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, August 30, 2014

26

"Hey down there!" The unexpected voice drifted down the dark stairwell. 

Carey Murchison halted his discussion with the newly recruited runner, one of the Perkins kids from Tomlinson's, and stepped over to the doorway. He looked up the stairs. 

"Mary, what are you doing here?" 

"Just being sociable. Got a couple of strong girls up here to haul me down, shall we stop by?"

"Sure, sure. We'll move the table a bit for you."

Mary was helped down the steps; she could do it under her own power but it would have taken a lot out of her. The helpers proved to be Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Lazar, off shift from the "hospital" across the road. Winded, they practically fell into the available folding chairs.

"Comfy furniture ya got here, Murchie." Mary picked up a yellowed, mostly used-up steno pad from the table and fanned herself. "Nice stale air, too."

Murchison winced. "Murchie" was not one of his favored nicknames. "Sociable, mmh? Tell me more."

"Guy, we're in trouble, aren't we?"

Carey looked at the three of them. Probably the time for most secrets was long gone. "Are you thinking about the little war we have in hand or your radio research?"

"Both, bud. Think it's all connected?"

Murchison offered them cold chamomile tea, which Mary waved off with the steno pad. "Might not be," he said. "But some think it could be, if any of them get away."

"Mm-hmm. And if we're busy putting everything back together, and finding enough to eat for whomever is left over from this, when the next wave comes, fella, I don't think we're gonna pull through. Even," she said emphatically, slapping down the steno pad, "if we come up with those primers for all your old brass. We gotta reorganize."

"Agreed." Murchison, who'd not yet sat down, did so, rather gingerly.



Mary looked at him. Why, the man's a practically a skeleton! Why didn't I know about this?
"'Agreed,' he says. Y'know, guy, I thought you were gonna be more invested in your cute little suburban layout. I was all set for a pissing match here."

"Nahh, Mary, we still gotta farm. But I hear you, and I think we might be on the same page."
Mrs. Lazar, a round-shouldered woman with a halo of frizzy gray hair, spoke up. "All man's striving is for his mouth." They looked at her. "Ecclesiastes," she added.

"That's right, Ava," said the Captain, smiling. "Food is primary. And as Dr. Mary here is noting, we're living in a time when both the food and our persons need constant safeguarding. We will reorganize."

"Castle and demesne, Carey?"

"Yes. Ridge is the castle. Hall here is the demesne, and perhaps we will have to move most of the village here. It would certainly help, with centralization, to have more horses."

"Wait, wait. Ridge? Way up there! How can we build up at that lookout, Murchie; it's a solid ball of basalt!"

"Well, there's more to it than you might think. The Department of Defense had an experimental facility in days gone by; Ellen and I were part of the Marine contingent providing security. There are five floors of subterranean rooms inside. Big rooms."

Mrs. Ames' mouth dropped open. Ava leaned forward. Mary tipped her head to one side. "How big?"
"You could fit everyone at the Creek inside, with room for a little privacy. And lots of food. Maybe even some stock. There's plenty of water. In fact –" he turned to a ledger sitting on the desk –"We send Avery full accounting of everything we pass on to them from Hall, and he sends back full accounting of everything that has arrived, its disposition, and condition. We've been stocking your castle for over fifteen years, Mary. Want to go see?"

"I do indeed!" Mary leaned forward, like Ava. "Facility? What was their gig, Sergeant Murchison?"
"We didn't ask and were never told. Maybe if you look it over, you can tell us something about it. We've been meaning to invite you, anyway, but the list of things we wanted from your group just grew and grew. And it seemed like need-to-know was best policy, and maybe we overdid it."

Mary opened her mouth in an "O" and fluttered her hands in the air in mock shock.

"And defense? How do you defend a cave?" asked Mrs. Ames.

She's swifter than she looks, thought Murchison. "Very badly, if at all. Till now we have depended on concealment. Might be time soon to begin some new construction."

Ava Lazar held up a hand, palm out, as if offering a benediction. "These will I bring to my holy mountain," she intoned.

"What?" asked Mary.

Mrs. Lazar shrugged. "Isaiah."

"Ri-i-ight." Mary wheeled around. "Murchie?" she asked, uncharacteristically softly. "Are we losing you?"

He looked up from the ledger, which had drawn his attention. "Yes."

"So, may we ask, how long is it you have, yet?" asked Mrs. Lazar.

"Give or take a few weeks, about two months. In fact," he added, grimacing, "You've caught me on a good day."



Emilio Molinero would have liked to have waited for the messenger to return from Wilson with an explanation of the new developments, but whatever had been going on over at the farm certainly sounded urgent.

Gunplay, albeit sporadic, had been going on for minutes, which felt like years, and now consisted entirely of the flat crack of the bandits' semiautomatic rifle. His own forces had only the one black powder rifle and a long, heavy cap-and-ball revolver (now in his possession) with which to reply to this weapon. The bandits' leader undoubtedly had range, skill and ammunition in his favor, as well as the home ground, in a manner of speaking.

Cautious by nature, Emilio disliked marching his very young and poorly armed charges down the hedgerow to the road, disliked herding them along it, disliked fording the Creek, and disliked approaching the occupied tree farm, now bristling with harm, but there it was. He could never have imagined removing his shirt and hugging a hornet's nest to his chest, and this felt something like that; but the thought of Juanita and the boys steadied him.

Looking over the bank of Starvation Creek between the roots of two cottonwood, he could see the two redwoods where he had camped with his co-workers – was it only yesterday? The evening before? – and the main house, partly obscured behind them. On either hand it was guarded by one of the little blockhouses.

Did the bandits know yet that these were connected to the house by tunnels?

Perhaps he had the beginnings of a plan. Surely some of the bandits were absorbed in the activities which had made so much noise; now would be the time to take advantage.

Emilio turned to see whom he had on his left. To his mild surprise, it was Vernie with the Hawken; his sense of tactics was offended. The two firearms should be farther apart in the line.

"Hello, Vernie. Tell me ... down!"

They both ducked. An arrow passed though the place where they had both been, and struck a young man in the shoulder, who should not have been standing in the first place. Though it did not penetrate deeply, the surprise carried him off balance, and he fell backwards down the embankment with his head in the creek. Two of his friends rushed to his aid; several others shot arrows and bolts ineffectually in the direction of the attacker, who was well concealed behind a walnut tree at the entrance gate, to their left. Already he was fitting another arrow and raising the alarm.

"Ah, we are all so careless," Emilio said. "And I most of all. Vernie, please, see if you can do something with that man when he next takes aim."

Vernie shouldered the Hawken, with its ladder sight raised, and steadied his aim. The still-shouting scout appeared again, and the boom of the Hawken, which only Emilio expected, made him jump along with everyone else. Heavy gray smoke drifted back into the underbrush. The enemy archer reluctantly dropped the bow, painfully got to his hands and knees, and began crawling toward the house. Several bowmen drew beads on him.

"Hold fire, everyone, please." requested Emilio. "And it is not a good range for me with this." He waved the Colt Navy, which glistened in the light rain. "Who here is our best archer?"

Heads turned toward a blond young man about five meters feet to Emilio's right, holding a large crossbow. He recognized him as a Hisey shepherd. "Will you do us the honor, please?"

"Yes, sir."

The crossbowman knelt behind a patch of horsetails along the top of the embankment, aimed, tracking the crawling figure, and fired. The bolt sailed past the bald man's nose.

"Damn. Leading him too much. Sorry."

"Please. You are very good considering the distance; take your time. Everyone else, stay very low, but watch the houses, the hedges and the trees. No more surprises for us, please."

The archer stepped down the embankment, sword dragging in the soft sand behind him, and stepped in the stirrup of his crossbow, cranking the string back to the notch. He drew and placed a bolt, them climbed back up to the horsetail patch.

The man, now halfway to the house, shouted something again, and a reply came from one of the windows. The rifle had gone silent; was it being brought round to the front? Time might yet turn against them. Distractedly, Emilio bit one of his nails to the quick.

The crossbow sang its tiny tune again. The bolt struck the crawling man in the short ribs and disappeared; he lay down dejectedly, drew himself into a fetal position, and did not move again.

"Jeeah!" someone said.

"Well," said Emilio, "now we all are veterans. Veterans and the dead share much, my friends. Vernie, are you reloaded?"

His companion nodded. "Sorry I'm not faster."

"You will improve. All right, my friends. Vernie and I will run to the corner of that blockhouse on the right, with four grenadiers." He indicated those who would go. "We will attempt to fire the building and perhaps return. If we do not succeed, another six – you two, and the remaining four grenadiers will attempt the same again. If the blockhouse burns or is vacated, there will be a tunnel. We must get beneath the main house and set it aflame as well. Most of you remain here and prepare to shoot, should any come within range, or if necessary, chase down and cross blades with any who run away. Keep as well covered from the upper windows as you can. It is not perfect, but so we find it, yes?"

Heads nodded.

Emilio and Vernie, with their four grenadiers, crawled up among the horsetails, checked all their gear, and ran down between two rows of leafless young pear trees toward the corner of one of the blockhouses. No shots came from the rifle, wherever it was. There was activity at one of the loopholes of the blockhouse, but the angle was poor for firing upon them; the archer inside was awaiting a better opportunity, as Emilio had foreseen. Upon arrival, the six of them at first had no clear idea what to do; the roof was too steep for a Molotov cocktail, and the loopholes too small to fit one through. The crossbowman inside was maneuvering about at the loophole to their right, desperately trying to find a target.

"Here," said Vernie. "Light one of those things and hand it to me." This was done; he applied it to the left loophole and held it in place with the barrel of the Hawken.

"Wait," said Emilio. "That will –"

"I know. Put me out if I burn." Vernie turned his head away to protect his eyes.

There was a small firecracker blast. Glass flew out in all directions, with blue-tinged flames behind it; Vernie dropped the enflamed rifle, shouted in pain and rolled on the grass. The now-unarmed grenadier beat with her hands at the remaining flames on Vernie's sleeve.

Inside the tiny building, there was a yelp and the sound of someone trying to put out a small fire inside. Emilio stepped round to the right-hand loophole, feeling terribly exposed, while hauling back the long-legged hammer of the Colt. Squeezing the trigger as he came opposite the dark hole, he loosed a ball into the interior, and while he had little hope of a lucky hit, the noise and the extra smoke seemed to make up someone's mind inside. Everyone could hear the door-bar rasping as it was lifted. The heavy door squeaked on its hinges; someone would be running away.

"Quick, light one of the bombs and throw it over the building." But battle shakes had seized the remaining young grenadiers; the box of matches was spilled. Emilio shrugged and stepped around the corner, again fully exposed to the main house. Someone from the blockhouse was in full flight. Emilio cocked and fired again, twice. On the second shot, the man staggered, but kept running.
Wasteful. Stick to the program. Emilio dodged back around the corner. "Vernie!"

"Here!"

"Get from the young ones another fuel bomb, please, and give it to me! With matches!"

"Right here!"

"Good; now cover me against the house from the left side."

Emilio ran round to the door. An arrow struck the doorjamb in front of his face; he ducked beneath it. A bolt flew into the calf of his right leg, as the Hawken, around the corner, spoke in reply. He threw himself, dizzy with pain, into the interior and set down the bomb and the revolver to see about removing the bolt from his stunned flesh. The air was terribly thick with smoke, which poured around him and out the doorway. Coughing, Emilio tried to draw the bolt, but this was beyond his will.

Hellish pain! He tried again. His whole body seemed to grow cold, his head light. Forget it – the trap door! Stick to the program!

Pulling himself up by one post of the bunk beds, Emilio found the inconspicuous brass hat-hook that released the false wall. He hurled the beds over, and turned for the Molotov. To his horror, he discovered the bed frame had fallen on the revolver. No time to retrieve it – he was almost out of air. Grabbing scattered matches, he stuck several, with their improvised strike, in his teeth, scooped up the spirits-and-fats-filled wine bottle, and descended into the hole in the floor that waited behind the false wall, head first. The crossbow bolt twitched against the edge of the hole, causing Emilio to gasp, losing the matches and strike in the dark. By feel, he rounded most of them up again, cradled the bottle in the crooks of his arms, and crawled into the tunnel.

This culvert, half a meter or so in diameter and made from salvaged steel culvert pipe from before the Undoing, was not like those at Ames', as it was not well drained. Ah, Allyn, not so good! This will embarrass your farm. There was dank standing water; he must be even more careful with the matches now, and the crossbow bolt persisted in dragging against the spiral steel ridges of the tunnel. From somewhere above him came the boom of the muzzle-loading rifle. Emilio crawled, surprised to find the cold water soaking his elbows, belly, and knees bothering him, if anything, more than his mangled calf.

How far to the house? How far?

Ah, we are here at last. Draw the bolts. Yes, the door is the back of a cabinet in the downstairs pantry. Three other such tunnels come to the same room, no doubt. The door at the top of the stairs is ajar; Emilio can see the room has been ransacked. There is a large woven bag of pearled barley, open and partly spilled, in front of the cabinet.

Emilio tries a match, in one hand, upon the strike, in the other. There is a smell like burnt urine. It fails. There are six more matches. They are long, awkward, and uneven, but they are matches; in his life he has seen only borrowed coals, flint-and steel, or fires begun with hand lenses.

He tries another. Damn! Another, carefully, carefully! It lights, but he drops it; it falls out of sight into the room. There are shouts, gunfire above. There is a smell of gunpowder, a different smell than that of the black powder with which he is familiar. Booted feet running about. Someone might come for more food, if these men abscond. Another match, carefully, please! Yes! Now for the fuse. Ah! The violet flame; lovely. Gently toss the bottle onto the barley. And now to bolt the door back into place and retreat.

Light begins to flicker beyond the trapdoor. Air flows past him, pouring through the cracks to feed flame in the room beyond.

But wait! The crossbow bolt is caught on something. In the narrow space, Emilio cannot now pull forward nor go back, nor turn to reach for his pinioned leg to free it. Damn! Damn. Must move.

Must!

Cannot.

Ah. So it is. A better life for Juanita and the boys, yes? Please? Thank-you-Jeeah-for-all-that-was-good.