Refuge

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CHAPTER 30 – Glass and Steel

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

With a thudding boom, a charge of buckshot ripped through the bark of the redwood between them and the house. Jason dragged Erin and Emmie both to the ground just as a second charge tore through the air above them to rip more shreds and splinters from the tree. A third shot boomed, and the grass of the lawn about them rustled and quivered and geysers of dirt sprayed upward as the pellets ripped through it. Jason felt a tug at his left sleeve and a slap against his arm that burned like a bee sting. He looked down to see a trickle of blood form and run down from a red pencil-line drawn across his forearm.

He vaulted to his feet and herded the others ahead of him. “That way!”

They sprinted north on Howard to the nearest cover, the still standing corner of the collapsed church building, and kept going. Jason started to head across Western with the idea of getting back to Bodega Avenue and possibly out of town. But, he saw two aliens standing in the street a long block away where Howard crossed Washington and Washington became Bodega. He looked west on Western and spotted three groups of aliens, the nearest was a little over two blocks away, and they didn’t look like they were ready to move. With a grimace, he led the others east toward downtown.

At Liberty Street, he paused to see if any of Vince’s party was coming but saw no one. He guessed they had gone to the tree at the front of the church where they had spotted Erin, and they could be rushing back at any moment. Either that, or they would continue on around the church as their prey had done, in which case they could still be coming around a corner at any moment and spot them. Or maybe—maybe—they had gone up Bassett Street, retracing the route Jason and the others had come. Even if it was for just a block before they realized their prey had not gone that way, it might give them enough time.

Then, when he looked back the other direction, just before leading Emmie and Erin across the intersection and blundering to their deaths, he spotted an alien on Liberty less than a hundred feet north of Western. They quickly hunkered down behind a burned-out car at the curb and watched, anxiety eating at them to be on their way away from the church and Vince.

The alien slowly approached the hulk of a big Hummer II crumpled into the back of a parked van. The creature was still twenty feet from it when two people, a man and a woman, bolted from behind it and ran up the street towards Washington. The alien snap fired at the woman, who went down with arms flung out to her sides. The man turned as he ran and saw his companion fall, but, with the alien still coming at a full run and preparing to fire again, he was not able to stop for her. He veered to the side and disappeared between two houses at about mid-block with the alien hot on his trail.

Half way across Liberty, Jason had to restrain Erin from going out to where the woman lay. “Forget it,” he said, his voice tight from his own dismay at their powerlessness. “No time.”

“But, she—” Erin started to protest.

“She’s dead. She hasn’t moved since she hit the ground. I’ve never heard of them just wounding someone.”

“But you can’t be certain. What if she’s—”

“Certain enough. Emmie and you come first. Vince will be coming around the corner any second. Let’s go.” They rushed on across and continued into the downtown area.

Most likely, Vince would cross the park to where he had last seen them, to the north side of the church. There was even a good chance that Vince, in his blind desire to catch Erin, would blunder into at least one of the aliens in that direction. But, even if he didn’t, unless they were still in sight, it was doubtful that he would be able to pick up their trail. The aliens might possess some highly advanced technology for such tasks, but Vince would have to rely on his own, earthly senses. Jason pushed Erin and Emmie to make it to the next corner where they could duck out of sight onto Keller Street before Vince or any of his people got to Western Avenue.

But they hadn’t even gotten half a block when Jason heard a guarded shout behind them. It was a man standing on Western Avenue back at Howard and pointing at them, most likely one of the men who had chased him and Nate up the hill at Muir Beach. The man didn’t make any move to take up the chase other than to point at them and wave his arms excitedly back at someone out of sight. No doubt, Vince now knew their course.

By the time Jason and his companions reached Keller Street at the next intersection, Vince and the others had joined Logan, having managed to avoid all the aliens prowling about. At the sound of gunshots to the south, Jason spotted what appeared to be a continuing battle between humans and aliens a little over a block away. He led the others north. When a déjà vu feeling hit him as they ran past the yawning entrance to the parking garage on their right, he reminded himself the last time there were there they wound up going the other direction. At least we survived the day that time.

Jason skidded to a halt at the corner of Washington Street and caught Emmie before she hit the ground after tripping. With Erin supporting Emmie, he worked his way out far enough to peer west and saw what he assumed were the same two aliens standing in the middle of Washington/Bodega and Howard Street. He motioned the others to follow and ran east to Kentucky Street where the fallen rubble from the hotel across the street forced them to slow down.

The building had taken several hits, burned and collapsed. In the light of day, unlike the gloomy darkness of the night before, furniture, clothing and bodies were too easy to recognize among the ruins.

Jason looked past the devastation to distant intersections and passages from which death may emerge at any moment. To the left, up the hill where Kentucky Street went past the park from which he and Adam had begun their sortie, the way appeared clear. But, just as he was about to head that way, an alien came out of a house at the upper end of the park and stalked over the crest and out of sight. The thing could continue in any direction including back over the top, or it might pause just beyond the summit. If they went on to the east, the next street was Main and only a short distance from the invaders’ base beyond the river. They were forced to go exactly where he was determined to avoid taking Emmie and Erin, right through the middle of downtown on Kentucky.

Ash coated debris covered the pavement, sliding and rolling under their tread, threatening to turn an ankle. They passed more bodies half buried amid the rubble, hideously burned or battered and impaled by flying debris. But the sights no longer had so much impact on Jason or Erin, or even Emmie. Dodging around mounds of fetid, fly-coated flesh, they pushed on.

At the corner of Western Avenue, they halted in a recessed doorway at the corner of a department store before dashing out across the open space. When Jason peeked around the corner, he saw an alien prowling around about in the next block west. East, toward Main, nothing showed. They looked back the way they had come, but there was still no sign of Vince or his posse. Surely, they had only seconds before he or one from his group came around the corner from Washington and saw them. They had to get out of sight. This was their chance to throw him off their trail if they could just get past this intersection without being seen. The odds would then be in their favor that he would pick the wrong direction to continue his pursuit. But it had to be done now!

Across Western Avenue, Kentucky Street was completely blocked by piles of masonry from what had been an old, ornate, three story building on the southeast corner. It could be the break they needed. If only they could get over it and out of sight before Vince turned onto Kentucky Street...

Timing their dash to coincide with the alien on Western Avenue venturing into another storefront, they made it across and began climbing over the shifting, treacherous debris, scrambling with a desperation born of terror to get over the top and out of view. Fingernails broke and split under sliding boulders of masonry and bricks. Jagged ends of wooden beams tore their skin and left painful splinters in their flesh. Panting and gasping in the oppressive heat, they crested the mountain of debris, at last no longer in danger of Vince spotting them.

As they struggled down the other side, a board snapped under Jason’s sudden weight. His right foot landed on a rocking piece of brick wall as his left leg slipped into a hole that gaped like the maw of a great beast. Before he could catch himself, to hold his weight with his other leg and his hand that grasped at a board angled up into the air next to him, searing pain ripped into the inside of his left leg above the knee and penetrated upward.

Heavy, compressed agony seared into every nerve from his waist to his ankle. He uttered a combination of gasping grunt and quivering groan, laden with the agony and the shock that surged through his leg. Only his recently honed survival instinct prevented him from screaming. Looking down into the hole, he could see the spear of heavy glass, like a single fang, on which he had become impaled.

Erin urged Emmie on down to solid ground and clambered back to him.

With Erin helping to support his right arm—the wobbly board he still gripped helped but only to an extent—Jason got his right foot set as solidly as he could manage and wrenched upward. Waves of agony engulfed him. Again, it was all he could do to keep from screaming. He couldn’t tell how much of the glass was imbedded in his leg, but it felt like it went clear up to his groin. With gritting teeth and clenched jaw, he braced for another attempt, but Erin’s hand on his shoulder restrained him.

“Wait,” she said. “If you force it out up here, you could slice through an artery that may not be cut yet. We’ve got to get you lying down so it can be drawn out carefully, and with a tourniquet ready.”

“Oh, Jesus! Oh God, it hurts! ...Okay. Okay, so how—oh, Christ, it hurts! Look, I can’t stand here on one leg much longer. I’m probably gonna pass out in a minute or so—if I can hold on even that long.”

After a moment of peering down into the hole that seemed to Jason to be eating his leg, Erin said, “Break it off—the glass, I mean. I should be able to break it off right below where it goes into your leg. Hold on for just a second.”

Jason clutched onto consciousness by sheer willpower as he gripped his wobbly crutch. Stuck here like a goddamned moth on a pin. This has got to be payback for taking biology lab in college...all those bugs I put on pins. But, Goddammit, I didn’t impale the damned things alive! Oh, God, it hurts! Nausea, too. Christ, how long can I stay awake? If I pass out, I’m dead. Even if I don’t rip my leg off when I fall, I’ll probably bash my head on something when I hit. …Getting woozy...got to stay awake...

Erin rooted around in the rubble and came up with a four-foot length of pipe. She had to lift a heavy piece of floor section some inches to work it clear, but she soon held it up in triumph. Moving each step with the care of a tightrope walker, she worked back to where Jason teetered on one leg.

When she came back with her pry bar, Jason said softly, almost in a whisper, “Erin, listen, you’ve gotta get Emmie out of here. Vince could come over the top back there any second. We can’t let him get his hands on her. Or one o’ those things could come around any corner. Promise…” He began to weave back and forth but caught himself with his grip on the board. “Promise you’ll look after her.”

Erin glanced up into his face before answering. “Yeah, right,” she said, moving down into position to use the pry bar. “Do you really think I’d be able to get Emmie away from here, leaving you stuck up here like some weird statue in the park?”

Out of the corner of her eye she could see Jason’s right leg quivering under the load of carrying almost his full weight in an awkward, bent position. His makeshift crutch gripped shakily, now, in both hands, supported much of his weight. But, since he was unable to lock his knee, the leg muscles alone bore the remainder. The constant strain plus the inevitable onset of shock were soon going to have a devastating effect.

Putting an edge of anger on her words, she kept talking as she worked, mainly to hold his attention, to keep him from slipping away into an oblivion from which there would probably be no return. “And do you really believe I could go off and just leave you standing here? Shit! I oughta shove you over on your ass just for thinkin’ it! Remember, I told Emmie I thought you had potential. So, when things get back to normal, I’m gonna expect you to come a courtin’. Now, hold still a second while I...there!”

Carefully working the end of the pipe down alongside Jason’s leg and the shard of glass that grotesquely merged with it, Erin got it between the glass and a wooden beam protruding upward from the depths of the old building.

“Ain’t gonna get back to normal,” Jason said, his voice beginning to slur. “This…as good as…ever gonna be.”

Using the wood beam as a brace, she twisted the pipe around the glass, prying sideways. But Jason’s gasp and groan of agony stopped her when she realized she was using his leg for the fulcrum.

After another moment’s thought, she reached up to Jason’s side and withdrew the dagger Nate had given him from its sheath. Then, with her own Viking Dagger in her other hand, she worked them down beside the glass spike with one on either side halfway down the lengths of the blades. She braced the lower half of each blade behind the pipe with the cutting edges against the glass and scissored the two together, levering the heavy, steel blades against each other with the shard between, a makeshift bolt-cutter.

Nate, I hope the steel in these things is as good as... Her arm, chest, shoulder and back muscles bulged, and her forearms quivered with the strain. …you...think…it…is.

With a sharp chink, the shard snapped.

Re-sheathing her knife as she stood up, she slipped Jason’s back into its sheath. In the same fluid movement, she moved over and up beside him as he swayed back and forth on his good leg. She slipped beneath his arm on the side of the injured leg, and wrapped her right arm firmly about his back, hooking her hand beneath the armpit on the other side. Supporting at least half of his weight, she sought whatever solid footing was to be had and helped him rise until his wounded leg cleared the hole. Balancing on wobbling boards, chunks, and shifting piles of rubble, they struggled and teetered down to Emmie’s eager arms.

She had to lie him down in order to assess the injury, but the scattered remains of fallen buildings prevented it for half a block until they had got to “A” street where Kentucky made a bend to the left and became 4th Street.

They eased him to the ground and Erin examined the end of the shard protruding about four inches down the inside front of his leg just above the knee. It was over an inch wide and maybe a quarter of an inch thick. She had no idea how long it was, but by gently pressing on the flesh of Jason’s leg she was able to locate an area near the top of his thigh where the swelling and tenderness diminished. The edges were knife sharp where they disappeared into the flesh, which was already puffy from the swelling of the tissues. Only a trickle of blood seeped past the plug of glass.

Erin gripped it and tugged, but it held firm. A loud gasp from Jason let her know that its removal could be achieved only with much difficulty—for them both.

Being as careful as she could and still work quickly, Erin ripped a strip of cloth from Jason’s torn pants and tied it loosely around the upper end of his leg. Using a short piece of broken board from the rubble, she twisted the strap to form a tightening knot directly over where she was pretty certain the femoral artery lay on the inside of the upper thigh. She hoped it was high enough on his leg that it would be above the tip of the imbedded shard. With Emmie holding Jason’s head in her lap and murmuring encouragement to him between swipes at her own tears with the back of her hand, Erin cinched down on the tourniquet.

The flashback that washed over her was as unstoppable as water sloshing from an overturned pail. She was back in the kitchen in Muir Breech with John, tending to the woman with the slashed leg and wearing the bright colored muumuu. She and John carefully tightened the tourniquet until the heavy, pulsating flow of blood slackened to a trickle, then to a mere seepage. With her eyes closed, she tried to stop the flood of memories by concentrating on something else, but no matter what else she attempted to focus on, John’s face kept floating to the front, blocking all else. From there, the memory gushed forth. John winked at her and she smiled back because it looked like a blink since she couldn’t see with his other eye and that had brought a smile to John’s face and that was the last smile he ever made because just minutes later Vic blew his head off.

She took a deep breath and shivered as she let it out slowly. The memory had played itself through and receded once again to the catacombs of her mind.

He paid, John. I made him pay.

She opened her eyes, clenched her teeth and concentrated on the flow of blood around the base of the glass dagger. She made small adjustments to the strap tension, checking that the knot was in a good position to clamp off the artery until she was satisfied that the bleeding had essentially stopped, then tied off the other end of the stick. She was pretty sure they had made it over the top before Vince came around the corner from Washington Street, but with their luck being what it was, and Vince’s apparently better, they still had to find a hole and get out of sight. She had to get Jason someplace stable, more secure, where she could loosen the tourniquet and tend to the wound. If she cut off the blood supply to his leg for too long, he’d probably lose his leg and, in this new world, his life. But where could they go to hole up?

Erin and Emmie helped Jason to his feet and, with all three fighting exhaustion, they staggered off. They made their way south beneath the charred and crumbling facades of the preserved and renovated, old building fronts so characteristic of the downtown area. They followed the street around a curve to the left and Erin finally began to believe they had lost Vince. As they plodded in the shadow of ruin and devastation, limping and bleeding from uncounted cuts, bruises and scrapes, she couldn’t shake the fear that Jason may very well die from his latest mishap. But if he didn’t bleed to death in the next hour or so, and, especially if they were able to extract the thing from his leg, there was a fair chance that they all would live for another day—perhaps even two. They could fight whatever infection later—if there was a later.

At the end of the block, they paused at the museum on the corner. Erin eased Jason to the sloping lawn and checked his wound while Emmie swabbed at the cold sweat beading his face. With Erin’s muscles and joints screaming for relief, she settled onto the three concrete steps beside him. The wound in his leg was serious, and, although he had not lost a lot of blood, what he had lost coupled with the pain had still put him into shock. The longer he remained on his feet, the worse it would get, and shock can kill. She was relieved to see it was still just seepage that welled up out of the tight lips of the cut where they pressed against the glass.

As they rested, she looked about for some inspiration, something—anything that might offer some degree of respite. But everywhere was the same. In every direction, the remains of the town stood stark and stiff in the fetid air like a fly-blown carcass in the rigid grip of a rigor mortis that wouldn’t subside. Death by an unknowable enemy waited at every turn. She felt like a sliver of brittle glass being scissored between two blades of steel. Escape held only the promise of an endless repetition of days of terror-fueled flight from monsters born to either this planet or a distant star. And, which deserved more the loathing of the struggling survivors? Were creatures that came across the void on a mission of conquest, or perhaps one as alien to mankind as the source of power that drove their ships, worse than men like Vince? His sort was a black-souled cancer on the remnants of humankind, feeding like a swollen leech on the agony of the dying and the anguish of the yet living. Despair settled upon her like the ash upon the town.

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