Some Will Not Die
“We are not considering a man. We are considering men; if no man is an island in a world of nearly six billions, then how can any man be independent of others when the population is one-tenth that figure? Men who would have been lost and insignificant in the world before the plague now had their slightest whims and quirks magnified by a factor of ten. The ripples of any one man’s personality spread ten times as far, ten times as effectively. A man with nineteen neighbors need not consider any of them too much. A man with one neighbor has either a brother or an enemy, or both.
“So to understand the history of the world after the plague, we have to understand that no man—not even Theodore Berendtsen—could possibly serve as the single focus of that time.
“We are studying a man, yes. But we are considering men.”
Night was coming down on the immense plain that stretched from the Appalachians to the foothills of the Rockies. The long grass whispered in the evening wind.
Clanking and whining, a half-tracked battlewagon snuffled toward the sunset. Behind it lay the featureless grass horizon, almost completely flat and with no life visible in it. The empty grass fell away to either side. Ahead, the first mountains lay black and blended by distance, a brush-stroke lying in a thick line just under the sun.
The car moved forward at remorseless speed, a squat, dark, scurrying shape at the head of a constantly lengthening trail of pulped grass. Its armor was red with rust and scarred by welds. The paint was a peeling flat dark green. On the side of the broad double turret, someone had painted the Seventh North American Republic’s escutcheon with a clumsy brush. The paint was bad here, too, though it was much recent. Another badge showed through from underneath, and, under that, someone else’s.
Joe Custis, with the assimilated rank of captain in the Seventh Republican Army, sat in the car commander’s saddle. His head and shoulders thrust up through the open hatch; his heavy hands were braced on the coaming. His broadbilled cap was pulled down low over his scuffed American Optical Company goggles, and crushed against his skull by an interphone harness. His thick jaw was burned brown, and the tight, deep lines around his mouth were black with dust and sweat that had cemented themselves together. His head turned constantly from side to side, and at intervals he twisted around to look behind him.
A speck of white, off to his left, became a freshly painted, well-maintained signboard nailed to a post planted at the top of a low, rounded rise. He dropped his goggles around his neck, and looked at it through his binoculars. It was a hand-lettered sign in the shape of a skull—not a new sign, but one kept renewed—reading:
Custis picked up his command microphone. “Lew,” he said to his driver, “you see that thing? Okay, well ease toward it. Get set for me telling you to stop altogether.”
He jacked down the command saddle until his face was level with the turret periscope eyepieces. He raised the scope until its slim, stiffly flexible length was fully extended above the turret, looking, with its many joints, like the raised and quivering antenna of something that bred and went to outrageous combat on the red plains of Mars.
“Slow, now, Lew…slow…hold it.”
The car stopped, its motors idling, and the periscope searched over the rise. Joe Custis reached up and pulled the turret hatch shut, close over his head as he sat awkwardly bent down, peering into the scope.
On the other side of the rise was a valley—what had been a valley, geologic ages past, and was now a broad, shallow bowl into which ten thousand centuries of rain had washed the richest topsoil—and in the valley were fields, and here and there low, humped, grass-grown mounds. There were no lights showing. The fields were empty of movement, but one was half-harrowed—the ground freshly turned, the surface still rich and greasy, until suddenly the marks of the spike harrow turned out of their course and swayed away toward one of the mounds, which was in fact a sod hutment. A farmer had interrupted his work and driven his horse—and the precious, hand- built harrow—into shelter.
The driver’s voice cut into Joe Custis’s headphones. “Want me to move in for a better look?”
“No. No, circle around this and let’s get back on the old heading. Don’t want to go no closer. Might be traps or mines.”
As Custis lowered the periscope, the car backed away. When it had back-tracked to where it had first turned off course, it swung around and began rolling forward again. The whine of the bogey motors built back up its original pitch. Joe Custis threw the hatch back again, and raised the seat to its old position. The signboard began to dwindle as the car left it behind. Back on the car’s turtledeck, the AA machinegunner’s hatch crashed open. Custis turned and looked down. Major Henley, the political officer, pulled himself up, shouting above the dentist’s-drill whine of the motors: “Custis! What did we stop for?”
Joe cupped one hand to his ear, and after a moment Henley kicked himself higher in the hatch, squirmed over the coaming, and scrambled forward up the turtledeck. He braced a foot on the portside track cover and took hold of the grab iron welded to the side of the turret. He looked up at Custis, swaying and jouncing. Custis wondered how soon he was going to slip and smash out his teeth on the turret.
“What did you stop for?”
“Fortified town. Independent. Wanted to look it over. Gettin’ to be a few of those places up this way. Interestin’.”
“What do you mean, independent?”
“Don’t give a damn for nobody. Only way to get in is to be born there. Or have somethin’ it would take a cannon to stop. I don’t think they got cannon. Would of hit us, otherwise, instead of buttonin’ up the way they did.”
“I thought you said this was outlaw-controlled territory.”
Custis nodded. “Except for these towns, it is. Don’t see any more open towns, do you?”
“I don’t see any outlaws, either.”
Custis pointed toward the mountains. “Watching us come at ’em.”
Henley’s eyes twitched west. “How do you know?”
“It’s where I’d be.” Custis explained patiently: “Out here on the grass, I can run rings around ’em, and they know it. Up there, I’m a sitting duck. So that’s where they are.”
“That’s pretty smart of them. I suppose a little bird told them we were coming?”
“Look, Henley, we been pointin’ in this direction for a solid week.”
“And they have a communications net that warns them in time. I suppose someone runs the news along on