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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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Once upon a time there was another press, called Elder Mountain, the creation of two women, one a writer and one an artist. The artist is no more, and neither is that endeavor, the name having passed on to the Elder Mountain Journal, a publication of Missouri State University-West Plains. The writer from Elder Mountain is now a solo act, and this is her journal.

-m

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