We didn’t get to the journal before dark. There was simply too much to do, what with the storm coming in and a longer term camp to set up. First, the horses had to be relieved of their various burdens and shackled with hobbles before being left to their own devices. They wouldn’t go far from us, especially with nothing living outside of the park and them knowing we had occasional treats of rolled oats to hand out.
Secondly, we scrounged among the downed timber, of which there was a good deal, having had more than forty years to build up since the Fall of humanity. A dozen long and hopefully sturdy branches, less brittle than some, were trimmed with the camp axe and laid across the angle between the two fallen cottonwood trees. Over that, another layer of smaller willows was placed at right angles to the makeshift rafters. Our biggest tarp was stretched taut over the combination, tied off hard and fast to various branch stubs on the cottonwoods. We now had a rude, triangular shelter capable, we hoped, of withstanding a lengthy bout of severe weather. Both of us knew this could be an epic snowfall, our senses long having been tuned to such things. We couldn’t stand up, but we didn’t have to crawl, either. Just bend over. There wasn’t much breeze at all, but what there was seemed steady from the west, so our small fire did its thing just far enough outside the shelter’s open east side to keep most of the smoke away, at least for the moment. Our blankets were spread near that end as well, with the pack panniers and saddles piled up in a “C” pattern around our sleeping spots. Even if the wind shifted around to the east and cranked up, there was enough brush out there to form a fairly decent windbreak, though the campfire smoke would undoubtedly waft back in our faces.
By the time I’d stockpiled enough firewood to get us through a couple of days and Julia had supper ready, it was beyond dark and the snow was starting to fall, big fat flakes just drifting lazily down, the kind of deceptively gentle appearance that could go on for a very long time, especially at this time of year.
“The heck with reading by firelight tonight,” I decided, watching my mate turn the meat. “Let’s just snuggle up and get some sleep.”
Julia grinned, a flash of promise in her eyes that set every part of me on fire. “Sounds good to me, lover. But–”
“–did you hear that?”
I had no idea what she was talking about…oh. That was strange. What…
Her gaze shifted from me, past the campfire, to a small hollow under the near log. Two eyes reflected the firelight. It took me a while to make out the rest of the form, a dark little critter just sitting there, watching the fire or watching my mate, I couldn’t tell which. No, definitely watching Julia. And mewing.
“What is it?” I asked, thoroughly confused. Furry for sure, it seemed familiar somehow, but a baby lynx it was not. Nor a bobcat.
“What are they, plural,” Julia replied, not bothering to turn her head my way. “There’s another one in there, kind of hiding behind its bolder sibling. Hello, kitty.” Her voice took on a quality even softer and more alluring than the sweet nothings she’d whispered in my ear during our honeymoon-in-the-mine-stope. “Ki-ki-ki-ki.”
Kitty? Baby house cats, then? Weren’t they extinct?
Uh-oh. Supper was going to be extinct if I didn’t do something about it; Julia was still ki-ki-cooing and duck-walking toward the furry little entertainment an inch at a time, tiny scraps of raw meat in one hand. For the moment, she was lost to me.
The snow fell for three solid nights and days before finally petering out. Michael and I had come to a fair distribution of camp duties; basically he did everything except cook (because neither of us tolerate his sincere but unbelievably inept efforts in that endeavor), I worked on constructing a buckskin carryall pouches-with-harness arrangement for little Cindy and Mr. Cool, Michael read constantly–by campfire light or daylight, depending on the hour–and I listened closely whenever he came across a passage he deemed worth sharing.
At the moment, though, he wasn’t reading. He was studying the contraption in my hands with a puzzled look. “Nice lacing,” he commented. “Looks like you’ll be packing one kitten under each breast? I think I’m jealous.” The twinkle in his eye gave him away; he loved the kittens as much as I did.
Well…maybe not quite as much. “When we’re just meandering around, yes, they can ride in front. But I’ll be able to unlatch these side ties and switch it around to my lower back if we have to fight.” Cindy, a long-haired gray female, reached out to bat at the hanging leather lace with one tiny, needle-clawed paw. Her aim was true; she snagged the swinging thing and brought it to her mouth, latching on and mini-growling fiercely. A born huntress, this one, bold and swift and accurate. It was Cindy who had come to me from under the log while her larger brother lagged behind, far more cautious than his sister. At least no one would mistake them for more than half-siblings; Mr. Cool’s shorter, shiny, black-and-white “Sylvester” pattern made it clear they had been sired by different fathers. Which meant they could breed as adults, presuming we never found any other cats, without the risk of inbreeding defects being quite as high as if they’d been full sibs. It also meant there were other cats running around; these were probably not the last on Earth. Even so, they’d be worth their weight in gold back home, or in the new/rebuilt community my mate planned to bring to life.
Best of all, it turned out they were just old enough to survive on raw meat rather than mother’s milk. Hunger would not have driven them to us if their mama had still been around to provide nursing benefits.
Michael’s attention had already drifted away, back to the journal, which had not received entries daily, just whenever the author got a wild hair. Still, we’d learned a lot already, a drop in the bucket compared to what we needed to know, but way better than nothing. The mummified soldier was no longer unknown; his name was William “Wild Bill” Carrington, a former Army Ranger who’d hired on with Schenk to head up security at the library a good five years before the first known case of Capriosi vilify hit the news. Three other names had surfaced as well: Jenks, probably short for Jenkins, also a security specialist. Harlan, originally the head librarian but impressed into service on the security side when everything went to manure. And “Little Brie,” so called because the woman weighed in at better than three hundred pounds on a five-three frame. “Girl with a build like one of those round hay bales, a face like Miss Piggy, a 180 I.Q., a heart of gold and a spine of steel,” was the way Wild Bill described her. Little Brie had been an assistant librarian, later the only assistant librarian after the Blackface took out most of the population, and still later the only librarian, period, when Harlan had to devote his efforts to security issues full time.
“Whoa!” Michael had obviously read something of interest.
“What?” I looked up from my lacing work, curious.
“This–hon, this is his recording of the events at the back fence. Listen to this.”
They came creeping along Black Street, thousands of them, a gray tide nearly invisible in the gray light under a gray early morning sky. Most were already sick with Blackface, already dead men walking, unwilling to accept their fate and lashing out at the man who they now knew had killed their world. Jenks was manning the front door, I was at the back, but Harlan spelled me for a few minutes so I could go see. The fifty-three library staff still in the building were for the most part not up yet, content to sleep while Rome burned, secure in their knowledge that they’d made it here from all over the continent, every one of them a Survivor of the virus, every one recruited by Mr. Schenks himself before he died. Vilify had taken him out just like any other man, what, a month and a half ago? He was gone, there was no one left to pay the staff and nowhere to spend the money even if there had been any, but the library-ites (who had the nerve to call themselves the Brites) were sleeping in. Idealists they were, every one of them, but lazy idealists who didn’t mind napping while the world came to an end.
As Jenks and I watched, the gray people filling the street became more animated, flicking on high powered Maglites that gave them the appearance of an old movie angry mob with torches and pitchforks, come to kill the monster.
No, not us. Not the library. Not yet. Their attention was silently focused on the tall castle across the street a rough quarter mile from our position, its turrets soaring in defiant glory and, as we would soon see, foolish complacency. Mr. Schenk had equipped his fortress with the latest in automated defenses, but the master was gone and the servants had not maintained things in the proper state of readiness. The grid was long down, for one thing, and the big backup generators were left off to conserve precious fuel, the residents arrogantly convinced the rabble would never come for them. But they were wrong, so very wrong, for the bull-voiced leader of the dissidents, a voice that carried even to our position and could never be mistaken by any who’d ever heard it before, led the charge. The wave rolled up the hill to the wall itself, never stopping, not even bothering to try the locked gate, simply throwing up obscenely long extension ladders over which the invaders streamed like a million army ants on the march. I shuddered at the image, and I think Jenks did, too.
“They’ll be coming for us next,” he said quietly, and I nodded in agreement.
“They will come, yes, and our airy-fairy residents will scream when we mow the attackers down to deny them access. Harlan and Brie will need to watch our backs while we’re shooting the fools.”
Neither of has the slightest doubt that the librarians would shoot to kill our own library-mates if need be. Mr. Schenks had not recruited just the average book lovers to safeguard his beloved legacy.
At the castle, battery powered lights came on, enough to illuminate the scene but no more than that. The great lasers were silent, the electrified wire atop the wall did not snap at all, and the ants continued to stream toward the castle itself. Then through the front door, courtesy of a simple battering ram and a lot of enthusiasm. Nobody shot at them, nobody even verbally challenged them until the lead elements were inside the soaring stone structure, and by then it was too late. An hour later, the castle was nothing but a ruin, the dozen retainers murdered and their heads displayed on unbroken sections of the wall.
Barbarism, as Jenks and I well knew, lies ever close to the surface under the epidermis of humanity. For many, it’s not even as deep as the dermis.
A handful of dedicated defenders with machine guns could have held Schenk Tower indefinitely, but those had been dismissed from service by the administrator of the Schenk estate a mere ten days after the billionaire’s death. That south end of a northbound cow had tried to dismiss us as well. Jenks had warned the man once, then twice, then shot him right between the eyes when he tried to impose his will with nothing but a phony court order and a half dozen flunkies he claimed were Sheriff’s deputies. There was no court left in the entire state as far as we knew, and we weren’t buying the dead man’s bluff.
Mr. Schenk had hired us to do a job and we were going to do it, period. Besides, the library could be defended–which few buildings in the city could–and it was well stocked with both reading material and survival supplies.
It was close to two p.m. when the destroyers finished their initial play time at the castle and came for the big prize. “Jenks says to tell you they’re on their way,” Little Brie announced, dropping off a plate of cheese, apples, and peanuts. “And it looks like they’re swinging around to hit the back.”
That made sense. The leaders of the mob knew Jenks had calmly plugged the phony estate administrator, and he also had a whole lot of firepower available to defend the front. There were trees closer to the back fence, which probably gave them a false sense of security, thinking they could hide behind those, or at least get closer to the fence before they gave me what-for. My biggest concern wasn’t the attackers; it was the fifty-three idiot civilians at my back.
“You feel like acting as my loader?” I asked Brie.
“Thought you’d never ask.” She said it with a straight face. Never flinched, never showed the slightest sign of stress. Just locked the solid steel door behind us, preventing a knife in my back or a shrill voice in my ear during the coming bloodbath.
We only kept two heavy weapons at this end of the building, both of them antique M60 machine guns passed down from generation to generation until they’d ended up in my hands. My many-times great grandfather had owned them after the Vietnam War, during which he’d gained both proficiency with and respect for the belt-fed shooters. Illegal as hell, both of them, never licensed, but meticulously maintained and even upgraded a few times, courtesy of a family machine shop here and there. The 7.56 NATO cartridges were all hand loaded, of course. All 100 of them, at 100 rounds per disintegrating belt. If I could keep at least one barrel cool enough to keep it from melting, I could fire a total of 10,000 rounds, virtually nonstop.
Especially with Little Brie loading one belt while I was switched off to the other weapon.
We had the door wide open and the horseshoe box of half inch combat steel shielding wedged in place; I could either cover a decent field of fire from the fixed mount or stand and fire from the hip, Rambo style, raking all along the building’s wall in a full 180 degree arc. Our generators were on; anyone who touched the fence was dead. They had to know this, and yet still they came. Mob fever had rendered them functionally insane. For weeks, we’d been petitioned, screamed at, cursed vehemently because we would not “share” the bounty of the library.
Someone had done at least a little thinking. They’d brought a shield, carried before the cutters by a whole bunch of men. It looked like a big steel sheet, maybe with handles welded to the back for the men to grab as they bum-rushed the fence. The roar of their voices, pain and rage and even the wail of lost souls mingled in, it was enough to unman a lesser man. But I’d seen real combat against professional enemies, seen what men could do to other men, women and children. The sound did not lessen, I suspect, but disappeared from my awareness all the same. It is not the roar of the beast that kills you, but his fangs and his claws.
To a sane human, the frontal–or backal, I guess? being at the back gate?–assault made no sense. In theory, they could have more easily conquered the fence from one of the building’s sides, making it much more difficult for the miniscule numbers of defenders we had to blow them back. Yet reason was gone by the wayside; they saw the door and were not about to take the long way around.
I had not yet fired, seeing their tactic required a change in tactics of my own. “Armor piercing!” I snapped to Brie, and she deftly loaded the #2 M60 with the required belt.
“Loaded!” She yelled, and quick-like-a-bunny I swapped weapons.
Electric arcs were crackling all over the area where they’d propped the steel shield against the fence, and yet no one died from that. Rubber gloves, perhaps, or maybe they’d skillfully let go of the steel before it touched the wire. Perhaps they’d hoped to short out the electric circuit turning the fence into a weapon, too, but in that they were disappointed. By the time I was ready, a blue light could be seen dancing down through the wires. A cutting torch, held by a heavily gloved hand connected to a gauntleted arm. Maybe they thought it was a small target, and for that matter, maybe it was. Not that it mattered; the sudden stutter of the M60 was punctuated by screams as armor piercing bullets flew threw mild steel like it was so much tissue paper.
The dying had begun.