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, October 6, 2014


The light snow was followed by heavy rain. Karen stood, with her hand resting on the back of her neck, watching the muddy drops rebound from snowmelt beyond the grimy windows of Hall. She was never happy to see snow anyway – there had been entirely too much of it in her life, those two winters in the Lassen Peak area. That thought led to another: of all these people here, how many would have even heard of Lassen Peak? Or would care, if they were told? Was there even an atlas here, or – too much to hope – a globe? She'd offered to teach Raul and David to read, but they had simply given her that wall-eyed look, and Juanita had not really been encouraging. And what, in the house, had there been to teach from? It was all well and good to say, with the Five Rings, that one must live without prejudices; she'd seen how to apply this in war, but in peace she sometimes found herself spinning her wheels.
       "Now who's got the mulligugs?" asked Allyn, who'd come up beside her.
       "Oh! Well, I was thinking, on the whole, I prefer the rain to the snow."
       "Ah. We do have a lot of rain in winter here, and usually not much snow, though two years ago there was a whomper."
       "I know. I was out in it."
       "Bite my head off."
       She checked; he was smiling.
       Well, that's unfair, she said to herself. So quit your whining. She turned to face him, her hand on her hip. "Okay, the mulligugs. You caught me. You know, I'm kind of a neither here nor there thing. I grew up with books from a world that's not there any more. And I guess I – I miss something I never had."
       "You keep a lot bottled up, don't you?"
       "Do you know the phrase, 'rhetorical question?'"
       He grinned. "Caught me. But I can glimpse some of what's bothering you in the context of the GM."
       "The GM?"
       "Mm-hm. The old guard is wearing out. We don't have the Murchisons and the Chaneys for much longer, and Savage Mary is no spring chicken. And the five of them are that world you were raised for, slipping away even as you get here. Not even Mary's apprentices fully appreciate her. That hotshot on wheels up on the Ridge is like a cracked mirror – he reflects only some of what his parents were about, not all. And the rest is gone forever, maybe. Y'know –" he raised his stumps in a shrug, embarrassed. "– I, umm, ah, I'm kinda nuts about you, in my way, and I know everybody at Ames' is, in their way, but, uhhhh, right now you just maybe oughta ask yourself, 'do I really wanta go back to Ames Farm?'"
       "What?" Karen was taken aback.
       "Oh, c'mon, that's not like you. You're all about non-attachment. Think it through. You're loyal to Ames', you've just signed on to Ames', and with good reason. But will you serve them best by hanging around that barn meditating on how to milk that cow one-handed?"
       "Damn." She covered her eyes and hunched her shoulders. "Damn!"
       "This 'man' bothering you?"
       They turned. The big guy with the eyebrows from Bledsoe's that had pressed the matter about Huskey was standing a little too close. His arms hung by his sides, and he opened and closed his fists.
       Karen took her hand from her eyes, which were glistening. "No! In fact, he's being very sweet, so go give us a little air. Please?"
       "Huh. Suit y'selves." He moved away, glancing back at them over his shoulder.
       Allyn watched him away, then returned his attention to her. "Nicely handled. But I think there's going to be a lot of that. 'Man' said that way means I'm less of one now. S'pose I could try to kick him but he kicks harder, I think. Umm, so, I hurt ya?"
       "No, truth hurts. So, what are you saying? Go look for Mary and get an apprenticeship?"
       "Only if it's what you want. And now, of course, you'd have to have Ames vote it." He grinned.
       A thin, catlike girl of about thirteen walked up to them. Sandy-haired, with braids, yet with eyes like Guchi's, she was wearing her duty tunic and jerkin and had one of the little swords tucked in her belt. On her left arm she wore an archer's armguard. She looked like someone "on duty."
       "Hi, can I interrupt? It's from the Captain."
       "Well, I'd guess you'd better, Billee," said Allyn, amused. He took a half-step back.
       The girl focused on Karen. "I've been hopin' to meet ya. All kinds of stories! All true, I bet! So, the message is, can ya join some folks at their table? It's downstairs."
       "Oh. Umm, sure." she looked back to Allyn. He made little jerks with his head, meaning "go, go" – with a knowing smile.
         As they walked across the crowded room together, Billee eyed Karen's shoulder. "Whacked ya good, huh? I got 
chased but I got out of it, lucky me, they woulda double-whacked me, ya-yah."
       Karen was not sure where "double-whacked" came from, but she found this young person refreshing. "Well, I was 'double whacked', here –" She pointed at the empty air where here upper arm would have been – "and here. And it went sour, both places. Could happen to anybody. You're Billee, from ... ?"
       "Ridge. That guy who was tryin' to loom all over yez, try an' keep him outta your line of sight; Huskey was married to his sister, and she's egging him on to get'n trou-u-u-u-ble, yah? yah-yah." They came to a dim stairwell, leading down. "Right down here, at the bottom, second right."
       "Um. Thank you."
       Karen found the room without difficulty; the door was open and the yellow light of a single taper streamed into the dingy hallway. She put her head around the corner and saw Savage Mary, Tom Chaney and Ellen Murchison sitting at a small table.
       "Come on in!" Mary, a heavyset woman in black braids shot with gray, fairly boomed. She sat in a gunmetal gray folding chair, as did the others; the wheelchair in which Karen had previously seen her sulked in its corner. In the other corner, Karen could see a small cot; in it lay Sgt. Carey Murchison, USMC, attended by Elsa Chaney.
      Mary offered her a seat with a gesture. "Well, girl, you've led me a merry chase. Been here since last summer, almost, and finally we meet."
       Karen sat down, her hand resting on her right thigh. Was this an "interview?" – she wondered. Should she, perhaps, have washed her face and brushed her hair? Not that it could make any kind of difference; everyone was getting remarkably grungy. But she felt "on" – scrutinized.
       "Sad about that arm, huh?" Mary observed.
       "Mnh? What's here now is what's here now. Ma'am."
       Carey chuckled from deep within his pillow. "Told you, didn't I?"
       Mary's eyebrows went up, and her face split into a surprisingly engaging grin.
       "Great answer; confirms just about everything. Tell me, if you would, a little about your upbringing. The 'basement' story, absent any of the stuff that came later. Daily routine, 'specially."
       Karen talked, haltingly at first, and then as memories arose that had become hazy to her, added details. These details interested Mary: the small library of several hundred books and several hundred National Geographics, with some other magazines; her father's geography lectures using a world globe, a candle, and an old baseball; the fitness routines incorporating evasion, judo, knife, bow, and pistol with snap caps, sometimes blindfolded.

     "What was that bit again about the handful of pencils?"
       "He'd found a box of pencils and sharpened them all, then talked about light. There was an old calendar with a lot of blank paper on the back of the sheets, and he took one of these and held all the pencils straight up and down, and made dots." Karen imitated the move with her hand above the table. "Then he said, 'measure the distance between two of the dots.' So I did, and then he held the pencils at an angle, like this –" Karen swept a slanting chop at the tabletop – "and made dots, and I measured those and they were farther apart. And he said this was why it's hot in summer and cold in winter."
       "And you got it?"
       "Well, yes, ma'am, because of the baseball and the globe. The earth is like a gyroscope, spinning on a tilt, and when the northern hemisphere is toward the sun, on this side of the orbit –" she circled the tabletop with her finger – "The dots, that is, the photons, hit closer together, and transfer higher heat because there are more of them. You get summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern hemisphere, because the photons in the northern hemisphere are landing farther apart; less heat. That's also why crops mature faster on south slopes in the northern hemisphere and north slopes in the southern."
       "Can you relate that to anything practical around here, other than that the fields on the north side of the Creek are the ones that get the long-season crops?"
       "Umm – well, you have those little wind machines in the low ground for raising water on the farms. That works because south slopes in the mountains heat up and the air rises, drawing wind up the Creek on a predictable schedule. Then in the evening the cooling air sinks and goes back down the Creek, so you get enough traction in the wind machines to pump water all day. But only because they can swing on their vanes and face both ways."
       Mary waved her hand magisterially. "And this is reliable in the drought season when we need it most, and is the main reason we've been able to farm here with so few people. Goodness knows we needed something in our corner; the soil up in here being no better than it is."
       She tapped the table in the spot where Karen had pantomimed the calendar page. "I admire your father, Miss, all the more as you say he had little formal training. Autodidacts sometimes see better than the rest of us. What impresses me most is that he bothered to explain to you about the provisional nature of straight lines and spheres, and the provisional nature of naming and classification. Even scientists in my day tended to be brought up short by that stuff."
       "I'm not sure I get it even now," put in Tom.
       "Well, it's not very pertinent to matters in hand at the moment. The take-home message is that this slip of a madwoman warrior is the second most educated person on the Creek – and not a bit stuck up about it." She returned her attention to Karen.
       "Now we get to some potentially painful nitty-gritty. I would imagine, based on hearsay, observation, and discussion, that the good folk at Ames' are highly attached to you and vice versa."
       "They've been very good to me."
       "And you to them, and to us all, though Ellen here would say that only sets a standard any and all of us should meet every day. You know that Mr. Errol, that nice, quiet, introverted and, though he does not seem to realize it, brilliant fellow, was at 'Savage Mary's' before he was at Ames' – woodworking was his thing, and we farmed him out where he was needed, which was the east end of the valley, so there'd be quality woodworking on the woodsiest farms – yours, Allyn's and so on. Same with Allyn, he trained in plant biology – as much of it as we still knew how to teach."
       Ellen shifted in her seat, visibly tired, but game. "It's a scheme to get Mary's little stock of civilized knowledge spread around. Safer."
       "A security measure. Pour it into their hard heads while they're young," agreed Mary. "Now, here's the thing. I don't wanna scare ya, but in five year's time, if the Kluxers south of here leave us alone – fat chance – and "Jeeah" does her usual thing in the usual time, everybody in this room, except you, GWATCDR, will be dead."
       "God Willin' And Th' Crick Don't Rise. We will have created some specialists, but there will be no more generalists."
       "Ma'am, I do think you are 'scaring' me."
       "That's my girl, if it didn't, some, this would be an unproductive conversation. Now, here's the deal. Up on that big ugly hill there –" Mary waved at the wall behind Carey – "there's an observation deck and dormitory, beneath which are four one-room floors, each the size of a small Wal-Mart – you know what those were?"
       "Yes; I've seen a couple of them; what was left of them, that is."
       "Underneath the lowest level, there is a functioning 'nuclear battery'. Some such thing. It's got enough oomph to give us fifty or so kilowatts of free power, day and night, for maybe two decades. We talked about this in the GM, as you may remember; and recommended to move my operation up there and do a crash manufacturing program in agricultural tools and 'other handy stuff.'" She looked over at Ellen, who nodded slowly. "We might need most of that capacity, in the early going, for the armory. On the other hand, things could go hunky-dory, and then we find other people like us, and then there's trade. Trade would be a wonderful thing; imagine having salt."
       Tom looked across at Mary. "Or other varieties of food crops. Pigs. Dogs. Access to more horses. Cotton goods. Most of all, medicines."
       "Or most of all, olive oil. I'm looking at Miss Karen as we say these things, Tom; she's not all that enthused yet," Mary noted.
       "It does sound like there's going to be a lot to do ..." Karen offered, tentatively.
       "Well, here's the thing. What I'm leading up to is, that little treasure up there puts us on the horns of a dilemma. We want what it can do, but it's going to be addictive. A generalist, which I, a ductility specialist, have tried to be all these years, is what's wanted."
       A small white moth – where could it have come from, in January? – flitted across the space between them and guttered its little life out in the candle flame. Karen kept her attention on Mary.
       Mary, suddenly all seriousness, put both fat hands on the table, age spots showing in the candlelight. "We want to know if you would be willing to pick up, with us, where your dad left off. Do some time grokking how to survive the temptations that gizmo up there will lead us into."
       "Well ... do you mean – studying – about how to extend the technology or how to switch back to artisan culture?"
       Carey stirred in the cot again. "Told you!" Elsa patted his arm.
       Mary leaned back, grimacing a little as her spine complained, in the uncomfortable chair. "Yah, Murch, you sure did. Ah, love that question. It's the grittin' nitty. 'K, we figure, both. You trained on bows and guns. Visualize, if you will, a small army, or, better, a garrison, that's pretty good at bows. Now suddenly they're all about guns. This lasts half a lifetime, then – kaplooie! No more guns, gotta go back to bows and be good at them from day one, and good at making them, with hand tools. With flies in their faces. Squatting around a fire."
       "It would be hard for them."
       "Yes, young ma'am, it will be hard for them." Mary cupped her hand round the taper, and pantomimed blowing it out.
       "The light of civilization will go out, and there we'll all be, as ignorant of how to do things without it as we are now of how to do things with it. Got a book for you here, a real oldie, over a hundred years old, I think – ever read Earth Abides?"
       "I think I saw mention of it somewhere."
       "Diplomatic. Here it is; tell me what you think of it in a week or so. Now ... as those of us in the room see it – correct me if I'm wrong, gang – there'll be two phases. We have to outlive our Kluxers and your Eastside Eaters – gods forbid they should get together – whose notions of civilization depend on testosterone and skin whiteness. They're Avery's job; he's a specialist, he'll be th' war chief, with help from Mr. Wilson and Mr. Molinero, among others. We'll need some decent high tech for that scenario. There's a lot of good stuff stockpiled yet; down th' line, won't be down the line. Metallurgy, gunsmithing, pyro, maybe optics, communications, organization, training; these are still possible.
         "Then, th' fancy resource base falls out from under us. The Creek gets through alive, then we have to give most of it up gracefully. We dumb down our electrical applications so that the things we continue to do along that line can be done without mass production – go to artisanal, just as you say. But we foresee a rough transition. Someone who lacks most of the usual prejudices about entitlement will need to goose us along. That's the peace chief.
       "Just so it doesn't go to your head, honey, we're not talking about promoting you all the way to the head of the class this morning. But we think you're as good trainee material for that job as anybody we have in this mudhole. Like to look into it?"
       "Umm. Well, there's Ames', you see."
       "Sure. Damn good start. We were just talking with Mrs. Ames; she, along with Elsa, Murch and Tom, nominated you. So, there will be a meeting, and a vote, and hugs and tears and all that, and you'll come home once a week and sleep in your old bed and they'll all fuss over you."
       "'Oh', she says. You know we talked in the GM a bit about contracting the acreage, right?"
       "Yes, ma'am."
       "We gotta find an alternative to this ma'am thing. Well, Mrs. Ames is upstairs breaking it to the other Ames kids, and what's left of the Wilsons and Beemans, that they need to pack up and migrate west."
       "You're breaking up Ames?"
       "I'll overlook that 'you're', we're trying not to be authoritarian around here. This will all go to a vote later today, when we're back in plenary. Unless there are any surprises, Ames' will stick together and take over 'Savage Mary's'. That's your likely new 'home place,' and, if you so say, Ridge will be your choice of 'university.'"
       Mary looked into Karen's hesitant young-old face, with the freckles round her nose. So tentative with friends, so decisive with foes. Scary kid! But probably my one shot at having a child of my own.
       "So, are ya in?"
       "I could ... try it? I mean, I've never even seen Ridge."
       "We'll take that as a provisional 'yes.'" Mary grinned. "Like straight lines, spheres, morals, meaning, and the preferences of cats."