Surrounded by the deep silence of the drowning city, Casey stood several feet back from the edge of the water creeping up from the bay, a smooth sheet of death. Then horror wrapped itself around him as a long sinuous ripple broke the surface, splashing small waves at his feet. How had the water risen so fast? He stumbled backwards, and as he retreated from the advancing water, the ground shook beneath him. His arms windmilled as he desperately tried to keep his balance. If he fell, he would be lost.
“Ow! Damn it, Casey, that hurt. C’mon, wake up, buddy. That’s gotta be one hell of a nightmare. Looks like we’re here, wherever the hell here is, so get your ass back in the real world.”
Casey woke abruptly, his heart still pounding as the dream faded. He pulled himself up in the hard seat, groaned as stiff muscles protested, and looked around in confusion. Jake was staring at him with a concerned frown. “What?” he rasped out from a throat choked with dust. He reached for the water bottle lying on the seat between them, then remembered. He’d drunk the last of it hours ago. He tossed it on the floor and banged his head against the back of the seat. “Hell!”
“C’mon, get yourself together. Unless we’re gonna be overnight guests, this looks to be the end of the line.”
The end of the line? The phrase struck an ominous chord that carried an overlay of fear. Casey shook it off. Stupid! It was just a leftover from the dream. Something else was trying to get his attention, and he focused on that. Someone had hurt Jake?
“What happened? Did someone asshole give you a hard time?”
For the moment, his concern for Jake outweighed any curiosity about where they were. There wasn’t much to see, anyway. Just like the whole damned trip. The dust-covered side windows had made watching the scenery a waste of time. The two half-circles that the windshield’s wipers managed to keep clear hadn’t offered much more of a view. Just road, road, and more road, endlessly, and nothing to either side but flat nearly-featureless desert.
He’d spent much of the trip dozing, waking up with a start when the bus hit a pothole, or voices rose in an argument. Another argument. Fear and hostility had hung in the barely breathable air right from the first. They didn’t know why they’d been rousted out of the transit camp or where they were going. Rumors were the only amusement and also the source of ongoing arguments. Casey listened in now and then, out of sheer boredom, but he had mostly given up even that attempt at making the time pass.
“You’re the asshole, you dumb lunk.” But Jake sounded amused, and he was even grinning, as if it was a big joke. “You were dreamin’ and thrashin’ around like the devil was after you, and your arm hit me in the head. Hey, it’s okay! Don’t look so worried. You didn’t do any damage, but I thought for a few seconds you decided we weren’t friends anymore. It was a pretty bad dream, huh?”
“I guess.” Casey tried to remember what it had been about, but it was gone. Probably just as well if it had made him strike out in his sleep. “There was something about water. That’s all I can remember. And the ground shaking. I guess that was the bus getting into the dream.”
Jake laughed. “Dreamin’ about water! That ain’t too surprisin’. I’m sure dreamin’ about it, even when I’m wide awake. I’m gonna be hackin’ up a nasty lump of dust when we get off this heap.”
“It was salt water,” Casey said, more to himself than to Jake. The shadowy memory pulled at him, but he couldn’t make it come clear. “A cool mountain stream would make more sense.”
“Maybe you’ll remember it later, and you can tell me all about it. Hey! The gate’s openin’. I sure as hell hope this is the last stop. I’m gettin’ downright tired of wanderin’ from pillar to post and back again. Just wanna settle down somewhere for a while and get comfortable.”
Casey expected to be herded back inside before he could do more than take a deep breath of the cooling air. He almost hoped someone would show up and give him an excuse to vent his frustration. He badly needed to find a shoulder with a chip that needed to be knocked off. But for once, no one was around. Just his luck.
Capra hadn’t made any attempt to keep him from leaving the office, hadn’t even sent anyone with him to make sure he went back to the dorm. Just as if he didn’t give a shit. And why should he? He had all the power. If Casey wouldn’t do the job, he’d pick someone who would.
He grabbed the fence with both hands, shaking it as hard as he could, ignoring the pain. He’d rather dig latrines, if they did that here, than lord it over anyone. And it was his own stupid fault. If he hadn’t rescued Jerry from those bullies…. The same bullies that were supposed to take orders from him, for crying out loud! If the private who’d just accompanied a batch of men back after their interviews hadn’t seen it—and told Capra about it… If! Sneaky sons of bitches, and damn them all to hell! He shook the fence again, then backed away, rubbing his hands where the wire had dug in to his skin.
He had to find a good reason why Casey Thompson was the worst possible choice to be the boss of anybody. All he could come up with was that he didn’t give a damn about the men he happened to be stuck with. It wouldn’t be a convincing argument. Not for the lieutenant.
Because he did care about Jake. And maybe the kid, as long as he didn’t think Casey would be at his beck and call. Just what he needed: a helpless teenager looking to him for protection from the bad men. If he got the shit kicked out of him a few times he’d learn to stand up for himself. But if something serious happened, whose fault would it be? Maybe cussing the lieutenant out hadn’t been the smartest move he’d ever made.
If he gave in, Capra would lay down the law and Casey would have to let them know he was going to enforce it and wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense, backtalk… blah, blah, blah. They’ll probably put their heads together and plan how they would screw the new boss. And why not? He’d been on the drift, just like they had. He’d taken handouts to survive, and now he wasn’t any different from them. A prisoner, even if nobody was using that word. Yet. They were surrounded by fences and razor wire, would have to do whatever work they were assigned, and there was a damned curfew. Not for the military personnel. Just for the inmates.
He bounced his head against the fence a few times as if that would shake loose an idea that might change Capra’s mind. That he didn’t give a damn would likely get him something along the lines of ‘Learn to care.’ That he didn’t give a damn about the camp, the country, or even himself, wasn’t any more likely to win him a reprieve.
“Curfew, Thompson. Time to get your ass inside.” The voice behind him carried just the hint of challenge he wanted to pit himself against. He looked up at the sky that he’d been too angry to notice. The sun had set and the stars were coming out, brilliant as he’d never seen them before. Then it hit him. Hard. He was going to be shut away from his favorite pastime, walking under the stars when everyone else was asleep. In the camps, there was never the deep silence that he loved, but the day’s chaos usually quieted down enough for him to pretend he was entirely alone with the night.
The voice was familiar. Sergeant Marshall! He’d been assigned to Midway instead of going back with the bus to whatever base he’d come from. Stories about him were already circulating. He was majorly pissed off to be stuck here in the middle of nowhere, and wasn’t wasting any time taking it out on whoever was convenient. Casey took a deep breath.
“I think I’ll stay out here for a while. I’ve never been out in a desert at night. Real pretty, don’t you think?”
Dead silence. The darkness had dropped down so quickly Casey’s eyes hadn’t adjusted yet. He couldn’t see Marshall’s reaction. But he could feel it. And hear it. The brush of a hand over cloth. Reaching for his pistol? Casey’s heartbeat picked up. He couldn’t tell whether he was feeling fear or anticipation. Was Marshall the type to shoot an unarmed civilian for mouthing off? He almost hoped so.
Casey made a show of tending to his crew, but it was with a small part of his attention. The lockdown bothered him. Why had everyone been shut in while the outside work crews were being rounded up? Would Capra tell him if he asked? But he wouldn’t. He felt an internal shift that was like something turning over, altering the way he was seeing things. He wouldn’t be going to Capra’s office again if he could help it. He wouldn’t be asking Capra any more questions. He was ready to tuck his head down and fade into the woodwork. He’d keep his eyes open for trouble, but that was it. If Capra didn’t like it that was his problem.
He eased through the remainder of the day, working wherever he could help out. He remained deaf to the bickering that was the constant discordant music of their lives. If anyone noticed that he wasn’t checking their work or making any suggestions, they kept it to themselves. It was a very peaceful day.
The sun had already set and it was close to dark and curfew when the buses returned. Casey had been waiting for them, alternately pacing and leaning against the wall of A, without questioning his reason for wanting to be there. The convicts were the first off. He briefly wondered at his lack of surprise that they all wore leg irons. Had they worked that way? Imagining himself in that situation, he tried to feel some sympathy for them and failed. Something about the sight stirred up the tangle of questions he’d been wrestling with all day.
Everyone was dust-covered. Many of them were staggering with exhaustion, heads hanging. It had been a long day and god only knows what kind of work they’d been doing. But there was a difference between the convicts and the other men, one that Casey couldn’t define immediately. It was more than the chains, or the clothing. The convicts still wore orange jumpsuits that stood out in the dusk while the blue shirts and jeans faded into the evening light. As the men headed toward their barracks, the floodlight shining down from the corner of A picked out some of the faces. Casey saw what he thought was anger, but he changed his mind. It was a kind of hard-faced determination.
Most of them glanced at Colbert as they passed him. He’d positioned himself to the side, and nodded as they went by, then followed the last of them toward A. But not before turning his head and spitting at the feet of the soldier closest to him. He was only a few steps from the doorway when he saw Casey watching. He stopped, raised his right hand, clenched it into a fist, pointed his middle finger straight at Casey, and disappeared inside.
The rattle of chains had faded. The convicts and their three guards were gone. The yard was empty except for Casey and four remaining soldiers.
“Curfew doesn’t apply to you, Thompson?”
Marshall. Of course it was Marshall. Casey didn’t move.
“You’re nobody special, so get your ass inside.”
Taking his time, Casey took a step toward him, hands down by his side carefully relaxed, curious to see his reaction. Marshall’s hostility turned to rage. “Don’t you dare threaten me. I can make sure you spend a long time in the brig. And the cell will be locked next time!”
So Marshall knew about that. No surprise there, Casey thought. Gossip was the lifeblood of people with boring jobs. It wouldn’t be any different here. He smiled at Marshall, knowing it would enrage the sergeant even further. “You might try being less of an asshole, Marshall. It’s bad for your blood pressure.” Turning toward the other military, he said, in a parody of formal manners, “Good evening, gentlemen.”
He could hear it the second he set foot in the barracks door, Colbert’s voice raised above the others, in a tone that seemed to be fueling a growing commotion. He’d taken only a few steps into the dorm when Colbert noticed him. The tirade shut down and the other voices died as men turned to see what Colbert was looking at.
“Where the hell you been, Thompson?” someone demanded. The pandemonium started up again, the voices overlapping, each one trying to be heard. Casey couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it.
“You have to go talk to Capra.”
“We’re not gonna put up with this shit.”
“Enough is enough!”
He started toward the group of men packed tightly around Colbert, then slowed. Did he really want to get into this? Something had happened to get Colbert seriously riled up. And the way everyone else seemed to be just as riled, it hadn’t been anything minor.
“Tell him, Colbert! He doesn’t know what happened.”
Colbert was staring at him, his hands on his hips, his chin thrust out. Casey shrugged. “So tell me.”