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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

25

The wounded had arrived, and the medical team had swung into action. Ellen, realizing sadly she had taken herself to the limit, was going to be one of the patients. Once again using the crutch, she gathered her forces for a short lecture. They were all tying on armbands of old white linen for quick identification in a night fight. She'd explain to the grenadiers in detail what must be done; then describe to everyone how they would ford the creek, using the dark shapes of the two skyline redwoods to find their way into the inner grounds of Wilson's; tell them about ignoring pain; about closing fast and striking home, first with their arrows in the firelight, then bush hooks and swords; knives last. Incapacitate whomever is right in front of you before running to a whistle. Three long blasts would be to retreat across the Creek and fall back on Beemans', with a rear guard. Emilio would take the old Navy, all six chambers charged, and lead. What was she forgetting? There was always something. They all looked up at her on the top step of the porch, expectant and trusting.

But suddenly they all seemed distracted. There were gunshots across the Creek, through the cottonwoods below. Something went boom, and echoed against the hills. A grenade? Dynamite?

The lookout came to his west window and shouted down to the house. "There's a fight!"

"We know that, where?" croaked Ellen.

"It's down by th' burning shed! There's some running around going on, too!"

Ellen backed up to the chair by the porch table and sat down. Oh, shit! Who's doing what to whom, and why now? Wilson, quite apparently, had not gotten Ellen's message.

"Emilio!"

"Ma'am?"

"Take over here, please. Give 'em a quick refresher on cover and concealment, run 'em across the creek out of sight of the bridge, over by the west hedge – cover the crossing with the revolver – and watch for an opportunity. Stick together. If Wilson's bunch has them engaged, one Molotov into the main house might be all we need."

Neither spoke of the obvious – as a daylight scenario, it could be costly.

Cost would be measured in friends and neighbors.



Karen alternately crept and shuffled, crouching, along the eastern hedge of Holyrood Farm. Her sandaled and stockinged feet were damp; a misty rain was beginning to fall on the barley stubble of the field. Ahead of her, across the cottonwoods along Starvation Creek, she could see the late afternoon clouds dragging their ragged skirts through the firs on Maggie's Hill. In her left hand she carried her longbow. Across her back she carried a borrowed quiver of better make than hers, with a side pocket containing a small water bottle, some bean cake, and a few possibles. She checked, for the fortieth time, the long cedar arrow, tipped with a broadhead pounded from a stainless-steel washer, nocked to the waxed string of her bow. At her belt was one of the smaller of the Savage Mary short swords and her skinning knife. In an inside pocket of her leather jerkin, stitched into place, rested a holster made from a pre-Undoing Tyvek/bubble-pack envelope, which she'd gladly received from Mrs. Ames. In it rode the tiny pistol. With any luck, her sealed primers were still good. There was no testing them; in all the world, so far as she knew, there were only thirteen rounds left in her caliber, and all of them were on her person.

"Hold up!" whispered Huskey, behind her. She stopped and looked back briefly; he carried the Winchester, which he'd explained had belonged to Mr. Lawson, and in a holster on his right hip, the Ruger BP revolver with which Avery Murchison had entrusted him, along with a half-size crossbow slung on his back, bolt-loaded and cocked.

On the left side of his belt, he carried another of the swords. In a pouch, he kept food and water, and a jar of alcohol and bear fat, brought from Lawson's, in case they found an opportunity to fire the house at Wilson's.

This venture was, as they and everyone in the woods behind them knew, a massive risk. Between the two of them, they carried nearly a third of the Creek's lead-throwing firepower – assuming, as Wilson had pointed out, the Winchester, with its six .30-30 cartridges, was in actual firing condition. Should they, and their equipment, fall into the hands of the invaders, it could well spell doom for the Creek. As things stood, very likely the invaders represented doom anyway, should they break out across Holyrood's into the farms toward Hall.

The risk had appeared acceptable to them, and to Wilson Wilson. "You get into too much trouble," he'd said, "You had better fire every round you have, or, failing that, get into a building and burn yourselves and the guns down with it. We might be able to back you up and get you out of there – but we most likely won't. 'K?"

They had nodded soberly.

Huskey caught up to Karen. He noted with approval that she continued to watch ahead, with her head half turned to listen to him. "We're almost to the second gate into Wilson's," he said quietly. "That what you wanted?"

"Yes," Karen replied. "There's a mixed yard of young apricots and nectarines here, and we're shielded from the buildings by a big compost bin. The fire is on the other side of that. There is some tall grass, not scythed yet, to hide us getting from here to there."

"Sounds good." 'K, I'll go point, and open the gate a bit, and we'll crawl into the grass. We're liable to cut a wide swath, though, with all this gear."

The gate was a typical Creek concoction of steel posts cannibalized from the old Ridge security fence, and barbed wire, with a swath of blackberries encouraged to grow along each side, trained to both hide the gate and allow it to swing. Black hawthorn trees had been encouraged to provide additional camouflage, blending the site into the long hedge. Only one gate in each of the border hedges had been kept clear; and each of the obvious gates had been placed so that it was covered from a house, a blockhouse, or a crow's nest.

Huskey pushed through, stopping every few seconds to examine the surroundings, while Karen watched behind them, in case the bandits had also invested Holyrood's. Eventually he beckoned to Karen. "All clear." She replaced her arrow in the quiver, so as to be able to travel on all fours.

They lay down in file in the rain-jeweled autumn grasses and crawled, bellies off the ground, weapons awkwardly pushed ahead of them, for what seemed a very long time. At length they came to the edge of the scythed ground around the compost bins, structures made of small-diameter logs stacked like log houses, but left unchinked to admit air to the rotting vegetation piled within.

Aiming for an empty bin with the side toward them open, they rose as one and walked almost tiptoe across exposed ground among the apricot trees, and with a breath of relief reached the limited cover.

Karen habitually re-nocked her arrow and moved to the straw-bedecked gaps in the opposite wall to examine the ground between herself and the smoldering stamping shed.

To her horror, she saw five bald men, with black-painted cheekbones, all armed and wearing pre-Undoing clothing and boots, walking toward her along a farm path. They would reach the compost bin in seconds!

Karen pirouetted carefully to face the open side, arrow drawn, her eyes wide. This was all the information Huskey needed; setting aside the suspect rifle for the moment, he silently slid the crossbow from his shoulder and aimed to the same place.

The men ambled, single file, past the corner of the compost bin, aiming for "gate number three," the main undisguised hedge gate to the right of the one the Creekers had slipped through. The "tail-end Charlie," carrying a laminated fiberglass compound bow with a ready carbon arrow, remembered at the last moment his role as rear guard, and turned nonchalantly to look into the bin.

Huskey released his bolt into the rear guard's chest; the man gave an alarmingly loud sigh and released his arrow as he fell into the man behind him; it passed weakly between Husky and Karen. Karen aimed for the man at the head of the procession, catching him in the buttocks with her arrow. He whirled with a shout, brandishing a large and businesslike pistol, which let off a round into the air with an ear-shattering bang, then fell to his knees, reaching for the arrow behind his back.

Suddenly the scene became a blur in Karen's mind, despite her best efforts to concentrate.

The remaining three bandits had the presence of mind to grab their hurt companions, including the one with the pistol, and make for cover around the compost bin to the right.

One of them stopped to fit an arrow. Huskey dropped the crossbow and drew and fired the Ruger, which then somehow fell from his hand.

The man looked at his now useless drawing arm, threw the bow at Huskey and ran to join the others. Huskey snatched up the Winchester, hauling back the hammer with his thumb as he did so. He triggered the weapon at his foes through one of the gaps in the logs, but had a misfire. He tried again, and there was a loud report; the space filled with dark and acrid smoke.

Someone replied with the modern pistol, and Huskey ducked instinctively.

Karen briefly remembered her father's admonitions about earplugs – "if nothing else, chew some leaves and stuff them in your ears" – too late, of course. Her ears were ringing and she felt disoriented. But she drew another arrow and ran round the compost bins to the left.

Twenty - thirty - forty steps, turn, ten steps. Hop out, drawn and ready. There they were! Aim. Release. Grab another arrow. Nock, draw, aim, release.

They were busy fighting Huskey; one of them had the big pistol and fired it into the bin. Another arrow, nock, draw, release. A foe discovered her; he'd dropped his crossbow but drew a long Bowie knife and rushed her.

No time to reach for an arrow; no time for the sword either! Her old training kicked in. Karen waited at the corner till the man was within striking distance, knife extended, and gripped his forearm, turning on her back foot and helping him on his way. The momentum carried him halfway to the apricot trees. When he recovered and came running back, yelling, he faced the small muzzle of the tiny green pistol wrapped in both her hands. He hesitated. The pistol jumped; the muzzle flash was bright even in the daylight.

A miss? From three meters? He was almost on her again. Remembering not to try to fire until the trigger had cycled, she stepped aside again, and ran round him in a half circle. From almost behind him, she gave her trigger another long, smooth pull, and the tiny, unbelievably loud weapon squirmed back in her hand a second time. The bandit had swept at her with the wicked knife blade again as she went by, and she discovered her left shoulder had opened and gone appallingly numb.

She switched to a one-handed grip, tracking the man's trajectory. He hopped strangely, struck the wall, bounced off, turned toward her again, but sagged back against it. Light was going out of his eyes. No miss – she'd shot him twice, but adrenaline had kept him going. He changed his grip on the knife for a throw. Karen shot him again, almost dropping the Kel-Tec. A deja-vu of a similar fight, in the snows of the northern Sierra, crossed her mind for a brief second, and then she remembered to stay aware. Stepping past the now sitting, and very quiet, body, she checked again around the corner.

There had been gunfire during her altercation with the lone bandit; ending with an eardrum-shattering boom. All of their present foes were lying on the ground, two of them convulsing. She should "double tap," but this position was exposed to other buildings, and even as she considered this, an arrow arrived, burying itself in the wood only inches in front of her. Holstering the pistol and picking up her bow, Karen ran back around toward Huskey's hiding place. She drew another arrow from the quiver as she did so, but her left hand, which held the bow, could not sustain a draw. Dropping the bow at the corner of the empty compost bin, she drew the sword and rushed in.

Huskey lay on the mud floor, fouled with mud and blood. Karen stuck the sword upright in the compost, ready to hand, and knelt over Huskey. Big man. It would take time to check over all of him.

"Where are you hurt?" Karen asked.

"Huh! All of me." He tried to grin, but it was more of a grimace. "I got them, they got me, they got me again, I shot again and it blew up on me."



Karen looked at the Winchester. Its barrel had bulged at the front of the receiver and blown apart. Squib round? She looked at Huskey again. Both his eyes were closed, and he was bleeding from the lids. It looked like they'd been spattered with something from the explosion. He was also clearly bleeding from his right arm and somewhere around the inner thighs as well. She pulled up his jerkin and pulled it back down again, pain searing her from her left arm as she did so. "I don't think you got it in the torso, sir; you might just live."

"Not worried about that, though the Creek does not need a blind man. Make sure they're not rushing us, that's th' main thing."

Oh! right! Karen stood up and peered through the logs. No one in sight.

Something punched her, hard, in the left arm again. As she heard the shot, she looked, bemused, down at her arm. There was a hole in one of the small logs, and another in her forearm, with Douglas fir splinters embedded all around it. Bleeding had already commenced; dark. Not arterial; small favors.

They can see me. Karen sat down, hard, in the mud, and drew the Kel-Tec again. She squirmed backwards against the upright in the corner for what concealment she could find, and peered through one of the lowest gaps.

Still no one coming, and no one visibly moving among the bodies just in front of her. Where had the shot come from?

The little log beside her face bloomed splinters and a hole appeared. A small geyser of mud spattered her legs and Huskey's. This would be the repeating rifle they'd heard about, up high. Second floor or attic dormers of the house, perhaps?

This isn't cover. Now what?

Huskey spoke. "Karen, we done good. That was a fourth of 'em. But you aren't gonna live without us foxin' him somehow. Can you move me?"

"Maybe a little. My arm ... " She pointed, then realized he could not see the gesture.

"Brace yourself along the wall and pull me upright. No argument; put me where you are now! ... and get around the corner into the compost."

Karen understood; sinking lower, she dug her heels into the muck, locked her good arm with Huskey's and heaved him to her. Splinters flew again at the movement, and Huskey flinched and grunted as the report sounded. "Where's th' wheelgun?" She found and handed it to him. "Now go!" She went, forcing her left hand to take the sword, pistol in her right hand.

The Ruger fired, blindly, in the direction of the farm buildings. The bandit rifle fred again, twice, and Karen, huddled behind a heap of straw mixed with apple pulp and veggie parings, heard nothing more from the bin to her left.

She popped her magazine, one-handed, and counted peeps of brass through the holes. She'd fired three. She thought so, but it was always good to check. Reaching into her other "vest" pocket, hands trembling with shock and dismay, she found her film can of spare rounds and counted out three new rounds; these she loaded into the magazine with her right thumb. It was taking much, much longer than she expected; and she dropped the last one twice. Each time she had to pick it up with the magazine seated in the palm of her hand, which was amazingly sweaty, and line up the cartridge with the steel lips again.

Sweat was in her eyes, too; she knew it wasn't the rain by the way it stung. Remember to breathe.

The last round snapped into place just as her hand was giving out.

She seated the magazine gently, and became puzzled as to how she was going to rack the slide. Then she remembered there would be a round chambered already. If she'd shot the magazine empty she could not have reloaded the pistol, not with her left arm in this condition.

How much blood was she losing? She must try not to slip from consciousness.

Wait, what was that? Someone was crawling toward her bin! She aimed, wobbling badly, at the corner. Was it Huskey? Let it be Huskey! No. A hand appeared, then another, with the big ugly pistol in it. Then a head came round the corner, bit by bit. 

Bald.