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, March 7, 2015

53

Magee was not pleased to find a steel door, streaked with rust, locked against him. But this was easily remedied. Popping the magazine off his AA-12, he racked the slug out of its chamber and hand-loaded an explosive round from his tool belt. Standing back, he fired point-blank at the doorknob assembly, squinting against the bright flash of the sharp little explosion.  
    Immediately a shotgun fired as the door swung open --  quite close by and and very loud – but instead of feeling a hit on his suit or helm, Magee watched his magazine skip away from him. A smart warrior! This was going to be fun.
      There would be another shot coming – but, no, whomever it was held their fire. Magee could not risk a peek; he turned away as he stood up, and and reached into his pouch for a spare shell. Buckshot; just what was wanted. This he popped into his chamber and threw his shotgun over his shoulder to fire behind him into the room. Strange sounds – something rolling?  –  came to him from the general direction of his assailant.
      A woman's voice – an old woman's voice – pierced the air. "Watch out, Avery, sunnabitch is armored! Cap-a-pie!"
      Two of them at least! And experienced, clearly. Change of plan. Magee scrabbled in the other pouch at his belt for his one flash-bang, hoping it would not prove to be a dud. This would require two hands. He set his shotgun against the wall, and was not surprised to see it immediately shot and knocked to the floor, undoubtedly damaged. He pulled the fuse ring on the bomb, counted to three, and tossed it over his shoulder into the room. A satisfying commotion ensued, followed by a disappointingly dull thump.
      Someone had jumped on the bomb and suppressed the blast.
      Magee swung round and bounded into the room.  A bit old for this sort of thing, but when ya gotta, ya gotta.  To his consternation he found himself facing two wheelchairs by a table, one empty. In the other sat a large round-shouldered hag, completely focused on re-loading a sawed-off twelve-gauge. In three steps he crossed the room and disarmed her, snapped the gun shut, and was in command of the situation.
      On the floor lay a man, already moaning and stirring. Although he had stumps for legs, he looked strong and still dangerous. Even as he'd fallen across the hissing flash-bang, the leader – he had to be the leader – had had the presence of mind to draw a derringer with one hand and a throwing knife with the other. Best neutralize him immediately.
      But the old lady apparently didn't know when she was licked; she picked up a heavy old telephone handset and threw it at the shotgun, then some kind of electronic thing in a box, and then, from somewhere, produced, of all things, a short sword, and stood up, all the while uttering colorful curses.  Okay, be that way. Magee changed his aim and fired into her. The hag sat down heavily, rolled backward a few centimeters and subsided at last, but not without offering Magee a strange and quizzical smile.
       What was that smile about?
      Instinctively, hackles raised, Magee turned toward the door.
      The last person he'd expected to see was standing there, less than two meters away, aiming a large chromed pistol right at the eye-slit in Magee's helm.
      Magee lifted the sawed-off, ready to trip the trigger again just as soon as he could get its aim onto any part of his target, but he was painfully aware that for the second time in his life, someone had the drop on him.

:::

The Doctor, whose hearing was especially acute, followed the sounds of small-arms combat near and far. Some of this was easily interpreted; her minions were efficiently clearing rooms for her. Other sounds made less sense, and were beginning to concern her. There was action three or more floors above her, which she judged involved Magee; then closer, as though someone had engaged her rear guard at the entrance – that staccato racket was surely the AK, but what was the other? Neither shotgun nor twenty-two. One more floor to clear, and then see for herself what Magee had got himself into. That would be slow, but one's rear must be secure.
      She climbed the stairs behind her young men and followed them onto the landing.  
      Imagine! A nuclear battery. She'd verified not only its existence, but its status. From the LEDs and gauges, she'd seen that it would last, at the current rate, a good twenty years. Exactly what The Doctor ordered. But this rat's nest must be cleared, the insurrection of the peasants put down, once and for all, before she could plan her future.
      One last level. The young men swung into a room, covering each other. Clear. Another. Clear. Another.        
      Here they encountered difficulties. Someone was shooting at them! One returned fire with his crossbow and lurched back into the corridor, apparently hit. The other tossed a flash-bang into the room, then, after the explosion, cleared the room himself. The Doctor inspected her damaged soldier.
      "Where did they get you?"
      "Uhh ... shoulder, ma'am. Not too bad."
      "You can still fight?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "Good." 
    The other returned. She turned to him. "What did you find?"
      "Old lady and an old man. Really old. He was already half dead. She was shooting at us; then after the bomb we got her."
      "You made sure of them?"
      "Yes, ma'am, cleared. Here's the weapon. One round left."
      The Doctor inspected the tiny green pistol. "Cute. I've heard of these but never seen one. Keep it. Let's get the next room. Load your partner's crossbow for him; he has a bad arm."
      The youths worked the next doorway and then the next.
      Here they found a mystery; several old people who had, apparently, committed mass suicide. The oldest corpse, a small wizened woman with white hair in a bun, held, of all things, a  Glock tightly gripped in both hands. One of the young men pried it loose and checked the magazine and the chamber – both empty. "Ma'am, could this be Wolf's sidearm?"
      "Why yes, I believe it could. He came back to Roseburg without it. Hang onto that, too. I believe I have some Parabellum back at the truck."
      Things had quieted down upstairs; presumably Magee had secured his objective and was exploring. She would have to wrap things up here and check on him.
      The next room presented a difficulty; raw sewage had been spilled, in quantity, into the hallway, and would have to be negotiated to proceed farther. The stench was indescribable, and the interns showed a disinclination to walk through the stuff to clear the room.
      "Now, boys, let's not be fastidious."
      "No, ma'am, we're on it."
      They stepped into the slick brown stream. Just as they did so, The Doctor's sensitive ears picked up the smallest of sounds behind her – as of someone walking on the balls of bare feet, almost tiptoe. She brought up the AA-12 and swung round to bring it to bear. As she did so, two loud pops, as from a small-bore pistol, resounded in the corridor. From the corner of her eye, The Doctor saw only a heel as whomever it was disappeared into the death-room they had just cleared. She swung back to check on her interns, only to find them both sagging onto the mired floor of the corridor. One was cursing liberally. Both had clearly been shot, on either side of and past her, below their body armor, and neither looked as if he had any fight left in him.
      The Doctor was, quite suddenly, effectively alone. Swinging back to the door, she strode over and slipped in as quickly as her armored suit would permit, covering all the corners with the AA-12. Surely whomever had attacked was not one of these dead old ladies. Was there a closet? There was a door! She realized she'd heard it click shut. Neither of those dolts lying out there in the hallway had mentioned a door. Oh, well. If you want something done right ... she saw that there was no lock in the doorknob, nor a keypad on the wall nearby. Trying the knob, she found that it turned. She opened the door a crack, and threw in her one remaining flash-bang.
      After the burst, she entered, shotgun at the ready, but found only some kind of tiny bunkroom with empty steel bunks. There was yet another door at the other end. She advanced and cracked that one. This led to a well-lit large room with tables and chairs, with a kitchen at the other end. A large serving window, with a stainless-steel counter, offered good cover there; The Doctor would have to clear that kitchen before exploring farther.
      As she was about to do so, however, two more pops came from an open doorway to her right. The corridor! Moving as fast as the suit would allow, The Doctor reached the doorway, only to find that her men were lying face down in the muck. Both had been double-tapped! And brown footprints led back once again to the doorway behind which the old women had died. She was being led a merry chase.
       This will not do.  Thoroughly concerned now, The Doctor retraced her steps to the bunkroom, with the shotgun at ready, and approached the doorway to the death chamber. Ah, movement at last within her field of fire! She held down the trigger. The AA-12, on full automatic, roared as it tore apart the person who lurched into the bunkroom.
      But something did not seem right. Leaning over for a better view through her eye-slit, The Doctor glimpsed her victim. It was the already-dead old lady, the one who'd held the Glock! Quickly The Doctor began to re-assume her defensive posture; but as she did so, something flashed at the edge of her vision.

:::

Karen had expected the dagger, plunged deep within the slit in her strange opponent's helmet, to end the fight,   yet the hands that gripped the big shotgun still moved with deadly purpose. She gripped the barrel, gasping as it burned her one hand, and body slammed the jointed Kevlar suit, then put her right foot behind the other's left leg, planted for a split second, then kicked back against the leg. Surprising strength resisted her, but the two toppled together between the rows of bunks. The shotgun fired again and again, right by her ear, almost stunning her. Why had the long knife, still protruding from the helmet's face, not killed? Never mind,  focus.
      Her enemy abandoned the idea of shooting and tried to hit Karen in the side of the head with the gun barrel. Karen rolled right, and, taking a chance on timing, drew her revolver, put it alongside the hilt of the dagger,  and pulled the trigger five times. One shot misfired, but the other four struck home. The heavy armored suit stiffened, and then lay almost still. The arms and legs continued to flex rhythmically, though there seemed to be no longer any purpose in them.
      Karen, still lying prone atop her twitching foe, holstered the emptied revolver, retrieved her bloodied knife, wiped it on the corpse's Kevlar for lack of anything better and sheathed it, then yanked the big shotgun away from the strange figure's gloved hands and tossed it across the room.
      Before anything else was to be done, she must reload.  
      Karen, legs wobbly, arose and reeled across the roomful of bodies to an upended chair, which she righted, hand trembling. She drew the revolver, gripped the still-warm barrel between her knees and pulled at the extractor rod, swinging out the cylinder to shove the shells out. The brass empties, along with one dud, tinkled across the blood-pooled floor. Now shaking all over, she fished nine new rounds, one at a time, from her ammunition pouch and shoved them into the chambers of the tiny cylinder, then snapped it shut with her thumb. She watched the armored suit from the corner of her eye as she did so. The heels of its boots were lightly tapping the floor.
      She holstered the revolver, then, agonizingly, rose from the chair and returned to the armored fighter. The gloved hands were still slowly grasping at the air. Why had not a knife thrust and four shots through the eye-slit finished this man?
    Karen explored the helmet and found and unsnapped its fastenings. Drawing it off the head awkwardly, she   found herself looking into what had once been a woman's face. Or was it?
      The features, as best Karen could tell – she had damaged them considerably – were regular and not unattractive. Ellen Murchison might have resembled this, years ago. Long hair, drawn up into a bun like Mrs. Lazar's. A strong jaw line. The eyes –  
      One eye had been thoroughly –  shattered  was the right word – by the knife, or the twenty-two, or both. There were orbital muscles – that would be the superior rectus – but also fine wires – platinum? Karen recoiled.  
      As she did so, the other eye's pupil contracted and focused on her.
    Karen drew her revolver and fired all nine rounds, double action. None misfired.
      The woman – or  thing, whatever – jerked and lay still.
      Karen returned to the chair, her breath rasping, and reloaded again. Very little ammunition remained to her. She looked across at the shotgun. No, too big to be practical for her. Perhaps she could chuck it down the garderobe; perhaps Errol or Marleena could use it.
      She  listened to her surroundings.
      Everything had gone strangely quiet. Though Karen had concentrated on the problem at hand, she now realized there had been fighting in other parts of the facility. Why hadn't the mines been set off? These people – or  this  – must have found and interfered with the detonating system. Briefly she considered checking upstairs, but the people who had gone down the pipe were her current responsibility. Time to go and find them.
      Karen stood up, crossed the room, and retrieved the massive shotgun.
      On her way out, she discovered again the upper torso of Mrs. Lazar, with whose body, using all of her strength, Karen had decoyed the armored creature.
      The old woman's surprised-looking eyes, which had suffered from cataracts, were open and drying. Karen bent over and drew the eyelids closed. 

:::

Wolf squatted on his haunches and rolled the legless man over. Lots of damage to his middle, as might be expected. The air, still blue with the smoke of combat – and execution – stank of the man's burnt tunic.       
      "You're a mess, fella," said Wolf softly.
      "Tell me what I don't know. Want to put me back in my chair?"
      Wolf looked over the chair. "Should I check it for surprises?"
      "There was a knife right by my hand. Did I reach for it when you came over?"
      "No."
      "Saw you kill that sunnavabitch ... thought we might have a thing or two in common."
      "Maybe." Wolf tested the wheels of the chair with his foot, figured out the brakes and set them, then lifted the man, into his seat. Blood began to soak into the shredded tunic, but the man didn't seem concerned. Shock and bravado served for anesthetic, apparently. Wolf had seen this many times.
      The two regarded each other in silence for a moment. Wolf busied himself reloading the Coonan, one ear cocked for activity from down the stairwell.
      His host spoke again. "Aren't those revolver rounds?"
      "Yeah. It's kind of a unusual gun."
      "All guns are getting unusual now."
      "And seems like every one of 'em came here today."
      "So ... are you one of  them?"
      Wolf glanced at the lifeless suit of armor on the floor. "Was, not too long ago." He looked Mr. Control Room in the eye. "It's kinda over out there, maybe. Th'two sides have fought each other to a standstill for now."
      "Got a name?"
      "Not one that matters."
      "Mine's Avery Murchison."
      "Are you the boss man up here?"
      "No, kind of a unit commander. Was."
      "Who would I talk to about stuff, then?"
      Avery cocked his head over. "Got a feeling I don't really know." A fleeting expression crossed his face. "There's a one-armed girl. If she's  alive, talk to her."
       Wolf took in the damaged room, missing little. "What the eff was this all about, anyway?"
      Avery, beginning to grow pale, gestured vaguely at the armored corpse. "Was that Magee?"
      Wolf raised his eyebrows. "Yeah."
      "He   ... did you dirty?"
      "Yeah, actually. I kinda did him first, but he, ah, upped the ante."
      "Well, he was trying to do the whole world dirty. Or would have, if he'd pulled this off."
      "I appreciate your confidence, but are you telling me too much?"
      Avery shifted in his seat. Pain was beginning to reach him.
      "I don't think so, somehow. Hoping to recruit you for something."
      Wolf tucked the Coonan in his belt and reached for his carbine to sling it over his shoulder. "What would that be?"
      "Help me destroy this facility." 
      Wolf smiled. "Yeah, it's potentially a liability, from some things I been told. There's a big bomb downstairs, but I've got no fuses and ain't inclined to cross any wires. Whatcha thinkin'?"
      "Got another way. Take you a few moments and plenty of time for you to clear out."
      Wolf considered. "You want me to deliver you to anybody? Could maybe do that."
      "Jeeah, no. I've been rearranged, I can tell -- been hurt before. And what use would I be, out  there, after all this is gone?"
     "Got a point, 'm'afraid." Wolf strode over to the control panel and pointed at the dials. "'S'got anythin' to do with these?"
      "Yep. We have to knock out a little pin so's it will hit ground zero, then we're good to go."

:::


The remaining trucks had drawn themselves up in a fighting circle. Two were in flames, dissected by the strange weapon that had been digging all the trenches. Its whirlwind of burning debris had gone up to New Ames, set the house on fire, and swept back through the fight, macerating road, trees, fences and friend and foe alike. The Creekers, trying to set up a perimeter and come to grips with the invaders, spread round to the east, north and west of the trucks, but gave the geyser of rocks and burnt soil a wide berth.
      Then it moved off. 
      Everyone watched its path of destruction as it tore across the Creek and jumped up Ridge, crossing the ridgeline and turning west. The mountain began to shed glowing debris, some of which flew over the crest and rolled, hissing, down among the fire-killed trees.
      A few shots rang out, and battle was rejoined. 
      Night fell.