Tarantina Highbotham was enjoying her crab cake sandwich, watching waves roll in, slow, low, and dark, their crests silvered by the light of the waning gibbous moon that stood high in the sky.
Peggy barked, “Got it!” and Abby crowed, “Yes! Oh, yes!”
Highbotham turned; her five observers were sliding from their telescope stools to the desks beside them, opening candle lanterns shielded in red glass. Behind the scribbling, hunched silhouettes of the observers, the parapet wall looked like a grainy, dull black-and-white photograph. Their faces and hands, close to the lanterns, glowed vivid red, like ghosts half-emerging into the living world. The sea was so quiet that Highbotham could hear pencils scratching.
Richard was chief recorder tonight. “Times are 2:08:09, 2:08:12, 2:08:08, and 2:08:05, with an outlier at 2:08:17. How’d everyone do on location?” He had been a pudgy old drunken beach bum, retired early from an architecture practice. Nowadays muscles moved under Richard’s loose baggy skin, and he spoke crisply and precisely.
Highbotham reminded herself not to think
Highbotham and Richard hurried to look. Peggy proudly showed them her pencil lines on her painstakingly hand-copied map of the moon. “I saw the flash itself directly, first time Fecunditatis has been dark on a flash in
“Same here, Peggy, with five shadow lines, and it looks like we agree.” Abby, a tall young woman, had been an alt-tech engineer before Daybreak. Highbotham privately worried that in a fight, Abby’s waist-length ash-blonde ponytail might get her shot for a Daybreaker.
Gilead, slim, dark, at one time a Miami stock analyst, clicked his tongue. “Same spot but with one out of six shadow lines that was a little off. Looks like girls rule today.”
Henry, who had been a math grad student, was nodding too. “On this scale a pencil line is about 667 meters wide. We can’t get any more precise than that with the instruments we have. We’ve got the moon gun
“Unless when we combine all our observations,” Richard said, “it turns out we have it nailed to more than one place.”
“Two pitchers of beer and good meal say the CEP will be less than a click,” Henry said.
“Well, now that you all have food and beer riding on it,” Highbotham said, “I
The team bent to the job of combining all their observations into one best result with pencil, abacus, adding machine, and slide rule; the process would take till well past dawn.
Highbotham scribbled Morse for a brief radiogram to alert the world that another EMP bomb was coming in, but her pencil stopped after two lines. She stared out to sea, listening hard.
She sat back.
The moon gun launched an EMP weapon to burst over any strong radio source. There were half a dozen hypotheses about how Daybreak had placed it there, but for the foreseeable future those questions were merely interesting. The more significant question was how much the operators, if any, of the moon gun were able to communicate with the leadership, if any, of Daybreak. Arnie Yang’s experiments, before he himself had been seduced by Daybreak, had demonstrated that to some extent it responded to the content of the messages as much as the strength of the signal, and that it had some ability to coordinate with the tribes on the ground, suggesting that the moon gun, like the tribes, had been ready to go sometime back before.
As recently as last May, they had hoped to cobble together something out of existing nuclear gear and rocket engines at sea, and Christiansted and the other observatories had been working to locate the moon gun to within a kilometer, which they were estimating would be the necessary accuracy since they were only getting one shot.
But nanospawn and biotes had beaten them to the punch; the last, crumbling nuclear carrier had barely made it home to ground on a Georgia beach two months ago, its inventory of rocket and jet fuel already turning to slimy, stinking soap and its computers and communications gear turning to crumbly white powder. Nothing remained of the old Navy and Air Force; probably nothing on Earth now could get as high as 20,000 feet above the ground, let alone to the moon.
Highbotham drummed her fingers.
Heather’s RRC in Pueblo just archived Highbotham’s reports;
But no one had told Highbotham’s team to stop, and they needed something to do besides feeding and educating the Academy kids, so for now, they carried on.
But that was what was normal, now.
Since May, the moon gun had fired only when it was in bright sunlight; yet tonight, the moon was waning gibbous, so Fecunditatis was in full darkness, and all the observers had a good fix on the flash. And why fire at all? Till now the moon gun had always targeted large, fixed radio stations, but there were none of those left.
Yet something was wrong. She was sure of it. Was the clue on Earth, or on the moon?
The moon was slightly south of bang overhead.
“Raiders,” she said. Her observer team turned and stared at her. “Raiders have probably already landed somewhere on the island.”
Not questioning, not panicking, they moved faster than Highbotham could rattle off reminders. “Henry, Peggy, blinker to the regular watchtowers and Christiansted militia. Signal
“Kids,” Abby said.
“Right. Keep them quiet. Little ones to shelters along with the books—”
“Big ones to battle stations. On our way, Captain.” Richard bolted like a bull with bees on its butt; Abby ran after him, hair and long skirts streaming.
“—charts and plots into the safe,” he said, not looking up from his quick folding and stacking.
Henry yanked up and slammed down with the whole force of his scrawny body on the long lever linked to a line of modified tire pumps, making a deafening clatter. Air and methane flowed; Peggy lit the torch and adjusted it to play on the stick of calcite, then closed the door on the steel drum. The limelight blazed to life. Peggy chopped the light on and off with the slatted wooden blind covering the open end. The wooden pieces rattled and thumped despite all the lard lubricating them, adding to the din of Henry’s gasping and pumping and the fierce deep hiss of gas on calcite. Peggy swung the blinker to signal Christiansted, then the watchtower chains east and south of them, and—
A blinker flashed far down the eastern shore. Henry said, “Chenay Bay reports all quiet, they’ve relayed to Prune Bay and are waiting for—”
The flashing dot went out; a huge orange flame leapt up. Chenay Bay watchtower must have had just time to throw a signaling lantern against the pre-laid warning fire.
Highbotham held her voice low and even. “Peggy, is Murcheson on line now?”
“They just said so.”
“Good. Message: RAIDERS AT CHENAY BAY, TOWER DOWN, EXPECTING ATTACK HERE. Same to the south tower chain. Same to
“Sure.” She began flashing, not pausing as she asked, “Why Coakley?”
“That’s all low ground, the road’s close to the sea, and if they surprised the Coakley watchtower, they would have had good cover to surprise every station before Chenay. It’s what I’d’ve done. We were just lucky that Chenay is higher up and better defended.”
It was more noise than Highbotham had heard in many nights. Peggy’s hands worked the clattering, banging wooden slats with crisp precision. Henry’s furious pumping added gasps, thuds, rattles, and slurps. Across the harbor, church bells rang and snare drums beat “To Quarters.”
But above all the uproar, they heard the distant chant on the wind:
All we are doing,
Is to set Gaia free.
Abby said, “The Academy’s Company is all present, armed, and ready, Captain.”
Highbotham turned around and sternly ordered herself not to smile at the raggedness of the CAM kids’ fighting clothes; what mattered was the people inside them, after all. Months of drill had paid off; some kids looked afraid, but none looked panicked, and they held their spears, leaf-spring crossbows, and plumbing-pipe muskets with confident competence.
“All right then,” she said. “You are going to shoot, or load and clean, or run and carry, whatever your job is, just like in drills. If the enemy penetrate the compound, use your knife, hatchet, or spear. Don’t hesitate, hit hard, and keep hitting till they stop moving. Let’s go.”
Henry, Gilead, and three of the older kids led their squads down the gentle slope of the promontory to their assigned firing pits, on a low rise overlooking the six-foot stone fence across the small peninsula. During countless hours building the fence over the summer, the children had covered its outer surface with broken-off bottles, steak knife blades whose plastic handles had dissolved, and scraps of old barbed wire, and systematically cleared everything out of the fifty yards between the pits and the fence. If it worked as intended, the fence would force the attackers to come over it slowly enough for the firing pits to butcher them.
Abby spoke beside her. “Captain, rockets are—”
“Boats! Coming around the point to the east!” a voice shouted from the tower.
Abby whirled and ran toward the beach.
Highbotham looked over the reserve force on the patio.
They were all looking past her, down toward the landward fence. She turned to see a stream of tribals coming up the road, still too far away for the rifles or crossbows in the firing pits.
When she turned back, she saw boats rowing in across Punnett Bay. “All right, our guests are arriving,” she said to her reserve squads. “Showtime soon, but nothing we can do till the range closes. Stay loose till we’re needed, breathe, relax, check your weapon.”
Most of the kids at the Caribbean Academy of Mathematics were orphaned or separated from their families in the chaos after Daybreak; some had been street kids, back before. CAM offered hot meals, a safe place to sleep, and as much instruction as they could manage to children with mathematical talent. Highbotham privately defined “mathematical talent” as “homelessness and hunger,” but she thought phrasing it as a scholarship helped the kids find the pride they needed to work at their studies.
“One more order, everyone. No matter what happens tonight,
“Br-r-rains,” an unidentifiable voice said, like a movie zombie.
She saw many of them freeze, anticipating one of the Captain’s famous tirades.
The landward mob of Daybreakers was fanning out from the road as they rushed the fence. As they came into range of the firing pits, Newberry Standard rifles flared and banged. A few leaders carrying spirit sticks fell.
The Daybreaker swarm kept coming. Crossbow bolts flicked into the front ranks, now, and more fell, but still, losing leaders did nothing to slow the raiders. They all knew the plan:
At the fence, the first wave didn’t even try to take cover, grabbing and climbing till they hung up on wire, blades, and bottles. The ones behind piled against them until the human wave stalled, and bolts and bullets stabbed into the accumulating crowd.
If the Daybreakers had numbered in the thousands, as they had in the human waves that had swept away WTRC and threatened Pullman and Athens, they might have carried the fence and destroyed the observatory and CAM in a matter of minutes, but counting and guessing, Highbotham thought there were only four hundred at most. Still, that was enough sheer pressure to begin to crack the stone fence from its foundation, toppling stones set in the poorly cured, inadequate mortar.
Henry and two of his team leapt from their pit and ran toward the fence, each carrying a bottle bomb. Those had been Henry’s idea: guncotton made and dried in the bottle. While the guncotton was still wet and therefore safe, the little ones had scratched the glass all over with a cutter. Then they had dipped the bottle in animal glue, and rolled it in shredded metal, gravel, and broken glass as if breading a deadly chicken leg. A paper-wrapped squib of black powder—really just a big firecracker—glued into the neck a couple of weeks later, after long drying in the sun, had completed the process.
At about twenty yards from the wall, all three of them struck matches, touched the fuses, and threw the bottles into a high arc toward the screaming mob. One bottle bomb burst impressively, knocking down half a dozen people; in two seconds, the Daybreakers behind the dead and wounded stepped over and closed up the hole. Another bomb disappeared into the crowd without any effect. Henry threw so hard that his bomb sailed over the heads of the crowd, bounced, tumbled, ignited without bursting, and scooted around trailing hot white exhaust like a firework.
As Henry and his two grenadiers ran back to their pit, one fell, clutching her leg; Henry, turning back, fell beside her.
Instantly the other CAM students in Henry’s pit rushed forward.
Highbotham ran down the grassy slope with three squads just behind her. The pits on either side were firing, but Henry’s pit had been the center of the line, and Henry had been commanding this whole side of the defense.
A Daybreaker rose atop the stone fence, drawing his bow; he fell backward with a crossbow bolt in the eye. But the bowman that followed him leapt down into the cleared space and loosed an arrow into the press of Henry’s squad; someone screamed.
Highbotham’s small force flung themselves prone in the firing pit and wriggled forward to the mounded dirt at the front. Several Daybreaker bowmen were over the fence and shooting, and more were climbing in over their dead.
She drew her black-powder revolver, leveled it on crossed wrists, and brought down two bowmen on four shots.
“Squad Ten, hold this pit and keep up firing,” Highbotham’s voice was as unnaturally clear and calm as a language lesson. “Squad Nine! Squad Eleven! We’re going down there to bring our people in. Stick together. Nobody leaves early and nobody gets left. On my call, three, two, one,
With her revolver emptied and no time to reload, she pulled the cutlass from her scabbard. An old martial arts freak named Bobby had taught her the
On her right.
Raising an ax over his head.
Her hands were already moving in the bamboo cut. The blade tip bit into his neck and broke through his collarbone; he fell over backward, almost dragging her cutlass out of her hand. She glanced back, saw a man behind her raising a poleax to strike Jebby, and her cutlass turned in her hand as it passed low across her front, flew back past her thigh, and struck upward into the man’s lower ribs faster than she could think any of those words, jarring against her hand as if she’d hit a sandbag with a mallet. He froze and stared. Her blade continued up and around, the tip parting shirt and skin all the way to his shoulder, rose past his head, and came back in a neck-high slash that cut his windpipe and carotids. It felt like parting a rope.
Staying with her blade, she faced forward again, and seeing the way clear, advanced to Henry in two big leaps. Her cutlass beat down an enemy spear tip on her flank; in a two-handed grip, she let the cutlass ride up beside her body, then whipped it full force down across the man’s skull. She wrenched her sword clear of his head and whirled toward something moving in the corner of her eye.
The man raising a hatchet was being pushed over backwards by Jebby’s spear in his throat. Highbotham swept his foot, stepped forward, and chopped between his eyes. Her wrists ached; those had been some forceful shocks.
Henry was at her feet, Jebby at her side, the rest of her squads and the survivors from Henry’s Squad Three in a cluster around her. Looking down the slope, she saw the last tribal bowmen fleeing toward the wall. As a space opened between friend and foe, crossbow bolts whizzed after the few surviving raiders, bringing several down.
Highbotham ordered, “Crossbowmen, cover us, everyone else, carry the wounded, back to the center pit. Two runners!”
Two survivors from Henry’s team stepped forward. “You, go to Squads One and Two. You, Four and Five. Let Gilead know he’s in command now, and Squad Ten will hold the center pit. Bartie commands Squad Ten and he’s Gilead’s second in command. Tell them this is an order: No one is to rush the fence or try to carry the attack beyond it. Hold
“My fault,” Henry said, as two boys lifted him from the ground at her feet. “Bombs didn’t—”
“Rest,” she said. “And your crossbows are
Whooshes and booms resounded from the sea side of the big house; flashes of light flickered behind the low rise. “Squads Nine and Eleven, back to the rally point and we’ll probably keep running when we get there.”
It was not a long run—back before, a high school runner would have called it “middle distance”—and they were warmed up and well into second wind, so it seemed to Highbotham that she and her little force almost flew up the hill and onto the patio. Abby had just signaled, and squads Twelve and Thirteen were running down to the beach ahead of them.
They put on a burst of speed and caught up, racing into well-rehearsed positions on the first rise above the water, between the rocket squads and the incoming boats. “Everyone down! Prone firing position!”
The force lay down instantly, wriggling forward, weapons pointed down the beach, checking mechanisms and laying out ammunition within easy reach without being ordered to.
Highbotham stayed on her feet to look the situation over. Rockets had set the lead boat on fire, but most of its crew had made it to shore; the other two were just landing, and already there were almost as many raiders as defenders. Three more boats had already rounded the point.
The voice of a long-ago instructor echoed in her head:
Highbotham turned and shouted to Abby and Richard behind her. “Three-rocket volley into their landing! Then concentrate on the ones further out!”
Abby and Richard were yelling to their squads as Highbotham spoke quietly. “Squads Nine, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, form up. Make sure you’re reloaded. Stay down till the rockets go over, then we’re going to rush them. Be ready.” She stretched out prone. Her hands busied themselves reloading her revolver. She had just pushed the last paper cartridge in, topped it with a percussion cap, and swung the cylinder back into place when three roars of thunder overlapped scant yards above them, the white glare lighting the beach like an old-time flashbulb.
She felt more than saw two dozen CAM kids jump up and race forward with her. The tail flames of the three rockets shot out beyond them, wobbling and spiraling like footballs through the 200 yards.
In less than two seconds, one rocket augured into the sand about 20 feet short, exploding in a big burst that sprayed the raiders with grit and gravel but hurt them very little. The second bent upward, tumbled, and sailed out over the water.
The third hit a jackpot. Before the Daybreakers had recovered from the blinding explosion and spray of gravel, the lucky rocket’s short fuse set off its 15 pounds of crude dynamite less than 10 feet off the ground, directly above the main body of Daybreakers. The rocket had flown only a fifth of its normal range, so the dynamite set off most of the fuel—a saltpeter/tallow/powdered-aluminum slurry—in a fireball 50 feet across, which flared and went black in the time of one gasp. The reeling, groping figures emerged from it with clothes and hair on fire where blazing tallow clung to them.
“Follow me!” Highbotham and her reserve squads raced down the beach. Some of the Daybreakers dove into the water, extinguishing the flames, but exposing themselves to bullets and bolts when they stood. Others ran screaming, to be run down and chopped, stabbed, or clubbed, as the islanders drove all the way to the water’s edge in that first charge.
It was victory for the moment, but the additional three longboats were now close enough for a bowman in the lead one to launch inaccurate, wobbly arrows onto the shore. Abby’s voice carried on the wind behind them.
“Down!” Highbotham echoed, and dove onto the sand. All around her she could hear the kids doing the same. Three more rockets roared over them. The beach and sea were briefly brighter than day.
One splashed to extinction without detonating. One burst early, scattering blobs of burning tallow onto the water. The last lost a fin, looped once, and fizzled into brief pathetic fire as it fell harmlessly into the sea. The Daybreakers cheered, rowing as hard as they could, much closer, now, because the rockets had taken up time when snipers might have been working.
“Crossbowmen and riflemen,” Highbotham said, “pick
Highbotham looked and laughed, a little madly. “Belay all that! Pick targets and fire at will, we’re winning.”
The last boat was pulling south, either running away or trying for a flank attack.
As heads bobbed up in the bay, crossbowmen began picking them off.
Morse blinked from the stern of
Highbotham walked slowly back up the beach. The sounds from the landward side were no longer of battle but of rout. The absence of chanting and drums, and the rhythm of volley fire, told her that the Daybreakers who had overstayed were trapped between the fence and the town militia.
As she arrived at Abby’s rocket station, she heard no more volleys, just wailing from the few Daybreakers left alive. A few of those could be rehabilitated in their seizure-recovery phases, according to the latest Jamesgram; the Christiansted town council had voted to try it the next time they had prisoners. Scattered distant shots meant pursuit continued.
Highbotham couldn’t hear waves hissing down the shore, and some people’s mouths were moving without her being able to understand them;
Abby looked up from where they were swabbing out rocket tubes. “Right, Captain. Richard’s already taken a party to go bring the little kids back.”
“Good job on the rockets,” Highbotham said. “Good job on everything.”
Abby nodded; in the moonlight her hair was almost phosphorescent, and her face was streaked ghostly white and black from the soot of her rocket launching. “We can do everything here now. You’ll want to get the land side squared away, and then get down to C-sted for the commanders’ meeting.”
“Well, we were fighting for nearly four hours, Captain. That’s false dawn over east.” Abby took a deep drink from her water bottle.
That reminded Highbotham to drink from her own. “I’m kind of disturbed that none of our kids gives any of the enemy a chance to surrender.”
Abby shook her head. “You spent too many years hanging out with the boys, Captain. This is a woman kind of fight—if you’re going to kill each other,
As she walked back to the main house, Highbotham noticed Jebby Surdyke holding her hand. “I waan learn dat Ge-ne-va Con-vic-tion,” she said, “if you waan me a learn.”
Highbotham smiled. “Later, honey, but you’ll learn it, I promise. It’s part of that civilization thing we’re working on bringing back. And speaking of civilization, we all need some breakfast and cleanup. Shouldn’t you be with Squad Nine?”
“They don gimme no squad so I go wid yah.” Jebby’s hand closed on hers a little tighter.