Free Mil SF Fiction: Zombie 6

z6team

For those of you that aren’t aware, I write spec fiction. I’ve been serializing a Mil-SF piece over at my writing blog. Sort of a mistress project while I finish up my next novel.

Titled ZOMBIE 6, it follows a small Spec Ops team tasked with eliminating insurgent leadership on a war-torn colony planet. It’s up to Chapter 8 now, some 13K words, and hitting its stride. If you’re interested, the link will start you at the beginning.

I should have it finished Q3 this year, then I’ll commission a cover, hire a copy editor, and kick it out the door where it’ll join my other titles at Amazon.  Until then though, it’ll be free.

Enjoy.

P.S. Rogue Stars game slated for this Tuesday night. Three crews scour a deserted military outpost in search of the last of the deadly, autonomous war machines.

Zombie 6: a new mil-sf serial.

z6team

Some of you know I write spec-fiction as a sideline. Here’s some info on a mistress project I’m working on while I hammer through my next full-length novel. First three chapters up now. I’ll update it bi-weekly. Thanks and enjoy.

https://pattodoroff.com/eshu-international-illustrated-excerpts/zombie-six/

Storytime once again

No pictures this time –  Sorry. Here’s the title piece from the second installment of “The Clar1ty Wars – Under Strange Stars”

UNDER_STRANGE_STARS_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inches

 

***

 

UNDER STRANGE STARS
“Versace,” the suave man nodded. A pair of impossibly beautiful women writhed on either side.
He could see pores on their tanned skin, artful stubble, rippling silk, the swell of breasts… The entire side of the building was a hi-def screen.
He tore his gaze away.
Cross the plaza, then up the stairs…
The man in the ad leaned forward. Winked. “There’s no pleasure quite like being envied.”
***
“I envy you, brother.” The young man embraced him, kissed both cheeks.
“Call me ‘Tenuk’.”
The young man bowed his head in apology. “Please stand still then, Tenuk.” He undid the top button so the jacket hung open casually. Patterned wool, the colors of slate and mint, showed through. The vest was tight. Smooth.
The young man frowned then looked back at the elderly man perched on the edge of the couch. “Relaxed is better, don’t you think?” he offered.
The older man had arrived by car after breakfast. Brown and gnarled, faded kufi on his grizzled hair, he was mukhtar – one of the chosen who had stood beside the Prophet during his years in exile. Such was the honor, the gravity of the occasion.
The elder scrutinized Tenuk’s suit with his good eye. After a minute, he grunted. Satisfied.
“You must not hurry,” he rasped. “Their machines look for faces, yes. But behavior too. Anything suspicious.”
He lifted his clawed hand with its three fingers. “A man in your position does not run.”
“Right. There’s no rush,” the younger one chimed in. “Just get inside. Through the first set of doors into the building. Once you’re past the outer perimeter, it will be easy.”
“God willing,” Tenuk had breathed automatically.
“He is,” the mukhtar declared.
Tenuk wished he had a reply, something inspired – devout. But no.
The Prophet taught there were times faith had no words. It must be so now; his mind was empty as the space between stars.
Arriving at the safe house the previous evening, he’d been shocked at its size, the art, furniture, the technology in every room. In a gated neighborhood with perfect lawns and private security, it was —
The younger man had met him at the door, read his face. “It is necessary,” he explained. “Our struggle takes many forms, wears many masks. We must blend in.”
He merely nodded. It was late and he felt submerged. Carried along.
The younger man seemed to understand, had picked up his suitcase and showed him to his room in silence. They padded down long halls with deep carpet and moonlight silvering framed art. At the end of one wing, a door opened on a huge chamber. Empty, save a bed in the center and a small dresser. A wall of glass overlooked the ocean.
He stepped in, heard the door click shut behind him. The proportions made him abruptly small. Off-balance. It was as large as the Executive Lounge.
He’d gone to the glass wall and stared for a long time – an hour, maybe more – watching the ocean shimmer and breathe. At some point, he fell into the bed, deep and dreamless, until they woke him that morning.
In the living room, the younger man handed him the briefcase. “Walk around. Get used to the weight.”
He had hefted the case, felt the strain in his shoulder. He paced back and forth.
“Straighten your back,” the older one coached.”Swing your arms slightly, as if it were full of papers. Good.”
After several circuits, both had made approving noises. He stopped in front of them. The younger one handed him his Movado Charm, then pinned a laminated ID on his lapel. A veri-chip waf0er winked beside the photo; his serious face. A tiny corporate holo-logo with the name in black print along the bottom. Tenuk Jumaat. E-con Biosystems.
“The car will drop you off inside the downtown cordon.” The young brother patted the ID. “This is authentic, registered in the company database. It’ll get you past any security you meet on the street.”
“But you must act the part,” the old man urged him. The puckered scar around his missing eye tightened as he frowned. “There must be no doubt you belong there. Can you do that?”
He had nodded, sucked in his stomach. Turning to the younger man, “What about detectors? With the threat level up, surely the added security will–”
He had cut him off, boasting like a child about a new toy. “CL20 is very stable. Super low emissions. Plus, I sprayed them with a poly-vinyl membrane. It forms an air-tight seal, even on fabric. I tested it myself,” he added proudly.
The young man stopped, suddenly embarrassed. There was an awkward pause, then he brushed the front of Tenuk’s jacket, straightened the lapels with a weak smile. “Make it past the first ring and no one will even notice you.”
“Of course he will make it,” the older man admonished.”God protects the faithful.” He squinted. “You are steadfast, aren’t you brother?”
Tenuk bowed his head. “Of course.”
“Then God will smile on your efforts.”
Last of all, the young man handed him the pen. Heavy, shiny gold with an infinity symbol etched near the top. “Two clicks.”
“Two clicks,” he echoed, then slid it gently inside his jacket pocket.
When it was time to leave, the three of them stood in the hall, him at the open door, the two of them a pace back. A long pearl-white car gleamed in the driveway.
He had turned to them. “Everything you’ve done—”
“Is nothing compared to you, brother,” the younger one smiled.
“All in the Prophet’s service,” the mukhtar intoned.
“How can I thank you? I don’t even know your names.”
The older one had taken him by the elbow, turned him toward the purring limousine. “We will recognize each other in Paradise.”
***
“Sail paradise!”
The image on the building shifted: a white catamaran skipped across crystal-cut azure waves. Palms swayed in a luminous sky. He caught his breath. He swore he could step onto the beach. “Book your reservations now.”
He glanced around to see if anyone noticed his hesitation, but the younger brother was right; no one gave him a second look.
Back at the curb, his skin had itched. The limo’s rear door had popped open to reveal a huge blue and gray armored vehicle crouched on the sidewalk beside the concrete barricades. The gold Central Enforcement shield flashed in its flank, a fat-muzzle gun in its top turret. The limousine lingered as he queued up at the barriers, then, once he was deep in line, slipped into traffic and disappeared.
There were soldiers everywhere, bulked out in body armor, muttering into throat mikes, cradling stubby, complicated rifles that looked like monstrous folded insects. The aluminum tree of a surveillance mast sprouted over the checkpoint, limbs heavy with black-bulb cameras, antennae and tiny radar dishes. The line was moving fast, people filing through. His mind boiled. To step out now, push, run, would ruin everything.
Three people, then two, then one. A soldier waved him forward. He was at the turnstile.
He wondered how quickly he could reach into his jacket, if he would have a split-second warning before they grabbed him… A gloved hand came up with a scanner, blinked his ID. The hulking trooper waited for confirmation, perfectly still.
He could see himself, distorted in the mirror-shade visor: new suit, thin face, eyebrows raised impatiently.
A green light lit overhead, then the soldier and the cameras swiveled to the woman behind him. No one even glanced at his briefcase.
The turnstile click-clacked and Tenuk Jumaat strode into the heart of the Profligate.
He’d been warned Government Plaza was hectic mid-morning. His arrival was timed precisely for that reason. He simply wasn’t prepared for what that meant.
The square actually seethed with humanity. Officials and functionaries swarmed in the open space like feverish, well-dressed ants, funneling in and out of government offices. Tiny scrolling holo-spheres bobbed in the crowd – hundreds of personal Charm-displays – glowing, moving like mythical will-o’-wisps among the clamor of thousand disconnected voices.
The buildings surrounding the plaza flashed more of the massive video ads; a skyline montage of designer gene-tech, exotic cybernetics, specialized bio-software for any and every whim. Clothes, luxury cruises, yachts, implant jewelry… all hawked by a parade of the sleek and beautiful: icons of opulence presiding over the bedlam of avarice.
He surveyed the crowd. The people here even dressed like the models. In the image of their gods, he thought. Thronging at their feet.
On the far side of the plaza, the black glass spire of the Trade and Transit Authority pierced the rinsed blue sky. His goal.
He stepped into a flow of foot traffic, pacing himself, intent but unhurried. The Parliament Dome gleamed on his right, white and jewel-like in the pale sun. He spied the jade tower of Central Enforcement Headquarters ten blocks away, dogs never far from their masters. Dozens of black-clad soldiers clustered at the square’s six access points. Spindly pacification drones stalked the perimeter like steel spiders.
Before he left, he wouldn’t have been allowed within five blocks of this place. His family had been Fugees, Earth’s scraps risking the long sleep across the void hoping for a better life only to find they had dropped even lower than second-class citizens.
Yet drape tailored cloth over his dark skin, code in a different name and number, and suddenly he was acceptable. Those things weren’t him, didn’t make him any more or less a human being, but here he was.
It was a travesty. Blasphemy.
He walked on, head down, feeling the weight of that thought, of the briefcase, the tightness of the vest with each breath. Hundreds jostled him, flowed past without meeting his eyes, without a murmur of apology. Holo-spheres shattered and reassembled as he passed through, barely a flicker of annoyance registering on the user’s face.
All these people, yet each was utterly alone. The crowd wasn’t a mosaic, but a mass of oblivious fragments.
Oblivious not just to the person beside them he realized, but to primal things. These aristos had exploited, squandered so much for so long, they took the sun’s warmth on their skin for granted, the fresh, un-recycled air, the bright space over their heads. All the things they denied the thousands consigned to off-world mines, to low-g factories and cramped Belt habs, huddled in the fragile colonies that worked the craters and asteroids, straining to meet their quotas in rusty ships held together with wire, bootleg software, aluminum tape and prayer. All those who made their indolence possible.
Half way across the plaza now.
Twelve stories up, the latest Ero-Tech doll sprawled across the face of an office tower. “Svetlana Series Nine. Upgrade your sex drive, comrade.”
He couldn’t help but stare. The cyborg’s sensuality was so brazen, so perfect. So unreal.
How can they make such things?
The answer struck him like a blow: they have even lost the capacity for intimacy. With themselves, with each other, with God. Gorged on resources, they have to twist technology to sate their appetites.
It was beyond cruelty or callousness, as if they had traded their humanity away. Sold it for a bump in their next quarterly report.
After all, what good is a soul if you’re not using it?
He suddenly felt like the only true person in the city, a man surrounded by a legion of doppelgangers. Shades from some mirror dimension.
The Prophet was right: they were beyond wicked. Beyond redemption.
The cabbie yesterday spoke of Abraham, the old man begging for the city of Sodom. Would the Almighty spare it if there were found fifty righteous residing within? Naive, Abraham pleaded his way to forty, thirty, twenty, down to ten.
The city burned.
He looked around. Here in a crowd this size, were there not even nine others?
He moved through the press, listening. No alarms whopped, no soldiers ran toward him waving rifles or shock sticks. The skies remained silent.
The TTA building loomed ahead. He could see the stairs up to the entrance.
Scanning the sea of faces, he bit back his scorn. Humanity can harness the power of the sun to power space ships, send crew and cargo sleeping through the silent depths between stars – a seed in the vast night. We span the gulf of centuries and light years only to see the same old hatreds, fears, and squalor take root under strange stars.
We bring ourselves with us.
Sin is in our bones and only the fire of God can burn it out.
Nearly there now.
He understood he had died all those years ago when people like these had subtracted him and his parents like numbers on their efficiency reports. Downsizing. Restructuring. Positions surplus to requirements. He had survived the voyage out to the Belt, but the severance notice might as well have been a death warrant. They had taken everything.
A bench sat to one side of the central staircase, empty, brown and smooth. Three birds pecked at crumbs in a foil wrapper near one of its curled feet. With a logic more urge than articulate, he veered toward them, drew close in quick steps.
At the bench, he stamped his foot and stood to watch the birds flutter into the sky. They winged over the rooftops and vanished.
He realized a man in a black suit was staring at him. He smiled and mounted the steps to the TTA Administration.
The wall of black glass windows rose before him, reflections moving across the framed expanse like slabs of deep ocean. He took a breath and plunged through the door.
Air-conditioning chilled the perspiration on his face. He was inside, in a tiled foyer: desks, flatscreen directories, a row of full-spectrum scanners.
A large, polite man in a blue uniform stepped forward. “Good morning, sir. Do you have an appointment?”
“I do.”
“Fine, sir. Step this way and I’ll log you in. I just need to scan your ID, get your thumbprint and signature. Then we’ll get you on your way.”
He reached inside his jacket. “Of course.”
***
A flash of light and heat like a sliver of sun. Then a rumble of thunder – approaching hoof beats – echoing down the canyons of concrete and steel. Those not vaporized drown in a deluge of glass. Tongues of fire begin to lick twisted beams, claw through the rubble. Ashes and choking dust swirl on a hot wind as sirens begin to sound across the city, their chorus rising with the vast shroud of smoke, wailing like the ghosts of the newly dead.

Story Time. With Pictures

An original short story, ‘Sozo’. Illustrations by Tim Teague.

Enjoy.

***

Sozo panel 1
Taking a piss and there was a pistol in the sink. A wedge of dull slate black on shiny white porcelain. It was big – sexy in an ugly way, like a Tijuana hooker. Curves that snuggle in your palm and jack you all up. A quick bang now for a metric shitload of misery later. Guaranteed.
“Mostly metal,” Rask called through the door. “The new polymer junk feels like a toy.”
Booker hefted it. Walther clone. Heavy. Pebbled grips like a cat’s tongue. Big ‘blow-a-hole-through-a-wall’ caliber, with a laser under the barrel and an extended magazine. He spied a tiny bright rectangle on the slide where the serial numbers used to be.
Rask again. “How can you trust a gun that’s got no metal? Fucking things don’t work.”
Booker didn’t reply. He’d seen the end result of the ‘new polymer junk’ during the Detroit Pacification. Didn’t hear any Peacekeepers whining over reliability that day at Martius Park. Too busy mowing down protestors.
Rask took his silence for agreement. “There’s three more clips in the drawer,” he said. “It’s business but you can’t trust Chinks, right? Which is why we’re setting up early.”
Booker flushed the head, fished out the extra mags, then went into the living room gun in hand. Its weight pulled toward the floor. He flicked on the laser, watched the red dot tremble on the carpet.
Rask loped in from the back bedroom pulling a black turtleneck over a chest that was all muscle and Volksfront ink. Black fatigues, a shoulder holster, and Bates duty boots completed the faux tactical look. He saw Booker studying the gun, sensed hesitation.
“You’re not punking out, right?” He stepped up to Booker’s shoulder, breathing on his neck. “You said you could do this.”
Booker turned. Rask’s breath was fast, vaguely mint and metallic. Rinsed blue eyes glittered in his shaven head like diamond chips in the sockets of a jungle skull idol. Images of Indiana Jones running from a giant bowling ball boulder flashed in Booker’s head.
“Yeah,” Booker nodded. “I’m in.”
He nudged the laser off and slipped the pistol into his right jacket pocket. The clips went in his left. “Let’s go.”
***
They were in an old van like a cop-show stake out: grimy windows, one door primered gray, dented hood, rust gnawing at every edge. The back was all computers and cables and screens with a pudge named Melchet in orange camo-print Goretex hunched over a spread of I-Pads, uttering alphabet talk into a microphone. Rask called him ‘tech support’. Apparently, Melchet had rigged a couple of Radio Shack quad-copters with Sony cams and cut-down Ruger .22s to provide air cover for the upcoming meet. Booker hadn’t seen them, which Rask said proved how stealthy Melchet’s redneck drones were.
“Hell,” he snickered.”You can’t spot ’em, the slant eyes sure as shit won’t.”
Rask was intentionally sketchy on what exactly they were picking up and who else would be there. Said as a former jarhead, Booker should know he couldn’t compromise ‘operational security’. Rask liked tossing off Call of Duty speak. Thought, like the outfit, it made him hard. Soldier-iffic. Every couple hours, when Melchet stepped outside to drain his bladder, Rask even had Booker stand guard.
Booker would slide out the passenger door, stretch his legs, and keep his hand in his right pocket, wondering if he was supposed to watch for attackers or keep Melchet from running away. Maybe the Provigil had him wired too tight, but after twelve hours, Booker was ready to slash his wrists just for something different. But Melchet always climbed back in, poured another cup of coffee from a green thermos the size of a howitzer shell, and got back to his techno-nerd muttering.
Half a day in the same spot outside a crumbling warehouse, how the hell they weren’t obvious wasn’t obvious to Booker. The van was the only vehicle in sight. If Rask’s ‘Chinks’ had the common criminal sense of gravel, they’d spot them in a heartbeat.
Operational Security, my ass.
Booker dropped that thought with a sigh and did a sweep of the weeds and graffiti and the gaping eyes of blown-out windows, looking for someone looking at him, and tried to remember how he wound up outside a decrepit factory in the Rustbelt with Neo-Nazi, meth-head militia.

Sozo panel 2
In SERE training, the instructors said when people stay up too long, their brains start sneaking ten-second naps to maintain alertness. He said they weren’t even aware of them, that chronic insomniacs lost hours. Booker tried to imagine slices of life riddled with amnesia wormholes. Something like netting came to mind – catching big things but letting all the small shit through – and Booker decided, given the last year of his life, it might not be such a bad thing.
Then again, the big things were probably what brought him here.
After Afghanistan and Pakistan, Booker de-mobbed back to a nation coming apart at the seams, much like the ones he’d just bled in, only with better fast food, mega-malls, and coast to coast 5G coverage.
The United States wasn’t in the middle of another Civil War so much as a Really Ugly Divorce. Lots of people screaming about money and neglect and rights, refusing to speak to each other except through lawyers. Whole swathes of the country had seceded, gave themselves names like Christian Republic of American Southern States and Mid-Western Regional Alliance. New governments and tollbooths sprouted overnight like mushrooms in a field of bullshit.
A couple of his Marine buddies had made the jump to the private sector, pulling triggers for Warden Global, the latest iteration of corporate American mercenary power. They dropped his name to HR, and despite a Severe PTSD eval, his service record and battlefield commendations snagged Booker a signing bonus that was more than his four years in the Corps. He could care less that he dropped a rank; an extra zero on the end of each paycheck was a net gain as far as he was concerned. More money, less responsibility.
At the time, Washington was playing nice with the ex-states, trying to woo them back with big, expensive gestures. The Detroit Renewal was the latest, fresh out of the box. There were big plans, big talk about new airports, highways, industry, cleaning up Lake Michigan, low-income housing… Important people’s faces smiled down from huge ads, rappers did benefit concerts, models went topless, music videos and blogs and talk shows and newsstand glossies told everyone how bright and bling the new Detroit would be.
Thanks to government outsourcing, Booker found himself in the summer of ’22 deputized to enforce the law, protect private property and limit civil disorder during what the press was calling Detroit’s ‘Pre-Reno Spring Cleaning’. Combat vet to metro cop, skip the Academy.
The first six months were easy: the same up-armored ‘hearts and minds’ routine he and Joker company had run for Uncle Sam in the ‘Stans. Every day, blue and white Warden Global MRAPs patrolled the Motor Town ‘hoods, did meet-and-greets with local headmen, and doled out government care packages and shiny promises to the natives. Aside from the occasional gangsta who mistook Booker and the other vets for rent-a-cops, everything went down smooth.
Then Senator Watermeyer happened.
One routine audit turned all the sugar to shit. What began as an ‘unspecified number of discrepancies’ morphed into a five-month investigation. In the end, the Oversight Committee found the Detroit Revitalization Commission hadn’t just skimmed the cream, they had butchered the cow. Three-hundred and seven counts of fraud, conspiracy, misuse, and misappropriation. Two point three billion dollars, evaporated. The DRC’s perp walk was live-streamed; a match for a house of cards over a puddle of gas.
Detroit didn’t riot, it hemorrhaged insanity.

Sozo panel 3
Mobs raged through the streets, looting, screaming, breaking, burning anything and anyone. By night, the fires made the skyline the suburbs of hell. By day, it was a city smashed by giants. At first, Police, Fire, and EMT’s tried to staunch the wounds, but after four days they gave up and barricaded themselves in.
Fearing contagion, Canada’s Parliament sealed the Windsor-side bridges and tunnels with tanks. Next, they called the U.N.
Washington was damned if they did – damned if they didn’t. Another steaming pile of domestic scandal, the Chief Executive pulled a Pilate. Belgian Peacekeepers rolled down Woodward Avenue forty-eight hours later.
The rest of it, the internment camp at Ford Field, the bombing of the Penobscot Building, the Martius Park Massacre, is, as they say, history.
Day Seventeen of the Pacification, Booker climbed out a second-story window at the precinct. With his sidearm, a Remington 870 12 gauge, and a sack full of protein bars and bottled water, he made his way out of the city. Four days and nights on foot, the things he saw made Islamabad look like Disney World.

Sozo panel 4
He met Rask three months later in a bar outside Steubenville. After lots of talk and more than a few beers, Rask floated this temporary ‘security gig’ past him. Offered half the cash up front, no questions asked. Even hungry, drunk, and aimless, Booker smelled trouble. Some still-thinking, feeling part of his brain flashed a dashboard full of warning lights.
But the rest of Booker, the numb part, stuffed the wad of hundreds in his pocket and jumped into Rask’s F-250.
Numb. That was the operative word.
Occasionally when he sobered up, Booker inventoried like the docs had told him to when he got out. Ten fingers? Check. Ten toes? Check. Another day above ground? Check. It was supposed to put things in proportion. But seeing himself from even that short distance, he could tell some part of him was gone. Missing – as in ‘traumatically amputated’.
Near the end of his last tour in Pakistan, one of his squad mates, Sal Denucci, lost both legs to an IED in a market in Daman-e-Koth. He and Booker emailed back and forth while Sal was recuperating.
“It’s the strangest shit, bro,” Sal told him.”I still feel my toes sometimes. Doctors call it Phantom Limb Syndrome. Believe that? They say my mind remembers what used to be there.”
Booker admitted the brain could pull deep weirdness sometimes.
Sal went on. “They tell me the twinges’ll stop.” There was a pause. “Don’t know if I want them to, though. Like if they did, that part of my soul would be gone and I’d be half a man. And fuck that.”
Fuck that, Booker agreed.
After he got out, Booker spent some of his WG bonus on a visit to Walter Reed Rehab. He found Sal in the Romper Room struggling in the Monkey Bars, a pair of smoking hot aides on either side.
“Check me out, dude.” Sal had grinned, then lumbered toward him like a toddler. “Pistorius got nothing on me. These are Terminator shit. They’re even injecting me with frog DNA. I’ll be hopping like a mo-fo soon.”
“Frog DNA?”
The brunette tapped Sal’s plastic thigh, explained for Booker’s benefit. “It’s his own stem cells mixed with amphibian-based fibroblasts. It helps the nerve endings bond with the micro-fibers on the internal processors.” She flashed Sal a huge smile. “He keeps at it, he’ll be able to run marathons.”
Sal winked. “Salamander magic, bro. Do enough hundred-proof shots, my legs will grow back.”

Sozo panel 6
***
“Yo!” Rask’s twang jarred Booker. “Get in. The Chinks are coming. We gotta roll.”
Booker climbed in the van, wrenched the door shut as Rask floored it. Tires squealed, gravel sprayed. Oldies Beat Billy thumped through the blown speakers, something about Daisy Dukes and white Chevrolets.
They bounced over the ruined asphalt toward the long husk of a building with a brick chimney and a facade of plywood-blind windows. A ghost name, ‘Titan Tires’, stretched across one end, tall painted letters faded as old skywriting. A low autumn sun hung above the roof’s field of patched and sagging corrugated tin. The sky was gold and rust and blood, scarred with jagged black clouds
Rask drove with his knees. He had his pistol out, a chrome-plated nine millimeter that would have made a Latin King proud. He dropped the mag into his lap and started racking the slide again and again like he was jerking off. “Melchet picked ’em up on I-64. Two Hyundais and a Ryder box truck. My boys’ll be here in ten. They’re gonna secure the perimeter so we can make the trade.”
“Trade?”
“Buy for a dollar and sell for ten, that’s the American way, right? My brother Loyce is bringing the cash. We’ll haggle with the head Chink. You to hang back, watch for ambushes.”
Back of his mind, Booker admitted he had known all along Rask was white powder as much as white power, but any remorse vanished in the sinkhole of numb, the place some other part of him used to be. Booker found that more curious than sad, and wondered which was worse.
Corner of his eye, he saw Rask waiting for a response. “Hang back, watch for ambushes. Got it.”
Rask nodded approvingly. “The Rules of Engagement are they try anything, waste the little fuckers. Just don’t hit the rental truck, right?”
“No shooting the truck. Got it.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic, man,” Rask said. “Knew I hired the right guy. You watch my six, let Loyce and me do the deal. This comes off, I’ll give you another five-hundred danger pay, OK?”
Danger pay. Booker shrugged, wondered how much bus ticket five hundred bucks would get him.

Sozo panel 5
The meet was inside an old loading bay, a big cavernous space with a slimy concrete floor and garage doors at either end. Rask drove in one side and pulled in line with a pair of wide-ass dually pickups. Each had a horse trailer hitched on the back. Five minutes later, the Chinese rolled through the opening at the far end and squared off, leaving twenty feet of Checkpoint Charlie open space between them.
Both sides exited their vehicles at the same time and Booker had another bad TV moment; Rask’s backup was Hillbilly Spec Ops: four guys in realtree camo with Tractor Supply ball caps and jet black Oakleys. The Chinese wore Ray Bans and cheap suits. Everyone was fondling some flavor of gun.
Booker was tempted to let off a couple rounds just to see this peck of pickled posers go all Counter Strike in the Gloomy Garage. He had to shove that thought away. He checked the angles and corners, entrance and exits, instead. Job’s a job. Best get this one done and gone.
Brother Loyce waddled up to Rask with a duffle bag. He looked like he spent his life in tree stands waiting on ten-point bucks. Lump of chew in his lip, he spit several times while Rask rummaged around. Then the two of them strolled out to meet a pair of dumpy, nervous-looking Chinamen.
There was a bit of posturing and pleasantries before Rask passed the bag. Whatever was in it sure got both Chinamen excited, though. After a minute, one of them whistled, and the next thing Booker knew, kids were pouring out of the back of the box truck. Chinese kids.
Booker counted automatically. Twenty teenagers, ten boys, ten girls, all of them blinking and thin and scared. The Triad impersonators herded them across the open space between the vehicles, toward the horse trailers where two rednecks sorted males in to one, females in the other. Rask and Loyce shook hands with the two Chinese. The swap was over.
Rask sauntered back to the van, tight little smile on his skull face. Booker held up his hand, nodded toward the nearest trailer. “Who are they?”
Rask rolled his eyes, dug a wad of cash out of his jeans. “That’s ‘need to know’ only.” He peeled off five bills and held them out.
Booker’s chest throbbed. “Seriously. Who are they?”
Rask tried a Clint Eastwood squint. It didn’t hold. After a second, he clapped Booker on the shoulder. “Fucking-A, man. Simmer down. They’re mules. They’ll be gone in the morning.”
He stuffed the money in Booker’s shirt pocket. “Here, you earned this. Now let’s roll.”

Sozo panel 7
Booker hopped back in. Melchet was sitting there, watching the two sedans and the Ryder on a screen. When they pulled onto the highway, he leaned over his microphone. “We’re clear.”
The two pickups immediately pulled out, Rask taking up the rear. Booker felt the wad in his shirt pocket, the gun in his jacket, and stared as the trailers switched and swayed.
Adult colons held more, that was fucking obvious, but back in the ‘Stans, Jihadists had given kids AKs and sent them in waves. Joker Company had even cleaned up after a couple junior suicide bombers hit a school one miserable, sweltering afternoon. In Detroit, Baby Booking was a full-time gig, all the grade-schoolers running errands for street gangs, even shooting up competitor’s corners. About time the narco-cartels caught on. Kids drew less suspicion, had no record to get flagged by Immigration or Homeland. A couple runs for some drug thug was more money than most of them would make in their entire life.
Fuck it, Booker thought. Cash is king all over the world.
***
Their little convoy passed through Jacob’s Creek: a two-light town with a gas station and an aluminum Winnebago-style diner that looked it had been dragged down a hundred miles of bad road. Vacant, peeling, jilted, Jacob’s Creek was a good place to be from. Or have a zombie apocalypse.
The only signs of life were Bubba’s Sultry Lounge and The Holy Light Pentecostal Mission, a bar and a church bookending Main Street. Harleys lined up outside Bubbas, suits and buns outside the Holy Light.
The second traffic light hung red over the hump of railroad tracks that sliced off the end of town, and the convoy pulled up just as the gates dropped and the warning bell started. A gaspy whistle sounded ten seconds later, then a long-ass freight train wheezed past, car after scabby car of goods bound for anywhere but here.
Booker gazed at the church as they waited. The gable end was covered with hand-painted cursive, a Bible passage, a line on each length of clapboard like giant white-ruled paper.

Another time, Jesus entered the synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. The Gospel of St. Mark 3: 1-5

Sozo panel 8

Seemed to Booker the Pharisees were assholes and Jesus did a miracle show-and-tell. Guy with the mangled hand happened to be in the right place at the right time, is all. He wondered what Sal would think about that bit of salamander magic.
Sure beats the wrong place at the wrong time, he’d probably say.
Like that day in the market. Booker walked past that cart not two minutes earlier. Fucking difference a hundred and twenty second makes.
Eventually the gates lifted and the trucks rolled on. Booker popped a Zoloft and let the trailer taillights hypnotize him, let the numb spread until he floated on nothing. At some point, the convoy turned onto a dirt road, stopped to let one of Rask’s guys open an iron bar gate. It screeched as he swung it. Booker came to and looked around.
The hi-beams were framing a big red barn. A metal silo shaped like a giant round-nose bullet stood at the far end. Old MacDonald was nowhere to be seen.
They pulled up and started hustling the kids inside. Rask, Loyce and the other three yipping and yelling like they were herding cattle, like they’d done this before. Small faces flashed in the headlights like deer on a highway. Rask watched them hunch and hurry into the barn, clinging to each other. Their fear beaded on him, rolled right off. Raindrops on wax.
Once the kids were inside, Rask leaned in the van and exchanged a few words with Melchet. Moments later, two shapes buzzed over Booker’s head: the drones. They dropped out of the sky and settled in the grass in front of the van, skeletal contraptions like broken black bicycles. Melchet slid the door open, inspected them briefly, then slid it shut.
Rask belched and turned to Booker. “You check the perimeter, make sure we’re secure. We’ll hold up here ’til sunrise.”
“And then?”
“The fuck I gotta explain everything for?” he growled. “What happened to ‘Yours is not to reason why’? I paid you, so do what you’re told.”
Booker threw up his hands. “Whatever.” Then he spun on his heel and headed for the silo. Twenty paces, Rask said something else, but it was lost in the wind.
Booker strode into the dark, the ground crunching underfoot. He kept going until he hit a wire fence edging an empty field. The dirt smelled spent, dusty, the wind brittle and tired. An old shed hunched on his right, leaning like a drunk. The bankrupt ass-end of nowhere.
Sounds drifted from the barn- thump of music, coarse laughter. Booker let them drift through him, looked up into the enormous sky.
It was north-west Pak all over again.
The north-west territory was Jihad Central, every pass and cave infested with Mujis like ticks on a goat. Joker Company had multiple contacts every day, sometimes all day. They lost forty-nine guys the first five months. Booker came to loath the sunrise.
But night scared the absolute shit out of him. Tribal areas had no cities to speak of, so no ambient light. When the sun dropped behind the Hindu Kush, night swallowed everything and the sky came down ancient, immense, and deep. Made you small, all those stars.
Sal used to say it was a proportion thing. A reality check. Locals said it was ‘the Robe of Allah.’ When they weren’t screaming ‘Death to America’ and shooting at them.
It was the reason he accepted Warden Global’s Detroit offer: neon and car horns and skyscrapers. None of that proportion shit.

Sozo panel 9
Booker turned, started back toward the barn. Tomorrow he’d Russian Roulette the bus schedule, go anywhere far from here. Somewhere warm maybe, with people whose family tree didn’t look like a telephone pole.
An owl screeched and something changed in the wind. Without thought, Booker continued on the worn footpath that led to the backside of the barn.
The back door was open and Rask and Loyce stood outside in a pool of floodlight, smoking. The music was louder, bouncing around the sheet metal inside of the barn. He could hear the rednecks whooping it up. Booker smelled dope, thought he heard crying. He stopped in the hard shadow of the silo.
Rask’s voice carried. ‘-isses me off, fucking candy ass,” he was saying. “Whiny little bitch if ya ask me. Shouldn’t a signed up if he can’t handle it.”
Loyce mumbled and Rask near choked with laughter. “Figured the Corps’d be more choosey these days, but ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, right?”
Loyce took one last drag, stomped the butt under his boot. He turned and went back inside.
“Keep her warm for me,” Rask cackled. “Be right in.”
Something inside Booker lurched. He stepped fast out of the darkness. “Perimeter’s clear.”
Rask flinched like a cat, but recovered. He clutched his chest mockingly. “Fucking-A, man. Near gave me a heart attack.”
“The perimeter’s clear,” Booker repeated.
He waved his hand. “I heard you.” He pointed the glowing end of his cigarette at Booker, swaying as he did. “Look man, sorry ’bout earlier. Wrapped up tight about the operation. You know, right?”
“You’re high,” Booker said. The music blasted out the door now. He heard the rednecks chanting. Definite crying.
“Fuck yeah, I’m high,” Rask grinned.”Big money tomorrow. Cash with a capital C.”
Booker motioned toward the open door.”What’s going on in there?
“Fuck you think?” Rask grinned wider. “Post-op decompression. You want some? Little perk of the job? Little peck on the knob?” He laughed at his own joke. “There’s a girl in a red top that’s eminently fuckable.”
A chill knotted in Booker’s gut. He stared. “What?”
“Hey,” Rask protested. “Not like they’ll be selling the pussy, right? Who gives a shit if there’s a little wear and tear?”
The knot tightened. “Those fucking kids are probably smuggling that shit for their families, and you’re raping them?”
Rask leaned forward, eyes hard and glittering again. “They got no families, dipshit. They’re orphans.”
He giggled like a hyena when Booker didn’t get it. “There’s no drugs.”
“You said they were mules,” Booker insisted.
“They are,” Rask crowed. “Not heroin – organs. Why the fuck do you think I told you not to shoot the truck?”
“Organs?”
“Kidneys, livers, hearts, eyes. Chink kids are worth thirty grand apiece, wholesale. Hell, I bet some of your old Marine buddies are walking around with Chinese Take-Out. Extra spicy spicy.”
Booker’s chest was taut. He could barely breathe. “But they’re children.”
“No, dumb ass,” Rask shook his head. “They’re spare parts. Commies got a One-Kid-Only policy. Not that the little yellow fuckers listen, humping like rabbits. One point three billion of them now.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Beijing is cracking down though. They’re a drain on the system. Who the fuck you think we got them from?”
Rask crossed his arms across his chest and tried to look serious. “Used to be bleeding heart liberal faggots would adopt Chink orphans, but now, economy in the shitter, guess all America can afford is pieces.”
Things inside Booker snapped like guitar strings. Gaping edges sharp and raw.
Rask cackled again, took long drag on his cigarette. Face wreathed in smoke, he looked at Booker one eyed. “So you want a free sample, or not?”
A gunshot boomed.

Sozo panel 10
Rask dropped, the top of his head smashed open like a melon. Booker flinched at the warmth speckled on his face. Smoke curled out of a hole in his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember putting his hand in there.
The music stopped. A call through the door. “The hell’s going on out there?”
Booker drew the pistol and stepped inside.
He put the first two down without thinking: cammies around their ankles, mouths little round ‘O’s of surprise. Junk deflating faster than pricked balloons.
Booker’s reflexes took over. The laser’s dot fixed center mass. Target One. Target Two. Double-taps rolled like thunder in the closed space.
The girls huddled on the ground started wailing. One, spread face down on the floor, lay there and sobbed.
In his head, he heard Sal say “Clear!”
Gun up, Booker stepped around a stall into some kind of wide aisle. Adrenaline was kicking in: he had tunnel vision, his heart pounded like surf in his ears. But he moved forward, gun up and steady.
Redneck three charged out of a side room, eyes wide, fat face quivering. “Cops. Is it cops?” he asked Booker.
Booker shot him. “No.”
He stepped past the body, peered into the room. Chinese boys cowered in the corner, hands up. One held a younger one to his chest, glared at Booker defiantly.

Sozo panel 11
“Good for you,” Booker muttered. Then louder, “You all stay here. Got me? Stay in here.”
Might as well be speaking Swahili, Booker mused. Backing out of the room, he stepped on the fat guy’s hand, stumbled. There was a crack like lightning, and he spun, fell on his back, shoulder burning.
Loyce came charging down the aisle from the other end of the barn, hunting rifle straight out. “Mother fucker, mother fucker, mother fucker…”
Numbness swept across Booker’s chest, down his side, through his leg. He reached for the pistol as the second shot seared into his thigh. Electric shock. The promise of pain hammered him to the floor, punched the breath out of him.
But something inside Booker screamed and wept, wriggled, fresh and bloody as new birth. His hand closed around the butt of his pistol. Loyce was twenty feet away, standing still, aiming. “Mother fucker–”
Booker wrenched himself around, fired until the slide locked back. Loyce fell in several parts.
Booker lay back, panting. The bite of smoke and shit and blood in the air. Melchet tumbled through the front door like a frantic orange penguin, stupid look on his face, phone in hand.
Booker thumbed the slide release. It slammed forward with a loud clack. “Dial 9-1-1”
Melchet fish-mouthed.
Booker pointed the pistol. “Now,” he ordered.
Melchet dialed.
Booker kept the gun on him but let his head fall back. Guy was too fat, too scared to run. The barn lights overhead were going dim, warmth spread under him. The numbness was gone though, replaced by an almost delicious throb. He felt his heart beating.
Just a little longer, Booker told himself. Eventually, sirens approached.
A little Chinese face peered around the doorpost, tears on his cheeks, a tiny frown at the blood drenching Booker’s clothes, the floor.
Booker smiled, “It’s OK. Really. I’ll be fine.” He reached out to stroke the boy’s face. “I can feel my hand.”
THE END

Sozo panel 12