Read an Excerpt
By Keith Laumer
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-3606-7
Chapter OneI held the turbo-car at a steady hundred and forty, watching the strip of cracked pavement that had been Interstate 10 unreel behind me, keeping a sharp eye ahead through the dust and volcanic smog for any breaks in the pavement too wide for the big car to jump. A brand-new six-megahorse job, it rode high and smooth on a two-foot air cushion. It was too bad about the broken hatch lock, but back in Dallas I hadn't had time to look around for the owner. The self-appointed vigilantes who called themselves the National Guard had developed a bad habit of shooting first and checking for explanations later. True, I had been doing a little informal shopping in a sporting goods store-but the owner would not have cared. He and most of the rest of the city had left for points north quite a few hours before I arrived-and I needed a gun and ammunition. A rifle would probably have been the best choice, but I had put in a lot of sociable hours on the Rod and Gun Club thousand-inch range back at San Luis, and the weight of the old-style .38 Smith and Wesson felt good at my hip.
There were low volcanic cones off to my right, trickling black smoke and getting ready for the next round. It was to be expected; I was keeping as close as the roads allowed to the line of tectonic activity running along the Gulf Coast from the former site of New Orleans to the shallow sea that had been northern Florida. Before I reached Atlanta, sixty miles ahead, I would have to make a decision; either north, into the relative geologic stability of the Appalachians, already mobbed with refugees and consequently drastically short on food and water, to say nothing of amusement-or south, across the Florida Sea to the big island they called South Florida, that took in Tampa, Miami, Key West, and a lot of malodorous sand that had been sea bottom until a few months before.
I had a hunch which way I would go. I have always had a fondness for old Scotch, sunshine, white beaches, and the company of sportsmen who did not mind risking a flutter at cards. I would be more likely to find them south than north. The only station still broadcasting dance music was KSEA at Palm Beach. That was the spirit for me. If the planet was going to break up-all right. But while I was alive I would go on living at the best speed I could manage.
The map screen had warned me there was a town ahead. Just a hamlet which had once had ten thousand or so inhabitants, it would be a better bet for my purposes than a big city. Most of the cities had been stripped pretty clean by now, in this part of the country.
The town came into view spread out over low hills under a pall of smoke. I slowed, picked my way around what was left of a farmhouse that had been dropped on the road by one of the freak winds that had become as common as summer squalls. A trickle of glowing lava was running down across a field from a new cone of ash a quarter of a mile off to the right. I skirted it, gunned the turbos to hop a three-foot fissure that meandered off in a wide curve into the town itself.
It was late afternoon. The sun was a bilious puffball that shed a melancholy light on cracked and tilted slabs of broken pavement. In places, the street was nearly blocked by heaps of rubble from fallen buildings; hoods and flanks of half-buried vehicles, mud-colored from a coating of dust, projected from the detritus. The downtown portion was bad. Not a building over two stories was left standing, and the streets were strewn with everything from bedsteads to bags of rotted potatoes. It looked as though the backlash from one of the tidal waves from the coast had reached this far, spent its last energy finishing up what the quakes and fires had started.
Clotted drifts of flotsam were caught in alley mouths and doorways, and along the still-standing storefronts a dark line three feet from the ground indicated the highest reach of the flood waters. A deposit of red silt had dried to an almost impalpable dust that the ragged wind whirled up into streamers to join the big clouds that rolled in endlessly from the west.
Three blocks east of the main drag I found what I was looking for. The small street had failed even before the disaster. It was lined with cheap bars, last-resort pawnshops, secondhand stores with windows full of rusted revolvers, broken furniture and stacks of dog-eared pornography, sinister entrances under age-blackened signs offering clean beds one flight up. I slowed, looked over what was left of a coffee and 'burger joint that had never made any pretense of sanitation, spotted a two-customer-wide grocery store of the kind that specialized in canned beans and cheap wine.
I eased off power, settled to the ground, gave a blast from the cleaner-orifices to clear the dust from the canopy and waited for the dust to settle. The canopy made crunching noises as I cycled it open. I settled my breathing mask over my face and climbed out, stretching stiff legs. A neon sign reading Smoky's Kwik-Pick was hanging from one support and creak, creaking as the wind moaned around it. I heard the distant soft buroom of masonry falling into the dust blanket.
As I reached the curb, the dust lifted, danced like water, settled back in a pattern of ridges and ripples. I spun, took two jumps and the street came up and hit me like a missed step in the dark. I went down. Through a rising boil of dust, a clean-cut edge of concrete thrust up a yard from my nose with a shriek like Satan falling into Hell. Loose gravel fill cascaded; then raw, red clay was pushing up, a foot, two feet. There was a roaring like an artillery bombardment; the pavement hammered and thrust like a wild bronco on a rope. The uplifted section of street jittered and danced, then slid smoothly away, squealing like chalk on a giant blackboard. I got to hands and knees, braced myself to jump. Then another shock wave hit, and I was down again, bouncing against pavement that rippled like a fat girl's thigh.
The rumble died slowly. The tremble of the ground under me faded and merged with a jump of my muscles. There was not much I could see through the dust. A little smoke was curling up from the new chasm that had opened across the street; through the mask I caught a whiff of sulphur. Behind me, things were still falling, in a leisurely, ponderous way, as though there were no hurry about returning what had once been the small city of Greenleaf, Georgia, to the soil it had sprung from.
* * *
The car was my first worry; it was on the far side of the fissure, a ragged two-yard-wide cut slicing down into the glisten of wet clay far below. I might have been able to jump it if my knees had not been twitching like a sleeping hound's elbow. I needed a plank to bridge it; from the sounds of falling objects, there should be plenty of loose ones lying around nearby.
Through the smashed front of a used-clothing emporium two doors down, I could see racks of worn suits of indeterminate color, powdered with fallen plaster. Behind them, collapsed wall shelves had spilled patched shirts, cracked shoes, and out-of-style hats across a litter of tables heaped with ties and socks among which tones of mustard and faded mauve seemed to predominate. A long timber that had supported the ends of a row of now-exposed rafters had come adrift, was slanted down across the debris. I picked my way through the wreckage, got a grip on the plank, twisted it free to the accompaniment of a new fall of brick chips.
Back outside, the dust was settling. The wind had died. There was a dead, muffled silence. My plank made an eerie grumbling sound as the end scored a path through the silt. I found myself almost tiptoeing, as though the noise of my passing might reawaken the slumbering earth giants. I passed the glassless door of Smoky's Kwik-Pick, and stopped dead, not even breathing. Ten seconds crept by like a parade of cripples dragging themselves to a miraculous shrine. Then I heard it again: a gasping moan from inside the ruined store.
I stood frozen, listening to silence, the board still in my hands, my teeth bared, not sure whether I had really heard a noise or just the creak of my own nerves. In this dead place, the suggestion of life had a shocking quality, like merriment in a graveyard.
Then, unmistakably, the sound came again. I dropped the plank, got the pistol clear of its holster. Beyond the broken door I could make out crooked ranks of home-made shelves, a drift of cans and broken bottles across the narrow floor.
"Who's there?" I called inanely. Something moved in the darkness at the back of the room. Cans clattered as I kicked them aside. A thick sour stink of rotted food penetrated my respirator mask. I stepped on broken ketchup bottles and smashed cans, went past a festering display of lunch meat, a freezer with raised lid, jumped and almost fired when a foot-long rat darted out.
"Come on out," I called. My voice sounded as confident as a rookie cop bracing Public Enemy Number One. There was the sound of a shuddering breath.
I went toward it, saw the dim rectangle of a dust-coated window set in a rear door. The door was locked, but a kick slammed it open, let in a roil of sun-bright haze. A man was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his lap full of plaster fragments and broken glass. A massive double laundry sink rested across his legs below the knees, trailing a festoon of twisted pipes. His face was oily-pale, with eyes as round as half-dollars, and there was a quarter-inch stubble across hollow cheeks. Mud was caked in a ring around each nostril, his eyes, his mouth. Something was wrong with his nose and ears-they were lumped with thick, whitish scar tissue-and there were patches of keloid on his cheekbones. Joints were missing from several of the fingers of his clawlike left hand, which was holding a .45 automatic, propped up, aimed approximately at my left knee. I swung a foot and kicked the gun off into the shadows.
"Didn't need.... do that," he mumbled. His voice was as thin as lost hope.
I got a grip on the weight across his legs, heaved at it. Water sloshed, and he gave a wail as his head fell sideways.
It took five minutes to get him free, drag him up front where the light was better, settle him in comparative comfort on the floor with his head propped up on broken flour sacks covered with newspaper. He snored with his mouth slackly open. He smelled as though he had been dead for a week. Outside, the sun was glaring low through drifting smoke and dust layers, shaping up for another spectacular sunset.
I used my Boy Scout knife to cut away stiff cloth, examined his legs. They were both badly broken, but the bruises were several days old, at least. The last tremor had not been the one that caught him.
He opened his eyes. "You're not one of them," he said, faintly but clearly.
"How long have you been here?"
He shook his head, a barely perceptible movement. "Don't know. Maybe a week."
"I'll get you some water."
"Had plenty.... water," he said. "Cans, too.... but no opener. Rats were the worst."
"Take it easy. How about some food?"
"Never mind that. Better get moving. Bad here. Tremors every few hours. Last one was bad. Woke me up...."
"You need food. Then I'll get you to my car."
"No use, mister, I've got.... internal injuries. Hurts too much to move. You cut out now.... while you can."
I sorted through the strewn cans, found a couple that seemed sound, cut the tops off. The odor of kidney beans and applesauce made my jaws ache. He shook his head. "You've got.... get clear. Leave me my gun."
"You won't need a gun-"
"I need it, mister." His whispering voice had taken on a harsh note. "I'd have used it on myself-but I was hoping they'd find me. I could take a couple of them along."
"Forget it, old-timer. You're-"
"No time for talk. They're here-in the town. I saw them, before. They won't give up." His eyes got worried. "You've got a car?"
"They'll spot it. Maybe already have. Get.... going...."
I used the knife blade to spoon beans into his mouth. He turned his face away.
"Eat it, sailor-it's good for you."
His eyes were on my face. "How'd you know I was Navy?"
I nodded toward his hand. He lifted it half an inch, let it fall back.
"The ring. I should have gotten rid of it, but...."
"Now take your beans like an old campaigner."
He gritted his teeth, twisted his face. "Can't eat," he protested. "God, the pain...."
I tossed the can aside. "I'm going out and check the car," I said. "Then I'll be back for you."
"Listen," he croaked. "You think I'm raving, but I know what I'm saying. Get clear of this town-now. Got no time to explain. Just move out."
I grunted at him, went out into the street, recovered my plank, propped it with its end resting on the upper edge of the ravine that split the pavement. It was a shaky bridge; I went up it on all fours. As I was about to rise and step clear, I saw a movement ahead. My car sat ten yards away where I had left it, thickly coated now with new-fallen pumice. A man was circling it warily. He stepped in close, wiped a hand across the canopy, peered into the interior. I stayed where I was, kneeling on the plank over the dark fissure, just the top of my head above ground level.
The man went around to the driver's side, flipped the lever that opened the hatch, thrust his head inside. I shifted position, eased my gun out. I could not afford to be robbed of the car-not here, not now.
Instead of climbing in, he stepped away from the car, stood looking intently around at the ruined storefronts. He took a step my way, abruptly stopped dead, reached inside his coat, snatched out a small revolver, brought it up and in the same movement fired. The bullet threw dust in my face, sang off across the street and struck wood with a dull smack. Two more shots cracked before the first had stopped echoing-all this in perhaps three-quarters of a second. I hugged the board under me, dragged my gun clear as another shot scored concrete inches from my face. I squinted through haze, centered my sights on the black necktie of the man as he stood with his feet planted wide apart, frowning down the length of his outstretched arm. His small automatic flashed bright in the same instant that my shot boomed. He leaped back, bounced against the side of the car, went down on his back in the dust.
My breath went out in a long sigh, I holstered the .38, scrambled up to stand on the side of the riven street. He was lying on his side like a tired bum curled up for a nap, his face resting in a black paste of bloodied dust, lots of dustcaked blood on his shirt front. He was wearing a neat, dark suit, now dusty, new-looking shoes with almost unscratched soles.
Excerpted from Future Imperfect by Keith Laumer Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.