Sweep the AshesBy Alicia Ann Fox
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|The lifepod burned through cool air of early spring, and ripped itself a channel several hundred meters long in the fresh grass until it impacted with a wall of fitted stone blocks. The barrier shuddered but held; the lifepod's nose crumpled and the access door sprang open, its seal mangled beyond repair. After a few moments a baritone groan sounded from the pod's interior, and a hand slipped out of the narrow opening, pushing upwards with feeble force. A moment later the hand retreated, apparently manipulating from within, for soon the hatch exploded away from the lifepod to land in a patch of low vegetation. Awkwardly, coughing from the smoke the ejection had produced, a man with a crop of brown curls emerged from his shell, to land on his head in the torn dirt. "Fuck," he said, finding some satisfaction in the coarse Anglo word.|
"You're not meant to say that," said a childish voice from the other side of the long wall. The man struggled to his knees, using one hand to cradle his left shoulder, which was seeping blood. His surprised brown eyes lifted and beheld a red-headed girl of about nine years dropping neatly over the wall, landing in the thick mound of grass near his lifepod's nose. She straightened from her landing and walked over to him, saying, "Not here, anyway. You can say fuck in the town, though. But you're an arrival, aren't you? You wouldn't know that."
"Where are we?" he asked, concerned with immediacies.
"Sussex, where the goats and sheep live."
"That's this planet?" he pressed, never having heard the name.
"Oh! No, Sussex is just here. Our planet is called Camelot." She paused and took a step closer, then another. "You've hurt yourself. Do you need any help?"
Abruptly he sat back on his buttocks. He'd never heard of Camelot, either, at least not that he could remember. "Yes, I think so," he said. "What's on the other side of that wall?"
"Goats," she said matter-of-factly. "My name's Hayworth," she offered, still looking him stalwartly in the eyes.
The man's eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at her manners. "Blake," he said. "Roj Blake." He found his feet with deliberation, still shaky from the crash.
"We have a Blake. William Blake. He paints pictures."
"Does he now." Hayworth was leading him across a lake of ankle-deep green grass; dimly in the distance he saw the outlines of a long low structure.
"Yes. Mum bought one to hang in the best room, but Bogey--that's my brother--says it's stupid-looking. Do you need to rest?"
"No, I can manage,' Blake replied absently, wondering if Mum had a communicator. The delicate components of his teleport bracelet were scattered in his abandoned lifepod, no help to him. He grew used to putting one foot before the other and ignoring his exterior surroundings; his pace slowed as he and the child reached a low white fence, apparently made of wood.
"We're home," said Hayworth, vaulting the fence in a cloud of ruddy hair and running towards the sprawling house. "Wait here, Mr. Blake--Mum! Aunt Abigail! Come quick!"
Two women burst from the central door and halted when they saw Blake, unobtrusively bracing himself on the fence. The younger woman, whose fall of auburn hair matched Hayworth's, asked, "Who is he?" with her hands protectively on the small girl's shoulders.
The dark-haired older woman marched past them and up to Blake. "Abigail Adams," she introduced herself, holding out her hand.
Hesitantly Blake pulled his hand from his wound, stopped in mid-motion with a small grunt of pain. "Sorry...I've crashed, you see...I'm called Blake. Roj Blake."
Abigail frowned. "You're a Fed."
"I know, not anymore, now you're a Retro. I can always tell Feds by their exclusive use of surnames in polite conversation." Reaching, she slung open a gate that Blake hadn't noticed, took his elbow, and ushered him through and up a path of white stones, cut smooth like the wall. "New arrival?"
"My lifepod crashed," he explained, blinking in the sudden dimness as they crossed the threshold, trailed by Hayworth and her mother. He sank gratefully into an upright chair before continuing, "There was a war. I don't even know where I am, except that its name is Camelot."
Mum stepped forward and said, "You weren't trying to get here, specifically?" Abigail was opening window-drapes for more light; the red-haired woman bent close to draw Blake's hand away from his shoulder and examine the bandage curiously.
"Don't be silly Ansel," her sister snapped. "It's obvious. He doesn't act like a Retro; his name's all wrong for one thing."
"Hayworth, fetch the first-aid kit."
"Yes, Mum." The girl bolted from the room.
"I see, now," Ansel said. "He already has a bandage; the crash didn't do this. He's a refugee."
"I--" Blake began.
Abigail interrupted him. "It doesn't matter how you came here. This is Camelot. We'll provide safe refuge for you."
"Thank you," Blake managed to say. He sagged back against his chair, very conscious of Ansel's probing fingers.
"Energy weapon?" she asked.
"Abominations," snarled Abigail to herself.
"Bullets are worse," argued Ansel, taking a plastic box with a handle from Hayworth. She placed the box on the dining table and rummaged in it until she found a spray bottle of protective wound sealant. "Hold still," she said to Blake. He simply nodded.
"Galileo should be home soon for his lunch," Abigail offered. "He can take care of the lifepod."
"It's badly damaged," Blake said. "The fuel cells are exhausted, too."
"That doesn't matter," Ansel said absently. "My man can haul it away with the oxen."
"It has to be destroyed, Blake," Abigail explained. "We don't allow space vehicles on Camelot. We run by the Old Calendar."
Blake sat up suddenly. "Is that what you mean by Retro?"
"It's how we live," piped up Hayworth. She'd been sitting in a chair across the table, listening to the adults' conversation.
"You've never heard of us, have you?" Abigail asked. "We have an arrival or two every year, usually fleeing the Federation to settle here. We accept anyone who's willing to live like us."
"But--what about accidents?"
"That doesn't so often as you might think. The last one was...old Thor Heyerdahl, wasn't it?"
Ansel handed Blake a cup of water and sat down next to her daughter. "I believe so. His name was Stef Marson, he was a smuggler who'd had something go wrong with his ship. Our parents were children, then."
"He stayed here?" Blake asked urgently.
Abigail shrugged. Gently she said, "We don't get visitors very often. The last ship that came was almost ten years ago, and it was the first since old Thor arrived."
"And this ship arrived by accident?"
"Yes. They gave us all the current news they had, and warnings about the Federation, and left within a week."
"Hayworth was born a month later," Ansel added with a smile.
Blake's head was beginning to ache. "You have no ships."
"I said that," Abigail pointed out.
"We don't want the Feds to find us. They've mostly avoided this sector so far. And what do we need with the Outside?"
"You're safe here," Hayworth said brightly. "No-one can get you."
Blake closed his eyes. He was too tired to think; his memory replayed, over and over again, his last vision of Liberator's flight deck. "I don't think you understand. I was fighting the Federation; I don't want a bolthole."
"What's a bolthole?" asked Hayworth.
"A safe place, a place to hide," Blake said to her. "I'm no good at hiding," he said ruefully, truthfully.
Ansel said suddenly, "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for him, or sorry that he's so crazy as to want to go back there?" Abigail asked waspishly. "We'll have to call you Patrick Henry; that's for sure." Ansel glared at her sister.
Unfamiliar with the reference, toying with his glass, Blake queried, "There's no law against my trying to communicate with my friends, is there? They'll be looking for me."
Abigail said quickly, "We've no equipment. I'm sorry if I don't sound sympathetic, but I don't want you to get your hopes up. Maybe you'll be lucky; maybe a ship will come tomorrow, another bit of jetsam from your war. Maybe you'll live here until you die."
Her words fell, solidly, on the wood table. Hayworth gazed at her aunt with an unreadable expression, her eyes wide.
"There's a chance," Blake said, finally. "How long since the last genuine arrival?"
"About seven months," offered Ansel, "but they usually destroy their ships or shuttles or lifepods first thing. You wouldn't necessarily be able to find them before--"
"There's a chance," Blake repeated. "That's all I've ever needed." Through his exhaustion he felt hope.
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