Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)
Note: This story previously appeared in Black Gate Magazine.
I think he may be a genius.
Why the Eight-Bar Band? Thank the military. Against all odds, they managed to build automated bombers that still fly, roaring overhead every minute or so, bomb-bay doors open, dry firing on our little band of survivors. The War had been over for ten years, but still, they flew.
So. The Eight-Bar Band. Everything had a rest every eight bars, punctuated by the white-noise roar of the most expensive rhythm section ever imagined by the military-industrial complex.
We were playing through "Basin Street Blues," arranged for bugle, half-piano, tin cans, vocals, and bombers. Steve, the front-man, was always after me to sing backup on this, crooning a call-and-response. I blew a bugle because I didn't like singing. Bugle's almost like singing, anyway, and I did the backup vocals through it, so when Steve sang, "Come along wi-ith me," I blew, "Wah wah wah wah-wah wah," which sounded dynamite. Steve hated it. Like most front-men, he had an ego that could swallow the battered planet, and didn't want any lip from the troops. That was us. The troops. Wah-wah.
The audience swayed in time with the music, high atop the pile of rubble we played on in the welcome cool of sunset, when the work-day was through. They leaned against long poles, which made me think of gondoliers, except that our audience used their poles to pry apart the rubble that the bombers had created, looking for canned goods.
Steve handed Hambone a solo cue just as a bomber flew by overhead, which was his idea of a joke. He didn't like Hambone much. "Take it, Hambone!" he shouted, an instant before the roar began. It got a laugh. Hambone just grinned his blissed-out smile and went gonzo on the cans. The roar of the bomber faded, and he played on, and then settled into a kicky lick that set me on a expedition on the bugle, that left me blue in the face. Steve gave us dirty looks.
Then a stranger started dancing.
It was pretty shocking: not the dancing; people do that whenever they find some booze or solvents or whatever; it was the stranger. We didn't get a lot of strangers around there. Lyman and his self-styled "militia" took it upon themselves to keep wanderers out of our cluster of rubble. She was dirty, like all of us, but she had good teeth, and she wasn't so skinny you could count her ribs. Funny how that used to be sexy when food was plentiful.
And she could dance! Steve skipped a verse, and Timson looked up from the book he keeps on his music stand and gawped. I jammed in, and Hambone picked up on it, and Steve didn't throw a tantrum, just scatted along. She danced harder, and we didn't break for the next bomber, kept playing, even though we couldn't hear ourselves, and when we could, we were still in rhythm.
We crashed to an ending, and before the applause could start, we took off on "Diggin' My Potatoes," which Steve sang as dirty and lecherous as he could. We hopped and the stranger danced and the audience joined in and the set went twice as long as it normally would have, long after the sun set. Man!
Steve made a beeline for her after the set, while I put away the bugle and Timson tied a tarp down over his piano. Hambone kept banging on his cans, making an arrhythmic racket. He only did that when he was upset, so I helped him to his feet.
"C'mon, Ham," I said. "Let's get you home."
Hambone smiled, but to a trained Hambone-ologist like me, it was a worried grin. The stranger was staring at Hambone. Hambone was looking away. I led him to his cave, guiding him with one hand at the base of his skull, where he had a big knot of scar tissue -- presumably, whatever had given him that lump had also made him into what he was. I made sure he went in, then went back, nervous. Hambone was a barometer for trouble, and when he got worried, I got worried, too.
The stranger had peeled Steve off of her, and was having an animated conversation with Timson. Uh-oh. That meant that she was a reader. It's all Timson ever talked about. He was a world-class bookworm. He'd moved into the basement of what was left of a bookstore-cafe, and was working his way through their stock. You never saw Timson without a book.
"Anemic Victorian girlybook -- that's all that was," he was saying, when I caught up with him.
The stranger shoved his shoulder, playfully. Timson is a big one, and not many people are foolhardy enough to shove him, playfully or otherwise. "You've got to be kidding me! Are you some kind of barbarian? Emma is a classic, you bunghole!" My sainted mother would have said that she had a mouth on her like a truck-driver. It turned me on.
"Hi!" I said.
Timson's retort was derailed as he turned to look at me. He said, "Brad, meet Jenna. Jenna, meet Brad."
I shook her hand. Under the dirt, she was one big freckle, and the torchlight threw up red highlights from her hair. Mmmm. Redheads. I had it bad.
"You blow good," the stranger -- Jenna -- said.
"Hell," Timson said, slapping me on the back hard enough to knock a whoosh of air out of my lungs. "Brad is the best trumpet player for a hundred klicks!" Jenna raised a dubious eyebrow.
"I'm the only trumpet player for a hundred klicks," I explained. Talking to a stranger was a novel experience: we got to recycle all the band jokes. She smiled.
I don't know where she slept that night. She was pretty good at taking care of herself -- there weren't hardly any wanderers around anymore, and I'd never seen a solo woman. When I retired to my shack, I was pretty sure that she'd found herself shelter.
"This is how all of you survive?" she asked me the next day. I'd taken her out prospecting with me, going after a mountain of concrete rubble that had recently shifted after a baby quake. I had a good feeling about it.
"Yeah," I said, wedging my pole in and prying down hard. If you do it just right, you start a landslide that takes off a layer of the pile, revealing whatever's underneath. Do it wrong, you break your pole, give yourself a hernia, or bury yourself under a couple tons of rebar and cement. I'd seen a movie where people used the technique after some apocalypse or another. A plane went by overhead and stopped the conversation.
"But it's not bloody sustainable," she said. Her face was red with exertion, as she pried down hard.
I stopped prying and looked around pointedly. Mountains of rubble shimmered in the damp heat, dotting the landscape as far as the eye could see.
She followed my gaze around. "OK, fine. You've got a good supply. But not everyone else does. Sooner or later, someone, somewhere, is going to run out. And then what? Turf wars? The last thing we need around here is another fucking war."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard that theory. Lyman and his buddies were particular proponents of it. They drilled half-ass military maneuvers in their spare time, waiting for the day when they'd get to heroically repel an invasion. I told her what I told them. "There's plenty of rubble to go around."
Another plane went by. She went back to her rock with renewed vigor and I went back to mine. After several moments of grunting and sweating, she said, "For this generation, maybe. What'll your kids eat?"
I leaned against my pole. "Who said anything about kids? I don't plan on having any."
She leaned against hers. Actually, it was my spare -- two-and-a-half metres of 1" steel gas-pipe -- but I'd let her use it for the day. "So that's it for the human race, as far as you're concerned? The buck stops here?"
I got the feeling that she had this argument a lot. "Other people can do whatever they want. I'm not gonna be anyone's daddy."
Another plane passed. "That's pretty damned selfish," she said.
I rose to the bait. "It's selfish not to have kids I can't look after in a world that's gone to hell?"
"If you took an interest in the world, you could make it a livable place for your kids."
"Yeah, and if I wanted to have kids, I'd probably do that. But since I don't, I won't. QED."
"And if my grandma had wheels, she'd be a friggin' roller-skate. Come on, Brad. Live like a savage if you must, but let's at least keep the rhetoric civilised."
She sounded like Timson, then. I hate arguing with Timson. He always wins. I pushed against my pole and the chunk I'd been working on all morning finally shifted and an ominous rumbling began from up the hill. "Move!" I shouted.
We both ran downslope like nuts. That was my favorite part of any day, the rush of pounding down an uneven mountainface with tons of concrete chasing after me. I scrambled down and down, leaping over bigger obstacles, using all four limbs and my pole for balance. Jenna was right behind me, and then she was overtaking me, grinning hugely. We both whooped and dove into the lee of another mountain. The thunder of the landslide was temporarily drowned out by the roar of another plane.
I turned around quick, my chest heaving, and watched my work. The entire face of the mountain was coming down in stately march. Lots of telltale glints sparkled in the off-pour. Canned goods. Fossil junkfood from more complex times.
"Tell me that that's not way funner than gardening," I panted at Jenna.
She planted her hands on her thighs and panted.
I loved going out prospecting with other people. Some folks liked to play it safe, nicking away little chunks of a mountain. I liked to make a big mess. It's more dangerous, more cool, and more rewarding. I'm a big show-off.
I went back and started poking at the newly exposed stratum, popping cans into my sack. The people who'd lived in this city before it got plagued and dresdenned had been ready for a long siege, every apartment stuffed with supplies. I kept my eyes open for a six-pack of beer or a flask of booze, and I found both. The beer would be a little skunky after a decade of mummification, but not too bad. The tequila would be smooth as silk. I found it hard not to take a long swallow, but it was worth too much in trade for me to waste it on my liver.
Jenna joined me, scooping up the cans and stashing them in her pack. I didn't begrudge her the chow: there was more than I could carry home before the day was through in this load, and whatever I didn't take would get snapped up by some entrepreneur before morning. I wandered off, selecting the best of the stuff for my larder. I heard Jenna throwing up on the other side of the mountain. I scampered over to her.
It was what I'd expected: she'd turned up some corpses. Ten years of decomposition had cleaned them up somewhat, but they weren't pretty by any stretch. The plague bombs they dropped on this town had been full of nasty stuff. It killed fast, and left its victims twisted into agonised hieroglyphs. I turned, and pulled Jenna's hair out of the way of her puke.
"Thanks," she said, when she was done, five planes later. "Sorry, I can't get used to dead bodies, even after all this."
"Don't apologise," I said. "Plague victims are worse than your garden variety corpse."
"Plague victims! Damn!" she said, taking several involuntary steps backward. I caught her before she fell.
"Whoa! They're not contagious anymore. That plague stuff was short-lived. The idea was to kill everyone in the city, wait a couple months, then clean out the bodies and take up residence. No sense in destroying prime real-estate."
"Then how did all this --" she waved at the rubble "-- happen?"
"Oh, that was our side. After the city got plagued, they dresdenned the hell out of it so that the enemy wouldn't be able to use it." After the War, I'd hooked up for a while with a crazy guy who wouldn't tell me his name, who'd been in on all the dirty secrets of one army or another. From all he knew, he must've been in deep, but even after two years of wandering with him, I never found out much about him. He died a month before I found my current home. Lockjaw. Shitty way to go.
"They bombed their own fucking city?" she asked, incredulous. I was a little surprised that she managed to be shocked by the excesses of the War. Everyone else I knew had long grown used to the idea that the world had been trashed by some very reckless, immoral people. As if to make the point, another plane buzzed us.
"Well, everyone was already dead. It was their final solution: if they couldn't have it, no one else could. What's the harm in that?" I said. Whenever my nameless companion had spilled some dirty little secret, he'd finish it with What's the harm in that? and give a cynical chuckle. He was a scary guy.
She didn't get the joke.
"Come on," I said. "We gotta get this stuff back home."
That evening, the band played again. Our audience was bigger, maybe a hundred people. Steve liked a big crowd. He jumped around like bacon in a pan, and took us through all our uptempo numbers: "South America, Take It Away," "All the Cats Join In," "Cold Beverages," "Atomic Dog," and more. The crowd loved it, they danced and stomped and clapped, keeping the rhythm for us during the long rests when the planes went by.
We played longer than usual. When we were done, I was soaked with sweat, my lips and cheeks were burning, and the sun had completely set. Some enterprising soul had built a bonfire. We used to do that all the time, back when booze was less scarce: build a big fire and party all night. Somewhere along the line, we'd stopped, falling into a sunup-to-sundown rhythm.
That night, though, I lay on my back beside the fire and watched the constellations whirl overhead. The planes counterpointed the soft crackling noises the fire made, and I felt better than I had in a long time.
The crowd had mostly gone home, but the band was still out, as were Lyman and his boys, and a few other die-hards. And Jenna. She'd led the dancing all night.
"That was fun," she said, hunkering down with me and Timson and Hambone. Steve was fondling one of his groupies, a skinny girl with bad teeth named Lucy. In my nastier moods, I called her "Loose." She was dumb enough not to get the joke.
Jenna passed Timson the canteen and he swigged deeply. "It sure was," he said. "We haven't been that tight in a while."
"You know, I've been all through the southland, but you guys are the only band I've seen. Everyone else is just scratching out a living. How'd you guys get together?"
"Hambone," I said. He was rappity-tappiting some firewood.
"Hambone?" she said. "I gotta hear this."
"I got here about seven years ago," I said, taking a pull from the canteen. "I'd been wandering around for a while, but for some reason, I thought I'd stay here for a while. Hambone was already here -- near as anyone can tell, he's been here since the War. He managed to keep himself alive, just barely.
"I'd been here for a couple of weeks, and I'd spent most of that time building my house. I spent a lot of time hanging around out front of my place, blowing my horn, thinking. I didn't have any friends around here: I didn't want any. I just wanted to blow and watch the flies." I paused while a plane howled by.
"Then, one morning, I was blowing 'Reveille' and watching the sun come up, and I heard this crazy beat behind me. I looked around, and it was Hambone, sitting on top of the hill out back of my place, keeping time. I didn't know about him, then, so I figured he was just one of the locals. I waved at him, but he just kept on pounding, so I picked up my horn and we jammed and jammed.
"It became a regular morning gig. Once I ran out of steam, he'd get up and wander away. After a while, he was playing right on my doorstep, and I noticed how skinny he was. I tried to talk to him, and that's when I figured out he was special. So after we finished, I gave him a couple cans of Spam." A plane flew past.
"After a month of this, I decided I'd follow him when he left. He didn't seem to mind. We came to a ladder that led down into a big, bombed out basement, all full of books. And this big asshole was playing a piano, just pounding on it."
I nodded at Timson, who picked up the tale. "It'd been tough to get the piano down there, but when I found it, I knew I needed to have it. I'd been going nuts, looking for a chance to play. Hambone had been coming by regular to jam around, and I tried to make sure he got fed. I figured he was shell-shocked and needed a hand. Then, one day, he shows up with this guy and his horn. Next thing you know, we're all playing our asses off. It was the most fun I'd ever had." He waited for a plane to pass, and built up the fire.
"The rest, as they say, is history," he continued. "Steve heard us jamming and invited himself along. He kept after us to play publicly."
Jenna looked over at Steve, who was lying on his back with Lucy twined around him. "Well, he can sing, anyway," she said, and grinned wickedly.
We all nodded.
"So," she said, stretching casually. "What are you guys gonna do when you run out of cans?"
I groaned. She'd been picking at the subject all day.
Timson poked at the fire, and Lyman sauntered over. He said, "Our supply will hold out a while yet," he said, "if we keep interlopers out." He loomed threateningly over her. Timson stood up and loomed back. Lyman retreated a little.
"How about gardens?" she said. "A decent garden could really stretch out your food supply."
"Who," I said, lazily, "is going to work on a garden when there's all this food just lying around?"
"I will, for one. Think about it: fresh vegetables! Fruit! When was the last time you had a tomato, a big fat red one?"
My mouth watered. Lyman said, "When we run out of cans, we'll just move along. Gardens'll only tie us down here." His boys all nodded, the way they did when he made a pronouncement.
Jenna glared at him. "That's pretty goddamn short-sighted. How long can you live off the past? When are you going to start living for the future?"
Lyman's rebuttal was cut off by another plane.
Timson slapped her on the back. "'When are you going to start living for the future?' You've practiced that, right?"
She pretended she didn't hear him. "How come the planes don't run out of fuel?" she said.
I said, "They've got an automated maintenance station somewhere around here. They land there for scheduled repairs and refueling. It's supposed to re-stock their ammo, too, but it looks like they've run out. Lucky for us."
Jenna's ears pricked up. "You know where this station is? They'd have power? Radios? Maybe we could call for help."
Everyone looked at her like she was nuts. "Where, exactly, are you going to call?" Timson asked.
"New Zealand. They didn't get into the War at all. They're probably sitting pretty. Maybe they could help us out."
"On the Beach, Neville Shute," Timson said. "You've been reading too much science fiction, girl."
She slapped his shoulder. "It was The Chrysalids actually. John Wyndham. Kiwis and Aussies always come out okay." "Seriously," she continued, "what else are you doing around here? Aren't you getting bored of slipping back into savagery?"
"We've got plenty to do," Lyman called from across the fire. "We've got to drill the militia!"
"Band's gotta practice," Steve called, from under Lucy.
"Sure you do!" Jenna retorted. "If you're gonna play the Sydney Opera House, you're gonna need a whole shitload of practice!"
Steve glared at her, and Timson pounded her on the back. I produced my mickey of tequila and magnanimously shared it all around, even letting Lyman and his thugs have a swig.
She dropped in the next morning while I was blowing 'Reveille.' I hadn't had the energy the night before to take Hambone back to his cave, so he'd crashed on the floor of my shack. It's a pretty good shack: three of the walls are concrete, there from before the War. I'd put together a roof of tin and cardboard and whatever else I could find, and added another wall the same way. Be it ever so humble.
"You gonna help me dig a garden?" she asked.
I squinted at her. She'd gotten some water somewhere to clean up. Timson had a big reservoir in his basement, a flooded sub-basement. I had thought I'd seen them go off together.
Pink and scrubbed, with her hair tied back tight, she was, well, pneumatic. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and on her pink eyebrows. She was wearing a tee-shirt and cutoffs, and the prospect of passing a day beside her while she bent over a garden was very tempting. But if she and Timson had something going on, I'd best put myself out of temptation's way. Besides, I was sure that the hill I'd been working on still had some good stuff in it.
"Got a full dance-card today, sorry," I said.
"Well, don't get caught under any rockslides," she said, giving me a slightly pissed-off look.
I spent the day undermining the mountain, but I couldn't get it to come down. Finally, exhausted, I staggered to the hill where we played and warmed up on the horn.
Jenna and Timson arrived together, eating olives and stewed tomatoes with their fingers. Timson set up an architecture book on his stand and tapped at the piano. Hambone ambled up. Steve showed up with Lucy clinging to him like a limpet, and then we played our asses off.
Jenna danced and so did lots of other people, and then Steve waded out into the crowd and danced with them, and I joined him, and then the crowd and the band were all mixed up, and it was fine.
It turned out I was wrong about Jenna and Timson. She used his water but that was it. He was feeding her, though. Now, he can do whatever he wants with his food, it's his, but the two of us had always fed Hambone, and Timson couldn't afford to feed both of them, so I ended up running my larder down to dangerous levels over the next couple months.
I started to get a little grumpy about it, but that all ended when Jenna and Timson showed up at Hambone's cave one night while I was feeding him. They had three big sacks, filled right to the top with fresh vegetables: tomatoes, string beans, squash, rutabaga, cabbage and onions. There was even lemon grass, parsley and basil. And strawberries! My eyes nearly fell out of my head.
"Holy crap!" I said.
Timson pounded me on the back, then popped a cherry tomato into my gaping mouth. I bit down involuntarily and gasped. "That is the best thing I've ever tasted," I said.
"Tell me something I don't know," Jenna said. "We've noticed you sulking around the last couple months. I figured that I could bribe you and you'd quit pissing around."
"Did you grow these?" I said.
"No, I pulled them out of my ass," Jenna said, and ate a big, fat strawberry.
Timson fed Hambone a few strawberries, and that signaled the beginning of a chowdown that went on and on until we could hardly move. My hands stank of a wondrous cocktail of strawberries and herbs and onions. It had been a long time since I'd put fresh vegetables inside my body. I felt like I was sweating green.
"Sun's going down," Timson said. "Showtime. I'll catch up."
Jenna and Hambone and I climbed slowly up the hill, luxuriating in satiety. Hambone's smile was a new one, pure joy.
Timson met up, lugging more sacks. He shelled them out before we started playing, and I never saw more snaggletoothed grins. Even Steve had some. He made a crack about the wisdom of handing out fruit to an audience before a show, but no one was going to waste any of that beautiful food by throwing it.
Between sets, Timson stood up. "Jenna's been growing this food for the last couple months. I think you'll agree that it's pretty goddamn good." There were hoots of agreement. "So here's the deal. We've got some plots over on the south, ready to be hoed and planted. We've got seeds. But we need people to work the plots and gather water. Anyone who's interested can meet us tomorrow morning."
Well, that kind of put a damper on the celebration. I felt a little down, realising that this wonderful chow meant stooping in fields, hoeing and planting like some kind of Dark Ages peasant. In the back of my mind, I still thought that I could just keep on prospecting for cans until someone rebuilt civilisation and started making more cans. Rebuilding civilisation was going to take a long, long time. Then I burped up an onion-basil-tomato-tasting burp, and knew that I'd be out the next morning, anyway.
We kept on playing, and people kept dancing, and I may have been the only one who noticed Lyman and his boys shaking their heads and stalking off into the night.
Nearly everyone showed up the next morning and collected a precious handful of Jenna's seeds. She explained that she'd been hoarding them for years, looking for a place to plant them. The way she said it, you got the feeling that she was trusting you with her children.
We attacked the plots. They were rocky and rubble-strewn, and the poles were poorly suited to hoeing. People improvised: empty bottles became scoops, flattened cans, blades.
We worked, and Jenna came by and kibbitzed, pointing out rocks that we'd missed, and generally being a pain in the ass. Eventually, enough grumbling got grumbled, and she went and tended her own garden, so to speak.
The work got hypnotic after that. The roar of the planes, the sounds of digging, it all blended into a deep rhythm. Hambone meandered by and idly tapped out a beat, and I found myself singing "Minnie the Moocher," and everyone joined in on the call-and-response. It was great, until I realised that I was singing for a crowd and shut my mouth. I didn't like singing for other people.
Not everyone was cut out to be a farmer. Good thing, too, or we would've starved to death waiting for the harvest. Still, there were people down at the gardens from sunup to sundown, clucking over their veggies.
The shit hit the fan one night as we were setting up to play. Lyman was sitting on Timson's piano, grinning wide enough to show us all his rotten chiclets. Three of his boys hung around close, and another four or five stood at a distance, sniggering.
Timson gave him a long, considering look. It was the kind of look I'd seen him give a humongous hunk of concrete in his plot one day, before he squatted down and hauled it out of the earth, like a 100 kilo spud.
Lyman grinned bigger. "I wanna talk to you," he said.
Timson nodded slowly. Hambone rapped out a nervous tatter with his fingernails on a beer bottle he'd been carrying around, but I didn't need his help to know that things were getting bad.
"This gardening thing is getting out of hand," Lyman said. "People are neglecting their duties."
"What duties?" Timson asked, in a low tone.
"Drilling with us. We got to be ready to defend our land."
Timson gave a little shake of his head.
Lyman jumped in with more: "People're getting too attached to this place. We'll have to move when the food runs out, and we can't take no garden with us."
Timson's look got more considering. He cocked his head. "Why do they have to defend it and get ready to leave? That seems like a bit of a contradiction to me."
Lyman's brow furrowed. If I'm making him sound a little dim, that's only because he was. "We'll defend it until the food runs out, then we'll move on." Jenna snickered. One of Lyman's boys reached out to smack her. Hambone drummed louder, Jenna batted his hand away.
I found myself saying, "What if the food doesn't run out? What if we grow enough of our own to stay alive?"
Lyman glared at me. "Is that how you want to live"
I said, "Sooner or later, all the cans will be gone."
Lyman waved a dismissive hand. "Someone will take care of that. I'm worried about this group. This city."
"So why not let us make sure we've got enough to eat?"
Lyman started forward and I jumped. "I told you! We need to defend the place! And we need to be ready to go if we can't!"
Timson interceded. "What does this have to do with me?"
Lyman spread his hands out. "I want you to shut down the garden. We were doing just fine without it. I don't like to see people wasting their time."
Timson said, "It's not mine to shut down." He nodded at Jenna, who was glaring daggers at the goon who'd tried to smack her.
"Not mine, either," she said, with barely controlled fury. "It's everyone's."
Lyman said, "Well, you just tell everyone that the garden's got to be shut down."
He slid off the piano and took off, goons in tow. One of them contrived to bump into me hard enough to make me drop my horn, and I had to snag it up quick before he stomped it.
Steve showed up, looking pissed, which meant that he was worried. "What was that all about?" he said.
"What was what all about?" Timson said, and propped a book up on his music-stand.
They trashed the gardens two nights later, while we played. I wouldn't have thought that pack of lazy bastards had it in them to haul enough gravel to cover all the beds, especially not at night, but that's what they did. They kicked up the plants, and smashed the makeshift tools that the gardeners had left.
They didn't even have the smarts to steer clear of us the next day. Instead, they waited until a shocked crowd had gathered, and then showed up with big grins. Lyman had a pistol shoved in his waistbelt. I'd seen it before, and I didn't think it worked, but you never knew.
"Good morning!" Lyman said, stomping across the murdered beds. "How's everybody doing today?"
Timson hefted his pole and looked significantly at the militia. A number of people in the crowd got the idea. Lyman's boys looked uneasy.
Lyman said, "We've been chasing off rovers to the north every day and more are coming. Things are getting rough. We'll need volunteers for the militia. You've all got spare time now."
I'd never even harvested a single tomato from my plot. I could see the smashed green buds that I'd been nurturing.
Jenna said, "Who's got any spare time? It's going to take us days to clean up this mess." She stooped and picked up a stone and tossed it away from the beds. "Lucky I got more seeds."
I bent and picked up a rock of my own and tossed it. I wanted to toss it at Lyman, but Jenna had set an example.
Not everyone followed it. A lot wandered off, to prospect or to with Lyman. I couldn't blame them -- I felt like giving up.
Over the next week or two, the plots started to get back into shape. Occasionally, Lyman would cruise by and glare, and we'd try to ignore him. He and his boys would walk across the plots, talking loudly about running off wanderers. Some of his boys had been planting gardens not long before. It made me boil.
I got it out at nights, when we played. The crowd had diminished. Anyone who had anything to do with Lyman stayed away. Those left behind were more into it than ever. A lot of them sang along, to Steve's chagrin. Some of them were pretty good.
Lyman hadn't trashed the beds again. I knew he hadn't given up. I waited, nervously, for the other shoe to drop.
It didn't take long. One night, our set ended early because of rain, which always made Hambone nervous. I led him back to his cave and was met on the trail by Lyman, dripping and grinning.
There was no small talk. He put a hand on my chest. "When you going to stop pussying around and help us defend ourselves?"
"I'm a little busy right now. Why don't you ask me again in a couple of centuries?" Hambone started doing a little shuffle.
Lyman gave him a fist in the ear. His head spun around, and I saw the knot of scar at the base of his skull strain. He turned back around and started shuffling. Lyman drew his arm back.
"Jesus, Lyman, what the hell is your problem?" I said.
He turned and popped me right in the mouth, splitting my lip and loosening one of my teeth. I'm proud of my teeth: I brushed 'em every morning and every night, and they were in better shape than most. I clutched my mouth. Lyman kicked me down, then walked away, stepping hard on my chest as he walked past me.
I led Hambone back up to his cave, and slept there.
I felt so bad the next morning, I almost didn't go back to the gardens. My face ached, and I couldn't blow a single note.
But I dragged myself down anyway. I was feeling stubborn.
Timson had a black eye and a limp, but he grinned like a pirate when he saw me. "How many?" he said.
"Just Lyman," I said.
He snorted. "They sent six for me. None of 'em are feeling too good this morning, I bet. Couple of them won't be walking for a while." He showed me his hands. His knuckles were raw.
"Can you play?" I asked, wincing in sympathy.
"Probably." He yanked a weed out of a plot. "I can garden."
Jenna got away unscathed. No one, not even Timson, was sure where she slept. I'd thought it was a weird quirk, but I realised that she knew what she was doing.
We worked together in the garden that day, the three of us and Hambone. No one else showed up. Some of the early berries were ripe, so we ate them. "Hey," I said, pointing at a plane. "You still plan on making that long-distance call? New Zealand?"
Jenna wiped the sweat off her forehead. "Once we've got this crop in. I don't know that we'd be let back in if we left."
I conceded the point.
That night, Timson played as best as he could, and I confined myself to the occasional sour blat on the horn. The crowd was subdued, and grew more so when Lyman and his boys showed up.
Steve called the set over early, then went and chatted with Lyman. Pretty soon they were whooping it up. Timson and I shared disgusted looks. "Fuck this," he said, and stalked away.
Jenna and me and Hambone went and sat in the gardens, where Hambone played a soft racket with my pole.
"I don't think we'll play again," I said.
"Come on," she said, dismissively. "This'll blow over. You guys are good, you should play."
"Who gives a damn if we're good or not? It's just a band."
She stared at Hambone for a while. "You ever wonder why I stayed here?" she said, finally.
"Tired, I guess. Same as me."
"I'd been looking for a place to grow a garden for a long time. A place where they were starting over, not just doing the same old stuff. And one day, I'm wandering along, and I heard you guys. I thought I'd found civilization. Before I could figure out exactly where the sound was coming from, I spotted some of Lyman's boys and hid. I hid out until I heard the music the next day, and then I snuck in. And I said, 'Girl, here's a place where they still have something besides eating and killing and screwing.' So I settled. I let you use my precious seeds. I think if you guys give up playing, this place will dry up and fly away in a couple of years."
"Unless we get rescued by Kiwis first," I said, playfully. I grinned, and my lip started bleeding again. "Ow," I said.
She laughed, and I laughed.
Steve avoided the band for a week. We didn't play, even after my lip had healed. Everyone was tense, ready to blow.
Then the gardens got trashed again. This time, they did it in broad daylight, while Timson and Jenna and I glared at them. It wasn't just Lyman and his pals, either: almost everyone came out, including a number of former gardeners. And Steve.
Timson walked away. Even Lyman's boys had the sense not to taunt him. Jenna and I stared as our beds were murdered again. They did a thorough job, sowing the soil with gravel and crap like nails and glass. Some of the former gardeners avoided our gaze, but other than that, there was no remorse. I shook.
Jenna led me away, with Hambone in tow. They weren't too scared to taunt us, and someone hit me with a dirt clod.
Jenna took me to a little cave whose entrance was hidden by an overhang from an I-beam. Jenna cleared some debris from the doorway, then led me inside.
It was claustrophobic and dark inside, and a bedroll was spread out on the floor beside a giant internal-frame pack.
The three of us sat in silence. Jenna's shoulders shook. Tentatively, I reached out for her and she hugged tight to me. Hambone clapped the buckles of her pack's straps together.
I held her there for a long time. Eventually, she tried to pull away, but I held on, and she relaxed into me. It had been a long time since I'd held a woman like that, and I found myself clutching her tighter. A warm, fluttery feeling filled my belly. I tried to kiss her.
She shoved me away abruptly. "Fuck off!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"Jesus, put it back in your pants!"
"What's your problem?" I said.
"My problem is I thought you were my friend. All of a sudden, you start grabassing. Get out, you goddamned letch!" She shoved at me. I scrambled out and slogged home.
I stayed in bed until noon, wallowing in self-pity. Then I cracked a bottle of vodka out of my larder and killed it. It had been a while since my last bender, but it all came back just fine. Before I knew it, I was huffing from a rag soaked in solvent, reeling and dazed. I stayed stoned until I fell asleep, then got up and felt so rotten that I started over again.
I knew I was sulking, but I didn't see any reason to stop. The band was gone, the gardens were gone, Jenna was gone.
I realized that I'd spent the decade since the War waiting for someone to rebuild civilization, and that it wasn't going to happen. It was just going to get worse, every single year. Even if we planted a million gardens, the best I could hope for was to die of old age in a cave, surrounded by my illiterate offspring.
It was enough to make me want to join the militia.
Eventually, I staggered out into the blinding light. I went to work on a hill, and that's where Timson found me.
He was flustered and angry, showing more emotion than he usually did. "Have you seen her?" he said.
"Who?" I said, blearily.
"Jenna. You haven't seen her?"
"No," I said, guiltily, "not since Lyman --"
"Shit!" he said, and spun on his heel, taking off.
His urgency penetrated my fog and I chased after him. "You think something's up?" I said.
He nodded grimly. "Lyman's been too smug lately, like the cat that ate the cream. I think he's got her."
"Where would he keep her?" I said. There wasn't much standing that you could keep a person locked up inside of.
"Those assholes have an 'armory' where they keep all their goddamn weapons. He's said as much to me, when he was bragging. I want to find it."
"Hang on a sec," I said. "Have you checked her place?"
"You know where it is?" he asked, surprised.
"Come on," I said, feeling perversely proud that he didn't.
She wasn't at her place, but there were signs of a struggle. Her pack was shredded, her seeds ground into the concrete floor.
Timson took one look and tore off. I followed his long strides as best as I could. I knew where he was headed: Steve's.
Steve lived in part of an half-buried underground shopping mall. Timson pummeled down the stairs with me close behind.
Steve and Lucy were twined on a pile of foam rubber. Timson hauled him up by the arm and slammed his head against a wall.
"Where's the armory?" he roared.
Steve held his head. "Fuck you," he sneered.
Timson slammed his head again. Lucy rushed him from behind and I tripped her.
"Where is it?" Timson said. "Don't make me any angrier."
Steve dangled, nude, from Timson's meaty paws. Terror and anger warred on his features. Terror won. He spilled his guts. "They'll kill you," he said. "They've been fighting off wanderers all week. They're in a bad mood."
Timson snorted and dropped him.
Lyman was expecting us. He blocked the entrance to the armory, a bomb-shelter with a heavy, counterweighted steel door. I'd seen a few doors like it in my travels, but I'd never managed to get one open.
Timson got ready to rush him, then checked himself. Lyman had his gun hanging lazily off one hand.
"Afternoon, boys," he said, grinning.
"Are you going to shoot me?" Timson said.
Lyman held up his gun with an expression of mock-surprise. "Probably not," he said. "Not unless you give me a reason to. I'm here to protect."
"Well, I'm about to give you a reason to. I'm going in there to get Jenna. I'll kill you if you try to stop me."
Lyman stuck his gun back into his waistband. "You're too late," he said.
I saw red and started forward, but he held a hand up.
"She got away. We only wanted to scare her off and get rid of her seeds, but she went nuts. It's a good thing she got away, or I would've forgotten my manners."
Lyman took a step backwards. "Look, if you don't believe me, go on in and take a look around, be my guest."
Jenna wasn't inside, but they weren't kidding when they called it an arsenal. I hadn't seen that many weapons since the War. It made me faintly sick.
Then I spotted something that froze me in my tracks. Beneath one of the long tables, a dented silver canister with ugly biohazard decals. You saw fragments of them sometimes, exploded in the midst of plague-wracked corpses. A plague-bomb.
Lyman strutted around like a proud papa. "Lots of these were here when I found the place, but we've picked up a few here and there along the way. Nobody's chasing us out of here." He followed my horrified gaze.
"You like it?" he said. "That's just in case someone does manage to run us off: it won't do them any good! Our Final Solution." He patted the bomb with a proprietary air.
All of a sudden, it got to me. I started laughing. "Nobody's chasing you out!" I gasped. "This is your rubble, and nobody's chasing you out!" Timson started laughing, too. Lyman and his boys reddened. We left.
We found Jenna with Hambone, in his cave. She had the remains of her pack with her, and was shoveling Hambone's things into it.
She startled when we came in, but once she'd seen us, she went back to packing. "Getting outta Dodge," she said, in answer to our unspoken question.
"Are you all right?" I asked, feeling guilty and awful.
"They killed my seeds," she said, in a hopeless voice. I started to reach for her, then stopped and stared at the floor.
She finished packing and grabbed Hambone. "You coming?"
Timson shouldered her pack, answering for both of us.
I'd settled seven years before. I thought I'd stayed in good shape, but I'd forgotten how punishing life on the road could be.
Jenna set a brutal pace. She wouldn't talk to me any more than necessary. We ate sparingly, from what she scrounged on the way. She knew a lot about what was edible and what wasn't, skills I'd never picked up, but my belly still growled.
"Where are we going?" I said, after a week. My feet had toughened, but my legs felt like they'd been beaten by truncheons.
Instead of answering, she pointed up at a plane overhead. Of course, I thought, time to make a long-distance call.
A week later, I said, "Have you thought this thing through? I mean, the station may be automated, but it'll have defenses. Locks, at least. How do you plan on getting in?"
Timson, who'd been silent the whole morning, said, "I'm curious, too. I've been thinking: this Australia thing is kind of far-fetched, isn't it? If they wanted to rescue us, they would've done it a long time ago, don't you think?"
"Screw Australia," she said impatiently. "Any station capable of maintaining those jets is bound to have lots of things we can use. I want a fence for my garden."
"But how are we going to get in?" I said.
"Hambone," she said, with a smug smile.
Hambone grinned affably. "Guh?" I said.
"He's a pilot. High ranking one, too."
"Not to repeat myself," I said, "but, guh?"
She spun Hambone around and pulled his shaggy hair away from the collar of his grimy tee-shirt. "Look." I did. She dug at the knot of scar-tissue at the base of his skull. Horrified, I watched as the scar flapped back, revealing a row of plugs, ringed with cracked and blackened skin.
"Brainstem interface. I noticed it the first time I saw you guys. You never noticed?"
"I noticed the scar, sure --"
"Scar?" she said. She flapped it around. "It's a dustcover! Hambone's wired! We'll just point his retinas at the scanner and voila, instant entry. Damn, you didn't think I was going to try and hop the fence, did you?"
Timson grinned sheepishly. "Well, actually..."
We reached the station the next day. The familiar roar of the jets was joined by the ear-shattering sound of them landing and taking off, like clockwork.
The airfield was fenced in by a lethal wall, ten meters tall and ringed with aged corpses. A lot of slow learners had found out the hard way about the station's defenses.
We wandered the perimeter for several kilometers before we came to a gate. It had a retinal scanner, like I sometimes found when I unearthed the remains of a bank machine. Hambone grew more and more agitated as we neared it.
"Go on," Jenna whispered. "Come on, you can do it."
His nervous drumming became more and more pronounced, until he was waving his arms, flailing wildly.
Jenna caught his hands and held them tightly. "That's all right," she cooed. "It's all right, come on."
Centimeter by slow centimeter, Jenna coaxed Hambone to the scanner. Finally, he put his eyes against the battered holes. Red light played over his features, and the gates sighed open.
We were all still standing around and grinning like idiots before we noticed that Hambone was running across the airfield.
He was already halfway to a jet. We caught up with him as he was vaulting the extruded ladder. An armored cart that had been attached to the fuselage reeled in its umbilicus and rolled away.
Hambone was already seated in the pilot's chair, punching at the buttons. A cable snaked from the back of his seat into the plugs on his neck. I had time to think, That's weird, and then the plane lurched forward. The cockpit had seats for a copilot and a bombardier, and we all crammed in like sardines, Jenna on my lap, and we crushed together when the plane jolted.
"Holy shit!" Jenna shouted.
Hambone drummed the his fingers against an instrument panel while he pulled back on a joystick. "Strap in!" Timson shouted.
I did, pulling crash-webbing across us.
"Hambone, what the hell are you doing?" Jenna shouted.
He grinned affably, and the plane lifted off.
Hambone flew the plane confidently, with small, precise movements. Jenna, Timson and I stared at each other helplessly. The jet had taken off at a screaming climb, that flattened us back against our seats -- I noted with curious detachment that Hambone's seat had a recessed niche so that the cables depending from his skull weren't compressed.
In an instant, we were above the clouds, with only tiny patches of scorched earth visible.
The silence inside the cockpit rang inside my ears. For the first time in seven years, I couldn't hear jets crashing overhead.
"Hey, Hambone?" I said, cautiously.
Jenna shushed me. "Don't distract him," she whispered.
It was good advice. Timson stared at the instrument panels.
"I think," he whispered, "that we're headed out to sea."
Jenna and I groaned. Hambone reached out with one hand and unlatched a compartment that spilled out freeze-dried rations.
"At least we won't starve to death," Timson whispered.
"Why are we whispering?" I said.
"So Hambone doesn't get panicked," Jenna said.
"He never gets panicked," I said in a normal tone. Hambone unwrapped a bar of fruit leather and munched thoughtfully at it, while his fingers danced over the controls.
"He never flies planes, either," she hissed.
"We're over the ocean now. Pacific, I think," Timson said. He'd done something with the seat that caused it to slide back into a crawlspace, and were still cramped, but at least we weren't in each other's laps. I looked out the window. Yup, ocean.
I started shivering.
"We're going to die," I said.
"Probably," Jenna said. She giggled.
I punched her playfully and my panic receded.
Timson started playing with one of the panels.
"What are you doing?" I said, alarmed.
"Trying to figure out where we're going. Don't worry, this is the co-pilot's seat. I don't think I can screw up the navigation from here unless he turns it over to me." Ragged and filthy, he looked like a caveman next to the sleek controls.
"You don't think?" I said.
He waved impatiently at me, poked some more. "OK," he said. "Hambone's taking us to Australia."
I always knew that Hambone had heard the things we'd said. Still, it was easy to forget. We took turns trying to convince him to head back. After a few hours, we gave up. Timson said that we'd crossed the halfway mark, anyway. We were closer to Australia than home.
Then there was nothing to do but eat and wait.
Eventually, some of the instruments lit and I thought, This is it, we're dead. Curiously, I wasn't scared. I'd been scared so long, and now I was bored, almost glad that it was ending.
"Bogeys," Timson said, staring out the window.
I looked up. Two sleek, new fighters were paralleling us. Inside their cockpits, I could see pilots in what looked like space-suits. I waved to one. He tapped his headset.
Jenna said, "They're trying to radio us."
Timson picked up a lightweight headset from a niche above his seat. He screwed it into his ear and held up a finger.
"Hello?" he said. We held our breath.
"Yes, that's us," he said.
"What?" I said. He shushed me.
"All right," he said.
"What?" I shouted, startling Hambone. Jenna clapped a hand over my mouth.
"I'm sorry, I don't know how. Do you know which button I push? I see. All right, I think this is it. I'm going to push it. Is that all right? OK, thanks. Bye."
I peeled Jenna's hand off my mouth. "What?" I demanded.
"That's the Panoceanic Air Force. They're landing us at Sydney. We'll be quarantined when we get there, but I think it's just a formality."
The lights in the cockpit dimmed and the cable zipped out of Hambone's neck.
Absently, he reached back and smoothed the dustcover over the plugs. "They're landing us," Timson said.
I leaned back and sighed. I like Hambone a lot, but I'd rather not have an autistic flying my plane, thank you very much.
I was reaching for another bar of fruit-leather when the plane took a tremendous lurch that pressed Jenna and me against the crash-webbing hard enough to draw blood on our exposed skin. I heard a sickening crack and looked around wildly, terrified that it was someone's skull. In the juddering chaos, I saw Timson, face white, arm hanging at a nauseating, twisted angle.
We jolted again, and I realized that I was screaming. I closed my mouth, but the screaming continued. Out of the bombardier's porthole, I saw the air convecting across the shuddering wings, and realized that the screaming was the air whistling over the fuselage. The ground rushed towards us.
Jenna's head snapped back into my nose, blinding me with pain, and then we were tumbling through the cockpit. Jenna had released the crash-webbing altogether and was ping-ponging around Hambone. I saw her claw at the dustcover on his neck before she was tossed to the floor.
I pried my fingers loose from the armrests on my chair and came forward to Hambone. I straddled him, legs around his waist, and suppressed my gorge as I scrabbled at what I still thought of as his "scar" until it peeled back. My fingertips skated over the plugs and the knots of skin around them, and then I did toss up, spraying vomit and losing my grip on Hambone.
I ended up atop Jenna. The plane screamed down and down and I locked eyes with Hambone, silently begging him to do something. His gaze wandered, and my eyes stopped watering long enough to see Hambone do something to his armrest which caused the cabling on his seat to snake out and mate with his brainstem. The plane leveled off and he smiled at us.
It couldn't have taken more than thirty seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime. Timson cursed blue at his arm, which was swollen and purple, and Jenna cradled her bumped head in arms that streamed blood from dozens of crisscrossed webbing cuts. I got us strapped in as we touched down.
We got escorted off the ship by a bunch of spacemen with funny accents. They didn't take us to the hospital until they'd scrubbed us and taken blood. They wanted to take Hambone away, but we were very insistent. The spacemen told us that he was very "high functioning," and that the plugs in the back of his neck were only rated for about five years.
"They'll have to come out," one of them explained to us. "Otherwise, he'll only get worse."
Jenna said, "If you take them out, will he get better?"
The spaceman shrugged. "Maybe. It's a miracle that he's still bloody alive, frankly. Bad technology."
They de-quarantined us a month later. I'd never been cleaner. Those Aussies are pretty worried about disease.
The four of us took a flat near Bondi Beach. Timson found a job in a bookstore, and Jenna spends most of her time working with Hambone. Some days, I think she's getting through to him.
I'm on the Dole and feeling weird about it. I can't get used to the idea of just showing up at someone else's place and taking handouts. But the Aussies don't seem to mind. Very progressive people. They ran our story on the news and a music store in Canberra donated a bugle and an electric piano.
I'm teaching Jenna to blow. It's not that I don't like playing anymore, but it's hard to sing and play at the same time. All four of us practice every night, out in our garden. We still flinch every eight bars, waiting for the roar of a jet to interrupt us, then smile sheepishly when it doesn't come. The important thing is, we're playing.
Even an interloper like me knows how you get to Sydney Opera House: practice.
BioCory Doctorow is the author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, A Place So Foreign and Eight More and the forthcoming Eastern Standard Tribe. He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing and is a frequent columnist and journalist, contributing to Wired, Business 2.0, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and others. He is currently at work on two more novels and an anthology.