March in Country, page 1
March in Country
E. E. Knight
Table of Contents
BOOLS BY E. E. KNIGHT
The Age of Fire Series
The Vampire Earth Series
Way of the Wolf
Choice of the Cat
Tale of the Thunderbolt
Fall with Honor
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First Printing, January 2011
Copyright © Eric Frisch, 2011
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Knight, E. E.
March in country: a novel of the Vampire Earth/E. E. Knight.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18848-4
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To Jim Pavelec,
the acknowledged master of Monsters from the Id
“. . . and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.”
—FIRST BOOK OF SAMUEL 17:40 (KING JAMES VERSION)
Firsch County Wayside Number Two, the Kentucky-Tennessee border, February of the Fifty-sixth year of the Kurian Order: the recent violent winter, the worst in living memory for even the tough locals, has ebbed at last. Nothing that might be called spring warms the sky; rather, it is a quiet between-season pause, like the lassitude between the break in a life-threatening fever and recovery.
One winter can do only so much damage. At an old intersection between two neglected county highways, with only one route showing even some signs of maintenance—the northbound stretch has been reduced to little more than a horse track—the Wayside squats behind a lattice of young fir. It might be a monument to entropy.
It is an enclave that could best be described as lumpy. No two structures match. The central building used to be a gas station and convenience store, still identifiable by a few chipped logos as a BP for connoisseurs of pre-22 corporate branding. It stands out from the others in that all the verticals and horizontals are square. The other structures lean as though tired: relocated sheds, prefabricated housing, a fire-gutted strip whose gap-toothed storefronts serve as an improvised garage and junkyard. A double layer of barbed-wire fencing, no two posts standing quite the same, surrounds all, pulled this way and that by the growing pines. The more observant may notice dog feces among the dropped needles between the layers of wire.
Farther off, crowds of trees and brush and brown kudzu envelop what had once been a little two-street town of houses and a barn or two.
Everything in the Wayside, from crumbling brick and trailer home to boarded-up window, is painted a formerly bright shade of orange, now faded and dirtied into a rotting pumpkin color.
Wayside Number Two looks as though it would be improved by a return of the short-lived snow. You wouldn’t see the mud, for a start. The garbage mound out behind the prefabs could be camouflaged into and inviting, snowy hill. The dog litter couldn’t be seen—or smelled—and white would hide the slime molds coating the bricks of the gutted strip.
For all its forlorn appearance, the gas pump and parking lot in front ticked with vehicular life.
One pair of vehicles stand out. A shining new red compact truck—or oversized, high-clearance car with a lighted roll bar and stumpy cargo bed, depending how precise one’s definitions—and the bulldog shape of a heavier, ten-wheeled armored car are parked so as to block the roadside gap in the wire. A tall, muscular, alert-looking black man stands beside the compact truck, radio crackling inside. The uniformed men in the armored car are more casually disposed as they wait. They blow smoke out of their lowered windows as they play cards, using the dashboard as a table. The pitiful collection of rust buckets, motorcycles, a bike, and horse wagon nearer the Wayside’s main entrance look like sheep penned by a pair of wolves.
A brown truck slows as it approaches, but the bearded driver, getting a glimpse of the Georgia Control circle-and-bar logo on the doors of both vehicles—huge on the armored car, discreet on the red compact truck—thinks better of stopping. His worn tires kick up a shower of grit as he changes up after making the turn south, suddenly eager for the horizon. ...
If there’s one thing I hate, John Macon thought to himself, it’s grocery shopping.
The trick, of course, was not to let on to the groceries that they were being selected. He had driven ahead, alone in his not-quite-unmarked Pooter, so the flotsam at Wayside Number Two wou
He strode into the dining room. They’d taught him in the Youth Vanguard how to walk authoritatively: chin up, shoulders back, a little extra strike on the bootheel. He glanced across the counter and the booths. Six hanging fluorescent fixtures containing three bulbs, two of which still managed to produce light, illuminated the sparse condiments and a desiccated piece of pie on the counter and a cash register with drawer wide open revealing only a few bills, coins, and rows of loose cigarettes, as if advertising the poor pickings a holdup would bring.
The remaining lights had a lot of work to do, despite the light of afternoon outside. What had once been enormous glass windows were filled with old sheets of aluminum siding wired together into overlapping blinds. They alternately locked and rattled in the spring wind, at least the ones that didn’t have old rags stuffed into the gaps to stave off chilly drafts.
The linoleum floor interested him for a moment: there were so many cigarette burns in it one might mistake the marks for a pattern.
Macon could have described the decor on the walls without even walking in the door: the owner’s business license and good conduct certificates, a tin sign proclaiming the establishment’s pride in serving OneSource Foods, a glass mirror with beautiful artwork: Ringgold Beer’s famous hop-picking brunette smiling over her overflowing basket, and the inevitable Royal Pep Cola sign. Probably more than one. Never mind the plates, the glasses, and a generous supply of the famous long plastic siphon-droppers for “fixing up” your beverage with flavored syrups—promising everything from eight straight hours of mental alertness to an end to anxiety to a weekend’s worth of hard-ons—with the establishment’s name printed on the side.
He didn’t know if the English still drank their tea or the French their champagne or the Jamaicans their rum, but the people of the Georgia Control guzzled Royal Pep Cola from dawn to dusk, with the “thousand and then some” flavor variations the Royal Pep Cola company claimed could be created from six flavorings and nine additives.
As wily market-goer, Macon calculated each purchase on a cost-versus-benefit analysis. He didn’t enjoy this part of the job at all—though there were worse duties. His least favorite were his rare ventures into the dripping confines of the boss’s home carbuncle—but if one wanted to rise in the Control one did the Unpleasant, for no other reason than to avoid the More Unpleasant that was the lot of the groceries.
He exchanged a glance with the angular young tough behind the counter. Muscles bulged under what was once a white T-shirt, tattooing on his right hand indicated he’d done a prison term as an adolescent. Macon gave him a friendly nod.
“Water, and a menu,” Macon said, taking a seat at the end of the counter where he could scan the room.
Water appeared, in battered plastic, slightly green—the water, not the plastic—no ice.
“There’s the menu,” the counterman said, pointing to a painted and repainted stretch of wall over the kitchen window.
If you want to rise, do the difficult, his mentor in the Youth Vanguard used to say. The old pederast had his faults, but he’d built a comfortable, and damn near inviolable, niche in the Control.
Unlike the rest of the Advancing World, the Georgia Control had humans do all the selecting of groceries. Not just the usual disposal of the inconvenient and abrasive by the top dogs in the hierarchy. Not some, not much, but all. The Directors argued to the Kurians that humans possessed a keener instinct for sniffing out weakness, wrongdoing, and rebellion. The Kurians weren’t particular. As long as the vital aura of culled humans flowed, and the rest of the population remained placid and breeding, they were inclined to let their human assistants put check marks and figures into spreadsheets determining who contributed to society and who ended up a net loss at the bottom line.
Macon approved of the system. It gave the humans running the Control a little bit of leverage. There were even rumors that a Kurian or two who’d been problematic in its demands had been removed thanks to subtle hints and pressure from the Directors.
Outside the well-patrolled borders of the Georgia Control—an area a good deal larger than the old state, and growing, its Directors were proud to report—you didn’t have neat little lists and the quiet nightly pickup squads. One had to use judgement, and Macon had observed only a few excursions and the requisite grocery-selecting.
Someone had to do the difficult and nasty business of finding fodder for the Kurians. Few wanted the job, and usually the ones who wanted it sought the authority for all the wrong reasons. What sort of diseased character would want to do such a thing? Macon thought of himself as a white blood cell, keeping the system healthy and functioning. When he had to attach to and gobble up pathogens, the rest of the bloodstream was the better for it. A white blood cell that acted out of emotion, self-aggrandizement, or plain cruelty would do harm to the system.
As a junior sibling where his eldest sister was helping their father run middle Georgia’s greatest city as heir-apparent urban director, he’d have to make his own way and rise on his own merit, rather in the manner of following sons in the old aristocracies.
So when a new group of Kurians sent out word that they were seeking seed-staff for expansion into Kentucky, he volunteered for the position of “Ghoul Wrangler” as the less-ambitious liked to style it. His actual title in the Control’s orgbase managed to include the words “Staff” and “Facilitator” along with only a single phrasing period—if he rose to the vice-director level they’d start using commas, an elegant touch for those at that exalted level. Of course, there was that dreadful word “unincorporated” and the orgbase inactive rolls were filled with listings of ambitious Youth Vanguard souls who’d gambled their lives in unincorporated regions.
Unincorporated or no, he received a Personal Utility Transport with only 24 kils on the odometer, no visible bullet holes, and a new field-brown paint job with his name stenciled under the Pooter’s driver’s side window/firing slot.
His blue-black Model 18 submachine gun fit that slit quite nicely. The gun, a gift from some connection of his father at the Atlanta Gunworks, rode across his chest like a clinging bat. The counterman eyed it like a thirsty Bedouin gauging an enemy’s waterskin.
He reached into a pocket of his heavy, lined-leather driving coat, and extracted a pair of antacid peppermints from a big plastic bag. He popped the button-sized tablets into his mouth and crunched them down. They tasted like peppermint-dusted chalk, but it was better than feeling that he’d swallowed hot coals. Picking out groceries always gave him a sour stomach. If he was thinking about his gut, his duties would suffer. Never mind that this particular task could be downright dangerous.
The Wayside had about what you’d expect so close to Kentucky. These backwoods Tennessee roads attracted the shady and the skeevy. Well away from the Kurians on the fringes of the Advancing World, but not quite in the limestone-cut tangles filled with suspicious, well-armed legworm ranchers who’d gut you for the half pack of cigarettes in your pocket.
Macon remembered the interview when he’d been taken on by his Kurian. Chizzb or Tschezb or something even tougher on the tongue was its name, but his small human staff called him Prince Green.
They brought him into an old security warehouse at Atlanta’s barely functioning airport, perhaps the most heavily patrolled square miles in Georgia outside of the Kurian City Center downtown. The lower level still served its purpose of temporarily holding people and goods entering from outside the Georgia Control by air. The upper level, accessible only by five flights of metal stairs, looked like a giant honeycomb of ochre papier-mâché.
A Reaper, two meters of solid dreadful, smiled a black-fanged smile when he offered his ID and showed the courier-delivered
Prince Green looked like a cow’s liver with an umbrella top and a couple of greasy mop heads stuck into it. It pulsed as it sat, though whether this was respiration or circulation he didn’t know. He’d never seen one uncloaked, so to speak—usually when a Kurian interacted with men they went out and about under heavy capes, faces hidden behind helmets or veils, sometimes not even bothering to give the illusion of feet beneath the cloak. He’d been told that when they first showed up in 2022, in the wake of planetwide earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, they’d appeared as ethereal, glowing, half-angelic aliens with all the beautiful poise of a cut flower. From such a vision, the soothing words of comfort to a stricken world may have just as well been set to music.
You will excuse the informality, a decidedly nonmusical voice breathed from an unsettling point between his ears.
Sure as shootin’ I will, Macon had thought back, sinking into the spongy floor. He felt something wet pull at his ankles, like living mud. He wondered if he stepped in the wrong direction if he’d sink and leave nothing but his Youth Vanguard Leader cap floating on the living floor.
This is true: I will not present myself to you in a guise more pleasing to human eyes, the inner dialogue continued. Preparations for the move into Kentucky have left me exhausted. Perhaps it is just as well. I see no point in trusting a man who needs such useless reality dressing.
“I’d rather see things as they are,” Macon said, trying to fill his brain with white noise. You could bullshit a Youth Vanguard Leader when he caught you with vodka in your shampoo bottle, but Prince Green had the ability to poke around in his brain.
One old hand, the Atlanta-based director who’d sponsored him in the Youth Vanguard, had told him the worst thing you could do when facing a Kurian was try to remain calm. She’d said he should give in to whatever emotion was at hand—anger, fear, revulsion. Strong human emotions confused them, and a few caused them to flee your head like a cat off a hot stove.