The men and women of the IPF, International Peace Force, had landed quietly on Canadian soil, on their way to the United States. Their route had been long and often tedious. They had waited and trained and studied for ten years before making their move. They had planned well.
They had sailed from home port in March--not the easiest month to leave--and skirted south of Cape Farewell, into the Labrador Sea. They sailed into the Hudson Strait, passed around Mansel Island, keeping to the east, then angled south by southwest until the mouth of the River was in sight. There, they offloaded boats and equipment for the river trip.
They followed the Nelson into Lake Winnipeg, then began a tortuous trek overland. But most were young and strong and the trip was nothing compared to the training they had been undergoing for the past decade. All came through. Anything for the Motherland and for the development of a meister rasse.
The IPF picked up Highway 10 in Canada and procured vehicles from the abandoned cars and trucks. They headed for the United States border, dropping off small contingents of IPF personnel along the way. They saw very few people alive in Canada. Those they saw seemed more curious than hostile.
Had the people in Canada known what type of monster mentality they were facing, they would have turned hostile in a hurry.
But by the time they discovered the truth, it was too late for the few Canadians left alive in the areas where the IPF landed.
In the United States--the late, great United States--the IPF set up base camp in Minnesota and radioed back to home port they were at their objective. They were told two more ships had set sail and had steamed near the mouth of the Nelson. There, they were awaiting orders to offload men and equipment.
In Minnesota, the IPF broke off into teams and fanned out into the countryside, testing the mood of the people. In a great many cases they found men and women--entire families--who were just barely hanging on to life, victims of the many roving gangs of thugs in the land.
The men and women of the IPF spoke grammatically correct English, with only a very slight accent. They were very polite: the men were often courtly in their dealings with American women, straightforward and open with the American men. At first. But conditions and deportment among the IPF were subject to sudden and drastic changes--very soon.
An American man asked where the people had come from.
"Originally, Eastern Europe," came the reply, always with a smile.
"That would account for the accent."
"And you want?"
"To be your friend, and for you to be our friends. To live in peace in this troubled world. To try and find the cause for the terrible tragedy that has befallen us all, and to correct it."
"Isn't that what we all want?"
"Yes," Gen. Georgi Striganov said with a smile. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall and well-built, with pale blue eyes, fair skin, and blond-gray hair. "Indeed it is."
The American stuck out his hand. "I'll tell you what the problem was. The goddamn niggers wanted everything given to them and the goddamn Jews went along with it. Every time you looked at the TV there was about a million greasers comin' across the border, grabbing up jobs that should have gone to Americans."
General Striganov listened with a sympathetic smile on his lips.
"Taxes kept goin' up and up and up; it never seemed to stop. Everything for the minorities and to hell with the taxpayers. I said it, and by God that's the way I feel about it."
Striganov shook the man's hand. "My name is Georgi. I think we're going to get along very well. Now tell me: How can we help you?"
* * * *
Ben watched Ike pull into his driveway and get out of the pickup. Ike walked up to Ben, resting on his hoe handle in his garden.
"El Presidente," Ike said with a grin, "it is time, I believe, for me to speak."
"Quote the Walrus, 'Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax.' Maybe I don't want to hear it, Ike."
The grin never left Ike's face. "Hell, Ben, that never stopped me before."
The two men had met down in Florida, back in late '88, the ex-SEAL and the ex-Hell-Hound. They had been close friends, like brothers, ever since.
"That certainly is true, Ike."
"You need a woman, Ben."
"Hear me out, ol' buddy. Things are lookin' pretty good around here, thanks to you. You somehow put some steel in the backbones of those who follow you. I personally didn't believe you could do it--but you did. With any kind of luck, pal, we'll make it here."
The usage of the informal noun brought memories rushing to both men of Pal Elliot, a black man who had been instrumental in shaping the original Tri-States. Pal, his wife Valerie and their children had been killed in the governmental assault on Tri-States.
Ben shook away the memories of people dead and events past. "I am perfectly content with my life as a bachelor, Ike."
"That's bull and you know it, Ben. You got too much he-goat in you for that." He grinned. "Have you seen the twins?"
"Which set?" Ben asked sourly.
Ike laughed and punched the man playfully on the shoulder. "Rosita's set."
"They got their momma's good looks and your eyes. You know what she named them?"
Ben had to smile at the memories of Rosita. "Ben and Salina. Not very subtle of her, I'd say."
"Have you seen Dawn?"
"Get to the point, Ike," Ben said wearily. "If there is a point." He knew very well what the point was.
"That's your baby, Ben." It was not phrased as a question.
"Yes," he admitted. "She said she was going to have it and nothing I could say would change her mind."
"And now you're alone and have been for some months."
"What are you going to do: put a rubber band around it and become celibate?"
Ben laughed at just the thought. "That would be painful, buddy."
"The rubber band or celibacy?"
Ben tried his best glare on Ike. It didn't work, bouncing off the stocky man. "Ben, you've been rattlin' 'round in that big ol' house like a pea in a dry pod. For all you've been through, you still look like a man forty years old. I know--a lot of us know--you're restless. Would like to take off and ramble. But you can't do that, Ben. You're the glue that holds us together. You was to take off, Tri-States would collapse."
Ben did not like to think of himself as being that important to the society. It bothered him. "And you think a woman would help settle me down, is that right, Ike?"
"It's been known to happen."
"I read Roanna's newspaper every week. Maybe I should advertise?"
"It isn't funny, Ben." Ike was serious.
"And I'm not treating it as a joke, Ike. Damn it, Ike, I don't want a harem. And I'm not liking the feeling I get when I leave the farm. That's why I've been keeping a low profile, and why Cecil is being groomed--not that he needs any grooming--to take my place, and the sooner the better."
"Cecil's a good man," Ike said guardedly.
"Drop the other shoe, Ike."
"Nobody can take your place."
Ben felt temper building in him. He fought it back. "And I don't like that crap either, Ike. Damn, buddy, nobody is indispensable--you should know that. Nobody!"
Ike stood quietly, waiting by the fence. Finally he waved his hand and sighed. "All right, Ben, let's don't fuss about it. Too much to do without putting that into it. Two reasons I came out here. You won't discuss number one, so here's number two: Intelligence keeps picking up some strange radio transmissions. They came to me with it 'cause, well..."
"They're afraid to come to me with them," Ben finished it. There was a flat tone to his voice.
"I reckon that's about the size of it," the Mississippi-born-and-reared Ike admitted.
"That really makes me feel swell, Ike."
Ike spread his hands in a gesture of "what can I say?" When he spoke his voice was soft. "You know you're bigger than life to a lot of people, Ben."
"And I get the feeling it's getting out of hand."
"Maybe. Anyway, we pinpointed latitude and longitude. Coming from just south of the Arctic Circle. Twenty degrees west longitude, sixty-five degrees north latitude. They're coming from Iceland, Ben."
"Iceland! But Iceland was supposed to be destroyed, Ike."
"You got it. And the transmissions are in a funny language. It's almost Russian--but it isn't. It is a Russian dialect, though."
Ben nodded his head thoughtfully. "Could be one of a dozen or so. Latvian, Croatian, Georgian. What do you make of it?"
Ike shook his head. "Strange, Ben--weird. You remember that we got reports back in '89 that Iceland was hot, took several nukes nose-on."
"Yes," Ben's reply was thoughtful. "We damn sure did. And as I recall, I wondered why they would--or should. OK, they've got to be broadcasting to somebody, Ike."
"Right. To a base in northern Minnesota."
"Now that is interesting."
"I did a little checking 'fore I drove up to see you, since you never seem to leave this raggedly ol' place," Ike added dryly. Ben ignored that dig. "Doctor Chase says it would have been highly unlikely the plague would have hit that far north. Extreme temperatures, hot or cold, seem to at first stall it, then kill it."
"Wonder why he never told me that?"
"'Cause you don't never leave this goddamn place!"
"Uh-huh. You have someone attempting to translate the language?"
"Right. Ben, what are you thinking? Man, I don't like the look in your eyes."
Ben slapped his friend on the back, his mood suddenly lifting. "Ike, I want you to personally get me a full platoon together."
"Now, damn it, Ben!"
"I want supplies for a sustained operation. Full combat gear. Mortars and light howitzers."
"Goddamn it, Ben!"
"At least two APCs and rig .50s on all the Jeeps, no telling what we'll run into."
"If I had known you were gonna pull this kind of crap I'd have never come out here!"
"And have one of Doctor Chase's doctors accompany us. No telling what we'll find. Get on that right away, will you, Ike?"
Ike stood for a moment, glaring at his friend. Ben returned his gaze sweetly, blandly, the picture of all innocence. Ike finally turned away, muttering under his breath.
Ben rubbed his hands together, a grin moving his mouth. Ben Raines did not like inactivity. He liked to be on the move, liked action.
This was just what the doctor ordered.
Sam Hartline looked like the stereotyped Hollywood mercenary--when Hollywood existed, that is. Six feet, two inches, heavily muscled, a deep tan, dark brown hair graying at the temples, cold green eyes, and a scar on his right cheek.
Cecil had summed up Hartline several years back. "Sam Hartline is a goddamned psychopath. And one hard-line nigger hater. He was with Jeb Fargo outside Chicago back in '88 and '89."
"Mr. Hartline," General Striganov greeted the mercenary warmly, with a smile and a firm handshake. "How good to meet with you at last. Did you have a pleasant trip up?"
"Very nice," Hartline replied, his eyes taking in and silently appraising the Russian. The man looked to be about the same age as Ben Raines, and in just as good physical condition. Hartline wondered if the Russian was as tough as Ben Raines. He'd damn well better be, he concluded, if he's thinking of tangling with Raines.
"You have laid claim to the entire state of Wisconsin," General Striganov said, not losing his smile. "Don't you find that a rather ambitious undertaking, Mr. Hartline?"
Hartline's smile was as cold as the one greeting him. "Not at all, General. The people seem to be coming along splendidly."
Striganov leaned back in his chair. "You know, of course, who I am and what I represent?"
Hartline shrugged his heavy shoulders. "You're a former member of the KGB." He smiled. "The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Brozopasnosti."
Striganov's eyebrows lifted slightly. Then the rumors concerning Hartline's linguistic abilities were not exaggerated.
"A general in the Russian Army. Or what is left of that army."
The smile did not quite reach Striganov's eyes. "I assure you, Mr. Hartline, we are of more than ample number. Ah, well, shifting away from me for a time, Mr. Hartline--may I call you Sam? Thank you. Sam, it is quite obvious to any intelligent being that communism--that type of order advocated and practiced by my superiors over those long decades--simply did not work. It was much too repressive. Would you agree?"
"Yes, General, to a point, I would."
"Ah, good. We are of like mind already. Half the battle is won, I believe. Sam, I have some excellent English tea; would you care for more? Good!" He ordered more tea sent in. "You see, Sam, I was one of those who led the rebellion--for want of a better word--against the Politburo back in '88. I was a colonel then, but with quite a following." A look of anguish mixed with regret passed over his handsome features, quickly disappearing.
"We failed," Georgi said simply. "The world exploded in nuclear and germ warfare. You know all that--ancient history. We shan't fail again. Not if you agree to help me instead of fighting me."
Hartline had no intention of fighting the Russian. But he saw no point in revealing his hole card just yet. "I'm still here, General, listening." Hartline sipped his hot tea. It was very good tea. The best he'd had in months. "Earle Gray?" he asked.
"But of course. None finer. Before you misinterpret my previous statement, Sam--I am still a communist. I was born a communist, I shall die believing in that ideology. But I lean more to the socialistic aspects of the philosophy, and away from the harshness--more or less--of hard-liners."
Hartline knew the man was lying. But he decided to play the game. "But you do believe in the caste system."
"But of course! And so do you, nyet?"
"Da," Hartline replied, his eyes locked to the cold gaze of the Russian. "I speak fluent Russian, General."
"I know," Georgi said.
Hartline began musing aloud. "Divide the people into classes. At the second level, the doctors and scientists and legal minds and upper-echelon executives. At the third level, the farmers and ranchers and foremen and supervisors, people of that ilk. The fourth level will be the workers. The fifth level, the really menial jobs. Am I close, General?"
"Very. But you left out the top level, Sam."
"Why ... that's us, General."
"Yes." The Russian smiled. "Go on."
"We need to purge the races. Make the races pure, so to speak. Niggers, spies, Jews, Indians, Orientals--we can dispose of them."
Georgi Striganov laughed, a big booming laugh. "I think, Sam Hartline, we are going to get along very well. Very well, indeed. Oh my, yes."
Ben longed for the day when Cecil would take over the reins of responsibility so Ben could just roam. But for now he was leaving Cecil in charge only temporarily. As Ben made ready to pull out on Sunday, June tenth, he felt better than he had in weeks. He drove a Chevy pickup with four-wheel drive capability if needed, and all the vehicles in the column had PTO winches on the front. Four deuce-and-a-halves carried spare parts, ammo, food and other equipment. Ben had planned very carefully, leaving nothing out: medical supplies, walkie-talkies, bull-horns, clothing and dozens of other small but likely-to-be-necessary items.
Ben had cut his platoon down to forty for mobility purposes, but the forty were, for the most part, all combat vets, and all of them 110 percent loyal to Ben Raines and his desire to rebuild from the ashes.
James Riverson, the ranking NCO in the Rebel army, and a longtime member of Ben's recon team, sent out two of his people to take the far point. They would range several miles in front of the column, always staying in radio contact.
Although everyone was against Ben's leading the column--directly behind the point vehicle--no one dared say anything about it.
Except Lt. Mary Macklin.
"Pardon my impudence, sir," she asked, standing by his pickup truck, driver's side, moments before pulling out. "But are you trying to prove something?"
Ben looked at her, blinked. Tried to place her. Then it came to him.
Back in Tri-States after racing to escape the plague, arriving there in a raging blizzard, Ben had slept a few hours in the motel Ike and his people had prepared for the Rebels from the east, then had walked downstairs for breakfast.
Over bacon and eggs and a huge stack of flapjacks, Ben asked, "How's it looking, Ike?"
"Fifty-eight hundred, Ben."
Ben could not believe it. "What the hell happened to the rest? We had more than ten thousand six months ago."
"They just didn't make it, partner. Word is still pretty sketchy, but from all reports, we lost a full battalion of people coming out of Georgia. We were in contact one day ... next day, nothing. A couple of companies were ambushed up in Michigan. We lost a full platoon of people in Wisconsin, and we don't know what killed them."
"What do you mean, Ike?"
"Just that, Ben. We don't know what happened. The two people who survived died on the way here without ever regaining consciousness. They were, well, mangled all to hell and gone. I got the pictures if you got the stomach for it."
Ben thought he knew what the pictures would reveal; he had seen something very similar to it on a lonely, windy highway in Illinois.
He said as much.
Ike toyed with his coffee cup. "And?"
Ben shook his head. "We deal with it if or when we see whatever killed those people with our own eyes."
Ike grunted softly. "Probably be best. Keep down the horror stories, I reckon."
The large dining room was silent, only a few of Ben's Rebels from the east up and about. It had been a harrowing and dangerous journey, with nerves stretched tight most of the way.
Ike mentioned that Jerre would like to have her babies as soon as possible. He suggested a chopper.
Ike motioned for a uniformed young woman to come to the table. Lt. Mary Macklin. After receiving her instructions, she saluted smartly and left.
Ben smiled. "Getting a little rigid on discipline, aren't you, Ike?"
"That ain't my idea," the ex-SEAL replied glumly. "It's hers. She was regular army 'til about six months ago. I can't get that damned salutin' out of her. Drives me up the wall."
"I beg your pardon, Lieutenant?" Ben shook himself back to the moment.
"I do not mean to be out of line, General, or to overstep any chain of command. But all concerned would feel much better if you were in the middle of the column instead of leading it."
Ben smiled at her. He took a closer look with a man's eyes. Light brown hair, hazel eyes, about five-seven. Nice figure. Erect military bearing.
"Thank you for your frankness, Lieutenant. Noted and appreciated. Your name?"
"Lieutenant Mary Macklin. I was a rigger with the Eighty-second Airborne prior to OCS."
"Well. Lieutenant, if you're so concerned with my well-being, why don't you ride with me and protect me?"
"Is that a joke, sir?"
"Not unless you want to take it as such."
She met his eyes. "Then may I take it as an order, sir?"
This lady was all military, Ben thought. "No. But if you like I can make it an order."
"That won't be necessary, sir. I'll just get my gear and put it in the bed of your truck."
Ben watched her walk away, his eyes on her reflection in the side mirror. Might be an interesting trip in more ways than one, he thought.
Hard eyes, Mary thought as she walked away. She knew, with a woman's awareness, that General Raines was watching her. She tried very hard to walk with a military bearing. She failed miserably.
The column pulled out shortly afterward. They skirted Little Rock and picked up Highway 67, taking that all the way to the northeast corner of Arkansas. They stopped for the night in Piggott, Arkansas, a small town just a few miles from the Missouri line.
The town had been looted, but as in most cases of looting, the looters did not take essentials such as food, clothing and medicine.
"Another reason I have always advocated looters being shot on sight," Ben muttered, driving around the courthouse square.
"Beg pardon, sir?" Mary asked.
"Muttering to myself, Mary. Nothing of importance, I suppose."
"Looters, sir?" she guessed, for she knew how Ben Raines felt about lawbreakers.
"Good guess, Mary. Yes, looters. Two-legged animals."
"And you feel that they should be?"
"Shot on sight."
She stirred beside him and Ben hid a smile, knowing a full-scale debate might be only moments away. He nipped it short.
"Hemingway lived here for a time, did you know that, Lieutenant?"
"Ernest Hemingway? Here?"
"Yes." Ben laughed at her expression. But he was thankful that at least one person of her generation had heard of the writer. All was not lost, he supposed. "We'll get the people settled in and I'll try to find the house."
Col. Dan Gray was the next-ranking officer under Ben and Ben gave the Englishman orders to pick a spot to bivouac.
"We'll be in radio contact, Dan," Ben said. He dropped his pickup into gear and pulled out. He smiled as Buck Osgood tore out after them.
Mary looked at his smile. "Do you enjoy worrying people, General?"
Ben glanced at her. The lady was smart as well as pretty. "Is that what I do, Lieutenant? How about if I call you Mary when we're alone?"
She met his brief glance. "All right," she said softly. "Yes, you worry people. And you do it deliberately. Just like right now. You knew damn well Buck would be after you; it's his job."
Ben thought about that and slowed his speed, allowing Buck to catch up. The sergeant was frantically flashing his headlights off and on, signalling Ben to slow down.
"You're right, Mary." She was mildly astonished to hear the admission from his lips. "I'm a loner at heart, and I've been taking care of myself for a good many years. And doing it quite well without a nanny. I've never gotten used to being bird-dogged."
"I've heard so many stories about you, General. How did you get into this ... this position of authority?"
Ben laughed aloud. "Did you ever hear what John Kennedy said about him being a hero in World War II?"
She blinked. "Was that the president, or what?"
Ben sighed. "How old are you, Mary?"
Ben did some fast math. Odds were good that her parents had not been born when Kennedy was sworn in, back in '61.
"Depending on how one counts it, Mary, JFK was either the thirty-fourth or thirty-fifth president of the United States. He was assassinated in 1963. As to his being a hero, he said, They sank my boat.'"
She smiled, then laughed as the humor of it struck her. "Thank you, but that doesn't answer my question."
Ben was thoughtful for a few moments, as he skillfully twisted and turned the wheel, avoiding the many obstacles in the road: abandoned cars and trucks, fallen trees, skeletons of humans and animals, tin cans and garbage containers, and an occasional fresh body.
How to tell her? How to tell anyone? How to tell a stranger that Ben had this dream of a free society, free of crime and bigotry and hatred, with jobs for those who wished to work, and those who didn't could either leave voluntarily or be kicked out.
"I'll tell you someday, Mary," he said. "When you have several days to listen."
Ben drove and drove and finally gave up. "Well," he said, "I can't find the house. Crap. I saw it once, back in the seventies. It was beautiful."
"That's right!" She looked at him, "I almost forgot. You used to be a writer, didn't you?"
"About a hundred years ago," Ben said dryly. "I'd like to read some of your books."
"I assure you, Mary. I have many copies."
They drove the streets of the small town once more. They could find no one alive. But Ben knew from past experience that was probably not true. In a town this size, so his statisticians had told him--and Ben was still a writer at heart and wanted to know those types of things--from five to eight people would have survived. But they would have become very wary of strangers, especially uniformed, armed strangers.
He told Mary that. She asked, "I wonder how they survive--get along?"
"Many of them won't make it for any length of time. Only the very toughest will stand the test--usually. Of course there is always the exception; but the exceptions find out they'd damn well better get tough or die. The ones who will come out will be those who will not hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later."
"So we have come to that." Her words were softly spoken, just audible over the hiss of the tires against the pavement. "Then we have gone full circle."
"Back to the caves? No, not yet. Not if I have anything to say about it. We're on the right track, Mary, but we still have a very long way to go before we get home free."
"Only at times, Mary. Other times I hit new lows."
She looked at his profile in the waning light of evening. She had heard all the talk about his being some sort of god, that he could not be killed, and all that. That shrines had been secretly built in his honor by some of the people who followed him. She wondered if he knew about those places of worship. She decided he did not. Everything within her being wanted to reject any notion of a higher being, for Mary was more agnostic than believer--at least she felt that way most of the time. She had heard about General Raines's sexual escapades and the children he had sired. She wondered if Ben was attempting to repopulate the world single-handedly. That brought a smile to her lips. And an idea to her brain.
"Tell me the joke?" Ben asked, glancing at her Mona Lisa smile.
"I don't think you would appreciate the humor, General."
"Perhaps not, Mary." He pulled up, parking in the center of a street lined with Jeeps and trucks. "Let's see about getting something to eat."
She came to him later that night, after the area was silent, with only the guards maintaining their lonely vigil. He did not seem at all surprised to see her appear at his door.
"Mary," he greeted her, motioning her inside the lamp-lit home. "What's on your mind?"
"Can I level with you, General?"
"I have a boyfriend back in Tri-States. We plan on getting married in a few months."
"My best wishes, Mary." Ben looked at her, a puzzled expression on his face.
"But I've been trying to get pregnant for six months."
"Jim thinks the bombings back in '88 made him sterile."
"That's certainly possible."
"But I want us to have a child."
The expression on her face and the look in her eyes told Ben everything else he needed to know.
"You sure Jim wouldn't mind?"
"Like me, General, he would be honored."
Ben took her hand. "It's a strange world we live in, Mary."
"You'll make it better, General," came her response.