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, February 28, 2015

52

Karen, sitting beside Marleena, glanced over and met her eyes, steady and ready. Both the babies had fallen asleep; time to unhook them and pack them up. It would soon be nightfall and time to roll. With an almost silent matched pair of wet "plops," the mothers became individuals again.
      As she struggled with her little boy's swaddling, Karen wondered, not for the first time, how she'd drawn this particular billet. The crew she'd assembled consisted of none of her old friends, excepting Juanita and Errol. Nearly everyone present was from Roundhouse. A stronger division of labor between the sexes, at Roundhouse, might account for it; these were, except for two small boys, almost all women and girls that had, until this war, never held a bow, let alone a rifle. Now they would be carrying, each of them, some weapon; and might have to learn to use it on the run. It was hoped that some of those fighting outside might trail and join them, but the hope carried as much freight as any terror; one look at Juanita's clouded expression told all.
      One of the urchins, the one she'd shown to make and demonstrate a blanket roll, stood in the doorway. "Beg pardon, ma'am, all heads counted and all things inventoried."
      "Right," replied Karen, distracted by a strip of cloth that  would  insist on covering Allyn's nose and mouth. "How many commons?"
      "Two axes, two shovels, two buckets, six tarps. Mr. Errol is showing us where to find things."
      "I trust these tarps don't fall apart when handled and are not  blue?"
      "No ma'am," he grinned. "Never seen daylight, and we painted them brown and green like you said."
      "Right, so we'll be right there and then we'll all head for the stairwell together."
      "Yes'm." He turned to go.
      The floor beneath them vibrated. Dust floated free from the ceiling overhead, and a dull thump resounded more in their chest cavities than in their ears. The boy turned to face Karen again, trying to hide his fright.
      "You're right," Karen answered his unasked question. "That wasn't up top, that was second level, by the doors."
      Another thump. A florescent tube in one of the ceiling fixtures popped and showered Marleena and Arda with tiny diamonds and white powder. Marleena snatched up the baby and backed away from the spot. Karen practically tossed little Allyn into his bag on her left hip, then drew the revolver whose holster was now part of that bag. Juanita and Marleena took up their bows.
      Feet came running down the stairwell; Karen and the young Roundhouser, bow drawn, stepped into the hall to meet them.
      It was Guchi, carrying a shotgun and looking grim. He pulled up in front of Karen.  "Mrs. Allyn, they're working on the sally port with that gun. You're not going to be able to go." Another, louder thump punctuated his report.
      In a way, Karen was relieved. "Well, then ... " She waved the High Standard meaningfully.
      Guchi wasn't finished. "But, uhh, follow me?"
      Another raucus thump. White dust plastered their hair as Karen followed Yamaguchi to the refectory's "garderobe." He gestured grandly at the toilet seat.
      Not intended for human waste disposal only, the chute was a steel-lined tube through the rock of the mountain, slanting away toward Hall. How it had been used before the Great Undoing, no one remembered, but Ridge had appropriated it as the best means of getting everything compostable down to the great heaps of Hall Farm. Only the dead had been spared this indignity, being carried down ceremonially by ox-cart. The pipe diameter was fifty centimeters, so it was a doable route, though steep.
      "Really?" Karen wrinkled her nose, though she was not fastidious by nature. Not the best environment for a newborn, surely.
      "Well, yucky, yeah. But we last raked it out about a week and a half ago. Not everybody's been living up here since, so I figure an hour's work for one strong kid.  Depends how fast we can bring up the buckets."
      "It's latched on the outside – at Hall Farm – right?"
        "Yes, but that should yield to some dexterity. It's not really a security thing. Though, maybe – " he shrugged – "it should have been."
       Thump.  Dust motes leaped from the walls.
      "Umm. Okay." Karen holstered the revolver. She looked round. The youngster she hoped might still be in the doorway, had, it turned out, gone her one better, and was standing by her elbow.
      "Ma'am."
      "Want to do something particularly awful and be a hero?"
      "Oh, yes, ma'am." The kid grinned. "Name's Griff."
      "Mmh? Oh, to tell your friends where you ..."
      "No, ma'am. To remember me by for all time. I'll get me some rope and a bucket."
       Thump.

:::

"This here thing," said Mary disgustedly, "is no more than a gahdam pearl-handled cyanide pill." She unloaded the tiny "gambler's gun," dry-snapped it experimentally in the direction of the entryway, then reloaded it.
      "Here; take this one, then." Avery drew the sawed-off and tossed it to her.
      "Hey! That's more like it. But what if I'd dropped it?"
      "Well, that would have been risky. But you didn't. Here's extra shells, too. Throw me the little one." Avery caught the derringer and turned back to the console.  The room shook. Both their wheelchairs transmitted the shock of the explosion to them. "How many do you make that?"
      "About fifteen. They'll be comin' in, my lad. The doors are good stuff, but not  that  good."
      Avery glanced at the destruct button. "We may have to pull the plug soon, then. Where's Selk? Are we in business or not?"
      "He went to take a peek, I think. Wups – here he is."
      Selk, at the south window, began making gestures. There being no agreed-upon engineering sign language at the Creek, his efforts were randomly understood, but Mary, quicker on the uptake than Avery, undertook to translate.
      "The nasties have, he says, divided their forces. Some are still along the road – out in th' open, and worth goin' after! The scope?" She swung around and looked. "Oh, better. Best signal we're going to get." She gave Selk a thumbs-up.
      Selk was clearly about to reply in kind, but instead made a small "o" with his mouth and sank slowly out of sight from the narrow window.
      A man whom Mary had never seen before appeared, crossbow in hand, drew a knife, and bent towards Selk's location. Mary, in supreme anger and frustration, pointed the sawed-off at the window. She resisted pulling the trigger, however. Nothing that could be fired from a shotgun, let alone "pheasant" loads, was going to reach a foe through nine inches of quartz.
      "What's up?" asked Avery over his shoulder, as he reached for the three great dials.
      "Sonofabitch effin' got my boy! Now he's standin' right here starin' at me through th' window! Is there a way you can cut him up with that effin' great cheese slicer?"
      "No, there's a stop built in, to keep it off our position evidently. I'll just have to hope I can hack up some trucks instead." Avery twiddled dials minutely. "Sorry about your engineer," he added softly. "Good man."
      The enemy soldier seemed distracted. He backed away from the window, looked down, and withdrew a screwdriver from his abdomen. With his other hand he explored his middle for a moment, then looked at his darkened palm, then again at the screwdriver. He threw it away, obviously cursing, and then walked aimlessly off.
      "A  damned  good man," said Mary, putting her hand against the wall where Selk's poor body must be.

:::

This,  thought Magee,  is  more  like  it.
      He stepped through the stinking air where the cleverly-made (and surprisingly strong) door had been, and found himself in an artificially-lit interior. No sooner than he had taken four laborious strides forward, however, than he was rocked back by a blast from nearby – buckshot, by the feel of it.
      Yet more acrid smoke soured the air.
       Huh – black powder shotshells. More evidence of manufacturing activity. An exciting prospect. A brief image of himself explaining the advantages of a joint venture tickled his imagination, but then the suit took another bruising hit. Even with the blast-protection plugs in his ears, Magee found himself developing a headache. He'd better locate and neutralize the threat, before they thought to aim for his visor.
      There – the sound of another shell being racked into a chamber. A woman near a service area of some kind – stairwell and elevator shaft. Just like old times. The weapon was still at her shoulder and aimed, as he expected, a little higher than the first two shots. Magee turned away, almost staggering as the balls, still clustered together, pounded the back of his helm. He swung back to return fire, only to see his assailant cut down by a blast from behind him.
      "My lord, are you well?" The Doctor, suited up and armed with her own AA-12, stepped through the wreckage of the sally port. To make herself heard without suit radios, she was shouting. Three of her young interns drifted in behind her, armed with crossbows, and a fourth carried Wolf's old AK-47. These were all of the invading force that had made it to the farmers' inner sanctum; but with the two suits and the super-shotguns, Magee felt confident.
      "Very well, m'dear, just a mite slow." Magee shook his head inside the helm, trying to clear the ringing from his ears. "It looks like there are a number of floors. Let's clean up this rat's nest quickly. One of you young'uns make sure of that casualty and collect her weapon; I'll go upstairs'n the rest of you work from here down, hm?"
      "It is good, my lord." The Doctor, shotgun at the ready, glanced round. "A welcoming committee of one. Interesting; perhaps they have concentrated their powers in the valley." She strode heavily toward the descending staircase, then stopped by the elevator door. She reached into a tool bag at her waist and retrieved a pair of wire snips.
      "Something good?" asked Magee.
      "New wiring, run from floor to floor along the handrails. Perhaps internal communications; more likely they have a  suicide bomb rigged." She snipped, then replaced the tool. Rummaging round in the bag, she found and displayed a round object about the size of a baseball. "Boys?"
      "Yes, ma'am," replied one of the interns.
      "Two of you take these flash-bangs and work your way down with me; make sure there are no nasty surprises, hmm?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Gunner and one other stay here, turn up that table for cover and watch the elevator and the exit."
      "Yes, ma'am."
      She turned back to Magee, who had already set foot on the first step of the ascending staircase. "My lord, should you go adventuring alone? I worry about you."
      "Aww, y'nice, m'dear, but I've always been the luckiest man alive, y'know that."
       And most of your luck has been me. "Yes, my lord. Have a good time, and we will clear the rest of the facility and join you as way permits."
      Magee's bespectacled eyes, through the slit in the faceplate, smiled.

:::

Whatever was causing the great geyser of mud, rocks and steam, which the two men had wondered at, suddenly left the Creek and tore up along the stream's bank at an angle, making off deliberately along the Road with a roar and a rumble. In its absence there fell, locally, a remarkable stillness, though, in the distance, guns occasionally popped.
      Armon stood up and scanned the smoking scenario, a salvaged crossbow at the ready. "I think everything's gone east from here, including whatever the eff  that  was."
      Wilson, still carrying the broken twenty-two, emerged from the shattered woods. "Agreed; let's inspect this battlefield an' then follow." He walked, gingerly negotiating the slanted, crumbling ditches, toward the cluster of burning vehicles. He'd quickly found that stepping ro near the northern edge of the little trenches invited a broken ankle.
      The first tractor, he sadly realized from the color of it remains, had once been Deerie. And the contents of its shattered cage of smashed steel plates had likely once been Jorj, poor man. Next to Deerie's small crater stood its massive cousin, bigger than any example Wilson had ever seen. It had evidently burned – was still smoking. Most of its steel was blackened by soot from, by the smell of it, diesel fuel.
      Diesel was not part of the experience of most Creekers, but Wilson had been, years ago, one of a team of small boys assigned to pull apart fuel tanks and oil pans to get at the last uncollected drops. It had not been pleasant work, largely because so many vehicles had, by then, been overgrown with blackberries and invested by bald-faced hornets and paper wasps. He wrinkled his nose. He then noticed that the roof of the Cat's armored cage had been sliced in parallel to the strange ditches. What ... ? A wrecked truck nearby, he realized, had presented to him a similar puzzle. Was this something to do with Selk's pet project? A new respect for the little scurrier seeped in.
      Armon, scanning east and west, worked round to the other side. "Hey, Wilson!"
      Wilson winced; the guy could never absorb protocols. "Report; describe."
      "Aw, just come see, okay?"
      Wilson, checking behind him as he rounded the corner, followed Armon's voice to find him standing on the Cat's tracks by a burnt armored door, hanging open.
      A man lay half out of the doorway, covered with second-degree burns and soot. He'd been apparently unable to escape the flames, as there was a shackle round one of his legs, chained to something in the interior.
      "Jeeah, Wilson, he's still breathin."  Armon turned the unconscious man over.
      Aside from the extensive burns, he'd also been shot, from close range. Wilson counted the holes. At least nine times, including once to the head. Limitations of the twenty-two.
      "So, what do we do?" asked Armon.
      "Got that knife?"
      "Well, yeah ... "
      "So, put him out of his misery."
      "Umm?"
      "Ever do sheep?"
      "Uhh, yeah."
      "Same thing." Wilson pointed to his own throat.. "Here to here. Nothin' to it."
      A sound nearby drew their attention. Swiveling round with the cocked rifle in one hand, like a long pistol, Wilson spotted the source. Someone sat under a blasted tree, using its trunk as a backrest. A hand waved in the gathering twilight.
      Abandoning protocol himself, Wilson ran to the sitter.
      "Emilio! What ... ?"
      "Please. With me, sit a little. Talk business, yes?"
      Emilio's other hand, Wilson could see, covered a pattern of holes at his waist, and was bloody. He reached for the wound.
      "No. It is no good. I tried to make sure of that man and collect his weapon, which was immensely foolish of me. And now he has, I think, relieved me of my pancreas."
      "Godammit, Emilio ... "
      "Shh. Order of business. First: several good people have died here; Mrs. Perkins is one, Mr. Jorj another. But they all  performed well. Second: I have rescued that man's shotgun from the flames. There ... are still two shells. Mr. Armon, I see, has come with you; give him that. It will be ... an improvement over the crossbow. Third, some of the enemy have passed Hall and assaulted Ridge; but they are very few, I think, and the doors are strong. The bulk of them have gone east for some reason and we are fighting them ... I think ... you should go there. Fourth; is that broken rifle loaded, and do you have spare cartridges?"
      "Yes. And yes."
      Armon came up, wiping the knife blade with and handful of vegetation. Wilson handed him the shotgun.
      "Fifth, then: With me, trade rifles. But do not waste it as I did – aim always for the head." Emilio smiled, but very briefly; Wilson would have willingly witnessed almost anything but that smile.
      "Emilio ... we can ... "
      "You cannot. You may trust me that I have no remedy and little time; be reassured, the bullet is in case any straggler follows you. I cover, yes? Go; go now, Jeeah with you; dark is coming."
      "I'll remember you to Mrs. Molinero."
      "You will surely do so, my good friend." 

:::

The buckets, those that had not cracked from old age and been tossed aside, reeked. The crew handling them had found rags with which to cover their mouths and noses, but it was certainly an onerous task. Bringing up the buckets was slow work; it was more than a hundred meters from the "tunnel's" entrance at Ridge to its exit at Hall Farm.
      Karen stood near the doorway. She and the others could hear much of what was going on: the bursting shells from the big gun, the collapse of the sally port door, the brief battle in the antechamber, footsteps on the stairs. Karen drew her revolver, but no one appeared on the landing at the end of the corridor.
      "What is happening?" asked Juanita.
      "I don't know. It's like they've skipped over us and gone downstairs."
      Marleena strode over with a bucket of sewage. "The sinks and shower stalls are  full. Where do we put the rest of this?"
      Karen didn't hesitate. "Chuck it right out in the hall. Maybe it will slow someone down."
      Not twenty buckets later, an echo-laden shout was heard from the bottom of the garderobe. The lower door was open! Little Griff, sounding as if he were kilometers away, gave the all-clear.
      Karen, after checking both ways down the corridor, looked into the troubled faces nearest her. "I'm sorry, everyone, we're all going to get  ruinously  messy. Gather your gear, each of you put your stuff in front of you, climb in, and go. Feet first. Half slide, half creep."
      The refectory filled with the rustling of bundles, bows, quivers, backpacks, and bodies. Lining up, one after another of Karen's crew shoved one or more items into the hole, undoubtedly causing distress and discomfort to whomever was below, then sat on the edge and slipped in. Marleena, now carrying Arda, who was wrapped in an old quilt head to foot, kicked a small duffel bag to the side of the hole. Juanita lifted the bag for her and tipped it onto someone in the darkness. Ignoring the aggrieved yelp from below, she turned and helped Marleena sit down with the baby and shove off.
    Errol brought the last spear from the armory. His wounds not completely healed, he was using it as a crutch. "Mrs. Allyn, I can ..."
    "No, they need your experience at the bottom in case they are attacked there. Go!"
    Grimly, but willingly, steeling himself against the pain, he went.
      An explosion from somewhere shook the room.
      Juanita looked at Karen questioningly.  
      "They're working up from Four, clearing," Karen offered. "You should go."
      "You will come too, will you not?"
      "I can't, not right away. They have grenades or something; when they find the garderobe they will drop one right on top of us."
      Juanita extended her hands."Then let me take the boy."
      Karen looked down at Allyn, sleeping peacefully in his pouch at her left side. "Sure – got a way to wrap him up?"

      "But of course. A towel will do, and he will ride between my breasts."