Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pine Bluff

ALTHOUGH SHE HAD NEVER READ it, Aileen Eckhart sometimes imagined she was a character in that Beckett play, the one with characters buried up to their waists. In her fantasy, she was encased in white sand on a tropical beach, smoking a Digem cigarette, drinking Jameson’s whiskey through a straw, and wearing a wide-brim hat to protect her strawberry-blonde hair from the sun.
     After Mack died somewhere on the Korean peninsula in 2035, trying to stop the North Koreans from reaching Seoul, she thought about that play a great deal. Mack was an ornithopter pilot with the Royal Air Cavalry on the DMZ; he and his robot co-pilot engaged the Koreans on the first day of battle and disappeared in a ball of flame. Now, late at night, with Mack’s pillow between her legs, she would remember him and cry at her benighted plight, left alone at twenty-six in government housing at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
     Six months after his death she received a check for fifty thousand pounds from the Anglo-American Alliance’s Military Insurance Bureau in Quebec City, along with a notice in English and French to vacate her house on the base. The letter stated another army family needed her house immediately. The implication, she decided, was she was no longer army. Several days later, when the two MPs arrived, one a human and the other a cyborg, and nailed a notice of eviction on her door, she bought a used Brazilian-built trailer for twenty thousand pounds, loaded it with her worldly goods, and hauled it behind Mack’s Japanese half-ton truck to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she rented a slot in a trailer park carved from the thick woods outside the city. For the next three months she sat in front of her trailer in a plastic folding chair, smoked Digem cigarettes, watched bats fly at dusk, and drank Jameson’s whiskey.
On a cold rainy afternoon in October 2036, she received another letter from the Anglo-American Alliance informing her Pine Bluff would be re-cycled in six months by the government’s licensed contractor for the Midwest, AN Reclamation Ltd, and she had one hundred and twenty days to move. There was a claim form included for her to record any losses caused by the inconvenience. The next day the local paper ran an article, stating every citizen of Pine Bluff had received an eviction notice. There was also a rumor circulating that Pine Bluff had been selected as the site for two new bio-rejuvenation plants: one for the manufacture of medical nano-bots and the other for AN Bio-Chemical’s patented living-skin and bio-bone.
     Long-time residents, property owners, slowly responded to the notices, choosing to file lawsuits to contest the amount of money paid for the reclamation of their property; whereas most of the renters in the trailer park cleared out immediately.  Many of the tenants had already lost homes to the Reclamation Project of 2030 and were drifting west in front of the giant steam shovels and the legion of robot workers that followed in their wake, planting trees, building wind farms and dams, creating artificial lakes and hydro-electric projects. All the renters had to do was back their trucks up to their trailers and drive away. Aileen, however, hesitated. She had nowhere to go. She canvassed her neighbors and learned that most of them were heading south into Texas. She could go there, she thought; she still had most of the loss-benefit money left from Mack’s death but she could not summon the energy to pack her things.
     Trey McAllister, the owner of the trailer park and a convenience store on the highway, asked her to help him. Just a few hangers-on like her were staying in Pine Bluff and most of the stores had closed. He intended to raise his prices and stay until the robot commandoes forced him to move. She started the next day. It had been five years since she had a job; and, at first, she found the routine troublesome. It was easier to lie in bed until mid-day, then smoke and drink until it was time to fall back into the un-made bed with the soiled sheets. But, to her surprise, getting up and going to work pleased her. She enjoyed talking with the few remaining customers and tried to forget the reclamation force would soon arrive to recycle the town.
     Six months passed and nothing happened. Aileen thought they had received a reprieve; however, on a beautiful spring day in late May, she was standing behind her cash register when a cyborg commando on a black Czech motorcycle sped past the store, heading toward the center of town, followed by twelve six-ton Chinese trucks, each carrying twenty robot commandoes. The advance force of the Reclamation Corps had arrived. She, like all the rest of the remaining inhabitants, ran out into the street and followed the trucks into the town square, where they slowed and parked. Engines switched off and the robot troops dismounted and assembled in a four-column formation in front of the cyborg, a man more machine than human, who stood in the middle of the square with his arms akimbo. Curious to know their fate, most of Pine Bluff’s citizens, including Aileen, gathered on the crumbling cement sidewalks to gawk at the silent copper-colored robots; their metallic surface gleaming in the sunlight.
     “What are they going to do?” An elderly woman asked.
Roscoe Jackson, a man in his sixties and a Royal marine veteran, stood next to Aileen and rubbed his nose. ”I was in Nashville when the robots arrived. There’ll be a commissar coming soon to take control of them and us.”
Jed Ramey spat tobacco juice on the cement and said: “We best be on our way then, while we are still free. My car’s packed and I’m leaving tonight.”
     “What will the commissar do to us if we don’t leave?” asked Aileen.
     “He’ll sort you and move you, maybe somewhere you don’t want to be,” answered Roscoe. “It doesn’t really matter though because once they roll up the infra-structure and re-plant the trees there will be nothing for you here, except critters and vandals.”
     Aileen ran her hand through her hair and realized it was happening to her again. They ran her out of her house in Fort Leonard Wood and now they were pushing her out of Pine Bluff. A middle-aged woman with a young boy by her side said: “They want us to either move to the hive-cities or to go to work for one of the agri-corps or bio-firms.”  Roscoe nodded in agreement. “There’s no way I’m moving into one of those hives. I would rather work in an egg factory than live in a cell underneath some filthy city.”
     “Egg farm,” repeated Aileen.
     “My brother works in a giant egg farm up north,” answered Roscoe. “They house his family in corporate apartments, send his kids to corporate schools, and feed them in corporate cafeterias. It’s like being in the army but taking your whole family with you.”
     An egg farm didn’t sound interesting to Aileen. “Is there anywhere you can just be free?”
     Jackson waved vaguely in a southerly direction. “I heard if you can get to Texas there is a possibility of immigrating further south into Mexico. They say Mexico’s like we were in the twentieth century. Chaotic but free.”
     Trey McAllister called for Aileen and she slipped away from Roscoe and joined him. “We need to get back to the store. People will be pulling out tonight and they will want supplies, lots of supplies.”
     She and Trey worked throughout the day. By nine that night the shelves were almost bare and a caravan of vehicles moved from the city onto the freeway heading south and west. When they finally closed, she was so tired she barely made it back to her trailer before she fell asleep in her clothes on top of the wrinkled sheets. When she awoke at seven the next morning, the park was silent and deserted. The store was closed; its inventory almost gone. On its door Trey had hand-painted a message to his few remaining customers: GONE to TEXAS. Aileen went to the store’s back door and used her key. As agreed, last night, Trey had left her four boxes of food, four five-gallon cans of gas, a forty-five caliber Colt automatic, a leather holster and western belt, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and a note: “I’m headed to my sister’s place in Dripping Springs, Texas. I’ve bought another trailer park and, as I said, you have a job if you want it.”
     She loaded the trailer with her supplies and for the first time in weeks she washed her clothes and cleaned the trailer, securing everything that wasn’t bolted down already. By five in the afternoon, she was ready to leave.
Just as she climbed into the elevated cab of her truck four men in a beat-up green Chevrolet sedan blocked her from leaving her space. The engine idled, as she watched them slowly unfold from the car. Bearded and dirty, they stretched and then divided into two pairs, like wolves, two men for each side of her truck. She fingered the handle of the pistol that lay on the seat, slid it out of its holster, released its safety, and racked it. She had expected trouble on the road. That was why the gun was on the seat. Mack had taught her to shoot and she was thinking about him as she waited for the driver’s door to be yanked open.
     She had seen these men before. They lived up North in the woods; drug dealers mostly and pimps for their sisters and wives. They worked with biker gangs that roamed up and down the interstate, supplying them with manufactured drugs, distilled in the deep woods, just like their ancestors had cooked moonshine and slipped it past the revenuers in muscle cars. They were lean, inbred predators and she intended to take one or two with her. She saw the glint of a knife blade flicking open in the hand of the man nearest her door and she sucked in her breath ready to squeeze a round into his slack jaw.
     As the man reached the latch and pulled up she remembered the name of that Irish play. He yanked the door open and she fired two rounds directly into his face. The bullets made two small red pinpricks: one under the left eye and the other in the center of his nose. The bullets escaped his skull in an explosive rush, blasting out handfuls of brain and bone. The force of the rounds propelled him backwards onto the ground; the other men gasped and stopped at the sound of the gun. A moment passed in silence and then they reached for weapons, knives mostly, but a gun appeared in the hand of one of the men on the right. He raised it with one hand, turning it on its side like some new-age punk on a retro-tele show. Mack had told her a man who held a gun like that couldn’t hit the side of a tank. She raised her weapon, gripping it with two hands, like Mack had instructed her, and fired four rounds that puckered then shattered the glass of the truck’s windshield. Shards and bullets hit the man with the gun in the chest and arms. He ducked his head, covering his eyes, falling back away from the spray, and fired his whole clip into the truck. Bullets chewed the inside of the cab and struck Aileen in the shoulder twice and creased her scalp above her left ear. Stunned, she forced herself up, not yet aware of the pain, and pumped another four rounds at the men on the right, while the lone man on the left sprinted back to his car to retrieve his gun.
     As he staggered from the Chevrolet with an automatic sub-machine, an Argentinean LOCK 25, a land rover painted dark green sped into the park and stopped under an oak tree about thirty yards from the fire fight. Aileen saw a tall man, wearing a light tan rain coat, opened in the front, over a gray suit, and a dark brown hat, stepping from the vehicle. But she pushed him out of her mind; instead, she fired another burst, the last of the ammo in her clip, at the man carrying the LOCK. Missing him she lay down in the seat and flipped open the glove box searching for the other clip. She heard the LOCK bark and then felt its rounds slamming into the truck, rocking it on its springs. Then a magnum thumped once and someone screamed. Several seconds passed and the magnum sounded again, twice, thump, thump. Then it was silent. She lay still, now aware of the pain in her shoulder and head.
     “You in the truck, are you wounded?”
     She cleared her throat and shouted, “Yes.”
     “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m with the Reclamation Corps. Can you exit the vehicle?”
     “I think so.”
     “Leave your gun and step out of the truck. Help is on the way.”
     Aileen passed out in the cab of her truck and woke in a bed on the fourth floor of the Methodist Hospital in downtown Pine Bluff. When she awoke for the first time, the man in the rain coat was sitting in a chair reading an electronic pad; his raincoat was now draped over the back of his seat, his tie loosened at his neck and the top button of his shirt opened. She cleared her throat and struggled to lift her head, as he asked: “How are you?”
     She thought for a moment, letting her head fall back on the pillow. “I feel sore.”
     He stood up, placed the electronic reader on the seat and said, as he walked toward the bed: “I imagine you are. Your clavicle was shattered; they bio-rigged it with living bone and pumped you full of nano-bots. That always hurts.”
     She tried to move her left arm but nothing happened. She turned her head as far to the left as possible and discovered they had harnessed her to the bed with some sort of yellow plastic sleeve and attached four IV drips to her arm.
     Giving up trying to sit up, she lay flat, staring up at the ceiling. “How long have I been here?”
     “Two days,” he answered, moving close to her so she could see him.
     “And you, how long have you been sitting there?”
     “Not long, the medic had orders to call me when you showed signs of waking.” He touched her right arm. “I have to ask you a few questions and then I’ll leave you to mend.”
     She nodded.
“Did you know those men that attacked you?”
“I don’t know their names. I’ve seen them in the store. They usually come into town once a week with some women and load up with supplies.”
“Do you have any idea why they attacked you?”
“I thought they planned to rape and rob me.”
“What made you think that?”
“The look on their faces and the knives they carried seemed to be a clue.”
He smiled and touched the tip of his nose with the index finger of his right hand.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
Tears ran from her eyes. “My husband, Mack, taught me.”
The man wiped her eyes with a cotton handkerchief he dug from an inside pocket of his suit jacket. When he leaned forward, she saw the magnum revolver holstered under his left arm.
Returning to his chair, he said: “You have a problem, Aileen. You killed a man with an unlicensed handgun.”
“It was in self-defense.”
“I know that but the gun was illegal and a man is dead.”
“What is the penalty?”
“It could be severe if the tribunal decides it is manslaughter.”
She didn’t respond. Her head swam, as she thought of Mack.
“But I might have a solution, if you are willing to join me,” he said after several seconds. She coughed, her throat filled with phlegm and her cheeks covered with tears. “What can I do?” She paused before saying, “Like this?”
He leaned forward in his chair and placed his hands on his knees. “Aileen, my job is to remove people from the areas marked for reclamation. Most of the time things proceed smoothly but in rural areas like Eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, Quebec and here we have problems. The hill people refuse to move. They burrow into their holes and caves and fight.” He cleared his throat, leaned back in the chair, and crossed his legs, relaxing into his story. “I can send in the robot commandoes but they are indiscriminate in their purging. Once the command is given, they only have one mode: exterminate. I like to employ more subtle methods and that is where you can help. I intend keeping your store open. The hill people will come in and we will follow them back to their cabins in the woods and round them up. But to pull this off I need local people to help me. That’s how you will win your pardon; you’ll work for me.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Commissar Tecumseh Marshall,” he answered, picking at his lower lip, “of his Majesty’s Reclamation Corps.”
“Ah,” she said, falling asleep.
Two weeks later, Aileen stood at the cash register of the store, her left arm in a nylon sling. The shelves were fully stocked and two young boys, the Reuther twins, were her assistants. Jan and Dan had signed up for the Reclamation Corps but before sending them to Saint Louis for training, the Commissar put them to work assisting Aileen.
Late one Wednesday, a teenage boy, wearing a pale blue short-sleeve shirt, coveralls, and work boots entered and looked around nervously. Aileen suspected he was casing the store and a robbery was in the offing. Eventually, the boy approached her and she gritted her teeth; she had been shot once and she did not relish a second time.
“Miss,” he said, “That Chevrolet next to the building is my father’s.”
Surprised, she paused for a moment to collect her thoughts and then responded as the Commissar had instructed her. “I was wondering when someone would show up and pick it up.” She pulled open a drawer in the kiosk and removed the keys for the Chevrolet. “Your father said someone would be along to pick it up.” He looked at her askance, his pale blue eyes shining, nervous and now suspicious. “You talked with him?” he asked. She nodded and handed him the keys, which he took and slipped into the pocket of his coveralls. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. A black town car pulled up outside and he climbed in.”
The boy eyed her for several seconds and then turned and exited the store. She waited patiently for fifteen minutes and then went outside to see if the car was gone. It was. She then called the Commissar’s cell and reported a young boy picked up the car.
An hour later two ornthopters flew low over the store, heading in a north by northwest trajectory, followed a few minutes later by a black helicopter gunship that thundered over the premises, shaking the shelves and rattling the windows.
No more customers came in the rest of the day. The city was almost empty, only a few wealthy individuals remained, battling over a proper price for their property. At six she locked the doors and walked to her trailer. A green land rover was parked next to her slot and a young man with bright blue eyes, wearing a green uniform, sat in her lawn chair, smoking a Digem cigarette. He stood as she approached and dusted off loose tobacco from his tunic.
“Ma’am,” he said, half saluting her, “The Commissar has ordered you to accompany me to Saint Louis.”
“Saint Louis?” she asked vaguely. “Yes, ma’am, I am to deliver you to the Reclamation Corps Academy for training.”
“Trained to do what?”
“Couldn’t say ma’am but Saint Louis is where the officer training school is. I’m going with you. The Commissar thinks I’m officer material.” He smiled, flashing a mouth of white teeth.
“Let me pack a bag,” she said as the ornithopters returned. One of them was on fire, smoking and sputtering. The human pilot slumped over while his robot co-pilot strained at the controls.
“Maybe, I’ll learn to fly like Mack,” she said, entering the trailer.