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Story 1

Lou Antonelli
 

Lou Antonelli is an amazingly prolific and talented Texas science fiction writer.

Lou got a late start in his fiction writing career; his first story was published when he was 46 years old in June, 2003. His first professional sale was "A Rocket for the Republic", published in Asimov's Science Fiction in September 2005.

His Texas-themed reprint collection "Fantastic Texas" was published in 2009 and another collection, "Texas & Other Planets", was published by the Merry Blacksmith Press in 2010. Yard Dog Press in 2011 published his chapbook collection of four collaboration stories with Portland, Oregon-based author Ed Morris, "Music for Four Hands".

Lou is currently the managing editor of the Mount Pleasant, TX Daily Tribune.

Lou is a frequent contributor to 4 Star Stories, a trend that shows no sign of abating. This issue features the conclusion to "The Way of the Heretic", which appeared in our last issue.

Morey and Kim embark on a forced march across the Texas landscape to save their lives in "Racing with the Sunset".

 

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RACING WITH THE SUNSET

By Lou Antonelli

They had been picking through the remains of the residential area for a few hours when they took a break under a large pin oak tree. Morey looked at the outlines of brick walls in the tall grass. "This probably was a school," he said.

"Look where the old outline of the road is, and the way the walls run. This may have been a small tree planted in front of the school."

Morey looked up at the spreading branches. "Youíre probably right; the tree is old enough." He cleared his throat. "I hope you donít think Iím just using you like a servant."

"No, not at all," she said. "I am your betrothed. We will marry later. I am glad to be with you."

She smiled. "When I was a little girl, I noticed how dull the boys in Waiting for Zion were, how silly the girls were. It was because we donít really get an education."

She turned to face him. "I have my own ideas, you know. Thanks to the attention youíve paid me, I know more, Iím better educated."

"I was always a dangerous free thinker," said Morey. "I always felt small families and one man and one woman made people more civilized."

"Thatís the way the Americans lived?" asked Kim.

"Yes, the Americans shunned Waiting for Zion," said Morey. "That way of life was banned.

"Polly-gamy?"

"Polygamy. Yes, our ancestors followed the Old Testament ways," said Morey. "The Americans, their religion was of the New Testament."

He stood up. "The isolation of Waiting for Zion has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it preserved us from the plague that destroyed the Americans. America had over 400 million people, the number is almost impossible to grasp." He looked around. "Weíve been on our own for over a year and half, and we have found no one since we left Waiting for Zion."

He looked at Kim. "In the long run, we have to find other people, because eventually because of inbreeding our people will die off."

"Maybe we should travel to Sancho, then," she said. "They say it was a large city. Maybe there are people there."

"Yes, it was called San Angelo by the old people. It had tens of thousands of people." He smiled at her. "When we have enough food and supplies stored up, maybe you and I will set off towards the great city."

"Speaking of supplies, letís begin to go through this ruin," she said. "Weíve always had great luck in the ruins of schools."

The brush was fairly thin -- black patches showed that a grass fire had burned over the area a few years earlier -- but they poked around for two hours without finding anything significant. Morey walked over to the girl.

"Iím puzzled. I agree, it looks like the site was a school, but weíre not finding anything. Was the building picked clean?"

Kim had been poking at patch of dark soil with her stave. She tapped Ė hard -- and a metal sound rang out. Morey cocked his head. "We are not in the school," she said. "Recognize that? Itís one of the pieces of metal used to hold a roof across a room."

"Itís a metal beam," said Morey. "ThenÖ"

"We are standing on what was the roof," she said. "It must have come down all at once, in one piece."

"The whole school is beneath us," he said.

#

They spent a week digging into the ruins of the school, finding glass, plastic and even books that had been buried deep and were well-preserved. The building had been neither burned nor looted before the roof apparently came down and sealed it all.

"I have an idea," said Morey one afternoon. "I think I can build a pair of handcarts. We have enough tools and containers now. After we take in the corn, we can move on to Sancho."

"And move away further from Waiting for Zion?" asked Kim.

"Yes. I think they have not come after us only because they expect us to die out here on our own," said Morey.

"Youíre right, as always, wise old man," she said with a smile. She pointed. "Did you notice this? It looks like there is a door here," she said, gesturing to a rise in the earth. "There may be a small room in here, almost intact."

"Youíre the small and agile one," he said. "If you want, wriggle down into the hole."

She sat down. "Iíll slip in, feet first."

He helped her by holding her under her arms. "Iíll need the lantern," she called back.

Morey used a flint to light the wick and then passed it down to her. She held it in front and waved it back and forth. She could see glittering, like frost, even though the space was hot and musty.

"Oh, my. Iíve never seen this before."

"What is it?" He called through the door.

"Itís a sign with a symbol Iíve never seen before," she called back. "I donít recognize it."

"Is there any writing?"

"Yes, it says... Ďbiohazard.í What does that mean?"

She took a few steps forward, screamed and dropped the lantern. Flames shot across the ancient tiled floor.

Her arms reached out from the darkness towards Morey. "Help, take me, now, get me out of here, please!"

He reached down and grabbed her elbows, yanking her straight up with all the strength he had. She was sobbing. He clutched her to comfort her, but she shoved him away.

She gasped through her sobs. "Bones. All bones down there. Covered in plague!"

Smoke billowed up from the hole as the contents ignited. "Oh, dear God, that must have been a temporary morgue! No wonder the school was abandoned intact."

Her legs folded and she dropped to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut. She threw her hands over her face and sobbed. "We will die!"

Morey began to sweat as the smoke came out of the hole in thick billows.

#

"It must take some time for the disease to develop," he said the next day.

"I hope the fire killed the plague that was there," Kim said as the sun stood high in the sky. "Even if we get sick, it wonít spread, at least no one else would die later." She wiped her brow. "I feel hot."

"Itís noon." He picked up another book and began to pick through more crumbling newspaper clippings. "I think I may have an idea."

"From the old books?"

He pointed with a finger. "It says here Americans tending to the sick resisted the disease until they rested, and then they came down with the plague and sickened faster than the people they were taking care of."

He turned in his chair. "Remember the story of what the Great Prophet had our people do when the plague struck the heathen?"

"Yes, he said to build wells and windmills and walls faster than ever, so we could keep safe from the outside world, and that God would protect the industrious."

"Yes, and the people worked weeks without rest, many not really sleeping at all, until news from the outside ended and everything was silent," he said, flipping a page. "This other story says the people with the plague were stricken with a great hunger, but the faster they ate, the faster they died."

"Iím hot," she said, rubbing her cheek. She saw how Morey looked at her.

"Itís begun, hasnít it?" she asked.

He could see the faint filigree on her face. "Yes, my love." He rose and walked over to her. He could see the tracery of nanotech bio-circuitry on her pale skin.

"Iím sure the plague is upon me, also," he said. "But my skin is darker."

She looked at him, fear in her eyes. "How much longer, then?"

"Never," he snarled. "You know how we talked of going to Sancho. Itís time to go. Now."

"Without packing?"

"No water or food. Itís forty miles. We begin walking now, while the sun is high in the sky and the hottest."

She looked at him in shock. "Why? We will die!"

"We will die otherwise. I think I know how we may have a chance. We will suffer, but if we suffer enough, the plague in us will die instead."

He took his stave from where it leaned on the wall and walked out the door and into the bright sunlight. "Come!" he called back.

She followed, barefoot.

He strode north through the tall grass. Kim ran up behind him. "I understand," she said. "The plague is like a living creatureÖ."

Morey nodded.

"Öthat feeds. It feeds off us."

He nodded again. "We need to starve it," he said.

They walked through the scrub and mesquite trees. "No water, no food, no stopping," he said. "We need to starve the plague. Our bodies will fight it for energy. If we strain our bodies enough, our bodies will win that fight."

He looked forward. "Sancho is straight ahead."

The walked along the surface of an old highway, without exchanging a word, for hours. In the distance, they saw wild horses stampeding. "Theyíve probably never seen a person," said Kim.

Morey nodded.

As the blood-red semicircle of the sun touched the horizon to their left, they saw a aluminum highway sign that stuck up through the scrub: "San Angelo 20 miles".

Birds flew overhead as they headed for their roosts in the isolated clusters of cottonwoods. Morey wheezed and Kim panted, but they kept on steadily, putting one foot in front of the other mechanically.

Because of the flatness of the West Texas prairie, the sunset seemingly lasted for hours. As shadows began to appear, Morey called out behind himself to Kim, "Donít stop!"

After the moon came out early in the morning, Morey spoke up. "Thereís something on the horizon." Kim nodded in understanding.

"Buildings. We must be coming to the city," said Morey.

Kim grunted as she fell to the ground, face first. "Donít stop!" croaked Morey.

"Tripped," she said, grabbing a long, thin ribbon of rust. Morey squinted in the moonlight. "An old railroad," he said as he gave her a hand.

Their clothes were covered with white stains of salt from their perspiration. Morey looked carefully at the back of her blouse as he helped pull her up, and saw no glitter of the plagueís silicon.

A few more miles down the road, the scrub thinned. The air was cool, and Morey caught his breath. "Concrete road," he said. "We must be near the city."

"Whatís that?" she asked, pointing to a tall, empty shape blocking out the stars.

"A giant silo," he said, "for grain. Careful."

Kim picked her way in bare feet through the rusted remains of heavy trucks that had been waiting to unload their grain for 200 years. "There is the scale house there, on the side." said Morey as he pointed. "Itís intact, itís solid concrete."

He walked to the doorway and banged his stave. "No animals."

He gestured. "Go inside."

She walked through the door and fell on the floor. "Water," she gasped.

"No water," he rasped. He pulled a rusty door closed, and in the dark propped it shut with his stave, then fell down on his knees and fell over.

#

There was a place where the concrete roof had crumbled. The morning sun shone through. Kim opened her eyes.

Her throat was hard and dry and burning. "Water."

She sat up. She saw Moreyís face was buried in the dirt, but his chest moved. She staggered clumsily to her feet and kicked the stave away from the door.

She saw fifty feet away, in the middle of what had once been a parking lot, the stump of a tree that had been struck by lightning. She walked over and looked into the hollow. She pulled the folding cup from the pocket of her dress, and reached in.

She drank the dirty water, and gasped. She reached in again and then walked back to the weigh house. She rolled Morey over and rubbed the dirt from his lips.

His eyes fluttered as she poured in a few drops of water. "Alive?"

"Yes, we are." She felt his forehead. "No fever."

He raised his hand with his wrist still on the floor. "Rub your face."

She rubbed her cheek with the back of her hand. Her skin felt raw. She saw shiny flakes on her hand. Morey smiled. "The plague is scabbing off your face."

"We burned it away," she said, and smiled just a little. "You were right. Iíll get more stump water. Thereís just a little more."

"Itís enough," he said as he lay on his back. "We rest. Tomorrow we find Sancho. It must be nearby."

After a few more sips of water, they slept until very late in the afternoon. Kim went out and found a wild apple tree, and when Morey had enough strength, he sat up and used his flint to start a fire from the duff that had accumulated on the floor of the building over the years.

Kim roasted the apples on a stick, and they ate. She looked at him. "Youíre panting."

He clutched his chest. "I beat the plague," he gasped, "but not my age. TooÖ muchÖ ofÖ aÖ strainÖ"

He fell over. Kim screamed and lunged over to raise up his head. "No, please God, not now."

"I love you, little one," he whispered as he went limp. "Iíll go to Paradise and find you another good husbandÖ."

She moaned and cradled his head as he died, and sobbed as the red sun set below the straight line that was the edge of the world.

#

In the ruins of Sancho -- San Angelo -- Kim found the remains of a hardware store, and in the middle of a clump of rust, she discovered an intact shovelhead. She brushed it off with her hand. Her stave would make a good handle.

She heard a crunching sound, and spun around. A young man with a wide-brimmed hat stared at her in amazement from the edge of the ruin.

"Who are you?" he sputtered. "Where did you come from?"

"From Drado, outside of Waiting for Zion," she said, holding the shovel high.

The young man began to pick his way through the debris. "Weíve heard the polygamists were holed up there, but I never knew anyone had left."

"My husband was a heretic, he wanted only one wife," she said. "We left Waiting for Zion and lived in the ruins of Drado."

"Yes, it used to be called Eldorado." The young man looked at her. "Where is your husband?"

"The trip killed him," she said softly. "His heart."

The young man took off his hat. "Iím sorry." He held out his hand. "My name is Rob. Robert. Robert Andrews."

Kim shook his hand rather weakly. "My name is Kim, Kimberly Montgomery. Do you live here, in Sancho?"

"Yes, people have begun to resettle San Angelo," he said. "Some of us who grew up in Goodfellow."

"Goodfellow?"

"Itís an old American Air Force Base. Some people have lived there ever since the plague, behind high walls." He looked at her closely. "How old are you, Kim?"

"Fifteen." She thought for a moment. "Do you know what day it us?"

"September 15. Why?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Iím 16, then. Today is my 16th birthday."

Tears began streaming down her face. Rob reached out and then hugged her. "Itís okay, youíre safe now."

"I know I am," she said between sobs. "I know."

#

"It stands for United States Air Force," explained the Colonel. "The country called America. Its full name is the United States of America."

"Morey taught me to read, but I had never seen the word Ďusafí," said Kim.

"Youíd never seem a uniform, either," said Rob. "Your eyes really bugged out."

"Why donít you wear a uniform, also?" she asked.

"Iím a civilian," said Rob. "Thatís why I was living in San Angelo."

The Colonel winked at Kim. "We had breakfast together that morning at his cabin. I asked him where he was going that morning. He said, "Well, dad, maybe Iíll just go find me a wife in San Angelo.í"

An Airman walked up and spoke to Kim. "Weíve closed the grave, maíam."

"Thanks for bringing his body back to Drado and burying it for me," said Kim. "Itís what he would have wanted. This is where we made our life together, as short as it was."

She knelt down and smoothed the dirt on top of the mound with both hands. "Thanks, old timer," she said softly. "You promised you would look out for me."

She stood up. "On to Waiting for Zion?"

"Yes, we need to contact them, and youíre the perfect person to come with us," said the Colonel. "Settlements are beginning to come back. People only moved from Goodfellow into old San Angelo last year."

"How long have people lived in Goodfellow?" asked Kim.

"A handful of people have lived there for over 200 years after the disaster. The population has grown slowly, but thereís almost 2,000 people now."

"Thereís maybe 200 people living at Waiting for Zion," she said. "Plus maybe two dozen of the Lost Boys living outside the walls."

"Good, those are the people we need the most, young men with nothing to do," said the Colonel. "We can put them to work, canít we?" Nearby airmen muttered agreement.

"Waiting for Zion wonít welcome you," she said.

"No one cares about polygamy any more," said the Colonel. "Things are finally coming back; we all need each other."

"Then Iíll be happy to bring you to Waiting for Zion," said Kim.

"We can come back here later, if you like," said Rob. "If you want to stay in Drado. Maybe we can resettle this city." He looked at his father.

"Yes, I know the head man in Fort Worth, and he said they have at least a dozen young ladies who would be willing to help start a new settlement, if we have husbands for them," said the Colonel.

"Yes, if we resettle the city." said Rob. "The people in Waiting for Zion can live the way they want, too."

"What about any plague, in the ruins?" asked Kim. "The people from Fort Worth or Dallas wonít want to come out here."

"We can get vaccine from Colorado Springs," said the Colonel. "That will make them feel better."

"Vaccine?" asked Kim.

"Ah, yes,í said Bob. "A cure for the plague was developed many years ago, by military scientists." He grimaced. "By then it was too late, of course. The population had been devastated."

"I had no idea," said Kim.

"I didnít want to say anything," said Rob. "I didnít want you to feel bad, that MoreyÖ."

"Died for nothing?" asked Kim. "No. What he did, what we did, was what he wanted. Someday this grave will be the center of a new city. Didnít the American President Lincoln say at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication that the graves of the dead who died for what they believed in were symbolic of Ďa new birth of freedomí?"

"My God, youíve read the Gettysburg Address," said the Colonel.

"Morey taught me that," said Kim.

"He must have been quite a man," said Bob.

"Someday, our children -- everyoneís children -- will be the better for his life," she said. "What more could anyone want for a legacy?"

She pointed south. "Waiting for Zion is that way. Letís go."

(The End)

 

 

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