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, June 14, 2014

15


Avery Murchison sat in his wheelchair and contemplated his fate. He, who had lived for sunshine, woods and water, and exulted in the strength of his limbs and the speed with which he could run, had had an ideal if rather strict childhood, really he had, and married a fine girl and raised an outstanding daughter and then it all went to hell in a hurry.

He'd been IED'd by his own side accidentally, while fighting a gang of half-starved bandits. His shattered body had been carted to Chaney's butcher shop for a double amputation, and when he'd been brought home, months later, found himself a paraplegic and a widower – lost Juney to some illness the bandits had brought with them – and young Mo-reen had become his whole world, just like that. But the girl was determined to take his place in the security force, and was seldom home.

And now she had said, "love ya" to the three of them, Avery, Mom, and Dad, and drifted away in a wisp of smoke minutes later.

Being off shift after that, he'd taken the opportunity to get roaring drunk. Then Dad had called and said that Mom was hurt, too, in a fight on Ball Butte. Not too bad, he had ventured to hope.

Not too bad.

He hoped!

Eff! What was all this for, anyway?

He'd begun to think, long ago, that his parents' project was cockeyed and doomed, and now he was sure of it.

Avery stared at the cement wall and its peeling battleship-gray paint; the wall stared back without comment. His parents had worked in this strange installation before the Undoing; they seemed to have some lingering idea that they would find someone to hand it over to, someday; someone representing a tribe, much bigger than the Creek, to which their ultimate loyalty still held.

They'd tried to explain, reeling off fragments of their world from memory: "... in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...."

Not so many blessings, he thought. Not so effing much posterity, either. He looked sourly down upon his truncated person, stumps encased in neatly seamed trouser ends.

Nice chair, anyway. A lightweight, deeply cambered anodized-aluminum Quickie racer in candy red with black nylon webbing, it served, as did so many things in here, to remind one of all that had, apparently, been lost forever. Avery blew out the lamp and wheeled himself, with fingerless gloves on the rubber of the pneumatic tires, down the dimly lit hall through the open steel doorway to the command post.

Avery shoved himself over to the console with its buttons, LED lamps and vernier controls. None of it worked, so far as anyone could tell. But five floors below, lights actually glowed, after all these years, on another panel with two keyholes in it, five feet apart. Something was asleep down there that, apparently, needed no outside sources of power.

From here, through heavy quartzite windows that were difficult to spot from outside, unless one was up really close, he could look to the four horizons.

The rain clouds had mostly cleared away, tattering off to the east.

East. Fresh snow on the volcanoes – Dad had taught him to call them the old names: Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters; south, the Coburg Hills; west, the great Valley and across to Mary's Peak with a light dusting of snow near the summit, and north, Ball Butte, Maggie's Hill, and the long, faint line of what had been the freeway, with, to this day, a smattering of wrecked and abandoned vehicles in bright but fading designer colors. Artifacts of the world that had produced this room, and its mysterious instrument panel, and that half-sleeping beast in its steel lozenge and thirty feet of concrete.

Something to do with the Murchison loyalty to the very country that, by their own account, had so ruined everyone's lives.

He looked, for the thousandth time, at one of the quaint cautionary signs, in metallic lettering, riveted onto the slanted console.

MAINS ENERGIZED? KEEP ALL CIRCUIT BREAKERS UNDER COVER EXCEPT WHEN ACTUALLY SWITCHING ON OR OFF. TO INITIATE PROCEDURE, CLOSE CIRCUITS IN ORDER FROM RIGHT TO LEFT. TO CANCEL PROCEDURE, OPEN ALL CIRCUITS IN ORDER FROM LEFT TO RIGHT. WHEN ALL CIRCUITS ARE CLOSED, AND ONLY WHEN ALL CIRCUITS ARE CLOSED, CONTROLS A, B, AND C ARE AVAILABLE. SEE MANUAL, DARPA SECDOC A25065A, PP. 22-32. INCL.

Available for what purpose? Carey and Ellen didn't seem to know. They had only been security guards, home for an easy break from the idiotic oil war which, as all could so easily see, was slowly killing Dad. And apparently no one alive today knew what the thing was for, or how long it was supposed to last.

Time to go to work. Avery glassed Ball Butte, for starters. There was activity there; he switched to the spotter scope. Ah.

They were collecting the dead.

Quite a few.

These were being loaded onto stretchers, and would be borne with reverence, friend and foe alike, to the House of the Dead at Hall Farm. Each would be carefully spread open, from head to foot, before being consigned, with a little prayer to Jeeah, to the long, low compost heaps at Common Farm #1, next door. This year's designated cemetery was every third heap. Would those be enough – with a full-scale war on at last?

Might have to resort to exposure, such as the Indians had done on platforms. Another way of giving back to Jeeah. Farmers might begrudge the "waste," but the vultures would not. And, of course, it's clear we could lose this one.

Exposure by default.

He supposed, given its current function, that particular "common" farm would never be settled. Or perhaps the cooks, who doubled as morticians of a sort, would move there. He wouldn't be surprised if, in another generation, they became priests! An odd little religion Mrs. Chaney had cooked up. But she was an odd bird, anyway.

Avery looked down into the Creek valley to the east. He could not see the sunless farms under the brow of Ridge, but there was smoke from the kitchen chimneys of Maggie's, Lazar's, Beeman's, Jones and Ames. All good there. Beyond Ames was another Common farm, with no buildings as yet. Couple of deer browsing in the open.

Activity caught the corner of his right eye. For a moment, Avery tensed, and checked for the throwing knives strapped to the arms of his chair. But the movement was the on-duty Ridge scout, back from her vantage point on the south slopes. Running, with strung bow on her shoulder and binoculars in hand. He could see the urgency of her efforts from here. Billee ran out of sight to the left around the rocks.
Avery twirled his chair and awaited Billee's entrance.

Billee paused in the doorway to catch her breath, then reported in.

"Sir. Lawsons are all dead." She looked at him bug-eyed.

Welcome to my world, child, he thought. "Dead or down?"

"Well, down, but there was shooting, and it wasn't them." 

"See the shooters?"

"Yessir. They came out of the woods over thataway." She pointed west. And made a face. "They even shot the dog."

"Numbers?"

"Twenty, maybe twenty-five."

He raised his eyebrow.

"Well, it was hard to tell, they were back and forth so much."

At least she wasn't pouting. "Weapons?"

"Bows, crossbows. But the Lawsons were shot from an awfully long way off. I'm surprised you didn't hear it from here."

"Wrapped in this much concrete? So, at least one rifle."

"Mm-hmm." she nodded vigorously.

"Maybe a scoped weapon. Apparently taking no prisoners. Huh. Well, thank you. Go back and watch them some more, but don't be seen."

"Sir!" She departed on the bounce.

Yes, that would be the crowd that hit Ball Butte. Clearly making a flanking maneuver after getting their nose bloodied by Mom.

Avery smiled grimly to himself. He could appreciate the ironies. If these raiders knew how little the Creek can really defend itself, they would have come straight in by the bridge. The Creek might have gone down as easily as Lawson's.

Time to get on the horn.


Elsa Chaney opened her eyes. By the shadows on the bedroom wall it must be nearly ten o'clock; she felt a moment's panic and then recalled that it had been a long night with the wounded, and that others were sharing the bedroom with her. She herself lay on the rope bed, in the narrow groove her body had worn into the mattress, stuffed with old crumbly foam rubber, that she'd made with her own hands years ago. Tom had worn another groove in it, next to hers, over time; they joked about visiting back and forth from valley to valley, but there hadn't been so much visiting really; not for years. She'd given up four babies, each to bone marrow disease and then to Jeeah, and they had been taken gently away by the kindly farmers at Hall. She had wanted no more such sad emptiness after that; and Tom had understood.

He wasn't in the bed. Elsa looked around and found five young people rolled up in blankets on the floor; four boys, and that strange creature, Karen, who had walked alone across the mountains, told her story once, as if she felt obligated to do that much, and then mostly closed herself up. She was all "yes, ma'am" and "no ma'am," washed and stitched wounds, fetched alky and blankets, as directed, and then she would just stand there, waiting for the next thing, watching but not commenting.

Commenting was the life blood of the Creek; in the absence of a culture of media – no internet, phones, television, radio, newspapers or magazines, and few books and almost no one able to read them, everyone gossiped incessantly. Word of the girl's arrival, for example, had led to endless discussion and speculation on all the farms. Karen, in contrast, had been fed upon print culture from a bygone age. She was like the Elders in outlook, but like the young people of the Creek in having few expectations, fast reflexes, and some general notion of war as a norm. It might be on a very tiny scale nowadays, but war it certainly was.

For Elsa, war was not a norm.

She might, for all she knew, be the last of the old protesters. A liberal and a pacifist herself, she had stood on street corners among Quakers and Mennonites and waved a sign reading "Genocide is Un-American/U.S. out of Mexico" – dangerous and thankless, and by then very illegal, work, and that last time the little aluminum dragonfly had flown right up to her face and snapped her portrait and then she'd done time in a minimum security prison.

They'd all been released when the Undoing had halted sufficient deliveries of food and supplies for their guards and for them. Elsa had walked right out in her orange jumpsuit into the chaos and met Tom, who was patching hurt people on the streets: a policeman and a "terrorist (peace demonstrator)," side by side. He was in blood up to his elbows and unremittingly kindly.

It was love at first sight.

She hadn't found her old friends. They'd held one more demonstration, she heard later, and the police had turned the truck-borne antenna on them and cranked it up to full power. The little aluminum-foil hats had not availed.

Peace was what she'd always sought, and with Tom, she had largely found it. They had had a few adventures on the edge of the horror that was the Freeway Corridor. Then they lucked into the community that the Murchisons were gathering into an abandoned tributary valley of the Cascade Foothills, less than a hundred miles from Elsa's home town. Tom had, at Carey Murchison's urging, become the local "doctor" and she'd, because the Murchisons suggested every household should try to organize itself around food production, become the farmer-in-chief at "Chaney's."

There had been no one to marry her to Tom but herself; Elsa simply joined her life to his, and assumed his last name because she wanted to. The farm, and its crew, came to be called "Chaney's" – a signpost, in speech and usage, of where to go to find the doctor.

Karen was stirring; Elsa sat up in bed. The young woman was not a deep sleeper but she seemed very disoriented on waking. Elsa gave her time to get her eyes open and to get her bearings, then caught her attention, making gestures she hoped meant "tiptoe out" and "tea" and was pleased when Karen nodded. Somebody ought to give that girl a hairbrush, Elsa thought.

Fire had been kept going by the Chaney's crew all night, and there was hot water on the big earth stove in the long kitchen – one of the first such stoves – ovens really – that had been built on the Creek. 

Lydee, a girl several years Karen's junior, was tending fire and stirring rolled oats with plums and apple slices in a large kettle, for whomever might wander in for a late breakfast or early lunch. Hot water was available, and Elsa strained some through a mixture of dried and crumbled peppermint and sage leaves into mugs for herself and Karen. She offered both mugs; Karen chose green. Elsa watched her reading the text and then knitting her brows. "'Sixty is the new thirty.' It was a joke mug. Somebody got that for their birthday."

"Oh."

Each waited for her mug to cool, then took long, meditative sips, watching Lydee serve up oatmeal in bowls to two young men from Bledsoe's. Both looked banged-up and bushed; one of them, a muscular fellow with a whistle hanging from a thong round his neck, seemed to know Lydee well and was chatting her up a bit while absorbing welcome heat from the fire. Now a veteran of battle, he was using his new-found mystique to "make an impression." Elsa found this both amusing and endearing, but with sad undertones. Karen watched, but seemed not to understand what was going forward.

"You did good work last night, Karen; I'm grateful. It was my job but my old eyes were giving out in that lamplight."

"Thank you." Karen sipped some more; her eyes inventoried the room.

Yep. Not chatty. "Is it all right if I ask you what you can do – sort of a skills list?"

"Yes."

"Well, umm, if you'll help me out here, maybe you could tell me some of these things?"

"Oh. Read and follow instructions. Sew, a little. Leather: awls, punches, mallets. Metals: salvage, disassemble, lubricate, polish, reassemble; drill press, lathe, hacksaw. Molds and casting. Carpentry: hammer, plane, crosscut, rip, miter, try square, chisel ..."

Elsa laughed. "Okay, I get it. Your dad gave you the run of his work bench. I remember something about his work bench."

Something about the way that was put seemed to have been off-putting to Karen, who looked about to draw back into her shell. Elsa thought for a moment, then added: "Oh, 'the run of' is not 'quite quite.' He wanted to make you a Renaissance woman, I'd guess."

"Excuse me?"

"An expression for – skilled in all trades."

"Something like that, yes, ma'am."

"What did he stress most?"

"Situational awareness."

This wasn't quite where Elsa thought this was going. "Oh ... could you enlarge on that?"

Karen seemed primed for the question, as if in recitation.

"Don't look, see. Once an area is secured, forage. Purify water. Avoid hypothermia, heat stroke, starvation, dehydration and injury. Apply wayfinding, judging of terrain, and inventory maintenance. If area becomes insecure, fall back on avoidance and escape; failing that, bowmanship, manual of arms, knife fighting, kung fu. Firearms last resort."

I just had to ask, didn't I? Jeeah help us! "Probably just what's wanted around here," replied Elsa with a hint of bitterness. "If I may ask – why?"

"He said that the core of any life worth living is self-respect. That one has to earn that through self-discipline. And that self-discipline requires clarity. All the rest follows."

"And this led him to stress ... fighting?"

"No, ma'am, not fighting, clarity. So as not to be led away from self-respect."

"I like some of what I'm hearing, but does that follow from – fight training?"

"Well ... you can't think when you're dead."

Karen took another sip of her tea and glanced over toward the door, which was opening.

Dr. Chaney, looking very much the worse for wear, came into the kitchen with Emilio of Ames Farm. "Ah, here she is. So, Emilio, have time for breakfast with us, or will you round up your soldier and go tearing off right away?"

"Hello, Karen, Mrs. Chaney. It is simple and not simple at one time. If I may carry away some oatmeal in a container, for my crew?" he asked Lydee. Lydee jumped down from her perch and, finding a clean polyethylene half-gallon bucket with a handle, ladled mush into it.

Emilio nodded to Huskey, the young man who'd been talking to Lydee, and turned again to the Chaneys and Karen. "There has been word from Ridge that those who attacked us last night appear to have abandoned their camp downstream. They are seen to be making their way round toward the pass."

"Oh!" Elsa sat upright, spilling her tea. "The Lawsons!"

"For them, already, if I understood what was said, there is nothing to be done."

"I must go," said Karen to Elsa.

"Well, that is my other information," said Emilio. "Savage Mary has asked to have a look at you, and the Captain I think seems to favor this idea."

"But your family! And Mrs. Ames!" Karen was on her feet and half-turned toward the door.

"It is true we wish to have you with us at this time, and I am happy you share the feeling. So. Perhaps I have forgotten Mary's request in the heat of the moment. We can do one thing and then remember the other, yes?" Emilio seemed to make light of it, but his expression remained grim.

"Of course," put in the doctor. "Only right thing to do."

"Should we come?" asked Huskey, by the stove, putting down his bowl.

"No, Bledsoes should go back to Hall and await re-deployment at Bridge or Butte, as I understand. The Captain will want you soon. We are almost fifty going up the Creek already."

As Emilio said this, Karen ran round to the isolation room and scooped up her gear. Ellen Murchison lay there, still sleeping, as did Elberd, the young man with the cheek that had been peeled open. Karen had given him a mug of chamomile-peppermint tea in the wee hours, and watched him relax and drift away – the first person, other than herself, she had ever sewn up.

She slung her gear over her shoulders and headed for the kitchen.

Sometimes needle and thread is best, she thought. Sometimes bow and broadhead.