Chapter 1
Hugger mugger
I didn’t have enough eyes to check out the horizon and my backside and the hills right and left, keeping a watch for bandits.

Iowa’s rotten with them, especially along old Route 80. They often run in packs and tend to carry lots of stolen weapons. I had a car, money, guns, food, fuel cells and a body. Female and not so old. Prime prey, or at least I looked that way.

Some of them just want money and don’t care about the rest, a lot of them can be outsmarted; but I’d come too close to death a time or two. The last time I’d been careless enough to get waylaid I’d been lucky. The band of godders who stole my float-car and left me hiking over a mountain had been the kind who not only preached chastity for others, but practiced it as well.

In any case, even the milder sort could do enough damage to put a hole in my timeline, and there was a big job waiting out in Sierra and a possible short-term one on my way through Rocky. I kept my eyes open and my throttle ready to roar.

The gig in Northland had lasted just a few days. I was happy to be leaving, heading west toward home. Iowa in particular always felt more than normally foreign to me. So alien it made my skin itch, like the nasty August heat that stewed the green landscape even now, an hour after dawn, in heavy humidity. Strange accents, unpredictable people, unstable politics. The kind of craziness that meant well-paying work I couldn’t turn down, but work that was always chancy. And sometimes left a long bad taste.

Like this last job. Yet another new chief of the Northeast Iowa Quadrant, and he wanted me to spy on his sheriff. Should have been short and simple, but I’d ended up having to kill the sheriff before he got me. It turned out he was also the chief’s brother, and the chief was not happy.

Messy and ugly. I don’t like killing and I don’t like blood. A handicap for a mercenary, but there it was. I’d be  having nightmares for a while, dreams where the blood of that crooked sheriff was oozing from the eyes and ears and mouths of my parents. Once again, I’d be watching them die, night after night.

And of course, I hadn’t gotten paid. So I was in a hurry to get to the next job and feeling itchier than ever about August in Iowa.

I cut south, to 92, figuring I’d follow it as far as it went, however far that was this month, and see how much trouble I could avoid. I was making reasonably good if bumpy time on that patchy mess of rubble when, just past an abandoned quarry, I saw a bowed figure, dressed completely in dirty green rags, limping along the side of the road.

A hugger. Like every other loony-group, huggers ran the gamut from peaceful dogmatic to moon-howling crazy. Unlike some, they tended not to be vicious, not so much these days anyway.

I passed him and looked back at him in the rearview. I didn't have to be on anyone’s side to feel sorry for the bent old guy stumping along the road, slow, limping, way out there in the middle of nothing, his life tied up in a sack slung over his shoulder, his green rags flapping around him in the breeze of a coming thunderstorm.

I pulled over, tapped the horn, and waited.

I avoid causies, generally, but I liked the way the huggers wanted things to stay broken up. If you lived in a too-big nation, 3,000 miles away from a dying forest, they said, that forest just wasn’t personal enough to matter. Smaller countries, they said, didn’t make as much of a mess. 

All of that was true, far as I was concerned.

There had been huggers before, during, and after the Poison. The most extreme huggers had been the first ones to hang toxies. But a few years into it, there were bodies hanging upside down from trees everywhere—toxies, terrorists, and innocent people that someone didn’t like.

Gran said the whole world smelled like death.

That time’s past. It didn’t stink any more. There were still crazy people, but there weren’t very many of them because there weren’t very many people. There were some who called themselves huggers, and others who called themselves godders, and still others who said they were joiners and wanted the countries to grow again.

I’m not anything. Not a hugger, not a godder, and certainly not a joiner.  Joiner least of all. My work depends on things staying the way they are. Balkanized, Gran called it. Everything was easier to get to the top of,
everybody had something close by to fight about, and local money paid to wade into the fracas could be traded elsewhere without too much trouble. And without caring too much about who won and who lost.

The hugger was nearing my car. I yelled at him: "Hey! Where you going?" He caught up and smiled at me, his eyes crinkling to slits in his dirt-smudged no-color bearded face. Most of his teeth were gone.

"Going? Well, let's talk about it. About going." He leaned in the driver's side window, breathing stale garlic in my face, and began to shout a poem that sounded vaguely familiar, about taking the road less traveled by. Then he dumped some of the contents of his sack into my lap. Food, rags, money … something that smelled bad. Okay. He was one of the crazy ones, spotty as a fever-dance. I opened the door and was busy tossing the mess onto the ground, so I didn't see the cars pull out of the quarry. Didn't know they were coming until I heard the nearby soft whir of their motors. Hadn't recovered from the hugger’s assault on my ears, my nose, and my lap enough to pull away before they had me surrounded. Three cars. Four men, not counting the hugger.

A large blubbery hulk with a black beard, waving an ancient handgun, jumped out of the sand-colored car in front of me and swaggered up to the old hugger, who stepped aside, grinning.

"Shut it off, you.” My mind was skittering all over the place and the adrenaline was nearly bubbling but I jabbed a thumb at the touch-key and the motor sighed to a stop. “That’s a good girl. Now, we'll take your packs and your cell. And your money, of course."

"Of course." I reached for the gun I'd stuck under the seat.