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The Hero With A Thousand Faces

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Morning came as it always did to a Kansas farm — early.

Sam twisted in the sheets, the old bed creaking as she stretched. The lace curtains at the window shifted with her, fluttering in a soft, warm spring breeze. Behind them, dawn peeked over the fields.

Sam rolled out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s jeans, then grabbed a shirt and laced up her boots. She crept as softly as she could down the hall and stairs, past her parents’ open door and down into the kitchen, where she switched the flip on the coffee maker before heading outside.

The fields smelled like newly turned earth and sweet, growing life. Zipping up the hoodie she had grabbed on her way out the kitchen, Sam breathed deeply as she headed to the back fields to turn on the irrigation system. The breeze stirred her shaggy hair as her long legs ate up the yards.

Once the switches were flipped, Sam paused, leaning one leg up on the fencing, watching the sun slowly emerging on the flat Kansas horizon. If she squinted, she could see the interstate in the distance. Other than that, she was in a sea of ankle-high new crops.

The last of the stars blinked out as the sky grew brighter. Sam turned her back on the interstate, the sky, the world, and went back to the farmhouse.

***

Ellen served eggs and toast and hash browns, and they ate and drank coffee and her parents rumbled softly to each other about the crop. Sam focused on her plate.

“You okay, honey?” Ellen asked, her hand brushing the back of Sam’s neck as she got up for the coffee pot.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Still waking up.” She’d slept heavy but unrestfully, her night marked with strange and vivid dreams. A ghost of a headache lingered behind her eyes.

Rufus grunted into his food. “Talked to Joe Franklin the other day in town,” he said. “Said how he might be up for giving you a few flight lessons, Sami.”

Sam shook her head. “I don’t want flight lessons from Joe Franklin,” she said firmly.

“Well, if you want to learn how to fly,” Rufus said. “Learn right here at home.”

Ellen sat back down. Sam kept her eyes on her plate and didn’t answer. “Just something to think about, Sami,” she said gently.

Sam felt her jaw tighten, her spine straighten. She looked up and found her father’s rheumy eyes fixed on her. “I don’t care about learning to fly,” she said, biting off each word crisply. “That’s not what going to into Service is about.”

“No,” Rufus said, eyeballing her even harder. “It sure isn’t. Which is why you can learn to fly right here at home. Where you’re needed.”

Sam gulped at her coffee, letting it burn her tongue rather than let out the word resting on its tip.

“You’re a big help here, Sam,” Ellen added. “Couldn’t do it without you.”

“Sure you could,” Sam answered. “Other people can help.”

Rufus snorted. “What other people?” he asked.

Sam shrugged. “Ash,” she said, but that was a stupid argument, even to her ears. Rufus laughed.

“Ash gets off his butt and does something helpful around here, I’ll die of a heart attack,” he said. “Then Ellen really will need your help.”

Sam had to smile, leaning back in her chair and taking a more moderate sip of coffee. “All my friends are gone,” she said finally.

“That’s not true,” Ellen said. “You just want to stretch your wings, and you think a Service plane will let you do that. But Sam, there’s a price to that. Besides, I haven’t given up on college.”

Rufus and Sam were silent, because they all knew there was no money for college, not for a family like theirs, no matter how smart Sam was. They had no connections, and to boot, Rufus and Ellen had unindictable but undeniable connections to the old uprising movement. The only way Sam was getting out of Kansas was in a uniform, and they all knew it.

The name on the mailbox at the end of the dirt drive said Turner, but this wasn’t their farm, wasn’t their land, wasn’t even their house. That all belonged to the Moore family, along with all the farmland for three counties. The Turner family worked the land, and for their efforts got a place to lay their heads at night and enough money to keep going. Not enough to go anywhere.

Ellen was right, plenty of Sam’s friends were still here, working on their own farms, some of them working side-by-side with Ellen at Wal-Mart, where she put in hours to scrap a little more together. Rufus and Ellen had a terror of being turned out penniless that Sam suspected was based on experience from the gray years before Sam.

Of her childhood friends, Jess was the only one who had departed for college that fall. Sam had understood her whole life that she and Jess had different futures in store, daughter of landowner and daughter of sharecropper, but it didn’t make being left behind any easier to swallow. The world was dull and washed out without Jess’ golden light, and Sam’s future stretched dismally out in front of her, gray and unchanging save for the seasons.

“I’d better turn off the irrigation,” Sam announced, and stood. No one answered, and Sam went back out into the day.

***

Ash lived in a trailer on the back edges of the land the Turners were responsible for. So far as the Moores knew, he was a farmhand who worked for room and board. So far as Sam knew, he’d never done an hour’s work on the farm. He had appeared in their lives when she was 12, asleep on the couch when she came downstairs in the morning. In response to her inquiry, Rufus had said, “That’s our friend Ash. I’m gonna fix up the old trailer for him.”

Ellen had later supplied that Ash had attended MIT and was some kind of computer genius. Ash himself had told her that he was retiring to the country. Retirement for Ash seemed to involve filling the trailer with a wide variety of electronics and computers. He alternated between working for energy drink-wired days on end to being nearly comatose. Ash drank cheap beer out of cans, listened to dark, funky soul music, and ate chili and Fruit Loops. He was too young to have known her parents during their uprising days, and his ID card said Wedge Antilles.

Sam had decided not to ask any questions and just accept Ash’s presence. He made a decent surrogate older brother, most of the time.

The evening was chilly, and dark, so Sam put on her hoodie and hopped on her scooter to go back to the trailer. She left the scooter beside one of Ash’s satellite dishes and mounted the creaking metal steps to let herself in.

The trailer had a familiar, pungent smell of pot, beer and unwashed man. Ash was tinkering at his card table workspace and didn’t look up, but did greet her with a, “Sami, yo yo yo!” She grabbed a can of beer out of the fridge and plopped herself onto the only decent piece of furniture, a La-Z Boy that the Turners had bought for Ash as a Christmas present a few years before.

“What the hell happened to that thing?” Sam asked, and pointed with her beer at the laptop Ash was working on. It looked like someone had dropped it in a campfire.

“What didn’t happen to it,” Ash muttered. It looked like he was trying to pull the hard drive out. “What’s the news from up the hill, my sister?”

Sam grimaced. “When is there ever news?” she asked. “Rufus says Joe Franklin will give me flight lessons.”

Ash looked up. “Why the hell would you want flight lessons from Joe Franklin?” he asked, and Sam barked a bitter laugh.

“That’s what I said,” she answered. “Rufus seems to think I want to go into Service just to learn how to fly, not just to get the hell out of Kansas.”

“Also, why the hell would you want to go into Service?” Ash said, sliding the hard drive out of the scorched laptop.

“Means to an end,” Sam said. “You know that.”

Ash shook his head. “Gotta agree with your parents on that one, Sami. Think you don’t have choices now? Join the Service and find out what it really means to be under the thumb of the man. Fight wars to line his pockets, lose limbs to grow his power.”

Sam shook her head. “It’s not all like that,” she said. “I could learn skills, see the world, advance. It’s about the only way out of this place for people like us.”

“By design,” Ash said, pointing at her with a screwdriver. “You want to pledge your life to the people who created this shitty system, and then spend it upholding that system.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Sam demanded. “Stay here, run the family business? Get married, have kids, watch them grow up hand-to-mouth with no options for the future? Working at Wal-Mart or waiting tables? No thank you.”

Ash shook his head. “You’re young,” he said. “Your chance will come. Be Zen, little grasshopper.”

Sam leaned her head back on the recliner and downed the remaining two-thirds of her beer in one go. “Zen,” she muttered, and Ash cackled. He popped the hard drive into a new laptop.

“Where do you get this shit?” she asked.

“Zen?” Ash asked. “I know things. I am one with myself and the world around me.”

“The burned laptop, genius,” Sam clarified.

“I know things,” Ash repeated. His focus was off of her and on his work, so Sam went to get another beer. She popped it and lingered behind Ash, watching him tinker. Menus and numbers flashed across the screen as he typed furiously. Then suddenly, a face.

“Is this a live stream?” Sam asked, leaning closer.

“Recording,” Ash said shortly. The image wavered, then solidified into a young woman with rumbled dark hair and vibrantly blue eyes. Her lips moved but no sound came out. Ash’s fingers snapped at the keyboard and the image flickered, re-resolved, and clicked together with sound.

“This message is for Bobby Singer,” the woman said. “The payload is on this laptop. You know what to do with it.” There was a crashing sound in the background, and the woman turned her head, then turned back to the screen. “This is our only hope.”

There was a larger crash, and the video ended.

“What the fuck was that?” Sam demanded.

“I gotta go,” Ash said. He stood, snapped the laptop shut, then started frantically looking around the floor. “Help me find my shoes. Get that thing in a backpack.” When Sam just stared at him, he said in a tone she’d never heard before, “I mean it, Sam. I need your help, right now.”

She found a backpack and put the laptop in it. Ash put on his shoes, then tossed some other things in the backpack — some dump phones, a wad of money that he took from a coffee can, and what looked to Sam like fake IDs that were taped to the bottom of the recliner.

“I need your scooter,” he said, and she handed him the keys, along with a jacket.

“What do I tell my parents?” she asked.

“Not a goddamn thing,” he said. “You left me here drinking and playing with equipment. You’d had too many beers and didn’t want to take the scooter back so you walked. Got it?”

Sam nodded. She opened the trailer door and went down the steps, then froze.

On the horizon, she could see fire.

“No,” she said, and started running. Ash grabbed the back of her hoodie and nearly knocked her off her feet.

“Scooter,” he snapped, shoving the backpack at her. “Put that on.” She did, and he started up the scooter. She jumped on behind.

They left the scooter in the bushes a half mile from the house, and Sam’s long legs quickly outdistanced Ash’s as she ran through the fields toward home. The house was engulfed, and now she could see strange vehicles in the drive and at the main road, people with weapons. Ash tackled her to the ground before she could burst into the circle of light created by the flaming building.

“Sami, no,” he said, and she was sobbing into the dirt because she knew what highwaymen did to families and farms.

“No, no,” she said. “We have to go to the Moores, get help, get police out here.”

“Sami, no,” Ash repeated. “These aren’t highwaymen. Look at those vehicles. That’s Special Service, Sami.”

She shook her head. Why would Special Service be burning down her house? What would they want with —

She turned and hit Ash, hard as she could from the awkward angle on the ground, right in the face. He took it, then pounced on top of her, getting his hand over her mouth.

“You can whale on me as much as you like later, but we gotta go,” he said. “They’ll be looking for the trailer, they’ll be looking for us. You wanna live? We gotta go.”

She shook her head. Her face was wet. Why was her face wet? “My mom and dad,” she said behind Ash’s hand, and he shook his head at her. His face was wet too.

“They’re gone, baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry, they’re gone.”

“No,” Sam said, and she shook all over. “No.”

Ash put his head down to hers, covering her face with his hair and his tears. She shook and shook and shook while the night sky turned orange and the last embers of her childhood floated up to the stars.

***

They took the scooter as far as it would take them, then hefted it into a dumpster. They slept briefly, uneasily, in a highway culvert, shoulder to shoulder.

Morning, true to form, came early. Ash ate a power bar from the backpack while she stood with her back to him, surveying the length of the state road.

“It’s not just another uprising,” Ash said.

“I don’t care,” Sam said dully. “I don’t care what it is.” She thought of her birth parents, long dead in the first uprising, not even a faint memory. She thought of Ellen’s first husband, Bill, and their little girl, Joanna, both dead in the water riots that followed the devastating end to the uprising. She thought of a world so brutal that leaving an orphaned infant with a half-crazed, alcoholic homeless man was the best deal on the table.

All of her parents, by birth and circumstances, now dead at the altar of freedom.

“I could do what I want now,” she said. “Join the Service. Go wherever I want.” She turned to Ash. “Except I can’t, right? That’s all over.”

Ash nodded. “Oh yeah. We’re off the reservation now.”

Sam sighed, looked back at the road. Ash stood, pressed a power bar into her hand. “We need to get to Singer,” he said. “Rufus and Ellen weren’t the first people to die for that hard drive.”

Sam shoved the power bar in her hoodie pocket. “Where?” she asked simply.

“Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Ash said. “We’re gonna have to jack some cars. Stay off the highways, anyplace with CCTV. Can’t hitch, they might have our pics out there.”

Sam shook her head. “We’ll get plugged in a stolen car,” she said. “We need help.” She held her hand out. “Give me one of the dump phones.”

Jess sounded wide awake, sounded like salvation. “Don’t let anyone know it’s me,” Sam said as soon as Jess answered.

“Sure,” Jess said brightly. “I can drop my notes off to you before class. Hang on.” The background noise changed, grew quiet. “Sam,” she said, and her voice caught. “Thank God.”

“What do you know?” Sam asked.

“My parents said highwaymen attacked the house. Ash had some part in their gang, led them to the farm. He left with them and they took you. Is that right? Did you get away? Are you all right?”

Sam smiled grimly. “That’s bullshit,” she said. “My parents?”

There was only Jess’ shaky breathing down the line. “I’m so, so sorry, Sam,” she finally said. Sam didn’t answer, and then, “How can I help you?”

“We need a car,” Sam said. “If we can get to Lawrence, can we have yours? And we need your silence.”

“Yes, of course,” Jess said without hesitation. “To both. Sam, it’s on the news. Do you have somewhere to go?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. She closed her eyes. “Thank you.” They were both silent, listening to each other breathe. “I dreamed of you,” Sam said.

“Good dream?” Jess asked.

Sam pressed her hand over her eyes, blocking out remembered fire and despair. “No,” she said, then, “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Jess said softly. “Be here, safe.”

“Tonight,” Sam said.

“Tonight,” Jess said.

“You’re not coming with,” Sam said, and Jess was silent. “I mean it. They’ll be all over us, saying we kidnapped you.”

Jess made a soft, hurt noise. “Okay,” she said, and she might have been crying.

“I love you,” Sam said, clutching the phone so hard her hand was cramping.

“I love you too,” Jess said, and Sam hung up.

Sam turned back to Ash, dry-eyed. “You’re the genius,” she said. “Find us a way to Lawrence by tonight.”

***

They jacked a car after all, then stuck to state roads, dodging civilization as much as possible. They made it to Lawrence well before nightfall, but lingered outside of town for the cover of dark to fall.

Sam had been here once since Jess had left for college, a stolen (literally, in Ellen’s car without permission) weekend in February. She’d left knowing that Jess was further away than Lawrence, someplace Sam could not follow.

She knocked quietly on the door, then tried the knob. It was open. Most of the apartment was dark, but a light burned in the kitchen. On the table were the car keys, and a bag of homemade cookies. Sam added them to the backpack, then hefted it back on.

“She here?” Ash asked, low, twitchy.

“Hang on,” Sam said, and headed back to the bedroom. “Jess?” she called softly.

The bedroom was dark. Sam switched on the bedside light. Her fingers hesitated on the framed picture beside it, her and Jess at age 10, arm in arm.

A drop of something warm and sticky fell on her hand. She frowned, touched it. Looked up.

Jess. Jess, from her dream. Jess, bleeding and pinned impossibly to the ceiling. Jess, her mouth open in agony, unable to move or scream.

Sam screamed for her, was on the bed stretching long limbs to her, when she blossomed in glorious flame.

“NO!” Sam screamed, and her hands were singed. “NO!” and then Ash was on top of her, on the bed, then dragging her away. He was yelling at her, but she couldn’t hear the words. He hit her.

“We have to go!” he screamed, and shoved her toward the living room.

The door was flying open, and a man in SWAT gear was on the other side. “Shit!” Ash screamed, and reversed direction, back into the burning room. “Window!” he yelled. “Go, go, go!”

Sam shook her head. “Jess!” she screamed, and Ash grabbed her by the hair and hauled her to the window. He threw it open and pushed her halfway out. Second floor, but doable.

“Go!” he yelled, and she went.

She landed hard, the wind out of her for a minute, and then got to her feet. She looked up. The window was blazing. She couldn’t see Ash.

She heard gunfire.

Sam ran.