Pandora’s New Box

a Story by Kellis

Copyright © July, 2000, Kellis

 

 

The explosion was muffled with distance but compelling in a silence seldom broken except by storm or coyote howl.  Del hastily switched the portable computer to Standby Mode, took up his rifle and dashed out of the cabin.  The orange hills and irregular formations of the badlands basked in sunlight and their usual morning tranquillity.  Motion aloft attracted his eye to the source of the disturbance:  a ball of black smoke half-way up the western sky and a dark streak connecting it to a flaming object directly overhead that was moving swiftly to the east.  Another moving object glittered in sunlight below the smoke ball, falling free and trailing no smoke.  Except for the second object Del would have thought he was witnessing the close approach of a meteoric bolide.  But clearly an aircraft had blown up in mid air.  The larger portion was in flames, descending past him to the east, while the smaller part, a wing or perhaps the tail assembly, was falling to the northwest.

He stepped to the side around the hilltop behind the cabin and watched the fast-moving gout of bright flame.  It was tumbling, occasionally throwing off a black particle, descending at an accelerating rate.

The spectacle was soon complete.  The burning object disappeared behind High Rock Mesa, leaving its black trail across most of the sky.  Almost immediately an orange ball of fire blossomed above the mesa, only to turn into another puff of oily smoke.  Del began counting:  “One thousand, two thousand …”  He had reached 17 before the sound arrived, a second muffled explosion.  So the crash site was over three miles away — and remarkably close to the Antonville road that skirted High Rock Mesa.

He hurried to the battered old pickup, jerked open the door and hung his rifle on the back window brackets.  Flipping the special toggle switch installed last year when the ignition switch failed, and crossing his fingers, he turned the key that had not been removed from the dashboard in months.  To his pleased surprise the battery still had enough energy to crank the engine, which finally caught after a few seconds’ grinding.  Sputtering and emitting blue smoke, the old engine agreed to run.

The truck still held most of a tank of fuel.  He paused long enough to decide where the silvery part was likely to reach ground — much nearer his cabin — then dropped into gear and set out bumping around the hill toward the fiery crash.

Finally he rounded High Rock Mesa and laid on his brakes.  The plain ahead of him was a sea of burning fuel.  Peering between his fingers, he could see wrinkled black metal faintly through the flames.  Two darker masses were probably the aircraft engines.  He shook his head.  No one could have survived this impact.

His cracked windshield creaked from the radiant heat.  Snapping into reverse, he backed the pickup around and sped off toward the other site.  Clearing the mesa, he saw that the silvery piece was no longer in the sky, but as the trail began to wind up his own hill, he discovered it in the distance, perhaps half a mile off to the right, and recognized the swept back tail fin and elevators, apparently intact as a subassembly, of a commercial jet plane, a medium sized type with engines under the wings instead of the tail.

He veered down into a familiar dry arroyo.  Bumping over the stones that he could not steer around, he finally reached a point where the truck could climb back out onto level rock within a hundred yards of the silver metal shape.  He drove right up to it and turned the vehicle around before switching off the improvised ignition.

He shook his head again.  This was a small part of the aircraft.  The fuselage had sheared off just forward of the elevators’ leading edges.  He walked around in front of the oval opening and found himself looking directly into the rear of the passenger cabin.  One row of seats remained, fixed against the lavatory bulkhead.  About six feet of aisle terminated in a bin, now empty, that might have contained carry-on luggage.  Aside from sheared metal skin, structural stringers and numerous straggling wires and cables, the tail assembly seemed completely intact and undamaged, perched at a slight angle on the foot of a hill.

The corner of a paper peered out from between the remaining seat cushions.  Del stretched forward to retrieve it.  The heading in large boldface announced, Treasury Department / Office of the United States Marshal.  Centered below that in slightly smaller type was the phrase, Prisoner Transport Manifest.  Below this were four columns of printed names — women’s names — each followed by a number.  Quickly he counted the names in the left-most column:  24.  Two other columns held the same number, two less in the last:  94 women’s names.

At the bottom of the page was a date and someone’s initials.  That of the guard who had been sitting in this seat?  He folded the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket while looking towards the distant smoke column.  Had 94 or more women just died three miles to the east?  “Damn!” he muttered sadly, thinking of 94 opportunities forever lost to all men everywhere.

He looked up at the sky.  It was too early yet for investigating helicopters, but he was confident they would not be long delayed.  An air-force base lay only a hundred miles to the south.  Time to move on.  He was just turning away when something caught his attention, something he had noticed but passed over.  The lavatory door … something about it.  He studied it again, with widening eyes as the indicator above the latch registered in his mind.  It read Occupied!

— Meaning that it was locked from the inside.  An effect of the crash or the explosion?  Or did a body remain inside?

He caught a ripped stringer and swung himself up onto the aisle floor.  He stood in front of the lavatory door and pounded on it with his knuckles, shouting, “Hey!  Is anyone in there — in the lavatory?”

He tried to rotate the latch but only verified that it was locked from the inside.  He remembered a crowbar under the seat in the truck and was just about to turn away when once again he was brought up short.

With a thunk the indicator changed to Vacant.

Hesitantly Del reached again for the latch.  Apprehension filled his chest as he pressed it down.  Now it rotated freely.  He backed away, pulling the door open.

And found himself staring into a female face.  Its owner winced at the light, a hand flying up to shield her eyes.  But he had received a glimpse of blue eyes in a pale countenance, enough to suggest attractiveness under other circumstances.  The hand did not conceal chestnut hair, nor the orange jump suit, wetly stained over most of her chest.  The source of the stain was only too apparent to his nose.

“My god!” Del exclaimed.

“God?” repeated the woman.  “Am I dead?”

Del took a breath and regretted it but said, “If you can ask that, you’re not.”

She stared at him between her fingers.  “If you’re an angel, I sure hope not.”

Vomit dripped from her chin.  Nevertheless it was apparently a smoothly dimpled chin.  At that instant Del reached a momentous decision.  He said, “Give me your hand.  We have to move, if you’re going to get out of this!”

Her hand thrust out without hesitation.  He took it to lead her out of the lavatory and discovered that her feet were tangled in the bottom half of the orange jump suit plus cotton panties once white, now stained in several biological colors.

“Lift your feet out of that,” he ordered.

She did, walking completely out the mess.  Her white socks and sneakers were equally stained.

“Pick it up,” he directed further.  “We can’t leave it here.”

She stooped and obeyed.  He led her to the edge of the floor, jumped down, then lifted her down by the elbows.  Her eyes were huge as she looked right and left at the bare red rock of the badlands.

“Come on,” he urged, taking her elbow.  “The choppers will get here any minute.”

Her soiled orange tunic dangled just below her buttocks.  She held her retrieved bottom clothing before her in a sodden ball and stumbled along as his hand directed.

“What …  What …” she stuttered.

“No time.  I’ll explain when we get out of here.”

They reached the tailgate of the pickup.  “Give me that,” he ordered, taking the soiled bundle from her and stuffing it into a cardboard box left lying in the truck bed.  “Everything you’ve got on stinks,” he noted succinctly.  “Take it all off, even your shoes and socks.”

Her hands rose to the buttons on her tunic.  “What …  What’ll I wear?”

“Nothing.  You can wrap in this blanket.”  He lifted and straightened a dusty blanket that had been wedged behind the tool box.  “Hurry, damn it!  We’ve got to get out of here.”

She shrugged out of the tunic, leaving a cotton brassiere as the only article of clothing on her torso.  He had a glimpse of narrow waist, well padded hips, thick reddish pubes and unshaven legs.  She jerked the sneakers and socks off her feet.  All went into the cardboard box.  He closed its flaps and turned it upside down in the truck bed, then held the blanket open for her.  She turned her back into it and he wrapped it around her, guiding her hand to hold it at the overlap.

“Now into the truck.  Here, let me move the seat back first.”

When she was seated, he slammed her door and dashed around to his own side.  The warm engine started immediately and he drove it down into the arroyo.

“If anyone stops us,” he instructed her, “before we get to my place, you drop down into the floorboards.  I’ve moved the seat back enough for you to fit.  You understand?”

“Yes.”

He dodged an outcropping of rock.  “Damn!” he declared.

“What?”

“We’re leaving a dust cloud.  Now much we can do to avoid it, is there? …  Uh-oh!  We’ve got company.”

The girl peered where he pointed.  Two helicopters, tiny with distance, were moving from right to left across their path, just visible above the rock walls.

“What will they do?” she asked.

“Nothing about us right away,” he explained.  “But they must have seen my dust.  Not much point in hurrying now.”  He slowed the truck to a less frenzied dash.

“Where are they going?”

“To check on what’s left of your friends.”

He glanced at her.  Her returning glance held horror.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Theresa.  Tessy.”

“Tessy.  That’s pretty.  Call me Del.”

“Del,” she repeated.  She took a deep breath.  “What happened, Del?”

He grunted.  “You tell me.”

“But I …  I don’t know!”

“You went to the bathroom, right?”

“Ye-es.”

“And what happened?”

“A terrible noise.  The lights went out.  I was just … doing my business.  The wall hit me on one side.  I tried to stand up but something was pressing me back onto the seat.  The seat started going around and around, at least that’s how it felt.  I got sick and puked my guts out.  It went on and on and …  I don’t know what happened next.  Maybe I passed out.  When I could think again, I thought I was dead.  It was pitch dark and I couldn’t hear a thing.  The seat was tilted but at least the spinning had stopped.

“I don’t know how long I just sat there, waiting to see if I really was dead.  Then I heard you hollering and beating on the door.  Now I could stand up!  I found the lock and pulled it back.  You know the rest.  But what was it, Del?  What happened to most of the plane?”

“It blew up in midair, Tessy.  All of it but the very tail end caught fire and crashed about three miles from here.  Your part, the tail, fluttered down like a falling leaf.  That was the luckiest dump anybody ever took!

“I drove over to the other site first, long enough to understand nobody survived that one.  They’ll never even find all the bodies.  If you had any friends in that crowd, I’m sorry.  We’re there really 94 prisoners on that flight?”

“94?  I don’t know.  Nobody on it was a friend of mine.  You got anything to drink, Del?  My mouth tastes awful.”

“I’ll bet it does.  Hang on.  Not much further and I’ll give you a cold beer.”

“Oh, god, I would do anything for a cold beer!”

He chuckled.  “Would you!”

“After a bath.  Can I get a bath?”

“Well, sort of.  Got to be careful of the water.”

He glanced at her.  She was studying him.  “Where are you taking me, Del?”

“I’ve got a little place on a hill.  You’ll see in a few minutes.  You do know what’s happening, don’t you, Tessy?”

“Tell me.”

“You were right the first time.  You’re dead.”

“I’m … wh-what?”

He chuckled again.  “Don’t get me wrong.  You’re dead as Theresa, but your new life with a new name and no record is just beginning.  All you have to do is make sure you don’t leave fingerprints anywhere that matters.”

“I …  Oh.  I see.”

“Tell me about the flight.”

“It was …  They were taking me east.  To a different prison.”

“Why?”

Her eyes wouldn’t meet his.  “Who knows why?  The feds do things like that.  Maybe to balance the load between prisons.  We were going to Wash—  to Virginia.”

“That far back east!”

“So they said.”

“What was your original crime?”

“Tax fraud.”

“No kidding!”

“I’m a federal prisoner, Del.”

Was, Tessy.  How long were you in for?”

“Twelve years.  I have — had — another ten to go.  But the worst is the $10 million fine.  Not admitting your debt really throws the IRS into a tizzy!  But if I’m dead that’s settled.”

“Mind telling me how old you are?”

“28.  Hmm.  I think I’m going to be 22 from now on, at least for the next few years.”

He laughed.  “You’re beginning to see the possibilities.”

“Yeah…  All kinds of possibilities…  Problems, too.”

“I’d like to hear what problems you foresee, but here’s where we get out of the gully.  Stay low until we know who’s watching.”

He guided the truck over the arroyo lip, but as they turned onto the trail, a blue helicopter appeared, growing steadily larger as it descended toward them.

“Now’s the time for you to hit the floorboards!” he called.  She obediently slid forward off the seat.   He added, “Tuck your legs under and keep your face down over your knees.”

When she was settled, he pulled an end of the blanket over her chestnut hair.  Then he patted her arched back.  “You’ll be all right.  Just keep still.  This truck is such a mess, nobody will question a blanket wadded up in the floorboards.  They’ll understand I’m a bachelor.”

The helicopter hovered not far off the trail, crabbing backward to stay at the same distance.  Its national insignia and U. S. Air Force markings were fully legible.

“What’re they doing?” Tessy hollered over the noise.

“Looking us over.  I’m giving them a thumbs-down.”  As he spoke, Del put his hand out the window and gestured several times with thumb turned down and extended.  “Now the pilot’s waving…  There they go!”

The helicopter lifted over them towards the fallen tail section.  After a moment the woman called, “Can I get up?”

“Just a minute.”  Del scanned the sky carefully.  “I see three more choppers, but it looks like they’re all heading for the main wreck…  We’re in sight of my place.  Okay, come on up.  Just be ready to hop back down.”

The woman rose up cautiously and perched on the edge of the seat.  The truck was climbing up the hill that was mostly Del’s property.  Near the top was a low, weathered building, hardly more than a shack, except she saw as they neared, it sported a front porch with a single battered chair.  Behind it, further up the hill, were some constructs of similar size, one quite shiny.  On the very top of the hill were affixed two small parabolic reflectors, one pointing into the sky, the other along the ground.

“What’s all that?” she asked with raised eyebrows.

He chuckled.  “You may not be familiar with what it takes to live out here away from all municipal services, where even the ground water is half a mile down.  The shiny thing is my solar power generator.  The tank is my cistern.  Most of it is buried in the rock.  And those reflectors on top are my link to the rest of the world.”

“Cool!” she said admiringly.

“It gets me by.  All right.  I’ll pull right up under the porch.  When I say ‘Go,’ you dash into the house.  The door’s unlocked.  Make sure you close it behind you while I go park the truck.  Understand?”

“Yes.”

“And try not to touch anything.  We’ll get you a bath first thing.”

Several helicopters hovered beyond High Rock Mesa.  Another was moving low and slow towards the tail site as if it were scanning the ground.  Del stopped the vehicle with its right side up against the porch floor, threw it in Park, opened his door and stood up, checking out the rest of the sky.

“All right, go!” he called.

The woman was quick, but the blanket caught in something on the truck just as she reached for the house door knob.  She looked back at him with huge eyes.

“Shrug out of it!  Get inside now!”

She let the blanket fall as she threw open the door.  He had a glimpse of pale round buttocks before she slammed it closed behind her.  Immediately he returned to his seat, put the truck in gear and drove away from the cabin.  When he had parked in his customary place and switched off the ignition, he walked around to the passenger side, gathered up the blanket, which proved to be caught in the door handle, and stuffed it back behind the tools.  He considered the box with her soiled clothing.  It remained upside down in the back of the truck.  He would have to bury it, he thought, but not just yet.

He took his rifle down and strolled back to the house, surveying the sky thoroughly.  A heavy lift helicopter was approaching the main crash site, where several others hovered, marked by a thinner but still rising column of smoke over High Rock Mesa.  The ground scanner had disappeared, presumably having reached the tail section, which was concealed from the cabin by a minor rock peak.

He found her waiting, standing in the middle of the floor with back turned towards him, in the front room of the two-room cabin.  Her shoulders were hunched protectively.  She looked apprehensively over one.  “Do you think they saw me?”

“No sign of it.  Whew, Tessy, you need a bath right now!  Go on through that door.  You’ll find a rag and soap next to the sink.  You’ll have to take a sponge bath.  I don’t have enough water for a shower.”

She obeyed and closed the door behind her.  But he opened it again and followed her.  This room was his kitchen, containing a white enameled sink, a gas stove and a small state-of-the-art low power refrigerator.  At one side a curtain concealed an alcove with a toilet seat built out over a pit.  On the other side was a doorless pantry, well-stocked with canned goods.

Standing before the sink, she sighed pointedly as he moved past her toward the pantry.

He explained, “I need to show you something.”

She said with heavy irony, “I was tired of privacy anyway.”

“Look here.  See this raised nail?”

He wrinkled his nose as she bent beside him, looking where his finger pointed at the molding between wall and floor.

“Yes.”

“When you stomp it —”  He demonstrated.  “— that handle pops up.”  With a click a section of floor board, seemingly a foot-long fitted fill-in, popped up a couple finger widths between the pantry door jambs.

“Watch.”  He leaned in front of her, slipped his hand under the raised board and lifted.  The floor of the pantry came up on hinges in the rear, exposing a dark hole suddenly illuminated by an interior light as the floor rose to the limit of the shelves above it.  She was looking down into a room extending back under the kitchen floor.  The rungs of a ladder were attached to the descending wall.

“A storage room?” she asked.

“More than that.  The guy who built this place meant it as a refuge and a fall-out shelter.  Look at the bottom of this handle.  When you start down the ladder, stop, let the door back down and pull the handle down, too, until it latches.  Then nobody can tell what’s here — at least not if they’re in a hurry.”

“You want me to go down there?”

“Not now.  But sooner or later, probably sooner, they’ll come here to ask me some questions.  I want you to scamper down there at the first news of them and stay till I let you out.  You understand?”

She hesitated, then looked up at him anxiously.  “You will let me out?”

He grinned slowly.  “What do you think?  But it’s the handle that latches, not the door.  You can also open it from the inside just by pushing up.  Now get busy and clean off that stink.”  He turned away from her and threw open both windows, letting in the slight breeze, then paused at the door.  She continued quartering her back toward him, watching him over her shoulder.  Her skin was almost as pale as her brassiere straps.

He asked gruffly, “You need any help?”

“Uh, n-no thanks.”  She placed the stopper in the sink.  “I see what I need.”

“Good.  Yell and I’ll bring you one of my shirts.”

He sat down in the single porch chair, leaning his rifle against the shingled wall beside him.  He took a deep breath, shook his head and murmured aloud, “God, I surprise me!”

The customarily silent desert air was filled now with the distant roar of engines.  After a while one of them grew louder and added the distinctive whop-whop-whop of an approaching helicopter.  A blue Huey with air-force markings settled on the trail about a hundred yards from the cabin, throwing up a cloud of dust that quickly dissipated.

Without turning his head, Del called, “We’ve got visitors, Tessy!”

He heard a feminine response, “Got’cha!” followed shortly by a thump felt through the porch floor.

As the rotors slowed, two men dropped down from the open passenger compartment and came to the porch.  They wore blue military fatigues.  The one with captain’s bars on his collar carried a clipboard, the other a blue flight bag.

They halted at the edge of the porch.  The captain asked, “Are you Mr. Delbert Forrest?”

Del grinned.  “Ain’t computers wonderful!”

The captain grinned also.  “I take it that’s a yes?”

“I am Delbert Forrest.  Who’re you?”

“Jameson,” the man replied, which agreed with the name tag above his shirt pocket.  “We’re with the air force.”

“So I gathered.”

“What did you witness here this morning, Mr. Forrest?  Turn it on, Airman.”

The silent man reached into his bag and flipped something.

“I heard an explosion,” Del recited.  “I saw the tail of an airplane fall over there while the rest of it fell burning behind High Rock Mesa.  I went to investigate.  When I got beyond the mesa, I could see only a sea of flames and some twisted metal.  No sign of survivors.  So I checked out the tail section, found no one and came back.  By that time your people were arriving.”

“You say the front part fell burning?”

“That’s right.  It must have caught fire from the original explosion.  It left a black streak of smoke behind it all the way.”

“That’s good information.  Thank you.  Did you see any human remains?”

“No, not to be certain.”

“What does that mean?”

“As the burning part was coming down, it threw off pieces.  I thought one of them might have a human shape.”

“One.”

“Well, it threw off more than one piece.  Three or four, I guess, but only one looked like it had … arms and legs.”

“Where did that one land?”

“Well, I don’t really know.  About half way between the two sites, I would guess.  Say, would you guys like a cold beer?”

The officer smiled.  “You have cold beer?”

“Sure.”  Del stood up.  “Did you think I was just a lonely hermit, Captain?”

“You’ll permit us to come inside, Mr. Forrest?”

“Yes, of course.”  Del opened the door.  “After you, gentlemen.”  As they passed through, he added, “I’m rather proud of this place, actually.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside, except you must have noticed my solar generator and —”

“Yes, we did.  What type is it?”

“Mercury vapor.  The light condenser boils mercury and the vapor passes through an ion stripper.  In the summertime I can get six kilowatts from it.”

“That’s impressive!”

“I keep thinking I’ll replace it with one big enough for air-conditioning, though here in the mountains it’s not so hot as your base down in the valley.  Come on in the kitchen to the refrigerator.”

They followed him into the next room.  Tessy had allowed the sink to drain, but her wet washcloth perched beside the bowl, and he saw that she had helped herself to a bottle of beer, also standing on the sink.  The breeze had blown the room clear of her sour odor.  Thanking providence for dry desert air with no moisture to condense on the cold bottle, he opened the refrigerator and took out two additional brown bottles.  “I only have Coors,” he said apologetically.

The captain held up his hand.  “No, thank you, Mr. Forrest.  It’s very kind of you to offer it, but of course we’re on duty.”

Del allowed himself to frown.  “Then why did you come in?”

The captain’s chin rose.  He said firmly, “To see if there was any other witness.”

Del put the bottles back, then asked, “Well, in that case how about answering a question for me?”

“What’s that?”

“Did 94 women actually die in that crash?”

The officer started.  “94 women?  What makes you think that?”

Del took a breath.  “I found a paper wedged in the seat that was still left in the tail section.  It said this was a federal prisoner transport and gave the names of 94 women.”

Both men stared.  “Could I see that paper, please?” asked the captain.

“Why not?”  Del took it from his shirt pocket and gave it to the officer, who opened it and scanned quickly.

He said, “Look down here.  This is yesterday’s date.  That plane was owned by the U. S. Marshal’s Office.  It was probably often used for prisoner transport.”

To Del’s surprise, he handed the paper back.  Taking it, Del asked, “But today could have been another big shipment?”

The officer shrugged and said in a confidential tone, “I’ll tell you one thing:  that was a damned bad crash, so bad, they say, that the black boxes were smashed, too.  I think everyone aboard bought it.  We won’t know exactly who they were until we see the passenger manifest.”

“I guess not.”

The captain hesitated, then took a breath.  “Mr. Forrest, would you do something to help us out?”

Del straightened his shoulders.  “Do what, Captain?”

“I noticed that one of your parabolic reflectors is aligned horizontally.  Do you have microwave telephone service into the nearest town?  I guess that would be Cayman.”

“Yes, I do, as a matter of fact.”

“Very good.  This is what we want you to do.”  He handed Del a business card.  “If anyone comes to you with questions about this or behaving suspiciously, please call this 800 number, ask for that name, ‘Frank,’ and report it.”

“What kind of suspicious behavior?”

“Wearing orange clothing, for example.”

Del’s eyes narrowed.  “You think somebody survived that crash?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll admit it seems unlikely.  We’re just covering all the bases.  The government transports some pretty desperate people on these flights sometimes — desperate and dangerous.”

Del took the card and cocked an eyebrow.  “Were such people on this one, Captain?”

“Maybe.”

“Yeah, ‘maybe.’  I just realized something.  I assumed the air force was investigating this because your base is the closest source of choppers.  But now that I think about it, all the choppers are blue!  Where’s the TV crew, Captain, and the reporters?  What’s going on?”

The captain smiled slightly.  “Turn it off, Airman.”

When the silent man had obeyed, the officer added, “You’ll see a lot of olive drab ones in about a half hour.  A special forces battalion is going to examine every square inch of this area.  Call that number, Mr. Forrest, if anything interesting develops.  It’s for your own protection.”  He jerked his head toward the door.  “Let’s go, Airman.”

Del followed them out across the porch and onto the rocky hillside.  He scanned the sky in all directions while they reboarded their machine.  He counted five blue helicopters aloft, two passing slowly over the ground between the two sites, still searching.  Then the one in his yard lifted to join them.  He waved good-bye to the men in the passenger compartment, one of whom returned his gesture.

He returned to the kitchen and raised the pantry floor.  “Come on out, Tessy.  They’ve gone.”

She appeared and climbed the ladder as he held the door open.  He took her hand and helped her stand beside him before lowering the door and pressing the handle down until it latched.  He raised up to find her facing him, one arm across her breasts, the other hand inadequately covering her pubes.  Her face was still anxious.  “You didn’t tell them?”

“No, of course not.  You look better.  Did you finish your bath?”

“I was just drying off with your dish towel.  I need to wash my hair, too.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m short of clean towels.  Where’s your brassiere?”

“Left it in the cellar.  It stinks, too.”

He turned away.  “Wait here and I’ll get you a shirt.”

He went to the clothes closet in the next room and took down a long-tailed white shirt.  Turning around he found her immediately behind him.  He grinned.  “No longer so modest, Tessy?”

She shrugged and grinned at him as she took the shirt.  “Modesty is a habit, one that prison wears down.  I really just hate for you to see me with all my body hair.  I have such a lot of it.”

“You don’t believe in shaving?”

“Huh!  They wouldn’t let me have a razor.”

“Not even an electric one?”

“A guard told me they had a prisoner once who made a radio transmitter out of his electric razor.”

He grunted.  “That’s ridiculous.”

“You know that and I know that, but guards are very credulous about some things.”

He paused thoughtfully.  “Now that I think about it, I suppose you could make a primitive arc transmitter.”

“Are you technically trained, Del?”

“I was an electrical engineer.  Saw the handwriting on the wall and took early retirement before my job got merged out of existence.”

“What are you, about 50?”

“58, thanks.”

She had buttoned the shirt most of the way up the front.  With a grin she held up her hands, the cuffs dangling past them.  “Think I’ll start a new fad?”

“No.  Girls have been wearing men’s shirts for a long time.  I’ll admit it looks cuter on you than on me.”

“Despite my hairy legs?”

His eyes dropped below the shirt tails and he shook his head.  “Who said hair on a woman is such a bad thing?  I like that reddish tint.”  He chuckled.  “I’ll bet it would be fun if we were all furry as apes.”

Her eyes sparkled as she studied him.  “Living out here in the desert all alone … with a secret refuge under his cabin, I’ll bet you’re an iconoclast, Del.”

He grinned.  “Worse than that.  I’m a closet anarchist.”

“Really?”  Wide eyed, she shook her head.  “God, this is fate!”

He laughed.  “You were looking for an anarchist?  Well, why not?  Tax fraud?  If I had my way, that wouldn’t be a crime.”

“No, Del,” she objected softly.  “I wasn’t looking for anything.  One minute I was in trouble at 30,000 feet and heading for more, and the next …”  She took a breath and straightened herself.  “If you’ll let me borrow your razor, I’ll shave my legs and underarms.”

“Razor?  Do I look like a man who owns a razor?”

Her eyebrows lifted.  “Well, your beard is pretty neat and I’d say you’ve had a haircut in the last month.”

“Right.  I take my laundry into town once a month and stop by the tonsorial parlor.”

“The what?  Is it that old-fashioned?”

“I think so: shower, shave and haircut — or as much of that as you want.  Not too old-fashioned.  They have a beauty parlor next door.  But I don’t have a razor, Tessy.  I’m sorry.”

She sighed.  “I’ve been living with it for two years.  If you can stand it, I guess I can.”

“Well, I didn’t notice your underarms, but you’re a pretty woman, Tessy, hair or no hair.  Speaking of that, you still have some vomit in it.  There’s shampoo in the pantry.  You can fill the sink again for that, if you want.”

“Are you really short of water?”

“You didn’t see any clouds in the sky, did you?  It’ll rain here in December, but that’s a couple months off.”

“You get all your water from the winter rains?”

“I usually get a truckload delivered in July, but of course I don’t want to order another one now.”

“My hair stinks, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“All right.  I’ll wash it.”  She turned to the kitchen door.

“Need any help?”

“I’ll have to take your shirt off.”

“Oh.  Okay.  Look, that investigator said the army was sending troops to comb the rocks.  I want to see if they’ve arrived.”

Indeed several of the promised olive drab machines were hovering near the tail section site.  In the other direction two of them had actually landed atop High Rock Mesa.  The roar of distant engines had grown louder.  He counted 18 of the greenish helicopters, about half on the ground.  In a few places between the rock fingers he could make out dark figures, tiny with distance, apparently spread out in search formations.

His porch was on the wrong end of the cabin from the main crash site beyond the mesa, but most of the activity appeared centered around the tail site anyway.  He took his seat and watched for awhile.  The soldiers were making a good job of it.  They were spreading out from the tail site as a center.  In another hour or so they would reach Del’s hill.

He heard the woman’s voice unintelligibly through the closed door.  He got up and pushed it open.  “What is it?”

She was standing naked in the middle of the room, wet hair covering her shoulders.  She twitched tensely sideways, then sighed and deliberately relaxed her posture.  “Do you have another towel?”

“I think there’s one left.”

He went past her to the closet, withdrew the towel and passed it to her.  She immediately applied it vigorously to her hair.  She stood frankly before him, eyes clenched shut, while working the towel.  He stood silently watching.  Her breasts were ample, as he had already understood, well-rounded and crowned with small pink nipples, bouncing in response to her lively arm motions.  He took a deep breath.

She asked, “My skin doesn’t bother you, does it?”

He chuckled.  “What’s the matter?  Could you feel my eyes?”

She smiled.  “So to speak.”

“No, it doesn’t bother me.  But I’m certainly not indifferent to it.”

She lowered the towel, folded it and passed it to him.  Her hands went back into her hair.  For the first time he saw the heavy chestnut tufts in her armpits.  She stared into his eyes.  “And I’m not indifferent to you seeing it.  You’re the first man who has, in over two years.”

He licked dry lips.  “Tessy …”

She combed her damp hair back with spread fingers.  “Were there any soldiers looking for me?”

“Quite a lot.  Looking for something.”

She nodded.  “Me.”  Her hands settled to her hips.  She drew her shoulders back, watching with a twinkle as his eyes dropped to her outthrust nipples.  But she asked, “Will they come here?”

“Maybe.  It’ll take them a while at the rate they’re going.”

She took a step toward him.  “How long a while?”

He shrugged.  “An hour.”

“That’s long enough.”  She smiled slowly.  “I’ll bet ten minutes is long enough.”

He drew a shaky breath.  “Tessy, I … I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“Then why did you bring me home with you?”

“Well, yes.  I hoped you might feel grateful.”

“I do, Del.  And what’s more, I’ve been without a man longer than you’ve probably been without a woman.”

His clothing was quickly removed.  She came readily into his arms, pressing her soft body against him.  She smelled of soap and shampoo.  Their lips met and she accepted his tongue.  He tasted the beer she had drunk.  When he threw back the tattered blankets on his bunk, she fell into it backward and pulled him down atop her.  She was a well-fleshed woman with broad hips and narrow waist.  Her skin was untanned, underlain most noticeably in breast and thighs with a network of veins.  He saw no sign either of cellulite or stretch marks.

The hair on her legs tickled curiously when she wrapped them around his buttocks.  Her hips rolled in vigorous response to his thrusts.

“Oh, god, Tessy!”  He lasted about a minute.

Breathing heavily, he raised up off her on extended arms, looking into her open eyes.  She had developed a slight flush.  He said contritely, “I’m sorry, Tessy.  I promise I’ll be better for you next time.”

She smiled lazily.  “I’m sure you will.  Think of that one as a first expression of gratitude.”  The patted the pillow beside her.  “Lie down, let me snuggle, and tell me about yourself, please, Del.”

He obeyed her, still feeling apologetic.  “I’m afraid I’m out of the habit of pleasing my partner.  But I do want to please you!”

She grunted.  “Your tonsorial parlor gives full service, does it?”

“Well, no, not the parlor.  But there’s a woman down the street that, uh …”

“Only once a month, Del?”

“I guess I’m getting old.”

“Nothing old about what you just did.”

“You bring it out in me, Tessy.  God, I’m glad …  I mean, ah …”

She chuckled.  “So am I, Del.”

She moved her head onto his shoulder and a leg over his hips.  She discovered that he was chuckling and asked, “What’s funny?”

“I was just remembering.  The second thing you said.”

“Huh?”

“You first asked if you were dead.  When I said no, you said, ‘If you’re an angel, I sure hope not.’”  He laughed aloud.

She smiled.  “I was pretty confused.  I thought I ought to be dead, but the paintings show devils with beards!”

“Are you religious, Tessy?”

“I was once.  Five years of marriage to a nuke head and two years as a government guest pretty well leached the fuzzy thoughts out of my head.  At least I thought they had until the rubber met the road this morning.”

“A ‘nuke head?’”

“That’s what he called himself.  You would call him a nuclear physicist.”

“Is he waiting for you, Tessy?”

She sighed.  “Don’t get me wrong, Del.  I am grateful for your help.  You’re probably saving my life right now, and I’ll thank you again as soon as you’re able.  But if Craig was waiting for me, I wouldn’t be in this bed with another man.”

“I understand.  You still love him.”

“Make that past tense, Del.  He’s dead.”

“I … I’m sorry.”  His hand fondled her breast.

She chuckled.  “You are and you aren’t.”  She patted his cheek.  “Life goes on, even for us federal convicts.”

“An interesting point.  Just how could the wife of a nuclear physicist be guilty of tax fraud?”

Anybody can be guilty of tax fraud, Del!  Would you believe I endorsed a million dollar personal check from a fictitious company but declared only a tenth of it on my 1040?  That I then signed a document agreeing to dispense with a jury at my trial?”

“Are you saying you were framed, Tessy?”

“Oh, the signatures looked like mine, all right.  They looked exactly like mine!  But I never saw either document.”

“The government forged your signatures?  Why would they do such a thing to a sweet —  What’s your full name?”

“Theresa Jane Smithers Grable, widow of Craig Melrose Grable, Ph.D.  Don’t search your memory, Del.  I promise you’ve never heard of either of us.”

“‘Grable.’  Like, what’s her name, Betty Grable?”

“No relation.  Those movie stars all had made-up names anyway.”

“Okay.  So why did they frame you, then?”

“That’s easy.  I knew way too much.  The alternative was to kill me, but lately we’ve been short of men in high office with that kind of guts.  Fortunately for me.  Until today, anyway.”

“You mean —”

“That explosion was no accident, Del.  For two years I’ve been in solitary confinement with guards under orders not to let me say anything in their hearing except answers to the simplest questions.  But they don’t care what I hear.  Right after we took off this morning I overheard the marshal in charge tell another we’d be lucky to get her — meaning me — delivered.”  She grimaced.  “Funny how luck works out, isn’t it!”

He grinned.  “So you know some terrible nuclear secret?”

“Exactly.”  She glanced up into his skepticism, smiled and nodded.  “Your tone of voice is what has kept me alive until today.  John Arnold said no one would believe me if I did blurt it out.  Still it was a near thing.  Devkrit drew his pistol and aimed it at me in the NSA offices.  He almost had guts enough.”

“Devkrit?  You don’t mean the FBI director!”

“But I do.  Del, I’m amazed you even know who he is.”

“And John Arnold is …”  He closed his eyes.  The name was familiar.

“Director of National Security.  He was my boss’s boss.”

“You worked for the NSA?”

“As a systems analyst.  I may still know more dangerous trivia than all but a dozen people in the whole country.”

He thought about it for awhile.  “Then you were the only prisoner on the plane?”

“Yes.”

He took a breath.  “I found a manifest showing 94 prisoners aboard.  I’m glad it was for yesterday.”

“So am I.”  She kissed his shoulder, then chuckled.  “Did you think you could save 94 women, Del?”

“No.  But I was thinking that 93 would be a terrible loss.”

“Were you?  So tell me, what does a man who loves women so well do all alone in the desert?”

“Write novels.”

“Novels?”  She raised her head.  “What’s your full name, Del?”

“Delbert Maurice Forrest.  I’ve only published —”

“But I’ve heard of you.  They did let me read in my lonely cell.  You wrote Last Man Standing!  My god, you are an anarchist!”

 

  *  *  *  *

 

“It’s about to get exciting, Tessy.  They’ve started up the hill and I’m going out to confront them.  You better head for the cellar.”

Del turned away from the window and took up his britches from their resting place on the floor.  The woman got out of bed and padded naked toward the window.  He noted with approval that she did not press close to it.

She asked, “Do you have to?”

“Oh, yes.  If you want to maintain your rights with those people, you have to speak up.”

“Maybe so.  I always thought it was best to stay out of sight.”

“Did you!”

“Sticking my head up — actually my tongue in — is what got me in trouble.”

“Sounds interesting.  You’ll have to tell me about it.  Right now, to keep you company in the basement — have you read my latest, Run from the Crowd?  It’s on that shelf just to your left.  Take it down there with you.  The light switch is just beside the ladder and I’ve verified that the cellar is light tight.”

“I noticed the switch.  Mind if I stay here and watch you out the window?  If they come close, I’ll hide.”

“Well, you know what’ll happen to both of us if they see you.”

Fully clothed, he took up his rifle, went to the door and turned around for a last glance at her.  Her eyes were huge.  She asked incredulously, “Are you planning a shoot-out?”

He laughed.  “I stand a good chance, don’t I?  What they’ve got makes my gun look like a BB.”

She was buttoning the shirt.  She shook her head.  “Men and their posturing!”

He grinned, threw her a kiss and slipped out the door.

Holding the rifle loosely under his arm, he started down the hill toward the largest knot of green clad men.  Though his own experience was many years in the past, they looked to be all in full battle dress, armed with M-16s slung on their backs — all but two, he saw as he drew nearer, who wore holstered pistols.  He made his way toward one of the latter and stopped about 30 feet away.

“Hold on!” he called.  “What are you men doing?  This hill is private property.”

At least no one unslung his weapon.  One of the pistol bearers marched unhesitatingly to face Del and stood with hands on hips.  This one wore a major’s oak leaves — high rank to be commanding what seemed a mere platoon of troops.

“You are Mr. Forrest?” he inquired in a gravely voice.

“I am and I have title to this entire hill.”

“I am Major Kelland of the two-oh-nine Special Forces Battalion.  For your information, the president has established martial law in this region.  Now, I respect private property as much as you do, Mr. Forrest, and though I don’t need to, I ask your permission to search this hill.”

“For what?”

“A federal fugitive.  Perhaps you can help us.  Have you seen any stranger hereabouts today?”

“Loads of them!”

“Eh?  I mean, other than members of the armed forces.”

“No, I have not.  All this for one man?”

The major almost responded, but bit his lip and asked instead, “Do we have your permission to search?”

“Except for my dwelling.  I don’t want you stomping through that.”

“We don’t need to do that.  Thank you, Mr. Forrest.”  He looked away and raised his voice.  “Lieutenant, take half your forces around to the back.  I’ll meet you at the top.”

Del stayed close to the major as the group of men spread out and worked its way up the hillside.  He commented, “This rocky soil doesn’t leave tracks, but it provides damn little in the way of cover, either.”

“Except for ravines and boulders to hide behind,” the man pointed out.  “We found a couple of caves on the other side of the site, one of them pretty deep.  Last I heard a squad was still exploring it.”

“Yeah, Indian Hideout, they call it, for good reason.  It’s probably the best place to hide in 30 miles.”

“You know this country, do you, Mr. Forrest?”

“I’ve lived here about three years and looked over a lot of it.  That’s how the fenders got so beat up on my truck.”

“That’s a four-by?”

“Yeah.  You won’t get far off the road around here on two-wheel drive.”

The major took a small radio from his belt and spoke into it, “Charlie One, this is Charlie Five.”

It squawked, “Go ahead, Charlie Five.”

“Local informant states that the cave we found, which he calls ‘Indian Hideout,’ is the best place to hide in 30 miles.”

“Standby.”

A moment later the radio rattled again.  “The colonel asks if that’s from Delbert Forrest.”

“That’s affirmative.”

After another moment the radio responded, “The colonel says, quote, ‘I have read his books.  Don’t believe him any further than you can throw him.’”

“Please thank the colonel.  Charlie Five out.”

Returning radio to belt, the major said coldly, “Mr. Forrest, would you please wait in your dwelling until we finish here?”

Del strolled away unhurriedly and settled into the chair on his porch, leaning the rifle against the wall.  He watched with interest as soldiers inspected his truck, opening a door to examine the cab, even checking among his tools, but failing to right the overturned box.  Apparently its odorous contents had not yet soaked through the cardboard.

The major and several others approached the porch.  The officer stopped before Del.  “I find that I was mistaken, Mr. Forrest.  I shall inspect your dwelling.  I’ll do it alone, however.”

Without another word he stepped up onto the porch, drew his pistol, opened the door and entered the main room.  Del followed immediately behind him.  The major looked around, opened the closet and pushed the hanging clothes aside, then peered behind the desk and under the bunk.

He marched into the kitchen.  Tessy’s hair towel was now folded neatly on the sink drain.  The earlier evidence of her presence had been removed.  The major looked under the sink, bent to look into both sides of the pantry and having pushed the toilet curtain aside, raised the seat and looked down into the pit.

He opened the back door and turned to Del.  “Is this all of it?”

“Yes,” Del admitted, glowering.  “Two rooms.”

“How about an attic?”

“No.  That’s a flat roof.”

“Basement?”

“It’s built on solid rock, Major.”

The officer cocked an eyebrow.  “I understand Hollywood bought the rights to your last book.”

“So?”

He gestured around them.  “Hell of a way for a successful author to live!”

Del drew a breath but clamped his mouth shut.  The major sneered and stepped out behind the cabin, where he reholstered his weapon and started up the remainder of the hill, calling his men to him.  Over his shoulder he informed Del, “I want to look into your cistern.”

“Please don’t kick dirt in it.”

“Then show us how to open it.”

Two husky soldiers heaved on the cover when Del pointed to the handles.  The major looked down into the shallow water.  “Not much left.  How much does it hold?”

“4,000 gallons.”

At the man’s gesture the soldiers lowered the cover.  “Mr. Forrest,” he said, “I apologize for this invasion of your privacy, but our colonel is a thorough man.”  The major grinned slightly.  “He thought perhaps someone was holding your laptop hostage.”

Del was still glowering.  “You saw it on the desk.”

“Yes.”  The man straightened.  “That will be all, Mr. Forrest.  Thank you for your cooperation.”

Del bit his tongue and leaned against one of the power unit braces, watching the soldiers proceed to the very top of the hill.  He said nothing even when they stepped out on one of the mylar sheets intended to trap rainwater.  The major ordered them to walk around it, however.  When they had all vanished over the summit, Del turned and re-entered the back door of the cabin — to find Tessy sitting in his shirt at the kitchen table.

“Are they gone?” she asked.

He closed the door.  “Yes.  My god, these people are serious, Tessy!  You think all this is for you?”

She nodded solemnly.  “Little old me.”

“But why?  What could you possibly know that deserves all that?”

“If I tell you, you’ll know, too.  Then they’ll come after you.”

He sat down in front of her and studied her face.  “If they come after you, they’re coming after me.”

Her eyebrows rose.  “What a thing to say!”

He dropped his eyes.  “I guess it does sound a bit presumptive.”  He sighed.  “You’re the first woman who … that I’ve had in a long time who wanted me, too.  I guess I’m thinking of you as my woman.”

Her hand came out to cover his.  “That cuts both ways.”

He took a deep breath.  “So you might as well tell me.”

She stared at him.  “Are you sure, Del?”

“I’m sure.”

“You could never claim ignorance now anyway.”  She sighed, then raised her chin.  “Did you ever hear of cold fusion?”

“Yeah.  They proved it’s crap.”

She sniffed.  “No, they didn’t.  Craig investigated it, found that in principle it wasn’t impossible, but that to be reliable it needed a catalyst, a nuclear catalyst.”

“A what?  Catalysts work in chemical reactions.”

“Right.  No one has ever found, or for that matter even imagined, a nuclear catalyst.  Until Craig.”

“You’re saying …”

“My husband discovered one.  It’s a combination of isotopes!  And they’re common to every household in America.”

“Well, then …  Why are they trying to shut you up?  Wouldn’t that be a great boon to the world?  Don’t tell me it’s another 100 mile-per-gallon carburetor!”

She stared at him.  “You don’t understand.  With three things present in every household —” she looked around her with a laugh “— except maybe this one, I can make a nuclear bomb.”

“A … a what?”

“It’s very easy, Del.  That’s how Craig died.  I was in LA for a meeting.  He was talking to me on the phone.  He said, ‘I just realized how easy this would be to test.  They’ve got everything right here in the kitchen.  Hold the phone, Tessy, and let’s see if it at least gets hot.’”

“‘Hot?’”

“You remember about three years ago when that lab blew up in the Nevada desert?  Two things they didn’t tell the papers about that:  it was a nuclear explosion centered on a guest house, not the lab, and the fallout was very strange.  No heavy metal isotopes.  That’s the signature of the catalyzed fusion of light elements.”

She sighed.  “Craig was like a little boy, so excited!  He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and yet …  I guess I have to agree with the government about it in principle.”  She grinned mirthlessly.  “Devkrit wanted to rename me ‘Pandora.’”

“How did he learn you knew anything?”

“That’s what I mean about sticking my tongue in.  I told the NSA about the call to Craig.”

“Your civic duty, eh?”

“No.  To get them to tell me what happened to him.  I pretty much knew, but I wanted them to confirm it.”

“And now you’re dead, too — supposedly.  Which means you need a new name.  How about ‘Fannie,’ short for ‘Phantom?’”

She sniffed disdainfully.

“Wait a minute!”  He stared at her fixedly.  “That explosion on the coast of Georgia last week …”

“Right.”  She nodded.  “They blamed it on the nuclear power plant nearby, but I bet the power plant being there was just coincidental.  The boys in Washington wanted to ask me again who I’d ever talked to, which means it had the catalytic signature.  And that’s why I’m sitting here right now.  If those soldiers find me, Del, I’m sure they’ve got orders to shoot me down dead.  And now you, too.  I’m sorry.”  She smiled crookedly.  “At least you got laid one more time.”

“Yeah.  At least!”

She ignored his sarcasm to add wistfully, “And you might even manage another.”

“Tessy, over 7,000 people died on the Georgia coast.”

“Well, I didn’t do it!”

“No, you didn’t.  At the time you were in a maximum security prison on the west coast, right?”  His eyes held a strange light.  “What a terrible remote weapon this could be!”  He straightened up.  “Three ingredients, you say?  What are they?”

She studied him and shrugged.  “Why not?  They won’t believe I never told you.  All right.  Take a hunk of sharp cheddar, wrap it in several turns of perforated newsprint and drop it in a bucket of chlorine bleach.  It takes about five minutes.  At least, that’s how long it took for Craig.”

He shook his head.  “Cheese, newsprint and … bleach?”

She emitted a peal of laughter.  “That’s exactly what John Arnold said.  Also the way he said it.”  She sobered.  “Which is the main reason I lived to enjoy this plane crash.”

“As you say, Tessy, they’re in practically every house in America.  I can’t believe it wouldn’t happen accidentally many times.”

“It’s the newsprint, Del.  That’s a great piece of irony.  The environmentalists made the government order printers to use a special ink.  It contains something, a rare earth, Craig said, that helps degrade the paper in landfills.  And now the government can’t find an acceptable reason to make them switch back.  When the bleach dissolves that ink along with something that’s common in cheddar cheese, ka-wham!  Scratch one city.  Or one small town on the Georgia coast.  I’ve thought about it.  I bet somebody was pouring bleach on his sailboat sails — and on his newspaper-wrapped cheese sandwich.”

Del’s expression showed wonder.  “I guess you don’t often put those three things together, do you?  Nowadays everyone uses plastic bags for cheese sandwiches.  Good god!  Except the fast-food places.  The environmentalists have made them go back to a paper wrapper.  With advertising printed on it.  He probably just spilled bleach on his happy meal.  What a disaster waiting to happen!”

She cocked her head and chuckled.  “Are you starting to believe me, Del?  Want to test it?”

He grinned.  “We can’t: no cheese, no newsprint and no bleach.”

“For which no doubt we should be very grateful,” she said dryly.

He sat back in his chair, deep in thought.  She went to the refrigerator and brought each of them a bottle of beer.  “I saw more beer in the basement.  Want me to bring it up?”

“Later.  Tessy, I think I’ve figured something out:  why we humans seem to be alone in the universe.”

“Hey, hey!” she called in humorous awe.  “A deep thinker!”

He shook his head doggedly.  “As old as this galaxy is, as many stars as it holds, some of which have to harbor intelligent life — maybe the reason we haven’t heard from anybody out there isn’t nuclear war smashing them back to the dark ages, exactly.  H-bombs are very expensive and tricky to make.  But this  This catalyst of your husband’s is cheap as dirt.  Good god!  Every time a civilization climbs high enough to discover it, it’s bye-bye, birdie.”

“You may be right,” she agreed, taking a swig of beer then holding up the bottle and grinning.  “They only get to have cold beer for a hundred years.”

“Yeah.  And if one man can discover it, so can another.  But here it’s just a matter of letting the word get out.”

“You think anybody would believe it, Del?”

“Not many at first.  But somebody will try it out.  Somebody always does.  And you can’t hide a nuclear explosion.  If the word gets published and there’s a couple of explosions the next day, you know what will happen next.”

She set her bottle down.  “That’s what Devkrit claimed.  But why would it, Del?  Wouldn’t people be smart enough to believe it then?  If they believed it, they wouldn’t also be dumb enough to make one, would they?”

He nodded.  “A few would.  One out of a thousand.  Hate filled, suicidal types, all too common among us humans.  The Moslems don’t have any trouble recruiting them.  We’ve got them in our cities, too.  We don’t see them because here their targets are generally too spread out.  But look at that Oklahoma City government building.  The only difference in that case was that its bombers were smart enough to get away briefly.”

He drank his beer, bending over the table, brow furrowed in thought.  “It would disrupt the hell out of everything.  Washington, all the cities, would be gone.  The head would be cut off the governments, all except the most local.  The military would remain but it would be leaderless, at first.”

He looked up.  “America would be returned to what it used to be:  a lot of small towns, farms and the simple life.”

“And a lot less people, Del.”

He nodded.  “That’s true.  What do you think?  Half as many?  Two thirds?”

“Maybe less than half.”

“Would that be a disadvantage?”

She grunted.  “Definitely for the ones that didn’t make it.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “Wait a minute!  Doing away with the governments is what anarchists want first.”

“That’s right,” he agreed without the trace of a smile.

She stared at him.  “Which would do away with the people who put me in solitary confinement just because of what I know.”

“And the bastards who steal half my income.”

Her eyes were bright.  “Are you planning something, Del?”

He laughed.  “What makes you think I’m planning anything?”

She smiled wryly.  “When a woman knows her man like I do, she knows what he’s thinking.  You mean to put this in your current book, don’t you?”

“If I did that, I’d find myself guilty of tax fraud, too, eh?”

“I don’t think so, Del.  I think they’d just shoot you.”

“Maybe.  It might be a race, whether the government lasted longer than I.”

“When’s your book supposed to be finished?”

“The first of the year.  Another 80 days or so.”

She looked away pensively, taking another pull of beer.  “I hope I can make it another 80 days.”

“We’ll make it together.”

She smiled.  “That’s sweet of you, Del.”  She hitched her chair against his and laid her head on his shoulder.  Her hand stroked his arm through the long-sleeved shirt.  “You are a very sweet man, Del, but I can’t believe you.”

He chuckled.  “You can’t believe me?”

She grinned.  “Not that way.  What I can’t believe is that you were here just when I needed you! — a man who would feel that I was just what he needed…  Del, the light blinded me when you opened that lavatory door, but I could still see your expression change.  What did you think when you saw me?”

“That I had to help you.”

“Why?  You’re no ignorant backwoodsman.  You know it’s against the law to help a fugitive.  And you saw I was one or you wouldn’t have been in such a hurry.  Why did you take that risk for someone you’d never seen before?  Heck, why are you still taking it?”

He answered gruffly, “You know why, Tessy.”

“Do I?”

“Well, I guess you don’t know all of it.  When I saw a pretty woman under all that yuck, I wanted her.  In a split second I realized how lonely I’d been.  Now, a writer needs loneliness.  He can’t write when he’s talking to someone.  But I was tired of it.  I wanted you for awhile, at least.  I figured I’d enjoy your gratitude while we waited for the hullabaloo to die down, then go buy you some clothes and put you on a plane for somewhere to start your new life.  A pleasant interlude for me.”  He grinned wryly.  “I never imagined I was rescuing the FBI’s historically most wanted person.”

“Not because I’m a mass murderer —”

“Not yet,” he interrupted.

“Or even because I defrauded the IRS.  I’m not a bad person, Delbert!”

“No.  I know you aren’t.  You’re just unlucky.”

“You believe in luck?”

“Sometimes.”

“Then maybe you’re unlucky, too.  Suppose I had been a mass murderer.  You didn’t know what you’d find behind that lavatory door.”

He grinned.  “I thought the plane was full of women…  I never heard of a female mass murderer, as best I can remember — well, that woman they executed in some southern state because she poisoned a series of husbands.  But I heard they all died happy.”

“If I was that kind, I’d tie you up and steal your rifle and your truck.”  She chuckled.  “But knowing you, I bet I could make you happy about it, if I gave you a lot of tender attention first.”  Her smile faded.  “Instead I’ve put you in mortal danger.  I’m sorry, Del.”

“You have made me happy!  And you can attend to me tenderly any time you’re ready.”

“Can I?”  Her hand cupped what it found in the front of his britches.  “This thing owes me.”

He grunted.  “You can be certain it’ll pay!”  His hand touched her cheek.  “Don’t give up, sweetie.  We can get out of this yet.”

She withdrew her hand and sighed.  “They don’t believe I’m dead, do they, Del?”

“Maybe not.  If they come back here to search my place a third time, we can be sure of it.”

“You think they’ll find me then?”

“I think they’ll take the place apart.”

“How long do you think we have?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm.”  She raised her head thoughtfully.  “Maybe we can find out.”

“TV?  I have a card in the computer that gets it on the monitor.”

“We can start with that.”

“All right.  The news is at six, but right now it’s coming up on supper time.  You hungry?”

“Can you cook?”

“I can warm a can of beans.”

She grinned.  “Let me try.  I can do better than that.”

 

  *  *  *  *

 

She mixed a can of franks with his can of beans, plus a dash of the spices in his cupboard and concocted a supper dish that his Coors washed down with great satisfaction.  He patted his belly after they had licked the cook pot clean and declared, “It’s always a pleasure to deal with anyone who knows what she’s doing!”

She tossed her head.  “A bean dish is nothing when you can cook up a nuclear bomb.”

He kissed her lingeringly, but when his hand dropped to her breast, she smiled wryly at him and said, “You want to skip the news?”

“No,” he sighed, then brightened.  “If we sit on the bunk, I can have my news and tit, too.”

While the computer was booting, he went outside and walked around the cabin, scanning the countryside in all directions.  The sun had just set behind the hills to the west, leaving a fast-fading splash of bright color in the sky.  Returning inside, he went to each window in the front room and pulled the shade snug to the sill, then shook his head at the woman.  “You’ll have to be careful when you go into the kitchen.  Neither shades nor curtains on those windows.”

“They haven’t left, then.”

“No.  They’re camping near the tail piece:  generators, lights and command tents.  Their choppers are drawn up nice and neat, except for a couple in the air, probably planning an infrared search.  I’d hate to be a goat down there tonight.  The army will still be with us tomorrow morning, for sure.”

She thought it over.  “What time is it?”

“Almost six.”  He flipped on the desk lamp to provide dim general illumination.  “See that flashlight?  Use it when you go to the john.”

“You have a chemical john in your basement.  Maybe I should stay down there.”

He shook his head with a twinkle.  “I can’t stay with you.”

She smiled and said no more.

At the desktop machine with its large monitor, he brought up the television application but snapped his fingers at the first channel shown, a station in Chicago.  “Hold on!  Tonight we want the local station.”

The local station?” she asked.

“Yeah.  Channel seven in Antonville.”  He fetched up a pair of rabbit ears from behind the desk and plugged its balun into the computer in place of the video cable connector.

The top news story was already playing, something about a mysterious epidemic on an Indian reservation.  He sat beside the woman and slipped his hand high under her shirt. She turned slightly to ease his access to the nipple, which hardened immediately under finger and thumb.

She asked, “Are you sure you want a local station?”

“If they don’t mention it, that will also say something.”

But they did mention it, barely.  About ten minutes into the show, after the second commercial break, the announcer read from the teleprompter, “According to a U. S. Air Force release, this morning a government-owned transport aircraft exploded and crashed in the desert about 50 miles north of Cayman.  Six people, all crew members, died.  Next of kin are being notified.  An eyewitness stated that the craft was in flames after the explosion, which according to experts suggests that the cause was leaking fuel.  Three other aircraft of this type have exploded similarly in the past 20 years.  An investigation is underway.”  His eyes shifted.  “In other news, the county commissioners —”

Del clicked the sound away and grinned sourly.  “So that type of plane is the one that’s best for assassination.”

She grinned back.  “And you’re a cynic, too.”

He grunted.  “I wonder how many other crashes they’ve declared martial law for.”

“What declared?  Who told you that?”

“The major that stomped through here this afternoon.  Hmm.  I believe he actually said, ‘Established.’  They can’t impose secret martial law, can they?”

She laughed bitterly.  “They can do anything they want to, when they have the guts.”

He sighed.  “Do you think there’s any point in watching the national news?”

“Probably not.  Del, what have you really got here?  Can you by any chance get to the Internet?”

“No.  Not by chance.  By very careful design.”

“What do you mean?”

“I subscribe to what they call a ‘hybrid’ system.  I transmit to my ISP over a 56 kilobit microwave phone link to Cayman, but receive from it on the downlink from a synchronous satellite at 400 kilobits.  It’s not quite as fast as the megabit services in the city, but it’s more than enough for communicating with fans and publisher.”

She stared at him.  “That’s right.  You said you were an electrical engineer.”

He shrugged.  “Actually just about anybody could do it.”

“Well, I think it’s wonderful, Del.”  She kissed his chin.  “If you’ll let go of my boob and log in to your ISP, I’ll show you the real news of my plane crash.”

“Always a catch!” he groused.

She smiled fondly.  “You mean my boob?”

“Having to let go of it.”  He regarded her quizzically.  “You think the Internet news services will have more poop?”

Her eyes twinkled.  “I think the NSA will have a lot more!”

“The NSA?  Tessy, what happened to the girl who wants to keep her head down?  We don’t want to lead them right back here.”

“I was one of their top programmers, Del.  I can’t believe they’ve even begun to find all my backdoors!”

“Ha!” he snorted, leering.

She sniffed.  They didn’t find that one either!”  Her expression softened.  “It’s a shame we have to concentrate on anything but fun, isn’t it, sweet man?”

He nodded, getting to his feet.  “A damned shame!”

He fetched a second chair from the dark kitchen, sat down with her and logged in at his Internet Service Provider, then shoved keyboard and mouse to her.

She asked, “Do you have a better telnet than DOS?”

“Don’t use it.”

“How about an X-Windows server?”

“A what?  I don’t use UNIX, Tessy.”

“But the NSA does.  It’s all right.  We’ll download one later if we need it.  Okay.”  She clasped her hands in a washing motion.  “Let’s see if old triple-X works.”

In a DOS window she typed, telnet 007.nsa.usgov.org.  Shortly a new window appeared, displaying 007 login:, to which she responded, tripleXXX, followed by a password that Del couldn’t see.  Instantly the distant server posed a question: How do ostriches run?

Tessy laughed in delight.  “They didn’t even find the first one!”  She typed something that again was not reflected on the screen.

Del was curious.  “What was the answer, fast?”

“No.  Double-oh-seven thinks the answer is sideways.”

What had appeared as she spoke was a simple pound sign, #, against the left margin of the window.  Del said in awe, “I know a little about UNIX.  That’s a command prompt, isn’t it?  It means you’re in!”

She chuckled deep in her throat.  “It means more than that.  That’s the superuser prompt.  I’m in as root on what is probably the biggest and fastest computer in the world.”

As she spoke she was typing, coverup.  “What that does is mask my log in.  Now anyone else, even another superuser, can’t see any of my tasks running on the machine or my port to the network.”  She typed pico /etc/passwd.  “Let’s see who else has access to good old Double-oh-seven these days.”

“‘Double-oh-seven!’” he repeated ironically.

She grinned distractedly as her eye scanned the response.  “We admired James Bond, too, you know…  Aha!  Mr. Arnold is still here.”

“How do you know?”

“There’s his ID:  jarno.  Okay.  Let’s see what he’s got in his mailbox…  Hoo-ha, look at that.  Must be a couple hundred messages.  This is going to be real news.”  She typed a complex line that began with, grep, and contained the words, Grable and Cayman.  A shorter list, cryptic but interesting, appeared.  “That’s some of his messages about the crash.  Let me add …”  She recalled the previous command and typed more after it.  Now the list reappeared, accompanied by time stamps.

“Here’s the latest one, filed about ten minutes ago.  Let’s start with that.”  Another command produced the first page of a report.  Skipping the headers, Del read,

 

MOST SECRET

Findings at 2000, Cayman Crash

 

“2000 is the time of day,” explained Tessy, “eight P. M. in Virginia.”

“Six here,” he observed.

The fate of subject female, Theresa S. Grable, is not yet determined.  Exploration of the cave known as "Indian Hideout" continues in progress with a full platoon committed.  It is a more complex system than was previously known and is still judged the most likely prospect for discovery.  The carbon-dioxide sniffer reports traces in the cave consistent with recent animal use.

Fingerprint and DNA results confirm vomit and feces in the rear lavatory derived from the subject female.

 

“Good god!” exclaimed Del.

“But look!” the woman added after scrolling the report up.

A fingerprint found on the inside of the lavatory door handle was confirmed that of the middle finger of one Delbert M. Forrest, whose fingerprints are on file from military service.  Forrest almost certainly looked into the lavatory.  He has not yet been questioned as to what he saw there, though according to verbal reports from Capt. Robert V. Jameson, Air Force CID, and Maj. Hugh G. Kelland of my command, both of whom spoke to Forrest and inspected the interior of his dwelling, he denies meeting any strange person today other than members of the armed forces.  This denial is not judged to be reliable.

The vomit and feces suggest that the subject female rode the falling empennage to earth.  The absence of her body suggests she survived the impact.  This is consistent with the otherwise undamaged state of the lavatory.  It is possible Forrest arrived at the scene after she departed.  The search of Indian Hideout is proceeding on that thesis.  In addition when darkness has completely fallen, an aerial infrared search will be conducted throughout a ten-mile radius from the empennage.

Another thesis consistent with known facts as opposed to hearsay is that Forrest removed the subject female and is hiding her from the search.  He is a novelist, judged a lonely romantic, and she is said to be young and attractive.  This thesis can be evaluated by subjecting Forrest to intensive interrogation.  Yet interrogators should be aware that if he is guilty of aiding the fugitive, it is almost inconceivable that she has not divulged the supercritical secret to him.  Also be aware that Forrest is a published novelist with a certain following and known suspicion of government.  Some comprehension of his attitude may be obtained from his novel, "Last Man Standing."  His disposal, if undertaken, must be handled most competently.

 

“‘Disposal!’” Del muttered.

“I’m sorry,” Tessy responded in a small voice.

“Those bastards!”

The third possibility is that the subject female died in the crash, that the vomit and feces were deposited in the lavatory before the explosion.  Both substances are undergoing exhaustive analysis to determine the presence of biological or chemical agents that might have caused illness.  The fact that all human remains at the main crash site were completely consumed allows that possibility.

The nude body found about 9,000 feet from the empennage along the line between the two sites is definitely male, probably that of Chief Marshal Michael Holland.  Conclusive identification will be difficult since the head and forearms were missing.

Status:  Casualties zero, consumables nominal

The next report will appear at 2100, sooner if events warrant.

(signed) Journald Davin, Col. USA 209th SF Commanding

 

“‘Most Secret,’” Del mused.  “I can’t believe something with that classification wasn’t encrypted.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was.  But it’s been decrypted by the time it winds up in Jarno’s mailbox.”  She grinned.  “I told him many times internal security at the NSA sucks, but he never listened.”

Suddenly Del’s eyes widened upon her.

Her eyebrows rose.  “What are you thinking?”

“Would he be smart enough to co-op your backdoors and set a trap for you?”

Her eyes widened, too.  “God, you are paranoid!”  But she hurriedly typed, exit.  Briefly the response, Logout 2028, appeared on the screen, then the telnet window closed.

He nodded.  “You do think he’s smart enough.”

“Not him.  But some of my coworkers were, and one of them hated me.”

He thought a moment.  “But that report was real.  Those officers’ names were right and a colonel does command the two-oh-nine Special Forces here.”

She sighed and said with a note of finality, “Del, they know I’m alive!”

“Almost.”  He shook his head.  “They’ll never get to the bottom of Indian Hideout, and they’ve got to realize no one would dare go far into it without lights.  That would be dangerous as hell.”  He sighed.  “When their IR search doesn’t find you, they’ll come here again.”

“When do you think that will happen?”

“Huh!  When do cops always prefer to show up?  At four in the morning.”

“Del …  This may be our last night on earth.”

Her eyes were huge.  He returned her stare grimly.  “We could run for it in the truck.”

“No.  They’d be on that like hawks on a dove.”

“I could hide you in the cistern, on the Purloined Letter principle, but they’d see us crawling out there.  You can be sure they’re watching this place in the infrared, too.”

She pressed herself against him, arms around his neck.  “Del, make love to me.  Let’s forget them all for as long as we can.”

His eyes brightened.  “This time maybe that can be longer than ten minutes.”

With only a shirt to remove, she waited for him lying on her back atop the bunk.  This time he undressed deliberately, hanging each piece of clothing on a chair, studying her body as he proceeded.

“Draw your legs up,” he ordered.

She obeyed, a moment later opening them wide.  Her labia gaped only slightly but their crimson interior was evident in the light from the desk lamp.

“You have never born a child, have you, Tessy?”

“No.  That was Craig’s only shortcoming.”

“Do you want any?”

She sniffed.  “A woman who knows what I know would have to be crazy to want one.  But yes, I’d like to have one to love, to hold to my breast.  Can you make me one, Del?

He shrugged.  “I’m given the credit for two.”

She frowned.  “Is there some doubt?”

“Not really.  One of them looks too much like me and the other behaves too much like me.”

“Which do you love the most?”

He grimaced.  “The one who acts like me fights with me on every issue, but I’ll admit — to you — that she’s my favorite.”

“Both are grown?”

“Yeah.  The older has made me a grandpa.”

She smiled.  “Congratulations.”

He stood over her.  “You think starting one would be crazy?”

“Isn’t it?”

“Take the longer view, Tessy.  With what’s facing us, it may be the only right thing to do.”

He knelt on the foot of the bed, looking down at her body open before him.  “God, Tessy, you are a lovely, lovely woman!”

“Hair and all, you think?”

“My unlamented wife was appalled by the very idea of body hair on a woman.  She even shaved her pubes.  You’re showing me what I always suspected: it’s damn sexy.  Before we’re through here tonight I want to smell your underarms.  Will that offend you?”

She said simply, “I’m all yours, Del.”

“Thank you,” he responded gravely.  “Your legs tickled my ass before.  Now I want them to tickle my back.”

“You want what?”

But he made his desire obvious by bending his face to her vulva and guiding her feet over his shoulders.

“Oh, Del!” she breathed in delight at the touch of his tongue.  “Ooo, your beard feels so prickly and cool!  How can it do that?”

Within a minute her thighs closed on his head, her hips began to rotate back and forth and her breathing became a series of whimpers.  When her body stiffened with a loud groan, he withdrew his tongue, rocked back on his heels and wiped his beard on the bedsheet.

She opened her eyes to find him grinning down at her.  “Oh, god, Del!  What are you waiting for?”

He chuckled and crawled between the legs that had opened so wide the hipbones creaked.  He entered her easily, precipitating a moan and a shudder.  Again her legs enwrapped his hips.  Her arms encircled his neck and pulled him down to kiss her.  Both tongues joined.  Nostrils flared in heavy breathing and soprano moans.

He drove into her again and again as her hips rolled to compress her sensitive flesh.  The earlier tongue work had elevated her to that level of arousal unique to the female, affording orgasm after orgasm so long as the top of the thrusting penis continues to meet the clitoris on each downward rotation of her hips.  He found her responsiveness fascinating, delightful and irresistibly stimulating.  Soon his groans harmonized with hers and his body delivered the proof of his passion.  She screamed when she felt it.  Her arms and legs opened limply.

He raised himself off her.  “Tessy?”

She was panting.  Her eyes fluttered open.  “Oh, my god, Del!”

“Are you okay?”  He sagged beside her, propping his head up with an elbow.

Slowly she smiled.  “Oh, yes, Del.  I saw stars at the last.”

“Different colors?”

“Yes!”  She cut her eyes around at him.  “Do you think it’s funny?”

“But it is!  And wonderful.  I’m glad for you, Tessy.”

He rose up, caught the blanket at the foot of the bed and pulled it up over them both.  When he lay back, she snuggled against him, throwing a leg over his thighs, pressing a full breast into his side, her head settling on his shoulder.  He cuddled her back in his arm, a hand stroking her hip and buttock cheek.

The smooth skin inside her knee stroked his still erect organ.  “That’s a lovely bit of gristle, Del.”

“Not as lovely as yours,” he responded with a chuckle.  “But thanks.”

Her knee slid down, making room for her hand.  She caressed him, working the loose skin, feeling gently for the lumps in his scrotum.  “Del, I want to get to know you, everything about you.  Do you mind?”

“No, my dear, of course not.”

“It will take a long time, you know.”

“To know me?  I’m not so complicated, Tessy.”  He yawned audibly and added, “You’ll find I’m a man of very simple tastes.”  His hand crept from her hip up to her breast.  “This is one of them.”

“Then you like me a little bit?”

“You know I do, Tessy: a lot more than a little bit.”

“I like you, too, Del…  Now, why did that make your mister lose half its starch?”

He didn’t answer her.  When the process only continued, she withdrew her hand, smiled and kissed the warm, man-smelling skin of his shoulder.  She snuggled a bit closer to him and sighed with momentary contentment, listening to the slow rhythm of his breathing as it became regular.

 

  *  *  *  *

 

He was aware of a strange sound, for all the world like a sobbing woman: snuffling interspersed with soprano mewling cries.  Only last sprint a snake had wormed its way into the kitchen past the toilet pit.  Had a sick coyote repeated that accomplishment?  To those noises suddenly was added the muffled clatter of a woodpecker.  In the desert?

With a sigh Del rolled over in his bunk, awoke fully — and remembered.

The desk lamp was still on.  By its light he studied his wristwatch:  just after midnight.  The woman, wrapped in his extra blanket, sat at the desk hunched over the keyboard.  Indeed she was weeping, shoulders twitching with each sniffle, but typing like mad on the keyboard.

He sat up and swung his feet down to the cold floor.  He was content to sit and watch her for awhile, savoring the memory of their earlier pleasure, satisfying as any he could ever recall.  He felt wonderful!  Why was she so sad?

The cold of the desert night had replaced the warmth of the day.  He wrapped the remaining blanket around himself, rose and took the second chair beside her.  She smiled at him briefly through her tears and resumed typing.  A word processor was running.  Apparently she had created a document of several pages.

He pulled open a desk drawer and retrieved a box of Kleenex, then removed a tissue to wipe her eyes.

“Th-thank you,” she murmured.  “It was getting hard to see.”

“What are you writing?”

“Everything that’s happened to me in the last two years.”

“Beginning with the loss of your husband?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry, Tessy.”

She sniffled with a jerk.  “Not anything like as sorry as I am.”

“I guess not.”  He stroked her back.

She snatched the tissue from him and wiped her eyes more thoroughly.  “Don’t mind me.  These tears are just self-pity.”

“Understandable.”

“I hope you’re that understanding when I tell you what I intend to do with this.”

“Try me.”

“I’ll convert it to simple text and upload it to Double-oh-seven.  From there …  You probably don’t know about the newnews mailboxes, do you?”

“No.”

“Every newspaper has one.  I’ll start with newnews@nytimes.com, then newnews@washpost.com, then every other newspaper whose domain name is in the NSA file.  I don’t know how many of them will publish it, but it’s pretty juicy.  I’ll identify myself as a disgruntled NSA employee, the kind of person they love to hear from but almost never do.”

“Are you telling them everything?”

“If you mean cheese, newsprint and bleach, yes, I am.  I’m just up to the plane crash.  Do you want to be immortalized with me and Craig?”

He laughed.  “Sure.  You want a cold beer?”

“How about some hot coffee?  My feet are cold.”

“I’ve got some instant.  Won’t take long to boil water.”

He stopped to pull on shirt and britches and slip his feet into boots.  He took his last clean pair of socks from another desk drawer, knelt and pulled them on her bare feet.

She paused in her typing to bend over him and kiss his forehead.  “My granny said a young girl has a choice:  whether to be an old man’s darling or a young man’s slave.  I’m beginning to see what she meant.”

He laughed.  “I’m your oldest lover, am I, Tessy?”

“And my last.”  She resumed typing.

In the kitchen he turned on the dim overhead bulb, put the kettle on and lit the gas burner.  While waiting for the water to boil, he stepped out the backdoor onto the rock.  The night air was cold and still.  Above him rode the half-moon surrounded by stars.  Orion was rising in the east.  Seemingly near in the north sat the military encampment, brilliantly lit by dangling bulbs, polluting the silence with the roar of its generators.  He could see the tiny figures of men moving about in front of the largest tent.  Above them the running lights of a helicopter blinked back and forth.  He spotted three other sets of running lights in the sky at different removes.

Back in the kitchen he started to prepare two cups of coffee, then realized what that would reveal to anyone peering into his windows through binoculars.  He took down two cups, one stacked within the other, and brought cups and water kettle into the main room.  At the desk he mixed instant powder and boiling water in each cup.

“Ah-h-h!” she exclaimed after the first sip.  “I can feel it almost down to the last spot you touched.  Thanks, Del.”

“Your feet, eh?”

“Before that.”

He chuckled.  “You’re feeling better.”

“My feet are getting warm.  Isn’t there an old saying about that?  Oh, yes: ‘Cold hands, warm heart; cold feet, no sweetheart.’”

“It’s more than warm feet, I think.  And you have a sweetheart, cold feet or not.”

“That’s sweet, Del.”  She leaned back, regarding him over the top of her coffee cup.  “I’m into Double-oh-seven again and learned a couple of things.  Wimp Arnold has ordered your colonel not to roust you until he has further evidence or until he proves I can’t be hiding in Indian Hideout.  The colonel reports he has suspended the cave search for tonight.  He’ll take personal charge of it at first light.  Also, the infrared aerial search turned up three coyotes and six goats.  Two choppers will continue to monitor the area.”

Del took a deep breath.  “A reprieve!”

She nodded.  “For a little while.  Here’s the best news.  I figured out Double-oh-seven’s sidelink to the census bureau mainframe.  The password is just the exact reversal of the one from two years ago.”

“What good is that?”

She smiled.  “That computer has a file of 22 million personal Email addresses representing a significant fraction of the on-line computers in the country.”

His eyes narrowed.  “And you want to do a bit of programming, right?”

She sniffed contemptuously.  “I could do it with a shell script!”

“How big is your message?  Won’t you clog the net with 22 million copies of it?”

“Oh, I won’t send the whole thing, just a two or three hundred word synopsis, including the bomb formula.  A few million messages of that size would hardly be noticeable.  But I need your help.  What’s a good title that will persuade all those spam-inured users to actually read the message?”

He grunted.  “That may require some study…  Tessy, have you thought that children will often be the first people to see this?”

Her eyes glittered.  “You mean like, ‘Make the Biggest Bang on your Block?’”

He stared at her.  “You do realize, don’t you, that this might kill a hell of a lot of people?”

“More than putting it in your book?”

“A lot more.”

Her chin rose.  “No, I don’t!  As you said, there’ll be a few explosions, then the word will be out.  People with any sense will get out of the cities.  The rest of them …”  She shook her head.  “Also as you said, we have a reprieve.  But we’re still on the hook, even if they don’t give up on the cave until tomorrow night.

“I think you’re a stubborn man, Del.  If they don’t find your basement, you’ll learn how it feels when your fingernails and toenails are pried up and your testicles pinched off by pliers.  And when you break or they find me some other way, we both know what happens next.  Your precious colonel will give us a quick bullet in the head.

“We can’t escape and we can’t stop it, Del.  I’ve thought of faking orders to the colonel or reports to Arnold, but I don’t have the encryption keys.  If I sent them something unencrypted, not only would they ignore it, they’d know immediately I was in the loop.  With the NSA tools my old friend Sheila Barbour can ring out this connection faster than you could say, ‘Don’t shoot, I’ve got something in my eye.’”

“Before I could say what?”

“It’s how Horace Gould, the real Double-oh-seven, delayed his execution.”

“Sounds like an in joke.  You’re confident she hasn’t rung it out yet?”

“They have no idea I can get to the Internet.  Otherwise those troopers would have smashed your front door shortly after supper.”

He nodded in agreement.  “I think you’re right about that.  But, Tessy …”

“What?”

“In a day or two, millions of people could be dead.”

“Yes.  And I’ve got sympathy for exactly two of them!”

“If their deaths could prevent us from dying …  Though even then the arithmetic is terrible.”

She studied him, her eyes shifting back and forth between his.  “What’s bothering you, Del?  They’re not your people, your family.  The ones who kill us will do it in their names!”

He made a throw-away gesture.  They don’t know what’s going on.  If it would kill just the ones in power, I’d be all in favor.  But it’ll kill women and children, too.  Think of the children, Tessy.”

She took a breath.  “I prefer to think that you and I have never killed anybody.  And we won’t.  We won’t pour bleach on cheese wrapped in newsprint!”

“Won’t we?”  He snorted.  “We’re the same as the man who hands a hair-trigger machine gun to a little kid in a crowded mall.”

Her eyes widened.  “No, we aren’t.  We’re closer to someone who tells a man, ‘You could take those matches in the kitchen and burn the hotel down while everyone’s asleep.’  It’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s not a crime to say it, and we wouldn’t be responsible if he killed all the guests.”

“We would be if he was insane at the time.”

She shook her head in disbelief.  “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from an avowed anarchist.  How many people would have to die to get rid of the governments?  This is your big opportunity.  Send Email to your anarchist buddies and let them get started on their freeholds.  Or was it all a joke?”

He protested weakly, “It wasn’t a joke.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“No.  But anarchy is supposed to be achieved gradually, with the governments withering away.”

She laughed derisively.  “No kidding!  Karl Marx promised the same thing, as I recall.  Del, I can’t believe you’re willing to roll over and be dead for these goons.”

“I’m not.  But we have to find some other way to fight.  I can’t be a party to killing millions of American women and children.”

“Do you think you can fight an elite battalion of special forces armed with the latest modern weapons and sensors?”  She laughed bitterly.  “Oh, you can fight.  If you’re any good and shoot first, you might even take one of them with you to Valhalla.”

“I’d take one.  I’ve had a lot of practice with that old rifle.  But we have to find a better way than that.  What if you released everything but the bomb formula?”

“Huh?  What good would that do?”

“It might gain you a little sympathy.  But what it would really do is save our civilization.”

“Our what?”  She glared at him.  “Look, Del, we’ve agreed that the only places this will work are the U. S. and Canada.  Other places don’t use the right ink.  It’ll take North America down a lot of rungs on the ladder, but Europe and Australia will carry on with the high civilization, not to speak of Japan.  And the U. S. military will survive, along with all those missile silos in Nebraska.  Nobody will start World War Three.”

He countered lugubriously, “Unless we do, thinking we’re under attack.”

“Then we’d have the advantage of a first strike at their missiles.  We might even win.”

“God, you’re bloodthirsty!  I can’t believe I’m listening to a woman.”

Her face sobered.  “Well, actually you’re not.  That was from an NSA war game.”

He took a long drink of his cooling coffee and pointed to the screen.  “Tessy, where are you right now?”

She pointed also.  “That window is the sidelink to the Census computer’s Email address database.  You can access it with Standard Query Language.  If the children worry you, we could correlate it with credit card holders.”

“Huh!  They’ll all have credit cards, Tessy.  You can’t get a login without one.”

“You have a point.  Okay, this window is looking into the wimp’s mailbox.  The colonel sent him an update at 0200, midnight to us.  They found one more goat, then he went to bed.  You were said to be awake with energy release in your cabin equivalent to a personal computer, presumably because you’re working on your latest novel.”

“Wish I was.  Wow!  Apparently we’re under constant infrared surveillance.”

“Apparently.  This window is your Explorer, of course, and that file is the document I just wrote.  The one below it is the simple text version.  Want me to print it for you?”

“Please.”

A few mouse clicks later his printer began to hum.  She was watching him.  “I’ve already uploaded the text version to a masked directory on Double-oh-seven.”

“Have you mailed it?”

“No.  But the newspaper list is in this file right here.  A few lines of shell script and away they’ll go.”

“What’ll happen then?”

“Nothing we can see at first.  A newnews box would be useless if somebody didn’t scan it often, so it won’t be long before the messages get read.  But that’s a low level staffer, especially this time of night.  She’ll forward it to the news editor, maybe with a ‘hot’ tag and he’ll read it sometime in the next hour.  This is politically sensitive, so it’ll get bucked right up the line in the newspaper office, all the way to the publisher.  The earliest it could appear would be tomorrow’s afternoon edition.  I doubt many papers will publish it intact.  Mostly they’ll do a summary.  A few will at least publish the bomb prescription, labeling it as kooky, of course.  And then the explosions will begin.

“Meanwhile one of the editors will have called the NSA.  That’ll probably happen before daybreak.  The army will be kicking down your door about an hour later — assuming they don’t send an Apache to blow the whole cabin away.  I think we ought to ride over there just before first light and surrender.  That way it’s likely to be a lot less painful.”

He sniffed.  “But we’re just as dead.”

“How bad can a bullet in the head hurt?”

“Who knows?”

“I really hate to find out.  At least, if we send out the 22 million Emails, too, we may even hear about the first explosions before our curtains come down.”

“Assuming somebody with enough curiosity is awake to read them.”

“There’s always somebody!   But we have to hook him.  We need an intriguing subject title.  What do you think of, ‘You, Too, Can Make Your World End?’”

He grimaced.  “Even more honest: ‘Want to Blow Up the World?’”

“Hey, I like it!  And the message could be very simple, something like, ‘If you really want to show them a thing or two, take a hunk of cheddar cheese — sharp or mild, doesn’t have to be fresh — wrap it up in yesterday’s newspaper, stick a lot of holes through the newspaper with a fork, soak it good in chlorine bleach and wait five minutes.  We guarantee you’ll love what happens.’”

“Good god, Tessy!  That’s directed at kids.”

“Or the childlike.  Nobody in her right mind would expect anything from that but a stinking mess.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “We need a different message to reach the other constituency that might act on it.  Hmm.  Actually, I can think of two more.”

He regarded her thoughtfully.  “You mean the cats that curiosity would kill.”

“One way to put it.  The ones who couldn’t rest until they tested it.  We need to make it sound authoritative for them.  The NSA’s return address will help.  But I was thinking at first of the ones with a grudge against society:  the college drop-outs, the ex-cons, the perverts, the losers.  To reach them we need to post in a few selected Usenet newsgroups.”

She returned his stare.  “You’re a writer who sells.  How about taking a crack at a message to persuade those two groups?”

Slowly he shook his head.  “Tessy …”

Her hopeful look faded.  “You’re going to balk me on this, aren’t you?”

He sighed deeply.  “I still have the same problem.”

“Still women and children, is it?”

“Women.  I can’t knowingly kill women.”

“And you won’t buy the fact that you didn’t kill them?”

“Let me put it this way:  I can’t knowingly allow a lot of women to be killed.”

She took a deep breath and smiled, to his surprise.  She said almost fondly, “You’re not an anarchist.  You’re an incurable romantic.”

“Maybe so.  But if a man doesn’t defend women, what use is he?”

“All women?  Even the women of Communist China?”

“They’re still women, able to continue the human race.  Compared to that, everything else we do or think is superficial.”

“Christ, Del!”

He nodded.  “I’m not a religious man, but Jesus Christ was almost right about that.  ‘Love thine enemy.’”  He grinned.  “His women, at least.”

She mused, “As a woman, I guess I should be grateful.  Too bad all men don’t feel that way!  So if I could somehow segregate the sexes, you’d help me with this, would you?”

“Why not?  I’m not concerned with protecting other men.  If Washington, DC, was like our little example of it, that all-male elite battalion out there looking for you, then I would suggest sending your message only to the Washington papers and only to those Email addresses that happened —”

Suddenly his voice ceased.  His eyes widened on hers.  “I have yet to see the first woman in that crowd.”

“You mean the special forces?”

“Right.  And I misled you earlier:  we do have them, just not in plain sight!”

“Have what?  Women?”

“Canned cheese keeps well and is a tasty source of protein and fat.  A couple cans are under the tarp in the basement.  In fact it’s a fairly complete survival set-up, including chlorine bleach on the bottom shelf.”  He got up, went around the desk and brought up a thick fold of newspaper.  “And here’s a Desert Tribune saved for fire starting.”

She stared at him.  “Are you proposing that we blow ourselves up?”

“Oh, no!”  He smiled.  “That would kill a woman.”

 

  *  *  *  *

 

When all their plans were in place, when she had consigned her data and programs to Double-oh-seven, including the cron lines to invoke them appropriately after a week’s delay, they retired again to the deep sleep of those whose decisions are made, whose commitments are resolved and who have nothing more to lose than life itself.

Sunlight spilling into the room through the kitchen door purposefully left open — Del owned no alarm clock — awoke them both at about the same time.  He found himself spooned against her from the rear, her head resting on his arm, her spicy scent in his nostrils.  He bent to the chestnut tufts peeking from her armpit and inhaled an aroma so much like frying bacon that his saliva spurted and stomach rumbled in sudden hunger.

His hands fondled her soft body, compressing breasts, belly and buttocks.  Fingers found her clitoris and penetrated the moist lips below it.  She sighed and turned her face to him.  They kissed deeply until his fingers left her.

Raising his head, he said dryly, “Hooray for a full bladder!”

She sniffed.  “You’re kidding!”

“An old man can’t deny it.  If this one could, he might be late for our date with destiny.”

She drew a shaky breath.  “I wouldn’t mind being late, not for this reason.”  Her hand found his erection.

“You would if the colonel decides to come for me sooner than we expect.”  He sighed also, withdrawing from her.  “You can sleep a bit longer, if you want.  I’ll make some coffee, then take care of the cistern.”

He pulled a blanket around himself and went to the kitchen.  After relieving himself and setting the kettle on to boil, he stepped outside barefoot onto the rock.  The flapping of helicopter blades was louder this morning.  He soon discovered the reason:  one was hovering a few hundred feet over the crest of his hill.   He found two other helicopters in the sky, but the military encampment seemed to show less activity.  Back inside, he took the boiling kettle into the main room and made instant coffee in the same cups they had used last night.

Sipping hers, Tessy smiled at him lazily.  “I do love being an old man’s darling.”

He said soberly, “I suspect damn few old men are as lucky as I am.”

“You call this luck?” she demanded incredulously.

“I call you luck, Tessy.”

“I want to be, Del, for you.”

He pulled on his clothing and paused, looking at her.  “Stay in bed a bit longer.”

“I know the plan.”

Outside again, he walked up the hill to where the cistern was embedded in the rock.  The helicopter that was obviously assigned to monitor his activities swooped closer.  Raising the cover only part way, he leaned down into the several inches of water and pulled out the rubber drain plug.  Shortly a small whirlpool formed above the hole, showing that his reserve was draining into the rubble beneath the tank.  He raised up and got to his feet, reclosing the cover.  As part of his act, he shook his fist at the hovering machine.

An old foot tub hung from a nail in the power structure supports.  He took it down and carried it to the back of his truck, where he first removed the now odorous cardboard box, setting it negligently on the ground while taking care that the underside flaps did not fall open.  From there he returned to the house, descended to the basement and climbed back out with a can of cheese, a bottle of bleach and an empty quart mason jar.

He opened the can, scooped out a cup of cheese and folded it into several sheets of the old newspaper.  He took up a fork and made numerous perforations in the wrapped package, then tore a small gash suitable for gouging.  Finally he poured the mason jar nearly full of bleach and capped it tightly, taking particular care not to spill any upon his hands or clothing.

The woman had powered up the computer and was logging in to the distant NSA machine.  He looked over her shoulder as she scanned Arnold’s new Email as of this morning.  The colonel’s last report was hardly an hour old, announcing his entry to Indian Hideout.

Del’s hands slipped into the shirt and fondled her breasts.  She sighed and the nipples hardened immediately.  She turned her face up and they kissed, tongues probing.

After awhile he asked, “You need any help?”

“No.  Can that helicopter see into the kitchen?”

“Not as long as he stays overhead.  In fact I think he’ll follow me in the truck.  Tessy …  God, I hate to leave you!”

“I’ll be all right,” she protested stoutly.  “There’s a steel roof on the basement and we already know I can lift the blast door.  But I have good reason to worry about you.”

He took a breath.  “If I don’t come for you, just stay put.  The government investigators will find you before that week’s delay expires in Double-oh-seven.”

“Yes,” she agreed dryly.  “They’ll find me.  Oh, Del!  I’m so lucky you rescued me!”

She rose out of her chair and pressed herself against him, arms tight around his neck.  “Thanks for everything, sweet lover.  I’ll never forget you so long as I live.”  When she finally released him, her eyes were brimming.  “Good luck.”

“You, too.”  His hand caressed her wet cheek briefly before he turned away and scooped up the prepared box of laundry.  In the kitchen he added mason jar and wrapped cheese to the box, then departed by the back door without looking back.

Contrarily the truck was harder to start than yesterday, when it had been sitting idle for three weeks.  But finally, belching blue smoke, its engine agreed to run.  Del paused a moment to map his path into the special forces encampment.  He waited until his wristwatch’s second hand reached the twelve mark, then started off on the predetermined route.  He adjusted his outside mirror to show the sky behind him and was soon rewarded with a view of “his” helicopter swooping after him.

He caused the truck to climb out of the arroyo just before reaching the pinnacle he had earlier chosen and soon found himself confronted by soldiers, two with leveled M16s, the third with a rocket launcher.  He halted the truck and raised both hands to the top of the steering wheel.  One of the soldiers, a corporal by his stripes, lowered his weapon and stepped up to the side of the truck.  He snarled, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Del’s wristwatch showed three minutes, 22 seconds elapsed.  He snarled back, “To see whoever’s in charge of this noisy outfit.”

The corporal unhooked a tiny radio from his belt.  “Charlie One, this is Charlie 17.”

“Go ahead, Charlie 17.”

“The hermit’s here in his truck.  Wants to see the commander.”

“Standby.”

A moment later a different voice, almost familiar to Del, spoke on the radio.  “Inspect that truck, soldier, and tell me what you find.”

“Yes, sir.”  To Del he ordered, “Turn it off and step out.”

Del obeyed, standing to one side under the corporal’s only slightly miss-aimed weapon while the other two went through the vehicle minutely, even looking under the hood.  One fumbled in the box on the front seat, sniffed the wrapped cheese, then raised the mason jar, unscrewed the lid and drew back quickly.

“Dammit,” Del complained, “don’t spill that in the truck!”

“What is it?” asked the corporal.

“Bleach,” retorted the soldier, screwing the lid back on.  “He’s got dirty underclothes, soap powder, this bleach and a cheese snack in the box.  Them tools and stuff was here when we checked it yesterday.”

The corporal reported that almost word-for-word to Charlie One, who replied, “All right, send Barkowitz to ride shotgun and let him come through to headquarters.”

A soldier, presumably Barkowitz, moved the box from front to back and took its place on the seat while Del reboarded and started the engine.  “Take it real easy,” the soldier directed.  “Pull straight ahead and stop in front of the biggest tent.”

Del drove hardly above walking speed but proceeded deliberately past the largest tent and swung to the left.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded the soldier.  “I told you —”

“Turning around, if you don’t mind.”

The man subsided, glowering.  Del brought the truck to a standstill just in front of the two M16-armed soldiers standing easy before the tent flaps, obviously stationed there as guards.  He got down from the vehicle at the same time as Barkowitz and reached over the side to lift out the box of laundry.

“Leave that!” ordered the soldier.

“But that’s what I’m here about!” Del countered, lifting it anyway.

When he turned around, he found himself facing Major Kelland, who said with heavy irony, “Well, if it isn’t our local celebrity!  To what do we owe the honor of this visit, Mr. Forrest?”

The two guards had come to attention, weapons born before them at present-arms.  A man with captain’s bars emerged from the tent behind the major.

Del replied in an angry voice, “I wanted to see the commander.  Yesterday you said he was a colonel.  But you’ll do, Major.  You’re the one whose men busted it.”

“The colonel’s not here.”  The major’s eyebrows rose.  “Busted what?”

“My cistern.  When your boys slammed the cover down yesterday, they popped out the bung.  Now all my water has run out into the rocks, and it’s Friday.”

The major showed affront.  “I told you to show us how to work it.  So what if it’s Friday?’

“Wash day, dammit.  I’m out of clean underwear and it’s your fault.”

“You’re what?”

“How about giving me some water so I can wash out my underwear?”

The major drew a deep breath and shook his head.  He said in a reasonable tone, “Mr. Forrest, this is the U. S. Army Special Forces, not a laundry service.”

“I’m not asking you to wash the clothes.  Just give me some water.  Otherwise I’m going to sue the hell out of the government.  Martial law over one man!  That’s the most asinine thing I ever heard.”

“How much water do you want?”

“Oh, a gallon or so.”  He pointed to the back of the truck.  “That foot tub full.”

“And that’s what you came here for?”

“No, Major.  I came here because the army’s not very bright, smashing a cistern because somebody might be hiding in it.  You can believe I would’ve shot anybody that fouled my water!”

The major sighed.  “Pvt. Barkowitz!”

The shot-gun rider snapped to attention.  “Here, sir.”

“Take Mr. Forrest’s foot tub to the water bladder and fill it up.”

“Yes, sir!”

As the soldier took down the tub, Del called, “About half full!”

The major studied Del thoughtfully.  “Out of water, are you?  What’re you going to do next week?”

Del said airily, “I’ve got enough beer to last the next two chapters, then I have to go to town anyway.”

“But you couldn’t wait for clean underwear?”

Del stared the man in the eye.  “Maybe I could.  But you people interfered.  If you won’t trust me as far as you can throw me, why should I take any crap off you?”

He reached into the box, took out the newsprint wrapped ball, gouged out a yellow chunk and popped it into his mouth.  “Want some cheese?  Pretty good stuff.  My Aunt Minnie sends it to me from Wisconsin.”

The major made a face.  “No, thank you, Mr. Forrest.  If this is all you need, you can go home when the soldier returns.  But make yourself available.  There’s a good chance we’ll want to talk to you again later today.”

A humvee drove up behind the truck and a clearly annoyed lieutenant hopped out, a clipboard in one hand.  “What the hell is this civilian vehicle doing —  Oh!  Hello, Major!”  The man came to attention and saluted.  “Lt. Harding reporting, sir, with the manufacturer’s data sheets.”

The major returned the salute.  “Come on in and let’s go over them.  Forrest, move your truck out of the way.”

Del started up the truck and pulled it away to the side where an already-spotted 55 gallon drum served as the typical military trash can.  He killed the engine, stepped back out and let down the tail gate.  Barkowitz was approaching with the obviously heavier foot tub held out before him.

“Right here,” Del instructed, pointing to the middle of the tail gate.  The soldier plopped his burden down with a metallic rattle.  Water splashed out around it.

“Take it easy!” Del cried.

Barkowitz looked hastily around.  No one was within earshot.  He said in a fierce but low voice, “You old son of a bitch, next time get your own water!”

“Take that up with the major,” advised Del serenely, dumping underclothing and soap powder into the tub.  He set the wrapped cheese beside the tub and took up the jar of bleach.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Barkowitz.

“My laundry.”

“You can’t do that here!”

Del sighed patiently while uncapping the bleach.  “Gotta do it here.  No way I could transport a foot tub of water back to my cabin without spilling it all.”

“I suppose you want to hang it out to dry here, too.  Hey!  You clumsy old fart …”

Somehow Del had stumbled and inadvertently poured almost the entirety of the quart of bleach from the wide-mouthed mason jar over the wadded paper and cheese.  “God damn it all to hell!” he thundered.  “Look what you made me do!”

“I what?”

“Now I’m out of bleach and my cheese snack is ruined, too!”  He glanced surreptitiously at his wrist — ten seconds before the minute — as he sat the foot tub off onto the ground.  He took up the soaked paper and cheese gingerly and tossed it into the nearby trash drum.  Was it only his imagination or was the wad already warmer?

“How about guarding this,” he told the open-mouthed soldier, “while I go get some more bleach?”

Without waiting for an answer, he jumped into the cab and restarted the engine just as Barkowitz jerked open the passenger door and took his own seat.  “If you leave now,” the man yelled, “you ain’t getting back in here.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it, Pvt. Barkowitz.”

The truck lurched ahead.  The soldier braced himself between seat and dashboard.  “What the hell?  Slow down!”

15 seconds after the minute.  Del slowed a little.  Shortly he slammed to a stop where the corporal stood guard over the trail.  “Get out!” he commanded.

Barkowitz was glaring.  “Something funny’s going on here!”

“Want to go home with me?” asked Del.  “I’ll give you a cold beer.”

“You old bastard, get going, then.”  Barkowitz jumped out of the truck and slammed the door.

Del stepped on the gas and darted ahead.  The corporal had raised the muzzle of his weapon but held his fire.  40 seconds after the minute.  In the side mirror Del saw Barkowitz reporting to the corporal, pointing back toward headquarters and toward the speedily departing truck.

Then he was down in the arroyo and hunched over the wheel, driving faster than he had ever dared before.  Clang!  He sideswiped a boulder and heard the right rear tire rubbing on the bent fender —  bad news if it blew out.  He would just have to keep going, whatever happened.  He whipped the wheel around to avoid another looming boulder.  Too late!  Another clang announced his contact with it.  Briefly the orange rock filled his driver’s window.  His side mirror was gone when the window cleared.  The breeze of his passage blew the dust out of the cab.

He drove madly on and on, concentrating all his faculties on the hazardous track.  One minute and 30 seconds.  The irony of his position assailed him again.  All this predicated on the woman’s tale — what if she was full of shit?  But the NSA believed her, believed at least that she was a terrible threat.  Or did they?  Was she good enough to fool him with faked NSA messages?  Had she actually hacked into a top secret NSA computer?  Named “Double-oh-seven?”  How unlikely could something become before the mass of bullshit was self-evidently valid?  Didn’t Dr. Goebbels say, “The bigger the lie, the truer it seems” — or something like that?

But why would she go to such trouble?  And why was the army searching for her under martial law, presumably at the direct orders of the president, unless she was important as she claimed?

Well, now was not the time to let doubts rule.  At two minutes and 50 seconds, he rose out of the arroyo onto the trail around his hill.  Directly in front of him, hardly 100 feet up, hovered a helicopter.

Del grinned.  “Does my dust trail worry you, pal?  Gonna blow me away?”

Five minutes, she had said, then admitted it was only an estimate.  How fast would time pass for a woman waiting lovestruck on the phone while the admitted light of her life conducted an impromptu scientific experiment?  He doubted if even another woman could say.

The truck rattled and bounced wildly.  The rubbing tire screamed against the bent fender.  In the vibrating internal mirror he caught glimpses of the military encampment behind him.  It showed no evidence of excitement, but why should it?  He had only left it his laundry.

His cabin came into view up the steep trail ahead.  He reached the shelf, slowed and turned off.  This was a hillside shoulder that he had driven before.  It wound slowly around, first exposing more of itself to the encampment site, gradually disappearing behind the hill.  Del glanced at his watch as rock rose at last in the mirror to block his view of the encampment.  Four minutes!

He drove another 200 yards to the first area clear of large boulders above it and stopped the truck, setting the parking brake but leaving it in neutral.  Again the helicopter appeared above him, turned to face in his direction.  He debated staying in the truck.  He remembered reading once that automobile users expecting nuclear attack should roll their windows down and stay below dashboard level.  He shook his head and got out of it.  Now he debated whether to crouch on the hillside or crawl under the vehicle.

Whop-whop-whop!  Above him the helicopter moved to one side, the better to see what he was doing.  It’s heavy machine guns were trained on him.  Del sat down on the hillside just above the truck and wrapped his knees in his arms.

He couldn’t resist extending his upthrust middle finger toward the hovering machine, which immediately dropped lower.  Through the clear canopy he could see the pilot’s lips, tiny with distance, moving as he reported into his helmet-mounted microphone.  “The old bastard just threw me the bird.”  Del wondered if he had gone too far.  Would the thing come to earth?  At this point the slope of the ground was about ten degrees;  probably the chopper could land if the man wished.  Was it already low enough for the hill to shield it?

That question was answered.  Suddenly the helicopter grew bright, then brighter still, forming indelible images on Del’s retinas.  The hills beyond brightened also, though not to the same degree.  The machine had a moment to swoop upward and away — the wrong response — before it became bright as the morning sun.  Del shrank into himself, heart in his throat.

The hill heaved mightily.  The truck rose into the air far enough for him to see daylight below its wheels, then settled back, bouncing, farther down the slope.  Del realized that he was himself air born for a second before he landed painfully spread-eagled on the rock.

The sound, at first a rumble that seemed to come from the bowels of the earth, grew louder and louder over a period of several seconds until it peaked upon his body as a palpable blow.  It subsided slowly, rolling like thunder, the worst thunderclap he had ever heard, setting his ears to ringing as from a pistol shot.

At least the earth had heaved only the one time.  But it was enough to send a rock larger than himself rolling down the hill on his right.  Another went bouncing along on his left, followed by two others.  Shaking his head dizzily, he got to his feet and staggered toward the truck.  Above him the helicopter was descending in flames.  He had only a single glimpse of it before it passed behind the slope of the hill, trailing tattered black smoke.  Behind him a huge roiling cloud, gray with black streaks, was rising above his side of the hill.

The truck, battered from his wild flight, seemed otherwise intact.  Almost.  The rear window was gone, though curiously the previously broken windshield had survived.  Had it been able to flex just enough?  The right rear tire had not blown, though much of the outside tread had been scraped away.  The passenger door was inoperable, handle smashed against a boulder during his escape.  He went around to the driver’s side and was just fetching his crowbar from beneath the seat when something cracked loudly right behind him.

He spun around and saw nothing at first except that the black cloud was spreading toward him.  Then something large whizzed to earth off to his right.  Almost immediately rocks and stones of all sizes began to rain around him, some smoking with heat.  One stung his arm, actually tearing his sleeve.  They were falling like bullets!  He dived into the truck cab, pulling the door closed behind him, wishing he had thought to dive under the truck.  He wrapped his head in his arms and resolved to wait it out.

The truck was struck clangingly several times, two or three blows enough to rock it back and forth, but none sufficient to smash it.  Several pieces of rock bounced into the cab through the open windows, one numbing his shoulder.  One actually penetrated the roof and lay smoking, the size of a hen’s egg, on the seat beside him.  He burned his fingers throwing it out.  Remarkably nothing struck the windshield with enough force to shatter it.

The deadly rain did not long endure.  As it lifted Del took the crowbar around to the right rear and pried the fender away from the tire.  He returned to the cab, restoring the tool to its usual place, and brushed the particles of glass from the rear window out of the seat.  Crossing his fingers, he tried the starter with immediate success.

By backing and filling, he maneuvered the truck again onto the shoulder and drove cautiously back toward the trail to his cabin.  He had not reached it, however, before the cloud descended and enveloped him.  At such intimacy it was gray, not black, and gritty like blown sand with the odor of burnt iron.  He stopped, slitting his eyes and holding his breath.  He reached through the back window and found the blanket that had once wrapped Tessy.  It smelled of vomit, but breathing through it was infinitely preferable to taking a lung full of iron grit.

He wanted to keep moving but had to remain standing.  Pitch darkness settled over him.  He could not even see the dashboard instruments or the steering wheel.  He killed the engine by feeling for his toggle switch.  No sense letting it try to breathe this stuff, too.

He waited.  Had there been a breeze this morning?  That was one of the saving graces of high desert living: almost always there was a breeze, other than sundown and sunup.  Let’s see.  If this cloud was, say, three miles across and the breeze was blowing at ten miles per hour, how long would it take to clear out?  Del imagined a blackboard in his head and wrote the figures on it in red chalk.  His answer was 18 minutes.  He resolved to wait stoically.

Ah, but the typical wind was from the west, and the explosion had been almost due north of his present position.  The cloud began to lighten even as that thought crossed his mind.  He was located on its southern edge, where he must endure it only briefly.  It lifted rather quickly.  He felt the welcome breeze on his cheek through the open driver’s window.

When he could see the path, now distinctly paler, far less orange than it had been, he restarted the truck and drove slowly along over the shoulder of the hill.  In the mirror he could see that his passage was kicking up far more dust than usual, and this dust was gray instead of the usual tan to orange.

The dark cloud above him was definitely drifting to the east, much of it hidden now behind the summit of his own hill.  Briefly he wondered, Does a nuclear explosion affect the ownership of land, assuming the owner lives through it?  But then he rounded a boulder and at last saw the site of the military encampment.

The past site, that is.  Now the landscape was changed.  Pinnacles of rock had been knocked down and a wide but shallow crater lay smoking in the middle of the space.  Of tents, neatly arrayed helicopters … and men, there was no sign.  Smoke rose from several places, however, perhaps the remains of equipment, perhaps only the places where heated rocks had fallen back to earth.  The severed aircraft tail section, previously visible from this vantage, was gone.  Whereas before this had been the badlands, now it looked worse, as if a childish god had vented his spite upon it.

Del continued around the shoulder, looking for the landmark rock formations that would tell him he was on the trail to the peak, but his eyes strayed again and again to the spectacle across the valley.  All that from maybe three ounces of cheese, a fraction of an ounce of newsprint and a few more ounces of bleach?  The energy released must have been a great many kilotons, as nuclear explosions are measured, to affect a dry rock landscape so severely.  Surely the catalyst must have fused other materials than just those three to obtain this result.  Well, why not?  The operative word, after all, was catalyst.  Perhaps the real marvel lay in its limitation — that the entire Earth had not participated in the chain reaction.  Somebody ought to study the hell out of this thing!

He found his trail, but when he turned the truck to climb it, he stared in shock.  His cabin was gone as if it never existed, along with his solar generator and the parabolic arrays on the peak.  From this point, half-way up the hill, all evidence of human occupancy seemed cleaned away.  He was looking at bare rock, more gray than orange now.

He ground along up the slope in low gear.  He remembered well how far from the summit his cabin had stood and believed that he could recognize the spot when he reached it.  He would have driven past it, however, except for one curious effect.  As he neared the top he saw beside the trail an unusual spot of brightness that grew steadily larger.  He stopped the truck, got down and stood for a moment before he understood.  The breeze, stronger here at the greater height, was blowing away the fine gray grit from the explosion — and exposing the steel shelter roof that had underlain the wooden floor of his cabin.  The nuclear blast and fireball had indeed cleaned everything off the near side of this hill, including the paint that had originally coated this steel roof.

As he watched the last of the grit departed, leaving the entire rectangular plate visible.  He took the crowbar from under the driver’s seat and located the blast hatch, which obviously Tessy had succeeded in closing.  He struck it in the agree-upon signal:  three quick bangs, three slow ones and three more quick ones:  SOS in Morse.

He waited.  He had raised the tool to strike again when the hatch dropped away into a dark interior.

“Tessy!” he called, unable to wait longer.  “Are you safe?”

Her head and shoulders rose out of the darkness.  “Oh, yes, Del, but you won’t believe —”  She had shielded her eyes from the sunlight.  Her voice died away and her eyes widened incredulously when they rested on him, again after a quick glance around before returning.  “Oh, my god, my darling, are you all right?”

He grasped her armpits and lifted her bodily out upon the steel.  Her mouth sought his but he would not permit it to linger.  “We’ve got to get moving, Tessy, before the air force gets here.  You know they’ve detected that explosion.  Quick, you’ll have to get into the truck on my side.”

He paused only long enough to close the blast hatch.  She allowed him to pull her toward the vehicle, which was far more battered now than she remembered it.  “My god, Del!”

“It still runs, believe it or not!  Here, put this blanket around you in case I didn’t get all the glass out of the seat.  Better fasten your seat belt.  This may be a rough ride until we get out of this valley.”

“God, what a huge cloud!”

“Yes.  That’s your famous mushroom cloud from underneath.”

As he turned the truck around, she got her first good look at the military site she had seen only from a window of his vanished cabin.  “Oh, god, Del, it’s all gone!”

“Everything human around here is all gone, Tessy, except us — and we’re leaving!”

He descended the hill at a much faster pace, leaving a huge gray rooster tail behind him.  Despite the bouncing of the vehicle, the woman released her seat belt and pressed herself against his side, one arm around his neck, the other over the back of the seat.

“It really worked!” she exclaimed loud enough to be heard over the rush of their passage.

He laughed and called, “Are you saying you didn’t believe it either?”

“Well, it was just so preposterous!  My god, Del, those messages I left in Double-oh-seven!”

“What about them?”

“If they get released, they really will destroy this country — maybe the whole world.”

“Well, you gave us a week, didn’t you?”

“Yes.  One week.  Oh, god, Del, please get us to a computer soon!”

 

END

Copyright © July, 2000, Kellis

kellis@dhp.com

Stories gratis at http://www.dhp.com/~kellis