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 22, 2014

42

Lockerby snapped the latch open and swung out the rear door of the LAV. Wolf, with a steel ring round his neck that was chained to the wall, sat up, blinking. He was naked, and sweat gleamed on every part of his body.
       Lockerby saluted, sardonically. "Hey, fella; change out yer chamberpot?"
       Wolf, who saw no advantage in his first impulse, which would be to throw the bucket's contents over Lockerby, complied. "Where are we?" he croaked.
       "Yer parked in th' shade till th' heat lets up some. Everybody's doin' siesta; even th' Riders."
       "I c'n hear that. I mean location."
       "High ground and gnarly; slow goin'. Found an old signpost for ya." Lockerby took the night soil bucket and set it down, then picked up the sign and showed it to Wolf, whom he knew could read.
       "'Drain,'" said Wolf dully.
       "Drain what?"
       "It was a town. We're close to th' North-Runnin' River now."
       "Cool. So how close are we to Eugene?"
       "Not so far. Two more ghost towns first. Th' good news is, it opens up more ahead and flattens out th' rest of th' way. Th' bad news is, there'll be more trees 'n such in th' pavement."
       "So, long as we don't have any more breakdowns with th' Cat for awhile, what? One day? Two?"
       "Two days out."
       "Uh huh; and where's that old gun shop you're takin' us to?"
       "'Bout three, four days past Eugene."
         "Anything we should know 'bout Eugene, bud?"
       "Naw, it's like Roseburg, grown over, only worse. They was some kind 'o rad-bomb used on it by th' Chinese. Stay to th' right of th' river 'n don't eat th' plants."
       Though he was on his guard, Lockerby looked on his old friend with kindness. "You've been a good man, Wolf, an' yer still a good man. I hope we c'n all get past this situation, come a day."
       "That'd sure suit me, Locky. Only thing'd beat these chains for comfy'd be no chains, 'n that is a fact."
       ''K, well, gonna leave this door open, give ya air; we'll get rollin' about – " Lockerby held out his hand, fingers together, at arm's length toward the Western horizon, beneath the red and glowering sun. " – two hands."
       "Lockie, a question."
       "Hmm?"
       "Who 'n hell has been drivin' this thing?"
       "New kid."
       "Uh huh. Could ya teach him a little more about smooth clutching? I don't have much tail bone left."
       Lockerby grinned. "I think Mullins will be drivin' this afternoon. You'll be able to catch some shut-eye." He picked up the bucket and walked away in the dim red light.
       "Huh." Wolf sipped at the bowl of water Lockerby had also brought. If the evening cooled enough he would try to do some calisthenics; if nothing else, hold a length of chain between his outstretched hands and pull, counting to a hundred. Got to stay in shape. I ever get the chance, I just might kill ever' one of these sonsabitches with my bare hands.

:::

Jorj thought that, if he were the swearing kind, he'd swear now. Deerie was not really up to this kind of thing.
       "What is the matter, Mr. Jorj?" asked Bolo.
       Jorj looked at him. Bolo, the biggest fellow in the tribe, had tremendous strength but was only moderately useful. One had to tell him "Go left" to have him turn right, and use exactly backward hand motions to get him to tie ropes or such. A gentle giant with his brains in backwards.
       "We have to pull this tree to get through here, and I'm tired, Deerie's tired, and you don't look so hot yourself." He'd attacked the fir with the dozer blade, skinning the bark away, but it was uphill, and Deerie, a mere three-roller, was not up to it. A foul stench arose from the tractor's ancient joints. Can't run iron machinery in bear grease, anyhow. The poor thing's dying. He looked again at the tree, which was already weeping resin from the wound.
       "Mr. Jorj, I could use the axe."
       Jorj glanced at the trailer, parked a ways back, piled high with smashed two-by-sixes. "Thank you, Mr. Bolo, but that's an all-day proposition. And we've scouted right and left. If we can get through here, we'll be down into that valley of super-heroes of yours before the day gets too hot to drive. Let's go get some more wood first. Then we'll take this choker and set it around the base of the tree."
       The choker was a steel cable, with a loop at one end, a knob at the other, and a sliding hollowed-out iron block on it, known as a "choker bell." After the cable was thrown around a log, tree, or stump, or even a boulder, the knob could be snapped into the bell, and the noose thus formed could be drawn tight by pulling on the loop. Bolo knew enough about the choker to set it properly, but he would have to be talked through the rest of the procedure.
      "Now take this and put it on the loop." Bolo grabbed the iron-shanked single-block pulley and climbed up to the tree. "No, no, Mr. Bolo, not the wheel. The top part there – okay, let's call it the bottom part. There's a pin in it. Pull the pin out and and it opens up – like a padlock – and wrap that thing around the end of the loop."
      Bolo tried, but Jorj could see that he thought he should try to stuff the entire bight of the loop into the shackle. "Wait, I'm coming up." Jorj climbed down from the torn leatherette seat of the Deere.
       "I'm sorry, Mr. Jorj."
       "Don't be. You've worked d... – awfully – hard the last couple of days, and all night too." Jorj snapped the shackle onto the choker. "Where's th' pin?"
       "The pin?" Bolo looked chagrined.
       They sought for it among the sword ferns and duff for what seemed an eternity, but the pin was no longer a part of their world.
       "Never mind. See that hemlock over there, good ways off? Get the other choker, set it there, and come back for th' wire rope."
       "Yes, sir."
       "No, wait."
       Bolo stopped in mid-stride, choker in hand.
       "Lessee," said Jorj, speaking mostly to himself. "Tree wants to go straight down hill. So Deerie's gotta go off over here and pull that-away. A little steep. But doable. So, wire rope from drawbar to hemlock, up to th' fir, down to another anchor tree. Deerie heads downhill over here, pulls tree thataway." He focused on Bolo. "K, we're gonna single-block in two places and let's hope th' wire rope will reach that maple over there."
      "Yes, sir."
      It seemed to Jorj to take forever to lay out the wire rope and the blocks. And the day was already shaping up hot. From time to time he glanced at the chimney pipe and listened to the little engine chuffing away on high idle. Deerie was not efficient in hot weather.
      "What about the pin, sir?"
      "Bolo, I'm proud of you for remembering that. Good boy." Jorj watched Bolo's face break into a rare, shy smile at the slight praise. "Here's what we do. You got muscle, I got tools." Jorj tipped Deerie's seat forward and extracted a box wrench.   "Pull that bolt over there; I think it might just be the right thread to fit that shackle."
      Bolo took the wrench and stared at the bolt head.
      "Here; snap it on here like this and then pull the handle towards ya."
      "Oh." Bolo pushed.
      "No, pull."
      "Oh." Bolo pulled. The long-rusted bolt complained loudly, then the bolt head sheared; it and the wrench came away together.
       "D... – doggone it, Bolo."
       "I'm sorry, Mr. Jorj."
       "Not your fault. Next one."
       The bolt extracted, they completed their layout. At Jorj's direction, Bolo slid the choker as high on the fir tree as he could reach, then scrambled down the slope and climbed aboard Deerie. 
    Bolo raised the blade a bit by cranking on the come-along that was hooked to the right front post of the cage, and Jorj tapped the throttle bar several times, trod on the clutch, pushed the gear shift into the lowest gear, and shoved both levers forward. With a lurch that felt frighteningly tippy, Deerie snuffled off along the mountain's slope, gouging away a thin rind of dirt and brush with the lower right corner of the blade. The wire rope lifted itself from the forest floor, carrying fern fronds and dirt. It pulled taut, singing.
       All three trees shivered. Deerie's tracks chewed up duff, then hit mineral soil and dug in. The little tractor began to slip downhill. Five more feet to the left, and they would be entangled with the wood trailer.
       Bolo leaned out as far to the right as he could, as if to try to keep Deerie upright with his own center of gravity.
       Jorj reached over and tugged him back onto the seat. "That wire rope is bad frayed, Bolo; if you are out there when it parts, it can whip you to pieces."
       Deerie lurched forward again, and Jorj, looking over his shoulder through the diamond mesh of the steel cage, could see that the wire rope had sagged again among the ferns.
       "We got 'er, we got 'er!" he sang out.
       Bolo began to climb down from the seat for a better view.
       "No, no, stay here! Stay in th' cage!"
       Bolo complied.
       The fir tree moaned as it leaned downhill, following the insistent tug of the cables. The massive fan of roots on the tree's uphill side rose into the air, carrying a portion of the forest floor, ferns and all, with them. The roots moved slowly and majestically, but the treetop swung quickly through the canopy of the forest, snapping off its own and other trees' branches as it went, flinging them far and wide. One of these landed on Deerie's roof and skittered across it, to land on the engine cover. The ground shook beneath the tractor as the tree struck the earth, covering Deerie's tracks where she had come up the trail earlier in the day.
       Jorj grinned at Bolo. "Good one, huh?"
       "Mr. Jorj, I have never seen such."
       "Well, we never had to do it before. Lord be praised, it worked out. Let's get that mess off th' hood and stoke the fuel pot. Then we'll pick up all our d... – our toys and be on our way." He pulled back on the levers, grinning.

:::

Ellen Murchison leaned on her walking stick and raised the binoculars to her eyes with her free hand. As she scanned the gathering smoke cloud behind Ridge, she thought of the strange, sad battle in the night, in this very spot, that had broken her health.   
    She'd had a relatively small wound. Back in the day, it would not have gotten her much of a triage ticket. Young Huskey had saved her, hammering that stranger's skull in  with a hatchet, but the damage was done. No, not really. It was the cold rain, afterward; stumbling down a mountain in the dark for hours is not really suitable for women –or men, she thought wryly – in their sixties. It's not for anybody. Not to take anything away from poor Marcee, she thought. But we really don't have medicine any more. We barely even have soap. She wrinkled her nose as she became aware, once again, of her own body odor. At least, with the new no-hair hairdo, she didn't have to smell her own unwashed head.
       "I want to thank you again for bringing me up here," she said to the young man standing beside her, without taking her eyes from the glasses. "It's been a while."
       "Thank you, ma'am, it was not a problem."
       Neel Perkins would not have been counted a man in her generation, she realized. He would be – what? A 'seventh grader', with four or five years of childhood remaining to him. Yet here he was, standing with his hand resting easily on the pommel of his sword. He and Elberd, the youth whose face Elsa and Karen had sewn up the day after that battle, had brought her to Ball Butte, sometimes drawing her in a garden cart, sometimes offering a steadying hand as she staggered forward along the steepening trail. It had been a long journey, begun by the thin light of a faint moon, – and ending in what would surely have been a blistering sunrise but for the everlasting smoke. It was exhausting, and not a little dangerous, to climb the Butte under these conditions; a shift in the smoke could smother their position and make much too much work for her fragile lungs. But no other position in the region offered such a commanding view of the surroundings, and, besides, the lookout had a working telephone.
       The youth broke into her reverie. "Stinks, doesn't it?"
       She smiled. "Me, you, or both?"
       Oh, not us, ma'am; the fires. It's like burning a pile of leaves, but something else, too."
       "You're right. Leaves have a kind of clean smell. Or so we tend to think. This is leaves and such, but also duff, moss, lichens – bugs, animals, feathers, creek beds – dirt. It's the earth burning; that's what you smell. Other things, too. There was a lot of plastic left lying about, Before."
       "Why is there so much fire, ma'am?"
       "Well, the world's a hotter place than it once was. Not all  the time; you might be old enough to remember the Big Winter – "
       "Yes, ma'am. Kinda."
       "– but, anyway, now we get more record highs, as they used to say, than record lows. When a big high – unusual hot weather – comes in summer, or even spring or fall, it dries out everything. Dry stuff, you know, burns better than wet stuff. Trees are wet inside; they are a kind of standing water tank, really. But they can dry out, too, if things go like this long enough. And about half the forests around here are dead wood, too, from bark beetles, which have taken over because of the – usually – warmer winters. Dead trees make really good fuel."
       "What made the world warmer?"
       She lowered the binoculars and looked at him. This is a smart kid. He asks good leading questions. "Well, you've farmed at Tomlinson's. Did you work with the cold frames?"
       "The window boxes along the south slope? Yes, ma'am."
       "How do they work?"
       "Dad says the sunlight comes in through the glass but not all of it comes back out, so it heats up the air and stuff inside."
       Ellen smiled grimly. "Mm-hmm, same thing. Air is like glass, in its way. Visible light goes in through the glass, but infrared, which is a part of light you can't see – without help – can't all come back out with the rest. So it gets converted into heat, locally. They found out, many years ago, that some gases in the air act more like glass than others. There's more of these gases in the air than there used to be, so the sun heats us up more than it used to."
       "If you say so, ma'am. But why would there be more 'gases' now than then?"
       "Ever heard of coal, oil? Methane?"
       "Oil, yes ma'am. If you mean like 'gasoleen'?"
       "Very good! Out there on that highway, and all around the Creek, you've seen machinery that's not going anywhere. Cars, trucks, buses, tractors, lawnmowers. To use them, we burned oil – which we got from underground, where it didn't off-gas much. Burn oil, or coal, or methane, and you add heat-trapping gases to the air we breathe. The air everything depends on."
       "Doesn't the forest fire do that?"
       "Well! Keep it up and Dr. Savage will grab you and make a scientist of you."
       "She's already interested in my sister. I'd rather be a soldier."
       "Hmh. Well, yes, fire puts the stuff – most of it used to be called carbon dioxide – in the air, but it's nowadays mostly from wood, which took it out of the air. So that was a kind of a circle of stuff. When you get it from underground you add in more than can be circulated."
       "But, ma'am, isn't the world a big place? How could we do all this ourselves?"
       "There used to be a lot more of us than there are now, young man. I'd be surprised if there are more than ten thousand people in the whole of Oregon, as this area used to be called, and I remember when  there were close to five million. Those machines out there, on the freeway?"
       "Yes, ma'am?"
       "In my world, my world that died, there were more than a billion of those. Each one doing more to the air than the kitchen chimney at Tomlinson's. Along with locomotives, airplanes, ships, buildings, you name it, we had it. And the breathable air over the whole planet, really, is only about four thousand meters deep."
       Neel was not sure of the meaning of half her words, but he'd learned to let most of that slide. "Why'd we do it, then?"
       "Everyone wanted to live comfortably, Mr. Neel. Everyone wanted to live comfortably. Do you see the old yellow bus at Mary's?"
       "At 'New Ames?' Yes, ma'am, I can see it from here."
       "That thing had a two-hundred-and-eighty horsepower engine. That means it could do the work of, I think, a little over two thousand humans. Ever heard of slavery?" His deep brown eyes met hers. A man's gaze
    "Yes, ma'am. My mom tells me most of my ancestors were slaves."
       "Well, there you go. Getting thirty kids to school five days a week was the equivalent of eighty thousand slave-hours of work. And that was only one of a billion such machines. And that's why the world is on fire today."
       She handed Neel the binoculars. The distant Cascades could not be seen at all, but Ridge, Maggie's Hill, the Great Valley, and the Creek were all visible from here, though smudged. Because Ridge and the Butte both swung in toward the Creek near Bridge, they could see all the way to Old Ames up Starvation Creek. "Tell me what your young eyes see."
       "Nothing much doing at Ridge. It looks different to me than a few days ago, though."
       "They have been cutting trees to get fuel away from the Door."
       "Oh." He swung round to his left. "There's someone heading for Bridge. On a horse!"
       "Which way?"
    "Oh, sorry! Going out."
    "Whew. Alone?"
       "Mm-hmm, I mean, yes, ma'am – no, wait. There's an animal walking beside the horse."
       "That would be Krall, a dog from Roundhouse. So that's Tomma, who's been turned loose to look for the Wilson crew."
       "Yes, ma'am, it's him. I think. Things are kinda doubled up in this thing."
       "It got whacked once. Cross your eyes a little. How does the Valley look?"
       "Same as ever. There's not so much smoke that way, and I can see the big mountain pretty good."
       "Mary's Peak. Can you see the freeway?"
       "The Highway of Death? No, ma'am, the trees have dropped a lot of leaves, but it's pretty thick woods down there."
       "Nothing burning?"
       "Not yet, anyway."
       "How are we to the east?"
       He crossed the room. "I can see some men and women swinging tools down there; like they are building a road."
       "Fire trail. At Schneider's?"
       "No, not across from our old place. Gulick's, already."
       "Already, you say; but that is terribly slow. With tractors, it would be very different. We could really use that oil right now."
       He lowered the binoculars and raised his eyebrows.
       She couldn't help but laugh. "See, that's how it always was. The stuff was killing us, but we couldn't do without. Still don't really have any  good alternatives; that's why we're all hungry."
       "Yes, ma'am." He renewed is watch. "There are two cows at Peacher's. And ... and some wolves or 'yotes are standing there looking at them."
       "Damn. Not much we can do for them at this point."
       The boy glassed up Maggie's Hill. "Funny."
       "What's that?"
       "A big tree in the north saddle just fell over all by itself."
      "What? Where? Let me see that." She almost snatched the binoculars from Neel's hands.
       "Right in the low spot."
       Ellen peered through the lenses for a long moment. A thin blue vapor rose from the saddle – no, a pulsing smoke that did not look like wildfire. She'd swear it was from a machine! It would have to be the wood-gas tractor she'd heard about. About time we had some good news around here.
:::

Billee opened her eyes. Some movement had wakened her. She looked up the staircase, blinking. The hindquarters and short tail of the bobcat were just disappearing. It had stayed the night, then. She was pleased.
       She looked up at the open sky, or what she could see of it, between two blackened floor joists that stretched across the spacious cellar. Clouds of smoke still drifted by, but they did not have the hellish pink glow she'd seen when she awakened in the night. Also, there was no sound. In the night the dried grasses of the fields around Lawson's had burned, crackling like thousands of dried seed pots being trampled under the feet of a multitude.
       She wanted to stretch, but realized Wilson was still asleep. She discovered that her head was on his shoulder, and his arm was draped across her. Stiff as she was, she thought she might as well savor the moment. She listened to his heart's slow and steady beat. As she did so, she let her gaze fall on Vernie, to find that he, and also Errol, were smiling at her. She smiled shyly in return.
       We would have died anywhere but here
, she thought. If you're going to show you have feelings, the day after a night like that will do. Betcha.

::: 

Karen felt guilty leaving all the pipette work to Deela, but Dr. Mary had been clear on the potential exposures for the baby, and Karen knew she was right. She contented herself with supervising the armory, work she had inherited from Wilson. Ceel Perkins had shown an interest in Ridge matters and Karen had roped her into inventorying, cleaning and lubricating firearms as well as maintaining the "surplus" bows, arrows, crossbows, bolts and, now, spears.
       "What will we do with the spears, ma'am?" asked Ceel. "They don't seem much use against things like these." She waved her hand at the twenty-two rifles stacked along the opposite wall.
       Karen was still unused to the title of "ma'am" and her expression said so, but Ceel missed it. "The thought is that 'idle hands undo Jeeah's work,'" Karen replied, hefting one. "We haves lathes, and grinders, and metal, and people will be cooped up together underground next winter. So we've made these prototypes against that time, though most everyone's busy outside right now. We'll make more of them then, and if we ever run out of ammunition and face a foe that has done the same, we'll have these ready to hand." Karen leaned the spear, a sturdy leaf-bladed design of Errol's with a slender ash shaft, against the wall. She moved on to the twenty-twos. "So we've scoured the whole valley, and what do we have now?"
       "There are eighteen of these, mostly bolt action or sem-something – "
       "Semi-auto."
       " – uh-huh, that. Either with the tubes – "
       "Tubular magazine."
       " – mm-hmm, or the box things."
       "Box ... "
       "Umm, magazine?"
       "Very good. Single-shots will be the most reliable at first."
       "Seven of them, ma'am."
       "It's a start. And over here?"
       "We found twenty-four 'shotguns.' They are single-shot, pump, also one bolt action and one lever action."
       "Lever actions for this ammunition were rare. A twelve?"
       "Yes, ma'am, and most are, though one of them has this on it?" Ceel handed Karen a scrap of paper with a childish drawing of the number '28.'
      Karen recognized the rising inflection at the end of Ceel's sentence as a sound she'd heard only at the Creek. She and Marcee had discussed it, as she'd noticed Marcee doing it when talking with Dr. Tom. They had decided it was a status marker; a girl apparently must question her own perceptions or information so that it might be validated by the person spoken to: any woman in authority or pretty much any man. Karen knew that some men found her lacking in some way without seeming to know exactly what was bothering them; and she knew that the cause was they were subconsciously listening for, and not hearing, deference. She would have to train Ceel out of it, and any other girl she could get hold of; else the Creek could become an all-male club like that of the old world. But, maybe, one thing at a time. First try to make sure there'd be a Creek 
down the line. "Twenty-eight gauge, yes. We'll put that one aside for the duration, I think. We could at least use the stock, or maybe convert it to a percussion muzzle-loader. Do you read and write?"
       "Dad would like to teach us; but we're all busy all the time," Ceel said shyly.
       "We'll try to pick up the pace on that this winter. So, how many sixteens?"
       "One."
       "Good, set it aside for now, too. Are there shells for it?"
       "Yes, but only one box."
       "They'll be worth it at some point. Twenties?"
       "Eight. And about ten boxes of shells for them, different kinds. Lots of kroz-shun."
       "Corrosion, yes. I'm not too worried. You'd like a twenty; plenty of punch but doesn't bruise your shoulder. So, fourteen twelves. I hoped there would be more twelves."
       "I heard there were some packed away at Wilson's. All the fourteens were there, too. Somebody was going to try to do something with them."
       "Fourteens? Oh, four-tens. Are there shells in that size?"
       "Nine boxes."
       "Drat. Well, anyway, we will have to learn to load for these things. I think we'll have to use fulminate of mercury for the primers; it's going to be tricky. But we need it for the black powder weapons already in use; we're almost out of percussion caps. If we can make enough for the four-tens as well, perhaps they'll be useful as mines or trip-wire traps or something. Or find something to use as slugs."
       "I'm not sure I followed all that, ma'am."
       "Love that honesty; you'll 'go far'. I was talking about two things at once." Karen mused for a moment. "Farmers, being a conservative lot, would not all have traded in all their old thermometers for the newer kinds; go down to the Savage Mary's stores and see if you can find any. And ask Deela or Mary if there are any other sources."
       "Yes, ma'am." Ceel turned on her heel, skipped away three steps and then swung around.
       "What do thurmters look like?"
       "Oh, They'll know."
       "'K." Ceel nearly collided with Billee in the doorway. "Woops."
       "Woops y'self," returned Billee amiably.
       "Billee!" Karen whooped.
       "What's up?" Billee leaned her rifle and bow against the wall and shucked her quiver and fanny pack.
       "You're alive; that's what. And the others?" Karen knew the news must be good; Billee would be drooping in every feather if it were not.
       "We holed up at Lawson's. Wilson thought of that. It burned around us late at night and we all got owies from sparks but that was all. Oh, and Vernie is pretty beat, but Krall found us and she had Tomma with her and we brought Vernie in on the horse. Oh, and a bobcat spent the whole night with us!"
       "A bobcat?"
       "It slept at the top of the cellar steps. Oh, and I think I'm gonna get married."
       "Hah. I told you he's just slow."
       "They're all slow."
       "It seems like that to us around here, but, you know, people used to not get married till they were in their twenties or even their thirties."
       "Whoa, old. Who would marry in their thirties? With their whole life behind them. Wilson's kinda an old maid himself as it is. Oh, and do ya want your monocular back?"
       Karen turned and dropped the scrap of paper on the Armory desk, smiling to herself. "No, you should keep it. You get out a lot more than I do."
       "Sorry 'bout that. The last coupla days, though, I think some of us got out a little more than was good for us."
       Karen looked back. "You know, if we had lost you guys, I dunno, the Creek might have just folded its tents and slunk away."
       "Funny talk, but I think I know whatcha mean. Anything need doin'?"
       "Sure; the 'chamberpots' in here are overflowing and have to get to the garderobe pronto. Things stink more with the air filters clogging up so much. Won't you take two buckets, and I'll take one."
       The pots, gallon-sized galvanized pails with lids, stood in the darkened barracks between the Armory and the Infirmary. They could hear Marcee on the job next door: "Stay off this for a few days and you'll be ... "
    Returning to the bright lights in the small Armory, they blinked and started forward with their buckets.
       Karen set hers down suddenly in the middle of the floor. "Billee, your butt-pack's been moved?" It was at least six inches nearer the door than she remembered seeing it set down.
       "It has!"
       Billee set down her buckets and both women ran for the door. Billee sprinted to the right and Karen to the left. There were doors at each end of the hallway, with stairwells behind them. In a few moments, Karen, who had found an empty stairwell, re-entered the hallway, to find Billee doing the same. Karen gestured, palm up. Billee shook her head. Karen pointed to the doors nearest her, and Billee nodded her comprehension. They worked towards each other, looking into each compartment as they went. Karen came to the first on her right, which was open. Avery Murchison looked up 
from his desk, where he was poring over inventories, brows furrowed.
       "Did anyone run by here?" she asked.
       "Only you, just now." His expressive brows shifted to interrogative.
       "I'll be back." She moved to the Infirmary. Marcee stood beside the examination table, on which sat Vernie. Tomma occupied a chair near the wall, holding a pair of crutches. At his feet sat Krall. They all looked blankly at Karen, except Krall, who stood up and barked once. What was that, some kind of greeting?
       "Hello, Vernie, welcome home. Did anyone come through here?" Karen directed her question to Marcee.
       "No-o-o, don't think so."
       "Great. Vernie, can we borrow Tomma?"
       Vernie nodded, a bit morosely.
       "Sure thing, Karen," said Tomma, setting aside the crutches and standing up.
       The two of them stepped into the hall, with the big dog at Tomma's heels.
       "What do you have in mind?" asked Tomma.
       "Don't know yet. Here comes Billee."
       "Nothing?" asked Karen.
       "Nobody." Billee was holding her fanny pack in one hand, and something clenched in the other. "They were fast."
       "Who?" asked Tomma.
       "That's what we'd like to know," replied Karen. "We had our backs turned for like five seconds and Billee's bag moved toward the door."
       "In the Armory?"
       "Anything missing?"
       "I'm not sure," said Billee, tears in her eyes. She held out her hand; it gleamed with copper and brass. "I checked out twenty rounds; now I have nineteen. But I ran and fell down and ran for, like two days and a night. I could have lost one."
       Tomma put his hand on her shoulder. "Do you really believe that?" he smiled.
       "No."
       Avery rolled up to them in his chair. Karen opened her mouth, but he raised his hand. "I got the gist. Who do we actually know of that was last in the hall?"
       Karen was aghast. "Ceel," she said reluctantly.
       "Then we'll find her immediately. No, Karen, don't be so miserable; I don't suspect her either. But we must eliminate her as a possibility if we can, as well as get her report of anything she might have seen. I'll stay here and lock the Armory from both ends. We've had a failure of operational security." He looked again at Karen. "Not your fault. It's seldom been locked. Along with any other room down here, except the power room, of course. My bad; after that odd business at the festival I should have known better. Now, hop!"
       Karen went left. Billee, Tomma and the dog went right, to descend the stairwells to the Common Room. As they reached the doors, Karen could hear Billee's voice, which carried the length of the corridor: "So, how come you get a dog?"

:::

On the fire line, a weary cheer went up as the strange little machine crossed a slimy stretch of the Creek and chugged up to them. Bolo, though he had not slept in two days, jumped down from the seat and unhooked the trailer. A man from Roundhouse gave him the tribal salute, right hands grasping right forearms, then led Deerie, with a bleary-eyed Jorj at the controls, toward the head of the line. A small, powerfully built man leaped over the rolling tracks onto the vacant side of the Cat seat and settled beside him. "It is amazing and gratifying that you are here."
       "Thank you, sir," Jorj croaked. "Water?"
       The man, who seemed to be the one in charge, crooked his finger at a younger man who looked very much like him – his son? – and made the universal drinking sign, thumb to his lips and small finger extended. The youth unshipped a damp-looking skin bag from his shoulder and handed it into the cage.
       "Drink well, there is much. My name is Emilio. What we are doing is to make a fire lane around the fields on both sides of the valley. Then, if there had been time, to make one around Ridge. But there is already fire on the mountain."
       They both looked toward Starvation Ridge, which loomed above them. Smoke boiled up from the unseen slopes of the south side and disappeared into the brown  pall that covered the sky.
       "Not much steam in that d- ... that smoke," observed Jorj.
       "It is mostly poison oak and other scrub that is burning there," agreed Emilio. "It will reach the crest in a hand or less." Emilio extended his hand, fingers together at a right angle to his arm, toward the presumed location of the sun.
       "And throw sparks into the tall stuff on this side. Pretty dry up there?"
       "Yes, five percent moisture even in the shade."
       "Okay, there's no saving it. Y'gonna backfire?"
       "As soon as possible."
       "Okay. Deerie here is old and cranky but game, I think, and she's hungry. Can we have firewood – lots of firewood – chunked small, if we can get it?" Jorj released the levers for a moment and gestured with his hands held about six inches apart.
       "We will do that."
       "Great. Pleased to meet ya."
       But Emilio had already leaped away to confer with the younger man. The Roundhouseman climbed aboard. "The Lord greet you, Jorj."
       "The Lord greet you. Where to?"
       "The line is up to the next farm on the right. We have four farms to go on this side of the valley. You can see they each have a cluster of buildings. We have cut through all the fences for you, and it is a matter of having clean dirt, six feet wide."
       "We're here. I'll make a shallow Cat road; ask folks to clean burnables out of the berms and roadbed as best they can. Crank down the hoist for me and we'll start pushing."
       "Yes, Jorj."
       Men, and several women, with axes, were widening a gap in a hedge for the lane. They scrambled aside as Deerie's blade bit the earth, tearing away blackberries and hawthorns with startling ease. Another cheer went up. Two lines of firefighters formed up behind the tractor, and as Deerie forged ahead along the fields on the other side, the people chopped and scooped away duff and brush with axes, adzes, picks, shovels, rakes, and hayforks. Whenever Deerie moved up a few feet, the people did likewise, leaving whatever they'd been doing for the next person to finish.
       Those who had exhausted themselves earlier in the day sat in shade, drinking water, talking quietly among themselves.
       Emilio dispatched Raoul for the fuel wood, and then walked over to the resting group. "It is better in the shade, even with these evil clouds, yes?"
       Heads nodded. Among them was David, Raoul's brother. "Sir, it would be too hot to work at all in full sun."
       "Yes; the fire is terrible and the smoke, if it ran low, could not well be breathed. And yet it offers us some respite. So it is with everything. Even a great terror may have something to offer." Emilio looked up at the big hill. "When the fire comes across, it will draw up this lovely air toward itself. Then we will make fire here. We have piled brush at each farm. Let us have torchbearers go to each station." He pointed to each of them in turn. You will go to Bridge. You, Hall. Bledsoe, Russell, Wendler. Schnieder, Gulick, Hisey. I will fire the pile here at Peacher's. The signal will be three shots from Ball Butte."
       "Mr. Emilio?" It was a young shepherd from Beeman's. "What about Reymer's? And Ellin's and Holyrood's   – and Wilson's?"
       Emilio shook his head. "Ah, there it is. The fire is very big, and we are few."