Chapter 1 from the first of three books in the series: ‘The Quest of the DNA Cowboys’
It was inevitable that they should up and leave Pleasant Gap.
The most the people could say, and they said it often, was that Pleasant Gap was a good old town.
Good old town really summed it up. Pleasant Gap was built on one of the most stable points in the fabric, it nestled in a fold of the grey elevations that the people of Pleasant Gap liked to call the hills. There were maybe fifty houses, frame buildings with wooden shingles, front porches and neat front gardens with well-tended lawns and flowers. Then there was the church, Eli’s Store, Jackson’s Repair Shop, and down at the end of the main street, a couple of bars and, although nobody mentioned it in polite company, Miss Ettie’s Sporting House, which must have been visited by every man in town at one time or another.
Beyond Miss Ettie’s was the railroad track. Of course, the railroad didn’t go anywhere, just ran around a fold in the hills and came back again. The main use of the railroad, apart from reminding people what time it was, was that the two boxcars concealed the faraday cages that hooked into the transporter beam from Stuff Central.
Pleasant Gap had a consumer contract with Stuff Central which gave them just about everything they needed, but the trouble was that a lot of people in town didn’t like to see their cans of dog food, bolts of cloth, and new work shoes appear out of nothing in a flash of static. It reminded them too much of the wild things that happened in other places. And so, every morning the train chugged out of town empty, and every afternoon it chugged back in full of supplies.
These supplies were unloaded and delivered to Eli’s Store where people then went and bought what they wanted with the money they picked up from the Welfare Bank.
This system worked fine, except that every year, when the Stuff contract had to be renegotiated, Stuff Central kept putting pressure on the town council to take more and more stuff. Eli would bitch and complain about how he would have to reduce prices and how that would be bad for business, and then the citizens would complain about the amount of stuff that they were expected to use up. Jed McArthur and his cousin Cal would sit on Eli’s porch and complain to each other about just how many motor mowers a man was expected to keep in his tool shed.
That was about the extent of the troubles of Pleasant Gap, and the calm, placid life was due mostly to the huge stasis generator, as big as two city blocks, which stood, hidden by a grove of pines, down below the railroad track. It drew power straight from the fabric, and hummed away to itself all day and night keeping things in Pleasant Gap as they ought to be.
There hadn’t been any trouble in Pleasant Gap for a long, long time. No disruptor had come near them in living memory, and the even pattern of life was rarely interrupted. Occasionally a small rupture would appear in a garden or the main street, but nothing worse than you could maybe catch your foot in. Once, a few years back, an ankylosaurus had wandered down Yew Street, but Ma Hoffman had chased it with a broom, and it had lolloped off into the hills. Apart from these little anomalies, the generator kept things pretty much as the people of Pleasant Gap wanted them.
Life in Pleasant Gap was safe, well regulated, but, to some, crushingly monotonous, and it was more than likely the monotony that started them having thoughts of moving out.
It was Billy who first brought it up. Billy liked people to call him Captain Oblivion, but most people called him Billy. It was a great disappointment. He felt his thin good looks and hard penetrating eyes merited a better title. Billy was secretly very vain.
He and his buddy Reave were lying in the back room of McTurk’s Bar with the alphaset cranked up past euphoria. Reave was the stockier, more solid of the two. In another age he would have been a farmer. It was the middle of the day, nobody was about, and Billy was bored.
His voice was slurred. It was very hard to talk against an alphaset running at full power. Reave rolled over slowly, and pushed his long greasy hair out of his eyes.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘So let’s go down to the tracks, and watch the train come in.
‘We must have watched the train come in maybe a thousand times.
‘So? Let’s go watch it again.’
‘Who needs it?’
Reave shrugged and said nothing. Billy was always having these fits of discontent, it didn’t pay to take them too seriously. After a while another thought struck him.
‘We could go down to Miss Ettie’s.’
‘I dunno, have a few drinks, get laid. It’s something to do.’
There was another long silence, and then Billy stretched out and hit the off button on the alphaset, and their nervous systems came down with a bump.
‘Shit, what did you do that for?’
Billy sat up. He had that kind of crazy look that people get when they’ve been soaking up alphas for too long.
Reave scratched his leg.
‘That’s what I said. Let’s go down to Miss Ettie’s.’
‘I don’t mean go to Miss Ettie’s or the railroad track. Fuck Miss Ettie’s and the railroad track. I mean split the town, leave Pleasant Gap and go somewhere else.’
Reave frowned and scratched his head.
‘Yeah? Where? A man can get himself killed or lose his mind out there in the wild lands.’
Billy walked over to the window and stared out.
‘A man could lose his brain hanging out in a town like this.’
‘It’s easy enough, living in Pleasant Gap.’
Billy looked at Reave’s placid, easygoing face and began to get annoyed.
‘Sure it’s easy. It’s just that nothing happens. It just goes on, day after day.’
‘So what do you want to do about it?’
‘I want to get out of here.’
‘There’s got to be something out there that’s better than this.’
Reave looked doubtful.
‘How the fuck should I know until I find it?’
‘So you want to set off looking for something, and you don’t know what it is?’
‘And you want me to come with you?’
‘If you want to.’
‘You’ve got to be crazy.’
‘Maybe. Are you going to come?’
Reave hesitated for a moment, hitched up his dungarees and grinned.
‘When do we leave?’
They spent the rest of the day going round town telling their friends and buddies that they were leaving. Their friends and buddies shook their heads and told them that they were crazy. After they’d left, the friends and buddies all shook their heads and told each other that Billy and Reave had always been no good.
Billy and Reave finally wound up at Miss Ettie’s Sporting House, saying a special goodbye to some of the whores. The whores looked at them thoughtfully, but didn’t shake their heads and say they were crazy.
The next morning saw them bright and early inside Eli’s Store, clutching their final payments from the Welfare Bank. Eli shuffled out from behind the counter rubbing his hands together.
‘Hear you boys are leaving town.’
‘That’s right, Mister Eli.’
‘Nobody leaves this town, can’t recall anybody leaving in years.’
‘We’re going to do it, Mister Eli.’
‘Rather you than me, boys. It’s supposed to be pretty dangerous out there. You wouldn’t catch me going out into the wild lands. A couple of years ago a drifter came in on the train…’
‘The train doesn’t go anywhere, Mister Eli. It just goes round in a circle.’
Eli appeared not to hear. Nobody in town was sure whether Eli was deaf, or just didn’t want to listen to anything that conflicted with his own ideas.
‘This old boy came in on the train, and the stories he told. You can’t count on nothing out there. If you drop something you can’t even count on it falling to the ground, you won’t even know if the ground is going to be there from one minute to the next.’
‘We’ll take a chance on it, Mister Eli.’
Eli stroked his bald head.
‘That’s as maybe, but I can’t stand here all day chatting with you boys. Did you want something?’
Billy nodded patiently.
‘We want some stuff, Mister Eli, we want some stuff for our trip.’
Eli shuffled vaguely round the store.
‘Plenty of stuff here, boys. That’s what I’m here for. Stuff’s my business.’
Billy and Reave wandered up and down the shelves and displays, picking things up and dumping them on the counter.
‘One leather jacket, two pairs of jeans, two shoulder bags, a pair of cowboy boots.’
‘You got any camping rations?’
The old man stacked a pile of packets on the counter.
‘How about stasis machines? You got a couple of portapacs?’
Eli peered at a high shelf.
‘Don’t have much call for them.’
Billy began to get impatient.
‘Have you got any?’
‘Don’t take that tone with me, lad. I think I’ve maybe two of them somewhere.’
He picked up two chrome boxes about the size of a half pound box of chocolates, and blew the dust off them.
‘I knew I had some somewhere. Is there anything else?’
‘Yeah. You got any guns?’
‘Guns? I haven’t been asked for a gun in a long time. I’ve got some shotguns, and a couple of sporting rifles.’
Reave glanced at Billy.
‘I don’t much fancy toting a rifle all over the place.’
Billy looked at Eli.
‘You got any hand guns?’
Eli scratched his head.
‘I think I’ve got a couple of reproduction Navy Colts somewhere in the back.’
The old man shuffled out. Billy looked round the store. Its dark, dusty, cluttering interior seemed to stand for everything that was driving him to leave Pleasant Gap. Old Eli came back holding a pair of long-barrelled revolvers from another age. He placed them on the counter beside the other things. He reached under the counter.
‘I’ve got two belts here. They have holsters that will take the guns, and some sort of do-hickey that will hold the portapacs. Reckon you’ll need them.’
Billy picked up one of the belts, strapped it round his hips, and picked up one of the pistols. He spun it on his index finger, dropped it into the holster, and drew it in a single fluid motion. He grinned at Reave.
Billy turned back to Eli.
‘Okay old man, how much is all this stuff?’
Eli stood calculating under his breath.
‘Three hundred and seventeen, boys.’
Billy pulled a roll of notes out of his shirt pocket.
‘We’ll give you three hundred. Call it a cash discount.’
‘You’d make a poor man of me, but I’ll do it, seeing as how you’re leaving.’
Billy handed the old man three one hundred bills. ‘Nice to do business with you, old man.’
They stuffed the food, spare clothes and ammunition into the shoulder bags and strapped the gun belts round their hips. Billy pulled on his new cowboy boots, and shrugged into his leather jacket.
‘How do I look, Reave old buddy?’
Billy pushed his fingers through his curly black hair. ‘Just one more thing, old man. You got any sunglasses?’
Eli placed a pair of dark glasses on the counter. ‘You can have those, son. Call them a going away present.’
‘Thanks, Mister Eli.’
He put the glasses on. They seemed to make his pale face look even sharper under the mass of black hair.
‘I guess we’re about ready.’
‘It looks like it.’
‘So long, Mister Eli.’
Eli shook his head. ‘You boys have got to be crazy.’
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