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, February 28, 2015

52

Karen, sitting beside Marleena, glanced over and met her eyes, steady and ready. Both the babies had fallen asleep; time to unhook them and pack them up. It would soon be nightfall and time to roll. With an almost silent matched pair of wet "plops," the mothers became individuals again.
      As she struggled with her little boy's swaddling, Karen wondered, not for the first time, how she'd drawn this particular billet. The crew she'd assembled consisted of none of her old friends, excepting Juanita and Errol. Nearly everyone present was from Roundhouse. A stronger division of labor between the sexes, at Roundhouse, might account for it; these were, except for two small boys, almost all women and girls that had, until this war, never held a bow, let alone a rifle. Now they would be carrying, each of them, some weapon; and might have to learn to use it on the run. It was hoped that some of those fighting outside might trail and join them, but the hope carried as much freight as any terror; one look at Juanita's clouded expression told all.
      One of the urchins, the one she'd shown to make and demonstrate a blanket roll, stood in the doorway. "Beg pardon, ma'am, all heads counted and all things inventoried."
      "Right," replied Karen, distracted by a strip of cloth that  would  insist on covering Allyn's nose and mouth. "How many commons?"
      "Two axes, two shovels, two buckets, six tarps. Mr. Errol is showing us where to find things."
      "I trust these tarps don't fall apart when handled and are not  blue?"
      "No ma'am," he grinned. "Never seen daylight, and we painted them brown and green like you said."
      "Right, so we'll be right there and then we'll all head for the stairwell together."
      "Yes'm." He turned to go.
      The floor beneath them vibrated. Dust floated free from the ceiling overhead, and a dull thump resounded more in their chest cavities than in their ears. The boy turned to face Karen again, trying to hide his fright.
      "You're right," Karen answered his unasked question. "That wasn't up top, that was second level, by the doors."
      Another thump. A florescent tube in one of the ceiling fixtures popped and showered Marleena and Arda with tiny diamonds and white powder. Marleena snatched up the baby and backed away from the spot. Karen practically tossed little Allyn into his bag on her left hip, then drew the revolver whose holster was now part of that bag. Juanita and Marleena took up their bows.
      Feet came running down the stairwell; Karen and the young Roundhouser, bow drawn, stepped into the hall to meet them.
      It was Guchi, carrying a shotgun and looking grim. He pulled up in front of Karen.  "Mrs. Allyn, they're working on the sally port with that gun. You're not going to be able to go." Another, louder thump punctuated his report.
      In a way, Karen was relieved. "Well, then ... " She waved the High Standard meaningfully.
      Guchi wasn't finished. "But, uhh, follow me?"
      Another raucus thump. White dust plastered their hair as Karen followed Yamaguchi to the refectory's "garderobe." He gestured grandly at the toilet seat.
      Not intended for human waste disposal only, the chute was a steel-lined tube through the rock of the mountain, slanting away toward Hall. How it had been used before the Great Undoing, no one remembered, but Ridge had appropriated it as the best means of getting everything compostable down to the great heaps of Hall Farm. Only the dead had been spared this indignity, being carried down ceremonially by ox-cart. The pipe diameter was fifty centimeters, so it was a doable route, though steep.
      "Really?" Karen wrinkled her nose, though she was not fastidious by nature. Not the best environment for a newborn, surely.
      "Well, yucky, yeah. But we last raked it out about a week and a half ago. Not everybody's been living up here since, so I figure an hour's work for one strong kid.  Depends how fast we can bring up the buckets."
      "It's latched on the outside – at Hall Farm – right?"
        "Yes, but that should yield to some dexterity. It's not really a security thing. Though, maybe – " he shrugged – "it should have been."
       Thump.  Dust motes leaped from the walls.
      "Umm. Okay." Karen holstered the revolver. She looked round. The youngster she hoped might still be in the doorway, had, it turned out, gone her one better, and was standing by her elbow.
      "Ma'am."
      "Want to do something particularly awful and be a hero?"
      "Oh, yes, ma'am." The kid grinned. "Name's Griff."
      "Mmh? Oh, to tell your friends where you ..."
      "No, ma'am. To remember me by for all time. I'll get me some rope and a bucket."
       Thump.

:::

"This here thing," said Mary disgustedly, "is no more than a gahdam pearl-handled cyanide pill." She unloaded the tiny "gambler's gun," dry-snapped it experimentally in the direction of the entryway, then reloaded it.
      "Here; take this one, then." Avery drew the sawed-off and tossed it to her.
      "Hey! That's more like it. But what if I'd dropped it?"
      "Well, that would have been risky. But you didn't. Here's extra shells, too. Throw me the little one." Avery caught the derringer and turned back to the console.  The room shook. Both their wheelchairs transmitted the shock of the explosion to them. "How many do you make that?"
      "About fifteen. They'll be comin' in, my lad. The doors are good stuff, but not  that  good."
      Avery glanced at the destruct button. "We may have to pull the plug soon, then. Where's Selk? Are we in business or not?"
      "He went to take a peek, I think. Wups – here he is."
      Selk, at the south window, began making gestures. There being no agreed-upon engineering sign language at the Creek, his efforts were randomly understood, but Mary, quicker on the uptake than Avery, undertook to translate.
      "The nasties have, he says, divided their forces. Some are still along the road – out in th' open, and worth goin' after! The scope?" She swung around and looked. "Oh, better. Best signal we're going to get." She gave Selk a thumbs-up.
      Selk was clearly about to reply in kind, but instead made a small "o" with his mouth and sank slowly out of sight from the narrow window.
      A man whom Mary had never seen before appeared, crossbow in hand, drew a knife, and bent towards Selk's location. Mary, in supreme anger and frustration, pointed the sawed-off at the window. She resisted pulling the trigger, however. Nothing that could be fired from a shotgun, let alone "pheasant" loads, was going to reach a foe through nine inches of quartz.
      "What's up?" asked Avery over his shoulder, as he reached for the three great dials.
      "Sonofabitch effin' got my boy! Now he's standin' right here starin' at me through th' window! Is there a way you can cut him up with that effin' great cheese slicer?"
      "No, there's a stop built in, to keep it off our position evidently. I'll just have to hope I can hack up some trucks instead." Avery twiddled dials minutely. "Sorry about your engineer," he added softly. "Good man."
      The enemy soldier seemed distracted. He backed away from the window, looked down, and withdrew a screwdriver from his abdomen. With his other hand he explored his middle for a moment, then looked at his darkened palm, then again at the screwdriver. He threw it away, obviously cursing, and then walked aimlessly off.
      "A  damned  good man," said Mary, putting her hand against the wall where Selk's poor body must be.

:::

This,  thought Magee,  is  more  like  it.
      He stepped through the stinking air where the cleverly-made (and surprisingly strong) door had been, and found himself in an artificially-lit interior. No sooner than he had taken four laborious strides forward, however, than he was rocked back by a blast from nearby – buckshot, by the feel of it.
      Yet more acrid smoke soured the air.
       Huh – black powder shotshells. More evidence of manufacturing activity. An exciting prospect. A brief image of himself explaining the advantages of a joint venture tickled his imagination, but then the suit took another bruising hit. Even with the blast-protection plugs in his ears, Magee found himself developing a headache. He'd better locate and neutralize the threat, before they thought to aim for his visor.
      There – the sound of another shell being racked into a chamber. A woman near a service area of some kind – stairwell and elevator shaft. Just like old times. The weapon was still at her shoulder and aimed, as he expected, a little higher than the first two shots. Magee turned away, almost staggering as the balls, still clustered together, pounded the back of his helm. He swung back to return fire, only to see his assailant cut down by a blast from behind him.
      "My lord, are you well?" The Doctor, suited up and armed with her own AA-12, stepped through the wreckage of the sally port. To make herself heard without suit radios, she was shouting. Three of her young interns drifted in behind her, armed with crossbows, and a fourth carried Wolf's old AK-47. These were all of the invading force that had made it to the farmers' inner sanctum; but with the two suits and the super-shotguns, Magee felt confident.
      "Very well, m'dear, just a mite slow." Magee shook his head inside the helm, trying to clear the ringing from his ears. "It looks like there are a number of floors. Let's clean up this rat's nest quickly. One of you young'uns make sure of that casualty and collect her weapon; I'll go upstairs'n the rest of you work from here down, hm?"
      "It is good, my lord." The Doctor, shotgun at the ready, glanced round. "A welcoming committee of one. Interesting; perhaps they have concentrated their powers in the valley." She strode heavily toward the descending staircase, then stopped by the elevator door. She reached into a tool bag at her waist and retrieved a pair of wire snips.
      "Something good?" asked Magee.
      "New wiring, run from floor to floor along the handrails. Perhaps internal communications; more likely they have a  suicide bomb rigged." She snipped, then replaced the tool. Rummaging round in the bag, she found and displayed a round object about the size of a baseball. "Boys?"
      "Yes, ma'am," replied one of the interns.
      "Two of you take these flash-bangs and work your way down with me; make sure there are no nasty surprises, hmm?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Gunner and one other stay here, turn up that table for cover and watch the elevator and the exit."
      "Yes, ma'am."
      She turned back to Magee, who had already set foot on the first step of the ascending staircase. "My lord, should you go adventuring alone? I worry about you."
      "Aww, y'nice, m'dear, but I've always been the luckiest man alive, y'know that."
       And most of your luck has been me. "Yes, my lord. Have a good time, and we will clear the rest of the facility and join you as way permits."
      Magee's bespectacled eyes, through the slit in the faceplate, smiled.

:::

Whatever was causing the great geyser of mud, rocks and steam, which the two men had wondered at, suddenly left the Creek and tore up along the stream's bank at an angle, making off deliberately along the Road with a roar and a rumble. In its absence there fell, locally, a remarkable stillness, though, in the distance, guns occasionally popped.
      Armon stood up and scanned the smoking scenario, a salvaged crossbow at the ready. "I think everything's gone east from here, including whatever the eff  that  was."
      Wilson, still carrying the broken twenty-two, emerged from the shattered woods. "Agreed; let's inspect this battlefield an' then follow." He walked, gingerly negotiating the slanted, crumbling ditches, toward the cluster of burning vehicles. He'd quickly found that stepping ro near the northern edge of the little trenches invited a broken ankle.
      The first tractor, he sadly realized from the color of it remains, had once been Deerie. And the contents of its shattered cage of smashed steel plates had likely once been Jorj, poor man. Next to Deerie's small crater stood its massive cousin, bigger than any example Wilson had ever seen. It had evidently burned – was still smoking. Most of its steel was blackened by soot from, by the smell of it, diesel fuel.
      Diesel was not part of the experience of most Creekers, but Wilson had been, years ago, one of a team of small boys assigned to pull apart fuel tanks and oil pans to get at the last uncollected drops. It had not been pleasant work, largely because so many vehicles had, by then, been overgrown with blackberries and invested by bald-faced hornets and paper wasps. He wrinkled his nose. He then noticed that the roof of the Cat's armored cage had been sliced in parallel to the strange ditches. What ... ? A wrecked truck nearby, he realized, had presented to him a similar puzzle. Was this something to do with Selk's pet project? A new respect for the little scurrier seeped in.
      Armon, scanning east and west, worked round to the other side. "Hey, Wilson!"
      Wilson winced; the guy could never absorb protocols. "Report; describe."
      "Aw, just come see, okay?"
      Wilson, checking behind him as he rounded the corner, followed Armon's voice to find him standing on the Cat's tracks by a burnt armored door, hanging open.
      A man lay half out of the doorway, covered with second-degree burns and soot. He'd been apparently unable to escape the flames, as there was a shackle round one of his legs, chained to something in the interior.
      "Jeeah, Wilson, he's still breathin."  Armon turned the unconscious man over.
      Aside from the extensive burns, he'd also been shot, from close range. Wilson counted the holes. At least nine times, including once to the head. Limitations of the twenty-two.
      "So, what do we do?" asked Armon.
      "Got that knife?"
      "Well, yeah ... "
      "So, put him out of his misery."
      "Umm?"
      "Ever do sheep?"
      "Uhh, yeah."
      "Same thing." Wilson pointed to his own throat.. "Here to here. Nothin' to it."
      A sound nearby drew their attention. Swiveling round with the cocked rifle in one hand, like a long pistol, Wilson spotted the source. Someone sat under a blasted tree, using its trunk as a backrest. A hand waved in the gathering twilight.
      Abandoning protocol himself, Wilson ran to the sitter.
      "Emilio! What ... ?"
      "Please. With me, sit a little. Talk business, yes?"
      Emilio's other hand, Wilson could see, covered a pattern of holes at his waist, and was bloody. He reached for the wound.
      "No. It is no good. I tried to make sure of that man and collect his weapon, which was immensely foolish of me. And now he has, I think, relieved me of my pancreas."
      "Godammit, Emilio ... "
      "Shh. Order of business. First: several good people have died here; Mrs. Perkins is one, Mr. Jorj another. But they all  performed well. Second: I have rescued that man's shotgun from the flames. There ... are still two shells. Mr. Armon, I see, has come with you; give him that. It will be ... an improvement over the crossbow. Third, some of the enemy have passed Hall and assaulted Ridge; but they are very few, I think, and the doors are strong. The bulk of them have gone east for some reason and we are fighting them ... I think ... you should go there. Fourth; is that broken rifle loaded, and do you have spare cartridges?"
      "Yes. And yes."
      Armon came up, wiping the knife blade with and handful of vegetation. Wilson handed him the shotgun.
      "Fifth, then: With me, trade rifles. But do not waste it as I did – aim always for the head." Emilio smiled, but very briefly; Wilson would have willingly witnessed almost anything but that smile.
      "Emilio ... we can ... "
      "You cannot. You may trust me that I have no remedy and little time; be reassured, the bullet is in case any straggler follows you. I cover, yes? Go; go now, Jeeah with you; dark is coming."
      "I'll remember you to Mrs. Molinero."
      "You will surely do so, my good friend." 

:::

The buckets, those that had not cracked from old age and been tossed aside, reeked. The crew handling them had found rags with which to cover their mouths and noses, but it was certainly an onerous task. Bringing up the buckets was slow work; it was more than a hundred meters from the "tunnel's" entrance at Ridge to its exit at Hall Farm.
      Karen stood near the doorway. She and the others could hear much of what was going on: the bursting shells from the big gun, the collapse of the sally port door, the brief battle in the antechamber, footsteps on the stairs. Karen drew her revolver, but no one appeared on the landing at the end of the corridor.
      "What is happening?" asked Juanita.
      "I don't know. It's like they've skipped over us and gone downstairs."
      Marleena strode over with a bucket of sewage. "The sinks and shower stalls are  full. Where do we put the rest of this?"
      Karen didn't hesitate. "Chuck it right out in the hall. Maybe it will slow someone down."
      Not twenty buckets later, an echo-laden shout was heard from the bottom of the garderobe. The lower door was open! Little Griff, sounding as if he were kilometers away, gave the all-clear.
      Karen, after checking both ways down the corridor, looked into the troubled faces nearest her. "I'm sorry, everyone, we're all going to get  ruinously  messy. Gather your gear, each of you put your stuff in front of you, climb in, and go. Feet first. Half slide, half creep."
      The refectory filled with the rustling of bundles, bows, quivers, backpacks, and bodies. Lining up, one after another of Karen's crew shoved one or more items into the hole, undoubtedly causing distress and discomfort to whomever was below, then sat on the edge and slipped in. Marleena, now carrying Arda, who was wrapped in an old quilt head to foot, kicked a small duffel bag to the side of the hole. Juanita lifted the bag for her and tipped it onto someone in the darkness. Ignoring the aggrieved yelp from below, she turned and helped Marleena sit down with the baby and shove off.
    Errol brought the last spear from the armory. His wounds not completely healed, he was using it as a crutch. "Mrs. Allyn, I can ..."
    "No, they need your experience at the bottom in case they are attacked there. Go!"
    Grimly, but willingly, steeling himself against the pain, he went.
      An explosion from somewhere shook the room.
      Juanita looked at Karen questioningly.  
      "They're working up from Four, clearing," Karen offered. "You should go."
      "You will come too, will you not?"
      "I can't, not right away. They have grenades or something; when they find the garderobe they will drop one right on top of us."
      Juanita extended her hands."Then let me take the boy."
      Karen looked down at Allyn, sleeping peacefully in his pouch at her left side. "Sure – got a way to wrap him up?"

      "But of course. A towel will do, and he will ride between my breasts."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

51

It was definitely time to hit the headache button. Magee reached for it, but as he did so, the cab roof of his chariot came undone.
      Daylight simply appeared through the roof overhead, from the front of the cab to the back, with molten metal running down onto the bulletproof window. The glass, special though it might be, cracked, fell apart, and cascaded into his lap in thousands of iridescent shards.
      What the eff was  that?
       Something whined past his face and flattened itself on the passenger side window. Magee had been shot at before; he didn't like it any more now than he had then.
      Mullins and Lockerby were going to have to endure some unconsciousness. Magee reached for the dashboard again, this time twisting the intensity control. Four? Five?
      An arrow caromed off the doorpost.
      Oh, heck, make it six. Buncha half-dead farmers with some friendly casualties, would be preferable to being overwhelmed. He hit the button.
       Nothing!
      Another arrow plumed in and lodged itself in the padding around the passenger-side doorpost. What had happened to the microwave?
      Ahead of him, Mullins was blazing away at farmhouses and what looked like an old sawmill. He'd better start in on that mountaintop soon ... suddenly there was a ruckus in front of the LAV. Some kind of vehicle being rolled over – good one, Lockie – fleeting glimpses of figures assaulting the D8 and the LAV – the D8 jumping into the air again amidst flames – Magee's ears ached with the multiple concussions coming in through the broken window – the D8 burning.
      Better check that dish.
      He hurriedly swept glass off the windowsill with an oily red rag. Ignoring the possibility of being shot in the back, Magee shimmied out, took a peek, and squirmed back in. 
….Well! Something had sliced the dish cleanly off the roof. It lay, about as useful as any of the detritus of civilization, reduced to expensive-looking scrap.
      What  was  that weapon?
      People were coming toward him, apparently intent on business. He tried to think, but for once felt fresh out of ideas.
      Shotgun blasts interrupted Magee's reverie. They seemed to be coming from behind the MRAP. The farmer-warriors fell, one by one. Oh, that would be The Doctor with her AA12-E. He had one himself, of course, in a locker in the back. Last-resort stuff.
      She appeared in the window, standing on the running board. "My lord, we  must  advance. The column will be cut to pieces here."
      "What the hell hit my dish?"
      "There is a focused beam device, laser or maser, my lord. It seems to be sky-based. Low in the south. If we make for the mountain we will be hull-down from it.  Drive!" The Doctor's upper arm began to bleed; she stepped down and fired again into the near distance. She shouted over her shoulder. "You must drive,  now!"
      "We need the LAV. I'll pull around it; hook me up and tell Mullins to save ammo." He gripped the wheel and set the truck in motion.
      The Doctor hopped down. She shook her head. What was the poor man thinking? Without the dish, in front of the LAV, Magee would be too tempting a target for Mullins. She ran, missed by a crossbow bolt, to the back of the immobilized armored vehicle and rapped one of its back doors with the butt of the AA12, three times, pause, three times.
      Mullins' guard, a trusted member of her intern crew, opened out the rust-streaked door.
      "Stand aside, please," she smiled. Shouldering the heavy weapon with its round drum full of twelve-gauge slugs, she sent one through the gunner's seat, climbed in, and dogged the door shut behind her. Small-arms fire pinged off the exterior. "Run around that mess to the driver's hatch, climb out, roll down front, and cable this thing up to The Boss's truck, yes? Good!"
      He ran to do her bidding, and she winced at the thought that so much might devolve upon so little. The young man could be shot before completing the task. Or the Clevis could already be too hot to handle – a whiff of burning D8 had come in through the door with her. Well, first things first. Leaning the AA12 against the crew compartment wall, tugged Mullins' surprised-looking corpse down from its seat by the Bushmaster, and took his place.
      Let's see – little was as it had been when they had first acquired this machine. When the Army ran away, leaving their inexplicably acquired Marine Light-Armored Vehicle behind with so much other stuff, it had been left parked outside the ABC-hardened bunkers. The electro-magnetic pulses, both solar and war-derived, that had so paralyzed the world had made a hash of its electronics. The turret was hand-cranked, the gun bolt-operated, and for a gunsight someone – Mullins, she supposed, as this had been his baby – had found a way to bore through the hull and install a riflescope, which was all right for point-blank warfare but not much help with elevations. Oh, well.
      Encouraging noises rang from up front somewhere. The Doctor cranked the turret round to face the northern butte. That would be the artillery observer's position! She raised the barrel with the other crank.
      So little ammunition! Mullins had been much too lavish, poor boy. HESH-Ts should not be wasted on peasants in shrubbery. There was a round in the chamber. After checking the chamber, she looked through the scope, shrugged, and gripped Mullin's makeshift trigger. A near-deafening racket, more of a crack than a boom, filled the narrow space around her. As the shell fell among those at her feet, smoking, she went back to the scope to see a point of light, following a tight spiral, rise toward the lookout and blossom into orange flame. 
      A strange sizzling sound passed over; tiny holes appeared in the roof, and globules of molten steel, stinking, dripped into the interior. Someone screamed outside. This was getting to be a near thing! Suddenly the LAV jerked and began rolling forward, yawing to the left. Better get in the driver's seat and grab that yoke! And she was going to have to be her own "power" steering.

:::

"Ro-eena, what have we got? Over!" The heavy old handset, smelling of Bakelite, was slick with Avery's sweat and kept sliding through his hand, away from his ear.
      "The beam is on the road, sir, but moving too fast. We should maybe stay in one spot, let them drive through it? Wait, there goes Mr. Jorj! Oh,  eff  it! Jeeah  help  us!"
      "Ro-eena! Ro-eena! Are you ..." Avery heard a click; she'd finally lifted her finger from the "send" button. "Ro-eena, focus please. No reporting or evaluation except in relation to the laser.  Over!"
      "I'm sorry, sir, but it's pertinent; the column has stopped. Inch back to the west and you can start burning them. Over."
      One click, two, three on the smallest wheel of control C. "How's that? Over."
      An uncomfortable pause. Avery almost pressed "send" again, worrying that there had been an attack on the lookout after all, but Ro-eena responded.
      "You've  got  one! Next to last in line is burning; they're jumping out. One click is good for about two truck lengths, sir. Over. No, wait. Sir, Mr. Jorj –"
       "Report effect. Over."
      "They're ... they're moving again, sir; five clicks. Oh, stopping; we've overshot them. Come back."
      "Back two. Are we hitting anything? Over." Click.
     Click. "Sir, they're .. uhhhh, gotta go.  Over-r-r."
      What?
      From the corner of his eye, Avery saw a glimmer of flame. He snatched up the field glasses and focused on Ball Butte.
      Smoke was coming from all the stone-framed windows of the lookout.
      Mary spoke for them all. Slapping both her wheelchair arms with her open palms, she looked up at the ceiling, as if in supplication. "Dammit."
      Selk looked over at Avery. "Uhh, sir? We're losing signal on our antenna."
      "Power or position?"
      "I think it's position. Something must have jigged the dish."
      "Am I still on?"
      "Maybe. Keep diddling those dials, and I'll run out and move things around. Doctor Mary can spot both me and the 'scope till we get it right again."
      "We shouldn't be opening the sally port right now."
      Mary interposed. "It's all we got, Captain."
      Avery looked into both their faces. Selk looked back, for once unblinkingly, with an uncharacteristic set to his jaw. Mary simply smiled. Avery turned back to the board and began twisting dials. "You're both right," he said, over his shoulder. "Have a go, and I'll keep playing my little game here."
        Selk departed. Mary rolled to the heavy quartz south window. It had been fouled by the great Fire, but would do for Selk's purposes. Avery's hands hovered over the dials.  If only we'd had time to range this thing, fix some co-ordinates!  And now he had no idea if it was even working.
      South two, swing east to west two at a time, slowly. At a guess, if the thing was still running, this would straddle and destroy the bridge at Hall Farm and perhaps knock down enough timber to block the convoy.
      But if there was anything in the world Avery hated, it was the word guess.

:::

The floor shook beneath them. Karen glanced at the ceiling, but Mrs. Lazar simply stood smiling. Did anything ever faze this old woman? Karen had once prided herself on her detachment; now it seemed the people around her were more comfortable in adversity than she. What had happened to her?
      "They're here already. I'm going to have to check the availability of the sally port."
      "Yes, dear. Do we have time to get what we came for?"
      "Oh! yes." Karen reached over the top edge of a tall cabinet and retrieved a burlap bag, heavy at one end. She set it on a countertop, and tugged at the cord around its throat, one-handed.
      "May I?" Mrs. Lazar leaned forward.
      "Of course, ma'am."
      The old lady untied the bag and retrieved two pistols, one large, one small.
      "These ... " Karen began.  
      But Mrs. Lazar had picked up the Glock, expertly dropped the magazine, racked open the action, and looked into the chamber. "How nice. A Glock and, what, an old Kahr?"
      "K-Kel-Tec, ma-am."
      "The ammunition is stable, then?"
      "It was when last tested, ma'am. There's ... not much of it."
      "Enough to make one's last moments honorable. I see I have surprised you. When I tried to go to Israel, I hoped to join the IDF. You know? So. Very long ago. I joined the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, as preparation. So, about such as these, I do know a little." Her smile broadened.  
      Karen found herself smiling back.
      Mrs. Lazar tipped her head. "Oh, now, what is this? You have not smiled enough in your life, girl. It looks good on you. I will take the big one, as it is easier for my arthritis. And I will take to Dr. Chaney the little one, yes?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Good; go check on your ways and means. The Lord be with you, girl."
      Karen moved toward the door. Her hand on the doorknob, she turned and looked back. "And with you, ma'am."

:::

The two men had climbed much of the afternoon, almost straight up the trail, which consisted of no more than the judicious removal of enough brush and branches to facilitate assaults on the mountaintop. There were  no switchbacks, and it was hard going. Their haste was driven by the rattle and thump of explosions ahead. Though their hands were empty of weapons, they had trained, much of their lives, to run toward the sound of warfare.
      As they entered the clearing at the top of the Butte, they stopped and surveyed the scene before them carefully. Smoke wisped from the blackened doorway of the lookout, and two bodies lay, very still, on the ground nearby. There were no signs of current or recent activity.
      One gestured to the other, and they advanced to the casualties. The leader knelt and examined one, while the other scanned round the perimeter of the open ground. "Who are they?" he asked.
      "Elberd an' Ro-eena, dammit. Effin' flies, leave 'er alone." Wilson futilely fanned the air above her open back.  How had it gotten so warm out after all that rain?  There were already rows of tiny white eggs around the edges of the gash.
      "They must have been running from the building when it blew."
      "Yeah."
      "Shoulda gone left, 'stead 'a straight away."
      "Y'know, Armon, y'tryin' t' turn over a new leaf, maybe don't say things ... like that ... for a while?"
      The big man opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it; he had, as he well knew, run  straight away. He hung his head.
      Wilson looked up. "Man ... get a grip, no time for that either." He pointed to the doorway. "See if you can salvage anything in there; I'll go through her possibles."
      Regret welled up in Wilson; his eyes fogged over and he had to dab at them with the back of his knuckles. This woman, with something like what had been called a photographic memory, had been the Creek's archives. All that had gone, along with a stout  heart.
      Ro-eena's bag turned up several personal treasures, which he tucked back into her tunic. Remaining were a squat jar of cottonwood salve and an old pill bottle containing twelve rounds of Karen's twenty-twos, packed in dried mint. The bag hung from a belt that also held a sheathed knife. The belt would be too short to use. He unlaced it from its paired rings and slid the sheath and the possibles bag onto the thin grass, then patted away some dirt from Ro-eena's red hair. "Go with Jeeah."
     Armon returned from the smoldering building. He piled his small inventory next to Wilson. "Almost nothing. The phone's smashed. Binoculars, same thing. Water was in a glass jug; that broke. Some fruit leathers in a basket. N'this." He held out a single-shot twenty-two with a smashed stock.
      "That's Elberd's." Wilson took the little rifle and worked the bolt. A round in the chamber. He ejected this into his palm, held the barrel up to his eye, held his fingernail to the breech, and examined the light thrown into the barrel by the nail. Clean and clear; didn't look bent. He reloaded. "This will do. Was there an axe? We always have an axe here. Shovel, too."
      "Splintered."
      "Well ... Let's put 'em in through th' window and call that burial, for now. If any of us ever gets back here to collect 'em, things will be goin' better'n I expect."
      Standing on either side of the woman's body, which still lay face down, they made a litter of their upturned palms, rolled the stiffened body over, and lifted it. Ro-eena, who had always been slight, was unexpectedly heavy. Did flesh gain weight when spirit fled?
    Elberd's end had apparently come in the same moment as Ro-eena's; the back of his head was caved in. The stitches were still in his cheek; what a life he'd had! They lifted him into the window.
      Both the men seemed to feel they had done something for the dead by putting the bodies out of sight. Wilson took up the shattered rifle and walked to the southern edge of the Butte; Armon gathered up the other things, after putting the sheathed knife in his sash, and followed.
      A small but thriving corner of hell unfolded itself to their wondering eyes.
      At their feet, the buildings of Hall, Murchison's, Chaney's, Bledsoe's and Joseph's were in flames. Murchison's was already a burnt-out shell. The smoke from that fire obscured details of the others, drifting slowly up the Creek road to the east. Smoke also rose from innumerable fires along the Road, all the way from Bridge to Hall. Vehicles appeared to be crawling up the Ridge road, attended by desultory gunfire. A geyser of water and steam spouted up from the Creek in front of Bledsoe's, as if a small volcano were erupting there; the steam mixed itself with the smoke from the burning Farms and drew gloweringly away to the east.
      Before he could wonder about all the smoking streaks that had appeared in the Creek road, Wilson's eye was drawn to activity on its surface, half hidden in the smoke. Two or more vehicles were burning, and there was fighting around them; Others had moved off up the road toward New Ames, with what had to be Creekers in pursuit. The enemy's forces had been divided and could be tackled piecemeal; in effect the Creekers, on foot, held the interior lines!
      "Armon! We're not whipped yet! There's work to be done down there. Y'ready?"

:::

The Doctor was not entirely happy. Certainly the ridge was their ultimate objective, as Magee would surely have agreed, in days gone by, but his truck resolutely ground on, chuffing round the switchbacks of the farmers' access road. At least they were now out of the reach of that thing in the sky! But she would have preferred to bring along the rest of the column. No good could come of leaving them among the bedlam that was erupting along that half-dried river below.
      Perhaps Magee hoped to gain control of the sky-weapon. That would be a prize indeed, if it proved to have any staying power. Better even than the now-defunct microwave, perhaps. That man had always dreamed of empire.
      The problem was, the Doctor reflected, that there was likely not much left of the known world for imperial scope. The Eastsiders were scattered tribals rapidly re-inventing all things Indian, rightly recognizing cowboy culture as ultimately tied to a vanished industrial system. Magee's "Rogue Valley Volunteers" had hit the resource wall and scattered, with about a fourth of them right here in the fight. Who knew what was going on in Port Land? She suspected: not much. They'd displayed surprisingly little reach. And from the scorched south, from whence one might have expected a hundred million Pilgrims, no more than two hundred thousand had ever come north, by her count.
      That left this shrinking band of idealistic gentleman farmers, which Magee had no hope of befriending (it was not his style) and less of exterminating (they were proving resourceful). Not much future in pacification campaigns here. And without someone's cooperation, the big laser would have no meaningful reach. 
      Trust Magee not to be thinking that far ahead. Other things being equal, now would be the time for the Doctor to head out. East, perhaps. Or West. Find a boat, get south of the Equator. If such a thing were possible for her.
      But the Doctor had a problem; she was tied to electricity. Regulated and in sufficient quantity. It had begun to run out in Roseburg, and would run out here if they could not breach this fort. Life, for the Doctor, lay within this mountain. Despite the continual jouncing, she frowned; stupid LAV! Its engine should be running so that she could plug in.
      The vehicles suddenly halted; she could feel the tensioned tow cable slackening. Freed suddenly from the need to grip the steering yoke with both hands, she reflexively reached for her left wrist and tugged aside the unobtrusive fold of darker "skin" there. She found the tiny still-green glow of the LED reassuring.
      Someone banged on the hull. It would likely be Magee; they now had few Volunteers with them. The Doctor rose from the driver's seat to a half-crouch, undogged the driver's hatch, lifted it slightly, and peeked out.
      Yep, Magee. And he had somehow found time to climb into his armored suit.
      Standard Army issue, the suit had once harbored electronic and nanotech wonders, including a power pack for its exoskeleton, but these things had gone the way of history during the Undoing, falling victim to electromagnetic pulses, of whatever origin. With its titanium VR goggles stripped away, the suit was still handy as full-body armor, but debilitatingly heavy. The Doctor marveled that Magee could still manage it; he looked almost like a slow-moving deep-sea diver. In one hand he carried his cumbersome AA-12E. With the other, he waved and pointed to the chain-gun's barrel overhead and then to the rock face nearby. What had he seen to shoot at there?
      Magee walked toward the short cliff as the Doctor watched, fascinated. There was a distraction; someone shouted some sort of war cry on the right and threw a Molotov cocktail at Magee, which fell short, bursting and burning with a dull red glow on the road berm. Magee shouldered his weapon nonchalantly and fired one round, observed the effect for a few moments and lumbered on.
      Reaching the mountain wall, he turned, made sure the Doctor was still watching, and patted the stone. Yes. There was something of a rectangle there. A door, then. She dropped the hatch and dogged it, then made for the gunner's position. Crank the turret; crank the gun; rack a HESH-T; reach for the duct-taped trigger.

      Anyone watching might have wondered why the Doctor did not bother to put on the hearing protector muffs still on Mullins' head. Perhaps, if she knew they were watching, she would have. Protective coloring meant much in this game. But the Doctor's needs, though always and everywhere urgent, were few.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

50

"All of them?" Magee seethed inwardly, but kept his exterior calm.
      "Yessuh, not a one of th' savages is any where abouts. De-camped in th' night  entire." Jahn grimaced and spat into the yellow mud at their feet.
      "Well, they being them, and other matters in hand, we'll not pursue. You've otherwise proved up the command?"
      "Suh, ever'one fed, watered, lectured, jazzed up, geared up, and loaded for bear."
      "You are a jewel, my lad; and these are all my drivers with you?"
      Several men stepped forward.
      "Good morning, boys. We are going straight in, no more asslin' around. Remember what Jahn told you; kill all males on sight; incapacitate or capture females. Stay behind the Cat, tank, and dish truck at all times. We will use the dish intermittently at a very low setting to upset things on the battlefield; it will give Mullins and Lockie a headache but I want th' rest of yah's alert and active.  
    "Have your crossbowmen use th' firing ports and stay in th' trucks until three long blasts on the dish truck horn. Anythin' happens to us in th' dish truck, so as not to be able to signal, command devolves upon the Doctor here in truck two; then upon Jahn in truck four."
       He met pairs of eyes round the semicircle, one by one. "Much depends on each of yah's. Oh, do try to dispose of Mullo and Lockie before making any kind of a withdrawal, please. Personal favor. But as we have stressed several times since our arrival, nothing really is awaiting us in Roseburg any more; we brought it all with us and supplies of that are  dwindling. We will invest this place as we have  no  viable alternatives." Magee pointed in the general direction of Starvation Ridge. "That way lies an endless supply of electricity, of shelter, and, with any luck, procreation."
     He looked into their faces and found sufficient resolve there; everyone knew the wretched condition of the lands through which they had passed. The advantages of a winter spent here, even with little prospect of food, far outweighed those of any place they had seen.
     Magee put his thumbs through his red suspenders. "Don't have no better speech for ya, but plenty of action is on offer in its place. S'good?"
      Several voices replied, with variations on "S'good, boss!"
      "Well, then, mount up an' fire 'em up! We're just burnin' daylight here!"

:::

The phone rang. Avery, who'd been asleep in his chair, snapped to attention and picked up.
      "Mmh? Over."
      "Sir, s'Billee. They're coming. Over."
      "Coming  where?  To you? Details! Over."
      "No sir, to  Bridge. We think it's  all  of them, crawler, gunship, the dish thingy, and eight more armored trucks. They are making awfully good time for how mucky it is down there. Over."
      "Copy. Is Emilio down to Bridge yet? Over."
      "Should be by now, sir, left in the middle of the night. Shall we go down and join the fight, sir?"
      "Bee, I assume you've got your finger off the button? Over."
      "Oh, sorry, sir,  over."
      "So, hate to bug you of all people about this, but, any sign of Wilson? Over."
      A painful pause. "No, sir. Over."
      "Leave Ro-eena by the phone to coordinate with me, and somebody to watch over her, and bring everyone else you've got to the battle. Over."
      "Y...yes, sir. Over."
     "Out." Avery reached for the doorbell buzzer and rang twice. With any luck, someone would be by the phone at the rifle pits. There was; with no delay he heard Emilio's voice on a much cleaner connection than the line to Ball Butte.
      "We're already listening, Mr. Murchison. Over."
      "No less expected, Mr. Molinero. Is everyone bright eyed and bushy tailed? Over."
      "We have made all possible preparations. I have command on the south side of the road, and Mr. Josep on the north side. Over."
      "We sent you all but a skeleton crew yesterday, as you know. Karen is pulling together an evacuation; they will head up the Creek and if these bastards get through you,  don't  make for here; go up the Creek. We'll keep them occupied. Understood? Over."    
      "I follow you, sir. But ... "
      "Leggo that button! Are you there? I repeat: if the fight comes up here,  do not follow it. Over."
      After several clicks of the primitive phone system had butted heads, Emilio's voice came through again. "Understood," he said resignedly. Obviously he was concerned about Juanita. "Over."
      "Good. Now, and this is important, the weapon we all heard about, it's real, it's running, it's dangerous, it's unwieldy as all get-out, we  will  use it, but it can cause friendly fire casualties; we can only see what we're doing through Ball Butte. Keep everyone well back from the road for as long as you can, hopefully until you hear from us again. Copy? Over."
      "Copy ... what will be the effects? Over."
      "We're not even sure. You won't see a beam, but some things may get sliced and diced in interesting ways. It will come from behind Ridge, maybe about a thirty degree angle. There could be, I dunno, falling trees and shit. Or there could be nothing at all; we don't know how much juice this thing has left in it, or how robust the connection. Just stay the  eff  out of its way if you can. Over."
      "We will do as you advise. Based on what Mrs. Wilson has said, I will estimate the enemy will arrive here in about one hand. Or less. Over."
      "Well there's a chance they'll huff around to the south and try to hit us from the homestead again. But I don't think so; I think this is it. Over."
      "It most assuredly is. I must go now, I think. Over?"
      "Yeah. And, uhh, Jeeah be with you. Over and out."
      Avery reached for the button again, to try for Ro-eena; but he felt presence. Looking round, he found Mary, in her chair and Selk, standing, busying themselves with the console.
      Selk turned his owlish eyes upon Avery, smiling grimly. "Ready when you are, Captain."

:::

Karen sighed. Too much to do, too many things that ought to be done and no way to do them. Try as she might to consider herself complete as she was, she felt the situation slipping out of control. A left hand would be nice right now.
      She pointed to the two Roundhousers –a boy and a girl – that had been considered too young to fight – which was very young indeed, as even the Perkins kids were out there somewhere, armed to the teeth. "You, and you."
      "Ma'am?" said the nearest, putting down a squirming puppy.
      "Childhood's over. You just grew up. Get your bows – you do have bows? Good – your arrows,  one  blanket,  one  knife, any food not nailed down, rain cloak, water skin or bottle, a change of clothes if you have one,  one  pair of spare sandals, any kind of fire starter, sewing kit, and anything valuable to a winter traveler – sunglasses, say, for snow. Make a blanket roll. Go to each adult on this level and show them the contents of your blanket roll and say: 'Karen says we're all going on a long hard trip. Pack like this. Travel light.' Repeat, please."
      "Karen says we're all goin' on a long hard trip. Pack like this. Travel light." In unison!
      "Very good." Karen admired Roundhouse discipline, not for the first time.
      One of the kids turned toward the puppy who was scampering away. "What about Dough Go?"
      "Dough Go will come with us; dogs are valuable."
      At this they brightened; but then the girl's face clouded. "As food?"
      Karen steeled herself and paused to get the tone right, truth with some empathy. "Everything  is food; I've had trouble coming to terms with that myself. But with any luck at all, Dough Go will have a long and happy life bringing  you  good things to eat and watching over you. Now, hop."
      Karen moved to the stair well and ran up to the next level. A number of people were in the refectory, spooning at bowls of thin gruel or simply raising the bowls to their lips to sip. These were all elders, Mrs. Lazar   and Mrs. Chaney among them, with Juanita presiding over them from the kitchen door. She locked eyes with Karen and nodded.
    Karen stood on tiptoe in the entrance and cleared her throat. "My friends all, if I may have your attention."
      Bowls were set down and eyes turned her way, some bright, some rheumy. Behind Juanita, Karen could see Mrs. Josep, carrying Karen's own tiny baby wrapped in a towel.
      "The war is about to enter its final phase, we think. Almost everyone that can or should go to Bridge has done so. All the youngs and middles downstairs are packing up for a winter journey on foot. Should this take place, it will likely be a long, cold, wet, hard slog.
      "Ridge is going to defend itself. Those who don't feel up to joining the trek should consider whether they can join the defense here. Travelers are going to assemble by the staircase in about two hands and make for the sally port. Who wants to go, who wants to stay?"
      "I'll certainly stay, my dear," smiled Mrs. Lazar. "My time is about over, and maybe you will provide me with a trigger to pull."
      Mrs. Chaney looked at Mrs. Lazar as if to say something, then thought better of it. A few Roundhouse elders nodded, apparently in agreement with Mrs. Lazar. The rest did what was pretty much left to them in life: they waited.
      Mrs. Chaney made up her mind. "Ava, I'm sure you and everyone will want to consult with Karen as to what's left of the Armory. May I have her for a few minutes first?"
      "Of course, dear. We'll be finishing up our grand repast. And I  do mean grand, " she added, looking across to Juanita. "I simply don't know how you do it."
      "'The condemned Creek ate a hearty meal'," Juanita replied. "It's the very last of the seed wheat, with spices. And, probably, knowing where it was kept, radioactive."
      "Least of our worries. We do thank you – proceed, Elsa."
      Mrs. Chaney swept  Karen in to the Infirmary, next door. On a cot near at hand Tom lay sleeping.
      "You will need a medicine kit. I'd go," Mrs. Chaney attested wistfully, "and be the 'medicine woman,' as I'm still pretty hale, I think. But I'm not leaving Tom, of course. You, and probably Juanita and Marleena, know most of what I know anyway." She opened a cabinet. "Oh, Jeeah help. There's ... not much here."
      "That's all right, Mrs. Chaney."
      "No, it's not. Here's needles, sutures – what's this stuff? Cottonwood infusion. A couple of good pairs of scissors and a forceps. Some almost pure wood alcohol. Infusion of plantain. Some powdered goldenseal."
      A creak sounded behind them. They turned to find Tom Chaney trying, and failing, to sit up.
      "Oh, Tom, please, take it easy," Elsa remonstrated.
      "To what end?" He rolled his head on the pillow. "Karen, I see, you're going ... to head out soon. The new Moses."
      "Sir." Karen could think of nothing else to say.
      "Quite appropriate. There is something ... you could do for me – for Elsa and me, if she will allow it. I know she's unwilling to head for the hills, and she's right – not ... as strong as she thinks she is ... for one thing," he chuckled, watching his wife's reaction. "So I want to be able to ...   defend her. Got ...  anything I can manage?"
      Karen ransacked her head for the Armory's dwindling choices. "Yes, sir, I think I do."
      "All ... in good time." His breathing came in little gasps between the words. "Finish your other business there, and see us if you can before you go."
      "Understood, sir." She turned, blinking away her blurring vision, and focused on Mrs. Chaney. Elsa took a deep breath, and returned her gaze to the almost emptied cabinet. "Some bandages are most of 
what's here; I should think you'd be better off not burdened with them."
      "I see one thing we really should have, ma'am," replied Karen.
      "What's that?"
      "The roll of duct tape." 
:::

Lockerby's teeth – such as he still had – rattled in his head. Like many, he'd suffered through a number of amateur extractions already. "Builds character," The Doctor would smile. Somewhere behind him, he knew, she was riding in relative comfort, with her vials and syringes – the ultimate enforcer, as terrifying in her way as the mysterious dish atop the truck Magee was driving.
      Bouncing uncomfortably on the seat, Lockerby gave the Cat three-quarters throttle, keeping the cable taut to the LAV in tow behind. He held onto both control sticks of the D-8, watching the road ahead through the relatively tiny slit in the cage's forward armor. He could see over the raised blade, but barely. His shotgun rider, a taciturn youth, held on for dear life. The shotgun itself, Mullins' much beloved Mossberg, clattered to the floor.
      Lockerby considered diving for it himself, but realized he had no chance of changing the game. His foot was chained to the floor. "You wanna pick that up and get a better grip on it? I know you've already racked it; that thing could go off and mess us up in here."
      "S'sorry." The kid reached for it, still holding on with his other hand.
      Ahead, Lockerby could see the Creek bridge beyond the 
intersection; maybe fifteen seconds away. He wondered idly what "seconds" once were; Magee had tried to explain it once but finally had fallen back on a rule of thumb; "just count 'em; say 'one thousand one, one thousand two,' like that. Close enough."
      One thousand thirteen, one thousand fourteen.  "Hard left; hang on." He slammed the left lever back and tried to watch ahead and behind at the same time, hoping not to take up too much slack on the cable at once.
      To the rear, Mullins was already cranking the turret manually in order to commence file firing. Lockerby shouted to his passenger over the roar of the diesels. "You got those chewed leaves in your ears like I showed you?"
      "Yeah, why?" the youth asked sullenly. "Open your mouth wide." Lockerby demonstrated.
      "What?"
      The thirty-five went off behind them. Light flashed in the trees ahead, on the left, and there was a sodden thump of ordnance exploding in wet foliage.
      "Ow!"
      "Told ya; helps save yer eardrums."  The turret behind them was cranking the other way. "Again."
      "Aaah!" The kid's shout, half terror, half bravado, would protect his hearing nicely.
      The cannon opened up on the right. No response from the farmers. Perhaps all the starch had gone out of them – was this going to be easy, then?
      At that moment an explosion much louder, albeit lower and slower, enveloped Lockerby's small world. The Cat rose up in mid-air, hung at the top of its short arc momentarily, and pitched forward onto the base of its blade. Lockerby held onto the sticks with all his might, but would have been tossed against the armor plating forward, had not his foot been locked down. His companion, having no such luck, bounced forward, caromed off the plates, and fell across Lockerby's lap.
      The Cat settled much where it had been before, but in a small crater. Smoke poured in through the slits and the grated flooring. Had Mullins somehow shot the D-8 while traversing?



      Lockerby strained at his fellow's inert form and lifted him away. From the corner of his eye he could see the kid's nose was bleeding profusely. Perhaps his own was as well. Lockerby's ears rang, but he could feel the Cat's engine idling. A mine! The road had been mined. If Mullins hadn't welded extra mine protection beneath the power plant and cage, no doubt the machine would have been killed, and its two passengers along with it. He tested the throttle with his foot. A reassuring rumble answered him. Good; now to see if either track was in trouble. Sticks forward; up, out, good!
      The kid was moaning. Lockerby swung to the right and shouldered him. "Wake up! Look alive! Things to do here!"
      Grinning idiotically, the recruit nodded, picked up the Mossberg and peered out the right-side door slit. "What hit us? What's with the smoke?"
      "Never mind. Watch for counter-attack!"
      The thirty-five banged again. Lockerby involuntarily braced himself for the rattle of lead on armor, but none came. Where were  the farmers?
      Thunder rolled from somewhere above, and then a thing occurred which made no sense to Lockerby at all.    
      A narrow ditch appeared along the roadside to their left, spouting dirt and duff, as if the ground were being unzipped. Tree branches fell, smoking, all along the road into  the near distance. A man, missing much of his left side, stepped from the shrubbery into the road, screamed once, and fell down.
      What  was  that? Lockerby felt sure Mullins hadn't done it.
      No time to muse on it, however. Lockerby held the sticks forward; the Cat rumbled over the body in the road, feeling not so much as a bump. The LAV fired to the left and again, shortly thereafter, to the right, jerking at the Cat through the cable with each recoil. Not for the first time, Lockerby wished they had found a way to get the big Bushmaster to run electrically. Manual was just not up to the task here.
      Peering through the front slit, Lockerby could see that the "zipper" was coming back. Upper halves of small trees were falling into the road from the right, and dirt – or mud – was spouting up from the gravel berm on the left, like some kind of racing geyser. It would hit the Cat!
      It did; but whatever it was seemed to have little penetration. Blobs of steel gouted   from the armored engine cover and a steely vapor probed at the slits; but whatever it was had not lingered long enough to cut anything vital. Lockerby held the levers forward; what else could he do?
      "Incoming!" shouted his seatmate. The Mossberg snapped to the kid's shoulder; he fired through the starboard gun slit. He racked the smoking red shell out of the chamber and  clicked home another.
      "What was it?"
      "Runner with a Molotov. Got him."
      "There'll be one on this side, then! Climb over me!"
      Lockerby leaned forward. Knees dug painfully into his back, but his ears were rewarded with another blast from the Mossy. An ejected shell tumbled at his feet.
      "Eff, you were right, that was close!"
      Something pinged on the armor near the front slit.
      "Careful! Stay down!"
      But it was too late. The youth sat down, still grinning idiotically, but a tiny third eye had opened in his forehead. Life faded from his eyes. Lockerby noted the location of the shotgun, but kept the Cat roaring forward. The LAV barked again; the Cat shuddered with the recoil.
      The giant zipper swept over the armored cage and down the road again; branches flailed into the road, cut cleanly off. A small hole had appeared in the roof; Lockerby became aware of it when a droplet of molten steel fell onto his arm, like dripping solder, and steamed its way into his flesh.
      "Eff it!  Eff!" Lockerby released the levers, then grabbed up the Mossberg and jammed it against them with his good hand. The Cat stalled momentarily, then lumbered forward again. He sucked at the wound on his other forearm for a bit, then dropped the gun and grasped both levers again before the Cat could leave the road.
      A small bullet entered the front slit at an angle, then spalled round the interior before landing, spent, on the seat by Lockerby's side. He fought the impulse to stop and return fire. Safety, if it lay anywhere, lay ahead. He peered at the slit.
      Branches were showering down again, but from the left. Lockerby felt sure the weapon, for it must be one, was being operated blindly. The Cat would not be hit on this pass. And the end of the woods, open country, lay ahead, with farmhouses visible. 
    But what was that?
      Another armored Cat, but much, much smaller, with a wired-up five-gallon bucket tied to its blade and a smokestack at its rear, entered the thoroughfare from a side road. The strange machine turned and advanced, at what was clearly its turtle-like top speed, on the D-8. A suicide bomber! That bucket must surely be another mine.
      Lockerby kept on, as if to pass on the right; the other dozer clearly meant to do the same, probably with the intent of turning into the LAV and blowing itself up there. Lockerby felt he had the advantage, however. Just as the Kamikaze came abreast of his blade, Lockerby would snatch back his left lever, brushing the little Cat off into the ditch.
      The plan almost didn't come off. At the critical moment, someone (how had they got aboard?) somehow shoved a spear in through the left slit, narrowly missing Lockerby's head. He ducked aside and snapped back the left lever.
      The blade connected! The little Cat rolled over in the ditch! Lockerby had no time to exult – that spearman was still out there, and might shift to another angle at any time. He reached up and snatched at the haft of the spear.
      Apparently having recovered, someone snatched back, almost cutting Lockerby's hand. He grabbed up the Mossberg, aimed it at the slit, and fired blindy along the shaft of the spear, disregarding the pellets that ricocheted back, stinging like holy hell.
      The spearpoint slowly withdrew. Lockerby racked another shell into the chamber and aimed along the barrel at the slit. Refocusing, he discovered his wounded opponent, falling away out of sight past the tracks.
      It was a black woman!
      In that moment, Lockerby might have reflected on his career and wondered, briefly, how he had come to this place and time, and whether his choices had been good ones. But several things happened at once.
      One was that the giant zipper passed by, making a brief but spectacular splash of someone's blood. Another was that yet another farmer had apparently clambered up the other side of the Cat, and holed him in the back with one of those tiny bullets. He didn't even hear the report of the rifle. Yet another was that, from where he was sitting, Lockerby could see the little Cat lying upended over the roadside ditch, with its upside-down power plant burned off by the Zipper and now in flames. At the front, apparently unscathed, hung the bomb, tightly cabled to the inverted blade. In the smashed cage lay an old man, bald and bearded, smeared with blood, and in his shaking hand he held what looked an awful lot like some kind of plunger switch at the end of a length of wire, with the plunger depressed.
      And then the old man lifted his thumb.
      Lockerby instinctively ducked away from the window, but was still unprepared for the blast wave when it came. The great Cat rose up and pivoted on its truck-sized blade until it hovered in the flames in which it had become engulfed, then sat down again heavily, upright as before but mortally wounded. Lockerby would have caromed round the interior like a spent bullet, but for the chain round his leg; as it was he was stretched out almost to the roof, then crumpled against the wall, then the floor, and dropped again into his seat. He knew that his nose was bleeding again, and probably his ears as well. He was pretty sure the chained leg had snapped. Darkness crept in round his eyes, but he fought off the tunnel vision long enough to find the shotgun.
      There was too much light. Lockerby realized the passenger-side door had been thrown from its latch. He twisted his agonized body and squinted. If the day were sunnier, he wouldn't have been able to see a thing.
      Beyond, from what remained of the woods to the right, a   small, round-shouldered man was advancing on the Cat through steaming, burning shrubbery. An arrow, loosed from somewhere behind the LAV, missed him; he came on and disappeared to the left. Probably climbing the hydraulics to get at the cab. In the near distance, a long, low steel-clad building was in flames from shells being pumped into it by the chain gun. Above and behind the building loomed the dark ridge that was the object of Magee's quest.
      It didn't look like much.
       Eff you and your quest, old fart. Come here and let's talk about your electricity and your "restoring civilization," blah blah blah,"Boss." And then I'll blow your effing head off and join these nice folks here, see if I don't  ...  Oh! the blossoms in the pear trees! How old was I when I first discovered Spring? Seven, maybe. I think I was seven.
      Something scraped on the hot steel. Lockerby could imagine the man's fingers blistering. Singleness of purpose. Perhaps he had family to protect. A weapon, one of those little rifles, came into view, tucked into the left shoulder. The man was trying to take advantage of cover. Nice job! Lockerby had always admired presence of mind. Now the man heaved into view, taking aim. A Mexican?
      They both fired as one.