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 14, 2015

54

"Hold still, Bolo, while I figure this out."
      "I am holding still, Mr. Josep, sir."
      Josep winced. Of course he was; Bolo had more resistance to pain than anyone from Roundhouse. Or, not that exactly. Maybe it was that Bolo's body felt as much pain as did any other, but somehow the big man didn't  understand  pain. This somehow had affected everyone around him; through the years, Bolo's family (which was everyone who knew him) had gone to great lengths to spare him injury or sickness, as if he had always remained a child. 
      And now here he was with a crossbow bolt in his temple, and he was sitting up and talking and apparently not the worse for it. Across Bolo's lap from Josep squatted Mrs. Wilson. In the dim firelight, Josep could just make out that she was examining Bolo. Krall, the big dog, wrapped herself round Billee's feet and rested her head on Bolo's thigh, sighing.
      Billee frowned. "I'm not really  good  at this. We need Dr. Tom, or Mrs. Chaney, or at least Karen or Juanita." 
      "Me neither," assented Josep. "Bolo, you've been shot in the side of the head and the bolt twisted as it went in; I don't think we can draw it without some idea which way it turned."
      "It's in my ... where I think?" Bolo made a woebegone face.
      Josep's voice fell to a whisper."Yes." 
     "Why am I alive?"
      "We don't know. 'The Lord works in mysterious ways' is as good an answer as I've ever heard."
      Vernie Watkin, carrying a long old-fashioned flintlock, crawled over. "Jeeah," he said, looking at Bolo, then addressed himself to Josep and Billee. 'They want a  parley."
      A momentary rage crossed Billee's face. "After all they've done?"
      Josep wasn't sure how to answer this. Billee had proved an outstanding tactical leader; but since Wilson's disappearance she seemed to be bent on annihilation. He settled for answering with a question. "Should we have more of our people go through what Bolo's going through, or worse?"
     "I'm not too bad," said Bolo. Josep shushed him.
      "I know what you mean," replied Billee to Josep, "but I don't have to like it."
      "What have they got?" asked Josep of Vernie. "Spokesman? White flag?" 
      Vernie looked surprised. "Yes to both. Some did not understand the flag thing at first. He was almost shot."
      "All right, let us go and talk to the man."
      Billee did not like being left out of this, but she could see Josep's expectation that she would stay with Bolo. And Bolo certainly looked like he could use the company. So she kept to her crouch by his side, her knee lodged in Krall's ribs, patting Bolo's hand.
      Josep followed Vernie, stepping over the strange tilted ditches, taking advantage of what cover was available, toward the "front." This consisted of a small circle of armored trucks, two of them in shambles and emitting gouts of smoke, lit from in front by the strange fire on top of Ridge, and from behind by the last gutterings of the burnt-out shell of New Ames, on a slightly higher elevation. Creekers and Roundhousers occupied the nearest hedgerows, sporting twenty-twos, bows, spears, and swords. A faint smell of damp saltpetre, mixed with that of the wounded soil of the fields, hung in the air.
      They came to Tomma, who held the sights of the Hawken steadily on a figure sitting on the running board of one of the trucks. Even in the dim light one could see the man was tall, thin, world-weary, cagey, and authoritative. A cottonwood branch rested across his knees with a rosette of white plastic flagging tied to one end. He appeared to be unarmed.
      "Bring me up to speed?" asked Josep.
      "Nothing new," replied Tomma. "He asked for our leader, and, I guess, right now, right here, you're it." 
      "No sign of bad faith?" Josep peered into the dismal light ahead.
      "None, they've not fired anything since he started waving that stuff, and there's been no sign of anyone manning slits or any movement toward an attack or breakout, that we can see."
      "Good job. I guess there's nothing for it but to see what he wants." Josep laid down his weapons and stood halfway up. "Greetings."
      If the stranger was startled, he gave no sign. The stick stirred slightly on his knees, and he shifted his weight. "Hey. Yew'd be th' man in charge?"
      "Maybe. Some people, if they were to show up, I might defer to. Till then, you have me."
      "Y'be fair; I like that." He pronounced "like" as if it were "lack." Where was he from? "Y'see, I'm thinkin'." He pointed a bony finger at the rumbling mountain, behind Josep. "The shits't brought us here, they  got  to be dead, or that godawful  thing'd be sweepin' y'all up by now. If they's dead, that's all to th'  good, 'cuz it were more their war than enny of us over here. Boys is  tired  'a dyin' 'an I speck y'all feelin' 'bout th' same. Say?"
      "I won't pretend it hasn't been rough. We have some people that have lost husbands and wives. Children, even."
      "Yeah, figgered. I  hate  that; purely I do. 'Cuz if one of 'em was to knife me in th' back on my way outta here, I'd say I had it  comin'."
      A faint rustling caused Josep to check behind him. Bolo, apparently completely ambulatory, was standing in the Road, supported on one side by Billee and on the other by none other than Wilson! And was that Armon with them? Josep gaped, but Wilson rolled his forefinger in the air, which Josep took to be a sign to keep the parley going. He returned his attention to the stranger. "What do you propose?" 
      "T'let us walk. We'll leave all our weapons an'y'c'n have these bloody machines, too."
      "Surety?"
      "Aw, fella, if ya kep'  me, what'd stop these kids come back an' fight ya if they had a mind?  I  ain't nothin' t'them. None of us has much t' watch out for but our own skins. And, y'know – " he chuckled – "I 'speck yer in like case; y'farms look like fried  shit t'me."
      "You may have a point. Where do you think to go?"
      "Back down th' road we made; try t'build a proper tribe down to th' Umpqua."
      Wilson stepped up. "Hi, my name's Wilson."
     "Oh," said the stranger, "seen  you  afore. Ain't you th' honcho, then?"
      "Yes and no. We're a mixed lot. I happen to know it's a long walk from here to the Umpqua, how do you propose to eat, unarmed?"
      "Well, thanky fer yer concern; we thought we'd take our wounded along, y'know." 
      Josep winced; he could feel the sly smile in that voice even from this distance.
      "If I understand you right, I recommend against what you have thought of," continued Wilson. "You have preserved food in the trucks?"
      "Waal, yeh, MREs. Some. Packaged stuff. It's not  too  bad. Got some smoked venison. No, venison,  really."
      Wilson turned to Josep. "What say we have each of them, in the morning, take something of that, and a water container. We'll put a cache of hunting weapons – four bows a couple of knives, and say eight arrows – by the Bridge for them to pick up on their way out. That work for you?"
      Josep nodded. "That works for me." He turned toward the seated stranger. "You catch all that?"
      "Oh, hail,  yeah. I hear  anything  related to my  skin."
      "We'll be watching."
      "Wouldn't expect no less. So, if nobody's trigger finger is any itchier than  usual  – " the thin man nodded toward Tomma – "None of my boys here will so much as blink, and I'll gather up our toys, real slow like, and y'all c'n watch me pile 'em up right here in th' open? An' I surely would hate to die of  mistakin'  y'all on this deal."
      Josep looked at Wilson, who nodded. "We're good here," replied the Roundhouse leader. "Our word as Christians, Jeeans, and human beings, which, may it still be true, we are. We will not break 'this deal,' though you must understand we cannot stand down while you proceed."
      "That was kinda  complicated, but I gotcha; gonna get up real slow now and commence t'gatherin'."
      Wilson waved Emilio's little twenty-two vaguely toward the man, with the barrel pointed to the darkened sky. "Please do."
      An explosion shook the ground beneath their feet. All eyes turned to the mountain, from which a ball of fire emerged. The flame lit the valley and the hills all around as it rose, then vanished into the lowering clouds.

:::

The band of refugees were washing themselves desperately in the cold waters of the Creek, by the light of the last flames of Hall, when the explosion startled them.
      "What was that?" asked one of the Roundhouse children. It was the one with the puppy, standing knee deep. 
      Karen held her hand protectively over little Allyn's hiding place in the sack at her side.  Too damp out here for a baby.  She turned back to look at the girl, who, like herself, was still half-covered with Ridge's offal.    
      "No idea. Ridge is ... gone, I should think."
      "Okay," the girl said, holding the squirming puppy at arm's length. "Never liked that place anyway. How come it's so quiet out here?"
      "I don't know that either. Your brother will be back soon, and maybe we'll have some better information. Keep washing that poor dog, and do your hair too. And do it twice. At this rate we'll never smell human again." 

:::

Karen unhooked the baby from her nipple and tossed him gently onto her right shoulder, holding him in place with the palm of her hand and squeezing. A tiny burp issued forth. Mothering was for two-handed women, she'd long ago decided; she got more exercise moving Allyn from bag to breast to shoulder and back to the bag, after finding moss to line it with, than almost anything else she did these days. Except fighting that monster.
      Marleena, with a gurgling Arda in her arms, sat down beside Karen. "How is he doing?"
      "Hungry as ever, but never a peep out of him."
      In the late-night quarter-moonlight, with thickening clouds, Marleena's expression could not be fully read, but Karen could see that there was a question and a worry in the set of her shoulders. "That's never really changed; he seems happy and he has grown some but there's something not right. He could be deaf and mute, for all I know."
      "Does he blink at loud noises? There were a lot of them yesterday."
      "Oh! Yes, so maybe that's not it."
      "It 's not like you to go fuzzy on a problem."
      "Where he's concerned, I do. I must be shielding myself in some way."
      "Well give the two of you time. He was born so early; there must be a lot of catching up for him to do."
      "How is Juanita?"
      They both looked away toward the trees. Movement, in the moonshadow of one, had gone on for some time.
      Marleena's silhouetted face swiveled back to Karen. "She's been digging since we found him. She won't accept help."
      "He asked her to do it herself. I think his idea was that it would help her, having a hard task to do, so as not to go crazy with the grief."
      "It's not your way, here on the Creek, burial – is it?"
      "No, but in such times – so many bodies. And I don't think we'll be needing the composting any more."
      Guchi appeared from behind them carrying the heavy shotgun, with Errol, who was hobbling with a spear for an improvised crutch. "May we report?" asked Guchi.
      "Sit, guys," replied Karen, "But keep it low." She gestured with her head toward Juanita.
      "Oh – yeah." Errrol sat heavily on a log. Guchi set down the weapon and slowly settled himself down beside his friend, looking ill at ease.
      For a few moments no one spoke. Karen broke the spell by touching Guchi's knee with hers.
      "Oh," said Guchi again. "Well, I went up and had a look. Enough fire came out of Ridge that the trucks and the "tank" thing are just trashed. Nobody around. Up top, it was all flying rocks and smoke or steam, or both, and I couldn't get any closer, and then all of a sudden it stopped."
      "Stopped?"
      "Whatever was causing all the rocks burning, it was just over. I tried to get a look in the hole, but ... I started feeling not so good. So I came down."
      "What's 'not so good?'"
      "Uhh ... nausea? Ringing in my ears? Mouth tastes like metal. Um. Fingertips feel funny."
      "Can you stand up suddenly?"
      "Funny you should ask, I hid behind some stuff on the way down, checking out the terrain for unfriendlies, and when I got up I fainted."
      "I'm sorry; I realize now I shouldn't have let you go."
      "Well, I'm glad I did. I think I can say with confidence we're not leaving anybody behind that we could have helped."
      "I think you're right, Guchi. Won't you go lie down and rest a bit? There's some water and a few blankets we've got here."
      "I'll do that." Yamaguchi pointed to the supergun. "Too heavy – give it away." He stood up again, and wobbled. He caught himself by grasping Errol's spear, then shook his head and walked in the direction of the abandoned trucks.
      Errol watched him go, then turned his attention to Karen. "What's up?"
      "I think the containment of the thorium battery's been breached. The fuel's been aerosolized and the top of Ridge is dangerously radioactive now."
      Marleena held Arda closer. "What about here?"
      "There hasn't been much wind, but I think most of the plume – so far – will have gone down toward the Calapooia. That will change by mid-morning. And it's going to rain, which can't be good."
      "Can we get away?"
      "We'll have to. The Creek is finished." Karen looked at Errol. "How are you holding up?"
      "No new bleeding, thanks. We've been inventorying the trucks and the bulldozer. They're all damaged enough not to be useful for transport, not if we have to leave soon. I have the young people making Molotovs with some of the fuel, in case we meet the former owners."
      "I don't know, it's awfully quiet up the Road."
      "I was thinking the same. Meanwhile, there will be enough of that vacuum-packed food for everyone to have a stout breakfast."
      Young Griff came running from the trucks. "Someone's coming, and there's no password. What do we do?"
      "Say hello. If it's someone you know, call them over to your perimeter and do a visual by torchlight, but not out in the open. If it isn't, tell them to stay put, and keep listening for activity. If they don't stay put, shoot them and then keep listening for activity."
      "Gotcha!" He ran off, clearly delighted to be a warrior with a commission.
      Karen returned her attention to Errol. "Were there any weapons at the trucks? Any more people around?"
      "There was a substantial fight here. We've found four of our  dead, besides Mr. Molinero alive – at first – and two of theirs. In the woods there was one of them, he'd been trying to get away and broke his leg in one of these weird ditches – someone caught up with him and finished the job, I think. No, they took all their stuff except a Bowie knife someone dropped and a few crossbow bolts."
      Griff returned, bringing Raoul and Ceel, who were laden with bows, quivers, and belt knives. They dumped their loads, winded, and smiled at Karen and Errol in the growing light.
      "Is that my axe on your belt?" Errol asked Raoul.
      "Yes; want it back?"
      "No, looks good on you. What brings you here?"
      "We're heading to Bridge to make a cache." Raoul reached for an unattended water bottle.
      "Whatever for?" asked Karen.
      "It's over. The bandits have surrendered. They're pretty sure the folks that brought them here are all dead, and they want to go home, which they say is as bad as here, but at least it's not here. Josep and Wilson gave them safe-conduct –"
      "Wilson is  alive?" Karen's heart leaped for Billee's sake, as well as for what remained of the Creek.
      "Josep is  alive?" shouted Marleena at the same time, standing up and almost spilling a wide-eyed Arda.
      "Yes – Armon, too – to go to Bridge and pick up this stuff for hunting purposes. Everything else, they've turned in and they are being escorted this way."
      Errol made an impatient gesture. "Right through us?"
      "We didn't know you were here. How did you get out, anyway?"
      "Never mind," said Karen. "We'll have to get off the Road right away and form a new perimeter, just in case. But you two, I think, should hand over your jobs to Griff – and one of his friends – and stay with us."
      "Why?"
      "Raoul, your mom is going to need you in a little bit."
      The smile faded. "What? No, wait, I think I know. Wilson acted kinda funny." Raoul, who had arrived full of vitality, seemed to shrink visibly.
      Ceel looked at Karen, then at Raoul, then at Karen again. "Me, too?" she asked, in a small voice.
      Karen felt upon herself the great weight of the terrible messenger. "Errol, everybody away from the trucks, perimeter in the woods. We'll join you. Griff, this stuff to Bridge, hop! Raoul, I'm deeply sorry, your mom's over there near the Creek, see that tree? Go to her. 
    "Ceel ... come with me, please."

:::

Jahn ambled along his short column, ostensibly checking the stretcher cases, but really looking for signs of rebellionion. One wrong move on this march, he knew, and they would all die quickly. In the lead at some distance, well out of reach on either hand, as well as bringing up the distant rear, angry and dangerous men and women watched and walked, rifles, shotguns and bows at the ready. Nerves were stretched taut in both parties. Fire in the mountain had reached some kind of ammunition, and the cooking-off brought a similitude of killing to all ears.
      "Sir?" a sullen youth whispered as he passed.
      "Don't y'even think it."
      "We could rush 'em, you'd give us a sign."
      "You in insub-ordy-nation right now, boy; want 'em ta see me kill ya bare-handed?"
      "Nossir."
      "Good, I'll overlook this f'now an' we'll discuss th' quality of yer trainin' if we ever get t'Roseburg. Look me up an' ask f'help wi'y' prroblem, then, hey?"
      "Yessir."
      Jahn finished his tour of the column and worked his way back to the head of the line. He could see, in the near distance, the old D-8 sitting in the middle of a blackened patch of earth. Behind it, a stricken MRAP still emitted smoke.
      "Spread out a little bit, please," ordered the man he'd overheard called Joseph, or some such. "Pass the machines on the left, hands on top of your heads, all eyes front."
      Jahn could see, as they neared, that all bodies had been cleared away somewhere, and the vehicles thoroughly canvassed. Foil wrappers had been gathered up and rolled into a ball that someone had not yet carried off. As he suspected, there were more fighters than just the ones that had followed his little army up the valley.
      A half-strangled cry, off to the left, drew everyone's attention. Jahn looked left, though careful not to turn his head by much. A small, black-haired woman, brandishing an axe, was running toward them as fast as her short legs could carry her. A revenge play, then; Jahn was familiar with such. So this was how it would all end; he'd have to try to disarm her to protect those under his command and care, then the Joseph guy or the Wilson fellow would have to kill him. In a few weeks the lady'd be over it; but he, Jahn, after his long travels in hope of a home, would be no more. He braced himself.
      Wilson, however, stepped between the woman and the hesitating column and raised his rifle, aiming it at her. Jahn was filled with admiration. Also, a young man, whom he'd seen in the fighting, was now close on the woman's heels and tackling her. They went down in a heap, and Wilson lowered his weapon and went to them.
      Jahn, sure that the immediate crisis was in hand, had better prevent another. "Eyes t'th'front!" he shouted at the wobbling line. "For'rard harch!" The lads pulled themselves together and walked on, hands still on their heads.
      As they cleared the vehicles, stepping over the detritus of war and the deep cracks all over the road, a new sight presented itself to Jahn's peripheral vision. A one-armed woman and a black child stood side by side, weapons in hand. There were others in the shadowy wood.
      Ahead, not far from the bridge that had led them here, a flock of geese swung by, yelping.
       Yeah, Jahn thought.  Ol' Mr. Magee, y'bit off way more'n y'c'd chew. If we-all don't starve this winter, I'm gonna run things hella diff'rent down t'th' Umpqua!


:::


Quiet reigned along Starvation Creek.
      All day, smoke rose, as it had not in a long time, from the chimney at Tomlinson's. Billee brought Mr. Perkins a cup of hash tea, but he ignored it, staring at the wall. His son and daughter leaned on him from either side. No one asked them to come to the living room, and the same grace was extended to Juanita, her sons, and her new daughter-in-law, who'd stayed on the stoop together.
      Billee, with Krall dogging her heels, carried the steaming stock pot into the living room – one of the biggest rooms left on the Creek. Outside, a cold rain fell, rattling in the downspouts and off the porch roof. Chairs had been brought from throughout the building, along with assorted buckets turned over for seats. Ladling out cups of the mildly soporific tea, she picked up the thread of the conversation.
      "...the kale did better than expected; but we need it all now and there's no more seed. Too late to plant anyway," Tomma was saying.
      Karen, sitting in the deep chair that had belonged to old Mrs. Tomlinson, played with Allyn's fingers as he he lay in her lap. She looked up. "Won't matter. None of us can stay."
      All eyes turned to her.
      "Errol and Deela are techies and can confirm that Dr. Mary explained about this – and, and I used to read about it. Ridge, as we all know, was powered by a kind of small nuke. Most of what's been splashed is thorium-232. It emits alpha particles and turns into radium, and eventually stabilizes lead. Also there is some gamma."
      Vernie twirled the long Kentucky rifle by the edge of its brass buttplate on the floor before him. "So, what's that mean?"
      "You see how it is with Guchi; since he looked in the hole he's been throwing up, off and on, all day. He'll get better, but we won't know for how long. Already most of us don't live as long as in the old days. Dust, some of it too small to even see, is going to be coming down on our houses, the land, the Creek, and for many miles around, maybe for years. It will percolate into the soil, and get into the crops, the animals, the roots of trees: it will taint the very firewood. As we breathe, drink, and eat, it will become part of our teeth, our bones, and our flesh, and it will make the tiniest bits of our flesh grow awry."
      "You say it turns into lead." Wilson, sitting on a tall, upended bucket, put his feet out before him and put his hands behind his head. The Doctor's AA-12 lay at his feet. "How long does that take?"
      "Half the thorium will turn into lead in fourteen billion years."

    Everyone sat still, shocked.
      Deela, sitting in the hall doorway with half an eye on Bolo, Guchi, and other wounded lying beyond, spoke up quietly. "The sun itself will go out before that."
      Josep, on the couch, tightened his arm around Marleena's shoulder. "How long have we before we must go?"
      "There's a lot of this kind of thing in the air and water and soil – and us – already, from the Great Undoing." Karen tipped Allyn up into a half-sitting position, cupping his back with her hand. "It's part of why we don't live so long as the Elders did. We all know it's been hard to bring babies to term, and raise children to adulthood. And cancer hunts us all, all the time. It will take many generations to adapt, even if this hadn't happened here. And then there's other stuff – it's too hot to our south, and I think that's coming our way. More summers like the one we just had, and worse storms. But now that Ridge has been cut open to its heart, yesterday would not be too soon for us to all leave."
      "If anyone is pregnant, especially, then?" said Raoul from the front door. He looked into Nine-Ah's face as she came and stood beside him.
      "And children, of which there are so few; but this is bad for all of us. Yes, the pregnancies most of all."
      Billee missed the cup she was pouring by several inches as she stared; Krall jumped back. "Well, then, what are we waiting for?" Her voice cracked.
      Wilson, across the room from her, raised his eyebrows. "Uhh ... Bee?"
      "Of course, silly!" She put down the  ladle and reflexively covered her belly with her hands. "If this place is extra dangerous to babies, we gotta roll!"
      Several voices were raised at once. "Where?" asked Tomma over the din. "Where's going to be safer?"
      "We can head for Roundhouse for now," replied Josep. "Far enough? And there's no food there, any more than here."
      "We will need to go hundreds of kilometers at least," said Karen. "And we'll need to separate into smaller groups, so that we can more easily feed everyone on such game and forage as can be expected."
      "Yes," agreed Wilson, straightening up and rubbing his chin. "If any one group fails, there are still the others. But if we are all together, failure will be final for everyone."
      "Let's all go together to Roundhouse in the morning, then," offered Josep. "It will take about two days, maybe three with our wounded. You can be our guests there; hopefully no one else has found it yet."
      Scooping the half-sleeping Allyn to her shoulder, Karen stood up. "Be thinking of what to put in ponchos and blanket rolls. Some will be able to drag a travois – if anyone doesn't know what that is, we'll show you. We will bundle the kale and carry it on those till it runs out. . Winter is coming and with no certainty of food, it will be hard. Take what you will use, not what you'd like to have. Young Griff here knows what we brought from Ridge and can advise – right?"
      The boy grinned. "Right." 
      Karen looked round the room. "We can never return. But if we're careful how we travel, hopefully we can rendezvous. Perhaps – there will be a Creek again."