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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Nineteen: Maturity

At the ten year celebration of the founding of Falling Spring and Mumbros territory, all of the founders were feted with a week-long feast on the commons between the boarding house for singles and the mill pond. There, where Moira, Ellen, and Joel had held their first picnic, a large pavilion had been constructed, open all around but with wind screens and a small raised platform at one end. Homemade tables and chairs had been set up to hold a fluctuating crowd, and the celebration featured mountains of food, homemade fireworks, music, and dancing, with a few rousing speeches thrown in for good measure. The week of festivities worked itself up to a final day of praises honoring the first family and others who had made notable contributions to the community.

After all the speeches had been offered and a dozen or more toasts raised, the children and betweens were freed to regroup on the lawn in front of the singles house, where the frequent work parties were organized on ordinary days, and the youngsters began several games at once, the aims of which seemed chiefly to be to fall into giggling piles at intervals.

While some older folks elected to retire for the evening, most of the adults settled into small clumps at various tables and told stories, shared ideas and rested from their busy schedules. It was, after all, the season of planting plants and seedlings, readying the vegetable beds, and tilling the lower fields. Every year the rising population demanded more attention to food crops, while commerce demanded higher production of trade goods, including the increasing variety of products they had learned to make from the hemp plant. But not this week. By turns, the founders had told their stories of how this place came to be – the sacrifices, the threats, and the joys of meeting new arrivals. Even the various new animal arrivals were celebrated.

At a quiet corner of the dais, Moira and Ellen relaxed over yet another glass of wine and watched the younger ones at play. But they both looked preoccupied and each continued to scan the crowd uneasily.

“Do you feel that?” Ellen finally asked.

Moira nodded, her face drawn from listening intently. “Something’s not right. But I can’t quite get a grip on it. Some kind of trouble. Not a threat, at least not in the usual sense.”

“Not quite here, but not a long way off, either,” Ellen added.

Moira roused herself. “I think I’ll have a stroll down to the gate and see if there’s something or somebody incoming who’s in distress. I’m sure there’s a watch, but with all this ruckus going on they may be distracted by the festivities.”

“Don’t be long, or I’ll worry,” Ellen said, giving Moira’s arm a squeeze.

Moira turned and smiled. She nodded toward the children at play. “I’ll take one of those little rabbits with me,” she said. “If it’s something important, I’ll send ‘em back on the run.” As she walked away, Ellen watched her relaxed, confident stride and noticed some others watching and smiling. The ten years seemed to have gone by in an instant, but it was an instant filled with a wealth of memories. And in all of them, Moira was always the first one willing to take on any task without fear and without failing.

“I don’t have to ask what she’d risk for this place, or even if she’d kill for it, or for me,” she thought, watching her disappear into the night. “She already has.”

She felt more than heard someone approach and looked up to smile at Joel.

“They’re sure making a fuss over us all,” he said softly, smiling back. “It’s a little embarrassing for me, because I was just a kid when the really hard work was done.”

“It’s embarrassing for all of us, Joel,” she said. “We were all just doing what we had to do to live. That’s still going on, so we shouldn’t be singled out just for getting here first.”

“Well, it was Moira who made it possible,” he said. “I still get chills when I think about those times.”

Ellen nodded. “Me too,” she said. We’d have died if she hadn’t stepped in.”

“Or worse,” Joel said, his tone bitter.

“Speaking of stepping in,” Ellen said as a thought struck her. “I hear you’re thinking of stepping out on us.”

He shook his head vigorously. “Not for a good long while,” he said. “Not to worry. I’m nowhere near being finished with my house, and there’s at least another couple years, maybe more, on getting those singles cabins finished. Moira and Glen want them strung all the way up the hill. By the time that’s finished, I’ll be way into the advanced tracking program that Glen is offering. I’m not going out there until I’m ready. And I’d like those who’re thinking of going with me to be ready as well. We’ve got to tackle that Northern Edge someday. But the kinds of tales coming out of that place make me shudder to think about it. I wouldn’t go if anyone else could come up with a map of that coast. But nobody has so far.”

Ellen nodded agreement, and they each wandered off into their own thoughts. Joel was humming a tune faintly, and she recognized the sound of distant strings. Someone at the far end of the pavillion near the open fireplace had brought out a guitar, and another picked up a flute. Old Mr. Langston was gone but both of his grandsons had learned his music, and they both reached for their fiddles and began to play. After a moment Joel stood, went across to the players and joined in on his penny whistle. Ellen was drawn to the soft, melancholy music and moved her chair to sit closer. She had almost drifted off to sleep when her eight-year-old son Ranier padded up softly. He was out of breath from running.

“Mama, Moira said you’re to grab Alice and come up to the keep right away. A family has come in and they’re all sick with something. Toby’s brought a wagon, and they’re going to try to get them up there without letting anybody else near them. She said tell you she doesn’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”

Ellen thanked him and told him to go wash his hands and to not say anything to the others. Looking across the room, she spied Alice deep in conversation with her mate. Trying to be discreet, she hurried over and placed a hand on Alice’s arm.

“We need you up top,” she said in a low voice. When Alice nodded and made to continue her conversation, Ellen leaned closer. “I’m sorry. It can’t wait.”

When they got to the wide road leading to the keep, Toby was coming down and offered them a ride, but Ellen refused. “Take that rig down to the river and give it a good scrub. And you too,” she ordered as he hurried away.

At first glance, it appeared to be influenza but of a kind not seen by anyone among the caregivers. Fever, cough, and stomach upset were to be expected. But the diarrhea was uncontrollable, and of the family of six, one child died in the middle of that first night. The grandfather was too weak from vomiting to take in anything, even water, and he succumbed the next afternoon. The remaining two children and their parents, dosed with endless water containing all the natural remedies available, began to stabilize but not to improve. On the evening of the second day, Annie came in from a wildcrafting expedition with Tish, her arms loaded with greenery to be analyzed. She was surprised to have such an abundance of company in the not often so busy infirmary next to her lab. After stowing her supplies she came back to have a look. She was beginning to look more like her actual advanced age but was still sharp mentally.

She felt one fevered brow and then another, then turned to Moira, who had been standing watch over the patients almost nonstop and who filled her in on the details. “You need to get some rest, sweetie,” Annie said. “You don’t look much better than them. I don’t suppose you collected any stool samples for me to check?”

“They’re in the lab waiting for you. But I’m not leaving until we figure this thing out. Moira said. “It doesn’t make any sense for the diarrhea to continue this long.”

“True. It’s almost like they have more than one thing,” Annie observed. “Did you have a chance to ask any of them if they’ve been around anyone with similar symptoms?”

“No. So far they’ve all been too out of it.”

But as she spoke, the older woman raised her head slightly and asked for water.

“Do you feel up to answering some questions?” Moira asked as she brought a cup and held the woman’s head up so she could drink.

“If you think it will help,” was the weak reply.

“It might. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the matter with you.”

“We thought it was just a cold or a bit of the flu,” the woman said. “There was a lot of sickness when we came through Buren. But nothing like this. We stopped for a night to rest, but the next day, everyone got worse. We didn’t know if we could make it here, or if you’d let us in if we did.”

“Where did you stop. Was there anyone else there?”

“No, Ma’am. It was an abandoned farm. We thought we might get some water from their well, but the electricity was off and we couldn’t work the pump. We ended up just filling our canteens from the pond. It didn’t taste very good, so we didn’t drink much.”

“Did you think to boil it,” Annie asked.

The woman shook her head. “The fire was already out, and it was raining. It was just too much work to build another.”

Moira sighed, nodded and looked across the bed at Annie, who had looked up at the same time. They had likely found the second cause of the sickness. It was a near certainty the family had contracted cholera, or something near to it, from the contaminated pond water. The two met at the foot of the bed and started to discuss treatment, but then Moira wobbled and had to sit down.

Annie reached over and put a hand on Moira’s brow. “Headache,?” she enquired.

“Yeah. How did you … oh hell. I tried to be so careful. But this really feels like the flu.”

Annie led her to a cot in the far corner of the infirmary. “You just better hope you didn’t get exposed to the other,” she said softly. “The best medicine is sleep, so you get at it. I’ll keep the watch. And I’ll get a culture going to verify the infection, so we know what we might have that could help them through it.”

Within a few days, the scare was past, although everyone working at the village infirmary got a crash course in the disposal of hazardous wastes. Moira, too, recovered from her bout of illness, and was soon back at work. She noted, though, that she was beginning to feel her age and every setback seemed harder to snap back from. It took a near tragic fall about a year later to make her realize that not only was she not immortal but that she had better put more focus on passing on her skills and knowledge than just in employing them.

She’d been up with the early watch, helping ready a work crew that would mend fences along the river that had been ripped up by spring floods. They’d be working with lots of old rusty barbed wire, and she had made sure they were outfitted in heavy leather gloves and other gear, even though the day would be warm and humid. Cuts made by rusted metal could foil all their medical skills, as tetanus vaccine was in short supply and what little they had was risky, since even with refrigeration it was very outdated. So she’d breakfasted with them in the singles dorm kitchen, and had returned there after their send off to grab a second cup of coffee and one of the cook’s famous sweet rolls. As she stood on the porch studying the early activities of a village that was just coming awake, she heard a shout coming from the mill and shielded her eyes from the low sun as she turned to see its cause. What she saw almost caused her to drop her cup. She set it carefully on the porch railing, leapt to the ground, and set off at a dead run.

Much of the mill’s operations had been improved over time but the mechanism itself still had parts dating back centuries. The wheel was overshot, driven by water from the spring’s outflow high in the middle of the bluff. When the wheel was stopped, the water was diverted by a flume, a wooden trough whose outer end could be swung out over the wheel so the water fell onto it at about a one-o’clock position. The falling water engaged with a series of buckets or enclosed paddles set at angles all around the outer circumference of the wheel, and by its weight the wheel was forced down and began to turn with some speed and force, thus driving implements and the grinding wheel. The flume was hinged, and was set free at the end of each workday so the stream of water fell directly into the millpond. Each morning it was the task of the miller’s devil, or apprentice, to climb to the top floor of the mill and, using a rope tied to the end of the flume, pull it over and anchor it in place, using a knot tied near the end of the thick hemp rope that when pulled tight fitted into a notch cut into the frame of the large square opening at the top of the wheel and flume. The wheel would then turn until the flume was released. A simple but dangerous design, especially when put into operation.

This morning the rope had apparently slipped from the apprentice’s hands and was dangling from the end of the flume with water cascading over it into the millpond. Another helper had gone into the pond, had retrieved its frazzled end and was climbing up the side of the wheel with the rope in a loop over his shoulder. Meanwhile the apprentice had climbed out onto the wheel and was reaching down for him. Unfortunately, unobserved by the climbers, the flume was being dragged slowly back toward the wheel by the weight of the wet rope. The situation was rife with opportunities for disaster, Moira could see. She could also see, as she came closer, that neither of the men could hear the miller’s warning shouts over the din of falling water. Neither seemed to realize their peril, for if the water reached the wheel, or if either man varied from his balance at the wheel’s exact center, they would be dashed to the rocks or thrown into the channel into which the wheel spun.

She passed the miller at a run and was up the steep steps as though a real devil was behind her. But she’d come up with a plan while running, and she grabbed up a long-handled garden hoe from outside the mill’s doorway as she ran.

“Harley,” she shouted. “Come in.” He turned and shook his head.

“I’ve got to get the rope.”

She pointed to the flume, which was still inching toward them, and showed him the long handled implement.

“Let me come out past you and I’ll hold the flume away while you bring the rope inside.”

He nodded and stood up straight, so she could crawl out between his legs and not put the wheel off balance. She came out, hoe first, and planted its broad side against the flume. By that time the helper, a lad named Galen, had come high enough to swing the rope end skyward, where Harley reached out and caught it. All would have been well then, for Harley, holding the very end of the rope, eased himself back inside the window, and Galen started clambering back down the side of the wheel. But Galen wasn’t watching where he put his hands, and the left one came down solidly on a wasps’ nest. He screamed and flung himself away from the wheel, and as he did, he pushed away from the center and the wheel began to turn.

Moira saw his action and felt the wheel began to roll forward. As it did, she lost purchase on the flume and it began to swing toward her. If she remained where she was, she would either be pinned between the flume and the side of the mill or be tossed into the narrow channel beneath the wheel. She had only seconds to decide. She scrambled up and, as the flume came in on her and caught the spring’s outflow, she dove straight into the channel of the flume itself and was spit out like a mere matchstick, over the wheel and past it, kicking at the nearest bucket as she passed to deflect her path. She missed being pulled into the channel by inches, but where she landed, just in front of the wheel, the water was not deep enough to break her fall. She went in flat, face down, with her arms crossed in front of her face. It was all that saved her.

She retained no memory of the fall, or of the many hands that lifted her gently but swiftly from the water and carried her in a litter up the hill to the infirmary. She awoke, hours after bones were splinted, cuts were bandaged, and the excitement had died down, to the light of a candle and Ellen’s soft breathing in the chair next to her. She thought at first her companion was asleep, but no.

“If you ever do anything like that again, I swear to god I’ll shoot you,” Ellen said, emotion in her tone.

“I’m not sure there’s enough left of me to do it again,” she answered. “What’re the damages?”

“Wrist, three ribs, and a concussion, to start. Several inches of skin and a little blood. And your superwoman badge. You’ve been demoted to ordinary human. I just can’t believe you. What were you thinking?’

“I was thinking they didn’t see what was happening and they wouldn’t be able to stop the wheel from turning and at least one of them was going to die. I couldn’t stand it.”

Ellen choked out a laugh that was partly a sob. “How did you think I was going to stand it if you killed yourself out there, Missy! I can’t lose you. None of us can. We’ve lost too much. You just can’t …” she stopped talking and wept openly, until Moira reached out and pulled her close. She didn’t speak until Ellen had quieted.

“I’m sorry I frightened you. But I took the job. And there’s no retirement plan. I’m in it for the duration.”

“Yeah,” said Ellen with a sigh as she sat back and rubbed her eyes. “Me too. But maybe we could consider slowing down a little.”

Moira chuckled. “I could go for that. I could start right now.” They laughed. Within minutes, the two were asleep, hands clasped, dreaming about days to come.

The next morning, after breakfast, the children arrived. They’d had five between them in those early years, Ellen three and Moira two, and each was poised to take up a chore that their mothers had been responsible for. Jared, the oldest, had a list, he said, and would be willing to take advice as to which was suited for what job. Any of them, he said, would certainly be willing to be trained. But there would be no No answers. And so they agreed, and everyone, even six-year old Aidan, set off with a chore to do.

This was not the only, nor the worst, to befall the family that year. That autumn, as Moira sat outside the Keep taking a break from prepping herbs to dry, she felt a deep ache, not quite physical, and for which there was no apparent cause. Then she looked up to see Joel stumbling up the path, obviously upset and exhausted, his dusty face tracked with sweat and tears. As he came before her, he met her eyes and then looked away, fighting to hold back sobs.

“Who?” Moira demanded, a chill clutching at her neck as her breath stopped.

“It’s Steven,” he said. And then his knees buckled, his face contorted. “He was down in the far pasture, looking for a cow that was ready to calve. He heard the cow scream, and ran to help. The pigs. They had the calf, and he – he just didn’t think. He tried to save it, and – and they took him down. They cut him bad, and he tried to run, but he was losing too much blood. He was trying to get back, but he was too far away. Lucky someone saw him just as he fell, or he’d still be out there. But it was too late. He bled out. He’s gone, momma. He’s gone.” The young man collapsed at her knee and wept as he had not done those long years since his arrival. Moira stroked his hair as her own tears coursed.
Then Glen and Ellen arrived riding double on Glen’s horse, Willy.

At her questioning look, Glen said, “Eldon and Ray are bringing him up on the wagon. We thought to put him up here until, well, until we figure what to do.”

“I know what to do first,” said Moira in a calm voice. “I want those pigs dead, every goddam one in that band. Drag them out far enough into the woods where their pals can find them. Make it plain, piss on their heads. Let them know you murder a human and you die. I think they’re smart enough now to take the point. Then we’ll call in the town and bury our friend.”

So it was done, and they rallied, and the years continued to pass, with Moira healing, mostly, and everything in her realm moving just about the same. Only, as she had promised Ellen, a little slower.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seventeen: A Community and a Nation Evolve

The third year passed into the fourth without incident. That fourth spring, largely due to the organizing efforts of the Brothers bolstered by the Crafters’ Society, the isolated trading parties had now become an organized group of traders and artisans who had made for themselves a near-circular route that would travel to every settlement that would have them during the warm season. Every spring thereafter would see the crafters and artisans plying their trades and gathering the news at festivals held all along their circuit, joining the caravan near their home places and dropping out when they had come full circle. 

In that same year, applicants to join and be trained by the Brothers began coming from other territories.  The mapmaking and map-revising Brothers were also receiving requests for a more detailed set of maps of as much of the island nation as had yet been explored and documented.

One faction, however, opted out of joining the larger community, saying they had no interest in joining with others for anything other than the most unavoidable contact. They were the fundamentalist communities of the southwest, who were now calling themselves “The Religious” and had named their territory Gloriland. As language became fluid over time, words and meanings evolved, and outside the group the name the isolationists called themselves began to change, first becoming “the Religes” and then just “Lidges.” Whatever they were called, they remained aloof from the inter-territorial socializing. They did not invite the trade circle to make a stop in their territory.
In the course of their wanderings toward Gloriland, however, many of those who ended up there had taken with them a number of sheep, goats, and other livestock, and once they’d found out about the trade route, they had sent some of their folk to join the caravan, bearing cured cheeses, leather goods, and woven articles from scarves to sturdy winter clothing. They were shy and reticent, kept mostly to themselves, and offered quality merchandise, and so they were welcomed by the towns and the other traders. Unlike those other communities, though, they held no festivals of their own, they did not welcome outsiders and discouraged travel by strangers into their home country. They permitted the annual visits of the Brothers only grudgingly.

The intense season of winter storms had been decreasing in severity with each cycle of the seasons, but they continued to bring travel to a virtual halt from mid-November to March, making the seasons when travel was possible busier every year with trade and communications between all the other communities in the new territories. Glen had asserted that once trade routes were established and made safe, the entire economy could grow and flourish. And he was right. It did.

Even so, given the distances and the modes of transportation available, as the settlements increased the frequency of their seasonal contacts with others, those disparate communities were making use of the solitary winter months to further their distinct crafts and develop a unique character within their own cultures, so that as they grew closer in some ways, they grew farther apart in others.

Poplar Bluff, for example, now on the island’s east coast, had become a community of crafters and artisans, especially after the discovery that the earth shocks had opened up a sizable new vein of potter’s quality clay. Over time the export of dinnerware and other functional pottery became that settlement’s primary source of income, with masonry goods from floor tiles to brickwork a close second. A seaport was established, plans were being made to enclose an area where the submerged land was flat and the sea shallow for the manufacture of salt. And everyone finally stopped using the old name and it became just Popular.

Once people began to recover from the initial shock of the Change, people and communities across Ozarkia began to examine the potential for other industries to serve a growing population, and to assess how to promote a more civilized society in general. Education was a prominent concern island-wide, since schools and colleges throughout the area had all suffered from some physical destruction as well as the loss of much of their faculty and staff.

As the certainty grew that help would not be coming from any outside entity in the near future if at all, the preservation and passing on of knowledge became a grave consideration. Mumbros was one of many territories addressing the issue, and toward the end of the summer before, Moira and the Brothers had worked to identify all the scholars and teachers who survived. Over that winter they made plans for an all-island meeting to discuss developing a single, national educational system. More important was the need to settle on what might be the shape of that education and how existing knowledge could be preserved and enhanced. The meeting was to take place in late spring of year four, at a location to be determined.

A major problem to be solved and which was recognized in every territory almost at once, was that much of the education that had been taught previous to the Change was no longer pertinent to the state of things in present time – or for the foreseeable future. Whatever changes might befall them in the future, it was a certainty that it would not be changing back to what once was.Therefore, what had been American History, World History, and World Geography had become a study of the annals of an ancient world. Technology, too, had been reduced to an analysis of what might still be possible, given the shortage of replacements for dying or doomed electronics. New sources of raw materials existed only in dreams. Newly proposed courses would mostly be related to researching, investigating and mapping the new demographics of this vastly diminished nation. In the sciences, emphasis would be put on locating and mining former landfills and other salvage sites for materials and processes that had once been commonplace but were now precious, if they existed at all.

Using a courier service maintained by the Brothers, whose members took time away from winter training to provide security and vital communications, over the winter the scholars were able to select a meeting place and organize an agenda. After some territorial wrangling, they chose a suitable town near to a central point of the island, one which had an existing university branch and a library housed in structures that had suffered but not fallen. The town, which was more or less intact, had once had a longer name but was now referred to as The Plains. The people there had worked hard to regain basic services and had already restored most of the main campus facilities. That community offered itself as a place to restart a program of higher education and to make their programs available to other communities. Early in summer they had sent word that students from every region were welcome to journey there in the coming fall, to arrive ahead of the winter winds, and plan to spend the winter term on site. Due to the mayhem just passed there was no shortage of vacant housing that could be made available, they said. Students could work out their tuition by assisting in the rebuilding and rehabbing efforts. In fact, as Moira observed, The Plains would probably be on the short list when the new nation chose a site for its national capitol.

Once the date for a meeting was selected, Moira said she would head up the attendees from Falling Spring, a contingent that included Ellen, veterinarian Haley Slocum, nurse practitioner Alice Compton, biologist Tish Beebe, and chemist Annie LeBeaux. In one of the longest town meetings yet, just before the gathering of scholars, Moira asked the people what they thought were the most important educational needs of the still evolving community. They agreed, for instance that mathematics and science should be, for the most part, untouched, as should language arts. History, social studies, political science texts, on the other hand, would have to begin anew.

“Geography is also a brand new field, as is cartography,” mused Rickard, which prompted an excited response from Glen.

“Then we must teach it as an exploratory science, a research field. As soon as we get some folks trained in the principles, we can take them out to do field work,” he said. “It’ll be great hands-on training, and we need the information. The Brothers can only do so much without solid science behind them.”

“You’ll need to find someone who has transits and such and some training in surveying if you’re going to get all the way into it,” Steven added. “But even without a surveyor you can use the measurements from those old highway maps to make new ones.”

Sonny Akinato, of the bus people, said he had such skills and had brought what he could salvage of equipment he had found as they had walked out of the devastation. He suggested that as well as standard academics, the conference should consider the need for a trade school path of study as well as the study of the abstract arts.

“Virtually all the jobs for ordinary people in the future will be in fields different from what we know now. Granted, those who remember the time before have many things to offer. What we must do now is prepare for the days and years ahead, where the knowledge and the needs will be different, and those memories, if not captured, will be gone,” he said.

The meeting produced at least half a dozen discussions among smaller groups that lasted well into the night. By the time Moira and the delegates headed toward the meeting at The Plains, they had designed most of what they hoped would become a workable and practical curriculum. But in those early morning hours before their departure, the earth again trembled and shook, an unsettling reminder that the changes had not necessarily come to an end.

* * *

The conference was both exciting and fruitful, for the most part, and by the end of the first day several matters had been settled to the satisfaction of most attendees. Depending on the coursework selected, student fees for supplies would be paid in traded labor. No tuition would be charged, other than a yearly fee to the college town from all the territories whether or not they sent students every term.

All the territories agreed on the basics except for the Southwestern colony, whose delegates announced at the start that they would be providing their own schooling and would pay no fees to the “heathens.” Their small delegation marched precipitously from the meeting after being firmly assured that aside from a survey of world religions, there would be no coursework offered based solely on either the King James Bible, which they requested, nor the Koran, which they were certain was in the plan after spotting someone who looked suspiciously as if they might be Muslim, wearing a turban and carrying a suspiciously large volume. (It was the Sikh man from the bus people, who was a mathematician. He was carrying a dictionary.).

When asked, Moira told the conference-goers that Mumbros was pitifully short of both scholars and master artisans, and that the few they had, including those at the conference, were too elderly, too unwell or too badly needed at home to be able to spend the winter months teaching at the school. However, she said, those who excelled in certain fields would be welcome to come to Mumbros should they desire advanced training or fieldwork. Of expertise in those fields they were well supplied. And they would be happy to train younger scholars to teach in their place.

The meeting adjourned with an agreement to begin classes as soon as a catalog and a faculty were assembled and to meet again the following April to review how the first term had gone. High on the agenda of that next meeting would also be a discussion on what a national government might look like and whether some form of the U.S. Constitution would serve. Everyone was in agreement that local rules governing individual territories should be put together by those who would have to put up with them.

In Mumbros that subject was already a hot topic. As early as the community’s second summer, the need for more structure than the weekly town meeting provided had become painfully obvious. A new problem arose nearly every day that needed taking up by those most suited and/or most interested in the outcome, and as often as not, too many hands and opinions only hindered resolution. So a group was formed to draw up the skeleton of a village charter with the understanding that it could be changed or added to when needed, and other groups could either volunteer or be appointed to take up specific issues as they arose and decide whether to deal with them directly or bring them before the larger group.

In most cases though, people were content to let the founders, that original group of Moira’s family and close associates, have the last word on the day-to-day issues. And Moira’s tenure as the village’s leader went unquestioned. The founders had created the village and were, after all, the most invested in keeping order and maintaining a sustainable structure. And Moira’s image still held as the last official representative of what had once been the most powerful nation on earth. The extended family met frequently over dinner to analyze those matters of governance left to their discretion, including which issues to delegate and which to keep to themselves. Glen, as head of the Brothers, reported directly to Moira, as did Ellen, Steven, Annie, Alice, and Rickard. One night at supper Ric expressed it thus:
“We’ve never pretended we want to rule over everyone. But we have the opportunity, as this community settles into sustainable ways, to guide people toward sensible, humane choices and away from zealots of any stripe. We only have the one chance to get this right, because we’re getting older every day and every season brings more young ones into the world who have no sense of a history before this time. That should be our first priority, to use our influence to guide our part of the world forward. Otherwise, what are we here for?”

Conversation over dinner was lively another night, this one after a teamster attending the town meeting mentioned he had observed that training the transportation animals was both easier and harder since they had all gotten smarter. The varied reactions to his statement revealed that many people had observed changes in all the sentient beings around them, changes that defied explanation. The domesticated four-leggeds, from horses to cats, seemed to understand human language and even thoughts a great deal better than before and could even follow simple instructions. Creatures out in the wild had developed some new and often disturbing traits as well. There was, of course, the matter of the feral pigs, whose population had grown and become more ferocious as the traits of the wild Ossabows had dominated the gene pool. Even though black bears and a few cougars had survived, the pigs had become the most dangerous predators to threaten human populations. Even the village’s own jovial Tamworth swine were terrified of their wild cousins.

The Brothers had the most encounters with them on their travels throughout the territories, and had begun working to drive them away from populated areas. At the meeting, the discussion turned to a stirring up of tales about pig encounters and away from voicing any notion that perhaps some humans were also beginning to get a bit smarter, or stranger, or a bit of something that no one could quite put a finger on. The village leaders, especially the first family, were reluctant to talk about the phenomenon. They were studying it, but warily. It was obviously not happening to everyone but some were experiencing things they found very odd, and occasionally hair-raising.

Ellen observed one night over her plateful of late greens and well cured wild ham that she believed some people, just a few, were developing more acute intuitive abilities. Some had developed a high level of empathy; others could diagnose illnesses or had a heightened sense of direction. Still others seemed to be able to predict weather. With her confession, it soon turned out that everyone in the family had noticed things but no one had been sure enough of what they’d seen to mention it. Glen confessed that he was unable to get lost. “I’d been noticing that even before I came here, but I thought it was just Willie, my horse. But I’m pretty sure I have a touch of it, too.”

“Well, Moira and I weren’t sure but what we’ve been hallucinating,” Ellen admitted, “but we both seem to have developed a bit of the healing touch. And I’d almost swear the herbs are teaching me more about how to use them than I ever learned from the books, or even from experience. I know that sounds crazy, but…”

“No, it’s real. I know it is,” said Joel, interrupting. “I’ve been teaching my dog to do some neat tricks because he’s extra smart. But as soon as he catches on, it’s like pretty soon all the dogs can do it. Really. It’s very weird. What do you think is causing it?”

Moira shook her head. “I wouldn’t hazard a guess, except that we were warned from the beginning to embrace unexpected gifts and avoid unintended consequences. I’m thinking we should, for the time being, just keep quiet about this. Just watch and listen. Take notes. And we’ll come back to it once we’ve taken the pulse of the community.”

They all nodded and turned their attention back to their plates. It would be some time before the matter was discussed aloud again, although when a moment of oddness occurred, they would glance up, often as not, and see another family or community member meeting their eyes as if to say, “Did you see that? I saw it. Did you?”

Even as odd events continued to multiply, the family held the knowledge close to their chests. It was a wise choice, given that as time went on, as surely as gifts were appearing among some individuals in the community, they were less apt to be found in the larger population. And when they did show themselves in that population, those “talents” were often uncontrolled, and sometimes wild and dangerous.

After a serious fall that injured but did not break her leg, the family again urged Tish to move up the hill where she could receive better care. She refused, saying, “If I can’t live near my garden, what good does it do me to live?” So a work crew was formed, a safer and more serviceable cabin was designed, they built her a new ‘hut’ next to the old, and she was very happy – well, as happy as she got.

She lived in her newly designed quarters, puttering in her garden and guiding the occasional student for more than a decade before age and illness finally took her. By then, hemp fiber, hemp oil, bamboo and the products made from them all had become Mumbros’ largest exports other than the increasingly known true-issue seeds. Hemp-oil and its distillates fueled lamps, lubricated wheels and gears and provided for a variety of needs all over the village and beyond. Steven had gotten his shirt of cloth made from hemp and cotton. And more than a dozen of Mumbros’ brightest young scholars had mastered the knowledge of biochemistry and half of those could also call themselves by titles from herbalist to chemical engineer.

Tish was also said to have been at least partly responsible for the smooth but volatile brew cooked up by millwright and barrel-cooper Lon Brixey from the generous portion of grain that arrived from the Amish each fall. They called the product a wheat ale, and it was for this, oddly, that the two of them would be best remembered in the decades to come.

Moira valued the cranky old woman most for the store of knowledge she brought and saw her most important contribution as her ability to teach, or more like download, all her training and expertise into the upcoming generation. Through her, and with Annie, Ellen, Alice and Haley’s help, Falling Spring also became known for its advanced studies in the sciences, as it trained the professionals who traveled from over west at the University of The Plains, where a faculty of surviving academics from all over the island had gathered. Civilization and a well-educated populace were returning as the light of knowledge began to spread across the new island nation of Ozarkia.

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World’s End
Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Twelve: A Season of Beginnings

 

Looking back, Moira was grateful the meeting was over by the time Annie LeBeaux arrived on the scene, for she’d have raised enough questions and thrown in enough ideas to keep them talking all evening and into the night. But it was midday the next day before she chugged up to the gate, now always kept locked, and tooted the horn on her fabulously unique vehicle.

At some time in the past it had been a motorcycle with sidecar, Moira decided. But it had long since given up any pretensions of adhering to its previous identity. For one thing, it had a solar panel for a roof. Across the handlebars was a shelf beneath which several cords and bungees held an assortment of poles that at second glance appeared to be garden tools, several fishing rods, and possibly a harpoon, all tied together. The shelf, piled with an assortment of gadgets, extended back toward the driver and held several large pockets, pouches, and baskets into which were stuffed a bandanna, a folded topo map, binoculars, a pistol, several highway flares, a canteen, a crank-charged radio, a large jar of vitamin C pills, another of ammunition, and an iPod.

Both the cycle and sidecar were painted an astonishing number of colors, and the sidecar was packed to the gills with bundles, bags, and boxes of mysterious and unknowable stuff. The whole apparatus was towing a lawn-tractor trailer rigged to a homemade hitch, and it, too, was piled high with boxes wrapped in a tarpaulin and tightly bound.

Rick was first to greet the amazing Annie, and he sent Joey running up the hill to fetch Moira while he invited her to his patio for coffee.

“Tell me you’re not putting me on,” the woman said, her voice rasping, her shoulders suddenly straighter at the mention of the now rare beverage. She looked to be about 70-something, short, stooped, and with weathered skin, red hair going to gray, and green eyes going everywhere, darting from one new sight to another as if to memorize or to verify its reality. Her face was tanned and creased, with lines running deep, from laughter and much else it seemed. She wore a worn cotton tee and fatigue pants with many pockets. Her hands were rough as she twisted a thin cigarette from makings in a can.

“It’s the real thing and just brewed,” Rick said and laughed as she sniffed the air hungrily. “How do you take it?”

“Just coffee. Thanks. Oh, my sweet mother,” she sipped, sighed, and continued to look around her.

“Been looking for us for long?” Rick inquired softly.

Her gaze drew inward. “Long enough. I took a wrong turn up north a ways and ran into some nasty little critters.” She shook her head. “It’s good I had a gun. It’s gotten scary out there.” She said no more but sipped her coffee until Moira arrived, then leaned forward and stuck out her hand.

“You the chief?”

“More or less. I’m Moira Evans. I headed the museum, so I was a federal officer back when we had a government. No word on that lately,” she said.

“Don’t hold your breath. Annie LeBeaux here. You know a fella name of Glen Truett?”

Moira nodded. “I thought he might have pointed you our way.”

“Not because he thinks I’m cute,” Annie retorted. “I’m a biochemist by trade. I can make about anything if I’ve got the raw materials at hand. I figured you might have a use for me. It’s for pretty damn certain nobody else has.” She gestured over her shoulder at the fabulous vehicle. “I brought my kit and my library.”

Moira sized up the small woman, looked over her outfit, and liked what she saw.

“Well, Annie, if you can put up with my company, I believe I’ve got a good spot for you, one I hope you’ll find comfortable enough. It ain’t the Ritz, but the rent’s reasonable. When you finish your coffee, come on up the hill and I’ll show you around. And by the way, we don’t have any objections to churchy people, so long as they have no objections to us.” Annie grinned and shrugged, but had no comment.

On her last fumes of fuel, Annie drove up the hill to the Keep, unpacked her gear and after some discussion, installed herself at the back of the main hall, using book shelves and display cases to wall off her domain, which now included one of what had been the public restrooms. It was now being retrofitted as she began setting up her laboratory equipment. Moira stayed nearby, tidying the largely empty front hall and making sure she was on hand in case Annie needed help. But she finally called it a night long before Annie finished fashioning her abode and workspace. The few times Moira glimpsed her lean form as she went searching for a tool in the warehouse, she appeared to be plugged into her iPod and partly walking, partly dancing. She asked few questions, mostly in search of tools and supplies when needed.

Rickard stopped Moira in mid-step coming down the hill next morning to ask how the new resident was settling in.

“Well enough, I suppose,” Moira said. “She worked late. She’s now all unpacked and is well on the way to getting her lab up and running. She’s asking good questions and is pretty savvy about our needs and circumstances.“ She stopped, but kept nodding her head.

“But…?”

“But what?”

“But what aren’t you saying?”

“It’s nothing.”

“What?”

“She’s…noisy.”

“How do you mean, noisy?”

“Like…well, she sings. To her iPod?”

“So?”

“She can’t sing.”

Rickard lowered his head until he was looking at Moira over his glasses.

“I know,” she said. “Get over it.” And he nodded.

Alice, Ray and Rae-Jean Compton, the neighbors who had moved in with the Riggs sisters over the winter, had stayed on after the sisters had gone back home to work out how they might be a part of the community, from where they should live to what they had to offer. It was a long discussion and involved many meetings with various people. When Alice disclosed her skills Ellen immediately took her by the arm, led her away, and kept her several hours. Even if Alice Compton had arrived alone with just the clothes on her back, she’d have been a godsend. She had been a family nurse practitioner at the clinic in Alton and was the first real health-care professional they’d seen. The day after, while Moira was getting Annie settled up the hill, Alice was busy laying claim to the tools from the doctor’s office and moving them up the street to a two-room shop next door to Ellen’s place where she planned to install a tiny clinic.

Ray, her husband, identified himself as an Episcopal minister whose faith had been badly challenged by the events of the past few months. He exhibited all the signs of severe post traumatic stress and seldom spoke unless spoken to. Pressed, he said he no longer felt qualified to serve as a spiritual counselor, and asked to be considered based on his minimal skills as a laborer.

Eldon offered him a job as a part-time helper at the mill, but after discussion it was clear he’d be better for the present in the job he already had as a dairyman for the Riggs sisters, since he only had to show up on time for the milking. Alice said he sometimes just went missing but was usually to be found nearby, often just standing and looking at the river. His was perhaps the most visible but far from the only case of PTSD. Using Ray as a willing example, she cautioned that everyone should be careful to give each other breathing room and kindness as they made their way back to the present reality. Soon, someone thought to organize a second weekly meeting where people could come just to talk. It helped, though its efficacy was most often judged by the community members reactions when another aftershock hit, or later, when the vicious winter winds returned.

Rae-Jean, the Comptons’ teenage daughter, was a problem of a whole different order, a 16-going-on-35-year-old womanchild whose hormones were looking for somebody to show them a good time. And at Falling Spring, good times of the sort she was looking for were hard to come by. Fortunately, her mother recognized the symptoms of hormonal suffering and gave her plenty of chores to keep her occupied, mostly helping her father down at the dairy.

The Compton family was happy with the idea of working in the village but staying with the sisters, where Ray and Rae-Jean could manage the heavier work at the dairy. Alice had a good horse and with the help of Ray and Tom moved all her own medical equipment to her clinic space and hung up her shingle, complete with office hours. With pharmaceutical supplies virtually unavailable, she, Ellen, and Annie also began spending regular hours consulting together over how possible alternatives to lost medicinals might be found or made. Everyone here had experienced such emotional losses that they all suffered some damage; the wounds were mostly invisible, but all very real. Soon the three quasi-medicos were prowling the woods, meadows, and seed stores, searching for things like skullcap, arnica, boneset, and hops. There was much rejoicing when a healthy patch of St. John’s Wort, an herb used to treat depression, was found up near the cemetery. There was no cannabis, but Annie allowed as how she might have a few seeds. All the remedies for which they only had seeds were out of reach until another harvest. Until then they’d have to make do. As soon as Glen returned, he might be persuaded to go back to see if anything was left of the Alton Clinic or Ellen’s house and its stores, they decided.

To be honest, Moira was pleased about the arrival of new children not just for the benefit of having a ready-made younger generation but also for the wealth of opportunities to foist off the remainder of Sheba’s puppies, for they were driving her to distraction. Fortunately, Sheba had only had five, but having given one to Joey and another to Glen, she had three of the beggars still loitering around underfoot. She meant to make sure every arriving child had a dog until she was down to just one again.

Steven’s daughter Sarah hadn’t really settled on one pup in particular, so when Tom, Ted and Lettie arrived, Moira pounced, leaving it to them to sort out which pup went with whom. They were thrilled, but Ellen jeered at her exhibition of crass self-interest. She had to alter her view shortly after Glen returned.

As told previously, Glen finally made it back to the little valley on September 15th, just in time to help harvest the field corn. He was thinner and looked weary, as did his horse, Willy. Behind his little pack train of two heavily loaded horses, in a makeshift wagon pulled by a sturdy Welsh pony, were two young girls ages nine and eleven, Presley and Hanna Scott, whom he’d rescued from a situation bad enough he wouldn’t describe it, and a small boy, a toddler, found beside the road alone and near starvation. Piled around the children was more pillage from his search for supplies. Behind them on horseback was 40-year-old veterinarian Haley Slocum and his teenage son Arthur, who was driving a wagonload of their possessions and veterinary supplies. Others would be coming later, said Glen, as soon as they could work out transportation. He might go back for a few, he added. But first he must unload his horses and give them a good long rest.

While he did that, the first order had been to find every one of the newcomers a place to land, and they soon found their niches in the rapidly shrinking makeshift living quarters scattered around the village. Moira was delighted to see so many more young people in the group and she knew Joey would also be pleased. The Scott girls made their home down at the dairy with the Riggs and Comptons, giving Ray a sunnier attitude and Rae-Jean more to occupy her time and reflect on the consequences of having children. The Slocums took up residence in a small shed next to the barn that had been used to store surplus grain, and opened a tiny clinic focused on animal health.

The little boy was not as easy to place due to his age. He was oddly drawn to Moira, which she enjoyed. She had taken him into her arms as Alice brought him from his first medical exam and much needed bath, and had fed him crumbles of bread and small sips of milk as she tried to elicit information from him. He could talk, barely, and was politely requesting “mo behd” and “mo miik” as he swallowed each bite. She was surprised and touched at his apparent level of comfort with her, as he was smiling and patting her hand as she fed him. She must remind him of someone. How could anyone have just left him behind? But again, who knew what perils they had faced. It would remain a mystery. When asked his name, Glen thought he’d said “Jed.” But he frowned and fussed when called that. It was Ellen who tried the name Jared, and caused him to giggle and beam. He was a charmer for sure. But they had to get some weight on him. Surprising herself, Moira asked if she could keep him with her for a while and got no objections. But because of so many demands on her time, he was often shunted between Helen, Ellen, and Steven as well, and he soon assumed those four were his family.

There was a short commotion among the dogs when Glen brought out the pair of hefty Pembroke Welsh Corgi adolescent pups he’d found at a house where no one else was still alive and brought them along in his saddlebags. The male of these, a lad named Barney, stepped right up to Ellen the moment they met, sat down at her feet, met her eyes and offered a paw, plainly saying, “I’m here about the job, mum.” Her heart was lost the moment she laid eyes on him.

His mate, a bouncy little girl they named Hester, was just as firm about Sarah, finding her in the orchard reading, clambering right into her lap, heaving a great sigh, and going straight to sleep. The new girls had brought their cats with them, so for a little while, everyone was paired up except the one boy, Arthur Slocum, and he was only longing for his computer. Moira had an idea she might be able to help with that.

It was as if the entire village had gone on holiday the next day when Glen opened his packs and tossed aside the covers on the loaded wagons. Inside were utensils, tools, and canned or boxed foods and medicines, all salvaged from a farm supply and a small grocery store that had been left open but untouched, the occupants long fled. Moira swept in with Steven close behind to gather up the tools before others could help themselves. The tools and findings would be stored at the warehouse until the storehouse was ready, available for residents to borrow as needed, Moira explained. But first they needed to be marked and catalogued so they could be checked out when needed and retrieved later. Every item had to be treated as though it were irreplaceable. Because it was. She put the foodstuffs and canning supplies in Ellen’s hands, who commandeered Annie’s refueled transport to get them up to the main kitchen. While they gleaned and sorted, Glen told them where he’d been.

He could have brought a larger entourage, he said, but there were more than a few he had not told of this place. Most of the little settlements he’d found were welcoming and the residents of most seemed happy where they were. But there were also several enclaves and individuals he had avoided approaching at all, once he’d watched them from a distance. Some were in armed encampments; others were too far gone, mad with grief and fear or in other ways out of control. He had also made maps directing people looking to relocate but that he felt were incompatible with the ways of this place. Those he directed toward other fledgling villages to which they seemed more suited.

“I didn’t just leave anybody unless they were dangerous or seemed to want to be left,” he said. “But some would obviously make a better fit in other places, and I did what I could to help them find their way.”

One such place, he said, was at Van Buren on the Current river where many had survived, with residents pooling their resources and helping one another through the wild and dark winter. Those people had worked out their differences, most of them, and were growing community gardens and sharing food, led by their church leaders.

“It’s a curious mix, with lots of the more fundamentalist church influence, but they’re mostly focusing on the old-time ways and values, and there are others who lean more toward moderation and are asking their views be respected, too. They’re all working hard and working together, for the moment. No real zealots among them, or if there were any, they’ve either gone somewhere else or don’t have enough support for stirring up trouble. The ministers are working in dialogue, and the people are actually starting to thrive. They, too, are taking in lots of strays. I think there’ll be a good home there for those who prefer a more mainstream Christian community.”

The town of Poplar Bluff was mostly in ruins, but some had survived and were building back. One good sign, he said, was that the area’s community of artists had survived mostly intact and were being a good influence on the town as it grew back. Of course, they were still trying to cope with a very changed landscape. That was true almost everywhere. The social structures that would emerge were still anybody’s guess, he said, and could vary wildly from town to town. Travel between these outposts of quasi-civilization was difficult at best, as many roads were damaged or blocked and most of the bridges were down. But distances and difficulties could be seen as protection as well from some kinds of troubles.

He had not had time to explore all of this new landscape, but he said he found reason to take heart in that several small communities, a half-dozen or more, had rallied usually around some source of supplies and were at least holding their own at establishing some sort of order. But in some places more radical elements had taken charge. Some were selling a hard message of God’s wrath to gain control of what little resources were left. Others were simply taking ownership at gunpoint, creating their own kingdoms, leaving the rest to serve their new masters or starve. At some point, he said, order would need to be restored in the larger area. But not now.

“Speaking of that larger area, there’s something else you should know. The physical changes are far more vast than anyone expected, as I found when I arrived at Poplar Bluff.” He went on, describing the high bluff for which the town was named, where he had first discovered that what had been farmland was now an eastern sea. He made sure of it by tasting and finding it salty. He had seen the sea again while looking southward from a point above where the White River Valley should be, below Mountain Home. The town, though heavily damaged, was still there. But just below it, where there had been mountains, was a rolling surf pebbled with small islands as far as the eye could see. To the west there was also water as far as the eye could see, or so he had heard from people he had met on the trail, but he had no clear idea how far away that was. From the north, no one had yet come. There was only an eerie silence and a feeling of foreboding coming from that direction. Someone would have to go that way and find out the truth of the place, but that was for another day or perhaps another season.

Right now, autumn was upon them, and there were still crops to get in, and more living spaces to build. And what the next winter would bring was anyone’s guess.

“For now, I think we’ll have our hands full taking care of ourselves. That’s why I was very selective in handing out my little maps.” He grinned as he said it but there was a hard glint in his eyes. He had seen more than he was telling, Moira knew. Right now she wasn’t sure she wanted to know more. Tend to the home place, then deal with the rest, she told herself, and look to the tasks at hand. And so the days passed.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Seven: Unalterable Acts

Scratched arms, torn clothing, and a stitch in her side accompanied her as she arrived back at the museum grounds, running all the way. And with every step Moira had been thinking feverishly, examining her options. There was no knowing how much time she had. They would travel more than a mile compared to her scant few hundred yards, and they had been headed toward the river to water their horses when she’d seen them last. But they were coming. Worse. They were coming to loot the museum, to plunder its precious cache of tools and seeds. It could mean the end of things, civilization’s last hopes gone to the hands of craven marauders, terrorists, and so soon. No! She was not, by God, going to let that happen.

As she ran, dodging black haw and greenbriar, wading headlong through vines and brambles, her momentum ripped a path through the tangled understory  filling the steep hollow which at its worst was still the most direct way to the museum. She had already deduced that any kind of frontal assault would be futile. Rifles or shotgun were out – she could not attack them from hiding. That left only her service piece, a .9mm Ruger that was accurate at short range but totally impossible to conceal, and a small .25 caliber pistol, an off-brand “Saturday night Special” inherited from her father, that could fit in her pocket but was accurate about to the length of her arm, give or take. These “militia men” had assault weapons.

Militia men they were, she was sure of it. They had to have come from somewhere within horseback range, and from their language they sounded like the renegade, so-called white supremacists who had gained a reputation in the region as bullies prone to violence. But their compound was far to the west, with miles of rough country between. To her dismay, they had not only survived but had come here with a purpose. Evidently their leaders had seen the chaos created during the past winter as their chance to lay claim to all that was left. Their conversation made it clear they had not come to ask for the seeds but to take them, as they had taken their hostages. Who knew what else they might have already done. And their head man was talking of moving in and staying.

“Over my dead body,” she snarled between clenched teeth, realizing it might be exactly that.

But counting on firepower was out. She would have to stop them another way. And to do that, she had to let them get in close, and convince them she was unaware of their intent – or her peril. How could she do that? Perhaps she should be crazy. That shouldn’t be too damned difficult to pull off.

Her grin was a rictus of pain and defiance as she stumbled in the back door of the center and threw herself at the warehouse doors, which swung open wide and banged against the walls as she passed. She heard Sheba bark from behind her apartment door but didn’t dare respond. Sheba would try to protect her and that would just get herself shot. This would have to be a solo job.

She hesitated, seeing the stacks of boxes, the filled shelves, the well-stocked tool room. If they saw what was here, she was doomed. Stumbling again, gasping for breath, she crossed the warehouse and yanked open the dressing room door. About halfway down was her locker, where she kept the costumes she used to perform in during living-history re-enactments. She threw open its door and put out a hand to steady herself and stop her racing mind and adrenaline-filled muscles. Then off went the uniform shirt and jeans, stopping to pry off her hiking boots. On over the head went petticoats and gingham shirtwaist dress. Tug them down. Tie her hair back with a ribbon. Throw an apron over all, towel her face dry and check the mirror. Transformed, sort of. But for the sweat and scratches, she looked like any old-time farm wife. Could they be persuaded to think she’d just wandered in here and found the place, just another refugee? She’d play her crazy act to the hilt, and maybe they’d let her live. But staying alive wasn’t the issue. The issue was stopping them. And stopped is what they must be. No matter what.

She sat down on the long bench against the wall and pulled her boots back on, thinking furiously. There must be a way.

She could make them a meal and dose them with something. They’d be out long enough that she could tie them up. She was already beginning to smile as her breath suddenly went out in an explosive sigh and she slumped against the wall, grasping the flaw in that plan and any like it. Even tied, they were lethal. They would never be anything else. Not so long as they lived. She could disarm them, but she could not make them harmless. She certainly couldn’t call the sheriff.

She closed her eyes, trying to clear her thoughts, to see if she was missing something. No. They could not be made harmless. And there was no law to appeal to. There was just her. This was the place she had been given to protect, and she was the law. There was no help for it. She was simply going to have to kill them, or die trying.

Moira sat in silence for a long minute. If there were a God in heaven, she was facing a very long eternity. On the other hand, what God would turn these beasts loose on the struggling remnants of civilization? The world they were trying to build was not one where she, or any woman or child or civilized man, could ever live safely.

“No,” she said aloud, shaking her head. There was no choice, or, if there had been, she had already made it. So all that remained were the means. Firepower was not the answer. It would have to be sabotage. And she thought the means for that might be found at the millpond, or, barring that, at the shed where the garden pesticides were stored. Ironic that she’d argued against their use due to the potential of bringing harm to humans. At last resort, they might do exactly that.

There was no more time to waste. She heaved herself upright and was off again at a trot. First stop was the walk-in freezer, where she helped herself to a number of packaged foods pre-cooked for the demonstration kitchen. Into a basket went a round of cornbread, a large portion of bean and beef stew that would fit tidily into an iron Dutch oven, and some stewed tomatoes with chopped onions and brown bread broken up and stirred into them. From a storage bin alongside went a handful of small sweet potatoes to bury in the ashes of the cook fire she would build in the wood cook stove. It was all just good, simple, wintered-over springtime fare of the kind they’d expect. Nothing suspicious.

She left the basket by the back door and went back through the public area to her office, pulled open a bottom desk drawer, and snatched the small pistol from its hiding place, along with a box of shells. At close quarters, or as a last-ditch gambit, it might make the difference, she thought, sliding a bullet into each chamber of the little revolver and checking to make sure the safety was on. She tucked the pistol and a handful of extra shells into the deep side pocket of her dress where it would be covered by the apron, and went back to the warehouse one more time for a can of coffee – and a butcher knife. Then back to the door she went, snatched up the basket, and trotted off down the hill, her gait uneven but determined.

By the millpond she set the basket down again and shielded her eyes from the sun while she peered along the far verges of the water. It should be on the far side, just next to the dam. She spotted it, a withered shrub at winter’s end. but it was not the innocent it appeared. She’d intended to have the hazardous perennial dug out last fall, but the first frost had stopped her before she got someone assigned to the task. The ornamental was dangerous to let thrive adjacent to public areas, although it made an attractive addition to the bluff-side greenery. The problem was, it shouldn’t be here at all. It wasn’t indigenous, for one thing. Some long-ago resident of the hollow had evidently brought the plant in as an ornamental and had put it there at the far edge of the dam so it might escape a killing frost. Of larger concern, it was deadly poisonous.

She held out both hands to balance herself as she crossed the narrow catwalk across the spillway and hopped to the ground on the far side. A few more steps and she was standing before the plant she sought. Only its first tiny leaves were showing, not sufficient for her intended use. But the dried leaves were lethal as well. She rudely chopped at the leafy branches with the butcher knife until she’d knocked the leaves down, then scooped up a hefty measure of last year’s leafy growth, along with several clusters of withered berries. She fingered the leaf shoots. The legendary Oleander, an ancient and treacherous beauty that was deadly to most animals as well as humans. And if the literature was correct, it acted quickly. If she could just get a portion of it down their gullets without poisoning their prisoners, all well and good. She thought how that might be done and smiled a smile that did not reach her cold eyes. She’d make a tea. She wrapped the leaves, berries, and twigs in a cloth, retraced her steps across the dam, and headed for the farmhouse at a run.

The cornbread was in the oven, the potatoes were in the ashes, the pot of chopped leaves and stems was steaming on a back burner next to the bubbling stew and she was replenishing the fire in the wood range with split oak faggots when she heard the whoops and shouts of the men. They must have realized they’d found the museum’s lower gate. “Thanks for the warning, fellas,” she whispered.

Moira paused on the porch and inhaled a great gout of air, twice, then composed herself into the pitiful creature she wanted them to see. Gathering the front of apron and dress in her hands to make running easier, she set off for the gate, which she’d left closed but not locked. Running down the hill, she saw them before they saw her and was almost upon them when she gave a shriek of feigned joy.

“Ayee. Praise God. Thank you, Jesus. Is it you? Is it really my Savior come to take me home? Ah, sweet Jesus, you’ve come for me at last,” she babbled as she ran toward them.

Startled at the sound as well as the sight of her wildly-waving skirts, the horses shied as she’d hoped they might, jostling their riders away from their weapons, making them concentrate instead on keeping hold of their reins and staying upright. She kept wailing and chattering, waving her hands in the air, until the redbearded man, standing in the saddle and wrestling with his dancing palomino, finally shouted her down.

“Good Christ, woman! Shut your mouth. You’re driving the horses crazy. Shut up!” he called this last over his shoulder as his mount circled and reared again.

Moira stopped waving and lowered her hands to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just got so excited. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone. I’m sorry,” she said, hiding her voice behind her hands but continuing to babble. As the palomino turned to face her again, the red-bearded man swung down off his horse. But before he could stop her, she lunged headlong into his arms. Holding him tightly around the waist, she sobbed as though her heart would break. But her tearless eyes peered beneath his arm as she sobbed and met the eyes of the bound woman bringing up the rear of the procession. She leaned, turning Redbeard until his body blocked her from view of the other men but not from the female captive. As the woman came near enough that she could see the horror and fear in her eyes, Moira shifted her head slightly to meet the woman’s gaze head-on and, still clinging tightly to Redbeard, lifted her face so the woman could see her mouthed words. Please, Mother of God, let her understand me, she prayed silently, while her lips formed the words the woman had to hear.

“I know. I know. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Then she had to stop because the gray-bearded man drove his horse between, keeping the women from meeting. But before he did, she saw the woman’s chest rise with a sudden intake of air and her eyes widen, lit with hope. It was the best she could do for now.

Moira bowed her head and brought one hand to her face, hiding her eyes as Redbeard disengaged himself. She drew a rag from her apron pocket and blew her nose noisily before wiping her dry eyes. Then she smiled up at him, hoping he saw gratitude in her face instead of just her bared teeth. “Tell me. Tell me where you’ve come from. How did you find me? Are you here to stay? Will you take me with you when you go? Ah, just talk to me, man. Let me hear voices other than my own.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “I will, if you’ll stop your yellin’ and prayin’ and let me get a word in. I take it you’re a good Christian woman. Is that so?”

“God-fearing and baptized right in yon river there,” she said, struggling to remember how the litany went. She’d do better to claim a fundamentalist background than her own liberal Methodist one, but she wasn’t sure she could keep it all straight.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing these wonderful men to my rescue,” she said. She grabbed his arms again and shook them. “You’re the answer to my every prayer. You truly are. But, oh, mercy, I am forgetting my manners,” she said, putting her hands to her face again. “Have y’ all had your supper yet? I’ve got some stew on the fire, just up the hill. Oh, my goodness. Yes. The stew. I’ll need to get back to it before it burns,” she said, turning to go.

His hand shot out and seized her arm in a bruising grip. “Just hold on a minute, missy,” his voice hissed, and for a moment she thought he’d seen through her disguise. But his concern was more for himself. “You sure you’re all alone here?” he asked. “You’re the only one about?”

“Why, of course,” she said, trying not to fight his grip. “I’ve been here a month or more, scared to death the whole time.

“My farm’s just down river, you see, and when the food ran out, and Orville never come back from town . . . ,” she said, letting her fear fuel the catch in her voice. “I had to go somewhere, and I knew they kept food up here. But when I got here, they was all gone. I thought I was the only one left anywhere . . . ”  Her voice broke again as she spoke the truth for the first time, and now there were real tears shining from her eyes.

“Well, you’re not. In fact, you’re one lucky woman. We’re all of us among God’s Chosen. All four of us. You’re among your own again.” She made what she hoped was a joyful exclamation of surprise as the red-bearded man smiled and raised his arm to introduce his three male companions, still mounted, who stared down at her. Beyond them, the woman sat, still tied, and the boy had come forward to cling to her stirrup.

“What’s the matter with them two,” she asked, forcing contempt into her voice. “Did they steal somethin’?”

“Well, she’s a witch. And the boy won’t mind anybody. He’s incorrigible. We’re taking them in to be judged.”

“Witches!” she said and spat on the ground, as in her head she begged forgiveness. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something to do with the cause of all this, if you ask me.”

“I know just what you mean, Sister. Now what’s this I hear about supper? We’ve traveled a long road today.”

“Yes. Mercy, I was wondering why I made so much stew. I thought I was going to have some extra for tomorrow. But, land sakes, I’ve got just about enough to go around.” She glanced hatefully toward the woman and boy. “Don’t know if I’ve got anything fit for them, though. They don’t deserve my good stew. Maybe I can boil up some mush or something for them. Or maybe there’ll be an extra tater or two. I’ll see what I can do.” She turned, gathered her apron and skirt in her hand, and beckoned the men to follow. As they neared the farmhouse, she stopped and pointed toward the barn.

“You gentlemen should find hay and feed and stalls for your horses in there,” she said. “Make the animals comfortable, while I see about dishing up some supper.”

The men dismounted and the black-bearded one walked back to help the woman roughly off her horse. “You can leave them in the barn, too, if you like, and I’ll take something out to them later.” She wanted to get the two prisoners out of the way and have some time to herself to check out her hastily-ordered kitchen.

She got only half her wish. The prisoners were led to the shade outside the barn and made to sit, then their feet were tied and their hands bound behind them. But Redbeard didn’t want her to go off by herself. Despite his friendly manner, he didn’t trust her. Well and good. He shouldn’t. He should be deathly afraid of her, and perhaps somewhere in himself he sensed it. But he wouldn’t, Goddess willing, see his peril as coming from something as innocent as homemade stew.

He watched, arms folded and leaning against the doorway as she set five bowls down from the shelf. She filled one with stew, then stopped, with an exclamation.

“Land sakes, I forgot the spicebush,” she said. She used the lid of the small pot to strain out the solids and poured the poisonous brew into the stewpot as the other three men tramped in from outside and took seats at the kitchen table. She dished up the remaining four bowls of stew, sliced and buttered wedges of cornbread, and dipped up smaller bowls of the breaded tomatoes. But when she began laying place settings, Redbeard leaned forward. “Ain’t you going to eat with us?”

Damn! She put down the last of the knives and walked over to him, placing her hand in the middle of his chest. “I’ll have a bite in a little bit. I’ve got a bowl set aside. But let me get you all served first. You’ve been traveling all day. And, well . . . it’s been such a long time since I’ve served a man . . . I’d like to just enjoy it for a while, if I might.” She smiled what she hoped was a seductive smile and patted his chest, then, feeling the cushion of hair under his shirt, reached a forefinger between his buttons and said, “My, my. Such a furry bear you are.”

Redbeard slid a hand around her waist and drew her to him. “You like furry bears, do you?”

She didn’t have to feign her sudden shortness of breath, only the reason for it. “I do, ever so much,” she said, her voice trembling. “Especially red ones.” Then, as he leaned toward her, reaching to a kiss, she pushed him away gently. “But there’s plenty of time for us to get . . . acquainted, after everyone’s had some supper and gets settled in for the night.” She fluttered her eyes at him. You get to your dinner and I’ll make us all some coffee.” She barely had time to turn her face away from his leering grin before a spasm of disgust shook her. Never mind, she told her body as her teeth clenched in a snarl. Whatever gets the job done. Just do it.

Moira turned back and surveyed the men filling the small farmhouse kitchen, now seated around the laden rough-hewn table. The gray-bearded man was facing Redbeard, and Blackbeard was across from No-beard. Perfect. She urged them to set to. “”Dig in before it gets cold. I’ll have your coffee for you in just . . .” her words ended in a sudden gasp as Blackbeard grasped her buttock in his hand. But before she could speak, Redbeard snarled a curse and Blackbeard’s hand dropped to his side.

“Leave off, Billy. Leave ’er go. Let her see to her cookin’.”

“Well, Gol, what’s with you, John? She yours or something?” There was a long silence, punctuated finally by the black-bearded Billy. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“No matter,” she said. “I understand. You’ve all been away from your women a long time. Just don’t be so . . . rough. All right?”

“Yes’um,” Billy said, abashed. Then there was silence, punctuated only by the scraping of spoons against bowls. Finally, Redbeard said again, “Ain’t you gonna eat?” and she nodded, reaching to pull the untainted bowl toward her.

“You all had enough? There’s plenty here,” she said, looking around the room, bowl in one hand and spoon in the other, trying to make her voice sound friendly, as they all shook their heads that they had. She nodded again and turned toward the stove. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”

A chair scraped back and she turned, seeing Redbeard rise. “I’m going out for a smoke. I’ll check the prisoners while I’m out,” he said and stepped out onto the porch and down the steps into the yard, where the light was beginning to fade. Moira took her bowl and spoon to a small table by the window, where she could observe the men while pretending to season her stew from a crockery tub. Of the three remaining men, two were still cleaning their plates while Graybeard slowly sat back from the table, a pipe in one hand and a small cloth pouch in the other.

Suddenly Davy, the beardless one, coughed, then made a strangling sound. “God,” he said, “I feel sick.” He tried to stand but retched suddenly and bent forward. “Oh, God,” he cried again. “Mama?” and fell forward, sprawling across the table.

“What the hell?” Graybeard said, staring in astonishment and clutching his pipe and pouch. He looked at Moira, then at Blackbeard, who was staring at the top of Davy’s head, which had landed in the bowl of stewed tomatoes and looked bloody. Suddenly Blackbeard’s eyes widened and he gathered himself as if to stand. Instead he roared in pain, reaching toward Moira with outstretched arms and fists that clenched and unclenched. His teeth snapped shut and he snarled, trying again to rise. Somewhere halfway through the movement he stopped, and, like a toy winding down, sank slowly back into his chair, head arching backward until it, and he, could go no farther. Then he was still.

“Youuu . . . you bitch! You – you’ve poisoned us,” Graybeard’s voice rasped as pipe and pouch hit the floor. He was groping for his gun when his breath caught in his throat. He struggled for air, but when his breath came out at last, in a rasping groan, his head fell forward and he did not breathe again.

Moira stood, transfixed at the grisly scene before her, but her head snapped up as heavy footfalls crossed the porch. Her breath came out in an explosive rush as the red-bearded man strode through the doorway and stopped, incredulity in his face and the burnished steel of an assault rifle in his hand. They stared across at each other, then Moira looked away, to the table, where his bowl of stew sat, untouched.

She closed her eyes and sighed, defeat evident in the sag of her shoulders.

“I knew there was something about you that wasn’t right,” Redbeard said. “You were too glad to see us. And you weren’t afraid. But why? Why…this?” he asked, gesturing with the rifle at his fallen comrades.

“I saw you coming. You were treating that woman and child like cattle. And you were going to steal the seeds. I couldn’t let that happen. They’ll be needed if people are to survive.”

“But, Good Christ, woman! The seeds were ours by right. We’re the Chosen. Those seeds belong to us. We’re the ones meant to rule the world to come.”

His gun was hanging in his right hand as he raised his left toward the heavens. He was shaking his head, as if any view of the world to come other than his were inconceivable.  It was now or never. But she couldn’t let it end without answering him.

“No,” she said, raising her left hand, making a fist except for the straightened index and pinky fingers, which made the sign of horns, for rejection, for sending evil back upon itself. “It will not be as you say” She spit the words out deliberately. “Not so long as I can do or say otherwise. The world of take and wreck and ruin is dead. Those who rule this world must earn it.” And while the red-bearded man stared at the sign in her hand, confused, she put her other hand in her dress pocket, raised the nose of the pistol that she hoped would shoot true, flicked off the safety with her thumb, and pulled the trigger. His head jerked only a little, as if startled, and he gazed at her in puzzlement as a flower blossomed in his forehead. She’d shot high, but it would do. She stood calmly, meeting his gaze until she saw the light go out of his eyes and his knees begin to buckle. By the time he hit the floor, she was headed out the door, running toward the barn where the prisoners waited.

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World’s End

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Five : Comes The Dark

The storm, if that’s what it could be called, lasted a couple of months. It wasn’t constant, but almost so.  Over time there seemed to develop an odd pattern to the chaos. Fierce lightning. Howling, destructive winds. A turbulent, roiling darkness, with just enough change in density to separate day from night. Short, unreliable respites at dawn and dusk when the winds would slow and almost stop. And like a clock, a dreadful, wrenching trembling as if the earth were tearing itself apart that recurred with terrifying frequency.

It wasn’t until late in January – Moira would never be able to mark the exact date – she began to take notice of a new change in the light, a slight lessening of the overall torment. It was one of those random moments when her terror subsided enough to hold onto a rational thought. But nothing, including thought, could persist in this relentless cauldron of change.

She was now trying to determine if the sun was actually coming up in a slightly new and very wrong direction. The evidence had presented itself on one of those infrequent days when the sun had made a brief appearance in a position near the horizon. It had been a rare sight in past weeks, and even when visible it seemed to peek out furtively, battered and bleeding, burning redly through the ink-black heavens.  The roiling darkness that had replaced the normal winter sky resembled smoke from oil-field fires, only high and far off and carrying no scent on the frigid wind.

Moira had been attempting to count the days or at least the day-long periods of dim light that had regularly punctuated the darkness for more than a month. She wondered if the polar shift or magnetic storm or whatever rumor gleaned from fitful ham radio bursts had actually proved correct. Not that the exploding caldera at Yellowstone wouldn’t have been enough. She had heard through those ham operator conversations, that the fly-by dark planet may have altered course;  had actually struck the earth; that the earth had tipped off its axis or out of its orbit … and on. Doom after improbable doom was offered in a desperate attempt to make sense of unimaginable events. She doubted if anyone knew exactly what had happened except perhaps the folks on the International Space Station, and they, too, had gone silent. She wondered if the villain, whatever it was, had yet done its worst.

Ten days into the new year had been about the last time she remembered hearing a radio broadcast before the regular radio stations went dead. Before that, from shortly after the first quake, the news had been horrific both far and near, with reports of vast areas of land around the Pacific rim breaking up and sinking, whole islands disappearing in the Pacific, and Texas, my God, half of Texas eaten away, along with most of the Mexican Gulf shore. Greenland had apparently shaken off the remainder of its icy skin and, along with Iceland, was alight with volcanic fire. Everywhere, it seemed, civilizations were crumbling under the weight of massive environmental onslaught, with whole areas of the United States and the world simply gone silent. The government itself had clung to life only briefly before it was completely overwhelmed and had stopped issuing bulletins or warnings. The President had urged calm and had begged God’s forgiveness and his people’s pardon for being unable to offer more help. Then he, too, had been replaced by faint static and then silence. There had been no mention of a Christmas parade.

That had been about three weeks ago. There had been only a slight let up in seismic activity since, although few tremors matched that first jolt. The weather was less kind, offering nothing approaching normal. No rain or snow, just increasing darkness and howling, bitterly cold winds with only the small pauses at dawn and dusk, beginning soon after that the last conversation with Rudy Juarez, and unceasing since.

Moira braced herself as yet another tremor made the trees shiver and the rocks groan. She felt like she was in a war zone, constantly under attack. No, she thought suddenly, pushing the thought away. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t about her, but trust some random, lonely human to take it personally. It was the whole planet that was under attack from what seemed now to be mostly self-inflicted wounds. Mother Earth. Her earthly home, and the home of all life, of everyone she knew and loved, every living thing was at the brink of destruction or past it. It was a place her imagination simply could not go.

Still she couldn’t keep her mind from the circuitous questions that had replayed each day since this havoc had begun. What was really happening out there in other places, to people she cared about? How bad was it? Where and how were her family? Her friends? Were any of them still alive? Was it this bad everywhere? Was it worse? Had anyone else survived? And, most important, when might it end? Or would it?

But though she could articulate many questions, there wasn’t a soul anywhere offering answers. Electrical power was inexplicably still flowing from the center’s power plant. But there were no radio or television stations broadcasting on any frequency she could find. The land line, her cell phone, and the satellite telephone had all gone dead. Panicked by her inability to communicate with the outside, she had searched for and found Steven’s small short-wave ham radio outfit and had for a week or more satisfied her hunger for a human voice by probing the dial for distant messages. But before she could figure out how to use the transmitter for messages of her own, to call for help or to inquire about her home and family, the unit had stopped working, or at least had stopped receiving a signal. Perhaps there were no longer any operators broadcasting anywhere within its range, another possibility that didn’t bear thinking about.

Feeling desperate, she had tried the unit one more time and heard a voice. Quickly she had adjusted the tuning and turned up the volume. But the voice was not speaking English, and the message it was repeating in a tired and frightened voice was not being answered. Then the voice had quavered, static overtook it, and it was gone. She wondered if it was the last human voice, other than her own, she would hear. For her sanity’s sake, it was time to stop listening.

Her CD player still worked, but she began avoiding any music with lyrics. She believed she might go mad from sheer loneliness. For she knew she could be, by fluke of her unique location, the last surviving human.

Then one morning she saw the winter sun rising redly and wide, in a direction that was, to her recollection, due east, instead of east-northeast, where it should have been at midwinter. For several days the impossibility of this phenomenon didn’t fully register, and when it did, she wondered if madness had finally arrived.

She was alive but very possibly insane, a notion she accepted with an odd calm. It was a  curious place to be, insanity being, in these circumstances, defined as a sane reaction to experiences that, while seeming almost normal by now, were wholly outside any reality she had ever known. Yet where she ought to have run screaming with terror into the night or thrown herself from a cliff, she was instead fascinated, mesmerized by this bizarre new world. Her senses overflowed with experiences so forceful, so unnatural and yet so impossibly real, that she sometimes stopped whatever she was doing to sit and stare for hours, held in the thrall of the unearthly noises on the wind, the constant trembling of the planet’s skin, the roiling sky in which lights flickered but no birds flew.

There were days in the past weeks when she had been captivated by the noises alone, sounds of a world that seemed in its death throes, with each moment a changing note in a bone-jarring cacophony. From nowhere and everywhere, the earth’s cries filled the air, now in a rumbling bass, now in sharp staccato. At times she wondered if she had somehow stumbled into a new dimension, one containing a fundament gone to jelly and chaff, which incidentally seemed bent on trying to remove itself from beneath her feet at frequent and random intervals. And above all there were the incessant, horrific storms, hail-filled skies and shrieking, twisting nightmare winds that continued to batter and scour the ridge tops to rubble – a devil’s symphony that held her in its trance until she forgot that such a condition was called shock, and she wondered what the information flooding her senses might mean. Was the very earth out to kill her? She didn’t know. It hardly mattered. All things seemed equally possible.

Still, this citadel of earth-covered concrete where she took shelter remained intact. Daily she rallied from insanity long enough to thank its maker and to devise a set of increasingly important rituals – and do the chores, of course.

Small scraps of control held her back from the edge. She worked out a routine to keep her days in order of a sort. Upon waking, she would put on water for tea, measure finely ground corn meal from the mill into a pan of cold water and set it on the electric stove. She would stir until it thickened, feed herself and the dog, who she decided to call Sheba, and begin her morning meditations while Sheba stood watch.

The same quake that had thrown her favorite ceramic teapot off the shelf and shattered it had unearthed a book, a gift from one of her alternative friends and written by a woman named Starhawk. It was called “The Earth Path.” She began reading, finding words that didn’t necessarily clarify what was happening, but gave her small things to do that eased her fears. She soon learned the words for simple ritual-making. That in turn caused her to read more, to rediscover long beloved tomes by writers as disparate as Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh. Some days afterward, while rearranging her belongings again after a particularly strong shock, she found a card with a verse in it attributed to some ancient Druidic order, called “The Litany of the Earth Mother.”  For some reason, it spoke to her in a very personal way. She altered it somewhat to make it seem a personal message from her deepest self, and began adding it to her own litany of sacred words..

From her experience in a field that had mixed science with hidebound Puritan culture and almost totally peopled by men, she had already been looking a bit askance at the notion of an infallible God of her Fathers even before the world ended, she thought. Now such notions as those offered no comfort at all. In these strange days when the very substance of things seemed tossed asunder, she yearned for something to bring her literally to ground. She simply hadn’t the strength to invest in a far-off, obviously uninvolved heavenly presence, especially one that had elected to lob a stray planet at her earthly home. In these days when the Earth itself needed such healing, why not call out instead to the God, or Goddess, on whose uneasy belly she was tossed, and by whose breath she was blown to the far corners of her courage. Or so she reasoned, if reason it could be called.

In any event, each morning, after a moment of silence to move her thoughts away from panic, she lit a candle, knelt on a cushion before an altar she’d built out of objects, some from nature and some from gadgets made precious by what they symbolized to her — a broken clock, a vial of spring water, a key — folded her hands and began her prayers. She did not ask a heavenly presence to save her. Instead, she began in a spirit of gratitude, voicing the powerful imagery of the Litany, calling to the Mother of All and struggling to find peace in Her presence:

O Earth My Mother.

Thou of uncounted names and faces,

Thou of the many-faceted Nature in and above All,

All Love and Life fulfilled;

Look with favor upon this humble, precious place,

Grace me with Your Conscious Presence, Remind me of your Love,

Inspire and infuse me with Your Power;

By all the names by which You have been known,

Earth, my Mother, hold me close.

And so the days passed, the winds howled,  the ground trembled and quaked, and she kept to her rituals and held on, as best she could, to her senses. The solid, certain presence of Sheba brought her an odd calm. Sheba was not only female but had been pregnant, which is probably why she’d wandered off from her people in the first place. Now there was a pile of week-old puppies in a box by the heater. The dog stayed inside while Moira did the chores and the walk down the hill to attend to the livestock became lonely again.

One day while she was descending the hill, the wind threw an oak branch that crashed to earth where she had stood only an instant before. She took it for an omen. A person could get killed out here. Worse, they could be almost killed, and left to die slowly and alone.

She resolved that day to free the livestock once and for all, and in doing so free herself from the treacherous daily hike. They’d been happy enough to return to their pens after the sky darkened and the winds grew vicious. But they needed to be able to get back out if she became disabled or worse. She didn’t really know if this was a good idea or even a sane one. But it was the only idea that seemed sensible and that offered everyone, including her, the best chance at survival.

She swung open the chicken house door. They’d have to take to the trees to be safe, but there was ample forage if the feed ran out before she returned. She’d be back to check on them when weather permitted. She filled their feeders, emptied the nests, left the door open and moved on. The cows were still in their stalls, waiting to be fed. She worked out the logic of it in her head as her hands put their food outside the stalls in places out of the weather, and set them free.

She opened the horse stalls, put down some food, threw back the huge barn doors and took down the gates that opened into the wheat fields and lower pastures. It was not as important now to save the winter wheat crop as it was to give the animals access to some kind of reliable forage they could get to without her help. She freed the pigs but left the door to their shelter propped open. They were smart, they would figure it out, she thought as she poured grain into an improvised self-feeder that would keep them going until they got to the woods and discovered acorns. Then she closed and locked the granary door to keep the improvident horses from foundering. But she left open a high window in case the chickens or the small crew of barn mice that fed the barn cats needed a bit of extra protein.

Some of the beasts, such as the yearling horses, fled their enclosure immediately, surging in panic or exuberance out of the corral and through the lower field, finally disappearing over a creek bank. The pigs behaved similarly, bolting from their pen in a riot of squeals and snorts. The chickens and turkeys, noticing their range had increased dramatically, quickly busied themselves scratching up new food sources, singing and murmuring merrily. The rest, well, they must fend for themselves too, she muttered, turning her eyes away from the large sad eyes of the bovines standing at the gate to the pasture, looking puzzled, and the dark-eyed Percherons who continued pulling down hay from the stanchions, ignoring the open doorway behind them. She went back to the central corridor of the barn, climbed to the loft above and threw a couple dozen more bales of hay down beside the barn and stacked the mangers in the loafing shed high. The domesticated livestock had shelter for the seeking, and forage for the taking. They might have to develop a little independence, but they would not starve. It was the best she could do.

She could stay down there in the hollow with her penned charges and see they were kept in regular feed only by giving up the only shelter where she could stay warm through all these storms of air and earth – her apartment at the Center. And she wasn’t that crazy.

For one thing, the outer shells of the structures in the village had the insulating qualities of any building constructed in the 1880s, which is to say, none. And as the restored and recreated homes and farmsteads at the museum were not intended to actually support real families through the winter, even though they’d been supplied with wood burning stoves, there was no store of firewood to heat even one house for more than a small interval of time. There was no food for humans at the farm site, no electricity, and nowhere she could keep warm. In the simplest of terms, she could not live there.

On the other hand,  the center held all the elements essential to her survival, at least so long as her luck held. The electrical system remained intact, providing her and her plants with lifesaving heat and light. Also, she realized with some amazement, at the center was the stock of incredible stores she’d laid in against the museum’s once-far different need as a tourist attraction. Much of it was still piled in untidy heaps that couldn’t be damaged by seismic activity, but it was protected and available for needs that now might stretch not only beyond expectations but beyond imagination. Should her circumstances become permanent, she thought, she was better-supplied than Robinson Crusoe. The realization didn’t exactly comfort her but did help hold blind panic at bay.

The electrical power generated by the small subterranean power plant inside the dam had not so much as flickered during the worst of the blows and tremors. The dam, spillway, and everything in and behind it had survived, at least so far. Even the mill, although its roof had sustained some damage from falling debris from the bluff, was still structurally sound, sheltered as it was by the bluff against whose face it rested. And, incredibly, the bluff still held together and the spring still flowed.

She continued her litany of what-ifs as she walked. With luck, the greenhouse plants could be kept alive indefinitely by the heat tapes at their feet and a battery of grow lights clustered low over their heads. And if summer ever came again, there were the seed stocks – enough open-pollinated plant varieties to grow food for herself and a few animals virtually forever. If the livestock were lucky and possessed sufficient foraging ability, they would all find ways to make it through as well. They were herbivores, after all, and food, even in winter, was available for the finding in the woods and fields.

But that wouldn’t really take care of every situation. So what she would do was this – at regular intervals, say every week or so if she lived, she would return to the village to put out more food for them. It would take a stupefying amount of luck, along with all the cunning and wits they could muster, for any of them including Moira to survive for long in this strange new world. She would have to learn what she could of her new circumstances by experience, and by keeping a meticulous record of events and occurrences, and she was doing that. She had started keeping a journal on day three of this changed era when she realized the earthquakes might not stop for a long time, and therefore just about everything she took to be normal was gone for good. She had taken a sturdy notebook from the office stores and started a daily book of events. It had already begun to come in handy.

For instance, the winds were savage but not constant. They seemed to die down for a while near sunset and to surge back with increasing violence as soon as full night fell. The earth tremors and the deep booming noises were more difficult to predict, but they, too, seemed to follow a pattern of sorts. In any event, she had reasoned, her only hope was to muster what sanity she could and work out a new pattern of her own, a schedule of tasks and responsibilities that she could reasonably expect to maintain. As much as she regretted having to leave the animals to their fates, removing the cycle of daily trips to the village in this vicious weather would increase her survival chances considerably, and actually remove the tie between her survival and that of the animals to some extent. At least she hoped that’s how it would work out. At any rate, it was done. She opened the last gate, threw down the last bit of corn, and headed up the hill.

As bad as things were, she realized, they could still get worse. In the back of her mind, never far from consciousness, was the knowledge that summer might not come at all. She knew about the theorized phenomenon of nuclear winter – described by experts as what would happen when dust from the number of nuclear explosions that might be expected in an all-out war blocked out the sun, resulting in years of cold and dark, with no seasons, no summer growth, and, after a while, no life. It could be occurring now, possibly as a result of what she was sure was widespread volcanic activity. Perhaps, she thought, she was seeing the predicted phenomenon demonstrated first hand, for the forecasted results seemed similar to what was now occurring. This, along with the oddity of the sunrise being possibly in the wrong place, seemed good evidence that the polar shift, or whatever it had been, had indeed occurred. For all she knew, the shift might have thrown the planet out of its orbit. For all she knew, she might be the only human witness to the last pitiful struggles of life on Earth. Actually, it might be time to think about something else, she decided. She turned on her heel suddenly, remembering some detail still unattended to.

The day, what there was of it, was beginning to fade, and the momentary reprieve from the wind was about over. To punctuate the thought, a strong earth shock threw her against a stanchion just as one of the Morgan mares wheeled and bolted through the doorway. She missed by scant inches being trampled. She turned, pale-faced, and made her way unsteadily across the barn lot and resumed her journey on up the hill.

It was time to take up another task. Rudy and his friends had sent supplies against every variety of event, some of which she hadn’t opened yet because they were marked to be opened only in the event of a doomsday scenario. For her money, Doomsday was here. It was time she dug through the mess to see if there was anything that might alter or improve her circumstances even slightly. She doubted it. But she had been stubbornly holding onto them as something of a last hope, in case all else failed. Well, she asked herself, am I not there?

What she found initially was so small and so impersonal that it seemed no help at all. She hoped for and found a satellite phone, but no one answered any numbers she tried. She hoped for emergency numbers, and there were some, but she worked her way far down the list with no success. And she hoped for an indication that help, in some form, might arrive. None was offered. Instead, under another small bundle of iPads, and a supply of sealed rechargeable power packs for them, she found a heavy envelope with a letter containing her official government orders. As she read the instructions and the purpose for including them, it finally hit her just how bad things might be and how much more they had known from the beginning of the scare than they’d been willing to share. Her eyes welled with tears at the introduction, and her fist held her mouth closed against any sound as she read.

“Beloved friend and colleague: If you are reading this, then our time on earth as humans is in grave peril, and you may be a resident of one of our only surviving outposts. We hope with all our hearts it has not come to this. But if it is so, we have taken these steps to secure as much of recorded human history and knowledge as can be stored for the use and understanding of future generations. With damaged systems and reduced resources, it stands to reason that even if populations survive, as repairs are made, some technological advances and the knowledge base upon which they were built must be set aside. Likewise, without computer networks, much communication of knowledge and skills will also be lost. These small units, if powered and used sparingly, should last for some decades. They are keyed to access computers on the space station and other information satellites that circle the earth, as they will continue to do for centuries, although it is not known how long and how well their makers will continue to be able to communicate with them. Some places on the planet may retain these capabilities while others may not. We have done our best to preserve as much as we can. We send this into your hands with all our desperate hopes for your survival, for you are our future. God’s blessings on you.

Moira read it twice, then repacked the computers in their heavy wrappings and carried them down the stairs into the seed vault, where they’d be safe. She didn’t need them, but somebody might, someday.

That had been weeks ago. Uncounted days passed until she was surprised out of a fitful sleep one morning by a ray of sunlight shining on her face.

It was being reflected off the small mirror hanging beside her window – a mirror whose reflective side, she realized later, in a moment of clear thought, faced northeast – reachable, at an angle, by the sun in summer. In winter, as now, it should have been facing the sun edge-on. There it was again, that tiny, insignificant, totally impossible thing. She had noticed it before but had attributed it to her inability to think rational thoughts. Now science replaced suspicion. It was true, what she’d thought earlier. Either the planet had somehow actually tilted on its axis, or else . . . what?

It was not until very early spring that she finally put that phenomenon alongside the other overwhelming evidence that something cataclysmic had indeed happened to the Earth. For one thing, unusual birds, most of them waterfowl, many of them sea birds, were appearing alongside the museum’s resident population of khaki Campbell ducks. Many of them seemed confused, shaking their heads, flying up to circle aimlessly and then landing again. It seemed the tiny grains of magnetite they grew above their noses to guide them during migration must be sending confusing messages. Likewise, no form of electronic communication, which had ceased during the seismic activity, ever resumed; there was still no signal to be had on any communications device, even the short-wave radio.

What begged for an answer was why, now that winds and seismic activity were beginning to subside, did no radio signal, short wave or long, reappear? Why, now that the sun was visible for a little while on most days and weather was becoming more stable, did she hear no airplane’s drone, no beat of helicopter blades. No drone of a truck somewhere. Or whine of a chain saw. Was there really no one left in the world’s wreckage but her?

It was not until the nightmare winds began to soften and she could explore the area outside the compound that she was able to acknowledge the mind-boggling scale of the destruction. She was alone, yes. But how alone? Was there anyone left at any of the nearby towns — or anywhere? What about Springfield? Springfield was a thriving city with a major airport and four television stations. Or Ft. Wood, with its Air National Guard detachment that should be patrolling, looking for survivors. How could it all have just disappeared?

She wondered if she should simply leave the place that had held her safe and strike out in search of civilization. But where to? And how would she get there? After a hike out the driveway to the paved road, she realized there was simply no way to do it. In the direction of the river, a mountain of uprooted, broken, and shredded trees lay across the road where it crossed the ridge top. The other way, where the road had gone through a cut blasted through the nearby hilltop, there was now only a line of pavement disappearing into a new hillside of loose clay and rock. The tremors had sealed the cut, completely obliterating the road. There was no way for any rescuer to get in by the normal access routes. And if the lower road by the river looked at all like these upper ones, there was no way out there, either. She would just have to wait for someone to come by air, or the river.

She exhaled an explosive breath that contained a bitter laugh. And who would that be? Of all the nearby human settlements that might possibly have survived, no one would think to look here. Of all possible surviving humans within rescuing distance, only Steven knew for sure that she had stayed at the museum. Certainly he had vowed to come to her aid, but that was about as likely as waking up tomorrow to find this had all been just a bad dream. Possible, she admitted, but damned unlikely.

All she could do for now was stay alive, keep the museum’s infrastructure intact, and keep her wits about her, such as they were. Even if she was lost in the middle of nowhere, and even if the world had turned completely on its head, there were the seeds and the gifts sent by Rudy and his pals – from food and the other necessities to the computer linkups to satellite libraries. Somewhere, safely stored, were all the tools and information needed to fuel and reboot civilization, if she, or someone, could keep that link alive.

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“World’s End”

Book One of The Seed Mother

Chapter Three: It Begins

Daybreak on the Sunday following Thanksgiving:

Moira gasped, rising out of a dream in which someone was calling her name. In the dream, she had fallen out of the old rowboat in the pond below the mill and was trying to get hold of the boat and keep her head out of the water. But the wind kept whipping up waves that rocked her and the boat from side to side, faster and faster . . .

She snapped awake to the sound of glass shattering. Her first thought was a wind storm was underway and a limb had hit the greenhouse. But when she tried to get out of bed, something threw her back. And then did it again. My God, she thought as she came fully awake. It’s an earthquake. And a big one.

She grabbed at the bedside clock as it flew from its perch above her head and then had to dodge a rain of books as they tumbled from the same rack of shelves over the bed. She lurched forward again and landed on all fours by the bed, still cringing as objects fell around her. She yelped as she felt something warm crawling up beside her, then realized it was the dog, who was shaking almost as hard as the floor beneath her. She grabbed the dog and dropped beside it, huddling against the bed. Then all was silent. From somewhere she heard a whimper, which stopped as she realized it was issuing from her own throat. The floor gave another shudder and she braced herself. Then all was still again. She heard a low moan, not hers, and reached to embrace her new companion who was still trembling uncontrollably.

“Sshh, sshh, it’s OK, it’s OK,” she said, though they both recognized the lie. She held the dog until its trembling grew less. “It’s all right,” she said again, taking the dog’s face in her hands and looking her in the eyes. “I’m scared, too. But we’re in this together, OK?” She took a deep breath and felt the dog do the same.

She stood shakily and looked around at the chaos that was her apartment. She still clutched the clock. The time, 7:21 a.m. Sunday. First day of the week, but perhaps last day of the world, she thought. She judged the tremor had lasted less than a minute, although it had seemed longer. Her living space was transformed — dishes and groceries spewing out of cabinets, a desk lamp hanging by its cord, books and papers everywhere.

Walls and ceilings, however, had no cracks. This part of the structure at least was intact, which made her smile. She had once compared this hugely overbuilt headquarters to an elaborate bomb shelter. She was regretting her criticisms now.

The Center was a monolith of cast concrete and steel that had been built to survive anything. So said Joseph Beverly, the founding director who had preceded her in her job and who had written the specifications for construction of the massive facility early in his 21-year tenure. The specs had called for a welcome area, introductory exhibits for visitors, space for administration offices, and storage areas. But Uncle Joe had seen and seized an opportunity to make it vastly more than that. Her predecessor had been fiercely passionate about all things Ozarkian. But he was a biologist first, and his overriding passion had been for protection of the unique plant communities and seed varieties indigenous to the area, especially those that had made up the traditional food crops of the pioneers. His mission, according to the Park Service people who remembered him, had been to design and build a front door into the past, to add both nobility and authenticity to the living history museum. He had done that.

But while doing it, he had quietly and without apology built as well a botanical archival facility of the first order. Beneath the Center was a vast, insulated, climate-controlled chain of vaults intended to store heirloom seed samples and relevant paraphernalia, with a hothouse above for propagation and preservation of living specimens. He had overbuilt by a factor that approached logarithmic, reasoning that the way government contractors overspent on materials and labor, no one would notice. In fact, no one had until it was done.

Her vision of the museum’s mission and purpose had not always matched Uncle Joe’s, but at this moment Moira felt so grateful to him that she wanted to cry. He’d meant the building to withstand everything, and it was time for her to go out and see if it actually had.

Her hand flew to the wall to steady herself as the floor shuddered again, and she heard another tinkling sound as another pane of glass shattered. She exclaimed aloud again when she realized that the sound was coming from the greenhouse. She rummaged through the rubble, found a pair of sneakers, and pulled them on. Then she motioned the dog up onto the bed and told her to stay. Moira edged carefully to the interior door, which opened easily, ran down the hall to the greenhouse complex, and dashed across the entryway. Or tried to. A jumble of long-handled gardening tools left propped against the wall were now scattered across the floor and down into the stairwell. She stumbled her way across, cursing the mess. It could wait. Of greater concern were the priceless heirloom plants of all description living next door.

She tugged open the door to the cool room and found it far cooler than it should have been. A gust of bitter winter wind struck her full in the face and she cried aloud as she threw the light switch. One whole section of glass in the long vent windows had disintegrated into thousands of cubical shards and its remains were sagging out of its frame. Like icy gems, the fragments of safety glass glittered in the beds of wintering greens. Worse, the temperature had already dropped to at least twenty degrees below greenhouse normal and was still plummeting as the wind whistled through the broad opening. She surveyed the other sections installed in hinged frames so the greenhouse could be vented in warm weather. There were several ominous-looking cracks and one small section where the pane was missing altogether. A makeshift patch or two might hold for a little while, she thought, but more aftershocks would certainly loosen more panes. Fortunately not all of the panes were regular greenhouse glass. Most of those had been replaced last fall with durable polycarbonate panels. The awning windows had been left as they were, since the safety glass had already survived several hailstorms. No one had given a thought to earthquakes.

All the plastic panels were still intact. And fortunately, she had more. It would take no time at all to retrieve some new sections, cut a patch for the heat-leaking hole and then reinforce the remaining glazed areas with more. Even more fortunate, the work could be done from inside the greenhouse, where she was less likely to freeze her rapidly chilling behind. She turned on her heel, leapt over the obstacles, and jogged back in the direction she had come.

The Poly was in the warehouse, and she’d seen a can of putty in the toolroom. The closest path was through the public area, but entering it, she shuddered. None of the glass-fronted oak cases had actually fallen, although one pair was leaning drunkenly against the north wall. Dislodged ceiling tiles littered the floor like giant snowflakes. Scattered among them were books, stuffed toys and bits of broken pottery from the gift shop. Lots to be done here, but first there was a larger disaster to avert.

She picked her way through the area and attempted to shove the warehouse door aside. She met immediate resistance when it hit something just before the halfway point and swung back toward her. She looked around it to see the obstruction. When she saw, she let the door swing closed, found a chair and set it upright, and sat down, suddenly and completely stopped.

She had expected some chaos but not the mountain of cartons and cans that nearly filled the warehouse. All of the work of her inventorying and filing, gone to nothing. Worse, there was no path through the debris, nor would there be until she cleared one — or waited for a crew to arrive. The polycarbonate panels, stored against a far wall of the toolroom, would not save the greenhouse contents. Not this morning. Finding anything in that mess would be the work of several days. The plants needed her now.

After a moment of thought she stood and headed back at a run, retracing her steps until she reached her living quarters. Once there, she yanked open the door to the utility closet. There above her head on a shelf was another solution, just waiting for her to think of it. As the dog danced around her, delighted at her return, she reached out on tiptoe and tugged down a large scrap of heavy-duty plastic tarp left over from another project, folded and tucked into a corner. A kitchen drawer yielded a roll of duct tape, scissors and a utility knife. The wonders of modern technology, she thought, sometimes just boil down to whatever works.

“Stay,” she told the dog again, and it grudgingly sat as she ran again in the direction of the greenhouse.

Her first priority was to prevent further harm. She hurriedly strung the tarp to cover not just the largest hole but the entire section showing cracks, lopped off the excess and slapped enough duct tape around and across to hold it in place. In a storage cabinet, she found several folded sheets of polyester row cover already cut to the size of the beds. Laying the remains of the tarp aside she unfolded the sheets of spun polyester and spread them out like blankets over the chilled greens. The sheets were used routinely to cover the greenhouse overflow in spring, when bedding plants were moved outdoors to harden off before planting in the farmstead gardens. They would shelter these plants, at least holding the greenery above the freezing point.

When every section was blanketed, the greenhouse resembled the snow-covered gardens outside. Each bed of tender veggies and softwood cuttings was nestled in a cocoon of white, while the taller plants resembled ghostly sentinels in their individual wrappings. The warm room next door was luckier. There was little damage, but she draped her tropical pals with more of the row cover just in case. She shifted from overdrive to a more thoughtful pace, feeling her energy flag as the adrenaline in her system burned out. But who knew what lay ahead? Better to take the prudent way. And there was still a lot of park to examine for damage. She’d feel better knowing that this small corner was, for a time at least, secure. After breakfast she’d make repairs that would hold for more than the moment.

Now it was time to refuel. Amazingly, the kettle was still on the stove, and the burner would still heat. With tea water coming to a boil, she grabbed a handful of grapes, found an unbroken bowl and a box of cereal, and made a quick breakfast. The sugar had spilled but the milk bottle was intact. She added a chunked banana and shoveled in the comfort food, standing with her back to the littered counter. The view out the window was deceptively unchanged. Was the trouble over, or just beginning, she wondered.

Despite her grim conversation with Rudy earlier in the weekend, she hadn’t really expected a tremor of this size, especially here, far from the nearest major fault line, or this soon. She wondered what was happening elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, did she really want to know? She looked toward the television, noted its odd angle perched in the corner on its shelf and reached up to straighten it, but didn’t turn it on. Better to deal with the here and now first, and see to the things she might actually do something about.

In hindsight, she should have been better prepared for this. Of the entire compound, the greenhouse was probably the most vulnerable structure. Hard to prepare, though, for what you can’t really imagine. The mistake had only cost her work and time, so far. It could have been worse. But she was shaken. What else had she failed to anticipate?

For the past two days, news broadcasts had been filled with news, rumors, theories and conjectures about the changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Then had come more stories, these more hush-hush, about alleged movement of the polar ice cap. Other odd occurrences, such as the sudden appearance of hot volcanic mud bubbling up in a field in Russia, and reports of faulty altimeter readings on airplanes attempting to land at airports as widely spread as Omaha, Wichita, Dallas and Oklahoma City, made her begin adding up the score, as Rudy Diaz had done. Every prominent scientist claimed to be the most reliable authority on what was happening, but the truth was, how could anybody know for sure.

Sudden planetary changes were certainly a part of earth’s history; the proof was in the scars and craters scattered across the planet, some of them hundreds of millions of years old. A theory touted in years past blamed some kind of polar shift for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Or a huge asteroid striking in the Yucatan. Either could be so. Whatever it was, it didn’t get ‘em all, though, she thought, managing a wry grin. Some of them lived to be the ancestors of snakes and turtles, probably chickens. And songbirds. So that disaster seemed to have turned out all right, though she doubted the dinosaurs would have shared her assessment.

She pitied the “authorities” whose job it was to keep order and avoid the mayhem people could create if there was widespread panic. It didn’t help that some scientists postured and some in the media still couldn’t resist their wild-eyed, breathless, edge-of-doom prognostications.

Of course, some people were onto the ruse and knew the scientists and government officials weren’t telling the whole truth. They wanted the straight story, but the authorities continued discounting all rumors, albeit with worried faces they couldn’t quite conceal. The situation was being monitored and people should remain calm, they repeated. What else could they say?

It had become increasingly clear to her, and probably would have even without Rudy’s warnings, that some kind of calamity on a planet-wide scale was not only possible but was now likely. On this particular part of the planet, Moira thought wryly, it’s just become damn near certain. But given that, what does one do? She rinsed her bowl and finished off her tea as if it were any normal workday and returned to her repair and reclamation efforts.

An hour later she wedged the last remnant of heavy plastic into place around the broken sections of window, closed the window frames firmly against the plastic and taped around its edges with duct tape. The remaining panels of unbroken or cracked but intact glass she taped with a liberal crisscrossing web of tape, using nearly the entire roll. “The hell with conservation,” she muttered savagely. “I’ve got a whole case of the stuff out there in the warehouse – somewhere.”

But it was much too soon to be thinking about the confusion in the warehouse. With this first emergency over, she’d best get down the hill quickly and see how the animals and the museum’s other structures had fared.

“Not well, but not as bad as could be” was the answer, she realized even before she arrived. She could hear the cacophony of animal and poultry noises echoing up the narrow valley long before the rooftops of the farmstead came into view. She paused only long enough to give the mill a cursory examination to determine if everything was still in its place. It was, except for a display of flour at the mill store that had come tumbling off its wooden shelf and struck a glass display case full of gift items. The case, gifts, and several small jars of honey lay in a flour-covered mound of shards and syrup. A mess, but nothing that couldn’t wait, she decided. Luckily, before leaving for the holiday, the miller had shut down the mill wheel and shifted the chute to one side, allowing the spring to cascade unimpeded in a great waterfall to the pool below. She called the dog away from its explorations and continued on.

Unlike the mill’s water-powered tools from pioneer days, the facility’s electrical plant, located under the spillway at the lower end of the millpond, provided the bulk of power today. The flow of water never stopped. Electrical power to the Center had not been interrupted by the tremor; proof of its wellbeing was in the lights still burning in her apartment. She gave the dam and spillway a cursory glance anyway but saw no damage. The spillway was a reinforced concrete bulwark below which the generator was anchored firmly in bedrock and reinforced with more concrete and steel.

She hurried on toward the shrill chorus of livestock proclaiming their fright and discomfort at the tops of their lungs. The chickens were fine, merely frightened and confused by the shakeup. Their house was standing but had been knocked slightly off its props at one corner, and would need shoring up. The rocks on which the bottom logs rested had shifted, she saw, and the doorframe sagged. She hastily measured out feed and filled their water urns from a well-concealed insulated hydrant. Thank God that pipe hadn’t broken. There were no eggs to be had.

She stepped outside where the pigs shrilled excitedly.

The young shoats were panicked and ran to hide as she stepped into the pen. But they peeked out as they heard her measuring out their ration of cracked corn and wheat middlings into a bucket, and overcame their fears as the grain cascaded into the trough. They oinked and muttered their discomfort all the way through breakfast in a non-stop porcine chorus. But then another aftershock shuddered through the farmstead, causing them to scream in almost human voices as they ran again to hide behind their houses. They peered out at her as she called to them in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help it.”

She sighed and headed for the main barn, where the cattle bawled and the horses were mysteriously silent.

Entering the cattle’s normally cozy home and looking for anything askew, she saw something else that chilled her, although she wasn’t sure the cattle understood its import. The side-to-side shaking that had characterized both the first quake and its aftershocks had pulled two of the loft supports away from their moorings, leaving the section of ceiling above the stalls unsupported. Seeing the tons of hay looming atop the loft floor, she wasn’t surprised they were sounding alarmed, but how did they know? No matter. This qualified as emergency number two and would need to be seen to very soon. She would try to get somebody from the maintenance crew on the phone and get them up here as soon as the roads were clear.

In the meantime, Moira began making soothing nonsense noises and uttering familiar words, speaking calmly and reassuringly to the beasts. She borrowed a heavy hammer and some spikes from the tool crib, set up a tall stepladder and managed to get both posts wedged back into a workable angle and nailed in place. To do more would require house jacks, and she wasn’t actually sure the facility owned any.

Moreover, a further inspection showed that all the loft supports had drifted slightly off-center. She went back to the tool crib behind the granary and got a heavy sledgehammer and more spikes, applying them both liberally until all the posts were more or less centered and secured to the beams above them. Her arms would take some days to recover from wielding the heavy hammer. She had no idea if this would keep things secure if more quakes occurred. But it was better than doing nothing. The barn’s builders had evidently given little thought to fastening the uprights to the beams, reasoning that the weight of the barn would hold everything in place. They also figured that the barn and the earth under it would stay where it was put, she thought wryly.

She scrambled up into the loft to put down more hay and went back to the granary for extra portions of sweet feed, murmuring more quiet words of reassurance as she let the calves remain with their mothers. Usually they were desperate to get in, and their mothers were in desperate need of being milked. Last night’s decision had avoided another small crisis and saved some time as well. She filled their water trough from the barn’s insulated tank, which was wide and deep, and full enough to have stayed in place.

It was time to check on the silent horses. She rolled aside the tall door swinging from its metal track and cried out. Where the south wall of the barn had been, there was an empty space, a cold, biting wind and thin sunshine. A section of the wall had fallen, and the horses were gone.

On closer examination, she determined that the wall might have had some help in falling. The massive Percherons had evidently panicked when the tremor started and had kicked their way free, going straight out the back side of their stalls, knocking loose in the process another section of wall that they shared with the yearlings’ stall. The young horses had also fled, presumably following the massive sable-colored mares. The only horses left inside the barn were the two pregnant Morgan mares who were huddled in the corner of their stall, wild-eyed and panting with fear. She brought them oats and fresh water, approaching them gingerly and staying out of the way of their nervous hooves. After securing their stall door, she threaded her way through the ruins of the barn’s south wall to the adjoining pasture and began calling. Suddenly the dog gave a joyful bark and bolted. Soon, here she came, dancing and weaving, one of the yearlings running before her. Deftly, she guided it into the corral and glanced up at Moira, awaiting instructions.

“Go get ’em,” Moira said, and the dog did.

Nearly an hour passed before she brought three more of the Morgans and one of the Percherons back to the corral. No point in trying to persuade them to return to their quarters when they couldn’t be contained there. Luckily, the corral was in the shelter of the barn and had its own open, roofed “loafing shed” normally used to shelter young animals from the summer sun. It was barely tall enough for the Percherons, but it would shelter the skittish equines from the cold and keep them safe, she hoped. She walked ahead of the horses into the enclosure, using for her lure a coffee can half full of sweet feed. She shook the can, and they knew the sound. With any luck, the remaining mare would return by evening.

Moira had done all she could for them for now. She made cursory examination of the village storefronts along the newly constructed Main Street and noted what needed repair before she began her weary climb back up the hill. Halfway there, another aftershock rumbled, a strong one, setting the frozen trees in motion, limbs moving in a macabre dance as she crouched and tried to keep her balance. The silence that followed was eerie, broken by the distant cry of an animal in fear or pain. The little canine was wild-eyed and panting but never left her side.

Back at the Center, the power was still on, and lights were glowing merrily. She would need the lights when she started to work in the windowless warehouse, sorting out the mess. But before that, she had to answer the phone.

Someone was calling! She was cheered considerably at the prospect of some contact with another human. But where was the phone? She followed the electronic chirping to its source beneath a jumble of books that included, ironically, the telephone directory. Eagerly she pressed the button to connect. Steven’s rumbling baritone was music to her ears.

“Hey, gal. I thought I was about to have to come out there and see about you.” He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Sure is good to hear your voice. How’s it goin’? Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on here,” Steven’s voice sounded shaken, too.

“Likewise. And pretty well, all things considered. It’s a mess, of course. You should see the warehouse. How is it over your way?”

“Not good, but not near as bad as over east. Epicenter’s on the New Madrid fault, from what we hear. No reports coming out of there, but the video coming in from fly-overs looks pretty scary. Memphis took a bad hit, and St. Louis too. All that brick, you know.”

“My God.” Then, before she could think, before she could stop herself, she blurted, “Listen, if this gets worse, I mean, a lot worse, you know, you can come here. Just load up your folks and bring ‘em.”

“Hey, Coach, this will all blow over. I mean, we may not make it to work tomorrow if things don’t settle down right away. But they will eventually. And if you get lonesome out there you just come on into town, or we’ll come and bring you. This ain’t a picnic, but we’ll weather it. We live in the Ozarks, remember? Now, tell me the truth. You need some help out there? Do I need to come on out and help clean up the damage? I will if you need me to. I don’t mind, shake up or no shake up.”

“Absolutely not. There’s no damage here that I can’t handle. There’s just a mess. Right now, your family needs you much more than me. I’m just telling you, Steven. You are all welcome here if , well, you know.”

“You know things I don’t know.” his voice was very quiet now, even grave. It was not a question.

“I don’t know anything for sure, Steven. But I’ve heard some things. And if you need a place … Just don’t forget, OK?”

He agreed, and went on updating her on news from the notoriously unstable New Madrid Fault zone. Though long dormant, it had once been the site of the most severe earthquakes in American history during the period between 1811 and 1813. It was not just one crack miles deep in the earth, but rather a vast network of fractures stretching far and wide from its central point beneath the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Missouri’s “bootheel.” Studies had located cracks beneath the two river basins running several miles in each direction from where they met at Cairo, Ill. The center of the web of fractures ran directly below the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO to a few miles below Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro by locals), where the main fault left the river and faded into a network of smaller cracks. Those ran generally southwest across the Missouri Bootheel, bisecting its namesake, New Madrid ( MAD-rid) County. Both Memphis and St. Louis were located square in the path of greatest danger.
Steven continued talking, filling her in on news from the world outside.

“Electric power went down for a while, right after the first quake. We figured it was probably the power plant over at Sikeston going off-line. They’re pretty close to the fault. But it just came back on a few minutes ago. Local radio news said we’re getting a temporary feed from the coal-fired plant over at Springfield. And Springfield TV said just a few minutes ago that electrical supply was way below normal across the whole grid, and we should be careful to use no more power than absolutely necessary. So we’re looking to see what we can cut back on, and talking to our neighbors. I hear the mayor’s called a town meeting for tonight. I tell you what, though. The city sure is glad it built its new water tank up on a hill and on the ground, instead of up on stilts in the middle of town.”

She mumbled “That’s good.”

“One reason I called was to remind you about the shortwave radio down at the smithy. It’s in my locker. It runs on batteries or regular household current. If you lose power, or if the grid shuts down and local stations can’t broadcast, at least you’ll be able to get some news from the outside.

“What about network news, or stuff on line?”

“Hardly any of that’s working just now. Technical difficulties, they’re saying, but …” His voice trailed off and when he spoke again his tone sounded less certain. “Look, I get what I think you’re trying to tell me. But in all probability, we’re all gonna be okay. No doubt we’re due for some major inconveniences until things get put back together. But hell, that’s nothing we can’t handle. I could still come over, if you need me to help.”

She appreciated his concern for her welfare and his thoughtfulness in calling. She suspected, however, that being cooped up in a small house with three rowdy youngsters for the past few days accounted as much for his devotion to duty as anything else, so she didn’t waver. She was glad she hadn’t pressed harder on the issue of offering his family shelter. He had heard but hadn’t really understood. It didn’t matter. If the worst came, he would remember. She put a reassuring note in her voice.

“You all just stay put. Everything’s fine here. Well, almost. I had to do some repair on the greenhouse, and the horses kind of remodeled the barn a little bit. But there’s nothing that won’t wait. You stay with your family. We may not be out of the woods yet. They still haven’t figured out what’s happening up north yet. And by the time they do, who knows where we’ll be?” She was trying for a note of cheer, but Stephen’s answer sobered her. He had been listening after all.

“The fact is, Moira, I expect we don’t really know where any of us will be by the end of next week, or even if we’ll all be alive. I mean, I’m hoping for the best. I hope I’ll show up for work in a few days just like usual, and all this bad stuff they’re saying might happen will turn out to just be talk. Or it will happen to other people in other places. Or not at all. But there’s nothing sure. I just want you to know that…well, I know this sounds weird, but … if things get really crazy and I live through it, I’ll be there, sooner or later. You follow me? I’ll get out there some way, or send somebody. We won’t forget about you and just leave you out there by your lonesome. I want you to remember that, in case things get hairy. One way or another, I’ll get there, or I’ll send someone.”

Moira knew he meant to reassure her, but his words sent a chill up her back. She was not the only one who faced an uncertain future – it could mean everyone, everywhere on earth. But how many were having to face it alone? She needed to get a grip. If she let any fear show in her voice, he would come now. He had that hero instinct. And there were unspoken bonds between them.

But this was her post, not his. Her responsibilities were to this place, and his were to his family. She appreciated his attempt to reassure her, and she said so. Then she rang off quickly, leaving what was unspoken to take care of itself.

“I’m good, Steven. I really am,” she said. And as she set the receiver down she added, “Take care of your own, brother man.”

Steven’s voice in the phone and his concern for her had taken the edge off her panic. In the days that followed, Moira would have his words to remember, but little else. Meanwhile, it was time, perhaps well past time, to confront the rest of the so-called doomsday stash.

In a corner of the administrative wing that had doors opening on both a conference room and the warehouse, Moira kept a small office that was unlike the one in which she greeted the public. This one was strictly for her own work. Tall shelves, files, tables for drawing and dabbling – her playroom, some called it. It was here she’d had the help bring the mysterious bags and boxes that had begun popping up in her incoming shipments, marked urgent and personal, and not listed anywhere on her invoices.

Most of them were where she had left them, although some had spilled out from under her desk. She pulled up one at random, rummaged in a drawer for a utility knife and sliced open the end of the box. A small seedling with oddly shaped leaves peered out. Instructions were enclosed.

“What the hell…” she muttered. The next box held a stack of wireless broadband cards, sealed in impervious containers. The next, a couple dozen of the smallest, most highly advanced tablet/laptop computers she had ever seen, all of them sealed like the cards. Another held a stash of high tech watches with screens.

“What the hell…” she said again. She was to repeat herself many times before the afternoon was through. And there were still many packages to go, buried somewhere in the pile. Finally a nudge reminded her she needed a break, and so did the dog.

A walk in the snowy woods and a cup of tea later, she felt less alone and more able to face what might lie ahead, at least one step at a time. Having the dog there helped. It needed a name, though.

“What do you suppose might be a good name for a noble beast like yourself?” she inquired.

“Arf,” the dog replied.

“Not very imaginative,” she said.

The dog whined.

“All right. I’ll wait for an inspiration, Ok?”

At that point the dog whirled and took off after a squirrel, making her laugh for the first time in days. “I don’t care what your name is. I’m keeping you,” she called after.

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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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