Grand Vizier's purple and red draped casket, the rousing German march Erika blasted forth from every corner of the kingdom. The finest and most elite of the Midnight Riders marched in flawless formation behind the horse-drawn casket, this time raising their gleamingly polished boots even higher in the Italian Fascist manner of the paso romano,

which King Zack judged to be even more spectacular than the Nazi goose-step. The arm-extended saluting seemed ceaseless. The crowds of settlers who gathered along the route of the procession wept real tears for the man they knew as the right hand of their king, the only person in the realm who was permitted to dress in a strange and often spooky manner in a flowing purple robe embroidered with stars, moon and other symbols that most of the ordinary citizens could not identify but which they knew were of utmost importance to someone somewhere. As the casket was lowered graveside, King Zack, taking leave of his giggling Queen Taryn, who had found the procession of the highest amusement, marched himself in paso romano to the side of the coffin. With a grand flourish, he drew a long-stemmed flower from his huge uniform belt, kissed it and placed it on top of the casket. On top of this he laid a silver scimitar, and on top of that he put his Pickelhaube helmet, and on top of that he put a scroll of parchment, which was rolled up and tied with a

golden ribbon, and of course no observer needed to know it was, in effect, blank. Finally, he pulled a red-embroidered handkerchief from his tunic pocket, wiped his eyes and blew his nose with it, and swathed it over the other paraphernalia on the coffin lid. Later all the items would be recovered and returned to Zack as he sipped a sugary whiskey drink poolside with Taryn and her scantily clothed maidens. In a moment of suspended drama, Zack grabbed a microphone, snapped it with his fingers, and began in a loud drone: "No words can describe our loss today..." He then proceeded to ramble through a disjointed eulogy that lasted over an hour, during which he talked about everything, including the weather (which in Crackland was an unchanging Mediterranean spring). He segued incomprehensibly about some dreaded "British invasion" of long-haired and "seditious" musicians who had broken their way into the United States long

before he was born. He talked and talked until he finally did run out of subjects to bring up. By that time, many of the mourners in the rows surrounding the burial site had expired from the fatigue of standing. Several Midnight Riders began leaning on their rifles, and Queen Taryn had sat down and widely crossed her shapely legs. She acquired an expression of the uttermost boredom which did not dissipate from her face until it was clear that Zack was finished, at which time she jumped up, tittered nervously, and said "So we're done now?" As the crowds dispersed, Zack muttered to his new Grand Vizier, Donny Seabrink, "I wonder if the old bastard is in hell already or whether there even is a hell under here?" Seabrink nodded, trying to conceal his amusement. He had other unseen

masters to consult with. Arvicher's final warning about a possible invasion was something he needed to attend to seriously, and Zack was certainly not the man to do it with. II. Brooke and Eric reach Kemp Tanner's desert camp---and by accident The trail through the barren desert was said to lead to the dry banks of the Reese River where, yes, some cowboys camped---or at least the desk clerk in the ramshackle Austin hotel said so. But the utter desolation of the terrain dismayed both Eric and Brooke. "We are indeed looking for a needle in a shitpile," said Brooke. "I'm starting to hate this place." Eric shrugged his shoulders. Then he mentioned something he had forgotten to tell Brooke, something minor and expected. His own email, which he had

checked along with Brooke, had been from his student assistant at the university. The strange, rice-shaped sentient entities left behind for further study had apparently all died at once. No brain wave stimulation or anything else could revive them. They had lost all luminescence and motion and just lay in a covered dish like the hard, dead objects they undoubtedly were. Brooke shrugged her shoulders. Eric shrugged his shoulders again. Then they looked at one another and laughed. Neither one of them really knew what to say, and both were a bit overawed by the enormity of the emptiness. But being together and on vacation, they managed to find humor in their confusion. After cresting yet another hill of drifted sand and plunging downward into a dry gully in the Jeep Cherokee, both Eric and Brooke started noticing a larger

amount of what they recognized as human debris: wrappings from hotdog packages, strips of jagged retread, shotgun shell casings, and so on. "People must be next," said Eric hopefully. "Maybe someone will be able to direct us to this Tanner dude. I'm sure everyone knows everyone else out here." Brooke was about to respond when directly in front of the Jeep a few splintered boards were sticking up out of the gritty loam as if in an attempt to block the road. Eric ground to a slow halt and drummed the steering wheel with his fingers. "Where to next," he said. Brooke immediately jumped out of the Jeep, walked in front and pulled each of the rough boards out of the shifting soil. "Easy," she said on regaining her seat. "Drive on." But a few yards farther, three bare-chested and deeply bronzed women emerged onto the trail before Eric and Brooke, who noted immediately that each one had a small machine gun suspended from a strap on her shoulder and

was aiming it at the Jeep. In the undulating glare of the desert heat, the couple realized almost at once that they were being surrounded by military-looking women wearing tight camouflage fatigue pants and open-top, thick soled boots. "What now?" said Brooke. "It looks like trouble." "What makes you say that," rejoined Eric. "I mean the fact that we are being approached by half naked commando ladies with automatic weapons? Isn't that a normal desert thing, like the gila monsters and the scorpions? This must be the bare-chested patrol. We probably have to either show our papers or bribe them." "Don't stare too hard, Eric," said Brooke quietly, trying to maintain her sense of humor. "They look pretty stacked. I know you like that."

"Why? Because I chose you? Well, yes. I guess so. These broads ain't bad looking, but it looks like they have an agenda." Two more women attired and armed in the same way appeared from over the side of a dune, making a total of five. Brooke and Eric remained composed. "What now?" said Brooke. "You got a plan, Eric?" "Always. W-W-D-D?" "I have no idea what he would do. Probably something dramatic. Show them a crazy tattoo or something to scare them away. He was always good at that."

The women took up positions around the Jeep with machine guns pointed from all directions. On their faces were the blank expressions of soldiers on a mission of great importance. Eric continued to drum casually at the steering wheel. Then he glanced at Brooke, smiled and said "You know what I always like about Dragonsnort? The way he deals with hoodlums, panhandlers and bums in the street who come up and ask him for money or cigarettes." "Yeah," said Brooke. "I always liked that too. He would walk straight up to them and ask them first for a cigarette or money. That would always throw them off balance. I remember one black guy who told him that it was him who was supposed to ask Dragonsnort for a smoke. It was a technique that always worked."

"Well," said Eric, making a movement to open the car door, "We're going to use it right now. Just play along. You know the drill." Eric and Brooke both exited from the Jeep slowly and at the same moment. Eric raised his hands in the air and walked toward the woman who seemed to be in the lead position. "We need help," he said firmly. "You aren't a cop, are you." "Shit no!" said Marcelina Ponte, taken aback by Eric's aggressiveness. "Oh, thank god," continued Eric. "We didn't need to run into any fucking cops out here."

"I assure you we are not cops. We need to know who you are and what is your business out here, however." "Look lady, our business is not your business. We just need to get the hell out of this county and this state. Don't ask my wife or me too many questions because you may not like some of the answers. Now can you help us or not? You sound Mexican. We need to get to Mexico fast. You gonna help us or are you all just going to stand around here in the sun with your tits hanging out and your little toy tommy guns pointed at us. Makes me think maybe you are some kind of fucking cops. Maybe an immigration patrol." Marcelina Ponte was taken off guard. She looked to the women on her left and right and shook her head in wonder. Then a blond haired, light skinned Nordic--looking woman called Calyx came forward, motioning for permission

to speak to the newcomers. Calyx was obviously an American and addressed both Eric and Brooke in clear English. "So what kind of crime did you commit? How long have you been running? Do you really need us to hide you?" Eric spat on the dusty sand and gave her a look of utter contempt. "I knew it," he snarled, "an immigration patrol. Look let's all pretend like we've never seen one another." "No. Maybe we can help you," Calyx pressed on. "Maybe we can." "You can help us by taking this goddamn stolen Jeep off our hands and getting us across the border to at least California. We can find our own way to Mexico from there."

Calyx raised her eyebrows. "Fugitives, eh? You'll both probably be caught for whatever it was that you did real soon, unless...." "Unless what?" snapped Eric. "Unless you let us hide you and your stolen car here for awhile. We're staying up in a camp about thirty yards over that dune. There is enough food for everyone. It could be that we can get you out of the country another way, and a lot faster too. Are you willing to take a chance on us?" Brooke piped up, wanting to play her part in the charade. "You have the motherfucking guns, and pointed at us too. You look like goddamn commando clowns running around the desert with your breasts flopping out too. I

suppose I will have to go bare-chested just to get your help." Calyx shot her a look of scorn. "My breasts do not flop," she spat out in a dull monotone. And I can promise you none of us are clowns and the guns are real." "That so," smirked Brooke, folding her arms over her chest and posing herself defensively in front of the women. "If you are so fucking tough, why don't you just give me one last cigarette and then shoot me?" Marcelina Ponte had been taking this all in. She arched her eyebrows, reached into her fatigue pockets and fished out a filterless cigarette. "I'm not going to shoot you," she said, "but if you want a cigarette...."

"I'd kill for a fucking cigarette," said Brooke anxiously. In reality, there was some truth to this, as Brooke had only given up smoking months before and often sneaked a smoke when Jared and Eric were away. She grabbed the cigarette from Marcelina's hand and shoved it between her lips. "Light?" she said. "They took every goddamn thing off us." Marcelina stepped forward and lit Brooke's cigarette. Brooke took a deep drag and blew a cloud of smoke in the direction of Calyx. "My old man is right," she said at length. "You do look like a bunch of clowns." "Desert is hot," said Calyx. "So you fry your tits."

Marcelina frowned and waved the muzzle of her machine gun toward the sand dune which blocked the view behind the women. She spoke directly to Calyx in clear English: "Hide them in the camp with us. They both look strong. That's what we need. Let them get their provisions and torch the car. No. On second thought, don't. Pull it over behind the rocks and cover it with some sagebrush." Then she spoke directly to Eric: "We'll help you, but no funny business. One bad move and one of these fine ladies will kill both of you, and no one will ever know about it. You're some kind of outlaw refugees anyway. No one is going to miss you. Go get your basic needs and follow Calyx." Then she spat on the ground and said a few staccato words in Spanish to the other women, who lowered their guns and walked away with looks of suspicion creasing their otherwise handsome faces.

As an afterthought, Marcelina glanced back at Brooke this time and said: "If you have passports on you, bring them." Brooke made an I don't give a shit face at Marcelina and said "Gimme another cigarette" to which Marcelina automatically complied. Calyx, therefore, took charge of both of the so-called fugitives. She allowed them to return for their overnight cases to the Jeep. Once inside, Brooke muttered to Eric: "Looks like Dragonsnort was right again." "Smart guy," said Eric throwing a few toiletry items in his small case. "Let's go. You wanted adventure, here it is. I supposed you noticed." "Noticed what? Their muscles? Their tans? Their ammo belts? Their

breasts? I suppose that is what you noticed the best. These chicks are fit. You like that, don't you?" "Sure do," said Eric smiling. "I'm willing to bet that more than one of them hope that you do too." "Oh brother," sighed Brooke. "So you're losing it then, honey?" "Losing what, for Christ's sake. Didn't I act convincingly enough?" "You were great, but you failed to look at their backs. Each of them has the sort of inflamed ring of little dots that was described by the dermatologist as

being on the back of that cowpoke we're looking for. Must be some kind of infestation out here. Keep up your Bonnie and Clyde act." "No, I didn't notice that," admitted Brooke, but I did think about one thing: Drag's email, about the mercenaries being on the Nevada desert and all. I thought it was stupid at first. But that looks like what we have." "So that would explain the accents and all," continued Eric hastily getting ready to rejoin the seemingly impatient Calyx, who stood guard outside the Jeep. "Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, former Spanish colony, hang-out for mercs and so on and so on." Brooke rolled her eyes at the shapely, long-haired, sunblonde woman standing by the Jeep. "Doesn't explain her," she said. "She's as American as a

Budweiser." "Mercs come from all over. They get hired because of their knowledge of weapons and willingness to fight for money. These mercs, shirtless or not, seem to be well paid." "Why do you say that?" "We're supposed to be renegades on the run. Wouldn't that mean we had a stash of money or drugs somewhere? They never even thought to ask, and the lead commando was about ready to burn the Jeep." With this final comment, both Brooke and Eric started climbing out of the Wrangler. "Got your gun?" asked Eric quietly.

"Sure," said Brooke. "I never go on the desert without it." Eric marched straight up to the statuesque Calyx, apparently the lone American in the gun-toting squad. He looked at the prominent nipples of her firm and undangling breasts then up into her eyes. "Look chicky," he began in rougher tone, "you probably belong in a modeling agency somewhere, but Brooke and I don't give a shit about what you and your half-clad colleagues are up to. We just want you to hide us and then help us get the hell out of here. You cooperate with us, and we'll cooperate with you. From now on it's either a deal or it isn't." Once again, a member of Marcelina's group was momentarily stunned by the lack of fear and its resulting assertiveness displayed by Eric and Brooke.

Calyx stepped back a foot and gripped her short weapon with a little more intensity. "I have the gun," she seemed to almost stammer. "Big fucking deal," said Brooke, fishing through her travel case. "I have one too and so does Eric." "And you know what?" said Eric stepping in front of Brooke, "We're going to give them to you right now as a gesture of trust." Brooke was first to pull the eight shell cartridge out of the handle of her twenty-five caliber pocket Ruger. She held both gun and magazine up to Calyx, who stared at them bewildered. By the time she recovered from the shock, Eric had emptied the contents of his forty-five and, like Brooke, was extending the weapon and its charges to Calyx, twirling the pistol by the

trigger ring. "Our guns," he said. "Add them to your collection." Calyx, almost obediently, pulled a small burlap service sack from the pocket of her camouflage fatigue pants. She held it open so that Brooke and Eric could drop their weapons in it, then tied it with a leather lace and hung it from her belt behind on her side. "Lead the way," said Eric. "Take us to your leader." "You've already met our leader," said Calyx, still somewhat confounded. "It's Marcelina, the dark one." "Figures," grumbled Eric. "Broad has the best body."

Brooke shot him an angry glance and cleared her throat. Calyx still seemed perplexed. Brooke moved closer to her side and did not give her time to assess the situation. "Cigarette?" she demanded. Now Calyx was stammering. "I don't smoke...." "Well, you better find us someone who does. I get nasty, real nasty, without nicotine." "Somebody back at camp must have smokes," said Calyx, still reeling. "Or you can ask Marcelina again. She has them all over the place." "She'd better," said Brooke, apathetically kicking at the gravely sand beneath her feet.

Eric made a point of walking somewhat behind Calyx as the former led them over a small rock outcropping and into what for all the world looked at first to the couple as a scattered junkyard. As they neared Kemp Tanner's dry river valley camp, they began noticing the layout of Kemp's "furniture" and the population he now supported. There were the half-naked commando ladies with their ubiquitous submachine guns. That was a given. But also Brooke and Eric both discerned a handsome young man sitting beside a very pretty young girl. Both looked overwhelmingly American and neither ventured to look directly into the newcomers' eyes but rather stole furtive glances at them. Behind this attractive couple was a scratched and tanned man with rugged features and threadbare pants that seemed to scream Western wear. His boots were higher and pointier than anyone else's. His shoulders were, in effect, broader and more muscular as well. It was clear to both Brooke and Eric that

this must be the sought-after Kemp Tanner, man of the "house." Kemp came forward with an angry glare in his eyes. "Marcelina told me that Calyx is in charge of you. Well, Marcelina is in charge of the rest of us. She has all the guns and the firepower. She has already killed four men, and she is planning right now to kill another." Kemp gestured dismissively at a young, blond shirtless man with his hands cuffed behind his back who was sitting in the sand not far from the rock circle of Kemp's scrubwood campfire, which by day had faded only to harmless smoldering embers. The man was sobbing to himself and swearing under his breath. It was clear to any upon closer observation that he wore the brown, one-striped trousers of a lawman, most likely a deputy sheriff. "Sheriff's department, Lander County," grumbled Kemp thoughtlessly. "He comes by about one a month. Picked the wrong day this time."

Eric, without demanding permission, walked straight up to the sniveling deputy and kicked some gray, crusty desert sand in his face. "Fucking lawman," he sneered. "Blubbering and crying. Not brave at all. The taxpayers of this county deserve better. Give me back my forty-five and I'll shoot the son of a bitch myself right now. Fucking cop." By this time Brooke had caught up with Eric and was standing by his side. "Not if they give me my gun back first," she snapped. "The pleasure of ending his misery would be all mine." Ignoring the others and especially Calyx, Marcelina strode up and looked at the new visitors. "You want to kill him?" she said.

"Sure," replied Eric. "I hate cops, and so does my old lady." Brooke beamed in obvious contentment. "We don't need our guns back either," she said sweetly. "There are other ways to kill a man." The deputy sheriff, whose name only Kemp seemed to know and wasn't telling, was whimpering about how they would never get away with it and others would come and this and that would happen if they actually killed him on the desert. But mostly he was just weeping. His courage was drained from him. "He's dead as soon as the wrangler digs a grave for him," said Marcelina. "Maybe I'll let one of you do it." "Me!" said Brooke enthusiastically.

"Nah, me." responded Eric. "I hate the fuzz even more than my old lady." "Gimme a cigarette," shouted Brooke at Marcelina. Mechanically, Marcelina complied. "Here gringa, take the pack." She tossed a crumpled pack of some sort of foreign cigarettes to Brooke, who stroked one out, slid it in her mouth and pocketed the pack. Suddenly, the young dark-haired man sitting with the girl piped up in a voice that was clearly directed toward Eric. "You fucking won't get away with it, man. These bitches are killers. That is an innocent deputy. We hate cops too, especially my girlfriend, but there is no reason to kill him." Eric pulled a jagged wooden stake out of the sand where it was stuck for no

apparent reason and dashed over to the mouthy kid, ramming the stake under his chin to the point where it drew a tiny speck of blood. "Maybe we should kill you instead he growled menacingly." Trey Agremont jerked his head backward to avoid the sting of the stake. He jumped to his feet and pulled Nikki Barazan along with him. Angrily eyeing Eric and Brooke, the couple retreated to a pile of uncomfortably rough limestones where they once again sat down still glowering at Brooke and Eric. "Americans," muttered Trey, "and they want to kill another American." Trey looked around at the commando guns still pointed at him and Nikki. He shook his head in disgust and anguish. It was hard to say what Nikki was feeling. Kemp, for his part, displayed the most disdainful of nonchalance as he hefted his old shovel and walked over near the now-covered up shit pit, containing the corpses of Hector Carbajal and his caballeros, and began digging the soon to

be grave of the soon to be executed deputy sheriff. Trey, inconsolable, began to sink his head into his hands when suddenly he was distracted by a flash of light coming from Eric's wristwatch. Without attracting any notice, Trey chanced a quick glance at the watch, a glance that even Eric did not see him make. Within seconds, Trey's fearful and somewhat self-preserving assessment of the whole situation changed. But he kept the change to himself. Later that night, when he was alone with Nikki in a blanket roll, he would tell her something, something which could lead to more hope. But first we must see the day before we see the night. And there are questions to answer and an unlucky deputy sheriff to kill. And Kemp Tanner not only has to dig a grave, but Kemp Tanner also has to feed some new mouths, so that will require a little desert roundup of rock talus pikas, gila monsters, sand tortoise eggs, alfalfa onions, black scarabs, grubs and anything else he will be

able to throw into his rotten cookpot, as well as pouring stale water onto the melange and stirring it over a fire that he has not yet even started the rebuild. And the sun... the sun was baking them all. It was merciless to both the good and the bad, and at this precise moment in time, it suddenly became evident to one Trey Agremont of Marstown, Iowa that it was growing increasingly harder to tell one from another, as the good often closely resembled the bad and vice versa. There was, he knew, nothing to do but wait, witness and bide one's time. For his part, Eric perceived that his plan---which he would always attribute to the prowess of Dragonsnort----was working, but he needed to reinforce it further. He had perceived in the beautiful and stately American Calyx a streak of both hesitant fear and perhaps good will. Calyx seemed to be the sort of mercenary that, while being capable enough, actually desired to become less hardened in her military shell. There was a wall to Calyx that Eric knew, after

his nearly ninety-seven years on Earth, that could possibly be shattered. Brooke, as usual, had acquired the habit of sensing what Eric sensed, so that in her perceptions at this one pivotal moment she was not very far behind her handsome, powerful husband. Kemp dug and dug. The deputy sobbed and sobbed. Trey, Eric and Brooke--though separated in the spaces they occupied in Kemp's camp---thought and thought and observed and observed. A slight afternoon breeze stirred the dry and blinding dust of the blank Nevada river-cut terrain. Black sand beetles stirred up and down in the loose soil. Scorpions, some black other white, still others mottled, pranced tails arcing here and there. Eric's trained eyes fell on some of these at first.

Then another of Marcelina's crew abruptly jumped up from the crouch she was squatting in and walked over to Trey. She motioned for him to stand up and take off his shirt. Then she walked around and around squinting at his skin. She looked at Marcelina and mouthed the word "Nada" and walked back to where her position was apparently designated to be. Eric looked up at Kemp. The man was a laboring machine. He chipped and jabbed into the stony loam of the desert like a man who had been digging holes in it all his life. And in fact, Kemp had. Eric realized he had to move fast. He jumped up and said to everyone present in the loudest voice possible "Fuck this place!!! You call this hiding us? You call this getting us out of the country? I'm bored as shit. Do you want to play cards or gamble or something? Does anyone have a goddamn drink? Does anyone want to fuck?

Or is all you do here just sit around?" Trey Agremont watched him with a fresh eye. He jabbed a finger into Nikki's leg and whispered something in her ear. "It's an act," he said. "And one we need to get into." Nikki remained expressionless, but then suddenly an aspect of the profoundest fear seized her face. Trey watching his lifelong companion and soulmate knew only too well that this too was an act. Some are brash, others cowed, he thought. And the naked ladies don't know who is who. As the grinding metal and rock sounds of Kemp's shovel echoed on, Eric persisted: "If I had wanted to see all these tits, I would have gone to a fucking strip club. Let's get the show underway, and start with killing this cop. I don't want to wait for a goddamn goat fucker to dig a stinkin' hole."

Brooke shook her head in agreement with Eric and looked over at Marcelina, who was sitting on an empty oil drum talking in Spanish with one of her especially well-endowed squad members, a woman who would later be identified as Martina and who already seemed to be taking a somewhat unnatural interest in Brooke, but who was to say what was natural in such a woebegone and lost venue in the desert? Martina fingered the safety release on her small machine gun, clicking it on and off. She nodded her head in agreement with each of Marcelina's Spanish words, which both Nikki and even Kemp at a distance could, inexplicably, understand. Eric continued his livid ranting in a lower tone, walking as far around the perimeter of the camp as he felt his captors would allow. Brooke, on cue, piped up again and snarled for a cigarette. "I gave you the rest of the pack," said Marcelina, turning from her conversation with Martina.

"They're gone now," said Brooke curling her lip in feigned anger. "You got another? And besides, I want a drink. Something strong." Marcelina seemed to want to comply right away with her new prisoner's request, although she shook her head several times at Martina and repeated the word loca, which even Eric and Brooke recognized as meaning "crazy." Brooke realized, along with Eric, that their act was holding up quite well. She did not realize that both of the "kids" in the captive party had already seen through it. The important thing was to keep Marcelina and her troop in suspense. Being loca along with Eric was a neat way of doing it. Marcelina stood up and addressed Calyx. "She's your prisoner. She can stay here, and we will watch her. Go on up to the plane and get some orujo and another carton of cigarettes."

"The plane?" said Eric, returning to the central fireside part of Kemp's camp. "Don't worry about it," snapped Marcelina. "You mean this cop vermin arrived in a plane," said Eric? "They will be out looking for him in another. We'd better torch that." "No," said Marcelina, "he came in a Land Rover. That's what the pigs use out here. It's over behind those rocks. But I think you should torch it anyway before we kill him." "Gladly," replied Eric. "Just get me some gas and point the way."

Marcelina went over to a twenty pound drum of kerosene which Kemp kept beside his beat up Rampage. "All we have is the gas in the planes, which we need, and whatever is in Mr. Cowboy's truck." "No matter," sneered Eric. "Get me some old newspaper or rags." Once again Marcelina snapped to attention. It was obvious that even while in charge, the woman was used to taking orders and acting promptly. She dug around in Kemp's wooden possessions crate and pulled out several old Battle Mountain newspapers which Kemp had been keeping just for fire starting and ass-wiping and whatever other uses newsprint served in a sparse desert camp. With the entire entourage observing him in unveiled amusement, Eric rolled the papers into a huge wick and asked for a container of some sort. Marcelina found him a chipped glass jar, one of Kemp's "kitchen" furnishings. Without

prologue, the normally reserved university professor, now highly agitated, raged over to the kerosene drum and filled the jar to the brim. Then he stuck the newspaper wick into it to soak. Marcelina and Martina led him around a protruding limestone outcropping behind which was a clearly marked Lander County Sheriff's Department desert patrol vehicle. They stood back as Eric unscrewed the lid of the Land Rover's gas tank and twisted the wet newspaper roll into it. "Give me your goddamn lighter," shouted Eric. "I hate cops and cop cars. Let's watch this one burn and then waste its driver." From a distance somewhat behind Marcelina and Martine, Trey and Nikki stood side by side witnessing the events at hand. "I'm liking this guy more and more," whispered Nikki, whose animosity for cops was boundless but had never extended to the degree of killing one or burning his car. "Good act," whispered Trey. "Hope I can do as well. Stockholm syndrome and he hasn't

even been a prisoner for six hours." "I think it is more than that," mumbled Nikki. "Or at least I hope so." Marcelina and Martine, intent on watching their crazed hostage torch a police car, took no notice of any other activity. Marcelina tossed him her black Zippo, and Eric wasted no time setting the wick ablaze. He ran backward to the position the commandos had taken and pushed them farther back. Within seconds, there came a huge explosion and a blaze of gasoline fire and smoke that darkened even the steeliest desert sky for several minutes. Eric, satisfied with his work, led the entire contingent back to the central camp where Kemp, ostensibly jaded by the whole episode, continued to chip away at the hard soil with his shovel. The deputy, not having risen from his seat,

continued to bend over and whimper, his tears fell to the sand before his eyes and formed tiny damp depressions. "Now let's get rid of this piece of shit," growled Eric. "How's that hole going, cowboy?"

Marcelina exchanged resigned but vaguely satisfied looks with her colleagues. Her new captives were proving themselves more and more useful by the minute. Calyx had already broken out the orujo and a motley set of totally mismatched cupfuls were passed around. A lit cigarette dangled insolently from Brooke's lips.

"Almost finished," said Kemp with bona fide insouciance. He had resigned himself almost completely to the inescapability of the sordid predicament. "Good," said Eric taking a seat on a splintered mesquite log next to Brooke. "Let's all have another drink. Then we'll have some fun." Calyx started to protest. There was, Eric knew, something good about her, but it was hidden beneath her mercenary soldier façade. Marcelina looked at Eric and said that Martina had requested the pleasure of shooting the deputy. "You can help bury him," she concluded. Something in Martina's eyes, however, immediately told Eric that Martina was not all that enthusiastic about killing the young blond deputy. He needed to capitalize on this. "Shoot?" he said. "That's too easy. Whatever you broads are waiting for out here is getting fucking boring, and my woman and I want a little fun. There's lots of ways of

killing a man, and most of them are more interesting than a gun shot. Let me provide some entertainment. But let's do it first thing tomorrow. Let the motherfucker suffer overnight right where he is, and tomorrow I will show you in how many ways a brave lawman can die. Right now, let's eat and drink and sleep." The horrendous Nevada desert sun had well passed its zenith by this time and was becoming only a fiery orb in the western sky. Nightfall would be swift as usual on the desert. Kemp gave a signal by raising the shovel that the hole was as finished as it was going to get. Marcelina started to say something, but Eric cut her off. "Good," he shouted. "Now get down here and get your stewpot going. Brooke and I are famished. I bet these two stupid kids are too. And what do you strip club dancers eat anyway? Bet it's not the greased over crap in that dutch oven..."

"We have our own food," said Calyx. "Not enough to feed you, however." "Let's add a few scorpions to that mess," said Eric. "I can walk around with a glove, if someone has one, and gather them" "Have at it," groaned Marcelina. "Just don't wander out of sight. Put anything you want in the vaquero's pot. Piss in it if you want. It is going to be your dinner, not ours." Trey, seeming to catch onto something, stood up and found one of Kemp's gloves in the pile of stale clothing stretched over a rock that served as the cowboy's closet. "Here," he said. "One for each of us. I'll go with you. Scorpions are cool. And there sure are plenty of them here."

Thus Kemp returned to his stewpot, recreated the nightly fire, and began stirring the fatty contents with a splinter of an almost rotten plank. Brooke remained sitting and smoking, and Eric and Trey went off to the nearby rocks and dunes looking for scorpions. Nikki walked over to Kemp and sat down beside him. Despite the commotion, she was still somewhat drawn to the brawny cowpoke. "And to think," she murmured, "just a few days ago we were enjoying the solitude and loneliness." Kemp kept stirring and did not laugh. The armed and still bare-breasted women took up their usual positions around the camp as the fire rose and night began to fall. As before, they munched on packaged rations. Marcelina announced that the deputy would die as soon as the sun rose the next day and she didn't care who did it. "Let the gringo loco

have his fun," she muttered. "It doesn't change our plan. We just need him dead." "Torturing is not cool," mused Calyx, regaining her blanket roll and her preassigned post. "Not cool at all." Before the prisoners could make a meal of Kemp's fatty and mottled concoction, which now bubbled with the expiring bodies of several black desert scorpions which seemed to be stinging themselves out of the pure agony of the heat, Marcelina made a curt announcement about sleeping. Nikki and Trey were to sleep together at one side of the narrow cave opening up several yards up on the rock talus; Brooke and Eric were to take the softer spot in the sand at the far end where the inscribed stele was still jutting up from the ground--the very place where Calyx and Trey had copulated and slept the night before.

Marcelina was very adamant about these sleeping arrangements. Kemp could sleep anywhere he wanted but in view. The deputy would remain handcuffed and be tossed down just where he was and, mercifully, covered with a spare blanket. "Tomorrow he dies," grunted Marcelina in both Spanish and English, "and then we need to get underway. The others are going to be getting real impatient." Before bedding down with Brooke on the sand, Eric repeated "the others" in a low tone. He also noted the stele, the pictures of which had been previously sent to him by a contact and kind of half-deciphered by Dragonsnort. "You gonna kill that guy?" whispered Brooke.

"Sure," said Eric coiling his naked torso around hers in their usual sleeping position. He had already imitated the nearby Trey by pissing a circle in the sand. But, as an entomologist he knew that trick anyway. "Sure," he repeated, as the desert night cooled and he became rapidly drowsy. "How many guys do you think I've killed in these ninety-seven years?" "A lot I suppose," said Brooke, herself overcome with fatigue and sleepiness. III. The mysterious Siouxzan "Siouxzan is really a stupid, brainless name," said Jared to his Plus Sized Club comrades Ian, Cody, Malachi, and Tyshawn. "And her endless messages are just about as dumb---unless, of course, they mean something."

"And they probably do," rejoined Tyshawn. The boys were gathered around a Lykes Middle School library computer, where students were permitted to do sanctioned research every afternoon during the hours of summer school, which none of them of course needed to attend. The teachers and librarians knew the group well, as they were among the best performing students in the school. They were always welcome in the library, where a strict nanny filter naturally protected them from unseemly websites. What the bustling librarians had always failed to notice was that the boys most usually visited the very bland and totally inoffensive webpage they had established for the Plus Sized Club. As long as they behaved, no one seemed to care. And the Plus Sized Club knew how to behave.

Of late, the message blog of the website had been invaded almost daily by someone signing only the name of Siouxzan, presumably pronounced Susan and therefore presumably a female---"and a stupid one at that," Jared often added. But he wasn't so sure, and nor were the others. Siouxzan had checked in almost daily since the start of the summer vacation with enigmatic and cryptic messages like: "Bats are ugly but cool. Bats eat thousands of mosquitoes every night" "Rat snakes are hideous, but they eat their weight in rats every day." "Lot's of things are nasty-looking but often harmless, kind and useful."

And then were her constant messages about trains: "Stop the trains, and you stop everything." "Stop all the trains at once. Do not derail them. Cut their power." "We can do without the trains." "The trains," said Jared. "What trains?" The other core members of the club were at a loss to answer, but the messages just kept coming in. After a time, the boys just decided that Siouxzan's almost daily messages were mostly nonsense until one finally came with a name that made Jared sit up in electrified shock. He was on his home computer alone

with Dragonsnort on one particularly bright and inviting late July Sunday when he chanced to check the Plus Sized comment board. There again was Siouxzan and another message: "Insects can be foul and unsightly, but many of them are our friends. So are the gastropod (slugs) and the arachnids (spiders and scorpions), but ask Mr. Palobay about how useful some can be. Don't be fooled by appearances." Siouxzan obviously knew whom she was writing to. Calling Eric "Mr." Palobay was something that few people did. Eric's affable and easygoing ways always dictated that most use his first name. Those who did not followed general academic protocol and called him Doctor. Jared had been aware of that since Eric had become his mother's second lover and taken up residence in the Nescott house as his unofficial and now much-adored stepfather. Hastily,

he printed out all of Siouxzan's recent messages and ran into the living room where Dragonsnort was again drinking beer, eating pretzels and watching some sort of political documentary on television. "Dad," Jared began. "I need to ask you something." Dragonsnort was more than happy to direct his full attention to his strong and precocious son. He read the last round of messages and said that Jared was bright enough to figure out that someone was trying to tell him something. The message was about not hating animals for their appearance, something Jared did not at an advanced age twelve need to be told. "But what about the trains?" said Jared anxiously. "We've all tried to post back and ask her what she means. She never answers us." "Stop the trains," maundered Dragonsnort pensively. "Well, to begin with,

you can't do that. Not all at once. I don't know of any place where there is one switch that would shut down all the trains....unless..." Both father and son thought of the same idea in the same microsecond. "Crackland," they both chimed in unison. "Dragonsnort knew all about Crackland from Jared and the other boys, who knew all about Crackland from one person and one person only: The enchanting Nautica de Craquelot, grand-daughter of John Crack, the subterranean region's discoverer. Had Nautica mentioned trains? Jared could not remember. She had said something about no gasoline engines there except those of the Midnight Riders' motorcycles, things about plowing fields the old way with horses and mules... And there was something else the always radiantly polite Nautica had done. She had always referred to Jared's parents

as Mr. and Mrs. The reference to Mr. Palobay must have come from her. But Jared held back an embarrassing secret, one that he was about to divulge with some shame to his natural father. "About these ugly creatures being useful, " he began hesitantly. "I mean I made a mistake once. Just twice I was alone with her when I hid her in this house. Eric knows about that, so does Mom. But there is something else I did. I don't know why. I'm just a kid..." "But you were starting to feel love for her. Am I right?" Jared bowed his head and averted his eyes from Dragonsnort's interrogative gaze. "Yes," he said. "And I still am. The other boys are too. Is that natural? I mean for kids of our age. We worship her now."

"So I have been hearing with these salutes and vows to go help her get back home to Crackland. Let me tell you what you did so that you don't have to tell me. I'll spare you the pain. You told her about Eric and his mud slug, the vap. Right?" Jared's eyes watered over. His chin dropped to his chest. His face reddened. "I broke a confidence," he said. "Eric will never forgive me." Dragonsnort pulled the tab on another beer and switched off the television. He took his contrite son in his huge and tattooed arms and hugged him for a long minute. Jared was crying. That was something he never did, and Dragonsnort knew that his son, now twelve, did not want to do it.

"Eric will forgive you. Trust me on that. It may have been a million years ago, but Eric was a kid once too, as was I. Little boys in love can be a dangerous and clumsy thing. At least it was for me. I'm betting Eric will understand and forgive you. After all, it was his vap people who brought her to safety somewhere. She was bound to have noticed something and asked a few questions. Maybe she is living with them right now." "They would never tell her," sniffled Jared. "That's a rule. I broke it." Dragonsnort straightened up in his usual hard-hitting manner and took his son firmly by one shoulder. "Listen to me, son. It was a rule and you broke it, so now it is broken, and you can't unbreak it. So let it go. Stop blubbering and be the man Eric, your mother and I want you to be. Let's get back to some real, real easy detective work about these messages."

Jared realized the gravity in his father's tone and wiped the remaining tears from his wide, brown eyes. He stared with unceasing affection at the hybrid human who had fathered him. "Okay," he said. "What can we deduce?" "That's better, said Dragonsnort, softening a bit. "Now think for a minute. Where did Eric's so-called tiny cryptids come from?" "The skin on the back of some grungy cowboy." "Right. So what does that make them?" "Parasites."

"And what is a vap?" "A parasite." "A good or a bad parasite?" "A good one, naturally. It restores dying people, like Eric was, to health and extends their life for years longer than the rest of us will probably ever live." "And what kind of animals or insects is Siouxzan or perhaps your Nautica talking about? Good or bad.?" "Good."

"So you have the connection, or at least part of it," concluded Dragonsnort, taking a sip from his can of beer. "And since you, my handsome boy, have neither a purple, rice-grain cryptid nor a black mud slug vap sticking out of your back, whom do you suppose these messages were for?" "Eric," said Jared without hesitation. "And the bit about the trains?" "It's about Crackland. That has got to be it." "One more thing," resumed Dragonsnort. "What happens to a vap when it doesn't get a human or animal host?"

"Eric says they eventually die." "And what happened to the little bugs sent to Eric after they were detached from the cowboy." "They died." "And if Nautica is making a comparison between the two, would you say it was for or against these latest parasites?" "For." "And seeing as how your stepfather is out somewhere on the desert, what is the best way to contact him."

"Cell phone," grimaced Jared. "I won't get him, but I can leave a voice mail." "Do it," said Dragonsnort. IV. Laurent Mbange Laurent Nfono Mbange was like many modern West Africans, a tribal chief, but one who lived in a normal house and quite often wore a well-tailored suit and tie to an office in a modern structure erected amidst the squalor and crushing poverty of a sprawling island negropolis. Laurent, a typical Bantu, was a member of an offshoot of the majority Fang tribe which populates most of Gabon, a part of Cameroon, most importantly the largest part of the tiny, disjointed nation of Equatorial Guinea, composed of a few off-shore islands in

the Gulf of Guinea as well as diminutive but resource-rich mainland enclave, once governed and exploited by Spain and since 1968, governed, exploited and bathed in local blood by the ruthless kleptomaniac politicians which have characterized most of sub-Saharan Africa since the demise of European colonial rule and the onset of homegrown nepotism and outright close to home butchery. Equatorial Guinea, although the second smallest of African nations, has long held the record of boasting the worst human rights violations on Earth. Since its independence, the number of successful and attempted coups d'état had been legion and the resulting bloodshed rather adequate to paint every square centimeter of the minuscule country in the faded crimson hue of dried human blood. During the privileged beginning of his life, Laurent Mbange, who had originally migrated to the inland enclave known as Mbini from Libreville,

Gabon, had joined his hand with some of the major robber barons and exterminators of the Fang tribe and had no shame in enumerating the number of state enemies he had killed with either his personal firearms or by wielding a machete, which in his agitated youth excited his bloodlust more than a simple bullet from a gun. The first president of the nation had strode over the skulls of literally one third of the population to achieve one party, absolutist rulership, and Laurent had been a member in top standing of his party. He had been present as a guest of dignity when President Francisco Macias Nguema had personally overseen the execution of 150 alleged coup plotters in Malabo's national soccer stadium on Christmas Day 1975, where the supposed ringleaders were lined up to face machetes while loudspeakers carried the sounds of a local brass band playing Mary Hopkins' tune Those Were The Days. This scene of carnage had been followed by the summary massacre of over another one hundred thousand of the nation's ordinary citizens who were

adjudged without trial to have been accomplices to the executed agitators, who, in fact may not have even been ringleaders at all. Such was Equatorial Guinean politics, and when Macias-Nguema was finally overthrown by the nation's current bloodthirsty dictator Teodoro Obiang in 1979, it was again in a coup so blood-spattered and horrific that several seasoned African news sources, well-steeped in native atrocities, refused to cover it with detailed descriptions of the torture, outright murder and planned mutilations of citizens suspected of loyalty to the deposed president. It was in this vicious, sadistic and inhuman atmosphere of post-colonial chaos that Chief Laurent Mbange grew to middle age and finally to old age, as we find him today at age seventy, still a powerful local chief, but, strangely, as this story will explain, having undergone a major change. A change that was both physical and, above all, mental. And it was this change which had in the past ten years made Laurent Mbange one of the richest men in all of Africa---and one who had

increased his fortune primarily without stealing from the state or its destitute citizens. At some point in his middle age, the thickset Bantu-Fang chieftain, left his government office in the presidential palace of Malabo on the island of Bioko and wandered back into his continental homeland, which was buried in one of the densest rainforest jungles on Earth, a region more suited to roaming longfanged panthers, lethal boas, screeching leopards and murderous mandrills than to nepotistic government bureaucrat thieves, as Mbange had been. He began gradually to regain the customs of his own tribal Ndowe branch and took up a mud-hut lodging near the almost inaccessible banks of the dark and largely unknown Muni River, which traversed the profoundly tangled jungles of the tiny enclave's unwelcoming interior. He began to realize the untapped riches of his country in a way that the official political bandits of his

government had not. With the always-available help of hastily formed and mostly European mercenary troops, he established a consortium of small export franchises which specialized in the abundant mineral resources of the African interior. For some reason, which Mbange was himself at a loss to explain, he made a series of wise alliances and business decisions which began almost overnight to enrich him. His growing wealth, like that of all tribal Africans, began to mark him as a man of prestige and respect among his clansmen, and he decided to dwell apart from the scattered technological amenities of Malabo and Bata and make the hinterland, essentially a jungle, his home base. Around him gathered a group of families, loosely related by clan, who protected his emergent fortune from most of the government profit takers, who, although nominally in charge of the entire enclave of Mbini, were often captured, kidnapped and often roasted alive if they ventured too far into the interior. Mbange began to see visions of things which guided him and

caused him to forsake forever the nominal trappings of his Christian religion for the more indigenous animistic beliefs of his countrymen, who still worshipped the abundant animal life of the region, the waterbuffalo, the horseshoe bat, the omnipresent spotted leopard and the bushbuck antelopes which ranged throughout the snarled virgin rainforest. In short, his decisions were wise ones, and by the age of seventy the chimeras of something larger and wholly ineffable were his daily companions. One such chimera was a great, shadowy thing with an ill-defined body and tiny glowing eye-slits which he often met at appointed times in a place so inaccessible that even Laurent himself often had trouble finding it. He was, however, guided by some sort of interior radar, which never failed to make him stumble in to an exact local in the dripping jungle where the dark entity would appear. It would suddenly come before him, always as a huge and gloomy

shade, tower above him and speak to him more or less telepathically with directions of how to maneuver with government officials, mercenary corporations and his own dark Sub-Saharan kinsmen. Sometimes its words came in Spanish, the official language of Equatorial Guinea and sometimes in a jumble of indigenous dialects, all of which Laurent readily understood. The towering being always identified itself only as Ngoro-buba, two words which in the Fang dialect spoken by Laurent's clan meant only The Thing. The Thing never threatened Laurent Mbange. It summoned him often and guided him. It told him what to do for his own sake and for the sake of his extended kin. It was all-powerful, but benevolent in nature. It never told him to slay, for example, and often admonished when he had killed---especially a corrupt capital city official who had penetrated too far into the jungle heartland.

Among the many dictates of The Thing over the past ten years had been to clear another landing strip for private plains in the mahogany, okume and walnut forests and to purchase a small fleet of seaplanes, mercenary surplus, from the multiple campaigns waged by venal corporate interests from the island of Bioko and its squalid capital city Malabo. In later times, as Laurent neared seventy years of age, The Thing told him to begin engaging a fresh group of mercenary soldiers in preparation for a campaign that was never explained in any depth other than it was "far away and would start in Malabo." Far away, to an Equatorial African could have meant only an incursion into nearby Benin, Togo or Congo, but in time, as Laurent Mbange complied with the wishes of his hallucinatory benefactor, it came to mean a place far under the Arctic ice cap of Canada, a place located beneath the crust of the Earth itself on glacial Somerset Island, a place ruled by an exploitive

assemblage of white men under the guise of a repressive and cruel monarchy that would put the kleptocrats of Malabo to shame in its iniquity and malice. Like all sub-Saharan Africans, Laurent Mbange loathed the white colonists and their unapologetic maltreatment of other races like his own. The Thing not only directed Laurent, but also capitalized on his innate hatred of European colonial masters. It explained to him that other shadowy and huge creatures like itself had once fled from this underground world and had settled in various remote places on Earth. This race had the natural birthright to the subterranean realm of which The Thing spoke and now had plans to reclaim it as rightfully theirs, but this would be with Laurent's help, as well as that of paid mercenaries and the strongest and loyalist of his dark countrymen. Those chosen, and they would be many, would be "awarded" a badge of honor on their dusky skins, a lustrous "crescent of fire" which would identify them one to another and give them other "magical" powers, the likes of which Laurent

had already tasted in his mystical rise to wealth. "Will I ever see you for what you are?" asked Laurent of the specter with great reverence and unquestioned obedience. "When the time comes, you will see us for what we are," roared the entity into Laurent's mind, "and you will see us as good and benevolent to all races and species." The shadow creature had also told Laurent the name of the place, which, of course, was Crackland today, but it had been something very different in past eras, and it would become that again with Laurent's help. "Gather your forces and wait for our instructions," the manifestation said

before once again dissolving into the matted vines and jumbled mangroves of the tepid jungle. "Gather your forces." And Laurent, dark and swarthy, wearing only a pair of French made corduroy shorts, trudged back to his hut. He was proud to be of service and enjoyed his comfortable and easily-gained wealth. He was untroubled by the fact, respected by his clan and countrymen, that all about his body were radiant rings of purple and red "fire." He was proud that many of his tribe, the strongest and the best no doubt, manifested lesser versions of the same hard and proud extrusions--which won them the attention of the most fecund virgins of the Bantu-Fang forest dwelling tribe. V. Donny Seabrook on the surface

Now Grand Vizier of Crackland, Donny Seabrook was more than elated to shed the absurd purple body-length embroidered robe he was required to wear around the kingdom and re-style himself in some jeans and a casual banlon pullover, or top-side garments, as the citizens of Crackland called this sort of attire. Moreover, he was more than thrilled to be once again in his native New Orleans sitting in a seedy alehouse on Canal Street in the heart of the city meeting with those whom he knew were his real bosses and the undisputed owners of the underground colony in which he now wielded such utter power along with the dunce king, Zack, whom he had already come to despise if for no other reason than Zack's love of arbitrary bloodshed and his outright and unconcealed dull-wittedness. Even the aging, one-legged crone who sat awkwardly across from him sipping a frothing mug of local beer and fumbling with the multiple rings which graced the gnarled fingers of each of her curved and claw-like hands, was a welcome relief from Zack and his obtuse courtiers.

The woman was Aurora Delsmain, and Crackland's main hydroelectric power source---a huge dam backed into an ever-flowing underground river---had been named for her, as well as several prominent structures in the inhabited zones. She was one of the principal founders of the consortium which had chosen Zack Hammer-Twift twelve years before to reign in Crackland. At her side sat a burly and nameless man who apparently acted as a body guard. Next to this ominous giant was a pert young woman of about forty, dressed stylishly in a short skirt and seeming very modern in her perky demeanor. Others connected with this group sat apart at separate tables and had solemnly examined the new Grand Vizier before hunching down into muffled and obviously private discussions of their own. Aurora had done some of the talking at first as the meeting opened, but had turned the essential details over to the younger woman, Ariadne Clementis, who ran some sort of executive talent search agency. Ariadne was affable and unctuously polite. She seemed

forthcoming with all the details the ambiguous group wanted to convey to him. His instructions, he knew: First had been a confirmation of what Aaron Arvicher had said on his railway deathbed: Sooner or later, the recently turned neo-Fascist Zack had to go. A planned suicide would be the best way, and Donny was certainly smart enough to arrange that with the help of some Midnight Rider insiders. He could work on those details himself, as he had been selected for his ability in these sorts of imbroglios. No need for Ariadne or Aurora or the silent others to give any further instructions. The natural son of King Zack and his former wife Xenia, a queen now long ago beheaded by the vicious court executioner Butch McGreevey, would be kept in perpetual secrecy in the Forbidden City and gradually given a diet spiked with enough arsenic and mercury not to kill him outright but to render him mentally incapable of even tying his own bootlaces.

One day he would fall off a horse and be permanently incapacitated and confided to perpetual care in an invisible lodging somewhere. In his place, the more assertive, albeit incurious, Micah the Bastard would be installed as king. Micah, the illegitimate son of former Queen Xenia would win the general approval of the masses by virtue of his looks and his lineage, which would recall the grace and beauty of the decapitated queen to the awestricken citizenry. Micah, now going on thirteen and an excellent horseman and archer, cut a far more charismatic image than the rather bland Jeremiah. He had been nurtured in veiled luxury all his life and would be appropriately pliable to the wishes of the consortium. "Besides," added Ariadne with some offhand flippancy, "he's already a little stud. He's not related in the slightest to Zack, and he will have no problem impregnating that little Huddlestown brat Taryn, whom we found as Xenia's queenly replacement."

Donny recoiled weakly at the idea. Taryn, a kind of empty-headed sexpot, would be twenty-one soon, but still admittedly pulchritudinous and seductive...yet coupled to a teenage boy eight years younger and bearing his child.... "Think nothing of it," retorted Aurora suddenly, lurching up on her good leg from the filthy, plastic barroom seat, "That is what the public expects from royalty." This seemed to satisfy Donny, who stared through the greasy windows of the tavern out onto the seemingly endless parade of pedestrians who canvassed up and down Canal Street. As he watched them, a sudden summer shower blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and pummeled the crowd with enough rain to make them scatter for the doorways and awnings along the business fronts. The

masses, thought Donny. The swarming masses. How he hated them, even in his old hometown. Aurora Delsmain then nodded her head to Ariadne to broach a new subject. Ariadne lit a long silver tipped cigarillo, blew a cloud of acridly perfumed smoke over Donny's head and continued: "Yes. We know Arvicher told you a lot of stuff about John Crack and his ideas about the original species. All I am allowed to tell you now is that they were indeed a species. Nothing at all like us. But, in truth, I was not there at the time, and I have no idea what they looked like or were called. Aurora would know, but she doesn't need or want to tell anyone about that. All you need to know is that they were either killed or driven off long before earnest colonization began." "Like our Indians," proposed Donny, looking for approval.

"Like our Indians," resumed Ariadne, glancing questioningly at Aurora. "They were simply in the way. Useless. They had to go." The rain stopped as suddenly as it had come, and Donny directed his attention toward the bodyguard stranger, who had been eyeing him with unconcealed suspicion during the entire conversation. Donny knew what his reaction needed to be. "Fuck the Indians," he said. "Just in the way of progress. And fuck this species. Why should we start worrying at this time about their returning?" Aurora, again shifting uncomfortably in her seat and ignoring her beer, looked at him and croaked in her hoarse, geriatric voice. "Because there have been some signs, messages, placed here and there around the world that they are

planning a return. These have been duly noted by a lot of our colleagues. Sometimes they are just in the form of graffiti written on the side of building somewhere, but usually they are in remote places carved into slabs of stone. Our sources tell us that an invasion is pending. That is why we are sending you several hundred new Midnight Rider recruits. And speaking of the Midnight Riders, let them get rid of those inane Prussian helmets and tunics and back into their motorcycle leathers. You need to keep them happy, and they are far from happy marching around like little tin soldiers. As soon as Zack is gone, let them become what they are again." "Aaron said something about the trains," said Donny, pressing for more details. "I suppose you need to know that much," heaved Aurora in a mucus-garbled

tone of the very aged. "The trains are probably our proudest and earliest accomplishment. John Crack was against them. But we went on and electrified the entire realm. One of the reasons why we did it was because the indigenous ones can't stand the electromagnetic power that runs on cables over and under the country. It was the thing that finally killed enough of them to convince the others to skedaddle. We need to keep the dam...my dam...turning and the power flowing and the trains running. That's why the new squadron should be placed around the power plant and the relay stations. If an attack does come, it would be natural for them to try to blow out the power." With this, Aurora rose to her feet and motioned for the silent bodyguard to escort Donny Seabrink to the private airport he had arrived at whence he would be summarily taken back to where he functioned best: Crackland.

"Remember," said Ariadne in parting, "Get rid of Zack fast. Eliminate the uniforms and marching. Get stuff back to the way it was, and keep your eyes open." Aurora nodded grimly and reached for her crutch. "Your life depends on it too," she muttered, hobbling toward the front exit onto Canal Street. "You too can be replaced." VI. Daybreak in the Reese River Valley As the first feeble bands of what would later prove to be an homicidal and arson sun stretched across the shadow-streaked desert horizon at the rocky base of the foreboding Shoshone Range, Eric Palobay awoke alongside of his domestic partner Brooke Nescott in a sleeping bag which had pleasantly been

inadequate enough to force them to sleep, as they always wished, intertwined into one another's body for warmth. Eric kissed Brooke lightly on the cheek, which was enough to bring her to full wakefulness. "Guess you're going to kill a man this morning?" was the first thing she said. "Looks like it," said Palobay. Then he turned his face sideways into Brooke's, finding her eyes, and giving her a smile that seemed to beam the sort of allknowing confidence that both of her lovers, Eric and Dragonsnort, always exuded. "Brooke, you remember I told you about how men used to be in the thirties when I was young. Few of them wanted to wear wedding rings. That became a modern fad for men later. I know you have always disliked that. I was married, as you know, three times in my life. I outlived all of my wives, and I never, sorry to say, ever wore a wedding ring. But I was faithful to each one of them while they lived."

"What are you getting at, Eric?" "I know you always wanted me to wear the friendship ring you bought me when we first became a couple. I wore it around my neck for a time, but I just never wanted to have jewelry on my fingers. Anyway, I was going to surprise you on this trip and start to wear it right on my left ring finger. I slid it into the pocket of my travel case before we left." "Great," said Brooke, annoyed. "Here we are prisoners to a murderous bunch of buck naked commando women facing whatever hell they have planned out here on the surface of the Moon, and you decide to cement our relationship with a ring."

"Yup," said Eric, sitting up and rummaging around in his case. "Here it is, and here it goes on my ring finger. Hope you're happy." He pecked her again on the cheek and slid the rather large-banded silver plated ring onto his finger. "It's still too big," said Brooke. "It needs to be squeezed, or you need some tape on it. My bad. I thought you had bigger fingers when we met, not that yours aren't large enough as they are." "Still loose," said Eric, abstractly. "But not that loose." Brooke stood up and started to get dressed, but suddenly she became aware of Calyx, who, still toting a machine gun and still bare-chested, was walking up the slight incline toward her and Eric. "Not so fast," said Calyx in the disappearing dimness of the desert morning. "Don't put your shirt on yet. Let

me look at your back, and his too." She pointed the gun muzzle toward Eric. Eric and Brooke stood patiently naked for the slender, well-built sunbleached blonde to walk around and scrutinize their backs. Then she walked away, motioning for them to get dressed. "You know," Eric began quietly, "ever since we started acting ferocious, these dames seem to be a little awed and hesitant. Not that they wouldn't shoot us like they did those Mexicans the kid told me about, but there is something about all of them that seems to want to avoid unnecessary violence and killing. They need that deputy gone because he would just go somewhere and bring trouble, and he would never cooperate with whatever cockeyed plan they have, but, in truth, I really don't think killing innocent people is at the top of their menu. They have mission, to be sure, but I don't think they really relish the killing."

"Maybe not," said Brooke disdainfully. "All they may want to do is parade around the desert half-naked with choppers. Maybe they are part of a movie crew and we are extras." "Doubt it," said Eric, walking downward to the spot where Marcelina was just waking up. He approached the still prone Marcelina and touched her shoulder lightly with his leather shoe. "Watch it," she growled. "You're still a prisoner here. And I'm in charge." Eric folded his arms over his chest. One thing that none of the ladies had seemed to notice was the vap hump in the middle of his back. His skin had long ago grown over the life-giving parasite, which was as hard and firm as stone. Even Calyx had made no mention of it. Guess they just think I'm a

tough hunchback, thought Eric. Or maybe they are not interested at all. Eric realized, as he hoped Brooke had, that Calyx was looking for a semi-circular eruption on his back like the one on the cowboy. He assumed correctly that she had not found one. It was time to get the festivities started. "Okay, leader-lady," he chortled, "time to get up and watch me dispose of your fucking ding-dong Smokey-Bear deputy---or unless you've forgotten. I have a little entertainment for you all this morning." By this time Calyx and Martina were positioned behind him in a protective stance for Marcelina. "Killing is never pretty," said Marcelina, getting up fully naked and pulling her tight camouflage fatigues over her muscular buttocks and abundantly overgrown crotch.

"It is to me," clamored Brooke, who had caught up with her mate. "I love to see a fucking lawman die. And Eric is gonna do it, right Eric?" "Right," said Eric, eyeing the still-whimpering deputy who had apparently not slept a second during the night. Beside him, Kemp Tanner was firing up some grainy containers of syrupy black camp coffee. As had been his manner from the start, he pretended not to hear anything. Marcelina reached into her backpack and drew out Eric's confiscated .45 caliber and proffered it to him. "Get it over quick," she said. "Not with my fucking gun, bitch," snapped Eric. "Let me use Mr. Cowpoke's pistol. Sooner or later your whole movie set out here is going to break up and you are going to get me and Brooke out of here as you promised. And the only

one here will be Kempy-boy, and the whole dead body business can be laid on him." Marcelina curled her lip and glanced at Calyx, who was equally displeased by the suggestion. "Not on your life," said Marcelina. "We have plans for him. He is valuable to us." "Then let's not use a gun at all," said Eric. "Let's have some fun with him and not leave a mark on his body. We can throw his stinking corpse in his burnt out car, and they will think he died of smoke inhalation or shock or some fucking thing." Now fully upright and armed, Marcelina dusted off some alfalfa straw from the points of her dark and protruding nipples. She motioned for the rest of her

crew to join them at the campfire. Morosely and without saying a word, Kemp served them various dirty vessels filled with his muddy coffee. Trey and Nikki were the last to arrive. Eric had also noticed that Nikki was allowed to remain in her black teeshirt, but Trey was bare-chested, following his own personal examination from Calyx. It was clear that whatever scurvied contagion Kemp and the Spanish squad had contracted, Trey was free of, as were he and Brooke. He led the sobbing deputy up to the top of a small sand hill in plain view of the entire contingent. The man began immediately begging for his life. "Shut up," Eric barked into his ear, and then in a much more muffled tone: "Act like the man you are supposed to be and for god's sake think." The deputy, crazed and probably demented by his inescapable predicament, continued to whimper incoherent words about the law, his mother and his fiancée back in Battle

Mountain. Eric forced him to sit down on the metal drum of Kemp's kerosene alongside the rock outcropping which hid his torched Land Rover. It was in a spot crawling with scorpions, which in the rising sun, did not hesitate to begin swaggering about, their long tails arcing poisoned barbs in all directions. His eyes flashing like that of a insane showman, Eric shouted to what was now his assembled audience: "I love scorpions!" "You ate enough of them yesterday in the cowboy's slop," said Calyx with some repugnance. "Yeah, and they were crunchy and good. Mr. Tanner is a good cook. You ladies should try his stew sometime."

"Get on with it," yelled Marcelina, brandishing her weapon. "We have things to do." Without further ado, Eric reached over into what was a still clustered nest of tangled black rock desert scorpions and hung them off his arms and face. Immediately, the disturbed creatures came to life and began crawling over him. Some even found their way under his khaki shirt; others clung from his square chin. An aghast chorus of breathless gasps arose from the revolted spectators. Eric reached in the other direction, sorting his fingers under the sand and extracting still more of the clawed beasts, which opened and closed their vile pincers to get a hold on him. It was clear that many were stinging him as well. Eric didn't seem to care. He searched further in the sand and pulled forth a much larger specimen, this time dull orange, which he dangled downward by holding its tail. This scorpion, different from the others, was

about five inches in total length. Its legs and claws extended farther than the others. Eric laughed and played with the smaller scorpions as they crawled about his face and body. "There are many types of scorpions on the desert floor," he snorted crazily, "and almost all of them can kill you or make you very sick. But this one, this one is called a bark scorpion. Its toxin is totally lethal. It causes paralysis and death almost immediately if it stings you. It accounts for about one thousand deaths in the Southwest every year. When it uses its telson on any creature large or small, the creature is doomed. And your deputy is about to prove that." At the rear of the gathering, Trey nudged Nikki with his elbow and whispered "Just like I thought. University professor." "How can you tell," murmured Nikki, dumbfounded like the rest.

"Tell you later," shushed Trey. Eric waved the lethal scorpion in all directions, and brushed the others from his body onto the flinty loam. His hands moved fast, and he was certain that several of his captor observers were turning their heads to avoid watching. In a quick and unseen movement akin to the legerdemain of a true magician, Eric grabbed the lower jaw of the trembling deputy, a man who well recognized---as did the nearby Kemp the lethal scorpion variety that Eric was swinging in his hand. As he wedged open the deputy's mouth with one hand, his other continued to dangle the beast by its deadly jointed tail. This he deftly hooked into the friendship ring he had placed on his finger earlier that morning. Letting go of the deputy's chin with his right hand, he immediately jerked the deadly arthropod from one hand to another, and regained his iron grasp on the

deputy's mouth with his left hand. He turned his back to the crowd as he began stuffing the writhing creature into the deputy's wedged open mouth. Bending over to do this, he whispered into the man's ear. "Bite down as hard as you ever have in your life and then die. Be as dead as I said you would be. Convulse. Fall over." With a fistful of wriggling scorpion, Eric pushed his hand into the man's mouth, causing the latter's eyes to bulge nearly out of their sockets. He then clamped the deputy's mouth shut and held his chin and head in such a grip that there was no way for the man to escape. "Bite down," he whispered again...."and die." It was fortunate for the young deputy that he was not completely as dumb as most cops, for he did exactly as Eric had said. The utter horror of having his mouth full of scorpion did not stop him from biting down. He felt no sting inside his overstuffed mouth, and so he played the role Eric had cued him to,

shivering all over and plunging face forward off the drum into the sand where he lay immobile. Eric, with a sinister look of satisfaction crossing his face, continued to clasp the man's mouth shut. Finally, he kicked him violently in the ribcage, and turned to the crowd, many of whom had ceased somewhere through the turmoil to watch, and among these was Marcelina, who shook her head with an air of utter disgust and muttered "Loco...mal de mente...transtornado" three words in her Gallego Spanish accent that meant crazy and insane. She kicked a stone on the ground and turned away, motioning for others of her team to follow. Eric, looking around for approval, found very little...except in the eyes of the handsome, dark-haired kid with whom he had shared very few words, Trey Agremont. "I really liked that," said Trey enthusiastically. "I hate fucking cops as much as the rest of you."

As Eric dragged the not-dead man's body across the grainy gray sand toward his burnt-out Land Rover, rivulets of fresh blood tricked from the latter's still closed mouth. The claws and viciously spiked pincers of the now-dead bark scorpion had done their work inside his mouth. Eric tossed him into the hull of the ruined police vehicle and closed the door. Black soot covered all the windows and no one could see inside. His parting words to the deputy was Eric's advice to remain inside the car for an hour or two and not move. "Don't even take the carapace out of your mouth," he cautioned. "Then make a run for it. I presume you know how to hide your tracks." The deputy, still in shock, rolled over in a death pose, closed his eyes and didn't breathe a sound. As Eric rejoined the main body of the group, he brushed past Trey Agremont, who quietly said "Nice going." It was a remark that could be taken either way,

but Eric suspected by now that the attractive kid had some kind of a clue. Or at least he hoped so. The mercenary women gathered, machine guns in hand, in a sort of huddle which seemed to indicate they were making hasty plans for action. Kemp Tanner, unmoved, walked up to the hole he had dug the day before, pulled down his pants and casually defecated. "I guess I have a new toilet," he said loud enough for most present to hear. The huddling of the commandos allowed Eric the freedom to rejoin Brooke, who was still in her faux-barmy character and wallowing in the joy of the gore she had witnessed. When they were finally out of earshot, she rolled her eyes at Eric as if to say 'how did you do it?'

"Friendship ring," smiled Eric holding his left hand out for her to see. Out from under it fell two chitinous segments of the bark scorpion's jointed tail, of which the terminal one contained the fearsome curled barb of the dead arthropod's appendage and the first held a pair of lethal venom glands. The scorpion's severed parts fell to the Earth where Eric was quick to rake his heel over them and grind them into the sand forever. Brooke was duly impressed. Her eyes glowed at him for a minute and then her face clouded. "You are covered with stings. They show all over your face and arms. Are you going to die?" "Not if my vap has its way," smiled Eric. "They protect us from such nonsense."

VII. Siouxzan's further messages As the warm, sunlit days of his summer vacation rolled one into another, twelve year old Jared Nescott became more and more engrossed with the enigmatic blog entry messages that were rushing into his club's website. He was, along with his fellow core group members, convinced that it could be none other than the stunning Nautica de Craquelot, hidden away somewhere in safety, who was writing him, and likewise, due to the assistance of his natural father Dragonsnort, Jared was certain that the messages from the puzzling "Siouxzan" were intended more for Eric Palobay than for him and the other boys. In communiqué after communiqué, Siouxzan was deliberately giving her identity away. In two messages she had written only the word Malabo, which was the central focus on the rock etchings found in the desert by the camp of the very cowboy that Eric and Brooke had journeyed off to find. It was also

clear that Siouxzan's messages also concerned the tiny cryptids that had attracted Eric in the first place. Siouxzan had more than once made reference on his blogsite to "purple and red, glowing bugs." Further, she had continued to hint that these bugs were not only benign in nature but possibly beneficial in some way to mankind in general. "They will right many wrongs," she had written on one occasion. Surrounded by his closest friends of the Plus Sized Club, Jared pored over the blog entries and deduced quite naturally that some sort of recovery of Crackland, Nautica's homeworld, was being staged. "And it is probably being staged in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea," added Dragonsnort, who had been following the drama. "Malabo is a natural gathering place for all sorts of mercs. It has modern communications and a national airport which has been used more than once for attacks against either governments or corporate

interests on the mainland. The corrupt government is easily bribed in a place like that, and they would make tactical necessities for an invasion available to a mercenary army if sufficiently induced." But Dragonsnort, still basking in his humanhood, left matters at that. He spent as much quality time as he could manage with his son and assured the boy adamantly on more than one occasion that "No, we are not going to go to Malabo---or to the desert either for that matter." A sudden, impromptu trip to Nevada or to an island off the coast of Africa was far more than even the Plus Sized Club could manage, so, frustrated with his inability to act, Jared checked his website board each day for more messages from Siouxzan, dutifully distilled their essential contents, and continued to phone into Eric's voice mail without reply. Jared knew that neither his mother nor Eric would stay out of phone reach for very long. Also, they would surely get computer access somewhere, so each of his voice messages was followed-up by a detailed email about Siouxzan's messages.

Everything went unanswered. It was sure that Eric and his mother were far out on the Nevada desert, but it was equally sure that they would, as promised, call or write back every other day or so to let him and Dragonsnort know they were okay. Siouxzan's blurbs continued to mention the trains. It was important to stop them for some reason. She wrote that electrical energy from a dam powered the trains as it did everything else in her homeland and that the trains, although useful and even beautiful in their silver gloss, were a danger to whatever or whoever was planning to "liberate" Crackland. Jared stood up among the boys and bravely pounded his chest with his first. "I," he announced boldly with the kind of bravado that only a twelve year old can muster, "I want to be the one who liberates Crackland and brings Nautica

back to her birthplace. Me...I...." But at length he knew it was futile and continued only to relay Siouxzan's messages and his interpreted meanings of them to Eric's unanswered voice mail. And then one night, Jared woke up in small the hours of darkness, switched on his bedroom laptop and saw a longer message on the club website: "The elevator is huge but an army could never use it. The nasty king and his police would shut it down right away. But it is not the only way into Crackland. [This was the first time that Siouxzan had actually written the name] There is a huge opening, forbidden to all settlers, which cannot be closed. It is hidden by a curtain of ice where the warm air of the New World touches the frigid air of the pole, but the curtain can be broken by a plane heading straight into it. Only a brave pilot could do this because it looks like

the side of a glacier. But it can be done. Planes can fly in and out of the realm. Tell them to look for the 'Statue of Liberty" and fly straight past it to the left. There is a natural ledge above the underground river where they can land. Below this ledge is the cascade where the river falls into the warm zone. A tower of mist rises up to hide the entryway. Below this waterfall is a dam, our dam, and it must be destroyed." This was to be the penultimate message from Siouxzan as minutes later another shorter one came. "Good-bye for now and I love you, Jared." A massive tingle of excitement ran through the twelve year old boy and made him shiver in his pajamas from head to toe. It had to be Nautica, and she loved

him. There was going to be an invasion. She wanted others---others---to know about it. She wanted him---Jared---to know about it! She loved him!! She had written his name! Jared stared in awe at the final message for several minutes. Silent cars passed in the street beside his house, their ephemeral headlights beaming through the flimsy curtains of his room. The blackest of summer nights enveloped Aristock. Jared was alone in the room he had grown up in, the very room where on occasion he had hidden the dazzling, green-eyed Nautica de Craquelot from impending danger of a then-unknown sort. She loved him. He was loved. It is impossible to gauge with precision the rush of torrid emotions which surged through his twelve year old mind. It is impossible for most of us to be twelve again...and "loved." Jared remained in a frenzied daze. He would jump up and find his own way to Malabo or to the desert or to wherever. Eric would tell him exactly where Nautica was being hidden. He would find her...etc.

But, alas, Jared knew that none of this could ever happen. He was a kid alone with a computer in a dark bedroom in a city buried in America. Nevada, Africa...these were impossibilities. With the sadness of realization and hollow resignation in his heart, he moved the cursor over to delete and removed the final communiqué. The other boys of the Plus Sized club did not need to know that Nautica loved him. That part needed to remain a secret. Jared stared at the blank screen, at the place where Nautica's message had been. A saline tear of frustration dropped from his eye to the keyboard. He was alone and powerless. But he was loved! ****************

And, in effect, Siouxzan....Nautica been totally right, as had Dragonsnort. As Jared stared sleeplessly at the blank screen of his computer, large troop transport aircrafts, war surplus known as Duckwing 480s, were flying from the tiny jungle landing strip in the Mbini enclave on the African mainland toward the island capital of Equatorial Guinea. They were directed by a powerful, dusky native chief whose body was almost totally covered by what his tribe, the Bantu-Fang, called the "crescents of fire." Others in his large contingent of Spanish-speaking sub-Saharan Africans were likewise decorated about the shoulders and back, but none as extensively as their leader, Laurent Mbange, who had received the final command from a dark entity known only as The Thing, a colossal, formless creature hidden behind the meshed and snarled vines of the Mbini jungle. The invasion is at hand. Move your forces to Malabo. The government had been paid off. You will have the abandoned airstrip at the far end of the national airport. No one is allowed there. You can gather your

troops and your weapons. Others from afar will come. You will receive orders and begin the rightful recovery of a place that was stolen from my people long, long ago. Go now. Laurent Mbange, who was an animist, was not alarmed that the words just entered his head without sound. That was how he expected it. That was how it had always been with The Thing. Day by day, hundreds of continental Africans, dressed in simple gray army fatigues, with no visible emblems or insignias, arrived at a huge and deserted airstrip only miles from the teeming, corrupt and fraudulent capital of Equatorial Guinea, where they were blanketed by the utmost of secrecy, thus shielding them from the prying eyes of the world.

The invasion was near at hand. VIII. The last day at Kemp Tanner's desert valley camp A certain newfound stirring of energy had further animated the commando women, and it was clear to Kemp and the others not of the mercenary squad that preparations were underway for a change of venue. The women had drafted Brooke, Nikki, Kemp, and Eric into service up by the twin Duckwing 480 transport seaplanes, engaging them in removing heavy crates of what Kemp immediately presumed to be weapons and ammunition from the deserted plane to the first one he had seen. But neither Kemp nor the other Americans had been permitted on board either craft. Kemp had never seen a pilot, so he only surmised that the second plane, lurched at a wicked slant across a rocky patch of gravely desert terrain was empty. But in fact, he did

not know. Most of the conversations between the women were now in rapidly spoken Spanish, which both Kemp and Nikki understood, but for reasons that neither had ever been able to explain. Because of the almost frenzied activity, the Americans had been somewhat ignored and left to converse among one another. Trey managed to sidle up to Eric on a work break under a rock talus in some relative shade provided against the flaming sun. "They have an invasion in progress, Professor. They are going to fly out of here real soon. They are going to Africa." "Professor?" said Eric warily. It was really the first time he had had an

occasion to speak with the handsome young man who had been rather much in the background at Kemp's camp. "Yeah, Professor," grinned Trey. "How did you know?" whispered Eric. "They were cheap bastards, weren't they?" said Trey, still eyeing Kemp and the others from his vantage point under the rocks. Eric looked at his watch and nodded his head. He understood instantaneously what Trey was talking about. "Professor of theatre no doubt," continued Trey. "You and your lady have

done a fine job." "Thanks, but you still seem a little too perceptive to me. Actually, I'm a professor of entomology...." "That explains your handling of the scorpions." "Not entirely, but it will do for now. But I still don't see how..." "Easy," said Trey, tapping at the glass of Eric's watch. "It's a Taurel, and not a very expensive one. I'm from Marstown, Iowa where the only Taurel factory in the world is located. I tried college for a while once and worked like a lot of kids do in the Taurel factory. They specialize in cheaply made award watches with the faces printed with the tiny logo of whatever college the recipient

works for or is being honored by. We got the orders and the designs and printed up hundreds of them to be sent out to sports teams, university honorees, chess champions and ice skaters all over the country. Actually, it is a pretty cheap watch. It just has your school's logo on it, and that will probably fade soon. It's just cardboard in there, you know." Eric glanced bemusedly at his watch. It had been Central State University's gift for ten years of service. He told Trey all about it. "Maybe in another ten years, they will give me something better. Anyway, I need to keep up the act, so don't take offense when I call you motherfucker or whatever." "I understand," said Trey, noting that the bare-chested ladies were starting to stir once again. It was probably time to go back to work.

"You also understand Spanish," said Eric. "About the invasion or whatever." "Not me," said Trey. "My girlfriend. He pointed to Nikki, who was sitting next to Calyx and chatting quietly and perhaps a little too intimately for the situation at hand. "She started understanding as soon as she was infected by the cowboy, who also understands it. It has something to do with their rashes, which I am sure you have noticed." "The very reason I came out here," Eric confided. "Whatever is in them is alive." "Figures," said Trey. "I've been trying to catch one myself. For Nikki's sake." "You love her a lot, don't you?"

"Yeah, but let's not get into that. We have a plan. A separation plan, so it's no big deal to me right now if she slept with the cowhand." "Jealousy is a bad thing. You're wise." At that moment, Brooke suddenly jumped up from the tuft of desert brush where she had been sitting and smoking yet another of Marcelina's generously offered cigarettes. She walked over to Trey and Eric and started to speak. Eric cut her off: "You've been smoking a lot of those son of a bitches lately. Suppose you've got the habit again?" "Yeah," said Brooke. "It never really left me. Don't tell Jared." Then she sadly shook her head at Trey, to whom she had been secretly

listening. "I can understand Spanish now too," she said mournfully. "And I never studied a goddamn word of it in school." Eric got up on his knees. "Let me see your back," he said with a certain allknowing acquiescence. Brooke pulled up her shirt, revealing the same horseshoe shaped line of fiery dots that marked the backs of Kemp Tanner and Nikki Barazan. "Calyx saw it this morning," she said. "She was happy. She reported it to her leader." "Oh joy," said Eric. "Skin invasive cryptids that teach you Spanish. Now that I have you to study, we can get out of here and go home." "I don't think we are going anywhere," rejoined Trey, noticing the commando women beckoning them to resume the labor of shifting crates from one

Duckwing to another. "I need to call Jared," said Brooke. "We've been out of touch too long." "Our phones are in the Jeep," said Eric, "and we already know they don't work out here." Brooke grimaced. "These chesty broads seem to have no trouble communicating with their unseen masters," she said, pointing to Marcelina who held a radiophone the size of brick up to her ear. "Is that who she's talking to?" said Eric. "Sounds like it, and the kid's right. It is about an invasion of somewhere."

When the loading of boxed equipment into the first Duckwing was complete, the entire group was exhausted. Marcelina who had done her equal share of the work was dripping with perspiration, as were the other members of her crew. Both Nikki and Brooke had decided, as had Trey, to remove their shirts. Eric, for reasons of his vap hump, naturally left his on. There seemed to be a different attitude now among the mercenary soldier women. A kind of trust had been established between them and their captives, and the women carried their automatic weapons much less than in the previous few days. Eric especially could sense a sort of change with regard to both himself and Brooke. Marcelina was no doubt convinced of his ferocious nature, but the appearance of the ring of eruptions on Brooke's back, a thing seen by all, seemed inspire a kind of comradeship between her and the armed women. Martina and Marcelina openly addressed her in Spanish, and Brooke had the feeling that

although she was speaking English, her words were actually being telegraphed to them in Spanish. A nascent friendship between her and the captives seemed to be developing. "Stockholm syndrome," Trey continued to mutter as he worked. But, in truth, he noticed the same thing with Nikki, who not only was using Spanish herself, but at times laughing with the women. Kemp was also widely respected. He was given the run of his own camp once again, and made no attempt to reach his vehicle, find any sort of weapon or escape. "Stockholm syndrome," Trey continued to grumble. In short, it was clear that whatever liaison was developing between them did not include either him or Eric. This drove the two men a bit closer together as the long afternoon wound on. "I have something to tell you about these planes," Trey said to him as they worked side by side polishing the wing flaps and sides of the aircraft. "Later," said Eric.

Kemp had a brief and positive enough talk with Marcelina at a distance. Whatever it was the cowboy was requesting was evidently granted. Marcelina pointed with her finger at a flat sandy spot at the far end of the camp well beyond the slope of the rock outcropping where they had previously slept and under which Trey, Nikki, Brooke and Eric had passed the previous three nights. Kemp seemed pleased. Later, and quite to Trey's dismay, Kemp approached Nikki. He was bursting with the same sort of protective and romantic lust that he had felt for her on first sight, and in a rough sort of way, he told her so. "Your plan hasn't been totally finished by all this," he said. "No," said Nikki, who could see the desire in the cowboy's eyes and realized

that his conversation with Marcelina would have been about her. She felt a longing for his firm body and his manly embrace as well. Trey would understand. It was still in the plan. The unfinished plan, soon to be completed, but not quite. That night, after cups of white still whiskey and globs of Kemp's clumpy reheated cookpot stew, still crispy with scorpions among other additions, Kemp and Nikki bedded down together in what Nikki said to Trey would most likely be the last time. "We're all going somewhere at dawn," were her last words to Trey before joining Kemp. "You'll have Calyx. She wants you again. Everything is cool." The abrupt dropping of the oppressive desert sun resulted in the customary cooling of the stifling air, and each took up his or her place of sleep with their

appointed partner. Calyx, undressed and covered only by her bedroll, became sultry and passionate at Trey's side. It was clear that she both liked and desired him. But she seemed to want to move closer to both Eric and Brooke as well. She edged toward them both under her blanket and drew Trey closer too with a tug of her hand. She wanted to talk. Under the phosphorescent desert moonlight, she dived immediately into her subject, blurting: "We're not bad people, you know. We are paid soldiers. You probably have guessed that. Paid soldiers usually take up any mission offered regardless of the motives involved, but most fall away if the operation seems too dishonest or depraved. This one doesn't. I can't tell you about it, but the five of us and many others feel we are doing a good thing. That is one reason beyond the pay we stay on. Soldiers, even paid ones, need to feel they are working for more than just money."

"So what are you working for?" said Eric softly. "It's very complicated," said Calyx. "Marcelina has not given anyone permission to explain it to you yet. All I can tell you is that by tomorrow, you and Trey will probably not be a part of it anymore." "So Marcelina shoots us?" exclaimed Trey suddenly. "No. She is not going to do that. But there is another problem. Nikki and Brooke have the mark. You've seen that. That means they will need to go where we are headed. You and Eric will need to remain behind." Trey started to jump up and protest, but a stern glance from Eric prevented him. Brooke, likewise, was held down by a forceful hand placed on her

shoulder. Eric knew to change the subject as to not create too much alarm. "I know you two are not the renegades you have been acting like," Calyx continued, "but Marcelina and the others don't. Or maybe they just don't care. I don't know why you and your wife came here, but you're not running from anything. Don't worry. I won't blow your act, but I think it has gone far enough. No more killing by scorpion, okay? That was a little much, even for hardened women like Marcelina and the rest of us." "Okay," said Eric, not quite agreeing with the first proposition but certainly not denying it. "Listen Calyx, we are really out of touch with our families and friends. Our phones are locked in my car, and we know they won't work here anyway. All we want to do is listen to our voice mail. We won't be doing any talking to anyone at all. Do you think you could patch us in and let us do

that?" Calyx looked at her military issue radio phone. "Sure," she said. "It's a powerful short wave transmitter. I can call up any phone number in the world with it from one of the general bands." With that she punched a couple of buttons and twisted a dial. She handed the large radio phone to an astonished Eric, who dialed his cell phone message center and entered his personal code. What ensued, of course, was a flood of words in several different messages left by Jared. He pushed the replay at his message center and calmly handed the radiophone to Brooke, who guarding the same nonchalant expression as her partner, listened to the several long and detailed spiels her son had recorded. Then she dialed her own number and heard much the same. Acting totally unruffled, she handed the device back to Calyx.

Night fell, and the four neighbor sleepers found the warmth and comfort of each other's bodies. Below, Nikki's trial separation from Trey unfolded exactly as planned. In the darkness, it was impossible to say what Marcelina and the four others were up to. Certain noises suggested female intimacy, but that in the face of recent events held no shock value in the least. A million varmints punctuated the cool air of night with their mating sounds. Mating was going on all over the world and in every animal kingdom. There was no reason that among trapped and stranded humans there should have been any exception. Before sunrise, Marcelina and the others were up and about. All five of them wore khaki camo shirts now covering their more than ample breasts. Calyx had disengaged herself from Trey while the latter was still in a peaceful and sensuous slumber. The mercenary group was gathering up their final possessions and preparing to board the aircrafts. As the preparations

progressed, one of them---as of yet unnamed--came over to summon both Nikki and Trey. Kemp Tanner, ordinarily placid Nevada range roamer, was also dressed and in their number. Finally, Martina walked up to where Eric and Brooke were still lying under bedrolls. In a sharp voice speaking Spanish, she aimed some words at Brooke, who, understanding them, arose immediately, dressed and joined the group at the center of the camp. Eric followed with some hesitation and took a place to the rear alongside of Trey. "We're being left behind, you know," said Trey. "Maybe not," said Eric, glancing sideways at the sturdy young man. "Let me try something." He then stepped forward into the first bars of the rising sun and folded his arms. "Anyone here remember how to speak English?" he began. "If so listen to me." The others stopped their nattering with one

another and gave the aggressive entomologist their full attention. Some of their jaws dropped as they heard his words. "You are all planning a trip to the offshore African island of Bioko, a part of the nasty little nation of Equatorial Guinea. You are going somewhere near the place written on that slab of black quartz up there: Malabo. You are mercenary soldiers and you are working for a cause that I and this young man personally consider good and worthy, the liberation of a new and wonderful subterranean territory from a despotic and autocratic king and his malicious, merciless court and their corrupt rule. Don't bother to tell me if I am right because I know I am. There will be more soldiers from other places and more planes. Your cause is a good one. Each of you are directed by the circle of entities which you carry on your bodies, and these are good entities, as I see it. In fact, they are the very alien-seeming things that I came here to study. They are living creatures and work for the forces which have hired you to restore a place now called Crackland to its

original inhabitants, who can live in harmony with human beings. Am I right? Sure, I am." Among the others whom Eric held in rapt suspense was Trey, who taking a cue, stepped forward and said "I too know about Crackland. Nikki and I have been there and at the mercy of its king and wizard too, I might add. We know Jabari the feared Magician-Shaman, and it was he who helped us escape the torture and fury of King Zack, who wades through a trail of blood with his every move. Nothing would please us more than to join you. We know the place. We can be of service." "But you failed to contract the contagion," protested Calyx. "It is a sign that you should not go with us. The skin eruptions can control and guide our minds. They allow us to understand Spanish, for instance, which will be the

main language of our directors." "Fuck it," continued Eric. "We are strong, experienced and useful. It is wrong to leave us behind and separate us from those we love. Let us join you for better or worse. We have proven our trustworthiness. And now I am telling you our zeal about this enterprise. Let us board the Duckwing with you and go to Malabo and from there to Crackland because we know that is your plan and we know it to be good. Neither Trey nor I know why we have not been infected. But we pledge ourselves nonetheless." The assertiveness once again worked. All eyes fell briefly on Marcelina, who took less than an instant to nod in assent and point a shoulder toward the netherside of the sand dunes where the Duckwings were parked. It had taken very little to convince her, but Eric, thanks to Jared, had achieved his goal.

And Trey, not wanting to ever again be separated from Nikki, had dovetailed perfectly into the plan. "To Malabo," they all shouted. "And Crackland!!" IX. More executions in Crackland Donny Seabrink, now Grand Vizier of the subterranean Kingdom of Crackland and its Associated Territories, sat proudly at the side of his monarch and giggling queen, as a chained group of petty thieves and other assorted criminals imported from the surface were brought before the royal seat in the vast parade grounds of the palace of King Zack. In the stands were the noblemen of the realm and a large sampling of citizen representatives, whose sole function it was to oversee the swift justice enacted by the

unconditional monarch and report it back to those admiring throngs of citizen settlers who were unable to attend the occasion as it unfolded. The awe of the masses, as ever, was maintained by the rightful vengeance of the king against the enemies of the realm, and Butch McGreevey stood proudly beside his bloodstained tree stump which for so long had served as a chopping block for his summary and much appreciated decapitations. As Queen Taryn flittered her eyes about at her attendant array of pulchritudinous and scantily clothed maidens, the criminals, usually ignorant of exactly what their crimes had actually been, were thrown one by one to their knees in front of Butch's stump, and Butch wasted no time in exercising his now chipped and discolored axe to remove their heads from their quivering bodies. Thus, on that execution day, as on all others, human heads literally rolled, as Butch kicked them aside beckoning the next victim to step up. For many of the citizens of Crackland this was naturally a festive time, and sausage vendors worked their way

through the bleachers delivering snacks and sugary drinks of all sorts for an extremely nominal charge. In all directions, the elite corps of the Midnight Riders stood by to keep order. These were still attired in a pseudo-Prussiancum-Nazi manner, and still were required to march in high step in and out of the scene. On their heads, they still clumsily wore steel helmets complete with pickelhauben spikes, and blaring martial music blasted from every pole-top loudspeaker on the palace grounds and throughout the farthest inhabited regions of the pleasant and tranquil domain. Donny Seabrook, like his predecessor, understood the importance of maintaining intrigue and entertainment for the masses. King Zack had, however, become slighted jaded with these routine spectacles of justice and death, and he surveyed the crowd for lissome skater boys, whom, as a confirmed and unabashed bisexual he coveted as much as he did the

teenage girls of Taryn's nubile entourage. Queen Taryn, forever giggling at whatever happened, tittered wildly each time a head fell to the blood drenched soil surrounding Butch's chopping stump. She liked that her king enjoyed the company of pretty, athletic boys for reasons that even Taryn could not verbalize. As one severed head fell after another, Taryn massaged Zack's leg and whispered in his ear: "I wonder what they say right before the axe," she sniggered." We should really sit closer." Nearby off to the side of the bleachers, a bulky draft mule brought in by one of the citizen farmers began braying loudly, perhaps disturbed by the immensity of the crowd or by the shrieks and cries of the condemned or just by whatever it is that causes animals to become noisy. Zack fingered his silver-plated Lugers buckled to his hips and withdrew one with his left hand. Ignoring the decapitation spectacle, he took quick aim and sent a bullet into the raucous

mule's forehead. The beast collapsed instantly in a wet thud. Zack made slurping guffaws and appeared highly amused. A crying baby in the throng several seats up appeared to be his next target until its mother hastily covered it with a blanket and slunk out of the arena and disappeared into the standing swarm which stood in breathless rapt behind the seats. Zack grimaced. He would have liked to have wasted a noisy brat that day, as he had unexpectedly done several times before. Such was the license and prerogative of a god-king turned Fascist dictator. When the last of the condemned was beheaded, Donny Seabrink stood up and addressed his king. Donny already enjoyed his role more than his predecessor Aaron Arvicher had, as Donny had acquired a true partiality for torture, mayhem and carnage. "My predecessor," he began loudly enough for all to hear, "may his memory last forever, had a true admiration for the House of

Bourbon and its sun king Louis XIV. I second this admiration and take it back over a century earlier to the enlightened reign of the House of Navarre, to the sainted Henri IV, assassinated in cold blood by the ruthless killer François Ravaillac." Among the clustered spectators, a quavering voice shuddered. "Oh my god, Ravaillac!! I'm out of here." A rustling occurred as a bulky man, no doubt more steeped in history's horrors than the others, bustled away. King Zack smiled in his blithe ignorance of French history or any other history for that matter and gazed obliviously at his Grand Vizier. What Zack knew of the French monarchy he had gained from Aaron Arvicher, and that was only enough to convince him that public torture and cruelty held the bewildered masses in sway. "Ravaill...who?" he said indifferently.

"Ravaillac," continued Donny. "He stabbed Henri of Navarre to death in his royal carriage in 1610. A horrid regicide, which was punished in the manner of the day: écartèlement. Zack, not understanding the French word, retained his suspended anticipation. "Bring it on whatever it is," he said. Queen Taryn, likewise ignorant of Donny's reference, made her usual squeals of pleasure and shook her head anxiously. The crowd fell silent. Not all, but obviously some, were familiar with the heinous execution of François Ravaillac in the Place de Grève in Paris on May the 27th of the year 1610. Ravaillac, was tortured with molten lead and burning sulfur, stripped naked and each of his limbs was attached to a powerful draft horse. He was thus torn apart screaming in inexpressible agony before a crowd much like the one gathered this day in Crackland.

Several brass horns rang out, and a natty contingent of uniformed Midnight Riders dragged a young, agile boy from out of a small shed near the arena. The boy, a recently imported skateboarder and sometimes favorite of King Zack, was named Tony. The centurion on duty at Delsmain dam, where the Midnight Rider troop had been considerably augmented, had supposedly found Tony lurking about inside the razor-wire fence surrounding the immense hydroelectric complex. By report, Tony was creeping about surreptitiously and carrying an incendiary device, an explosive complete with a detonator which ostensibly he planned to plant near the dam. Tony, pleading for his life, denied even knowing about the remote power plant, let alone being there with a bomb. But the centurion had the device as proof of Tony's intended plot. Screaming for mercy to a monarch with whom he had often been forced into unnatural sex, Tony lay prostrate on the bloody soil, as four white draft horses

were tethered to his legs and arms. Grand Vizier Seabrink went down to his side bent over him and whispered for him to confess and repent and "die like a man." Tony had no desire to die period and said so. His last words were "I'm innocent, dude. I'm just a street skater." With an unaccustomed gesture of mercy, Donny Seabrink pushed an unseen cyanide tablet into the skater's mouth and backed off once again to address the crowd. "All attempts at the peace of our kingdom will receive the fate of Ravaillac and our Tony, which you will witness today." Then he gave a signal for the horses to start their march in opposing directions. By the time Tony's hip and shoulder joints began to visibly crack and spurt blood, Tony was long dead. The cyanide had done its job, and Tony had at least been spared the torment of prolonged suffering. Most of the crowd went ecstatic, as the horses pulled his limbs free from his torso. Some, however,

shielded their eyes and some vomited. King Zack, highly amused, clapped, and Queen Taryn said that Tony, naked on his back before death, was "cute and sexy." As the multitude dispersed, a small heretofore unnoticed body of high-ranking Midnight Riders gathered at the side of Donny Seabrink. All were staring at Zack, and expressions of the gravest solemnity flattened their faces. With them were some strangers who had been seen recently in the company of the Grand Vizier. They had the unsmiling countenance usually worn by important and unannounced visitors from the topside. Forming a sort of delegation they walked over to where King Zack was wiping a silk handkerchief over some spots of mud which had spattered on his knee-high leather boots. Waving Queen Taryn away to the company of her maidens, the assembly surrounded Zack and motioned silently for him to follow them into a windowless court

interrogation chamber near one of the many entrances of the royal palace. Once inside, a uniformed Midnight Rider pushed the monarch roughly into a wooden chair alongside a barren pinewood table. Donny Seabrink stepped aside in his flowing purple vizier's robes and allowed a highly decorated Midnight Rider official to speak. The problem was clear. The recently drawn and quartered skater Tony who had been caught red-handed trying to plant a bomb near Delsmain Dam had long been one of Zack's favorites. A stranger whom Zack was sure he had seen before long ago pulled some glossy photos from an envelope. The photos were of Zack and Tony naked together and performing several lewd acts on one another. Although homosexuality was not illegal in Crackland and despite the fact that King Zack's proclivity toward agile young boys was well known and generally accepted, it was determined that Zack had been in league with a true

saboteur to blow up the hydroelectric dam. Zack's protests fell on deaf ears, as the cold and determined eyes of the delegation held him in silent contempt. Finally, the new stranger, a grim middle aged man dressed uncharacteristically in surface business attire, spoke. Zack Hammer-Twift of the House of Wampaugh, sovereign king of Crackland, had brought shame to the realm, and before long all would know it. The sanctity of the royal lineage and its awesome command over the popular mind needed to preserved at all costs. It was time for Zack to be replaced "in a natural and fitting manner." Scandals were out of the question, as the loyalty of the citizenry depended on the regularity of the monarchy. Zack held his breath, feeling fear for perhaps the first time during his twelve-year reign. At length, the group clustered by the door and spoke quietly to one another. The chief officer of the Midnight Riders walked calmly back to Zack and asked

for both of his Lugers, which the king had no choice but to draw from their holsters and hand him. The officer checked the clip on one of them. It was nearly full. He extracted all but one bullet from the magazine and handed the weapon back to Zack wordlessly staring at him. Then he turned on his jackbooted heels, returned to the group and said: "We presume your majesty knows how to use this gun." The company then walked smartly out of the door, locking it behind them and leaving King Zack alone with his own regrets, fears, and perhaps sorrows...as well as the polished silver-plated Luger armed with only one round. X. The departure for Malabo When the strange assortment of individuals left Kemp Tanner's desert valley camp for the last time and mounted the gravely hill which hid the Duckwing

480s from sight, they first were surprised to notice that the second aircraft had disappeared sometime during the night. This seemed strange to Eric Palobay, who had some familiarity with the huge cargo-carrying seaplanes. "It should have made some noise," he said to Kemp Tanner at his side. "The desert muffles all sound, "said Kemp, who had shown little if any reluctance in joining the party that he had been compelled to join from the start. Marcelina had let him know that above all the others his presence was essential and a major part of the plan. Later she had claimed more or less the same for both Nikki Barazan and Brooke Nescott. Although Kemp considered himself basically an ignorant cowpoke, it took him no time to make the connection. It was the skin infection, of course. Outside of the bare-breasted merc ladies, only the three of them had it. For some reason, unknown to all, Eric Palobay and Trey Agremont had failed to contract the glowing purple and red semicircle of eruptions. The two had expressed, however, enough enthusiasm and

knowledge of Crackland that Marcelina had willingly assented to their continued company. Trust now seemed to reign within the entire assembly of soon to be invaders, and the submachine guns had almost to a one disappeared, although Marceline still wore a holstered side arm of some foreign make and unknown caliber. Kemp, resigned to his fate and perhaps hungry himself for an adventure beyond the boundaries of his desert valley homeland, continued to fix the shapely torso of Nikki Barazan in his sight. He had not forgotten the fury and fever of their initial lovemaking, and he found himself still daydreaming about making enough money to call her his own. The trial separation from the boy Trey seemed to still be in force. Therefore, it was no surprise when, upon boarding the huge remaining Duckwing, Kemp jostled to get a seat next to Nikki. And he was secretly pleased upon observing the American commando

Calyx, who had so ruthlessly dispatched one of Hector Carbajal's compadres, herself jostling to get a seat next to Trey. Brooke clung close to Eric, and the remainder of the hired women soldiers sat here and there, leaving a great deal of unused space in the cabin of the craft. When everyone was seated, Marcelina came out of the cockpit accompanied by a jet black, sub-Saharan African kid who could not have been more than thirteen years old. The kid was scrawny and wore only a loose fitting pair of canvas shorts tied with a length of rope. A pungent unfiltered Gauloise dangled from his lips, and he seemed agitated and nervous. It was clear that either he had been sleeping on the Duckwing or he had been left by the now-departed one. He apparently spoke only Spanish and was constantly squinting his eyes as it nearsighted. Marcelina introduced him only as Carmelo, a member of the Bantu-Fang clan which inhabited both the island capital and the mainland enclave of Equatorial

Guinea. He was, somewhat shockingly, their pilot. The Americans watched as he took his seat behind the wheel of the controls, cigarette still in mouth, and guided the lurching plane down a makeshift runway traced across the flinty soil of the desert. Duckwing 480s, albeit tottering and prone to list violently, could take off and land nearly anywhere. The ascent was almost fearsome as the kid, visible through the cabin door, heaved the clumsy plane off the ground and began flying it at a low altitude across the endless stretches of desert. "He's trying to fly under the radar," said Eric. "Wonder how long he can do that? Also, this pig is going to need some gas sometime." Almost at ground level the black kid jammed the plane right and left and through gaps in the Toiyabe Range, across vacant fields, scrubby forests, barely populated areas until finally it was over a large stretch of water. The

young pilot, although unruffled by the uneven performance of the Duckwing, was guiding it skillfully enough. Kemp decided to put a hand on Nikki's tense leg. "We're not going to crash," he said quietly. "Bet that kid can get us to Africa faster than an air force pilot." Nikki, heaved a nervous sigh, and huddled closer to Kemp. As darkness finally fell over the unknown landscape, she snuggled closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. Kemp felt the electric vibrancy of her pulsating warmth and wound his brawny arm around her waist. "I hope your experiment isn't over yet," he whispered in her ear, brushing his lips against her cheek. "It isn't," said Nikki, returning his light kiss. Two rows ahead of Kemp and Nikki, Calyx coiled her own taut and muscular

arm around Trey Agremont's shoulder and pulled him closer to her now shirted chest. "Put your head on my breasts," she whispered. Trey willingly complied. Calyx was gorgeous beyond mere description. He had slept with her twice and wanted to do so again. There was still much time in his life for Nikki. This was part of the plan. Calyx raised his head from the opening in her khaki shirt, lifting his lips from her exposed nipples. She brought his mouth to hers and kissed him deeply. "I wish you wanted me as much as I want you," she said. Trey made no response. In the darkness of the lurching Duckwing cabin, an unseen world was passing rapidly beneath them. Malabo was far away, impossibly far away. But as Brooke Nescott nuzzled into her domestic partner and lover, Eric Palobay, any observer could have easily seen that at least four participants in this outlandish escapade were for the moment happy and

satiated with what was to be a fleeting and hard-earned sense of short-lived contentment. TO BE CONTINUED END OF PART TWO _____________________________________ Devon Pitlor -- February, 2011 ///**/*

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