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“I won't say the 2004 elections had nothing to do with it. I won't say the hole in the ozone layer has nothing to do with it. I certainly won't claim that being raised by an economist had nothing to do with it. Some problems are so large, so overwhelming, that issues of culpability and responsibility can seem impossibly convoluted. But I always find myself left with one simple question—who profits?”

That was the introduction I had to come up with for this dystopian fantasy when it was first published in 2006, in issue nine of Aeon, a wonderful electronic magazine of speculative fiction put together by Bridget and Marti McKenna that appears, sadly, to now be defunct. (I hope it wasn't my story that did it!)

SpecialKinFlag posted a wonderful quote earlier this evening that got me thinking again about Eat The Rich. I think the reason it's stayed with me all these years is because it crystallized for me so much of my own thinking -- about politics, about dissent, about 'right' behavior in the face of atrocity -- and so, for the heck of it, and as a small thank-you to this community (where I've read and learned about a quadrillion times more than I've contributed), I'd like to offer it up for your reading entertainment:  

Eat the Rich

(Trigger alert: one of the issues I wanted to explore was the experience of complicity, of sanding by while someone is tortured. So yeah, there's a scene about that,)

'Everyone's gotta have a speciality,' Moof says. Like his is being good at getting the guys to do shit, and at keeping the boxtops around--that's what he calls hos, cause they got a box and he likes 'em on top, he says. Me, I generally like 'em any way I can get 'em--which isn't often.

'Now you, Raym, you don't got no speciality.' Moof squats down next to Raym, shaking his head. Corton giggles--he's the one staking Raym's hands. I can hear the thud-thud of the mallet even over the screaming. Moof scowls at Cort, letting him know this isn't fun time; he's trying to make a point, here. Cort stops his giggling. Moof glances at the rest of us, making sure we get it.

We get it. Jonah, who's been a real jag-off lately, pales and looks away as Cort gets back to business. Thud-thud-thud. Moof looks on with this sorrowful expression, kind of serious and regretful, while Raym arches and screams. Looking like he's done all he could but it came to this anyway. Which he did, pretty much. Raym just wasn't good for anything.

I squat on my haunches, my arms wrapped around what's left of my jeans, and look up at the sky. Snow spits out of it like flakes of dandruff, not very serious. Getting on toward spring, finally. My belly growls. I wish Cort'd hurry up.

Low on the horizon the clouds are smeared with the same grayish yellow as the skin of a fresh corpse--jaundice, Moof says. All the piss and shit backing up in your body, poisoning your blood. The old man laughed when I told him that, said that was close enough.

Cort moves down to the ankles, rips off the workboots that Raym found in a sub-basement in Levinsky's, uppers all chewed to shit by the rats but the soles're still good. Cort looks 'em over, tosses 'em to Fiedel who's what you might call our mechanical whiz, and goes back to pounding. Fiedel drops to the ground and tears off the rags and shit he's had wrapped round his feet since Moof had to cut two toes off his left one. The stub's still all black and pussy-looking. I don't like looking at it, so I look away.

Out toward Westbrook there's still a mustard-colored streak where the sun's going down behind the clouds. That's where Raym's from--or that's what he told us, anyway. He told us a lot of shit till Moof cracked him one and told him to shove it. I don't know that I half-believe any of it. I don't know that I want to.

Thud-thud-thud. My belly growls. A dead leaf skitters along the cracked pavement. State Street, it used to be called. The old man told me that. I asked him what 'state' meant, and he said it was like the Doaks, only bigger. A whole gang of people, thousands of them, more than you could ever imagine, he said. And there were lots of gangs--lots of states--and each state'd pick a couple of people to say for them, like Moof says for us, and send them all to a place called Deece to talk to each other. I asked him where Deece was, and he waved southward. Somewhere down there, he said, beyond Bosstown.

It's hard to imagine, all those groups, all those people. But I can sort of see it, too. Like us and the Proms--that cracks Moof up, the Proms; ho skirts, he calls them. That's what prom means, according to him. I meant to ask the old man about that too, but I keep forgetting.

Anyway, there's us, the Doaks. That's what our stake's called--what used to be Deering Oaks Park, the old man says. When everything got all built up the Bosses left the park for show, and now it's about the only farmable piece of land around till you're out past Gorham. The Proms staked the eastern part of Portland, up along the headland, which is risky--the Bosses still come out there, sometimes, all bundled up with their breathing masks and shit to sail little boats on the choppy gray water, or at least the Proms say they do--but it means they've got access to the harbor and the salt flats and the old rotting piers.

So a couple of times a year we get together to trade. The Proms'll all stand along one side of Congress Square, which is neutral territory, and their eyes'll glitter at the sight of our radishes and early peas and tomatoes and shit. And then Andy, who says for the Proms like Moof does for us, will heft a sack and send its contents spilling over the worn red bricks. Fish, usually, or mussels, wet with seawater and mixed with deep-green kelp, making my mouth yearn for the taste of salt. Sometimes crabs. And both sides stand there, eyes devouring, licking their lips, while Andy subtracts a fish from their pile or Moof adds another ear of corn to ours until they both nod and step back.

Maybe Deece was something like that.

I hear the bones splinter in Raym's left foot, and realize he's not screaming anymore. He must've passed out. I'm glad, though I try not to show it--Moof teases me already about being soft and asking stupid questions and wanting to know to read like Fiedel. Though I think the whole thing might be bothering Moof some too, weird as that seems. As Cort finishes with the last post I hear him whisper, 'Shoulda had a speciality, Raym.' His words go swirling away with the spits of snow.

I'm small, and quick, and good at worming into places. That's my skill, my speciality. It's why Moof and them let me hang around--I'm the one squirmy enough to go down manholes and wiggle through bars and shit. It's nothing personal, what Moof's doing, it's just the way it is. You gotta have something to contribute.

But I think Raym's stories had something to do with it, too.

I glance around at the others as Moof straightens and checks the light. Jonah, Fiedel, Scram and Deke are nearest to me. The rest are ranged on the far side of Moof. Twenty-eight of us--twenty-seven, now, all watching Raym, glad it's him and not us (though Moof's only staked two other guys I know of), but it's more than that, it's everything that's different about Raym, the way his bones seem more solid than ours, his muscles firmer, his skin more pink. Even when he told us why that was and what it meant--or what he said it meant, anyway--we resented him. And none of us like thinking about the shit he told us either.

So that's a part of it, too, I'm pretty sure. Making the stories go away. But mostly it's just plain survival.

The shadows are deepening, now, and the breeze is picking up, pushing at the branches above us, making them creak. There aren't many leaves left on them, not after all these years, and not many trees, either--most of 'em were cleared for growing space, and we still take down one or two a year for burning. But Deke says he can remember when they used to have leaves, green like the beans and corn and potatos, and in the fall they'd turn orange and red and yellow like a fire flickering way up there above your head. Twenty years ago, he says. The old man says it's longer ago than that, and that Deke's older than he remembers. I tilt my head back and try to imagine all that color. I asked the old man once how old he was. Sixty-three is what he said but I don't believe him. Nobody's that old.

Somewhere in the distance, a dog yips. Moof says it's time so we fade back, leaving Raym staked there as the sky goes from charcoal to black and the dogs start coming out. I sorta hope Raym doesn't wake back up but he does when the first pack tears into him. I grip my knife hard--I'm not much use with a spear--and try to ignore the screams coming from under that pile of snarling, gnashing teeth. Then Cort spears a medium-sized one and chucks the body to me to bleed and skin, and I don't have time anymore to picture Raym's sandy hair sticking out in blood-matted spikes or his wide brown eyes watching the dogs eating his flesh...

He's still screaming when the first pack's wiped out, eight dogs in all, their carcasses packed away into the little stone building we use as a meat-locker. 'That's good,' Moof says, 'the noise'll bring another pack quicker, that way.'

We fade back again, and wait.

###

Later, we go see the old man. Stuffed with meat, we sprawl around his fire, talking but not saying much. A half-eaten dog hangs over the flames, which crackle and hiss each time a gob of juice drips down. Off in the shadows I hear grunts, squishy sounds--the hos showed up, of course, when they smelled the hot meat.

Way down beneath us is the pulse of the Bosses' machines, the air-and-water scrubbers, the rumble of a tubie. The old man tilts his head, listens. 'Supplies,' he says. I can never make out how he tells them from the passenger tubies, they sound the same to me. Every so often steam plumes up through a grate, heating the place even more. It's one reason the old man lives here, deep under the wreckage of the old Civic Center. That, and he likes the cars.

They glitter outside the fire's circle--a flash of rusty chrome here, a sparkle along a shattered windshield there. Fiedel got one going once, and we took turns squealing it around the upper level of the parking garage, smashing it into the other cars till the old man made us stop. That was fun. That was a good day.

One of the kiddies squats by the fire, gnawing on a piece of meat. He looks up at me with dark, untrusting eyes. He coughs thinly, spittle hanging from his mouth, then goes and climbs in the old man's lap. The old man smiles down at him, wipes the spittle away, wraps an arm around him. The kid snuggles into it, his somber eyes watching the flames crackle and dance, crackle and dance... I watch him watching the fire, tucked in the old man's arm, and feel a hunger for something deeper than meat.

Moof comes out of the darkness behind me, buttoning his jeans. 'Want a go?' he asks. I shake my head. 'Suit yourself.' He tears another strip from the carcass and hunkers down. Beside me, Cort rises silently, heads into the shadows in the direction Moof came from.

'It's a fine big dog,' the old man says. 'Get many?'

'Three packs,' Moof replies.

'Four,' I say. 'Only five dogs in the last one, though.'

The old man's gaze flicks to me, back to Moof who eyes me darkly, but doesn't chew me out for correcting him.

'Good,' the old man says, 'that's good. Damn dogs breed quicker'n you can kill 'em. How long'd it take Raym to die?'

His voice is neutral, deceptively casual, but the name rings overloud in the dark, empty space. The little conversations--the lazy, comfortable, meaningless ones--die away, and eyes glitter around the fire, alert now, listening. Moof scowls. 'Two packs,' he says.

Three, I mouth, catching Fiedel's eye. He nods. Beyond him, the old man watches us. So does Moof. I drop my gaze.

Deke sits up abruptly, jostling the ho curled up against him. The old man sets the kid down, swats him toward her and she takes the kid on her lap. Then the old man leans forward, cuts another chunk from the dog. 'Damn fine eating,' he says, and the moment passes.

But something's changed. We shift uneasily. We're thinking about Raym now, about his stories. Firelight flickers over our faces as we look at each other, look away. There's a question in our eyes, all of us, we're all thinking it, nobody wants to ask. So I do.  
'You think it's true, the things Raym said? About Westbrook, and the compound, and--' Moof glares at me and I shut up. The question hangs in the silence, awkward but unignorable, like a fart no one wants to claim. I can hear Cort's panting, the small mewling yips of the ho--I hate it when they're noisy, it always feels like they're telling me to hurry up, get it over with. I wish the old man would get it over with. He looks at our intent faces, and sighs.

'I wouldn't be surprised,' he says.

The air around us goes thick, heavy. Suddenly it's hard to breathe. Deke leans forward, spits into the fire. Jonah looks like he's been gut-punched. Scram gulps, then stutters, 'But that's... that's...' He can't get it out.

The old man looks at him with something like pity, then leans back, closes his eyes. 'There's so many things people never thought'd happen,' he says, and I know right away he's going to tell us a story. I like his stories--not like Raym's. The old man knows shit, and sometimes he'll tell us. And if it's disturbing, well, it all happened a long time ago. Not now. Not to us.

'There were so many of us once,' the old man says. 'More'n the Bosses needed to run their factories, cook their dinners, create their profits... Things started happening, bad things, diseases. Mad cow disease, that was one. Then another one--bird flu. Weird, isn't it, how all these diseases just came out of nowhere?' His smile is sarcastic, but we can't share it, we don't have the references. 'Well,' he continues, 'turned out we didn't have such a strong constitution after all.' And he laughs.

The sound echoes harshly in that big empty space, bounces around between the fat concrete pillars. I wonder suddenly what it's like for him, day after day in this hole underground with the scraps and wreckage of a life that's long gone. I wonder what it's like to live with your bitterness bouncing back at you like a hard rubber ball.
'But then, what was left?' he finally asks. 'No more cows, no more chickens... Something happened to the pigs, too, I think. And the fish!'

He sees Deke swallow, sees Fiedel's eyes widen and me glance at Scram. 'Well, never mind about the fish,' he says, 'the point is what else were they gonna do? You saw Raym, with his pink firm flesh, his nice meaty bones...'

'Jesus,' Moof says. 'That's way fucked up.'

The old man smiles again, a hard, unhappy twist of his lips. It's a smile sick with too many years, poisoned with more experience than any one man should have. Softly he asks Moof, 'If you could keep dogs, keep 'em in a pen and feed 'em so they were nice and fat and tender--wouldn't you do it?'

Moof scowls again and looks away. The old man nods, and the compassion in his eyes as he looks at Moof is almost more than I can bear. 'It's survival,' he says.

And then he looks at me.

###

The weather's changed again; stars peek out between the scudding clouds and it's bitching cold as we come up the ramp from the old man's. No one complains, though. No one talks at all.

In the darkness I can barely make out the four massive buildings at the base of the hill. They straddle the waterfront like huge, featureless blocks. It occurs to me I've never really looked at them before, they were always just there, part of the landscape like the all the rest of the junk--the lightless, glassless streetlamps, the empty skyscrapers, the rusted cars. They're like the old man's stories--they've got nothing to do with us.

If you could keep dogs in a pen and feed 'em so they were nice and fat and tender...

Moof glances back and I realize no one's moving. Deke stands, his bony shoulders slouched, his fists jammed into the pockets of his jeans as he studies the black metal buildings. Scram and the others pose like dogs before a fight--stiff-legged, hackles up, lips curling back to expose their teeth. Fiedel's eyes are dark and haunted. I wonder if he's feeling what I feel, like something's been stolen from me, stolen so completely I never knew it was gone. The walls stare back at us, windowless, blind. All the windows are on the other side, facing the water. Looking out over the waves and the pretty little islands. Not at us. Never at us.

It's hard to grasp that there's people in there.

Moof jerks his head. 'C'mon,' he says. He starts west, back to the Doaks. No one moves.

'Fuck me,' he says, 'it's cold out. C'mon!'

Cort wavers, slides toward Moof. I start down the hill.

'Where the fuck you going?' Moof says. I don't bother replying. If he argues with his fists, I'm done for. He's twice my size, easy. But he doesn't. 'We're going back,' he says 'Come now, or don't come at all.'

I shrug. And I realize as I do that this is why no one lives long anymore--it's not just the poisons in the air, or the shortage of food. It's that there comes a point when surviving's not enough.

I remember the way the old man looked at me, there at the end, intently, like there was something more he wanted to say. I try to figure out what it might have been while Moof tries to stare me down. Neither of us succeed. He spins on his heel, stalks away.

Most of the others follow. I glance at who's left. Deke. Jonah. Fiedel. Scram dithers, then turns abruptly, strides into the darkness with a jerky, lock-kneed stride. Deke shakes his head. I look at Jonah.

'You too,' I say. He looks at me, hurt. He's already in too much trouble with Moof, though. Fiedel, Moof'll have to take back. And Deke knows more about growing shit than the rest of us put together. But Jonah...

'Go on,' I say. 'You wanted to come. That's enough.'

He nods, straightens his shoulder, goes after the others. He glances back once. I'm glad he glances back.

###

Fiedel leans against one of the buildings, peering through the slats of a grate set four feet above the ground. 'Three, two, one...' he counts, and behind the grate a massive fan squeals to a stop.

He's been watching it for fifteen minutes now. Deke and I got bored after five. Now we hunker on a low, crumbling wall, breathing into our cupped hands.  

'Forget it,' I call, and wing a pebble disgustedly across the broken pavement. The building looms above us as it has since we crept, awed and determined, into its shadow. No change, no response, not even when Deke beat on the grate trying to pry loose a slat. I'm no longer sure what we're doing here, what I hoped to accomplish in the first place.

Deke shivers miserably, looks up at the towering building. 'This is hopeless,' he says. He's probably right.

Fiedel turns away from the grate. Behind him the fan squeals to life again, settles down to its steady whump-whump-whump. Fiedel's eyes are unfocused, his mouth hanging open--when he's thinking hard his face goes all slack like an idiot's. It's funny, but I don't laugh--I'm too cold. He scans the side of the building, an uninterrupted flow of metal except for the slats at regular intervals. I'm pretty sure he's forgotten we're here.

We watch him wander off, head down, muttering to himself, hunting along the ground like he's following a rat. 'What about the windows?' I ask.

Deke shakes his head. 'They're twenty feet up.' I take his word for it--I've never seen the other side. 'Why are we doing this?' he asks, more to himself than to me but I shrug anyway. The reasons are like raindrops--there's thousands, but I can't seem to catch even one and hold it long enough to explain, not even to myself.

I look up at Deke. 'Do you want to go back?' He shakes his head, chucks a rock. It clangs off the slats and rolls away. 'I'm sick of Moof,' he says.

Me too, but it's more than just that. Moof's not one of those thousands of reasons--he's more like an excuse. We could always join the Proms, if it came to that--there's been defections before, on both sides.

On the way down the hill Deke had whispered, 'We're going to get ourselves killed, you know. And nothing will change.' We'd looked at each other, knowing he was right, knowing there was, in fact, nothing we could do. We went on anyway.

Deke slumps beside me. 'I'm tired', he says. I can tell he doesn't mean sleepy. His hair's mostly gray, now, and I wonder again at the things in his head--the uncanny knack for when to sow stuff, what each plant needs; a memory of uncertain age, of oaks leaves like a rustling fire, orange and yellow and red.

Suddenly Fiedel shouts and waves us over to a low metal casing, thirty yards away. 'Where there's a way out, there's a way in,' he says, grinning, as we join him. Sure enough when we approach it we feel a tiny suck of air, hear a low, hollow moan somewhere underneath our feet. Fiedel squats, studying the casing. With a jagged chunk of asphalt he pounds on the metal, snaps it from its bolts. Deke lifts it free. Before us is the mouth of a pipe, its wavy metal sides bending down into earth. 'In you go,' he says. I hesitate a moment.

'You know,' Deke says, looking at me, 'it really doesn't have anything to do with us.' Giving me permission to back out, turn away.

'Who's us?' I ask, 'the Doaks?' My voice cracks with bitterness. I climb through the hole.

The clanks of my passage scurry away before me, bouncing off the sides of the pipe. I hear something behind me, but there's no room to turn. 'Fie?' I whisper, and hear him pant, 'Yeah. Deke can't fit.'

It's black in here, so black I can't see anything, not my hand before my face, not the sides of the pipe, nothing. Every so often the pipe flexes below me, springs back with a hard metallic ping.

I fetch up against something. 'Oh, fuck.'

'What?' Fiedel asks.

'A grate,' I whisper. It's mesh, not slats. Probably to keep rats out. I try to figure if I can crawl backward. I'm not sure I can. And Fiedel's bigger than me.

'Feel along the edges,' Fiedel says behind me. 'You feel anything?'

I fumble around the rim of the grate, trying to ignore the way my breathing rasps, quick and shallow, in the darkness. I feel little ridges. Hooks, maybe? I wriggle my fingers through the mesh, explore the other side, find a flat metal bar. The wire digs into the webbing between my fingers as I strain, grasp it, pull. The hooks spring back. I take a breath, relieved.

'It's open.'

'Good,' says Fiedel. 'I can't go back.'

I swallow, continue on. The air ahead of me grows warm, then hot. 'Shit,' Fiedel says.

'What?'

'Nothing. Keep going.'

I don't know how long we crawl through the darkness. I think of Fiedel behind me, nose practically in my ass, wonder what he'd do if I farted right then. I choke back a horrified giggle.

'What?'

'Nothing.' I keep going.

A long time later, or maybe only a few minutes, light seeps around us--another grate, up ahead, set into the side of the pipe. I struggle on, sweat stinging in my eyes, peer through the grate and freeze. Fiedel whispers, 'What is it?' I kick backward and he shuts up.

He's not what I expected, the man below us, half-asleep in a chair before banks of lights and flickering pictures. Then again, I don't know what I expected. Fangs, maybe. Tentacles for arms. But I know right away he's one of them, one of the Bosses. For one thing, he's fat. I've never seen anyone fat before. His belly curves before him like a pregnant ho's. And his skin is smooth, white, untouched by the fierce sun outside. His clothes are gray, like the walls around him, the creases running down his pants as sharp and precise as the angles of his desk. The lights wink like stars but in all different colors, bright and unsullied.

Everything's so clean.

I feel Fiedel nudge me, he knows something's wrong. As I start to crawl forward he grabs at my ankle. I yank it away, jerk my head at the grate, crawl ahead enough for him to see. When I start forward again, he doesn't protest.

Cool air whistles by, sucked from outside, but the heat up ahead is growing more intense. The light from the grate fades behind us. I wonder if it's dawn outside yet.

I go on.

More light up ahead. I hear Fiedel sigh in relief. I crawl to the grate, peer down into a vast subterranean room. There's pipes running everywhere, cables, wires. Machines I can't name clank and whir and hiss. Underneath it all is a low, steady hum.

'Open it,' Fiedel says.

I crane my neck, look down. 'Fie, we're eighteen feet up, maybe twenty.'

'Open it,' he repeats. 'Feel the heat?' Of course I feel the heat. 'Scrubber, I'm pretty sure. If we pass this grate and there aren't any more... We can't back up.'

I open the grate, squirm my way out.

I fall through space, let myself roll as I land. Fiedel shrieks as his mangled foot hits the concrete. I spring up, clap my hand over his mouth but it's too late, a door clangs open somewhere behind us and a man shouts. I drag Fiedel behind one of the machines. His face is green, like he's gonna puke, his mouth open, gasping. I peek out around the machine, see the man we passed earlier peering around suspiciously. I bend my head next to Fiedel's. 'I'm gonna try and lead him off. See if you can find a way out.' Fiedel nods, drops his head back against the machine. I doubt he can walk.

I duck into the light. The fat man shouts, 'Hey!' I see him lunge for a button--I don't wait to find out what it does. I launch myself at him, shoulders tucked down, hit him square in that bulging belly. He grabs my sweatshirt and I twist away, hearing it rip. Fuck. Sweatshirts are hard to find. He takes a step after me--I see his eyes flick back to the button--I fake a stumble. He springs at me, his pale face red now with rage and exertion. He's quicker than I thought.

I leap up, feeling at my waist for my knife--it's gone. Lost somewhere in the pipe, likely. I scan the room but everything's so alien, machines hulking everywhere. I run, weaving between them, I'm fagging already after the dog hunt, the long crawl. Footfalls behind me, heavy, tireless, it's not fair, I think, he's bigger, stronger. Better fed.

That last gives me back some residue of anger, and I nurse it, remembering the old man's words.

If you could keep dogs in a pen...

I twist around a corner, let my feet pick a path. In my head I see Raym. He was clueless, helpless. Didn't know shit about how to survive. They did that, I think, and suddenly all the thousand raindrops of reasons crystallize like snow into one clear understanding--there is someone responsible. For Raym, and the wreckage, and what we do to survive. And that someone doesn't live outside.

An opening, ahead, with a mesh gate across it. I fumble with the clasp, throw it open, run past into a tunnel. It's square, all of metal that booms under my feet, hollowly, as if there's nothing underneath it. It rises steadily. An ache burns in my side. I can hear him behind me, wheezing now as his fat and the incline begin to take their toll. From ahead comes a squeal, then a steady whump-whump-whump. Something about it pierces my haze, something familiar...

I stop. Look back. The man unbuckles something from his belt, something black and stubby with two metal prongs. He presses it. It makes a sizzling noise and blue sparks shoot out. I back away.

Whump-whump behind me. I turn. It's the fan. The blades whir, enormous, filling the tunnel. Through their blur I can see the slats.

The man laughs breathlessly, bent over his knees. 'Whaddya gonna do now, kid?' he asks. It shocks me that I understand him. Tentacles. Fangs. He shouldn't be human. He presses the black thing again. I fade back, praying.

Three, two, one. The fan squeals to a stop. I slither between the massive blades, squeeze against the slats. The space I'm in is eight feet wide, three deep. 'Deke!' I shout. 'Deke!'

The man snarls on the other side of the fan, jabs the black thing between the blades. I flinch away. He laughs, tries again.

'Deke!'

Something scrapes behind me--it's Deke, desperately levering something between the slats. He grunts, strains. One slat buckles. The man takes advantage of my quick glance over, shoves the black thing at my leg. I leap aside awkwardly, knock my head on the fan. A blade slices my forehead. I blink away blood and the white flare of pain, focus on the gaps between the blades. Nothing. He's getting cautious. I stumble against the blades, as if by accident. His hand darts through, the metal prongs glowing. I seize his wrist, avoiding the black thing which buzzes and sparks with a scent like burnt wire. The man jerks against my grip, furious, then with quickly growing panic.

Three, two, one, I count. The fan squeals into motion, speeds up, spraying blood. The black thing drops to the floor, and I'm left holding a forearm. It's heavy, fleshy, still warm in my hands. From the far side of the fan I hear the fat man's shrieking. But the sound that makes me weep with relief is the one that comes behind me--the metallic clang of a slat popping loose.

###

Later, Deke worms painfully past the fan and we go back down to get Fiedel who's crawled into the room with the lights and shit and is busily punching buttons, his lip pooched out in that village-idiot way. Going back through the machine room he makes us flip levers and turn cranks and yank a cable--spitting blue sparks like the black thing did--and shove it into a panel he's managed to open, before he'll let Deke carry him back to the fan.

The fat one's collapsed against the wall of the tunnel, slumped dead in a sticky pool of red puddle. Deke looks down at him. 'We can't just leave him here. What if someone finds him?'

It's been quiet, there's no one else down here, but I can feel the weight of the building above me, layer after layer of metal and wires--there's people up there, lots of them, I can almost feel them.

Fiedel snorts. 'Don't worry about it.' He looks grimly pleased about something, probably to do with all those machines. He leans on my shoulder, and I realize what a weird little picture we make at that moment, the four us--me, Deke, Fiedel and the fat dead man sprawled at our feet.

'Still,' Deke says, 'he tastes better than dog, I bet.'

We look at each other, a speculative light in our eyes. I remember the feel of that warm, meaty arm. The fan spins, just behind us. How easy it would be to drag him over, shove him through it...

'Probably does,' I reply, and move past the body.

As I wait for the fan to pause I see the broad light of morning through the gap in the slats.

###

Much later, now, and I sit, dazed and sleepy, in a pool of sunlight, feeling almost warm. We sit on the muddy ground at the base of the oaks around a large, crackling fire, with another dog roasting over the flames. Deke is grinning. Fiedel cracks a joke while one of the hos bandages his foot. Moof sulks to one side, watching the plumes of smoke rising down by the water with a brooding, sullen gaze. From the corner of my eye I see a flicker of movement--I've been expecting it. When Cort leaps up, shouting and brandishing his spear, I call him back sharply. He goes and sits by Moof as the Proms come slowly, hesitantly among us, their eyes also turned to that black, distant smoke. Scram reaches out, cuts a slice from the dog, hands it to a hovering Prom.

I smile, then remember Raym, lying staked right here where we've built this fire--spatters of his blood still streak the ground, bright against the dirty patches of snow. I think about Westbrook, and the compound, and how helpless Raym was. It's going to be a problem, I know, taking care of them till they learn to survive. But that's just the way it is.

Way down south, like a smudge against the horizon, are the fumes and smokes of Bosstown, a shadow against the gentle blue sky. There's more of them, I know, many more--and they'll be coming for us. I have no doubt of that.

But we won't be here.

The tubies, I think, can only run so far. I'll have to ask Fiedel about that, but I'm pretty sure of it. And once we get past them, we can think about what's next.

But first, we're going to Westbrook. I say now, and one thing sure, I'll leave no dogs in their cages.

If they want us, they're going to have to hunt us.




===

Not that it really matters, but I would like to add that when I wrote this, I hadn't seen Soylent Green (still haven't, actually, although I now know the reference!)  for which, in fact, I'm grateful. I probably would have tossed the story idea as unoriginal. I do that a lot. Oh, and it's Portland, Maine, not Portland, Oregon -- not that that really matters, either, just givin' some luv to my old stomping grounds :-)

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