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From the Heart of Darkness
A Jimbæn Presentation
By David Drake
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1983 David Drake
All rights reserved.
MEN LIKE US
There was a toad crucified against them at the head of the pass. Decades of cooking in the blue haze from the east had left it withered but incorruptible. It remained, even now that the haze was only a memory. The three travellers squatted down before the talisman and stared back at it.
"The village can't be far from here," Smith said at last. "I'll go down tomorrow."
Ssu-ma shrugged and argued, "Why waste time? We can all go down together."
"Time we've got," said Kozinski, playing absently with his ribs as he eyed the toad. "A lot of the stories we've been told come from ignorance, from fear. There may be no more truth to this one than to many of the others. We have a duty, but we have a duty as well not to disrupt needlessly. We'll wait for you and watch."
Smith chuckled wryly. "What sort of men would there be in the world," he said, "if it weren't for men like us?"
All three of them laughed, but no one bothered to finish their old joke.
* * *
The trail was steep and narrow. The stream was now bubbling twenty feet below, but in springtime it would fill its sharp gorge with a torrent as cold as the snows that spawned it. Coming down the valley, Smith had a good view of Moseby when he had eased around the last facet of rock above the town. It sprawled in the angle of the creek and the river into which the creek plunged. In a niche across the creek from the houses was a broad stone building, lighted by slit windows at second-story level. Its only entrance was an armored door. The building could have been a prison or a fortress were it not for the power lines running from it, mostly to the smelter at the riverside. A plume of vapor overhung its slate roof.
One of the pair of guards at the door of the powerplant was morosely surveying the opposite side of the gorge for want of anything better to do. He was the first to notice Smith. His jaw dropped. The traveller waved to him. The guard blurted something to his companion and threw a switch beside the door.
What happened then frightened Smith as he thought nothing in the world could frighten him again: an air-raid siren on the roof of the powerplant sounded, rising into a wail that shook echoes from the gorge. Men and women darted into the streets, some of them armed; but Smith did not see the people, these people, and he did not fear anything they could do to him.
Then the traveller's mind was back in the present, a smile on his face and nothing in his hands but an oak staff worn by the miles of earth and rock it had butted against. He continued down into the village, past the fences and latrines of the nearest of the houses. Men with crossbows met him there, but they did not touch him, only motioned the traveller onward. The rest of the townsfolk gathered in an open area in the center of the town. It separated the detached houses on the east side from the row of flimsier structures built along the river. The latter obviously served as barracks, taverns, and brothels for bargees and smelter workers. The row buildings had no windows facing east, and even their latrines must have been dug on the river side. A few people joined the crowd from them and from the smelter itself, but only a few.
"That's close enough," said the foremost of those awaiting the traveller. The local was a big man with a pink scalp. It shone through the long wisps of white hair which he brushed carefully back over it. His jacket and trousers were of wool dyed blue so that it nearly matched the shirt of ancient polyester he wore over it. "Where have you come from?"
"Just about everywhere, one time or another," Smith answered with an engaging grin. "Dubuque, originally, but that was a long time ago."
"Don't play games with the Chief," hissed a somewhat younger man with a cruel face and a similar uniform. "You came over the mountains; and nobody comes from the Hot Lands."
Chief of Police, Smith marveled as he connected the title and the shirts now worn as regalia. Aloud he said, "When's the last time anybody from here walked over the mountains? Ever?"
Bearded faces went hard. The traveller continued, "A hundred years ago, two hundred, it was too hot for you to go anywhere that side of the hills ... but not now. Now — maybe I'll never sire children of my own, but I never needed that, I needed to see the world. And I have done that, friends."
"Strip him," the Chief said flatly.
Smith did not wait for the grim-looking men to force him. He shrugged off his pack and handed it to the nearest of the guards armed with crossbows and hand-forged swords. He said, "Gently with it, friend. There's some of it that's fragile, and I need it to trade for room and board the next while." He began to unhook his leather vest.
Six of the men besides the Chief wore the remnants of police uniforms over their jackets. They were all older, not lean warriors like the crossbowmen — but they carried firearms. Five of them had M16 rifles. The anodized finish of the receivers had been polished down to the aluminum by ages of diligent ignorance. The sixth man had a disposable rocket launcher, certain proof that the villagers here had at some time looted an army base — or a guard room.
"Just a boy from the Midwest," Smith continued pleasantly, pulling out the tails of his woolen shirt. "I wanted to see New York City, can you believe that? But we'll none of us live forever, will we?"
He laid the shirt, folded from habit, on his vest and began unlacing his boots of caribou leather. "There's a crater there now, and the waves still glow blue if there's even an overcast to dim the sun. Your skin prickles."
The traveller grinned. "You won't go there, and I won't go there again; but I've seen it, where the observation deck of the World Trade Towers was the closest mortal man got to heaven with his feet on man's earth. ..."
"We've heard the stories," the Chief grunted. He carried a stainless-steel revolver in a holster of more recent vintage.
"Trousers?" Smith asked, cocking an eyebrow at the women in dull-colored dresses.
The Chief nodded curtly. "When a man comes from the Hot Lands, he has no secrets from us," he said. "Any of us."
"Well, I might do the same in your case," the traveller agreed, tugging loose the laces closing the woolen trousers, "but I can tell you there's little enough truth to the rumors of what walks the wastelands." He pulled the garment down and stepped out of it.
Smith's body was wiry, the muscles tight and thickly covered by hair. If he was unusual at all, it was in that he had been circumcized, no longer a common operation in a world that had better uses for a surgeon's time. Then a woman noticed Smith's left palm, never hidden but somehow never clearly seen until that moment. She screamed and pointed. Others leveled their weapons, buzzing as a hive does when a bear nears it.
Very carefully, his face as blank as the leather of his pack, Smith held his left hand toward the crowd and spread his fingers. Ridges of gnarled flesh stood out as if they had been paraffin refrozen a moment after being liquified. "Yes, I burned it," the traveller said evenly, "getting too close to something the — something the Blast was too close to. And it'll never heal, no ... but it hasn't gotten worse, either, and that was years ago. It's not the sort of world where I could complain to have lost so little, hey?"
"Put it down," the Chief said abruptly. Then, to the guard who was searching the pack, "Weapons?"
"Only this," the guard said, holding up a sling and a dozen dense pebbles fitted to its leather pocket.
"There's a little folding knife in my pants pocket," Smith volunteered. "I use it to skin the rabbits I take."
"Then put your clothes on," the Chief ordered, and the crowd's breath eased. "You can stay at the inn, since you've truck enough to pay for it —" he nodded toward the careful pile the guard had made of Smith's trading goods — "and perhaps you can find girls on Front Street to service you as well. There's none of that east of the Assembly here, I warn you. Before you do anything else, though, you talk to me and the boys in private at the Station."
The traveller nodded and began dressing without embarrassment.
The Police and their guards escorted Smith silently, acting as if they were still uncertain of his status. Their destination was a two-story building of native stone. It had probably been the Town Hall before the Blast. It was now the Chief's residence as well as the headquarters of the government. Despite that, the building was far less comfortable than many of the newer structures which had been designed to be heated by stoves and lighted by lamps and windows. In an office whose plywood panelling had been carefully preserved — despite its shoddy gloominess — the governing oligarchs of the town questioned Smith.
They were probing and businesslike. Smith answered honestly and as fully as he could. Weapons caches? Looted by survivors or rotted in the intervening centuries. Food depots? A myth, seeded by memories of supermarkets and brought to flower in the decades of famine and cold which slew ten times as many folk as the Blast had slain directly. Scrap metal for the furnaces? By the millions of tons, but there would be no way to transport if across the mountains ... and besides, metals were often hot even at this remove from the Blast.
"All right," said the Chief at last, shutting the handbook of waxed boards on which he had been making notes. The room had become chilly about the time they had had to light the sooty naphtha lamp. "If we think of more during the night, we can ask in the morning." His eyes narrowed. "How long are you expecting to stay?"
Smith shrugged. "A few days. I just like to ... wander. I really don't have any desire to do anything else." He raised his pack by the straps and added, "Can one of you direct me to your inn?"
Carter, the youngest of the six Policemen, stood. He was a blocky man with black hair and a pepper and salt beard. He had conducted much of the questioning himself. "I'll take him," he said. Unlike his colleagues, he carried a heavy fighting knife in addition to his automatic rifle. He held the door for Smith.
The night sky was patchy. When the sliver moon was clear, there was more light outside than the bud of naphtha gave within. The pall of steam above the powerplant bulged and waned like the mantle of an octopus. Tiny azure sparks traced the power lines across the bridge and down into the smelter.
Smith thumbed at the plant. "They made light from electricity, you know? Before the Blast. You ever try that?"
His guide looked at his sharply. "Not like they did. Things glow, but they burn up when we can't keep all the air away from'em. But you'd be smarter not to ask questions, boy. And maybe you'd be smarter to leave here a little sooner than you planned. Not to be unfriendly, but if you talk to us, you'll talk to others. And we don't much care for talk about Moseby. It has a way of spreading where it shouldn't."
The Policeman turned through an open gate and up a gravelled pathway. Rosy light leaked around the shutters of a large building on the edge of the Assembly. Sound and warm air bloomed into the night when he opened the door. In the mild weather, the anteroom door was open within.
"Carter!" shouted a big man at the bar of the taproom. "Just in time to buy us a round!" Then he saw Smith and blinked, and the dozen or so men of the company grew quieter than the hiss of the fire.
"Friends, I don't bite," said Smith with a smile, "but I do drink and I will sleep. If I can come to an agreement with our host here, that is ...," he added, beaming toward the barman.
"Modell's the name," said the tall, knob-jointed local. Neither he nor the traveller offered to shake hands, but he returned the other's smile with a briefer, professional one of his own. "Let's see what you have to trade."
The men at the bar made room as Smith ranged his small stock on the mahogany. First the traveller set out an LP record, still sealed in plastic. Modell's lips moved silently as his finger hovered a millimeter above the title. "What's a 'Cher'," he finally asked.
"The lady's name," said Smith. "She pronounced it 'share'." Knowing grunts from the men around him chorused the explanation. "You've electricity here, I see. Perhaps there's a phonograph?"
"Naw, and the power's not trained enough yet anyhow," said Modell regretfully. His eyes were full of the jacket photograph. "It heats the smelters, is all, and —"
"Modell, you're supposed to be trading, not running your mouth," interrupted the Policeman. "Get on with it."
"Well, if not the record, then —" Smith said.
"I might make you an offer on the picture," one of the locals broke in.
"I won't separate them, I'm afraid," Smith rejoined, "and I won't have the record where it can't be used properly. These may be more useful, though I can't guarantee them after the time they've been sitting ...," and he laid a red and green box of .30-30 cartridges on the wood.
"The Chief keeps all the guns in Moseby besides these," spoke Carter, patting the plastic stock of his M16. "It'll stay that way. And there's a righteous plenty of ammunition for them already."
"Fine, fine," said Smith, unperturbed, reaching again into his pack. He removed a plastic box which whirred until a tiny green hand reached out of the mechanism to shut itself off. It frightened the onlookers as much as Smith's own radiation scars had. The traveller thoughtfully hid the toy again in his pack before taking out his final item, a GI compass.
"It always shows North, unless you're too close to iron," Smith said as he demonstrated. "You can turn the base to any number of degrees and take a sighting through the slot there ... but I'll want more than a night's lodging for it."
"Our tokens're good up and down the river," one of the locals suggested, ringing a small brass disk on the bar. It had been struck with a complex pattern of lightning bolts on one side and the number '50' on the other. "You can redeem'em for iron ingots at dockside," he explained, thumbing toward the river. "'Course, they discount'em the farther away you get."
"I don't follow rivers a great deal," the traveller lied with a smile. "Let's say that I get room and board — and all I care to drink — for a week ..."
The chaffering was good-natured and brief, concluding with three days' room and board, or — and here Smith nodded toward the stern-faced Carter — so much shorter a time as he actually stayed in the village. In addition, Smith would have all the provisions he requested for his journey and a round for the house now. When Modell took the traveller's hand, extended to seal the bargain, the whole room cheered. The demands for mugs of the sharp, potent beer drew the innkeeper when he would far rather have pored over his pre-Blast acquisition — marvelous, though of little enough use to him.
Dealing over, Smith carried his mug to one of the stools before the fire. Sausages, dried vegetables, and a pair of lanterns hung from the roof joists. Deer and elk antlers were pegged to the pine panelling all around the room, and above the mantle-piece glowered the skull of a rat larger than a German Shepherd.
"I wonder that a man has the courage to walk alone out there," suggested a heavy-set local who tamped his pipe with the ball of his thumb, "what with the muties and all."
Smith chuckled, swigged his beer, and gestured with the mug at the rat skull. "Like that, you mean? But that's old. The giant rats were nasty enough, I have no doubt; but they weren't any stronger than the wolves, and they were a good deal stupider. Maybe you'd find a colony now and again in ruins downwind of a Strike ... but they'll not venture far into the light, and the ones that're left — not many — are nothing that a slingstone or arrow can't cure if needs be." He paused and smiled. "Besides, their meat's sweet enough. I'm told."
Despite the ruddy fire, the other faces in the circle went pale. Smith's eyes registered the reaction while his mouth continued to smile. "Now, travellers tell stories, you know," he said, "and there's an art to listening to them. There's little enough to joke about on the trail, so I have to do it here."
His face went serious for a moment and he added, "But I'll tell you this and swear to the truth of it: when I was near what may have been Cleveland, I thought I'd caught a mouse rummaging in my pack. And when I fetched it out, it was no bigger than a mouse, and its legs were folded under it so it could hop and scurry the way a mouse can. But its head ... there was a horn just there —" the traveller touched the tip of his nose — "and another littler one just behind it. I figure some zoo keeper before the Blast would have called me a liar if I'd told him what his rhinos would breed to, don't you think?"
He drank deep. The company buzzed at the wonder and the easy fellowship of the man who had seen it.
Excerpted from From the Heart of Darkness by David Drake. Copyright © 1983 David Drake. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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