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Homecoming


by
Nathan Barton

Prologue
A quarter-century of nearly unlimited war can be a very long time for a nation. For an individual, it is even longer; for some, their entire life has been nothing but fighting.

When such a war draws to an exhausted end, even if victorious, there is no simple and clear conclusion to the situation. Many dangers still threaten, many problems remain to be overcome, new problems develop. Most are not external, but lurk inside the human mind and heart. Of all the problems to be solved, perhaps the first and most important is learning how to live in peace, how to truly come home. For some people, the spiritual distance necessarily traveled to come home is much greater than any physical distance. And sometimes, home just isn't home, anymore.


Camp Craig Renolds, Gillette Free State (Wyoming)

Company Compound Five, one of three in the northwest quadrant of the large cantonment, was a two-acre tract filled with a series of neatly aligned tents and prefab shelters, silent, seemingly deserted. In contrast, the rest of the camp was filled with activity, with troops and vehicles coming and going, impatient to get the business of demobilization well under way. Only in CeeCee-Five was nothing going on. Tents were zipped closed, equipment neatly stacked, containers marked and sealed. The lids on trash containers might have been somewhat askew, but not noticeably.

This was the scene that greeted Brevet Captain Daniel Crane when he unsnapped the tent flap of the officers' tent and stepped out. It was already 0700, on the 5th of May, Anno Domini 2180 and Anno Libertatus 404, the day after Victory in the East Day, after the official end of the Great Northern War. As the only surviving officer in the company, he'd had the tent to himself for the last three weeks of "temporary holding" here in Camp Renolds. He looked around; there was not a sign of life. Well, it had been quite a party last night; it wasn't every day a war ended and a unit was notified that it was the first on the list for redeployment back to Camp Rapid and home.

He snapped his weapons belt into place around his waist, and settled his field cap on his head. It still felt funny, after literally years of wearing a helmet, to put on something just to keep warm or keep the sun off. He walked to the orderly room tent, thinking this would be his chance to get a lot of the paperwork done which needed to be complete to allow for their move back.

The orderly room was as vacant of life as the outside of the tents; he'd gotten approval to dispense with the Charge of Quarters and had the camp switchboard patch directly to his pocketcom, which had not rung once during the night. This morning was probably the first time everyone in the unit had been asleep at once since at least 2155, twenty-five years ago.

Sitting down at the small desk with its built-in computer, he pulled the master datacube out of his belt pouch and looked at it. One of five identical 'cubes, it held the history of twenty-five years of combat in its 75 gigabytes of memory; everything from the first mortar casualty outside Casper (PVT Donal MacGregor Strub, KIA 15 May 2155) to the puncture wound PFC Shaffer received and the report of two enemy prisoners of war and one enemy dead she made after she flushed out the three Hardin troopers north of Sheridan twenty-two days ago. It held the contents of the last 1,184 morning reports signed "D. Crane commanding" and it held the contents of yesterday's "Request for Transportation as per Special Order 0125-1" for "Infantry Company C inclusive: 1 officer, 16 NCO, 78 enlisted with all individual and organizational equipment."

It was all history now, he decided. It was history because the Great Northern War itself was history. Except for yesterday's request, everything on that datacube was already recorded in Camp Rapid and Custer City, and for all he knew, in the data vaults in the mines under Keystone or Lead. And he, for one, was glad for it. Of course, just because it was history didn't mean that he didn't still have to generate twenty more reports and requests to ensure that "Infantry Company C inclusive" made it from Gillette 150 miles back to Camp Rapid.

He was well into the task when someone scratched on the tent wall. He stopped humming, said "Enter" and leaned back from the keyboard.

The green tent flap snapped as a figure ducked through, came to attention and saluted.

He sketched a salute in return, but before he could say anything, the non-commissioned officer said, "By the commander's leave, sir." Picking up and unfurling the guidon, the NCO leaned back out the door and snapped the guidon staff into the pipe driven into the ground for that purpose. Before the tent flap fell closed, he saw the blue swallow-tail cloth with the white crossed rifles and letter C hanging free in the morning light.

Now he could wave the NCO to a bench inside the tent. "Hello, Top. Sit down and tell me what's up." He poured them each a fresh cup of tea.

Sergeant Wilson grinned, sipping the hot beverage. "Both up early this morning, sor. Actually nice tae have some peace and quiet. But I must ask you some'at. I thought this would be a good time tae ask for a wee bit of leave.

"My home is nay too far away from here. If I take off now, I could rejoin Charlie in Rapid on the eighth or ninth when everything gets in. Sergeant Douglas can keep everything in order for that little time, I ken." Sergeant Douglas, First Platoon Leader, was also the field First, and a meticulous, paperwork-handy sort of person.

Daniel thought his usual dark thoughts about Gaelic burrs, but kept his grin a mental one. He thought about the request for a moment. There was a lot going on, but he could spare even the First Sergeant for a while. And he knew the NCO's home was not that far out from Sundance, but a long way from Rapid City. The request made sense. And he knew the Top Shirt had several reasons for wanting to get back to the Moskee area.

"I don't doubt that we can arrange something like that. Packed, I imagine? I suppose even this pack of incompetents can survive a few days without our first sergeant. After all, the NCOs only have to put up with one officer's foolishness. Besides," he continued with a smile, "Should I be the one to keep you from seeing your fiancÚ, now that the war is over."

The war is over. Those were welcome words, good words to be able to say. Yet, they heralded as many problems for him as if they were still bogged down in combat in the Big Horns. He was facing one of those now, and knew more would come. This was the beginning of the end for the unit, wasn't it?

The NCO's face reddened slightly. They'd known each other for a long time, but some subjects were more private than others.

"Aye, sir. 'Tis been nearly six years now."

Crane nodded. "And without a word for how long? Most of that time, I know. You know my prayers are with you."

Twenty-five years of war was a long time, especially to a technologically-advanced society. Even the finest communication system can collapse with sufficient damage, inadequate care, and constant overuse. Even things people had taken for granted for centuries, like simple voice telephone and hand-written mail, were no longer possible between many areas of the Black Hills and outlying regions. Official communications were difficult enough, but according to the logs, the company had received no personal electronic mail for more than seven years. Even hard-copy personal mail might take months, and many people had not received anything for years. Communications seemed to have collapsed to word of mouth by travelers and broadcast radio, at least on this side of the nation, the Western Front. Even the definition of "essential communications" had changed.

He printed a tiny pass form out from the computer and signed it. "Here you are, my friend. We won't count this as leave. A pass should do. Vaya con Dios. I pray you find Fran is well."

The sergeant folded the paper neatly into a pouch. "Aye. God bless you also, sir." Sergeant Wilson saluted and left the tent, kilt flying.

Crane stepped around the desk to the door flap, opening it to watch the retreating figure. He prayed, he really did, that Fran Smith was alive and well, but not from anything but a very deep and sincere concern for a very dear and wonderful friend. He had long ago learned to suppress the yearnings that friendship would become something more. It was hard sometimes to be a commander, aloof, alone. But he saw now that there were things harder, like being a real friend to someone like First Sergeant Kathleen Rebecca O'Rourke Wilson. And so he prayed that her intended, wherever Francis Marion Smith might be, realized what kind of a woman had committed herself to him. And he prayed a brief word of thanks that he had known and been her friend. But it was hard to do so with the proper attitude, as he found himself oddly fearful at the prospect of no more war, even while he remembered how much he'd looked forward to this day, which had once seemed so impossible to achieve.

He went back into the tent and stared unseeing at the screen for longer than he cared to admit, before at last returning to his work.


So, on the fifth of May, Anno Domini 2180, Platoon Sergeant (acting First Sergeant) Kathleen Rebecca O'Rourke Wilson started home. It was five days past her twenty-sixth birthday, and four days into her twelfth year of military service. Eleven years of war had wrought great changes in the lovely fifteen-year-old girl who had passed the Warrior's Ceremony and taken the Citizen's Pledge that allowed her to enlist. More beautiful now, her eyes sometimes reflected the suffering and hardship that had accompanied the two Union Stars and three Purple Hearts she now owned.

She was already packed; the entire twenty kilograms of possessions she carried with her, and sometimes thought of as all she owned. There was the sleeping bag (1.5 kilos, 3 years old), various uniforms (faded and patched but serviceable), and the combicorder, big brother of the pocketcom that was increasingly common today. That was the only thing that had made it through eleven years of war with her, with its datacubes that were her personal memories and records. The rest of her field gear was well maintained and serviceable, but far from new. She took it all with her; C Company had lost its organic transport years ago and was a straight-leg outfit in all but name.

Her uniform was clean and neat, but well-worn; it would not have passed inspection even as a work uniform as recently as five years ago. Today, it actually looked better than most: the mottled green, brown and tan catsuit had only a few runs and patches, and not many spots worn thin. The khaki, "Wyoming field pattern" field vest had all its pockets and buttons, and she had sewn-on name tags and insignia instead of the all-too-common inked-on markings of many of the troops. And she still wore both the O'Rourke kilt (although the colors might not quite match the official Bobby Burns Society standard patches) and knee-high, regulation issue boots.

Her appearance was not unusual for the fifteen-hundred odd troops, mostly Pahasapan, here in Camp Renolds. This far from the combat zone, almost thirty miles from the forward edge of the battle area, armor was left off, and people looked oddly thin and fleet. Except for those who needed the HUD or communications capacity of their helmets, troops wore soft caps, many nearly brand-new in appearance from lack of use.

Instead of trying the "share-a-ride" bench at the main gate, she headed for the shack used by the contract truckers as a lounge. She had recognized a familiar shape and livery among the off-loading trucks yesterday, and thought she had a better way to make it most of the way home.

"Tornado Racer" was indeed one of the over-the-road tractors parked in the large field, and she went into the small, low-ceilinged main room of the hut. After the bright morning sun, it took a few moments to adjust to the dim interior. Soldiers were infrequent visitors to the lounge and every eye was on her. The room was filled with drivers eating a quick breakfast or at least having a hot cup of tea before departing.

The big, blond man recognized her even before her eyes adjusted, and the rest of the room lost interest in the senior NCO.

"Kathleen Rebecca! It's good to see you, young lady." Young lady indeed. All of four years younger than him.

He gestured at her rucksack. "What are you up to? Did this outfit find out how young you really are and send you home?"

He was sitting alone at a table, so she sat down and stuck her tongue out at him. For a moment she did feel much younger; as young as the girl who had lived with this man's family for a year so long ago. She'd been fifteen when she'd left them, and he'd been nineteen, with three years behind the wheel of Tornado Racer even then.

"Ooch, John Robert. Too young indeed. Stop acting the big brother; I'll not have it." Then she reached over and hugged him. "I wouldn't take it from anyone else, at least. I be looking for a ride home, John Robert."

"Home? Ye'd be welcome at Whitewood, lass." She shook her head. "Well, 'tis not Sturgis, surely? So Schoolhouse?" He looked distressed.

"Not Sturgis. Never again is Sturgis home, John Craig. Schoolhouse, yes, but I dinna mean the whole way. The interchange is enough."

He relaxed slightly. "Aye, that I can do. But Transport Service is leaning hard on us and they'll give me fits if I'm even an hour off schedule. Even assuming I could get Tornado Racer up Moskee Road anyway. But Moskee Interchange I can do."

"Thank you, John Robert. It will be a big help."

"It's nay just your house there, now, is it? Your fiancÚ is living there now, as I recall." She had last seen John Robert almost four years ago, during a very brief rest period at a supply base on the Powder River in Montana.

"Maybe. He bought a house near mine. But I've heard nothing in all that time."

"Doesna surprise me, Kathleen. So much has been destroyed, and no way to rebuild and still fight the war. Ye can be fifty miles away and not be able to find out what is going on. It's worse on this side, with the way it was overrun."

She nodded. "How be your family and kin?"

"Everyone in Whitewood is alive and well. Jan and the babes are all fine, though fretting when I'm traveling this far west like this. We are expecting another one in November, Lord willing. My mother is fine, too. I just don't know about my brother or sister, though. Last I heard, Ran was somewhere in Standing Rock with the Northern Lakota forces, and Alicia was also in the east somewhere, along the Bad River. With the war, who knows?"

"Aye. It's hard to find out, and you get tae where ye are feared to ask."

His expression was hooded, hard to read. He started to say something, but stopped and drained his cup. "Well, I'm ready to roll. You need to get anything else?" He looked at the small pack with the rifle strapped on one side.

"That's all I have, John Robert. Eleven years worth of possessions. Of course, a soldier travels light, Cousin."

"Aye, so my father always said."

"He was a verra wise man." How would it feel to drive a truck into a camp named after your own father, when he was someone you remembered with love and respect, even if he had died when you were eight?


The Edgemont Motors Trailblazer with the Renolds arms and the riveting painting of a twister on it was old, built in 2119 and driven by John Robert Renolds' grandfather and a cousin before he inherited it in '67. It was designed for cross-country, long-range hauling, and had more than three million miles on it, including trips to Texas and Manitoba. Still, its sturdy frame held its age and the miles well. It was hauling a flatbed with salvaged equipment chained down on it.

Kathleen stroked the chrome work. "She's as beautiful as ever, John Robert. How have you gotten the parts and supplies to keep her up so well?"

He climbed up in the cab and gave her a hand up with the pack. "Well, my grandparents planned well, Kathleen. Remember that big storage building past the garage at our place? Well, it's empty, now. But it had enough to last until now."

"But it's empty?" she asked. At his nod, she couldn't help being bitter. "Everything is empty, isn't it?"

"Now, Kathleen, you used to be famous for your optimism. Remember, even if everything is empty now, the war is over. We'll soon be able to start filling things up again."

"Aye, but... John Robert, 'tis hard to understand, harder to explain. I feel like I'm living a lie when I tell my troops that same thing. I don't mean to be bitter, but at least I've got someone who is family to talk to, in you. Someone who's not counting on me in some way. Everything we have is either worn out or run out or used up. Look at my uniform, for cryin' out loud. And from what I hear, everything is worse back in the Hills. What do we have for a future? Is there anything left to rebuild with?"

He looked over from his checklist. "I understand, lass. Times have been bad, and still are. But it's been that way before, and we made it. Not everything has been blasted either. In the Southern Hills, they're a lot better off, and willing to share it with areas like the North and West which were hard hit.

"It's your man you're worried about most, aye? Frank?"

"Fran... Francis Marion Smith. Aye, that's the chief."

The turbines slowly whined to life, the spacious cab throbbing with the vibrations of the twin 800 horsepower power plants. As he slowly tuned in the main tanks, he was silent. A few more adjustments, and he turned to look at her.

"Kathleen, there's something else you need to know, also. I don't know any better way to tell you. I know after the fight over Tim's enlistment that you've basically disowned them, but they are your parents. Or rather, I should say, they were... your mother and father were both killed in Sturgis in December."

She didn't hear much of the rest, something about an air raid by South Dakota planes. Actually, it surprised her to see how much the news did sadden her. She had not thought she had that much feeling left for her mother and father. They had both deeply opposed the way the Black Hills was fighting the war, and in fact her father's term on the Great Council had coincided with the beginning of the split of the Total Sovereignty Party from the dominant Unionist Party. They had forbidden their children to fight in what they termed an obscene war intended to kill off the Black Hills' best and brightest rather than defeat the Black Hills' enemies. But Timothy did enlist, in 2168, and as a result of her defense of her big brother, she was literally cast out of her parents home and ranch. She had found refuge in the Renolds house in Whitewood, with some help from her father's sister. She was far closer to Aunt Anna who had died later in '68, or John Robert's mother AiDe (short for Atha Diana). Still, it hurt...

"... Left everything to Karen and Richard, of course. Poor Betsy and little Tabitha; your parents never would recognize them as Tim's wife and child, blood kin. At least the Clan did, and took care of them. Last I heard they were in Edgemont or Provo."

He threaded the ponderous vehicle past other behemoths and off the metal apron onto the main road out of the camp.

"Thank you for telling me, John Robert. I just wish I could have made one last attempt to make up with them."

"No, Kathleen, don't think you could have done anything. As far as Mary Juliet Kelley and Richard Henry O'Rourke Wilson were concerned, you and Tim simply did not exist. When you two disobeyed and enlisted, they wiped you out of their lives. And never think for an instant that you were wrong to disobey: you were an adult and recognized your obligations. They never did. If they suffered from throwing you and Tim out, it was not the half of what they deserved. In their last years, in fact, they even renounced the clan." That shocked Kathleen to her bones. "Told 'em it was an archaic relic, a myth.

"But, Kathleen, you told me about Fran, but I've never heard the whole story. I know you are worried about him, so maybe it will help to talk about it."

She found she was reluctant to talk about anything so personal, but she knew she had a sympathetic ear. And he'd always had a good shoulder to cry on. That year she had lived with the Renolds, John Robert had been a pillar of strength for her, especially when Aunt Anna died and then when Timothy had been killed in the Battle of Bridger in January of 2169.

Tornado Racer was outside the gate on the road to Gillette before she said anything. "Well, we met when Fran was assigned to the Old Guard in July of '70. I'd been in the unit since January when I finished training at Igloo. I'd been blooded, literally, but I was still a buck private.

"You can tell from his name, Francis Marion Smith, that his family was both strongly Unionist and not clansmen. Just the opposite of the Wilson's, in fact. He'd enlisted when he was seventeen, with his parent's blessing. He claimed he was a late bloomer, and I guess it is true that males mature slower than females. He is three years older than I am, so he'd been in a year longer and had made corporal in his old unit, Infantry Company F. His old unit was so badly chopped up at Glendo in the Spring Offensive in '70 that he was orphaned. He and two other survivors came to us.

"We fought together for three years, and somewhere in there, found time to fall in love. In January of '72, we were engaged, with the decision to get married after the war was over. Everyone expected a couple of years, at most; and how wrong we were! Fran was raised in the church, like you. He never let us get carried away, and I'm grateful for that.

"I wrote to my parents about that; I think it was the last letter I ever sent them. I never heard anything, but whether it was because they didn't answer or because the mail was already getting bad then... Anyway, I wrote your family too; I was so happy that I wanted to share it with everyone. You all answered, of course. It only took a month or so. Not long after, both Fran and I made squad leader; blood stripes of course.

"Then, in November of '73, when we were fighting so hard at Osage and Upton, during that big Fall/Winter Campaign, Fran was covering part of his squad's withdrawal from a set of bunkers. We were fighting mainly Laramie troops by then, vicious canny fighters.

"He took a lot of a grenade blast, and I guess he was shot with luck. He didn't even lose his arm, and they were able to reconnect most of the nerves. The burns were harder, and he wasn't able to be evacuated from the front hospital for two months. Spent most of the time under Hibernion, of course. When they did move him out, he went straight to Homestake Hospital in Lead. Two months there, and he was 'recovered' so they invalided him out. Said he couldn't count on the arm and his endurance was weakened too much by the burns and the repairs.

"Because I had Aunt Anna's house there in Schoolhouse, he used his demob money and bought a house and a small maintenance business there in Schoolhouse. He didn't want to use my house; said he needed to bring his own dowry to our wedding. We still had sporadic contact by hard copy and even e-mail then, and that's why I know where he's at. He said he'd wait there for me."

She knew her voice was hard and bitter, and couldn't help it.

"We thought after the way we'd rolled up the Principate's army at Lance Creek and then on Rawhide Buttes that the war, at least in the west, would finally be over; a matter of months, or a year at most, by the end of '74. How could we know that Cody and Hardin would come back in so strong; that the war would last for more than six years longer! The Old Guard got shipped to Old Woman Creek, way to the Northwest, and I lost all contact. Those were the bad years; C Company was part of 29th Battalion, Craig's Commandos, then; we called it Bad Luck Command from the initials of the commander. And from what happened to us. We spent more than a year in the Lame Deer Pocket. I should have realized just how bad things were down here then. I haven't heard from him since '75, August of '75."

She fell silent while John Robert concentrated on getting Tornado Racer up onto I-90 headed east.

Finally he sat back, glancing at her quickly, as if wondering what he could say, and wondering just how much she had changed.

"Kathleen, you may not realize just how bad, really bad, things have been. Even now, though I think I'm seeing signs of improvement, it's hard to tell if we really won or lost. I know Custer City is claiming victory; but if that's the case, what do the losers look like?

"I think your love for Fran has helped you make it this far. You have been looking forward to going home, to marriage, to making kids. But you know that may not be what God has in mind. I don't need to dwell on what all may have happened. You've been through years of manmade torment, we all have, but you've seen a lot more, a lot closer up.

"Kathleen Rebecca, I wish I could tell you he is fine, that your home is in good shape, that you'll be able to make a home in Schoolhouse. But I don't know. Probably no one does, until you get there. Commo is so bad most places, that you don't know if the people on the other side of the hill are still alive or not; or even if the other side of the hill is still there. At least that is the way it is up in the Northern Hills. I guess, from what I hear, things aren't so bad down south. Maybe, maybe not. Everybody has suffered unbelievably in this war; I've been told we have had a hundred thousand dead, and half that number missing.

"Lass, until you see it, you just can not picture it. It's one thing to see a town in Montana or Wyoming that has been burned out in the fighting. Its another when you see Moorcroft, Sundance, or Belle Fourche. Or to see the bombing damage in Sturgis or Spearfish. But I think that God will provide.

"Even if Fran isn't there waiting for you; even if your house is burned out, God will provide. He will decide how, and we have to trust him. especially now. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and I dinna want to discourage you, lass, but I remember about four or five years ago, there was a whopping big battle in your area. We, the Black Hills, won, but by the skin of our teeth. It was a very close call, maybe a turning point. It was a canyon battle, north of Moskee..."

Grand Canyon, Sand Creek, Rattlesnake, Schoolhouse... home. Do I have ought to return to? She barely felt him pat her arms sympathetically.


Moskee Road, Crook County

When she waved good-bye to John Robert Renolds and Tornado Racer from the top of the overpass at the Moskee-Space Center Interchange, her mind was again calm. Either calm, or numb. Moorcroft and Sundance had been as bad as he had warned her about, and though there were signs of work being done, there was a lot more that was needed. Both cities' cores were easily viewed from the highway, and the devastation was staggering. It was no worse than the battlefield that had been Gillette, or a dozen other fortified positions that had been subjected to weeks or months of combat. But this was home.

At least on the surface she could think and plan calmly, no matter what roiling waters of fear and worry existed inside her. She still turned her face firmly south, refusing to dwell on the causes of the heavily damaged launch complexes.

To the south, at least, the Hills rose darkly serene and lovely in the bright morning sun. This is what she had fought to protect, this is what she had been forced to kill for. It was a wonderful land of forest and parks, streams and rocks, friends and neighbors and clansmen. She had fought at first for all that, and most recently she had fought to survive and return to this land. So long, she had fought and dreamed of this day, of this homecoming. Now, she knew the war was over.

The land climbed up to the Limestone Plateau in a series of ridges that hid the deep canyons cutting through the soft stone. Thick stands of ponderosa, spruce and lodgepole tinted the scene varying shades of green and black, with yellow rock outcrops and light green stands of aspen for contrast. Moskee Road led rule-straight to the first divide, where it twisted and disappeared into Cold Springs Canyon.

She stood there for long minutes, enjoying the cool breeze and the wonderful view. She folded and put away her field vest, substituting the field brown battle dress jacket with long sleeves. It felt good after the hot dusty days at Camp Renolds.

She was a woman of average height; five-five, with a slim figure that caught men's eyes even in the field dress. Shoulder length bronze-brown hair framed a round, lovely face with a naturally dark complexion tanned darker still. It was the face of a high school or college student, except for her eyes. Brown, distant, clouded; they belonged to a soldier with a decade of blood and suffering behind her. The thousand-yard stare of the long-service veteran didn't go with her face.

She observed the lack of traffic with the fatalism of a veteran campaigner. Smoothing her kilt, she shouldered the pack and started down the road. She moved with the lightness and caution of the professional dogface soldier. As she marched south, try though she might, she could not fail to notice the many signs of hard times. There were the missing and Jerry-rigged fences, the badly damaged bridges with rusted-out warning signs, the deep ruts and potholes in a road the communities had taken so much pride in. Even after years, fire still shows its passage, especially when there is little or no reclamation work done afterwards. Here and there were the black pencils left after a crown fire, and there were thick stands of young aspen and lush patches of new spring grass, with last year's stems still abundant. The land was not overgrazed, at all. In fact, livestock and wildlife both seemed sparse.

She paused once to feed a colt some fresh handfuls of roadside grass, reveling in the feel of velvet on her palm. She stopped again to pluck a tiny wildflower with the morning dew still on it. As she walked, she enjoyed every breath of clean, high air.

At the Poison Creek bridge, she rested for a few minutes, feet dangling over the side. A tiny pica burst out of the grass by one abutment, to confront a woman with her pistol already drawn to confront another enemy. Sheepishly, she reholstered the machine pistol as the tiny creature drank, and continued her hike, disgusted at herself.

She tried to overlook the damages, to not connect what she saw with war and fighting. It was useless. As she moved up Canyon Creek, past the Jones Ranch, she entered the denser forest of the Williams Divide. Here were more and more frequent signs of heavy, close combat. Despite herself, she felt her body grow tense, more alert, readying itself for entering battle. Even if it was a battle that had ended long ago. She tried to overlook the damages, to not connect what she saw with war and fighting. It was useless. As she moved up Canyon Creek, past the Jones Ranch, she entered the denser forest of the Williams Divide. Here were more and more frequent signs of heavy, close combat. Despite herself, she felt her body grow tense, more alert, readying itself for entering battle. Even if it was a battle that had ended long ago.

Only very good reflexes kept her from killing a deer that suddenly appeared on the roadway, and bounded off in fright. She could almost hear the strident thunder of the big guns, the chatter of smaller weapons. But there was nothing but the calm sigh of a gentle breeze in the pines, and the lovely calls of birds.

Seconds later, she found herself in the bar ditch, weapon at the ready, before she realized what she was doing. Directly ahead, on the road, a 120-mm muzzle looked directly at her. Without thought, she had scanned the ditch for signs of mines and booby traps, rolled into it, and shucked her pack while drawing her rifle from it.

The big bore was unmoving, and the day silent, without even the sound of servo motors that showed the tank was alive. She could hear nothing but her own breathing and the noises of woods and wind.

She tried to get her heart to slow, telling herself this could not be a real tank, nor a real threat. What if... what if it is real?

Cautiously, she backed and then climbed the slope, circling through the woods and approaching the tank from above. At the lip of a rock slide slope, she looked down to see the vehicle nearly completely buried in the slide. The slide had not closed the road only because the tank acted as a retaining wall. Only a few feet of the gun tube and a radio antenna bent at an angle could be seen. She climbed down, seeing that one great slab of rock seemed to have crushed the turret. The metal of the gun tube was cold, inert.

On the face of the slide itself was placed a large, fresh wreath of roses, and an older, faded placard with four names on it. She read them slowly, feeling a chill crawl up her back. It was a fitting monument, perhaps, and more than many of her own Old Guard comrades had. But she felt the all too close presence of ghosts.

At last, she walked down into the Grand Canyon. It was greener, wetter, than she remembered. There were other differences, too. Plato, the first side canyon and village, was abandoned, empty, with only a few partially collapsed portals to show that a thriving community had once existed here. Oh, there were a fearfully large number of tiny aluminum crosses, which purpose she could readily guess.

The war was over, she reminded herself. There will be no more of these. She continued on and into the next section of the canyon.

Here, again, even with the soothing sound of swiftly flowing water and the gurgle of tiny rapids and waterfalls, her training and instinctive actions, honed by eleven years of survival, betrayed her. A glint of burnished metal reflecting the sun high above the roadway, sent her scurrying for cover behind a bridge abutment.

She knew that point of rocks, from happier childhood times and games when visiting her aunt. It was a natural fortress. She could just barely make out the shape of a sniper's rifle protruding from between a tree and a rock wall. This is silly; the war is OVER! But still, she couldn't just wander across the road and climb the rock.

Dropping her pack by the bridge and slinging her rifle across her chest, she moved carefully up the hill keeping out of view of anyone who might be up there. Yet, she still felt a strange pleasure in reaching for handholds and stretching from point to point here in a place she knew so well. Coming from behind, she discovered the little fortress was empty, except for the rifle and a half-dozen magazines. She field stripped the rifle, a New Colt ARM-7, and found it to be in mint condition. The ammo, though, in the six magazines, was corroded beyond use. It looked as if it had been there five years, even though the rifle did not.

She carefully gathered everything up and began stowing it into her jacket. Halfway through the chore, she paused and smiled at herself. I'm on pass, the war is over. I don't need to police up someone else's battlefield. However, habit was strong: "SALVAGE SAVES LIVES" as the posters said: she continued the job.

From the aerie, she looked up and down the canyon. The stream was running full with the exuberance of spring, and already shrubs and trees had leafed out. She saw a tiny pool hidden from the road by the bushes where she had caught fish more than once as a child. Looking down at herself and a uniform much the worse for crawling along bar ditches and sliding down talus slopes, she gave a big smile.

She was right. It was ice-cold, and it felt wonderful. She'd taken a shower that morning at camp, but this felt much better. Risking tremendous embarrassment should anyone come along, she'd stripped off her catsuit and floated bare in the pool for several minutes, until she was sure her toes and fingers were frostbitten, to say nothing of other parts of her body. Standing, then, she used some of the bottom sand with its tiny flecks of fool's gold as a soap substitute on feet and hands, and then took a last quick dive to rinse.

Squeezing her hair dry, she waded to the edge and a boulder already sun-warmed, where she perched and sorted out her good uniform.

She stepped from the road a few minutes later as a transformed woman. Gone was the field uniform. Scrubbed and hair brushed, she wore an undress uniform for the first time in many years. Platoon Sergeant's stripes (her permanent rank) in gold graced the sleeves of the deep blue 'Ike' tunic of the conventional ground forces, with the gold tricorns of C Company Infantry, the "Old Guard" on each collar and the leather strap on her shoulder. She wore the full-color O'Rourke short kilt over the navy blue catsuit, and polished short boots replaced the knee-high plains-style boots she had worn. An overseas hat replaced her field cap. She knew she looked impressive, and she nearly marched as she continued her trip.

No, she decided, actually, she felt more like a schoolgirl going home on vacation. She had convinced herself, finally, that she was going home. However changed it might be, however much a mess it might be, it was still home.

It was different. It was a royal mess. The remnants of earthworks, rock slides due to artillery and tank engagements, craters, fire, and erosion made it difficult to tell exactly when she entered the Schoolhouse Gulch Community. The road, the side trails, the pathways were either gone or so deteriorated that you could almost not tell they had once been paved. Plato Community had warned her what to expect, but until now she had been unable to picture the same condition for her own hometown.

When she first spotted a tunnel mouth, it was blocked by chunks of stone fallen from within and above. Three metal crosses were set above the filled-in hole. She started walking faster.

There was another wrecked tunnel mouth, and yet another. There were places where grass grew that she was certain had been homes. Now the slope was just like any other, except perhaps the rock was not as weathered, the grass a little sparse. She saw other tunnels in various states of disrepair, but none completely intact. She grew more fearful.

There was the spring, crystalline water welling forth, perhaps flowing more than she remembered. There were signs of recent work around it; new stones placed, weeds cleared, and such. Like the road repairs, though, the work looked temporary, shabby.

When she turned the corner, she stopped in shock to look at the great stone pillar that marked the center of the Community. Half of the spire had been sheared off. Much of the rubble still lay, partially blocking the road. Ruts onto the shoulder led around it. More crosses dotted the roadside by the large blocks of stone, and in one place small stones had been laid in a drywall to protect earth where flowers grew. More tunnel mouths, more crosses, lay in front of her.

She knew Fran's house number, and where it lay from the Spire, and she ran past her own side canyon and its narrow trail. Ignoring the rifle in one hand, the pack and rifle in the other, she ran. With a cry, she stopped and looked around. She had to be there, she had to. She saw a number painted on a partially intact lintel: 104. She began walking back, looking carefully. That must be 102, with two crosses in front of the caved-in entry. There must be 100, oddly intact except for several large spall marks on the concrete sides of the outer entry. There was a single cross there. Then came a stretch of bare hillside, talus and clumps of grass. Burned out trees reached like skeletal fingers to the sky, appealing for hope that was not offered.

The next house number was a small metal signpost with the numbers 92 on it. She stopped, looking back at the slope. There was nothing there. No sign that Number 96 Schoolhouse Community had ever existed. It was gone. Her head bowed. There was nothing, no one there. A dream? She could think of nothing, say nothing. Her mind was blank.

She didn't know how long she stood there in the middle of the road, rifle in one hand, pack in the other, her hat fallen onto the gravel. It was outwardly a peaceful scene. She tried not to think about anything, but somehow, the past evil seeped into her.


Shattered Dreams (Schoolhouse Community)

Five and a half years before, the peaceful scene had not existed. Schoolhouse, like dozens of other communities, housed hundreds of refugees, not only from Casper and Glenrock, but from much closer areas like Moorcroft, Sundance, and Hulett. These were crowded in with the remnants of shattered Pahasapan units that had retreated south and east to avoid capture and to establish yet another defensive line against the onslaught from the West. These defenses, on the very edge of the heartland mountains, were the last barriers to invasion. Even while other remnants of units and civilian volunteers fought from house to house in the ruins of Sundance, General Witmar, the Northwest Division commander, sought to plug holes. Every time a unit in contact was swallowed up, another hole had to be filled by someone, somehow.

Hardin's Expeditionary Force commander, Marshal Lackland, was also in trouble, though. His late fall offensive had been, perhaps, too successful. His troops had raced beyond their supplies. They were tired, bloody, and the wreckage of his best units, which had led the assaults, were scattered back to Alzada and Gillette. Yet, he dared not stop, with the elusive victory so very near.

In the ruins of Sundance, even while his troops rounded up and shot the last resisters without regard for age, sex or status, Lackland put into motion the attacks that must give him the northern Black Hills proper. His intelligence officer had identified the best opportunity for success. He would launch two secondary attacks, against Beulah and Four Corners, to tie down any hope of reinforcements. The main assaults would be against the relatively weakly defended maze of gullies and draws north of Moskee, which climbed gently towards the heights dominating Lead and Deadwood, and were reported to be held only by a rabble of local home defense militia and fragments. Black Hills forces always tended to trust excessively in defensive terrain. Short of troops, they would naturally skim more off for the two feints. With enough push, perhaps Lead and Deadwood could both quickly fall into his hands. Capturing the industrial heartland and high ground would virtually end the war. Victory, if it came, would come quickly.

It did not.

For two days, the outnumbered defenders kept Lackland's men and machines at bay. Fighting from a network of tiny strongpoints that made every canyon bend a kill zone, they traded lives and tenths of a mile for time. Still four miles short of Moskee and Cement Ridge, the Marshal withdrew his shattered forces (what was left of them) under the cover of darkness.

However, as they withdrew up the canyons, first to Williams Divide, and then back to the grasslands, they wreaked a fearful vengeance on both captured military and civilians. Many died in bizarre spur of the moment tortures; others mercifully of bullets to the brain. Not counting the actual casualties from the fighting, by the time Marshal Lackland had established a 'temporary' defensive line along Green Mountain Draw, his Hardin and Cody forces had withdrawn and left 850 Black Hills 'non-combatants' dead. More than 300, half civilians, were found to be missing as medical and aid teams followed the combat teams back down the canyons.

No one would realize it for months, but it was the final turning point of the war. The death and destruction associated with that turning point were regrettable, but unavoidable. So said the papers. Do the dead read?


Kathleen finally responded to the voice that had been saying something. She looked around to see an elderly woman standing just outside the tunnel mouth at Number 99.

"Sergeant, are you looking for someone? Can I help you?"

Kathleen walked over to the woman, stopping in front of the small wooden bridge over the creek here. She used a walker and wore a M'Gowen kilt and shawl, and looked like she was in her eighties, at least, with gray hair only imperfectly tinted and protruding eyes that were clear and piercing.

Kathleen tried not to let hope well up. "Aye, milady. A man named Fran, Francis Marion Smith. He lived in Number 96 five years ago."

The woman shook her head regretfully. "Lordy, dear, 96 doesn't even exist anymore. No one around here by that name, as long as I've been here. Of course, that's only been two years now, since I retired from down at Hermosa.

"There's only about a dozen of us living here now, anyway. Most places were destroyed during that big dust-up they had here in '75. I've been told that they blocked the canyon right here and stopped 'em and killed a passel of Cowboys that time. He'd'uv been here for that to-do, eh?"

She saw the despair in Kathleen's eyes. "Are ye home from the war, lass?"

"Aye"

"Well, if you have no place to stay, you're welcome to stay here with me. I'm Joyce M'Gowen Cooper. I was a Corporal, fought in the Deer Trail War, in Echo Company. I'd be proud."

Kathleen felt as if she was strangling, but thanked her and explained that she might still have a house here.

The woman nodded, and peered closely at her. "He's someone very important to you?"

"Aye," Kathleen whispered, turning and walking away.

She had gone a few feet when the woman called to her again. "Sergeant? Sergeant, lass, whatever happens, don't give up. If your man lived there and had been killed here, they would have put up a cross. The Mercies did that, put them up, I mean, and they were very careful about it. I talked to them, and they explained how careful they were. He wasn't killed here, if they have no cross. Don't give up. You made it through this far."

Aye, the war is over. I made it through to the end. The war is over. Maybe my life is, too. If Fran is gone, if he's dead, if the war is won, what purpose do I have? What kind of life do I have?

Each step towards her house brought another measure of despair and depression to her thoughts. She did not notice until her foot touched the small aluminum cross. She looked down; it was the first she'd seen up close, and it was right in front of Number 63, her own house. There was engraving on it, and she bent to read it: POR PATRIA KEITH MITCHELL 14 NOV 2175. A civilian, probably, killed here defending his home and hers, while she tried to defend him a hundred miles to the North. What a wonderful job she'd done of defending him!

Bizarrely enough, except for several spall marks from bullets on the concrete, her house's entry was basically undamaged and showed little change from eleven years of emptiness. Automatically, her left hand came up and punched in the combination that she could not have quoted from memory, but which her fingers apparently remembered just fine. There was a click, but she had to push the door open, catching a strong whiff of stale, unused air.

Stepping inside, there was little dust; the seal had remained intact, then. Moving through the garage with the aid of her flashlight, on a whim, she touched the switch with a finger tip. Much to her surprise, the lights winked on wanly. The batteries had held out all this time, with the help of stored hydride fuel.

Cautiously, she entered the main part of the house. She stared at the draped shapes of furniture as though they hid unknown enemies or answers to her questions, but all lay silent.

The main terminal for the house computer was in the kitchen, and she carefully removed the dust cover, then touched the keypad. "26072150" Tim's birthday. Not a great password, but not hard to remember, either. She turned on the screen. "WELCOME HOME, KATHLEEN. TODAY IS 5 MAY 2180. YOU HAVE 375 MESSAGES IN MEMORY."

"Last date?" She typed in.

"LAST MESSAGE DATE 14 NOV 2175"

"Messages from Francis Marion Smith or F M Smith?"

"SMITH F M 12 MESSAGES IN MEMORY."

"Last date?" She again queried.

"SMITH F M Message 375, 14 NOV 2175 10 BLOCKS"

The same date as on the little cross. She squeezed her eyes closed and sat down on the dust-covered chair. She would not cry, she could not, must not. After all, the war was over. The war was over. The war was over.


End Part 1. See Part 2 in the August 2002 issue of Doing Freedom!

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