Half-past thirteen, the best Deke could manage as proof of adulthood was a keen sense of honor. He’d given his word to forgive Nilsa and he was determined to keep it, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what he had forgiven her for. It wasn’t as if she was doing anything different. He was the one who’d had to change, to see Nilsa in the van and, somehow, not think of Momma, to eat the meals she prepared and accept that Dad was right—Nilsa could cook rings around Momma—without getting a guilty knot in his gut.
Mostly, Deke succeeded in his honor and his changes, at least until bedtime when the northing got loud in his mind and he had to struggle to remember Momma’s voice. He’d already forgotten Maty’s. Oh, he could still summon up her face, her silly little grin—she’d laughed a lot, except when she was whining.
He could see his little sister, but he couldn’t hear her.
That was something that really required forgiving, if there were anybody to ask it of.
Fortunately, sitting atop Challenger’s back all day, following the van, was more like work than sitting beside Dad on the driver’s bench. No matter how dark or tangled his thoughts, Deke fell asleep sooner rather than later and slept sound until dawn woke him up.
Or a storm.
Deke didn’t remember a springtime with so many wicked storms. Granted, they were off their usual prowl, following the coastal roads as they headed west to Port Roussel. It stood to reason that the weather would be different, but thunderstorms every day? Even the locals they encountered at the sanctuaries and stores were griping about the rain and how their streams and rivers were already swollen with water coming down from the north. How bad was it going to get? they asked one another with barely hidden dread. In these parts, Deke soon learned, it hadn’t been a Crash or a Whimper, but a Flood.
It was no great surprise the first time they came to a washout. They got past that one without much hassle and a second one later that same day, but the next day it wasn’t just a road washout. A bridge was gone, too, and they’d had to backtrack all the way to the sanctuary they’d left that morning.
Crawn walked off, promising to talk to the locals about new routing. Once he was gone, Dad pulled Deke aside and told him to do the same thing with Momma’s dash.
“Not saying I don’t trust him,” Dad explained, “but make that thing of hers give us a choice.”
Dad valued the dash, but he wouldn’t touch it or learn its secrets. Usually that bothered Deke because the reason Dad gave—that he couldn’t touch a machine with no moving parts without risking his mechanical livelihood—was pure ignorant superstition. Today, with extra hours to waste, he welcomed the chance to find an isolated spot with good sunlight and catch up with his reading.
Together, he and Challenger found a long-abandoned homestead where new grass was growing thick and the ruins of a concrete three-step where Deke could settle comfortably while he worked the dash. And work it he did, but whatever maps he summoned, the dash blinked then displayed Speaker Gerwer’s face at its sternest instead.
Momma’s dash was visual only, no audio; and Deke didn’t read lips, so he learned nothing from the Speaker’s moving mouth. A text stream, though, warned of hundred-year floods and fallen bridges. The long-haul road-trains weren’t running. Citizens, the Speaker said, should stay safe, stay, and wait for relief.
Deke swallowed hard. The Crash was deep history. He didn’t know anyone who’d lived through it and even with the dash, it was hard to know what was true and what was hiding the truth in a tidy box. But staying home and waiting, he was sure that’s what people had been told when things had started getting really, really bad.
The text stream promised the government was ready. The stockpiles were full and there were men enough for distribution and repair together. Quoting Speaker Gerwer, there was no need for panic.
Deke set the dash on the three-step. He closed his eyes and wished he weren’t alone, wished Momma were beside him. If he could hear her voice saying there was no need for panic, he’d have believed, but there was only the northing, like a sprain that didn’t interfere and didn’t quite heal, either.
Oddly—unexpectedly—the northing seemed stronger just then, not louder or faster, just stronger: like a stout wall inside his mind and panic was on the far side of the wall. Deke took a deep breath, opened his eyes, retrieved the dash.
Momma’s dash didn’t just suck information out of the air. A tap here and the dash recorded the streams for future reference. A tap there and it looked inward—into what Momma called the archivals. Deke summoned the archival of their journey to Merrimach, then he searched the archivals for maps of what lay ahead. There weren’t many and even the oldest ones were mostly empty space. His best guess was that there were two roads forward: the one with the washed-away bridge and another that wound north a while before dog-legging west—a better route for Merrimach, but worse for Port Roussel, which was south of them, even now.
Or turn around altogether and try their luck on the coastal route they’d abandoned.
Choosing among options, that was Dad’s job. Deke had done his job once he’d memorized the place names and their headings one to the next along the northerly route. Dad would do his when Deke returned to the sanctuary, but there was no need to rush back. They’d lost too much time to-ing and fro-ing with the washouts to head out again before sundown. They’d be overnighting in the sanctuary, meaning there was time to indulge in some serious loafing.
Deke could have retreated into the data streams, but the Speaker’s face was blocking his favorite rambles and, anyway, even if it hadn’t, there wasn’t an entertainment that could compete with cloudless sunshine after days of rain and storms. In truth, it was the kind of day when an older brother might have enjoyed playing tag or hide-and-seek with a pair of little sisters.
Deke’s conscience twinged with a familiar north-north-north ache.
Clenching his fists and shaking his head, he resisted its call to guilt and darkness–there wasn’t anything he could do to change things, not here, not now, maybe not ever–then tucked Momma’s dash into a saddlebag.
“You’re it,” he told Challenger.
The gelding left off grazing long enough to take a good look at his erstwhile rider. A thought percolated through his mind and he tore into the grass again without so much as a snort or whuffle. Deke wanted to believe it would have been different if he’d been talking to Specks, but he wasn’t in the mood for self-deception: nothing on two legs was half as attractive to a mule as the first crop of spring grass. The black-and-white mule wouldn’t have wasted the effort of raising her head.
With no better alternative to hand, Deke spotted a nut near his feet and hurled it as far as he could toward the trees at what had probably been the back of the house, when there’d been a house attached to the three-step. The nut was still in the air when Deke realized that the trees weren’t just trees. They were a grove, all straight lines and right angles, but as different from the citrus groves of their winter-ground as a grove could be. These trees were fifty feet apart, maybe more, and twice as high.
No propping a step ladder against these trunks to harvest a bushel of fruit!
Which led Deke, almost immediately, to wonder what and why and how and all the other questions Momma would have expected him to ask when he met up with something that wasn’t the same as what he’d met before. He headed for the trees and had his answers before he reached them: nuts. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Maybe, hundreds of thousands of them layered beneath the tall, straight trees. The folks who’d planted the trees didn’t need a ladder or anything else to harvest their crop; it just fell and didn’t squish when it landed.
It boggled the mind: big trees. . .old trees. . .old before the Crash. . . . And nuts the likes of which Deke had never seen before and couldn’t put a name to, though they’d have to be edible. . .else their trees wouldn’t be a grove. He collected a handful of the best-looking among the nearest nuts and brought them back to the three-step where he pounded a few until they cracked open.
Momma had strong opinions about scavenging, especially for food. Bad things could happen if you ate something you shouldn’t. Worse things had happened to Momma and these were nuts from trees grown in careful rows—
Feeling guilty and brave together, Deke put a wrinkly nut-meat into his mouth. He chewed slowly, ready to spit if he didn’t like the taste. But he did, though there was a hint of bitter to keep him wary. Bitter, Momma said, was nature’s way of saying No. He wouldn’t eat the second half for a while. Instead, he filled a mostly empty saddle bag and, when it was full to bursting, hurled nuts at tree trunks, just to see how far he could throw and whether he could hit what he meant to.
“Those are my trees you’re threatening!”
Deke started and spun around, the breath gone from his lungs. He’d recognized Crawn’s voice the instant he’d heard it, which didn’t make him feel any better about seeing the tall, lean man between him and Challenger.
“Didn’t hear me coming, did you? All alone and not paying attention,” he said with a gap-tooth smile.
Deke had a lonely, little nut in his throwing hand, for all the good it would do him. An iron pan wouldn’t be much better. Crawn had too much intelligence in his dark eyes.
Crawn aimed his eyes at the cracked-open nuts. “I see you’ve tried them.”
The never-quiet northing swelled to a shriek inside Deke’s head and his gut tied itself into instant knots. He couldn’t move, not to run, not to speak.
“They tell me they’re best after roasting, but to roast them, you’ve got to shell them, and then they’re apt to turn rancid on you. Could be a problem.” Crawn picked up a nut meat and ate it, then another. “Not bad for lying about all winter.”
Deke was deeply confused, but no longer quite as terrified of either the nut meat he’d eaten or of Crawn himself. He could move again and speak. “Your trees?” he asked, not because it was the most important question, but because it was the one stuck in his mind.
“They will be. These and all the other groves here about. . .once I get the papers filed. That’s why I came looking for you, Deke. I want the loan of your horse for a day or two. The land’s lapsed, all right, but the nearest registry’s twenty-odd miles up the road.”
“Did you talk to my dad?”
“I did. He said to find you. Said the horse is yours. It’s up to you, Deke. What’s he worth to you? What’s not having him for a few days worth to you? The risk I might not bring him back.”
“Is Nilsa going with you?” Deke asked and thought the question foolish before he’d finished it: Challenger couldn’t carry two people and all their furnishings.
Crawn disagreed, “Good question. As a matter of fact, she isn’t. She’ll stay with you and the van, heading south again. Better the roads we know—though I wouldn’t have found these groves if we hadn’t tried an inland route. So, what do you say, Deke, what’s a fair price?”
Deke shook his head. He couldn’t answer that question, but he had one that he wanted to ask. “Why do you say we’re heading south? Dad didn’t say anything to me about heading south.”
The statement was both absolutely truthful and deceptive at the same time. Deke was proud for about a heartbeat, until Crawn pulled a strange-looking dash out of his vest: a diptych, like Momma’s, but palm-sized and, when he opened it, the whole thing glowed in a deep, golden shade. “I showed him the maps. . .and Gerwer’s squawking. I know the southern route to Port Roussel. If we run into trouble, I’ve got friends along the way. Friends up here, too, after I convert these groves. So, what do you say? What’s your fair price?”
“What’s your offer?” Deke countered, as if Challenger were a basket of empty jars for barter.
“That depends. Cash or notes? How about a four-hundred note? Straight to your account, with a twenty-a-day draw until it’s cancelled or zero’d out.”
“No notes. Don’t have an account,” Deke lied.
Crawn gave Deke a narrow-eyed scowl. “You’ve got a dash, Deakon; you’ve got an account and a chip too.”
“No way! No way I’ve got a dash or a chip or anything like that!” No way Deke would admit having a dash and no way he could imagine that Crawn knew he had one. He’d been too careful— Unless— No, there was no way Dad would have given up their shared secret.
“I might be wrong about the chip, Deakon, but you have a dash.” Crawn gestured toward the closed-and-buckled saddle bag where Deke had left it.
“I don’t,” Deke insisted, holding true to Momma’s memory, Momma’s commands, and doing his level best to beat Crawn’s stare.
He won the contest. At least it seemed that way when Crawn looked away first. The lean man tucked his dash away with a frown. He dug a pouch from another pocket and began counting coins.
“Not having a dash, account, or chip, I don’t suppose you’re game for scrip, either?”
“Coins,” Deke confirmed. “Good gray speakers.”
Crawn dribbled ten coins into Deke’s hand: eight, gray; two bright, shiny brass each worth ten gray coins. Travelers didn’t see much brass. Even so, Deke had no idea which of them had gotten the better deal. . .except coins were coins and anything else was no better than a shaky promise. Crawn gave him the pouch, too. It was a funny-feeling thing, lighter than it looked with a hint of blue metal hiding in the cloth. “For that dash you don’t have,” he explained when Deke scowled.
Crawn gave Challenger and his tack a thorough once-over then swung into the saddle with an ease Deke deeply envied and, in the grip of envy, curiosity got the better of him.
“What did my dad tell you?”
With the slightest of movements, Crawn brought Challenger around so they were face-to-face. “He didn’t tell me about your dash, if that’s what you’re asking. But he would have, if I’d asked. Your mother’s death broke your father, son. Maybe he’ll find a way to put his pieces back together, maybe not. Nothing you can do about it, except get wise in a hurry. And keep that dash you don’t have where it can’t be tracked. You might not be so lucky next time. It’s a whole lot more valuable than any horse.”
Crawn clicked his tongue and Challenger took off at a trot, leaving Deke beside the three-step.
“No,” Deke whispered when man and horse were out of sight. No to the idea that Dad was broken—though now that the idea was in his head, it rang a frightening sort of truth. No to the idea that Momma’s dash could have been tracked like a deer by wolves—though Momma had been adamant about returning her dash to the safe the moment they were done using it and never using it except when they were all alone.
Deke opened the saddle bag, poured the now-warm coins into it, and pulled out the closed, quiet, not-doing-anything-at-all dash. Then he slid it into Crawn’s gift, which stretched around it like a second skin.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he whispered, then threw liar and worse in Crawn’s direction, but his curses lacked conviction. Crawn wasn’t a likeable man, but he wasn’t a liar, either, and when it came to explaining how Crawn had managed to find him Deke would rather believe that the dash had betrayed him rather than Dad.