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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

"How goes it, Myron?" Edmund said, sitting down by his friend.

He hadn't been to Tarmac's tavern in a month or more and he was glad to see that the initial frenetic edge was wearing off. There were two other taverns in town at this point and Tarmac's had started to cater to the more established crowd. Edmund recognized most of the regulars as long-time Faire goers and there were surprisingly few "new" faces in the pub.

"Pretty good," Myron replied. "I got my first harvest of corn in, so we can quit worrying about stocks for the time being."

"That's good," Edmund replied, gesturing to Estrelle for a pint. "I'm worried about winter stores, though. There has to be some way to ensure that people don't starve. Other than 'owning' them that is," he added, blackly.

"I saw that provision in the constitution," Myron frowned. "I can't believe you let it stand."

"I was outvoted," Edmund said. "It was walk out of the whole thing or let it go. I think that once things settle down, though, it won't be as much of an issue as it seems. Debt peonage works best, economically, when the value of labor is low, that is, when labor has a minimal level of productivity. We're not dealing with straight medieval technology. The productivity of a person working with the power looms, for example, is much higher than a woman weaving in her home. And too many of the crafts require high degrees of training. Not to mention the economic effect of a competitive marketplace for labor and ideas. I think that, long term, the areas that have gone for debt peonage are going to find they are falling behind economically and probably in population growth as well. It's then that the fecal matter is going to hit the fan."

"But in the meantime?" Myron asked.

"In the meantime the peons are guaranteed being fed over the winter," Edmund said. "Which is more than the casual laborers in this town can be sure of. Which worries me."

"Well, some of them are starting up new farms," Myron pointed out. "I think some of the ones who are out there are just insane if they think they're going to make farmers. But, on the other hand, a couple are probably going to do darn well. We'll just have to worry about it as it comes."

* * *

Mike smiled as they passed the rag marker tied to the tree. "This is it, Courtney, it's all ours."

"Ours and the township's," she said, looking around at the trees stretching in every direction. "We're . . . we've got a lot of work to do."

"But we'll do it," Mike said in a satisfied tone.

They had been incredibly lucky in the lottery, thanks mainly due to Herzer. His ticket had won one of the three jackasses the roundup had gathered. It was an incredibly valuable animal to someone who had mares to breed with it; the resulting mules would command high prices. But for Mike and Courtney it was more or less a dead end. However, the township had taken one fifth of all the beasts captured, and all of the slaughter meat, for itself and many of the animals were available to Myron Raeburn. His silos, intended to supply a surprising number of customers for the now defunct "Raven's Mill All Period Foods" had fed the community during the worst of the food crisis. He had not, however, given it away; it was provided to the community on credit.

Courtney had known this, because during their apprenticeship to Myron she had grown close to Bethan Raeburn. So when Mike was unsure what to do with the jackass, she had approached Bethan. Despite the fact that she looked upon Bethan as another mother, the dickering had been hard. The other jackasses had all gone to people who intended to use them for breeding and Myron's sole jack was getting old. The one that Mike and Courtney had won was young and surprisingly large and fit; it was a valuable animal.

In the end, Courtney had won from the Raeburns a young ox, a brace of chickens including a rooster, a sow that was believed to be pregnant and some old woodworking tools. Together with the young male shoat they had gotten as their other animal in the lottery and the plow, parts and rope they had been able to buy with a combination of their saved money and Herzer's "loan" they were better set up than virtually all of the other new "pioneers." In addition, Mike had befriended a badly beat up stray Rottweiller whose only fault seemed to be persistent friendliness and an odd fear of cats.

"I came out here with McGibbon the other day," Mike said, taking a faint track off the main road. "There's a good place for a farmhouse up in the trees."

They followed the trace for a couple of hundred meters to a small hill. Running along the trace was a brook that issued from a crevice on the hill. Courtney looked around and considered the country. With the trees cleared away, a major undertaking in itself, the land other than the hill would be flat and easily plowed. But the first order of the day was setting up camp.

Mike set to work on some of the smaller understory in the area, cutting saplings down to form a lean-to while Courtney tied off the ox and let out the chickens and pigs. She threw down a handful or so of their precious corn so that the animals would know they would be fed and then set to work clearing out the area that was to become their home.

Over the next few weeks they both worked from before sunrise until there was no light to see. Mike had the heaviest work to do, felling trees, leaving the tops where they were, cutting the trunks into manageable chunks and then using the ox to drag them into great piles to dry. He had formed a yoke for the ox on the second night, working late by the fire carving it and piercing it with the woodworking tools they had obtained from the Raeburns. Everything had to be made and if there was something that they could not make they had to do without. Without any help the work went slowly but steadily. To spare the corn that they had brought, Courtney wandered the woods finding the few plants that she knew were edible while Mike took occasions to set out snares and deadfalls. Between the two of them they kept food on the table, which they prepared over their open smoky fires.

Finally, they had enough of the area cleared away to plant and he fired the tops that had been left in place, filling the area with smoke but leaving behind nourishing ash to help the soil and killing the first sprout of weeds. On an auspicious silver moon Mike used the ox and the plow, only the share of which he had bought, the rest being made from the wood he had cut himself, to open the fertile ground and plant the corn that it was hoped would tide them over through the first year. Courtney started a truck garden with some tomato seedlings they had brought, cooking beans and other vegetables and legumes to supplement their diet. The first year was more about planting for survival than sale and they recognized that. But by the time the next planting season came around, Mike fully intended to have enough ground broken to produce a surplus.

Even with the corn in the ground there was much to do. He hesitated over which of the many farm buildings was the most important to build but finally came to a decision. He built a paddock out of split logs for the pigs, which had developed an unpleasant tendency to wander away in the woods if left out at night, and coops for the chickens. He had had to pick numerous rocks from the fields before plowing and he used these to construct a spring house, with a wooden roof, and a simple dam near the head of the spring. Without good mortar it leaked something fierce, but it was a place where meat could be kept cool for a day or two when they had the occasional excess. The sow was noticeably pregnant and they could hope for a good batch of piglets in the fall. All in all things were looking on track.

Then, in the midst of these preparations, they had a visitor; Jody Dorsett and his crew, including Emory, leading a team of oxen, stopped by.

"Good Lord, you've been working hard," Jody said as he walked up the narrow path to their farmstead. He looked around at the cleared land and the rows of newly sprouted corn laid among the stumps of the forest.

"It's the only way to do it," Mike replied, gruffly.

"It's the only way to do it right," Emory said with a laugh, shaking his hand. They hadn't been close in the apprenticeship program, but it was still good to see an old friend. "Earnon and Nergui have set up not too far off. He's got a couple of trees cleared away and already planted, with the sun only hitting the plants a couple of hours of the day."

"Won't work," Mike said, waving at the small field. "I didn't plant to the edges. Corn needs light. He was with Myron, he should know that."

"It's Earnon," Jody said, disgustedly. "And don't even talk to me about Karlyn. She's gone and joined a group of . . . well they're calling them the Crazy Coven. A bunch of women, no men allowed, thank you, and you wouldn't believe how they're set up. But that's not what I'm here about. Mike, I wanted your permission for something. I'm back to general woodcutting and charcoaling. Your land, but I'd like to cut some of your trees. You're right close to the road and we can either haul them back that way or, more likely, roll them into the river and pull them back with the oxen in a raft. It's a good setup and you'll get some cleared land out of it for the loss of the timber. Earnon's actually a bit closer but . . ."

"That would be—" Mike said.

"Would you and your crew like to eat lunch with us?" Courtney interjected. "I've found some fresh wild collards and one of Mike's deadfalls caught a shoat. It's really too much meat for us to eat before it spoils; we don't have a smokehouse yet and it'll only keep for a day or two in the springhouse."

"I'd be glad to," Jody replied. "I've brought hominy and some dried meat for meals while we're working, but some fresh greens and pork would be great."

"Well, we'll talk business after lunch," she said with a smile.

Mike didn't say anything or change his expression, but he knew that Jody was about to be shaken down until his teeth rattled.

Three weeks later Jody and his crew moved on. They left behind a swath of cleared land that led from the main road all the way to the farmyard, five good hickory and two chestnut trunks that had been split and stacked to dry. There were five bushels of charcoal as well. They'd left one in five of their haul but Mike had pitched in from time to time as well as offering his ox when it was available and Courtney had done most of the cooking for the whole camp. Jody had been able to make more of a haul than he'd expected and Mike and Courtney had a huge swath of cleared land ready to plant. Everyone was happy with the deal.

Mike wasn't sure what to do with the newly cleared land, however. It was already getting late in the season; the fast growing supercorn was already knee high and he didn't have much in the way of other seeds.

After much thought he planted some more corn, despite the fact that he wasn't sure if it would sprout in time, and then walked into town and looked up Myron Raeburn.

The farmer was working in his woodshop when Mike walked in and looked up in pleased surprise. "Mike, how's it going?"

Mike told him of their relative success and the good news of Jody's visit then went on to his problem. "The thing is, I've got a couple of hectares of extra cleared land and I don't know what I should plant. And I don't have the seeds or, frankly, money to buy them."

"Bit of a problem," Myron admitted. "It's midsummer. Most of what you'd plant might not sprout unless you get a lucky thunderstorm for the water."

"I can probably run some irrigation in," Mike suggested. "I've got a good stream. But it'll erode it some."

"There's a way to plow around that," Myron said. "If the stream's well placed you can crosscut your plowing and run some water in that way, but it won't reach the full area. Corn might work. But . . . how much do you think you can water?"

"Of what's left I haven't planted, maybe a half a hectare," Mike suggested.

"I'll tell you what, this is a gamble," Myron said. "But you might be able to get a cosilk crop in. You'll have to keep it well watered and there'll have to be an Indian Summer to gather it in; you can't gather it wet. But if the weather holds good you could get in a good crop and the least you'll get is the seeds. I'll want a fifth of your crop and a fifth of the seeds for the seeds I'll give you."

Mike thought about it for a moment and frowned.

"Don't be thinking of siccing Courtney on me," Myron said with a grin. "I won't give her a better deal."

"Will do," Mike replied with a laugh.

"I'll throw in some good beans as well," Myron added, getting up from his seat. "They won't require as much water except for sprouting and you can water that by hand. And what you don't store you can sell in town."

So Mike returned with a basket full of seeds and went to work.

* * *

"Ishtar," Sheida said as she appeared in her friend's residence. "This is very nice."

The home was placed on a mountaintop in central Taurania and the style was distinctly Tauranian with an open plan that looked inward on a courtyard with a fountain in the center. The floors were tile while the walls were covered in frescoes made from semiprecious gems. Beyond the walls the view was of a continuous stretch of rugged, tree-covered mountains. Nowhere was there a sign of habitation but Sheida knew that literally millions lived under her friend's aegis.

Ishtar had been doing much the same thing as she had in the area of Taurania although the society she was creating was far more aristocratic than that in Norau. Ishtar's position was also much looser than Sheida's; she acted as a universal ombudsman to the various factions in the area rather than having a direct legal role. The people of the region were also much less legally attached, working in a very informal group of city-states.

Taurania had suffered less than many other areas because it had had a long tradition of maintaining "natural" society and because many of the homes in the area were traditional and centered on small towns rather than the broadly scattered societies in Norau and Ropasa. This had permitted the population to "fall in" on more or less stable societies. The entire region had once been environmentally devastated from millennia of overwork but even before the latter Council period aggressive reforestation and environmental rebuilding had refreshed the landscape. Sheida had seen pictures of the once denuded mountains and vast stretches of desert, but for the last few thousand years the region had been rebuilt until it was, once again, a virtual paradise.

Which had been fortunate for the residents of the region when the Fall occurred.

"Thank you," Ishtar replied. "Fortunately, Paul has seen fit to not attack my home, yet. I keep the defense up, nonetheless."

"Well, I hope he doesn't hit it," Sheida said. "We could barely spare the power. Which is what I'm here about." She extended a virtual simulacrum of what looked like a very large dragonfly. "Aikawa came up with this idea. We need power and we've tapped all the traditional methods. But one that we haven't tapped, because it is so diffuse, is solar."

"Setting up panels . . ." Ishtar frowned.

"Not panels," Sheida said. "What this does is spread nannites. It produces them in its body and then passes them on to other environmental enhancers like the pixies and hobs. It also is self-replicating; it's a totally natural biological. But the nannites will provide power only to those who have the appropriate protocols. So it can spread nannites which will gather solar power and pass them on to those who need it."

"It's a very diffuse form of power," Ishtar said, looking at the insect. "Then there's the fact that if we spread around nannites that draw solar power, they're bound to interfere with other solar processes, photosynthesis for example. And how does it fit in the environment? It will have to survive on its own."

"Well, it draws a bit of power for its own use," Sheida replied. "And it eats all the sorts of things that dragonflies eat. Naturally it will be a prey species as well. I've run some environmental models and it fits remarkably well, not too destabilizing at least."

"How do you propose to spread them?" Ishtar asked. "And what does your little friend think of them?" she added, gesturing at the lizard wrapped around Sheida's neck.

"He thinks they're a prey species," Sheida chuckled. "And they can be given a boost of energy and told to fly to specific places on earth. So they can be spread widely. But if you could start breeding them here, for example, and Ungphakorn in Soam, myself in Norau, etc."

"Can New Destiny use the power?" Ishtar asked.

"No, it doesn't dump in the Net," Sheida said. "It can be restricted from it. But they might copy us. At some point I could see battles for solar territory, but that's far off. We have to get the nannites spread first."

"Hmmm," Ishtar replied, closing her eyes. "Long term it might even be to Paul's advantage. He has more land area than we do and more of it in high solar regions. Do these interfere with photosynthesis?"

"No," Sheida assured her. "They absorb a completely different spectrum. And, of course, they cannot auto-replicate. So they'll spread slowly no matter what. The last thing is that they are self-repelling; they won't cover more than ten percent of any given square meter and that broadly distributed. I don't want the whole world to look like a dust bowl."

"Okay," Ishtar said. "I'll ken some of these creatures and get them distributed. I'll start in the Southern Marshes; they should like it there."

"Have you figured out who is supplying Paul with power?" Sheida asked.

"Not yet," Ishtar admitted. "I'm having to send out biological scouts similar to that one to try to find each of the Wolf 359 board members. That means going to their last known location and then trying to track them. It is going slowly. So far I have determined that six of them died either just prior to or just after the Fall. Others I haven't been able to find yet."

"Well, keep me posted," Sheida said. "I have the funny feeling it's going to bite us in the ass."

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