an Emberverse story
©2015, Eric Oppen
Rural Hardee County, Iowa, June 14, 1998.
“God damn it!” Nick Cleveland cursed. He looked up at the old windmill. “This thing is rusted up, but good. Melinda, can you get me some more of that lube we found in the barn?”
“I’m on it!” Melinda Yang headed to the barn. Ever since electricity and explosives had mysteriously stopped working, the two of them had been working hard from dawn to well past dusk, trying to get the old farm into working order. The youth camp on the property was a project for later. They expected to eventually move into it. The farmhouse was too modern to be able to retrofit easily, but the camp buildings could be heated with wood. And there was a lot of firewood on the property; a year’s worth had been delivered a few days before the Change hit.
Melinda came back with the can of oil. Nick applied it to the joint. “Okay, you bastard, come on now!” he snarled, levering it with a steel bar and throwing all his weight into it. With a groan, the joint gave way, and the old windmill began to turn. Nick and Melinda gave shouts of joy as the first trickles of water came out of the spigot. They wiped sweat off. Since the Change, they’d worked much harder than they were used to, and the weather was warming. They had come for a few days’ work, pinch-hitting for the caretaker, who’d had a wedding in Illinois. They didn’t expect to see him again.
“Good. Now we don’t have to depend on what’s in the creek.” Nick cast a foreboding look at the creek meandering through the property. Before the dam, the creek had spread out into a large swamp covering a good deal of what was now Nick’s property. The water in the creek looked all right, but fertilizers and other runoffs polluted a lot of Iowa’s surface water. Water from underground was likelier to be safe. Hence, repairs to the windmill were important.
The sound of a horse’s hooves coming up the gravel road made them turn. Nick peered cautiously at the rider, then his eyes lit up. “It’s Deputy Sanders,” he said, pulling Melinda along to greet him. “What news, Deputy?” He hoped the news was good. There hadn’t been serious trouble in Hardee County since the Change, but Nick had heard ominous rumors about conditions elsewhere.
“Hello, Nick. This isn’t a social call. I’m visiting everybody who has horses. You still have yours?”
“Sure do!” Most of the farmland Nick’s family owned was rented to the neighbors. A chunk of wooded property had been converted to a youth camp, featuring archery, swimming in a large pond, and other activities, including horseback riding. While many campers brought their own horses, a few stayed year ’round and were his property.
“Well, consider this a ‘Greetings’ notice. Get down to the Goldfield courthouse, day after tomorrow. The Governor’s mobilizing everybody he can. Things are going from bad to worse in Illinois.”
“Chicago and Springfield have really melted down, big-time. Huge mobs of people are moving out from them, heading to the Mississippi. All the bridges have been cut or blocked, but we need more men on the river. There’ve been reports of people crossing at night, and they’ve got to be checked out.”
“I see.” Nick shuddered. Unlike Iowa, Illinois did not have enough food for its people. Nice people would turn savage when hungry enough. Scary stories came across the river, and Nick was glad that he lived far away. “Not that I’m not flattered pink, but why me, in particular?”
“You’ve got horses, and you were in the SCA. We’re looking for SCA, reenactment, buckskinners, ex-Amish…anybody with experience with low-tech. The State Police and National Guard have been mobilized, but a lot of them don’t have know-how. Experience flying helicopters and driving tanks won’t help us now.”
Nick nodded. “Okay. I’ll get my gear, and be there with bells on. Any particular time?”
“Noonish.” Deputy Saunders reined the horse around. “I’d love to chat, but I’ve got more folks on the list. See you in Goldfield!” He waved and trotted off.
Once he was gone, Nick sighed. “Okay, I can saddle up, pack another horse with my gear, and be gone at first light. It’s a few hours to Goldfield on horseback. I’m sorry to leave you holding the bag—well, fort.”
“We’ll both go. The neighbors can keep an eye on things. I’m in the SCA, too, even if I don’t fight. I’m better at low–tech camping than you are, and unlike some people, I can cook over an open fire and I don’t burn water.”
“But—“ Nick paused. For a sweet, demure Chinese-American girl, Melinda had a very good glare. He knew what that glare meant, and gave right on in. “Okay, I’ll talk to the neighbors. We’d best start packing. Thank God, my gear is mostly here.”
Before the Change, Nick’s shire had often used the youth camp for events, and Nick’s armor and camping gear was easily available. They also had enough extra gear for Melinda around.
❀ ❁ ❀
Two weeks later
“What do you see?” Nick asked. Beside him, Melinda adjusted the telescope. The Mississippi River was over a mile wide, and all he could make out was a haze of smoke. From the distance, a huge pillar of cloud seemed to be rising into the summer sky.
“The town’s gutted,” Melinda answered. “Those people we met this morning got out just in time, I think.”
A ragtag fleet of whatever would float had landed on the Iowa side of the river earlier. The refugees said they’d heard of a huge “killer caravan” heading in their direction, eating the land bare as they passed. “They burn every town they take, and kill everybody!”
“And they eat them!” The woman collapsed sobbing. “I only got away by luck!”
Nick saw fear in Melinda’s eyes. Reports of cannibalism had surfaced. Big cities rarely had more than a few days’ worth of food on hand. After months of fighting over ever-scarcer resources, things seemed to have gone South in a hurry. There was food to be had in the Illinois countryside, but the owners were willing to fight for it.
Deputy Saunders, now Lieutenant Saunders, Iowa National Guard, took over, telling the sobbing woman: “Okay, we’ll take you to our intake center. We’ll want to get your names, and your backgrounds, and find a place for you.”
In his mind, Nick added: And run the rulers over you to make sure you are who you say you are. Most of the Illinois refugees were much like their Iowa neighbors, but there was a bad element coming also. In bad times, Iowa had no interest in taking in more…trouble. The “triage groups” questioned newcomers. Nobody talked about those who failed.
Nick shook his head, shaking off memories. He pointed to the pillar of smoke. “I wonder—could that be Chicago?”
Melinda peered at it through the telescope. “Could just be. The direction’s right, and the wind’s out of the East. I imagine a lot of Chicago’s burning.”
“Sheesh.” Neither of them said anything else. Both sets of their parents, University of Iowa faculty, had been attending a seminar in Baltimore when the Change hit. Nick and Melinda hoped that their parents might re-appear, but they knew the chances weren’t good.
Melinda focused on the town across the river. “It looks like they’re really tearing it up,” Melinda reported. “Glad we’ve got the river between them and us.”
“Which means we’ll have to be on extra-special guard tonight. Everyone’s on duty.” Nick turned, and smiled. Joanie Schwarz, the sergeant in charge of their unit and a lifelong friend, was behind them. Her black eyes sparkled from under the brim of her M-1 helmet as she gave them a gamine grin.
“Come to see all the madness you hath wrought?” asked Melinda lightly. “Or come to get him back? In that case, too late. He’s mine!” She looped her arm through Nick’s, smiling smugly.
Both girls laughed. Joanie Schwarz and Nick were almost the same age and as next-door neighbors, they had been inseparable growing up. They had dated, and were each other’s first, but had decided that it was too much like incest. Joanie had thrown Melinda and Nick together. Joanie had gone on to a series of affairs with both boys and girls; she said that both were so nice that she didn’t want to limit herself. And she somehow managed to go from lover to lover to lover without leaving hurt feelings behind. Nick wondered how she did it, even while he was quite happy and contented being monogamous.
“Then maybe I’ll try for you, Melinda!” Joanie made as if to grab Melinda. Melinda giggled and ducked around Nick, and for a couple of minutes the girls playfully dodged and grabbed at each other. Finally they ran down. Joanie wiped off sweat, and said: “Seriously, Susan Banks and I are here to take over. Get back to camp.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Nick and Melinda saluted and mounted up. Melinda groaned. “This second-hand hauberk is heavy!” She ran her hand down her side. “And I can’t scratch under it!”
“Sorry, love,” Nick said. “That’s a problem with armor.”
Melinda glared at Nick. “That coat of plates looks a lot more comfortable than this thing. And I wouldn’t have to be so damn undignified getting into and out of it!”
“When we get the chance, I’ll run you up a coat of plates like mine. At least I’m not wearing my SCA helmet!” Instead of his SCA-legal helmet, which was bulky and hard to see out of, Nick was wearing a German helmet, one his great-grandfather brought back from World War One. Melinda was in another of Nick’s great-grandfather’s souvenirs, a British-style tin hat.
“At least we have these helmets!” Melinda touched the brim of her tin hat and smiled. “The people wearing motorcycle or football helmets look silly!”
“Better silly than dead. Come on! I bet they’ve got food on at the camp!” Both of them urged their horses into a trot.
The camp was the headquarters for several counties’ worth of new recruits and longtime Guardsmen. The Guardsmen’s previous experience in doing things the military way helped, while many of the new recruits had been in the SCA or other historical reenactment groups, and were willing to teach their comrades low-tech skills. Nick and Melinda rode in past a group doing sword-and-shield exercises. Off to the left, archery practice went on; every compound bow and crossbow available had been requisitioned by the government and everybody was expected to reach basic proficiency.
Once their horses were tended to, Nick and Melinda headed for the mess tent. Nick sniffed the air, and sighed. “The sun is in the east. Therefore, my incredible intelligence tells me we’re going to have pork-and-soybean stew to eat.”
Melinda snorted. “Intelligence, in a guy, means ‘may be able to tie own shoes, if properly motivated.’” Nick swatted her gently with his hat. She giggled.
Nick picked up a plate, and, sure enough, it was pork-and-soybean, washed down with strained and distilled Mississippi River water. He sighed.
“At least we’ve got food,” Melinda commented. “Too many don’t.” Nick nodded solemnly. Melinda ate dutifully. “I spoon it down, in the morning it comes back up. I wonder if I have an allergy?”
She jumped as a hand came down on her shoulder, and turned to see Dr. Finnegan, the camp doctor. “After you’re done, you’ll report to my office, immediately.”
Melinda filled her lungs to protest. Dr. Finnegan gave her a stern look, and she visibly deflated. “Yes, sir.”
Dr. Finnegan patted her kindly. “I’m sure it’s nothing much, but people have been coming down with a lot of different things. Damn the Change for screwing up the sewage disposal systems!” Nick agreed with the doctor. Even though Iowa was well-found for food, there had been waves of disease, and many weaker or older Iowans had died.
After dinner, Nick went to archery practice. Melinda was intercepted by Dr. Finnegan. “I thought you might try to sneak off. My office. Now.” Melinda gave Nick a poisonous glare. Nick shrugged his shoulders as Dr. Finnegan towed her off.
“She doesn’t like doctors much, does she?” asked Bill Tanner, one of Nick’s friends from the SCA.
“No, she doesn’t. Her attitude is: ‘Doctors are for people who are sick. Unless I am sick, I do not need a doctor.’” Nick’s intonation changed to an uncannily-close imitation of his girlfriend.
Bill scowled. “That attitude will bite her in the ass one of these days. Come, it’s time for archery practice.” Nick went back to his tent and hauled out his grandfather’s compound bow. It had taken many a deer, but Nick was not good yet. The longtime archers could shoot rings around him, but they didn’t laugh at the newbies. Instead, they helped them learn. Archery was no longer sport, but serious business.
An hour later, Nick was pulling arrows out of his target, when he turned to see Melinda watching him. “Oh, hi, Melinda! What news from the doctor?”
“Preg-nant,” Melinda repeated, in tones suitable for speaking to someone who was a bit slow. “Gravid. Up the spout. Knocked up. In a family way. I’ve got a bun in the oven. Expecting a blessed event. Anticipating a visit from the stork. Am I getting through?”
Nick stared at her, as panic rose up and took over his mind. “Oh, my God…you’re going to die!”
“I’m going to what?” Melinda looked at her boyfriend as though he had started spouting a foreign language.
“Oh my God you’re going to die you’re going to die I’ve heard about all the horrible things that happen women bleed to death or something goes horribly wrong and it’s all my fault!! it’s all my fault it’s all my fault…” Melinda suddenly stepped forward and shook him, hard enough to make his teeth rattle.
“Will you shut up and calm down? Where do you think you get off, taking all the blame? Do you really think you raped me?” Nick shook his head numbly. Melinda grinned evilly. “Good. We’re getting somewhere. Maybe that solid-ivory dome you have can be penetrated! If you’ll recall, we’ve been mauling the mattresses regularly since the Change, and I was just as enthusiastic as you were! I don’t appreciate being treated like a victim, so don’t do it again! Got me?”
Nick nodded. Melinda smiled, and reached up to gently push his open mouth shut with one finger. “Good. And do close your mouth; you’ll catch a fly if you don’t.” Nick obeyed. Melinda regarded him narrowly. “Tell me, darling…where did you get your information about pregnancy and childbirth? Tales from the Crypt?”
“I read Farnham’s Freehold. Heinlein describes the whole thing in there…” Melinda stepped forward, jabbing her finger into his breastbone and giving him a serious look.
“Nick, darling, I think it’s time that you and I had a long, serious talk. Shall we adjourn to where we can have privacy?” Nick could tell that Melinda was serious about this, and he nodded. Melinda took him in tow and as they headed toward their tent, Nick could hear her muttering “Farnham’s Freehold! Of all places to get information…”
Some time later, Melinda was saying: “Most women can and do deal with pregnancy without problems, other than nausea at some stages.” She gave Nick a smile, the smile that had first captured his heart. “Doctor Finnegan says that I’m in excellent shape and should sail through this. I’m a healthy normal young woman, at a good age for a first pregnancy, and my body is doing what it was designed originally to do. I always wanted to be a mother; I just didn’t think it would come along so soon. But now that it has, I’m looking forward to seeing our baby.” She kissed him. “And you’re very sweet to worry about me.”
Nick felt a wild joy. “Oh, my God…we’re going to have a baby! Let’s go tell everybody!” He hugged Melinda hard, and she hugged him right back, staining his shirt with happy tears. Nick and Melinda went off to spread the news.
❀ ❁ ❀
Everybody was delighted. There had been so much death that hearing about a baby on the way was a wonderful morale-booster. Joanie Schwarz screamed: “Oh my God, I can’t believe it! I’m so happy for you!” She hugged her friend.
“I’m happy, too! You’ll have to be ‘Aunt Joanie,’ you know!”
“Oh, I will!” Joanie gave Melinda her wickedest grin. “I’ll be the aunt that tells them all about the silly things their parents did, and teaches them inappropriate songs…” Melinda thwapped Joanie with her hat, and both women collapsed, giggling. Nick looked on in incomprehension. Joanie patted him on the head. “There, there, Nick. It’s a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
The next day, though, Joanie was back in “sergeant” mode. “You’re heading back home, Melinda. Orders. Anybody pregnant is taken off duty here. There’s a caravan heading back toward Hardee County at noon, and you’re on it.”
“What?” Melinda stared at her old friend. “Why?” Her eyes filled with tears. “How could you do this to me?” Her voice throbbed with the pain of betrayal.
“It wasn’t me. Orders from Des Moines.” To Joanie, that was that. She had embraced her role of “soldier” with fervor. Off duty, she was still the mischievous, fun-loving girl they had always known. On duty, she had ferocious focus.
“Well, I’ll just see about that!” Melinda stalked off toward the command tent. Nick and Joanie looked at each other. Nick shrugged helplessly.
“You know what she’s like, Nick.”
“Tell me about it. That woman has a whim of steel. She could out-stubborn a forty-mule team.”
“Pity she doesn’t suddenly have a whim to gratify my longing for her sweet self.”
“She might feel the same way that I did. It felt too much like incest, remember?” Joanie blushed, uncharacteristically. “Or she might be completely straight.”
“There are no straight women, Nick. They can all be had.” Joanie grinned wickedly. “And I’ll have ‘em all! BWAHAHAHAHA!” She leered, twiddling an imaginary moustache. “Be mine, beautiful Melinda, or I shall…” Suddenly, she looked puzzled. “Tying her to a railroad track wouldn’t have any point now, would it?” Nick laughed with her. Nick knew that Melinda would have laughed too. She had never given in to Joanie’s importunities, but she had confided to Nick that she found them flattering; she admired Joanie’s gamine beauty and wished she was more like that herself. Nick assured her that she was beautiful like Melinda, and that was all she needed.
Shouts came from the direction of the command tent. Nick couldn’t hear what the fuss was about, but he didn’t like it. “Uh-oh…sounds like trouble!” He began jogging toward the tent. Nick had a sinking feeling that an irresistible force in the form of his girlfriend had just met an immovable object in the form of their commanding officer.
Sure enough, that was what had happened. Melinda was furious, yelling: “The doctor says I’m in good health, so I want to stay! I don’t want to go home!”
“You will obey your orders!” Their commander, a longtime veteran of the National Guard, was no taller than Melinda, but he seemed to tower over her. “I’m being very lenient with you as it is, Private! If you keep on acting like a spoiled little girl, you’ll be treated like one!”
Nick sighed. “Melinda, you’ve made your point. He knows how you feel now. Yelling isn’t going to change his mind.”
“But I don’t want to leave you!” Suddenly, Melinda was sobbing in his arms. “I’m scared enough as it is! Please don’t let them send me back!” She saw Joanie. “Joanie! Can you get them to let me stay on?”
“Sorry, Melinda. No can do. I tried and got smacked down hard. Everybody who’s pregnant or not in good health is being pulled back.” Joanie held up her hand as she saw Melinda draw in a deep breath. “And I know that pregnant and not in good health are not synonymous. They’ve got reasons. And I don’t want to see you come to any harm.”
Melinda collapsed in a puddle of tears, before getting to her feet and running toward their tent, sobbing loudly. Nick and Joanie exchanged glances.
“I hated to do that to her. When she gets the bit in her teeth she’s all but impossible to deal with. Who ever said that Chinese girls are sweet and pliant?”
“Someone who never met her, I think. She’s told me that from the first time we met, back in kindergarten, she knew she would get me someday.” Nick shrugged his shoulders. “She’s got the memory of an elephant and the patience of a lizard. And I have a feeling she’ll remember this for a long, long time.”
Nick and Joanie went walking back. “Joanie,” Nick said, in a low voice, “I have a feeling you know things you aren’t telling me.”
Joanie suddenly looked weary, and much older. Her usual mischievous manner was gone as though it was a cloak she’d shed. “Yeah. We haven’t just been watching across the river. We have scouting parties over there. They slip in by night, in canoes, and hide out during the day. There’s a big gang over there that’s building up for a push across the river into Iowa. They think we don’t know.”
“Oh.” Nick flashed on the image of Melinda caught up in the sort of horrible scrimmage that could happen if one of the gangs got across the Mississippi, and all of a sudden, he was glad that she was going back. Hardee County was much safer.
When the caravan rolled out, headed west, Melinda was on it. She hugged Nick and Joanie farewell, crying, and waved goodbye. Nick waved back until he couldn’t see her any more, then turned and went back to his lonely, empty tent.
❀ ❁ ❀
A few nights later, Joanie’s predictions came true. Nick awoke, his blood running cold, as bells rang and trumpets blared; major trouble was on the way. He scrambled into his armor as fast as he could, pulling on his helmet and throwing his sword belt over his shoulder as he ran out into the night.
The Hardee County unit, “Hardee’s Hardcases,” were gathered around their county’s flag. Lieutenant Sanders was there, cool and confident. “What’s happened?” asked Nick.
“Our outposts down by the riverside have reported a large group of boats crossing the river.”
“If they were refugees, they’d have come by day,” Nick said. He stared out into the night, wishing that he was anywhere else, or that the Change had never happened. The core of the big gangs of Eaters, Devourers, ghouls, or whatever you wanted to call them, were the dregs of the cities, but there were people who were no different from him, save for the dreadful luck of living close to a large city at the Change.
Someone pointed east, out into the darkness. “There’s something out there—AAAAKKK!” He fell backward, arms pinwheeling, as the Iowans were charged by screaming neo-cannibals. Nick yanked out his sword; he was happy to let others handle the archery. He had improved, but he was aware of how far he had to go.
Another arrow came out of the darkness, missing Nick and burying itself in the man beside him, a fellow named Larry Bahr. Larry screamed and dropped his weapon, and they were swarmed by their enemies. Nick yelled “Floreat Calontir!” as he swung his sword at the nearest enemy, a tall, thin man wearing what looked like the remains of a business suit over a basketball jersey. The cannibal shrieked as Nick’s sword bit into his arm. He dropped the machete he was holding.
Later, all Nick could remember of the next few minutes was a blur. He swung and hacked with his sword. The hours he’d spent in fighter practice with the SCA had given him reflexive responses that served him well. There was a confused screaming from both sides. The Iowans yelled battle cries, while the cannibals had a simple chant: “Eat! Eat! Eat!”
After an unguessable time, there was no more enemies nearby. Nick lowered his sword, his arms throbbing and his vision blurring. He wiped the blade and sheathed it. He was relieved to see that his side had won. Everybody on his or her feet wore Iowan gear. The only cannibals in sight were lying dead or crawling, silently or screaming, dreadfully wounded. Nick saw one trying to put her guts back into her ripped-open abdomen, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach. He fell to his knees, dry-heaving.
Nick felt a hand on his shoulder and twitched, reaching for his sword. “Brace up. This isn’t over, Nick.” Nick turned, and saw Joanie Schwarz standing over him. She was carrying a Japanese naginata, and he wondered absently where she’d come across such a thing. She looked very sad. “There’s people around who’ll take care of them,” she said, indicating the wounded Eaters. “We’ve got to form up. There’s another wave coming.”
“Take care of them? How?” Nick’s eyes went wide as Joanie put her finger across her lips, then ran her finger across her throat. He began to protest, and thought better of it. Wearily, he got to his feet, grateful for the hand Joanie gave him. The two old friends walked over to where the others were gathering. Nick was grateful for the comfort that came from being together.
Nick looked over the Hardee County contingent. There were a good few faces missing. “Where’s Sanders?” he croaked.
“Dead. One of the bad guys split his skull with a wood-axe. We got the son-of-a-bitch, but he had lots of friends.” Nick couldn’t see who was speaking. “Sergeant Schwarz—Joanie—is in charge now.”
“Oh.” Joanie, like all of them, had changed, and in many ways, for the better. She was still the happy-go-lucky, cheerfully lecherous girl he’d known, but on duty, she was all business under the bantering exterior.
Young people in Scout uniforms came around, offering bowls of stew and cups of boiled water. Nick wouldn’t have thought that he could stomach anything, but when the scent reached him, he was suddenly ragingly hungry. He all but inhaled the food, and felt proud that he remembered his manners enough not to lick the bowl.
Beside him, Joanie muttered: “This was a probe, just now. If we’re lucky, they’ll decide that we’re too hard a nut to crack, and go somewhere else. Somewhere on the other side of the river.”
Less than an hour later, another horde of savages came swarming up from the riverbank, screaming and waving weapons. The Iowans were drawn up in order, meeting them on the crest of the hills. The lay of the land, with gullies and thick brush in many places, forced the savages to meet the Iowans where they were waiting. The ex-SCA among them had introduced the concept of a “shield wall,” and many of them were formed up in one, with people with polearms and bows standing behind them, ready to lend support.
Nick was on one edge of the shield-wall. Gritting his teeth, hoping that his shaking legs didn’t show under his trousers, he braced himself as the horde came closer.
“Loose arrows!” The archers and crossbowmen sent a cloud of arrows and quarrels over the heads of the front ranks. Many missed but enough found flesh. Cannibals fell, screaming and clutching at arrows and quarrels that suddenly protruded from their bodies, or lying still with arrows sticking out of their faces.
Those that survived fell on the Iowan line with hoarse screams of rage, swinging clubs, brandishing pitchforks and machetes, and tearing at the Iowans’ shields with bare hands. The Iowans defended themselves desperately, their blades flashing, dripping with blood. For every savage they cut down there was at least one more ready to leap into the breach. “Eat!” they yelled. “Eat eat eat eat eat!”
The cannibals had to go through the Iowans to get farther west, and they were determined to do just that. The Iowans, for their part, knew what would happen if they let this mad mob through. They grimly slaughtered their enemies, not yielding an inch of ground.
Nick tangled with a group of three, one with a pitchfork, one with a Civil War saber taken from some home or museum, and one wielding a sledgehammer. The sabreuse was the most dangerous. She had apparently spent enough time with the weapon to know what she was doing, but her companions kept getting in her way.
The pitchforker screamed obscene word-salad as he charged, holding his pitchfork like a bayoneted rifle. Unfortunately for him, the ground was uneven and he tripped over an exposed root. Before he could recover, Nick slashed down hard, splitting his skull. That gave the other two time to get close, and he barely had time to yank his blade free before the sledgehammer was swinging at him. If it had connected, helmet or no helmet, it would have stove his head in. It swung past just over Nick’s head as he lashed out with his sword. His sword bit flesh, and the hammerman’s hand came off. He reeled away, screaming and trying to staunch the blood spurting from his new stump.
With two down, the woman with the saber advanced more cautiously. She probed with the point, feeling out Nick’s defense. Nick got a closer look at her than he’d had at the other cannibals. She was pretty once, he thought, but now, not so much. She was filthy dirty, her hair hung down on either side of her face in tangles, and she had the craziest expression he’d ever seen. Her eyes were two swirling pools of madness and she was foaming at the mouth. Around her neck she was wearing a necklace of what Nick thought, at first, was pieces of jerky. Then he realized that they were dried human fingers and ears, and his heart hardened. Whatever this woman had been, she was a monster that had to be destroyed.
Nick spat on the ground. “Come ahead, bitch,” he taunted her. “Come and taste some good old Iowa hospitality!” He was proud that his voice was steady, although hoarse. He’d been yelling for some time, and he was feeling the beginnings of a very sore throat. “Come on and take me! Or are you afraid?”
As he had thought it would, that did it. The reports that the Iowans had about their enemies said that in the killer mobs, showing fear was a one-way ticket to being eaten. Howling “Eat! Eat eat eat eat eat!” she swung her saber. She was faster than he had anticipated. He barely got his blade up in time to deflect her slash. He slashed back at her, but she was fast and agile, ducking under his swing and springing forward to grapple. They rolled on the ground, snarling and cursing, their swords discarded.
If they had been alone, Nick would have been in trouble. He hadn’t practiced hand-to-hand much. One advantage of the Iowans’ organization was that he wasn’t alone. He was twisting his enemy’s arm to keep her fingers out of his eyes with one hand, and trying to strangle her with the other while she clawed at his face, when she stiffened, her eyes rolling back in her head as a spear point suddenly sprouted through her breastbone. Panting, Nick rolled her off him, to find himself facing Bill Tanner. Bill helped Nick to his feet.
“Come on! The fight’s not over yet!” yelled Bill, as Nick found his gunto and checked to see that it was intact. Nick took a better grip on his sword and ran toward the fight, which was still raging on.
The Iowans’ shield-wall had been breached. It was a mad, confused scrum, with cannibals and Iowans intermingled. The archers didn’t dare shoot, for fear of hitting their own. The screaming and yelling from both sides made it impossible to hear anybody saying anything. Neither side looked like they were ready to give one inch. The clash of weapons was as loud as the yells from the combatants.
Joanie Schwarz was on her back on the ground, desperately fending off a madman with a hayfork; she was holding her naginata by the shaft in both hands as the cannibal thrust the fork down at her; the tines were less than an inch from Joanie’s face, and her arms were trembling.
Nick saw red. With a shriek of fury, he swung his gunto hard, decapitating the madman in one wild stroke. Blood spurted from his neck, soaking Joanie, who was on her feet in a second, her naginata ready. She flashed Nick one of her old gamine grins, heedless of the blood all over her face. “Owe you a hot night for that one, Nick!”
Nick wasn’t listening. He was too busy slashing at several feral children who were trying to swarm him and bear him down. They snarled and bit and clawed as he cut at them, until he managed to connect and inflict enough damage that they dropped away, hissing and mad-eyed. Then came a howling lunatic who ran at him, whirling a chain with a weight on one end. “Help!” he yelled. “Help me! Help!” Then the chain swung, wrapping around his neck and yanking him to his knees. His vision fuzzed and his gunto dropped from his nerveless fingers. Something slammed against his head, and he saw stars. Blackness swam up to claim him.
When Nick opened his eyes, he found himself staring at a canvas ceiling. He coughed, and his throat suddenly felt horribly sore. “Water!” he croaked, and someone put a tube into his mouth. He tasted distilled, filtered Mississippi water. As he drank, his head cleared. “I take it—we won?”
Joanie’s face swam into view. “Yeah. If we hadn’t, you’d have awoken in a stewpot.”
Nick gingerly took stock of himself. “What happened to me?”
“You got clouted in the head. That Kraut helmet saved your life. As it was, you were knocked out. You were already in a bad way with that chain around your neck.” Joanie looked uncharacteristically grim. “I got the chain-swinger. That was just before our reinforcements came up and drove them to the riverbank. The ones who couldn’t get to their boats either swam for it, or drowned. No loss either way.”
“Where’s my sword?” Nick asked. He sighed with relief when he saw it leaning against the foot of his bed. “Good. I’d hate to lose that.”
“When you’re back on your feet, you’ll need it,” Joanie said. “We’ll be going across the river to clean out some of the worst centers at the source.”
“Hopefully not just yet,” Nick mumbled. He felt very sleepy and just wanted to rest and recuperate. He burrowed back under his blanket. The last thing he felt as he went to sleep was Joanie kissing him gently on the cheek. He thought he saw a tear on her cheek, but that was impossible. Joanie Schwarz did not ever cry.
❀ ❁ ❀
Nick was in a flat-bottomed barge with a bunch of other Iowans, on their way to Illinois. Above them, the night sky was utterly black. There was a thick cloud cover and it smelled like rain.
Finally, Nick’s barge grounded. He scrambled off, eager to be back on dry land. While he could swim well, he wasn’t sure about trying wearing armor. He moved through the brush in the wake of the scouts who had located the Eaters’ camp.
Nick was now a sergeant, and Joanie was a lieutenant. The officers led from the front, and had taken awful losses. Nick gathered his squad and led them off after the others on the road that had once come down to the edge of the river, before the Change. The Mississippi had flooded several times since the Change. The banks were different from what they had been.
At Nick’s side, his trusty gunto rode along with a Bowie knife. Everybody had been allowed to pick their own weapons. Some preferred crossbows or bows, while others relied on sharp steel. Joanie was in the lead, her naginata’s blade sheathed in thin cloth that wouldn’t hamper her in a fight but would prevent it reflecting light. They counted on surprise. The Iowans had never struck across the river before. Tonight, they were making a coordinated assault. There were Iowans crossing at many points, striking at concentrations of the enemy, hoping to take them by surprise.
Luckily, the Iowans had people who knew the terrain. Otherwise, they’d have soon been lost. There was very little light. Nick felt twitchier and twitchier. He kept imagining cannibal hordes, waiting in the darkness, poised to leap out screaming and slaughter the Iowans.
The prisoners had been informative. The cannibals were gathered in their den, a high-school gym. Nick could see their firelight, flickering against the ceiling, through the high windows. They were chanting; Nick recognized a rap hit from the months before the Change. His mouth tightened. He had never been fond of “gangsta” culture.
Shadowy shapes slipped closer, and the Iowans tensed. When they approached, they murmured the password. “Hawkeye!”
Joanie gave the countersign. “Cyclone!” Bona fides established, the scouts reported.
“They had sentries out, ma’am. Luckily, they found those booze bottles we left out, and when we found them, they were in no shape to fight back.” The scout drew his finger across his throat. “Other than the cannibals, and us, there’s nobody in this town.”
Joanie nodded. “Good. Stay beside us, and keep out of the way. You aren’t equipped for a serious fight.” The scouts had been selected for agility and good night vision, not fighting prowess. They didn’t have weapons heavier than Bowie knives or tomahawks, and had very little armor.
Up close, the cannibals’ celebration was incredibly raucous. Joanie split people up. “Okay, Sergeant Cleveland, you and your squad cover the back exit. Sergeant Foraker, watch the windows. We don’t want anybody climbing out. Sergeant Tjarks, Sergeant Anderson, you’re with me on the main entrance. Are the throwers ready?”
“In five minutes, I’m going to fire a fire-arrow into the sky. When you see it, throw for the windows! Make every fire-bottle count!” Nick saluted and headed for the back exit, his squad behind him.
❀ ❁ ❀
By the back exit, Nick saw Joanie’s arrow, a streak of fire against the black sky. The throwers grabbed bottles from the padded sacks they had lugged along, throwing them through the windows. While a few missed, shattering against the brick walls and spewing flame down the sides of the building, most hit their mark. The chanting from within was suddenly replaced by screams. “Fire! Fire!”
Nick shuddered. What they were doing was necessary, but down deep, he hated it. “Brace yourselves, and get ready!” he snapped, as the screams from inside reached a crescendo. Seconds later, the rear exit opened, and a panicked scrum of cannibals tried to push through. It was hardly necessary to fight; they were caught off guard. The Iowans just had to keep them inside. As the shrieking cannibals struggled to escape, they were as easy to slaughter as fish in a barrel.
Nick felt sick. While many of the cannibals were guilty of horrible crimes, it felt wrong to be doing this. Trapping and burning them was different from fighting them out in the open. Some of them had once been just like him and his comrades, except for being trapped on the wrong side of the river.
When it was over, Nick found Joanie. He saluted her. For once, her mischievous grin was completely absent. “Sergeant Nicholas Cleveland reporting, ma’am. None of the enemy escaped by the back exit.”
“Good. None of them escaped any other way, either.” She looked closely at him. She had known him all their lives, and they had no secrets from each other. “Let’s head for the boats. Dawn’s breaking. If there are other groups like this one around, they might see the smoke.” She looked away. “I don’t want to eat barbecue again. Not for a long time, at least.”
Nick understood. “I’ll skip breakfast, at least. Matter of fact, I may spend the day sleeping in.”
“Yes. Even if Melinda were here, I’ve never been less in the mood.”
Joanie nodded, her expression haunted. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just—I don’t want to be alone now. Please?”
“All right. Don’t be surprised if I have nightmares.” Nick and Joanie moved off toward the waiting boats, Joanie leaning on Nick for support. She had twisted her ankle and had trouble keeping up.
Nick slept through the day and night, and awoke as dawn was just breaking in the east. Stumbling out of the tent, Nick and Joanie headed for the latrine trenches. Going for breakfast, they had an unpleasant surprise.
“Cheating on your pregnant girlfriend, Cleveland?” sneered Ken Klassen. Nick and Joanie had known Klassen since kindergarten, and had always despised him. “Typical. Can’t be satisfied with one woman. You hardly wave goodbye to Melinda before you’re in the sack with the local riding stable horse.”
“Riding stable horse?” To one who did not know her well, Joanie’s tone would have seemed light. “What do you mean, ‘riding stable horse,’ Klassen? Care to explain that?”
“A riding stable horse is a horse anyone can ride…for a price!” Klassen’s face twisted in a sneer. Suddenly the tip of Joanie’s saber was under his chin, drawing a bead of blood. His eyes went huge and he gulped convulsively. Running one’s mouth was dangerous at best, post-Change.
“Jealous, Ken?” Joanie’s eyes were as hard as obsidian. Her voice was light, but there was a dangerous undertone to it. Ken went very pale. “For what it’s worth, Nick didn’t lay a hand on me. And no amount of money would make me have anything to do with you, scum.”
“Joanie,” Nick said, his tone conversational, “I don’t think it’d be a good idea to kill him.” People had noticed the byplay. They were pointing, and some were running to find the MPs.
“I won’t kill him.” Joanie assured Nick, with a smile that reminded Nick of a hungry wolf. As several MPs came up, Joanie sheathed her saber, pointing to Ken Klassen. “Place this man under arrest. Charges are insubordination and stirring up dissent.” The MPs obeyed, grabbing Klassen by his upper arms before he could react. Joanie purred mockingly: “Oh, Ken…your commanding officer’s a friend of mine. I’ll be sure to have a chat with him later.” Ken slumped. His commander was very strict.
Once they’d eaten, Joanie was summoned to HQ. When she came back, she looked grim. “Saddle your troops up, Nick. We’re going on mounted patrol to the south today.”
“No rest for the wicked, is there?”
“No rest for the wicked, indeed,” Joanie sighed.
❀ ❁ ❀
When Nick came back that evening, he had a surprise. The supply caravan had come in, and in it was… “A letter? For me?” Since the Change, mail service had become dependent on finding someone going in the right direction. Des Moines talked about setting up postal service, but that took a back seat to food and sanitation services.
Nick sat at one of the tables in the mess tent, and Joanie sat beside him, rubbing her rump. The riding had been rough, over gullies and through bushes. She’d had a bad time of it. “Who wrote you, Nick?”
“Don’t you recognize the handwriting?” Joanie’s eyes widened when she saw the envelope. “I miss Melinda. Getting a letter is nothing like having her here, but it beats no word at all.” He tore open the envelope and read. Joanie peered over his shoulder:
I hope this finds you well. I feel fine. Better than ever in some ways. That’s a load off my mind. Ann Hager’s a RN, and she says that as far as she can tell, everything’s okay. The doctor comes around every so often, and he says that all seems to be going well. I’m getting awfully unwieldy, and peeing more than I ever have.
We’re going to have more people living with us. Since you own that farmland, this place has been designated as a “farm,” and they’ll be moving people out here. I’ve done my best to see that we get friends of ours from Iowa City or Des Moines. You can ask for specific people. I’ve been going over the lists to see who we want here. If I can’t fill our quota with people we know, I don’t know who we’ll end up with. We’ve now got a bath house and I’m putting up covered galleries between the cabins for winter.
I wish you could come home. The bed is awfully big, cold and empty without you there in it. I also miss our other friends who’re there. Keep safe, and come back to me!
Melinda Yang Cleveland
Nick folded the letter up and put it into his shirt pocket, rubbing his eyes. “Stupid pollen,” he muttered, “why do I have to be allergic to it, anyway?”
Joanie patted him on the shoulder, before leaving him alone. He was glad she was gone, friend or no friend; he did not want to weep in front of her. He figured she had enough burdens without worrying about him.
❀ ❁ ❀
October had fallen. Change or no, the foliage had turned a tawny brown and the trees’ leaves to red and yellow. Nick shivered. Despite a warm serape made from an army blanket, the wind was cold and the sun was dipping in the west. He shifted himself slightly, not wanting to disturb his horse, and stared across the Mississippi.
Things had been quiet. The scouts said that plagues raged in Illinois. The loss of modern medicine meant that diseases that Nick had only ever read about could make a comeback. Nick shuddered. The Iowans had become cleanliness fanatics after corpses with the plague mark had been found. Even the screw-ups and goof-offs cooperated willingly. Nobody wanted to see disease loose.
“Penny for your thoughts, Nick,” said Joanie. She sat her own horse easily, her breath steaming in the cold autumnal air. She was now a captain. Between attrition in battle and weeding out the unsuitable, promotion had been rapid. Nick was a lieutenant himself, but it didn’t quite feel real.
“Wondering what’s stirring over there,” Nick answered. The inchoate mobs of the early days had coalesced into dangerous hordes, mainly around a hard core of street gangsters from Chicago or Springfield. Names like “Killa Boyz” or “Shytown Eataz” were ones that any Iowan shuddered at. They were arguably insane, and many of them hadn’t been too well-socialized even before the Change. While they had always been thrown back when they tried to cross the river, it only took one success for them to cause incredible damage. What they didn’t devour, they spoiled, like petulant, ill-throven children.
“They’re fighting among themselves,” Joanie said, peering through a pair of binoculars. “The scouts have been busy. ‘Tagging’ one horde’s territory with the symbols of a rival will set off a blood feud.”
“Couldn’t happen to nicer people,” Nick mumbled. He was worn down. Everybody was worn down. The fighting had trailed off, but wasn’t over by a long shot. Joanie was haggard, and had lost her usual sparkle. Nick was having trouble sleeping at night, and jumped and grabbed a weapon when someone startled him. When he slept, he often had nightmares.
As the sun set, the night patrol came on duty, and Nick and Joanie rode back in, to be greeted by incredible news. “You mean, we go home?” gasped Nick.
“Yeah. They’ve arranged reliefs for you. The Hardcases are going home two days from tomorrow. Best go and break the news.”
Nick threw a big salute, smiling more widely than he had thought he ever could. “Oh, I will. Listen for the sobbing.”
As Nick had known it would, the news that they were going home was met with delight. He finally had to threaten to call the MPs to quell the impromptu party that sprang up, and he drank enough for a good hangover the next morning. Luckily, nobody was too inclined to be critical.
❀ ❁ ❀
Melinda paced up and down. She could hardly wait for Nick to be home. She had been very busy turning the summer camp into a year-round home for a group of people. Her eyes slid to the old wind-up clock on the fireplace mantel. “Where is he?” she muttered. The clock ticked on unconcernedly.
Ann Hager scowled at Melinda. “You settle down. Agitating yourself isn’t going to make him come faster. And it might hurt your baby.” Melinda subsided instantly, and Ann smiled.
The new cook, Julie Schleicher, was bustling about in the kitchen, putting together a feast. The Hardee County contingent had ridden into Goldfield the previous evening. Nick was due back that day. Melinda had been antsy ever since she got the word that Hardee’s Hardcases were being sent home. She wasn’t the only one. Everybody with relatives in the army was eager to see them again.
The sound of a horse coming up the drive galvanized everybody. Melinda was first out the door, and let out a scream of joy at the sight of Nick. As she rushed toward him, he reined in, looking around himself in wonder. He dismounted, and Melinda swarmed him, squealing like a little girl. For a few minutes, they were lost in each other, kissing passionately, as the onlookers all went “Awwww!”
When they untangled themselves, Nick looked around, wonder on his face. “Man, there’ve been changes around here!” He shook his head, slowly. “I hardly recognize the old place!”
“I had to make some changes, thanks to all the new people!” Melinda said. She waved her hand at the evacuees, who had crowded up to see the return of the prodigal warrior. “Lucky thing I had plenty of help to call on!” She felt as though she was going to burst from pride.
Nick’s eyes lit up as he surveyed the newcomers. Melinda knew that he recognized a lot of them. “I see you got a lot of our friends here! Good for you!” He looked closely at her. “When are you due?”
“Next month or a little later than that. The docs aren’t really sure.” Her eyes lit up. “They think I’ll have twins!” She grinned proudly. “I’m a lot bigger than most women get when pregnant, and the doctors can hear two heartbeats.”
“Twins?” Nick’s eyes went unfocused, and he swayed. Melinda held him up, and several evacuees came to help her get him into the house.
❀ ❁ ❀
At first, Nick said very little about what had gone on along the river since Melinda had left. She knew him well, though, and knew that there was a lot he wasn’t saying. A few days after he returned, he jerked awake, shaking and gasping. “Can’t you hear them? They’re coming! They’re coming! Get your swords! Mount up! They’re coming!”
Melinda held him close. “No, Nick. Nobody’s coming. It’s a bad dream.”
Nick clutched her convulsively. “Melinda…it was so real! The Shytown Eataz had landed, and we weren’t ready! Nobody was on guard! I screamed and screamed, and nobody came…” He shook all over. Gradually, his breathing slowed, and awareness came back into his eyes.
“Hush, Nick. It’s all right. We’re over a hundred miles from the river. The alarm would go out if they’d made it across. Everything’s all right. It’s nearly winter, and even those scum can’t travel far.”
“All right…” But Nick did not go to sleep. When dawn broke, he was in the easy chair, staring into space, and Melinda did not ask what he was thinking about. She was afraid that he would answer her.
The weather got colder and bleaker, and Nick’s disposition mirrored it. He spoke very little, and spent whatever time wasn’t taken up with chores staring off into space. Melinda was worried. Nothing would snap him out of it for long. He ate little, had trouble sleeping, and showed no interest in her, even when she pointed out things they could do despite her pregnancy. He would satisfy her with his tongue, but she couldn’t make him rise to the occasion. Nick told her that it was nothing to do with not loving her, but she had a hard time believing it. More than once, she muffled her sobs in her pillow until she could fall asleep.
Snow was falling one afternoon when an unexpected visitor appeared. “Sheriff Graves! What a surprise! What brings you here?”
“Business.” The sallow, saturnine Sheriff dismounted, brushing snow out of his thick, straight black hair. “I need to see Mr. Cleveland.”
“He’s out in the barn,” Melinda answered. “I’ll show you where he is.”
On the way to the barn through the covered passageways that linked the former camp’s buildings, Sheriff Graves looked Melinda over carefully. “If I may say so, Mrs. Cleveland, you look like you’re about ready to deliver.”
Melinda gave the Sheriff a wink. “Ann Hager and the doctor both think I’ve got twins on the way. I’ve never felt so unwieldy in my life! They can’t come soon enough to suit me! I’m more than ready for this to be over with!”
Nick was in the barn, helping the traveling farrier re-shoe his horses. The barn had been converted from the dining hall of the old camp, but the horses didn’t mind. Nick stood by as the farrier worked, watching him carefully. He had expressed a desire to learn more about basic farrier-work, in order to be able to do more of it himself, and Melinda thought that was a good sign.
“Nick?” Nick looked up, and his eyes went wide. “The Sheriff is here to see you.”
“Then I’d better see him, hadn’t I? Sorry, Charlie, but duty calls. I’ll be back as soon as may be.” Wiping his hands, Nick came forward. “What can we do for you, Sheriff?” His eyes were more alive than they’d been in a while, and Melinda hoped that this might mean a turnaround in his mind.
“You know that Deputy Sanders died. You were there, I believe?”
Nick’s eyes suddenly were wary and guarded. “Yes, I was. I have witnesses, although they aren’t near here.”
“Well…the county commissioners here have revamped the Sheriff’s department. Each township gets its own deputy, and I want you to take the slot for River Rock township.”
“You…you mean it?”
“I’ve never been more serious. Unless you have objections?”
“Objections?” Nick was clearly thinking about it, and his eyes lit up. “No, sir! What do I have to do?”
“Come down to Goldfield as soon as you can, and we’ll swear you in…” Sheriff Graves’ words were cut off by a sudden squeak from Melinda as she felt her trousers suddenly get wet. Both men turned, their eyes going wide.
“I hate to interrupt you men, but I think my water just broke!”
❀ ❁ ❀
“Breathe, Melinda! Breathe!” Nick looked into Melinda’s eyes as she gripped his hands, her body straining and writhing as a contraction hit her. It had been several hours since Melinda’s water had broken, and Ann Hager had arrived as fast as she could. The Vaki women were also all there, and Sheriff Graves. The Sheriff had pointed out that he had delivered babies before the Change, even in his car once or twice.
“Ooohhhh!” Melinda groaned. When the contraction faded, she gave Nick a Look. “Listen, buster. You’re having the next one, if I can figure out a way to do it! Don’t even think about trying to get out of it!”
“Whatever you say, Melinda!” Melinda had grabbed Nick as soon as they had known that she was in labor, barely giving him time to slip out of his mucky boots before dragging him into the side room they had set up earlier. At first, they had just walked up and down, with Nick holding out his arm so that Melinda could use it for support.
After a while, hard labor had begun. Ann Hager seemed surprised at how rapidly things had progressed. Nick asked: “Is everything all right?”
“Everything seems to be going well, Nick. If something goes wrong, we’ll let you know.” Nick concentrated on providing support for Melinda. She kept up a confident air, but Nick could tell that she was frightened. Her body was in control now, and nothing she could do could change that.
The contractions came closer and closer, and down by the birth canal, Ann said: “It’s crowning! It’s crowning!” Melinda gave a loud groan, and Ann whooped. “”I’ve got the head. Now, just breathe till the next contraction. Don’t push, breathe, gently, not hard! Now! Push, push, push! Ah-hah!” Down at the other end of the bed, Nick could see things going on, but he couldn’t tell just what. “It’s a boy! He came out as smooth as could be! And here comes another! The doc was right! You’re having twins!”
Melinda groaned as another contraction hit her. She squeezed Nick’s hand harder than he would have believed she could. “This pregnancy stuff…is all right. But this…is the roughest…thing I’ve ever…done!”
“You’re doing just great, Melinda,” Nick soothed. He stroked her long black hair. Secretly he wished he could take this burden from her, but he knew it was impossible.
“I’ll tell you when to push, Melinda!” Ann said. Melinda let out a loud moan of pain. “There’s the head…okay, I’m turning the shoulders…it’s crowning…now! Push! Here we go…and you have a beautiful little girl!” Everybody in the room burst into cheers. Melinda’s eyes fluttered shut, and Nick nearly collapsed with relief. At last, the ordeal was over, and everybody had come through alive. He had never been so frightened in his life, even when fighting for his life along the river. All of a sudden, the fighting seemed like a matter of no importance, next to this!
Melinda was near exhaustion, but her smile as she saw her babies for the first time lit up the room. She held them to her breasts, making sure that they got the colostrum into their systems. Nick could hardly believe how little they were. He had never seen newborns before. What experience he had with infants was with older specimens.
“Good job we had names ready for a boy and a girl, isn’t it, Melinda?”
“Yes,” Melinda mumbled, staring down at her new children. “Allan and Allison. Aren’t they wonderful?”
“I’ve never seen such perfect babies!” Nick’s eyes were misting.
Behind him, Sheriff Graves commented: “They look very healthy. Congratulations.” That set off congratulations from everyone in the room.
Melinda smiled a contented smile. “I guess even the end of the world we all knew has its upsides, doesn’t it?” Everybody agreed with her.
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀