The man was bundled to the eyes in layers of threadbare clothing. It looked warm, but if he’d chosen the nicest–looking items as outerwear the rest must be falling to rags. “Where are we at?” Peters asked. “I used to know this road, but I got to admit I’ve done got confused.”
“That ain’t no surprise in this weather.” A gust swirled blowing snow around the porch roof. The kathir suit moderated the cold but did nothing for the force of the blast, and both of them flinched. “This here’s Sylvester,” the man said, then looked out into the forecourt of what had been a filling station thirty years ago. “West Virginia, U. S. of A., planet Earth,” he added.
Peters grinned. “Believe it or not, I figured out that part.”
“I wasn’t too sure. That’s a spaceship, ain’t it?”
“Yeah.” As Dreelig had two years ago, he suppressed most of the details. “It’s called a dli. Really it’s just a kind of ferryboat, to go back and forth between the ground and the big ship.”
The other nodded. “You folks lost?”
“You might say that. I’m tryin’ to get to Whitesville.”
“Just up the river a piece… Whitesville. Do I know you?”
“You might. I’m John Peters.”
“Fairey Howe.” They shook. “You any kin to Emmett Peters? He lived down Whitesville way, out by Blue Pennant.”
Howe nodded. “Me and your daddy used to whack one another pretty damn good playin’ football. He got killed in, what, thirty or thirty-one? Run off into the river, as I recall.”
“Thirty. What Granpap said was, he run off down by that railroad trestle just this side of town, and he and momma froze to death before anybody found ’em.”
“That’s what I heard too… so Emmett’s daddy raised you? I can’t call his name.”
“Donald. He still lives at the old home place, that is if he’s still alive. I been gone two years.” Peters gestured, taking in the lowered sky and the blowing snow. “I’m tryin’ to get there now, but this ain’t helpin’.”
“Just follow the river yonder way.” Howe gestured upstream. “That’s if you can see it. You sure as Hell can’t see across it.”
“Ain’t that the truth. We’ll manage.”
“Yeah, I reckon so.” Howe looked away for a moment, then faced Peters directly, with a hint of defiance. “I’m required to tell you, you’re in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations, by operatin’ an aircraft without proper markin’s and in unsuitable weather conditions, and I’m required by law to inform the proper authorities.”
Peters shrugged and produced a thin humorless smile, holding eye contact. “Send ’em around. I’m goin’ for the record.”
“The most Federal Regulations ever violated by one person… I reckon you must be the local stucach.” He pronounced it stew catch.
“Federal Compliance Observer. It’s a violation of Federal Regulations to use disparagin’ language.” In most of the country the term used was “fucko”; by chance enough Russians had settled in the Big Coal River valley for the more accurate word to pass into the language.
“Well, that’s another’n down for the day.” Peters gave Howe another humorless smile. “Thanks for the directions. Be seein’ ya.”
Just in the few minutes he’d been speaking with Howe the snow had filled his tracks almost to the point where they were no longer visible; Peters knew how that went, and didn’t try to force his way back along his previous path, instead choosing a fresh stretch of white stuff to struggle through back to the dli. Closing the hatch finally cut off the itchy feeling of someone staring at the back of his neck; he made his way forward and took the pilot’s seat. Howe was still standing in the doorway, watching. Peters gave him a thumbs-up, and he nodded and closed the door, almost certainly not aware that the gesture was less than complimentary in zeref.
«Did you get directions?» Ander asked as he began the activation sequence.
«Yes, along with a reminder of why I don’t really want to live here.»
«Isn’t this enough?» Alper demanded, gesturing out the windshield. «I went to the hatch for a better look, and thought I would die of cold before I got back. I can’t believe people actually live here.»
«Not many do… here we go.» He lifted the dli a few meters above the ground and set off, keeping the speed to not much faster than a walk.
Even that was nerve-wracking. Heavy snow, lowering clouds, and fading light combined to reduce visibility to a few tens of meters, and the Big Coal River had been a major artery of the coal-transport system for a century and a half, perhaps longer. Steep hills, amounting to mountains and cliffs in many places, bounded it on both sides, and the twists and turns reduced the distance that could be traveled in a straight line to a kilometer at most. Both banks were decorated with railroad tracks except where the engineers had thrown up their hands and erected steel-truss bridges or trestles across the river to avoid some impassable spot. Highway 3 wound, here over, there under, elsewhere around or through the obstacles, and every spot wide enough for a foundation, and many that weren’t, was graced with a building, ranging from private houses to coal processing and storage facilities studded and draped with conveyors, lifts, stacks, cranes, and radio masts. The electric transmission lines that had once kept it all humming and clanking added towers, poles, and a few surviving catenaries to the mix.
Visibility was such that following the river was impossible from any altitude that would avoid the obstacles. Peters stayed a few meters above the water, rising to go over the fallen bridges, which were fairly frequent. He’d never been familiar with the view from water level, so he had to stop and lift up occasionally to check for signs and landmarks. It was over an hour, and seemed much longer, before a group of bridges jogged his recollections, and he rose, looked the area over, and grunted, “Janie.”
«What?» Ander asked, tone alarmed.
«This small group of buildings is called ‘Janie’,» he explained. «The little stream is Elk Run. We go that way.» He lifted the dli over the trestle and started up the smaller valley, staying above the snow-covered feature that had to be the railroad, because Elk Run was too narrow to follow at water level. «We’re almost there.»
«I hope so,» Ander said worriedly. «At this rate, it won’t be long before it’s too dark to see.»
Peters thought it must be about four o’clock. «Only a few minutes… oops.» The wire had loomed up without warning. It scraped across the top of the dli, caught on the vertical fin, and separated with a twang and a jerk. It would have been more worrying if it had been the first one. «There it is.»
The hills opened out to the right, and on the far side of the little valley a house sat on a partly natural, partly artificial bench fifty meters or so above the banks of Elk Run. It was dark enough now for a porch light to be visible in the brief lull in the blizzard, the first artificial light they’d seen since entering the main valley. A cluster of buildings backed by a steep cut stood far enough back from the road to leave an open space, once a parking area for coal trucks. Peters brought the dli to rest and gestured. «Be glad of your suits,» he said with a twisted grin. «From here we walk.»
«It looks impossible,» Ander said dubiously.
«It isn’t impossible, but it will be difficult. It’s good your pregnancies aren’t more advanced. A zul from now you probably wouldn’t be able to make this climb, even without snow.» Both women nodded acknowledgement of that.
A path had been shoveled up the narrow road that climbed the hill, but that had been earlier in the day; it was now choked. Peters and Dzheenis strapped on backpacks and took the lead, breaking trail, with the three women following, floundering in the fresh snow. It took them half an hour to reach the switchback, but from there the driveway was clear, and a man, swaddled and muffled in heavy cold-weather gear, stood leaning on a shovel where the cleared path met the road. “I figured you’d keep at it,” was his greeting. “Damnfool stunt.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Granpap. I see you got my letter.”
“Came yesterday. I spent the first forty years of my life cussing the Postal Service, but by God I think it’s the only thing in this Godforsaken country that still works.”
The two men embraced, awkwardly but sincerely, then broke apart to look one another over. “You’re lookin’ good,” Peters offered.
“Hunh. As if you could tell in this getup. Let’s get in the house before we do the introductions. You don’t act like you’re freezing to death, but you look like you ought to be, and I sure as Hell am.”
The swing-up garage door hadn’t been opened in Peters’s memory; the old man opened the smaller door beside it and gestured. “Lead the way, I’m sure you remember.” He stood aside while the others trooped in and up the stairs to the main floor, glancing at the cloth-shrouded ’21 Corvette that had occupied the garage since forever. A coal-fired furnace sat in the far corner, producing cheerful warmth in defiance of EPA regulations, and a miscellany of tools and junk lurked in the back corners, beyond the reach of the single bulb.
The living area of the house was pleasantly warm and smelled of something good simmering. “I’ve got enough gas to run the generator tonight and part of tomorrow,” Granpap announced as he emerged from the stairway behind Dzheenis, stripping off outerwear and hanging it on pegs. “Can’t have space people living like pioneers.” He had white hair and a lined face, but his movements were lithe and confident, and the hair was a thick ruff that curled a bit at his temples.
“You might be surprised. Granpap, this is Ander, and this is Alper. We’re–” he hesitated a moment “–I reckon ‘married’ is the best way to put it, leastways that’s how I feel about it.”
“I’m charmed to meet you,” the old man said with a smile, and took one woman’s hand in each of his own. “Welcome to my home. I hope you’ll consider it your own.”
“Thank you,” said Alper. “We’re pleased to meet you at last. John’s heritage is clear in your face.” Ander murmured something, seeming shy, and the two responded to the elder Peters’s gentle tug, at first a little reluctant, then molding themselves to him the way they did to the younger one.
“It would appear that the ceremony took place about six months ago,” the old man commented as he released them.
“You might say that… this here’s Khurs. She’s–” he hesitated “–it’s hard to explain, but she’s part of the family, besides bein’ a crackerjack translator and secretary, and about twice as smart as I am, maybe three times.”
“Charmed,” said the old man a little hesitantly, and took her hand.
Khurs was having none of that. “Don’t I get a hug too?” she asked in her surprising baritone, and slipped inside the reach of his arms to clasp him tightly. His arms went around her more or less by reflex. “You remind me of someone I knew and liked a lot,” she said, her voice muffled by his clothing. “You’re not used to looking at Grallt, are you? We’ll have to work on that.”
Peters grinned at the old man’s expression. “Last, but not least in any sense, this here’s Dzheenis, who’s also a member of the family in the same way Khurs is.”
“I’ll forego the hug for the time being,” said the big Grallt as he extended his hand. “Pleased to know you.”
“And I you,” said the old man, sounding a little dazed.
“Everybody, this is Donald Peters, my grandfather. Don’t call him Don, he don’t like it. He’s the one raised me from the time I was three.” Peters smiled. “Anything you don’t like about the way I act, you can blame it on Granpap here.”
“Now just a damned minute,” Donald snapped. “I’m not taking the blame for all of it, certainly not for the way you talk. That was our redneck neighbors, especially those no-account Wisenant boys.”
“And girl,” Peters put in with a grin. “Don’t forget Faye.”
“Hunh. As if I could forget Faye Wisenant. Or her mother… although Janice had her moments.”
“Yep. She hollered pretty loud when they come up, if I recall.”
The old man didn’t respond to that, but his eyes twinkled. “Sit down, everybody,” he suggested, and began to gently detach Khurs from his waist. “How long have you been–” he stopped, shook his head, and smiled. “I was about to say ‘on the road’, but that’s just showing my age. How long have you been traveling?”
“It seems like forever,” Alper said with a shiver.
Peters nodded. “About ten hours, and over half of that was creepin’ up the valley at a walk. Truth is, some places walkin’ would’ve been faster.”
“Not to mention safer,” Donald said tartly. “You must be hungry as bears. Anything I need to know before I start dishing out venison stew?”
“I don’t know of anything,” Peters said, and met his grandfather’s look with a spread-armed shrug. “On Llapaaloapalla we pretty much ate from the same pot. There’s some things don’t agree with both species, but then I get the hives from hazelnuts and none of the rest of us has any problem.”
“You do know that raises some pretty hard questions,” the old man commented.
“I didn’t at first. I reckon I spent more time tryin’ to figure out Faye Wisenant than I did listenin’ to what you was tryin’ to teach me.” Peters repeated his palm-up shrug. “I ain’t got no answers, and neither does anybody else I know.” Then he grinned. “To either question, to tell the truth.”
“Hunh. Well, at least it means I can feed you. Sit down, all of you. There’s been nobody in this kitchen but me for ten years, and I can do better without help.” Donald began dishing out stew; Peters noted with an inward smile that Khurs got the first portion, whether as a mark of favor or to keep her out from underfoot he couldn’t tell. Thick chunks of bread, just at the point of near-staleness perfect for sopping up stew liquor, finished out the meal, and to drink they had a choice of clear spring water or a dark-amber ale cloudy with suspended solids and tasting of health, growth, and fertility.
Donald Peters served himself a glass of ale and stood leaning against the kitchen island, sipping and watching as stew disappeared. “How long can you stay?” he asked when spoons started reaching mouths with less urgency.
“Four days, no, three now.” Peters grimaced. “I got to be in Washington on the fourteenth.”
“I’d hoped for longer.”
“I’d planned for longer.” He looked up. “I’d intended a week, maybe ten days, like I told you in my first letter. Then the damn Navy needed two weeks to decide whether to give me a medal or throw me in jail. They’d still be at it if I hadn’t told ’em I was leavin’ with or without paperwork, an’ they’d better shit or get off the pot.”
“You probably didn’t make any friends.”
“Hunh. That kind of friends I don’t need… then I had to go to south Texas, an obligation I took on myself to see my buddy Todd home and buried.” He took a sip of ale, then twisted his mouth in a way that had nothing to do with the drink. “Shit. Poor bastard got his heart cut out by a chunk of flyin’ debris, and been froze solid for six months, and there wasn’t nothin’ for it but to thaw him out and do an autopsy.
“Didn’t get that done with ’til last Friday, and then we had to wait ’til the banks opened Monday morning, followed by another two days while the assholes ran around like chickens with their heads cut off tryin’ to figure out how to give his heirs access to the money he’d made on the ship.” He took another sip, then set the glass on the table. “The whole time couldn’t none of us turn around without trippin’ over a Fed with a form to fill out and ‘just a few questions, Mr. Peters, I won’t take much of your time.’ Has it always been this bad? I done bought and sold a spaceship that’d take you from here to a star you can’t see in ten days or less, and it took less time, and a Helluva lot less paperwork, than openin’ a bank account in Port Lavaca, Texas.”
The elder Peters shook his head. “I’m just surprised you were able to get it done that quickly. No wonder you were anxious enough to get here to fly in a howling blizzard. But to answer your question: no, it hasn’t always been this bad. When I was a kid, and even into my twenties, you could still move around pretty easily, especially if you had a little money. Then it started getting tighter and tighter, but nobody really noticed, because it was still possible to get things done if you worked at it.” He shrugged and spread his hands. “Your daddy had some caustic things to say about me setting up this place, and hardly a day went by that I didn’t wonder if he was right. Then came the Year of Our Lord Twenty-Twenty-Three.”
There was silence for a long moment. Khurs asked softly, “What happened in the Year of Our Lord Twenty-Twenty-Three, Donald?”
The old man had been staring into space, gazing at old memories; he turned his head quickly and gave her a grin of pure savagery. She straightened and put her hand to her mouth, taken aback, and Donald converted his expression to a real, if forced, smile. “Why, in 2023 the world fell apart, and the Federal Government didn’t,” he said, keeping his tone light. “Since then, anybody who tries to fix things up gets cut off at the knees by Federal Regulations.” He made a sideways chopping gesture, cutting off further discussion. “Enough of that. Johnny, have another beer and get started talking. You’ve told me some in your letters, but now I want details.”
* * *
Alper was yawning, and Ander had fallen asleep in the crook of his arm, before Peters had even gotten as far as the attack by Grallt pirates. They put the two women to bed in the room that had been his parents’, under a double-wedding-ring quilt handed down from his mother’s family, and Donald announced that he was going to shut down the generator. “I hadn’t really intended to keep it going this long,” he apologized. “At this rate it’ll be out of fuel by midnight.” He lit candles and went on the errand.
When he returned Peters had rummaged in his backpack. “Present time, Grandpap,” he said, and handed the old man one of the fist-sized zifthkakik he’d bought on Jivver. “Think of it as a battery that don’t run out,” he suggested as his grandfather looked dubiously at the shiny ovoid. “Fifty kilowatts, more or less, and Schott told me how to jigger a power-pole transformer to make it work with house wiring. We’ll get it done tomorrow.”
“What is it really?”
“I guess you could call it an engine. Hook it up right, and it’ll lift about ten tons and move it around at pretty much whatever speed you want.”
“No, this model don’t make atmosphere or the shieldin’ you need for a spaceship.” Peters grinned. “Be kind of fun to install it in the Vette, but then you wouldn’t be able to run the house lights with it.”
“Hunh… what’s something like this worth?”
“I paid–” he stopped to think “–call it five thousand eagles for it. Here? You tell me.”
Donald grunted again. “Hunh… What else have you got there?”
“It occurred to me you might be a little tired of reloadin’ shells for the Mauser.” Peters indicated the other two objects with a wave. “These here’s called ‘push-force weapons’. They’ll punch a hole in quarter-inch steel plate at close range. The little one’ll knock a man down at fifty meters without killin’ him; the big one’ll do the same at five hundred.”
“None, nor noise either.”
“Just the thing for deer hunting. Well, your magic grapefruit isn’t hooked up yet. Time to stoke the furnace.”
“I’ll help you.” Dzheenis followed as well, and watched with interest as the two men cleaned out ashes and refilled the firebox. “Can you get away with this?” Peters asked as they closed the door.
“Have for years. You remember.” The elder Peters looked at the furnace, then gave his grandson a twisted grin. “Tonight it’s even legal.”
“Weather emergency. I’ve no other source of heat, and if this blizzard doesn’t count as an emergency I don’t know what would.”
They trooped back up the stairs and poured more beer, and Peters resumed his story. Dzheenis and Khurs listened with interest; they’d been offered beds, but refused them on the grounds that they hadn’t heard this part before. Khurs stayed close to Donald Peters, making soft comments, touching him occasionally, and missing few opportunities to have him meet her eye or just look at her. Peters noted with sardonic interest that Granpap had quit flinching when she turned her face toward him; possibly the beer helped. The grins Dzheenis flashed told him that the big Grallt understood what was going on; so did he, but he kept his smiles to himself.
Sometime after three in the morning the story reached their arrival at Earth orbit and the raucous party they’d thrown to celebrate the occasion. “That’s about it,” Peters said, and spread his hands. “The rest of it’s bureaucrats, reporters, and regulations.”
Donald nodded. “It’s time to turn in anyway. I’m sure I’ll have more questions… I’m interested in these Makers, whatever they are.”
Peters grinned. “So am I. I ain’t got no more information, though.”
“Maybe you’ll think of something… Dzheenis, you can sleep in Johnny’s old room, end of the hall on your right. The guest bedroom there will be about right for Khurs.”
“Where will you sleep?” the Grallt girl asked.
“My bedroom is there. It’s dug into the hill, so it’s warmer when I can’t fire the furnace,” Donald told her. “Speaking of which, I should stoke it once more before we turn in. This won’t blow over before late tomorrow at the earliest, and we’ll all need the warmth.”
“Dzheenis and I’ll do the honors,” Peters put in. “You go on to bed, Granpap.”
“May I bathe before I go to bed?” Khurs wanted to know. “I feel–not really dirty, but I’ve worn these clothes too long.”
“Sure.” The elder Peters shrugged. “The furnace has been on all afternoon, so there should be plenty of hot water.” He stood and yawned. “I’m going to sleep in tomorrow. We don’t have a schedule, after all.”
Khurs disappeared into the bathroom with some items retrieved from one of the packs, Donald Peters went up the pair of steps to the loft room, and Dzheenis and Peters headed down the stairs with a small candle-lantern to care for the heating system. «Your grandparent is likely to be somewhat surprised a little later,» the big Grallt remarked.
«Yes… I’ve never seen Khurs act this way before.»
Dzheenis looked surprised, then nodded. «That’s right, you never met the man. Peteris, allowing for the effects of weathering on skin and a trifle of height, your grandparent could be Candor Zin’s brother, even his twin.»
«So Khurs is suffering from nostalgia. She may be in for a surprise of her own. Granpap is by no means infirm.»
«How old is he?»
«Hmm… I make it six eights of uzul, actually a little more than that. Pay the number no mind; he doesn’t.»
«So it would appear. Ah, well, something to look forward to in the morning… is this the control?»
«Yes, but don’t shake the coals down,» Peters advised. «If you leave the consumed material on top, it will maintain the reaction at a low rate until we are awake again. That way we don’t have to reinitialize it.»
«I see.» The big Grallt watched as Peters adjusted dampers and air supply. «You know, I’m getting a little jealous,» he remarked as they started back up the stairs. «You have Ander and Alper, and it appears Khurs has found an outlet for her urges. Only I need sleep alone tonight.»
«That isn’t my fault,» Peters said with a smile. «I thought you had some arrangement with that blonde from the control-room crew. Her name is Lisis, is it not?»
Dzheenis’s eyebrows went up. «That’s right, and yes, I have. I’ve been waiting for what seemed the proper time.»
«Proper time for what?»
«Why, to ask permission from my depa’olze to cohabit, of course.»
“Shit.” Peters rounded on the big Grallt, forcefully enough that he took a step back, then deflated with a sigh. «Dzheenis, you are a member in good standing of the Peters pa’ol. If you wanted to take your share and move to Zenth to set up a klisti-berry farm, the only question involved would be how much your share would be. If I thought your judgement was that bad I’d dismiss you anyway, but there’s no question of permission.» He shook his head and met the big Grallt’s eyes. «You definitely do not need my permission to select either a partner for an evening’s adventure or a mate for a lifetime commitment. It is a little insulting that you could think your depa’olze might wish to interject himself into a matter so personal.»
Dzheenis looked down, then met Peters’s eyes. «I apologize, depa’olze. I fear I have allowed my mind to fall into old patterns of thought.»
«Yes, I’m afraid you have.» Peters smiled. «You’re a good man, Dzheenis; I’m proud that you are a member of my pa’ol. When we get to Washington, get Gell to take you back to the ship. Ask the lady, and if she says yes, bring her back with you. A pa’ol need not grow only by natural increase. Accretion works as well, and may be faster.»
The big man’s eyes were wet, but he laughed shortly. «Kh! I believe I’ll do that. Thank you, depa’olze.»
«No thanks necessary. Now go to bed, and if you feel alone, remember it’s your own fault.»
«You’re a cruel man, depa’olze,» Dzheenis said with a smile in his voice.
“You betcha,” Peters said with a grin. “Good night, Dzheenis.”
“Good night, Peteris.”
They met Khurs coming out of the bathroom wearing a thin wrap and an anxious smile. Peters just smiled and nodded, got a smile and nod in return, and went to bed.
* * *
“You’re sure you won’t have any problems,” Donald said a little dubiously. He still looked a little wild-eyed, but it was hard to see under the self-satisfied pleasure.
“Nope,” Peters replied with confidence. “Every zifthkakik has its own signature, call it a serial number, and there’s an instrument on the dli that’ll find ’em. There’s two or three in Washington; all I gotta do is follow the needle.” He gestured at the sky, which was still heavily overcast though the blizzard had blown itself out the day before. “That ain’t no problem any more, either. Now you’ve got a zifthkakik, I can get back here the same way.”
His grandfather nodded. “And I can have the lights on whenever I want, too… any chance of you stopping by again before you leave?”
“Sure.” Peters shrugged. “Prethuvenigis wants me there for the trade talks, but those’ll be over someday, and after that I’d like to come back. Probably be spring by then. There’ll be great-grandkids for you to spoil, and I’d like to have the girls see the place when it ain’t covered with six foot of white shit.”
Peters reached to hug his grandfather with a little less awkwardness than when they’d arrived, and looked down. «Khurs, detach yourself from my grandparent, please. We have to leave.»
«Yes.» She gave a last squeeze and took a step away, then looked up. “Donald Peters, I have enjoyed my time with you more than I can say.”
The old man grinned. “Same here, little lady. If you should decide to come back I’ll be glad to see you, and never mind the boy here.”
“I have to ‘mind the boy’, he’s my depa’olze. You should be proud of him. He’s a fine man, and a true descendant besides.” She reached up to peck his cheek. “Goodbye, Donald Peters.” Then she turned and climbed the steps to board the dli.
“Goodbye, Khurs,” Donald almost whispered. Then he held out his hand. “See you, boy.”
“See you, Granpap.” They exchanged a final hug and handclasp, and Peters boarded and took his seat. He lifted the dli straight up, and his last view of Granpap was cut off by a bank of lowering clouds.