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 31, 2015

48

"So, Karen, are you going to wake up, or are we going to have to stick you against the wall and prop up your eyelids?"
       It was her boss's voice. Was she sleeping on the job? "Nnnnh."
       "That's the way you've been greeting me for a week. We  think we're getting enough broth into you to keep your skinny shrinking corpse alive, but it would help if you'd give us some feedback."
       Karen tried to sit up, and failed. She opened her eyes. This was her room, near the Armory.
       "That's  some  better. You want to meet Junior or go back to sleep?"
       The baby! How is –  he  – still alive, if it's been a week? "Mmh!"
       "We'll take that as a yes. Mrs. Josep, bring over th' incubator?"
       Casters squealing, a contraption, pushed by Marleena, rolled toward the bedside. The thing consisted of an old imitation-walnut TV table with an aquarium tank set atop it, lined with a fleece. A bundle of scrounged felt lay within, with two shaking hands, impossibly small, waving from it toward the ceiling. Marleena lifted out the bundle and deposited it by Karen's left side. Karen tried to roll to the left, to better see and to reach with her arm for the hands, but her arm felt like lead.
       "What's the matter with me?"
       "Exhaustion, mostly," Marleena peeled back the felt, showing Karen a small red face, eyes squeezed shut, with a button nose still covered with white flecks. He looked as if he were hoping to make the bright world vanish by holding his breath. "You basically labored yourself into a coma. Bled a lot, too."
       "Can happen nowadays with new moms that have such narrow hips as you do," explained Mary. "Here, lemme roll out of Mrs. J's way so ya c'n meet th' kid. We all wanta know, does he have a name?"
       Marleena's strong hands tipped Karen onto her side and propped a pillow behind her. So sore! Karen reached for the little fingers. Could they be any smaller and still be fingers?
       "Mind if I ... call him Allyn?"
       "Hey, it's none of  my  business whatcha call him." Mary chuckled.
       "How has he gotten anything to eat?"
       "What we wouldn't give for some working I.V.! Marleena here knows some amazing tricks – got milk from you, believe it or not, and giving it to him from an eyedropper. Won't give me th' details, and I'm not sure I wanta know. Kinda works, though."
       "'Kinda?'"
       "He skimps on th' bowel movements. Not gainin' a lot of weight."
       "He's not half as big as Arda was."
       "Good thing, with your pelvis. Not to take anything away from th' kid but he's a preemie. We actually weren't holding out hope this far." 
       "How does he stay warm in there?" Karen gestured with her eyes toward the fish tank.
       "There's an old heating pad underneath. Power cord's coiled up on th' other side from ya. Mr. Selk's idea, actually. He seems to know where every wire in Ridge is located."
       "Does ... Allyn ... open his eyes any?"
       "Some. And he knows you better than you know him. When we peel him to air out, we plonk him right here." Mary had rolled forward again. She leaned forward – not an easy movement for her – and tapped Karen's breastbone.
       The fingers of Allyn's hand twitched in Karen's palm. She felt a corresponding urge – to spend of herself – toward him. If he would only open his eyes! She and the child should be be looking into each other – making a golden thread.
       Mary looked at Karen quizzically. "I'd thought you'd be more excited. Want we should take him back?"
       "No. I'm sorry if I don't look happy, because I think I am. I'm worrying for him, is all."
       "You should. He has come to a risky place."
       A child cried, but it was not Allyn. Marleena stepped across the room and in one smooth movement lifted Arda from a fleece-lined wooden box, sat down, opened her tunic, and began feeding the girl.
       Tiny Allyn sneezed. Mary chuckled again.
       The impossibly small eyelids, with their astonishing lashes, fluttered. They pulled back, showing a hint of large pupils: wells of mystery. Karen tried to meet them, offering a tentative half-smile. "Hello, you."
       Allyn's head was too heavy for his diminutive neck, but he somehow rearranged his posture, exactly as if he were trying to get a look at her. Karen watched the rapid and shallow breaths dilating his translucent nostrils.
       "So, can I give him a try?"
       "Ya feelin' good enough?"
       "Mnh. Think so." Karen scrunged around on the thin mattress until she was able to brush the infant's lips with what, to him, must be an impossibly large nipple. Perhaps there was a residual odor; the tiny body spasmed, both arms throwing themselves wide and fingers curling. He mouthed at her, but could not latch on. Karen felt a rush, and she began leaking from both sides. A drop ran down Baby Allyn's cheek. 
       "Can't see from over here. How ya's doin?" asked Dr. Mary.
       "Like a waterfall. All I'm going to do is drown him."
       Marleena detached herself from Arda, who began complaining immediately, and set her down to hurry over. She swaddled the boy and moved him to the incubator. "Do not be alarmed," said Marleena to Karen's widening eyes. We''ll get you expressed and see if we can't get some into him. Then, if you like, perhaps some practice sitting up."
       In the background Arda wailed, to no avail.
       Karen looked around, but the room offered, as usual, no sign of time, date, or season. How like the room in which she had grown up!
       "How long was I out?"
       Mary wrinkled her broad nose. "Well, only Dr. Tom was still tracking dates, and his mind is wandering, but I'd guess it's about mid-October."
       "Oh!" said Karen, trying to sit up again. "The bandits! We're all still here; did they go away?"
       "No, they haven't. And who says we're all still here?" Mary looked at her steadily. 
       Karen bit her lip, then subsided. "Tell me everything."

:::

Selk and Deela, presided over by Guchi, who was carrying a rifle, wrestled with the big dish.
       "We should have brought more people," panted Selk, who had removed his glasses. In spite of the overcast and light rain, sweat was finding its way into his eyes.
       "They have enough to do. And besides, there are snipers. No point offering a target-rich construction job."
       Standing on either side of the Dish, they angled it to the south and well above the horizon, locking it into place with heaps of fire-blackened stones. Deela looked over Selk's mad project with a mixture of awe and disdain. 
       Much of the hardware had long ago been taken away; no stand seemed to be available and no motor was necessary. The Dish was nestled against the mountain itself, facing south. An orange power cord had been hard-wired into the booster. Both it and the coaxial cable ran round the mountain to the Main Door; these they would, hopefully, bury before too long. A hole had been punched through the mesh and an old spotting scope, which Selk had found in a trunk – he could not have hoped to keep it if Wilson or Avery were aware of its existence – had been inserted in the hole. The dish could be aimed by adding and subtracting stones; the scope could be aimed by adding and subtracting turns of woven twist-ties. Not elegant engineering; but what was anymore? Other than Karen's primers. 
       Guchi had moved down the mountain a bit and was scanning the valley and the tree line to their right. All available eyes were needed for the examination of the surrounding hills and valleys anyway; and danger, if it came to them here at all, would come from the forested west slope of Ridge. Guchi knew there were Creekers in those woods. But an infiltrator might very well choose to snipe from there at Selk and Deela, who were oblivious to the surroundings. Guchi felt his unwarlike friends were his responsibility.
       Deela whistled and Guchi returned slowly, crabwise, still watching the tree line. "Are we done?" he asked over his shoulder.
       "For now, except for burying wires," said Selk. "We have to come back on the first  clear  night and begin aiming the Dish. That could take a week, easily, with this setup."
       "I have a lunch. We could go up to the boulders by the command center and eat in the fresh air for once, then bury from there to here. That will last us until tomorrow."
       "Lunch?' asked Deela.
       "Lunch?" asked Selk. "What the eff counts as  lunch  in this post-food era?"
       "You'll see," replied Guchi, with a mysterious smile.
       "Huh," said both of the young engineers. But they did as Guchi suggested and left for the crest of Ridge, picking up their tools as they went. Guchi, rifle at ready, followed, devoting as much time to standing watch as bending and climbing.
       "I suppose it's too much to hope, clear skies tonight,"   said Selk, putting on his glasses. They steamed up immediately, and he took them off, wiped them on a stray bit of tunic sleeve, and put them on again.
       Deela watched, mildly amused. "You need to spend more time outdoors."
       "I do. But I'm usually either following wiring or laying out wiring. You've  been mostly indoors for the last half year."
       "It's true. But I'm told my people were pastoralists. Perhaps something rubbed off on me."
       "'Pastor-lits?'"
       "Raised sheep, goats. As you know, I grew up at Beeman's, where my mom and dad did sheep. They told me I am partly from Africa; my grandfather came from there and was a student at Oregon State. He was from a tribe that did goats and sheep."
       "Whatever. I don't even know where I'm from. I've been at Savage Mary's for as long as I can remember." 
     Guchi strode near and dropped his rucksack by them. "Dig in; I'll watch a little more; then Deela can relieve me."
       "Not me, huh?" asked Selk. 
       "Selk, you're a wonder at some things but you can't really see those trees over there, can you?"
       "Over where?"
       His friends laughed. Guchi climbed a boulder and began scanning in all directions.
       Deela reached into the sack and withdrew, one by one, what appeared to be three balls of paper, tied with string. He handed one to Selk, then tore part of the wrapping from his. The scent of the contents astonished him.
       "Guchi,  bread?  This is  wheat?"
       "Wheat. A little for us, today; most of what Juanita and the crew is baking is, for now, for the hungriest people, such as the wounded, the old, and a couple of nursing mothers. Oh, and everyone over at Ball Butte."
       The technicians fell to, and made short work of the fabulous treat. Selk did not think to ask what it meant that such seed had been served as food, though Guchi knew very well, and Deela, observing Guchi's expression, soon realized it.
       Shots echoed from around the hills. Guchi and his friends sprinted for the top of the command center, and listened.
       Guchi pointed out the obvious. " Another contest for the top of Ball Butte. That makes six fights in two weeks. We win, then they do, then we do, then they do. And each time we are fewer."
       "So are they," replied Deela, taking the rifle from Guchi and handing the cook/soldier his meal. "And we are a little better prepared, I think, to care for our wounded."

:::

Avery Murchison sat back in the wheelchair and twisted his torso.  
       The prisoner, cabled to a bed, smiled, grimly. The smile was lopsided. With no way to truly reconstruct the man's face, Dr. Tom, Elsa, and Mrs. Perkins had concentrated on preventing infection. "Old wounds never really die," he said.
       "It's true. And all the people think of me as having a cushy sit-down job."
       "Why are you here today?"
       "I suppose I want to get to know the man that killed my mother."
       "If it were me, I would seek revenge."
       "The thought does cross my mind. You don't talk much, but I think you miss your gang. Keeping you cooped up here might just be enough revenge for me for now."
       "I love freedom; as who does not. But I do not fear death."
       "Everyone does. What you mean is that you can discipline yourself. I come here every day in hopes of finding out what we can all do to get from where we are now, an ugly little stalemate in a small corner of the world, to something better. It might be a treaty. Or just an understanding."
       "Or information that I accidentally give you that will get all of my men killed."
       "That too. If hostilities remain open, I'll use everything I can hear. So will you, if you can get away. What else is new?"
       The prisoner remained silent.
       "There are two groups of you. Your guys are better fighters than that other crowd, and you have, or use, less technology. I'm guessing there's a treaty. Between you, or maybe a higher mucky-muck that sent you, and a guy named Magee. Am I right?"
       The prisoner turned and looked at the wall.
       "And you're taking the brunt of the casualties while they camp out and offer advice. Tell me, do you really think Magee will keep up his end of the deal?"
       Twisting his still-powerful frame, the man looked at Avery from the corner of his eye. "Why did you shave my head?"
       "Sorry; know we should have asked your permission, but you were out cold and we have had an awful time with lice here."
       The man regarded him steadily.  
       Avery held his gaze.
       At length, the man sat up and grasped the edge of the cot frame with both hands. The sight of those hands reminded Avery of why he had not approached closer to the bed.
       The big man spoke. "Though it is not a thing we have among ourselves, so that it sounds strange to me to hear myself say these words: your mother was a great warrior. I am sorry not to have known her."
       "Thank you; if you like, you can get to know me."
       A glint came into the stranger's eye.  
       Avery had seen that look before. "No, I'm not going to arm wrestle you to prove a point, but, yeah, I did learn some things from my mom and dad." He gestured toward the throwing knives sheathed at the arms of his chair.
       "And your legs?"
      "A mine. Friendly fire, actually. Fortunes of war."
       "I begin to like you a little. Let me think tonight."

:::


The wrench slipped and Mullins opened two knuckles on the engine cover. "Eff  it! Eff th' whole 'effin' business!" Standing up on the steeply angled tracks of the disabled D-8, he threw the wrench against the bow of the equally hapless LAV, nearby. He gave vent to a torrent of curses.
       Jahn, hearing the meltdown, went in search of Lockerby. Lockerby had been on the mountain all night, and for his efforts had lost two of his own men and one of Lacey's in exchange for a possible, but unconfirmed, two locals. He received the news with a tired nod. "Thank you. Jahn."
       "Lockerby." Jahn offered half a salute, then sat down, staring off into the trees. 
       Lockerby reattached the barrel to the receiver of the Mossberg, which he'd been cleaning, bagged it, slung it over his shoulder, and made his way through the rain to the machines. He found Mullins lying across the Cat seat with his feet on the ceiling of the armored cage and his head down, sourly watching Lockerby's approach from upside down. Oily water ran from the tip of his nose.   
       "Mullo. Hard times?" asked Lockerby.
       "Lockie. Air compressor hose is gone on th' ACERT. Not enough parts, not enough ways to make parts. About out of hydraulic, about out of lube, low on diesel, an' th' tools keep bitin' me." Mullins sucked first one skinned knuckle, then the other.
       "Yeah, well, I'll see that, and raise you an arrow through the armpit, almost." Lockerby raised his arm and pointed to a hole in his tattered sleeve.
       "Huh. Think they're low on twenty-two?"
       "They might be. We're seeing more arrows and crossbow bolts. They've even been known to throw  spears. Along with their enthusiasm for hand-to-hand." He tapped the pommel of a captured sword at his waist.
       "No sign of Lacey or his remains, I suppose."
       "'Without a trace.' And his crew gets a little more dour every day."
       "Yeah, their idea of downtime is to sneak over and watch me with my butt sticking out of this Cat. Seein' how it was supposed to be part of th' deal, I can unnerstan' their concern."
       "Your butt or the Cat?"
       "What?"
       "Part of the deal."
       "What?"
       "Never mind." Lockerby winced inwardly; he needed to be more careful with his commander; the man could not always take – or 'get,' which could be worse – a ribbing when things were not going well.
       Mullins pulled himself up suddenly and swung his legs out onto the treads of the Cat. "What th'ells that?"
       "What's what?"
       Mullins cocked his head, straining at the distance in the fading light.
       Jahn and two of the leading Prinevilles came running to the Cat. "Mullins, suh."
       "Jahn."
       "They's 'nother convoy comin'."
       "Yeah. Jahn, you still got that little rifle?"
       "Suh, yes, suh." 
       "Lockie, take th' shotgun an' half th' men here an' line out from th' LAV on th' right. Jahn, same thing on th' left. I'll run th' turret. There's no road but this'n, so we'll hit em' as they come round th' bend. Should be a turkey shoot." He looked at the Prinevilles. "They will kill us all if they get a chance; are ya game?"
       "We will fight. But half of us are on the mountain."
       "How 'bout one of ya's go up an' get 'em, th' other half round up yer camp an' put 'em on th' line. We'll need everybody for this."

:::

A long, skinny hand, wobbling slightly as the vehicle jounced along, pointed to a dial. "We used to do this with a computer and a joystick, soldier. But what we have here used ta be called analog gear. Now you see these numbers we have painted on this dial, an' you see this arrow on th' board here pointin' at th' zee-ro on th' dial."
       "Yes, sir." 
       "This here truck's one 'a my best kept secrets, or I would have trained you before now. I have set this little gizmo humming, but with no power to th' mains yet. So I'm goin' up front with Milady, an' when I shout 'three,' crank it round to this'n, which by th' way is a three. Hold it there till I say 'zee-ro.' Do  not  go past the three; I need re-habs, not corpses. An' keep that hat on, or you'll likely not hear me say anythin' at all an' wake up later with a godawful headache. Good?"
       "Understood, sir."
       Magee slid into the passenger seat of the converted MRAP. He picked up and fastened on a bulky helmet. "Hello, my dear."
       The Doctor, already helmeted, kept both hands on the wheel, watching for impediments in the unimproved "road." "Hello, my lord. We have twice passed the bridge shown on the map, and no sign of your fugitives. It does make me nervous to have a window in front of me with a rogue LAV out there in the twilight."
       "Well, we got a decoy. Mullins is not likely to wait to shoot th' second vehicle in line. Besides," he smiled, "We don't know th' LAV's even operational at this point."
       "It must have been so at some time, my lord, for the shell-holes on the long mountain behind us are fresh."
       "I'd guess this fork in th' road means they are asslin' around out here. Tryin' th' right, then th' left. With no more supplies than they're down to by now, th' locals will have fought 'em to a standstill."
       "Your Mullins is perhaps overextended, my lord."
       Magee turned his thick glasses upon her. "My  Mullins, huh."
       "I am sorry my lord, I had of course not meant to cast aspersions." She smiled.
       "He an' Lockie were all I had left that were any way qualified for field command. Wolf's improvisational skills have complicated things, as usual."
       The Doctor smiled again, grimly. "On that, I will be so good as not to repeat myself, my lord."
       The vehicles turned a corner as the ground sloped slightly upward. A flash of light lit up the evening and the lead truck, driven by a prisoner and containing no supplies or other personnel, burst into flames.
       "Looky there, right on schedule. Halt th' column, my dear." Magee leaned back and shouted over his shoulder. "Three!" He reached up to the ceiling and began cranking a small wheel. "Might as well give it a three-sixty."
       "That will take out our own men, my lord."
       Magee continued cranking. "Yep, for at least half an hour, even in th' trucks. But anyone within two klicks will be just as out of it, meanin' no surprises from in front, behind, right, or left, an' no one will bother us while you an' I're zip-tyin' our misbehavin' children up there." 
       "I do not think the beam will penetrate the LAV-35 well."
       "It's a risk. But we are likely so heavily outnumbered that we have had to barge right in. My money, whichever of our bad boys fired that thing, 'specially if it's Mullins, will get curious and stick his head out for a look-see. Then he'll sleep like a baby."
       "That will be a relief, my lord."
       "Yeah, that gun's wicked. But so are you, my dear. Thanks ever so for savin' up th' microwave kit."
       "My pleasure, my lord."

:::

Emilio followed Josep into the lookout on Ball Butte. He took in, at a glance, the emptiness of the place, and the ineradicable rancid smell of warmaking. Brass casings, plastic, broken glass, and scraps of leather, some of them scorched and bloodstained, lay about. Over the last two weeks, the place had been fired into and firebombed, and men and women had bled here. Wastes had overflowed the latrine and had perforce been dumped out the doorway and windows. The natural-stone building – a cave, really – had become a monument to humanity at its worst. "It is as you say, Mr. Josep. The position has been abandoned."
       Light, resembling lightning in its intensity, arced across the ceiling, flared and faded. Both men ducked. Echoes of explosion reverberated round the hills. 
       Josep went to the window, as Emilio reflexively covered the door. "Was that even directed at us?" asked the older man.
       Josep studied a pillar of smoke, lit in shades of pink from underneath, rising and drifting away to the west. "I think not. Perhaps there is fighting among our f ..." He dropped his bow and covered his ears with his hands.
       Emilio, in agony, fell to his knees. His rifle dropped from his numbed hands and he leaned against the doorway, nauseated. Focusing on the distance in an effort to maintain control, he could see that several members of their crew were in the same condition as themselves. Then, as quickly as the buzzing, debilitating sensation in his flesh had come, it vanished, leaving behind a massive headache. 
       A hand gripped his shoulder, and Emilio turned, painfully. Josep knelt beside him, one hand resting on his shoulder, the palm of the other resting on his own forehead.
       "What in all Jeeah's green earth was that?" asked Emilio, forgetting his resolve to avoid religious language in the presence of his Christian friend.
       "I do not know," replied the Roundhouser. "I have never felt anything like it. And my head is splitting."
       "Mine as well. We must establish a defensive posture." Emilio rose on rubbery legs, taking up the tiny rifle as he did so, and stepped outside. His hand shaking, he reached for his whistle, and shrilled to every Creeker and Roundhouser in the vicinity.
       As they came up, some supporting one another weakly, he made signs to them not to congregate in the open, but to take up positions, weapons at the ready, among the nearby boulders. He sensed that Josep had returned to the window. "Mr. Josep, do you see anything that will explain what has occurred?"
       "No – or yes and no. There are new trucks, I think. They are in the place where we spoke with the Bledsoes, or near. Whatever is burning is in the trees, but I feel sure it is a vehicle. And there is one illuminated by the flames, which has a thing on its roof."
       "A turret?"
       "Not the cannon thing, no. It looks like that apparatus we carried to Ridge for your young engineer with the glasses."
       "Bowl-shaped?"
       "Yes. And it is pointed to the north."
       "Ah, Mr. Josep, if we live through the night, perhaps we will ask Mary or Mr. Selk what you have seen. No doubt it is as you say, a gentlemen's disagreement is in progress below. It cannot bode well, I think."
       Emilio turned to the men and women of his crew. 
       "Is everyone alive, uninjured and accounted for?"
       Mrs. Perkins, a team leader, responded. "We are, but everyone hurts like the dickens." 
       Emilio could see that some were still holding their heads. "I  think, from overhearing conversation among our science crew in the refectory, that it is a weapon, and that its power diminishes over distance. There may be an altercation in the valley to our west, in which case we are, as Mr. Avery would say, 'collateral damage.' I am feeling some relief now; is it so for us all?"
       Mrs. Perkins replied again. "It would seem so, sir."
       "It is well. Make four teams of four, as we have discussed. Rifle, shotgun, two bows. Be sure there is at least one firebomb in each team and means to make it burn. Dispose yourselves north, west, and south of the summit, and one team in the fort. Everyone within hearing of each team's whistle and designate a watcher for the fore night and another for every three hands of the night. I will join the north team and Mr. Josep will run down to relieve command at Bridge. If you find means, make walls or holes for cover. Otherwise seek out suitable tree trunks. Make yourselves comfortable as you may, as it will be a wet night."
       Despite their training and their best intentions, the next few minutes were noisy. Emilio winced.  We are a graceful enough people in peace. In war, less so. May we learn better before our enemies do.

:::

Jorj almost smiled, but the cylinder sleeve did not quite fit. Considering it was handmade, he could not complain. Mr. Deela was a pleasure to work with; the part was very close to being the real deal. Deerie's other problems he could deal with soon enough; mostly a matter of hoses. He pulled things apart again and reached for the round file. As he did so, David, Nine-ah, and Raoul huffed into the newly illuminated interior of the New Ames barn, pulling a heavily laden hand cart.
       "Where to?" asked Raul, shaking his head to rid his cedar rain hat of excess moisture.
       "What have you fine young people got here?"
       "Plate steel, sir," said Nine-ah, the young Roundhouser who had joined her life with Raul's.
       "Oh, right, right. Are the corners drilled out and all?"
       Raul, putting his arm round Nine-ah's shoulder, replied. "Yes, a hole about every thirty centimeters. And the plates are all cut to the sizes you requested, sir."
       "Well, an old man can't ask for more than that. Lean 'em up to the right-hand side here; don't pinch your fingers though. Uhh ... any idea where Mr. Bolo is?"
       "He was in the line over by Bridge, last two days running, and is resting at Chaney's, sir."
       "Well, I won't bother him right now. But he's awful handy for holding heavy iron in place." Jorj looked at first one and then the other of the boys, imploringly.
       The young men, who had been raised in a family in which requests were made more directly, did not catch on immediately. But after an uncomfortable silence, Nine-ah looked at Raoul and raised an eyebrow, then gestured with her head. Raoul made an "O" with his mouth, then turned to Jorj. "Sir, we're not really on duty right now; could we be of service?"
       Jorj beamed upon them. "Why, perhaps you can, and it's kind of you to ask." He reached for a socket wrench, a ratchet wrench, and a coffee can from his toolbox. "This is a five-eighths socket, see, and these in the can are five-eighths bolts, nuts, and washers, two-and-a-half inch, which the children have scoured up for me from all the farms round. Some are nine-sixteenths, but they'll do, and here's another socket for those. Umm, you all look a little blank. Seen these before?"
       Raoul took the wrenches. "Yes, sir, a little. What are we making?"
       Jorge waved his hand grandly at Deerie, the wood-fired three-roller crawler tractor. "We are building a tank. Smallest d- ... smallest tank in the history of the world, kids, but a tank all the same."

:::

Vernie reached for the long-barrelled Kentucky rifle. It was surprisingly heavy for such a slim thing. "How does it work?"
       Tomma held up Maggie's powder horn. "Well, it's not that different from th' Hawken. Measure powder into th' barrel, put your patch in, ram with the ramrod that's tucked under the barrel here, add th' ball, ram again, pour a smidgen of powder into the pan, pull th' hammer back, aim and fire. The flint will throw a spark, and with any luck th' spark will touch off the powder, which will burn down the touch-hole and set off th' powder in th' breach."
       "Sounds iffy."
       "T'is. Th' cap was a great invention."
       "I'd almost rather get one of the twenty-twos."
      "We're maxed out on those. And everyone's down to about twenty rounds each with them, anyway. You have enough makings here for about thirty-five shots – if you can keep this thing out of the rain."
       "These little dugouts are damp, but they'll do. How is Maggie?"
       "She's never regained consciousness, and may not beat the infection. Another loss we couldn't afford. And something's th' matter with Dr. Tom. It's like you can't get him interested anymore; Elsa is having to do practically everything, with a little help from Nita and old Mrs. Lazar."
       "We're not doing so hot."
       "No; we're not, but th' consolation is, neither are  they." Tomma gestured with his head through the mist toward Bridge. "Wilson thinks they've brought everybody they've got. If we can outlast them, there might not be any war for a long time; give us a chance to pull a food scene together."
       "Sweetie, that's whistling in the dark. You know we've been eating  wheat, don't you? Whoa!" This last came in a whisper.
       "What?"
       "Somebody coming." Vernie, not quite ready to practice loading the rifle, reached for his crossbow.
       Tomma aimed his Hawken at the night. "Word?" he called out softly.
       From the nearby hemlocks came a Roundhouse accent: "Whites. Word?"
     "Eyes."
       The visitor turned out to be Josep. He smiled indulgently. "Bundling, are we?"
       "Well, Tomma has to show me how to use this thing." Vernie set down the crossbow and hefted the flintlock.
       "And it's warmer w'two, anyway," added Tomma.
       "Agreed and agreed; but once Mr. Vernie has the drill down, if you could return to your own pit, Mr. Tomma, we'll have better coverage."
       "Understood, sir." Tomma grinned.
       Josep moved on, checking the remaining rifle pits.
       "Huh," said Vernie, chagrined.
       "Not to worry; he's good at this. And kindly in his way."
       "Yes. Well." Vernie's hand sought out Tomma's in the gathering darkness. "Just sit with me a little longer."
       Tomma shifted closer. "We've been lucky, you and I."
       "Yes. We've been lucky. You and me."