Colton peered through the binoculars at the tiny red cabin and frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“What is it?” Sam said, shielding his eyes from the sun. “I can’t see anything.”
Colton handed him the binoculars.
Propping himself up on his elbows, Sam squinted through the binocs. “That’s, uh, not one of the signals.”
“Right. Tin can means food. Shell casing means ammo. The soldier figure means Cappers in the area. What the fuck does that doll mean?”
They’d been coming to the cabin for almost a year. It was inhabited by a nameless woman, friendly to the resistance and willing to brave the fallout and the Cappers to supply them. Where she got the stuff, no one knew, but they weren’t in a position to turn down the help.
Sam shook his head. “I don’t know. Freaks me out if I’m being honest.”
Colton reached over and squeezed Sam’s hand. They’d become a bit more than comrades in arms over the last year. “Everything freaks you out.”
Sam snorted. “Yeah, well, nuclear war and an invasion by a hostile power will fucking do that to a person.”
“Fair point.” Colton unlimbered the M4 from across his back and used the scope on the carbine to scan the area. The cabin sat in a small copse of skeletal trees, a ramshackle twenty-by-twenty building with peeling red paint, rusting gutters, and three windows on the north side facing Sam and Colton’s position. In the middle window sat a ragdoll with yellow yarn for hair.
“Anything?” Sam asked.
“Other than that doll, it looks fine.”
“Like an ambush would.”
Colton drew in a breath and let it out. “Yeah, but this doesn’t feel like that. It feels like she’s trying to tell us something.”
“Maybe the doll’s a warning?” Sam offered, then reached down and pulled his Glock from its holster. He was making a case not to do something risky, as always, then getting ready to do it anyway.
“Right, but if it’s Cappers, why not use the agreed-upon signals?” Colton moved the extra magazines for the M4 to the front pouches on his vest.
Sam sighed. “I don’t know, but I’m ready to go down.”
“Good. I’ll take point.”
Colton headed down the low hill, rifle up. Sam followed, pistol held low in a decent attempt at combat readiness. When the Cappers invaded, Sam had been a real-estate agent, while Colton had spent the last decade in the Marines. Sam learned fast, though, and he’d quickly picked up the run-and-gun techniques that had kept them alive.
Colton motioned for Sam to take cover behind a tree while he circled the cabin. Nothing looked out of place—ground undisturbed, the cabin intact, the door shut. He finished the perimeter sweep and called Sam over to the door.
“Knock or kick it in?” Sam said.
Colton weighed the options. If the woman were in trouble, she might not be able to answer a knock. “Kick it in. On three.”
Sam nodded and raised his pistol.
“One. Two. Three.” Colton lashed out with a heavy boot, splintering the jamb, and throwing the door open wide. He rushed into the dark, rifle at his shoulder, expecting the deafening thunder of gunfire. Instead, he heard something far more alarming.
The piercing squall of an infant, slightly muffled.
Colton scanned the interior of the cabin. He’d been inside on several occasions, and it looked mostly the same. There was a small bed, a table, shelves for food and equipment, and a trapdoor near the back wall that led to the cellar. A dirty brown rug usually covered the trapdoor, hiding it. It had been pulled aside.
“Is that a baby?” Sam said, crowding in behind Colton.
“I think so. It’s coming from over there.”
Sam rushed to the trapdoor and pried it open. The squalling cry now filled the cabin.
Alarmed someone might hear, Colton rushed Sam down into the dark space below the floor, shutting the trapdoor behind them. He flicked on the flashlight beneath his rifle and swept it over the space. It was the same size as the chamber above but lined with racks full of food and ammunition. The only thing out of place was the crib and the corpse lying next to it.
Sam went to the crib, stepping over the body, and picked up a squirming infant, naked and covered in traces of blood. “Oh, Jesus, Col,” he said, holding the baby close to his chest and rocking it gently. The squalling faded to soft grunts. “It’s a newborn. A little girl.”
Colton nodded and squatted next to the corpse. Death had been recent. The fresh blood pooled beneath the woman left little doubt as to the cause.
“I didn’t even know she was pregnant,” Colton said. It had been months since they’d last visited, and the woman had always worn heavy tactical gear, bulky enough to hide her condition.
“God, we didn’t even know her name,” Sam said.
“We’ll call her Mary,” Colton replied.
Colton stood, looked down at the tiny scrunched-up face of the baby in Sam’s arms, and caressed her fuzzy head with a finger. “Because I was raised Catholic and because when we tell this little one about her mama, we have to give her a name, right?”
Sam grinned. “Right.”
“Time to go,” Colton said. “Someone might have heard the baby.”
They quickly filled their rucks with canned food and ammo—there was even a supply of baby formula—then climbed up out of the dark.
Before they left, Sam ran over to the window, plucked up the doll, and put it in his pack. “We heard you, Mary,” he whispered. “We’ll keep her safe.”
About the author:
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He recently released the flash fiction collection Night Walk & Other Dark Paths with The Molotov Cocktail. Learn more about Aeryn’s work at www.rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn-Rudel.