The Feed Dog Mechanism
by Mark Brand
forum: The Feed Dog Mechanism
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Feed Dog Mechanism


          The Jumpies were out there somewhere in the desert. Just because we couldn't see them didn't mean they weren't there. Sometimes they'd get you with the sun in your face and you'd just see little dark reverse-vapor trails. How the hell they wore black in the desert in broad daylight, I'll never know. One of the most important things we used to scream at the new guys was never to shoot off their guns too close to anyone's ear. Out here, sound was life. If your ears were no good, you'd never hear them coming.

          The desert used to scare the living shit out of me. I came into this war thinking I'd be trudging though silted dunes like snowdrifts. As it turns out, it's more like a thousand-square-mile gravel pit. This was A-OK by me until I figured out that if you don't constantly look at your feet you trip over the little cracks where moisture evaporates to the surface. At the very least, this means you're marching with your head down and that fucks up your stride. At worst, it meant you'd be looking at your feet when the great big stupid Jumpie slugs hit you in the top of the head and moonroofed your brain.

          Moxie Dinks was in the fox-hole with me. He had grown up in the camp with me at Two Guns and I knew by the way he was breathing that he had caught something. Every few minutes we switched sides so one of us wouldn't be staring right at the sun for too long. A fox-hole in the desert needs to be watched on both sides, and we had all heard stories about guys going sun-blind. It was a pretty stupid place to stop, and we knew it. Pieces of machinery stuck out of the ground and decayed in uneven patterns like partially-exposed corpses. There were no real corpses out here, of course. Anything motionless that wasn't made of metal or protected by fire after dark would never see another sunrise. The smarter ones of us always knew it was the wildlife that would come and chew up our buddies after dark, but some of the dumbass kiddos talked about cannibal Jumpies. One thing's for sure: when you're out of sight of civilization, people believe some dumb-shit things.

          A nearby metal hulk was most of an old car. There were some like it back at camp that were drawn around by horses. Tucker and Mr. Ed had snagged it right off the bat and instead of digging a foxhole proper they had settled into the front seats. I swung my weapon around and looked through the scope at Mr. Ed. He was looking down at the dashboard. Tucker must have seen me turn because he gave me the finger.

          "Quit fucking around," said Leftenant Price.

          "Eat a dick, Pricey," I said.

          Moxie whacked the top of my helmet. Hard.

          "What the fuck?" I turned on him. He had his hands in the air.

          "He told me to, man." Meaning the Leftenant.

          The Leftenant and Todd Sixbury were across what was left of the road that ran through this section of desert. They were out in the open like Dinks and me, and the LFT seemed like he was starting to think it was a stupid idea, too.

          "You can eat a dick, too, Mox."

          "Don't shoot the messenger, bra."

          I turned my weapon back out over the stretch of road that snaked out to the… well, I guess it must have been the South. For the moment I wasn't staring at the sun and my bedazzled retinas started to resolve again. There wasn't much to see anyway. Just an old dust-colored layer of asphalt that was cracked in about a million places.

          Some people thought there was oil out here, but none of us believed it. Gasoline was $54.50 a gallon then, and that stretch of desert had been sucked dry long ago. Every once in a while we'd come across a couple of holes in the ground where some enterprising Jumpie had put up a little makeshift derrick, but there was never any sign that the black stuff had come out. Mostly we watched the road because the Jumpies would sometimes bring cartloads of stolen children down them. Christ knows why they stole children. They always had plenty of their own. We had all heard stories about Jumpie children being as thick as rat-babies on their cave-floors.

          Come to think of it, that's about all we did know

          "I gotta take a piss," said Dinks, making a motion with his elbow behind me that felt suspiciously like he was scratching his balls.

          "Whatever," I said, "try not to get any on ya."

          He snorted.

          "TAKING A PISS!" Dinks shouted. We were supposed to call it out whenever we had to leave the fox hole for some reason. We hadn't seen anyone out here except those sun-flare outlines for about a week. At the time, it didn't seem like there was any good reason to be quiet, and Moxie blew off the Leftenant's sharp stare. He chewed on a sickly warm protein bar and unzipped his fly.

          The sand makes a weird sound in the desert when you pee on it. It doesn't puddle or get muddy, it just sucks the moisture up almost as fast as it falls. You get a little white salty spot where you were standing, but that's about it. I didn't know what on earth could live on soldier-piss, but if you took a leak out there it sure as hell didn't stick around long in the dirt.

          I was in the fox hole by myself then, and I was trying to watch both sides of the road at once, and after a few seconds I realized I hadn't heard anything from where Mox was standing. I looked over at him just in time to see him zip up without having gone. Mr. Ed noticed what Moxie was looking at right about the same time I saw it.

          "Whut the hill?" Mr. Ed said. We called him Mr. Ed because he had a drawl that sounded like he had come kicking the same cow turd all the way from Texas.

          There was a woman in the middle of the road, holding an ancient hunting rifle in one hand and a small child's hand in the other. They were toddling along the road so slowly that none of us had noticed them, walking out of the sun like the Jumpies always do. Five rifles chambered rounds at the same time, safeties clicked off, scope covers popped up to reveal the delicate optics beneath. It had been a long time since any of us had shot anything. Dinks crouched down and started goose-walking back to the fox hole.

          "Whatta we got?" the Leftenant barked.

          "I can't see very well," came Moxie's reply to my left. We were all nervous so there was all sorts of chatter.

          "Some lady it looks like, and a baby."


          "A woman…"

          "All right, shut the fuck up," Price yelled. "Dinks, what do they look like to you?"

          "Uhhhh…." Moxie had just managed to crawl back into position next to me, "Yeah, a woman and a kid. Mom's got a gun."

          "Nobody fucking shoot," said Price. I heard snorts from the firing line. One of them was mine.

          "She's packing, Pricey. We need to do something."

          "You're not going to do anything, God dammit…"

          The woman kept walking toward us.

          "It's a trick," said Harry Tucker, peering through his rifle scope. "You've seen them before. The kid has a belly full of grenades or the mom is carrying some C4…"

          Harry Tucker was a former basketball player from a New Jersey prep school. Trouble at home had derailed his college plans, and landed him here. We didn't hold it against him then, and he was right; the Jumpies would throw their children's dismembered limbs at you to trip you up if they had to. They were ferocious, and they never surrendered. Yet here was something none of us had ever seen before. It's situations with no precedent that have the greatest potential for disaster. There's a French word for it, but I've forgotten it.

          Even still, some part of us wanted to believe that a lone woman and child meant something other than treachery and sudden death. That's why we all breathed a sigh of relief when the woman finally saw us. She stopped and talked with the kid, stooping to its level. We thought it was a little boy, but we couldn't be sure. Sometimes the boys had long hair and the girls were bald. None of us knew why.

          The two of them sat down for a minute in the middle of the road.

          "Uhhh… hell-o?" Moxie said. He took his eye away from his carbine scope for a moment and looked at me questioningly.

          I shook my head.

          "Keep your eye on them," I pointed.

          The mother had taken out some sort of food and was dividing it between the two of them.

          "You've got to be shitting me," I heard Tucker say.

          My own stomach growled.

          Earlier that day, I had eaten probably my thousandth protein bar. They tasted like the plastic they were wrapped in, and they were always room temperature. The instant you opened them, you had to wolf them down. If you didn't, you'd be eating a frosted-desert-dust bar instead. Or you'd attract the scorpions and ants. The ants were worse.

          The woman and child were eating what looked like bread.

          "Pricey, what's wrong with this picture?" I asked.

          "Everything, Private. What's your point?"

          "When was the last time you saw corn or wheat?"

          "Is this like 'I Spy'?" he yelled.

          "Where did they get bread?"

          The Leftenant was silent for a moment, considering.

          "Doesn't matter," he said. "Keep your eyes open. Mr. Ed, check our fields."

          Mr. Ed began a slow and steady check of the other four directions. We were still completely alone. At least, that was, as far as we could tell.

          There was no government in this country. I had always assumed it was the desert. The weather and critters were too much for the sort of people who were politicians. There might have been some tribe leader or something, but they never let us get close enough to figure out who was in charge. We didn't see them in groups of more than one or two usually, and the ones we caught were doped up to high heaven on something. When they sobered up, they'd break their own necks or bite off their tongues and bleed to death. How the hell could we argue with that? No discussion, no interrogation, no hesitation. It was pretty fucking scary.

          Back home, I lived off-base in a pre-fab frame house with two double-wides for neighbors. I had a yard with grass that didn't grow too good. I had a dog that my parents were taking care of. It wasn't much, but it started to sound pretty nice right about then.

          The woman and child finished their bread and gave each other a hug while still sitting.

          "This doesn't look good," Tucker said, nervously.

          "Shut the fuck up, man," I said, but I thought it looked bad too. There's a word in Japanese for these crazy bastards who used to fly planes full of bombs into battleships, but I can't remember it.

          "Do not shoot!" the Leftenant yelled as authoritatively as he could manage.

          They stood up and started walking back toward us again. The woman had slung her rifle, but it was still within easy reach. None of us spoke Jumpie, so we didn't know if she understood or not.

          "L-T, they're coming for us, man…" Tuck said. I heard a safety click off.

          "Tucker, safety your weapon right now. Right fucking now, private!"

          Now that I think of it, fear is pretty damned authoritative sometimes, too.

          The woman and child were walking faster now.

          "Put the gun down. Ma'am, put the gun down!" Todd Sixbury shouted to her.

          "Achk birenh vladovostyk," she replied. She did not drop the rifle.

          "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Moxie said to me, across the butt of his rifle, "You better do something, man."

          Why it fell to me to 'do something' is a question I never did get a satisfactory answer to. Pricey, Todd Sixbury, and Mr. Ed all outranked me. I was about the last person that was in a position to do anything. But Mox and I had a sort of understanding and I figured the other guys were in on it, too. Leftenant Price was three steps up from a drooling retard when it came time to make decisions. If we stood around like this much longer, this lady and her rugmonkey were going to be walking right into our foxholes.

          "Hey!" I shouted. It was the sort of shout I would use to get a dog's attention. Strangely, even though she had not responded to any of our other yelling, this tone of voice apparently meant something to her. She was wearing a long, black robe of some kind with layers over layers and weird little black rags tied around her elbows and knees. I could see her face a little, but only enough to see that it was the typical desert-hardpan mug that all Jumpies had. She stopped for a moment and focused on me. I stood up slowly with my carbine over my head.

          "What the fuck are you doing, Private? Get back in your…" Pricey began. Moxie must have given him the fuck-off hand that I would have if I had had two free ones.

          I slowly mimed the action of putting my carbine on the ground in front of me. As far as I could tell, the lady followed the motions, but I guess in whatever hell-hole that she lived in this wasn't as unambiguous as I had intended. I motioned for her to do the same. She cocked her head slightly to the side. After a moment, she slowly reached around for her rifle in its hide sling.

          "She's reaching for the trigger…"

          There would be denial later, but I clearly remember Tucker saying these words as the lady tried to unsling her cheap, old, mass-produced assault rifle. There was all sorts of talk just then, but I remember that shit.

          "Hold your fire…" Leftenant Price said.

          "May-yam, ewe need to put that day-own…" Mr. Ed said, pleadingly.

          "Get down…" Moxie said, with an urgency that made me duck my head and hop back into the foxhole.

          It was during this weird little scuttle that I missed the important part of this entire story. I sure as shit heard it, though. Somebody shot the mother. Where she had been standing there was just a little black pile of rags in the middle of the road. The child was holding a limp sleeve instead of its mother's hand.

          "Hold your fire, you stupid fucks!" yelled Price.

          "I didn't do it…" I could hear Tucker say.

          "I fucking saw it!" Todd Sixbury shouted back.

          "Fuck you, Toddy, you shot her." I looked up in time to see everyone start pointing carbines in the wrong direction.

          There's a word in Latin for when a bunch of scared swinging dicks who haven't been home in a year and a half start pointing guns at each other, but hell if I know what it is.

          "I heard it, too, Tuck," Moxie said from behind me.

          That's when it got really bad. The first shot had been just a quick sharp bang, the second noise was more like a badly-tuned car backfiring a dozen times. Tucker's carbine rattled from my left and I felt Moxie go limp behind me. I was still trying to get turned around in the hole when all hell broke loose.

          Like I said, none of us had fired our guns in a long time.

          I reached my arm out and snagged the strap of my carbine, which was still on the ground where I had left it like an idiot. Rounds started falling near me and I put my helmeted head down into my hands like they show you to do so you don't get shot in the forehead.

          Moxie was like a sack of potatoes on my back and I tried to turn toward the old burnt out car where Tucker and Mr. Ed were holed up. I couldn't quite swing my carbine around, but I saw the flashes and I saw my friends shooting at each other. Mr. Ed took a bullet in the throat that was intended for Harry. Leftenant Price was coughing blood onto the desert sand, and Todd Sixbury finally managed to get the aim right. Tucker got one in the side of the cheek after a second or two and he started flopping around like a landed fish. Sixbury shot him a couple more times just to make sure he was dead.

          "Jesus, Todd," I said. He turned his rifle toward me and I put up both hands.

          "He shot her."

          "I know, I know, man," I said, hoping that he wouldn't decide that I thought Tuck had been right.

          "She wasn't reaching for shit."

          I nodded and tried to breathe. Sixbury lowered his carbine, but I kept my hands up.

          "Leftenant!" Sixbury shouted. Price was crawling around in the hulk of the car, clutching at his stomach. He couldn't get quite enough breath in to scream, but he coughed a couple of times trying.

          Mr. Ed was facedown in the dirt, motionless.

          It was right about then that I noticed the kid. She was only about ten feet from our part of the road just then, and running at full speed. It must have been a little girl, I think now, because she had really big eyes. I guess I've known a few boys with big eyes, too, but not like these. Somebody had popped a couple of cat's eye marbles into a grinning little grubby urchin face. I didn't have too much time to look at them, though, because right beneath them there was a smile with four missing bottom baby teeth, and right below that was a belt of grenades wired to a plastic syringe plunger in her hand.


copyright 2006 Mark Brand.

Mark Brand is a massage therapist and medical assistant who lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with his wife/editor Beth. He has been writing sci-fi and speculative sociological fiction for approximately thirteen years and was a co-founder of the literary website His stories have been featured on and in the science fiction anthology Alien Light. He has also published a number of pieces of non-science fiction including a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Prince and The Pitchman (POD published in 2002 through Booksurge), an essay in the 9/11 retrospective To Wound The Autumnal City, and an e-book by the now-defunct Flagstone Publishing entitled "Bunnygirl". His current projects include a portion of the collaborative effort Night.Blind entitled "Human Resources", as well as finishing his second young adult fantasy novel, the upcoming The Journey of the Tallish Ten.