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Michael Armstrong was born in Virginia in 1956, grew up in Tampa, Florida, and moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1979. He has lived in Homer, Alaska, since 1994. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop and received a bachelor of arts from New College of Florida and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage. His first novel is After the Zap. Michael's short fiction has been published in Asimov's, The Magazine of Science Fiction, Fiction Quarterly, and various anthologies, including Not of Woman Born, a Philip K. Dick award nominee, and several Heroes In Hell anthologies. His novels include Agviq, The Hidden War, and Bridge Over Hell, part of the Perseid Press Heroes in Hell universe. Michael has taught creative writing composition, and dog mushing. He is an award-winning reporter and photographer for the Homer News. He and his wife, Jenny Stroyeck, live in small house they built themselves on Diamond Ridge above Homer, which they share with an incredibly adorable labradoodle.

Truck Stop Earth by Michael A. Armstrong

Caution: Adult content.

Fifty Shades of Grays: Magical Realism meets Black Humor in Truck Strop Earth by Michael A. Armstrong. Magical Realism/ Literary/ Noir/ F&SF/ Social Commentary/ Black Humor/ Alien Invasion/ UFOs/ New Pulp /Speculative fiction.

Read about the mother of all alien bases! The big one, the mega-base, the center of the Alien Occupation Government: the headquarters, the brain, the nerve center, the absolute pinpoint big base, is right here on Earth, just outside Della, Alaska. Forget Roswell. Forget Machu Picchu. Forget Stonehenge and Tikal and all those alleged alien bases — abandoned, every one of them. This is the big one, right here on Planet Earth, right now, the source of all the world's troubles, the whole solar system's troubles. Right here. Finally, the unflinching truth about aliens on Earth is exposed in Truck Stop Earth, as told by an alien abductee to award-winning reporter, Michael A. Armstrong.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Irreverent and funny, this book reads like the bastard child of Philip K Dick and Lewis Grizzard, as long as Whitley Streiber was their babysitter. There's a distinct, rough hewn charm to protagonist James Ignatius Malachi Obediah Osborn, surely destined to become one of SF's great unreliable narrators. – Cat Rambo

 

REVIEWS

  • "The most important thing to know about this book is that it's fun. It is, in fact the most fun I've had reading a book in a long time. Other books have perhaps explored more profound emotions but if you want to spend a few hours alternating between a grin, a rolling chuckle, and laughing out loud you probably won't do better with anything contemporary."

    – Jim Morris, bestselling author of War Story
  • "Is Truck Struck Earth a memoir? Science fiction? New Pulp? Paranormal (or paranoid) fantasy? Noir in the Shaver tradition? UFOlogy? Magical realism? Social Commentary? Black humor? We dunno. But we're proud to bring you this tough, dangerous book that breaks every rule you thought separated true from false, good from bad, and literature from trash."

    – John O’Neill, Black Gate Magazine
  • "Science fiction as it should be – laced with large helpings of prescribed reality. Imbalanced, irreverent and insanely funny, "Truck Stop Earth" teaches you some of the profoundest truths you'll ever need to know: the extent of one of the greatest conspiracies to ever threaten mankind's existence; how to score with women; the best tips for keeping the most sacred of personal orifices safe from unwanted attention; and most importantly, how to hunt down the best damned hamburger joint this side of Orion's Belt."

    – Andrew P Weston, bestselling author of The IX
  • "Michael Armstrong's latest novel set in Alaska is science fiction – at least if you believe the narrator, who could just be extremely unreliable. James Ignatius Malachi Obadiah Osborne (call me Jimmo) is hitching ever further north when he finally ends up in Della AK. The residents there are interestingly strange, what Jimmo calls GETS (genuinely, truly strange) – the ones that aren't alien Grays in disguise. Jimmo has been abducted, chipped in both butt and brain, and needs psychiatric drugs, though he claims they have no real effect, they're just part of his cover as a member of the Resistance fighting the invaders and the Alien Occupation Government. […]a great, goofy tale with some delightful local color."

    – Carolyn Cushman, Locus Magazine
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

My first experience of Della, Alaska, was being driven down this road at the back of a ridge by two lesbians with a wolfhound dog named Bobo. The VW bus that picked me up passed a huge radio antenna. Right off I thought, aliens, and I was right. A sign out front of the radio station said KGNL, BEAUTIFUL GENTLE RADIO, only someone had stuck an I in between the T and the L. Christians — they're such kidders.

Anyway, we passed another antenna, a microwave tower, only I recognized the design as the Gray's brain confusion beam emitter. That little butt chip I have? It also warms up when I pass a Gray brain confusion beam emitter. We passed those antennae and the country opened up to the northeast. A huge field covered with fireweed fell down away from the road toward a steep gully, then rose up to another ridge, then down to another gully with a creek in it, then up to another ridge and this big flat mountain.

"Holy shit," I said out loud, not even thinking.

"What?" shouted Margo, the first Lesbian.

"Stop the van, just for a second."

Margo shrugged, but stopped, leaving the VW's engine running. With old VWs, you try not to shut off the engine if you can avoid it. So with that engine thrumming, I slid back the door. Bobo got out with me to pee and there I saw it:

The mother of all alien bases. The big one, the megabase, the center of the Alien Occupation Government, the headquarters, the brain, the nerve center, the absolute pinpoint big base, right there, right in the hills above Della. Forget Roswell. Forget Machu Picchu. Forget Stonehenge and Tikal and all those alleged alien bases, abandoned every one of them. This was the big one, right now, the source of all my troubles, the world's troubles, the whole solar system's troubles. Right there.

Out there across the valley, shining across it like a beacon, was a big flat mountain. "Oly's Mountain" I later heard it called, or Table Top, some said. I could feel it, feel the humming and the disruption of the ether right down to my bones. I didn't even have to take out my little pocket detector that's disguised as a Swiss Army knife. I knew, I just knew. And my butt chip burned like an exploded capsule of sulfuric acid. God damn, right there in the mountain — not on it, in it.

"Nothing," I said to Lilly and Margo. Bobo and I got back in the van. "Just thought I saw a moose."

What the hell. Not everyone who comes into Della turns out to be the liberator of mankind. Fuck, most of them are Goddamn Grays.

Not Jimmo, though. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

* * *

Now here we parted, my two lady friends and I. They had taken me as far as we could go together.

"I'll just camp down the beach," I told them, and walked off.

There were signs all around saying you had to pay and should check in Night Or Day at some campground shack, but I knew campgrounds. If you pulled in after midnight, like we had, no one gave a hoot. They'd nail you in the morning or whatever. I had plans not to be around. So I found a spot on some dry ground, up above the tide line — what? you think I'm stupid? — and as far away as I could get from all the RVs and their damn satellite dishes.

Della, Alaska. Truck Stop Earth. I'd finally found it, and I didn't even know I was looking for it.

* * *

Something told me right then I'd be in Della a long time. If I'd only known . . . Oh, I'm not gonna spill the beans here so soon. My agent told me that. "Jimmo, this is a memoir about how you saved the universe," she said when we had to convince all these damn Gray owned sleazy book publishers to print The Truth about their damned activities. "We have pages to fill and books to sell. Keep it moving but don't reveal the kicker until the second to the last chapter." God, I love that Martha. Between her and my co-author, they taught me everything I know about writing, which Doc Word Weird (that's what I sometimes call the guy who helped me) says ain't diddly, but I have a good story.

So my first sunrise in Della, I knew I would stay. I'd barely fallen asleep when I felt the hot rays blasting into my tent. That woke me up. I've got this little photo cell like thing behind my eyes, courtesy of the AOG when they did the Mengele stuff on me up on the mother ship. About umpity-ump photons hit that cell, and bingo, I'm up. It simulates the effect of speed balling a double-espresso. My friend Connie, who got one of those photo cells when the AOG sent her to do Peace Corps work in Kenya, calls that her "Cuban coffee chip." I can adjust it to match a certain time and it works better than any damn alarm clock.

I was up, all right. I unzipped my tent, and since there wasn't anyone else up, took a whiz right there in the sand. Fuck 'em if those oldsters hadn't ever seen a penis. I was in Alaska, and one of the side benefits of the Last Frontier is that you can damn near take a piss anywhere you want to. Read that in a book somewhere. The tide had gone out so I walked down to the flat sands below all the rocks and stuff.

This gorgeous sun, the one you all probably see in your part of the world, too, rose up over this peak I later learned was called Poop Peak. I think. I sort of memorized that peak as my east reference. Over there is East. Close enough for resistance work, I always said.

When I see the first rays of the morning sun, I let them fall on my face and repeat the mantra that I have dedicated my life to. I let that sun wash over my face, the only pure thing around in this solar system that hasn't been tainted by the alien motherfuckers; and I say to myself, "As free as the sun remains, so I swear I will remain free, and dedicate my life to freeing the universe of the lying alien scum who exploit the precious lives of free Terrans." I sort of do a riff on that last line. And I say this in tongues, because the aliens don't understand tongues, on account of it's not a language.

After my morning prayer, I did my aikido exercises, a few thrusts and swirls and rolls and shit. My time chip said 3:43 a.m. exactly. I could see lights coming on in some of the RVs. Now why the hell would oldsters be getting up so soon? Go figure.

Rolling up my sleeping bag, pad, and tent, I got packed and out of there before the first RV had started its generators. God, I hate those damn generators. One of these days I'm going steal me an alien EMP gun, I am, and go around firing that little thing — it looks like a ball point pen — at those RVs, blowing every damn microchip in 'em.

Anyway, there I was at just past oh-light-hundred up on the Spit road, the sun rising above Poop Peak, and I saw her, the first, genuine, totally strange person in Della. Bicycle Lady would be one of many genuine, totally strange people I'd meet in Della, but right off, my first morning, there she was. I took it to be a good sign.

Bicycle Lady pedaled up the Spit Road toward town on an old pink mountain bike that looked like it had been ridden over the Chilkoot Pass and down the frozen Yukon River. It was her face that convinced me she was genuinely, totally strange. Even in the dim morning light I could see her eyes, bright hazel eyes that had looked into true terror and hadn't come back. I bet she'd been abducted at least once. You get eyes like that after the Grays take you up to the mother craft one too many times.

Down the road she pedaled, determined, not looking to either side. Ten yards or so down the road she stopped and looked back at me.

"About fucking time you got here," Bicycle Lady said.

I nodded, not sure what to say, and she turned away and went on.

Genuinely, truly strange. It gave me hope for the resistance, and for Della.

* * *

As I walked down the Spit Road, RVs and rental cars began to pass me, even at that early hour. No matter where I went in Alaska, I could always spot a rental car: they had the same bland paint job, the same black wall tires, and unlike most any other car in Alaska, they were clean. I have a rule about hitchhiking, what I call the Unnecessary Withdrawal From the Karma Bank Rule: I don't hitch if I'm going somewhere less than five miles. If someone stops and gives me a ride, kismet, I'll take it. I just don't ask. I save hitching for serious distance.

So I didn't stick out my thumb, just kept trucking down that road. With all the walking I do, plus the fact that I am a superior physical specimen, praise the Lord, I can eat up the miles fast.

I'm not bragging; this is just a statement of fact.

I just walked down the lousy road in about a half hour. Maybe it was more, maybe less. I could have accessed my eye chip, but what did it matter that morning. At the end of the Spit I figured out where all those people in the RVs and rental cars had gone off to in such a goddamn hurry. Sort of tacked together and set on pilings were a bunch of shacks set on boardwalks. Every other shack seemed to be surrounded by tourists or old pharts standing around like flocks of seagulls waiting for a handout. I got this funny little feeling seeing them. My butt chip itched a bit, then I figured it out. They looked like a herd of abductees waiting in the vivisection hold on a mother ship, with that same look in their eyes, like they were going to be lead off somewhere they weren't quite sure of.

Only, well, it turned out OK. Reading the signs I understood that they were all going off fishing, halibut fishing, which explained why and how they all got up so early. I watched the halibut captains gather up their victims, and after a while the rush of tourists waned. Then I noticed another waking up. Near one set of the ticky-tacky charter huts was a little terrace of beach, a bit higher than the surrounding area. Sea grass grew around the edges while years of campers had trampled the rocky beach into a solid surface softened only by a thin layer of sand. Set on the beach were dozens of small tents of all designs and colors, but to a one covered by a blue plastic tarp. Driftwood logs had been dragged into circles of crude benches. A few fires smoldered in the early morning stillness. I got a whiff of coal smoke coming from one fire. An American flag hung listlessly from a driftwood pole, an Alaskan flag under that.

Someone had tacked up one of those DETROIT: 6573 MILES clusters of signposts, with the idea being that you put up a sign saying where you were from and pointing in the general direction. People had come from all over, with no sense of either direction or distance. The most accurate sign said POLARIS: 782 LIGHT YEARS. You'd have to be pretty stupid to not know the angle and direction of that one: 59 degrees North.

I'd spent a good five years drifting in and out of camps like those. They had their attractions: good drugs, great sex, cheap food, and lots of stories. There had been a time when the pseudo-Roma had been true wanderers, living that way out of necessity more than choice. Lately they had become rich college kids slumming for the summer. You could tell by their teeth.

Now, I have great teeth, thanks to one of the Gray's abductions — they smear this stuff on your enamel that's better than fluoride — but your average wandering bum will have rotten teeth. Either he's missing a tooth or two, or his teeth have become faded and yellow. Not the slummers. They have great teeth, gorgeous white pegs shiny and bright. They don't have scars, don't have lousy shoes, don't have surplus backpacks, don't have ragged clothes. OK, some of them have ragged clothes, but they're the best ragged clothes, state of the art outdoor gear.

Anyway, that's who lived in those camps mostly. Slummers. Come the revolution, those assholes are going to be the first to be shot, even before their parents.

Only, getting up at such an early hour meant that either they were going to catch the right wave — not likely on Della's beaches — or that they had some adventure kind of purpose that required them to be up so early. Otherwise, they'd sleep in. I couldn't quite see that they were going fishing, because I didn't see any rich kids with dreadlocks among those crowds of pukers.

Then they did something that surprised me. I followed a little bunch of them across the street, over to the harbor. Kind of hung back a bit, the way I might tail someone I suspected was an AOG, just to see where they'd go. A few wandered off over to the charter huts, but most of them kept going up the road and to a big huge blue steel building. I couldn't see a sign on the building until I got right up to the entrance.

Zapata Seafoods, the sign read.

A cannery! Sonofabitch if these slummers weren't working the slime line. No shit. Maybe this was part of some sort of Commie ideology. I'd seen that, where slummers pretend to be in sympathy with the masses so they take on shitass dirt jobs. I mean, Hillary Rodham did that one summer, and I think she lasted like two weeks. Then they discover how crummy manual labor is and how you're much better off working indoors, at a desk, with nothing more dangerous than a crazed boss, which is a danger in and of itself, mind you, but nothing that will cause you severe physical pain.

"We ain't hiring until noon," a guy said to me.

"What?" I looked up to see this guy with shoulders about as wide as he was tall, in orange bib rain pants, XtraTuf boots, and a red bandana around his head, do-rag style.

"I said we ain't hiring until noon. Appreciate you coming out so early, but if you want to work the line, go to Job Service and they'll give you an interview pass." He looked me up and down. "Although, based on what we've been hiring, you look like you'd work about twice as hard as any of these other shits."

"Thanks," I said. I hadn't really been looking for a job, but now that he mentioned it, it might be the thing to do.

"Here," he said. He handed me a little metal disk with a big Z on it and a number. "That'll get you into the Rat Hole. You can camp free on the company, and the city won't hassle you." He pointed toward the tents I'd seen. "Talk to Tom. He'll find you a spot. You don't get a job with the company in a week, you're on your own."

"Who's Tom?" I asked.

"Oh, you'll find Tom," he said.

I palmed the little disk, pinched it between my two fingers. I could feel a little humming inside of it, even though it looked like a cheap piece of stamped tin. It burned a bit, too, just like my butt chip. Made me wonder if I became a slummer and camped with them if that would mark me by the AOGs. Hell, they had me marked anyway. What did I care?

I flipped the disk up and watched it catch the morning sun as it rotated over and over. OK, I had a place to camp, free, for a week. Maybe even a job, if I wanted it. I watched some of the babes coming in alone, and thought, Hey, I might even be able to score some good dope. Or great sex.

All of a sudden, Della looked real good. Really good.

* * *

I'd been humping that ruck all morning, so that camp chit seemed like a good idea to use. I could get a spot, set up my tent again, maybe stash some stuff. By then the sun had risen well above the mountains, a solid sun, the dawn clear and bright but with that hint of dew that marked the morning.

Back at the Rat Hole, I could see that most of the camp had cleared out. A few young guys hung around the campfire, firing it up some and getting it going again. They might have come in the last day or so like me and were waiting for work. Lording over them stood a tall skinny guy wearing dark glasses.

The guy was really skinny, now that I looked at him, with long arms and long legs, only a short little torso. His arm seemed to bend where arms usually didn't bend, high up toward the shoulder, so his lower arms flopped around like eels. He had a pointed chin covered with a thick red beard, only the hair sticking out of his floppy black pile beret was coal black streaked with gray. Either the hair covered his ears or he didn't have ears. He had long narrow feet and wore purple tennis shoes. I walked lightly on the sand, my usual stealth walk that an old Indian had taught me, but even then, at five yards the guy swiveled his face around to look at me. The way he moved his head, and that he could turn his head 135 degrees, clinched it for me.

Yup, he was a Gray all right.

OK, plus my butt chip seared like a hot poker. I can spot aliens easily, or spot people who look like aliens easily. The thing is, after nearly 500 years of occupation, people look more and more like the aliens, or maybe the aliens look more and more like us. It's not that we interbreed or anything — that would be like a platypus breeding with a duck — but that over time the aliens have corrupted our body memes and we've corrupted theirs.

I knew this woman into fashion design who had figured out everything about the AOG — she'd been abducted twice — and she tracked fashions through the occupation. Showed that there had been regular influences throughout. Take pant suits: an alien influence, you bet. I couldn't think of any other way to explain modern fashion, unless you bought into the idea that it was a conspiracy by misogynist homosexuals to humiliate women. Right.

So when I saw this guy, I had to figure out not if he wasn't alien, but if he wasn't human. He shifted his body to me, cocked his head, and even from there I could hear the servos whir on his braces. A long Gray, I called them, not like those stumpy midgets I'd seen at the border, but the skinny type. Their leg bones were so fragile they had to wear exoskeletal braces. Don't even think a long Gray is weak, though. What they lacked in bone structure they made up for in muscles. They were like thousands of wind-up toys wrapped tight and ready to bounce.

"Rat Hole's closed to camping," he said to me as I came up to him.

"Got a chit," I said. I showed him the little piece of stamped metal.

"'Kay." He had that little click some of the aliens have, not quite a lisp, just a click. "I'm Tom. I run the Rat Hole."

"Jimmo," I said.

Tom pulled out an iPad or one of those tablet computers. The brand name didn't matter cuz I knew the Grays used their own equipment and just put their computers inside whatever handy shell they could pick up from the sale table at Comp City. His fingers zipped over the screen. Fucker didn't even care about putting on appearances; he was using Grayware, the alien handwriting system. Never mind what I'd seen up on the Ridge the night before. That alone convinced me the Grays had locked up Della for their own use. Anywhere else, an alien so open would be toast. The Resistance wasn't all powerful, but at least we could force the Grays to put on appearances out among the citizens.

"Name?" Tom asked me. I gave him my cover name, and that's all he cared about. No address or city or any of that shit. Maybe Tom knew I'd lie or maybe it didn't matter to him. He handed me a flimsy, a sheet of paper his tablet spat out. That was really bold: the flimsy was made of that petroplas that's like their universal material, the crap their forming machines use as raw products. The aliens think we're batfuck for burning up the stuff they use to make everything from clothes to starships.

I took the flimsy and saw that Tom even used the alien font they like so much, the funny one that makes all our Roman letters slanted backwards, and puts serifs on some letters and not on others. That really pissed me off. You'd think that an alien occupation government that had secretly controlled the world for half a millennium would at least be coy. Assholes.

"Read it," Tom said, "Them's the rules. Break any rule and you're out on your butt. Understand?"

I nodded. The only rule that really mattered was "Don't get caught."

"Say it."

I squinted at that. That meant he was recording and didn't want to waste the storage space on recording a nod. "I understand."

"Cool." He pointed his finger at me in that stupid little cocked gun gesture. Shit, I really hate that. Aliens are like pit bulls gnawing on a good bone: once they find something they like, they stick with it. Tom waved at the camping area, logs and stuff around it and maybe a few spots left. "Camp anywhere inside the logs and don't rip up any vegetation."

"Cool," I said, and pointed my finger back at him, same gesture. I even put a little click at the end. He turned his head at that, smiled that pointy-toothed grin the long Grays have, and walked away.

So, I thought. Already a day in Della and I'd found my first alien.

I couldn't wait to toast the fucker.

* * *

Toast Tom? If he'd been standing two feet to his left, the Zapata plant would have saved me the trouble. Just as I had turned away from him to pick out a spot, I heard this sound like the bottom ten stories had dropped out of an eleven-story building. "Ka-whump" would describe the general sound, but not its intensity.

Naturally, I turned toward the noise. However, because of my rigid military training, I stopped the motion and did what anyone who has been ever in a firefight would do: I kissed the beach. No, not kissed. I made love to that fucking beach, got my face down in the sand where I could see the broken shells up close, could see cigarette butts fading into fibrous filters, could see little dead crabs and a piece of blue beach glass that looked like the iris of my dead uncle's glass eye.

Someone screamed. Then someone else called for his mother. Then these end-of-the-world sirens let loose, and the whole damn Spit turned into chaos. I didn't hear any shooting, didn't hear any more explosions, and so hazarded a glance up. Tom stood there, stiff as a robot, with a bleeding score in his shoulder. You think Gray blood isn't red? Nah, that's the one thing they have in common with us. Iron. I looked beyond Tom to see what might have made that scratch, and in the sand I saw a chunk of steel like a circular saw blade buried half-way in a piece of driftwood.

I had been standing by that piece of driftwood.

"Move it, move it," Tom barked.

Streaming, running, tearing, evac-u-ating out of the Zapata plant came all those slummin' rich brats I had seen a moment ago. Some of them bled. Some of them had the 'dreads scorched off their precious heads. All of them had that stunned look on their face that they would of gotten sooner or later, the look that convinced them despite all their wealth and privilege, death didn't give a shit.

And the Zapata plant? It no longer had a roof. Rather, it still had a roof, but in about ten minutes, that roof would be chemically transformed into a looming dark cloud rising up from the plant. The sucker had blown up. Later, it would be revealed that the freon tanks used for freezing fish had blown, something to do with a defect in one of the valves. Uh-huh. I could smell a Gray conspiracy. They'd wasted that plant to try to kill me.

Out of that initial chaos, just as they always do, people began to assert order. It's our job. We're not very good at averting chaos, but 200,000 years as a species have made us good at asserting order out of chaos. Police cars sped down the Spit road, followed by fire trucks, ambulances, and — no shit — a big yellow school bus. Coast Guardsmen off of the cutter in the harbor in sharp blue work uniforms started walking purposely, deliberately, officially along the harbor road, onto the boat ramps.

"Evacuate," the word went out. No shit. Here's this 60,000-square-foot plant burning and burning, with an attic full of waxed cardboard fish totes, a shed full of freon, another shed full of propane, 500 yards away six four-story high fuel tanks, and you think it's a good idea to let all those people stick around and breathe noxious smoke?

I sighed, got up, and shouldered my ruck. Not even time to set up my tent and get settled in, and here I was, on the move again. Then I looked down at that Rat Hole chit, at the other Spit Rats wandering around dazed, and I smiled. Wasn't I a Spit Rat? So maybe they'd be loading up the cannery workers, the campers, and putting us up. . . Oh, I don't know. Someplace with free food, most likely.

Tom got us lined up then, those of us not wounded, and he wouldn't let anyone take down their tents, just let them pack a quick ruck and get ready to move out. The bleeders and the burners someone herded off into a triage park. I thought of maybe going over and helping, and then thought of how that piece of steel had almost taken off my head, and figgered, nah, now's the time to blend into the background. Besides, there wasn't a lot to do for most of the suckers in the triage park, because those that could walk, would soon start to bitch when they realized no one was gonna take care of their little scratches right away. No, the real bleeders would get all the attention, better attention that I could give them, even with my med degree from UVA.

Two more school buses came out onto the Spit, which still confused me until I looked around and realized, Hey, not all of us had wheels. Those that did have cars, like some RVers who had the sense to get their butts in gear, got dragooned into giving riffraff like me rides. I was gonna hold out for a bus when I saw this blue hair about my mom's age grinding the gears on a 26-foot cab-over Jamboree on a Ford chassis. She stalled out the engine and a guy in a diesel Dodge who had not been allowed to haul his third-wheel trailer leaned on his horn. I quickly tucked my dreads under my ball cap and banged on her door.

"Drive for you?" I shouted. "I used to drive an M-1 tank. I think I can handle an RV."

"You military?" I saw her relax a little as she took in my clean-shaven sides, the ball cap, the old surplus ruck, the Doc Marten's.

"On leave," I said. "We'd better hurry."

"Get right in, son." She scooted over into the copilot's seat, her usual seat, I could tell. Why the fuck these old farts never let their wives drive made no sense to me.

"I think we had better give some people a lift," I said. "It's the evacuation policy." Not that I knew that, only it made sense.

"Oh — I don't know." She looked over at a group of scared Spit Rats, mostly women, but with one or two guys.

"We had better." I found the switch that opened the side door, and waved the gang on board.

"Let's move it," I said in my best commander voice. The old lady wasn't gonna be in charge. The kids weren't gonna be in charge. As usual, it was up to ol' Jimmo. Three women got on the RV, but the two guys held back.

I saw another cluster of Rats rushing toward the RV, all big guys. Something told me they would be bad passengers, that perhaps they should wait for the bus, so I slammed the door shut, letting only the women on board.

It took me a few changes to figure out the gears, not that it mattered since traffic had already slowed to an easy crawl. Things relaxed a bit, about how I'd imagine they relaxed if you were on a lifeboat pulling away from the Titanic. Sure, it was going to be rough, but you had a way out, they didn't, and it wasn't gonna be your face with the frozen eyelashes. Schaudenfreude, the krauts call it, which means, I live another day, asshole, and you don't.

"Name's Jimmo," I said to Grandma.

* * *

We got e'vac'ed off the Spit in about fifteen minutes, not bad considering the chaos going on behind us. Maybe we got lucky. Maybe Louanne had the presence to get that RV in gear right before the cars and buses got bogged down in a mad rush to get away. Anyway, once we had the smoke behind us and had moved close to the base of the Spit, where I had camped the night before, I relaxed. As we moved back into town, more cops and some firefighters directed us toward the high school. Not directed us really, because by then we had become part of this long train of cars, a mass of machines following the car ahead and assuming that you knew what they were doing, which was a bunch of crap.

Once in the special forces we had done this little exercise. The regular grunts were doing some war games, part of which involved moving long convoys of trucks and Hummers. A couple of us had stolen a Hummer and cut into the line. When we came to a cutoff, we went right while the rest of the convoy went left. The guy behind us balked until my CO yelled that it was orders, we had to go right. That was all it took. You lead a line of cars, and if you can get the car behind you to follow, pretty soon the whole convoy is yours to appropriate. What we did was lead them all into this big stadium, and when the last truck in the convoy drove onto the ball field, we had him park nice and neat behind the fifty other trucks and cars. As they parked, one of us would pop the hood on the Hummer, yank the spark plug wires, and take them captive.

I thought of that as I followed a guy in a Blazer in front of me, but pretty soon we did come to a big parking lot, it looked like a high school, and I figured, no, this wasn't some Gray conspiracy to off me, we were part of a refugee tide. I parked the RV nice and tidy for Louanne, nose out, and killed the big kicker diesel.

"Home sweet home," I said. "Thanks for the lift." I handed her the keys. I realized then that I was in an RV that could sleep six with four women, all of them pretty damn good looking, even Louanne, if your taste ran to oldsters. Sometimes my taste did. Hey, they'll surprise ya with their passion and their sexual technique.

"I suppose we're stuck here for at least the night," Louanne said. "Girls, I could use some company, and Jimmo, it's always nice to have a man around the house, particularly a nice young man like you. What say we rustle up some lunch?"

She really said that: "rustle up some lunch."

* * *

You survive a big tragedy that damn near kills you, only it didn't, and now you have someplace warm with food in your stomach, thing is, you party. Once't all those charter widows got connected with their hubbies, once all the old farts got their meds refilled, once all the Spit Rats got showers, they'd party. Glad as I would normally be to party, especially with those hot buzzed babes, I could see that what old Jimmo had to do was fade away into the ductwork, you know?

The Grays had laid down the law to me, had drawn the line in the sand with that Zapata blast. Maybe they had intended to kill me, or maybe they had just wanted to frighten me, I dunno. I got the message, though. Tom didn't die. Tom didn't have to jump out of the way of the whirling piece of metal, since it had been aimed at me. The Grays, when they aim at things, they don't miss. And they wouldn't of, except that honey, I ducked.

OK. Time to fade away.

Only, thing was, I liked Della. Been there one day, and I liked it. I could feel the cosmic energy of the place, feel that Della would be a place to make a stand. You ever come to one of those points in your life, one of those passages, where what you gotta do is, you gotta leap off the ledge and just fucking go for it? That was Della. I wasn't going back to the Lower 49, not back Outside, not going to get my butt chased back and forth until the Grays harried me like a wet fox. Shit no. Citizens, the Alien Occupation Guvmint might have pushed me against the wall and 'pected me to squeeze. Not this time.

Walking down this main street, I thought to myself, Not this time. "Time to lock and load," I said aloud.