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, September 14, 2014

28


Wolf had passed through, or over, at least six gates. Some were locked, some not. In several fields, sheep had watched him pass by; in one, two red cows. There were small plots that had been plowed and seeded; others had been harvested, or interrupted in the process of being harvested.If you could have asked Wolf, later, what he had seen, he might have answered, "mostly a whole lot of either dirt or green stuff." He had little idea of what he was seeing; he'd grown up urban in a shattered former nation that, back when it had been functional, had devolved its knowledge of farming upon little more than two percent of the population.Plots were, small, separated by dense growths of hedge. The pattern, which had seemed clear enough to Wolf from the crow's nest at Wilson's, was bewildering at ground level. But the terrain also provided him abundant concealment, so he was not overly concerned at slow progress. He'd passed the night in a loosely-piled haystack.

As he walked along the hedgerows, Wolf took inventory. The rain was tapering off, but he was wet through, even beneath the body armor, and his clothes stayed saturated as he moved through the wet, unmown vegetation. His boots squeaked, which meant there would soon be blisters unless he could get his boots and socks dry. He'd let himself get separated from the Glock, and his bug-out gear, and was not carrying food or water. His wet and baggy cargo pants were rich in pockets, and in these there were baggies (precious items in themselves) containing an assortment of decades-old treasures: Bic lighters, a Mylar emergency blanket, duct tape, compass, flint-and-steel, aspirin (which he had doled out to his crew as needed), and, in a fragile sandwich bag, a handful of 9mm rounds, with no weapon to match them.

He knew the polyethylene would breathe too easily. The primers would begin to corrode, with all this exposure to sweat and weather. Should he ditch them? This was hard for him to do; they had been the source of so much of his power. There were many, many more where those came from, however; if he could ever get back to his stash.

On his belt was a leather sheath with a serrated Kershaw folding knife nestled within; and in his hands the Chinese-made AK, with ten or fifteen (he had better count them, first chance) rounds in the current magazine, and one in the chamber. The other magazine, taped to the inserted one upside down, was now empty. And he'd lost his scope getting down from the little tower.

His escape both elated and troubled him; for himself, once again Wolf the Lucky; but he'd put a lot of investment in the gang of freebooters he'd built up. It was clear to Wolf that there had been no alternative in the end; but the memory of Cougar's plaintive cry for help galled him. All for one, one for all, indeed.

Ah, well, he said to himself. Only the living deserve ta live. What's next?

He'd passed the physical plants of four of the farms – each seemed like a small independent village; each, at the moment, was apparently deserted. What sort of command structure was there here? How had all these people co-ordinated to stand their ground rather than stampeding?

He had half a mind to burn the farmsteads as he went, for spite; he was angry with himself for not seeing that this was the route he should have gone with his entire crew, a day ago. But stealth is a good tool for as long as you have it, and not a moment longer. Best keep the option. Even as he thought this, Wolf could hear, on the road across the Creek well out of sight, a horse trotting westward. He fought down the impulse to try to catch the rider; that route must be well guarded.

Food, water and socks were becoming the highest priorities.

He chose one of the farmsteads to approach, and crawled toward it through an unkempt thicket of sunchokes, some of which had grown over eight feet tall. There was a smell, among the roots of these, of some kind of edible root, but he was unfamiliar with it. He watched the house for half a hand, and guessed that it, too, had been abandoned for now. People would surely be returning soon. Best get on with it.

The farmhouse was smaller than some of the others he'd seen; one story high, with no crow's nest or blockhouses. Maybe they hadn't got round to it yet? The place could be approached obliquely without being seen easily from windows. He'd have a go. With his weapon at the ready, muzzle down, Wolf ran across the tiny scythed yard, pushed through an unlocked gate in a trimmed hedge, rounded a corner, and bounded up the front steps. With his left hand, he tried the glass doorknob. It turned readily, and the door swung inwards without creaking.

Keeping himself as mentally sharp as any young-old man might – a day after losing most of several night's sleep, several meals, a war, and all his companions – Wolf cleared the rooms, right to left, found no stairwells up or down, and finished his tour in the kitchen. An unremarkable place. Everywhere were some kind of gasburners on wall sconces, pieces of handmade furniture, a few ancient art prints, and quilts on display on some of the walls. Bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds in each, and a worktable; leather tools and sewing supplies abounded. Twelve people, apparently, lived here. This looked like commies more and more all the time. Wolf was amused; he knew Magee would not be.

The kitchen was much smaller than the one at "Wilson Farm" had been, and featured what looked like a gas stove connected to an oversized tank outside, next to a large pile of manure. Wolf had not seen a methane digester before; but he vaguely guessed what it was. Why, with so much animal manure around, had there not been more explosives used? These people had a very hit-or-miss technology. Perhaps there was nothing of real interest on the mountain after all?

Exploring cabinets, Wolf was able to come up with a half-gallon plastic jug for water, after rejecting several that had apparently contained either soap or vinegar. He had trouble understanding why the pitcher pump on the drainboard by the sink didn't seem to want to work, as it smelled of water, but there were emergency supplies in stacked crates of glass bottles marked Smirnoff, and he tapped into this. It was a start. Pouring himself a tumbler, he opened another door, and found an assortment of spoiling dinner leftovers on shelves made of hardware cloth. The floor and ceiling of the former closet were also screened, and Wolf could feel a cool breeze moving up through the shelves.

Clever.

But what's in here? He opened a crock jar and sniffed. Milk, with cream risen to the top! Fresh milk was a novelty to Wolf, but his body knew what it was, and trembled to have it. Bringing the crock to the kitchen table, he poured the water from his tumbler onto the floor and filled it with cream, then sat down, leaning the rifle against the table.

Just as Wolf raised the glass to his bearded lips, he heard movement somewhere overhead. A shuffling of feet.
An attic?

With someone in it!

Setting down the glass reluctantly, Wolf took up the rifle. Then he reconsidered, grasped the tumbler in his left hand, drank it off, set it down, and then moved to the kitchen door at the back of the house.

There was a staircase on the outside of the building, going up to a small door on a landing above the back porch. Inwardly cursing his carelessness in clearing, Wolf stepped outside, ascended the staircase, and tried the door – another glass knob – finding it unlocked as before. Pointing his weapon before him, he cleared a small skylit attic room. It held mostly a rug and a chair and shelves of old books; he stepped through a low door frame into a darkened room with a heavy curtain over a dormer window. A thin magenta light trickled through the curtain into the shadowy interior.

Against the far wall sat a large bed frame, with its legs sawn away to fit the ceiling height. The bed was heaped with blankets and pillows, and among these lay an old man – easily the oldest Wolf remembered ever seeing – looking at him with the unseeing eyes of the blind.

"Hey, young fella! S'whatcha sound like, but you're not one a' the Hiseys by the sound of it. Y'little war over yet?"

"Uhh, no, sir." Wolf stepped over to the bed.

"Wouldn't think so! What a ruckus! They said I had to go to the Mess Hall with 'em, an' I said screw that, just go without me. I manage pretty good up here, s'not winter yet, n'got plenty to eat. Hafta dump my effin' chamber pot out the window, though ... where ya from?"

"Wilson Farm."

"Ah, so you're one 'a those apple maggots. Well, I guess there's a place for cider in this grand scheme. But I betcha we had a thousand pounds of coffee in the PX. Betcha Murch is still sittin' on all of it, too. Crazy bastard. You can tell him I said so; I don't care. All that hush-hush stuff is long gone, and he's been out of honest work for – must be fifteen years. Twenty for all I know."

"Pee-ecks, sir?"

"Oh, you know, a little cafeteria 'n store. For all the engineers and the guards."

"Oh, that's right. You worked in the mountain, didn't you?" Wolf guessed.

"Funny way to put it. Sure, I wasn't always blind and useless – put in nine years on the power plant, I did. Civil Engineering Corps. You know all that, dontcha?"

"Tell me again; I always liked hearin' about it."



Wilson Wilson looked sourly into the smoking pit and gestured with the reloaded Ruger Old Army. "Dammit, I was born in this house." Disconsolately, he kicked a fried window-latch into the interior.
Deela, carrying the Lyman muzzleloader, stood beside him, fidgeting a bit. "Had we not best begin tracking? The man has sixteen hours' lead on us."

"Yes, well, he could be out of the valley by now. That skinny little fire-eater wasn't able to tell us about him until after midnight, and there's not much moon yet."

"Again, we suffer for lack of dogs."

"Well, those got eaten up long ago. But maybe we can make some use of wolf cubs when we find a den." Wilson turned to the others. "Guchi's back to Hall to organize defense and search from that end. The man was last seen carrying a rifle that can take down everyone here. So, we all have whistles; we are going to cast a wide net, watching ahead and behind us as we go. As much as possible, stay where you can see someone but not both be seen from anywhere at any one time.

"I'll walk point. Mr. Deela here will bring up the rear and watch our backs. Mr. Perkins, please take the far right – you have the Navy Colt? Good. Watch that thing; Mrs. Murchison will have all our hides if it gets away again. Minnie Min, center, watch my back. Errol, far left. Remember, this man is more a predator than a fugitive. Act accordingly."

"Wilson, who's covering Beemans'?" asked Cal.

"Vernie Watkin is there with the Hawken and a crew of young 'uns, sickies, and woundeds, with bows and bombs. If the guy crosses the Creek and doubles back, he can do as much harm there as to us – but it's a chance we'll all have to take. There's one shepherd gone up to the Saddle, and that's it."

Errol, who seldom spoke, stepped forward. "So. Let's hope we are the ones that find him."

"No kidding. All set?"

Nods all round.

"Hop!"

They headed, by ones and twos, well separated, for the gate to Holyroods'.



"Oh, Tom." Elsa looked at the row of dead, laid out at right angles to the road. "This is worse than Eugene." They walked along the road, escorted by Vernie and two of the grenadiers, who were now carrying swords and crossbows and looking older than they had two days ago.

"Likely not. We were working just one street; it was like that everywhere; and there had been more than a hundred thousand people just the week before."

"You're so effing practical. I hate it."

I know. Sorry."

"Since we're being practical, why isn't everyone all bloated, like that other time?"

"That was summer. We're having cold weather and cloudiness; it helps." He turned to Vernie. "How many?"

"Right here, right now, twenty-two of ours, eighteen of theirs. More died in the house, we think, and we haven't collected everyone from over by the Ridge yet."

"Aleesha's up there," put in Elsa. "She should have had a life, Tom."

"Everyone should have a life. We find ourselves born; then we make choices. Some work out to a longer life, some work out to a better one. Longer, as we both know, is not necessarily better."

"It's going to be too many for Hall, isn't it?"

"Yes," answered Dr. Chaney. "The heaps can only absorb so much. And in spite of the cold, corruption will certainly set in; we're going to have to do something different."

"Can we move them all up to one of the fields above Ames'?" asked Vernie. "You know; exposure, Indian way."

"Well, it's quite a concentration of putrefaction. There will be rain all winter, and Ames' is upstream of a lot of wells. I don't really know if that's an issue, but it makes me uneasy."

"Burial, then?" asked Elsa. "With funerals? Nothing lengthy; but when we all go back to Jeeah, a farewell seems appropriate."

"For ours, sure," replied Vernie. "But I'd just as soon give these bandits to the coyotes unsung and unremembered."

"No, give them a few words, too." They turned toward the voice. It was the tall girl with the crazy hair, in an antique cotton shift with no left sleeve, her arm bandaged from wrist to collarbone. She stood by the apple trees on the far side of the road, supported by Ro-eena.

"Karen!" Elsa was shocked. How could she be up so soon?

"Them, too; it was necessary to stop them, but we needn't be angry. That's a waste, you know."
"Ro-eena ..." Elsa began, warningly.

Ro-eena turned her head to Karen. "You're getting heavy. Back to Beeman's now? Before they beat me up for bringing you?"

"Yes."

Karen paused as they passed Cougar's corpse, next to Stannin's.

The two looked very much alike.



Avery Murchison took a sip of water from the mug sitting in the cupholder of his Quickie chair.

He had not seen Savage Mary in years. At the time, he'd been an athletic and optimistic youth with legs, and she'd been a prematurely arthritic middle-aged scientist, dour and sardonic by turns, complaining of her being cooped up among so many "commies" – her father, a leading libertarian, would be rolling over in his grave, she'd said.

They hadn't taken to each other.

Now, perhaps, they were more alike. One chair-bound invalid being painfully rolled up a mountainside in an oxcart, to consult with another whose domain consisted of these lamplit warrens; the virtue of said warrens being their flat, smooth floors, the best place in Starvation Creek for a chair-bound would-be Marine to make himself useful.

As if there were such a thing as the Marines anymore.

She'd undoubtedly take over.

He rolled to the window facing north, and glassed in that direction out of habit; most of the "road" from Hall, and Hall itself, could not be seen from here.



For years, everything had been carried up on packframes or packsacks with tumplines, or dragged by travois; then finally oxen had become available, bred from the tiny herd of Devons that had been found at what was now Ames'. Rubber-tired trailers had been adapted, including one that had a tailgate labeled "Toy." Avery had wondered what kind of toy the trailer had carried in days gone by, until a chance remark by his mother cleared up the mystery. He had mused on that for days: what other things are we forgetting? What untapped knowledges will break when the first Creek generation is gone?

Billee ran in.

"Do you ever walk?" Avery asked.

"Huh! Don'tcha wanta know are they here yet?"

"I can deduce from your manner that they are."

"De-dues?" She knit up her eyebrows.

"Never mind. Are there enough people to get Dr. Mary up here?"

"She's a doctor?" Eyes widened.

"No, a physicist."

"What's that?"

"Cut that out. Can she get here?"

"Oh! Yeah, Millie and Bobbo, and two folks from Hall, and some guy with little windows over his face."

"Glasses. They help him see."

"No kiddin'? So, yah, it's gonna be noisy, but sit tight."

"Like I can do anything else. Go show them a lamp up the stairs, Mm? Thanks."

She skipped over to the door, leaned over the railing of the landing, and turned back. "They've got it covered, here they come."

It was quite a production, Mary being possibly the heaviest person on Starvation Creek. She could stand on her own, but getting her up each step involved having someone under each arm, with backups to make sure the group did not topple over backwards. Millie, a longtime Ridger, led the way with a candle, which she blew out as she reached the landing. Presently, Mary Savage, Ph.D. was sitting in her purloined wheelchair, huffing and blowing and darting mildly aggrieved looks round the room from between long pigtails of pepper-and-salt hair.

"That 'road' out there is a killer, Junior. You ought to get it graded." Her eyes darted to the control panel even as she spoke.

"We do, every year. With a stone boat behind the oxen. Best we can do. And the name's Avery."

"Ooh, touchy. Well, that makes two of us. So what can you show us, here?" Selk came in and stood beside her chair.

"Lots. Or only a little, depending. And you are?" asked Avery.

"Selk; I do the radios and the generator and such."

"Oh, right. Dad has us listening to that car radio for you."

"How's it doing?"

"There are some interesting things coming out of the far north and some Spanish or Portuguese from far south; it's quiet for hundreds of miles around here, except for that station you asked about."

"Same broadcasts?" asked Mary.

"Yes; a loop, which suggests access to either computing power, or archaic tape technology, or both."
Mary and Selk were both impressed; Avery had more education in pre-Undoing knowledge than they had expected. Obviously Carey and Ellen had spent more time on teaching him than they had bothered to mention.

"Magee still looking for those names and numbers?"

"Well ... it's a recording. There might not even be anyone there. Without triangulation we can't even be certain the transmitter is in Roseburg. What we do know –" he added weight to his voice for emphasis –"is Guchi tells us the likely leader of our bandits, who is on the loose still, is a match for one of the names."

"Which one?" asked Selk.

"Wolf."