Twenty-four years after their avatars first crossed broadswords in a virtual dungeon, back when the Internet still functioned, Peter and Yolanda Nyqvist were the only fletchers at the weekly market in NewDC. Peter rode up to the mine every Wednesday after market, where his brother-in-law Hector chipped out the flint that they used for arrowheads. Fletching was a decent family business in 2045; people still killed each other regularly, but for the most part they were out of bullets.
The dilapidated highway was hot, but once Peter veered north on the remnants of the Baltimore Pike, the aptly named black locust trees—growing even in the cracks of the asphalt—provided a canopy shielding man and horse from the relentless August sun. He let his appaloosa gelding drink from a stream and dunked a faded Nationals cap before replacing it on his bald head. They were upstream of the Zone and the water here was more or less safe. A crossbow cradled under his large right arm, he kept a careful lookout.
After taking care to ride five hundred yards downstream to befuddle any trackers, Peter headed up the steep bank into a narrow canyon. Little sunlight filtered down through the dense forest, and Peter walked his horse up the deer track, careful to avoid the tripwires.
“Hector?” he called out as he wiped the sweat from his gray stubble. He was in better shape than he had been at thirty, when he had been designing artificial hearts while lunching on super-sized fries, both pursuits relegated to folklore post Fracture. But working eighteen hour days on the north side of fifty was taking its toll on his body, as were the lingering effects of radiation poisoning.
The only reply was the ragged chirp of a blue jay. Peter crouched low, spinning around, listening. The crossbow was ungainly in the heavy underbrush, and he would only get one bolt off. He was not as good a shot as his wife, a former member of the ill-fated 2024 Olympics archery team, but it was hard to miss at short range.
“Hector?” he called again, his voice a third higher this time. A twig snapped to his rear. Peter spun and fired into the brush. A squeal and a thud. He rushed forward, knife in hand, but the four-point buck was dead.
“Whassup, mi hermano?” A huge man with rough hands yet an unsullied complexion poked his head out of the camouflaged mine entrance. He had a longsword slung over his back and a tarnished Glock in his belt.
Peter paused from reloading the crossbow. “Nothin’ bud.” The proper response to the challenge. He embraced Hector and guffawed. Peter was himself a large man, but he was dwarfed by his wife’s muscle-bound older brother.
“We can’t eat that one, bro. He’s hot.” Hector pointed to the gray stump where the deer’s left ear should have been. They dragged the carcass a hundred yards downwind of the mine.
“Bring any whiskey?” asked Hector. “Busting all these big rocks into small ones makes a man thirsty.”
Peter tossed him a grimy bottle, a corner of an old Absolut label still visible. “Provisions too, thanks for asking.” He waved a hand at the saddlebags filled with jerky and tins of cornmeal. “Yolanda even baked you a rhubarb pie, if it didn’t get squashed.”
“Pie and whiskey, now that’s a twenty-first century lunch.” Hector laughed, his youthful countenance belying his own fifty years, his booming voice a mix of New York urban and New Mexico chicano.
Peter could never understand how a man who worked as hard as Hector, who had seen so much combat, could stay so baby-faced. Not to mention the jet-black hair, considering no one had manufactured hair color products in fifteen years. Peter subconsciously traced his own furrowed cheek with a leathered palm.
They ate in silence, efficient and quick, like wolves over a kill.
“The Army wants three thousand arrows. Guess even our blue-clad friends are running low on bullets,” said Peter as he downed the last of the watered down whiskey.
“¡Mierda! Are we finally invading Virginia?” asked Hector, as he flung his kitchen knife into the cabin wall. It quivered, the hilt within an inch of the oaken plank. “If so I’m reenlisting.”
“You’d need a Geiger and an NBC suit. The Zone is still hot down past Petersburg.”
“Got both. In my footlocker.” Hector had been Special Forces, and stuck it out even through the Fracture, despite his family being from what was now the Duchy of Santa Fe. There were vague stories of covert operations in Atlanta and Montréal, and a more persistent rumor of botched mission in the Detroit Keep Out that ended in Hector carrying three dying comrades—all that were left of his massacred squad—over forty miles to safety. He never returned to duty after that; he no longer had a unit.
“The Northern Republic’s prime minister claims it was the Chinese in ‘42, not the Rebs. It’s in the Toronto Star. Supposedly she has proof.” Peter didn’t believe this news from the weekly dirigible from Cheyenne, but was interested in Hector’s reaction.
“Why would the Chinese nuke OldDC?” asked Hector.
“The California Annexation.”
“Makes sense, but sure makes us look like imbeciles for retaliating on Richmond.” The Chinese Empire had forcefully annexed SanFran the day after 7/12. The world had been focused on the catastrophe back east; no one opposed the land and technology grab.
“Never bought that ‘we’re here at the request of the citizens’ speech by Lord Mayor Wang. Guess they really were after that biotech research facility.”
“Roger that. We used to get all our best toys from the military wing of that lab.”
“May they rot in hell.”
Peter stared at his ragged nails, blinking back tears. On the twelfth day of July, 2042, he and Yolanda had been helping her best friend Alexandra raise a barn to house a forge. At a few minutes before noon, they had clutched each other helplessly as the mushroom cloud, centered not far from their Victorian in Georgetown, blotted out the sun.
“So when does Colonel Saleem need his arrows by?” asked Hector.
“Tuesday a week. But it’s not Saleem; rather a Sergeant Forrest, out west at Fort Harper.” After the Fracture, Harpers Ferry had been fortified against the anticipated invasion by the NewConfederacy. An invasion that never happened once the Québécois fleet arrived in the Gulf, intent on annexing Louisiana into Le Grande Empire.
“I’ll go chip some flint.” Hector headed into the mine and Peter reluctantly climbed back onto his even more reluctant appaloosa.
Four weeks later, Peter and Yolanda were roused by an incessant pounding on the door of their 1980’s ranch house. It was Hector. “It’s two frigging thirty in the morning,” said Peter. “Enough with the hammering.” The other family in the house—Alexandra the blacksmith and her husband, a veterinarian who had lost a leg down in Dallas when the Texans had seceded—was, or had been, asleep.
“Bed… diablo… traitor… puta…” Hector continued into a multilingual diatribe. Peter only understood one fifth of the Spanish, but he got the gist.
“Master Sergeant Bedford Nathan Forrest, US fucking Army, soon to be permanently retired on the end of my fucking sword.” A whisper rather than a roar.
A sword indeed hung from his belt, but rather than one of Alexandra’s hand-forged longswords, this was a plasma sword, with an energy beam that coated the beryllium-plated blade with a soft glow. Peter had heard rumors of such weapons but had never seen one. Peak technology.
“Turn the light saber off. You’re wastin’.” Yolanda said. Wasting energy had been a felony since the thirties, at least while there were still police and judges.
“I got me three more juice packs,” he said, his speech slurred, but he switched the weapon off nonetheless. “You’re right, bro. Don’t want the damn thing to blow up. Antique plasma technology is about as stable as a cardboard shithouse in a monsoon.”
Yolanda had pulled on a tattered hoodie, a nondescript gray not unlike her radiation thinned hair. After smelling her brother’s breath, she deftly removed the cap-less flask from his hip pocket. With one arm over his broad shoulders, she gently guided him into the kitchen, lit a candle and proceeded to grind a spoonful of charred coffee beans in a wooden mill. Soon the faint aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, a pale reminder of better days, filled the unheated kitchen.
“You rate, bro,” said Peter with a faint smile. Yolanda rationed their coffee like it was gold. With sea trade at a virtual standstill, coffee was in truth worth more.
“If you show up again at my house drunk as a Swedish sailor, mi hermanito,” with emphasis on the ito, “I will grind your brains into masa de maíz.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just—” Hector started to sob, a huge left fist yanking on his ponytail. He had run down from the mine, twenty miles, when he heard the news from an iterant merchant. Eighteen miles of running actually, until he found an open pub, then he had staggered the remaining two.
Yolanda looked at Peter then put another pot of coffee on while Hector staggered back outside to the outhouse. When he returned his grief had been replaced by resolve.
“The NewConfederate cavalry cornered a group of runaway slaves a few miles south of the Maryland border. Soldiers from the Fort Harper garrison, armed with longbows, aided the rebels in blocking the ford.”
“Our arrows?” asked Yolanda, as she slammed the pot back on the old stove. “That bastard.”
A bang on the wall of the adjacent bedroom interrupted her.
“Sorry.” She lowered her voice. “They blocked the Tubman line crossing?” A reincarnation of the Underground Railroad, named after the Civil War abolitionist Harriet Tubman, had been successfully crossing over the West Virginia border for months. Yolanda and her brother donated supplies to the Tubman conductors whenever they could, as many of the newly enslaved southerners were Hispanics.
“Yup. Two hundred and fifty-eight escaped slaves died; forty-seven more were recaptured.” He took a sip of coffee. The kitchen was quiet now. “But it gets worse.”
“Worse?” asked Alexandra softly. She was standing in the doorway in a faded nightshirt, leaning on the hilt of a gleaming broadsword.
“Fort Harper seceded. Our former buddy, Sergeant Forrest, US Army, is now Major Forrest, NCSA Army and the fort commander. He’s got the captured slaves staked out in the sun.” He spat, then grabbed an old towel and cleaned up his spittle.
“And what is Colonel Saleem doing about this?” asked Peter.
“Not much. His forces are stretched too thin defending the border. There’s talk of raising a militia company, but I think it’s just talk.”
“I’ll raise the company,” said Yolanda. She scrounged up an old blanket, threw it at her brother and slammed the bedroom door behind her.
Peter awoke to an empty bed and Hector snoring on the floor. By the time he had milked the goats, Yolanda had met with Colonel Saleem and secured a brevet commission as a captain in the Maryland Militia. She fletched arrows by night and rode the appaloosa from village to village, recruiting. She set up a range on a corner of the dirigible field. Within a month she had fifty-two trained archers. Alexandra took to calling her Yolanda Brown—it was obvious where she was headed.
Peter also knew when: October sixteenth. Like his wife, he had minored in history. For his part, he was renovating a Civil War era Gatling gun that he and Alexandria had requisitioned late one night from a local museum. Peter was neither a thief nor soldier, but this was about family.
In October the company moved out, marching the forty or so miles to the West Virginia border just above Fort Harper. Hector arrived with fifteen former slaves—brown, black and a few whites—armed with claymore swords and crossbows. Peter mounted the Gatling on the back of a rusted-out Dodge truck. He had sold his mother’s wedding ring for gas.
Dressed in camo yet looking like a medieval longbowman, Yolanda captained Maryland’s first militia company of archers. Colonel Saleem had loaned her a cavalry squad, led by his own daughter Fatima, ostensibly on maneuvers. Alexandra, her two-handed battle-axe resting over her broad left shoulder, had marshaled a dozen farmers armed with a hodgepodge of melee weapons from her forge: axes, swords of various types and even a six-feet-long halberd.
The cavalry and Peter’s old Dodge forded the Potomac five miles upstream. A half hour before dawn they were in position beneath Bolivar Heights, a hill that commanded the fort, a jumble of concrete, wooden palisades and corrugated huts, more rust than steel.
Yolanda’s archers would be watching from above with the night vision scope that had magically appeared from Fatima’s saddlebags as a gift from her father. The rebels had blown a section of the B&O bridge, enough to stop trains but still traversable by foot. The night before, Yolanda had hugged both her husband and her brother goodbye. “Go with God, but send the slavers to hell.”
Hell rained down upon the surprised rebels in the form of flaming arrows, augmented by a plasma grenade, another pre-Fracture relic from Hector’s footlocker. The garrison streamed from their bunks to man the defenses, including a twenty-millimeter cannon, but Peter had that site scouted and covered, given Hector and his melee team a chance to scale the palisade and spike the gun before it fired a round. The rebels’ morale broke and the former slaves were quick marched across the border to freedom.
The stars and stripes once again flew above Fort Harper. For seventeen minutes and twenty-three seconds.
Trouble arrived on horseback, accompanied by an armored Toyota, an ’18 Prius hybrid that had long since been converted for military use. A Gulf War III vintage M60 was mounted over the sunroof. The rebels had two companies of cavalry, one wielding sabers and the second armed with bows like Mongolian horse-archers.
“Trap!” yelled Yolanda to her militia troops, “Fall back to the bluff.”
“Fatima, take the flank,” ordered Hector. The young lieutenant withdrew her cavalry to the west of town. “Peter, crank up your antique peashooter,” he added, then dropped into the tall grass and vanished.
Peter clambered into the back of the Dodge and manned the Gatling gun. He turned the newly forged crank, spewing hundreds of invaluable bullets at the cavalry charge. Flight after flight of arrows followed in retaliation, along with a spray of shells from the armored Prius and a Molotov cocktail. He was thrown from the Dodge by the blast with a shredded left leg and an arrow of his own making embedded in his right arm. After crawling halfway under the truck, he applied pressure to the gaping wound in his leg with his one good hand. The Prius turned its attention and machine gun to Yolanda’s troops digging in on the bluff, albeit at an ammunition conserving rate of fire.
Peter watched with dread as the saber-wielding cavalry approached him, then veered west to counter the Fatima’s sudden charge from behind a dilapidated café. Her attack was a feint, and she raced her few horses back behind the crumbled gas station. He momentarily forgot the pain and the welling blood as he spotted a slight movement in the tall weeds of the parking lot.
As the rebel cavalry, sabers flashing, thundered two abreast between buildings in pursuit, a crossbow bolt and a throwing knife in close succession took down adjacent cavalrymen. The next pair crashed into their fallen comrades, and the next pair of horses spooked and threw their riders. The lead elements were eighty yards out before they realized their rear had been ambushed. As the rebel commander, Major Forrest himself, in a colorful reproduction of a Civil War cavalry officer’s uniform, wheeled and rallied his vanguard back toward the ambush site, Fatima’s troop reappeared on foot, enfilading the rebels with arrows and bolts. That part of the battle was over in forty seconds as the major surrendered ingloriously when his hat was shot from his head.
The majority of the rebel company, blocked behind the pile of horses and riders, regrouped and charged at Hector’s hidden position. Peter watched in fascination and horror as he saw Hector rise suddenly, the plasma sword—blade glowing faintly green—replacing the crossbow. A hundred horsemen, sabers drawn and screaming what they must have thought was the long forgotten rebel yell, converged on their solitary ambusher. The balance of the horse-archers unleashed a volley of arrows toward Hector that missed him but killed four of their countrymen.
Hector stood motionless, a barbarian warrior from a 2D movie, plasma sword raised two-handed over his head. Peter squirmed out from under the truck, his left femur protruding through his tattered pants leg, but he had to see. He stuffed a fist into the gaping hole where his thigh had been but this did little to staunch the flood of blood. Yolanda took the opportunity to order her melee troops to swarm the now isolated Prius. Alexandra led the charge, taking scores of bullets before she collapsed, dead. Three of her farmers were also mown down before they overran the Prius, impaled the gunner and captured the driver.
Hector waited until the lead cavalry riders closed in for the kill. He sprung—in a leap that covered an unbelievable five yards—and beheaded the lead horseman. Balancing upright on the back of the rearing horse, he bounded onto the next horse like a CG hero of Peter’s boyhood video games, with a flying dropkick that fatally unseated its rider. A shoulder roll on the ground under the fast approaching second echelon was followed by a slit cinch and belly, but the plasma generator on the sword detonated, frying Hector’s right forearm up to the elbow. Hector grunted as a falling horse temporarily pinned him to the ground, but with a stream of Spanish curses he lifted the half-ton animal with his good arm and squirmed out from under the carcass. He lunged with unimaginable speed to the side, grabbing the blade that had been swinging at his head with his bare left hand and wrenching it away. He reversed the saber with a flip, and gutted two more riders as they plunged past.
A volley of shells from the captured Prius broke the morale of the remaining rebels. They wheeled off, but not before Hector dragged three more riders from their horses. The horse-archers followed, abandoning their bows as they fled.
Peter smiled to himself and released his death grip on his shredded leg, allowing the blood to gush out over the crumbled asphalt. The azure sky faded to gray as he lay on his side, the smile still frozen on his face.
To Peter’s great surprise, he awoke, shockingly pain-free, and more importantly, distinctly not dead. Hector and Yolanda looked down on him, one on either side. Hector had a large syringe in his right hand, red but clearly already healing from the plasma burns. “Now you really are my brother,” he said, with a wry smile.
“For a Princeton man you’re a little dense. Didn’t you major in bio-engineering?” Hector was still smiling.
“Nanobots.” Peter opened a door in his mind to an earlier life that he kept sequestered.
“When Hector said he was ex Special Forces he meant special in more than one way,” said Yolanda. Her own smile burned through layers of grime and blood—perhaps hers, perhaps not—on her face.
Peter nodded as he sat up, tenderly touching his left leg, which, like Hector’s arm, was healing as he watched. “Were you, are you, one of those Augments.” The question tailed off to a statement.
“We were injected with nano-robotic augmented viruses, resulting in enhanced motor skills, strength and longevity. Peak technology, pre Fracture.” The professional soldier recited this as if he was reading from a handbook.
“So are you an Augment like me?” asked Hector rhetorically. “Not exactly, but you’ll never lose at arm wrestling again, and you’ll live an extra sixty, seventy years.”
Understanding stabbed Peter in the heart. “That inoculation, it was a booster. Your booster.” A tremendous gift of life.
His next thought, of outliving his wife, must have been written on his face, or else augments also had telepathic powers, for Hector nodded and added, “Not to worry, mi hermano, I have one more dose for mi hermana.” He smiled at his sister, then turned back to Peter, “You’ll be fletching arrows together for a good long time. Perhaps one day you’ll design artificial hearts again.”
C.R. Hodges lives in Colorado with his wife, three teenage daughters, a dog and no ghosts that he knows of. When he is not writing, playing the tuba or coaching youth softball, he runs a product development company and is a clean-tech entrepreneur. He has short stories published in The First Line, Bards and Sages Quarterly and a first place contest winner in On the Premises. In addition, two of his short stories are under contract for publication in 2012, one in Lacuna and another in audio format in EscapePod.