The goal was to get home to Julie.
Limping slightly and unable to turn his head, Cutter was the first soldier from his transport to get through the gate in Boston. It had been a long, painful ten years, but if he was lucky, he might be home in an hour. He understood that he might not be lucky. He understood that things had changed around here. He tried turning his head against his neck injury. Both his neck and leg were repaired, but he needed at least another day or two to break them in. Just a little more mobility, a slightly wider field of vision.
Everyone should have been scanned automatically leaving the lot. Cutter’s rental merged with the traffic right before the gate, and the MP waved most everyone through.
When it was Cutter’s turn to stop, the barrier went across and the MP stepped out. He was an older man, who looked like he should be retired. He had a huge railgun slung over his shoulder. He held a scanner and scanned the code on Cutter’s neck.
“You aren’t geared up like you’re going the same as everyone else,” the old man said. “You’re headed north, I think.”
Cutter had to twist his whole torso to look. Even then, pain bloomed up his entire left side.
“I don’t know where everyone else is going, but I’m going home,” Cutter said.
“Not everyone gets to keep that kind of gear,” the old man said.
It wasn’t a question, so Cutter didn’t feel the need to answer. The old man consulted his computer.
“Yes, there you are,” the old man said, sticking his face closer to the screen. “I see you got hurt just before it was over. They didn’t think you’d live.”
“I’m better now,” Cutter said. “But if you don’t mind, I’d like to get home.”
“It’s not that easy,” the old man said. “I hope you understand where you’re going.”
“I know where I’m going. Can you raise the gate?”
Cutter glanced in the mirror, wondering why no one was honking. Everyone just sat there, like sheep.
“Why don’t you say the magic word, Captain Cutter?” said the old man.
“Please,” Cutter said. He meant it, too.
The gate went up. Cutter’s car took him out of the lot, took him through all the correct exits to head north. The traffic thinned quickly.
Cutter didn’t need the MP telling him. The stories had spread long before the war ended, stories short on details but all agreeing that it was more dangerous some places on Earth than it had been in the war.
He took the time dig the sidearm out of his pack while the car drove itself. He slid in a fresh fuel cell and snapped in a full clip of darts. Then he secured the heavy sidearm in its long pocket on the flight suit.
He had seen the worst of the war. He had learned to assume the worst.
He had heard from Julie. It was only a text message but it was only a year old. “I’m alive,” her message said. “You still have a home where you left it,” it said. It proved she was alive six years after the backlash. So it didn’t matter. He had to try and get there even if the worst was true.
The first sign that things were different appeared quickly. Traffic thinned to nothing. The car was making excellent time, traveling well over a hundred miles an hour. But grass started appearing on the highway, growing out of the pavement. At first it was just a few strips here and there in seams of the breakdown lane, then more and more of it in the regular traveling lanes.
Before many miles the only clear pavement was in the ruts made by the occasional traffic. Cutter tried to take some comfort. The car had fully functional autopilot. Instead, he found himself taking hold of the controls. He had not survived this long by taking comfort. And he was all alone on this road, now.
He began slowing down just in time. Lucky. He was on a long straight section. The grass made it difficult for the tires to get a purchase, and the anti-lock mechanism vibrated softly. An alarm sounded, warning him that navigation had been lost. Skid marks proved that other drivers had not seen this coming. He passed a wreck that looked at least a month old. Nothing was recent; there was no sign of any living human.
He passed a barricaded exit that he knew should have led to another Interstate. He came over the crest of a hill and approached the bridge that would have killed him.
The right and middle lanes were stripped down to the rusty girders with no markers, no barriers, no beacons, or anything. Another wreck, pink plastic faded and smeared, was wedged between two of the girders, upside down. It could just as easily have gone right through into the river. Cutter assumed some others had.
He stopped to look things over. It looked like abandoned repair work, not structural decay. It looked safe. There was a corpse hanging from the window of the wreck. Another soldier, in uniform. To Cutter’s practiced eye it looked about six months old — very recent compared to the backlash. Seven years since the backlash.
He decided to try the bridge, but not on this side. No holes in the oncoming lanes. There was a guardrail. He pulled his gun and severed it with one explosive dart. He severed it in a second spot two posts down. Then he took out the posts. Before doing anything else, he replaced his spent ammunition, not only putting in a fresh clip but also reloading the partially-used one. He dragged the section of guardrail out of the way, eyes sharp.
As soon as his his hands were free, his gun was back out.
Except for small craters where the posts had been, it was flat on the median and the car crossed easily. Cutter kept his gun in hand. He went full-out across the bridge, hoping the speed would help him across weak spots.
The crossing was uneventful. There was still no sign of human life. Several deer grazed in the breakdown lane at the top of the next hill. When he saw that the deer were feeding on one of their own, he kept going. He stopped and took out another section of guardrail. Again carefully reloading. Eyes sharp.
He crossed back into the correct lanes. He crossed out of Massachusetts.
Fifteen miles later he came to the town. His first warning was a signal from the autopilot. It was functional again.
Julie might have come here for safety. He would have traded almost anything to know that she was safe.
He tried to imagine what she might look like after ten years and then had to force himself to concentrate. During the war he had spent so much time looking at her holo that it had lost all meaning. It had nothing to do with what they had done together. The marines allowed exactly one holo, no sound, no animation. But all of this was beside the point. He had to concentrate, or he would never see her again.
The highway was still nothing more than cracked pavement with grass, but the houses looked better. The trend was clear. A moment later, he saw a house with smoke coming from a chimney. Finally, he saw the exit, which was barricaded, but only from the other side.
There had always been an exit here. It was ten years since he had been up this highway, but he remembered. Things were very different now, as they were everywhere else, but there were a couple of landmarks. There was a small town library on a hill and a familiar church steeple. Even the smells were familiar. He was very close to home.
He took the exit and found himself in a temporary-looking village across from a strip mall. There was a main road running past the mall that looked repaired, and there were side streets. He could see people. There was a huge black fence to the north, maybe a mile away, maybe two hundred feet high. It ran east to west as far as he could see. It had to cut across the highway.
He asked the computer if Julie lived here, in this village.
The computer had the town on its records, but it had no record of her. He still needed some information about that fence, so he pulled into the strip mall.
Cars were sparse in the parking lot, and almost all of them looked old. There were several that looked to be internal combustion, and there was one horse-drawn wagon. There was also one modern delivery truck, however, and the few people in sight appeared normal. Cutter had been told to expect abnormalities.
He left his headgear in his pack but activated the armor in his flight suit. He got out of the car and locked the doors. He entered a restaurant called “This Reality.”
“You came from the Interstate,” said the waitress.
Just like with the man at the airport, this was not a question. Cutter sat himself gently at a booth, sticking his healing leg out into the aisle. He had a clear view of his car from here.
“It was fine,” he said. “There’s a bridge. That was the only thing that got a little tense.”
“You came from south.” she said. “And from the war.”
She gestured at his suit, then his sidearm.
“Yes,” he said, not knowing what he was expected to explain. “The war’s over.”
“The war will never be over,” the waitress said. “At least not around here. You know that, or you wouldn’t be wearing a gun.”
“Yes, but now it’s just us doing stuff to ourselves,” Cutter said.
“No aliens to give us an excuse,” the waitress said.
She handed him a menu and went off to help someone else.
This was his first non-military meal in ten years. He surveyed the offerings in some confusion. Each meal was described in so much detail. Before he could decide, a woman approached and pointed to the code on his neck.
“You were in the Third Cavalry, Captain,” she said. “And much decorated.”
Only someone in Intelligence could scan a code without a computer. Just looking and reading it required neuro-enhancement. Her bearing was military, and she wore a graduation ring from West Point.
“You’re welcome to join me,” Cutter said, standing up. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” she said. “My job is to help people like you get home, answer your questions, give a couple of warnings. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s why you’re here.”
Cutter found himself wishing people would stop telling him what he was doing.
“I guess I’m following a standard pattern,” he said.
“We all do that,” the woman said. “Some make it farther than others.”
She sat down, and Cutter settled himself back at his place. His neck and leg were a little looser than they had been at the airport, but still not right. He looked at the woman nervously. She said it didn’t matter who she was. That meant she was still on active duty.
“Have I done something wrong?” he asked.
“Quite the contrary,” the woman said. “You made it up the Interstate. I saw you come off the exit.”
“I don’t see what that proves.”
“It proves you haven’t let down your guard,” she said. “This town escaped the backlash, but you cut through a piece of it.”
“There must be an easier way to get through,” Cutter said. “I saw the delivery truck.”
“There is a corridor, now. It’s about five months old. And the area you cut through is much better than it was at the beginning. Each time someone like you gets through, it seems to get easier for the next.”
“Why is that?” Cutter asked.
“Nobody knows,” the woman said. “Some scientists say it has to do with observing. Things just tend to heal.”
“Well, what should I ask you about?” he said. “Or maybe we could just skip the questions and go to the answers.”
“Fair enough,” she said.
She leaned in at him and spoke quietly, as if this was for his ears only.
“First, don’t trust your sidearm. Use it but be careful. It will propel the dart, but aim can be tricky. The same is true of your armor. It can do strange things. Don’t trust anything.”
“I heard the laws of physics are changed.” Cutter said.
“No, that can’t happen. But there are eddies from huge quantum forces. The early warp weapon sets off uncontrolled macro-effects. That’s what makes it a weapon. If you had the time, you could find a cause for everything in the backlash, but so much happened and so much is unstable — it’s chaos in the mathematical sense.”
“Can anything live over there?” Cutter asked, heart sinking. “I have someone over there.”
“Oh, yes,” the woman said. “Another trouble is that living things do extremely well. In places. All sorts of living things.”
“How do I get past the fence?” Cutter asked. “My home is just past the fence. Just a little.”
“That’s a puzzle you’ll have to solve,” the woman said. “Every little stream goes under it. Birds fly over it. All sorts of things get past it. But it’s designed to keep the worst of the backlash back. It fails from time to time. You’ll have to find the gap that works for you.”
She stood up.
“But,” she said, “you should be glad your goal is only just past it, if that’s true. The fence is a boundary, but in most spots the transition to the backlash isn’t so neat. Even in the worst areas, there are corridors of relative normal. You can find your way, if you take care.”
“Thank you,” Cutter said. “One last question.”
The woman nodded.
“What would you eat, here?”
“Always get the special,” she said.
Then she turned and went out of the restaurant.
At first Cutter thought she was shorter than Julie, but he honestly couldn’t tell. He couldn’t remember, and couldn’t afford to try. The woman’s smell lingered.
The waitress returned.
“You must be some heavy hitter,” she said. “She never talks to anyone.”
Cutter ordered the special. He secretly feared that it might be venison, but it was nothing more than corn chowder and a couple of slices of an aromatic, dark rye bread. It brought back memories, eating something that was so much like home cooking. So much texture and taste.
He realized that he had not eaten since coming down from orbit this morning. It was fortunate that he had stopped at this place. He was a little drowsy. He had a cup of tea, and felt the drowsiness leave him.
After eating, he went back to his car. Maybe he was expected to poke around looking for a hole in the big wall, some place where a stream went under, or where he might be able to find some secret tunnel. Instead, he got right back onto the Interstate and went north, as far as he could. The wall stopped him.
It was black reinforced concrete set into a trough that cut through the land as far as he could see. Maybe the people who built it had tried to make it straight, but it bulged and listed. It looked like the builders had struggled to maintain sanity, or that the backlash had pushed at them harder in some spots than in others. The gap between the edge of the trough and the wall was wide and deep, but Cutter was sure he could jump it in his suit, even with his bad leg. He was a little too close with his car for what he had planned, however. he backed up. When he finally got out, he carried his pack and the one other item he’d brought down from space.
This was one of the alien swords. They were rare, very rare. Cutter had taken this one while storming one of the alien ships. He had been on the boarding party each of the three times an alien ship had survived. The people in Intelligence, glutted with so many other things to study, had ignored the swords, which appeared ornamental, low-tech and therefore of little interest. However, they were made from some unknown composite that was both very sharp and very tough. Cutter had tried this one on many materials. As far as he could tell, it could cut through anything that wasn’t reinforced by ionic armor.
Alien physiology was very different, but Cutter figured out a way to strap the sheath onto his back. It required tying some of the straps instead of using the strange fasteners, but it was sturdy.
Next, he put on his helmet, and checked all the readings for his suit and his sidearm. His computer was still logged onto the satellite. Everything registered as fully functional. He activated the armor.
Finally, he braced himself against his car, put the sidearm on full muzzle velocity and began burying explosive darts into the wall. The noise was tremendous and the wall trembled and threatened to topple. Cutter hadn’t used the weapon on full-auto since basic training and was surprised at how precisely he could still fire the darts. The weapon waited a moment between rounds so that the explosion of one dart didn’t interfere with the penetration of the next. He found it gave him time to collect his aim. The vibration was like a sounding board, making thunder.
Each clip held seven darts. He used up ten clips. Then he waited for the wall to stop vibrating.
The hole was anything but clean. It was jagged, with lengths of severed re-bar sticking inward, huge spikes holding fast onto large chunks of debris. Some of the re-bar still wasn’t severed at all, but blocked the path like strands of iron spiderweb. However, daylight shone all the way through. He consolidated all the loose darts and partially loaded clips. Exactly eighteen shots. He would be without ammo very quickly, if he found himself in a fight.
A hundred yards from the wall: he got into the car, and backed it up another hundred yards. Then he got out, made a final check of his gear, and not-too-painfully jogged toward the hole. The jump from the edge of the trough to the hole was easy with the help of the armor. He drew his sword and sliced his way through, lopping off re-bar that blocked the way, and cutting chunks of concrete until they fell to the floor in pieces small enough to move.
In ten minutes, he stood at the other end, his neck and leg feeling much looser from the suit-assisted exercise. The highway continued north, disappearing around a curve about a quarter of a mile ahead. Guardrails were more or less intact, and there was even a faded green sign announcing the next exit. That was the last similarity to the familiar world.
In the far distance, a huge, snow-capped crater loomed over a riot of deep green vegetation. Not a standard feature in New England. The crater, possibly ten miles wide at the top, smoked, and the vegetation everywhere steamed. Cutter had seen this crater from orbit, and had watched it cool from bright orange during the months right after the backlash.
In the middle distance, on the broken foothills surrounding the crater, the greenery was blotched with black and gray swaths of bare or scorched earth. There were streaks of other colors through the vegetation, bright oranges, reds and yellows, like fall foliage, but also pinks and blues. He couldn’t tell if the colors were from flowers or leaves, or both, but it was spring, so he guessed flowers.
He scanned for danger. He assumed that his thunder had scared away most of the animals. His final shots must have been spectacular from this side. His last shot had gone clear through the hole, and made a crater in the bedrock embankment of the highway where it had penetrated. This, he hoped, would intimidate the more intelligent enemies.
Still, he kept sharp. From the heads-up display on his helmet, he activated the rental car, and had it accelerate toward him at full speed. He kept watch over the land for danger. There was one final, thunderous crash. Pieces of debris flew over him. He glanced behind and saw the crushed vehicle wedged tight in the hole, locked there by the rebar spikes. There was a lot of dust and a few falling pieces of concrete, but no daylight. Nothing would get through for a while. Nothing to do now but go forward.
He started right out jogging, and he followed the highway. He understood that things had changed, that the roads might be watched by anyone or anything.
He knew that the road at the next exit came around the small rise to his left. He would save distance just by cutting over that rise, especially if the apple orchard still grew on the other side. But he didn’t know what grew there. He would do better acting like a complete stranger. If attacked, he might be able to use the occasional islands of familiarity in surprising ways. On the other hand, if he cut through the country, his advantage would be more than lost.
So he jogged on, toward that first exit.
With the help of the suit, he could run comfortably for several hours. However, the sun was getting low, giving an advantage to the shadows. His need for his instruments would only get worse — at least as long as they worked. He would need all the help he could get if what he saw was correct.
He reached the exit, and after faking some indecision, headed west on the town road. He watched, looking for anything that might tell him whether this was a real threat. His computer was programmed for interspecies combat. It was very clear about human and non-human forms. At the moment, it showed both human and non-human readings. There were close to a hundred of them, surrounding him completely. Interspecies cooperation.
As yet, they kept to the woods, moving quietly. When Cutter turned west, the readings followed. They showed definite pursuit and ambush. Yes, these were definitely real; the instruments were not lying.
He had spent ten years in combat, but had never killed another human. He did not intend to do so. Furthermore, he had neither the weapons nor the advantage against this foe. His only choice was to use his greatest strength. He would try to run.
Running at high speed would deplete his fuel cell in an hour. It would take a significant toll on his body in half that time. The suit could run a mile in less than three minutes. Half an hour would take him over ten miles.
He accelerated gradually, not wanting to force them into the open. He watched, trying to learn as much about them as possible, and what he saw was bad news.
As his speed increased, the non-human signals accelerated to match, and all signals in front of him, human or otherwise, closed in toward the road. Cutter abandoned subtlety and started running flat-out. At that moment, five huge dog-wolves broke into the open and moved to cut him off.
His weapon was still out, but he hesitated. He didn’t know for certain that he was facing a hostile action.
He almost stopped.
Just then, a man with a shotgun came from behind a ruined house, took aim and fired. Cutter felt his helmet whip to the side from the impact, right against his sore neck. He felt himself falling. He felt another concussion on his chest, looked, and saw at least three men firing at him. He felt close to passing out. He forced himself to roll up and start running again.
He had never really stopped moving. His suit was still fully functional and as he fought off the faintness, he felt the familiar sick of combat. He had to hope they had no access to armor-piercing ordnance.
Enough were ahead that they could still grab him and bring him down. There were more and more people and dogs pouring out of the woods. Cutter had survived war because he was a very good shot. He opened fire, placing darts into each of the five wolf dogs already blocking his path.
There were small craters in the pavement, and pieces of dog flesh rained everywhere. But one of the men was also down, gripping his stomach. Cutter had not aimed anything at the man. The others were headed back for the woods. Cutter’s sprinting suit blasted through the smoke and falling flesh and he was finally clear, headed west. His terminal showed that he was still being chased.
He ran like this for several miles, then slowed the pace just a little. He would not be able to keep this speed indefinitely, but if he stopped, his injuries, both old and new, would tighten up. If he stopped, any further progress would be impossible.
The sun went behind a distant hill. This made the light more even, and made it a little easier to see into the shadows. The readings showed his enemy losing ground, but that’s when the howling started. There were answering howls from somewhere ahead. He could not tell if the howls came from canine or human throats.
He had his terminal zoom out. The signals of his pursuers became one big signal with the single pixel of him just in front of it. Off to the northwest another signal showed another bunch, already moving quickly to cut him off. The computer ran distance and time. He would beat both groups with room to spare, but he would have to maintain this pace.
He needed to get far enough ahead so that he wasn’t followed home.
As the running settled into routine, aches and pains became more difficult to ignore. His neck spasmed from time to time, and pain shot around his bruised chest with every step, even with the cushioning of the suit. At least his repaired leg held, and at least he thought his ribs weren’t broken.
Finally, he passed the last possible point where he could be cut off. It was an open area, dead. His readouts were momentarily scrambled. He didn’t need the terminal, however. The people and dogs were visible as they surged over a knoll to the north, and one of them shot a rifle in his direction, though the shot was out of range.
Right after that, the terminal cleared up.
Getting past this last threat was an emotional boost. He watched both groups fade behind him. He took comfort from this, and it was a mistake.
After several minutes, the open area gave way to more woods, dark and gloomy in the diminishing light. When these woods proved small, and another open area appeared ahead, he welcomed it. As he got nearer, he took note of the total lack of vegetation, but failed to take account of the meaning. He was fifty yards onto the scorched earth before his instruments scrambled, another hundred yards before they went out completely, and another quarter of a mile before his entire suit seized.
He found himself face down in the dirt, barely able to move, when the suit’s life-support failed along with the armor.
For a moment, he lay there panting while the window of his helmet fogged over. Moving was a struggle, but he had to get out of the suit fast. It was a space suit. Built for vacuum. Built to stay closed.
And he had at most five or ten minutes before his pursuers caught him.
It took him a full minute to get his arm up to the latch on his helmet, and he was only mostly conscious when he got it off. Then came the problem of unfastening the suit, which was tangled in the straps of his pack and the alien sword. He wasted time fumbling with knots and fasteners. He had better luck with the sword itself, got it unsheathed and cut the suit away.
It was easier after that. Cutter unfastened the last electrodes and catheters, and staggered to his feet. He didn’t know where his enemies were, and he was completely naked.
A few steps convinced him that he was too weak to carry the suit, the pack and the sword together. He left the suit — first, taking care to remove the sidearm, the extra clips and the suit’s fuel cell. The fuel cell was designed to work in the sidearm, as well. He used the sword to hack the inactive suit apart. He split the helmet. There was no telling what this enemy could do with a weapon like a modern battle suit. A few steps convinced him that he could not drag the pack with the straps sliced. He was forced to waste another minute or two improvising some knots on the straps, so that he could carry everything on his shoulders. It was not comfortable by any stretch, but at least he got moving again.
He had barely reached another wooded area when he heard the faint sound of howls. Winded and limping, he stopped to consider. There was no way he could outrun them, but he was in familiar territory. He knew there was, or used to be, a creek that ran parallel with the road. It circled behind a small graveyard just ahead. The graveyard was slightly back from the road. It was getting dark. He needed clothes and he needed shelter.
“This way,” a voice said. “Hurry.”
Cutter went flat on the ground and had his sidearm out of the pack before even he was aware. He fanned it back and forth, ready to fire into the shadows. It took a few moments for the logic to kick in. He would be dead already if that was the plan. He put the sidearm back.
“Where?” he asked.
“Here,” the voice said.
A figure appeared in the shadows under a tree, a figure covered everywhere in rags, covered so well that it was impossible to identify the species. The rags blended with the leaves. They didn’t use suits like that in space, but he knew it was called a Ghillie suit. The figure sounded female, human, older. She carried a deer rifle slung over her shoulder.
“I can help,” she said. “For a price.”
“Or a trade, something like your sidearm, for example. We can talk about it later. Now you have to hurry or we’re both dead.”
The naked Cutter followed into the overgrown woods, too aware of the danger to question any of this. They went toward the stream, then went upstream toward the graveyard. The figure walked with a limping shamble, hunched over and swaying, but there was strength in that limp. When they got to the low fence surrounding the graveyard, the figure vaulted it without difficulty and without hesitation. Cutter, exhausted and wounded, took longer.
“Almost there,” the figure said.
They passed burned remains of the caretaker’s house, a jumble of charred beams inside a stone foundation hole. Cutter remembered the house as small, a white Cape Cod with shutters and a neat lawn. They went around a low hill and arrived at a tomb. He remembered the tomb as a place kids sneaked into.
“Are you Mrs. Bixby?” he said.
“Do I know you?” she said.
“Yes. I remember. You were pretty good. Did your work, also.”
His high school chemistry teacher: The figure nodded recognition, nothing more, produced a key and opened the tomb. Her husband had taken care of the graveyard.
Cutter held his pack over his crotch, suddenly feeling modest now that they weren’t in full flight.
She pulled off her rag hood. A scar went diagonally across her face. Her gray hair was matted and very thin. She’d retired the same year the war started, already old, but now still alive. Her eyes had hardened and her cheeks had caved in. Cutter had seen that same face on many a combat veteran.
“Maybe you noticed things are different here,” she said.
“It’s better now. Mutations have slowed down. On the other hand, the ones that already happened don’t go away. There’s groups all going for the power, and not everyone’s strictly human.”
“In ten years? Mutants born and grown?”
“No, you don’t understand. It happened to adults.”
“Apparently not. I saw it happen. Subtle changes.”
“Big changes, too, I guess, but those people died.”
She pointed to her matted hair.
“I had terminal cancer. After the backlash something changed in me and I was cured. When I left the hospital I had to step over the bodies of doctors and nurses with extra things growing out of them.”
Cutter thought of the cannibal deer. Mrs. Bixby must have seen something in his reaction.
“I have other changes, but nothing you can see. No strange powers or anything.”
“Like the gangs chasing you. Humans and dogs. They run together, work together, communicate over distance. They do impossible things.”
Mrs. Bixby cocked an ear, sniffed like a wolf.
“Get in quick,” she said. “They’re coming.”
She held the door only long enough for him to slip in. She closed it gently, quickly but quietly. The darkness went total, except for a faint glimmer through the keyhole. She stayed near the door while Cutter felt in his pack for his lamp, flicked it on.
“No lights,” she said. “They’ll see it. They’re afraid of this place, but they’ll come if they see light.”
He killed the lamp but kept it in hand.
“Can we talk?” he said.
“Not for long. They hear and smell. They’ll be close soon.”
Cutter smelled only death in here.
“There still bodies in here?” he said.
“Just a deer carcass. The coffins are empty except for the one with the deer. I sleep in another one. The smell helps with the dogs and the rabble. When they get close, we’ll move to the back. The rotting deer is closest to the door.”
Rotting meat and dead bodies had been his company too often, and for too long. He had hoped those were behind him, along with the pain of injury and the fog of exhaustion.
“I need rest,” he said.
There was a rustling from her rags, the sound of a zipper, then a tiny light shining at a coffin.
“That one. That’s yours. Get in.”
The lid was closed. The coffin itself rested on the second level of a rack. He went there, opened it, tossed his lamp inside. Then he struggled up and lowered his nakedness inside, leaving his pack on the floor. He did this in the dark. She’d killed her light long ago.
“It’s no good if you keep it open. Close it,” she whispered, almost next to him.
He closed it, then gripped hard on his lamp. He did not turn on the lamp.
He felt something like comfort for the first time since he’d left the car. He felt a gentle current of ventilation but also felt warmth from the silk lining. But there was something else. The faint odor of chemicals gone half-rotten. There had been an embalmed body in here. He found he cared about that, but not enough to keep him awake.
He regained consciousness to the sound of thumping. It lasted only long enough for him to be certain he didn’t dream it.
Perhaps he’d slept only a moment. Absolute darkness still held, but now he felt a strange weight bearing down on his body. The weight moved a little. A tendril went over his mouth and by his ear. It had scales. In the war he had survived by knowing when to move and when to be still. A scaly tendril meant he needed to be still.
The lamp: he fought himself, fought his temptation to use the lamp.
Maybe he managed to doze awhile, maybe he fainted, but a tendril slithered along the inside of one of his legs a little too close to his crotch. He had no way to be certain that it was merely a snake. There would be no sleep now, if only because he might startle it by moving.
It was the beginning of summer, and the nights were short, but this one did not seem so. He managed to keep still until the light of dawn began to show through the air holes in the back of the coffin. As the light got brighter, he was able to move his eyes enough to get a look at the tendril right in front of his face. He saw a rattle on the end, and stopped moving even his eyes. Most of his body was numb from immobility. He didn’t think he could move even if he wanted to. A ray of sun hit the stone wall outside the ventilation holes, and soon the howls returned.
Bright sun lit the other side of the holes by the time his enemies came to the graveyard. Numb and stiff, Cutter simply waited to die. He heard the dogs sniffing, the people talking, and finally saw shadow darken the wall beyond the ventilation holes.
“In here,” a voice said.
“You see him?” said a second.
“No. I’m not sticking my head in there. You saw what that gun did.”
“Cover me, and I’ll go in.”
“How about I just empty a clip through the door?”
“Don’t waste ammo. He’s probably long gone.”
“She stays in there sometimes, so he might be there, too.”
“We don’t know who killed Keith. Could be him, could be her, but he has to be with her.”
Cutter was afraid his heartbeat would scare the snake thing on him. He prayed it wouldn’t rattle. There were sounds of movement out there in the tomb, but they came no closer.
“Well, nobody shot me, so he isn’t here. Just give me a chance to get used to the light. Step aside and let some of that light in.”
The shadow moved over enough to let the sun hit the wall. The brighter light filtered under the tendril on Cutter’s face.
“Jesus!” said the one in the tomb. “It’s a snake nest! Look at all of them!”
“Let me see.”
“No! I think they’re rattlesnakes. Don’t go in there.”
“Let me see.”
“We gotta get this guy, get his stuff. He’ll join the enemy. We don’t have time.”
The other voice faded backward.
“I hate snakes, especially those freaks,” it said. “Let’s go.”
As the voices faded, Cutter couldn’t stop himself from breathing deep, and when he took a breath, the snake started to move. He was not bitten. Slowly, as slowly as someone tickling a trout, he went to move his arm, to brush snake away very, very slowly. He had little hope, but he couldn’t stay like this any longer. Another movement, somewhere near his leg. He hadn’t done anything to disturb it. Then, slowly, it started to move off him. Even after the the part on his face had moved, he was afraid to look. Through the crack of his partially-closed eyes he saw nothing except the warm light streaming in through the air hole. The snake kept slithering off, going somewhere else. Finally, after a long time of feeling nothing, Cutter pushed open the coffin.
It took him another long time to get the feeling back in all his extremities, took him a long time just to get where he could sit up and look around. He saw a single snake going into a gap in the wall, a snake with three tails, all with whithered rattles. It looked more pathetic than dangerous.
His neck and chest were bad. His chest was purple and blue and he could not hold his head straight. The leg was better, almost normal. There were no snakes left. There was no sign that there had ever been snakes.
His pack was between his feet. Maybe Mrs. Bixby had made the thumping sound when she put it in the coffin. The sidearm was gone, but there was a bottle of water, two sticks of dried meat and his sword. Both power packs were gone, not that he had a use them for now anyway.
He arranged the straps of his pack to work like suspenders and sliced two leg holes into the pack’s bottom. He tried to bend. After passing out for a moment he got himself bent enough to slide the improvised shorts over his legs. Finally covered, he rolled himself to the rim and used it to get to his knees. He felt looser now. He held onto a section of the rack overhead and eased himself down.
Before he went out, he drank some water and ate one of the pieces of meat. He kept it down.
Sword in hand, he listened at the door and then stepped out.
From this vantage, it looked like the old Earth on a perfect summer morning. The songs of the birds sounded normal, and the trees and grass held the green of his pre-war memory. He watched and listened first. He went out of the graveyard the same way he had come in. He planned to cut through the woods to get to Julie.
On the other side of the creek he started to feel the pain in his feet, which were already cut and bruised. The feeling was coming back into his body all over. It wasn’t a good feeling. Only his head still felt foggy, and only now did he remember that he should have tape in a side pocket of his improvised shorts.
He felt the pocket. Mrs. Bixby had left him the tape.
Stopping under the roots of a fallen tree, he taped his feet and taped his chest. It was duct tape, but he’d worry about getting it off only if he lived that long. At least his neck felt a little more flexible now.
He went on, wading up the stream.
He had grown up in these woods. The backlash had changed the land, and he had re-entered an area where the trees were too green, at least if they were green in the first place. Some were other colors. Too much was mutated and bent but the hills were still where they were supposed to be. The ruins of houses, the roads and the streams were placed correctly. At least here.
He had around five miles left to go. In less than a mile, he heard the sounds of pursuit.
He began to jog and his feet were merciful enough to go numb. However, deeper pains began to go up his legs and outward from his chest. For a little while it sharpened his mind, but he was experienced enough to know this wouldn’t last. He couldn’t imagine making the five miles at this pace.
He found himself following a ridge, another sign that he wasn’t thinking, and this is when the pursuers caught sight of him. As they swarmed over a rise they let out howls of elation.
He went faster, fighting to stay conscious. He came to a road. A familiar road where nature went back to normal bird songs and normal trees — normal species like pine and maple. Most of the houses looked abandoned, but there were still curtains in one. He had passed by here many times when driving by with Julie, had known these people by sight, if not by name. He had not thought about Julie yet today. He could not afford to think about anything except moving and hiding.
The sounds of pursuit resumed, closer than they should have been. Had some of his enemies been waiting ahead? They were all around him, but they weren’t close enough. Perhaps staying in the stream had confused them.
He got across the road by crawling through a culvert. He pushed his sword ahead of him through a trickle of brown water, which pooled in the improvised shorts. On the other side, when he heard someone nearby, he snuck into an old barn. The crawling had torn open the tape he had wound around his chest. It drew blood from the crust over his bruise. Worse, a metal snag in culvert had broken one of the straps. He got out the tape and taped the strap to his shoulder.
He heard the pursuit fading. He left the barn. After a time he left the stream, made another mile before he hit the first wall. It was only a chain-link fence, patched, and topped with razor wire, but it was a sign of life.
He looked behind him, and saw pursuers come over a stone wall. They had no firearms, no dogs, but they looked happy to kill. They must have been stalking him the whole time, waiting for this moment. He could see them clearly enough to pick out their leader, who grinned.
Cutter had no time to look for a way through. He pulled the sword from its scabbard, that tissue-thin blade as stiff and heavy as a big hammer. He cut through the fence — so easily — and it made his enemies pause in wonder. He saw the lust for it in the eyes of several, then saw them look at each other. This bunch would fight over that sword. He planted it in front of the gap. He could think of no way to destroy that weapon.
It felt like surrender. He could not fight now. With no weapon he was no longer a warrior, just ready to die.
He ducked through the fence and ran. He was careful, still, more careful than ever. Such a weak fence must be patrolled. For all he knew, he was coming right into the territory of his enemies.
He went straight toward his home. It seemed like mere moments before he heard the enemy find his sword. He was barely out of sight when sounds of their fighting over it began. He ran, pushing himself, running harder than he should, maybe passing out, but never falling down.
He made the last mile, spent, breathless.
He came to where he expected his home to be. Where he expected his house and his yard. He found an entire village. His house was there, all right, but there were lots of others, all over what should have been his fields. There were people there, walking from house to house, doing business. They looked a lot like his pursuers — ragged. At least they had clothes, something more than a pack with leg holes. And nature here looked perfectly normal.
There was another fence, this with armed guards in plain sight. Lots of guards. There was a wide swath along the perimeter, maybe a hundred meters of bare earth packed perfectly smooth.
For too long, he crawled at the edge of this swath, searching for the gate, but he could hear his pursuers right behind him, then in front. He came to a gully. He could go down into it, and maybe be trapped. He could follow it deeper into the woods, and leave the area of his home. Or he could step into the open, and take bullets from the surprised guards.
He rested, caught a little breath.
“Standing still is the wrong choice,” said the voice of Mrs. Bixby.
He turned toward it and glimpsed the familiar rag-suited figure brandishing his sidearm. The figure faded back into the underbrush.
“Go! Now!” she said, as if he didn’t know.
He stepped into the open, slowly. He saw a good dozen rifles snap into aim straight at his face. He realized he must be a suspicious sight, clothed in tape and a backpack, bruised all over, head shaved for his helmet, holding up his hands like a lunatic.
“Julie!” he screamed. “Julie Cutter! I’m home!”
The people in the streets turned. The howls of his pursuers grew to a frenzy as they burst into the open, going for him. He heard the report of his sidearm, firing on full auto. There were screams, and pieces of flesh rained over him. The guns from the village opened up, but not at him. Cries of pain and panic and retreat.
“Julie Cutter!” he screamed again. “It’s me, your husband!”
People ran for the houses, and in moments the street was cleared, except for the gunners aiming at his head. The tape gave way so that the pack covering him fell askew leaving him feeling exposed in too many ways. He felt like less than a man, even less than the human animals behind him. From the distance, his sidearm fired again but the screams of pain were also farther away.
It was only a matter of time, one way or another. He waited, shivering, exposed, hands in the air. Finally an older woman, much older than he remembered, but still the most beautiful woman on Earth, burst out of a door and came toward him, running.