Swan song, p.25
Swan Song, p.25Robert McCammon
Headlights darkened, three rows of army of Excellence vehicles moved slowly across the parking lot as howling winds blew snow in blinding crosscurrents. Visibility was cut to nine or ten feet in all directions, but the blizzard had given the aOE a chance to clear some of the debris off the parking lot with two of its three bulldozers. They'd shoved the frozen corpses and twisted metal into huge heaps on either side of what the aOE infantrymen now called "Death Valley. "
Roland rode in his Jeep at the center of the first row, with Sergeant McCowan behind the wheel. Under his coat he wore a shoulder holster with a . 38 in it, and at his side was an M-16. On the floorboard, behind his right boot, were a flare gun and two red flares.
He knew it was going to be a very good day.
Soldiers rode on the hoods, trunks and fenders of the vehicles, adding weight to help traction. Behind the advancing waves followed twelve hundred more aOE soldiers. Captain Carr controlled the left flank, and on the far side of Roland's Jeep Captain Wilson was in command of the right. Both of them, along with the other officers involved in Operation Crucify, had gone over the plans with Roland several times, and Roland had told them exactly what he expected. There was to be no hesitation when the signals were given, and the maneuvers had to be done precisely as Roland had outlined. There was to be no retreat, Roland had told them; the first man who shouted a retreat was to be shot on the field. and as the orders were given and the plan gone over again and again Colonel Macklin had sat silent behind his desk.
Oh, yes! Roland thought, delirious with a keen mingling of excitement and fear. It's going to be a good day!
The vehicles continued to advance, foot by foot, the noise of their engines covered by the shriek of the wind.
Roland wiped snow from his goggles. Down the first line of trucks and cars, soldiers began to slide off the hoods and fenders and scrabble forward on their hands and knees across the snow. They were members of the Recon Brigade that Roland had organized - small, fast men who could get up close to the allegiance defensive line without being seen. Roland strained forward in his seat, watching for the allegiance's bonfires. Even now, he knew, the Recon Brigade soldiers were taking up positions on the far left and right flanks, and they would be the first to open fire when the signals were given. If the Recon Brigade successfully drew enemy attention to the far left and far right of the defensive line, there might be a hole of confusion right in the center - and it was there that Roland planned to pierce.
Orange light flickered ahead - firelight, glowing from one of the bonfires on the defensive line. Roland cleared his goggles again, saw the glint of another bonfire to the left and maybe thirty yards away. He picked up the flare gun and loaded one flare into the breech. Then, with the second flare in his gloved left hand, he stood up in the Jeep and waited for the assault wave to close another five yards.
Now! Roland decided, and he aimed the flare gun just over the windshields of the vehicles on the left flank. He squeezed the trigger, and the gun coughed; the brilliant crimson flare streaked away, and the first signal had been delivered. The vehicles on the left side began to pivot, the entire line veering further left. Roland quickly reloaded and delivered the second signal on the right flank. The vehicles on that side slowed and began to veer to the right.
Sergeant McCowan, too, cut the wheel to the right side. The tires skidded over the snow for a few seconds before they responded. Roland was counting the time down: eight. . . seven. . . six. . .
He saw quick white flashes of gunfire from the far left flank, right up on the allegiance's defensive line, and he knew the Recon Brigade on that side had gone to work.
. . . five. . . four. . .
Gunfire erupted on the far right flank. Roland saw sparks fly as bullets ricocheted off metal.
. . . three. . . two. . .
On the left side, the aOE vehicles suddenly turned on their headlights, the blinding shafts of light spearing through the snow and into the eyes of the allegiance sentries not more than ten yards away. a fraction of a second later, the headlights on the right side came on. Machine-gun bullets, fired in blind panic by a sentry, threw up plumes of snow six feet in front of Roland's Jeep.
. . . one, Roland counted.
and the massive thing - half machine and half a construction from a medieval nightmare - that had been following thirty feet behind the command Jeep suddenly roared forward, its treads flattening corpses and debris, its steel scoop raised to shield against gunfire. Roland watched the huge war machine as it swept past, gaining speed, heading for the center of the enemy's defenses. "Go!" Roland shouted. "Go! Go!"
Mangrim's brainchild was powered by the third bulldozer, its driver inside an armor-plated cab; but towed by steel cables behind the bulldozer was a wide wooden platform with truck axles and wheels attached. Rising from the platform was an intricate wooden framework, made from sturdy telephone poles bolted and lashed together to support a central staircase that ascended more than seventy feet into the air. The stairs had been taken from houses in the dead residential district around the shopping center. The long staircase curved slightly forward at the pinnacle and ended in a ramp that could be unhinged and dropped outward like the drawbridge of a castle. Barbed wire and scavenged pieces of metal from wrecked cars covered the outside surfaces, with gunports cut here and there on several of the staircase landings. To help support the weight, some of the telephone poles had been driven onto iron spikes bolted to the bulldozer, and they thrust upward to hold the war machine steady.
Roland knew what it was. He'd seen pictures of them in books.
alvin Mangrim had built a siege tower, like medieval armies had used to storm fortified castles.
and then the bulldozer's upraised scoop crashed into a mailman's armored truck that was covered with graffiti like LOVE THE SaVIOR and KILL IN THE NaME OF LOVE and began to shove it backward, out of the defensive line. The mailman's truck slammed into a car, and the car was crushed between it and an armored Toyota van as the bulldozer pressed forward, its engine screaming and the treads throwing back wakes of snow. The siege tower shivered and creaked like arthritic bones, but it was built strong, and it held.
Gunfire flared from the left and right flanks of the allegiance's defenses, but the soldiers who manned the center were forced back in confusion, some of them being crushed to death at once as the bulldozer came powering through. Through the hole the bulldozer had opened rushed a swarm of shouting aOE infantrymen, dealing out more death from their guns. Bullets whined and sparked off metal, and further down the line a gas tank was hit and exploded, lighting up the battleground with a hellish glare.
The bulldozer pushed the wreckage aside and kept going. When its steel shovel slammed against the fortress's wall, the driver cut his engine and locked the brakes. a truck loaded with soldiers and ten drums of gasoline roared through the hole the bulldozer and siege tower had broken open and skidded to a stop alongside. as other infantrymen supplied a covering fire, some of the soldiers began to unload the gasoline drums while the rest, who carried coils of rope, ran to the siege tower and started up the steps. at the top, they unlocked the ramp and shoved it forward; on the underside of the ramp were hundreds of long nails, which dug into the snow on the mall's roof as the ramp fell into place. Now there was a seven-foot-long wooden bridge connecting the tower and the roof. One by one the soldiers ran across it, and once on the roof they began to drop the ends of their ropes to the men who were rolling the gasoline drums against the wall. The ropes were already looped and knotted, and as one was slipped around the end of a drum another was tied to the other end. The drums of gasoline were hauled up to the roof, one after the other, in quick succession.
More soldiers streamed up the siege tower, took their places at the gunports and fired down at the mass of allegiance infantry, who were retreating toward the mall's entrance. and then the soldiers on the rooftop began to roll the gasoli
Standing up in his Jeep, Roland saw flame leap into the night through the shattered skylight. "We've got them!" he shouted. "Now we've got them!"
Beneath the skylight, in the shopping mall's crowded atrium, men, women and children were dancing to Roland Croninger's tune. More gasoline drums plummeted through the skylight, exploding like napalm bombs in the conflagration. Within two minutes the entire floor of the atrium was awash with blazing gasoline. Hundreds of bodies were charring as hundreds more tried to fight free, trampling their brothers and sisters, clawing for a breath of air in the firestorm.
Now the rest of the army of Excellence vehicles were crashing into the allegiance's defensive line, and the air burned with bullets. a flaming figure ran past Roland's Jeep and was broken like a straw doll beneath the wheels of an oncoming truck. The allegiance soldiers were panicking, not knowing which way to run, and the ones who tried to fight were slaughtered. Smoke was streaming from the mall's entrance, and still the men on the rooftop continued to drop the gasoline drums. Roland heard the explosions even over the screams and gunfire.
army of Excellence soldiers were breaking into the mall. Roland picked up his M-16 and jumped from the Jeep, running through the confusion of bodies toward the entrance. a tracer bullet streaked past his face, and he tripped and fell over mangled bodies, but he got up again and kept going. His gloves had turned crimson, and somebody's blood covered the front of his coat. He liked the color; it was the color of a soldier.
Inside the mall he was surrounded by dozens of aOE infantry who were shooting at enemy soldiers in the stores. Gray smoke churned through the air, and people on fire came running down the corridor, but most of them crumpled before they got very far. The floor shook with the blasts as the final gasoline drum blew, and Roland felt a sickening wave of heat from the atrium ahead. He smelled the intoxicating reek of burning flesh, hair and clothes. More explosions jarred the floor, and Roland thought it must be the allegiance's ammunition going off. allegiance soldiers started throwing aside their guns and coming out of the stores, begging for mercy. They received none.
"You! You! and you!" Roland shouted, pointing out three soldiers. "Follow me!" He raced in the direction of the bookstore.
The atrium was a solid mass of flame. The heat was so terrible that the hundreds of corpses were beginning to liquefy, oozing and melting together. Searing winds screamed around the walls. Roland's coat was smoking as he ran past the atrium into the corridor that led to the bookstore. The three soldiers followed right behind.
But Roland suddenly stopped, his eyes widening with terror.
One of the allegiance's tanks - the Love Bug - was parked in front of the B. Dalton store.
The soldier behind him said, "Oh Je - "
The tank's main cannon fired; there was an ear-cracking boom that blew the rest of the glass from the store's windows. But the cannon's elevation was too high, and the shell's hot wake threw Roland and the other men to the ground as it passed four feet overhead. It pierced the roof at the end of the corridor without exploding and blasted like a thunderclap about fifty feet in the air, killing most of the soldiers who had dropped the gasoline drums.
Roland and the soldiers opened fire, but their bullets pinged harmlessly off armor. The tank jerked forward, began to grind toward them and then stopped, backed up and started turning to the right. Its turret began to rotate, and then the cannon went off again, this time knocking a truck-sized hole through the brick wall. There was a noise of gears grinding and stripping, and with a backfire that gouted gray smoke the multimillion-dollar machine shuddered and stopped.
Either the driver doesn't know what he's doing, Roland thought, or the tank's a lemon!
The hatch opened. a man popped up with his arms raised. "Don't shooti" he shouted. "Please don't - "
He was interrupted by the force of bullets passing through his face and neck, and he slithered back into the tank.
Two allegiance soldiers with rifles appeared at the B. Dalton entrance and started shooting. The aOE infantryman to Roland's right was killed, but in another few seconds the firefight was over and the two allegiance men lay riddled. The way into the bookstore was clear.
Roland dove to the floor as a shot rang out, closely followed by a second. The other two men fired repeatedly into the gloom at the back of the store, but there was no more enemy resistance.
Roland kicked the storeroom door open and leapt to one side, ready to fill the room with bullets if any more soldiers were in there guarding the Savior.
But there was no movement, no sound.
a single oil lantern glowed within the storeroom. His rifle ready, Roland darted in and crouched on the floor.
The Savior, wearing a lime-green coat and beige slacks with patched knees, was sitting in his chair. His hands gripped the armrests. His head was tilted back, and Roland could see the fillings in his molars.
Blood was trickling from a bullet hole between his eyes. a second bullet hole was black and scorched against the lime-green coat over his heart. as Roland watched, the Savior's hands suddenly opened and closed in a convulsion. But he was dead. Roland knew very well what a dead man looked like.
Something moved just beyond the light.
Roland aimed his rifle. "Come out. Now. Your hands above your head. "
There was a long pause, and Roland almost squeezed off a few rounds - but then the figure stepped into the light, hands upraised. In one hand was a . 45 automatic.
It was Brother Timothy, his face ashen. and Roland knew he'd been right; he was sure the Savior wouldn't let Brother Timothy very far from his side.
"Drop the gun," Roland ordered.
Brother Timothy smiled faintly. He brought his hands down, turned the . 45's barrel toward his own temple and squeezed the trigger.
"No!" Roland shouted, already moving forward to stop him.
But the . 45 clicked. . . and clicked. . . and clicked.
"I was supposed to kill him," Brother Timothy said as the . 45 continued clicking on an empty clip. "He told me to. He said the heathen had won, and that my last act was to deliver him from the hands of the heathen. . . and then to deliver myself. That's what he told me. He showed me where to shoot him. . . in two places. "
"Put it down," Roland said.
Brother Timothy grinned, and a tear streaked from each eye. "But there were only two bullets in the gun. How was I supposed to deliver myself. . . if there were only two bullets in the guni"
He continued clicking the trigger until Roland took the gun, and then he sobbed and crumpled to his knees.
The floor shook as the atrium's roof, weakened by the flames, seven years of neglect and the tons of water from melted snow, collapsed onto the burning corpses. Most of the gunfire had stopped. The. battle was almost over, and Roland had won his prize.
One afternoon, as new snow drifted across Mary's Rest, a panel truck with a sagging suspension entered town from the north. Its backfiring engine immediately made it the center of attention - but new people were coming in almost every day now, some in beat-up old cars and trucks, some in horse-drawn wagons, and most on foot, with their belongings in cardboard boxes or suitcases, so newcomers didn't draw the curiosity they once had.
Painted in big red letters on both sides of the truck was THE JUNKMaN. The driver's name was Vulcevic, and he and his wife, two sons and daughter had been following the pattern of a new society of wanderers - staying in a settlement long enough to find food and water and rest and then realizing there must be a better place somewhere else. Vulcevic was a former bus driver
For the past two weeks he'd been hearing rumors from people they'd met on the road: ahead was a town called Mary's Rest, and in that town there's a spring with water as sweet as the Fountain of Youth's. They've got a cornfield there, and apples fall from the sky, and they've got a newspaper and they're building a church.
and in that town - so the rumors had gone - there's a girl named Swan who has the power of life.
Vulcevic and his family had the dark hair, eyes and olive complexions of generations of gypsy blood. His wife was particularly attractive, with a sharply chiseled, proud face, long back hair streaked with gray, and dark brown eyes that seemed to sparkle with light. Less than a week before, the helmet of growths that had covered her face and head had cracked open, and Vulcevic had left a lantern burning for the Virgin Mary in the midst of a snow-shrouded forest.
as Vulcevic drove deeper into town he did indeed see a waterhole, right out in the middle of the road. a bonfire burned just past it, and further along the road people were reconstructing a clapboard building that might have been a church. Vulcevic knew this was the place, and he did what he and his family had done in every settlement they'd come across: He stopped the truck in the road, and then his two boys opened the truck's sliding rear panel and started hauling out the boxes full of items for sale or trade, among which were many of their father's own inventions. Vulcevic's wife and daughter set up tables to display the goods on, and by that time Vulcevic had an old megaphone to his lips and had started his salesman's spiel: "Come on, folks, don't be shy! Step right up and see what the Junkman's brought you! Got handy appliances, tools and gadgets from all across the country! Got toys for the kiddies, antiques from a vanished age, and my own inventions specially designed to aid and delight in this modern age - and God knows we all need a little aid and delight, don't wei So step right up, come one, come all!"
People began to crowd around the tables, gawking at what the Junkman had brought: gaudy women's clothing, including spangled party dresses and color-splashed bathing suits; high-heeled shoes, penny loafers, saddle oxfords and jogging sneakers; men's short-sleeved summer shirts by the boxful, most of them still with their department store tags; can openers, frying pans, toasters, blenders, clocks, transistor radios and television sets; lamps, garden hoses, lawn chairs, umbrellas and bird feeders; yo-yos, hula hoops, boxed games like Monopoly and Risk, stuffed teddy bears, little toy cars and trucks, dolls and model airplane kits. Vulcevic's own inventions included a shaving razor that ran on the power of wound-up rubber bands, eyeglasses with little rubber-band-powered windshield wipers on the lenses, and a small vacuum cleaner run by a rubber-band-operated motor.
"What'll you take for thisi" a woman asked, holding up a glitter-covered scarf.
"Got any rubber bandsi" he inquired, but when she shook her head he told her to go home and bring back what she had to trade, and maybe they could do business.
"I'll trade for whatever you've got!" he told the crowd. "Chickens, canned food, combs, boots, wristwatches - you bring 'em and let's deal!" He caught a fragrant aroma in the air and turned to his wife. "am I going crazy," he asked her, "or do I smell applesi"
a woman's hand took an object off the table in front of Vulcevic. "That's a one-of-a-kind item right there, lady!" Vulcevic said. "Yes, ma'am! You don't see craftsmanship like that anymore! Go ahead! Shake it!"
She did. Tiny snowflakes flew over the roofs of a town within the glass ball she held.
"Pretty, huhi" Vulcevic asked.
"Yes," the woman answered. Her pale blue eyes watched the glittery flakes fall. "How much is iti"
"Oh, I'd say two cans of food at least. But. . . since you like it so much. . . " He paused, examining his potential customer. She was square-shouldered and sturdy, and she looked like she could spot a lie a mile off. She had thick gray hair trimmed just above her shoulders and brushed back from a widow's peak at her forehead. Her skin was smooth and unlined, like a newborn baby's, and it was hard to judge how old she was. Maybe her hair was prematurely gray, Vulcevic thought - but then again, something about her eyes was old, as if they'd seen and remembered a lifetime of struggle. She was a handsome woman, with even, lovely features - a regal look, Vulcevic decided, and he imagined that before the seventeenth of July she might have worn furs and diamonds and had a mansionful of servants. But there was kindness in her face, too, and he thought in the next second that maybe she'd been a teacher, or a social worker, or maybe a missionary. She held a leather satchel securely under her other arm. a businesswoman, Vulcevic thought. Yeah. That's what she used to be. Probably owned her own business. "Well," he said, "what have you got to trade, ladyi" He nodded toward the satchel.
She smiled slightly, her eyes meeting his. "You can call me Sister," she said. "and I'm sorry, but I can't give up what I've got in here. "
"Can't hold onto things forever," Vulcevic said, with a shrug. "Got to pass them along. That's the american way. "
"I guess so," Sister agreed, but she didn't loosen her grip on the satchel. She shook the glass ball again and watched the snowflakes whirl. Then she returned it to the table. "Thank you," she said. "I'm just looking. "
"Well, now!" Someone beside her reached into a box and lifted out a tarnished stethoscope. "Talk about relics!" Hugh Ryan hooked it around his neck. "How do I looki"
"Very professional. "
"I thought so. " Hugh couldn't help but stare at her new face, though he'd seen it often enough in the last two days. Robin had taken a few men back to the cave after Hugh and the rest of the boys and had brought all of them to live in Mary's Rest. "What'll you take for thisi" Hugh asked Vulcevic.
"a valuable thing like that. . . it depends. You know, I might run into a doctor someday who really would need it. I can't be selling that to just anybody. Uh. . . what'll you trade for iti"
"I think I can get you a few rubber bands. "
a giant figure stepped beside Sister, and Vulcevic looked up at a gnarled, growth-covered face as Hugh moved away. He flinched only a little bit, because he was used to such sights. The giant's arm was in a sling, and his broken fingers were bandaged and splinted with Popsicle sticks, courtesy of the town's new physician.
"How about thisi" Josh asked Sister, holding up a long black dress covered with shining spangles. "Do you think she'd like iti"
"Oh, yes. She'd look great at the next opera opening. "
"I think Glory would like it," he decided. "I mean. . . even if she didn't, she could use the material, couldn't shei I'll take this," he told Vulcevic, laying the dress across the table. "and this, too. " He picked up a green plastic toy tractor.
"Good choice. Uh. . . what've you got to tradei"
Josh hesitated. Then he said, "Wait a minute. I'll be right back," and he walked toward Glory's shack, limping on his left leg.
Sister watched him go. He was as strong as a bull, but the man with the scarlet eye had almost killed him. He had a badly sprained shoulder, a bruised left kneecap, three broken fingers and a fractured rib, and he was covered with abrasions and cuts that were still healing. Josh was very lucky to be alive. But the man with the scarlet eye had vacated his lair under the burned-out church; by the time Sister had gotten there, along with Paul, anna and a half-dozen men with rifles and shotguns, the man had gone, and though the hole had been watched around the clock for four days, he had not returned. The hole had been filled up, and work was proceeding on rebuilding the church.
But whether he'd left Mary's Rest or not Sister didn't know. She remembered the message Josh had brought back: "I'll make a human hand do the work. "
People pushed in around her, examining the items as if they were fragments of an alien culture. Sister browsed through the stuff - junk now, but years ago things no household would have been without. She picked up an egg timer
"That's only eight years old," Vulcevic told her. "You can figure out the dates from it if you count backwards. I like to keep up with the days, myself. Like today - it's the eleventh of June. Or the twelfth. anyway, one or the other. "
"Where'd you get all thisi"
"Here and there. We've been traveling for a long time. Too long, I guess. Hey! Interested in a nice silver locketi Seei" He flipped it open, but Sister glanced quickly away from the small yellowed photo of a smiling little girl inside it. "Oh," Vulcevic said, and he knew his salesmanship had gotten away from him. "Sorry. " He closed the locket. "Maybe I shouldn't sell this, huhi"
"No. You should bury it. "
"Yeah. " He put it away and regarded the low, dark snow clouds. "Some morning in June, huhi" He gazed around at the shacks while his two sons dealt with the customers. "How many people live herei"
"I'm not sure. Maybe five or six hundred. New people are coming in all the time. "
"I guess so. Looks like you've got a good water supply here. The houses aren't so bad. We've seen plenty worse. Know what we heard on the road coming herei" He grinned. "You've got a big cornfield, and apples fall out of the sky. Isn't that the funniest thing you've ever heardi"
"and there's supposed to be a girl here, named Swan or something like that, who can make crops grow. Just touch the dirt and they spring up! How about thati I tell you, the whole country would be dead if it wasn't for imagination. "
"are you planning on staying herei"
"Yeah, for a few days, at least. It looks okay. I'll tell you, we wouldn't go north again - no, ma'am!"
"Whyi What's northi"
"Death," Vulcevic said; he scowled, shook his head. "Some people have gone off their rockers. We heard that there's fighting going on up north. There's some kind of damned army up there, just this side of the Iowa line. Or what used to be Iowa. anyway, it's damned dangerous to go north, so we're heading south. "
"an armyi" Sister remembered Hugh Ryan telling her and Paul about the Battlelands. "What kind of armyi"
"The kind that kills you, lady! You know, men and guns. Supposed to be two or three thousand soldiers on the march up there, looking for people to kill. I don't know what the hell they're doing. Little tin bastards! Crap like that got us in the mess we're in!"
"Have you seen themi"
Vulcevic's wife had been listening, and now she stepped to her husband's side. "No," she told Sister, "but we saw the lights of their fires one night. They were in the distance, like a burning city. Right after that we found a man on the road - all cut up and half dead. He called himself Brother David, and he told us about the fighting. He said the worst of it was near Lincoln, Nebraska, but that they were still hunting down the Savior's people - that's what he said, and he died before we could make sense of it. But we turned south and got out of there. "
"You'd better pray they don't come through here," Vulcevic said to Sister. "Little tin bastards!"
Sister nodded, and Vulcevic went over to dicker with somebody about a wristwatch. If an army was indeed on the march this side of the Iowa line, it meant they might be within a hundred miles of Mary's Rest. My God! she thought. If two or three thousand "soldiers" swept into Mary's Rest, they'd smash it to the ground! and she thought also of what she'd been seeing lately in the glass ring, and she went cold inside.
almost at the same instant, she felt a frigid wave of - yes, she thought - of hatred wash over her, and she knew he was behind her, or beside her, or somewhere very near. She felt his stare on her, like a claw poised at the back of her neck. She whirled quickly around, her nerves screaming an alarm.
But all the people around her seemed interested only in what lay on the tables or in the boxes. There was no one staring at her, and now the frigid wave seemed to be ebbing, as if the man with the scarlet eye - wherever and whoever he was - had begun to move away.
Still, his cold presence lingered in the air. He was close. . . somewhere very close, hidden in the crowd.
She caught a sudden movement to her right, sensed a figure reaching for her. a hand was outstretched, about to touch her face. She turned and saw a man in a dark coat, standing too close for her to escape. She cringed backward - and then the man's slender arm glided past her face like a snake.
"How much for thisi" he asked Vulcevic. In his hand was a little windup toy monkey, chattering and banging two small cymbals together.
"What do you havei"
The man dug out a pocketknife and handed it over. Vulcevic examined it closely, then nodded. "It's yours, friend. " The other man smiled and gave the toy to a child who stood beside him, waiting patiently.
"Here," Josh Hutchins said as he came through the crowd back to the table. In his good hand he was carrying something wrapped up in brown cloth. "How about thisi" He put the cloth down on the table, next to the spangled black dress.
Vulcevic opened the cloth and stared numbly at what was inside. "Oh. . . my God," he whispered.
Lying in front of him were five ears of golden corn.
"I figured you might want one for each of you," Josh said. "Is that all righti"
Vulcevic picked one of them up as his wife stared spellbound over his shoulder. He smelled it and said, "It's real! My God, this is real! It's so fresh I can still smell the earth on it!"
"Sure. We've got a whole field of corn growing not too far from here. "
Vulcevic looked as if he might keel over.
"Welli" Josh asked. "Do we have a deal or noti"
"Yes. Yes. Sure! Take the dress! Take whatever you want. My God! This is fresh corn!" He looked over at the man who wanted the wristwatch. "Take it!" he said. "Hell, take a handful! Hey, lady! You want that scarfi It's yours! I can't. . . I can't believe this!" He touched Josh's good arm as Josh carefully picked up Glory's new dress. "Show me," he begged. "Please show me. It's been so long since I've seen anything growing! Please!"
"all right. I'll take you out to the field. " Josh motioned for him to follow.
"Boys! Watch the merchandise!" Vulcevic told his sons. and then he looked around at the faces of the crowd, and he said, "Hell! Give them whatever they want! They can have any of it!" He and his wife and daughter started following Josh out to the field, where the golden corn was ripening by the basketful.
Shaken and nervous, Sister was still aware of the cold presence. She began walking back to Glory's house, holding the satchel tightly under her arm. She still felt as if she were being watched, and if he was indeed out there somewhere, she wanted to get into the house and away from him.
She was almost at the porch when she heard a shouted "NO!" and, an instant later, the noise of the truck's engine roaring to life.
She whirled around.
The Junkman's truck was backing up, running over the tables and smashing the boxes of merchandise. People screamed and fled out of its path. Vulcevic's two sons were trying to climb up to get at the driver, but one of them stumbled and fell and the other wasn't quick enough. The truck's tires ran over a woman who had fallen to the ground, and Sister heard her back break. a child was in the way but was pulled to safety as the truck roared backward along the road. Then the truck swerved and veered, crashing into the front of another shack, and it started to turn around. The tires threw snow and dirt as the vehicle lurched forward, backfired and sped along the road out of Mary's Rest, heading north.
Sister got her feet moving, running to help some of the people who had fallen and narrowly missed being crushed. The Junkman's delights, antiques and inventions lay all over the street, and Sister saw things flying out of the rear of the truck as it rocketed away, skidded around a curve and went out of sight.
"He stole my dad's truck!" one of Vulcevic's sons was shouting, almost hysterical. "He stole my dad's truck!" The other boy ran off to get his father.
Sister had a feeling of dread that hit her in the stomach like a punch. She ran to the boy's side and grabbed his arm. He was still stunned, tears of anger streaming from his dark eyes. "Who was iti" she asked him. "What'd he look likei"
"I don't know! His face. . . I don't know!"
"Did he say anything to youi Think!"
"No. " The boy shook his head. "No. He just. . . was there. Right in front of me. and. . . and I saw him smile. Then he picked them up and ran to the truck. "
"Picked them upi Picked what upi"
"The corn," the boy said. "He stole the corn, too. "
Sister released his arm and stood staring along the road. Staring toward the north.
Where the army was.
"Oh, my God," Sister said hoarsely.
She held the leather satchel in both hands and felt the circle of glass within it. For the last two weeks she'd gone dream-walking in a nightmare land, where the rivers ran with blood and the sky was the color of open wounds and a skeleton on a skeletal horse reaped a field of humanity.
"I'll make a human hand do the work," he'd promised. "a human hand. "
Sister looked back at Glory's house. Swan was standing on the porch, wearing her patchwork coat of many colors, her gaze also directed to the north. Then Sister started walking toward her to tell her what had happened and what she feared was about to happen when the man with the scarlet eye reached that army and showed them the fresh corn. When he told them about Swan and made them understand that a march of a hundred miles was nothing to find a girl who could grow crops out of dead earth.
Enough crops to feed an army.
"Bring him in," Roland Croninger ordered.
The two sentries escorted the stranger up the steps to Colonel Macklin's trailer. Roland saw the stranger's left hand caress one of the demonic faces carved into the wood; in his right hand, the stranger carried something wrapped in brown cloth. Both sentries had their pistols pointed at the stranger's head, because he refused to give up the package, and he'd already snapped the arm of one soldier who'd tried to take it from him. He'd been stopped two hours before by a sentry on the southern edge of the aOE's camp and immediately taken to Roland Croninger for questioning. Roland had taken one look at the stranger and realized that he was an extraordinary man; but the stranger had refused to answer any questions, saying that he'd speak only to the army's leader. Roland couldn't get the package away from him, and no badgering or threats of torture made any impression on the stranger. Roland doubted that any man who wore nothing but faded jeans, sneakers and a brightly colored, summery short-sleeved shirt in freezing weather would be bothered very much by torture.
Roland stepped aside as they brought the man in. Other armed guards stood around the room, and Macklin had summoned Captains Carr and Wilson, Lieutenant Thatcher, Sergeant Benning and Corporal Mangrim. The colonel sat behind his desk, and there was a chair at the center of the room reserved for the stranger. Next to it was a small table on which rested a burning oil lamp.
"Sit down," Roland said, and the man obeyed. "I think all of you can see for yourselves why I wanted you to meet this man," Roland said quietly, the lamplight sparking red in his goggles. "This is exactly what he was wearing when he was found. He says he won't talk to anybody but Colonel Macklin. Okay, mister," he told the stranger. "Here's your chance. "
The stranger glanced around the room, examining each man in turn. His gaze lingered a bit longer on alvin Mangrim.
"Hey!" Mangrim said. "I know you from somewhere, don't Ii"
"It's possible. " The stranger had a hoarse, raspy voice. It was the voice of someone just overcoming an illness.
Macklin studied him. The stranger looked to be a young man, maybe twenty-five or thirty. He had curly brown hair and a pleasant blue-eyed face, and he was beardless. On his shirt were green parrots and red palm trees. Macklin hadn't seen a shirt like that since the day the bombs fell. It was a shirt made for a tropical beach, not for a thirty-degree afternoon. "Where the hell did you come fromi" Macklin asked him.
The young man's eyes found his. "Oh, yes," he said. "You'd be in charge, wouldn't youi"
"I asked you a question. "
"I've brought you something. " The young man suddenly tossed his present toward Macklin's desk, and at once two guards were sticking rifle barrels in his face. Macklin cringed, had a mental image of a bomb ripping him apart and started to dive to the floor - but the package hit the desktop and came open.
What was inside rolled over his maps of Missouri.
Macklin was silent, staring at the five ears of corn. Roland crossed the room and picked one of them up, and a couple of the other officers crowded around as well.
"Get those out of my face," the young man told the guards, but they hesitated until Roland ordered them to lower their rifles.
"Where'd you get thesei" Roland demanded. He could still smell the dirt on the ear of corn in his hand.
"You've asked me enough questions. Now it's my turn. How many men are out therei" He nodded toward the trailer's wall, beyond which sprawled the camp and its dozens of bonfires. Neither Roland nor the colonel answered him. "If you're going to play games with me," the stranger said, smiling thinly, "I'll take my toys and go home. You don't really want me to do that, do youi"
It was Colonel Macklin who finally broke the silence. "We've. . . got about three thousand. We lost a lot of soldiers back in Nebraska. "
"all those three thousand are able-bodied meni"
"Who are youi" Macklin asked. He was very cold, and he noted Captain Carr blowing into his hands to warm them.
"are those three thousand able to fighti"
"No. We've got about four hundred sick or wounded. and we're carrying maybe a thousand women and children. "
"So you've only got sixteen hundred soldiersi" The young man clenched the chair's armrests. Macklin saw something change about him, something almost imperceptible - and then he realized the young man's left eye was turning brown. "I thought this was an army, not a boy scout troop!"
"You're talking to officers of the army of Excellence," Roland said, quietly but menacingly. "I don't give a shit who you - " and then he saw the brown eye, too, and his throat seized up.
"Some great army!" the other man sneered. "Fucking great!" His complexion was reddening, and his jowls seemed to be swelling up. "You've got a few guns and trucks, and you think you're soldiersi You're shit!" He almost screamed it, and the single blue eye bled pallid gray. "What's your ranki" he asked Macklin.
Everyone was silent, because they'd seen, too. and then alvin Mangrim, smiling and cheerful and already in love with the stranger, said, "He's a colonel!"
"a colonel," the stranger echoed. "Well, Colonel, I think the time has come for the army of Excellence to be led by a five-star general. " a streak of black rippled through his hair.
alvin Mangrim laughed and clapped his hands.
"What are you feeding your sixteen hundred soldiersi" The stranger stood up, and the men around Macklin's desk retreated, bumping into one another. He snapped his fingers when Macklin didn't reply fast enough. "Speak!"
Macklin was dumbfounded. No one but the Cong guards at the prison camp a lifetime ago had ever dared to speak to him like this. Ordinarily he would have slashed the offender to shreds for this kind of disrespect, but he could not argue with a man who had a face like a molting chameleon and wore a short-sleeved shirt when others were shivering in fleece-lined overcoats. He felt suddenly weakened, as if this young stranger was sucking the energy and willpower right out of him. The stranger commanded his attention like a magnet, and his presence filled the room with waves of cold that had begun to crisscross like frigid tides. He looked around for some kind of help from the others but saw that they w
The young stranger lowered his head. He remained that way for about thirty seconds. When he lifted his face again, it was pleasant, and both eyes were blue once more. But the black streak remained in his curly brown hair. "I'm sorry," he said, with a disarming smile. "I'm not myself today. Really, though, I'd like to know: What are you feeding your troopsi"
"We. . . we captured some canned food. . . from the american allegiance," Macklin said at last. "Some cases of canned soup and stew. . . some canned vegetables and fruit. "
"How long will that supply lasti a weeki Two weeksi"
"We're marching east," Roland told him, getting himself under control. "To West Virginia. We'll raid other settlements on the way. "
"To West Virginiai What's in West Virginiai"
"a mountain. . . where God lives," Roland said. "The black box and the silver key. Brother Timothy's going to lead us. " Brother Timothy had been tough, but he'd cracked under Roland's attentions in the black trailer. according to Brother Timothy, God had a silver key that he had inserted into a black box, and a doorway had opened in solid stone. Within Warwick Mountain - so Brother Timothy had said - were corridors and electric lights and humming machines that made spools of tape spin around, and the machines had spoken to God, reading off numbers and facts that had been way over Brother Timothy's head. and the more Roland had thought about that story, the more he'd come to believe a very interesting thing: that the man who called himself God had shown Brother Timothy a roomful of mainframe computers still hooked up to a power source.
and if there were mainframe computers still in operation under Warwick Mountain, West Virginia, Roland wanted to find out why they were there, what information they held - and why somebody had made sure they'd keep functioning even after a total nuclear holocaust.
"a mountain where God lives," the stranger repeated. "Well. I'd like to see that mountain myself. " He blinked, and his right eye was green.
No one moved, not even the guards with the rifles.
"Look at the corn," the stranger urged. "Smell it. It's fresh, picked right off the stalk a couple of days ago. I know where there's a whole field of corn growing - and pretty soon there'll be apple trees growing there, too. Hundreds of them. How long has it been since any of you tasted an applei Or cornbreadi Or smelled corn frying in a pani" His gaze crept around the circle of men. "I'll bet way too long. "
"Wherei" Macklin's mouth was watering. "Where's the fieldi"
"Oh. . . about a hundred and twenty miles south of here. In a little town called Mary's Rest. They've got a spring there, too. You can fill up your bottles and kegs with water that tastes like sunshine. " His eyes of different colors glinted, and he walked to the edge of Macklin's desk. "There's a girl who lives in that town," the young man said; he planted his palms on the desk and leaned forward. "Her name is Swan. I'd like you to meet her. Because she's the one who made that corn grow out of dead earth, and she planted apple seeds, and they're going to grow, too. " He grinned, but there was rage in it, and dark pigment rose like a birthmark across his cheek. "She can make crops grow. I've seen what she can do. and if you had her - then you could feed your army while everybody else starved. Do you see what I meani"
Macklin shivered from the cold that came off the man's body, but he couldn't look away from those gleaming eyes. "Why. . . are you telling me thisi What's in it for youi"
"Oh. . . let's just say I want to be on the winning team. " The dark pigment disappeared.
"We're marching to Warwick Mountain," Roland contended. "We can't go a hundred and twenty miles out of our way - "
"The mountain will wait," the stranger said softly, still staring at Macklin. "First I'll take you to get the girl. Then you can go find God, or Samson and Delilah, if you want to. But first the girl - and the food. "
"Yes. " Macklin nodded, his eyes glazed and his jaw sagging. "Yes. First the girl and the food. "
The young man smiled, and slowly his eyes became the same shade of blue. He was feeling so much better now, so much stronger. Fit as a fiddle! he thought. Maybe it was being here, among people he sensed had the right ideas. Yes, war was a good thing! It trimmed the population and made sure only the strong survived, so the next generation would be better. He'd always been an advocate of the humane nature of war. Maybe he was also feeling stronger because he was away from that girl. That damned little bitch was tormenting those poor souls in Mary's Rest, making them believe their lives were worth living again. and that sort of deception would not be tolerated.
He picked up the map of Missouri with his left hand and held it up before him while his right hand snaked down behind it. Roland saw a blue wisp of smoke rise and smelled a burning candle. and then a scorched circle began to appear on the map, about a hundred and twenty miles south of their present position. When the circle was complete, the stranger let the map slide back onto the desk in front of Macklin; his right hand was clenched into a fist, and a haze of smoke hung around it.
"That's where we're going," he said.
alvin Mangrim beamed like a happy child. "Right on, bro!"
For the first time in his life, Macklin felt faint. Something had spun out of control; the gears of the great war machine that was the army of Excellence had begun to turn of their own accord. He realized in that moment that he didn't really care about the Mark of Cain, or about purifying the human race, or about rebuilding to fight the Russians. all that had been what he'd told the others, to make them believe the aOE had a higher cause. and make himself believe it, too.
Now he knew all he'd ever wanted was to be feared and respected again, like he'd been when he was a younger man fighting in foreign fields, before his reflexes had slowed down. He'd wanted people to call him "sir" and not have a smirk in their eyes when they did it. He wanted to be somebody again, instead of a drone locked in a flabby bag of bones and dreaming of the past.
He realized he'd crossed a point of no return somewhere along the current of time that had swept him and Roland Croninger out of Earth House. There was no going back now - no going back ever.
But part of him, deep inside, suddenly screamed and cowered in a dark hole, waiting for something fearsome to come lift the lid and offer him food.
"Who are youi" he whispered.
The stranger leaned forward until his face was only inches from Macklin's. Deep in the man's eyes, Macklin thought he saw slits of scarlet.
The stranger said, "You can call me. . . Friend. "
"They're going to come," Sister said. "I know they are. My question is: What are we going to do when they get herei"
"We shoots their damned heads off!" a skinny black man said, standing up from the rough-hewn bench. "Yessir! We gots us enough guns to make 'em turn tail!"
"Right!" another man agreed, on the other side of the church. "We're not gonna let the bastards come in here and take whatever they want!"
There was a murmur of angry agreement in the crowd of more than a hundred people who'd jammed into the half-built church, but many others shouted a dissent. "Listen!" a woman said, rising from her seat. "If what she says is true, and there are a couple of thousand soldiers on the way here, we're crazy to think we can stand up to them! We've got to pack up whatever we can carry and get - "
"No!" a gray-bearded man thundered from the next row. He stood up, his face streaked with burn scars and livid with rage. "No, by God! We stay here, where our homes are! Mary's Rest didn't used to be worth spit on a griddle, but look at it now! Hell, we've got a town here! We're buildin' things back!" He looked around at the crowd, his eyes dark and furious. about eight feet over his head oil lamps hung from the exposed rafters and cast a muted golden light over the assembly; smoke from the lanterns rose up into the night, because there was no roof yet. "I got a shotgun that says me and my wife are gonna stay right here," he continued. "and we're gonn
"Wait a minute! Just everybody hold on, now!" a big-boned man in a denim jacket and khaki trousers stood up. "What's everybody goin' crazy fori This woman tacks up these things" - he held up one of the crudely printed bulletin sheets that said Emergency Meeting Tonight! Everybody Come! - "and we all start jabberin' like a bunch of idiots! So she stands up there at the front and says some kind of damned army is gonna be marchin' through here in. . . " He glanced at Sister. "How long did you say it'd bei"
"I don't know. Three or four days, maybe. They've got trucks and cars, and they're going to be moving fast once they get started. "
"Uh-huh. Well, you get up there and start on about an army comin' this way, and we all shit our britches. How do you know thati and what are they afteri I mean, if they want to fight a war, they sure could find a better place! We're all americans here, not Russkys!"
"What's your namei" Sister asked him.
"Bud Royce. That is, Captain Bud Royce, ex-arkansas National Guard. See, I know a little about armies myself. "
"Good. Captain Royce, I'll tell you exactly what they're after - our crops. and our water, too, most likely. I can't tell you how I know so you'd understand it, but I do know they're coming, and they're going to tear Mary's Rest to the ground. " She held the leather satchel, and within it was the glass circle that had taken her dreamwalking on a savage landscape where the skeleton on his mount of bones held sway. She looked at Swan, who sat beside Josh in the front row and was listening carefully, and then back to Bud Royce. "Just believe it. They're going to be here soon, and we'd better decide right now what to do. "
"We fight!" a man at the back shouted.
"How can we fighti" an old man who supported himself on a cane asked in a quavering voice. "We can't stand up against an army. We'd be fools to even try such a thing!"
"We'd be damned cowards if we didn't!" a woman said, over on the left.
"Yeah, but better live cowards than dead heroes," a young, bearded man sitting behind Josh contended. "I'm getting out!"
"That's a crock of buttered bullshit!" anna McClay roared, standing up from her bench. She put her hands on her wide hips and regarded the crowd, her upper lip curled in a sneer. "God a'mighty, what's the point of livin' if you don't fight for what you hold deari We work our butts to the bone cleanin' this town up and buildin' this church back, and we're gonna run at the first sniff of real troublei" She grunted and shook her head in disgust. "I remember what Mary's Rest used to be - and most of you folks do, too. But I see what it is now, and what it can be! If we were to run, where would we goi Some other hole in the groundi and what happens when that damned army decides to come marchin' in our direction againi I say if we run once, we're as good as dead anyway - so we might as well go down fightin'!"
"Yeah! That's what I say, too!" Mr. Polowsky added.
"I've got a wife and kids!" Vulcevic said, his face stricken with fear. "I don't want to die, and I don't want them to die either! I don't know anything about fighting!"
"It's time you learned, then!" Paul Thorson stood up and walked along the aisle to the front. "Listen," he said, standing beside Sister, "we all know the score, don't wei We know where we used to be, and we know where we are now! If we give up Mary's Rest without a fight, we'll all be wanderers again, and we'll know we didn't have the guts to even try to keep it! I, for one, am pretty damned lazy. I don't want to go on the road again - and so I'm sticking right here. "
as the people shouted out their opinions Sister looked at Paul and smiled faintly. "What's thisi another layer on the shitcakei"
"No," he said, his eyes electric blue and steely. "I believe my cake's about baked, don't youi"
"Yes, I guess it is. " She loved Paul like a brother, and she'd never been prouder of him. and she'd already made her own decision - to stay and fight while Josh got Swan to safety, a plan that Swan didn't yet know about.
Swan was listening to the tumult of voices, and in her mind was something she knew she should stand up and say. But there were so many people crowded in there, and she was still shy about speaking before strangers. Still, the thought was important - and she knew she had to speak her mind before the chance passed. She drew a deep breath and stood up. "Excuse me," she said, but her voice was drowned out by the cacophony. She walked to the front, stood beside Paul and faced the crowd. Her heart was fluttering like a little bird, and her voice trembled as she said, just a little louder, "Excuse me. I want to - "
The tumult started to die down almost at once. In another few seconds there was silence but for the wail of the wind around the walls and the crying of an infant at the back of the church.
Swan looked out at all of them. They were waiting for her to speak. She was the center of attention, and it made her feel as if ants were running up and down her backbone. at the back of the church, more people pressed around the door, and maybe two hundred others were assembled out in the road, hearing what was said as it was passed back through the crowd. all eyes were on Swan, and she thought for a second that her throat had closed up. "Excuse me," she managed, "but I'd like to say something. " She hesitated, trying to arrange her thoughts. "It. . . it seems to me," she began tentatively, "that we're all worried about whether we're going to be able to fight the soldiers off or not. . . and that's the wrong thing to be thinking of. If we have to fight them here, in Mary's Rest, we're going to lose. and if we run, and leave everything to them, they'll destroy it all - because that's what armies do. " She saw Robin standing over on the right side of the church, surrounded by several of his highwaymen. Their eyes met and held for a few seconds. "We can't win if we fight," Swan continued, "and we can't win if we run, either. So it seems to me that what we should be doing is thinking about stopping them from getting here. "
Bud Royce laughed harshly. "How the hell do we stop an army if we don't fight 'emi"
"We make it cost too much for them to get here. They might decide to turn back. "
"Right. " Royce smiled sarcastically. "What do you suggest, missyi"
"That we turn Mary's Rest into a fort. Like the cowboys used to do in the old movies, when they knew the Indians were coming. We build walls around Mary's Rest; we can use dirt, fallen trees, sticks - even the wood from this place. We can dig ditches out in the forest and cover them over with brush for their trucks to fall into, and we can block the roads with logs so they'll have to use the woods. "
"Ever heard of infantryi" Royce asked. "Even if we did build traps for their vehicles, the soldiers would still crawl right over the walls, wouldn't theyi"
"Maybe not," Swan said. "Especially if the walls were covered with ice. "
"Icei" a sallow-faced woman with stringy brown hair stood up. "How are we supposed to conjure up icei"
"We've got a spring," Swan reminded her. "We've got buckets, pails and washtubs. We've got horses to pull wagons, and we've got three or four days. " Swan walked up the aisle, her gaze moving from face to face. She was still nervous, but not so much now, because she sensed that they wanted to listen. "If we start working right now, we could build a wall around Mary's Rest, and we could figure out a system to get the water to it. We could start pouring water onto the wall even before it's finished, and as cold as it is, it wouldn't take long for the water to freeze. The more water we use, the thicker the ice. The soldiers won't be able to climb over. "
"No way!" Royce scoffed. "There's no damned time to do a job like that!"
"Hell, we gots to try!" the skinny black man said. "ain't no choice!"
Other voices rose and fell, and arguments sparked. Sister started to shout them down, but she knew it was Swan's moment, and it was Swan they wanted to hear.
When Swan spoke again, the arguments ceased. "You could help more than anybody," she said to Bud Royce. "Since you were a captain in the National Guard, you could figure out where to put the ditches and traps. Couldn't youi"
"That'd be the easy pa
She nodded, staring at him serenely. If that was his choice, so be it. "all right," she said, and she looked again at the crowd. "I think whoever wants to go should leave tomorrow morning. Good luck to all of you, and I hope you find what you're searching for. " She glanced again at Robin; he felt a thrill of excitement course through him, because her eyes seemed to be aflame. "I'm staying," she said. "I'm going to do what I can to stop the soldiers from destroying what we've done - all of us, each and every one. Because it wasn't just me who grew the corn; it was everybody. I put the seeds in the ground and covered them with dirt, but somebody else built the bonfires that kept the dirt and the air warm. Other people kept the bobcats and crows away, and more people picked the corn. How many of you helped dig the spring outi Who helped gather the apple cores and worked to put this building back togetheri"
She saw they were all listening, even Bud Royce, and she had the sensation of drawing strength from them. She kept going, powered by their belief. "It wasn't just me. It was everybody who wanted to build things back again. Mary's Rest isn't just a bunch of old shacks full of strangers anymore; people know each other, and work together, and take an interest in the hardships everybody else has, because we know we're not so different from one another. We all know what we've lost - and if we give it up and run, we'll lose it all over again. So I'm staying right here," she said. "If I live or die, that's all right, because I've decided to stop running. " There was a silence. "That's all I've got to say. " She went back to sit beside Josh. He put a hand on her shoulder and felt her trembling.
Swan Song by Robert McCammon / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes