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 14, 2015

50

"All of them?" Magee seethed inwardly, but kept his exterior calm.
      "Yessuh, not a one of th' savages is any where abouts. De-camped in th' night  entire." Jahn grimaced and spat into the yellow mud at their feet.
      "Well, they being them, and other matters in hand, we'll not pursue. You've otherwise proved up the command?"
      "Suh, ever'one fed, watered, lectured, jazzed up, geared up, and loaded for bear."
      "You are a jewel, my lad; and these are all my drivers with you?"
      Several men stepped forward.
      "Good morning, boys. We are going straight in, no more asslin' around. Remember what Jahn told you; kill all males on sight; incapacitate or capture females. Stay behind the Cat, tank, and dish truck at all times. We will use the dish intermittently at a very low setting to upset things on the battlefield; it will give Mullins and Lockie a headache but I want th' rest of yah's alert and active.  
    "Have your crossbowmen use th' firing ports and stay in th' trucks until three long blasts on the dish truck horn. Anythin' happens to us in th' dish truck, so as not to be able to signal, command devolves upon the Doctor here in truck two; then upon Jahn in truck four."
       He met pairs of eyes round the semicircle, one by one. "Much depends on each of yah's. Oh, do try to dispose of Mullo and Lockie before making any kind of a withdrawal, please. Personal favor. But as we have stressed several times since our arrival, nothing really is awaiting us in Roseburg any more; we brought it all with us and supplies of that are  dwindling. We will invest this place as we have  no  viable alternatives." Magee pointed in the general direction of Starvation Ridge. "That way lies an endless supply of electricity, of shelter, and, with any luck, procreation."
     He looked into their faces and found sufficient resolve there; everyone knew the wretched condition of the lands through which they had passed. The advantages of a winter spent here, even with little prospect of food, far outweighed those of any place they had seen.
     Magee put his thumbs through his red suspenders. "Don't have no better speech for ya, but plenty of action is on offer in its place. S'good?"
      Several voices replied, with variations on "S'good, boss!"
      "Well, then, mount up an' fire 'em up! We're just burnin' daylight here!"

:::

The phone rang. Avery, who'd been asleep in his chair, snapped to attention and picked up.
      "Mmh? Over."
      "Sir, s'Billee. They're coming. Over."
      "Coming  where?  To you? Details! Over."
      "No sir, to  Bridge. We think it's  all  of them, crawler, gunship, the dish thingy, and eight more armored trucks. They are making awfully good time for how mucky it is down there. Over."
      "Copy. Is Emilio down to Bridge yet? Over."
      "Should be by now, sir, left in the middle of the night. Shall we go down and join the fight, sir?"
      "Bee, I assume you've got your finger off the button? Over."
      "Oh, sorry, sir,  over."
      "So, hate to bug you of all people about this, but, any sign of Wilson? Over."
      A painful pause. "No, sir. Over."
      "Leave Ro-eena by the phone to coordinate with me, and somebody to watch over her, and bring everyone else you've got to the battle. Over."
      "Y...yes, sir. Over."
     "Out." Avery reached for the doorbell buzzer and rang twice. With any luck, someone would be by the phone at the rifle pits. There was; with no delay he heard Emilio's voice on a much cleaner connection than the line to Ball Butte.
      "We're already listening, Mr. Murchison. Over."
      "No less expected, Mr. Molinero. Is everyone bright eyed and bushy tailed? Over."
      "We have made all possible preparations. I have command on the south side of the road, and Mr. Josep on the north side. Over."
      "We sent you all but a skeleton crew yesterday, as you know. Karen is pulling together an evacuation; they will head up the Creek and if these bastards get through you,  don't  make for here; go up the Creek. We'll keep them occupied. Understood? Over."    
      "I follow you, sir. But ... "
      "Leggo that button! Are you there? I repeat: if the fight comes up here,  do not follow it. Over."
      After several clicks of the primitive phone system had butted heads, Emilio's voice came through again. "Understood," he said resignedly. Obviously he was concerned about Juanita. "Over."
      "Good. Now, and this is important, the weapon we all heard about, it's real, it's running, it's dangerous, it's unwieldy as all get-out, we  will  use it, but it can cause friendly fire casualties; we can only see what we're doing through Ball Butte. Keep everyone well back from the road for as long as you can, hopefully until you hear from us again. Copy? Over."
      "Copy ... what will be the effects? Over."
      "We're not even sure. You won't see a beam, but some things may get sliced and diced in interesting ways. It will come from behind Ridge, maybe about a thirty degree angle. There could be, I dunno, falling trees and shit. Or there could be nothing at all; we don't know how much juice this thing has left in it, or how robust the connection. Just stay the  eff  out of its way if you can. Over."
      "We will do as you advise. Based on what Mrs. Wilson has said, I will estimate the enemy will arrive here in about one hand. Or less. Over."
      "Well there's a chance they'll huff around to the south and try to hit us from the homestead again. But I don't think so; I think this is it. Over."
      "It most assuredly is. I must go now, I think. Over?"
      "Yeah. And, uhh, Jeeah be with you. Over and out."
      Avery reached for the button again, to try for Ro-eena; but he felt presence. Looking round, he found Mary, in her chair and Selk, standing, busying themselves with the console.
      Selk turned his owlish eyes upon Avery, smiling grimly. "Ready when you are, Captain."

:::

Karen sighed. Too much to do, too many things that ought to be done and no way to do them. Try as she might to consider herself complete as she was, she felt the situation slipping out of control. A left hand would be nice right now.
      She pointed to the two Roundhousers –a boy and a girl – that had been considered too young to fight – which was very young indeed, as even the Perkins kids were out there somewhere, armed to the teeth. "You, and you."
      "Ma'am?" said the nearest, putting down a squirming puppy.
      "Childhood's over. You just grew up. Get your bows – you do have bows? Good – your arrows,  one  blanket,  one  knife, any food not nailed down, rain cloak, water skin or bottle, a change of clothes if you have one,  one  pair of spare sandals, any kind of fire starter, sewing kit, and anything valuable to a winter traveler – sunglasses, say, for snow. Make a blanket roll. Go to each adult on this level and show them the contents of your blanket roll and say: 'Karen says we're all going on a long hard trip. Pack like this. Travel light.' Repeat, please."
      "Karen says we're all goin' on a long hard trip. Pack like this. Travel light." In unison!
      "Very good." Karen admired Roundhouse discipline, not for the first time.
      One of the kids turned toward the puppy who was scampering away. "What about Dough Go?"
      "Dough Go will come with us; dogs are valuable."
      At this they brightened; but then the girl's face clouded. "As food?"
      Karen steeled herself and paused to get the tone right, truth with some empathy. "Everything  is food; I've had trouble coming to terms with that myself. But with any luck at all, Dough Go will have a long and happy life bringing  you  good things to eat and watching over you. Now, hop."
      Karen moved to the stair well and ran up to the next level. A number of people were in the refectory, spooning at bowls of thin gruel or simply raising the bowls to their lips to sip. These were all elders, Mrs. Lazar   and Mrs. Chaney among them, with Juanita presiding over them from the kitchen door. She locked eyes with Karen and nodded.
    Karen stood on tiptoe in the entrance and cleared her throat. "My friends all, if I may have your attention."
      Bowls were set down and eyes turned her way, some bright, some rheumy. Behind Juanita, Karen could see Mrs. Josep, carrying Karen's own tiny baby wrapped in a towel.
      "The war is about to enter its final phase, we think. Almost everyone that can or should go to Bridge has done so. All the youngs and middles downstairs are packing up for a winter journey on foot. Should this take place, it will likely be a long, cold, wet, hard slog.
      "Ridge is going to defend itself. Those who don't feel up to joining the trek should consider whether they can join the defense here. Travelers are going to assemble by the staircase in about two hands and make for the sally port. Who wants to go, who wants to stay?"
      "I'll certainly stay, my dear," smiled Mrs. Lazar. "My time is about over, and maybe you will provide me with a trigger to pull."
      Mrs. Chaney looked at Mrs. Lazar as if to say something, then thought better of it. A few Roundhouse elders nodded, apparently in agreement with Mrs. Lazar. The rest did what was pretty much left to them in life: they waited.
      Mrs. Chaney made up her mind. "Ava, I'm sure you and everyone will want to consult with Karen as to what's left of the Armory. May I have her for a few minutes first?"
      "Of course, dear. We'll be finishing up our grand repast. And I  do mean grand, " she added, looking across to Juanita. "I simply don't know how you do it."
      "'The condemned Creek ate a hearty meal'," Juanita replied. "It's the very last of the seed wheat, with spices. And, probably, knowing where it was kept, radioactive."
      "Least of our worries. We do thank you – proceed, Elsa."
      Mrs. Chaney swept  Karen in to the Infirmary, next door. On a cot near at hand Tom lay sleeping.
      "You will need a medicine kit. I'd go," Mrs. Chaney attested wistfully, "and be the 'medicine woman,' as I'm still pretty hale, I think. But I'm not leaving Tom, of course. You, and probably Juanita and Marleena, know most of what I know anyway." She opened a cabinet. "Oh, Jeeah help. There's ... not much here."
      "That's all right, Mrs. Chaney."
      "No, it's not. Here's needles, sutures – what's this stuff? Cottonwood infusion. A couple of good pairs of scissors and a forceps. Some almost pure wood alcohol. Infusion of plantain. Some powdered goldenseal."
      A creak sounded behind them. They turned to find Tom Chaney trying, and failing, to sit up.
      "Oh, Tom, please, take it easy," Elsa remonstrated.
      "To what end?" He rolled his head on the pillow. "Karen, I see, you're going ... to head out soon. The new Moses."
      "Sir." Karen could think of nothing else to say.
      "Quite appropriate. There is something ... you could do for me – for Elsa and me, if she will allow it. I know she's unwilling to head for the hills, and she's right – not ... as strong as she thinks she is ... for one thing," he chuckled, watching his wife's reaction. "So I want to be able to ...   defend her. Got ...  anything I can manage?"
      Karen ransacked her head for the Armory's dwindling choices. "Yes, sir, I think I do."
      "All ... in good time." His breathing came in little gasps between the words. "Finish your other business there, and see us if you can before you go."
      "Understood, sir." She turned, blinking away her blurring vision, and focused on Mrs. Chaney. Elsa took a deep breath, and returned her gaze to the almost emptied cabinet. "Some bandages are most of 
what's here; I should think you'd be better off not burdened with them."
      "I see one thing we really should have, ma'am," replied Karen.
      "What's that?"
      "The roll of duct tape." 
:::

Lockerby's teeth – such as he still had – rattled in his head. Like many, he'd suffered through a number of amateur extractions already. "Builds character," The Doctor would smile. Somewhere behind him, he knew, she was riding in relative comfort, with her vials and syringes – the ultimate enforcer, as terrifying in her way as the mysterious dish atop the truck Magee was driving.
      Bouncing uncomfortably on the seat, Lockerby gave the Cat three-quarters throttle, keeping the cable taut to the LAV in tow behind. He held onto both control sticks of the D-8, watching the road ahead through the relatively tiny slit in the cage's forward armor. He could see over the raised blade, but barely. His shotgun rider, a taciturn youth, held on for dear life. The shotgun itself, Mullins' much beloved Mossberg, clattered to the floor.
      Lockerby considered diving for it himself, but realized he had no chance of changing the game. His foot was chained to the floor. "You wanna pick that up and get a better grip on it? I know you've already racked it; that thing could go off and mess us up in here."
      "S'sorry." The kid reached for it, still holding on with his other hand.
      Ahead, Lockerby could see the Creek bridge beyond the 
intersection; maybe fifteen seconds away. He wondered idly what "seconds" once were; Magee had tried to explain it once but finally had fallen back on a rule of thumb; "just count 'em; say 'one thousand one, one thousand two,' like that. Close enough."
      One thousand thirteen, one thousand fourteen.  "Hard left; hang on." He slammed the left lever back and tried to watch ahead and behind at the same time, hoping not to take up too much slack on the cable at once.
      To the rear, Mullins was already cranking the turret manually in order to commence file firing. Lockerby shouted to his passenger over the roar of the diesels. "You got those chewed leaves in your ears like I showed you?"
      "Yeah, why?" the youth asked sullenly. "Open your mouth wide." Lockerby demonstrated.
      "What?"
      The thirty-five went off behind them. Light flashed in the trees ahead, on the left, and there was a sodden thump of ordnance exploding in wet foliage.
      "Ow!"
      "Told ya; helps save yer eardrums."  The turret behind them was cranking the other way. "Again."
      "Aaah!" The kid's shout, half terror, half bravado, would protect his hearing nicely.
      The cannon opened up on the right. No response from the farmers. Perhaps all the starch had gone out of them – was this going to be easy, then?
      At that moment an explosion much louder, albeit lower and slower, enveloped Lockerby's small world. The Cat rose up in mid-air, hung at the top of its short arc momentarily, and pitched forward onto the base of its blade. Lockerby held onto the sticks with all his might, but would have been tossed against the armor plating forward, had not his foot been locked down. His companion, having no such luck, bounced forward, caromed off the plates, and fell across Lockerby's lap.
      The Cat settled much where it had been before, but in a small crater. Smoke poured in through the slits and the grated flooring. Had Mullins somehow shot the D-8 while traversing?



      Lockerby strained at his fellow's inert form and lifted him away. From the corner of his eye he could see the kid's nose was bleeding profusely. Perhaps his own was as well. Lockerby's ears rang, but he could feel the Cat's engine idling. A mine! The road had been mined. If Mullins hadn't welded extra mine protection beneath the power plant and cage, no doubt the machine would have been killed, and its two passengers along with it. He tested the throttle with his foot. A reassuring rumble answered him. Good; now to see if either track was in trouble. Sticks forward; up, out, good!
      The kid was moaning. Lockerby swung to the right and shouldered him. "Wake up! Look alive! Things to do here!"
      Grinning idiotically, the recruit nodded, picked up the Mossberg and peered out the right-side door slit. "What hit us? What's with the smoke?"
      "Never mind. Watch for counter-attack!"
      The thirty-five banged again. Lockerby involuntarily braced himself for the rattle of lead on armor, but none came. Where were  the farmers?
      Thunder rolled from somewhere above, and then a thing occurred which made no sense to Lockerby at all.    
      A narrow ditch appeared along the roadside to their left, spouting dirt and duff, as if the ground were being unzipped. Tree branches fell, smoking, all along the road into  the near distance. A man, missing much of his left side, stepped from the shrubbery into the road, screamed once, and fell down.
      What  was  that? Lockerby felt sure Mullins hadn't done it.
      No time to muse on it, however. Lockerby held the sticks forward; the Cat rumbled over the body in the road, feeling not so much as a bump. The LAV fired to the left and again, shortly thereafter, to the right, jerking at the Cat through the cable with each recoil. Not for the first time, Lockerby wished they had found a way to get the big Bushmaster to run electrically. Manual was just not up to the task here.
      Peering through the front slit, Lockerby could see that the "zipper" was coming back. Upper halves of small trees were falling into the road from the right, and dirt – or mud – was spouting up from the gravel berm on the left, like some kind of racing geyser. It would hit the Cat!
      It did; but whatever it was seemed to have little penetration. Blobs of steel gouted   from the armored engine cover and a steely vapor probed at the slits; but whatever it was had not lingered long enough to cut anything vital. Lockerby held the levers forward; what else could he do?
      "Incoming!" shouted his seatmate. The Mossberg snapped to the kid's shoulder; he fired through the starboard gun slit. He racked the smoking red shell out of the chamber and  clicked home another.
      "What was it?"
      "Runner with a Molotov. Got him."
      "There'll be one on this side, then! Climb over me!"
      Lockerby leaned forward. Knees dug painfully into his back, but his ears were rewarded with another blast from the Mossy. An ejected shell tumbled at his feet.
      "Eff, you were right, that was close!"
      Something pinged on the armor near the front slit.
      "Careful! Stay down!"
      But it was too late. The youth sat down, still grinning idiotically, but a tiny third eye had opened in his forehead. Life faded from his eyes. Lockerby noted the location of the shotgun, but kept the Cat roaring forward. The LAV barked again; the Cat shuddered with the recoil.
      The giant zipper swept over the armored cage and down the road again; branches flailed into the road, cut cleanly off. A small hole had appeared in the roof; Lockerby became aware of it when a droplet of molten steel fell onto his arm, like dripping solder, and steamed its way into his flesh.
      "Eff it!  Eff!" Lockerby released the levers, then grabbed up the Mossberg and jammed it against them with his good hand. The Cat stalled momentarily, then lumbered forward again. He sucked at the wound on his other forearm for a bit, then dropped the gun and grasped both levers again before the Cat could leave the road.
      A small bullet entered the front slit at an angle, then spalled round the interior before landing, spent, on the seat by Lockerby's side. He fought the impulse to stop and return fire. Safety, if it lay anywhere, lay ahead. He peered at the slit.
      Branches were showering down again, but from the left. Lockerby felt sure the weapon, for it must be one, was being operated blindly. The Cat would not be hit on this pass. And the end of the woods, open country, lay ahead, with farmhouses visible. 
    But what was that?
      Another armored Cat, but much, much smaller, with a wired-up five-gallon bucket tied to its blade and a smokestack at its rear, entered the thoroughfare from a side road. The strange machine turned and advanced, at what was clearly its turtle-like top speed, on the D-8. A suicide bomber! That bucket must surely be another mine.
      Lockerby kept on, as if to pass on the right; the other dozer clearly meant to do the same, probably with the intent of turning into the LAV and blowing itself up there. Lockerby felt he had the advantage, however. Just as the Kamikaze came abreast of his blade, Lockerby would snatch back his left lever, brushing the little Cat off into the ditch.
      The plan almost didn't come off. At the critical moment, someone (how had they got aboard?) somehow shoved a spear in through the left slit, narrowly missing Lockerby's head. He ducked aside and snapped back the left lever.
      The blade connected! The little Cat rolled over in the ditch! Lockerby had no time to exult – that spearman was still out there, and might shift to another angle at any time. He reached up and snatched at the haft of the spear.
      Apparently having recovered, someone snatched back, almost cutting Lockerby's hand. He grabbed up the Mossberg, aimed it at the slit, and fired blindy along the shaft of the spear, disregarding the pellets that ricocheted back, stinging like holy hell.
      The spearpoint slowly withdrew. Lockerby racked another shell into the chamber and aimed along the barrel at the slit. Refocusing, he discovered his wounded opponent, falling away out of sight past the tracks.
      It was a black woman!
      In that moment, Lockerby might have reflected on his career and wondered, briefly, how he had come to this place and time, and whether his choices had been good ones. But several things happened at once.
      One was that the giant zipper passed by, making a brief but spectacular splash of someone's blood. Another was that yet another farmer had apparently clambered up the other side of the Cat, and holed him in the back with one of those tiny bullets. He didn't even hear the report of the rifle. Yet another was that, from where he was sitting, Lockerby could see the little Cat lying upended over the roadside ditch, with its upside-down power plant burned off by the Zipper and now in flames. At the front, apparently unscathed, hung the bomb, tightly cabled to the inverted blade. In the smashed cage lay an old man, bald and bearded, smeared with blood, and in his shaking hand he held what looked an awful lot like some kind of plunger switch at the end of a length of wire, with the plunger depressed.
      And then the old man lifted his thumb.
      Lockerby instinctively ducked away from the window, but was still unprepared for the blast wave when it came. The great Cat rose up and pivoted on its truck-sized blade until it hovered in the flames in which it had become engulfed, then sat down again heavily, upright as before but mortally wounded. Lockerby would have caromed round the interior like a spent bullet, but for the chain round his leg; as it was he was stretched out almost to the roof, then crumpled against the wall, then the floor, and dropped again into his seat. He knew that his nose was bleeding again, and probably his ears as well. He was pretty sure the chained leg had snapped. Darkness crept in round his eyes, but he fought off the tunnel vision long enough to find the shotgun.
      There was too much light. Lockerby realized the passenger-side door had been thrown from its latch. He twisted his agonized body and squinted. If the day were sunnier, he wouldn't have been able to see a thing.
      Beyond, from what remained of the woods to the right, a   small, round-shouldered man was advancing on the Cat through steaming, burning shrubbery. An arrow, loosed from somewhere behind the LAV, missed him; he came on and disappeared to the left. Probably climbing the hydraulics to get at the cab. In the near distance, a long, low steel-clad building was in flames from shells being pumped into it by the chain gun. Above and behind the building loomed the dark ridge that was the object of Magee's quest.
      It didn't look like much.
       Eff you and your quest, old fart. Come here and let's talk about your electricity and your "restoring civilization," blah blah blah,"Boss." And then I'll blow your effing head off and join these nice folks here, see if I don't  ...  Oh! the blossoms in the pear trees! How old was I when I first discovered Spring? Seven, maybe. I think I was seven.
      Something scraped on the hot steel. Lockerby could imagine the man's fingers blistering. Singleness of purpose. Perhaps he had family to protect. A weapon, one of those little rifles, came into view, tucked into the left shoulder. The man was trying to take advantage of cover. Nice job! Lockerby had always admired presence of mind. Now the man heaved into view, taking aim. A Mexican?
      They both fired as one.