Does a renewed world still have a place for those who only know how to destroy? While defending a tea-growing commune in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, one person seeks an answer.
The evening sky was a spring gray, which is different than a winter gray, and the soft light that came down through the clouds lit up the festival. Fires danced, and people danced, and my boyfriend was dancing with a woman who was there to work the harvest. They were hitting it off, it looked like. Everything was perfect in what was left of the world.
At the In-Between Lodge, we picked most of our tea leaves on Beltane. Traditionally, the first flush is in March and the second is in June. But traditionally, tea was imported from Asia, and obviously we haven’t had contact with anywhere that far away in decades. So while we do a modest first flush and second flush, most of what we grow is what you’d call “Darjeeling In-Between.” We grow it in the middle of what used to be called Washington State, so it’s not really Darjeeling at all, just In-Between.
I sipped from a ceramic cup of mushroom tea, weak enough that it just sharpened me up, made me aware of patterns of bodies and light. I wasn’t on duty, but I was on call and my rifle was stacked at the guard post by the eastern gate, so I didn’t get any further into another realm than just the one cup of tea. We’d adulterated the mushroom with oolong from the first flush, and the pleasant and the revolting tastes fought in my throat, a little war between caffeine and psilocybin.
The band played war songs on guitars and fiddles and drums. The handsome men of the choir sang the songs I’d fought to, songs I relish. Songs that transport us from the world of the living to that liminal place of both battle and sex, where we make and take life. My bare feet were in earth, the mountain wind in my hair.
My boyfriend’s dance partner wandered to the edge of the crowd, and I went to stand beside her.
“You must be Aiden.” She turned toward me.
“Khalil was just talking about you.”
Khalil was still dancing, now alone, thick legs kicking out as he spun. He was awkward and completely in his element.
“I love him,” I said.
“I gathered as much,” she said. She was watching him the same way I watched him.
“You should sleep with him,” I said.
She turned toward me.
“The spark’s gone,” I said. “Has been for years. I can get laid easily enough, but it isn’t as easy for him.”
She was just staring at me. I’ve never been good with reading faces. I saw myself and the firelight reflected and dancing in her green eyes.
“That’s how it works for me, anyway,” I went on. “Whenever I sleep with someone else, it just makes me want him all the more. You should sleep with him.”
An autumnal smell broke my train of thought. Autumnal smells had no place during Beltane, but there it was, amidst the ambient scent of the tea fields, the iron sweat of the dancers, the pine smoke.
A voice carried through the evening’s scents: “Fire!”
Burning tea plants. The smell was burning tea plants.
I ran for my rifle, snatched it up, and went into the rows toward the growing pillar of smoke. It started off as a Doric column, shifted to Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. By the time I reached it, it was Yggdrasil, the world tree, thick and ropy and holding up every one of the worlds.
There was no lightning, no likely cause but arson, and I ran toward the edge of the forest beyond the fields to search for culprits. At night, we see movement. In the day, we see shape. But in the gloaming, we see nothing. I saw nothing.
It took fifty of us to cut a firebreak to keep the blaze from spreading, tearing into tea plants with machetes while the fire tore into our livelihood. The band played, because what else can you do.
Of the hundred rooms in the lodge, ours was in the northeast corner, closest to the fields and the forest. The poster bed was ancient, had been ancient before the apocalypse. It had been through worse than we ever had.
The tea had worn off but spring nights have their own magic I’ll never understand or forgive, and there was no cell in my body that was feeling sober or responsible. Khalil was on his side, staring out the window at the burned fields lit by the moon and at the dark woods the moon couldn’t light. I stood in the door.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I said. It wasn’t.
“It’s just that it’s Beltane. It’s spring. Sex and flowers and all that shit. I should want you.”
“It’s fine,” I said. It wasn’t. “I’ve never much cared for spring.” That part was true.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he said, but he was looking at the forest. He didn’t look at me much anymore.
“What about that woman, the one you were dancing with?” I asked.
“The one who avoided me after you scared her off?”
“It’s fine,” he said.
There wasn’t much more to say. I left our room, and I left him there, and I went to go sleep at the guard post.
First light found me in the forest with Bartley, our scout. Sword fern grew up from the ground, maidenhair fern grew out of the rock walls of gullies, and usnea hung from every limb of every tree in handsome gouts of green. We walked along downed cedar trees in the wet fog. I didn’t follow Bartley’s footsteps, not exactly, because one person leaves tracks but two people leave trails.
The forest is something I know. A rifle is something I know. Violence, I know.
We stopped to break our fast under the boughs of an old-growth black cottonwood that towered over much of the rest of the forest. We ate jerky, tough but fresh, and we passed a thermos of tea. Just tea.
“You lost the trail, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Never was one,” Bartley said. Bartley had a lazy eye, was always looking out to the side like she was a prey animal. Gray and white ran through her otherwise-black hair, and she was old enough that she should have remembered the old world. She always swore she didn’t, that the first thing she remembered was being alone in the woods, barely post-pubescent, as she cut up a deer. Her life had begun at the same time so many lives had ended. A lot of people her age are like that.
Khalil and I, our lives had begun with our births, the next year, in the post-collapse baby boom. A lot of danger meant a lot of kids got born.
“What’re we doing, then?” I asked.
“If I was going to raid us, I’d have camped up this hill,” Bartley said. “There’s a spring up there, one you can drink from, and a few open cliff faces that’d let you spy on us.”
“Why do you think they did it?” I asked.
Bartley shrugged. “People don’t like it when other people have nice things.”
The In-Between Lodge was nice, there was no denying that. We were a collective of fifty-five adults, forty children, and another sixteen people halfway between the two categories. We’d raised up the lodge ten years back, just as the new world settled into place and drew its political borders, just as I’d left my teenaged years. We grew tea and we played our part in the new world’s mutual aid network of a few interdependent city-states, communes, and hamlets. We sold, gave, or traded provisions to people passing through the old railway tunnel, and we guarded Stampede Pass, the eastern edge of the new world.
Well, mostly, Bartley and I guarded Stampede Pass. Everyone could fight, everyone stood watch in rotation, but Bartley handled terrain and tracking while I ran tactics.
“Who made this jerky?” Bartley asked. “And what the hell kind of not-tasty animal died to make it?”
“You grumpy?” I asked.
“Damn right,” Bartley said. “I’m hungover and I didn’t even get to sleep between drunk and now.”
She shook the thermos.
“And we’re out of tea.”
We caught him with his dick in the wind. It wasn’t luck—we’d been waiting around for almost an hour for him to do something like fall asleep or get up to piss. Bartley had been right—he’d been camped up on the ledge, camouflaged by a bush, watching the In-Between with glare-free binoculars.
He was underfed, or maybe he was just built that way, and he’d kept scratching at his scalp like he was lousy. Younger than me, less than half Bartley’s age, and he had all the bushcraft of a city kid. His clothes were wrong for the west side of the mountains—too urban, too old world.
There he was, pissing off the cliff, when I walked out from behind the tree with a rifle leveled at him. I saw him think about dropping his dick and going for his rifle, and I saw him realize that wasn’t going to work. He put his hands in the air. If he was smart and his gang could afford it, he had a radio set to automatic, voice-activated transmission, and there was someone listening on the other end. But he was too dumb to shave his lice-infested hair. I was pretty sure we’d got him cold.
“You’re going to tell me a lot of things,” I said. “You tell me those things, and you’ll get supplies and a one-way trip on whatever caravan you want.”
“I wouldn’t tell you the color of the lips of your mother’s cunt.”
I shot him. The rifle slammed into my shoulder, the report scattered birds and hurt my ears. The bullet hit him in the neck and sent him tumbling over the edge of the cliff.
“You kidding me?” Bartley asked.
“Well I wasn’t going to torture the kid, and he didn’t want to talk nice.”
Bartley shook her head. “Now we’ve got to go find him, you know,” she said. “Search his body.”
“Maybe he’ll have some tea.”
We eventually found the wreckage of the man at the base of the cliff, his ribs sprouting from his chest. The noon sun and I both kept watch over the forest while Bartley combed over the body.
“Help me lift him,” Bartley said.
I got my hands under what was left of the bandit’s armpits and lifted. His insides dripped down my leg.
“I’m getting too old for this. The new world is getting too old for this.” I said it, because it was what people were supposed to think, but I didn’t really feel it. Peace didn’t work for me. Battle is a thing that gets into my gut, makes me desperate to live. Love is a thing that gets into my gut, makes me wish I were dead.
Bartley went through his pockets. She pulled out a pack of cheap naked-lady cards, threw them off into the forest. In another pocket, she found a topo map. Last, she pulled out a radio. She clicked it off.
“Hell,” I said. “They heard all of that.”
“What’s the map tell us?” I asked.
“Nothing’s marked on it, but it’s pretty zoomed-in, doesn’t cover more than about thirty-five square kilometers. Since the In-Between isn’t in the center of it, I figure their camp might be. Puts it halfway between here and the tunnel.”
“They know where we are,” I said, “but we don’t know where they are.”
“They might hit us tonight.”
“I bet the fire was just to flush us out,” I said. “They set this kid here to see how we organized our defense.”
“What’s the plan?”
“You know I’d hate for you to go out alone . . .”
“But maybe I’ve got to go out alone,” Bartley said.
“I’ll go warn everyone, set patrols, get children to shelter.”
“And I’ll make it back up here into range to call it in once I’ve figured out where they are.”
We started down the hill. The sun was halfway to the horizon; it was cutting into my eyes and baking that kid’s blood into my clothes. We stepped out from the trees and scrambled down to the railroad tracks about a kilometer east of the In-Between. Bartley came with me the half a kilometer or so our paths overlapped.
“I always liked walking tracks,” Bartley said.
“Yeah?” I asked. I wasn’t really curious but I preferred to listen to her speak than listen to my heart beat arrhythmically like it always did after I shot somebody. Doc says it’s just jitters, what some of the old books call generalized anxiety. I say it’s me getting off light, karmically speaking.
“Roads are hell,” Bartley said, “because they’re easy. It’s easy to make a road, right? You just get a bunch of people to walk somewhere a lot, that’ll make a road. You walk a road, it’s easy, lulls you to sleep, and there’s some asshole hiding with a gun and you don’t even notice because you’re lost in your head. Roads are hell.”
“Sounds like me and Khalil. We fell into habit. Made a road.”
“Railroads, though, railroads are great,” Bartley went on. “They’re hard to make. They’re hard to walk. They’re so specialized, and the best part is that they’re specialized for something that doesn’t exist anymore. These things weren’t made for our cow-drawn boxcars or our little rail-bikes, they were made for kilometer-long chains of cars pulled by the sheer strength of coal. When you’re using something specialized, and you’re using it wrong, that’s the beauty in this life.”
“I thought you were grumpy,” I said.
“I was grumpy,” Bartley said. “But now I’m walking on railroad tracks.”
We’d built the In-Between in the narrow valley below the pass. The Green River guarded our north, the mountains our south. A road from the west met its end at the door to the lodge, and a railroad ran through the whole of our land. We were unwalled.
We were unwalled for a thousand reasons. We were unwalled because we were peaceful. We were unwalled because, though increasingly rare, mortars and grenades and rockets were still a part of this world. Even some helicopters had survived the electromagnetic waves that had wiped so much technology from the earth, as I’d heard it, and such vehicles have no respect for walls. We were unwalled because a stone wall blinds the defender as much as the attacker. We’d gated the road and the railway, but those gates remained open during daylight.
Khalil was waiting by the gate for me when I got back. He had that pick in his short afro, the one the trader had told me was tortoiseshell, and who was I to say it wasn’t. The one Khalil had told me was lucky, and who was I to say it wasn’t.
He saw me coming, and a smile split across his beard. The smile got bigger the closer I got, until I was in his arms.
“We heard a shot,” he said. “Hours ago.”
“I shot somebody,” I said. I was so small in his embrace. He was one of the only people in the world who was large enough to make me small.
He kissed my forehead, and I tilted my neck up and looked into those black-brown eyes behind his glasses, those eyes the same color as mine, and I kissed him on the mouth.
“You all right?” he asked at last.
“I’m all right.”
“It took hours. I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
I pulled away, set my rifle down at the guard post. The crows stood sentinel on the gate.
“I can’t handle you worrying about me,” I said.
It was the right thing to say, because it was true.
It was the wrong thing to say, because I loved him.
He lifted his glasses, rubbed at his eyes. “I know,” he said. He walked away.
My eyes lingered on his back, and I still felt small. The wind wailed across the fields of tea.
I got the children and the infirm into the bomb shelter—a hundred-year-old relic of a paranoid generation that had been right about the apocalypse, just wrong about its timing—then set out organizing an all-hands watch. Fifteen people were on at all times, no able-bodied adults exempted from taking a shift. No one liked it, but no one complained. I don’t tell the cooks what to feed us and I don’t tell Doc how to sew us up and I don’t tell Khalil or the other horticulturalists when to conscript us into the fields for a harvest.
It was late enough in spring that the sun lingered, low in the sky, and I found myself cleaning rifles and counting bullets. Which left me nothing to do with my brain but to run my conversation with Khalil over and over in my mind like I was locked in the computer room in the basement with a video running on an endless loop—I could turn my head away, but I could still hear everything. Watching a video, though, I could wait until the sun went down and the solar stopped and the computer died. There wasn’t such an easy way out of my head.
There’s a certain kind of peace on a farm, and the tea leaves were emeralds in the moonlight. The night birds sang in the forest, the trees stood like crows on the horizon.
There’s a certain kind of peace in holding a rifle, as well. It shares the same simplicity, the same honesty. With that rifle, in those fields, my intentions were bare—we worked the earth, we defended the fruits of our labor.
I walked our eastern perimeter, through the rows of tea and through the burned scar where so much of our tea had been. Ahead, at the gatehouse, electric lights spit a flood of red out across the tracks and into the hills. We used red to save our night vision. We used lights at all because they made a good distraction—made any potential attacker believe our attention was focused on the railroad.
I’d learned every bit I knew about tactics the hard way. There were more bodies buried in our fields than there were people living in the lodge.
But that night, while I clutched a radio in one hand and waited to hear from Bartley, they didn’t come for us from the trees. They didn’t come for us from the tracks, or over the Green River, or from the mountains or the roads. They came for us with artillery.
It took three seconds for two shots to destroy the lodge. I saw them, those meteors, as they arced through the sky on a low trajectory and reduced my home to rubble. They were tracer shells, marked to help their gunner aim, and they burned phosphorous through the sky. They’d come from the east. They’d come from Stampede Pass.
I’d leveled trees older than my grandparents to help build the lodge. I’d pedaled rebar eighty kilometers up the tracks from the ruins of Tacoma to re-enforce the stone and mortar construction, and I’d killed two people—a woman and a man—who’d tried to rob me on the way. I liked to think I knew the difference between the evil and the desperate, and those two had just been desperate. I’d left their bones in the forest.
Three seconds, two shots, and all our work was gone.
With adrenaline in me, I don’t consciously process sound or scent or touch. Everything is visual, everything is slow motion. I ran through the green fields toward the shattered lodge as people streamed out. People were shouting. I might have been shouting.
I saw Khalil walk across the road, carrying someone toward the bomb shelter. That man existed to help people, to carry people, to nurse green shoots up out of the soil and into the light. I existed for other purposes. I gave up on returning to the lodge—they could rebuild without me, and Khalil was alive, and what good would I do, and I was their guard and I’d failed and I couldn’t face Khalil—and I ran for the gate.
I set a rail cart onto the tracks, settled into the saddle, put my feet on the pedals, then gave a last look at the lodge. Khalil was watching me, hands on his hips. His chest heaved, he turned his head, and he walked away. His gait told me more than any words ever had. It was the gait of a man who’d given up.
I pedaled east with my rifle held across my lap. I pedaled until the adrenaline cleared and the evening’s fog rose thicker and thicker and I had the chance to realize what a mess I’d just thrown myself into alone, which was better than acknowledging the mess from which I’d just fled.
It didn’t make sense to destroy the lodge. It didn’t make sense to destroy the fields. It made sense to capture our holdings. Whomever I was running off to try to shoot, I didn’t understand them. If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear one hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, you will lose as often as you win. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will never know victory.
I’d pedaled those tracks hundreds of times. The Cascade Range was my home, I’d grown up in its shadow. But fear creeps into your system and renders the familiar into something alien. The fog was milk-thick, as thick as it had ever been. My eyes tracked movement I knew better than to register—the shifting of moonlight through wind-blown branches, the glint of light on the steel of the rails.
I passed a rusted junction box, still painted with pre-collapse graffiti, which meant the tunnel was only a few hundred meters out. I stopped pedaling, set the brake so the cart wouldn’t roll back downhill, then dismounted as quietly as I could.
It’s hard to disguise the sound of heels on gravel. I heard my own, but there was another footfall, fainter, right behind me. A hand clamped down on my shoulder. I whirled, went for the knife on my belt.
She had one finger to her lips, her eyes betraying sleepless exhaustion. We scrambled up the embankment, pausing where we could just see the tracks at the edge of our vision. My hands were on the bark of a poplar pine, its scent was in my head, and I was grounded.
“They’re in the tunnel,” she said. She was murmuring low into my ear. “They’ve got military ordinance. Two big guns on two rail cars, plus a whole train of weaponry stretching into the tunnel.”
“Who are they?”
“Don’t know. I’ve seen about twenty of them. Most of them are camped inside the tunnel, alongside the ordinance. Looks like they’ve been there a few days.”
“Uniforms?” I asked.
“No idea,” Bartley said. “They fired a couple artillery shells. What’d they hit?”
“They took out the lodge.”
I’d never known Bartley to wear her heart on her sleeve, but she took a breath at that. Then another.
“Casualties?” she asked.
“I didn’t stop to count.”
“We should kill them all.” She wasn’t judging their character, she was addressing a strategic concern.
“I mined the tunnel, a couple of years back.”
“What?” I asked that too loud, switching for a moment into whisper instead of murmur.
“I didn’t tell anyone, because I thought people might get mad. And I figured our general assembly wouldn’t go for it.”
“How close do you have to get to set it off?” I asked.
“Close,” Bartley said. “Real close. Ten feet inside the front of the tunnel, against the south side wall, there’s a rotted hunk of plywood. Behind it, a cheap old breaker box I put in. Switch the first three and the last three breakers, then we’ve got two minutes to get clear.”
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