Carlos kept the bayonet of his weapon at the raider's throat as he climbed out of the station wagon hatch. “Roighta then,” he said, “so it seems to me, I got about two good reasons not to blow your 'ead off right 'ere. One, I just washed this thing. Two, you can tell your piss-poor backup in the wash on the other side of those saguaros come forward and lay down their weapons.”
“I tell 'em that, they'll just shoot me and you,” the raider answered.
“Aye, that sounds about right,” Carlos answered. “How 'bout you tell me how many there are?”
The raider was black, and his companion looked white but swore in fluent Spanish as he crouched clutching a bloody nose. “We no shoot you,” the second raider said. “We cut you up like machaca.”
The black raised his hands placatingly. “We got one more back there, okay?” he said. Carlos nodded. “There ain't nobody else. Honest truth.” After a moment of consideration under Carlos's stern gaze, he added, “Look, I'm not gonna call you `brother', but I'm tellin' ya, on my word as a bro, the rest are long gone, and they ain't comin' back for nothin'. There was some crazy shooting, sounded like the army comin', and everybody figure it bad hoodoo either way. We just stayed to make sure nobody follows us.”
It was enough to get the bayonet away from his throat. “For the record, I'm disgusted to think I'm in the same species as you,” Carlos said, without any particular rancor. “An' that wasn't the army, just Kilroy... Eh, scratch the `just'.”
The raider looked perplexed, and all the more so when he saw Carlos's near-incredulity at his ignorance. “I don't know no `Kilroy', but are you talkin' 'bout the Great White Hunter?”
“Never heard 'im called by that name, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say yes,” Carlos said. “We found his calling card back at the last turnoff... Did one of you see him before?”
“Ain't nobody never see the Hunter, and ain't nobody who wants to” the raider said. “But nobody needs to see him to know, a brother does what a brother gotsta do, but that kinda crazy only come in vanilla!”
“Aye, we pretty well figured as much,” Carlos said. “I'll tell you what. I can see you want to get out of here as much as we do. So, if you march back to the saguaros and drive away, we won't follow you. And there's one more thing... I have heard the name `Great White Hunter' before, just not here. It was a story- lots of stories, actually- I heard over there, and I've thought about it on and off myself. The one part of the story we knew was true is that sometimes, we found people we were looking for, usually out in the jungle but right where we would see 'em, after somebody else found 'em first. Sometimes, they were missing a piece, and sometimes, the piece was all we found. It wasn't just their guys either. And the stories went that it was all one guy, American special forces, crazy good, an' just plain crazy. If it was, then he had done enough time to go home twice, but the stories said he didn't want to, and the brass figured it was safer to have him over there than back at home. He also followed orders, well enough that they let him do things his own way. Like, he used a varmint gun. More challenge, or else showin' what he thought of the competition. And what he liked best of all was to catch his man alive first, and then take him out in the jungle for real one-on-one. So, he kept at it for a long time, until one got away. And for that, they finally sent him home.”
“My real bro was over there,” the raider said. “He didn't come back, not even in no bag. But he managed to send letters home, tellin' what it was really like. An' what you told me, he told us. We think he tried to get home on his own, and maybe, the Hunter went after him.”
As the raiders turned away, Carlos said, “Don't do anything you don't have to.” Several bodies lay sprawled around the military truck, two of them armed raiders and the rest fallen kudlaks. A single goosestepping soldier fell to a shotgun blast.
“If anybody's there, we're here to help,” Carlos announced.
A voice answered, with a hint of an English accent and a further hint of Asian descent: “We already called for help.”
Another speaker cut in: “I am Colonel James Clapham of the US Army Medical Corps. Whom am I addressing?”
“Carlos Wrzniewski... and if you don't believe it, it's fine with me.”
“Actually, I believe I have heard of you,” the colonel answered. “A bit of business in Manilla, as I recall, about 30 years ago.”
“Won't say it doesn't ring a bell,” Carlos said. “What can you tell me about what you're doing out here?”
The other speaker answered: “We are the surviving crew of a research outpost, formed as a joint operation by the United States Army Medical Corps, the United States Center for Disease Control, and the United Nations Coordinated Revenant Action Bureau. I am Dr. Charles Ling, liaison for the People's Liberation Army.”
“Where were you headed?” Carlos asked.
“West,” Ling answered, “for a reservation.”
“Really,” said Carlos. “I heard they shut them down.”
“Our destination is a secure and well-supplied evacuation center, on tribal land leased to the federal government,” Clapham said. He stepped forward, confirming Carlos's suspicion that he was black. “The name `reservation' was never official, and its use has created unfortunate perceptions. We can help you and anyone with you.”
“I do believe I'll pass,” Carlos said. “And I'd appreciate it if you set your weapons outside.
“You may have heard rumors regarding the original evacuation centers,” Clapham said. “There were serious problems. The program was, by necessity, hastily conceived. The need for security forces and especially resupply was underestimated. There were frequent breaches, and a number of posts were lost. Initial efforts to improve security were... heavy-handed. We learned from our mistakes.”
“Corporal Wrzniewski, I can assure you evacuation is in no way compulsory,” the colonel said. “You have the right to decline entry to an evacuation center, and you will retain the right to leave. All measures to the contrary have been rescinded on my personal recommendation. As a registered resident of an evacuation center, you will have the same liberties and be under no more restrictions than military personnel on base. Outside travel will be subject to restrictions, and permanent departure will involve a formal exit application, and may be postponed in times of emergency. Any possessions you report at the time of admission will be acknowledged as your personal property, regardless of how they were obtained. All I would ask from you, Wrzniewski, is to hear me out, and let anyone with you do the same.”
“Counterproposal,” Carlos said. He blasted the radio mast with his shotgun. “I expect you've been making regular broadcasts. Missing one will get you help faster, if it's comin' at all. You're going to have to wait here for them, and that should be more than enough time for us to get out of here. Say whatever you like, but if any of you come looking for me and mine, it's not going to be nearly as pleasant.”
“Pardon me,” Ling said, stepping forward. He carried a very large briefcase and a Mauser pistol with a removable wooden stock. “I am not a member of the US military, and my primary orders from my own government are to observe the situation in this country. It occurs to me that I could do that at least as well in your company as in theirs. Therefore, I am requesting to join your party.”
No questions were asked as Carlos and Daniel returned with the newcomer. “Change of plans,” he said. “We're in a collision zone here: Hordes coming from multiple directions, and all kinds of people trying to stay ahead of them comin' together in the middle. The best thing we can do is double back to Pete's and look for another way. I already signaled Dianna to pack up camp, but we'll be in the lead, same as we planned. Phil says that there are enough maintenance roads and cattle tracks to get us back on the road to the south. It's gonna be a hard drive, but we can make it where we want to go by sunset at the latest. We might find a few good places to stop on the way. That will be all.”
As noon approached, the Willys Jeep was tooling down a winding dirt road in the direction of the rising smoke in the south. A helicopter descended to pick up the stranded colonel. Not far from the scene of the rescue, a battered car lay rolled over in a dry wash screened by cacti. From atop a tall saguaro, three severed heads surveyed the desert. The heads of two Latinos were on either arm, and on the highest central spire, the black raider stared out sightlessly with the hole from a .45 slug in his forehead.