The 88.3 Series by Giles X. Becker
Praise for The Weaponsmaker, Book 1 in the 88.3 series;
“Amazing book! Full of excitement and energy!”
“I could not put it down…the characters are memorable.”
Three novels in the 88.3 series — three different main characters make their way through a collapsing dystopia to either find a remote safe place on the western ocean or fight. Each book covers the same time period, each protagonist faces danger in a different way.
So you live in this dystopia. Actually it’s not all that bad since you were born into the elite class but it is still pretty tedious. You know you’re being spied on and watched and observed but if you keep your head down and don’t screw up you get fifty gallons of water a day and two hours of air conditioning and you live in one of the high exclusive gated places where there is a wind that carves its way over the drought-stricken overheated planet. Down below are the slums. They seem to cover the entire continent. You don’t want to live down there.
You’ve settled down. You used to be fairly wild but you managed to avoid arrest and stay out of the labor camps. Your father is an important man. He had to bribe a lot of police officials to keep your ass out of the penal colonies. You learned your lesson. You have a girl. She’s goodlooking. You’re going to get married and stay settled down the rest of your dreary uninteresting upper-class life. In order to make everything really really boring the Authorities long ago decreed there would be no more numbered years. History is no longer taught. Geography is also on the shit list. It hasn’t rained in like forever. You’re not sure where North is but who cares. You navigate through a world that is living on the technological remains of Old America, which existed somewhere back there in the mists of time when there was rain and open country and green rivers with men fishing from the shores in sloppy hats, free as birds, careless of spying devices, eating egg sandwiches. You’ve seen it in old movies.
Then the incredible happens and there you are — thrown out into the slum-world with nothing but what you have on your back and in your pockets. It’s called ‘a ban order’. They hope you die. You are determined not to. You will find allies and enemies and men who listen to you. It’s okay. If you are not killed first you will get everyone of the bastards that tore your family apart. In a way you kind of like it. You always wanted your own army.
Our hero learns the price of becoming a hero, an insurgent, a killer, a savior — and so do his enemies.
It was coming on evening and so Alan could see the glow of the prison far ahead in the dusk and the yellow-orange glare of sodium vapor lights. He and the other three rode the banging floor of the hopper car and held tight to their knapsacks. The prison a blank-sided hulk on its strange and isolated hill. He had not left his name or fingerprints on any device the authorities could read for more than two weeks now and to rescue his twelve-year-old brother he was completely on his own. No help anywhere. But there were joints in the layers of power. He had to find them, shove a shim in them. Alan held onto the rails of the hopper car porch and watched the prison come at him.
On top of the prison’s perimeter fence was a long running tube that seemed to be about six feet in diameter, impossible to get over. Alan regarded the prison building; cast concrete with the form marks still showing. If he ever got Tyler out they would have to get up and over the big tube (impossible) and through the fields without being seen from the guard towers and shot (impossible) and then disappear into the worker housing. Also impossible.
As they approached the prison freight docks, the snow stopped and then it began to rain in earnest. Rain banged like hail on the top of the freight car ahead of them and came down across the world in a silky dissolve. Everyone jammed back under the forward edge of the hopper car porch. Far ahead the big locomotive engine snorted and steamed.
“Look, look, it’s flat-out storming.”
Imperatives, interrogatives. Drops fled horizontally across the hopper cars’ sides, bringing with them the filth of years and the atmospheric smoke of untold millions of people packed close in an overcrowded world, a dry world, a planet in the fossilized grip of drought spinning through unnumbered years rainless as Mars, and now it was raining.
The train flung itself from one side to the other; it slowed, it slowed, it slowed.
Alan and Drofo took hold of their baggage and shook bits of gravel from their clothes. Alan was filthy and unshaven and his nails were black. Finally the train came to a halt with a long series of bangs all down the long line of cars. They saw the rail-line police walking down the cars with hand-held security screens.
Pony said, “there’s a rebellion going to break out Alan. Remember my words. You’re going to be in the middle of it.”
“I got things to do first,” said Alan. He tied his boot-laces tight, pulled down his hat. Then Pony smiled, briefly, regarding him and finally he and Numbers put out their hands. They shook all around.
“Good luck!! See ya!”
Alan and Drofo jumped.
Alan started down the nearest street. In the distance at the end of the street he saw standing rows of corn in the rain, uniform as soldiers with their parched cutlass leaves and shakos of dried tassels. He wondered if a cornfield was a good place to hide. He needed some kind of hostel to spend the night, somewhere to clean up, some place he could sit and observe the prison, the times of shift changes, what kind of uniforms they wore and figure out how to get one.
“Drofo, I don’t need you right now,” he said. He bent against the driving rain. “You said you had somebody to find. Buy yourself a plastic tablecloth or something and put it on your head.” Alan pressed five half-dollars into his big leathery hand.
“Naw, I’m sticking with you.” Drofo put the coins in his pocket.
“You’re breaking my heart,” said Alan. “You have friends.”
“But you’re going to do something interesting.”
“Yeah but I don’t need any help to do something interesting. I can do interesting things all by myself.” Then he saw Drofo’s face. “But, then, you know I might need your help later on. I’ll leave a message for you somehow.”
“I could do something.”
“No. Go on. How do I leave a message for you?”
“At the stations,” said Drofo. “The main train stations. There are message places.” He held his hand flat at his brow against the rain. “Who you got in prison?”
Alan beat on the pockets of the black wool coat trying to locate the cigarettes and found them and put one in his mouth. He turned up his collar and held the cigarette and match close under his hat and lit it. “Okay, okay. My little brother.” He blew smoke from his nose. “Pray for me,” he said.
Drofo wiped the rain from his hair and said, “You know, he said, there could be some Imperial Rebels. Like it’s not just a TV show.”
“I know,” said Alan. “They are probably all over the place, disguised.” Rain ran from his brim and he gave up on the cigarette. He threw it down and then held out his hand. Drofo hesitated, then finally he shook it.
Alan stood with his grimy locker bag watching Drofo head back to the train tracks. His great feet stove holes in the mud, his head down, rain running from the brown tiling of his hair.
Alan hurried down the darkening, wet street with his head bent and his boots sending up sprays against the walls which were already stained up to the windows. He wanted a room and a bed with a beautiful girl in it and a pint of whiskey with a fire burning hot in a stove but he would settle for a pallet anywhere dry and a mug of hot tea.
Book 2; Nadia Stepan trundles a supply cart through the big Communications and Entertainment studios in a dead-end job. But she has decided to flee, escape and head for a marvelous island she has seen in a TV advertisement. She may be crazy but she is furtive and determined. Nadia meets the man who will help her; she learns the joy of her tiny bit of wilderness and then of becoming a radio voice, broadcasting messages to the Insurgency at 88.3 FM.
Nadia passed five intersections and just beyond the fifth one she stood on a long vista. In the most remote distance she saw the great abandoned towers with dust spuming off the topmost stories. They seemed very far away. She decided that was indeed Dogtown Towers.
He said they would meet again. She believed him. It was possible that he would hand her a map of the heavens, the astroscape which everybody could see over their heads every night of the world if they wanted to, in which an infinite geography offered itself to those who lived inside tiny apartment rooms and were trapped inside the canyons of streets. Here, he would say. He would hand her an open book. These are the stories of the stars. Heroes, heroines, enormous wild animals, pursuits, recognitions, courage and nobility and incomprehensible plots.
Night came. She had made perhaps twenty blocks. She slept after a fashion in the middle of a cactus garden and the intense wind lost some velocity as twilight shadows rose like a tide over the elegant and hostile neighborhood. The last evening limousine with its beveled headlamps purred down the street. Judging from the sound it was a gasoline engine. The driver sat in an open front seat wearing goggles against the windblown debris; he stared at her long and hard. The police officers in the back were reading newspapers by battery lamp; the limo quietly rolled down the street and disappeared.
Nadia sat primly on a bench among the cacti. She believed in magic. As a small child she had been abandoned on the street and within days of being taken to the Parentless Dependents Home she had gone blind. There in the darkness she had found the workings of enchantment. There was nothing she could do to get food, clothing or shelter for herself. These things came out of nowhere; they were gifts, the largess of some kind of unseen fairy people. People or forces. The hot oatmeal porridge with one or two sultanas in it, powdered citrus drink, a rough blanket when the November wind shrieked at the broken windows of the Parentless Dependents shelter. Then from somewhere a clear, light woman’s voice read stories, and a man’s voice read others in measured, reasonable tones. It was a radio, they said. Big Radio. The stories all made sense. They played music. More magic.
She had once been a lively child but the dark had taught her to be quiet and look for quiet spaces. The only place on earth where life would be worthwhile was on that island in the sea.
She yawned. If she were found lying down and sleeping on the gravel path she would be taken for a dead person or at the least forced into a homeless shelter. There she would be interrogated and fed potato starch and probably stabbed in her bed.
She shut her eyes. She would make it there, to Lighthouse Island. In her imagination she walked on a great smooth path between the fir trees of Lighthouse Island and there was a fine mist that diffused the sunlight into something damp and welcoming. Far away the sound of the North Pacific. An Alpine nanny named Amanda clicked alongside on her polished black hooves, absorbed in the erratic considerations of goats.
Book 3; Bude Rundel was Alan Reavis’ fight trainer and Nadia’s nemesis. He is as old as war itself, a man of the underground. He sends out the message to his men to rise up and begin the war when the time is right. He learns the terrible demands of war and leadership — encouraged by the voice of a girl in the heavens.
What did they think happened to human nature? Bude knew under the list of things that are imperative for your average human being were bars and kickball in all its forms and dances where girl meets boy and in the dim lights they bend toward one another with wordless consenting kisses.
What was also imperative was the partisans’ radio capacity. From a satellite far overhead they picked up messages at FM 88.3. Bude’s radioman bent over the little handmade FM and took notes when the voice slipped into its message mode; read out in coded language by a girl’s clear, light voice with perfect enunciation, an angelic voice. The men had come to love it. It was as if some celestial being was on their side. First were the very old recordings of December literature from the Middle Ages, poems of frost and darkness and the coming Christmastime, and then another voice slipped in. A voice precisely the same as the old voice read all the poetry slightly altered. In a wrecked storefront the radioman grasped his notebook and pencil in cold hands.
“She’s on,” he said. “That’s her.” The rain streamed down from the roof in a solid curtain and the radioman bent to stare with his one eye at the glowing dial.
Mais ou sont les nieges d’antan? And where are the policemen of yesteryear? Gone like the snows of ages past and so they ran before the Flight of Cranes and these flocks of cranes swept over Ogallala and then the sandhills and on to the glassworks where they are to drive the Fortieth Cohort into the Niobrara and drown them.
Je connais tout, fors que moi meme. Out of the mountain meadows winter flowers smoke like frozen white roses down as far as the flooding South Platte and Dorothy’s Boys from Kansas have met with them in winter raintime and so they meet up on the shores of the Arkansas and the Arikaree for Christmas celebrations. There they will receive fourteen partridges in a pear tree and forty two lords a-leaping and nine and twenty-one golden rings…
And then the very old recording came back seamlessly. No one could tell the difference between the two voices except if you knew to listen and people like Forensics never listened to the literature readings anyway because they had better things to do, like wallowing in corruption. Bude and Tibor stood in the lamplight listening in intent silence. Bude lifted a cigarette to his lips, slowly, and slowly smoke leaked from his nose.
The radioman handed him the read-out; “We are to continue north and catch Forensics’ Fortieth Cohort at the glassworks on the Niobrara. They won’t be able to get across. Duncan and the Mountain Meadows men have got as far as the South Platte, the Kansas men have met up with them on the Arkansas, they were on the south side of the Arikaree, their code number now is 14-42, 9-21.”
It meant Jay Duncan’s men had got to the high ground between the South Fork of the Smoky Hill and the North Fork of the Republican, seized it and cleared it and then made the crossing.
The next day they slung waxed canvas over their heads and went on.
Then there were days that the fighting was so intense Bude found himself surprised to be alive second by second. It was on the Loup. The Loup River had spread out through the housing like a new sort of surface to the earth. The rail lines and some roadbeds rose above the water and Flight of Cranes strung themselves out in northbound lines, sniped at every yard they ran. Signalmen stood on any elevation, whipping their flags, one in each hand, in some ancient alphabetical arrangement in a risky attempt to keep the lines together.
Bude got three companies across what seemed like the main current on the pontoon system and as he ran staggering across he saw on the far bank a group of four-story tenements give way and come down like a dissolving cliff. The last five men ahead of him were swallowed in the avalanche. He got a man’s leg in his two hands and pulled. The man came free. A roar of lightning overhead blinded him. He and the partisan he had pulled out fell into the water. The man went under the pontoon floats. Bude rose up out of the water shouting for help. Then he saw that they had run into a pocket of Forensics troops and in the distance he heard somebody trying to start a truck. Rrrrr rrrrr, a grinding ignition. Bullets struck in little spatters all around him.
He had the man by the collar and pulled him out of the water and then crawled up and over cinder blocks. The limp body was covered with a glistening lead-colored coating. At the top somebody shouted at him,
“Let him go! Let him go, sir, he’s dead!”
“No he’s not, drag him with you!”
Bude’s rifle, miraculously, still fired. He knelt and poured out one clip in the direction the enemy’s fire was coming from. Ping! said the empty clip and it leaped free into the air and fell in the sliding gravy of sludge. Then they were up and running forward. Bude yelled, “The truck! Get the truck!” They came around the ruins of a grain-sacking depot and he saw it. Four or five Forensics troops in their splattered blue uniforms were gathered around a five-ton and one man in the driver’s seat was turning the key and slamming his foot down on the gas pedal. Bude jammed in another clip and aimed and shot him. The men with Bude were firing as well. Then Bude jerked open the door of the truck, pulled out the dead man. They were still being fired on from the right and he saw one of his men fall. The Flight of Cranes men knelt and fired back.
“Drive!” He grabbed the man behind him and shoved him forward. Then it began to hail. The hailstones were the size of marbles and the roar made him deaf. Bude ran behind with one hand over his head and helped load as many men as he could behind in the covered bed. They were dragging on the guy he had pulled out of the water limp as an enormous oozing slug. Seven eight nine fifteen, their faces battered by hail. One of the men was shot through the ear and he dropped like a stone. The round went on through his head and hit the man next to him and it threw him sideways. Bude and others loaded them both on.
Dead Forensics troopers lay in the mud of the street with hailstones bouncing from their indifferent bodies. Somewhere ahead was the main body of his Flight of Cranes companies. The truck engine finally caught and they leaped forward.
The man driving said, “There’s a Forensics laying in the road ahead!”
“Drive over him!” Bude yelled. The windshield was starring with craters and now the hail was bigger, much bigger.
“He’s still crawling!”
“ Drive over him!”
He did but the young man’s hands on the steering wheel were quivering with the palsy of terror and the boy yelled, “Oh God, Oh God!” Bude writhed out of his backpack and then turned and tried to see how many men he had loaded but it was dark under the canvas and he couldn’t distinguish anything and all he could think of was if they had left anybody behind. If they could just reach safety he could gather a squad and go back. The truck skewed and slewed and banged from one side of the street to the other and the hail had smashed the windshield and now it was just a blue mass of crinkly broken glass. Wheels of water sprayed up from their tires. The boy was peering through one small circle of clear glass. They hit the corner of a building and rubble crashed down on the hood and the boy kept driving. They came clear into what seemed to be another field system.
“Go on!” Bude yelled. “They’re ahead!”
“They’ll shoot us!”
Now the boy was shaking so he could hardly hold the steering wheel and his mouth was drawn back in a rectangular grimace of fear that showed every tooth in his head.
They might. The truck had the double-circle logo on the sides. Bude felt in his pack and came out with a green rocket, rolled down the passenger-side window and held it out, jerked the lanyard and the pop! sound and the smell of guncotton filled the cab. The green rocket hissed out into the hammering opalescent void before them, beaten by hailstones, lighting up the chaos of rain and hail in a brilliant green fire. He heard the Banger truck go off and then firing from ahead. They were not shooting at the truck but at something behind. And then they were surrounded by partisans running forward to cover them and then they were safe.
He went back two hours later. He saw he had blood and tissue all over the front of his pants and did not know where it had come from. The Forensics men had fled. They left packets of rations and a boot and scattered winking piles of shell casings. Blood spatters on the floor of the wrecked apartments. The hail had stopped. It lay washing in the street channels and clattering downstream like dirty jewelry. Forensics had left their dead behind. Bude had not, neither living nor dead.
He jogged back to his men again through falling sleet. The partisan’s medical men, called the chicken men, had bullet wounds to deal with and the crushed bruises of great hailstones. The hands of the men, where they had held their hands over their heads against the hail, were blackened with bruising. Four were dead. They buried them. The man he had dragged out of the floodwaters lived. A chicken man hung him upside down from a metal I-beam and swung him back and forth, beating him on the back, and the man coughed, suddenly, and then erupted in a spray of vomited floodwater. They lowered him carefully. He would live to see victory, to have children, to tell of the day his commander had pulled him from the flooding Loup and he was swung from a spar like the Hanged Man in the Tarot cards, those brilliant pasteboard fantasies that are never as heroic, as noble and invincible as we truly are and in which the dead drift unbodied and unseen behind every beautiful face.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
(Sent to rescue Nadia from labor camp; she has been discovered and taken by Primary Resources. He gets her out in the chaos and they head cross-country on foot for Missoula).
When the water boiled he poured pre-cooked grains and two cans of beef into the pot and after a few minutes he filled two bowls.
“Nadia?” he said. “Here’s supper. Look alive.”
She sat up and reached for the bowl. Now the little room was warmer and she opened her coat and bent her face to the steam of the stew. “Oh wonderful,” she said.
He eased himself down on a chair with no back and held his own smoking bowl in his hands. It had weird lime-green and orange flowers on it. Her fingernails were broken and the knuckles bumped and skinned so that Bude wished he could somehow conjure up an enormous bathtub for her, full of hot water, and those powders and fragrant salts women used. This grimy bivouac was alright for somebody like himself, in the field, on assignment, but not her; the angel of the airwaves. He found himself wanting her to appear gorgeous and sort of airborne maybe. Stratospheric. Something from twenty-two thousand miles overhead.
“Are we safe?”
They were nearly wordless with relief, out of the wind. Close to a hot stove.
“How did you know I was there?”
“I got into their computers in Ranchester. That’s south of here. It’s a township.”
“How did you do that?”
“I inconvenienced some people. I left them unhappy and full of regret.” He smiled and lifted his spoon.
He broke up the white flat hardtack into the stew. He watched her sink her big spoon into it and eat it all with a trembling hand. He realized he was tired. He briefly closed his eyes and took in the smell of woodsmoke and cooking and soiled parka cloth and that indefinable odor of cold concrete. Then he got up and refilled her bowl.
He saw her force herself to eat slowly, to not spill anything from her spoon or in any way appear distressed, starved or greedy. After the second bowl she held it in her hands for a moment and then laid it aside. He put his bowl aside as well and sat down on a mattress and brought out the disassembled carbine. He slipped the stock onto the receiver and then the trigger assembly, pressed in an eight-round clip, clicked on the safety. He leaned the carbine against his shoulder where he sat and saw that her hands had stopped shaking.
Bude listened to the distant call of homegoing ravens and the chatter of hard snow at the windowpane and he did not hear any footsteps or voices or engines. Everything was okay.
I am going to be smitten, here, he thought. I have been repeatedly been smitten by women in my life. So stop. Sometimes twice a week. One of them married already. So stop.
In a whispery, low voice, she said, “I can’t believe I am here. I’m out, I’m out.” She put her fingertips to her eyes and tears ran from beneath them.
The next morning the clouds had torn apart on the great wall of the Absarokas to the west. They were shredded into rags by the stone knife-edges of Breakneck Mountain and Hummingbird Peak. As they repacked and prepared breakfast the sunlight came through between the scudding clouds in slivers and bars. For a few seconds it shone through the window and like the light of grace it fell upon her tousled head and her hair shone like copper wires. It fell on her as if it were just passing through and was distributing grace at random. Some for you and some for you and some for you. Bude sat in his blankets and regarded her. Her hair of a dark garnet color, badly cut short into ladders and planes, brilliantly lit. Her starved hand held the metal cup and the steam of the strong tea rising to her face, a thick slice of bread with peanut butter in the other. She was smiling and talking about something. She was free. She had been liberated from potato fields and from guards and grief and fear. For now.