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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

4

Tom Chaney, an elder of Starvation Creek, had not much liked the name his family had given him, back before the Undoing. Other children had taunted him, saying it was the name of a cowardly killer in a new movie by the Coen brothers. But he reckoned that, in a way, the name had done him good.

He'd worked to remake the name's meaning, by seeking out ways to make himself known both for courage and for giving, not taking away, life. Seeking credentials for a medical education, he'd become an Army medic. His timing was poor, for it led him to take part in a war of which he did not approve, patching the bodies of younger men, and women, some of whom had crossed the Rio Grande to carry out a policy of interdiction by incursion; the others, if they were conscious, spoke Spanish.

The battles had not been battles so much as killing fields – the last gratuitous demonstrations of the United States' industrial wizardry. Dish-equipped Strykers had flooded Tijuana with amped-up microwaves as robotic snipercopters droned overhead.

Chaney's job was triage, determining who was too damaged to save and whom to send north on mercy flights. He had become aware that, though he tagged friend and foe alike, those who hauled away the gurneys sneered when they were given Mexicans.

Where were they taking them? He suddenly wondered. Tom never got a chance to find out. His field hospital's position had suddenly been taken under sustained small arms fire, well behind the lines in El Paso, and things had gotten complex. Somehow or other he'd been handed a Bronze Star, just in time for such medals to begin losing their meaning, even to those who might want one.

He hadn't kept the Bronze Star. But he remembered the childish quest that had led him into that disaster. Perhaps he had at least cleared his name.

Though he'd never had time to qualify as more than a Certified Nurse Practitioner, he was now, by default, the doctor of Starvation Creek. Also counselor, dentist and veterinarian. Some one hundred and eighty children, women, men, and a thousand or more animals, among them cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, and one creek full of migratory fish relied on him for, if not direct care, cheap advice and a kind word. It kept him in eggs.

At his age, eggs were a comfort. Bent, white-haired, and craggy, with the aches and pains of advanced age, he was all of fifty. He hadn't met many other fifty-year olds lately.

Speak of the devil! One of those other ancients was walking into the farmhouse-cum-clinic even as Tom thought this.

"Hello, Tom."

"Carey." Carey Murchison, another Elder, held responsibilities relating to the defense of Starvation Creek. He'd be here on business.

Murchison, completely bald, craggier than Chaney and wider of body than most nowadays, had been a Marine sergeant and served two tours in Kazakhstan. Having been exposed to considerable quantities of "depleted" uranium and clouds of dust bearing isotopes, he was also in the early stages of bone cancer, and it would be fatal – information yet known only to the two of them. Tom sometimes did not agree with the old warrior's views but he admired him, and they maintained a wary but genuine friendship. The Creekers, as they called themselves, designated him Captain Murchison. He had scowled the first few times he'd heard it, but the "rank" stuck.

They stood by the large window – made from an old sliding glass door – in the wall between the infirmary and a small room that contained two beds, a table and a couple of dining room chairs. In one of the beds lay a sleeping woman, not yet twenty by her looks. In the chair sat Mrs. Ames, reading a tattered Louis L'Amour novel.

"Still in quarantine?"

"Yes, all routine. I think it was mostly hypothermia, hunger and thirst, though she also had quite a few parasites. Much of her diet appears to have been small game – eaten raw. Mrs. Ames is her volunteer, and they get along well. Our tests, such as we've been able to do, indicate she's not a danger. If anything, we shouldn't breathe on her; she's been that isolated. Well isolated; no cleft palate, no other deformations, no pox marks. They should be able to leave quarantine soon."

Murchison's head tilted back slightly, and the corners of his mouth held a hint of frown. "As in she doesn't have smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic or pneumonic plague, or anthrax, or measles, or polio. Danger comes in other forms, Doctor."

"I understand you. It's what anyone has to consider. But I remind you, "he smiled, "that it has been your policy to recruit from among strangers, and it is why we have enough labor here to carry out your schemes."

"True. And we've been damned lucky. It's rough out there." The old Marine moved to the table. "I've been Downstream, so I'm just catching up here. May I look through these items?" He awaited, and received, an affirmative reply.

The question was not entirely perfunctory. It was courtesy to ask; Karen's possessions were her own, in the eyes of all the community. They were in the doctor's hands only because there had been the precautions of cleanliness – along with need-to-know.

The first thing that came to Captain Murchison's hand was one of the arrows.

"Carbon Express dual fixed blade broadhead. Look at the fletching."

"Kept clean. I'm told for two years."

"In the field, no less. This thing is thirty years old if it's a day, and it would have cost a fortune then." He laid it down and took up another. "Now, this is just a common field point, much cheaper manufacture, might have come with the bow." He nodded toward the corner where the unstrung bow, an inexpensive light green fiberglass model, stood. "Eclectic. Assembled during or after the Undoing?"

"She says her father, a Mr. Rutledge, equipped her, as opportunity brought things to his hand, starting a decade ago."

"Nice work. I wish he'd come with her."

"He's almost certainly no longer living."

Captain Murchison's glance in reply carried meaning for them both. Rutledge, assuming her story were true, had had a relatively merciful and quick ending. Murchison's impending doom seemed cruel by comparison. Such, they both thought to themselves, is life.

He picked up a small roll of duct tape. "Repair kit and medical kit."

"Yes."

The Captain swept his hand to indicate the entire table's contents. "All the way across the Cascades, alone. On peaches in syrup, Spaghetti-O's, Alpo, trout, ground squirrels, berries and bugs, I'm told. Then holds off our scouts in a driving rain for three days running, wearing nothing but these – " he indicated a tiny, neatly folded pile of clean laundry – "a trash-bag poncho, and a square of Mylar. Could any of us do it?"

"No. We farmers may be getting soft, do you think?" Tom laughed.

"And then there's this." The old sergeant of Marines picked up the pocket holster and slipped out the strikingly small semi-automatic pistol that lay within. He pressed the magazine release button, glanced at the empty magazine, racked the slide, and looked into the empty chamber. He held up the pistol beneath the skylight for a better look.

"'Kel-Tec CNC Inc P3AT Cal .380 Auto Cocoa FL Made in USA,'" he read aloud. "This weapon has been fired and cleaned. Who unloaded it?"

"Tomma."

"And these were in it?" Seven rounds lay in a small dish on the table. "Carries with one in the chamber."

"Mm-hmm."

"Damn." Murchison held up one to the light. "Hornadys. Apparently the primers are still good." He aimed the tiny pistol toward the wall, away from Tom. "These nasty little things are bare bones, no sights to speak of, no safety. Very high recoil, hard to practice with. Yet I have a feeling she knows it the way she knows her bow. How come nobody got hurt up there?" He gestured toward Starvation Ridge, which filled the south window.

"The kids say she never showed it. Kept to her bow. They stayed well away and under cover, talked to her, but she couldn't be persuaded to come down. The rain and exposure was what wore her out, along with simple starvation."

"On Starvation Ridge, no less." Murchison almost smiled. "Seriously, though – disciplined. But nobody can fight Momma Nature forever. And this must be her reserve ammunition." Murchison picked up a translucent polyethylene thirty-five millimeter film can that showed a hint of metal within. He popped off the cap, and found cotton wadding stuffed inside, apparently to keep the cartridges from rattling. He shook out the four remaining rounds and found a small packet of silica gel.

He whistled. Then laughed. "Got us Creekers beat for ideas, and, you know, I thought we were pretty good." Then, lowering his voice, "So, you think she's told her whole story? And all on the level?"

"Well, no, not the whole story. There's a deep reserve, a lot of emotional blockage, wariness. She's very reticent, even with Mrs. Ames. But she seems truthful in what she chooses to tell. If she has fired in anger, it would seem to have occurred at one of her winter holdouts or on the Eastside. Apparently it's as bad over there as it is Downstream." Tom trudged over to the window and looked at the sleeping girl, then turned back. "I don't think she's paramilitary or a bandit. I can tell you Karen's been shot twice herself and knifed once. And yet she has no STDs and has never been pregnant.”

Captain Murchison might, at this point, have said something incredulous, but as he looked at Tom, he saw that the thin, dark-eyed, freckle-faced girl, in a "hospital gown" sewn from an old sheet, was standing at the window, right behind the doctor, looking intently into Murchison's face, then at the little pistol still in his hand, then into his face again.

Carey knew that every moment mattered in reaching out to such a creature. Mistakes could be costly to all concerned.

He pointed to the pistol and smiled, picked up the magazine and inserted it gently, not with a palm-smack that might shear off its thin plastic magazine catch. He racked it once to show her there was nothing in the chamber, then pointed to the ammunition and restored the pistol to its holster. Then he pointed to her and again to her possessions and gave her a thumbs-up salute. She did not smile, but she understood the pantomime. He respected her gear, therefore he respected her. He felt quite sure that if he had failed to communicate this successfully, she might have calmly gone for one of the chairs and put it through the window. He would not venture to predict what would have happened next.

Mrs. Ames had put down her book. and was watching. Karen spoke to her without turning from the window, and she replied. After a few more words with Dr. Tom, Carey Murchison waved to her and walked casually to the house's front door.

Karen's eyes did not leave his broad back until he had left the infirmary.

"Who is that man?" Karen asked Mrs. Ames.

"He's the Captain, dear; keeps some of th' young people busy with making sure trouble don't come up here from th' Valley." Be candid, the doctor had instructed her. But stay away from details, especially about Carey's kind of stuff, for now.

"What's 'the Valley?' The Willamette?" Karen watched him out the door, then relaxed her body and returned to sit on her bed, facing the gray-haired, round-shouldered Mrs. Ames, who had set aside her book and now picked up her knitting.

Needles, aluminum with remnants of purple paint, clicked. A woolen child-sized sweater, in two shades of yarn in a cable pattern, was in progress, something new to Karen, who knew toddlers only from pictures.

"Yes, there were cities down there – like yours." Neither spoke of it, but the unbidden image rose, in both their minds, of the thousands upon thousands of flat-tired cars and trucks, some burned, others merely broken, on the brushy and tree-choked Interstate.

"So ... trouble?"

"Mmh." Clickety-click. "Well, we're farmers here. We're doin' pasture, oats, wheat – so we're kind of – tempting, y'might say."

"I haven't seen a lot of farming. Or maybe, any farming."

"No, I should think you wouldn't've. With nothin' goin' anywhere, them as had both seed and sense 'ud be far between, hm?"

Karen thought of the riders – the hunters of people she'd encountered. In the absence of refrigeration, trade and transportation, Father had said, once all the canned goods and game in an area were depleted, there could be cannibalism, slavery, or both. "You're ... " she searched for her father's terms. "You're a protected high-density resource."

"See, there you go. Sound like y'went t' college but y'use it to talk street smart."

Karen did not know what to say to that. Streets had seemed to her to be something "smart" to stay out of. She drew up her feet from the floor onto the bed, and rested her chin on her knees.
"So, tell me about farming."

"Well – I'll tell you about me." She smiled broadly. "That's my best subject."

Karen made no comment, waited. 

Such a somber young woman. "I'm th' old cowgirl," Mrs. Ames went on, needles clacking. "Dexters and Devons, or like 'em, all we could find. We're breedin' for milk, meat and labor, and as much as possible on pasture and hay." She let go the knitting needle with her right hand and pointed to the wall, east. "The cows have about one hundred twenty acres, fenced and cross fenced ...umm, like this –" making a circle divided into four sections in the air with her finger "– and gates. So, in a year, they go from one to th' next, to fresh, clean grass, and th' chickens take over th' one they've just left and clean up after th' cows. Then th' young folks make hay on th' third one, and th' fourth one 'rests.'"

Karen clearly could not visualize much of that, but she remained polite and focused, though Mrs. Ames could see she was peripherally aware of Dr. Tom, consulting with a patient, through the isolation window. I should just give up on this no-details thing. She's hungry to know, for herself. Anyone could tell you that. Pasture rotation, it's called. Doctor Tom read about it somewhere, so we're tryin' it. Doesn't require tractors or fertilizer, y'see."

"You get help with 'haying.' Is that about gathering grass for the cows to eat in winter?"

"Oh you're a good student!" Clackety-click. "That's exactly right; it has to dry so it won't mold or get hot in th' piles and burn. Th' grass them cows eat in winter, in th' rain, doesn't feed 'em much, so we give 'em th' summer grass off th' hayfield in winter. That's me all winter, forking hay out of th' barn loft down to th' ladies, 'n miking morning 'n night, 'n keepin' th' hens 'n gatherin' eggs."

Mrs. Ames sighed. "It's funny, ain't it? Back when, I had Charles 'n th' kids, an' I fed 'em and sent 'em off ev'ry day, 'n then went across town to Denny's and waitressed my butt off – I had my figure then, I was hot stuff. An' now I work harder than I did even then, and here I am round as a pumpkin."

Karen did not ask the whereabouts of "Charles 'n th' kids." "No, I think you look nice just the way you are."

"Thank you, honey. Well, nobody's – obese – any more, but I'm old; I'm all of forty-eight an' couldn't expect to be pretty forever." Unexpectedly, tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. 

The knitting needles stopped clicking and trembled.