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. I .
The wet, soft sound of an ending world burned in Lewis Freymark’s ears as he crouched to drop more wood into the fire. Spits of sleet hissed as they filtered into the flames, and the tarp he’d rigged to break the worst of the wind flapped in the drenched, blowing darkness.
It was almost enough—almost—to drown out the sound of his daughter’s cough.
He hunched his shoulders, bending over, using the end of a limb to rearrange the burning branches. They didn’t really need it. But it gave him a few more minutes before he had to look up, face Janice and the kids again, and he couldn’t do that. Not yet. His heart cried out to take them all in his arms, shelter them against the cold, promise them that he was there and that somehow they’d get through this as they’d gotten through everything else. But he couldn’t do that, either. He couldn’t because this time he couldn’t be their strength. Because this time his own despair would only have broken whatever scraps of hope might still sustain them.
There’d been no weather reports in months—not since the “Shongairi” had brought nightmare and destruction to Earth—but there was snow somewhere beyond the sleet. Freymark could smell it. He could feel it in the icy little teeth biting into the back of his neck as he crouched, using his body to give Janice and Stevie and Francesca and Jackie—oh, especially Jackie!—any extra fragment of windbreak he could.
And in his heart, he knew it didn’t matter. He’d grown up in Duluth, fifty-odd miles from this unquiet, hopeless refugee camp. He knew northern winters. He knew how cruel they could be, even without murderous aliens from beyond the stars. And because he did, he knew exactly what would happen.
For a while, he’d thought they’d make it. The farmhouse outside the town of Babbitt had belonged to his cousin, but Jake and Suzanne had been in St. Paul when the initial Shongair kinetic strike turned the entire Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area into fire, ash, smoke, and death.
Freymark and Janice were supposed to have joined them for the river cruise … until Francesca’s impacted wisdom teeth required immediate surgery, instead. They’d just gotten home from the oral surgeon’s when the initial strikes went in.
Minneapolis–St. Paul hadn’t died alone. Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Spokane, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Ottawa … the dirge of murdered cities had rolled like the fanfare of Apocalypse. And the unending list had only grown and grown in the months since. There’d been fresh reports almost daily, at least until the Internet, the communications satellites—even the emergency band radios—had gone down. Duluth had been destroyed two months after Minneapolis–St. Paul in one of the Shongairi’s “reprisal” strikes. Freymark didn’t have a clue what the “reprisal” had been for, but it didn’t matter. Not really. Not beside the death toll which had swept across his country and his world like some black, bottomless tide.
Yet he and Janice and the kids had been safe. They’d loaded up the SUV, headed north for sleepy little Babbitt, where there was nothing for the invaders to waste their “kinetic bombardments” upon. Where they’d known Jake and Suzanne’s farmhouse would stand empty. Indeed, his greatest fear had been that they’d find someone else already squatting on the family farm, but civilization hadn’t gone into the crapper that quickly. Not then.
Jacqueline coughed wetly behind him again, and he clenched his jaw tighter, feeling the cold closing in, staring into the flames as they crackled against the hateful dark.
Jake and Suzanne’s family garden had helped a lot over the summer, and he and Janice had preserved what they could. Neither of them had known a thing about canning, but they’d dragged out Suzanne’s canning supplies, chased down instructions on the Internet, and printed them out while they still had electricity (and before the Puppies took out the Net), and they’d managed to put up a lot of food. Or it had seemed like a lot, just looking at it in the pantry. Until he’d thought about feeding a family of seven through a Minnesota winter.
Yet they could’ve made it. He knew they could have. Babbitt was still a functional town, its mayor and city council had managed—somehow—to hold their community together, and if they hadn’t been delighted to see strangers, neither had they tried to turn them away. Besides, he hadn’t been a stranger. Not really. And Douglas and Carla Jackson had spoken for them—Carla had been Suzanne’s sister, and Freymark had known her since he was nine, visiting his aunt and uncle in Babbitt—and helped the Freymarks settle in at the farm. And there were still deer to eke out their food supplies, and there were always fish in Birch Lake. And so he’d been able to tell himself that whatever happened to the rest of the world, his family would make it.
Until three weeks ago, anyway.
There were a lot of things Lewis Freymark would never know, and one of them was why the Puppies had decided to strike Babbitt. The town had never had more than fourteen or fifteen hundred citizens, although it had probably crept higher than that over the summer and early autumn as other refugees filtered in. How it could have posed any kind of threat to star-traveling aliens was more than he could imagine. Maybe it had been a reprisal for something someone had done, or maybe it had been no more than pure viciousness on the Shongairi’s part. He didn’t know, and it didn’t matter anyway.
What did matter was that Babbitt had disappeared into the same horrific fireball which had claimed a seventeen-year-old boy—a boy turning into a man any parent could have been proud of—named Dennis Freymark.
Dennis had taken the SUV to town to trade some of their precious canned food for medicine. The Babbitt Medical Center had continued to serve the town and its froth of refugees, but Mayor Oswald and the city council had collected the stock of Babbitt’s half-dozen pharmacies under lock and key—and armed guard. They probably would have let Dennis have at least some of what he needed, anyway, but it never hurt to contribute a little something to the town’s food stocks in exchange.
Copyright © 2020 by David Weber and Chris Kennedy