As we drove out, I allowed myself to hope that there’d be nothing there, that we’d reach the commune, and find that they’d all just packed up and moved on. But as we approached, I saw a crude sign stabbed into the side of the road, that said, Market, Up Ahead.
Maybe a troupe of that Gonlogos’s goons would come swooping down in with their engines roaring and take us all out. We’d never have to drive into that commune waving guns around, kidnapping women too addled in the head to consent to ice cream, never mind their own death.
That didn’t happen either.
We drove up on a lively market, a mixture of baked, farmed and hand-crafted goods. Girls in long dresses with long hair, waving to our convoy. They seemed unafraid.
After that I felt a detached sort of curiosity. This was going to go the way it would. I had no part in it, and no power to stop it. I just wondered idly at how Seth would play it.
And maybe that was naïve, because it looked like it was going to be with his natural charm. And by natural charm, I mean that he stepped out of the truck with his SMG in hand and warned all-assembled not to get creative if they didn’t want a bullet in the head. And most of these were young women whose bellies were swollen to almost full term.
Are you going to do it, Seth? Are you going to gun down some pregnant women?
I don’t know what it says about me that a part of me wanted to see them force his hand, press the boundaries. I just wanted to know what he’d do.
The hippies looked at him blankly.
“I’m sorry to do this to you folks, but you have something we need. We don’t really want to hurt anyone, but this is for the greater good. So why don’t you just point me in the direction of somebody who’s in charge?”
He might as well have told them: take me to your leader.
A very blond woman stood up slowly. She held up her hands. “We’re peaceful here.”
“And you can stay peaceful once we’re done.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“You in charge?”
“That’s what I want.”
“I think her name is Karen.”
What else does it say about me, what kind of darkness is there cooling its heels in the back of my head that I hoped the next thing she’d say was that Karen was dead?
The blond lady asked, “Why Karen?”
“She can help us.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
There was something that seemed to pass through them. If I didn’t know better, I would have called it a psychic wave. There were a couple of heads turned towards other heads, brows creased in puzzlement. There was no panic.
The blond woman said, “Elder is in charge. As much as anyone.”
“That’s his name. Elder.”
I think Seth was tempted to roll his eyes, which made me in turn want to stifle a little laugh. I had Zara under my arm all this time, since we’d left the camp, her eyes dripping tears all that time, her body draped against mine, infusing her warmth, comingling our existence. She didn’t want to let me go, and I could feel her heartbeat against my ribs. She looked up at me with that almost laugh, she blinked at fresh tears, and turned a practiced hate-glare on Seth.
Seth said, “Fine. Let’s talk to the old guy.”
He wasn’t exactly old. He was probably on one edge or the other of fifty, and he seemed to have adopted the hippie cult-leader persona with a whole heart. He wore loose trousers, with a heavily embroidered waistcoat over the top, and rows of earrings, along with a chin and several nose piercings.
He looked at us as if he didn’t see the guns. “Welcome, welcome.”
“We need the girl,” Seth said, “the one called Karen. The mutant.”
That’s it. Layer on the charm, dude.
“Why do you need her?”
“To save the world.”
You’re so full of yourself you complete and utter prick.
Seth looked as if he was about to do a sweeping gesture, but then he couldn’t see any sign of the gum in his immediate area. He tried for a withering look instead. “Take a guess.”
“I don’t know what she’ll say.”
“Say? It’s not a request.”
But you can’t use her once you shoot her in the head.
“She sees things differently.”
Seth ushered me forward. ‘Ushered’ is one way of saying had two men grab me one by each shoulder and shove me into Elder’s immediate visual range. I could see people gathered behind him, Elaine was amongst them, and Mari. “This guy does too. He’s standing up and doing his duty.”
Oh, go fuck yourself you little…
Zara almost came forward, she almost launched herself at him.
I shook my head.
That fucking little…
Yes, I know
And all the same it stung, realising that I wasn’t that guy. That my standing up was being forced upon me. I looked up at the blue sky remembering this was my last time seeing it.
Elder looked at me. I didn’t know him, but I felt as if he recognised me. He said, “Come this way.”
And we came. A girl of about fifteen brought Karen out to the front of the house. She was barefoot and had a crochet shawl around her.
“Karen?” Seth asked.
“Do you understand me?”
She stifled a giggle.
“We need your help.”
“We need your…” he was improvising, he was trying to size her up. “We need your protection. We’re going to take the fight to the invaders, and when they hit back, we need you and Nate here to shield us.”
She didn’t ask how she was supposed to do this. I got a distinct impression that she already knew. She said, “You’re going killing.”
“Damn straight we are.”
“They didn’t choose…”
“Too damn bad.” And he sized her up again, “but it’s us or them. Isn’t it? You can understand that better than anyone.”
“That’s why you’re going to help us. Because you know it’ll be end of days for one species or the other.”
She nodded again.
Fancy guesswork, I conceded.
“I’m going to need you to come with us.”
The teenage girl grabbed Karen’s arm.
“I don’t want to have to hurt any of your friends.”
Elder seemed to ignore all and everything else. He was just looking at Karen. It was almost as if he did worship her, as if their whole strange commune was predicated around the idea of her as some sort of a saviour. Whatever else, it seemed to be her choice.
And she nodded.
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut: “This is probably going to kill us both. It’s a suicide mission. He’s pretty sure we’ll both die.”
Maybe Seth rolled his eyes again.
Elder was unfazeable; he just shifted his gaze to say wordlessly, Oh?
Karen trotted nimbly down the steps and came to stand in front of me. “Nate.”
“This guy’s going to kill us. I’m not kidding.”
“I remember you.”
“Do you believe him? About saving the world?”
“Do you want to find out?”
Well, I’m not bloody going to, am I? However, it goes. I’ll be too dead to know. I controlled myself for Zara’s sake. “I don’t know. This is serious. I don’t know if he’ll use those guns on anyone or not, I haven’t seen him do it, but I don’t know. But I really don’t think you’ll come back if you come with us. It’s a one-way trip.”
“It’s always a one-way trip.”
“Not like this. I just have to know that you get it. We’re sacrifices, both of us, and I’m doubting we’ll die gently.” I could feel Zara’s eyes, guilt dug into all the crevices, but I wasn’t letting Karen walk into this unprepared.
“It’s okay,” she said, “I haven’t been scared now for weeks, maybe months.”
Seth cut in, “We should go.”
“She hasn’t agreed.”
Karen said, “should I?”
You should run like hell. But I couldn’t find my voice. And I didn’t think Seth would let her run like hell.
Karen walked over to the truck, she let one of Seth’s guys take her hand and help her up. If she was scared, she didn’t show it. She didn’t show anything. There was something calm and clear about her that almost made me think of Seth.
“Let’s go then,” Elder said.
Seth tilted his head.
“Or are none of us invited?”
“We’re heading off to fight,” the derision was plain.
“It seems like it.”
“Do you even know how to?”
“Are we the ones who’ll matter?”
I thought to myself: what do you know? Just what do you and Seth know that you’re keeping from us? Does any of it intersect? Is any of it right?
Anyway, it was decided. The hippies had cars behind the farmhouse. The also turned out to have a few guns and some long knives. It was too surreal for me even to smirk, even seeing the look on Seth’s face. It looked like we had ourselves a convoy.
Tristan sat opposite me in the truck, “Go figure,” he said. He looked as if he thought Karen might bite him when she came and sat at his side.