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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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