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 21, 2015

51

It was definitely time to hit the headache button. Magee reached for it, but as he did so, the cab roof of his chariot came undone.
      Daylight simply appeared through the roof overhead, from the front of the cab to the back, with molten metal running down onto the bulletproof window. The glass, special though it might be, cracked, fell apart, and cascaded into his lap in thousands of iridescent shards.
      What the eff was  that?
       Something whined past his face and flattened itself on the passenger side window. Magee had been shot at before; he didn't like it any more now than he had then.
      Mullins and Lockerby were going to have to endure some unconsciousness. Magee reached for the dashboard again, this time twisting the intensity control. Four? Five?
      An arrow caromed off the doorpost.
      Oh, heck, make it six. Buncha half-dead farmers with some friendly casualties, would be preferable to being overwhelmed. He hit the button.
       Nothing!
      Another arrow plumed in and lodged itself in the padding around the passenger-side doorpost. What had happened to the microwave?
      Ahead of him, Mullins was blazing away at farmhouses and what looked like an old sawmill. He'd better start in on that mountaintop soon ... suddenly there was a ruckus in front of the LAV. Some kind of vehicle being rolled over – good one, Lockie – fleeting glimpses of figures assaulting the D8 and the LAV – the D8 jumping into the air again amidst flames – Magee's ears ached with the multiple concussions coming in through the broken window – the D8 burning.
      Better check that dish.
      He hurriedly swept glass off the windowsill with an oily red rag. Ignoring the possibility of being shot in the back, Magee shimmied out, took a peek, and squirmed back in. 
….Well! Something had sliced the dish cleanly off the roof. It lay, about as useful as any of the detritus of civilization, reduced to expensive-looking scrap.
      What  was  that weapon?
      People were coming toward him, apparently intent on business. He tried to think, but for once felt fresh out of ideas.
      Shotgun blasts interrupted Magee's reverie. They seemed to be coming from behind the MRAP. The farmer-warriors fell, one by one. Oh, that would be The Doctor with her AA12-E. He had one himself, of course, in a locker in the back. Last-resort stuff.
      She appeared in the window, standing on the running board. "My lord, we  must  advance. The column will be cut to pieces here."
      "What the hell hit my dish?"
      "There is a focused beam device, laser or maser, my lord. It seems to be sky-based. Low in the south. If we make for the mountain we will be hull-down from it.  Drive!" The Doctor's upper arm began to bleed; she stepped down and fired again into the near distance. She shouted over her shoulder. "You must drive,  now!"
      "We need the LAV. I'll pull around it; hook me up and tell Mullins to save ammo." He gripped the wheel and set the truck in motion.
      The Doctor hopped down. She shook her head. What was the poor man thinking? Without the dish, in front of the LAV, Magee would be too tempting a target for Mullins. She ran, missed by a crossbow bolt, to the back of the immobilized armored vehicle and rapped one of its back doors with the butt of the AA12, three times, pause, three times.
      Mullins' guard, a trusted member of her intern crew, opened out the rust-streaked door.
      "Stand aside, please," she smiled. Shouldering the heavy weapon with its round drum full of twelve-gauge slugs, she sent one through the gunner's seat, climbed in, and dogged the door shut behind her. Small-arms fire pinged off the exterior. "Run around that mess to the driver's hatch, climb out, roll down front, and cable this thing up to The Boss's truck, yes? Good!"
      He ran to do her bidding, and she winced at the thought that so much might devolve upon so little. The young man could be shot before completing the task. Or the Clevis could already be too hot to handle – a whiff of burning D8 had come in through the door with her. Well, first things first. Leaning the AA12 against the crew compartment wall, tugged Mullins' surprised-looking corpse down from its seat by the Bushmaster, and took his place.
      Let's see – little was as it had been when they had first acquired this machine. When the Army ran away, leaving their inexplicably acquired Marine Light-Armored Vehicle behind with so much other stuff, it had been left parked outside the ABC-hardened bunkers. The electro-magnetic pulses, both solar and war-derived, that had so paralyzed the world had made a hash of its electronics. The turret was hand-cranked, the gun bolt-operated, and for a gunsight someone – Mullins, she supposed, as this had been his baby – had found a way to bore through the hull and install a riflescope, which was all right for point-blank warfare but not much help with elevations. Oh, well.
      Encouraging noises rang from up front somewhere. The Doctor cranked the turret round to face the northern butte. That would be the artillery observer's position! She raised the barrel with the other crank.
      So little ammunition! Mullins had been much too lavish, poor boy. HESH-Ts should not be wasted on peasants in shrubbery. There was a round in the chamber. After checking the chamber, she looked through the scope, shrugged, and gripped Mullin's makeshift trigger. A near-deafening racket, more of a crack than a boom, filled the narrow space around her. As the shell fell among those at her feet, smoking, she went back to the scope to see a point of light, following a tight spiral, rise toward the lookout and blossom into orange flame. 
      A strange sizzling sound passed over; tiny holes appeared in the roof, and globules of molten steel, stinking, dripped into the interior. Someone screamed outside. This was getting to be a near thing! Suddenly the LAV jerked and began rolling forward, yawing to the left. Better get in the driver's seat and grab that yoke! And she was going to have to be her own "power" steering.

:::

"Ro-eena, what have we got? Over!" The heavy old handset, smelling of Bakelite, was slick with Avery's sweat and kept sliding through his hand, away from his ear.
      "The beam is on the road, sir, but moving too fast. We should maybe stay in one spot, let them drive through it? Wait, there goes Mr. Jorj! Oh,  eff  it! Jeeah  help  us!"
      "Ro-eena! Ro-eena! Are you ..." Avery heard a click; she'd finally lifted her finger from the "send" button. "Ro-eena, focus please. No reporting or evaluation except in relation to the laser.  Over!"
      "I'm sorry, sir, but it's pertinent; the column has stopped. Inch back to the west and you can start burning them. Over."
      One click, two, three on the smallest wheel of control C. "How's that? Over."
      An uncomfortable pause. Avery almost pressed "send" again, worrying that there had been an attack on the lookout after all, but Ro-eena responded.
      "You've  got  one! Next to last in line is burning; they're jumping out. One click is good for about two truck lengths, sir. Over. No, wait. Sir, Mr. Jorj –"
       "Report effect. Over."
      "They're ... they're moving again, sir; five clicks. Oh, stopping; we've overshot them. Come back."
      "Back two. Are we hitting anything? Over." Click.
     Click. "Sir, they're .. uhhhh, gotta go.  Over-r-r."
      What?
      From the corner of his eye, Avery saw a glimmer of flame. He snatched up the field glasses and focused on Ball Butte.
      Smoke was coming from all the stone-framed windows of the lookout.
      Mary spoke for them all. Slapping both her wheelchair arms with her open palms, she looked up at the ceiling, as if in supplication. "Dammit."
      Selk looked over at Avery. "Uhh, sir? We're losing signal on our antenna."
      "Power or position?"
      "I think it's position. Something must have jigged the dish."
      "Am I still on?"
      "Maybe. Keep diddling those dials, and I'll run out and move things around. Doctor Mary can spot both me and the 'scope till we get it right again."
      "We shouldn't be opening the sally port right now."
      Mary interposed. "It's all we got, Captain."
      Avery looked into both their faces. Selk looked back, for once unblinkingly, with an uncharacteristic set to his jaw. Mary simply smiled. Avery turned back to the board and began twisting dials. "You're both right," he said, over his shoulder. "Have a go, and I'll keep playing my little game here."
        Selk departed. Mary rolled to the heavy quartz south window. It had been fouled by the great Fire, but would do for Selk's purposes. Avery's hands hovered over the dials.  If only we'd had time to range this thing, fix some co-ordinates!  And now he had no idea if it was even working.
      South two, swing east to west two at a time, slowly. At a guess, if the thing was still running, this would straddle and destroy the bridge at Hall Farm and perhaps knock down enough timber to block the convoy.
      But if there was anything in the world Avery hated, it was the word guess.

:::

The floor shook beneath them. Karen glanced at the ceiling, but Mrs. Lazar simply stood smiling. Did anything ever faze this old woman? Karen had once prided herself on her detachment; now it seemed the people around her were more comfortable in adversity than she. What had happened to her?
      "They're here already. I'm going to have to check the availability of the sally port."
      "Yes, dear. Do we have time to get what we came for?"
      "Oh! yes." Karen reached over the top edge of a tall cabinet and retrieved a burlap bag, heavy at one end. She set it on a countertop, and tugged at the cord around its throat, one-handed.
      "May I?" Mrs. Lazar leaned forward.
      "Of course, ma'am."
      The old lady untied the bag and retrieved two pistols, one large, one small.
      "These ... " Karen began.  
      But Mrs. Lazar had picked up the Glock, expertly dropped the magazine, racked open the action, and looked into the chamber. "How nice. A Glock and, what, an old Kahr?"
      "K-Kel-Tec, ma-am."
      "The ammunition is stable, then?"
      "It was when last tested, ma'am. There's ... not much of it."
      "Enough to make one's last moments honorable. I see I have surprised you. When I tried to go to Israel, I hoped to join the IDF. You know? So. Very long ago. I joined the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, as preparation. So, about such as these, I do know a little." Her smile broadened.  
      Karen found herself smiling back.
      Mrs. Lazar tipped her head. "Oh, now, what is this? You have not smiled enough in your life, girl. It looks good on you. I will take the big one, as it is easier for my arthritis. And I will take to Dr. Chaney the little one, yes?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Good; go check on your ways and means. The Lord be with you, girl."
      Karen moved toward the door. Her hand on the doorknob, she turned and looked back. "And with you, ma'am."

:::

The two men had climbed much of the afternoon, almost straight up the trail, which consisted of no more than the judicious removal of enough brush and branches to facilitate assaults on the mountaintop. There were  no switchbacks, and it was hard going. Their haste was driven by the rattle and thump of explosions ahead. Though their hands were empty of weapons, they had trained, much of their lives, to run toward the sound of warfare.
      As they entered the clearing at the top of the Butte, they stopped and surveyed the scene before them carefully. Smoke wisped from the blackened doorway of the lookout, and two bodies lay, very still, on the ground nearby. There were no signs of current or recent activity.
      One gestured to the other, and they advanced to the casualties. The leader knelt and examined one, while the other scanned round the perimeter of the open ground. "Who are they?" he asked.
      "Elberd an' Ro-eena, dammit. Effin' flies, leave 'er alone." Wilson futilely fanned the air above her open back.  How had it gotten so warm out after all that rain?  There were already rows of tiny white eggs around the edges of the gash.
      "They must have been running from the building when it blew."
      "Yeah."
      "Shoulda gone left, 'stead 'a straight away."
      "Y'know, Armon, y'tryin' t' turn over a new leaf, maybe don't say things ... like that ... for a while?"
      The big man opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it; he had, as he well knew, run  straight away. He hung his head.
      Wilson looked up. "Man ... get a grip, no time for that either." He pointed to the doorway. "See if you can salvage anything in there; I'll go through her possibles."
      Regret welled up in Wilson; his eyes fogged over and he had to dab at them with the back of his knuckles. This woman, with something like what had been called a photographic memory, had been the Creek's archives. All that had gone, along with a stout  heart.
      Ro-eena's bag turned up several personal treasures, which he tucked back into her tunic. Remaining were a squat jar of cottonwood salve and an old pill bottle containing twelve rounds of Karen's twenty-twos, packed in dried mint. The bag hung from a belt that also held a sheathed knife. The belt would be too short to use. He unlaced it from its paired rings and slid the sheath and the possibles bag onto the thin grass, then patted away some dirt from Ro-eena's red hair. "Go with Jeeah."
     Armon returned from the smoldering building. He piled his small inventory next to Wilson. "Almost nothing. The phone's smashed. Binoculars, same thing. Water was in a glass jug; that broke. Some fruit leathers in a basket. N'this." He held out a single-shot twenty-two with a smashed stock.
      "That's Elberd's." Wilson took the little rifle and worked the bolt. A round in the chamber. He ejected this into his palm, held the barrel up to his eye, held his fingernail to the breech, and examined the light thrown into the barrel by the nail. Clean and clear; didn't look bent. He reloaded. "This will do. Was there an axe? We always have an axe here. Shovel, too."
      "Splintered."
      "Well ... Let's put 'em in through th' window and call that burial, for now. If any of us ever gets back here to collect 'em, things will be goin' better'n I expect."
      Standing on either side of the woman's body, which still lay face down, they made a litter of their upturned palms, rolled the stiffened body over, and lifted it. Ro-eena, who had always been slight, was unexpectedly heavy. Did flesh gain weight when spirit fled?
    Elberd's end had apparently come in the same moment as Ro-eena's; the back of his head was caved in. The stitches were still in his cheek; what a life he'd had! They lifted him into the window.
      Both the men seemed to feel they had done something for the dead by putting the bodies out of sight. Wilson took up the shattered rifle and walked to the southern edge of the Butte; Armon gathered up the other things, after putting the sheathed knife in his sash, and followed.
      A small but thriving corner of hell unfolded itself to their wondering eyes.
      At their feet, the buildings of Hall, Murchison's, Chaney's, Bledsoe's and Joseph's were in flames. Murchison's was already a burnt-out shell. The smoke from that fire obscured details of the others, drifting slowly up the Creek road to the east. Smoke also rose from innumerable fires along the Road, all the way from Bridge to Hall. Vehicles appeared to be crawling up the Ridge road, attended by desultory gunfire. A geyser of water and steam spouted up from the Creek in front of Bledsoe's, as if a small volcano were erupting there; the steam mixed itself with the smoke from the burning Farms and drew gloweringly away to the east.
      Before he could wonder about all the smoking streaks that had appeared in the Creek road, Wilson's eye was drawn to activity on its surface, half hidden in the smoke. Two or more vehicles were burning, and there was fighting around them; Others had moved off up the road toward New Ames, with what had to be Creekers in pursuit. The enemy's forces had been divided and could be tackled piecemeal; in effect the Creekers, on foot, held the interior lines!
      "Armon! We're not whipped yet! There's work to be done down there. Y'ready?"

:::

The Doctor was not entirely happy. Certainly the ridge was their ultimate objective, as Magee would surely have agreed, in days gone by, but his truck resolutely ground on, chuffing round the switchbacks of the farmers' access road. At least they were now out of the reach of that thing in the sky! But she would have preferred to bring along the rest of the column. No good could come of leaving them among the bedlam that was erupting along that half-dried river below.
      Perhaps Magee hoped to gain control of the sky-weapon. That would be a prize indeed, if it proved to have any staying power. Better even than the now-defunct microwave, perhaps. That man had always dreamed of empire.
      The problem was, the Doctor reflected, that there was likely not much left of the known world for imperial scope. The Eastsiders were scattered tribals rapidly re-inventing all things Indian, rightly recognizing cowboy culture as ultimately tied to a vanished industrial system. Magee's "Rogue Valley Volunteers" had hit the resource wall and scattered, with about a fourth of them right here in the fight. Who knew what was going on in Port Land? She suspected: not much. They'd displayed surprisingly little reach. And from the scorched south, from whence one might have expected a hundred million Pilgrims, no more than two hundred thousand had ever come north, by her count.
      That left this shrinking band of idealistic gentleman farmers, which Magee had no hope of befriending (it was not his style) and less of exterminating (they were proving resourceful). Not much future in pacification campaigns here. And without someone's cooperation, the big laser would have no meaningful reach. 
      Trust Magee not to be thinking that far ahead. Other things being equal, now would be the time for the Doctor to head out. East, perhaps. Or West. Find a boat, get south of the Equator. If such a thing were possible for her.
      But the Doctor had a problem; she was tied to electricity. Regulated and in sufficient quantity. It had begun to run out in Roseburg, and would run out here if they could not breach this fort. Life, for the Doctor, lay within this mountain. Despite the continual jouncing, she frowned; stupid LAV! Its engine should be running so that she could plug in.
      The vehicles suddenly halted; she could feel the tensioned tow cable slackening. Freed suddenly from the need to grip the steering yoke with both hands, she reflexively reached for her left wrist and tugged aside the unobtrusive fold of darker "skin" there. She found the tiny still-green glow of the LED reassuring.
      Someone banged on the hull. It would likely be Magee; they now had few Volunteers with them. The Doctor rose from the driver's seat to a half-crouch, undogged the driver's hatch, lifted it slightly, and peeked out.
      Yep, Magee. And he had somehow found time to climb into his armored suit.
      Standard Army issue, the suit had once harbored electronic and nanotech wonders, including a power pack for its exoskeleton, but these things had gone the way of history during the Undoing, falling victim to electromagnetic pulses, of whatever origin. With its titanium VR goggles stripped away, the suit was still handy as full-body armor, but debilitatingly heavy. The Doctor marveled that Magee could still manage it; he looked almost like a slow-moving deep-sea diver. In one hand he carried his cumbersome AA-12E. With the other, he waved and pointed to the chain-gun's barrel overhead and then to the rock face nearby. What had he seen to shoot at there?
      Magee walked toward the short cliff as the Doctor watched, fascinated. There was a distraction; someone shouted some sort of war cry on the right and threw a Molotov cocktail at Magee, which fell short, bursting and burning with a dull red glow on the road berm. Magee shouldered his weapon nonchalantly and fired one round, observed the effect for a few moments and lumbered on.
      Reaching the mountain wall, he turned, made sure the Doctor was still watching, and patted the stone. Yes. There was something of a rectangle there. A door, then. She dropped the hatch and dogged it, then made for the gunner's position. Crank the turret; crank the gun; rack a HESH-T; reach for the duct-taped trigger.

      Anyone watching might have wondered why the Doctor did not bother to put on the hearing protector muffs still on Mullins' head. Perhaps, if she knew they were watching, she would have. Protective coloring meant much in this game. But the Doctor's needs, though always and everywhere urgent, were few.