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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

29

Karen awoke even more slowly than usual, swimming up from a dream of drowning. She was on a pallet on the floor, covered by a thin blanket. It was as well, as the room was not too cold. A number of other people were distributed around the floor, in rows, resting in like manner; their combined heat helped keep the place from freezing. She sensed there must be frost somewhere. Someone in the next room was alternately moaning and keening, and she could hear several high-pitched racking coughs, which were followed by wheezings. Elsa's tired voice drifted from the next room as well; perhaps trying to comfort the moaning one.

    There was a pervasive odor of boiled plantains, opium, dried blood, urine, and feces. The house had become a hospital. Or perhaps a charnel house.

    By her bedside she found Vernie Watkin, half asleep himself, seated on the floor with his back to the wall. The tunic sleeve of his left arm, near her head, had been rolled up, and an ointment, smelling of comfrey, had been daubed on a large area of red skin and blisters from hand to elbow.

    Vernie sensed she had awakened, and opened his eyes to offer her a crooked smile. "So, enough beauty rest for the moment, hmm?"

    "How long have I been asleep?" She tried to sit up, but her entire left side seemed to weigh her down, and a feeling like that in a banged elbow buzzed in her neck and shoulder.

    '"Oh, a few hours." He peered at her, worried. "An infection is setting in. Doc Chaney wants you to know we're –'placing a watch' on it."

    "Uh-h?"

    "You're strong, you've overcome losses before. Doc said I could tell you. We might have to shorten you up a bit." With his burnt hand, he pointed to her left side.

    Karen turned her head. The bandages she remembered from the day before were gone. New ones had been put in their place; blood was seeping into the dressing. One of the unpleasant odors was her own.

    A day of archery practice, at Ames Farm, came into her mind: standing in the deep shade of a spreading maple tree, reaching with her right hand for a cedar-shafted arrow tucked in the ground by her feet; nocking the arrow to the bowstring of the polished yew bow in her left hand; raising the bow as she drew the arrow to her right ear; estimating the windage and elevation, correcting, and letting fly; watching the singing passage of the arrow to the center of the butt at the other end of the sunlit pasture; listening to the 'thunk' that drifted back to her through the heat mirage off the hot grasses. As a murder of crows flapped by, cawing to one another over something – perhaps the arrow – exultation had flooded Karen's whole being. She had almost defined herself entirely by her bow.

    And now – her bow arm might leave her. Forever.

    She swallowed hard, and, to fend off a rising terror, focused with all her might on her personal mantra: do or say nothing which is of no use.

    She had volunteered, after all.

    After a long moment, she looked at Vernie. His eyes were luminous, about to brim over.

    "Vernie, never mind. If that comes, it will be just back to the drawing board for me. How is Tomma? And ... and Allyn?"




Wolf crawled to the edge of the woods and examined the terrain above. A thin sheen of ice-covered rocks, bracken, and other stuff, glinting in the morning light – every leaf and stem, coated with rime, gave off a tiny rainbow. He took no interest, aiming all his senses at the place where the winding cart track dead-ended into the mountainside. With all the signs of recent foot, hoof, and even wheeled traffic the road bore, there could not be a dead-end here, and yet there was. So this must be an extremely well disguised entrance. Counterweighted, perhaps, or cantilevered. And no line showing in the vertical part there. If the locals had any sense that someone might come look at this, wouldn't they have had to abandon the road and put it to sleep? And then approach from different directions, covering their tracks thereafter? Instead they just trooped in and out, carelessly; a self-assured and complacent lot. 

    Such a door had to have been built before the road, during or before the Undoing, and was a sophisticated and enduring artifact which they had adopted but did not fully understand. The old man's story was therefore corroborated; at least so far as Wolf was concerned.

    He knew these people had fast communications, and that search parties were beating the countryside for him in the valley below; there had to be some kind of alert lookout lurking. Perhaps that brat who had given them the slip. Time to go. You get caught, what you know then becomes a liability rather than a trade item.

    Wolf slipped back as silently as possible through the viney maples and hazels until he was under the cover of the fir trees again. A green external-frame backpack, ancient as such a thing could be and not be too fragile, awaited him, with the AK, leaning against a tree. He'd found it at Hisey's and appropriated it, idly wondering what the logotype "REI" stood for, and loaded it with everything he thought might help get him out of this region alive. Here on Starvation Creek and Ridge were unimaginable riches – intact! – but they were guarded by an idealistic and yet tenacious dragon, the community founded by the Murchisons. He'd have to find the means to slay the dragon. This probably meant heading for Roseburg and the man to whom he'd gone to school in prison there: Magee.

    And there was not much to eat between here and Roseburg.

    Wolf grasped the frame with both hands, lifted the pack to his knee, swung round and shrugged his massive arms through the padded brown straps, and buckled the padded hip belt. Its forty pounds seemed hardly a burden. Again he marveled at the things that had been made, back when there had been such a thing as factories. Reaching for the rifle, he walked away among the shadows.




"All right, let's review." Mary wheeled herself round to face her host in his wheelchair. "Yesterday, we went over the control room and learned a few interesting things." She looked at Selk; this was his cue.

    "Yes," he said, straightening himself up importantly. "This facility was electromechanical in nature, voluminous in size, well stocked at one time with provisions in barrels with 'U.S. Government' markings. On the top floor were dormitory rooms, refectories, a clinic, and an entertainment center. Four floors below that, of which this one is the deepest, consist of unfinished rooms, 'prox' one hundred meters long and thirty meters wide, ten high. Huge! It seems intended to have been staffed by up to fifty, and to be grid-independent and self-sustaining for a long period of time. Much of what was here, especially the barrels, was stripped in the early days of the Creek." He looked rather accusingly at Avery Murchison. "There was some kind of mandate, like that of the old 'missile silos'. Of that mandate, nothing much remains in print or by word of mouth, unless of course it's being kept under your parents' hat – or yours."

    "What they know, if anything, which I doubt, they've never told me. But for what it's worth, I think they've simply kept up their mission – which was to protect it until relieved."

    "And relief never came," put in Mary.

    "Exactly."

    "And we've looked things over upstairs, and we know that though there was a control room, there's not much sign now of anything to control – no missiles, anyway. But we'll get back to that. I wish Ro-eena was here; we need her as Recorder for this – umm, historic moment. Selk, proceed; a little less insultingly, though."

    "We know that the entire place is wired for electric lighting, utility and communications, but the power for this was not drawn, as for the homes at Creek, from outside. There is a large diesel generator, vented to the outside, but from the way it is connected to the system I think it is safe to say it was a backup system."
    "Yes; my parents, with a few others, used it till it ran out of juice – which took three years."

    "Beginning twenty years ago."

    "Twenty-one."

    "We can deduce from this, then, that there is another power source, not in use."

    "That's what we're down here to see."

    "Mmh," said Mary. "So, you've had years to look at that control panel up there. Any thoughts?"

    "Not my specialty. Mom and Dad clearly had no idea. My job here has been to run the granaries and emergency storage for Creek, and maintain the control room as one of the lookouts. Not the best one, either. From Ball or Eagle's Nest we could see. From here we've always had to use runners – exposed lookouts, because there's so much dead ground between here and the angle of repose."

    "Come again?" asked Selk.

    "He means the hillsides swell out so that there's not much to see from here." Mary returned her gaze upon Avery's candlelit face. "'Controls A, B, and C are available.' A lot of trouble to go to for three sets of verniers. From the markings on them, I think they were a manual backup to a computer controlled device."

    "An override!" Selk stood on tiptoe and fairly crowed.

    "To override what?" asked Avery, annoyed.

    Selk spun around exultantly and faced Avery, triumphant. "Two of them set coordinates. The third one is a trigger, or like a speed or power control."

    "Trigger?"

    "For what?" asked Mary, amused.

    "Well, I dunno; but I betcha it's a trigger. What would DARPA bury a small army in here for but a weapon?"

    "Who's Darpa?" Avery felt he had been told, once; but the facility had not been discussed with him in this way.

    "'Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.' They did all sorts of stuff. Invented the Internet, made raw medical plasma from chemicals, created robot warriors and nanospies. That's who your folks were working for."

    "They were leading a Marine detail."

    "And everyone walked away – except them."

    "Well, the whole valley up and left – nothing was coming in any more, and nothing anyone knew worked without electricity or fuel. But Mom and Dad were told to stay put, so they did."

    "Not only do I know that story," said Mary, "I was part of it – though I came later. Wasn't there an engineer who stayed with them?"

    "Did. But he was going blind and early dementia setting in, so he taught them everything he was willing to divulge, then retired."

    "Retired! Who retires any more? I thought he died."

    "No, he'd be at Hall with everyone else, I'd think. Not dead last I heard. But pretty close. He just hangs on and on."

    "Would you be willing to send a runner down there right now?" asked Selk. "That could be important."
    "I would." He wheeled round to face Millie, who was holding the candle. "Who's on?"

    "It's still daylight topside. So it'd be Bee."

    "Light us another couple of candles from that one and go dispatch her to Hall, inquiry Wilbur Angle, ET1, USN ret., please. With instructions to get him together with Carey Murchison, if possible."

    "Sir!" She passed two lit tapers to Selk, and charged the dark stairwell behind them, casting ghostly shadows into the enormous room.

    "For a kid who never had a U.S. Marines to sign on to, you're quick with the lingo," Mary remarked.

    "Excuse me, for all I know, I was born into all that was left of the Marines. If the Murchisons are it, I'm it." Avery leaned forward, his jaw set.

    Mary eyed the throwing knives in their sheaths on the arms of his chair. "Y'know, I think you got a point there. Two, even."

    They smiled.

    Avery wheeled round to face the far wall. He rolled away, beckoning with a tilt of his head. Mary rolled after him.

    "About the candles ... " she wondered aloud.

    "Yes, well, this is pretty stale air here, but there's lots of it. They should last awhile." He stopped.

    "All right, here's what you're here for. Mr. Selk, if you'll hold your lights up high – thank you – you can see that there's a circle in the pavement here. The floor is basalt throughout Ridge, but right here there's concrete, eight feet across, with two iron rings set in it. And there's a crane, cable, winch, and hook set in the ceiling."

    "Wow," said Selk, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose with the back of his hand. 

    "And you can see that in the ceiling there is another such circle. They go all the way up four floors, in front of the main door, in fact. We've made a point of not stacking supplies on top of these lids, though we're not even sure why."

    "I see there's nothing stored on this level," Mary observed, raising her candle as well.

    "No. ET Angle said not to."

    "ET?" asked Selk.

    "Electronics Technician; that was his rating."

    Mary peered at the floor and the ceiling and mused on what had just been said. "It's a nuke."

    "I would assume so."

    Selk whirled round to Avery. "Is it ... ummm ... safe here?"

    "Probably not over a long period of time, he told us. But the next level above is supposed to be okay."

    Mary nodded. "Sure, kid. There's no steam pipes or anything, so 
it's not a fission reactor. Selk, what do you know about self-contained reactor units?"

    "Gee, not much; I'm really ham radio and twelve volts."

    "And most of that I taught you." She faced Avery Murchison. "Son, there's a steel bottle down there, I betcha, a little bigger than a pickup truck. Thorium is my guess. So the radiation here 'long as it's bottled up right, is beta particles. Mr. Angle gave you the straight skinny."

    "If you say so; if I've ever read or heard of 'thoryum,' I've forgotten it."

    "Well it's no magic bullet. I'd guess, from the size of the lid and the size of this place, what you have there, if it works, could run a really big house or really small neighborhood for decades. By itself, it's not a weapon. S'kinda like a catalytic heater." She reached into her ample bosom and fished out two odd-looking keys on cords around her neck. "So, about these."

    Avery's expression darkened. "I'm surprised to see them."

    "Your old man didn't tell you?"

    "He said 'full cooperation.' So that's what you get."

    "But you know what they are."

    "I know that my dad wore one and my mom the other, all my life. I've never seen them anywhere else."

    "Murch gave them both to me. To give to you, actually; though I'd love to see them tried out. I haven't seen Ellen lately, but I assume hers was fetched for the occasion." She hesitated. "We haven't seen any place to use them, so far in this tour."

    "Well, you have come to the right place. Over this way." He wheeled over to the far wall, with his candle in his teeth.

    Here there was a door like that in a bank vault, but smaller. There was a card lock with an override switch, a manual combination lock, and a latch consisting of a steel disk with three rods protruding from it, with black plastic knobs on them.

    "Do the honors, Mr. Selk," said Avery, taking one of Selk's candles.

    Selk put out his hand, tentatively, to the cardlock rocker switch.

    "That's right. Throw that. We've no cards, but the switch works. I've seen it done. Good. Now on the combination wheels. Outer ring. Put that on 'seventeen'. Middle ring, 'seven.' Inner ring, 'six'."

    "I'll be damned! " breathed Mary Savage.

    "Yes, obvious enough. Now, Mr. Selk, rotate the bars to the left, or counterclockwise, half a turn."
    Something clicked inside the door.

    "Now give it a good heave toward you."

    The door swung open easily, squealing slightly on its hinges.

     Darkness yawned at them within.

    "It's a smallish room," said Avery. "Let's roll in and have a look." He handed the candle back to Selk and gripped the Quickie's tires.

    The candles illuminated the chamber with an amber glow, as, for the first time in years, the Panel Room had visitors. Mary's eyes gleamed as she saw the two LED lights burning steadily, after all this time.
    "What would be the significance of these?" asked Selk.

    "So far as I know, they mean 'ready'. Are you?" Avery regarded him steadily.

    "Yes."

    Mary handed Selk one of the keys, and, taking the other, inserted it in one of the keyholes in the panel, at left. Selk imitated her action on the far right. The keyholes were almost three meters apart.

    Mary tried hers to the left, but found no movement, so clicked it to the right. Selk clicked his to the right as well.

    An impossible brilliance dazzled the three of them. Selk actually yelped and fell to the floor, his glasses clattering underneath Avery's chair and the candles skittering away. Behind them in the main chamber, more brilliance, like that of a roomful of suns, clicked on and hummed in chorus at them from the chamber beyond. Someone, up the stairwell or on the fourth level, screamed.

    Slowly, Avery was able to open his eyes, and found Selk feeling about underneath the chair, his eyes still closed. Mary Savage, her fingers laced together in her lap, was squinting at Avery with a satisfied expression on her broad face.

    "Welcome," she said, "to the world of Thomas Alva Edison."

    "Uh?"

    "Oh, pooh. I know you're educated enough to get that one. Anyways –" she cracked her knuckles –"this is gonna be fun."



Days later, Dr. Tom leaned over Karen; his face wore a mixture of near exhaustion and professional kindliness. 

    "You're a little woozy, but I'm afraid that's the best we can do. Your friends are here; they're going to get a good firm grip on you to help us. I will try to work very quickly. I'm going to give you this dowel to hold between your teeth. I want you to bite down on it hard and then let us know when to proceed. All right?" 

    "Uhh." 

    "Very good. All right, everyone? Ready, Karen?" 

    Vernie, Emilio, Errol, and Cal gave their assent and pulled.

    Karen came near losing consciousness at the first pull on her left arm. It would have been a blessing, she knew. Yet she bit down on the wood with what strength she could muster, then gave a small, but determined nod. 


    If I'm ever going to cry, she thought, now might be a good time.




End of Book One: These will I Bring
Next: Book Two: Abide the Fire.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

28


Wolf had passed through, or over, at least six gates. Some were locked, some not. In several fields, sheep had watched him pass by; in one, two red cows. There were small plots that had been plowed and seeded; others had been harvested, or interrupted in the process of being harvested.If you could have asked Wolf, later, what he had seen, he might have answered, "mostly a whole lot of either dirt or green stuff." He had little idea of what he was seeing; he'd grown up urban in a shattered former nation that, back when it had been functional, had devolved its knowledge of farming upon little more than two percent of the population.Plots were, small, separated by dense growths of hedge. The pattern, which had seemed clear enough to Wolf from the crow's nest at Wilson's, was bewildering at ground level. But the terrain also provided him abundant concealment, so he was not overly concerned at slow progress. He'd passed the night in a loosely-piled haystack.

As he walked along the hedgerows, Wolf took inventory. The rain was tapering off, but he was wet through, even beneath the body armor, and his clothes stayed saturated as he moved through the wet, unmown vegetation. His boots squeaked, which meant there would soon be blisters unless he could get his boots and socks dry. He'd let himself get separated from the Glock, and his bug-out gear, and was not carrying food or water. His wet and baggy cargo pants were rich in pockets, and in these there were baggies (precious items in themselves) containing an assortment of decades-old treasures: Bic lighters, a Mylar emergency blanket, duct tape, compass, flint-and-steel, aspirin (which he had doled out to his crew as needed), and, in a fragile sandwich bag, a handful of 9mm rounds, with no weapon to match them.

He knew the polyethylene would breathe too easily. The primers would begin to corrode, with all this exposure to sweat and weather. Should he ditch them? This was hard for him to do; they had been the source of so much of his power. There were many, many more where those came from, however; if he could ever get back to his stash.

On his belt was a leather sheath with a serrated Kershaw folding knife nestled within; and in his hands the Chinese-made AK, with ten or fifteen (he had better count them, first chance) rounds in the current magazine, and one in the chamber. The other magazine, taped to the inserted one upside down, was now empty. And he'd lost his scope getting down from the little tower.

His escape both elated and troubled him; for himself, once again Wolf the Lucky; but he'd put a lot of investment in the gang of freebooters he'd built up. It was clear to Wolf that there had been no alternative in the end; but the memory of Cougar's plaintive cry for help galled him. All for one, one for all, indeed.

Ah, well, he said to himself. Only the living deserve ta live. What's next?

He'd passed the physical plants of four of the farms – each seemed like a small independent village; each, at the moment, was apparently deserted. What sort of command structure was there here? How had all these people co-ordinated to stand their ground rather than stampeding?

He had half a mind to burn the farmsteads as he went, for spite; he was angry with himself for not seeing that this was the route he should have gone with his entire crew, a day ago. But stealth is a good tool for as long as you have it, and not a moment longer. Best keep the option. Even as he thought this, Wolf could hear, on the road across the Creek well out of sight, a horse trotting westward. He fought down the impulse to try to catch the rider; that route must be well guarded.

Food, water and socks were becoming the highest priorities.

He chose one of the farmsteads to approach, and crawled toward it through an unkempt thicket of sunchokes, some of which had grown over eight feet tall. There was a smell, among the roots of these, of some kind of edible root, but he was unfamiliar with it. He watched the house for half a hand, and guessed that it, too, had been abandoned for now. People would surely be returning soon. Best get on with it.

The farmhouse was smaller than some of the others he'd seen; one story high, with no crow's nest or blockhouses. Maybe they hadn't got round to it yet? The place could be approached obliquely without being seen easily from windows. He'd have a go. With his weapon at the ready, muzzle down, Wolf ran across the tiny scythed yard, pushed through an unlocked gate in a trimmed hedge, rounded a corner, and bounded up the front steps. With his left hand, he tried the glass doorknob. It turned readily, and the door swung inwards without creaking.

Keeping himself as mentally sharp as any young-old man might – a day after losing most of several night's sleep, several meals, a war, and all his companions – Wolf cleared the rooms, right to left, found no stairwells up or down, and finished his tour in the kitchen. An unremarkable place. Everywhere were some kind of gasburners on wall sconces, pieces of handmade furniture, a few ancient art prints, and quilts on display on some of the walls. Bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds in each, and a worktable; leather tools and sewing supplies abounded. Twelve people, apparently, lived here. This looked like commies more and more all the time. Wolf was amused; he knew Magee would not be.

The kitchen was much smaller than the one at "Wilson Farm" had been, and featured what looked like a gas stove connected to an oversized tank outside, next to a large pile of manure. Wolf had not seen a methane digester before; but he vaguely guessed what it was. Why, with so much animal manure around, had there not been more explosives used? These people had a very hit-or-miss technology. Perhaps there was nothing of real interest on the mountain after all?

Exploring cabinets, Wolf was able to come up with a half-gallon plastic jug for water, after rejecting several that had apparently contained either soap or vinegar. He had trouble understanding why the pitcher pump on the drainboard by the sink didn't seem to want to work, as it smelled of water, but there were emergency supplies in stacked crates of glass bottles marked Smirnoff, and he tapped into this. It was a start. Pouring himself a tumbler, he opened another door, and found an assortment of spoiling dinner leftovers on shelves made of hardware cloth. The floor and ceiling of the former closet were also screened, and Wolf could feel a cool breeze moving up through the shelves.

Clever.

But what's in here? He opened a crock jar and sniffed. Milk, with cream risen to the top! Fresh milk was a novelty to Wolf, but his body knew what it was, and trembled to have it. Bringing the crock to the kitchen table, he poured the water from his tumbler onto the floor and filled it with cream, then sat down, leaning the rifle against the table.

Just as Wolf raised the glass to his bearded lips, he heard movement somewhere overhead. A shuffling of feet.
An attic?

With someone in it!

Setting down the glass reluctantly, Wolf took up the rifle. Then he reconsidered, grasped the tumbler in his left hand, drank it off, set it down, and then moved to the kitchen door at the back of the house.

There was a staircase on the outside of the building, going up to a small door on a landing above the back porch. Inwardly cursing his carelessness in clearing, Wolf stepped outside, ascended the staircase, and tried the door – another glass knob – finding it unlocked as before. Pointing his weapon before him, he cleared a small skylit attic room. It held mostly a rug and a chair and shelves of old books; he stepped through a low door frame into a darkened room with a heavy curtain over a dormer window. A thin magenta light trickled through the curtain into the shadowy interior.

Against the far wall sat a large bed frame, with its legs sawn away to fit the ceiling height. The bed was heaped with blankets and pillows, and among these lay an old man – easily the oldest Wolf remembered ever seeing – looking at him with the unseeing eyes of the blind.

"Hey, young fella! S'whatcha sound like, but you're not one a' the Hiseys by the sound of it. Y'little war over yet?"

"Uhh, no, sir." Wolf stepped over to the bed.

"Wouldn't think so! What a ruckus! They said I had to go to the Mess Hall with 'em, an' I said screw that, just go without me. I manage pretty good up here, s'not winter yet, n'got plenty to eat. Hafta dump my effin' chamber pot out the window, though ... where ya from?"

"Wilson Farm."

"Ah, so you're one 'a those apple maggots. Well, I guess there's a place for cider in this grand scheme. But I betcha we had a thousand pounds of coffee in the PX. Betcha Murch is still sittin' on all of it, too. Crazy bastard. You can tell him I said so; I don't care. All that hush-hush stuff is long gone, and he's been out of honest work for – must be fifteen years. Twenty for all I know."

"Pee-ecks, sir?"

"Oh, you know, a little cafeteria 'n store. For all the engineers and the guards."

"Oh, that's right. You worked in the mountain, didn't you?" Wolf guessed.

"Funny way to put it. Sure, I wasn't always blind and useless – put in nine years on the power plant, I did. Civil Engineering Corps. You know all that, dontcha?"

"Tell me again; I always liked hearin' about it."



Wilson Wilson looked sourly into the smoking pit and gestured with the reloaded Ruger Old Army. "Dammit, I was born in this house." Disconsolately, he kicked a fried window-latch into the interior.
Deela, carrying the Lyman muzzleloader, stood beside him, fidgeting a bit. "Had we not best begin tracking? The man has sixteen hours' lead on us."

"Yes, well, he could be out of the valley by now. That skinny little fire-eater wasn't able to tell us about him until after midnight, and there's not much moon yet."

"Again, we suffer for lack of dogs."

"Well, those got eaten up long ago. But maybe we can make some use of wolf cubs when we find a den." Wilson turned to the others. "Guchi's back to Hall to organize defense and search from that end. The man was last seen carrying a rifle that can take down everyone here. So, we all have whistles; we are going to cast a wide net, watching ahead and behind us as we go. As much as possible, stay where you can see someone but not both be seen from anywhere at any one time.

"I'll walk point. Mr. Deela here will bring up the rear and watch our backs. Mr. Perkins, please take the far right – you have the Navy Colt? Good. Watch that thing; Mrs. Murchison will have all our hides if it gets away again. Minnie Min, center, watch my back. Errol, far left. Remember, this man is more a predator than a fugitive. Act accordingly."

"Wilson, who's covering Beemans'?" asked Cal.

"Vernie Watkin is there with the Hawken and a crew of young 'uns, sickies, and woundeds, with bows and bombs. If the guy crosses the Creek and doubles back, he can do as much harm there as to us – but it's a chance we'll all have to take. There's one shepherd gone up to the Saddle, and that's it."

Errol, who seldom spoke, stepped forward. "So. Let's hope we are the ones that find him."

"No kidding. All set?"

Nods all round.

"Hop!"

They headed, by ones and twos, well separated, for the gate to Holyroods'.



"Oh, Tom." Elsa looked at the row of dead, laid out at right angles to the road. "This is worse than Eugene." They walked along the road, escorted by Vernie and two of the grenadiers, who were now carrying swords and crossbows and looking older than they had two days ago.

"Likely not. We were working just one street; it was like that everywhere; and there had been more than a hundred thousand people just the week before."

"You're so effing practical. I hate it."

I know. Sorry."

"Since we're being practical, why isn't everyone all bloated, like that other time?"

"That was summer. We're having cold weather and cloudiness; it helps." He turned to Vernie. "How many?"

"Right here, right now, twenty-two of ours, eighteen of theirs. More died in the house, we think, and we haven't collected everyone from over by the Ridge yet."

"Aleesha's up there," put in Elsa. "She should have had a life, Tom."

"Everyone should have a life. We find ourselves born; then we make choices. Some work out to a longer life, some work out to a better one. Longer, as we both know, is not necessarily better."

"It's going to be too many for Hall, isn't it?"

"Yes," answered Dr. Chaney. "The heaps can only absorb so much. And in spite of the cold, corruption will certainly set in; we're going to have to do something different."

"Can we move them all up to one of the fields above Ames'?" asked Vernie. "You know; exposure, Indian way."

"Well, it's quite a concentration of putrefaction. There will be rain all winter, and Ames' is upstream of a lot of wells. I don't really know if that's an issue, but it makes me uneasy."

"Burial, then?" asked Elsa. "With funerals? Nothing lengthy; but when we all go back to Jeeah, a farewell seems appropriate."

"For ours, sure," replied Vernie. "But I'd just as soon give these bandits to the coyotes unsung and unremembered."

"No, give them a few words, too." They turned toward the voice. It was the tall girl with the crazy hair, in an antique cotton shift with no left sleeve, her arm bandaged from wrist to collarbone. She stood by the apple trees on the far side of the road, supported by Ro-eena.

"Karen!" Elsa was shocked. How could she be up so soon?

"Them, too; it was necessary to stop them, but we needn't be angry. That's a waste, you know."
"Ro-eena ..." Elsa began, warningly.

Ro-eena turned her head to Karen. "You're getting heavy. Back to Beeman's now? Before they beat me up for bringing you?"

"Yes."

Karen paused as they passed Cougar's corpse, next to Stannin's.

The two looked very much alike.



Avery Murchison took a sip of water from the mug sitting in the cupholder of his Quickie chair.

He had not seen Savage Mary in years. At the time, he'd been an athletic and optimistic youth with legs, and she'd been a prematurely arthritic middle-aged scientist, dour and sardonic by turns, complaining of her being cooped up among so many "commies" – her father, a leading libertarian, would be rolling over in his grave, she'd said.

They hadn't taken to each other.

Now, perhaps, they were more alike. One chair-bound invalid being painfully rolled up a mountainside in an oxcart, to consult with another whose domain consisted of these lamplit warrens; the virtue of said warrens being their flat, smooth floors, the best place in Starvation Creek for a chair-bound would-be Marine to make himself useful.

As if there were such a thing as the Marines anymore.

She'd undoubtedly take over.

He rolled to the window facing north, and glassed in that direction out of habit; most of the "road" from Hall, and Hall itself, could not be seen from here.



For years, everything had been carried up on packframes or packsacks with tumplines, or dragged by travois; then finally oxen had become available, bred from the tiny herd of Devons that had been found at what was now Ames'. Rubber-tired trailers had been adapted, including one that had a tailgate labeled "Toy." Avery had wondered what kind of toy the trailer had carried in days gone by, until a chance remark by his mother cleared up the mystery. He had mused on that for days: what other things are we forgetting? What untapped knowledges will break when the first Creek generation is gone?

Billee ran in.

"Do you ever walk?" Avery asked.

"Huh! Don'tcha wanta know are they here yet?"

"I can deduce from your manner that they are."

"De-dues?" She knit up her eyebrows.

"Never mind. Are there enough people to get Dr. Mary up here?"

"She's a doctor?" Eyes widened.

"No, a physicist."

"What's that?"

"Cut that out. Can she get here?"

"Oh! Yeah, Millie and Bobbo, and two folks from Hall, and some guy with little windows over his face."

"Glasses. They help him see."

"No kiddin'? So, yah, it's gonna be noisy, but sit tight."

"Like I can do anything else. Go show them a lamp up the stairs, Mm? Thanks."

She skipped over to the door, leaned over the railing of the landing, and turned back. "They've got it covered, here they come."

It was quite a production, Mary being possibly the heaviest person on Starvation Creek. She could stand on her own, but getting her up each step involved having someone under each arm, with backups to make sure the group did not topple over backwards. Millie, a longtime Ridger, led the way with a candle, which she blew out as she reached the landing. Presently, Mary Savage, Ph.D. was sitting in her purloined wheelchair, huffing and blowing and darting mildly aggrieved looks round the room from between long pigtails of pepper-and-salt hair.

"That 'road' out there is a killer, Junior. You ought to get it graded." Her eyes darted to the control panel even as she spoke.

"We do, every year. With a stone boat behind the oxen. Best we can do. And the name's Avery."

"Ooh, touchy. Well, that makes two of us. So what can you show us, here?" Selk came in and stood beside her chair.

"Lots. Or only a little, depending. And you are?" asked Avery.

"Selk; I do the radios and the generator and such."

"Oh, right. Dad has us listening to that car radio for you."

"How's it doing?"

"There are some interesting things coming out of the far north and some Spanish or Portuguese from far south; it's quiet for hundreds of miles around here, except for that station you asked about."

"Same broadcasts?" asked Mary.

"Yes; a loop, which suggests access to either computing power, or archaic tape technology, or both."
Mary and Selk were both impressed; Avery had more education in pre-Undoing knowledge than they had expected. Obviously Carey and Ellen had spent more time on teaching him than they had bothered to mention.

"Magee still looking for those names and numbers?"

"Well ... it's a recording. There might not even be anyone there. Without triangulation we can't even be certain the transmitter is in Roseburg. What we do know –" he added weight to his voice for emphasis –"is Guchi tells us the likely leader of our bandits, who is on the loose still, is a match for one of the names."

"Which one?" asked Selk.

"Wolf."

Sunday, September 7, 2014

27


With more and more concern, Vernie watched white smoke filling the Wilson house; bandits would surely be coming out of it soon, coughing and wheezing, which would be a good thing, as it would be the end for them; but there was no sign of Emilio backing out of the tunnel! He turned to one of the young grenadiers.

    "When they start hitting the yard, light and throw everything you've got at them. Ready?"

    "We can't, sir, Mr. Molinero has the strike for the matches."

    "You were down to one?" 

    Contrite heads bowed in reply.

    "Oh. Well, we could find a way to get one going with the rifle, I suppose; but that will take too long. Here," he said to one of them, "you take this thing and if they show, haul back the hammer all the way, aim at them just like your crossbow, and squeeze the trigger. Keep it snug on your shoulder or you'll get a hell of a bruise. Lean into it a little when you shoot. 'K?" Rest of you be ready with your knives for any trouble, or, heck, smack 'em over the head with the fricking bombs. Here's the whistle, too, in case the bandits still have any fight in them and come for you. Everybody along the creek will help. I'm going in after Emilio."

    "Yes, sir," said the oldest, taking the big Hawken and the whistle on its cord. 

    Jeeah, he must be all of ten, thought Vernie. Are we going to make it through this? And what will we be like?

    He dropped the shot pouch and powder flask and ran round the building, dodging in through the open door. No one was shooting from the house. The culvert was tiny by Emilio's standard's; for Vernie it was a dangerously tight squeeze. Also, cold and wet; but the long dark puddle was the least of Vernie's worries. As there was no room for his elbows, he had to lay himself out with his arms ahead of him and inch along like a very cramped caterpillar. Air was flowing past his ears into the darkness ahead; of course, the fire must be drawing it through the tunnel.

    The rifle boomed somewhere above him.

    "Emilio!" he shouted.

    "I am here. Why are you not fighting our enemies?" The voice sounded a dishearteningly long way away.

    "I am. This is how I'm doing it right now. Are you coming?"

    "I cannot move; I think there is a hole in the pipe somewhere behind me and I have a bolt in my leg which has gotten into the hole."

    Vernie redoubled his crawling effort. The burnt arm throbbed. "You were shot?"

    "Yes. It is not so very bad a hurt, but now my head is getting hot."

    "Well, hang on, an' I'll come and unhook you."

    "Thank you, Vernie. Though I still think you should be shooting bandits."

    "Oh, shush up."




Wolf waited a bit longer to see if he'd indeed finished off whomever had been killing Cougar's crew; they had chosen a flimsy place to attack from and Wolf had been able to silence them with the AK by firing at shadowy movements in the muck bins. Cougar apparently had some fight in him still, as Wolf had watched him crawl around toward the other side of the bin, with the Glock. But he could not hear any shooting. What was going on down there?

    New sounds attracted his attention, from the direction of the house. He moved to the north window of the lookout and discovered that "Wilson's" was on fire, or at least full of smoke! Even as he watched, the smoke trapped in one of the basement windows turned orange; that was it, then. His men were pouring out the back door and charging round to the front, where at least one of the black powder weapons greeted them. An arrow sailed out from in front of the house and embedded itself in a stack of crates.

    Past time to go; and no time now for regrets. Should he fetch the female from the outhouse? Something in his bones told him, though, that these people were beyond the bargaining stage. Disappear now before the farmers from the saddle joined the fight. Wolf lifted the trap door.




Taking the reloaded Kel-Tec in her teeth, Karen picked up the sword, 

    "Why not? You're all done here. Unless there's some kind of country you're fighting for, which I doubt, you might as well make yourself useful."

    Suddenly a man ran past the bins, well away to the right among the trees, with an assault rifle in his hands. Karen shifted her aim, but he was already past a reasonable shot, loping along the orchard row. If he'd been looking for a fight, he'd surely have spotted them, but he was focused entirely on the gate in the hedge.

She got up on her knees, hobbled over to the armed hand, which was trying to aim round the corner at her, and gave it a hard smack with the flat of her blade. The pistol dropped into the mud. There was a satisfactory groan. Quickly dropping the sword, she scooped up the pistol – whoa, heavy! – put it behind her, opened her mouth and let her own more familiar little pistol fall into her hand. This one, at least, she knew was loaded. She found the grip and pointed the muzzle at the bald head. The bandit spoke.

    "Shit, lady, you've shot me, your guy's shot me, I'm dying here, and here you go break my effin' hand."

    The right thing to do would be to shoot him now and end it; but curiosity got the better of her. "Sorry it's not your day, but why are you here? And who's in charge?"

    The house, across the farmyard, began making popping and clanging sounds, and glass began shattering. They could both feel heat coming from that direction and hear shouts and the sounds of a desperate fight developing.

    "Why should I tell you?" He crept forward a bit, showing a wide face and large mouth, and looked at her sardonically. She backed up, sitting on his pistol, her useless left arm dragging and distracting her. But now that she saw his face, she knew she would never forget it. This could so easily be one of the farmers, running sheep or scything ryegrass. There was a childlike quality in his expression. 

    Karen's "prisoner" turned his head toward the fleeing man.

    "Wolf!" he shouted. "Help!" But help from that direction was clearly no longer to be had. Slowly he turned back his head toward Karen and rested it on the ground, dejected. His fingers dug into the mud convulsively.

    "That was your leader?" She gestured with the .380.

    "What's it to ya? Eff. Eff. Oh, shit. Shit. Y'all gutshot me, y'know that?"

    "Well, sorry, but we weren't the ones looking for this war."

    "Who was looking for a war?" His eyes blazed. "We were looking for food. Wouldn't you?" And with that, he suddenly threw mud into Karen's face and came scrabbling round the corner post.
    Karen fired blindly, twice; her weapon then jammed and was knocked from her hand. Fingers struck the side of her head, then groped for her throat. Hunching up, she dug the big pistol out from the muck beneath her, shoved the barrel into the ribcage above her and fired again; the weight of a large man, for the first time in her life, fell upon her and lay still.



    For awhile, Karen felt oddly disembodied. Despite the awful impact on her ears of all the gunplay of the last few minutes, she could hear, as if from the other end of a long pipe, much of what was going on around her.

    The house was in full flame, with old, drained plumbing and packed Mason jars exploding, and the crackling of hundreds of burning knots in century-old fir and pine sheathing. Stud walls were buckling, shattering whatever windows had not given way before the heat, which was intense even here at the compost heaps, a good fifty meters away. A gun fired somewhere. A woman screamed from time to time, with a hopeful note in her voice. People were shouting orders; then there was not much to be heard, other than the hiss and roar of the flames, for awhile.

    The man had fallen across her at an angle, with his head beside hers. Hot moisture pooled on her, through her tunic, and gradually cooled. She could smell the stench of his soiled clothing. This, she knew from experience, was to be expected.

    Darkness was coming on, but the smoke from the house fire, which rose straight up toward the clouds, turned gray, then black, and was filled with sparks and flying debris. This is pretty, she thought. 

    But now I think I'm ... tired.

    A heavier rain began falling steadily, but Karen took no notice of it at all.




Doc Chaney was wearing out; too much to do! If we all pull through this, I have got to get some apprentice medics. The big house at Beemans' was filling up with hurt people; also with sick people. Whatever it was Ellen Murchison had was apparently spreading to some of her young crusaders.

    "Tom?" Elsa was standing by his elbow, with a small basket of dried opium poppy pods in one hand, a steaming mug in the other.

    "Mmh?"

    "Okay if we steam some of these? We're out of the real thing, it being fall, but maybe we can get some good out of them."

    "Sure, sure. We're kind of working in the dark here in more ways than one."

    "Oh, about that, Vernie's crew is off to Jones' again to get more lamps and candles and anything remotely medicinal, as well as blankets and food. When that place is cleaned out, we'll strip Ames'."
    "Yes. Thanks, dear. But Vernie's hurt, himself!"

    "Not as badly as most of the others, and it keeps him from freaking over Tomma, who's getting fevered."

    "That might come to another amputation, but at least it wouldn't be a double. We need to get more bread mold going ... who's next?"

    "You are. Sit down and take a tea break – here's a hot cup." Tom complied.

    Emilio hobbled in, on Ellen Murchison's crutch.

    "Emilio, you should be resting."

    "There is too much coughing; who can sleep? I am as well right now, doctor, as I can be. I am glad to see you sitting down for once."

    "Whatever. I think there's going to be much more work, soon; the coughing is beginning to sound like pertussis. You and I will probably both get a dose of it before it runs its course."

    Emilio, keeping one leg off the floor, stumped on the crutch into the pool of light cast by a cluster of small alcohol lamps on the table next to Tom; he'd obviously hoped to crash on the nearby couch, but he could now see it was occupied by an unconscious young man whose torso was wrapped in bandages. His blanket had fallen on the floor. Dr. Tom got up, covered the sleeper again, and taking his cup, moved to a three-legged stool which he drew from under the table. He motioned Emilio to the easy chair which he'd just vacated. Emilio showed momentary distaste for the consideration, but accepted, plunking himself down with a sigh.

    "Want to put your foot up here?" Tom patted his knee.

    "That will not be necessary." Emilio arranged himself as comfortably as possible, holding the crutch upright by the side of the chair.

    He gazed at Dr. Chaney for a few moments. "It was you that introduced me to Juanita. For which, if I have not thanked you one thousand times and a time, I do so now."

    "You had a close call in the culvert."

    "I had given up my life for lost. As so many others have done, the last three days. It amazes me that Mr. Vernie did what he did; I would have thought he could not fit in so small a space."

    "You didn't come through unscathed," smiled Tom. "Have you seen what's happened to your hair?"
    "It is of no concern. Do we have numbers?"

    "Nothing final. We know of about twenty-two dead of our own, from all the fights, and from an accident with an ox-cart coming in from Maggie's. At Chaneys', Hall, and here, we're tending sixteen wounded. That might be a low count. Some sick, too, or both. There are some missing as well, including, from Ames', your guest, Karen Rutledge."

    Emilio gave Tom an aggrieved look. "She is not a guest, Dr. Chaney, she is family. From the day she came to Ames' she has given her all."

    "Well, we're out looking. She's very tough."

    "And from the uninvited guests?"

    "We think we got them all; there were, by Ellen Murchison's count, thirty-one to begin with. We've tallied twenty-six bodies, including two men that had been left at Lawson's. We'll be checking Wilsons' in the morning; it's all collapsed into the basement and too hot to handle. If any got away, we'll start tracking."

    One of Emilio's young grenadiers appeared in the doorway. "Sir, we gotcha Ames lady; they're bringing her up the walkway!"

    "Alive?" asked Tom. Emilio began wrestling with the crutch in an effort to get up from the chair.
    She nodded vigorously. "Mm-hmm. One arm messed up, and they said, umm, hyporetical?"
    "Hypothermia. Who even knows that term anymore?"

    "Mr. Wilson Wilson, Doctor. From Ridge. He found her, along with Mr. Huskey, and a dead bandit."

    "They're not bringing Huskey here?"

    Her face fell. "He, he didn't make it, sir; so he's been brought just to the road for now."

    Emilio found his footing and hopped over to her.

    "Thank you for so much good news as you could bring; are you still on duty?"

    "Oh, no, just thought you'd like to know. 'M'off to bed now, and hope you're feeling better soon." She turned and vanished from the doorway.

    Tom got up from the stool. "It's back to work for me."

    "Yes, sir. Do you work on this table?"

    "Hm? No, it's too small, except for patients that can sit up. I've been working on the floor here."
    "Ah. Well, I shall retire to the kitchen."

    Elsa came in with Wilson, who was wearing a pre-Undoing green rain slicker, very wet, and carrying a large canvas sack.

    Elsa's eyes found Tom.

    "Yes," Dr. Chaney said. "More new work. Coming in here?"

    "They're bringing the stretcher up the steps." She looked at Wilson and Emilio.

    "It is our signal to take ourselves away for now, Mr. Wilson," said Emilio. "Come into the kitchen with me, and if there is enough room for us, we can get you warmed, dried, and fed, yes?"

    "That'd be lovely, Mr. Molinero. Lead the way."

    They found the kitchen not too crowded, but up and running, with two young women tending fire and serving up a thin but welcome soup of reconstituted greens, onion, and tomatoes, with a trace of rabbit. Hot applesauce was also on offer. The "real" tea had long ago run out, but as Wilson set down the apparently heavy bag and shucked his raincoat, a mug of rose hip and elderberry tea was put into his hand, and a seat, on a long high-backed bench along the wall by the open hearth, was vacated for the two men.

    Emilio set aside the crutch, warmed his hands at the fire, and waited for Wilson to have a chance at the tea before questioning him.

    Wilson took a long pull at the tea, then made a face. He looked around, found an alcohol lamp going on a wall sconce, took it down, blew it out, drew a scrap of cloth from his pocket, unscrewed the hot burner from the collar, poured some of the alcohol into the tea, reassembled the lamp, and replaced it. One of the cooks shook her head, but said nothing.

    "I'm good, now," said Wilson. "I can see you're being very patient with me."

    "Ah .... so, if I may ask, where were they?"

    "We took one last look at the area around the compost heaps, because there'd been four enemy dead right by it and signs they'd been in a fire fight. Huskey was on the inside, with Mr. Avery's Ruger in his hand and a blown up levergun by his side." He waved a spoon at the canvas bag. "They're in there. The girl was in the next bin, half buried in a pile of cowshit, with one of the bandits dead on top of her.

    "Had a funny little semiauto next to her, with a stovepipe ..."

    "Which is?"

    "Sorry, I pick up talk from the Murchisons. A kind of cycling failure of ammunition ejection."

    "Proceed."

    "... and another big old antique semiauto in her hand; all bloody. The guy'd been shot any number of times and had one of her arrows sticking out of his backside, too."

    "Very hard to kill."

    "But met his match, I'd guess."

    "What is her injury?"

    "Well, we don't know; it was really dark out there. But left arm is bad, I'm pretty sure. Laid out in the rain for hours; that couldn't have helped any."

    "I am thinking. These two must be the fighters we heard in the midafternoon, yes? No one else was with them?"

    Wilson looked at Emilio sheepishly. "Ah, well. S'my fault; I let 'em talk me into it; something about stirring things up in the rear. We kinda thought we were on our own. Pin them down until Hall sent some kind of army."

    "Sergeant Ellen had hoped to co-ordinate."

    "Yeah, your runner got to us right after they left. Y'know, it made sense to us at the time."

    "It was like Mrs. Murchison's views, but, you see, we did not have the smoke on the north side."

    "And then the rest of us got into your fight too slowly. We've caused you some casualties; including you, sir. I'm not coming out of this looking very good, in fact; and Huskey's people will have it in for me after this."

    Emilio shook his head. "We will all discuss the best ways to do things. But there will be much to do and little time for blame. It may be this attack was the right thing. There were, you say, five dead bandits there. I am thinking these two did the Creek much good; the attack on the house was relatively easy in the end."

    "You're generous, Mr. Molinero. I'm not sure I'd be so easygoing if the shoe were on the other foot."

    Emilio looked down ruefully at his bandaged and braced leg, with a swollen, stockinged foot at the end. "It may be it will be some time before there is a shoe on the other foot, my friend."

    They looked at each other for several anxious moments. Then, mutual permission granted, they laughed.

    Elsa appeared at the door. "Hey, boys, girl's asking for you. Says it's urgent."