|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
Because of its length, I was originally going to break this story into two parts, but I hit my stride this past weekend and finished it up more or less on time. I also think it reads better as a self-contained piece of fiction, and now I get to work on something totally fresh for next month. 8) I'll warn readers right now that there are mature themes and language ahead. Not in spades, but there are a couple of perhaps unsettling images and phrases. You've been warned, all you youngins and sensitive types. Hope you enjoy the story.
Jacob was weary. He'd been two days on foot since leaving the caravan and the Badlands sun was being to tell on even his fantastic endurance. It was early evening, and the awful heat of the day was finally beginning to give way to the night's chilled air. Pulling his tattered desert cloak close around his body, Jacob smiled to himself when the lengthening shadows revealed the lights of the village he sought not four kilometers distant.
Increasing his already brisk pace, the hooded traveler wondered what he would find in Lowe Berlan. Tiny Lowe Berlan. A Badlands hamlet of no more than a half-dozen buildings, it was an archetypal small desert community. More than anything, it served as a focus for the homesteaders of the county. It was where a common market was held, where the marshal held an office, where most of the caravan trading was done, and where the elders met on matters of concern to the entire community. It was also, according to Major Fitzgerald, where Marq Lawson had married and settled.
Lawson was the reason why Jacob had traveled these twelve hundred kilometers. Jacob's commanding officer during the war, Captain Lawson had taken an active interest in getting to know his personnel -- right down to the grunts bound for the dirtiest jobs. Grunts like Jacob.
Helios had set by the time Jacob reached the edge of town, and since none of Terra Nova's three moons yet saw fit to bathe the harsh landscape in their pale, reflected illumination, the glow from the buildings ahead seemed all the more furious. A pair of angry-sounding dawgs suddenly chittered and growled at the stranger's approach, making him pause a half-step as he sized up their intention. He was preparing to draw a weapon when a man's voice carried over the wind.
"Bit late to be outnabout on foot, stranger. We got Banks 'round here, you know."
Bank's Monitors -- hundred kilo lizards capable of killing and devouring a full-grown man. Being part of the second wave, Jacob and his mates had been briefed on them. They were dangerous, but dispatched easily enough by a well-aimed bullet or knife stroke. That kind of thinking -- killing, overcoming -- came too naturally to the big man. Jacob shook his head for a moment before replying. "I'm looking for someone. Captain Marq Lawson. He owns a farm, I think."
Silencing the two dawgs with a hand signal, the villager moved into the light. Perhaps eighty cycles old, his weathered skin and sun-whitened hair showed that he was a man who was born and had lived under the scorching equatorial sun. He carried a high-caliber rifle, and though it was pointed towards the ground Jacob could tell the man knew how to handle the weapon. "I'm Marshal Cody," the man began, "in case you're wonderin'. Marq Lawson's been dead near two cycles now. What'd you want with him?"
Dead. Marq was dead. Jacob had given up everything to come to this place. For what? Nothing, now. He didn't know what to say to the lawman, and so said nothing. Instead he bowed his head and looked dumbly at the ground.
"Say," the Marshal continued, noting the droop in the stranger's broad shoulders, "why don't you come on in the office, and I'll tell you about Marq. Folks liked him quite a lot."
Jacob nodded, though he was still numb. When he reached the edge of the light, however, Cody took a step back and gripped his rifle a little tighter. Hooded cloak or no, Jacob's immense size spoke volumes about his ancestry. "Listen, uh, we don't want no trouble," the Marshal began. The dawgs immediately noticed his unease and began growling again.
"I'm not here to cause trouble," Jacob replied simply.
Silencing the animals again, Cody regained some of his composure. "Well, I'm sorry to say I don't much like your kind 'round here. Tends to bring out the worst in people. I'm sure you know that."
Jacob nodded. "Will you tell me about Marq?"
Holding his hat against a sudden squall of wind, the Marshal swore under his breath. "Oh hell, come on in. I've just put a fresh pot of cawfee on the stove, and it looks like it's gonna get ugly tonight. You best get inside. Looks like you've been on the road a while."
A short while later, Jacob had unshouldered his load, which now sat in a corner of the Marshal's cramped, well-lit office. He'd pulled back the hood of his cloak, revealing his massive bald head, faintly purplish complexion and small, dark eyes. Drinking deeply from the mug he'd been handed, Jacob watched as Cody sat back in a comfortable looking chair behind his desk.
"So." The Marshal lowered his bushy white eyebrows. "How far'd you come to get here?"
"Port Arthur," Jacob answered plainly.
Cody whistled. "That's a long way for nothin'. If you don't mind my askin', before I tell ya 'bout Marq Lawson, why don't you tell me how you knew him?"
"Captain Lawson was Bravo Company's commanding officer during the war. My squad was part of Bravo Company."
Swallowing, Cody nodded. "I figured. Folks didn't much like having an Earther move in, but they got used to it. Lawson was a good man. He bought up old Olav Picker's stead. Olav, the old fool, killed himself trying to break an Armadillo Iguana. Anyway, Marq raised springers and grew waterroots, johar, and some of the best damned sweet peppers I ever tasted. Lead a pretty quiet life, really. Married a young girl from..." Cody scratched his head. "Now where was she from?"
Finishing his cawfee, Jacob placed his cup down. "I don't know," he answered.
Cody looked at him a bit strangely before going on. "No, I suppose you don't. Temple Heights! She was from Temple Heights! Anyway, why'd you come all this way to see him?" He produced a toothy grin. "He didn't owe you money, I hope, cuz Luiz Berlan seized his ranch when he died. Seems he owed enough debts to the Berlan clan that the elders just ceded the whole place over to them after he passed on."
"How did he die?" Jacob stared at the Marshall for long seconds before blinking.
"Flu. Doctor said his immune system wasn't up to fighting some of the bugs we got here on Terra Nova. Marq said he figured the shots he got just before landing on the planet were probably only effective for a short while." Cody realized again to whom he was speaking. "Might want to get yourself checked out. You, ah, you never know."
Death would, at this point, Jacob thought, not be unwelcome. He could already feel his apprehension beginning to grow; he could sense the restlessness. Everyone from his unit was dead. Godiva. Joshua. Merlin. Lastly, Tomas -- who had been murdered for studying the 'Perfect Form' teachings of Matsu Yamata. With nothing remaining in Port Arthur's GREL Quarter other than chaos and death, Soldier Jacob had made the excruciating decision to leave his fellow legionnaires behind. He had decided to try and seek out his old commander, perhaps the last man on the planet able to give his life meaning and, hopefully, peace.
But now Marq Lawson was dead. Without purpose, Jacob's instincts always got the better of him. It was written right into his genetic code. He'd been programmed to kill, and he knew it. It was impossible to fight against without an external focus. Things invariably got violent, and people invariably got hurt. And killed. Jacob looked more closely at Cody, who was still going on about influenza of one sort or another. He would be ridiculously easy to kill. Jacob pictured his hands wrapping around the man's throat. He could slowly squeeze the life out of him. Or break his neck. Crush his trachea, or impale him on the sharp, meter-and-a-half tall cast-iron lamp stand in the corner. Or he could simply smash the Marshal's head against the solid corner of the desk over and over until the man's brains spilled out.
Or he could remain calm and form a new plan of action, Jacob told himself. He could tell both his pulse and breathing had quickened dramatically, and he immediately tried to use one of the exercises Tomas had showed him to calm himself down.
When the Marshal noticed the GREL closing his eyes and breathing deeply and evenly, he stopped talking. He could tell that Jacob needed nothing so much as a good sleep. He'd obviously been up for long hours, and was undoubtedly hoping to find his friend something other than long-dead.
In short order Cody readied a cot and got the man some cold water for washing up. Not long after, Jacob laid awake in the dark, out of his desert suit and heavy garb for the first time in days. The Marshal had retired to a back room, leaving the office to his guest. Jacob wondered what the morning would bring. He had no money, no friends, and no plan. This was it. Lowe Berlan was to be his salvation. The silence tortured him for long hours before he finally slept, but when he did, it was the sleep of the dead.
Shortly after dawn, the Marshal crept out into the office and was surprised to see his GREL guest already dressed and packed for the road. "You said I wasn't welcome here," he said bluntly, reaching for the door.
Cody sighed. "No, Jacob, I'm afraid you're not. People have long memories -- and frankly, the war wasn't that long ago. You're best off with your own kind."
Jacob nodded and was out the door. 0700, and it was already uncomfortably warm. Lowering his goggles and raising his hood, he turned... turned... and turned. He didn't know where he was going, or even what laid in each direction. He'd found Lowe Berlan by following the instructions of one of the traders he'd traveled partway through the desert with. 'Follow the sun,' he'd said. Sure enough, Jacob had eventually found the worn trail. But now there were a dozen trails, each leading to different places and different people. Homesteads. Other towns. Oasis Towers. Cities. Looking back towards the Marshal's office, he noticed the lanky man putting up notices of some kind on a message board.
"What is this?" Jacob asked.
"Community message board," Cody said between the tacks in his teeth. "Ain't part of my job description to do this, but unless I take 'em down when it gets windy, they'd be all over hell and beyond."
The huge traveler leaned in closer to read some of the notices. A man hiring out the services of his Groundhog utility gear. People looking to trade vegetables for grain. A woman selling sides of springer meat. Someone looking for help on their farm.
Help on their farm?
"What kind of help?" Jacob asked aloud.
"What?" Cody said, tacking a final sheet to the board.
"What kind of help does this person need?" Jacob tapped the tattered paper.
Cody squinted. "Oh, Mrs. Keath. She's looking for a farm-hand. Someone to help in the gardens, mend the fences, tend the animals, that sort of thing. Chores, mostly, I think."
Jacob looked at the notice for a long moment.
"Forget it," Cody said with a smile. "You ain't cut out for farm life. You best go back to Port Arthur."
Jacob continued looking. "Where is the Keath homestead?" he asked finally, turning to look at the Marshal.
Cody's smile faded. "It's up north, towards the hills. But don't you bother the Keaths. I asked you to move on."
The GREL was unfazed as he turned to go. "I'll move on."
"Where to?" Marshal Cody called out to his back.
"Up north," Jacob said simply.
Sweat rolled down Jacob's back as he toiled. His brawny shoulders moved like tireless pistons as he swung a heavy wrench round and around in a counter- clockwise circle. This kind of exertion always felt instinctive to him -- it felt right. When the massive, corroded nut at the fulcrum of his efforts dropped to the dusty ground, he smiled slightly. The cistern's maintenance door had been long rusted shut, and Mrs. Keath had thought that the only way to gain access to the interior of the spherical structure was to completely unbolt the upper section.
As Jacob picked up the nut from the earth, the rumble of a combustion engine sounded behind him. He turned to see Sierra flicking a series of overhead switches before grasping the twin sticks that controlled the walker she sat in. "Gangway," she said matter-of-factly, walking the Groundhog over towards the cistern.
Jacob watched silently as the bipedal machine moved past him and reached out to grasp two of the many protrusions covering the cistern's upper surface. The gear's hydraulics whined for a moment as they strained against the weight of the steel. Sierra backed off, shifted the vehicle's feet into a more stable stance and tried again. The sights and sounds of the walker in motion brought memories flooding back to the GREL. Memories of his brothers and sisters. Memories of the war.
Jacob's hypno-programming had included all manner of information on Terra Nova's unusual fighting machines. Technical specifications, mechanical limitations, and tactics for defeating the heavy gears were all embedded deeply into late-generation Legionnaire consciousness. Even now, as Sierra and her metal exo-skeleton lifted the hemispherical cover from the water tank, Jacob couldn't help but think about how he could defeat the machine. Kill the exposed pilot, in this case. Kill Sierra. The war machines he faced so frequently during the war of course had armored cockpits; they were not so easily dispatched. Still, they had their weaknesses. His rifle had been capable of penetrating any gear's armor at close range, and the engine, sensors and limbs had proved particularly vulnerable. Not so vulnerable, however, that Jacob had been able to save Soldier Job from a terrible death.
Job had been a Mordred, like Jacob. All GRELs were bred to be fearsome warriors, but none were quite so fearsome as Mordred-class shocktroopers. The two men had been fast friends since first joking with one another prior to their orbital drop. During the war, Job and Jacob fought beside one another, each watching the other's back. At the battle of Baja, when Jacob's instincts got the better of him and he over-pursued the enemy, his unit's position was overrun by a gear squadron. After mowing down a half-dozen Terranovan infantrymen, Jacob realized his mistake and turned back only in time to watch a Jaguar crush the life from his friend with it's massive metal foot. Jacob had bellowed, his scream echoing Job's. When the pilot shifted the machine's weight onto its front leg, Job died as his head burst open like an over-ripe melon. Tears in his eyes, Jacob lifted his rifle and emptied it into the side armor of the gear's cockpit. As the action on his gun spit empty brass into the air, Jacob saw between muzzle flashes that his shells were punching large holes straight through the armor plate protecting the pilot. When the rifle finally fell silent, the gear stumbled and fell on its side. As Jacob approached, he numbly watched the pilot's precious fluids drizzle out onto the sand through the perforated cockpit.
"Jacob?" Sierra said, resorting to the Groundhog's loudspeaker to get the man's attention.
"Sorry," he returned. Seeing that she had removed the top section from the cistern, he asked, "What's next?"
"Same thing as last time," Sierra answered with her pleasantly scratchy voice as she lowered one of the machine's manipulators. "Climb on and I'll lift you into the cistern. Clean it out while I tackle the top half and then we'll slap it back together."
Jacob did as instructed, and soon the dilapidated cistern had been cleaned, disinfected and put back together. He and Sierra, surprisingly, worked well together. She was as skilled at giving instruction as he was at receiving it. By evening mealtime, in fact, the duo had disassembled, scrubbed out and reassembled two more of the filthy water tanks, leaving only four more to finish the next day, which would be Jacob's sixth on the Keath homestead.
"Good work today," Sierra commented as she parked the Groundhog and climbed out of its cockpit. "I knew we'd be able to get these old cans back into shape. It'll make a big difference to have them running in the summer."
Jacob nodded, his beady eyes following her movements closely. Sierra was a total mystery to him. She was slightly built; the top of the woman's head barely reached halfway up the GREL's chest when she stood next to him. That such a fragile, delicate creature could so skillfully pilot one of the machines Jacob had seen kill more of his brethren than he could count was somehow unsettling. More than that, the hug of Sierra's desert suit to her hips, her lightly freckled, tanned skin and her sandy, wild hair stirred other feelings in him. The Minervas and Morganas he had known during the war and in Port Arthur were nothing like this Terranovan woman. Where they were forceful and deceptive, she was gentle and frank.
As if to illustrate these traits, Sierra grinned and said, "You're staring again, Jacob. Let's go get cleaned up for supper. We've got work to do on the Antelope tonight."
The legionnaire nodded curtly, looking away as he fell into step behind the Badlander. When she grabbed his arm and pulled him forward so that he was walking beside rather than behind her, Jacob quickened his pace. Sierra simply released him, smiled and walked on.
Jacob's room was dusty and cramped, but it served his modest needs well. Located in the open loft above the garage, it offered him the solitude he was never able to find at Port Arthur. These past five nights had been the most peaceful he could recall, though they were still marked by violent dreams and dark thoughts of unrestrained violence.
As he climbed down the ladder to the workshop, a slight sound caught Jacob's attention. A skag, a big one, had wandered into the garage, and the quiet clicking of its legs on the floor hung strangely in the air. Jacob looked at the creature for a brief moment before crushing it underfoot. After scraping the remains off of his boot, the GREL headed out into the cooling night air.
Helios had fallen, but the strategically placed compound floodlights managed to keep the inky darkness at bay. Jacob disrobed and opened the cannister of home- made cleansing powder Sierra had given him. In a few moments he had rubbed down every inch of his hairless skin with the stuff, scrubbing vigorously at particularly stubborn grease stains. Life in the desert meant that water was rationed carefully, especially with the hot season approaching. Sierra's mother, Mrs. Keath, had flatly stated that she would tolerate no waste with regards to water. That there would be no bathing Jacob could understand; he found the wizened woman's insistence about urine reclamation a little unusual but more amusing than anything. 'A man your size would piss away our water stores in a week if we let you!' she'd said.
Water issues, of course, were at the crux of why Sierra and Jacob had been working so hard on revitalizing the old cistern system behind the house. Those eight large water tanks had been put in by Alburt Keath when he was still a young man. It was Alburt's death ten cycles ago that had led to the homestead's gradual but sure decline. His wife Una, then saddled with two small children, did her best to maintain and improve the farm, but in the end the task proved too formidable. The situation was made worse when Oskar, Sierra's brother, decided homesteader life wasn't for him. Ignoring his mother and sisters' pleas, he joined a rover gang and vanished from their lives.
Enter Jacob. Two cycles had passed since Oskar had left the farm, and things had gone from bad to worse for the Keath women. Disease and aggressive poaching saw their once impressive springer herd dwindle, their waterroot fields were shrinking, and a rash of mechanical breakdowns -- including the main generator, solar array and water purification system meant that there was a seemingly unending amount of work to do. The posting Jacob had seen in Lowe Berlan had in fact been well over a cycle old -- none of the locals had yet answered because it offered so little while asking so much.
Una Keath, now well into her seventies, was beginning to tire. Her daughter was young and strong, but she couldn't hope to single-handedly save their home. So it was that Una had accepted Soldier Jacob, a Genetically Recombined Experimental Legionnaire, born in the vats of Caprice for the sole purpose of conquering Terra Nova in the name of the Earth, onto her farm.
Jacob could sense her unease with him, and noticed that there were usually a pair of dawgs nearby when they all ate supper together, and that those same animals prowled the main house at night. He didn't care. He was only thankful for the room and board Mrs. Keath was providing. Una's daughter Sierra, on the other hand, had been very warm towards him. She was the one he'd spent most of his time with, and he found that he felt as comfortable taking direction from the diminutive woman as he had from anyone in his short life. Sierra seemed to sense his need for guidance, yet didn't ridicule him for it as so many haughty CEF officers had done.
The naked GREL was shaken from his thoughts when a bell rang back at the house. "Dinner's on!" Sierra called across the yard. Her distinctive voice drifted beautifully, carried by an uncharacteristically warm evening wind.
"Coming," Jacob answered, dropping a half-handful of abrasive powder into the swirling breeze. He dressed quickly and hurried towards the house, spurred on by the delicious smells wafting from within. When he reached the front porch, he could see that Sierra wore a broad smile on her face.
She closed her eyes to inhale in an exaggerated fashion, then said, "Mmm. Mom roasted that wild springer I caught yesterday afternoon. Smells delicious, doesn't it?"
The gigantic ex-soldier bobbed his big head yes, then followed the woman inside. Una had already set the table, and was busily making gravy in the kitchen. She was the kind of woman who took real pride in feeding her family -- even this poor excuse for one.
"Sit yourselves down," said the white-haired woman from the kitchen. "I'll lift everything in a minute."
"You stay here," Sierra whispered at Jacob, "I'm going to help her." Jacob watched as the slender woman slipped into the next room and began speaking quietly with her mother about what she could do to assist.
Jacob shifted awkwardly in his seat, which groaned under his weight. He could barely fit his knees under the table, and as he picked up his utensils he couldn't help but grin at their small size. Looking around the rest of the small front room, he felt nothing so much as warm. Pictures, books, candles, home-made children's toys and an impressive array of desert knick-knacks lined the shelves around the room. Alburt's faded, wide-brimmed hat hung from the same rung it had when its owner still wore it daily. There had been a great deal of love in this house, and there was much still. As the two Keath women began bringing food to the table, Jacob wondered what he had done in his life to so suddenly deserve such happiness. He put such thoughts from his mind as a giant serving of roasted meat and fresh vegetables was heaped upon his plate.
Sierra and her mother exchanged amused glances when Jacob dug into his food like a man possessed, shoveling chunks of meat and mashed up greens into his mouth all in one go. Thirty seconds passed before he realized he was the only one eating. Dropping an enormous piece of roasted springer from his mouth to his plate, he brought both women to laughter when he sheepishly muttered, "Sorry."
Still chuckling, Una raised her glass as her daughter wiped tears from her eyes. "For this food," she said simply, "thank Mamoud."
"Thank Mamoud," Sierra said softly, also lifting her glass. She then burst out laughing again when Jacob immediately resumed his assault on his dinner plate. The woman had been working him hard since his arrival on the farm, but she had never witnessed such a voracious appetite.
By the end of the meal, Jacob had packed away three full-sized servings, and Una was grumbling jokingly about the cost of feeding her boarder being more than the worth of his work. Jacob protested, of course, and Sierra eventually broke up the good-natured spat by sending the big man out the front door to start work on the jeep.
A few meters out into the yard, Jacob paused. Turning back to look at the dwelling, he swallowed hard. Sitting and talking with Sierra during the meal had been a pleasing kind of torture. Her scent had been intoxicating, and the few times she'd touched him had left the big man yearning for more. She now stood in the doorway, her perfect silhouette framed by the light of the lamps inside the house. She was beautiful.
"Yes, Jacob?" she asked, pulling her tousled hair into a pony-tail.
Too beautiful for him, Jacob was sure. "Nothing," he returned. "I'll have the jeep jacked up by the time you're ready."
If spring in the Badlands had been distressingly hot, summer was unbearably so. Like Badlanders everywhere, Jacob and Sierra were unable to work through the blistering fifty-plus mid-day period, and instead usually ate light lunches and napped under whatever shelter was near where they were working. Laboring long after dark was becoming more and more common, and the increased energy requirements of the floodlamps made efficient use of available solar and wind- power more important than ever.
Despite the heat, despite the grueling work, and despite his cramped quarters, Jacob thrived. His day was highly structured; wake-ups, lights-outs and meal times rarely varied, and the trio quickly fell into a comfortable routine that saw them actually gaining ground on a number of long-neglected maintenances and improvements. Sierra seemed to innately understand that Jacob needed to be walked through new tasks slowly and often more than once. She never questioned him about it -- she simply always made sure he'd received adequate instruction and direction before leaving him on his own.
Jacob found himself enjoying life like no other time he could remember. Even in the heat of battle, filled with blood-lust and the sheer elation his kind felt when at war, the GREL had felt an emptiness. This land, this place, had filled that void. The blue, blue desert skies, overseeing the gorgeous red mesas, cracked-grey highlands and powder-white sand dunes gave the land a majesty beyond description. On nights when Jacob had trouble sleeping, and there were many, he'd climb Dakwatch Bluff just to look out over the valley below. In the Badlands, the heavens were invariably filled to bursting with stars, and the violet light that mantled the land those evenings never failed to sooth the one-time warrior's uncertain spirit.
Uncertain, for though his genetic need for subservience was being amply fulfilled, Jacob was fighting hard to control his more savage yearnings. The GREL had so far managed to hide a number of violent outbursts from the Keath women, including the deliberate slaughter of one of their dawgs, but he was worried it was only a matter of time before Sierra became aware of his inborn cravings.
Sierra, of course, was Jacob's greatest and most secret source of joy -- and frustration. Toiling beside her daily made him ache to take her into his arms, but simply knowing that he'd see her again the next day was usually enough to satisfy his obsession. There were still nights when he masturbated himself raw, but he was getting better and better at burying his sexual aggression.
On the thirtieth day of Summer, Jacob was working alone, tilling a field where a new crop of waterroots were to be planted. Sierra was off with the Antelope, checking on the fences Jacob had spent the last ten days mending. It was nearing mid-morning, and even through his cloak and oft-patched desert-suit Jacob could feel his skin beginning to broil.
The sound of the Antelope's rebuilt engine carried across the desert, and when Jacob turned he could already see the dust cloud approaching. A few moments later, Sierra, begoggled and extremely dirty, pulled the vehicle to a stop and leaned out the window.
"Jacob!" she cried over the rattle of the engine.
Turning the mechanical tiller he'd been using off, Jacob felt the blood drain from his face and his heart rate quicken. Adrenalin pumping, he ran to the side of the car. Had someone hurt her? He would kill them. Was she in trouble? He would help her!
Sierra's eyes widened under her goggles at seeing the GREL lumber towards her at top speed. She flinched when he pulled up just short of the vehicle's window, then stooped to check on her.
"You're alright?" Jacob asked, concern and fury twisting together in his voice.
"Yeah, yeah -- hey, take it easy, Jake," Sierra intoned. Climbing out of the car, she lifted her goggles from her face and reached up to touch the man's temple -- where a thick vein throbbed. "Mamoud, calm down. I'm fine. I just wanted to get your attention over the sounds of the engine and the tiller."
"Oh," Jacob replied lowly, brushing her hand away without thinking. "I thought you'd been injured, or were in trouble."
Sierra shook her head. "No, but you might be in trouble, mister."
Jacob simply looked at the woman. "What have I done?"
"Didn't I tell you to make sure you fixed the fence in the east field -- down by that dry brook bed?"
"Yes. And I fixed it. Yesterday."
"Two days ago," Sierra kindly corrected.
"Yes. Two days ago."
Sierra made a face. "Well, it's down. Either you missed it, or the Berlans are up to no good again."
"I fixed it," Jacob reiterated. "What no good are the Berlans up to?"
"Rustling. We've lost quite a few springers off the ranch in the last few cycles, and I'm convinced one of the Berlans is pinching them off of the back-side of the range. Mom doesn't believe me, though."
Jacob narrowed his already narrow eyes. "I believe you."
"Thanks," she said dryly. "Just the same, let's check to make double-sure you patched this piece of fencing. Get in." With that, the pair climbed into the Antelope and tore off across the desert steppe.
Twenty minutes later, Jacob stood looking at a shattered section of fence while Sierra scoured the ground for tracks. "I fixed this fence," the big farm-hand said aloud.
"I believe you already," Sierra countered. "And guess what? There are a few springer tracks here, and what looks like a footprint. And not a big, giant jackboot print like you leave behind. Someone else was out here."
"The Berlans," Jacob growled, his jaw tightening.
"Easy there, big guy," Sierra counseled. "We don't know anything for sure yet. But last season I marked our springers with sub-dermal e-brands. If the Berlans have them, we'll know it. Feel like going to visit our neighbors?"
Jacob was in the car before the woman had closed her mouth.
"Wortlet Berlan is the most ill-tempered old codger to ever bear the family name. By the way, that's where Lowe Berlan gets its name. It was founded by an infamous Berlan about three hundred cycles ago. Anyway, like I was saying, Wort is the biggest bastard around, excepting his three foul sons." Sierra gripped the wheel of the Antelope hard as it fought to climb a slippery shale incline. Once it had done so, she continued Jacob's brief lesson as she drove on towards the ramshackle homestead at the edge of the mesa.
"See that little shack there? Well, that belongs to Harland Berlan. Of the three brothers, he's the dumbest and the meanest. And probably the one rustling springers."
Jacob gripped the roll-bar on the side of the vehicle tightly. When Sierra wanted to get somewhere, she drove hard and fast. Harland Berlan. The name sounded familiar. Rather than interrupting the driver, however, Jacob simply let her ramble on about the sad state of the Berlan clan.
When dust kicked up near the jeep and a shot rang out, Sierra swerved the machine to a skidding stop. "That'll be Harland now," she half-smiled. "Good thing he's a poor shot."
Harland's strained voice floated out over the desert. "Git off ma land! Git!"
In response, Sierra stood up through the open roof and raised her arms. "Harland, it's Sierra Keath!" she yelled. "I need to talk to you!"
A moment of two of silence passed, then Harland hollered back. "C'mon then, but leave that there ape right where he is, lessun he wants a few bullets in his belly! And the car too! Y'all come on foot!"
Jacob shook his head violently. "No, Sierra! You can't go alone!"
Sierra was already stepping down to the desert floor. "I can handle Harland, Jacob. I'm not here to cause trouble, anyway. I just want to see if he's been stealing our springers. If he has, I'll call in the Marshal."
Jacob didn't know what to say. He felt terrible inside. This felt all wrong. Harland had a gun. He could kill Sierra before Jacob even knew she was in trouble.
Sierra could see the look on his face. "Don't worry Jake," she reassured him, patting the sidearm strapped to her rounded hip. "I'm not helpless, you know. I did just fine before I had a supersoldier bodyguard." With that, she turned and began walking towards Berlan's dirty compound.
It took long, agonizing moments for Sierra to cross the half-kilometer distance, and while having access to the Antelope's swivel-mounted field glasses allowed Jacob to observe her every move, it didn't settle his nerves any. Finally, when she was on the edge of the grange, Harland showed himself by stepping out from behind an over-turned desert buggy. The rifle he brandished wasn't TN military spec, but it had a telescopic sight and was more than powerful enough to kill Sierra with a single shot. Clenching and unclenching his fists, Jacob began to gently rock back and forth as he continued to watch the scene.
Why had Sierra left him here? He should have been right up behind her, ready to protect and fight for her. Ready to kill. Harland lowered his gun as Sierra approached him. They exchanged words, and the grizzled man shook his head in an energetic no. He waved around the yard several times, and as Jacob moved the viewer he could see the man motioning to several different springer carcasses. Were they animals from the Keath farm? Sierra would know.
When Jacob refocused on the two Badlanders, he felt a lump lodge in his throat. Harland had laid aside his rifle and was grinning a chipped-tooth smile while he took Sierra's slender chin in one of his calloused hands. A metallic taste came into Jacob's mouth, but he ignored it, fixated as he was on the scene. Of course. Now he remembered. Una had said that Harland had pursued Sierra for years -- asking first for her hand in marriage, and then, after he'd married, simply for sex.
Sierra had of course been disgusted by his interest, and Jacob noted that Harland's hand wasn't on her face for even a half-second before she swatted it away forcefully. She then pointed her finger at him in accusing fashion, spun on her heel and began walking back towards the car.
Harland, red-faced and fuming, picked up his rifle and fired it into the air. The woman froze, then turned back to face him. Jacob couldn't quite make out what the man was yelling, but after a moment Sierra turned her back on him again and resumed her march. Jacob didn't take the viewer off of Harland until Sierra, slightly out of breath from the pace she'd set, climbed back into the car.
"Mission accomplished," she puffed, flashing the white smile that Jacob dreamed about. "And I told you I'd be okay."
Tilting the mounted binoculars out of the way, Jacob smiled back at the woman.
"Mamoud!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Jacob, your mouth! You're bleeding!"
Jacob spit dumbly into his palm, then looked with puzzlement at the blood on his hand. "I'm... sorry," he said flatly. His acute anxiety had caused him to chew into his cheek without knowing it, Jacob suddenly realized. Knowing what had happened wouldn't help Sierra any. "I must have a cut," he added.
"Are you okay?"
Jacob nodded, keeping his mouth closed and his tongue on the tender wound.
Sierra fired up the engine. "Good. Then let's get the hell out of here. Harland has been stealing springers from us. The e-tags beeped as soon as I hit the locator. He had a shit-fit, and I told him I was going straight to the Marshal. Which is exactly what I'm going to go."
"You weren't afraid he might shoot you on the spot?" Jacob asked, re-finding his grasp on the vehicle's cage as Sierra sped down a rocky slope.
"Nope. I've known Harland a long time. He wouldn't have hurt me. Not over this."
"Next time take me with you," Jacob said without looking at the woman.
Sierra offered a wry smile without looking at her friend. "Maybe when you learn to control your temper, Jake. Till then, you're to stay away from all confrontation. Clear?"
It was nearly a week later when the elders, old Wort Berlan among them, ruled that Harland had done no wrong. The Keath fences had been in a shambles, Harland had argued, and he'd simply been slaughtering any escaped springers he'd found on his "valuable" farmland before they could do any damage.
Sierra had been in a foul mood since hearing the decision, and what made matters worse was that yet another springer had gone missing in the meantime. She was working half-heartedly on the main dwelling's roof late one morning when Jacob called up to her from the yard. "I'm going to go check the fences," he declared.
"Now?" Sierra questioned. Looking up at the sun, she noted its position. "It'll be noon soon, Jake. Don't torture yourself. Mom's made a nice ice cawfee we can enjoy inside in the shade."
Jacob shook his head. "I'm going to check the fences. I'll bring an extra canteen."
Sierra shrugged, then joked, "Just make sure you bring it back full of you-know- what, or Una'll have your thick hide hanging from her wall."
Jacob nodded, then set off in the Antelope to check the fence line. It was a big job, even with the jeep. The Keaths, even at their lowest, had always had one of the biggest and best springer herds in all of Lowe Berlan. The animals required a large free-ranging pen, and as a result many kilometers of fencing were used to surround the herd.
The real reason Jacob was coming out at mid-day was that he suspected that Harland was doing his poaching during the hot hours. Most of the herd gathered near the homestead at night, and during the morning, late afternoon and evening Sierra and Jacob's purposefully erratic schedule would have made it difficult to predict when they would and would not be in the springer fields. At mid-day in the summer, however, no one in their right mind ventured out into the baked desert flat. No one except the springers. And Jacob. And perhaps Harland.
It wasn't long before Jacob had his proof. Harland and two other men, both looking as scruffy and untrustworthy as Harland himself, were hoisting an animal up onto the bed of a rusted-out Springer one-ton truck. All three men swore when the GREL pulled his vehicle to a stop and climbed out.
"Git goin,' GREL!" Harland spat. "This ain't none o yer business. This here springer got hisself all stuck up on my side of the property, so's I'm claimin' him."
Jacob approached slowly, Sierra's words about him avoiding confrontation pressing heavily on his broad shoulders. "Put the animal down," he said simply. "I'll repair the fence, and you go on your way. But don't come back."
Harland looked up and grinned his broken smile. He moped his brow with a reeking, filthy rag, then produced a pistol from the back of his pants. "Don't make me go and use this now, vatface. I always been itchin' to shoot me a GREL. You don't wanna be the one, do ya? Now git!"
Jacob knew he could kill all three of them. And he wanted to, badly. Harland might empty the pistol into him, but that wouldn't even slow him down. Perhaps he might bleed to death, but that would be long after he'd crushed each of their skulls under his steel-shanked boots. His nostrils flaring, Jacob fought the urge to charge his foes. "No," he said instead. "Leave the springer, and go." When Harland just shrugged, Jacob walked down past the fence and up to the back of the truck. Seizing the struggling animal, he grunted and lifted it back down to the ground. A smack on its hind end sent it bounding back onto Keath property.
Harland watched in shock as his prize escaped. "My springer!" he cried. He then turned his attention back to Jacob, an ugly scowl marking his face. "Yer gonna pay for that!" he warned.
Jacob backed away from the truck, but didn't dare turn his back on the man. "Don't come around here any more, or there'll be trouble. And leave Sierra alone."
"Sierra? Pfff. Is that was this is about? Mamoud H. Khodaverdi! Ha! I heard about you and your little crush on Sierra -- I shoulda knowed that's what this was about. You pissed off at me cuz I fucked her? Well too bad, vats, cuz she ain't never gonna let some vatfreak like you touch her. Never!"
"Don't talk about her that way," Jacob growled, his ire rising.
Harland waved his pistol at the huge man. "Check it out, vats. I've got the gun, you don't. I don't care how big you are -- I plant one of these between your beady little fuckin' eyes, you'll know it. What's the matter? You don't like hearing about me and Sierra? Well, I'll tell you what you need to hear. First I fucked her in the ass. Then I fucked her in the mouth. Then I fucked her mother the night her old man died. Then I fucked-"
"No!" Jacob roared, suddenly grabbing the back of the vehicle. In an awesome display of might, he ripped the gate straight off the truck and hurled it into the blistering desert air. "No!" he shouted again, leaping onto the truck. He'd held back for so long... he'd denied himself his deepest desires for so very long. Now they boiled to the surface, burning and searing like never before.
Harland managed to get two shots into Jacob's chest before the GREL caved in the side of his head with one blow from the heavy wrench that seemed to materialize in his massive hand. One of Berlan's two friends leapt howling from the truck while the other fell into a whimpering heap, paralyzed by the sudden carnage. Jacob held up Harland, who was already dead, with one hand while he pounded what remained of the man's face again and again with the wrench. Bruising and cutting his own arm and hand in the process, Jacob beat the man's skull to a spurting, unrecognizable pulp. Letting Harland's remains slither from his bloody grasp, Jacob turned to the blubbering man tucked into a ball near the front of the bed. A dozen vicious blows ended the man's life, sending his blood and brains spattering all over Jacob's face, arms and chest.
When Jacob dropped out of the back of the truck, he staggered a few feet before dropping first the wrench, and then to his knees. Throwing back his head, he screamed long and hard, emptying his powerful lungs into the azure sky. Three more times he screamed, each one equal in intensity and anguish. When he finally got to his feet, the massive GREL simply sniffed, wiped his face, and began setting out the tools he'd need to repair the fence.
"And on the second charge of murder," Marshal Cody read aloud, "the council of elders have found you likewise guilty, Soldier Jacob. The sentence is execution, to be carried out immediately."
The three dozen people gathered in central Lowe Berlan cheered and clapped at hearing the sentence, none of them having any doubt that the elders had made the right decision. None except the two Keath women, who stood with down-turned faces at the back of the crowd.
Jacob met the stares and jeers of the crowd evenly, and though he could easily have broken free from the Marshal's shackles, he walked steadily towards the thick masonry wall at the edge of town. Stained and riddled with bullet-picks, its function was obvious.
"I'm sorry about this, son. I tried to warn you. This ain't no place for your kind," Cody whispered as he moved Jacob into place. When the huge man only grunted, he asked, "You want a blindfold?" Jacob shook his head no. He wanted one last chance to catch Sierra's beautiful green eyes. She hadn't been able to look at him since the day he'd butchered that man. Those two men. What was his name again? Harland? Harland.
Cody moved the crowd back a good distance, then opened the action on his high- powered rifle. Sliding a round into the chamber, he found himself hoping this would be enough. GRELs were famed for their ability to shrug off the effects of normally debilitating wounds -- as Jacob had done with the two 10mm slugs Berlan had put in him. As he took aim on the man's forehead, though, Cody knew that at this range there would be no question.
The mob quieted to a murmur, and Jacob held his breath, his eyes searching for Sierra in the crowd. When he found her, her head was still bowed. Cody spoke a final, simple prayer before gently placing his finger on the trigger. "Mamoud, lead this man to a better place. What eluded him in life, let him find in death."
"Sierra!" Jacob called hoarsely, tears suddenly streaming down his face. The woman finally met his eyes, and was nearly knocked down by the raw emotion harbored there. As she opened her mouth to respond, the sharp crack of the marshal's rifle resounded in the air. Jacob fell dead to the ground amidst a chorus of cheers. Sierra closed her eyes and swallowed the words she'd been about to speak. Jacob had no need for them now.
My maternal grandmother's name was Una. She was a pretty great lady, and was the inspiration for Una Keath, though I didn't get to use her as much as I would have liked (God knows this was long enough as is). Oh, and last month I forgot to pipe up that the brief mention of the dawg named "Olrac" was an homage to my recently and dearly departed dog, Carlo. I really miss both he and my grandmother. Sigh.
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 2||January, 1999|
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