Lucky 13


Howdy, friends and neighbors. Here is a quick sample of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel, Lucky 13. Some of you might recognize a name and a bit of history. Now let’s see if it’s any good! Leave a note below in the Facebook comments box (so that I know the Facebook comments box is working). And if you’d like to comment on the new look and functionality of the site itself, I’d appreciate that, too.

Thank you! Now, I’m pleased to offer you…Chapter One of Lucky 13. Let me know if you’d read more.

Take care, and congrats to all my fellow Nanos. 🙂

~ Tom

P.S. There is some gore and violence, but nothing worse than anything in, say, Sick. FYI.

LUCKY THIRTEEN

Chapter One

 

The first time Tanin Thirteen asked Murphy how old he was, Murphy’s wrinkled face broke into a smile Tanin had only rarely encountered in the village. Then Murphy laughed, which made Tanin follow suit; a strange sound, a foreign sound in her own ears. There was little to laugh at in Base Camp.

Murphy laughed aloud, and at first, it had seemed it would be as short-lived as the little bean sprouts the two of them were collecting that day. When his laugh began to slow and trickle to a stop, Murphy’s gaze happened to land on young Tanin, and the old man started laughing all over again. He laughed so hard he doubled over as if cramped. Soon his knees buckled, and he teetered forward at first, then backward, landing on his bottom.

“What?” Tanin said, her ribs squeezing laughter out of dry lungs.

But Murphy only went on, precious tears dripping from the corners of his eyes. He lifted his knees and wrapped his arms around them, making a basket for his head. His broad shoulders shook so much, Tanin thought his ancient once-black duster coat might split.

Tanin sat down across from him in the dust and watched him, wondering why the question should send the old man into such shudders. As time went on and he didn’t stop, Tanin began to fear she’d driven Murphy insane. If the stories he told were all true, and she had no reason to think they weren’t, perhaps Murphy’s insanity had only been a matter of time.

“What?” she asked again, her own giggles having already petered out.

Murphy looked up from his arms and knees. Tanin realized he had ceased laughing some moments before, and now only wept. Something in her heart lurched to the right; her heart, maybe, but Murphy had taught her that no matter what some of the spiritualists in the village said, the heart was an organ like any other and not some metaphysical thing. It was better, he taught, to not form more than the most cursory emotional attachments. Feelings like loyalty could be prized for their unifying functions, which was crucial in battle. Feelings like love got people eaten.

Murphy wiped his eyes and stared at the girl. “Too old,” he answered. “Way too old, kid.”

Not the most satisfying answer for an adolescent, but Tanin didn’t push. Murphy got to his feet with the combined posture of a man in his seventies and a boy in the prime of his youth.

He extended a calloused hand to her. Tanin took it and let him pull her to her feet.

“I don’t mean to laugh,” he said. “And certainly not at you. It’s just, no one has asked that question in a very long time. They don’t understand, Tanin. They don’t know what it was like.”

She left her hand in his, enjoying the sandpaper texture and strength in his fingers. “What was it like?”

He kept his ancient eyes on hers for a long moment, then moved away. Tanin noticed his hand fall with easy familiarity and not a bit of paranoia to the hilt of his sword.

“Maybe later,” he said, scanning the immediate area for the sick. “Let’s finish with the stills first.”

Tanin nodded, picking up the rusty handle of a little red wagon that she would never understand was once used as a toy, back in a time when children didn’t have to grow up so fast and the world wasn’t dusted in shades of black and white.

She had never seen the sun.

* * *

The man awoke knowing his true purpose.

Even before his eyes opened, he knew. This band of so-called soldiers had shown it to him in no uncertain terms before they died. Most likely, he mused, they hadn’t even known it. No, they’d been so busy bleeding and screaming that the thought that he, their new god, was doing them a courtesy probably never occurred to them. It made sense, then, that they didn’t realize they had shown him, in their dying, the way that he must go. The word that he must spread.

Ah, well, he thought. Live and learn!

So to speak.

He opened his eyes, smiling. His sleep had been long and luxurious, propped up in a sitting position against the rear right-side tire of a small once-red pickup. All colors were “once,” he thought, still smiling. Once-red, once-yellow, once-blue. Color had ceased to have real meaning or value now that the world had been dusted with ash. He saw no reason to mourn the loss. In fact, he decided, one of his first decrees would be that all his subjects must wear only shades of gray. Not a difficult law to follow; who would waste water on washing clothes? They’d only grow dingy again beneath the ashfall.

No, the man thought, better to embrace the world as it was. Gods and devils and angels and demons had no purpose here. The truth mattered. The truth was all that mattered. Humanity mattered.

He pulled himself to his feet and coughed. Gray particles puffed from his lips, making him smile again. He turned to survey the carnage on the truck: Four men, dead, their blood already congealed and no longer flowing. In the bed of their truck, a silver suitcase tried to shine but failed. The case was locked, but he knew he had an eternity to find a way to get it open. Such precious cargo never existed in all the world. He wondered idly how many he might inoculate, how much serum lay within the case; enough for only one? Two? Ten? A hundred?

Well. He’d find out eventually.

“And out came another horse,” he said to the dead men as he pulled their bodies from the vehicle. “And its rider was given permission to take peace from the earth, and he was given a great sword.”

The bodies thunked against the hard-packed ash. It had formed bricks as hard as concrete after so many years of rain and compression. He shut the tailgate and paused, resting his forearms against it.

“I’m gonna need a great sword,” he told them.

One of the men groaned.

The man furrowed his brow and came around the side of the truck. The would-be soldier, dressed in mismatched camouflage, lolled his head to one side, wincing.

“Hey, look at you!” the man said, and walked over to the man. The soldier tried to raise a hand as he beheld the man coming nearer. “You’re still in it to win it, buddy. I like that. You got guts.”

The soldier whined as the man pulled a knife from a sheath on his leg, then screamed as the man plunged it into the soldier’s midsection.

“You do, you got guts. What, you don’t believe me?”

The man tore the knife in a wicked Z-shape through the soldier’s flesh. He held up the blade, which dripped loops of intestine.

“Here they are!”

He smiled as the man’s scream turned to a cry, then a wail, then a squeal. After choking for another minute, the soldier died.

“It’s nothing personal,” the man said. “But I mean, come on, you’re wearing Vietnam-era jungle pattern camo, buddy. Chrissake, that’s not gonna hide you from anything out here. Clearly. Also? Too trusting. That’s gonna cost ya.”

He searched the bodies for food, and was rewarded with a few small plastic sacks of potatoes and assorted trail mixes and rations. They’d do.

The man sat crosslegged beside the bodies and began to eat. It was a habit, not a need, he knew. Eating brought a certain joy even if it wasn’t essential anymore.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s gonna cost all of ya. That is the wages of sin, I’m afraid. But don’t you worry. I’m gonna set things right. You’ll see. Well, ha! Not you personally, of course. But the people you came from. Wherever you called home. You had a mission, and I respect that. Now I’ve got one, too. Thank you. We’ll make things right. Oh, yes. God may have abandoned you, but I won’t. Nope. Not me. I’m in it to win it. Here for the long haul.”

He finished the potatoes and wiped his hands on the shirt of one of the dead men.

“The longest haul the world has ever seen,” he said, and got to his feet.

He surveyed the dim landscape, something out of an apocalypse—miles upon miles of nothing but gray, the sun a dim disc hidden for years above the ash cloud above.

Kind of pretty, in its own special way.

“Take it easy,” he said to them, and hiked into the truck. It started with a cough, and the man wondered how long it could survive in the gray ash choking the air. Probably a ways, he figured; probably they’d put a new filter in the engine, or maybe even figured out a way to jury-rig some kind of new type of filter that would allow cars to go further than before. Between the silver case and risking traversing the ash storm of middle America, they were obviously going somewhere important. Important to them, anyway. Important to someone.

Not to him.

He turned the car around and pointed it in the direction the men had come from, his big frame seated uncomfortably in the small cab.

He was a new kind of prophet for a new kind of age, and that suited him fine.

* * *

Tanin helped Murphy collect water from the solar stills and from dozens of evaporators surrounding Base Camp. The stills were constructed of scraps of wood, plastic, and sheets of glass pirated from any one of a dozen sources. Not particularly graceful, the stills cleaned standing and other filthy water by the simple process of distillation. Clean condensation formed on the tilted underside of the glass, which then ran into a tube or gutter and down again into a collection receptacle—a plastic bottle, a tin can, a canteen . . . anything would do. The process didn’t eliminate every toxin from the water source, but it was better than nothing. Outbreaks of cholera and the like had been drastically reduced since implementing the system. But the stills could only provide so much. Tanin knew without Murphy telling her that sooner or later, Base Camp would become untenable without a source of clean water. The problem was—she knew again without being told—no one had any idea where the next closest supply of clean water might exist. Whether clean water existed anywhere, in fact, was a subject of much debate during the nightly elder meetings she would listen in on.

Murphy rarely spoke at the meetings, despite his place as the oldest immortal among them. He detested the term “immortal,” and told her so on many occasions. No one was immortal, he’d growl as they gathered their distilled water. One solid blow to the head, a fall from some great height, being stabbed in the heart, being torn apart by the sick . . . oh, there were plenty of ways to die, he would say, and none of them pleasant.

The price of semi-eternal life was a painful and gruesome death.

Murphy never said that to Tanin, because Tanin again didn’t need to be told. She’d seen it.

“The walls won’t hold much longer,” Murphy said as they re-set a still with brackish water taken from a puddle near the village. “We’ll need to move soon.”

“What about the woods?” Tanin said. “We could cut down more trees, extend our line of sight.”

Murphy said nothing for a moment as he wiped clean the inside of the still with a rag. Tanin tried to wait patiently for him to reply, but patience did not come easy to her.

“I just mean, it would benefit us both ways,” she said. “Reinforce the walls, plus be able to see further out.”

“I heard you.” Murphy picked up a blue plastic five-gallon bottle, half-full, and slung it over his shoulder. “But it will only delay the inevitable. They’re getting smarter.”

Tanin couldn’t hold back a snort of disbelief, which she regretted immediately. She hated to disrespect him. Others, it didn’t bother her too much.

“I take it you don’t believe me,” Murphy said. He nodded toward the next still and they walked toward it together.

“It’s offensive, it’s an offensive thought,” Tanin said. “They’re animals.”

“Yes. But animals learn from experience. Imagine a day when the sick can work together. Plan attacks. Coordinate.”

“I can’t imagine that,” Tanin said, scowling. “It’s not possible.”

“Very possible,” Murphy said. “And as I said, perhaps even inevitable.”

“If you were right . . . if that happened, then everything would change.”

They reached the next still.

“Yes,” Murphy said. “Such as?”

Another one of his lessons. Tanin almost laughed, but such a sound came only rarely these days and this realization of Murphy’s moment of training didn’t warrant it.

“The walls would stop being useful,” Tanin said. “They could be breached by anything with intelligence.”

“Correct. What else.”

“We’d have to move into the city?”

“No. The infestation is too high. The cities are still untenable.”

Tanin sat in the dirt, sending a small cloud of ash billowing up around her while Murphy tended the still. “Become nomadic?”

Murphy nodded. “That’s one possibility. It’s not one I like. We’d be forced to scavenge instead of raise our crops. Much of the country’s buried in ash. We’d lose people.”

“We’ve already lost people.” Against her better judgment, Tanin spit, hating the ash cloud that puffed up when her saliva hit the ground.

Murphy turned his head, slightly. “Please tell me you’re not going to get into a pissing contest over personal loss.”

“. . . No.”

“No, sir.”

 Tanin grimaced. “No, sir.”

Murphy set down his bottle and hunkered beside the girl. His eyes sought hers, burrowing deep. Tanin sat up.

“I tell you these things because you have a chance,” the old man said. “I don’t meet many people I can say that to. You’re different. I see it. Do you believe me?”

Tanin met her mentor’s gaze with confidence. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

He shoved her over and sprang to his feet. Tanin splashed into the ash with a yelp, and instantly kicked out one booted foot toward Murphy. He skipped backward, dodging the blow.

“Not now,” he warned, though a paternal smile tickled at the corners of his mouth. “We still have—”

A gunshot echoed past them, the deep ka-CHUNK of a shotgun.

The pair of them leaped, running full speed across the naked plain toward Home Base. Murphy pulled his sword as he ran, a battered hunk of metal he claimed had once been used as a stage prop. It had taken a very long conversation with Tanin to explain what a stage show was; that there was a time when people had enough leisure to memorize entire books of words and recite them on a stage in front of people. A truly odd concept for one born into a world where agriculture and combat were the two primary daily activities. Combat had dwindled over time, as the sick were slowly thinned out, but she knew from experience attacks could come and would come at any time.

Like now.

Firing a gun, like leisure time, was a rarity due to scarcity. So much ammunition had been spent by so few during in the early years of the outbreak that what little remained was usually conserved as much as possible. One of many drawbacks to such a policy was that people weren’t afforded the opportunity to practice. Shotguns thus became the favorite of most survivors, as it was more of a point-and-shoot weapon compared to rifles or handguns. Still they remained weapons of last resort; better to rely on hand-to-hand weapons.

And so Tanin and Murphy ran, then ran faster as a second blast went off near Home Base. Whatever they  were facing, it was big and it was bad.

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