David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The holder of an MA degree from the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, and a lifelong animation fan, he has published short fiction in a variety of genres for various magazines and anthologies, as well as essays on his favorite topics for similar publishers. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Chupa Cabra House), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming) and Nothing About Us Without Us: The Adventures of the Cartoon Republican Army (Dreaming Big Productions, forthcoming.)
RED ROVER by David Perlmutter (Series)
Jack Mongrel was running.
He was running because his mother had been killed- and he was trying to avoid the same fate for himself. He would be very fortunate if he were able to accomplish this. Very fortunate, indeed. Not many of his kind were able to escape the fate that was coming for them- and some were not even willing to.
All Jack could possibly do now was run away as fast as he could- before they managed to catch him. Or worse.
He had heard stories of what those chasing him were like- and what they were capable of doing if they felt like it. That chilled him to the bone. He was sure not to let it happen to him if he felt like it.
In this world, vigilante justice and terrorism reigned, to say the least. The world was no longer a place where one could be lazy and indolent. It resembled the world that had once been inhabited by the predecessors of Jack’s race, the human beings, before they got their “act” together (as it was said), and then after they destroyed themselves through greed and hubris. There was a constant fear of death by one means or another, and a desire for it to come by many who wanted it to occur, to themselves, if not to those they hated. Especially for ones as young and vulnerable as this young dog boy named Jack was, a boy dog who had no means nor skills to help himself survive, for he had not obtained the old human age of majority in age or thought yet, and those lack of skills proved to put him at a severe disadvantage. If he wanted to endure and thrive in this new and strange universe in which he found himself, Jack would have to rely on all of his native instincts, mental skills, and physical resources. Such as he had at such a young age, anyway.
These were far more limiting towards achieving his goal than he likely would have preferred.
It had been over two hundred years since human beings ceased to exist on Earth, as they had become victims of constant fighting with each other- in ever escalating degrees- until absolutely none of them were left. The stock simply ceased to exist, though it lived on through the genetic inheritance of old human traits in dogs and other beings which had been experimented on and been “given” humanity, in all of its faults and benefits, through the late human race. In that period of time, so long ago to one who had relatively few years on him that the boy dog had, the world had been completely destroyed and reborn, in a way that its old residents would not have recognized. Well, they would have recognized some things about it. The geography had not changed, not even the great cities, whose great buildings, streets and sewers continued to exist and operate as if nothing had happened, for they had been spared the worst of the fighting. However, the inhabitants were nothing that the previous residents would have recognized as the products of their labor- or their gene pool- for they were the product of the evolution, breeding and interbreeding of the beings already introduced to you. What remained biologically of the human race existed within them, and there was no means whatsoever to artificially reproduce the old, deceased human race in any form or fashion (with some minor, aberrant exceptions), even if the new residents of Earth had ever wanted them to return. What remained of the human race was what they left behind- the culture, the media, the architecture, the technology- which had betrayed them, altered them and tainted them, socially and biologically slowly beyond recognition of them at their most forceful and intelligent. It was the most devastating aspect of their technology- nuclear fission, heavy armed airplanes and ships, viciously destructive guns, and the like- which had caused their destruction. Yet miraculously, it destroyed only the humans themselves and not their world, which it made all the more convenient for being taken over by the races who came to succeed them. Consequently, the positive things related to the human ascendancy of Earth were left behind, as the evil with which they had tarnished and ravaged the land and water which they had called home was interred with their bones.
This was, however, simply what those who managed to survive the holocaust of the human race, and to rebuild the old, outdated world in their images as best they could. Yet, thanks to the scale of the biological and social destruction which resulted, it was a convincing fallacy. Eventually, those who had survived the blast, newly restructured and reconstituted as canine or other forms of life, would figure out how to use and expand on whatever social and technological innovations the humans had left behind in their literature, as what was left behind was now very much within their grasp mentally and physically.
Much as this potential utopia seemed available, however, it had to be put aside for the moment in the face of something else that was inherited from the human beings- passionate feelings of hatred towards others, and a desire to control as much new territory in the new Earth as could be held. The new inhabitants of Earth would have to learn to live with each other and not kill each other randomly in epic, violent feasts of the contents of their bodies- blood, skin, sweat, black ink and sinewy nitrate film stock- before any talk of utopia and its’ benefits could be accomplished. This was, increasingly, something that seemed almost a pipe dream, given how firmly entrenched violence and violent warfare had entrenched itself as part of the new society, even more so than it had been within the old. And this bloodshed and fighting, as was often the case in history, was almost solely the province of one forceful, fearsome group.
The Hammond Weed, the Mafia of one of the new races to emerge from the ashes of the old one, was the perpetrator of much more than its fair share. The very name of this fearsome group, vicious, bloodthirsty and merciless, struck the residents of this new North America with the same sort of terror that the likes of Ivan The Terrible and Attila The Hun had once done to those who suffered under the heels of their boots. The comparison was apt when one considers both the group’s origins and their agenda. In Hollywood, long before even the blast, there were various and sundry forms of angry and frustrated colony of cartoon characters, an ancient, powerful group of denizens of the realm of faerie, who had become employed by the Hollywood film studios as a means of “entertaining” the citizenry of earlier times. They had once simply been two-dimensional images of film and nothing more, but, as with everything else in this world, they were victims of unprecedented change that no one would have ever expected. In the human wars, the Hollywood film studios were bombarded, heavily and constantly, with nuclear bombardments from the Far East. This allowed the old film cells, computer generated images, and drawings which had once been “animated” in name only came to become that in fact. Together and independently, they established social advocacy groups which fought viciously with each other for attention from Washington, which ignored and belittled them merely as a tolerable menace until the time of reckoning arrived. By far the most formidable, and the most vicious of these groups of creatures, was the Hammond Weed, which came to become dominant over the rest with vicious and deadly consequences.
The Hammond Weed considered themselves not only the most powerful and intimidating of the new races of “cartoons” but also the real, divinely guided leaders of the planet Earth, as the narratives of their previous incarnations supposedly had foretold numerous times. This was in spite the fact that the new canine race vastly outnumbered them in size, intelligence and population, and who believed, conversely, that the land and world now belonged to them, out of a recognition of their social and economic dominance rather than divine right. Consequently, these two groups- dogs and cartoons alike- were in constant conflict, seeking ways to dominate and control the other. In this, the dogs were willing to play by the rules of war, which they had come to know and respect, but the Hammond Weed was definitely not. They knew the rules, too, but found it more expedient to do things their own way- as their cartoon ancestors had always done.
It was well known to all and sundry that the Hammond Weed repeatedly and justifiably (in their eyes alone) resorted to torture and death to get people to think their way, in ways that rivalled any of the tyrants and dictators that existed in the time of the human beings. More often than not, unfortunately for their opponents, the Weed did get what it wanted, spreading a trail of death and disorderly behavior wherever it went and striking terror in the heart of anyone who even dared to try and cross their path. Make no mistake; they were not to be crossed.
This was what the young boy dog named Jack Mongrel knew, and, indeed, was why he was now running away from his war torn North Dakota home, where the Hammond Weed were holding strong, to the border with Canada, where the dogs were managing to hold on to power- for now, anyway. No doubt, he thought to himself, he would be safe there. At least until the Weed finally managed to find him.
It was late in the evening, Central Standard Time, when Jack arrived at his goal: Pembina, where the ruins of the great border crossing stood. Getting across the border- once a laborious and time-consuming process among the human beings- was now extremely simple. All Jack needed to do was step across the still extant border line. Soon, he would be able to cross the border into the country formerly known as Canada, as he wanted and desired. He’d be able to take shelter for the night in Emerson, Manitoba, only a couple of miles away, and then he would proceed on to Winnipeg, once the provincial capital and still largest city in the former Canadian province, where he hoped to forge a new and better life for himself.
He paused for just a moment, panting, in order to regain his momentum and his speed. He’d come a long way this day and he showed the effects of it. Whereas once the gaiety of youth had danced across his face, the anxiety, fear, mournfulness and hatred of the past few days were now written there, and, no matter how hard he tried, the effects of those days would not be washed off of him soon, if at all. Rubbing the grit out of the part of his brown pelt that covered his head, and removing any notion of sleep from his tired blue eyes for the time being, he pressed on. He had a goal to meet for himself and he was going to make sure that he made it. Within moments, he crossed the borderline into Canada, stepping over the clumsily painted yellow line as if it was not even there. But any notions of his being free, from his enemies or anyone else, in the Northern land, were completely erased from his mind soon after that. For, much as he would not like to have had it such, his life was again under threat.
As he past the equally decrepit Canadian immigration station and wandered up towards Emerson, he was being watched. Watched by someone who was no friend of his and would not be any time soon. She was a giantess in Great Dane form, clad only in leather from chest to toes, with only the forepaws at the end of her meaty upper arms exposed. She lurked around the corner, searching, as she had been assigned to do, for any sort of intruders. “Intruders”, for the most part, meant Americans, since it was far more likely that villains like the Hammond Weed would enter the sanctity of Canada and profane the land with their blood, bullets and fire than would beings with more benign and friendly intentions- such as Jack. Though officially, all were welcome, as there were no longer no hard and fast formal government policies regarding restrictions on immigration- since there was no formal government at all anymore- the border area was still run on the basis of an informal, if tactless, approach to keeping things “under control”. The Dane was, therefore, enforcing the social system of cues designed to keep Canada “safe”, though her determination was re-enforced not so much out of this desire for justice and sense of obligation as her utter, racist hatred of all Americans for the way they had destroyed themselves and allowed things to get out of control for everyone else including Canada- which, in turn, seemed to threaten her personally as well.
She spotted him as he snuck past the old motor vehicle receiving area, which, as with the rest of the facilities, was only a mere shadow of its former impressive and respectable self. That was her cue, as the self-appointed “border patrol” officer, to take action as she and only she saw fit. And it wasn’t very “fit” if you cared about such now arcane notions as justice, since she didn’t care anything about that.
“God damn Americans!” she mumbled to herself. “Like there aren’t enough of ‘em up here as it is!” It was true many American creatures had come north for the social and economic opportunities, but they were not entirely welcome, as they took those opportunities away from the Canadians themselves. This created additional tensions among the Americans and Canadians living together on both sides of the border, and made it much more easier for violence to break out in both countries more often than either country would have liked.
Events of the past had therefore become something the Dane was determined to avenge by keeping as many of the “enemy” out of her territory as possible. And, she believed, this youth would be no harder to send back “home”, even easier because of his relatively small size, in fact. Shifting her tone, she shouted a command to young Jack, as soon as she was able to get in his hearing rage.
“GET BACK HERE, YANK!” she growled, unfriendly and insensitive entirely in tone.
The young dog boy, in his tattered white undershirt and orange shorts, heard her command, but he was in no way about to heed it. He was not going back to the war-torn United States while his life was on the line there, and, when in fact, there was little of his old life there remaining for him to enjoy. Instead, he started to run for his life again, desperate in his aim to escape this assailant, only the latest of a number of such insensitive beings who had tried to come between him and his life since he began his quest from the base of the Red River far away. Consequently, Jack was quick to spring into flight when the border official called for him, knowing full well that, should he actually accede to any of her demands, he would be forced back to where he came, and that was something he did not desire in the least. And so he ran north, towards Emerson, so temptingly close on the still extant highways remaining from the human times. His quick motion meant that few, that is to say, none, of the bullets the patrol officer fired at him actually hit him. They continued like this for a few more kilometers until fate interceded on the boy’s behalf. In a positive way, this time.
The fate that interceded in defense of the young, bedraggled and perpetually hunted young boy dog came in the form of a large, yellow-furred female even larger than his pursuer, and thus, therefore, quite powerful, strong and formidable. Without word or warning, she came out of the bushes at the side of the road and stood between Jack and the vengeful Dane. The creature wore a black mask over her eyes, black arm bands on her arms, a black head band, a maroon undershirt and shorts with “RR” monogrammed on them in white, and black leg warmers on her legs. She quickly demonstrated how fast and strong she was by grabbing the Dane’s gun before she could fire another shot and quickly crumpling it in a powerful fist. Jack, stunned that anyone outside his immediate family would take such a protective interest in him, stopped in his tracks and observed their confrontation from the safety of a small pile of shrubbery that happened to be conveniently placed by the side of the highway road where he had been running.
“Out of my way, schmuck,” demanded the Dane, waving a threatening fist at the newcomer. “I got to do a number on that sleazy little Yank! And anybody who knows their salt knows better than to interfere with the perpetration of the actions of the border patrol, anyhow! Who the hell do you think you are, anyhow? I don’t care if you are strong enough to bust my gun up like that! You try to stop me from fulfilling my duty as efficiently like as possible and I’ll give you such a beating- the likes of which you won’t recover from for a month of Sundays! Dig me, you creep?”
The mysterious stranger did not hesitate a moment. There was no trace of the sort of cowering wimp behavior the Dane had come to expect from anyone she so much as raised her voice to. When the stranger did not move or seem to react at all, the Dane attempted to intimidate her into a fight, a fight the Dane (erroneously) knew she would win. She swore at the stranger, slapped her face, even pulled her tightly by her maroon T shirt to see if she could get something, anything, of a rise out of her. She was soon to regret her actions- in an extremely painful way.
The stranger reacted by pulling herself out of the Dane’s grasp effortlessly, as if the powerfully built Dane were herself built only out of papier mache. When the Dane’s grasp was broken, the stranger swung a powerful fist against the Dane’s head, felling her to the ground like some disheveled, dying elm. The Dane attempted to gain her feet, stumbling and swearing as she did, but one of the stranger’s powerful feet kicked her down as she did, and the Dane landed down again, dazed with her strength spent, on the hard blacktop of the highway. Having bested her foe, the creature lifted her opponent high above her head as she spat out a warning to her.
“I don’t appreciate anyone in my vicinity getting viciously manhandled,” she cracked. “Especially if they happen to be underage! I don’t care if you are part of some asinine system like the border patrol, or whatever rotten “laws” you’re trying to enforce. People like that young fellow are my friends, and they always will be! Now, if you haven’t got anything better than to try and make him feel scared and useless, I have no choice but to let you feel exactly like that for yourself! ”
And with a dazzling display of speed and strength, the Dane found herself twirled in the air, thrown with the speed and power of an expert quarterback, and returned to the calamitous ruins of the border station where she had come from.
Having handled the malefactor, the maroon clad marvel turned her attention to the spry youth whose life she had just saved. Jack was awed, but at the same time he was suspicious. Surely, she was of good intentions, having saved him from a fate worse than death, but he could not be certain of that from her previous actions. What if, in fact, she was a super-powered villain who had dispatched the border official so she could harm him herself? There was only way for him to find out. Walking towards the figure, he took a deep breath and spoke to her.
“Thank you,” he said. “You know, you didn’t really have to do that. I could have handled her easily myself. I got some training in martial arts, y’know!”
This was a lie, and the cheesy smile he added at the end only served to reinforce the fear as well as the mendacity behind the statement. The creature seemed at first to be unmoved and lacking in any sentiment, but then she spoke.
“Merely doing my job, sir,” said the female, in crisp, authoritative tones. “Red Rover knows when she’s needed, and this was just one of those times. I have committed myself to defending the meek and helpless, such as yourself, and I don’t care about any border matters, if that’s what’s worrying you about me. I am the friend of everyone who is committed to goodness and mercy, and, since I can obviously see that you need those things above all else, I want to be yours, too. That is, if you’ll let me. I have no intention of gaining your friendship by the kind of force I just used, because I…”
“Red Rover?” the boy asked, quizzically. “Why do you call yourself that? Your outfit is actually maroo…”
“Don’t get smart!” was the curt reply. “It’s close enough for red! Besides which, I can camouflage myself a lot easier dressed like this. You didn’t see me coming around the corner when you were fleeing for your life, did you? But then again, you were too busy fleeing for your life, so you wouldn’t have noticed that anyway. Anyhow, I can’t call myself “Maroon Rover”, now, can I? That’s a stupid name! Do you think I could intimidate anybody with a dumb name like that? No! My name is RED ROVER and it’s staying that, regardless of what you think!”
“Man! You’re pretty testy for a hero,” Jack answered. “You must have a lot of friends with an arrogant, stuck-up attitude like that, lady! But superheroes usually don’t have a lot of friends, anyhow. They’re pretty much loners, and I bet you’re one, too. ”
“You’re right,” she said, with a touch of emotion finally starting to surface in her voice, much to Jack’s surprise. ”I don’t have a lot of friends. I have a lot of enemies, but not too many friends.” She kicked a stone in the direction of Emerson, and, somewhere far away, a glass window shattered. “Not that I don’t try to make friends, or that I don’t want any. It would help a lot if I did have friends; make my job of protecting the city a whole lot easier than it is now. But there’s always the risk that I’ll do something that’ll make a so-called “friend” become an enemy and someone who’ll betray me to the authorities. So I don’t have a lot of friends, and I don’t think I will have any any time soon.”
“Could I be your friend?”
Jack was looking up at her when he said this. His eyes had expanded to “cute” size, making it difficult for the Rover to resist him. He was, after all, quite young, and these kind of open and unabashed emotional displays were something that even a tough girl like her had difficulty resisting at times. Yet, after a bit of one-sided mental debate in her brain, logic and duty won out, and, with tomboy swagger, she did managed to resist his advances.
“Yes,” she answered blankly. “But not now, okay? I mean, I can’t really give you too much information about myself. Superhero protocol and all. Besides, I have to leave. My turf’s really a little farther norm from here, and I really went out of my way to come down here, and the other superheroes probably won’t like it if I stay around here too much longer….”
“LEAVE?” Jack said, stunned. “Just like that? You’re just gonna abandon me out here like this? You only just got here! Don’t you want to get to know me? I mean, we are friends now, aren’t we? And friends don’t keep too many secrets from each other, do they? Otherwise they wouldn’t be friends, now, would they?”
“Sure, we can be friends and all, but let’s talk about it more the next time I see you, okay, kid?” the Rover said dismissively, as if she wanted to get away from him as soon as possible. “I never forget a face, so I’ll find you soon enough.” And she leaped up and jumped behind a conveniently placed bush, once again leaving Jack to his own devices.
He found it hard to repress the sadness and hatred building up in him. Was he just somebody who could easily be brushed off? She seemed to think so, with her cavalier and arrogant attitude towards him, but that was not the view Jack preferred to cultivate of himself, by any means. When he said he wanted to be friends with somebody, after all, he meant it, since he’d hardly had any in his life to start with- and really wanted at least one.
That’s just peachy, Jack thought to himself with an emerging sob in his voice. I meet a real life super hero and she doesn’t want to be friends with me. What am I, poison? Am I not good enough for you? Well, that’s all right with me, you big jerk! I hope you get radiation poisoning or however it is you stupid creeps get sick and die for being so mean to me, and I hope that you get killed in a rumble with a giant monster trying to prevent Winnipeg from being destroyed by it! That’ll teach you not to mess with my feelings!
But these verbal ramblings were interrupted in his head when he met someone else who was now coming into his life, and this one, he soon discovered, would display a strong and caring interest in him. Which was exactly what he needed right now, though he would never admitted to anyone openly.
This became apparent to him as another female emerged from the bush which the Rover had gone behind. This one looked a lot like her, in fact. The fur color, size, face and the headband she was wearing were similar, but in place of the Rover’s skimpy superhero clothes, she was wearing a pair of black sweatpants and a red sweatshirt with a white fringe at the collar, as well as comfortable looking sandals. She noticed the boy sitting sadly on the side of the road and went up to him. For she, unlike Red Rover, had a social conscience and empathy that was readily evident in all aspects of her personality. This made it harder for the few beings who knew the truth to fully reconcile the fact, when they discovered it, that she and Red Rover were one and the same!
“How goes it, friend?” the new strange dog said comfortingly as she moved towards Jack, sitting now sadly by the side of the road again. “Someone of your youth should not be that depressed. You should be happier than that. Childhood’s supposed to be a carefree time, now, isn’t it? ”
“Well, I am depressed, lady,” Jack said. “And I honestly don’t have as much to be happy about now as you seemed to think! A super hero just saved my life and gave me the brush off when I wanted to be her friend. In a real snotty way, too. She didn’t say it, but she seems to think we only exist for the purpose of her rescuing us. She didn’t even seem to think that I actually had feelings!”
“Those heroes sure are unsociable. I know,” she answered, sitting down, “I live in a town where there’s plenty out of them, and most of ‘em are too busy to be friendly. But I’m not. What’s your handle?”
“Jack. Jack Mongrel.”
“You aren’t related to Phyllis Mongrel, the recently deceased North Dakota rabble rouser, are you? ‘Cause she was doing a real good job battling the Hammond Weed and all those guys, and it seems like a shame that she had to go. Murder’s never something you can deal with easily. Especially like that- eesh! ”
“Yeah. She’s- she was my mother. But how did you know about that?“
“Because you bear a remarkable resemblance to her, among other things. Those eyes are hers, for sure.”
“I mean, how did you know about my mother? She didn’t like to let on about what she was really doing, even to me. Besides which, North Dakota is kind of isolated, especially now with all of the warfare and everything, and I didn’t think anybody else would have known about what was going on there…”
The female laughed. Not contemptuously, but in a friendly way. Jack liked that. It was good for him to hear something positive in his ears for a change.
“North Dakota is not isolated! From anything! Especially not from us up north in Canada,” the female said. “Where did you think you were living, Siberia? You Americans probably think we Canadians are some sort of primitives, don’t you? That we’ve all being running ‘round like mad in loincloths and stuff, just waiting for the Americans to put us out of our misery? That’s what you think, don’t you? They thought about us like before that before the bomb dropped, and it didn’t help them a little bit! Well, we Canadians aren’t idiots, or fools, or morons, or anything else like that! We have brains in our heads, and we’re smart enough to not get ourselves into any of those petty and bloody conflicts you guys have been fighting, with the cartoons and among yourselves. I’m surprised that all of you hadn’t killed all of them yet, or vice versa. Yeah! You look surprised, don’t you? Well, you should be! We know all about you guys, thanks to technology. We may not have invented the stuff you guys did, but we do know how to use it! And, like I said, we know when you Americans are getting in over your heads, and we know damn well not to get ourselves mixed up in your problems. That is, unless you guys start coming up north and filling up the vacant rooms in our cities like you’ve been doing recently. Then your problems become our problems, too!”
“I never said you were primitive!” Jack replied defensively. “ Or any of the other things you just said. Mom always said Canadians were the kindest and most thoughtful people in the world, and I’d be lucky to be in their company. Your nobility and your courage puts us to shame, especially recently. There’s a lot of folks in America who talk about being brave and holding the fort and everything, but most of the time they’re just running scared. Not like the Canadians- when they say something, they mean it, so you know right away that they can be trusted- most of the time, anyway. That’s why Mom and I started up north when the war started, because we knew the Canadians wouldn’t be stupid enough to go to war with the Americans- or themselves, for that matter!”
“Well, she was half right,” answered his companion. “We’re thoughtful, a lot more often than your country-folks might think, but some of us aren’t nearly as kind as you seem to think. But I am myself. I’m Madge Wildfire, by the way. I probably should have told you that from the beginning, but I have too much to say most of the time so I kind of delay those sorts of things until it’s too late. I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up earlier. That was why, when I got my super powers, I figured I’d reverse some of the unkind stuff around here. I mean, someone has to. The big problems that are still around- crime and all that- aren’t gonna solve themselves, now, are they?”
She said it casually enough, as if it were a simple, mundane facet of her life and nothing else. To Jack, however, when the phrase “super powers” had dropped in his ear, it seemed to him that he had been given access to all the secrets of the universe unleashed, at one blow, yet. Accordingly, his jaw dropped.
“You have super powers?” he said, with typical bewildered astonishment.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I work under cover, though- not like this. But then again, you probably already know my secret identity- Red Rover.”
“Uh huh,” he said, suddenly crossing his arms and snorting angrily in recognition.
So that was who she was, he thought. Uppity and snotty one moment, and friendly the next. Which one of them represented the real dog in the body next to him, if there was anything “real” about her at all? He didn’t know whether to be angry or impressed with this sudden revelation. However, she made him make up his mind about it very quickly with a further display of her humanity.
“Sorry I had to be short with you like that,” said Madge. “But I had to be sure you were real. You know, honest. I can’t risk anybody ratting me out to the fuzz, now, can I? Especially since I got a pretty long record that I pulled up around me back in the day.”
“Why wouldn’t I be honest?” Jack asked her rhetorically. “Being honest is the only way I know how to deal with people. It usually is, when you’re a kid.”
“I can’t take any chances,” retorted Madge. “Where I come from, there’s too many people living there, and you can’t expect every one of them will be your friend. Cities aren’t like the playground- you can’t expect to know or get to know everyone living there, even if you’re eager enough to want to do something crazy like that!”
“So you live in Winnipeg? Over there?” Jack pointed in the direction of the city.
“Yep,” answered Madge laconically.
Winnipeg. All anyone needed to know about the closest thing to an oasis in this new, strange world was summed in that name, given to it many years ago by the Native human peoples who had once congregated there to trade (although, to them, it carried the much more unpleasant connotation of “muddy water”). Since that time, many others had followed this example, and not simply for trade. Just as it had been known in the days of the humans, Winnipeg remained the Chicago of the North, located at the junction of the Red River, coming north from North Dakota and the Assiniboine River, flowing east from Saskatchewan. In this new world, Winnipeg had become more fortunate than it had been during the human time, when the brief period of importance it attained in the early twentieth century as a center of culture and trade had been short-lived, and it had been eclipsed by larger and more powerful cities. But that was then, and this was now. Now, Winnipeg was the only former Canadian city that had been spared the fire bombing and nuclear warfare of the wars of the previous years- the wars in which the cartoons and dogs fought for dominance of North America and helped to kill off the human race in the process. It was also the only one to prosper from the destruction of the old means by which humans conducted commerce, in particular the near total collapse of the North American automobile industry by putting its aging factories to work making bicycles, scooters and other “green” or “green” friendly products. And still, continuing a spectator sport that had existed long before the bombs dropped, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Regina, Saskatoon, Halifax and St. John’s considered themselves “better” in completely self-centered and self-justifiable ways, they who had taken far less beneficial beatings in the warfare. Well, there was the matter of those winters, the invasions of mosquitoes in the summer time, and the constant threat of flooding from the Red in particular, but, other than that, Winnipeg was the closest thing to a “nice place”- to visit, to work, or to live in- that still remained in North America, and, just as Detroit had once tempted the unemployed with the prospect of work in its now long defunct automobile factories, Winnipeg called out to those needing work and a safe place to live, learn and grow in this new and more uncertain universe.
Jack lit up hearing the city’s name, for it sounded preferable to the living hell he’d just escaped. North Dakota was a maze of terror and dangers in comparison, and he needed to be somewhere safer if he was to continue. But, even if he was to make it there, would a friendless, family-less creature like himself be able to find a secure home and base of operations? Madge seemed to offer a solution to that problem, so he eyed her with some measure of expectation.
“Can you take me there?” he asked. “Help me get settled there and stuff?”
“Of course,” Madge said. “I need a pal- at least one who isn’t a crumb-bum, rummy or crook, anyhow! Too many of those in my past, unfortunately. I got a spare room in my place where you can crash. Got a bed and everything- you’ve probably going without those sorts of luxuries for a while, haven’t you? You just stay with me until you feel you can make it by yourself. And there’s also the little matter of Red Rover needing a sidekick. It’s pretty damn hard being a solo act, I should say. A lot easier to get jumped and beaten up when you’re alone. An extra pair of eyes- and fists- would come in handy for me. What do you say about that, Jack?”
He nodded assent. Nothing more needed to be said, at least nothing of importance to this section of the narrative, so they began walking as the friends they had now become.
TO BE CONTINUED
Ted Garvin, a middle-aged, disabled writer of mixed Native American/European descent, lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, with his wife and menagerie. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor's degree, but that and $2.00 (adjusted for inflation) will buy you a coffee. His favorite authors, in no particular order, are Patrick O'Brian, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, and Homer.
DOGGERLAND-DECCAN'S SAGA by Ted Garvin (Series)
The enemy camp was a shanty town of wicker huts, but he didn't have much time to gawk because they were hustled into a wooden holding pen. As soon as he was released from the chain, he had to relieve himself, but there was no place to do it except out in the open. He went into a corner, where the stench was almost unbearable. As soon as he had finished, he returned to the group, deeply embarrassed. A guard offered him water.
He saw a girl—a woman—about his own age. Like him, she was dressed in animal skins, but where his light brown arms were bare of markings, she had tattoos—dotted wavy lines, with spirals around her wrists. She was pale-skinned, with reddish-brown hair and, instead of brown, she had greenish-blue eyes. She told him her name, Bekah, and that she lived near the northwestern sea coast. Her parents had been killed in the raid that brought her in. She was fiercely attractive.
Had he fallen asleep? Here he was, curled upon the ground, Bekah slept nearby. Ani and Aber snored softly, off by themselves. The other people in the cage were beginning to stir. Breakfast was a thin gruel—wild barley and not much else. Certain that his mother was dead, he vowed vengeance.
The guards took them out of the cage and brought them to a wooden platform, where they were offered at auction. They stood there, now stripped down to their loincloths. Potential buyers poked and prodded them—a woman made him open his mouth to inspect his teeth. Deccan's face turned red with shame and impotent rage.
A man with red hair came and took his friends Ani and Aber, Bekah, and him to their new owners. When he hesitated, a guard pushed him forward. A god gave him the wisdom not to resist.
Aber started to ask a question, but a reptilian look from Bekah stopped him. The young people followed the man through rows of identical brown huts with thatched roofs. Upon entering one, they beheld an old man—about forty—with withered legs, reclining on a cot. He sat up and greeted the red headed man. An unintelligible conversation followed.
“We are guests of the Arkenesai—whom we call nose-pickers. We now belong to Bowdin, this man with small legs,” Bekah translated, quietly. “Deccan, you are to carry him about where he needs to go. Aber and Ani are to become domestics, cooking and cleaning. I will have special duties. I am here for the red-headed man's amusement.”
That was often the lot of female slaves. Even the brothers knew not to ask.
Time passes. The God that dies in the autumn and who is reborn in the spring had returned from the Underworld. Sex was on every creature's mind. Deccan grew strong and learned much from the old man.
The young men learned the language. Bowdin was kind, after his fashion, but the red-haired man, Aumes, not so much. He enforced discipline and enjoyed beating them for the slightest infraction—whacks with a slender stick.
Occasionally at night, Deccan could hear Bekah cry out in pain. He was afraid to ask.
He listened to a caged starling sing the unpleasant buzz-song of its people. Tempted to release it, he didn't want to endure a scold and possible beating. He sat there, complicit in its captivity.
“What are you thinking about?” Ani asked. He and Aber went everywhere together.
“Freedom,” said Deccan.
“That's something that is in short supply.” Bekah had stalked in. “It does little good to lament its loss, if you're not prepared to acquire it.”
Deccan frowned. Her constant irritability frustrated him. He tried to impress her, but achieved the opposite result.
“I saw someone who had tried, just hanging around.” Ani's gallows humor lightened a tense situation. Bekah looked like she wanted to kill someone.
“The ones they catch?” Deccan said, grimly. “You never hear about those who succeed.”
“Of course not. I wonder...” Bekah's voice trailed off.
They let her think. She was frequently irritable.
“We will need to cache supplies for a long journey,” Bekah said, in a low voice. “The opportunity may come without a moment's notice.”
“'The ready man makes his own luck.'” Deccan quoted a proverb.
They discussed possible avenues of escape and what they could do. It was best to be prepared.
Their chance came during Midsummer. There would be a religious festival to celebrate. Animals would be offered to their gods, resulting in copious food and heavy drinking of the Sacred Berry Juice. People would be coming in from miles; there would be lots of confused activity. Four insignificant people would not be missed, especially if something happened to create a diversion. There was only one catch—Deccan's charge.
They were outside, behind their hut. The weather had been dry for weeks, creating a tinderbox, ready to go off. Aber was keeping watch, unless he had fallen asleep.
“We will have to kill the old man, obviously,” said Bekah.
“Why? What has he done to us?” asked Deccan.
“He will give the alarm, when we are discovered missing,” said Bekah. “If he is dead, it will be days before we are missed.”
He thought that she was wrong. He was hardly invisible. Important, he was the only paralyzed member of the camp. Deccan was reluctant to kill him, for reasons he couldn't explain. Bekah had her own reasons. Deccan's clan had a taboo against killing anything you had not the slightest intention of eating. Vengeance was therefore problematic, unless you ate your victim.
“Not if we did it now, at the Festival,” Bekah said. “No one would notice a little extra chaos.”
“We could get him drunk or something,” said Ani.
“What did you have in mind?” Deccan asked.
“Your timidity amazes me. We should come up with a plan and act! The gods know we need to.”
“I agree,” said Deccan, “but we should sleep on it. Maybe They will give us a plan.”
“We don't need to. I know what needs to happen.”
“We need to stop talking about it before someone notices an extended conversation in a strange language,” Deccan said, he glanced at Bekah. “We are getting rather loud.”
By bedtime, they still disagreed. Deccan retired to the room he shared with the brothers. Accustomed to living rough—to sleeping in furs on the ground, he laid down on the cot and fell asleep.
He and his mother were eating a meal, outside their tent, back home. The aroma from the cooking meat was mouth-watering. A little confused, he asked if she was dead.
“It's not as simple as that.” She patted his head fondly. “As long as you remember me, I am still alive. One more thing before you wake up, dear. You must not kill that old man.”
She smiled, enigmatically.
He awoke, briefly, with an acute sense of loss. The dream had been so real. She had been so present. It took a moment, but then he remembered that his mother was still dead, at least so he thought. Confused, he went back to sleep.
Morning. The Sun Goddess prepared for battle once more. Last night had been long—she had tossed and turned upon Her bed, battling mysterious night creatures. Dawn, day's herald, painted the azure sky crimson.
Deccan stretched. He hadn't slept well—stiff. Upon entering the common room, he saw Bekah, who did not look happy.
“Hey,” he said. “We have got to rethink this escape plan.”
She gave him a doubtful look.
“My mother told me that we must not kill Bowdin,” he said. “We just can't.”
“The Dead speak to you, do they? What makes you so special?”
Deccan tried to explain his understanding of the mystical nature of death further, but became confused and incoherent. He gave up.
A recipe for disaster.
Ani and Aber worked in a kitchen supervised by Aumes. They would haul water and tend the fire, which had to burn continually, a constant supply of hot water being vital to any cooking enterprise. It was going to be a confused affair, with people coming and going. Noise. Chaos. Ingredients in; food out. Tasty, usually, unless someone had accidentally dropped something unsavory in the stew. The last time that happened, they'd been beaten.
Aumes kept yelling at them to move faster, to become more efficient, which had the opposite effect. Ani, in a panic, accidentally bumped into Aber who, normally the sweetest of people, became flustered. He dropped the pot of grease he was carrying and it splattered into the fire. It flowed as though it was a living thing with will and intention. The resulting conflagration got out of control and quickly engulfed the room—the building was set ablaze.
Aumes began issuing orders in earnest to “the dirty little savages” under his command. His desire—combating the inferno, which threatened the highly combustible camp. People ran back and forth in a frenzy of attempted communication. Then a strong wind came up.
Ani and Aber took advantage and ran to their hut to advise the others.
“I can't just leave Bowdin to die in a fire. That's a horrible death.” As he said this, Deccan went into Bowdin's room, then returned with him slung over his shoulder. “Let's go.”
To be continued