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The King of California
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-435-9
Genre: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Length: 185 Pages
Published: March 2007

From inside the flap

This latest from Patrick Welch follows the journey of Marlow and his rover tank  through a decimated post-apocalyptic America. Torn by war, starvation and panic, this once great nation is reduced to a series of military "city-states". If you like the television show Jericho, or relished the social disorder of  A Boy and His Dog youíll love The King of California!    

The King of California (Excerpt)


Bernie crouched in the bushes and willed himself as still as possible. Not an easy task, considering the flies, the thistles and his own eagerness, and he cursed the lineage of the pests to Old Scratch himself. The flies were unimpressed and maintained their unwanted interest.

He wondered briefly if Greg or Thad were experiencing similar difficulties, especially Thad, who was creeping along the roof of the garage. He looked up but couldnít see his comrade, which was good; their target couldnít either. A sharp, sudden flare of pain from his right arm distracted him and he swatted the fly away. Then he caught his breath. Had the man heard that?

He slowly relaxed. Peering through the branches, he saw their target remained working at the abandoned gas pump, his machine rumbling happily as it sucked whatever might remain from the underground tanks. Like a giant fly.

Do your work, Bernie thought, encouraging him. Less that weíll have to do. They had been following the stranger for four hours now. He had been swimming alone in Coggins Lake, and they had watched him from the safety of the trees. He looked old, mid forties perhaps, just under six feet tall, black hair cut military style. But he appeared strong and in good physical health. He had swum for almost two hours, then dried himself by doing calisthenics in the warming sun before putting on his uniform and returning to his tank.

They had debated long and hard whether to attack him then, but finally agreed to just tail him for a while. Their prey led them to an orchard and, finally, to this abandoned gas station. Which gave them their opportunity to set their trap. Bernie withdrew his knife and fondled it. His grandfather had given it to him as a birthday present when the only hides he hunted were muskrat. It was called a Bowie knife, for a reason he didnít know. Bernie ran a finger along the edge, then gazed at their target. The man was still hard at work retrieving any gas that might remain. Good, get a lot, fill your tanks. So much the better for us.

Bernie then stared with envy at the machine. Heíd heard of Rovers, but had never seen one before. It was a beautiful machine; steel and iron and treads protected by steel mesh and machine guns and lasers and cannon and rockets and speed and death and beauty and power and just enough room inside for three. Perhaps. Of course, what they were planning was dangerous--it would have been better if they had rifles instead of knives. Their target appeared unarmed and unaware. Still he might--just might--dispatch one of them. But, and Bernie shrugged, that would just leave more room for him and...whomever.

As he fondled his knife, he thought of Tracy. She had refused him four times, yet he knew she went down. He stared at the blade, then at the Rover. No more bullshit from her, he vowed. Or from anyone else. He pretended his knife was a rifle and he aimed along the blade at all his enemies, real or imaginary. Fuck with me and Iíll blow your head off. Soon, he thought as he looked once more at the Rover. Soon youíll be mine.

Their plan, devised as they had followed their target to this station, was simple. Simple plans always work best, he had argued and Greg and Thad agreed. Greg would come from the right, Thad from above and Bernie from the left. Bernie would give a bird whistle, they would count to three ("Slowly," he had cautioned them) and then attack. His friends had ten minutes to get in position; Bernie was afraid to risk much more, although at the leisurely pace their prey was going about his business, they could have spent half an hour preparing. Bernie licked his lips and felt a chill of apprehension, excitement, fear. He had only killed once before, over a piece of ass. She hadnít been that good a lay, either. Tracy was good; others had told him so. Hot box and tongue to match.

He glanced at his watch and smiled. It was time. "No more bullshit," he whispered. Not from Tracy, not from his old man. Bernie wet his dry lips again as adrenalin flowed through him. He could never be more ready. He gave a loud whistle, counted a fast three, broke from the bushes and ran like hell toward their prey.

Itís gonna work, he thought as he saw Greg hauling ass from the other side of the building. Thad was on the roof ready to hump. And meanwhile their prey continued his labors at the gas tanks. Weíre all going to make it.

Something went wrong.

The man was still bending over the large hose when Thad leaped. Thadís scream of rage, however, turned immediately into one of agony and he suddenly twisted in the air like a tailless kite. He thudded when he hit the ground face first and lay there with blood seeping from a gaping hole in his stomach.

Bernie turned to Greg just in time to see him engulfed by a ball of flame fired from the Rover. Another scream, then the burning figure collapsed fifty yards from their prey. Bernie stopped, his own screams dying on his lips. Their prey slowly stood, removed his gloves, slapped them together to shake off dust, then turned to Bernie and smiled. Bernie stared at the remains of Thad, of Greg, then the man walking toward him. "No, my God, no!" he yelled, then dropped his knife and ran toward the woods.

There was another man in the machine. Bernie cursed with fear as he ran. No wonder their target had been so unconcerned. But there was no time for recrimination now; he had to get away. He glanced back. The man was still following at a deliberate pace, but not getting any nearer. Oh my God, let me get away. Let me get away! He brushed aside branches and grasping undergrowth as he fled deeper into the woods. The man wonít find me here, he thought. He knew these woods, was born near these woods. He could hide, his prey could walk right past him and never see him.

A trap, he thought. Iíll set a trap, ambush the fuck. But when he reached for his knife, he found it was gone. Shit. Just get away, he told himself. The stranger will never find me in these woods.

Then he heard it, a soft humming sound like a bee searching aimlessly for pollen. He ignored it, more concerned with finding a place to hide. But even as he continued, the sound grew in strength, gradually changing into a shrill whistling. What is that? He glanced back, expecting to see the stranger somewhere behind him. Instead he saw a flash of light perhaps four feet off the ground approaching him. "Oh, no." His panic was complete now. He managed to run another fifty feet, then something sharp struck him in the back. It did not hurt much, not much more than an insect bite. But instantly he found he couldnít move his legs. He hung on a tree for support, but his arms were growing numb as well. Suddenly he was on the ground, unable to move, unable even to scream.

But he could hear. Another whistling, but this came from a human. It was a relaxed, cheerful whistling, and he even recognized the song, "Zip-Pe-De-Doo-Dah." Then the stranger appeared. Bernie tried to focus his eyes but couldnít. Was the man dressed like a clown? He wasnít sure. He had seen a clown once. It had made him laugh. Would this man make him laugh? he wondered.

The man knelt beside him and smiled. "I knew you were following me for a long time, even back at the pond," he said kindly. "I had you bagged and tagged and you never even knew it."

Bernie wondered what he was talking about. So strange, he thought. He felt like he was drunk or something. No, floating. That was it, he decided. He was floating on his back in Coggins Lake.

"Excuse me." The stranger rolled Bernie on his side. A second later he was holding something that looked like a dart. "See this?" and he held it in front of Bernie. "This is a WasP, wireless assassination projectile. This is what got you. It carries synthesized venom similar to that of a coral snake. Paralyzes the nervous system. Pretty soon now you wonít feel a thing. Then you wonít be able to breathe. Can you move...anything?"

Bernie tried, he had to obey this man for some reason he couldnít understand. But it was like he had no body whatsoever. Suddenly he felt wetness on his cheek and realized he was crying. Bernie always hated to disappoint his father even though he often did. Sorry, Dad, he thought. I tried.

"At least it isnít painful, not like your friends. Just so you know, having rifles wouldnít have mattered either."

Bernie wondered what his teacher was talking about. This was his first day in school and already he hated it. The teacher tried to be friendly, even patted him on the head, but he still felt scared. He wished his mother had stayed. Where was his mother? He should ask but it didnít seem like the proper time. Especially since he had just soiled himself. He hadnít done that in a long time and he knew the teacher would get mad if he knew. He would have to sit here and wait. He would be a good boy, not talk out of turn or pick a fight or anything. Iíll be a good boy.

"Sorry this happened, son. Youíre young, sixteen? Shouldnít have bet all your chips until you saw all the cards. But live and learn. I was like you once. Probably would have tried the same thing. I was lucky; I got in the Army and got paid for killing. Were you going to join the Army?"

Bernie liked to hear his father talk. He didnít understand most of the words of course; after all, he was only three. But he liked the sounds his father made, the way his lips moved, the way his tongue and teeth worked together. Bernie liked to talk, too, but he couldnít talk like his father no matter how hard he tried. Still he could listen to his fatherís calm, soft voice for hours.

The stranger looked at his watch. "Well, thatís about it, I guess. Sorry this had to happen, kid. Say hello to your friends. Oh, and thanks for your knife. Thatís a keeper."

It was light out there, and cold. Bernie didnít like the light. Inside it was dark and moist and warm. He wanted to stay inside. He kicked at the hand grasping for him. Let me go! The clutching hand released him. He grasped the rope and pulled himself back inside. This is better, he thought. There was no harsh light here, no cold. Here in the darkness he didnít have to move, think. Even breathe. So he stopped.

Marlow stayed at the dead boyís side for another minute. Then, satisfied, he dropped the limp hand. Foolish kids, he thought and shook his head sadly. He had met foolish kids much too often over the past twenty years. He debated whether to bury the lad, then decided not. He had been away from the Rover long enough. His vehicle could take care of itself, but he had enough surprises for one day. He quickly searched the boyís pockets, found nothing of value and headed back.

He had been aware of them from the first. Thermal scans had picked them up long before they were near enough to be threats. Marlow had quickly determined they carried no rifles. From then on it was merely a matter of waiting, first at the lake, then the orchard, then the station. He had hoped they were merely curious but such was not to be. Warning them, he knew, would have been fruitless. Young, dumb and full of cum, he thought and shook his head again as he returned to the abandoned gas station. He had taken a small chance as it was; if they had used fire near the station, things might have gotten dicey. Fire. He glared at his machine. The Rover should never have selected the flamethrower. He was going to have to recalibrate the computerís defensive program.

Things were now calm at the gas station, and flies were already gathering over the body that had leaped from the roof. Marlow retrieved the hoses used for siphoning gas and, more important, oil from any available source and stored them in their own armored compartment on the side of the Rover. Then he picked up the knife the last kid had dropped and admired it. "Definitely a keeper," and he stuck it in his belt. Time to go.

Marlow climbed into his Rover, latched the hatch and started the engine. It was only then that he turned off the automated defensive systems, the systems that had functioned so effectively just short minutes before.

But they had better. He was the man who had built them, and he was the only person he trusted with his life. Others had the sad tendency to be careless. Lighting a cigar, Marlow put the Rover in gear and headed toward the highway.