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, February 7, 2015

49

Mullins had not exactly lost consciousness, but whatever it was, was same as. He could not, by sending anything resembling commands, detect movement in his arms or legs, nor could he turn his head. For the time being, had he recovered the power of speech, he would not have been able to give anyone his name or recent history. As his mind swam up from a gray lake of pain, he found himself sorting through memories from longer ago than he generally cared to visit: his mother, brushing his hair from his eyes and offering him roasted meat. He'd taken it, glad of it in his immense hunger, and had wondered at her turning from him, weeping, as he ate. Or the day she'd been taken away by laughing men as he hid where she'd placed him, not daring to whimper at her not returning. 
       Now he remembered joining a band of youths, making his place among them by leaving the one that had taunted him bleeding and wrecked against a railyard fence. And working his way up through their ranks to become their leader, through his instinct for mechanics. He had led the gang in fairly sophisticated exercises in breaking and entering, specializing in large, faceless warehouses. 
       But one of these buildings, it had turned out, was occupied by men in mottled green-and-brown clothing who had raised weapons in the corridor and barked commands. When he'd turned to run, he could see his crew falling down in heaps by the door, and he himself, deafened and going blind, had fallen behind them. And when he'd forced himself to consciousness, he'd been a prisoner of the barking men in their dark glasses. This deadness in his arms and legs – it was like that then, too.
       It was in prison, which was to become his home for much of his life, that he'd met his final teachers, Magee and the always-lucky loner, Wolf. Magee had found him fellow convicts with whom to work on machinery, and Wolf had helped him refine his defensive techniques.
       And then the prison guards, the soldiers with their sunglasses, had hastily loaded themselves onto flying machines and simply departed – where, and why, they certainly did not convey to the prison population, who'd been simply left in lockdown. 
    It was the suddenness of the departure that had been Mullins', and everyone else's, great opportunity, for Mullins, seeking new tools, had taken advantage of the first breakdown in the soldiers' discipline to hide himself away in a bin, while Lockerby sat in their cell, talking to a pile of blankets in Mullins' bed as if he were there. And so it was he, Mullins, that had given second life to Magee's ambitions, by releasing everyone.
       Mullins tried lifting his head. Ohhh, painful. Face down? Had he been shot?
       "A little life returns to a little life, I see."
       Magee? Had Mullins muffed the jailbreak? Perhaps not all the Army guards had left, with their vicious sleep-inducing sidearms?
       "A splash of water for th' lad, please. Not too much; it's been in short supply here, I find. Young man, set up some rain catchment, will ya? Tarps are in th' third truck back; just ask for 'em."
       "Suh, yes, suh." Jahn's voice.
       Something – warm, cold? – oh, wetness – blanketed the side of Mullins' head and snaked down his throat. He must be lying on his side, or face down. He blinked. Firelight?
       "Much better. For some reason, my boy, you've outslept your little army. Very sloppy of you."
       Mullins tried commanding his arms again, reflexively, and found that his hands were tied behind his back. "S ... sss ... "
       In the night above, Magee's voice poured down in a soothing purr. "Touching; I believe you are trying to say 'sir.' We'll dispense with that formality for now, as you are my prisoner and I must decide your disposition. As usual, our dear Doctor, who is so very fond of mayhem, insists you must receive the red hypo, and while I agree that is your merit, I'm always open to discussion of salvage operations."
       "Vuh ... vuh ... "
       "Very kind of me, I know. Quite a thick tongue you have there; let's try yes-and-no questions. Did Wolf escape your custody?"
       "Yuh ... ssuh."
       "Exceedingly sloppy. Did you ascertain which direction he went?"
       "Nuh."
       "North? Well, that might mean something. Is he armed?"
       "Dud ... dnn ... "
       "You don't know. And I presume he has made himself scarce."
       Mullins managed a nod.
       "Am I right in presuming that you have persisted in your assignment here in an effort to use the power plant as a means toward achieving some kind of ascendancy over me?"
       "Meh ... nuh ... no, sir."
       "Ah, a most dangerous question produces some coherency. Tell me, if you are ready, what were you  thinking?"
       "Sir, if we ... if we were able to complete the mission, we hoped to improve our position – regain some favor."
       "Seek clemency. And you tried a direct assault on th' right, which was repelled, then prepared to repeat th' effort on the left?"
       "Yes, sir ... our allies had taken the lookout, and we aimed to haul the gun to the summit and rake the valley from there."
       "A not-too-awful plan, stymied however by your disobedience in letting Wolf get away, for your supply of parts dried up forthwith."
       "Sir."
       "Next, an important question. Is the Cat's situation subject to field service?"
       "Sir, it's mostly a matter 'a hoses. Got none."
       "Well, we're good, then. How 'bout that LAV?"
       "Not so good, sir. We are treating it as towed artillery."
       "I have to say, you're not impressing th' tribals much. Well, Mully – against the Doctor's advice, and let us both remember, she  was right in the matter of Wolf and  I  was wrong – I believe I will make use of you and not dispose of you. I have brought things to gladden the heart of any good motor mechanic. At first light, you will apply yourself to the regaining for me the use of the Cat."
       Mullins could see, through the rain that dripped into his eyes, booted feet walking away from him past the fire. Someone laughed somewhere.
       What was it about rain, yellow flames, and boots? Mullins blinked away the rain. Oh, yes. It had rained the night those laughing men had pulled his mother away from the fire. 

:::

"What are they doing now?" asked the young Roundhouse woman standing next to Mrs. Perkins.
       "I have no idea," she replied, "and I'm not sure binoculars would help. The trees down there were not in the Fire, and they're in the way. But it can't be good. It looks like the bandits have been reinforced, and I think they're working on the vehicles. There's also a lot of smoke from what looks to me like cooking fires.  Where do they get so much to eat?"
       "You know the answer as well as I."
       Mrs. Perkins chewed a fingernail distractedly. "I wish Mr. Molinero would come back up here. He'd be better able to make out whether to send a runner to report."
       "No, he would not," replied Emilio, stepping into the shelter. "You say they are still in camp, and so that means no change. You would surely send a report if they showed signs of moving toward Bridge or here, and it may be that is no more than I would do."
       "Thank you, Mr. M.; I was just feeling a little twitchy."
       "First command always does that to a soldier."
       "Well, now that you are here, what brought you out of the woods?" 
       "Our runner with the initial report has returned and tells us a relief party is right behind him. So I am here to greet them."
       Even as Emilio spoke, a whistle blew from the direction of the path from the valley, signaling the arrival of the new crew.
       They stepped from the stone shelter into welcome sunshine, but halted in surprise at the sight before them.
       A number of fighters entered the clearing, carrying heavy packs or bedrolls, among them Billee with Krall, the dog from Roundhouse, and Ro-eena, who was unrolling wire from a spool as she came on. But what drew their eyes was Wilson, apparently completely unarmed and carrying a coiled length of rope, walking next to the Creek's last remaining horse. On the horse, easy in his seat and armed with a Creek selfbow and a handsome Bowie knife, sat a large man Mrs. Perkins had not seen before. He had been good-looking once, perhaps; but his face, from mouth to ear, was a swollen mass of sticthes, gleaming with salve. He looked as if part of his jawbone might be missing.
       "Hey, gang," said Wilson. "Ready to get down from here for some of Mrs. M.'s cookin'?"
       Emilio frowned. "What is this, if I may ask?" 
       "We're conductin' a little experiment in diplomacy."
       "I do not think I like what this can mean, sir."
       "Well, let's not air it out in public, if we can help it. Mr. Lacey, will you excuse us for a conference, please?"
       The big man nodded gravely. Wilson and Emilio walked round the corner of the lookout.
       Billee, with Krall in tow, stepped over to Mrs. Perkins. The girl's face was a study in tragedy, but she addressed herself to business in hand. "Let's go inside, you 'n me."
       "Certainly, honey."
       Inside the now much cleaner and homier little fort, Billee ran her eyes over everything, found it sufficient, threw down her load, and moved to the window. She watched the distant smoke for a moment, bit her lip, nodded to herself, and turned to Mrs. Perkins.
       "How's everyone?"
       "Tired, cold, wet, and hungry. But it has been quiet up here."
       "We'll give ya a feed before ya go down. What's the disposition of crews?"
       "Four, with four each. One crew here, three on approaches."
       "'K, I can replicate that with crews of three. After ya eat, y'should pack up and go home."
       "Bee, what in Jeeah's name is Captain Wilson up to?"
       "Prisoner exchange."
       "What?"
       "It's a ruse. Get Mr. Eastsider back to his folks so he can tell 'em to go home. Will's going as surety. If Mr. Big comes into the lines with a new horse and a prisoner, he doesn't lose face, y'see."
       "But then we've lost –  you've  lost – oh, no, this just  can't  be."
       "Well, I said  'ruse', didn't I?" Big man's s'posed to let him go when it's all settled." 
       "Sounds awfully iffy if you ask me."
       Billee's face crumpled. "Well, nobody asked  me." She began sipping air in short, hard breaths.
       "Are you hyperventilating? You have every right, honey, but why don't you just sit down here, hold onto Krall, and take three deep breaths. Captain would not take such a risk if he didn't have good reason to believe in what he's doing."
       "Um." Billee's eyes were glistening.
       "Sit. And here's a bit of a rag to snuffle in. Come out here as soon as you think you look bossy enough and boss us around some, all right?"
       Mrs. Perkins stepped out the door. She found Ro-eena, spool in hands, waiting there round-eyed. "Not yet."
       "Oh, no, ma-am, I have a little bit of sense."
       "You have a lot, and we both know it. She'll be out in a moment." Mrs. Perkins turned and almost collided with Wilson. "She's in here," she smiled.
       "Thanks." Wilson did not smile in return. He stooped to enter.
       Mrs. Perkins walked over to the stranger, who sat alone on the horse. It was clear he was discreetly under guard, as several of Billee's soldiers had not gone far, yet he seemed completely relaxed. She was sure, though, that his broken face could not be comfortable for him.
       "Hello," she said.
       He met her eyes directly but made no reply. Something in his searching look struck her; had he never seen a Black woman?
       "This is a good animal you have here." She patted its neck. The big head swung round, and a huge nose snuffled at her ear.
       The man's eyes softened. "Pardon me for not dismounting. I am injured in both legs. I have not seen this breed before. He would be of greater value to my people if he were not a gelding, but he will be of interest."
       "He's part Percheron. They make good plow horses; farming and heavy cartage."
       "And tall. I was always a little hard on our Appaloosas."
       "Are there still Appys? I'm glad. My dad loved them. But, you know, he might not be a good war horse."
       "I saw that; but I have those. This will make a good ceremonial animal, I think. Something to make the Bend tribe grind their teeth." 
        Oh, my goodness, is he trying to smile? Hope he doesn't split his cheek.  "Well. Then it should work, shouldn't it?"
       "My men are among the best of my people. They will receive your captain well, and honor themselves before Spirit in returning to him his freedom."
       "I sincerely hope so, for your sake."
       "I understand; the girl with the dog." Again the almost-smile.
       Emilio stepped forward. "Yes. That is his wife; she will track you and hand you your head if he does not come back."

:::

Avery knurled the focusing knob. "It seems a very chummy gathering over there."
       "May I see?" Karen perched herself on one leatherette arm of his chair.
       He handed her the binoculars. "Mind the throwing knife."
       "I'm clear of it," she said, but looked down anyway to be sure.
       "Should you even be up here?"
       "You  sent for  me. I'm fine, and Allyn's as good as he can be in his fishbowl." She put the glasses to her eyes, fiddling the knob one-handed. "Bouncy. What are these, ten-ex?" She turned them over dourly. "Uh huh, there's a hole for a tripod mount. Got one?"
       "A tripod? Not at the moment. With that one all-doing hand of yours, you might try resting the binocs on the window casement."
       "Here, I'll try this." She draped the strap around her elbow and tensioned it against her hand. She stood up, stepped forward, and leaned her elbow against the command console. "Some better."
       "Who taught you that?"
       "My father, of course."
       "Of course. What do you see?"
       "Busy bodies. Who's that on the horse?"
       "That's the wounded guy we had in the brig."
       "I think he's an  Eastsider!" Karen spat the word.
       "Good call from this distance. And without his braids, too. You had a run-in with them once, I gather."
       Karen looked at Avery, her eyes hardened to flints. "What are you up to?"
       "Nothing you wouldn't try yourself if you're a leader of a people. Feeling ready for the responsibility?"  She's about ready to explode. Am I pushing on this too soon?     
       "They're  eaters; they hunt  people."
       "I think that description may fit most nowadays, at least in this part of the world. He's being returned to his tribesmen to persuade them to leave off aiding Magee. Wilson and I have spent a lot of time on him and we think this risk, which is a heavy one, is worth taking under our circumstances."
       "And we just turn him  loose?  With our  last horse?
       "We're out of hay for this winter anyway. We'd have to eat the poor thing, assuming we're here to do so. You know we've broken into the last of the grains. This gives him something to show his men; bragging rights are important over there."
       "Yes. They are." She returned to her viewing. "I had to kill two of them to keep from being bragging rights myself."
       "And he's not unaccompanied. Wilson will go with him as a surety of our good intentions."
       She whirled round again. "Why?  They go, or they stay. We lose our best man to no advantage."
       Avery winced inwardly.  Best man.  Well, it was probably no more or less than the truth. "They might become our allies instead of Magee's. Now. Or down the line."
       Karen stood staring at him open-mouthed.
       Doctor Mary rolled in from the hall, followed by Mrs. Lazar, Selk, and Elsa Chaney. The latter three found chairs and pulled them up to the table. Selk carried, of all things, a leather-bound attaché case.
       "Oh, ho," said Mary. "From Karen's looks, you've been catching her up on our gambit."
       Karen whirled on her. "They're  eaters."
       "Shall I tell her?" Mary addressed herself to Avery.
       "Be my guest; frankly I'm terrified of her."
       "Tell me  what?  We're cannibals too and I'm the last to know?"
        "No, dear girl," replied Mary, her head tipped to one side. "We've made an effort here – last outpost of civvy, and all that.  So far  so good. Unsustainable practice. Humans are highly tainted with cesium nowadays, and there's a kind of a mad-cow liability, too."
       "What, then?"
       Mary looked at Karen for a long moment. "Yer just about to curdle your milk – think of little Allyn. Tell you what, wontcha sit at th' table." 
       Elsa had brought over an extra chair and placed it beside herself. She patted the seat and smiled tentatively. Karen sensed that Elsa was, if anything, nearly as stressed as she. She would, for Elsa's sake, hear them out. She sat.
       Mary rolled round the table to the space they had left for her, and put her hands on the table, fingers interlaced.
       "Karen, my dear, you were brought up on canned food?"
       "Yes; almost entirely, I think."
       "From, say, age four to fourteen. Ten years."
       "Yes."
       "Vegetables, fruit, meat."
         "Yes, ma'am. One can of something for breakfast, two, of two different kinds, for lunch. We had no suppers."
       "Hence your slim figure, which you're getting back, I'm glad to see. So that was, for the two of you, six average-sized cans a day – say, about a kilo."
       "Yes."
       "Often meat."
         "It was a beef-heavy diet, yes." Karen knitted up her eyebrows. "Where is this going?"
       "Did you always see the cans?"
       "What?"
       "Karen, where in a  thoroughly  looted city did your dad find twenty-one thousand nine hundred cans? Of, mostly, beef?"
       Karen blinked, then sat still, her lips parted. Elsa reached to put her arm around Karen's shoulder, but the young woman shrugged her off. Karen stood up, gulping at the room's suddenly stuffy air. Her chair fell over backward.
     Tears started, from Karen's wide eyes. "Unh.  Unh-h-h-h." She grabbed at her tunic, loose where the large belly had been, and ran from the room.
       Mary unlaced her fingers and placed her palms down on the table. 
       Avery exhaled. "Well, that went well." He reached out and poked at Selk's attaché case morosely. 
       Elsa reached over and patted his hand. "No, actually, I think it did. She'll think this through and be the stronger for it."
       "Yeah, well." said Mary. "We see eye ta eye on this one. Even those who are all about honesty sometimes know when to pull their punches. I think all the more highly of Mr. Rutledge, I really do." 
    Avery gave Mary a sharp look. "Was that a correct figure?"
      Computationally? Yes. But garbage in, garbage out. She ate less than that when she was four, more when she was fourteen. Throw in th' odd possum for them both. But a  reasonable  figure. I don't see any way 'round it."
      "Mary, you are so scary sometimes," put in Elsa.
      "What, 'scary' is about feelings. Look, there's more. I  really admire th' man. You think telling her to lock her door all those years was just about bandits?"
      Elsa gasped. But she didn't offer a reply.
      Avery and Selk exchanged uncomfortable glances. This was getting into territory of which they knew little.
      Avery cleared his throat. "Hnh-hmm. So, should we hear from Selk?"
      "Sure," said Dr. Mary, companionably.
      Elsa and Mrs. Lazar nodded. Everyone turned to the young technician.
      Selk swallowed, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing. "Well ... so ... so, anyway, here is Mr. Angle's valise, which we believe the bandit did not see. The shoebox had been gone through, and they may have had a conversation ... but this was inside the attic floor. I don't think Mr. Angle was supposed to have these." He opened the case and hefted out a pile of papers and silvery plastic squares.
      Mary picked up one of the squares, flipped it over, and sardonically admired herself in its refractive surface.  Jabba the Hutt Enters the Black Hole.  "These are entirely opaque to us these days. Last outpost, indeed."
      "I suspected as much," said Avery. "But the printouts may be useful, yes?"
      "I think so," replied Selk. "Though my ... my reading comprehension is not up to a lot of it."
      "You're better than you think." Mary said. She turned to Avery. "Did we find out how poor Wilbur died? I forget."
      "Oh, we talked about that in one of the last General Meetings. Something like an ice-pick to the brain stem."
      "Right. The bandit could have just been covering his tracks, but I have the feeling the monster's literate. So, first of all, for the 
edification of those here, Selk, what do we know was in the shoebox that wasn't in the leather thingy?"
      Selk brightened. "The shoebox is all about Wilbur Angle's line, which was the nuclear battery. A ... a Navy nuke techie. This stuff here, which was found during the investigation, is about the satellite, which, it turns out, is why Ridge is here."
      "Then this persistent siege may be only about the power source, not the weapon?"
      "Likely."
      "But they could figure out what they've got once they get it?"
      "Not  likely, without these papers and some education. But not impossible." He reached for an ancient calendar page, which he'd laid on top of the pile of papers, unfolded it, and spread it on the table, blank side up, then waved his hand over a pencil nearby. "May I?"
      Avery waved off the politeness. "My pencil, your pencil."
      "Thank you." Selk drew a circle in the center of the paper. "There is no suitable illustration among the printouts, so I will draw. This is us."
      Avery smiled. "Earth."
      "And these three dots would be the DARPA laser array."
      "In space."
      "Yes, over thirty thousand kilometers out."
      "Why three?"
      "Best coverage." Selk drew three triangles, intersecting at points equidistant on the circle. "The entire world could be reached in this way very economically. They could have controlled all three from a laptop anywhere, back when there were other satellites and such, for communication. And only three transmission stations would have been required for backup."
      "And are there three of them?"
      "Don't know; that  was  planned. There's not much about the other ones here; need-to-know applied."
      Elsa raised her hand. "Whatever was it for?"
      Mary answered. "World domination. Things had gotten so outta hand, and China'd begun refusing to share its access to Africa and South America. Nuclear was the only other lever left for tryin' to pry them off the pot, but once you go nuclear, all bets are off."
      "Which happened anyway." Avery ran his hand over the stubble on his chin. He missed his beard.  Damned lice!
      "But very fitfully. Accurate news was hard to come by, in the end, fellas, but I have the impression this thing was  used. We may very well owe it our lives."
      Elsa picked up one of the squares and examined her reflection in its surface.  Oh, dear Jeeah, am I  that  old? 
     Mary was still orating. "The world almost died of famine, of flood and fire and disease, of heat, of hate, of war, of grief. The hands of power itched to reach for th' last button, the nuclear option. Some did. But then things began happenin' to the weapons, and the communications. Inexplicable things. Precise weapon strikes of a kind unknown to the world at large. But this came too late to save the powerful – the world's computers were dying  of interference: from the sun, from electromagnetic warfare, and from th' general increase in background radiation. The military had computers and communications the longest, but th' chaos caught up with 'em."
      "Good," said Elsa emphatically.
      "Hence," Mary went on, "the Undoing, which, as we all know was mostly the cooking-off of a number of abandoned nuclear power plants and cooling ponds."
      "And so, what do these papers tell us? That we have the remains of the 'precise weapon'?" Avery asked, glancing back at Selk, who was riffling through them reverently.
      "Sir, what's left of it, yes. We think. All but the computers and the gee-pee-ess."
      Mary rocked herself back and forth by shoving and pulling on her chair wheels. "Young Mr. Selk has convinced me we should have a go at running this thing."
      "So you both really do think there's a satellite still out there? After all this time? How?" Avery remembered his dad, Carey Murchison, telling him about the fall of the satellites; their orbits had decayed, one by one, and they had become bright meteors – the brightest of all being the second and last International Space Station, which had struck the atmosphere somewhere near the Marquesas, wherever that was, seared the skies above Mexico and Missouri, and peppered Iceland and Spitzbergen with firebombs.
      Selk smiled, almost patronizingly. He tapped the papers. "It's huge,  well shielded and robust, with multiply-redundant gyros and attitude thrusters, plenty of fuel, and of course has a nuclear battery, just as we do."
      "I'm sure you know what all that means ... and how do you know it hasn't fallen?"
      "We've been watching it through the spotting scope. Bee and Guchi have the best eyes." Selk tapped his diagram with the pencil. "As we noted, its orbit is what was called geosynchronous – goes around us every twenty-four hours, above the equator – so, from our point of view it's always in the same place, more or less – south of here, parked at ninety degrees west, it says here. And here's the good part."
      Selk stood up and walked to a locker-style cabinet door on the wall, not far from the room's entrance. He threw open the door. Masses of wires, like multicolored spaghetti, appeared, which Avery had seen before, but on a shelf above now stood a squat green steel box, with a round glass  window on its face. Selk flipped a toggle switch beneath the screen, and played with knobs to either side of the switch as the screen slowly came to life. All that appeared there was a sinuous green line that snaked across a gray background against a grid of fainter green lines, then back down again. "This is basically an ancient type of oscilloscope. You may have seen it sitting in one of the storerooms down on the fourth level."
      "I have. But I've never seen it lit up like this. So, it's not a television or anything like that?"
      "No; it's a just diagnostic tool really; Dr. Mary knows things about it that I don't. But the DARPA people had adapted it, according to those papers on the table, to help the control panel talk to the satellite. In case anything went wrong with the computers. We're linked to the dish  through the 'scope, and if the dish isn't pointed right, the signal shown here drops in intensity – toward the wye axis, here. This way we can add or remove a few pebbles under the edge of the dish, and get the strongest link."
      "You're beyond me. But I take it you believe you've gained control  of the satellite?"
      "Well, yes and no. We can't move it around or change its position; that's fixed. But we think we can tell it to aim and fire, though it's now completely blind."
      "Have you tried it?"
      "Well-l-l ... today's the day, sir, if you like."
      "By all means. We need everything we can get. What's the anticipated effect?"
      Selk looked at Dr. Mary. Mary shifted her weight in her wheelchair and sighed. "We don't really know. Clearly they thought this was worth doin', but it boggles th' mind. Radiant energy falls away by the inverse square of the distance, and th' distance in this case is  immense. The most effect would be at the equator, directly beneath the thing. But from that orbit's viewpoint, that's not really much closer."
      "So, what's a guess? Set fire to buildings, shatter glass?" Avery, guiltily, suddenly remembered something ignoble from his childhood concerning insects and a magnifying glass. "Or just burn ants?"
      Elsa tipped her head sideways and looked hard at Avery, but Mary simply sighed. "We're just going to have to try it and see."
      "I would expect an incendiary effect, yes, maybe a cutting or ablative effect, very very narrow beam," said Selk brightly. "Not visible spectrum. Just a guess."
      Avery looked at the two of them. Never, even from Mary, had he heard so much jargon. How much had she poured into this myopic creature's head?
      Suddenly Mrs. Lazar spoke. "And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies; but the wind passeth, and cleanseth them."
      Avery turned to her. "More Leviticus?"
      "Job."
      "Geniuses and living libraries all around me. So what do we  do  to try out this thing?"
      Everyone turned to Selk. His great moment having arrived at last, it proved too much for him, and he began picking at his nose.
      Elsa kicked him beneath the table.
      "Oh," he said, as his thick glasses slid down on a sudden sheen of perspiration. He pushed them back. "Nothing to it, really. Throw on the toggle switch under that cap left of the dials – 'A', 'B', and 'C' as that old sign below there says – and turn the upper dial up to 'one,' the first white notch – put that right by the white mark on the counter next to the dial, I mean. It goes clockwise."
      "What-wise?" Avery had wheeled over to the counter and followed the odd-sounding, to him, directions. "Oh, I see. The wheel. It can't go to the left, so it goes right."
      Selk was consulting his papers. "Now, the old computer system used gee-pee-ess, which is long gone, but the backup uses lat-long, so – "
      Avery finally lost patience. "Mr. Selk, could you just tell me what to do? We've got a war to fight out there."
      "Sorry, sir. Reach for the second dial, lower left – "
      "This one? It's got three of the wheel things."
      "Yes, sir, degrees, minutes, and seconds. I've already set the outer two dials for you, so just work the little one. The big one is set on forty-four, the middle ring is fifty-four."
      "What about the wheels on the right?"
      "Those are east-west. This one is north-south."
      "Now you're saying things I think I understand. Latitude and longitude it is, then?"
      "Yes, sir. Now crank the inner dial – slowly – till it says seventy-five."
      Avery turned the smallest dial, about ten centimeters in diameter, gently to the left. "Done. How do we know it's doing anything?"
      Mary cut in. "There wouldn't be much to see yet, my lad; we're at some unit, say one thousand watts, of power on site, from forty thousand kilometers away, aimed at a high point in the Coast range. If Mr. Selk's reading these papers properly." She grinned.
      Avery glanced at her; these two had obviously gone through this exercise before, and were grandstanding. Well, they had a right; and it was an encouraging sign. He'd play along.
      Selk checked the oscilloscope, and seemed to be satisfied with what he saw there. "Next we have to do east-west. Let's move the outer dial to one-twenty-three and the middle one to twenty-one."
      "Done."
      "Now the inner one to  fifty-one."
      "Got it. I have a feeling that's around here somewhere; what have you two set me up to see?"
      "Wait, sir. Let's go back to the upper dial and power up to fifty."
      "This is fifty?"
      "Yes, the first red notch."
      Avery twitched the black dial.
      "Now, if you'll come to the window, sir." Selk walked over and retrieved the big binoculars.
      Avery rolled along the counter and took the glasses. "Where do I look?"
      "Out past the Highway of Death, a little north of due west."
      Avery knurled the focus knob, sharpening a glimpse of a familiar sight – the van of a large truck from the bygone era, with the letters "K', "I", "N" and "S" in stylized black still showing on the faded and peeling paint, over a gleam of everlasting aluminum. Clouds hung low over the surrounding hills, but the view of the valley was unobstructed and the 'seeing' was decent. He swept on past the Highway out to the North-Running River.
      Nothing. Nothing at all. Disappointment rose in his throat like gorge.
      Wait! White smoke? No, steam! A gout of steam rose and floated leisurely away to the south through the autumnal trees. It was as if – no, it was  fact, presented to him by his half-disbelieving eyes. Starvation Ridge was boiling a tiny patch of the river, almost twenty-five kilometers away. And could presumably do the same – anywhere?
      He handed the binoculars to Selk and turned to Mary.
      "What's the angle of attack here?"
     "Excuse me?"
      "How steep is the beam?"
      "Oh! In this part of the world, it's always gonna be twenty nine point five eight degrees."
      "So there are things it can hit, and things it can't?"
      "It depends on the material on-site," said Mary. "Leave it trained on a mountain long enough, it can bore through to the valley beyond, betcha."
      "What is this thing's reach? Japan to Europe?"
      "No, there are, or were, three of them. To the satellite the disk of the Earth occupies only seventeen degree of arc. This one is pretty much North and South America, and Hawaii ... Malvinas, South Georgia ... maybe the Azores."
      "Some of that means nothing to me. But, say we wanted to hit – I don't know, Argent –"
      "Argentina?"
      "Right, thanks – from here, now, we could do it?"
      Mary leaned back in her chair and regarded Avery coolly. "Mm-hmm."
      Elsa opened her mouth, then closed it, her face ashen.
      Avery wheeled round to face Mary's protégé.  "Mr. Selk, give everyone a turn with the binoculars and then shut this thing off – seems wasteful, burning a river." Avery rolled to the table and surveyed the pile of papers. An odor of old, musty leather permeated the air. He drummed his fingers on the table, then teased a printout out of the middle of the pile. Rows of numbers, entirely meaningless to him, marched across the page. He looked up. He'd felt Savage Mary's eyes were boring into him, and he wasn't mistaken. "Dr. Mary, how long has this young man been able to read – interpret and apply – this kind of thing?"
      "I've been working on him for years," she chuckled.
      "What's the top increment on that upper wheel?"
      "It's expressed in exponents. We think the top red notch is one hundred thousand."
      "And we're boiling off running water at  fifty?"
      Mary cracked her knuckles. "Yep."
      Avery exhaled, placing his hands palm down on the table. "Let's have Mr. Selk pack away as much of this into the valise as he doesn't need for present operations, and take it to the Ridge incinerator. With a  witness. I want explosives up here, and also down by the reactor, wired to go, with trigger switches centrally located. If that pack of yahoos out there gets inside this facility and shows any likelihood of winning, I want every person who attended this meeting, myself included, dead, and any chance of Magee using that space thing permanently  interdicted. I think no one can object to this; we all understand what we're sitting on here."
     A slow smile of almost wicked pleasure creased Mary's face. "My thoughts are much like your own, Captain Murchison. If we fail to save the Creek, the  least  we can do is save the world." 

:::

Wolf had realized he would not have time or means to dry the horsemeat and wolf meat properly. The weather was uncooperative, there was no salt, and he'd been concerned about advertising his location with a plume of smoke. So he'd scattered the bones of the horse and stretched the skins and left them to stink themselves dry as best they might, above the reach of most predators, well away from "his" cache. The bulk of the meat he'd sunk in the pool below the waterfall, in case he might have to come back for it.
    At dawn on the third day, he'd struck out vaguely east, toward the River, wearing a heavy packboard and carrying his bow and the little rifle on opposite sides of  his load. The stiff wolfskin he'd stretched over the load, for such shelter from the intermittent rains as it might afford.
      His plan, given the weight of the load, the evanescence of his burden in the cool but not cold-enough weather, and the relative scarcity of game, was to gorge himself. Every few hours, he stopped in a likely-looking sheltered place with good visuals, unshipped the packboard, and set to work slicing increasingly rank steaks from from his burden. If he bulked enough, he reasoned, a few days' starvation at the end of this affluence might not weaken him enough to present a problem – in the short run.
      More of an issue at present was water. The streams he'd come across were in bad shape, mostly dry washes with here and there an evilly-slimed puddle. A few dead animals near some of these – one of which appeared to have thrashed itself to death in the undergrowth – left him with a distinct impression that toxins were present.
      He'd have to locate a well.
      Wolf was not fond of wells in general, because they were found near houses, and houses had a way of attracting visitors. Nine-tenths of success in conflict or rather avoiding conflict, he'd begun to think, consisted in not "being there." But when ya gotta, ya gotta. Wolf struck an overgrown road as he was thinking on these matters, and instead of slipping uneasily across, turned and followed it to the nearest mailbox.
      This one had been painted light green and bore the stenciled legend "Hodgkins 939021." It now lay on its side, partially buried in mud, amid a riot of vinca, the long-dead spring flowers of which lent an air of melancholy to the sight. Of more interest to Wolf, there were no footprints in the mud, which had long ago washed across what would be the driveway. The house could not be seen from here, meaning that he could not be seen from the house – a good sign. He'd have a look-see.
      Stashing his packboard in the middle of a thicket of Scotch broom, Wolf released the rifle and slung it over his shoulder, removing an old foam earplug from the end of the barrel as he did so. Next he took in hand his bow and quiver, felt for the knife handle at his waist, and crawled, agonizingly slowly, at a distance from and parallel to the driveway, until the outlines of a house came into view.
      Its appearance was reassuringly nasty. Windows broken out, door hanging half awry, vines and creepers grown over the roof. Aquamarine-painted aluminum siding had popped off in several places, exposing shreds of the ubiquitous stuff hugely labeled "Tyvek," with an underlayment of sodden pink insulation. An elderberry bush had found its way through the flooring of the mudroom or living room, whichever it might be, and was protruding lushly from one of the windows.
      Wolf waited, watched, and listened. Patience being a virtue.
      And all that.
:::

Karen stood morosely over the impromptu incubator. She poked a finger at little Allyn's fuzzy cheek; he twitched, eyes half open, and nuzzled at her finger, trying to suck. "Is he even getting any bigger?"
      "Sure," said Marleena. "But it is slow with the preems, you cannot really tell." She put down the sleeping Arda and came over. "What is it, you've been staring at him ever since you came in, as though he might bite you."    
      She kindly refrained from mentioning that Karen had arrived with red eyes and a swollen nose.
      "I've hit a rough patch. So it's nothing; lot rougher patches around here."
      "Well, you do look – 'bushed', Dr. Mary would say. Would you like me to get you something to eat?"
      Karen started. "No!" she replied, more forcefully than she intended.
      Marleena was taken aback, and took refuge in checking on Arda again – an excuse, as the child was sleeping soundly, for once.
      Karen rubbed her shoulder where the arm was missing. Sometimes it seemed as if it ached – the arm that wasn't there. Then she poked again at her ungainly child, who seemed to wave her off with his tiny hands. "I'm ... I'm sorry, Marleena, I've been told something about myself – my past. I found it hard to take, that's all."
      Marleena sat down in the nearest folding chair and picked up a skein of wool and began carding. "Do you want to sit down? You have been standing there a long time."
      "No. It's all right."
      "About food, you must eat to feed the child."
      "I know." Karen rested her chin on the aquarium's back strip. She placed the back of her hand against Allyn's spine and rubbed him gently. "Just not yet."
      "Is it about food, then?"
      "Oh, I wish it wasn't."
      "I think I understand you. Listen, it's all live or die all the time. Every minute everyone is closer to death."
      "Yes."
        Marleena tugged away at the work. "Karen – there is a reason there are Roundhousers at all, you know. Sometimes, we made choices."
      "You too?" Karen rounded upon her. "This is everywhere?"
      "It was. With us, before my time. Since then we have been more fortunate, but just barely, thank the Lord."
      Deela walked in. "Ah, Karen, you are here. Marleena." He sat in a chair near Marleena and peeked into Arda's box, smiling. He then looked up at Karen. "I have sought you out."
      Karen made an effort to smile, but gave it up. "We're all about the nursery now."
      "Dr. M, she quoted something as to that. 'A man, even when he holds a baby, sees and thinks of the world. A woman, while she may be one who sees and thinks of the world, when she holds a baby, sees and thinks only baby.'"
      "She's saying I've lost focus on the Armory."
      "I will be frank. Karen, you have lost focus in – on – the Armory; but it was very good timing. You have greatly helped the Creek and we fight at a safer range with your twenty-two primers. And now I have learned from you, and my shotgun shells are functional. It is really very right to set aside these things for your child's sake."
      "You're being kind."
      "No, I am here to tell you something, and Marleena as well."
      Both women leaned forward involuntarily.
      "Good," said Deela, his white teeth flashing in his ebonite face. "I have the attentions. It is like this. Selk and I and several others have been set to running wiring for explosives. We are putting much of our remaining powder inside the counter of the Control Room and in the control panel room of the Reactor Room, fourth level."
      "Whatever for?" asked Marleena, standing up. "That sounds like a plan for mass suicide!"
      "Some suicide, perhaps, yes, as I understand, a last resort should it come to that. But not so very mass. Karen, I must ask, can the littlest one travel?"
      "I ... we keep him comfortable as we can, here." She pointed to the glass-walled contraption. "I suppose I could park him in a sling bag and  try. Certainly we don't want to raise these children next to a couple of bombs!"
      "I would say, yes, think toward 'try'. I have been quietly dispatched by Dr. M. to remind you of a conversation she says she had with you recently. And to encourage you to gather as many others as can travel, to begin preparing such things as they might need." 

:::

Seeing, hearing, and feeling no activity around the house, Wolf approached, arrow drawn, treading carefully. He negotiated an obstacle course of large plastic toys that had become brittle over time and covered with brambles – excellent noise and entanglement traps – and gingerly stepped in past the half-unhinged storm door. Clearing from room to room, he eventually satisfied himself he was alone, and began to give part of his attention to the probable location of the well. There had to be one, unless there was a town closer than he thought. Noting there was no pumphouse in the back or side "yards," he investigated what had clearly been the laundry room, and by following the exposed PVC pipes, discovered the well in a closed cupboard beneath shelves full of rat-soiled sheets and towels.
      Luck was with him once again. He'd feared the well would hold an immersion pump – such, built to fit within the well casing, could block access unless removed – a formidable task. Virtually impossible with an indoor well. But this pump was of the exposed variety, sitting next to the wellhead with two rubbery-looking pipes connecting it to the well cap. The well casing, what he could see of it, looked to be about twenty centimeters in diameter. The pipes could be quickly sawn through with his hacksaw blade. Only a single bolt, through a hole in a kind of clamp wrapped round the well cap, separated Wolf from access, assuming, of course, the well had not gone dry in the long drought. .
      Wolf repaired to the garage, two rooms away, assessed what tools had not vanished over time, and returned to the laundry room with a heavy, rust-red pipe wrench and a small hydraulic jack.    
      After cutting through the pipes, he tried the bolt with the pipe wrench, finding it, as expected, rust-frozen. Adjusting the jaws of the wrench to obtain the tightest possible fit round the hexagonal head of the bolt, he lifted the jack, laid it on its side, and cranked its handle to wedge the jack between the cinder-block outer wall and the end of the wrench handle.
      Several slips and adjustments later, Wolf found the handle's sweet spot and was able to turn the bolt. He lifted the well cap and sniffed. An impression of clean dampness – wishful thinking? – wafted from below. Well, he'd just have to try it out.
      Rummaging through the relatively empty structure, he found a tall and skinny-enough empty orange plastic bottle, labeled Wisk, which he filled with enough pebbles from outside to sink it, and tied a long telephone cord to the handle. This he lowered alongside the pipes in the well till he ran out of telephone cord, and finished off his well-rope with a length of moldy clothesline from outside. Presently there came to Wolf's hands a bottle filled with pebbles and cool water.
      Mad with thirst as he was, he dared not drink this first liter or so – too much soapy residue. Regretfully he shook the bottle for an agonizingly long time, poured it off, and repeated his procedure.
      Just as the fourth bottleful of   water, hopefully potable, came to light, Wolf heard movement among the brambles and debris, by the driveway.
      Someone was approaching the front of the house!
      Not at all cautiously – the confidence of an armed fool. Wolf set down the precious water and took up his bow and quiver, stringing the bow and fitting an arrow in one smooth maneuver. He glanced at the rifle leaning against the wall – no, better to rig for silent running. No knowing how many others might be nearby.
      The footsteps were in the living room. Now came the sounds of a cursory investigation: items of erstwhile furniture prodded, tipped, turned out. Whoever it was would be as new here as himself. Wolf padded into the dark hallway and drew, aiming for the doorway from the living room.
      A man, smaller than himself, and carrying a rifle with his finger in the trigger guard, came in from the better lighting of the living room, momentarily silhouetted from behind. Sensing that something was wrong, he threw the weapon to his shoulder.
    Wolf's arrow was at full draw. He loosed it into the silhouette and ducked back into the laundry room, drawing another arrow as he did so. An explosion of curses filled the hallway, followed by explosions from the rifle. Semiautomatic! Wolf threw aside the bow and hugged the floor, scrambling for his carbine.
      Amidst the mind-numbing racket, holes appeared in the wallboard above Wolf's head, one after another in rapid succession. Gouts of fluff sprayed him, like a miniature snowstorm, and the gypsum got into his eyes and nose. One shot – five – twelve? Seventeen? He lost count. If this was going to be a full size magazine, there could be another row of holes closer to the floor, for good measure. Time to get out.
      Crawling, belly pressed to the floor, Wolf snaked his way across to the next doorway and practically ran on his knees and elbows to the kitchen, as the fusillade continued. Bullets were penetrating the cinderblocks in the far wall – not a good sign. Racking a three-fifty-seven into the chamber of the carbine, Wolf reached the doorway to the hall and waited.
      The shooting abruptly stopped, followed by the click of the magazine being dropped. Such a wasteful shooter must surely have more magazines – now or never! Wolf kicked the door, found his target slumped against the wall, fired, pumped, fired again, pumped, and fired again. The smoking rifle that had hunted him through the walls fell to the floor, and the arms that had held it sagged, hands twitching.
      Wolf approached the shadowed figure, judged its fighting capacity permanently impaired, and delivered a kick to the head just for safe measure. The man, groaning, fell away toward the rifle, but made no move to reach for it. Wolf squatted, carefully avoiding the protruding arrow in the stranger's back, and patted him down for weapons. He removed and tossed into the living room a gleaming chromed pistol and a black-handled knife. He stood up, strode over to the rifle, and kicked it into the laundry room. Stooping for the clothesline rope he'd used down the well, he untied it from the phone cord, returned to his moaning prisoner, and roughly tied his hands and feet. The piteous keening rose in volume.
      "Oh, shut up."
      "Uhh, what, I'm dead arready, lemme alone." A  kid's  voice.
      "Y'don't sound dead. You lie here nice'n quiet, I got things t'do."
      "Water? Water!"
      "I effin' wish. Be quiet or I kick y'again." Wolf picked up his carbine, racked another round into the chamber, and cleared first the house, then the yard, trying to catch his ragged breath. That had been a  near  thing. If this gun-happy child had buddies, it could be far from over.
      Not until he'd seen an unconcerned crow perch nearby, whetting its beak on a sagging branch, did Wolf return to the house, habitually scanning his surroundings as he went.
      His first order of business would be to see to the weapons. He came to the knife – a Buck – and tested the blade. Sharp – no rust – and oiled! He raised it to his nose. Dust from the wallboard permeated his nostrils, but he believed he could smell – what? He sniffed again. Gun oil! The real thing. Jamming the knife into the wall, Wolf moved to the pistol and picked it up.
      It was heavy as a boat anchor, clearly also well oiled, in custom walnut grips. Some kind of awkwardly-shaped nineteen-eleven. He checked the engraved inscription. Sure enough, a Coonan! Three-fifty-seven! These things had been made, in small numbers, as playthings for rich conservatives. He racked the slide. Empty. Magazine empty too. The kid had held onto it, hoping against hope to find ammunition that would fit. And he, Wolf, in the middle of nowhere, was carrying enough of the right ammunition, in good prime, to fill that magazine eight times over. Wolf the Lucky!
      Something about the Coonan bothered him, though. What was it?
      Carrying the pistol, he walked into the dim hallway, stepped over the prostrate form of the youth, and entered the laundry room. As he suspected, a variant on an em-sixteen. No, more of an ay-arr-ten. Shoving the pistol in his rawhide belt, he picked up the black rifle, surprisingly heavy for its compact size, even with no magazine attached. He fingered the manufacturer's mark: a rearing, grinning rattlesnake. Huh. In caliber three-oh-eight! No wonder it had punched through the cinder blocks. A nice thing to have, with far more striking distance and penetration than his little Israeli pump gun. He rolled it over, and disappointment struck him in the gut. Wolf the Sometimes  Not  So Lucky.
      He'd apparently shot the weapon out of the boy's hands, hitting it not once but twice. A ragged hole in the magazine well and a horrid dent in the receiver told the tale. In all probability this thing would take too long to fix, with the tools at hand, to be worth the effort.
      Standing the battered relict against the wall, Wolf felt again the unease with which he'd examined the pistol. Time for a conference.
      He stuck his head into the hallway. "Y'still breathin?"
      "Uhhnh."
      "Oh, good! Come an' hang out wi' me a bit." Approaching the youth, Wolf laid hold on the collar of his well-made shirt, and dragged him into the laundry room. "I'd sit ya up but y'liable to pass out on me with all that blood out 'n the hall."
      "Water?"
      Spying a strange cup tucked by its handle into the young man's tooled leather pistol belt, Wolf retrieved it. Turning it over, he found the words "Sierra Club" stamped in the base. What kind of club outfitted its warriors with fancy, shining, tippy-looking cups? He poured from the Wisk bottle into the cup, drank it off, and poured another cupful, holding it to the young man's lips.
      The youth drank greedily.
      What a kid! Beard, ponytail, and earrings! Fancy clothes head to foot! Too bad about all the holes in him. What stories he might tell. But they had maybe half a hand together before this boy would depart, or Wolf was no judge of wounds. "Better?" he asked, in his kindliest manner.
     "Yes-s ... more?"
      "Sure. But that's it for now; it's hard work bringing this stuff up an' you're wearin' my well rope."
      "Sorry."
      "No prob." Wolf pulled the pistol, dropped the magazine into his palm, turned it over, and began loading it methodically. The kid, damaged as he was, eyed the clean ammunition hungrily.
    "Y'know,' Wolf said softly, "if y'd backed out of th'hall an' offered t' parley, I mighta been inclined thataways. Oh, well. So, tell me. Where ya from, an' why the eff are ya carryin' items from my personal gunstore?"