“Keith’s doing a good thing. We need another potter since we lost Angie to the Three Rivers tribe last year,” Maya said.
Bethany nodded. It was important to have the right mixture of artisans, farmers, and tradesmen to survive in today’s world.
“Lem has volunteered to share your bed, if you’re interested.”
Bethany’s stomach curled. Lem had already made that offer, and it was apparent he was only doing what Maya told him to do. Trying to keep the anger out of her voice, Bethany said, “I’m not going to switch tribes over Keith’s marriage. The Bluffs are my home. You can tell Lem he’s off the hook.”
“It’s not like that,” Maya said but cut off when Bethany turned away and put the earbud back in.
The wind picked up a bit, and stray bits of energy lit up the portable media player in her hand. Pain jabbed into her temple, like a screwdriver had been jammed into it. Bethany exhaled through the agony that turned her vision red, and pressed the center button on the device. Maya watched fascinated, as always, when the menu came up, and Bethany scrolled down to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know.”
“Just don’t go flaunting that Tech. You don’t have to be willing if another tribe gets it in their mind to snatch you from us.”
Bethany just turned the music up loud to match the pounding in her head that channeling the energy to run the device gave her. Maya went away after one last longing look at the portable media player. Letting the angry song fill her, Bethany rolled her neck to get the kinks out of it and sat down with her eyes closed, helping her body deal with the intensity of pulling in the energy. If she had done it gradually, the pain wouldn’t have been that wretched, but she didn’t want easy or slow. The pain was cleansing, wiping away a little of the self-pity she was feeling. When the song was over, Bethany let the energy go with a sigh and a silent thanks. Getting up, she felt eyes on her, and she looked around. The tribes were socializing, chattering happily about the things they were going to trade.
She lovingly put the portable media player back into her pocket. She had traded a looter her ham radio setup for it. Bethany didn’t like hearing all the voices crying out in the darkness. Although on cold, lonely nights it was a comfort to realize the world was still going on and her tribe wasn’t the last people on Earth. Most of California and Florida had sunk into the oceans. Mount St. Helens and all of the Alaskan volcanoes had erupted, adding to the chaos. In a second after the meteor hit in Russia, worldwide communications dropped. If Europe was even still there, no one on this side of the Atlantic knew. There hadn’t been any contact outside the United States for the past thirty years. There were rumors, but nothing verified. And in the interim, strange and different creatures evolved. Bethany was one of them.
“You look lovely.”
Bethany glanced up at Keith’s voice, but he wasn’t talking to her. She watched her ex-lover, tall and handsome in a rough-and-ready sort of way, lean down and kiss his almost-bride on the cheek. They were strolling around the market, hand in hand, not a care in the world.
Darting into a tent, Bethany clenched her teeth as sharp jealousy drilled into her. It didn’t have the purity of the energy pull. It was aching like a bad tooth. She willed herself not to cry. It should have just been a marriage of convenience. A way to bring the River tribe and the Bluff tribe together. Keith had told her so. In bed. Several times. It didn’t look like it was convenient. In fact, it looked a lot like love. Bethany listened to the vendor’s spiel since he was kind enough not to notice her bright eyes or quivering lips. She was so grateful for the time it gave her to pull it together that she wound up trading a set of charged batteries for one of his canteens filled with a sweet honey mead before leaving his tent.
Blinking the tears away, she pretended they were from looking up at the sun that was muted from the ash still in the atmosphere. A flutter of wings caught her eye. A brown eagle perched on the tree next to her. It looked at her like she was a mouse. Intelligent yellow eyes regarded her intently. It was a magnificent bird, beautiful feathers and a regal look. Big too, she saw as it spread its wings and folded them back to preen. Bethany bowed her head, feeling ridiculous at her awe of the noble bird who continued to survive in such a desolate world. It would have been born amid the chaos, like she had been.
Today wasn’t the first time she had seen it. Or at least one that looked just like it. Up on the bluffs, she’d sensed eyes on her and looked around only to see an eagle observing silently. She had gotten used to it, tried to tempt it closer with bits of meat, but it disdained her attempts at domestication. Still, when she walked in the woods, the bird wasn’t ever far. Not for the first time, Bethany wondered if it was a Shifter. She had given it plenty of time to shift in front of her, often dillydallying in the brush far from camp, hoping the bird would transform.
The truth was she had been lonely even when she and Keith were together. The tribe needed her, wanted the Tech she could provide. But they never fully accepted her because she wasn’t normal. Dinners were a stilted affair, and social events strained, so Bethany learned just to avoid them. Walking alone in the woods, she pretended the animals in the woods were companions, like she had done when she was a little girl. It was a game her brother, Daniel, had taught her, before he went feral and killed all those people.
“I’ve got to stop this, or I’ll be a sniveling wreck,” she told the bird, but the eagle wasn’t looking at her. She followed its inscrutable golden eyes to the next animal up for auction.
The farmer had horses, sheep, pigs, and chickens for sale in their usual pens. The prices weren’t great, but they weren’t overblown either. Her tribe’s gatherers would probably pick up a few to replace the ones they were slaughtering for Keith’s wedding feast. Bethany felt that pang again. She hoped his bride was an excellent potter.
The bird exploded into action, dive-bombing the farmer as he led an enormous white dog into the center pen. The farmer ducked, and pandemonium ensued when the dog made a break for it. The pen was closed, so all it could do was run around in circles until a few farmhands tackled it and pinned it to the ground. When they reattached the harness, the dog’s tail was hanging between its legs, and it was shaking. Its fluffy white fur was dirty and matted, but it didn’t look to be lame or hurt. The farmer dodged as the bird came screaming in again, and then went off-balance as the dog tried to make another run for it. It dragged the man on his fanny a good ten feet before the farmer got back in control. The dog rose up on two legs, pulling away, but the farmer threw a lasso of thick rope over the harness. Even after the dog shook its head violently, the rope stayed in place. The crowd laughed and applauded the dog’s efforts.
“What will you offer for this shepherd dog? Its breed is called a Great Pyrenees. She’s a female and probably fertile.”
“Five pounds of coffee and three pounds of tea,” a young man said.
The crowd whooped, and a voice shouted out, “Dog that big will eat you for breakfast.”
“No, no,” the farmer said. “This is a very docile animal.” He had to yell over the jeers and catcalls. “She’s only a bit skittish because of all the people here.”
“Three woven wool blankets,” a woman said from the crowd.
Bethany looked over in interest. She would like to barter for those blankets. The Connecticut nights were much different from the Floridian mugginess, and she still felt the chill in her bones, even though it was nearing five years since she’d traveled away from the Orange Grove tribe and her brother.
“Five turkeys and seven rabbits,” Keith said.
Bethany felt that now familiar pain, and she looked over to see Keith looking proud and happy in his wedding regalia with his lovely bride hanging on his arm.
She has a big nose, Bethany thought. And a grating giggle.
“Buy her for me! We can breed her with one of our shepherds.”
The dog whimpered and sank down on its haunches. The eagle squawked. Bethany looked from the dog to the eagle and back to the happy couple.
“Two hours of watching a movie of your choice, six hours of music, and an hour of a video game.”
The crowd grew silent, and the farmer nearly tripped over himself and the dog to hand her the reins. “Sold, Lady Tech, sold.”
Keith shot her a narrowed glare. She nodded at him, turning away before hearing his answer to his bride’s shrill question “Who is she?”
Bethany was already cursing herself for ten kinds of a fool when the dog tried to make a break for it again. It weighed about as much as she did.
“Look,” Bethany gritted out. “If I let go, you may make it into the woods. But there are more hunters here than in a normal tribe, and not only will they find you, but they’ll drag you back and maybe even hurt you. Not to mention they’ll make me pay an even steeper price to get you back.”
The dog settled somewhat.
“I’m not a complete idiot. Or maybe I am. But I think you’re a Shifter and so is that big eagle. I don’t know your situation, but maybe I can help. I’ve got a room in the Tech cabins. I can make sure you have a hot bath and some clothes. Then you can go on your way. I won’t tell anyone. Hell, the look on that bimbo’s face was worth the energy I’m going to have to expend to pay for your freedom.”
The dog looked back at her with surprised eyes.
“My brother was a Shifter.” Bethany looked away. “He went feral. He liked to shift into a dog to spy on people. Then he started shifting to a wolf. Then a bear...” Bethany sighed. “Never mind.”
The dog whimpered.
“Yeah, it was a long time ago. But I still miss him enough to see Shifters in every animal that comes by. I’m usually wrong.”
They walked in relative peace toward the Tech cabins. She sensed the eagle was following them, catching a glimpse of his wing or profile as he skimmed the trees. The dog barked at something behind her, and Bethany turned. The cabins were in sight, and the only people crazy enough to bother Techs at work or at play were people who wanted to hire them. Or in this case, old boyfriends.
Keith looked annoyed at having his stealthy approach shattered and tried to cover it up by speaking harshly. “You did that just to be spiteful. What do you need with a dog? It doesn’t plug in.”
“Where’s the little woman?” she asked, trying not to search his craggy face for a sign of affection. He had the greenest eyes she’d ever seen, and Bethany had overlooked a lot of his faults just for a chance to look into them. She was such a fool. Maybe Maya had told him to sleep with her too. That thought made her dizzy and ill, like how she felt when she drew in too much energy and channeled it into a machine to make it run.
“She’s still at the auction. I told her I would see if I could convince you to sell the dog.”
“Nope.” Bethany turned around. The dog growled deep in her throat when Keith grabbed her arm.
“It’s not my fault she picked me out of all the eligible men in the tribe,” he said.
“You could have said no,” Bethany said. “If you wanted to.”
Keith’s eyes slid away from her. “We weren’t exclusive.”
“You weren’t exclusive,” she reminded him. The Bluff tribe wasn’t so big she didn’t know where he spent some of his nights. Still, she hadn’t cared as long as he came back to her. Maybe that was pathetic, but it was nice to have someone hold you as you fell asleep--even if it was only three nights out of seven.
“You’re a little creepy,” he said. “I’m sorry. I said it. You blink and lights flash. You get excited and the radio turns on.”
Bethany felt her cheeks grow hot. Of all the things she was expecting, this attack wasn’t one of them. “So? You can sight down a deer at a hundred yards.”
“That’s a normal skill. Your skill didn’t exist B.M.”
“You didn’t exist before the meteor,” she said bitterly. She had been born the year of the meteor, which was now thought of as a bad omen to have hanging over one’s life. Her brother had only been ten when the meteor destroyed the world, but he’d made sure she knew how it used to be.
However when he hit puberty, Daniel turned into a dog. Apparently, that hadn’t happened B.M., but it happened plenty afterward. Something about the strike on the Earth had awakened something inside humans. It made some of them...different.
They hadn’t been separated once they were found by the other survivors. And she’d been lucky to have her brother while she was growing up. When her powers sprouted at puberty, Daniel told her that they would be superheroes. It didn’t turn out that way. Shifters were treated as enforcers, brutal beasts to protect and intimidate in some cases. And Techs, well depending on the chief, Techs could be a home entertainment system or a research assistant. It wasn’t as glamorous a life as she had been hoping for.
“Yeah, well, that’s another thing.”
“What? My age? I’m sorry I’m not a young, blushing virgin, but I got news for you, pal, not a lot of people are.”
“Don’t talk about my wife like that.”
His possessiveness pained her. Had anyone ever stuck up for her? Or her brother? The closest she could remember was lowered gazes and a shuffling of feet. They were too afraid to be painted with the “creepy” brush for speaking up for someone not completely human by the Norm’s standards.
“I wasn’t talking about her. Look, congratulations. Best wishes and all that. Have a nice life.” Bethany started to walk away.
“I promised her I would get her the dog. It’s our wedding day. I can’t go back on a promise.” He smiled at her, showing the two dimples in his cheek that she thought gave him a roguish air. He was really attractive. Too bad he was such an ass. Actually, the more he pushed, the less she hurt.
Bethany stopped in her tracks. “How badly do you want the dog?”
“I’ll do anything.”
“Would you continue to sleep with me?”
Keith grinned even as the dog made urgent sounds. “Sure, but only if we keep it a secret.”
Bethany shook her head. “So much for the promise of being faithful. Congratulations. You just broke your second promise to your bride today.”
“You’re a desperate old maid. Not too pretty and a little weird. I’m young, handsome, and broke up with you. There’s not a person here who will believe you,” he sneered at her.
“They don’t have to,” she said and took out a pocket tape recorder. She pressed Play, and his voice said, “Sure, but only if we keep it a secret.”
“You little bitch,” he said. He made to grab it, but the dog got between them, and its growls impressed even Bethany.
“Now, get lost before I play it on the loudspeakers,” Bethany said.
“Why are you being so mean?” Keith tried out his green eyes on her. Bethany looked at him and felt nothing. It was a relief.
“I’m weird that way,” she said, using his words back at him.
“Look, I’ll get my way anyway when we come back to the tribe. It’s not like you’re going to be sleeping with the mutt. You don’t relate well with animals. You scare them when you reach for the Tech. She’ll come around when it’s a choice between dried meats or fresh kills that I can provide. You’ll see. I’m just trying to get you something for your trade. What do you say, the turkeys and rabbits for the dog? I’ll even smoke the meat for you so it’ll keep longer.”
Bethany ignored him and continued on to the Tech cabins. “That’s what I get for sleeping someone ten years younger than me,” she said to the dog. “Thirty isn’t old. And I’d rather be weird than married to him. For what it’s worth.”
“I didn’t ask you,” he called after her.
“Maya didn’t tell you to,” she countered back and felt that same dizzy illness when he didn’t deny it. Maya was a good chief. She knew how to keep her people happy and productive members of the community. Apparently men like Keith and Lem didn’t mind selling themselves for power. There was a logical part of her deep inside that knew Keith was not her mate, but still Bethany was going to miss that little thing he did with his tongue.
No one glanced up at her when she walked into the Tech cabin. Computers were lined up against the walls, and there were people in various forms of relaxing. Someone had put on a pop album, and even though no one grumbled about it, Bethany could tell it wasn’t a favorite. But when it wasn’t your energy you were channeling into the DVD player, it was all ice cream.
“In here,” she said and led the dog into her room. She shut the door behind her. Walking into the bathroom, Bethany concentrated. The water coming out of the faucet gradually became warmer. She could feel the background pull of the Techs assigned to the job to heat the ancient water heater. Reminding herself to check the duty log and see when she had to sit a turn, Bethany concentrated harder. She had to sit down and rest her head on the sink by the time the water had filled the tub. Even with all the Techs keeping the unit running, it was still old and needed more energy to jump-start the heat. But hot water that didn’t come out of a hide bag heated by the sun was pure bliss. The dog jumped in, soaking Bethany and the floor.
“Okay, I guess you needed a bath either way.” She got up and rummaged through her cubby hole. “Here’s a dress I bought when I thought I might have a date, and some soap made by Lelinda. It smells like honey and almonds.” Bethany held it out to the dog, who licked it. “Yuck.” Bethany snatched it away and put it out of licking distance. “Anyway, I’d lend you jeans, but I’m not sure what size you are. Of course, if you really are a dog, that will change the plans somewhat, and I’m going to feel like an idiot. I’m going to get changed for dinner. Take your time.”
Bethany stripped out of her wet jacket and cargo pants and looked at her rangy frame in the mirror. She had good muscle tone. Sleeping with a hunter made sure she had plenty of protein, and she was lucky to be able to barter playing opera music records on the milkmaid’s record player for a bottle of milk every day. Her brother taught her the importance of trading looters for medicine, so she was in good health all around, although she thought the vitamins were a waste of energy. The mirror was dusty, and she used her soaked clothes to wipe the image so she could see her face a little better. She grinned and noted her teeth were good. Keith was right, though; there wasn’t anything special about her looks. Her eyes and hair were the same color brown as dirt, but at least she didn’t have any grey hairs yet. And her nose wasn’t crooked.
Have fun kissing around that beak, she thought sourly about Keith’s bride, whose name she still hadn’t bothered finding out.
Bethany changed into a pair of jeans and a thick wool sweater. She’d wash her other clothes in the tub, if it wasn’t too dirty after her Shifter was through with it. Plaiting her hair off her face in a sloppy yet functional braid, Bethany lay down on the bed and tried to clear her mind. She channeled a lot of energy for the tape recorder and for the hot water, and she felt a little thin. Bethany slipped off into a light doze, helped by a kind soul who replaced the pop music with some pleasant instrumental.
About an hour later, Bethany woke up feeling a little disoriented. The music playing was now had a deep bassline that made her think of sex, which was depressing because it didn’t look like she was going to have a bed partner tonight. Forcing herself up, she knocked on the bathroom door. The Shifter should be ready by now. When there wasn’t an answer, she cautiously peered inside. The wet dog stared dejectedly at her.
“Oh well, it was worth a shot.”
Bethany tried not to feel like a moron when she leaned over and started soaping the dog up. It took another hour to rinse and dry the dog, and the sopping wet chamois cloths she used for the job were aromatic to say the least. She hung them and her wet clothes outside to dry and changed her clothes for a second time while the dog padded happily after her.
“This is my last outfit, aside from that dumb dress you’re not wearing. Can we try and keep it presentable until the rest of my stuff dries?” Bethany repacked her knapsack. She checked to make sure the safety was still on her pistol and the box of bullets still dry. The pistol was worth a lot of livestock and other goodies on the open market. The bullets even more so, but that wasn’t why she kept it. It had been her father’s. He had been a policeman, and if he survived the earthquake and tsunami that overtook Florida, they had never seen him again. They travelled with another band of survivors. Daniel said their mother had been trampled before his eyes. She survived the impact, only to die a few months later. The Orange Grove tribe adopted them and everyone took a hand in raising them. Bethany didn’t remember either of her parents. But sometimes she thought she could, based on the stories Daniel would tell.
The pistol was loaded, and she knew how to use it. Daniel had taught her as their father had taught him. She didn’t expect trouble, but Maya had been right. Techs were kidnapped by other tribes during conclaves. By the time they were released, they were too far away from home to do anything but settle in with the new tribe. Although Bethany had a feeling she wouldn’t put up too much of a struggle if her last conversation with Keith was any idea on how living in the tribe with him and his bride were going to be. Maybe it was time to move on again. But where? She didn’t want to go back to Florida. Too many bad memories. Maybe she’d head west, like Daniel always talked about. He wanted to walk from one end of the country to the other to see what it looked like. Just set his compass and keep walking. Bethany snorted; yeah, she’d last about three days before she starved to death. Keith had one thing right. She was a bad hunter and a worse gatherer. Her head was stuck in the clouds or listening to radio waves that only she and the other Techs could hear without a device.
“I’m probably still going to talk to you,” Bethany said, picking up the harness. “You’re a good listener.”
Bethany was not about to attend the wedding feast, so she and the dog walked companionably over to the vendor areas. She picked out two sausages and tossed them to the dog and then a few more when the dog looked at her expectantly. For herself, she tried a vegetable pilaf dish and strips of juicy chicken. She traded a couple of jazz CDs she burned herself on some old tech to the vendor for her dinner. He was happy to get them. It would raise his status in the tribe that he could contribute more than just cooking.
The music from the wedding tent was live. Bethany would have liked to kid herself that her fellow Techs had boycotted the event, but it was more likely the live musicians worked cheaper. She strolled around the conclave grounds and marveled at how many tribes were in attendance.
When the dog planted herself in front of the leather vendor and refused to move, Bethany glanced over and saw an array of clothing and shoes.
“Would you consider some Tech services for those boots?” she asked the woman behind the counter.
“Don’t have much need for the fancy stuff.” The vendor looked her up and down. “Anything else to offer, love? I think you and I have a lot in common.”
The vendor glanced toward the wedding tent.
Bethany flushed red. “I appreciate the interest.” She looked longingly at the boots. “I’ll let you know.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
The dog pulled her away at a fast clip. “They were really nice boots,” Bethany said. “Too bad I don’t swing that way. Although if they had been fur lined, I might have said what the hell. Better than sleeping alone tonight of all nights.”
Bethany looked around the camp. It was probably only her imagination that people were avoiding her eyes. People were just busy, that was all. Everyone had jobs to do in order to make the conclave run efficiently. She felt a tug of pride at how much the tribes accomplished in such a short time.
The first ten years after the meteor hit, it was utter pandemonium. Survivors swore they would rebuild, but too many people who had the knowledge had died. It was only in the second decade after the tragedy that survivors started to communicate with other survivors across the land. So they set up the conclaves each year. Trade was good, and people were learning more and more. Teams of Shifters and scientists scavenged and looted goods to see if they could put civilization back together. Maybe in the next decade everyone would be able to have running water, electricity, and old-style communications, and her kind would become geeks instead of freaks.
Or maybe they would be shunned and distrusted like the Shifters were now. Bethany had run away from her old tribe after they started hunting her brother. While she understood their hysteria and paranoia, she didn’t have the strength or ability to stop her brother or the hunters. So she left before they brought back his corpse.
People laughed and drank homemade beer and wine from skins and kiln-fired mugs. As usual, she stood on the fringe looking in.
“Weird.” Bethany sighed and wished the word didn’t hurt as much as it did.
She had long ago come to terms with the fact that she’d never be a beauty queen. And she cared too much for books and gadgets to ever take the time to make herself up properly. She had long, ragged brown hair that she kept in a messy ponytail most of the time, and equally boring brown eyes. Nondescript was a nice way to describe herself, but mousy and plain would probably be more accurate. Most of the time she told herself she didn’t care when she was accepted as just one of the guys. That was why when Keith, the tribe’s main hunter, wanted her, it was like a fairy tale. Only he was Beauty, and she was the Beast. She chose the Bluff tribe because they promised to build her a home and provide food for her so she wouldn’t have to hunt or garden for herself. She was abysmal at both.
In return, she would use her mind to heat the water in the morning, or run the computer for a few hours, or the printer to gather information on the other survivors through radio. Bethany even provided nightly entertainment via any DVD players that had been repaired or still worked. She was a giant battery. Her brother called her the Energizer Bunny, and she still had no idea what the heck that meant.
The dog barked again, and Bethany turned around, half expecting to find Keith but was surprised to see Rene, a doctor, from her old tribe.
“I didn’t know the Orange Grove tribe would come all this way to the Northern conclave,” Bethany said and hugged her.
“We had a record-breaking crop this year, and we figured it was worth the trip to trade instead of seeing them rot. Besides,” Rene said, glancing around, “one of our looters found a few cars with gas in them.” Rene pressed an orange into her hand.
Bethany smiled. “I bet it was probably Ned and his boys.”
“You remembered.” Rene smiled back. “Yes, it was them. Anyway, it cut a few days off the journey--for the leaders anyway. Chris won the lottery and got to ride in the back seat. It was like he got invited to ride on a spaceship.”
Bethany smiled, remembering Rene’s little boy.
“Do you still ride that iron horse?”
“Keep it up and I’ll start calling you medicine woman instead of doctor. I still have the hog, but even I can’t keep it in gas. Besides, it doesn’t do well at all climbing all the way up to get to the Bluffs.”
“How have you been? Are you happy?”
There was the million-dollar question. Was she happy? “I do all right,” Bethany said. But the truth was, no, she wasn’t happy. While the Bluff tribe had helped her settle in, it was never her home. Keith’s harsh words just underscored what everyone else felt. And now, she’d have to go back and see Keith and whatsername every day. Well, that could be too much to bear.
“Look, I wanted to tell you. The hunters...they never found your brother.”
Bethany felt light-headed. “Daniel’s still alive?”
“I don’t know that,” Rene said. “But he wasn’t executed by our tribe. I know that’s not much. But it’s all I have.”
“Thank you,” Bethany whispered.
Rene shifted uncomfortably and said, “I’d better go. It was nice seeing you again. You’re always welcome if you want to come back to the tribe.”
Bethany hugged her again with more enthusiasm. “Thank you.”
She could go looking for Daniel. But it had been about five years since she left. He wouldn’t still be in the Panhandle area. Where would he go? What form would he be in? Bethany scanned the air for the eagle. Was he her brother? She ran into the woods searching for the bird, any bird--the dog barking happily after her. Almost falling on her face after tripping on a root, Bethany decided that she was probably jumping to conclusions again. Not every animal was a Shifter. Poochie over there proved that. And not every Shifter would be her brother.