She awoke to find herself under a pile of dead bodies. Most of the blood that covered her was not her own, but there was a bleeding wound on the side of her head. She smelled smoke, looked up, and saw a building with a colonnaded porch out front from which black smoke rose into the dark sky. The building did not look familiar. For the life of her, she did not remember being shot. Nor did she recognize any of the faces of the dead people around her. They were, however, all of an age—her age, apparently—and wearing uniforms identical to hers. But try as she might, she could not remember precisely how old she was. Once she realized that, it came as an even more frightening revelation that she did not know her own name.
The obvious conclusion was that the wound in her head had resulted in amnesia. The perpetrators—there were so many bodies that there must have been more than one—had no doubt intended to kill her along with those who surrounded her and left thinking they had done so. Presumably, they had also set fire to the school. How did she know it was a school, except that it looked like one? She could not remember studying or living there.
She crawled out of the pile, started unsteadily across the lawn and lay down. Looking up at the stars in the dark sky, she noticed one moving and realized she had to get under cover. She stumbled to her feet and headed for the trees, wondering exactly what it was that had frightened her so. She knew it was a satellite and she was sure it was capable of seeing her. And then she wondered how she knew this. Once she was under the trees, she lay down and, exhausted, fell asleep.
In the morning, she awoke, cold from the dew, and saw that the burning building was now only a smoking ruin. She decided to check it out now that most of the flames were burnt out, not only to see if there might be some answers there, but also because there might be something to eat which had survived inside. She crossed the open space, peering up at the heavens suspiciously, and made her way into the ruin.
Pockets of fire were still burning, but she was able to avoid them while she searched. She found the kitchen and discovered a walk-in fridge that had kept the flames away from its contents. The meat was no longer frozen since the building’s generators had been destroyed by the fire. She considered cooking some of it on the still burning embers but decided to eat some vegetables. She found that she was starving and it was not until her hunger was satisfied that she could think of further exploration.
It was indeed a school, for there were classrooms and gymnasiums, including one in which weapons were hung, most of them damaged by fire. She found an office but the files, both paper and electronic, were destroyed. It seemed like the fire had started there, as the files had been dumped on the floor and set ablaze, and she guessed that its primary purpose was to destroy the records. No doubt this was also the reason for killing all the students, and she wondered just what sort of monsters had done this. She found dormitories in which everything had been destroyed but the metal frames of the beds. There were lockers, but they were opened and full of ashes, so there was no point in trying to determine which one had been hers. Too bad; she would at least have wished to read her nametag.
Then she found a room full of dead teachers and other adults. Someone seemed to have killed the administrators and employees of the school as well as the students. She did not know if it was the same people who killed the students, or whether the students had revolted and slaughtered the administration and then were killed by the authorities in revenge. As far as she was concerned, the truth was getting worse and worse the more she investigated.
She walked out the rear entrance and looked into the woods. Something attracted her attention and she walked into a meadow where digging had taken place. There were dozens of unmarked graves and some were overgrown. Whatever horrors had taken place here had been going on for a long time.
She walked back through the building and out the front door into the sunlight and felt its warmth on her skin. Her flesh began to burn instantly and she realized that she was extremely sensitive to sunlight. She found a bit of mirror not broken and looked at herself, hoping perhaps to recognize her face, which she did not. She was rather beautiful, with long red hair, sky blue eyes, and alabaster skin. No wonder it burned in the sun. She found some sheets that had not been destroyed and fashioned herself a kind of djellaba, with a hood over her head that would protect her from the sun. She found a shower that worked and washed off the blood, then dressed. She packed a pillowcase with food she thought would survive a long journey. In a room where martial arts had obviously taken place, she found a belt with a commando knife and a canteen that she filled with water.
She emerged from the building with her supplies. She could see mountains in the distance in the direction the sun told her was west and deduced that she was on the west coast of the continent, which judging by the English signs she had read, must be America. She decided to travel east because that would be the most populated coast and would be the least likely place to run into someone who knew about this school. She would love to have some answers but feared to be identified.
She found a road headed east and began to walk. Eventually, she heard a hum from the sky and ducked into the forest, peering up at a shuttle of some sort headed for the school. It looked like she had gotten out of that place just in time. For a while, she stuck to the tree-cover, but then came out and continued down the road. After a few hours, she wondered why she was not getting tired and realized that she was quite fit and extremely strong. She picked up the pace but continued to walk effortlessly with no pain in her legs or hard breathing. About the time the sun began to set in the mountains to the west, she saw her long shadow on the road ahead of her, moving swiftly, as if beckoning her on.
“That’s going to be my name,” she said out loud. “Shadow.”
“That’s nice to know,” a voice said, and she whirled about to see three men. They were big men, dressed like woodsmen, coming toward her with very unpleasant smiles on their faces.
“What a pretty thing you are,” said the second man. “Shame to cover up that body. Lemme see what you look like, Girl.”
The third man reached out for her. With blinding speed, she made two moves and found all three of the men lying on the road, their throats cut from ear to ear, and her bloody commando knife in her hand.
“Now I know what they were teaching in that school,” Shadow said.
Some weeks on, walking through still-green forests, Shadow heard sounds from the woods and decided to investigate. She had run out of food, and pickings in the woods were slim. Though she somehow knew which plants would feed her and which mushrooms would kill her, she was becoming weak with hunger. If there was human activity nearby, perhaps there would be food to steal or trade for—though the only thing she had to trade was her body and she hoped it would not come to that.
There was a glade in the woods, just off a larger open meadow, and some sort of camouflage netting had been spread over the glade to hide it from the sky above. Under this cover sat two spaceships.
Shadow was astonished by the sight and hid in the foliage to watch. The ships were cargo vessels, delta-shaped in a flying-wing design. They sat head-to-head and a number of people sat in folding chairs under the great wings, drinking beer and cooking food over an open fire. There was laughter and conversation, but her mouth was watering and she felt faint and was not listening to them. For some minutes, she observed in detail and decided she could circle about under one of the ships, grab some broiling meat, and run. She doubted if anyone could catch her in the woods; they were not young, mostly, and they were clearly spacers, not hunters. But she watched, fascinated.
There was a big man that they called Bear, with a bushy beard and a baritone laugh. Another man named Mike, a younger version of him, was obviously his son. Both were heavy set and Shadow was quite sure she could leave both of them behind in a race through the undergrowth. Also, there was a middle-aged couple who did not seem dangerous or even terribly fit. Travel in space was a somewhat sedentary occupation, she supposed. These were some sort of interplanetary smugglers, she believed, and at the first sign of trouble would probably look for a way to avoid it. Besides, they were drinking quite a bit.
Shadow crept back and circled around through the undergrowth. She crept under one of the ships, intending to use its huge landing gear to get close to the barbecue without being seen. The bearded man had launched into a long amusing story, apparently, and the others listened with chuckles and rapt attention. Just in case, she drew her knife before reaching out for the steak.
“Are you hungry, Sweetheart?”
The voice had come from the open hatch behind her. It was a whispered voice, female, and it sounded kind. Shadow wheeled about, silently berating herself for not thinking there might be someone inside the ship. Her hunger must have scrambled her brains.
She turned to run and found that the spacers, alerted by the voice, had quickly spread out in the clearing, blocking her way to the forest. The older couple were armed with lasers. Where had they been? And the big man and his son now seemed huge and alert.
“Oh, put those away,” the disembodied voice said. “Can’t you see she’s terrified? She’s in remarkable shape, but she’s just a girl, and she’s starving. I can hear her gastric juices from here. Mike, get her a plate and put that steak on it. The big one. And get her a chair. She’s obviously been walking for God knows how long and is about to pass out. Bear, she could use a beer too, I’m sure. Sit down, Dear. Do you have a name, Honey?”
Shadow collapsed into the chair and the grinning Mike handed her a plate with a sizzling steak on it. He was about to hand her a fork, but she grabbed the steak in her hands and lit into it, literally growling. Amused, Mike used the fork to scoop some potatoes on the plate. The steak was the most delicious thing Shadow had ever tasted, she was sure. Well, she didn’t know what she had been fed in that school, but it must have been highly nutritious and no fun whatsoever.
Bear, grinning broadly, handed her a mug of beer and she drank half of it and belched. He roared with laughter.
“You like that, My Girl?” he said. “We brew it ourselves on Ganymede. I’m Bear and this is Mike. Over there is Poul and Betti. This ship is Artemis.”
“I’ve very glad to meet you,” the ship said. “This is Themis.”
“I’m glad to meet you too, Dear,” said Themis. Another sweet voice from an open hatch. “What can we call you, Dear?”
“You can call me Shadow,” she said, sucking on the huge rib bone.
“You want another steak?” Poul said.
“No, Poul,” said Themis. “Give her a minute. There’s plenty of food, Dear. Bear always makes sure there’s lots of food.”
“What kind of name is Shadow?” Mike asked. “I think it’s cool.”
“I made it up,” she said. Her eyes wandered to Bear, who was starting another sizzling steak. Suddenly, after weeks of no human contact whatsoever, she felt like talking. “I don’t know my real name.”
“You don’t know your name?”
She proceeded to tell her story in simple words: She woke up with a wound on the head, covered with the bodies of other students, with no memories at all, but surprising skills. Her school was burning. She looked for clues to her identity and found nothing but more dead bodies, then left to walk to the East Coast. “I don’t know anything,” she finished.
“You know how to sneak up on people in the woods,” Artemis told her. “I heard you coming, of course, but they didn’t. It’s hard to surprise Free Traders. Trust me.”
Bear had finished cooking his steak, which was still too hot to handle—for him, at least. He stuck out his hand. “Shake,” he said.
She reached out and shook his huge hand.
“Do me a favour,” he said. “Squeeze as hard as you can.”
She squeezed his hand and he snatched it away. “Jesus Christ,” he said, shaking the feeling back into his hand. He gave her the steak and poured her another beer. Then he turned to his comrades.
“The rumours are true,” he said.
Everyone muttered something under their breath and Shadow looked from one face to another. “What is it?”
“I’m going to tell you something,” Poul said. “I don’t know how you’re going to take it, but you deserve to know. There have been rumours for some time that the Quasi-Police were experimenting with genetic mutation, trying to come up with a race of supersoldiers. I guess every fascist society goes that way eventually. The latest rumours were that they suddenly cancelled the project.”
Shadow sat still for a while, chewing thoughtfully. “Do you have any idea where I came from?”
“No-one can know. Promising children were taken from their families and never seen again. You say the records have been destroyed?”
“Completely. And there are unmarked graves, going back for years, it looks like.” She dug into her steak as if nothing had happened. Everyone thought the same: Shadow’s amnesia was a blessing.
They made her a bed in Artemis and she collapsed on it and slept like a baby, while Artemis cooed to her and the Free Traders talked in quiet voices through the night, over a crackling fire.
In the morning, Bear and Mike had coffee to drink and some sweet thing she couldn’t place but was certain that no-one had ever given her anything that tasty in her life.
“Well,” she said, finishing her coffee, “I should be on my way. It’s probably dangerous for you here.”
Bear laughed loudly and cleared up the dishes.
“Shadow,” said Betti, “do you want to come with us?”
“Yes, we can find help for you there.”
“But there are no answers for me in Ganymede. The answers are here.”
“Are you better off knowing? Or not knowing?”
“I don’t know, but I think it’s what I have to do.”
“We talked about this and we understand how you feel,” Betti said. “Can we at least take you to the East Coast?”
“I’m afraid,” she said plainly. “I’ve got to go to Quasi-Police territory and you will not only attract attention to me, but you’ll put yourselves in danger. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.” Her face twisted and she almost shed a tear. “I’m pretty sure you four are the only good and decent people I’ve ever met. But I’m Shadow and I have to move like one.”
“We understand that too,” Poul said, “but if you will allow us to, we’d like to give you some things.”
“We’re smugglers, Shadow. We’ve got stuff and can get more.”
“All right. That would be nice.” She smiled beautifully and if they had not already cared for the girl, they would have fallen in love with her blue eyes on the spot.
“Okay,” Bear said. “This is a back-pack full of food. It’s space-rations, most of it, and not that great, but it won’t rot.”
“And we can see,” Betti said, “why you wear this thing to keep the sun off you. But it won’t last long. Here.” She had some sort of cap and put it on her head. “This will keep the sun off your face. “It looks like something you might see people wearing at any job site. If you tuck your beautiful hair under it, you might not attract too much attention, and this uniform goes with it. It’s common in Ganymede—in the warehouses, the shrimp-tanks, the hangars and work sites. It’ll keep you cool and keep you warm and you can move in it…”
Shadow unfastened the clip at her shoulder and her garment fell to her feet. She was totally naked underneath. To their credit, the male Free Traders turned away, though Mike had to be smacked in the head by his father when he tried to turn around. Betti dressed Shadow in her new duds.
“I know a lot of very strong people,” she said. “They work very hard at it and you can tell. You don’t look like you have powerful muscles. You’re just smooth and beautiful. But I can feel that you’re stronger than anyone else. I don’t know what those bastards did to you, Dear, but in your case it worked a charm. Okay, Gentlemen.”
They turned back and judged the results impressive. The cap hid her hair effectively, the work-clothes did not cling to her figure, and she already had a masculine walk. Mike took his dark glasses out of his pocket and she put them on. “That will protect your eyes,” he said, “and hide them. Anyone who looks into those eyes will immediately fall in love with you and there goes your camouflage.”
Shadow smiled shyly.
“And for God’s sake, don’t smile in public,” Bear said.
“I have something for you too,” Poul said. “Come with me.”
They climbed the ramp into Themis’s interior and he opened some cabinets. There was a vast array of weapons of all sizes and calibers. Her eyes lit up and she fondled them lovingly. Poul guessed she had received thorough weapons training.
“Your knife is an excellent one,” he said. “I can’t top that, but you’ll need something more—light, easily concealed, with stopping power.”
He took down a Ganymede Combo—a powerful handgun with an added laser that was not just for accuracy, but a silent weapon in its own right. When she emerged from the ship and walked down the ramp, the clip-laden belt and holster was strapped on her slim hips, with the commando knife in the small of her back.
“You see that boll on that tree?” Poul began.
The gun seemed to leap into her hand. The boll of the tree was blasted into sawdust and the weapon spun back into the holster. “That one?” she asked.
There was a smattering of applause. “I think our work here is done,” Poul said. “God forgive us for what we have unleashed upon the Quasi-Police.”
“Yes,” Bear said. “As soon as God forgives the Quasi-Police for murdering children.”
Shadow prepared to leave. The first hug was a Bear Hug, but when she wrapped her slim arms around Bear, he grimaced in pain. The second, from Mike, went on a little too long, until Betti coughed discreetly. She and Poul hugged her too and kissed her forehead. “If you reach Nueva York,” Poul said, “go to a spaceport called Sheep Meadow in Central Farm. There may be Free Traders there. Mention us if you need their help. All right?”
“All right.” Shadow went to Artemis and Themis and touched them, feeling their life-hum through the titanium. They wished her well and called her Darling. Then she turned, stepped into the forest, and vanished like a shadow.
“I just have one question,” Mike said with a sigh.
“What?” Betti asked, smiling at the powerful young man.
“Yes, Mike. It was red.”
A few days later, Shadow, sleeping in an abandoned car on the side of the road, was awakened by the sound of a rattlesnake. In a flash, she reached out and grabbed it and squeezed the life out of it. Then, she went back to sleep, wondering if she shouldn’t have accepted the offer of passage to Ganymede, where she was certain there were no venomous snakes.
Several days down the road, as the forest was beginning to thin out and it looked like open country ahead, Shadow heard a rumbling sound and hid herself in the ditch by the side of the road. A huge vehicle roared by at high speed. There were three long, dozen-wheeled trailers like a railroad train, hauled by a powerful truck that had no driver’s cab—only an antenna pointing toward a bright light in the southern sky. Shadow realized that this was a robotic vehicle carrying grain from the Canadas far to the north, powered by microwave from orbit. It was rolling at high speed all the way across the Central Desert to the inhabited Eastern Cities, and it stopped for nothing. She could not have said just how she knew this, but Shadow was getting used to that.
Shadow made a quick decision. She ran out onto the road, turned and ran alongside the vehicle at top speed so it was not passing her too quickly. She was hidden by the trailer from the lights in the southern sky just in case it was being monitored. She grabbed for a rail. It seemed like it was going to rip her arm from its socket and she screamed in pain, but she held on and pulled herself up onto the trailer. The cap remained on her head, thankfully, as she kept her head down, and her feet found purchase as she crept along the side of the vehicle until she could slip in between the driving cab, filled with humming electronics, and the first trailer. It was a roomy, safe place to ensconce herself, out of the sun and wind.
She was glad of that, because it was not too many hours before the sparse bush-country gave way to outright desert and the road ran through the dune-fields of the bleak landscape that had been the breadbasket of the world before climate change, when the rolling farmland of the East became swamps and jungles, the great prairie megafarms became waterless desert, the pine forests and tundra of the Canadas became fertile farmland, and the Arctic shed its ice altogether. The grain-trucks came down through the foothills of the Rockies and turned east across the desert to the sparsely inhabited cities of the Eastern Seaboard, many of them underwater.
She knew all this, no doubt, from classes in military history. She was beginning to experience flashes of memory now, and recalled something about the northern half of the continent battling Texans and Floridians who were migrating north as their land became uninhabitable, all while the High Companies were moving into orbit to escape the tsunami of poverty, anarchy, and fascism that was overtaking Earth. She could barely remember being told that her job was to serve the Quasi-Police and defend the High Companies from revolt and theft and smuggling. But she could not guess why the powers above decided to shut down the military school and murder everyone involved. Perhaps the system had simply failed to produce the brainwashed, obedient army they hoped for. Right now, the only emotion Shadow felt was hate.
The bleak landscape flew by. The road passed through abandoned towns with illegible signs creaking in the wind in front of taverns and hotels with gaping windows, empty railroad stations beside sidings buried in drifting sands, and ruined grain elevators rising from the dunes like broken teeth. Rusted automobiles lay buried beside the road where they had been pushed out of the way, probably by trucks like this one. Sometimes, like something out of a Medieval horror story, human skeletons twisted in the wind, hung from gibbets at crossroads as markers for gang territory. In the night, the truck-train continued to move and Shadow watched the satellites hanging in the sky among the stars.
Shadow ate sparingly of the rations given to her by the Free Traders and slept intermittently, tucked into a corner of the truck platform, lulled by its constant rumble and rocked to sleep by its movement. The kilometers fell behind her but the desert rolled on.
One night, she awoke to a louder roar and found a half-dozen motorcycles racing alongside the train, trailed by an ancient, smoking, flat-bed truck. In the glow of the warning-lights all over the truck-train, she saw that the riders were long-haired, bearded, and dressed in ragged leathers. Somehow, she knew by the smell of the exhaust that the motorcycles were powered by alcohol. The truck-train ignored them like any robot would and moved on at the same swift pace. But Shadow was disturbed: these people might be like those who had hung their enemies on crossroad gibbets and she was not looking forward to fighting them.
One motorcycle kept pace with the train, the cyclist matching its speed and driving dangerously close to its huge wheels. On the seat behind the driver was a young girl who stood up on the seat in a stunning display of gymnastic ability and swung up behind the cab. She flattened against the cab-wall, saw Shadow, and whipped out a knife. Shadow was already standing with her own knife in her hand, and they studied each other in the red glow of the truck-lights.
The girl’s eyes widened at the sight of Shadow’s gun, hung on her hip very close to her hand. Shadow knew that she could draw and shoot this girl in an instant, but she did not want to do that. For one thing, they were surrounded by her armed biker companions and Shadow was outgunned. Could she wipe out the entire tribe, firing from the truck? Possibly. Possibly not. But she didn’t want to do that either.
She continued to study her adversary. The girl was young, only a bit older than Shadow herself. She was muscular and clearly had acrobatic skills. She was dressed in rags, ripped at various spots, and it was clear that her entire body, including her shaved head, was covered in tattoos of serpents.
The girl saw Shadow looking her up and down.
“I’m Baby Snakes,” she said. “We live not far away. We want this grain. That’s how we live, and we ferment it to make fuel for our vehicles and our camp. Without it, we'll die. Our children—few of them—will also die and our oldsters—even fewer of them—will die too. We have to stop this train now.”
She stopped speaking and waited.
“I’m Shadow. I’m on the run from the Quasi-Police. This vehicle's taking me across the desert. In this sun, I would die.”
“I can see that, Shadow. If you will not interfere or perhaps even help us get our hands on this cargo, we'll give you food and shelter in our camp. You'll be safe. I'll protect you myself. When you want, we'll take you safely across the desert, travelling at night. You may not know this, but there are inspection stations further east, manned by the Quasi-Police. If you don’t want to be caught—and I’m sure you don’t—you would have to jump off the truck and hide in the desert. We can take you around those places.” Baby Snakes slipped her knife into its scabbard, spat on her palm, and stuck out her hand. Shadow put away her own knife, spat in her palm and shook Baby Snake’s hand.
“Jesus, you’re strong,” said Snakes. Then she turned to the cab, climbed gingerly up the outside of the truck, and sat down by the antenna on the roof. She started to use her knife to pry up the bolts that were holding it to the roof.
“We don’t have enough time,” she growled. “Spent too much time talking.”
“Here.” Shadow climbed like a monkey up the side, ignoring the startled looks of the motorcyclists, took hold of the antenna, and ripped it off the vehicle. She tossed it far out into the desert. The truck-train began to slow down. Shadow and Snakes ran back over the top of the cargo boxes and climbed down the rear of the last trailer as the truck came to a final stop. The motorcyclists had gathered around them. One enormous man climbed off his bike with a sledgehammer in his hand.
“This is Ratchet, my little brother,” Baby Snakes said. He raised the sledgehammer and brought it down on one of the hinges, which fell to the ground, broken. Then he struck the other one and the door crashed to the road. The flatbed truck pulled up and the tribe began to hurl bags of grain onto it. They stared in astonishment as Shadow did the same as if they weighed nothing. When the last trailer had been emptied, they turned and left, the flatbed driving off the road and across the desert, surrounded by motorcycles. Shadow rode on the back of Baby Snakes’ bike, her arms around the girl’s slim waist.
A few minutes later a great beam of light came down from heaven and the truck-train was brilliantly illuminated. The satellite searchlight darted here and there, but the tribe was long gone. They heard the roar of Quasi-Police air-cruisers behind them, but the hijackers had slipped into an arroyo and were far away.
The compound was half buried in a hillside beside a dry riverbed, the entrance hidden behind a pile of rocks and dead tree-branches, excellently camouflaged from orbit. The outer wall was made of sheet metal, logs, rusted steel beams, and was topped with barbed wire. Armed guards patrolled the top of it. The guards saw them coming and the gate opened. The hijackers drove in and the gates closed behind them. They stored the grain in the ramshackle warehouse. Shadow looked around at the still where their fuel was made, the workshop where their equipment was kept in repair, the men’s residence, the women’s residence, and some smaller huts where families lived. And the Chief’s house where Baby Snakes resided.
Shadow was astonished that this slip of a girl, though hard as nails, gave orders to an entire tribe of men twice her size. As preparations for a celebration began, Baby Snakes invited Shadow in for a drink. There were no luxuries in her house, but the place was cool and well built. It was roomy too.
“It used to house the Captain’s harem,” Snakes said, pouring drinks. “When I took over control of the tribe, everyone insisted I keep it. I insisted that widows and orphans could live with me.”
“How do you keep these men under control.”
Snakes laughed. “Basically, because I’m the smartest person in the tribe and everyone prospers because of it. And because they know that if any one of them overthrew me there would be a struggle for power and most of them would die and the whole tribe would be destroyed. “Besides…” And she grinned. “…Ratchet backs me up. But what about you? Why are the Quasi- Police after you?”
“I don’t know if they are,” Shadow said. “They may not know I’m alive. And if they don’t, I’d like to keep it that way.” She went on to explain her situation and Baby Snakes listened with astonishment.
“Wow,” Snakes said at last. “I thought I was a strange one.” She told Shadow about being raised in a snake cult, having been tattooed as a carny act, and finally running away from a drunken, abusive father. The tribe found her and took her in as a talisman of some sort. Compared to the conditions a few hundred klicks to the south, the deserts of Kansas seemed welcoming.
In the end, after a few drinks, Ratchet knocked on the door and they came out for the celebration. The food wasn’t anything to write home about. There was plenty of bread and the meat was whatever desert creatures wandered into their traps. Shadow was game to try rattlesnake and found it delicious. But there was plenty of beer and whisky and the dancing turned into wrestling. Shadow entered into the spirit of the thing and threw a series of huge men to the ground with little trouble, discovering fighting skills she didn’t know she had. She was a hit and the women in camp, fierce warriors themselves, were her biggest supporters.
“You know what’s going to be popular next week and probably for months afterward?” Snakes asked Shadow.
“Red hair. I’ve got show biz skills. I can probably match your hair colour, but none of us will ever have your perfect skin. You’re like the sculpture of a Greek goddess.”
“I’m not that comfortable in this skin, actually.”
“We’re all a mixture of what we’ve done and what’s been done to us. We should not be ashamed of either. It’s who we are. One of the reasons I’ve been able to turn this tribe around and make it prosperous is that I look like this. It was taken as a sign. They respected rattlesnakes. They thought I had some powerful magic.”
“I think you do.”
“Would you like to see the details.”
“Yes, I would.”
Shadow followed Snakes into her hut and, in the firelight, Snakes stripped off her rags. She knew the names in English, Spanish, and Latin of every serpent and how they lived. Shadow stroked the creatures as if they were real with her sensitive fingers and suddenly they were kissing passionately.
Just as suddenly, Shadow pulled away with a cry.
“Sorry,” Snakes said. “I thought you were…”
“No, it’s not that. Your touch brought back a memory. I was a child, sleeping in a dorm, and one of the teachers came in. He touched me like that. I had no idea what was going on and I was terrified.”
“Those bastards!” Snakes said. She held Shadow tightly.
Shadow lay breathing deeply for a few minutes, getting control of herself, and suddenly she was all over Baby Snakes. Her hair, even redder in the firelight, cascaded over the writhing serpents.
Shadow rather enjoyed her time at the compound, but Snakes insisted on leaving soon. “This is a dangerous place for you,” she said. “We’ve been a thorn in the side of High Companies Transit for a long time and if we got caught we’d probably be sent to Venus, if not killed. But if they found out you’ve survived their pogrom, you’d be worse off. For all I know, they’d dissect you. Nueva York is where you belong. There’s a lot of Quasi-Police there, but the City is a place where people go to disappear. Always has been.” Shadow had to admit she had a point.
Baby Snakes left Ratchet in charge, packed up, and fueled her biggest cross-country motorcycle for a long trip. “You can sit in the Queen Seat on the back,” she said. “Wouldn’t surprise me if you could handle the machine yourself, but I know this place well past the point where all roads lead to Nueva York. Tuck your hair under your cap, keep your hood up and your shades on, and you can be my Boy-Toy, as far as anybody’s concerned.”
Shadow laughed, as she found herself doing a lot these days. Everyone, male and female, hugged her goodbye and only a few male hands took the liberty of fondling her incredibly inviting butt. Baby Snakes and Shadow climbed aboard the big antique Road-Glide and they roared off toward the road. Snakes knew the schedule of the truck-trains and there was no danger of running into one. She also knew where the inspection stations were and the big cross-country hog could just as easily travel across the desert as on the sand-strewn highway. They passed a skeleton hanging from a gibbet and Shadow wondered if Snakes’ tribe had hung it there, and then decided she didn’t want to know.
The trip was uneventful at first, though Shadow was irritated by the heat coming off the vehicle, even at night. The big incident happened several days later, after the desert had slowly transformed into Appalachian Forest. They had pitched their tent well off the road, deep into the trees, and were sound asleep, wrapped up in each other, when there was a noise. Shadow was awake in a second and Snakes a few seconds later. They reached for their weapons but suddenly the tent was ripped aside and three guns were aimed at them—two rifles and a shotgun. Behind the weapons were three Mountain Men, as Snakes thought of them. She remembered being ogled by such creatures in the Carny, as she stripped to reveal her tattoos.
“Look at this,” the shotgun owner said. “And here’s one for you too, Bill.” Evidently, they thought Shadow was a boy, as she had slept with her hoodie and cap on in the cool evening.
“We’ll have to double up,” Shotgun said to the third man.
“That’s no problem, Dad. I’m first.”
“Look at those tatts. Come here, Girl. Let me see those.”
Baby Snakes stepped forward shyly and Shotgun was distracted as he ripped her clothing. Suddenly, her knife was in her hand. Then it was in Shotgun’s heart. His gun went off with a great boom and buckshot flew into the night over Snakes’ head. Shadow leaped up, grabbed the third man’s rifle and brought the stock up under his chin. His head snapped back and he was dead before he hit the ground. She spun the rifle around and pointed it at Bill, who raised his hands and fell to his knees.
A light poured down from the sky and a voice said, “Quasi-Police. Hands up or die. All of you.” Bill stretched to raise his hands even higher. Machine guns popped out of the shuttle as it descended to earth beside them. Reluctantly, Shadow dropped her gun and raised her hands. A ramp descended from the ship and two men in Quasi-Police uniforms stomped down. The Lieutenant looked over the scene. He saw two men dead and another one disarmed, and a boy and girl looking like they had just come out of the tent. The motorcycle stood nearby, still radiating heat.
“Looks like we just foiled a couple rapes.” The Lieutenant looked at Snakes, studying the tattoos visible through her torn clothing. “What’s your name, Girl?”
Snakes poured out a flood of angry Spanglish. The Lieutenant shut her up with a backhand across the mouth and turned to Shadow.
“What’s your name, Boy?”
Shadow looked at him like she didn’t know what he was saying.
“You don’t fool me, Boy. You’re too white and blue-eyed to be Mexican. What’s your name?”
She looked at Snakes and then back at the Lieutenant, trying to convey the idea that she was deaf. He slapped her hard and her head snapped back. Her cap flew off and her mass of red hair tumbled over her shoulders.
“It’s a girl,” the other officer said.
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Bill.
The Lieutenant drew his weapon and shot him in the forehead, then gestured with the weapon toward the shuttle. “Get in. I know you can understand me. Move, or I’ll kill you both.”
Shadow and Snakes turned and walked to the foot of the ramp.
“Stop! Cuff them.”
The Lieutenant put his gun to the back of Snakes’ head and the Sergeant cuffed their hands behind their backs. They were prodded up the ramp, shoved into acceleration couches, and strapped in. It was extremely uncomfortable with their hands cuffed beneath them, but neither Shadow nor Snakes paid much attention.
The Lieutenant spoke into his comm. “Just a local disturbance. Not connected. But I’m bringing in prisoners. There’s a story behind these two, but I’ll get it out of them."
There was a pilot sitting at the helm. Shadow watched him intently, as he pressed buttons and flipped switches to close the ramp and fire up the drivers while the officers strapped themselves into their couches.
“I don’t suppose you know how to fly this thing,” Snakes whispered.
“No, but I’m watching. Did you see those guns?”
Snakes turned and looked at the huge arsenal hanging on the bulkhead nearby. “Shut up,” The Lieutenant said. Shadow was tempted to say, you just spent fifteen minutes trying to get us to talk and now you’re telling us to shut up. But she thought better of it. The ship rose, banked, and sped off across the dark forest. Ahead of them was a walled compound in a clearing. It was much more well-constructed and impressive than Snakes’ compound, but pretty much the same idea. Another Quasi-Police shuttle was sitting just outside the walls, armed officers sheltering behind it.
Shadow closed her fingers on the cuff surrounding each wrist and pulled, ripping the cuffs off the chain. With her bleeding hands, she tore off the couch-restraints and leaped for the Lieutenant. He reached for his gun under his restraints, but she snatched it away, shot him in the head, and shot the Sergeant as well. The pilot swiveled in his restraints and she shot him too.
“Oh Jesus,” Snakes said as the ship began to tilt.
Shadow yanked the pilot out of his seat onto the deck, sat down in his place, and grabbed the helm. She pushed it forward and the ship accelerated straight into the great doors of the compound. They shattered and the shuttle crashed into the open courtyard at the centre of the structure, armed men rushing out of the way. The acceleration couches in the shuttle exploded into action, protecting their occupants from the crash, though some of them were dead. Shadow exited from her couch, extricated Snakes from hers, then used the laser on the Lieutenant’s weapon to cut Snake’s cuff-chain.
“Cheap old handcuffs,” Shadow snorted. “Obviously, the Quasi-Police on Earth get the hand-me-downs.”
“I thought you said you couldn’t fly this.”
“I can’t. That’s why it crashed. I couldn’t do anything I hadn’t seen the pilot do. Help me with these guns.
”The ramp opened and Shadow and Snakes stepped out through the hatch. They shot down the Quasi-Police who were climbing over the splintered wreck of the compound gate and slid dozens of guns down the ramp to the defenders. Those officers now trying to enter the compound were met with withering firepower.
Some of the Quasi-Police broke and headed for the intact shuttle outside, but Snakes, standing on top of the crashed shuttle, sent a rocket into its open hatch, and blew it to pieces. Eventually, the entire squadron was either dead or running away across the fields.
The residents of the compound heaped praise and thanks upon Shadow and Baby Snakes.
“You have to pack up and leave,” Shadow told them. “They’ll be back in force and wipe you out. Can you go somewhere?”
“Into the mountains. They won’t find us there and we can build another compound. We’ll just take the guns you found, unless you need them.”
“No thanks, we have all we can carry. But do you have any fuel you can spare?”
“Of course. We can’t take much with us.”
Soon, Shadow and Snakes were fueled up, packed up, and headed for Nueva York.
On the outskirts of Nueva York, New York, there were refuse dumps where families in rags picked through garbage, their tin and tarpaulin shacks surrounded by heaps of civilization’s refuse, where ragged children and emaciated dogs ran in the muddy streets. The pickers did not even look up to see the motorcycle roaring past. Much of New York City, now called Nueva York because of the mass migrations from Texas, California, and Florida in the last century, had been flooded by rising sea-levels despite efforts to stop it, and kilometers of brick tenements had either been pounded to pieces by the waves or demolished as threats to river-traffic. Manhattan was reduced to half its size and consisted of three islands, two natural and one artificial.
Upper Manhattan was dominated by walled enclaves on cliffs overlooking the river, each with its own police force and solar-power collector grid. These were surrounded by the sampan city of the very poor. Rickety boats bobbed in the wash of hydrofoils in sewage-filled waters where Harlem tenements had once loomed above brick-strewn vacant lots. Lanterns and drying laundry hung from the rigging, hawkers plied their trade from canoes, and the poor lived their short, hard lives beneath fragile roofs of tin or straw. On the sampans, police protection was non-existent and the local bloodlords ruled through drugs, extortion, and fear from their luxurious bunkers on Upper Manhattan and Washington Heights.
Central Island’s walled enclaves resembled Imperial cities with prestigious, archaic names like American History, Lincoln Center, and Metropolitan Art, surrounded by barbarian huts. Skyscraper complexes like Rockefeller Towers or Chrysler-Panam stood like Art Deco fantasy castles, their cloud-draped spires towering above thick walls and portcullises. The tower windows of lesser buildings were bricked up in some cases to create watchtowers. High walls surrounded the structures within, creating private courtyards that had once been public parks. Shadow and Snakes rode down streets lit only by shafts of light in which the snow of cooling towers swirled forlornly.
The drier streets were teeming with tents and shacks and crowded markets that the motorcycle crept through slowly. The towers rose from the mass of humanity like tree-trunks rising from piles of autumn leaves, holding their air-conditioned heads above the miasma of sounds and smells swirling below. The streets were a mass of trucks and jitneys, wagons and dogcarts, camels and horses. The place bellowed and stank like a wildebeest herd. High above, rickety bridges of rope or bamboo stretched between buildings, creating additional layers of city above and casting the lowest layers in dappled light and shadow like a rainforest floor.
They circled around Times Square Harbor, a low-lying canal district where sampan-mounted shops and brothels bobbed in the light of neon signs and echoed with shouted slogans, police sirens, Lennonites chanting “Love is all you need,” and a constant throaty growl in the background as of a many-headed beast. The United Nations Residential Complex rose from the water’s edge, a saddle-backed building with a dome, a flat building used as a boathouse, and a towering glass slab. Diplomats once had ineffectual debates here while the nation-state system collapsed about them and interplanetary corporations took control of Earth and Moon. Now it was a luxury enclave surrounded by marinas.
The Empire State Tower marked the southern end of the island like a hundred-story lighthouse, the waves pounding at its feet. And out in the harbor they could see Madonna Liberty seeming to walk on water, holding up her broken lamp of welcome. Beyond the tip of Manhattan Lower Island stood the greatest castle of all—the Citadel of Quasi-Police Headquarters. The towers thrust menacingly from the mist sweeping in from the sea and the smaller buildings of Wall Street loomed in the fog like the crenellated walls of a haunted castle. One great tower rose above them all, illuminated by a light from orbit. Shadow and Snakes stopped their bike on the shore and stared.
They sat on the dock next to the motorcycle and gazed at the architectural monstrosity out in the bay, trying to decide what to do. Snakes could return to her chiefdom in the desert, but how was Shadow going to find out where she came from? How could she find the family she had been taken away from as a child with all the data destroyed, and would there actually be anyone left to find? But what was she going to do with the rest of her life if she decided to give up on her search?
“You could come back with me,” Snakes suggested, putting her arm around Shadow’s powerful shoulders. “I’d love that, but you’d still be in danger. All it would take is being patted down by a Quasi Police agent and your secret would be out. Your strength is not natural, My Love.”
“I could get off Earth entirely, go to the Outer Worlds like a lot of people do. I’m sure I could be useful to somebody out there.”
“Well, Galilean Security would be happy to have you, I’m sure, though they might be a little too anxious to wring information out of your brain. If you trust them and want to try the Outer Worlds, the logical thing to do would be to turn around and drive uptown and see if there are any freetrader ships in the Sheep Meadow. It might get you passage to Jupiter, which ain’t cheap.”
“I’d miss you terribly, Baby.”
“I know. Me too. And life out there is not a piece of cake either, but who knows? The Galilean might have useful information about that hell-school.”
“That’s true. There’s the two goals in my life: to survive and find the truth.”
They climbed onto the motorcycle and headed uptown again. Traffic seemed to be even worse, and then they saw what was happening. There was a crowd of Lennonite protesters chanting, “Give peace a chance,” and a squad of Nueva York Police was in the process of arresting them.
The crowd surged behind them and they were spotted. Suddenly there were police behind them.
“Your name, please.”
Snakes did what she could. She gunned the engine and wheelied. The Police fell back and the two fugitives shot forward. Sirens blared and the police gave chase up the avenue as the screaming crowd parted and fell back. Police motorcycles began to gain on them and the sky was filled with Police shuttles. Baby Snakes saw one chance and grabbed it. She steered into a subway entrance and rattled down the stairs, scattering pedestrians in her wake. The police vehicles followed. Snakes roared down a tunnel, then screeched to a halt in front of a ticket-taking turnstile.
“Look. Over there.”
A scaffolding supported workers retiling the wall. The bike turned back toward the entrance and struck the scaffolding supports as it passed. Shadow reached out and yanked a support away. The scaffolding collapsed and the workers leaped for safety as the wooden platform slammed down on top of the turnstile. Shadow and Snakes screeched to a halt as police motorcycles bounced down the stairs, then spun about, and roared off toward the platform. They went up and over it and it toppled down with their weight on the other side of the turnstile. The pursuing Police crashed into the barrier. Shadow and Snakes roared down an escalator and along a platform, scattering slidewalk pedestrians on both sides. At the end of the platform, they drove off onto the track and into the tunnel.
“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Shadow asked.
“Not a fucking clue. But there’s a maze of track down here and they certainly can’t search all of it.”
They heard a train behind them and picked up speed. The lights of the train silhouetted them for a terrifying moment, and then Snakes shot off down a siding. Gradually, water began to appear and rose higher about the motorcycle. Obviously, they were going in the wrong direction and were headed downtown into the sea. Soon the motor would be flooded. They came to an abandoned platform and headed up a ramp to a disused repair station. They sped down a long workers’ access tunnel, but soon there were no lights. Snakes switched on the headlamps just in time to see a barrier across the tunnel.
“Duck!” Snakes tried to tilt the bike to slide under the gate, but it was too late. The barrier struck Shadow across the chest and swept her off the bike. Snakes was thrown too as the bike crashed and both of them were knocked unconscious.
Shadow awoke in near darkness and found herself tied to a steel pillar. Snakes was awake beside her in the same predicament.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“A bit beat up,” Shadow said, “But you won’t be surprised to learn I heal fast.”
“Well, I don’t, but this is not the first time I’ve fallen off a hog. I know how to land.”
“I assume they’re not cops.”
“God, no. The last thing from cops, but they’re in charge down here. I’ve heard the horror stories. They’ve lived down here for ages and there seem to be a lot of them. According to legend, they infest the whole underground labyrinth and never go up to the street. They live on stolen food and some say they’re cannibals, but that might be just a scary tale. The Police are afraid of them and never come down here.”
The door opened and a creature clad in rags shuffled into the room. They could smell him from across the room.
“You’re a surprise,” he said, his voice unexpectedly cultured. He seemed to be as white as Shadow, but his skin was nowhere near as healthy.
“You’re a bit of a surprise too,” Snakes said. “But why are we tied up?”
“Because I want your undivided attention.”
“Oh, you have it.” Shadow said. She thought a touch of humour would show that she was fearless. “So, what would you like to know?”
“Why should we not rape you both, kill you, and then eat you?”
“In that order?” Shadow asked.
“Well, the eating part is new,” Snakes said, “but we seem to be threatened with rape quite often. I don’t care for any of those things.”
“You’re a barbarian from the desert and quite brave.”
“And you, if you really want to eat us, are a barbarian from the underground, though you sound rather cultured to me.”
“My tunnels go everywhere, including into the basement of the Nueva York Library.”
“I don’t read much, I’m afraid,” Snakes went on. “Not a lot of books pass through the Kansas Deserts. But Shadow here is very well educated.”
“I know. She’s the lone survivor of the Quasi-Police Super Soldier School.”
Shadow was stunned. “How do you know that?”
“I know everything,” the man said. “The people we bring down here babble their heads off and I know everything that goes on up above. They know nothing of what goes on down here. I’ve heard of that failed endeavour and was told that all of the students were murdered. But one touch and I knew you were supernaturally strong. In fact, you’ve already broken your bonds and you’re waiting for a chance to jump me. But I can tell you that there are snipers in the shadows here and you wouldn’t get anywhere near me, fast as you are.”
“Do you have a name?”
“No, I don’t. What would I want with a name? My people don’t call me by name, they just obey.”
“Nice to meet you, No Name. I’m Shadow. I named myself.”
“Perhaps that is because you want to live and work in the shadows, as I do.”
“Well, I don’t want to eat anybody, but there are a few Quasi Police I’d like to rape with a commando knife. Or any sharp stick would do.”
The creature actually laughed. “Well, I know some people who could use your skills, but they won’t let you rape anybody, or kill anybody without a damn good reason. If you will untie your friend, the perfectly named Baby Snakes, I will lead you to them.”
Shadow threw aside her ropes and began to untie Snakes.
“You can stay back as far as you want,” No Name said. “But if you try to run, you will die instantly. Besides, there really is no place here you want to run to.”
They followed him through the maze of dark tunnels, where they were vaguely aware of people clad in rags in the background, and through a door into a well-lit place. No Name vanished behind them and they never saw him again.
A small group of people approached them. Baby Snakes noticed that her motorcycle was standing nearby.
“You’re the one called Shadow? We’re the Underground Railroad, Nueva York division. We free people from the Quasi-Police and transport them to the Canadas. It’s hard work, and dangerous, but very satisfying, in my opinion. Are you looking for a job?”
“I guess I am,” Shadow said.
For a year or so, they worked together in Nueva York, snatching prisoners away from the Quasi Police and transporting them out of the city, working always at night. The Police called them Serpent Girl and The Shadow because they had read too many comic books, but the rumours that spread on Earth and into the Outer Worlds got their names right.
After a while, Baby Snakes returned to her compound, but sometimes the tribe helped move people secretly across the desert to Nueva York. Shadow stopped caring what she was and where she came from because she was where she belonged. But later, the dreams began. In the worst, she was killing teachers.