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Fiction #505
(published September 23, 2010)
Snake Hunt
by Luminator Thelms
They put me on the board. I thought it would be easy. Now, I don't like it so much.

The Crate rolls half a block, the board goes tic, the video feeds change. Board's got a bunch of buttons and dials below four screens, one screen or another changing at random with the tic. Keeps you alert, they say.

Some black box combines the video feeds, the ultrasonic sonar, the infrared, other stuff they don't want us to talk about. Makes pretty pictures. The board goes warry warry warry, tic, warry warry warry. With the hissing of the armored tires, it makes a sort of music.

Board's supposed to show up camouflaged guerrillas in the jungle. But there's no jungle here, and with all the overlays I can't spot Serpent Gang tattoos unless I switch a screen to the video turret on the roof.

Wish I had more to go on than the board. I could turn my head left and try to see out the windshield, past the bags stacked in the aisle, the steel bulkhead and Chico's left shoulder. But the drill instructors, they don't like me doing that.

Twenty blocks 'til we're in The Slot.

I used to hang out on streets like this stretch of Lexington: same boarded-up shops, abandoned cars they haven't towed, old high-rise tenements with half the windows gone, garbage bins and roaches. This is Serpent Gang territory. Looks different, on the screens. Can't hardly see the Serpent graffiti or the Timmonite posters through the sonar overlays. I watch all those pretty colors on the screens, the reds and yellows and blues, and I can almost forget it might be my old Compadritos out there when the patterns don't look right. Or Serpents.

After high school, I coulda gone on Public Assistance, hung out on street corners and gone with the Compadritos until I got drafted and the Army shipped me south to kill my relatives. Like what happened to my cousin Raul. 'Though I'm a bit old for a Compadrito, and I've had enough of Juvenile Hall. Didn't want to go with the Serpents. They're always trying to rope in big lugs like me for the knife fights, drug runs, stick-ups or squeeze jobs. They got this slogan, "Join or Die." Moving to some other part of New Washington, D.C., woulda put me in Eagles or Red Monkey Tribe territory, same story. The factories still open got thousands of job-hunters waiting years to get in.

Seemed like a good thing that I learned enough in high school to pass the tests and get into the Service. They pay me thirty New Dollars a month, enough to slip a few Endies to my madre and hermana to hold them over between P.A. vouchers.

Today, there's lots of colored outlines on the screens, knotted up at street corners. Could be older kids, could be young guys waiting for a street fight. Maybe the local high school closed after another shooting. Happens a lot.

When the patterns don't look right, I feed the co-ords to Li'l Max. He's in the big turret at the back, mans the GenSys Dynamic Paxafier; can't trust the automatics. D.P.'s coherent pulse-sonics are guaranteed non-lethal, they tell us. We can't hurt the citizens we're serving, its bad for Public Relations. Brigadier General McCabe says so.

If something looks wrong up ahead, I talk on the I-com to Magreggor at the wheel — as if he can't see through the armor glass himself. He's the big one, the crazy Anglo. I don't talk much to Chico in Nav, next to him. Chico can talk to Magreggor. He doesn't have to, much, but right now he's reciting this Cubano poem about a witch man's hunt and sacrifice of this big snake. Says it reminds him of running patrols out of Bogota, during the Second Central American Police Action.

Morgan's on Com, to my right. He talks to Com Central, code stuff. He doesn't talk to me. Maybe he says something to Magreggor. Never to Chico.

This block, the buildings are taller. On the board, most of the upper windows have red spots, meaning people in the windows. Looking at the Crate? Too many people. I don't like it. Maybe the Serpents will try something.

I boost the sonar gain a couple of clicks. Regs say, you run the board at full gain the whole mission. But when I do that, I burn out the screens before my rotation and the techs yell at me. When I go easy, sometimes they burn out anyway. Lousy set-up.

Morgan sees me boost the gain. He says something in code into the Com. Stupid regs. If it's in code, so what? I see something, Morgan talks to Com Central, you think the Serpents watching our frequencies won't notice, maybe figure out why we're yammering to Com Central and how to use it against us?

Less people on the street, this block. Doesn't seem right, somehow. Magreggor ups the speed. He doesn't like it either, I'd guess.

What's that flash? Building on the left, below the roofline.

Sunlight, off a window opening. Now the board shows a red spot, top of a seven-story to our right. Two spots. Tic, new video, another building, no reds on the roof. Coulda been nothing, coulda been couple of kids, playing up there because their madre's out cleaning homes and the TV's busted. Yeah, sure.

No charged batteries show up on the board. Don't think I'll check with the video turret, yet. Keep doing that and there'll be Compadritos popping up on rooftops just to make the turret swerve around.

Could be spotters. I mention that to Morgan. Let him worry.

I try to track that roof as the screens change. Nothing up there, next time it's on a screen.

Warry warry warry, tic, warry warry warry.

Another block and the buildings are higher still, Fifties high-rises run up by the Public Housing Agency. Morgan shifts in his seat; chatter leaks out of his headset. High pitched, police code-talk. Can't make out the words. I keep my eyes on the board, waiting. But Morgan says nothing. Damn cops don't talk to us. Lots of windows have red spots, this block.

More chatter. Cops must be right busy. Could be a shooting, gang war, food riot, street fight — or fake fight, to draw the cops from this stretch of Lexington?

I keep watching the red dots in upper windows. Don't hardly blink when the sweat gets in my eyes.

Isn't I'm-scared sweat; the Crate's got no cooler vent at the board. Dumb layout, like putting the D.P. turret at the back. The Crates really aren't like the O'Grady combat troop transports. Guys in P.R. point that out all the time.

They don't point out that the Crates look like giant armor-plated orange crates on wheels, either, with bumps all over housing the sensors and steel plates bolted over the former gun ports. Larry, Magreggor's friend in Motor Pool, says Amalgamated built the Crates on spec, during the run-up for the Third Central American Police Action, out of all these leftover parts from different suppliers. Said Amalgamated shoulda been called Frankenstein Motorwerks.

But Amalgamated's new rep slipped the bribe to the wrong Army colonel, and they wouldn't take 'em. Then McCabe leaned on Procurement, got 'em cheap. No civil disturbance is gonna slow the Service down, not while "Killer" McCabe's in charge.

Watching tall buildings gets tricky. Damn scanners weren't built for cities. Got to keep my eyes moving, up and down.

There's a truck horn up ahead. Some teamster honking a safe-pass signal? Gotta watch out for delivery trucks. Sometimes the Serpents hijack them, try to take out Crates. They're after the P.A. vouchers. Or they want to squeeze more interest out of the dopers what owe them money until the replacement vouchers get through a couple weeks later.

Truck is half a block ahead, rolling slow. Maybe too slow. Magreggor pulls us out to pass it. I hear the D.P. turret whirr as Li'l Max aims at the truck's cab.

Now the truck's blocking a couple screens. Dirty white panels slide past the tiny viewport at my left. This is when they'd try something. The D.P. turret whirrs again. Then I see the truck's cab in the 'port. A guy in a driver's cap glances my way. He looks worried.

We pass the truck. Get back in our lane. I start breathing again.

Warry warry warry, tic, warry warry warry.

We roll a block. Nothing happens. Block and a half.

WHAAAG-KEEEE. D.P. Sounds like an old Lear-Stigler job; El Presidente's troops 'lost' three out of four of 'em in the First Central American Police Action twelve years back.

Chico yells, "Floor it."

Magreggor floors it. The straps keep me in my chair, but I have to punch at the board twice for a reading. There's a pins-and-needles itching on the back of my left shoulder. Some overhead shielding panel musta shifted again.

Board shows three, four red spots on a roof on the left up ahead, where a battery discharged. I punch buttons to train the turret camera on it, feed the co-ords to Li'l Max.

WHAAAG-KEEEE. Another battery discharge, top of a building at the end of the block, on the right. Morgan says something in code. I punch buttons, send the new co-ords to Max.

There's the whirr of the D.P. turret, turning three quarters around to the right.


It whirrs back the other way.


We roll a block, slow down. Morgan doesn't say anything more to Com Central.

Now we're passing real old tenements, run up by Acting President Scranton's Disaster Recovery Committee back in Nineteen Oh Five. Unless it was Oh Six, when the D.R.C. nationalized the Trusts? Or maybe Nineteen Twelve. The dates all ran together in my head in Mr. Vidor's history class. Anyway, before Nineteen Twenty-Eight, when the Supreme Court ruled Scranton's appointing his son President was Unconstitutional.

Gotta keep my mind on the board. We're past the D.R.C. dumps and between rows of P.H.A. high-rises. Twelve blocks to The Slot. Now a screen shows red spots on top of a high-rise, to our left three blocks ahead. Couple of charged batteries up there, too. I train the video turret on that roof, send the co-ords to Li'l Max.

It isn't easy; we're rolling at thirty, thirty-five, and the video jitters a lot. There's lots of litter on the street, discarded banners, placards and fliers. Musta been another Timmonite procession reminding us that God's Wrath Is Coming 'cause we ignored God's Warning Against Building Flying Machines eighty years ago. Or celebrating the Martyrs who blew up some jetliner. Maybe both.

Me, I think the Big Blast at the end of Oh Four had nothing to do with what happened at Kitty Hawk two weeks before, 'cause something out there sent the God's Warning meteor our way centuries ago. That's what this astronomer on Radio Free Canada was saying last week. Besides, I remember Mr. Vidor telling us about that Ambrose Bierce guy, who asked why God had waited four years before He gave Brother Timmons the Great Revelation at Lake Tunguska, halfway around the world? Or why hadn't He just blasted Kitty Hawk itself, earlier, and spared a couple million innocent bystanders? Or smote the Zeppelin works in Germany while He was at it? Then the Timmonites blew up the Flagstaff Tribune along with Bierce. But I don't talk about that stuff to nobody. Vidor did, and they took him away.

We roll within range of the possible D.P. Did a flash show on the building's roofline?

Li'l Max says, "I've got a visual."

Another whirr. In my turret screen something metallic pops up on the roof. I hit the buttons.


Two blocks later, I hear chatter in Morgan's headset. He pulls one earpiece away so I can hear tinny laughter. Red Monkey Tribe, on a public frequency, bragging that they got a Crate shooting its D.P. at some car batteries and a pie plate on a stick. Morgan doesn't say anything. He just stares at me.

My hitch is up in two years. Magreggor said, if we're still alive next month, he and Larry and Morgan and Li'l Max will maybe buy or borrow one of the surplus Crates, cruise the roads a while. "Moving target's harder to track down. You wanna come along?"

Said I'd think about it.

The Crate bounces on a pothole. I reset the board. Now we're doing thirty-five. This intersection means it's seven blocks to The Slot and what's on that screen?

I aim the video turret to our right. When we cross the next intersection, I see it: Delivery truck pacing us three blocks down on Scranton Boulevard. Scranton crosses Lexington five blocks ahead, where we'll turn left into The Slot. I tell Magreggor and Li'l Max. Morgan says something in code-talk.

We cross the next intersection and the truck's still pacing us. Must be running through traffic signals.

Next intersection, truck's still on us.

Two blocks to go.

One block.

Magreggor yells something about a stalled pickup blocking The Slot, puts on the brakes. We skew to a stop in the three-way intersection, almost hit The Slot's right curb. Other brakes squeal behind us; sounds like the truck's got us hemmed in. Maybe.

The Crate jerks back four feet, stops.


Crate jumps forward, angling a bit more left, stops.


We back up again, brake. Can't damage civilian property. It's in the Regs.


We jerk forward and back, working left. No way for Li'l Max to take aim.


The Crate tilts as the right wheels go over the curb. I see a Postal Kiosk through the viewport. I think they wanted to make us knock it over.

We bounce as we come off the curb, in The Slot. Half the buildings along The Slot got burned out three years ago in the Landfill Riots but somebody forgot to tear them down. Full of squatters and Serpents, hard to tell apart. Fortified Post Office Station's at the dead end, two blocks ahead. Its portcullis is down, of course.

The Crate's hitting trip-wires, setting off sputter guns in the ruins: water pipes stuffed with primer-cord and layers of powder, rags and scrap metal. Stuff a pipe right and it shoots out the scrap, sput-t-t-t-t-t-t. Or it blows up. That's why they use trip-wires.

Magreggor jinks us around abandoned cars. Metal stuff clatters against the Crate's sides. Chico's chanting the snake hunt poem, loud. I don't think we're the hunters.

I glance left. The Station's portcullis hasn't opened yet. Something smashes on the Crate's roof, maybe a toilet.

Times like this, I wish I wasn't in the Postal Service. Maybe I'll go with Magreggor. Maybe go to Canada.

Half a block. That portcullis better open soon.

Shit. I forgot to turn The Sign back on. Again. Too distracting when I'm on the board. Morale officer's gonna give me hell if he finds out.

I reach above the board, hit the switch. Glowing red letters start flashing over my head, reflected in every shiny surface:





I liked the old motto better.

Luminator Thelms is a member of the Long Beach (Calif.) Writer's Group and a reference librarian, who finds a certain grim fascination in verifying the one-to-one correlation between civic budget shortfalls and library hiring freezes.

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