A Day in the Outback

© Copyright 2017

The terrific Elfhome series by Wen Spencer is one of my favorites. Each book actually improves on re-reading. Click on a book cover to read its first few chapters & to buy the book. Below is a short story I wrote in the same multiverse.

A Day in the Outback

by

Laer Carroll

Character: elf security guard named Freezing Winter Night on Stone

(click image to see larger view)

Heather Weatherly awoke surprised that she’d been able to fall asleep at all last night. Events today might make or break her dreams of a secure income, something in short supply in Pittsburgh since it had been transported to the planet of the elves almost 30 years ago.

She might also die today.

She raised her voice enough to trigger her house AI. “Hey, Mama Bear, report.”

“Two friendlies waiting outside. Day expected to be bright but cold. Eight mid-level important messages waiting. Shall I start breakfast?”

“Yes. Keva Mocha and toasted bagels.”

“Got it, Boss.”

That fucking cheerful morning voice. For the thousandth time Heather swore she was going to reprogram it.

She made her usual toilette, faster than usual but more careful for all that. It included very subdued but attractive makeup. Her Mama always told her to put on good warpaint before every important endeavor.

She dressed in a long-sleeved flannel shirt soft as a baby’s butt, sturdy jeans with sewn-in light composite leg armor, torso armor, groin protector, all-weather combat boots, and her gunbelt. She double checked the four magazine pockets on the belt, made sure their magazines were fully loaded with armor-piercing bullets, adjusted the angle of her combat and utility knife, and jacked the slide of her Armstrong Special semiauto to ensure it was fully loaded and ready for action. Over it all she slung a composite-armored leather jacket with lots of pockets.

By this time the smell of coffee permeated her house. She double-checked the identity of the “friendlies” waiting outside. As expected, it was the two near-sekasha of the Stone Clan she’d hired from Steelcity Security for a week with an option to extend it to a month. They were Freezing Winter Night on Stone and Baking Summer Day on Stone, a female and a male.

The elves had arrived in Pittsburgh a few months ago, two late-doubles of 92 and 87 years. Older teenagers by elven standards, like a lot of recent immigrants they had broken with their clan, a scandalous act, because as children in a culture of immortals their lives and ambitions were straight jacketed. Pittsburgh was the land of opportunity. Especially since there was a war on, once covert and now overt.

Heather opened the door of her house and cautiously looked out. To the two elves waiting outside she spoke in Low Elvish. A third-generation Pittsburgher, she’d been born on Elfhome and grew up speaking Elvish as easily as she spoke English. She’d even taken a year of High Elvish in high school.

“Come in. I’m having breakfast. I want to feed you two. You should be properly fueled for today.”

The two were short for elves at around six feet and with skins of a light brown. They wore camouflage-chic uniform outfits with Steelcity Security shoulder patches and chest blazon. The fit and materials would have graced a fashion magazine. To top it all, like all elves they were ridiculously good looking.

“Thank you, Sama,” said Winter, the more talkative and social of the two, in English. “We’ve eaten but a snack would be welcome.”

The two entered and split to both sides of Heather, eyeing the contents of the house. Heather waited for long enough for them to relax from high-combat alert to merely moderately alert. They had almost 70 years of intensive training in all aspects of combat including tactics. Hired by her she was now almost as safe as anyone could be. At least those without an elvish domana protector who could wield magical big guns which could take out whole squads of enemies with one blast.

They lead the way to her kitchen. They’d been there the day before but were still acting as body guards by reflex.

She pointed to two coffee cups and cream and sugar waiting on the dining table in invitation to pour and flavor coffee to taste, handed them plates of toasted bagels hot from the electric oven, then gave them a jar of creamy peanut butter. She also handed over a blunt butter knife to spread the peanut butter over the bread. Elves considered peanut butter a gourmet item and the two ate and drank with a focused attention Heather found almost funny.

Her own attention was nearly as focused on her creamed cheese on bagels. She would have to dive into detail soon enough.

One bagel down and one more to go she spoke up.

“Hey, Mama Bear, give me my messages. Text to voice when needed, on the loudspeakers.”

Over the years her AI had learned to prioritize the messages in order of importance. The first one was from her maternal grandparents who’d immigrated to Pittsburgh almost a century ago.

“Good morning, dear. We and all the rest of family wish you the best of success today. And SAFETY.” The “rest of the family” was quite large. It included her parents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

The second message was in a baritone with an Irish accent. It was from her boyfriend, a forensic accountant with the civilian authority of Pittsburgh.

“Good morning, my love. Best of success today. Be safe. Come back to me, dear.”

Knowing her, he’d made his message short.

The remaining all related to the coming day’s events. They confirmed the projected schedule with minor deviations in timing. After the last she allowed herself a sigh of relief.

The first cross-universe gate between Elfhome and Earth had been designed by Vicereine Tinker, co-ruler of a big chunk of the mirror of the American continent on Elfhome with her husband the domana Windwolf. It had been created a few weeks ago, tested extensively, and contact had been made with Earth. Lengthy negotiations had established the United States as the security agency on Earth which would vet any travel to Elfhome. Remnants of the EIA, the UN agency previously the civil authority on Elfhome governing humanity, had become Windwolf’s agency in Pittsburgh. They would handle security at this end of the gate.

Once that arrangement had been established (and it was still being fine-tuned almost daily) orders for goods had been sent out to Earthly businesses. Today was the day they’d begin arriving, only a trickle and only for a half day. Heather was one of thirteen vendors who’d receive goods.

This was a big deal for her. It was even bigger historically because she’d be delivering all of the orders which went through her to two stores in the Pittsburgh Outback, the area south of Pittsburgh which had been part of the 50-mile circle of Earth transported to Earth by the Chinese space station, now destroyed, beginning not quite 30 years ago.

As she’d listened to the messages she’d set three more bagels to toasting, then delivered them to the elves and herself. She spread creamed cheese on her bagel and ran over in her head the most immediate actions she and her security team would take. For about the millionth time it seemed. She was interrupted by Winter.

“Let’s set up our tacnet.” The female was three years older than Summer and so the nominal leader of the two elves, though they were so well trained at sekasha tactics that they would instantly swap off the role as needed.

She handed a headset to Heather and to Summer and put on one herself. It had a tiny microphone at the end of a stem which poised it an inch above a cheek bone. A separate earpiece went in an ear.

The other two copied her. A few vocal exchanges created a secure link between the three combination computers and communicators. Then Heather spoke.

“Hey Mama Bear. Clone a copy of yourself to Tacnet Weatherly.”

“Boss… Done.”

Their breakfast ended, Heather and the elves left her house and entered their vehicles. Heather’s was a heavy duty cargo van able to handle five tons of cargo. Atop the front of the boxy cargo body was an armored smart video camera system with a 360 degree view and stubby cell signal booster. Standard equipment provided by Steelcity Security.

So too was the powerful built-in computer in the truck connected to the surveillance equipment. Heather spoke loudly enough so it could hear her through a dash microphone.

“Steelcity, join Tacnet Wetherley. Mama Bear, clone into the equipment now coming into Tacnet Weatherly.”

“Boss… Done.”

Each of the two elves climbed onto a Steelcity combat hovertrike. Built on a three-wheeler chassis, they had three lift engines which made them very agile and able to leap over twenty feet high when necessary. Each had an autocannon attached to a swing mount which could fire .50 caliber frangible bullets with a heavy-metal core at any of the targets they might encounter on the trip south this afternoon.

In addition each elf had in side-carry pods a flamethrower and other lethal equipment. Behind their seats an additional pod held hand grenades. And lastly each elf carried personal weapons, handguns, rifles, various knives, and a sword on their back. While not magically sharpened as were the wooden swords carried by sekasha, the swords were made of tempered steel and had hilts made of ironwood. Old-Earth samurai might have approved these swords.

It was a ten minute drive from her house to the exit from the Squirrel Hills Tunnels which contained the gate. On the north side of I-376 a long strip of park and abandoned houses had been cleared and made into a parking lot. A high chained-link fence topped with razor wire surrounded it. A security gate with two gate guards checked her credentials and let her in. She parked in her assigned spot and got out.

Her two elven guards parked their hovertrikes on both sides of the truck and got off their trikes.

“We’re early,” Heather said. “I’m going to walk to the control area. One of you will stay here?” She made it sound like a request.

Winter glanced at Summer, who nodded. Winter followed her as she walked back to a spot near the security gate. There was a large metal temporary building with several offices. Inside an open doorway she turned to a desk where a woman sat with a computer screen in front of her.

“Heather Weatherly checking in.”

The woman, older and greyhaired, smiled at her. “You’re early. We like that. You’re parked in your assigned area?”

“I am. Here’s my ID.”

The woman glanced at it, but it was a comprehensive glance, and she double-checked it with the image on her screen. No one was going to be lax on this historic day.

“It says here that you have five tons of capacity and a matching amount of goods coming in. If you’ll go through that hall they’ll assign two cargo-handling bots to you. You know how to handle them?”

“I do. Thank you.”

“Good luck, Pittsburgher!”

There were perhaps a hundred forklift trucks inside the barn-like area at the end of the hallway. Heather was assigned two and she imprinted them with her voice and assigned them a team designator.

“Team Weatherly, follow me, please.”

Each of the yellow machines flashed their headlights and rose a few inches in the air on their four lift drives, one at each corner of each machine. They had a big black number on each of their sides. They were the size of an old-fashioned forklift and built much the same, with a cabin for a human operator (nowadays replaced by an AI) and two long teeth low to the ground sticking out in front.

Heather returned to her truck trailed by the lifts and behind them the elf.

It was only a few minutes before the first vehicle of the other transport companies arrived, then two more, then a steady stream till all twelve were parked, all about 50 feet apart. Each of the trucks were long-haul tractor-trailer vehicles able to carry 20 tons of cargo.

The driver of the nearest truck was someone she knew, a distant cousin named Jan Hartog. He waved at her, grinned, and called her “shorty” – not because she was but because her truck was smaller than the rest. She grinned and waved back.

On the way back to his truck, trailed by six forklifts, Jan settled the robots around his truck and came over to Heather carrying two plastic “cans” of apple juice. She took one of them, popped its top, and took a sip. She turned to the nearest of her elven guards.

“Do you have drinks?”

Summer nodded. “We came well provisioned, sufficient to last the night and tomorrow morning if necessary. They are stored in our trikes. Thank you for thinking of us.”

Jan said, “Hey, sorry I didn’t think to bring you a drink. Sorry.”

“No need, sir. We’re well able to take care of ourselves.” He smiled and wandered away, the opposite side of a circle rotating around the truck from his companion guard.

“Polite fellow.”

“Trained to be a sekasha. In a decade the two will graduate to triple digits in years. Then they’ll get one of those magical wooden swords which cut through fucking anything.”

“Yeah, scary. Then they can chop you into hamburger if you look at them wrong.”

“Only if it’s the right thing to do. They’re police and judge rolled into one, and highly trained in law and ethics, and mostly they ensure the domana always do the right thing even though officially they’re the big bosses’ body guards.”

Jan nodded at this common knowledge and they began to chat about family.

About an hour later a loud speaker announced that the first truck had arrived from Earth. Soon it pulled into the parking lot and stopped at an assigned spot. Another announcement called Heather and her forklifts to come to the back of the big tractor-trailer. They did so and the AI-controlled lifts began to raise their forks up to the height of the rear of the trailer and take on loads in prepackaged crates of a standard size, about four feet high and wide and six feet long.

Each crate was moved to a checking area and scanned by the officials of the Transportation Authority for danger and correctness, using first a magic spell which saw inside the crates and then by manual inspection, checking each package inside against the list stored on their computers of Heather’s purchases. She also checked her own list against the packages.

There were only minor discrepancies. Heather accepted all the contents of her crates and supervised the forklifts in carrying the crates to her truck and stowing them inside it. It took an hour then she and her elf guards departed the parking lot.

Into the Outback

Her path went eight miles mostly south. On the way she crossed over the Monongahela River by a bridge and passed by the small old Allegheny County Airport. It was on her right, visible mostly as white humped-back aircraft hangars and similar white boxy buildings. It seemed mostly deserted except for one building which seemed to have a parking lot around it full of cars and trucks. She wondered what they were. Air travel had ceased when Pittsburgh had become recently stranded on Elfhome.

Then she turned onto the four-lane Hwy-885 South. She would be on it for about an hour.

Shortly on her right she saw the entrance to the Century Square Shopping Center, a large open-air mall long abandoned. She spared it only a glance.

The land became slightly hilly and wooded. Normally this would have meant the possibility of Black Willows, walking carnivorous trees, but those had long been cleaned out this area. There were still too many people who’d be able to call in someone with a flame thrower. Lots of people over the years had acquired such weapons and knew how to use them.

A little while later she passed on her right the entrance to the Century III Mall, another long-failed shopping mall.

Shortly the four-way highway became two lanes. Once-proud brick homes on both sides of the road were obviously abandoned.

A while later Heather saw on her left a dozen or so homes, close enough to have common yards and to have erected a surrounding high chain-link fence with razor-wire atop it. Then on the right she saw a combined restaurant and market. More than a dozen cars and trucks were clustered in front, some of them she guessed from the little community she’d just passed. She pulled in out of curiosity and because she was becoming hungry.

The two hover trikes floated to a landing on each side of her truck. Summer and Winter debarked, Summer with a high-powered rifle in one hand, Winter with a bow and a quiver of arrows. The arrows were magical and when shot became a bolt of light as devastating as a high-powered military laser.

Summer followed her and Winter prowled around the vehicles in the parking lot and then around toward the back. Heather was sure she’d circle the buildings, giving the forest behind it especial attention.

She herself carried in addition to her pistol a stubby bulldog carbine slung over her shoulder but in fast and easy reach. The short weapon would handle any humans or oni, the besieging enemies of all things elven and human.

The door into the restaurant rang a bell. Everyone inside who weren’t already looking out of the windows turned toward them. Summer ignored them and walked through an open doorway to the mini-market. He’d return when the building was cleared of possible hostiles.

Heather nodded at a waitress behind the long dining counter, seated herself on a stool at the counter, and examined a menu.

Shortly Summer returned and seated himself beside her. He took up a menu, but Heather had no doubt that he was aware of where everyone was and would react instantly if anyone moved in a way he didn’t like.

Two men finished their meals quickly, threw down some money, and left. Everyone else studiously ignored the strangers.

Heather ordered a double patty cheeseburger with bacon and fries and a canned soft drink. Summer ordered a canned fruit drink, “unopened please.” When it came he examined the can carefully though only Heather could tell that, she guessed. He opened it and took a slight sip, holding it in his mouth before swallowing.

When her food came he took the plate and sniffed it. “Smells wonderful,” he said, with a smile. Then he examined her can as carefully but unobtrusively as he’d examined hers.

When they arrived back at their vehicles Winter was waiting for them, a can of juice similar to the one Summer had drunk in his off-weapon hand. He got on his trike, carefully stashing away the empty can, and lifted the trike off the concrete. Winter did the same.

Shortly they came to the left turn onto Coal Valley Road where they’d hop off 885 to cross over to Hwy-51, a much straighter highway to their destination. Heather warned the elves through her headphones, part of their three-station tacnet, and they turned into it before her.

A sign on a phone pole warned that the speed limit was 35 miles per hour. It meant nothing to her but she’d kept her speed to 30 mph to keep the stress on her truck low and to give the elves plenty of time to react to upcoming threats.

The land had become a bit hillier, though it was still fairly flat. The trees had become a bit closer together. There were a lot of abandoned houses nearby. But apparently not completely. She passed on her left a ways off the highway several multistory structures labeled Jefferson Hospital. Judging by the hundreds of parked vehicles nearby and the flying American flag it was a going concern.

The road curved and widened to four lanes to let vehicles turn left or right. They halted at a still functioning red light. There was a fair amount of traffic going north and south in front of her. This was encouraging. She’d always been told the area south of Pittsburgh was practically a wasteland. Meaning there’d be few buyers of her cargo.

After her turn left and to the south onto 51 there was a barbecue place on her right with a sign advertising banquet facilities and the need for a waiter. Vehicles in its parking lot signaled it was doing business. Then across the way a little further there was a long motel, also with a few cars for customers. Things were looking up.

She noticed a pole holding up to the sun a square solar panel, then a bit later another.

Now she came to a highway interchange with a sign posting a split to the right onto Hwy 43 West. That was good. It meant that only a couple of miles ahead was a bridge across another loop of the north-flowing Monongahela River. This meant she was halfway to her first destination, a former Walmart Superstore. Though she was traveling only 30 miles per hour she’d made good time.

There were abandoned buildings on all sides before and after the crossroads, mostly motels and restaurants and automobile dealerships. A couple of the dealerships had a few dusty decade-old autos in them. The land flattened out and opened up. Heather could see for miles.

Off to her right and through some trees Heather caught glimpses of the river; the highway had curved so that it and she were going to the east. Tucked into a long slice of land were dozens of houses and businesses and a steepled church. There were several moving vehicles in the area. Another good sign for her business endeavor.

Around a curve the bridge came in sight perhaps a mile away. It was of some light almost-blue metal and its framework humped up and over the river.

Closer still the tiny convoy entered a long low set of girders. Then the girders humped up and they were out over the river.

Off to the right Heather saw a long line of open-top brown boxes in the edge of the river, each the size of a railroad car.

“Hey Mama Bear. Do you know what those boxes are?”

The copy of her personal AI was silent for several seconds. Heather imagined it searching the Pittsburgh area of the internet and consulting GPS (or the cell-phone equivalent since there was no GPS satellite over Elfhome) to decide what “those boxes” referred to.

“That is the Riverine Protein Collection Facility. The boxes you see are automated fish traps. About 10 percent of all the jumpfish and river sharks and water fairies in the river are captured in them. This is then fed to the sorting and processing facility. It provides jobs for many of the local population.”

“How large is that population?”

“Estimates range from 5000 to 7000. There has been no census in the area for some 30 years; these are based on financial and cell-phone traffic data.”

The same data she had consulted in planning her venture in the Outback.

Meanwhile they’d been crossing the river and were just coming out from under the hump where the girders sloped to meet the highway. Then they were off the bridge and into the small city of Elizabeth.

On all sides were multistory buildings. A few people and more vehicles were visible moving in the side streets. Another church steeple was visible perhaps a mile away. Then a tall metal tower with microwave dishes atop it pointing in all directions. The topmost spire must also house a cell-phone antenna radiating in all directions.

“Hey Mama Bear. How many bars for our cell phone connection?”

“It is five. A perfect five, 100 percent.” She sounded happy and excited. Damn it, Heather WAS going to reprogram that voice!

“Connect me with the Belle Vernon Supermart.”

“Hello. This is the Walmart Supercenter Belle Vernon. How may I direct your call?”

Heather was sure that Walmart itself had no Elfhome presence. But even after nearly 30 years on Elfhome everyone remembered the sprawling global company. Probably the Supermart people still took advantage of that name recognition.

“Delivery Service here. Connect to Astrid Hoffman, please.”

“Yes, sir!” Now the fucking Supermart greeter AI was doing that annoying voice.

“Astrid here. Watcha got for me, Honeybear?”

“Not your AI, Ms. Hoffman. This is Heather Weatherly. I’m maybe 30 minutes out. I just crossed the Elizabeth bridge.”

“Are we ever glad to hear that, Ms. Weatherly! We were so happy to get your text this morning saying that you were on schedule.”

Now that was a truly happy voice, not some fake machine emotion.

“I’ll call you again when I get a few minutes out. The maps I consulted showed a maze of streets surrounding the shopping mall.”

There was chuckle. “Even we get a bit turned around sometimes. When you call me I’ll guide you turn by turn.”

“We’re driving a bit slowly. That should give us a bit more reaction time when we get close.”

“Looking forward to it, Heather!”

The land closed in with dense trees on all sides, but only for a couple of miles. Then the land opened out.

Twenty minutes later they came to the crossroads of Hwy-51 with I-70. Heather took the right turn to go almost due west. In another ten minutes she saw the Belle Vernon outdoor mall just ahead. It seemed to sprawl over a square mile of area.

“Hello, Astrid. I’m coming up on you.”

“Good. First take 43A to the right and make a complete loop to head south. Got that? I’ll stay on the line.”

A few minutes later. “OK. On the loop. Turning. Turning. Going south.”

“About a football field’s length take a right. The sign will call it Pricedale Road.”

A few more turns and Heather’s small convoy pulled up to the back of a huge square one-story building. A slender blond woman who seemed to be sixteen awaited her. Following instructions, Heather turned around and backed up to near the woman. She stopped, put on the parking brake, and jumped out onto the concrete.

She was here. The end of the first leg of her journey through the Outback.

It took Heather, Astrid, and three of the woman’s helpers to unload the Supermart’s items, which had all been placed last in Heather’s rental and so came out first. One of the helpers ran the forklift, an older model on wheels with no AI controller.

Afterward Astrid offered to treat them to lunch.

“Thanks, but we brought our own.”

“At least have a glass of champagne and chat a bit about what’s coming up for you. And for us down here.”

“Sure.”

In the office after Heather had been paid Summer insisted on taking a sip of the wine before Heather did. He held it in his mouth before swallowing and nodding, then stood back into the background, still on guard duty.

“You seemed to have made good time getting here, Heather.”

“Yeah. No Black Willows or wargs. I’m almost disappointed.”

Astrid had finished her wine glass and poured another. She held the bottle near Heather’s glass and Heather shook her head.

“Have some. This is great stuff. We make it down here and this brand sells for ridiculous amounts.”

“No, thanks. I don’t want to chance impairment in case we meet dangerous elven animals. Or trees.”

Astrid smiled, already halfway through her second glass of champagne.

“You Pittsburghers! Do you know what we call you? PITTIFUL, with two Ts. You are such softies.”

Heather grinned at the irony. That was what Pittsburghers called Earthers: softies. To natives like herself Elfhome dangers were dangerous but known quantities.

Astrid grinned back.

“You meet Black Willows pretty rarely down here. We’ve pretty much cleaned them out. So much so that we don’t play Tease the Willow anymore.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t have that up north? Willows can’t see or smell you. They find their prey by touch if a bird lights on a branch or an animal runs across their roots. Otherwise they find it because they feel vibrations in the ground. A bunch of us kids take turns stomping near a Willow, then standing still. You can have the Willow going in a circle for hours before it gets tired. Then you give up and leave it for another day of fun. Or you light it up with a flamethrower.”

She finished her drink and refilled a third glass. Heather took another tiny sip to stay sociable.

“Wargs, now. You Outbackers can’t say they’re not dangerous.”

“Yeah, they are. But not so much if you know how to handle them.”

“Handle them? What about their freezing breath? That scares ME.”

“And it should. But did you know they can only breathe out one puff until they regenerate the ability? We hunt them with big Hardplass shields and tempt them to shoot a breath at us. Then they’re just big wolves. Smart ones, but just wolves. We’re way smarter than them. And we’ve got guns. Speaking of which, ammo is big on our list for your next trip.”

“What else?”

“Small luxury items. Which aren’t just luxuries when you don’t have them. Spices. Aspirin. Tampons, toilet paper, stuff like that. In the morning we’ll have a line of customers waiting to get in, and not very politely waiting either. Small ‘luxury’ items will disappear off the shelves first. We may have some fights, which is why we’re hiring security guards to patrol inside instead of out.”

The woman went on about what she wanted in Heather’s next delivery. Mama Bear heard everything and was routinely on Record, so Heather didn’t bother writing anything down. But she mentally made a list of especially popular items to include in the “request for purchase” list she’d send out tonight when she got home.

To Washington

It was half past 1:00 when Heather returned to her truck and her elven bodyguards. She did not start off immediately to the small city of Washington and another converted Walmart. Instead she spoke up.

“Hey Mama Bear. Phone the Supermart we’re making these next deliveries to.”

After another annoyingly happy AI she got someone who introduced himself as Anthony Molino.

“I’m leaving Belle Vernon, Mr. Molino. Judging from my previous trip I should be there in an hour or so.”

“God speed and keep you safe, Ms. Weatherly.”

She retraced her path to the I-70 highway and headed west.

At first the trees on both sides of the highway cut off her view of the surroundings. She still occasionally caught glimpses of buildings off to her left. They crossed a loop of the Monongahela again, on a bridge further south than the previous one but very similar in appearance.

The land became flatter, opened out. Autumn seemed to have advanced further in this middle country; trees and grass were more brown than green. Every once in a while they’d cross under a concrete bridge supporting crossing roadways.

After an hour road signs warned her of Washington coming up. She phoned Molino.

“I’m about five minutes out.”

“Excellent! Come to the front. I’ll guide you around to our loading dock.”

Soon afterward she saw a sign saying Exit 20. She took that. It U-turned, north then back east, and she came to a T which ended in a north-south street. A green sign pointed left toward WASHINGTON AND JEFFERSON COLLEGE. Heather took that turn.

On her new course on her left was an enormous and empty parking lot nearly half a mile long. The reason for it was totally mysterious. There were no walkways exiting the spot. No nearby buildings. She could only guess that a regular bus had serviced it decades ago, before the transportation of Pittsburgh to Elfhome.

Another mile and passage across an intersection with another city street and Heather saw a sprawl of buildings on her right marking an outdoor mall. This one seemed to contain only one huge business. She had no complex navigation to get to it as she’d had with the previous Supermart. She only had a right turn and a run for a hundred yards or so to the front of the building.

There was a huge crowd in front of the Supermart and dozens of cars in the parking lot across the street with more coming. The crowd cheered as she got closer and someone began waving a huge flag with an unidentifiable blue and white logo.

“Hey Mr. Molino. What’s with this crowd up ahead?”

“I am totally baffled how they found out about your delivery. Come ahead slowly. We’ll have our staff push them out of the street. Go past them to the corner of the building, turn right, then right again at the next corner. You’ll see someone waiting.”

Coming ahead slowly was all she could do as the crowd was slow in retreating to open up a path. It helped that her bodyguards pumped their combat hovertrikes up to ten feet and preceded her. Both elves had swung their autocannon into position in front of them and the long black snouts and looming trikes looked convincingly menacing.

The vanguard of the crowd also helped to push others back, yelling several somethings. Besides curses they seemed to be yelling the same message: “The sooner they unload the sooner we can get stuff!”

There were a half dozen people at the entrance to the loading dock. A portly man with brown skin was Molino. He shook her hand and took charge quickly, checking with his list and Heather with her list of cargo as it was offloaded.

With two manually operated forklifts and several willing humans the unloading took only a half hour. Then Heather, Molino, and Winter went into his office to get her pay. Summer stayed outside to guard the vehicles.

Molino sat behind his desk and Heather in a comfortable desk chair in front of him. Winter remained standing, looking out the doorway at the large empty square of cubicles in the office area beyond.

Molino swiveled his ergo chair around to open a large safe behind him. From it he took several sacks of coins.

The coins were large and gold, embossed with a wavy swirl suggesting wind on each side and a small number. Molino placed them into stacks of ten, each stack worth over a thousand dollars. The last stack was a short one to make up the remaining few digits of the agreed-on price.

“And as our appreciation of a job well done, please accept this.”

Molino placed three gold coins beside the others. Heather made a token protest and Molino requested her to please go against her natural reaction to take more than was owed.

At this Winter stepped near.

“This does not seem right.”

Molino was puzzled but Heather, used to dealing with elves all her life, understood immediately. To elves their word was sacred and they did not tell lies. A business deal was an exchange of oaths. A sekasha, the holy warriors of the elves, could behead someone who lied or broke an oath. And Winter had been training for most of her life to be a sekasha.

“It is a human custom in most human cultures. It’s sometimes called a ‘tip.’ It’s a voluntary statement of appreciation, and has no set value. By human standards both the offering of a tip and the acceptance or refusal of it is an honorable practice. As long as the transaction is a public one it is fully legal.”

Winter frowned but retreated to her guard position.

Molino was sweating slightly. He might not have much dealing with elves here in the Outback but he’d heard how lethal they could be if someone crossed them the wrong way.

“Thank you. I could not have expressed myself so clearly and maybe got myself into trouble.”

“I’ve had practice saying that same speech. I grew up around elves so I understand them pretty good. Their ways have rubbed off on me. I sometimes think I’m as much elf as human.”

“You like them?”

Heather considered her answer to a question that had rarely been posed to her. Elves were just there. She didn’t think about them any more than she thought about sunrise and sunset and the onset of winter or spring.

Too, Winter would hear her answer and judge her. She had to be strictly truthful.

“I’m of two minds, both equally valid. I accept them without thinking about them, the way I accept that I have a large family and live on Elfhome by choice. I could have left any time until the connection with Earth was lost recently. I respect some of their ways, and think some of their ways are barbaric. I’ve never thought of all elves in terms of like or dislike, however. I like SOME of them. I dislike SOME of them. They are as varied as humans are.”

Molino nodded, then asked when she’d return with a cargo.

“I’m not sure. How good is your cell reception here?”

“Good. We’ve got our own cell tower and make damned sure it’s always in good shape.”

“I thought as much considering we had no problems with our previous communications. But this is too important for misunderstandings.

“Today was a test as much as it was business. From what I’ve seen so far, dealings with Earth are working well and we should be able to send and receive goods reliably. Make up a want list and send it to me. I’ll put out a request through channels and get back with you when I get replies. If all works as I’m hoping, my company should be able to make a weekly run here with a heavy tractor-trailer full of goods.”

At least till other companies got in on the opportunities in the Outback. She’d just have to make sure she expanded. Got some reliable help. Stayed competitive.

“Sama. We have company.”

Heather turned in her chair to look out the big office window behind her. Coming down a hallway was an older grey-haired man with a young woman and young man on each side of him. Behind him several other people came.

“It’s the Mayor,” said Molino, standing. Heather stood too and turned toward the door.

Molino exited the office and she followed.

“Mr. Mayor! It’s an honor. May I present Ms. Heather Weatherly?”

“Thank you, Tony. Welcome to Washington, Ms. Weatherly.”

Heather returned his handshake. “I’m very happy to be here and to meet the representatives of this fair city. This is Freezing Winter Night on Stone, called Winter for short. Please pardon her staying in the background. She would consider it improper at this time to step outside her bodyguard role.”

“You are welcome, too, Ms. Winter. Ms. Weatherly, we’d like to give you a formal welcome. We’re putting together a little dinner party and will lay you up overnight in a suite atop our premiere hotel.”

“Oh, that sounds lovely.” And it wasn’t a lie; that would have offended Winter. “The next time I come I’d like that.” And that was true too; schmoozing with local influentials was part of making useful business contacts.

“But I want to get back to Pittsburgh. To get ready for the next load I need to get right back and to business. Besides, the weather report says a cold front might come through tomorrow. Maybe even with some snow. I’d rather not drive in that kind of weather.”

The Mayor beamed at her with all a politician’s practiced charm. “We thought that might be the case. But surely we have time for a brief ceremony and a glass of champagne to memorialize this event.”

“By all means!”

The next half hour was spent in a large ornate conference room that might not have seen use for a decade, though it was clean and neat. The Mayor gave a brief speech, video cameras catching it from two angles. Heather made an even briefer speech, also recorded. Bottles of champagne were breached and sips of the wine made, Winter partaking to the extent of a sniff and taking a tiny sip. Then to effusive goodbyes Heather and Winter exited the back of the Supermart.

Homeward Bound

Summer was as alert as might be expected and soon all three were in their seats and on the way north back to Pittsburgh.

It was a little after mid-afternoon and sunlight slanted over the land, sending shadows eastward. The land was green and gold ahead and the sky was blue. Heather felt buoyant warmth inside her chest. Her business was a success!

Perhaps twenty minutes across the rolling hilly land Heather noticed a flashing red light behind her. At the same time her AI reported they were being followed, apparently by a police vehicle.

Heather slowed her convoy and an SUV passed by her and the two trikes and began to slow. It had the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol colors: white with a long black side stripe and the gold decal of the state.

She followed the vehicle onto a dirt road for about a hundred feet, out of sight of the highway. That fact and that her AI had not been hailed by the police AI concerned her.

“Hey Tacnet Weatherly. There may be a robbery attempt in progress. Follow my lead please but use your judgment in dealing with it. Mama Bear, notify the Washington Mayor’s office of the situation.”

“Got it, Boss.”

The police vehicle stopped and parked. A young man got out wearing the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol uniform and hat and equipment belt and walked toward her. Heather got out of her vehicle too and walked a few feet forward. Peripherally she was aware that the elves had landed their trikes to both sides of the truck and faded to each side.

The policeman, handsome and dark haired with a trim haircut, wore his uniform well. He acted officiously, asking for ID and her business. She handed her driver’s license to him and said, “We’re a goods delivery service. We just came from the Supermart.”

He handed her ID back. “Then you should know that you owe a business tax of 10% to the state of Pennsylvania. We must inspect your payment and extract that amount.”

Mama Bear spoke over Heather’s earpiece. “There is such a tax but the amount is 8.5 percent. And it’s collected quarterly from businesses.”

After all her dreams and all she’d gone through to put together her business!

“Officer Blake, you’re obviously trying to shake me down. I suggest you get back in your vehicle and get the Hell out of here before I get pissed.”

“You can’t talk to me that way. I’ll see you in jail!”

“That’s right, Missy,” said a man who’d gotten out of the SUV and drifted up to the officer’s side. Older, out of shape, unshaven, with long hair, he looked nothing like a policeman. Nor did the second man who came up to the other side of the officer. That man joined the conversation. “Or better yet we’ll teach you a lesson right here about respecting the law.”

Two more men came up and stood behind and to one side of the two unkempt men. They were of a piece with them.

The four men wore pistols in holsters, except one who’d tucked it under his belt. One man cradled a shotgun in his arms.

“I should warn you that my companions are sekasha trained. They tend to deal with unlawful situations with lethal force.”

The first man who’d spoken sneered. “These teenage fairies pretending to be grownups? I could break them in two pieces with my bare hands.”

The officer’s four companions were grinning but he frowned.

“Uncle George, I’ve heard of these sekash… Whatever. They’re not something we should tangle with.”

Heather suddenly realized that these men, living in the Outback and rarely even seeing an elf much less dealing with them, did not see Winter and Summer as she did: trained, well-armed, and supremely deadly even without weapons. They saw tall skinny teens, their faces looking perhaps 16. And utterly gorgeous.

The man on Heather’s far left, near where Winter stood where she could see the entire scene at an angle, said “I wonder what them tits look like.” He reached a hand out to grab Winter.

Suddenly his hand wasn’t there. The female had drawn her sword from over her shoulder so swiftly that even Heather, suddenly dreading it, saw only a blur. The man’s stump began spouting blood.

“Shit!” yelled the man closer to Heather and began to bring up his shotgun. He did not make it. Suddenly his head was flying and his body too was spouting blood.

Heather jerked her head around toward the officer. He was pulling his sidearm.

He was slow. Heather was not. Her two shots were so close together they sounded like one, delivering two armor-piercing bullets to his heart. Nevertheless she felt a hammer blow to her left thigh; he’d triggered a shot as he died.

She quickly turned toward Summer, her hit leg almost giving way.

His two men were down. Summer had beheaded them both and was even now looking at the larger surroundings for any other possible threats.

Shit. So much for her business getting a good head start.

“Hey, Mama Bear. Tell my family what just happened. Then the Washington Mayor.”

“Yeah, Boss.”

She got an instant reply from the Mayor.

“Ms. Weatherly, are you all right? And your men?”

“Yes, sir. We were attacked and had to defend ourselves. All three of us are wearing AI phones and they recorded all the sound. Also my truck has a video camera. We can bring all of that to court.”

He sighed. “Good. Good. I apologize. When you first called I was in the middle of something and didn’t respond as rapidly as I should. I could have spoken to that foolish young man and got him to leave you alone.”

Leaving him free to repeat his scam to those less well-prepared to handle him. And his uncle and friends to brutalize his victims.

Next Heather got a call from her grandmother. It took some persuasion to convince her not to pile into cars and show up with a dozen heavily armed relatives.

As she was finishing up with her phone call she heard very distant sirens. Shortly she received a call from the local Pennsylvania Highway Patrol headquarters alerting her to the near-arrival of a Patrol car.

This one had the same paint scheme of the car driven by the dead office. It parked with a good view of the crime scene. Two officers got out and came forward, eyeing her and the two elves who’d ambled to positions to each side of her about ten feet away.

Then the older man approached her while a younger woman removed a camera from the car and began filming the scene from various angles. Three times she knelt for close-ups of the dead.

“Ms. Weatherly? I’m Officer Groban. Why don’t you tell me in your own words what happened?”

“I can copy the records from my AI phone and from that video camera.” She pointed toward the roof of her truck where was mounted the domed cover of the camera.

“Thank you. But I still want your account.”

She nodded and gave her story. Then Officer Groban interviewed the two elves. He spoke English to them and they answered in English, accented but clear despite that.

Meanwhile the female officer had finished her evidence gathering and phoned for an ambulance to take the dead away. Shortly they arrived. The police station must not be very far away.

Groban had been courteous and seemed sympathetic. Heather knew this might just be a way to get suspects to be more honest. Nevertheless she felt safe to ask him a question which had been near the forefront of her mind.

“Am I in trouble?”

He took off his hat, revealing that his hairline had receded considerably.

“It’s really not my job to say. But screw that. I heard about you bringing much-needed supplies to this area. We’re pretty self-sufficient down here, but there’s some things–important things–that we can’t produce. And we know this bunch. Bigelow had the makings of a good officer, but he blew it. He was fired months ago. Since then he was hanging too much with his fucked-up uncle and cousins. He was never very smart. He shouldn’t have bothered elves.”

She nodded. “You NEVER underestimate an elf. These are just teenagers by elf standards. But they’re three times my age and they’ve been practicing war for most of that time.”

Groban put his hat back on and had Heather and her guards thumbprint their statements on his video pad, then he and his partner let her convoy get on their way.

Heather did so with a heavy heart. Five dead men were depressing by almost any standard. And the sun had gone down an hour ago, and her bank closed at 6:00, fifteen minutes from now. She was faced with taking a fortune in gold home with her.

Just maybe the bank could help her.

“Of course we can take care of you, Ms. Weatherly. Our doors are closed but several of us will be here an hour or more. Come to the front door and tell our AI what you want to do.”

It was full dark by the time she arrived at the bank forty minutes later. Lights glittered in the little outdoor mall near her home where the local bank branch was. She could see lights on the banks of the Ohio River downslope half a mile away. Some of them were moving, on boats plying the river.

An older woman unlocked the clear glass double doors and let her in, followed by her two guards. A bank security guard eyed the elves but seemingly more from curiosity than any concerns.

Shortly Heather was done and exited the bank. Outside she turned to the two elves.

“I won’t need you for several days but I’m extending my contract for a month. I can’t be absolutely sure but I believe I’ll be making another delivery run next week. That will likely be a tractor-trailer and I’d like two more guards. When you get to work please pick two more guards to accompany you.”

“We’ll do that, Ms. Weatherly,” said Winter.

Summer offered his hand to Heather. It was not an elven custom.

“We appreciate the way you handle a mission, Ms. Weatherly. Especially your dispatching that fake policeman so quickly and efficiently.”

Heather watched the two elves get on their trikes and speed away. To have an elf almost-sekasha compliment her combat skills was a high accolade.

One she was not sure she liked.

Back in her rental truck she drove slowly toward her home. She had much to do tonight. Lose her gun belt. Get a glass of wine. Put a cold compress on her thigh which was sure to have a big bruise underneath her armored pants leg. Call Aidan and her grandparents. Make up a “request for purchase” list. Send it off. Eat a sandwich; she still had some left from the food cooler she’d taken on her delivery round. Take a long hot bath…

Oops. She pulled up to her home. All windows were lit. Several cars were parked in her driveway and on her street. She recognized some of them. Her family had arrived.

“Surprise!” yelled a dozen people in her living room. Not that it was much of one with all the lights and vehicles.

A huge banner strung near the wall opposite her front door said WELCOME HOME HEATHER!!!

Her grandmother and grandfather, small and stout, came forward to give her hugs, along with her parents. After that was one from her boyfriend, Aidan, tall, with darkly handsome Italian looks. Her sisters and brother and assorted aunts and uncles and cousins. Was there no end of the hugs?

There was, when a feast awaited. Someone had added leaves to her dining room table so that it sat a dozen people, with her grandmother at one end and Heather at the opposite one. A half-dozen other family sat in the living room with food and drink near at hand. In her guest bedroom children were eating and playing. Heather hoped her sisters and brother would stick around for cleanup. Her parents would.

Not much was said right off; everyone was too busy doling out food to each other and to themselves and taking the first bites and sips. But soon she was asked about her trip.

She started off with the violent end. She fast-forwarded through it ending with the compliment from Summer.

“Thank you, Dad, for all your training in weapons and tactics. I wouldn’t be here tonight without them.”

Next she told of the trip itself, the land she’d seen and the remains of Earthly life from before First Startup.

“So much abandoned. But I was surprised how many buildings and businesses showed signs of occupation.”

Aidan, on her right, spoke up.

“It’s only natural. There was a huge exodus of people after they realized that they might be stuck here someday permanently. They took a lot of portable stuff with them. Only one in a dozen or two dozen people remained. But consider the resources abandoned. A lot of it free for the taking. Or free not counting the effort to take it. For some people we’re living in a treasure house. Even now homes cost only a dollar and a promise to keep up the properties we take.”

Her father said, “And consider the people who remained. Many of us have lived here for generations.” He took his wife’s nearest hand, smiled at her. Her family was even older than that of the Weatherlys.

“And we’re tough people,” said Heather’s grandmother. “Consider our first winter after First Startup. Those were….”

Her husband put a hand on her arm, cutting off her thousandth recounting of that first winter. She frowned but subsided with a last comment about how soft Earthers were.

Heather grinned. “You know what’s funny? The Outbackers call US soft. They call us PITTIFUL with two Ts.”

Several people looked scandalized. But more people laughed.

Heather looked around at her family and Aidan, her best friend as well as lover. All of the last leg of her trip she had tried to keep her mind on her plans for the future. Still, memories of those few seconds of the fight had replayed in her mind again and again.

But now she realized: with supporters like these there was no way she could fail to make her dreams come true. The fight was her past. These people were her future.

© Copyright 2017

 

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