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The rumble of automatic fire faded, a Doppler shift of reassurance as the rolling street combat moved away from Dan's house. He put down his Steyr rifle, checked the locks on his steel-plated door, then slumped back into the chair, gun within easy reach and his damaged leg propped up on the sticky surface of the kitchen table, easing the gnawing ache in his knee.
He could tell, based on the sporadic thwumps, that it was a street gang engaged with the military; too much petrol, not enough automatic weapons' fire.
Idiots, wasting petrol.
He had some power, the electric light overhead flickered between yellow and brown, but it wasn't enough to run his short wave radio set. That would take hand cranking, but he didn't mind doing it by hand if it kept him in contact with the rest of the world.
The radio set hummed, building up charge as he primed the crank, and he began the slow scan of the bands, looking for his regular contacts.
Mikey, cab driver and blackmarketeer, mad enough to run blockades while charging by the kilometer, ran his empire by shortwave radio. Dan's parents had a radio, too, in the four wheel drive they'd fled east in. Dan's father, a 'Nam veteran, had packed up Dan's mother, the two farm dogs, and all the food they could carry and headed for safety after the first bombing run. Dan didn't expect to be able to make radio contact with them any time soon. The Red Cross base at the Merredin refugee camp had a listening post. And there was Jake, his ex, who would be on patrol with his unit, somewhere in the city.
The set crackled, and Jake's voice was tinny. "Hey," Jake said. "I've been waiting for you to appear."
"Sorry,"Dan said. "But someone was trying to blow up my neighborhood. Glad you waited around for me."
The set crackled and hummed, switching back to Jake. "Have you got room at the moment?" Jake asked. "For a baby?"
This was what Dan did; he fostered children orphaned by the hostilities: police action, not war. No one was supposed to call the war a war. He could have been safe on his parents' abandoned farm at Wyalkatchem, but the only orphans out there were lambs, and he was over lambs.
"Sure," Dan said, and the set hissed and spat, then went silent.
Jake hadn't said when he'd bring the child over, but Dan wouldn't have minded betting that he'd be caring for a traumatized toddler for the rest of that night.
It took him time, hobbling with a walking stick, to check the spare bedroom. He had a clean bed, made up ready, and a cot, too. He had a pile of cloth squares, familiar khaki made from cut up sheets, which worked as nappies. The Red Cross kept him supplied with formula. They considered Dan a field worker and delivered food and essentials erratically.
He put the water on to boil and added a second pan on, too. He dropped his meager supply of feeding bottles and teats in. Jake had said 'baby,' but Dan knew that Jake called everyone under the age of twelve a baby. Still, it wouldn't hurt to be prepared, and sometimes an older child who was deeply shocked wanted a bottle for the comfort.
The water had just started to roil around the glass bottles when Dan caught the sound of an APC approaching, rumbling closer, and then grinding to a halt outside his house. The rest of the street was unoccupied; he was the only resident left, but he still picked up his rifle, and checked that his ex-Army Browning pistol was tucked into his belt.
He didn't have electronic security, but that was definitely Jake's pound on the door, three thuds, two, and then four. The steel bar across the door was heavy to lift one-handed, but even if he'd doubted the thuds, there was a persistent wail from an infant coming through the steel.
"All right," he called out, propping the bar against the wall, and then pulling the door open. "All right."
Jake's eyes were visible through the flipped-up visor of his helmet, but it was the baby in Jake's arms that Dan was interested in.
"Hey, sweetie," he crooned, taking the infant, wrapped in someone's sweater, out of Jake's arms. "Don't be scared, you're safe now."
Safer. There wasn't anywhere in the city that was actually safe.
The baby's face was wrinkled, bright red from crying, eyes scrunched shut and mouth open in a wail. Dan tucked the little one against his chest so the baby's face was against his neck, and said, "Come on in."
"Can't stay," Jake said, and Dan could make out the shadowy shapes of Jake's patrol partners and the faint gleam of moonlight on weapons.
"Is the baby hurt?" Dan asked as Jake turned to leave. "Do you know anything about the baby?"
Jake shrugged. "Our medic checked her over, said she was good. We pulled her from the wreck of a car on the outskirts of the city, looked like the vehicle had been hit by a mortar round. The other occupants were dead."
Dan nodded. It happened all the time, people attempting to flee the danger in the city found worse danger elsewhere.
"I'll look after her," he said, lifting his voice over the baby's cries. "Until someone claims her."
Jake nodded and melted back into the darkness, and the APC rumbled away a moment later.
Dan had to put the baby down to secure his door, then he scooped her back up again, holding her close.
"Hungry?" he asked gently. "Shall we do something about that?"
He'd had more than one tiny baby pass through his safe house before, so he knew how to pop the top off a can of formula one-handed, add the scoops of powder to the sterilized bottle, and pour in the boiled water.
He shook the bottle thoroughly, the baby's cries becoming increasingly desperate, and in the absence of a free hand to check the temperature of the formula, he splashed some on his cheek.
"Good enough," he told the baby in his arms.
Posted July 22, 2010
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