return to utown

In the morning, SarahBeth was the last one up. She came out of Perry's bedroom when the others were already eating breakfast. Her hair was tied back and she was dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans.

She came up and put a hand on Perry's shoulder. "Perry, I think we should go back to U-town. We really didn't give it a fair chance. I'm going, and I hope you'll come with me. But I think I'm going anyway." Vicki kicked her in the ankle. "I'm going anyway," she finished, "and I would really like it if you'd come with me."

Perry looked up at her for a moment, then put his hand on top of hers as he turned to the others.

"My non-monogamous, underage, incestuous, lesbian girlfriend and I would love to come," he said, holding her hand firmly as she tried to pull it away.

Jan Sleet, smiling, raised her mug in a kind of salute. "Perry," she said, "you're developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humor. We'll have to start being more careful around you."

Looking resigned, and blushing slightly, SarahBeth sat down beside Perry.


"Did you tell her?" Jan Sleet asked quietly as Perry and SarahBeth packed.

"Tell her what?" Vicki asked innocently.

"That Doc is taking time off to write her book and you're running U-town these days?"

Vicki smiled sheepishly and looked at the floor. "No," she said quietly.

Jan Sleet looked at her sternly.

"I didn't think she'd come if she knew," Vicki said quietly.

"So, you–"

"Yes, I did a SarahBeth on her. I was trying to get her to be straight with Perry," she laughed, "so to speak, and I did the same thing to her. Well, I always said that she and I were just alike."

"So, go tell her now. Before we leave."

Vicki scrunched up her shoulders. "But then she won't come. And I so want her to be there. Look, if she's nice for four hours in the car, she'll be ready to explode. This will give her something to explode about."

"How's Pat going to feel about this?" Marshall asked.

"This doesn't have anything to do with Pat. I don't want SarahBeth to be there with me, I just want her there."

SarahBeth came back in and hugged Vicki from behind. "By the way," she said, "congratulations on being elected leader, or however you people do it. We heard about it on the radio a couple of days ago."

She swept into the bedroom and Vicki made a face. "She drives me crazy, you know that?"

Jan laughed. "Maybe this should be our plan. We can just go door to door and win people over."

Vicki gestured at the bedroom door. "I'm not going to go door to door and do that to win people over."

Jan Sleet glanced at Marshall. "And neither are you, mister."

 

Vicki turned her head slightly. "There's a car coming," she said, standing up.

"You have psychic powers, too?" SarahBeth demanded as Vicki climbed up on a cabinet to look out the window next to the front door.

"No," Vicki said, pulling aside the curtain and peering out, "but these ears aren't just for show. And I am here as security." By then they all heard the car pull up and stop. "U-town would be pretty fucked if . . . Oh, fucking shit!"

"What is it?" Marshall demanded as Perry reached for his baseball bat. "Police? Army?"

"Worse," Vicki said, letting the curtain close as they heard the steps on the small ramp up to the front door. "It's my mother."

There was a knock at the door and Perry went to open it.

Sam Little stepped in first, shaking Perry's hand. He had added a small beard since Jan Sleet and Marshall had seen him last, but otherwise he looked about the same.

Alexandra Ross looked very different. Her hair was short and black, flecked with gray and her face was lined. She was still tall and thin, dressed in black slacks and trenchcoat over a man's white shirt.

Once she stepped inside, hand extended to Perry, obviously about to speak, she saw Jan Sleet and Marshall and stopped. She did not immediately see Vicki, who was still crouching on the cabinet and hidden from her by the open door. Then she saw SarahBeth and her face grew hard.

"What are you doing here, Nicky?" she asked in a low voice.

"She lives here," Vicki said, jumping down in front of Alex. Her small face was stony. "Who invited you?"

"Oh, Jesus," SarahBeth said, her face drained of blood.

Terry Nelson looked down at SarahBeth. She smiled a wintery smile. "I guess I was right about you all along, Nicky," she said.

SarahBeth just stared. It was impossible to tell if she was even aware she'd been addressed.

The transformation had been immediate and complete, Terry Nelson now stood where Alexandra Ross had been. Her hair was shoulder-length and blonde, and she was wearing a tan sweater and dark brown slacks.

And then the lights went out.

 

They could still see perfectly well, the morning sun was visible through the closed curtains, but the effect, coming immediately after Alex' transformation, was striking nonetheless. Perry looked around and there was a moment of confusion until SarahBeth said, "What the fuck? It's not even storming now. Why–"

Marshall was looking at his employer's face, and he moved to her side. "There's something wrong," she murmured, ignoring the confusion around them as everybody else started to talk at once.

She took his hand. "Come on," she said, pulling him toward the kitchen. She picked up Perry's little transistor radio and turned it on.

There was some static, and then a tense voice came on, "–the explosion apparently originated in the middle of the river, perhaps on a boat, and it was powerful enough to damage buildings several blocks from the water on both sides. The midtown area has been closed off, and nobody knows how much damage the squatter's community called U-town has taken. There is no reliable information about casualties, but there is speculation that they may number in the thousands. The power went off immediately after the explosion, in an area apparently now extending far beyond the city, and there is no indication of a direct relationship, but clearly–"

There was some more static and the voice cut off. By then Vicki was there also, and she said, "We have to get back. Come on."

 

The others in the living room were all still talking, but Vicki yelled, "Emergency!"

When they were silent for a minute, Marshall said, "There's been a very large explosion in the city, affecting both the city and u-town, with extensive damage. Plus the power is off in a much larger area, extending apparently at least to here. We need to get back."

"Come on, we need to go," Vicki said, moving toward the door.

Jan Sleet and Marshall followed her, but then Terry said, "Hold on, you are not the only ones going."

It took Sam a moment, but then he looked around the room. He turned to Perry, who said, "I don't have a phone."

"God damn it," Sam said. He turned to Terry. "Come on, we need to find out if Sarah is okay."

"She wouldn't be home anyway," Terry said wearily. "She was going to U-town, for a visit. She told you that when we left home." She looked at SarahBeth. "I think she was going to look for Nicky. Again."

"Come on!" Vicki said, holding the door open.

"Perry," Jan Sleet said as Marshall helped her into her coat, "we'll understand if you don't–"

Perry turned to SarahBeth, and she said, "Don't fucking look at me. It's not up to me. Make a decision."

He buttoned his coat and took her hand firmly, turning to the others. "We're going, too. Come on."

 

SarahBeth felt nauseous as she and Perry got into the back of Sam's rental car. She had assumed that Perry would decide not to go to the city. She just hadn't wanted to deal with the being the one to make the decision, in case he felt bad about it later.

But now, here they were, going to the disaster zone with Terry and Sam, who hated her. And, even worse, they were in the back seat of Sam's rental car, since Vicki had insisted that she, Jan Sleet and Marshall had to ride together so they could make plans.

Once they reached the highway, it was clear that very few cars were going toward the city.

After a few minutes of silence, Sam asked, "Do you think the radio report was accurate? It sounded pretty exaggerated, as if people are jumping to the worst conclusions without having all the facts."

Terry reached forward and tried the car radio. All she could get was static.

"It worked on the way up," Sam said quietly.

Terry turned in her seat to face Perry and SarahBeth. "So," she said, "Nicky, I'm surprised you're coming with us. I assume it's not concern for Sarah."

Perry took her hand. "Her name is SarahBeth Wasserman, and she's coming with me. We already agreed to come before this happened, and this doesn't change that. I'm concerned about Sarah, of course, but I'm concerned about people in general. I have friends in the city, and my publisher is located there, too. My editor's husband spends a lot of time in U-town. This is a lot bigger than any one person, and I think we should focus on that, not on personal difficulties or problems."

Terry smiled. "Well, it is pretty to think that way, I will admit, especially–"

"Terry," Sam said, "I think Perry has a point. We're going to be in this car for a while, let's keep it pleasant. You and I should be thinking about where Sarah might be, and how we can find her when we get there."

SarahBeth took her hand from Perry's and punched him in the upper arm. It hurt, but he knew it was just because he was handy. He looked in her eyes for a moment, then took her hand again.

She leaned over and whispered, "I just wish I could turn into a different person when I get into some bad shit."

 

After a few minutes of silence, Perry asked, "Sam, why did you come up today? I never got a chance to ask you."

"The book," Sam said. "Alex' book. It's coming out soon, and I thought . . . we thought that the three of us should talk about it. You're involved, whether you like it or not, and there may be repercussions, at least in terms of publicity, because you were associated with Tammy."

SarahBeth was watching the back of Terry's head as Sam was talking, but she was looking at the road, not reacting in any visible way.

"Well, I'm glad the book is done," Perry said. "I think it's a good thing, even if it causes me some grief." He chuckled. "SarahBeth and I were talking about going to Bellona again anyway. This could make it a good time."

SarahBeth whispered to Perry, "How come you're all couple-y about us all of a sudden?"

He smiled and replied, "I thought it would probably annoy you, but you wouldn't be able to say anything because it's what you said you wanted all along."

"I swear," Terry said, not turning around, "with all that whispering back there, I feel like I'm with some of my students."

SarahBeth put her finger to her lips, grinning, and snuggled up against Perry as he put his arm around her.

 

The first toll plaza they reached was apparently abandoned. There were no toll takers, and they drove right through.

The second toll plaza, at the bridge into the city, was closed. Cars were being encouraged to turn around and drive away from the city again. There were several soldiers at the barricades, and Marshall's car pulled up to them. Vicki got up and went over to one.

They couldn't hear the conversation, and it went on for several minutes, but when Vicki got back into the car the soldiers moved one of the barricades and they drove through.

Now there were no cars at all on their side of the highway as it snaked between the river and the city. The dust and smoke in the air was much worse.

At the bridge over the river, there were more police barricades and they had to stop. Again Vicki got out to speak to the officers, but this conversation was longer and Vicki was getting visibly upset. Finally she turned back toward the cars and stood for a minute, head down and arms folded. Then the passenger window of the other car rolled down and she went to talk with her sister.

After a few moments of heated conversation, Vicki turned and walked slowly to Sam's car. For some reason she was carrying Jan Sleet's cane. Terry rolled down the window and Vicki came up to her.

"Alex," she said, her eyes moving around, "they won't let us in. I told them what I said before, that we're not U.S. citizens, that we're U-town and we need to get home, but they won't let us through. I even told them I'm the director of U-town, and they obviously recognize me, but they say nobody is getting in." She finally looked at her mother. "I need to get to U-town," she said. "I need your help."

"I can't–"

"Tammy could. Tammy could convince them. Jan told me . . . Look, I can get myself there, I can run there in a few minutes, but I really want and need you all with me. Especially Jan." She paused, then added quietly, "Please. People's lives are at stake."

SarahBeth clutched Perry's hand as Terry Nelson opened the car door and Tammy Nelson stepped out. The lawyer, impeccably dressed, long strawberry blonde hair managing to gleam even on the overcast day, took the cane from Vicki and limped to the toll plaza to speak to the officers.

A few minutes later, the barricades were moved, and the two cars drove through, with an escort of two police motorcycles.

Perry caught SarahBeth's expression as she stared at the back of Tammy Nelson's head. He took her hand and leaned over to whisper, "Imagine how Sam must feel."

 

Once they were in the city, it was very hard to get around. Roads were blocked, rubble was everywhere, dust was so thick in the air that they could barely see. A couple of times SarahBeth saw what looked like bodies, and she was glad they couldn't see very far or very clearly. She held onto Perry's hand, reconsidering whether going to Bellona with him would really be as romantic as she'd thought.

Marshall's car crept along in the lead, and Sam followed. A couple of times they had to back up and try another route, but finally they pulled up in front of a ramshackle hotel which was apparently their destination.

As they pulled up to the hotel entrance, a girl came running out. She was fairly plain looking, wearing a backwards baseball cap, jeans and a sweatshirt. SarahBeth somehow knew this was Pat, and she was right.

Vicki exploded out of the other car and almost bowled the larger girl over with the force of her embrace.

"–so worried about you, baby," she was saying as the others came up. Then she pulled back a little and looked up at her lover. "Where are the others?"

There were tears in Pat's eyes as well. "Doc is dead. Jack is gone, I don't know where. Ray is drunk. Passed out."

Vicki's eyes widened and she wiped away the tears. "What? Where... Oh, my God. Who's been running things?"

"Me, I'm afraid. Badly."

"You've been doing very well, I'm sure, but this is too much for any one person." She looked around. "No time, but this is my mother, and her boyfriend Sam. And SarahBeth, my cousin. And you recognize Perry, I'm sure. I'll tell you all about it later. Where is Ray?"

She gestured at the hotel. "Inside, but he's–"

"He's going to help. Marshall, do you know where the kitchen is?" Marshall nodded. "Then please take SarahBeth there." She turned to her cousin. "I need a big glass of the red shit. As fast as you can."

SarahBeth grinned. "No problem."

"Red shit?" Pat asked as they went inside. The others followed.

"Her sister's hangover cure. It's vile, but it works." Marshall and SarahBeth went down one hall and the others went down another.

 

SarahBeth followed Vicki down the dark hall to the open door. The smell of the evil mixture she was carrying made her feel hungover and ill, just from the memories it conjured up.

In the room, a slender man lay on the bed, fully dressed in incredibly dirty and smelly clothes. He was snoring, and the room stank of alcohol.

Vicki went over to the bed and grabbed the man's hair, yanking him up to a sitting position. Climbing up so she was standing on the bed beside him, she pulled back his head and held out her hand. SarahBeth gave her the glass and she poured the contents down his throat.

"He may choke," SarahBeth said abruptly.

"Then he'll choke," Vicki said. "I need his help, and I don't have a lot of time."

He did choke, and then he threw up violently down the front of his shirt.

"Come on," Vicki said, jumping off the bed and hauling Ray behind her toward the bathroom. "We've got to get him cleaned off."

SarahBeth made a face as she followed her cousin. "If I'd wanted to clean up skinny drunken men all the time, I'd have stayed with Johnny Mac."

Vicki let go of Ray's arms and he groaned as he lay on the bathroom floor.

"I'm not touching those clothes," SarahBeth said. "They were nasty even before he threw up."

Vicki grabbed his belt and the waist of his pants and ripped them open. "No problem," she said as she tore them off and then ripped his shirt open. Ray started to move around, but Vicki grabbed his shoulders and started to roll him into the bathtub. SarahBeth helped push him over and he thudded into the tub on his back. Vicki jumped up on the edge of the tub and turned on the shower.

SarahBeth regarded him. "Naked, he reminds me a lot less of Johnny Mac," she observed as the water hit Ray and he yelled.

Vicki smiled. "His strengths are in other areas, ones which will be a lot more useful than the Mac would be over the next few hours and days."

SarahBeth laughed. "Johnny Mac was not the kind of guy you needed in a crisis, unless the ship was sinking and you needed to be distracted."

"Well, this ship isn't sinking, so we need this guy, even with his shortcomings."

She turned off the water and looked down at her friend.

"Ray, we have work to do."

"I don't–"

"Now. You made a commitment to this project, for better or worse. You've had the better. Now you're going to help me with the worse."

He looked at SarahBeth for the first time. "Who the hell is this?" he demanded.

SarahBeth put her arm around Vicki's shoulders. "I'm her sister, and she needs you. Come on. Or she's going to start pulling your fingers out by the roots. One by one."

She grabbed Ray's hand and yanked him up to his feet. He wavered and nearly pitched forward onto his face, but then he got his balance and Vicki took his other hand. They helped him step out of the rub and Vicki handed him a robe.

"I really–" he began.

"No time. Come on." He managed to get the robe belted closed as they pulled him down the hall and down the stairs to the main floor.

 

In the meeting room, Jan Sleet Marshall and Pat were talking, then they looked over to where Tammy sat. "Where did Sam go?" Marshall asked.

"He's gone," Tammy said idly. "It was never really going to work with he and I, you know." She smiled. "It was fun, but I intimidate men like that. I'm very successful in everything I do, I make a lot of money, and I'm fantastic in bed. That makes men uneasy, unless they're really self-confident. Sam's a nice guy, but he doesn't bring a lot to the table."

The other three were speechless for a moment, until Sam opened the door and came in with two cups of tea. He placed one in front of Tammy, and she smiled. "Why, thank you, dear," she said, "that was very thoughtful."

After a moment, the door opened again and Vicki and SarahBeth came in, pulling Ray behind them.

"I've been drafted," Ray said, waving wearily as he sat down, shivering a little and pulling his robe tight around him.

"Even though he flunked the physical," SarahBeth said, sitting beside Perry.

"We've been waiting for you to get started," Jan Sleet said to Vicki, taking out her cigarette case. SarahBeth and Ray took cigarettes, and Jan lit them both.

Perry coughed a couple of times, but SarahBeth murmured, "It won't work, we outnumber you."

He made a mental note to tell her later that he was absolutely not going to start giving her "gentleman service" (as Jan called it when Marshall lit her cigarettes), so she might as well not ask him for it.


Vicki jumped up on the table and sat cross-legged. She looked at Pat and said, "Tell us everything you can, and take your time."

"It was awful," Pat said. "At first we didn't know what had happened. I guess we still don't know, not really. The explosion happened in the middle of the night. You could hear it all over, it was very loud."

"Were a lot of people injured?" Jan Sleet asked.

"A lot of people were killed," Ray said. "And many more were injured. And the hospital is pretty close to the river, so it was basically ruined. Like many buildings that near to the river, it was flooded in addition to everything else, since we're so close to sea level. It's still standing, but it's no place you'd want to bring someone who needed medical help."

"People came here," Pat said, "just like we've always told them to. Well, here or the hospital, but if they went there first, they came here anyway. We sent runners to the bridge, but mostly we sent teams around to look for people who were hurt. We've been bringing them here, because I didn't know what else to do, but there's no medicine or anything here. The hotel had some first aid kits, with bandages and a few other things, but we used them up pretty quick." She shrugged. "I just tried to think what you would do, and do that."

Vicki glanced at SarahBeth, who was rolling her eyes, then she said, "It's like the First Night, only it's not."

Ray shook his head. "It's not really. That was . . . something was on our side." He smiled. "I don't know what, but I'll bet you do. This is something against us, either against people in general, or against the US and against us without making any distinction. It just looks the same on the surface."

Vicki nodded. "Very true, as far as we can tell now." She turned back to Pat. "Are people watching the bridges and the city, in case–"

The doors flew open and several soldiers came in with guns drawn.

 

Jan Sleet pointedly put her hands flat on the table top, and the others followed suit. Nobody spoke.

"You're all coming into custody," the sergeant said as the men held their guns steady on them. His attention was on Vicki. "This whole 'experiment' is over. This situation shows what can happen." He gestured with his pistol at the door, which had swung halfway closed.

Vicki looked at the guns pointed at her lover, her sister, her cousin, her mother and her friends. She climbed carefully off the table, keeping her hands in clear sight, and said, "I'll come."

She moved toward the door and swung it open, the others following her, but then she turned quickly, grabbed Pat and threw her to the floor as there was a sudden hail of bullets from the hall.

The others hit the ground as well, and when the gunfire let up, the soldiers were all dead, and a woman was standing in the doorway, a gun in each hand.

She was blonde, her hair apparently hacked off at random whenever it got in her way, wearing sunglasses, a soiled army coat, jeans, boots and a gunbelt.

She smiled a thin smile. "You see, Raymond?" she said. "I was right. It was a good idea for me to keep my guns." She slapped another magazine into her automatic, put it into her shoulder holster, and then started to reload her revolver from her gunbelt.

"I've been working with Katherine to help her control her violent impulses," Ray said shakily as he tried to stand up. "She's been trying to convince me–" He slipped and fell again, and Vicki went over to help him to his feet. "Why are you here, Katherine?" he asked as he brushed himself off.

"Not that we're complaining," Vicki added.

"A friend of mine was hurt last night," she said, slipping her revolver back into its holster. "I carried him to the hospital, but nobody was there, so I brought him here."

"Is he going to be okay?" Vicki asked.

Katherine nodded. "Someone looked at him and said it was a twisted ankle. Then I saw the soldiers come in, so I followed them."

"Well, as I said, we're glad you did."

"There are a few more soldiers outside," Katherine said.

They all waited in silence for a moment, but there was no sound. "We are in the back of the building," Marshall said slowly, "and the walls are thick. Maybe they didn't hear anything."

Vicki shrugged. "Either way, we have to deal with them. Come on."

"Can anyone else here use a gun?" Katherine asked as they went out into the hall.

"I think we can handle this another way," Vicki said. "At least I hope so."

 

There were about a half dozen soldiers standing in front of the building, apparently arguing about what they should do. No one seemed to be in charge. In the middle of this, a tall blonde woman in a canary yellow suit limped calmly forward and engaged one of the soldiers in conversation. As she spoke to him, he slowly put his rifle down on the ground and responded to what she was saying. After a moment, another soldier came over, waving his arms and shouting, but then he joined the conversation as well. It was very animated, and when another solder came over to find out what was going on, the other ones waved him to silence as Tammy was speaking, and then the new arrival started to speak as well.

"We need the eggs," Vicki said quietly. She and the others were standing on the steps of the hotel, watching Tammy at work.

Jan Sleet peered down at her sister dubiously. "Eggs? What eggs?" she demanded.

"It's like the old joke my grandfather used to tell. 'My uncle thinks he's a chicken,' 'Well, why don't you take him to a psychiatrist?' 'Because we need the eggs.'" She shook her head, smiling. "Our mother has insane delusions that she's a successful and persuasive lawyer. But we can't try to cure her, we need the eggs."

Jan Sleet laughed. "Maybe she's wrong about being so great in bed, too."

Vicki made a face. "Eeww," she said. "I do not want to talk about her sex life. I don't even want to think about it."

"Sorry," Jan Sleet replied.

Vicki shuddered and turned to Ray.

"What do you think of all this?" she asked him, indicating the discussion group that Tammy Nelson was now leading with the soldiers, all of whom seemed completely content to continue talking indefinitely.

"I think two things. One is that I really want to know how she's doing this. Which I suspect you won't tell me. But, more important, I think this may not be isolated, and we need to cover the bridges, set up some sort of security. Right away."

Vicki nodded. "I agree."

"If this was an invasion, it was pretty puny," Perry pointed out.

"It wasn't," Ray said, "if they were going to invade for real, they wouldn't send a few men with just a sergeant in charge. I suspect this was a group of soldiers who got cut off and decided to do their own thing. But there may be others, and a real invasion may come, too. We're going to have to wait on everything else for a bit." He looked around at them all. "We need to get somebody to cover the entrances, the bridges, before–"

"I can coordinate that," Marshall said. "Are there runners inside?" Ray nodded. "Let me go in and see what I can round up."

 

There was no electricity. They didn't find out until much later how much of the country was affected.

It was not like the First Night, cars worked, guns fired, but there was no power. But, of course, with no electricity to power the pumps, once a car ran out of gas, it wasn't going to move again. And, they found out later, most cars which had been anywhere near the explosion itself would not start at all.

Radio stations had managed to continue to broadcast for a few hours from the city, mostly covering the story on a strictly local basis, but they soon fizzled out, which was rather a relief since a lot of what they had been telling people was speculation (or untrue) anyway.

Between the darkness and the soot which filled the air, there was no sense of time. Jan Sleet was helping run a makeshift hospital at the local high school, Marshall was coordinating volunteers to cover the entrances into Utown, in case there was some sort of attack coming.

Vicki tried to stay in the meeting room and keep some sort of overview, but the simple fact was that she was needed in too many places, to do things that nobody else could do. A basement door was blocked with rubble, people were trapped on a second floor and the stairs were gone, there were crises everywhere which needed her strength.

So, Ray and Perry and SarahBeth were in the conference room by themselves quite a bit. Sam was helping at the makeshift hospital, and nobody was sure where (or who) Alexandra was.

At one point, Vicki appeared (she was moving so fast by this point that it was difficult to see her run unless you were looking right at her) and collapsed into a chair. Perry threw her a towel and she tried to wipe off her face, which was streaked with sweat and soot.

"We've all used it," Ray said, "it's probably just moving the gunk around."

She laughed. "Better than nothing." Pat, who had been asleep in a chair, jerked her head up and looked around. Vicki smiled and went over to her. She wiped a small portion of Pat's cheek with the dirty towel and kissed it.

"Go to bed, baby," she said. "It's more comfortable than the chair, and you need to sleep sometime."

"So do you," Pat said, straightening up in her chair.

Vicki smiled. "No, actually I don't, as far as I can tell. I'm just taking a breather, then I'll be off again."

Pat yawned and shuffled toward the door.

"How is it?" Ray asked. "Should we be out there, too?"

Vicki shrugged. "A couple more pairs of hands probably aren't worth as much as having some people looking at the whole thing."

"We don't get a lot of news, though. What's going on?"

"No invasion or anything like that. It seems this may even have been some sort of natural disaster, but nobody's sure. Marshall's still making sure we're covering all the entrances, just in case. Anything on the radio?"

Ray shook his head. "Nothing. I think the radio itself is good, we've kept a lot of batteries ever since First Night. I think nobody is transmitting, unless the crap in the air is blocking it somehow."

She frowned. "Unlikely, I would think. More likely nobody else has any power either."

"What about people who are hurt?"

"We're still sending them the high school, but they have almost no supplies. They had a medical office, but we used up the supplies there a while ago. I feel bad even sending people there."

Ray looked up. "Are we sending teams into the city, or just around U-town?"

"U-town. We still have injured people of our own–"

"We need to start sending people to the city, too. Not instead of around here, but some need to do both."

SarahBeth was about to say something sarcastic, but the door opened again and Pat came back in. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said, "but I just heard that the Jinx are leaving."

"Leaving?" Ray demanded, but Vicki was already on her feet.

"Where?" she demanded.

"They're almost at the bridge–" Pat began.

"You'll never–" Ray began before he realized Vicki was already gone.

"She'll catch them," Pat said quietly. "You have no idea how fast she is."

"But then what?" Ray asked.

"She'll convince them to come back," Pat said, sitting down again.

Ray shook his head. "I don't think so. They're very committed. But there is another possibility."

Perry turned to Ray. "What's your idea about the teams going to the city? And what type of teams are you talking about?"

"Medical teams," Ray said. "A lot of how we work around here is going out to people with medical help, rather than expecting sick and injured people all to come to us. As for going to the city, I agree that our first priority has to be our own citizens, but this can't turn into us-versus-them. Who knows at this point what kind of mess we're in, how bad it will be, how long it will last? Not me, that's for sure.

"But I have a more practical reason for saying we have to go over the bridge. That's where the medicine is. If it's anything like this over there, there are abandoned drugstores and doctor's offices all over the place. We need what they contain, both for our people and for theirs."

 


A while later, they heard the sound of engines approaching from a distance.

"That's not the Jinx," Ray said. "I don't hear the howl."

Pat stood up. "We'd better get outside."

They moved toward the door and SarahBeth demanded, "Where's that crazy woman? Where are the guns?"

"What guns?" Pat asked as she hurried down the hall ahead of them.

"You don't have any guns?" she demanded. "Are you fuckin' nuts? What about–" but they were outside by then, looking down the block at the approaching motorcycles.

In the lead was a motorcycle ridden by a tall, blond man. There were about thirty or thirty-five other motorcycles behind him, all coming fairly slowly, like some kind of parade or funeral.

At first they didn't see Vicki, but then Pat pointed and they saw small black-clad arms around the blond man's middle, tiny hands holding his jacket.

Neil and Vicki dismounted in front of the hospital, the other riders pulling up behind them.

"Where are the others?" Jan Sleet asked, "and where's Dr. Lee?"

"Gone," Neil said simply, his face impassive. "We're the ones who Vicki convinced to stay." He squeezed the shoulder of the tiny figure next to him. "Dr. Lee and the rest left."

Ray started to say something, but Neil said, "We need to talk. Who's handling the perimeter, the bridges?"

"Marshall."

He looked at Vicki. "No disrespect, but any objections to my taking over on that?"

She shook her head. "None."

"Where is he based?"

"City bridge."

Neil turned to the others, all of whom had stayed on their motorcycles. "We going to the city bridge," he said in a loud voice. "We'll deploy from there. Let's go."

"If Marshall is coming back, please ask him to collect Jan on the way," Vicki added, and Neil nodded.

When they were gone, Perry said, "That was pretty abrupt."

"We have to be happy for the help, for what they can do, but I'm not happy about it. It's like I broke up a marriage or something."

Ray shrugged. "They each made their own decision, that's the best we could get."

"This is all really fascinating," SarahBeth said, "and it wouldn't be the first time you tried to break up a marriage, but I want to talk about how there are no guns. You guys don't have an army or anything? No weapons? If that smelly woman hadn't appeared, we'd all be locked up or dead by now. It never occurred to you–"

"We were never going to win a war with anybody," Ray said, "with or without weapons. We were–"

"Wrong," Vicki said, making a face. "I think we were wrong. We need to talk about this, but the B may be right."

SarahBeth managed to conceal her smirk. She also saw Pat give Vicki a clear "you and I will talk about this later, in private" look. Perry noticed all this and took her hand. She squeezed his hand so hard he thought it would break, pressing her upper arm against his.

"We should go out on one of those medical teams," she said. Perry's expression went blank, and she craned her neck up to whisper, "you said you didn't want to just sit in a room this time."

"I think that was you who said that," he muttered back. "But you're right."

"Check in the lobby," Ray said. "Teams are being put together from there."

Vicki, Ray and Pat returned to the meeting room.

"Are you off again?" Ray asked Vicki.

She shook her head. "I hope not. I want to wait for Jan and Marshall to get back."

"You want me to get something to eat?" Pat asked.

"How are we doing for food anyway?" Vicki asked.

Ray shook his head. "We've got enough for a day or two. After that, who knows."

Vicki stretched out on the table and threw one arm across her eyes. "If you can scrape something together, baby, that would be fine. I think I'm going to try to get a few winks before Jan and Marshall get here."

Pat picked up the dirty towel and used it to cover Vicki. On her tiny body, it looked as big as a blanket.

 

Vicki woke up when the door opened and Jan Sleet and Marshall came in. Both looked considerably worse for wear, even Jan's usually impeccable suit looked dirty. Vicki chuckled that she didn't seem to be protected by the magic which kept Tammy spotless at all times. She sat up, yawning, and motioned at their usual seats.

"I think we have a few minutes," she said, sitting in the chair beside Pat. "Jan, Marshall, please sit down."

They did, and she turned to Pat. "I wanted to do this without the others here. I need to know what happened to Doc and Jack."

Pat sighed heavily. She and Ray had been eating, and she pushed the half-empty bowls toward Jan and Marshall, who eagerly started in on the the leftovers.

"I was asleep when the explosion happened," Pat began, "or whatever it was. I woke up and the room was full of smoke and junk, and I didn't feel you in the bed with me. For a moment I panicked and thought something had happened to you, until I remembered that you were away. I came downstairs, and Jack was here in the meeting room. Everything was a mess, windows were blown out and everything, but the hotel was okay. It didn't have any holes in the walls or anything.

"I asked Jack what had happened, and he said he didn't know. Doc had gone over to the hospital to help with the wounded."

She shook her head. "A runner came in and told us that they'd seen a wall collapse on Doc, or someone who looked like her, between here and the hospital."

"I went to look, and it was her," Ray said quietly. "That's when I started my little ... toot. Without her and Jack, and with you two away, I couldn't imagine what I could do."

"I was glad you weren't here," Pat said quietly to Vicki.

"You were here, and I should have been." Vicki smiled and shook her head. "I'm pretty hard to damage. But what happened to Jack?"

Pat shrugged. "I have no idea."

Vicki was about to say something, but Ray said, "What do you think happened to him?"

She turned and saw his expression. "What do you mean?" she asked.

He sighed. "He's gone, obviously," he said. "Left, split, flew the coop." He shook his head. "Take off those rose-colored glasses, and think about Jackson Longstreet for a minute, just think about him. Do you really think he was going to stick around when things got tough?" Pat looked very upset, but Vicki was not reacting at all. "When you were cleaning me up, you said that I'd been around for the better, and now I had to help with the worse. Well, I guess I'm not as cynical as I thought, because I'm still here. But if we're going to survive this, and do more than survive it, we'd damn well better be seeing and thinking clearly. About everything, even each other."

Jan took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. "I think he's right," she said. "Damn it."

Vicki looked around the table. "For now, at least, this doesn't go any further than this room. Not even to Perry and Sam and my mother and Sarah B. Jack is missing and presumed dead. We will have a service, I have no idea what kind, but we'll invent something, for both of them."

Ray started to speak, but she stood up, "You want to talk about seeing and thinking clearly? Okay, think about this. Are the people out there in better or worse shape with us trying to help figure this out? Well, they know that when the trouble came, two of us weren't here, one went on a bender, and two others vanished." She placed her hands flat on the table and leaned forward. "Whatever trust we've lost, rightly or wrongly, we've got to win back, and telling people that Jack split town because it wasn't going to be so much fun anymore, whether or not that's true, is only going to make things worse." She looked around the table. "Any questions?"


Next Chapter: On the Medical Team

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