She's sinking fast, Havel thought, as he scrabbled at the restraining belts that held him into the pilot's seat.
Got to get out! Out!
"Mom's hurt, mom's hurt!" a voice shouted, almost screamed; Signe Larsson, he thought. "She can't move!"
The interior of the plane was dark as a coffin, groaning and tilting, popping a sbits of metal gave way. The gurgling inrush of water was cold enough to feel like burning when it touched skin.
Oh, hell, Havel thought, as he reached across to the copilot's seat; Kenneth Larsson was hanging in his harness, unconscious.
A quick hand on the throat felt a pulse. Just what we fucking needed. Getting this limp slab of beef out in time wasn't going to be easy.
"Calm down and get the belts off her," he said, as he unhitched the elder Larsson; the flexing weight slid into his arms, catching on things in the dark, and the water was up to his waist. A little more light—more of a lighter blackness—came through the rear hatch, which Eric Larsson had aparently gotten open. The cat was screeching in its box...
A thin sound cut through it, like a rabbit squealing in a trap. Havel's teeth skinned back unseen; he'd heard that sound before, from a man badly wounded.
Signe Larsson shouted: "Oh, God, Mom's hurt inside, something's broken, I can't move her—"
"Get her out now or you'll both fucking drown!" he snapped.
The floor of the plane was tilting ever steeper; probably only the buoyancy of the wing tanks was keeping it from going straight to the bottom.
"Out, out, out!" he shouted. "Now!"
She must have obeyed; at least he didn't run into anyone when he scrambled into the passenger compartment himself and pulled the inert form of her father through behind him. Mary Larsson probably weighed a good bit less than her strapping tennis-and-field-hockey daughter. Kenneth Larsson's frame carried nearly a hundred pounds more than the pilot's one-seventy-five.
Contortions in the dark got Larsson's solid weight across his back, with an arm over his shoulder and clamped in his left hand to keep him from slipping back, and Havel began crawling forward with the rising water at his heels; it was more like climbing with the plane going down by the nose.
Breath wheezed between his teeth; he'd pay for it later, but right now legs and right arm worked like pistons, pushing him up past the four seats—thank God it was a small plane.
When he got to the doorway a hand came back and felt around; he put it on Larsson's collar, and the man's son hauled away, dragging the infuriating weight off Havel's back and out into the night as Havel boosted from below. That was fortunate, because just then the inrushing water won its fight, and the Chieftain sank with its nose straight down.
"Christ Jesus!" Havel shouted, forcing down panic as a solid door-sized jet of icy water smashed into him, nearly tearing his hand free of its grip on the hatchway; the torrent continued for an instant, and then he was submerged and weightless—floating, as the plane sank towards the bottom.
He felt the jarring thud as the nose struck the tumbled rocks at the bottom of the mountain river.
Don't get disoriented now or you will die, he told himself grimly, hanging onto the hatch; he arched his head upward, and there was a small air bubble trapped in the tail space back of the hatch—above the hatch, now. He coughed water out of his lungs and took three deep fast breaths in blackness so absolute it was like cold wet rubber pressed against his eyes.
He thought the tail was still pointing up—the current would probably flip the little ship over on her back in a second or two, though.
Get the hell out of here, gyrene, he told himself.
It was still hard to pull his face out of the illusory safety of the bubble. He did, and then jerked himself through the hatch, pushing upward with all the wiry strength of his legs. The cold gnawed inward; water like this would kill you in ten minutes or less, and his sodden coat pulled at him. His head broke the surface with a gasp, and the moonlight was like a flare after the sunken plane.
"Over here!" he heard; Astrid Larsson's voice, and then her sister Signe joining her. "Over here! Dad, Eric, over here!"
They were calling from the north bank about twenty feet away; he couldn't make much of it out, except a looming shadow, but he struck out in that direction, forcing limbs to move. The current was pulling at him too; he fought it doggedly. When he got close enough the girls held out sticks to him; he ignored them, clamped a hand on the trunk of a providential fallen pine, and levered himself up.
"Eric, Eric!" one of the Larsson girls called.
He turned his head; Eric Larsson was right behind him, sculling on his back with his father floating alongside on his back, held in an efficient looking one-armed clamp. Havel turned to help him haul the dead weight out of the water, grunting through the chattering of his teeth.
"Good work, kid," he said, as they pulled the older man up the slope and onto a ledge a little above the water, laying him down beside his wife.
Didn't think you had it in you, he didn't add.
"Senior year swim team," the boy stuttered. "Signe too. God, God, what's wrong with Mom?"
"Death from hypothermia, unless we get a fire started," Havel said; his fingers had gone numb and clumsy, and it was getting hard to make them work.
The temperature wasn't all that low, a couple of degrees below freezing, but they'd all been soaked to the skin by water as cold as water could get and not turn into solid ice; and a wet body lost heat twenty-five times faster than a dry one. Plus it was going to get a lot colder before sunrise.
He had a firestarter kit in one pocket of the jacket—it was the main reason he hadn't shed it. The place they'd landed was good as anything likely to be close-by, fairly dry and with a steep rise right behind it, even a bit of an overhang about twelve feet up. He gathered fir needles and leaves and twigs with hands that felt like flippers belonging to a seal a long way away, heaped them up and applied the lighter. Flames crackled, stuttered through the damp tinder, then caught solidly.
"Careful!" he said, as Signe Larsson came up with an armful of fallen branches. "One at a time. Check that they're not too damp first. Get more and stack it near the fire to dry out."
The fire grew, ruddy and infinitely comforting; he moved the two older Larssons to lie between it and the wall, where reflected heat would help a bit. As the light grew he tried to examine them as best he could; their children crowded around. The youngsters didn't have anything but scrapes and bruises, but the parents...
"Your dad's had a bad knock on the head," he said. "He'll be all right." I hope, he added to himself; a concussion was no joke.
Mrs. Larsson was a different story; semi-conscious, and shivering uncontrollably. He turned her head to the light. No concussion there, thank God for small mercies.
"Her right thighbone's broken," he said; despite the lightness of his touch on the swollen, discolored flesh she started with a squeal of pain.
Christ almighty, how did she manage that, strapped in? A major fucking fracture, joy and delight undiluted. Looks like the bone ends cut things up in there. At least nothing's poking through the skin.
"And her shoulder's dislocated. You two hold her."
They did; he grabbed shoulder and arm, and gave a quick strong jerk. The shoulder-joint went click as it slipped back into its socket; Mary Larsson's eyes turned up in her head, and she fainted. Which was probably all to the good, because there wasn't a thing on Earth he could do about a major fracture of the thigh here and now.
"No, don't build the fire any bigger," he said, looking up as Astrid came into sight doggedly dragging a small log. For a wonder, her cat was with her—out of his box, his orange fur slicked to his body, and looking extremely unhappy.
"You get more heat out of a couple of small fires than a big one," he explained; you couldn't get close enough to a bonfire to get the full benefit. "Start another one, there. Let's get going—"
He showed them what to do; build three medium-sized fires, and heap rocks close by on the river side of each blaze—when the stones had absorbed some heat they could be put around the injured couple, and in the meantime the rock would reflect some of the fire's warmth back towards them. For a wonder, there was plenty of fallen wood of about the right size to pile up in reserve; the only tool they had with them was his folding knife, and it wasn't much use as a woodchopper.
"Get the wet clothes off and prop them up on sticks to dry near the fires, like this," he said. "OK, cover up with these dry leaves and cuddle up close to your folks. The body heat will help. Got to get their core temperatures up or they'll go into shock."
By the time that everything was as close to finished as he could get it the numbness had faded, and he was just miserably cold. He looked at his watch—stopped at precisely 7:15—and then up at the stars, and the moon just clearing the heights to the south; maybe two hours since they'd hit. No point in delaying any further.
"Right, kid, let me have your jacket," he said with a sigh.
Eric Larsson had recovered a bit too, enough for physical misery to bring out irritation; his glare was sullen. "My name's not kid, and why do you want it?" he said.
Havel fought back an impulse to snap; it wouldn't help right now. "Because my sheepskin's too heavy," he said. "Eric. Yours is nylon and it won't get soaked, but I need it to hold some water next to my skin when I dive, I'll lose a little less body heat that way. It isn't a wetsuit but it's the best we've got."
The three youngsters stared at him. "Dive?" Signe Larsson said incredulously, her breath smoking out from the heap of leaves and needles where she huddled.
"Yeah, dive," he said, giving her a crooked smile, and jerked his head towards the black water that gurgled behind them. "The current could push the ship downstream overnight, and there's stuff in there we really need—the first-aid kit, and some emergency rations. We're a long way from anywhere, I'm afraid."
By dawn Mary Larsson was awake enough to drink some of the hot sweet chocolate. Her husband held her head up, bringing the tin cup to her lips with infinite tenderness until she turned her head away and slid back into semiconsciousness.
The morphine had taken effect, and the inflatable pressure-bandage that immobilized her thigh; they'd put one of the high-tech thin-sheet insulating waterproofs under her, over a bed of pine boughs, and slipped her into the sleeping bag of the same material. The rest of the Larssons were taking turns with the two remaining sheets, using them as cloaks while they huddled by the hearths.
Mike Havel squatted by one of the fires, concentrating on getting the last of the MRE out of the plastic pouch; then he wolfed down another chocolate bar and finished his cup of cocoa. That meant he'd put away about five thousand calories, and he'd need every one of them. It was barely forty with the sun well up; the south-facing riverside cliff caught a welcome amount of the light, but it was still damned uncomfortable in their damp clothes.
Signe was finishing her pouch, too, with no more than a muttered gross at the meat and the amount of fat. Havel gave her a wink as he finished and rose; she turned half away, spoon busy. The rations had been designed with heavy labor in mind, and the cold counted as that.
Her father started slightly as the pilot touched him on the arm. He'd been murmuring something. It sounded like: I'm sorry, Mary-girl, I'm so sorry. Havel pretended not to hear, and said softly:
"We have to talk, Mr. Larsson," he said, jerking his head slightly to make clear that he meant in private.
"Yeah," Larsson said. His face firmed a little as they walked a dozen paces upstream. "What the hell happened, Havel?"
"The engines cut out," he said. "So did every damn electrical system in the plane. I tried to restart her, but—" he shrugged.
Larsson sighed. "Water under the bridge," he said, then realized what he'd said, half-chuckled, and stopped with a wince. "Signe and Eric told me how you got me out, by the way, Mike. Thanks."
He held out his hand. Havel shook it briefly, embarrassed. "Part of the job, Mr. Larsson—"
"Ken. Couldn't leave you there, could I?"
Larsson managed a smile. "The hell you couldn't," he said. "All right, let's get down to business. I remember a white flash..."
"Me too, and your kids. That's not all, though."
He showed his watch; it was a rugged Sportsman's Special quartz model.
"This stopped. That might be an accident, but all your watches stopped at exactly the same time, just before we went down. I'd swear it was the same instant the engines died, too. The GPS unit in my survival pack is kaput, and I know that wasn't the water—everything in the pack came out of it dry—and it was secured and padded, too. The flashlight and electric firestarter and the radio and everything else electrical in the pack are dead as well. Nothing visibly wrong, they just don't work. What's the odds on all that stuff going out at exactly the same time?"
Larsson's heavy face went tight. "EMP?" he said.
"I don't think so," Havel said. "I don't know what the hell it was, though, but we're in deep shit. I know pretty well where we are—"
He brought out the map of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness; it was printed on waterproof synthetic silk, colorfast and wrinkle-resistant.
"Hereabouts." His finger touched down. "Here, just east of Wounded Doe Ridge, near as I can figure, and north of West Moose Creek."
They knelt, putting rocks to hold down the corners of the map.
"So we're not far from the State Centennial Trail, maybe twenty miles south as the crow flies. A lot longer on foot, of course, and most of it up and down."
Larsson nodded; he was a part-time outdoorsman too. "Goddamn, but my head feels thick... what do you think we should do?"
"Well—" Havel hesitated. "Normally—if there's such a thing as a normal crash—I'd say you and your wife and daughters stay here, Eric and I go out on foot and get help, and we send a helicopter to lift you out. There's not likely to be anyone on the Centennial Trail in March, but there's a ranger cabin with two-way radios along it and this sure as hell justifies breaking in. Two, maybe three days on foot for fit men pushing hard."
Larsson frowned and rubbed a hand over his face, the skin of his palm rasping on the silvery-gray stubble that coated his jowls.
"You don't want to do that?"
"Mr.—Ken—I checked that plane myself, and Steelhead has good mechanics. There wasn't something wrong with the ship; she was knocked out. And by the same thing that screwed our watches and the GPS in my pack. OK, so say, worst case, the radio at the cabin isn't working either."
Havel nodded: "That means sixty miles on foot out to US 12, after we get to the Centennial. Call that two days and nights and most of the next morning, carrying a stretcher; one long day and a half, again for fit men pushing real hard. Assuming we can get help there, that's a week or worse for you here—not much food even if we leave you all of it, and no shelter to speak of. The nights get real cold hereabouts in March and it could snow, snow hard. Plus if it gets warmer, the river could rise right to the cliff with smowmelt. If we got her out to the trail, at least there would be shelter and food."
He pushed down a whisper of cold apprehension. Of course we can get help on US 12. It's a goddamned major road, after all.
"Mary could die in a week here," Larsson said flatly. "But she could die if we try to move her. Over country like this, carrying her—"
Havel shrugged slightly. "And it'll be a lot more than three days to the ranger cabin, with a stretcher. Call it six. It could go bad either way. That fracture is ugly. I've got antibiotics in the kit, but it needs a doctor to go in and fix things. The swelling looks bad, too. Moving will hurt, and it'll be dangerous. But staying here for a week, cold and hungry—"
He spread his hands. "Your family—your call."
Larsson held out a hand. "Let me see your watch."
The older man turned it over and over; it had a thick tempered-glass casing set in stainless steel, and a set of tumblers in a row to show the day of the month.
"I know these. Good model." He sighed and handed it back. "Christ, there's no right decision here, but we can't sit around with our thumbs up our ass, either." He looked up at the streaked gray clouds. "We'll carry Mary out."
"Right," Havel said. It'll be a lot harder this way, but I'm glad he said that. "We'll rig a stretcher and I'll just test-fire the rifle while you break this to your kids."
Ten minutes later the pilot stared at the weapon in amazed disgust. "Now, this is just—" he cut himself off, aware of the audience.
"Maybe the bullets got wet," Signe Larsson said helpfully.
Michael Havel thought there was the hint of a smile around her lips for the first time since the accident; normally, he'd have enjoyed that, even if the humor was directed at him. Now he was too sheerly disgusted.
"They're waterproof," he said tightly. "And the case was sealed and dry when I opened it. And I fired rounds from the same batch day before yesterday on the range."
Kenneth Larsson held out a hand. "Let me have a round," he said. "And do you have a multitool with you?"
There was an authority in his voice that remined Havel that the older Larsson was more than a middle-aged fat man with plenty of money and bad family problems; he was also an engineer, and he'd managed a large business successfully for two decades.
Havel worked the bolt, caught the 7.62mm round as the ejector flicked it out, and flipped it to Larsson off thumb and forefinger like a tossed coin.
"This is a Leatherman," he added, handing over the multitool from his survival kit—something like a Swiss army knife on steroids, with a dozen blades and gadgets folding into the twin handles.
"Good make," Larsson replied. "I prefer the Gerber, though."
He took out his own, configured them both as pliers, and gripped one on the bullet and the other near the base of the cartridge case. Then he began to twist and pull, hands moving with precisely calculated force. When he'd finished he tossed the bullet aside and poured the propellant out on the dry surface of the rock.
"Looks OK," he said, wetting a finger and touching it to the small pile of offwhite grains to taste it. "If I remember my chemistry courses... yeah, dry and sharp. OK, let me have a splinter from the fire."
They all stood back a little. Larsson watched in fascination as the nitro powder flamed up with a sullen reddish fizzle.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said. "Did you see that, Mike?"
Havel caught himself before he answered Yessir. "I did. It looked... well, that explains why the round dribbled out the end like a spitball and fell at my ff... flaming feet."
Yes," Larsson said. "Whatever's happened, the stuff is slower-burning now. Not really explosive propagation at all—the bullet just pooped out of the muzzle, gas pressure next to nothing. I doubt it hit more than few dozen feet-per-second. Hand me another, would you?"
He repeated the process and returned Havel's Leatherman with an abstracted frown. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear this stuff wasn't nitro powder at all! It's not burning at anything like the rate it should be... but that's a physical constant!"
Havel felt his mouth go dry. "So's what happens inside a battery, or an electric circuit," he said.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the guns everywhere had stopped working?" Signe Larsson said softly.
Michael Havel stared at her for a moment, his face carefully blank; but he was thinking so hard he could hear
his own mental voice in his ears:
Girlie, if I were a bad guy and coming after you with evil intent, would you rather shoot me, or fight me hand-to-hand?
Something of the thought must have shown despite his effort at diplomatic calm; she turned a shoulder towards him and busied herself with wrapping her share of the group's load in a spare shirt before tying that across her back with the sleeves. Havel shook himself; once they got back to civilization, her opinions would mean even less than they did now. He removed the telescopic sight from the rifle and dropped it into a pocket of his sheepskin coat; it might come in useful. Then he recased the Remington and tucked it into a hollow in the rock face before covering it with stones.
Maybe it's useless now, he thought. He certainly wasn't going to lug an extra eleven pounds of useless weight through this up-and-down country. Still...
He wouldn't have admitted it aloud, but he just didn't like discarding a fine tool that had given him good service. His freezer back in Boise still had a fair bit of last fall's venison in it.
And maybe the freezer isn't working either, something whispered at the back of his head.
Making the stretcher wasn't too hard, now that he had the puukko—knife—and the saber-saw from his survival pack. Two ash saplings nearby had the right seven-foot length; he looped the flexible toothed cable around the base of one and began pulling the handles back and forth, careful not to go too fast and risk heating the metal. It fell in a dozen strokes, and the second went as easily.
A cable-saw was damned useful out in the woods and much lighter than a real saw or a hatchet, but if he had to choose he'd have taken the knife. The puukko was the Finnish countryman's universal tool, for everything from getting a stone out of a horse's hoof to skinning game to settling a dispute with the neighbors in the old days.
His was a copy of the one his great-grandfather had brought from Karelia a hundred years ago; eight inches in the blade, thick on the back, with a murderous point and a gently curving cutting edge on the other side; a solid tang ran through the rock-maple hilt to a brass butt-cap. There were no quillions or guard; those were for sissies.
Havel always thought of his father when he used it; one of his first toddler memories was watching him carve a toy out of white pine, the steel an extension of his big battered-looking hands.
He trimmed and barked the poles with the knife, and cut notches at either end for smaller sticks lashed across to keep the poles open—he had a big spool of heavy fishing line in his crash kit, light and strong. One of the groundsheets tied in made a tolerable base.
Mary Larsson woke while they were lifting her in the bag, conscious enough to whimper a little and then bite her lip and squeeze her eyes shut.
"Take a couple of these," he said, holding up her head so that she could wash down the industrial-strength painkillers. Even then, she managed to murmur thanks.
He looked thoughtfully at the bottle when she sighed and relaxed; he wasn't looking forward to running out of them... and Mary Larsson was likely to hurt worse as the days wore on. He'd had a broken leg once, and it was no joke, even when you were young and full of beans. At least she was doing her best, which was turning out to be considerable—the group's shaky morale would have been cut to ribbons by screaming and sobbing.
Then Havel sacrificed her coat to rig padded yokes at the front and rear of the stretcher, and to wrap the rough wood where the carriers' hands would go; he had good steerhide gloves with him, but the others didn't, and their palms were softer to start with. She wouldn't need the coat; the thin-film sleeping bag was excellent insulation, particularly with the hood pulled up.
Let's see, he thought, shrugging into his pack. I'm worried about the twins' high-tops, but it's walk on those or their bare feet.
Astrid's soft-sided boots had perfectly practical rough-country soles; he'd checked.
OK, the rifle's useless, but...
The four hale Larssons were standing in an awkward group, looking at him. He nodded to the youngest. Astrid swallowed and hugged her cat a little closer; the beast dug its claws into her leather jacket and climbed to her shoulder. He hoped the stuff was well-tanned; wet leather was about the most uncomfortable wearing substance known to humankind, and if it dried stiff it was even worse.
"How did that bow of yours come through? Mind if I have a look at it?"
"It's fine," she said. "Sure, here."
He examined it; he'd never taken up archery himself, but he'd flown enough bowhunters around Idaho to pick up a little knowledge of the art. The weapon was a recurve, the cupid's-bow type with the forward-curling tips, and he could tell it had set her dad back a fair bit of change.
The centerpiece handle, the riser, had its grip shaped to the hand and an arrow-rest through the center; it was carved from some exotic striped hardwood he didn't recognize and polished to a glossy sheen. The whole weapon was about four feet long unstrung, and it had a look he recognized from other contexts—the sleek beauty of functionality.
"Nice piece of work," he said. "The limbs are fiberglass on a wood core?"
"Horn on the belly, steer-horn, hot-worked," she said, with a hint of a sneer. "And sinew on the back, with a yew core; fish-bladder glue. Cocobolo wood for the riser, leather covering for the arrow shelf and the strike plate, antelope horn for the tips. Lacquered birchbark covering."
His left eyebrow went up; that was Ye Ancient Style.
"It was made by Saluki Bows. I helped... well, I watched a lot."
"What's the draw?"
The eyebrow stayed up. Astrid was tall for fourteen; five-three, and headed higher from the look of her hands and feet—the whole family were beanpoles—but she was slender. That was a fairly heavy draw for a girl her size.
It occurred to him that she might just carry the bow for effect. She had spent considerable time and effort trying to dry her high-priced illustrated Tolkien by the fire, and seemed almost as upset at its ruin as at her mother's condition or the general peril they were in. Given that and her clothes...
"Can you use it?" he asked, and tossed it back.
He could see her flush. Instead of answering she braced the lower tip against outer side of her left foot and pushed the back of her right knee against the riser, sliding the string up as the weapon bent until the loop on top settled into the grooves. Then she opened the cover of the quiver slung over her shoulder, nocked a shaft, and drew to the ear as she turned.
"That lodgepole pine leaning from the bank," she said. "Head-height."
The flat snap of the bowstring against the leather bracer on her left forearm sounded, echoing a little in the narrow confines of the canyon. Half a second later the arrow went crack into the big tree she'd called as her target, standing quivering thirty yards downstream.
"Not bad, kid," he said.
He walked over to the tree with his boots scrunching in the streamside gravel and rotted ice. When he pulled the arrow free it was with a grunt of effort; it had hit at head-height, and sunk inches deep in rock-hard wood. The shaft was tipped with a broadhead, not a smooth target point—a tapering triangle shape of razor-edged steel designed to bleed an animal out.
"Ever done any actual hunting with it?"
"I shot a coney once," she said proudly. "A rabbit, that is."
Her brother grinned. "Hey, sprout, aren't you going to tell him what you did afterwards?"
She flushed more darkly, and glared. Eric went on to Havel:
"Princess Legolamb here puked up her guts and cried for hours, and then she buried poor Peter Rabbit. I guess they don't eat bunnies among the Faeries of the Dirtwood Realm."
"That's elves of the Woodland realm, you—you—you goblin!"
"But she can shoot hell out of a tree-stump, and every spare pie-plate on Larsdalen rolls downhill for its life when she comes by in a shooting mood..."
Havel cleared his throat. "Eric, you and your dad start with the stretcher. He and Signe can change off after twenty minutes. I'll spell you after forty, but I'd better lead the way to begin with, until we get our direction set and find a game trail."
As they lifted the injured woman he motioned Astrid aside for an instant.
"Kid, I'm glad you've got some experience shooting moving targets with that thing," he said softly.
She looked up at him, startled out of the walking reverie that seemed to take up most of her time.
"You are?" she said.
"Yeah. Look, we're going to need three days minimum to get your mother to the Centennial trail, and then another day to make the ranger cabin, and another plus for me and your brother to get to the highway. We don't have much food. It's going to get cold every damn night and it may get wet, and carrying your mother over this country's going to be brutal. Shoot anything that moves unless it's a bear or a mountain lion. We need the extra food. We're all depending on you—your mother, for starters. We'll lead off, you and I, and you stay ahead afterwards with whoever takes point. OK?"
He watched the girl's face firm up, and she made a decisive nod. He kept his own face grave as he returned the gesture, then looked at his compass once more and started off on a slanting line across the hillside he'd picked out earlier.
Gunney Winters would be proud of me, he thought.
The noncom had used exactly that we're-all-depending-on-you technique to get the best out of every guy in his squad.
Copyright © 2003-2004 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>