PART I

When hit with a burst from Gritt Calhoon’s sawed-off scatter blaster the short auburn hairs on the head of that lowly dew farmer spread into the atmosphere with such force that they actually managed to pierce the center beam that kept much of the roof of Dabeigo’s Gourd—a local watering hole for sapphire miners and the filthy indigenous good-people of Thaiwanland—and inserted themselves straight into the wood like nails shot from the center of a hurricane. His skull fared no better. Pieces of it were everywhere. Later Gritt Calhoon would recall this particular incident, or one like it, and say, “I blew his mind, man. S’all I can tell ye.”

Antwerp Angelinotoni’s mustache twitched. A fine Thaiwanlander, though he was of a more ancient descent. Not Thaiwanese. He was actually British. Whatever the hell that was. No longer did the Union Jack fly proud over the Isle of Wight, or of Man for that matter.

“You mind tellin’ me,” Gritt addressed, “exactly why you wanted t’go a meetin’ in a place whose patrons are so readily willing to meet booda—” he paused, “that they would menace an innocent man, one who has only come to this fine establishment in need of drink, and to cause all manner of retarded shit to run through his mind?!” Gritt flared his nostrils, giving him the facial expression most akin to that of some dead Nipponesian demon reading the Sunday newspaper.

The question wasn’t being posed to his old C.O. and friend, Antwerp, as much as it was being posed to every other human being left alive on this miserable planet: Earth.

Jesus. Gritt’s leather was tight. At six-feet eight-inches, he was gargoyle made out of Aaron Neville parts and Lemmy entrails. His sexy-ass chest hair glistened.

In an instant the volume of that jungle went from simultaneously opening one-million bottles of Coke-Cola to the sound of water evaporating so fast, in fact, that when Gritt turned to make for the table where Antwerp was sitting the leather he wore made sounds like a dog ripped in half whose pieces were being used to mop the floor of a movie theater.

Antwerp broke the silence first.

“Smashing as ever you old gator, you. Really know how to clear a room.” The way Antwerp nervously greeted Gritt by pushing his weight up and down on the stump he was seated at reminded him of a five-year-old with birthday cake incoming. Antwerp had lost much of his former discus-throwing style physique. He was more pale than Gritt remembered. Freckles had multiplied. The jungle roughed up this ex-Brit’s edges. The humidity steamrolled his reddish hair. Gritt guessed he’d finished a bottle or two of some rye without any Vicodin chasers. Guy probably didn’t even smoke opium anymore. His abuse of the drink made his arms one size from shoulder to fingertip, but had made his guts balloon. The skin of his face drooped slightly. Old Antwerp still managed one helluva handlebar dick broom though, he thought.

The pornagraphic sound of Gritt’s leather got louder as he approached and the zippers and skulls on his jacket jingled and jangled against one another.

“Chuffed to see it’s only your devilish good looks that’ve been slain with age and not yourself.” Where the leather of Gritt’s weather-beaten jacket ended and the skin of his neck began was a mystery. “Too much sun maybe, old boy. I always thought you hillbillies aged so gracefully.”

The table flipped.

In the face of every other old acquaintance, the ones that were still alive who hadn’t and wouldn’t leave a beautiful corpse, the reflection of his choices. His losses.

Under the light of the fiz lamps a glare caught Antwerp’s eye microseconds before he felt a tugging at the inside of his navel. He looked down. The laugh that escaped him in surprise was more like someone looking at a winning lottery ticket than it was from someone who had their genitals trapped in a vice.

Gritt held a very large, unathletic blade what could only be described as incorrect and viciously pointed it below the belt of Antwerp’s khaki-colored shorts. Though he was still intact, the blade hid the reality for a moment that his testes were still attached to his body.

Leaning in closer to Antwerp’s face, you could tell Gritt was enjoying a sign that his former colleague was still made of the tough stuff.

Bloke,” Grit began, “Yeah. That’s what’n you tea-sucking jerks refer to each other as right?” Gritt had been eating something that smelled like barbecued football. “Mate?”

“Right.”

“CORRECTOMUNDO!” he boomed. With that Gritt tucked his machete-thing back into a holster at his side. No one else had made as much as a peep while these two desert snakes ruffled each other’s feathers.

Gritt turned the table back over. He sat down.

The air in that Thaiwanland pub was like inhaling a bedsheet through an engine block. The starless night visible just beyond the thatch roof of Dabeigo’s Gourd swam around the fiz lamps where if’n a caveman were plucked from the stream of time and dropped into this scene between these two veterans he’d’ve understood the words “eel” and “cloak”, or “satan” and “accordion”. What a terrible place. What a terrible time.

The bartender finally rose up out of his hiding place.  The vibration of “-MUNDO!” must have moved the earth .00000879 degrees off its axis. This caused the headless corpse near the door to slump over, making a sound like salami just finished the film Lawrence of Arabia for the first time and loved it. It came to rest on another table stump. One of the other dew farmers picked up the shamisen player’s hat and dusted it off. The shamisen player inspected it for a moment ne’r a cursory glance at his hat’s murderer. A hole so big had been blasted through his stove pipe derby that the audience could see the gruesome neck-stump of the dead body whenever the shamisen player closed his eyes. A glass clinked. A few miners ran out the front door. And a game of Go-minos a few patrons had been playing resumed.

The last time Antwerp laid eyes on Gritt Calhoon the two men were dong-deep in a Ruskandinavian opium den, mere days before the New United Kingdom, Thaiwanland, started a skirmish in the North with the ex-Ruskies.

Antwerp dusted himself off and joined Gritt at the table. “Someone should arrest you for killing that man you know.”

“Someone like you?” Gritt asked.

A drop of sweat hit the ground. One solitary gust outside threw a sweaty palm tree back and forth.

“I was simply, uh, defendin’ my honor cap-i-tan,” Gritt continued. “H’ain’t nothing in that big ol’ rulebook that says I can’t do something about that now is there?”

“Well,” Antwerp started, “there is.”

“BEAT ALL!” One of his behemoth arms went akimbo at his hip.

The thought of some Thaiwanlandian bobby arresting Gritt Jefferson Calhoon The Second made Gritt’s meaty peck twitch. Antwerp may have been the only man who remembered who Gritt Calhoon was in that hole, a God damned hero. A demon. A man. The mistake that poor farmer made was forgetting that. Hell, so much time had passed since the last radio stopped working that he probably never knew, which is what put his life at such risk. In either case, motioning for those sticks of dynamite velcro’d to Gritt’s left shoulder was last thing he ever did. What’s more, it’s a shame he couldn’t have seen the scatter-holster hanging pendulous under Gritt’s right arm. If he had he may have been able to enjoy a few more stale breaths of the half-eaten jungle that dew farmer called home. Now, he’s just another loaf of bread for the reaper to munch on.

“Plus’n! You don’t got the jurisdiction, my good man. Word is you Brits are hurtin’ for a squirtin’ or some such thing. You’re soilent. You’re broke. Spread out. Not liquid. Of. No. Liquidity. . . .” Gritt dangled the “L” sound from his bottom lip.

After an unintentional smooching gesture, Gritt realized what he said made about as much sense as a tiger filing his taxes. The handful of gorrilla barbiturates Gritt had gulped down not but five minutes on the way to the Gourd in his jungle chopper, Sheila, began thrumming their way through his veins. If anyone was broke it was Gritt.

“They need you, you know?”

“Who?” A frown curved into Gritt’s Easter Island-looking face. He squinted. Some supersonic scream from one hundred billion years ago filled Gritt’s ears like a Slurpee. All those damn years. Rushing back. A dismembered reptilian head fell square on the table between him and Antwerp. Some of the blood splattered into Gritt’s mouth. His heart was playing “Wild Thing” on the drums. A laser mortar landed to his right and shook his bowels. The scream pinched itself off and forever into eternity. It could have fit on the head of a pin but was twice as BLOOD. His lungs inhaled fluid. He was underwater. A shark with gigantic biceps grabbed Gritt by the throat. He was going to die. Rocket ship. The Repto Wars.

He snapped out of it.

“Least y’all could do is buy me a fuckin’ beer,” he managed.

“Business first, boy-o. Then, whatever you’d like.”

“I reckon I beat you to the pleasure part, m’man.” Both Gritt’s hands rubbed his jaw. “You would not believe how many Tiajuangian Torpedos I took before coming in here. Wooooo-boy!”

Why did that dew farmer attack him? Gritt didn’t care. Dew farmers are all the same. They wake up, take orders, and get loaded. As far as Gritt was concerned the only difference between him and them was that he had no imperial masters. He’d earned his freedom.

“Who’s come a calling?”

“Steelhead.”

“Steelhead?”

“Steelhead.”

“Old Steelhead always needs me. What the hell else is new. I served that rat turd once when you Brits first got here. ‘Member Olstoyev’s Redroom? You must’a laid dam near forty some of them eh hem less dignified debutantes with that ol’ bean-shaped pecker a’yours.”

Antwerp did not come here to reminisce about the “footballin’” days. It was imperative Gritt listen to what he came to say.

“Aboriginal forces—some simple jungle scum—have taken us by surprise.”

Gritt finished packing a dip of chewing tobacco. “You couldn’t pay me the first time, so what makes you think I’ll believe you’ll pay me this time? You got me on a Got-danged cereal box.” Stranger still, Antwerp thought, there hasn’t been such thing as chewing tobacco in over two decades.

The Shamisen player began a new song.

“Frenchy,” Gritt said. He put both palms down on the table. “It’s: Fuck or Walk.”

“Ah. Aha. Frenchy. Right. Well, whatever you say, Old Bean.” Antwerp swirled the coke-colored drink in the glass. He drank it. It burned his throat. “Olde Steelhead is coming out of the jungle. He’s packing it in. Us bluebloods can’t afford to push into the real estate anymore. If it costs Us the loss of our only remaining general to some jungle skunks, it’s not a path this country will take.”

“This ‘WE’ shit. Dang, man,” Gritt scratched his chest. “Too many damn stones up there to turn down. All that mining y’all set up. Y’d’be leaving a fortune. I know you, Frenchy. Don’t give me that ‘Well, time to pack kit-in old boy’ trash.” He did his best accent.

After America shipped off what was left of the civilized world’s atomic arsenal to the moon while other countries detonated the remains of their supply the planet went belly up. Food was money, and guns were banking. Things reverted to a gold standard. Then, things reverted further to precious stones. Whatever it took to help a person buy some 100-year-old cargo shorts with no holes in them so he could call himself a man was just what it took. The “post-history” era ended what seemed a lifetime ago.

“Where else you Brits gonna push? You gave up your damn island. Traded it in for this here locale. What’s next?” He paused. “Pompeii?” The night was hotter than a ten-peckered billy goat. The sweat dripping from Gritt’s armpit hair had already started pooling on his lap. “Cold feet huh? Can’t finish off no fight you start. Symptomatic really. First it was my great-great-great-grandad savin’ yer sorry asses in double ‘U’ double “U” eye eye—God, rest his heroic-as-shit soul. Then! It was that I-ran and that Majunjihad whatsit’s son. Of course the reptos outclassed y’all on the polar caps hands down. And, now, the man in the black dungarees plumb makin’ ya fuck your own granny. Though, I remember a time y’all did things for that ‘Queen and Country’ bullshit, so I’s be supposin’ y’all aren’t so sore about that last part?”

Antwerp kept cool. His handkerchief was as wet as an ink well. “Well, we all can’t be American now can we? The great saviors. The ones who got away.”

The Yanks had done it. They were the first to the moon and they made sure that they were the only ones to stay there. They pushed the Draconians back to earth, destroyed their moon base, built the colonies, moved the seven general CEOs, rained down some atomic boomers, and let that blue-eyed, blonde-haired, butt-chinned baby Jesus sort out the rest.

Some stayed to pick up the pieces. Others just didn’t have a space ship.

“Supply lines’ve been cut. And I am trying to get it through you, well, your caveman skull,” he stammered, “my dear boy, the gravity of the situation We are facing. Rather directly.” Sand from the bottom of the glass snapped between Antwerp’s molars.

Gritt snorted so hard a green ruby in the breast pocket of his leather jacket fell out. It clunked down on the table in front of him. Gritt paused before grabbing it up. Calmly he stuffed it back into the breast of his vest. He looked at Antwerp. Antwerp continued. The United Brithaiwanese Co-op forces had been heading north, far into Czarist land. Locals were getting restless and seemed to want claim of their land back. Problems arrived when Easy Street Steve’s younger, more insane, adopted brother, Korean Viet Li, started organizing these native forces and wreaking havoc near the Rangoover Divot in the west. His insurgents blew up Olde London Towne, massacred all of the port guard, while another force took the easternmost point, New South Africa—essentially cutting all supply routes to Steelhead. He could not advance against the Czarist Nipponese any longer. It was a pincer. Most recently, Antwerp informed Gritt, Viet Li had attacked one of Thaiwanlands biggest sapphire mining districts. Wasn’t more than a day’s ride from where the two men sat. Korean Viet Li was beginning to claim the little of Brithaiwan Kingdom that was left. The same line: some flagless brown guy trying to make the flag-toting white men fight a two-front war, Gritt thought. Divide and Conquer style.

During Antwerp’s briefing Gritt produced a half-inflated beach ball and brought it to his mouth.

“God damn it, Gritt,” Antwerp yelled. “Put the bloody beachball down!”

An inhale like he was going to swim the English channel in one go filled Gritt’s lungs full of NO. The impulse to offer Antwerp some was ripped from his mind as the fiz lamp hanging above the table quickly multiplied by 46.

Having lost Gritt’s full attention to some whippets, Antwerp started rummaging into the black gym bag he had by his feet.

“How’dyouget yur sorry, pasty, tea-and-crumpets ass here then, huh?” Gritt asked.

Abruptly Antwerp surfaced. “Gritt. I know where that ruby from your chest pocket came from.”

“No you don’t.”

The Brit put his hands back where they could be seen. He folded them together. “Gritt. You have an illegal mining operation two miles from here.”

“Ah, hell,” Gritt said, exasperated.

“Gritt.”

“Yer gone go make me hav’ta git my old propeller blade out again.” It was a propeller blade. Gritt heisted it off an antique RAF fighter jet from an abandoned museum when he and his buddy Shark were combing the remains of an irradiated Britain.

“Gritt.”

“It’s my claim. Got it fair and square.”

“You murdered Chan Stansworth three weeks ago in a dispute over some hashish!”

“Did not.”

“‘Under Pax Brithainia source code, line two. . . .'”

“It’s that goddamn, you know. It’s job creation!”

“‘Any and all mining, tapping, fracking, drilling, or remote digging within, as well as not declared capacity, of sector 14 and 72 of Rangoover are hereby property. . . .'” Antwerp’s hands went back down into the gym bag.

“Either you stop that skull yammering horse shit or I walk and Korean Viet Li’s’ll be takin’ over all your goddamned resources! You leave my claim be!”

Antwerp produced a long leather satchel and placed it on the table. The pouch looked so old it may have very well been holding the last living testament of Geronimo himself, not that Gritt knew who that was. The edges of it were wilted and worn. Antwerp unstrung the leather shoelace binding.

Gritt’s huge Adam’s apple clunked down and then socketed back in place. Looks sorta familiar, he thought. Another second passed grotesquely as he came down from the suffocating power of century-old chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide. That pouch was nearly identical to the leather pouch Shark carried his peyote in. Couldn’t be the same. Shark was in Bangal Jersey last time they spoke—thousand clicks away. Then Gritt saw it, written on the lip of the pouch:

O SAY CAN YOU FUCKING SEE

He remembered Shark had used a cigar he had been toking on to write the eternal words after knifing down one of the Indian Lord’s finest warriors, Hotep Rain Dog.

Gritt’s mouth went acrid. The football or whatever he had been gnashing on earlier felt like it was making a comeback. No way in a cold hell that Shark—his old war buddy, the only surviving friend Gritt had whom he didn’t want to throttle—no way he’d let his prize peyote pouch go. Not unless he’d been killed. Or worse, he thought, sodomized. Not a cold day in hell. And this was a tropical climate.

The two men stared at the pouch.

“Go on,” Antwerp said. “Open it.”

“What the fuck is this, you limey sperm turd!?” Gritt hadn’t been this sober in years. He ran his bear claw-sized hand through his salt and peppered mane of pompadour hair. “How in green hell d’y’all get that?” he growled.

Had Shark given it to Antwerp to help convince Gritt to fight for this shit-for-brains cause? The thought had occurred to him. All the lines were blurred. Or was this a gravestone? The last remnants of the only person left that Gritt even gave a shit about? His head felt like it was wrapped in used gauze. He was mummified. Poor little Andy, he thought. Taken too damn soon. He tried to remember his son’s little-ass face. It was gone. And now, Shark. The hole in this world swallowed the hero’s heart. Intergalactic blue whales moved silently in space.

Antwerp crossed his legs. He set his hands in his lap. “How long before you’ll be seeing Korean Viet Li?  How many more days until you’re blowing your own illegal sapphire mine to smithereens just so that cretin won’t have it? One week, my boy? Two? Gritt, come now. You have got to start thinking about the good people left on this Godforsaken earth. You can’t just think of yourself anymore.” Gritt was lost. “Gritt?!”

He spoke the words under his breath, “Not soon enough if you ask me.” He turned his head, “Bartender!”  Gritt shouted. “Bring me that there bottle of that there stuff you got under that there bar poor favor!” The chin on Gritt’s face protruded. He dug his fingernail at a knot in the wood.

If Gritt hadn’t stared directly into flash grenade explosions to toughen himself up for the entirety of his teenage years he would have cried tears. Real tears. And he would have blown his nose with an American flag-patterned hanky. All he had was his chopper, a sapphire mine, and about a kilo of Columbian Bam-Bam, give or take the pound of opium-laced hydrocodone Kush he got when he killed that Chan man. Ain’t nothin’ to show for it, he thought. “Who was it?” He clenched his fist. What a brick. “Who kill’t’im?”

“What? Why on earth would I be coming to you now, Gritt, asking for your help. We’ve lost too much. I don’t have any other options. I can’t watch another country, my country, burn to the ground. His fate is the same as Steelhead’s if you don’t help.”

“Other people, huh?” There was no one else.

The bartender placed the bottle of irradiated crocodile piss on the table. Gritt took a full swig. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

“Open it.”

“Ya’ver heard a’Gunga Din?”

“How many, old boy, of those pills did you say that you took? Christ on a bike, Gritt, just open the damn thing already, man!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
I ‘ope you liked your drink” sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where he is gone
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls.
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!’

“Yes! ‘Din! Din! Din!’ we know! Rudyard Kipling was a ruddy bloody Brit!” Antwerp said impatiently.

Grit stood up. He turned to face the entrance of the Gourd. Lifted his arms like a ballerina and sang louder:

“’YOU Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin Gawd that made you—'”

Gritt opened his eyes.

“‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’—HOLY TURKEY SHIT MUTHERFUCKING DICK KING!”

Gritt dove!

Machine gun fire ripped through the door, opening Antwerp’s chest like someone would unzip a suitcase. Muzzle flashes shredded the darkness outside. Clumps of thatch and guts were flying. Old school. Bullets were turning the walls of the Gourd to swiss cheese. The jungle lit up like a Kodak porn shoot.

Grit scrambled behind the bar just as a handful of throwing stars dug their way into the wood floor behind him. Sunovabitch! he thought. Got to get Shark’s pouch!

Antwerp wasn’t dead yet. He lay on his back splayed out like a card game. He was calling out what sounded like Shark’s name. Machine gun fired cackled on. Gritt guessed fifty-ought slugs were being belt-fed through a meat grinder of a gauntlet gun. These weren’t Co-op forces. Maybe local militia.

Gritt had to get that pouch, grab Antwerp, and get the hell out of there. To the left, miraculously unharmed, the bartender had managed to keep breathing during the first couple seconds. Gritt tried to look around the base of the bar, but was sent reeling back by a skull mask of muzzle flares. The bartender had his head “in the sand” with both of his arms covering his ears.

The skunks knew we’d be here!

“COMPADRE!” Gritt screamed at the top of his lungs. More machine gun fire belted past overhead. Bottles full of pickled rodents and insect-sized lizards burst.

Two dirt bikes could be heard now ripping around the Gourd. Another shriek from Gritt went unheard by the bartender. A molotov burst over the roof and sent the whole thing to hell.

Outside, two short Filipinos held crude torches made of dead palm limbs. Between the two of them stood Korean Viet Li. Arms crossed.

Half of the hut started to buckle under the load of that burning thatch roof.

Another molotov crashed overhead.

Gritt stuck a finger down his throat. He tasted some blood that wasn’t his. Up came two little egg-sized grenades he’d swallowed earlier and onto the floor in front of him in a pool of saliva. Flames from the roof started peeking through. The Gourd burned orange. Smoke began filling the room.

A piece of what seemed like half-digested meat clung to one of the grenades. Gritt peeled it off and ate it, pulled one pin, waited three seconds, and then pulled the other. With a grunt he launched the two grenades out the front door.

Viet Li’s boys were whooping and carrying on like a murder of toucans discussing Latin American geopolitics of the early 21st century. Shark may be dead, Gritt thought, but they sure as hell ain’t taking my black ass.

“Sorry li’l buddy,” Gritt screamed, “much obliged for the drink though!” The flames out-roared him. Gritt moved. He grabbed the bartender by the arms and lifted him up putting him head to head with a cheeseburger of bullet fire. Before the bartender knew it Gritt had broken from cover holding him as a human shield. He bolted for Antwerp where the poor bastard was pulling at the last thread of his patriotic life. Bullets rifled into the bartender. A ham fell down a staircase.

The first grenade outside detonated. Then the other.

BRAAAAAAAAAAP! One of the dirt bikes exploded.

Another quarter of the hut collapsed under its own weight with Antwerp and Gritt still inside. Trapped with more than a dozen psycho-bastards hooting and carrying on. Shit don’t change much.

It was Korean Viet Lee. Gritt was sure of that. Turns out he was a little closer than Antwerp had anticipated.

Unlike his maniac ex-brother, Easy Street Steve with his panache for murder-tech and engineering, Li was from an era of stolen Russian AKs and shoulder-mounted BPM tank busters. Fossil fuels and homemade noodles. As much could be gleaned by the red headband Li wore. This wasn’t laser fire or acid mortars. Li’s appeal for archaic firearms indicated that, at one point, there were so many bootleg VHS tapes of RAMBO in his place of birth, previously Sri Lanka not some hundred years ago, that the world was doomed a long time before any of those warring now could remember. The shelf-life of those things was longer than a cockroach eating a Twinkie on zero day, culturally speaking. . . .

“GLITT!” Li barked from outside. The machine gun fire ceased. “GLLLIIIIIIITTT!!!!”

By the time Gritt made it to Antwerp the blood pumping out of him had slowed to the pace of a children’s drinking fountain at an elementary school whose button was pressed eternally. Gritt’s beefy hand cradled Antwerp’s head. An all too familiar feeling sprung up like a well inside of him. Antwerp motioned for Gritt to come closer.

“A me . . . ssage from S-S-s-shark.” It was then that Antwerp’s last breath was drawn. Flames had eaten through most of Dabeigo’s Gourd when they started licking at Antwerps feet. He was gone. Gritt leaned over his corpse. He snatched up Shark’s peyote pouch. He flipped the lip of the pouch open. Inside was a used package of Big League Chew. An edge of paper was sticking out. He pulled out it out. It was a note from Shark.

He could hear Li’s demands coming through the flames, “GLITT! YOU ARE INSIDE. YOU CAN EITHER DIE IN THERE. INSIDE. OR YOU CAN DIE OUT HERE. I GIVE YOU A CHOICE!”

Gritt pinched the note so hard between his fingers it wrinkled, but not enough to be illegible. He read it. It was simple:

“YOU HOMO”

Shark was alive.

END OF PART I