BLACK TRACE - CHAPTER 8


CHAPTER 8

Slats looked about as comfortable as an Eskimo Pie on July sidewalk as he climbed into the car. He sat down like the chair could have lined with punji sticks, even though he’d ridden in Blue near fifty times.

“Roy’s?” asked Jake, not looking Slat’s way.

“Sure. You pick it.”

The air rung with a low standing wave. Nothing could be said to break it up.

In the just-rising light, the clouds were great finger-strokes of purple across the warming sky. Jake looked ahead at the lights of the towers near town, knowing that someone had to talk before he or Slats exploded.

Jake looked straight ahead as Blue swallowed the black strip, back to the rising sun. Going west. Why he’d come west in the first place.

“You got anything to say back to me?” Slats asked.

And suddenly it was like he’d waited for someone to say this, waited for years. The base of his spine tightened up and a thousand threads pulled at his insides, ligatures buried until now. He said nothing.

“Not just yet.” Cold welled up in his blood. That wall he thought was holding up was beginning to crack out from under him.

The sun rose over the jagged rows of precious junk in the Yard. Mullins would be up shortly, tending it like his garden. He might be out there already, resting the tea he swore he hated on his belly and watering his beautiful junk.

Jake looked away, seeing the tangle as rubble. He’d be walking through it on patrol. No even footing anywhere and twice as bad in the flat moonlight. Stumble and catch yourself on a brittle plastic spar or drive a masonry spike through your boot to catch tetanus or some damn other bug floating around. The Federal States seemed to be mostly built out of the crap, at least the parts of it he’d grown up in, back when it was just the USA.

The sun flashed on the row of motorcycles and it looked like a broken spine, wrecked from carrying too much weight for too long. It was too close. It was right there.

Even though California was no longer part of the Federal States, there were reminders. The great gleaming machine of American progress had come to a shuddering stop after a series of fruitless wars overseas coupled with decades of economic chaos and unrest. Rust had crept through the pistons and cranking gears of the United States like cancer until finally everything was brought to a grinding halt. The Great Big Zero hadn’t helped anything, turning information into noise and hashing computer files into glitched Dada before the switch got shut off.

The U.S. economy spun into a depression worse than the ones that hit before. The industrial east and Midwest took the worst of it, and were already standing on ground that had long crumbled beneath them. Unemployment and bankruptcy skyrocketed past anyone’s darkest dreams. Crowds ran wild in the streets of every major city, demanding food and shelter from a government that was in no position or had any desire to provide it. The Feds were tied up with trying to stabilize the economy and to somehow create new jobs for sizeable population that was now unemployed and looking for someone to blame.

The western U.S. was able to weather the worst of it fairly well. Sales of high technology to overseas markets and independent energy sources helped ensure their success. Things were bad, but nowhere near the scale of the collapse in the east. The states became untied, many refusing to go down with the ship. Empire-building was proved to be the pastime of wealthier nations and the legacy of America was thrown overboard without hesitation. Texas and the Dakotas went their own way. Then California and the other western states, buoyed by agriculture and technology. Going west once again became something young men did, if they could get over the wall.

By the time the bleeding stopped, fifteen states had broken free, forming some six or seven loose allegiances. None of them wanted to have the dead weight of the rubble belt hanging on their necks.

Jake hadn’t been back to the Federal States since he had quit the force. You just didn’t do that. Though he wondered if there had been any opportunity to rebuild what had been left to shatter and rust.

He had picked up transmissions from the Federal States before, but they didn’t tell him what was going on. They were recruitment messages mostly, young men with blankly handsome faces, chiseled jaws and steely eyes. They stood tall under the Stars and Stripes. Sunset shone warmly on their faces as they watched an eagle in flight soaring over a gleaming expanse of a mythical skyline. A commanding voice said, “Duty Now. For The Future.” Jake never went looking for it, though he knew there were entire channels devoted to Federalana, the nostalgia for a time that never was, not even in his memory. The aesthetic seeped up out of the cracks like mud.

That wasn’t real. It was just a commercial. Jake had seen the real another time. He caught a clip that someone must have bounced off a pirated satellite or locust network. It was video of soldiers running through a ruined street taking cover from a sudden hail of gunfire that sounded like it had come from right next to the camera. The flags withdrew after the chatter of automatic fire. They were too clean, their victims too dirty and downtrodden. It was propaganda, but who for?

The voice of a young man shouted ecstatically: “John Paul Jones of the New American Front declaring a first victory against the illegal occupation of America by Federal Forces!” The voice kept babbling while the black silhouette of the tank rolled into view, down at the end of the shattered boulevard. There was a white plume of smoke from the tank’s gun barrel and the screen went to static.

Everything that Jake saw in those few minutes of raw footage told him that nothing had changed. There weren’t cities, just vast seas of concrete and twisted girders. But the physical conflict had been extinguished. The only clashing now was for wall space, since precious little remained. Both the flags and the Rebs needed places and media to expose their slogans and they fought bitterly over what was left. But after all that, nothing was rebuilt. There was no future. Only duty.

Slats coughed, reminding Jake that he was still right there.

Dust blew through the main drag, swirls crawling across the street, ghostly sidewinders. Jake flashed Blue’s lights at the sentry in the tower. A single spotlight winked back as they passed. The sky went pink and dusted in the rear view.

Blue slowly pulled into the sand-strewn parking lot. It was covered with black patches, Rorschach blots of oil spilled on the reddish dirt. There were crazies who claimed that they could read those spots, tell where you’ve been and where you’re headed. Jake didn’t believe in those things. The desert seemed to spawn that kind of faith, living in a world rife with signs just for the looking. Meaning was optional.

The neon threw a weak orange cast over Roy’s, the sign making an angry waspish noise as it flashed erratically. The cracked windows were tinted Coke-bottle green. The sign’s message was reflected upside-down in them: “Roy’s Cheap Real Food.”

Jake snapped the engine and lights off, then looked at the blinds in the window like prison bars set the wrong way. They got out of the car and walked inside. Slats had his head low. He was looking intently at cigarette wrappers and bottle caps on the ground as they glittered in the early morning sun.

The interior of the café was morning dim, illuminated by the purplish light of a bug zapper and a flickering television. Roy sat near the metal cash register watching one of his movies as he smoked a Camel. The smell of the cigarette hit Jake and he wanted one bad.

Roy turned to look and smiled, blue light playing off his drawn face. “Morning, Jake, Slats. How you two doin’?” His voice was little more than a ragged rasp. Behind him, a sign said “Mind your manners. Because we do.”

“Been better.” Jake said flatly as he found a seat.

Slats only answered with a head-shake. Roy took another drag off his stick and stood up. He shut off the Sony and the picture faded to a bright point on the flat black screen.

Jake sat in a booth away from the door, back to the wood-grained plastic wall. The vinyl was cracked and worn smooth with the weight of years of visitors. It felt electrified and he couldn’t hold still now.

Slats sat across from him. His eyes fixed on the hypnotic purple light of the zapper, anywhere but the other side of the table.

Roy stood and set down two dirty white mugs of steaming coffee. He handed them two menus of laminated cardboard. The plastic was nicked and cut at the edges like it had been used to stop knife fights over the years. “What can I get you this morning, citizens? Just got a fresh shipment of real eggs last night, outta Blythe. I hear they’re from actual chickens.”

Slats pored uselessly over the menu. It never changed. Everyone knew that. “Shrimp and eggs, scrambled. And another cup of black,” Slats said after draining the first cup.

“The usual. Right,” Roy growled. “Jake?”

Jake didn’t even look at the menu. “You got some sausage? Real meat? I’ll pay the extra. Toast, too.” Being too specific at Roy’s was a short path to disappointment.

“Someone just finished a job, I see.” The smile showed nicotine creases in his everything. He nodded and left, breathing smoke behind him.

“I need a cigarette. I mean really need one,” muttered Jake. “Excuse me.” He got up and walked over to the machine in the corner.

Slats reached to say something, but couldn’t find it and let him go.

Jake crossed the cafe to the cigarette machine in the corner. “Five bucks per – Don’t even think about stiffing me” said the magic-marker scribble on cardboard. His eyes flashed over the brands, nothing coming to him. They were all the wrong names. He opened the front of the machine and dropped a couple of roughed-up bills into the sheet-metal box and fished for a pack of plain Ridgways.

Jake unwrapped the package noisily as he walked back to the table. He tore open the foil and placed a cigarette in his mouth. His hand automatically went for his pocket, feeling for the lighter he hadn’t carried in years.

Jake found a book of matches up by the cash register in an overturned hubcap stolen from a Tucker. The matches advertised Vanishing Point, the only bar in town. Its logo was spelled out with inviting curves of pink neon on a dusk desert backdrop. Jake struck a match and lit the cigarette without having to think about it. Pure memory.

He sat down. Smoke rose from the cigarette. He breathed in once and coughed explosively. Stifling it, he breathed in again, then exhaled a thin stream of blue. He brought his boots onto the bench and pressed his back against the window, feeling the cool plastic begin to warm to the morning sun. The tension receded, but didn’t leave completely.

Much better. Just needed that stick, that’s all.

Slats looked out the window into the pale turquoise stripes between the blinds. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “Just let someone from Joshua Tree roll out and arrest you? ‘Cause Daniels isn’t going to let this slip by. Prell might have, but not Daniels.”

Jake blew another line of smoke. “I don’t know. Just that I never figured you’d be the one to tell me.” He leaned forward and looked at Slats. “See, I always thought that someone with a bronze badge would step out of a crowd, cuff me, then drag me away. Either that, or I’d be done long distance by a Wesson sniper job if they thought I was worth the trouble.

“I never even told Madelyne. I never told her…”

Remember how she was curious about the waffled scar and you wouldn’t tell her what it really was. If she figured it out, she never let on.

“Shit. It’s not like…”

“Not like what? Not like I eat babies?” He thought of the stories about flags that circulated during the Secession. “Those guys were all the bad shit that ever was. You heard the joke that went around? ‘What’s the difference between Nazis and flags?’”

Slats shook his head, pretending not to know the answer.

“‘Nazis at least knew when to quit.’” Jake finished his first cigarette and flicked it into the ashtray. He looked right at Slats, into those slate-colored eyes. “Tell me that things are different now.”

The other man stared at the dregs of the coffee cup and nodded. “No lie, but…”

His answer was cut off by Roy’s rasping voice. “Better quit those things. You’ll end up sounding like me.” He smiled, teeth long and yellow.

“It’s okay. I’m real good at quitting.” Jake smiled a crooked one back.

Looking over at Slats’ plate, Jake wondered how anyone could eat bugs. He had seen the pens that grew those things and was damned if he’d eat anything that came out of those still, murky green ponds. Jake ate in spite of the hanging smell from the plate. Those were things you fed to other food.

--

The sun was out full by the time they had finished breakfast. Green and black zebra stripes from the tinted window were painted over the table. Jake smoked another and watched Slats finish his third cup.

“Now what, since there’s a they that knows?” Jake asked. The smoke curled lazily towards the still blades of the overhead fan. He’d already thought up a handful of different scenarios, figuring that none of them were even close.

Slats placed the cup on the table, scarred and pitted. “Daniels wants to see you. Order went out with this morning’s shift. I might’ve jumped the gun a little bit.”

“You know what for? It’s not like I’m a lawbreaker.”

He narrowed his eyes in faintly mocking disbelief. “Say again?”

“A bad lawbreaker,” Jake corrected. “Just ask Lois. She’ll give you an armful of glowing recommendations.”

Slats shrugged and tried to pull a last drag of black out of the cup then gave up. “No charge, but ‘compelling witness’ was thrown. Figure that I’ve got a little time to bring you in before Booth does. You know how he works.”

Jake had met Booth before but he could only remember his own reflection in the shades. He was the kind of cop that made citizens clench when they were pulled over, all confidence and power and impatience. Better that Slats had gotten to him first. Jake stubbed out the stick in a glass ashtray with a scorpion embedded in the bottom.

“Let’s go. Just get it done.” Jake breathed, resigned. He tried not to think about exit routes, and how many there might be on the way out the door.

Slats gave him a knowing look and nodded. “I’m glad you agreed. ’Cause I’d hate having to drag you in.” He wasn’t smiling.

Jake stopped in place. “We’re friends and all.” He smiled faintly. “But without me wanting it, you wouldn’t be able to.”

The wrinkles around his eyes slouched a bit as he frowned. “If it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else. Sooner or later. There’s a lot of Cal-I and only one of you.”

“A lot of anywhere else to be out here.” He was pulling his jacket on when he heard the bell over the door ring. He saw the suits who walked in and stiffened.

Slats picked up on it and turned around. “What…” His voice trailed off. “Oh, hell.”

Three men slow-swaggered into the café. All of them wore identical deep blue uniforms and mirrored wraparound shades, silver bug eyes that seemed to eat half their faces. They had the determined and resolute stride of men with a mission. Business to attend to, minus anything like sentimentality. The hard light of the sunrise ground out any features in their faces.

“That blue burner shows up as a big problem in my book,” the lead cop said to the room, not looking at anyone. “Who wants to step up now?”

Jake didn’t need to read the name on the badge to know who’d come around.

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

Jake stood there still, watching as they walked between the counter and booths. The light of the zapper became twin points of violet in their silicon eyes. Booth’s hand rested on his holstered pistol, more as a statement of fact than any interest on his part. But there was a taunting hint at the edges of his lips.

Jake was smarter than that. Nobody started anything with a Cal-I trooper and walked away from it with a good side.

Booth was a goddamn flag, but he didn’t wear the bronze. Same walk, same air, same everything else, though. A different flavor of power.

“LT,” Booth said as he came to a stop near the table. His voice was like a broad file dragged across a wrist, hard. “We’ll be taking the prisoner now.” He didn’t ask, so it just came out blank and mean.

Slats swole up, angry. “First word out of your mouth is sir, or you’ve stepped in it.” He waited for the correct response.

“Sir. Yes, sir,” Booth said, hardly moving his lips.

Slats breathed in and continued. “Nor is he a prisoner, so you try a different phrase.” He breathed out hard through his nostrils, close enough to fog Booth’s glasses.

“Sir. The captain told us to bring him in, cuffs and the whole guest package.”

Jake saw the anger writhing beneath the surface of Slats’ face and wondered how much it would take to get him to punch Booth in the kidneys.

Slats turned to Jake, dismissing the others with a flashed scowl. “The captain has trust issues, apparently.” He looked back at the cop, making sure that he had been suitably humbled. They hadn’t gotten the message. “We’ll follow in his car, Corporal. You and your men are dismissed.”

Booth stood there, stock still.

“Which words didn’t you understand? I said dismissed.” The plate with the kidney punch on it was waiting under the hot lights, ready to be served.

“Sir. Captain’s orders. Culver comes with us.” Booth hid his smile expertly. “And he said that was from him. He’s the only one who can call us off.”

“Sorry…” Slats began to say.

Jake waved it off. “No problem, I’ll go with them. Aces.” He said it, but his eye was on the door and figuring how to put space between him and them. Foolish thought, but it came anyways.

Slats’ grey-blue eyes watched him warily. “You sure?”

“Not going to start a thing over it.” He put his eyes right on Booth’s shades. “Let’s go.”

There was no need to get Slats in any more trouble with Daniels. He and Slats had been butting heads ever since Daniels took command over from Captain Prell, who had been jumped on the road a couple of months back. Prell was hooked up to some rig in the hospital at Joshua Tree, still sucking lemon meringue pies through a tube.

Jake threw Blue’s keys over to Roy, who caught them without looking away from the TV. “Thanks, Roy. Great cup of black.”

“You in trouble?” asked Roy, momentarily looking away from the CRT.

Jake shook his head. “I’ll be back soon for the keys.”

“Maybe not so soon, flag,” Booth hissed under his breath.

Rising to that would only ensure a steady torrent of shit. No need for that so early in the day.

Slats paid for breakfast with black plastic that Roy waved through the reader with shaky, nicotine-stained fingers.

The sunlight was blinding as they stepped outside the dim café, with wind that was hot and dry coming in off the Mojave. Everyone called it “Devil breath,” like standing in front of an open blast furnace.

Booth was right behind Jake. He could feel eyes on the back of his neck, every bit as hot as the sunlight. Parked on either side of Blue was a Cal-Intercept cruiser. It was a reminder that they could call up as much muscle as they thought necessary to bring him in. Or hit him if he chose to run.

Since when did I become such a high roller?

One of the shadow officers stepped ahead and opened the back door of the nearest cruiser. The tinted windows cast a sick gray pallor over the grimed plastic seat cover in the back.

“Watch it,” warned Booth. “Those doors are smaller than they look.”

Booth violently pushed into the back of the car. Jake caught the side of his head on the top of the door frame and started to curse, but bit it off. That would be just like putting sugar on top for them. He rolled to his side, then started to sit.

Jake touched his temple gently, checking for blood. The door slammed shut, blotting out the too-bright sun and making the back seat feel like solitary. It smelled like sweat and dirt inside, only just kept clean enough.

Outside, Slats yelled something and the engine revved up.

“Goddammit! I’ll have your head for this!” He was talking to dust by now.

Jake removed his jacket. The back of the car was warming quickly in the September sun. It would be oven-hot in a short time. Booth and the other guy didn’t seem to mind. They probably even had air conditioning up there. Asking them to route it to the backseat would only have brought a black laugh. Just sit and sweat.

The mountains and plain flashed by. Joshua trees stood out on the sand like packs of untidy and flightless birds. He saw the charred spot where he had to smoke a gang a while back. Gila Monsters, they were called. They all wore black-and-yellow-banded jackets, and fought pretty well for ghouls. In the end though, all that was left was the black spot where their ’18 Rustler exploded. Incendiaries kissing the fuel system. Even the burnt-out chassis was gone, sold for scrap by some opportunists. Nothing lasted out in the desert. If scavengers didn’t pick apart the wreck, the land itself just swallowed it.

Jake leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to drive away the throbbing that split his skull. The sunlight was relentless, smashing through the fingerprint-smeared windows. It was the first time Jake had ridden in the back of a cruiser as a prisoner.

The ride to Joshua Tree was too long.

--

Joshua Tree Station was huge and imposing. Its walls towered on the south side of the sixty-two and dared a look, much less a challenge. Back before the Secession, it had been a large, if not misplaced, industrial park of slab concrete and right angles. The network of buildings had all been filled in, making something not unlike a hive, cobbled together out of what had been available and then painted over in the same desert tan to try and enforce a sense of cohesion.

The older chain link had been replaced by reinforced concrete and razor wire. Every corner had an observation station with cameras and men hidden behind five centimeters of ballistic plastic. Below them hung a 30 millimeter chaingun which was more than enough to deter your average troublemaker. Cal-Intercept had little opportunity to use their toys. Nobody in memory had ever been stupid or suicidal enough to attack the station directly. Even when the Feds rolled past, they never rolled downrange.

Sunlight shone through the tangled razors atop the wall, reflecting off a thousand edges. The massive front gate rolled back and admitted the cruiser. A figure waved from behind the bulletproof glass of a tower as the slid behind the walls.

The California flag and that of the League hung listless in the still air of the compound, trapped between gusts of wind. They kicked up in time with the whine of a helicopter warming up. Dust flew across the landing pad as the bug lifted off, tandem rotors slicing through the air.

The cruiser stopped and the two cops up front climbed out. Booth stood there smiling behind the door that opened, a pair of cuffs in his hand. They jingled enticingly.

“Guess I forgot the jewelry.” He frowned sheepishly.

“I never knew you felt that way about me,” Jake said. “First date and all.”

“Out, pucker-puss. Hands behind your back, nice and slow.”

Jake tried to place the accent. It was vaguely eastern, flattened in the wrong places. Not uncommon, but not all that common out here, either. Lotta people in California who weren’t born out here.

“Hope you like it rough,” he said as the cuffs bit into Jake’s wrists.

A few of the technicians milling about the yard stopped and watched as Booth hauled in his catch. Jake tried to relax as he was tossed around, knowing that clenching up was just going to make it hurt more. The two stoic figures posted by the door dropped their duties long enough to turn their heads and watch the full show as it passed by.

He kicked himself for not having Slats just take him right in, but doing things the easy way had never come naturally. Through the dim hallway, Jake saw a pool of light surrounding a desk. The attendant was hunched over, occupied in some task, face lit from beneath by a green-white slatescreen which made him look like a comic book villain.

Jake smelled the coffee spilled all over the desk as it soaked into the workpad. The attendant cursed bitterly and threw a soaked paperback book into the precycle can where it made a soggy noise. The desk-slave didn’t look up until Booth shoved Jake into his workspace.

“What is it?” asked the attendant, watching with bloodshot eyes rimmed in green. The irritation of the lost coffee and book had pushed him from impassive and detached to seething rage at anyone within reach.

“This here’s the flag that Daniels wanted. Culver’s his name.” Booth took off his glasses. Jake saw colorless eyes, like bleach.

The guy mouthed the word scowled haughtily as if Jake was a turd that refused to flush. “Take him right back. No waiting.”

“Aw,” Booth whined. “I was hoping to visit interrogation for a little while.” He tugged on the cuffs, hard enough to catch wrist bone. Booth started dragging Jake back through the halls.

The attendant watched them both as they left. He’d never seen a real flag this close before. They didn’t look so tough.

The tiles were bureaucratic off-white, dingy and in bad need of scouring. Scuff marks and dust coated the floor, obscuring the original color with a muddy haze. Cameras set at junctions scanned the halls silently, save for the faint whine of servos in need of oil.

They stopped in front of a door with a frosted glass pane that read, “Neil Daniels, Captain. Sixth Desert Precinct” in freshly painted letters.

Jake remembered Payson’s office. It had been little more than a closet, but he had a view of most of the surrounding area through the windows. That made him feel like he was on top of it all. He had filled the office with all sorts of loot from the wars that he had fought: Colombian rifles, the cornerstone of a Baghdad mosque, half of a shattered swastika, bronze stars and tassels of colored silk like Christmas ornaments without a tree. The Eagle flag hung beside the door, huge as the night sky, though the field of stars was yellowed and old then.

Tucked almost invisibly among all that junk was a portrait of Captain Payson’s family. It was a tiny monochrome that seemed puny and insignificant among all the grandeur of the Federal States of America and the ghosts of its wars. Jake somehow resented that. That the man’s family was such a tiny chunk of his life that they only took up a corner on his desk.

Booth knocked on the door. The frosted glass made a sound of breaking ice.

“Open,” came a big voice from the other side.

Booth opened the door and stood beside it. He gestured to Jake with his standard-issue cleft chin and then pointed into the office. Jake walked in, watching the camera watching him with a fish-eye.

The room was deceptively small, furniture augured into place. There was a huge screen at the back of the room that was so big that the room must have been constructed around it, or maybe it was just fabbed and then assembled past the door. It felt like a phone booth with a desk and a viewer jammed into it.

Looking at the figure behind the desk, Jake realized that it wasn’t that the room was small. Rather, the man who occupied it was huge. A mountain of flesh, a hundred forty kilos, maybe a little less. He was sitting, which made it difficult to gauge his height. He was fat, but there was enough muscle left on him to make someone think three times about a casual cross.

Captain Daniels wore his thinning hair short and kept the rest of his dome shiny. His face was big and heavy, features that could have been used to scour rock to powder. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead and glistened in the light of the overhead lamp. Daniels was an unattractive man, but nobody was going to tell him that. He looked at Jake with hunter’s eyes.

“Shut the door,” Daniels snapped. Jowls shook visibly when he talked. His voice seemed to come from under the ground rather than out of his mouth.

Jake looked over the desk. There was only one thing on the billiard-green felt: a folder with a yellow note tagged to it. The note said EXT-RENDITION in block letters. That word ran through Jake like a bullet.

“Take his cuffs off, Booth,” Daniels growled. “You weren’t ordered to restrain him.”

Booth looked away quickly. “Given his record, I thought it…”

Daniels interrupted angrily. “You aren’t paid to think. Take. The cuffs. Off.” The asshole was unspoken but rang in the big man’s voice.

Jake rattled the cuffs behind his back and didn’t smile.

Booth acted his part pretty well. His eyes never left the ground, scolded schoolboy style. The show was nice, but it was nothing new. Jake had run it himself back when the job was more arresting and less shooting. Booth shoved the key into the lock as hard as he could, trying to get a final twist in.

“That’s home all right,” Booth breathed.

There was a click and the bracelets fell to the floor. Jake took his wrist and started rubbing the pain out of it. He ignored the freshly abraded skin tags the metal had left.

“Not used to being on the receiving end. Huh?” Daniels smiled at his own observation. He leaned forward and flopped the file open, watching Jake as he did so. There was a huge band of sweat down Daniels’ back, though the room was cool enough.

He cleared his throat, then spoke. “Culver, Charles Jacob. Born Aurora, Colorado. Enlisted Federal States Security Police at age seventeen.” His dark eyes narrowed. “You lied about your age?”

“Yes.” Jake’s answer was flat.

“All eager and willing to serve, huh?” Daniels smiled a mocking grin. “Showed exemplary behavior in the Denver chapter of FSSP. Twice decorated: Bronze Star and Eagle Wing. Very nice.” Daniels read it off without looking, as if he’d spent the hour previous memorizing the thing. Jake was staring straight ahead, conscious of Booth’s eyes on his neck.

“Trained in combat driving, blah blah blah. Oh, this is good. Ran remote surveillance and recon on the White Lightning out in the Rockies.” Daniels pursed his lips with malice.

“We were short that week and I used to hunt up there with my stepdad.”

“I heard they were real mean.” He scowled, fit to spit.

Jake struggled to remember something distinctive about White Lightning. They were one of a large number of neo-fascist revolutionaries who had made a bid for power while the government was out to lunch. “Right America is White America” got shouted and painted up a lot back then. And while they might not have had a brain to share amongst themselves, they were smart enough to ride resentment and to pick easy targets. When you’ve got nothing and people come along offering you a way to get something, even that seems like a square deal if you don’t think on it too closely.

The best thing about them was that they were rubbed out now.

“Nobody’s mean when they’re being cluster fucked by a couple of s-wings,” Jake said drily. He’d been up there in the scrub pines, painting their compounds with infrared lasers. All humans on the triggers, no mistakes, no hijacked remotes.

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Daniels. He made a hawking noise, but didn’t spit, just rolled it around under his tongue. “Exemplary service until you made looey. Friction in your platoon. Bucking orders. Redirecting lethality. Here’s the part that I like. July seventh, twelve years back. Failure to report to post. You disappeared with a cruiser full of equipment. Like the wind.” Daniels scratched his thinning hair as his brow wrinkled. His hand came away moist and he wiped it absently on his seat.

Jake’s guts churned a little, old ghosts filling him with acid. “What’s your point, Captain?” The curiosity was a sharp edge in his voice.

Daniels closed the folder like it was radioactive now. “The point is that you’re wanted by the Federal States for theft of military property, desertion, and failure to appear on said counts.

“They want you back.” Daniels looked across the desk. His dark eyes were set too deep in his fleshy, slick face.

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