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, September 21, 2014

29

Karen awoke even more slowly than usual, swimming up from a dream of drowning. She was on a pallet on the floor, covered by a thin blanket. It was as well, as the room was not too cold. A number of other people were distributed around the floor, in rows, resting in like manner; their combined heat helped keep the place from freezing. She sensed there must be frost somewhere. Someone in the next room was alternately moaning and keening, and she could hear several high-pitched racking coughs, which were followed by wheezings. Elsa's tired voice drifted from the next room as well; perhaps trying to comfort the moaning one.

    There was a pervasive odor of boiled plantains, opium, dried blood, urine, and feces. The house had become a hospital. Or perhaps a charnel house.

    By her bedside she found Vernie Watkin, half asleep himself, seated on the floor with his back to the wall. The tunic sleeve of his left arm, near her head, had been rolled up, and an ointment, smelling of comfrey, had been daubed on a large area of red skin and blisters from hand to elbow.

    Vernie sensed she had awakened, and opened his eyes to offer her a crooked smile. "So, enough beauty rest for the moment, hmm?"

    "How long have I been asleep?" She tried to sit up, but her entire left side seemed to weigh her down, and a feeling like that in a banged elbow buzzed in her neck and shoulder.

    '"Oh, a few hours." He peered at her, worried. "An infection is setting in. Doc Chaney wants you to know we're –'placing a watch' on it."

    "Uh-h?"

    "You're strong, you've overcome losses before. Doc said I could tell you. We might have to shorten you up a bit." With his burnt hand, he pointed to her left side.

    Karen turned her head. The bandages she remembered from the day before were gone. New ones had been put in their place; blood was seeping into the dressing. One of the unpleasant odors was her own.

    A day of archery practice, at Ames Farm, came into her mind: standing in the deep shade of a spreading maple tree, reaching with her right hand for a cedar-shafted arrow tucked in the ground by her feet; nocking the arrow to the bowstring of the polished yew bow in her left hand; raising the bow as she drew the arrow to her right ear; estimating the windage and elevation, correcting, and letting fly; watching the singing passage of the arrow to the center of the butt at the other end of the sunlit pasture; listening to the 'thunk' that drifted back to her through the heat mirage off the hot grasses. As a murder of crows flapped by, cawing to one another over something – perhaps the arrow – exultation had flooded Karen's whole being. She had almost defined herself entirely by her bow.

    And now – her bow arm might leave her. Forever.

    She swallowed hard, and, to fend off a rising terror, focused with all her might on her personal mantra: do or say nothing which is of no use.

    She had volunteered, after all.

    After a long moment, she looked at Vernie. His eyes were luminous, about to brim over.

    "Vernie, never mind. If that comes, it will be just back to the drawing board for me. How is Tomma? And ... and Allyn?"




Wolf crawled to the edge of the woods and examined the terrain above. A thin sheen of ice-covered rocks, bracken, and other stuff, glinting in the morning light – every leaf and stem, coated with rime, gave off a tiny rainbow. He took no interest, aiming all his senses at the place where the winding cart track dead-ended into the mountainside. With all the signs of recent foot, hoof, and even wheeled traffic the road bore, there could not be a dead-end here, and yet there was. So this must be an extremely well disguised entrance. Counterweighted, perhaps, or cantilevered. And no line showing in the vertical part there. If the locals had any sense that someone might come look at this, wouldn't they have had to abandon the road and put it to sleep? And then approach from different directions, covering their tracks thereafter? Instead they just trooped in and out, carelessly; a self-assured and complacent lot. 

    Such a door had to have been built before the road, during or before the Undoing, and was a sophisticated and enduring artifact which they had adopted but did not fully understand. The old man's story was therefore corroborated; at least so far as Wolf was concerned.

    He knew these people had fast communications, and that search parties were beating the countryside for him in the valley below; there had to be some kind of alert lookout lurking. Perhaps that brat who had given them the slip. Time to go. You get caught, what you know then becomes a liability rather than a trade item.

    Wolf slipped back as silently as possible through the viney maples and hazels until he was under the cover of the fir trees again. A green external-frame backpack, ancient as such a thing could be and not be too fragile, awaited him, with the AK, leaning against a tree. He'd found it at Hisey's and appropriated it, idly wondering what the logotype "REI" stood for, and loaded it with everything he thought might help get him out of this region alive. Here on Starvation Creek and Ridge were unimaginable riches – intact! – but they were guarded by an idealistic and yet tenacious dragon, the community founded by the Murchisons. He'd have to find the means to slay the dragon. This probably meant heading for Roseburg and the man to whom he'd gone to school in prison there: Magee.

    And there was not much to eat between here and Roseburg.

    Wolf grasped the frame with both hands, lifted the pack to his knee, swung round and shrugged his massive arms through the padded brown straps, and buckled the padded hip belt. Its forty pounds seemed hardly a burden. Again he marveled at the things that had been made, back when there had been such a thing as factories. Reaching for the rifle, he walked away among the shadows.




"All right, let's review." Mary wheeled herself round to face her host in his wheelchair. "Yesterday, we went over the control room and learned a few interesting things." She looked at Selk; this was his cue.

    "Yes," he said, straightening himself up importantly. "This facility was electromechanical in nature, voluminous in size, well stocked at one time with provisions in barrels with 'U.S. Government' markings. On the top floor were dormitory rooms, refectories, a clinic, and an entertainment center. Four floors below that, of which this one is the deepest, consist of unfinished rooms, 'prox' one hundred meters long and thirty meters wide, ten high. Huge! It seems intended to have been staffed by up to fifty, and to be grid-independent and self-sustaining for a long period of time. Much of what was here, especially the barrels, was stripped in the early days of the Creek." He looked rather accusingly at Avery Murchison. "There was some kind of mandate, like that of the old 'missile silos'. Of that mandate, nothing much remains in print or by word of mouth, unless of course it's being kept under your parents' hat – or yours."

    "What they know, if anything, which I doubt, they've never told me. But for what it's worth, I think they've simply kept up their mission – which was to protect it until relieved."

    "And relief never came," put in Mary.

    "Exactly."

    "And we've looked things over upstairs, and we know that though there was a control room, there's not much sign now of anything to control – no missiles, anyway. But we'll get back to that. I wish Ro-eena was here; we need her as Recorder for this – umm, historic moment. Selk, proceed; a little less insultingly, though."

    "We know that the entire place is wired for electric lighting, utility and communications, but the power for this was not drawn, as for the homes at Creek, from outside. There is a large diesel generator, vented to the outside, but from the way it is connected to the system I think it is safe to say it was a backup system."
    "Yes; my parents, with a few others, used it till it ran out of juice – which took three years."

    "Beginning twenty years ago."

    "Twenty-one."

    "We can deduce from this, then, that there is another power source, not in use."

    "That's what we're down here to see."

    "Mmh," said Mary. "So, you've had years to look at that control panel up there. Any thoughts?"

    "Not my specialty. Mom and Dad clearly had no idea. My job here has been to run the granaries and emergency storage for Creek, and maintain the control room as one of the lookouts. Not the best one, either. From Ball or Eagle's Nest we could see. From here we've always had to use runners – exposed lookouts, because there's so much dead ground between here and the angle of repose."

    "Come again?" asked Selk.

    "He means the hillsides swell out so that there's not much to see from here." Mary returned her gaze upon Avery's candlelit face. "'Controls A, B, and C are available.' A lot of trouble to go to for three sets of verniers. From the markings on them, I think they were a manual backup to a computer controlled device."

    "An override!" Selk stood on tiptoe and fairly crowed.

    "To override what?" asked Avery, annoyed.

    Selk spun around exultantly and faced Avery, triumphant. "Two of them set coordinates. The third one is a trigger, or like a speed or power control."

    "Trigger?"

    "For what?" asked Mary, amused.

    "Well, I dunno; but I betcha it's a trigger. What would DARPA bury a small army in here for but a weapon?"

    "Who's Darpa?" Avery felt he had been told, once; but the facility had not been discussed with him in this way.

    "'Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.' They did all sorts of stuff. Invented the Internet, made raw medical plasma from chemicals, created robot warriors and nanospies. That's who your folks were working for."

    "They were leading a Marine detail."

    "And everyone walked away – except them."

    "Well, the whole valley up and left – nothing was coming in any more, and nothing anyone knew worked without electricity or fuel. But Mom and Dad were told to stay put, so they did."

    "Not only do I know that story," said Mary, "I was part of it – though I came later. Wasn't there an engineer who stayed with them?"

    "Did. But he was going blind and early dementia setting in, so he taught them everything he was willing to divulge, then retired."

    "Retired! Who retires any more? I thought he died."

    "No, he'd be at Hall with everyone else, I'd think. Not dead last I heard. But pretty close. He just hangs on and on."

    "Would you be willing to send a runner down there right now?" asked Selk. "That could be important."
    "I would." He wheeled round to face Millie, who was holding the candle. "Who's on?"

    "It's still daylight topside. So it'd be Bee."

    "Light us another couple of candles from that one and go dispatch her to Hall, inquiry Wilbur Angle, ET1, USN ret., please. With instructions to get him together with Carey Murchison, if possible."

    "Sir!" She passed two lit tapers to Selk, and charged the dark stairwell behind them, casting ghostly shadows into the enormous room.

    "For a kid who never had a U.S. Marines to sign on to, you're quick with the lingo," Mary remarked.

    "Excuse me, for all I know, I was born into all that was left of the Marines. If the Murchisons are it, I'm it." Avery leaned forward, his jaw set.

    Mary eyed the throwing knives in their sheaths on the arms of his chair. "Y'know, I think you got a point there. Two, even."

    They smiled.

    Avery wheeled round to face the far wall. He rolled away, beckoning with a tilt of his head. Mary rolled after him.

    "About the candles ... " she wondered aloud.

    "Yes, well, this is pretty stale air here, but there's lots of it. They should last awhile." He stopped.

    "All right, here's what you're here for. Mr. Selk, if you'll hold your lights up high – thank you – you can see that there's a circle in the pavement here. The floor is basalt throughout Ridge, but right here there's concrete, eight feet across, with two iron rings set in it. And there's a crane, cable, winch, and hook set in the ceiling."

    "Wow," said Selk, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose with the back of his hand. 

    "And you can see that in the ceiling there is another such circle. They go all the way up four floors, in front of the main door, in fact. We've made a point of not stacking supplies on top of these lids, though we're not even sure why."

    "I see there's nothing stored on this level," Mary observed, raising her candle as well.

    "No. ET Angle said not to."

    "ET?" asked Selk.

    "Electronics Technician; that was his rating."

    Mary peered at the floor and the ceiling and mused on what had just been said. "It's a nuke."

    "I would assume so."

    Selk whirled round to Avery. "Is it ... ummm ... safe here?"

    "Probably not over a long period of time, he told us. But the next level above is supposed to be okay."

    Mary nodded. "Sure, kid. There's no steam pipes or anything, so 
it's not a fission reactor. Selk, what do you know about self-contained reactor units?"

    "Gee, not much; I'm really ham radio and twelve volts."

    "And most of that I taught you." She faced Avery Murchison. "Son, there's a steel bottle down there, I betcha, a little bigger than a pickup truck. Thorium is my guess. So the radiation here 'long as it's bottled up right, is beta particles. Mr. Angle gave you the straight skinny."

    "If you say so; if I've ever read or heard of 'thoryum,' I've forgotten it."

    "Well it's no magic bullet. I'd guess, from the size of the lid and the size of this place, what you have there, if it works, could run a really big house or really small neighborhood for decades. By itself, it's not a weapon. S'kinda like a catalytic heater." She reached into her ample bosom and fished out two odd-looking keys on cords around her neck. "So, about these."

    Avery's expression darkened. "I'm surprised to see them."

    "Your old man didn't tell you?"

    "He said 'full cooperation.' So that's what you get."

    "But you know what they are."

    "I know that my dad wore one and my mom the other, all my life. I've never seen them anywhere else."

    "Murch gave them both to me. To give to you, actually; though I'd love to see them tried out. I haven't seen Ellen lately, but I assume hers was fetched for the occasion." She hesitated. "We haven't seen any place to use them, so far in this tour."

    "Well, you have come to the right place. Over this way." He wheeled over to the far wall, with his candle in his teeth.

    Here there was a door like that in a bank vault, but smaller. There was a card lock with an override switch, a manual combination lock, and a latch consisting of a steel disk with three rods protruding from it, with black plastic knobs on them.

    "Do the honors, Mr. Selk," said Avery, taking one of Selk's candles.

    Selk put out his hand, tentatively, to the cardlock rocker switch.

    "That's right. Throw that. We've no cards, but the switch works. I've seen it done. Good. Now on the combination wheels. Outer ring. Put that on 'seventeen'. Middle ring, 'seven.' Inner ring, 'six'."

    "I'll be damned! " breathed Mary Savage.

    "Yes, obvious enough. Now, Mr. Selk, rotate the bars to the left, or counterclockwise, half a turn."
    Something clicked inside the door.

    "Now give it a good heave toward you."

    The door swung open easily, squealing slightly on its hinges.

     Darkness yawned at them within.

    "It's a smallish room," said Avery. "Let's roll in and have a look." He handed the candle back to Selk and gripped the Quickie's tires.

    The candles illuminated the chamber with an amber glow, as, for the first time in years, the Panel Room had visitors. Mary's eyes gleamed as she saw the two LED lights burning steadily, after all this time.
    "What would be the significance of these?" asked Selk.

    "So far as I know, they mean 'ready'. Are you?" Avery regarded him steadily.

    "Yes."

    Mary handed Selk one of the keys, and, taking the other, inserted it in one of the keyholes in the panel, at left. Selk imitated her action on the far right. The keyholes were almost three meters apart.

    Mary tried hers to the left, but found no movement, so clicked it to the right. Selk clicked his to the right as well.

    An impossible brilliance dazzled the three of them. Selk actually yelped and fell to the floor, his glasses clattering underneath Avery's chair and the candles skittering away. Behind them in the main chamber, more brilliance, like that of a roomful of suns, clicked on and hummed in chorus at them from the chamber beyond. Someone, up the stairwell or on the fourth level, screamed.

    Slowly, Avery was able to open his eyes, and found Selk feeling about underneath the chair, his eyes still closed. Mary Savage, her fingers laced together in her lap, was squinting at Avery with a satisfied expression on her broad face.

    "Welcome," she said, "to the world of Thomas Alva Edison."

    "Uh?"

    "Oh, pooh. I know you're educated enough to get that one. Anyways –" she cracked her knuckles –"this is gonna be fun."



Days later, Dr. Tom leaned over Karen; his face wore a mixture of near exhaustion and professional kindliness. 

    "You're a little woozy, but I'm afraid that's the best we can do. Your friends are here; they're going to get a good firm grip on you to help us. I will try to work very quickly. I'm going to give you this dowel to hold between your teeth. I want you to bite down on it hard and then let us know when to proceed. All right?" 

    "Uhh." 

    "Very good. All right, everyone? Ready, Karen?" 

    Vernie, Emilio, Errol, and Cal gave their assent and pulled.

    Karen came near losing consciousness at the first pull on her left arm. It would have been a blessing, she knew. Yet she bit down on the wood with what strength she could muster, then gave a small, but determined nod. 


    If I'm ever going to cry, she thought, now might be a good time.




End of Book One: These will I Bring
Next: Book Two: Abide the Fire.