It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

37

"'K, everybody," said Tom sadly, "let's move out the tables and circle up; three rows deep should do it. Emilio, Carl, could we get the stage back where it was? Party's over for now, I think. An inquiry has been called by Maggie, and elders present concur."
       "Kitchen, too?" asked Guchi from the doorway.
       "Yes, please, everyone we can find. Someone bring in any outside stragglers within shouting distance, as well. Hit the Hall bell once on the way back in, thanks."
       Mr. Molinero and Mr. Perkins, with the Molinero boys, seized the ping-pong table and slid it across to its place beneath the wall map of Starvation Creek. Others drew tables to the far walls and brought chairs. After much scraping, with a drone of hushed and astonished conversation, the room transformed itself into an oval of expectant faces, with the Council – down to Tom, Elsa, Maggie, and Mrs. Lazar, who had only just arrived, in the front row. With them, leaning on Juanita Molinero's arm, sat Mrs. Ames, as well as the two wheelriders Savage Mary and Avery Murchison, who sat in for his mother Ellen. A chair was placed in the center of the circle.
       The great iron pipe that hung by the main door clanged once, loudly, and a faint echo returned from Ball Butte. Water began dripping from the eaves past the various windows. Latecomers in dripping cedar-fiber rain hats and cloaks came in. A heavy cloud cover had blanketed the valley, and there was relatively little light, except for flickerings from cloud-to-cloud lightning in the east. Lamps were brought in but not lit, reflecting the reluctance of all present to add to the stifling heat inside.
       "Quorum?" asked Tom, addressing himself to Maggie.
       "Quorum," she affirmed.
       "Do we have a Recorder?" asked Tom. "I don't see Ro-eena."
       "She's at Ridge, helping Millie. So that'll be me," answered Cal Perkins. "If we can get me any paper and a pencil."
       "We will do that," said Guchi, who disappeared down the stairs.
       Once the people were settled, the Council called for order – which was a formality, as the room had grown quite still, other than the waving of hand-fans.
       "Bring forward the complainant, please," asked Tom.
       Bobbo of Ridge stepped away from the wall, sword in hand, followed by Armon, still dabbing at his upper lip with a damp cloth. His nose was terribly swollen, and his eyes closed part way. He slumped into the chair.
       "Water," he croaked.
       This was brought to him by one of the Hall crew.
       "For the record, name?" called out Dr. Chaney.
       The big man's voice rasped. "Armon. Bledsoe!"
       "Complaint?"
       "Effin' girl jumped me."
       "Narrative."
       "I heard screams down the hole. Saw Maggie look in and run off. Threw down my paddle and went over to see what was the matter. Mrs. Murchison was down at the bottom and the kid was loomin' over her, gloatin'. I hauled her to her feet to ask her what the eff she'd done and she went crazy."
       He pointed across to the wall, where Karen sat, with Bobbo standing by her shoulder. "She's a menace to the Creek! Gets people killed left and right."
       "Observations?" This formal query Tom addressed to the Council.
       "This is a little thin," offered Mary. "'Gloating' is an interpretation, and the last bit is a naked assertion. Has he got corroborating witnesses?"
       "Have you?" asked Tom.
       "You saw it!" Armon addressed this to Maggie.
       "I'll speak in turn." Maggie, arms crossed, replied. "I do have an observation; this Council is loaded with people that are heavily involved with the respondent; shouldn't you recuse yourselves?"
       "All right," Tom said. "Just for the record, yes, I, all other members of this Council, and about three-fourths of the Creek, are 'heavily involved' with the respondent, and the remaining fourth or so, including you, Maggie, are pretty heavily involved with Armon. I don't think we can pull a quorum of non-interested persons. I personally think all this will come out in the wash, so to speak, and that we will have to trust one another to mean well for the Creek as a whole in our conduct of this inquiry. Shall we put that to a vote of all hands?"
       Maggie looked round the room challengingly. Many faces looked back in defiance. She harrumphed, and returned her attention to Tom. "We'll see how it goes, then."
       "Thank you, Maggie; let's regard this inquiry as provisional, subject to its being ratified as official by the GM – and there is sufficient membership present to call a GM on the spot."
       "Sure," said Maggie.
       "All right. Mr. Armon, thank you, why don't you go lie down somewhere over there and get some rest; I'll come give you a checkup as soon as I can. Respondent, please."
       Bobbo turned to Karen, and nodded his head kindly. She barely noticed him, but rose at his touch and walked abstractedly to the chair that Armon had just vacated. She sat down heavily and regarded the Council with resigned detachment.
       Tom marveled at the sight. The reserved young widow, too tall to be called "little," but slim – perhaps even slight, with her shock of hair standing at sixes and sevens, appeared wan and a bit withdrawn, but otherwise none the worse for wear. The bulge at her waist, apparent by now to everyone present, seemed incongruent with whatever had transpired. And how many women on the Creek are expecting? Four, at most. What will there be left to quarrel over if that keeps up?
       Armon's pride had suffered a worse blow than his face; the respondent had taken down perhaps the largest, most physically fit man at the Creek after Wilson. 'Went crazy', indeed! Tom smiled inwardly.
         "Name, for the record?"
       "Karen, Ridge and New Ames." She hesitated. "May I ask a question?"
       "Pertinent and procedural?" asked Maggie.
       Lightning flashed at all the windows, silhouetting the crowd. Half the people in the room, unaccustomed to electrical storms, jumped.
       "Pertinent, I hope." Karen drew a slow breath. "How is Mrs. Murchison?"
       Maggie frowned, but Elsa leaned forward and caught Tom's eye. "I think she means that Ellen's testimony, if available, would be very pertinent."
       An enormous thunderclap rolled over Hall.
       "By all means, let's ask," responded Elsa's husband. "Guchi, could you pop down and query Marcee for us?"
       "Yes, sir." The young man ran down the stairs again.
       "While that's going forward, could we have the respondent's narrative?" asked Avery.
       "Yes please. Karen?" offered Tom, with a gesture toward her.
       "Mrs. Ellen seemed concerned about something of which the storm reminded her. She asked me to come with her to call Ridge about it. At the top of the stairs she suddenly pitched forward. I ran after her and something caught me across the ankle. I fell, too, but caught the hand rail and hit the wall." She raised her hand and felt her left side, which was beginning to stiffen. "Then I moved more cautiously and went down to Mrs. Ellen, who was prone at the bottom of the steps, to look for vital signs. Mr. Armon came up behind me and – brought me to my feet – threatened me, and I asked him to let me go. He wouldn't, so I regained the free use of my arm and made sufficient space between us."
       "By 'sufficient space' I assume you struck him," offered Maggie.
       "Isn't that a leading question?" asked Elsa Chaney. "Wait, what was ..."
       "No, that's fine," replied Karen. "I was taught that if a man laid hands on my person without permission, I was to cancel his action. I did do that, yes, ma'am."
       A ripple of amusement ran round most of the circle, punctuated by more thunder.
       Guchi appeared from the dark stairwell. "Sergeant Murchison's compliments to all at hand, and she wants to come up and testify. Marcee says she may, if we'll bring a stretcher and be, she says, 'damned careful.'"
       "She shouldn't be moved!" asserted Maggie. "The doctor should assess her condition first."
       "Ordinarily, I'd certainly agree," Tom answered. "But I did take a look a little while ago; Marcee has things well in hand and we have to begin trusting Dr. Marcee sometime. Anyway, if I know Ellen she'll just crawl up here if we say her nay. Avery?"
       "You know my mom," said Avery, suppressing a smile. "Oo-rah, and all that."
       A stretcher team formed, wrapping a woolen blanket round two poles.
       Mary Savage tapped her knees with her thumbs, musing. "While we're waiting, Karen, what was that about storms?"
       "She only said it was important to call Millie."
       "Mmh. We might all be in for a rude awakening in a few days, Tom. Unless you have anything to add – excepting speculation, Karen, let's get Maggie's deposition. They're gonna be slow getting Ellen in here if they have any sense."
       "I should stand down?" asked Karen, tentatively.
       "Yes, thank you, Karen. If you'll go back over and sit by Mr. Bobbo."
       As soon as Karen vacated, Maggie stood up and strode to the chair.
       "Mr. Perkins, how is it going?" asked Tom.
       Cal's pen hovered in the air. "Good, so far, sir; if everyone will slow down a bit, even better."
       "I'm sure it will do. Maggie Andrews, what can you tell us?"
       "Ahem. After the tumbling and shrieking were over, I entered the stairwell and inquired as to what had gone forward. The young woman – "
       "Karen?"
       " – the same – informed me Ellen had sustained a fall and asked for the doctor. I came looking for you or your protégé, got Marcee and a candle, and returned. Mr. Armon was sitting on the bottom step, gargling and spluttering, and the little hellcat was making absurd karate postures in front of him. Armon communicated to me that she should be taken into custody, which I asked Mr. Bobbo to do, and looked to Mrs. Murchison with Marcee. She was breathing fairly regularly, so I left them and came upstairs, bringing Mr. Armon with me."
       "Observations?" asked Tom, looking to his left.
       Mary rolled her eyes in spite of herself. "That seems straightforward, though we might find 'hellcat' and 'absurd' interpretive and extraneous to the narrative."
       "Agreed," put in Avery.
       More lightning flashes strobed at the windows.
       "Rude, I should say," said old Mrs. Lazar.
       Everyone turned to her in mild surprise; she was someone who had seldom entered into public discussion, especially since her losses in the New Moon War.
       "Too much, excuse me, crap, in the narratives. They give us bupkes – excepting her." She pointed to Karen. "Very interested I'll be to hear Ellen's bit."
       As thunder grumbled along the room, Marcee came in from below, carrying herself mindfully up the stairs, and sat near Karen. The stretcher bearers followed, making their way gently through the doorway of the basement stairwell and into the middle of the circle. Maggie, without waiting to see if Council regarded her testimony as complete, rose from the chair and lent a hand as the young men lowered Ellen Murchison to the floor. A rolled and folded towel on each side of her neck served as a brace.
       "I know everybody but me thinks it's hot in here; but have you got a blanket?" she asked a bearer.
       "Sure thing, ma'am, we'll get you one."
       "Ellen, are you being foolish?" asked Maggie, in genuine concern for an old friend.
       "Why, no, Maggie, are you?" was Ellen's rejoinder. "Go sit down; you're making me nervous."
       Avery grinned in relief.
       "Am I on?" asked Ellen, rolling her eyes round toward the Council seats.
       "Yes, Murchie," answered Tom. "We've heard from everyone else. But we're, anyway, I'm concerned about the way we're tossing you around."
     "Bosh, Doctor, I'm not broken – I don't think. Even little Marcee doesn't; it's precautionary. Can everybody hear me?"
       Emilio stood and rotated, looking the crowded circle in their faces. "Back rows; stand up if you can't hear, please." There followed a rustling of sliders on the fir flooring.
       "Thank you, young man. So. I start downstairs with my walking stick and with Karen for support; should have waited to get a lamp but I'm too impatient. I hit a tripwire. That's all I remember."
       The collective gasp filled the long Hall.
       "A tripwire?" Tom frowned. "Why would there be a tripwire at Hall? Why the stairwell, with over a hundred people going back and forth?"
       "I'm sure you're not asking me for interpretation, Tom."
       Tom swung around. "Cal, did Karen testify to a tripwire?"
       Mr. Perkins paged back through the old ring binder. "Umm-m-m-m. Oh. 'I ran after her and something caught me across the ankle.'"
       "Damn. Why didn't we pick up on that?"
       "I did," murmured Elsa. "But then we went off on a tangent."
       "Well, if there was a wire," asked Maggie, "Where is it now?"
       "Right here, maybe," said a voice. Everyone turned to see who had spoken. Josep, the young man from Roundhouse, stood up near the main door, with something in his hand. He made his way forward.
       "There's getting to be little light here," put in Cal. "Can we get some lamps going?"
       Lights were brought. The object in Josep's possession was offered for the Council's inspection under several of them.
       Mary spoke first. "This here's fourteen-gauge single-strand copper, in black insulation. Probably stripped out of some old household Romex."
       "Whatever that is," said Tom. "Presumably good for tripping, if that's what it was used for. About four feet long. And this came into your possession how?" he asked Josep.
       "Bolo handed it to me; said it was dangling down the top step from a hook in the wall. There was another hook in the other wall, too, he told me; but there were only the two little holes when I went to look."
       "Jeah help us," said Elsa quietly.
       "Where's Mr. Bolo?" asked Tom.
       "Here." The big man, who'd been sitting near Karen and Marcee, stood up and held his arm high above his head, palm out; a strangely formal gesture unknown along the Creek.
       "You found this as Mr. Josep has described?"
       "Yes."
       "And there were hooks, and they are not there now?"
       Bolo knitted up his eyebrows, then craned sideways and looked at the stairwell wall, not ten feet from where he stood. Straightening up, he faced Tom again. "They are not there now."
       "And you did not take them? I'm sorry, we have to ask."
       "I do not mind. I did not take the hooks. The black thing looked very strange to me. I took it to show to Josep."
       A brilliant flash of light strobed in at the west windows, followed almost immediately by a series of rumbles and thumps that seemed to go on for a long time. The noise of rain on the long roof above, which everyone had been hearing without noticing it, began to slacken.
       Maggie opened and closed her mouth. Then she stood up. "Where's Armon?"
       "Back here." He sat up on the table on which he'd been lying, and wrapped his big hands around his knees. Everyone swiveled around in their seats to face him. "What? Look at all of ya glarin'. No, I didn't set any trap, and if anyone did, they didn't bother to tell me about it."
       Tom stood up. "Since we're all here: anyone see anything that might have any bearing on this?"
       None one moved or spoke.
       Emilio rose from his chair again. "Creekers, we have a troubling thing here. There has never been such among us in my memory. Please speak, if you have seen this."
       Heads turned, as people looked in one another's faces. Hand fans fanned.
       Ellen spoke up from beneath her blanket on the floor. "Dear ones all, or I suppose almost all. Consider: without what used to be called 'modern' forensics, it could take us a long time to make sense of it. Anyone could have done this. Even me; I could theoretically have set the wire and then forgotten about it – all I have in my favor is the unlikelihood. We might all have our own ideas about whom, and who they were targeting, what their motivation could be. If we think too much about it, it will tear us all apart, and that couldn't, very likely, come at a worse time. Maggie, tell 'em about lightning storms in a drought."
       Maggie spread her arms dramatically, hands outspread. "Fire. Lots of it."
       "Of course. Forest fire," added Savage Mary. "Whole mountains, hole valleys burning. Don't know how we've skipped it this long. Maggie, with no witness to a trap setter coming forward, we may have to close your inquiry temporarily and talk fire. That good with everyone?"
       Maggie spread her hands wider, turning the dramatic gesture into an almost comical shrug. It meant, Do we have a choice? She turned to the figure on the floor.
       "Ellen, did you get to place your call?"
       "Marcee did it for me. Millie and Ro-eena are already mapping lightning strikes."     
   
:::

"So, Karen; am I little?" Marcee looked down at herself.
       Karen smiled wanly. "Not a bit of it."
       They sat together in silence. Much was going on around them, but there seemed to be no place for them, at the moment, in the urgent discussions going forward.
       "Marcee?"
       "Mm-hmm?"
       "Surely not everyone has always been perfect on the Creek. What's the penalty – say, for murder, or – or rape?"
       "Well, there were banishments. Before my time. Pilgrims that didn't work out were provisioned and escorted to the Bridge. But lately, I've heard that's not a good idea, because they might turn the Creek in to some bandit leader somewhere... Lockdowns. But those were for thefts, or refusing to carry out a voted task."
       "Has there ever been talk of hanging here?"
       Marcee's eyes widened. "Jeeah, no! Why do you ask?"
       "Not sure. Yet." Karen watched the room as she spoke.

:::

After the lightning strike, slabs of steaming Douglas-fir bark had flown lazily outward in three directions, caroming off fir and hemlock branches and sliding downward to the forest floor. The stricken tree, thirty-seven meters in height, had swayed and shuddered for a bit before regaining its equilibrium. Two days had passed.
       White streaks of cambium gleamed in the cracks where the plasma had run along the tree trunk, and sap had already begun to ooze. At one point, twenty-four meters above the slope below, an unusually large branch had grown at right angles to the tree trunk, before reaching to the sky, and one of the streaks had abruptly ended here, resurfacing beneath the branch. In the crotch of the branch, fir needles and bark dust had accumulated for more than a century. Over the years, enough moisture had found its way into the duff to support a few lichens, mosses, and one maidenhair fern, but in the current drought the pocket had dried out completely, and the fern sat patiently waiting for a rainy day, its fronds curling in upon themselves.
       There had been a little rain, just enough to dampen the upper canopy, but none of it had reached into the bone-dry shadows. A wisp of smoke curled up from the duff pocket and dissipated to eastward. 

:::

Forty-three kilometers to the west, Savage Mary rolled forward in the already hot shade of Hall's west wall. The spot had been chosen for its relatively safe location, well away from the surrounding tinder-dry foliage. The ground had been sprinkled with watering cans as a precaution, and full cans stood by in case of need.
       Mary looked over the setup and showed her best crooked smile. "Nice job, guy," she said to Deela.
       "Why, thank you, ma'am." The young man dropped his gaze in momentary confusion, then stood back, but near enough to make himself useful.
       "All right, gather round, kiddos." Mary gestured toward the multiply-hinged steel-topped table that had been set up. "This here's what used to be known as a 'fire table.' We've got a sackful of dead fir needles dumped here and spread thin, and that represents fuel, which is what it is. Think 'forest', 'kay?"
       Heads nodded earnestly.
       "So, for our purposes, a fire needs three things, fuel, heat, air – specifically oxygen, as a rule, which is some stuff that's in the air. Plenty of oxygen in the air above the table and mixed in with the fir needles. Some's trapped in the needles themselves. Plenty of fuel here in th' needles – mainly carbon. Combines pretty easily with the oxygen if heat in the vicinity flashes beyond about two hundred thirty degrees Celsius. Got that candle?"
       A girl stepped forward, her hand cupped around the flame.
       "And who are you, dear?" asked Dr. Mary.
       "Ceel Perkins – Tomlinsons'."
       "Pleased to meet ya. So, do you want to light the forest fire, or shall I?"
       "I'll do it, ma'am."
       "Cool. So pinch up a little bit of 'fuel' out in th' middle of this section, here, and touch it off for us."
       Ceel did so and then stepped back. A black circle formed on the table, less than two inches across, and then grew slowly, leaving a graying center. Above it, a blueish column of vapor and smoke, barely visible in the morning light, rose vertically, with a pale, almost invisible flame at its base.
       "Now, kids, what you got here," crowed Mary, with an imperious gesture, "is a smallish forest fire. They all start small. Really small. Right now you could smack this one out with the palm of your hand."
       The black ring inched outward.
       "On a flat, without wind, a fire grows incrementally and concentrically." She looked up. Hmm. Too many blank faces. "Y'all can interrupt when I run off into twenty-Amero words. 'Kay, it grows slow and it grows on all fronts th'same. See, there's no heat 'cept close to th' flame, so nothin' burns except as it gets hot enough, 'cuz it's close enough. Deela, y'wanna switch on that little fan, there?"
       Deela came forward and twisted a pair of wire ends together. The tiny blower at the end of the table, cannibalized from some old refrigeration unit, buzzed into life. The black ring changed into an oblong shape and picked up speed, growing toward the other end of the table.
       Mary picked up the long willow twig that lay across the armrests of her wheelchair. She pointed. "Your heat and oxygen travel with wind, and they pick up th' fuel as they go. So always know where th' wind is. You're downwind from a forest fire, it will come after you, faster than you can run. So go sideways along th' fire front. If you can't beat it around th' corner, run through it – if you can. Fuel's already expended in here." She tapped the gray ashes. "Fan off. Now, let's have a little 'fire on th' mountain'. About a thirty-degree slope, please."
       Deela reached underneath the table and lifted the second and third sections. The table legs dragged inwards.
       "See, th' fire wants to keep running thataways even without th' fan. It runs uphill because th' heat is driving up through th' fuel from underneath, and pulling in th' oxygen behind it. A big enough fire, or any fire on a slope, makes its own wind."

       The young man leaned forward and swept the fir needles off the raised hinge with his thumb. The black line reached the top of the slope, and, finding no fuel there, left off traveling in that direction, growing instead to left and right along the edge and the entire slope.
       Mary nodded. "It's more complicated in the hills. You can line around a fire if there's no wind, but a big fire, a hill fire, or especially a big hill fire, always has wind. And we're all hills here, so all wind all th' time. On a ridge top sometimes your Jeeah – " she looked over at the small contingent from Roundhouse – "or your Jesus – will favor you, but th' trees are taller than these here fir needles. Fire gets in the upper branches, it throws itself around. Sparks cross your line and make spot fires on the other slope. Now you're trapped. Ceel honey, let's light th' other side here, right in th' middle."
       Ceel brought the candle again.
       "See, it comes up to th' line fast. Faster than th' big fire did. It's pulled toward the crest by th' wind from th' other side. So you're toast. If you do find yourself in this fix don't run uphill – it'll getcha. Roast your lungs before you even get burned. Run sidehill or, last resort, run right down through it and hold yer breath. But you c'n use this scenario; if we burn up this side of th' hill ourselves, from below, there's no fuel for th' big fire when it gets here. S'called a backfire."
       Mary looked around at the sober faces that surrounded her.
       "Back in 'th' day, folks fought these things with airplanes that dumped a fire-fighting powder on the flames, or they shot water out of hoses from tank trucks – bigger than th' few garden hoses we have left here; they cut down trees an' brush with chain saws an' backfired 'em wi' drip torches, 'n pushed fire lines with bulldozers. But they always tried to find an' hit th' fires when they were little, to save all that trouble. They'd parachute out of airplanes or rappel down from helicopters to find a little fire no bigger than this one an' put it out with a couple shovelfuls of dirt."
       A palm raised. "'parachute?'"
       "Oh, kind of a big umbrella thing; you float down out of th' sky slow enough to usually not break a leg."
       Incredulous expressions all round.
       "Oh, c'mon, kids, have I ever lied to you? Not often, anyways. Y'ever blow dandelion seeds?"
       Nods.
       "Same thing. Now, y'see th' fire's still growing on all its edges except downslope on our side of th' mountain. Nothing's gonna stop it till it's out of one of its three requirements. With what we can do nowadays, we're pretty much out of it as fire fighters. This thing can get air all it wants. It has plenty of heat. It still has fuel. It's gonna burn till it rains, basically. Rain, please."
       Deela brought over a watering can and doused the table, sending up a hissing cloud of steam.
       "Questions?"
       One of the men from Roundhouse, the young leader, stepped forward.
       "Could you, we, umm, use a bulldozer?"
       "We got ten or twelve bulldozers, sonny, 'an they'll sit till doomsday without oil."
       "Well – umm, this one's a little, a gasoline model. We, uhh, we do use it."
       "What, tweaked for alky? You got that much?"
       "No, wood smoke."
       "I'll be damned. I've heard of that, but nobody on th' Creek remembered how! So ... when were ya gonna tell us about this prized possession?"
       "Well ... kind of a state secret. But it seems like the thing to talk about, after that ... dreadful storm."
       "Sure, so ... ain't ya gonna need it up there?"
       "We've used it for years, kind of sparingly, clearing ground around the Roundhouse, primarily for defense – field of view. That's all done. We tried plowing with it, but irrigation and weeds have been big issues afterwards. So right now it's mostly sitting, like yours. And Roundhouse is pretty fireproof."
       "Say fire comes, eats up your whole valley, what then?"
       He grinned. "Then we'd starve, likely. What else is new?"
       "Same here, sonny, we'd all hide in 'th Ridge an' then come out after th' cataclysm and watch a few sunsets till th' goodies run out. We want to keep these fields intact if we can."
       "So, maybe, we should bring our little 'cat' over here and cut a line around your valley?"
       "I don't think we need a Council vote on that! Yes, please. How long do you think it would take to get here?"
       "I leave right now, a day to get there, maybe half a day to mechanic, rig up and supply, two, two-and-a-half days' return. Deerie would have to cut her own trail to get to you; two mountains and a valley full of second growth."
       "'Deary'?" Mary raised her eyebrows.
       "One of the old-timers could read. She said it said 'deer' on the side of the engine cover, so we called her 'Deerie."
       "Cute. A John Deere crawler! Didn't know they made 'em! So, 'Deerie' has a blade, then? ... that works?"
       "Hydraulics are long gone, but we use a come-along to raise it. Slow, but there it is. Oh, and a cage and drawbar, no winch."
       "Oh-em-gee, you kids are the mannah – how long, do you think, would it take to cut a fire trail around these farms? Assuming no mechanical breakdowns?"
       Josep's grin faded. He looked around at Ball Butte, Maggie's Hill, and the distant Cascades. "About a week, ma'am."
       "Well I guess we'd better send you packin' right now!"
       Mary rolled away toward hall with the Roundhousemen in tow. Class was evidently dismissed.
       Ceel blew out her candle and tugged at Deela's sleeve. "Machinery is female?" she asked.
       He shrugged. "It's – kind of a Before thing."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

36

Karen walked down the stairs and around to the main 'gate'. Millie lay asleep, dressed and armed, in a bunk by the main door, with a string tied round her wrist which was attached to the door. Simple but effective; if anyone outside somehow opened the massive cantilevered door, she'd awaken and become a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, of course, the lights would snap on, on all levels, and a buzzer would summon everyone. At Karen's almost noiseless approach, Millie opened her eyes and rolled over into a half-sitting position. "Hi."
       "Hello; not to bother you but can I go out for a bit?"
       "Sure; help yourself to the postern door. There's cloaks on the pegs; borrow mine – green, with a blue border." Millie checked the clock on the nearby wall. "My shift's almost over; you didn't bother me."
       "Thanks." Karen stepped around and reached for the cloak. The peg next to it was empty. "Is anyone else out there?"
       "Mm-hmm, Selk. He's up at all hours and likes to look at the stars."
       Karen nodded, awkwardly fastened the cloak at her throat with her one hand, then pushed on the thick postern door, and stepped outside. It swung itself shut behind her.
       The air was cool, but not especially cold, even here on the heights. As soon as Karen's eyes adjusted, she sought the gravel of the summit path with her feet and trudged cautiously round to the right, below the narrow, massive windows of Avery Murchison's outpost, which were still dimly lit. She could see, by a surprisingly bright three-quarters moon, the dark surrounding hills. A flat ribbon of silver fog hid the Creek. There was no wind. It would be another hot day tomorrow – today – outside.
       "Who's there?" Selk's querulous voice came from further round to the right.
       "Karen, Ames." She found him sitting on a boulder above the southern slope of the ridge. "Don't shoot me, 'k?"
       "Shoot you? I've ... umm ... never shot anybody; doubt if I could. You, on the other hand ... "
       "Yes, I know; Karen the Dragon Lady. Eats bandits for breakfast. I'm not as fierce as I'm cracked up to be. May I sit down?"
       "Uh? Oh ... sure, right here to my left there's a good spot. 'Cracked up', that's a good expression."
       She sat on the boulder, which was taller than it looked in the moonlight. Her feet dangled just out of reach of the ground. Just as well; she wondered if that was poison oak growing along its base.
       "So ... just out for some ... some air?" asked Selk.
       "Yes. It's stuffy in there, even with the fans going. Which I'm told are a great improvement over how it's been all these years."
       "Uh huh. I can't imagine. Mr. Avery, Bee and Bobbo and Millie, Wilson and all – they've been like cave dwellers."
       "Mmh. We still are, really. And you? Air?"
       "No. I, uhh, I like to look at the sky. The, the night sky."
       "I heard about your report. So, you really think the Ridge was about a satellite?"
       "Well, there were the pictures, of Mr. Angle's, that the bandit had looked at. I have them. And ... and, there was a dish that they had here, on top of the control room, and it was always pointed south."
       "South is significant?"
       "Well – You've seen satellites, right?"
       "The Wanderers, the Creekers call them. Fewer every year, it seems. Yes. I read about them, when I was 'at school' in the basement. And then I saw them, sometimes, over the last couple of years. But they go every which way."
       "That's right; in fact, there's one now."
       Selk indicated a planetary point of light drifting in a straight line from south to north, waxing and waning as it went. They craned their necks to watch it pass out of sight in the vicinity of Polaris.
       "That one," said Selk, "is tumbling out of control, I think; once every about six seconds. We're seeing it by the light of the sun, which is to our east right now – rising in a couple of hours. That's to say – " he cleared his throat, removed his glasses, and polished them with his sleeve, then pushed them back over his nose – "we're, we're rotating toward it. That way."
       "Once every twenty-four hours, in a circle, on the surface of the earth. Hence the sunrise."
       "Yes! Would you believe it, most Creekers don't know that any more? Or anyways care. They think the sun's coming up when it 'comes up' – we're all the way back to a flat earth in the human mind."
       "Yes, I've noticed that, too."
       "I can't explain it to them as otherwise; they just shrug and get on with the things that matter to them – crops, irrigation."
       "But, you know, those are the things that matter now," offered Karen gently.
       "I was born too late," Selk said, bitterly. "Well, anyway, satellites, you'd know from your reading, a lot of 'em are in low orbits – low being, say a hundred to a hundred and twenty miles up, and to stay in orbit, they have to balance the earth's gravity by going 17,500 miles an hour, or something close to that. Centrifugal force."
       "Yes. But they're all dead, aren't they? And falling out of the sky, one by one?"
       "The low-earth-orbit ones, yes; and the MEOs, which I think were mostly GPS – "
       "Those died before we were born."
       " – were killed before we were born; hunter-killer sats and solar storms. But some of the Clarkes were well shielded from storms."
       "Clarkes?"
       "Clarke-orbit satellites."
       "Oh, geostationary."
       "Right. God, it helps to have someone who has any idea. Geostationary. The antenna they had here was always pointed south."
       "South because ... "
       "Because that's where you see geostationaries from here. They're above the equator."
       "Oh, that's right. So, you're thinking there might be a functional satellite up there – " Karen pointed at the southern sky – "and that Ridge had something to do with it?"
       "Yep. And furthermore I think it's big. If I only had a telescope – like the one at Ball Butte – I bet I could find it."
       "How? Wouldn't it look like a star? It would be – what, twenty thousand miles away."
       "Further, more like 22,240 miles up from the equator, and we're about forty-three degrees north of there. No, the earth wobbles. What I'd be looking for would change its position slightly all the time – like a figure eight. But nobody wants to help me with this thing – say it's a wild goose chase. My proposal, you know – they said – they said, 'work on it in your spare time.' hah!"
       "If you saw one, how would you know it's the right one?"
       "You're right, there were lots of them. But I have to start somewhere. Once I've got some sense of direction I could set up a dish and try to get some conversation going."
       "You should talk to Billee."
    "Billee?" Selk snorted. "Why Bee? She can't sit still to hear word one from me."
       Karen smiled, even though she was getting cold in the pre-dawn air. She pulled the cloak closer about her. "Billee has a pair of field glasses that might have the magnification you need."
       "Field glasses? I don't know ..."
       They're ten-ex or something like that. With a huge field of view. The bandits took them from her, but Huskey got them back. I'm sure she'd let you use them. ... if you were to ask nicely."

:::

"What's in here?" Karen lifted the edge of the cloth on the basket and sniffed.
       "Barley cakes – they are the best we can do," replied Juanita. "But they do have in them the dried grapes from last year. That may be what you are smelling."
       "'Raisins,' they used to be called. It's enticing," admitted Karen. "We have cut back at Ridge, too; I haven't seen anything so nice in a while. You're a wonder."
       "Everyone is a wonder," said Emilio, as he packed apple fritters in another basket. "All through the Creek there are kitchens turning out something from nothing, I believe. We will have a good party, I think."
       David, one of the twins, came in through the back door. As Juanita handed him the basket of cakes, he turned to Karen. "Whatcha been doing?"
       She looked at him, surprised. "Whoa, you've grown up! Nice mustache. Not so much; we have a little production line going; BP rimfire, some proper grenades, wooden water pipes and hydraulic rams, better matches, and some stuff for painting roofs."
       "Roofs?"
       "Yes, all our old roofs were too dark and also not fire resistant; the steel roofing that was stockpiled is going on over the shingling, but most of it is dark red or green. What with all the heat, we want to find ways to keep the houses cooler, not just fireproof. So we want to get everyone to paint the roofs white, not just the walls, and also to weave mats for the outsides of south-facing windows. The temperatures in these old buildings are getting dangerous for older Creekers – and babies."
       "And how is yours?" asked Juanita, smiling.
       Karen placed her hand over her new shape. "We're doing well together, so far as I can tell. Anyways, we've stopped throwing up. We're going to stop and see Dr. Marcee on the way to the festival."
       "I like that 'we.' You are getting good practice."
       The other mustachioed twin, Raoul, appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Jenny's ready," he said.
       "Good." Emilio nodded. "Take these, load her up, and go to Hall, and we'll come after with our backpacks.
       "Where's everyone else?" asked Karen.
       "Errol, as you know, has been supervising the pipelines for the irrigation. I think he is at Bledsoe's; we begin these things there, to ease relations." Emilio made an expression of distaste. "Tomma and Vernie, with help from our visitor, took Mrs. Ames to Hall in the hand cart very early, to beat the heat."
       "That must be a tight fit for her. Who's the visitor?"
       "A big man named Bolo. He's from Roundhouse. And you are not the only one making babies! He brought with him a pig – a "sow!" She will make piglets soon, and he will show us how to take care of them. In return we teach him the transportation of water to crop land." Emilio paused. "He is a very good man, and he does know pigs, but teaching him new things takes ... patience."
       "We're going now," shouted David from outside the door.
       "All right," replied Juanita. "Take advantage of the shade, and rest Jenny twice before you get to Hall."
       "How did you bake the cakes, Juanita?" asked Karen.
       "Ah, you have caught me! I worked at night, of course. We made fire at midnight, and the baking was done by sunrise."
       "It's a good thing we're having the festival now, then. With everything drying up so early, we might have to ban fires completely after midsummer."
       "Nita, I think we are ready to go as well," said Emilio, putting on a wide-brimmed straw hat. "Are you going with us, Mrs. Allyn?"
       "As far as Hall gate, then up to Chaneys'."
       "But we will see you in the evening? The Festival begins when the sun sets."
       "I think I should be there."
       "Everyone should be there. It is really a General Meeting, with food and music, I think."
       Along with the others, Karen put on her own small backpack, straw hat and reed-mat cape and moved to the kitchen door. They left the shade of the house reluctantly, following the trail down to the front walk and gate on the Creek road, through which Allyn and Errol had passed carrying armloads of swords, so long ago as it now seemed. They kept to the left side of the road, taking advantage of the shade of the roadside fruit trees, many of which looked heat-blasted already, with curled leaves and tiny apples. The plums and pears had not set fruit at all in the late frosts, and now in the wild swing into summer, had dropped much of their foliage as well. The travelers' feet rustled as they passed along, as if it were a walk in a dry November.
       Karen looked, through the morning's haze, at Russell Farm, across the Creek. No one was moving about in the fields. They would have done their work before mid-morning, and would now either be  resting in shade, or sitting in their swimming hole in a bend of the Creek. Like New Ames, they would likely have made any preparations for the festival in the cool of the night.
       The little group stopped several times, sipping slowly from their switchel bottles in the deeper shade provided by large maple trees. Another group was slowly catching up with them, which Karen recognized as the contingent from Maggie's Farm.
       Maggie herself, both tall and old for a Creeker, carried her long-barreled Kentucky rifle cradled in her arms. In a grudging acknowledgment of the heat and glare, she had left her battered kepi at home and was wearing one of the wide-brimmed woven hats and a pair of pre-Undoing sunglasses. Next to her strode the young leader from Roundhouse, with the big dog at his heels.
       Maggie nodded to Emilio as they stopped in the shade. "Hot enough to fry an old lady's brains," she croaked, reaching for a leather water bag at her side.
       "It is becoming a difficult summer," he replied. He offered his hand to Josep, who shook it firmly. "And how are your people?"
       "We are getting by. Though our creek has dropped a lot farther than yours."
       The dog flapped her tail a couple of times against Josep's leg, and Karen offered her fingers to her to sniff. Krall's ears and tail drooped, and she looked up at Josep. 
    He smiled and spoke to his companion. "S'okay, honey, she's one of our pack."
       Krall took a tentative step forward and smelled Karen's hand. They made eye contact, and Krall's tail thumped again.
       "This is a beautiful animal," said Karen.
       "So are you."
       Karen felt a moment of confusion; people at the Creek were sometimes indirect. Josep was clearly not. She decided to smile, but not too broadly, and to keep to her subject.
       "She's, mmh, a girl?"
       "Bitch is our word," he grinned. "Good bitch too, aren't you, Krall?" She lolled her tongue out and grinned up at him.
       "So ... are there boy dogs ... dogs as well as bitches at Roundhouse?"
       "Do we breed? Yes. You're not the first to ask! All the puppies from Krall's next litter are spoken for."
       "I have a friend who talks a lot about Krall. I have a feeling she wants desperately to ask for a puppy."
       "I've heard of her; one of the scouts?"
       Karen nodded.
       "Will she be at the fair?"
       "No, she's one of those providing cover – out in the Big Valley, no doubt."
       "Too bad; but somebody has to do it. We have people out, too. But I'll want to meet her, or see that someone from the tribe does."
       "That's very kind."
       "We want to get off on the right foot. Lots we can all do for each other."
       Maggie shifted her water bag and adjusted the strap. "Two of mine are on Ball Butte. Not too happy about it, either. But it has the best view."
       "Shall we go?" asked Emilio.
       As they took to the blazing sunshine on the dusty road, Karen found the young man and Krall had fallen in beside her.
       "I hear stories about you," he said.
       "Stories?"
       "Yes; you farm, you make stuff, you sew people up, and shoot bad guys. All-around girl."
       "If you say so. I think I have had some opportunities."
       "Modest, too. When are you due?"
       Direct again! She fought an impulse to look at his face.
       "Midwinter."
       "Oh, good; you'll have better than this weather for lying-in, maybe."
       Karen felt her attention had narrowed, and made a conscious effort to scan the nearby fields and fence lines, as she was sure Emilio was doing. Josep did the same. He seemed able to effortlessly maintain his situational awareness and be sociable at the same time, something that was difficult for Karen.
       "It's all right," he said. "I'm not about crowding you; but you're more interesting than you seem to think. I'm taken; my mate's name is Marleena."
       Karen found herself relieved to hear this; she had always found friendly men unnerving. "Do you have children?"
       His face clouded. "We did; two. There was something the matter with the water. A hot year like this one."
       "I'm sorry. Perhaps ... "
       " ... we may succeed another time. Thank you."
       They walked in silence for a bit. Hall was coming into view; and in spite of the grueling sunshine in the courtyard, people could be seen milling about.
       "Here we part ways," said Karen. "The others are for hall, but I'm off to Chaneys' for a bit."
       "Oh, I know that place well. Quarantine. You went through that there, too, didn't you?"
       Is there anything he doesn't know about? "Yes. 'Bye, now." She waved toward the others as well. Juanita smiled and waved back.
       "See you later, then," said Josep, and offered his hand. Karen shook it, shocked at the strength in his small body, and went her way.
       The gate to Chaney's was almost opposite that of Hall. The long, low house was atypical for the Creek; Karen knew from her readings, long ago, that it was called a "bungalow." One thing that set it apart was its exterior, which she remembered as a tan-colored brickwork up to mid-wall. This, however, was now painted white, as was the roof – Chaneys' was an early adopter of the new style, in time for the heat waves. Another was the front stoop, which was a concrete pad, with two steps up. Wrought iron railings stood on either side. Karen was grateful for these, and hauled her newly cumbersome self up by them. They were hot to the touch. Perhaps they should be painted white as well.
    She opened the door and peeped in. "Hello, house?"
       "Karen? Come in and sit down. Be right out." That was Marcee's voice.
       Karen shucked her hat, cloak, and pack by the door, and found a comfortable chair, glad to be out of the sun. Glancing round, she saw that, inside, little had changed. The big table dominated the center of the room. Behind was the heavy glass window behind which she had lived, briefly, making friends with Mrs. Ames. The place had always been rather Spartan, with little of the cheer she'd found at Ames' or Wilsons'. The thought of those houses, one abandoned to the elements , the other burnt to the ground, panged her.
       Marcee came in, moving slowly in the hot room, and sat down heavily in the chair next to Karen's. A spray of her red hair was plastered to her forehead, and beads of sweat gleamed amid the freckles on her cheekbones. She was wearing an ancient blowsy shift of cotton and rayon, figured in tiny roses, and was looking very – for Marcee – large.
       "Whew. Oh Em Gee, it's a rough day to be out, Karen. Don't see how you do it."
       "I don't suppose I could, if I were so far along."
       "Yeah, I'm due in two moons. It's rough! Especially with Dr. Tom and Elsa trying to cram everything they know into my head, day in, day out." She tilted her head at the open hallway door – no doubt one of the old-timers was listening in; "Dr." Marcee was considered only moderately competent as yet. But considering she had only begun her medical career from scratch at the beginning of the past winter, everyone considered she had come a long way.
       "So, you sense any changes?"
       "No, the baby is busy most days, as am I."
       "You've grown a little bit up front. Still sore?"
       "Mm-hmm, and itchy."
       "Getting ready to feed the kid. Notice veins more?"
       "Yes."
       "I think those will get more comfortable for you about now, and you'll be putting on more girth instead. Could I get you to stand up and turn around, move around the room a bit?"
       Karen did so.
       "You're kind of small still, but normal range. What's all this on the belt?"
       "Revolver, knife, ammunition."
       "I can see that! Never far away from your stuff. I dunno about the belt there, though."
       "You're right; I might have to go with shoulder gear for awhile."
       "Smart. Getting enough water?"
       "Yes; we have a good well at Ridge."
       "That surprises me; isn't the whole thing rock, above the ... umm ... "       "Water table?"
       "Yeah, water table." Marcee shifted her weight, unable to find a satisfactory position in her chair.
       "The well pipe comes in at an angle, from above the headwaters of Hall Creek."
       "Cool! And enough food, lots of variety?"
       "Guchi brings us fresh stuff when he can. We had steamed nettles a couple of days ago."
       "That's a help. Get lots of dandelions, too, while they last."
       "Yes'm."
       "My kid should be four months old by the time you pop. I'd be able to walk up to Ridge if I had to. But we might want to have you move down here after harvest, where we can keep an eye on you; what do you think?"
       "Umm ..."
       "Got people who want to be there for you?"
       "Billee. And, mmm, Wilson."
       "Wilson! That man's full of surprises."
       "He's been training me on defense and Defense."
       "Oh! Are you our general-to-be?"
       "He says it's an aptitude thing. They maybe want to spread what they know, like Dr. Chaney."
       "Ri-i-i-ight. Not too strenuous I hope?"
       "Not right now, no." Karen allowed herself a wry smile.
       "And sleep. They let ya get any sleep up there?"
       ""In the early going it was hard, but Mo – Mary has eased up a lot. She's been great lately. Kind of scary."
       "I can believe it. So, you're not holding back any horrors, baby too quiet, blood showing, any of that awful stuff?"
       Karen's eyes widened.
       Marcee suddenly seemed, if anything, even more grown up. "Listen, babymaking is serious shit. This 'clinic' has damned few medicines, few instruments, no obstetricians, one pretend doctor, one old lady playing nurse, and one pretend intern, which is me. Have you noticed there are more men around the Creek than women?"
       "Um. Yes."
       "Have any of us told you why, yet?"
       "I – I don't think so, no."
       "Take a wild guess."
       "We die in childbirth."
       "We do indeed. So, now, I'm happy you're doing well right now. Listen, stay on the good water, don't drink from any of the creeks or the shallow wells – not even Hall water, unless it's been boiled for twenty minutes. Eat well, even if the people around you don't. I don't have to tell you folks are getting hungry. Demand more than your share, because both of you need it now. And pick somebody around you to come and study midwifery here."
       "Why aren't you – oh."
       "Oh. That's right. If we lose me, I'm not going to be much help to you, now am I?"
       They sat together in silence for a moment. The air seemed to hang heavy and still between them.
       "Do you get the feeling," asked Marcee suddenly, "as if some awful thing is about to happen?"
       "What? What do you mean?" Karen placed her hand over her belly.
       "Oh, not us ... you, or me. It's the air. Like it's listening and ... like it's sitting on all of us, and doesn't like to hear anybody breathing."
       Karen shrugged with her one good shoulder. "I think I know what you mean. But I try not to borrow trouble. Oh!"
       "What?" Marcee looked apprehensive.
       "Kid's moving."
       "Oh, hey, lemme feel."
       Karen guided Marcee's hand.

:::

"She did pretty good," said Tom Chaney. "I don't like that about a premonition, though. Should stick to the patient's business and stay upbeat."
       "Bosh," said Elsa. "I feel it, too."
       "Feel what?"
       "It. I don't know. The air, something."
       Tom shook his head. "Women. So, you want to go to the festival, 'old lady'?"

:::

Marcee and Karen fell in behind the old-timers, but far enough back to confer privately.
       Karen hitched up her belt again. The sunshine was painful on her hand, and she kept her head tilted forward so that the brim of her peasant hat shaded her eyes. The gravel of the path blazed; she was glad it was not far to Hall. "So, they did get hold of you. How did it go?"
       "Oh, not bad. He thinks I should level with you less, she thinks more. They got in a funny little row, and turned me loose."
       "What would be an example of 'more'?"
       Marcee stopped, made sure Tom and Elsa had walked far enough ahead, and looked at her. "You can handle it, I guess. Well. We don't just die in childbirth, we, uhhh, there have been lots of kids that don't turn out, as well."
       Karen held her belly again, and looked west, toward the opening of the hills toward the Big Valley. Out there, hidden now among its own trees and half buried by repeated floods, lay the Highway of Death. She realized she was not going to ask why she had not seen any of these children. But as to cause, she might ask.   "Radiation?"
       "Maybe. So many things went wrong, years before you and I were born. There could be stuff in the ground, in the water, or in our genes. Dr. Tom says that before the Undoing, they were putting plant stuff in animals and animal stuff in plants. Then there was biological warfare, there were bombs ... and Doctor Tom says that just the amount of stuff lying around, as it weathers, it changes the air, and the water, and everything. Old 'landfills' falling apart, stuff like that."
       "I read some of that; our books and stuff were from Before. And After is full of its leftovers. I guess we ... the baby and I ... don't have any guarantees. But I've never met anybody that does."
    Marcee nodded; then she stopped and put her hand on Karen's arm. "Whoa. Look at that cloud."
       Karen lifted her head so she could see from beneath the wide straw brim. To the southeast, over the shoulder of Starvation Ridge, a haze of cirrus had fanned out into the stark blue sky. Behind it a mass of cumulonimbus was building up to an impressive height, with pink folds and patches of somber gray.
       "That's a storm from around Diamond or Thielsen," Karen, who knew her maps, said. "They spread north and then all over. We might have some rain by tomorrow."
       "That would be a help," agreed Marcee.
       They came to Hall gate, which was decorated with streamers of dyed cloth, in yellows and reds. The young women crossed the open ground and came into the shade, ten steps from the door. Activities had begun. 
     Several people were sitting by the main front door on a long bench made from heavy timbers. They were engaged in making music, with a guitar and wooden flute, and several were singing along. Marcee knew the song, and joined in as she walked up.

    Well, the summertime is coming,
    And the trees are sweetly blooming;

    And the wild mountain thyme
    Blooms along the purple heather.
    Will ye go, lassie, go?

    And we'll all go together,
    And pull wild mountain thyme
    All along the blooming heather;
   Will ye go, lassie, go?

       Karen, not being musical, passed on through the doorway and found some sixty people inside; half the Creek! She realized with a shock that though she'd been among them for almost a year, there were some she had not really met; even the General Meeting last winter had seemed to be composed of different faces than some that she saw, and then she realized that some of these were dressed differently than Creekers, and must be from Roundhouse. There must have been a general relaxing of the quarantine rules. She spotted Mrs. Ames, sitting at a table nearby, with Errol and the Perkins family, and elected to join them.
       Mrs. Ames' shaking had increased noticeably, and her head was now permanently tilted to the right. But her smile was the same as ever. "Hel-lo, swee-sweetie," she said. Karen dumped her hat, cloak, and belt by the wall and dragged over a chair and sat down – surprisingly heavily – by Mrs. Ames and pressed her hand.
       "So, what have I missed?" she asked.
       Mrs. Perkins laughed. "Not much. It's been too hot in here, even with those going – " she indicated a small whirring fan, cannibalized from some ancient auto, among the rafters – "but they're setting up some kind of game in the middle of the room, and the young men are going to beat one another at it, then the women, is how I hear it."
       "Not all together?" Karen glanced at the middle of the room, where tables had been cleared away, except for a big one she hadn't seen before. She recognized it immediately: ping-pong! Someone had held onto a ping-pong table, complete with paddles and balls, and it had either been stored here or brought from one of the farms for the occasion.
       "No, It's guys then gals; Mr. Armon is our emcee today and that was what he decided."
       Karen looked again at the group setting up the game. Armon, Bledsoe, bigger than most, was in charge, and he seemed almost cheery. She sighed and looked elsewhere. Things were busy around the kitchens. "I think I'll go see if I can help out in back," she said to them all, rising.
       "Hungry?" smiled Errol. "I'll join you. That okay?" he asked the Perkinses.
       "She's fine with us," replied Carl. "Aren't you, honey?"
       Mrs. Ames smiled her crooked, kindly smile.
       Karen and Errol crossed the room, steering clear of the goings-on in the middle, and made their way to the propped-open double doors. The smells enticed them in.
       Guchi and several others, in new nettle-fiber aprons, were at the block table, chopping fruit.
       "Need a hand?" asked Karen.
       "Or three?" Errol held up both of his.
       "Errol!" remonstrated Karen, in mock shock.
       "No, actually," said Guchi, wiping his hands on a cloth that hung by the table's side. "We're just finishing the fruit salad, which is reconstituted dried apples, pears, and grapes, and the soup is a kind of gazpacho made mostly from dried  zukes and cukes – all from last year. We did all the stove work last night, outside, and we'll serve everything 'cold.' You can help us bring it all out, though, after the tournament."
       "Everything's from last year?" Karen looked at the relatively few pots and bowls on hand. So different from last fall!
       "Well, except for some pemmican and jerky that was made this spring, and a dandelion-lamb's-quarters salad. Most of the jerky is from our guests."
       "Roundhouse seems to be mostly hunter-gatherers," said Errol. "They drive deer with dogs. I've established some trade with them; they like our yew bows and we want puppies."
       Karen put her fingers in the nearest large fruit bowl; Guchi made as if to slap at her hand, but grinned. "Who's getting puppies?"
       "New Ames, Maggie's and Bledsoes', to start."
       "Everything's about Bledsoes." Guchi shrugged.
       "We're trying to help them feel they have a stake in the general welfare," said Errol.
       Karen wolfed down the handful of fruit she'd purloined, and turned to face Errol. She was surprised to find he'd moved off to another table as he was speaking, and in his place there stood what appeared to be a gentle giant, holding an alderwood platter covered with strips of jerky. He looked past Karen to Guchi, and extended his hands with the platter as if asking a wordless question.
       "Right here's fine," said Guchi. "Thanks."
       The man complied, then turned toward Karen, who was still licking her fingers. "You are Karen." He spoke with a flat inflection, with the same stress on each word.
       "Yes," she replied, looking up into his large, dark and childlike face, wonderingly.
       He pointed to himself. "Bolo, Roundhouse."
       Oh, of course! The 'simple' guy, who'd been staying at New Ames in her absence. "Karen, Ridge." Maybe at Roundhouse, they keep the "different" children? Or is he a stray, like me?
       He didn't reply or smile, or mention he'd been occupying her room. Instead, after several seconds, he pointed to her left shoulder. "Hurts?"
       "No, actually."
       "Tips you over?"
       "Umm, a little; I'm getting used to it, though."
       "Yes. You lean into it. Baby pulls you forward. You pull back. Tired easy." He looked at a nearby empty chair, then back at her.
       "Very observant and very kind. Thank you. But I was going back to the main hall." Not so 'simple,' thought Karen. I like him. "Join me?"
       "Yes."
       A game was in progress; doubles, with the Perkins boy and Raoul matched against Josep and one of his men. Only Dr. Tom had ever done this before, and he explained to them as they went along. The spectators were kept busy hunting down the ball, which got away from bad serves as well as missed hits. There was considerable laughter.
       Karen sidled along the wall and took a seat near the stairwell to the basement, and Bolo followed. They watched awhile in silence. Karen discovered Ellen Murchison, whose hair seemed to be getting whiter by the day, was sitting across the doorway from her, holding a walking cane. Both being recent widows, they had learned that a silence that had grown between them was something like companionship. They nodded to each other somberly.
       The ball rolled over to them. Bolo leaned down and scooped it up; Josep came over for it and thanked him quietly. Karen could feel the young leader's affection for the giant, confirming her first impression.
       At the main entrance, two wheelchairs rolled in, under their own power, followed by Wilson Wilson and Bobbo of Ridge. The game halted momentarily, and the musical contingent crowded the doorway behind the new arrivals. Armon, who'd been sitting near the ping-pong table kibitzing, stood up, a sneer breaking out on his features.
       "Well, you made it after all. We were beginning to think th' show wasn't gonna be good enough for you cloud-dwellin' types."
       Emilio jumped to his feet at the south end of the room. "It takes time to ride a bull-cart down that mountain and they had to wait for some of the heat to dissipate, as you surely know."
       Savage Mary chuckled as she rolled forward. "Gently, Mr. Molinero. I like clouds a lot, and Mr. Armon is tall enough that he should like 'em, too." A ripple of weak laughter went round the room.
       "Speaking of clouds," said Avery Murchison, "There's a hell of a storm brewing up. We might get a break in the drought tonight."
       Farmers all, nearly everyone was cheered by the prospect. Karen noted that Armon seemed dissatisfied with the exchange, and that Ellen Murchison was frowning over something, though her attention was not on Armon. The game resumed.
       'S'cuse me," Karen said to Mr. Bolo. "I'll be back."
       "Mmh? Hmh." He sat, arms crossed, and returned his attention to the novel game.
       Mrs. Murchison sat on a short bench; as Karen came over, she shifted to the right and made room.
       "What's up?" asked the younger woman.
       "You don't miss a thing, do you? I was remembering that storms are not all about rain. Who's on up at Ridge?"
       "Millie, probably. Billee is on the circuit of the valleys and everyone else is putting in a politic appearance here."
       Maggie, the fringes on her buckskin swaying, came over. Karen thought that Ellen, who had so recently been the tiger of the New Moon War, looked very diminished and frail next to her old associate. "Ellen, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she fairly boomed.
       "Yes, I expect. You two help me up, and I'll go downstairs and place a call to Millie."
       "Do you want to confer with Avery first?" asked Karen.
       Ellen hesitated. "No, he's got enough happening at the moment. I'll catch him up as soon as I get back. Keep me company?"
       Karen followed Ellen to the darkened stairwell and they began to descend, feeling their way with their feet.
       Two steps down, Ellen gasped and launched forward into the darkness.
       "Ellen!" Karen followed, flailing for the handrail, then felt something across her shin and tipped outward in turn. She caught the handrail and slammed backward against the stairwell wall, part way down. Maggie's silhouette partially filled the doorway above.
       "What happened?" she rasped.
       "Ellen's fallen! Bring a light!" Karen ran down the remaining steps, holding the rail.
       Maggie's shadow, ahead of Karen, disappeared, and Karen could see the still form of the elder sprawled before her, the cane underneath. Then another shadow took away her vision for a moment.
       "What's this here?" It was Armon, Bledsoe.
       "It's Ellen Murchison. She's down." Karen knelt beside her, feeling for an arm, a wrist, a pulse. But she was snatched to her feet.
       "You little killer. You'll be hanged for this."
       "What ... what? She might not be much hurt – let's check!"
       His grip on her arm tightened. "Too late, I'm sure. You pushed her down!"
       And he shook her.
       Karen's mind went back to the Eastsiders who'd found her near the cabin in the mountains. The first one, who'd caught up to her in the knee-deep snow, had grabbed and shaken her. Both of the strange men, with their painted faces and knotted hair, their panting breaths frosting in the air, were burned into her memory forever.

    If she had not had the little green pistol ...
       "Let go my arm, Mr. Armon."
       "Not effin' likely." He raised his other hand to strike.
       Karen realized that she'd left her knife upstairs, and, besides, she had no other arm with which to draw one. It would have to be feet, then. She put her left foot behind her, to gain arc for the other, and planted her right boot in his crotch. The big man grunted with surprise. On the second kick, Karen could feel his grip loosen slightly. That would be enough. Dropping her weight momentarily, she twisted her arm toward his thumb, unlocking his grip. Armon recovered and grasped her hair with both hands, shoving her away, but it was too little, too late. Palm out, she found the base of his nose and struck twice, her muscles remembering to reach, not for the surface, but for arm's length. The big head snapped backward.
       Karen's eyes by now had adjusted to the relative darkness, and she took advantage. Planting her feet, she made a fist, and struck for the man's Adam's apple, connecting on the second try, and as he slipped to his knees, choking, straight-armed his nose again twice for good measure. Then she stepped back and assumed a stance from which she could aim a good flurry of kicks if need be.
       More shadows appeared in the doorway, and then a light. Maggie, Bolo and others came down the stairs.
       What is this?" blared Maggie.
       Karen found herself trembling all over. The baby squirmed like a fish inside. "Ellen's fallen down the steps. Get the doctor!"
       A peal of thunder, long and low, growled over Hall.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

35


"I do not very much see the point of keeping him alive, my lord. He has been a danger to you for years. He recruited half the able-bodied young men in the area for his little bid for parity. Had it  worked, they would have come here to conquer you. That is a given. And now you are short of forces."
       She lifted the porcelain cup to her pursed lips and paused, inhaling the aroma of coffee. It had been vacuum packed before the Undoing – at least twenty years ago; but it would have to do. Everything, nowadays, would have to do. The morning sun glinted from her auburn tresses and pearl earrings as she shook her head.
         If, he thought, and not for the first time, she could have had that pronounced nose and that bit of overbite worked on in days gone by, she'd have been the beauty of the age. But then, her tastes being what they are, that smile would always have been chilling. I like it; not many would – or do. "My dear, that's why I enjoy havin' ya around. You're direct; and your calculation of the human equation is precise."
       He looked past her at his own reflection. Not that I'm a prize – not in that way. Stoop-shouldered, slightly paunched, hair thinned almost to the vanishing point, the unremarkable-looking man in suspenders that peered back at him from the refectory window wore bifocals that were not even his own prescription – where would one find an optometrist now? Perhaps there would be one in Port Land, if he could ever extend his sphere of influence that far. Everything, except his own will to power, remained forever slightly out of focus, and lent to his eyelids that slightly swollen and red-rimmed look that belongs to those with insomnia. Yet he had always slept the sleep of the righteous. Not in that way; but power is its own aphrodisiac.
       Shifting his vision, he looked briefly though the window at the activity in the courtyard. Two of his more trusted men, former Kluxers, were conducting routine maintenance on an old Army truck. On its flatbed, covered by a canopy of old blue tarps, stood a diesel generator, idling gently round the clock. It sipped at a fuel line from one of hundreds of barrels of fuel –the source of much of his regional hegemony – and converted the oil, with dreadful inefficiency but great practicality, into electricity for the old base headquarters.
       Beyond the truck, under armed guard, sat his great pride and joy – a functional LAV-35, which the Army must have requisitioned from the Marines in that last brief war.
       "We tested the chain gun a few days ago," he remarked.
       "Really? I did not hear it." She lifted her plucked eyebrows at him across her cup.
       "You were in the cell block, Doctor, training your A & P students. It's well sound-proofed there, as ya know. The Army, back in the day, was sensitive about the carrying distance of screams. I, ah, tested that m'self," he added wryly, almost reaching to touch, through his white cambric shirt, the scars he still bore.
       "So. Did all shells function?" She set down the cup and attacked, with a silver fork, a plateful of scrambled ostrich egg.
       "Ignition of all three primers and explosion of all three rounds – on target, I might add. Destroyed a little outcrop on the Butte. You woulda wondered at the fire it made – scorched half an acre. Some of the boys had roast rattlesnake for breakfast yesterday." He lifted a forkful of fried chevon, and chewed slowly. "Still a bit of smoke drifting around."
       "Then my old scheme of rounding up all dessicants in the remains of the city and packing them into the munitions bunker has borne fruit." She smiled that crooked smile.
       "Yes, and you are to be thanked, honored, admired, adored, and elevated to a place of worship by all the Volunteers."
       "You are flattering, my lord, but I know well I am but to be tolerated by them. Yours is a very male enclave. But as to your prisoner. He should not live."
       "I understand ya; but he's been to two places of interest."
       "And they are?"
       "A source of small arms in working condition, with good ammunition. This is real clear from the weapon he hid in the brush when he moved on our outpost. This fits in with what he did tell Mullins. I'd like to have that source. It would help us in our balance of power with the Eastern Tribes. That treaty has held, but as you know, it's shaky. There are far more of them than there are of us, and we haven't quite the leverage to simply assimilate them as yet."
       "The other?"
         "He's clearly been near the DARPA facility that we found on th' Army's maps. There are people in possession."
       "Ooh."
       "Exactly. What that was for, I have no idea, but the little documentation I've uncovered suggests there'd have been an independent power source. We haven't the manpower or the expertise – yet – to rebuild any full-size dynamos. If it can be acquired and put in service, I want it."
       "Did he see the actual site?"
       "I have no idea as yet. These two things he has chosen not to report; it could be vital information."
       A fly touched down on the Formica tabletop and began creeping hopefully toward the unfinished egg. The Doctor watched it for a few seconds, then suddenly clapped her hands together, directly behind and above the crawling fly, which leaped to its death between her palms. She shook the tiny corpse off onto the tiled floor and reached for a sanitary wipe. "I begin to see how it is," she said. "Your man hopes to find some form of leverage in what he has withheld, or hopes yet to escape and make good the knowledge in some way, independent of you – or worse, and this is what I have believed all along, and why I have urged his termination – he has come here to depose you and assume lordship himself."
       "With all that I am in agreement, dear Doctor, and it's why he has been so closely held."
       "With all due respect, my lord, your Volunteers should be able to canvass the northern reaches just as he did, and, if not find the weapons, at least invest the power plant, saving your invaluable fuel oil for transportation and enforcement work."
       "And it may easily come to just that, honey. Are you going ta finish those eggs?"
       She offered him the plate. He reached for her fork with one hand and a bottle of syrup with the other. "The problem is that as Wolf got near that power plant, he lost exactly thirty good men, a shotgun, and a pistol in about four days. It's not like him. Something's up with that place. I don't want my army to go in there blind if I can help it."
       The Doctor winced at her lord's table manners; she pulled a paper napkin from the booth's dispenser, unfolded it and dropped it in his lap. "Well, then, we will place every resource at your disposal, my lord."
       Absent-mindedly, he thanked her for the napkin. "As to resources, why, you always have, my dear; wouldn't have it any other way. And, oh, my, I do thank you for your supervision of the prisoner; the intravenous feeding has been a help. Now, has he had his preliminary dose yet?"
       "Yes, my lord; we used the phencyclidine we found in the veterinary building at the animal park. I was surprised to see it there; it is very stressful for the animals. You might know it as angel dust. One-tenth CC of that concentration will have given him a most extraordinary night, after these weeks of sensory deprivation, and he should be ready for the SP-117, at your convenience."
       He cracked his broadest smile, the one that had made him a success in the showroom to the very end, when even the rich had begun at last to doubt the eventual utility of automobiles.
       "My dear, you are the marvel of the age."
       "But of course, my lord."

:::

So much darkness. Days? Weeks? Have I always been here?
         So much darkness.
       There had been dreams. Dreams, and dreams of dreams. As when a wasp has laid its egg within the egg of another wasp's egg, within the egg of a butterfly, on a leaf that is being consumed by aphids driven by ants, his dreams had fed upon one another until he felt there was little left of him but dreamshit, if there were such a thing.
       Trees, smoke, vapors, mud, screams, maniac laughter. Scarlet armies of red beasts marching round and round on elevated roadways past tongues of violet flame – and had he not slaked his thirst on the hot blood of a deer, and run, run through the forest, 
pursued by angry, yelping corpses, all of whom answered to the name of Cougar? And then one of them raised the Glock and shot him in the shoulder.
       He blinked his eyes. No blindfold. But nothing was to be seen, not even a crack under a door, and there was no draft.
       A last dream passed brilliantly before his mind. He felt his face lengthen, his eyes shift round to the sides of his head, and his arms and fingers stretch and fledge to left and right. He leapt into the air, leaving behind one black tail feather. Spiraling higher and higher on the updraft, he could see the North-Running River far below, with its islands, its sweepers and deadheads and pilings, its sandbars and gravel bars and willow shores, its suckerfish, carp, and dead or dying salmon, and its foraging raccoons, bears, and ospreys. In the shallows, green with algae, lay a skull, a human skull, rocked by the backwash of a slime-befouled countercurrent, and from the shattered left eye-socket crawled some tiny insect, which suddenly curled in upon itself and fell, an unremarkable fleck, to drift down-dream along the steaming verge.
       "Wolf."
       "Magee??"
       "How do you feel?"
       "Like shit."
       A chuckle. What direction is he? It sounds like he's everywhere at once. But I suppose that's the idea.
       "Well, son, you should. Think about it; you woo away the best men, setting me back a year at least, then, by your own testimony, get them all killed and abandon them; then, of all places, you come straight back to me. Reprehensible, suspicious and foolish behavior?"
       "Yes sir, it must look that way."
       "Well, it kind of does."
       A pause, then the familiar, smooth voice resumed.
       "Mullins still thinks highly of you; even though you've got him in trouble as well as yourself. You have charisma, Wolf; all you lack is reliability."
       Play it close to the grain. "Well, sir, I might have other lacks."
       "Mmh-h-h?"
       "I'm strong on tactics, weak on strategy?"
       "Heh heh, heh, heh, same thing in different words. Wolf, I told you that years ago."
       "Yes, sir, you did, sir."
       "I've told you many things, Wolf."
       "Yes, sir."
       "I put a lot of effort into you."
       "You did, sir."
       "A son – you were a son to me. I saw potential. I still see potential. But I'm damned if I know how we're going to get there
       "Sir?"
       "Well, back to our program, here. How do you feel?"
       What's he doing?
       "Wolf, a little introspection, please. What do you feel? Other than, say, anger, fear, all that."
       Oh. "Uh-h-h, shackles. Sore wrists and ankles. Cold butt."
       "Anything else?"
       "Headache ... sore shoulder?"
       "Bingo, my lad. Why would your shoulder be sore?"
       "I've been hit? Shot?"
       "This darkness is putting your senses a little out of true, Wolf. Shot comes close. You've had an injection. Any idea what?"
       "Sir? I mean, would it be anything like what th' Army used on us?"
       "Very good, Wolf. Yes, we were their prisoners, and they did give us injections – when they only talked with us. 'Sodium pent,' I think, was their name for what they had, and it did loosen our tongues a little. My boy, I have no idea why they didn't simply expunge us afterward. It's what I would have done. I think things got a little busy for them right about then."
       "So, I've got sodium pent in me? Th' truth drug?" A pause. "Sir?"
       "Thank you for remembering, Wolf. No, we don't have any, and besides, I'm not sure it's the best stuff anyway. But, yah, a truth drug. What was it called, Doctor?
       A voice, indistinct, seemed to reply.
       "SP ... one? one-seventeen. Thank you, Doctor. In answer to your question, my boy, something Russian."
       "Russian?"
       "Soviet, really. Almost a century old, the formula. But the supply was kept up until – well, the expiration date on the bottle is '31. Let's hope it's been stable."
       "I don't remember any shot."
       "You wouldn't; we administered it while you were napping."" 


       "Oh..."
       The other voice – was it a woman's? – murmured again.
       "Ah, Wolf, I'm reminded to mention that we can't read any of the rest of the label very well. It's in Cyrillic, of course. But the 117 and the expiration date are clearly marked, and we have unimpeachable provenance. We're excited about our find, and we thought, as you are our most interesting case at present, we'd give ya the honor of being the first to try it out. Perhaps even make y'self useful, y'see."
       "Why ...   why tell me all this?"
       A sound of papers shuffling.
       "Mmh? Oh, well, Wolf, not to allow you a sense of over-importance, and, I'm told, results are often improved if we're candid with those whom we expect to be candid with us. The placebo effect when combined with the real thing should help us get   – over the hump, shall we say. Thank you, my dear."
       This last sounded as if it were said to someone else. The room – if it was a room – absolutely no light anywhere – suddenly filled, from all directions, with the sound of someone drinking from a glass. Wolf became aware of his own thirst, which intensified every moment.
       After what seemed an eternity in Wolf's increasing disorientation – was he lying down or standing against a wall? Was this even The Hole or another location entirely? – Magee's voice came from everywhere again.
       "So, we have here Mullins' visit with you, wi' your vague account of your movements from last summer till now. And we have some independent information to collate wi' yours. I'd like to begin with where you get your firearms and stable ammunition."
       "What about 'em?"
       Immediately a jagged, searing jolt passed through Wolf. With effort, he suppressed a yelp. A taste of salt ran over his tongue from a bitten lip.
       "Please. Surely, you would not expect us to waste our valuable time dancing round these questions in semantic circles. Yes, Wolf, your shackles are wired, and yes, we do have current. See, I have answered your unasked questions – you might choose to treat me as fairly. But I'll be clear. Where did you collect these firearms, which we know did not come from our inventory?"
       "Ah-h-h-h, eff you."
       "Heh. See, I didn't reach right for the button, now did I? For you, I bend over backwards. Pain is boring for torturers, and so they become careless and the extracted information is often useless. Why, if this were a novel, most readers would abandon the story at this point; even they would become bored. So, let's get on with our story, shall we? We've both been to this point before, my son – at the Army's hands right here – we learned from the best – and later, as interrogators, we practiced this art ourselves. I was good at resisting; but I admit I'm a little old for that now. But at putting the question, I was, and still am, the acknowledged master."
       The drinking sound again. Damn that sound!
       "Wolf, my son – I do feel toward you as a father – resistance is always in pursuit of a goal, just as for interrogation. Your goal, as I have observed it over time, has been unwaveringly limited: self-preservation. You wish to keep options open – to have a future. And that's all. Sometimes I find you frighteningly small-minded. With me, there is a bit more. I wish to bring some order out of the chaos we have around us today. To re-establish sound government, agriculture, manufacturing, and trade. And, umm, health care. To create, as it were, a reign of peace at last, in place of the endless wars between our little tribes. I'll give you, gratis, another little glimpse of truth. We've been talking with the tribes east of the mountains. There may now be sufficient manpower to tame the regions around us and bring light to this dark age. To begin, as it were, history again. "To clear away darkness from the land, and from the blood of men" as the Klux Lord himself used to tell us. But the horsemen are like you, Wolf – self-interested, self-limiting and extremely dangerous. The Volunteers need sufficient arms to counterbalance the numbers of the East. Interesting?"
       "Maybe."
       "Well, that was honest. So. Where did you collect your firearms?"
       "At a  gun store."
       "Disingenuous. Gun stores were the first to go, even before the grocery stores."
       "They'd sealed and disguised it, hoping to return is my guess."
       "Ah! At last, some conversation. Where, Wolf?"
       Wolf felt red rage rising from some last shred of self. He struggled to remain silent, but a desire to be helpful, against his own perceived interests, filled the darkness around him – or was it within him? Was this the drug? If he did not quickly express something to the contrary, he would blurt everything!
       "Mine, dammit! I found it, s'mine!"
       "Mmh, honesty again. Very good. But, Wolf! That was a moral judgment. Childish, too, especially in context. What, in all our world today, belongs to anyone without present possession? But my hand over th' power switch here is gettin' heavy. Where?"
       The answer was now on the tip of Wolf's tongue, like a drop of hot lead burning to be spit out. He choked it down and almost whispered.
       "...mine..."
       "Okay, well. We tried. Such a waste. I am disappointed in this Russkie stuff. But especially I am disappointed in you. We'll just have to save the world without ya; you'll be missed, Wolf, you really will. Doctor, it's yours to play with now. But don't let it live any longer than necessary."
       "Thank you, my lord," said the female voice.
       "Just curiosity, what did ya have in mind to do with it?"
       "Vivisection. I do have my anatomy students right next door. Their instruments are at hand and they've been practicing on a lovely piglet, which will appear on tonight's menu."
       "Sounds great – could do with pork chops for a change."
       Noises, which were trivial in themselves, came at Wolf from all directions. Two people – more? – were getting up from chairs, papers were being shuffled. Footsteps.
       Surprisingly, what occurred to Wolf now was the image of the red-haired Communist his men had tortured –and probably raped. Even she, if she'd made it through the battle alive, still had options. He, Wolf, would have none at all.
       "Uhh, okay."
       Magee's voice seemed to come from a great distance. "Did it say something?"
       "I said, okay. Couldya maybe come back and talk wi'me some more? ... please?"

:::

Karen looked in – hesitantly – at Avery's open door as she went by. He looked surprisingly approachable. "Do you ever sleep, sir?"
       Avery's table was placed so that he faced the door. One seldom saw his back – a habit he shared with, among others, Karen. He looked up from the inventories he'd been perusing – written in old spiral-bound notebooks, the pages of which were already yellowing with age.
       "Come in. Sometimes one doesn't. I have trouble with these – " he gestured with his chin toward his foreshortened legs – "and that keeps me awake me to keep up with these – " he indicated the lists – "which are another kind of troubles, and so there you are."
       Footsteps approached softly down the dimly lit corridor. Karen looked back, and saw that it was Wilson, dressed for night stealth and wearing the Ruger Old Army in a holster. He nodded to her, obviously heading for the same door, so she accepted Avery's invitation, more to avoid blocking the doorway than for any other reason.
       Wilson knocked, and, without really awaiting an answer, stepped in.
       "Shift over?" asked Avery.
       "Mm-hmm, the kid's on. Skipping down the mountain with her new toy."
       Avery looked over to Karen. "Would you like to sit down?"
       "Thank you."
       Wilson, not needing an invitation, did the same.
       "New toy?" asked Karen.
       "Twenty-two rifle. One of the single shots, with some 'a your new 'shorts'. Does still have her bow, though."
       "What would be much better than rifles," offered Avery, "at this stage of the game, is radios. Our scouts' vulnerability at these distances is, frankly, nerve-wracking."
       "There just aren't enough of us to make or salvage everything we want. You know the drill, more than anybody – to grow the food, y'gotta be a farmer. To have the food, y'gotta be a miller, or a carter, or a warehouser. To keep th' food, y'gotta be a guard. Mary's down to a skeleton crew now as it is."
       "And out of a hundred and twenty people – plus around fifty next door, with their own problems – every guard one less farmer, and vice versa. How did we talk ourselves into having a summer festival?" Avery rolled his eyes, something Karen had not seen before. She'd found Avery inexpressive and rather forbidding – like a bird of prey, brooding over the heights with his binoculars.
       "Morale is low, you know," she put in.
       "It should be. We've already had two heat waves, and a lot of crops are going to be very thin. We're resorting to hunting and making pemmican, and trapping and drying fish – salt would be nice to have. The cattle program doesn't seem to be going anywhere – calves either not making it, or that effing wolf pack finding them – and everybody acts like running wiring for irrigation is going to save the day. But what's to irrigate when the oats and barley are already burnt? And who has the time to set up the pumps?"
       "Sir, if I may, the orchard could use a pump. Apples and pears have set fruit well this year, and those can be dried to help get through the winter – if they get enough water now to make weight."
       Avery looked at Karen as if he'd never really seen her before. "Is there anything you don't know how to do?"
       Wilson chuckled. "Lots, I'm sure. But she trained a bit in the orchards last fall, so ..."
       Karen nodded. "Allyn ... he ... thought highly of tree crops, and spent time making sure we could carry on. But, of course, if the weather gets much more extreme, those can fail us, too."
       "Damn," said Avery. Setting his hands on the table to either side of the stack of notebooks, he looked into Karen's face, then Wilson's. "I don't mind admitting, things are kind of not adding up." He waved one hand over the notebooks. "Not enough oats, barley, or wheat here in the granary, and little prospect of enough coming in. Something's the matter with our animal husbandry, there's trouble with the potatoes, insufficient labor to divert into keeping us in some kind of clothes, not to mention getting in properly cured firewood, raw material for making gunpowder in short supply. Even these things –" he flicked the light bulb in his desk lamp – "the ones that work, are in shorter supply than anyone expected, and half of Ridge is back to alky lamps. Which I suspect you," he half smiled at Wilson, "of draining down for your own purposes."
       "Hey!" But Wilson smiled in return. Karen could see they were close friends. How much had she missed of life at Ridge, hunched over her work counter in the Armory?
       "Shoe fits?" Avery went on. "But, seriously, there's little enough alcohol we can make, as there's no sugar other than in fruit juices and beets, and hardly any honey. Same story in category after category. We're not middle class here any more, which is what people really want to be. We're barely hanging on. None of us wants to admit it, but all of us, where we're going in two generations, it's a stone age culture living in a couple of longhouses. Something like Roundhouse now, only more so."
       Wilson glanced at Karen. "You look shocked, kid. Well, maybe half shocked. But somebody was going to say it sooner or later."
       Karen unconsciously pawed at her frowzy hair  – why did she itch so? – and stared at the wall a moment. "Well, you're right. It does hurt to hear it. But you can see the blackberries taking over, and the wolves and 'yotes moving in on the sheep, and half the houses empty. If we were hit again like last October, we would, umm, lose, wouldn't we?"
       "We might. Might not. Your little bullets could count for a lot. We're going to start training on them soon."
       "At only sixty percent reliability?"
       "Hey, it was forty a month ago. See? We think that's a great advance over the bows for keeping bandits at arm's length. You might go 'click' or you   might go 'bang.' Either way they have to use cover or faith to get close, because any one of your shots might be real."
       Avery cut in. "Speaking of training, Karen, I know you're a veteran, but have you been working on adjusting your skills?"
       She looked, involuntarily, down at her left shoulder. "Well, I turned in the pistol – can't rack the slide now. And I gave away my bow – and gave Aleesha's to Billee. I've been doing exercises with the sword – but I'm not really happy with it."
       "No," Wilson said. "You wouldn't be. You have no two-handed stroke, and a lot of the power in one-hand swordplay still relies on the weight of an arm on the other side, with a shield, perhaps. Similar problems with staff, javelin, bush-hook, axe and spear. Got your little knife with you?"
       Karen drew it, reversed it with a little flip, and handed it to him handle first.
       Wilson looked it over. "Ever killed anybody with this?"
       "Yes."
       Wilson's eyebrows might have moved a little bit, but not much. "Mmh. Hefty for its size, sharp, and clean. Not really suitable for throwing, is it?"
       "Well, it's a skinner. And I'd be uncomfortable letting it get away from me like that."
       "Sure. Avery here is a natural with throwing knives – but, again, a lot of his power comes from having both arms –which in his case are pretty powerful."
       "That's because my hands do all my walking." Avery smiled again, patting the black tires of his chair wheels.
       "But, let's see ..." Wilson went on. "You've got the one knife on the right, suitable for close-in work, and the short sword I think you carry on the left. Drawing is a little tough for you on both sides. You reach across for the sword?"
       "No, I've been carrying it between my shoulder blades."
       "Oh, okay. And you draw behind your head. Yes, that's better. Did you draw arrows there too?"
       "No, I was really used to carrying them in a quiver on my waist, behind the knife sheath, and drawing them like this." She demonstrated, with her hand behind her right hip.
       "Bow was in the left hand. Right." Wilson winced, in spite of himself. This girl had lost much of who she'd been. "Well, when you drew the knife just now you had to kind of twist yourself back a little bit, and I noticed you thumbed your sheath a little to unseat the blade. All this slows you down just a hair, not that most people would notice." He looked down at Avery's table, set down the knife, and picked up a long pencil and a ruler. He tucked the pencil in Karen's empty sheath, and waved the ruler around as if it were a long knife or short sword. "Let's say I'm a bandit and I've gotten past all your projectile defenses and am closing with you, like this." He stepped toward Karen in slow motion, mock-menacingly.
       Karen, trying to match the unaccustomed speed, stepped inside Wilson's reach, drawing the pencil, and, turning the "handle" in her palm habitually, so that the "blade" faced outward, drew it across his throat as she continued past him on his right, dodging the descending ruler.
       "Very nice," noted Avery. "once."
       "By which he means that trick works on anyone who's never seen you do that before, but if there were two assailants, you'd need another tactic to take on the second one," offered Wilson. "In fact it would have worked on me just now. I assume the reason you rolled the pencil just before you got me, was so the 'blade' would face outward as your hand came up, blade downward from your fist."
       "Umm ... yes." Karen wondered where all this was tending.
       "Okay, could I make some recommendations?"
       "Yes, sir."
       "I'm hoping we can get you to ditch the sword – Bobbo would love to have it – and pick out a longer knife for carry than your skinner, with a fitted sheath and a sheath lanyard. If the sheath's tied to your leg, you won't have to hitch like you did just now, to draw it. And both edges should be sharp, and a tapered point – not a stiletto, but, still, a fighting knife with some of the qualities of your sword – still able to make that little move you just did, and without rotating it – just straight out of the sheath and across my throat here. But with options for parrying and thrusting as well."
       He swapped her the knife for the pencil, and she re-sheathed the knife. "Yes, sir."
       "Come by my 'place' tomorrow afternoon, we'll fit you out and also do a little practice. Don't expect too much from the practice, though; your center of gravity is going to be moving around for a few months." He grinned. "We're looking down the road here a bit. No serious hand-to-hand for awhile either; throws, kicks, all that. But soon enough; after you've had the kid. Now, I expect you'll want to carry your knife on the right, use the same moves as much as you can, at least at first ..."
       "Yes, sir."
       " ... and where did you keep the little pistol?"
       "In an inside pocket sewn into the jerkin. Before I was here, in a pocket in my hoodie."
       "'Hoodie'? Never mind. No holster, then?"
       "There was a little zipper bag."
       "Right. Well, what I want you to consider – there are a number of twenty-twos in stock here, gathered years ago. Enough to arm a good twenty Creekers. I've got an ancient revolver, six inch barrel, chambered for nine rounds – it's in good shape and has a leather holster for a right-hander. Want you to try it on and try it out, cross-draw." He saw her hesitation. "Dry-fire only, of course. Don't want to scare th' baby – unless we have to. 'K? Tomorrow?"
       "Yes, sir. Umm, I go, now?"
       "Sure," said Avery. "Thanks for dropping by."
       "Y'welcome." Karen disappeared into the dim hall.
       Wilson smiled at Avery. "Not very garrulous, is she?"
       "Well, sometimes neither am I, Wilson. She and I are a lot alike in many ways, I expect."