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 23, 2014

38

Ellen Murchison hobbled up the path, with her hazel walking stick, to the compost windrows. There were now an even dozen of these, five feet high and a hundred feet long, in the remaining flat ground between Hall Farm and the looming bulk of Starvation Ridge. She passed an idled bullock cart and found a bit of shade just beyond the end of the freshest pile. Somewhere in that end, she knew, were the remains of her husband, making his final contribution to the health and welfare of the Creek. She eased herself painfully down onto a maple stump and rested her chin on the head of  her stick, peering out at the dazzling sunlight from beneath the wide brim of her peasant hat.
       "Hey, Murch." They had called each other that. She could easily imagine she heard the bones' reply.
         Hey, Murch. What's up?

       "Ahhhh, all hell. Kids are trying to kill each other on the sly, and clean out us old timers too, I think. I smell 'regime change.' Maggie's  close to it somehow, Jeeah knows why. And then, there's other stuff."
       What's that?
       "Well, the young folks at Ridge and Ball Butte have triangulated a good forty smokes out there. Some parties are going after the close ones with axes, shovels, and rakes, but I think we're gonna finally have the big one before it's over. The highs have been over a hundred ever since the full moon, that's nine days in a row."
       Go to Ridge. What it's for.
       "Well, sure. But after that, what will they all do? Hell, I'm dying now, Murch, I can feel it, somewhere down around my plumbing, same as you. I'll probably have to check out, same way you did, you brave and good man, you."
       Coward's way.
       "Not any more, it's not. That's Before talking. They gave us the 'big green weenie,' but you, the day you thought you couldn't contribute any more, you asked me to bring you that teenager's little gun. I knew damn well what you wanted it for, and I brought it, didn't I?"
       Love.
       "Yes, it was, damn you, Murch. I did that for you, and I guess I hope any one here would do that for me. So what do we do if the Valley burns?"
       Rebuild.
       "How? – with what? We're little more than a hundred now, able-bodied that is, and all the building materials are in harm's way."
       Stay at Ridge. Crops close to the Creek, water in ditches. Long poles.
       "'Shadoof'. I remember now, I've seen those. We covered a lot of ground, you and me."
       Yes.
       "It might not work. They're getting dispirited."
       'JJ did tie buckle'.
       "I had almost forgotten that one. Let's see: Justice, Judgment. Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness. Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm. Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, Endurance."
       That's all there is. Teach it, over and over.
       "And then?"
       Nobody lives forever.
       "You and your 'Air Force salute.' Easy for you to say, I might point out."
       A faint sound reached Ellen in her reverie. She raised her head and squinted toward Hall from beneath the hat brim. Someone, hatted and caped, was trudging through the heat toward her. From the slightly lopsided gait, it must be Karen of New Ames. She was carrying her gun belt in her hand; it swung against the cape from inside.
       "Here comes your protégé."
       She received, but had expected, no reply; the whole conversation had been in her own head, she knew. Conversing with a hollow place in her heart.
       "Hey, girl."
       "Ma'am."
       "Gotcha belt with you."
       "I feel a need to go armed. But I'm getting too big around for the belt."
       "We'll make you an ALICE."
       "What's that?"
       "Well, now; they didn't have those any more, not even in my day, but it's an easily made load-bearing getup; suspenders combined with a belt, basically. In fact, everyone should probably have one, now that you're re-arming us with all the little pea-shooters. Might be good for firefighters, too, come to think of it. Best way to carry drinking water if you don't have 'camelbaks'. Those floppy belts that are all the rage don't quite cut it, to my mind. Ask Avery."
       "I will. Thank you."
       "Sit?"
       "Thank you."
       "You're too polite. What's on the belt, anyway?"
       Karen brought it out and rested it on her knees. "Twenty-two revolver, High Standard, six inch. Right-hand thumb-break holster, cross draw. 'Magnum' double-edged knife, sheath, right hand side. 'USFS' water bottle, canteen cover, hip. Auxiliary pouch, hip, fifty rounds black powder twenty two, wrapped." She recited this like a lesson.
       "You sound just like Avery."
       "I'm studying with Mr. Wilson at the moment."
       "Of course. Nine rounds?"
       "Yes."
       "How's reliability now?"
       "I would expect seven of them to work. Not much oomph and messy to clean up after, but good to go."
       "'Good enough for government work.' We're proud of you, Karen, this was what we needed."
       "Thank you, ma'am."
       "Looking at centerfire yet? I'd love to see reliable rounds for our Pee-Nineties and Five-Sevens."
       "What are those?"
       "Avery hasn't shown them to you? There's a little armory at Ridge."
       "I've seen it; but I didn't know what those were called."
       "We were equipped with the little bullpups and matching pistols in our guard service. Old designs but handy. Lasers, low recoil, and some armor penetration."
       "Umm, no, ma'am, I haven't seen those rounds yet. Shotgun shells are next."
       "Well, Jeeah knows there are plenty of shotguns lying around. Every farmhouse, it seemed, had them."
       "Yes."
       "So, what made you look for me here?"
       The young woman looked at her steadily.
       "Well, we ... we weren't much, compared to you two, but ... my guy is here too, you know."
       "Oh – oh-em-gee, Karen, I'm so self-centered. Please forgive me. Of course he is. They're both right over there."
       "Yes, ma'am. Side by side."

:::

The young man, comfortable in his newly issued (though very used) camo fatigues and slouch hat, raised his hand in almost affectionate salute. "Good morning, my lord."
       "Good morning, Lockerby, it's good to have you back."
       Magee, in his customary white shirt and suspenders, looked even older than Lockerby remembered – but spry. Behind those thick glasses, he knew, the old man had never missed much. "Thank you, my lord."
       Magee looked over the young man's shoulder. "A lovely caravan; shall we inspect?"
       "Yes, sir."
       Lockerby, who had been prisoner number 28212 in this very facility, had spent the last two years, very much against his will, soldiering for a militia in the Sacramento Valley. They had, like Wolf's army, bitten off more than they could chew – trying to establish a feudal empire in the presence of too much background radiation and insufficient agriculture. His escape and long journey back to Roseburg evinced qualities Magee sought to cultivate: perseverance, endurance, initiative. These, rightly cultivated, would be of use to the Volunteers. The young man had been an asset to Magee's Klux army in times otherwise best forgotten. But what of obedience? That one is difficult; it vanishes in a moment.
       "Mullins has done a good job here, sir. In the lead we have a Caterpillar D-8 with armored cage and gun ports. It only seats two, driver and shotgun, but it's covered by the LAV-35, which will follow. The LAV, like all the rigs, has poor electronics and no machine gun ammunition, but the turret does traverse and the thirty-five millimeter HESH-T rounds are functional. We've improvised a scope for aiming, and while traveling in the woodlands, the gun, if needed, will operate on line-of sight, sighted in for one hundred meters. When we want, we can go over three thousand meters. Not very accurately, but it should do."
       "How many rounds?"
       "Four hundred and another two hundred in one of the trucks. Half of everything that we found in the bunker, and most of the rest is really training rounds anyway."
       "Who will cover the LAV?"
       "Mounted tribals from Eastside have undertaken to travel on both sides of the column, prepared to engage anyone approaching the vehicles, especially this one, and will carry out patrols on the flanks."
       "Mnmh. And who's keeping an eye on them?"
       "Who, indeed?" asked a voice behind them. They turned to see a tall, bearded man, dressed in a loincloth with a long knife sheath, empty, on its belt. His hair was black, streaked with gray, parted in the middle and braided with red yarn, falling halfway to his waist from behind each ear. His feet stood, laced with leather thongs, upon rubber-tire sandals. Muscular and tanned, he had about him the gait and bearing of a competent and habitual horseman. Around his neck hung a simple leather thong strung with lion's claws. These were so fresh that the already-hot morning air wafted a hint of recent death to the Volunteers' noses. Magee focused on the claws.
       "Have you been messin' around with our lions, Mr. Lacey? We did ask you to avoid them."
       Lacey almost smiled. "Did you ask them to avoid us? The horses were of great interest to them; this one visited our encampment and was reluctant to give up our company."
       "So I see. Well, Mr. Lacey, as you appear to have joined our tour – Mr. Lockerby?"
       "My lord Magee. Behind the LAV you see the four MRAPs, in effect a supply train of armored trucks, and each will have a driver and a guard. These will carry the best of our functional small arms – the AK and the shotguns – and will watch all proceedings with the understanding that no one is to approach the LAV or other vehicles. The free-fire zone will be fifty yards, and strictly enforced. The motorized column will make road as they go, using the Cat to clear a single swath along the old freeway. The balance of the Volunteers, with their packs, will march in the rear, also keeping a distance of fifty yards. There are enough drums of diesel, MREs and other provisions to get everyone to the ghost town on the North-Running River and establish winter quarters, after which the MRAPs will return along the new road and resupply. Scouting indicates there will be sufficient forage and water along the way for horses, though conditions are becoming very dry."
       "The Northern Detachment, shall we say? Thank you." Magee half turned toward his guest. "Mr. Lacey, we have gathered and trained here  some three hundred men for the pacification of the Great Valley, beginning with this little push. But only about sixty will leave this departure point tomorrow; we can't easily maintain supply for more, even with th' new road. Your contingent will be extremely valuable in coverin' the flanks and th' line of supply, as well as reconnoiterin' ahead. So you know our modus operandi and disposition in sufficient detail, I trust; and perhaps you will do us th' favor of outlinin' yours."
       "There is nothing simpler; of my people, who now cover much of the inland area in small bands, we have come to you twenty-four in number, with forty-six horses, under my command. The spare horses carry jerky and pemmican, plentiful and well secured. We all carry good bows and we have good eyes and can provision ourselves along the line of march, to save on our supplies and, if necessary, yours."
       "And with the understandin' that Mr. Mullins commands the expedition, and Mr. Lockerby, here, succeeds him in the event of anythin' untoward?"
       "We will follow Mr. Mullins' direction, as he seems capable and straightforward; reserving the right to notify him that we must act in our own self-interest if conditions warrant."
       Magee turned to Lockerby. "You see how it is, Lockie; no more can anyone ask of an ally. The East is vast, and there will be no leveragin' folks. So our friend and I must be polite and formal with each other, and you must do th' same." He returned his attention to Lacey. "So where's your horse, buddy?"
       Lacey indicated with his eyes the corner of the nearest barracks, and whistled between his teeth. A younger man appeared round the corner, also wearing breech cloth and braids, leading two horses with deerhide bridles and saddle blankets. They were fine-looking horses, with equal portions of Quarter horse and of Appaloosa in their appearance.
       Magee returned his gaze to the chieftain. "We will see to their needs. Tell me, did ya come in by th' east gate or th' south one?"
       "South; we spoke to the man on duty there and told him were were coming to a meeting with you. We left our weapons with him, of course."
       "Of course. Well I am about to go to th' refectory for lunch with th' Doctor and you are invited. Oh, Lockie, thank you for the tour."
       "You are welcome, my lord."
       The chieftain inclined his head slightly and departed to confer with his horseman. Magee, who had made as if to step to the shaded entryway of the building, waited till Lacey was out of earshot, and retraced his steps.
       "Lockie, that son-of-a bitch has been allowed to walk right up on me. Go up to th' south gate and make things right, wouldya?"
       "My lord. With pleasure."
       The sun beat down unmercifully on the cracked pavement of the prison courtyard. All the blue-bellied fence lizards, which had come out to hunt bugs in the long shadows of early morning, had disappeared. Lockerby chose his route so as to avoid being seen by the visitors. Two left turns brought him to a direct path to the south gate, several blocks away.
       "Lockie." Mullins appeared from Lockerby's left, out of the shade of cell block B, and fell in with him.
       "Mullins, sir."
       "Huh. Not used to being 'sirred' by you yet."
       "Sir, it's how it would be if I'd stayed all along and you'd just shown up."
       "That's so. On a mission?"
       "Yes, sir; I've been asked to investigate a security breakdown and take corrective action."
       "Oh, ho! I saw that cowboy with th' old man; he did seem to have got here a little early. Join you?"
       "Yes, sir, please do. Shouldn't take too long."
       They stepped into the narrow shade of Cell Block C and walked single file to the Gate stairway. The railings were hot to the touch, and the air above the steel stair treads shimmered. Lockerby led Mullins to the second level, which was a steel-walled tower, designed in a bygone era to keep prisoners in and the inquisitive out. The view in all directions was impressive.
       The guard, an olive-complexioned youth of about fifteen, stood gazing out on the brown landscape beyond the Gate. Beside him, leaning against the wall, was his crossbow; two Eastern style bows, with decorated deerskin quivers, and two Bowie knives lay on the floor next to it. The guard turned as they came in, saw who they were, and stood to attention. "Sirs."
       "At ease," said Lockerby. "Simmee, we got a couple of visitors through here?"
       "Sir, yes, sir, the Injun chief and one of his men; Lord Magee was expectin' 'em."
       "'Indian?'" asked Mullins.
       "Ain't that what they are?"
       "Well, no, or not entirely, but that's immaterial right now," said Lockerby. He stepped a bit closer to Simmee, while Mullins hopped on the table that occupied the center of the room and nonchalantly swung his legs.
       "What are the standing orders from Magee, can you tell me?" asked Lockerby.
       Fully alert now, Simmee looked as if he wanted to back away from Lockerby, but knew better than to try. "Sir, to challenge and turn away all comers unless instructed otherwise, and to disarm those excepted."
       "I may have missed something there. Did you not send for an escort for th' tribesmen?"
       "Sir? They were expected, and are our allies, sir?"
       "Expected in the afternoon. They got here in the middle of th' morning, looks like. I believe your relief was to be a three man team, for the express purpose of providing the escort. These two were, for purposes of your watch, not excepted, let alone authorized to poke about all on their lonesome."
       "I – I must have misunderstood, when we got our orders for the day at barracks, sir."
       "I think you must have, Simmie." Lockerby turned up his left palm and studied it disinterestedly.
       Mullins drew a quick wavy line in the air with his finger, drawing the guard's eye for a moment. Lockerby slipped an ice pick from his sleeve and, with one unhurried, fluid movement, buried it to the handle between the ribs over the youth's heart. 
    Simmie stood transfixed for a couple of seconds, as if still trying to make sense of Mullins' gesture, then slumped abruptly to the floor, where he flopped about uncontrollably for a few seconds more, then grew still. A flatulent odor began to permeate the hot tower. Lockerby had retained the ice pick, and had stepped back briefly to avoid the flailing legs. He came forward again and wiped the point of the pick clean on the body's sleeve. A sigh escaped the corpse.
       "Sad," said Mullins.
       "Yes," said Lockerby. "If it had been either one of us, we could have assigned him some double shifts, run him around the campus for a few hundred laps, and then re-trained him. But we can't have 'em that sloppy about the Boss, not even once."
       "Shall we carry him downstairs?"
       "Let's," agreed Lockerby, slipping the ice pick into its hidden 
sheath. "It's cooler under the stairs, and that'll bring less trouble to the kitchen crew."
       Mullins slid off the table and stood by the feet. Lockerby started to lean over to grab the shoulders, but halted as he saw Mullins' expression change. Mullins was looking into the distance past Lockerby's head. "What's up, sir?"
       "Helluva cloud over there. Hilltop's signaling about it, too, seems like."
       Lockerby turned and looked toward the ridge. A figure, tiny at such distance, stood by the stone outpost at the top, waving a flag on a long pole. Behind him a massive bank of smoke was blotting the northern sky, larger at the top than underneath, vaguely reminding Lockerby of a mushroom. "Whoa. Forest fire?"
       "I think. It's not clouds, there's at least three colors. Might have something to do with the storm that was over that way yesterday."
       "Yah, that was horizon-to-horizon stuff, though we didn't get a drop. Wonder if it will affect our mission ... "
       "Looks big. Who can tell?"
       "Well ... got a mission right here, meanwhile. Need to go find a replacement guard, too."
       "Yeah. Lemme get his feet."
       
:::

"Hello, my dear."
       "My lord! You've brought company! I'll ask for another place setting."
       "Don't get up, I've already made the request. Introductions! Mr. Lacey. The Doctor."
       "How do you do," murmured the Doctor.
       "Ma'am. That is your name – the Doctor?"
       "It will do. Didn't I see another young man through the window? We could set another place."
       "You are kind, ma'am, but it would not be good discipline. He is a slave."
       "Oh! Of course."
       Magee drew his cup to him and reached for the creamer. "Coffee? Yer slaves go armed, then?" Magee squinted through his glasses at Lacey's silhouette; even through tinted glass the sunlight was very strong.
       "Trust is the basis of any relationship. Do not your soldiers carry arms, and do they not obey you?"
       "A soldier and a slave have much in common," smiled the Doctor.
       "That case could be made," acceded the chieftain, "But with us there are two kinds of men – the warriors and the bringers of food. On such a journey as this, a trusted slave may accompany each warrior, and bring him food, but also defend him." Lacey stared at the cup from which he'd just sipped. "What is this ... 'coffee'?"
       "Grows on you," said Magee. "What happens if you run out of food?"
       "Then he brings me ... himself."
       "Hard-core. I think I like that. He wouldn't resist the idea?"
       "He has a family."
       "Ah. We're more alike than I maybe thought, Mr. Lacey."
       "Some broiled kudu?" asked the Doctor.
       "Thank you, ma'am. You are curious, perhaps, as to why we are here."
       Chewing, Magee looked up from his plate at Lacey and swallowed. "We have wondered about that, sure."
       "We have formed a people from the remnant of those who starved through the Undoing in the great East. When the trucks and the trains stopped, the towns emptied themselves out and people streamed north, just as I have seen they did here. Traffic came to a standstill as more and more machines stood abandoned on the roads. Then the time of Eating began. Those who lived farthest away from the towns did best. We were able to catch food without becoming food ourselves, and as you can see, we were even able to retain our horses, for which Spirit be praised."
       "Yeah, the horses 'round here got eaten up," said Magee, reaching again for the creamer.
       "We have learned from those who lived here before, and who have become part of our people. Some remembered how to live in such times."
       "The Warm Springs folk?"
       "Yes! You know of them; I am pleased. The Kah-nee-tas, as you say, and Umatillas and Nez Perce. Klamath is a large band, a mingled people. We are perhaps four thousand, loosely confederated, in more than thirty bands."
       "That many? Buddy, there's hardly room for ya over there."        Magee was being a little facetious, the Doctor could see. She   pursed her lips slightly, and considered giving him a gentle kick beneath the table, but the chieftain went on unperturbed.
       "My own party is composed of men, and their slaves, from two bands. I am a Prineville. Some others are Bends. The chieftain at Bend is a great man; he sent us here."
       "I get th' picture."
       "It is like this. There are a people south of us, of a generation that did not try to emigrate during the time of Eating. They have saved more cattle than we did, and established themselves in a difficult land."
       "That would be Nevada."
       "As you say. It is becoming very dry there, and as their herds have decreased, they are testing their northern border. They have also some means of preserving the old weapons. They strike at us from a long way off. We have begun to experience border raids, and we are taking unacceptable losses."
       "Guns?"
       "Our elders say so. The guns make a lot of smoke. So they say it is an older way of making these weapons, that does require the 'factories'."
       "Uh huh, artisan gunpowder and old pieces from gunshops, or conversions, or both. So, you got worries."
       "We have worries, as you say. So we in leadership came together and said, we will send some to the West, and offer trade. We will make war for you, and in return ... "
       " ... we come over and make some war for you. Well, sure."
       "And so, we are here. And we will undertake to go north with you ... "
       "And cover th' wagon train. So, as you say, there are lots of you and you travel light and swift, so why haven't you just swooped down on us – and taken our toys for your little war?"
       "We had very hard times. Many key people have gone. We have more time to make this treaty with you and enact it, than time to learn how to take care of the machines. Also, we have among us a – a prejudice against using them ourselves."
       Magee stopped in the midst of pushing away his plate, eyebrows raised. "A prej – I'll be damned. A taboo!"
       "What is that?"
       "A very old word," said the Doctor. "Tell me, the prejudice, it is a matter of 'Spirit'?"
       "As you say."
       "Yes. My lord has it right then. You must have allies with machines, but must not touch the machines yourselves. We're qualified because we are outside Spirit's protection."
       "Does this offend you?"
       Magee laughed aloud. "Not at all, buddy. I think it's downright charming!"
       The big Eastsider looked at them both, in momentary confusion. Then he dropped his eyes to his empty plate, and said, "it is very good, this 'kudu'."
       "My lord," said the Doctor, "there is a messenger in the hallway, trying to catch your eye."
       "Excuse me, if you please, Mr. Lacey, it looks like I should take a call," said Magee, rising. He walked across to the double doors leading to the building's interior.
       "'Take a call?'" Lacey asked.
       The Doctor reached across and patted his hand. "We have many things to talk about, I think."
:::

"Hey, Wolf."
       Wolf rolled over on the steel shelf, the chain from his shackled neck clattering. He opened his eyes, blinking at the light. That was a familiar but unexpected voice.
       "Lockie?"
       "Yep. Sorry 'bout ya troubles. So, you're going for a vacation from this hole for awhile."
       "Vacation? How so?"
       Mullins was standing there as well. "We're rolling tomorrow. Boss says you get to ride the whole way, lucky dog."
       "Ride? Ride where?"
       "To wherever it is you went before."
       Lockerby was holding something in his hands. "Gotcha some leftovers from th' Boss's lunch here."
       "Yeah," said Mullins. "We're to take good care of you. You're gonna have th' whole squad compartment of th' LAV to yourself. Chains an' all."

:::

Wilson paused, leaning with both hands on the end of the handle of his rake, and looked up – and up.
       "That's really something," he said to no one in particular.
       Vernie, with an axe over his shoulder, pulled up behind him on the deer trail. "Sightseer."
       "Well, it's not something you see every day."
       At least three large forest fires were lifting gigantic clouds of smoke and steam into the morning sky, silhouetted against the eastern light. Three columns billowed up, white shot through with rose, to some unimaginable height, driven by their internal heat, then, as they cooled, drifted away, black and gray, into a rust-brown haze toward the southeast, merging into one large cloud high above the mountains.
       Errol caught up to them, carrying a heavy-bladed hoe. Like the others, he was also laden with a backpack, a bow, and a couple of half-gallon water bottles. "Map?"
       "Got it," replied Wilson, unrolling an ancient Bureau of Land Management map.
       "What have we got?"
       "We crossed the dry wash – what should have been Blue Creek – right here, and we're at about eleven hundred feet. Ro-eena marked this smoke right up here; we should be about an eighth of a mile from it."
    "Feet? Miles?"
    "Well, that's what this map uses."
       "How can you tell how far things are out here?" asked Vernie.
       "These squares are six hundred and forty acres in size; so they're a mile on a side. So I'm guesstimating from that." Wilson laid the map out on a stump and pulled out his antique compass, an aluminum bezel mounted on graduated polystyrene. Setting the compass down on the map, he lined up the device's edge with it, and rotated the map until the compass needle hovered, in the fluid, above the outlined needle painted on the bezel's floor. "Now the "north" edge of th' map is pointed north. So the "X" is up that way. I think I see a little cliff between here and there; we'll have to go around. I vote west side of th' rocks."
       "Sure. That doesn't look quite like north on the compass, though."
       "The painted outline rotates to set what used to be called 'declination.' The needle itself always looks at magnetic north. That's east of true north, for us."
       "How do we know just where?" asked Errol.
       "We don't. Magnetic moves around, an' it's been a long time since anyone could tell us the angle. But I'm giving it eighteen degrees east, based on the map-check Selk gave us. He lined up the map back at Ridge with South Sister mountain and the North Star."
       "Sounds good."
       "'Good enough for gover'ment work.'"
       "How do you know when we've been 'an eighth of a mile?'" asked Vernie.
       "My McLeod handle."
       "Mack-loud?"
       "Mmm-hmm, this kind of rake was designed by a fire fighter named McLeod. The handle on this one is six feet, so that's eight hundred and eighty handles to th' mile."
       "Oh." Vernie was impressed, as he had been on several occasions, with Wilson's seemingly endless supply of pre-Undoing lore. "Is that why you wave it around sometimes?"
       Wilson nodded. "Just to keep my mental picture stat. Thing is, it's so steep out here, we travel a lot more than a mile to cover a map mile."
       A very faint sound turned their heads.
       Below them, on the path, stood Billee, bow in hand. A wide-brimmed straw hat, Asian style, shaded her face.
       "S'just tail-end-Charlie," she offered. "So, are ya gonna go on up? I'd like to do my recon from the rock."
       "We'll take a little water break. If you're antsy, go point."
       Billee passed around Wilson without a backward glance, nodded to the others, and moved on.
       When she was out of earshot, Vernie broke into a grin.
       Wilson found himself annoyed. "What?"
       Vernie's grin widened. "If you don't know, I'm not telling."
       Wilson unshipped a water bottle and uncapped it. "Well, if it's not mission critical I guess it'll keep."
       In a few moments the men were climbing again. They passed round to the outcrop's right, pulling themselves up by branch and shrub, and came out into a small opening with a view to the north. Billee stood near the precipice, glassing the blue hills and the valley that opened out before them.
       "What's that there?" asked Vernie.
       Without turning toward the sound of his voice, Billie answered, "Karen's monocular. I traded them the big glasses for it for field work."
       "How is it out there?"
       "Trees and smoke; smoke and trees. Coupla hawks, some buzzards. Quiet; which is how I like it." Billee shrugged slightly, shifting the sling of the .22 rifle and her quiver across her back.
       "Are you drinking enough water? It's almost ninety already and all uphill."
       "I'm good. You gents leave me here; I'll keep to the shade and get up and glass around every ten minutes or so."
       "Sure." Vernie glanced around; Wilson and Errol had already left the opening. "Uhh, Bee?"
       She took the monocular down and regarded Vernie guardedly. "Mmh?"
       "He likes you, really he does. Just focused on the fires."
       "Thank you, Vernie, and I'm focused on security."
       Vernie shook his head imperceptibly and caught up with the others.
       "'K," said Wilson. "See that loner fir with th' white stripe down th' side? I'm guessin' that's our destination."
       The men clambered up. Less than a hundred yards of effort, through a steep terrain of young fir and hemlock trees with an understory of viney maple and sword ferns, brought them to the tree. A blackened slab of bark, with rosy fingers of cambium attached, lay at its feet, but there was no sign of fire.
       "What now?" asked Errol.
       "We sniff around," answered Wilson, looking left and right along the slope.
       Vernie wrinkled his nose. "What, it smells like smoke everywhere."
       "Sorry; I mean look for any, you know, wisps of it rising, or whatever, black spots, anything diff'rent. Oh, here we are."
       Wilson strode sidehill to a half-buried hemlock log with a sloped heap of duff on its uphill side. A streak of blackened fir needles ran down hill from a small hole in the heap and disappeared among the ferns. "Something must have fallen in with th' squirrels, here." He set down his tool, knelt, and sniffed over the hole. Then he pressed the palm of his hand over it briefly. "Mmph. Errol, let's see the hazel hoe."
       Errol extended the hoe toward him handle first. Wilson chopped at the duff pile, exposing a layer of bark dust and dry chips of rotten wood. He stood up. "K, come over and feel that."
       Errol, and then Vernie, waved their hands over the spot. It was definitely warmer than the ambient air.
       "The top layer doesn't feel like it, but it's got some moisture content," said Wilson, wiping the sweat from his eyes. "So th' fire is damped down and burning inward from the surface. Could follow old roots, pop up anywhere around this log in a week or so."
       "What do we do?" asked Vernie.
       "We'll dig down to mineral soil all around it. Then we'll dig out th' hot spot, scatter th' cinders, and throw cool mineral soil on 'em. Might be here, mm, till the sun's about a hand-and-a-half past noon. Then we'll collect our busy little guard and on to th' next spot."
       Vernie looked at Wilson. "Sir?"
      "Mmh?"
      "Bee's pretty good at what she does."
      Wilson unbent a little. "Yeah, know it. I dunno why I even said it that way." They turned and faced the vast northern smoke cloud, rising from somewhere beyond the valley where they knew Roundhouse to be, and craned their necks back, to see where the cloud met, overhead, with the one from the south.
       "Tell me again why we're bothering with these little ones?" asked Vernie, breaking the spell.
      "They're the ones we can do anything about. And if we leave 'em alone, they grow up to be like those." Wilsom pointed to the roiling sky.

:::

"What are you doing under there, if I may ask?" Karen prodded Selk's foot with her toe. His legs protruded from beneath the main instrument console of Ridge's Control Room.
       "Yow! Scare me, why don't you?"
       "Should you be out building the fire line, like everybody else? Hmm?"
       "Aww, Karen, I did that last night. I'm off duty."
       "I think I knew that; I'm probably just teasing."
       Selk wriggled out and sat up, blinking in the light. His eyebrows lifted behind his dusty glasses. "Teasing? You know what, you've changed a lot."
       "Maybe. Can you help me get the big glasses onto their tripod?"
       "Oh! Yeah, that thing's heavy."
       "Not so much that, but it's awkward for one hand. Don't want to risk breaking it. Might be the only one like it left, and we'll need it for your satellite work."
       "Right, right, and right." Selk brought over the ancient air-raid warden's glasses and set them up.
       "Thank you." Karen picked up a scrap of cloth and dabbed at her eyes. The sweat was already getting into them, and she wasn't even at work yet. "It's always hot up here in the afternoons."
       "Yeah. Look, I've got a bandanna on and you're all shiny dome. Trick is, cover your head with a wet cloth. That's what the bucket's here for."
       "Mmh. I miss my hair."
       "We all do. Too many people in here; the lice simply exploded."
       Karen peered into the eyepieces and began a slow weep of the eastern horizons through the thick windows. "What is it out there now?"
       Selk stepped over to the north window and read the thermometer hung on the outside. "ninety-six."
       "Not as bad as last week."
       "And the week before. Mary says there's a breeze from the ocean. If the wind changes back, she doesn't give much for our chances."
       Karen swung the glasses to the west window. Always check the big valley, Avery had said. Five, six times an hour. That's where they'll come from.
       The child kicked, hard. "Oof," said Karen involuntarily, and sat back against the firefinder table.
       "What, what?" asked Selk, alarmed.
       "Nothing. Kid's awake." She returned to the scope.
       "Oh. Y'know, I haven't seen a lot of pregnant ladies."
       "It's hard to make babies around here these days, says Dr. Marcee. We're not sure why. And I got it on the first try, too."
     "Oh! Uhh, need to know basis."
       "Hmm?" Karen leaned back and looked at him. "Are you blushing?"
       "No," he lied. "I, uh, I got wires to count."
       "Huh." Karen went back to the eyepieces.
      Nothing out that way but undulating mirages. 
    With the heat, much of the foliage had dropped from the Valley trees; if anyone were approaching from that direction they would not have the advantage of such thick cover as the bandits had used last year. A surprise was still possible, but less likely. The oblong shapes of long-dead truck trailers showed where the Highway of Death passed through, near the great river. She looked briefly at the blackened top of the "Eagles Nest" cell tower, and thought of the poor young woman who had died there, then swung round to the north. Ball Butte's lookout was on duty; a figure, someone from Maggie's no doubt, sat in the shade of the cement-slab roof that rested on four boulders. Behind the mountain stood a magnificent pall of smoke, alarming till one realized how far away it must be. Half the land between here and Port Land must have burned in the last week; but that fire seemed to be slowing down in the slightly improved weather.
       The elevator door opened. Habitually, Karen reached down and touched the hilt of her dagger as she checked to see who it was.
       "At ease, Karen, Ames," said Avery, as he rolled forward in the red Quickie, smiling. "Though I'm glad to see you're alert. What's new?"
       "Not so much." 
    Avery, like everyone else, looked completely different without his beard and hair. His had always been close-cropped, but still! 

    We look too much like the bandits now; that's what's bothering me. Karen remembered, suddenly and intensely, the blue eyes of that last young man she'd killed.
       "Is anything wrong?"
       "No ... I'm hot."
       "Sure you are. Let me get around this maniac's legs here..."
       "Hey!" interjected a muffled voice.
       "... and I'll tie a nice clean wet bandanna round your head ... you like green? And you can go back to what you're doing."
       "Thank you; that helps."
       "Not enough ventilation up here; never was."
       "Why not?"
       "NBC. This facility was expected to stand up to nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare; at least, anything that wasn't a direct hit. So it's fairly tight."
       "Oh. My father called that ABC; must be the same thing?" She resumed her sweep around to her right.
       "Yes. An older term which he might have found in books. How many smoke teams do we have out?"
       "Four. One is up the Creek; the other three are working south of here."
       "Who's farthest away?"
       "Wilson; they're almost halfway to the Coburg Hills, I think."
       Avery rolled up to the table. "How many smokes over there?"
       "Six, that we have seen from here. If you will take these and look in the same direction as the alidade sight on the table ... "
    Avery did so.
       "There's a rock face on the north face, third valley over. Right above there ... that would be the first smoke's position as recorded."
       "Well, whaddya know."
       "What?"
       "I can see them. Just barely, through the murk. They're on that one now."
       "Oh! Well, then, they have five to go, and should be home in seven days from now. Maybe six."
       "It's slow going."
       "Yes."
    "Well, carry on, as they used to say." He re-mounted the heavy field glasses on their tripod, then backed away. As Karen resumed her post, he noticed the automotive AM-FM radio on the side table, wires running from it to a transformer plugged into the wall. "Selk?"
       "Sir?" Selk was tucked out of sight in the works, but his voice sounded clearly enough in the round room.
       "Do we still do radio sweeps?"
       "Oh, yes, sir. Not much out there, sir."
       "What's 'not much'?"
       "Most of the bands now are just 'cosmic hiss.' Nothing from Old Mexico. Nothing from the old U.S.  Some Canadian stuff. We think they took over Alaska. It's all advice, mostly; how to do things with fruit trees and gardens, how to fix windmills, broken legs, whatever. None of it seems like two-way traffic. Some music."
      "Music? They have time to broadcast music?"
       Selk crawled out and sat up, screwdriver in hand.
       "Sir, they're not as hot there as we are here. Some of their forests don't even have the bark beetles yet. It's what's left of civilization."
       "I think I knew that. It's where all the Pilgrims were going."
       "Yes, sir; some of the advice used to be about how to dispose of Pilgrims, sir."
       "Not enough room in the lifeboat. They do to us what we were doing to the Mexicans."
       "They were; but we don't hear so much about the Pilgrims now."
       "Couldn't we talk to them?" asked Karen. "Make a transmitter?"
       Avery looked at her. "That was voted down some time ago. Don't want to broadcast our presence to any warlords nearby. And nothing the Canucks can do for us so far away, and we with nothing to offer them."
       Selk added, "Not as if they don't have troubles of their own. Like I said, how to set a broken leg. Doesn't sound like there's much more to eat there than there is here, either."
       Avery poked at the radio with an index finger. "How about Roseburg?"
       "They went off the air two weeks ago."
       "They did? That's significant, maybe. I don't remember hearing about it."
       "I'm sorry. I meant to say something to Dr. Mary but I was preoccupied." He waved apologetically at the mass of wiring behind him.
       "It doesn't matter, I suppose, because I can't think of anything different we'd be doing for knowing it. But it's a lapse. Leave that stuff alone today and go get your sleep like you're supposed to be doing, and then tonight run surveys with this thing your entire shift and report to me the results tomorrow."
       Selk looked down at his screwdriver, then set it aside and stood up. "Yes, sir." He closed the cabinet door, dusted himself and made for the doorway.
       Karen continued her sweep.
       Avery sat beside her in his wheelchair, fingers tapping on the arms. She became aware he was watching her.
       Suddenly he spoke. "Think I was too hard on him?"
       She kept up her sweep. "No, sir. It was a change and we are to report changes."
       "We're a sloppy crew these days. He's a little off, I'm a little off, everybody's a little off. Short rations, itchy bugs, bad air, hot, little prospect of a harvest, your thing with the Bledsoes not resolved, Roundhouse hasn't shown up with that Cat. You, though, you still seem pretty focused. You and Marcee."
       "Sir, your mom, she's really tired all the time now, but she's pretty focused, isn't she?"
       He smiled. "Barking orders at me from Hall over the phone, day and night. Yes, she is. And Mrs. Perkins, she spells her, and she's the same way."
       "Well, that would be it, sir. Mrs. Molinero, too, the way she's running the kitchens now."
         "Your point?"
         Karen turned away from the glasses momentarily. She gave a slight shrug with her armless shoulder. "We're mothers."