Chapter 3: Acheron's Waters
And Caesar's spirit, raging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war, That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial. - Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 1 (William Shakespeare)
“President Bauske Nico Abrahams today in person asked congress to declare that 'a state of war has existed between the North American Unions and the Republic of Abbasid' as a result of Mamluk's 'unprovoked and dastardly attack'. The President made his request to a joint session of congress giving it a brief but detailed account of Mamluk's attack on the Unions territory yesterday, a date he said 'will live forever.” - The New Virginia Daily Mail
The encampment spread out from the gateway bridge along the shores of the river, it looked like some kind of border crossing between nations where refugees gathered to leave their war torn country. Only this was just a gated bridge. Above the gate was a hand painted sign which read, "Pitt Gate: Disregard your own security, beyond this point.”
"Who are these people?" asked Dan. Levi looked along the shores of the river, to one side could be seen the beginnings of tent city. Cardboard boxes, scrap wood and debris used for building shanties, and what ever else could be found in the nearby landfill.
"They are people who never decided to take a stand, street people who have always been that way. The outcasts of the modern world, the homeless, the uninspired, and the weak. They have loyalty to no one, they are the fallen. They are not evil men, nor are they good, they are nothing by choice."
Dan was amazed at the filth, it smelled of rotting meat, wasps, maggots, and worms were everywhere.
"Why are they here? Why don't they just leave?"
"There are many reasons," Levi replied, "Most can not afford their own way, they wait for someone else to pay for the journey. They are deluded into believing that somehow it is their right for a free ride to the promise lands, so they wait. Others, have no choice, there is no where for them to go. They have not put in the effort of their own lives to be of worth to anyone. They have no skills for trade, they can not defend themselves on the road, or simply do not know where to go. They have no liberty."
The people that squatted along the roadside did not suffer in silence. They could be heard by Levi and Dan as they walked by. The background noise of traffic days ago was now replaced with crying, both from children and adult alike. The wind had an icy chill in it, and it made you shudder. Those closest to the road reached out their hands begging for food from the men as they passed by. It was a scene better suited to Calcutta over North America, it just didn't fit.
"There are so many. How can there be so many? Who are they really?'' repeated Dan. "They are not worth our time thinking about. They are Sheeple, turned Zombie, the walking dead. They are hopeless, and have always been that way."
"That can't be true, things haven't changed that much? We are a great people, this isn't some poor third world country.", Dan looked along the shores of the river in continued disbelief.
Levi looked at Dan, "You still don't understand, even after all these years. These people are the former tenants of a zoo. Animals, who pretended to be something more because they were in concrete and steal cages."
Levi looked across the crowds of them all, and whispered, "I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of light, the silence. "
"I don't understand half of what you say, let alone the things that those gypsy women tried to teach me."
"Gypsy women?", asked Levi.
"That blind woman who was with Beatrice at the Beltane festival, the Sabbat, and her sister."
Levi smiled, "I suppose you could call them gypsies, but they are actually Wiccans."
The men joined the line up of those heading towards the gate. In line with them were others that had left the city when the lights went out. Most had hiking bags similar to what Levi had on his back, some had less. The men and women ahead of Levi and his protege were of different character then those along the roadside. They had an air of defiance about them, as if they were given a license to be the local authority, in what was anyone's guess.
An old women, dressed in simple clothes, was in line directly front of the travelers. Standing over a small pool of water in the street leading to the bridge the moon's reflection could be seen by her feet. By the way she spoke to those around her, when she did speak, you could tell that she was Italian. She carried her aura of authority like a club, although old, none of the men in line showed any disrespect to her. She had a large wooden cross around her neck, and was eating a pomegranate, and carried a messenger bag.
At the front of the gate was a guard who stood out beyond the rest, as they approached him they could see that the bridge had been washed away by a flood, and that a boat was being used to ferry people across the river.
The guard wore a standard Charon Security uniform. It was hard to tell his age because the uniform hid much of his features, but he was not a bulky guard, obviously short tempered, and held a double barrel shotgun. The raincoat he wore as part of his uniform, hung to him like a dark cloak. As the old women approached the guard, he held a scanner over her shoulder. The scanner blinked blue on it's display, and he then let her pass.
When it was time for Levi to be scanned, the scanner turned red.
"Where's your RFID chip?" barked the guard at the men.
"We don't have any.", replied Levi "But perhaps we can pay a toll?" Levi produced some coins from his pocket. "Let's see, I have some silver coins. A couple of sixpence, that's almost a full ounce of silver. Is that enough?"
"You shy by a third for an ounce," replied the guard, "but it will do."
Suddenly there was a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed by the complete saturation of the air, with sulphide vapor, causing total darkness.
The screams of those along the road running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do - the cries of the children and men - the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the river - the current of which was inverted, because of an irruption in its bed -- formed a scene truly horrible.
Paul woke to the sound of screaming. He had spent the night in the tree barrier by the highway leading away from the city. Most of the night he had just stared at the dark branches over his head, wondering if he would ever fall asleep, now he woke wondering if he had actually slept at all.
His adrenaline was already starting to pump his heart faster, as he tried to get a bearing on the source of the screams. Somewhere over the ridge by the road, somewhere just beyond where he could see.
Paul stood up slowly and slipped on his boots. He grabbed the glock his brother had included in the kit, and made his way carefully toward the road. The tree barrier wasn't wide at all. Only a few meters thick, but it gave the illusion from the road of traveling through the middle of a forest. The other side of the road had a large pond, or what could be called a small lake. The drainage ditch gave Paul some cover as he looked out onto the road.
Cars lined up like dead army ants stretched towards the city for miles came to a sudden stop at an accident. The screams were coming from behind one of the cars in the pile up.
There were five Asian male teenagers, with a Red Dragon patch on the back of their leather jackets, tattoos could be seen on their necks, and hands. They were crowding in two young girls who had their backs up against a car. The girls looked completely out of place. They were dressed in fashion clothes, high heals, with light wool sweaters. Each of the girls had many belts that hung around their waist. The Asian gang looked sick, even behind their sunglasses. There were black lumps on their necks that could be seen even as the tattoos covered some of them. One of the males was sweating a lot, and look like he was trying hard not to pass out, he coughed, then spat out some blood.
Paul crossed himself, and then used a stalled truck as a blind to approach, taking out the glock as he slide behind the cab. He tried to peak around it, to see if any the males had weapons, but a total view was blocked to him. For a moment Paul tried to figure out what to do next, he wanted to call the police, but he realized that was just wishful thinking. He knew that if he went out into plain view, one of two things would happen, either the youth would turn tail and run, or someone would die. He could feel a lump in his throat, his legs began to shake as the adrenaline began to take-over control. He knew what he was going to do. He had to get closer, he needed line of sight. Paul rushed around the truck he was hiding behind, keeping the glock ready in front of him like a spear.
He kept his focus on the gang waiting for them to notice him. As he round the front of a car one of the youth tapped his buddy on the arm to draw attention to Paul as he approached them.
"What the fuck?"
Paul said nothing, but kept going towards them, rounding the car they were behind. Paul could hear his heart beating, and hoped it didn't show on his face how scared he was. For a moment he noticed the sharp knives each of them had, curved blades, but with the gun between him and them, it was only a passing thought.
One of the youth, the tallest of them, and the least sick, squared his shoulders and lifted his knife. "Get out of here old man! I don't think you have the balls to shoot us!" Paul fired. He hadn't decided to shoot, it was a reflex. He really did not aimed either, the bullet hit the tall youth slightly in the arm, resulting in him dropping his knife, muffling a scream.
It looked as if Paul had intended that effect, "The rest of you drop you blades, or the next shot will be in your chest!". Privately he thought to himself that he had actually meant for the first shot to kill the target. The girls were frozen in fright. The other four youth complied, knives dropped to pavement, as did blood from a wounded arm.
"Kick the knives to me!" commanded Paul, " then lay down face first on the pavement!"
Dan woke to the smell of coffee.
Looking around and trying to get his bearings he noticed that Levi and himself had crossed the river, and were near the start of a valley. It was so dark in the direction Dan had faced when he sat up he couldn't see beyond the start of the valley. Turning to the smell of coffee, he found himself on a sleeping bag near a camp fire, surrounded by other make shift camps, Levi was already pouring Dan a coffee from a small kettle.
"You have an infection in your foot. We will have to find you some antibiotics soon, it looks like it could be the start to a Staph infection."
Dan took the cup, Levi looked ill. "I feel OK, I guess I was just tired or something. But you don't look so good. You as pale as a ghost."
"Just a little homesick. This valley is where I was raised when I was a small boy", Levi said "in many ways this is home, it was my limbo before we moved."
"What happened here?", Dan was curious. "My father had a farm near here in the valley. It's wine country, he did very well. Well enough to send me to the academy nearby when I was five. This place is strange that way, sometimes life here was good, sometimes bad, I think it's cursed thou, the bad and good times cancel each other out.", Levi drank some coffee himself mid-thought, "The academy was hell. I didn't have very good social skills when I was a child, I guess I was off in my own world most of the time. The other kids used to tease me, calling me a girl, or a virgin often. I was just to shy, I guess that is what started it. But it didn't help that I was sick all the time either."
"Why were you sick all the time?", asked Dan, his coffee was finished already, when he tried to reach for the pot he realized he still felt faint, perhaps he was sick himself after all. "I was living here when the first outbreak of the China Flu first appeared. I had been infected, lucky enough to survive it. But it made me weak for years. That's a nasty bug that one, first you get the thirst, nothing can cool down your throat. You dehydrate anyway, no matter how much water you drink." Levi shuddered at the memory of it, "the first thing you think is that you have been bitten by bugs, like you walked into a swarm of mosquitoes. But you've already been infected for over a week and didn't know it. Then the headaches start, mind splitting migraines, then the chills and fever. Then those marks you thought were bites begin to turn white with puss, and change color to black as the skin dies. And that's just the start, huge lumps appear under your arms, inside your thighs, on your neck, and you get sores in your mouth, that's when you know your dead already. Very few recover from that point on. After that you either get better like I did, or you start throwing up blood while your stomach is in so much pain you wish you were already dead. That's what finished my father."
They sat there in silence for a moment, Dan felt like he should say something but was at a loss for words.
"It's back by the way.", Levi said breaking the silence.
"What's back?", Dan asked
"While you were sleeping some of my old neighbors came by, the China Flu his here, it's a weaker strain not killing most, but it is here. I think most of my old friends here, are in pain."
"What can we do to help? Can they come with us?"
Levi gave it some thought, "We most certainly can take some with us, but I don't think any will come. There are good folks here, when they spotted me trying to get you out of the boat, they came to help me. Gave us a ride here in one of the wagons they use during Yule."
Dan had been wondering how he had ended up here, he thought that perhaps some of the other campers had helped. "Why won't they come with us?"
"Well... ", Levi broke into a smile, "... they are kind of stupid." He started another pot of coffee and also put on what looked like a small caldron over the fire, the smell of stew started to fill the air. "You see, most of the people around here could not make spaghetti and sauce. I knew one guy who thought that you took the pasta, the sauce, and added water, boiled it all together and served. No straining the pasta, or heating the sauce separately. And he could never figure out why it tasted so different at a restaurant."
Dan laughed, "Your kidding! Sounds like this whole community could win the Darwin awards!"
"Exactly, only it's not really their fault, it's their parents fault technically.", Levi said, expression changing to concern. "Most of their progenitors were higher in intelligence at first. They tended to have only one child per family, the genetic code being smart was literally bred out of the gene pool."
There was some commotion at a nearby camp, a bonfire was being started, and it lite up the surrounding area. Dan could now see a rather large tent on the other side of the fire, it was like a castle made out of fabric. Levi invited some of the men near the bonfire to come over, mentioning to Dan that they are also some of his old friends. Four men walk over to Levi, and his apprentice.
Dan recognized them immediately. The first man who came over to their camp site was Miles "The Tiger" Granes, a very well known Colonel from the Second American Civil War, he was famous for being held hostage by the Nationalist forces during the war, during which he lost most of his eye sight. He was, of course, older now. Balding a bit, his long gray hair, and beard gave him the appearance of prophet, with his walking stick. The only thing that seemed to dispel that image was his dog, something between a German Shepherd, and a Border Collie.
The second man who Miles was holding onto the elbow of as a guide, since his dog seem more interested in trying to catch sparks from the camp fires, was his former staff officer Quin Harris. "Seize the day!", said Quin as he gave Levi a warm hug.
Standing next to them was Mark Lupin, and Paul Nass, also from the same military unit. Dan was starstruck being in the presence of these known heroes. As he listened the men began to recite old war stories between them, including Levi, which shocked Dan somewhat when he realized that Levi was in the same league as them. They motioned Dan to join them as the group decided to go to the other camp's bonfire. Dan readily agreed.
After gathering up their belonging, which was basically Levi's pack, and some other goods that Levi had apparently traded for while Dan was asleep, including the small Crock pot of stew, Dan put out the small fire, and joined them. He was feeling excited, and only a little light headed.