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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

41

Jorj loaded the last of the wood blocks and fastened on the lid of the burner with a hoop and clamp. "This has to 'brew up' awhile, to get enough gases to burn right. In about ten more minutes we'll be off." Josep looked dubiously at the trailer, filled with chunked firewood, shackled to the drawbar.           "How far will this get you?"
    "Over the first hill, maybe. Good dry wood is not an issue under these conditions, though. Bolo can bust up some old lumber for me in the next valley. The real danger is, I'll start my own forest fire and then we'd lose Deerie for good. Not to mention me and Mr. Bolo."
    "Then we must be very careful, Mr. Jorj," replied Bolo solemnly.
    "It will be an epic journey," smiled Josep. " I wish I could be with you two. The Lord watch between me and thee..."
    "...when we are absent from one another." Jorj clasped hands with Josep, and then Bolo did the same.

***
   
The child had been doing calisthenics and now seemed to be resting, with a knee or foot thrust against Karen's navel. She looked out the long, low windows of the Control Room, as she passed through to the meeting room. Not much of a world I'm bringing you into, kid. Sorry about that. The foot pressed a little harder.
    Tomma and Armon arrived, not looking especially comfortable with each other. Behind them came Emilio. All were disheveled, sweaty, and dirty, and with their close-cropped heads, had the appearance of lightly toasted demons – they looked like bandits, in fact. As she had done before many times, whenever she noticed this, Karen reached up and rubbed her own crew cut. When would she get used to it?
    Marcee, who was nearing term, drifted heavily in and sank into a chair. She had found a large sheet of paper somewhere; it looked as though it had been a page from a ledger of some kind. By folding
and re-folding, she had made it into a fan, which she spread and began fanning herself.
    Avery rolled in, in his red chair, looked over the room, and rolled up to the empty space at the table next to Marcee. "When are you due?"
    "Towards the end of the next moon, sir."
    He looked past her to Karen. "And, since we're on the subject, you?"
    "Probably before the moon after harvest, sir."
    "Harvest. Hmmhm." He furrowed his brow.
    Emilio looked round the table. "I am unused to seeing such a table without Doctor Tom, or Elsa, Ellen and the other Elders present."
    "Age has crept up on some of us more quickly than in former times," replied Avery. "Dr. Tom, only in the last moon, has begun talking in circles. Mrs. Ames may not last the summer. My mom's active but tires easily; she keeps asking those round her to get her back to her old post on Ball Butte but I'm not sure they even have a way, now, to do that. And so on. How did Mrs. Lazar seem to you?" he turned again to Karen.
    "She's very helpful to Mrs. Ames and still useful to Dr. Marcee – yes? –" Marcee nodded, and handed the fan to Karen. "– but seems terribly uninterested in the future, if you know what I mean."
Avery nodded. "Same with old Maggie, though she hasn't noticed it herself. And Dr. Savage is dealing with the advanced stages of – "
    "Rheumatoid arthritis. And probably lupus," offered Marcee.
    " – right. So, you see, the Council has moved on, at least for the moment."
    Emilio pursed his lips, then leaned forward with his next query. "Ro-eena? Cal?"
    "Well, there it is. Record-keeping was big with Mom and Dad, but we're down to a hundred and twenty, with more to do than we can do. To stay alive, we're going on short rations with all that civilization stuff."
    "Ah."
    Avery twisted his wheels a bit so as to directly face Armon of Bledsoe's. "So here you are, Mr. Armon, you're in – not at, but in – a Council meeting, more or less duly constituted. Feel the power?"
All eyes fell upon Armon, who fidgeted a bit in his chair, then placed his massive arms upon the tables, fingers laced together. "I – uh, I get it, so maybe you could get on with the meetin'?"
    "Depends. Anything more you can tell us about that wire across the stairs at Hall?"
    Karen, still fanning herself gratefully, saw Armon tense up, and from the corner of her eye she also noticed Avery's right hand was not resting on his wheelchair's armrest or wheel but on the pommel of his throwing knife. I would be fanning myself at such a moment, she thought. But probably there were enough good hands in the room that the situation, if it were one, was covered. She kept fanning.
Armon looked down at the table. "I'll tell you all I know, and it isn't much. Some of us were doing a lot of grousing about Ridge – "
    Avery watched him. "Bledsoes and Maggies?"
    "And a few – a very few Russells and Wendlers. And as we weren't talking much to anybody else, with so much work in hand, we went round and round and made out Ridge and Hall and Ames was, like settin' 'emselves up for th' big britches, like."
    "Sure. So someone wanted to, shall we say, 'restore democracy.'"
    "I can tell you two things. One, wasn't me. If I'd wanted to do that, it woulda been way too soon, nothin' was organized enough by then."
    Avery smiled. "I like the sound of that; it's an honesty I can appreciate."
    Emilio and Tomma nodded assent.
    "Two, don't know who did. Still don't. If I did, I'd take it outa their hide."
    "I really think you might. So what was that at the bottom of the stairs?" Avery jerked his chin toward Karen, who by this time had returned the fan to Marcee.
    "I, uh, I tried to take advantage of the moment. Break up the power structure, y'could say."
    "Was that well thought out, do you think?"
    Armon tilted his head sideways, and his face took on a surprisingly childlike expression.
    "Nope."
    Avery's smile broadened. "Mr. Armon, I think you're coming along nicely. With the assent of the others present, I'll speak for us all and say that we won't ask you to bring anyone to Council if you find they had a hand in it – for now. Please do, in such an event, explain the reality of Creek politics once: which is all for all. And then tell them if you see further activity proposed or undertaken along these lines, that you will bring them to the Council of which you are a full member. That work for you?"
    Armon looked as if a great weight had been lifted from his broad shoulders. "Uhh, yeah. Does."
    "Great. All in favor here?"
    Karen added her voice to the others, reluctantly.
    Avery noticed. "Seeing as we need everyone if we can possibly manage it. Now, before we proceed with the agenda, anything to say to our one-armed hellion here?" Avery gestured with his chin again.
    Armon, clear-eyed, for once, turned to Karen. "I apologize. For my attitude below and lyin' about it above."
    Karen looked up at him. "Accepted." Right up to the moment you backslide. And not a second after.
    Avery reached into the slim saddlebag of his chair, fished out a spiral-bound blue notepad with yellow daisies on the cover, and slapped it on the table.
    "Agenda."
    Karen looked over at Tomma, who had slumped in his seat. "Distracted?"
    "Yes."
    "Wilson's got a great crew; they'll think of something." She turned. "Mr. Avery, shall we get Tomma's report first, so he can go connect with any rescue attempt that might be going forward?"
"A very kind thought, Mrs. Allyn. Tomma, your progress?"

***

Vernie fell again, his legs turned to jelly from heat and exhaustion. Errol and Wilson stripped off his tools, weapons and pack, and lifted him to his feet. Billee, who had forged ahead, turned back to face them, illuminated by the flaring of gases in the cloud behind them. Trees all around were bending as the fire fed itself air.
    Wilson pondered for a moment whether to try for the saddle of Ridge or follow the river toward Bridge. As he thought, the wind seemed to intensify; a branch fell heavily somewhere. The roar of the burn deepened. As one, the men turned to see what Billee, now open-mouthed, was watching. A tower of flame rose from the mountain they had just descended. The fire was not only torching trees and everything else on the heights, but lifting much of the fuel into itself to burn in the upper air.      
    From the looming mushroom-shaped cap of the steam-and-flame-laced column, blackened sticks and even small rocks showered down, glittering with sparks, creating spot fires all along the broad slope behind them. A snake-like shape fell from above, smoking, close by, and set a cedar tree alight.
    "Blow-up," said Wilson, matter-of-factly. "Never mind Ridge. We'll make for Lawson's."
    Billee broke her reverie. "There's nothing there!"
    "That's the idea! The whole place already burned once, and there's still the cellar."
Billee scooped up Vernie's things and led out. Half-walking, half-carrying Vernie, the men followed her down to the almost-dry river, crossed the water ankle-deep, scrambled up the other side, and emerged from the cottonwoods into such daylight as the offered. In less than half an hour, they came to the burned-over farmyard and shell of the house with its hollowed-out stone walls, and raced up the steps.
    Within the walls, the floor had collapsed, and burned joists and the like lay in a tangle, with a few weeds sprouted among them. Wilson and his crew from Ridge, during the New Moon War, had attacked Wolf's rear guard here, sequestered such things as could easily be carried away, and set the place on fire to deny the bandits a provisioned retreat.
    With care, realizing that much of the wreckage was capable of giving way beneath them, the crew picked their way across the charred heap of timbers to the staircase, only partly burned, that led to the cellar. Wilson and Errol helped Vernie, who had recovered somewhat; Billee turned back once more to see what she might and report it to the others.
    The great fire had slowed upon reaching the river. Cottonwoods and willows had scorched but were steaming more than burning. Horsetails and nettles had merely wilted; but sparks from the timber to the south had showered onto the open field with its dry grasses; and what amounted to a prairie fire was advancing upon the homestead. She ran down the stone steps.
    Space among shattered Mason jars and splintered crates had been made for Vernie. Wilson and Errol, breathing heavily, sat at his head and feet, their backs to the pantry shelves. Billee told them what she had seen.
    "All to the good," replied Wilson.
    "How so?" wheezed Errol, as he dug out a bottle of the slimy but now much-appreciated creek water for Vernie.
    "The grass won't be enough fuel to cook us, down here; th' wind will carry th' smoke away from us for a couple of hands yet; and as far as th' Creek's chances go, this valley will hold up things for a day or two. We might make it and th' Creek might make it."
    "What if the wind changes and we get smoked out?"
    "We might have to bury our faces in some of that dirt over there and breathe through it that till th' smoke lifts. Might not even need to, though."
    "When can we leave?" asked Billee.
    "No way to know. If th' fire goes down to th' big valley, we might be able to follow it round to Bridge and get home tomorrow. If it goes th' other way, same plan."
    "And if it goes both ways?"
    "Still same plan. Th' main thing is, we got down out of the woods. No way we were gonna make it up there."
    Vernie passed the bottle to Wilson, who took a few swallows and gingerly wiped at his swollen lips. "Bee, ya done good up above Blue Creek. Real good."
    If Billee's face had not been as sooty as her hands, he might have noticed her blush.
    A slight noise above drew their attention. On the top step stood a singed bobcat. It looked as if it were considered whether to join them in their hideaway.