Winter was coming on. Cold swept in from the north, cutting into Chicago, blowing icily through the broken streets. The city seemed to cower, like a captive before his captor, waiting for the great snows that would bury the city, wrapping the ruins in a cold white shroud. The snows were coming; they came every year, like an icy, victorious army driving its enemies before it. It was the worst time of the year in the lives of those who still lived on the continent that had once been called America, in the area once known as the United States.
Food would run short, fuel would be consumed too fast, and foraging for more would be difficult for the well-equipped raiders and smugglers and impossible for the poverty-stricken remainder of the population.
In the four feudal states that existed where America once stood proud, a lot of slaves would die that winter, while their jailers would rest warm and well fed through the season of ice, having enriched themselves at their slaves' expense.
In Chicago, as food ran out, men would reach for their guns and kill to get their share. And as winter wore on, the smugglers, raiders, road guides, pimps, whores—Chicago's diverse and violent population— would begin to quarrel. Living cheek by jowl, cooped up in the cold ruins, unable or unwilling to head out onto the ice-slick roads to do battle with the Stormers from the Slavestates or the Devils from the Hotstates, they would turn on each other. Dorca, the huge proprietor of a bar that carried his name, spent each night breaking up fights. He had a rule: no gunplay indoors. A lot of blood would stain the snow outside Dorca's.
The red flakes would stay there until covered by a fresh fall or the thaw came. . . .
Bonner was sure winter got longer each year. He lived in a few rooms on the old South Side, a tumbledown building he shared with the rats and the girl. Sometimes he looked up at the broken jagged remains of the old Chicago, the city that had been made up of buildings that tore into the sky. They amazed him. No one in the new world lived more than a few stories above the ground. The scared, the prudent, the powerless looked for shelter underground, where it was dark and cold, but safe, they thought. Bonner knew it didn't matter where you lived; no one was safe unless he handled a gun well and didn't hesitate to use it. Bonner was safe.
Bonner had chosen his little dwelling carefully. It was five rooms on the top floor of a four-story building. Each room in the ancient house was served by a fireplace, and set into the ceilings were cracked skylights showing a leaden cold sky. Thus Bonner could generate heat and he got as much of the daylight as he could. Throughout the new world light came from two main sources: the sun or kerosene lamps. But kerosene was hard to find so people resorted to smoky pitch torches. Houses were always burning down, and because there was no running water their owners could only watch them bum, flames consuming a man's whole store of food, clothing, ammunition—stuff that was almost imposable to replace. The very poor—the slaves—went to bed at nightfall.
There wasn't much furniture in Bonner's little flat. A bed, a few chairs—and books. They were stacked along the floor, jammed into gray metal shelves Bonner had found in a bombed-out office building in what had once been downtown. He collected books when he could, anything he could get his hands on. There was a vast blank spot, a wide dark unexplored sea in human learning, men on earth had no idea what had passed before them. No one really cared. Except Bonner.
Deep within him he felt the need to reclaim the past, hoping to find the key to his own time and to the future. It was painful work. References made by the ancient authors so casually meant nothing to him: Hitler, the Panama Canal, the Pope, Italy, a gas turbine, Albert Einstein, a nuclear reactor, a silicon chip, Vietnam. . . . Gradually, Bonner taught himself the rudiments of the past. Like a child taking his first clumsy steps, Bonner learned the old, dead facts. Some he understood completely, others he would never fathom. Hitler had been a world leader who had plunged the world into war—but it hadn't been he who destroyed the earth.
Bonner knew he was destined to fail, that ultimately he would be frustrated. There was a piece missing, nothing he read would ever tell him why the world had been bombed into ruins. The books always stopped short of explaining that; they never said what dredged up such hate in men that they wanted to kill an entire world. He learned that there had been another country called the USSR and that it was the natural enemy of the United States. These two countries were called superpowers and each was hell-bent on the destruction of the other.
Bonner presumed that they had started the war that had brought the world into a firestorm of death. But why? None of the books he read could explain that. He would never know why and it gnawed at him like a cancer. ...
Bonner swung up off his bed and pulled on his heavy black boots. A fire burned in the grate in front of the bed. He tossed the book he had been reading— Extraordinary Popular Delusions or the Madness of Crowds—aside. The girl, a young woman who had attached herself to Bonner like a stray dog to a sympathetic kid, lay on the bed next to him. She watched his every move with jealousy.
"Are you going someplace?" she asked.
She sighed in relief. Hardly a moment passed that she didn't worry that Bonner was going to walk out and not return for months. But he had been sticking close to home a lot recently. He had vanished for a while during the summer and returned exhausted, sad, and with the look of a man hunted and haunted by his memories, his hates.
"Please be careful."
He smiled gently. "Okay," he said.
She was a nice girl, with soft wide blue eyes and long brown hair that fell down her shoulder?. After they made love she would breathe passionately in his ear, "I love you. . . ."
But Bonner's world, the life he led, didn't permit love ... not anymore. He had loved once, a woman called Dara, a woman he had killed with his own hands. Mercy, love, devotion had made him kill her.
Many of the writers he read spoke of God. Gradually, over a thousand pages, Bonner had taught himself who God was. The sense of God was at once comforting and disquieting. He asked God: why? Why was Dara tortured by Leatherman? Why had the mechanics of the world placed Bonner in a position to chose between saving the woman he loved through killing her and allowing her torturer to live?
The questions multiplied. Why was the world ruined by the maneuverings of the men that were supposed to know better? Why had the world become a place where Leather and Berger and Carey held sway over innocent people. God was supposed to have the answers. He was supposed to know. He was supposed to guide the balanced, gentle action of the earth. . . . So little made sense to Bonner. And he wondered about it all the time. No good. No answers. No satisfaction. No long-dead man writing from beyond the grave. But Dara spoke to him, she was always there, always driving him, always carrying him back to those terrible minutes when he killed her and failed to kill Leather.
Somehow, Dara's death had sucked the soul from him. His ordinary red blood had been replaced with the hot liquor of hate. He lived now only to avenge her, to kill Leather, to kill the people—be they Slavestaters, Hotstaters, Snowstaters—who had been her enemies. Bonner could feel the old Outrider impulses coming back to him, but no longer felt the gentle guidance they had provided in the old days. He wanted to be an Outrider again but this time he wanted to kill. He wore his hate like a medal, a talisman that protected him. Bonner was fast, he was lethal, he was deadly, he had become a killing machine, fueled by hate.
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