Despite what the classification may say, it has nothing to do with the Kentucky Derby whatsoever. There appears to be a bit of a glitch in the system.
I don't really remember when it was. Probably autumn. Isn't that funny? I can see the days themselves so clearly, but when is hazy. There are times when I wish that the mission had never happened, that we'd never learned what we did . . . but that isn't really fair. Who would remember the poor little thing then?
We were in the Sierras, I know that. It was some time after we'd first gone active in the war: things were a little random back then, and we never knew what we'd be assigned to next. Chief Anderson had us hunting for Spectran mole bases in the mountain range. We were using the Phoenix for transportation, which we all thought was strange: if the purpose were stealth, it really would have made more sense to take an ordinary VTOL jumper. But the Chief wouldn't hear of it. Too dangerous, he said. We talked about it while we were heading out. It was true that we were still new enough that most civilians wouldn't have recognized the Phoenix. But the Spectrans certainly should have! So Jason probably called it right when he said that we were being sent out as part minesweepers and part bait, going out alone to look for bases that nobody could confirm didn't exist. It wasn't a nice thought, but we did what the Chief said without question in those days, and he probably did have his reasons.
Anyway, I had a few misgivings and I know they showed, but the others covered theirs up well. Keyop wanted to pretend it was all an extended camping trip. Tiny groused about having been ordered to stay with the ship. Mark was busy trying to be the perfect commander, and Jason was having a great time teasing him at every opportunity. We'd fly the Phoenix to a likely area, set down, and spend the day searching . . . the hard way, on foot. The Chief wanted us to find bases without tipping the Spectrans inside off, and he figured the only way to do that was to make our search look as harmless as possible. So they outfitted us with civilian geologic survey gear. We also got civilian camping supplies, and believe me we used them, because there really aren't that many good landing sites for a ship the size of the Phoenix near those mountains. Dry lake beds are safe, and we used the poor sad wreck of Owens more than once. But more often than not we had to travel out to the mountains on what roads there were, and track on foot after that. It was hard work, and I remember tempers started getting short after only a few days.
We hadn't realized how large the search area really was until we got into it. As we worked our way north, the eastern range got taller and then both sides of the valley had to be searched. By common decision we started splitting up, rotating partners. You would have thought I'd have been glad when I was paired off with Mark, but I was shyer then and anyway he was so caught up in being a good leader that we hardly ever talked. He would check in with the others on his communicator nearly every half-hour, and late at night I'd hear him downloading maps into the mini-comp and sending them to Jason and Keyop. If Spectra had been paying attention, they could have found us with ease. I tried mentioning that to Mark once, but he got mad at me and asked why I had so little confidence in him. I know now that he was feeling overwhelmed by the job and didn't mean to be harsh, but at the time I was hurt. I said some things I didn't really mean, he gave as good as he got . . . well, you can imagine how it went. It was a mess.
It was the same night that we argued, I think. We were camped up around five thousand feet in a winding valley, sore and tired after two days' ascent spent searching every little nook and cranny of the place. From the look of things, the valley just kept climbing forever. It was early fall and I was cold even in my sleeping bag and tent. I'd gone to bed angry and upset with Mark, the Chief, the Spectrans, and pretty much the universe. I think, now, that that may have drawn her attention.
I remember that I woke suddenly. The moon had nearly crept behind the mountains, and the light was falling steeply into the tent. The air had gotten even colder and a small breeze rattled the nylon walls. But I could hear quite plainly that someone was crying nearby.
"Hello?" I kept my voice to a whisper, not sure what to think.
The crying continued. I tried to get a fix on it, but I couldn't: it was as if the sound was echoing: first from one direction, then from another. I would have found that decidedly eerie if it hadn't been such a miserable little sound. Before long, I was sure I was hearing some poor child who'd gotten lost. I scrambled out of my bag and exited the tent, thankful for the fact that we were allowed to sleep in our civilian clothes. I could hardly go searching for a child in the dark while dressed in white. I might frighten the poor thing half to death.
The crying seemed to be coming from a point of rock nearby. We were camped under the trees, of course, in case of flying patrols. A spur of the mountain came down not thirty feet from our camp, jutting up halfway to the treetops and bare of anything but a few weeds. I stole towards it as quickly as I could, stopping just under the trees.
"Hello?" I called--quietly. I didn't want to wake Mark.
The crying stopped short.
Relieved, I took a step out of the trees. "Hey . . . do you need help? We're camped nearby."
The moonlight bathed the rock in silver, black shadows threading under every pebble and leaf. There was no reply. I began to circle the rock, calling softly. Every now and then I would hear a faint sniffle, just enough to convince me that there was indeed a child on that hill. But I was nearly three-quarters around it before I saw anything that could have concealed even a baby.
Some time in the past, there had been a tree on that hill, just one. It had been struck by lightning, and the scorched fallen trunk lay on the south side of the hill. It was difficult to tell in the moonlight, but it looked as if it might be hollow. Perhaps twenty feet of open ground lay between me and it, and frankly I felt a little uncomfortable: I was starting to think that this might be an elaborate Spectran ruse. I looked around carefully and spent several seconds listening to the silence before I crossed the exposed ground in a run.
It was utterly still now; even the wind had dropped. Try as I might, I couldn't hear anything at all in the tree, even when I placed my ear against its side. The wood was dry and hard and had weathered heavily; it looked as if it had lain there for a very long time. The trunk came as high as my waist; surely large enough to hold a child if it really were hollow. I walked the length of it, checking where it met the ground, but the base of it was partly buried by chips of rock: no hiding places there. When I reached the larger end, I peeked cautiously past its splay of broken roots and found solid wood. I hurried around it and went along the uphill side in a crouch, feeling much too exposed. I found nothing.
At the narrower end of the trunk, I had to step carefully around the jagged stubs of branches that had jammed deep into the rocks. I discovered that the tree was hollow after all, and blacker than anything I'd ever seen inside. I called into it--reluctantly, in case some animal came blasting out into my face.
"Hello? Are you in there? Are you all right?"
No reply. I thought about going back to camp for my light, then stopped myself. The trunk was hollow. If a child were in there, its heartbeat would be magnified tremendously: surely I would hear it. I listened carefully, even stuck my head into the cavity to be sure. But there was nothing.
Rather upset, I scurried back to the cover of the trees and leaned against a trunk to think. I had heard someone, of that I was certain, and my rough triangulation while circling the hill had indicated that the child was somewhere on it. The only cover seemed to be that tree, and it had proven empty. So where had the poor thing gone? Would she or he start crying again so that I could try again? I listened for what seemed like an age, but in the end had to admit that whoever it was had gone.
The next morning wasn't fun. I'd gotten back to camp only to find Mark out of his tent and in uniform, lurking in the branches of a pine with a fistful of darts in one hand and the camp hatchet in the other. He was furious with me, both for leaving camp without telling him and for slipping back in without warning. Considering that I was the one nearly skewered by a dart, I was less than pleasant myself, especially when Mark dismissed my story of a crying child on the spot and brusquely ordered me back to my tent. I know he spent the rest of the night on patrol, which was why he was so awful the next morning. I hadn't been able to sleep either, for thinking about that child. So when Mark refused to consider checking the hill again in daylight, I got really mad.
"How can you be so heartless? I know I heard someone on that hill!"
Mark glared briefly at me and went back to wrestling with his sleeping mat. He'd already broken one of the tie strings and was trying to secure it with a piece of rope without letting it unroll. I could have held the knot for him, but I was too mad to care. When he didn't answer I threw down the tent bag and made a run for the hill. I heard Mark yell in exasperation, but there were no sounds of pursuit. I think he was so cross that he didn't know what he'd do, so he stayed put. I was glad.
When I broke from the trees, I realized all over again how exposed the hill was and threw myself flat. The hill was a lot prettier in daylight, and with the birds singing and a little breeze stirring the sparse purple wildflowers on its slopes it looked almost inviting. I felt a little silly, lying there in the dirt, but I made a complete check of the area before standing up. I knew that I had to find out if there was anyplace else a child could have been hiding up there, or I'd never be able to forgive myself. I climbed the hill as fast as I could and discovered that its crown was nearly solid stone. There were no deep splits or loose boulders. I even checked around the tree again and called into its open end, but nothing came of it. As I was straightening up, a scuffing sound on the other side of the clearing sent me hurtling into the trees.
Well, it was Mark, standing at the edge of the clearing with a half-apologetic expression on his face. I went to meet him. We both started to apologize at the same time, stopped. Then Mark smiled.
"I realized that we should check the hill after all, in case it was a Spectra trick," he said. "Sorry you had to do it by yourself."
I flushed, because I hadn't been very careful last night. "If it had been," I admitted, "they could've grabbed me easily in the dark. No, I think you were right: there isn't anything up there. I don't understand it."
"The wind can make some weird sounds in this part of the country," Mark said, tipping his head up towards the looming mountain range. "Maybe that was what you heard."
"Maybe," I conceded, and we headed back to camp.
The valley went a lot further into the range than we'd expected, and it was full of twists and side canyons. The Chief had specified that deep valleys were just what Spectra would want in a base site, so we couldn't leave the job half-finished. Mark checked in around noon and learned that Jason and Keyop had moved further north, while Tiny was wondering if he should hop the Phoenix north a bit to stay more or less equidistant between the two teams. Mark gave him the go-ahead.
"We'll be here overnight again," he told Tiny. "This valley's the most promising one we've found so far."
"Don't go hoggin' all the glory to yourselves," Tiny's voice buzzed back. "If you guys find somethin', call us in."
"Will do, Tiny. Big ten." Mark lowered his wrist and shifted one of his backpack straps with a grimace. "You know what I'm thinking, Princess?"
You're thinking that Jason would tell you you should take advantage of a golden opportunity, I thought, embarrassing myself thoroughly. Mark cocked an eyebrow at me and probably wondered why I was blushing again.
"I'm thinking--" Mark hitched at the strap again, rolling his eyes theatrically, "--that the next time the Chief suggests backpacking in after hidden bases, I'm going to insist he let us take mules."
I laughed, more at the thought of trying to persuade mules up some of these steep little canyons. "Mules have too much sense."
"Yes, I'll bet they do." Mark sighed. "Okay, Princess, let's try to finish this by nightfall."
Well, we didn't quite manage that, but we were feeling pretty good about our achievements by the time we pitched camp. Mark had found a nice campsite in one of the side canyons, a tangle of old logging stumps that had been washed into a bend by flash flooding. There was a gravel bar there, and the streambed was dry.
"A good thing there's still water in the main valley," Mark commented, prodding the stones in the streambed with one foot. "I wouldn't want to have to drill for water out here."
"We'd be likely to be heard." I waved a hand at the sack containing the robot digger. "That thing doesn't make a lot of sense for a stealth mission."
"Well, it isn't so much stealth as deception, Princess. We can't exactly hide our presence, but we can try to look like harmless civilians on an extended hiking trip."
"Just how silly do they think Spectrans are?" I grumbled. "I don't know what we'd do if we were caught with all these scanners. Who would actually come all this way on foot lugging those things?"
"If we really were geology grad students on a tight travel budget, we might." Mark shrugged, grinning nastily. "Besides, it's one way to find a hidden base."
"I'd rather sneak up on the wolves, not call them down on us," I shot back. Mark's grin disappeared.
We pitched our tents in the shelter of the tangle, and allowed ourselves a fire that night. The heat reflected off the steep wall of the canyon and made our little corner almost comfortable. It would have been a great night to stay up late and enjoy the stars, but we were too tired. Mark put out the fire and we both went to bed. I fell asleep almost immediately.
And woke some time later to the sound of crying.
This time I lay very still and just listened. We'd covered several miles during the day, and it seemed pretty unlikely that a child could have kept up with us. That made Mark's unpleasant suggestion of a Spectran trap seem all the more likely, especially in the dark of night. With that in mind, I set myself to listen very closely. Maybe I could figure out how the Spectrans were doing it.
The crying was quiet, hopeless, the sort of sound that would send any decent human being charging out to help. I decided that it sounded like it might be a little girl, although that could be contested, and very young. Perhaps six or seven. The weeping went on and on without much of a break, torn at times by the gusting wind that had picked up during the night. Thanks to the high wall behind the tent, I really couldn't tell where it was coming from, and the circling effect that it had had last night was absent. I told myself that given the fact that we'd seen nobody in this valley all day, it had to be a recording, but it still upset me. The Spectrans clearly had terrified some child just to get a tape of her crying to use as a lure. My fists clenched to think of it.
It had to be a recording, didn't it? I'd gone out and called last night. Surely even a terrified child would have responded in some way, if only by crying harder.
After nearly forty-five minutes of listening to that miserable sobbing, my nerves were a wreck. But I wasn't going to go out alone this time. I raised my wrist. "Mark?"
No answer. I grimaced, thinking that some people slept too deeply for their own good, and tapped the transmitter sharply. "Mark! Listen outside!"
Mark didn't reply, but an answering buzz stung the skin of my wrist. Yes, that had gotten his attention. I waited several minutes, giving him plenty of time to hear the crying, then slid out of my bag and tent and moved as quietly as I could across the crunching gravel to his tent. I was grateful for the noise of the wind.
Mark popped the seal and motioned me inside. I fought another blush, hidden by the dark, knowing perfectly well that Mark was thinking of security, not . . . well. It was crowded with two of us in that tent, but at least we could talk without using our communicators, which might have tipped our nature to the Spectrans.
"I hear it," Mark said, and his voice only sounded sleepy. "Princess, it's the wind."
I couldn't believe him. "No it's not! Mark, it's that child again! I've been listening for almost an hour. I admit it's just a good recording, but it's a child. I'm sure of it."
Mark sighed. "Princess, I wish I could agree with you. But I'm sure I'm just hearing the wind. Listen, it gets louder when the wind does, and quieter when it dies down."
"Then why didn't we hear it earlier?"
"It was nearly calm when we made camp."
"Then what about last night?"
Mark drew a quick breath, then hesitated. "All right," he said at last, "that's a little strange. But, Princess, I can only hear wind out there."
I shivered, then flushed angrily as the child's voice gave a particularly heart-breaking sob. "Well if you can't hear that," I gritted, "then you really must be heartless. Good night."
"Princess." Mark's hand on my arm stopped me. "Don't go wandering around tonight, okay?"
"I'm not stupid," I shot back, and left the tent.
Well, I didn't "go wandering around" that night, but I sure didn't sleep well either. That poor child cried until nearly dawn, and I couldn't manage to doze off for more than a few minutes at a time. As nearly as I could tell, there were no loops in the recording. The Spectrans must have constantly harassed that poor child to get so many hours of steady crying. Most children would have cried themselves to sleep at some point, but this one hadn't. By sunrise I was ready to cry myself to sleep.
It didn't help that Mark wanted to get an early start. I heard him moving around outside just half an hour after sunrise, building another fire and starting breakfast. I knew better than to try to sleep then, and grumpily made up my bed and packed it away. When I crawled out of the tent into the nasty morning chill, Mark held out a steaming cup.
"Come on and warm up."
I took a seat on the log and discovered that he had fixed me instant cocoa. One look at his face stopped me mid-sip.
"Didn't you sleep either?"
Mark turned back to the packets warming at the edge of the fire. "No, not really. Every time I started to fall asleep, I'd start thinking that you were right after all. But when I sat up and listened again, it sounded like the wind. I don't mind telling you it nearly drove me nuts."
I took a big swallow of the cocoa and felt it glow its way down to my stomach. "I know what I heard."
"Well, Princess, I can't explain it. But if you hear it again tonight, you call me." Mark picked up a packet, bounced it testingly on his hand, and gave it to me. Backpackers' bacon-and-eggs. I took the fork he passed me with a smile.
It was another long, long day. Mark had consulted the map sometime in the night and discovered that the valley we were in pretty much cut the mountain range in two: it had a counterpart on the other side, and while there wasn't a true pass between them, there was a lower area in the ridgeline. This began a long communicator discussion over what to do when we finished searching the valley: should we cross the ridgeline to search the other side, or turn back? Mark didn't mention the crying in the night to the others, but it had made him more certain than ever that Spectrans were in the vicinity and he really wanted to search the other valley. Jason picked up on this and wanted Tiny to ferry him and Keyop over to do it, commenting irritably that Mark shouldn't keep all the good prospects for himself. That touched off a fight, and hot words flew on both sides until Tiny cut in with the news that there wasn't anyplace he could land the Phoenix on the west side of the range without drawing attention. Farmland ran right up into the hills there, and there were scattered towns everywhere. Only on the east side of the range--where, as Jason put in, only a real nut would live--could he take his pick of landing sites.
Well, that stopped the argument. Mark and I were two and a half days up the valley, nearly to the ridgeline. It only made sense for us to search the other side ourselves, since we were closest and didn't need to be dropped in by the Phoenix. I couldn't argue, even though it meant at least one more night in this unnerving place.
We did finish the valley around three, and spent the next hour scaling the steep rocky slope towards the bitten-out area that marked what we'd use as a pass. There were a few trails up there, undoubtedly made by the desert bighorns; one of them went right up into the pass, so we used it. By now we were passing drifts of snow on the north faces of the cliffs, and the path was icy in places. Only a bighorn or one of our team could have made any speed on that trail going up. I considered asking Mark if we could transmute for the trip down.
I hated the pass. The wind howled through the cut and nearly froze us; snow caked the rocks. We were well above the timberline, and there wasn't much that seemed able to grow up there. The "easy-off" cold-weather gear that they'd supplied us with in case of emergency transmute proved drafty. I was completely miserable by the time we reached the far side of the pass. Mark seemed to understand, because rather than stop and take in the admittedly spectacular view he chose a path down into the valley and made for the nearest timbered area. We reached it just before full dark and made camp after a very quick reconnaissance.
Mark wasn't comfortable with a fire that night, and he apologized for it so many times that I almost got mad at him. He also apologized for the lack of level ground for our tents. We moved a fallen tree to our camp and braced it against the slope with rocks and some rope pulleys around other trees. Our tents barely fit and had to be pitched nearly side-by-side, but at least we were able to lie down for the night without worrying about sliding downhill.
That night was the worst. The crying woke me after only an hour of sleep, and at that point I was so exhausted that I started crying too, silently begging the Spectrans to stop playing and just attack us so that we could respond. It's embarrassing to think about it now, but I didn't even call Mark. I just lay there like a lump, soaking the pillow and feeling sorry for myself. It must have been half an hour before it occurred to me how silly I was being. I mopped my face, blew my nose, and decided I wasn't going to let this get to me. I had to turn my pillow over--ick--one of these days I'll learn how to cry neatly. Feeling determined, I lay back down and wadded my jacket up around my ears to muffle the sounds from outside.
For about half an hour, it worked. But then I realized that I needed to pee. I know that's gross, but I did, and the cold air wasn't helping. I hadn't remembered to go before going to bed, and now I knew that I wasn't going to get to sleep without taking care of it.
Getting dressed in a tent pitched on a slope is really difficult, and so is getting out of that tent quietly. I was so absorbed in trying not to make noise that I forgot all about the crying child, and it wasn't until I was outside that I realized that the crying had stopped. It made me suspect that the Spectrans were watching our camp. Big deal, I decided. I could at least face them with an empty bladder, and if they tried to attack me at an inopportune moment, boy were they in for a surprise. I slipped around the log, went about ten feet downslope, and took care of business without anything happening. It was when I turned to go back to camp that I saw her.
She was perched on the end of the log supporting our tents. She didn't even look as old as she'd sounded, there was that little to her: a skinny wisp of a thing with long tangled hair. The moonlight bleached her simple dress to gray and her hair to nearly white. She was watching me. I didn't want to scare her, but I didn't dare call out either: clearly the Spectrans had grown frustrated with their recording, and felt a live child made better bait. I hesitated for a long time, debating, then decided that if the Spectrans were willing to go to such extremes then they already knew they weren't dealing with ordinary hikers. I drew close to a tree trunk and transmuted.
When I stepped out, the child was still watching me. She seemed to be smiling a little. I moved carefully up the slope, certain that half of Spectra was about to drop on me at any moment but determined that I would at least get to where I could cover the child. I should have commed Mark, but I guess I was dazed by lack of sleep. All I could think about was the child. As I drew nearer I could see that her feet were bare and covered in sores. Her dress had hiked up to nearly knee level, and her lower legs were scratched and bruised. Tears streaked her cheeks in silver tracks, and her nose was grubby. She was watching me so closely that I couldn't tell if she was frightened or not. I stopped about six feet away, in the light where she could see me better, and reached out a hand.
"Sweetheart, do you need help?"
The child looked at me for several seconds, then gave a tiny nod.
"I'd like to help you. Will you come with me?"
She hesitated, fiddling with the hem of her dress and looking up at me shyly. I tried not to be impatient, but I was expecting an attack at any moment. I raised my outstretched hand a little higher.
"Please come with me. There are bad men out there."
Her little face twisted into a horrible grimace. Before I could move, she had leaped down off the log and darted away up-slope. I yelped and started to follow.
Mark's hissed cry of alarm stopped me; seconds later, Mark was out of his tent and looking around sharply, cape-wings gleaming. "What was it?" he demanded.
I looked up the slope, but the child was gone. "Mark, I saw her! She was sitting right there." I pointed. "They've got a child, Mark, and they're using her for bait."
Mark's face went cold. "Those scum," he gritted. "You were right. Princess, why didn't you call me?"
Now I realized what I'd done, and groaned. "Mark, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. I wanted to get the child to safety before anything happened, and I just . . . overfocused."
"Mm. Try to remember, next time?" Mark drew his boomerang. "Well, if there's trouble out there, let's go find it."
We spent two or three hours searching up-slope, on the logic that if the child had been taught to lead us into an ambush, she'd take a direct route to it. But we didn't find anything. Mark got pretty frustrated and even went so far as to ask Tiny to raise the Phoenix into low orbit and scan the area. Tiny wasn't happy about being woken up in the middle of the night, but he did it. The sensors didn't find a thing. Just Mark and me, standing at the top of the valley. At that point Mark gave up.
"I don't get it," he growled. "They have to be out there. Are they hiding in underground passages or what?"
"Why didn't they attack?" I wondered.
"It doesn't make any sense." I heard Mark kick a rock, sending it rattling recklessly down the hill. "I tell you, Princess, I'm getting awfully sick of these Spectrans and their little mind games."
We went back to camp and kept watch in turns through the night. Nothing happened, and there was no sound from the child. At least that meant that we were both half-rested the next day. We made a hasty breakfast and set out to scour the area in more detail. Mark was in particular looking for tiny underground bunkers, the sort that would have been easy to miss, and got really cross when he couldn't find any. It was past noon before we started down the valley again, heading through the wooded area where we'd camped last night.
This part of the valley was quite pretty. It sloped more gently than its counterpart on the other side, and we ran across a snowmelt stream that kept us company. The air was warmer despite the fact that the sun hadn't reached it until late morning, and the whole place seemed gentler, with more trees and flowers. In fact, I was enjoying myself more than I had in weeks. It came as quite a shock when we came to the edge of a hollow and spotted a rooftop among the trees below.
"Now there's a likely cover for a base," Mark breathed, looking almost cheerful. We moved into cover, left our packs behind, and started a slow and careful approach. As we got closer I could tell that the building, whatever it had been, was in ruins. It couldn't have been very large even at its best. Mark stopped us at the nearest patch of good cover and set up the portable sensor unit he'd used so many times already this morning, taking great care with its settings. We settled in to wait.
The scanner pinged almost immediately, announcing that it had detected something that its tiny computer mind found suspicious. We read its report with growing confusion. The wood had been sealed with a polymeric weather protectant, long out-of-date but still effective. But from the look of things, it had been done after the building collapsed, and the work crew had simply doused the exposed surfaces, ignoring the underside. The compound used was a penetrating type and the wood had soaked it up like a sponge, but it seemed to me that that didn't excuse such careless work.
A few minutes later, Mark nearly crowed with triumph and announced that the building was at least three hundred years old, probably older. He leaned over the scanner impatiently, twitching at every new line of text. He found the use of preservatives that didn't match the age of the rest of the building to be extremely suspicious, and I think he honestly expected to discover at least a monitoring station buried underneath it.
An hour later, though, even Mark had to admit that there wasn't much chance of a secret base entrance here. He'd scanned that building and its underlying soil four or five different times, checking for everything he could think of. Although he'd discovered a small, half-collapsed cellar, there were no tunnels. The only metal in the building seemed to be rusted remnants of nails and something buried on the far side. There was some broken glass in the cellar, and some fragments of metal and simple ceramics hidden somewhere under the ruins. No plastics, no microfibers, no modern materials at all--apart from the preservative. If the building hadn't been of such age, that lack would have seemed suspicious: too clean, too innocent. Mark and I circled the building and discovered that the other metal reading was coming from a cistern buried next to what had probably been the back door. Finally Mark let us approach the building openly.
"There's nothing here, Princess," he grumbled. "Might as well satisfy our curiousity."
We weren't able to do much looking around. It wasn't possible to see into the building, or even tell what its layout had been. It appeared to have been made of mostly wood planks; bits of heavy black paper could be found under what shingles still clung to the roof. The roof had settled at a crazy angle over the collapsed walls. There was evidence of a stone foundation, but its mortar was falling to bits and the stones had slid all over the place. I circled out from the ruin and discovered what had probably been a much smaller wooden building lying flattened in the grass, nearly rotted away. Ninety degrees opposite was a small clearing. Here I found a moss-grown rock with a cross incised deeply into it, nearly buried by shifting soil and weeds. I knelt to clear some of it away.
"Someone lived out here," Mark commented behind me, making me jump. I hadn't realized he was there. He stood looking down at the gray stone, and his expression was difficult to read.
"Is that what this was? A home?"
"I think so. That was the house." He pointed at the larger ruin, then at the hidden smaller one. "I bet that was a privy. And this--" he looked down, "--their graveyard."
The thought that I was kneeling on a grave sent me to my feet in a hurry, stepping back. "Oh! Well, I'm sure they'd rather I stopped spoiling the view." I dusted off my hands, trying to regain some poise.
Mark smiled a little, then turned and started heading back up-slope. "Well, enough history. We've still got an entire valley to cover, and the day isn't getting any younger."
"No, guess not." I hurried to catch up. "Say, Mark, what's a privy?"
Mark gave me a sidelong look. "Uh . . . an outhouse?" He tried again. "A pit toilet. From the look of things, these people didn't have any plumbing. So they made do with what they could."
"Oh." It didn't sound very pleasant, even considering what we'd been doing all along on this trip. It sort of brought home just how difficult it must have been to live here, without so many of the things that I took for granted. Scenic beauty was nice, but I doubted they'd had much time to appreciate it, and it wouldn't have fed anyone. I really couldn't imagine what could have drawn these people out here to live all alone.
We discovered the remains of several more small buildings the next day as we worked our way down the valley. None of them were close to each other, as if too close proximity had been somehow undesirable. They all had a heavy coating of protectant, but many were in far worse shape than the first; some were little more than flattened areas in the grass. Only that and the bits of metal and glass buried below told us they'd been there. Mark thought they had all been homesteads. What bothered me was the fact that over half of them seemed to have burned down.
"Building materials: wood, tar paper, creosote." Mark picked off a charred splinter from a half-buried timber and waved it under his nose, then pitched it away, nodding. "Incredibly flammable. Fire must have been a serious hazard to these people. And it would have been their only source of heat in cold weather, or for cooking."
"But the stream is right there," I protested.
Mark shrugged. "Without pumps I doubt they could have brought the water in fast enough to save the house. No, they probably had to let it burn."
I shook my head as we walked away. Why would anyone go to the trouble of building a house out here and then not try to save it? It seemed like such a waste of effort. And it still seemed strange to me that so many had burned. These people must have been painfully aware of how dangerous fire was. It didn't make sense that so many of them would have been careless.
The search of the valley went quicker than it had on the other side of the mountain, mostly because this valley was broader and a good deal less steep. Instead of the deep canyons on the east side, we had rolling hills and not very much solid rock once we got down to a few thousand feet above sea level. That sped up our search considerably: Spectra prefers the predictability and shelter of solid rock where they can get it. Our scanner was able to penetrate soil strata much more efficiently than rock, and before long we were able to get by with just two passes down either side of the valley rather than go scouting up every little canyon.
At the end of the third day, we found a much larger area of old buildings, these in much better repair. Mark grew excited when the scanner reported dozens of modern polymers and alloys. Some of the less stable buildings had been shored up unobtrusively with modern materials, which we agreed was suspicious. But although we spent most of the next day going over the site with a fine-toothed comb, we still found nothing. Analysis of a few samples showed that the buildings had been sprayed down regularly with protectants for the past several decades. The site had paths running through it, and a dirt road leading away down the valley. But there had been no real attempts to restore anything, and certainly no tunneling or façade work. It was as if the place were some kind of open-air museum.
We decided that this had been a flourishing town. It lay not far from where the streams met in a small river, and there were a few buildings right next to the water. Mark said that they might have been water-powered mills for grain and possibly wood. There were larger buildings that had probably served some public function, and we found another, much larger graveyard. There were a fair number of homes as well, and most were in decent condition. But some were completely collapsed, like the ones we'd found further up the valley, and I found these even more upsetting: finding destruction in the middle of what had otherwise been preserved made it much worse by contrast. In truth, the entire place had a sad air of neglect and too many years. I was glad when we left.
I honestly expected that place to give me bad dreams that night, but it didn't. I didn't hear the child, either; not even a single sob. It occurred to me in the morning that this was the fourth night in a row that had happened. I can't say that I was sorry for the sleep, but I worried about what that silence might mean. The child had failed to bring us to the Spectran ambush, after all; she was probably being punished. I wished that we'd been able to find her, but we'd searched and searched. What more could we have done?
On the fifth morning, we abruptly came to the end of our search area. We were pushing our way through the trees when we spotted a building that pinged our scanner with modern materials. Beyond it we could just see a stretch of paved road, and beyond that the beginning of cultivated fields. We had reached civilization.
Mark insisted that we sneak up to the building. It appeared to be a fueling station for ordinary civilian vehicles, but Mark kept scanning and re-scanning it. I knew how he felt. This station was our last candidate for a hidden base, and after all it wouldn't have been the first time Spectra had managed to hide one behind a perfectly innocent exterior. But eventually Mark closed the scanner up and stuffed it back in his pack, turning to me with a wry expression.
"No luck, Princess. Looks like we wasted our time."
"Don't feel bad, Mark. At least we know these two valleys are clean, and going back won't take so long."
"Oh, I know; it's just . . . ." Mark sighed. "Say, I wonder if this place sells food."
I had to agree that at this point, anything sounded better than backpackers' rations. We wandered on in and discovered that the station boasted a lunch counter with a live cook. Actually, she was cook, cashier, and pump operator all in one. We were lucky that business was slow that day. The lady was quite friendly and chatted nonstop as she fried up lunch--BLT sandwiches--and managed to talk us into root beer floats on the side.
"So, you hiked in, I see. Where you headed?"
"Well, we haven't decided," Mark replied. "This is an interesting valley you have."
The lady's grin broadened. "Ain't it just? Folks come from miles around to see Throdie."
"The ghost town. Up the river, about a day's hike. Lots less than that if your vehicle can handle the road." She chuckled, waving at an ancient tow truck just visible through the back window. "Most can't but think they can. I get a lot of visitors during tourist season, fishin' them out the river or givin' 'em a lift."
Mark laughed. I took another bite and chewed on it, thinking about how we'd battled our way through the brush next to the river. It would be nice to use that road on the way back.
"Any tourists this time of year?" Mark asked casually, turning to conversation toward the things we needed to know.
"No, not much traffic goes up there this time of year. Too cold!" The woman snagged Mark's glass and topped it up expertly from the antique soda fountain, smiling flirtatiously. "You two must be part polar bear to even think about it."
"I think you have a point," I said dryly.
"When were the last visitors?" Mark pressed.
The woman made a face. "Not since early September. I go up to the town once or twice a month just to make sure there ain't any squatters, and there's been no new tracks on that road since then. I usually spot 'em goin' by even when they don't stop to visit me. Got a good feel for when they been out too long, and need a lift."
"Hmm." Mark took a deep drink of his float and tried to look interested. "Maybe we should take a look at that town."
The lady shoved herself away from the counter and headed off at nearly a trot. "You should know I got a nice little guidebook right here in the gift shop." She bent behind the cash register and rummaged in a box. "Just checked this the other day . . . here it is!" She presented the small brown paperback with a proud smile. "Got a history of the town, maps, bios of the survivors, everything."
Mark pricked up his ears at the word maps. "All right," he said. "Love to have a copy."
The maps, unfortunately, didn't provide us with any breakthroughs; Mark muttered something about at least playing the part and lost interest in the book completely. But I was reluctant to put it away: it was the first casual reading material I'd gotten my hands on in some time. On our way up the unpaved road I kept stealing peeks at different chapters, and found enough tempting fragments to convince me that it was worth reading in earnest.
Even though we weren't working the valley any more, we stuck to our earlier pattern of resting for a few minutes every two hours. During these rests I skimmed through the first few chapters and found them pretty interesting. It seemed that Throdie had begun with a handful of determined gold seekers around the mid-nineteenth century. Their investigations of the river yielded a little gold, and the hills showed promise of silver. Apparently it was enough. In those dwindling days of the Gold Rush, there were still plenty of people willing to travel hundreds of miles for the promise of fortune. Before long the area began to accumulate a real population, and the town was established.
Throdie managed to survive even when the silver proved too much trouble to mine, and its population had to fall back on the gold. They searched the entire watershed but couldn't figure out just where the gold was coming from. Some continued to work the river with sluices, while others staked isolated claims on the various creeks where they could pan by hand and continue searching for the elusive source. Simple economics forced many of them to supplement their income by trapping or working in the town. It wasn't an easy life at all. The winters brought heavy snows to the northern part of the valley. Throdie lay below the worst of it, but the spring flooding sometimes wrecked parts of the town. The people had to grow a lot of their own food. There was no doctor. Schooling was local and sporadic; sometimes there was no one who could teach. I really had to wonder whether these people would have felt they'd found a better life in Throdie or not!
We managed to hike well beyond Throdie before stopping for the night: now that we didn't have to stop for scans, we were finally able to move at a good pace. That night, I indulged in some more reading and shared some of the more interesting trivia with Mark. He seemed resigned about what he saw as the failure of our efforts, but with a little effort I was able to get him to stop being such a frump and enjoy the evening a little. It was really a shame when we discovered that Throdie's story didn't have a happy ending.
Throdie was isolated, and it had produced gold. That eventually drew the attention of a group of raiders. On a day in early autumn they rode in, set fire to some buildings on the edge of town, and ambushed the townspeople that came to fight the fire. Over the next days they hunted down the remaining men, plundered the town, and committed what the book called 'crimes too atrocious to relate' upon the women and children. The goods they gained weren't enough to satisfy all of their group, though, and some of them began targeting the isolated homesteads. Away from what little mitigating effect their leaders may have had on them, one can only imagine what they did there. The charred homes bore silent witness. It made me feel sick.
The end of the second day of climbing put us not far from the first cabin we'd found. I didn't want to camp too close to it. Mark argued with me but in the end let us camp on the other side of the valley. It was a chilly, exposed camp, but anything was better than staying near that broken remnant of someone's life. Since the valley had proven clean, we dug a break and built a nice fire. It made things a little more cheerful.
And that night I woke up and heard the child crying again.
Well, I'd been foolish too many times on this trip. I commed Mark immediately. At first he didn't hear it at all. I had to admit the sound seemed fairly distant; if I hadn't been sensitized to it by now, I might not have heard it either. But the crying drew steadily nearer, until I could imagine the poor thing standing just a few feet beyond my tent.
"I'm going out," I told Mark.
Mark hesitated only for a moment. "Go. I'll cover you."
Feeling a lot more in control of the situation, I unsealed my tent and climbed out as casually as if I were planning another nocturnal necessity run. I saw the child right away. She was standing on the other side of the fire ring, shivering. I decided to play it very casually, thinking how she had run away before, and raised a hand in a little wave.
"Hello there. Aren't you cold?"
The child nodded.
"If you want to get warm by the fire, you're welcome to."
The child seemed to think it over. I couldn't be sure in the fickle, faint light of the banked coals, but she looked a little less bedraggled than before, as if she'd made some pitiful attempt to tidy her hair and dress. Finally she took a few steps forward and squatted down across from me. I sat down in front of my tent, and we looked at each other.
"I'm sorry I said the wrong thing a few days ago," I hazarded.
The child blinked at me and scrubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. I squinted, wondering what she could have gotten on her hands to stain them so dark, but the light was too poor.
"Do you want me to poke up the fire?"
The child shook her head firmly, clutching her knees up to her chest.
"All right, I won't. My name's Princess. What's your name?"
For the first time the child smiled a little. "Emmeline," she said in a whisper.
"That's a pretty name." I knew it was trite, but I wasn't sure what else to say.
"Zekie calls me Emmy."
Four voluntary words; amazing. Better not to ask who this "Zekie" was just yet. "Do you like being called Emmy?"
A shrug. Interesting. Zekie wasn't one of her captors, then.
"I'm looking for Zekie." Emmeline rubbed her nose again, sniffling a little. "Gotta find Zekie."
Something cool ran along my nerves then. I couldn't really understand why. "Who's Zekie, Emmy?"
"Does he live around here?"
Emmeline's face fell and she looked down at her knees, going very still. "He left," she whispered. "I can't find Zekie."
"I'm sorry," and I meant it. It would have been nice to have had a lead. Something else occurred to me. "Have you been looking for him long?"
Emmeline's dark eyes met mine and overflowed with tears. "I been looking forever."
That sent a chill dancing right down my back. I told myself firmly that children of her age were given to exaggeration, and managed some sort of sympathetic noise. Emmeline kept staring at me, tears running steadily down her face. It was hard to get a grip on myself with those intent little eyes locked on me, and I honestly couldn't come up with a thing to say for several minutes. I could sense Mark getting impatient behind me, but he had the good sense to stay silent.
"Where was your brother, the last time you saw him?" I managed at last. To my dismay Emmeline shook her head and the tears flowed even faster. "Emmy, sweetheart, please don't cry. I want to help you. Isn't there anything I can do to help?"
Emmeline smiled waveringly and stood up. "You came back," she said simply, and the fire blew up in a sudden shower of sparks. When the air cleared, she had gone.
I was really upset then. I called after her for nearly an hour, and Mark and I both searched the area . . . again. We even checked the unpleasant remains of the house, although I thought that any self-respecting child would have avoided that place like the plague, especially at night. Finally Mark and I admitted defeat and threw another log on the fire so that we could have some decent heat while we talked.
"You heard her?" I couldn't imagine how not, but I wanted to hear Mark say that he had.
"Yes, I heard her. She doesn't speak up very well, does she?" Mark smiled briefly, looking tired. "She sounded awfully young. Imagine a little kid running around these mountains in the dark."
I felt the wind snap icily around the backs of my legs and scowled. "Who'd send a child out on a night like this? She didn't even have a jacket!"
"Poor kid," Mark said absently, and rubbed his chin. "Something's funny about all this."
I started to say something rude, but the odd look on his face made me stop. Mark went on.
"Either she's a Spectran tool or she isn't. If she were, we should have found the Spectrans by now--one way or another. But if she isn't with them, where's her family?"
I groaned. "I should have asked about Spectra. But I was trying not to scare her."
"It's OK," Mark surprised me by saying. "I really don't think she's a decoy."
"Just because we haven't found any sign of Spectra? That seems a little weak."
Mark snorted. "Princess, the way we've been both snooping around and sleeping in the open, we would have found them if they were here to find. No, I think we're dealing with some local child."
I shivered good and hard, clutching my jacket around me. "Right now I can't imagine anyone wanting to live up here! She said she was looking for her brother Zekie, so there must be someone taking care of her."
"There'd have to be," Mark said dryly. "But what I'm getting at is this: we haven't found her family either. So where exactly is her base of support?"
That made me stop and think. We'd combed this valley and the one to the east so thoroughly that I knew we couldn't possibly have missed a manufactured structure. But we'd been scanning for things associated with technology: EM fields, repetitive sonic patterns, alloys, artificial compounds. There were a few groups whose beliefs ran strongly anti-tech, and a remote area like this could attract them. "A Naturalist family--?" I hazarded. "She certainly seems to know the area like the back of her hand."
Mark seemed to be on his own line of thought. "You saw her in the other valley, too. That means she's walking miles over some pretty rough stuff . . . ." He paused. "And frankly," he went on slowly, "it's amazing that she keeps turning up."
"I thought about that too. But we have been tracking back and forth a lot. Suppose she's just taking the straightest routes up and down the valley? She could have overtaken us while we were busy scanning the rocks for Spectrans."
Mark pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Maybe. But the way she's going about it doesn't make any sense. She clearly has no idea where her brother is, so why search at night?"
"She may be getting desperate enough to search day and night." I frowned, hating the feeling of helplessness. "Mark, I don't like any of this, but I just don't know what more we can do."
"Well, we can't help her if she can't be found." Mark shook his head, then shrugged. "Maybe she just lives on the other side of one of these ridges, and is running home even as we speak. I hate to think that we could have missed any kind of habitation, but you're right, a Naturalist dwelling wouldn't show up on our scanners." He chuckled. "She's certainly proved that she knows the area. She travels like a veteran rough-country hiker."
Mark made it sound plausible, but I noted that he still had that little line between his eyebrows. I wondered if he was also thinking about the pass, how steep and icy it had been. I couldn't imagine Emmy going over something like that, with her bare feet and thin little dress. How had she crossed the mountains?
"Princess?" Mark was looking at me closely. I shook my head, dismissing that upsetting train of thought.
"It's nothing." I shivered again. "I feel terrible for giving up on her all over again, but I'm freezing, Mark. I'm going to bed."
"Me too." Mark stood and whacked his hands together several times. "We've done what we can, Princess. Unless she comes to us, there's just not much we can do. We'll make an early start tomorrow and look for tracks."
Mark was as good as his word, but even near the fire ring the ground was too hard to have taken a decent footprint, and the wiry grass offered no hints of Emmy's trail. In the frankly miserable morning chill we hurried through the pass and began our descent. Mark refused to even consider transmuting. It was hard balancing our packs down that slippery, ice-lined slope, and both of us took a fall or two. We made some leaps that would have had any watching Spectran sentry grabbing for his rifle, but of course nothing happened. As we got down off of the exposed face, Mark broke into a trot. It was a relief to run some of the stiffness out of my joints. At that pace we made plenty of distance, and late afternoon saw us at a point roughly halfway between our first and second camps. The stream ran loud and cheerful here, and some silly little bird eyed us beadily, clinging head-down to a pine trunk. It gave a few gravity-defying hops along the vertical surface and disappeared around the other side.
"I think we've earned an early rest." Mark looked around, then pointed at a stretch of flat ground near the stream. "How about there?"
"I think the stream's nice, but the sound would drive me crazy if I had to sleep next to it. Let's find someplace quieter."
Fortunately there were plenty of decent spots to choose from, and we soon settled on one next to a small meadow. Mark assembled another fire pit and collected fallen wood. I tackled the tents. I'd gotten pretty good with them. I doubt there's a tent made that's as easy to set up as the directions would have you think, but by now I knew most of the tricks. By the time we started losing light in earnest we were ready to light the fire, sit back, and enjoy the sunset. Some high clouds had moved in from the northwest; they provided us with a spectacular show of constantly shifting colors. After dinner we both agreed that we deserved an early night and banked the fire. Snug in my tent and bag, I took out the guidebook and miniature lamp for a brief bit of bedtime reading. I got into the biography section, and found out more than I had intended.
The book told me that not all of the men of Throdie had been killed by the raiders. A handful had been outside the valley at the time of the attack. One of them had been one Ezekiel Tipton. The Tipton family had established a mining claim that happened to be the furthest from town. His father's sudden death left Ezekiel the man of the house at just thirteen. Mrs. Tipton, still a young woman, had fiercely rejected her neighbors' advice to give up the claim and move into town. She instead set herself to raise her two children alone and continued to struggle with the claim. But the claim never yielded more than a tiny amount of gold, and by the time Ezekiel was sixteen he had decided that he had to do something. He scouted the slopes behind the family claim until he discovered the pass and the valley to the east. Convinced that he could find gold in that valley, he made his plans. In the late summer he set off on foot over the forbidding pass, carrying a survival pack, some mining tools, and his father's best gun.
Ezekiel had planned his expedition with care in order to make the most of his time in the east valley. Knowing that the gold might be difficult to find, he intended to trap bobcat for their skins, and on his return to collect a deer or bighorn sheep so that the family could have fresh meat. The valley proved a rich hunting ground, and there were a few traces of gold in the streams, but also hints of native occupation which caused him to move cautiously. The weeks stretched out. And then one day he looked up to see a banner of smoke being whipped through the pass.
Ezekiel, travelling as fast as he could, returned too late. Finding his family home empty and the door broken in, he hurried to the nearest neighbor, only to discover their house still smouldering. From there, he worked his way cautiously down the valley, and it didn't take him long to realize what had happened. Moving as only a frightened and highly motivated boy could, he evaded the raiders' loose security net and made his way down to the mouth of the valley. From there he travelled to the nearest town some twenty miles away and made his report to the local sheriff.
Ezekiel had only been able to move as fast as a person on foot could, and the sheriff realized that there was little he could do to help whatever might be left of Throdie. Nevertheless, he managed to raise a group of volunteers. They rode out to Throdie only to find that the raiders had somehow caught word of their approach and left in a hurry just a day or two earlier. Before leaving they had murdered the remaining women, including Mrs. Tipton. The grief-stricken Ezekiel raged at the unfairness of it all. He shortly signed up as the sheriff's deputy, and from there became a law enforcer. His motive, of course, was revenge. He did manage to track down some of the raiders eventually, but communications were so poor in that era that he never caught them all.
I closed the book and lay there, thinking. No matter how terrible the Spectrans were, at least we could strike back against them, tit for tat. Earth was getting better at retaliating, and our team was a major part of that progress. But many people on Earth were like those poor people at Throdie, helpless against an overwhelming force. When Spectra targeted an area that couldn't defend itself, things just moved too fast: no matter how hard we tried, too often we just couldn't get there in time, and there'd be little left to save. Just like Ezekiel. I knew how that poor boy had felt.
Barely audible over the distant clatter of the stream, the quiet sigh from outside the tent hit me like a shout. I pinged Mark, then wriggled out of my bag and unsealed the tent.
"Emmy? Is that you?"
No answer, but I was getting used to that with her. I climbed out of the tent and stood up, dusting pine needles off of my hands. Emmeline was standing by the fire again. I waved at her.
"Please, sit down and warm yourself. It's nicer down here, isn't it?"
Emmeline shrugged and hunkered down, holding her hands out to the glowing coals with a wistful expression on her face. I gave her a few moments to get comfortable, then asked the question I was itching to know the answer to.
"Emmy? Did you follow us all the way down from last night's camp?"
Emmeline nodded, still looking at her hands. This fire hadn't burned down as far, and the light was better. I could see her hands clearly this time, and they were swollen and blotchy.
"That's an awfully long way, Emmy." It was an impossibly long way. No child could have kept up with us today, no matter what paths she knew. The thought made me prickle all over again, and I tried not to let it show. "Why do you follow us?"
Emmeline looked up at me. "You came back."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"'Cause you came back." Emmeline sighed. "Nobody ever came back."
"Back to where?"
The thin shoulders hunched. "Home," she whispered.
"Home," I managed, and a shiver caught me again. Home?
"Home," Emmeline repeated as if to herself. "Mama told me to find Zekie. Run, run, find Zekie. Don't let the bad men--" She stopped, made a little choking noise. "The bad men came," she whispered. "I couldn't go home. I had to find Zekie."
And then I knew. I looked through the heat shimmer at what sat warming her poor wounded hands at a fire she couldn't feel, and felt, not fear, but terrible sadness. "Ezekiel," I said softly. "You're looking for Ezekiel."
"Can I help you find him?" It was a silly question, I knew, but I remembered reading somewhere that ghosts operated on their own agendas. It wasn't good to try to reason with them.
But Emmeline surprised me by looking up and smiling shyly. "I 'spect you can do anything," she said.
Emmeline's smile grew wider, as if I'd made a joke. "Really," she said firmly.
"Then I'd be happy to help you find Zekie." What else could I say, when she looked at me so trustingly? I hadn't the faintest idea how I could keep my promise, but maybe the book would tell me enough . . . .
Emmeline stood up. "I got to go," she said. "But . . . could you?"
"Could I what?"
Her head tilted to one side, hair wisping about her face. "Please . . . turn into an angel again? Just one more time?"
I fishmouthed in shock, then stood up and transmuted, speaking the command as quietly as I could. I couldn't spoil this for her.
Emmeline looked up at me for a long, quivering moment, eyes full of tears again, but with a smile spreading across her face. Then she vanished.
"Well," Mark said behind me, nearly sending me headlong into the treetops. "That was interesting."
It took a while to explain the connection between the book and Emmy, with my nerves jittering all over the place, and quite a while longer before Mark stopped looking at me funny and started looking thoughtful. I could tell he didn't want to believe that Emmy was a ghost, but he couldn't explain either how she'd managed to tail us so far for so many days, and particularly today. I think it was the lack of visitations through so much of our trip down the other valley that finally convinced him.
"She was afraid," he said, tapping a finger against his chin. "She wouldn't follow us down there because she knew that was where the raiders had come from. Or maybe she couldn't follow."
"Poor little thing." I'd built up the fire again and was now weathering a small attack of the heebie-jeebies.
Mark too moved closer to the fire, shaking his head. "Poor thing is right. Her mother must have found out what was happening to the neighbors, and guessed that the town was no haven. So when the raiders reached their home, she sent her daughter in the only direction she might find help: up through the pass, and down this valley looking for her brother. But she didn't find him. And all this time, she's been caught in some kind of loop."
"Can you imagine a child on that trail?" I jerked a hand at the pass. "No wonder her hands were bloody and her feet sore!"
"She must have been quite a determined little kid." Mark shook his head. "Princess, if she's haunting the path of her escape, that means we might be able to find her bones."
"Oh . . . ." I frowned. "Why don't we just ask her?"
Mark snorted. "Princess, I doubt that'd be a good idea. She seems to trust us now, but it took her a while. If we ask her flat out where her bones are, she might get pretty upset. Then we'd have a real time finding them."
I blushed, feeling terrible. Of course he was right. Emmeline had seemed so poised this evening that I'd forgotten that she must be tremendously unhappy over what had happened to her. Why else would she still be haunting this valley? She'd died before achieving her objective, alone and afraid, and for over four hundred years had been unable to escape her fear.
"At least now we know why us," Mark went on. "I suppose she must have seen me in uniform that first night."
"I bet she did. It's a little . . . I don't know, embarrassing . . . to be taken for something like that."
Mark chuckled dryly. "After four hundred years trapped in this valley, I think I'd jump at any rescue that came along!"
"I guess so." And if it helped us help her, I decided, then that made it all right.
We did get some sleep that night, after staying up much too late just chatting quietly about inconsequential things. I was glad that Mark was willing to let go of the war for a little while. The next morning we got up a little late and spent a little more time over breakfast. Mark fixed the last of the cocoa--he must have been hoarding it--and actually spent several minutes poking through the streambed, arriving back at camp just as I was starting to strike the tents.
"No sign of gold in there," he said, sounding a bit disappointed. I laughed and tossed him the stuff bag for his tent.
Despite the late start, we were able to keep up the good pace we had set yesterday. It made such a difference not to have to stop and check every little side canyon. But as we came near the site of the camp near the stony hill, I stopped cold.
"Mark, I think I know where she is."
Mark's eyes brightened. "Really?" But I had already set off at a trot for the hill. Mark followed me closely. As soon as the fallen tree came into view, he gave a soft ha of triumph.
"Of course. The tree!"
It wasn't the least bit pleasant checking that tree, even with our lights. Of course there were bugs in there, and some awfully big spiders. But Mark's scanner confirmed a small "deposit" of calcium and phosphorus within the hollow trunk. In the end we used the hatchet to cut into the trunk, and there we found the sad little huddle of bones and powdery thin cloth that was Emmeline.
Well, I cried. It was hard to reconcile that pitiful sight with the little girl who'd sat at our fire last night. She must have been cold for so long. Mark very kindly didn't say anything and just let me cry, rubbing my shoulder hesitantly. After a bit he shook out his tent bag and offered it to me. I began taking Emmy's bones from the log and putting them carefully into the bag, while Mark rewound his tent into a bundle and tied it to his packframe. He even helped me search out the dozens of tiny bones from her hands and feet. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving anything behind that might tie her to this lonely place. I don't think we found all of her bones--some of them seemed to be missing, probably taken by scavengers--but we took all the ones that we found, and the scraps of her dress. Then we started down the valley again.
Mark politely ignored me when I started talking to Emmeline, telling her that we were taking her to a safe place and not to be frightened. I know I was being silly, but Emmeline had been through a lot and I was worried that she might be upset at us bringing her bones out into the open. I wanted her to know that we still thought of her as a person, but I also felt that just hearing a friendly voice would be good for her. It made me feel better, anyway.
We picked up my motorcycle at the mouth of the valley on the access road. I'd hidden it in a collapsed mine tunnel, and apart from a lot of blown dust it was untouched. Mark wheeled it to the road and secured our packs to the baggage frame I'd had to install for this mission.
"I'll drive, this time," he said.
"But . . ."
Mark grinned and swung a leg over, balancing the whole clumsy mess carefully. "You had to wrestle this beast on the way in," he pointed out. "This time, I'll do it."
The Phoenix was waiting for us at a tiny dry lakebed. I made sure Emmeline's bundle was safely secured and apologized to her for leaving her in a stowage bin. When I returned to the bridge, Mark was alone up there.
"Where are the others?"
Mark smiled. "Topside--strategic retreat. Since we've been at this job for almost three weeks, I decided to beard the Chief in his den by asking for a few days' break. I don't expect him to be too happy about it. You don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"Are you going to tell him about Emmy?"
Mark blew out his cheeks. "That's going to be a tough one, Princess. Who knows how he might react?"
"It might convince him we really need that break." I gave him a sidelong look, smiling. It earned a laugh.
"Maybe, Princess. Maybe."
In the end Mark managed to convince the Chief of the need for a few days' rest without getting us signed up for a session with the psychs. He did tell the Chief about the old bones we'd found and brought back, and that he thought he knew how to find the next of kin. The Chief hmm'd, shrugged, and nodded, then began quizzing Mark on how far we'd gotten and whether there had been any readings of interest. It was as good a granting of permission to proceed as we were likely to get.
Fortunately we had a few minutes to plan our story before the others reappeared. I didn't want to hear Jason's sardonic analysis of our sanity, and frankly it didn't seem like Keyop would take the matter seriously: he'd be all questions about dripping gore and floating eyes, I could just see it. So we gave them the same story we'd given the Chief. Jason, predictably, got annoyed.
"Don't tell me you two wasted time looking for some dead kid up there, while the rest of us were beating feet all over these mountains!"
"Hardly, Jason." Mark gave him a slightly cool look. "We had to check every inch of that valley, same as you and Keyop had to do. The calcium-phosporus matrix in the bones registered on the scanner. From there it was easy to do a quick analysis and realize what we had."
"You knew they were human from inside a log?" Jason's eyebrows climbed his forehead.
"Well, we had a few hints from that book we picked up for its maps." Mark waved a hand vaguely. "Anyway, Princess and I are going to see what we can find out about the probable gravesite of the next of kin. It'll be a research project."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Lot of work for someone you don't know," he muttered.
"If it's how we want to use our free time, what's the big deal?" Mark countered.
"Sounds like a nice thing to do t'me," Tiny put in. "The poor kid had been up there a long time. Listen, if you guys need transportation, let me know, OK?"
"Thanks, Tiny." Mark moved to take his seat. "Let's go home, team."
It took more than the alloted rest break to find Ezekiel Tipton; in fact, it was nearly a month before we finally tracked him down. Emmeline was remarkably patient about the delay. Although occasionally I thought I heard a quiet sigh in the night, that was all. I kept her bundle in my room, which struck Keyop as delightfully grisly. I refused to let him unwrap her. Naturally Medical and Forensics had had to take a look over her remains, mostly to make certain that we hadn't brought something bizarre into the Center. They were as polite as possible about it and I only had to loom over them a little. And chase away one obnoxious fellow who wanted to open up her skull so that he could test the interior for traces of psilocybins.
Tiny was as good as his word, and scooted us out to the NorAm continent early one morning with the Phoenix in hovercraft mode. From the port we took a rental car out to a lonely little region of the San Joaquín valley. It came as something of a shock to top a small rise and discover a burgeoning city below.
"Button's grown a bit," Tiny remarked.
"Did the gravesite even survive?" I groaned. "It doesn't look good."
"Relax, Princess." Mark grinned at me. "I wouldn't make us travel all this way for nothing."
Our destination turned out to be not only a cemetery, but one located in a historic park. The carefully-preserved walls of an ancient church still rose nearby, and the curator hurried out to meet us. He looked nearly as old as the church, and greeted us with an enthusiasm that surprised me.
"It's the history, you see," he explained. "To think that one of the Throdie survivors has not only been found, but brought to join her older brother!"
I thought that was overstating it a bit. But the man's enormous smile suggested that we'd made his day.
"Ezekiel Tipton was a powerful figure in the early days of Button," he confided. "He never forgot his lost little sister. In Button we have Emmeline Way, Emmy Place, and of course the Angel's Flight Hospice. Ezekiel Tipton dedicated his life to justice and protection of the weak, and he did it for poor dear Emmeline."
"It sounds as if you've already written her eulogy," Mark observed.
The curator coughed, looking embarrassed. "Well, yes, it doesn't hurt to have a good story to tell our guests. We'll see more visitors with her here. But we really are grateful to have her. I'm sure Mr. Tipton will rest easier with her nearby." He led us through the worn memorial stones to a particularly old one. A fresh grave and a surprising mound of new soil lay next to it, and a small coffin.
"We weren't certain if she had a coffin," he explained unnecessarily.
"Hardly," Mark murmured. The curator flushed a little and stretched out his hands for the bundle.
I hesitated. "If you don't mind . . . I'd rather do this."
The curator beamed as if I'd given him a great compliment. "Of course."
I laid Emmy's bundle on the ground and opened it carefully, then began gently setting her bones into the coffin, with the scraps of dress tucked underneath her skull. I tried to put the bones in something like the proper order, and winced again when the lack of several ribs and half of her hand and foot bones became apparent. But the curator watched with a sort of reverence. As I tipped the last tiny bones into my hand and poured them into the foot of the coffin, he sighed.
"What a kind dear girl you are. So gentle with her."
That made me blush. I stood up a little too fast and nearly pitched backwards over a tuft of grass. Mark caught my wrist and steadied me, while the curator set the coffin lid into place and tapped it down.
"I'll have some lads out to lower her in . . ." he started, but at that Mark stepped forward and surveyed the grave briefly, then sat down on the edge and, over the protests of the curator, dropped in. He raised his hands. We handed him the coffin; Mark bent to settle it between his feet.
"Oh--" The curator shook his head. "Young man, you are too kind, but how on Earth are you going to . . . ." He broke off as Mark set a hand on the side of the grave, bent his knees, and sprang up and out without so much as a grunt. He grinned up at the curator.
"I'm a gymnast, Mr. Keyes. Glad to be of assistance."
Mr. Keyes blinked at him through his lenses. "Yes, well. I'll just have the boys out with the shovels, then?" He seemed relieved when Mark nodded.
I took up a handful of dirt and sprinkled it onto the coffin, where it fell with a spatter of quiet thumps. "Goodbye, Emmy," I whispered, and backed away to hide my tears. Somewhat to my surprise, Mark and Tiny also dropped a handful of dirt into the grave before coming to join me.
We walked slowly back to the gates, the curator following quietly behind. And, for a moment, one more. A tiny, happy voice that breathed against my ear.
"My angels came for me."