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, November 9, 2014

36

Karen walked down the stairs and around to the main 'gate'. Millie lay asleep, dressed and armed, in a bunk by the main door, with a string tied round her wrist which was attached to the door. Simple but effective; if anyone outside somehow opened the massive cantilevered door, she'd awaken and become a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, of course, the lights would snap on, on all levels, and a buzzer would summon everyone. At Karen's almost noiseless approach, Millie opened her eyes and rolled over into a half-sitting position. "Hi."
       "Hello; not to bother you but can I go out for a bit?"
       "Sure; help yourself to the postern door. There's cloaks on the pegs; borrow mine – green, with a blue border." Millie checked the clock on the nearby wall. "My shift's almost over; you didn't bother me."
       "Thanks." Karen stepped around and reached for the cloak. The peg next to it was empty. "Is anyone else out there?"
       "Mm-hmm, Selk. He's up at all hours and likes to look at the stars."
       Karen nodded, awkwardly fastened the cloak at her throat with her one hand, then pushed on the thick postern door, and stepped outside. It swung itself shut behind her.
       The air was cool, but not especially cold, even here on the heights. As soon as Karen's eyes adjusted, she sought the gravel of the summit path with her feet and trudged cautiously round to the right, below the narrow, massive windows of Avery Murchison's outpost, which were still dimly lit. She could see, by a surprisingly bright three-quarters moon, the dark surrounding hills. A flat ribbon of silver fog hid the Creek. There was no wind. It would be another hot day tomorrow – today – outside.
       "Who's there?" Selk's querulous voice came from further round to the right.
       "Karen, Ames." She found him sitting on a boulder above the southern slope of the ridge. "Don't shoot me, 'k?"
       "Shoot you? I've ... umm ... never shot anybody; doubt if I could. You, on the other hand ... "
       "Yes, I know; Karen the Dragon Lady. Eats bandits for breakfast. I'm not as fierce as I'm cracked up to be. May I sit down?"
       "Uh? Oh ... sure, right here to my left there's a good spot. 'Cracked up', that's a good expression."
       She sat on the boulder, which was taller than it looked in the moonlight. Her feet dangled just out of reach of the ground. Just as well; she wondered if that was poison oak growing along its base.
       "So ... just out for some ... some air?" asked Selk.
       "Yes. It's stuffy in there, even with the fans going. Which I'm told are a great improvement over how it's been all these years."
       "Uh huh. I can't imagine. Mr. Avery, Bee and Bobbo and Millie, Wilson and all – they've been like cave dwellers."
       "Mmh. We still are, really. And you? Air?"
       "No. I, uhh, I like to look at the sky. The, the night sky."
       "I heard about your report. So, you really think the Ridge was about a satellite?"
       "Well, there were the pictures, of Mr. Angle's, that the bandit had looked at. I have them. And ... and, there was a dish that they had here, on top of the control room, and it was always pointed south."
       "South is significant?"
       "Well – You've seen satellites, right?"
       "The Wanderers, the Creekers call them. Fewer every year, it seems. Yes. I read about them, when I was 'at school' in the basement. And then I saw them, sometimes, over the last couple of years. But they go every which way."
       "That's right; in fact, there's one now."
       Selk indicated a planetary point of light drifting in a straight line from south to north, waxing and waning as it went. They craned their necks to watch it pass out of sight in the vicinity of Polaris.
       "That one," said Selk, "is tumbling out of control, I think; once every about six seconds. We're seeing it by the light of the sun, which is to our east right now – rising in a couple of hours. That's to say – " he cleared his throat, removed his glasses, and polished them with his sleeve, then pushed them back over his nose – "we're, we're rotating toward it. That way."
       "Once every twenty-four hours, in a circle, on the surface of the earth. Hence the sunrise."
       "Yes! Would you believe it, most Creekers don't know that any more? Or anyways care. They think the sun's coming up when it 'comes up' – we're all the way back to a flat earth in the human mind."
       "Yes, I've noticed that, too."
       "I can't explain it to them as otherwise; they just shrug and get on with the things that matter to them – crops, irrigation."
       "But, you know, those are the things that matter now," offered Karen gently.
       "I was born too late," Selk said, bitterly. "Well, anyway, satellites, you'd know from your reading, a lot of 'em are in low orbits – low being, say a hundred to a hundred and twenty miles up, and to stay in orbit, they have to balance the earth's gravity by going 17,500 miles an hour, or something close to that. Centrifugal force."
       "Yes. But they're all dead, aren't they? And falling out of the sky, one by one?"
       "The low-earth-orbit ones, yes; and the MEOs, which I think were mostly GPS – "
       "Those died before we were born."
       " – were killed before we were born; hunter-killer sats and solar storms. But some of the Clarkes were well shielded from storms."
       "Clarkes?"
       "Clarke-orbit satellites."
       "Oh, geostationary."
       "Right. God, it helps to have someone who has any idea. Geostationary. The antenna they had here was always pointed south."
       "South because ... "
       "Because that's where you see geostationaries from here. They're above the equator."
       "Oh, that's right. So, you're thinking there might be a functional satellite up there – " Karen pointed at the southern sky – "and that Ridge had something to do with it?"
       "Yep. And furthermore I think it's big. If I only had a telescope – like the one at Ball Butte – I bet I could find it."
       "How? Wouldn't it look like a star? It would be – what, twenty thousand miles away."
       "Further, more like 22,240 miles up from the equator, and we're about forty-three degrees north of there. No, the earth wobbles. What I'd be looking for would change its position slightly all the time – like a figure eight. But nobody wants to help me with this thing – say it's a wild goose chase. My proposal, you know – they said – they said, 'work on it in your spare time.' hah!"
       "If you saw one, how would you know it's the right one?"
       "You're right, there were lots of them. But I have to start somewhere. Once I've got some sense of direction I could set up a dish and try to get some conversation going."
       "You should talk to Billee."
    "Billee?" Selk snorted. "Why Bee? She can't sit still to hear word one from me."
       Karen smiled, even though she was getting cold in the pre-dawn air. She pulled the cloak closer about her. "Billee has a pair of field glasses that might have the magnification you need."
       "Field glasses? I don't know ..."
       They're ten-ex or something like that. With a huge field of view. The bandits took them from her, but Huskey got them back. I'm sure she'd let you use them. ... if you were to ask nicely."

:::

"What's in here?" Karen lifted the edge of the cloth on the basket and sniffed.
       "Barley cakes – they are the best we can do," replied Juanita. "But they do have in them the dried grapes from last year. That may be what you are smelling."
       "'Raisins,' they used to be called. It's enticing," admitted Karen. "We have cut back at Ridge, too; I haven't seen anything so nice in a while. You're a wonder."
       "Everyone is a wonder," said Emilio, as he packed apple fritters in another basket. "All through the Creek there are kitchens turning out something from nothing, I believe. We will have a good party, I think."
       David, one of the twins, came in through the back door. As Juanita handed him the basket of cakes, he turned to Karen. "Whatcha been doing?"
       She looked at him, surprised. "Whoa, you've grown up! Nice mustache. Not so much; we have a little production line going; BP rimfire, some proper grenades, wooden water pipes and hydraulic rams, better matches, and some stuff for painting roofs."
       "Roofs?"
       "Yes, all our old roofs were too dark and also not fire resistant; the steel roofing that was stockpiled is going on over the shingling, but most of it is dark red or green. What with all the heat, we want to find ways to keep the houses cooler, not just fireproof. So we want to get everyone to paint the roofs white, not just the walls, and also to weave mats for the outsides of south-facing windows. The temperatures in these old buildings are getting dangerous for older Creekers – and babies."
       "And how is yours?" asked Juanita, smiling.
       Karen placed her hand over her new shape. "We're doing well together, so far as I can tell. Anyways, we've stopped throwing up. We're going to stop and see Dr. Marcee on the way to the festival."
       "I like that 'we.' You are getting good practice."
       The other mustachioed twin, Raoul, appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Jenny's ready," he said.
       "Good." Emilio nodded. "Take these, load her up, and go to Hall, and we'll come after with our backpacks.
       "Where's everyone else?" asked Karen.
       "Errol, as you know, has been supervising the pipelines for the irrigation. I think he is at Bledsoe's; we begin these things there, to ease relations." Emilio made an expression of distaste. "Tomma and Vernie, with help from our visitor, took Mrs. Ames to Hall in the hand cart very early, to beat the heat."
       "That must be a tight fit for her. Who's the visitor?"
       "A big man named Bolo. He's from Roundhouse. And you are not the only one making babies! He brought with him a pig – a "sow!" She will make piglets soon, and he will show us how to take care of them. In return we teach him the transportation of water to crop land." Emilio paused. "He is a very good man, and he does know pigs, but teaching him new things takes ... patience."
       "We're going now," shouted David from outside the door.
       "All right," replied Juanita. "Take advantage of the shade, and rest Jenny twice before you get to Hall."
       "How did you bake the cakes, Juanita?" asked Karen.
       "Ah, you have caught me! I worked at night, of course. We made fire at midnight, and the baking was done by sunrise."
       "It's a good thing we're having the festival now, then. With everything drying up so early, we might have to ban fires completely after midsummer."
       "Nita, I think we are ready to go as well," said Emilio, putting on a wide-brimmed straw hat. "Are you going with us, Mrs. Allyn?"
       "As far as Hall gate, then up to Chaneys'."
       "But we will see you in the evening? The Festival begins when the sun sets."
       "I think I should be there."
       "Everyone should be there. It is really a General Meeting, with food and music, I think."
       Along with the others, Karen put on her own small backpack, straw hat and reed-mat cape and moved to the kitchen door. They left the shade of the house reluctantly, following the trail down to the front walk and gate on the Creek road, through which Allyn and Errol had passed carrying armloads of swords, so long ago as it now seemed. They kept to the left side of the road, taking advantage of the shade of the roadside fruit trees, many of which looked heat-blasted already, with curled leaves and tiny apples. The plums and pears had not set fruit at all in the late frosts, and now in the wild swing into summer, had dropped much of their foliage as well. The travelers' feet rustled as they passed along, as if it were a walk in a dry November.
       Karen looked, through the morning's haze, at Russell Farm, across the Creek. No one was moving about in the fields. They would have done their work before mid-morning, and would now either be  resting in shade, or sitting in their swimming hole in a bend of the Creek. Like New Ames, they would likely have made any preparations for the festival in the cool of the night.
       The little group stopped several times, sipping slowly from their switchel bottles in the deeper shade provided by large maple trees. Another group was slowly catching up with them, which Karen recognized as the contingent from Maggie's Farm.
       Maggie herself, both tall and old for a Creeker, carried her long-barreled Kentucky rifle cradled in her arms. In a grudging acknowledgment of the heat and glare, she had left her battered kepi at home and was wearing one of the wide-brimmed woven hats and a pair of pre-Undoing sunglasses. Next to her strode the young leader from Roundhouse, with the big dog at his heels.
       Maggie nodded to Emilio as they stopped in the shade. "Hot enough to fry an old lady's brains," she croaked, reaching for a leather water bag at her side.
       "It is becoming a difficult summer," he replied. He offered his hand to Josep, who shook it firmly. "And how are your people?"
       "We are getting by. Though our creek has dropped a lot farther than yours."
       The dog flapped her tail a couple of times against Josep's leg, and Karen offered her fingers to her to sniff. Krall's ears and tail drooped, and she looked up at Josep. 
    He smiled and spoke to his companion. "S'okay, honey, she's one of our pack."
       Krall took a tentative step forward and smelled Karen's hand. They made eye contact, and Krall's tail thumped again.
       "This is a beautiful animal," said Karen.
       "So are you."
       Karen felt a moment of confusion; people at the Creek were sometimes indirect. Josep was clearly not. She decided to smile, but not too broadly, and to keep to her subject.
       "She's, mmh, a girl?"
       "Bitch is our word," he grinned. "Good bitch too, aren't you, Krall?" She lolled her tongue out and grinned up at him.
       "So ... are there boy dogs ... dogs as well as bitches at Roundhouse?"
       "Do we breed? Yes. You're not the first to ask! All the puppies from Krall's next litter are spoken for."
       "I have a friend who talks a lot about Krall. I have a feeling she wants desperately to ask for a puppy."
       "I've heard of her; one of the scouts?"
       Karen nodded.
       "Will she be at the fair?"
       "No, she's one of those providing cover – out in the Big Valley, no doubt."
       "Too bad; but somebody has to do it. We have people out, too. But I'll want to meet her, or see that someone from the tribe does."
       "That's very kind."
       "We want to get off on the right foot. Lots we can all do for each other."
       Maggie shifted her water bag and adjusted the strap. "Two of mine are on Ball Butte. Not too happy about it, either. But it has the best view."
       "Shall we go?" asked Emilio.
       As they took to the blazing sunshine on the dusty road, Karen found the young man and Krall had fallen in beside her.
       "I hear stories about you," he said.
       "Stories?"
       "Yes; you farm, you make stuff, you sew people up, and shoot bad guys. All-around girl."
       "If you say so. I think I have had some opportunities."
       "Modest, too. When are you due?"
       Direct again! She fought an impulse to look at his face.
       "Midwinter."
       "Oh, good; you'll have better than this weather for lying-in, maybe."
       Karen felt her attention had narrowed, and made a conscious effort to scan the nearby fields and fence lines, as she was sure Emilio was doing. Josep did the same. He seemed able to effortlessly maintain his situational awareness and be sociable at the same time, something that was difficult for Karen.
       "It's all right," he said. "I'm not about crowding you; but you're more interesting than you seem to think. I'm taken; my mate's name is Marleena."
       Karen found herself relieved to hear this; she had always found friendly men unnerving. "Do you have children?"
       His face clouded. "We did; two. There was something the matter with the water. A hot year like this one."
       "I'm sorry. Perhaps ... "
       " ... we may succeed another time. Thank you."
       They walked in silence for a bit. Hall was coming into view; and in spite of the grueling sunshine in the courtyard, people could be seen milling about.
       "Here we part ways," said Karen. "The others are for hall, but I'm off to Chaneys' for a bit."
       "Oh, I know that place well. Quarantine. You went through that there, too, didn't you?"
       Is there anything he doesn't know about? "Yes. 'Bye, now." She waved toward the others as well. Juanita smiled and waved back.
       "See you later, then," said Josep, and offered his hand. Karen shook it, shocked at the strength in his small body, and went her way.
       The gate to Chaney's was almost opposite that of Hall. The long, low house was atypical for the Creek; Karen knew from her readings, long ago, that it was called a "bungalow." One thing that set it apart was its exterior, which she remembered as a tan-colored brickwork up to mid-wall. This, however, was now painted white, as was the roof – Chaneys' was an early adopter of the new style, in time for the heat waves. Another was the front stoop, which was a concrete pad, with two steps up. Wrought iron railings stood on either side. Karen was grateful for these, and hauled her newly cumbersome self up by them. They were hot to the touch. Perhaps they should be painted white as well.
    She opened the door and peeped in. "Hello, house?"
       "Karen? Come in and sit down. Be right out." That was Marcee's voice.
       Karen shucked her hat, cloak, and pack by the door, and found a comfortable chair, glad to be out of the sun. Glancing round, she saw that, inside, little had changed. The big table dominated the center of the room. Behind was the heavy glass window behind which she had lived, briefly, making friends with Mrs. Ames. The place had always been rather Spartan, with little of the cheer she'd found at Ames' or Wilsons'. The thought of those houses, one abandoned to the elements , the other burnt to the ground, panged her.
       Marcee came in, moving slowly in the hot room, and sat down heavily in the chair next to Karen's. A spray of her red hair was plastered to her forehead, and beads of sweat gleamed amid the freckles on her cheekbones. She was wearing an ancient blowsy shift of cotton and rayon, figured in tiny roses, and was looking very – for Marcee – large.
       "Whew. Oh Em Gee, it's a rough day to be out, Karen. Don't see how you do it."
       "I don't suppose I could, if I were so far along."
       "Yeah, I'm due in two moons. It's rough! Especially with Dr. Tom and Elsa trying to cram everything they know into my head, day in, day out." She tilted her head at the open hallway door – no doubt one of the old-timers was listening in; "Dr." Marcee was considered only moderately competent as yet. But considering she had only begun her medical career from scratch at the beginning of the past winter, everyone considered she had come a long way.
       "So, you sense any changes?"
       "No, the baby is busy most days, as am I."
       "You've grown a little bit up front. Still sore?"
       "Mm-hmm, and itchy."
       "Getting ready to feed the kid. Notice veins more?"
       "Yes."
       "I think those will get more comfortable for you about now, and you'll be putting on more girth instead. Could I get you to stand up and turn around, move around the room a bit?"
       Karen did so.
       "You're kind of small still, but normal range. What's all this on the belt?"
       "Revolver, knife, ammunition."
       "I can see that! Never far away from your stuff. I dunno about the belt there, though."
       "You're right; I might have to go with shoulder gear for awhile."
       "Smart. Getting enough water?"
       "Yes; we have a good well at Ridge."
       "That surprises me; isn't the whole thing rock, above the ... umm ... "       "Water table?"
       "Yeah, water table." Marcee shifted her weight, unable to find a satisfactory position in her chair.
       "The well pipe comes in at an angle, from above the headwaters of Hall Creek."
       "Cool! And enough food, lots of variety?"
       "Guchi brings us fresh stuff when he can. We had steamed nettles a couple of days ago."
       "That's a help. Get lots of dandelions, too, while they last."
       "Yes'm."
       "My kid should be four months old by the time you pop. I'd be able to walk up to Ridge if I had to. But we might want to have you move down here after harvest, where we can keep an eye on you; what do you think?"
       "Umm ..."
       "Got people who want to be there for you?"
       "Billee. And, mmm, Wilson."
       "Wilson! That man's full of surprises."
       "He's been training me on defense and Defense."
       "Oh! Are you our general-to-be?"
       "He says it's an aptitude thing. They maybe want to spread what they know, like Dr. Chaney."
       "Ri-i-i-ight. Not too strenuous I hope?"
       "Not right now, no." Karen allowed herself a wry smile.
       "And sleep. They let ya get any sleep up there?"
       ""In the early going it was hard, but Mo – Mary has eased up a lot. She's been great lately. Kind of scary."
       "I can believe it. So, you're not holding back any horrors, baby too quiet, blood showing, any of that awful stuff?"
       Karen's eyes widened.
       Marcee suddenly seemed, if anything, even more grown up. "Listen, babymaking is serious shit. This 'clinic' has damned few medicines, few instruments, no obstetricians, one pretend doctor, one old lady playing nurse, and one pretend intern, which is me. Have you noticed there are more men around the Creek than women?"
       "Um. Yes."
       "Have any of us told you why, yet?"
       "I – I don't think so, no."
       "Take a wild guess."
       "We die in childbirth."
       "We do indeed. So, now, I'm happy you're doing well right now. Listen, stay on the good water, don't drink from any of the creeks or the shallow wells – not even Hall water, unless it's been boiled for twenty minutes. Eat well, even if the people around you don't. I don't have to tell you folks are getting hungry. Demand more than your share, because both of you need it now. And pick somebody around you to come and study midwifery here."
       "Why aren't you – oh."
       "Oh. That's right. If we lose me, I'm not going to be much help to you, now am I?"
       They sat together in silence for a moment. The air seemed to hang heavy and still between them.
       "Do you get the feeling," asked Marcee suddenly, "as if some awful thing is about to happen?"
       "What? What do you mean?" Karen placed her hand over her belly.
       "Oh, not us ... you, or me. It's the air. Like it's listening and ... like it's sitting on all of us, and doesn't like to hear anybody breathing."
       Karen shrugged with her one good shoulder. "I think I know what you mean. But I try not to borrow trouble. Oh!"
       "What?" Marcee looked apprehensive.
       "Kid's moving."
       "Oh, hey, lemme feel."
       Karen guided Marcee's hand.

:::

"She did pretty good," said Tom Chaney. "I don't like that about a premonition, though. Should stick to the patient's business and stay upbeat."
       "Bosh," said Elsa. "I feel it, too."
       "Feel what?"
       "It. I don't know. The air, something."
       Tom shook his head. "Women. So, you want to go to the festival, 'old lady'?"

:::

Marcee and Karen fell in behind the old-timers, but far enough back to confer privately.
       Karen hitched up her belt again. The sunshine was painful on her hand, and she kept her head tilted forward so that the brim of her peasant hat shaded her eyes. The gravel of the path blazed; she was glad it was not far to Hall. "So, they did get hold of you. How did it go?"
       "Oh, not bad. He thinks I should level with you less, she thinks more. They got in a funny little row, and turned me loose."
       "What would be an example of 'more'?"
       Marcee stopped, made sure Tom and Elsa had walked far enough ahead, and looked at her. "You can handle it, I guess. Well. We don't just die in childbirth, we, uhhh, there have been lots of kids that don't turn out, as well."
       Karen held her belly again, and looked west, toward the opening of the hills toward the Big Valley. Out there, hidden now among its own trees and half buried by repeated floods, lay the Highway of Death. She realized she was not going to ask why she had not seen any of these children. But as to cause, she might ask.   "Radiation?"
       "Maybe. So many things went wrong, years before you and I were born. There could be stuff in the ground, in the water, or in our genes. Dr. Tom says that before the Undoing, they were putting plant stuff in animals and animal stuff in plants. Then there was biological warfare, there were bombs ... and Doctor Tom says that just the amount of stuff lying around, as it weathers, it changes the air, and the water, and everything. Old 'landfills' falling apart, stuff like that."
       "I read some of that; our books and stuff were from Before. And After is full of its leftovers. I guess we ... the baby and I ... don't have any guarantees. But I've never met anybody that does."
    Marcee nodded; then she stopped and put her hand on Karen's arm. "Whoa. Look at that cloud."
       Karen lifted her head so she could see from beneath the wide straw brim. To the southeast, over the shoulder of Starvation Ridge, a haze of cirrus had fanned out into the stark blue sky. Behind it a mass of cumulonimbus was building up to an impressive height, with pink folds and patches of somber gray.
       "That's a storm from around Diamond or Thielsen," Karen, who knew her maps, said. "They spread north and then all over. We might have some rain by tomorrow."
       "That would be a help," agreed Marcee.
       They came to Hall gate, which was decorated with streamers of dyed cloth, in yellows and reds. The young women crossed the open ground and came into the shade, ten steps from the door. Activities had begun. 
     Several people were sitting by the main front door on a long bench made from heavy timbers. They were engaged in making music, with a guitar and wooden flute, and several were singing along. Marcee knew the song, and joined in as she walked up.

    Well, the summertime is coming,
    And the trees are sweetly blooming;

    And the wild mountain thyme
    Blooms along the purple heather.
    Will ye go, lassie, go?

    And we'll all go together,
    And pull wild mountain thyme
    All along the blooming heather;
   Will ye go, lassie, go?

       Karen, not being musical, passed on through the doorway and found some sixty people inside; half the Creek! She realized with a shock that though she'd been among them for almost a year, there were some she had not really met; even the General Meeting last winter had seemed to be composed of different faces than some that she saw, and then she realized that some of these were dressed differently than Creekers, and must be from Roundhouse. There must have been a general relaxing of the quarantine rules. She spotted Mrs. Ames, sitting at a table nearby, with Errol and the Perkins family, and elected to join them.
       Mrs. Ames' shaking had increased noticeably, and her head was now permanently tilted to the right. But her smile was the same as ever. "Hel-lo, swee-sweetie," she said. Karen dumped her hat, cloak, and belt by the wall and dragged over a chair and sat down – surprisingly heavily – by Mrs. Ames and pressed her hand.
       "So, what have I missed?" she asked.
       Mrs. Perkins laughed. "Not much. It's been too hot in here, even with those going – " she indicated a small whirring fan, cannibalized from some ancient auto, among the rafters – "but they're setting up some kind of game in the middle of the room, and the young men are going to beat one another at it, then the women, is how I hear it."
       "Not all together?" Karen glanced at the middle of the room, where tables had been cleared away, except for a big one she hadn't seen before. She recognized it immediately: ping-pong! Someone had held onto a ping-pong table, complete with paddles and balls, and it had either been stored here or brought from one of the farms for the occasion.
       "No, It's guys then gals; Mr. Armon is our emcee today and that was what he decided."
       Karen looked again at the group setting up the game. Armon, Bledsoe, bigger than most, was in charge, and he seemed almost cheery. She sighed and looked elsewhere. Things were busy around the kitchens. "I think I'll go see if I can help out in back," she said to them all, rising.
       "Hungry?" smiled Errol. "I'll join you. That okay?" he asked the Perkinses.
       "She's fine with us," replied Carl. "Aren't you, honey?"
       Mrs. Ames smiled her crooked, kindly smile.
       Karen and Errol crossed the room, steering clear of the goings-on in the middle, and made their way to the propped-open double doors. The smells enticed them in.
       Guchi and several others, in new nettle-fiber aprons, were at the block table, chopping fruit.
       "Need a hand?" asked Karen.
       "Or three?" Errol held up both of his.
       "Errol!" remonstrated Karen, in mock shock.
       "No, actually," said Guchi, wiping his hands on a cloth that hung by the table's side. "We're just finishing the fruit salad, which is reconstituted dried apples, pears, and grapes, and the soup is a kind of gazpacho made mostly from dried  zukes and cukes – all from last year. We did all the stove work last night, outside, and we'll serve everything 'cold.' You can help us bring it all out, though, after the tournament."
       "Everything's from last year?" Karen looked at the relatively few pots and bowls on hand. So different from last fall!
       "Well, except for some pemmican and jerky that was made this spring, and a dandelion-lamb's-quarters salad. Most of the jerky is from our guests."
       "Roundhouse seems to be mostly hunter-gatherers," said Errol. "They drive deer with dogs. I've established some trade with them; they like our yew bows and we want puppies."
       Karen put her fingers in the nearest large fruit bowl; Guchi made as if to slap at her hand, but grinned. "Who's getting puppies?"
       "New Ames, Maggie's and Bledsoes', to start."
       "Everything's about Bledsoes." Guchi shrugged.
       "We're trying to help them feel they have a stake in the general welfare," said Errol.
       Karen wolfed down the handful of fruit she'd purloined, and turned to face Errol. She was surprised to find he'd moved off to another table as he was speaking, and in his place there stood what appeared to be a gentle giant, holding an alderwood platter covered with strips of jerky. He looked past Karen to Guchi, and extended his hands with the platter as if asking a wordless question.
       "Right here's fine," said Guchi. "Thanks."
       The man complied, then turned toward Karen, who was still licking her fingers. "You are Karen." He spoke with a flat inflection, with the same stress on each word.
       "Yes," she replied, looking up into his large, dark and childlike face, wonderingly.
       He pointed to himself. "Bolo, Roundhouse."
       Oh, of course! The 'simple' guy, who'd been staying at New Ames in her absence. "Karen, Ridge." Maybe at Roundhouse, they keep the "different" children? Or is he a stray, like me?
       He didn't reply or smile, or mention he'd been occupying her room. Instead, after several seconds, he pointed to her left shoulder. "Hurts?"
       "No, actually."
       "Tips you over?"
       "Umm, a little; I'm getting used to it, though."
       "Yes. You lean into it. Baby pulls you forward. You pull back. Tired easy." He looked at a nearby empty chair, then back at her.
       "Very observant and very kind. Thank you. But I was going back to the main hall." Not so 'simple,' thought Karen. I like him. "Join me?"
       "Yes."
       A game was in progress; doubles, with the Perkins boy and Raoul matched against Josep and one of his men. Only Dr. Tom had ever done this before, and he explained to them as they went along. The spectators were kept busy hunting down the ball, which got away from bad serves as well as missed hits. There was considerable laughter.
       Karen sidled along the wall and took a seat near the stairwell to the basement, and Bolo followed. They watched awhile in silence. Karen discovered Ellen Murchison, whose hair seemed to be getting whiter by the day, was sitting across the doorway from her, holding a walking cane. Both being recent widows, they had learned that a silence that had grown between them was something like companionship. They nodded to each other somberly.
       The ball rolled over to them. Bolo leaned down and scooped it up; Josep came over for it and thanked him quietly. Karen could feel the young leader's affection for the giant, confirming her first impression.
       At the main entrance, two wheelchairs rolled in, under their own power, followed by Wilson Wilson and Bobbo of Ridge. The game halted momentarily, and the musical contingent crowded the doorway behind the new arrivals. Armon, who'd been sitting near the ping-pong table kibitzing, stood up, a sneer breaking out on his features.
       "Well, you made it after all. We were beginning to think th' show wasn't gonna be good enough for you cloud-dwellin' types."
       Emilio jumped to his feet at the south end of the room. "It takes time to ride a bull-cart down that mountain and they had to wait for some of the heat to dissipate, as you surely know."
       Savage Mary chuckled as she rolled forward. "Gently, Mr. Molinero. I like clouds a lot, and Mr. Armon is tall enough that he should like 'em, too." A ripple of weak laughter went round the room.
       "Speaking of clouds," said Avery Murchison, "There's a hell of a storm brewing up. We might get a break in the drought tonight."
       Farmers all, nearly everyone was cheered by the prospect. Karen noted that Armon seemed dissatisfied with the exchange, and that Ellen Murchison was frowning over something, though her attention was not on Armon. The game resumed.
       'S'cuse me," Karen said to Mr. Bolo. "I'll be back."
       "Mmh? Hmh." He sat, arms crossed, and returned his attention to the novel game.
       Mrs. Murchison sat on a short bench; as Karen came over, she shifted to the right and made room.
       "What's up?" asked the younger woman.
       "You don't miss a thing, do you? I was remembering that storms are not all about rain. Who's on up at Ridge?"
       "Millie, probably. Billee is on the circuit of the valleys and everyone else is putting in a politic appearance here."
       Maggie, the fringes on her buckskin swaying, came over. Karen thought that Ellen, who had so recently been the tiger of the New Moon War, looked very diminished and frail next to her old associate. "Ellen, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she fairly boomed.
       "Yes, I expect. You two help me up, and I'll go downstairs and place a call to Millie."
       "Do you want to confer with Avery first?" asked Karen.
       Ellen hesitated. "No, he's got enough happening at the moment. I'll catch him up as soon as I get back. Keep me company?"
       Karen followed Ellen to the darkened stairwell and they began to descend, feeling their way with their feet.
       Two steps down, Ellen gasped and launched forward into the darkness.
       "Ellen!" Karen followed, flailing for the handrail, then felt something across her shin and tipped outward in turn. She caught the handrail and slammed backward against the stairwell wall, part way down. Maggie's silhouette partially filled the doorway above.
       "What happened?" she rasped.
       "Ellen's fallen! Bring a light!" Karen ran down the remaining steps, holding the rail.
       Maggie's shadow, ahead of Karen, disappeared, and Karen could see the still form of the elder sprawled before her, the cane underneath. Then another shadow took away her vision for a moment.
       "What's this here?" It was Armon, Bledsoe.
       "It's Ellen Murchison. She's down." Karen knelt beside her, feeling for an arm, a wrist, a pulse. But she was snatched to her feet.
       "You little killer. You'll be hanged for this."
       "What ... what? She might not be much hurt – let's check!"
       His grip on her arm tightened. "Too late, I'm sure. You pushed her down!"
       And he shook her.
       Karen's mind went back to the Eastsiders who'd found her near the cabin in the mountains. The first one, who'd caught up to her in the knee-deep snow, had grabbed and shaken her. Both of the strange men, with their painted faces and knotted hair, their panting breaths frosting in the air, were burned into her memory forever.

    If she had not had the little green pistol ...
       "Let go my arm, Mr. Armon."
       "Not effin' likely." He raised his other hand to strike.
       Karen realized that she'd left her knife upstairs, and, besides, she had no other arm with which to draw one. It would have to be feet, then. She put her left foot behind her, to gain arc for the other, and planted her right boot in his crotch. The big man grunted with surprise. On the second kick, Karen could feel his grip loosen slightly. That would be enough. Dropping her weight momentarily, she twisted her arm toward his thumb, unlocking his grip. Armon recovered and grasped her hair with both hands, shoving her away, but it was too little, too late. Palm out, she found the base of his nose and struck twice, her muscles remembering to reach, not for the surface, but for arm's length. The big head snapped backward.
       Karen's eyes by now had adjusted to the relative darkness, and she took advantage. Planting her feet, she made a fist, and struck for the man's Adam's apple, connecting on the second try, and as he slipped to his knees, choking, straight-armed his nose again twice for good measure. Then she stepped back and assumed a stance from which she could aim a good flurry of kicks if need be.
       More shadows appeared in the doorway, and then a light. Maggie, Bolo and others came down the stairs.
       What is this?" blared Maggie.
       Karen found herself trembling all over. The baby squirmed like a fish inside. "Ellen's fallen down the steps. Get the doctor!"
       A peal of thunder, long and low, growled over Hall.