Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

 

DIES THE FIRE

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


CHAPTER SIX:

 

 

"Hope Luther doesn't mind us dropping in past midnight," Dennis said.

Juniper snorted wordlessly, too tired to waste breath on speech as she pedaled her heavily laden bike along the rough patched pavement of the country road. She felt every jolt, all the way up her back. The muscles of her thighs burned and cramped; the day had wrung her limp as a dishrag, even after all the miles she'd covered on a bicycle over the years. Despite the chill damp of the air she was sweating under her down coat, and the straps of her knapsack cut into her shoulders.

"Hold up!" she said suddenly, stopping and putting a foot down. It skidded through dirt and gravel along the edge of the asphalt.

They all braked and swerved. It was dark, dark in a way she'd never experienced in settled country before. Between patches of cloud the stars were a bright frosted band across the sky, and the moon was rising huge on the edge of sight; it turned the grassy fields and woodlots to silvered mystery.

It's nearly Ostara, she thought. That would come with the vernal equinox; also Eilir's birthday. Night and day in perfect balance, with light on the increase. Maybe things will get better. Lady Mother of All and Lord Sun, I hope so.

The tin mailbox on its post beside the turn-off was prosaic by contrast, down to the little flag in the upright position to warn the mailman there were letters waiting.

If there's ever a postman by again, she thought, and swallowed.

"This is Luther's drive," she said. "Another quarter-mile."

Luther Finney had farmed south of Corvallis most of his seventy-four years, like his fathers before him since they came west on the Oregon Trail the year before the California gold-rush started; when the last of his children moved away, he'd rented out most of his land to neighbors and kept only the old house and a few acres around it. He still kept farmer's hours, but he'd complained to her that he slept lightly these days.

Dogs barked as the three fugitives walked their laden bicycles up the tree-lined gravel lane. The buds were out on the rock-maples arching overhead, trees Luther's great-great grandfather had planted to remind him of Massachusetts, and they turned the lane into a tunnel of shadow even darker than the open road.

He probably does sleep lightly Juniper thought, as light blossomed in an upstairs window.

First the buttery yellow flame of a candle, and then the brighter glow of a kerosene lamp. Nothing like the hard glare of electricity, which she was already starting to miss. Luther's two Alsatians came up, excited but polite; her own nondescript black-and-white mongrel threw himself into the air around them in wriggling transports of barking joy, before making his usual nose-dive for the crotch to catch up on the olfactory news.

"Quiet, Cuchulain," she said, giving him an admonitory rap on the head.

The name meant little hound in Gaelic, which was somewhat appropriate given the beast's mixed ancestry, though not for his entirely non-heroic nature.

He jumped up and tried to lick her face instead. She pushed him down and thumped his ribs reassuringly. The dog sensed anxiety and whined a bit, then followed them with head down and tail wagging nervously. More lights came on downstairs, and the door opened; Luther Finney came out, wrapped in a long bathrobe.

"Juney!" he cried. "And Ellie! Weren't expecting you back for another few days."

The old man's face carried a genuine smile; so did his wife Sarah's, where she stood behind him.

Jack Sprat, Juniper thought as she smiled back; Luther was tall and lean and wrinkled, Sarah short and round with a face like a rasin dumpling.

"Come on in," the farmer said.

He shook hands with Dennis, giving the axe over his shoulder no more than a glance; he'd met the manager of the Hopping Toad before, and even come in to hear Juniper sing a couple of times. Sarah hugged Juniper and her daughter, and shooed them forward through the hall and into the farmhouse kitchen.

Good thing we can leave the crossbows inconspicuously with the bikes, Juniper thought. They might overwhelm even Luther's politeness reflex.

They were ugly squared-off things like stubby rifles with short thick bows across the front, but light and easy to handle.

I don't think Dennie's not-really-a-friend bought his story about a camping trip, but he wasn't asking any questions when he saw the cash. In fact, he practically drooled.

That made her feel a bit better about the transaction; she was mournfully convinced that camping gear and high-energy trail rations and garden seeds were going to be worth a lot more than portraits of dead Presidents by this time tomorrow, when more people had figured out what was happening.

Luther's eyebrows did go up when Juniper took off her down coat and the blades showed. She sighed at the warmth, and at the lingering cooking smells those pastrami sandwiches seemed like a long time ago.

"There a reason for the cutlery, Juney?" he said. "You and Mr. Martins on your way to one of those pageant things you sing at?"

She suppressed an absurd impulse to slide the weapons around behind her; instead she unbuckled the belt and hung it on the back of a chair.

Sarah Finney didn't say anything; but then, she rarely did. Instead she started loading three plates with leftovers—cold fried chicken, beans, potato salad, string beans, and slices cut from a loaf of fresh bread. Then she put an old-fashioned percolator coffeepot on the gas range.

"Can't do filter," she said apologetically. "Power's out." She made a gesture towards the two big buckets on counter. "Pump, too."

"Good thing the old hand-pump's still working," Luther said. "Knew it would come in useful sometime."

Dennis cut in, as he leaned the handle of the war-axe against the door: "Mr. Finney, you've got a gun around, don't you?"

"'course," Luther said, puzzled; his chin and nose looked as if they were going to meet when he frowned. "Got a shotgun, and my old deer rifle, too. Why?"

"I'd rather you saw for yourself. Get one of 'em and go out back and pop off a couple of rounds into the woodpile. Either will do."

He raised a hand. "I can't explain and you won't believe me until you've tried. It'll save time. This is important. Humor me."

The old man glanced at Juniper; she nodded, and he shrugged and went out. The three sat down and obeyed Sarah's smiling wave, pitching into the food. Juniper hid a smile as she bit into a drumstick; Luther affected a hard-headed practicality and a loud contempt for any 'hippie nonsense', but he also kept a henhouse full of free-range Rhode Islands because they simply tasted better, and a half-acre vegetable garden for the same reason.

Dennis' eyes met hers, and she knew they shared a thought: I hope to hell that gun works properly...

A dull fumph came from the back yard, followed by a muttered curse and the sound of a shotgun's slide being racked, repeated several times along with the futile-sounding thumps. Juniper felt a twinge of disappointment, but not enough to make her stop eating. Luther came back with his lips moving silently. He could swear a blue streak when he wanted to, but had old-fashioned ideas about doing it in front of women or children—he'd been born in 1924, after all.

"You knew about this?" he said in a half-accusing voice, and sat—though not before he'd made sure there were no rounds left in the shotgun's magazine. He was thoroughly careful about firearms, courtesy of his father and a lifetime of hunting, plus World War Two and Korea.

"Yeah," Dennis said. He glanced over at Juniper. "You want to tell 'em, Juney?"

No, she thought. But I will.

She was more articulate, anyway, as befitted a musician and storyteller. When she'd finished the old man sat and stared at her for a while.

"Craziest damned thing I ever heard, Juney," he said after a moment. "But my equipment won't start, that's true; not the car or the pickup either. And the scattergun won't shoot worth ssss...shucks."

He shook his head. "There's going to be hell to pay while this lasts, too."

"How do you know it's not going to last forever?" she said grimly.

"Why... it can't," Finney said. "That'd be... why, that would be terrible."

Juniper swallowed. "Luther, it's already terrible. There are hundreds of people dead in Corvallis—maybe thousands. I mean that, Luther: thousands. I was down at the waterfront, helping with the people who got hurt. A 747 out of Portland crashed right there at 4th and Monroe, and a quarter of the town was up in flames by the time we left. If it's like that in Corvallis, what's it like in Portland or Seattle? Or LA or New York?"

Sarah's face had lost its smiling composure; Luther's hand clenched, and he looked at the silent radio on the countertop by the stove.

"And nothing works, Luther. Nothing. We got into a fight—"

Luther's eyes went wide as they described it; then they went to his own shotgun, leaning against the wall by the back door, and then to Dennis' axe.

"Luther," Sarah said. "Eddie and Susan and the children!"

Juniper and Dennis winced; so did Eilir, who read lips well. Those were the Finneys' son and daughter and grandchildren... there were great-grandchildren too, come to think of it. They all lived in Salem.

Luther made a calming gesture in his wife's direction with one gnarled hand, a gentleness in contrast with a look more grim and intent than the musician had ever seen on his features before. Though others might have recognized it, in the bloody, frozen hills around Chosin resevoir.

"Later, honey. Let's get things straight first." He looked back at his guests. "You figure this thing has happened all over?"

All three nodded. "I can't be sure," Juniper admitted. "But I climbed the tallest building in town and used my binoculars. It's dark out there, Luther. There isn't a single light, not a moving car, not a plane going overhead that I could see. All there are, are fires. Lots of fires. And you saw what happened with the gun—that's the way it was when we tried, too."

Luther nodded in his turn and sipped at his coffee. "So what do you three plan on doing about it?"

"Run like blazes and hide like hell," Dennis said. "I've got no family in Corvallis."

"We're going up to my great-uncle's old place in the foothills," Juniper said, leaning her head eastward for an instant. "It's nicely out of the way, and I expect some of my friends to head that way."

And Rudy, she thought.

The farmer frowned. "If things are all messed up this way, folks'll need to pull together," he said, a hint of disapproval in his voice.

Juniper felt herself flush—the curse of a redhead's complexion. "Luther, we've had some time to think about this. It's not just something like a barn on fire, or the river flooding."

Dennis nodded. "There's fifty, sixty thousand people in Corvallis alone," he said. "Every one of them gets their food from stores that get theirs from warehouses all over the country twice a week—I run a restaurant, so I should know. Mr. Finney, how many people do you think could live off the farms within a day's walk of Corvallis? Call it twenty miles, say forty on a bicycle."

Luther Finney thought for an instant, and his face went gray under the weathered tan. "Not too many. Most of the land right around Corvallis is in grass for seed, or flowers or nursery stock or specialties like mint. More'n half the farms don't even have livestock. Some orchards and truck, but not much. Take a while to plant... with hand tools, and getting the seed..."

Juniper put her elbows on the table and lowered her face into her hands, the heels over her eyes to block out the visions in her mind.

"And that's just Corvallis," she said. "The rest of the Willamette... there's a million plus in Portland alone, and there's Salem and Eugene and Albany... and no tractors or harvesters or—most farmers these days get their groceries from Albertsons or Smith's, just like everyone else. No trucks, no trains, no telephones—the government's gone—the cops and National Guard are just guys with sticks. Pretty soon, with no fresh water or working sewage plants there'll be sickness, too, really bad."

"Holy Hannah," Luther breathed. Sarah put a hand over her mouth.

"And that's why we're getting out," Juniper said. "My first responsibility is to Eilir—" though there's Ray, and by the Cauldron I hope my coveners are all right "—but we'd be glad to have you two along."

Luther blinked at her. "Well, thank you kindly," he said. "But surely we'd just be a burden to you? We're well fixed here if times are hard; there's the preserves, and the chickens, and the garden and the fruit trees. We're better off than we would have been back when I was doing real farming—I've had more time for puttering around putting in truck."

Dennis jerked his chin towards the shotgun leaning beside the door. "Thing is, Mr. Finney, that pretty soon a lot of people are going to get real hungry. And they're going to think that the place to get something to eat is out in the country. Then they'll come looking for dinner."

"Holy Hannah," Luther said again. Then he exchanged a look with his wife. "I see your point, you three. But we've got relatives around here, and our kids and grandkids will need a place to stay. They know where we are. No, I think we'll be staying here. And you're welcome to if you want, as well."

 

@@@

 

The floor of the Willamette valley was mostly flat, but here towards the edge of the Cascade foothills the odd butte reared up out of the fields. Juniper Mackenzie lay on the crest of one such, training her binoculars west; the damp ground soaked into her shirt, but the temperature was heading up, finally getting spring-like, and the earth had the yeasty smell of new growth. Crocus bloomed nearby, blue spears under a big Oregon Oak whose leaves were a tender green.

She swallowed, her hands trembling as she watched I-5, the main interstate that ran north-south from Portland to Eugene. The litter of motionless cars and trucks hadn't changed. The first thin scatter of trudging people on foot had; most of the stranded passengers had probably dispersed quickly, and for a day or two—the day her party had crossed—it had been nearly empty.

Now it was thronged. Groups on foot—they probably included a lot from Salem and the first or the most determined from Portland; perhaps some walking north from Eugene in ironic counterpoint to the flood heading south away from the metropolis.

Everyone looking for the place things are normal, and not finding it.

A lot of the ones on bicycles were almost certainly from Portland; it was an easy three day trip by pedal, and there were a lot of bicyclists there.

From Albany, too, she thought.

That city wasn't far away to the north; she could have seen it on a normal day. Today a thick plume of black smoke marked the location, and the faint bitter smell was an undertone to the earth scents. On the highway, a group was fighting around an eighteen-wheeler truck that had coasted into the rear of an SUV on the evening when everything changed, carried along by momentum. Merciful distance hid the details, but she there were certainly clubs and pieces of car-jack and tire-iron in use. Probably knives and shovels as well.

Must be food inside. Oh, Goddess, there goes another bunch.

Twenty or thirty cyclists traveling in a clump abruptly braked to a halt and drove into both groups fighting around the truck in a solid wedge. At this distance everything was doll-tiny even with the powerful binoculars, and she kept the point of aim moving so that she wouldn't catch more than an odd glimpse. There were already too many things in her head that kept coming back when she tried to sleep.

The worst of it was that she couldn't even blame them for fighting over the food. If everyone shared fairly, that would simply mean that everyone died of starvation. There just wasn't enough to go around, and no authority to enforce rationing if there was. Too little anywhere except in the immediate vicinity of a warehouse or a grain elevator or a packing plant—and there, too much, and no way to move it any distance before it spoiled.

Do not think of what New York or LA is like, she told herself. Do not. Do not.

That was like telling yourself not to think about the color orange, or an elephant, but she had to try if she wasn't going to curl up into a little ball and wait to die. Cuchulain thrust his nose in to her armpit and whined slightly as he scented her distress.

Instead she cased the binoculars, picked up her crossbow and started to thread her way down through the tangle of trees and brush that covered the steep south face of the butte, sliding down on her butt and controlling her descent with her heels more often than not; it was better than five hundred feet of steepness. Cuchulain kept pace with her, wuffling happily as he stuck his nose into holes and snapped at long-tailed butterflies.

She felt a moment's bitter envy; as far as the dog was concerned this was a perfect spring day, out with his person in the country, and she'd even let him eat some very high carrion. The only thing wrong was that she smelled scared and sad.

Then he went quiet, stiffened, and gave a low growl. Juniper reached out and grabbed his collar, whispering stay! in a low emphatic tone, and pushed her way forward the last few yards.

The narrow graveled road ran along the base of the butte, with a filbert orchard on the other side. The hobbled horses were grazing there among the new spring grass and the flowers, and the barrel shape of her wagon was a little distance further from the road, mostly hidden from a casual view; Dennis had agreed that it was best to travel only at night, by the back ways, and that slowly.

Now six people on bicycles faced him and Eilir where the gate from the road went through the orchard fence. They weren't openly hostile yet, but she could hear the raised voices, and she could see their desperation; they looked just as dirty and tired and ragged as she felt, and thinner. She'd been eating one small meal a day since the Change after that fried-chicken feast at Luther's; they looked as if they'd had nothing for quite some time.

Four men, two women, and a child, she thought. They realized they'd do best off the Interstate. Looking for normal means dying; better to look for food.

The child was young, no more than four or five. A boy, and with his own miniature cyclist's helmet; his mother's bicycle had a pillion seat for him. She was Oriental, and she was dangerously well armed. Two of the others carried baseball bats, one a golf club, one a spade with a thick straight-sided blade crudely sharpened; all of them had some sort of knife, if only the kitchen variety. But the Asian woman had an honest-to-goodness bow, and a quiver clipped to the side of it with four arrows; it was a fiberglass target weapon, not even meant for hunting, but potentially deadly for all that. An arrow was nocked to the string, but she hadn't drawn it.

"Look," Dennis said, his voice tight with frustration. "Look..."

He had the Danish axe held slantwise across his body, one hand on the end of the haft and one halfway up. Eilir stood beside him with her crossbow cocked and loaded but not quite leveled.

"I'm sorry as can be, but there's nothing we can do for you. We don't want any trouble. You can pass on by, and nobody will be hurt."

Just then one of Luther Finney's gifts—the rooster in the wire cage on the other side of the big barrel-shaped cart—chose an unfortunate moment to crow. It took the strangers a minute to understand what they were hearing; she could tell from the once-expensive sporty look of their clothes they were all deeply urban. But cock-a-doodle-doo! was familiar enough to sink in.

"You've got chicken!" one of the bicyclists screamed; it was the sound of a beggar confronted with riches.

"No, we don't," Juniper said firmly.

Everyone jerked around to look at her as she came out of the brush at the base of the hill and onto the road.

The stuff inside the wagon would be unimaginable wealth if you could see it, she thought grimly, as she advanced and stood on Dennis' other side. But it isn't. It's just barely enough to keep the three of us through until the seeds bear, if we're very lucky.

"That's a rooster and some breeding hens and we're not parting with them to make all of you one meal," Juniper went on.

She met their eyes one by one; she could feel her mother's accent getting a little stronger in her voice, as it did when she was angry or afraid:

"They have to help feed my family from now until... things get better."

She knew her own eyes were steady, and the green of them cold; more to the point, the three-bladed and very pointed head of the bolt in the groove of her cocked crossbow glittered bright and sharp in the cool spring sunshine.

Several of the strangers were literally drooling at the thought of chicken. One shook his aluminum baseball bat.

"You've got chicken, you've got horses, you've got stuff inside that funny wagon!" he shouted; his face was caked with dirt, and brown-and-gray stubble showed through it. "Nobody will give us anything!"

He mastered himself with a visible effort. "Look, just give us what you can spare. We'll... look, is there any sort of work you need done? We're not thieves. We just haven't had anything to eat for a day and a half now, and that was some crackers and olives and some soup we tried to make out of grass."

The child was hugging his mother's leg where she stood beside her bicycle; he had tear-tracks through the dust on his face.

"Hungry, mommy," he said. "I want something to eat."

She looked at Juniper. "You don't know what it's like back there," she said. "Back in Portland. The whole city's burning, and nobody has anything, criminals are stealing and killing—Terry'll die if he doesn't get some food!"

That set them all off; they crowded closer, leaving their cycles on the kickstands or dropping them and waving their arms and shouting.

Help! Juniper thought, her head going back and forth, trying to keep everyone in view.

These weren't bad people; probably none of them had so much as hit anyone since Junior High. But they were desperate.

And so am I, she thought, nerving herself. For Eilir. For Dennis. And yes, for my own sweet life which I'm not ready to give up yet, even to get out of this hell.

Then there was a sharp sound, a snapping tunnnggg of vibrating cord. Juniper's head whipped around; it was Eilir's weapon that had fired, and the Oriental woman was down on the ground screaming and writhing, clutching at a crossbow bolt through the outer part of her thigh. An arrow wobbled off from her bow and landed in the orchard not far from one of the horses, standing in the ground with the feathers up. The others' shouts turned to screams as well; Dennis took the moment to leap forward, roaring and flourishing the great axe overhead.

Eilir dropped the end of the crossbow to the ground, put her foot through the metal stirrup, and dropped the claw of the spanning device at her belt over the string. Then she hooked the other end over the butt of her weapon and whirled the crank-handle around half a dozen times. The mechanism clicked, and she put another quarrel in the groove with fumbling haste.

"Be off!" Juniper shouted at the same time, her weapon scanning back and forth.

She could only shoot one—but nobody wanted to be that one, or so she hoped from the bottom of her peaceful soul.

"Go! Now, while you can!"

They ran; not quite panicked enough to leave their bicycles, but several nearly falling in their haste as they sprang aboard them and pedaled madly westward, back towards I-5. Back towards despair and death in a ditch, most likely.

Eilir kept her crossbow to her shoulder until the last of them was out of sight. Then she dropped it and burst into clumsy racking sobs. Juniper tried to put an arm around her shoulder.

She was going to shoot you! Eilir cried in sign; then the girl tore away and raced into the orchard, sitting down with her back against a tree and wrapping her arms around her knees, face pressed into the faded denim of her jeans.

Dennis leaned on his axe, taking deep whooping breaths for an instant. "Oh, fuck, that was too close," he said. "Oh, hell."

Something small and hard rammed Juniper in the stomach. After an instant she realized it was the child's head, and he was trying to punch her as well.

"You don't hurt my mom!" he cried; he was sobbing too, but striking out with blind determination. "You don't hurt my mom!"

"I'm not going to hurt her!" Juniper said helplessly.

She wrapped her arms around the boy in self-defense, lifting him and handing the writhing, kicking bundle to Dennis.

"Or you either; be still, for the Goddess' sake!"

The Oriental woman was silent where she lay in the roadway, wide-eyed, clutching at her injured leg. The bolt Eilir had used had a smooth target head, and the blood trickled freely but did not have the fatal spurting flow that would mean a severed artery.

"He's just a little boy," the woman said as Juniper approached. "Please, whoever you are, he's just a little boy. He didn't hurt anyone. You've got to help him."

"And I'm not going to hurt him," the musician replied.

And she's thinking of nothing but her child, with that through her flesh. Damn it!

It would be so much easier just to go away and leave them if the injured woman were a ravening bandit spitting curses, or thinking of nothing but her own hurt.

"Will you let me see to the leg?" she went on aloud. A nod replied. "Toss your knife away, then. I have a daughter depending on me, and I'm not taking any chances."

Juniper used her own dagger to slit the tight cycling shorts up around where the shaft pierced the flesh, wincing as she looked at it. Dennis came up; he had their medicine box, and readied a bandage; the boy was standing behind him, darting looks around his legs and then turning away.

Juniper took a deep breath, gripped the bolt and pulled; it came free easily, and they occupied themselves with salve and tape for a moment.

"I'm Sally Quinn," the wounded woman said when she'd stopped panting and recovered herself somewhat. "My son's Terence, Terry."

She spoke good General American, with a very faint trace of an accent, and looked to be half a decade older than Juniper, though that might be the dirt and desperation and not having eaten much the past week.

Dennis surprised his friend by breaking into another language, fast-paced and with a nasal twang; she didn't think it was Chinese, which she could at least recognize. Sally started in surprise, smiled hesitantly through her pain and replied haltingly in the same tongue. After a moment she relapsed into English:

"But my parents came over in '75, when I was very young," she said. "I don't remember all that much."

Juniper looked at Dennis. Well, he's the right age, but he never said a word!

"You were in Vietnam?" she said curiously.

"In the rear with the gear," he said, shrugging. "Supply corporal. But I did pick up some of the language, yeah, dealing with the local economy. And we better didi-mao, you bet."

She recalled vaguely from books and movies that that meant get out, and it was true. She looked down at the injured woman; her son had crept close, and now he lay in the dusty grass beside the roadway with his head pillowed on her shoulder, looking at Juniper with enormous silent eyes. He had some of his mother's fine-boned comeliness, but his hair was dark brown and the features sharper.

"Was your husband with the... others here?" Juniper asked.

There was a wedding band on Sally's left hand, she certainly hadn't been born with the surname Quinn, and she had suburban respectability stamped all over her under the layer the days since the Change had left.

"No," Sally replied; her voice was tired and flat, and her face sagged with lack of sleep and food and hope. "Peter was working late at the office at HP... that night, you know what I mean."

They both nodded. "When things Changed," Juniper said, hearing the capitals in her own voice.

"He didn't come back. I couldn't go looking for him because of Terri, and it was four days. And then there was nothing left in the apartment, and nothing worked... the water, the toilets... there was fighting in the streets! And some people I knew a little said they were going to go south to where there was food; I think they wanted me to come because I had the bow, I'm in an archery club, we meet every second Saturday..."

The words trailed off. Juniper stood abruptly and paced, then turned. She left the words unsaid; Dennis was about to speak too. They met each other's eyes and Juniper shrugged angrily:

"Oh, we should not be doing this, Dennie, we really shouldn't. We shouldn't."

A hand tapped her on the shoulder. Yes we should, mom, Eilir signed. Yes we should. She held out a piece of cold biscuit to the boy, and he grabbed it and jammed it into his mouth.

"All right... Sally," Juniper said. "We can't help everyone... which doesn't mean we can't help anyone. You wait here, and we'll get you into the wagon when the horses are hitched." She looked at Dennis. "We'd best get a move on, before we pick up so many strays we're out of food even before we reach the cabin."

 

@@@

Cover 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

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


These sample chapters have been converted to HTML by Bo Johansson

Home! Index Book page smstirling.com