Wild Fire

Book 1 of the FIRE trilogy

By Pete Sartucci

©2010, Pete Sartucci

This is a work of Fiction, the third of a three-book series. It is based in part on the Alternate History World, known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Peter E. Sartucci in 2010, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.

Thanks to S.M. Stirling for permission to use his setting and situations and for his (much appreciated!) encouragement. Few things are as supportive to a beginner as having an old hand around to urge him to get back up and climb on that horse again!

More thanks than I can rightly express go to Kier Salmon for advice and help with language, proofreading, and plot, and for her copious amounts of editing, and for many very good ideas. It’s a far better story because of you, Kier.

Thanks also to Jennifer Hansen for advice with proofreading and plot, and to Scott Palter for advice with plot and characterization, and to John Hamill for characterization advice, and to Karen Black of Norton Creek Farm for information on chickens

Special thanks to Randolph Fritz of Seattle for typesetting and editing help with the arcane mysteries of web posting, and to Mark ‘Animal’ MacYoung of Castle Rock for key suggestions about writing fight scenes. Special thanks also to William Haddon and Mike Paxton for solving my mountain battle choreography problem, and to William Haddon for the hyena joke.

Most grateful thanks to my loving wife Elizabeth, who tolerated far too many late nights while I labored under the lash of my muse.

And last but assuredly not least, my great gratitude to my best friend Brandon, who always believed I could do it. This isn’t the one you’ve been waiting for, but it’s the one I got finished.

All the dumb mistakes are solely mine.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 — The Regional Competitions

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 5:15 PM RMT. Change minus 2 hours.

Chapter 2 — The First Night

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 7:15 PM RMT. Change plus one minute.

Interlude 1 — Water

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 2006, 7:14 PM RMT. Change minus 1 minute.

Chapter 3 — Get out of Denver!

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, 5:15 AM RMT. Change plus 10 hours.

Interlude 2 — Sewer

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 7:45 PM RMT. Change plus 30 minutes.

Chapter 4 — The Walk Begins

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, 8:45 AM RMT.

Interlude 3 — Gas

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, Noon RMT.

Chapter 5 — Kata

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998,11:50 AM RMT.

Chapter 6 — Kumite

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, shortly after noon RMT.

Chapter 7 — Hospital

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, two hours after noon, RMT.

Chapter 8 — The Second Night

Broomfield, then Lafayette, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, late afternoon and evening.

Chapter 9 — Prison

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, some time before midnight.

Chapter 10 — Leavetaking

Lafayette, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998.

Chapter 11 — Refuge on the Road

Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998.

Chapter 12 — Governor’s Office

Denver, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998, some time before sunset.

Chapter 13 — Armistice

On the plains of eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday afternoon, March 19, 1998.

Chapter 14 — Allies

On the plains of eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday afternoon, March 19, 1998.

Chapter 15 — North Denver Karate Center

Denver, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998, some time near dawn.

Chapter 16 — A Time to Choose

Durungian Farm, eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday evening, March 19, 1998.

Chapter 17 — Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Durungian Farm, east Boulder County; Santini Farm, Lyons, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

Chapter 18 — Into the Void

Lyons to Longmont, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

Chapter 19 — The End of the Beginning

Santini House, Lyons, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

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1

— The Regional Competitions —

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 5:15 PM RMT. Change minus 2 hours.

Ellie Hyatt strained her ears to hear over the noisy crowd. The old loudspeaker system cracked to life and the announcer cheerfully rode down the chatter of two hundred–odd high–school age kids. Ellie always thought it was much like a cowboy corralling a herd of rambunctious horses. When it was merely a dull roar he began the ritual leading to the names of the match winners. Her husband Sam was trying to look serene but she could feel the nervous tension in his right arm, pressed against her left in this too–crowded gymnasium. He was as taut as one of his hunting bows. The boys and girls from Hyatt’s karate club tried to emulate his surface calm, but Tim Woods sat too–erect on the edge of his folding chair and the twins were frankly jittering. Only Kate Atchford managed to seem completely calm, though sweat from her last match plastered her black ponytail to her neck.

Little Jenny wasn’t sharing the excitement. Her interest had collapsed as soon as Kate’s last match ended, and she was frankly bored now. She flopped around on her chair, her head in Ellie’s lap, and rolled her eyes in that six–year–old way that said ‘Mom, can’t I do something else?’ But she was well enough trained not to say it aloud. Ellie patted her absently, then clapped excitedly as names and numbers were posted. The power–point operator wasn’t much practiced but he managed to at least get the list onto the big drop–down movie screen. The announcer rolled off the matches and names in a flat Cornhusker accent.

“Second Place! Haysoos, you took second place in Sai!” whooped Jerry Dozrty, the younger of the twins by a minute. He pounded the young Mexican kid’s shoulder excitedly while Jesus Mendez’s brown face split in a dazed grin. Elsewhere cheers erupted as other schools and clubs took first and third. Mendez collected his trophy, a beautifully calligraphed scroll, and sat down beaming at it while Jerry chattered at him.

Terry jabbed his twin with an elbow, hissing “Keep it down, motor mouth!” Ellie suppressed a grin. More sets of names and numbers appeared, and then both twins rocketed out of their seats as their names appeared in the third place slot under the double–Bo title. Sam’s mouth twitched and he made a calming motion with his hands that he transparently didn’t feel. A miracle occurred as the two boys managed to walk up and collect their scrolls with something that almost approached decorum.

“How can they be so perfect on the floor and then turn into bouncing bozos when they’re off it?” Sam muttered to her out of the side of his mouth.

“You’re asking me, oh, all knowing Sensei?” she whispered back to him, grinning slyly. “I’m just the school nurse here.” He squeezed her hand gently, raised it to his lips and kissed it, but kept his attention on his kids. The tension was still there, and they both knew why. Ellie wordlessly prayed that the Billings Central High Karate Club wouldn’t be robbed of a title they had rightly earned, just because of a fool’s vanity.

Other categories flashed up on the screen and the anticipation grew. Then came the score that brought a bitter groan from her lips, and Ellie felt Sam’s sudden furious quiver, as quickly suppressed. The robbery she feared had succeeded by a half–point. Tim sat back woodenly in his chair, and closed his eyes briefly, but made no other sign. Ellie clutched Sam’s right hand, and was dimly aware that their son Jimmy was doing the same with his left. She felt how he mastered his anger and damped it down for some other time. Two more contests were posted, neither significant to their club. There was a pause before the last category flashed on the screen.

And there it was. Kate Atchford, first place in Single Bo.

The other six kids in the club leapt up and down, chanting “Kate! Kate!” in ragged unison as Kate strolled up to accept her scroll with dignity. Ellie pushed forward, exercising the Sensei’s wife’s privilege to be the first to hug her when she got back, and felt the suppressed trembling that showed only in the girl’s flaring eyes and enormous grin. Kate released her and turned to Sam, put her palms together and made a half–bow. “Sensei,” she said. The others stilled their leaping and lined up beside her; they all bowed. Ellie’s heart lifted and she clutched Jenny’s hand again.

“Kate, Jesus, Jerry and Terry; Tim, Drew, Maria, all of you, I am so very proud,” he husked, surveying them with gleaming eyes. “Now you all gather your things — we’re going out to celebrate!”

It took almost half an hour to shepherd their chattering band through the throng and out to the parking lot. Sam assigned Terry and Jerry to carry most of the Bo sticks, and they managed not to whap anyone other than themselves with the long hardwood rods. Kate carried her own, rather as if it were a scepter, or maybe a magic talisman. Ten–year–old Jimmy helped Jesus Mendez lug the club’s sai case; the small blunt swords were kept locked away when not in use. Jesus managed to make the smaller boy look as though he were actually bearing some fraction of the weight, too.

Tim carried the team’s water bottles over to a wall fountain and emptied the remaining dribs and drabs; karate was thirsty work and in the West’s dry air dehydration was all too common. Ellie followed, noticing a tightness about his jaw and the sheen of unshed tears. She saw him surreptitiously wipe those eyes on the back of his wrist while he dumped bottles.

“Tim,” she said. “Don’t let it get to you. That Albuquerque kid—”

“Was better than me, Miz Hyatt,” he said without looking at her. “The judges said so.” He dumped a bottle with unnecessary force and the water splashed back at him, spattering his t–shirt.

“No, he wasn’t, and everyone knows it,” Ellie told him quietly. “That New Mexican judge was trying to tilt third place to his home team by giving you a zero, and he succeeded. The Association noticed; he won’t be back next year, or ever after. There’s no room for that kind of behavior in our sport.” She resisted the urge to touch him — most boys his age had fragile pride and there were still dozens of people in the hallway.

“But I won’t be back either,” Tim said. He turned anguished eyes to her, set deep in a wooden face. “I’m a senior. This is my last competition.”

“Last of your high school years,” she corrected. “You’ll have other chances.” Even as she spoke she felt how inadequate the words were.

Tim looked away from her, dumped the last bottle and screwed the cap back on with a bit too much force, then slung the sack over his shoulder. He walked back to the rest of the group without looking at her. Ellie trailed along behind him, feeling wretchedly useless. Ten years you’ve been coping with teenage boys, she berated herself. And you still don’t know how to handle them. But there was nothing more to say without making it worse for Tim.

Sam managed to maneuver Tim next to him as they walked out. He had Jenny draped piggyback–style over his back, but freed up a hand long enough to briefly touch the boy’s shoulder. Somehow, coming from Sensei, it worked. By the time they all piled into the eleven–passenger van out in the parking lot, Tim was talking away with the others, if less excitedly.

Ellie drove them out of the crowded parking lot of Denver’s North High, turned south on Federal Boulevard and headed towards the restaurant they had settled on for tonight. This old ethnic part of Denver was simultaneously gentrifying with young professionals, and turning Hispanic with young working families. Sam loved Mexican food and there was a good place only seven blocks from the old motel that they always stayed in when they came for the Regionals. She navigated the dense city traffic with the caution of a small–town girl. Prudently she yielded the right of way to a low–riding Cadillac painted electric blue and loaded with twice as much chrome as GM had ever meant it to bear.

Not that Billings is such a small town any more, she thought, turning right into a side street and then squinting into the sharp sunlight as she parked. The orb was perched on the peaks of the Front Range and about to vanish, but its last spears were hard on the eyes. A hundred thousand people, now; and I grew up in Lyons, Colorado, which still barely has six hundred.

She locked the van as she always did in this uncomfortable urban setting, and Sam organized the kids enough that they all trooped inside in something approximating a group. The manager, Miguel, knew Sam and Ellie and half the club from past years and had a big table all ready. Candles and flowers decorated it and the settings were real cloth and actual silverware. Miguel was pulling out all the stops for them tonight. It was also a bit too near the bar, as usual, but there was only one place in the restaurant wide enough to fit them all around one table. She ignored the muted TV screen and occasional wisps of tobacco smoke from the next room and sat with a child on each side of her.

There was cheerful bedlam as everybody found chairs, ordered, then gabbed about the match, reenacting choice bits without leaving their seats. Everyone agreed that Tim had been robbed, he should be going to the Nationals and not that jerk from Albuquerque. Tim seemed to handle it well, but Ellie saw the pain still haunting his eyes. This wound would take some time to heal. She hoped it wouldn’t poison his love of the sport — Sam would grieve if Tim walked away from karate, he had told her he was sure the boy had the potential to go to fifth dan or higher, once he mastered his self–doubt.

Steaming platters arrived, hot from the oven and delightfully acrid with chili. Ellie busied herself getting something into Jenny and Jimmy. Her son was sometimes a picky eater, and Jenny didn’t know the meaning of neat. Fortunately Jesus had sat on Jimmy’s other side and now he enticed her son with bits of a relleno. Ellie remembered that he had two smaller brothers at home in Montana, and silently blessed the dark–skinned boy. After several hurried gulps that took in half his meal (“Food is fuel” he’d said more than once, though he loved spicy flavors), Sam took over Jenny–feeding so Ellie could have some time with her own plate.

She was pleasantly full and Jenny had refried beans smeared over half her face when someone in the bar turned up the volume on the TV. The big screen was filled with a jerky image of some streaky lights and an excited announcer’s voice. It took a moment for the words to sink in, something about a place called Nantucket — .

Searing light filled the room from everywhere and nowhere.

Pain stabbed her brain, and then a wave of nausea rolled over her. For a horrible moment she thought of nuclear fireballs and mushroom clouds and her mind leaped. She’d heard that Rocky Flats was closed but the Martin plant still made Titan missiles and whatever else went on there in secret. Denver must be a target in its own right, stuffed with Federal offices and high–tech firms of every description.

But the flash was gone as fast as it arrived, the pain with it, and the nausea receded. In the agonizing seconds that followed she waited for the blast that did not come. The lights were out and the TV silent — only flickering candles and fading twilight lit the room. The power must have failed. Could a blown transformer have made the flash? Her brother worked for Intermountain Power on Colorado’s western slope…

The kids were silent, frightened. Sam shook his head like a dog shedding water and began to rise from his chair.

There was a distant howl of tires and a tinkling crash outside, followed rapidly by a thunderous screech of tortured metal. Something banged the back wall of the bar, hard. Bottles toppled and smashed. A flame leapt up.

❀ ❁ ❀

2

— The First Night —

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 7:15 PM RMT. Change plus 1 minute.

“On your feet!” Sam Hyatt threw off his shocked confusion, snapped erect in the darkened room and barked out directions to his students. “Help the little kids and those old people to the door.” He raised his voice to the crowd. “Ladies, gentlemen, there seems to have been an accident. Please everybody help the old and the small ones out the side door.” He repeated it in Spanish as he handed Jenny’s hand to Ellie, thanking God that he’d made himself learn America’s second language so he could talk to the Hispanic kids in school. “Damas y Caballeros…

Ellie wasted no time. She grabbed each child by a hand and surged to her feet, managing to snag her purse on the way. The blue glow from the bar was increasing, shedding alcohol–fueled light into the darkened restaurant. Tall Maria grabbed two jar candles off the table and held them over her head for light as the bewildered crowd began to evacuate out the side door. Kate and the twins turned to the next table and helped three elderly women to their feet. There were panicked cries elsewhere in the room but no shoving.

Sam turned to the bar. The flames were on the back counter, where several high–proof bottles had smashed and caught fire from some spark. The wall behind bulged inward several inches and shattered drywall was still flaking down. Three patrons were picking themselves up off the floor where they’d fallen from their stools. There was no sign of the bartender.

Sam leaned over the Formica–and–chrome bar and saw the man lying on the floor. A heavy shelf unit had apparently come down on his head. More broken bottles and a host of busted glasses surrounded him. Ruling out a leap over the bar into that mess, Sam hastily picked his way around it and came in from the waiter’s end. The cabinets along the back wall had been shoved forward by the impact, constricting the narrow space even more. The bartender was out cold and bleeding in a dozen places, including a scalp wound that would surely require stitches. Sam squeezed up beside him, pushing broken glass away with one side of his shoe; the space was too damn tight. He squatted and carefully got an arm under the man, but there was no room to roll that unconscious weight over into a fireman’s carry. How to get him out without dragging him over more broken glass? A thin stream of burning liquor reeled off the counter, splattered dangerously close. Posters on the wall caught flame and added yellow light to the mix.

Tim appeared at the bartender’s feet. “Take his ankles, Tim, lift when I do!” The boy nodded once, made ready. Sam set himself and heaved. The unconscious man had at least seventy pounds on him and the angle was almost as bad as possible; without Tim it couldn’t have been done. Together they managed to lift him without adding any new punctures, wrestle him out into the bar and over to the main entrance.

Miguel ran up with a fire extinguisher and attacked the growing blaze. Sam and Tim wrangled the unconscious man out into the parking lot. One of the patrons had the sense to hold the door open for them. They set their burden down on an empty space and Sam looked around.

The parking lot lights were out. So were the street lights. So were the traffic lights at the corner. So were the headlights of every single car in sight. There were plenty of those, for the normal traffic on Federal Boulevard had come to a complete stop. People were out of their cars and gawking at something around the side of the restaurant. Some had started to turn away, a few of the nearest to run. Sam turned and felt his jaw slacken, and then clench.

The rear tenth of a large gasoline tanker was visible. On its side. One back wheel still spun — the air brakes had clearly failed. The driver must have lost control, sheered off Federal and flipped over when he hit the decorative planter around the parking lot. Bricks, dirt, and pansies were scattered everywhere. He couldn’t have been traveling very fast on this street, but a loaded tanker had thirty times the mass of a car and only ten times as much tire surface to brake with.

Sam spared a brief curse for malicious fate, and then ran around the corner. The cab lay on its passenger side, jackknifed and jammed into the wall of the bar. Dripping sounds came from the twisted tank and the nauseating scent of gasoline wafted up from the pavement. Good thing real trucks don’t behave like those in the movies, or this would be an inferno already, he thought.

A bloody hand came through the broken driver–side window; waved.

“The driver’s trapped inside!” said Tim, still at his elbow. “What’ll we do, Sensei?”

“We get him out.” Sam debated for a split second sending the boy back to help Ellie, but he might need the extra strength here. He jerked his chin to the right. “Go around to the far side; see if you can get up over the cab roof. I’ll take this side.”

The underside of the cab had enough exposed parts to climb, ladder–like. Sam scrambled up to a precarious perch beside the door, saw from the bent frame that it wasn’t going to open. A frightened face covered with blood looked up at him through shattered glass. At least the man had had the sense to be wearing his safety harness. The smell of gasoline was growing stronger.

Tim’s head and shoulders popped up on the far side. “There’s a car here, Sensei, I’m standing on the roof.”

“Good, we’ll take him out that way. Can you release your harness?” Sam asked the driver.

“It’s stuck!” the man quavered. His eyes were enormous — he must be feeling like a fly trapped in pitch right now, with thousands of gallons of flaming death leaking around him.

Sam’s right hand leapt to his hip where he carried a Leatherman multitool in a belt sheath. Leathermans were like Swiss Army knives, but better. He snaked it out and opened the knife blade, reached inside and began sawing at the synthetic web.

“Tim, hold his arm, try not to let him drop when the strap goes,” he instructed. Tim slithered close and grabbed the driver’s right arm with both hands, elbows on the truck frame for leverage. The driver gripped the window frame with his left hand as Sam worked around him, trying not to stab the man while cutting the harness.

The web parted with an audible pop, the driver’s legs swung down, and for a moment Tim grunted under most of his weight. Sam hastily folded the Leatherman and stuffed it into its pocket while the driver struggled for purchase with his feet. The man found something to push against and lifted himself up a few inches. Sam got him under the armpits, poised, and said “On three — one, two, THREE!” They all heaved and got the man halfway out the window; his scrabbling feet caught the steering wheel and pushed him the rest of the way. Tim dragged him backwards to the curve of the roof, Sam scrambled after, and all three of them slid off onto the top of an unfortunate sedan that was pinned between the tanker and a battered SUV. From there they dropped back to pavement — and landed in a fuming puddle of gasoline.

“Get away from here,” the driver yelled. “She’ll burn!” He staggered towards Federal and the open pavement.

Sam let him go — his cuts had looked superficial, probably from flying safety glass, and anyway there was his own family to think about. Tim followed him back around the tanker to the side parking lot. The gasoline puddle was growing, and a long streamer had begun to feel its way toward the corner of the restaurant. Sam realized with a sinking heart that their van was parked in the side lot with ten other cars, and that gasoline would follow the slope of the lot right to them. Yellow light flickered through the now–closed door of the restaurant’s bar. The fire was growing.

Ellie and the kids were at the van, and the rest of the club. Dozens of customers were milling around the parking lot and sidewalk. Someone had dragged the bartender over to the sidewalk, the man was sitting up and holding a hanky to his bleeding head. Maria and Jerry were holding the candles she had carried out, Jesus had both of Sam’s children by their hands, and Ellie was in school–nurse mode. She and Drew had their first aid kit out and were working on someone leaning against the side of the van.

It was Miguel. His suit coat was off; he grimaced in pain, and the arm Ellie was wrapping smelled of scorched cloth. He was cursing under his breath in Spanish; Sam’s ears caught the ghost of some impressive words. Several of the restaurant staff hovered nearby, looking shell–shocked.

“Is anyone still inside?” Sam barked. Miguel shook his head no. “Ellie, Drew, Jesus, get him and the kids across the street. We’ve got to get the van out of here before the gasoline catches.” It was school property and the football team would need it on Saturday — Sam didn’t want to think about what the principal would say if he lost it here.

A few other patrons had already grasped the situation and were getting into their own cars. Ellie and the kids wordlessly followed his orders and Sam jumped into the driver’s seat, slapped the spare key in the ignition and turned it.

Nothing.

The starter didn’t engage, the ignition felt as dead as if the battery wasn’t there. He tried twice more, flicked switches; still no response. This was Denver — could someone have stolen the battery? He jerked the hood release, leapt out and slammed the hood open.

The battery was there. All connections seemed sound, but in the bad light it was hard to tell. Then the light from the fire inside the restaurant brightened — it had moved into the dining area and was shining through the windows.

Around him other people were getting out of their cars, checking under hoods, looking equally bewildered. Not a car in the parking area would start.

Terry and Tim appeared at his elbow. “Sensei, the gasoline is spreading,” Tim said nervously.

“None of the cars will start!” added Terry, looking pale. “And our stuff’s still in the back.”

Another unvoiced curse passed through the back of Sam’s mind, but the front was working furiously. No lights, no juice, no batteries — no electricity. He thought of that mysterious flash, remembered talk with the techs when he’d been based on Okinawa during his hitch. Could it have been an electromagnetic pulse? But an EMP meant exploding a nuclear weapon, and one damn close at that. The twilight sky was serene and almost clear as stars appeared. Wouldn’t any nuke close enough to hit them with an EMP have left some trace in the sky? He looked to the south, but the car dealership roof blocked the distant view of Pikes Peak. If someone had nuked NORAD under Cheyenne Mountain, there ought to be a hell of a glow in the night sky — and there wasn’t. Not even the glow of Colorado Springs at the mountain’s feet. The city itself lay over the curve of the earth from Denver but its electric halo was usually visible from here. The power must be out there too.

“Take everything out of the van, and I mean everything,” Sam ordered. “Get Jesus and Kate, then the four of you bring all our stuff and gather everyone on the other side of the road.” He pointed. The two boys nodded and hurried to the back of the van, calling to the others. Ellie had scooped up the first aid kit and Drew maneuvered a wobbly Miguel onto the far curb with his wait staff’s help; there was a broad strip of grass in front of the car dealership. Sam ran into the center of the parking lot, cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled to the milling patrons in two languages.

“Everyone get out of the parking lot! Leave your cars! The gasoline’s gonna catch fire any moment!” He swiveled, targeting his voice at different cars and knots of people.

Several had already decided the same and were grabbing possessions, slamming doors and moving out. He helped two families herd their several children across the lot towards the road, while the gasoline stream reached deeper into the parking lot. One stubborn man kept trying to start his low–slung sports car, flicking the ignition again and again. The car was less than fifty feet away from Sam, near the glass entrance door, which was aglow from the flames inside. Gasoline was running right under the vehicle, widening as he looked. The old couple in the next car, who had been the next to last to keep trying, abandoned their efforts and hobbled towards Sam, eyes wide. He cupped hands again and yelled directly at the stubborn driver.

“Hey! You! Get out; NOW!” A soft WHUMP answered him and fire lanced into the sky behind the building. Sam just had time to see a frightened woman looking past her man from the passenger seat before a lash of fire circled the corner. The sports car was instantly engulfed.

The elderly couple was barely out of range of the flames. They stumbled, the old woman nearly went down. Sam made a long step and caught her, helped drag both of them to the sidewalk and the curb beyond.

His students came running, arms loaded with bos and kit bags and the ranging inferno much too close behind them. Sam caught up a dropped bo and chivvied them across the street to where the others waited with Ellie and the kids. The ruddy firelight played across a sea of frightened faces.

“Daddy,” said little Jimmy, “Shouldn’t we call the fire department?”

One of the restaurant patrons had already fumbled out a cell phone, flipped it open, dialed. Sam wasn’t surprised when the man said “Nothing. No signal at all — but I charged it last night, and this battery’s almost new!”

Gas tanks began to boil from the rising heat; the van tires caught fire. Ellie trembled as the restaurant windows ruptured and flame spat out, and the children clutched their mother and screamed.

“I think,” said Sam slowly, gathering his family into a hug. “I think something very, very, bad has happened.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie felt half–numb as she watched the school van burn. What will Mr. Pearson say? ran through her mind. The principal was a stern man who spared neither the students nor the staff when they erred. This was followed by — How will we get to the motel? And then the even more frightening: How will we get home?

Their little house in Montana suddenly seemed very far away. She clutched her husband and kids fiercely. Jenny was quietly weeping.

After a moment she released Sam, gathered up her daughter and soothed her.

“Hush now, honey; we’re all here, none of us are hurt. Dolly’s back at the motel, we can hitch a ride there with somebody. We’ll be okay. Mommy and Daddy are here, we’ll make it all right.”

The rote phrases spilled from her lips, her heart, but a cold dagger of fear jabbed her too–busy mind. Can we make it all right? What’s happened?

Sam was looking around, taking stock; Ellie did the same. Kate had taken charge of the bos and kit bags, distributed them among the club. Jesus hefted the sai case. They had all of the club’s possessions, and thank God she had left the kid’s traveling toys and all their clothes in the motel. Terry had rescued their jackets from the van, and the evening was chill despite the fire. She went back into school nurse mode.

“Put your coats on, kids,” she ordered. “I don’t want anybody catching a cold now. We’ve all had a nasty shock, we’re more vulnerable to infection now, and there’re plenty of new germs in this strange city. Don’t take chances.” She suited action to words and put coats on the kids, then herself. The night was darkening despite the fire, as the last twilight faded from the sky, and winter wasn’t gone yet. She looked at her husband; he was Sensei, after all. Wouldn’t do to break what he laughingly called the chain of command.

“What should we do next, Sam?”

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam was casting back and forth, looking at the fire and then the streets around them. The restaurant stood in its own parking lot and the gasoline didn’t seem to be escaping, but there were more parked cars along the outside curb getting all too warm. Other people were drifting away in small clumps, though a sizable crowd stood in Federal Boulevard, mesmerized by the sight of the fire. They’d best get the kids farther away before it spread. And it was beginning to smell like roasting meat… his mind shied away from that. There’d been a jeep accident when he was serving his military time on Okinawa, a recruit from Oklahoma had burned to death. For a horrible moment the smell brought it all back, until he shook his head and forced the memory away.

Where were the police? The firemen? The crackle of the fire and the frightened whimper of a few people were the only sound his ears picked up. The night was eerily still, here in this huge city. It frightened him the way nothing ever had before. Even out in the Montana wilds, bow hunting for elk in grizzly bear territory south of Glacier, he hadn’t felt like this. The sense that the solid earth had shifted under his feet and he could never quite trust it again. Suddenly he wondered irrelevantly, Is this how people in California feel after an earthquake? Yet they kept living there.

At Ellie’s question, he looked around at the club members. They stood in a tight clump around her and the kids. They all looked at him, frightened, expectant. He swallowed as an inane cliché ran through his mind.

When the going gets tough…

“Let’s get going,” he said, hoping his voice was steady. “The motel’s only seven blocks from here, we can walk that. Jesus, you and I’ll carry the sai case; everyone else carry your bos and bags. Tim, carry Maria’s bo; Maria, hang onto those candles; Drew, you keep the first aid case. Ellie, you and the kids stay in the middle with Maria and Drew. Tim, Kate, you take left and right, Terry and Jerry take the rear.” He didn’t say: This is not our home, and we don’t know what will happen next. They all knew that already.

The little group moved out, followed the sidewalk east to Federal and turned right. They passed along the front of the car dealership, with dozens of new car windows reflecting the crackling fire behind them. The moon broke free of a small cloud and added its silver sheen. There were many other cars in the street, stopped more or less where they had been when — when whatever–it–was had happened. A few had run off the road or slammed into parked cars. Most didn’t look much damaged and the people standing around them seemed more shaken than hurt. Maybe traffic jams were a good thing after all; at twenty miles an hour you couldn’t do nearly as much damage as at sixty. Of course, the semi rammed up against three smaller cars in the next block hadn’t been able to stop quite as quickly as them. There were several people improvising bandages there.

Drew’s hand stirred on the first aid kit. He was in Ellie’s first aid class at school and wanted to become a doctor. Ellie twitched, looked at the folk across the broad boulevard, then looked at her kids and kept resolutely walking. Drew stayed with her.

Sam kept his eyes searching this way and that. They passed little clumps of people on the sidewalk and even in the road, but none spoke to them. In fact, most got out of the way when they saw the bo sticks. Many were younger people, youths in jeans and t–shirts, or nattily dressed in loud colors. Young women wore slinky dresses or slacks cut low, many hugged flimsy jackets close in the night chill. More than half of the crowd was Hispanic, Sam caught snatches of murmured conversations but nothing that made any sense. He felt tense as he hadn’t felt since basic training, and had to remind himself to relax for the first time in a decade. He noticed that there were older people in the mix too, and a few families evidently out for the evening. Everyone was bewildered and becoming afraid. There were no machine sounds, electric whines, or sirens. The night bubbled only with a vast hubbub of voices and the fading crackle of the burning restaurant behind them.

On the median strip in front of the entrance to Mile High stadium, two trios of young men were gathered around a pair of souped–up cars, now locked together with a tilting light pole in an ugly tangle of metal. One of them was the electric blue caddy. Three of the men were Asian, three Hispanic, and all had tattoos. Two of the six, evidently the cars’ drivers, were screaming at each other in Spanish and something Sam thought was Vietnamese, brandishing fists that sprouted —

“Sensei, they’ve got guns,” whispered Kate nervously. Sam raised his free hand and the club came to an abrupt halt, bunched up, staring.

At that moment one of the Asian youth’s followers abruptly aimed his pistol and fired at the Spanish leader. Sam tensed, ready to grab Ellie and the kids and fling them to the ground, but the muzzle gave out only an anemic click! The gun had misfired.

The Spanish youth promptly poked his own gun in the face of his opponent and fired point blank.

Click. Another misfire, though by the way the Asian youth staggered back the shock had been as bad as a powder burn. He shot back blindly with a third click into the air. Another Asian reached into one car, pulled out a sawed–off shotgun and blasted at the Hispanics. The two barrels went click! click! in quick succession.

Five misfires? Sam thought crazily. What are the odds on that?

The antagonists stared at each other for a moment, probably thinking the same thing. Then they scattered explosively. None seemed seriously hurt. The Asians headed off across the stadium parking lots; the Hispanics started towards Sam’s kids, still standing in a bulky knot and staring. The driver of the caddy led the way with his gun still clenched in one waving fist. He was a burly youth and heavily muscled, with a broad face and high–arched brow topped by a tight mop of curly black hair. Ugly acne scars mottled his skin, he had a pencil mustache and was nearly as dark as Jesus Mendez. He wore black leather pants and a low–cut black silk shirt under an open red leather coat, dozens of gold chains, ear studs, rings — he must be wearing a fortune in gold. He looks like a gang leader, Sam thought. Or a Miami Vice drug lord — or both.

The young gang leader spotted the bo sticks and stopped in mid–stride, staring at Sam.

Sam stared back, his brown eyes locking with the kid’s. Rage and fear squinted back at Sam for a moment, then the gang leader bit out a word Sam didn’t recognize, shoved his gun inside his coat and sheered off sharply. His two companions followed and they all vanished down the side street behind the twins.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sam croaked, and picked up the pace until they were well past the wrecks. He didn’t see the Asians anywhere.

Two blocks later they came to the cloverleaf at Colfax Boulevard Freeway. The overpass was mostly empty of cars, Sam guessed that the traffic lights had been caught in mid–change. He hurried again, practically dragging Jesus along, out to the middle of the bridge, then set down the Sai case. Sam climbed onto the railing and gripped a light pole for balance.

He craned his neck — as far as he could see, north and south down the broad boulevard and east and west along the freeway, all of the buildings were dark. The freeway had three lanes in each direction, it was crowded with cars and trucks frozen in wild disarray. People milled about them, dimly seen in the dusk, raising a confused murmur of moans, tears, and fear. A little north of east soared the towers of downtown, all dark and quiet against the moonlit sky. No lights showed anywhere.

Except fires. Down near the river something was burning, probably on the Interstate. Another, larger fire burned to the south near the rail line. Sam thought of the momentum in a gasoline tanker truck, compared it to a train even moving at the slow speed mandated in cities, and felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. A third fire was burning somewhere north of downtown, spitting huge flames and greasy–looking smoke high into the sky. The biggest fire of all lit the northeast horizon beyond downtown, over near the airport.

“The jet planes,” said Tim, sounding sick and looking worse. “If electricity doesn’t work, then the pilots can’t steer — and if they can’t steer, they can’t fly.”

Sam looked at him, feeling the horror creep over his face too. Denver had one of the busiest airports in the world. How many jets had been in the air at one time, or landing, or just taken off? And where had they come down? The airport was outside the built–up area, but not very far outside.

“Let’s move on,” he said thickly, and climbed down from the railing. He switched sides with Jesus; the sai case wasn’t very heavy but it put a drag on your arms that wore rapidly. The Mexican kid looked shell–shocked, Sam vaguely recalled that he had an uncle who was a fighter pilot for the Navy. Were the Navy’s planes safe from this?

A couple blocks later they reached the motel. There were two more fender–benders in the road out front, one was deserted but a couple of men stood uneasy sentry at the other, waiting for the police. Sam wondered how long they would have to wait. Candles flickered in the window of the motel office, and Sam had the team gather under the old–fashioned porte–cochere while he knocked on the door.

Constantine Abbaku answered, his broad face heavy with worry at first and then lighting with relief when he recognized Sam. The door was locked but he swiftly unbarred it and came out to them. His nephew Giorgi, a strapping boy of fifteen already taller than his uncle, stood behind him.

“My friends!” Abbaku exclaimed in his thick Armenian accent. “I was so worried about you, with the power down and all these accidents! It gladdens my heart to see you all well and here. Come in, come in! You must tell me about the match. Did it go well for your club?”

Sam stared stupidly at him. The match seemed a hundred years ago.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie took charge of the group while Sam talked to the innkeeper in his office. Maria was still carrying the two candles from the restaurant; they were thick ones set in glass vases inside wrought iron frames. She passed one to Tim and kept the other as the students dispersed to their own rooms, clutching gym bags and karate weapons. Ellie chivvied her own children into their motel room. “Shut the door, Jimmy, don’t let in any more cold air than you have to,” she told her son. She went to the heater and turned up the knob, but nothing happened. The light switch didn’t work either; she had to open the blackout drapes to get any light at all. The moon had only just crested the buildings outside and offered little.

Ellie was glad to put down her purse, it’d begun to wear on her shoulders. Seven blocks on Federal Boulevard was the better part of a mile, on hard concrete sidewalk, and she wasn’t used to it. Moments later there came a rap on the inside connecting door and she opened it to find Kate and Maria looking at her uncertainly in the glow of their candle.

“Miz Hyatt, the TV doesn’t work, or the lights.” Kate fidgeted for a moment, then blurted “May we sit in here with you until Sensei comes back?” The two girls looked at her with enormous solemn eyes, seeming bigger for the darkness.

Ellie’s heart went out to them. “Of course, girls. Come on in.” She left the connecting door open and they piled in, perching nervously on one bed. Ellie took the candle and put it on top of the TV where its light would reflect off the wall mirror; it made the room look much brighter.

Jimmy fidgeted at the bathroom door. “Mom, can I borrow the candle? I need to go to the bathroom, an’ its dark in there.” He peered suspiciously into the tiny cubicle.

“You’ll have to manage without a light,” Ellie told him. “You do it at home.”

“Yeah, but I know where everything is at home.”

“You’ve been in this room a half–dozen times before, including last night. I expect you can remember where things are if you try. Leave the door a little bit open if you need to.”

The boy fussed for a moment, and then reluctantly did as she said. Ellie sat on the other bed and Jenny immediately curled up against her side. She patted the girl and looked over at the two students.

Their eyes still seemed very large and round in the dimness. Must be a trick of the candle light, Ellie thought, and then her innate honesty forced her to admit the truth. No, — they’re a little bit in shock. And so am I.

Part of her really wanted the events of the past hour to be some kind of bad dream. Tanker truck crashes, burning cars and buildings with no fire engines, gang fights — it was all unreal. These things didn’t happen in Montana!

Yes, they do, she thought. Just rarely, and I’ve never had to see any of them before, never mind all within an hour. But I worked substitute nurse at City Hospital for two years before the school job, I know what fires and car accidents do to people. I didn’t let it get to me there, and I can’t let it get to me here.

Kate cleared her throat and said abruptly “Miz Hyatt, how’re we gonna get home?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie admitted, with more calm than she felt. “But I’m sure that Sam will think of something.”

At least, she hoped so. She couldn’t quite suppress a small shiver that ran up her back.

There was a knock on the outside door.

❀ ❁ ❀

“And then we got here,” Sam finished, “And I talked to you at the door.”

He was sitting in the cramped living room of the Abbaku’s tiny apartment behind the motel office; four candles lit it. Constantine’s wife, a comfortable woman named Esmera, had gotten extra blankets out of a storeroom and followed Ellie to their rooms. It was rapidly growing colder as a March night settled around them and the electric room heaters were not working. The innkeeper, his mother, nephew, and younger brother were all gathered around Sam, perched on a sofa and chairs or in the nephew’s case, standing. Abbaku’s eldest daughter, Marta, a petite quiet high school girl a year or two older than her cousin, brought tea and cookies from the kitchen, then retreated there to tend two younger siblings and listen through the open door. He noticed that she was making the tea on a gas stove. The innkeeper’s brother was named Steven or Sevan or something; he had a prosthetic left leg and only three fingers on his left hand. Sam vaguely remembered hearing it was a legacy of some accident in their homeland before he immigrated to America.

Abbaku’s mother, a short stringy old woman with a bony face, slate–gray hair, and hands like bundles of wire, frowned. She had the best chair in the room and the way her sons deferred to her made it plain that she dominated the family. She spoke English with a heavy accent but very precisely, like someone who’d learned it late in life but was ferociously dedicated to getting it right. She had questioned him closely about the newscast — none of them had seen it — but it was clear he knew little more than they. Now she changed the subject a bit.

“You said the two gangs shot their guns and all of the bullets failed?” Her eyes held an odd intensity.

“Yeah, five misfires.” Sam shook his head, thinking about that exchange again. He was shocked at how badly he wanted an explanation for that surreal moment. “What are the odds on that? Could they both have bought bad ammo from the same store?” He knew how weak that sounded before it left his mouth. His mind tried to wrap itself around the concept of guns not working.

“Most strange,” she muttered, then turned to her grandson. “Giorgi, get the hand gun. Take it down to the basement and shoot it into a wooden wall; use one of the empty cans for a target.”

The youth looked startled but hurried to obey. He passed through a door at the back of the office. Sam remembered that the family also owned and ran the small pawn shop next door, attached to the outside of the motel building.

Turning back to Sam, she added “Please to pardon us while we speak our language for a time, Mr. Hyatt. I must ask my son a thing and I have not the English words for it.”

It was several minutes, during which the elder Abbaku son and his mother spoke softly in Armenian. The younger son sat with his eyes mostly closed, his face drawn as if he was remembering something he didn’t like. Sam wondered what it was, then wondered if he really wanted to know. He drank the tea, which had grown lukewarm while he talked, and nibbled on a sweet cookie for politeness’ sake.

Giorgi came back, his jaw set and his eyes wide. “The bullets, they do not go, Gramma,” he said. He held up a dented empty number ten can of tomatoes that had a blotch on the label. Sam realized it was a gunpowder burn. In his other hand Giorgi held four bullets, two only slightly distorted and still in their casings. “I shot the first two from across the room. One did not fire, the other bullet falled — fell, to the floor before it reaches the can. I shot the other two right against the can and again one did not fire at all, the other did not even punch through the paper, never mind the can.” He added something in Armenian.

Grandma looked grim, and Abbaku looked grimmer.

“Guns don’t work,” Sam said wonderingly. “Somehow, something stopped electricity and gunpowder from working — but that’s impossible!” He flexed his hands unconsciously into strike position. He had used guns plenty of times, had a good hunting rifle and pistol back in Montana, and two different bows for bow hunting season, but bare hands and hand weapons were his preferred means. The ancient Samurai lifestyle had caught his imagination when he was stationed on Okinawa, a lonely 18–year old from Montana, and he’d turned a teenage interest in the hunting bow into some degree of skill with the full range of their weapons. He could wield bo stick, sai, katana and warizaki, and especially the big Japanese long bow better than most and as well as some of the best, enough so that his Montana resident’s bow hunting license reliably yielded an elk and a deer each fall. The meat had always gone a long way to helping stretch their small teachers’ salaries. And jackasses in bars soon learned to leave him alone, in the years before he found Ellie.

He thought of his older sister, married to a Southern California liberal in Venice Beach, and muttered irrelevantly “I guess the peaceniks will be happy.”

“Not for long,” Abbaku said darkly. “Those who have not guns can still die on bayonets. And a weak man can kill a strong enemy from a distance with a gun, but it is much harder when he must use a knife.” His eyes glittered for a moment, then he looked at Sam’s hands and his expression turned thoughtful. He said something else to Grandma in Armenian.

She nodded, looking appraisingly at Sam. “You teach science at your school also, do you not, Mr. Hyatt?”

Sam nodded mechanically. “Yeah, and I assist with the shop and PE classes too. It’s not that big a school. But this — this doesn’t make sense! It stands all we know of physics on its head!” He swallowed, remembering the newscast. “The TV said there was some kind of weird electrical effect over some island on the east coast. If this came from there — how far does it reach?” He envisioned some kind of metaphorical tsunami roaring over the USA from Atlantic to the Rockies — and beyond? How much of the country was affected by this thing?

Giorgi spoke diffidently. “Could it be that it might cover the whole earth? Bouncing about like the shortwave radio signals they teach us of in school?” He sounded intrigued and excited.

Sam turned that thought over in his head and winced. “The whole earth… sweet God in heaven.”

“Giorgi,” Grandma abruptly spoke. “Please take Mr. Hyatt to his room and help your aunt be certain that his family and students have the things they need to be comfortable tonight. Then return to me. Mr. Hyatt, would your family please eat breakfast with us in the morning? There may not be any hot water by then, so I urge you all to bathe tonight. Best not to let it go to waste.”

“Glad to.” Sam nodded. Questions were starting to bubble in the back of his mind, but Grandma didn’t look like she was ready to do any more talking. He got up, made his goodbyes and followed the young man out even though he knew the way perfectly well. He shivered a little in the outside air; the temperature had dropped further and there might be frost by morning. March in the Rockies, even as far south as Colorado, was a cold month.

For six years now the karate team had reserved the same three double bedrooms in the old motel; one was actually a sort of suite with a sitting area, where the Abbakus had wedged a third bed for the five boys. Another was for the girls, and had a connecting door leading to the room shared by Sam, Ellie and the kids. That door was shut when Sam got there but Maria was helping Ellie and Mrs. Abbaku add blankets to all the beds. Jenny wasn’t visible but he heard water running and the bathroom door was shut.

“Ah, Giorgi, fetch me four more blankets for the boys’ room,” his aunt commanded, and the boy ducked back out the door. “We are done here, Mr. Hyatt, but if you should need more in the night please come knock on the office door. One of us is always awake.” She gathered up a stack of remaining blankets and bustled out the door.

Sam said “Grandma Abbaku suggested everybody should take a shower this evening, right away, because there may not be any hot water in the morning.”

Ellie nodded. “Kate’s in the shower in her room. You should take one now, then I will.”

“I’ll tell the boys, too,” Maria volunteered.

“Good, and thanks,” Sam nodded to her, then continued to Ellie as the girl left the room and took another small increment of its heat out the door into the night. “I think it’ll be better if we have Jimmy wash up next, then you, and I’ll take one in the morning. I don’t mind cold water.” That was a lie and they both knew it — his only objection to hunting was that the mountains didn’t come with hot showers. But if the hot water ran out the kids would complain, and he wouldn’t.

Ellie came to his arms and hugged him wordlessly; he hugged her back, hard. Then he took a deep breath, blew it out, and released her.

“Let’s try to get a good night’s sleep; tomorrow we’ll figure out how to get home.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Interlude 1

— Water —

Water. Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 2006, 7:14 PM RMT. Change minus 1 minute.

Banks of LEDs glowed at the Denver Water Department’s central control room. Monitors fed by an intricate web of electronic sensors reported on pressure and flow at dozens of critical junctures throughout the sprawling metropolis. Almost three–fifths of all the water used by Greater Denver’s two and a half million people ran through pipes controlled from here. Four major nodes or choke points regulated it; the Foothills, Kassler, Marston, and Moffat treatment plants, each fed by its own aqueduct. Three of those giant pipes converged on the canyon of the South Platte River where it fought its way out of the mountains to enter the southeastern rim of the metro area, taking their vast draught from the Strontia Springs Dam that in turn was fed by more reservoirs farther away. The fourth came in by tunnel and ditch from Gross Reservoir to the northwest. Relays hummed and clicked; one shunted extra pressure from Marston north into Lakewood as the fire department called on it to battle a blaze. Another lowered pressure in downtown as a hundred thousand departed office workers no longer needed to flush toilets.

The Change flashed over Denver.

Computers died, pumps stopped, valves froze as they were. In darkened offices and treatment plants, a thousand workers shook off the shock from the blinding light and strove to keep the system running. But they were blind, deaf, and mute in the dark night, with no way to talk to each other. Gravity still pulled water into the aqueducts, the filtration beds kept running in the darkness, water still flowed to a million taps not dependent upon electric pumps. But wherever suburbs sprawled above the elevation of the treatment plants, pumps were absolutely necessary to get the water to the tanks that supplied the taps. In a hundred thousand households in the hills of suburban Jefferson County, the pressure began to drop as new water stopped being pushed uphill. Tomorrow those lines would run dry, and whole neighborhoods would begin to learn the meaning of thirst.

At the treatment plants, chlorination systems stopped cold. Dedicated men and women struggled through the night in a darkness lit only by cigarette lighters and paper trash burned in steel wastebaskets. They shunted around the dead parts of the system, improvised, held things together. For now. But they grew tired, and when midnight came their relief shift, trapped at home or on the road by cars that would not run, didn’t arrive. One by one, all but the most dedicated, or most single, grew worried for their families, walked away and began the long trek home.

Most would never return.

A dwindling band of workers kept the life blood of the city flowing as the first dawn of the new world crept over the plains from Kansas.

❀ ❁ ❀

3

— Get Out of Denver! —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, 5:15 AM RMT. Change plus 10 hours.

Sam woke from a dream of someone hammering to find the glow of impending dawn outside the motel window. The room was chilly but not down to freezing — Montana winters taught you the difference early in your life. Jimmy was snuggled against him, a warm little bundle. Ellie and Jenny breathed softly in the other bed. Sam carefully extracted himself and padded to the bathroom, snagging clean underwear from the suitcase on his way.

If the air was chill; the water was downright cold. The toilet flushed almost normally but the shower gave only an anemic few needles of icy water that he didn’t care to stand in. He swabbed off with a washcloth instead, then shaved in the cold water. Carefully; there was barely enough light coming through the window to see his own refection when he began.

When he was mostly finished Ellie came in and put her arms around him, leaned into his back.

“Still no power?” she asked.

“Nope. Nor hot water.” He folded his hands over hers. “I’m glad you and the kids washed yesterday.”

She shivered in her nylon nightgown, only partly from the touch of his chilled fingers. “Going for your run?”

“I think I’ll look around a little, but I don’t want to be away that long.”

She slid around between him and the sink, still embracing him, and gave him a kiss. “See you soon.” He returned it, almost fiercely, and then she hurried back to her bed. There was still some shaving cream on his sideburns; he wiped his face clean with the washcloth and then paused to stare at his bare upper body in the mirror for a moment.

He couldn’t help the little glow of pride that at age thirty–four it was still a muscular body, only a bare hint of the fat marbling that he knew his genes naturally tended toward. A pair of medium brown eyes looked back at him out of a square–jawed face, all planes and angles under a thatch of dark brown hair. It wasn’t what you could call a handsome face, though Ellie frequently claimed the contrary. A mongrel face, more than a quarter English plus some German and Irish and a big dose of Bohemian mixed with his Italian grandmother’s blunt peasant lines. A shy face, but a determined one too. During his military hitch the shyness had held him away from the whores on Okinawa, kept him clean for Ellie while other young fools came home with VD and worse. Karate had helped; the old masters somehow sensed his dedication and gave him the honor of their attention when most GIs couldn’t get the time of day out of them. He knew he’d never rise above the fourth dan, the extra time needed would take too much away from his family and his job, but he could teach the art to those who might. And it kept him fit and gave him that extra edge that had enabled him to stay ahead of the high school kids since his first day in front of a class. After some initial testing the cowboys and town punks quickly realized that he could break the biggest of them in half without trouble, and behaved. Ten years later it was automatic, and he fit his job and his life like a hand in a glove.

Only now he had a gnawing suspicion that the gloves had come off. Life might show some very rough knuckles now.

I’m a family man, he thought. I teach science, shop, and PE to high school kids. I never planned for this!

He swallowed, set his jaw, stared at his reflection and swore a private vow. I will do — anything — I have to do, to get my family and my kids home safely.

He brushed his teeth and pulled on the clean underwear, left the bathroom. He had two clean sets of clothes left in the suitcase. He put on the warmer set and topped them with a sweat suit as Jimmy sat up and rubbed sleep from his eyes.

“Daddy, I’m cold.” The little boy face was solemn and still a little bit scared from last night. Sam knelt by the bed and gave his son a big hug.

“You crawl in with Mom and Jenny,” he said, then when the boy did so Sam pulled the double blankets off his bed and spread them over the three. Ellie cuddled the boy close and murmured to him, trying to go back to sleep; she wasn’t by nature an early riser. Sam shrugged into his jacket, kissed her cheek, and she smiled at him over Jenny’s head. “After I look around, I’ll go talk to the Abbakus,” he told her softly; she nodded.

Quietly he let himself out of the motel room, remembering to take a key. He stretched carefully before heading out. He had a feeling that that this was the wrong day to pull a hamstring or do some other fool thing. The parking area was mostly deserted; this wasn’t the busy season and his group constituted more than half of the guests here. Ordinarily he would go for a five–mile run every morning, then loosen up with an hour of kata in the school gym before his teaching duties. Today… he suspected that he would be covering a lot more than five miles before sundown. He jogged to the planter next to the street entrance, leaped up onto it and swarmed up one of the steel poles that held the motel’s 1950s–era electric sign. There was a crossbar about thirty feet up. He hooked a leg over it and gazed to the east.

The sun peeped one malevolent red edge over a slice of horizon barely seen between the buildings across Federal. The boulevard was as silent as last night, cars still strewn about where they’d stopped. The men waiting for the police were gone. Sam wondered if the law had finally arrived or if they had just given up and left. A dog barked somewhere and he could smell the tang of smoke, but everything in sight was eerily still.

He slid back down and jumped off the planter, jogged out into Federal and headed north up the couple blocks to Colfax. The breeze rose and the smell of smoke grew stronger as he approached the cloverleaf. He didn’t have to go far onto the overpass to get a broad view. He shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted east.

A huge black pall of smoke rose from the direction of the airport and drifted south over the city; the rising sun peeped beneath it. The fire along the interstate seemed to have died out, but the one near the tracks had grown. He saw flames leaping out the roofs of old warehouses, at least a couple blocks seemed to be burning between the river and downtown. He could hear the distant crackling, hear indistinct shouts; the air was very still. The lightening sky was empty save for smoke clouds and there was not a contrail to be seen. All the cars and trucks still sat where they had been last night. The people were gone except for one bicyclist doggedly threading his way between stopped cars. Everybody must have found some kind of shelter, he thought. He hoped — it had been cold last night. Anyone who slept in their car courted hypothermia.

I ought to do something, help out somehow. He looked around at the vast urban sea and shrank inwardly. It’s too much. Too much! How do I help when everything’s broken?

Then his stomach growled slightly, pointedly suggesting breakfast, and he thought of his family. They would have to eat, then figure out what to do. Some ideas were already percolating in the back of his mind, but nothing was ready yet. Need some time.

He turned back to the motel. On the east side of Federal just south of the start of the eastbound onramp, a big refrigerated semi had drifted to a stop in the street. The side was blazoned with the logo of a local food distributor. As he passed it this time Sam noticed the quiet dripping sound. Water was leaking out of the back.

The refrigeration isn’t working, he realized. The night had been cold, but not cold enough to stop the thaw. All that food will spoil if somebody doesn’t get it turned on again.

That made him think of his own freezer in the garage, with a quarter of last year’s elk still frozen in packages straight from the butcher. Was there power in Billings? Or was everything defrosting there too? Everything — everywhere? How far did this, this effect reach, anyway? He shivered, and not from the morning cold.

He picked up his pace and sprinted back to the hotel parking lot. As he turned into it, the door to the office creaked open and Mrs. Abbaku beckoned to him.

“Mr. Hyatt,” she called in her accented English and he nodded and hastened over. “You are awake, good. Grandmother and my husband want to speak with you, please.” She led him through the office and into the tiny living room, indicated a chair for him.

Grandmother was seated in her own chair again; she might not have moved since last night except that she wore different clothes. Heavy trousers peeped below calf–length skirts, she had on a thick woolen blouse and a sweater; her hands were busy sewing something. The room was not as chill as his motel room, perhaps because some warmth leaked out from the kitchen, along with the mouth–watering smell of cooking meat. Beef? Pork? No, both, and chicken too. He heard Esmera call quietly to her husband through the back door. The candle stub next to Grandma was burned low; Sam suddenly realized that it was one of two, and the other had guttered out at some point. Had she been sewing all night?

The old woman regarded him for a moment as her hands continued to press a large needle in and out of holes poked into a long strip of leather. After a moment he realized she was sewing a loop onto the end of some kind of leather strap. She did not speak, and he didn’t quite know what to say to her. After another moment Constantine Abbaku came into the room, wiping his hands on a towel.

“Will you seek to go to your home today, Mr. Hyatt?” he asked, settling heavily onto the couch.

“I guess so.” Sam rubbed his chin. “But it may take some doing. I just looked out over downtown. Everything’s still; no cars or trucks or trains moving anywhere that I could see, no planes in the sky. I wonder how far this thing reaches?”

“I did send Giorgi to climb the power tower behind us last night, after you went to bed.” Abbaku waved vaguely west. “There is a ladder on the upper part that the workmen use. From the top he could see much of this city, from Westminster in the north to the mountains to the west and south, and all the way to Aurora on the east. Dark it all was, save for fires. I just had him do it again a few minutes ago. There are more fires now.”

Sam digested that for a moment. He heard Esmera filling a kettle at the kitchen sink; she seemed to have the water running very slowly. He remembered how anemic the shower had been. Was the water pressure low because the firemen needed it all?

A colder thought struck him. How would firemen get to the fires without fire trucks? How would they get hoses to the hydrants? Were there any firemen even on duty, or were they looking out for their own families?

“I have seen troubles before, in the old country;” Grandma suddenly announced. “A war comes, or an earthquake, and the electricity stops and the roads break, but men use their machines to put it right and in time all is as it was. This is different. The machines do not work. There are no horses or mules to replace them, not even an ox. The telephones do not work. The radios do not work, even Giorgi’s little battery radio. How shall men know what is needful when they cannot reach each other? There are no village wells here, we all depend on the pipes. The water still flows, but slowly. If it stops, what will folk do?”

“The world has changed, somehow; and if it does not change back very soon, the people of this city will suffer greatly,” rumbled Constantine Abbaku. “Remember the guns?”

Sam nodded slowly. Five misfires, then four more in the basement. “Guns don’t work anymore,” he said, not wanting to believe it. A forlorn hope: “Maybe they work again now?”

Abbaku shook his head. “No. I tested our handgun again before I came here in. The bullets they still do not fire. And without guns, how shall the policemen keep order? The gangs, they have the knives and sticks and guns of their own, but the police they have always had more, and can call for others on their radios. The gangs have only their own numbers, so they must be careful of the police. But now — they need not be so careful. Perhaps not careful at all, if the police have gone home to their own families. Perhaps now they will take what they want, from anyone too weak to resist them.” The Armenian’s face looked grim and his eyes shifted toward the front of the motel for a moment.

This echo of Sam’s own thought struck like a blow. He almost rocked back in his chair, visualizing the two gangs who’d fought in the street last night, but with ten times their number, or a hundred. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “I’ve got to get my kids out of here.”

“Where will you go?” Abbaku looked at him shrewdly. “I have seen on a map, Montana is far away. If there are no cars, no trains, and you have no horses, then the only way to go there is by foot or bicycle. And you have no bicycles.”

The thought of bicycling the several hundred miles from Denver to Billings was frightening. It had taken them most of two days at sixty–five miles an hour to drive it; bicycles would take at least ten times as long, probably twenty. Jimmy and Jenny couldn’t possibly manage that, or Ellie. But they had no bicycles, and walking that far… wasn’t to be thought of.

“We can’t get home to Montana, unless this… effect, ends not too far away. But… ” He hesitated. Should I tell them? But we need help, and maybe they can give it.

“My wife’s family lives about fifty miles north of here,” Sam found himself saying. “On a farm west of Lyons. We were going to visit them this morning on our way back to Billings. We could get there in a few days, even if we had to walk.”

It was a daunting picture; but what else could they do? His hands clenched. He would probably have to carry Jenny much of the way… Jimmy was too small to manage very many miles a day… and Ellie. Could Ellie handle walking that far? What would they do for food, where would they sleep at night? They didn’t have much money with them — and he suddenly had a horrible feeling that money wouldn’t be very much help even if he had thousands of dollars in his pockets.

“Perhaps we can help each other.” Abbaku smiled, though his eyes didn’t lose their measuring quality. “You have some place to go, but need means to get there. We have some means, but no place to go.” He opened one hand delicately, sat there waiting. Grandma stopped her sewing, leaned forward slightly and stared at him with opaque beady eyes. At that moment Giorgi came in from the kitchen, his hands grimy and a smear of dark grease on his face, but an excited fire in his eyes.

Sam looked at them, really looked, for the first time since he’d met them six years ago. Abbaku was a short man, five or six inches below Sam’s own five–foot–nine–inch height. Grandma was half a foot smaller than that, but looked to be made out of wire and grit. Neither were what you’d call thin, but they weren’t fat either; they had the solid flesh of people used to working hard, often with their hands. And Giorgi was a powerfully built young man already nearly six feet tall. If Sam had him in a training regimen he’d become something as intimidating as Jesus Mendez could be. Sam had a sudden feeling that intimidation might be very important, very soon.

“I think that would be a very good idea,” Sam slowly answered. “Last night you mentioned breakfast?”

Abbaku smiled more broadly, then turned serious. “Soon, soon; but first I think it best that I show you some things.”

He led Sam out through the kitchen. Mrs. Abbaku smiled politely as she tucked a strand of her hair up under a scarf while furiously working at the stove. The kitchen was warm and overflowing with cooking activity. Marta neatly diced tomatoes and peppers while her little sister broke eggs into a bowl and their mother grilled chicken breasts and fried sliced potatoes. The two girls were disturbingly serious. The back door opened into a narrow alley that in turn lead outside to a long walled enclosure behind the family quarters. Two dogs of no particular breed greeted Abbaku ecstatically and tried to paw and sniff Sam as well. The motel owner spoke to them in Armenian, then sternly pushed them aside and ordered them to sit. They did so with a quivering excitement, clearly expecting that something was up, and elated by it. Sam looked around.

Three large back windows from the motel had looked in on the alley, those must be the family’s rooms. Seven smaller windows looked into the wider courtyard, from the glass block panes Sam guessed those must be motel rooms. They faced a blank wall with a single door across the way, he thought that must be the side wall of the pawn shop. The far end of the yard was bridged by a worn double gate, made of large timbers and taller than Sam’s head; it ran from building to building and was topped with a couple strands of barbed wire on each panel. The ground was hard packed dirt, stained with oil from generations of parked cars, with a large doghouse next to the shop door. Tools lay about, and dismantled parts of machines; a considerable mound of just plain stuff was heaped against the angle of the motel walls.

Three large tricycles sat in the midst of the yard, the kind that had a big square freezer on the back for selling ice cream and such. The freezers had been removed and large wire baskets fastened in their places. Two looked like they’d been pried off grocery carts and the third was a quadruple set of bicycle panniers bolted to a hollow aluminum frame holding the seat and back of a wicker chair with the legs removed. All three had multiple gears and hand brakes, and though battered and scratched they gleamed with new oil. Abbaku pointed to one.

“Your daughter can ride in the basket, along with as much baggage as you can manage. I suggest it should be mostly food and water and blankets.”

Sam nodded; he’d already thought that himself.

“We have five bicycles.” Abbaku waved to them, lined up in front of a junk–piled wall; one was a smaller kid’s bicycle, two meant for teenagers, and two big enough for adults. Three of the larger ones had panniers on either side of the rear wheels, the fourth had a child seat and a wire basket arrangement. “Your boy and my three youngest can ride, and perhaps Marta too.”

Sam tilted his head slightly, thinking. “We’ll need a scout, someone to ride ahead and warn us if there’s trouble. Who is the better rider, Marta or Giorgi?”

“Most certainly Giorgi. Marta does not love the bike the way he does, nor can she ride as fast or as well. Though lately he has been mad for cars.” Abbaku rolled his eyes and shrugged slightly to show what he thought of that.

Sam smiled and said, “Then Giorgi had better be our scout, I think.” He looked around, considering. “We can carry the kids and a lot of food on those trikes. And blankets. Do you mind if we take all the blankets from our rooms? It will be very cold at night, and God alone knows where we’ll end up sleeping.”

“Most certainly, for we must bring along enough to face snow if we are unlucky.” He waved towards the west and the unseen mountains. “But there is more. Look.”

Abbaku unlocked the back door of the pawn shop; there were three separate locks requiring three different keys. He led the way through a small storage area lit only by the diffuse light through the open door. Inside the main part of the shop, glass display windows let in much more light, though they were covered by heavy steel gratings. Abbaku reached up on the wall beside the door, took something down and pressed it into Sam’s hands.

It was a top–line Bear compound bow, close cousin to his favorite hunting bow left at home in Billings.

“You know how to use this, da?” The shrewd Armenian eyes watched him handle it expertly.

“Where — who —“ Sam started to ask, then felt foolish. It was a pawn shop, after all. “Yes, it’s almost the same as one of mine at home. Newer, and a little bit better.” He did not add that it was less of a challenge but also less powerful than his Japanese long bow; there wasn’t likely to be one of those here.

Abbaku smiled as he handed over a real leather quiver filled with arrows. Sam unbuckled the cap and tipped the contents out onto the nearest counter; they were thirty very good quality deer hunting arrows with stainless steel three–barbed heads, sharp as razors. The points were covered by little plastic safety caps and most of them looked as though they’d never even been used. Sam checked the bow string — a little dry, it needed waxing. Probably hadn’t been here very long or it would have become too brittle to use. Abbaku added a small case; the Bear logo decorated the outside. Sam opened it to find three more strings still in their sealed wrappers, a beeswax ball also still in its wrapper, replacement cords and pulleys for the bow cams, and several small tools useful for maintaining the whole.

Abbaku also pulled out a cheaper target model of bow, and a set of middling quality target arrows. They wouldn’t do nearly as much damage to whatever they hit as the Bear could, but Sam figured they’d still intimidate most people.

“Do others of your boys know how to shoot?”

“Tim and Drew have both been hunting with me, I took them and their fathers out to the High Absaroka country last fall.”

“It is good to be able to strike at a distance when needed,” Abbaku said soberly, passing over the second bow and quiver. “There is more.”

He unlocked another case. It held knives and throwing stars and more exotic cutlery, as well as quality kitchen–knife sets and, astonishingly, a professional butcher’s cleaver and trimming knife sitting atop their leather apron belt. From the stains it had seen use, and the blades were both slightly nicked and roughened by repeated sharpening, though still good. There were also four small whetstones and one medium–sized one, and an unopened can of honing oil still in the shrink–wrap. Sam noticed that the other shelves in that case held guns, and boxes of ammo; Abbaku ignored those as he gathered up the knives and throwing stars, carefully setting them point–down into a small steel wastebasket that he had lined with torn paper. Sam stopped him for a moment, plucked out one with a solid steel handle set with two small slices of rough antler to give a good grip. It had a dark leather sheath with a fold–over snap top and a belt loop; a deer’s head had been tooled into the front.

“This is a Ruana, made in Montana and one of the best hunting knives in the world. I have one just like it at home. May I carry this one?”

“Most certainly, Mr. Hyatt.” Abbaku’s face split in a grin. “Consider it and the good bow my gifts to you, our leader.”

“Leader!?” Sam goggled at him for a moment. “I thought we would both — um.”

Abbaku shook his head slightly, his eyes never leaving Sam’s. They gleamed with an odd intensity in the dimness of the shop.

“You must be our leader, Mr. Hyatt. Your students and family are used to hearing and obeying you. I do not think they will heed me as well — they do not know me. But my family will heed and obey you, especially my boys and Giorgi — you are a man of, ah, of exotic mystery to them, and they have seen these past six years how your students obey you. They will want to do the same.” He suddenly grinned wryly. “And my mother will obey your directions without arguing, at least at first; she will never do that with me. Though I must say that it pays to heed her; she is often right.”

Sam’s face quirked unwillingly into an answering grin for a moment. Then, serious again, he nodded slowly. “I think you are also right. And I do know the way, somewhat; we usually like to take the back roads when we go to Ellie’s folks’ house, and I don’t think we should try to walk on the main highways. Very well, Mr. Abbaku; if you wish, I will lead us all there.”

The words felt heavy as they left his lips, like lead weights dropping into a pond that would never give them up. Sam suddenly remembered his grandfather once telling him that a promise is also a deal between you and God — be sure you keep up your end of it!

“You must call me Stanto, Mr. Hyatt.” The grin flickered again. “It is shorter than Constantine, and rhymes with Tonto, who helped the Lone Ranger, no?”

Sam laughed out loud. “And you can call me Sam.”

“Perhaps not in front of the others, I think. The leader is stronger if other men are seen to defer to him, and I believe it will help if I call you Mr. Hyatt where my family can hear.” The gleaming eyes had that intense look again. “But when they cannot hear, then I will call you Sam.”

“Sounds fair to me.” Sam looked at him with respect. The little Armenian seemed to have thought this out very thoroughly. They looked at each other’s eyes for a long moment in the darkened shop, taking each other’s measure and, Sam thought, both liking what they found.

Sam broke the gaze first, looking around the darkened pawn shop as he belted on the knife and maintenance kit. It was stuffed with shelves of electric appliances, cameras, luxury goods of all kinds in different states of wear. Much of it useless without electricity; most of it useless to people running for their lives.

“Mind if I look around? You might have other things we should take.”

“But, of course.”

Sam prowled the aisles. There was one shelf of camping gear with a couple sleeping bags and two backpacks hanging on hooks. North Face products, they looked like a set such as an athletic married couple with lots of income and no kids might buy for themselves. Sam checked them over, added them to the pile. There were a dozen space blankets, a lightweight titanium–aluminum cook stove with an empty fuel chamber, but it would burn gasoline and that might be in abundant supply now that cars didn’t run. There were also two water filters, still in their original wrappers. Sam seized upon those instantly — years with a wife who was a nurse and one bad bout of giardia from drinking unfiltered mountain water had taught him the importance of clean water. A few other small items he deemed worth taking also.

Abbaku handed him the wastebasket bristling with cutlery handles. Sam found space to wedge the bows and quivers into it as well and loaded everything else into the two back packs. The Armenian went over to a back corner behind the sales counter and pushed a small rolling stair unit against the wall. He stepped up and took down something long and pointed. It was an honest–to–god spear, the kind Sam vaguely remembered was used by the ancient Romans, or maybe the Greeks or somebody, almost nine feet long and sporting a cross–bar arrangement below the leaf–shaped head. A scrap of faded silk fluttered from the shaft below the head.

“I bought this from a man who needed a car more than he needed his grandfather’s relics. It is much like one my grandfather had in the old country; that had been in our family for many years. We could not bring it with us when we fled, but my father taught me how to use it before he was killed. I think it is the best thing I can carry from this shop. Let us go, there is much still to do.”

They lugged their booty back out the rear door and Stanto locked it thoroughly, with the air of a man who was not sure he would be coming back to the place for a long time. If ever.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie snuggled deeper into the blankets for a few minutes after Sam left and hugged Jenny closer to her. Jimmy squirmed against her back, trying for more warmth, and finally she sighed and admitted that she’d have to get up.

Dawn light was washing through the thin set of curtains. She’d left the opaque blackout curtains open last night, as there’d been no outside lights to keep anyone awake. Sleep had been hard to come by anyway, but finally tension and worry had leaked away. Those twin tormentors were flowing back now as her mind began fretting at the problems faced by her family and Sam’s students.

No van. That was bad, but it was insured; the school could get a replacement. Mr. Pearson would be angry but they’d just have to face that when they got home. For now, how were they going to get home? They could fly, she supposed. Then she remembered Tim talking to Sam at the overpass, something about jets falling out of the air. A little shudder ran through her spine as her over–active imagination pictured the weightless drop, the deadly impact. No, planes were probably out for right now. Maybe for a long time. They’d have to find some other way.

Ellie wiggled her way out of the bed, pushing Jenny over into the warm hollow that her body left behind. She shivered again in the cold air, clutching a change of clothes against her thin nightgown. The lights still didn’t work. In the bathroom the thin daylight was enough to see by, and not much more. She washed her face with cold water and worried at how slowly it dribbled from the faucet, even open wide. A few dabs of deodorant would have to do. Somewhat more ready to face the day, she went back into the room and began the morning task of waking and dressing children.

She had herself and both kids in their warmest clothes and was debating whether to pack, or look for the motel laundromat, when Sam returned.

“Ellie.” He gripped her in a warm hug, a little tighter than usual. “I’ve been talking with the Abbakus. They’ve invited us all to breakfast, and more.” He looked her searchingly in the eyes, his own bright with excitement. “Ellie, they’ve offered us some bicycles!”

“Bicycles?” For a moment a mad vision of pedaling to Montana rose before her mind’s eye. “But Sam, we can’t possibly bicycle to Billings!”

“I know.” He looked more serious now. “But we could bicycle to Lyons, to your folks’ house. It’s only fifty miles, maybe a little more. You have to see what they made for us, it’s like a big tricycle, Stanto and Sevan and Giorgi rigged extra seats on the back for the kids and some luggage.” He paused, added carefully “They want us to take their family along with us.”

“To my parent’s house? But we should call ahead. We can’t just drop a whole family of uninvited guests on them, on top of our own students… ” She looked at the motel telephone.

“Phones aren’t working, Ellie. No power, no phones, no cars nor trucks nor engines of any kind, and maybe soon no water. Something bad happened last night and we’re stuck in the middle of it.”

He seemed to grope for words for a moment, and his eyes got that hooded look he sometimes did when he didn’t want to tell her something. His strong hands on her arms trembled just the slightest bit, and that alarmed her. Sam was always so controlled. That trembling only happened when something made him very angry — or very frightened, like the horrible time in the trailer park when Mr. Tyree next door got drunk and committed suicide–by–cop, shooting pistols out his windows until the police had to gun him down. They’d huddled with baby Jimmy on the floor of the back bedroom in their trailer for forty minutes, Sam’s body wedged between her and the door while stray bullets spattered through the front windows and walls. She’d been so very glad when Sam’s dad loaned them the money for a down payment and their raises stretched to cover their own house in a good neighborhood.

Sam took a deep breath and said very steadily, looking her full in the eyes, “We’ve got to get out of this city, Ellie, as fast as we can, before everything goes to hell. Even guns don’t work anymore; and there’s no law and order without guns. Right now everything’s quiet, but soon people will figure out that nobody can telephone the police or the firemen, and the law can’t get to them anyway. Then the real trouble will start. Gangs, and desperate people, and God knows what. We’ve got to go today, and that means bicycles and walking. All of us together. Right away. And we need their bicycles.”

She swallowed hard. “I guess Mom and Dad will cope somehow. It’s a big house.”

Sam chuckled, hugged her again and released her arms. “Yeah, and we’ll fill it up, but we’ll face that when we get there. I’ll go roust the boys out, you tell Maria and Kate. Breakfast is in ten minutes in the motel office.”

He left again.

Her mind shied away from the strangeness of Sam’s words, sought refuge in mundane concerns. She thought her Mom would be so happy to see the grandkids that she wouldn’t care if they brought an army with them, but she hoped her Dad wouldn’t be mad. It was spring and he would already be very busy with the orchard. Maybe he’d appreciate some extra hands, she knew it was getting harder for him to manage these days.

Kate and Maria were already awake and almost dressed; they were putting clean sweats on over their flannel shirts. They helped Ellie herd Jimmy and Jenny out the door and over to the office. Sam and the boys joined them as they arrived and they all squeezed into the tiny room. There were three chairs and a small table holding some old magazines, the counter, and a pop machine, with nowhere near enough room for eleven people. But the innkeeper’s eldest girl, Ellie remembered that her name was Marta, raised the hinged counter and invited them into the family rooms. Sam had three of the boys haul the lobby chairs along.

Introductions, juggling too many people and too few chairs into two small rooms, and finding places to sit everybody took a while, but before long Mrs. Abbaku and Marta were dishing up plates full of food and handing them out to everyone. There was a lot of meat, a dish of diced tomatoes and green vegetables cooked with scrambled eggs, fried sliced potatoes, and some bread with plenty of butter for everyone. The Abbakus must have cleaned out their refrigerator to make this meal. Ellie cautiously introduced herself to Grandma and Esmera, pressed Kate and Maria into service in the kitchen, and tried to make sure Jenny was kept occupied. Jesus picked up Jimmy and perched him on the back of the couch.

When she was sure everyone had a plate Ellie accepted one for herself and perched on one arm of the couch, motioning the kids to stay seated — they were jammed in five on a space meant for three anyway. Sam was eating standing up. When everybody had pretty well cleaned their plates, he put his aside, slipping into Sensei mode effortlessly. Ellie thought only she could see the worry lurking behind his face.

“Something happened last night,” he began, then ran through the events they’d seen and the list of things that didn’t work anymore. “Without guns, water, heat, and food, this city’s in big trouble. We’re not sticking around to find out how bad it might get. The Abbakus have bikes and tricycles that they’ve offered to share with us if we travel together; the weakest members of our group can ride, the rest can take turns pedaling and walking. And those are the only ways I can see for us to get to the closest safety I know about — my in–laws’ farm by Lyons.”

Ellie hugged Jenny close, looked carefully around the room at the students first. They were all watching Sam solemnly, eyes big in the dimly–lit room. Marta and the Abbaku’s nephew were similarly fixed on him, the boy’s face was almost eager. The four Abbaku adults had a stern serious concentration that was a little frightening, until Grandma shifted her eyes to Ellie and her mouth crimped in just the ghost of a reassuring smile. Maria was sitting on Jesus’ lap; the swarthy youth put his arms around her and she leaned close against him, fear on her face. Tim cleared his throat diffidently.

“Sensei, what’ll we do with our stuff?”

“I want your hands free to carry your bo, and to use it if you have to.” Sam told them bluntly. “Every extra ounce we carry will slow us down and tire us out a little earlier. So bring only one change of pants and shirt and underwear, and two pairs of socks. If you’ve got extra walking shoes or boots, or raingear, bring them too, and your toothbrush and toothpaste. Wear your jackets, gloves and hats, tie your coats around your waists. We’ll fill all the water bottles and everyone will carry two. But leave everything else in your suitcases behind; your belts and your gis, your dirty laundry, all of it. Including the suitcases themselves; pack what you take in your kit bags.”

Ellie’s mind quailed a little at that. What about the kid’s toys? Their pajamas?

Sam turned to the Abbakus. “This applies to your family as well, Stanto. Pack only the things I spoke of, and all the food you can scavenge from your apartment, and the items we gathered earlier. We’ll figure out how to load it on the trikes after everybody’s packed.”

Mr. Abbaku — how odd to think of him as ‘Stanto’! — made a little gesture. “Mr. Hyatt, we have a safe for personal valuables. We can lock up anything your students leave behind.” Sam nodded appreciation for that and Ellie felt faintly relieved. Maybe Jenny could be persuaded to help put her own toys in there.

“Sensei, where’ll we sleep?” asked Kate.

“Wherever we can.” Sam’s tone turned grimmer if that was possible. “On somebody’s living room floor if we get lucky, probably in barns or garages, or under bushes if we have to. Sleeping on cold ground saps your energy, so roll up all of your blankets and bring them with us. Everybody should have at least three blankets for their own use. One to put under you as a pad and two more to roll up in. You can use your kit bag for a pillow, so don’t bring any real pillows.”

There were more questions, but Sam cut through them. “We’ll figure the rest out as we go. For now, go pack; when you have your stuff ready bring it back here.”

They went.

It would have been excruciating to sort out what to take and what to leave, but Sam’s harsh criteria had made it simple for them. Ellie was able to coax Jenny to put almost all of her toys into the safe, which turned out to be a huge old thing from some defunct bank. The students packed with remarkable speed, then Maria and Kate helped get Jimmy and Jenny ready and led them to the office. Ellie picked up the too–thin bag she had packed for herself and Sam, looked around the spare hotel room one last time. After six years it almost seemed homey, a place she was used to. It was a wrench to shut the door and turn away from it.

Will I ever come back to this motel? Will we ever have another karate match in Denver, or, or anywhere?

Ellie’s thoughts stuttered to a stop and she leaned back against the door frame.

“The world’s changed under my feet,” she whispered, and swallowed hard. She stamped one sneaker–clad foot on the pavement, barely feeling it through the thick warm socks. “Just stay still for a while, till I get used to it, okay?”

The far–off howling of dogs was the only answer.

She marched across the parking lot, noticing movement at a couple of the motel windows and resolutely ignoring it. My family comes first.

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam carried a cloth sack of food out of the motel, the last one from the Abbaku’s kitchen. He was glad to see that the students had piled the luggage into a long row against the hotel wall under the porte–cochere and were all waiting, dressed in their warmest clothes and carrying the bo sticks. As Ellie arrived Giorgi, Sevan, and Marta rode the tricycles around the motel and into the parking lot, accompanied by two joyful dogs. The Abbakus already had strapped bags and bundles onto the tricycle Sevan rode; it had the wicker seat on the back. He set Grandma Abbaku and her daughter–in–law to packing bundles into the baskets of the other two, making rough seats inside for the smaller children. Nests of spare blankets should keep them warm enough, he hoped.

The two dogs barked excitedly and ran in circles before Stanto and Giorgi grabbed their collars.

“What are the dog’s names?” Sam asked.

Stanto patted the yellow–brown one. “She is —” he said something that sounded like ‘nscoy’. “And this is —” A word that sounded vaguely like ‘ulci’. At Sam’s inquiring look the Armenian fumbled for a translation.

“She is ‘Happy’,” said Giorgi with a little grin. “And this is her son, ‘Spot’.” He patted the male dog, who sure enough had a big black spot on his back. Spot barked and surged against the young man’s grip until Giorgi gave him an order in Armenian. Then he obediently settled down, tongue hanging out of big white teeth and tail twitching in anticipation.

Sam smiled, pleased at the break in the tension. He turned to his wife.

“Here Ellie, this’ll be the one you ride.” Sam led her to it, had her mount up and try the hand–brakes and steering. “How does it feel?”

“Heavier than my Schwinn, but I can manage.” She looked past his shoulder and her eyes got suddenly wide.

“Sam — ”

He spun on one heel, automatically dropping into nihanchi stance, arms loose and hands ready. The slender woman shied back a step, colliding with the thin man, and the blanket–wrapped bundle in her arms let out a soft cry.

“Sorry, sorry,” Sam muttered, embarrassed and trying not to let it show. He straightened up, automatically adding “Can I help you?” as old reflexes betrayed him.

“Please,” the thin man said anxiously. “May we please go with you?”

“Me too?” asked the fat man standing a little behind them, nervously inching closer.

❀ ❁ ❀

Interlude 2

— Sewer —

Denver, Colorado; Tuesday, March 17, 1998, 7:45 PM RMT. Change plus 30 minutes.

In the sewer plants, the situation rapidly became desperate. The arc of smaller plants south of the big city all failed before midnight. They depended upon electric pumps to drive aerators, shift fluids from tank to tank, and drive the chlorination and purification works. Emergency diesel engines refused to start, sludge backed up, tanks overflowed. Manual valves had to be turned to shift the raw sewage into holding ponds, but thousands of evening showers, sinks, and toilets had already flushed their contents into the collectors. Remorselessly, it all ran downhill towards the treatment plants.

The Cottonwood and Parker treatment plants were already strained by burgeoning suburban growth along their service lines. They reached capacity in only a few hours, then began to overflow into Cherry Creek. The burdened stream carried its noisome load into Cherry Creek Reservoir and began to foul one of the few large bodies of water in the Denver metro area. When the storage tanks ran dry the flow would cease, but that would take the night and most of the next day. By then several trillion bacteria would be proliferating in the cold water. When people grew thirsty enough to drink from it, their intestines would quickly suffer.

To the south the Castle Rock plant failed too, but Plum Creek was running heavy with mountain snowmelt and the much larger Chatfield Reservoir stood ready to dilute it further with the flow of the South Platte River. And dilute it the reservoir did, for a critical relay had tripped in the moment of the Change and closed two of the three outlet valves. Much of the big river’s spring flow began to back up behind the dam, slowly reaching for the spillway. It would take days to get there. Meanwhile the Platte shriveled throughout the south side of the city, reduced to little more than a trickling stream.

The smaller plants to the west failed too, at Morrison and Evergreen and Idaho Springs and Golden, but their rushing streams swallowed the effluent with little effect. It was to the north, where the main plant sat next to the Platte like some stark modern sculpture in black and white, that the true disaster struck.

Gravity had been harnessed as much as possible by the engineers, but the treatment process needed electric power too. Fans ground to a halt, tanks backed up, and the steady power of decomposition poured out vast quantities of methane, as it always had. But neutralizers failed, ventilators ceased, and soon there was nowhere for the gas to go. Men struggled in dark windowless tunnels with manual valves and improvised shunts; one by one the invisible menace felled them as detectors failed to trigger alarms. By the time the remnants realized what was happening and evacuated the plant just before dawn, raw sewage was pouring into the South Platte River. Waste from hospitals, homes, manufacturing by the ton; toxins, viruses, and bacteria by the trillions, every hour.

Nor was the sewer plant alone. Across the river the huge Conoco oil refinery lost all its control systems when the Change struck. Backup generators failed to start, batteries went inert, fail–safe mechanisms sat useless without data input. The plant’s cracking towers were running near capacity, cranking out the first loads of gasoline for the summer travel demand. Most of the burners immediately shut down, but that in Tower Number Two kept running, uncontrolled now and roaring. Flaring systems on the other cracking towers soon died as their contents cooled and stopped emitting gasses; the flame atop Tower #2 got bigger and bigger. The tower would have been shrieking alarms, but the men isolated in the control booth couldn’t see the growing flare and didn’t know the temperature inside was rising. The tower reached critical temperature twenty minutes after the change, while the handful of night employees were still trying to get their instruments to work. A valve that should have opened remained frozen shut without power to its chemical monitors, and distilled petroleum products began undergoing dangerous changes. It was twenty minutes more before a critical joint ruptured and spewed gasoline down the outside of the tower. When it hit the hot cowling around the burner the flame ripped up the exterior and began heating its contents from the outside as well. The men and women in the control room saw that, and instantly understood that their facility was doomed. They abandoned the plant scant seconds ahead of the ripple of strangely–muffled explosions that tore the cracking tower open. Burning gasoline, kerosene, and dozens of other distillates flowed into graveled holding ponds and poured a thick black pall into the night sky. The updraft was so fierce it lifted thousands of gallons of unburned petroleum and catalytic chemicals into the air. They dropped in a wide swath across the grounds of the plant – and the river.

Below Metropolitan Sewer Treatment Plant Number 1 and the giant refinery, the South Platte became a poisoned river.

❀ ❁ ❀

4

— The Walk Begins —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, 8:45 AM RMT.

“Can we join you? Please!?” repeated the first stranger, a slight thin man in bulky jeans and a fancy running jacket. He had expensive running shoes, too, and a wide yellow headband–cum–ear–warmer with the logo of an upscale manufacturer. An incongruous mop of curly brown hair fizzed above it. The woman was dressed in similar clothes except that she had sweatpants on over running tights, and a knitted cap. He carried a bulging soft–sided luggage case, she a smaller one and the blanket–wrapped baby. The thought crossed Sam’s mind that they were probably much like whatever couple had once owned the camping gear from Stanto’s pawn shop. They were also two — no, three — more dependents, strangers to be responsible for.

Sam stalled for a moment, looking at the other man. He clearly wasn’t with the couple, by the space he gave them. Middle–aged, dressed in a business suit with a trench coat over it, a thin turtleneck shirt and no scarf, he already looked cold. He had regular street shoes on, though Sam noted that he had put on at least two pairs of socks and looked to be wearing a second pair of pants under the outer ones. He also stood at least six feet tall with a paunch that Sam would’ve called a beer gut, except the man didn’t look like a beer drinker. He had the kind of ’businessman’ look that Sam oftentimes saw on tourists, people who’d never actually done any hand labor in their lives.

For that matter, so did the couple, despite their obvious athleticism.

Sam had worked in his dad’s welding shop every summer and after school since his fourteenth birthday, wrestling equipment that weighed more than he did, and knew the difference between exercise and work.

“Getting out of Denver is going to take a lot of effort,” he told them as gently as he could. “We don’t have enough bikes for ourselves, and we can’t carry our stuff and yours —“

“We’re not asking you to, please mister,” interrupted the woman with more than a little desperation in her voice. “We just want to follow along behind you, close enough to look like we’re with you and — and not alone.” She stared at him pleadingly and jiggled the baby a bit.

“There’s safety in numbers,” added her man. “For you as well as us.” He hefted the luggage. “I heard you talking about what to take, how to dress; we’re ready to keep up, we won’t be any kind of burden on you.” He licked his lips nervously. “We’re Darrin and Sherry Bistek from Boise, here to close up Sherry’s mom’s house — she died last month — we were making arrangements to sell the place when this happened. We’ve got to get home, somehow, take care of our dogs, but the car’s dead, nothing works, and — I can carry our stuff, it’s no problem. We won’t be a burden, we just want to follow you until we’re out of Denver.”

“Just, please, let us tag along behind, please,” finished Sherry Bistek.

Sam looked back at the other man again. The stranger met his eyes and smiled back with a kind of forced calm.

“Bud Sullivan,” he said with a thick drawl as he stepped forward and held out one pudgy hand.

Sam fought down the temptation to take it. We’re running for our lives, he thought, and hated the dark track that the thought left on his soul.

Sullivan hesitated an instant, pulled it back, but didn’t lose the smile. “Ah’m in Room One, I heard yoah talk through the walls. I don’ wanna be stuck heah while Denva comes apat aroun’ me. Home’s Memphis, I caint walk thet fah, but mebbe I kin be some use wherevah yoah goin.” His smile twisted a bit toward a grimace. “Figger it’s mah own duty t’ get mahself thear, but I’d take it kindly if ah kin tag along with y’all. If’n I caint keep up, ah’ll drop out on mah own.”

Sam hesitated a bare moment longer. Whatever I decide, I still have to live with myself.

“Okay, you can follow us, but you take my orders and you don’t get in our way; that’s all I’m offering.” It came out more curt than he intended, so he swept the harshest frown he could manage across the three of them.

The couple began to babble with relief. Sam waved them off and they had the grace to take the hint. Sullivan just nodded, stepped away a few feet and hoisted a bundle of blankets to his shoulder.

We look like some kind of gypsy caravan, Sam thought, turning back to his assembled crowd. The three trikes were piled high with bundles of food and blankets. The seven students wore their kit bags like backpacks, Sam and Stanto wore the two real backpacks, loaded with odds and ends and extra food; the Armenian leaned on his spear phlegmatically. All of the adults also wore a couple of rolled–up blankets strapped crosswise across their backs. Everybody wore coats and hats against the chill, and most had gloves, though Sam and Giorgi did not. Sam’s had been the only casualty of the van fire, and Giorgi had outgrown his over the winter, Marta wore them instead. Ellie had been especially insistent that the kids all wear gloves or mittens if they could find a pair that fit. Grandma had gone the extra step of sewing strips of cloth onto each hat and glove to attach them to the coats, she was just finishing with the last one. The mismatched colors and patterns made a cheery blend that was belied by the seriousness on the faces of the adults.

Think of it like taking a bunch of greenhorns on a hunting trip, Sam thought. Or, more likely, a platoon on patrol in a war zone.

“We’ll be traveling through territory that is strange to most of us,” he told them. “Whatever’s happened to us, to Denver, it’s changed the rules. We can’t count on a stranger being decent, or feeling restrained by the law anymore. We only have ourselves to depend upon. If we’re all to get safely out of this city, we have to stick together and watch each other’s backs.”

He paused for a moment and looked at them all. His family, his students, the Abbakus, and the three he mentally dubbed ‘the hangers–on’. They were all looking at him with a kind of worried expectant gaze. Looking for reassurance, direction, someone to tell them what to do. It was worse than a new class on the first day of school. I’m not ready for this! I was a base MP, not a platoon leader! He swallowed and continued, trying every trick he’d ever heard of to sound more confident than he felt. He hoped they wouldn’t really be going into ‘enemy territory’, but better to minimize their risks.

“Here’s the way we need to do this. Mrs. Abbaku, Ellie, and Sevan ride the trikes in a line in the middle with the little kids and Grandma in the baskets. Tino, you ride next to your mother on her right side. Yelena, you ride behind your brother and next to Ellie, that’s Mrs. Hyatt. Jimmy, you ride on your mother’s left side, and Bran you ride on your mother’s left side. None of you littler kids changes place at any time unless I say so. You don’t ride ahead or behind except when we squeeze through a narrow place, and then you go right back where I just told you to be. Do you all understand?”

He stared each child in the eyes by turn, trying to impress upon them the importance of this instruction. They all looked back with serious faces, so maybe it sank in.

“Marta, you walk behind your sister and brother on the left and help keep them in line; switch off on the bikes with your mother and Ellie as needed. Drew, Kate, and Jesus, I want you walking on the right of the ‘cycles at all times. Drew, keep the bow strung and handy but leave the arrows in the quiver unless we need to scare someone off. Tim, you’ll do the same; your bos can ride with Ellie.”

And Please God, let us not have to use either one, Sam thought. He continued “Terry, Maria, and Jerry take the left, and Mr. Sullivan, Mr. and Mrs. Bistek, and Mr. Abbaku take the rear, with me and Tim in the front. There’ll be times when we’ll have to squeeze between cars and can’t maintain this order, but as soon as we get past each narrow place I want all of you to immediately get back to your own position, and help the little kids get to theirs.”

His students all nodded obediently with a ragged chorus of “Yes, Sensei.”

“Sevan and Giorgi, you two will take turns being our eyes. Whichever one of you isn’t pedaling Grandma’s trike, I want him to ride out a few hundred yards ahead of us. At the start that will be you, Giorgi; circle back at least once every couple blocks and also every time you top a hill, to tell me what’s ahead.” The youth bestrode his bicycle and said “Yes, Sensei Hyatt!” His jaw was firm and his eyes glinted. His father simply nodded silently.

Sam almost corrected the lad, but let it slide. “Everybody get to your places.”

They all moved into formation in the parking lot. There was surprisingly little confusion. Sam blew his breath out, picked up his bo stick and pointed to the boulevard.

“Let’s go.”

Giorgi went. Sam stepped out after him, Tim at his elbow, and the whole mass of cyclists and pedestrians followed. The dogs gamboled exuberantly around the perimeter.

Sam had feared that the stalled cars would break up their order and leave them strung out and exposed, but there was a surprising amount of empty space on Federal Boulevard. Many drivers had tried to steer their suddenly–powerless vehicles over to the shoulder, so that the inner northbound lane was mostly empty. At first even that didn’t look like it would be enough. The little kids especially wavered around and there were several near misses before Marta’s firm commands got her siblings and Jimmy riding straight. As he had foreseen, it helped to have the teens walking on the outside and acting as a sort of living fence.

They got to the Colfax overpass without any more problem than that. Sam looked east and west again as they crossed it; there were more people walking in the big road below, and a sprinkling of cyclists. Some were trying to get stopped cars started again, others were trudging west toward the suburbs, a few walked the other way. Their panting breaths and the scrape of shoes on pavement were unnaturally loud without the sound of motors.

The fire down by the tracks had spread to a building right next to the viaduct over the interstate. Weird–colored smoke and flames were shooting through the tarred roof. A much smaller fire spat smoke from a point halfway up one of the downtown skyscrapers. Sam guessed it a residential building by the terraces climbing its west face. Smoke also rose in dozens of smaller columns from other points farther east, many more than there had been when he’d looked this morning. There was a little wind out of the north, just enough to bend all the smoke toward the south.

“Denver’s burning,” mumbled Drew, who was behind and to Sam’s right. “People trying to cook breakfast or warm the house with barbecue grills, and setting it on fire instead.” His eyes darted about nervously when Sam looked back at him, but he kept on marching. Sam gave him a half–smile and a thumb’s up, turned back to the front after Drew’s answering grimace.

Giorgi circled back, spoke rapidly. “People ahead at the restaurant on the left, many.” Sam gave him a nod and the boy looped around and pedaled ahead again.

There was a Dennys on the northwest side of the cloverleaf. Dozens of people were gathered just outside the door and more in the windows, muttering quietly to each other. Many of them stared east at the towers of downtown looming above the curved roof of McNichols Arena, pointing at and commenting on the burning skyscraper. The restaurant must have gathered in a lot of last night’s refugees. Sam barely remembered passing it when they came south through here thirteen hours ago. More than a few stared at his group as they pedaled and trudged north, but the bows, staves, and Mr. Abbaku’s spear must have put them off. Sam was obscurely glad that nobody said anything to their group.

They plodded past McNichols Arena and then Mile High Stadium. The wrecked low–riders were still there but thankfully there was no sign of the gang members. Sam spared a glance at his tricyclists; Ellie was puffing slightly but holding her own, while Mrs. Abbaku simply looked absorbed and Sevan stoic. Grandma sat very still but her eyes were in constant motion. The kids were silent, staring about; they felt the strangeness as much as the adults.

Sam glanced back at the ‘hangers–on.’ The Bisteks were maintaining a good pace but Sullivan was frankly puffing, his Mississippi Valley lungs fighting for scarce oxygen in the Mile High City. It gave a new meaning to ‘survival of the fittest.’ Sam looked away resolutely.

I can’t help him if he can’t do it by himself. My own have to come first, he rationalized. But the thought made him feel dirty.

The city seemed to have grown overnight; they’d been walking for half an hour and not yet reached West 20th Avenue. Ellie and Mrs. Abbaku were both puffing in earnest by the time they passed it, but Sam kept them all going. They passed the burnt–out wreck of Miguel’s restaurant, the parking lot littered with skeletal cars partly melted down to metal puddles. The lot’s concrete curb had contained the fire but only barely; large trees to the west were scorched and the windows had shattered in some of the cars parked in the road.

The school van was barely recognizable, a gutted, collapsing wreck. The small sports car with the stubborn driver was a shriveled chassis — Sam carefully looked away from the lumps of carbon where the front seats had been. A couple of Hispanic kids were poking the rubble of the kitchen with sticks, stirring up little gouts of flame and lots of ash. Nobody else was around. Sam picked up his group’s pace for a few minutes until they had left the place behind.

He kept them moving briskly until they hit West 25th Avenue, a full mile and a half from the motel. Sam stopped them in the middle of the intersection; by some fluke there were no cars in it or for a couple hundred feet in all directions. It was as close to open space as they had seen for a while. There were a half–dozen people on the sidewalks, looking into the closed shop fronts and eyeing Sam’s party nervously. A pair of Hispanic women quietly moved away, casting frightened glances back at him as they left. The thought that someone found his group at least potentially threatening was not as comforting as it might have been.

“We’ll take a ten–minute break here, but everybody stay close. If you’re hot, take off one layer of your clothes. Marta, get ready to switch off with your mother when we start again, and Jerry, you’ll switch with Ellie. Everybody take a big drink of water,” Sam ordered; the air was still March chilly but exertion had warmed them all nicely. He peeled off his jacket and then the sweater under it, tied the sweater around his waist and put the jacket back on as an example. “Little kids; you get down, stretch your legs and drink, but keep your coats on. Sevan, how is your leg doing?”

“It is gud — good,” the Armenian stoically replied. “Riding is easier than walking.”

“Good. If you think you can handle another shift on the bike, I’ll keep you on it until we hit Thirty–sixth.” At the other man’s confident nod, Sam continued. “Giorgi, check out the next three blocks this time and report back.”

Giorgi nodded and pedaled away. Ellie and Mrs. Abbaku busied themselves making sure all the children drank a little water. Sam went around checking his students, making sure they did too. Bud Sullivan plodded up a moment later, he’d fallen slightly behind and was breathing hard, though fighting to control it. The Bisteks sat together on a curb and Sherry opened her coat enough to put the baby inside and let it nurse; Sam looked away uncomfortably.

They’re not my responsibility. Are they?

“Sensei.” It was Tim; he jerked his chin westward while his hands nervously tested the draw on the compound bow. “Might be trouble.”

Sam looked down the length of a somewhat seedy old retail block; the upper story was offices or apartments and an alley bracketed the far end. Four Hispanic youths were staring at them from the alley mouth, murmuring to each other; two more were barely visible around the corner. All had visible tattoos even from half a block away, and that arrogant slouching look that dared onlookers to comment. One was clearly pointing at the student’s weapons; whatever he said caused their conversation to get a lot more animated. Another one said something and the rest looked briefly at him, then they all sauntered away down the alley.

“Whatever they’re up to, I don’t think it’s aimed at us,” Sam muttered to Tim. But I think we gave them an idea.

They set off again and plodded north. Ellie was clearly relieved to be off the trike for a while, even though it meant she had to walk, but Sam worried about her feet. She wore only her sneakers, and they weren’t new. He kept quiet — he didn’t see what they could do about it just now. But he took her hand and they walked together.

They passed St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, where a service was under way; the choir’s beautiful voices lifted his heart briefly. The singing ended and he could faintly hear a man’s voice preaching as they left it behind. They approached the Speer Boulevard intersection with North High School looming like some kind of iced layer cake on its north side. Was it only last night that they’d been there for the competition?

The intersection was snarled with wrecks; traffic must have been moving faster here than down at Colfax. One of the wrecks had been dripping gasoline and radiator fluid, making a wet smear across the widest path through the mess — Sam hastened them across that, telling the kids to hold their breaths. On the north side of the intersection there was a clear space and he let them pause and gulp in the clean air.

“Sensei Hyatt?” A small hand was tugging his sleeve, attached to a face with wide brown eyes.

“What do you want, Tino?” Sam asked him gently, squatting down to bring their faces together.

The boy just pointed at a long bundle on the nearby sidewalk; Happy, the yellow dog, sniffed at it and then backed away whining. It was a moment before Sam’s eye recognized it — a body wrapped in a blanket. Ellie was kneeling down next to it, reaching for the top of the blanket before he could speak; her nursing mode must have kicked in. She gasped as she drew back the cloth and he caught a glimpse of a misshapen head covered in dried blood — that face had impacted something hard, at speed, and its owner hopefully never knew what happened. Ellie hastily covered the corpse again, lurched to her feet and backed away wildly. Sam managed to catch her before she stumbled. She twisted in his arms and embraced him fiercely, choking for breath.

“Sam — she’s — oh God, I thought I could help…” She gasped into his shoulder and shuddered.

“Shhhh, Ellie, there’s nothing you could do,” Sam soothed and held her close for a long moment.

Standing there like that, he found himself facing southeast down Speer. The big boulevard gave a broad view of downtown with the burning skyscraper in front. The flames had spread, the whole middle of the building was engulfed now and more smoke poured out of some opening in the top. People were milling around on the balconies. Just as they came into focus, he realized they were trying to climb down the outside of the building from balcony to balcony. And in that instant he saw one slip, fall, strike another and then another, and three tiny, distant bodies plummeted into the canyon of the street below. His mind supplied the screams that distance erased.

He swallowed hard against acid bile in his throat, tore his gaze away from a tragedy he could do nothing about. Ellie was fighting her way back to control, forcing one hand to let him go and wiping the tear streaks from her eyes.

“Sorry, Sam, I just didn’t expect that,” she said, heaving a sigh and then disciplining herself by sheer will.

He nodded once. “It’s okay, Ellie; but we’ve got to keep going.”

“Kids, get back in formation. Stanto, gather everyone up,” Sam said over his shoulder. “Let’s get going again.” He led Ellie by the hand to the front of the line and they set out once more. Please God, he thought, Don’t let us face anything worse than that today.

They trudged past more cross streets, more wrecks, more slowly–passing cityscape. At the Highland Masonic Temple in the midst of its wide lawns Sam had them stop for a five–minute breather and trade cyclists again. At West 38th they passed more stores, one a jewelry store being actively looted by some men who’d evidently pried the security gate open. The sound of smashing display cases and whoops of glee came from inside. Sam hurried his group on past while Tim and Drew kept arrows nocked, but nobody came out to bother them. At West 44th two men and a woman were singing something incomprehensible and reeling around the northbound sidewalk, drunk or drugged. A five–car pileup clogged the intersection and Sam chose to lead his group up the southbound side so the cars stayed between them and the drunks. They had to pass single–file between the wrecks and a dingy white Ford folded into a canted traffic light pole. Sam suddenly realized that the car still held a dark figure huddled over the steering wheel behind a spiderwebbed windshield. Everybody tried not to look, but Sam knew those pale knuckles and thin fingers, still loosely gripping the wheel, would be with him for a long time.

As they approached I–70, Rocky Mountain Lake Park spread its dry brown lawns behind the Lakeside Hotel. The day was growing warmer, and the cycling kids were getting bored with riding in formation. Marta had ordered Tino back in place for the fifth time and Ellie had snared Jimmy at the same moment. Esmera was slowing down, though still doggedly pedaling.

“Let’s stop here and take a longer rest.” Sam waved them off the boulevard into the empty parking lot in the nearest corner of the grass, next to a deserted picnic area. “Everybody sit for ten minutes, drink some more water, and eat something small.”

Grandma unpacked some cold chicken and bread, bustled around pressing a measured quantity into everybody’s hands. Sam ate mechanically while he made sure Jimmy drank enough water. Ellie was taking care of Jenny. They’d all sweated enough that the still–chilly air gave welcome coolth. The dogs poked around whining for handouts, but Grandma firmly denied them, then scolded Tino for sneaking half his sandwich to Happy.

“Sensei.” Tim called from atop a picnic table, where he had taken sentry position unasked. He pointed across the park lawns. “People coming.” Then his face darkened in anger. “It’s them!”

❀ ❁ ❀

Interlude 3

— Gas —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, Noon RMT.

The night shift at Xcel Energy’s north side gas switching center had been on duty for more than fourteen hours now. A bicycle–borne messenger from the downtown command center had arrived before dawn to tell them all control was out and they would have to manage as best they could. Two big 24–inch lines came out of the Williston Field between Denver and Greeley, joined a 36–incher and another 24 from the eastern plains, and spawned a dozen distribution lines that served most of the metro area. Each of those lines forked several times in the next couple miles. Here within the reinforced–concrete bunker of the control center, six batteries of electronic control valves parsed the precious vapor that kept winter at bay. Natural gas had been flowing through these pipes, or their earlier versions, for over a century as men count time.

Without power, the crew had to monitor backup meters by eye and the meager light of a single cigarette lighter. They strained to crank enormous valves by hand. The old–fashioned dials on the meters wavered sluggishly, as if the very behavior of the gas had changed somehow. Fred, with a third of a century’s experience handling natural gas, kept putting his ear to the pipes and frowning; it just didn’t sound right. His two partners nervously cycled from meter to valve to meter to valve, arguing over what they ought to do. Shut down the system? But Denver would freeze, and the restart logistics would be terrifying — there were over three hundred thousand pilot lights in the city, and if any went out then those sectors had to be kept off until they could be individually re–lighted. And if the well fields didn’t stop sending gas into the pipes, pressure could build up until a relief valve opened somewhere. The resulting waste would make Accounting scream, and if there was a fire near the spill valves they could end up fueling it. But without working telephones or the backup radio, they had no way to tell the far–distant field operators to shut down, and the gas coming in had to go somewhere. Already they’d had to shut down the trunk line to the airport. Another bicycle messenger had told them it was only feeding the huge fires started by falling jets.

And where were their reliefs? Art lived in Conifer and was probably not going to make it across the fifty miles in between. Jan only lived in Montbello, he out to have been here hours ago. Jimmy was getting more and more worried about his wife and kids.

They dithered, and Fred kept listening to the pipes, slowly growing frightened. With only crude feedback and indifferent information, sooner or later their control over some part of the system had to fail.

❀ ❁ ❀

5

— Kata —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, 11:50 AM RMT.

“Sensei Catron.” Sam said flatly.

“Sensei Hyatt.” The Albuquerque teacher made a shallow bow, one fourth–dan to another. The blond guy among his three students imitated it, the one carrying two bo sticks. Sam had noticed Catron handing his own over to the boy as they approached.

I wonder if that’s supposed to make me feel more kindly disposed towards you, you selfish piece of shit? Sam thought. Don’t think I’ll do the same.

The other two New Mexico students were uncomfortably casting sidelong looks at Sam’s much larger group. Despite their origin, the southern sensei and all three of his students were pale Anglos who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Montana. Sam figured the bow was a pretty big concession for the high and mighty sensei Gerorge Catron.

The man was three inches taller than Sam, with a burly build but relatively short legs for his height that were also slightly bowlegged. Sam had heard that was from his youth as a New Mexico cowboy, though Ellie had once remarked that it was likely from the weight of the chip he generally carried on his shoulder. He had flecks of gray in his black hair, and probably had a decade on Sam’s age. Ten more years of experience, but no higher in the black–belt rankings.

And after yesterday, I maybe can guess why.

Catron swallowed, recognizing that Sam was disinclined to start a conversation, centered himself.

“Looks like some kind of major fubar somewhere,” he said, flicking one hand at the cityscape, then the burning hotel. “Our hotel caught fire, we had to clear out fast, and our car won’t start. Looks like nobody’s cars will.”

Sam nodded into the pause, let it lengthen a bit. “Nothing else does either; trains stopped, trucks stalled, planes fell out of the sky, phones and electric are dead.”

The southern sensei blinked at the words, as if wondering whether Sam was pulling his leg. Then behind them two men smashed a plate glass window in the Lakeside Hotel’s shop, began breaking out the big pieces to clear a way in. Catron wheeled, stared at them in shock, and his students stirred nervously.

“Then where the hell are the police, the Staties, hell, the National Guard?” burst out Catron, turning back to Sam.

“What could they do? Shoot the looters?” Sam gave a small snort, then dropped the big one. “Even guns don’t work.” It was a little daunting to hear himself lay it out like that.

“Guns don’t — !” Catron looked like that one had gotten deep inside his defenses. “What the fuck could stop guns?! I thought it might be an EMP, but that wouldn’t — wouldn’t —”

Sam shrugged slightly, let the silence sit some more. A stunned expression had the other man’s face now. Sam wondered if he had looked like that himself when Giorgi brought up the undamaged tomato can. Why am I so numb now? Is this what shock feels like?

“I — you’re sure? No, forget I asked; you’d have checked it.” The southern sensei shook his head like a man trying to shed water. “Without guns — hell, without guns, there’s no, no civilization! Just the law of the jungle!”

Sam raised an eyebrow at that. “Seems to me we’re both supposed to be dedicated to a way of being civilized that’s a heck of a lot older than guns.”

That sank home, too; Catron’s face went through an impressive kaleidoscope of emotions before he brought it back under control. Calculation was the last in play, before he settled into a blandness that didn’t fool Sam for a moment.

“Seems to me we’re all pretty far away from home. Whatever’s going to happen next, we’re stuck here,” Catron said deliberately. “Maybe it’d be a good idea to stay together, join forces against the chaos.”

Sam inclined his head a fraction, said nothing.

“And there’s going to be plenty of chaos, too, Hyatt, even if this is just something that happened to Denver,” Catron said persuasively, then paused. “How far do you think this thing goes?”

Sam shrugged slightly. “Don’t know. We haven’t seen or heard a working engine since yesterday. Listen to the city, you can hear voices, fires, but nothing else. Every transformer we’ve passed has been silent.” Sam inclined his head toward a nearby electric pole. “I didn’t realize before today just how noisy they really are. Were. And not a contrail in the sky. If this was just Denver, or just Colorado, there ought to be Air Force jets overflying us, trying to figure out what’s happened.”

They both reflexively glanced up at the empty blue sky, which stayed that way.

“More than Colorado, then,” Catron muttered. “The whole country? Hell, why not the whole world? And if there’s no more country or state, then every man’s got to carve his own way… ” He became introspective for a moment, then smiled to himself.

The prospect seemed to hatch something inside the man; something excited. Sam’s dislike of the southern sensei escalated sharply. He’s seeing this nightmare as some kind of — opportunity!

Catron turned brightened eyes on Sam, began moving his hands in excited little arcs.

“Think about this, Hyatt. Cities don’t keep all that much food on hand, most of it’s shipped in daily. Billy’s dad runs a grocery distributorship that hauls to half the Rio Grande valley, and I’ve seen what they have to move to keep the shelves stocked in just one Safeway.” A thumb jerked at his blond student, who managed to look surly and spoiled–brat despite being scared. “Without trucks, all that stops, people eat what’s there and then get real hungry. It’ll soon be hard to find food, and harder still to keep it against others trying to take it. Double–hard on women and children. Having more men around who know how to use a bo stick could be mighty important for their survival.”

Sam wavered for a moment; numbers did mean safety, in a bar fight or a war. He had only dark suspicions about what was coming if this, this change didn’t switch back real soon. Looked like Catron was already thinking about it.

But I can’t trust him as far as I can throw him, and to have him at my back, around my students — no way.

“Thanks for the offer, Sensei Catron,” Sam said formally. “But no thanks. We’re not staying in Denver a minute longer than we have to. We’re headed north, towards home.” He carefully did not specify just whose ‘home,’ or how far away it was.

“Walk to Montana? In March? You’ll all freeze on the road somewhere, or get butchered by some gang.” Catron visibly reined in his tongue as Sam’s students glared at him in unison. Sam let a bit of frown creep into his own blank expression. “And what’ll you eat? Ain’t gonna be no restaurants open. It’d be safer to hole up here somewhere, wait until spring weather, move out with bicycles for everybody, don’t you think?” He was almost wheedling now, and did it about as well as he did tact.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, we’ve decided,” Sam said with finality. “Good luck with your own journey; at least it gets warmer as you head south.” Take the hint, and get gone, mister; hell will freeze before you come with us.

Enough of that must have leaked through Sam’s voice to make the point, for Catron colored a little and stiffened slightly.

“South — through Denver and Colorado Springs both, and then a helluva long desert road to Albuquerque? And if they’re no better off there? We’ll see who’s warmer, and where.” He nodded curtly to Sam, deliberately turned his back on him and stalked away, plucking his bo from blond Billy’s hands as he went.

Sam took a deep breath and purged it, watching the four depart. Catron paused at the edge of the road, glanced back, then waved his bo stick forward like a commander exhorting his troops. They vanished into Denver.

Tim and Jesus blew out breaths, and Jerry and Terry started to babble. Maria said something pungent in Spanish. Sam raised a hand and they quieted. He turned to face his students and discovered that the whole crew, and the three hangers–on too, were all gathered in a big arc, backing him up. Bud Sullivan and Darrin Bistek had even found a couple chunks of tree limb somewhere and were hefting them like they had been thinking of wading in on the southerners. That would have been a bad idea.

“You all did very well at keeping your tempers,” Sam told his students, and waved in the direction the four New Mexicans had gone. “That was bait that Catron dangled at me, and at least some of it was aimed at you all too. I’m glad none of you snapped at it.” He gave the whole group a long hard look. “If we’re lucky, we won’t see anything worse between here and Lyons. Now let’s finish lunch and move on.”

Sullivan came up to Sam, nodded in a way that was nearly a salute. “Was theyt peckerwood as dangerous as ah think?”

“He’s a fourth–dan black belt, same as me,” Sam said frankly. “I don’t know if I could take him in a fight or not, and I’m not eager to find out. We’re all just going to stay away from him and anyone like him, as long as we can.”

“Reminds me of some prime snakes I’ve met in the bayous,” the fat southerner commented. “Wasn’t always possible to stay away from them.”

Sam grimaced, nodded, turned away, then turned back.

“Have you eaten anything today, Bud?”

Sullivan shook his head. “I’ve still got some crackers in my coat, saving them for later. I’ve got this to burn off first.” He slapped his gut.

Sam shook his head. “Fat burns better when there’s a little protein in your stomach to work with it. If you’re going to fight with us, you better eat a little.” Sam gathered in the Bisteks with his eyes and took the three over to Grandma Abbaku.

“They’ll be eating with us from now on,” he told her. “Short rations like the rest, but the same.”

Stanto was standing next to his mother, still looking at Sam and visibly impressed. Her wrinkled old face was much harder to read, but she nodded at him with an obedience that managed to be grudging at the same time. Sam noted that she already had some more cold chicken unwrapped.

“Thank you for feeding everybody, Mrs. Abbaku.”

She pursed her lips, nodded, and turned back to work.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie’s knees were already aching, and it couldn’t yet be noon. Getting back on the bike was hard. You’ve got to do this for hours yet, she told herself, and wondered what shape her knees would be in for tomorrow. It would be better to phase in this sort of exercise, doing so much unaccustomed work this suddenly was courting some bad injuries — but she didn’t want the kids exposed to this frightening city for any longer than they had to be. She checked to make sure Jenny was nested in her blankets before standing on the pedals for that first strong push. Thank heaven for the gear shift.

I–70 was the same kind of mess that they’d seen on the 6th Avenue Freeway, Sam marched them all fast across the overpass and kept going. There were more people on the streets now, most wandering aimlessly, but a trio of youths was setting fire to a trash barrel and whooping in glee. A derelict K–Mart had been long closed. A small crowd was gathered in front of a closed restaurant, waiting impatiently and muttering. It hadn’t sunk in yet that nobody would be making breakfast or lunch today.

Ellie recalled Catron’s comment about no restaurants, and people getting hungry. Her scalp prickled from more than the chill air. The thought must have passed through Sam’s mind too, he met her eyes and nodded.

“Everybody look sharp, and keep the kids on the inside,” he ordered.

The north edge of Denver fell down a mile–long hill to the gravel pits and industrial parks scattered along Clear Creek. As they approached the lip of it, a man leaped out of a broken storefront, dashed across the road, and vanished around a corner building. Moments later his face peered back at the place he’d left. Smoke was starting to puff out. Ellie abruptly noticed the large red–white–and–blue sign above the door.

FIREWORKS

“Sam! That place’s on fire!” she gasped, pointing. “It’ll explode!”

“Everyone! Double–time, down the road, now!” Sam snapped. “Get behind that truck!”

There was a mad scramble of cycles and bodies. Ellie struggled to keep track of Jimmie in the scrum and nearly crashed her trike into Grandma’s when Sevan stopped abruptly behind the jackknifed semi. Part of the roof had ruptured when it fell over and cardboard boxes were spilled into the road, but they all managed to get behind it. Ellie snatched Jenny out of the basket and practically threw herself to the pavement against an intact piece of trailer, ignoring the sharp protest from abused muscles. Sam pushed Jimmie into her other arm despite his outraged squall of “Dad!” and squatted down beside them. Giorgi grabbed Spot and pulled him in among the crouching people.

“We’re still too close, Sam! There’ll be a concussion when it explodes!”

“Too risky in the open, Ellie, we need something big to block the flying debris. Should we cover our ears, or open our mouths to ease pressure on our eardrums?”

“I — I don’t know.” She tried to remember the hospital protocol for explosive injury patients. “Both, I think.”

Sam passed the word and they all sat there, mouths open and hands over their ears; even the kids did it. Like a bunch of monkeys, Ellie thought irreverently.

A fizzing sound was building fast, accompanied by a sort of subdued staccato popping. It went on and on amid the sharp tang of burning paper and gunpowder, but no explosion.

“Where’s the kaboom?” asked Jerry.

“There’s supposed to be an earth–shattering kaboom,” added his twin solemnly.

Kate rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe you two — ”

Sam crawled over and cautiously peered around the end of the semi. Ellie tightened her grip on Jimmy and Jenny and both kids squirmed.

“The whole place is burning, but not exploding,” Sam reported. “Wait, there are little pops in the flames. But no bangs.” He watched a little longer before he crawled back and squatted next to Stanto. “You ever heard of anything like this?”

“Never.” The Armenian coughed as a wave of sulfurous smoke rolled over the semi. Happy whined and tugged at his hand on her collar. “Is this perhaps why the guns they do not fire?”

“If it’s not going to explode, then we’d better get out of this smoke before it harms our lungs,” Ellie told them.

“Let’s all get out of here. Mount up, everybody,” Sam said.

Ellie let Jimmy go and he scrambled for his bike, muttering “Ma, I’m not a little kid!” under his breath. She let it go for now, concentrated on settling Jenny, who had started coughing. The smoke thickened and they all struggled their way downhill, pushing or riding the bikes and gasping once they hit clean air. Ellie looked back once at the huge yellow cloud pouring out of the burning store, and saw the arsonist standing there shaking a fist at the absence of his lovely planned explosion.

And no one to stop him, she thought. How many like him are out there right now?

They all scrambled down the hill in disorder, coughing and spitting out sulfurous phlegm. Jimmy and Tino raced ahead, weaving in and out of the stalled cars that littered this stretch of road.

“Kids!” Ellie shouted futilely. “Stay with us!”

“Giorgi! Catch them!” Sam ordered.

The young man leaned into his pedals but he hadn’t gone ten feet when a car door opened suddenly into his path. Giorgi braked sharply but still collided with it, pinning a gesticulating man between bike and door. Both fell in a heap of thrashing limbs and spinning wheels. Ellie steered around the opposite side of that car, narrowly clearing another in front of it. The pavement was rough and the front wheel of the trike wanted to slew each time she hit a bump. Her wrists and shoulders absorbed each blow as she forced more speed out of the pedals — she didn’t dare shift gears when her control over the speeding trike was this frail. Jenny squealed happily in the basket behind her, enjoying the rush and not understanding the danger. The boys disappeared behind another stalled truck.

Ellie rounded it and saw what lay ahead.

“Jimmmmyyy!” she screeched. “Sam!”

❀ ❁ ❀

6

— Kumite —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, shortly after noon RMT.

The black cylinder of the tank car hung almost half off the railroad bridge. Two more had derailed on the same side, plummeting onto the boulevard and plowing up great slabs of pavement. Between them they nearly blocked Federal, save for a small gap just a few feet wide between a crashed car and the nearer tank. A gap that lay directly under the hanging tank car.

A gap where Jimmy and Tino waited.

“Jimmy! Get out of there!” Ellie shouted as she braked to a stop safely short of the wreckage. “It’ll fall on you!”

“Aw Ma, it’s OK,” her son called back. “It ain’t going nowhere.”

“James Gregory Hyatt, don’t you talk back to me! You and Tino get back here now!”

Grumbling, he did so, the slightly smaller boy following. Ellie grabbed them both without dismounting and dragged them close. Sam and the others came sprinting up, pelting around the stalled truck. Giorgi had a bloody scrape on his forehead and a chagrinned look.

They all stared at the hanging tank car. It let out a subliminal groan that set Ellie’s teeth on edge, but it didn’t actually move. She swallowed hard; her lungs were searing and her throat raw from the thin Colorado air. The rest of the group wasn’t in much better shape; for a few minutes they all just panted and stared. The tank car continued to emit small metallic groans and crackling sounds, but still didn’t move.

Sam got his breath back first while Ellie was still panting. She saw him look left and right at the steep wall of the rail embankment, crowned with other tank cars as far as they could see. He sniffed; there was a sweetish smell that she didn’t recognize hanging in the calm air. It bothered her for no reason she could name. Both dogs were snuffling back and forth, muzzled raised and whining.

“It isn’t moving.” Sam pointed to the gap. “Tim, Jesus, you scout the other side. Move fast and try to get clear if it falls.”

The two boys obeyed, holding their weapons at the ready and peering about. After a couple minutes Jesus shouted back to report nobody in sight. Sam marshaled the rest back into line and sent them through the gap one at a time, a fast steady stream. Ellie’s scalp prickled and she shivered as she pedaled herself and Jenny under and through the hanging shadow, herding Jimmy ahead of her. Sam went last. The still–groaning tank car hadn’t budged, but the sweetish smell was stronger.

On the north side of the embankment other fallen cars were leaking a milky–clear fluid into a growing puddle. More trickled down the embankment from the derailed car. Tim was gathering everyone back into formation on the roadway well beyond it. Sam hurried past the puddle to join them. As he took up his position in front again, the hanging tank car let out a loud tearing screech and fell over. It hit the concrete with an astonishingly loud crash. Echoes bounced back from nearby warehouse walls.

Ellie shuddered — that had been too close! Then she couldn’t help glaring at Jimmy, who fidgeted and looked at Sam, who quietly said “No more riding ahead without permission, son.” Ellie bit her tongue and held her peace as Jimmy hung his head and nodded a wordless promise. Tino looked pale as a sheet and hid his face against his mother’s skirts for a moment while she gently patted him and said something in Armenian.

We’re past it, Ellie thought, flooded with relief. Now what?

❀ ❁ ❀

Sam put Giorgi on Grandma’s bike and sent Sevan on ahead to scout, set Ellie back to walking again — it seemed to bother her knees less than the big tricycle, and Terry was ready for the challenge. They crossed the bridge over Clear Creek while wrinkling their noses at the stink of sewage. Federal was a broad six–lane boulevard here, crossing a sprawl of warehouses and industrial parking lots. There were big trucks stalled or jackknifed in a dozen places. They passed a mobile home sales lot and a used car dealership, both deserted. The road began to slope gradually up as they approached West 64th Avenue.

Sevan circled back.

“There is a drinking place ahead, Sensei Hyatt. I do not like the look of the people there,” he reported, his face knotted in a scowl.

Sam nodded. “Good to know. Check out the hill ahead; I want to know what’s at the top before we get there.”

Sevan nodded and pedaled off again.

They plodded on for two more blocks. An old motel appeared on the left, painted eye–hurting orange and pink and flaunting a crudely lettered sign that read “Fantasy III — Rooms by the Hour.” Two women in t–shirts and nothing else leaned out a window, giggling madly and passing a bottle between them as they pointed at Sam’s charges. A shirtless man lay on the front sidewalk snoring loudly despite the chill. Ahead stood the bar, with a car crashed through its dead electric sign and others crowding a narrow parking lot. A trio of seedy–looking men holding beer bottles was loitering in front; all three stared narrowly at the approaching students. A couple more drinkers were looking out through the open front door. As Terry on the first trike passed the entry, Sam heard one of those two call something back into the bar. One of the trio yelled something at the student group in highly–accented Spanish, something that Sam didn’t quite catch, but Maria and Jesus stiffened. She turned her head and glared poisonously at the loudmouth; he laughed and swigged more beer while his friends slapped him on the back and added their own catcalls in mixed English and Spanish. One of them casually picked up a yard–long piece of two–by–four leaning against the building.

“Don’t stop pedaling,” Sam quietly told everyone, slipping two throwing stars out of his backpack. “Ellie — stay with Jimmy. Kids — stay with the trikes and don’t stop pedaling before you hit the top of the hill.” He made a quick decision. “Tim — trade the compound for your bo staff.” The big Bear was more threatening but if someone got inside Tim’s range it would be useless. “Kate, Tim, Jesus, Stanto — follow my lead. Maria, Jerry, you’re backup.”

Sam drifted to the left and slowed his pace, staying between the trikes and the bar. Kate, Tim, and Jesus matched his pace, drifting back toward Stanto. Jerry and Maria wordlessly slid between the trikes to back them up. The Armenian held his spear alertly, with a deceptive looseness that let the point move in little circles — and drew attention to its glittering menace. Two more men came out of the bar, caught sight of it and stopped abruptly. One had a knife in his hand. The loudmouthed trio stepped up their shouts, tossing mingled Spanish and English insults at the students. Jesus’ nostrils flared but that was the only sign that he heard.

Good boy, Sam thought. Keep discipline — don’t let them control you. He prayed that the rest would do the same.

Terry, Esmera, Giorgi and the little kids pumped their way past the bar, step by step, as Sam and his students stayed between them and the growing crowd in front of it. Sherry Bistek hurried past Grandma’s trike, trying to keep out of sight behind it. Her husband jogged at her heels and cast worried looks at the crowd. Sam began to hope they’d pass without incident as he and Stanto, walking backwards now, passed the broken sign and left the parking area behind. The mouthy trio drifted out into the road behind them, but aimlessly, as if unsure. The gap between the two groups began to widen.

Then a big beefy man pushed out of the bar. He wore beat–up jeans, a dirty t–shirt, and an open leather jacket. He cast one sharp look at Sam and then his eyes lit as he saw the ‘cycles. Sam felt a chill — this one wasn’t going to hesitate for any women or children.

“Ride, kids, ride!” Sam bellowed over his shoulder, stopping.

“Don’t just stand there, you shitheads!” barked the beefy man. “Get their bikes!” He drew a huge bowie knife and charged straight at Sam. A wave of others came behind him.

Time slowed for Sam. His attacker had at least eight inches of height on him, arms like a gorilla and a foot–long knife. Sam flicked both throwing stars out — Gorilla–Man dodged — one sank into his left arm right through the leather and the other flew harmlessly past. Yellow teeth bared and snarling, the gorilla feinted and leaped. Sam slid aside, brought the end of his bo straight onto the gorilla’s right kneecap and shattered it even as the blade slashed past uncomfortably close. The gorilla yelped and sprawled sideways as his leg collapsed, trying to land on his shoulder — and Sam swept the end of the bo around with tremendous force. The gorilla tried to jerk his head back out of the way but that only put his jaw into it. Bones shattered and flesh tore, teeth spat onto the asphalt.

There was a whizzing sound and something flew past scant feet from Sam’s head, smashed into the face of an oncoming attacker and knocked him backward in a glittering cloud. Coins rang on the pavement.

Sam flicked his eyes left. A whipcord assailant with tattooed arms and a jailhouse leer tried to grab Kate’s bo. She broke his right arm. Two men tried to swarm Stanto and he slashed them both with the spear, then let it pass on and bite into the back of the nearest leg on Kate’s assailant. Spot lunged at one of the attackers, growling furiously. Then the Armenian leaped forward as he brought the butt end around to knock the distracted man flat. The other backpedaled and clutched his bleeding gut.

Sam looked back at his feet. The gorilla was trying to lunge up on his remaining good knee, the knife cutting in for a crotch stab. Sam swayed out of the way, then brought the bo back around to cave in the gorilla’s left temple. The knife clattered to the pavement. Sam’s eyes flicked right.

One of the loudmouths curled up on the road in front of Tim, clutching his belly and vomiting. The second one leaped over his fallen comrade and swung his two–by–four in a vicious overhead smash that would have caved in Tim’s skull. The boy caught and deflected it on the bo, then brought the off end up into his attacker’s groin. Beyond them Jesus broke the third loudmouth’s arm with his own bo, his face twisted in a ferocious snarl, and Jerry tripped another club–wielder headfirst into the fender of a stalled car. A sheet–metal boom rang over the fight. A blurred orange target arrow flicked overhead and plunged into the front of the crowd, Drew was in action too.

Sam brought his eyes back to the front and not a moment too soon as two men tried to rush him. The black one had a tire iron and the tattooed blond waved a broken bottle. Sam slid back a pace as they came over the fallen gorilla. He feinted at Tattoo and then smashed the black’s elbow. The tire iron flew free and landed clanging somewhere behind Sam even as Tattoo recovered and renewed his rush. Sam brought the bo back and knocked him off balance and right into Tim’s collapsing antagonist, both falling in a tangle. The bottle shattered on the pavement. Sam danced back another pace just as something else whizzed by and hit the black in the face. He fell backward amidst another rain of coins. Sam glanced left again.

Jailhouse Whipcord was down and screaming as blood pumped out of his leg, Stanto must have sliced a big vessel. Kate drove her bo through another attacker’s defense. His ribs snapped even as his knife skidded along the bo and came within inches of slicing her forward hand. Maria lunged with her bo from beyond Kate and knocked over an assailant who had just crushed Spot’s skull with a steel pipe. The Armenian held three men at bay with the glittering bloody menace of his spear. Sullivan came up behind one of them with his stick raised and clubbed the man down. Another orange arrow grazed past the next man’s face, leaving a shallow gash; he yelped and ran.

There was a third whiz and something flew past and smashed into another man heading towards Kate and Stanto. This one caught the man on the hip and only staggered him, but he veered and ran away as coins scattered again. Sam noticed this time that they were half–dollars.

Then the rest of the attackers broke, fell back, leaving their wounded caterwauling on the asphalt.

“Class! To me!” Sam snapped, swaying back another pace. “You too, Stanto!”

The students closed up on either side of him, still facing the milling mob. The Armenian danced back a couple paces and his last assailant melted away, letting Sullivan through. The fat southerner staggered forward, half propping himself up with his club, and gasped for air. Stanto took another back step and joined the ragged line, teeth still bared in a rictus of effort. Blood drops spattered wildly off the twitching blade of his spear.

“On my mark, take two steps backward,” said Sam. “Now!”

They all stepped back two paces, opening a gap between themselves and the mob. Nobody moved to fill it. Maimed men puked and bled on the pavement. Others stood and stared blankly, shocked at the speed with which their own violence had been turned against them.

“Two more steps, now!” barked Sam. He trod on the fallen tire iron and skipped past it. The mob milled but did not advance. “Two more steps, now!”

Step by step they put ten paces of distance in front of them, then Sam let them turn and they ran to catch up to the laboring ‘cycles. Sam and Stanto stayed with wheezing Sullivan, who couldn’t manage the pace. Sam kept glancing backward but no one moved to follow. Tim looked back, saw Sullivan staggering and ducked over to pull the man’s right arm across his own shoulder. The Mississippian’s face was almost purple and he gasped like a dying man, but he kept putting one foot in front of the other. Sam ducked under his other arm and took on as much of Sullivan’s weight as he could. Their pace improved. Stanto guarded the back trail.

Twenty yards up the hill they caught up to the rearmost of the ‘cycles. Giorgi had stopped while the rest went on. Grandma had braced herself with one knee on her seat, facing backward and twirling something in a whistling circle. Drew flanked her to her left, covering their retreat with the target bow. Sam propped Sullivan against the basket of the ‘cycle and left Tim to help support him. Only then, while the southerner fought for breath, did Sam look at Grandma Abbaku.

She held a roll of coins in her free hand, still spinning whatever it was in her other hand. She said something in Armenian. Stanto laughed through his own heaving lungs, leaning on his spear.

“My mother says,” he gasped, “If she had some Molotov cocktails — she would put the whole mob to flight.”

She slowed and stopped her spinning device and Sam saw the leather strap arrangement she had been sewing at the motel. It had a roll of coins in a fold between the two straps.

“A sling,” Sam said wonderingly.

“Silver is good, but lead; it would be better,” the old woman remarked as she stowed her weapon and its ammunition in her skirts and resumed her seat. “The blow is harder. Should we go catch the others now, Mr. Hyatt? They are almost at the top of the hill.”

“Yes, Mrs. Abbaku, I believe we should,” Sam said after an instant’s consideration. “But slowly. Mr. Sullivan and your son need time to recover their breath.”

They gathered again at the top of the hill, a half–mile from the fight. Sullivan was near collapse. Drew took charge of him with the medical kit and drafted Giorgi to help. Ellie, Marta, and Grandma tended to the little kids, most of whom were crying. The Bisteks helped. Esmera had gone to her husband and was trying to get him to sit even as she held a sobbing Tino. Happy padded up whining and rubbed against Stanto’s legs. He was cleaning the blade of his spear on a rag, over and over as if the blood would never come off, his face still set in a fierce scowl.

Sam checked each of his students. Kate was red–faced and trembling as she leaned on her staff. Abruptly she shrugged violently out of her gym bag–backpack, turned away, took two steps and threw up. Maria, trembling too, went to her with a canteen. Jesus had dropped his own gym bag and sat down on the road, his bo across his knees, head down. The staff slipped out of his fingers and clattered on the pavement, but he only groped weakly for it. Tim was jittering back and forth, bo at the ready and trying to watch every direction at once. Long shudders passed over his body as he moved. Jerry was frankly babbling in a monotone voice and turning in circles, staring about wildly. His twin came over with a frightened look on his face and physically grabbed his shoulders to stop the motion. Jerry nearly hit him.

They’re all in shock, Sam realized. Of course. It was their first real fight, with life in the balance. And I’m in shock too, my thoughts are slow and sloppy. Come on Hyatt, get centered!

“Class,” Sam croaked. “Center yourselves. Deep breaths, on the count. Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku — Kate, Tim, Jesus, all of you, count! Ichi, ni, san — breathe! Shi, go, roku — ”

Breath by breath they all got into the rhythm. Sam watched carefully, forcing discipline on himself too. Red faces and pale ones returned to a semblance of normal. Jesus stood up again, Tim stopped walking, Stanto left off his compulsive polishing and joined the rhythm. Sam kept them at it for at least five minutes — and silently cursed the lack of a working watch. When he judged that they all had their balance back he stopped the count. Drew finished with Sullivan and came over to join the class, Giorgi trailing him.

“Class, you all did very well today,” Sam began. “Kate, Tim, Jesus, you held the line with me and Stanto exactly as you should. Jerry, Maria, you were perfect backups. Drew, those arrows, and Grandma’s sling, were just what we needed to break the mob and send them back. You should all be proud of yourselves. God knows that I’m proud of you.”

“Sensei?” Kate asked faintly. “Did we kill those men?” She swallowed hard, as if wishing she could take back the words.

They all looked at him with a mix of dread and nausea, except Maria who looked vengefully pleased at the thought. Drew squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Giorgi looked from face to face at the students, eyes wide. Darrin Bistek came over and hovered a few feet away, as if unsure whether he should come any closer.

“I don’t think any of your attackers were more than disabled,” Sam said judiciously, while the thought ran through his mind: But I think I did kill their leader. His gut churned at the memory of the man’s skull cracking and he ruthlessly suppressed it. He surveyed the students. Best to make the point now, he decided, while the fight’s fresh in their minds. They’re ready to take it.

“And in that we were mostly just lucky. They weren’t organized much, and half of them were probably drunk or close to it. They wanted our bikes and at least some of them would likely have killed us to get them, but I think mostly they weren’t really worked up to kill us yet. More than half of that mob sat out the fight, and that saved us.” Sam let his face turn grim. “If we meet another group that is organized, one that outnumbers us the same way, we’ll be in very deep shit, class.”

They took that in and blanched.

“So we have to be even more organized, and we have to hit harder and faster than they do. I said back at the motel that we didn’t know what we’d meet along the way. Now we know a little more. Civilization’s breaking down around us. We have to be here for each other, and for our people, because odds are nobody else will be for us. I know you all can do that.”

Faces firmed up, the students stood a little straighter.

“We’re going to keep up the marching order like we have been, and when we stop for the night, wherever we stop, we’re going to do all our regular practice work. I’m going to work Giorgi and Darrin into the practice too,” and I hope they’re up to it, he finished silently, raising an eyebrow at the last named.

Giorgi put his shoulders back, almost saluted.

Darrin Bistek nodded. “I can learn,” he said. “And I want to.” He had a pinched look on his face but his eyes blazed like a man seeing sudden hope, or a way out of shame.

Sam looked over at the others. Stanto had himself in hand again, he was holding his youngest and listening attentively. Ellie had finished getting water into all the little kids and now brought some over to the teenagers.

“Where’s Sevan?” Sam asked, looking around.

“Here, Sensei Hyatt,” the thin Armenian called from behind him. Sam turned to discover the man still astride his bike, at the crest of the downhill slope, watching their back trail. “I think there has been a big argument and the men at the bar are breaking into groups. Some of them look like they are going to come up here.”

Sam trotted over to check. Sure enough, a group of about four men was walking up the lower slope of the hill toward him, but slowly, with many a backwards look at the mob still at the bar. A larger group was walking the other way toward Denver, but the four coming their way were all big and very fit–looking.

“That tears it,” he said quietly. “Okay, I want you to ride on ahead and find us a store that has bicycles. We need to mount this whole crew and move faster.”

Sevan nodded and turned the bike, pedaling off at speed. They were in a residential neighborhood at the moment, but Sam knew the Boulder Turnpike must be somewhere up ahead, and he remembered seeing shopping centers near it.

“Everybody, get ready to form up again,” Sam ordered. “By the time that group gets to the top of the hill I want us gone.”

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie made sure all the students drank plenty of water, even though the team’s water bottles were getting low. It didn’t seem the moment to economize. She was devoutly grateful that she hadn’t seen the fight — all her attention had been on preventing Jimmy from turning back to join his dad. By the time she had dared look back, the fight was over and Sam was backing uphill with the kids.

But it had to have been bad.

Sam seemed unaware that he had a splash of blood across his face and shoulder. Ellie decided that it wasn’t the time to tell him. She could see that he was clinging to control with a fierce determination. Whatever he had done down there, it seared his soul.

Sam walked over to Sullivan, gesturing at Drew and Ellie to join him; she hurried to comply. She knelt down next to Sam when he squatted down at the big man’s side. Sullivan had propped himself against a light–pole. Drew sank down facing Ellie across Sullivan’s heaving chest, took the man’s left wrist and felt for a pulse. Ellie noted that the big man was breathing easier but he had his eyes closed. She thought his color still didn’t look good.

Sam raised an eyebrow at her in silent inquiry.

“How is he doing, Drew?” Ellie asked her student. Got to keep Drew focused, too, she thought.

“Miz Hyatt, I think something’s wrong with him, more than just the altitude,” Drew replied, a worried look on his face. “His pulse is thready and his skin is too cold.”

Sullivan opened his eyes. “Ah gotta touch of congestion in ma heart,” he said quietly.

“Do you take nitroglycerine for it?” Ellie asked him anxiously. “Maybe with a diuretic?”

The big man nodded. “Both. Six times a day, both tablets. Have for a couple years now. Took mah mornin’ dose back at the motel, noon at the park, but looks like all this walkin’s brought on trouble. Mebbe ah should take another nitro now?”

Ellie bit her lip and thought for a moment, but that rate wasn’t uncommon, since most brands drained out of the bloodstream through the kidneys pretty rapidly. Without knowing his medical history she hesitated to play doctor — but nobody else here could do better.

“What’s the brand and dosage?” she asked him.

He told her and inwardly she winced. His problem had to be serious for a dosage that high. But what Sullivan most needed now was confidence, and Sam clearly wanted to get them farther away from that nasty grease spot they’d just escaped. Her every instinct told her it might be risking the man’s life to move him — but Sam’s tension practically shouted that not doing so might risk all their lives.

Decisively she said “Yes, half a dose at least,” and prayed wordlessly that it was the right thing to do.

Drew and Sam helped the man sit upright. Sullivan fumbled out a pill bottle from inside his coat, handing it to Ellie. She carefully read it, shook out a single pill and gave it to him with the water bottle. The southerner swallowed it dry and then washed it down with water. There was a slight tremble to his hands. Ellie frowned at the pill bottle; there were less than three dozen remaining. At twelve per day, Sullivan didn’t have even a week’s supply. Maybe they could find a pharmacy? Ellie wondered if it was even possible to get more.

“Can you walk, Bud?” Sam asked the man bluntly.

“Let’s find out.” Sullivan leaned on him and struggled to his feet. He swayed slightly, Ellie caught his arm and helped him steady himself. A couple deep breaths and the man visibly settled his balance. He took a few steps; Ellie did not like the slight twitch in his movements, but kept it to herself.

“Everythin’s workin’,” Sullivan said. “Don’t know how much speed Ah kin make, though.”

Sam pointed at Marta’s bike. “Can you ride that?”

Sullivan looked. “Don’ think so, too short. Ah’m better off walkin’, ‘specially if’n Ah can hold on to something like one of the trikes.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Sam decided. “You hold onto the back of Grandma’s seat.”

Sam and Ellie got the man settled in place. Grandma Abbaku gave him a hard look and then sat ramrod stiff in her seat, radiating silent disapproval. Ellie eyed her back and decided this wasn’t the moment to say anything.

Ellie took a moment to stop Sam and wipe the drying blood off his face with her hanky. He seemed surprised to see it, then looked vaguely ill. She grabbed him and hugged him fiercely, buried her face in his neck and whispered “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” Sam whispered back, stroking her shoulders for a moment. “I have to be.”

Yes, she thought. He has to be, for us, and so I have to be, for him.

She nodded convulsively, released him and went back to her place next to Jimmy, then looked at Sam expectantly.

“Move out.” He pointed north, and the whole troop did.

❀ ❁ ❀

They plodded ahead at a slower pace than before, with more rest stops. Sam kept Tim at the back, watching the four men behind them, but those stayed a wide distance away.

The troop plodded most of another mile north, into the edge of the commercial district, before Sevan came riding back excitedly with news of a bicycle shop in a mall. It was a couple blocks to the west on a side street. Sam took Stanto on ahead with him and Sevan.

It was an ordinary plate glass storefront, the whole chain of stores deserted. Sam jiggled the locked double doors and looked at Stanto. “You got any tools on you to open one of these?”

The Armenian frowned, studied the door and the large window next to it, then reversed his spear and bashed in the biggest sheet of plate glass. A few deft strokes with the butt knocked down hanging daggers of glass and broke off others still standing up from the frame.

“That works,” Sam admitted. Sevan grinned at his brother, who merely looked saturnine.

By the time the rest of his followers arrived, Sam and Stanto had manhandled a selection of bikes out of the store and into the parking lot. Sam grabbed several pumps and a bunch of patch kits and tools too — they’d been lucky to get this far with no flat tires. He found one large tricycle and offered it to Bud Sullivan, who still looked bad; it would help with his balance problem. There were five little trailers which he promptly tacked onto five shiny mountain bikes that he added to their retinue, to relieve the students of the weight of their kit bags and free up their fighting reach. Panniers went on a couple other bikes and onto Marta’s bike. Sam decided to keep the scout bike as unencumbered as possible. He lashed his backpack onto the back of his own bike.

He made one last trip into the store to leave a note listing what they’d taken, with his name, phone and Visa card number on the bottom. It wasn’t likely to be any help to the absent owner, but he couldn’t bear to just walk away with the bikes like a brazen thief.

Don’t kid yourself Hyatt, Sam told himself. You’re still stealing —even though you have to do it.

Half an hour’s work saw them all mounted and ready to ride again, with the weight redistributed better. Esmera and Ellie’s trikes were now carrying almost none of the food, the teenagers had the majority of the weight instead. Happy moped around, whining a little and clearly missing her companion. Tino hugged her and buried his face in her fur for a minute.

Ellie took back the big trike with Jenny in the back, huddled now into a nest amid blankets and a couple bags of food. Sam gave his daughter a special hug and a kiss, which she returned with uncommon fierceness. Her eyes were big on him but she said nothing. Jimmy was subdued too, clearly growing tired. Ellie just smiled tightly and waited for his signal.

The north exit from the shopping center led through another side street and back to Federal, so Sam aimed their now–wheeled caravan that way. Just before giving the signal to start, he looked south across the parking lot at the way they’d come in. Four figures appeared at the south entrance.

“Move out,” Sam said.

Shadows were starting to grow long as he led his troop over the turnpike bridge and turned his mountain bike onto the westbound on–ramp. A high haze reached out from the distant mountains and dimmed the westering sun. A cold wind stole down the too–loose collar of his jacket and chilled him.

Today I killed a man and burgled a store, Sam thought. What will I do tomorrow?

❀ ❁ ❀

7

— Hospital —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, two hours after noon, RMT.

Father Markus Freiduei wearily finished the sacraments and made the sign of the cross over the dead man. An orderly was waiting impatiently to wheel the corpse away and get the bed ready for another of the non–walking wounded who lay in moaning rows across the emergency room floor. This had been the tenth accident victim to die today, or rather the tenth Catholic, and he knew the hospital’s two Protestant chaplains were even busier than he. By the angle of the sunlight it couldn’t be much past noon yet — or was it still morning? For a moment he was disoriented, trying to remember which side of the building this was and whether he was facing east or west. Usually he just knew automatically, but not any more.

One of the nurses he knew was talking urgently to a young resident, who answered “Look, I can’t do anything about it. Nothing more complicated than a stethoscope is even working. I might as well be practicing voodoo, for all I can do to help him!” The man slammed the heel of one hand against a wall and bent his head in frustration.

Another nurse beckoned to him, this one he didn’t know. Given that nearly three hundred nurses worked at Denver General, that wasn’t much of a surprise. Father Markus stepped carefully past an unconscious man propped in a chair and tied to the pole that upheld his IV bag, then followed her. This nurse was a sturdy black woman with wrinkled face, gray hair escaping a bun, and a faint trace of Cajun in her voice, or maybe Haitian. Her nametag said ‘Natasha Lionheart, RN,’ of all things. A corner of his mind found time to wonder what her personal story was, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask. She led him down a hallway lit only by daylight filtering in through open doors from rooms to either side. Moans and weeping came from some. The supply of analgesics was getting low and the nurses were stretching them out as best they could.

“We’ve got another for you, Father; she looks pretty bad,” Nurse Lionheart said in a tired voice; she’d probably been on duty as long as he had, since yesterday evening. “I think you need to be there.”

“What injuries?” he asked, from long experience knowing the signs. This nurse didn’t expect the wounded woman to live out the hour. He carefully stepped around a reeking med–waste cart waiting for the overworked orderlies to get to it, then took a moment to pat the shoulder of a tired–looking doctor slumped on a chair outside another door. The sagging face grimaced a half–smile at him in return, then fell back into blank staring.

“Another car wreck,” the nurse said. “Piece of steel about a foot long went right through her abdominal wall, looks like it wedged in the inside of her spine. Someone had the good sense to leave it there or she’d have bled to death before they ever got her here, but it must have happened last night — she was trapped in the car until about six hours ago, when a fire crew pried her out. A couple of them carried her here on a stretcher, God bless ‘em, all the way from I–25 and Colfax.”

Father Markus raised his eyebrows, impressed. Even by the shortest route that was a long distance for even two strong men to carry somebody. In the back of his mind he made a small prayer for what must be two very exhausted firemen.

“Internal injuries, bleeding, lower–body paralysis, a broken leg and probably fractured pelvis,” the nurse continued clinically. “Without working X–rays we can’t tell for sure about that last one. On another day we could still probably save her, but without even a single functional operating room — damnit, why didn’t they build them with windows?!”

Nurse Lionheart shrugged helplessly, angrily, as if she took the architects’ failure to anticipate the bizarre disappearance of electricity as a personal affront.

“I wouldn’t have spent the drugs to wake her up, if it’d been me deciding,” the nurse continued, caustic and wordy in her exhaustion. “It’s no kindness, but Doctor Eid insisted. Anyway, her card says she’s Catholic and I know last confession’s important to your people. I think her spine’s severed a little above the third lumbar, she doesn’t react at all below her navel, but I gave her a bit of morphine anyway. She should be coherent.”

The older woman paused for a moment in the dark hallway, then added quietly “One more thing. She’s at least eight months pregnant. The baby got in the way of that damned steel spike; it must’ve died hours ago.”

“Mother of God, intercede for her,” Father Markus said involuntarily, slightly surprised that he was still able to be shocked. “Does she know?”

“Before we woke her? I couldn’t tell you, but if not she’s likely guessed by now.”

Nurse Lionheart led him around a corner and down another hall crowded with injured people on gurneys, then gestured to an open door.

“Her name’s Maria Gallegos,” she added, then turned to answer the importuning of another orderly. “What? How in the hell would I know? Have someone take a candle down to the basement and root around among the old stores. Maybe there’s still a box of mercury thermometers…”

Doctor Eid had gone elsewhere, struggling no doubt with the enormous flood of the injured still pouring into the hospital. Mary Gallegos lay alone on a bed in one half of the chamber; the man in the other bed smelled of charred flesh and moaned slightly in what sounded like a drug–forced sleep. The blanket covering her was unnaturally tented over her bulging belly. That must be the piece of steel still stuck into her, rather like the nails driven into the suffering Christ, Father Markus thought. Above the blanket her shoulders were still dressed in the warm coat and blouse she’d been wearing last night. The hospital had run out of gowns hours ago.

She was awake. Her gaze fastened on Father Markus’s face as soon as he stepped through the door. A little sigh escaped her lips at the sight of his white Roman collar and the dark purple stole.

In a too–calm, too–hoarse voice she said “Father, my baby is dead, isn’t she?”

“I’m afraid so, my daughter,” he answered gently. He never lied to them, no matter how frightening the answer to their question might be. “I am Father Markus Freiduei, the Catholic chaplain here.”

He set down his box of holy oils and the small breviary marked for the rite of Extreme Unction, though after so many years he could have done it blindfolded. Given how poorly the room was lit on this shadowed side of the building, that would essentially be how he’d have to do it anyway. He took her pale cold hand in his, feeling the bone–deep chill — she’d clearly lost a lot of blood; it wouldn’t be very long before the Angel of Death arrived to carry her away. Her face was very white on the pillow, framed by a disordered mane of bleached–blond hair with dark roots. A small silver crucifix on a chain nestled at her throat.

“Your injuries are very grave, my child,” he told her quietly, calmly, with the sureness of long practice. “The nurse and the doctor do not believe they can save your life. Please forgive me for rushing you like this, but there is very little time left. Do you wish to make a last confession?”

Her eyes were huge in her pale face. For a moment she didn’t answer him.

“I remember Miguel was driving,” she said, staring through him. “In the outside lane, being so careful. We were on our way back from the ultrasound. They told us she was all right. She had been kicking me really hard and we were worried. We knew she was a girl, and we finally agreed to name her Carla for his mother. It would make her so happy, he said, and I always liked that name. While she was little I would call her Carlita, my darling baby Carlita. Then the flash, the pain, and the crash. Something hit us, rolled the car — we had our seat belts on, Miguel always insisted we wear them, he was always so careful. But another car hit us, and then another, and something big crashed through all of them and crushed our car against a wall. I remember his face, how the blood came out of his mouth and the light died in his eyes as the steering wheel crushed his chest. I felt the pain; terrible pain, that went on and on, but I could not move, trapped there in the car with my poor dead Miguel. It lasted so long, I screamed and screamed. The car was all broken around us, all of the cars, I smelled gas and I was afraid of fire, people were crying in other cars, I screamed and screamed. Then I don’t remember anything more before I woke up here.”

Her voice had sunk to a whisper, her eyes growing dull. “We were being so careful, Father, but we died anyway.”

“Nothing is sure in this life, Maria Gallegos, except God’s love,” he told her, “And the fact that we all must eventually leave this world and pass into the next.”

She considered that for a long slow heartbeat. “I should confess now, shouldn’t I?”

“I think it would be best.” He prompted her in the age–old ritual. “I confess, to Almighty God–”

She worked her faltering way through it, her voice fading at the last to a bare whisper from a face as drawn and pale as paper. He anointed her forehead with the oil as her laboring chest ceased to move, completed the ritual without touching the breviary. He returned the small vial to its place in the velvet–lined box, made the sign of the cross one last time over her cooling clay as Nurse Lionheart returned.

“Father, there’s another one,” she announced wearily, looking briefly at Maria Gallegos’ corpse with a too–practiced eye. Helplessly she said to him “What are we going to do?”

He picked up the breviary and the small box, turned to her and raised a tired eyebrow.

“Why, what is required of us,” he said. “What is required of us.”

❀ ❁ ❀

8

— Second Night —

Broomfield, then Lafayette, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, late afternoon and evening.

They moved much faster with everybody on bikes. Yelena and Tino were soon too tired to keep up the pace so after a few minutes Sam put them into tricycle carts and lashed their small bikes onto the trike baskets. Bram and Jimmy sturdily wanted to continue. Sam put Esmera and Ellie on unloaded bikes and had his students, Giorgi, and Darrin Bistek rotate among the three trikes. They covered the seven miles to the Broomfield exit in a little less than an hour. Sam rode ahead with Sevan to the top of the overpass while everyone else rested on the highway. There were several stalled cars but no people about. The two men looked west toward Davidson Mesa and the valley beyond it that held Boulder.

Columns of smoke poured into the sky.

“Boulder’s burning too,” Sam muttered aloud.

Sevan inclined his head back the way they’d come, then east and north toward the central mass of Broomfield. More smoke climbed into the skies there.

Sam nodded. He gazed worriedly at the sun, sinking into a haze above the mountains. There were probably no more than two good hours of daylight left. The temperature was already falling and it would probably be near or below freezing tonight. Time to start looking for a safe place to sleep.

“We’ll turn off here,” he decided, and waved to Stanto to fetch the others up. Sullivan was doing better, the heart medicine seemed to have taken hold, but Sam wondered how long it would last. The southerner was developing a whistling in his breathing that didn’t sound good. The dog was lagging a bit too, her exuberance long spent. Sam briefly wondered how her feet were doing with all this walking.

They rode carefully over the high bridge above the railroad tracks and down into Broomfield. US 287 became a broad six–lane boulevard here, with surprisingly few cars scattered about. At the first traffic light there was a man in a police uniform coat and cap standing in the middle. He blew a whistle and waved for them to stop.

Sam halted a few feet away from him and nodded hello. The cop was young, he realized, with a wispy blond stubble of day–old beard, and there was a bloodshot cast to his eyes. The bo sticks kept attracting his gaze and he had a tense, troubled expression.

“You folks come from Denver?” the young policeman asked in a hoarse voice. He had his hands tucked back into his coat pockets. Sam abruptly realized that the man also has his gun in one of those hands, not threatening, but there.

“Yup. We stayed last night at a motel near North High School.” Casually Sam added “We’re the Billings Central High School Karate Club, down for the regional competitions. I’m Sam Hyatt, teacher and coach.” It already seemed like a weird thing to say, but the young cop seized on it like a life rope.

“Ah! Students!” he said, relieved. “I was worried — thought you might be a gang or something. We’ve gotten a bunch of oddball people in off the turnpike already.”

He gestured toward Denver. “Hell of a lot of smoke, and all the power off, cars not working — something funny’s going on. You heard whether the Governor’s called out the National Guard yet? What’s keeping them?” Frustration spilled over into his voice as he added “I’ve been on duty for more than a dozen hours already with no relief! We need help here!”

Sam stared at him. “You said it yourself — power out and cars not working. Neither are phones, or radios, or planes or helicopters. Nothing the Governor can do to call ‘em out, and not a lot that soldiers could do anyway, ‘cause guns don’t work either. Government or not, I wouldn’t count on anyone coming to help. You folks are probably on your own here, like everybody else.”

The cop looked at him like he was talking gibberish. “That’s impossible!” he said. “Guns have to work!”

Sam shrugged. “Test it yourself. Fire your own gun.”

“I can’t just fire my piece with no cause!” The young face was aghast.

Sam smiled grimly. “Suit yourself. I’m looking for a place for my people to stay the night.” He jerked a thumb toward the three–story brick hotel on the nearby corner. “Is that place open?”

“Unh, nah, it’s a residence hotel, they don’t do one–night rates. Closest place for that’s probably one of the old motels in Lafayette, or east on 120th Avenue a few miles.” The cop had pulled out his gun and was fingering it anxiously, like he was thinking hard. “Why do you think guns don’t work?”

“We tested one, and saw a few others being tried.” Sam didn’t elaborate on that. “Lafayette, you say? How far north is it to one of those motels?”

“Oh, about ten minutes,” the cop said offhandedly, still fingering his gun with a distracted air. The notion of it not working seemed to have knocked him off his rails.

Sam mentally translated that into miles, figured it for the better part of an hour on bicycle. He told the cop “Thanks for the word. Good luck to you and yours,” and set off again. The rest of the troop straggled along behind him. Sam looked back once, to see the cop tentatively pointing his gun in the air and visibly trying to make up his mind to pull the trigger. Duty warred with sense as the chilly breeze blew.

Broomfield was a valley and a hilltop covered with houses, then a long glide through winter–brown fields down the back side toward Lafayette. On the flats across Rock Creek there was a big farm on the west side of the highway. Sam was tempted to pull over and ask if they could stay in a barn tonight. But the prospect of real beds kept him on the road. Thanks to the long downhill they made Lafayette in good time, the sun still well above the mountains. A makeshift barricade had been put up at the edge of downtown and another uniformed officer flagged them down. At Sam’s question about motels, he shook his head.

“Everybody’ll be full up by now,” he said. “We’ve been sending people to the school. Straight ahead to the ‘T’ junction, it’s right there. Go to the gym door closest to the corner.”

Sam thanked him and they slogged through town. Sullivan looked like he might keel over any second but he kept on doggedly pumping. Bran and Jimmy were wobbling but still pedaling. Stanto took a trike over for the last leg, both of his youngest in the basket and their bikes lashed on the back. Jenny shared her basket with Happy, who was plainly footsore and exhausted. Sam breathed a quiet prayer of thanks when they all finally made it to the big double doors of the promised school gym.

Coleman lamps hanging from the basketball hoops provided some light in the cavernous interior. An older woman with a Red Cross badge was checking people in to the temporary shelter while a middle–aged couple made hot chicken soup over a propane stove. Sam’s stomach rumbled and he signed forms blindly to get them in the door.

“I hope we have enough cots,” the volunteer fretted at the size of his group. “Oh, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave those bikes and the dog outside.”

“No, ma’am,” Sam heard himself reply. “Right now a bike is worth more than gold or diamonds, and we’re not letting ours out of our sight. We’re going sleep next to them tonight. And the dog is a member of the group and lost her son in our defense today.”

She gazed at him in a mix of astonishment and annoyance. “But the bikes’ll mark up the floor! We can’t have rubber tires on the basketball court! Or a dog shedding fleas inside!”

“No need for that. She’s not got fleas,” Sam pointed to the broad concrete esplanade where the bleachers ordinarily were pulled out, then put on his teacher voice. “And we’ll put the bikes there. Plenty of room there. I swear before God and the Red Cross, I won’t let my kids get a single tire on your wood floor — but the bikes stay with us.”

She frowned unhappily but agreed to the compromise. She nearly balked again at Stanto’s spear but he had it inside the door by then. The Armenian pretended enough ignorance of English that he simply ignored her while he placed it flat on the floor against the wall, then parked two tricycles on top of it. Sam got her to agree to that after a long argument, but she was huffy around him from then on. He hoped she couldn’t see the spear close enough to spot the blood streaks on the shaft.

There weren’t enough cots, but wrestling mats had been unrolled across part of the floor and they made a tolerable mattress. Grandma got everybody organized and fed at the soup station. Despite his resolve to put the whole class through their regular practice before bed, Sam found them too exhausted to do anything safely. He settled for leading them through careful stretches and mutual rubdowns, paying extra attention to the Abbakus and the Bisteks. Everybody’s leg muscles were overworked, though Darrin Bistek seemed to be in the best shape.

“I usually bike to work at HP in Boise,” he explained, patting his infant daughter while she drooled on his shoulder. “I like to ride at least fifteen miles a day if the weather’s good, and I practice on a stationary at home when it’s not.”

“That’s going to be a big help to you, then,” Sam nodded. “Tomorrow I’ll want you to keep rotating on the trikes with the students.”

“Glad to do it, Sensei Hyatt.” Bistek brightened at this inclusion.

Sam noticed that he spoke the title with no inflection, like someone who’d learned to use it correctly from a real teacher. He looked the younger man over carefully. The Idahoan had the rangy build of a regular athlete moving toward his thirties, one who still kept up his fitness training but was no longer a kid. Though he’d been a little winded by the altitude all day, just like the rest of the group, he had recovered fast every time they stopped. That took good aerobic conditioning.

“How old are you, Darrin? Do you have any martial arts experience?”

“Twenty–nine. Sherry’s seven weeks younger.” He looked solemn. “I took some karate in high school and tried judo my freshman year in college, but not very seriously. Can’t say I learned much — I wasn’t dedicated to it like your kids are.”

“How far did you get with the karate?”

“Just basic kata.” He shrugged. “And I only got about a month into judo before I quit, when I joined the school relay riding team. Guess I never really thought I’d need to know self–defense.” From the look on his face he was regretting that now.

“Hmm, then you probably don’t have too many bad habits to unlearn,” Sam told him. “We’ll see in the morning.”

Sherry Bistek and Drew had teamed up to check out the whole group for strains and aches and pains. The Idaho woman had apparently once been a massage therapist trainee. Ellie especially needed the attention, her leg muscles were perilously close to being overstressed. If they tightened up overnight Sam knew she’d be courting permanent injuries to ride tomorrow. Sherry had talked Ellie into lying facedown on a wrestling mat while the Idaho woman gave her legs a deep–muscle massage that made Ellie groan in relief. Kate and Maria were doing the same with Marta and Yelena, and had the boys lined up waiting for a turn.

Esmera was in surprisingly good shape.

“I many miles each day do walk caring for the motel, Mister Hyatt,” she told him, her English suffering a little from her exhaustion. “Riding a tricycle, is only little more. It is Marta, Yelena, Bran and Tino I worried about am.”

Sam looked at the children. Jenny had ridden in a basket the whole day, she still had the energy to be running around the gym. Grandma Abbaku kept sending her on errands, mostly getting everybody unpacked and readying makeshift sleeping pads out of their hotel blankets. Tino was recovering a little, and Bran and Jimmy too, they still had the energy to explore the room in a desultory way. But Yelena just lay on the mat, head pillowed on her arms and face hidden in her long hair while Kate rubbed her legs. Sam thought she might be crying. Her mother finished unrolling blankets and went over to sit beside her, patting her daughter reassuringly and crooning in Armenian. Happy was snuggled up to the girl’s other side.

Sullivan looked the worst off, which was no surprise. He rested against a wall, still panting and alarmingly pale. Drew had helped Sam wrap the man in blankets and was taking his pulse. Sam thought Sullivan was probably dangerously overstressed, maybe to the point of permanent harm, but it was too late to do much about that. The Red Cross lady produced some extra pillows and a couple spare blankets and made him as comfortable as she could. She fretted over his condition and consulted with Ellie as soon as Sherry Bistek let her go.

“You’re a nurse, dear?” the Red Cross volunteer inquired. “Thank heaven! We should have a doctor here, but our scheduled volunteer lives in Erie and he didn’t make it here today. Would you mind looking at a couple of injuries? We have two people who were in a car crash … and I think the lady in the blue parka may have a sprained ankle …”

After twenty or more minutes of that Sam finally went and extracted Ellie from the endless demands of the other refugees.

“You need your rest too, and you’ve already done more sheer hard work today than any of those people,” he said gruffly, then shamelessly sicced Jenny on her.

Ellie allowed her daughter to drag her away. The bathrooms were still working though the lights were out — a Coleman lamp lit each one. Ellie disappeared into the women’s with Jenny, came back out a while later looking better. Meanwhile Sam had prepared a nest of blankets for his family, hoping shared body heat would keep them warm. Jimmy was already snoring. There was a propane space heater going but it was hopelessly inadequate to the size of the room. Still, it probably wouldn’t get anywhere near freezing inside the gym, and he figured that was the best that could be hoped for. The students were exhausted lumps rolled in their blankets and packed close in twos and threes. The Abbakus made another family lump under their blankets, with Stanto and Sevan on the outside and Happy curled next to Yelena. Ellie and Jenny snuggled up to Sam and promptly fell asleep.

Sheer nervousness kept Sam awake for a few more minutes despite his tired body. The twin halos of the Coleman lamps were very small in the gym’s looming vastness. Their monotonous hiss sounded a counterpoint to the tired breathing of fifty people. Outside the high windows a pale moon lit overcast night sky. Sam fell asleep looking at it.

A dark dream haunted him for a while. Bloody teeth spilled across asphalt and a sickening crush jolted through his hands as bone sank into a brain under the strike of his staff, over and over like a horror movie. He finally woke up enough to grope for his wife and son, felt them huddled close, and fell back asleep. No more dreams came after that.

❀ ❁ ❀

9

— Prison —

Denver, Colorado; Wednesday, March 18, 1998, some time before midnight.

At the big City & County Prison in east Denver, the two–hundred–fifty inmates had been without electricity and heat for more than a full day. When the Change struck the prison had gone into automatic lockdown. Thirty hours later, with only one meal served and that cold and meager, they had passed beyond nervous and sullen into angry and scared. A few were beginning to smell opportunity. Men draped their blankets about themselves for warmth and crowded close to the bars. Those who had friends and allies called quietly to each other across the frigid cellblocks. The guards had completely withdrawn from the prison interior, leaving the steel and concrete blocks to echo with chatter in the descending night.

Joey “the Knife” Macaluso had been put in a cell on the top tier of the east cellblock, the highest part of the prison. When he flushed his toilet in the gathering darkness, the tank didn’t refill at all. He stared through the dusk at the hemispherical infrared camera pickup in the hall ceiling. It was hard to see the moving camera inside the black one–way glass, but he thought it was facing down–block, and it hadn’t budged all day. The little red tell–tale had been off all day too. His stomach rumbled and he made a decision.

The cell doors were electronic with a mechanical backup. He’d hidden a bit of steel in the toilet tank a couple months ago; now he fetched it out. A little persistent work broke into the lock and half an hour of frustrating trial and error finally popped the mechanism. He rolled back the cell door and began finding his followers and allies in the dimness. Two hours later the cell block was theirs.

He had to do a little quick score–settling and cut a couple deals, but he had a plan and the rest didn’t. A hundred and fifty men either stayed in their cells, or were summarily strangled or beaten to death. A couple of trusties were thoroughly raped first, then strangled — Joey took a little extra time for that. A third who’d seriously pissed him off had his balls and dick cut off and fed to him, then was left tied spread–eagled to a grating with his guts on the floor in front of him. The rest fell in line, at least until they were outside. That was good enough for Joey.

The exits were solid steel doors that weren’t going to open to anything the men inside could do. Joey the Knife ignored them. He’d figured out that the ventilation system was the weak point of the place and come up with a plan to break through it. It would only work as long as the guards didn’t put in an appearance — and he was certain now that they weren’t going to show their faces inside before morning. A whole lot of tearing and straining went into getting grilles off and prying fans out of their sockets, but before the moon westered he and his guys were in the trench between the inner and outer walls. The corner guard towers and their machine–gun nests were empty. No merciless spotlights lit the place, just a wan moon.

The outer wall was hard — twenty feet of sheer concrete topped with another twenty of chain link and razor wire. Joey’s guys made a human pyramid and he sent one of the lighter guys up with a precious pair of pliers lifted from a janitor closet inside. It took the little man ten long minutes to pry the chain link open and pull enough of it free to drape down the inside wall like a ladder, while chilled cursing men held him aloft by the sheer strength of Joey’s will. Then it took a few more minutes to rig the same on the wall’s outer side.

A hundred men poured over the wall and melted into the city. Murderers, thieves, arsonists, rapists, they scattered down alleyways and streets. Joey the Knife led the biggest group of them, already smelling an ancient kind of freedom in the dark chaotic night. The rules had changed and he knew it with a kind of wild exultation burning deep in his gut, a feeling better than sex. He set his followers looking for clothes, warmth, food, like a plague of huge hungry locusts.

❀ ❁ ❀

10

— Leavetaking —

Lafayette, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998.

Sam woke early the next morning to the surreal sense that the past thirty–odd hours had been some kind of bad dream. The Coleman lamps had run out during the night but horizontal rays of dawn light filtered through the high windows. This gym looked eerily like Central High’s gym, familiar concrete and maplewood floor, steel girder roof above high dirty windows above banks of folded wooden bleachers. The painted basketball court markers, the pervasive smell of old sweat, the slightly–faded nylon banners of the local sports leagues hanging high on the walls, all were almost–familiar.

But the hotel blankets and hard mat under him were not. Nor the itchy feel of sleeping in his own sweaty clothes — sure, he’d done that on plenty of hunting trips, but not like this. Not with Ellie huddled close against his back, his kids sandwiching them both like little heaters. Not with his students curled up close by.

Most of them, anyway. Sam levered himself up on one elbow, counted heads. He was pretty sure all of the Abbakus were still sleeping in one big clump. The Bisteks were curled together about their baby — Sam had given them the double sleeping bag after Esmera refused to have anything to do with it. Drew, Jesus, Maria, the twins, Tim — where was Kate?

Motion caught his eye. She had just walked out of a door that said ‘Girls Locker Room’ in faded red paint. Carefully Sam extricated himself from his blankets, aware that his bladder very much wanted to be emptied. Jimmy protested softly and Ellie groped for him, so Sam slid the boy over next to her into the warm spot. The gym was chilly but bearable; the body heat from nearly fifty people had helped keep it passable through the night. Sam nodded a quiet greeting at Kate.

“Is the plumbing still working?” he asked.

She nodded back. “It’s really cold in there, but when I ran the water in the sink for a while it got hot. They still have hot water! Do you think we could use the showers, Sensei?” She clawed at her hair. “I feel so dirty, sleeping in my clothes without a shower.”

Sam looked over at the Red Cross table. The volunteer woman had gone home and so had the older couple handling the stove. A middle–aged woman sat bundled in the chair now, head back against the wall and snoring. He decided not to wake her.

“If they have hot water without electricity, then they must still have water pressure and a gas boiler,” he mused out loud. Looking around the room, he spotted the door to a furnace room and went to check it. Kate trailed along.

The door was locked but Sam could hear the faint susurrus of the burning natural gas through the ventilation slats. There was no electric blower sound. He wondered why it hadn’t tripped off when the power went out; boilers usually had fail–safes for that. On impulse he checked a handy bank of light switches, but everything was just as dead as yesterday. “We might as well use it,” he decided. “Wake the others, let’s get started.”

He checked on the boy’s shower after quickly using a toilet in the locker room; there were eight showerheads available. He turned a few on to run the cold water out and hot water in, and then went to wake up his crew. Kate reported that the girl’s locker room had the same facilities. Sam carefully woke up Stanto first, told him about the water. Grandma woke up as he talked, listened carefully, then crawled out of the blankets and went to check on the bikes.

“Hot water’ll help ease leg muscles and give us a safer start to riding,” Sam told the Armenian man. “And everybody will feel better when they’re clean. This may be our last chance, and God knows how much longer it’ll run — I don’t know why it’s still working now. Can you shepherd your boys? Does Sevan need help with his leg?”

Stanto shook his head, muttered something that sounded like ‘nuz’, then cleared his throat and said “No, he can manage, and Giorgi can help him if needed. I will see to it. Perhaps your students should go first, as it will likely take longer to get my family ready, yes?”

Sam agreed. When he woke Ellie and told her the plan, she blinked at him owlishly for a few moments, then nodded and muttered “Wake me and Jenny when you’re done, we’ll go after the girls.”

Sam shook Darrin Bistek awake, passed the word. Kate had already awakened her fellow students. They were yawning and rummaging through their kit bags.

“Sensei, we don’t have any towels,” Jerry complained.

“Use the clothes you’re wearing to dry off, and put on your clean set when we’re done,” Sam instructed, snagging his own bag and Jimmy’s as well. His son yawned and stumbled as Sam ruthlessly prodded him into the locker room. Other sleeping refugees were beginning to wake and he wanted to make sure his own got at least some of the hot water.

The locker room was already steamy as the running showers were very hot indeed. Sam thought the boiler must have run up the tank temperature perilously high during the night, with no working thermostat to tell it to shut down. The boys peeled down, shivering in the clammy room, and then fiddled with faucets until the spray was bearable. Jimmy was both shy and proud to be included with the older kids, and then delighted to discover the liquid soap dispensers. He squirted soap at Jesus and the twins and there was soon a six–way water fight going on.

Sam turned his back on the laughing kids for a few minutes and just luxuriated in the warm water. He hadn’t realized until that moment how bone–deep the chill had set into him yesterday. If he was feeling that way it must be worse for Ellie and the less–fit members of the group. He’d have to think carefully about the implications of that for today’s travel. Cold people got sick easier, too.

Bistek joined them, moving tentatively as if unsure of his welcome. Sam nodded, inviting him with a few words into the familiar camaraderie of male athletes in the shower. The Idahoan seemed relieved and Sam realized belatedly just how keenly isolated the man must be, with a wife and baby dependent on him and them all so far away from home and all they knew.

Just like us. I’ve got to integrate him into the class, make him feel a part of us, Sam thought to himself. Coldly the thought followed: He’ll be a lot more trustworthy that way. He suddenly felt dirty again despite the water.

“Darrin. I’m going to test you for a while this morning to get a feel for your previous training,” Sam told the younger man. “Later I’ll probably pair you with Tim. You’re both about the same height and reach.”

Tim nodded, split his face in a grin. “Sensei’ll have you doing kata and kumite with the rest of us in no time, Darrin.” He offered a handful of soap to the Idahoan.

Bistek grinned back and accepted it. “Thanks, Sensei Hyatt, thanks Tim. I’m looking forward to it.”

Too soon, the Abbakus trooped in and Sam’s crew surrendered the showers to them. He noted that Sevan’s nude body displayed a horrifying array of scars, probably a legacy of the accident that had cost him the limb. He hopped along gamely on his one leg, the other ended sharply just below his knee. Giorgi acted as extra legs for his father while looking around through the fog.

“It’s like Nichevan!” the youth said with a shiver.

“Hot springs,” Sevan explained. “Our family ran a baths there before — before we came to America.”

Sam figured there was a long story behind that, but let it wait for another time.

Currents of warm and cold fog blew out of the showers through the locker room, condensing on all the metal. Chill set in fast as he helped Jimmy dry himself and get dressed, but Sam ignored it until his son was bundled up again. Only then did he dress himself. The dry Colorado air sucked water away from his warmed skin, by the time he had his jeans and a clean shirt on all but his hair had dried.

“Sensei?” Jesus asked, toweling his head with yesterday’s t–shirt. “You think we might find a laundromat?” He’d always hated being dirty.

“Maybe,” Sam answered, “But I doubt we could use it if we did. No power. We’ll have to just hang our clothes out to dry in the gym and hope it’s enough.”

“Um, right,” Jesus said, the corners of his mouth turning down.

When Sam’s class came out of the locker room the Red Cross was serving warm oatmeal and maple syrup in Styrofoam bowls with plastic spoons, and weak tea in Styrofoam cups.

“All out of coffee,” the Red Cross volunteer apologized, the same woman who’d been making the soup last night. “I sent someone to the store for more but Albertsons is still closed.”

Sam guessed most likely it’d never open again, but kept the thought to himself.

He checked outdoors while he ate, the high haze had turned into real clouds on the mountaintops and the morning sun was already growing dull as it climbed higher. Grandma came back around the corner as he looked west, her sling in one hand and two dead squirrels in the other.

“For the dog,” she said shortly, and went inside.

Sam gazed after her for a moment in bemusement, then shook his head in admiration.

This morning he did run his students through a set of practice exercises, after making them and all the others go through three times as much stretching as usual. Giorgi and Darrin joined in with a will, as did Stanto and Sevan and all the kids on the stretching. Even Grandma unbent enough to sit on a mat with her daughter–in–law and rub each other’s legs and stretch.

The other refugees in the big room took their turns in the showers and in between watched his class in bored curiosity, but to Sam they were almost unreal, a formless mob at the periphery of his attention. Only his own people mattered.

I must still be a little in shock, he thought. Teaching seemed the best cure for that.

In addition to Darrin and Giorgi, twelve–year–old Bran wanted to join the class. Sam paired the younger boy up with Jimmy, who despite being a year younger had almost the same height and a lot more practice, and set them to work on basic movements, with Kate as coach.

Darrin and Giorgi were ready for more serious work.

“Kata — that’s form — leads to Kumite — that’s sparing, also fighting for real, too,” Sam told them. “We do katas to train our bodies in form movements, to build strength, discipline, speed, and precision. Those are what enable you to do kumite and survive. If we were in school, I’d take a couple months training you in katas before I ever let you do even a little sparring. We don’t have that luxury here, so I’m going to work on your defensive moves and counters as hard as I think you can stand, and add offensive moves when I think you can handle them.”

The Idahoan had managed to hang onto some somatic memory of basic movements. If he wasn’t at all near the level of Sam’s class, he was at least a functional beginner. He caught onto the training movements rapidly and Sam soon had him working with Tim.

Giorgi was like a puppy–dog; pathetically eager to please but with only the vaguest idea what to do with his hands and feet. He actually had more to unlearn than Darrin, since he’d seen more bad martial–arts movies. Sam had to firmly disabuse him of the notion that real Okinowan karate was anything like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. Fortunately the boy was also desperately dedicated to learning, and he’d paid attention during the fight, so the breaking–habits stage moved along well.

“You saw how Tim, Jesus, Kate, and your uncle kept a line with me during the fight?” Sam asked him.

Giorgi nodded. “Yes, Sensei.”

“That was half of what saved us. We weren’t out there to show off like some movie star; we were there to protect each other, prevent our enemies from getting by us. Maria and Jerry plugged the gaps when the fight made us move about, because I told them to be back–up. They didn’t barge into the middle of the fight with some kind of showy high–jumps. And if they had, those thugs wouldn’t have attacked them one at a time like a damn movie! Six guys would have piled on at once, from six directions. Can you fight six at once?”

“No, Sensei.” Giorgi’s eyes were big.

“Neither can I. Neither can your uncle — he was able to stand off three for a while only because he had a lot longer weapon than they did and he knew how to use it better than they knew how to evade it. If Mr. Sullivan hadn’t attacked one of them from behind and your Grandma nailed another, sooner or later one of those three would’ve gotten inside his range and tried to knife him. But we did fight together, we did guard each other’s backs, and we did beat them. We need you to do the same. Will you?”

“Yes, Sensei!” Giorgi practically snapped to attention.

“Good. And it starts with training your muscles and nerves in a new way, a way that you have to drill into them through sheer grinding repetition, until you’ve torn down your old habits and built new ones. Now, hands up like so, and repeat each blocking move with me. I want you to do this until your arms are ready to fall off. When you know this and the other counters down in your gut, without thinking about it, then and only then will you be ready to learn how to break your enemies with offensive moves, too.”

Sam worked him until he judged Giorgi really was pushing close to his body’s current limit. Only then did he give him a break — by having him run around the basketball court.

“Run ten, then walk ten,” Sam instructed. “Then get a big drink of water and come back here.”

While his new pupil stumbled off on his first circuit, Sam took some time out to deal with Sullivan. The big man was looking a little better but still ill. Ellie knelt on the pad checking him over and frowning when Sam squatted next to them.

“Did you take your medication this morning?” she asked.

The southerner nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Girl brought me some tea for it.” He grimaced a little to show what he thought about that. “Least it was warm.”

“Have you eaten anything?”

“No, ma’am. Not hungry.”

Ellie’s face took on her no–nonsense school nurse mode. “Don’t give me that. You need warm food inside you. I’m going to get you a bowl of oatmeal. Do I have to watch you to make sure you eat it?”

“No, ma’am,” he said, meekly this time. “I’ll eat it.”

Ellie went off to fetch the bowl and Sam took the opportunity to talk to him privately. The southerner’s skin looked blotchy–pale, almost a gray color, and he gasped in pain as his weight shifted.

“Bud, do you think you’re in any shape to ride today?” Sam asked the big man bluntly, pulling an extra blanket around the beefy shoulders.

The answer came back slowly. “No, Mister Hyatt, Ah’m not.” He hung his head for a moment, then raised it to look Sam in the eyes from barely a foot away. “I — I think I had a little stroke or somethin’ last night. I can’t feel my right foot, an’ probly can’t even stand up right now.” There was a tortured look in his gaze, that of a man who’d finally admitted to himself that he had come to the end of his abilities.

Sam fought the cowardly urge to look away; the man deserved to hear it straight. “We can’t carry you. If you can’t ride, you can’t come with us.” It was one of the hardest things he’d ever said to anyone.

Sullivan nodded a little, not looking away either. “I see that. You’ve been more than kind to me, but you got your own family and kids to think of.” A spasm crossed his face. “I never thought — I’d end this way, lyin’ on a gym floor in Colorado. Guess God made other plans.”

“You helped us in that fight.” Sam fought down a stab of anguish while thinking You helped us, and now I’m leaving you to die. “If you hadn’t, Stanto might’ve gone down, and then Kate — the crowd would probably have swarmed us. I owe you for that, in a big way, but I’ve got nothing to pay the debt.”

Sullivan looked over at the little kids being gathered up by Grandma. She was checking their mittens and hats again and fixing some torn places with her needle and thread. Jimmy and Bran were comparing their bikes while Jenny raced around in excited circles, Tino following more slowly. Yelena and Happy just sat still, leaning against each other and looking sore. Grandma had worked the squirrel skins into crude boots for the dog’s feet.

“Then you got to pay it on, don’t you?” Sullivan said simply. His eyes had gone calm.

Sam nodded, feeling something cold drain away inside. “Yes,” he said. “And I will.”

They exchanged a look that said more than talking could. Sullivan clumsily groped for Sam’s hand, shook it stiffly before letting his own cold paw drop to the blankets. Sam found himself holding the man’s medication bottles.

“Y’all might need it for someone else,” Sullivan said. “Ah don’ need it any more.”

Ellie came back with a bowl and spoon and he obediently began eating breakfast. There was a disturbing tremble in his hands, like an old man’s palsy, but he seemed to be savoring the thin gruel, his whole concentration given over to it. Sam got up and left the brave southerner to his last meal.

Darrin and Tim were doing about as Sam expected, the Idahoan was gamely keeping up with Tim on block after block, though Sam knew Tim was only putting out about half of what he was really capable of. Jimmy and Bran had about reached their limits so Sam sent them off for a walk, a drink, and a rest. He set Darrin to run a few laps too, then put Tim and Kate both through a more rigorous workout that pushed them towards their maximums.

When Sam reckoned his students, new and old, were as ready for another trip as he could hope for, he called a stop and sent them all for another drink and a cool–down. Ellie brought him a long drink of cold tap–water and reported that everything was packed and the bikes ready.

Sam went to the Red Cross people and asked them to care for Sullivan, who was still methodically eating. He also thanked them for the place to stay, and the food.

“It’s what we do,” said the morning volunteer, a little bird–like man with white hair. “Though I do wish we had some word from the local office as to how long this is going to last.”

Sam paused in the act of turning away. “What makes you think it’s going to end?”

The man looked at him in astonishment. “But it has to! We don’t have enough supplies for more than a few days.”

“Sooooooo?” Sam raised one eyebrow. “If it lasts a year, what will you do?”

“A year!” The man looked stunned. “I — I don’t know. We need more food, I’ll have to see if I can find somebody who’ll open Albertsons… I… umm… a year?”

Sam shrugged. “I’d think real hard about that if I were you.”

He turned away from the table and looked at Sullivan one last time. The big man seemed small, sitting on the floor with the empty bowl in his lap. Sam raised his right hand and saluted. Sullivan returned it gravely and managed a smile.

Sam left the gym and went to join his people.

Stanto, Sevan, and Darrin were carting the first tricycle out the double doors, lifting it over the curb and onto the parking lot. The students and Giorgi grabbed the rest and got them lined up in a row, the bikes too. Grandma came last with the spear and handed it off to her son. Sam zipped his coat shut — the morning was cold. He lifted Jenny and Yelena into the trike–baskets, then climbed onto his own bike. Sherry Bistek tucked her baby a little deeper into the chest–pouch under her coat and mounted up, the last to do so. Happy trotted about from bike to bike, eager to go again.

Sam pointed to the street. “Move out,” he said.

❀ ❁ ❀

11

— Refuge on the Road —

Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998.

They rode for a mile through Lafayette, small–town streets lined by little houses and bare trees. A few men were struggling to move cars out of the road, several women were walking here and there. Highway 287 lead them north through newer housing and back into farmland. In the distance columns of smoke rose from burning cities, Boulder to the left, Longmont ahead, and when Sam looked over his shoulder, Denver behind them. The two–lane highway was oddly empty. They passed barely one stalled car per mile and all were unoccupied. The cold air had an acrid tang that burned in the throat.

The road unfolded before them, down another long slope, passing little farms and rural houses, barbed–wire fences and long rows of towering cottonwoods along ditches and streams. Once a woman rode by them on a horse, eyes wide at their bos and Stanto’s spear. There were dairy cows next to the road at the bridge over Boulder Creek. They bellowed in pain over their distended udders and the bewildering absence of their usual human to milk them. Some had broken through the fence and were ambling along the roadside verge. Jerry and Tim had to dodge a couple that barged out onto the pavement, mooing for help. Broken glass flattened a tire on each bike with a soft hiss audible in the car–less quiet.

“Halt!” Sam bellowed into the chill air. The group braked in a disordered mass along the bridge. Giorgi rode on a way before he noticed and came back. Darrin Bistek broke out the tools and volunteered to lead the tire repairs with Tim and Jerry’s aid. Sam ordered the rest to take a break and checked them individually. Nobody seemed over–stressed, for which he was devoutly grateful. The morning’s preparation was paying off.

The two cows pushed their way up to the group, moaning piteously.

“Can’t we do something to help them?” Ellie asked, indicating the beasts.

“They must be milked,” Grandma answered. “We will see to it.”

Grandma, Sevan, Esmera and Stanto appropriated the pair. The brothers each held a cow’s head still while the women milked the beasts into empty pots. Grandma filled hers first and carefully poured the milk into a water bottle. She handed the filled bottle to Sherry Bistek, who had taken the opportunity to sit down and nurse her baby.

“You need it, to keep your own up,” the old woman said bluntly. “Drink.”

Sherry looked at the steaming bottle doubtfully, raised it to her lips and drank. “Hey — it’s rich, like thick cream,” she said wonderingly.

Grandma snorted. “It is fresh milk, woman. Drink and be glad.”

She turned to Sam. “Sensei Hyatt, warm milk would be good for all of us, especially on a cold day such as this. And these cows must be milked now or they will dry up.”

Sam couldn’t spare much concern for a couple of cows, but he felt the cold air as much as the others. He turned to Bistek. “Darrin, how long will it take to patch both tires?”

“The patches really should dry for a while before we ride on them — call it half an hour,” the Idahoan answered, hands busy with an inner tube. Jerry and Tim were doing their best to copy his moves with the second tire.

Sam turned back to the old woman. “Do what you can in half an hour, but don’t dump any of our clean water — I don’t know when or where we’ll get any more.”

She nodded and went back to the cow, appropriating another water bottle on the way. Maria and Kate volunteered to consolidate partly–empty water bottles to free up a few more, and soon had another half–dozen.

“Daddy,” Jenny called from the bridge railing where she, Tino, Yelena, and Jimmy were lined up looking over. “Why’s it so smelly?”

Sam joined her at the railing, looked down. Boulder Creek flowed winter–shrunk around protruding rocks and under the span. The water had a faint oily sheen and was visibly brown and turgid. Strands of a whitish substance were collecting on the upstream side of the rocks. Toilet paper. Boulder’s sewer treatment plant must be a short way upstream, Sam realized.

“That’s poop,” Jimmy explained in an important–big–brother way.

“And we don’t want to get any on us, honey,” Sam told her straightforwardly. “Let’s all keep away from it, please. You four just stay here on the bridge.”

Kate and Maria each brought two bottles of milk over to distract the kids. “This is delicious!” Kate commented, sampling one herself. Immediate demands to share followed. Sam left them with the kids and a nod of thanks.

He walked away from the stinking creek. The Abbakus soon finished milking the cows, which were no longer bawling. Now Stanto and Sevan rigged ropes about the beast’s necks. Sam suddenly realized they planned to tie them onto the backs of two trikes.

They’re stealing cows! The thought passed through his mind and he started to open his mouth to object. Then it was followed by Just like we stole these bicycles. Only I can’t very well leave my visa card number here for the farmer to find!

“They’ll slow us down,” Sam said instead.

“Very little, Sensei Hyatt,” Stanto answered. “And the milk will be very good for the children.”

Esmera pressed a bottle of it into his bare hand. He felt the warmth right through the plastic. Steam rose from the opening, the aroma was delightful and he found himself salivating.

In for a penny, in for a pound, he remembered his grandmother saying, and took a long swig. The taste was richer than anything he’d ever drunk before. He finished the whole bottle in a dozen long gulps.

“That’s — that’s very good,” he admitted. “But if we have to move fast, we cut them loose, understand?”

“But of course, Sensei Hyatt,” Stanto replied, taking back the bottle while a small smile flicked across his lips. His wife knelt again to refill it from the stock-pot.

Sam walked out onto the pavement at the high crown of the bridge. The wind was coming from the west and he didn’t like the look of the clouds. The sun was growing paler even as it climbed toward noon. He glanced back south toward Lafayette in the distance.

There were four tiny figures riding bikes, just cresting a rise a couple miles back. The road dropped down into a trough and they vanished, but he’d seen them.

“Everybody mount up now,” he said tersely. “We’re moving out.”

They slogged up the hill past the Dawson School and onto the wide plateau between Lafayette, Boulder, and Longmont. Trees mostly vanished here and the wind was cold and growing colder. Sam took advantage of the unobstructed view to look west over Gunbarrell Hill at the mountains, just in time to see the last of the foothills vanish in clouds.

Snow, he thought. Coming this way. Shit! We’re in trouble.

Giorgi was on point duty, he came riding back now with word of a big pileup where Highway 52 crossed Highways 287.

“It is very bad, Sensei,” he reported. “Three big trucks, two tipped over, and several cars. There was a fire too, and, and, some people did not get out.” He swallowed hard, obviously fighting down a memory he’d rather not have had. “The road is blocked, we will have to go around through the fields to pass it.”

Through the ruts, Sam thought, looking at the frozen ground still humped from last year’s harvest. More delay. He had stopped everybody at the junction with Lookout Road, now he searched around for shelter. There weren’t many options. A few houses, a very few barns, and a lot of open country. Westward it ran for a full mile and a half to 95th Street. He thought they could flank the pile–up that way, and maybe flank Longmont too; he had no desire to ride into the burning city. He peered west at something on the distant hillside, then his eyes abruptly resolved it.

Two big steel barns, painted a dirty–yellow color — and from a pipe atop one, puffy white smoke. Somebody had some kind of heater going in a barn.

Sam pointed to it. “Giorgi, ride over to that barn with the smoke and see who’s around. There’s a storm coming and we need a place to stay. We’ll follow. Just look around the outside fast then come back to tell me if anyone’s there.”

Tino was shivering, Stanto bundled him into a trike basket with his sister, the dog, and the spare blankets. Sam had the trike riders trade off again, then launched the whole crew west along Lookout toward the yellow barns.

It was uphill, a gentle but remorseless slope, and the wind freshened in their faces. Sam’s hands were growing numb with cold — he still didn’t have any gloves. The young ones wobbled and struggled, rapidly losing momentum until the whole group was just slogging along at a pace little better than a fast walk. Sam would have ordered the cows cut loose, but they were moving so slowly that the beasts didn’t have any problem keeping up. The mile and a half between 287 and 95th Street turned into an agonizing marathon where the group fought their way forward for minute after endless minute. Jesus periodically caught the back of Jimmy’s coat and gave him a boost forward into the wind. Tim did the same with Bran. Grandma hunkered down in her chair, wrapped in a blanket from head to toe while her younger son grimly pedaled onward. Stinging little flakes of snow began to appear in the wind, biting with icy fangs at exposed faces and hands.

Giorgi came back to them a little before 95th, swooped in a sharp curve to come up riding parallel to Sam. He shouted into the rising wind. “I see nobody there, Sensei! But there is a truck. Maybe someone is inside?”

Sam nodded, waved the others onward. He rode at the back now with Jesus, making sure none of the younger ones fell behind. It was a vast relief to turn into the graveled driveway, past the darkened little house and down a small slope to the smoking barn. A big sign painted on the side said “Durungian Free–Range Eggs.” The pickup truck Giorgi reported was parked near the building but well away from the broad steel man–door. Except for a couple overhead doors farther down the metal length, this looked to be the barn’s only entrance.

Jenny was huddled in the blankets, chilled and silent. Sam gathered her out of the basket and bodily carried her to the door as the others dismounted and pushed their bikes the last few feet. Stanto and Sevan untied the cows, who’s begun to moo in distress again. The wind was viciously cold and swirling snow half–blinded him; the storm was upon them. He tried the knob, praying it wasn’t locked.

It opened.

Sam barged forward into a dim, quiet, acrid–smelling interior, Ellie at his side with Jimmy and the rest at his heels. A metallic click brought him up short. It came from a gun that looked big as a howitzer, pointed straight at his face from barely a foot away.

“Stop right there,” said a quavering female voice.

❀ ❁ ❀

12

— Governor’s Office —

Denver, Colorado; Thursday, March 19, 1998, some time before sunset.

Candle flames cast flickering shadows on the ornate walls of the Governor’s Meeting Room in the granite Colorado State Capitol. The air in the big high–ceilinged room was chilly and carried an acrid tang from the fires around downtown. It had taken most of the day just to gather enough of the Governor’s staff to hold a meeting. Half the Cabinet seats were empty — nobody had the faintest idea where those officials even were. But the State Directors of Public Health and Public Safety had made it, a dozen senior legislators, one of the state supreme court justices, and even the Mayor had walked over from Denver’s columned City Hall across the Civic Center Park.

“Give everybody the summary you put together, Mike,” the Governor said, his fingers drumming on the table.

“Everybody saw the flash of light, even people inside solid walls,” said one of his advisors. “Everybody felt the stab of pain, sharp one instant and gone the next. Nobody seems to have been directly harmed by it, barring a few who were pretty mentally unstable beforehand, but just about every machine stopped working. Trains, busses, cars, and planes.” He swallowed. “Six jets were airborne at or near the airport — they all crashed, at least a thousand dead. One of them went off the runway into the terminal, Concourse C, and it went up. The flames have spread to B, but it looks like the airport fire crew’s holding it there. Two fell in open land, one came down on Parker, another in Barr Lake, and the last fell in Aurora, that fire’s still burning too. The refinery went up, we don’t know why, but that’s a no–fly zone so it probably wasn’t from a plane crashing into it.”

Somebody down the table muttered something sarcastic about thanking God for small favors. The Governor glowered and after a moment his aide continued in a slightly hoarse voice.

“As far as we can tell, which is basically just the immediate metro area, nothing electrical is working anywhere. Radio’s out, telephones, TV, shortwave, cell phones, satellite links, everything. Public Service can’t get any of their plants started, even the gas–fired ones — the turbines spin but no juice comes out. The hydro line from Shoshone’s dead, same as every other incoming power line. The natural gas lines are still working but the meters aren’t reliable any more — they told me it’s like the gas is behaving differently. So far they don’t think any lines have blown out, which is probably a fu — friggin’ miracle. Water’s still on in most of the city but anywhere that relies on pumps has run dry or soon will be — that’s almost half the metro area, mostly in the east and west suburbs. And the sewer plants are all out — no pumps there either. The waste is just running straight into the rivers.”

“Shit,” muttered the Director of Public Health with unconscious irony. “That’ll mean disease, dysentery for sure. My God, we’re going to have an epidemic!”

The Governor gave her a wintry glare and she subsided.

“We don’t know how far this effect goes,” the aide continued. “But we haven’t seen even one plane from the Air Force bases in Colorado Springs and Cheyenne. In fact, there hasn’t been so much as a high–altitude jet contrail all day — and by now military jets from even east of the Mississippi could’ve got here to overfly us. Hell, reconnaissance jets from Alaska and Hawaii could’ve reached us before now, if they could fly.”

“And if they’re not busy with their own problems,” the Governor growled. “Mister Mayor?”

Denver’s Mayor cleared his throat, stood up. “At least half of my emergency service personnel haven’t shown up for duty. They live too far from their stations to walk there, though some do seem to have just gone to the nearest station to help out. Most of the rest have been on duty for at least twenty hours now, some for more. None of our fire trucks move, so the firemen are hauling hoses by hand. That’s cut our coverage by, oh, about ninety–five percent. There are at least a hundred fires burning just in the City right now, and probably double that in the suburbs — or triple. Here in Denver proper, not more than twenty are even being fought. We got some National Guard who self–mobilized and pitched in, I’m using them to relieve the regular police and firemen so they can get some sleep. We also have a lot of volunteers for runners to carry messages, but it’s hellishly slow. Not enough bicycles. A lot of citizens are pitching in some places. Others are looting. Five Points and Cole have gone to hell already and some of the LoDo yuppie volunteers have built a barricade out of stalled cars right down the middle of twenty–second street. They’re manning it with sticks and knives. Denver General’s already overflowing and none of the elevators work, so we’ve had to evacuate the top floors — and only about a quarter of the doctors have made it in to work. Saint E’s is worse, but Rose, University, and the Vet Center are running at least partly. The Red Cross’s got a skeleton operation in place at the new Forum building but I hear it was overwhelmed by noon.”

Almost as an afterthought he added “And guns don’t work.” He sat down with a thump in the leather chair and covered his face with his hands for a moment, then rubbed his reddened eyes.

There were gasps from some of the attendees who hadn’t yet heard the rumors. A couple of voices began to babble.

“Enough!” roared the Governor, that Texas accent that he worked so hard to hide showing through. Those who knew him well stirred uneasily at this unaccustomed sign of his stress. “We’re not done yet. Craig,” the Governor said, and the Director of Public Safety stood up.

“Mayor’s right,” he said in his gravelly voice, dark eyes like pits in his seamed face. “Guns don’t work. Neither does dynamite, or any other explosive we’ve tried — can’t blow up buildings to stop the fires. I can’t reach ninety percent of my staff, they’re too far away to walk and all communications are out but flashing mirrors and smoke signals. But I got a–hold of somebody who might have a clue, and I think it’s time to hear him speak.”

He sat down and nudged the silver–haired man at his right, who cleared his throat. His crew cut and erect bearing contrasted oddly with his next words.

“Doctor Harry McCone, University of Denver at Auraria,” he introduced himself. “That’s p–h–d, not m–d. I’m a physicist and mathematician. Craig and I knew each other from our military days. He sent a runner to my apartment this afternoon, I live just a couple blocks from the campus, and asked me to look into a few things. I ran some tests based on what he relayed to me, just came here from the last one. You’ve heard about electricity, guns, and explosives not working. There’s a couple of common threads in those facts.”

“First, electrical conductivity in metals is drastically altered — they work more like insulators than conductors now. But our nerves still work, the fish in my aquarium aren’t affected, and carpets still throw sparks when you shuffle your feet across them. So low–grade conductors still behave normally. If they didn’t we’d all have died like the machines when our central nervous systems stopped working. But electrons won’t flow across high–grade conductors like copper, aluminum, silver, and the like, so there’s no electricity coming out of Public Service’s generators.”

He cleared his throat and continued. “Second, guns don’t fire, and the natural gas valves in Public Service’s big stations don’t seem to be behaving right. I checked with the P–S courier, and those are the high–pressure lines we’re talking about. The meter on my apartment building is still working pretty close to normal. So I did some testing for pressure and gas behavior. Gunpowder basically creates a sudden gas pressure that pushes the bullet out of the shell and down the barrel of the gun. It’s a high pressure wave, so bullets move fast. Natural gas is piped at high pressures too, generally thousands of pounds per square inch, to move it through the pipes fast. But gasses aren’t making high pressures any more, or rather they’re not making pressures that do work. Gunpowder burns, but the gas pressure just rises slowly, not enough to push a bullet even out of its shell, never mind past sonic speeds. The natural gas is still flowing, and pretty fast too or most of the city would already be starved for it, but it’s no longer putting pressure on the gages, or rather not very much pressure. The gas is no longer performing useful work, and without that push–back from that work, Public Service can’t tell how much of it is moving through any given pipe, except the smaller ones where the pressure is stepped way down anyway. This is also why internal combustion engines aren’t working, the burning gasoline isn’t doing enough work to push the pistons around any more. And jets — they burn kerosene and push the gas out fast to keep themselves going forward — slow that down and they lose thrust and fall out of the sky.”

“Put those two things together, changed electron conductivity and changed gas behavior, and we have clear evidence. Somehow, the fundamental laws of physics have changed.”

He paused and looked around at the gathered faces for a moment, as if willing them to understand.

“So,” one of the female state legislators spoke up. “Guns have gone away? Explosives too? That’s good news, isn’t it?”

“No, and Craig’ll get to that in a minute,” responded McCone. “My point is this — if the laws of physics have changed here in Denver, then either they’ve changed everywhere, or there’s a hellacious discontinuity along the divide between changed and unchanged laws. That ought to be scr— uh, messing up the atmosphere big time. I suspect we should be getting visible shock waves in the stratosphere if half the earth has different gas behavior, different atmospheric physics from the other half. Maybe the effect is tenuous enough that it just hasn’t shown up, but I doubt it. I think this change has happened all over the earth.”

Various faces began to cringe as imaginations kicked in.

“You mean — nobody has electricity any more?” asked the supreme court justice.

“Or cars, or planes, or telephones,” confirmed McCone. “Or any kind of engines. For as long as this Change endures.”

“How long is that going to be?” asked another legislator, voice verging on panic.

McCone raised his shoulders in a shrug. “I’ve no idea. So far as we know, this has never happened before in recorded human history, but then, if it happened more than a thousand years ago, nobody might’ve even noticed. If you didn’t have engines, guns, or electricity anyway, what’s to be missed?”

“But they’ll be missed plenty now,” cut in the Director of Public Safety. “Guns are what keep the social contract in force. No guns — no contract. No law without order, and no order without the threat of force to back it up. With most of my people out of touch and unable even to get to their posts, without the force–multiplier effect of guns, it’s just night–sticks against clubs or knives. That’s a losing proposition right there, and my cops know it. People are already realizing it, that’s why we’ve got riots only a mile from this table. So where the hell do I get enough force to maintain order?”

The legislator who thought loss of guns was a good thing shot to her feet.

“Don’t you see!?” she cried. “This is a historic opportunity! We can build a new society, one without force from a gun holding it together! This could be the best thing that ever happened to humanity!”

“Really? How?” asked another. “If I can rob you without fear of being stopped or caught, why shouldn’t I? Taking what you’ve got is a lot easier than working to make something myself. And I’m a lot bigger and stronger than you, Sharon.”

Sharon looked at him in shock. “But — Jim, how could you?! You don’t mean that!”

“I don’t?” Jim pretended to be cross–eyed for a moment, as if looking at himself. “Hunh. Maybe I don’t — and maybe I do. If I do, what can you do about it? Especially if I’ve got a dozen buddies with me?” He jerked a thumb at another legislator, made a circle that implied more beyond. “You used to have a good brain when we were both in college, Sharon, where’s it gone all of a sudden?”

Sharon stared at him for a moment, all the color draining out of her face, then abruptly collapsed in her chair and burst into tears.

“’We have lived too long in a garden, and forgotten the cruel world outside,’” Jim quoted sadly, then turned his face away.

The Governor frowned at him for a moment, then at Sharon curled up in her chair and weeping. Raggedly he said “Anyone got any ideas?”

The candles guttered. For a long time, silence was his only reply.

❀ ❁ ❀

13

— Armistice —

On the plains of eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday afternoon, March 19, 1998.

“Stop right there,” said a quavering female voice.

Ellie froze, struggling to see in the dim interior. A short woman bundled up in a bulky coverall and thick jacket stood in front of Sam, feet apart, holding a large pistol with both hands. It twitched slightly, but the barrel remained pointed at her husband’s face. Ellie gasped and pulled Jimmy against her, just as Jenny turned in Sam’s arms and faced the woman.

“Oh!” the woman cried out in a dismayed voice. “I didn’t know you had children!” She jerked the gun a little away from them, letting the muzzle waver around dangerously.

Reassure her, quickly! Ellie thought. She needs to know these men are under control.

“Sam, take Jimmy,” she said, stepping partly in front of her husband as she addressed the woman. “Please forgive us for barging in on you this way, but we’re half–frozen and there’s a storm outside. We just want a place to warm up and get out of the snow. We can help do chores in exchange if you’ll just let us stay.”

The woman was flicking her eyes rapidly back and forth from Ellie to the crowd pushing through the door behind her. “How — how many of you are there?”

Ellie ran a fast count in her head. “Eight adults, fifteen children and teen–agers.” She added as a tearful wail broke out behind her, “And Sherry has her baby. Please, ma’am, we just want to get the kids warm. There’s a blizzard outside. I’m Ellie Hyatt, school nurse at Billings Central High, this is my husband Sam and our son Jimmy and daughter Jenny.”

The woman stared at her more closely, and a long tense minute went by before she finally let the gun drop. “I’m Rina — for Catherine — Durungian,” she indicated herself. “My husband Armand is — away from the barn right now. This is our chicken farm.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Durungian,” Ellie said with as much sincerity as she could manage to a woman waving a gun. “May we please bring our kids into your barn and get out of the cold?”

“Sure, Ellie.” The farm woman put the safety on the gun and stuck it in a pocket. “You all come in.”

Ellie sighed with relief. The Abbakus, Bisteks, and students, who had piled up at the doorway, poured in like a tide, dragging the bikes and luggage with them. Then Sevan and Giorgi started to pull the cows through the door.

“Cows!?” Mrs. Durungian reared back at that, waved to the east. “Not in here! Take them around the end, to the stables! They can stay with my horses.”

Giorgi and Sevan obligingly dragged the cows back into the snow, both beasts protesting mightily. One was inclined to mutiny but Grandma rapped it sharply on the nose and it submitted. The outside door slammed as the wind caught it and there was sudden quiet.

Happy trotted forward and shook herself, spattering everyone with cold droplets of slush. Rina Durungian frowned at her and Ellie hastily grabbed Bran and pushed him forward.

“Take care of your dog, Bran,” she ordered.

“You keep her away from my chickens!” the farm woman said sternly.

Bran nodded solemnly and hugged the dog; Happy licked his face. Rina’s mouth twisted up a little as if she was resisting a smile and Ellie relaxed a fraction, then looked around.

This room was some sort of long narrow workshop, running off to the left down the length of the building. Beyond a big shipping bay Ellie could see towering stacks of something on pallets and bulky rectangular structures spaced at regular intervals, all indistinct in the dim light that filtered down from translucent ceiling panels. To the right was a glass window and door into some kind of office space.

Rina Durungian beckoned them across the narrow room to an inner door.

“Leave the bikes in the packing room,” she said. “You all come into the big room where it’s warm. And mind the chickens.”

The next room was enormous, filling most of the barn. The same translucent ceiling panels let light in, but there the resemblance ended. The floor stepped down to a long concrete expanse with a complicated structure of some kind running along each long wall. The space between was scattered with low piles of hay and half–covered with moving white blobs that resolved themselves into flocks of chickens.

Hundreds of chickens, no, thousands. Ellie had never seen so many chickens in her life. The smell was shocking, an acrid ammonia stink of droppings and dust. The air seemed downright warm compared to the outside and she gratefully shed her outer coat and helped her kids out of theirs. Sam banged his chilled hands together, trying to get his blood flowing again.

Stanto waved at the chickens and said something in the language that Ellie was beginning to recognize as his native Armenian; Grandma replied in the same, shaking her head in obvious amazement.

Rina looked at them nervously. “What did you say?” She haltingly added some words Ellie didn’t understand.

Grandma burst into rapid speech.

“Whoa!” Rina told her, throwing up her hands. “I don’t speak Armenian very well, I learned it from my grandmother in California, but except for talking to her and my husband’s mother on the phone, I don’t really use it.”

Grandma switched to English. “Your accent is strange, but you speak quite well. Your family is from the old country, yes?”

The farm woman nodded. “My parents came to America as children with their families after World War Two, to join cousins in California. They later married and I was born there with my brothers, who’re still there farming west of Fresno. My husband escaped the Russians about twenty years ago, he was a student from Yerevan and got on the wrong side of some politics at the university there. We met in school here in Boulder, got married and never left.”

Ellie noticed that Rina relaxed a little more as she spoke, as if making this ancestral connection was somehow reassuring.

Somebody carrying a bucket was wading through the chickens towards them, strewing grain, and now reached the waist–high fence that separated the birds from the platform where Ellie and the others stood. A long brown ponytail stuck out from under a knitted cap and the movements were unmistakably female. The young woman set down the bucket and vaulted over the fence with easy grace, came over with a tentative smile on her face. Ellie guessed her age at about the same as Sam’s students, no more than a senior in high school and possibly a year or two younger.

Rina Durungian smiled fondly at the girl. “This is our daughter Mary. Looks like we got some stranded folks, honey. They’ve offered to help us with the chickens in exchange for a place to get out of the storm.”

“Oh good! If I have to lug another feed bucket I think my arms’ll fall off!” Mary proclaimed. “Without Dad’s contraption this is no kind of fun at all!”

“Dad’s contraption?” Ellie asked, mystified.

The mother waved at the long room. “Armand’s a mechanical engineer. We started this place up about fifteen years ago, built this barn just five years back. It’s state–of–the–art chicken ranching. He designed and built the automated chicken feeder, water stations, floor–cleaner, nesting box system, all of it.” Frustration filled her voice as she added, “Only now it’s all stopped working!”

“Maybe we can help you with that,” Ellie said. “Sam teaches shop and biology at our school, and Stanto used to run a motel.”

The farm woman looked at the men doubtfully. “Either of you ever deal with mechanical feeders? We’ve got a screw–pipe that comes from a grain bin outside the wall and dumps into that hopper up there,” she pointed at a shape stuck to the underside of the roof just above the south wall. “Those branching pipes bring it to a row of feeders there on the floor. It has a backup gas motor if the electric goes out, which it has been for the last day and a half.”

Her pointing hand closed into a frustrated fist and her voice scaled up. “Only neither motor will start for love nor money! Every other motor in the place is dead, too, just like the phones and cars. My neighbors are no better off than me; it’s like something’s happened to every motor in the whole east–county. What’s going on?” There was an underlying note to her voice that made Ellie think uneasily of hysterical patients in the hospital. Mary touched her mother’s arm and looked worried.

“We don’t know either,” Ellie soothed the pair, then added honestly “But it covers a lot more than just your county. We walked and biked up from Denver and everything there is out, too. No electric power, no phones, no cars, or trains, or anything.”

Jimmy chimed in enthusiastically. “And the airplanes fell out of the sky! There’s fires everywhere! Some men attacked us but my Dad fought ’em off!” He puffed out his eleven–year–old chest with family pride.

Rina Durungian was looking at him with growing horror. “What did you say? Planes fell?” Suddenly she looked physically ill. Mary’s eyes were getting big.

Uh–oh, Ellie thought. Something’s wrong here. Choosing her words carefully she explained “There seem to have been some plane crashes at Denver’s airport. We’ve seen nothing in the sky since the flash happened, not even a military jet.”

“Plane crashes — the flash — you mean that light that came with that sudden headache, Tuesday night? Right around seven o’clock?” Mrs. Durungian and her daughter looked at each other simultaneously, then looked back at Ellie.

Ellie had a sudden sinking sensation in her stomach. Oh no. “Yes, that would be the right time. May I ask why this disturbs you?”

“Daddy and my brother were flying out to Chicago right about then,” Mary said. “David got accepted to Northwestern, they were going to visit.”

“The plane was ’sposed to leave Denver at six,” her mother added in a flat voice, shivering. “Armand drove them to the airport in his car, he called me on his new cell phone just before boarding, said they’d get out almost on time. He promised to call me Wednesday morning from the hotel, but he never did. I thought it was because our phones are out here, but….”

Ellie looked at Sam, who looked back at her with his eyes narrowed. He grimaced and she could practically read his thoughts. It took at least two hours to fly from Denver to Chicago. If they’d been in the air over the Great Plains when that queasy Change happened, their plane likely fell out of the sky just like those in Denver. Ellie felt again that hallucination of sudden weightlessness and falling, and again fought off the dreadful figment of her own imagination.

“We don’t know what happened,” she said with all the conviction she could muster. “We don’t know.”

Rina stared at her through eyes filling with tears. “But you’ve got a pretty good guess, don’t you? Oh David, Armand!” She began weeping, quietly, helplessly, just standing there. Her daughter began crying too.

Ellie looked around — clearly they needed some place to sit for a while and deal with the grief. This part of the big room was a sort of raised platform that extended across the whole west end of the building, maybe a tenth of the total space. Half of it was filled with big piles of enormous hay bales bound with steel wires, the rest basically empty. One of the huge bales had been pulled down and torn open, probably the source for the hay piles on the chicken floor. The rest of the floor was relatively clear except for a tool–littered workbench near the entrance, and a large articulated forklift parked on the far side. The working arm was folded down flat on the floor, horizontal and at a convenient height for sitting.

Ellie took the women each by an arm and guided them over to the bench–like machine.

“Sit,” she urged, and Rina did. Mary hesitated for a moment, dithering through her tears.

“I think your mother needs to be held,” Ellie told her quietly. And you do, too, she did not add aloud.

Mary plunked herself down on the cold metal arm and crowded close to her mother. They both put arms around each other and sobbed.

Ellie thought for a moment, then sat next to the mother a few inches away, not touching her but close enough to do so if needed. Jenny came over to her, eyes wide, and Ellie gave her a hug. Jenny leaned into her lap and began sucking on her thumb, a habit she’d grown out of a couple years back. Ellie just held her and sat quietly, her mind a whirl.

How many people I know are dead already because of this Change? She wondered. Who else will die because of it?

❀ ❁ ❀

The gun had given Sam pause for a moment. But only a moment, before he remembered that it — probably — didn’t work.

That hadn’t made him feel any more inclined to test it, though. Sam was glad Ellie had stepped in and diverted the woman. Standing there with Jenny in his arms, he hadn’t been in the best position to react to much of anything.

He looked around as Ellie led the grieving women aside. From where he stood the barn floor dropped down about three feet to the chicken roaming area, with a waist–high metal fence running wall–to–wall along the edge, probably to keep the chickens confined. It had a steel gate at each end, the north one opened on steps to reach the lower floor. As his eyes got used to the gloom he realized that what he’d taken for machinery on the north wall was a huge array of nesting boxes set in tiers. Little ramps led from the tiers to the floor where a few of the chickens pecked at the hay piles, gobbling down the occasional bug. Most of the birds were gathered in eight big clusters around hanging gas heaters suspended on cables from the ceiling. Coiled black hoses brought gas down to each heater from a pipeline suspended below the ceiling; it apparently originated somewhere in the east end of the barn. He could hear the sussurus of burning fuel, and the room was far warmer than the outside air, but clearly not quite enough for the birds’ comfort.

Or that of the children. Yelena and Tino had taken Happy away from Bran, gone to the broken hay bale and were already curled up with their dog on the hay. Marta and Bran were leaning on the fence and pointing at the chickens, or maybe the heaters. The light through the translucent ceiling was dimming as the storm outside grew stronger. Wind snarled around the outer walls, though not as loudly as he would’ve expected. Looking at those walls he realized suddenly that the room was insulated.

That’ll be a big help tonight, he thought. But we need something better than this concrete floor to sleep on. I wonder if she’ll mind me breaking open another hay bale or two? It looks like she busts them up to give to the chickens anyway.

Decision made, he looked to his students. They had already hauled most of the luggage in, kit bags and bo sticks, food sacks and bundled blankets. Grandma and Esmera were busy unpacking a lunch on a long workbench by the entry.

“Tim, Jerry, Terry, Jesus, Drew, see if you can find more of that feed for the chickens,” he ordered. “Kate, Maria, help me over here.”

He strode to the pile of bales. The broken one was in front of a double stack that stretched across the back wall, piled at least three deep. The back row had a third bale stacked atop. There were a couple single bales in front. Sam pulled out his Leatherman again and began cutting wires.

“You girls spread this out and see if you can make us some mattress piles, a foot thick or more. Use the dirtiest blankets for the bottom. Darrin, you fetch the blanket bundles and then you and Sherry please help get us set up for tonight.”

There was a chorus of “Yes, Sensei.”

When the bale was completely open he attacked another one, then left his crew to it and went down to the chicken floor. Grandma sharply called Marta and Bran to help her, so Jimmy attached himself to Sam. Sam gave him a brief pat on the shoulder for reassurance.

Jerry and Jesus had found the bucket abandoned by Mary Durungian, and one other, and were scattering grain. Drew was examining the huge mechanical feeding line. A steel ladder was bolted to the wall, leading up to the hopper through a branching maze of feed pipes. Tim descended it just as Sam approached.

“Hopper’s empty, Sensei!” he reported, leaping down the last couple rungs to the floor. “Looks like all the grain already drained out to the feed stations, and the chickens ate it all.”

“Out of grain here,” Jesus reported.

“Same!” said Jerry, dodging a couple of voracious birds.

“Lady said something about a grain bin,” Drew volunteered.

“Bet it’s out here!” Terry called from a door in the south wall. He fiddled with it, abruptly letting in a blast of snow–laden wind. “Whoops!” He slammed it shut again.

“Any more buckets?” Sam asked. “Tim, Terry, Drew, poke around this room and the other, see what you can find for carrying grain. Jerry and Jesus, come with me and let’s see if we can get more out of that bin.”

They bundled up as well as they could before braving the south door. Jimmy had brought along a pair of work gloves from the bench but they were too small for Sam, who perforce went bare–handed again. Fortunately the grain bin was barely a yard outside the door, a huge sheet–steel cylinder on legs with a bottom that came to a point roughly a yard above the ground. A complicated welded steel valve fastened to that point and shunted the contents into the screw–pipe. There was a small electric motor to spin the screw, but it was obviously dead. A hatch cover had been removed from the pipe’s end and a shallow steel tub placed to catch the grain leaking out of the hopper and past the exposed screw threads. Sam could see a steady trickle draining out into the considerable pile already in the tub. Snow was drifting into the tub too, and gusts blew grain over the far side.

“Keep loading those buckets and hauling it to the chickens,” he told the boys. “I don’t know how much they’re supposed to have but I’ll bet they’re short right now, if the size of this machine is any guide.”

His ears caught a faint, indistinct sound, and he looked east. The wind was knife–sharp now and swirling with fluffy snow, visibility was down to a hundred feet or so. Sam couldn’t even see the east end of the barn. The farm woman had indicated there were stables there; Sevan and Giorgi should have the cows settled in soon.

On impulse, Sam started walking down to check.

“You boys keep moving grain until I get back,” he said over his shoulder, then turned his face to the east. He’d gone several paces before he realized that Jimmy was tagging along.

“You don’t have to get cold out here, son. I’m just going to check on Giorgi and his father,” he told the boy.

Jimmy grunted and sidled up close. “I wanna be with you, Dad.” He hunched down inside his warm coat and Sam let it be.

The snow blew around them and Sam put his hands in his pockets, they weren’t yet warmed up from the ride. The land outside the barn wall sloped down irregularly in long steps and snow was already collecting against the steeper parts. They had to step down carefully every time the land dropped again.

“Dad,” said Jimmy suddenly, stopping at the top of another little slope.

Sam stopped himself midstride and hunched close to his son’s side, still facing mostly downwind. “What is it, son?”

“I made that lady cry,” Jimmy answered in a troubled voice. “And the girl too. I didn’t mean to!”

“I think she knows that,” Sam told him slowly. “And it’s not your fault that — that you had bad news for them. There wasn’t any way you could know that ahead of time. But it does show you something about boasting, doesn’t it? Sometimes it can come back and bite you.”

Jimmy sighed sadly. “Yeah, Dad. I guess I got bit all right. I’m sorry.”

“Just learn from it, son. That’s what the pain’s for.”

Sam took a hand out of his pocket long enough to pat Jimmy on the shoulder, then they slogged on. The gusting wind and Jimmy’s downcast presence kept him distracted until they got to the east end of the long building. The foundation dropped sharply there, the stables were clearly set below the level of the interior floor. They rounded the corner at last and welcomed the sudden end of wind, though drifting snow was already beginning to accumulate on the frozen dirt in this sheltered spot. The sheet–steel walls passed the sharp stench of horse manure and old urine, and a voice Sam recognized as Giorgi’s. There was a big sliding door standing half–open, he rounded it and strode into the barn with Jimmy at his heels. It took a moment before his eyes adjusted to the dimness inside.

“Sensei?!” Giorgi’s voice was tense. “These men —.” He broke off abruptly.

Four tall forms loomed out of the dimness.

❀ ❁ ❀

14

— Allies —

On the plains of eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday afternoon, March 19, 1998.

Adrenaline surged through Sam’s veins and time slowed. My son is here! He dropped into fighting stance and barked out a command with every ounce of his will.

“Jimmy! Run back and warn the others now!”

Without looking behind him, Sam Hyatt advanced into the dark interior, intent on denying the door to any intruder. Where were Giorgi and Sevan? The four big men were indistinct in the gloom but he had no doubt they were the same ones who’d left the bar, following his students. The same ones on the bikes on the highway.

Why are they following us? he thought frantically. What do they want?

The biggest came forward, he had at least eight inches on Sam’s height, and reach to match.

Best to dive right in on this one, Sam thought. Go for a quick takedown and pray I can stand off the rest while Jimmy gets away.

He started to flow forward in a controlled strike, feinting for the face. The stranger’s arms were coming up in a laughable block even as words poured out of his mouth. Sam launched a savage kick toward his opponent’s groin just as his brain made sense of those words.

“We want to apologize.”

Sam pulled his strike at the last second. Even so his shoe brushed his target with an audible snap. The man folded over with an agonized squawk, staggered back against a stanchion with a thump, slipped and fell on his side clutching himself.

One of the other men rushed forward, waving his arms and yelling.

“No! Please! We just want ta apologize for what happened! We weren’t in that gang, we barely knew ‘em! Fuck, mister, we only went there looking for a place to get warm after our trucks died!”

He reared back and threw his hands up in surrender when Sam turned toward him, poised and ready. “Don’t be mad! Please!” Even in the shadows his face had a clear family resemblance to the first one.

The other two stayed warily back but added their voices to the protest. A higher voice was pleading “Don’t hurt them! We don’t wanna fight!”

Sam shook his head once to clear the brief disorientation. Going from full–bore attack to complete halt cost him a sharp adrenaline debt that growled through his blood like poison. For a long instant he just surveyed the four, still poised to strike, while his eyes got accustomed to the gloom.

The one on the ground was dressed in a full winter jumpsuit with some kind of company logo on the chest, he had big work boots, insulated gloves, and a furry hat with ear protectors. It had slid half–off to reveal a mop of red–brown hair. His suit was visibly worn and the oil and antifreeze stains pretty well shouted “Truck Driver.” His pale freckled face had a couple days of fair stubble on it and his eyes were squeezed shut as he held his abused crotch. He didn’t look more than twenty–five years old, if that.

The other was no more than half an inch shorter than the first, and by his face even younger. His eyes were wide in what Sam belatedly realized was sheer terror. His jumpsuit was a little newer but had the same logo and stains on it. He too had the boots, gloves, and hat, also a little newer. Sam pegged him at right around twenty–one or so. It wasn’t just the clothes and the fear making them look related; they practically had the same pattern of freckles.

The younger one found his voice again and said nervously, arms still held high in surrender, “Please don’t hurt my brother, mister, we didn’t mean any harm to you or your folks. We saw what you did to Cutter Grimes back there at the bar. Fuckin’ hell, there’s no way we’d ever tangle with you guys!”

“Then why’re you following us?” Sam growled.

The one on the ground spoke up, clear even through a pain–filled voice. “Please sir, I meant what I said — we wanted to apologize for what happened back at the bar. When some of the guys at the door started talking about people with bikes, Cutter Grimes just said to grab ‘em. We were pretty scared by then. He knew a lot more guys in that bar than we did and he’d been telling ‘em a load of bullshit that was making everybody crazy, about these being the end days for the law and the rule of the wild was begun. We knew it was a crock of shit, he just wanted to lord it over his own gang of fucked–up bully–bastards. But there wasn’t any way we could stand against twenty, so we just kept quiet. But we followed him and his guys out the door — Uncle Jack figured it was a chance to slip away while Cutter was distracted. Then we saw the fight.” He gulped raggedly, still curled in pain. “Cutter thought he’d just roll over you. You took him down like it was nothing! You sure know how to protect yourself, mister.”

“Nice to know I impressed you,” Sam grunted, “And I don’t blame you for the fight. But are you telling me you followed me for most of a day just to apologize for not being able to stop it?”

One of the other two stepped forward. He had the same kind of coverall on with the same logo; it must be a uniform. Sam noted the gray in his beard–stubble as the man came into the light from a transparent ceiling panel, but he had a more weathered version of the same freckled face as the other two.

“No, Mister Hyatt. Sensei Hyatt.” He jerked his head at Giorgi, standing farther back in the gloom of a stall. Sam suddenly realized that Sevan was beside his son, holding a pitchfork.

“The boy there was tellin’ us about you,” the man continued in a flat Midwestern twang. “I’m Jack McCarthy, that’s my brother’s boy Mike on the floor and the younger one’s his brother Pat. We all work for Freightways on the Walmart runs. We were hauling TVs from Ellay to Des Moines when both of our rigs died on I–76 just north of Denver. Nothing worked, nobody else’s worked either, and the temperature kept dropping. We stuck it out the first night in our cabs, but we were all freezing, so we had to abandon ‘em yesterday mornin’ and hoof it to some place warm. There wasn’t a lot of choice, so we followed a couple other truckers that I kinda knew, and ended up at that bar. I knew it was likely a mistake the moment Cutter Grimes started talkin’, but it was warmer than outside, so we stuck there hopin’ something better would come along. Nothin did, ‘till we saw you.”

Sam had a sinking sensation in his stomach. Oh no, not four more! There was nothing for it but to ask. “And now you want what?”

“You got women and children with you; family,” the elder McCarthy said steadily, meeting Sam’s eyes unflinchingly. “So do I.” He gestured the fourth man forward out of the shadows. Sam was surprised to realize that it was actually a burly woman, bundled the same as the men. She must be a little less than six feet tall, only a couple inches less than her husband, and the coverall had concealed her figure under its dirty blandness. She came forward silently and took the man’s hand with easy familiarity.

Jack McCarthy continued. “This’s my wife June. She’s my partner in the bizness, and you already met my nephews. They’re a little headstrong, that’s the Irish you know, but they’re good boys. You might be a hard man, but you’re not a bad one, and I’ve worked for enough of both to know the difference when I see it. You got some place to go to, I can tell that in the way you bin movin’ up the road. We bin trying to catch up because we hope you’ll let us join up. We had to leave everything we own in our trucks,” a catch in his voice told how much that must have hurt. “Now we got nothin’ but our clothes and a few blankets, and the bikes we got from the same store you hit before us. I saw the note you left behind there. I added my credit card to yours when we left.”

He raised his chin slightly, not pleading but not far from it. “You got no reason to believe anythin’ I say, but I’ve never lied to a good man before, and I’m tellin’ you the truth now, so help me God. If you let us come with you, we’ll do whatever you tell us to do, or I’ll answer for it.”

Sam gritted his teeth slightly. “Sevan? Giorgi?” he called.

“Here, Sensei Hyatt!” Sevan said sturdily, and Giorgi echoed him. Unasked, Sevan volunteered “They came here only a few minutes after we brought the cows in. I did have worry at first, but they did not threaten us, they only asked to get out of the cold, and they asked about you — by your name. Giorgi did tell them some about your training of him.” There was a ghost of a grin about his face as he shared that last bit of news, and a slight dash of what Sam suspected was fatherly pride. “I think he was embarrassed to find you here listening.”

Giorgi squirmed slightly and ducked his head a little, his face hidden in the shadows.

Sam relaxed, accepting the inevitable. Four more it is.

He let his stance drop into something less aggressive. The elder McCarthys relaxed a tension that’d been barely visible before, more a loosening of their own stances. Sam looked at the youngest, Pat. It probably wouldn’t do any harm to make things clear from the start.

“You can put your arms down now,” he said conversationally. “You’re not in a movie and I’m not going to rip out your heart.”

Pat McCarthy looked like he’d been expecting exactly that, and didn’t find Sam’s words all that reassuring. He gulped and his hands came down obediently. He had at least four inches of height on Sam and was broader to match, but his face didn’t hide anything. Right now it was broadcasting just how scared he really was. He kind of stood there like a big kid who doesn’t know what to do the first time he’s called on in class. Sam had met the type all too often before.

“You can help your brother out of the horseshit,” he suggested blandly.

Mike McCarthy struggled into a sitting position, tried to get to his feet but thought better of it. He let his younger sibling help him up, still hunched forward with his hands over his groin protectively. Pat had to half support his brother for a bit until Mike finally managed to straighten up, gasping. They stood side by side, both at least four inches taller than Sam, with an apprehensive look on Pat’s freckled face and lingering agony on Mike’s. Sam thought the boy would probably walk funny for a while but he didn’t seem to have ruptured anything.

I didn’t pull that kick quite soon enough, but it certainly concentrated both boys’ attention, Sam reflected. Which could be handy right now.

“Listen very carefully,” Sam told them. “I’ll get unhappy if I have to repeat this. You answer to me. You do everything I tell you to do, and you don’t argue or wisecrack; you haven’t earned that right yet. You join my group, you join my students, you do everything they tell you to do when I’m teaching. That means you do your share of the shit work too, sometimes more than your share, and you don’t complain. If I set you to learn something, you work at it like a dog until you do learn it. You don’t understand something, you ask questions until you do understand. And you both call me Sensei — it means teacher. You got that?”

Two freckled faces nodded. “Yes sir!” from Mike and “Yes Sensei!” from Pat, followed by a hasty “Yes Sensei!” from Mike again as his hands absently rubbed at his crotch.

“Good.” Sam turned to the elder McCarthys. “June, Jack,” he said, deliberately using their first names. “Lady who owns this barn let us stay the night, I’ve put my students to work feeding her chickens for her. If the snow’s done falling tomorrow then we’re headed for my in–laws farm west of Lyons. It’s still a good fifteen to twenty miles away from here.” Sam looked at June McCarthy particularly. “You got here, so I guess you two can manage that kind of bike riding?”

“We’re all right,” June McCarthy answered him in a flat twang that was twin to her husband’s. “Tain’t much air in the air here, but there’s enough to git by. I ain’t ridden a bike since I was sixteen, but it’s true you don’t forget.”

Jack McCarthy nodded. “We can pull our own weight, Mister Hyatt.”

“Good. I already had to abandon one man who couldn’t keep up, and I’d rather not do it again.” Sullivan’s face flashed through Sam’s memory, sitting there gray and hunched over in the gym. He pushed it away with a conscious effort. I have to be hard.

Sam turned to Sevan. “You got the cows taken care of?”

“Soon.” Sevan waved the pitchfork at a stack of hay bales against the back wall of the stables, the concrete lower end of the chicken barn. “We found water for them and I will leave them enough to eat this afternoon, but they will need more this evening, when they have to be milked again.”

Sam noticed more stalls beyond the ones with the cows. The backs of at least two large horses showed through the gloom, and the curious faces of two others peeked out of more stalls beyond.

“Then do whatever you can now, and for Mrs. Durungian’s horses, too. She just learned that her husband and son are probably dead; she needs a break. Pat, you work with Giorgi until the stock are all taken care of, this is his dad Sevan Abbaku — he’ll tell you what to do. Mike, you’d best just sit for a while till you can walk again.” Sam turned back to the senior McCarthys, who were still holding hands. “And you two come over here with me.” He lowered his voice as he led them toward a big tank on legs in the corner of the barn. “Either of you got any idea what this thing is?”

It loomed over them, a steel ball at least a dozen feet in diameter and made of welded pieces. The top brushed the ceiling of the lean–to stables, which was much lower than that inside the barn itself. A complicated mechanism connected the ball to a rectangular structure underneath, about five feet high and around ten feet long. The back end of that butted up against the barn’s concrete foundation and a big sheet–steel duct angled down into it from a point that must be flush with the barn floor above. Next to the duct a door–sized hatch in the barn’s steel wall had a ladder descending to the stable’s floor. Pipes and valves festooned the outside of the whole assemblage, with a big pressure gage hanging down from the round tank to about face level. Sam had spent plenty of time around professional welding work and this shouted out ‘amateur!’ loud and clear; it might have been made by a first–year shop student. Just looking at it made him nervous.

The McCarthys looked at each other, then nodded. “It’s a methane digester, Mister Hyatt,” Jack said. “June’s sister and her husband got two a lot like it on their dairy farm, built ‘em just three years ago. The manure gets shoveled from the barn above into that chute there, this screw–pipe lift on the side is prob’ly so’s they can add the horseshit to it. Both fall into the lower tank through a one–way flap inside. The manure ferments and makes methane gas, the round tank above collects it, and there’s a back–pressure valve to prevent gas from moving back into the bottom tank. That one’s got a pitched floor so’s the manure slowly slides down, with a hatch at the low end, here, to take out the leftover — it’s still pretty good fertilizer. Usually takes a week or two to wring the most gas out of it.” He looked at the pressure gage. “Not a lot of pressure in this tank, but if she’s just usin’ it for heat then she don’t need much. One this size’s meant for collectin’ gas over the summer so’s you can burn it in the winter.”

June stripped off a glove, put her hand briefly against the lower tank. “Still warm,” she reported. “Cookin’ along just fine even in the cold. Long as somebody keeps shovelin’ the shit in, it’ll keep on working.”

“Good. One more thing not to worry about,” Sam said.

Jack McCarthy looked diffident. “Mebbe, mebbe not. You gotta watch out for leaks with a system like this — you cain’t smell methane, but it’ll burn like hell if it hits a flame or a spark.”

“Right.” Sam’s view of the big gas tank changed again; suddenly it looked unpleasantly like a huge bomb. The hand–welded patches and crudely–joined pipes didn’t help build confidence. He had a mental image of the whole lot of them burning to death in the barn tonight, then forced it from his mind. We’ve got to keep warm somehow.

“Okay, if the place hasn’t burned down yet then we’ll chance it another night.”

The nagging thought at the back of his mind resurfaced — he’d sent Jimmy to warn the rest about trouble.

Shit! Any moment Tim and Jesus’ll come through that door looking to fight!

Sam dashed back towards the door. Before he’s gotten halfway there the hatch slammed open and Drew leaned through with an arrow nocked on the big Bear compound. The wheels creaked as he drew it to his trembling maximum — power enough to put the arrow right through a man.

“Drew, don’t shoot!” Sam snapped at him.

At practically the same instant three snow–flecked figures charged through the half–open outside door, bos at the ready. Pat McCarthy had the bad luck to be toting a haybale close by. Sam saw Tim zero in on him and his bo begin to surge forward in a bone–breaking strike.

“Stop!” Sam shouted. “Don’t attack!”

Tim’s brain took a crucial second to call back its last order to his arms. Pat raised the bale like a shield and just barely caught the end of the bo. The hard wood sank six inches into the dry grass with a teeth–gritting crunch. The power in Tim’s strike knocked the McCarthy boy back half a step, then they both froze. Pat had gone pale and wide–eyed; Tim’s face was equally white but pulled into a ferocious snarl. Jesus on Tim’s right and Kate on his left had their own bo’s raised and trembling for a long instant — three crouching tigers glaring into the dimness.

Pat gulped audibly into the sudden silence and blurted out “Holy fuck!”

“Stand down, class,” Sam said in a normal tone.

Tim jerked the bo backward with a single smooth motion, ending in an alert stance with Pat just at the edge of his range. Kate and Jesus did likewise. Tim licked his lips and said hoarsely “Sensei?! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Sam walked over, forcing himself to show a calmness that he didn’t feel. Tim had been seconds away from killing Pat. Sam glanced over his shoulder at Drew, who responded by lowering the compound. Stanto, Jerry and Terry hurried in out of the snow with their own weapons raised, but lowered them at the sight of Sam.

“Jimmy he said there was trouble,” Stanto explained, looking around and visibly counting heads. “These are the four who followed us, no?”

“Yes, but they’re not what I thought they were.” Sam raised his voice and addressed them all.

“It turns out we were being followed by folks with no connection to that bar fight. Students, Stanto, meet Pat and Mike McCarthy, and their aunt and uncle June and Jack McCarthy. They’re all stranded truckers who’ve asked to join up with us. I’ve agreed to take them on.”

Wary nods were exchanged. Pat lowered the hay bale, looked at the neat hole Tim had made in it. A thin whistle escaped his mouth and he looked warily at Tim and the rest again.

“You guys are fucking scary.”

❀ ❁ ❀

15

— North Denver Karate Center —

Denver, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998, some time near dawn.

George Catron gloated over his luck. He’d remembered from casual talk at the regional competition that both of the high–ranking black belts at Denver’s main karate school were out of the city when the Change struck, one dealing with a death in the family and the other at some convention in Wyoming. The two remaining black belts who’d bossed the school’s twenty–odd student entries at the regionals were both second–rank, junior to him. One was Kurt Parker, a frightened California milksop who’d already been freaked out by the Change. He’d defer to anybody willing to take charge. Catron knew he could handle him.

The other was Tyrone Johnson, a snotty prig who’d given George the fisheye at the scoring over that not–too–well–thought–out effort he’d made to boost Billy ahead over Hyatt’s kid wonder. Tyrone had been pretty grudging about letting them in last night when Catron and his four boys had shown up at the door, after an infuriatingly long walk through disintegrating Denver. Catron didn’t intend to give Tyrone a chance to order them out this morning.

Fortunately Catron and the boys had passed a veterinary hospital. It was a golden chance to turn what had long been one of his idle interests into what he hoped would be a critical advantage. He had stocked up on a few things that he thought might come in handy, including a precious dose of curare, reflecting on the similarity between the drugs for human and animal. He’d assembled it and a couple more into a nice little concoction and coated a small throwing dagger with it. It’d dried to just the right consistency now, he had to use it in the next twenty minutes or risk wasting it.

Catron knocked lightly on Tyrone’s door. He was tempted to test it to see if it was unlocked, but invading an unknown room in the dark was the higher–risk choice. This is gonna be ticklish. Lucky that nigger sleeps alone here on the back side of the school. Nobody else in the school could even see this door from their own rooms.

A sleepy voice questioned.

“It’s me, George,” Catron answered quietly. “Sorry to wake you so early but I got an idea. Mind if I talk to you about it before we leave?”

The bait worked. Tyrone was so pleased at the thought of getting rid of his unwelcome guests that he got up and opened the door, which sure enough wasn’t even locked. Better yet, he slept shirtless and pre–dawn light was coming from behind Catron. His target was illuminated just perfectly as the door swung open. The blade flicked out and sank just far enough into dark flesh to deliver its payload. Catron pushed his way into the room as he blocked Tyrone’s reflexive strike, then the next and the next. They struggled wordlessly together for a few seconds — Catron blocked a dozen strikes while waiting for his opening. By then the black man’s own efforts had rushed the drugs through his bloodstream. Tyrone’s nerves seized up and he crumpled as the paralysis hit.

Catron caught him before he fell, carefully shut the door and lifted him into the bed while he waited for the paralysis to finish. Tyrone’s eyes glared whitely at him for a long moment before his brain died. Catron talked aloud as if making a proposal to the man, hoping to cover enough of the noise that nobody overhearing would suspect anything. After a couple minutes he said “Well, please think about it, okay?” to the cooling corpse as he twitched the blade out. Without a heart to maintain blood pressure the wound didn’t bleed, so he carefully massaged it shut and then popped a prepared band–aid over it. To all appearances it was a casual cut, too minor to be significant. He arranged the body as if for sleep and covered it again. Catron carefully slipped the knife back into its prepared sheath and left the room, shutting the door but making sure it didn’t lock behind him.

He sauntered back to his assigned quarters and painstakingly cleaned off the little blade on a damp washcloth he’d set by for the purpose. The concoction was rapidly losing strength but was still dangerous, and he had no intention of accidently killing himself on his own weapon.

Then he began to dress for the day. Full black–belt regalia with his school insignia. If he could awe the kids left here into following him, the chaotic city would hand him everything else he needed. A week from now and he’d have his own army.

He began to whistle happily.

❀ ❁ ❀

16

— A Time to Choose —

Durungian Farm, eastern Boulder County, Colorado; Thursday evening, March 19, 1998.

Mike was able to stand and even walk, but not very comfortably.

“Do you think you can climb that ladder?” Sam pointed to the one leading to the hatch where Drew still crouched.

The big Irishman looked at it uncertainly, then nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“Then let’s get up there where it’s warmer. You go first, Tim and Jesus and I’ll catch you if you lose your grip.”

Mike looked faintly insulted by the notion that he might not be able to hold onto a ladder. He got up, tried to take big strides, winced, and walked a lot slower. At the ladder he tried to lift one leg to the lowest rung and nearly turned white with the pain. He had to put his head down and just lean into the ladder for a while, eyes closed and jaw clenched.

“What happened to him?” Kate asked curiously.

Pat sniggered a little as he passed another hay bale to Giorgi. “Got a crotch–kick from Sensei Hyatt. That’s my big brother, always leadin’ with his balls.”

Mike’s face looked like he wanted to make a really profane retort to that, but was still too busy holding back pain to speak.

Pat suddenly shot an embarrassed look at Kate, turning redder than Mike. Kate studiously looked up at the ladder; a little pink around the cheekbones herself.

Sam suppressed a smile, moved up next to him and caught his eye. “Would it be easier to walk around the outside of the barn?” he asked the young man quietly. “There’s a side door about six hundred feet around, if you can handle walking uphill.”

“I can — I can do this,” Mike doggedly answered, then reached over his head, grabbed a rung with both hands and chinned himself up the ladder. Sam guided his feet to a rung, Mike panted a moment and did it again. Two rungs at a time, with Sam and Jesus guiding his feet from below, Mike chinned himself all the way up until he could step sideway through the hatch. Sam was tolerably impressed. The young man had courage and stamina in the face of what had to be some serious — even if not life–threatening—agony.

“Wow,” Kate remarked, also impressed. “He’s pretty strong.”

“So what? I could do that,” Tim asserted, his face looking conflicted as he watched from below and stood ready to catch Mike if he fell.

“Want me to kick you in the balls so you can try?” Jerry offered helpfully.

“I could get the left and Jer could get the right,” added Terry with a big grin.

“No. Thank. You.” Tim glared down his nose at the twins.

Kate just giggled.

Drew helped Mike through the hatch and Sam followed with the rest of the class and the senior McCarthys on his heels.

Now that they were in the opposite end of the barn, the whole hay–and–manure scheme was clear to Sam. A little riding tractor, probably stripped out of a riding lawnmower, had been built into a long frame of aluminum tubing with a continuous row of scraper blades on the bottom, arranged so it could drive back and forth the length of the barn following preset grooves in the floor. As the scattered hay collected chicken manure, the tractor could be driven to the platform end, the blades lowered, and the floor scraped all the way down its length. Sam guessed it was probably done in multiple passes covering maybe a fifth of the floor at a time to avoid too much stress on the scraper frame. The suspended propane heaters could be raised on their cables to leave the floor clear. The nesting box array was connected to the floor by little ramps that could be raised to keep the chickens in their boxes and off the floor. Here at this end a single man with a pusher shovel could shove all the hay and manure into the digester hatch in a few minutes, using a specially–sloped area of the floor.

The older McCarthys gazed around at the huge barn with interest as they crossed the length of it, dodging chickens. “This’s quite a place,” Jack said admiringly. “Looks like a couple o’ men could handle the whole thing, if the machines were workin’.”

Yeah,” Sam nodded. “I think the late Armand Durungian must’ve been a very clever fellow. But I don’t see how his widow and daughter can run it without the machines, or else half a dozen workers.” And we can’t stay for long to help her, he thought.

They had to help Mike climb over the scraper—it stretched all the way across the floor. He gasped a lot and swore a little, but made it. Sam and the older McCarthys kept their pace down to Mike’s hobbled walk as they waded through the chickens, heading for the platform where Ellie and the others waited, but the students hustled on ahead cheerfully. Sam wasn’t a quarter of the way there when Jimmy came dashing up.

“Dad!” His face looked worried as he ran right up to Sam and grabbed his jacket.

“Jimmy!” Sam greeted him warmly with a one–armed hug. “That was a good job you did carrying the warning for me, son.”

Jimmy looked uncertainly at the McCarthys, especially hobbling Mike. “Dad,” he whispered, “Are these the same guys from back….” He waved vaguely behind them.

“Yes, but they’re not what I thought they might be,” Sam explained. “They’re good folks trying to do the right thing. They’re coming with us to Grandpa’s house.”

“Oh.” Jimmy brightened. “I bet Grandpa will like that—the tall guy looks like he could prune the tops of the cherry trees without even a ladder! Why does he walk so funny?”

June McCarthy smothered a laugh and patted her nephew’s shoulder. Mike grimaced and visibly tried not to cup his aching groin in his hands again as he stumped along.

“That’s a long story, son,” Sam said with a straight face. “I’ll explain it another time. Right now you go tell Gramma Abbaku that we have four more folks to feed. Then tell your mom, too.”

“’Kay, Dad!” He dashed off again, dodging through and sometimes leaping over little clumps of chickens.

❀ ❁ ❀

Ellie had breathed a soft prayer of thanks and unclenched her hands when she saw Sam climb through the hatch down at the far end of the barn. He moved with his usual lithe grace that still could catch at her heart when she watched him. Whatever had happened, at least he wasn’t injured.

She could almost be grateful for those few minutes of near–panic after Jimmy rushed in. The sharp certainty of danger had dragged her away from an aching brooding on her family and friends. Her best friend in Billings, Mary Pat, had just moved to Omaha with her husband and three kids; what was happening to them? Omaha had seemed merely a longish overnight trip away from Billings, but a day and a half on foot and bicycle had given Ellie a new sense of distance. It might as well have been on the far side of the Earth now.

Even folks here in Colorado seemed dauntingly far away. Her older brother Bill and his wife Joan lived west of the mountains in Walden, with her two nephews — were they safe? The snowstorm outside the barn would be ten times as bad on the high mountain passes. It might be spring before anyone could go check on them. Karen, her closest friend through high school and nursing college, had moved back to Colorado a couple years ago after a divorce and was working in Longmont; was she okay? Mom and Dad were surely still at the house outside Lyons, tending to the orchard. Yet even thinking about the mere dozen miles remaining between the old homestead and this barn made her legs ache.

Who was still alive out there?

The question shook her. Ellie had never thought she could miss the irritating interruption of the telephone, but she missed it now. How did people in the old days go on living, not knowing what was happening to their loved ones, maybe for months at a time? The question yawned at her like a dark pit for a moment before sense reasserted itself.

They just did, of course, the way my grandmother Sarah coped while Grandad was lost in the Pacific for two months of World War Two. Ellie shook herself physically. Sarah coped, and with two children younger than Jenny. I can do it, too.

Rina and Mary had nearly wept out their grief. They sat passively side by side, tear–blurred eyes not really watching Marta and Maria assemble a long row of straw beds. The light through the ceiling panels strengthened for a moment at a break in the storm, and Ellie realized with a start that the rays were slanting eastward. Noon was already past. Her stomach growled a bit at the thought.

“Rina,” Ellie said, “Have you and Mary eaten lunch yet today?”

The farmwoman rubbed her eyes tiredly, as if trying to remember.

“No,” her daughter interjected. “Mom was going to make us sandwiches when you folks showed up. I was s’posed to keep feeding the chickens, but…”

She waved toward Sam’s students, who’d gone back to hauling feed through the side door. Stanto had found another pair of buckets and organized himself and the boys into four pairs, each with one boy carrying a bucket of feed and the other two–handedly strewing it about. The shorter of the two new boys was helping, as was Bran. The chickens were mobbing them in little rushes that petered out into eddies of gray and white feathers and bobbing heads as they pecked at the grain.

“Then why don’t you eat lunch with us?” Ellie offered. “Food that you don’t have to make yourself generally tastes a little better anyway.”

Rina gave a wan smile at that. “Long as Armand wasn’t doing the cooking—that man could burn water.” For an instant she trembled on the verge of fresh tears, then visibly pushed them aside. “Tell you what, there’s a pan in the office that I use to make hard–boiled eggs sometimes while we’re working here. I’ll get it out and Mary can rustle up a few from the coolers. We’re just about overflowing anyway. The last pick–up was Tuesday evening and we should have had another Wednesday night and last night too, but the truck didn’t come.” She paused for a moment and blinked, then went on in a quieter voice as if to herself, “Oh. No trucks working — Dear Lord in Heaven, how’ll we get the eggs to town? The stores we supply will be all out by now.”

“I don’t mean to add to your burden,” Ellie said with as much steadiness as she could muster, “But with a snowstorm on top of whatever this Change did to us, I don’t think anyone will be coming to collect your eggs for a while. Maybe you can store them? Tonight ought to be cold enough.”

The words drifted to a stop as she thought about the implications. No fresh eggs in the stores — no fresh milk either, those poor dairy cows in the pasture probably had hundreds of counterparts that weren’t getting milked. Perishable things would be spoiling in the powerless coolers, or freezing, or just getting stale in warehouses because there was no way to haul them where they were needed. Was bread even getting baked? Their little house in Montana was downwind from the main bakery for Billings and the rich daily scent of baking bread had been one of the things that appealed to her about it. But she vaguely knew that modern bakeries were all about big complicated machines. From what they’d seen leaving Denver, that kind of machine pretty much wasn’t working anymore.

“There’s too many eggs,” said Mary. “I filled the last cooler this morning and still have a hundred or more left to gather. The chickens lay more than a thousand a day, Miz Hyatt. Usually the packing room stays warm just from the heat the coolers throw off—in the summer we open the ceiling hatches to cool the place. But now the motors are all dead.” She shook her head for a moment. “Mom, without power, the coolers will keep on getting colder overnight. Those eggs’re probably gonna freeze.”

Rina’s eyes widened in alarm. “You’re right, I should’ve got the emergency heaters going by now. I’ve let myself get too distracted.”

“Mom, they’re mostly electric,” Mary pointed out. “Not working.”

“One’s propane,” Rina started to say, then stopped and grimaced. “Curse the cold. Tuesday’s forecast said we’d be in the teens tonight. One heater’s not gonna be nearly enough for that room. We’ll lose a few thousand eggs — and all that money.” She looked like the last thought pained her.

Ellie thought about that long room with the thin sheet–metal loading doors, almost tailor–made for cold drafts. “It sounds to me like you can’t do much about the eggs, but you can do something about your chickens. Would it be all right if we set up that propane heater in here instead?”

Privately she thought: And it’ll help keep us warm tonight too.

“Yeah, that’s the smart thing to do.” Rina heaved a sigh. “Might as well get some use out of the eggs before they spoil. Your folks should eat as much as you want.”

The thought of eating eggs immediately flooded Ellie’s mouth with saliva. Boiled? Scrambled! Omelets!! Half a dozen recipes flashed through her mind. She had to swallow before she could speak.

“Thank you. I’ll tell Grandma Abbaku and Esmera. Come on, I should introduce you to them.”

Ellie led Rina over to the Abbaku women. Mary lingered by Marta and Maria, who immediately drew her into their work. Grandma and Esmera had been conferring over the dwindling supplies and how to stretch them to cover another day. They were delighted to learn that they could appropriate all the eggs that Sam’s followers could eat. The two women promptly hauled Rina into the packing room to explore the new opportunity.

Sam was helping the older man of the new folks get the tall youth seated on a chunk of hay bale while the woman hovered. Ellie scrutinized the freckled face and guessed from the flushed and pained expression just why he was walking so oddly. This wasn’t the first time one of the kids had misgauged a kick during karate practice. Only she knew that they hadn’t gone to those stables to practice, and a chill touched her that had nothing to do with the snowstorm.

Ellie put on her nurse mode and joined her husband. Sam introduced her to the McCarthys, explained laconically what had happened, ending with his agreement to take the four into their student group. Which, Ellie reflected, no longer had a majority of high school students. The big young man looked woefully embarrassed, and though Sam hid it under his disciplined Sensei face, she thought he was, too.

Sam could have killed this boy with one kick—and would have, if Mike had been a real threat.

Oh love, she thought, I know you too well. If they’d really been thugs, you’d have done the necessary thing no matter what it cost you later. And I’ve never been more glad for it than this week.

There didn’t seem to be any tactful way to say that in front of her husband’s victim and new student, so she settled for simply squeezing Sam’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Miz Hyatt,” Mike McCarthy said in a flat midwestern twang, greeting her last as he tried to stand politely. She hastily gestured him to stay seated. The spasm that crossed his face said worrisome things about his physical state.

“It looks like you took some damage, Mike,” Ellie said professionally. “That happens sometimes in karate practice, too. I’m a nurse, I deal with the school sports teams all the time. I really think I should check you over to make sure you’re not more hurt that it seems.”

Mike’s face filled with panic as if it had been poured in from a bucket. “You mean — here!?” he squeaked, his voice cracking as he waved one hand at the room while the other stole protectively to his groin.

Sam successfully avoided even the appearance of a smile, but Mike’s aunt and uncle grinned openly. Ellie schooled her own voice to be devoid of humor.

“This room has more light than the other,” she explained. “I’m sure your aunt and uncle won’t mind helping Sam hold up a couple blankets to give you some privacy.”

Mike looked beseechingly at his uncle.

“Best do what the doctor–ah, nurse–says, son,” the eldest McCarthy told him, in a solemn voice that was completely spoiled by the grin.

“Don’t worry,” his aunt assured him. “I’ll turn my back.”

Mike bowed his head to the inevitable. The blankets were soon ready and Ellie scrounged a bowl of cold water and a rag. Jack McCarthy helped his nephew peel out of the upper half of his insulated jumpsuit; he had a flannel shirt beneath and a heavy white tee–shirt underneath that, with jeans below. Then Jack picked up the end blanket and dutifully turned his grinning face away. June and Sam were already holding the blanket up behind their heads and facing outward. Mike struggled upright again to stand against the wall and unbuckle his pants. He clamped his jaws and pulled down his briefs with one swift motion, then stared at the ceiling.

The poor guy! Was Ellie’s immediate thought. His testicles were flushed bright red from edema, and she thought they were significantly swollen. His natural blondness only made it more obvious. Ellie could see a thin line of broken capillaries already turning dark under the skin along the upper edge of his scrotum. The darkening line continued an inch or so onto the fold where his lower abdominal muscles met the top of his left thigh. Sam’s shoe had plainly left its mark. Ellie reflected that if Mike hadn’t been pretty well muscled, the power of the strike would probably have passed right through flesh and broken his pelvis. She carefully swabbed the young man’s skin with cold water, checking for larger accumulations of fluid where none should be. Mike twitched and strangled a squeak at that but otherwise stood commendably still. He didn’t twitch while she probed his pubic bone, left hip, and the top of his thighbone as well.

“Good, you don’t seem to have any serious ruptures or fractures,” Ellie told him after a couple minutes that had probably seemed like a subjective century to the young trucker. “I can’t tell if there’s a hairline crack in your pubic bone, so be careful about sitting up for a while. You’re going to have a spectacular bruise, but I don’t think anything’s really broken. Okay, you can dress now.” He fumblingly hauled up his underwear. “Don’t buckle your pants, yet.”

“Why not!?” He paused with the jeans nearly closed, wincing. His face was a brilliant red that nearly drowned out his freckles, his ears were scarlet. Ellie frowned slightly. Sometimes men could be so ridiculously fragile.

“I want to put some ice on your groin to reduce the swelling. Actually, it’ll probably have to be packed snow. But it’ll feel a lot better than doing nothing. Just wait right there.”

Ellie slipped under Sam’s arm and between the two blankets, taking the bowl with her. She hurried across the chicken floor to the side door where the boys were still hauling in grain. The wind had obligingly heaped snow against the grain bin, so she scooped up a bowlful and fetched it back to Mike. Her hands were thoroughly chilled by the time she had squeezed it into a dense, roughly–triangular pack and wrapped it in an empty plastic bag.

“Tuck this inside your jeans but outside your briefs,” she ordered. “If your jeans won’t close over it without pain, leave them unzipped and just use the belt to hold ‘em on.”

Jack McCarthy huffed out an almost–suppressed snort. Ellie hadn’t though Mike could turn redder, but he did. She helped him wriggle back into the jumpsuit and zip it up, then let him slump down onto the hay bale. Despite the chill in the room his forehead was gleaming with perspiration.

“When the snow melts, let me know and I’ll make you another one,” Ellie instructed him firmly as the blankets came down. “You should keep icing until the swelling goes down.”

Jack guffawed openly. “Whaddya wanna bet that snow’ll last all night?” he commented.

His wife punched his arm. “Hey, be kind to the boy, or I’ll tell him ‘bout your vasectomy. And I mean ALL about it.”

For the first time since she’d met him, Ellie saw a smile on Mike McCarthy’s face.

Men! She thought as she put away the bowl and went to check on Jenny.

❀ ❁ ❀

Two hours later, the whole group sprawled across hay mattresses, digesting huge fluffy omelets made with fresh eggs and whole milk straight from the cow, accompanied by abstemious servings of pan–fried mashed potatoes. They’d even had a ‘salad’ made from a couple bell peppers and onions that Rina had fetched from her kitchen and handful of olives the Abbakus produced from a plastic jar. It had come to about two tablespoons per person, and even Jimmy had wolfed it down. Sam was impressed anew with what Esmera and Grandma could do with plain food.

Or maybe it’s just hunger, he thought. Everybody’s worked up an appetite today.

His folks had hauled in nearly a hundred buckets of grain for the chickens, enough to fill the feeding stations and satisfy the birds for a while. Mary had showed the younger kids how to reach into the nesting boxes from behind the frame and gather eggs, though there was no place to store them except in cartons stacked loose on the packing tables. The packing room and the outer air were both so cold that it was miserable to work there, and sundown was still a couple hours away.

Rina had also fetched a dozen big candles from her house and lit two of them in the one bathroom, a windowless cubby that shared a wall with the big room. It had a blessedly low ceiling that retained enough heat so the plumbing hadn’t frozen — yet. But the water pressure was low and getting lower. Sam suspected the neighborhood pipes must be draining out and there wouldn’t be any water at all by morning. Grandma had produced an inflatable five–gallon plastic water carrier from somewhere and loaded it up from the trickling tap with much patience, just to be sure they would have drinking water for tomorrow. The next day? Sam figured twenty people would go through five gallons in less than three meals. He’d had the boys fill a big steel tub with snow and set it in front of the portable propane heater so that they’d have water to flush the lone toilet a few more times. Esmera had adapted it for washing dishes too — you could flush a toilet with dirty water just fine.

Sam gazed around thoughtfully at the chicken barn. He had estimated that it would take six men working full time to run the place without working machinery, but now thought that might be low. The kids had been working all afternoon and hadn’t even scraped the floor yet for the methane digester. The gray concrete was developing a salt–and–pepper pattern from chicken manure already. Sam wondered if the smell was fading or he was getting used to it.

Ellie snuggled against him on the hay pile, a blanket underneath and another thrown over both of them against the chilly air. She slipped her chilled hands under his jacket to warm them and he suppressed a flinch. She’d just changed Mike’s icepack again and given him another checkup. The big Irishman had only blushed a little this time.

“Do you think Mike will be able to ride a bike tomorrow?” Sam whispered in her ear.

“Probably not,” she answered, equally quiet. “The swelling’s going down but he’s going to be very sore. A repetitive motion like pedaling is hard to do when you’re bruised, ah, down there.”

“Voice of experience?” Sam inquired ironically.

“Two babies’ worth. The aftermath of giving birth is a lot like having one big crotch bruise, let me tell you, mister.” She shifted her still–chilled hands to a new location on his stomach and he shivered slightly. “Can we spend another day here, or should we ride tomorrow?”

“We don’t have a lot of food left, except for eggs of course. Twenty–some people take a lot of feeding. And water. I’d really rather get to your folk’s house tomorrow.” He pointed to the translucent ceiling, now spotlit by a stray beam of late–afternoon sunlight that had found its way between clouds. “This storm’s already nearly passed over here and headed out onto the plains. There might be another one behind it, but I’m hoping not.”

“Sounds likely,” Ellie replied thoughtfully. “I could see one of the peaks of the Front Range through the clouds when I went outside a few minutes ago.”

“Good. Tonight’s going to be really cold, but we can hope tommorrow’s better.”

“It’ll warm up.” Ellie nodded. “That’s Colorado. I’ll keep checking on Mike, he might be able to ride tomorrow. Rina mentioned her horses; I wonder what else she’s got in this place? Do you think we might trade something to her for a horse that he could ride?”

Sam shook his head slightly. “That’s not much better than riding a bike, for Mike. Pounding instead of pumping. Besides, she probably loves those horses only a little less than her children.”

Rina Durungian walked over to the hay pile. “Mind if I talk to you?”

“Of course not.” Sam sat up and tucked the top blanket around Ellie, waved the farmwoman to a seat on the edge of the bottom blanket, and folded his legs under himself seza fashion. “What about?”

Rina sat and then looked around the cavernous room. “Your boys and girls did some great work for me here today. Work worth a lot more than some eggs, all things considered.”

Sam shrugged slightly. “Being warm and fed is worth some work. We’re glad to do it.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” she said meditatively, darting a glance at his eyes. “Do you think you and your kids would like to do it a while longer? I could really use the help running this place.”

“Thank you for asking,” Sam chose his words with care. “But we’re headed for Ellie’s parents’ place by Lyons. The Santini Cherry farm. We want to make sure they’re all right, and they’ll need help too.”

“Ah. I heard Burt ‘n Mary Ann had a daughter in Montana,” Rina nodded. “So you’re their son–in–law, eh?”

Sam suppressed his surprise. Somehow it had never occurred to him that these two farm families living a dozen miles apart might be acquainted. He immediately felt foolish; in Montana it would’ve been taken for granted, there was no reason why Colorado should be so different.

“Yes. I didn’t know you and Ellie’s folks knew each other,” he said lamely.

“Oh, I don’t really know them, but we’ve met a couple times, at fairs and such. Burt’s big into the local organic fruit business, and we do organic free–range eggs, so we cross paths.” She shrugged. “I think Armand went to look at that fruit–leather press thing Burt put in a few years back, but I never saw it, though I’ve driven by the place a time or two.” She fidgeted for a moment. “So you’ll be wanting to head out there as soon as the weather clears.”

“Yup. But we’re very grateful to you for giving us a place to sleep tonight.”

“Glad to do it.” She sighed and looked around at the huge barn again, then waved a hand. “Sam, what’s happening out there? Your boy told me a little bit about Denver, and a couple of your students talked some, but things look different to a kid than a grown–up. I want to hear what you think is going on.”

Sam thought for a moment. “Mrs. Durungian — no, Rina — something very bad has happened to the world. Not just Colorado, and probably not just America. The world. Somehow, and I can’t even begin to imagine how, some of our natural laws have changed.”

Rina Durungian had a college education. Sam could see her mind tracing down the implications. “But — but that’s — how can that be? Nature’s all one piece, how can some parts just — just — change?”

“I don’t have the foggiest idea,” Sam said frankly. “I sure don’t believe anything human could do that to us, and I don’t wanna believe God would do it, but other than some weird aliens I don’t know what that leaves for a choice. Things that can’t change, have Changed now. So electricity doesn’t work, motors don’t work. Hel — heck, ma’am, a whole lot of things don’t work.”

“No cars.” Darrin Bistek nodded grimly.

“No more trucks?” June McCarthy asked, struggling to believe. “What’ll America do without trucks?!”

“Maybe it’s temporary,” Sam continued, “maybe it’s permanent, but I’m sure of one thing. If it doesn’t change back really soon, say by tomorrow or the next day, a whole lot of people are probably going to die.”

Put baldly like that, it was daunting. Jesus and Maria had been cuddling on a nearby hay pile, and the rest of the students were crowded on the one beyond, with Mary Durungian sitting next to Kate. Stanto and Esmera had their younger children crowded around them on the hay mattress behind Rina. All had pricked up their ears at Sam’s words.

Rina closed her eyes briefly, opened them again as lines grew in her chapped face. “Planes don’t fly anymore.”

Sam nodded. “Jets, anyway. Cars, trucks, trains, anything with an engine. I haven’t heard a single engine for nearly three days now — have you?”

“No.” Rina shifted uncomfortably.

June leaned against Jack and he put his arm around her protectively, his face grim. Pat’s eyes were big and his freckles stark.

“How do we run a modern world without engines? Without electricity?” Sam asked the room, while really asking himself. “The answer is, we don’t.”

It was simple and terrible, now that he’d spoken aloud. Simply terrible, and terribly simple.

“Folks are going to have to go back to farming,” the farmwoman said tentatively.

June and Jack looked worried by that thought. Of course, thought Sam. They have some idea how hard it’ll be.

“And how many city people even can farm?” Sam asked. “How much time is there to do that before people start starving? You said yourself, Rina, the grocery stores are probably out of eggs by now, and milk, and more. There’s just not enough food in most towns to keep everybody alive until the next harvest. But how can farmers get more food to the cities without engines? Or even harvest it in the first place, without combines and tractors?”

Sam’s students huddled closer together, scared. Most of them lived close enough to farming to know something about how it worked — and didn’t work.

“When the city people start starving,” Sam continued inexorably, “what will they do? What can they do?”

There was horror building in Rina’s eyes, but Sam couldn’t stop the words from flowing.

“A lot will die, right there in the cities, because they can’t walk or bike or don’t know how to dress for the cold weather. Some will get out into the countryside, but they don’t know how to work a farm and they’ll be pretty desperate by the time they find one. I wouldn’t count on many of them being much use to a farmer — and how do you keep the useless ones away while letting in the useful?”

Rina groped in her pocket, found the pistol she’d put there earlier today and pulled it out. “Anybody tries to steal from my farm, they’ll be sorry!”

Sam said gently, “Guns don’t work anymore either, Rina. We saw that in Denver. Without guns, what chance do the farmers have against a starving mob?”

“Guns don’t — how — are you sure?

“Try it.” Sam pointed at the big steel grain hopper up under the roof. “Go ahead.”

She stood up, turned, flicked off the safety and raised the gun. For a long moment she did nothing, then squeezed the trigger. Click. Again. Click. Again. Click.

The farmwoman sat down like a puppet with cut strings. “Oh God!” She put her face in her hands, the gun forgotten in her lap.

Sam nodded. “That’s why we’re going to Lyons,” he said, as it all came together in his mind with sudden clarity. “It’s smack in a narrow canyon opening into two fertile valleys surrounded by steep mountains, more farmland out in front of it, with plenty of water and a chance to defend ourselves. Only six hundred people — I don’t know if it’ll work, but at least there’s a chance. There’s no chance in Denver, or Boulder, or Longmont. Too many people.”

He felt charged with some weird kind of electricity, delirious like someone drugged, exhilarated by the vision and the terror. Ellie put a hand on his arm, but he barely felt it.

Rina Durungian raised haunted eyes to meet his. “We’re only six miles from Boulder right now, and less than that from Longmont.”

“Hungry people will walk that far, easy,” Sam told her grimly. “I’d bet on no more than a week or two before this barn gets overrun with starving refugees. We can fight a few, even a few dozen, but soon enough it’ll be too many for us to make any difference. That’s why we can’t stay here.”

“Please,” Rina Durungian said. “Take Mary and me with you.”

❀ ❁ ❀

17

— Walking in a Winter Wonderland —

Durungian Farm, east Boulder County; Santini Farm, Lyons, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

The morning dawned clear, windless, and cold. Pre–sunrise glow woke Ellie to a ghostly gray world of shadows inside the barn. Sam and everybody else were still snoring in counterpoint to the monotonous susurrus of the methane heaters. Even the roosters hadn’t woken yet.

Rina had dialed back her big emergency propane heater to a faint roar so the tank would make it through the night. The room was colder now than it had been anytime yesterday. The farmwoman and her daughter had fetched their own bedding from their frozen house into the comparative warmth of the barn. They slept nearby on another straw mattress.

Ellie sniffed experimentally. The acrid chicken stink was fainter but still there under the hot propane scent. The air was chill on her nose and eyes, the only parts of her that weren’t wrapped up. Sam and Jenny were warm lumps bracketing her. Her legs ached still from the last two day’s unaccustomed riding, with more to come today. For a few minutes Ellie didn’t move, just listened to the quiet and remembered last night.

The discussions had gone on past dark, all of them wrapped in blankets and huddled on straw pallets around a handful of candles. Somewhere in there Esmera and Grandma Abbaku had cooked up a second round of omelets, this time with diced chicken mixed in. Nobody had to ask where the meat had come from. From the moment Sam had said “Yes,” Rina Durungian threw herself into planning for what Darrin Bistek had started calling ‘the Exodus.’ Before darkness fell she had taken Sam, Ellie, Stanto, Grandma, and the elder McCarthys on a tour of the other barn. She had an amazing amount of useful stuff squirreled away.

“This place had an old wooden barn right where the chicken barn is now,” she’d explained. “It was pretty rickety, so when we bought the farm fifteen years ago we put up this one to actually use. When some Boulder guy offered us twenty thousand just for the weathered wood we took him up on it and pulled the old one down—sold the main beams for another five thousand to a contractor, too. But Armand put all the old stuff here.”

Her voice caught for a moment at the thought of her dead husband, and then she doggedly continued. “He’d been cleaning it up a little at a time. There was a lot more but we sold some to pay for the methane digester.”

What they’d kept had been amazing. A three–blade riding plow nearly a century old, with most of the harness recreated. A riding harrow, and a regular moldboard plow, and a dozen other things Ellie couldn’t even name but she knew her dad would drool over. Best of all, there was a rebuilt buckboard wagon, painted bright red with yellow spokes and equipped with a canvas cover and a big awning over the driver’s seat.

“I sewed every bit of that myself,” Rina proudly confided. “Even made the fringe. Trained my two Morgans to pull it. We take it to Farmers Markets in summer.”

“Mike can ride on that!” June McCarthy had exclaimed, her relief obvious. She might tease her nephew, Ellie reflected, but she was clearly worried about him.

Rina nodded. “And we can put a couple hundred chickens inside it, too.” To Ellie: “I expect your folks in Lyons wouldn’t mind seeing us ride up with that, hey?”

“Probably not,” Ellie acknowledged. “But you bring that riding plow and my Dad’ll light up. He loves things like that; we just didn’t have much space for them when I was growing up.”

“My mare Sunny can tow it alone, long as we stay on roads.” Rina nodded. She seemed to be making some kind of calculation, but said no more. Ellie had wondered what she was planning.

She still wondered, watching the slanting early sunlight set crystalline fire in the barn’s translucent ceiling panels. Then one of the rosters crowed, followed swiftly by three more. Sam stirred beside her and opened his eyes in that awake–all–at–once way that he had.

“Morning, love,” he said quietly to her, his eyes bright. “Time to get out of bed.”

“Guess so,” Ellie grumbled, making no move. It was so warm and cozy in their nest.

“Duty calls.” Sam peeled back the blankets and let the bitter cold in.

“That shrill bitch.” Ellie groaned under her breath, and got up to face the day.

❀ ❁ ❀

“Everybody ready?” Sam asked while walking down the line. Snow squeaked under his boots in the still cold air. He thanked God that they didn’t face a life–sapping wind, too. “Rina?”

She checked the tension on Sunny’s lead rope, and then patted the horse between her legs—a phlegmatic gelding named Samson. “Ready.” Sunny danced a little in her harness, making the riding plow jiggle on its iron wheels. The harrow lashed atop barely wiggled, though it was wider than the machine that carried it.

“Mike and Mary?”

“Ready!” They answered from the seat of the buckboard. Mike McCarthy still sat gingerly but he’d climbed up there unaided; he could move almost normally now. Mary wielded the reins of her mother’s treasure. Two hundred chickens and a ton of feed grain bulked under the canvas cover. Antique farm implements were lashed onto the back and sides. The big pair of Morgan horses stamped in the traces and blew, impatient to be moving. The two milk cows tied on behind weren’t as happy about it but they’d been milked and fed, and were chewing their cuds. Sam figured they’d cope.

“Pat? Darrin? Sevan?” He called.

The three men on the trikes all echoed back affirmatives. Jenny, Yelena, and Tino nodded solemnly from the baskets, and Happy barked. Grandma Abbaku issued something curt in Armenian from amid her swathed blankets.

“June, Jack?”

Jack McCarthy nodded, while his wife pushed a questing chicken head back into the bulging burlap sack slung across the back of his bike. The chickens within were packed so tightly that some were bound to die, but she’d cheerfully remarked that just meant dinner was guaranteed to be chicken. June settled herself on her own bike, similarly loaded, and nodded, too.

“Sherry, Ellie, Esmera?”

Three more assents, each poised on their bikes. Their panniers were full of blankets and had extra chickens tied onto the back by the feet. Most of the birds had stopped squawking over the indignity. Sherry had her baby back in the chest pouch. Ellie wore an old pair of Rina’s boots now, with three pair of socks to make them fit her smaller feet.

“Class?”

A roar of “Yes, Sensei!” came from the teenagers, ranging from the deep tones of Tim and Jesus down through the three girls and on to the reedy voices of Jimmy and Bran. The older boys had the towed carts trailing their bikes, piled high with anything that looked useful. Grandma Abbaku had sewed long tubular back–sheaths that strapped around their winter coats, shaped so they could carry their bos sticking up behind them like some kind of wobbly antenna as they rode. Earlier Sam had them practice drawing the long sticks while riding, and was fairly confident the kids could manage it every time now.

“Stanto?”

The Armenian twirled his spear for an answer and the morning sun flashed fire off the blade.

Sam straddled his own bike, as loaded as the rest. He gripped the cold metal through heavy mittens inherited from Armand Durungian, who wasn’t likely to ever use them again.

“Then move out!”

Unladen, Giorgi raced ahead to scout, throwing a rooster–tail of fresh snow behind him; Sam had made sure he had the bike with the best tires. The rest of the bike riders dug in and began slogging forward. The horses pranced a little and took up their places in the middle, bikes before and behind, with Stanto and Sam in front and the twins and Kate behind on guard.

Sam had feared that the pavement would be more slippery than the farm’s gravel road, but luck was with them for a while. The fierce overnight wind that pushed the storm off toward Kansas had stripped most of the snow from every flat surface, leaving it heaped against fences and buildings and filling up hollows to leave a deceptive plain. The road carried only a few dusted patches and an occasional drift. Stanto alternated with Sam breaking trail through the drifts; the biggest forced them to dismount and cut a path with the spear first.

They followed 95th Street north toward Longmont, past the road to Niwot and a big church that stood empty. Scattered houses and a few rural subdivisions crept past in the cold air as the caravan puffed along through clouds of their own breath. The Morgans could haul a lot of weight — Rina estimated that they were pulling nearly two–thirds of everything the group carried, not counting the milk cows — but they couldn’t do it very fast. The cyclists mostly rode in low gears, loafing along at the big horses’ comfortable pace.

That’s good for the bike riders, Sam reflected. Don’t want anybody to get chilled lungs and collapse.

At Ogalalla Road they cut west to avoid Longmont, ducking through gravel farm lanes. Sam could see a smoking husk of apartment building anchoring the southern approach to the city, only a half mile away. More reared up beyond it, apparently unscathed. Something flickered on a third–floor balcony and he realized a tiny figure was watching them through binoculars. He was glad to lose sight of the city among the farms and trees.

They crossed the Diagonal Highway amid more wrecks; Sam barely noticed the frozen face pressed against one cracked car window. They zig–zagged through back roads, cutting always north and west toward the rising foothills. Smoke rose from many rural chimneys — a lot of people had fireplaces or wood stoves, and knew how to use them. A few farmhouses lay burned out — probably people who hadn’t known how to use them, or who tried to rig substitutes that didn’t work.

At one such smoking wreck a bundled figure came out of a detached garage just after they passed, ran a few steps after them and then fell to its knees in the snow, sobbing. Sam silently waved the caravan onward while circling back to check on the tail riders. Kate’s eyes were teary. He didn’t ask why, so long as she kept on pedaling with the rest, but his heart gave a small ache for hers.

They dodged north of Table Mountain where the huge spidery antennas pointed mutely at space. Sam doubted any scientists anywhere had much time for astronomical research right now. Their luck held for a dozen miles of back–country roads before they finally hit a really big drift. It was on St. Vrain Road just a few hundred feet short of Foothills Highway, and the crest reached nearly as high as Sam’s head.

“We’re overdue for a stop anyway,” Sam declared. “Stanto, start smashing. Class, break out those shovels. Let’s get busy.”

There were no houses nearby. The one ruin had probably burned out the first night, since it had cooled enough to be covered with drifted snow. Drew took the Bear compound and climbed a bare tree to act as lookout while the rest of the students and men worked in relays to cut a path through the drift. Grandma and Esmera had packed the farm’s three precious thermoses with hot cocoa at the barn. Now they milked the cows again and added the cocoa for a rich concoction.

“That’s better than a sports energy drink,” Tim said, smacking his lips over it.

“Better lick your moustache off,” Jerry advised with a grin.

Sam let the ensuing snowball fight go on for a few minutes before he recalled the kids to their job.

The sun climbed as the men worked, the air temperature slowly rose, and before the sun was straight overhead they were free to press on through to the highway.

The thin patches of snow there were already blemished by tracks, both wheel and foot. Stanto studied them closely.

“Four bikes, passing first, then three on foot some time later,” he declared. “All carrying much weight, as do we. All heading north, away from the city.”

Sam nodded, frowning. “The way we’re going.” He looked south at the rise of highway hanging close above them; barely a bow–shot away, he thought. The junction suddenly felt very exposed. Anyone coming over that ridge on a bike will be on us fast — too fast. I want some elbow room. “Let’s keep on moving a while. Maybe we can find water.”

The caravan swung north and rolled onward until a small stream trickled echoingly through a culvert. The road curved through a long gentle arc here and they could see a good quarter–mile in three directions, with a steep slope rising to the west just north of the creek. A silo and the skeletal roofline of a burned barn just peeked over the next rise, a good thousand feet or more away.

“We’ll halt here for lunch,” Sam decided, much happier. “Everybody stay on the asphalt unless I say otherwise. Pat, Darrin, grab those buckets and fetch water for the animals. Ladies, you get lunch organized.”

The sun was melting through thinner snow patches in the usual Colorado fashion, even though the air temp hadn’t risen very much above freezing yet. Sam guessed it was half an hour shy of noon, and wished again that they had a working watch.

Rina had packed a little hibachi and a bag of charcoal briquettes in the wagon. Maria set it up and got a fire going, then put a couple pots of icy creek–water on to boil. Grandma picked a few dead chickens out and began gutting and plucking them. Esmera and Sherry joined her, and Ellie too.

“I might as well learn how,” Sam overheard her remark. “This won’t be the last time it has to be done.”

Sam though he caught a look of approval on Grandma’s seamed face before he turned away. He suppressed a smile and sent the twins to help Rina, Mike and Mary care for the horses; they’d hauled a couple hay bales along on the wagon just for that purpose. Terry and Jerry knew what to do, they were both born cowboys whose folks ran a boarding stable on the edge of Billings. Sam took Tim and Drew aside, waved at Giorgi to join them.

“Take the bows,” he told his older students. “Scout back to the top of that hill, if you don’t see anyone then watch the road for a while to see if anybody comes riding north in the distance. Then both of you come back here. Don’t take longer than half an hour and if you see more than a loner on the way, you both turn around immediately and get back here.”

The boys looked at him gravely, nodded in unison. “Yes Sensei,” Tim added and they mounted their bikes again and rode off.

“Giorgi, you ride about halt a mile north, but don’t go past Hygiene Road. Just get to wherever you can see beyond the next hill. You see anyone at all on the road, or even near it, you turn around right away.”

The Armenian boy saluted him gravely. “Yes, Sensei!” and rode off.

“Stanto, take charge for a bit,” Sam told his second. “I’m going uphill to get a better view.”

Then he climbed a barbwire fence, slogged through a drift, and scrambled west and up onto a rocky outcrop on the hillside, most of a hundred feet above the road. Snow made the footing precarious but he gained the top without a problem. A gnarled pine made a handy brace while he surveyed the area.

Boulder County fell away to the east in wide rolling plains. The city of Boulder itself was hidden in its valley, shrouded under a vast gray cloud to the south. Tim and Drew were dots approaching the top of the hill, Sam hesitated a moment and then resolutely turned attention east. Longmont smoked several miles away, great dark columns rising thousands of feet straight up in the air. Sam ignored it too while he studied the nearer areas, especially north toward Lyons. The town itself was hidden in its canyon but the top of the cement plant was visible a mile east of the canyon mouth. Wisps of steam drifted off the still–hot kiln but the chimneys were empty. Across the rolling countryside scattered farmhouses sent up lesser smokes. The air was so quiet he could hear the lowing of cows in pastures, even the distant rumble as a burning building collapsed miles away in Longmont.

And in all that distance, he could count the number of moving figures on the fingers of one hand. A couple men on horses chivvied dairy cows in a pasture a mile or so east and north. Another man was slogging between buildings on a ranch nearby. The last was swinging an axe at a blown–down tree in a yard just a thousand feet away, seemingly oblivious of the caravan nearby.

This is good, Sam told himself as he scrambled back down to the road. The fewer people to bother us, the better.

❀ ❁ ❀

I do NOT like chickens, Ellie decided as she imitated Grandma’s deft movements with the gutting knife. Plucking the birds had been hard enough, repeatedly tearing smelly handfuls of feathers out of disturbingly elastic skin. Sherry still wrinkled her nose as she doggedly worked on the last one. The floppy dead flesh, still a little warm, just felt wrong, not cold and stiff like proper refrigerated grocery–store meat. Handling kidneys and gizzards in a neatly–wrapped package was one thing. Prying the squishy organs out of the body cavity was much less pleasant, even though it did warm her chilly fingers. The intestines slithered out in a revolting coil.

“Do not cut them!” Esmera cautioned. “It will be hard to clean the meat if you spill the offal. See, cut there, and there, and then there above the stomach, and you can lift all at once.”

Ellie could feel the packed grain kernels inside the chicken guts right through the tough thin tissue. The pebbly texture shaded gradually into soft mush at the lower end where digestion had done its work. There was a partly–formed egg underneath in another tube of flesh there too, fragile shell incomplete and crumbly. When she cut the anus free the stench caught at her throat. Carefully she lifted out the compact mass and dumped it into a bowl. The Armenian women each had two chickens done already. Ellie poked the long intestine with one disgusted finger.

“Do people really use these to make sausages?” The idea seemed a lot less appealing now.

Grandma snorted. “Not chickens. Too thin. Pig is much better.”

The old Armenian woman took the last bird from Sherry and casually chopped the head and feet off. She had insisted that they haul along a long plank tied to the riding plow. Her wisdom was apparent now that it was the only horizontal working surface they had. She was using a thicker chunk of board as a chopping block and swinging a big knife with impressive strength.

Ellie thought about gutting a big animal and winced inwardly. Sam had always hauled his elk and deer directly to a butcher in Billings. He’d never been one who cared about trophies, and one of his regular hunting buddies always took the hides to tan, so she’d never seen the anonymous meat as a living animal. The venison had always arrived as neat wrapped bundles ready for the freezer. Her father and brother had always done the same. She’d known from the blood on the men’s clothes what they had to do to butcher their kills, but the reality had never sunk home so intimately before.

Time to learn, she thought. “I’m ready for the next one.”

“Good.” Grandma handed it to her and picked up two of the finished birds to begin chopping them apart. Ellie positioned the gutting knife and started in again, hoping her strokes were surer this time.

By the time Maria and Marta had two pots of water boiling, the chickens were reduced to anonymous pale hunks of meat on bits of bone. Grandma poured them into the pots while Esmera added barley from a sack and a precious couple of diced carrots. Sherry washed her hands in snow and took her now–wailing baby aside to nurse.

Happy was cheerfully gulping down the unwanted organs that Grandma had fed her—hearts, livers, other things Ellie wasn’t sure of. Ellie gathered up the bowl of offal, added the heads and feet while trying not to look too closely at them, and carried them over to the roadside to dump. A coyote was skulking in the bushes, probably drawn by the rank blood scent. He edged nearer as she dumped the stinking pile in a snow bank and washed the bowl out with more snow. When she turned away he darted in and began to gorge. She couldn’t help walking away a little faster.

Ellie helped Esmera unpack the bowls and spoons that they’d brought from Denver, augmented with the salvage of Rina’s kitchen. There’d been barely enough room on the plank to work. Everyone would have to stand to eat.

Sam came back, flecked with snow to the waist from his scouting trip. Ellie went over and helped him brush it off — if it all melted she was afraid he’d get a chill. Giorgi arrived a lot less dusted to report empty road ahead.

“These bike tracks, they turn east down the next road,” Giorgi said. “I looked and did not see anyone near, but there are houses. Perhaps the riders went into one.”

Tim and Drew rode up panting. “There’re five riders about a mile south,” Tim reported. “They’ve stopped on the next hill outside a farmhouse, I think maybe they’re eating. I’m sure they saw us watching, but they didn’t make any move.”

Jack McCarthy squinted at the sun, already making the snow painful to look at. The air was definitely above freezing now and black wetness ringed every snow patch on the asphalt.

“What’re the odds it’ll stay this bright?” the grizzled trucker asked, jerking a thumb at the sky as Tim and Drew returned. “I’m wishing I hadn’t left my sunglasses in my truck.”

“It’s Colorado,” Sam answered quietly, his forehead creased. “Winter sun like this can last for days, or disappear in an hour, and people living here know it. Anyone who’s been waiting for the weather to clear before getting out of town is probably already on the move. Fast as we can eat, I want us out of here.”

“Is everyone on the road our enemy?” Ellie blurted out.

“I hope not,” Sam answered tightly, looking at her in a way that hovered between commanding and beseeching. “But that’s the way to bet.”

Ellie’s eyes dropped. She turned away, sick uncertainty blowing through her like a cold wind, and hurried to pass word to Grandma Abbaku. The stew was cooked well enough to swallow in hasty gulps, everybody lined up with steaming bowls to their lips except the ones Sam told off to sentry duty. Ellie hurried bowls around to them too, then bolted her own meal. It lay like lead in her stomach—warm, yet unsatisfying.

“Don’t worry about cleanup,” Sam said tersely, eyeing the road behind and ahead. “We pack and go.”

They packed and went.

Ellie pumped along on her bike as they left the lunch site behind. The Morgans were frisky and found the smooth highway easier going, especially on a downhill slope. Their pace rose to a fast walk and the final couple miles fell away behind them. The junction of Foothills Highway and Ute Highway was empty as they turned west on the last leg into Lyons. Ellie risked a look behind down the straight stretch of Foothills but saw nobody.

Familiar landmarks rose around her. Steep Indian Ridge loomed over the road, running north like a frozen cresting wave sculpted in yellow sandstone and draped in gray thickets of thorny Mountain Mahogany. Red Mountain hung over the other side of the canyon in a profusion of rounded summits running a couple miles south; fingers of green pine forest nestled between the bald summits. To the west the valley opened, a Y–shaped basin in the foothills with Indian Head rearing up between the branches of the Saint Vrain River. The caravan angled north past the Conoco station and a sprawling sandstone sales yard, littered with the colored fruit of the surrounding hills. The tourist shops cluttering the mouth of Stone Canyon on the north side were all closed — well, it was the off–season.

I’m almost home, she thought dizzyingly. I’ll see Mom and Dad in just a few more minutes.

“Halt!” A voice barked. “Who goes there? Turn back now!”

A barrier stretched across the road, just before the bridge leading to the high school on the south bank. Sam halted them all a few tens of feet short of it and Ellie rolled up next to him. She gaped at the monstrosity. Cars had been turned on their sides, butted together with the bottoms outward and the wheels removed. Gaps were filled out with pieces of sheet metal, hunks of tree trunk, anything handy. It stretched from the riverbank across the canal and highway to end right against a steep cliff at the toe of Stone Mountain. From the unfinished look of the river–end, they were still building it. Several men stood behind the barrier on platforms that let them stick up head and shoulders above it. Half of them wore National Guard helmets and bits of uniform, the rest had a wild motley of weapons and gear. Another man leaned out of some kind of sheet–metal–enclosed tree house wedged thirty feet up in a big cottonwood right behind the wall, growing practically against the cliff. That one had a compound bow in his hands, an arrow loosely nocked.

Ellie recognized a couple of the faces, including the one right in front of her that had barked the order. Thwarted anger surged through her, overrode her overstressed manners, and poured out her mouth like a storm.

“Ricky Giles, is that you?” She bellowed her outrage. “What do you think you’re doing!?”

“Ellie Santini?” The young man called back in surprise. He wore a football helmet and a Kevlar vest, carried a thick pole with a big kitchen knife spliced into the end. “Is that you?”

“You know damn well it’s been Ellie Hyatt for fourteen years,” she shouted back. “Your big sister was one of my bridesmaids! I baby–sat you when you were five and I was fifteen! Now answer my question!”

The man ducked a little, plaintively said “Hank?” and looked down the barrier a ways. The other men turned their heads too, all focused on one.

Ellie speared the new target with her wrath. “Hank Waters! What’s going on here?”

Hank had a fire department helmet on, a makeshift spear in one hand and a huge hunting knife hanging around his neck in a sheath on a leather thong. He stood over six feet tall and had shoulders like a linebacker, but when Ellie glared at him he shuffled diffidently. “H’lo, Ellie. Nice to see you again. We’re guarding the town.” His gaze tried to wander away from her and across the caravan. One of the men next to him was openly grinning.

“Against what?!” she demanded acidly. “Girls who turned you down for junior prom twenty years ago?”

“No, ‘course not.” Hank gulped as a couple of guffaws rose along the wall. “There’s been some trouble with people on the road. The Town Trustees decided to bar folks who don’t live here until they decide what else to do, or ‘till the National Guard or the Army shows up.”

“My dad’s been one of those Trustees off and on for twenty years, as you know perfectly well. I just spent three of the worst days of my life walking here from Denver to see my folks, and you’d better not make me wait any longer!”

“Just simmer down, Ellie, of course we’re gonna let you in. It’s just, uh, you got a lot of people with you.”

“My husband, my kids, our students, our friends and the friends’ families,” Ellie recited in a poisonous voice. “We even brought food with us. You got a problem with any of that, Hank Waters?”

Hank ran a hand through his hair, absently pushing back the fire helmet and then catching it before it fell off. He sighed and finally looked square at her again.

“No, Ellie. Open the gate, men.”

A sheet–metal panel between two SUVs was dragged back to reveal an opening barely wide enough for the wagon. The caravan poured through, Sam and Ellie in the lead. Mary had to back the Morgans up twenty yards to get her buckboard lined up with the opening, and still scraped the side going through. Rina’s prancing Sunny startled to the left and snagged the harrow on the entry, the farmwoman had to back her up twice before she made it through at a slow walk.

Meanwhile Sam and Ellie conferred with Hank, who came down from his perch on the wall to talk to them without shouting.

“I’m real sorry about this, Ellie,” he said contritely, his face long. “But I got my orders. I gotta question everybody.”

“Who made you boss anyway?” Ellie snapped, anger not spent yet. “I thought Joe Mettuzo was still the fire chief.”

“Joe’s missing.” Hank ran a hand through his hair again, a nervous gesture she’d rarely seen from him before. “He went to Colorado Springs on Tuesday for a training seminar, didn’t come back.”

“Oh.” Ellie’s anger suddenly deflated. Three days to cover fifty miles from Denver, and The Springs was over twice as far away, with snowy Monument Pass in between. Joe had been like an uncle to all the kids in high school, taught her very first first–aid class, and fired up the love of medicine in her heart. Will I ever see him again?

Hank nodded. “I’m second in command of the department now, and first when he’s gone, but let me tell you, nothing in our training ever prepared me for this.”

“Looks to me like you’ve done pretty well,” Sam commented, waving at the wall. The back side had a long platform a yard high built up out of logs, concrete blocks, and stones. Parts of the cars had been stuffed with barbed wire to keep any attacker from worming a way through the insides. More rolls of barbed wire sat ready to be added to the work somewhere.

Hank nodded. “Yeah, this was what I could come up with in a day. We didn’t have any barrier at all until yesterday. That morning a couple of bikers came through from the west side with chains and knives and an attitude. I guess they were popping PCP or too much meth, or something, because they lit into old Jim Hendry when he cussed them out — you remember how cantankerous he always was? He got worse the last two years. They carved him up pretty bad. Killed him, in fact.” He shook his head. “Then they tried to throw their weight around downtown, beating up people. Matt Duncan whipped out his gun and tried to shoot ‘em, then when that didn’t work he grabbed a steel pipe and broke both their heads. We got their bodies in a room at the Town garage, next to old Jim. After that Allison put a session of the Trustees together and they decided to fort up. There’s another barrier up at the head of Apple Valley by the bridge, Matt’s in charge of that, and one on Highway Seven past the quarry. We been making anyone who comes down the canyons disarm, then we escort ‘em through and out here before we give back their weapons. I’d be a lot more worried about that if guns still worked — you know about that I guess?”

“We know,” Sam answered grimly. Ellie shuddered slightly and pushed recent memories aside.

Hank looked at Tim standing by with the Bear compound over his shoulder, the bo sticks in the hands of Sam and his students, and nodded.

“Yeah. Anyway, the Trustees are arguing over what else to do right now — I’m s’posed to get more orders when they decide something, but I’d bet they’re deadlocked.”

“You mean my silver–tongued Dad hasn’t managed to bring the rest around?” Ellie gave a subdued snort. “He usually manages to get his way with the Board in less than three hours, at most four. Mom must be peeved.”

Hank looked at her sadly. “That’s what I’ve been meaning to tell you, Ellie. Your folks aren’t here. We took your mom off to the hospital in the ambulance around two in the afternoon on Tuesday. She had some kind of a stroke. Your dad went with her.”

Icy fingers seized Ellie’s heart. Her tongue sat frozen and useless. Sam silently took her trembling hand in his own strong one. All she could do was stare at Hank.

“Mom? A stroke?” The world suddenly moved a million miles away and left her stranded in space.

“Go on up to the house,” Hank urged. “Maybell’s been taking care of it; she’s sure to be there now. She can tell you the details better than me, she’s the one that called nine one one.”

Sam somehow got her back on her bike and in motion again. The rest of Lyons passed Ellie by in a blur. They crossed the Highway 7 bridge and turned down the old familiar street — a part of her mind noted that the big elm on the corner had finally died and been taken down, just as Mom’s last letter had said. The house on the end was still the same, a much–added–onto old brick place that had sprouted covered porches and more over the last three–quarters of the century. She managed to dismount in the yard and walk up to the front door under her own power. Sam gathered the kids and followed on her heels as she slowly turned the knob. It wasn’t locked—she couldn’t remember it ever being locked. She walked into the sweet familiarity of the front hall, living room to the right, dining room to the left, walls cluttered with photos and mementos.

“Maybell?” She called uncertainly. “Maybell?”

“Ellie!” Maybell Thorpe came steamrollering out from the kitchen, a heavyset woman in her late fifties who lived next door. She waddled up and practically smothered Ellie with a hug.

“You’ve heard, haven’t you? Yes, I can see it in your face. Honey, it was terrible, one minute we were talking over tea at the kitchen table and she was telling me about your nephew’s rodeo trophy, the next she fell right out of the chair. But thank God I was here, I grabbed the phone and hit the buttons and the ambulance was here lickety–split. I yelled out the back door for your dad and he came at a dead run, all the way from the process shed. He held her in his lap until the medics got here, she was all limp and quiet but still breathing, honey, don’t you doubt it. They had her on the carryboard in jig time and off they all went, couldn’t have been more than ten minutes before they tore out of here for Longmont. Lordee! but Joe’s team is good, even when he’s not here with ‘em.”

Somehow Ellie had found herself in a chair at the kitchen table while Jenny crawled into her lap. Maybell was at the gas stove pouring tea into a mug. “Longmont?” Ellie repeated, clutching her daughter like a life preserver. “Longmont United Hospital?”

“Of course dear, where else would they take her? Boulder Community’s twice as far.” Maybell patted her hand, pushed the steaming mug and a plate of cookies towards her.

“Sam!” Ellie cried in anguish, remembering towers of black smoke. “My folks are trapped in Longmont!”

“Don’t worry, Ellie,” her husband told her solemnly. “I’ll get them out.”

❀ ❁ ❀

18

— Into the Void —

Lyons to Longmont, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

“Tim, Jesus, you’ll guard the rear. Kate, Terry, Jerry, Darrin; you’ll be our side guards,” Sam said. “I’ll be in front, and Pat and Jack’ll ride the trikes in the middle. Everybody got their weapons?”

His students produced an impressive collection of sharp objects as well as their bo sticks. Sam had handed out the throwing knives and shurikens to those who knew how to use them, and made sure everyone else had a knife in a sheath. The five Montana students all wore Grandma’s back–sheaths for their bos. Darrin took a couple practice swings with a pry bar he’d found in the Santini’s garage. Jack and Pat drew their own knives and looked fierce. A stranger might’ve thought them the most dangerous of the whole group, if he didn’t know what the other students could do with their innocent–looking sticks.

“Good,” Sam told them. “Mount up.”

While they got ready, Sam turned to Ellie, who promptly embraced him.

“Be careful,” she whispered into his collar.

“Always,” he answered, stroking her hair briefly before he released her. “We’ll be back with your folks before dark.”

Jimmy and Jenny grabbed him next. “Bye, Dad,” his son choked out, his eyes big and frightened.

I could tell you not to worry, but what’s the point? Sam thought. “Take care of your mother, son,” he said instead.

Jenny clung to his leg wordlessly, sniffling. Sam carefully pried her loose, picked her up and kissed her tear–streaked face. “You be a good girl for your Momma while I’m away, hear?” She nodded violently and hugged him hard. After a minute Sam carefully unwrapped her and gave her to Ellie. He forced himself to turn away and mount the lead bike.

“Move out,” he said, carefully not looking back.

They rode out the gravel drive onto the patched pavement, around to Highway 7 and into Lyons. People were gathering in the park—Sam ignored them as his force passed. They pedaled down the commercial strip east of downtown and on to the barricade.

“What are you doing, Sam? You guys just got here!” Hank’s eyes flicked over their weapons uneasily and he fingered his spear.

“Going to fetch my father–in–law out of Longmont,” Sam told him. “Ellie’s mom too, if she’s still alive.” He jerked a thumb at the trikes. “We’ll carry them back if we have to.”

“Good for you.” Hank was already sliding back the hatch. “We turned back one group about half an hour ago, I think they came out of Boulder. They went off down Ute, Jim lost sight of ‘em near the cement plant gate. Five guys on bikes, with spears, knives, and packs. Watch out for ‘em, I didn’t like their looks.”

“Will do. See you in a few hours.” Sam led his troops through the opening.

“Good luck finding the Santinis!” Hank called to them as he closed the barrier again.

Sam acknowledged that with a wave.

They rode down US 36 back past the junction; the road to Boulder was still empty. The long pavement of Ute Highway stretched east to Longmont. There was no sign of the five men, but Sam noted fresh bike tracks in a big snow patch drifted across the start of Cement Road.

The snow on the highway had mostly melted off, a few patches lay on the north sides of the handful of cars and trucks stopped in the road. There were some animal tracks in it, but not a single human mark, whether footprint or tire.

A trio of large birds circled lazily above the cement plant, riding a thermal rising from the massive kiln; it would be many days before that cooled. On second glance Sam realized the birds were vultures. The old cartoon popped up in his memory: Patience my ass! I’m gonna kill something! It didn’t seem as funny today as it had a week ago.

The little farms and rural subdivisions they passed were quiet, but not deserted. Sam saw faces in windows, a man clumsily chopping wood, a woman riding a horse towards the distant back of a pasture. Nobody hailed them or even tried to speak to them. Except for a couple barking dogs, the squeaking of the bikes and panting of the riders were all that broke the eerie silence.

Burning Longmont drew closer.

Sam stopped them for a breather at 75th Street.

“Which way, Sensei?” Jack asked. “Down the back road?”

“Hey, yeah, Sensei, we could cut down 75th to Hygiene Road and come into Longmont from the west,” Darrin said eagerly. “I’ve been bicycling on that road before, it’d give us the shortest exposure to the city, just in and out.”

“But both roads are narrow, lined with trees and bushes and the town of Hygiene itself,” Sam pointed out. “They’re full of potential ambush sites without much room to move. Our bos work best with room to maneuver—we’ll stick to the highway.”

A couple miles later they left farms and open spaces behind as they passed a burning condo building that marked the northwest corner of Longmont. A handful of struggling people were carrying possessions out and a fat woman clutched two children and wept in the parking lot. Other neighbors stood around, staring at the flames in helpless fascination. Though only the top floor was engulfed, it was plain nothing would stop the fire until the building was ash.

“We turn right at Hover Road,” Sam told his group.

They reached the junction just as a small band of folks came north, heading out of the city with whatever they could carry on their backs and in a pair of grocery carts. Their leader, a bearded man carrying a hoe that flashed sunlight off newly–sharpened metal on its working edge, exchanged wary nods with Sam.

“You come from Lyons?” he shouted, and when Sam nodded, asked “What’s happening there?”

“Barricades,” Sam said flatly. “Nobody let in unless they’re local.” Or friends and family, he thought, but chose not to say. Hank and his crew were a thin protection, one best not tested too often.

The man turned his face away from Ute and led his followers north instead.

Sam hoped he hadn’t just sent them all to their deaths. Or should I hope that I did? There isn’t enough food to feed all these cities, not nearly enough farms or farmers, he thought. If any are going to live, a lot have to die.

A searing memory hit him, of Sullivan, hunched on the gym floor as Sam walked away and left a brave man to die. Sam winced involuntarily.

Just not any more of mine, if I have anything to say about it.

Hover was newly–rebuilt into a four–lane boulevard with a landscaped median strip. Habit led Sam down the south–bound lane. By the time his troop had gone a mile they’d passed two other small groups headed north in the other lane, one a trio on bikes, and the other half–a–dozen on foot. Both had weapons, ranging from bread knives to crude spears and one bow. Neither group spoke. Sam said nothing to them either.

Habit’s a powerful thing, he thought. We’re all still keeping to the right even though there’s no traffic!

The smell of smoke grew stronger.

Three houses were burning just west of the street, it looked like the first had caught and then the flames had jumped to the other two. A man on a roof next door was spraying water over his asphalt shingles with a garden hose, and cursing the anemic flow. Burning cinders landed on and around him and the heat from the house next door turned his face ruddy. A woman climbed up a ladder lugging a bucket of snow and splashed it across a smoking patch in a losing effort.

The intersection at 17th was a tangled mass of wrecked vehicles, they had to dismount and pick their way around it through a parking lot. Four bodies had been pulled from the wrecks and laid out by the side of the road; one was crushed into a ghastly parody of human shape, black with blood. Dozens of crows pecked at the feast voraciously, and the chill air was heavy with a nauseating stink. Jerry and Terry cast horrified looks at it and simultaneously turned and heaved their lunches. Darrin looked like he wanted to do the same. Kate resolutely did not look at all.

“Just keep on, class,” Sam said in a low voice. “We’re here for Grandma and Grandpa Santini, keep your minds on that.”

A shopping center stood on the far side, anchored by a big Safeway. There was a rising chorus of voices coming from a mob in front of it—people were fighting. Sam hastily remounted his troop and set a quick pace down the road, weaving in and out of stalled cars as fast as Jack and Pat could manage the trikes. Somebody on the edges of the crowd saw them and shouted something about their bikes, but Sam doggedly put his head down and they pedaled out of there. Next door to the shopping center, singing voices came from a big church, round with a conical roof and shaped much like an African hut in a National Geographic story. Sam caught the name ‘Spirit of Peace Catholic Church’ on the sign as they passed. The screaming from the fight followed him farther down the road than the singing.

More smoke rose from burning houses here and there, but most of the neighborhood seemed quiet. An old brick mansion sat back from the street among wide lawns, with some kind of historical sign out front, but Sam noticed that the chimneys were smoking. A couple men were nailing a sheet of plywood over a big ground–floor window and several men armed with rough spears and makeshift shields stood around them and on the front porch, like guards; all had a crude green ‘x’ painted on their shields and armbands. They stared challengingly at his troop as it passed, but did nothing.

A gang? He wondered. Somebody who saw what’s coming and grabbed the closest thing to a fortress before anybody else could get it?

Sam led his crew east again on Mountain View past an empty fire station, its doors open and trucks sitting helplessly. Hoses had been dragged out and abandoned on the driveway. A gas station–convenience store across the street had a smashed plate–glass window.

The hospital was a comparative oasis. A uniformed cop in the parking lot used his nightstick to direct them around the side to the emergency entrance. There was a large bike rack next to it that already hosted a dozen or so bikes; some of the staff must have ridden them in to work. All were locked. As Sam approached, a man in a hooded sweatshirt got up and moved away from the bikes; something glinted in his hands. Sam stopped his crew at the empty end of the rack.

“Pat, Tim, you come in with me; the rest of you stay here and guard our bikes,” Sam instructed. “Jesus, you’re in charge till I get back. Don’t let anyone get at them.”

The Hispanic youth bowed his head slightly and said “Yes, Sensei.” Jack and the students pushed the bikes together and readied their weapons, gazing nervously around through the smoky air. Tim passed his bo to Darrin; Sam left his own in the trike basket.

“You sure you don’t want a weapon, Sensei?” Pat asked nervously, fingering the handle of his knife.

“Pat. I am a weapon,” Sam explained patiently. “That’s what being a Black Belt means. Now put your knife inside your jacket; we don’t need trouble and it looks like law still functions here, at least.”

The big redhead looked sheepish and hastened to obey. Tim half–smiled, but his gaze stayed on the parking lot. Sam realized that the man in the hooded sweatshirt was loitering around behind a dead SUV.

He was trying to steal a bike! And he’s still waiting his chance.

“Jesus? Jack?” Sam pointed the man out to the Hispanic youth. “Watch out for that one — or others like him.”

“Will do, Sensei,” Jesus said grimly. The trucker just nodded.

The pneumatic doors worked normally as Sam and the boys pushed their way inside. The emergency room was lit only by daylight filtering in through windows and doors. Dozens of people crowded the room, overflowing the chairs and lined up on the floor. A clerk was filling out forms on a clipboard, her face weary. She smelled of sweat despite the comparative chill. The room stank of burnt cloth and flesh, blood, shit, and vomit. A low moaning made a barely–audible background noise, punctuated by wheezing.

“Santini? Older lady?” The clerk responded wearily when Sam asked, and he nodded. “Third floor, I think. Stairs are that way. Look for Intensive Care — blue sign.”

The stairwell had no windows or lights, but each door had a heavy glass pane that admitted a little light from the hallway beyond. Sam and the boys felt their way up to the third floor and found a little more light in the hallway. It was coming through tall windows into a sitting area with a desk on one side and a bank of elevators on the other. Nobody was there. Sam listened carefully; there was a faint set of sounds from down the hallway, a quiet gurgling, and a clink and clatter.

“Anyone here?” he called. “Burt? Burt Santini? Are you here?”

“Sam? Sam!” said an astonished female voice. Something clattered onto a steel counter and a white form appeared from a door behind the desk. “Sam Hyatt, it is you!”

“Uh, Kathy, no, Karen, right?” Sam floundered for a minute, struggling to put face and name together. “Karen McGuire? You and Ellie went to nursing school together.”

“You remembered!” She looked pleased for a moment, then worried. “Is Ellie with you?”

“No. I made her stay behind at her folks’ house with the kids. Longmont’s not….” He hesitated.

Karen laughed, a harsh sound made more of pain than humor. “Longmont’s going to hell fast, Sam. Not a single damned machine works anymore, and the government’s gone. The city council was in Breckinridge for a retreat and the city manager’s in the morgue downstairs next to the Chief of Police — car accident when that flash hit. I don’t even know who’s supposed to be in charge after them, but it’s a cinch whoever it is can’t do much without power or cars.” She waved out the window. “See that pillar of smoke there, second from the right of the steeple? That’s my apartment building. Everything I own went up in flames this morning, I could see the fire shooting through the roof, and I couldn’t even leave because my replacement’s not here. Hell, I’m the only nurse left on the entire floor.” She rubbed her forehead with the back of one hand, muttering “And a fat lot of good I’m doing here, too.”

“Karen, where’s Ellie’s mom?” Sam asked urgently. “And her dad? The neighbor said her mom was taken away in an ambulance around two o’clock on Tuesday. Her dad went along, but nobody back there knows what happened.”

“Oh.” A gentle, almost pitying look came over the nurse’s face. “Her mom had an aneurism, Sam. In the left cerebral hemisphere. We ran an MRI about three hours before everything quit, the doc told her dad there’s no chance of recovery — the damage is too great, and now we can’t even operate with no lights or power or anything. She’ll never wake up.”

Sam flinched. Mary Ann Santini, that warm vivacious woman who’d welcomed him to her family as if he’d been born there? Made him feel as if he’d had a mother again, his own being dead for so many years? “Gone?” He said it aloud.

“Not yet.” Karen shrugged. “All her autonomic processes are still running, for a while, but there’s nobody home anymore. Without the machinery we can’t even feed her, so her body’ll just waste away. She was on a list of medications for a liver ailment; that damn thing she picked up in her Peace Corps days. We can’t give ‘em to her anymore, her body won’t swallow pills and the pharmacy’s out of the liquid form, so she’ll probably have a relapse within a couple days, and death soon after.”

There was a desolate coldness to Karen’s voice that Sam didn’t like. He leaned into the counter and peered at her closely in the badly–lit room. Her eyes had circles under them, her uniform was stained and wrinkled like she’d slept in it, and she had a small nervous facial tic.

She’s nearly on her last legs, Sam realized. Aloud: “Karen, where’s Burt?”

“Still with her,” she promptly replied. “I’ve been trying to get him out of her room all morning, but he won’t budge from her side. He hasn’t eaten anything yet today and he slept in that damn chair last night, holding her hand — that can’t be good for his back, y’know?”

“Please, take me to him.”

“Sure. Maybe you can talk some sense into him.”

She ducked back through the room behind the desk, came out a side door a couple moments later. “This way.”

Karen led them down the dark hallway. Some of the patient rooms’ doors were open, letting bars of reflected sunlight spill in from the southwest side of the building — they were reflecting off mirrored surfaces in the rooms, making a random kaleidoscope effect. Sam looked in several rooms and saw blanket–wrapped forms surrounded by dangling disconnected electronics. Some had sheets drawn over their faces, but two were still breathing — one of those rasped like a buzz saw. Pat and Tim gazed around nervously, unsettled by the alien strangeness of a hospital with no power and by the chemical odors overlaying the fainter smell of death.

“Intensive care — hah, that’s turned into a bad joke,” Karen muttered so quietly Sam could barely hear her. “Hospice care is more like it… anybody banged up enough to need intensive care now is doomed. We should be triaging the living for those who can make it, but that damned asshole Robbins won’t hear of it. No wonder everybody’s running off on him.”

She opened one of the closed doors, stood aside to let Sam enter first. “Here he is.”

Sam hurried into the room. Two beds nearly filled it, the nearer with another shrouded body, the farther with an elderly woman lying very still under three blankets save for the slow rise and fall of her chest. A big gray–haired man in a rumpled flannel shirt and jeans sat bowed in a chair between the beds, holding the woman’s left hand in his right. He raised a tired–looking face to Sam.

“Burt!” Sam said, crossing the room in three strides.

“Sam? Where’s Ellie?” the old farmer asked as he struggled to his feet. He hesitated for a moment, then with an effort released his wife’s hand and took a step toward Sam. “Is she with you?”

“Home — your home,” Sam told him, clasping his father–in law’s hand. He saw Karen slip around to the far side of the bed, check Mary Ann’s pulse. “I left her and the kids there, biked into town with some of my students to fetch you home.”

Burt’s grip was still strong, but he looked visibly shrunken since Sam had seen him last year. There were tear tracks on his cheeks, lines of dried salt that had nothing to do with sweat. His clothes looked like he’d slept in them for the past three days.

Just like mine, Sam thought. Only he looks like he’s gained a decade since last year. This’s hit him hard.

“Home,” Burt muttered. “But I can’t leave her like this.”

Karen tossed her head, stuck her hands in her pockets. “You talk to him, Sam.” She stalked out of the room and went off down the hall, her footsteps echoing in the silence. Tim and Pat tried to look like part of the furniture.

“You don’t have to leave her, Burt,” Sam told him quietly. “We brought some big bikes — tricycles, one has a basket like a shopping cart. Mary Ann can ride in that. We’ll just bundle her up good so she stays warm, and we can be off.”

For the first time since Sam had entered the room, some life appeared in Burt’s eyes.

“Oh, good!” Then he looked around. “But I’m forgetting my manners. I remember Tim from last year, but I don’t know your new guy.”

Sam made introductions, skipping lightly over just how Pat had joined his class. The truck driver’s eyes got a little big when the old farmer’s grip squeezed his hand.

“I’m real glad you boys came along,” Burt told them. “’tween the four of us we ought to be able to carry her downstairs. First we gotta dress her, though. Her clothes ought to be here somewhere.”

A brief search turned them up, hanging in the closet.

“Unh, are you going to be able to dress her yourself, Burt?” Sam asked diffidently. Somehow the notion of having to see his mother–in–law undressed was more upsetting than seeing burning Longmont.

“Not alone,” his father–in–law said worriedly. Pat and Tim looked at each other queasily.

“Men!” Karen barked from the door. “Get out of the way and let a professional handle this. Burt, I’ll dress her and you hand me her things as we go.”

Sam, Tim, and Pat gladly yielded the room to Karen and Burt. Sam prowled the corridor nervously, looking in a few more rooms. The beds were mostly empty, but the occupied ones seemed to all be corpses, each one neatly covered with a sheet. He glanced in at the rasping breather, but he was silent now and Karen had drawn a sheet over his face too. Unsettled, Sam stopped looking and just paced the hall, while Tim and Mike retreated to the little waiting area.

A few minutes later she called them in again. Mary Ann was dressed, Karen had even gotten her shoes on; but she lay just as still as before. Burt was back in the chair, holding Mary Ann’s hand.

“She’s so cold,” he fretted. “And she’s hardly breathing!”

Karen rolled her eyes and visibly bit back the first thing she’d been about to say. After a pause she quietly said, very gently, “I told you what’s happening, Burt. Nothing can change it.”

“But not yet! Not yet!” he denied, clutching Mary Ann’s hand in both of his big ones like it was a life preserver and he a drowning man.

Sam saw that Mary Ann’s face was noticeably grayer than when he’d arrived; her chest barely moved. As he watched, it settled once more and did not rise again.

“Oh! She’s gone!” Burt covered his face with both hands and wept.

Sam remembered the desolation he’d felt twenty years ago when that stupid car accident had taken his own mother. He forced it away; outside the windows the sun was setting, the city still burning, and he had to get his father–in–law back to Lyons before the cold and dark set in. He let Burt weep for a few minutes while Karen covered Mary Ann with a sheet and bustled off somewhere. She took Pat and Tim, helplessly in over their heads, out with her, and left Sam to deal alone. Finally he patted Burt on the shoulder.

“Burt, Ellie needs you back in Lyons,” Sam quietly said. “Your grandkids need you. Please, come with us.”

It took a minute or two, but the big man got himself back under control. He pulled out a faded red handkerchief and blew his nose, wiped his eyes and looked at it. The worn cloth was carefully mended down one edge, rows of tiny stitches.

“She always took good care of everything,” he said, then got to his feet.

Sam found the heavy jacket Burt had worn to the hospital, got him into it. He moved like a man half–sleepwalking, but he moved. Out in the hall Karen was loading the boys’ arms with blankets from a closet. She ruthlessly piled a few more into Burt’s arms, then pushed him toward the stair door.

“You three take those downstairs to the emergency room, they’ve probably run short by now,” she instructed. “Sam, give me a minute to get my purse and I’ll walk down with you.”

Sam followed her aimlessly into the duty room. All the drawers and cabinets in the medication closet were open and a large pillowcase sat on a trolley, stuffed nearly full. Karen shrugged her coat on and ducked her head through the long strap of her purse, then slung the pillowcase over her shoulder.

“What are you doing?” Sam asked her, foolishly. You’re a nurse! He thought in shock.

“What I can,” she answered flatly. “Longmont’s doomed, but maybe Lyons can be saved. This stuff’ll help a lot, especially if we get dysentery or typhus or some other nasty. So let’s get to those bikes of yours while there’s still daylight.”

“But what about your patients?!”

“Sam, every single machine in this building is dead. Think it through. Respirators stopped, monitors stopped… Hell, feel how cold it is in here right now? Except for what comes through the windows, it’s been three days since we had heat. There’s nobody left alive on this floor but you and me. And I damn well aim to see that we stay that way, Ellie and your kids, too. I owe her too much to do less.”

She pushed past him and out the door.

As Sam moved to follow, he glanced down at a wastebasket. Dozens of bright red wrappers caught his eye, each emblazoned with the same word.

MORPHINE.

There was an empty syringe on top, small enough to conceal in a hand. Or a pocket.

God above. And Jack McCarthy though –I– was hard.

He turned and followed Karen McGuire, RN, out of the hospital and back into the chaos of collapsing Longmont.

Jack and the kids were still guarding the bikes, nervously watching every direction at once. Jack looked nonplussed at Karen, obviously expecting a much older woman.

“Ellie’s Mom is dead,” Sam told them flatly. “This is her dad, and Karen McGuire, a nurse that Ellie went to school with. We’re taking her back with us instead. Now you all mount up and we’re getting out of here.”

Sam helped Karen pack herself and her pillowcase into the basket. Burt was too large for it. He didn’t want to ride on the trike seat like an invalid while a younger man pedaled, but Sam cut his protests short.

“Burt, this is what we’ve got. Just live with it, please, and don’t waste any more of our daylight. We don’t have enough left as it is.”

His father–in–law gave way to that, and they were off. Sam spared a glance over his shoulder as they swooped out of the parking lot into the road. Hooded Sweatshirt was back at the bikes.

Sam led them back west on Mountain View and across Hover this time, avoiding the gang at the mansion and the fight to the north. He was still leery of taking Hygiene Road but somewhere up ahead he remembered there was a way to cut north through the residential areas and back to Ute Highway—if he could just find it. They pedaled through empty streets around abandoned cars to a corner shopping center, just a few store–fronts and a narrow parking lot that was nearly empty.

“Sam, stop!” Karen shouted, pointing at it.

The whole troop pulled up short, hesitantly. Sam controlled the urge to snap at her. “What is it, Karen?”

She was struggling out of the basket as she talked. “Look at the sign! Seeds!” She hit the pavement and ran for the middle storefront.

Sam turned his bike and followed in irritation. “What?”

“Seeds!” She repeated, tugging fruitlessly at the locked glass door as the other students brought up their bikes. “Vegetables! Food! We’ll need every seed we can get, and there must be hundreds in that rack!”

Sam looked up at the sign over the window. “Garden center” it read, with a smaller sign in the window advertising ‘Spring Flowers and Vegetables.’ Karen rattled the door in frustration.

“Oh for — get out of the way.” She moved over and Sam brought his bo around fast and hard. The plate glass door imploded into tiny fragments, it must be safety glass of some kind. Karen grabbed Darrin’s pry bar and knocked off the edge fragments.

“Let me,” Sam ordered. “You stay here.” He ducked through and snatched up the wire carousel display stuffed with vegetable packets, dragged it to the door and began passing fistfuls through. Karen was frantically stuffing them into her pockets, the boys’ pockets, even Burt’s pockets, though he looked at her in horror.

“Karen — Sam — you’re stealing.” There was anguish in his voice.

“We’re surviving,” she retorted. “And so will you, and your grandkids, because of these seeds, so stop arguing and help me.” She opened her purse and dumped most of the contents out on the sidewalk, began stuffing the space with seed packets.

That made a bigger impression on Burt than her words. Sam reflected that he’d never seen a woman sacrifice her cosmetics with so little thought, and passed her a double handful of broccoli packets.

It took less than five minutes to empty the rack. Sam abandoned it and slid back outside. Karen was stuffing the last few seed packets into the pillowcase with her precious hoard of medicines. She finished and hopped back into the basket. Pat straddled the pedals again, looking faintly boggled.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sam ordered. He looked at the street sign on the corner; ‘Auburn’ it proclaimed. “North,” he told his troop, and they set out once more.

The side road led north arrow–straight and right through a residential neighborhood. The comfortable suburban residences were generously sized, most with nice landscaping, but eerily quiet. Sam saw one or two faces in windows. Leafless trees lined both sides, stretching arthritic branches into the graying sky. Setting sun flashed off second–story windows on the east side, the lower floors already in shadow. Sam cursed to himself and picked up the pace.

They were two houses short of crossing Seventeenth Street when a band of men on foot came around the corner. Some had spears, the rest knives and clubs. Their eyes went at once to the bikes. Without saying a word they spread out to block the road.

Shit! Sam braked sharply, calling out “Halt!” The students came to a disorganized stop around him. He barely had time to yell “Dismount and form up! Weapons ready!” before the first man started a rush — and time stretched out again.

There were at least ten of them, Sam realized coldly as he let his bike fall. He slid forward between Tim on his left and Jesus on the right — they were already letting their own bikes fall, whipping out their bo sticks in perfect arcs. The lead attacker’s eyes widened a little and he shifted the point of his spear toward Sam’s belly without slowing a step. Sam swayed around it, brought his bo down in a slashing strike right onto the man’s hands. He distantly heard bones snap like twigs, brought the other end around hard onto the knitted cap over his target’s head. The man pitched forward like a broken puppet.

Sam whipped his gaze to the right. Jesus had blocked a weasel–like knife wielder, the little man tried to feint and dodge under the bo but the hard side of the long rod came in — crack! — across his knife arm. The knife pinwheeled away as his hand spasmed, then Jesus planted the end in the man’s ribs and he collapsed. Jesus already had the other end moving toward a second knife–wielder who tried — too late — to backpedal.

Sam whipped his gaze to the left. Tim had challenged another spearman, they feinted and dodged at each other in a tight dance. Three other men flowed around beyond, trying to flank Tim and get at Pat with their knives. The slower–moving Midwesterner was still untangling himself from the trike seat, he wouldn’t be able to block three knives with one. Sam flowed in front of the three, his bo flicked out and took the closest one in the knee. Agony flowered in the man’s face and he staggered into the path of his neighbor, who fell over him. Sam brought the bo back and punched in a rib on the second man before he landed atop the first. The third danced wide, giving Pat time to get his knife out and face him. The now–lone attacker dodged farther, turned and began to run away.

Sam whipped his eyed back right just as Tim crossed staffs with the spearman. The hard bo flexed, but the spear was a mere broomstick with a kitchen knife bolted on the end; it snapped through. The blade spun dangerously close to Tim’s head before Sam knocked it back toward the attacker. The man’s eyes widened in horror as the glittering menace shot toward him, holding his gaze for a crucial second. Tim brought the other end of his bo around into the man’s ribs and he began to fold, broomstick flying from nerveless fingers. The blunt back of the knife bounced off his head as he went down.

Sam threw his gaze farther right, chasing a fleeting vision. A club–wielding attacker had plunged through the space Sam himself had vacated scant seconds ago, dodging Jesus and lunging for Kate even as she spun to face another knifeman. The club was already swinging, swinging, toward her unguarded side, she didn’t see it coming, and Sam drove his bo ahead of him with desperate haste. He caught the club–man’s near arm with the end of his bo, felt the snap of bone, but the mass of the club was already launched. It glanced off the side of Kate’s head even as her own bo found the groin of the knife wielder. All three collapsed toward the pavement. Jerry’s staff came in from the far side, cracking ribs in Kate’s main assailant as he fell. The attacker behind that one dropped his own knife as he backpedaled away.

Sam spun around, searching for the other attackers. Two were circling, staring, dismay spreading as they saw their partners’ broken. Darrin closed up on one and the larger man lunged savagely, by sheer mass overwhelming the slighter Idahoan’s block with the pry bar. The knife drew a shallow red line across Darrin’s arm as it slashed past, cloth parting with an audible buzz. Then the attacker was stumbling as Terry swept his feet out from under him, knife lost as he hit the pavement. Darrin brought his pry bar around in a ferocious swing and bone crunched. The big man went limp on the ground. The other attacker lunged for a dropped bike, abandoning the fight.

Sam spun back barely in time as another spear licked at him. He deflected it up, away from his torso, and jerked his head back just enough to let it slide past with a slight sting at his left ear. The man behind the thick shaft had a ferocious snarl and desperate speed, he brought the blade back down right onto Jerry’s arm just as the student swept his own bo forward and missed. The spear did not, and again Sam heard an ugly ripping. He brought his own bo around viciously and caved in three ribs on the spearman’s near side. The thick shaft pulled free of the collapsing man’s hands as Jerry pitched back, screaming silently.

Then time snapped back into focus, and Jerry wasn’t silent any more. He screamed as he clutched his spurting arm, bo falling from suddenly uncontrolled fingers. Sam spun farther, to see the last assailant seize Kate’s bike in triumph and leap onto it. The man began to pedal as Sam leaped over fallen Kate, his bo reaching. A shuriken appeared in the rider’s left ribs and he wobbled, lost speed, then Sam knocked him right off the seat. Man and bike crashed in a heap. Sam turned to see Jesus, poised in one–handed throw position and still quivering from the release.

“Good throw,” he told the Hispanic boy.

Karen had gotten out of the basket, was dragging something with her—the pillowcase full of medicines. She threw herself down beside Jerry and began treating the nasty slash that had laid open his right bicep.

Sam looked around — where was Burt? He caught motion beyond Darrin where the other bike–thief had tried to escape. Somehow Burt had taken him down and stood over the doubled–up form, kicking savagely. Bones made dull snapping sounds under his big farmer boot and its steel–reinforced toe. The man on the ground gave a bubbling wet cry and went limp. Burt raised a bloody boot and kicked once more, then bent over and pulled the bike away from the now–unconscious form. He wobbled as he pushed it back toward the troop.

Sam made a full circle, counting. All of his people were here, and seven of the ten attackers lay inert among them. Two others crawled weakly away into front yards, mewling in pain and their weapons abandoned; he ignored them.

Terry, kneeling, was holding his brother’s agonized shoulders as still as possible while Darrin pressed the edges of the boy’s wound back together under Karen’s direction. She slathered something on the bloody arm, pressed a white pad down and began wrapping gauze.

Jack sheathed his knife and went to help Burt, who looked like he might fall down.

Sam went to Kate’s side; Tim was already there, kneeling and gingerly turning her over. A vivid discoloration spread across her left temple and trickled a little blood. She was out cold but still breathing.

“She’ll be — so pissed — that she — missed — the action,” Tim panted.

❀ ❁ ❀

19

— The End of the Beginning —

Santini House, Lyons, Colorado; Friday, March 20, 1998.

Ellie dipped the washcloth again, squeezed it out and carefully wiped away the crusted blood from Sam’s left ear.

“What happened on the way back?” she asked, delicately cleaning the slash wound. It hadn’t cut deep but the mark would leave a scar.

Sam started to shrug, winced and stopped. After a long pause he spoke again in a tired monotone.

“We got out of there. Tim put Kate in Jack’s basket and Karen rode her bike instead. It’s a miracle none of the bikes themselves were damaged. We found North Shore Drive right where I thought it would be and got back to the highway. It was dark by the time we got back to the barrier but Hank had waited up for us with a couple guys from his day shift. They turned the place over to the night shift and helped us all back here. How is Jerry?”

“He’s okay, lost some blood but Karen got him patched well enough. I put sixteen stitches in his arm, it should heal clean.” Ellie winced herself — she’d assisted at operations before, knew the technique, but had never sewed someone up all by herself before today. Well, she reflected, all by herself except for Karen’s exhausted commentary. Her friend had been too shaky to dare risk sewing somebody, so she’d coached Ellie through it before collapsing in Dad’s recliner chair, asleep before Ellie got the blanket tucked over her.

Ellie moved the candle a little to get a better view of Sam’s ear, then went back to cleaning dried blood. “Good thing she brought us all those medicines. I’d be worried sick about him catching a fever without it. Darrin was luckier, his scratch only broke the skin, so I put some antibacterial ointment on it and bandaged him.”

Sam grunted noncommittally. “And Kate?”

“I don’t think she’s got a concussion, or a fracture, but there’s a huge lump on her head. It’s a good thing you put her in the basket trike and got her back to Lyons quickly. Maria promised to watch her closely tonight. Kate did wake up for a while, so I think she’ll be all right.” Ellie hoped so, anyway, since there were no miracle cures in Karen’s pillow case for a concussion.

“Karen did some fast patches on us,” Sam added. “But I wanted my kids out of there as soon as possible, so we left all the hard stuff for you. Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ellie said. His ear was still seeping from the deep cut, but she slathered it with coagulant and taped a gauze patch to it, then wrapped gauze around his head. A bit of tape on his forehead and some more at the back of his neck held it in place. “That should heal clean, but you’re going to have a scar.”

“No problem. Thanks, honey. I can still hear, too.” He stared blankly at the candle in exhaustion while she busied herself cleaning up.

The propane stove still worked so there was plenty of hot water. Ellie cleaned up the bloody tools from her crude operations, scrubbed the table again, washed the rags out, and drained the sink. She covered and left the remaining boiled water to cool for tomorrow.

Sam had to be prompted to get him out of the chair. Tired as she felt, he was near exhaustion. She guided him upstairs to the room her folks kept for their married children’s visits — it had been her grandmother’s room when she was growing up, then after the old woman died it became the guest room. Ellie had several times appreciated that the old double bed didn’t squeak — this was usually the only place on the annual trip to the Regionals that she and Sam had any privacy, and they normally took advantage of it. But tonight he looked like he might fall asleep before he got his clothes off. She helped him out of his pants and underwear. He rolled under the covers and was instantly asleep. Ellie took a little longer getting herself ready, then slipped in beside him. His snoring barely registered next to the many sounds of a house full of twenty–plus tired people. Her tired legs blessed the clean sheets and soft bed, little twinges warring with approaching sleep.

We’re alive, all of us but Mom, she thought sadly. How long can we stay that way?

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀