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 21, 2015

Epilogue

Epilogue

KAREN SHOOK herself awake – literally. One cannot carry enough blankets in a wet winter to make up for near-starvation. The fat from the pig had been a help – though she had decided not to tell the others that wild pigs accumulate more radionuclides than other animals.  We all have worries enough as it is.
      The clouds had broken for now, though. She could see that, beyond the edge of the tarp and the cedar branches. Leaving Allyn nesting in his cradleboard – a design that Errol had come up with that had but one shoulder strap – Karen slung her revolver and knife at her hip and crawled out to pee. At least now there were no mosquitoes.
      Griff, wrapped in an animal hide she hadn't seen before, stood up across the clearing and waggled the all-clear with his bow. His frosted breath hung in the air.
      Her morning business finished, Karen sought him out beneath his own cedar tree.
      She fondled the light gray fur. "What's that you're wearing?"
      "I dunno – dogskin? I found it lying on a log. It's really warm."
      "It's  wolfskin. Where was it?" Alarm prickled at her neck and shoulder.
      "Next clearing over – the way we're going."
      "Show me. And draw your bow." Karen unholstered the Sentinel.
      Griff, wondering what he could have done wrong, led the way.
      The light in the next clearing was bright enough to hurt Karen's eyes. Snow had fallen in the night on the mountains to their east, and these glowed with unaccustomed sunrise. Griff, arrow at the ready, surveyed the clearing as they both listened for any non-forest sounds, then gingerly stepped forward and stood upright, scanning ahead. He quickly withdrew and settled beside Karen, who had thumbed her hammer.
      "There's  meat  on the log now – right where I found the coat."
      "Shhh."
      For several minutes more, they listened. Nothing but a winter wren disturbed the morning.
      Karen whispered. "What ... what kind of meat?"
      "Deer. – hind leg!"
      An offering of some kind? "Go back absolutely quietly and get everyone up and armed. Defensive perimeter. Hop!" Her own whisper sounded like thunder in Karen's ears. Or was it her heart beating?
      Griff slipped quietly away. Water dripped from bracken down the back of Karen's neck. She should, of course, have gone with the boy. But the thought of venison! She hadn't tasted venison in too many days.
      Could Wilson have done this? They were the next valley over, so far as she knew. Couldn't be Josep's group, traveling along the Great River on the other side of Wilson. No, any Creeker would have whistled. This was a stranger – or perhaps an army, such as from Port Land, of whom the Roundhousers had warned. So many ways this could be a trap or a provocation.
      "Hey."
      The voice – a man's – came from the mountain alder copse across the clearing! Whoever it was had not moved since she and Griff had come – had perhaps watched them – might have her in his sights. Damn it! She was at a disadvantage in all the ways she could think of.
      "S'okay," said the voice, in a conversational tone. "I know ya got yer hammer back, I hear pretty good. How's 'bout ya get behind better cover, if it suits ya, and when ya're ready, I'll stand up empty-handed?"
      "Let me see hands first, then just stand up already." She eased her indexed finger inside the trigger guard.
      A tall man, bald, bearded, and tattooed, wearing a horsehide cloak, arose perhaps twenty meters away, among the leafless alders. He looked familiar – where could Karen have seen this man before? 
He was none of that sorry lot that had trooped south from Starvation Creek half a moon ago.
      "Five steps forward, then stop," Karen barked. If there were weapons at his feet, this would move him precious seconds away from them.
      The man complied, evidently quite relaxed. Karen held her front sight squarely in the groove of her rear sight, centered on the man's chest. Her finger rested lightly on the trigger. She drew a long, deep breath and exhaled, to slow the effect of her hammering heart on the sights. "Alone?"
      "Well, yeah, but don't take  my  word for it."
      "Wouldn't. What do you want here?" With an effort, she scanned all around for sounds and movement.  Peripheral vision,  her father had said,  is almost everything. See without looking.
      Someone was moving through brush, but she could tell who it was. Armon came heavily up to the right of her, bow at the ready. Errol, more quietly, appeared to her left.
      The man smiled and nodded." A little parley. Got some thoughts about yer line of travel."
      "Are you armed?" Karen asked.
      "Now you ask me. Well, back a ways where I can't get to 'em quick an' you can't find 'em, there's a pistol, a carbine, a bow, a quiver with nine arrows, and a knife. I do hope you'll regard the haunch as a gift, but will not seek to relieve me of my toys."
      "What's your parley?"
      "Well, yer three lil' tribes now, all goin' north. A while back I had a good talk with a dyin' kid from Port Land. He indicated things was hell here, hell there, and extra-special-hell north of there. If yer goin' Pilgrim, I c'n tell ya, can't get to Canuck Land from here."
      "What's 'extra hell' about north of Port Land?" asked Karen.
      "There was stuff back in th' day, place called Hanford."
      "Heard of it."
      "Cooked off. Bad. Ruint ever'thin from th' sea half way to Chicago. And if you think Hanford was bad –"
      "Can this guy be on th' level?" whispered Armon.
      Still not taking her eyes off her sights, Karen replied, "Yes. I remember the maps."
      ".– Chicago actually glows. Kinda like the top of Starvation Ridge."
      "What do you know about Ridge?"
      "Well, I'll tell ya. I'm th' one lit it off, with yer boy Mr. Avery Murchison, may he rest in 'ternal peace."
      "You were there?"
      "Yes'm, had business with Old Magee, may he rest in 'ternal hell."
      "How did he die?"
      "Magee? Three-fifty-seven to the face, actually, ma'am."
      "That's good to know."
      "Yes, ma'am, that it is."
      "And ... how did Avery die?"
      "Ma'am, Magee messed him up and he chose to go down with th' ship, as it were."
      "Damn it!" Karen had known this in her stomach, but to hear it was another thing, she realized. During their stay at Roundhouse, she'd told of the demise of the last Elders; everyone had been struck with this same despair.
      "Sorry, ma'am."
      "Wait! I know you!"
      The stranger seemed hesitant. "Where would we have met? You aren't th' ... I mean, don't look familiar to me."
      "You're the man who ran away – after your army was defeated." She twitched her left side toward him for emphasis. "I believe you did this."
      "Oh, were you in that fight? You're  good. Well, yeah, they was all walkin' dead by then. I saw a way to live, so I had a go. But, uhh, yeah, it bothers me. Kinda why I'm here, maybe."
      "I don't see the connection."
      "Well, that's kinda my business. As I useta say, 'only th' livin' deserve ta live.' So, anyways, man said, put th' ray gun on home plate an' go; I offered t'bring him out, but he was set on stayin'. Said if I had anythin' ta say, say it to a one-armed girl."
       To me?  "You ... why would Avery even talk to you? Did he know who you are?"
      The big man's rough features softened even more. "Well, enough to guess, but he c'd see I meant to, ahh, change my ways some."
      "We'll ... we'll take that into consideration. So, you've ..."
      The man's body relaxed.
      "Stand up straight! I might just shoot you yet."
      "Why, yes, ma'am."
      "Well ... so, you've, you've warned us off going Pilgrim; do you ... do you have a recommendation?"
      "Me, I'd go East. Cross over, head south. Ask around for th' Prinevilles. I think yer man there, th' big one, has got folks there."
      "They'd be  alive, then?" asked Armon, incredulous.
      "Yeah, th' Prinevilles'r not big on eatin' captives any more, they're gettin' better at runnin' cows. Th' chief man, Mr. Lacey, he's a man of his word, so they are in service, an' good service as such things go." The man spread his hands. "Arms gettin' tired; answer y'other question holdin' onto a coupla trees?"
         Karen's arm was getting tired, too. The sights were wobbling again.  "What other question? Umm, yes, you may."
      The long hands grasped two small alders. "Thanks. 'What's in it fer you?' Nothin's in it fer me fer th' time bein'. Y'all've had it rough, I've had it rough. Thought maybe I'd head East too."
      "Not with us."
      "Didn't ask, did I? So, I'd like go away from here fer now. I'll move real slow. Rest of that doe is hangin' by th' creek down behind me."
      "We'll leave and count to one hundred. Then we'll come back and clear the area. Take that leg. We'll leave the wolfskin here, too,  when we pack up."
      "No, seriously, you  need  th' meat; skin too. Gonna snow. Hard. Oh! Uh, inside th' mountain, didya meet a suit?"
      "What?"
      "Sort of suit of old Army 'future warrior' armor, lotta Kevlar, carbon whatsit, big old shotgun."
      "The ... woman? Yes."
      "She get away?"
      "She's dead."
      "That  so  makes my day. I thank you from th' bottom of my heart."
      Karen did not know what to make of this. "We ... we're going now."
      "'K. I'll be gone when ya get back. Try th' meat on yer puppy, then you'll know it's okay." A disconcerting smile spread over his features.
      Karen retreated, lowering the twenty-two's hammer with her thumb. Her arm ached. Armon and Errol covered her, backing into the frost-burned bracken slowly.
    Griff met Karen at the edge of camp, bow drawn, watching the woods. "So, I'm sorry about the skin and all. Wasn't thinking."
      Karen holstered the revolver.. What was that sound?  

    One of Griff's sisters sat under the tarp, holding little Allyn. Was he  crying? A good sign was just what Karen needed just now. If only Billee, Juanita, and Marleena could share in this! But they were with Wilson and Josep's groups, of course. Soon enough, if he proved to be up to it, she'd have to train the child to be silent on command, perhaps. And to be many other things: stealthy, resilient, resourceful, aware. She started in the direction of the cry.
      "So, can I keep it?" Griff spoke behind her.
      She turned. "Yes. Yes, I think that will be fine. Errol and Armon will bring in the meat. In future, you find anything like that – and ... and I think you will – just report it right away, all right?"
      "Right!"
      The sky began to darken. They looked up.
      One snowflake, then another, and then another, drifted down from the featureless clouds and settled, infinitesimal diamonds, on the long green hands of the cedar.