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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

17


Wolf stepped outside; the bright fall sunshine had given way to high cirrus clouds and mackerel sky. The wind up the river had slowed, a sign that sunshine was no longer heating the slopes of the mountains upstream. Rain again within a day.

The men had already discovered where the big trout had come from: the geezer's boys had been on their way to the house from a fish trap in the river, made up of poles hammered into the river bottom in a jug-shaped pattern. Fish could be herded into it, then netted. This could be a resource. They'd also found a smokehouse with two deer carcasses and part of something else – bear, most likely, judging by the skins hanging nearby – hung up inside.

The "Luckies" were enjoying themselves immensely. Having been driven hard across the game-poor fen lands out in the big valley, the chance to rest, eat, air out some gear and just hang out had been more than welcome.

Wolf weighed his options. Movement, with superior force, had brought them this far. Now what? If he hurried his men away from this idyllic spot into a conflict in the rain again, he might lose some of his charisma, not to mention men and gear. On the other hand, if he waited for the food to run out in order to move them (this had worked before), he would lose the advantage of mobility and surprise, and the farmers would have time to strengthen their hand against him. And, nice as this spot was, it would not support his entire crew through the winter. If it would, that might be even worse; the geezer's very success here had taken the edge off his vigilance.

The dying boy's information might or might not be valuable. He hadn't been privy to all the old man's thoughts and information, clearly; and the old man had obviously conflated conjecture with observation. There were armed farmers just over the hill – Wolf knew that; they were all queers, nigs, wops, and commies; he doubted that. Just a determined assortment, sure. 

Most anyone nonwhite, or Jewish, or disabled, or visibly mentally incompetent, or pacifist, lots of old people, too, had been pretty much eliminated by the dominionist/white supremacist militias in the early going, with surprisingly strong assistance from the remaining elements of government. Wolf's own mentor had been a leader in some of that. Wolf wasn't sure it hadn't all been a mistake; it contributed to the current ammo shortage.

There might be a few holdouts among these people, though. Who knew what their "principles" might be? Not theocratic, seemingly.

The important thing was, they had crops. That bag of oats was a strong indicator.

The other bit of information the lad provided seemed overblown as well – that there were four hundred of these farmers. It seemed unlikely such a tiny river valley held such a large percentage of all the humans alive in Wolf's known world.

He unrolled his brittle road map again. That valley was just too small; long and narrow, with one dead-end road shown, coming out near the bridge. The thin blue line of the river – Starvation Creek, cute name – left the valley, turned the corner of a flat green spot on the map that would have to be the mountain here, and then meandered off toward the North-Running River -- "Willamette" on the map. 
Maybe a hundred people could hide in there and work. Maybe more. Amazing that they were there at all. If raising kids like the old guy here, they would be tenacious, but their attention would be divided.

Eff. Numerous, well equipped, in possession of the interior lines, and observant. They'd be at the back door first. Magee would say, look for an alternative.

He raised his eyes to the south slope of the mountain. The map showed it as a tiny plus sign and an elevation in "feet," 1291. Grass, exposed rock, some shrubbery, and a few copses of oak trees. He felt watched. Nothing new; there were watchers on that other hill, and they had proved enterprising. The top could not be seen from here; meaning the watchers would have to come part way down to do their business. Hmm. He turned to his nearest men. "Hey."

"Wolf." Dill, one of Wolf's sharper-eyed crewmen, stood up from a blazing firepit he'd made with three or four others. Meat grilled on a spit above the flames.

"No, sit back down. All of ya's, do just like ya been doin.' But, Dill, I want ya ta watch that hillside sharp. But don't look like yah're lookin'. Rocks, trees, weeds. Anythin' moves, get up lazy like, without starin' up there, and come find me. 'K?"

Wolf moved back to the house. The clothing found in the loft (right where he'd thought it would be) had been distributed, which boded well for in the colder weather, and a kind of bomb-shelter hideaway had been discovered, with a clever light source involving a pipe in the house wall, two mirrors, and a roof vent. Supplies stored in the hideout were being brought up to the kitchen table and distributed or repacked for later access – a constant problem for a crew on the move was that they could take only so much with them.

Cougar and Tate were sitting at the table, sorting, laughing, and horsing around.

"Gennulmen, please! We've broken enough of this stuff as it is."

"Sorry, Wolf. Umm, some of this, we don't know what it is."

"Well, you can usually tell by th' shape; sometimes a picture. Like, this here is a can, n' it's heavy, 'n it sloshes. Lots of cans have liquids, but th' picture of th' cow suggests canned milk."

"Cow?"

Wolf rolled his eyes.

"Okay, boss, but – what's this thing?"

"That, Coug, is a hand-cranked radio."

"Radio?"

"Not gonna get technical, but they useta be a way ta listen ta folks a long ways off."

"Oh, yah? Could we listen to th' farmers?"

"Nah, knucklehead, not 'n'less they hadda transmitter an' were tryin' ta reach ya. Hmm. Gimme that."

"Sure thing, Wolf."

Wolf pulled the crank from its niche in the side of the case. He twirled this about twenty times, to the amusement of his companions, then extended the antenna and switched on the power. Static erupted into the dim light of the kitchen.

"What's it doin', Wolf?" asked Tate.

"It's list'nin."

"Not much to hear." 

"No. Not much in a long time. See these letters by the stripes? This here's FM, which don't get ya anythin' nowadays; this one's AM; you might get Canucks. Not in th' daytime, though. Wish it had short wave."

Cougar and Tate were impressed, but had no idea what Wolf was talking about. They watched him fiddle with the knob. FM had, as he had opined, nothing to offer. AM was rackety, with whistles and whines that seemed to climb and sink as he advanced the knob. Then, faintly at first, and with some re-pointings of the antenna, Wolf was able to bring a live voice from the little magic box.

"And some of you might be trying to believe this adminstration wants to help you. You might be trying to believe th' so-called president when he says he's gonna bring back Social Security. I hate to tell y'all this but naive is naive. You're being taken for a ride, folks, we're all being taken for a ride. Lemme give ya some facts and figgers an' you can work it out for yourselves. I ain't gonna lie to ya, now, am I? Y'all know I'm just about the only one left that will tell it to you straight, ain't I? 'Course I am. Now, here's the numbers ... eighty-five trillion ameros ..."

The voice faded slowly away.

"Who the hell is that, Wolf?" asked Tate, who had stood up, astonished.

"That is – was – Burt Snow, Tea Party commentator."

"Was?"

"Yep, died two decades ago, when I was a kid. This, what we're hearing here – th' voice'll be back in a bit – comes and goes – is what's called a recordin'. Station runs on its own power, somehow. Where they found th' workin' electronics, I dunno. Has all its old programs in storage, as y'might say, and plays 'em over an' over. Mike Savage, Rush, Whitmire, all of 'em, goin' back over fifty years."
"Oh. Well, Wolf, c'n we listen to it some?" Cougar asked.

"Sure, sure. This thing'll run down in about fifteen minutes. Ya wanta keep it goin', jus' crank it some more. Before dark, round up some bodies an' go work that fish trap. I'm thinkin' we take a layover here tonight. Pass th' word."

"Yeah! Cool, Wolf."

"Coug. Tate."

Wolf stepped outside again. Well, that was depressin'. KKUV, still on autopilot after all this time. Only station we were allowed to listen to in that prison. An' just down th' street, too. Wolf felt there was something about it he was supposed to remember, but what that might be, he couldn't seem to recall.
Dill sidled up to him, acting nonchalant. 

"Wolf."

"Dill."

"Gotcha somethin', I think."


Karen strode along with Emilio and Vernie. She had longer legs than either of them, so she found it easy enough to do. Tomma was just ahead, talking with some people from Wilson's, and beyond some plum trees, on the left, she could see that he was stopping to talk with Errol and Allyn, who had come down from a cluster of buildings, dominated by a large white house, on the slope above. With them were several young people she'd not seen before, and they were all carrying, awkwardly, armloads of tools.

"Want one?" Allyn was asking Tomma.

"No, I've got all I can do to keep track of my rifle. Guess my belt knife will do."

"Me neither," said a Wilson. "I'm happy with my machete."

The Ames crew stopped by the gate, and Emilio, Kate and Vernie looked at the pile.

"Two to a crew, so I understand," said one of the strangers. She looked at Karen. "Oh, I know who you are. Dr. Mary wants to talk with you."

"We are in front of Savage Mary's," explained Emilio.

"The, you might say, University of Starvation Creek," added Vernie, who picked up a sword for himself and handed another to Emilio, smiling.

"Rude," said the Savage Mary's girl.

"Didn't know I even knew the word, didya?"

"May I come see her when there is a little less going on?" asked Karen.

"Sure. Everybody's got enough to do. I'm Ro-eena." Very small yet about Karen's age, with red hair and green eyes, she offered her hand.

"Karen." They shook. Karen found the custom strange but felt she had best blend in as well as she could.

The Beemans' were right behind them. "Fair day, fair day," one of them shouted.

"Oops," said Vernie. "That means get along, we're holding up traffic."

"Fair day?" asked Karen, puzzled, as they resumed their march.

"You know, milling around like a crowd at an old-time country fair."

"I've never seen one."

"Neither have we," put in Emilio. "I think may be it expresses both a sorrow and a hope."


Mary Savage, Ph.D, awoke with a start. She'd been napping in her chair again. One of these days I'll fall off here and crack my head. Do me good. She opened her eyes, and found them looking back at her from the wall mirror. Oh, god!

"Dja' call, doc?" One of the apprentices was always nearby – something they'd decided among themselves apparently. Annoying.

"What, did I say that out loud?"

A bronzed – no, very black face with a high, thin nose – Deela's, a lad with very good hands at the forge, looked round the door frame. "Yes, afraid so. Troubles?"

"Troubles! Yeah, troubles. See if y'can take away this frickin' mirror. Every time I wake up, I look a little bit more like Jabba the Hutt."

"Who-bah-the who?"

"Never mind. Something my grandmother was crazy about. Showed it to me when I was about yay high." Dr. Mary extended a hand, palm down, knee level above the floor.

"If you say so." Deela, bemused, came in and took down the mirror. He stood with it for a moment.

"Seriously, away!" Mary shooed him with both hands. "I hope never to see that scraggly old hag again."

"'K, will do," he grinned.

At the door, Deela almost collided with Selk, the electrotech, who seemed in a hurry.

"S'cuse me." Selk backed away, and after Deela departed, came in again. "Doc Mary?"

"Mmh?"

"Been checking the radio, three times a day, like you said –"

"Hope you haven't been converted by any of that crap they play?" She wheeled around and beamed at him. Selk, a fidgety, hunched and nearsighted lad, knew more about wires than anyone at the Creek besides herself and Carey Murchison, partly because he could see wires up close; certainly he was no good for sheep-tending, the main activity at Rogers' Common, or archery. Somewhere, he had found prescription glasses. They helped – barely.

"Uh, no. Well, some of it I like, but, anyway, got something new."

"On KKUV?"

"Mm-hmm. Still nothing else out there. Right at noon, there was two-three minutes of ... dunno, new material. I got th'recorder, she heard maybe the last two-three sentences."

"Ro-eena?"

"Yeah, doc. Call her in?"

"What ya got her skulking out in th' hall for? Hey, Ro-eena! C'mon in, for cryin' out loud."
Ro-eena, the recorder, entered, a bit tentatively. Despite their bravado, some of Mary's crew found her a little intimidating; Ro-eena was one of these.

"Whatcha got?" asked Mary, elbows out, with her fists on her knees.

Ro-eena closed her eyes, as if she were listening to the afternoon breezes, then recited. "'... if any of the following are hearing this, please consider re-careering with Magee, 26233, and his New Rogue Valley Volunteers. We have what you're looking for; lots of action, lots of opportunity. Branson, 34028. Lockerby, 28212. Mullins, 31817. Wolf, 334 ....' and there it ends."

I'm sorry, Doctor," Selk put in, "but the station fades in and out every eight minutes or so."

"Not enough signal, maybe. Ro-eena, hang out with me a bit; I'll have you repeat that and I'll wr – no, tell ya what, run down to th' Mess Hall and see if you can find th' Captain; our compliments, and repeat that to him as you did to me. Pronto!"

"Yes, Dr. Mary." Ro-eena turned on her heel and fairly ran though the doorway.

"Selk!"

"Right here, Doc."

"Let's see; you're on a car radio, right?"

"Yes, it's from a nineteen-fifties Chevy pickup. Pre-modern entirely. We're running it from an arvee battery; doesn't really hold charge, but the marine generator, which we have sitting in the rapids across the road, turns just enough to trickle it up to where it will run the radio those three times a day."

"And you've been randomizing. Noon. Hmm." Mary drummed the fingers of both hands on her knees.

"You have that look," Ma'am." Selk knew the look; change in the wind.

"Yeah, well. Carey M.'s got better juice than we do; I know it, though he's cagey about it. That solar panel is not as well hidden as he thinks. Furthermore, I think he's using it to talk to the hills; from what I hear and can see for myself, there's been some rapid response that bears no other explanation."

"And?"

"And so, I think we should send you right behind Ro-eena with that radio and a good long loop-wire antenna. See if he'll agree to let you take it up to Avery's little hideaway. Be a hell of a better signal acquisition there. Shoulda done this long ago."

"Woo, sounds like fun." He turned to go.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. About th' randomizing. Y'all get that thing going up there, see if they'll put a listener on all the time. And especially noon ... midnight ... ahhh, six in th' morning, six in th' evening. 'N then straight back here. Got an idea for that little generator."

"Yes, ma'am."

"None of that ma'am crap. I ain't one 'a them committee-fied "elders." Get crackin'."

"Yes, ma'am."

He departed, grinning.

Oog, thought Mary to herself. What was that old song? Oh, Lord, won't ya buy me, a nice lower back....

Mrs. Ames was getting tired; no, dog tired. Not that she'd seen a dog in more years than she cared to think about. Milking eight cows was work, and now she and Juanita and the two boys were treading water, so to speak, to keep the place going. One of the boys was on watch at all times, four hours on, four off, so, really, it was just the young woman and the old woman, moving the cows, milking, feeding. Thank goodness there was a pump in the barn, for the stock watering and the washing up, but it was hard on the back, even so.

It's only been a day, and we're way behind already.

If the other farms missed their "soldiers" like this one, there would be a lot of crops not got in before the rains. How long could this go on?

As much as ever, she missed Charles and her own children. They'd had the bad luck to be an interracial couple when the last banks closed and the trucks stopped running. Charles was originally from "the projects" in Chicago, and the kids both looked like him. That bastard Magee, with his Kluxers, had got them. She was the only one Charles had managed to hide in time; if only those sonsabitches could have found and killed her, and not them! Then she would not be facing emptiness, day in and day out, with a shadow on her heart.

These young folks, now; it was a help to have them to look after, but, really, it was getting to be the other way round. She napped every day between the morning and evening milkings. And it seemed like it was harder to get up each time. The elders had decreed, backed by the GM, that most of the cows, as well as the bullocks, should be spread around the valley soon – a good thing, too; her efforts as the cattle breeder had paid off. There should be four new yoke of oxen trained by next year. She looked forward to having only Florence, with the occasional calf, to look after.

Raoul appeared from around the corner of the barn, looking for her. The twins helped where they could, between times in the crow's nest; a nice family.

Her family now.

"Mrs. Ames, there are a whole lot of people coming up the road."

"Well, why aren't you beatin' th' bell and fortin' up?" she asked, alarmed. She put her hand over her heart; it was beating double quick, both from the terror and from standing up too quickly.
"Oh, ma'am, they're ours! I saw Dad and Miss Karen, and Mr. Allyn from Wilson's, out front, and Mom is out to the road to greet them."

"What, back so soon? Well, see if there's water on th' fire, hon, and I'll come down soon's I get the critters settled."

Mrs. Ames stumped round past the house and found the youngsters already clustered by the gate. Juanita was chatting excitedly with Emilio; Raoul and David hung from his arms on either side. Karen was talking with Allyn; it was obvious to Mrs. Ames, and everyone, except for Karen, what was going on there. Nice boy, but cruising for a fall, if she was any judge of women. Vernie came up the flagstone walk.

"Ma'am."

"Hi, Vernie, what's news?"

"Well, as you may have heard, Mo-reen Murchison was killed yesterday, direct assault. No parley, just went straight for her. And then we lost six or seven people in a fight on Ball Butte last night. 'N some hurt, 'bout the same number. Might lose one more; Doc said peritonitis is the main trouble with these knife fights. Medicines being not what they used to be."

"Jeeah's help, Vernie; at that rate we'll all be dead in a week!"

"Well, there's only thirty of them – no, twenty-five or so. They didn't take the Butte. Most of us here are heading up to the saddle to see if they're coming round to here. Got food?"

"Plenty for now, anyway. Oh! You mean for you. You all come on up and get whatever you need!"

Karen stepped up, taking in the surroundings as always. She looked a sight with her bow, quiver, knife and all-seeing eyes. 

"Hello, Mrs. Ames."

"Hi, honey, and what do you think of Allyn?"

"The apple guy? Likes to talk, I think."

"'The apple guy,' she says. Are you fixing to break a heart?"

"Ma'am?"

"Oh, never mind. Come in and let's see if there's baked potatoes left over. And some apples."