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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twenty: Passings

For some moments now Moira’s sleep had been troubled by an irritating noise nearby – someone was muttering, worrying over some bit of news in a deep baritone. Finally she could stand no more of it.

“For heaven’s sake, hush, Jared,” she snapped. “I’m just dying. I’m not deaf.”

“Sorry, Mother,” the voice rumbled, then was still. She reached out toward him without opening her eyes, and he took her hand in both his large, calloused paws and held it gently. Jared was her oldest, made by unknown strangers whose fate remained a mystery, who left him for Glen to find, dirty and nearly starved, beside the road as he returned from his first foray into what was left of the world. Jared had become the first of her children, adopted by her in that first summer as survivors began to gather at Falling Spring. He had also served to spare her from the rush to increase the settlement’s population that had occurred just before the men went north in the first winter of new time. Ellen had joined in the effort to repopulate, and her daughter Ayla was born the following August, along with Stephanie, Logan, Pierce, Alec and four others whose names and faces she could now only dimly recall.

One thing she did remember, as if it were tattooed on her soul, was the evening she had spent with the community elders telling the story again of her encounters with the religious zealots, the militia group from which they had sprung, and what she feared they might someday attempt, especially if they found out what had become of their missing search party. “Our history from before may be judged irrelevant over time, but this is part of our story, and it may well someday have consequences. Better to be aware of our beginnings, even though we would hope you would choose to leave it within this room,” she had told them. She had cautioned both Ellen and Steven to keep their own journals private and let that particular memory fade from common knowledge.

Dying was such a nuisance, she thought sleepily. It made some things from long ago so clear, while obscuring the significance of each passing, present moment. Even the ticking of the clock should seem more precious now, she mused. Instead, she was just tired of listening to its ticking the seconds of her life away. If Jared would go away, or just hush, she would sleep. She told him so and her 30-year-old child kissed her forehead, smiling wryly at her impudence in the face of death itself, and tiptoed silently from the room.

As she had drifted in and out of consciousness in these last few days, Moira had been reviewing her life, not as conventional wisdom would have it, seeing it slide by one scene at a time in chronological order, but almost at random. If there were any sense to her ramblings, she guessed it would be in terms of relationships. She remembered her life with Glen, her life with Steven, her life with Ellen and Joel, as strings of related events, smiling sometimes, tearful at others as she watched her cohorts in this strange adventure change, grow, age, and become dearer to her heart. Of them all, she knew, it was Ellen to whom she had become and remained closest. Ellen had taken Steven as a lover and later Moira chose Glen, and they had borne those men’s children. The following year, Steven had come to her, while Glen had chosen a woman newly arrived in the community by way of the bus accident. Ellen had, she had said with great humor, found a ‘donor’ from among a passing band of traders who had arrived in late summer hawking salvage from the ruins of towns to the east. She had made the man write down his genealogical information before he left, so some track could be kept of the ongoing genetic interchange.

With the intermixing, particularly after the “bus people” arrived, the community as it grew had become a rainbow of colors and other genetic characteristics. And with every new mix, combined with their driving quest for the preservation of knowledge and skills, they had increased the potential for a stable and lasting population. By their combined hands and bodies, she thought, they had finally set aside the specter of an end to humanity and were now able to focus on the shaping of an enlarging and increasingly promising future.

As those first years had passed, and the tradition of men leaving the encampment in winter continued, Moira and Ellen had forged a bond that was unassailable, becoming lovers at one point, then moving past that into another realm they couldn’t explain, but closer somehow. They had come to see themselves as two sides to a single coin, as they saw the community take guidance from their strength. They had learned to pair the talents of each member with jobs that suited them and to delegate responsibilities into reliable hands. Their focus had been fixed on how to keep the balance, to find and shore up the underpinnings that kept the whole system running. Some kept records, some oversaw seed trials, and others focused on education, from that first school to seeing the establishment of the small university branch, driven by the task of passing on every bit of knowledge they had or could glean to as many of the community’s residents as were willing and able to learn. While his father had taught animal science, Arthur Slocum, the veterinarian’s son, had given instructions in the use of the tiny computers to download mountains of information from their satellite library and had seen it made available to other communities. Many of those computers were still working, although not many questions remained left to ask, given the limits on their ability to put more than a modicum of technology to work. Ancient Annie LeBeaux still lectured from her chemistry lab while continuing to work toward developing still more uses for the amazing hemp plant. And Tish Beebe had left a legacy much more substantial than her wheat ale when she enriched their capacity to make many vital implements and ‘potions’ from the bamboo and medicinal herbs she had brought with her.

Moira had taken a lengthy turn teaching biology, agriculture, and simple genetics. Ellen had taught herbal medicine, nutrition, and food preservation. Steven had taught blacksmithing, metalworking, and farm mechanics. Glen had taught outdoor skills, horsemanship, and the simple astronomy used in navigation. Veterinarian Slocum had teamed with Alice Compton, the nurse practitioner, to practice and to teach basic medical knowledge, and the two had linked with Ellen and Tish to develop some highly effective medicines. Others who came had brought additional skills and knowledge, and all were pressed into service as both doers and teachers. Over time, traditions had developed. And as new people continued to arrive and settle in, more skills had been learned and shared.

Moira smiled, thinking of all she had been witness to in her 30-some years of struggle in this wild and beautiful place. A voice nearby murmured a hello, and she realized that while she slept, Ellen had come in to sit with her. Good. There were things to be said to Ellen, and time was growing short. She could feel it in the coldness of her fingers and the way her lower extremities seemed somehow very far away.

“What meanness are you thinkin’ up now, old woman?” Ellen asked in a tender voice that showed signs of deep fatigue. “I’ve seen that little grin long enough to know you’re up to something. Aye, missy, even now you’d be planning mischief.”

She felt Ellen’s hand on her arm and reached to grasp it with her own frail one. “You know me too well,” Moira whispered, the smile still flickering about her lips.

Ellen, watching her, saw how much more pale and weak Moira had become even in the few hours since she had last checked on her, and nodded but couldn’t speak, knowing her voice would tremble from the tears she was choking back. Goddess. She couldn’t be going now. It was too soon. She wasn’t even 70 years old. It couldn’t be.

And then a small chuckle worked its way through her tears as she chided herself. It would always be too soon for Moira to die, even if she lived to be a hundred and twenty. But this just wasn’t right. She was their strength, their mainstay, the only leader they’d ever had. She had carried them all on her own strong shoulders. Now those shoulders had simply given out. Ellen shook her head. If only her lungs were better. If only she hadn’t taken that fall from the mill wheel. If only she’d taken better care of herself, had not taken on everyone’s children, had fewer responsibilities, fewer hard choices whose consequences had forever weighed on her mind.

Moira’s voice interrupted her musings.

“You’re chewing old bones again, lady,” she said. “You need to just let it be. It’s all right. I’ve had my time. It’s someone else’s turn now. And speaking of that, what have they decided, have you heard?”

Moira knew the village council was locked in debate over whom to choose as her successor. It wouldn’t be an easy choice. Glen was still alive and fit, but he wouldn’t relinquish his post at the head of the Brothers to be village-bound. Steven would have been another natural choice, but he was gone to a tragic end. Joel, too, had gone away more than a year ago, and they did not know if he still lived. He had headed out east the autumn before in search of a better trade route to the coastal lands. Afterward, he’d intended to travel north, into the uncharted land where there were rumors of a race of giants. This spring, one of the so-called giants, actually just a man taller and more blond than was common locally and probably of Scandinavian origin, had returned with some of Joel’s company. It turned out that this fellow was another relative of the Yoders, those scavengers of landfills and junkyards. But Joel, they said, had decided to take the boat and continue on, intending to map the northern coast before returning home.He had taken a company of Brothers that included two men and a woman and had set out by jonboat just two days before a wild and fierce storm had battered the northlands shore. None of them had been seen again.

Moira did not believe he was dead, but she missed him more, she thought, than she would have anyone save her own children. Still, she realized, if he were here, he would be far more suited for taking over Glen’s job than her own. Truth to tell, everyone else but one was too young, or inexperienced, or too slow of wit, to make an effective replacement. She looked up at Ellen and her eyes warmed.

“If they’ve got any sense, they’ll name you,” she said. “There’s no one that would be any better at the job. And besides, they’d better use up us old hands while they can.” She gripped Ellen’s hand hard as a coughing spasm seized her. Dying shouldn’t have to be so damned painful, she thought. Of course, if it got really bad she knew she could trust Ellen to do what needed doing. But she was going to hold out until the end if she could. She didn’t want to put that burden on Ellen. And, besides, she thought with a hint of a wicked grin, she was actually looking forward to the process itself and didn’t want to miss anything.

She could feel Ellen’s concern and fought to contain the coughing. Ellen held a glass for her to drink, and she took a breath and tried to look as if she were in less pain than she was. Her psychic awareness had been growing steadily since the Change, but in recent weeks it had gotten almost spookily intense. She could hear what most people were thinking any time they passed anywhere near her. And she could tell if they were lying. From her bed, Moira could pinpoint the location of nearly everyone in the village, from the smallest infant to the oldest codger, and most of the nearby animals as well. It was as though a web of energy held everything living linked together and she could see it, just barely. Individuals showed up as small sparks of light in varying colors and intensities. Those to whom she was closest shone brightest; Ellen was a soft blue shot through with bursts of violet, magenta and copper. Where it touched her, the web was green as the new spring grass. Where their energies touched, all was golden.

“Oh, great,” Moira thought. “It’s a good thing I’m on my way outa here. I tell any of this and they’ll take me down and lock me in the loony ward.” But she knew they wouldn’t. Such abilities, while none as strong as hers seemed now, had been cropping up with some frequency in quite a few others. Joel had begun to exhibit similar skills in training animals, she remembered. And Ellen, she knew, had some uncanny abilities of her own although they manifested differently. Ellen really could heal injuries merely by touching them. Most things, that is. Moira knew what anguish her own illness was causing her long-time companion, because it wasn’t something that could be mended. Her body had simply worn out. But the two were so inextricably linked together that Ellen had to be experiencing what was happening right along with her.

Their connection had deepened years ago, when Moira had insisted on having as large a family, between them, as possible, while maintaining their own intimate relationship. It had made for a complicated decade or two. They’d found that over time romantic entanglements could be worked out much easier than childcare for a menagerie that included, between them, three boys and two girls. She’d thought for a while they wouldn’t survive it with affections intact. But it had made their connection stronger. For years now they’d been able to hear one another’s words or feelings in time to answer a question before it was voiced, or to reach to touch simultaneously.

These days, though, she was having to work hard to hold some of her own thoughts back, keeping them in a more private location. There were some things Ellen already suspected and would know soon enough. She knew Moira was gravely ill. Moira thought she didn’t know how short the time was becoming.

For all her musings about the past, the one thought Moira tried hardest to hold at bay was the fear that she’d left something undone — some nugget of critical importance, without which the community couldn’t survive. Of course, their losses had already been vast. Hell, she, Tish and Annie’s had barely figured out how to make paper before they’d run out of the supply stored here in the basement. And, in truth, the stored paper might have lasted longer had she not one day realized, in a flash of panic, that the vast majority of this new world’s most essential information was stored far overhead in two information satellites, reachable only by computer systems that would sooner or later fail. That winter, she recalled, when the last printer went down before the job was finished, they had invented a new profession – that of scribe. Arthur Slocum had spent himself keeping the machinery going until they’d gleaned all that was possible, then cried at the last gasp of the technology that he would probably not see regained in his lifetime. He had since become the school administrator, then the college chancellor.

In that same year they had also created another role, that of mediator, when some of the hemp, cotton, and flax allocated to the weavers and clothiers had to be diverted to paper-making. But it had all turned out well. Some of the underground vault space had been converted to a library, and most of the information had been copied in time. Now, the village’s electrical capacities had all been diverted to maintaining the seeds and the library in climate-controlled comfort.

She couldn’t really see a basis for her worry. Overall, things were now looking more positive than they had at any time since the Change. Still, she felt a frustration that burned in her bones about having to leave now, with so much unfinished.

Her cheeks puffed out in an explosive sigh as she recognized her ego rearing its ugly head. Even now, she thought wryly. Better shift gears, she decided, seeing Ellen’s observant eyes on her. Better to feign distraction than to admit the direction of her thoughts. Actually, she realized she wasn’t really faking so much as just gradually fading. What an ignoble way to go, she thought, and decided to fight a little longer.

Maybe she wasn’t shielding as much as she thought, for Ellen suddenly asked, “What’s on your mind, little one?”

“If I were just a little younger or felt better, I’d be spending time studying this new home-grown magic of ours. This psychic sensitivity that’s popping up seems to be traveling down through family groups. I’d like to know more about that, wouldn’t you?” she said, hoping to engage Ellen in conversation and head off her scrutiny. It didn’t work.

“I know that if I were just a little more stupid, I’d fail to see what you’re trying to do,” Ellen retorted sharply. “If you think you’re just going to drift off and get away from this planet without my noticing, you’ve got another think coming. Now let me in. I need to know – whatever there is to know. Don’t keep this from me, dear heart. Not any of it. If my time with you is running out, I don’t want to miss a single instant. You understand me?” she said, her voice trembling, but not losing control.

Moira winced but nodded, irritated that a tremor was beginning in her voice. “It’s going to be soon, I think. I can feel things,” she paused, looking for words that would describe this strange process as her body began to shut down. “I can feel things moving, changing. I think my systems are beginning to go. Actually, it’s probably time to gather everyone around who wants to be here.” She caught her breath as pain shook her, then laughed softly at Ellen’s expression of concern. “It’s a perfectly natural process, love. We’ll all have it to do sometime. And I never really believed I’d last long enough to die in bed. And your bed, at that.” They both laughed at this, and Ellen reached to cup Moira’s face with one hand, as the other brushed the hair back from her forehead. “I love you so, so very much,” Ellen said. “I will love you forever, you know.”

“I know. As I will you, my love.” Moira reached for her, and Ellen came into her arms, cradling her thin body with a strong but gentle touch.

“Don’t be sad. We have built a world together.” Moira whispered. Then her tone became stronger as she spoke in a voice very different, more like her old self. “Listen. We won’t have many more minutes alone from here on. So I beg you to remember this, love.”

Their eyes met, the connection went deep. “On some foggy morning, look for me on the bluffs above the river. One day I will come to you as I did on that first day, and as I have on every day since. You have my heart in your keeping for now and always, sweetest one. If there is a way across the void,” Moira’s voice broke then, and they both cried as they held one another. “I will find you…” she whispered, and then said it again, as much mind to mind as voiced. “I will find you if there is a way.”

She slept then and dreamed of days on horseback along the river, and golden sunshine on the hills, and herbs in bloom in the gardens they had made along every street and waste space, digging channels to carry water for irrigation all over the gently sloping lawns leading down into the new village of Falling Spring. She had stood by those same channels during that deadly winter of ice, when every movement was an invitation to disaster, and had held a sobbing Glen and rocked him after Willy fell on the ice and broke a leg, and had to be put down. In the dreams that came she stood above the fields by the river and saw harvest after harvest of wheat, corn, oats and hemp billowing in the wind, feeding, clothing and making strong these citizens of a new world. She put out her hands in the dream to catch the hissing torrent of seeds pouring into their cloth bags, headed for storage. Her whole life’s work – to protect the seeds and see to their renewal.

Then the scene shifted and she saw Joel paddling up the Eleven Point River from the new seaport called South Home, wearing skin clothing and a hat of unfamiliar design. His beard had slight streaks of grey and his hard muscles were driving the paddle against the current. His canoe was heavily loaded and he seemed in a great hurry. She smiled when she inhaled, smelling, instead of river damp, Glen’s ever-present tobacco. She opened her eyes.

“Hey, Glen,” she said softly, the affection in her voice making his eyes crinkle. “Joey’s coming home. I saw him. How goes it with you?”

“It goes well, sweet lady,” he answered, taking her outstretched hand in his larger, harder one, and cradling it gently, his thumb caressing her knuckles and reading their frailty. “I’ve just come from council. They’ve decided your choice, as usual, is the right one. Ellen will take your place as leader. And they’ve also decided to give that position a title other than just leader. They wanted me to tell you before, well, while you can still appreciate the humor in it.”

She could hear the smile in his voice and she looked up at him. Glen, at 70, looked hewn from weathered oak. The lines in his face were deep, but his skin was smooth and brown. His hair, gray and worn long, was braided with bright cotton thread, a task he had probably shared with one of his granddaughters, probably Alissa, who was fascinated with colors. It had already contained a few grey strands when they met and wrestled over a pistol all those years ago. Now it was more salt than pepper, his beard and mustache nearly white. She followed the familiar sweet curve of his lip with her eyes as he spoke.

“They have named you Mother of the Seeds. They said to tell you it is in honor of all you have done to preserve the web of life for those who will follow us. You, out of all of us, have made the essential difference in keeping us alive and making life livable, by preserving and teaching us the means for our survival.”

She tried to respond, but her lips wouldn’t answer her bidding, and all she could get out was, “Sweet.”

“Listen, little Seed Mother,” he said gently. “They sing to you.”

Glen slid his arm beneath her and lifted her slightly, while Jared and his partner Pete stepped forward, pulled back the curtains, and drew the window open. She heard the music rising and looked around. Ellen was there at her head and the rest of the children crowded around. Alissa laid a tiny garland of embroidered flowers of many colors into her hand, while Robert and Ethan reached out to touch her at ankle and knee. The rest of the children and grandchildren clustered behind them, some meeting her eye bravely, others sobbing openly. Outside, the voices were lifted in an old song from before the Change, a song written, fittingly, she remembered, by a man called Yarrow. But they had altered the words, or at least some of them:

“There is only one river. There is only one seed
“And it flows through you, and it grows in me …”

She could see the wind stirring in the trees by the river and felt herself lifting toward them. As she left the pull of gravity behind, though, she remembered suddenly the things for which she was responsible, and all the bits and pieces of knowledge she hadn’t had time or thought to impart to anyone, and all the love she felt for her family, her people, and her world. And there was Ellen, whose eyes she met as her body fell back into Glen’s arms and whose face was the last living thing she saw in this life. Like a milepost, a lantern in darkness, or a lighthouse on a storm-tossed sea, she homed in on that image and launched herself headlong into the void between the worlds.

 

An exhausted Brother Joel put in his long, hand-hewn dugout canoe at the river docks below Falling Spring just before nightfall. Hearing the song and knowing for whom they must be singing, he ran up the path through the gates and all the way to the Keep. The mourning villagers made a path for him as he went, some of them crying out in pity as he passed. At the Keep, he stopped and caught his breath before entering. His appearance caused surprise and consternation among some family members. But Ellen was waiting for him.

“She told us you were on your way,” she said. “She said you’d be here.”

“She’s gone, then,” he said. It was not a question but Ellen nodded, her eyes still brimming with tears..

“She said to tell you she loves you, and is so proud of your brave, good work. We need to know everything we can about this island of ours if we’re to use it well.”

“She knew, then, what I’ve been doing?” he said again, his eyes meeting Ellen’s speculatively.

“She may have picked it up intuitively, but I’d like it if you’d fill me in,” she said. “They’ve named me to succeed her. I hope that meets with your approval. I know what she meant to you. And I hope you’re not disappointed to not be named to the leadership yourself. The council thought …”

“The council was absolutely right,” Joel said, interrupting her. “I’ve not the experience or the inclination for that job. Besides, I think that to hold our male egos in check, the job of mothering should by rights always belong to a woman.”

“The council agrees. They named her Mother of the Seeds. She was pleased.”

“Mmm. The Seed Mother, is she? And you’re to be the next, am I right?”

“That’s what they’ve said. What do you think?”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, looking into her eyes, his voice barely above a whisper as his face twisted in a rictus of pain. “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye. At least to let her know how much I loved her. I heard her in my dreams last week, calling me home. I came as fast as I could.”

“She knew that,” Ellen said. “She knew you were on your way and had me get these out to give you, to remember her by.” Ellen handed her tall, adopted son Moira’s prized binoculars. He smiled, but then tears started to flow.

“She loved you as one of her own, Joey. Joel. Just as I do.”

“I know. I remember her better than my own mother. I just … I just wish she was…. I had so much to tell her.” As his voice broke and he stopped talking, Glen came in quietly and stood beside him, placing a gnarled and veined arm around his sturdy shoulders.

“Moira has passed the veil,” his bass voice droned softly. “But the Seed Mother remains.” Joel nodded, his head bowed, his tears flowing freely. Then he looked up at Ellen and was startled, for although her gaze had been sad, he felt her sudden sharp intake of breath and a wild triumph in her heart, her eyes darting across the valley to the bluffs with an exultance that disquieted him for a moment. Then the odd sensation faded and he smiled.

“I see you have taken it on, Mother Ellen,” he said. “The mantle of leadership rides well on you. May it always.” Ellen lowered her head in acknowledgment, then faced the two men, a smile broadening on her lips as her eyes shone with love for her last remaining partners in this amazing adventure.

“Always, that’s the trick,” she said. “Let that be our job descriptions.”

Then she turned and walked through the door into the room that had been Moira’s apartment and now would be hers. As she looked out the window at the scene before her, where the orchard began and the hill sloped down gently toward the village, she gazed again toward the bluffs beyond her sight. Some errant breeze caused a movement of the light and she looked to the side and saw her face, and yet ever so slightly not her face, looking back at her from the mirror. Moira had passed. She had been there to witness it. But there was something not quite her own in those eyes that looked back. She smiled and shook her head. “It would be just like her,” she thought. And then she stepped out into the evening to join the singing. Time enough, she thought, to let this mystery reveal itself. Meanwhile, she had a village to run and the seeds to tend, for a little while.

-30-

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Sixteen: The Way It Grew

And so the days and seasons passed, and in the third year of the community of Falling Spring, in the new territory called Mumbros, babies were born, newcomers continued to arrive, and the village grew and continued to change as seasons and circumstances dictated. Its citizens learned to state in clear language their life ways and rules as more prospective settlers arrived at the gate. They were equally eager to provide directions for making their way to other settlements when the newcomers determined they were not a good fit. The villagers’ hospitality never faltered, and when people arrived who were short on supplies or were travel-worn but didn’t want to stay, they were invited in to rest and restore themselves, and were supplied with food and other necessities when they left to seek accommodations elsewhere.

The Brothers, who were now readily identifiable by their “uniform,” which consisted solely of a trio of bands of red cloth – hatband, armband and one fastened to the boot, continued widening their explorations and at Moira’s suggestion were keeping copious notes on the changing demographics of the island nation.

The Brothers had come into their own since that first hard winter when they sheltered in a large, roomy cavern up north at Glen’s homestead. Glen related the story of that first winter, and Steven wrote it all down in a journal he had keeping since first arriving back in the village.

“As the winter’s cold deepened, we were pretty much confined to the cavern and had little to do beyond harvesting firewood and concocting meals from an odd mix of ingredients. So there was plenty of time to talk. We did a great deal of talking through all those long nights. Otherwise, we’d have probably gone mad listening to the godawful racket of those howling winds. But after a while we tired of sharing our pasts and began to take up a serious conversation about what might be the needs of the future, assuming we might have a future. And there, in that all-male environment, we naturally began to speculate on what tasks might be more suited specifically to the talents and strengths of men. We talked about our failings as well, and the curse of being slaves to testosterone. Gradually we came into a larger vision of our various skills and proclivities. We came to see ourselves as one single, strong cord in a web of interlocking cultural strands. In short, we began to understand our place in things.”

For everything to work, Glen explained, everyone must find their place, their lifework, really, and just do it to the best of their skills. For instance, some would naturally choose to nurture the children, the animals, all the growing things. Although some insisted that job was more likely to be a woman’s choice, Glen asked that they question that stereotype, as it might no longer be appropriate in this new culture. Needs would be different. So would choices. They discussed the concept of homebodies and talked about Steven, who, although he was virtually unable to leave the village, had essential talents and skills within the community. The same was true with other men like Toby and Rickard, who had come to occupy their own essential place in the fabric of village life, a place that deserved respect.

Still, someone had to keep order, especially between and beyond the settlements. Obviously, Glen said, some of them were clearly cut out to be cowboys, while some were…just not. By winter’s end nearly all the men at Glen’s Cave happily volunteered to serve the brothers’ mission and do whatever job was given them while they searched within themselves to find their own place in the fabric of life. A few of the young men balked, bragged and boasted they could make their own way. Glen said they were free to take any path they chose, but said their way would not be the Brothers’ way.

When reporting on those discussions back at home, Glen was quick to emphasize that in no way did the Brothers intend to take on the leadership of the community and its surrounding territory. Instead, they humbly asked the community’s blessing for their endeavor to bring order and some helpful pairs of hands to those places and people who had such needs. Their stated intent was accepted by all and welcomed by most. By the next winter’s end, the Brothers had become a pillar in the framework of communities. By then, though, they were having to make some adjustments to their internal structure when some of the younger hardworking women demanded to be included in their company. That was managed by enlarging an otherwise unused chamber in the cavern where the “Brotherwomen” could establish their own enclave, living apart but coming together for meals and training. Rules for those interactions were simple, and transgressions punished sternly and fairly. Soon, they had become a polished unit, known as fair arbiters of disputes while being helpful in other ways as needed.
Everywhere they traveled, they found communities where refugees from a variety of somewhat related sects and cultures had made homes for themselves wherever they were welcomed in. People of all inclinations had set about choosing where and with whom they wished to live, and many of their choices were spiritual ones. In particular, the Christians had broken into somewhat modified factions, with traditionalists blending their ways with the Amish and Mennonites on the island’s west coast and the more mainstream sects finding their places in and near the community of Van Buren, over on the Current River.

It became likely, although no one knew for sure, that the most radically conservative Christians had cemented their relationships as they walled themselves off from casual contact with the outside world by journeying deep into the rugged Monadnocks that lay to the southwest. As travelers had passed on their way to other destinations during the past year, rumors had spread of sightings of scattered groups identifying themselves as fundamentalist Christians making their way southwest toward their “home country.” Some were congregations from small country churches, while others were packs of semi-organized, well armed white men who weren’t inclined to share their thoughts or beliefs. “Like follows like,” most people said and dismissed the news, although not without some concern. With luck, those folks like everyone else would be too occupied trying to construct a sustainable settlement in that inhospitable land to cause their neighbors any significant problems, at least for the present.

Meanwhile, Falling Spring and its environs had become the most diverse anywhere, and were known for their tolerance and respect for the ways of others. “No harm,” was the first law. The very progressive, the Unitarians, the Quakers, the Back-to-the-Landers and many other under-represented tribes had all managed to settle in comfortably among the increasingly pagan, pantheistic heathenish ways of the founding family, whose policies of kindness, fairness. and inclusion resulted in a society whose disagreements mostly ended in handshakes rather than conflict.

Meanwhile, as news spread about the availability of true-growing seeds, representatives from other settlements and territories began to call, many of them offering items they hoped to trade for seeds. In that third spring, the idea began to grow of having some sort of festival to accommodate the many more than the Amish who arrived looking to augment their seed supplies and to trade their wares for a variety of items in short supply at home.

Early on that year came a group of potters from somewhere near “Popular,” hawking bowls, teapots, plates, mugs, and flagons. After them came vendors from Van Buren peddling dried and cured fish, meats and fruits. Trade kept up a brisk pace all summer, and in the early fall a small traveling theater company from somewhere over west came and held a Chatauqua-style show at the Inn. The company contained everything from jugglers to debaters and they were delighted to take their pay in seeds and supplies.

Later to come that year was an old man, August Barton, who stumbled up to the Inn one evening long after the harvest was in and winter threatening. He was afoot but his pony pulled a cart loaded with a haphazard collection of vessels filled with a searing moonshine that he had made somewhere over the hills to the northwest. Between the infirmary, the herbary and the Innkeeper, they bought out his entire supply and placed orders for more. He was to return at the ends of two more autumns with cartloads of alcohol, and at his second leave-taking he led a contingent of three apprentices who packed up their bedding and foodstuffs and returned with him to his mountain abode deep within an old, long-untended orchard near Grove Hill. They would learn to tend the orchard and to craft its fruits, in combination with a handsome supply of wheat and corn from the Amish families next door, into respectable brews, vintages and spirits. The contract established between the distiller and his wards included continuing to supply his earthly wants after he retired from the business. It was an agreement that all parties were to find agreeable. Possibly in honor of what he had brought them that chilly October night, they ever after referred to a fine harvest from the wheat, grape, or apple lands, as a “right August offering.”

Even later than the distiller arrived, as the dreaded winter winds were beginning to batter the hilltops that year, a trio of hard-muscled, grim faced, very tall blond men arrived and asked to speak with the village’s leaders. Ostensibly they were selling a few bits of cookery made of crafted metal, along with tools old and new, and other rare oddities from a place to the north where they held land that once had been a large municipal landfill and several salvage yards. But they had more to offer. They spent a long evening at the Inn, visiting with Moira, Glen, Rickard, Annie, and Tish, discussing the community’s needs for the future, especially suggesting what these miners of the wreckage might search for as they delved further into the metal salvage and the packed full and sealed landfill. The most interesting question came from Annie.

“This landfill. Is it still sealed, or is it leaking?”
Burton Yoder, a tall, bearded man who appeared to be the leader of the group, had the answer. “It’s holding together fairly well so far, ma’am. But the earthquakes didn’t do it any good. There are a couple of places where some sludge is showing. We’ve stopped it up the best we can.”

As the conversation continued, Moira studied him. He looked to be about 50, tanned, and with a burn scar that marked him from his ruined left ear to somewhere below his collar. When she asked about it he said, “I was driving east trying to get back to my folks’ farm when, as you remember, everything went to hell. I spent a little time under my car, mashed up against the exhaust manifold. Whitley here pulled me out,” he said, gesturing toward his brother, a taller and slimmer version of himself. The third man, younger but larger still, was a cousin, Kris Kuhn, who said little but watched the proceedings intently.

Behind him, Moira noted, Joel had come in and found a perch next to their table where he could hear the conversation. He seemed very interested in the men from the north. But Annie wanted to hear more about the sludge. “Next time you come, bring me a sample, a quart or two if you can. I need to know what’s in it, to see if there’s anything we can separate out and use.”

Everyone looked at her with varying degrees of curiosity mixed with revulsion. She let out a huff of air. “We need a multitude of things that cannot be had without the materials to make them,” she explained. “Like it or not, it’s a resource.”

Moira cleared her throat. “She knows what she’s doing. Leave her to it.”

The conversation continued late into the evening but even when the family bade the visitors a good night, Joel lingered. He wanted to know more about the north country. He was told there seemed to be an impenetrable wilderness beyond the blond men’s territory, and that strange stories came out of that place from the few who returned from attempts to explore it. He kept notes, along with directions on how to find the blond men’s home country, should he someday wish to travel there. He was wishing it already but hadn’t the age or experience yet to try it. Best of all, he had enough wisdom to know that. He filed the urge, along with his notes, in a leather bag on a peg where he kept his little penny whistle he’d found amid Glen’s bags of salvage. Someday, he thought, maybe I’ll be the one to solve that mystery.

The original family still dined together almost every night, and at the dinners, even though the list of items for discussion always included some urgent matter, there also arose first a framework and then a plan to stabilize the underpinnings of this place, to make it work better as a unit. For that, there must be a way to promote and control economic development. First on the list was the need to make a hospitable place for the traveling merchants when they returned, as everyone knew they would in the spring. Some kind of minimal shelter for the travelers would be needed as well as a place for those folks living in outlying areas who would face a journey to market that would often take longer than a day. The Inn could not hold them all.
As Moira described the large open area needed to hold a market place and adjacent temporary quarters, Joel looked up from his plate.
“That’s easy, how about down next to the ball field? There’s lots more space than we need to play ball, and it’s pretty level. It’s no good for crops because it floods once in a while. But that only happens in very early spring. Even if there was damage we’d have time to clean it up before the Gather …ing.” They laughed at his odd stutter, but later began to repeat it. Thereafter, the spring festival would be called the Gather.

The plot of land measuring about 15 acres of riverside meadow, would serve the purpose neatly, they decided. But as Rickard was quick to remind them, winter was almost upon them, and if habitable places were to be completed before the next season of travel and trade, who would there be to make them? Those most able to perform the work would be gone to Glen’s cave for the winter.

“We may have to weather the weather, and come back a week or two early,” Glen said, but he didn’t look happy about it.

“Well, to be fair, you’ll not be taking everybody, and Eldon and I can get a lot done ourselves during breaks in the weather,” Steven said.

“Not all of us go up to play cowboys,” he said, reminding everyone that he wouldn’t be going to Glen’s cave due to his fear of the woods, and neither would Eldon because of his arthritis.

That brought them to another urgent matter for discussion. The following week, Glen and his followers would be on their way to the winter outpost of the Brothers. This time his choices included the most fit among them, for they would spend the time training for service. Months had already gone into the building of the new group that merged law enforcement and social services. It had now become large enough to patrol almost all the territories, offering practical assistance and keeping order.

“I’ve been thinking about all this, and I’d like to throw out an idea for us to chew over,” Glen said. “We’re already planning to send a few patrols a little farther out to contact all the other known communities and farmsteads to assess their needs and gather information. It’s time to see if we could be more of a help to them. We could spread the word about the Gathers, let them know they can come and trade for what they need. And we certainly have plenty of wares to trade as well.” There were nods around the table.

“Well, as long as we’re doing that, why not see if they would like to come at a couple of dates, one in spring to buy seeds and again in fall to share their harvests,” Steven offered.

“That would certainly make it safer for everybody. It’s still not all that safe to wander off into the wilds alone or to travel in unprotected little groups,” Glen replied. “If we knew when they were coming, we could provide better security along the trail.”

“While you’re at it,” Ellen suggested, “why not encourage the folks in all the communities you visit to set up their own gatherings, to make a season of festivals. If you staggered the dates, that would encourage the merchants and artisans to work out a regular trade route to serve all the communities. Glen’s messengers could let them know about it and then provide some security along the route to protect the traders and the customers from tramps and ruffians.”

“I can see how that would work,” Moira said. “We need to know our neighbors better, and a more organized approach to commerce would be good for everyone, yes? Maybe we should organize a crafters’ guild to help with the planning. They will know more than we do what their needs would be.”

“I can see it now,” drawled Rickard, who had been invited specifically for this part of the discussion. “First there’s a guild, and then a chamber of commerce. Next thing you know we’ll be organizing rival sports teams.” Everyone laughed, but then the conversation went quiet. There was still hesitation, finally voiced by Annie.

“This is all very well,” she said. “But we shouldn’t put too much faith in the good intentions of all our neighbors. Bad apples, you know. Everybody has them.” Everyone knew what she meant. She had been accosted more than once by vagrants and thieves while trying to make her way to Falling Spring.

As more ideas were thrown into the discussion, Moira excused herself to rummage in the nearby files. She returned with a map of what had once been the state’s highway system.

“I realize that this is hopelessly out of date and more so every day, but it’s fundamentally accurate as to directions and distances. I have several copies, enough for you to take a couple along and make notes, so the basic document can be modified to fit present times. We have a pretty good idea of road and trail conditions, but we need to have better information not just about who and what’s out there but what they’re up to. I’m not at all comfortable with waiting for some other group to come up with some hinky idea of government and try to foist it off on everyone. I’m not suggesting we try to take charge of everything everywhere. But if we’re to protect our own autonomy over the years, we need to start investing now in making ourselves appear strong enough that we’re not to be messed with. Some would just think to come take our stuff. But there are also those, as we know, who would love to try to make us conform to ways that really wouldn’t suit us.”

They laughed again when someone muttered “Ephraim.”

“Well, there’s that,” said Glen. “Ephraim’s still out there, and I’m sure his ideas are gathering steam, especially over in the Monadnocks. I’m really not looking forward to going over there. But I think we must.”

And so the days passed, autumn turned toward winter and the band of Brothers departed for their winter encampment. All over Ozarkia the nut harvest was in full swing, as was the gathering of persimmons and the little wild fox grapes. Traps were set for catching furbearers and bows were strung, arrows fletched, and the hunters were abroad for the winter’s first fresh meat. In Mumbros, after a fair weather carpentry crew was established made of male homebodies and females handy with hammer and saw, a plan was developed and simple shelters were built down by the ball field in anticipation of the next spring Gather at an official Gather grounds. Shortly afterward a crafters’ society was formally charged with developing a circle of Gathers that crafters would follow to call on and serve even the most remote settlements, so long as they were welcome there. But the idea of forming a chamber of commerce was tabled ‘for the foreseeable.’

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“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter 1: The Call

 

Who would think the end of everything would begin with a phone call? But that’s how it happened in the world before this one. Moira Evans, director at Falling Springs National Park & Living History Museum, was just leaving her office when the phone rang. It was an old friend and colleague she hadn’t spoken to in years.

“Hey, kid, how ya doin? Remember me?”

“Yeah, hey, it’s Rudy, right? Wow, long time, Bud. I mean Sir. How…?

“Yeah, we’ll get to that. Say, you got a cell phone I could call you on, or somethin’ besides this land line? I’d like to talk to you sometime like, off the company clock, so to speak.” Her mind was racing, trying to think of any circumstance where the head of security for the National Park Service might want to call her after hours. She and the service’s newly appointed department head with his jaunty street talk and his child of the Barrio manner had become friends as well as colleagues long ago during their shared police academy days. A long time ago. And while her career had followed a fairly predictable arc within her chosen field, his combination of keen intelligence and calm self assurance had lifted him swiftly to a lofty status. They’d not spoken in a year – maybe years.

“What? Well, yeah, but there’s no reception down in the hollow at the farm. I’d have to be right here at the center for it to work, or…”

Again, he didn’t let her finish.

“Gimme your number then, why doncha, and I’ll call you sometime,” he said. She did, he thanked her and hung up. Seconds later,  while she was still standing at her desk, puzzling over the hit-and-run nature of the call, her cell phone rang.

“Moira?”

“Yes. Rudy? What is this…?”

“Shh! There’s no time, sweetheart. Don’t talk to me, just listen, OK? In a little bit, maybe today, you’ll get a package with a satellite phone in it. It will have my number on speed dial. Call me as soon as you get it and we can talk with some privacy.” He paused. “This is serious, Moira. And for your ears only. Just do what I say. You get the phone, you call.” She started to sputter, but he didn’t let her finish. “OK, listen up. Something is trying to happen. A very large something, and I can’t talk about it, not here. There may not be any point to this, but I gotta do what I can. Just keep it to yourself, OK?  Time’s up. I gotta go. Call me.”

And the phone went dead. There was no question it had been Rudy Juarez talking. His accent, anchored firmly to a street corner somewhere in the south Bronx. was unmistakable. But the message was so bizarre and unlike the top cop’s normal demeanor she scarcely could believe it had happened. What the hell was going on? Her thoughts, and a slight sense of foreboding, were interrupted by a knock, and she found herself looking at a young man in the snappy blue uniform of a courier service, asking her to sign for a delivery.

It was a package, no return address, no identifying labels. When she saw what was inside, she shut her office door, lifted out the phone, and unfolded the small instruction sheet she hoped would show her how to find the speed dial.

While she deciphered the phone’s options, she envisioned the face of the man who’d sent it. She couldn’t believe she’d called him Bud. Sometime during the years since they’d been accepted by the Park Service and had shared the law enforcement portion of their training, Rudy’s capabilities had been recognized and he had risen swiftly up the ranks, all the way to the top echelon. For a couple years now he’d been dealing with issues across the whole system of national parks and monuments. He worked closely with homeland security but also served as the service’s liaison with the scientific community, especially on the deepening crisis of climate change.

Their friendship spanned more than a decade from when they’d been running buddies, part of a small, tight-knit, very diverse group at the academy who were way smarter and a lot more progressive than most of their fellows. Facing bullying for their differences, they’d banded together, calling themselves the Lofty Vipers. Since then they’d been separated by time and distance – and his meteoric rise to his new status. But apparently the old connection remained intact. She hit the dial button. If Rudy said it was serious, then it was.

There was no questioning the nation, indeed the world, was in chaos. The consequences of climate change denial had come down hard everywhere. Now there was another threat, coming seemingly out of nowhere. And if anyone knew the truth of it, it would be Rudy. She wondered if it might be related to the mysterious object astronomers had sighted at the outer edge of the solar system, and that appeared to be headed earthward. It was a good guess. She soon discovered her most grim expectations didn’t touch the terrifying reality. Whatever she’d thought about how bad things might be – she was well short of the mark.

Rudy told her what he knew – that the object, which had been identified as a rogue planet about half the size of earth, appeared to be causing increased seismic activity as it approached. New and highly secret results from monitoring tectonic plate activity was showing increasing instability in unlikely and extremely sensitive locations. Under Memphis, for instance. And eastern Wyoming. And Oklahoma, for heaven’s sake. The grid of sensitive seismological units had originally been installed to record slippages and shifts in land affected by both hydraulic fracking to extract natural gas and the roller-coaster patterns of lengthy droughts alternating with disastrous flooding. Readings at many stations had begun changing, often reaching disturbing levels, just about the time astronomers discovered the mysterious anomaly somewhere outside the solar system and headed toward Earth’s sun.  Scientists were finding it somewhat hard to determine its characteristics because it was beyond the sun’s light, leaving them to observe a darkness within a larger darkness. Whatever it was, it was causing officials to wonder if its presence nearby might be the cause of the stresses being recorded. Good guess, but bad news, he said. The dark sphere was still approaching at an angle that would bring it even nearer the earth, and would bring it to its closest pass sometime near the Solstice, he said. But already, in early November, there were seismic echoes being recorded that were unlike anything on record. If the intruder was the cause, it could get worse. Much worse, by the look of it. And whatever the cause, the widespread jump sin seismic readings were not being publicized.

“We’re not being told everything, but we’ve been given to know it’s possible all hell’s about to break loose if this thing gets much closer,” the security chief said. “Nobody’s talking, and that’s always a bad sign. But we know there are some extremely unusual readings coming in, very deep, in already very fragile places. And this thing is still weeks away from its closest pass.”

Moira let out the breath she’d been holding. “Well, OK, then. Thanks for scaring me to death. But, uh, why are you telling me this, I mean, me in particular? I know we have some history, but that was a while ago.”

“You’re quick, girl. OK, here’s the thing. Several of us in the science and military communities have been considering worst case scenarios, and we can’t even imagine the worst. This is something that could pass by without incident, or it could take out everything, or nearly so. I know it sounds far-fetched, but it’s real. And I haven’t told you this, and you can’t tell anyone else. I’m serious.”

He paused when she said “Good God,” and then continued.

“Yeah, well. So we started looking for places that might remain relatively – intact – in a worst-case situation. The space station might be one — or not.” He laughed as though he knew it wasn’t funny.  “And we’re thinking you and a few others, not many, but a few here and there, may be sitting on some relatively stable real estate. There’s instability all around you – in the New Madrid fault zone, down along the White River and such. Hell, there’s even some weird stuff going on out in Kansas. But you’re sitting there on the Ozark Highlands, remains of the oldest mountains in North America, and basically just one big rock. Nothing there is going anywhere. We think you may be in for a bad ride if the worst happens, but you’ll probably end up ok. Even so, you may be looking at taking in some of your neighbors before this is over.”

She realized as he was speaking that she was hyperventilating, and she willed herself back to relative calm. She could panic later. Now, she needed to listen. She thought a moment, then said, “I see your point. Being a living history museum, we have a good stock of basic mechanical-age tools and technology, and there’s the seed bank.  We’d be one outpost, if the bottom falls out of – things.” She realized how foolish that sounded, but what else was there to say.

“Exactly” Rudy said. “So what we’d like to do, me and the guys…”

“Guys?”

“A figure of speech. Don’t get sensitive.”

“Point taken.”

“What we want to do, what we’ve been doing, in fact, is send you some stuff, a few little extra bits and pieces that could maybe help out – in trying times, say. See, I happened to notice your invoice traffic, which is what called you to our attention…”

“Nosey bunch!”

“It’s what keeps folks out of our hair, and yours, now. Anyway, I think you’ve figured out a few things on your own about the climate and the economy tanking, et cetera, even without the addition of this space rock, whatever it is. At least now when everything goes to hell, we’ll have something besides ourselves to blame it on.”

Despite herself, she laughed and he joined in.

“So what stuff? What are you thinking?” she asked as they sobered.

“Well, since you’ve already ordered everything but the kitchen sink prepping for surviving hard times, we’ve just started slipping a few extras into your stores, in the interest of your, well, your longevity, let’s say. Some of it may seem a little far fetched, but, well, you just never know.”

“And I really don’t want to,” she said with a sigh, thinking this the most depressing conversation she’d ever been a party to.

“Hey, pobrecita,” Rudy said with a chuckle. “This may all be a hoax,” he pronounced the word with a hillbilly accent, giving it two syllables, as in hoe-axe, and making her laugh again. “We may have it all wrong, and we can all get together in a year or two and have a good laugh over it. Or not. Watch for boxes with your name on them. I’ll be in touch.” Neither of them were able to say goodbye, but she couldn’t let go yet.

“I have a question,” she blurted out before her thought was fully formed.

“And it is?“ he inquired.

“How can I help? I mean I know most of what’s possible to do here, but I’d like you to let me in on the discussions. I might have an idea or two worth sharing.”

He was silent for a moment, and then he chuckled. “You know, you just might. Yeah. We’re meeting every 12 hours in conference on these sat phones. I’ll plug you into the mix.”

“What do I have to do to join you?”

“Nuthin,” he drawled. “Jus’ listen for the beep. Catch you later.” She heard the click and let out a long breath as she replaced the phone in its case. She sat back in her chair and looked around at her office, with its scenic view, its framed credentials and shelves of what had been important information just a few days ago. But now she saw nothing that offered reassurance that anything she thought would make a difference in what she had just learned. If I’m to offer ideas for the future, well, first, there must be a future, she thought.

Days later and with time to think, but not to talk about, the odds for catastrophe, she felt she was still operating on auto pilot while walking through a haze of dread. Truckloads of supplies were pouring in and had to be warehoused, and the warehouse was already almost stuffed to capacity. Crews were besieged by the deluge of incoming bounty, and were working extra shifts to move materials from the main warehouse, which was as far as the giant tractor-trailers had access into the park, down into the park itself, where materials and supplies were stowed as close as possible to where they’d likely be needed. And it must all must be done while the park was closed to visitors. It was a living history museum, after all, and past the visitors center there was no motorized traffic allowed during park hours. As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, visitor traffic slowed, and so did deliveries. She was not the only one, even with the secrets that kept her awake at night, to feel a great sense of relief as the work load lessened.

Steven Land, her second in command, strode into her office on the Monday before the holiday and heaved a great sigh as he handed her a clipboard with a sheaf of invoices, bills of lading, and inventory lists.

“That’s the lot. We still may get a stray delivery or two, but that’s the last of the big loads. The sherpas have their instructions on what goes downhill, and they’re making up their loads. And this came marked for you.” He handed her a padded, misshapen envelope with a return address from a plant nursery in Vermont. She glanced at it and nodded.

“For the greenhouse,” she said.  He made no reply, and she looked up at him. They were dressed identically today in standard NPS uniform, Khaki shirt with shoulder patch and name tag, dark green trousers and short, sturdy boots. Where her clothing was crisp and freshly ironed, though, his was rumpled, with sleeves rolled up, trousers dusty and boots scuffed. He was also sweating, though the weather out on the loading dock was decidedly chilly. A park service cap fought to contain his dark, unruly hair, and his beard was streaked with sweat and dust.

“So – you think you might sometime tell me what this is all about?” he said finally.

She met his eyes and thought what to say.

As the park’s director as well as museum’s curator, she was responsible for developing and defining a working plan for the entire facility. Besides playing the role of village blacksmith for the public, his real job was as site coordinator, charged with putting her programs into daily practice. Over the past two years they had fine-tuned operations and kept the facility functioning smoothly and effectively, providing the public with a doorway into the history of the unique Ozarks culture. And he had become perhaps the best friend she’d had in a very long while. It had been hard holding him at bay as she made decisions and acted in ways that were, to him, inexplicable. It was a fair question.

He was the first employee working at the four-hundred-acre complex who had befriended her. She’d been aware many of the employees, even the ones who liked her, thought she was cranky, irascible, often prickly. She supposed it was true. She had been one of the few females to emerge from the university’s graduate agriculture program with the professional title of agriculturist – a specialist in plant and animal biology, crops and livestock, stewardship and husbandry. She’d finished the program at the top of her class and with a chip on her shoulder, which a dozen years in the park service had done little to remove. She’d had enough of the “Stand aside, little lady, this is a man’s job” attitude some men showed her.  She often got the same from the local men in her employ, at least at first.

Steven, on the other hand, had made it plain that he admired her managerial skills and willingly accepted her authority. This model of an 1880s farmstead was now running with 21st-century efficiency. He’d also made it clear to the other men that she was the boss. She owed him her trust, as least as much as she could.

She made a wry face. “Well, I think the best answer would be yes, no, maybe sometime, and possibly not ever,” she said, and gestured toward the chair across from her desk. “Have a seat.”

He already knew the reason for the extra purchases of essentials – hard times and more coming, the need to spend down their funds to avoid their being reallocated, and the care with which the money was spent. He had also noticed the growing stack of boxes with her name on them, and her orders to leave them be. And there was still so much she couldn’t tell him.

“I know you’re concerned, and you should be,” she said. “I know I appear to be wandering down some pretty odd rabbit tracks at times.” She stopped and took a breath. “And it’s hard to know what to say, because I am, essentially, sworn to secrecy. I can only talk in general terms.

“As you know, I’ve been trying to shore up our ability to operate in case there are shortages, both in funding and availability of materials. What I’ve not shared is I have recently received word that things could get worse. A lot worse, to the point where we might at some point have to shift our mission somewhat from preserving the past to also giving some support to our neighbors.” She stopped again. “I’m sorry, Steven. I really can’t give you more details than that. I may be able to say more later, but for now, I just need you to trust me. I’m not going off the deep end here. I’m following orders.”

He listened intently, watching her mouth as she talked. There was more to the story. But it was hers to tell, and his to wait for it. He continued watching her after she stopped talking, then stood abruptly, pulled his gloves from a jacket pocket and and slapped them on his thigh.

“Works for me,” he said and grinned. “I’d better get back to it. It’s pretty crazy out there.”

“Just keep like with like, and don’t move it downhill unless you’re sure about its destination. I’ll figure out where the rest goes later.”

He nodded and was about to take his leave. then he turned and looked at her again.

“Even if I don’t know what it’s about, I might be a help sometime. Anything, just let me know.”

“You have a smart phone, yes? With a camera?” He nodded. “All the heritage collections, the various mechanical tools and machinery down there, all that pre-electronic age technology. I need pictures of it. Not just PR shots. I need photos that show how things are built, how they work. Enough detail that, were I an ordinary craftsman, I could build one by looking at the picture. I need that. Can you do it?”

His eyes narrowed, his look became keen, as though she’d suddenly broken into another language. Then he began to nod, not really understanding but beginning to suspect he’d been given a clue. He nodded once more and took his leave, nodding his head in reply.

Finally, as Thanksgiving eve arrived, it was finished, more or lest. The last delivery van had rolled out the driveway an hour ago, and most of the staff had already left for the holiday weekend. Seeing a last dark figure trudging across the parking lot shook her into action.

It was Steven, and she needed to say goodbye. The irrational impulse sent her bursting through the double doors of the visitor center’s main entrance without a coat. He had reached his vehicle and started the engine as she jogged down the steps, waving with both arms. Tires crunched to a stop in the gravel and the driver’s window on a mud-splattered SUV slid down, revealing a toothy grin between a black, curly beard and an unruly mop of hair, the whole framing his cherubic face.

“Hey,” Steven exclaimed, ducking his head into his collar as a blast of frigid air struck him full in the face. “Chickening out so soon? I knew you wouldn’t last. C’mon. Hop in and I’ll drive you into town for supper. You can bunk up with my mom for the weekend. She’d love it.”

Massive and muscular behind the impish smile, he was the very picture of a village blacksmith, perfect for the role he’d played daily for the past two years at the Living History Museum. Now, he and the rest of the staff were off to enjoy the holiday. She, however, was staying on, she said, to provide security and keep a presence at the remote location. Steven was still teasing her about her decision, though he knew she had more than the holiday on her mind. He had no idea how much more.

With the U.S. and other nations still struggling through economic instability amid widening reports of natural disasters, everyone was fearful and on edge, and some were worried there would soon be no jobs to come back to. Moira shared their concerns and had spoken at their holiday party that day to reassure them their jobs were safe for the present. Some time with their families, even to share bad news, would help, she hoped. She’d said nothing about the possibility of worldwide disaster, for there was nothing to do but wait. The incoming object had been tentatively identified as a rogue planet making its lonely way through the heavens. It would not strike the earth, but the effects of its passage were becoming more and more noticeable daily.

As she had spoken she struggled to keep despair from her voice. At this point she wasn’t sure she would ever get to see any of them again, and if she did it might be in very different circumstances. But they needed to be with their families, and she needed to stay here and await the world’s end, or whatever their fate might be.

Now the wind caught the hem of her sweater and blew a draft up her back, and she gasped and made a face at the burly blacksmith for his teasing. Dashing out into the cold without her coat might not have been very bright but secluding herself was, even if Steven thought she was shouldering too much of the burden. The fewer distractions the better. She’d made her excuses; there was no point in wasting words.

“No. Really. I just came out to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.” She nearly choked on the words.

Steven nodded. “Thanks. You too.”

What in God’s name had she come out here for, she chided herself. She’d forgotten her hat as well, and a sudden gust of wind whipped her dark curls against her ears. She ducked involuntarily, and they both laughed out loud. “Now that I think of it, though,” she said, her voice echoing the shiver that shook her whole frame, “I guess it could have waited ― maybe until Spring.”

Steven laughed and nodded. “I waved at you as I came through the hall, but you were concentrating hard, so I figured I’d just call you later and make turkey noises or something,” he said.

His square, even teeth sparked another grin through the space between beard and mustache, both trimmed roughly and by hand as they would have been in the Ozarks of the 1880s. His down parka and space-age fleece mittens weren’t exactly 1880s issue, but they looked far warmer than her jeans and cardigan. Workers who played living-history characters at the village and mill were obliged to do so in costume. At each day’s end, they entered through a back door of the center into the warehouse where a large, walk-through dressing room awaited, and costumes were exchanged for street clothing. They exited as Steven had, transformed, often unrecognized by the tourists.

This time the costume change had fooled her, too. Engrossed in the enormity of her task and trying not to show emotion as staff members called out farewells, the first she’d noticed of him had been his retreating form outside. She might have let him go, but somehow she couldn’t. It would be like the left hand ignoring the right. The common vision they shared had created a strong bond between them. If he’d been single and she’d given him any encouragement, she thought they’d likely have become more than friends by now. But she liked things just fine the way they were. Besides, he was happily married to Edie, a sculptor, and they had two growing girls, who were the spitting image of their mother, and an infant son. She adored them all, and they’d be expecting him.

“Well,” she said, shivering again with more than the cold, “I’ve come out here in the cold like an idiot to wish you and yours a happy holiday and tell you thanks for …everything,” she said, glancing around the parking area to avoid meeting his eyes. Everyone else had gone. His dirty green SUV and her battered Toyota truck were the only vehicles in the lot. “I need this time alone, to see what’s…well…” She shook her head and didn’t finish. They’d been over it all before.

“I could run out from town tomorrow and bring you a plate of turkey and the trimmings,” he offered. “It wouldn’t be any trouble. Or you could drive in and have dinner with us. We’ll be sittin’ down to eat around three o’clock.”

His look was warm, offering friendship, not attraction, and she was moved and surprised by the affection she felt for this man. She met his eyes without hesitation now, noting their similarity to her own. Their coloring, too, was remarkably alike. Where he was brawny, she was wiry. But in all else, they could be taken for brother and sister. Except that Steven’s feelings were much closer to the surface than were her own. She remembered how he had cried unashamedly when an elderly volunteer had taken a fall, was hospitalized, and later died. It was an accident and no one’s fault. The whole museum mourned the loss, for the old man was very helpful and so full of knowledge of the past. But Steven said, with tear-filled eyes, that he simply missed him for his friendship. She had been touched by his willingness to show emotions when she kept her own so closely guarded.

Maybe she was adopted, and he was an emissary from her real family, she thought wryly. But no. He needed to be home with his family, as she needed to be here, undistracted from the task at hand. She shook her head, setting her dark curls to bobbing again in the wind. At best, she had only until the Solstice, less than a month away, to turn the mission of this facility from preservation of the past to survival of the nearly present. She was startled from her thoughts by his question.

“Were those photos okay?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Just right. I knew you had the best eye for the job.”

“So you think they’ll help?”

“I hope so. Look, Steven, I wish…”

He stopped her with a shake of his head. “I don’t need to know anything. You’ll tell me when I need to know more. I’m good with that.”

She put out her ungloved hand to touch the patch of bare skin between glove and shirt sleeve. He laid his other gloved hand atop hers. She nodded. He winked and revved his engine. And then he was gone.

She waved, turned, and headed to the building at a run. It was time to stop brooding over fate and decide where the devil she was going to put all those fruits of her planning and guile. The job had once sounded simple: assess materials and equipment, see to their acquisition, inventory incoming supplies, and store them away against the needs of upcoming seasons. But now there was another plan in place, and all those packages with mystery contents. She could sort through them while she watched the news. Or not.

First, though, she must finish the inventory. Second, identify missing and substituted items. Then balance the company books and see if she’d done anything criminal. Along the way she could watch for and ferret out any other packages secreted away among her purchases, things not ordered by her but sent by Rudy as a hedge against another kind of future to be made ready for.

Since the beginning of the park’s fiscal year in midsummer, Moira’s life had been a blur of planning, politicking, and purchase orders. It was no secret that more massive funding cuts were coming, in response to disasters such as the emergency construction of sea walls in New York and famine relief in the heartland. Relief was needed nearly everywhere in the wake of a series of wars and natural disasters worldwide that had seemed endless. Now the relatively new Gulf coast levees were being raised even higher, and most of the barrier islands were sinking beneath Gulf and Atlantic coastal waters. Lower Manhattan as well as parts of San Francisco’s financial district were operating behind sandbag barricades, their streets now canals. Parts of Florida had gone under the sea. And the storms beginning in early spring and reaching almost into winter had become horrific and too numerous to name. The nation’s economy, already nearing bankruptcy, had its leaders operating in constant crisis mode. And this was before the discovery of the dark planet.

Globally, catastrophic climate change had been taking an increasingly monstrous toll and the world’s population was in disarray. In Europe, whole countries’ budgets were now given over to the onerous task of retrofitting homes and public buildings for lower energy consumption while providing more protection for wider temperature extremes. In Asia, starvation was on the rise, as croplands dependent on annual monsoon seasons now faced desert-like conditions. And everywhere, the sea continued to claim more areas of inhabited land.

Under the circumstances, it was hard to imagine that the government would fund its parks at all. And all the other parks were older and larger than this one, so any future operating fund was probably toast. In July she had realized that the funds she’d been holding against a rainy day had better be used fast, before someone else took a liking to them. In a frenzy reminiscent of the Y2K scare, she had composed a drop dead list of necessities. The shortages predicted might not be as severe as thought, but all indications suggested they could be worse, and she didn’t intend to get caught out. It was one thing to protect a tourist destination, but this facility housed both a living-history museum and a seed genome project. It contained at once a treasure trove of mechanical age technology and an irreplaceable stock of vital heirloom biological materials that needed protection, and she meant to see they had it. But protection of the resource meant keeping the facility intact and operational, at least in the short term.

She’d had to move quickly because as funds were shrinking, so was the availability of essential supplies. But at the same time, no purchase could be left to chance. She’d studied usage patterns, from maintenance to construction, tools to toilet paper. She had run her long-suffering office staff ragged in the process, for they hadn’t a clue as to her aim, and she wasn’t about to tell them – excepting Steven, of course. As the days passed, a picture emerged that was at once gratifying and daunting.

At the end of a busy tourist season, they would be predictably short on many essential supplies. Even if she spent every cent, some normally standard supplies had suddenly come to resemble luxuries. She had searched for low-cost alternatives. She had asked everyone on the staff for their absolutely rock bottom list of needs. And then she’d started writing purchase orders – and checks. She’d spent the money first on what they could not do without and then had backed up what they couldn’t replace if it were damaged or stolen. She indulged in a very few frills and ended with a much-diminished ledger balance and a very, very full larder.

And that was before the phone call.

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