It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

45

Book III

Bright in the Skies

And now men see not the light which is 
bright in the skies; but the wind passeth, and cleanseth them. Job 37:21


MARY SAVAGE, Ph.D., sighed. On the one hand, the strange old underground DARPA hideout held distinct advantages for her. It was relatively cool in summer and warm in winter, had flat, smooth floors, and a working elevator. She, a chair-bound invalid with RA, heart issues and, no doubt, lupus, could particularly appreciate the surroundings. Anywhere but the Creek, she'd be long dead. At the Creek, she'd still be dead after that hellacious summer, had there been no such retreat. On the other hand, the facility had not been built with her in mind. The doors were all solid-core steel, and they all swung shut with an authoritative click. Anytime she wanted to go anywhere alone meant a good deal of rolling, thumping, grunting and stick-wedging. If the chair had been an electric, she might have found a less strenuous protocol for the doors. The weight of the batteries would have counted for much. Time was, she'd have ordered up a battery-powered chair and Deela and Selk and Ro-eena would have produced it for her. Somehow. They'd all be too busy now at other tasks, most of which she herself had set them. 
       Time for a drink. That last door had about done her in.
       She paused at the refectory door, which, some luck at last, was propped open into the hallway. It was downright odd to see no lights switched on in here; weeks and weeks of full occupancy by most of the Creekers had kept this room constantly buzzing. Now everyone was trying to scatter back to the farms – or those farms whose buildings remained, after that all-consuming forest fire. Well, electricity – the good old-fashioned one-ten-volts-on-demand kind with which she had grown up – was one of Ridge's charms. She reached up and flipped the switch.
       Three tables away, someone had been sitting in the dark, head and arm on the table. Unwinding stiffly, the black-haired figure sat up and blinked. It was Karen, long and lean except in the middle – she was great with child, a rarity in itself – and looking leaner because of the shortened and seamed sleeve of her tunic, where her left arm should have been. As always, Mary's heart – and this too, with Mary's avowed objectivism, was a rarity – went out to her.
       "Whoa, kiddo. Flashin' light in your eyes. Sorry 'bout that. Catchin' forty?"
       "Ma'am? Umm, yes, ma'am. Couldn't sleep lying down." Karen stretched, a cat-like gesture, her hand overhead. "What's shift?"
       "It's mid-afternoon outside, if you're asking the time. I thought I would come in and snoop around, see about happy hour. Make one of Wilson's nasty cocktails if nothing else."
       "Oh. Well, then, we have a surprise for you. Guchi showed it to me. Hang on."
       The ungainly child –  woman, of course, but she's more than half still a child to me  – lumbered out to the kitchen and returned with a pint-sized Mason jar, lidded and ringed. 
       "Here you go, ma'am."
       "Oh, glory. Is that what I  think  it is?"
       "Yes'm, it's your last beer. If Guchi hadn't hid it, Juanita would have poured it into the soup." Karen handed the precious jar to her teacher.
       "And she would have been right. I say that myself, even though all my life I've been all about 'I, me, and mine.'" Mary untwisted the ring and, finding the lid unsealed, flipped it onto the table.
       "That sounds like a quote."
       "Good ear. Ayn Rand. She was where I got my ideas, when I was all of your age, about reason and enlightened self-interest, and so on." She sipped. "Ahh. Not much fizz, but ah anyways."
       "I think I've read about her somewhere. And so you became a physicist?"
       "Lots of reasons why people did that. But, sure, I sure didn't see any point going into Comp Lit or MFA. Whole different crowd." Mary could see that the terms confused Karen. "Computers. I should've done computers. Rand didn't live long enough – if she'd had, say, 'structured query language' to play with when she was young, I dare say she'd have disappeared into Systems at some university, like any good Aspie, and never gone into fiction." Much of this was going over, or maybe under, Karen's head, she could tell, but Mary plowed on. "I like hands-on. Shapes, textures, properties. So do you."
       "I do, ma'am."
       "And the Creekers found me sitting by the roadside out at Bridge – there was a sign there, then: 'Pepsi-Cola; Brownsville Rockhound Emporium; seven miles' – I bet I'd stared at that sign for three hours. And they said – the Murchisons and Elsa – 'y'wanna come live with a buncha folks?' – and they didn't ask me what I could  do, just did I wanna move in? Well, I thought it beat sitting out there with more and more flies on me, and the buzzards watching." She took a pull at the home brew. "Oh, yeah, that  was  that last batch. Triple hopped, with the last of the hops, fresh. Have a sip? It won't hurt th' kid."
       "No, ma'am, you just enjoy it, ma'am."
       "Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am. All right, I  will." She fingered the raised designs on the glass. On one side, the word "Ball" in stylized script; on the other, what was clearly supposed to be the Liberty Bell. Sigh. "Bottoms up. So they took me in, which I found mortifying on the one hand, and a relief on the other, and after while I made myself useful, just like almost everyone else around here. And on the one hand I justified myself to myself with  she that shall not work, shall not eat  –"
       "Like me."
       "– We're alike in a lot of ways kiddo – but on the other hand knowing that not everybody here  could  work, like Mr. Angle or Mrs. Lazar, much, and we were, y'know taking  care  of them, like they had taken care of me in th' beginning. So maybe I had a commie streak after all."
       Karen put on her thoughtful look, which to Mary always seemed as if she were trying to stare through the wall – or people. "I think, if a group is together, there's  strength in sharing. Because each of us takes turns being strong, the able one. You can't always know if someone will go weak at one time and then be strong again just when you need them. So – so, a, a mechanism for that is needed, and it's why we have the councils and the general meetings. It evens out the strengths for everyone."
       "Yes, the empathy argument. Hence government, bureaucracy and the whole nine yards. Even taxation, Rand help me."
       "Well, stockpiling the food here  has  pulled us through – so far." Karen pointed to Mary's half-finished jar.
     "Hmph. And when this is done, 'there's an end on't.'" Mary swirled the jar. "So, kid – what can you tell me about th' second law?"
       "Entropy, ma'am? It always increases."
       "Or remains constant. As long as a little more effort went into this place than we ate up, we were kind of steady state. Productivity might go up or down, but we sometimes had surpluses, and we stored 'em here at Ridge. But if your productivity is less than, or even equal to, your consumption of resources, your troubles will multiply. If entropy always increased, none of us would be here. But life organizes itself in abundance, in order to stay ahead of the game. Case in point, babies."
       Karen patted her tummy unconsciously. "Yes, ma'am."
       Mary finished the beer and set down the jar. "Thing is, more babies, somewhere down the road, more consumption, which is great in the presence of more productivity, up to a  point. This jar will never know another beer, Mrs. Allyn. There are too many random noises in this location, and insufficient signal to overcome them. All you young people,  take notice. We old-timers are  stuck here. Where the signal goes weak, staying one step ahead of entropy requires  mobility. That would be  you."
       Karen's eyes widened. For a moment, she looked at the empty jar, with its rapidly-drying floor of barley sediments. Then she met Mary's piercing gaze. "Yes, ma'am."
       A soft knock at the door brought both their heads round. It was Ro-eena. "Beg pardon, Dr. Mary, Karen."
       "Yes?" asked Mary, swinging her chair round.
       "Mr. Avery's compliments, and he says, condition absolutely red."
       "Invasion?" asked Karen, half-rising.
       "We think so," Ro-eena answered. "Karen's presence is requested upstairs, and we may be bringing everybody right back to Ridge today or tomorrow."

:::

Emilio Molinero, in spite of his hurry, kept to what little shade he could find. It would not do to get light-headed just now; though the slant of the afternoon sun bore less heat than it had done at the height of this terrible summer, it still commanded respect. Somewhere ahead of him were the Bledsoes: in his eyes a rabble of disaffected paranoiacs, but Creekers all the same. They had produced Huskey. Though very young, Huskey had shown potential and then some; as a leader he might have pulled all the Creek together.
       Also somewhere ahead of him, and hopefully a long way away through the frazzled cottonwoods, there was an army. Ellen Murchison and her crew, the only ones so far that had seen it in the blue distance, could not tell Emilio much about it; the forest, half-dead from drought though it might be, intervened. But there were, apparently in  working  order, a very large bulldozer and trucks of military design, and there was a  tank. And they were toiling toward Starvation Ridge behind the dozer. It could, he supposed, be a good thing; strangers had come to the Creek in large numbers quite recently and those had not come to destroy, but to cooperate. 
     Yet in this instance Ellen had not held out such a hope, nor had her dour son Avery. "There is very little alive in the Great Valley, so far as we have seen," Avery had said, drumming his fingers on the arms of his wheelchair. "Except for bugs, sucker fish, possums, coons, coyotes, owls, osprey, and about ten million swamp trees. The Pilgrims have dried up. If civilization was up and running somewhere, the messengers they would send out would travel by twos or threes, maybe ten at the most; they could live on the occasional herd of deer, or maybe learn to use camas or wapato. But this looks like fifty or more, and Ellen does not think there are women or children traveling with them. She feels it must be a war party, carrying its own provisions, and from what she's telling me, I agree. Also, they are heading straight for Ridge."
       Wilson, whose still-bandaged chest showed beneath his tunic, had nodded. "Karen has been of the opinion, all along, that the man who led the bandits last year would return and have another go at us. It does look as if that might be the case."
        And so here I am, detailed to prevent our runaways from meeting whatever's out there. A fool's errand, to be sure.
       Emilio came to the Bridge, which tradition regarded as the gate of Starvation Creek. At right angles to the valley entrance, it marked what had once been an intersection. A country road had crossed the Creek here and gone north, around the base of Ball Butte; another had come from the Great Valley and, crossing the Bridge road just to its north, followed the Creek eastward up into the foothills. It had served, at one time, perhaps sixty households of part-time farmers, retirees, and commuters. What remained was the cart-track, with its mid-stripe of dried grasses, behind Emilio; the other three roads had very nearly vanished into a young and nondescript forest of, mostly, ash and willow. The few openings were choked with teasel and gorse. Even the Bridge, which had been maintained for many years by the Creekers, looked disheveled in its rust and its skirt of weeds – what a difference a distracted year makes! 
      He shifted the strange little rifle to his left hand, gripping it by the pump-action forearm. He was himself used to bow and crossbow, but Karen had made a strong case for the longer range of the bullets she and Deela had so painstakingly made. The weapon could speak with authority some twenty times with the tiny bullets in his possession. Ten of them rested, malign in their potential indifference, in the hollow tube beneath the barrel. 
       Which way to go? Stooping, with his right hand he tested the edge of a slight depression in the dust. Recent passage – but by whom? And were they going north or south?
     Emilio became wary. Though he was not conscious of having heard a sound, he looked, without standing up, over his shoulder, and could see that someone had trailed out from the valley behind him. With relief, he recognized Josep, the young leader of the Roundhousers – now Josep of the Creek, of one of the farms. The wild blond hair was partially covered by a wide-brimmed conical straw hat like Emilio's. Josep carried a rifle on a sling, but also a strung bow on his other shoulder, and a water bottle swung from his hand. With the other he waved cheerily to his friend.
       "Well met, Mr. Emilio, and has our quarry absconded?"
       "I am having, shall we say, a slow time of it; the ground is so dry and in so many places hard. Have you been sent to assist in the search?"
       "I am an afterthought of your many-headed leadership, suggested by myself. We all know you like to work alone, but it's prudent to have someone watch the trees while your own eyes scan the earth. Besides, I'm tired of the hoe."
       "Ah. Well, I am not displeased. But if memory serves me, you are the better tracker of us two. Let us trade roles for a time. Here are tracks, I think; but to me they lead nowhere."
       Josep leaned over to inspect Emilio's findings, while Emilio, with his rifle at the ready, watched the surroundings. Josep walked first to the left, then to the right, nodding to himself. He snapped off a tall grass stem and chewed the end of it thoughtfully. "They have parleyed among themselves where to go from here. They have with them one hand cart? Yes – drawn first south, then north, and then the pace opens up. It is confusing because your people walk heel to toe, usually, and here they are urging themselves forward, and so the toes make the deeper impression. When this trail strikes the brush, it should be a little more obvious. How many?"
       "Eight."
       "So few? How  have  you kept these farms going? But there were ten, not so long ago. And there was even a child at one time."
       "Attrition among us, as with you. In my lifetime there were at one time more than three hundred Creekers."
       "Yes. So I think we go this way; and from the description given by Mrs. Murchison on the mountain above us, we may catch them up in two hands' time, maybe more."

:::

Two of Lacey's men would be watching for a signal from him. He studied the few birds in the trees nearby, and concluded from them that there was little danger anyone would overhear a conference, so he beckoned. Both, carrying juniper-wood in one hand, with a ready arrow in the other, caught up to him noiselessly. Each wore trousers, a jerkin and moccasins, made from deerskin and decorated with rows of colorful porcupine quills. They wore their hair braided and tied off, with long leather thongs, and, as he had done, they had painted their sunburned cheeks and foreheads with fat into which green leaves had been pounded, to please Spirit and make themselves at peace with Death. Were it not for their luxurious beards, an observer in this place some two centuries gone might have taken them for Calapooia Indians.
       Lacey turned his palm down, and the three squatted among the bracken in the shade of a thirsty ash tree. "There are eight. I feel certain they are from the valley that will be contested; they do not look like those that have been on Pilgrimage for months. Their passage is noisy and they are not watching well. Soon they will make camp and sleep, perhaps with one guard. Bring two more of our men; that should be enough. We will collect them and make them serve the People."
       "Sir–" said one, touching his forehead with an index finger. "–the Machine-man Mullins said to bring anyone we find to him?"
       "Now that we are away from the column, I have freedom to speak," replied Lacey. "The Machines and their army are weaker than we were told, and to feed them requires the good will of Magee, which surely they no longer have. We will see this through a little longer; may be this war will be simple. May be not. We must make preparations to abandon their campaign, should we find it necessary to do so. We conduct the present operation on our own, and perhaps provide ourselves with new Bringers of Food."
       "Sir, this is wise. I shall go and get the others."
       "Good; two of us will do to see these travelers to their beds. Bring our men and follow us from here; we will break twigs at head height every thirty paces to show our line of march."
       "In Spirit I go."
       "In Spirit we await you."

:::

"I am depressed as all  get-out," said Magee, stirring his coffee with a silver spoon.
       "I am sorry, to hear that, my lord," replied The Doctor demurely. She reached for the creamer.
       Magee peered at her over his glasses.  Still nice hair, after all these years. Wonder what she dyes it with.  "Nothing ever gets under your skin, does it?"
       "'There are many sharks in the water,' my lord, as one of my professors once told me, 'and if you choose one to worry over, another will bite you.'"
       "Ah, that's th' stuff. Well, even so,  everthin's  bitin' me today. First, I got th' inventory from the orchards-keeper; th' weather this summer has ruint th' pears. With the diesel I lent 'em, they couldn't pump enough river to save more than about three hundred acres total. An' th' rivers-keeper chimed in with record-heat this an' record-low that; upshot is, not enough fish comin' up th' Rogue or Umpqua, either one, to do any good. Meats-keeper, same diffy, th' herds from th' wild animal park are goin' t' predators an' bad pasture an' too many mouths t' feed. So everybody's come here an' lookin' t' me t' feed 'em out 'a th' bunkers."
       "I have looked into that, my lord; there are twenty-four pallets of MRE remaining untouched, plus a partial. With so many coming here to seek assistance, we are good for about two months." She reached him a steaming bowl. "Have some 'beef teriyaki'; you've barely touched it."
       Magee waved it off. "'Twenty-five-year shelf life' my  ass. That batch started goin' off two years ago early; don't care for it."
       "You may watch me; my lord," smiled the Doctor, as she spooned a portion onto her plate. "If I 'keel over,' you will know it is truly past date."
       "Ah-h-h." Magee gestured impatiently. "Worst  is, th' last runner came in whining about somebody had raided that damned gun store Wolf was so effin' proud of – assuming it was ever there. And then – suddenly no runners! Why am I not surprised? I have cut off all shipments to Mullins till I hear anythin'  good  from up around there."
       "That is the right thing to do, my lord. For a start." The Doctor sipped at her coffee and dipped her fork into the teriyaki.
       "Whatcha thinkin', my dear? If I may ask."
       "'There are many ways.' First, let us assume the weapons were there. Mullins has them, and begins to appreciate his apparent new-found power. He may think well of his chances of not only capturing the power plant, but of deposing  you."
       "Thought of that; but wouldn't he keep sending runners to keep me happy and stupid?"
       "They might think they could do such; but a fabricated story comes unraveled under much scrutiny. My young men take care to make an extended visit with each runner, and they are, in effect, cross-examined."
       "As always, love your thoroughness, Doc."
       "Second, let us assume the weapons are, as described, gone. Mullins may have encountered those who took them and been defeated; or is perhaps engaged with them."
       "But, my dear Doctor, wouldn't someone have been dispatched to ask for reinforcements?"
       "Of a certainty, my lord, though perhaps they would have been intercepted. There is almost no way to here from there without using the route we have ourselves constructed."
       "The eternal problem of long and unguarded lines of communication." Magee rubbed his stubbled chin thoughtfully.Huh. Out of razor blades. Oh, well.  "Yeah; but I dunno. Those nomads are good at givin' anybody th' slip. Got a third?"
       "But of course, my lord. The tribals may have chosen to turn upon Mullins, either to obtain the weapons, or in the instance of the empty gun store, to end the alliance due to a perception that the campaign is lost."
       "That's good thinking, my dearie, but I deprecate it on two counts. They are sincere in their dislike of machinery to th' point where th' thought of handling an assault rifle makes 'em bug-eyed. Seen that myself. And in t'other case, I think Lacey would see things through."
       "He is indeed the 'noble savage,' my lord." The Doctor reached for a paper napkin. "And now, fourth."
       "Yes-s-s? Y'always save th' best for last." Magee narrowed his eyes and tipped back his head, watching her through thick lenses.
       The Doctor smiled. "It is my sense of drama. Your man, Wolf, who in my humble opinion should have died or remained imprisoned here, rather than in your most important vehicle, has escaped."
       "I think that most likely, Doctor, an' it  has  occurred t'me. In any event I have relied upon Mullins at a distance, and your shark has bit me."
      The Doctor smiled her widest smile. "There are possibilities. Wolf may once again return here; if so, he is unlikely to use the road we have made. Or he may choose to take an interest in Mullins' army; or he may seek his stolen armory. Mullins and Lockerby will have thought about these matters, meanwhile. They know you cannot be happy with them; and without the provisions you have been sending, they have insufficient scope to return and defend themselves by attacking you. They may await you in a defensive posture, or they may run away, or they may seek some form of leverage."
       "Mmm-hmm. If I was Mullins, I'd go after the power plant for myself, use it as a bargaining chip with me. Yep. Th' war is still on, I bet. Only, for th' moment, it ain't  my  war."   Magee reached for the teriyaki. "I see th' stuff hasn't killed ya, so I'll just hold my nose an' have a go." He emptied the bowl onto his plate. "Huh. 'Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated.' S'why this stuff stayed  behind  when the Yew Ess Army left. And now ... what do ya recommend, O all-knowin' one?"

:::

Errol dipped the cloth in the cool water of the washbasin, wrung it out, and folded it twice before replacing it on his patient's forehead. The door behind him swung open silently. Feeling the draft, he turned. It was Elsa Chaney. He looked long; she seemed so frail he felt he could see through her.  How is she going down so quickly?
       Elsa smiled; it was that uncertain, staccato smile that came when she was trying to think of too many things at once. "Ready to switch out?"
       "Sure."
       But he didn't get up to leave, so she sat down in the spare chair. "GM's over."
       "Mmh."
       "It was short. There's so little to decide on these days. It's all been taken out of our hands really."
       "Yes."
       "So, how is she?" Mrs. Chaney gestured toward Mrs. Ames, who lay very still. Considering the effects, until recently of the Parkinson's, it was almost like looking at a stranger. One side of Mrs. Ames' face had suddenly sagged, yesterday or the day before, and her eyes had gone silent. She lay with her nose against the improvised burlap pillow. Near her mouth, the burlap was wet.
       "No change, but the breathing is slower. I think today or tomorrow, she will go down to Hall for recycling."
      Recycling. It was a word, used in this context, that always startled Elsa, though she supposed she began the tradition herself. Return everyone to Jeeah. Honor the earth by wasting nothing. Et cetera. Everyone had gone along with it, but in their hearts and in hers, death  remained a waste; the feeling could not, it   seemed, be shaken off. She reached out and patted Mrs. Ames' hand."What they said was, every 'non-combatant'" – she spoke the term wryly – "to Ridge; that would be me. Everyone else to Hall; that would be you. It's a mobilization."
       "They will try to speak with the strangers before making assumptions, Mrs. Chaney. You do know that?"
       "I'm not as naive as even  I  think, Errol. As Tom would say,  did say in the meeting, nobody would haul a  tank  all the way here from Jeeah knows where just to say hi." 
       Juanita came in, followed by Karen, Raoul, and one of the women from   Roundhouse. Karen and Juanita wore the shifts, made from found fabric, common to women at Ridge; Raoul and the girl, who seemed to Elsa very young, wore the leather jerkins and trousers meant for farming – and for warfare. Already they were wearing their swords. Raoul also carried a finely crafted cruiser's axe, which Elsa recognized as Errol's.
       Juanita stepped forward. "Is this a good time?" she whispered.
       "Oh, I think you may speak normally. If Mrs. Ames is in there somewhere listening, she'll want to hear everything." Elsa smiled. She offered her hand to the young woman, who had clearly attached herself to Raoul. "You must be Nine-ah. I was expecting long braids."
       "Ma'am. We're, one by one, giving up on hair."
       "We have no idea how we got so –  lousy  – here; what you must think of us!"
       "We had more trouble with ticks at our place. Things come out even, I think."
       Juanita stepped to the bed, beside Errol, who stood up. He offered her the chair. She accepted, but gestured toward the others. "We cannot stay long."
       Errol nodded; his terse smile appeared briefly. "Nor can I, I expect. My shift here is up, and you're collecting me."
       "Yes. I am going to go look for food with Guchi and Marleena, and you all are going to Hall."
      Karen leaned against the wall. "Except me. I get to go do ordnance with Mary, Deela, Selk, and Ceel."
       Elsa released Mrs. Ames' hand.
       Juanita's hand took the place of Elsa's, briefly. Juanita leaned down to Mrs. Ames' ear. "Go with Jeah, Mrs. Ames."   
       She rose to go, and Raoul took her place, self-consciously adjusting his sword and handing the axe to Errol. Taking Mrs. Ames' hand in his, and looking, to Elsa, suddenly very grown up, he said, "Go with Jeah, Mrs. Ames."
       Raoul stood, and strode to the door, turning toward Nine-ah, and nodding. Nine-ah stepped over to the bed, touched Mrs. Ames' face, and said, in a suddenly small voice, "The Lord be with you." Then she went to Raoul, and they went out together after Juanita, Errol with them.
       Karen, steadying herself against the chair back, sat down heavily. She took Mrs. Ames' hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, but, looking across to Elsa, said nothing at all.

:::

A damp fog arose from the Creek at sunset. It drifted through the cottonwoods and into the shabby fields, then hung there, a homeless ghost. Those working on the rifle pits felt the chill with a shock, after the hottest summer most of them had yet experienced. It would be time, after their shift, to go to the remaining farmsteads, or Hall, or even Ridge, to seek out heavier clothing, and some even thought about their rain capes.
       Tomma rubbed his head.  Hair's getting long, almost enough to comb. Already finding nits; must get Vernie to shave it.  He shifted the Hawken in his arms and wondered about the dryness of its powder. The new percussion caps were a concern, too. Deela had run tests and said they were reliable; but there weren't enough yet to practice and verify it. Tomma liked verification a lot.
       He stepped from the deep shadows onto the road and peered into the distance. Yes, whatever had called to his attention was out there; movement. He reached for his whistle. One long blast would send the shovelers leaping to their bows – or, as was more often the case now, to their new twenty-twos.
       The movement resolved into two figures whose gaits he recognized: Emilio and Josep. Tomma relaxed a little as they passed Bridge; their manner suggested no known danger following them. Yet he forced himself to re-focus, to study the limits of sight and hearing. One never knew whether one's friends might have let down their guard, might have missed something. Josep halted and turned to watch and listen as well – a good man. Emilio came on, moving to the side of the road and clambering through a brushpile as he neared the agreed-upon site of the punji pits.
      The pits were an idea of Jorj's; he had set the older people building the traps; a wooden box, open at the top, about two feet square, with sixteen-penny nails driven through the bottom. A final touch, devised by Maggie, was the smearing of excrement on the nails. These boxes were be buried in the road and in various paths approaching the valley, open at the top and covered with fragile mats of reedy material and enough dirt, moss, or what-have-you to blend into the terrain. There were none yet in the road, but Emilio, who had been gone for a couple of days, could not know that, and his caution both amused and impressed Tomma. He smiled as Emilio's short legs became entangled in the heaped gorse.
       Tomma cupped his hands around his mouth and hailed. "Word?"
       Emilio stopped in mid-clamber and nodded, unsmiling. "Itch. Word?"
       "Scratch."
       "Am I past the danger here yet, my friend?"
       "I'd say so, seeing how we haven't buried traps yet."
       Emilio smiled wryly. "Ah, you could perhaps have saved me some trouble."
       "But then I woulda had to shout louder; don't want our voices to carry too far out here."
       "It is true; and so I forgive." Emilio shifted his twenty-two to his other hand and unshipped his backpack. "Here comes Mr. Josep; let us all leave the road."
       They did so. Ro-eena appeared from the shadows; she and Tomma nodded to each other and she took his place at the roadside. 
Tomma went to his stash, sat down, and pulled out strips of jerky for the travelers. "Got news for us?"
       Josep looked for Emilio's assent – Emilio, famished, was busy with his jerky – and replied. "It is – not good. We did find the Bledsoe party and they indicated they would not offer hospitality, though they appreciated our warning and our concern."
       Emilio nodded. "We talked for some time with Armon; clearly he was very sad, and of two minds, but his people were firm with him in their desire to go north."
       Josep took a swig from a water bottle. "I recommended they at least make for Roundhouse and watch for a few days before proceeding. Armon said he would consider it. But I could see the others were not pleased."
       "An unhappy crew," Tomma shrugged. "Can't tell if we're better off without 'em or not."
       "We are not 'better off' without anyone; there are far too few Creekers, even were we not faced with whatever is out there." Emilio tightened his grip on the little rifle. "But they had become very unreliable, it is to be admitted."
       "That's putting it nicely," replied Tomma. "So, any sign of our visitors?"
       Josep and Emilio looked at each other. "My friend here," said Emlio, "believes we were seen, and that we were not alone in following the Bledsoes. I felt something as well, but saw or heard nothing to confirm this."
       Josep stood poking at the ground with the end of his bow. "They were very, very careful. We made a long detour coming back, in hopes of uncovering signs of passage, but there was nothing almost."
       "Almost?"
       "Deliberately bent twigs, parallel to the Bledsoes' track, which had then been straightened again. Perhaps a few depressions in the earth. Extremely skilled and light passage. I cannot believe this could have been the same crew as whoever they are that have that enormous bulldozer."
       "This is getting complicated."
       "Yes." Emilio stood up and reached for his pack. "We will go, and report. Where do we find Wilson?"
       "He'll be at Hall." Tomma stood up as well. "I think we'll throw a little patrol out past Bridge tonight, and get those traps buried before morning. Wouldn't want anyone to see us setting them out."