"Dennis, what's everyone going to eat, if this goes on more than a day or two?" Juniper Mackenzie said; they were back on the third floor of the Hopping Toad, looking south. "And how can help get in from areas where things are normal?"
Her friend's smile was normally engaging. This time it was more like a snarl. "Juney, how do you know that there is anyplace where things are normal?"
They glanced at each other in appalled silence, and then their eyes flicked to Eilir; the girl was looking out the window through the binoculars, squirming between them to get a better view. The fire was coming closer, but slowly, and the southern rim of flame had stopped at the edge of the open campus of Oregon State.
How do I feed my kid? Juniper thought suddenly—something direct and primal, a thought that hit like a fist in the gut.
She'd been poor—still was poor, if you went by available cash—but this was different. It didn't mean living on pasta and day-olds and what she got out of the garden by the cabin, or busking for meals, it meant not having anything to eat at all.
"You still have that wagon out at Finney's place?" Dennis said.
"Yes," she replied. "He stores it for me so I can use it at the RenFaire and the festivals and meets over the summer, and he boards Cagney and Lacy for me. My pickup's out behind his barn right now. I was supposed to drive down to Eugene to meet my coven after I finished up here."
She'd have liked nothing better than to live out of the wagon the whole summertime, ambling along behind the two Percheron mares; it was a real old-style tinker-traveler-gypsy house-on-wheels shaped like a giant barrel. Not practical, of course.
Or it wasn't, she thought, with an icy crawling. Now it may be high-tech. Damn, but I hate being scared like this.
"I think we should get moving. Get out of town, find someplace real remote, and hide like hell," Dennis said. Then he hesitated: "If you want my help."
"Oh, hell, yes, Dennie," she said.
To herself: I know you're trustworthy, and I can't get in touch with Rudy or anyone else in the coven and I certainly don't want me and Eilir out there alone right now. Maybe some of the others will have the same idea. Rudy certainly will.
She went on: "The cabin up in the Cascade foothills would be perfect and I'll be glad to have you along. We'll have to cross the Valley..."
"You think this is going to last long enough for that?" Dennis said, his voice neutral.
Her brows knotted. "You were right; we've got to act like this was all over the world, and for keeps. If we do and we're wrong, we just look stupid and scared. If we don't and it is like that, we could die. I'd rather look weird than be dead."
Her impish smile came back for an instant: "As if I wasn't weird enough at any time!"
"Right," her friend said, nodding vigorously. "That's just what I was thinking."
They clattered down the stairs again. Nobody was left but a couple of the staff, talking together in low tones.
"Boss," the cook said, coming out of the kitchen and drying his hands on his apron. "I stay and help, but my kids—"
"No, Manuel, you get home where you're needed," Dennis said. He hesitated, then went on: "You could think of getting out of town, too. And take some of the canned stuff, whatever you can carry. I think things could get, uh, hairy for a while, with this power failure and all."
He spoke a little louder: "That goes for everyone here. Take what you can carry."
The stocky Mexican gave him an odd look, then handed the three of them a platter of sandwiches and went, grunting a little at the weight of the cardboard box of food in his arms and the sack of dried beans on top of it. The rest of the staff trailed out in his wake, similarly burdened.
Juniper looked at the pastrami sandwich he'd made.
Well, there's the farmer and his tractors, and the trucks, and the packing plant, and the refrigerators, and the power line to the flour mill, and the baker, and the factory that made the mustard...
Her stomach contracted like a ball of crumpled lead sheet; she made herself eat anyway, and wash it down with a Dr. Pepper.
Juniper kept her mind carefully blank as she and Dennis worked. She changed back into jeans and flannel shirt and denim jacket, then helped the manager... ex-manager... load their bicycles with sacks of flour and soy and dried fruit, blocks of dark chocolate and dates, blessing the Toad's organic-local cuisine the while.
"No canned goods?" Dennis said, as she chose and sorted.
Juniper shook her head. "We'd be lugging stuff that's mostly water and container. This dried food gives you a lot more calories for the weight, when it's cooked. And throw in those spice packets, all of them. They don't weigh much, and I think they're going to be worth a lot more than gold in a while."
The garage out back held a little two-wheeled load carrier of the type that could be towed behind a bicycle; Dennis used that for some of his tools before piling more food on top, and she didn't object. They stowed as much as they could in the storage area of the basement; that had a stout steel door and a padlock. When that was full, they stacked boxes of cleaning supplies and old files in front of it, hiding it from a casual search at least.
"Wait here a second," Dennis said.
When he returned he had the shotgun from under the bar. He turned it on a stack of cardboard boxes and pulled the trigger. The roar was muted to a weak fizzy thumping and long blossom of weakly burning fire, and she could hear the pellets hit the cardboard.
Wordlessly, she brought the lantern over. At point-blank range, the pellets had bounced off the cardboard and lay on the floor. Some of them hadn't even made it to the side of the box.
"That's light birdshot," Dennis said.
It was his hopefully-nonlethal backup for an emergency that had never happened—the Hopping Toad wasn't the sort of place where a barkeep needed to flourish a piece every other week.
"They still ought to have gone right through, and opened some of those tin cans inside, and they didn't even dent the surface of the boxes. Near as I can figure, the propellant just isn't burning very fast. It's a fart instead of a hard punch."
He worked the slide twice and the second time he caught the ejected shell; then he cut off the portion that held the shot and set the base down on the concrete floor.
"Stand back," he said, and dropped a lit match into it.
There should have been a miniature Vesuvius, a spear of fire reaching up from the floor to waist-height into the dimness of the cellar, blinding-bright for an instant. Instead there was a slow hissing, and what looked like a very anemic Roman candle, the sort that disappointed you on a damp 4th of July.
"What's happening?" Juniper cried, after they'd stamped out the sparks and poured water to be sure.
"Juney... Juney, if I didn't know better, I'd say someone, or some One, just changed the laws of nature on us." He ran a hand over his head. "Shit, you're the one who believes in magic! But this... it's like some sort of spell."
Juniper raised her brows. She'd always thought Dennis was a stolid sort, a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist. She started to cross herself in a deep-buried reflex from a Catholic childhood, and changed it to the sign of the Horns. The idea was preposterous... but it had a horrible plausibility, after this day of damnation.
"Well, the sun didn't go out," Dennis said, scrubbing a palm across his face. "And humans are powered by oxidizing food, and our nerves are electrical impulses... Maybe some quantum effect that only hits current in metallic wires, and fast combustion?"
Juniper snorted. "Does that mean that the dilithium crystals are fucked, Scotty?"
Dennis was startled into a brief choked-off grunt of laughter. "Yeah, that's bafflegabic bullshit, I'm no scientist—I just read Popular Mechanics sometimes, and Analog. We don't know what happened; all we know is that it did happen, at least locally... but who can say how local? Like you said, Juney, we gotta act like it's the whole world."
He went over to another corner of the basement and dragged out a heavy metal footlocker. "I was keeping this stuff for John, he had it left over from what he sold at the last RenFaire and Westercon, and it was less trouble than taking it back home or all the way out east."
"East?" she said.
She'd met John Martins now and then and liked him, although Dennis' elder brother was also a stoner whose musical world had stopped moving about the time Janis Joplin OD'd; besides that he was a back-to-the-lander and a blacksmith. Mostly he lived in a woodsy cabin in northern California, and made the circuit of West Coast dos and conventions and collectors' get-togethers. Of course, he and Dennis worked together a fair bit, with Dennis doing the leatherwork.
"Yeah, John's in Nantucket, of all places. He's got a girlfriend there, and there are a lot of the summer home crowd who can afford his ironwork and replicas. I hope to God everything's all right in Santa Fe East. John's a gentle sort."
He unfastened the locker and threw back the lid. Reaching inside, he took out a belt wrapped around a pair of scabbards and tossed it to her.
"Put it on," he said. "Jesus, I wish John were here. He's a good man to have around, under all that hippy-dippy crap."
What she was holding was a palm-wide leather belt with brass studs and a heavy buckle in the form of an eagle. It carried a long Scottish dirk with a hilt of black bone carved in swirling Celtic knotwork and a broad-bladed shortsword about two feet long. She put her hand on the rawhide-wrapped hilt and drew it; the Damascene patterns in the steel rippled like frozen waves in the lamplight. It was a gladius, the weapon the soldiers of Rome had carried from Scotland to Persia; the twenty-inch blade was leaf-shaped, tapering to a long vicious stabbing point.
Juniper took an awkward swing; the sword was knife sharp, not as heavy as she'd expected, and beautifully balanced.
It was beautiful in itself, for the same reason a cat was—perfectly designed to do exactly one thing.
Except that a cat makes little cats, as well as killing, she thought. And went on aloud:
"I can't wear this!"
"Why not?" Dennis said.
He reached into the locker and drew out an axe—nothing like the firefighting tool he'd used in the brief street-fight. It was a replica of a Viking-era Danish bearded war axe, and made with the same care that the sword had been; the haft was four feet of polished hickory.
"Why not?" he repeated. "'cause it'll look silly? I'm going to be carrying this, you bet. Same reason I'd have taken the shotgun, if it worked. Lot of desperate people out there right now, more tomorrow—and a lot of plain bad ones, too. We already got some confirmation of that, didn't we?"
She swallowed and unwrapped the belt, settling the broad weight of it around her waist and cinching it tight—they had to cut an extra hole through the leather for that, but Dennis had the tools and skill to do a good quick job. The down vest she pulled on over it hid the hilts and most of the blades, at least, if she wore it open.
"I don't have the faintest idea how to use swords," she complained, as the three of them spent a grunting ten minutes moving a heavy metal-topped counter-table over the trapdoor to the basement.
"I just sing about them. And I don't know if I could actually hit someone with this."
Dennis picked up the axe and hung it over one shoulder with the blade facing backward and the beard and helve holding it in place. Eilir was frightened but excited; she took a light hatchet and long knife to hang from her own belt.
Her mother felt only a heavy dread.
"It'll still look intimidating as hell, if we get into any more... trouble. God forbid! Anyway, I used to do some of this stuff," Dennis said. "And I've got friends who do it steady—you do too, don't you?"
"Chuck Barstow," Juniper said. "You met him last Samhain, remember? His wife Judy's the Maiden of my coven."
Dennis nodded. "Hope to hell he turns up. I may remember enough to give you a few pointers. And damn, but we're better off than those poor bastards on the 747!"
"Amen," Juniper said.
She winced for a second; if this whatever-it-was had happened all over the world, there would be tens of thousands in the air, or down in submarines, or...
Her mind shied away from the thought; it was simply too big.
"Focus on the moment," she muttered to herself as they went out into the front room of the tavern, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "Ground and center, ground and center."
Then: "Dennie, what the hell are you doing? I thought money wouldn't be worth anything?"
The heavyset man had opened the till, scooping the bills into the pockets of his quilted jacket; then he ducked into the manager's office and returned with the cashbox. He grinned at her.
"Yeah, Juney—it won't be worth anything soon. I want to look up an old friend on our way out of town."
"More of a business acquaintance. He runs a sporting-goods store, and sells grass on the side. Actually, he sells pretty much anything that comes his way and isn't too risky, which is why I'm betting he'll open up special when I wave some bills at him. If he were really a friend, I'd feel guilty about this, but as it is..."
Chuck Barstow stopped his bicycle by the side of the road and touched his face lightly as he panted. The glass cuts weren't too bad, and the bleeding seemed to have stopped—he'd been able to dive behind the desk when the 727 plowed into the runway about a thousand yards away. Despite the chilly March night he was sweating, and it stung when it hit the cuts.
He looked over his shoulder. Highway 99 ran arrow-straight southeast from Eugene Airport. It was nearly eight o'clock, and the fires behind him had gotten worse, if anything. The streetlights were all out, but the giant pyres where the jets had dropped towered into the sky, and were dwarfed in turn where one had plowed into the tank farm where the fuel was stored. He could see the thin pencil of the control tower silhouetted against the fire, and then it seemed to waver and fall.
I was there. Right there in that tower. Twenty minutes ago, he thought, coughing at the heavy stink of burn kerosene.
The highway was full of cars and trucks, both ways. Many of them had crashed, still moving at speed when engines and lights and power steering died together, and a few were burning. There were bodies laid out on the pavement, and people trying to give first-aid to the hurt. More were trudging towards Eugene, but there was nothing except fire-lit darkness towards the city, either.
He could hear curses, screams, there two men slugging at each other, here two more helping an injured third along with his arms over their shoulders. A state trooper with blood running down his face from a cut on his forehead stood by his car with the microphone in his hand, doggedly pressing the send button and giving his call sign and asking for a response that never came.
"Chuck," Andy Trethar said from behind him. "Chuck, we've got to keep going. They'll all be waiting for us at the store."
Before he could reply, a stranger spoke: a tall dark heavyset man in an expensive business suit, looking to be two decades older than Chuck's twenty-seven.
"How much for the bicycle?" he said, looking between them. "I have to get to the airport immediately."
"Mister, it's not for sale," Chuck said shortly. "I need it to get back to my wife and daughter. And the airport's a giant barbeque, anyway."
"I'm prepared to give you a check for a thousand, right now," the man said.
"I said, not for sale," Chuck said, preparing to get going again. "Not at any price."
Chuck shook his head wordlessly and got ready to step on the pedal. Judy would be worried, and Tamsin could sense moods like a cat—the girl was psychic, even at three years old.
Powerful God, Goddess strong and gentle, they should have been at the store long before six-fifteen. They'll all be there and safe. Please!
The fist came from nowhere, and he toppled backwards and hit the pavement with an ooff! Pain shot through him as the bicycle collapsed on top of him.
Someone tried to pull it away from him, and he clung to it in reflex. He also blinked his eyes open, forcing himself to see. Andy was pulling the heavyset man back by the neck of his jacket; the man turned and punched again, knocking Chuck's slightly-built friend backwards.
Some of Chuck Barstow's coreligionists were pacifists. He wasn't; in fact, he'd been a bouncer for a while, a couple of years ago when he was working his way through university. He was also a knight in the SCA, an organization that staged mock medieval combats as realistic as you could get without killing people. His daytime job as a gardener for Eugene Parks and Recreation demanded a lot of muscle too.
His hand snaked out and got a grip on the ankle of the man in the suit. One sharp yank brought him down yelling, and Chuck lashed out with a foot. That connected with the back of the man's head, and his yells died away to a mumble.
Sweating, aching, Chuck hauled himself to his feet; they pushed their bicycles back into motion and hopped on, feet pumping. The brief violence seemed to have cleared his head, though: he could watch the ghastly scenes that passed by without either blocking them out or going into a fuge.
"Stop!" he said, as they reached Jefferson from 6th.
"What for?" Andy said, looking around, but he followed his friend's lead.
"Andy, we've got to think a bit. This isn't going to get better unless... whatever changed changes back. And I've got this awful feeling it won't."
They were in among tall buildings now, and it was dark—a blacker dark than either of them had ever known outdoors. Occasional candle-gleams showed from windows, or the ruddier hue of open flame where someone had lit a fire in a dumpster or trash-barrel. The sounds of the city were utterly different—no underlying thrum of motors, but plenty of human voices, a distant growling brabble, and the crackle of fire. The smell of smoke was getting stronger by the minute.
"Why shouldn't it change back?"
"Why should it? Apart from us wanting it to."
Andy swallowed; even in the darkness, his face looked paler. "Goddess, Chuck, if it doesn't change back..."
Andy and Diana Trethar owned a restaurant that doubled as an organic food store and bakery.
"We get a delivery once a week—today, Wednesday. With no trucks—"
"—or trains, or airplanes, or motorbikes, even."
"What will happen when everything's used up?"
"We die," Chuck said. "If the food can't get to us, we die—unless we go to the food."
"Just wander out of town?" Andy said skeptically. "Chuck, most farmers need modern machinery just as much—"
"I know. But at least there would be some chance. As long as we could take enough stuff with us." Chuck nodded to himself and went on: "Which is why we're going to swing by the Museum."
"Look," he said. "Cars aren't working, right?" A nod. "Well, what's at the Museum right now?"
Andy stared at him for a moment; then, for the first time since six-fifteen, he began to smile.
"Blessed be. Oregon's Pioneer Heritage: A Living Exhibit."
The restaurant's window had the Closed sign in it, but the door opened at the clatter of hooves and the two men's shouts. Chuck smiled and felt his scabs pull as Judy came to the door, a candle in her hand—one thing you were certainly going to find at a coven gathering was plenty of candles. She gaped at the two big Conestoga wagons, but only for a moment: that was one of the things he loved about her, the way she always seemed to land on her mental feet.
"We need help," he said. "We've got to get these things out back."
His wife was short and Mediterranean-dark and full-figured to his medium-tall lankiness and sandy-blond coloring; she flung herself up onto the box of the wagon and kissed him. He winced, and she gave a sharp intake of breath as she turned his face to what light the moon gave.
"I'll get my bag," she said; her daytime occupation was registered nurse and midwife.
"Looks worse than it is," he said. "Just some superficial cuts—and a guy slugged me, which is why the lips are sore. Patch me later. How's Tamsin?"
"She's fine, just worried. Asleep, right now."
Things had already changed; yesterday his injuries would have meant a doctor. Now everyone ignored them, as they helped him get the horses down the laneway. Putting down feed and pouring water into buckets took a few moments more. The horses were massive Suffolk Punch roans that weighed a ton each; placid and docile by nature, but the noises and scents they'd endured had them nervous, eyes rolling, sweating and tossing their heads. He was glad there was a big open lot behind the loading dock; the wagons took up a lot of room, and eight of the huge draught beasts took even more.
Andy and Diana had bought this place cheap, converting a disused warehouse into MoonDance, the latest of Eugene's innumerable organic-food-store-cum-café places. The extra space in the rear of the building meant that the Coven of the Singing Moon also had a convenient location for Esbats. At least when they couldn't take the time to go up to Juniper's place; it was beautiful there, but remote, which was why they generally only went for the Sabbats—the eight great festivals of the Year's Wheel.
The familiarity was almost painful he ducked under one of the partially-raised loading doors. The back section was still all bare concrete and structural members, unlike the homey-funky décor of the café area at the front; it was even candlelit, as it usually was for the rites. The carpet covering the pentagram was down, though. Shadows flickered on the high ceiling, over crates and cartons and shrink-wrapped flats with big stacks of bagged goods on them. The air was full of a mealy, dusty, appetizing smell—flour and dried fruit and the ghost of a box of jars of scented oil someone had let crash on the floor last year, all under the morning's baking.
He counted faces. Eight adults. Children mostly asleep, off in the office-room they usually occupied during the ceremonies.
"Jack? Carmen? Muriel?" he said, naming the other members.
"They didn't show up," Judy said. She was the coven's Maiden, and kept track of things. "We thought we shouldn't split up, the way things are out there."
He nodded emphatically. The adults all gathered around. Chuck took a deep breath:
More shocked exclamations, murmured blessed be's, and gestures. He'd been well-liked, as well as High Priest.
"All of you, it... His plane was only a hundred feet up. It just... fell. There were a dozen jets in the air, and all of them just... the engines quit. The whole airport went up in flames in about fifteen minutes. I was in the control tower, Wally lets me, you know? And I barely made it out. I did get a good view north—it's not just the city's blacked out, everything is out. As far as I could see, and you can see a good long way from there. Everything stopped at exactly the same moment."
Everyone contributed their story; Dorothy Rose had seen a man trying to use a shotgun to stop looters. That sent Diana scurrying for the Trethar household-protection revolver, and then for the separately-stored ammunition, which took a while because she'd forgotten where she put it. Everyone stared in stupefaction at the results when she fired it at a bank of boxed granola.
They talked on into the night, in the fine old tradition. At last Chuck held up a hand; sitting around hashing things out until consensus was wonderful, not to mention customary, but they had to act now or not at all.
I wish Juney was here. She was always better than anyone else at getting this herd of cats moving in the same direction; she could jolly them along and get them singing, or something.
"Look, I really hope things will be normal tomorrow. Even though that means I'll be fired and maybe arrested, because I flashed my Parks & Recreation credentials and took all that Living History stuff from that poor custodian—he was the only one who hadn't bugged out in a panic. But if it isn't normal tomorrow, Judy and Tamsin—" he nodded towards the room where the children were sleeping "—and me and Andy and Diana and their Greg are heading out. I'd love for you all to come with me. You mean a lot to us."
"Out where?" someone asked. "Why?"
"Why? I told you; there are a quarter of a million people in the Eugene metro area. If this goes on, in about a month, maybe less, this city's going to be eating rats—do you want your kids in that? The ones who survive are going to be the ones who don't sit around waiting for someone to come and make things better... unless they do get back to normal, but I'm not going to bet my daughter's life on it. As to where..."
He leaned forward. "One thing's for sure. Juniper isn't driving in tonight from Corvallis for an Esbat. I'll bet you anything you want to name she's going to get the same idea as me; head for her place in the hills."
"Oh, Goddess," Diana Trethar said. "She won't know about Rudy!"
Chuck's voice was grim. "She'll be able to guess, I think."
He pointed northeast. "We can wait things out there—live there a long time, if we have to. We'll leave a message for the people who didn't show; a hint at where we're going and what we think is happening. Look, these wagons can haul something like six tons each..."
MARCH 31ST, 1998
Emiliano knew the way to the Central Library on 10th street, although he wouldn't have wanted his pandilleros to know about it—bookworm wasn't a title a man in his position could afford. He'd still come here now and then to find out things he needed to know, though never before with his crew swaggering at his back.
Ruddy light blinked back from the spearheads of the men standing along the roadway. There was plenty—not only from the huge fires consuming the city eastward across the river and smaller ones nearby, but from wood burning in iron baskets hung from the streetlamps; the air was heavy with the acrid throat-hurting smell of both, enough to make him cough occasionally, and the flames reflected back from the heavy pall of smoke and cloud overhead.
The fighting men directing foot-traffic and clumped before the library entrance got his pandilleros' respectful attention; his Lords were equipped with what they'd been able to cobble together since the Change, but these were a different story altogether. Half the guards had a uniform outfit of seven-foot spears, big kite-shaped shields painted black with a cat-pupiled eye in red, helmets and knee-length canvas tunics sewn with metal scales. The other half carried missile weapons, crossbows and hunting-bows from sporting-goods stores.
And hanging from the two big trees in front of the entrance were...
"Holy shit, man," someone said behind him, awe in the tones.
There was enough light to recognize faces; a stocky middle-aged woman with flyaway black hair, and a big burly black male.
Enough light to recognize faces even with the distortion of the cargo hooks planted under their jaws; it was the Mayor and the Chief of Police—Cat and the Moose, as they were known on the street.
Emiliano swallowed, and Dolores clutched at his arm; he shook her off impatiently, but still licked his lips. He'd killed more than once, and gotten away with it—his time inside had been for other things—but this left him feeling a little scared, like the ground was shifting under his feet. That was nothing new since the Change, but he could sense the same fears running through his men, sapping their courage, making them feel small.
And nobody makes the Lords feel small! Aloud, he went on:
"Hey, they got a real jones on for people who let their books get overdue here, chicos!"
The tension broke in laughter; even some of the guards smiled, briefly.
"And maybe now we know why nobody's heard much from that Provisional Government last couple of days."
The bodies hadn't begun to smell much; Portland was fairly cool in March, and anyway the stink from the fires burning out of control across most of the city hid a lot. The raw sewage pouring into the river didn't help, either.
So, I'm impressed, Emiliano thought. But these hijos need us, or we wouldn't have been invited.
The guards at the entrance carried long axe-spike-hook things like some he'd seen on TV occasionally. All of the guards had long blades at their waists, machetes or actual swords. He blinked consideringly at those, as well. His first impulse was to laugh, but his own boys were carrying fire-axes and baseball bats themselves, and possibly...
Yeah, I see the point, he thought. The points and the edges!
"You're the jefe of the Lords, right?" one of the guards asked.
"Si," Emiliano said.
With two dozen armed men at his back, the gang-chief could afford to be confident. But not too confident. The cooking smells from inside made his stomach rumble, even with the whiff from the corpses. They'd been eating, but not well, particularly just lately. Everything in the coolers and fridges had gone bad, and he hadn't had fresh meat since last Friday.
"Pass on up, then. You and three others. The staff will bring food out to the rest of your men there."
He pointed his axe-thing... halberd, that's the word... towards trestle tables set out along the sidewalks. Emiliano made a brusque gesture over his shoulder, and the rest of his bangers went that way apart from Dolores and his three closest advisors; he figured that with the Cat and Moose swinging above them on hooks, nobody was going to get too macho.
He sauntered up the stairs; the light got brighter, big lanterns hanging from the entranceway arches, making up for the dead electric lights inside.
Where did I see that guy before? he thought,running the gate-guard's face through his memory. Yeah, he's a Russian. One of Alexi's guys.
A blonde chick met them inside the door; she was wearing bikini briefs under a long silk-t-shirt effect and a dog collar, and carrying a clipboard.
Hey, not bad, he thought, then remembered Dolores was there. Then: Wait a minute. She's not a puta. That stuff's for real.
The greeter spoke, fright trembling under artificial cheerfulness; he recognized fear easily enough, and also the thin red lines across her back where the gauzy fabric stuck:
It took him a moment to realize she was giving him a title rather than referring to the name of his gang; for a moment more he thought he was being dissed.
Then he began to smile.
"Yeah," he replied, with a grand gesture. "Lead on."
He hadn't seen a room so brightly lighted after dark since the Change; and the lobby was huge. All around it big kerosene lanterns hung at twice head-height, and a forest of lighted candles stood in branched silver holders on the tables that ringed the great space. Their snowy linen and polished cutlery glistened; so did the gray-veined white marble of the floor. All the desks and kiosks had been taken out; nothing but the head table broke the sweep of view towards the great staircase that began at the rear and divided halfway up into two sweeping curves.
The flames picked out that too, black marble carved in vine-leaf patterns.
More guardsmen stood around the outer walls; in the U that the tables formed milled a crowd whose faces he mostly recognized. The Crips and Bloods, the Russians—Alexi Stavarov himself—the chink Tongs, the Koreans, the Angels, the Italians... and groups he thought of as whitebread suburban wannabes, but it wasn't his party and he didn't get to write the guest list, and Portland wasn't what you'd call a serious gang town anyway.
More chicks like the greeter circulated with trays of drinks and little delicacies on crackers, doing nothing but smile at pats and gropes from the hairy bearded Angels and some of the other rougher types.
Emiliano took a glass of beer—Negro Modelo—and ate thin-shaved ham off little rondels of fresh black bread, and chatted with a few of his peers. Meanwhile his eyes probed the gathering; not everyone here were his kind. Some were politicians, looking as out of place as the half-naked women; there were even a couple of priests. And some unmistakable university students, mostly clumped together. A few scared, some looking like rabbits on speed, some tough and relaxed.
Trumpets blared. Emiliano jumped and swore silently as an Angel with a beard like a gray Santa Claus' down his leather-clad paunch grinned at him.
A man appeared at the top of the stairs. "The Lord Protector!" he barked, and stood aside with his head bowed. "The Lady Sandra!"
The armed men around the great room slammed their weapons against their shields in near-unison, barking out:
"The Lord Protector!" in a crashing shout that echoed crazily from the high stone walls. Dead silence fell among the guests.
It took him a minute to recognize the man coming down the stairs with a splendidly gowned and jeweled woman on his arm. He'd never seen Norman Arminger in a knee-length coat of chain mail before, or wearing a long sword in a black-leather sheath. A follower—male, and armed—carried a helmet with a black feather crest and a kite-shaped shield. Arminger looked impressive in the armor, six-one and broad in the shoulders, with thick wrists and corded forearms. His face was long and lean, square-chinned and hook-nosed, with brown hair parted in the center and falling to his shoulders.
"Lord Emiliano, good of you to join us," Arminger said. "I believe you're the last."
"Hey—you're that guy who was writing a book on the gangs, aren't you?"
"I was," Arminger said. "As you may have noticed, things have changed."
He gestured, and spoke in a carrying voice: "Please, everyone have a seat. The place-cards are for your convenience."
Emiliano sat, with Dolores and his backup men. Arminger stayed standing, leaning one hip against the head table, his arms folded against the rippling mail that covered his chest:
"Gentlemen, ladies. By now, you will all have come to the conclusion that what Changed a little while ago is going to stay changed. This has certain implications. Before we talk, I'd like to demonstrate one of them."
Four prisoners were prodded into the broad central floor of the hall; two middle-aged policemen in rumpled uniforms, and two guys in Army gear—a big shaven-headed black and an ordinary-looking white. Arminger slid the helmet over his head; his face disappeared behind the protective mask. That was three strips of steel that came to a point just below his nose, and it gave him a bird-of-prey look; the grin beneath it did too, and the nodding plume of raven feathers. He took up the shield, sliding his arm through the loops, and drew the long double-edged sword. It glittered in the firelight as he twitched it back and forth easily, making the whisssht sound of cloven air.
Marquez, his numbers man, leaned aside and hissed in Emiliano's ear: "This hijo is crazy! Four on one?"
"Shut up," Emiliano murmured back. "We'll see how crazy right now."
Arminger smiled yet more broadly at the low murmur of understanding and rustle of interest that went along the tables.
"You men," he said loudly, addressing the prisoners. His sword pointed to a trashcan. "There are weapons in there. Take them and try and kill me. If you win, you go free."
"You expect us to believe that?" the black soldier said.
Arminger's grin was sardonic. "I expect you to believe I'll have you doused in gasoline and set on fire if you don't fight," he said. "And you get a chance to kill me. Don't you want to?"
"Shit yes," the soldier replied; he walked over to the garbage container and pulled out a machete in each hand.
The others armed themselves as well—an axe, a baseball bat, another machete. The watchers stirred and rustled as the armed prisoners circled to surround the figure in the rippling, glittering mail.
Then things moved very quickly. The black soldier started to attack, and Arminger met him halfway. There was a crack as one machete glanced off the shield, and a slithering clang as the other hit the sword and slid down it to be caught on the guard. And another crack, meatier and wetter-sounding, as Arminger smashed his metal-clad head into the black man's face.
The big soldier staggered backward, his nose red ruin. Arminger's sword looped down as he turned, taking the soldier behind a knee and drawing the edge in a slicing cut. The scream of pain matched Arminger's shout as he lunged, the point punching out in a stab that left three inches of steel showing out a policeman's lower back. In the same motion the shield punched, hitting the other cop on the jaw and shattering it.
That left the smaller soldier an opening. He jumped in and slashed, and the edge raked across Arminger's back from left shoulder to right hip.
Sparks flew; Emiliano thought he heard a couple of the steel rings break with musical popping sounds. And Arminger staggered, thrown forward by the blow.
That didn't stop him whirling, striking with the edge of the shield. It hit the soldier's wrist with a crackle of breaking bone, and the machete went flying with a clatter and clang on the hardwood floor. He shrieked in pain, clutching at his right forearm with his left hand, then screamed briefly again in fear as Arminger's sword came down in a blurring-bright arc.
That ended in a hard thump at the junction of shoulder and neck. The scream broke off as if a switch had been thrown; the sword-blade sliced through the neck and into the breastbone, and the killer had to brace a foot on the body to wrench it free. Then he made sure of the others—the big soldier was trying to crawl away when the point went through his kidney—and scared-looking men and women came out with wheelbarrows to take the bodies, and mops and towels and squeegees to deal with the mess. Another of the pretty girls in lingerie sprayed an aerosol scent to cover the smells.
Every eye fixed on Arminger as he turned, shield and sword raised.
"Gentlemen, power no longer grows out of the muzzle of a gun. It grows from this."
He thrust his sword skyward. The blood on it glistened red-black in the light of the candles and lanterns. The armored men around the walls cheered, beating their weapons or their fists on their shields. Many of the guests joined in. Emiliano clapped himself.
Can't hurt, he thought. And this son of a whore is either completely crazy or a fucking genius.
When the noise subsided, Arminger went on:
"Many of you know that I was a professor of history before I dabbled in urban anthropology. Some of you may know that I was once a member of the Society of Jesus. What you probably don't know is that I was also a member of a society that meets to celebrate the Middle Ages... by, among other things, practicing combat with the ancient weapons. I've persuaded quite a few members of that society to throw in with me; food is a wonderful incentive. And we're recruiting and training others, many others. Some of you have already contributed manpower. As you saw out there at the front gate, we're already the most effective armed force in this city. Certainly more effective than the overweight, overaged, donut-eating legions of the former city government."
He laughed, and handed the shield and dripping sword to a servant. Quite a few of the guests joined in the laughter; this wasn't a crowd where the police had many friends.
"Making these weapons and armor requires considerable skill. Using them requires even more. But when you do have them and do know how to use them, you're like a tank to the unarmored and untrained. A hundred men so armed, acting a as a disciplined unit, can rout thousands."
Emiliano nodded slowly, and saw others doing likewise. That made sense...
"Now, you'll also have noticed that traditional means of exchange—money—is worthless now. Right now, there's only one real form of wealth; food."
Yeah, and we spent a couple of days wasting our time robbing banks and hitting jewelry stores, Emiliano thought, with bitter self-accusation.
He'd been living on canned stuff for days now.
"There's enough food in this city to feed the population for about two months, if nothing was wasted. One month, more realistically, if there was a rationing system; a great deal has already been lost and destroyed. Then everyone would die. There is, however, enough for a smaller but substantial number of people for a year or more. And remember, gentlemen, there is no government any more. Not here in Portland, not in Oregon, not in the United States. Or the world, probably, come to that."
That got an excited buzz.
"Yo," one of the Crips leaders said. "We thinkin' move out to the country, get the eats. With no guns, the farmers not much trouble."
Arminger shook his head again. "Not yet. In the long run, yes. Everything that's been invented in the last eight hundred years is useless now. There's only two ways to live in a time like this—farming, and living off farmers. I don't feel like pushing a plow."
Emiliano nodded; and again, he wasn't the only one. His father had been born a peon on a little farm in Sonora, and he had no desire at all to be one himself. Living off farmers, though...
A haciendado, he thought, amused. He leaned forward eagerly, hardly noticing when the banquet was brought in. He was in a golden haze from more than the wines and brandies and fine liqueurs by the end of the night.
Lord Emiliano, he thought. Got a sound to it.
Copyright © 2003-2004 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>