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, January 24, 2015

47

Neel's nose was running, and he'd begun to shiver. The cave-like stone lookout was all right in summer, but as the days became shorter, he could feel the heat being drawn from his body. More, and better clothing would help. More, and better, food would help. Fire  would help; but Mrs. Murchison had nixed fire. He gripped the rifle between his knees and tucked his hands in his armpits.
       Across the room in the near-darkness, he could glimpse Elberd, in much the same condition as himself. Mrs. M had said for one of them to get some sleep while the other watched, but neither felt like sleeping and what was there to watch? The clouds had settled on the hill, and the moon would not rise until well past midnight. One might as well cake mud on one's eyes and watch that.
       Wait! Sound. Someone approaching the entrance. Stiffly, Neel unwound himself and found the stock, grip, and trigger of his weapon. He sensed Elberd doing the same.
       "Word?" croaked Elberd, nearest the door.
       "Tree," replied Mrs. M's voice, the one they wanted most in all the world to hear. Neel, in obedience to his training, removed his finger from the trigger and indexed it along the stock. "Word?" asked Mrs. M, near the entrance in the rain.
       "Branch. Oh, Sergeant, we're ... "
       "Shhhh!" She came in, her rain gear rustling, and made for the telephone table. "Elberd, go outside and if anything moves, challenge and be prepared to shoot. Neel, go over by the entrance and back him up. Quietly, quietly! Thank you both."
       They moved quickly and as silently as possible, as she had trained them. Neel settled, just out of the rain, within the stone doorway, and watched the blackness, which gave him no more clues than before. He could hear Mrs. M. working the doorbell buzzer and the handset.
       "Avery? Wilson? Oh, Karen. Is there an Avery nearby? Over. Yes, expedite! Thank you. Over. Who's this? Over. Hello, Guchi. Is Wilson in? Never mind, then, yes, bring Minnie downstairs, please, she'll do. Over. Oh, Avery. Yes, there's something going on here. Where are the people you sent? Over. Well, they're a good three hours overdue, so I think that makes our position here untenable, to say the least. Over ... Well, I'm thinking they've cut us off about halfway up the hill – what? No, we've heard no shots, that's the hell of it. With all the toys we've seen them waving around, and then seeing them march off ostentatiously around to your left, I'm thinking they've divided their forces and the long-haired ones have doubled back. Over. Yes, it could be a diversion, but that doesn't mean they don't want this hill. They could see your every move from here. Over."
       Her rain gear rustled. "Neel, are you paying attention to Elberd?"
       He hadn't been. "Yes'm."
       "Step outside; he's wet, you might as well be."
       "Yes'm." Neel took one long step forward; his straw hat began sagging right away, but it provided him some protection. Any other time, he might try to locate the other young man by calling out to him, but it seemed a good idea, this time, not to. Instead, he strained at the soft whisper of the night with all the might of both ears, till he located him by a shifting of weight on a wet boulder. Except that the sound did not seem quite right.
       Neel eased the rifle forward and lightly touched the trigger with his finger. Barely above a whisper, he called out. "Word?"
       Something popped against his thigh, like a wet towel being snapped. Neel could hear someone running toward him, then falling down in the mud right at his feet. In what little light was available, the blade of a knife flashed out toward his legs. He leaped to avoid the knife, and aimed and squeezed the trigger of his twenty-two. But nothing came of that. He fell back against the stone wall of the lookout, frantically working at the bolt. Who was there? Another one?
       With a much louder blast, the sergeant's revolver exploded right by his ear, and he felt himself jerked into the shelter. Neel sprawled on the floor, and saw, upside down, the flash of another blast from her gun. He heard his rifle, which he had somehow dropped, drag itself across the floor and land on his chest. The revolver tore another hole in the night, with an accompanying muzzle flash and lazily tumbling sparks. Were there shouts?
       A twenty-two popped once, twice. Neel felt faint; his ears rang. He forced himself to work the bolt of his weapon, until the dud round fell out and another replaced it. He sat up, trying to see, trying to be of use. His right leg suddenly pained him. The thought of standing up struck him as unlikely.
       Now all was quiet. Was he alone? No, there was ragged breathing.
       The sergeant's voice rang out from quite nearby. "Elberd!"
       "Ma'am!" Alive!
       "Get  in  here!"
       "Yes'm, where's  here?"
       "Eff. Neel, are you with us?"
       "Yes'm."
       "Is that thing working yet?"
       "I think so, ma'am."
       "Give me."
       Neel held the rifle up and felt it snatched away. It banged once, up into the rain, and footsteps came running. Too many footsteps! The revolver lit up the night once more, and suddenly Elberd flung himself down beside Neel, wheezing.
       A fierce whisper came from the darkness above. "Crawl around to the right, both of you! Hand me my rifle!" Neel complied; Mrs. M grasped it, worked the bolt action, and moved toward the doorway.
       "Cover the entrance. Ask for the word from anyone coming in; if it's not me, shoot."
       Neel propped himself up against the table and worked to catch his breath. He tried to ease the rifle down across his lap, but his right thigh bothered him too much. He set the butt down on the floor, with his hand on the grip, shifted his weight, and, reaching across with his left hand, explored his leg. There was an arrow shaft there!
       It had almost missed him, but not quite. He tugged at the shaft experimentally, and quickly gave up that idea. Perhaps it could be pulled through from the other side.  We'll wait on that a bit.
      The crack of Mrs. M's more powerful rifle lit the night briefly. Immediately following, they could hear the bolt action opening and closing. She must not be far away.
       Then the sky suddenly lit, to Neel's dark-accustomed eyes, horizon-to-horizon. The sky-light moved, and the outline of the stone hut's doorway crawled across the floor. Neel glanced at Elberd, and saw that Elberd's right cheek lay open, an almost perfect match to the long scar on his left cheek. Elberd's eyes were wide open with fright and wonder.
       The excruciating brightness crossed the doorway and windows from right to left, and then, if anything, flared, silhouetting the forests of Maggie's Hill. And, as suddenly as the illumination had come, it ended, though a phosphorescence hung in the clouds.
       A sound not unlike the summer's thunder came through the packed-earth floor into their cold bones.
       "Dubya-tee-eff?" asked Elberd, whispering hoarsely.
       "I'm not sure I even want to know," replied Neel, gripping his weapon and re-focusing on the doorway. "I'll watch here; you get some salve on your face and pull it together  with some duct tape; then you turn around and watch the windows." 

:::

The rocks piled in front of Minnie-Min, which she had been touching from time to time to reassure herself they were still there, were slowly becoming visible. Moonrise; if the bad people were coming this way, there would be a chance of seeing them coming. 
    She'd been afraid she'd have to depend on her hearing, which she knew was not the best. And in rain, there was little one could discern against the white noise of the raindrops. This worked even against animals; earlier, a doe had walked across right in front of their position, and Bobbo had somehow put a bolt through it and tossed it, still struggling, over his shoulder to deliver to Ridge for the desperate cooks.
       There was no keeping the unaccustomed cold out, even in her rain cloak. She shifted her weight time and again, feeling acutely the stobs of burnt brush and the small stones beneath her. The stones, she had to remind herself, were her friends; without them this would all be a slickery slope of ash-fouled mud, perfect for breaking an arm or a leg in a fall. Such injuries had always been a serious matter at Starvation Creek; it would be doubly true now.
       There was a clatter off to the left; tremulously she gripped her twenty-two and called out. "Word?"
       "Stock." It was Bobbo, returning. "Word?"
       "Soup."
       Errol, also to the left, spoke up. "Bobbo, you're coming down way left of your hole; let Minnie guide you over."
       "Thanks; I got it. Min, just grunt a couple times, I'll go right by."
         Suddenly the sky lit up, as if by lightning. Bobbo flattened himself, rolling a few more stones down onto Minnie, who crouched lower, wondering at the brightness. A weapon, a big one by the sound of it, cracked in the valley below – perhaps on the opposite side of the river – and the bright light arced across their position and disappeared over Ridge. "What ... ?" 
       "Shhh!" Bobbo began scrambling as soon as the darkness came. "Watch and listen! And stay down!"
       Another light came streaking toward the mountain. This time there was a burst of flame, accompanied by a shower of big sparks, just over the swell of the ridge to the left. The ground trembled; this was followed by an explosion, not like anything Minnie had ever heard.
       Here it came again! This one, she could see, would come closer. Instinctively she nestled into her rockpile, knocking her rain hat askew. The bright flying object shrieked as it came near, then clanged into the hillside, near Errol, she thought. Sparks rose into the rain, guttering out as they arced away from the point of impact, and one larger spark bounded into the air, illuminating the whole hillside as it hummed off over Ridge. What  were  these things? 
       Another sharp crack in the valley told her another of the lights was coming; she closed her eyes, then opened them – one must be ready for anything; and was she not a lifelong soldier of Ridge? This time there was a terrifying crash to her right, and bright blobs sputtered off overhead. Something pinged, like an arrow, on the boulder to her left and clattered into her hole. She might have reached for it, curious, but a strange smell, like and yet unlike the black powder with which she was familiar, wafted to her nostrils. Oh! it would be hot. Of course; these exploding things had metal casings. If she were out in the open when one burst, she could be cut down, as if with a bullet. 
       Two more of the things flung themselves at the hill, off to her right. And now – was that someone slipping in the mud, somewhere in front of her rockpile?
       "Word?" That was Errol, to her left.
       The unmistakable sound of a crossbow replied, quickly followed by the sound of a bolt caroming off rock. 
       Minnie could not see, over the rim of the boulder, who had fired, but she presumed there would be more than one intruder; if she stood up to shoot she might take flanking fire. Better to leave Errol's adversary to Errol for the moment. Sure enough, through the night came the unimposing "thwack" of his own twenty-two being fired. Someone, in front of her and downslope, grunted and swore. Minnie took this moment to shift onto her haunches and peer ahead, trying to see in three directions at once. 
       The big gun cracked again, and as the yellowish light traced across the valley, she could see three men  silhouetted against the light. They were sheltering from Errol, but had, apparently, not yet found her. She could feel her pulse racing in her neck as she aimed at the nearest and squeezed the trigger.
        Nothing. Nothing, Jeeah!
       Oh, the safety! She tried to remember what Bee had taught her. Push along receiver with right thumb – yes! She aimed again. This time the hammer fell with a click that came to her through her hands, but nothing else happened.  Eject!  They were noticing her now, and crabbing around on the slope to avoid her shot and perhaps get off a few arrows. Minnie worked the bolt and shouldered her weapon again. The ground rumbled beneath her as a shell from the big gun struck well away to the right somewhere. At the same time she fired. Someone else did so, as well – Bobbo?
       "Get up! Get up there. Get 'em!" shouted someone. One of the opponents?
       "I'm shot!" 
       "Can you move?"
       "Yeah."
       "Well, if you ain't dead yet, go effin'  get  'em!"
       Though she did not care to be discussed as someone to "get," these people did not sound any better organized than Creekers to Minnie. She worked the bolt again.
       Errol, Bobbo and Minnie fired almost as one. The twenty-twos were beginning to have an effect. Instead of rushing, the invaders were scrabbling away down the slope. It was  this  easy?
       An arrow or bolt clattered off the rock right in front of her; Minnie ducked, shifted to her right, and slowly peeked over the rim again. She'd wait for the next cannon blast to work the bolt action; no point advertising her exact position.
       But the big gun seemed to think it had done enough for now. She strained at the deep gray night with her eyes and ears. Something was going on well to the left, where several of the Roundhousers were; more small rifles were popping, someone was shouting, and there were clubbing noises. She ached to go help, but realized she might well do more harm than good anywhere but here. At least in this spot she had  some  chance of distinguishing friend from foe.
       Now something was happening on her right; a wrestling match on the mountainside. A body or bodies rolled away below her, grunting. A man screamed. Someone was running or climbing toward her. Minnie worked the bolt. A shadow rose up in front of her. She fired. 
       "Unh!" said the shadow as it fell away.
       Was that Bobbo's voice?
       She'd better risk checking.
       "Word?" she croaked.
       "Uhh ... uhh, soup? Stock, stock!"
       "Oh  Jeeah, Bobbo, did I effing shoot you?"
       "Unh. Nemmind. They're right here. Keep shootin'!"
       Numb, yet obedient, Minnie loaded the chamber and stood up. Vaguely, before her, lay two bodies, both twisting in agony. One was clearly Bobbo. The other had something protruding from his abdomen. Approaching from below were two men she felt sure were armed with bows. The cannon spoke again, and she knew for the first time the terrible nakedness of the illuminated target. 
        Aim, fire. Load. Aim, fire. 
       Something caromed off Minnie's temple and her eyes filled, briefly, with red and blue sparks. Was she falling? Yes, she supposed she was.

:::

"Karen, let's get off this level for awhile." Avery scooped the remaining shotgun shells into his lap and wheeled around the table. "Now!"
       Karen stood, stunned at the brilliance of the moving light. What was  that?
       Avery was speaking again. "Move  it; they're ranging on us with a chain gun; it can hole us here. You take the stairs; I'll take the elevator."
       Karen shuffled, so as not to trip over any of Selk's gear, and exited the command center into the lit hallway. Grasping the strange coolness of the stairwell's tubular handrail, she made her way cautiously down to the landing, turned, and followed the rail down onto the main level of Ridge. The elevator door opened next to her as she reached the corridor; Avery rolled out, loading shells into the sawed-off. 
       There was an unaccountable odor of blood and shit in the air.
       Drawing her revolver, Karen began clearing rooms. As she came to the refectory, she discovered the cause of the odor. Juanita and Guchi, aided by Marleena, were gutting a freshly killed deer.
       Guchi was facing her. His eyes widened a little at the sight of the revolver; she holstered it. "Sorry – didn't know it was a deer."
       "We'll run the fans. Bobbo brought it."
       "Isn't he on the south line?"
       "Yeah, he just couldn't pass up bringing in food. Lotta hungry people downstairs."
       Avery rolled up to the door. "Makes sense. No eat, no fight." To Karen he said, "Stay here and watch the south stairwell. I'll go back and hang out by the north stairs. Anybody from below, send them back down. Anybody from above, shoot."
       "Understood." Karen leaned against the doorpost. She drew again and indexed her trigger finger along the Sentinel's frame, pointing the business end at the floor. From time to time she glanced at her friends, but mostly she watched the far doorway and the empty stairwell beyond.
       Vibrations, no doubt from distant explosions, pulsed in the concrete floor. The food crew paused in their task, looking at one another anxiously, and then, as there was nothing else they could do, fell to work again.
       Juanita, though easily the smallest person present, was the busiest. She drew the intestines and gave them to Guchi in a mixing bowl. He went with it into the kitchen. 
       Juanita picked up a skinning knife. She made quick work of the hide, as Marleena, also no slouch in the deer-dismantling business, turned the body this way and that for her, holding up the front legs at one point and the back legs at another. She took away the hide to another table and rolled it up.
       Juanita cleaned and stropped the knife, set it aside, and picked up a crosscut handsaw. "We will put everything but the hide into stock pots. Guchi is washing out the colons, and so we will put that in as well. Later, when the hide has been scraped, we will make yet another soup with that."
       "Of course," replied Marleena. 
       At the sound of her voice, a cardboard box set against the wall wobbled. The wail of a hungry baby filled the room. Marleena smiled and crossed the room to the box. She stooped and lifted out Marcee's orphaned Arda, who had grown more than Karen expected. Karen tore her eyes away from the infant and watched the stairwell. When she thought her duty could risk another peek, she found Marleena sitting in a nearby chair, her smock open, with the baby at her breast.
       Karen couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Is that ... do you ..."
       Marleena smiled again. "It happens sometimes. When there is great need."
       Arda let the nipple slip for a moment with a smack of her tiny lips, cooed to it, and went back to work.
       Karen's baby kicked. Hard. And again. The child seemed to be trying to scramble around in a circle. Karen felt a wave of – not so much pain, something more like strength. The wave seized her, beginning at her waist and rolling down. Her knees felt like water, and she briefly experienced tunnel vision. 
        Better holster the gun and get a grip on this door! Oh, for two hands!
       Karen took several deep breaths, as Dr. Marcee had taught her. As her vision cleared, she found Juanita and Marleena both observing her closely. Then they looked at each other. Marleena nodded. Juanita had been sawing away at the doe's backbone. She left the saw where it was, dipped her hands in the water bowl at the end of the table, and, wiping her hands on her apron, hurried over to Karen.
       "Would you like to sit down?"
       "No, I ... I'm on watch."
       "Nonsense. Mr. Yamaguchi!"
       Guchi popped his head in from the kitchen. "Almost done!"
       "Never mind that; clean your hands and come in here; we need you to spell Karen in the hallway."
       "Understood. Right away!"
       Guchi shortly came into the refectory, doffed his apron, and gathered up his bow and sword. Juanita guided Karen toward a chair.
       "Nita," asked Karen, "Mind if I don't sit? I want to be on my knees and sort of rest my head on the chair seat, I think."
       "Sensible girl," said Marleena, who now had Arda over her shoulder and was thumping her gently on the back.
       Juanita helped Karen kneel. "But of course. Our Karen is a sensible girl."
       "I think there's going to be another one. And I feel like I'm going to throw up." Even as she said this, Karen could feel the distant explosions, less frequently now, rumbling in the bones of the mountain beneath her hand and knees.
       "Let's get you out of all this war gear. You will not need it for awhile, I think. Here is a bowl. And a wet towel. And now you just rest, Karen. You are in the best hands on Starvation Creek, yes?"
       
:::

Lockerby climbed out of the driver's hatch and hopped down to the ground. There was a  gray illumination provided by the faint beginnings of dawn. Men of the Volunteers were gathered around Mullins, and a row of bodies, by the look of things, lay on the ground. Stretching to ease the stiffness of a night shift in the LAV from his bones, Lockerby ambled over. "What we got?"
       "Not so much." Mullins, scratching at his beard, shook his head. "Jahn, catch Locky up."
       Jahn, a rangy long-jawed fellow with an accent Lockerby couldn't place, stepped over.
       "These folks have workin' rimfire ammy-nition; they's shooting us up wi' twenty-twos f'm cover."
       "I hoped maybe they'd break and run from the barrage."
       "Naw, they've fought afore."
       "A legacy from Wolf. So, how bad was it?"
       "We had four killed and eight are wounded, n' that's includin' me." Jahn held up his arm, which had been tied with a bloody rag. "We got one man, ain't dead yet but will be, had this stuck through 'im." With his other hand, he held up a small sword.
       "Damn. Well, we can't have that, twelve out of fifty-six. Did we do them any damage?"
       "Hard to tell in th' dark; they hauled away dead 'n wounded as they went along; we didn't find but two."
       "Let's see them."
       Jahn indicated the right end of the line of bodies. Lockerby hunkered down to examine them in the gathering light. One was a large man, the other a woman, both with shaven heads and strange clothing – homespun-looking stuff, with rain capes of some kind of woven fiber, like basketry. Much like the Eastsiders, but not so given to adornment. The man had been shot with a small caliber weapon; friendly fire? He also had been slashed and cut about the face, arms, and hands. The woman had been hit a glancing blow in the right temple with a bolt or arrow, but had bled profusely from the mouth. Lockerby pulled down the jaw and looked in. "Shot in the roof of the mouth?"
       "Well, she'd been out cold. Came to as we come up on her and – bam. took 'erself out 'fore we could stop 'er."
       "Refusing to be a captive. Hard core. A waste, she was good looking. They'll come in handy, though. Keep the clothes, maybe we can do a ruse or something with 'em. Got any guns?"
     "Yes, suh. One. Done give it to Mr. Mullins here, suh."
       "Check it out, Lockie." Mullins had leaned it against a tree.
       The rifle was a bolt-action twenty-two el-ar of the tube-fed magazine type; a plinking gun from the previous century, wooden stock and all. Lockerby picked it up, pulled the magazine follower and poured five shiny copper cartridges into his hand. Each one had been sealed around the rim with something lacquer-like. One looked slightly crooked. "Remanufactured?"
       Mullins nodded. "Someone up there knows how to make primer – and powder. Black, from the smell."
       "We got problems."
       "That's not all. While you were in the LAV playin' wi' th' chain gun, we about run out 'a water from th' trucks. I sent th' reserves down to th' river to get some more, and one of 'em drank some and got sick. Real sick. Don't know if we can use it."
       "Oh, it's that blue slime. Not flushed out yet."
       "Yeah, it's still pretty low."
       "It was a hot summer, Mullo. Think we can find any wells?"
       "That's th' kicker," Jahn put in. "They's a place a'tween here an' th' mountain, out in th' open, that was burnt down not too long ago. We found th' well. It's in th' line of fire but we hoped t' go use it at night? ...well, somebody's th'owed in a buncha old antifreeze."
       Mullins scowled. "Lockie, y' suppose we oughta pull back and fort up a bit? I'm running plumb out of ideas here."
       "Well, sir, we've got to go to water. That river over there where the farmers are is almost dry, bad as here, I expect; they must be on wells in there."
       "Th' big river, then. Send somebody to let th' tribals know, an' we'll backtrack to there."
       "That steel bridge over by the entrance to the valley, we could fortify that. Room for all of us."
       "Well, didn't you say it was bad water there too?"
       "Another week of rain, probably not. We could truck in some water till then."
       "Yeah, but I don't like havin' em upstream from us."
       "True; if I was them I'd dam up and then let go a flood. Well, the map shows a bigger river than either of these, out past the big knob. That's closer than the main stem."
       "Where the Eastsiders went up? I'm guessin' they just may have made their objective. 'K, let's truck in some water real quick, then go north. Send Jahn here to tell the Eastsiders to hold their hill till we get there, maybe four days behind 'em. We'll shoot up th' whole valley till they effin' cry uncle."
         Lockerby turned to Jahn. "Jahn."
       "Lockerby."
       "Got all that?"
       "Yes suh."
      Lockerby reloaded the little rifle. "Take this; it'll maybe hold off anybody you meet on the way there. Don't lose it, though. Right now we've got three guns and a cannon. Who knows what those starving farmers have got?"

:::

Even though Elsa Chaney had consciously chosen to create a scratch religion of Gaia, whom the Creekers had gradually renamed Jeeah, she more than half believed in it herself. As she washed a stock pot, she mused: does one pray to Jeeah? Does she answer? She had taught otherwise: honor Jeeah by keeping the earth clean, not by pietistic religiosity. Marleena, she knew, prayed to an Our Father, but that was a remnant of the religion so popular with the very people who had built those power plants which were now melting down all over the sad and neglected earth. The same people had made the terrible last great war. God, or Jehovah, or Allah, whatever they called him, she'd had it with him. She'd seen his effects in the religious after-war of the Klux, They, while massacring the remaining population of of Eugene, had invoked him.
       How would one pray to Jeeah? And why? Elsa knew enough of nature to understand: one seed grows, another doesn't. This is determined by circumstance, not fiat. Hence she did not truly believe in miracles. 
       But it would be lovely to have one now. 
       That ragtag army ranging around out there seemed likely to finish off the little world of the Creek, if famine did not do so first.
       She looked over at Tom, asleep on a cot against the wall. He had become very frail. His mind was wandering; no doubt hers was too. But he had a specific excuse; he'd self-diagnosed himself with cancer. 
       "Likely it began in my bones," he'd told her. "Strontium, of course. And I think has lodged in the brain, and elsewhere. As we both know, and so do Mary and Ellen, the principal value of this place is that it had a low click rate on the Geiger counter, for whatever reason. A trick of the winds in days gone by. But our generation, and many of the young, are from elsewhere. We have in us enough cesium, strontium, uranium, and even plutonium to explain many kinds of cancer and leukemia, as well as the mutations and deformities we have seen."
       She had wept. He had held her. Smiling, he'd added: "I have lived about as long as one does, now, and it's been, on the whole, a good life. And I have lived it with you." 
       Billee came in, with Krall at her heels, breathless and flushed. "Where is Doctor Tom?"
       Elsa resisted the impulse to shush her. He'd resent the protection, she knew. She gestured toward the cot, where he stirred at the sound of his name.
       Billee bit her lip, but Elsa could see that great need had brought her. "Come over and we'll ask him." Elsa set the pot on the counter and accompanied Billee and Krall to the far wall. Tom, moving very slowly, had raised himself up and was feeling for the floor with his feet. Elsa knelt and helped him into his slippers.
       "Doctor Chaney?" Billee began, but, seeing his condition, stood in momentary confusion, wringing a blood-soaked cloth in her sooty hands.
       Tom lifted his eyes to her face, then dropped them to note the red rag. "So, our next little war has begun."
       Billee nodded. 
       "Mangled bodies and what not. I might not be able to do much, myself, but if you can get me to wherever everyone is, maybe I can kibitz a bit. You're not hurt yourself?"
       Billee, still biting her lip, shook her head.
       "I am glad; a blithe spirit should not be blotted out. Help me up, and I'll shuffle along on your arm. Coming with us, my dear?"
       "I am, love. I'll get your other elbow."
       They proceeded slowly toward the corridor. People ran past the doorway. Tom turned his head toward Billee. "Are the enemies within the gates?"
       "No, sir. We've been pushed off Ball Butte for now, I think, but the attack on Ridge seems to have – 'petered' out, as Captain Wilson would say."
       "'Captain,' now. Good title for him."
       Billee blushed. "Yes, sir." 
       Elsa noticed the blush. Even in times like these! Youth is irrepressible. 
       They came to the elevator, which appeared to be in use. They waited their turn. Krall, still at Billee's side, sat on her haunches.
       "What time is it, about?" asked the Doctor. 
       "About a hand past sunrise, sir," replied the girl.
       "Mmh. How is Karen, do we know?"
       "Juanita and Marleena decided to go ahead and break her waters, because the contractions haven't stopped."
       "Is she still strong?"
       "So far so good, sir, and she's about three fingers open now, sir."
       "I had hoped it was not labor. Too soon. We don't have much to offer a preemie."
       "No, sir."
       The door opened. Emilio stood in the elevator with two pale youths – Elberd and the Perkins boy. Elsa remembered vividly Karen's sewing up of Elberd's right cheek in the New Moon War; and here he was with a taped-up wound in his left cheek. It would need attending to; she could see that. "May we join you?" she asked.
       Emilio made room. "Yes, please. We are all going to the same place."
       As Emilio pushed the button for the third level, Elsa turned to Elberd. "I bet you were in the thick of it this time."
       "Yes, ma'am. Or, yes, we have been, but I got this one stupidly too."
       "War is stupid, young man."
       "Yes, ma'am, but, I mean – I was on guard and somebody got behind me in the dark to cut my throat – and I never heard 'em – and I was licking my rifle barrel and the knife slipped on it – and that's how I got cut up here." This outpouring ended in a small sob.
       "The fact that you got out of that alive speaks for itself."
       "Um, yes'm."
       Something in the young man's expression made the back of Elsa's neck grow cold. "Where's Ellen?" she asked, her throat closing behind the words.
       Both of the young men burst into tears.

:::

Karen felt she knew what it must be to be at the bottom of a well. Voices, when they came, seemed far above her, and echoed. What was that again?
       "Too much effort in your face. Your face cannot push, you know." That would be Juanita. A hand patted her ribs, below her breasts. "Push here. Push like you are on the potty bucket, but hard."
       Dry mouth. "Trying."
       "Trying is nothing. You must move the whole world. Rest a bit. Breathe. Breathe again. Breathe again. See, they're coming closer together. One more breath. Let a bit out. Now, squeeze. Relax the face, relax the arm. Do it with everything below!
       "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmh!"
       "You are a funny girl. Rest a bit."
       "Not funny."
       "Okay, not funny. But strong, strong! So here you are again. Muscle, you are one big muscle. Move the world. Relax the arms. Pu-u-u-u-ush!"
         "Mmmmmmmmmmh!" Gasping for breath. "Gonna tear?"
         "What is that? No big thing, we sew you up. You will just push. Once more, I think; rest. Breathe. Breathe again. Breathe again. Strong!"
         Why did she keep saying, "strong?" Surely a weaker person never lived. These storms, she was completely in their power. No way out. No way out. "I think I bit my tongue." 
       "See, too much face," Juanita chided. "You wrinkle it up and turn red, like a dried tomato. Here is a damp cloth. Sip a little, then bite down. Here you go. Marleena has your hand. I am seeing a lovely head. Breathe. Let out a little bit. You will push now with everything, from the ribs down. You are an upside down bottle. Pour yourself out to the earth."
       "To Jeeah. Out to Jeeah."
       "Yes... " said Marleena. "... give yourself."
       Karen pushed until the stars came out behind her eyes. 

:::

"Is everyone here that can be here?" Emilio, who might just have not slept in three days, pinched his nose and rubbed at the inside corners of his eyes. It was a very uncharacteristic gesture, and brought everyone to full attention.
       "I think so, sir," Tomma said softly.
       "Then I think may be we can begin. Do we have the map from Hall?"
       "Yes, sir." Tomma and Vernie stepped to either side of a table at one end of the long room. They raised up a plywood sheet, with posterboard pasted on it, and leaned it against the wall. Most of their world had been hand-drawn here: a map of Starvation Creek and the surrounding hills, with all the old farms and the specialties listed. The one thing that had been done to bring it up to date was a red line through Ridge, Creek, and Maggie's Hill. Everything to one side of that line had been burned over by the Great Fire, including the Orchard; much of what remained on the other side of the line had had to be abandoned after the depopulation of the New Moon War and the pandemic. 
       Those in the room, the very old, the very young, the disabled, and the walking wounded, drew near. Some brought folding chairs, others sat on the floor, forming a semicircle round the table.
       Everyone had had so much to do in the last year that they had most of them passed the map, in its former location on a dimly lit wall of the Mess Hall, many times without giving its relative obsolescence much thought. Seeing it now, with its yellowing paper and faded image, by the harsh light of the halogen lamps on Ridge Three, was sobering.
       Emilio picked up a thin brass curtain rod from the table and used it as a pointer. "We have before us an army by which, in terms of available fighters in the short term, we are outnumbered. They are of two kinds, perhaps allies. They are armed principally by means of a fighting vehicle with a large gun, as we have all seen. Also bows, crossbows, and some edged weapons. We have observed at least one rifle, which appears to be of the kind that was used against us before. But it has not been brought to the battle and is perhaps being held in reserve, or for internal security. Nothing can be assumed, however.
       "Those who have attacked here – " he pointed at Ball Butte " – are, we think, Eastsiders. They match descriptions we have on record, confirmed by Mrs. Allyn's account. They may be thought of as cavalry – horse soldiers. On this army's approach, they were seldom seen, but are more numerous than we thought – riding horses, they scouted ahead, secured the flanks, and formed the rear guard.
       "They have captured Ball Butte and ..."
       A murmur arose. Hands waved. Mrs. Perkins stood up. "Where are our people that were up there?"
       Emilio leaned back against the table. "The two young men have returned within our lines. They were both hurt, but not too badly."
       "So, Ellen ..."
       "Has not been found. Captain Wilson and Maggie are leading an effort to regain that high ground and to determine the whereabouts of Mrs. Murchison."
       The shock was profound. Silence fell; the crowded semicircle seemed to Emilio to shrink visibly, as if everyone sought the strength of shoulders to either side. Billee, who was sitting with her legs out straight, leaned back against a concrete pillar. She took a deep breath and held it, so as not to weep aloud. Krall laid her great head in Billee's lap and whined.
       Emilio addressed the assembly. "This is like the Great Fire; conflict also consumes what it will until it has run its course. Skill and perseverance count for much, but to none of us is there a guarantee of long life and easy days. It may be we will see Mrs. Murchison again. Should that be so, she will wish to hear that we have used our skills well, and that we have persevered. Is that not so, Mr. Murchison?"
       All eyes turned to Avery, Ellen's son.
       "She'd tell you all what she always told me," said Avery, his voice steady. 'Go get some.'"
       "It is so." Emilio pointed to the area between Murchison's farm and the summit of Ball Butte. "A relief crew was on its way to the lookout last night, and we have lost contact with them ... a young man from Gulick's and two from Roundhouse. There are signs of a struggle. We do not know the outcome. These enemies are a very saving people; they retrieve arrows if they can find them. They recover all equipment and bodies, and they habitually cover their tracks."
       A woman from Gulick's stood up, not far from Mrs. Perkins, who had not sat down. "Why are we even doing this? The farms are  gone, you tell me my cousin's dead –"
       "Missing," put in Vernie.
       "Dead, thank you very much! He and I grew up here, it's our home, but for what? We can't grow food while fighting! We should just all pack up like the Bledsoes and scatter!"
       "You have a point," said Avery rolling his chair forward, "And it's one that has been discussed every year since the Creek was established. Let's get Emilio's entire report – and mine – and then, if you like, we'll call a quorum and see if we have a sense of the Creek on that."
       The woman glared, but subsided. Yet clearly the mood of the room was with her.
       Emilio, seemingly unperturbed, pointed to the scrawled rectangle that represented Bridge. "As usual, our strongest preparations have been made in this area. For the second time in a row, our assailants have declined to test us here." 
    He tapped the map in the place marked with a farmstead and outbuildings which all present knew to be now occupied by ruins and weeds: Lawson's Freehold.
       "Once again, an attack has been made upon Ridge from this vicinity. We have a full account from Mr. Errol, of New Ames, who is in the infirmary, that some twenty to thirty men – bald like ourselves –" he forced a hollow chuckle "– again, some using bows, but mostly crossbows – made their way up Ridge from this vicinity under cover of fire from the large weapon and engaged those of us who had formed a line there. 
       "From speech overheard during the fighting, and from details of clothing and equipment noted on the battlefield, as well as the appearance of bodies which we were able to recover, we feel there is reason to believe these are much the same people as we encountered last year. We think, from blood trails, they also carried away some wounded and some dead. It may be hoped we hurt them much.
       "However, we also have a number of people hurt, including Mr. Errol, and two missing. We have brought in three dead, a young woman from Josephs and two men from Roundhouse. But our line has held and was reinforced and resupplied under cover of darkness."
       Mouths opened. Emilio raised his hand, palm out. "We will best speak fittingly of our dead when we have time to draw a proper breath. Mr. Josep has taken over on the south slope of Ridge; his runner informs us that the attackers have withdrawn across the South River –" Emilio indicated the Calapooia –" and are marching once again." He drew an arc on the map with the tip of the curtain rod toward Bridge. "Why they are shifting we do not know. They do not appear very dispirited; so we may anticipate more activity, at Bridge perhaps, or at Ball Butte. 
       "We have the interior lines. As they march, so may we, point for point. Ball Butte is a matter of concern. While they hold that high ground, they command the Creek. We wonder that we have not already been fired upon from there. Hence Captain Wilson's maneuver. Mr. Avery, sir."
       Avery wheeled round to face the audience. "As we all know from our flat and rumbling tummies, it has been a lean stretch and likely to get leaner. When the Department of Defense cleared out this valley and ran, "Jeeah" knows where and to what end, they left an opportunity behind in the form of Carey and Ellen Murchison, Sgts., USMC. The Murchisons were equipped to assess that, due to a trick of the winds, or whatever, we're not as salted with radioactive isotopes, and other problems, as some of the surrounding country. So they were able to pull together a community, enough, they hoped, to farm. But it takes more than we ever recruited, or more of a second and third generation than we were able to produce, to stabilize at a defensible and sustainable population. 
       "Think of all the things that didn't go wrong! War held off, cold held off, flood held off, drought and heat held off, fire held off, and crop failure held off, just enough, for twenty-two years, for us to pretend life was some kind of normal. It's not, out there, and not so much in here, either. Even with this –" he gestured at the blazing lights "– which is a thing likely unheard of nowadays, there's little to go on.
       "The Pilgrims trudged past us all that time, and we did what we could to make Creekers of some of them. They had known terrible privation. Some of their companions fell to diseases, which was why we had strict quarantine. Some had starved. Some had tried to farm, and their crops had made them sick. Some were too radioactive, themselves, for us to recruit. The poison comes from everywhere, mostly in the rain and snow. Savage Mary tells me if we were to show up among the people of Old USA and be tested, they'd have declared  us  poisonous.
       "It's not that we're afraid of danger here. It's more we have some notion of the likely rate of return on scattering out. Wherever the Bledsoes could have gotten to – and some of us think they've met our 'friends' outside – they would likely have found little safe to eat, less safe to drink. Port Land bars the way north toward cooler lands; hostile opportunism on an even greater scale than these bandits and better organized, from what Mr. Josep tells us. If we got so far as the Canucks, why would they welcome us? We have heard them explaining, on their radios, how to dispose of any Pilgrims who get that far. And radiation is an issue even for them."
       Avery looked round the room, meeting as many eyes as met his. "The truth is, it's worth hanging on here until it isn't. If we cannot sweep the barbarians from the gate, I'll recommend the Farms pack up and choose their directions. We are too many to all stick together in a wilderness, unprovisioned. If we can defeat them, there's still a crop, of sorts, to get in. We have clean wells and irrigation. The Creek might yet be a gamble we could win." He reached over his shoulder and drew the sawed-off shotgun, indexing his finger along the barrel, and pointed it at the ceiling. "Have a go?"
       "I will," said one of the Roundhousers. "My kin brought me here over my objections, but they were right to do so; though we loved our home it was becoming a death trap. Here there may still be some hope, the Lord willing."
       Billee was on her feet. "Hey, count on me! Krall too."
       Krall swept her tail at the sound of the name, and the Roundhousers laughed to see the bond between a dog of their people and a woman of the Creekers.
       Vernie held up the Creek's only known example of a Hawken rifle in his left hand. On his bare arm, the scars of his wounding in the New Moon War gleamed in the light. Tomma, across the map from him, held up the Creek's only Lyman rifle in his right hand. Tomma yelled out. "Yeah, Creek!" Vernie looked across at him quizzically, much as if to say, what, you can't come with anything better than that?
       But it seemed enough for the room. Many stood up and shouted Tomma's words.
       Avery crossed eyes with Emilio. Emilio was not smiling, but he seemed moved.  Shakespeare, we're not,  thought Avery.  But we mean about as much.

:::

Wilson had had misgivings about sending on a scout alone. But Maggie had insisted, and now her crewman had not returned.
       "We'll be sticking together till we know more. I'll go point, you cover me with Bess there –"
       "S'a Kentucky but it has no name," she replied sourly. 
       "Yeah, your rifle there. Range about a hundred?"
       "More; I make my own Minié  balls, young man. But here in the woods, figure it out."
       "Mm-hm. Everybody on your right and left, and a 'tail-end Charlie,' as Avery says, in case of envelopment."
       "Fancy word. Never mind, we all have your wide ass covered."
       " ... Right. So, up to th' saddle, n'I'll hang a left toward th' lookout."
       "Fine." She waved the rifle, giving to the gesture that universal meaning: go ahead, chatterbox.
       Wilson winced inwardly. It had always been thus with Maggie; 'Savage' might have been a better label for her than for Mary, whose acid tongue was equal-opportunity. Mary would highlight her own foibles as well as those of others. Maggie's competence no one doubted, but she did often return the favor.
       Grasping his spear and loosening the Old Army in its holster, he turned to go, leaving his rain cape open at the front. Everyone was still "geared up" for weather, though the worst of it had passed for now. The Great Fire had not come here, and the dense green vegetation dumped ice water on one at the merest breath. 
    Wilson worked his way up to, over, and around stumps, root wads, windthrown logs, and the occasional boulder. This was a south slope, but it was not open country; and in two hands' travel he despaired, at this cautious pace, of even making the saddle before dark.
       Part of the trouble was the dark daylight; the clouds that had gathered a week ago had not dissipated, but had thickened daily. Rain had come at last, and it rained for a day and a night – not enough to clear the slime from the Creek, but enough to offer hope of ending the drought. The footing underneath was surprisingly – to him – firm, which was a blessing. No one likes to break a leg when there are no hospitals.
       He came to an old nurse log covered with young huckleberry bushes.  Not a good year for these, dammit – like everything else. He peered through to the other side. Practically a clearing – several trees had come down at once, likely. Waiting and listening a bit first, he stepped over the brushy log and onto the next one, taking care not to dislodge the peeling fir bark. Nope; too much exposure. Hunkering down on the downhill side of the log, he shuffled, crouching, round to the tall root wad on the end, and stepped round it.

:::

Lacey shored himself up on a tangle of old roots full of stones and dirt. How long he'd been out, he had no idea. His entire left side, arm too, tingled as if it had been without circulation overnight. What had happened, and why did his head hurt so much?
       He lifted his right hand and probed at his face gingerly. This could not be good. By the feel of it, something had gone through from his left cheekbone to near his right ear, or vice versa. Never one to face away from his enemies, he felt justified in presuming the former. Dried blood, still viscous in the humid air, covered the side of his head, his neck, and his shoulder. He searched his memories, which seemed remarkably unsorted.
       There was a war – no, that one was with the Nevadans, who seemed intent on migrating, with prejudice, through his people to go North. No, it was the same war; he'd been detailed, with his tribe, to seek out machine weapons to gain parity. A hopeless business, surely. That man – Magee? – struck him as an overreacher. 
       It must be midday; hard to tell by the sky from here, with such an overcast. Had he simply overslept? No, a wound, a fighting wound and a serious one. He closed his left eye, and then opened it, closing the right. Well, things are working. What this creeping sensation might be though, he had no idea. Craning his neck as much as he dared, he eyed his shoulder. Ants. Ants were having a meal at the expense of his open flesh. Flies, too, were buzzing at him, in spite of the cool, damp air.
       He tried again at memory, his head throbbing. There was a fight on a mountain top. Oh,  this  mountain. It must be the same place; here were hemlock trees, their whiplike tops gently tasseling in a slight breeze.
       There was a lookout; he and his men had been investing it in the usual way when battle had been joined with a canny warrior.
       That one had been an extraordinary difficulty. He had two firearms, and apparently an endless supply of the flaming ammunition, like a Nevadan. Lacey's men had fallen to his left and his right. He had pursued the fighter into the forest. The man had thrown the apparently empty rifle far down the slope and drawn his other weapon. When Lacey's arrow entered him, as he came to the open ground, the warrior had turned and fired one more time.
       And here was Lacey's erstwhile foe, sitting beside him, dead, and fly-blown like himself. So old! One of the oldest – but it was a woman! Yes, Lacey's own arrow protruded from her chest. Wrinkled and rather wasted, with the swelling belly of the starving. White hair, close-cropped. Dressed in mostly leather, like his own warriors. Who would have thought there had been so much fight in such a creature? She had moved like a soldier. In a night fight one cannot tell, but he felt sure she'd taken out most of his war party single-handed. Six men? Eight? With himself likely to make one more. 
       Though he had no memory of it, he must have finished the business with his knife, for it lay near him, bloody. And he had her revolver. Hands shaking with fatigue, he hefted it and examined, with his better eye, the mechanism. He'd seen, and even handled, this sort of thing in his childhood, before the taboo had been enforced. He was not sure how to check the chambers – there appeared to be no loading gate? No way to see how many shots remained. Nevertheless, Mullins would want it. Firearms were exceedingly precious to Mullins' people.
       Feet scraped at the log, to Lacey's left and rear. Footsteps! Cautious, tentative. Either he was being stalked, or someone, experienced, was patrolling in this direction. Lacey slid quietly to his right and leaned on his cold companion. He held up the revolver, but did not move the big hammer, remembering that these made considerable noise.
       Another old-woman warrior stood up nearby, with a long rifle in her hands! She pressed aside the huckleberries to better see the ground ahead, and her eyes widened as she took in the two bodies by the root wad. She put the rifle to her shoulder and in one smooth swift movement reached for the lock. She appeared to be shouting something – a warning to the approaching footsteps, perhaps.
       Nothing for it, then.  Spirit forgive me for the use of this thing.   
       Lacey thumbed back the hammer on the long, heavy revolver, aimed, and fired. The gun twisted and seated itself deeper in his hand. Her rifle also roared, but it was pointing at the sky. Perhaps his round had found its mark.
       A large man came round the end of the log, holding in his hand an iron-tipped spear. He was the negotiator from the river bridge. He swiped at the revolver with his spear, but just missed, and the spear point went into Lacey's leg. Lacey thumbed back the hammer again, and dropped it, the weapon's muzzle pointed at the man's chest. There was a resounding 'click,' but no thunder came forth. Both men blinked. Then the man shoved harder on the spear, and Lacey could feel the hot point drive through him into the ground. Though he was already in pain, Lacey felt his consciousness slide toward a numbing indistinctness. The revolver left his hand. 
       Other soldiers were arriving. The leader gave orders; they scattered to form a defensive perimeter. A disciplined people. Two, Lacey could see, were quickly making litters from rain capes and   spears.
       "Looks like y'are fadin' a bit. Can ya hear me?" asked the spearman.
       Lacey twitched the fingers of his right hand in acknowledgment.
       "I'd dearly love to cut you up real slow, for it appears you have killed two of the best among us here, each worth every one of you and more. But I have been tasked to find me a prisoner, and you are elected. If I have not hit an artery you'll do. I would not risk poking at you so much, but I can't have you ambulatory." With that, he drew his own revolver, cocking it in the same smooth motion, and fired into the calf muscle of Lacey's other leg.    

    The last of Lacey's tenuous hold on daylight slid away.