I had originally published this excerpt on 11 FEB 2010, just a little over four years ago. While the final version is nearly out (I expect everything to be revised, copyedited, formatted and published by the end of April), I find that while some things have taken drastic changes, others have remained quite the same as the original.
Just a reminder that the following, while maybe not used as-is in the upcoming novel, remains my intellectual property with all the rights and privileges to use reserved.
Breath clawed ragged furrows in his throat. Shredding pains in his sides choked off any deep inhalation. Running, trotting, he kept ahead, just ahead, by the barest of a sliver. Slipping and falling on the reeking carpet of foliage, he recovered and kept moving. Tripping over his own traitorous feet. But he didn’t dare stop, didn’t dare look back. Never glance over your shoulder. His pursuer hounded him —he felt the stare scorching the back of his head.
Slow now, just for a second, can’t breathe… He reined in his pace.
The stifling air amplified a brutal crack. Weapon’s fire. The same crack stung his ears before. This morning, that same crack. An explosion of blood. An end to his friend. A cry escaped him, but the pain within his lungs provided no volume.
No stopping. No slowing down for even a moment.
Must get these away. Take them someplace safe. He clutched at the relic, hanging from his strap around his neck, banging against the metal ephod. Must find a way to save the journals. He clutched those too, precious journals, priceless relic.
Brother Sun, protect me! Keep moving. Just keep moving.
* * *
The sun remained asleep beyond the horizon, but Click arose and gathered up his kit. The bride train escorts and the brides-to-be untangled themselves from one another, yawned and stretched the funk of sleep away. Four single, macho men (not counting Click) guarding seven twittering, nubile women as they traveled the Circuit made for a sad equation, and Click witnessed the product of that outcome for the last three nights. He pitied the men anticipating their tickermail dreams, thinking a virgin angel traveled to greet them and surrender themselves to their future and only husband. Gratitude swelled inside of him, nearing the time to be quit of them all. He looked forward to getting back to his own team, his own territory. He prided himself on his discipline, but a week and half of involvement in the odd dynamic threatened to end his moral standing, if not his goal.
At least one teammate remained with him to remind him of his business on the Circuit. Ibsen displayed more self-control than either the men or the women here. Click expressed his gratitude for the presence of at least one disciplined companion, even if he walked on four legs instead of two and drooled all over him. He reached down and scratched the gray and black furred head, and Ibsen glanced up at him with wintry blue eyes and panted in appreciation.
Not to mention I can get this done with and shave this damnable beard. Click scratched idly at the bristly, hair again, and felt the pustule of an ingrown hair break under his fingernail. When I get back I’m taking a day of liberty and using all twenty-four hours to bathe. Ten minutes with these guys also revealed one of their toughest weapons —personal hygiene. Between the body odor and the breath, the four men of the bride train possessed enough chemical weaponry to keep the wolgs and the highwaymen at a fair distance. The women didn’t fare much better, although they tried to hide it by rubbing themselves with crushed green they could pluck from the autumn-wounded trees and weeds.
The Circuit tried, with the bride trains, to mix up the gene pool, and Click silently applauded them on that effort. His people worried about the lack of genetic diversity in the smaller communities. He already saw the result of a small society mixing out of hand, and dealing with that counted among the gut-squirming and bloodiest situations Click and his men ever encountered. He didn’t even like to think about that mess, even though time placed it well over a decade behind him. These people didn’t seem to invest a lot of thought into the best way of mixing up DNA. If they knew what that was, he mused. Still, they tried.
Working with these escorts also disgusted him with the superficial machismo they strutted out to impress the betrothed. A hooligan at least ten years Click’s junior called himself their ‘captain’ and tried to pass himself off as a veteran warrior and conquerer of women. He ended up painting his own portrait as a sad, desperate man who took advantage of the naive girls and their willingness to indulge. Unfortunately, when Click signed on under this man, he assessed and dismissed his so-called prowess: he bedded more women —intended for other men— than anyone else on the Circuit. Period. Highwaymen, beware!
On one of the rare nights Click didn’t volunteer for the first watch, he sat down with their captain —”Just call me Honcho, my care” — he learned all he needed to know concerning the escorts. They considered themselves tightly knit, and knew not only the other escorts on the Circuit, but also the regular travelers; textwalkers, mapmakers, merchants, C-guard. Within a few questions, and some plain observation, Click realized his man wouldn’t stay among types like these for very long. He would stand out, much like Click himself, as possessing considerably more self-control. Unfortunately, none of the captain’s descriptions, physical or characteristically, resembled his man.
But the escort captain and his men did fill him in on some of the more colorful personalities, like the anxious textwalker who memorized everything they told him instead of writing it down, and they played games with him to see if they could trip him up. According to one escort, they all failed to get him to trip up on even the details. Not even when they watched that man flop onto his rear against a tree and stared at the ground with his head bobbing up and down. The storytelling escort performed a demonstration and Click watched the others as they cackled, pointed. “That’s him, man. That’s him!” Regarding another one, the captain related, “You know this one mapmaker… She… Yeah I said ‘she’… She been walking the Circuit like for five years, my care. Least I knows of. She a quiet thing, keeping to herself. But I change that. Real quick. I change that and she be begging me.” He thrust his hips in vulgar humping gesture, and loosed a few mock groans in a pitch high enough to make the women sound masculine. The others, escorts and brides all, erupted in chuckles and wolg-whistles. Whatever turns them on, I suppose. Click shrugged and dismissed the crude humor.
A dusky-skinned man with a crooked nose, smacked his thigh and laughed harder, louder and longer at his captain who tossed a scowl in his direction. “Beggin’ you to stop.? Rich, cap’n Honch. Rich indeed. Way I recall it, you tell that woman you gonna light an in-fer-no in that ice crack of hers, and she just rock that rifle she got in your ugly face. You looking all ‘I jus’ piss my pants’ and she just straight-face. I jus’ saying.” He raised his hands in a gesture of submission, holding his serious mien for a moment before losing it in a fit of laughter.
“Ya, he ain’t never saw no woman toting a gun before.” The guffaws began anew.
All escorts around the fire rejoined the levity; all of them except for their leader. Lips crushed together, his face graduated from bronze to red with the laughter feeding it. He hopped to his feet, snatched up his shotgun. “I’ll go do up a watch.”
The captain gathered his own weapon. “Bitch need a man to do her over a couple times, from behind,” He illustrated his statement with more vulgar gestures and then hightailed it out of sight. That only affirmed, signed, and nailed to the front door Click’s final assessment of the man’s (severe lack of) character. Click found himself silently giving the unknown woman a long-distance knuckle bump for turning the man down, and urging her to simply shoot him next time they cross paths.
A few more hours of walking, Click reminded himself as the others rose and began to gather their gear. Just a few more, hiking north along the cracked and weed-sprouting road, and they would arrive in Shebor. Then it’s a hearty rendition of “Goodbye, bride train. Goodbye.”
For all of his talk, the captain did seem to make it a point to keep up the information on other groups who traveled the Circuit. Only one of the Shebor-based group caused the Captain to come up short on knowledege. The Guv — the man who ran the Circuit, or at least thought he did — started sending out guard patrols, men as well armed as the escorts, to police the southern roads. The Circuit always faced clashes with the trash wolgs; those highwaymen trying to harass farmers in between towns, ambush traveling merchants or snatch the women from the bride trains (though after seeing what went on during the train, Click wasn’t convinced the trashdogs could treat them any worse).
Now, however, someone felt threatened enough by extra activity along the southern swing, with reports of bodies of entire communities found strung up by their necks. Raped, mutilated, executed, or simply executed in the middle of the road and left for the vultures, the escort captain described it all. Not that they saw any of that during their trip. Either the C-guard patrols proved effective (something Click doubted very much, if these men were the best protection the Circuit could turn out) or whoever caused the problems displayed more selectivity in their victims than the captain gave them credit.
Anticipation of the journey’s end pumped more adrenaline into his veins, and Click’s steps seemed lighter. Had these men displayed any physical discipline (and had the women been in better shape) he might have urged them to quicken the pace to a steady march just to get this over with. He forced himself to calm down, to keep pace, and examine his surroundings. Once back at his home, the intelligence alone might make the trip profitable, if he found his man or not.