It had been the cruelest joke ever played on the men and women who survived the Great War. The politicians had told them that all the major cities of the world had been destroyed, and it was only years later that Ben Raines and his legion of dedicated warriors found out the politicians had lied. The vast metropolises of America's West Coast had become bastions of evil-seemingly impregnable strongholds for hordes of mutant Night People and thousands of well-trained, well-armed punk street gangs eager to fight all those who threatened their empires of lust and murder. Now it is up to Ben Raines and his army to mop up California from San Francisco to Lost Angeles, annihilate the forces of world anarchy, strike a final blow for freedom's cause, and make any sacrifice necessary so that humankind might survive the Fury Of The Ashes.
* * * *
Ben was leaning slightly out of the Jeep, admiring the denim-covered derriere of a very attractive lady. A lady that he had not seen before.
"You're going to fall out of that damn Jeep if you're not careful." The voice came from behind him.
Smiling, Ben straightened up and turned his head, looking at his longtime friend. The previous view was not easy to turn away from, and Ben vowed he would check it out. "Good to see you, Ike. Any trouble in your sector coming down here?"
"Nothing we couldn't handle. In case you're interested, and it's obvious that you are, her name is Linda Parsons. She's a survivor from over Nevada way. She's thirty-five years old. Lost her husband and kids a few years back during an outlaw raid."
Ben got out of the Jeep and stretched his six-feet-plus frame. "How in the hell do you know so much about her, old married man?"
"'Cause I got here yesterday and inquiring minds want to know!"
Both men laughed at the references to the old TV commercial that many in the Rebel ranks would be too young to have anything but a vague memory of.
Linda turned her head at the laughter and looked at the men. She had been introduced to General Ike, and the tall man with him had to be General Ben Raines. He was handsome, not in a pretty-boy way, but in a rugged, interesting way. Looked to be about fifty, she guessed.
Ben lifted his eyes to hers and for an instant, they stared at each other. Someone called to her and she walked away.
Ike cleared his throat and said, "Big job ahead of us, Ben."
"Yeah. Let's get to it."
Ben Raines and his Rebel Army, including the forces of the Russian, Georgi Striganov, had started this campaign on the banks of the Mississippi, at St. Louis. Now they were all but finished in the lower forty-eight, the campaign taking them cross-country to the Northwest. They were now preparing for the final leg, the assault on Los Angeles, with its thousands of street punks and Night People.
Once on the West Coast, the Rebels had discovered that all the talk of nuclear destruction--which they had all believed for years--had been a gigantic hoax. The West Coast was clean all the way down into Mexico and beyond. Ben had been hearing radio chatter for months about the Mexican people reforming their army and cleaning out the nest of creepies and outlaws. So far as he could tell, the Mexican people were slowly gaining the upper hand.
In the United States, so far as the Rebels now knew, only the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area and Kansas City had actually taken nuclear strikes during the Great War. Most of the other cities had taken chemical strikes.
What Ben did not know was that Lan Villar, Khamsin, Ashley, Kenny Parr, and the outlaw bikers had pulled together what remained of their shattered forces after butting head-to-head with the Rebels in the Northwest, and were heading for Alaska, a spot that Ben had decided to investigate after cleaning out southern California. Alaska had been code-named Northstar.
Ben's Husky pup, Smoot, rolled over on her back in the back seat of the Jeep and started snoring, deep in contented sleep.
"What's the word on the flyovers?" Ike asked.
"Not good. From what our pilots have been able to observe, Los Angeles is pretty well carved up by various gangs, but the Scouts have taken a few prisoners, and under interrogation, they admit that all the gangs will pull together and work as one if attacked by a large enough force."
"What are we facing?"
"Just about anything you'd care to name," Ben said, disgust in his voice. "Offshoots of those punk gangs of the eighties make up a lot of the enemy. Dickheads with gang names like the Boogies make up a lot of the enemy. The Boogies and the Skulls and assorted punk crap like that. The Night People have their own section of L.A., and the gangs respect it. At least the Believers haven't renamed themselves the Purple Twats or something equally stupid."
Ike laughed at Ben. "Oregon is clean, Ben. The rest of the teams will be pulling in here over the next couple of days."
"We won't have much time to rest and reorganize. I won't kid you, Ike. Taking California is not going to be easy. The gangs here have had years to arm and train; they've known for a long time that someday they'd have to face us. And they'll probably be ready, at least mentally geared up for it. If any of our people are thinking easy, tell them to hang it up."
"Still no word from Khamsin, Kenny Parr, Lan Villar, or any of the rest?"
"Not a peep. I know we knocked the props out from under them, but I don't believe we killed them all. They're in deep hiding somewhere. They'll show up. Bet on that."
The Rebels were now almost certain that there had been a massive cover-up on the part of America's politicians after the Great War. From what they had been able to piece together, many members of Congress had been secretly supporting the movement of the Believers, the Night People--creepies to the Rebels--a bizarre religion that embraced cannibalism. Why they'd supported a movement that horrible was something that Ben realized he would probably never know.
Ike wandered off to rejoin his command and Ben walked through the milling crowds of the Rebel army, or at least a part of it.
The Rebels had concluded their sweep of the Northwest, and Washington and Oregon had been declared ninety-five-percent clean. The Rebel outposts they had established would settle up with that remaining five percent of creepies, warlords, thugs, punks, and other malcontents. And they would do it the Rebel way: with a bullet or a rope. The Rebels did not believe in lengthy trials. Plea-bargaining was a term that had been stricken from the English language. Fuck up bad and the penalty was death.
Cecil Jefferys and his command were making ready to push south out of Medford, Oregon. They had taken the town without having to destroy it--as was usually the Rebel way with larger cities--and were using the airport to resupply. The Russian, Striganov, and the mercenary, West, had pushed down to the small town of Lakeview and supplies were being trucked to them. Five and Six Battalions of the Rebel army had been shifted over to the east side of the state and they were in position to start the push south. For the time being, they were under the command of Georgi Striganov.
Ben was leaning up against a fender, studying a map. He waved for a runner to join him, and also for his radio operator. "You find Ike and tell him to pull out as soon as possible. Corrie, bump Cecil and tell him to link up with Ike; they'll take the coastline highway all the way down to San Francisco. There is no point in putting this off. We'll take Interstate 5 south. Georgi and West will push south on 395. All units will be rolling in two days."
"Right, sir." She waited, knowing that more was coming.
"Tina and her Scouts will join Georgi and West, for the time being. Buddy will join Ike and Cec. Everyone else will remain with us."
"Tell Leadfoot and the Wolfpack to get ready to move out. I want them to penetrate as far south as Yreka and halt there. They are to radio back with their assessment."
Leadfoot and his Wolfpack had, at one time, been outlaw bikers. Ben, seeing more than a spark of decency in the bikers, had given them a choice of lifestyles. They had accepted it. Leadfoot, Beerbelly, Hoss, and Wanda and her bunch had joined the Rebels. They had proved to be fierce fighters and totally loyal to Ben and the Rebel movement.
"General, what about the new bunch?" Corrie asked innocently.
"What new bunch?"
"The group that came in from Nevada. The one Linda Parsons was with."
"Incorporate them into our units. Spread them out. Send the noncombatants to Base Camp One. You know all that, Corrie. What's going on here?"
"Yes, sir. Right, sir. Linda was trained as an RN."
"Wonderful. So what?"
"Ah ... I gather that Doctor Chase has not yet informed you of his decision."
"I haven't seen the old goat in several days. Where is he? What decision?"
"He's assigned Linda to our team."
Ben looked at her, "I love the way people make decisions without consulting me."
"Yes, sir. Doctor Chase said it was for your own good."
"That's very interesting. Get her over here, will you?"
Beth, another member of Ben's personal team, had walked up, listening to the exchange. "Doctor Chase said that since you refuse to behave like a commander is supposed to behave, that is, directing operations from behind the lines, he felt it best to assign a medical person to the team."
"Do remind me to thank him from the bottom of my heart," Ben said dryly.
"Yes, sir. I will certainly make a note of that."
"Have the mechanics finished with our vehicle?"
"Be ready in the morning," Beth told him.
Ben's vehicle was a big, nine-passenger Chevy wagon, with armor plate and bullet-proof glass. Ben's driver was Cooper. His self-appointed bodyguard was the cute and diminutive Jersey.
"Where is Jersey?" Ben asked.
"Probably harassing Cooper," Beth said.
"Thermopolis and Emil?"
"In a deep philosophical discussion over by the river."
"That should be a conversation to be recorded for the ages."
Thermopolis and his band of 21st-century hippies had thrown their lot in with Ben, considering him to be the lesser of the evils that faced their way of life. Emil Hite was a little con artist who usually had some religious scam going--the last one had been the Great God Blomm. But both Therm and Emil and their followers had proven themselves in battle many times and Ben was glad to have them on the Rebel side.
Corrie brought Linda Parsons over to meet the general.
The woman had a very pretty, heart-shaped face that reminded Ben of a movie actress ... he couldn't think of her name. Linda, Ben guessed, would stand about five-five and was very nicely proportioned. Light brown hair, worn short. Green eyes that were studying him as closely as he was studying her.
"You understand the Rebel philosophy, Mrs. Parsons?" Ben asked her.
"I understand it."
"Do you agree with it?"
She nodded her head. "I agree with enough of it to live with it."
Ben could accept that. A lot of Rebels felt the same way. The Rebel way was harsh and usually uncompromising. There were no niceties of law. If you fought the Rebels, you died. If you chose not to accept the Rebel doctrine but remained non-hostile, the Rebels would not harm you. But in most cases neither would they help you. Ike had once said that a man couldn't get much plowin' done with both mules wanting to pull in opposite directions. The Rebels knew it was a hard and terrible time, worldwide, and they understood that there was no room for fence-straddlers. Let's get the nation back together again, and then we'll debate the fine points of law.
"The bunch you came in with," Ben said, "how many of you?"
"About fifty adults. There are eighteen children. I understand that you are sending the children down to your base camp in Louisiana."
"That's correct. And any of the adults who wish a noncombatant role."
"Then that will knock it down to about forty who will remain here."
"Whatever, Mrs. Parsons."
"Please, just Linda."
"Fine. Beth, go with her and get her into uniform. Draw supplies and equipment and then both of you rejoin me at my CP." Ben looked around him. "Wherever the damn thing is."
"I get the impression that the general doesn't like me," Linda said, as she and Beth walked toward the supply area.
"Don't make any snap conclusions," Beth warned her. "The general is sometimes hard to read." She grinned. "Besides, I think you're wrong. He was sizing you up a few minutes before you joined us. I was watching him."
"I heard he was a womanizer."
"He likes the ladies, for sure."
"How old is he?"
"That's what I guessed. You been with him long?"
"Pretty good while. We've been in some scraps, I'll tell you that for sure."
"No. I think he was, a long time ago; or else they were just living together. She was killed during the battle for the Tri-States. Tina is his adopted daughter. Buddy is his blood son. By a woman that now hates both Ben and Buddy."
"That's right. News gets around."
"General Raines is an ... interesting-looking man," Linda said. "He can be very ... well, intense when he looks at you."
"He is also one of the most dangerous people you'll ever meet. And he likes to take chances. It can get interesting staying around him too. He'll usually find some way to get right in the middle of a fight."
"I thought generals were supposed to direct operations from far behind the lines, in some safe bunker?"
Beth laughed. "Not in the Rebel army, honey. And for sure, not Ben Raines. You'll see."
Linda looked around her at the crush of Rebels, drawing supplies, checking in malfunctioning equipment, and receiving other equipment. Many were lined up at MASH tents for medical or dental work. She did not see a single person just loafing.
Beth seemed to read her thoughts as she followed the woman's eyes. "There's a war on in the lower forty-eight. And the sooner we win it down here, the sooner we'll head for Alaska and kick butt up there."
"Europe! Isn't that a rather ambitious undertaking?"
Beth shrugged. "Not really. We've kicked ass all over the United States, haven't we?"
"Maybe they don't want the Rebel way over there." It was not put as a question.
"And maybe they do. We won't know until we get there, will we? Here we are. Louise?" She grinned at the woman behind a long table filled with clothing. "This is Linda. Load her up with gear. She's been assigned to the general's team."
Linda looked at her. "Does that make me somebody special?"
"Some might say so. It's good duty. You'll get to see lots of action up close."
"Yeah," Louise said, smiling. "And you get the absolutely mind-boggling conversation of Cooper thrown in for free."
"And all about what happened in the olden days from the general," Beth added.
Linda laughed. "Careful now. I'm closer to the general's age than to yours."
"That's right," Beth said, a twinkle in her eyes. "And don't think the general hasn't noticed too."
Linda noticed that Ben Raines seemed to be constantly on the prowl, popping up at the most unexpected times and places. And always with Jersey and her M-16 right beside or behind him. Usually, the entire team was with him. And he seemed to know everybody. There was a free-spirited stream of chatter--often laced with vulgar jokes and profanity--going on between the general and the Rebels.
General Ike McGowan had pulled out the previous afternoon, heading for the west side of the state to link up with the black general, Cecil Jefferys. The entire Rebel force was to begin their jump-off at dawn the next day.
"Nervous?" The voice came from her right.
Linda looked up into the face of Ben Raines. She had not heard him approach her. And how did he know what she had been thinking? Maybe the rumors about him were true. A lot of people believed that Ben Raines was some sort of god; or if not that, at least possessed with some sort of supernatural ability. Linda didn't believe in ghosts and hobgoblins and psychic powers and all that. But she didn't know how she felt about Ben Raines. Except that he was very impressive. Tall, with brown hair peppered with gray. A rangy sort of man, but possessed of some strength, she felt. Unreadable eyes.
"A little, I'll admit it," she answered.
He sat down beside her on the ground. "I read your dossier. You haven't seen much combat, have you?"
"Not much. After the Great War, even during the few years of so-called peace under President Logan, we stayed in our little valley there in Nevada and no one ever bothered us. I worked as an RN in our clinic. Then everything fell apart a couple of years ago. I've been on the run since then."
"It must have been a very isolated little valley."
"Oh, yes. It was. But the outlaws found us."
"Were there so many coming at you that you couldn't fight them?"
She smiled at him. "We weren't warriors, General. We were teachers and technicians and nurses and medical doctors and scientists. And I suppose, looking back, very naive in our thinking that we would be left alone in our little paradise."
"Even paradise must be defended, Linda. I've been told that even the gates of Heaven are guarded. The Rebel army has not cleared the United States of punks and thugs and crud by extending the olive branch of peace to them. They'd have snatched it out of our hands and stuck it up our ass."
She shook her head and tried to hide a smile. "Is it true that you shoot criminals, General?"
"That depends on the crime, Linda. Understand this now. We take very few prisoners. Anyone who fights us is our mortal enemy and we will destroy them. It's a brutal time we live in, Linda. Always has been, for that matter. It's just a little worse now. Or better, depending on your point of view."
"We've got a chance to start over. And we're doing it. Every sweep the Rebels make means we clear the crud and leave the good. There are people not fifty yards from us who were once criminals. They were the smart ones. They saw the writing on the wall and realized that the only thing that faced them was a bullet or a noose. We gave them a chance to redeem themselves, and they took it. But those days are over, Linda. There are too many outposts where people could surrender. Few do. What we are now facing is the hard-core criminal element. Those punks south of us know we're coming. They could surrender, and we'd accept it. But only for the next few days. After that, no."
"It seems so brutal."
"It's practical." He glanced at her. "I'm curious about something."
"With your almost total lack of combat experience, why did you choose to be a part of a combat team?"
"That's the only way around here. You'll learn that."
"To try to understand you people. See what motivates you. Ever since the Great War, I've heard about the Rebels and Ben Raines. How you defied the government and carved out the Tri-States."
"We were looking for peace, Linda. For a place where we didn't have to lock our doors and live behind bars and chain locks and elaborate security systems. The United States wouldn't offer us a place--and they could have--so we built one of our own. It worked, and the government couldn't stand it. No one went hungry, no one was homeless, everybody had a job, no one was denied medical care, every child got a good education, and the life expectancy of thieves and punks and thugs and rapists and murderers was about fifteen minutes. The United States government couldn't stand our success. They destroyed the Tri-States, but they couldn't kill the dream. We just fought on."
"And you've been fighting ever since."
"That is correct. And we won't quit until we've won." He smiled at her. But his eyes were still unreadable.
Linda knew, somehow, at that moment that what Beth had told her was true. This was a very dangerous man. Dangerous not only because of his skill with weapons, but because thousands of men and women would follow him unhesitatingly through the gates of Hell in pursuit of their dream.
Was she one of them? She wasn't sure.
"Lamar Chase gives you high marks," said Ben. "He says you're a fine nurse."
"That's a crusty old man. But I like him. Isn't he a little old to be out in the field?"
"Lamar will die out in the field, Linda. I long ago ceased attempting to put him back in research at our base camp. Just as he has given up trying to tie me down to a desk or to make me stay behind the lines."
"You enjoy it, don't you, General?" she asked softly. "The fighting, the violence?"
Ben did not have to give that much thought. "I let myself get out of shape for a time, Linda. I was making lots of money and drinking too much. That was years back, when the world was more or less functioning; that is to say, when governments were still able to produce results, however small. I would sit and read the newspaper and watch the TV evening news and hear how grown men were able to kidnap small children, keep them prisoner for years, rape and sodomize them, and when caught, receive a five-year prison sentence. That's true, Linda. It happened more than once. How gangs of teenage punks could beat and rape and leave for dead in a ditch some unlucky person, and in many cases draw no prison time at all because some group of judges who sat on high had decreed that anyone under the age of seventeen was not responsible for his actions. But still he could get a driver's license. We had some strange laws, Linda. And I stress had. I would read or see how a family would come home from work and find their home vandalized, every precious memento they had gathered over the years destroyed, and when caught, the guilty parties would get a slap on the wrist and be turned loose. How perverted assholes could torture helpless animals and be guilty of no more than a misdemeanor. How people who dared stand up for their rights and use a gun to defend self, home, or loved ones, would sometimes go to prison and the crud who broke into their homes or cars or attacked them on the streets could sue for damages. Did you ever stop and ponder that, Linda? That a criminal was allowed to sue his victim for damages? And in many cases collect!
"There were those of us who wrote letters to newspapers and national TV networks and news magazines. We said that in our opinion something was terribly wrong with our system of justice; it was warped, bent in favor of the criminal. Many of the media people would immediately brand us as bigots, or gun-nuts, or crazies. Therefore fewer and fewer of us chose to voice our opinions. Those who persisted were sometimes harassed by federal agents. I know that to be true, because I was one of those who were harassed.
"But because I had achieved some degree of fame as a writer, with a respectable, if not a massive following, I was not harassed nearly so relentlessly as others with no clout."
She noticed Ben's smile and wondered about that. He cleared it up.
"Of course, I had some years in the intelligence community too. That probably helped with the government, if not with the liberal media. An example, Linda. At one point in time, the federal government was turning loose murderers, rapists, and armed robbers, and sending agents out to arrest people who owned home-satellite systems capable of picking up signals from the public airways.
"Stupid? Sure, it was. But that didn't stop the government from doing it. Our government was spending millions of dollars enforcing the dumbest of laws while children were being beaten to death by abusive parents. State governments were spending millions of dollars nationwide to subsidize high school sports, and our elderly were freezing to death in the winter, dying of the heat in the summer, or starving to death.
"Our welfare system was a disgrace, public housing was a profane joke, our highways and bridges were falling apart, the hands of the police were tied, the cops and schoolteachers were underpaid--the cops couldn't enforce the law because of judges, and teachers couldn't teach or maintain discipline for fear of lawsuits--drug dealers were peddling death on the street corners and killing innocent people who got in their way, and the government was sending out agents to disarm law-abiding citizens.
"Our wildlife was being killed off, entire species gone forever, because our forests were being raped by money-hungry developers and loggers and big farmers, our water supply threatened by the runoff of poisonous chemicals, and our elected officials were wringing their hands and stomping on their hankies saying that they couldn't do anything drastic to combat worldwide terrorism or international drug-trafficking because that might violate the criminals' constitutional rights.
"The whole damn world was going to hell in a handbasket. The Amazon rain forest, which at that time was producing about one third of the world's oxygen, was being destroyed by humankind, and very few of us even gave a damn. And those of us that did were told to shut up.
"When the Great War came, Linda, some of us seized the moment to break away, form our own society, and rebuild. And we did. I got back in shape and vowed I was going to put together an army and kick the ass of every punk and thug and crud we found. So that's why we keep fighting, Linda. That's why we'll always keep fighting until we win. That's why the Rebels have got to win. We have to. We can't even think about defeat. We're the last known barrier against total, worldwide anarchy. If we fall, the whole damn world falls with us."