I'm working on the next Masks story, but it's slow going. In the meantime here is something to hold you over.
This is from an uncompleted fantasy novel. The premise is that some mysterious event has mixed patches from different alternate Earths together on one. Not only are there now humans and non-humans trying to live together, but some people who were caught at the boundary of a patch during the change were themselves altered.
Patchwork World Excerpt
"What did they do to her?" Allison whispered to Theo.
"I don't know," the soldier replied, glancing back at the dark-skinned woman where she lay unconscious on the swaying litter. "I'd say she got her own back at them, though, from the way they collapsed, screaming."
Nobo came scuffling towards them, obviously hurrying to catch up with the pair on point.
"Notice anything odd about the forest, here?" he murmured, peering around.
"There's a lot of old, dead trees " said Theo.
"More than that. Something killed everything here - or nearly so - about thirty or forty years ago, maybe longer. None of the living trees are any older than that. Also they're all varieties whose seeds are carried by wind or birds. Same with the smaller plants. There aren't enough animals, too."
"That should be long enough ago not to hurt us, right?" asked Allison, worried.
"Yeah," said Nobo, glancing quickly around. "Thing is, this started suddenly, when we crossed into this patch, and has continued unchanged the whole way. The effect appears to be uniform throughout."
"Some sort of widespread blight in this patch, forty or fifty years ago?" Theo asked, taking more notice of the plants.
"Maybe..." said Nobo, though his tone suggested he already knew the reason.
Not long after they came upon an odd feature, approaching it diagonally. It was a wide patch with little growth, running left and right in a straight line for as far as they could see. Theo halted the small group while he considered the situation.
"I think it's on an old road," he said, after a few moments. "Look; no large trees, just stuff small enough to grow in the accumulated leaf litter."
"All that accumulation is about as old as the new growth," said Nobo, squatting to dig. He quickly uncovered what appeared to be broken asphalt pavement.
"Looks like it runs north/south," Allison judged. "I know we planned to head straight for Fort Campbell, but we could make better time on this than through the woods proper."
Theo considered for a moment, rubbing his chin, then concurred. They changed course. For the next couple of hours, except for occasionally necessary communications, they walked along in silence. This was partly out of caution, partly because their surroundings weighed on them, but mostly due to simple exhaustion. Theo knew that most of them could keep on at this pace for quite a while longer, but Sarah, Hilcane and - to a lesser degree - Garry were all injured. Harris wasn't looking too good, either. Theo dropped back to check on Garry.
"How are you feeling."
"I'm doing okay," was her listless reply.
"Look, it's going to be dark, soon. I need someone with good night vision to take point. Are you up to it?"
"Yeah. I can walk okay, and my eyes weren't... affected."
He stopped, because Allison and Nobo had stopped, and were looking off to one side. Theo motioned for the others to wait where they were, and moved to join the pair, noticing as he did so that Garry trailed after him. For some reason they were digging in the leaf mold off the side of the road.
"What?" he whispered, on reaching them.
"There's a concrete driveway, here, leading to a house " said Allison.
"Looks like a good place to rest," Nobo added. "There's no activity there, no smoke from the chimney. There's utility poles, but most of the wires are down, and have been for a long time. So I'd say it's been abandoned since whatever killed all the animals and plants happened."
Again, Theo took several seconds to think things over, and the realization that he needed that long helped him decide. Yes, he could keep walking, but his mind needed rest, perhaps more than his body.
"Okay, you three circle around and check things out. We'll wait back a ways for you, where the others are stopped."
They nodded and took off, all three now more alert and energetic. Theo knew that wouldn't last long, but it should carry them through this one last task. Then they all could rest. He moved back to join the others.
"We've found an old house that looks abandoned," he explained in a low voice. "Karen, I want you to be extra thorough covering our tracks. I wish now I'd started a false trail, back where we first came across the road, but it's too late for that. Anyway, we all need rest, and this looks like a safe place to get it, and maybe some food and clothes."
"I'll do what I can to make it look like we went past the house," Karen volunteered. "Maybe even conceal it some. In the dark that should be enough."
"Good. Don't go alone, though. Uhm, Jim, you go with her. I'll help Sue with Sarah. Wait until the others get back, though."
The wait was long enough that they decided to rest. Sarah and Hilcane were placed on makeshift beds of dry leaves and examined again. Still no change with the dark elf, but the Feshet was actually somewhat recovered. Darkness was just beginning to gather noticeably in the shadows when the trio of scouts returned. Their subdued excitement spoke favorably before they said a word.
"Nobody home," Allison reported. "Like Nobo said, no utilities are working, and the place is definitely long abandoned. Looks like they left in a hurry, but not so much of one that they didn't take some things with them, and close and lock all the doors. There's a two-car garage, with an old Volvo or something up on racks; looks like they drove off in another vehicle. Took time to close the garage door after them, too. The roof's collapsed in the back, right corner, and there's a lot of water damage inside, but some of the rooms look okay, including the kitchen and one bathroom. Oh, and there's a creek on the other side, down in a little valley. Nobo drank some of the water and said it tasted okay, and Garry said it smelled leafy but otherwise fine. She drank some, too."
"Good " sighed Theo. Then, a little more loudly. "Okay, in we go. Karen, don't take too long. Say, twenty minutes."
"Gotcha," the nymph said.
She hurried off, Jim trailing behind her. The others moved to the house, entering through the side door Allison had forced.
"Careful; there's a rotted out place in the floor, there," Allison warned them. "Roof must leak. "
She led them into the musty-smelling living room. Though the ceiling here seemed intact, humidity from the collapsed back of the house had caused some mold and mildew. Still, it was heaven compared to their previous residence.
"Allison, you and Nobo find some clean pots or buckets and bring in as much water as you can while there's still some light. Oh, and nobody goes anywhere alone! Inside or out."
The pair nodded and trudged into the kitchen. Minutes later they passed through on the way out the back door. They returned not long after, both more than a bit muddy, carrying plenty of fresh water. They left three of the smaller containers in the living room, and those were quickly emptied by the parched fugitives. They were just finishing the last of this when Karen and Jim returned. The nymph and the soldier were directed to the kitchen for water.
"Theo, there's a fireplace in here, and some wood " stated Harris. "Think we should use it?"
"Not unless we really need to," said Theo.
"A hot meal would do us wonders," said Harris.
"I'll see what we have," said Theo. "Meanwhile, I want you and, ah, Sue to inventory what's here; upstairs, too. Have Nobo and Allison do the kitchen, since they're already there. Find us food, sheets, blankets, clothing, medical supplies if you can."
They nodded, and headed towards the stairs in the hallway. Just after they left Karen and Jim came in. They headed for the couch, but Theo stopped them.
"Karen, you and Garry go upstairs after the others, see if they need any help. Then I want you and Garry to find a window up there to keep watch from." He looked around, saying the rest more loudly. "Everyone, stay together. Always at least pairs."
Damn, I'm getting sloppy, Theo thought, as he headed for the kitchen.
He found Allison taking items from cabinets and a pantry and placing them on the big table, where Nobo evaluated them. Most were tossed onto a large and rapidly growing discard pile in a corner, but a few things had been deemed edible. Theo checked those, and nodded, pleasantly surprised. Among the foods in the small group were three unopened jars of bullion cubes; two of chicken and one of beef. The vacuum seal was intact on all three.
"Would it be safe to use these and some of those pots of water to make bullion in the fireplace?"
"Nutritionally, yes, and highly recommended after our travail," Nobo confirmed. "Whether it is safe logistically is your decision. "
"I think we need food more than we need concealment, just now," Theo stated. "Has anyone been down in the basement yet?"
"No. Though the house is on high ground it seems much less likely for any useful items to have survived down there than up here."
"We don't have much more to check in here," sighed Allison, opening the second-last cabinet. "Oh, my God. There's five huge, unopened cans of ground coffee in here. Maxwell House."
"Save that for later. We'll make a strong pot for those on watch. Plus several in the morning, to get us on our feet."
"About the morning..." said Nobo. "If you are willing to invest the time, I should be able to get that car running. Which would allow us to move much more quickly, down that road."
"That's something to decide later, after we've all had a good night's rest " stated Theo. "Oh, and did you get a date, yet, for when the house was abandoned?"
"There was a newspaper on the table " said Allison, quietly. "It was talking about the US Navy embargo of Cuba, and how tensions with the Soviets were at an all-time high. Cuban Missile Crisis stuff."
Theo nodded. That was about what he'd been expecting, and probably Nobo and some of the others, as well.
"If we do stay tomorrow, do you think we should look for some other houses? There are bound to be some in area, what with the phone and electric lines."
"Not unless we really need something and it's not here " Theo judged. "Right now we don't need any diversions."
He took the three jars of bouillon and some pots, bowls and spoons into the living room. Harris and Jim had returned with armloads of useable - if odorous - bedclothes and human clothes. Those in the best condition smelled of cedar. While those were sorted out Theo brought the rest of the edibles into the living room. The sun was setting by now, though, and the room was quickly getting dark.
"Close all the shades in here, and the doors into the other rooms " he instructed. "Anybody know how to start a fire in one of these?"
"Assuming it's not blocked...." sighed Harris, rising tiredly and moving to the fireplace.
The damper had been left closed, and after some effort he was able to open it. Some trash showered down, but there was a distinct flow of air, due to the breeze outside. There were matches on the mantle, and though they were old and damp Harris was eventually able to get one to light. This touched off old, crumpled newspaper, which started the kindling, which in turn started the smaller logs. Some smoke came into the room at first, but fortunately whatever was in the chimney soon burned out and within half an hour they had a nice fire going and pots of water heating. Nobo and Allison arrived just then, with some cast iron cooking equipment they'd found in the basement. This included a trivet which just barely fit in the fireplace, after Allison did some bending.
They also announced they'd found a barbecue and some charcoal, plus a hopper full of nugget coal for the basement forced-air furnace. The latter was more good news, since it meant they could keep the fire fed all night without having to search outside for wood or start burning furniture.
"It's anthracite, too," Nobo explained, smiling. "Very little smoke."
"Found some kerosene lamps, too, but no kerosene," said Allison. "Not even starter fluid for the charcoal."
"Okay, Harris, Jim, take a bowl of bullion each up to our lookouts, then come back and have yours."
Theo had chosen the bullion from the approved foods because it was quick and easy to prepare. Once they'd all had some of that he considered what to prepare next. Their choices were pretty limited. He consulted with the others, and soon had dried beans soaking in one pot, and some macaroni found in a large - and still air-tight - glass jar boiling away in another. Without the box they had to guess at the cooking time.
"Okay, I don't know how this box of Corn Flakes stayed fresh, but we'll save it to take with us. Stuff that takes a lot of preparation we eat while were here. Even if we take the car, we want to travel light. "
"Car?" asked Harris, perking up.
"It's up on jackstands in the garage " said Nobo. "I don't know what was being worked on. I'd have to finish that, plus repair anything damaged since, filter the gasoline, maybe repack the wheel bearings..."
"In short, we might get to help quicker walking than waiting for the car to be readied," sighed Theo. "At any rate, we'll be better able to decide in the morning. After a good night's rest, breakfast, and a better look at all our resources."
"I could go check the car now " Nobo offered. "Maybe build a filter for the gasoline and start it going..."
"You're out on your feet. We all are. You rest now, and start in the morning."
The inventor sighed and reluctantly nodded. Theo glanced around the room, more just checking than because he expected to see anything important.
"Okay, we'll barricade the doors and windows and settle in for the night. I think we can relax the 'nobody alone' rule while we're inside, since we haven't found anything more dangerous than rotting floors. You folks start on the barricades, and I'll go check with Karen and Garry."
The upstairs was one long hallway with doors on either side. The nymph and feline had taken positions by the windows at opposite ends, where they could see and talk to each other and still cover almost the entire area outside the house.
"How are you two doing?"
"Fine," said Karen, with a tired smile.
"As well as can be expected," said Garry, in a flat tone.
Theo took a slow tour of the upper floor. There were a couple more bedrooms and another bathroom, with the rest storage. He found a pair of folding camp stools and took those and some quilts to the watchers.
"I'm going to go get some sleep. Allison and I will spell you in two hours. Think you can stay awake that long?"
"I'm not likely to sleep with these hurting," said Garry, more than a trace of bitterness in her voice as she raised her splinted arms.
"We did find some whiskey in unopened bottles " said Theo. "I know you can drink alcohol. I'll give you a bottle when I relieve you. Just don't drink more than you need. A hangover will only make things worse."
"Right," the cat woman sighed.
Downstairs the barricading was almost completed. Theo walked through slowly, noting how well his charges were arranging things for their sleep. Someone had even thought to save the soapy water used for cleaning the cooking utensils and put it in the bathroom for flushing. He had a good crew, all right. He then moved around the rest of the house, checking their preparations as well as he could in the gathering gloom. Satisfied, he returned to the living room.
"That's your pallet " said Harris, pointing to a cot-sized bed made from folded quilts, with a scratchy wool blanket for a cover.
Harris nodded and sat down at the foot of his bed. He undid his boots, peeling them off with a mixed sigh and groan. He set the timer on his watch for two hours, then lay down and pulled the blanket over him. He didn't remember, later, anything else until the timer sounded.
* * *
Morning brought a makeshift breakfast and further exploration. Theo and Allison had watched for two hours, then put Nobo and Harris on the job. Theo realized later that he had forgotten to tell them who would replace them, and when, but learned that after two hours the watchers had come down and woken Sue and Jim. They, in turn, had woken Karen and Garry to start the cycle over.
By the time those two came down, however, most of the others were already stirring. Theo, feeling much more alert but also quite sore, winced his way up the stairs in his socks with Allison trailing along behind. She seemed disturbingly fit, her enhanced metabolism having completely refurbished her tired body during the previous ten hours. If only she didn't look so gaunt...
Nobo brought their breakfast soon after. Beans, baked in a Dutch oven in the fireplace ashes, plus water considerably better tasting than what they'd had the day before.
"Where'd you get this?" Theo asked, after a long, appreciative drink.
"There's a well and pump in the basement " he explained, looking even more alert than Allison. "I took the motor off an old lawn mower and used it to drive the pump, using a belt from the furnace blower motor. Routed the exhaust up the furnace chimney. Only ran it long enough to charge the reservoir and flush the rust out of the system. "
"When did you do all this?" asked Allison, from the far end of the hall.
"Started on it about an hour ago. We can have running water, now, though there's some leaking pipes so we should only run the motor for short periods, to fill the commode tank and the tub and bowls and such. Oh, and we found some home canned foods downstairs, plus more factory canned stuff. Enough of them are in good condition to feed us for a while."
Theo watched the inventor head back downstairs and shook his head.
"You could drop that man naked in the middle of the Pacific and he'd sail home on a boat made of whale bones and shark skin. "
"I wouldn't bet against it," laughed Allison. She stretched, and turned to look at Theo. "So, do we stay for a while? If we have enough food, I mean."
"Yes," said Theo, after only a moment of thought. "After getting a good night's sleep, and seeing everyone's condition this morning, definitely yes. Especially with the weather as bad as it is. As for food, we might be able to forage in the woods if we need to."
During the night rain had moved in. A cold, miserable, foggy drizzle which showed no sign of stopping.
"I wonder if that's an accident," said Allison, sourly.
Theo started. He hadn't thought of that.
"I'll ask Karen if she feels anything odd about it. "
They kept the same watch pattern throughout the day. Nobody planned this; they just did it, like a good team. When Theo and Allison were relieved by Nobo and Harris, Theo sought out Karen.
"How did your false trail laying go, yesterday?"
"Jim and I walked for nine minutes past that trail fork, with me making sure we two copied the tracks we were all making up to where the driveway is," the nymph explained. "Then we found a place where we could leave the trail without making tracks. A culvert over a mostly dry, rocky creek bed. We walked along that about a quarter mile - excuse me, about half a klick - then climbed out and made our way through the woods to back here. Me concealing our trail the whole way. I concealed the tracks you guys made going off the road and to the house before we set out."
"Good work," said Theo, nodding. "Now, I have another question. Is this rain natural?"
Karen's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in concentration. After a moment she nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think it is. I mean, it could'a been guided here from somewhere else, but I'm not sensing any magical influence in the rain itself. "
"Good," said Theo, nodding also. "I think we'll stay here for a while, then. Give ourselves a chance to recuperate. Next question, how much food can you bring in from the woods."
"Quite a bit," she assured him, with a smile an a nod. "You folks may not like much of it, but it'll be safe and nutritious."
"Very good. Start on that as soon as you're rested, please."
He smiled at Karen and stood, going to check on the others. Harris had spent some time after breakfast making new splints for Garry, and doing a better job of setting the broken bones and dislocated joints. Garry had stood it stoically, her only signs of the pain she had to be experiencing an occasional lash of her tail and a considerable amount of shedding. Hilcane was fully alert today, and physically much recovered. Sarah, however, was unchanged. Harris had managed to get some bullion into her the night before, and then diapered her before dressing her in warm, flannel pajamas found in a second cedar chest upstairs. This morning she'd taken more food and water. She also seemed to be resting comfortably.
"I think this is more from what she did than from what they did," Harris explained, quietly, at Theo's request for an update. "She hurt her mind - overextended herself - and now must rest to heal it. She should be all right, eventually, but I don't know how long that will take."
"Let me know if there's any change," sighed Theo. He turned to the Feshet. "How are you, Hilcane?"
"Better," he acknowledged. "Our recent captors fortunately are unfamiliar with my people's anatomical details."
"Well, we're going to be staying here for at least another day. Rest, and heal."
The big creature nodded. He'd been sitting in what Theo knew to be a meditative posture, and hadn't shifted much from it to converse. Now he closed his eyes and resumed his self-therapy.
They were all in better shape than they had any right to be, physically. Except for Sarah and Garry their spirits were high. If they could just avoid discovery by the elves, they'd be home in a few days, even if the car couldn't be made to run. Speaking of which...
Theo found Nobo, as expected, in the garage. The inventor was taking a thorough inventory of the garage's contents, which included a considerable amount of tools, spare parts and consumables, including some cans of gasoline. He'd also brought a pile of stuff from the house. Among the stranger items were several rock-hard loaves of bread. White, sliced and enriched.
"What's this for?" Theo asked, rapping one of the loaves with his knuckles.
"Filtration," Nobo explained. "Gasoline is subject to molecular cross-linking in storage, unless doped with an antioxidant. I think I can use the bread to make a molecular sieve to remove the long-chain molecules."
"That what you did with the motor you rigged to the well?"
"No. I just poured very carefully to keep from stirring up the sludge on the bottom. That kind of motor isn't very picky."
"Ah," said Theo. He moved to the car. "What was being done to this?"
"Just a simple oil change," Nobo pronounced. "The plug was out and a pan was on the floor under it. Stuff looked more like tar than thirty-weight."
"Looks like you've already finished that job. "
"Yes. I've already checked the tires, too, and topped off the battery and put a compound in to give it a charge. Now I've got to inspect the hoses and brake lines, and treat or replace as appropriate. I can do that while the gasoline is filtering."
"I notice it's a 1955 Hudson Wasp Super, with a V8," said Theo. "This line must have been pretty close to ours."
"I haven't found any differences, except that apparently a nuclear war took place in the early Sixties," said Nobo, apparently not thinking his leader's familiarity with antique vehicles unusual.
"You started this without asking me," Theo told him, with a mild tone of criticism. "By the way, we're staying for a while."
"Well, there wasn't much else I could do in the house and I wanted to keep busy," Nobo replied, a bit subdued. "How long are we staying, then?"
"For at least another day."
"I don't think I can be ready by then " said Nobo, frowning.
"Assuming we wait until the car is ready to drive, how much gasoline do you think we'd have?"
"The tank was about half full," Nobo noted. "With that, what was in the lawn mower's tank, the five-gallon can in the basement, and the cans out here, I expect we'll have about ten useable gallons, once I finish filtering and doctoring. We'll have to drive slowly anyway, because of the condition of the road, and pushing through the plant growth will cut down on our range, so at a rough estimate we should be able to drive at ten to twenty klicks per hour on average, for about a hundred klicks."
"Better than I was expecting " said Theo, nodding. "That's definitely faster than we can move on foot with the wounded. Keep me apprised."
The rest of the day was spent keeping watch and working on equipment. Allison had found a revolver and box of ammunition in the main bedroom, but that was where the roof was collapsed and the gun and cartridges were all corroded beyond even Nobo's ability to repair. There were, however, knives in abundance, both in the kitchen and with camping gear stored upstairs. With the latter they also found three hatchets and a full-sized axe, a camp stove, two small tents and a great deal of other equipment which would be useful on their trip home. The back part of the garage was about a quarter full of cut wood for the fireplace, and also contained a splitting maul and several saws.
Clothing - including rain gear - was found to fit everyone except Hilcane. He would make do with a military-surplus poncho, once they got underway. Though the clothing was musty there were no moth holes, and only some items in a downstairs closet which had been forced open by the roof collapse had mold and mildew.
"You know," said Harris, thoughtfully "you'd need a huge amount of radiation to sterilize an area as thoroughly as this one obviously was. It appears that even most insects were killed. The recovery looks slower than that around Chernobyl."
"If we're where I think we are," mused Theo "and assuming their target areas were in roughly the same positions as ours, I don't see how this place got such a large dose of fallout. Unless a warhead missed, of course."
"This was in the early Sixties," said Jim. "Most Russian bombs were still just that, and delivered by planes."
"Could even have been one of our bombers, on the way to Cuba, crashing," said Allison.
"Unlikely, given the safeguards," said Nobo.
"We'll probably never know just what happened, here," sighed Sue. "The actual detonation site could have been outside this patch."
Karen and Harris went foraging during a break in the rain, and returned with a few berries and a double-armload of cattails. They reported seeing other structures in the area, but hadn't approached any of them. The berries and cattails were used for a filling and - Karen and Harris assured them - nutritious lunch for all but Garry. She, being a strict carnivore, was allowed two more bowls of the beef bouillon, as she had been for breakfast, plus a rabbit Harris caught. The scent of the meat roasting in the fireplace gathered an audience, until Theo chased the kibitzers off.
That night the kerosene lamps were working, if smoky. Nobo had found charcoal lighter fluid in the garage, and assured everyone it could be used in the Aladdins. They weren't used for long; everyone was still tired, and no-one except the lookouts had a reason to stay awake beyond dusk.
* * *
Theo helped Nobo open the garage door, then boosted him into the car. Nobo seated himself, looked down at the soldier for a moment holding up crossed fingers, then turned the key. The engine cranked slowly for several seconds, sputtered, coughed, then caught. The assembled spectators burst out in applause and whistles.
"There's oil pouring off the engine," Theo called out, worriedly, glancing under the front of the elevated vehicle.
"The seals are dry. That's why I put the pan back under there. I'll run it long enough to give the battery a bit of a charge, then let it sit and soak. "
Nobo's announcement that most of the factory canned food and even some the home canned were safe - if unpleasant and low on surviving nutrition - to eat had resulted in Theo deciding to give them yet another day. They had busied themselves on preparations for the trip, including helping Nobo with the car. The rain appeared to be slacking off, and Karen had hazarded a guess that the next day would be sunny. If Nobo could get the car going they would leave in the morning. Otherwise, Theo would give him one more day; if it still wasn't useable they'd walk out.
Nobo had outdone himself in his work on the Hudson. He'd even formulated a rubber restorative from available materials, and sprayed all the tires, belts, hoses, gaskets and bushings. Theo had used a grease gun to replenish every fitting, and Allison and Sue had taken turns with an oil can, treating every hinge. Meanwhile, Harris built a platform to go in the back of the car, mainly for carrying Sarah and Hilcane. Now, while the engine cooled and "soaked" they cleaned up as much of the spilled oil as they could, to put through another of the inventor's improvised filters, then lowered the car to the pavement. Next they took out the rear seat and removed the trunk lid. The platform was mounted securely inside the car, extending from just behind the front bench seat to over a meter past the rear bumper. Their injured would ride inside on blankets placed over the wood.
With that finished Nobo checked the dipstick and topped off the oil. He then went under the car with enough rags to wipe all the leaked oil off and inspect the engine.
"Looks good. Theo, hop in and start it for me. Remember, it's a manual choke."
The soldier obliged. The engine cranked more quickly this time, and caught almost immediately.
"Looks good," Nobo shouted. "Looks good. Looks... Yeargh!"
Theo quickly turned the key off and jumped out. Nobo was already kicking himself out from under the car, covered in greasy-looking water.
"I was afraid of that," he muttered, wiping himself off, not noticing that the rag he used was spreading dirty grease and oil on his face. "The bottom radiator hose burst. Good thing it went so soon. Water wasn't hot, yet."
"Can you fix it?" asked Jim.
"Yeah. Whether I can fix it well enough to hold for the whole trip, I don't know." He sighed, and half-sat on the work bench. "Naturally, there was a replacement here for the top hose, and the heater core bypass. But not the bottom hose!"
"You go get cleaned up," said Theo. "No sense you getting ethyl alcohol poisoning. We'll drain the radiator and take the hose off. "
One cold sponge bath - with a bar of Ivory which behaved more like a piece of real ivory - and a change into a fresh pair of overalls and a flannel shirt later, and Nobo was back at work.
"What I'm going to do," he muttered, "is use sheet rubber from the inner tube repair kit I found to seal the leak, then wrap that with electrical tape, and that with a tight cloth bandage, to resist the pressure. Should hold, since we don't plan to use it hard."
"What if we get a flat tire?" asked Theo.
"I don't need all the rubber; there's most of another sheet left."
Half an hour later the engine was started again. This time it ran for fifteen minutes with no sign of a leak. Nobo, grinning, shut it off and got out. After a quick inspection he declared it to be good to go.
"Now for the drive test," Nobo happily announced.
He got in the car, restarted it, put it in gear with a bit of grinding, and slowly backed out of the garage, still grinning. The grin vanished as the car kept on rolling down the gentle slope towards the road. There was suddenly a ratcheting sound as he applied the hand brake, and the car jerked to a stop. Leaving the engine running he got out and opened the hood.
"Brakes not working?" Theo asked, as he joined the inventor.
"Yeah, and I don't know why. Maybe I didn't bleed the lines enough."
Nobo closed the hood and carefully drove the car into the garage and shut the engine off. Half an hour later he announced that the brakes were now in proper working order. He started it, backed it out again, spent fifteen minutes maneuvering in the driveway with gradually increasing confidence, finishing by backing into the garage and shutting down. After a brief applause, all those not injured or on watch began loading the car.
At supper that night he was given an extra share of peach preserves.
* * *
The mood the next morning was less jubilant. They were leaving their sanctuary, resuming a hard and desperate journey. Theo made one last check inside, and went out the front door to find Allison standing in the yard, looking at the house.
"You know, we never even learned their names," she said, sadly. "Anything they left which might have had those on it was too damaged."
"Well, whoever they were, I'm grateful," said Theo, joining her in looking at the house.
"Yeah; me, too," she sighed. She looked up at the place, and nodded. "Thank you, for letting use share your home. I hope, whoever you were, you made it to safety in the other car."
They walked to join the others at the Hudson. Theo was in the middle of the front seat; Allison rode shotgun. Sarah - still not fully conscious, but seeming at least a little better - was on a makeshift pallet laid at the front of the platform, lying across the width of the car. Harris and Sue sat behind her. Everyone else was on the rear of the platform, in the open. As Karen had predicted, the sun was out, though scattered clouds still blew through the sky. At a glance from Theo, Nobo started the engine, put the transmission in gear and let out the clutch. The engine stalled. Theo gave Nobo a wry glance. The inventor blushed, and turned the key. The engine ground. And ground. Now everyone was giving him the eye.
Nobo sighed, got out and opened the hood. He tinkered a moment, then got back in. The engine started immediately.
"Choke was stuck," he explained, voice carefully neutral.
He pulled out of the garage and down the drive, reflexively signaling as he turned north onto the road.
* * *
Their progress wasn't quite as quick as Nobo had forecast. They had to stop three times to find a way around washed out bridges, and several more times to do the same for fallen trees. Once they had to dig a path through a slide. Four times they stopped while Nobo made hasty repairs. By late afternoon the inventor was bandaged in several places and had developed a tic under his left eye. However, they were nearing the edge of the patch, if Theo recalled the map correctly. In spite of all the delays, they were making better progress than they would have on foot.
"What's that sound?" said Theo, as afternoon moved into evening.
"The differential," said Nobo, shortly.
"I've never heard a car make a sound like that before."
"It's from an alternate universe!"
"The differential is failing, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Nobo, his voice almost a growl. "Didn't think to open it, didn't really have the time. Just hoped that, since it was sealed and unused it wouldn't need any work. I was wrong. I just hope it lasts at least until we can find a good stopping place."
"There!" cried Allison, pointing. "I see clear pavement ahead!"
Sure enough, they were soon driving on fresh, bare pavement.
"I think I recognize this, now " said Theo, as Nobo increased their speed to above a crawl for the first time.
"Hey, Nobo!" Karen called out. "There's fresh oil on the road behind us! Lots of it!"
The inventor groaned and pulled over. Minutes later he was out from under the car, digging in the tool kit.
"There's an oil cooler behind the radiator " he explained, tersely. "Pipe brazing broke. We don't really need it. I'll clamp it off and refill. Won't take a minute. "
"Take your time and do it right " said Theo, firmly. "Check for other problems while you're under there. We made better progress during those few minutes on good road than in the previous two hours. Both are better than we'd have done on foot."
Fifteen minutes later he was finished. However, he was so filthy that Theo made him take the time to wipe down and change clothes. Then they were back under way. Nobo drove slowly, at first, easing up to thirty miles an hour. The noise from the differential actually seemed to become more quiet at this speed. Of course, now the clutch was slipping, and there was an odd clicking sound from the engine.
Gradually, he increased speed. As they approached the first serious curve the brake pedal went to the floor. Nobo downshifted, and worked the handbrake.
"Don't pull over " muttered Theo. "I want to keep going as long as we can with reasonable safety. So as long as you are in control, keep driving. "
Nobo sighed and nodded.
Sarah suddenly moaned, and cried out. Harris checked her as Theo twisted around to watch.
"She's babbling " Harris reported. "I think that, in itself, is a good sign. However, she is talking about them chasing us. "
Theo looked back, behind them. No obvious pursuit. However, Karen was now looking distracted, chewing her bottom lip.
"It feels... weird. Not like there's someone after us. But like there's nothing there. "
"Like something's blocking you?"
She nodded, and turned to resume staring behind them.
"Nobo, I don't want to press you, but..."
"Major, this isn't a race car " Nobo snapped. "I'm barely holding this thing together as it is!"
"There's a community coming up " said Allison, pointing to a sign. "Should we stop and call for help?"
"No. If we are being chased we'd endanger bystanders. Keep going. "
"To where?" asked Allison. "There's also crossroads coming up."
"West," Theo decided. "If we're back in our patch - and I think we are - and where we seem to be, there's a Guard unit holding training maneuvers not far from here."
The strange vehicle and its strange contents earned strange looks from the people they saw as they entered the town. Theo simply nodded to folks. Allison smiled and waved.
As Nobo downshifted for the turn there was an impressive backfire. Immediately, the engine noise became much louder and harsher, and a dragging sound could be heard under the car.
"Lost the muffler " Nobo muttered, the tic growing worse.
"Just keep going," said Theo, reflexively looking at his left wrist.
"I... think we threw them off " said Karen, a few minutes later. "Just a feeling that they kept going north. "
"Where is this National Guard unit you mentioned?" asked Harris.
"That may be it up ahead," said Theo, spotting smoke.
Sure enough, as the crested a rise they could see military vehicles parked beside the road.
"Slow down," said Theo, as he spotted armed personnel watching them warily.
"I'm trying!" yelled Nobo, reaching for the hand brake.
Their stop was somewhat undignified but safe. Theo told the others to stay put. He exited the car slowly, making sure his hands were in clear view.
"I'm Major Theo Blake, member of the United States Army Reserve," he announced, slowly and carefully. "I need to speak to your commanding officer."
There was a pause while someone was sent off. A few minutes later he came hurrying back with a fit looking man in his early fifties in tow. That man and Theo traded salutes.
"Colonel John Thurgood. Good to see you, Captain. We were told you were missing and to watch for you."
"I have injured," said Theo, almost sagging with relief. "We all need a good meal, a shower and some sleep, but..."
"I figured there'd be a 'but' in there, given how you look," said the Colonel, scowling, as Theo paused to try to frame a warning in a way which wouldn't be met by disbelief.
"Well, we were captured and tortured by elves," sighed Theo, plunging ahead. "Yes, pointy-eared Tolkien types. We have reason to believe they're on our trail. "
The Colonel took this in stride, nodding curtly to Theo before turning to call some people forward to help those in the car.
"This is my aide, Lieutenant Sommers," he said, indicating a businesslike young woman. "She'll see to your needs. You can brief her about anything urgent while you're getting medical attention. I'll be with you shortly."
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