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 17, 2015

46

Wolf considered his situation. The clothing –and the protein – from the kid had come in handy; fall was definitely on the way. He regretted his second victim, however; he'd found the Eastsiders very likable, and particularly the man who had found him: a silent, diligent and loyal retainer to that serious-minded chief, Lacey. But there was no letting him go back to report. So, now, Wolf possessed a nicely balanced juniper-wood bow, a quiver of arrows, two very handy knives, two changes of clothing, and – best of all, moccasins that almost fit. The kid's shoes had proven, as he'd expected, multiple sizes too small. On the downside, however, Wolf's neck was still adorned with Mullins' nasty handiwork – the neck shackle, with its sixty-two links of chain. He wore the chain inside the camouflaged jumper, to keep it quiet, but the steel next to his skin bugged him – both as a sign of his recent abject captivity, and as a constant irritant to his flesh: the links were cold, and sometimes they pinched.
       He turned to his companion and spoke softly. "And as for  you, I have no idea what to do with ya."
       The big Appaloosa snorted, looked at him from one big brown eye and then the other, then lowered its head and lipped a few leaves from whatever green things carpeted the forest floor.
       "I ain't got the' time ta learn ridin', fer sure. An' yer leave too much trail. But we've come this far, an' nobody's botherin' us, ya might as as well sip one more creek with me." A pair of big ears flicked; Wolf supposed that might be a reply.
       Lightly gripping the reins, Wolf walked down the slope, painfully conscious of the horse's big feet kicking up duff and dirt as they went. The tiny valley ahead of them might or might not be occupied; if so, there could not be many people there; it would not support them. In days gone by, it had been what Magee had called a "park" – places where a nation, or state, or some such thing, had declared that some pretty spot would be left unchanged "in perpetuity." Then, so that a steady stream of  cars  might bring people to look, a parking lot had been built, and remarkably overbuilt little buildings, with a pit toilet in each one, and then perhaps a path to some kind of "overlook." This one, which Wolf had found a long time ago, had something to do with water falling over a rock face nearby; perhaps fifteen meters. Whatever made people happy! For Wolf, the attraction had been isolation; the place was in a box canyon blocked by a mudslide, and a young jungle had covered the dead-end road.
       As he neared the park, Wolf let go the reins, and watched the horse amble down toward what was left of what had once been a tiny lawn amid the giant fir trees. Much brush had grown up, but there was still grass, and, as the site was in shade much of the day, the dampness from the nearby creek had kept things relatively green. The horse picked about, seeking the best fodder, while Wolf, bow at the ready, watched the surroundings. If anyone had moved in, they'd spot the horse, and he, Wolf, could spot them.
       After a suitable interval, Wolf felt safe enough to come down from the woods. He tied the reins to a sapling, in case the horse might try to go home, then cleared the buildings, one by one. Nothing to speak of in the toilets. Squatters would surely have used them, and had not done so; his spirits rose. He moved, pushing aside a thick growth of red alder and hazel, to the object of his journey: the maintenance building.
       This was a squat concrete structure, steel-roofed and steel-doored, with a heavy-duty hasp. Wolf had spent the better part of a day getting the original padlock off, then found the spare hanging from a hook on the wall, with the key in. Retracing his steps, Wolf circumambulated the building, satisfying himself it had not been breached, then walked to a rail fence near what had been the parking lot. Setting his bow against a fence post, he hugged the top rail and hauled it back several inches, dislodging moss and ferns that had grown on it, until the end slipped from the slotted post. Reaching in, he found his padlock key. He picked up the bow.
       Returning to the shed, Wolf unlocked the door and swung it wide. The hinges complained, but not too badly; the grease he'd applied had not all eroded away. He sniffed the dark interior, took two steps in, and waited for his eyes to adjust. The air was cool on his skin, but not too damp. Good; the roof had held. He set the bow against the wall, removed his quiver, and stepped over to the one closet door. Taking a deep breath, he flung it open.
       Unlike at the gun store itself, the mother lode, here all was as he had left it. Wolf let out a long sigh. Mounted on one wall, tools. On another, weapons, gleaming in cosmoline. At his feet, a steel trunk which he had filled with waterproof ready boxes of ammunition and chunks of baked drywall. It was from here that he had outfitted himself with the AK, Glock and shotgun before recruiting his army. He'd considered coming back with the men, to arm the lot of them, but ultimately decided against it. Control forty or fifty new soldiers, each equipped with the means to off him at a moment's notice? Better to get their complete loyalty first with a successful campaign.
       Except ... the "training" campaign, which had begun well, had struck a snag – a valley full of cagey tribals intent on protecting their cabbages. He'd been bested, he had to admit.
       And he had to acknowledge their way had a point. The room before him reflected his own skills, interests and outlook. But there were no cabbage seeds here; nor was there food of any kind. The strange people at Starvation Creek had been able to do something he, Wolf, might well never do. They had  settled down. Some of the soldiers, and that was what they were, that had besieged his dwindling crew – had been children.
     Ah, well. Wolf reached to the pegboard where a hacksaw –treasures of treasures! awaited him, then hesitated. Sawing off that effing chain would take time. Making these greased battle rifles, pistols and riot guns usable would take time, too. And he was vulnerable while doing either. Better hit the trunk first.
       Raising the lid, Wolf feasted his eyes. Thousands of rounds of, he hoped, useful ammunition lay in the boxes – but on top of the heap, lightly buried in crumbled drywall, lay an item he had left at the ready, loaded, against need upon a more sudden return: a stainless  pump-action rifle in three-fity-seven caliber. This item alone, he knew, was worth a warlord's ransom in this world. Rich again! He reached for the burnished walnut stock protruding from its Kydex scabbard.
     A commotion outside added sudden urgency to Wolf's gesture. Snatching the rifle from the scabbard, Wolf checked the chamber quickly and ran to the door. A high-pitched scream wafted up the creek – the horse! Broken loose? And now where? Around the bend. And there were other animals – or was that shouting? No, more like snarling. Checking perimeter first, Wolf left the building at an easy trot, dodging saplings and brush, bursting through to first one small clearing and then another.
       The horse was in the middle of the second clearing, trembling, breathing stertorously, and bleeding copiously. Around it, circling cautiously, were five – seven? nine? large dogs, ranging in color from cream to gray. The biggest sprang toward the horse, almost playfully, from the front, and the Appaloosa reared, its front feet windmilling.
As the feet came down, sinking with an audible thump into the grassy sand, the biggest gray fastened its teeth into the horse's nose.
       Wolf, well knowing the dangers of advertising one's possession of a firearm in the avaricious wilderness, for once threw caution to the wind. He fitted the gun to his shoulder and fired. Though he knew the report of the pistol caliber would be relatively subdued in a rifle barrel, the sound temporarily stunned him, as it did the animals. The leader fell to the ground, then got up and ran away, following the others. As Wolf pumped the next round into the chamber, he had the satisfaction of seeing the animal he'd shot fall to the ground again, and go into its death throes. Another, the cream-colored one, stopped to look at it, then gazed for a moment at Wolf accusingly. Reluctantly, it sprang away into the underbrush.


       Wolf watched as the creature's struggles diminished, and listened for any return of the others. All was still, except for the labored breathing of his big companion. Wolf half-turned to it. "Be back in a second." He walked over to the pack leader, who now lay still, and prodded it with the rifle barrel. It looked like it was six feet long, though probably not. Long tail, thick mane. Oh. Wolves! He had never seen them before. He'd also never heard of wolves going after horses, but, he reflected, things might have changed since old times. He had to admit these animals had not been a common topic in the prison, despite his own name.
       Time to look at the horse. Wolf retraced his steps. The Appaloosa stood, or rather ran in place, going nowhere and everywhere at once, as if unable to make up its mind what to do and also unable to do it. The spotted hindquarters quivered continually. There was damage to the back of the back leg on this side, and to the nose and lower jaw.
       Still trotting in place, the terrified animal swung round. There it was – a bit of the guts exposed and gnawed. To his surprise, Wolf felt his knees and elbows go cold. With a shaking hand, he reached out and patted the big animal's shoulder. "Aw, shit, big fella. They've screwed you up good."
      The Appaloosa stopped trotting in place, and stood looking past Wolf's shoulder. He had seen that look before – incomprehension beyond pain – but mostly in the faces of humans. And he had not much minded putting them out of  their  misery. For once, as Wolf stepped back and settled the rifle's stock against his shoulder, unaccustomed regret followed the curl of his finger round the trigger. 

:::

Mullins strode along beside Lacey. "These things do check out. There are definitely people in that list'nin post up there; been watchin' us for days. An' the burnt-out tower matches Wolf's description."
       Lacey did not break his stride, nor did his taciturn expression change. "Yes."
       Mullins looked him over appraisingly. "Why do I get th' feelin' you're holdin' stuff out on me? You guys saddle up, ride around, gone overnight, come back, throw us a sack of venison, we ask for a report, you shrug and say "this is the place."
       "We cannot go very near without giving away too much concerning ourselves. We have approached them at night, and we have seen they are vigilant. This can be a dangerous venture."
       "Well, and here y'are, walking right at 'em w'me, unarmed, with a white 'flag.' Y'don't look worried."
       "They have much at stake. They are on their own ground and have, we think, prepared positions. They could have attacked my scouts, and have not done so. They will parley. Will you?"
       "Well, sure, fer starters. Might learn somethin'. Hell, maybe we could get ourselves invited in."
    "This is the bridge. We are now being watched. If we stay here, I think, no one will come out. But if we go forward, you will be hailed."
       "Well, okay, let's do that and see."
       They moved along what was now clearly a road that had been kept open. Mullins was not an experienced woodsman; nevertheless he began to sense, as Lacey had for some time, watchfulness. As they neared a heap of brush cuttings, sure enough, a man stood out from a copse of hemlocks in the near distance.
       "Stop right there, please."
       Mullins studied him. Tall, broad-shouldered, apparently short hair and beard; hard to tell as his face was shadowed by a wide-brimmed coolie hat of some kind. Dressed in leather, it looked like; with a broad belt. And was that a  sword  tucked in the belt? What were these people playing at around here?
       The stranger said nothing more, but waited, in a posture both alert and relaxed.
       Mullins spoke, keeping his voice low and his eyes on the man. "Whaddya think of him?"
       "Wave the flag."
       "Oh, yeah." Mullins did so. The local made no sign or move.
       "This man is experienced. There are others with him, and they will be armed. We are already within range. They have done this before."
       "Tell me stuff I don't already know."
       "They are hungry. Things have not gone well with them. This man has been losing weight for some time. He may also, I think, be recovering from a wound or injury."
       "Well,  that's  information."
       Clearly, the stranger was willing to stand in the early fall sunlight all day without speaking.
       Mullins cleared his throat. "We, we come in peace for all mankind."
       The tall man cocked his head. "Heard that one before somewhere. Y'all got a lotta nice gear out there in th' woods. Not much of it's peace-y lookin."
       "Travel is unsafe, y'know. We're the, we're the Yew Ess Army an' we're puttin' th' country back together. Goin' up an' down makin' folks aware the goverment's back in operation."
       "That's nice."
      Mullins waited for more, perhaps a rebuttal, but the man just kept right on standing there. 
       "Well, uh, can we parley, get some communications set up, explain th' laws an' get a representative an' all that? You c'n be your own county."
       The man smiled briefly, then appeared to be studying the sky.
       "Uh, tell ya what." Mullins set the end of his sapling flagpole on the ground. "We got food. Meals Ready to Eat. Salt. We got  salt. If yeh've fallen on hard times, could bring th' trucks in, give ever'body a square meal. Show ever'body we're on th' level, an' all. What say?"
       The man studied the ground, then the sky again, and then looked at Lacey for moment, then Mullins. "Your friend there got a tongue?"
       "I speak for myself, yes," said Lacey, stepping forward.
       "You two are from different outfits. Your pal there, I've seen his kind before. How come y'are doing his dirty work, sniffin' around us all night?"
       "It is good to know something of one's surroundings."
       "Yeah-h-h, guess it is. Listen –" he returned his attention to Mullins. "– best thing to do, pass on by an' act like y'never been here. Get your government set up, build some towns, do some agriculture. We'll talk some more in a couple years, 'k?" He turned to go.
       "Well, hey, wait up!" But Mullins could see the interview was over. The stranger did not break stride, but disappeared behind the hemlocks.
       Lacey turned to Mullins. "There is nothing more to do here at this time."
       "Y'think maybe I shoulda asked him direct 'bout th' power plant?"
       "No." Lacey turned away and began walking back past the bridge.
       Mullins, perforce, joined him. "Do y'suppose they even have one?"
       "Yes."
       "How do you know?"
       Lacey stopped and regarded him. "One of my men may have overheard a conversation."
       "Overh –" but Lacey had moved on again. Mullins trotted after him. "You  are  holding something back."
       Lockerby appeared in the middle distance, rising from a patch of horsetails near the small river, with the Ay-Kay in hand.
       "How'd it go, Mullo?" he called out softly.
       "Tell ya in a bit." Mullins addressed himself to the striding tribal leader. "Look, we got a deal or don't we?"
       "The Prinevilles carry out their agreements. I will tell you what I have heard but not how I heard it; as that is not in the agreement. There are not as many people as we were told. They are, however, clever in matters of farming, manufacture, defense. Yes, they have power. Yes, it is 'nuclear.' For many years they did not even know it was there. No, they will not negotiate; they believe they know who you are; it is only a guess, but in part they have guessed correctly, and they will not believe a cover story. They will resist any move on our part to occupy the mountain." He gestured toward Starvation Ridge.
       By this time they had reached Lockerby.
       Mullins turned toward Lacey again. "All right; ya don't wanna divulge your sources. Why'd ya go through that charade with me?"
       "I wished to see this man. I believed he would show himself. He will be a worthy adversary for us; and his name is Wilson."
       "His name is Wilson. Well, Mr. Walkin' Incylepeedya Lacey, I'm not sure I trust ya now as far as I can throw ya; but I'm glad ya said us  and I hope I c'n hold ya to it. Lockie!"
       "Mullo."
       "How long till the Cat could get up here?"
       "To right here? Be about three hours."
       "From where they are now, can th' cannon hit this area?" Mullin's gesture took in the woods around the rusted steel bridge.
       "Mmm, yeah, an' the hilltops too; not much further. But there's no target we c'n be sure of hittin' square from way out there, or even from here; 'cept  that." Lockerby pointed to the lookout on Ball Butte.
       "Yeah, 'n it's a low-trajectory gun. I knew we'd rather be havin' a howitzer out here, or mortars. We can either bust through here to where th' LAV can see what it's doin', or take it up onto high ground. Mr. Lacey?"
       "Yes?" The chief regarded Mullins impassively.
       "You fellas have clearly looked – and  listened  – a lot; c'n the Cat get up there?" He pointed to Ball Butte.
       "It is steep, except from the back."
       Lockerby squinted at the hill. "They can see anything we do from there; if we could haul the LAV up there we can cover the whole valley. But they'll have thought of that. I like the other one better." He indicated Starvation Ridge.
       "Ah, hell, Lockie, that one's just as bad."
       "Only from here. We could drive up on it from the south, pretty easy."
       "An' fight ever' inch of th' way. Mr. Lacey, th' man said "keep goin', didn't he? How about we all pass 'em by, in full view, 'n let 'em watch us do it, then come back and hit that lookout at dawn – from th' north. Give 'em time to relax – say, about a week."
       Lacey considered. "It seems good. But they would want to confirm our departure, and their scouts would trail the column. My men could make sure they would not return to report, but this will alert their people. Also, there would be no cover of darkness. In one week, there will be a full moon." He pointed to the half moon, already hanging in the late afternoon sky above the ridge.
       "Well, then, whaddya suggest?"
       "Let us divide our forces. Take the column south, in full view. Turn back on the third night and assault the Starvation Ridge. Darkness will fall, four hands before daylight. By sunrise, you can be well up the mountain, and your weapon will be able to cover you there."
      "Uh huh, and what will your crowd be up to?" 
       "At midnight, we will take the lookout and make fire and noise. This will be to draw the attention of all the farmers, giving you time to make your ascent."
       "A feint. I like it, Mr. Lacey, except what's to keep you from giving us the slip?" Mullins made a sign behind his back, and Lockerby stepped away, as if to pick a horsetail from the sand.
       "We are a people of our word." Lacy braced himself, perhaps to leap upon Mullins and shield himself from Lockerby, but it was clearly too late; Mullins, too, was stepping away. The muzzle of the rifle came up and pointed itself toward the Eastsider's broad chest.
       "Well, Mr. Lacey,  we  are a people of guarantees. I do like your suggestion, but I will amend it. You'll tell your folks to have a go at th' little mountain behind us, on schedule. But you yourself will go with  us."

:::

Wilson strode up from Hall bridge to the Mess Hall, giving the password to the young sentry as he came on. In his haste he forgot the counter word, and the child, one of the "grenadiers" who had served with Emilio Molinero in the New Moon War, was much too much in awe of Wilson to remind him.
       Though it was already late in the day, Wilson had to pause for a moment as he entered Hall; the contrast in light, even in what must surely be September, was striking. Hall had been a sawmill or planing mill at one time, and had relied in those days upon powerful incandescent light bulbs for its workers to see by. Wilson wondered that it had occurred to no one to hook up the building, which was in constant use, to the power from Ridge; as it was, two cadres were grouped around windows. One crew was washing sunchokes from a largish pile in a washtub, gossiping among themselves; the other was clustered around his wife, Billee, who was putting them through dry-snap exercises with an array of antique twenty-twos. Dud, or dummy, rounds that had somehow been painted blue were scattered on the table.
         "Hi, Cap'n," said one. Billee looked up and, spying him, beamed.
       "Y'ah go right ahead with what you're doing there," said Wilson, forcing an expansive smile. "Gonna make a phone call." He continued on toward the cellar door.
       Billee delegated the class to a relatively experienced young woman to her left – another of the grenadiers – and followed him.
       In the command post, Wilson found Selk kneeling before the telephone desk, working by lamplight. "Good afternoon, Mr. Selk," he boomed, giving himself the guilty pleasure of watching the hunched figure jump. "I do hope your presence here does not mean that communications are down."
       Selk tucked his chin into his shoulder and peered round over the top of his glasses. "N-no, Mr. Wilson, I've hooked in here – " he held up the ends of two wires " – and we'll run a line out to Bridge; we're giving them your handset, though, so you'll have to make do for now with these." He set down the wires and held up a pair of headphones in one hand. In the other, he displayed what looked like a brass disk with two tiny, toothy long-snouted clips attached.
       Wilson reached out and took them, gingerly. "What the hell?"
       "Here, sit down, let me. These go over your ears, like this, and you hold this – When you want to talk, clip one of these on the lead, here, like this." He demonstrated. "Then, you want to listen, unclip. See?"
       "I don't see. Does the doorbell still work the same?"
       "It does, but never mind that; they're already talking."
       "I don't hear anythin'."
       Selk compressed his lips. "Sorry, impedance doesn't match. But some sound does carry if you're  quiet."
       "Yeah, yeah. Hush up yourself, then."
       Billee, who had come in right behind Wilson, grabbed a cup, poured some water into it from a jug, added vodka from a spare lamp, and set it before Wilson, who picked it up without missing a beat.
       Billee gave Selk an accusing look. "You were eavesdropping," she whispered.
      "Wouldn't  you?" he whispered back. "I'm out of here; got wires to spool out." True to his word, Selk picked up a small wooden spool mounted on a broomstick, and walked backwards out of the room, unreeling spliced lamp cord.

:::

Ellen Murchison held the handset away from her ear and winced, then pressed the button.  Click.  "Wilson, are you there? We're hearing the awfullest clicking and sputtering. Over."  Click.
       Static, then, "Yeah, s'me. Uh, th'techie has made a mess down here. Can you hear me? Uh, over."  Scratch.
       Click. "Yes, but why are you shouting? Over."  Click.
       Screech.  "Sorry, the things on my ears, I can hardly hear ya, this other thing must work better."  Hiss
       Click.  "We'll take that line noise to mean 'over.' So, what happened out at Bridge? Over."  Click.
       Click.  "I'm here, too, Wilson." Avery's voice. "Over."  Click.
       Crackle.  "How much did y'all see? Uh, over."  Buzz.
        Click. "From here, everything," said Ellen. "Still lots to see. And we're relaying it all to Avery, of course. Over."  Click.
        Sizz. "Well, th' short guy is in charge, but he doesn't answer to th' description of th' guy that was here before. I think he's th' expedition'ry leader. Th' tall guy with th' pigtails is interestin'. I'd say he knows more what he's about, but is deferring to th' little one like he's on contract to 'im. Can't see 'em gettin' along. ... Oh. Uh-h-h, over."  Bzzt.
       Ellen held the handset away from her head. "Neel, how's it look?"
       Neel, one of her young charges, pulled himself away from the spotting telescope. It had arrived that morning, and he had been joyfully glued to it all day.
      "Still headed for the trucks, ma'am." 
       Click. "Wilson, after you left, they went back beyond bridge and another short man with a  rifle  joined them. I'd swear it was an AK, like before. There was what looked like an amicable conference, then suddenly they took the tall man prisoner and away they all went, with the rifle at his back. Over."  Click. 
      Pause. Another crackle, then Wilson whistling. "Wow, com-pli-cat-ed." Another pause. "So, anyway. This tall guy, I think he looked at me like you do when you've seen somebody before." Pause. "Oh,  over, arready."  Fzzt.
       Avery clicked in. "From these tidbits, I think we're looking at two groups that barely get along. It's a treaty of some kind. The LAV, the trucks and things, that's the Volunteers. And the guy they're holding is probably the leader of an auxiliary force. He's insurance. Sure you haven't seen horses? Over."  Click.
        Hsst.  "No, but that doesn't mean they don't have them. That look that guy gave me? I think he's got the Bledsoes."
       "Hunh," said Ellen to the stone walls. Neel swung round from the scope, and Elberd looked up from his own business, a half-plucked blackbird he had netted. She looked at their cheery, hopeful faces.  

    Damn. So young, too. 

:::

Avery Murchison drummed his fingers on the chart table, staring at the hole that had been drilled for the Osborne fire finder, which had been put away. Savage Mary was running late, as usual. Of course, she had long ago adopted Creek time, only more so, coming and going much as she pleased. He looked round the room. Coils of wire were stacked in corners, and all the sheet metal panels had been dismounted from the control consoles, making wheelchair navigation hazardous. Selk burning the midnight oil again, of course. Couldn't Mary reign the guy in and keep him focused on something  useful? 
       Karen, more gangly than ever despite the now quite respectable bulge in her middle, came in through the doorway, dangling a long gunny sack in her hand. "Good morning, sir; have you had breakfast?"
       "No, actually. Is there such a thing any more?"
       She hefted the sack onto the table, then reached into it. Avery saw, with approval, that she'd found a way to wear her gun belt again; a padded strap hung over her good shoulder and was clipped, front and back, to a wide belt that rode high, between her small breasts and large stomach. The little revolver and knife both rested on her left side, cross-draw, and, in the absence of a left arm, out of the way. The rig looked like a cross between a shoulder holster and an ALICE. Always thinking, this girl.
       Karen drew a burnished steel bottle from the sack. "I can open this for you, but it takes time, so you can do your own honors." She drew out an oversized white mug, decorated with Santa Claus faces and Christmas trees, and set it before him.
       Avery unscrewed the plastic lid and sniffed the contents. He wrinkled his nose. "Good grief."
       "Sorry about that; it's beaver tail soup. Krall found a colony up the creek and Mr. Bolo and Mr. Josep brought home the lot of them."
       "Oh, it beats nothing, and thank you. Having to spread the solids so thin worries me, though. This is more bouillion than soup; we can't really go through the winter on a liquid diet."
       "No, we can't. But there it is; few crops and few animals this year."
       "I have one trick left up my sleeve, but it will grieve me. Stick around for when your boss gets here, and you'll hear it. Want to sit down?"
       "Oh. Not yet; I have something for you." She reached for the sack, then paused. "Mr. Wilson still has your Ruger, right?"
       Avery sipped from the hideous mug. Hmh!  This stuff could grow on you, especially if you've skipped supper.  "Sleeps with it, I think. Why?"
       "Well – " she rummaged in the sack and produced a leather bandolier, filled with black and red shotgun shells. "These are twelve gauge; we've stuffed the black ones with buckshot and the red ones with turkey loads. So, if you're clearing one of the hallways down below, you'll want black. There are five of them. For room defense, go with red. You get seven of those for now." She handed it over.
       Avery spread the bandolier along the right arm of his chair. It would be perfect, mounted right there. "Wonderful. And these things are functional? How'd you solve the primers?"
      "Well ... we wasted time trying to use some of our twenty-two casings, mounted in the bases, but found they weren't happy with the firing pins. But we've been remanufacturing the percussion caps for the BP guns, and Deela hit upon putting those in, instead. You might not not have more than three misfires in the whole batch."
       "I'll be damned. But, uh, what do I shoot them out of?"
       Karen's hand was already back in the sack. She withdrew what Avery realized at once been the coach gun with which his mother, and others, had been shot in the New Moon War. The barrels were much reduced in length, and the stock had been cut off at the pistol grip, then rounded off and even varnished. Karen thumbed the break, popped open the gun, checked the chambers, and then snapped her hand upward, closing the action with a flourish. She tossed it in the air, reversing it, and proffered it to him stock first.
       "Wonderful and and wonderful," said Avery, taking the sawed-off from her. "All it needs now is a scabbard, and I'll be able to cross-draw just like you."
       "As it happens," replied Karen, reaching into the sack. But a sound at the door captured her attention as well as Avery's.
       Mary wheeled herself in. "Ugh. That must be the beaver fat I just heard about."
       Avery smiled and took a sip. "The big man from Roundhouse – New Ames' now, am I right?" Karen nodded "– along with Bee, went to some risk to get it for us, so I for one will not knock it. Now that I've had some," he added, as Karen's eyebrow went up. "But you're here on a related matter."
       "I am?"
       "Mmm-hmm." Avery retrieved from the table a key on a ring. "I know Mrs. Molinero and Mr. Guchi are getting frantic, and just looking at Karen here, who is supposed to be eating for two, should give us cause for alarm. I've kept this on a hook in my quarters for years."
       "Is that what I think it is?"
       "Yes; the seed vault, bottom level."
       Mary threw her hands in the air. "Damn  it, kid.  Damn  it. word gets out, there goes th' Creek."
       "There goes the Creek anyway, Dr. M. We have no means of surviving into next year unless we break into that store; it's wall-to-wall empty barrels on level three, and everyone already knows that; no one's talking about it, but they know. If we're to have the strength to get through this visit from the Rogue Valley Volunteers, we must eat." He pushed the key across to Mary. "Room 484, about 100 feet from the reactor."
       "Uh, huh," said Mary, picking up the keyring and looking at it absently. "And how come this is being handed to me; shouldn't it just go straight to Juanita?"
       "No one better than you to explain to her the problem inherent here. This seed cache is viable but it has had some exposure to isotopes. It could be construed to be radioactive food. We don't want to pretend otherwise, even though most of us here would have no idea what that means. So there's an educational component to breaking this stuff out."
       "Sure. I tell her, 'look, here's your wheat. If y'all  eat it, you might start glowing in ten years' time; but for sure you will starve to death  next  year, so it won't matter.'"
       "Something like that, yes. At any rate, you know the details much better than I."
       "Right." Mary folded the keyring into her palm and dropped it in her bosom. As she turned to wheel away, she noticed the shotgun and bandolier on the table. "Good  Lord, is that a twelve?"
       "Yes'm," Karen nodded.
       "You've really shrunk it down. Won't it have too much recoil?"
       "It's black powder, reduced charge, ma'am. It's not too bad. Has to be cleaned up after, though." Karen pulled the scabbard from the sack and placed it before Avery, who broke the action, snapped the barrels back in place, and sighted down the room.
       "I think I'm a mite jealous," remarked Mary.
     "And here's yours. With two rounds of twenty-two." Karen fished out the final item in the sack, the ill-fated Derringer from Bledsoes with the ivory grips.
       Mary accepted it, with a wry expression. "Hmh.  Still  jealous."
       Avery put away the shotgun in its scabbard and held it up to Karen. "Do the honors?"
       "Uhh, sure." Karen walked round behind his chair and, holding the scabbard in place with her knee, laced it onto the top bar and tucked it behind the little backpack that hung there. As she worked, a shy smile crept across her face. Mary noticed, and gave Avery a sidelong glance.
       He was smiling too.
        Hmh. "Well, I'm outta here, catch you two later." Mary wheeled away toward the corridor.
       Karen stepped back. "How is it?"
       Avery reached over his left shoulder and drew and aimed. "I'm in business."
       "Good." Karen felt the room darken perceptibly. She drifted over to the window, her hand on her tummy. "Oh."
      "What?" 
       "It's raining."