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DIES THE FIRE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER TWO:

Hopping Toad Tavern, Corvallis, Oregon

Tuesday, March 17th, 1998

6:14:30 p.m. Pacific Time—Change Minus Thirty Seconds

 

"On a bright Beltane morning

I rise from my sleep

And softly go walking

Where the dark is yet deep

And the tall eastern mountain

With its stretch to the sky

Casts a luminous shadow

Where my true love doth lie—"

 

Juniper Mackenzie dropped her guitar at the intolerable white spike of pain driving into her eyes, but she managed to get a foot underneath it before it hit the floor. Shouts of alarm gave way to groans of disappointment from the crowd in the Hopping Toad as the lights and amplifier stayed off.

Woah! she thought. Goddess Mother-of-All! That hurt!

But it was gone quickly too, just the memory and no lingering ache. There was a flashlight in her guitar case; she reached in and fumbled for it, searching by touch in complete blackness, with only a fading gray gloaming towards the front of the café—the sun was just down behind the Coast Range. The batteries were fresh, but nothing happened when she thumbed the switch except a click, more felt through her thumb than heard.

Wait a minute. There's nothing coming in the front windows from the streetlights! And they went on five minutes ago. It's as dark as a yard up a hog's butt.

She could hear a tinkling crash, and shouts, faint with distance. This isn't a blown fuse. Plus every dog in Corvallis was howling, from the sound of it.

"Well, people, it must be a power failure," she said, her trained singer's voice carrying through the hubbub and helping quiet it. "And in a second, our good host Dennis will—"

The flick of a lighter and then candlelight broke through the darkness, looking almost painfully bright. The Toad was a long rectangle, with the musician's dais at the rear, the bar along one side and a little anteroom at the front, where a plate-glass window gave on to Monroe Avenue. The evening outside was overcast, damp and mildly chilly; which in the Willamette valley meant it could have been October, or Christmas.

With the streetlights out, the whole town of Corvallis, Oregon, must be dark as the proverbial porker's lower intestine. There were more crashes, a few more shouts, and more sounds of bending metal and tinkling glass, and the chorus of howls gave way to ragged barking.

Dennis at the bar was a friend of hers; he got her drinks for free, not to mention gigs like this now and then. Wearily she cursed her luck; it was a pretty good crowd for a weekday, too; mostly students from OSU, with some left-over hippies as well—most of the Valley towns had some, though Corvallis wasn't swarming with them the way Eugene was—and they'd all given a good hand to the first two tunes.

She'd been on a roll, hitting the songs the way they were meant. And if this power-out hadn't happened, she'd have made a decent night's take for doing the thing she liked best in all the world. There were already a scattering of bills in the open guitar case at her feet for gravy.

More candles came out, and people put them in the wrought-iron holders along the scrubbed brick walls—ornamental usually, but perfectly functional, hand-made by Dennis' elder brother John. Who was a blacksmith, and even more of a leftover hippie than Dennis was. In a few minutes, the tavern was lit brightly enough that you could have read, if you didn't mind eyestrain.

The waxy scent of the candles cut through the usual patouchli-and-cooking odors of the Toad; the stoves were all gas, so food kept coming out. Juniper shrugged and grinned to herself.

"Well, you don't have to see all that well to listen," she called out. "It's the same with music as with drink: Se leigheas na poite ol aris. The cure is more of the same!"

That got a laugh; she switched to her fiddle and gave them a Kevin Burke tune in six-eight time, one of the ones that had enchanted her with this music back in her early days. The jig set feet tapping and the craic flowing; when she'd finished she got out her seven-string and swung into her own version of The Gypsy Rover; the audience started joining in the choruses, which was always a good sign.

Maybe being in a mild emergency together gave them more fellow-feeling. Some people were leaving, though... and then most of them came back, looking baffled and frustrated.

"Hey, my car won't start!" one said, just as she'd finished her set. "There's a couple of cars stopped in the road, too."

Off in the distance came an enormous whump sound not quite like anything she'd ever heard. Half a second later the ground shook, like a mild compressed earthquake, or standing next to someone when they dropped an anvil.

"What the hell was that?" someone shouted.

"Looks like a big fire downtown, but there aren't any sirens!"

The hubbub started again, people milling around; then two young men in fleece vests came in. They were helping along an older guy; he had an arm over each shoulder, and his face was streaming with blood.

"Woah!" she said, jumping down from the dais. "Hey there! Let me through—I know some first-aid."

By the time she got there Dennis had the kit out and the two students had the injured man sitting down in one of the use-polished wooden chairs. One of the waitresses brought a bowl of water and a towel, and she used it to mop away the blood.

It looked worse than it was; head wounds always bled badly, and this was a simple pressure-cut over the forehead, heading a ways back up into the scalp. The man was awake enough to wince and try and pull away as she dabbed disinfectant ointment on the cut and did what she could with bandages. Dennis put a candle in her hand; she held it in front of one of the man's eyes, and then another.

Maybe the left is a little less responsive than the right, she thought.

The man blinked, but he seemed to be at least minimally aware of where he was. "Thanks," he said, his voice slurred. "I was driving fine, and then there was this flash and my car stopped. Well, the engine did, and then I hit a streetlamp—"

"I think this guy needs to get to hospital," she said. "He might have a concussion, and he probably ought to have a couple of stitches."

Dennis looked sad at the best of times; he was a decade and change older than her, in his late forties, and going bald on top with a ponytail behind. As if to compensate he had a bushy soup-strainer mustache and muttonchops in gray-streaked brown, and big mournful russet-brown eyes.

He always reminded her of the Walrus in Alice, even more so given his pear-shaped body, big fat-over-muscle arms and shoulders and an impressive gut. Now he turned his great hands palm-up.

"Phone's out," he said. "Shit, Juney, everything's out."

Juniper swallowed. "Hey!" she called. "Has anyone got a working car? A motorbike? Hell, a bike?"

That got her some yeses; it was a safe bet, right on the edge of a university campus. "Then would you get over to the clinic and get someone to come?"

Another student went out, a girl this time. Juniper looked around at a tug on her arm. It was Eilir, her daughter—she'd be fourteen next week, scrawny right now to her mother's slimness. She had the same long straight-featured face and the same pale freckled skin, but the promise of more height, and hair black as a raven's wing. Her eyes were bright green, wide now as her fingers flew.

Juniper had been using Sign since the doctors in the maternity ward told her Eilir would never hear; by now it was as natural as English.

I saw a plane crash, Mom, Eilir signed. A big plane; a 747, I think. It came down this side of the river—right downtown.

Are you sure? Juniper replied. It's awful dark.

I saw bits of it after it hit, the girl signed. There's a fire, a really big fire.

Dennis Martin knew Sign almost as well as Juniper did—mother and daughter had been through regularly for years, when Juniper could get a gig like this, and for the RenFaire and the Fall Festival. She knew he had a serious thing for her, but he'd never been anything but nice about it not being mutual; he was even polite to her boyfriend-cum-High Priest Rudy, and he really liked Eilir.

Now their eyes met.

I don't like the sound of this at all, Dennis signed. Let's go look.

Juniper did, with a sinking feeling like the beginnings of nausea. If there was a fire raging in downtown Corvallis, where were the sirens? It wasn't a very big town, no more than fifty thousand or so.

The brick building that held the Hopping Toad was three stories, a restored Victorian like most of the little city's core, built more than a century ago when the town prospered on shipping produce down the Willamette to Portland.

They went up a series of narrow stairs until they were in the attic loft Dennis used for his hobbies, woodworking and tooling leather. Amid the smell of glue and hide and shavings they crowded over to the dormer window; that pointed south, and the other side of Montrose was Oregon State University campus, mostly grass and trees.

The two adults crowded into the narrow window-seat; Dennis snatched up a pair of his binoculars that Eilir had left there. After a moment he began to swear; she took the glasses away from him and then began to swear too. There was a fire over towards downtown, a big one, flames towering into the sky higher than any of the intervening buildings. It was extremely visible because there wasn't a streetlight on, and hardly any lit windows, nor a moving car.

She could see the distinctive nose of a 747 silhouetted against the flames, pointing skyward as if the plane had hit, broken its back, and then skidded into something that canted the front section into the air. She could even see the FedEx logo painted on its side.

"Lord Sun!" Juniper whispered, tracing a pentagram in the air before her, starting with the lower left point—the Banishing sign against evil. "Great Goddess gentle and strong!"

The fire was getting worse, the light ruddy on her face. She knew she ought to be running out there and trying to help, but the sight paralyzed her. It didn't seem real, but it was; a jumbo jet had plowed right into the center of this little university town in the middle of the Willamette Valley.

"Looks like it came down on the other side of Central Park," he said, holding out a hand for the glasses.

"Sweet Goddess, it looks like it came down around Monroe and 4th!" she replied, drawing a map in her head. They looked at each other, appalled: that was right in the middle of downtown.

I hope the Squirrel and the Peacock didn't get hit, she found herself thinking, absurdly—both nightspots booked a lot of live music. Then she shook her head angrily.

"There must be hundreds hurt," she said. Hundreds dead, more like, her mind insisted on telling her. "And where are the emergency people?"

"Trying to get their ambulances and fire-trucks to work," Dennis said; there was a grim tone to his voice she'd seldom heard before. "Check your watch."

Juniper blinked, but did as he asked, pulling it out of her vest pocket where it waited at the end of a polished chain of fine gold links. She was wearing a sort of pseudo-Irish-cum-Highlander costume, billowy-sleeved peasant shirt and lace cravat and fawn-colored waistcoat with a long tartan skirt below and buckled shoes, what she thought of privately as her Gael-Girl outfit. The watch was an old one, from her mother's father; she clicked the cover open.

"Working fine," Dennis said, as she tilted it to catch the firelight. "But mine ain't. It's digital."

He turned and switched to Sigh. How about yours, Eilir?

It's an electric, she signed. Quartz. It's stopped.

"And stopped at just the same time as that one on the wall over there," he said, signing as he spoke. "Six fifteen."

"What's happening?" Juniper said, signing it and then running her hands through her long fox-red hair.

"Damned if I know," Dennis said. "Only one thing I could think of."

At her look, he swallowed and went on: "Well, an EMP could take out all the electrical stuff, or most of it, I think—but that would take a fusion bomb going off."

Juniper gave an appalled hiss. Who could be nuking Oregon, of all places? Last time she looked the world had been profoundly at peace, at least as far as big countries with missiles went.

"But I don't think that's it. That white flash, I don't think it was really light—it didn't come from anywhere, you know? Suzie at the bar, she was looking out at the street, and I was halfway into the kitchen, and we both saw pretty much the same thing."

That's right, Eilir signed. It wasn't a flash, really. Everything just went white and my head hurt, and I was over by that workbench with my back to the window.

"Well, what was it, then?" her mother said.

"I don't have fucking clue one about what it was," Dennis said. "But I've got this horrible feeling about what whatever-it-was did."

He swallowed and hesitated. "I think it turned the juice off. The electricity. Nothing electrical is working. That for starters."

Dennis shuddered; she'd never seen an adult do that before, but she sympathized right now. A beefy arm waved out the window.

"Think about it. No cars—sparkplugs and batteries. No lights, no computers, nothing. And that means no water pressure in the mains pretty soon, and no sewage, and—"

"Mother of All,"Juniper blurted. "The whole town could burn down! And those poor people on the 747—"

She imagined what it must have been like at thirty thousand feet, and then her mind recoiled from it back to the here-and-now.

And Rudy was flying out of Eugene tonight, she thought, appalled. If the same thing happened there—

"We have to do something," she said, pushing aside the thought, and led them clattering down the stairs again.

And we can only do it here. Think about the rest later.

"People!" she said over the crowd's murmur, and waved her hands. "People, there's a plane crashed right downtown, and a fire burning out of control. And it looks like all the emergency services are out. They're going to need all the help they can get. Let's get what we can scrape up and go!"

Most of them followed her, Dennis swearing quietly, a bucket in one hand and a fire-axe over the other shoulder; Juniper snatched up a kerosene lantern. Eilir carried the restaurant's first-aid kit in both arms, and others had snatched up towels and stacks of cloth napkins and bottles of booze for disinfectants.

She needed the lantern less and less as they got closer to the crash site. Buildings were burning across a swath of the town's riverside quarter, ending—she hadn't gotten her wish, and the fire covered the Squirrel's site. Heat beat at them, and towers of sparks were pouring upward from the old Victorians and warehouses.

If the plane was out of Portland, it would have been carrying a lot of fuel...

The streets were clogged with people moving westward away from the fire, many of them hurt, and they were blocked with stopped autos and trucks and buses too. Ruddy firelight beat at her face, with heat and the sour-harsh smell of things not meant to burn.

"OK," she said, looking at the... refugees, she thought. Refugees, right here in America!

First aid could make the difference between life and death, stopping bleeding and stabilizing people until real doctors or at least paramedics got here.

"We're not going to do any good trying to stop that fire by hitting it with wet blankets. Let's help the injured."

She looked around. There was a clear stretch of sidewalk in front of a hardware store where a delivery truck had rammed into the next building down; its body slanted people out into the road like a wedge.

"We'll set up here. Dennis, see if there's any bedding anywhere around here, and a pharmacy—and anyplace selling bottled water."

He lumbered off, followed by some of his customers. The others started shouting and waving to attract attention, and then guiding the injured towards her. Juniper's stomach clenched as she saw them: this was serious, there were bleeding slashes from shattered glass, and people whose clothes were still smoldering. Her head turned desperately, as if help could be found...

Nobody's going to benefit if you start crying, she thought sternly, and traced the pentacle in the air again—the Summoning form this time, all she had time for.

Goddess, in Your form as Brigid the Healer, help me now!

"You," she said aloud; a young man had pushed a bicycle along as they came. "You ride over to the hospital, and tell them what we're doing. Get help if they can spare it. Hurry!"

He did, dashing off. The first-aid kit was empty within minutes; Dennis came back, with a file of helpers carrying mattresses, sheets, blankets, and cardboard boxes full of Ozonenal, pain-killers and whatever else looked useful from the plunder of a fair-sized dispensary; a pharmacist in an old-fashioned white coat came with him.

"Let's get to work," she said, giving Dennis a quick hug.

The best part of an hour later, Juniper paused and looked up in the midst of ripping up volunteered shirts for bandages. The fireman was incredibly reassuring in his rubbers and boots and helmet, an axe in his hand; half a dozen others were following him, two carrying someone else on a stretcher.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, pausing; the others filed on past him.

Juniper bristled a little and waved at the injured people lying in rows on the sidewalk. "Trying to help!" she snapped. "What are you doing, mister?"

"Fuck-all," he said, but nodded approval; his face was running with sweat and soot; he was a middle-aged man with a jowly face and a thick body.

"What's wrong?"

"Our trucks won't work, our portable pumps won't work, and the pressure is off in the mains! Died down to a trickle while we manhandled a hose down here and got it hitched. The pumping stations that lift from the Taylor treatment plant on the river are down and the reservoirs 've all drained. We can't even blow fire lanes—our dynamite won't explode! So now what we're doing is making sure everyone's out of the way of a fire we can't stop. Lady, this area's going to fry, and soon."

Juniper looked up at the flames; they were nearer now, frighteningly so—she'd lost track in the endless work.

"We've got to get these people out of here!" she said. "A lot of them can't walk any further."

"Yeah," the fireman said. "We'll have to carry them out—the hospital's got an emergency aid station set up on the campus. We're using runners and people on bicycles to coordinate. Hey, Toni!"

A policeman stood not far away, writing on a pad; he handed it to a boy standing astride a bike, and the teenager sped off, weaving between cars and clots of people.

"Ed?" the policeman said; he looked as tired and desperate as the firefighter.

"We've got to move these injured over to the aid station."

The policeman nodded twice, once to the fireman and once to her, touching a hand to his cap. Then he turned and started shouting for volunteers; dozens came forward. The walking-wounded started off westward into the darkened streets, most of them with a helper on either side

"These mattresses will do for stretchers," Dennis said; he'd gotten them out of nearby houses and inns. "Or better still, cut off the top covers and the handles and use them that way. Hey, you, you, you—four men to a mattress. Walk careful, walk in step!"

The firefighters helped organize, then carried off the last of the worst-wounded themselves. Juniper took a long shuddering breath through a mouth dry as mummy-dust. Dennis handed her a plastic bottle with a little water left in it, and she forced herself not to gulp it all down. Instead she took a single mouthful and handed it on to Eilir; the girl looked haunted, but she was steady save for a quiver in the hands now and then.

Goddess, she's a good kid, Juniper thought, and hugged her.

It was about time to get out themselves; the fires were burning westward despite a wind off the Coast Range—and thank the Goddess for that, because if it had been blowing from the east half the city would be gone by now, instead of just a quarter.

Shouts came from across the street, and a sound of shattering glass. The musician looked up sharply. Half a dozen young men—teens or early twenties—had thrown a trash container through a storefront window; they were scooping jewelry out of the trays within, reaching through the coarse mesh of the metal screen inside the glass.

The policeman cursed with savage weariness and drew his pistol; Juniper's stomach clenched, but they had to have order or things would be even worse than they were.

I hope he doesn't have to shoot anyone, she thought.

Most of the looters scattered, laughing as they ran, but one of them threw something at the approaching policeman. Juniper could see the looter clearly, down to the acne scars and bristle-cut black hair and the glint of narrow blue eyes. He wore baggy black sweats and ankle-high trainers, and a broad belt that glittered—made from chain mesh. Gold hoops dangled from both ears.

"Clear out, goddamitt!" the cop shouted hoarsely, and raised the pistol to fire in the air. "I'm not kidding!"

Fumph.

Juniper blinked in surprise. She'd heard firearms often enough—she didn't particularly like them but a woman living alone with her daughter on the road was well-advised to keep a pistol, and she'd taken a course to learn how to use it safely.

And that wasn't what they sounded like. Far too soft and blurry a sound, and the muzzle flash was wrong too—a vague reddish cloud shooting out in a sparking cloud for seconds after the discharge, rather than a brief, bright spear of hot flame.

The policeman evidently thought it was odd too; this time there was an air of real fear as nothing happened when he squeezed the trigger again. Juniper wasn't surprised; no shell had ejected, either. He jacked the slide of the automatic back and fired into the air once more.

Fumph.

Again a roman-candle effect from the muzzle; he worked the slide to eject the spent cartridge and tried a third time—and now he was aiming at the thin-faced youth, who was beginning to smile. Two of his fellow-looters hadn't fled either. They all looked at each other, and their smiles grew into grins.

Fumph.

The bullet fell with an audible tick on the pavement less than ten feet away.

One of them pulled a pistol of his own from behind his back, and pointed it at the lawman; it was a snub-nosed revolver, light and cheap. He pulled the trigger.

Fumph.

This time the reddish cloud spurted from the join of cylinder and barrel as well as from the muzzle, enclosing the shooter's hand in a burning cloud. He yelped and tossed it aside, flexing his right hand. Then he shrugged, evidently not badly burned, and pulled a tire-iron from his belt instead. The youth with the chain belt unhooked it and swung it from his left hand. Something else came into his right, and he made a quick figure-eight motion of the wrist.

Metal clattered on metal and a blade shone in the firelight. She recognized the type, a Balisong folding gravity knife—if you hung around Society types like Chuck Barstow, you overheard endless talk about everything from broadswords to fighting knives, like it or not.

The banger wasn't a sporting historical type like the Society knights. He walked forward, stepping light on the balls of his feet, rolling the knife over his knuckles and back into his palm with casual ease. The other man flanking him was a hulking giant with a bandana around his head; he picked up a baseball bat from the sidewalk and smacked the head into his left palm. The full-sized Louisville Slugger looked like a kid's toy in his hand.

The policeman was backing up and looking around as he drew his nightstick. He was twenty years older than any of the three men walking towards him, and nobody else was left this close to the fires; the roaring of their approach was loud, and it was chokingly hot.

"Oh, hell," Dennis said. "Now I gotta do something really stupid."

He picked up the fire axe he'd brought from the Hopping Toad and walked out towards the policeman.

Juniper swallowed and looked around her, then at the storefront behind them. They'd broken it open for the tools they needed; she made a quick decision and dashed inside, taking the lantern with her. She hesitated at the axes and machetes and shovels... but she wasn't sure she could hit a human being with one, even if she had to. Instead she picked a bare axe helve out of a rack of them, giving thanks that redevelopment hadn't gotten this far yet and turned the place into a wine bar or an aromatherapy salon.

Stay here, she signed to Eilir. Get out the back way if you have to.

Then she turned and dashed out into the street; the firelight had gotten appreciably brighter in the few seconds it had taken. Dennis and the policeman were backed up against the pickup, and there was a turmoil of motion around them as the three street-toughs feinted and lunged.

No time to waste on subtlety or warnings, she thought.

Especially not when all her potential opponents were stronger than she was, and would probably enjoy adding rape to theft and murder.

She ran forward, her steps soundless under the bellow of the fire that was only a block away now and both hands firmly clamped on the varnished wood. Dennis gave her aay simply by the way his eyes went wide as he stared over his opponent's shoulder.

The man with the tire-iron was turning when she hit him; instead of the back of his head, the hardwood cracked into the side of it, over the temple. Juniper Mackenzie wasn't a large woman—five-three, and slim—but she'd split a lot of firewood in her thirty years, and playing guitar professionally needed strong hands. The unpleasant crunching feel of breaking bone shivered back up the axe-handle into her hands, and she froze for a moment, knowing that she'd probably killed a man.

I didn't mean it! she thought, staring as he dropped with a boneless limpness.

Dennis had different reflexes, or perhaps he'd merely had enough adrenaline pumped into his system by the brief lethal fight. He punched the head of the axe into the gut of the giant with the baseball bat, and followed up with a roundhouse swing that would have taken an arm off at the shoulder if the big man hadn't thrown himself backward with a speed surprising in someone that size.

The blade scored his left arm instead of chopping it, and he fled clutching it and screaming curses; he sounded more angry than hurt. His smaller friend with the Balisong ran backward away from the suddenly long odds, the flickering menace of his knife discouraging thoughts of pursuit.

He halted a dozen paces away, his eyes coldly unafraid; they were an unexpected blue, slanted in a thin amber-colored face. Juniper met them for an instant, feeling a prickle down her neck and shoulders.

"Yo, bitch!" he called, shooting out his left hand with the middle finger pointing at her. "Chico there was a friend of mine. Maybe we'll meet again, get to know each other better. My name is Eddie Liu—remember that!"

Then he looked over Juniper's shoulder, shrugged, turned and followed his bigger friend in a light, bounding run.

She turned to see Eilir coming up with an axe handle of her own, and her gaze went back to her friend and the policeman.

"Either of you hurt?" she said.

Dennis leaned back against the wrecked truck, shaking his head and blowing like a walrus, his heavy face turned purple-red and running sweat beyond what the gathering heat would have accounted for. The policeman had a bleeding slash across the palm of his left hand where he'd fended off the Balisong.

Juniper tossed down her axe-handle, suddenly disgusted with the feel of it, and helped him bandage his wound. Out of the corner of her eye she was conscious of Dennis recovering a little, and dragging off the body of the man she'd...

Hit. I just hit him. I had to, she thought. I really had to.

She was still thankful he did it, and avoided looking at the damp track the bobbing head left on the pavement.

"You folks ought to get out of here," the policeman said. "I've got to get to the station and find out what's going on. Go home if you're far enough from the fire, or head up to campus if you're not.

He walked away, limping slightly and holding his injured left hand against his chest; the nightstick was ready in his right. Juniper pulled her daughter to her and held her, shivering. She looked into Dennis' eyes; her friend wasn't quite as purple now, but he looked worse somehow.

They started up Monroe, heading back towards the Hopping Toad in silence. Dennis stopped for an instant, picked up the revolver of the looter she'd... hit... and weighed it in one big beefy hand. Then he took out a handkerchief, wrapped it around his hand for protection, pointed the weapon towards a building and pulled the trigger five times.

Fumph. Fumph. Fumph. Fumph. Fumph.

"Remember what the fireman said?" Juniper said quietly. "About the dynamite not working?"

None of the bullets made it to the wall twenty feet away, and by the time Dennis was finished he was half-surrounded by a sparkling reddish cloud that gradually drifted away on the wind. There was a faint hissing, spitting sound.

"You know," he said in his mild voice, picking up an undamaged bullet from the pavement near his feet, "I never really liked guns. Not dead set against 'em like John, but I never liked 'em. But... y'know, Juney, I've got this feeling we're going to miss them. Pretty bad."

 

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Copyright © 2003-2004 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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