"Hello? Anybody there?"
Paul Santee took off the holstered.45 when he heard the call. It came again, nearer. "Hello, the house!" No sense in scaring someone who probably meant well. He tucked the.45 behind his belt in the small of his back. No sense in being stupid, either. Stupid tends to kill people, and he was still alive. Something strange had happened last weekend, and he didn't know what it was. It was good to hear another voice, especially one that seemed friendly.
"Hello! Mr. Santee?" The caller turned out to be a kid, a gangly blond teenager who stood at his gate. Santee stepped out on his porch and waved the boy in.
Eddie Cantrell carefully closed the gate behind him. He wasn't too happy about finding this cabin—he'd secretly hoped it was outside the Ring of Fire—but when Mike Stearns asked about war veterans, Santee's name had come up, and Eddie had been asked to go see if his backwoods cabin was inside the Ring, and if he was still alive. Obviously, yes to both. Eddie walked up the path carefully, slowly, trying to figure out how to explain things. He'd heard that Paul Santee was a survivalist, a loner, mean as hell. The man in front of him was small and wiry, grizzled, graying. He didn't look particularly mean, or particularly anything, except for his piercing eyes.
Santee stared at the kid appraisingly. "What can I do for you?" he said gruffly. The kid looked alarmed. Should have made some small talk first, Santee thought. That was a bit abrupt. I'm sure out of practice.
"Mr. Santee, do you know what happened?"
That was what Santee wanted to know. Give the kid some minimum information and see how he responds. "Well . . . Five days ago, thunder and a big flash of lighting from the clear blue sky. Path to the road disappeared about a hundred feet down the way. Weather's been strange. Phone is dead. My bedroom window faced south, but not any more—maybe the earth's axis of rotation shifted. There's a big wall of dirt that seems to go on and on." A long pause there, as he looked at Eddie. "And some damn bird was out there yesterday that sounded exactly like a cuckoo clock. Do you know what happened?"
"Uh, well, Mr. Ferrara—he's my science teacher—says we were moved to Germany, in the year 1631. And that there's a war on, with us in the middle of it."
Santee looked hard at the kid, trying to find some sign of repressed mirth that would indicate a joker. He saw none of it, just an anxious teenager repeating what he'd been told.
"Who is 'we'?"
Eddie was confused at first, then figured it out and responded. "About a six-mile circle around Grantville. Everybody inside—everything inside—moved here. Gas wells, coal mine, power plant, everything." He looked up the path on the other side of the house. "I guess your driveway leads off to Butterchurn Road. That didn't make it."
"Oh. Okay. Damn. Shit. Take some thinking on." That story was totally unbelievable, but so were the plain facts all around him. Goddamn it. The kid clearly had more information, but it would take a while to get it, and Santee didn't like standing for long stretches. "Would you like something to drink? I just have water, but it's clean and cold."
Eddie nodded. "Thanks. That sounds good, but then I've got to get back." Santee still scared him a little. "Mike Stearns is the head of the committee. He said if you were here inside the Ring, he'd, uh, like to meet you."
"What's your name, son?"
"Eddie Cantrell." He paused, wondering if he should add "sir" to it, but it was too late.
Santee held his door open. "Come on in, Eddie. My name is Paul, but everybody just calls me Santee. It's real neighborly of you to come out here to tell me." He wondered if that sounded as hokey as it felt saying it.
They sat at Santee's table and drank cold spring water. Eddie told about the tumultuous day of the Event, and the town meeting and what the people were doing to cope with the war they found themselves in. They were going to fight, of course. They'd sent him here, he said, because they were trying to find every American within the Ring and gather them in Grantville to help with defense. Santee didn't betray any surprise, just kept listening and asking occasional questions. After a while Eddie relaxed a bit and decided Santee was just trying to be nice, even if sociable chitchat came hard to him. At Santee's subtle probing, Eddie explained that he was on his own now, since he was on a different side of the Ring of Fire from his home, including his father (who he said was "okay, when he had the time") and stepmother (who he admitted he wouldn't miss much).
The talk returned to more immediate matters. "How did you get here?" Santee asked him.
"I rode my dirt bike up that hill"—he pointed across the canyon—"and saw your smoke, and then your cabin. Lots of Germans running from the war around here, but they don't make smokestacks like that. No way to ride here, so I just walked. Brush got thick in places, but no problem."
"Good job. You must move pretty quiet when you want to." Santee even gave him a brief, crooked smile. "None of my business, but what are you going to do? I don't mean the town, I mean you."
"Well, I've been drafted, I guess. Frank Jackson's running the army; I'll do what he tells me to. He's a Vietnam vet." Eddie sounded a little impressed at that. Then he looked at his watch and quickly stood up. "Uh, I have to get back. I'm late now. Thanks for the water and all. Hope to see you in Grantville . . . ."
On impulse, Santee said, "Just a second, Eddie. You say there are armed Germans out there. Do you have a gun?"
"Uh, no. I had a.22 and a shotgun, but now . . . "
"Just a sec then. Be right back."
Santee disappeared through a side door and came back in a few minutes with a pistol in a fully enclosed holster.
"This is a Russian Nagant revolver. Seven shooter, not the usual six shots. Damn ammo costs forty bucks a box, so the pistols are cheap. Uh, 'were.' Damn."
Eddie smiled. "Everybody's doing that. Weird for everyone."
"Yeah. I suppose so. You know about gun safety?"
"It's loaded. Don't point it at anybody. Know what you're shooting at." Eddie repeated it mechanically; it had been drilled into his head a thousand times.
Santee nodded and handed the pistol to Eddie. "You know it; just remember it. Take this outside and dry-fire it a few times. Trigger pull is god-awful. Cylinder moves back and forth front to back; that's normal. I'll go round up the ammo."
Eddie did as he was told and found that Santee was right. His forefinger got tired right away, the sights were terrible, and the gun was uncomfortable in his hand. But he was fascinated by the various moving parts and was peering closely at the mechanism when Santee rejoined him with the ammunition. Santee showed him how to load and unload the gun, then opened a box and took out some ear muffs and safety glasses.
"Ready to try it?" Eddie nodded. "Shoot at that metal gong by the woodpile over there. The hill will catch anything that misses the woodpile."
Eddie shot seven times, and missed all but the last. The ringing gong made them both smile. "You'll do," was all Santee said to Eddie as they moved back toward the cabin.
Santee briefly showed him how to clean the revolver, and Eddie said again that he had to get back. It was going to be dark soon. "Thanks for letting me borrow this gun, Mr. Santee."
"Not borrow. It's yours to keep. I don't need the damn thing. I was going to trade it off for something else, and I'm glad to see it go to someone who can use it. Just keep it clean and it'll last a long time. Ruskie guns are butt-ugly but hell-for-strong."
Eddie thanked him awkwardly but profusely, then headed off through the brush, leaving Santee alone with his thoughts.
He lit a fire in the wood stove and found a pan to heat up some canned stew. He normally tried to cook dinner, but tonight was a night for thinking, not cooking. He had moved to this small cabin in 1990, and hardly ever left it. It had a spring on the hill above, so it had running cold water, and a septic system, but no power. The power company would have been happy to bring him power at two dollars a foot from the road, but he didn't have the five thousand or so dollars that would take, nor really need the power. But he did have a friend with the phone company who'd made a "mistake" and got him telephone installation for sixty bucks. A generator provided power when he needed it—mostly to run power tools and check his e-mail daily—and his jeep took him on monthly trips into Fairmont or Wheeling or Charlottesville to get supplies. He had a garden, his hunting, his pension, his collection of old guns, and plenty of time. Most of his old friends were dead or had gone all domesticated, and most of his new friends he'd never met except online. He'd been fairly happy, semi-retired, living the life every ex-sergeant says he dreams of . . .
He'd rarely been to Grantville. It had been out of his way from the roads he could reach, and too small a town for good prices, but now it was the only town he could get to. And from what Eddie had told him, it was at war, for chrissake. He'd left the war back in Vietnam, and it had taken him quite a few years to get it out of his mind and sleep soundly again. Ever since then, he'd tried hard to never let any of that mindset back into his life. That kind of thinking, war thinking, really fucked you up for living in the real world.
But the real world had just changed, hadn't it? Snap to, he told himself. Good survivors don't waste time trying to play the old game when all bets are off. If he'd been dealt a new hand, he'd better take a close look at the cards.
Eddie had said that Mike Stearns, the head honcho, wanted to meet him. Like I'm going to go take tea with the fucking governor! Who I need to talk to is—what was his name, Frank Jackson?—the guy who's running the army.
The next morning, Santee walked into Grantville. There was no real path, just some game trails, so it had taken him two hours to go down the hill and into the town and would probably take him three hours to get back. Far from the sleepy town he vaguely remembered, the town seemed to be buzzing with activity. No cars, though; people were walking everywhere. Smart, save the gasoline for the army. The thought came to him with surprising ease, worrying him a bit. Damn it, I'm a civilian now. Have been for twenty years. No need to examine everything as if he was still a platoon sergeant. But he couldn't help noticing that lots of the men were wearing pistols, perhaps even most of them. The.45 on his own hip fit in nicely.
Asking around, he found out that the new army commander, Frank Jackson, was big in the Mine Workers union. Eddie had said he was a 'Nam vet; if he hadn't been just a desk jockey, he might do. Santee headed for the cafeteria where people said Jackson usually had lunch. Lunch sounded good after his long walk, and he was pleasantly surprised to find the food abundant and free. After eating, he found Jackson surrounded by a dozen miners, deep in a spirited discussion. No time like the present.
"Frank Jackson? Can I talk to you after lunch? Alone?"
Frank looked up, annoyed. "And you are . . . ?" His tone said "Who the hell are you?"
"Paul Santee. Tunnel rat. We ate some of the same bananas." He kept his tone flat, almost careless.
One of the miners next to him started to say something blustery, "Well, you can just . . . " but stopped when Frank interrupted. "Sure. I'll be with you in, say, five minutes?" Santee nodded and moved away to wait.
Frank held up a hand to the questions that came from all sides. "Vietnam. The tunnel rats went down into those little VC tunnels with just a knife and a flashlight, maybe a small pistol. There were booby traps, and spiders and scorpions and snakes, and a bunch of gooks who wanted them dead. Anyone who did it has twice the guts I ever had, and anyone who made it back has twice the luck I have, and was very, very good at it. Think about it." He wolfed down the last of his food. "I've got to go talk to this guy. Keep on trying to figure out what sort of problems we'll have once we open the second shaft, and then figure out what to do about it. I'll talk to you when I get back." Still chewing, he walked away from the miners, who were buzzing in low tones.
He and Santee stepped outside. Frank said, "Before yesterday I thought I knew all the vets around here. And you being a Rat, well, if this was a bar I'd buy you a drink. So what can I do for you?" His tone was affable and open; Santee relaxed a little.
"Oh, I've lived here for years; up in the hills west off of Butterchurn Road. I guess my mailbox is still back in West Virginia, but my cabin's on this side. I haven't been to this town in five or six years, because my road used to go off toward Fairmont."
"And now it doesn't go anywhere?"
"Right. The kid you sent to hunt for me told me what happened, so I came to see what's going on here—since it looks like we're all in the same little boat together."
"Yeah, Eddie told me he'd found you yesterday. We'd be glad to have you join us. We're putting together an army of self-defense, or the nearest thing to it we can manage. We need everybody we can get, and it would really help a lot to have somebody else with combat experience." He looked at Santee expectantly.
He thinks I'm going to re-up right here on the spot! Fuck him. "I'll think about it. I need to know more. What are the chances, what are the plans, who's supposed to be in charge, who's really in charge."
Frank nodded. "Sure. Sensible questions. Listen, I've got to get back to my Mine Workers committee right now, but I want to talk to you some more. And to get your questions answered, you probably need to see Mike Stearns—he's the guy we elected to run things for now. Mike's easy to talk to. How about if I make you an appointment with him this afternoon, and then I meet you for a beer after work?"
Santee nodded warily. Frank seemed decent, he thought, but so what. He'd go meet Stearns, and then talk to Frank again, and then maybe decide what to do. He followed Frank back toward the building.
That evening, working on their third beer, Santee and Frank had gotten through discussing Grantville's defenses and started talking about the war—the old one. Frank had talked about what he'd done in Vietnam, and Santee closed his eyes and let some of the memories flood back. "Let's see," he said, "I got out in '79. Twelve years and I was back at corporal, and lucky not to be in the fucking stir. We cleaned out some tunnels out by Dim Noc, then just sat there for three days while the surface troops tore us up. After a while, I just melted into the jungle. I don't know if I was the only one alive at that point or not, and I've still got shrapnel in my hip. I sat there and watched my buddies get shot, and there wasn't a fucking thing I could do about it. I got back to our camp two weeks later. I found the motherfucking full-bird who ordered the choppers away from the pickup area and busted his jaw and both elbows."
He glared at Frank, who passed the unspoken test when he nodded emphatically. Bad officers were common enough in 'Nam; good men died when they did stupid things. "I'd just made E-7 and was breaking in some new guys. 'Piece of cake,' I told them—the tunnels weren't big and we went through them fast . . . Bastards." The last was said almost under his breath.
Santee took a deep breath, let it out, and started again. "Anyways, I don't talk about it 'cause it just pisses me off. I get—got—some disability and some money from some stocks and such. I do okay. I live up on the hill, and I hunt and fish and garden . . . " He paused a moment. So, am I going to tell him? Yeah, he's going to find out anyway. "And for fun, I have an Oh-Three FFL." Frank looked puzzled and he explained. "I'm a licensed collector of Curio and Relic Firearms. I can get guns in the mail, legally, if they're over fifty years old or on the special list. So I buy 'em and trade 'em, and keep a few I like."