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, October 26, 2014

34


"So, can I watch?" Billee set her bow, quiver, and fanny pack against the wall and stepped over to the counter.
       Karen turned her head. She was wearing a pre-Undoing respirator and an old blue dishwashing glove. In her gloved hand she was holding what looked like a glass straw over a spinning disk with a tiny brass cartridge in the middle, clipped to the metal center post with a clothespin. "Mmh."
         "I guess that's a yes."
       Karen set down the pipette and reached up to turn off a switch on the canopy that hummed above the counter. She pulled down the respirator beneath her chin. Billee found the red suction marks around Karen's face funny, but for once refrained from comment.
       "I wasn't going to be much for conversation in this getup," explained Karen.
       "Oh, I didn't mean to shut you down."
       "No, I need to give my back a rest. It's been bugging me a lot lately."
       Billee glanced at Karen's changing shape. "Sure, that makes sense."
       "Been out watching?"
       "Running. There's a meeting and the phones are kind of down."
       "Ah.. Yes, Selk's been put on that, which bugs him; he wants to be playing in the 'control room.'" Karen stretched and leaned back in her chair, arm overhead. "I wish I could be outside more; this 'for the good of the Creek' stuff matters, but it can wear a person down."
       "Well, that cuts both ways; I'm out in all weathers and I think I'm going to be a old wrinkled prune by the time I'm twentyish."
       "You're exaggerating; you're growing into a real prize."
       Billee reddened and looked away for a moment, then back.
       "So, um, you had a row with th' Savage."
       "Mmh? Old news. Well, it was my own fault. I mean, apparently she has plans and I've been kind of crossing them."
       "How'd she get onto you so fast?"
       "I was throwing up at work."
       "Well, that would do it. But you're still on the chemistry thing."
       "Yes, but we had to tighten up my procedures. It's not good for the baby for me to inhale this stuff or work with lead. So we got this old range hood running and Deela's doing the swaging and such for me. The tough part was finding a glove; Ro-eena came up with eight, but all but one were left-handed."
       "I guess people used to wear out the right-handed ones more? But what's doing here?" Billee pointed to the turning disk, which was adapted from an old phonograph player, running at 78 rpm.
       "Well, we want to come up with a liquid primer, which we can drip into the cases and spin into the rims. It's related to the strike-anywhere matches."
       "For twenty-twos? Why not centerfire?"
       Karen was, yet again, impressed. Avery had put a lot of work into the young woman. "Those are a little tougher for us, because the primers are small and the liquid is not very reliable yet. And twenty-two was originally a black powder round anyway, so we feel we have a simpler path to a reliable product. I'm up to about forty percent ignition now; which is almost good enough to put some single shots into service. And a bunch of those have been collected, along with a couple of rimfire revolvers; so it seems worth doing. After these there will be shotguns and thirty-eights and forty-fours, I think; so I expect to be underground here for a long time to come."
       "Sorry about that."
       "S'okay."
       "So ..." Billee hesitated.
       "Spit it out." Karen offered her one of her rare smiles.
       " ... so, 'Mrs. Allyn' – what's it like?"
       "What is what like? Love, sex, pregnancy, marriage or widowhood?"
       Billee reddened again. "Mm, okay, all the above."
       "Same as everything else, only more complicated and more tiring, I think. I think. I, I don't know much about any of them. There was just that one time, and he went downhill so quickly. And so we took care of him and then he was ... pftt! Body off to Hall Farm just like that. I hardly knew the man. I don't even have a picture." Karen's eyes began shining. "He ... he meant well. But we never had a life, not like some people around here, so I couldn't really tell you any of what you're asking. The widowhood part ... well, people look at you liked you've attained some kind of status, which is a thing that has neither taste, nor smell, nor color."
       Karen pulled off the respirator and slapped it down on the counter. "Here, get this thing off me." She raised her blue-gloved hand and offered it to Billee.
       Billee tugged the glove off and laid it aside. Karen flexed her hand and looked round the room. "Let's get out into the air and I'll tell you all about pregnancy. That's the part I know best, starting with what's like to waddle up three flights of stairs."
       "You're not that big yet. Hardly even shows."
       "No, but it feels like it; and my bladder is giving me fits." Karen reached for her sheathed knife on the counter and jammed it in the sash round the waist of her tunic. She threw off the switches at her workstation and strode for the door.
       "Well, wait up, arready, yah?" Billee ran to her gear and gathered it up. She brandished her unstrung bow. "Ya-yah!"       

:::

"This meeting is now convened." Avery Murchison looked round the folding table that had been set up in the observation room. Mary Savage, her graying hair wilder than ever, sat at the other end from him, wheelchair versus wheelchair. Behind Mary's chair sat Selk, one of her "wizards." To Avery's right were two even frailer women: the recently widowed Ellen, Avery's mother, and Elsa Chaney, the mystic, who was filling in for her husband, Tom. To Avery's left were Wilson, formerly his right-hand man at Ridge, currently of Murchison's, and Emilio of New Ames. All sat in expectant attention. Ro-eena, the Recorder, sat unobtrusively in a corner. Her red hair was longer than Avery had last seen it, and she was braiding it absent-mindedly. He knew that though she was gazing out the thick quartz window toward the white snows of the Three Sisters, she wouldn't miss a thing.
       "Wednesday, May 25, 2051. Thank you for meeting with us on a full moon, ladies." This was greeted with tolerant chuckles; meetings held on or near the new moon had been known to fall apart over histrionics. No one disputed the connection; most Creek women ovulated with the full moon and then, two weeks later, went through symptoms that could not entirely be discounted. Not that it affected their work in general, but meetings had sometimes been a noted exception.
       The joke was that, Ro-eena excepted, those present were well past menopause.
       "Agenda? One; visitors. Two; patrols. Three; prospects for the year, agriculturally. Four; state of the armory. Five; matters concerning Karen, 'munitions engineer.' These last two are related? Hmm, okay. Six; proposal by Selk to investigate the purpose of the control console – I presume this one behind me? – the purpose for which the console was constructed. Take them in order?"
       Heads nodded.
       "Okay, one; visitors."
       Emilio and Wilson looked at each other. Wilson gestured with an open hand to Emilio, who looked round the table and cleared his throat. "We have exchanged visitors with the Roundhouse tribe and have a few observations. A Mr. Josep, one of their leaders, stayed two weeks in the Clinic in the care of Doctor Marcee under Doctor Tom's supervision. He's young, healthy, mentally agile, enterprising, and has been surprisingly forthcoming. His people are not what we would call well-to-do; a few crops, dogs. They've become expert hunter-gatherers and trackers. They've been encouraged by adverse circumstances to take up residence in a single fortified building, hence their name, and have suffered some attrition through deprivation and warfare, as we have. Notably they've reportedly encountered different invaders than we, which tends to confirm our impression that the risk of new hostilities may come from more than one source. Mr. Tomma has visited with the tribe and his story corroborates that of Mr. Josep. You may refer to Ro-eena here for details."
       Emilio cleared his throat again. "Several on the Creek have said it might be useful to encourage wider visitation with a view to recruiting the Roundhouse people to join with us in our life here, perhaps by, it would be, stages – say five to ten people at a time. We are very short on labor of all kinds at present."
       Elsa raised her hand. "What about religion? I've heard some unsettling things."
       "Yes, it would be the Christianity. Roundhouse has a version what used to be called Evangelical Protestantism, with emphasis on adult conversion, baptism by immersion, and 'worship' once every seven days. They regard the adult conversion as characterized by something called 'redemption,' after which the deity 'provides' what is prayed for, in the 'worship' time and whenever one prays. Those whose requests are fulfilled more frequently than the rest are regarded as the 'favored' of the deity, and respected accordingly. Mr. Josep is foremost among these, and as such, though very young, is what we would call an elder; I think they use the term, but with a different, it would be, intent, than we."
       "All innocuous enough; but have they commented on our social ... our ways in any way? What I'm getting at is views that might be prejudicial to an intensified relationship between us and them."
       "That would be the 'unsettling' part. I have visited with Mr. Josep. He does not say so, directly, but I think he does not think highly of Jeeah. And Tomma and Vernie are a worry to him."
       Here Ellen raised her hand, and Ro-eena called on her. "The not saying so is a help. At least, so far, they're not the Lawsons."
       Avery nodded, over his shoulder, to Ro-eena, and she called his name. "I think, from what Mr. Emilio says, there is a sentiment abroad to ask Roundhouse to send a few more people for another round of acclimatization, to feel out possible cooperative ventures. Eventual joint patrols, say. Does anyone here object at this stage?"
       Elsa signaled to Ro-eena impatiently, and before Ro-eena could respond, put in: "Assuming we behave ourselves and they behave themselves, none at all. But I'd also query the stores – can we feed them?"
       Avery looked to Ro-eena, who waved her hand resignedly. "Well, that leads into item three. Shall we skip Wilson's patrol stuff for the moment?" Heads nodded. "I can tell you that we're not in a terrific position here at Ridge, with the granary, veggie seed and root storage. Things have worn thin over the last year. Inadequate irrigation, insufficient labor for fall harvests of course, uncooperative weather, and transportation from field to here was very slow, with too much exposure in transit. We've had to hold a lot of things on the farms, and there has been loss to molds and such, and to vermin. Wilson?"
       "It's bad. The favas were not planted 'til March, and, worse, we'll have no winter wheat, to which ever'one was looking forward. It's a hot spring this year, and we've been in a rush with th' oats, barley and veggies. Potatoes are lookin' good, but if we lose this crop there'll be no seed potatoes – no reserve at all – and of course there's no place to get more."
       Emilio lifted a hand. "Irrigation is a matter for concern. We are behind on the production of fabric and the windmills have fared poorly over the winter. People are requesting that electricity be at least run from Ridge to operate pumps in the Creek."
       "By 'people' I presume mainly you mean the Bledsoes?" asked Avery.
       Wilson signed to Ro-eena and replied. "Yes, Armon at Bledsoe has gone 'round the Creek suggesting that Ridge wants all the juice for itself, for political advantage."
       Elsa fairly exploded. "What is with those people? They're our neighbors at Chaney and Murchison, but when we ask or offer help with the planting they make excuses; and I'm hearing about hoarding there, too."
       Ro-eena sat with her hand half-raised, unsure if procedure had been abandoned. Avery smiled over his shoulder at her, and she voiced his name, almost in a whisper.
       "Well, Wilson has fingered it; Mr. Armon has taken upon himself a work of dissension on the Creek, by representing Ridge as despotic in some way. Are we?"
       Dr. Mary signalled to reply. "A fair question, m'lad. You're the heir apparent to the elder Murchisons, who have been seen, by most, as the Adam and Eve of our little world. Yet you're seldom seen, or rather, in recent years, through no fault of your own, never seen, except by those who have direct business here. So there's a 'Lord Avery brooding on the heights' perception that will be tough to live down, even if all your actions are completely benign."
       Ellen started to raise an objection, but Mary plowed on. "It's about perception, my dear; and I'm about to tar myself wi' th' same brush. I'm 'Savage' Mary, remember; it even says so on our maps, f'goodness' sake. And I'm only a hair more ambulatory than your boy, Ellen, so some folks have barely or never laid eyes on me in all these years. Th' situation begs for a mystique, and people who feel themselves deprived by war and famine will easily latch on to that and embellish it to what they'll perceive as their best ends. And we have done little but play into that; the secretiveness about Ridge over the years, then we let word out there's power here, but keepin' it all to ourselves."
       Avery and Ellen both raised their hands, but Mary held out hers, palm up. "Not done! I know; we're doin' th' right things an' for th' right reasons, an' th' 'reactor' should be used sparingly to extend its useful life. But we have communicated this poorly, because we've all been anxious to put our heads down an' make hay while the sun shines. Kiddos, I think we have been guilty of a little hubris, and it may come home to roost. I have had a shakeup lately that gives me some insight; but I'll clam up now and let Mr. Avery think his way out of the consequences of our isolation." She grinned. "Out loud, of course."
       Avery signed again, looking to Ellen, who acquiesced by putting out her hand, palm down, toward Ro-eena. "Do you mean it's time for a proposal?" he asked.
       "I dunno, do you have one?" asked Mary, grinning.
       Emilio, who'd been in a brown study, came to life and signed. "I too have had my thoughts about this thing."
       Everyone turned to him. "Morale is low; where morale is low, those who would profit from disorder will seek to increase disorder. Let us hold a spring festival, and, though it is logistically inconvenient, let Ridge attend – in the valley, it may be."
       Almost everyone lit up at the suggestion. "And hold open house up here after we get back!" said Wilson, out of turn.
       "Is that an amendment?" asked Avery, signing hurriedly.
       "Umm, sure."
       "We'll have to consider it separately; there might be security considerations. Mary? You look unconvinced."
       "Oh, well. 'Bread and circuses.'"
       "I'm not sure I know the reference but I can guess its meaning. So, I sense Emilio has a proposal – " Avery looked to Ro-eena.
       She summed up. "Let us hold a spring festival, and let Ridge attend."
       "Discussion?" All eyes followed Avery's to Mary's.
       Mary waved her hand. "It's a start. Gotta check our pulse sometime."
       "Well, if there's consensus – Emilio, how shall we present this idea without a prior scheduled GM?"
       Emilio considered. "From us here, this should not come. I will see if Juanita will like to have a great idea."
       "Settled? Amendment?"
       "Lots of decisions have been made in council lately," offered Wilson. "And this isn't really even council. So, let's have this festival, and then an open house, and schedule a GM, get everything out into th' open and winnowed, then we can all buckle down an' try not to starve next winter."
       "I like it. Consensus on that?"
       Nods all round.
         "All right. Item four – armory."
  

:::

Billee sat in the shade of a boulder, and Karen leaned back against it. The upper valley of the Calapooia wound east into the hills at their feet. Out of sight to the right, both knew, the hole in the ground that had been the Lawsons' house was already healing, carpeted with new fireweed. Across the river, three buzzards sailed lazily in an updraft, and near them a hawk flew steadily off, pestered by a small blackbird, toward the distant hills.
       Karen inhaled the strange, to her, air of the heights. A sachet of lichens, mosses, and May flowers, vaporized by an unrelenting sun, hung round the summit.
       "Like it?" asked Billee.
       "Of course. It's not much like the Creek, is it?"
       "No; Mr. Avery says it's a different buy-home."
       "'Biome.' One word; means the plants and animals here have to meet different conditions, so they're a different mix."
       "Uh-huh. Whatever, it smells like my-home to me."
       "You've lived here for some time."
       "All my life. Don't remember any place else."
       "Your folks?"
       "What folks I have are the Ridge crew, and now you and all the Marys'. I was found way little –" she made a pinching gesture with her thumb and forefinger "– and brought to Ridge because one of the girls that was here then had lost a baby."
       "She adopted you?"
       "No, just fed me till I could get onto solid food. Then she moved back to Bledsoes."
       "Oh."
       "Yeah, 'Oh.' So, I've been underfoot ever since."
       "And you're –what – thirteen now, and a war vet, and marriageable age."
       "Huh! I don't know my age. Lotsa foundees here don't. Well, everybody is in the habit of thinking I'm still, I dunno, five or something. I was the only kid, except for Mo-reen, and they all acted like she was a grown-up from th' git-go."
       Billee stood up, leaning on her bow. "Mr. Avery, I think, he sees me as a – repeat? Umm, one thing for another, that's lost?"
       "Substitute?"
       "Yeah, substitute Mo-reen, but in a little-girl way. Mo-reen was a soldier, she got around, she got responsibility; I get to go peek over th' hill and run back, over an' over. I maybe shouldn't complain; it feeds me an' I like the hillside. But, mmh, I got stuff in me I never get to show."
       "Maybe I'd be, in your place, glad I never had to show it."
       Billee's eyes widened. "Oh, well, you've been around enough to last anybody."
       "Billee, get this. Almost none of it has been fun. I sense what you think you need; and trust me, once you get there, maybe it will taste just like yesterday's ashes. That's if you're lucky. Mo-reen wasn't."       

:::


"Item five. Karen ... ?" Avery raised his eyebrow at Dr. Mary.
       "That face you make; I assume it means I have th' floor," she said, sardonically. "Well, I just want to do a little confessing, s'all, and we can get back to Selk, and then Wilson. Good?"
       "Sure, Mary, what's to 'confess'?" asked Avery, both eyebrows lifted.
       "Well, that girl, I see her as prone to court risks. She runs out and gets her arm blown off when I'm looking for her, then I find her, then she goes home for a 'weekend', sends me a runner asking for an extension, I grant it and it runs to three weeks, and she comes back a widow, and starts barfing all over the lab, and I find out I've got to re-rig to keep her further away from the fumes, which is the very stuff that's her work."
       Elsa, Wilson, Ellen and Emilio all opened their mouths at once. Mary held up her hand, palm out.
       "I know, I'm just describing how it looked inside my wonky old head, 'K? So I blew up. Substance, if any, was she's a soldier and a scientist and how did getting knocked up fit into her mission. And she says ... hang on a minute ... l'never forget this ... " Mary's eyes watered up, a new sight to those present.
       "What?" asked Avery, softly.
       "... says, 'we soldier and science for the Creek, yes, ma'am?' and I said, 'well, yeah.' And she puts her hand on her bump and says, 'well, ma'am, this is the Creek.'"
       Wilson grinned. "That does sound like her."
       "So, anyway," Mary went on, "just so ya know, as I was never married and never had kids and was just starting to think I'd kinda adopted one ... well, I just hit panic mode." She placed her hands on the arms of her wheelchair and glared across the table.
       Avery rolled his eyes, then signed to Ro-eena.
       "I take it there was no AWOL."
       "Oh, we see-sawed back and forth and then Emilio here intervened for th' kid. She's in th' clear. Just sayin', we hit a rough patch an' it was my doin'." And I'm not about to tell you I spent decades trying to get pregnant myself.
       Ellen reached across and – a bit apprehensively – patted Mary's hand. "So, you're confessing you're about to become a grandmother."
       Mary almost crumpled – but held herself together. "Wise ass."
       "Umm, is this over?" asked Avery. "Okay, good. Item six."
       Everyone turned to Selk.