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The Invasion of Crackland

PART THREE
I. Two old people in the Christian Era 2075 In the mammoth Hall of Reconciliation of the Western District, two very old but not seemingly frail people sat side by side on a polished marble bench holding hands and talking very little. From time to time they glanced at one another and nodded their heads as if they were communicating telepathically, and they probably were, as this couple--a man and a woman--had been together for eighty-seven years, since birth, and what they could not read from one another's minds or automatically surmise was probably not worth the breath to verbalize. The scene reminded the woman of a setting straight out of Alice in Wonderland,

due mostly to the monstrous immensity of the edifice they had entered, which although accommodating people of normal size, was clearly built for giants. It was an immaculately polished stone structure with doors that were nearly four meters in height and two in width. Everything was barren, smooth, clean and plain. The unadorned walls were lit by bright gleaming floor illumination which added to the crippling sense of overwhelming gigantism which the entire building inspired. The couple, undaunted by the grotesque and implausible dimensions, had entered by a much smaller door behind a gargantuan column, a hidden door which seemed more like a mouse hole than a place of human entry. Both were where they sat voluntarily, and both knew that they could at any time leave by the same door they had entered and not remain for the interview. But fearing little and having less to lose, they grasped each other's hands and remained huddled like dwarves on the bulky stone bench. Finally, a young and pleasant-looking woman came out from one of the innumerable folds in the distant wall. She walked the entire distance across the huge reception area echolessly, guarding the same somewhat pasted-on smile as she approached. The old man noted by the twenty-four hour clock on another wall that it probably took her a full three minutes walking normally to

reach them, so vast was the cavernous hall. As she neared the ageing couple, the young woman, who in scrubbed plainness fell somewhat short of the outskirts of prettiness, straightened her spine and then gave the couple a quick bow. No physical contact was initiated or expected. "I am sorry to keep you waiting," she said in a very neutral but not unfriendly tone, "but you requested flesh and not hologram for the meeting. It took a while to assemble the delegates. But now they are ready. Please follow me. If you need to purify yourselves, please do that first. The bathrooms are against that wall behind the twenty-ninth column. I will wait for you here." The couple wordlessly trudged off to the bathrooms, which were marked clearly in English for "People." Other, larger restrooms, containing one supposed much larger furnishings, were marked in another language and alphabet, under which was written "Not for People." Once inside the toiletry area, each elderly person pulled down a reedware cup from a dispenser and filled it with blue liquid from a tap extending prominently from the tiled wall over each sink. They drank the contents of these cups, tossed them into a wall slot, and immediately went to the toilets and purged themselves of whatever

needed purging at that particular time. The action was almost immediate and guaranteed at any time of day both a clean colon and bladder. This was one of the many medical advances of the New Era which allowed a couple like this to live and be vigorously ambulant at the age of eighty-seven. Since the Great Rescue and the dawn of the Reconciliation, there had been many such medical advances, and people, as once predicted, simply lived longer. This couple was no exception. The multi-diurnal purgation of the eliminatory system was simply taken for granted in these times. After speedy internal and external ablutions, the couple rejoined the young woman and were escorted into a huge crescent-shaped space which resembled a court room of a past era, an era from which the elderly couple had hailed and were more than familiar with. Each took a seat, as a rather humorless assemblage of young men and women, dressed in extremely loose fitting yet almost blindingly colorful garments, entered the room from another door and took seats directly in front of the old couple. All seemed to be examining them closely, and in the eyes of some there shined a definite glow of genuine admiration. After all were in place, a rather drab-looking young man stood up and began reading from a scroll-like device embedded in the back of his right

hand and arm. His voice was impassive and lacked any sort of punctuation by enthusiasm. "You have both requested a live audience for this final interview. Is that correct?" The old woman piped up and said in a voice far more lucid than one would have at one time expected from a person her age: "Yeah. People. Flesh. We're both sick of holograms. Our grandchildren and their children visit us with holograms. We're sick of it. If we still have something to contribute, let it be to real people." The old man rolled his eyes and nodded in assent. "You are both of the Christian Era, so for you these proceedings are taking place on the 10th of May, 2075, which for us is the Year 60 of the Rescue and Reconciliation Era. Do you prefer me to record this in your dates or ours?" "I don't give a damn," said the old man, "and neither does she. Use whatever

dates you like. Use Islamic dates for all we care." "We need to record this precisely if it is going to be the last time," said the young man dispassionately. "We do not, as you know, recognize any religions." "Neither do we," said the old woman growing impatient. "So let's just call it today." The young man, standing before his peers, continued. "You are both honored members of the English-Speaking Western District, so this hearing will be in English. You both have chosen expiration dates on the same day in twenty years from now in 2095. Is that correct?" The couple nodded. "You are both here by your own free volition and understand that all proceedings are being recorded in several formats and will become part of the permanent archives of the Reconciliation?"

Again a dual affirmation of assent. "You are both Friends of the Human Race and of the Reconciliation? That will need to be spoken and voice mapped." The woman stood up. "As a human, I accept the Reconciliation with the Caretakers and have received just benefit from this arrangement." The man waited for his mate to sit down, stood up and repeated the same thing. The spokesman then continued, always reading from the back of his hand. "Both of you have done meritorious service to the New Era and to the Western District. Your deeds and your service is written openly in the archives. You are a part of history. We salute you and thank you for your continued service as we accommodate the Caretakers in reconstructing this final chapter of early Twenty-First Century history in which you both so richly...."

"Yeah..yeah...yeah..." interrupted the woman. "We know all that. The Caretakers have been a good deal, a good alliance with our race. We need to give them all the history they need. They have calmed everyone down and are always working on peace. They want to know about all the violence of the past and where they can still right the wrongs. They calmed us down too much once before any of you were born, and I'm sure your record shows how my partner and I aided the Western District in that fiasco or mistake or whatever you call it." For the first time, the young spokesman blushed. The old woman was referring to a special service she and her mate had once rendered a suffering world. But this service today was somewhat embarrassing, especially to those like himself who had directly owed the event of their birth to the actions taken. This service was well-known and not a part of what the Caretakers wanted to have revised and examined. In fact, this service, as it was performed over several years, makes up a separate story of its own, and in deference to the wishes of the Caretakers will not be brought up further here---although at sometime, it may be worth a chapter of its own. It was known by all that the

all-prescient Caretakers, the dark extraterrestrial giants who for more than fifty-five years had partnered with mankind to reconstruct the Earth and its often wayward populations, were not perfect, and they could indeed, just like humans, be embarrassed by episodes in the past which resulted primarily from their oversights, errors that were, as in this not-to-be discussed case, sometimes rectified by human action. Still reading, thus, and hiding his blush, the young man continued. "That is not the substance of today's hearing. What you did in the years 2015-2017 does not interest us, and it is well-documented and, I must add, appreciated. "Yeah," chuckled the old man. "What we did at age twenty-six through twenty-eight was pretty spicy." The young assembly spokesman again pretended not to notion. "Okay," he said, regrouping. "Let's proceeded." Another very plain, if not drab looking, woman stood up from her assembly seat and flashed the back of her arm under the speaker's eyes. "Oh, yes," he interjected. "You have made a request to be allowed to cross the Mississippi Ocean to the Eastern District. That is not

unreasonable, and I can assure you that it will be granted. May we have for the records your reason?" The old man raised his hand and said "To visit old friends in what used to be Pennsylvania. That's all. Our own home, once called Iowa, is, as you know, at the bottom of the sea, so it really doesn't matter to us which District we are in. Too bad the Caretakers didn't get here sooner with their seismic stabilizers." He grasped his aged partner's hand as he mentioned the former state from which both had long ago issued. "Reasonable request and granted immediately," said the spokesman, breaking in the weak beginnings of what might be termed a smile. "Now please take the central podium for your last interrogation. Miss Barazan, would you please go first?" Nikki Barazan, still radiant at age eighty-seven, stood up with lithe grace and walked in front of the assembly. Questions began flying at her from all directions, as the audience was given permission to query freely. To each question, Nikki arched her still full eyebrows and said the same thing: "There

never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland." "You've been maintaining that for years," shouted a voice from the assembly. "We...and the Caretakers....have contradictory information." "There never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland," repeated Nikki in a firm monotone. Later, her partner, Trey Agremont, took the same podium and repeated the same lines: "There never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland." Over the continued, yet mild, protests of the contingent present, Trey continued to answer each and every question in the same manner. He concluded by saying that "Seeing as how there never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland, there could not have been an invasion." At length, the old couple, still holding hands were shown out of the auditorium into the great reception hall designed for the towering Caretakers, who had brought not only tectonic stability to the troubled planet but social solidity as

well. The giants had come from elsewhere after the great period of plate adjustment which had created a branch of the Gulf of Mexico four hundred miles wide which now flowed through what was once the heartland of America. The giants had been there all along, observing mankind from the start, and their decision, made on levels that only they knew about had been genuinely benevolent with no strings attached. The human race, having gone through a period of unspeakable chaos, had voluntarily accepted what was at first the reluctant partnership of these sidereal creatures and their advanced civilization, a civilization that in an earlier time had sent many warnings toward the errant and insubordinate planet, once even in the form of a huge asteroid called Ilystra Damals, which had begged for the better elements of what to the Caretakers was an undeveloped and undisciplined species to be voiced, and Nikki Barazan even at age eighty-seven was still convinced that her voice had been the deciding one which had turned the threatening asteroid away. A lot of discussion about Crackland and the events of 2012-13 was dwarfed by the sheer horror and immensity of what followed, and both Nikki and Trey felt it both trivial and self-serving to parade the details of what exactly had happened in this now buried and forgotten subterranean realm. Thus, by agreement, the ageing participants had long ago made a pact not to

talk about it. Both carried a fiery red ruby in their pockets, a reminder of the magical element of Crackland and the legendary Jabari the Magician, who had helped so much in the salvation of the underground realm. But all of that had occurred long ago in a time frame which Nikki and Trey deigned not to speak of further. "There never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland," they both concluded as they were shown out of the immense hall and given free transport back to their comfortable lodgings. Of course, Nikki and Trey knew better. But time was rapidly erasing those who could correct them. Later that spring day in the Western District, another couple was shown into the same auditorium and appeared before the same interrogators. This couple, although seeming quite sound of mind, were considerably older than Nikki and Trey. One was a woman, aged 101 named Brooke Nescott, who was still sprightly mobile and fresh in mind and action. The other was a man who was wheeled into the room by Brooke on a rolling bed. He slept though the testimony of Brooke Nescott, who true to form, said only: "There never was

nor ever has been a place called Crackland." After another session of frustration with this continued remark, the assembly asked for the testimony of the man. Brooke bent over and whispered something in his ear, and he appeared to wake up briefly. His name was Dr. Eric Palobay, and he had once been a noted entomologist at Central State University in Aristock, Pennsylvania. Since the Eastern District had given up on historical re-enactment sessions, Eric had been brought west by Brooke to give his last testimonial before a state audience. Eric, whose life had now been prolonged to the age of one hundred and sixty-one years through the munificent agency of a slug-like parasite attached to his back since pre-Second World War 1934, a parasite which had taken over his failing life support systems and become a part of his body, arose briefly from his daily surrender of consciousness to the parasite, which now demanded over eight hours per day in black and orange "brain time." Still strong, Eric stood up and cast a worldweary eye over the youth gathered before him. He shrugged at their incessant questions. They, like all the world by now, knew about his parasite, the vap. By prior agreement, it was not to be discussed. Eric had done precious little of that in his life, and, besides, the new medical technologies seemed to be

working almost as well as his vap did. Drink a brew of previously undiscovered "good bacteria" and get washed clean of toxins and destructive agents a few times each day and live to be as world-weary and jaded as he had become in his 161 years. He could not help asking who had invented this ubiquitous therapeutic breakthrough. "Was it us or them?" he said. "Us," said the young spokesman with some pride. "Give us credit for some things." "I do," said Eric. "Things are pretty cool these days. You should have been around in the Depression," he joked, "but no, you shouldn't have," he corrected, rolling his thoughts back almost one hundred and forty-five years. "No, you would not have liked that. Now about your question. I've had it so many times before, but never live. They've always sent me those wretchedly dry holograms." Brooke stared at her domestic partner in mild shock. Was Eric going to reveal things that everyone, including her powerful son Jared and his equally powerful friends, had long before solemnly agreed not to divulge? She wondered. The emergingly sentient vap had been taking over Eric's mind for some decades now, something he had many years before warned her about. Was the vap intelligent enough by this time to make its own decisions and

override a pact made so long ago? Brooke clutched the fiery red ruby in her coat pocket and hoped not. Eric smiled back at her and adjusted his body somewhat clumsily before the group. "I like all the things this partnership has done," he began in a strong voice. "I never thought I would say that. They first send an asteroid here to scare everyone, but I guess that was a good idea. Now they make peace wherever they go without coercion or violence and always with our approval. They are pretty big, however, and no one has ever been able to ask them many questions. But, all in all, they have been good stewards and have saved our planet from breaking into pieces, which I suppose is what it was going to do. In these sixty years, they made only one mistake that I can recall, and I can understand why no one wants to talk about it. Anyway, we took care of that. And they have always given us the credit. What's to dislike about these partners? Yes, Caretakers. We needed caretakers. Who can deny that? They asked. We accepted. We benefit. So now they want a full history of everything that has happened here and where the bodies are buried and who shot John and Mary. Something for their annals. Curious bastards, aren't they? But so what? Do you kids know that they once, using their people-like holograms, asked me all about the 1930s? I told them everything I remembered."

Brooke sighed deeply. She was sure Eric, always independent, was at the point of spilling everything he knew, and he knew a lot. He was right. Sixty years had proven that the Caretakers meant no harm and performed nothing but good. But every detail of the human biography did not need to be laid open to their seemingly endless scrutiny. We need to keep a few of our own secrets, she thought. "Let's get back to the subject in question," urged the young spokesman, clearing his throat and still apparently reading from the device implanted in the back of his hand. "Okay," said Eric. "Let's do because I'm going to have to go to sleep again soon. My little favor to the vap. Wonder what it is thinking about now? I've always wondered that. Oh well, here is my answer." Brooke inhaled and held her breath. She had agreed on a voluntary expiration date in ten years and/or one day after Eric finally died. She too was simply getting weary of life, luxuries, Caretakers, peace, tranquility and all. So here it

comes, she thought. Jared will never like this. Eric stared at the polished mineral wall behind the audience, assumed a faraway pensive countenance and said: "There never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland." Brooke let out her breath. The audience issued a kind of weak collective groan. Later, as scheduled, Brooke and the still unconscious Eric were transported several hundred miles from the towering Hall of Reconciliation of the Caretakers to the agreeable, state-maintained lodging of Trey Agremont and Nikki Barazan. Eric woke up and drank some beer with the couple, as did Brooke. They laughed about old times and joked about the ignorance and inexperience of the juveniles who had interrogated them. "All it amounted to was a free trip," said Nikki, "and a chance to see you guys again." "And if we live long enough," added Eric, who really didn't care. "You now

have your permission plus a free trip to visit us and see Jared, the boys, and Nautica. They would love that." "And..." smiled Trey, a twinkle in his now-ageing eye. "If I can make it, Trey, the answer is yes. Jared and Nautica are more than willing. You are still their hero." "It would be nice," said Trey. Brooke smiled in agreement. They were, of course, talking about visiting a place that didn't officially exist. "Just to see Nautica and Jared again," Nikki interjected excitedly. "They are all seventy-five years old now," said Brooke, "going strong, abluting every day with the bacteria. Their kids are healthy and happy and don't miss the surface at all." Trey's eyes clouded over for a moment. "And Dragonsnort?" he said timidly, lowering his eyes before Brooke.

"A dead tree," said Brooke. "And don't worry about that. He lived a good and long life. Who even knows how long? He never said. But he is dead. We still own the property, and his tree is still standing....and you know...." "What?" said Nikki, impatient. "You tell them, Eric," said Brooke. "I don't want to hope about it too much." "What Madame Nescott may be trying to tell you is that Jared's grandson spotted a leaf growing on a high branch last year before winter. There is an inkling of hope that Drag may be making a return." "And if he doesn't, I don't care," added Brooke. "We are all old and tired. Everything has to die sometime. I see you two have voluntary expiration dates stamped on you too. I don't fear death. In fact, I'm starting to welcome it. I don't know how Eric puts up with all the repetition, the cycles and so on." "I just do," said Eric.

With that the foursome drank some more beer, ate finger snacks and, before long, in the state-guaranteed privacy of their pleasant dwelling, fell back into a discussion of old times, namely the invasion of Crackland and its aftermath. Before starting, they all pulled their rubies out of their pockets to look for the glow of impending danger. There was none. But just before, the whole Crackland adventure was again reminisced, Eric said something like a quiet thank you to Nikki and Trey for a special service they had performed to help the world in general shortly after the Crackland escapade. This service had nothing to do with Crackland, and thus will not be detailed here, but suffice to mention that it comprises yet another astounding chapter in the amazing life of Nikki Barazan and Trey Agremont, lifelong soul mates, who now in old age were solidified by a bond that could never again be rent asunder. The sun still set in the same place in the now detached Western District as it had when the continent was whole. And its declining rays of penetrating light were just as beautiful, as they illuminated, as in a far-off cameo, a happy set of

couples remembering times that few alive could rival in their suspense and intrigue. II. Malabo, Island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea--August, 2012 Chief Laurent Mbange was pleased to meet Eric Palobay when the Americanbased mercenary contingent, led by Marcelina Ponte, finally docked their Duckwing 480 on a heavily protected runway at the country's national airport. Two other large Duckwings were likewise docked, and an entire army of dark, sub-Saharan Africans, wearing drab fatigues and carrying automatic weapons of many varieties milled about the aircrafts, some cooking from aluminum pots set up over sterno fires and eating chunks of dark food that even the dry desert cowboy Kemp Tanner declined to sample when offered. Mbange, a heavy-set graying man with deepset and determined eyes which seemed to always be looking at something just beyond common visibility, was, like most Western Africans a very warm and welcoming person. He shook Palobay's hand with energetic vigor and welcomed him several times to join the mission. He spoke in only slightly accented English.

"I never learned English," he said, "but The Thing, the god of my life and people, guides me even here." "More like the little upright ingots all over your body," said Eric. "They seem to be like tiny transmitters which can tap into brain swells or waves. You have more of them than anyone here. They seem like little living microchips, all assisting one another like a part of a colony. In entomology we don't see ants or termites, for example, as separate entities. Rather they are just cells bound to one organic whole directed by the impulses of their queens. That's how I view these rashes you all have. If you understand my English and speak it back to me as you do so well, it is because of them. My partner speaks your Continental Spanish now, and she never studied that either. So does the cowboy you attach so much importance to and another of the American mercenaries, this pretty girl Calyx. I doubt she had much time for studying languages at school. If we could patent these things, we could put Berlitz out of business." Laurent Mbange frowned slightly. He threw back the flap of his tent pitched at the side of the runway and looked at his clansmen. They all had the

infection too. But to Laurent it was not an infection, rather a badge of magic. A mark of distinction which made all of them from the enclave of Mbini special and which marked him as the most special as them all. Mbange was an animist in the true African sense. He wanted to believe in fabulous creatures, in magic, in the old ways. He had seen The Thing, huge and towering. It had guided him through his life and ultimately to this staging point for an invasion into a subterranean world which it called its own. No, his "crescents of fire" were not living microchips or transmitters. If he knew English now, it was because of The Thing, not his badges of honor. But Palobay had, within the space of single discussion, confirmed something to him which the The Thing, buried deep in the inextricable rainforests of the dark Muni River basin, had once alluded to as well. Crackland was accessible by direct air. It could, in effect, be flown into if a pilot knew how. There was no need to land the Duckwings on the glacier and fight one's way downward. There was an opening...but The Thing had not told him where it was. It had only told him that he would get his information from a white man, who would have received it from other white people who had been exiled from the underground territory sometime in the past. "Follow their instructions," The Thing had told him. "Trust this one time in the oppressor. Not all whites are bad."

Eric Palobay fulfilled this need and did so simply by conveying the last of Jared's phone messages. Before arriving on the island of Bioko, Calyx had managed, with Marcelina's approval, to make a direct connection to Brooke's home telephone, and Eric had a hasty conversation with both Dragonsnort and Jared. In it, Jared told him about Nautica's (Siouxzan's) penultimate message which spoke of a huge curtain of frozen mist concealing a yawning entry path into the underground domain, one that lay above a power plant which the girl had insisted they destroy. The directions were vague enough, but involved some formation, no doubt of ice, that resembled the Statue of Liberty, which pilots, if they were brave enough, could fly directly into and through, thereby accessing the realm without need of any mechanical conveyance. Laurent was convinced that this was the message he had been prompted by his chimera to heed, especially since it more than confirmed the primary goal of his people and their paid mercenaries which was to destroy the kingdom's huge hydroelectric generation plant. Nothing could have validated Eric more. He had to be one of the friendly white men about whom The Thing had cautioned him. Eric's acceptance was immediate, therefore, as was Eric's new "sidekick," a handsome white boy, unfortunately, bereft of the "crescent of

fire," but one who knew Crackland and, above all, the "black shaman" who would aid the invading party, Jabari Cutler, known widely as Jabari the Magician. Laurent, as typical of most civilized Africans, was very accustomed to making racial distinctions, and he did not mind talking about "good" white men and "bad" white men. Eric and whoever had given him this message were evidently part of the good white man contingency. The rest, those ruling Crackland, would have to die. He, therefore, liked Eric and would share everything with him and answer any questions the strong and muscular man with the humped back would have. As the less than frenzied commotion continued to grind around the landing strips, guarded by the corrupt and bribed off government army of Equatorial Guinea, which had more than once in the nation's troubled past aided and abetted such a mercenary expedition, Eric sat on a leather elephant leg footstool across from Laurent and drank ceramic tumblers of strong Spanish orujo, a drink that Laurent himself was also partial too. A bond quickly developed between the two, especially after the conveyance of Jared's final information.

"I have just one question about this whole thing," Eric said with a little moue of irony. "Maybe my spirit man, The Thing, can answer it," said Laurent. "Okay, here goes. There have been these big invasion plans in progress for some time. One of the planes that came here yesterday brought some Australian mercenaries...men with their shirts on, thankfully. But they have the rash, and they were out on the outback performing some atrocity against their own Aborigines when they saw a stone slab with the same message we had in Nevada, the one seen first by Kemp Tanner, our cowboy. So here they come all fired up and ready to join us." "There are some Alpine Italians too," said Laurent. "They should be here tomorrow in a much smaller craft. About four of them. They saw a message like that on the side of an Alpine pass." "Okay, fine and good," continued Eric. "Infected mercenaries from Australia and Italy. Infected mercenaries from Spain and America via the Nevada

desert. All of them good with bombs, mortars and machine guns. And you keep me because of what I know and the boy Trey because he was once in Crackland, knew Jabari the Magician, King Zack, Aaron Arivicher, and because he along with his girlfriend escaped. I can understand all that. Guys with experience. Guys with weapons. Guys with guns. Guys with a vision like yours. But why Kemp Tanner, the cowboy? What on Earth made him so important as to attract these Spanish starlets and get top billing in this incursion? Sure, he's strong and willing and has the infection or the crescent as you say. But he's no great thinker or fighter. He can probably use his .22 pretty well against a prairie wolf or his rifle to kill a deer, but this is not a soldier. They didn't even allow him to bring a gun. Maybe they plan on giving him one later, but for my part he is a mystery." Laurent Mbange furled his brow and said a simple "I don't know. The Thing said to send a party to retrieve him. So we got some spare Spanish mercenaries and their one American companion and sent them over. He was the object. But I have not been informed as to why. We have been told he is essential to the operation and to guard him closely, not let him join into any battles. In fact, Marcelina has a plan to stay with him away from any fighting

and keep him safe." "I like the guy," concluded Eric, swigging down the last of his orujo but I just don't see his relevance." "It will be revealed to us in time," said Chief Laurent. "In time. The Thing provides us what we need to know when we need to know it." III. The lull before the storm: Nikki and Calyx; Trey and Brooke With preparations for invasion being made all about them, the stately blonde Calyx motioned for equally alluring Nikki Barazan to slip away from the central activity and join her. "Where are we going?" asked Nikki, who, despite herself, had developed a liking for Calyx. "Out on the range with a few guns," said Calyx with the growing kindness of nascent friendship. "So that you don't get yourself killed in Crackland." The two splendid and august women, therefore, moved away from the agitated back runway and into a deserted, scrubby clearing covered with small palm-like bushes several yards in the distance. Equatorial Guinean soldiers eyed them suspiciously as they

passed the perimeters of the guard posts and strode out, each armed with a nine millimeter short machine gun and a Spanish-made Ruby pistol. Calyx, at one point, took Nikki's hand for a short while, as young women are sometimes prone to do out of friendship alone. She motioned for Nikki to have a seat on some empty ammo cases, while she took over-ripe cassavas and some green melons and propped them up as targets at about twenty meters distant. "Gonna be some close fighting there, I guess," Calyx said, tossing her blonde hair in the harsh African tropical sunlight. "Let's take off our shirts too, just like on the desert. I like to go bare-chested, just like the guys do. And don't get me wrong. I like boys." "I can see that," said Nikki, laughing while removing her tight black tee shirt revealing prominent and full breasts that, like Calyx's, were firm with the pulchritude of her youth. "You sure went for mine. Trey, I mean." "Yeah," agreed Calyx. "We can talk about that later. Right now, let's get you shooting." The target practice went on for about an hour, Nikki Barazan proved to be a

fast learner. "I like guns," she said. "So do I," said Calyx. "That's how I got into this business to start with. My father was a gun smuggler based in Valencia, Marcelina's hometown. I met her there, and things just kind of developed." Finally, tiring of the gunfire, both young women sat down side by side near a stunted cocoa palm within sight of the Gulf of Guinea. The smell of moist, tropical sea breeze filled their nostrils. It was still the dry season on the Equator, and the cloudless skies of the coast offered them little protection from the unforgiving sunshine as reflected upward from the sea. Calyx looked at Nikki for a short while and then began. "I was attracted to your Trey from the moment I saw him. I don't know why. He just has a way about him that I like. I think he's pretty too." "Me too," said Nikki. "Ditto and ditto. I've loved him all my life. But we needed to pull away from one another." "It won't last," sighed Calyx. "Last night on the flight, under the blankets, he

called me Nikki in his sleep." "Funny," said Nikki, laughing and tossing her own abundant dark brown hair into the wind, "I called Kemp Trey a couple of times too." "What about that cowboy? The food he eats? The life he lives? He's a handsome one alright, but I wouldn't want a lifetime with him. He's like a kind of vacation for you, I guess." "Something like that." "Well," sighed Calyx, "Trey is just my vacation too, I suppose. I know it can't go farther than that." "No. I don't think it can, but let's enjoy it for a while. You know, we may all be dead after this mess. Trey and I were there. I mean in Crackland, and we almost didn't get out alive. That king has a big army of motojocks with lots and lots of guns. Also, he is supported by a whole bunch of goons up here. You don't really think this invasion is going unobserved, do you?"

"No idea. But we will be risking our lives. Marcelina, Martina, me, the others---we will get paid as usual and go onto other things. We believe in the mission, as I told you, but when a mission is over, it's over." "When my plan with Trey is over, it's over." "Good. We'll at least we have that settled." Both of them hugged the other and giggled like the girls they still were. The camaraderie was, thus, further solidified. They were happy. Before leaving their target practice spot and returning to tarmac and the planes, Nikki said "I have one question for you about Kemp. Do you mind?" "No. Because I have one question for you about Trey," she giggled along with Nikki again. "Okay," said Nikki. "I go first. Why is the cowboy so important? Because

he's rough and good looking, or is there something else? He's been treated like special from the start. I mean your crew came all the way over to Nevada from Spain to collect him. He doesn't seem any more affected by the dots than you or I. I slept with him out there under the stars a couple of times before you all arrived. That's how I got the rash, but...." "You can stop right there," interrupted Calyx. "Your question dovetails right into mine for you. Let's start with a fact. You did not get the eruptions from Kemp. You got them the same way we did by sleeping by the stone slab at the cave opening. Why do you think Marcelina kept ordering everyone where to sleep? While the cowboy was off herding horses, or whatever he does, we all slept up there too. And voilà!" She turned her naked back once more toward Nikki. There, of course, unabated was the fiery ring of tiny obtruding red and purple grains, the same which Nikki still carried on her own back. "Now, as to why he or his eruption is any more important than ours, I honestly can't say. He's crucial to the mission. We've been told that by the chief, that guy Laurent-whatever, time and time again. But I honestly don't know." "And how does this correspond with your question to me?"

"Simple. Why, do you think, Trey never got the rash? He's just an average human being like the rest of us....except for being really cute." "I know he's cute. You can quit saying it," giggled Nikki, once again acting like a girl. "I've known him all my life. But my answer to you is the same as your answer to me. I don't know. Trey slept where you told him to more than once. He slept with you more than once, just in case you're wrong about catching it from people. And he slept with me after I had the plaguey-thing. Fact is, it was he who first noticed it on my back in a hotel in Austin." The two stunning young women stared at each other for a minute or two. Then they both squeezed each other again in bemused friendship. The same idea occurred to both of them at once. Nikki spoke first. "I guess you're gonna sleep with my guy again tonight." "Hope so!"

"Well, then why don't you ask him why he thinks he was not infected? And I will ask Kemp why he's special. Kemp isn't that dumb, you know. He seems so willing to help and go along. I don't think it is one hundred percent about me, either. He may know something about why he is so extraordinary." "Good plan," said Calyx, standing up. "Let's do it. Now there is something else we're forgetting. The older guy, Eric. He has got to be the cleverest guy I have ever seen. He put one over on Marcelina and the others. And I doubt that deputy is dead either. The man is utterly incredible, and he never got the rash either, but he was able to run the whole show and get himself invited here. He had all kinds of information about our missions that he was never told by any of us and he wasn't supposed to know. He seems stronger than any man I have ever seen, and smarter too.....and what's more I know why." "You do?" Nikki looked at Calyx in genuine shock. "Something I haven't bothered to tell Marcelina or anyone else and that I'm going to confide in you because you're starting to be the sister I never had."

"I suppose we could swap each other's clothes," said Nikki with some amusement. "We are already swapping a guy." "Eric's woman, that Brooke, she's pretty capable too. And she has the infection. She's pretty smart too. And that's what a guy like Eric needs, a tough, smart capable woman. Want to know why he's so smart and why he never got the dots?" "Sure," said Nikki, "and I'm sure Trey would too, but I won't tell him if you say not to." "You can tell him later. It might be better coming from you. Trey may already know too. They seem to have struck up a friendship." "Like us. Whatever will Marcelina think?" "Here's the deal," began Calyx more thoughtful in her seriousness. "One of my first missions was to go and protect a bunch of smugglers in the Republic of the Congo who were exporting these big slugs to South America...."

"Slugs," said Nikki. And she went on to learn the whole story of vaps as explained to her by Calyx in accurate detail. "He's gotta be a hundred years old," Calyx wound up "That is why he knows so much and is so goddamn...what can I say?....worldly. He's a vap wearer. I know about them. I never talk about it, however." Nikki was duly shocked. There was indeed a hard and protruding hump of some sort on Eric's back. She had just credited to a part of his brawny frame up until now. The thing he wore which kept him alive would prevent any sort of invasive infection from establishing itself in him. That seemed logical enough. As to his age, she was still doubtful, but as long as he could handle himself, it didn't matter. She had liked Eric from the start. If Eric had a secret, she would help preserve it at all costs. "Good idea, and the right thing to do," agreed Calyx, taking Nikki's hand and leading her back past the government guards and toward the tarmac. "A good and noble idea."

At the same time that Calyx and Nikki were practicing with their machine guns and Spanish pistols, Martina, a more silent member of Marcelina's crew, had deliberately taken both Trey and Brooke out in another direction, this time down a rocky, cactus lined path that led to a steep ridge overlooking the rolling Gulf of Guinea. Martina knew that she could communicate with Brooke in Spanish, so she made no evident attempt to use any English, and it was doubtful that what Eric had identified as the brain wave transmitters studding a semi-circle in her back gave her any ability with the language anyway. Brooke, she knew, could translate her Gallego Spanish to the handsome boy, whom she herself had passingly desired before his speedy union with Calyx. In truth, Martina was more interested physically in the eye-catching Brooke than in Trey, but, remaining professional in her trade, she dismissed the idea and informed Brooke that both she and Trey needed a few lessons in how to use the M-16 assault rifle. The threesome stood over the edge of the precipice taking turns arming their rifles and shooting at albatrosses floating on the rolling waters of the bay beneath them. At one point she looked at Brooke, who had decided to imitate her and go bare-chested with a sort of amazement.

"You can shoot," she said in Spanish. "Yep," said Brooke without emotion. "Once I find out how to load and unlock a weapon, I'm pretty damn good with it." "And why is that?" asked Trey wryly staring at her striking chest. "I was practicing to kill myself once," said Brooke with more than a tinge of sarcasm. "I'm older than you. Had more time to learn. If you would calm down about being with two shirtless ladies and just take your time and aim, you might do better." "And then I might do better just watching you two." "Look kid, the only reason you're in on this is because Eric got you in. If not for Eric, you'd be hitching a ride back across the desert, and your little sweetie would be a thousand miles away from you---and in harm's way. As it is, you're here now too, ready to be killed like the rest of us. Aren't you lucky?"

Brooke fired several more rounds out into the water, killing two distant albatrosses at once. "Sorry, birds," she said in a way that told Trey she really meant it. Martina continued to look on with great approval. Likewise, she scowled at Trey's miserable attempts to point and fire. She grumbled something about his maladroitness to Brooke that Brooke chose not to translate. Trey posed his gun by the butt and watched Brooke with more intensity. "Nice shots," he said. "You must have been cut out for this work." "I'm not sure what I was cut out for, but I'm here now. Take that look out of your eyes. I'm not interested. I've already got two guys to worry about." "Two?" snickered Trey. Brooke did not bother explaining to the boy about Dragonsnort. "You do remember I have a son, one that gave us the information Eric needed to get on board for this joy ride?"

"You do remember that my sweetie and I are on a trial plan of separation and that both of us have been in Crackland, know both the king and the dreaded shaman and nearly didn't escape with our lives. I think that might have played a role in my acceptance as well." When Martina modestly stepped behind a palm to urinate, Brooke, unsure of whether Martina could understand English or not said to Trey "I thought you were lying. Just making that up." "Nope," Trey said with grinning satisfaction. "If senorita over there doesn't interrupt us, I'll tell you about it on the way back." And so the summary details of Trey and Nikki in Crackland and the basic details about skateboarding and Teagan Carsey and his boyfriend Lane were explained to her by a boy that she was finding a little less incompetent as the trudge back to base wound on. "I'm still not going to sleep with you," she joked. "Sure, you're cute, but I'm over all that now. I have two men, a good job, and a fantastic son. Hope you

understand. You have the other girl to be with, and from the looks of it, she is more than infatuated with you. Watch it and don't get too promiscuous. This whole crazy drama has probably been more than what a stud boy like you can handle." "Stud boy," laughed Trey. "Not really. I'm just a kid, I guess." "Twenty-three and nice looking too," said Brooke. "Don't take me the wrong way. We're all partners in this debacle. Gotta stick together and all that." Upon arriving at the staging camp, Brooke immediately found Eric and caught up on his news. "I'm a big man in the eyes of our native chief," he said proudly. "And you can thank none other than Jared." Brooke looked at him with a certain sadness in her eye. "I wonder if we will ever see Jared again," she said quietly, while looking mostly at the ground.

"Sure, we will," said Eric. But he realized that his sense of confidence was often stretched thin vis-à-vis his cherished domestic partner. IV. The view from Aristock It was another bright, sunlit early August afternoon, when Dragonsnort surprised his handsome and athletic son Jared in front of his computer at midday. Dragonsnort suddenly became more exasperated than usual. He motioned with a uplifted thumb for Jared to stand up from his computer seat. "Come outdoors," he said. As father and son walked into Brooke's backyard and took a seat at the picnic table, Dragonsnort looked at his son and said "I thought it was the policy of the Plus Sized club to play or do things outdoors and not hang around indoors all day on a computer. For days you've been staring at that website of yours. I know it's about your correspondent Nautica or Siouxzan or whatever she calls herself, but she's not coming back. She said everything that she needed to, and you have passed on the information to Eric and your mother. Now it's time to quit pining over the girl and start acting like an active and engaged twelve year old boy again. Go somewhere with your club like you used to do. If I see you at that computer

again before the sun sets, I'll unplug it for good. The last thing I need is a flabby, housefly son." Jared nodded his head sadly at his father, knowing that Dragonsnort was right. The pierced and tattooed human hybrid tree softened in his expression and added "There is nothing much further you can do to help. Not Nautica, not anyone else. I'm going to give it straight to you. In their last call you heard with your own ears that they are prisoners of this mercenary group and going to be part of an invasion raid on Nautica's Crackland, a place that neither you nor I can even locate, let alone visit. So stop dreaming about that. If what your parents say is true, they won't be back for a while, and I have only about a week left before I have to go join my tree. That, my broad-shouldered and precocious son, will leave you alone for about three weeks until school starts, and after then you'll still probably be alone." "I can handle it," groaned Jared morosely. "If only she would write again or answer our messages on the board. You just don't understand." "I understand plenty," said Dragonsnort in a warmly paternal way. "I've told

you I was young once too. Not always a tree or at least not as much as I have to be now. I used to get little crushes too. Now the fact is that leaving you alone is not only dangerous but illegal, so I'm not going to do it." "What are you going to do? You'll die if you don't get back into tree form at least for a week or two." "If it comes to that, I'm going to give you some real adventure. I'm going to pack your backpack full of clean clothes and let Katie, Eric's assistant, look after you wherever she is squatting in the area now." "Like the crazy lady who jumps around, eats bugs and lives under cardboard in an unfinished and abandoned house just outside of town? That should be a load of laughs." "The crazy lady who makes sure no one bothers my tree and who probably has more cunning and skill than anyone else you will ever meet in your life. You can live outdoors with her for a while and come everyday while it is warm and sleep up in my branches, and we can talk. You won't have to eat bugs, either.

Katie knows that. If it comes to that, you'll have a real outdoors exploit, one that you'll learn a lot from and remember for the rest of your life." Jared made a disgusted face, something he did not like doing with his father, whom he loved deeply. "Yeah, sure. I'll go live with Katie and wash under her drainpipe. I can take care of myself. Why can't you just leave me here? I can still visit you---and I will. I promise." "As I said, it is against the law. It would call attention to Eric and your mother. No one much knows about me. But there is another danger. You have been so burrowed in your room waiting for that girl's message that you have not noticed. We've been cased here more than once in the last week. You haven't been outside enough to notice it." "That happened before when Nautica was around." "Well, apparently some friends of this King Zack have finally put two and two together and come up with Jared Nescott. The same van has been passing every ten minutes or so, and I bet they are looking for you in the yard by

yourself. These would logically be the same people who were threatening Nautica and probably those who killed her cousin Gene. They kidnap you and hold you hostage until you get Eric to tell them exactly where the girl is. Maybe they kill you. That was probably their intention before with Nautica." Jared felt a quake of fear rise up through his chest. He realized from Nautica that whoever or whatever controlled Crackland had an entire network, no doubt of thugs, on the surface. And they had been to Aristock before. Eric and his mother had narrowly prevented them from snatching Nautica during the winter, and his own role in protecting the beautiful and radiant child had not been insignificant either. These were dangerous people. "I'm scared," said Jared. "Not real scared, but scared." "Never a good way to start a plan," said his father smiling. "We need to charge, not retreat." Jared looked up at his huge and often terrifying tree-hybrid father with unconcealed admiration. He much preferred the stern Dragonsnort over the

overly paternal and avuncular one. His father had a plan. A plan that would ultimately amount to both of their continued contributions in what he knew was the adventure of Nautica and Crackland. "What should we do?" he said in a meek but positive voice. "There they go again," said Dragonsnort, looking at a larger four door sedan which slowed only long enough to ascertain that Jared was not alone in the yard and then sped off down the residential street suspiciously faster than good stalkers should have. "Stupid bastards," said Dragonsnort. "They see me and take off. We need to get you alone." Dragonsnort then told Jared to call as many core members of the Plus Sized Club as he could get. His instructions were for the other boys, Jared's closest friends, to sneak over to the house without being seen. Of course, the boys of the Plus Sized Club were experts in slinking around behind houses and trees and gathering in places without being detected. "Tell Tyshawn Rodamar that I need him to help us right away. The others can just hang out." Then Dragonsnort instructed his son to go into the house and get two large

suitcases from his parents' room. "Put a pile of magazines and newspapers into each one to make it look a little heavy," he continued. "I'll go get a couple of items from the garage." When Jared came into the living room tugging at two suitcases which belonged to his mother, he saw Dragonsnort pulling the line out of one of Eric's old fishing poles. He watched with some puzzlement as Eric detached the reel, leaving the fishing pole bare. "Are we going fishing?" he asked. "Of course it's fishing. Are the boys coming?" "All but Cody. I couldn't reach him." "We're going to make life unpleasant for some worms," said Dragonsnort, still grinning. As he spoke, the blond, well-built Subaru, of late cutter of the Gordian knot, slipped into the room. Within a minute or two, he was joined by Ian who had obviously come via some muddy route, as his sneakers and ankles were still stained with dirt that he had not been able to wipe totally off upon entering the house. "It doesn't matter right now," said Dragonsnort. "Jared,

in your indoors voice, explain to them about the lurkers, and then everyone but Jared get back out of sight until I call you. When Tyshawn gets here I need to see him right away." Dragonsnort then applied a large pair of wire snippers to the naked fishing pole, cutting off the first six inches of the rod and twisting away the line eyes. He then cut off the cork handle of the pole with his large pocket knife. Jared had no idea of what his father was up to. He watched as Dragonsnort used his knife again to strip off the covering of a long black power cord which he had found in the garage along with the other items. He wrapped the bare copper wire of the cord around the now exposed steel handle of the pole and wound black electrical tape over the entire handle. "Gonna shock 'em like with a cattle prod?" ventured Jared. "Not entirely. Almost finished here. Now what I need you to do is go out front with the hose and start watering the lawn. Stand right out there in plain view and act casual. You are just doing a daily chore---one of many, I might add, that you haven't done during your last few days of bedroom computer vigil. Watch out for suspicious cars and be ready to run and run fast if someone approaches you." Jared immediately complied, went out the front door,

casually uncoiled the garden hose and began spraying the grass. Inside the house, Dragonsnort lifted each of the large suitcases Jared had brought into the living room. He went to a bedroom closet and found some of the very few items of attire he had brought with him. Acting indifferently, he coolly opened the front door as wide as he could and carried first one then another of the suitcases out onto the front walkway which led to the street, placing them conspicuously in view of all. Over these he draped some remaining items of his clothes. He also stood one of his old guitars up against the suitcases. To any passers-by, and he hoped there would be some, it looked for all the world as if the daunting tattooed man was about ready to leave the Nescott home and for quite some time at that. He stood and smoked a cigarette on the lawn and watched Jared with the hose. Then he told his son to gradually work his way over to the grass directly in front of the yard gate. "Get that whole patch right before the gate as soaked as you can." When Jared finally started watering the spot, he noticed that the fishing pole was stuck up to the handle in the soft dirt and mostly hidden by a few undernourished hedge bushes which his mother had never really had the time to fertilize and grow properly. The dark cord attached to the pole trailed off invisibly toward the garage.

Tyshawn stood hidden beside the front door and motioned to Dragonsnort who offhandedly shuffled into the house, still leaving the front door open. Once safe inside and out of view, he said to Tyshawn to call his father Scott at his bar and to ask him for the favor of coming by in about twenty minutes to pick him up and take him to the airport. Scott Rodamar was one of Eric's closest friends and asked no questions where a favor to Dragonsnort was involved. Then Dragonsnort went back outside toward the assembled suitcases and guitar and lit another cigarette. He was in time to note that the same black sedan was still cruising on Brooke's street, this time in the opposite direction. He also noted that both he and Jared were being watched by someone across the street dressed in a red one-piece workman's ensemble. Bad disguise, he thought. But then again these were the kidnappers who had been foiled by eleven year old boys just earlier this year. You must have to be stupid to be attached to Crackland. He lit still another cigarette and told Jared to put down the hose and come to his side. "Give me a big hug and act sad," he whispered. "Then make like you're going to keep on watering but come back and give me another squeeze or two and wipe a tear or so from your eye. Make a big goodbye scene when Scott picks me up. Keep trying to hug me and not

let me go. Then, when Scott drives off, keep on "crying." Wind up the hose and go sit by yourself at the picnic table in the yard. Put your head down and act sad." "I do that anyway when you leave," said Jared, his eyes starting to moisten at the thought of parting with his father. "Well, don't overact, but do it better this time. I'm going far, far away. I would not need so many suitcases if not. Do you understand the role?" Nodding yes, Jared went back to watering the grass. When Scott Rodamar's wheelchair lift van came suddenly down the street, he rushed over and grabbed his father again...and again. Scott waited in the van while Dragonsnort and Jared put the suitcases, clothes and guitars in the back. Jared continued to weep and make pleading sounds with his dad, who eventually knelt down and embraced his son in a manner that said 'I'll be back but it will be a long time.' Across the street, the utility "workman" noted all these actions and phoned them to an unseen party nearby.

Finally, leaving Jared in tears on the front walkway, Dragonsnort pulled himself away, promising loudly to come back in a month or so, and slid into the van beside Scott. "Where to?" said the latter, "Good to see you again, by the way." Dragonsnort shook Scott's hand and continued to talk to Jared out of the window. He made sure his parting words were spoken vociferously so that all could hear, even some of Brooke's nosy neighbors who also seemed to be looking outside their windows at the commotion. "Drive me around the end of the neighborhood by the backs of the stores and then take the truck service drive back to Aslaplan Street and drop me off. Make sure no one is following you." Unquestioningly, Scott obeyed, driving off slowly. Jared, still playing his role, screamed "Don't go, Dad!" and ran a few yards behind the van until he finally gave up and trudged head in hands, "sobbing" back to his yard where, as instructed, he took a seat in full view of the street at the picnic table and continue to pound his fists and bury his head in his arms. Inside the kitchen hidden from view, Malachi grinned and said to Ian "Great act. Makes me sad myself." Ian was also enjoying the spectacle.

In a few minutes another car, this one a light colored, two-door Hyundai, pulled up directly in front of the yard gate. Without prologue, a bulky man dressed in loose-fitting shorts and the sweat shirt of some college emerged from the driver's side. He wore a happy and inoffensive smile on his face as he approached the gate and Jared, who saw him but pretended not to notice. Jared did note, however, that the cheery visitor had one hand in the side pocket of his shorts. A gun no doubt, thought Jared, correctly. "Young man!" said the stranger walking briskly across the grass toward the gate. "I need to ask you something." These were the last words the man was able to get out before he suddenly convulsed in agony near the unopened gate. He fell to his bare knees on the wet grass and tried to crawl. His eyes were full of pain and physical distress. He tried to shout but his lips only trembled, stammering meaningless sounds. He was being slowly electrocuted right there on the wet grass, as Dragonsnort, concealed in the garage, had simply plugged in the buried and electrified fishing pole as soon as the man was over the wet patch of grass in front of the back yard. Immediately, Dragonsnort cut the current, ran briskly out of the garage and kicked the man full in the chin with his steel-toed boot. The stranger flopped over on the now harmless grass.

Hundreds of disturbed earthworms crawled about him. Inside, Tyshawn, Ian, Malachi and Subaru knew it was their cue. They ran out with lengths of strong clothesline and made fast work of tying up the man's wrists and ankles. Looking around for witnesses, of which there were apparently none, Dragonsnort dragged the shocked man into the kitchen. Jared pulled the fishing pole stub out of the grass and disposed of it and its cord into a corner of the pantry before he joined the others in the kitchen. Dragonsnort stood threateningly over his victim. "Lots of worms," said Jared. "Including this one," growled Dragonsnort surrounded by the members of the Plus Sized Club. "Don't ever try that one alone. It was how we used to get worms years ago for fishing. Can't be pretty shocking if you do it wrong. No pun." The boys all laughed. Their prisoner, still rolling his frightened eyes, writhed on the kitchen floor.

"Unless this son of a bitch gives us some answers about what he knows and who he works for, we're going to bring a little more jolting into his life and maybe we will forget to unplug the power this time," smirked Dragonsnort. "So you'd better start talking now. We have a few questions." Jared look again in manifest esteem at his lofty father towering over the prisoner. So did the other boys. "I wouldn't want to mess with that dude," chuckled Subaru, pointing toward Dragonsnort. V. Crackland: A new regime and a small citizen protest Under a year-around and pleasurably benign Mediterranean---and as of yet unexplained---sun, a much smaller than usual assembly of noblemen, Midnight Riders, and citizen representatives gathered into the stands of the central arena, site of so many staged executions in the past, to await the news from Grand Vizier Donny Seabrink, who, as his predecessor, was garbed in the

strange and impracticable flowing embroidered purple robes of his office. Over the multiple loudspeakers, yet another famous Prussian march, called the Hohenfriedberger and written by Frederick the Great himself in 1745, blasted across the sun-drenched realm. One of the Midnight Riders in attendance, now dressed once again in his familiar motojock attire, grumbled to his companion that they were still playing "that Nazi shit." Leaning on his M-16 assault rifle, the other Rider made some offhand comment about it doubtlessly being the "last time." With a spiteful young boy at his side, a boy still covered with straw from the royal stables where he now lodged his many horses, Donny Seabrook conferred with some other important-seeming dignitaries before taking the platform. When he did finally break away, he guided the somewhat resistant young man with him and planted him solidly at his side. "Just listen and don't talk until I say to," Donny whispered to the boy. "These are your subjects now. You have to play them right." "Or what?" snapped the kid.

"Or they get out of hand." Donny made a mildly dramatic ceremony out of taking the microphone and quieting the spectators. At one point he motioned for the Midnight Rider elite guard to ready their weapons in case of any disturbances. The latter, always tractable to command, stood at tense attention with their rifles lifted slightly from the rest position. Donny cleared his throat and proceeded. "Today, we have summoned some of the most influential of you, both noblemen and commoners, to announce the peaceful and orderly transition from the monarchy of our late and lamented King Zack to the regency of the boy we know as Micah the Bastard, who, as all can see, bears strong resemblance to his once beautiful and radiant mother, our former Queen Xenia. Micah has been trained in all the royal arts, is a practiced horseman and archer, and knows the gravity of his role as your future king. As our young prince is only thirteen years old, I shall be his sole regent until he reaches the legal age for coronation which here among us has now been determined to be sixteen. Micah will perform all the royal duties under my supervision and live in the royal

quarters. I hope you will stand to attention to honor your forthcoming monarch before me now." With some lingering reluctance, the majority of spectators rose to their feet and made motley salutes at the smirking prince. None of them dared to ask about his half-brother Jeremiah, legal son of Xenia and Zack. Questions about Jeremiah were forbidden in Crackland, as it was widely rumored that the boy had "learning disabilities" if not perhaps something worse. After a few more minutes of staged pomp, Donny asked if any of the noblemen or citizen representatives present had any words for the new prince. A dour-looking man, obviously a farmer and a citizen representative, stood up with a look of the deepest deference and humility. "Permission requested to speak," he stammered. "Granted," said Donny Seabrink sharply, while glancing at the armed guard behind him.

In words punctuated by moments of painful hesitation, the man explained that he was, in effect, a grain farmer and virtuous citizen of the underground realm but that there was a growing problem among the agricultural community which he needed to make known. Under Donny's disdainful scrutiny, the man managed to explain that the markets were being emptied of comestible products because of the huge demand exacted by the new body of soldiers, who were stationed mostly in the off-limits area around the Delsmain Dam and River, places where ordinary settlers were not allowed. "They are eating up all our produce," said the man, mustering some amount of newfound courage. "The people are sacrificing. Our pork, goat, lamb and beef supplies are all being sent to the troops. Some of our own children are going hungry." Then the man humbly bowed and resumed his seat. Donny stepped forward again, this time blocking the view of the Bastard Micah. He was unmistakably the man in charge now. "Food shortages," he bellowed into the microphone. "Food shortages are normal in a state of war, and we have told you before that Crackland is at risk of being attacked by its topside enemies at any instant now. We have told you the soldiers have been sent here to protect all of us and our Crackland way of life, which we all

cherish. Instead of repeating this once again to you, allow me to read a famous quote from a celebrated man in surface world history. Listen to the inspiring words of Josef Goebbels to the German people in 1940 when bread shortages loomed and his country was at war with enemies on all sides." Donny then drew a folded note from his pocket and proceeded to read Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels exact words from so long ago: The Aryan Fatherland, which has nursed the souls of heroes, calls upon you for the supreme sacrifice, which you in whom flows heroic blood will not fail, and which will echo forever down the corridors of history. Donny dropped the paper and stared blankly into the stands. "Sacrifice," he screamed. "Sacrifice today and always for your country and your king. Eat less. Find new ways of producing more meat and vegetables. Use your skills to protect the realm rather than complain about it. Any grower or producer who protests or whines further about these shortages will be brought without trial to royal justice. We are, I repeat, in a permanent state of war readiness. Do your duty. Work hard. Innovate and remain silent. Dissent among you is a crime that will bring down the monarchy and is worthy of unceremonious and

hasty punishment." With this, Donny took Micah by the shoulder and walked stridently away from the podium, his purple robes whisking at the ground as he walked. At one point he seemed to be pulling Micah, and, in effect, he was. Mutely and lamely the assembly dispersed. Few even dared to grumble about things between themselves. Micah was taken by a servant to his extravagant quarters and provided with a glass pipe and some homegrown marijuana, which the thirteen year old had already taken a stout liking to. Another servant brought in one of the negligibly clothed court maidens who attended Queen Taryn. The thirteen year old was delighted. As so many had previously noted, the young man was indeed a "stud." Queen Taryn, for her part, had been routinely led to sleep with the boy since the death of her husband King Zack, a death that was veiled in some sort of oft-repeated narrative about the latter's mental illness, a trait which few could deny. A court nurse examined Taryn every day, looking for signs of pregnancy,

of which to date there were none. So on appointment every couple of days, it was Taryn who visited Micah's quarters, and for a purpose that was deemed "fitting and noble" throughout the sprawling palace and kingdom. Removed by a short twenty minute electric train ride from the royal palace, in a locked chamber in the Forbidden City, was Jeremiah Hammer-Twift, twelve years old and the rightful heir to Zack's throne. But Jeremiah knew or cared little about this. He was, as on most days, drooling slightly from the side of his mouth and playing compulsively and unconsciously with an etch-a-sketch, a toy which fascinated him in the deliberately shrunken metal state of awareness from which he now suffered. All in attendance were certain that Jeremiah was feeble-minded, and, in effect, he was. He had been fed enough doses of mercury and arsenic to cripple and disable whatever mental capacities for state governance he might have once displayed. The only fate awaiting him now was the exact hour and venue of his impending death. These were details that Donny Seabrink would attend to shortly when the time was best. The following day, Queen Taryn, who by charter held no political power, came as usual out of the Bastard Micah's compartment, tittering and giggling in her

typical manner. She was re-clothing herself as she exited and was met by another pretty young girl of her entourage. "He really is a little stud," she snickered. "Better than Zack ever was." Far above the inhabited lands of the realm, a huge army had bivouacked for some weeks now. All had machine guns, hand grenades, assault rifles and the serious accoutrements of actual war. None were garbed as Nazis or Prussians or even as motojocks. They wore drab gray workman's uniforms and steel helmets, none of which bore the ridiculously spiked pickelhaube of the Prussian army, a fad which by now had well passed into the archives of Crackland's history and would never again be revived. This, in short, was a serious army, an army of men and women who had been drawn from the surface, trained by the Midnight Riders and promised both land and houses when their defensive mission was accomplished. They drilled daily on and around the hydroelectric dam, realizing that soon the invaders would most certainly come. VI. The last night before the airlift

A sweltering tropical August night fell over the crowded but heavily guarded airstrip at the Malabo National Airport, a night which all realized would be the last in Equatorial Guinea. Australian and Italian mercenary commandos arrived in their own surplus cargo planes. Their numbers were much smaller than those of the Africans. It had been predetermined that Marcelina and her female team would lead the assault, but that the Africans engage two Duckwings and a much larger soldier count as well as their increased firepower and would come second. Marcelina, would survey the vista of the dam and in her coarse Gallego Spanish direct the first assault from a distance, remaining behind for some reason yet unexplained to keep the cowboy Kemp Tanner apart from the initial assault. Nikki Barazan had tried in vain to interrogate the latter about why he was so special, but had received no answer. Nikki came at once to realize that no one had bothered to tell Kemp either. He knew he was exceptional but had no idea why. It was at this late stage better to let matters rest at that. Nikki and Kemp enjoyed themselves in their usual whirl of passion, realizing as all others that the expedition was dead serious now and that neither one of them might ever be alive to sleep together again. Thus the mystery of Kemp's import was laid aside for the more immediate gratification of the longing flesh.

Likewise, the spectacular Calyx, spending what was to be perhaps her last night with Trey Agremont, in the small talk which followed their fervent union, had been unable to learn why Trey had not been subject to the skin eruptions which marked all the others, save Eric Palobay. But in Calyx's inquiry, it was different. She divined at once that Trey knew why he was not infected or at least had a good idea. He had smiled at her reticently upon hearing the question breathed into his ear as the two lay close under a ration blanket in the humid tropical night. He said that he didn't want to talk about it right at the moment, but that it had something to do with the fact that he had once visited Crackland. "But Nikki was there with you too," protested Calyx, stroking Trey's chest. "She contracted it right away." Trey rolled over, suggesting sleep rather than talk. Calyx was too agitated about the events to follow to sleep. Instead, she lay awake watching dark shadows passing over the full Equatorial moon. She was like a lark for Trey, and she knew it, but she had sometime since realized that she had acquired much stronger feelings for him. She was not sure of exactly why, but she felt the most profound and magnetic romantic attachment to the handsome young

man now sleeping at her side. Mercenary soldiering had suddenly become vain and useless in her view. Soon she would be twenty-five, and she realized at length that going off with a bunch of Spanish ladies to fight other people's wars for other people's profit was not going to be her life's calling. Rather, she began to fantasize about going back to America, to Maine precisely, and trying to build a more normal life, start a family, live in a house instead of a tent, drive an actual car, go shopping, have a mate, perhaps a bona fide husband. And in this particular musing, the only mate or husband she could envisage was the boy slumbering beside her on the outstretched blanket. She kept stealing quick glances at Trey's moonlit face. What was there about him? she kept asking herself. Like most women in love, she never found an answer. She just liked him and liked him a lot. And, she knew, that in reality, he belonged to someone else...now a friend...but a friend that might die...or could be put in a position to die...or...or...? Calyx did not like the direction of her own thoughts and suppressed them. Yet Nikki Barazan, lifelong companion of the man she now loved, was in the way. Once again, she peeked timidly at Trey's face and tried to smother the thought. She finally fell into fitful sleep, her last cogent reflection being 'I am not going to kill for any man.' But it was a tentative statement, and drifting off into what would be less than two hours of actual

sleep, she wondered how sincere she had been even to herself. Kemp Tanner had no trouble sleeping. Like Calyx, he comprehended that this could well be his last night with Nikki, but if it wasn't, if the raid on this Crackland place was successful, then what? As ever, he dreamed of leaving the dry and arid range where he had spent the thirty-four years of his life. As ever, he fantasized a different future for himself, a future somewhere with permanent running hot and cold water, a house with a real toilet and plumbing, a job that was steady and remunerative enough to support a wife and re-start another family. And like Calyx, the person who loomed in each of his mental reverie vignettes was the one lying naked under a blanket beside him. And like Calyx, he knew that another stood in his way to making his constant daydreams concrete. Trey had become a sort of comrade if not a friend. But what if...? And, like Calyx, he went through a similar chain of what-ifs until at length he decided that his life would never be fulfilled if he needed to kill someone in order to secure their woman. And once again like Calyx, he questioned his own integrity right before gliding off into sleep well ahead of the woman he loved who, if Kemp had looked, he would have noticed, had wide open eyes and an expression of both confusion and perhaps

trepidation, both of which were entirely normal given the harsh situation at hand. The early morning of the following day would be one to remember for a lifetime, and Kemp knew he would do just that. This along with the treasured remembrance of his slim and exquisite bedmate. At the tail end of Marcelina's Duckwing 480 on a Spanish Army issue air mattress lay Brooke Nescott and Eric Palobay. Since his early morning meeting with Laurent Mbange, Eric had been passed out, giving a large dose of brain time to his lifegiving vap. Eric had found a way to stifle the parasite's daily requirement by simply according it more black and orange "thinking time" on alternate days, and today had been a day ideal for that. Communication with Eric had, therefore, been sparse, and Brooke, watching the movements of his eyes darting under closed lids, wondered what final thoughts he had. She knew enough about Eric that if the ninety-seven year old man of her life needed to die, he would do so valiantly and without complaining. One of Brooke's constant concerns---both about herself and her mate---was that both of them seemed to care so little at times about life. Eric,

at ninety-seven, of course had an excuse, but she didn't. Why had she passed a life fraught with so much Existentialism vis-à-vis the importance of survival itself. Brooke had experienced so much in such a short life. At age thirtyseven, she had seen and been subjected to things that few others could even brag of knowing about. Maybe these recondite events had been what had led her into a blasé attitude about the importance of living itself. She loved Jared more than words could articulate, but deep inside she knew that Jared even at his current age could more than take care of himself and that there would always be Dragonsnort. Things like her love for her son should have mattered more to her, but sadly didn't. The Plus Sized Club, she thought cynically, they alone can look out for the world and its problems as well as Jared's well-being if ever something should happen---which it was probably going to, Brooke added ruefully to herself. Eric continued to remain in his pleasant vap brain time trance. He had described it to her so many times as "relaxing and awesome." She envied him and his artificially prolonged life. He had seen a past that she had only read about in history books. He had known another world, other people, other times---all long gone. But what luck to live through so much history, so much human pursuit. Existential again, Brooke fell off to sleep telling herself that "Nothing really matters." It was, she knew, the

sudden revival of her old pre-Dragonsnort, pre-Eric, pre-Jared self. And in truth, she actually liked it in a guilty way. VII. Dragonsnort's interrogation and more news to convey to Eric Surrounded by the core members of the Plus Sized Club, Dragonsnort loomed like a sinister and grotesque giant over the intruder, threatening the man at every question to either come forth honestly or be further subjected to the electrified fishing pole Dragonsnort brandished relentlessly above the prisoner's supine and trussed body. In a sheer burst of terror, the intruder came forth with new details, which Jared dutifully recorded on a hand-held device. The man was clearly a factotum working for a much larger organization, one which controlled and owned Crackland. This organization had representatives world-wide, but was based in New York and Montreal. It had gangland tie-ins as well, but the stranger could not elaborate on these. The masters, as he often referred to the owners of Crackland, knew all about the steles, the warnings, the gathering of mercenaries, the invasion preparations and the likelihood that

the invaders' first target would be the dam. Further, he explained that the eyes of the world needed to be off the invaders, as Crackland matters were routinely kept secret among only a few. "If the Canadians knew exactly what was actually happening within the Arctic Circle under frozen Somerset Island, they might take a special interest and get involved," he explained still under painful duress. Crackland needed to take care of itself, and for that reason a new group of ready to fight soldier-settlers had been shipped to the subterranean realm. Their numbers were around another five hundred strong, and they were earnestly armed for a combat against what was expected to be a formidable enemy. The invaders were aided by the contributions of former Crackland settlers like the now assassinated Gene de Craquelot, grandson of John Crack. The refugees had ways of communicating with the invaders and thereby with the indigenous ones as well, those who were conducting the invasion. "They have always been allies," the man stammered. "That is why we have needed to kill them. They support the original species. They connect with them." And yes, his mission had been to kidnap Jared, who could have undoubtedly convinced Eric Palobay to reveal the vap-wearers' community where Nautica de Craquelot had been secreted. That had been his plan. Other than the arrival of a reinforcement battery, Dragonsnort and the boys were

learning very little new from their captive. Then, without being asked, the anguished would-be kidnapper told them that "Things have changed in Crackland." "How so?" snarled Eric, still wielding the unplugged but ready to be re-used fishing rod. "King Zack is dead. Suicide. Insanity or whatever. They have brought in the earlier Queen's illegitimate son, Micah the Bastard, and formed a regency under the Grand Vizier." "That man Arvicher that Nautica mentioned?" asked Dragonsnort. "No. He's dead. They have a new one. A younger man. I met him once. He is just as determined to save Crackland as Arvicher was. He is a bloody-minded son of a bitch just like Arvicher was, only worse. Micah the Bastard has been mated with Zack's widowed queen Taryn, who is twenty-one to that kid's thirteen. But they are working on succession and an eventual heir to the throne. There is no way that the old species will ever be able to come back.

They are just pests." "What about the old species," said Dragonsnort again. "What were they like?" "No idea," said the man. "Everyone just knew they were goddamn pests." A look of contemplation crossed Dragonsnort's face. There was something he would explain to Jared once they were alone. Something that once again required some logic, a thing Jared was getting good at. After a few more questions, Dragonsnort locked the man in a hall closet, bending him at the waist in order to fit him in. He told the boys to go home for the day and thanked them for their assistance. He told Tyshawn to notify his father to come by first thing in the morning to collect the detainee and take him, as planned, far out in the woods, strip him naked, and allow him to walk back to his bosses if he could. "I'm not killing anyone," he added. As soon as they were alone, Jared grabbed his mother's phone and said "I'll

tell Eric and Mom the new stuff right away. It's late afternoon in Africa." "Wait for just a second," said his father. "There is something odd about what the man told us. Did you notice?" "About the thirteen year old and the twenty-one year old," said Jared. "Get your mind off of sexual stuff. You're not going to be making it with any twenty-one years olds anytime soon. Think of something else. We expected the army reinforcement. We knew from Nautica about the dam. King Zack being dead and the new Grand Vizier don't make a lot a difference at this point but..." "But what?" said Jared, wide-eyed and putting down the phone. "We talked to both your mom and Eric yesterday. They told us the invasion was to come soon. And so on. Do you remember the last question I asked Eric?"

"About the initial species?" "Yes. Eric told me he wasn't sure what they looked like but that this big African chief leader was taking orders directly from one of them. He said this Laurent person was a spooky animistic animal worshipper from some inland tribe and that he met with one of the species who directed his every move both mentally and physically. Funny thing is, that the creature or creatures who were displaced and forced out are supposed to be, in the mumbo-jumbo of this Laurent guy, great big dark, dreary, shadowy things that tower above you and can make themselves, although huge, formless and vague and that they surround you with their bodies and minds and pierce into your thoughts with flaming eye-slits and are all around unassailable and fierce." "Sounds scary," said Jared, not following exactly where his father was going with this. "So how does this..." "Think about it for a minute," interrupted Dragonsnort, peering curiously at his son. "Big spooky things. Scary, as you say. Seven times the scummy would-be kidnapper in the closet described them as 'pests.' Does this chief's

description of them sound like a pest to you?" "When I think of pests, I think of mosquitoes," said Jared. "Or Cody when he lets so many deliberate farts at club meetings." "Same here minus Cody," said Dragonsnort. "A big monster is not a pest, but a tick could be. You have had ticks, I know. Even a baby vap on you once. That was probably more than just a pest, but a pest is a fly, a gnat, a chigger, a tick...." A sudden light lit up in Jared's round, opaque and quick-witted eyes. "Or a reddish-purple grain of rice that can read your thoughts and live inside your skin. That would be a pest." "Exactly," said Dragonsnort proudly. "Now call your mom and Eric. If you need to leave a message, make it a good one. It may be the last they get." Jared took his recorder to the phone and dialed. He reached first Eric's then his mother's voice mail and left on both long and detailed messages about the

encounter with the stranger and the new information he and Dragonsnort had gained. He also shared their speculations, however potentially flimsy, on the nature of the word pest as it related to the original inhabitants of Crackland. Before sunrise on the day of the invasion, Eric using a borrowed cell phone, which functioned well from Malabo, listened to a cascade of his stepson's words, taking each one into full account. He passed the phone to Brooke, who upon dialing her own voice mail center, got the same verbal account. The two of them stared at one another in wonder. Eric moved around to observe Brooke's back once again. Brooke now knew only too well what he was thinking. The whole mission was about being carriers. It would take fighting and some would die, but the majority of the carriers would make it, especially the protected ones like Kemp Tanner. "I'm really expendable then," muttered Eric. "And so is Trey. Wonder if he knows?" Brooke gave her partner a not-so-fast look and pointed toward the horizon off to the side of the airstrip. Early morning was just starting to shed light on the busy tarmac. "You see what I see?" she asked calmly.

"Not really," said Eric. "We're right at the edge of Malabo, a modern, although impoverished and squalid, city. They have lights, radios, televisions, telephones, appliances...all run by electricity, and over there are just a few of the power lines." Indeed, a long trail of suspended electrical cables stretched from out of the darkness in the distance toward the central part of Malabo. As with all power cables, birds slept comfortably on them, and here was no exception. "This whole place is electrified as hell," said Brooke. "This ain't the desert or the jungle. So what gives?" "Damned if I know," said Eric. "Guess we're going to find out soon." VIII. The invasion of Crackland The following day, August 11th, each uniformed faction of the huge mercenary invasion force gathered near its transport aircraft on the littered and

government protected tarmac of a cordoned-off secondary runway at the National Airport of Malabo. Each awaited instructions both from the general sponsors of the expedition, represented by Laurent Mbange and his closest tribesmen, and the specific leader of the faction itself. Mbange, florid with the bareshirted pride of his hundreds of glowing eruptions, took the lead in addressing the entire group. Like most of the others, he spoke in Spanish, which was naturally the main language of the invasion. He roared on about valor, duty and the "righteous restoration of a land to its people," something which always touched the hearts of Africans. Nikki, Trey, Calyx and Kemp stood together listening, as did Brooke and Eric. Nikki undertook the translation of Mbange's words to Trey until at length she became bored and just summarized: "He wants to win. People will die. The path has been cleared. They have paid off NATO, the Pan-African Task Force, the Canadian Air Force, etcetera, etcetera. We are part of a scheduled Arctic "exploration" force sponsored by Equatorial Guinea, each of our planes carries only the insignia of that nation. The road is clear." Trey yawned and held Calyx's hand. It felt cold and clammy in his under the early morning dampness of the tropical island. On impulse, he took Nikki's

hand as well. Finally, Mbange finished and motioned for the main body of his soldiers to gather for specific instructions next to one of their Duckwings. The Africans, all armed with a seemingly endless array of assault rifles of various makes and vintages, clattered noisily about him. The Australians and Italians, few in number and stand-offish from the start, did likewise. Marcelina Ponte jumped up on a mobile staircase and motioned for her crew, which now included the five non-mercenary Americans to join her. She stripped off her shirt and flexed her hard muscles in the escalating African sun. She was indeed a prime specimen, a woman that obviously no man could ever please. After a pause to call the lanky African pilot, Carmelo, to her side, she began to bellow in Spanish. "So what is the titty broad saying that we don't already know?" whispered Trey to Nikki. Nikki listened intently and frowned. "Jesus. That kid is going to be our pilot again. He can't be older than thirteen. And always wearing only those ragged shorts. No shoes even. And always smoking."

Carmelo stood on the step just under Marcelina, his ever-present Gauloise dangling from his lips. He squinted at the assembled crowd and seemed anxious to get started. Marcelina kept on talking. "Why is everyone so naked?" said Trey, suddenly. "We're flying to the top of a glacier under the Arctic Circle. Haven't they forgotten that?" "Shhhh," whispered Nikki, squeezing his hand. "She's answering that question right now. There is an opening. Both Eric...Eric!!...and Chief Laurent know about it. Some huge maw shielded by a frozen mist of ice, some place hidden from normal view by the whiteness of the Arctic. Carmelo has to watch for a glacial formation that looks like...what? That looks like the Statue of Liberty and fly to the left of it. He will take the lead with our Duckwing. Some of the other pilots refused. They didn't want to fly where they couldn't see. It doesn't bother Carmelo. He will do it. We will be first. We're going to fly right through the cavity, past the frigid air and into Crackland. We're going to land on some kind of natural shelf overlooking the dam. Then a couple of bombs will be launched from beside the airplanes. Dynamite bombs, several tons of dynamite. Enough to destroy the dam. It will be daylight in

Crackland. So we will see the enemy." "And the enemy will see us," interjected Trey, impatient. Nikki continued, rapt by Marcelina's self-confident tone and strident words. "Kemp and Marcelina will remain on the ledge. Everyone else will be armed and expected to confront the Crackland forces. We will work our way downward after the explosion clears. Some will be killed. Others not. It won't matter once the hydroelectric dam is toast. Won't matter? We will attempt to disperse their army and make our way to the central inhabited zones....." "Not me," said Trey. "I'm heading straight for the fringe to see old Jabari." "Quit joking. We don't even know if he's still alive." "I do," said Trey confidently. Nikki did not notice that her soul mate was fingering something in his pocket. It was, of course, the ardent ruby that Olivia the sometimes prostitute at the Fontaine in Ungorona Falls had once given him before the couple's ill-fated journey to Crackland. It was part of

Jabari's magic, a red ruby that flushed brilliantly when danger was near. It had not stopped glowing since Trey and Nikki had arrived at Kemp's desert camp. Trey had decided to keep quiet about the ruby. This was no time to be accused of some new idolatry. Marcelina concluded her spiel with some scattered comments about free formations and everyone being expected to join in the action. Mercenaries, generally disciplined, sometimes still fought in free formations. Apparently, that was the plan. There was, furthermore, no need to burden oneself with heavy garments. It would be warm in Crackland. "Looks like you're gonna see a lot of tit again," said Nikki. "I'm sure our merc friends will want to outfit themselves in their signature toplessness." A few yards away, Brooke Nescott fingered and hefted the 7.62mm Kalashnikov rifle she had been issued. Eric, somewhat in imitation, patted his twin nine-round Spanish-made Ruby pistols. "For close range," he said abstractly. Brooke looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. "Every time before my

father went off on one of his missions, he would kiss me and my mother and say he was off to 'kill some gooks.' I guess that is what I have always been waiting for to complete my life---to be like my father." "So," said Eric, changing the subject. "We have concluded therefore...." "Yes, Professor, what have we concluded?" "We have, thanks to Jared and Dragonsnort, concluded that Laurent Mbange is full of mumbo-jumbo bullshit when he talks that gibberish about some huge, black amorphous creatures in the jungle. What we are really fighting for are these little bright parasites that I once erroneously termed as transmitters for some larger entities. We are just their carriers, their vehicles. All of you, except me and Trey, I mean. My vap has kept me free of their infestation, and who can say about Trey? But the rest of you are highly expendable once the dam and the power grid are destroyed." "Expendable?"

"Sure. Put the pieces together. We've been under a strong electro-magnetic power network for days now. None of them has died or dropped off anyone's body. Remember Jared's first message from Nautica. She compared these parasites to my vap. They are not just a tool of the original species; they are the original species. And when they are attached to one of us, they thrive well enough, even direct our minds if they want. But when they are detached, as undoubtedly they want to be, as in lying in a examination dish in my lab, they die. The minute that power is creamed, they are going to fly free. If we die, then so be it. I doubt they are the sort of parasite that really needs a living host. Their only problem is the electricity. And I think that premise, which I now propose, explains our friend the cowboy as well and why he is so imperative." "That would be a fun fact to learn and know," said Brooke, still raising and lowering her Kalashnikov. "My theory, Madame, is that Kemp is host to the most crucial elements of their leadership. After all, he was the first infected. They are a species and a civilization. They are bound to have leaders, intellectuals, philosophers, opera

singers and the like. Bet they big ones are all stored up in Kemp. If the plan fails, then Kemp can be brought back for another attempt." "Nice theory," said Brooke. "Now let's get on board and go kill ourselves some gooks." In pre-arranged formation every mercenary group boarded its aircraft. The pilots swung into place, and paid Equatorial Guinean government soldiers closed and sealed the doors of the cargo liners behind them. Inside of Marcelina's plane, the cabin door was left open. The bony, half-naked Carmelo, still squinting and dangling a cigarette from his lips, took the main controls. Marcelina checked over the passengers and dipped into the seat beside him. The combined rumbles of igniting engines filled the tarmac. With the same jumpy bravado he had displayed on the original flight to Malabo, Carmelo swung the Duckwing down the runway in lead position. "They've paid off all these people, but we're going to be flying low. Bet on it," said Eric to Brooke, still clutching her rifle at his side. Carmelo jerked the huge-bellied craft into the sky, and the assorted passengers could see other planes flying to each side of them. The day was cloudless and over-bright. They were, of

course, flying west into the darkness. But as the light gradually caught up with the mercenary formation, Eric as well as all others could see that he had been right. It was easy to distinguish even the smallest of fishing boats floating on the Gulf of Guinea, and if one had wanted, it would have been possible to count the ocean waves rolling beneath. Under Carmelo's edgy piloting, the Duckwing lurched violently in one direction and then in another. It listed almost at a ninety degree angle as the jet black native boy, steered it around the bulging western coast of Africa and northward. On board, Calyx had abandoned Trey to the still-unsettled company of Kemp and Nikki. She sat, now bare-chested like her peers, among the group of strikingly well-built Spanish merc women who had been her companions now for some time. They fingered their automatic weapons and checked the cartridges on their various assault rifles. They practiced acting ferocious and intense among one another, vowing often to kill or be killed. Nikki, hearing this talk behind her, did not bother to explain it to Trey. Nor did Brooke to Eric. Calyx was back in her appointed role. Trey, for his own part, was armed with several grenades of Spanish origin, a

Ruby automatic pistol and a high velocity 5.56mm M-16, all of which he now knew how to operate, but not well. In his pocket, the red ruby burned his flank as the plane wobbled through the now darkening skies. On impulse, Brooke took leave of Eric at one point and joined the half-naked Spanish ladies. Without fear and speaking their language, she sat down with them. They welcomed her and didn't seem to care. "I'm excited," she said in English which transmitted itself automatically into their dialect of Continental Spanish. "I feel more excited than I have ever been!" "That's natural," said Calyx in English. "But we show it and don't much talk about it." "I know," replied Brooke. "I just wanted to say that..." "We understand," Martina broke in. Brooke remained with the coterie for several more minutes before rejoining Eric, who was calmly reading an Equatorial Guinean newspaper which had been left under his seat.

"You can read Spanish," she asked. "A little bit," said Eric. "Who can't? From what I can make out here, another one of those countless government coups is mounting in Malabo." "We have our own coup to worry about." "Yeah," sighed Eric. "We do. And if we ever survive this, it's going to take more than me and Drag to calm you down. You've been waiting all your life for this, haven't you? Go ahead and smoke some more. It doesn't bother me. After all, I'm ninety-seven now, and I have seen everything." "Well, just give me the space to see a little myself." "I certainly will. Go charge with the others, but try not to get yourself killed. I'm planning on doing my part too. I have always wanted to work for the benefit of brainy parasites." Trey piped up with some comment about how he was going to surge forward

right along with the rest. "I'll have my eye on you, too," he said. "Oh give it up, Trey. We're back together again, and you know it. I for one am happy." Then she glanced over at Kemp who had been meant to overhear. "It's been fun, cowboy, and I will never forget you. But I guess the freedomquest plan is about over." "I knew it was coming," said Kemp, his heart somewhat trampled but not showing it. He held the vintage Lee-Enfield bolt-action .303 caliber rifle which had been given to him, almost as an afterthought, in the last moments before boarding. "I don't get to protect you, Nikki, so someone ought to." "I don't need to be protected. That's you, and no one knows why." Although Eric had a pretty good idea of why by now, he remained silent and continued to decipher the out of date Guinean newspaper. "I hope this pig has a good heater," he said. "It's getting cold---real cold---outside." And indeed, a sheen of ice was now covering the side windowpanes of the heaving cargo seaplane.

Several hours more of flying ahead of the sunrise, the party emerged into an airspace marked by the most intense whiteness than any, save Trey and Nikki, had ever seen. They had passed over the enormous perma-glaciated fringe of Baffin Island and were heading straight through the ice mountains toward the always-frozen Gulf of Boothia and Somerset Island under which lay the natural subterranean crevasse, a fault in the Earth's crust that was now called Crackland and where it was always a placid springtime. Ice mountain after ice mountain became visible through the front windshield of the Duckwing in the everlasting Arctic light, where day and night no longer mattered. Suddenly, Marcelina shouted out "There! The Statue of Liberty, head straight for it and veer to the left." Those with a view through the craft's front windows could indeed see what the erratic and constantly smoking Carmelo saw: a glacial formation, no doubt covering some unseen mountain, which for all the world resembled the famous statue in New York Harbor. Carmelo, with angular features marked by tense, quivering arms and shoulders, swerved the clumsy Duckwing to the left and pointed it straight into what appeared to be an insurmountable partition of ice.

For all privileged to see straight ahead, the entry was terrifying. Carmelo, unflinching, dragged on his cigarette and aimed directly for the wall. In seconds, he had navigated the Duckwing through it and into a kind of gargantuan passage hidden by the frozen vapor and presenting a sudden decrease in the overwhelmingly blinding whiteness of the glacial landscape. In minutes the plane and its passengers emerged into a different kind of light, a gentler more welcoming vista which seemed to perch over a surprisingly verdant panorama below. He lowered the craft sharply and landed it on a flat and rocky plane, not unlike the Nevada desert. The sounds of other such planes landing behind him generated a fearsome roar. When Carmelo at last brought the Duckwing to a final staggering halt, it was pitched on its side at an angle which was going to make deplaning a struggle. All rose to their feet on Marcelina's command. All armed their weapons and clambered out of the Duckwing and dropped to the warm, albeit pebbly, soil below. Immediately upon deplaning, the mercenary soldiers, clustered on the wide ridge, surveyed an immense steaming waterfall which dropped into a tangled structure replete with wires and cables extending outward in a meshed and snarled network which led out into every direction in the green landscape.

"The dam and the plant," shouted an unseen voice from one of the crafts behind. Then the gunfire began. The entire group was under attack by soldiers placed on the rocky sides of the slopes which rose from the base of the waterfall and the hydro-electric plant to the broad ledge above. Some of the firepower was obviously from small missile launchers. Much of it came from machine guns and other automatic weapons. A few grenades were tossed upward too, but these fell short of their mark and did no damage. Laurent Mbange's obsessed and chattering Africans made a mass movement toward the slope beneath them. "Not before we launch the dynamite," shouted another voice lost in the chaos. Trey readied his weapon and fired a few rounds downward at what were advancing soldiers making their way up the grade. He was pleased to see in the melee and general disorder that he had connected with a couple of assailants, who fell back ostensibly dead and rolled off into the confusion of electrical cables far beneath them. In the general disorder, it was every man and woman for themselves. Trey noticed that Nikki had taken a prone position somewhat to his left. The smoke of incendiary rockets and a barrage of heavier than expected gunfire hid most of her from his view. He continued to hold his position and fire the M-16, replacing clip

after clip. To his right by the side of the listed Duckwing, Martina, Calyx and a few unknown others wrestled with the mechanical bomb launcher they were attempting to extricate from the upturned hold of the aircraft. Farther down, Trey could see the Africans and the other mercs doing the same. Apparently, each plane had been equipped with a bomb launcher and a heavy charge of dynamite. Suddenly before his eyes, a low flying incendiary bomb landed next to the dynamite charge being readied by some of Laurent's hysterical Africans. Trey realized that the rocket had a delayed time device and would explode in less than a minute. He rolled through a rain of gunshot which pranced across the space between him and the confused Africans, planted his buttocks in the soil and, in the very last minute, managed to kick the rocket bomb back down the incline and away from the dynamite charge. As it disappeared over the ledge, it exploded. Several Africans took the full brunt of its shrapnel discharge and were ripped to shreds. Then Trey glanced back at Calyx and Martina. Brooke Nescott, herself now bare-chested, had joined them in the positioning of the dynamite charge dispatcher. Brooke, wielding her Kalashnikov, shot continuous rounds into the smoke rising below them. Farther down the ledge, Eric was also doing his part, taking aim with his automatic Ruby pistols and coolly killing each of the early arrivals as they

climbed up onto the shelf. Trey saw in the mayhem that Calyx had somehow got her leg caught in the spring works of the bomb launcher. It had torn a gash at least a foot long into the side of her calf. He moved in fast with his army knife and cut the shreds of fabric away from her bleeding leg, thus freeing her from the machine. With one arm around her chest, he jerked her backward from the launcher. The gunpowder smoke now was making most everything difficult to easily discern, but Trey could see a party of Crackland soldiers, machine guns in hand, scramble onto the ledge. He shouted at the top of his voice "Brooke, kill these sons of bitches!!" Brooke Nescott, eyes glaring with a newfound bloodlust, dropped to her knees and took aim at each of the attackers in turn, dropping them in their ascent, killing them cold. But it was too late. The last one to die by Brooke's Kalashnikov had raked off a round of .30 caliber close range machine gun fire at Calyx and Martina. Both merc women were mortally wounded. Calyx, realizing she was dying, looked up from the bedlam, her radiant face smeared with dirt and dust. Her eyes, dimming, found Trey's: "Goodbye, Trey. I love you," were her expiring words, and she slumped over dead next to Martina's corpse. Brooke continued firing downward, protecting

the charged bomb launcher. She glanced at Trey as if to say 'coast is clear.' Without thinking or knowing exactly what he was doing, Trey fell down at the side of the launcher and found the right lever to release and pull. A three hundred pound charge of dynamite, packaged into a bomb, flew upward and arced through the air. Trey held his breath. The intense gunfire continued. In the haze of smoke, Trey saw that he had been successful. The dynamite charge had dropped through the tangle of cables and fallen directly onto the roof of the massive hydro-electric dam and plant. A huge detonation shook the entire slope, followed by a scorching conflagration which leapt up the sides of the gradient and immediately carbonized a few mercenaries who had been positioned too close. The maddening fracas wound on, but now it was certain that the power plant had been at least partially disabled. In effect, it was totally destroyed, and far away from the battle scene, the settler-citizens of peaceful Crackland suddenly became aware that there was no electricity. The trains stopped abruptly. Lights and other electrically-driven devices flickered off. The royal palace fell dark in its interior. Even though it was day time in Crackland, the loss of power was felt everywhere. Grand Vizier Donny Seabrink realized it, as did

the elite guard of the Midnight Riders who accompanied him. The mission's objective had been achieved. Donny had failed to repel the attack. Somehow he knew that any further military action was futile, but by battery operated radio contact, he urged his generals to keep up the fight. "Kill them all," he screamed into his radio. "Kill them all." During the most extreme moments of the skirmish, Marcelina Ponte had been farther back on the ledge, standing against a stone wall, machine gun poised, and guarding Kemp Tanner. A lull came in the fighting as the Crackland soldiers pulled back from the ruins of the dam and started to regroup. They had failed to defend the object they had been sent to protect. In hindsight, their generals saw that the ledge should have been occupied, but no one had informed them of the huge aperture through which the planes had come. It had always been one of the secrets of Crackland, and there were many. Thus the gunfire abruptly stopped. On the ledge beside the mostly crippled cargo liners lay many dead soldiers, among which were of course Calyx and Martina. The casualties had been high. Only one bomb had actually been dispatched, and that was by none other than Trey Agremont of Marstown,

Iowa, college dropout and lifelong lover of Nikki Barazan. Nikki, for her part, seemed unscathed, as did Brooke and Eric. All had played vital roles in repulsing the onslaught and, caked with gunpowder and mud, all were prepared to carry on the fight. Trey, unmindful of Nikki, dropped once again to his knees and cradled Calyx's head in his arms. "Goodbye, Calyx," he whispered. "I love you too." There was, he knew, little more to say and no need for creativity. The mercenary group had not only expended a large amount of their firepower, but had suffered the primary casualty of losing each of their transport carriers. A quick survey of the planes confirmed this. How long the respite from shooting would last none of them knew. They took advantage of the pause to regroup wherever possible. Eric went to Brooke's side at once. Brooke seemed exhausted though exhilarated. Eric knowingly looked at her back. The eruptions had disappeared as fast as they had come. Likewise, Eric was quick to note that neither Nikki nor any of the others, including the dead ones--African, Australian, Italian or otherwise, had any more of the skin infestation. Kicking the cartridge-strewn soil, he walked over to where Marcelina was still guarding Kemp. "Take off your shirt," he said quietly to

Kemp. Eric glanced at the cowboy's back and shook his head knowingly. "You can let the cowpoke loose now," he said to Marcelina. "The original species of the underground world have returned one and all to their habitat." In highly accented English, Marcelina asked for an explanation, as did Kemp's wide eyes. Trey, who had torn himself away from Calyx's dead remains, had trailed behind Eric and heard his words. He also was at a loss to explain exactly why the protrusions were gone. Eric wasted no words in explaining what he knew. It was not some dark alien race buried in Africa that they were fighting for. It had been the little parasite grains all along. Undoubtedly, the early settlers as well as perhaps John Crack himself had carried them to safety upon becoming refugees from the realm. "They can live independently when there is no electro-magnetism," said Eric, mostly to Trey, who curled his lips and seemed to know something. He was quick to rejoin Nikki and whisper something in her ear. Nikki shook her head as if to say no. Trey gathered up a few unused assault rifles as well as several cartridge belts which he strung over his shoulders. Then he turned to go. His last words to Nikki were "Eric said we were expendable, and he was right."

As the tepid Crackland night fell on the remaining mercenary soldiers left beside their crippled planes on the shelf overlooking the ruined dam, it became evident through the multi-lingual buzz that the commandos had been indeed expendable and that, moreover, they were trapped, running short of firepower and subject with the dawn to another, larger attack. Kemp, free now to join the others and move around, went to Nikki's side with a questioning look in his eye. Nikki, crying, stared at him and said in the sweetest and most heartfelt voice she could muster for the occasion "No, it's over. The plan. I love you but..." "You're back with the kid." "If I ever see him again. He took off. I have no idea where. But I can't be intimate with you any more. I hope you understand." "I do," said Kemp. And he meant it. Around them all was littered the debris of war including the multiple dead, whose bodies there was no way of burying in the stony soil without an effort that the drained mercenaries had scant

energy to undertake. The darkness of a Crackland night blanketed most other agonies, and the scattered invasion party instinctively began preparations to again defend themselves on first morning light. IX. Crackland: The news reaches the inhabited zone, turmoil ensues When the sudden invasion of Marcelina Ponte and Laurent Mbange's mercenary army was engaged in the furious clash which had resulted in the destruction by Trey Agremont of both Delsmain Dam and its power plant, thirteen year old Micah Ten Tolen, heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Crackland and under the regency of his Grand Vizier, Donny Seabrink, had been riding in his private train car back from an unexpected visit to the Forbidden City. In the carriage with him were several young and meagerly clothed maidens from Queen Taryn's entourage. Taryn was in the coach as well. All were petting and playing vulgar tease games with the young and sexually precocious Bastard. Taryn had come to like group sex with the boy, whom she felt was a far more engaging lover than had been King Zack, and she liked to arouse him with the company of her former high school friends, all still burstingly nubile and filled with unrestrained libido which matched that of

the "young stud," as Micah was now generally known. Taryn giggled uncontrollably as she stroked the boy's privates and watched him caress and fondle the body parts of her friends. When at last the sexual play gave way to another session of serious coitus, the girls were asked to step outside. It was important for Micah to impregnate Taryn, and they needed to work on that alone. When the coupling was over, Taryn opened the coach door and waved for her pals to return. Then Micah, still naked and quite satisfied with his performance, proceeded to tell them how he had at last visited his illustrious half brother Jeremiah, who was being held in permanent detention in a royal house deep within the Forbidden City. He told them that all his life he had been warned about Jeremiah taking his own rightful place as legatee to the throne, but that "certain powers" had made sure that Jeremiah had by now been turned into a virtual slobbering idiot. In a burst of unrestrained glee, Micah told the women that he had dropped in on Jeremiah just as the latter was playing with a huge set of Legos, drooling out of one corner of his mouth and generally oblivious to the sudden company of his half brother. Micah explained that even though there was no way that such a slavering dolt could

assume any kingship, he had never liked the idea of his mother's legitimate son being on the same planet as he was. "So what did you do," tittered Taryn. "I just took a notion," said Micah proudly, "and smashed his head in with a hammer someone had left in the room. He's dead. I killed him. No more Jeremiah." "Your first official act," gurgled Taryn beaming at her young husband with unreserved veneration. The other girls found the killing amusing as well. Suddenly, the train jolted to an abrupt halt. Word had it that there had been a disturbance in the power grid. They would be on their way shortly, etc. But shortly never came. Instead, after several impatient hours, a contingent of Midnight Riders mounted on motorcycles arrived. There were rear seats and sidecars enough to escort the entire royal contingency back to the safety of the palace.

"Safety?" inquired Micah, raising an eyebrow at the lead Rider. "It would appear so, Your Majesty. There may have been an invasion at the far end of your realm, and we know for a fact that many citizen artisans and farmers are discontent with the austerity of maintaining an at-war stance and are deserting their homes, workshops and farms and gathering somewhere in the dark zones, but no one has been able to say exactly where." Later upon arriving at the palace and observing the churning chaos of its servants and inhabitants, Micah sought the company of his Grand Vizier, who, in nervous anguish explained to him the extent of the invasion. The dam was gone, but the invaders were trapped on a ledge in a place that few citizens knew of. "So that's why they are lighting all these candles and bonfires," said Micah dismissively. "It all looks pretty cool." Donny Seabrink had no idea how his failure to protect the hydro-electric plant would now affect him. He had been notified by usual topside channels that Aurora Delsmain herself, accompanied by a group of owner-investors, would arrive within a few days. In the meantime, he was to assure the capture of the

stranded mercenaries and watch for signs of the native species. He was not provided with any clue as what these signs might be or what the species looked like or where it would manifest itself. Also, Seabrink was charged with maintaining citizen order in the now troubled realm and with forming a group of builders and engineers who could repair and restore the dam. That in itself was going to be a daunting task. "Everyone is disappearing," he groaned to Micah. Even the remaining skater boys." "Good riddance to them," snorted Micah. "Just leave this to me, Donny. Get me my white horse, some sidearms and a few of your best Riders. I shall ride out to the edge and revive the nerve of this so-called army you stationed there." Though the notion was preposterous, Donny Seabrink thought it might be a good way to get Micah out of sight for a while. Donny, like his predecessor, had secretly stockpiled a fair amount of gold bullion mined from the abundant valleys of the underground realm. He was scheming for a quick exit before one-legged Aurora and her sentinels arrived. He realized only too well that his life was very much on the line and that Aurora would probably direct someone,

someone like Micah perhaps, to order his instant execution. Donny needed an exit strategy, and sending the Bastard off on a white horse surrounded by a Midnight Rider elite guard, a guard no doubt more loyal to Aurora Delsmain than to himself, was at least a diversionary tactic. Therefore, at the following sunrise, the Bastard Prince was outfitted and given a small company of some of the best trained Midnight Riders. "Our gas has been running out," one of them said to Donny as the party prepared to parade out of the palace grounds. "I'll see what I can do," promised Donny, all the while thinking of just how he would escape Crackland with enough pure gold to make him solvent on the surface. "Which way?" shouted Micah. "Where is this plateau and these trapped soldiers?" After being pointed down a now abandoned railroad cut through a stand of oddly shaped trees, the ridiculous procession struck out. The last thing Donny said to the lead Rider was "Take him around in circles. He has no idea of where things are. Don't let him get anywhere near these invaders." The Midnight Rider captain nodded in comprehension. "Circles it is," he growled, starting up the loud motor of his Triumph.

At this same time in the wooded and brush covered fringe lands close to the places where the domed Crackland sky met the soil, a zone prohibited to all citizens not in uniform, a small and very normal looking group of citizens, many with children, gathered around a rather mudstained young man who was heavily armed. These were refugees from the inhabited zones, the farmers, builders and artisans who had at length grown tired of the continued state of war and the food shortages produced by it. Among their number, unseen, was the skatepark builder Teagan Carsey and his lover Lane. It was, of course, Teagan who had brought this young man to Crackland in the first place, and now, sickened and disheartened like the others, he had left his trade to join the bands of insurgents gathering in the sky-meets-earth crevasses. The young man reached into his pocket and brought forth a shimmering red ruby. Suddenly a woman shouted "The boy in the cage!! The shape-shifter or friend of Jabari." Teagan then came forward and made his presence known. He addressed the crowd and explained that the young man was not Jabari but had once been rescued from the absolute iniquity of King Zack by Jabari. "He is our friend," said Teagan.

"Not our friend," said a farmer armed only with an upturned pickaxe, "our leader!!" A general applause arose from those present, and Trey Agremont was escorted to their camp, washed and fed. Several days later a grim and unforgiving Aurora Delsmain came down the main hydraulic elevator, which was now manually operated in the absence of electrical power. She was accompanied by armed men wearing topside business attire. Men whom she did not bother to introduce to Donny Seabrink, who had not yet managed to engineer his planned escape from the tumultuous kingdom. "Where is Micah?" she demanded without prologue. "We're going to put him in charge here. And he can do with you what should be done to all who fail in their duty." In the glare of the Crackland midday sun, Donny smiled at Aurora. There had been a vast transformation in events since the day before. Micah was out riding on his horse to confront the remaining invaders, but it was no longer necessary, as the latter, running out of provisions and weapons, had been forced by the sheer remaining number of auxiliary troops to surrender and be taken captive. The soldiers were bringing the chained mercenaries into

civilization as they spoke. There were about forty left in number, all unarmed and closely watched prisoners. "My plan is to put them in the royal stockade, all of them, and set the place on fire," said Donny proudly. "Put them in the stockade but don't light any fires until I decide whether you should be in there to burn with them," growled Aurora. "You're an idiot. As soon as your failed auxiliary army gets here with their prisoners, I'm going to have them confined somewhere too. Failure was not an option when we found and sent them." With that, Aurora wobbled off on her prosthetic leg, leaving Donny Seabrink to wonder just when his actual fate would be unveiled. Without motorized power, the victorious auxiliaries might take another two days to arrive at the palace by marching all day. Donny realized his time was short to gather up what bullion he could carry and bribe the Midnight Rider elevator guards to let someone manually roll him to the surface. His plan was further to use the stolen gold to entice Aurora's pilot, wherever he was, to fly him out of the realm. For years Aurora and her compatriots had robbed the kingdom of its gold. It was his turn to get enough for his own escape and

survival. He thus retreated to his private quarters within the royal palace and decided to stay low until he saw exactly what direction events were taking. The captured ones were all chained together in pairs and marched in two columns guided by armed units of the drably dressed auxiliary army which had finally succeeded in securing their surrender. Kemp, now supposedly rendered useless, was by the sheerest of coincidences chained wrist to wrist with Marcelina Ponte. When finally they chanced to quietly exchange a few words, Kemp told Marcelina that he was not as worthless as Eric had made him out to be. "They left me with a lot of thoughts," he said. "I have a feeling for who is who in this brainless country. I have memories that are not mine." "That is so good," said Marcelina, deliberately rubbing her bare shoulder against his. "Your English is really bad and hard to understand." "Your Spanish has gone away, so no complaints to me."

"Why did you rub against me just then?" "Because I was itching." "Rub away." Obviously a tense comradeship had formed between the members of the expeditionary party, but Kemp, realizing that Nikki was now firmly beyond his reach, began to examine the sculpted Spanish merc fighter with a new eye. She was tough like him. She was durable and strong, traits that Kemp appreciated. Above all, she was desirable, even though much like a type of desert spider he knew, she might kill and eat him after coupling. The more they marched together, the more his appetite grew for the fine-looking merc leader chained to his side. Nikki had left him with a renewed taste for women who were not whores, and Marcelina could in some farfetched fantasy play a role in his life somewhere...anywhere. "So you know some stuff," she continued, "I can ask you what?"

"About the leaders in Crackland. Kind of who is who. I guess some pretty important bumps were living on my back. I can still see images. I can still hear a kind of voice talking like far away to me." "I hear nothing," said Marcelina, downcast. "You hear me, I hope," said Kemp with a little enthusiasm. "I have a feeling we are going to be spared and rescued by these same lumplets we carried around for so long." But Kemp's hope for a rescue was in vain, as the soldiers and the captive mercs finally began seeing the farthest outposts of the populated zone and were led down actual paved paths to the bloated royal palace grounds upon which they were without delay unchained, washed down with hoses, and incarcerated en masse in a wooden stockade with iron bars blocking each and every entrance. Armed Midnight Riders leaned ladders to the sides of the open-roofed fortification and began climbing up dropping bales of something like straw amongst the tightly huddled prisoners. As the bales increased, the available space became less and the mercenaries, now free to change position or move

around, were nonetheless forced closer to one another than they would have liked. Face to face with Kemp Tanner for the first time since their capture, Eric Palobay remarked that the bales were soaked with what smelled like petroleum spirits. "They are probably planning on burning us to death," he added casually. "There is no way we can climb out of this place. One torch and it will all go up in a fireball." Brooke Nescott mulled over her partner's words. "I guess it's going to end like that. Where are these wonderful aborigines when you need them, anyway? Have they forgotten their...... their vehicles?" Nikki Barazan edging closer to those she knew softly informed them that Trey was missing. "He slipped off, in case you guys haven't noticed," she said. "There's been something mysterious about him lately." As she spoke a special firing squad was being surreptitiously formed to eliminate the auxiliary soldier contingent which had brought the captives to the palace yard. After a few hours of confinement in the close-quartered stockade, the overpowering stench of the flammable spirits from the straw started to become

unbearable. A few Africans covered their faces with their hands and passed out from the intensity of the fumes. "Gasoline spirits rise," said Eric. "Get down on the ground and breathe. Try to get away from the others." Kemp decided to crawl with Marcelina in their search for breathable air. "If were going to die," he said, "we may as well die together. You've been hanging around me the longest." Marcelina only rubbed his taut shoulder with what was a rough palm and smiled. Some kind of trial was being held just beyond the secured doors of the stockade. An old woman's voice was croaking something about "unfulfilled duties." "Aurora," said Kemp. "Why do I know that? She's an evil old bitch and one of the founders of the monarchy. Why do I know these things?" "The leaders must have left you with some pertinent clues," said Eric, not denying for one minute the veracity of Kemp's information.

From somewhere farther distant, the report of at least one hundred guns discharging at once was heard. "Firing squad," said Eric. "I bet its the boys in gray. They really did a lousy job of protecting their dam." "Against Trey," chimed Nikki with undisguised pride. "Against Trey!!" Closer now to the wooden sides of the stockade the old woman's mucosy voice piped up again. She was ordering someone to shoot the Grand Vizier. "That would be the new one according to Jared," Eric said to Brooke at his side. "Jared!" said Brooke with her own undisguised pride. The entire captive entourage, therefore, in the heavy petroleum fumes amidst the bales of imminently combustible straw crawled about searching for gasps of oxygen and awaiting the command from outside that their prison be turned into an inferno. Kemp and Nikki huddled side by side, as did Brooke and Eric. Without warning, a huge black man crawled to their side and began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish which none of the American group could now understand. Kemp rolled his eyes at Marcelina, who had turned over on her

back and was gasping for air. "Something about seeing The Thing," wheezed the taut merc woman, her huge breasts and chest heaving in the polluted atmosphere of the stockade. "He's seen The Thing again. His spirit. The speaker for the originals. He thinks it will save us." Eric knew that there probably was no Thing. It was, he surmised, only a manifestation of the collective presence of the invasive skin grains. But perhaps it had spoken to Laurent. From without, he heard a sudden loud rustling and commotion among those who were nearest the wooden sides of the stockade. Others were arriving, a crowd. Angry voices, shouting, the rustle of many feet at once. From out of the uproar came a familiar voice: "Stand back, and the first one who makes a move we kill." "Trey!" said Nikki. "Trey!" said both Kemp and Eric, having no breath to utter more than the young man's name. "Trey!" repeated Nikki. "I hope he brought an army. I hope he can get us out

of this oven before they torch it." As it turned out, it was indeed Trey Agremont, who, still heavily armed, was somewhat reluctantly in the vanguard of what was a inflamed and churning citizen mob, the refugee farmers, tradesmen and artisans who had finally fled their settlements in long-postponed protest to the ghastly mismanagement of the kingdom under the Bastard Micah and his regent Donny Seabrink. The mob directly confronted the pointed weapons of the Midnight Rider elite guard which stood along with Aurora Delsmain and her somber contingent of topside enforcers. "We have the guns," screamed Aurora. "And," she added with the lugubrious tone of a ardent executioner, "we have the torch." Indeed, one of the Midnight Riders had lighted the gasoline soaked end of a stick wrapped with oily black rags. Dark petroleum smoke emanated from the torch, which the Rider was spinning around in order to toss it into the stockade. "Stand back or we cook your friends right now," croaked Aurora. The mob did not look like it was going to stand back, as the enraged populace, so often curtly ignored by the royal court, began to surge toward Aurora and

her protectors. "Fuck that. Let's die," cried a shrill woman's voice. Trey turned back at the crowd and raised his hands. In one of them was the burning red stone, the talisman given to him once long ago for selfpreservation. He held it above his head for all to see. Suddenly, an aged black man, hobbling on a wooden crutch and clutching a similar, albeit larger, red gem in his hand, arose. His face was creased with the wrinkles of time and his hair and grizzled beard were totally white. It was, of course, Jabari the Magician. Although unable to speak due to his over-long years on Earth, the spell-binding shaman began to hum in a low and hypnotic rhythm. The mob seemed temporarily mesmerized and clattered a halt. "What in the fuck is going on out there," panted Nikki, still overcome with the powerful gas fumes. "Somebody lit a torch," said Brooke, with a true sense of absolute resignation. "Get ready to die." She pressed against Eric's body and grasped his hand. "Goodbye everyone," she said, submissive and nonchalant to the fate accorded them. She was determined to die as she had lived---existentially.

"Goodbye," said Marcelina, deciding in her final moments to attempt standing up and acting brave. But the standoff continued. Jabari's drone grew louder and filled the smoky air. The citizens looked on in amazement as the Midnight Riders and the topsiders froze in their places. Their expressions became vacant and petrified, and their eyes to a one glazed over with a sickly blank luster. In their faces and on their foreheads, thousands of red and purple bumps suddenly became visible. The original species. It had come to the aid of its protectors and carriers. Some robust farmers swiftly broke down the locked wooden doors of the stockade, allowing the prisoners to crawl out under the overpowering gas fumes. Some, however, did not, and another heretofore nameless one of the beautifully sculpted commando women was one of them. Several black Africans and a sampling of white Australian and Italians had also expired. Trey rushed into pull Nikki out first. Then he examined the immobile ones. "They are dead of gas inhalation," he muttered. "They were too far back."

As soon as Kemp Tanner, Eric Palobay and Marcelina Ponte had recovered enough to be standing, Trey tossed them each either a rifle or a pistol. Within seconds, the mob pitched forward again, hustling the zombie-like Midnight Riders and Aurora's guard into the stockade, to which the latter, immobilized by their skin eruptions, made no resistance. The door was slammed shut again, and one of the farm women, shrieking in pleasure, relit the fallen torch and over Trey's protest tossed it into the stockade. The resulting rush of fire and smoke created a wickedly lethal conflagration that towered into the pleasant Crackland sky for at least two hundred yards. The smell of charred and cooked human flesh became almost totally insufferable. Kemp Tanner, Marcelina at his side now, surveyed the carnage with obvious contentment. "I still know stuff," he growled, brandishing the Spanish Ruby pistol Trey had thrown him. "Let the filthy sons of bitches roast." Nikki was clinging madly to Trey's right flank, when the aged Jabari, huge talisman ruby still in hand, shambled up beside the couple. His eyes were filled with admiration and even love, a love that transcended the horror of the moment. "Fucking rubies," said Nikki. "I should have known. You've had

yours all along, Trey. I thought you had given it to Jabari for our safe passage out the last time." "He gave it back. That was something I never told you. He knew we would be here again somehow. I didn't want to alarm you with it. This has all been planned for a long time, and speaking of plans..." "It's over," whispered Nikki, kissing his dirt-streaked face. "We're back as one....forever. Remember? Best friends forever." The citizen group now looked to Trey for some guidance. Trey could only shrug his shoulders. His next move, unknown to even himself, would be the crucial one. It was one thing to destroy, but to recover and rebuild, these were different matters, and ones that Trey did not feel up to becoming involved with. With a noisy jangle, Micah the Bastard abruptly broke into the scene, bouncing on his white quarterhorse, followed by several horn-helmeted motojocks. "Kill them," shouted a voice hidden behind a tall hedge. It was Aurora Delsmain, who had escaped the general jostling of the others into what

was now only a stinking, smoldering wooden ruin of well-cooked human flesh, bone and sinew. Kemp Tanner held Marcelina behind him and stepped to the forefront directly in the path of the Micah's horse. Micah gnarled his brow and lips and began to give an order to his escort party, when Kemp snarled "You're the nasty little son of a bitch we need to erase right now." And with no further pronouncement, sent a Ruby 7.65mm bullet through the middle of the kid's forehead. Prince Bastard Micah tottered for a moment on his horse, then keeled over quite dead into the debris and mud beneath him. Without further delay, Kemp strode over to the hedge behind which Aurora had attempted to stash herself. Pulling her so roughly to her feet by one arm that her prosthetic leg dropped from her withered body, he rammed the Ruby into her right ear, pulled the trigger and blew the left side of her head away in a gush of blood, bone and brain. Behind him, the small escort party of Midnight Riders, seeing the immensity of the citizen crowd, turned their bikes around and roared off in the direction from which they had come. Jabari, eyeing their departure, pointed his lustrous ruby in their direction. "They won't get very far," said Trey. "Some of you should go out there and put them out of their misery."

Brooke Nescott, taking quick leave of Eric Palobay, walked over to the hanging roof of one of the palace entryways. "Another piece of useless vermin," she muttered. In a quick but violently determined move, she raised the bolt action Lee-Enfield assault rifle Trey had flung to her and without as much as a word let fly a shot that put a fist-sized hole through the center of Donny Seabrink's chest. Seabrink, therefore, a man of words, had no final word. None at all. Later Eric Palobay would say to his ravishing co-partner "I hope this is the last of your fun-time bloodshed." Brooke, satisfied, agreed that it was. That night, for the first time in many days, Trey and Nikki lay intertwined under a light blanket, refreshed and renewed in their indissoluble lifelong bond and staring at the shadowy Crackland sky. "Do you notice anything different?" Trey whispered to Nikki. Nikki snuggled closer to her soul mate and cooed "Right now I only notice you." "There's been a change in the sky since our last visit," continued Trey.

"Forget me for a minute and look carefully." Nikki rolled over on her back and studied the vaulted dome above them. "Stars," she murmured. "I never saw stars here before." "Not stars," corrected Trey, embracing her tighter, "the original species. They glow beautifully across the dome. That is a part of their homeland where they love to dwell. They are home now. And home is where we need to go." "There's a plane," said Nikki. "Aurora's plane, up above." "And a pilot too." "Who? You? A newfound skill?" "No. Carmelo. He was with you in the stockade. Find him a carton of smokes and he can fly us anywhere. He's sleeping over there." "And Crackland?"

"Not for me to decide," said Trey. "Jabari is in charge now. He has already made his choice. A person with the very audacity and skills needed to maintain order here until a complete compromise between human settlers and aborigines can be made." "Kemp," said Nikki with unrestrained approval. "And his woman," continued Trey. "They will probably end up killing one another, but for now it appears..." In the now gleaming brightness of the "star" studded Crackland night, Nikki could discern two stout and muscular bodies lying together at a short distance and locked together in a firm and faultless hold. "Wonder if he'll teach her to speak better English," said Nikki wistfully. "Probably not," rejoined Trey. "She'll have better tricks to teach him."

X. Conclusion: 2075 C.E. --Nikki, Trey, Brooke, Eric "So I waited all these years to find out that it was Jabari's ruby amulet that kept the underground species off your back." "Yup," said Trey. "They needed someone free of their own brain control." "I'm glad we had that cigarette smoking, African kid to bring us back," said Brooke offhandedly. Eric, still conscious but comfortably recumbent on his moveable bed listened intently. "The Caretakers have been good to us," he mused abstractly. "As big as they are, one would have thought they were the aborigines of the now-forgotten kingdom." "No," said Trey, his aging voice starting to falter. "That was just the way they manifested themselves to Laurent Mbange and his tribe. The Bantu-Fang needed something more dramatic than a ring of glowing dots." "As Jared and Nautica have always said, not all alien species are bad," said Brooke.

Suddenly, there was a rustling near the door of Nikki and Trey's pleasant quarters. "Come in," said Nikki, undisturbed. They were in a very safe place thanks to the benevolence of the Caretakers. The door, however, did not open, but through it came two holographic projections. Both were getting on in years, but still quite recognizable. It was Kemp and Marcelina. "We were asked to appear," said Marcelina in accentless English. "We decided on the holograms. Isn't that how everyone does it up here now?" "Yeah, most people," confirmed Eric. "But we decided on the flesh thing." In the dim candlelight of the state maintained residence, the foursome greeted Kemp and Marcelina as one now did with holographic projections of real people by touching the physically empty space the projections loomed in. Greetings finished, Trey said "The Caretakers want to know a lot of things for their annals, but they've never forced anyone. What did you tell them?"

The holographic couple hugged one another and smiled. "You know what we told them," said Kemp. "There never was nor ever has been a place called Crackland." And six much older people, who had known one another intimately through an incredible adventure in a time during which most of the living now had not yet been born, all laughed heartily. _____________________________________ Devon Pitlor -- February, 2011 ////**