Jake never saw the men who captured him.
He’d come this far north to try to find the fabled Big Apple. He wanted to see it before it collapsed into rubble. Between the ocean level rise and the fierce Autumn hurricanes, the great coastal cities of the past were vanishing like sand castles on a beach, and he thought he ought to pay tribute to them before they were gone.
Or before he got too old to make the trip. He’d been thinking that this might be his last trip on the Road. He was over sixty, now, and a lifetime of walking had done his knees no favors. It was probably time to settle down.
He’d been walking up a tree-shaded highway, and then he was suddenly here, hands tied behind his back, head pounding with a headache like he’d never had before, clothes dripping wet from the cold water that had been thrown in his face. He coughed and shook his head to clear his eyes.
It was a room dimly-lit by a single oil lamp on a rough, stained table. Two men in worn army fatigues stood in front of him, one with a bucket that he set carefully on the ground, upside down. The other saw that Jake was awake, and walked past Jake. He heard a door open behind him.
It was harder than usual to be mellow. This was not a good situation. Jake had heard tell of a vicious war brewing between the Yanks and the Grays in this part of the country. He’d given it wide berth to the west, expecting to pass by the troubles and approach the Apple from the north. Seemed he hadn’t gone far north enough. Or maybe the battleground had moved.
He heard quick footsteps behind him. A short, muscular man strode into view, then turned and sat on the overturned bucket. His head was bald or shaved close; his face was broad and fleshy, marred by a deep scar that ran from his right eyebrow to his lip. His right eye socket was empty. His expression spoke of disgust and boredom.
He looked so much like Captain Renfrew from the Keep of the Northern Dragon Waste, that Jake nodded to him without thinking and murmured, “Captain.”
The other man grew very still.
“Should I know you?” the bald man said, his one eye sharp with sudden interest.
The one eye blinked, and the man took a quick breath, then held it.
“Jake? You claim to the Jake?”
“I’m the only Jake I’ve met in my travels, sir.” Which wasn’t exactly true. But he was the only Jake he’d met who was anywhere close to his age. Though he’d met an uncanny number of children with that name.
A slow smile spread across the man’s face, pulling at the scar. It was not a pleasant smile, but a cruel one.
“The Jake who has inspired a thousand rebels, ten thousand thieves, and a hundred-thousand discontented citizens of the Lawful Nation of the Yewsay. The Jake who is wanted for crimes of propaganda and treason. The Jake who has a gold price on his head. The Jake who will make me a full Commander, if you are — indeed — who you say you are.”
Be mellow. God help me, be mellow.
Jake had been in a few serious scrapes before, but he’d always been able to talk his way out of them. Nothing like this, though. He knew there were times to keep his mouth shut. If ever there was such at time, it was now. He turned his mind to the ignominious defeat of Captain Renfrew in the Dragon Wastes, trying to run from rabid chipmunks with his pants around his ankles, and stared back at the bald man with a level gaze and a faint smile, though his guts felt like water. The silence stretched out.
“Well,” said the bald man at last, “we shall have to see if you are who you say you are.”
He stood and spoke to the soldier who still stood behind him.
“We won’t be needing that just yet,” he said, gesturing to the bucket. “Take this prisoner to the VIP accommodations, and make sure you don’t damage him. Then see if you can find Vince. Vince will get the truth out of this bastard. And if he IS the Jake….” He pulled a toothy grin, then strode out.
The soldier dragged Jake to his feet, then marched him down a series of concrete hallways to a cell with a door made of steel bars. The bars looked familiar, and Jake had a sudden memory of his youth, visiting a bank with his mother. They were in an old-world bank.
The soldier untied Jake and pushed him into the dark room beyond the steel bars, then pushed the gate shut. He had to put his weight against it to get it to close, but it closed with a mechanical click that sounded complete, and final. Then the soldier left, presumably to fetch Vince.
Jake sat on the floor. There was a faint, flickering light that filtered through the door, doubtless from some candle or lantern down one of the corridors. The floor was smooth and cold. He remembered the floor in the bank, some shiny black stone, polished until you could see your reflection in it. Banks had been made to keep money safe for the bankers, as he recalled, so they were like fortresses. There would be no escape from here.
Jake’s hands sought his pockets, and he realized they hadn’t searched him at all. He still had his pouch of Tangerine Dream, his pipe, and his flint. He set about the comforting ritual, hands working easily and automatically in the dark. Soon, the familiar musky scent filled the close confines of his cell, and he let his terrified mind rest. Time passed without markers.
A sudden commotion in the hallway pulled Jake out of his mellowness. Running feet. Dancing light that grew brighter. Shouting.
The bald man was suddenly at the bars, surrounded by men in fatigues, his face stretched in a grimace that his scar made into a leer. He was shouting for someone to get the damn door open. There was a muted bell-like sound followed by a whickering like a whole swarm of flying insects, and then there was blood all over the steel bars as soldiers fell. The bald man, showing sudden bone-white patches on his skull, shrieked and ran down a corridor into darkness.
Jake’s guard appeared at the door, produced a key, and then pulled the door open. A small group of people bearing torches surged into the cell, and then stopped to stare at Jake, still seated on the floor.
Jake blinked at them.
At last, he took a deep breath, and said, “Be mellow.”
“Be mellow,” they chanted back in unison. Then one stepped forward.
“Jake, begging your pardon, but we have to go, and quickly. We’re here to rescue you. Will you come?”
“Fuckin’ A,” Jake muttered and put out a hand.
The next hour was a blur of running and hiding. Two of the men carried heavy backpacks and long tubes with a grip and a trigger. They were only used once, to get through the guarded main gate of the compound. Standing so near, Jake could hear the preliminary high-pitched whine, and then the bell-like sound of the discharge, as hundreds of sharpened metal slivers were propelled out the muzzle at just under supersonic speed, to flay anything in their path.
They’ve build their own fleschette rifles. Just like the one I used against the Dragonlords. Only bigger. Clumsier. Real.
They eventually reached a flat cart on steel wheels with what looked like an old see-saw on it. Jake was glad to stop running. His lungs burned.
The men jumped onto the cart and pulled Jake aboard, then two of them began pumping the two ends of the see-saw. The cart began to move, and quickly built up speed.
Jake sat with the wind in his face as a late crescent moon rose in the sky and the horizon in front of them turned gray, then pink. The men took turns pumping the handles, and would not allow Jake to take a turn, but instead passed him strips of salted meat and a leather skin filled with a surprisingly good beer. There was no conversation, and all of the men were watchful and tense as the light grew.
In mid-morning, the men suddenly relaxed and allowed the cart to slow. One of them called out a long string of nonsense syllables, and there was an answering cry from the woods around them. They drifted to a slow halt. A moment later, they were surrounded by people, including women and children.
A tall, thin man in a clean uniform pushed through the crowd. His face was as sour as a wedge of lemon.
“What in Hell’s name is going on here?” he shouted. “You’re not supposed to be here. What’s gone wrong?”
“Nothing, sir!” It was the soldier who had taken Jake to his cell. “Something has gone right.”
“Don’t be a smartass,” the thin man snapped. “Report, damn you.”
“It’s Jake, sir. We found Jake. The Yanks had him. We rescued him.”
A dozen emotions chased themselves across the officer’s face. Disbelief. Astonishment. Concern. Horror. Anger. Disbelief again. He scanned the passengers on the cart, and his eyes locked on Jake. Disbelief tinged with anger warred with something in his expression that looked like hope.
“Is it true?” he asked Jake. “Are you Jake? If you’re lying, God help you.”
Instead of answering, Jake rooted through his pockets, and pulled out the last of his Tangerine Dream and his pipe. He carefully packed it, lit it with his flint, and then extended it toward the officer, stem-first.
“Be mellow,” he said.
The crowd, grown silent, breathed a great sigh in reply, “Be mellow.”
The officer took the offered pipe with fingers that trembled, and there were tears in his eyes. “Be mellow,” he whispered, and took a long pull on the pipe.