Grunt, Chapter 48: Spring Thaw

Spring rolled northward, bringing new life to the planet’s northern hemisphere. To the northern hemisphere as it now existed, that is; changes accompanying the Fall of Man had rewritten the face of the globe in more ways than one. Nuclear power plant meltdowns in great nations ranging from Asia to the Americas, inevitable as their human tenders died in droves, had triggered earthquakes and volcanoes worldwide, irradiated more than half of the great cities, and left enormous patches of what looked like diamond hard, black glass in seventy-three separate locations around the globe. The mother of all meltdowns, one pundit had put it, two weeks before his own death. Once begun, humanity’s near extinction and violent convulsions of the Earth itself had reshaped many geological features thought by countless Fools of Before to be permanent. Not the late and mostly unlamented scientists who’d understood at least some workings of geological forces, but to the masses, landmarks such as the Great Wall of China, the Rock of Gibraltar, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, and even the Statue of Liberty had been perceived as steadfast and dependable.

Not so, forty-one years into the new age. Of them all, only the Great Wall still existed, and that in fragmented form, jerked apart in a dozen places. Segments that should have matched up were shredded like so much wet tissue paper, some pieces ending up more than a dozen miles from where they’d started. There were still people here, farmers who survived as they’d always survived, yet they were few and far between, a ragtag collection of villages scattered over the vast landscape, no more than a thousand in any one community and few indeed of that size, all vulnerable to the fierce and merciless Russian raiders. The Chinese people’s salvation lay in one simple fact; the raiders were far fewer in numbers than their victims and unable to be everywhere at once.

Then there was the complete destruction of India.

The subcontinent had been driven entirely beneath the waves but for an archipelago of islands that had once been the mountain peaks of the great Hindu Kush range. There was no longer a threat from the south, nor was there enough left of Japan to bother plotting on a map. To the west only must the surviving Chinese look now for danger, always the Russians, merciless, cruel, lacking any visible culture beyond the bow and the blade. The small villages elected headmen, prayed to their ancestors, taught the art of fighting with quarterstaves shot with iron caps at both ends, and persevered.

Farther west, Germany’s Black Forest still stood, returned almost entirely to native wildlife yet relatively untouched during the Fall in one of nature’s more eccentric whims. Still farther, moving into the wind that scoured these lands, the British Isles no longer existed, as thoroughly destroyed as India. What had been France and Spain was riven with great cracks in the earth and more than a dozen live volcanoes, yet a handful of Basque sheepherders still subsisted in the Pyrenees Mountains, their culture as unchanged as that of the Chinese themselves.

Switzerland was gone, the Alps having sprouted fire. Great clouds of ash had buried most of the country’s population; those not instantly asphyxiated had found themselves trapped by rolling rivers of red hot lava pouring in from every side. The mountains that had allowed the Swiss to remain neutral through two world wars had turned on them, becoming both trap and killer.

Across the gray Atlantic, though few in this age bothered to remember the name, waves rolled a hundred feet high under the harsh winds that betokened spring. Few ships remained afloat anywhere. None dared face the Endless Death of the Great Deep. Ever westward, scanning the planet showed no less damage in the Americas than elsewhere. Quakes and floods had shaved both coasts from the Arctic Circle to the equator and more. In what had once been the proud, fractious United States of America, nothing existed east of the former Tennessee Valley, and little west of the notorious San Andreas fault. There were new lands risen above the waves in the Pacific, but none of them were occupied as yet. Where the Mississippi River had run its course, the Lower 48 had split wide open at the lower end; a great ocean-filled gash, both curving and wedge shaped, separated the two remaining portions of what had once been the world’s lone super power. High res scans made clear the spring rolling north, the few settlements of more than a thousand Souls, the occasional smaller groups….

“Enough,” Gortonn Zimorbak growled. He was not happy, but the study remained conclusive and his orders were clear. The form he wore lifted one great fingered flipper to stimulate the sloping dome that housed his decision centers. “This planet has been rendered worthless to us.” It pained him to admit it; no Gortonn accepted defeat gracefully. “Squirt the report to Rogonn Bleese and we will be on our way.” There were, after all, endless worlds the People could conquer. Having lost this one would cost him, though; he could forget about any more promotions for at least the next few thousand years.

“Headings?”

It took him a millisecond to realize his subordinate was not asking about destination; she wanted to know what to put on the Cover Piece that would properly attract the Rogonn’s attention. “Headings three. One, designated surviving sapients immune.” That had never happened in Zimorbak’s long lifetime, but he’d heard of it occurring before, in ancient times. Once. “Two, surviving population seventeen points below viability. Three, digital tech capability zero.”

The Clerk’s seven eyes bulged, nearly leaving their sockets. Zimorbak didn’t blame her; she wouldn’t be seeing any more promotions for a good long while, either. Still, she was a true professional. “Tickler?”

He had to think about that for nearly thirteen milliseconds. An eternity, really. “No tickler. Attempts to reacquire this species will be doomed to failure for at least the next seven millenia. Setting a time to try again would be a waste of energy.” He didn’t need to explain; the words had just tumbled out of his speaking slit without thought. He would have to watch that; guarding his forked tongue was going to be the most important survival skill he had for a good long while. His superiors did not take failure well, either.

No one on the surface noted his departure from high orbit. After all, the colonial exploration vessels used by the People were stealth personified and the savages on the surface had nothing but optics with which to stare blindly at the Universe.

====================================================

JULIA

Time’s fun when you’re having flies. Settled in around the evening cookfires, encircled at distance by great earth-banked logs providing both stepped seating and surprisingly effective heat reflection, the settlement hummed with quiet, contented efficiency. Except for the two boys on sentinel duty at the Throat outpost, of course, but they were due to be relieved any time now. A proud squad they were, too, all but the sleepy one paired off, older boy with younger, handling four shifts every day-night cycle, one pair off duty on any given day.

Not that “off duty” meant sloth. Everybody big enough to walk had work to do during the daylight hours, and often well into the evenings. It was impossible to decide which was more startling, the number of days Michael and I had spent here, working long and hard like everyone else…or the sheer amount of accomplishment. Two of the freed women showed remarkable organizational skills; in combination with Lynn Burch and John Blake, they’d put together a community that hummed. The stockade fence was fully functional now, extending not only across the original Throat opening but out through the trees and rocks that had originally clogged the edges. A clear field of fire had been created; no attacker could sneak up on the wall now. Oh, there was still a thin screen of evergreens standing at the very rim edges of the cliffs dropping down from the mesa, just enough to hide the stockade wall from visitors until they came around that final bend in the trail, and one big tree at each end had been incorporated into the wall itself, but the difference was amazing. Any boulder big enough to hide more than a mouse had been towed back inside, though Blake had needed six horses to pull the largest of those.

“We can always use more stone,” he’d pointed out.

In addition to the cooking rounds, as they were called–fire pits plus fancy tripods and spits to beat the band, surrounded by the seating windbreaks, the latter liberally coated with mud to lessen the chance of a disastrous wildfire–construction had begun on a great log building atop a stone foundation, situated in the meadow near the very spring Michael and I had used during our first visit to this place. When completed, the structure would serve as a communal sleeping place for anyone and everyone except those who preferred to sleep under the stars or at most under canvas. Spring rains would be coming sooner or later in this neck of the woods; it was likely most would feel safer, and certainly drier, inside the building. Still later, when cabins were in place for individual families, it would most likely become our community hall, or a storage facility, or….

Most of the women, along with their “we dugged it” crew of little kids, were making progress in developing the springs, one by one. Before long, the Roost would be equipped with half a dozen sizeable tanks, or ponds, capable of providing more than enough water for horses as well as humans to draw from. Not that we intended to share spit with the ponies; some of the tanks would be fenced to prevent equine contamination. A thirsty horse will stand in water to drink at times, and that was the least of what old Dobbin might do to our drinking supply.

Sanitary measures were strict. Our Council, thus far consisting of me, John Blake, and Lynn Burch as ordinary members with Michael having absolute veto power as Chief, had been busy in evening skull sessions. Michael wanted to adopt the Fort 24 Constitution with only a few changes, and I backed him one hundred percent on that. After all, I’d grown up under that set of rules.

Neither John nor Lynn knew much about Fort 24, of course, though we’d begun educating them. They seemed in favor but wanted to obtain a copy of the actual Constitution before anything was set in stone. Which made sense.

In the meantime, street layout was being finalized, along with required spacing of at least two hundred feet between cabins. “Far enough apart for a little privacy, but close enough to support each other in times of trouble,” he’d explained. “And barely enough room to allow for outhouses.” Like piles of horse manure, human outhouses always drew flies, only more so, as so much excrement piled up in one place. Unless or until we could come up with enough lime; layers of lime powder added regularly to each outhouse would fix the problem. But we had no idea of how to come up with any of that. Some of the cliffs in these mountains were limestone for sure, but it would require either a quarry or a trader who specialized in the stuff. None of us understood how to start a quarry or run it, even if a suitable location existed within reasonable distance from the Roost. Blake and Burch both said Fort Steel dealt with a Trader who sold them huge wagon loads of the stuff every summer, but that wasn’t helping us for the moment. Besides, the last thing we wanted to do was cut a wagon-width road through these mountains. At least, not until we were a much larger and stronger settlement, we didn’t.

Lynn had recruited me to help her attempt to identify some of the plants on the mesa. Insane, one might think, but the snow was melting big time now. In places, it was already gone completely. “I’m not really an herbalist,” she’d admitted as we squatted one day, studying the remains of plants that had died all the way back to the ground during the winter, “but I’m pretty sure those are stinging nettles.”

I’d looked around before commenting. “Looks like quite a patch of them. Nasty weed, that. One of my sisters, out riding in the mountains near Fort 24, once had to urinate and squatted right in a patch of those. She didn’t sit a saddle comfortably for a while.”

Lynn had chuckled. “Better her than me. But there are few plants more useful than the nettle.”

“Say what?” Our entire Gunderson family had mostly cursed the stuff wherever we saw it. That, and scrupulously avoided the fate of our sister. “You can’t be serious.”

“Quite serious. I wish we could persuade Laura Compton to join us; she could tell you everything there is to know about this plant. I do know the fiber, if harvested right, can be used to make clothing. We’ll need that as we grow; the day will come when what we wore out of Fort Steel will be entirely rags, and buckskins like you and Michael wear… well, they’re not practical for a sizeable, settled community. The game runs out, you know, sooner or later.”

Yeah, I did know about that. Even ranging afar, hunting alone would not feed us all forever. For meat, we needed livestock. Hogs, maybe. Cattle. No sheep; I’d trade clear across the continent for wool before I’d tolerate those range maggots. Nothing ruined good pasture faster than sheep. Nor could I stand the taste of mutton; I’d rather eat wild dog. “So,” I said, “nettles for clothing, huh?”

“That,” she nodded, still studying the remains of last year’s plants, “and a whole lot of good nutrition and even medical benefits. I think. We really need Laura.”

“Any chance we can get her?”

“One chance in a bazillion, maybe. By the time I left, she was starting to think about it. Her grandfather left her that place, you know. But I think she might be tempted if she could see the Roost. Once spring has fully sprung, I’m betting we’re going to find a greater variety of good herbs and wild foods here than she’s ever seen in her life. Big temptation, that. Only thing is, one thing I know she won’t do is leave her library behind.”

“She has a library?” What private citizen had a library?

“She does. A secret one; only a handful of us know of its existence. Nearly ten thousand books in there, or maybe it’s more like nine thousand. She knows every one like she knows her own children. They are her own children.”

It hit me then. “That’s why you pushed for the new building to be so big, isn’t it? You’re thinking that could be her library.”

She sighed. “It’s a dream. We’d have to make it absolutely mouse proof. I’m no builder; I have no idea how that could be done. Maybe John might. It would have to be kept warm through the winters; cold weather is not a book’s best friend. Not too much direct sunlight, though that’s not a big problem; it isn’t like the windows are going to be huge or anything, and I suspect the sky here is overcast pretty much all winter, every winter. But someone would have to be willing to keep a fire going during the colder weather. And that’s if we could figure out how to help her sneak literal tons of books out of Fort Steel. I can’t picture Strator Tucker taking that kindly, can you?”

I couldn’t.

But tonight, calm and content as we all were…it was not the time for worrying about something we couldn’t control. Instead, once again leaving Blake in charge–Lieutenant Blake, he’d decided to call himself, of the newly form Rooster Sentinels. The man had at least given himself a promotion, though it seemed doubtful he’d ever call himself Captain. Too many of us associated that rank with the late and unlamented Captain Finster. “We don’t have enough people here to need a Captain anyway,” he’d insisted, and Michael had let it go at that.

People had started referring to our nightly cooking spot as the Council Fire since we four Council members ate together. Blake’s woman and the kids were part of our group, too, but most of what we discussed could be disseminated without worrying about censorship. Naturally, Miriam admonished their little ones about talking out of school, but she knew as we all did that her warnings would go unheeded. As slave children, they’d learned silence, but their tongues had been loosened dramatically since their release from captivity. They would tell their friends, usually getting it half if not all wrong, and the word would be out that reindeer were going to poop in the water and a tax would be levied on all malingerers, or some such equally ridiculous version of our conversations. Which was why we’d taken to using sheets of Lynn’s precious stash of linen paper, posting official decisions on the half-built wall of the new building. It was centrally located, and the children’s chatter pretty much forced the adults and older kids to go read the notices just to get the confusion out of their minds.

“Five days?” Blake echoed Michael’s statement.

“Five minimum. Could take longer. Snow’s going away awfully fast. We’re going to need to be extra careful. Wouldn’t be real healthy to blunder into an early party of raiders, either going or coming, and Lauren is not a killer. Plus, we’ll be trailing one heck of a pack string, so….”

“So, super vulnerable.” The Sentinel Lieutenant, and my second in command at the Roost, nodded soberly. “Sure you don’t want an extra gun with you? I can see why you figure I need to stay here, but Bolo’s getting to where he can hit what he aims at. He’s even showing promise with those spear forms of yours.”

“No extra gun.” Michael shook his head firmly. “My gut’s telling me there are raiding parties on the move out there. We might have to duck them, but sooner or later the Roost will have to hold them off. Little Aron’s still half crazy, but he’s holding up his end on sentry duty. Jock, though, he’s not only nuttier than a squirrel up a walnut tree, he can’t stay awake after dark. You can’t afford to have your sentry shifts jacked around now, John. And if raiders show up between now and the time we get back, you’ll need every shooter you can lay hands on. I’ll leave you the AK-47; you can pepper a bunch of ’em with that if need be.” What I didn’t say was that I had no intention of revealing the Library’s location to anyone else. Not now, maybe not ever.

The Lieutenant shook his head. “You’re the Chief, but I’d rather you took the AK with you. No, don’t shake your head at me; think about it. Just leave the .358 with me instead. It’s a heavy hitter, blows a hole through a man the size of your fist, right? We’ll be defending from behind a good, stout log wall with a catwalk and the whole nine yards. If the bad guys get up in the trees, yeah, one of ’em could climb up a tree up there on the hillside and fire down into us, but my eye is pretty good and Bolo’s is better. A treetop sniper would have to be way above us; the likelihood that he’d compensate for the drop correctly on his first shot is minimal. We’d have a good shot at nailing him before he could figure it out. But you, you’re going to be out there with two warriors, you and Jules here, a woman you’ve got to protect, and seven pack horses you don’t want to lose. You drop one raider and the rest will be impressed, but they’ll scatter fast enough you might not get a second shot even with that lever action. Pepper ’em with that AK, though–great gobbledy gook, man, you won’t blow arms clean off with those full metal jackets, but you could sure enough punch holes in ten or twelve of ’em before they could blink. That’s called firepower, and you’re the one who might need it. Again I say, we’ve got the wall, but you’ll be out there with nothing to stop a bullet but your own bodies. I’d just as soon have you back alive.”

“Fair enough.” My man nodded; he’d seen the wisdom of Blake’s words, the error in his own thinking.

We’d be leaving first thing in the morning.