Jeremiah Compton pushed his chair back from the table, grinning at his son. Davies was not taking his eleventh birthday lightly. His presents were arrayed around his seat on the bench; the boy wasn’t about to let even one of them out of his reach despite racing through his third piece of heavy carrot cake with thick butter frosting. Which lad would end up winning the pig-out contest, who knew? Cindy Marakas had brought her nephew, Zobb, to the party, scheduling time away from her endless rounds as Fort Steel’s only roving teacher, and livestock manager Henry Perfle had allowed his youngest son, Stone, to attend as well.
Which left the Weasel as the odd man out, now that he came to think of it. Laura and Cindy were thick as thieves, bustling around the kitchen, mischievously urging more cake on the juvenile contestants despite knowing full well somebody was going to get sick sooner or later. Either one of the women was more than a handful by herself, but get them together, especially away from the prying eyes of Fort Steel’s stuffier elements, and they were something else.
The boys, naturally, were in their own little world, a universe in which adults simply did not exist except as either gift givers or stupid rule makers. He envied them that innocence-slash-ignorance; it would dissipate all too soon.
When was the last time I could be overwhelmed with joy by no more than an abundance of carrot cake and a double dog dare? He couldn’t even remember.
This year, during what he fervently hoped was the last deep freeze cold snap of the winter, he had far weightier things on his mind. The high heeled, hand crafted boot he wore to aid in healing the hamstring that had been slashed by Grunt at Trickle Creek, yeah, that was a part of it. A small part. More worrisome by far was the current political situation. In his opinion, Strator Tucker and Captain Finster were up to their usual no good, plotting and scheming toward the coming of spring. They had decided this was going to be the year. An expedition into the accursed city north of Graveyard Mesa was being planned. Most of the Council hadn’t liked the idea much, but only Henry Perfle had stood his ground and voted against it.
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” he’d argued, but no one else had supported him.
“Leave no treasure chest forgotten and unopened,” Tucker had retorted. Jeremiah “Weasel” Compton would have had a ready response to that remark, but Weasels weren’t part of the Council, merely tools to be used. And discarded, sometimes, if they dared. He strongly suspected only Laura’s prestige as the community’s premier healer kept him from reprisals when he did open his mouth, but he didn’t do that often. Weasels are great hunters of small rodents but not so great at surviving under the hooves of a raging bison bull, should they be unwary enough to get stepped on.
“More likely Pandora’s box than a treasure,” Perfle had calmly replied, but no one had been listening by then. He was outvoted and therefore irrelevant.
Jeremiah would have liked to talk to Henry more often, but the Strator had eyes and ears most everywhere. Not here in their home, he hoped, but nearly everywhere else. He and Henry could not afford to be suspected of sedition; they had to have passable reasons for any meetings. Davies’ birthday party had given them one such reason, though the livestock man had left after the first hour. Suspicious members of the ruling order might buy Henry taking his son to a birthday party, but not for the entire afternoon.
Still, they’d been able to share enough to scare both of them. Badly. Henry Perfle was an easygoing man, stolid, steady, reliable, but he was nobody’s fool. Twitchy Jeremiah “Weasel” Compton didn’t need anybody to draw him a blueprint, either. Trouble was headed their way. He didn’t know the precise form that trouble would take, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. Beyond all doubt, he knew that much.
Lost in thought, he almost missed the finale. Davies was in the middle of his fifth piece of cake when he suddenly excused himself from the table and dashed for the bathroom. He closed the door, but the sounds of retching were unmistakable. Stone put his fork down. “You’ve finished your fifth piece without getting sick, Zobb. That makes you the winner.”
“You’re not going to tackle any more?” Lean and blue eyed, with dark hair he brushed back unthinkingly, Zobb Marakas was going to be a lady killer for sure.
Dawg was an orphaned slave when he was two years younger than this. The thought came unbidden to Weasel. He’d rather it hadn’t.
“Nah.” Stone gestured at his friend, both thumbs crossed in some sort of secret boy code. “I’m a whole slice behind you two. Unlike some people I know, I know when I’ve had enough.”
“Mom? Mrs. Compton?” Zobb began bouncing in his seat, unable to contain his excitement. “Do I get my prize now? You said there’d be a prize.”
“Sure.” Laura smiled at her friend’s son. “Let me just go check on Davies first. It wouldn’t be right for him to miss the ceremony, now would it?”
“Nope!” Zobb and Stone both snickered. “Sure wouldn’t!”
It was a bit past sunup before we made it out of camp, mostly due to my innards. Nerves, I thought. We hadn’t changed our diet or failed to scour our cooking utensils. It made me chuckle a little in a sour sort of way, getting more riled up inside at the thought of exploring Schenk’s tunnel system than at any other time, even the horror of seeing my parents slaughtered in front of my eyes when I was nine years old. None of the bad stuff could shake me, not down in my core where the real me lived, but discovery of magical, hidden assets could?
I guessed it made sense in a way, but really. What are the odds?
Still, things seemed settled now. It was more than time to get it in gear. Roan and Appy didn’t seem to mind grazing out behind the library building for a second day, Mummy Man was still lying desiccated at his post in the rear entry bunker, and the soaring not-stone arches remained as colorful and mysterious as ever.
“Want to give the rainbow comrite a try, Jules?” My question wasn’t entirely altruistic in nature; standing there for hours while a half-crazed, long dead Wild Bill Carrington prattled on…yeah, that wasn’t exactly a picnic. Boring, really, between snippets of crucial information.
“Sure. Why not?” My statuesque mate had already shucked both her outer coat and light jacket. Without hesitation, perhaps even with a bit of eagerness, she stepped up to the multicolored pillar, slapped her left palm flat against the surface, and…nothing.
“Huh. What, this thing doesn’t like women? I think I’m offended!”
“Maybe I broke it yesterday.” We were both puzzled. Concerned, too. If the Magic Info Bank had suddenly closed its portal forever, a lot of priceless data would likely never be recovered. A thrill of fear made my hand tremble as I touched the column.
“…and oh yeah, there’s another thing, well one of many other things, but this one thing I needs ta tell ya, and tell ya right now.”
And there he was, Wild Bill Carrington his own self, rambling on in the comrite. Maybe it did hate women, or Wild Bill did…no, that couldn’t be. Any time he mentioned Little Brie, overweight short girl or not, you could sense the respect. Heh. Maybe he liked me personally, which I found hard to believe, seeing as how he didn’t even know me. Was it him doing this, or the comrite itself? A synthetic stone clone that picked out one human in particular, to the exclusion of all others? Maybe it somehow locked on to the first person to touch it and no one else? Or maybe it was powered by a source that had fizzled out after a single use? Enquiring minds want to know, but about all I knew at the moment was confusion.
“What I was saying, what I gotta say, yeah, this here’s the deal, see? Very important. The comrite is keyed to a DNA sequence, which means–”
I double palmed the pillar and broke the connection. “Babe, do you have any idea what a deeuh nay sequence might be?”
“No.” She shook her head, more in denial of the communicator’s pickiness in people than anything else. “Not a clue. Hit it again. Maybe it’ll give us some context if we listen long enough.”
“Yeah.” Left palm slap.
“–if you were able to fire up this here super duper tech wreck and listen to my ever so mellifluous voice, you’re descended from one man. Got a bit of his DNA in you. Hm. Science, schmience. How likely is it somebody will find this while DNA is still in the lexicon? So think of this way, future sutures. If this thing is talking to you, you’ve got pioneer blood in you. No, not mine, I’m just an old worn out warrior recording this beast and setting the code, but any kids of mine, that is if I’d ever had any kids, could no more get the comrite to talk than you can teach a bull moose to flap its antlers and fly. No, not me. What am I? An old worn out soldier, think I said that, can’t sleep from the nightmares, hundreds of the dead as don’t know they’re dead, coming at me again and again and again, and me killing them all equally, again squared. No, no, no, not me. I had to pick somebody, see, and the lab, that’s in one of the tunnels, the lab stored, um, blood samples for everybody. Took me years and years to figure out how to program it, but the one man I figured had the best chance, had the best attitude, character, whatnot, and already had descendants when I knew him, ’cause lots didn’t, and…yeah, rattling on here. Suffice it to say, if you’re listening, you’re related to a fellow named Samuel Jade in some way, shape, or form. I dunno how many generations of dilution that’ll work, but some. Some.”
Off went the hands. I turned to face Julia. She spoke first. Softly, so I could barely hear. Her eyes were wide and her voice trembled. “It doesn’t hate women. It hates anybody who isn’t you.”
“Well,” I scratched behind one ear where an itch had taken up residence, “this takes the cake.”
“With frosting on top. But honey, you realize what this means.”
“I do?” I didn’t, really. No, most surely not. Other than us wondering why the comrite spoke only to me and then getting the answer moments later. That was a little more than spooky. Twilight Zone time, as the old saying went, though nobody seemed to know where the saying came from.
“It means,” she said, speaking slowly and distinctly as if addressing a child with attention deficit disorder, “you’ve been gifted an edge going forward. Are there any other Jade descendants that you know about?”
“Not living, but–”
“But nothing. Think, Michael Jade. No one else alive can access this information. Only you. Until we have kids, that is, and then maybe they can, but for now, only you. With this, you can learn more than anyone else will ever know about this place, and probably a lot of other stuff, too.”
“We.” I corrected her, uneasy at the thought. “We can learn a lot of stuff.” Another thought occurred to me. We must never let anyone else know what I could do, not now, not ever. Even in our simple world, or at least simple when compared with the teeming Before societies, this was not only a goose that laid golden eggs. It was also extremely dangerous.
Only later would it occur to me how close Bill Carrington had come to failing. Had I died in slavery, or escaped to run some other direction, or even remained unborn, the comrite would have remained inert…forever. There would have been others investigating this place at some point, no question about them, but the secrets of the rainbow arch would have remained unclaimed. A load of responsibility on my shoulders for sure, now that I knew.
“Let’s go find us a tunnel,” I said suddenly. Distilled information was all well and good, but there was only so much of it a man could take in at any one time. Julia didn’t argue; she seemed every bit as eager as I was to get away from the TMI talking pillar. We took the first door to the left, the idea being to make a clockwise circuit of the walled-in passageway first, then maybe a quick stop at the armory–presuming we could find it without taking too long–and finally take a trek down through Tunnel G, its entrance being located somewhere near the terminus of our circuit. There must at some point be a hallway through the various rim rooms, leading to the building’s front door (aka guard post), but that wasn’t a high priority at the moment. It was far more important that we find out where Tunnel G exited.
That was the idea, anyway.
The long hallway looked narrow because of its length, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was eight feet across, or close to it, an oil-rubbed hardwood planking floor with a sort of buttery-brown sheen to it and flanked by scary-tall walls of vertical knotty pine boards. We still had no idea how the building was heated, but this part of the place was every bit as cozy-warm as the great room. Cozier, in fact. Stifling, if one thought about it for too long. Skylights above, too, technology Julia had informed me was fairly commonplace Before. There was no dearth of visibility.
As usual, per our standard practice, I took point, my mate trailing me some four or five paces back. Far enough apart that a given enemy or trap was not likely to take out both of us in one swell foop, close enough for fire support.
There were marvels behind every door…and doors everywhere, all to our left, away from the great room. Some were locked, some not, but the keys lifted from Wild Bill’s mummified carcass made them all available. All rooms were twelve feet deep, as best we could determine, but their widths varied. For a time, though never dull to a couple of often mystified explorers from the future, the contents were disappointingly mundane. Door #1, for instance, held cleaning supplies and tools, many of the latter not unlike those we used today in the Forts. After all, a broom is a broom. never mind the specific materials used to make it. Room #2 did hold about a thousand manuals, or so we estimated, but riffling through a few pages made it sadly clear that most of the instructions were for the operation, maintenance, and repair of technology way over our ignorant back-to-the-Stone-Age heads.
It wasn’t all that easy to get Julia moving beyond room #2. My girl had a thing for the written word. Good thing we hadn’t tackled the upstairs library yet. When we got around to that, I’d likely have to cook for both of us and bring her meals to her. Unless she forbade food in the library, which wouldn’t surprise me, either.
Door #3 was empty, 96 square feet of nothing. Oh well.
Door #4 required three different keys for three different locks and turned out to be the armory. “Wow.” I wasn’t sure which of us had spoken aloud. Maybe we both had. All along the sizeable space, which had to be 24 feet wide at least, the walls were adorned floor-to-ceiling with racked weapons, ammunition, cleaning kits, sharpening stones for steel that stabbed, you name it. Down the center ran a nearly continuous table, just right for working on tools of death while either (a) standing or (b) sitting on one of the long legged stools tucked under said table.
“Nirvana,” Jules breathed.
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Um…explain it to you later, love.” She was already moving slowly through the room, her eyes as wide as the night I asked her to marry me. Or did she ask me to marry her? When we had time and someone to do the ceremony, of course. There were long shoot guns of three basic types, I thought, those the Before people called rifles, those they called shotguns, and those they called machine guns which, if I remembered correctly, spat out bullets so fast that getting your finger off the trigger before you ran out of ammo might well be the biggest problem with them, aside from their weight. Short shoot guns of all sorts. Rocket launchers, which I’d hoped had disappeared from the Earth entirely, poor deluded optimistic me. Knives, swords, axes, spears, bows, crossbows, slingshots, slings, brass knuckles, ice picks, throwing stars. boxes of caltrops. Ammunition in cases of cartridges and quivers of arrows or pouches of crossbow bolts. Whips with razor steel in the tips. Things I couldn’t put a name to, though one looked like a devil’s pitchfork another…yeah. Okay. Nirvana must mean “good.”
“You’re going to want to read this, honey.”
“Yeah?” I moved over to her position in front of a rack of identical short guns. Not revolvers, so I wasn’t interested, but it doesn’t pay to ignore one’s mate. Especially not when said mate is both camp cook and the warrior behind one’s back on the trail.
A placard, preserved in some shiny stuff, had her attention. I began reading.
WEAPONS FOR DUMMIES: M1911 Colt .45 ACP
If you want a pistol that isn’t too heavy to carry, provides rapid fire with extreme stopping power and extreme durability (barrel getting hot? dunk it in water to cool, reload, and keep on shooting!), and was the only short gun design in continuous production and use from its inception until the End of the World, pick me! Every pistol on the rack is guaranteed good to go.
–Wm. Carrington, Armorer
“Can’t be a simple as a wheelgun,” I muttered to myself.
Julia heard me. “Hey, Dummy. There are manuals here. And look there on the rack; there’s even one of the pistols field stripped. There must be fifty other short gun designs here, but I want this one.” She was already lifting one from its pegs, reverently or I was blind, and rummaging around in the deep drawer below the rack. “In fact, I want two. And here are the manuals.”
It was obvious I wasn’t going to pry her loose this time. Not for a while, anyway. “Jules.”
“We haven’t seen any sign of hostile entities or booby traps in the building so far. How be we split up for a bit? I can check out a few other rooms.” Clearly, we weren’t going tunnel exploring today after all. Best laid plans of mice and men never survive first contact with women.
“Yeah, okay.” She was already seated at the table, the pistol resting on the wood, her eyes glued to page one of the manual. I wasn’t sure she even heard me.
Shaking my head–on the inside, where she couldn’t see, because the girl could pick up on the slightest thing even when she appeared to be fully engrossed in something else–I moved back out into the hallway. On to the next door, which opened into nothing more than another empty room. Small, barely more than a hallway in itself, but empty. Except for another door on the far side. Found the route to the front door, looks like.
Okay, then, just a quick look to confirm. I walked over, found this door locked but only with a single lock, grabbed the correct key on the first try, turned the knob and–
“Whoa!” The exclamation was soft, a bare exhalation of breath, but heartfelt. “A rose garden?” Yes. It could be nothing else. Not that I’d ever seen a rose garden before; such things were unknown these days, at least in this part of the world. Wild rose bushes with tiny petals, sure, but nothing like this. How long I stood frozen in the doorway, trying to take it all in, I had no idea. The size of the huge great room with its talking rainbow arch must be an illusion; these plants covered a lot of square feet. Reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, whites, even a few shades of purple plus many mixes of the basics. The aroma was overwhelming at first, though it hadn’t registered in that first moment of pure shock. A rose garden. Tended. By what, or by whom? It couldn’t have run wild since the death of Wild Bill Carrington, not and look like this. Could it? No, surely it couldn’t. Which meant….
“The sight of you warms my heart.”
My dysfunctional mind snapped back into place, eyes locking on the woman who’d spoken. How had I missed her? Seated on a stone bench, reading a book which she now set aside as she rose fluidly to her feet, her lips up-curved in smiling greeting. Full lips, especially the lower one, cherry red, too. High cheekbones. Gentle brown eyes that bespoke not the strength of a warrior but something far beyond that; it was impossible to imagine her firing a shoot gun or swinging a sword, yet she was not to be underestimated. Long brown hair in a ponytail. Was that a slight Asian slant to her eyes? Dangly earrings, not large but just right, just enough to accent her femininity. She was, I realized, a slender woman, maybe five-seven if there were no extreme heels hiding beneath the hem of the cream colored skirt from which the toes of her boots peeped. Her blouse, a jacket really, was maroon or close to it.
“Got here as soon as I could.” The words came from my mouth as my worldview shattered into a million pieces. Somehow, I knew those words were true, though it made no sense. The awareness within me was nothing like love at first sight; it was love–and a bond beyond words–before first sight. I knew her. And she knew me.
At some point, she reseated herself on the bench. I joined her. We were flowing together, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes. We’d been a long time apart; there was much catching up to do. How much time passed, I had no idea. Our discussion, among other things, covered Wild Bill’s omission; they’d agreed she needed to remain unknown, just in case the wrong people showed up.
Now, in the novels, it always happens like this: Wife walks in on the couple and trouble ensues. For us, the plot had a little different twist.
“I’m Michael Jade,” I said.
“Laurel Evans,” she replied. “I’m ready to go when you are. I do thank you for coming to get me.”
“There are…dangers.” It never occurred to me to find our conversation strange, but she had to know this much. “I have a people to free from slavery.”
“When have you not?” Her laugh was throaty and tinkled at the same time, if that’s even possible. I could find no better words to describe it. I knew she was older than me. A lot older, at least in the physical body. Though she didn’t look it. She could have passed for thirty, except for the eyes; her gaze was pure wisdom. No, pure love. Ah!
“There always is.” She looked serious now. Not concerned. Just attentive.
“There’s, um, a woman next door.” Right next door! Literally! “We’re, ah, mated you see, and…” She was smiling again; I had the feeling she wasn’t at all surprised. “…and she’s a beautiful Amazon warrior of a gal, sitting in the armory, surrounded by deadly weapons, reading the manuals on how to use them.” Man, how did I get myself into this situation? Could any woman love me after this?”
As if she’d read my mind, Laurel leaned forward, patted my knee, and twinkled at me. “What’s not to love?”