Dies the Fire | Chapter 5 of 13

Author: S.M. Stirling | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 15305 Views | Add a Review

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S. M. Stirling

DEDICATION

To Gina Taconi-Moore, and to her Andrew, currently serving the great Republic in a far-off, sandy, unpleasant place. Long life and happiness!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to Nick Pollotta, for a neat idea; to Dana Porter of Outdoorsman, Santa Fe, for advice on cutlery and survival; to Stephen Stuebner (author of Cool North Wind and many wonderful books on Idaho) for his works and advice; to the folks at Saluki Bows; to Kassai Lajos, whose Horseback Archery is a fascinating chronicle of his reconstructions of ancient and medieval horse archery, which were invaluable; to Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, Emily Mah, Yvonne Coates, Daniel Abrams, Terry England, Janet Stirling and George RR Martin of Critical Mass for their analysis and criticism; to Charles de Lint for advice on music and some cracklin' good tunes; to Parris McBride for help with the Wiccan religion and the loan of helpful material; to Kiers Salmon for help with Wicca and also for going all around Oregon doing research for me; to Robin Wood, for still more help with Wicca; and to Alison Brooks for inventing the phrase "Alien Space Bats," which I stole.

Special thanks to Heather Alexander, bard and balladeer, for permission to use the lyrics from her beautiful songs "The Star of May Morning," "John Barleycorn," "The Witch of the Westmoreland," "Dance in the Circle," and "Ladyes Bring Your Flowers Fair," which can be—and should be!—ordered at www.heatherlands.com. Run, do not walk, to do so.

 

 

Far-called our navies melt away
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

—Rudyard Kipling, "Recessional"

Chapter One

Boise Municipal Airport, Idaho
Tuesday, March 17th, 1998 6:15 p.m., MST—Change minus one hour

Michael Havel pulled his battered four-by-four into the employees' parking lot, locked up and swung his just-in-case gear out of the back, the strap of the pack over one shoulder and the gun case on the other. It was a raw early-spring Idaho afternoon, with the temperature in the low fifties; the light had a cool, bleakly clear quality, as if you could cut yourself on the blue of the sky.

He walked quickly across to the door marked "Steelhead Air Taxi" and opened it with three fingers and an elbow, whistling a Kevin Welch tune under his breath. Inside he set the gear down on a couple of chairs—the all-up weight was nearly eighty pounds—and opened his heavy sheepskin jacket, stuffing his knit cap into one pocket.

That left his black hair ruffled the way it always did, and he smoothed it down with the palms of both hands. The air here smelled a bit of burned fuel and oil, which couldn't be helped around an airport.

"You said the bossman had something for me, Mellie?" he asked the secretary as he went to the pot on the table in the corner and poured himself a cup.

The coffee was Steelhead Air Taxi standard: oily, bitter and burnt, with iridescent patches of God-knew-what floating on the surface. He poured half-and-half in with a lavish hand until it looked pale brown. This was an informal outfit, family-run: Dan and Gerta Fogarty had flown themselves until a few years ago; there was Mellie Jones, who was Gerta's aunt; and six pilots, one Mike Havel being the youngest at twenty-eight, and the most recent hire.

"Yup," the white-haired woman behind the desk said. "Wants you to hop some passengers to a ranch field in the Bitterroot Valley, north of Victor. The Larssons, they're visiting their holiday place."

Havel's eyebrows went up; it was a damned odd time of year to be taking a vacation there. Tail end of the season for winter sports, but still plenty cold, and the weather would be lousy. Then he shrugged; if the client wanted to go, it was the firm's job to take him. Steelhead Air did a little of everything: flying tourists, fishermen and Whitewater rafters into wilderness areas in summer, taking supplies to isolated ranchers in the winter with skis on the planes instead of wheels, whatever came to hand. There was a lot of unroaded territory around this neck of the woods. He glanced at the wall clock. It wasn't long to sunset; call it six forty-five, this time of year. Two hundred forty ground miles to the Montana border, a little more to wherever the Larssons had their country place, call it two, three hours … 

"They've got landing lights?" he said.

Mellie snorted. "Would Dan be sending you if they didn't?"

He looked over her shoulder at the screen as he sipped the foul sour coffee, reading off the names: Kenneth Larsson, his wife, Mary, son and daughter Eric and Signe, both eighteen, and another named Astrid four years younger.

"Larsson … Larsson … from Portland, businessman?" he said. "Heard the bossman mention the name once, I think."

Mellie made an affirmative sound as she worked on her PC.

"Old money, timber and wheat—then Ken Larsson tripled it in high tech. Used to hire us regular, back before 'ninety-six, but not lately. Hasn't brought the family before."

Havel nodded again; he'd only been flying for Steelhead since the spring of '97. It was nice to know that Dan trusted him; but then, he was damned good if he said so himself, which he didn't. Not aloud, anyway.

He went through into the office. Dan Fogarty was sitting and chatting with the clients while Gerta worked behind piles of paper on the desk. There were wilderness posters and models of old bush planes and books on Idaho and the Northwest on shelves. And a faint meowing … 

That was unusual.

The Larssons' youngest had a cat carrier on her lap; the beast's bulging yellow eyes shone through the bars, radiating despair and outrage. It wasn't taking the trip well; cats seldom did, being little furry Republicans with an inbuilt aversion to change. Judging from an ammonia waft, it was—literally—pissed off.

The kid was unusual as well, all huge silver-blue eyes and long white-blond hair, dressed in some sort of medieval-looking suede leather outfit, her nose in a book—an illustrated Tolkien with a tooled-leather cover. She had an honest-to-God bow in a case leaning against her chair, and a quiver of arrows.

She kept her face turned to the print, ignoring him. He'd been raised to consider that sort of behavior rude, but then, she was probably used to ignoring the chauffeur, and his family hadn't had many employees.

Havel grinned at the thought. His dad had worked the Iron Range mines from the day he got back from Vietnam and got over a case of shrapnel acne picked up at Khe Sanh; his father had done the same after getting back from a tour of Pacific beauty spots like Iwo Jima, in 1945; his father had done the Belleau Wood Tour de France in 1918 before settling down to feed the steel mills; and his father had gone straight into the mines after arriving from Finland in 1895. When the mines weren't hiring, the Havel men cut timber and worked the little farm the family had acquired around the turn of the century and did any sort of honest labor that fell their way.

Kenneth Larsson matched the grin and stood, extending a hand. It was soft but strong; the man behind it was in his fifties, which made him twice Mike Havel's age; graying blond ponytail, shoulders still massive but the beer gut straining at his expensive leather jacket, square ruddy face smiling.

"Ken Larsson," he said.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Larsson. Havel's the name— Mike Havel."

"Sorry to drag you out so late in the day; Dan tells me you were on vacation."

Havel shrugged. "It's no trouble. I wouldn't be bush-flying out of Boise for a living if I didn't like it."

That brought a chuckle. You can see he's the type who likes to smile, Havel thought. But he hasn't been doing a lot of it just lately, and that one's a fake.

"Midwest?" Larsson said shrewdly.That was a lot to pick up from a few words. "Minnesota? Got some Svenska in there? We're Swedes ourselves, on my side of the family."

Not much of a surprise, with a moniker like that, Havel thought. Aloud he went on: "Not too far off, both times. Michigan—Upper Peninsula, the Iron Range. Finn, mostly, on my father's side. Lot of Swede in Mom's father's family— and her mother was Ojibwa, so I'm one-quarter."

He ran a hand over his jet-black hair. "Purebred American mongrel!"

"Havel's an odd name for a Finn," Larsson said. "Czech, isn't it?"

"Yeah. When my great-grandfather got to the Iron Range about a hundred years ago, the mine's Bohunk payclerk heard 'Myllyharju' and said right then and there: 'From now on, your name is Havel!'"

That got a real laugh; Signe Larsson looked charming when she smiled.

"My wife, Mary," Larsson went on, and did the introductions.

Her handshake was brief and dry. Mary Larsson was about forty, champagne-colored hair probably still natural, so slim she was almost gaunt. She had the same wide-eyed look as her younger daughter, except that it came across as less like an elf and more like an overbred collie, and her voice was pure Back Bay Boston, so achingly genteel that she didn't unclench her teeth even for the vowels.

That accent reminds me of Captain Stoddard, Havel thought; the New Englander had led his Force Recon unit across the Iraqi berm back in '91. He had that thin build, too.

The son and eldest daughter were twins; both blue-eyed with yellow-blond hair, tall—the boy was already his father's six-two, which put him three inches up on Michael Havel, and built like a running back. Eighteen, the same age as Mike had been when he'd left the Upper Peninsula for the Corps, but looking younger, and vaguely discontented. His sister … 

Down boy! Havel thought. Jesus, though, I envy those hip-hugger jeans.

An inch or three below his own five-eleven, short straight nose, dusting of freckles, and … 

Jesus what a figure … twenty-eight isn't that old … 

"Mike's one of my best," Dan said.

"Glad to hear it," Larsson senior said.

Everyone bustled around, signing forms and collecting coats. Havel helped with the baggage—there wasn't all that much—buttoning his coat but glad to be out in the clean chill. Then he did a walk-around of the Piper Chieftain. The ground crew was good, but they weren't going to be taking a twin-engine puddle jumper over the biggest wilderness in the lower forty-eight.

Larsson's eyebrows went up when Mike loaded his own baggage; a waterproof oblong of high-impact synthetics with straps that made it a backpack too, and the unmistakable shape of a rifle case.

"Something I should know about?" he said.

"Nope, Mr. Larsson," Mike said. "Just routine; I'm a cautious man."

Larsson nodded. "What's the gun?"

"Remington 700," he said. That was a civilianized version of the Marine sniper rifle. "I used its first cousin in the Corps, and it makes a good deer rifle, too."

Signe Larsson sniffed and turned away ostentatiously; possibly because he was an ex-Marine, or a hunter.

Oh, well, he thought. I'm dropping them off in a couple of hours, anyway.

Eric Larsson grinned at his sister with brotherly maliciousness. "Hey, maybe he could shoot you a tofu-lope, sis, now you're back on the vegetarian wagon. Nothing like a rare tofu-lope steak, charred outside and all white and bleeding goo on the inside—"

She snorted and climbed the rear-mounted stairs into the Chieftain.

Havel admired the view that presented, waited for everyone else to get in, and followed. He made discreetly sure that everyone was buckled up—it was amazing how many people thought money could buy them exemption from the laws of nature. Then he slid into his own position at the controls and put the headphones on, while he went through the checklist and cleared things with the tower and got his mind around the flight plan.

That had the bonus effect of keeping out the Larssons' bickering, which was quiet but had an undertone like knives. It died away a little as the two piston engines roared; he taxied out and hit the throttles. There was the usual heavy feeling at the first surge of acceleration, and the ground fell away below. His feet and hands moved on the pedals and yoke; Boise spread out below him, mostly on the north side of the river and mostly hidden in trees, except for the dome of the state capitol and the scattering of tall buildings downtown.

Suburbs stretched northwest for a ways, and there was farmland to the west and south, a checkerboard between irrigation canals and ditches that glinted in quick flashes of brilliance as they threw back the setting sun.

He turned the Chieftain's nose northeast. The ground humped itself up in billowing curves, rising a couple of thousand feet in a few minutes. Then it was as if they were flying over a mouth—a tiger's mouth, reaching for the sky with serrated fangs of saw-toothed granite. Steep ridges, one after another, rising to the great white peaks of the Bitterroots on the northeastern horizon, turned ruddy pink with sunset.

Some snow still lay on the crests below and under the shade of the dense forest that covered the slopes—Douglas fir, hemlock, western cedar—great trees two hundred feet tall and spiky green. Further north and they passed the Salmon River, then the Selway, tortuous shapes far below in graven clefts that rivaled the Grand Canyon. A thousand tributaries wound through steep gorges, the beginnings of snowmelt sending them brawling and tossing around boulders; a few quiet stretches were flat and glittering with ice. The updrafts kept the air rough, and he read the turbulence through hands and feet and body as it fed back through the controls.

Larsson stuck his head through into the pilot's area.

"Mind if I come up?"

The big man wormed his way forward and collapsed into the copilot's seat.

"Pretty country," he said, waving ahead and down.

Pretty but savage, Havel thought.

He liked that; one of the perks of this job was that he got to go out in it himself, hunting or fishing or just backpacking … and you could get some of the hairiest hang gliding on earth here.

"None prettier," the pilot replied aloud.

Poor bastard, Havel thought to himself. Good-looking wife, three healthy kids, big house in Portland, vineyard in the Eola Hills, ranch up in Montanahe knows he should be happy and can't quite figure out why he isn't anymore.

He concealed any offensive stranger's sympathy, and switched the other set of headphones to a commercial station.

"Damnedest thing!" the big man said after a while, his face animated again.

"Yes?" Havel said.

"Odd news from back East," Larsson said. "Some sort of electrical storm off Cape Cod—not just lightning, a great big dome of lights over Nantucket, half a dozen different colors. The weather people say they've never seen anything like it."

Mary Larsson brightened up; she was Massachusetts-born herself.

"That is strange," she said. "We used to summer on Nantucket when I was a girl—"

Mike Havel grinned to himself and filtered out her running reminiscences and Larsson's occasional attempts to get a bit in edgewise; instead he turned to the news channel himself. The story had gotten her out of her mood, which would make the trip a lot less tense. Behind her the three Larsson children were rolling their eyes but keeping silent, which was a relief.

The voice of the on-the-spot reporter cruising over Nantucket Sound started to range up from awestruck to hysterical.

They're really sounding sort of worried, there, he thought. I wonder what's going

White light flashed, stronger than lightning, lances of pain into his eyes, like red-hot spikes of ice. Havel tasted acid at the back of his throat as he jerked up his hands with a strangled shout. Vision vanished in a universe of shattered light, then returned. Returned without even afterimages, as if something had been switched off with a click. The pain was gone too, instantly.

Voices screamed behind him. He could hear them well … 

Because the engines are out, he realized. Every fucking thing is out! She's dead. And I'm a smear on a mountain unless I get this thing flying again.

That brought complete calm.

"Shut up!" he snapped, working the yoke and pedals, seizing control from the threatening dive and spin. "Keep quiet and let me work!"

Sound died to somebody's low whimper and the cat's muted yowls of terror. Over that he could hear the cloven air whistling by. They had six thousand feet above ground level, and the surface below was as unforgiving as any on earth. He gave a quick glance to either side, but the ridgetops nearby were impossible, far too steep and none of them bare of trees. It was a good thing he knew where all the controls were, because the cabin lights were dead, and the nav lights too; not a single circuit working.

Not good, he thought. Not good. Not … fucking … good.

He ran through the starting procedure, one step and another and hit the button … 

Nothing, he cursed silently, as he went through the emergency restart three times and got three identical meaningless click sounds.

The engines are fucked. What the hell could knock everything out like this? What was that white flash?

It could have been an EMP, an electromagnetic pulse; that would account for all the electrical systems being out. He sincerely hoped not, because about the only way to produce an EMP that powerful was to set off a nuke in the upper atmosphere.

The props were spinning as they feathered automatically. She still responded to the yoke—Thank God!—but even the instrument panel was mostly inert, everything electrical gone. The artificial horizon and altimeter were old-fashioned hydraulics and still working, and that was about it. The radio was completely dead, not even a flip of static as he worked the switches.

With a full load, the Chieftain wasn't a very good glider. They could clear the ridge ahead comfortably, but probably not the one beyond—they got higher as you went northeast. Better to put her down in this valley, with a little reserve of height to play around with.

"All right," he said, loud but calm as the plane silently floated over rocks and spots where the long straw-brown stems of last year's grass poked out through the snow.

"Listen. The engines are out and I can't restart them. I'm taking us down. The only flat surface down there is water. I'm going to pancake her on the creek at the bottom of the valley. It'll be rough, so pull your straps tight and then duck and put your heads in your arms. You, kid"—Eric Larsson was in the last seat, near the rear exit—"when we stop, get that door open and get out. Make for the shore; it's a narrow stream. Everyone else follow him. Fast. Now shut up."

He banked the plane, sideslipping to lose altitude. Christ Jesus, it's dark down there.

There was still a little light up higher, but below the crest line he had to strain his eyes to catch the course of the water. The looming walls on either side were at forty-five degrees or better, it would have been like flying inside a closet with the light out if the valley hadn't pointed east-west, and the creek was rushing water over rocks fringed with dirty ice.

Thank God the moon's up.

He strained his eyes … yes, a slightly flatter, calmer section. It ended in a boulder about the size of the mobile home he lived in, water foaming white on both sides.

So I'll just have to stop short of that.

In. In. Sinking into night, shadow reaching up. Gliding, the valley walls rearing higher on either hand, trees reaching out like hands out of darkness to grasp the Piper and throw it into a burning wreck. Lightly, lightly, bleed off speed with the flaps but don't let her stall, keep control … 

Then he was nearly down, moving with shocking speed over the churning riffled surface silvered by moonlight. Here goes.

"Brace for impact!" he shouted, and pulled the nose up at the last instant, straining at the control yoke. They were past the white-water section; it should be deeper here.

"Come on, you bitch, do it!"

The tail struck, with a jolt that snapped his teeth together like the world's biggest mule giving him a kick in the ass. Then the belly of the Chieftain pancaked down on the water and they were sliding forward in a huge rooster tail of spray, scrubbing speed off in friction. And shaking like a car with no shocks on a real bad road as they hit lumps of floating ice. Another chorus of screams and shouts came from the passengers, but he ignored them in the diamond clarity of concentration.

Too fast, he thought.

The boulder at the end of the flat stretch was rearing up ahead of him like God's flyswatter. He snarled at death as it rushed towards him and stamped on the left rudder pedal with all his strength and twisted at the yoke—the ailerons would be in the water and should work to turn the plane. If he could—

The plane swiveled, then struck something hard below the surface. That caught the airframe for an instant, and inertia punched them all forward before the aluminum skin tore free with a scream of rending metal.

Then they were pinwheeling, spinning across the water like a top in a fog of droplets and shaved ice as they slowed. Another groan from the frame, and he shouted as an impact wrenched at them again, brutally hard. Loose gear flew across the cabin like fists. Things battered him, sharp and gouging, and his body was rattled back and forth in the belt like a dried pea in a can, nothing to see, only a sense of confused rushing speed … 

Then the plane was down by the nose and water was rilling in around his feet, shocking him with the cold. They were sinking fast, and there was almost no light now, just a gray gloaming far above.

With a gurgling rush the ice water swept over the airplane's cockpit windows.

Chapter Two

Hopping Toad Tavern, Corvallis, Oregon
Tuesday, March 17th, 1998 6:14:30 p.m., PST—Change minus thirty seconds

"On a bright Beltane morning
I rise from my sleep
And softly go walking
Where the dark is yet deep
And the tall eastern mountain
With its stretch to the sky
Casts a luminous shadow
Where my true love doth lie—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What the hell was that?" someone shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now their eyes met.

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

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

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

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

The two adults crowded into the narrow window seat; Dennis snatched up a pair of his binoculars that Eilir had left there. After a moment he began to swear; she took the glasses away from him and then began to swear too. There was a fire over towards downtown, a big one, flames towering into the sky higher than any of the intervening buildings. It was extremely visible because there wasn't a streetlight on, and hardly any lit windows, or a moving car.

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

"Lady Mother-of-All!" Juniper whispered, her finger tracing a pentagram in the air before her.

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

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

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

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

"There must be hundreds hurt," she said. Hundreds dead, more like, her mind insisted on telling her. She swallowed, and added silently to herself: Horned Lord of Death and Resurrection, guide the dying to the Summerlands.

Merciful Lady, preserver of life, keep the living safe. So mote it be!

Aloud she went on: "And where are the emergency people?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody's going to benefit if you start crying, she thought sternly, and traced the pentacle in the air again—the Summoning form this time, all she had time for. Brigid, Goddess of Healing, help me now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's wrong?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click.

Juniper blinked in surprise. A woman living alone with her daughter on the road was well advised to keep a pistol, and she'd taken a course to learn how to use it safely. Misfires were rare.

The policeman evidently thought it was odd too. He jacked the slide of the automatic back, ejecting the useless round, and fired into the air once more.

Click.

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

Click.

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

Click.

He shrugged, tossed the gun aside, and pulled a tire iron from his belt instead. The youth with the chain belt unhooked it and swung it from his left hand. Something else came into his right, and he made a quick figure-eight motion of the wrist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Either of you hurt?" she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

"Remember what the fireman said?" Juniper asked quietly. "About the dynamite not working? And what are the odds of that many cartridges not working?"

"You know," he said in his mild voice, "I never really liked guns. Not dead set against 'em like John, but I never liked 'em. But … y'know, Juney, I've got this feeling we're going to miss them. Pretty bad."

Chapter Three

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 as bits 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 apparently 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 on to the hatch; he arched his head upward, and there was a small air bubble trapped in the tail space in 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 darkness of 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; semiconscious, 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 semi-consciousness.

The morphine had taken effect, and an inflatable pressure-bandage 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 degrees 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."

"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 ELT in the plane is out, and those are real rugged. 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."

"Ouch."

Havel nodded: "That means sixty miles on foot out to U.S. 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 snowmelt. 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 U.S. 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 reminded 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 multi-tool 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 off-white 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."

"Yes," Larsson said. "Whatever's happened, the stuff is slower-burning now. Not really explosive propagation at all, even if the primer had gone off, which it didn't. Hand me another, would you? One of the ones you tried to fire."

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 have 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 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 birchwood, 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 ground-sheets 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?"

"Twenty-five pounds."

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 the 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 afterward?"

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 the 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 afterward 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.

Chapter Four

"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 Lacey 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 feeling. 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 all 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.

Click.

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.

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 Fourth 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. As far as I can tell, explosives don't explode anymore. They just burn, sorta slow." 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 Martin now and then and liked him, although Dennis's 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 short-sword 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 ax—nothing like the firefighting tool he'd used in the brief street fight. It was a replica of a Viking-era Danish bearded war-ax, 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 ax 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 cash box. 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."

"Friend?"

"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 burnt 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."

"Two thousand."

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 backward 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 backward.

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 school. 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 fugue.

In fact … 

"Stop!" he said, as they reached Jefferson from Sixth.

"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."

"What?"

"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 as 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 decor of the cafe area at the front; it was even candlelit, as it usually was for the rites. The carpet covering the Circle and the Quarter Signs 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: "Rudy's dead."

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 and 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 … "

INTERLUDE I: THE CHANGE

Portland, Oregon March 31st, 1998

Emiliano knew the way to the Central Library on Tenth 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 tone.

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 ax-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 ax-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 Cat and the 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 blond 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: "Lord Emiliano?"

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 white-bread 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's 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. There were 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 trash can. "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 ax, 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, over-aged, 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 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 anymore. 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.

Chapter Five

Sssst!" Michael Havel hissed, and held his left hand up with the fist clenched.

Footfalls stopped behind him as he peered into the brush and half-melted snow along the Centennial Trail, in the cold shadow of the tall red cedars.

Just being on it was a relief; all he knew of this particular stretch of country was maps and compass headings, and it was an enormous mental load off his shoulders to be able to follow a marked trail—even if it was still wet with slush, and muddy. As a fringe benefit of being here between the end of cross-country skiing season and the beginning of hiking, the animals weren't all that wary, since they didn't expect humans along.

He'd trimmed and smoothed a yard-long stick from a branch; it was as thick as Astrid Larsson's wrist, and nicely heavy. He let it fall from where he'd been carrying it under his armpit; the end smacked into his palm with a pleasant firmness. The snowshoe hare made a break for it as he moved, streaking up the slope and jinking back and forth as it went; he whipped the stick forward and it flew in a pinwheeling blur.

"Yes!" he said.

The throw had the sweet, almost surprising feel you always got when you were going to hit. The rabbit stick hit the hare somewhere in the body, and it went over in a thrashing tangle of limbs and a shrill squeal. He started forward, but Astrid's voice checked him: "There's another one!"

The second terrified-rodent streak was much farther up the slope; he waited as the girl brought the bow up, drawing in a smooth flexing of arms and shoulders as it rose.

The string snapped against her bracer, and the arrow flashed out in a long beautifully shallow curve; he followed it with an avid hope born of days of hard work and short rations.

Damn! he thought; the other snowshoe jinked left at just the wrong moment.

Astrid muttered something under her breath as she recovered the arrow. Then she checked it—you had to keep broadheads sharp—and smiled at him in congratulations.

"Better luck next time," he called to her.

He trotted to his kill and finished the hare off with a sharp blow of the rabbit stick; the animal was a young male, a little under two pounds, with the relatively small ears and big feet of its breed. He was crouched by the side of the trail getting ready for the gutting and skinning when the stretcher came into sight.

Eric Larsson was on one end, and his sister on the other. They both exclaimed in delight at the sight of the rabbit; even their father looked up from where he walked beside his wife and smiled.

"And that's why they call it a rabbit stick," Havel said, grinning and waving. "Take a rest, everyone, it's time to change off anyway."

He'd stripped off his sheepskin coat and rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt; it was chilly, but getting blood out of the fleece was impossible. There was a little hone in a pocket on the outside of his belt sheath; the steel went scritch-scritch-scritch over it as he put a finer edge on the puukko and began breaking the game.

Astrid drifted off ahead; she could shoot rabbits easily enough now, and was certainly willing to eat her share, but she didn't like to watch the butchering. Eric followed, probably to tease her—someone was going to have to tell the kid to lay off it, but Havel remembered what his brothers had been like and doubted it would happen anytime soon. The problem there would come when Eric got some food and rest and felt full enough of beans to try pushing at the older man, and hopefully this whole lot would be off Michael Havel's hands by then.

Ken stayed beside the stretcher as he always did at stops, holding Mary Larsson's hand; he and his wife talked in low tones, usually of inconsequential things back in Portland, as if this was just a frustrating interruption in their ordinary lives.

Which means Mr. Larsson knows his wife better than I thought, Havel told himself. Which will teach me to try and sum someone up on short acquaintance.

Biltis the orange cat also jumped up on the stretcher, burrowing down to curl up beside the injured woman in what Astrid insisted was affection and Havel thought was a search for somewhere warm and dry in this detested snowy wilderness. She made a pretty good heater-cat, though.

He grinned at the thought; the cat would come out for its share of the offal, right enough; it would even purr and rub against his ankles. Cats and dogs and horses were more honest than people—they really did like you when you did things for them, instead of faking it.

Signe Larsson came up; she leaned his survival pack against a tree—she carried it, when she wasn't on stretcher duty, freeing him up to forage—and squatted on her hams with her arms around her knees, watching him skin and butcher the little animal. She didn't flinch at the smell or sight of game being butchered anymore, either.

He'd roll the meat, heart, kidneys and liver in the hide, and they'd stew everything when they made camp—he still had a few packets of dried vegetables, and the invaluable titanium pot. You got more of the food value that way than roasting, particularly from the marrow, and it made one small rabbit go a lot further among six. Plus Mary Larsson found liquids easier to keep down. The antibiotics gave her a mild case of nausea on top of the pain of her leg; he was worried about the bone, although the pills were keeping fever away.

"Who calls it a rabbit stick?" Signe said after a moment, nodding towards the tool he'd used to kill the hare.

"The Anishinabe," he said, his hands moving with skilled precision. "Which means 'the People,' surprise surprise— the particular bunch around where we lived are called Ojibwa, which means 'Puckered Up.' My grandmother's people; on Mom's side, that is. I used to go stay with Grannie Lauder and her relatives sometimes; she lived pretty close to our place."

"Oh," she said. "That's how you learned all this … woodcraft?"

She looked around at the savage wilderness and shivered a bit. "You really seem at home here. It's beautiful, but … hostile, not like Larsdalen—our summer farm—or even the ranch in Montana. As if all this"—she waved a hand at the great steep snow-topped slopes all around them—"hated us, and wanted us to die."

"These mountains aren't really hostile," Havel said. "They're like any wilderness, just indifferent, and … oh, sort of unforgiving of mistakes. If you know what you're doing, you could live here even in winter."

"Well, maybe you could, Mike," she said with a grin. "What would you need?"

"A nice tight cabin and a year's supply of grub, ideally," he said, chuckling in turn.

She mimed picking up the rabbit stick and hitting him over the head.

He went on: "Minimum? Well, with a rabbit stick and a knife you can survive in the bush most times of the year; and with a knife you can make a rabbit stick and whatever else you need, like a fire drill. You can even hunt deer with the knife; stand over a little green-branch fire so the smoke kills your scent, then stalk 'em slow—freeze every time they look around, then take a slow step while they're not paying attention, until you get within arm's reach."

"That's fascinating!" she said, her blue eyes going wide. "Of course, the Native Americans did live here."

The big blue eyes looked good that way, but … He gave a slight mental wince.

I'm too fucking honest for my own good, he told himself wryly. Also I'm effectively in charge here, damnit, which means I can't play fast and loose. Not to mention her parents are watching … 

"Even the Nez Perce starved here when times were bad," he said. "Nobody lived in these mountains if they hadn't been pushed out of somewhere better. I hope you don't believe any of that mystic crap about Indians and the landscape."

"Oh, of course not," she replied, obviously lying, and equally obviously wanting to correct him to Native American.

"Indians have to learn this stuff just like us palefaces," he went on. "It's not genetic. But some of Grandma's relatives were hunters and trappers, real woodsmen, and I used to hang around them. Learned a lot from my own dad too, of course. Though I figure the Ojibwa part is why I'm so chatty and talkative. It's perverse for a Finn."

He scrubbed down his hands and forearms with some of the snow lying in the shade of a whortleberry bush, trying not to think about hot showers and soap. She passed him his coat again, and winced a bit doing it, pulling her hands back protectively and curling the fingers as he took the garment.

"Damn, let me look at that."

He took her hand in his and opened it. The palms looked worse than they were, because the strings of skin from the burst blisters had turned black. Havel drew his puukko again, tested the edge by shaving a patch of hair from his forearm, then began to neatly trim the stubs of dead skin; that should help a little, and reduce the chafing. There hadn't been time for her to really grow any calluses yet.

"I told you to put more of the salve on them," he scolded. "You're pushing it too hard. When something starts bleeding, say so and someone will spell you on the stretcher."

"I'm doing less than Eric is, Mike," she said.

"You're also forty pounds lighter than Eric, and most of that's on his shoulders and arms," Havel said bluntly. "I thought you had more between your ears than he does, though. You've got nothing to prove." And you're certainly not the cream-puff airhead I thought you were, he thought. Massively ignorant, but not stupid.

She learned quickly, rarely had to be told how to do something twice, and didn't stand around waiting to be found work.

And she's no quitter or whiner. Complains less than her brother.

"Eric may be bigger, but I'm a lot younger than Dad—I don't like the way he looks," she went on, leaning a little closer and lowering her voice. "Mike, he goes gray sometimes when he's been on the stretcher for twenty minutes, especially on the steep parts. The doctor's warned him about his heart. What will we do if he … gets sick … out here? Carrying him and Mom—"

There she's got me, he thought, looking over at the elder Larsson.

The flesh had melted away from him, but it didn't make him look healthy, just sort of sagging, and his color was as bad as Signe thought. Cold and the brutal work and lack of proper sleep or enough food was grinding him down, and he wasn't a young man or in good shape.

And this isn't the way to get into shape at his age. Much more of this and I wouldn 't bet on him coming through. But I can't take him off carrying the stretcher for at least some of the time. There's too much else to do and I'm the one who knows how to do it.

"By the way, Mike," Signe said, obviously pushing the worry aside with an effort of will. "There's something you should consider about 'mystical crap,' as you put it."

His brows went up and she continued by putting her hand out, fingers cocked like a pistol and making a ffff-fumph between lips and teeth, uncannily like the way his gun had sounded when he tried to fire it.

Have to admit, you've got a point, he thought, and was about to say it aloud when he heard Eric's voice, cracking with excitement: "A deer! She got a deer, and it's running away!"

Havel was on his feet and running forward in an instant, scooping up the rabbit stick and tumbling Signe on her backside with a squawk; she was up and following him half a heartbeat later, though.

He passed Eric, but the twins were right on his heels as he flashed into the clearing; their legs were long and their hightops were better running gear than his solid mountain boots. Astrid was a hundred yards ahead, sprinting fast with the bow pumping back and forth in her left hand; and the blood trail was clear enough for anyone to follow— bright gouts and splashes of it on snow and mud and last year's dry grass sticking through both. He pushed himself harder, knowing all too well how the tap could turn off suddenly on a trail like that, unless—

He went through a belt of lodgepole pines, like seventy-foot candlesticks; the ground beneath them was fairly clear, and the wounded animal was following the trail; that wasn't too surprising, since it was on level ground and would make for maximum speed. Massive tree boles flashed by him, and then they were out into bright sunlight with mountain ridges rippling away to the west and south like endless green-white waves on a frozen sea. Thin mountain air burned cold in his chest; Astrid's hair was like a white-silk banner as he pulled past her. Then the trail jinked a little higher.

Good! he thought exultantly. Make him work at it!

The blood trail wasn't dying off; getting thicker, if anything. Then he saw the animal in a patch of sunlight not far ahead.

That's no by-God deer, he thought.

It was an elk; a three-year bull still carrying his rack, a six-pointer, and he knew it must be badly wounded—a healthy elk could do thirty-five miles an hour in a sprint, and twenty all day long. As Havel neared it staggered, gave a gasping, bugling grunt of pain, and began to collapse by the rear. Blood poured out of its nose and mouth; the forelegs gave way, and it lay down and groaned, jerked, and went still with its thick tongue hanging out of its mouth.

Astrid and the twins were only a few seconds behind him. "Stand back!" he said sharply, controlling his breathing.

As if to back up his words the beast gave a final galvanic kick; it was a little thin with winter, but sill magnificent— glossy reddish brown on most of its body, with a shaggy gray mane on its thick neck and a yellowish patch on the rump around the small white tail. He could just see the fletching of the two-foot arrow against its rib cage behind the left shoulder; Astrid must have been lucky. The blade of the broadhead had struck with the edges up and down, slipping between two ribs and going through right into the lungs, probably cutting a big artery or nicking the heart too. The arrow could never have punched through the outer ribs if it had struck horizontally, not from a twenty-five pound draw.

Even so, that was a light bow and a short shaft to bring down something this size; bull elk were the size of a medium-sized horse. This one wasn't quite full-grown, but it would dress out at four hundred pounds or more of steaks, roasts, chops, ribs and organ meat, enough to feed six people for a month. The main problem would be carrying it; in this weather it would keep a long time once he'd drained it properly and dressed it out.

Astrid was dancing from one foot to another and crowing with glee: "He stepped right onto the trail! He was only twenty feet away! Go me! Go me! I got him, I got him!"

"That you did, kid," Havel said. "That makes up for a hell of a lot of lost rabbits!"

Signe hugged her sister and danced her in a circle. Even her brother gave an admiring whistle.

"I take it back, Legolamb," he said. "I'm gonna say 'sorry' with every mouthful."

Havel nodded agreement and moved in to make sure of the elk with his knife; on the one hand there was no point in letting it suffer, but on the other he didn't want a hoof through his skull or six inches of pointed antler in his crotch either.

"Sorry, brother, but we needed it," he said, in an almost noiseless whisper—he never spoke that aloud, not wanting to be thought gooey or New-Agey—and passed his hand over the beast's eyes and then his own.

Maybe we could camp for a day's rest, he thought. Mrs. Larsson isn 't looking very good, and

Then what he was seeing through the stand of mountain ash penetrated.

"Eric," he said. "Come on."

"What?" the young man said.

Havel pointed and grinned. "The ranger cabin's just through there," he said. "I figure we can get your mom into a real bed and start the stove in about twenty minutes."

 

Clean underwear, even, Michael Havel exulted the next morning.

What was more, he was clean; it made his gamy clothes repulsive, but he pulled them on and padded out into the hallway carrying his boots and followed his nose to the kitchen, gratefully taking a cup of bad instant coffee from Astrid at the doorway.

The four-room log cabin had been built by the WPA back in the thirties, and it had a big woodstove with a water heater, plenty of stacked firewood, a meat safe and even some food in the pantry—flour in a sealed bin, canned fruit and vegetables, salt and pepper and baking soda—left for just this sort of emergency. There were blankets in a cupboard too; even in this year of grace 1998 you didn't have to assume vandals and thieves would be by, not in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot, you didn't. That kind usually didn't have the stamina for a three-day hike through frigid mountain forest from the nearest road.

For castaways like Havel and his passengers, the Forest Service would be forgiving.

The radio was thoroughly dead, and the batteries too— not even a tickle from the tongue taste-test, which didn't surprise him although it was annoying as hell. Right now he was satisfied with something besides MREs or cold rabbit stew for breakfast.

Signe Larsson was cooking; he'd done ribs and steaks last night, and started a big pot of "perpetual stew" that still simmered on the back plate. If you brought it to a boil now and then, you could add fresh ingredients and water daily and keep it going indefinitely.

"Flapjacks," she said over her shoulder; her wheat-blond hair was loose, and still slightly damp and tousled from washing with a scrap of soap. "And canned peaches to go with them—yum!"

"Food for the gods," he said sincerely, accepting a plateful; his body craved starch, and sugar only a little less.

Eric and Astrid were concentrating on eating; like their sister, they'd bounced back with the resilience of healthy youth.

I did too, Havel thought. Only the rubber's just the slightest touch less resilient at twenty-eight!

Ken Larsson was looking less like walking death; partly due to a night on a real mattress, even if there were only blankets rather than sheets, and mostly that his wife seemed to be doing a lot better too.

"OK," Havel said, looking out the window after he'd cleared his plate the second time. It was just past dawn, with sunrise turning the snow on the peaks opposite rosy pink; if he hadn't quit soon after he'd left the Corps, this would be the perfect time for a cigarette. It was a pity tobacco was so goddamned bad for you!

"We can make it in two days if we push hard," he said to Ken Larsson. "The emergency people ought to get help back here a lot faster than that; there's a year-round crew at the Lochsa Ranger Station, and Lowell's only a ways down I-12."

"Good luck," the older man said. When Havel rose, he stuck out a hand. "And thanks, Mike."

"Hell, just doing my job," Havel said, flushing a little— and being careful not to squeeze too hard, because Larsson's hand was as mucked-up as Signe's or Eric's. "You and your family are my responsibility; I've got to see you safe."

"I won't forget it, Mike," Larsson said.

Havel grinned. "We'd better get going, before everyone gets all soppy," he said.

"Yeah," Eric said indistinctly through a last mouthful of pancakes. "Got to get Mom to a hospital."

He glanced sidelong at Signe, who was just setting down her own plate. "Though sis here is going to be real disappointed we're not going to Montana."

"It's amazing how repulsive you get when you're not starving," Signe said.

Eric laughed, and went on to Havel: "The ranch next to our place there uses our pasture, and pays us by doing the maintenance and looking after our horses when we're not visiting," he said. "They're real ranchers. And the owner's son isn't a bad guy, except that he had the bad taste to let my worse half here go mooning around after him making a spectacle of herself like a—hey!"

Signe Larsson held the opened salt shaker over his coffee cup. "More?" she said sweetly.

"You ruined it!"

"Salt for bacon, Eric," she said in a tone that could have cut crystal. "And you are a pig." She was smiling when she said it, but her eyes were dangerously narrowed.

Ken Larsson cleared his throat: "You two, can it. Remember that your mother's hurt."

They both looked abashed; Havel grinned mentally. Not that ragging each other does their mother any harm, but guilt is the Ultimate Parental Weapon, he thought.

The two sisters and Larsson accompanied their brother and the pilot out onto the veranda; everyone's breath showed, smoking silver in the rising light, but with warmth and food that was exhilarating, not depressing. Havel set his pack with a shrug and a grunt; they could take the remaining MRE, three bouillon cubes, and the chocolate bar; it was enough to keep them comfortable all the way there.

"See you in three days, Ken," he said. Then he looked at Astrid and Signe. "Hey, Astrid, you really did good with that elk. That was important."

The girl glowed. Good, he thought, and went on: "So now you'll all have plenty to eat. Do not go hunting,"—which she showed a natural aptitude for, now that she'd lost her inhibitions—"and in fact, I'd very much prefer it if none of you went out of sight of the cabin. It would really hurt my feelings if any of you got eaten by a bear before we got back."

He caught Signe's eye. The older girl nodded.

"I'll keep an eye on her, Mike," she said.

 

"Let's get going!" Eric Larsson said impatiently. "We can't stop now!"

"The hell we can't," Havel said, setting his pack down against a rock; it was two hours before sunset.

Right on cue, he thought wearily. Christ Jesus, we males are predictable sometimes.

They'd made better time than he'd expected: twenty miles at least, and they might make four more before sundown. At that speed, they could reach Highway 12 sometime around noon tomorrow.

If they didn't wreck themselves today.

He went on: "We'll walk fast for an hour, and then we'll rest fifteen minutes, and then we'll do it all over again. A man can walk a lot further than he can run. Right now we're at the fifteen-minutes-rest stage. We'll keep going till moonrise, eat, sleep, and get going again at dawn, and make it by lunchtime tomorrow."

"Who died and made you God?" the youth asked.

"I know what I'm doing here," Havel said shortly. "You don't."

"I think you're the hired help," Eric spat back. "And that means what I say goes."

Havel surprised him by laughing, deep and obviously genuine. "Kid, if there's anyone I work for here, it's your dad—and he has enough sense to listen to an expert."

"And I don't like the way you look at my sister!"

Havel laughed again: this time the sound was a little taunting. "It's 1998. If you try to play whup-ass with every guy who looks at Signe Larsson with lust in his heart, you're going to have to be a lot better at it than I think you are."

Eric came forward an inch, then jerked to a halt, looking at the rabbit stick in the older man's right hand. Havel grinned.

"That shows some sense."

He tossed it to rest by the side of his pack, then held out both hands and made a beckoning gesture with curled fingers.

"Let's get this over with, kid," he said.

Eric flushed—the disadvantage of being so blond, even with a tan—and came in with his fists up in a good guard position, moving lightly for someone his size: he was six-one, long-limbed, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the waist. Very much like his opponent, except that Havel was built in nine-tenths scale by comparison.

The young man's big fist snapped out; the blow would have broken Havel's jaw and several of Eric's fingers, except that the ex-Marine jerked his head aside just enough to let it brush by his left ear; at the same instant he stepped in and swept his shin upward with precisely controlled force, then bounced back lightly, moving on the balls of his feet and keeping his own hands open.

"Kill number one, kid," he said, as Eric bent and clutched himself for a moment. "Or at least I could have ruined you for life. And never try to hit a man in the head with your fist. You'll break your hand before you break his head."

Eric was red-faced and furious when he straightened, but he didn't make the bull-style charge that Havel had half expected. Instead he set himself and whirled into a high sweeping kick; it was well executed, except for being telegraphed, and a little off because his right foot slipped in the squishy mixture of mud and pine needles underfoot.

Havel let his knees relax, and the foot swept over his head. His hand slapped up, palm on the other's thigh, and pushed sharply.

"Shit!" Eric screamed as he landed on his back, more in frustration than in pain.

Then: "Shit!" as Havel's heel slammed down to within an inch of his face. The older man bounced back again, smiling crookedly as Eric rolled to his feet and backed slightly.

"Kill number two. This isn't Buffy the Dojo Ballerina. All right, let's finish up with the lesson. We haven't got time to waste."

Ninety seconds later, Eric Larsson wisely made no attempt to resist as the back of his head rang off the bark of a Douglas fir. Fingers like steel rods gripped his throat, digging in on either side of his windpipe, and he fought to drag air in through his mouth—the swelling had made his nose nonoperational.

Havel looked at him with the same crooked smile; there was a pressure cut on his cheek, but otherwise he was infuriatingly undamaged.

"Kill number six. And you forgot one thing, kid," he said. "Never bring your fists to a knife fight."

Eric Larsson's eyes went wide as Havel stepped back; something silver flashed in his hand, and the young man looked down at a sudden cold prickle; the odd-shaped hunting knife was touching just under his ribs.

"Kill," Havel said. The knife reversed itself, lying edge-out along his forearm, then swept across Eric's throat with blurring speed. "Kill." A backhanded stab, letting the cold steel touch behind his right ear. "Kill."

Havel stepped back another pace; the younger man was chalk white and keeping himself from trembling by sheer willpower. He sheathed the knife and cocked an eyebrow, his expression cold.

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