It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


"'K, everybody," said Tom sadly, "let's move out the tables and circle up; three rows deep should do it. Emilio, Carl, could we get the stage back where it was? Party's over for now, I think. An inquiry has been called by Maggie, and elders present concur."
       "Kitchen, too?" asked Guchi from the doorway.
       "Yes, please, everyone we can find. Someone bring in any outside stragglers within shouting distance, as well. Hit the Hall bell once on the way back in, thanks."
       Mr. Molinero and Mr. Perkins, with the Molinero boys, seized the ping-pong table and slid it across to its place beneath the wall map of Starvation Creek. Others drew tables to the far walls and brought chairs. After much scraping, with a drone of hushed and astonished conversation, the room transformed itself into an oval of expectant faces, with the Council – down to Tom, Elsa, Maggie, and Mrs. Lazar, who had only just arrived, in the front row. With them, leaning on Juanita Molinero's arm, sat Mrs. Ames, as well as the two wheelriders Savage Mary and Avery Murchison, who sat in for his mother Ellen. A chair was placed in the center of the circle.
       The great iron pipe that hung by the main door clanged once, loudly, and a faint echo returned from Ball Butte. Water began dripping from the eaves past the various windows. Latecomers in dripping cedar-fiber rain hats and cloaks came in. A heavy cloud cover had blanketed the valley, and there was relatively little light, except for flickerings from cloud-to-cloud lightning in the east. Lamps were brought in but not lit, reflecting the reluctance of all present to add to the stifling heat inside.
       "Quorum?" asked Tom, addressing himself to Maggie.
       "Quorum," she affirmed.
       "Do we have a Recorder?" asked Tom. "I don't see Ro-eena."
       "She's at Ridge, helping Millie. So that'll be me," answered Cal Perkins. "If we can get me any paper and a pencil."
       "We will do that," said Guchi, who disappeared down the stairs.
       Once the people were settled, the Council called for order – which was a formality, as the room had grown quite still, other than the waving of hand-fans.
       "Bring forward the complainant, please," asked Tom.
       Bobbo of Ridge stepped away from the wall, sword in hand, followed by Armon, still dabbing at his upper lip with a damp cloth. His nose was terribly swollen, and his eyes closed part way. He slumped into the chair.
       "Water," he croaked.
       This was brought to him by one of the Hall crew.
       "For the record, name?" called out Dr. Chaney.
       The big man's voice rasped. "Armon. Bledsoe!"
       "Effin' girl jumped me."
       "I heard screams down the hole. Saw Maggie look in and run off. Threw down my paddle and went over to see what was the matter. Mrs. Murchison was down at the bottom and the kid was loomin' over her, gloatin'. I hauled her to her feet to ask her what the eff she'd done and she went crazy."
       He pointed across to the wall, where Karen sat, with Bobbo standing by her shoulder. "She's a menace to the Creek! Gets people killed left and right."
       "Observations?" This formal query Tom addressed to the Council.
       "This is a little thin," offered Mary. "'Gloating' is an interpretation, and the last bit is a naked assertion. Has he got corroborating witnesses?"
       "Have you?" asked Tom.
       "You saw it!" Armon addressed this to Maggie.
       "I'll speak in turn." Maggie, arms crossed, replied. "I do have an observation; this Council is loaded with people that are heavily involved with the respondent; shouldn't you recuse yourselves?"
       "All right," Tom said. "Just for the record, yes, I, all other members of this Council, and about three-fourths of the Creek, are 'heavily involved' with the respondent, and the remaining fourth or so, including you, Maggie, are pretty heavily involved with Armon. I don't think we can pull a quorum of non-interested persons. I personally think all this will come out in the wash, so to speak, and that we will have to trust one another to mean well for the Creek as a whole in our conduct of this inquiry. Shall we put that to a vote of all hands?"
       Maggie looked round the room challengingly. Many faces looked back in defiance. She harrumphed, and returned her attention to Tom. "We'll see how it goes, then."
       "Thank you, Maggie; let's regard this inquiry as provisional, subject to its being ratified as official by the GM – and there is sufficient membership present to call a GM on the spot."
       "Sure," said Maggie.
       "All right. Mr. Armon, thank you, why don't you go lie down somewhere over there and get some rest; I'll come give you a checkup as soon as I can. Respondent, please."
       Bobbo turned to Karen, and nodded his head kindly. She barely noticed him, but rose at his touch and walked abstractedly to the chair that Armon had just vacated. She sat down heavily and regarded the Council with resigned detachment.
       Tom marveled at the sight. The reserved young widow, too tall to be called "little," but slim – perhaps even slight, with her shock of hair standing at sixes and sevens, appeared wan and a bit withdrawn, but otherwise none the worse for wear. The bulge at her waist, apparent by now to everyone present, seemed incongruent with whatever had transpired. And how many women on the Creek are expecting? Four, at most. What will there be left to quarrel over if that keeps up?
       Armon's pride had suffered a worse blow than his face; the respondent had taken down perhaps the largest, most physically fit man at the Creek after Wilson. 'Went crazy', indeed! Tom smiled inwardly.
         "Name, for the record?"
       "Karen, Ridge and New Ames." She hesitated. "May I ask a question?"
       "Pertinent and procedural?" asked Maggie.
       Lightning flashed at all the windows, silhouetting the crowd. Half the people in the room, unaccustomed to electrical storms, jumped.
       "Pertinent, I hope." Karen drew a slow breath. "How is Mrs. Murchison?"
       Maggie frowned, but Elsa leaned forward and caught Tom's eye. "I think she means that Ellen's testimony, if available, would be very pertinent."
       An enormous thunderclap rolled over Hall.
       "By all means, let's ask," responded Elsa's husband. "Guchi, could you pop down and query Marcee for us?"
       "Yes, sir." The young man ran down the stairs again.
       "While that's going forward, could we have the respondent's narrative?" asked Avery.
       "Yes please. Karen?" offered Tom, with a gesture toward her.
       "Mrs. Ellen seemed concerned about something of which the storm reminded her. She asked me to come with her to call Ridge about it. At the top of the stairs she suddenly pitched forward. I ran after her and something caught me across the ankle. I fell, too, but caught the hand rail and hit the wall." She raised her hand and felt her left side, which was beginning to stiffen. "Then I moved more cautiously and went down to Mrs. Ellen, who was prone at the bottom of the steps, to look for vital signs. Mr. Armon came up behind me and – brought me to my feet – threatened me, and I asked him to let me go. He wouldn't, so I regained the free use of my arm and made sufficient space between us."
       "By 'sufficient space' I assume you struck him," offered Maggie.
       "Isn't that a leading question?" asked Elsa Chaney. "Wait, what was ..."
       "No, that's fine," replied Karen. "I was taught that if a man laid hands on my person without permission, I was to cancel his action. I did do that, yes, ma'am."
       A ripple of amusement ran round most of the circle, punctuated by more thunder.
       Guchi appeared from the dark stairwell. "Sergeant Murchison's compliments to all at hand, and she wants to come up and testify. Marcee says she may, if we'll bring a stretcher and be, she says, 'damned careful.'"
       "She shouldn't be moved!" asserted Maggie. "The doctor should assess her condition first."
       "Ordinarily, I'd certainly agree," Tom answered. "But I did take a look a little while ago; Marcee has things well in hand and we have to begin trusting Dr. Marcee sometime. Anyway, if I know Ellen she'll just crawl up here if we say her nay. Avery?"
       "You know my mom," said Avery, suppressing a smile. "Oo-rah, and all that."
       A stretcher team formed, wrapping a woolen blanket round two poles.
       Mary Savage tapped her knees with her thumbs, musing. "While we're waiting, Karen, what was that about storms?"
       "She only said it was important to call Millie."
       "Mmh. We might all be in for a rude awakening in a few days, Tom. Unless you have anything to add – excepting speculation, Karen, let's get Maggie's deposition. They're gonna be slow getting Ellen in here if they have any sense."
       "I should stand down?" asked Karen, tentatively.
       "Yes, thank you, Karen. If you'll go back over and sit by Mr. Bobbo."
       As soon as Karen vacated, Maggie stood up and strode to the chair.
       "Mr. Perkins, how is it going?" asked Tom.
       Cal's pen hovered in the air. "Good, so far, sir; if everyone will slow down a bit, even better."
       "I'm sure it will do. Maggie Andrews, what can you tell us?"
       "Ahem. After the tumbling and shrieking were over, I entered the stairwell and inquired as to what had gone forward. The young woman – "
       " – the same – informed me Ellen had sustained a fall and asked for the doctor. I came looking for you or your protégé, got Marcee and a candle, and returned. Mr. Armon was sitting on the bottom step, gargling and spluttering, and the little hellcat was making absurd karate postures in front of him. Armon communicated to me that she should be taken into custody, which I asked Mr. Bobbo to do, and looked to Mrs. Murchison with Marcee. She was breathing fairly regularly, so I left them and came upstairs, bringing Mr. Armon with me."
       "Observations?" asked Tom, looking to his left.
       Mary rolled her eyes in spite of herself. "That seems straightforward, though we might find 'hellcat' and 'absurd' interpretive and extraneous to the narrative."
       "Agreed," put in Avery.
       More lightning flashes strobed at the windows.
       "Rude, I should say," said old Mrs. Lazar.
       Everyone turned to her in mild surprise; she was someone who had seldom entered into public discussion, especially since her losses in the New Moon War.
       "Too much, excuse me, crap, in the narratives. They give us bupkes – excepting her." She pointed to Karen. "Very interested I'll be to hear Ellen's bit."
       As thunder grumbled along the room, Marcee came in from below, carrying herself mindfully up the stairs, and sat near Karen. The stretcher bearers followed, making their way gently through the doorway of the basement stairwell and into the middle of the circle. Maggie, without waiting to see if Council regarded her testimony as complete, rose from the chair and lent a hand as the young men lowered Ellen Murchison to the floor. A rolled and folded towel on each side of her neck served as a brace.
       "I know everybody but me thinks it's hot in here; but have you got a blanket?" she asked a bearer.
       "Sure thing, ma'am, we'll get you one."
       "Ellen, are you being foolish?" asked Maggie, in genuine concern for an old friend.
       "Why, no, Maggie, are you?" was Ellen's rejoinder. "Go sit down; you're making me nervous."
       Avery grinned in relief.
       "Am I on?" asked Ellen, rolling her eyes round toward the Council seats.
       "Yes, Murchie," answered Tom. "We've heard from everyone else. But we're, anyway, I'm concerned about the way we're tossing you around."
     "Bosh, Doctor, I'm not broken – I don't think. Even little Marcee doesn't; it's precautionary. Can everybody hear me?"
       Emilio stood and rotated, looking the crowded circle in their faces. "Back rows; stand up if you can't hear, please." There followed a rustling of sliders on the fir flooring.
       "Thank you, young man. So. I start downstairs with my walking stick and with Karen for support; should have waited to get a lamp but I'm too impatient. I hit a tripwire. That's all I remember."
       The collective gasp filled the long Hall.
       "A tripwire?" Tom frowned. "Why would there be a tripwire at Hall? Why the stairwell, with over a hundred people going back and forth?"
       "I'm sure you're not asking me for interpretation, Tom."
       Tom swung around. "Cal, did Karen testify to a tripwire?"
       Mr. Perkins paged back through the old ring binder. "Umm-m-m-m. Oh. 'I ran after her and something caught me across the ankle.'"
       "Damn. Why didn't we pick up on that?"
       "I did," murmured Elsa. "But then we went off on a tangent."
       "Well, if there was a wire," asked Maggie, "Where is it now?"
       "Right here, maybe," said a voice. Everyone turned to see who had spoken. Josep, the young man from Roundhouse, stood up near the main door, with something in his hand. He made his way forward.
       "There's getting to be little light here," put in Cal. "Can we get some lamps going?"
       Lights were brought. The object in Josep's possession was offered for the Council's inspection under several of them.
       Mary spoke first. "This here's fourteen-gauge single-strand copper, in black insulation. Probably stripped out of some old household Romex."
       "Whatever that is," said Tom. "Presumably good for tripping, if that's what it was used for. About four feet long. And this came into your possession how?" he asked Josep.
       "Bolo handed it to me; said it was dangling down the top step from a hook in the wall. There was another hook in the other wall, too, he told me; but there were only the two little holes when I went to look."
       "Jeah help us," said Elsa quietly.
       "Where's Mr. Bolo?" asked Tom.
       "Here." The big man, who'd been sitting near Karen and Marcee, stood up and held his arm high above his head, palm out; a strangely formal gesture unknown along the Creek.
       "You found this as Mr. Josep has described?"
       "And there were hooks, and they are not there now?"
       Bolo knitted up his eyebrows, then craned sideways and looked at the stairwell wall, not ten feet from where he stood. Straightening up, he faced Tom again. "They are not there now."
       "And you did not take them? I'm sorry, we have to ask."
       "I do not mind. I did not take the hooks. The black thing looked very strange to me. I took it to show to Josep."
       A brilliant flash of light strobed in at the west windows, followed almost immediately by a series of rumbles and thumps that seemed to go on for a long time. The noise of rain on the long roof above, which everyone had been hearing without noticing it, began to slacken.
       Maggie opened and closed her mouth. Then she stood up. "Where's Armon?"
       "Back here." He sat up on the table on which he'd been lying, and wrapped his big hands around his knees. Everyone swiveled around in their seats to face him. "What? Look at all of ya glarin'. No, I didn't set any trap, and if anyone did, they didn't bother to tell me about it."
       Tom stood up. "Since we're all here: anyone see anything that might have any bearing on this?"
       None one moved or spoke.
       Emilio rose from his chair again. "Creekers, we have a troubling thing here. There has never been such among us in my memory. Please speak, if you have seen this."
       Heads turned, as people looked in one another's faces. Hand fans fanned.
       Ellen spoke up from beneath her blanket on the floor. "Dear ones all, or I suppose almost all. Consider: without what used to be called 'modern' forensics, it could take us a long time to make sense of it. Anyone could have done this. Even me; I could theoretically have set the wire and then forgotten about it – all I have in my favor is the unlikelihood. We might all have our own ideas about whom, and who they were targeting, what their motivation could be. If we think too much about it, it will tear us all apart, and that couldn't, very likely, come at a worse time. Maggie, tell 'em about lightning storms in a drought."
       Maggie spread her arms dramatically, hands outspread. "Fire. Lots of it."
       "Of course. Forest fire," added Savage Mary. "Whole mountains, hole valleys burning. Don't know how we've skipped it this long. Maggie, with no witness to a trap setter coming forward, we may have to close your inquiry temporarily and talk fire. That good with everyone?"
       Maggie spread her hands wider, turning the dramatic gesture into an almost comical shrug. It meant, Do we have a choice? She turned to the figure on the floor.
       "Ellen, did you get to place your call?"
       "Marcee did it for me. Millie and Ro-eena are already mapping lightning strikes."     

"So, Karen; am I little?" Marcee looked down at herself.
       Karen smiled wanly. "Not a bit of it."
       They sat together in silence. Much was going on around them, but there seemed to be no place for them, at the moment, in the urgent discussions going forward.
       "Surely not everyone has always been perfect on the Creek. What's the penalty – say, for murder, or – or rape?"
       "Well, there were banishments. Before my time. Pilgrims that didn't work out were provisioned and escorted to the Bridge. But lately, I've heard that's not a good idea, because they might turn the Creek in to some bandit leader somewhere... Lockdowns. But those were for thefts, or refusing to carry out a voted task."
       "Has there ever been talk of hanging here?"
       Marcee's eyes widened. "Jeeah, no! Why do you ask?"
       "Not sure. Yet." Karen watched the room as she spoke.


After the lightning strike, slabs of steaming Douglas-fir bark had flown lazily outward in three directions, caroming off fir and hemlock branches and sliding downward to the forest floor. The stricken tree, thirty-seven meters in height, had swayed and shuddered for a bit before regaining its equilibrium. Two days had passed.
       White streaks of cambium gleamed in the cracks where the plasma had run along the tree trunk, and sap had already begun to ooze. At one point, twenty-four meters above the slope below, an unusually large branch had grown at right angles to the tree trunk, before reaching to the sky, and one of the streaks had abruptly ended here, resurfacing beneath the branch. In the crotch of the branch, fir needles and bark dust had accumulated for more than a century. Over the years, enough moisture had found its way into the duff to support a few lichens, mosses, and one maidenhair fern, but in the current drought the pocket had dried out completely, and the fern sat patiently waiting for a rainy day, its fronds curling in upon themselves.
       There had been a little rain, just enough to dampen the upper canopy, but none of it had reached into the bone-dry shadows. A wisp of smoke curled up from the duff pocket and dissipated to eastward. 


Forty-three kilometers to the west, Savage Mary rolled forward in the already hot shade of Hall's west wall. The spot had been chosen for its relatively safe location, well away from the surrounding tinder-dry foliage. The ground had been sprinkled with watering cans as a precaution, and full cans stood by in case of need.
       Mary looked over the setup and showed her best crooked smile. "Nice job, guy," she said to Deela.
       "Why, thank you, ma'am." The young man dropped his gaze in momentary confusion, then stood back, but near enough to make himself useful.
       "All right, gather round, kiddos." Mary gestured toward the multiply-hinged steel-topped table that had been set up. "This here's what used to be known as a 'fire table.' We've got a sackful of dead fir needles dumped here and spread thin, and that represents fuel, which is what it is. Think 'forest', 'kay?"
       Heads nodded earnestly.
       "So, for our purposes, a fire needs three things, fuel, heat, air – specifically oxygen, as a rule, which is some stuff that's in the air. Plenty of oxygen in the air above the table and mixed in with the fir needles. Some's trapped in the needles themselves. Plenty of fuel here in th' needles – mainly carbon. Combines pretty easily with the oxygen if heat in the vicinity flashes beyond about two hundred thirty degrees Celsius. Got that candle?"
       A girl stepped forward, her hand cupped around the flame.
       "And who are you, dear?" asked Dr. Mary.
       "Ceel Perkins – Tomlinsons'."
       "Pleased to meet ya. So, do you want to light the forest fire, or shall I?"
       "I'll do it, ma'am."
       "Cool. So pinch up a little bit of 'fuel' out in th' middle of this section, here, and touch it off for us."
       Ceel did so and then stepped back. A black circle formed on the table, less than two inches across, and then grew slowly, leaving a graying center. Above it, a blueish column of vapor and smoke, barely visible in the morning light, rose vertically, with a pale, almost invisible flame at its base.
       "Now, kids, what you got here," crowed Mary, with an imperious gesture, "is a smallish forest fire. They all start small. Really small. Right now you could smack this one out with the palm of your hand."
       The black ring inched outward.
       "On a flat, without wind, a fire grows incrementally and concentrically." She looked up. Hmm. Too many blank faces. "Y'all can interrupt when I run off into twenty-Amero words. 'Kay, it grows slow and it grows on all fronts th'same. See, there's no heat 'cept close to th' flame, so nothin' burns except as it gets hot enough, 'cuz it's close enough. Deela, y'wanna switch on that little fan, there?"
       Deela came forward and twisted a pair of wire ends together. The tiny blower at the end of the table, cannibalized from some old refrigeration unit, buzzed into life. The black ring changed into an oblong shape and picked up speed, growing toward the other end of the table.
       Mary picked up the long willow twig that lay across the armrests of her wheelchair. She pointed. "Your heat and oxygen travel with wind, and they pick up th' fuel as they go. So always know where th' wind is. You're downwind from a forest fire, it will come after you, faster than you can run. So go sideways along th' fire front. If you can't beat it around th' corner, run through it – if you can. Fuel's already expended in here." She tapped the gray ashes. "Fan off. Now, let's have a little 'fire on th' mountain'. About a thirty-degree slope, please."
       Deela reached underneath the table and lifted the second and third sections. The table legs dragged inwards.
       "See, th' fire wants to keep running thataways even without th' fan. It runs uphill because th' heat is driving up through th' fuel from underneath, and pulling in th' oxygen behind it. A big enough fire, or any fire on a slope, makes its own wind."

       The young man leaned forward and swept the fir needles off the raised hinge with his thumb. The black line reached the top of the slope, and, finding no fuel there, left off traveling in that direction, growing instead to left and right along the edge and the entire slope.
       Mary nodded. "It's more complicated in the hills. You can line around a fire if there's no wind, but a big fire, a hill fire, or especially a big hill fire, always has wind. And we're all hills here, so all wind all th' time. On a ridge top sometimes your Jeeah – " she looked over at the small contingent from Roundhouse – "or your Jesus – will favor you, but th' trees are taller than these here fir needles. Fire gets in the upper branches, it throws itself around. Sparks cross your line and make spot fires on the other slope. Now you're trapped. Ceel honey, let's light th' other side here, right in th' middle."
       Ceel brought the candle again.
       "See, it comes up to th' line fast. Faster than th' big fire did. It's pulled toward the crest by th' wind from th' other side. So you're toast. If you do find yourself in this fix don't run uphill – it'll getcha. Roast your lungs before you even get burned. Run sidehill or, last resort, run right down through it and hold yer breath. But you c'n use this scenario; if we burn up this side of th' hill ourselves, from below, there's no fuel for th' big fire when it gets here. S'called a backfire."
       Mary looked around at the sober faces that surrounded her.
       "Back in 'th' day, folks fought these things with airplanes that dumped a fire-fighting powder on the flames, or they shot water out of hoses from tank trucks – bigger than th' few garden hoses we have left here; they cut down trees an' brush with chain saws an' backfired 'em wi' drip torches, 'n pushed fire lines with bulldozers. But they always tried to find an' hit th' fires when they were little, to save all that trouble. They'd parachute out of airplanes or rappel down from helicopters to find a little fire no bigger than this one an' put it out with a couple shovelfuls of dirt."
       A palm raised. "'parachute?'"
       "Oh, kind of a big umbrella thing; you float down out of th' sky slow enough to usually not break a leg."
       Incredulous expressions all round.
       "Oh, c'mon, kids, have I ever lied to you? Not often, anyways. Y'ever blow dandelion seeds?"
       "Same thing. Now, y'see th' fire's still growing on all its edges except downslope on our side of th' mountain. Nothing's gonna stop it till it's out of one of its three requirements. With what we can do nowadays, we're pretty much out of it as fire fighters. This thing can get air all it wants. It has plenty of heat. It still has fuel. It's gonna burn till it rains, basically. Rain, please."
       Deela brought over a watering can and doused the table, sending up a hissing cloud of steam.
       One of the men from Roundhouse, the young leader, stepped forward.
       "Could you, we, umm, use a bulldozer?"
       "We got ten or twelve bulldozers, sonny, 'an they'll sit till doomsday without oil."
       "Well – umm, this one's a little, a gasoline model. We, uhh, we do use it."
       "What, tweaked for alky? You got that much?"
       "No, wood smoke."
       "I'll be damned. I've heard of that, but nobody on th' Creek remembered how! So ... when were ya gonna tell us about this prized possession?"
       "Well ... kind of a state secret. But it seems like the thing to talk about, after that ... dreadful storm."
       "Sure, so ... ain't ya gonna need it up there?"
       "We've used it for years, kind of sparingly, clearing ground around the Roundhouse, primarily for defense – field of view. That's all done. We tried plowing with it, but irrigation and weeds have been big issues afterwards. So right now it's mostly sitting, like yours. And Roundhouse is pretty fireproof."
       "Say fire comes, eats up your whole valley, what then?"
       He grinned. "Then we'd starve, likely. What else is new?"
       "Same here, sonny, we'd all hide in 'th Ridge an' then come out after th' cataclysm and watch a few sunsets till th' goodies run out. We want to keep these fields intact if we can."
       "So, maybe, we should bring our little 'cat' over here and cut a line around your valley?"
       "I don't think we need a Council vote on that! Yes, please. How long do you think it would take to get here?"
       "I leave right now, a day to get there, maybe half a day to mechanic, rig up and supply, two, two-and-a-half days' return. Deerie would have to cut her own trail to get to you; two mountains and a valley full of second growth."
       "'Deary'?" Mary raised her eyebrows.
       "One of the old-timers could read. She said it said 'deer' on the side of the engine cover, so we called her 'Deerie."
       "Cute. A John Deere crawler! Didn't know they made 'em! So, 'Deerie' has a blade, then? ... that works?"
       "Hydraulics are long gone, but we use a come-along to raise it. Slow, but there it is. Oh, and a cage and drawbar, no winch."
       "Oh-em-gee, you kids are the mannah – how long, do you think, would it take to cut a fire trail around these farms? Assuming no mechanical breakdowns?"
       Josep's grin faded. He looked around at Ball Butte, Maggie's Hill, and the distant Cascades. "About a week, ma'am."
       "Well I guess we'd better send you packin' right now!"
       Mary rolled away toward hall with the Roundhousemen in tow. Class was evidently dismissed.
       Ceel blew out her candle and tugged at Deela's sleeve. "Machinery is female?" she asked.
       He shrugged. "It's – kind of a Before thing."