It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Epilogue

Epilogue

KAREN SHOOK herself awake – literally. One cannot carry enough blankets in a wet winter to make up for near-starvation. The fat from the pig had been a help – though she had decided not to tell the others that wild pigs accumulate more radionuclides than other animals.  We all have worries enough as it is.
      The clouds had broken for now, though. She could see that, beyond the edge of the tarp and the cedar branches. Leaving Allyn nesting in his cradleboard – a design that Errol had come up with that had but one shoulder strap – Karen slung her revolver and knife at her hip and crawled out to pee. At least now there were no mosquitoes.
      Griff, wrapped in an animal hide she hadn't seen before, stood up across the clearing and waggled the all-clear with his bow. His frosted breath hung in the air.
      Her morning business finished, Karen sought him out beneath his own cedar tree.
      She fondled the light gray fur. "What's that you're wearing?"
      "I dunno – dogskin? I found it lying on a log. It's really warm."
      "It's  wolfskin. Where was it?" Alarm prickled at her neck and shoulder.
      "Next clearing over – the way we're going."
      "Show me. And draw your bow." Karen unholstered the Sentinel.
      Griff, wondering what he could have done wrong, led the way.
      The light in the next clearing was bright enough to hurt Karen's eyes. Snow had fallen in the night on the mountains to their east, and these glowed with unaccustomed sunrise. Griff, arrow at the ready, surveyed the clearing as they both listened for any non-forest sounds, then gingerly stepped forward and stood upright, scanning ahead. He quickly withdrew and settled beside Karen, who had thumbed her hammer.
      "There's  meat  on the log now – right where I found the coat."
      "Shhh."
      For several minutes more, they listened. Nothing but a winter wren disturbed the morning.
      Karen whispered. "What ... what kind of meat?"
      "Deer. – hind leg!"
      An offering of some kind? "Go back absolutely quietly and get everyone up and armed. Defensive perimeter. Hop!" Her own whisper sounded like thunder in Karen's ears. Or was it her heart beating?
      Griff slipped quietly away. Water dripped from bracken down the back of Karen's neck. She should, of course, have gone with the boy. But the thought of venison! She hadn't tasted venison in too many days.
      Could Wilson have done this? They were the next valley over, so far as she knew. Couldn't be Josep's group, traveling along the Great River on the other side of Wilson. No, any Creeker would have whistled. This was a stranger – or perhaps an army, such as from Port Land, of whom the Roundhousers had warned. So many ways this could be a trap or a provocation.
      "Hey."
      The voice – a man's – came from the mountain alder copse across the clearing! Whoever it was had not moved since she and Griff had come – had perhaps watched them – might have her in his sights. Damn it! She was at a disadvantage in all the ways she could think of.
      "S'okay," said the voice, in a conversational tone. "I know ya got yer hammer back, I hear pretty good. How's 'bout ya get behind better cover, if it suits ya, and when ya're ready, I'll stand up empty-handed?"
      "Let me see hands first, then just stand up already." She eased her indexed finger inside the trigger guard.
      A tall man, bald, bearded, and tattooed, wearing a horsehide cloak, arose perhaps twenty meters away, among the leafless alders. He looked familiar – where could Karen have seen this man before? 
He was none of that sorry lot that had trooped south from Starvation Creek half a moon ago.
      "Five steps forward, then stop," Karen barked. If there were weapons at his feet, this would move him precious seconds away from them.
      The man complied, evidently quite relaxed. Karen held her front sight squarely in the groove of her rear sight, centered on the man's chest. Her finger rested lightly on the trigger. She drew a long, deep breath and exhaled, to slow the effect of her hammering heart on the sights. "Alone?"
      "Well, yeah, but don't take  my  word for it."
      "Wouldn't. What do you want here?" With an effort, she scanned all around for sounds and movement.  Peripheral vision,  her father had said,  is almost everything. See without looking.
      Someone was moving through brush, but she could tell who it was. Armon came heavily up to the right of her, bow at the ready. Errol, more quietly, appeared to her left.
      The man smiled and nodded." A little parley. Got some thoughts about yer line of travel."
      "Are you armed?" Karen asked.
      "Now you ask me. Well, back a ways where I can't get to 'em quick an' you can't find 'em, there's a pistol, a carbine, a bow, a quiver with nine arrows, and a knife. I do hope you'll regard the haunch as a gift, but will not seek to relieve me of my toys."
      "What's your parley?"
      "Well, yer three lil' tribes now, all goin' north. A while back I had a good talk with a dyin' kid from Port Land. He indicated things was hell here, hell there, and extra-special-hell north of there. If yer goin' Pilgrim, I c'n tell ya, can't get to Canuck Land from here."
      "What's 'extra hell' about north of Port Land?" asked Karen.
      "There was stuff back in th' day, place called Hanford."
      "Heard of it."
      "Cooked off. Bad. Ruint ever'thin from th' sea half way to Chicago. And if you think Hanford was bad –"
      "Can this guy be on th' level?" whispered Armon.
      Still not taking her eyes off her sights, Karen replied, "Yes. I remember the maps."
      ".– Chicago actually glows. Kinda like the top of Starvation Ridge."
      "What do you know about Ridge?"
      "Well, I'll tell ya. I'm th' one lit it off, with yer boy Mr. Avery Murchison, may he rest in 'ternal peace."
      "You were there?"
      "Yes'm, had business with Old Magee, may he rest in 'ternal hell."
      "How did he die?"
      "Magee? Three-fifty-seven to the face, actually, ma'am."
      "That's good to know."
      "Yes, ma'am, that it is."
      "And ... how did Avery die?"
      "Ma'am, Magee messed him up and he chose to go down with th' ship, as it were."
      "Damn it!" Karen had known this in her stomach, but to hear it was another thing, she realized. During their stay at Roundhouse, she'd told of the demise of the last Elders; everyone had been struck with this same despair.
      "Sorry, ma'am."
      "Wait! I know you!"
      The stranger seemed hesitant. "Where would we have met? You aren't th' ... I mean, don't look familiar to me."
      "You're the man who ran away – after your army was defeated." She twitched her left side toward him for emphasis. "I believe you did this."
      "Oh, were you in that fight? You're  good. Well, yeah, they was all walkin' dead by then. I saw a way to live, so I had a go. But, uhh, yeah, it bothers me. Kinda why I'm here, maybe."
      "I don't see the connection."
      "Well, that's kinda my business. As I useta say, 'only th' livin' deserve ta live.' So, anyways, man said, put th' ray gun on home plate an' go; I offered t'bring him out, but he was set on stayin'. Said if I had anythin' ta say, say it to a one-armed girl."
       To me?  "You ... why would Avery even talk to you? Did he know who you are?"
      The big man's rough features softened even more. "Well, enough to guess, but he c'd see I meant to, ahh, change my ways some."
      "We'll ... we'll take that into consideration. So, you've ..."
      The man's body relaxed.
      "Stand up straight! I might just shoot you yet."
      "Why, yes, ma'am."
      "Well ... so, you've, you've warned us off going Pilgrim; do you ... do you have a recommendation?"
      "Me, I'd go East. Cross over, head south. Ask around for th' Prinevilles. I think yer man there, th' big one, has got folks there."
      "They'd be  alive, then?" asked Armon, incredulous.
      "Yeah, th' Prinevilles'r not big on eatin' captives any more, they're gettin' better at runnin' cows. Th' chief man, Mr. Lacey, he's a man of his word, so they are in service, an' good service as such things go." The man spread his hands. "Arms gettin' tired; answer y'other question holdin' onto a coupla trees?"
         Karen's arm was getting tired, too. The sights were wobbling again.  "What other question? Umm, yes, you may."
      The long hands grasped two small alders. "Thanks. 'What's in it fer you?' Nothin's in it fer me fer th' time bein'. Y'all've had it rough, I've had it rough. Thought maybe I'd head East too."
      "Not with us."
      "Didn't ask, did I? So, I'd like go away from here fer now. I'll move real slow. Rest of that doe is hangin' by th' creek down behind me."
      "We'll leave and count to one hundred. Then we'll come back and clear the area. Take that leg. We'll leave the wolfskin here, too,  when we pack up."
      "No, seriously, you  need  th' meat; skin too. Gonna snow. Hard. Oh! Uh, inside th' mountain, didya meet a suit?"
      "What?"
      "Sort of suit of old Army 'future warrior' armor, lotta Kevlar, carbon whatsit, big old shotgun."
      "The ... woman? Yes."
      "She get away?"
      "She's dead."
      "That  so  makes my day. I thank you from th' bottom of my heart."
      Karen did not know what to make of this. "We ... we're going now."
      "'K. I'll be gone when ya get back. Try th' meat on yer puppy, then you'll know it's okay." A disconcerting smile spread over his features.
      Karen retreated, lowering the twenty-two's hammer with her thumb. Her arm ached. Armon and Errol covered her, backing into the frost-burned bracken slowly.
    Griff met Karen at the edge of camp, bow drawn, watching the woods. "So, I'm sorry about the skin and all. Wasn't thinking."
      Karen holstered the revolver.. What was that sound?  

    One of Griff's sisters sat under the tarp, holding little Allyn. Was he  crying? A good sign was just what Karen needed just now. If only Billee, Juanita, and Marleena could share in this! But they were with Wilson and Josep's groups, of course. Soon enough, if he proved to be up to it, she'd have to train the child to be silent on command, perhaps. And to be many other things: stealthy, resilient, resourceful, aware. She started in the direction of the cry.
      "So, can I keep it?" Griff spoke behind her.
      She turned. "Yes. Yes, I think that will be fine. Errol and Armon will bring in the meat. In future, you find anything like that – and ... and I think you will – just report it right away, all right?"
      "Right!"
      The sky began to darken. They looked up.
      One snowflake, then another, and then another, drifted down from the featureless clouds and settled, infinitesimal diamonds, on the long green hands of the cedar.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

54

"Hold still, Bolo, while I figure this out."
      "I am holding still, Mr. Josep, sir."
      Josep winced. Of course he was; Bolo had more resistance to pain than anyone from Roundhouse. Or, not that exactly. Maybe it was that Bolo's body felt as much pain as did any other, but somehow the big man didn't  understand  pain. This somehow had affected everyone around him; through the years, Bolo's family (which was everyone who knew him) had gone to great lengths to spare him injury or sickness, as if he had always remained a child. 
      And now here he was with a crossbow bolt in his temple, and he was sitting up and talking and apparently not the worse for it. Across Bolo's lap from Josep squatted Mrs. Wilson. In the dim firelight, Josep could just make out that she was examining Bolo. Krall, the big dog, wrapped herself round Billee's feet and rested her head on Bolo's thigh, sighing.
      Billee frowned. "I'm not really  good  at this. We need Dr. Tom, or Mrs. Chaney, or at least Karen or Juanita." 
      "Me neither," assented Josep. "Bolo, you've been shot in the side of the head and the bolt twisted as it went in; I don't think we can draw it without some idea which way it turned."
      "It's in my ... where I think?" Bolo made a woebegone face.
      Josep's voice fell to a whisper."Yes." 
     "Why am I alive?"
      "We don't know. 'The Lord works in mysterious ways' is as good an answer as I've ever heard."
      Vernie Watkin, carrying a long old-fashioned flintlock, crawled over. "Jeeah," he said, looking at Bolo, then addressed himself to Josep and Billee. 'They want a  parley."
      A momentary rage crossed Billee's face. "After all they've done?"
      Josep wasn't sure how to answer this. Billee had proved an outstanding tactical leader; but since Wilson's disappearance she seemed to be bent on annihilation. He settled for answering with a question. "Should we have more of our people go through what Bolo's going through, or worse?"
     "I'm not too bad," said Bolo. Josep shushed him.
      "I know what you mean," replied Billee to Josep, "but I don't have to like it."
      "What have they got?" asked Josep of Vernie. "Spokesman? White flag?" 
      Vernie looked surprised. "Yes to both. Some did not understand the flag thing at first. He was almost shot."
      "All right, let us go and talk to the man."
      Billee did not like being left out of this, but she could see Josep's expectation that she would stay with Bolo. And Bolo certainly looked like he could use the company. So she kept to her crouch by his side, her knee lodged in Krall's ribs, patting Bolo's hand.
      Josep followed Vernie, stepping over the strange tilted ditches, taking advantage of what cover was available, toward the "front." This consisted of a small circle of armored trucks, two of them in shambles and emitting gouts of smoke, lit from in front by the strange fire on top of Ridge, and from behind by the last gutterings of the burnt-out shell of New Ames, on a slightly higher elevation. Creekers and Roundhousers occupied the nearest hedgerows, sporting twenty-twos, bows, spears, and swords. A faint smell of damp saltpetre, mixed with that of the wounded soil of the fields, hung in the air.
      They came to Tomma, who held the sights of the Hawken steadily on a figure sitting on the running board of one of the trucks. Even in the dim light one could see the man was tall, thin, world-weary, cagey, and authoritative. A cottonwood branch rested across his knees with a rosette of white plastic flagging tied to one end. He appeared to be unarmed.
      "Bring me up to speed?" asked Josep.
      "Nothing new," replied Tomma. "He asked for our leader, and, I guess, right now, right here, you're it." 
      "No sign of bad faith?" Josep peered into the dismal light ahead.
      "None, they've not fired anything since he started waving that stuff, and there's been no sign of anyone manning slits or any movement toward an attack or breakout, that we can see."
      "Good job. I guess there's nothing for it but to see what he wants." Josep laid down his weapons and stood halfway up. "Greetings."
      If the stranger was startled, he gave no sign. The stick stirred slightly on his knees, and he shifted his weight. "Hey. Yew'd be th' man in charge?"
      "Maybe. Some people, if they were to show up, I might defer to. Till then, you have me."
      "Y'be fair; I like that." He pronounced "like" as if it were "lack." Where was he from? "Y'see, I'm thinkin'." He pointed a bony finger at the rumbling mountain, behind Josep. "The shits't brought us here, they  got  to be dead, or that godawful  thing'd be sweepin' y'all up by now. If they's dead, that's all to th'  good, 'cuz it were more their war than enny of us over here. Boys is  tired  'a dyin' 'an I speck y'all feelin' 'bout th' same. Say?"
      "I won't pretend it hasn't been rough. We have some people that have lost husbands and wives. Children, even."
      "Yeah, figgered. I  hate  that; purely I do. 'Cuz if one of 'em was to knife me in th' back on my way outta here, I'd say I had it  comin'."
      A faint rustling caused Josep to check behind him. Bolo, apparently completely ambulatory, was standing in the Road, supported on one side by Billee and on the other by none other than Wilson! And was that Armon with them? Josep gaped, but Wilson rolled his forefinger in the air, which Josep took to be a sign to keep the parley going. He returned his attention to the stranger. "What do you propose?" 
      "T'let us walk. We'll leave all our weapons an'y'c'n have these bloody machines, too."
      "Surety?"
      "Aw, fella, if ya kep'  me, what'd stop these kids come back an' fight ya if they had a mind?  I  ain't nothin' t'them. None of us has much t' watch out for but our own skins. And, y'know – " he chuckled – "I 'speck yer in like case; y'farms look like fried  shit t'me."
      "You may have a point. Where do you think to go?"
      "Back down th' road we made; try t'build a proper tribe down to th' Umpqua."
      Wilson stepped up. "Hi, my name's Wilson."
     "Oh," said the stranger, "seen  you  afore. Ain't you th' honcho, then?"
      "Yes and no. We're a mixed lot. I happen to know it's a long walk from here to the Umpqua, how do you propose to eat, unarmed?"
      "Well, thanky fer yer concern; we thought we'd take our wounded along, y'know." 
      Josep winced; he could feel the sly smile in that voice even from this distance.
      "If I understand you right, I recommend against what you have thought of," continued Wilson. "You have preserved food in the trucks?"
      "Waal, yeh, MREs. Some. Packaged stuff. It's not  too  bad. Got some smoked venison. No, venison,  really."
      Wilson turned to Josep. "What say we have each of them, in the morning, take something of that, and a water container. We'll put a cache of hunting weapons – four bows a couple of knives, and say eight arrows – by the Bridge for them to pick up on their way out. That work for you?"
      Josep nodded. "That works for me." He turned toward the seated stranger. "You catch all that?"
      "Oh, hail,  yeah. I hear  anything  related to my  skin."
      "We'll be watching."
      "Wouldn't expect no less. So, if nobody's trigger finger is any itchier than  usual  – " the thin man nodded toward Tomma – "None of my boys here will so much as blink, and I'll gather up our toys, real slow like, and y'all c'n watch me pile 'em up right here in th' open? An' I surely would hate to die of  mistakin'  y'all on this deal."
      Josep looked at Wilson, who nodded. "We're good here," replied the Roundhouse leader. "Our word as Christians, Jeeans, and human beings, which, may it still be true, we are. We will not break 'this deal,' though you must understand we cannot stand down while you proceed."
      "That was kinda  complicated, but I gotcha; gonna get up real slow now and commence t'gatherin'."
      Wilson waved Emilio's little twenty-two vaguely toward the man, with the barrel pointed to the darkened sky. "Please do."
      An explosion shook the ground beneath their feet. All eyes turned to the mountain, from which a ball of fire emerged. The flame lit the valley and the hills all around as it rose, then vanished into the lowering clouds.

:::

The band of refugees were washing themselves desperately in the cold waters of the Creek, by the light of the last flames of Hall, when the explosion startled them.
      "What was that?" asked one of the Roundhouse children. It was the one with the puppy, standing knee deep. 
      Karen held her hand protectively over little Allyn's hiding place in the sack at her side.  Too damp out here for a baby.  She turned back to look at the girl, who, like herself, was still half-covered with Ridge's offal.    
      "No idea. Ridge is ... gone, I should think."
      "Okay," the girl said, holding the squirming puppy at arm's length. "Never liked that place anyway. How come it's so quiet out here?"
      "I don't know that either. Your brother will be back soon, and maybe we'll have some better information. Keep washing that poor dog, and do your hair too. And do it twice. At this rate we'll never smell human again." 

:::

Karen unhooked the baby from her nipple and tossed him gently onto her right shoulder, holding him in place with the palm of her hand and squeezing. A tiny burp issued forth. Mothering was for two-handed women, she'd long ago decided; she got more exercise moving Allyn from bag to breast to shoulder and back to the bag, after finding moss to line it with, than almost anything else she did these days. Except fighting that monster.
      Marleena, with a gurgling Arda in her arms, sat down beside Karen. "How is he doing?"
      "Hungry as ever, but never a peep out of him."
      In the late-night quarter-moonlight, with thickening clouds, Marleena's expression could not be fully read, but Karen could see that there was a question and a worry in the set of her shoulders. "That's never really changed; he seems happy and he has grown some but there's something not right. He could be deaf and mute, for all I know."
      "Does he blink at loud noises? There were a lot of them yesterday."
      "Oh! Yes, so maybe that's not it."
      "It 's not like you to go fuzzy on a problem."
      "Where he's concerned, I do. I must be shielding myself in some way."
      "Well give the two of you time. He was born so early; there must be a lot of catching up for him to do."
      "How is Juanita?"
      They both looked away toward the trees. Movement, in the moonshadow of one, had gone on for some time.
      Marleena's silhouetted face swiveled back to Karen. "She's been digging since we found him. She won't accept help."
      "He asked her to do it herself. I think his idea was that it would help her, having a hard task to do, so as not to go crazy with the grief."
      "It's not your way, here on the Creek, burial – is it?"
      "No, but in such times – so many bodies. And I don't think we'll be needing the composting any more."
      Guchi appeared from behind them carrying the heavy shotgun, with Errol, who was hobbling with a spear for an improvised crutch. "May we report?" asked Guchi.
      "Sit, guys," replied Karen, "But keep it low." She gestured with her head toward Juanita.
      "Oh – yeah." Errrol sat heavily on a log. Guchi set down the weapon and slowly settled himself down beside his friend, looking ill at ease.
      For a few moments no one spoke. Karen broke the spell by touching Guchi's knee with hers.
      "Oh," said Guchi again. "Well, I went up and had a look. Enough fire came out of Ridge that the trucks and the "tank" thing are just trashed. Nobody around. Up top, it was all flying rocks and smoke or steam, or both, and I couldn't get any closer, and then all of a sudden it stopped."
      "Stopped?"
      "Whatever was causing all the rocks burning, it was just over. I tried to get a look in the hole, but ... I started feeling not so good. So I came down."
      "What's 'not so good?'"
      "Uhh ... nausea? Ringing in my ears? Mouth tastes like metal. Um. Fingertips feel funny."
      "Can you stand up suddenly?"
      "Funny you should ask, I hid behind some stuff on the way down, checking out the terrain for unfriendlies, and when I got up I fainted."
      "I'm sorry; I realize now I shouldn't have let you go."
      "Well, I'm glad I did. I think I can say with confidence we're not leaving anybody behind that we could have helped."
      "I think you're right, Guchi. Won't you go lie down and rest a bit? There's some water and a few blankets we've got here."
      "I'll do that." Yamaguchi pointed to the supergun. "Too heavy – give it away." He stood up again, and wobbled. He caught himself by grasping Errol's spear, then shook his head and walked in the direction of the abandoned trucks.
      Errol watched him go, then turned his attention to Karen. "What's up?"
      "I think the containment of the thorium battery's been breached. The fuel's been aerosolized and the top of Ridge is dangerously radioactive now."
      Marleena held Arda closer. "What about here?"
      "There hasn't been much wind, but I think most of the plume – so far – will have gone down toward the Calapooia. That will change by mid-morning. And it's going to rain, which can't be good."
      "Can we get away?"
      "We'll have to. The Creek is finished." Karen looked at Errol. "How are you holding up?"
      "No new bleeding, thanks. We've been inventorying the trucks and the bulldozer. They're all damaged enough not to be useful for transport, not if we have to leave soon. I have the young people making Molotovs with some of the fuel, in case we meet the former owners."
      "I don't know, it's awfully quiet up the Road."
      "I was thinking the same. Meanwhile, there will be enough of that vacuum-packed food for everyone to have a stout breakfast."
      Young Griff came running from the trucks. "Someone's coming, and there's no password. What do we do?"
      "Say hello. If it's someone you know, call them over to your perimeter and do a visual by torchlight, but not out in the open. If it isn't, tell them to stay put, and keep listening for activity. If they don't stay put, shoot them and then keep listening for activity."
      "Gotcha!" He ran off, clearly delighted to be a warrior with a commission.
      Karen returned her attention to Errol. "Were there any weapons at the trucks? Any more people around?"
      "There was a substantial fight here. We've found four of our  dead, besides Mr. Molinero alive – at first – and two of theirs. In the woods there was one of them, he'd been trying to get away and broke his leg in one of these weird ditches – someone caught up with him and finished the job, I think. No, they took all their stuff except a Bowie knife someone dropped and a few crossbow bolts."
      Griff returned, bringing Raoul and Ceel, who were laden with bows, quivers, and belt knives. They dumped their loads, winded, and smiled at Karen and Errol in the growing light.
      "Is that my axe on your belt?" Errol asked Raoul.
      "Yes; want it back?"
      "No, looks good on you. What brings you here?"
      "We're heading to Bridge to make a cache." Raoul reached for an unattended water bottle.
      "Whatever for?" asked Karen.
      "It's over. The bandits have surrendered. They're pretty sure the folks that brought them here are all dead, and they want to go home, which they say is as bad as here, but at least it's not here. Josep and Wilson gave them safe-conduct –"
      "Wilson is  alive?" Karen's heart leaped for Billee's sake, as well as for what remained of the Creek.
      "Josep is  alive?" shouted Marleena at the same time, standing up and almost spilling a wide-eyed Arda.
      "Yes – Armon, too – to go to Bridge and pick up this stuff for hunting purposes. Everything else, they've turned in and they are being escorted this way."
      Errol made an impatient gesture. "Right through us?"
      "We didn't know you were here. How did you get out, anyway?"
      "Never mind," said Karen. "We'll have to get off the Road right away and form a new perimeter, just in case. But you two, I think, should hand over your jobs to Griff – and one of his friends – and stay with us."
      "Why?"
      "Raoul, your mom is going to need you in a little bit."
      The smile faded. "What? No, wait, I think I know. Wilson acted kinda funny." Raoul, who had arrived full of vitality, seemed to shrink visibly.
      Ceel looked at Karen, then at Raoul, then at Karen again. "Me, too?" she asked, in a small voice.
      Karen felt upon herself the great weight of the terrible messenger. "Errol, everybody away from the trucks, perimeter in the woods. We'll join you. Griff, this stuff to Bridge, hop! Raoul, I'm deeply sorry, your mom's over there near the Creek, see that tree? Go to her. 
    "Ceel ... come with me, please."

:::

Jahn ambled along his short column, ostensibly checking the stretcher cases, but really looking for signs of rebellionion. One wrong move on this march, he knew, and they would all die quickly. In the lead at some distance, well out of reach on either hand, as well as bringing up the distant rear, angry and dangerous men and women watched and walked, rifles, shotguns and bows at the ready. Nerves were stretched taut in both parties. Fire in the mountain had reached some kind of ammunition, and the cooking-off brought a similitude of killing to all ears.
      "Sir?" a sullen youth whispered as he passed.
      "Don't y'even think it."
      "We could rush 'em, you'd give us a sign."
      "You in insub-ordy-nation right now, boy; want 'em ta see me kill ya bare-handed?"
      "Nossir."
      "Good, I'll overlook this f'now an' we'll discuss th' quality of yer trainin' if we ever get t'Roseburg. Look me up an' ask f'help wi'y' prroblem, then, hey?"
      "Yessir."
      Jahn finished his tour of the column and worked his way back to the head of the line. He could see, in the near distance, the old D-8 sitting in the middle of a blackened patch of earth. Behind it, a stricken MRAP still emitted smoke.
      "Spread out a little bit, please," ordered the man he'd overheard called Joseph, or some such. "Pass the machines on the left, hands on top of your heads, all eyes front."
      Jahn could see, as they neared, that all bodies had been cleared away somewhere, and the vehicles thoroughly canvassed. Foil wrappers had been gathered up and rolled into a ball that someone had not yet carried off. As he suspected, there were more fighters than just the ones that had followed his little army up the valley.
      A half-strangled cry, off to the left, drew everyone's attention. Jahn looked left, though careful not to turn his head by much. A small, black-haired woman, brandishing an axe, was running toward them as fast as her short legs could carry her. A revenge play, then; Jahn was familiar with such. So this was how it would all end; he'd have to try to disarm her to protect those under his command and care, then the Joseph guy or the Wilson fellow would have to kill him. In a few weeks the lady'd be over it; but he, Jahn, after his long travels in hope of a home, would be no more. He braced himself.
      Wilson, however, stepped between the woman and the hesitating column and raised his rifle, aiming it at her. Jahn was filled with admiration. Also, a young man, whom he'd seen in the fighting, was now close on the woman's heels and tackling her. They went down in a heap, and Wilson lowered his weapon and went to them.
      Jahn, sure that the immediate crisis was in hand, had better prevent another. "Eyes t'th'front!" he shouted at the wobbling line. "For'rard harch!" The lads pulled themselves together and walked on, hands still on their heads.
      As they cleared the vehicles, stepping over the detritus of war and the deep cracks all over the road, a new sight presented itself to Jahn's peripheral vision. A one-armed woman and a black child stood side by side, weapons in hand. There were others in the shadowy wood.
      Ahead, not far from the bridge that had led them here, a flock of geese swung by, yelping.
       Yeah, Jahn thought.  Ol' Mr. Magee, y'bit off way more'n y'c'd chew. If we-all don't starve this winter, I'm gonna run things hella diff'rent down t'th' Umpqua!


:::


Quiet reigned along Starvation Creek.
      All day, smoke rose, as it had not in a long time, from the chimney at Tomlinson's. Billee brought Mr. Perkins a cup of hash tea, but he ignored it, staring at the wall. His son and daughter leaned on him from either side. No one asked them to come to the living room, and the same grace was extended to Juanita, her sons, and her new daughter-in-law, who'd stayed on the stoop together.
      Billee, with Krall dogging her heels, carried the steaming stock pot into the living room – one of the biggest rooms left on the Creek. Outside, a cold rain fell, rattling in the downspouts and off the porch roof. Chairs had been brought from throughout the building, along with assorted buckets turned over for seats. Ladling out cups of the mildly soporific tea, she picked up the thread of the conversation.
      "...the kale did better than expected; but we need it all now and there's no more seed. Too late to plant anyway," Tomma was saying.
      Karen, sitting in the deep chair that had belonged to old Mrs. Tomlinson, played with Allyn's fingers as he he lay in her lap. She looked up. "Won't matter. None of us can stay."
      All eyes turned to her.
      "Errol and Deela are techies and can confirm that Dr. Mary explained about this – and, and I used to read about it. Ridge, as we all know, was powered by a kind of small nuke. Most of what's been splashed is thorium-232. It emits alpha particles and turns into radium, and eventually stabilizes lead. Also there is some gamma."
      Vernie twirled the long Kentucky rifle by the edge of its brass buttplate on the floor before him. "So, what's that mean?"
      "You see how it is with Guchi; since he looked in the hole he's been throwing up, off and on, all day. He'll get better, but we won't know for how long. Already most of us don't live as long as in the old days. Dust, some of it too small to even see, is going to be coming down on our houses, the land, the Creek, and for many miles around, maybe for years. It will percolate into the soil, and get into the crops, the animals, the roots of trees: it will taint the very firewood. As we breathe, drink, and eat, it will become part of our teeth, our bones, and our flesh, and it will make the tiniest bits of our flesh grow awry."
      "You say it turns into lead." Wilson, sitting on a tall, upended bucket, put his feet out before him and put his hands behind his head. The Doctor's AA-12 lay at his feet. "How long does that take?"
      "Half the thorium will turn into lead in fourteen billion years."

    Everyone sat still, shocked.
      Deela, sitting in the hall doorway with half an eye on Bolo, Guchi, and other wounded lying beyond, spoke up quietly. "The sun itself will go out before that."
      Josep, on the couch, tightened his arm around Marleena's shoulder. "How long have we before we must go?"
      "There's a lot of this kind of thing in the air and water and soil – and us – already, from the Great Undoing." Karen tipped Allyn up into a half-sitting position, cupping his back with her hand. "It's part of why we don't live so long as the Elders did. We all know it's been hard to bring babies to term, and raise children to adulthood. And cancer hunts us all, all the time. It will take many generations to adapt, even if this hadn't happened here. And then there's other stuff – it's too hot to our south, and I think that's coming our way. More summers like the one we just had, and worse storms. But now that Ridge has been cut open to its heart, yesterday would not be too soon for us to all leave."
      "If anyone is pregnant, especially, then?" said Raoul from the front door. He looked into Nine-Ah's face as she came and stood beside him.
      "And children, of which there are so few; but this is bad for all of us. Yes, the pregnancies most of all."
      Billee missed the cup she was pouring by several inches as she stared; Krall jumped back. "Well, then, what are we waiting for?" Her voice cracked.
      Wilson, across the room from her, raised his eyebrows. "Uhh ... Bee?"
      "Of course, silly!" She put down the  ladle and reflexively covered her belly with her hands. "If this place is extra dangerous to babies, we gotta roll!"
      Several voices were raised at once. "Where?" asked Tomma over the din. "Where's going to be safer?"
      "We can head for Roundhouse for now," replied Josep. "Far enough? And there's no food there, any more than here."
      "We will need to go hundreds of kilometers at least," said Karen. "And we'll need to separate into smaller groups, so that we can more easily feed everyone on such game and forage as can be expected."
      "Yes," agreed Wilson, straightening up and rubbing his chin. "If any one group fails, there are still the others. But if we are all together, failure will be final for everyone."
      "Let's all go together to Roundhouse in the morning, then," offered Josep. "It will take about two days, maybe three with our wounded. You can be our guests there; hopefully no one else has found it yet."
      Scooping the half-sleeping Allyn to her shoulder, Karen stood up. "Be thinking of what to put in ponchos and blanket rolls. Some will be able to drag a travois – if anyone doesn't know what that is, we'll show you. We will bundle the kale and carry it on those till it runs out. . Winter is coming and with no certainty of food, it will be hard. Take what you will use, not what you'd like to have. Young Griff here knows what we brought from Ridge and can advise – right?"
      The boy grinned. "Right." 
      Karen looked round the room. "We can never return. But if we're careful how we travel, hopefully we can rendezvous. Perhaps – there will be a Creek again." 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

53

Magee was not pleased to find a steel door, streaked with rust, locked against him. But this was easily remedied. Popping the magazine off his AA-12, he racked the slug out of its chamber and hand-loaded an explosive round from his tool belt. Standing back, he fired point-blank at the doorknob assembly, squinting against the bright flash of the sharp little explosion.  
    Immediately a shotgun fired as the door swung open --  quite close by and and very loud – but instead of feeling a hit on his suit or helm, Magee watched his magazine skip away from him. A smart warrior! This was going to be fun.
      There would be another shot coming – but, no, whomever it was held their fire. Magee could not risk a peek; he turned away as he stood up, and and reached into his pouch for a spare shell. Buckshot; just what was wanted. This he popped into his chamber and threw his shotgun over his shoulder to fire behind him into the room. Strange sounds – something rolling?  –  came to him from the general direction of his assailant.
      A woman's voice – an old woman's voice – pierced the air. "Watch out, Avery, sunnabitch is armored! Cap-a-pie!"
      Two of them at least! And experienced, clearly. Change of plan. Magee scrabbled in the other pouch at his belt for his one flash-bang, hoping it would not prove to be a dud. This would require two hands. He set his shotgun against the wall, and was not surprised to see it immediately shot and knocked to the floor, undoubtedly damaged. He pulled the fuse ring on the bomb, counted to three, and tossed it over his shoulder into the room. A satisfying commotion ensued, followed by a disappointingly dull thump.
      Someone had jumped on the bomb and suppressed the blast.
      Magee swung round and bounded into the room.  A bit old for this sort of thing, but when ya gotta, ya gotta.  To his consternation he found himself facing two wheelchairs by a table, one empty. In the other sat a large round-shouldered hag, completely focused on re-loading a sawed-off twelve-gauge. In three steps he crossed the room and disarmed her, snapped the gun shut, and was in command of the situation.
      On the floor lay a man, already moaning and stirring. Although he had stumps for legs, he looked strong and still dangerous. Even as he'd fallen across the hissing flash-bang, the leader – he had to be the leader – had had the presence of mind to draw a derringer with one hand and a throwing knife with the other. Best neutralize him immediately.
      But the old lady apparently didn't know when she was licked; she picked up a heavy old telephone handset and threw it at the shotgun, then some kind of electronic thing in a box, and then, from somewhere, produced, of all things, a short sword, and stood up, all the while uttering colorful curses.  Okay, be that way. Magee changed his aim and fired into her. The hag sat down heavily, rolled backward a few centimeters and subsided at last, but not without offering Magee a strange and quizzical smile.
       What was that smile about?
      Instinctively, hackles raised, Magee turned toward the door.
      The last person he'd expected to see was standing there, less than two meters away, aiming a large chromed pistol right at the eye-slit in Magee's helm.
      Magee lifted the sawed-off, ready to trip the trigger again just as soon as he could get its aim onto any part of his target, but he was painfully aware that for the second time in his life, someone had the drop on him.

:::

The Doctor, whose hearing was especially acute, followed the sounds of small-arms combat near and far. Some of this was easily interpreted; her minions were efficiently clearing rooms for her. Other sounds made less sense, and were beginning to concern her. There was action three or more floors above her, which she judged involved Magee; then closer, as though someone had engaged her rear guard at the entrance – that staccato racket was surely the AK, but what was the other? Neither shotgun nor twenty-two. One more floor to clear, and then see for herself what Magee had got himself into. That would be slow, but one's rear must be secure.
      She climbed the stairs behind her young men and followed them onto the landing.  
      Imagine! A nuclear battery. She'd verified not only its existence, but its status. From the LEDs and gauges, she'd seen that it would last, at the current rate, a good twenty years. Exactly what The Doctor ordered. But this rat's nest must be cleared, the insurrection of the peasants put down, once and for all, before she could plan her future.
      One last level. The young men swung into a room, covering each other. Clear. Another. Clear. Another.        
      Here they encountered difficulties. Someone was shooting at them! One returned fire with his crossbow and lurched back into the corridor, apparently hit. The other tossed a flash-bang into the room, then, after the explosion, cleared the room himself. The Doctor inspected her damaged soldier.
      "Where did they get you?"
      "Uhh ... shoulder, ma'am. Not too bad."
      "You can still fight?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Good." 
    The other returned. She turned to him. "What did you find?"
      "Old lady and an old man. Really old. He was already half dead. She was shooting at us; then after the bomb we got her."
      "You made sure of them?"
      "Yes, ma'am, cleared. Here's the weapon. One round left."
      The Doctor inspected the tiny green pistol. "Cute. I've heard of these but never seen one. Keep it. Let's get the next room. Load your partner's crossbow for him; he has a bad arm."
      The youths worked the next doorway and then the next.
      Here they found a mystery; several old people who had, apparently, committed mass suicide. The oldest corpse, a small wizened woman with white hair in a bun, held, of all things, a  Glock tightly gripped in both hands. One of the young men pried it loose and checked the magazine and the chamber – both empty. "Ma'am, could this be Wolf's sidearm?"
      "Why yes, I believe it could. He came back to Roseburg without it. Hang onto that, too. I believe I have some Parabellum back at the truck."
      Things had quieted down upstairs; presumably Magee had secured his objective and was exploring. She would have to wrap things up here and check on him.
      The next room presented a difficulty; raw sewage had been spilled, in quantity, into the hallway, and would have to be negotiated to proceed farther. The stench was indescribable, and the interns showed a disinclination to walk through the stuff to clear the room.
      "Now, boys, let's not be fastidious."
      "No, ma'am, we're on it."
      They stepped into the slick brown stream. Just as they did so, The Doctor's sensitive ears picked up the smallest of sounds behind her – as of someone walking on the balls of bare feet, almost tiptoe. She brought up the AA-12 and swung round to bring it to bear. As she did so, two loud pops, as from a small-bore pistol, resounded in the corridor. From the corner of her eye, The Doctor saw only a heel as whomever it was disappeared into the death-room they had just cleared. She swung back to check on her interns, only to find them both sagging onto the mired floor of the corridor. One was cursing liberally. Both had clearly been shot, on either side of and past her, below their body armor, and neither looked as if he had any fight left in him.
      The Doctor was, quite suddenly, effectively alone. Swinging back to the door, she strode over and slipped in as quickly as her armored suit would permit, covering all the corners with the AA-12. Surely whomever had attacked was not one of these dead old ladies. Was there a closet? There was a door! She realized she'd heard it click shut. Neither of those dolts lying out there in the hallway had mentioned a door. Oh, well. If you want something done right ... she saw that there was no lock in the doorknob, nor a keypad on the wall nearby. Trying the knob, she found that it turned. She opened the door a crack, and threw in her one remaining flash-bang.
      After the burst, she entered, shotgun at the ready, but found only some kind of tiny bunkroom with empty steel bunks. There was yet another door at the other end. She advanced and cracked that one. This led to a well-lit large room with tables and chairs, with a kitchen at the other end. A large serving window, with a stainless-steel counter, offered good cover there; The Doctor would have to clear that kitchen before exploring farther.
      As she was about to do so, however, two more pops came from an open doorway to her right. The corridor! Moving as fast as the suit would allow, The Doctor reached the doorway, only to find that her men were lying face down in the muck. Both had been double-tapped! And brown footprints led back once again to the doorway behind which the old women had died. She was being led a merry chase.
       This will not do.  Thoroughly concerned now, The Doctor retraced her steps to the bunkroom, with the shotgun at ready, and approached the doorway to the death chamber. Ah, movement at last within her field of fire! She held down the trigger. The AA-12, on full automatic, roared as it tore apart the person who lurched into the bunkroom.
      But something did not seem right. Leaning over for a better view through her eye-slit, The Doctor glimpsed her victim. It was the already-dead old lady, the one who'd held the Glock! Quickly The Doctor began to re-assume her defensive posture; but as she did so, something flashed at the edge of her vision.

:::

Karen had expected the dagger, plunged deep within the slit in her strange opponent's helmet, to end the fight,   yet the hands that gripped the big shotgun still moved with deadly purpose. She gripped the barrel, gasping as it burned her one hand, and body slammed the jointed Kevlar suit, then put her right foot behind the other's left leg, planted for a split second, then kicked back against the leg. Surprising strength resisted her, but the two toppled together between the rows of bunks. The shotgun fired again and again, right by her ear, almost stunning her. Why had the long knife, still protruding from the helmet's face, not killed? Never mind,  focus.
      Her enemy abandoned the idea of shooting and tried to hit Karen in the side of the head with the gun barrel. Karen rolled right, and, taking a chance on timing, drew her revolver, put it alongside the hilt of the dagger,  and pulled the trigger five times. One shot misfired, but the other four struck home. The heavy armored suit stiffened, and then lay almost still. The arms and legs continued to flex rhythmically, though there seemed to be no longer any purpose in them.
      Karen, still lying prone atop her twitching foe, holstered the emptied revolver, retrieved her bloodied knife, wiped it on the corpse's Kevlar for lack of anything better and sheathed it, then yanked the big shotgun away from the strange figure's gloved hands and tossed it across the room.
      Before anything else was to be done, she must reload.  
      Karen, legs wobbly, arose and reeled across the roomful of bodies to an upended chair, which she righted, hand trembling. She drew the revolver, gripped the still-warm barrel between her knees and pulled at the extractor rod, swinging out the cylinder to shove the shells out. The brass empties, along with one dud, tinkled across the blood-pooled floor. Now shaking all over, she fished nine new rounds, one at a time, from her ammunition pouch and shoved them into the chambers of the tiny cylinder, then snapped it shut with her thumb. She watched the armored suit from the corner of her eye as she did so. The heels of its boots were lightly tapping the floor.
      She holstered the revolver, then, agonizingly, rose from the chair and returned to the armored fighter. The gloved hands were still slowly grasping at the air. Why had not a knife thrust and four shots through the eye-slit finished this man?
    Karen explored the helmet and found and unsnapped its fastenings. Drawing it off the head awkwardly, she   found herself looking into what had once been a woman's face. Or was it?
      The features, as best Karen could tell – she had damaged them considerably – were regular and not unattractive. Ellen Murchison might have resembled this, years ago. Long hair, drawn up into a bun like Mrs. Lazar's. A strong jaw line. The eyes –  
      One eye had been thoroughly –  shattered  was the right word – by the knife, or the twenty-two, or both. There were orbital muscles – that would be the superior rectus – but also fine wires – platinum? Karen recoiled.  
      As she did so, the other eye's pupil contracted and focused on her.
    Karen drew her revolver and fired all nine rounds, double action. None misfired.
      The woman – or  thing, whatever – jerked and lay still.
      Karen returned to the chair, her breath rasping, and reloaded again. Very little ammunition remained to her. She looked across at the shotgun. No, too big to be practical for her. Perhaps she could chuck it down the garderobe; perhaps Errol or Marleena could use it.
      She  listened to her surroundings.
      Everything had gone strangely quiet. Though Karen had concentrated on the problem at hand, she now realized there had been fighting in other parts of the facility. Why hadn't the mines been set off? These people – or  this  – must have found and interfered with the detonating system. Briefly she considered checking upstairs, but the people who had gone down the pipe were her current responsibility. Time to go and find them.
      Karen stood up, crossed the room, and retrieved the massive shotgun.
      On her way out, she discovered again the upper torso of Mrs. Lazar, with whose body, using all of her strength, Karen had decoyed the armored creature.
      The old woman's surprised-looking eyes, which had suffered from cataracts, were open and drying. Karen bent over and drew the eyelids closed. 

:::

Wolf squatted on his haunches and rolled the legless man over. Lots of damage to his middle, as might be expected. The air, still blue with the smoke of combat – and execution – stank of the man's burnt tunic.       
      "You're a mess, fella," said Wolf softly.
      "Tell me what I don't know. Want to put me back in my chair?"
      Wolf looked over the chair. "Should I check it for surprises?"
      "There was a knife right by my hand. Did I reach for it when you came over?"
      "No."
      "Saw you kill that sunnavabitch ... thought we might have a thing or two in common."
      "Maybe." Wolf tested the wheels of the chair with his foot, figured out the brakes and set them, then lifted the man, into his seat. Blood began to soak into the shredded tunic, but the man didn't seem concerned. Shock and bravado served for anesthetic, apparently. Wolf had seen this many times.
      The two regarded each other in silence for a moment. Wolf busied himself reloading the Coonan, one ear cocked for activity from down the stairwell.
      His host spoke again. "Aren't those revolver rounds?"
      "Yeah. It's kind of a unusual gun."
      "All guns are getting unusual now."
      "And seems like every one of 'em came here today."
      "So ... are you one of  them?"
      Wolf glanced at the lifeless suit of armor on the floor. "Was, not too long ago." He looked Mr. Control Room in the eye. "It's kinda over out there, maybe. Th'two sides have fought each other to a standstill for now."
      "Got a name?"
      "Not one that matters."
      "Mine's Avery Murchison."
      "Are you the boss man up here?"
      "No, kind of a unit commander. Was."
      "Who would I talk to about stuff, then?"
      Avery cocked his head over. "Got a feeling I don't really know." A fleeting expression crossed his face. "There's a one-armed girl. If she's  alive, talk to her."
       Wolf took in the damaged room, missing little. "What the eff was this all about, anyway?"
      Avery, beginning to grow pale, gestured vaguely at the armored corpse. "Was that Magee?"
      Wolf raised his eyebrows. "Yeah."
      "He   ... did you dirty?"
      "Yeah, actually. I kinda did him first, but he, ah, upped the ante."
      "Well, he was trying to do the whole world dirty. Or would have, if he'd pulled this off."
      "I appreciate your confidence, but are you telling me too much?"
      Avery shifted in his seat. Pain was beginning to reach him.
      "I don't think so, somehow. Hoping to recruit you for something."
      Wolf tucked the Coonan in his belt and reached for his carbine to sling it over his shoulder. "What would that be?"
      "Help me destroy this facility." 
      Wolf smiled. "Yeah, it's potentially a liability, from some things I been told. There's a big bomb downstairs, but I've got no fuses and ain't inclined to cross any wires. Whatcha thinkin'?"
      "Got another way. Take you a few moments and plenty of time for you to clear out."
      Wolf considered. "You want me to deliver you to anybody? Could maybe do that."
      "Jeeah, no. I've been rearranged, I can tell -- been hurt before. And what use would I be, out  there, after all this is gone?"
     "Got a point, 'm'afraid." Wolf strode over to the control panel and pointed at the dials. "'S'got anythin' to do with these?"
      "Yep. We have to knock out a little pin so's it will hit ground zero, then we're good to go."

:::


The remaining trucks had drawn themselves up in a fighting circle. Two were in flames, dissected by the strange weapon that had been digging all the trenches. Its whirlwind of burning debris had gone up to New Ames, set the house on fire, and swept back through the fight, macerating road, trees, fences and friend and foe alike. The Creekers, trying to set up a perimeter and come to grips with the invaders, spread round to the east, north and west of the trucks, but gave the geyser of rocks and burnt soil a wide berth.
      Then it moved off. 
      Everyone watched its path of destruction as it tore across the Creek and jumped up Ridge, crossing the ridgeline and turning west. The mountain began to shed glowing debris, some of which flew over the crest and rolled, hissing, down among the fire-killed trees.
      A few shots rang out, and battle was rejoined. 
      Night fell.