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Power to the People

Loren K. Jones

It was a typical Sunday at the Grantville Power Station. Claude Yardley, the senior operator on "C" Crew, was leaning back in his chair as always, watching the power plant's main board. Everything was as it should be, right down to that annoying little flutter in #2 Boiler's pressure. It had been there for years, and no one had ever found the cause. By now it was just one of those little idiosyncrasies of the plant that everyone ignored.

"Hey Nissa, how about bringing me a refill? Please?" he called to the back of the figure at the coffee urn.

"Does I looks like yo nigga?" Nissa Pritchard sassed back without turning around. She was slightly older than Claude, and had risen through the ranks to become the senior instrument tech in the plant through pure cussedness. The fact that she was a black woman had hindered her over the years, and it was something that she never let the men around her forget.

"No, from this angle you look like my Aunt Diane. Don't throw that!" he quickly added as Nissa turned and raised the can of creamer that she was holding.

"I've met your Aunt Diane, Claude," she growled at him, eyes burning. Diane Yardley was a large woman, especially from the rear. "Are you calling me a fat-ass?"

Claude raised his hands defensively. "Never! Wouldn't dream of it."

"Better not. Union rules say that I can have your ass busted for harassing me about my weight. Besides, I lost five pounds this month." Nissa was bringing a thermos carafe with her as she returned to her desk. Claude held his cup off to the side, well clear of his panel and his lap. Nissa's sense of humor tended toward the physical. She poured the cup full enough that he had to carefully sip before he could move it much.

"Thank you very much, Madame Nissa."

"I ain't no madame, either. You better jus' watch yo' mouth, White Boy. Those size twelves of yours won't both fit." Nissa smiled to show that she was joking, though there had been times in the past that she hadn't. It had been the union's rules, not the EEOC or state snoops, that had seen to her rightful rise through the ranks.

"You're mean. No fun at all. Not like the old days." Claude pretended to pout, which only made Nissa laugh.

"The old days out by #1 Stack? We're both too old for that crap any more. Damn the luck." Nissa grinned and winked at Claude. Their brief affair had ended almost as soon as it started fifteen years before. They had both been married, but the temptations of nightshift and the solitude of the area had been more than they wanted to resist. Now, years later, they could laugh about it. In private.

Claude sighed. "Time to take readings. You know, I wish that they would get rid of this stupid paperwork. The computer logs everything instantly."

"If they got rid of the paperwork, they could justify getting rid of us." Nissa sighed. "I installed these monitoring systems. Thought that they would be a great help. Fah! Help to the company in justifying minimum raises. Crap."

"Crap indeed, Nissa. Crap—" Thunder slammed through the control room, and white light showed around the rim of the door, interrupting Claude's complaint.

"Holy shit! Loss of load! Loss of load!" Claude shouted, grabbing for his controls. The old-fashioned gauges on the wall mirrored the computer's reading. They had been cruising along at fifty-eight percent power, then suddenly nothing. Automatic systems reacted before Claude could, cutting the flow of steam to the main turbine in the blink of an eye. Even so, the turbine was already turning at far above its rated RPM.

"Initiate steam braking! Slow the turbine down!" Nissa shouted as she ran her fingers over her board. "All of the main breakers are tripped. I'm getting ground-faults on all transmission lines. Phase-to-phase in the south. Shit, what was that?"

"I don't know, Nis. Everything else seems okay, it's just the outgoing lines that are down. Call in help, Nis. Call Bill. I think he's in his office. I'm calling Northeast Grid Control. See if they know what happened." Claude was picking up his phone as he spoke, then tapping the hook. "My line's dead. How's yours?"

"External lines are dead. Not even a dial tone. Bill isn't answering his phone."

Claude grabbed his radio next. All of the men and women on the crew carried a five-watt hand-held radio. "We have an emergency. We have an emergency. All personnel report."

Nissa was sitting beside him, shaking her head. "I can't hear you, Claude. You aren't broadcasting." A sudden chill swept over her, and her eyes grew large with fear. "Oh, shit, Claude. EMP? Was there an attack? Oh shit oh shit oh shit," she began chanting, almost hyperventilating.

"Nissa! Shut up! It wasn't an attack! Look at your computer! Look at your watch! They're still working." Claude held up his wrist. "EMP would have taken these out too. Whatever it was, it wasn't nuclear."

"But what . . ." Nissa grabbed for the old intercom microphone and gingerly pressed the switch. "Testing. Testing. Can anyone hear me?"

"Yah, Nissa, I hear you," Rodman Shackleton's voice replied. "What the hell was that? What happened?"

"We don't know, Rod. Is anyone else with you?"

"Yep. Norris, Carney, Vaughn, Jeff and Latham," he instantly replied, drawing sighs of relief from the two in the control room.

"Where's here? Maintenance?" Claude asked over Nissa's shoulder, pressing his hand down on hers to key the mike.


"Are you bastards playing poker without me again?" Nissa asked angrily.

There was a pause before Rodman answered. "Would we do that?" He sounded genuinely hurt, but the laughter in the background ruined it for him.

"Get up to control immediately. Grab anyone that you see on the way. Something happened and we can't contact anyone outside of the plant. Anyone who can hear this, come to control." Nissa let go of the mike and looked up at Claude. "What now?"

Claude looked at the plant layout on his board and shook his head. "Everything is shut down. We have to recover the plant first, then see about recovering the rest of the grid."

Pounding feet moments later announced the arrival of two of the other instrument techs on the crew. Leona McCabe and Darlene Braun had been in the instrument shop repairing a pressure gauge when the intercom had come to life. Both had listened and then run, taking the stairs two at a time to reach control. "Nis, what happened?" Darlene immediately demanded.

"Don't know yet. Find a perch and wait for the rest." Nissa pointed to the counter along the back of the room and the two women immediately complied. Gina Goodman entered right on their heels and joined them, glancing nervously at the big board. She was another of "C" Crew's four operators, and had been eating lunch when the call came. Five others followed her in and immediately began asking questions. "Wait for the rest," Nissa commanded, and they quieted.

More running feet announced the arrival of the men from the maintenance shop. Once everyone was present, Claude spoke. "All right. Here's what we know. We're out of communication with the rest of the area. Phones and radios don't work. Internet is gone as well.

"The main generator is down and is going to stay down. We're running on the emergency diesel for now. All of the outgoing lines show ground-faults, and a few phase-to-phase shorts. We have to get the field crews going and start isolating the problem, but we can't contact them. I want four volunteers to go get help. Operators and instrument techs only. I want the mechanics and electricians working the plant."

Selena Alcom and Paul Stancil immediately stepped forward, as did Dane Stevenson and Leona McCabe. Claude nodded. "Selena, go to Bill's office and see if he's still here. If he isn't, come right back." He nodded as she immediately went to find the plant manager.

"Leona, drive into town and see what gives with the phones. They have their own generator, so us being down shouldn't affect them. Someone should be there, even today." Leona nodded and turned to leave, but hesitated at the door.

"Claude, what if there isn't a town there?"

"There is! Don't talk that way or you'll scare someone. Like me." Claude's wide eyes made her almost grin, then nod before leaving.

"Dane, go to the police station. They should have some idea what is going on. Stay there until you find out what's happening. If no one knows, come back in three hours."

Dane nodded and left, ambling in his unhurried fashion even in what amounted to a major emergency. He only had one speed, unless there was beer involved.

Claude watched him go, shaking his head. "Paul, go to the service depot. See if there's anyone there and get them out looking for the downed lines. Since we don't have radio contact, tell them to come here and report. And tell them to go out in groups of three. They can't call in help, so they need to be able to handle whatever they find. Tell them to isolate any downed lines. Cut 'em high. We need to get the grid back up. Once everyone has reported, we'll bring the generator back up. Until then, everyone stays."

That pronouncement drew immediate protests from everyone. "I'm sorry!" Claude shouted. "I'm sorry. I want to go home and check on Beth and the kids too, but we have a responsibility to everyone. We have to get the power back on. For our families as well as everyone else."

Claude's shout had the desired effect, and the men and women began nodding. Paul turned and left as Claude began speaking again. "Everyone else start checking out the plant. Get the main turbine on the jacking gear." He paused and looked at his readouts. "It's down to less than fifty RPM already. Get the jacking gear going as soon as possible. We have to keep that baby turning so she doesn't warp." The four mechanics of the crew immediately went to do their job.

"The diesel generator is running, and I want someone watching it. We are well and truly screwed if that thing stops. Take it turn and turn about. Operator, mechanic and electrician when we can."

"C" Crew immediately began their task, assuming the calm demeanor of experienced professionals as the minutes slowly ticked by.

* * *

Help arrived shortly after that in the form of off-shift personnel. When you work at the power plant and the lights go out, family members expect you to do something about it. And when you can't call in, you come in.

The first to arrive was Thomas McAndrew, an electrician from "D" Crew. He entered the control room in a foul mood. "What's going on? Jen is throwing a fit about not being able to chat with her mother online because the power's out."

"We don't know. Suit up, we need the help. The entire grid is down, and we can't contact anyone." Claude's terse report, spoken without turning, silenced Tom.

"Where do you need me?"

"Diesel. That's where the other electricians are." Tom nodded and left immediately.

Nissa stood and walked to the door. "I'm going down to the guard shack. I just realized that we haven't heard from Howard since whatever it was happened."

"No, Nissa, wait . . . Oh, damn it all anyway." Nissa hadn't even slowed down when he tried to call her back. Not surprising. Howard was an old man, old enough to be her father, and one of the few men that Nissa didn't tease. Howard had once used his nightstick on a man who was harassing her. The two of them had lied about it to keep him out of trouble, but the harasser's broken arm and cracked skull couldn't have been caused by the fall that they both swore that they had seen.

* * *

Nissa arrived at the guard shack in moments. Both gates were open, against company policy, but the shack was empty. Looking around, she spotted the one place that Howard was likely to be if he wasn't in the shack. The bathroom.

Walking over to the door, she knocked loudly. "Hey, you old fart! What happened, did you fall in?" Silence answered her. Knocking again, she pushed the door open a crack. "Howard? You in here?" Still no answer. Finally, she entered the men's room.

Howard was there. His pants were still around his ankles, but he had managed to pull his underwear up. He was crumpled in a heap on the floor, and there was blood around his head. "Howard!" Nissa shouted, going to her knees beside him. "Howard, are you okay?"

Nissa gently turned his head, but the first contact with his flesh made her scramble back. He was cold. No. No, no, no! He can't be dead! her mind screamed. Touching him again, she checked for a pulse. None. Scrambling to her feet, Nissa ran out of the men's room just as a pickup pulled up to the open gate.

"Help! Howard's down! We need to get an ambulance right away!"

The man in the truck stared at her for a moment before driving toward her. Nissa recognized Ross Flemming, a Mechanic from "A" Crew. He slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his truck, leaving the engine running. "Where is he?"

Nissa turned and ran back into the men's room with Ross. Ross knelt by Howard's side and felt for a pulse. "No pulse. His skin is cool. I'm sorry Nissa. We have to call an ambulance, but I don't think . . ."

"No! He has to be okay! He has to be!" Nissa shouted. Nissa grabbed Ross by the collar and dragged him to his feet. "Go get an ambulance! The phones are down. Go now! Go, for god's sake, go!" Nissa was crying and pushing Ross toward his truck as she spoke.

"Okay, Nissa, okay, I'm going. I'm going!" Ross climbed into his truck and drove away as fast as he dared. He was sure that it was futile, but he liked old Howard, too.

Others were trickling into the plant now as well, but Nissa didn't notice. She was sitting on the floor of the men's room, stroking Howard's curly hair.

* * *

Bill Porter's arrival in the control room ten minutes later was welcome, and he immediately called a meeting of the senior personnel. "Where do we stand?" he asked, looking around the conference room.

Claude stood as he answered. "We're self sufficient, but we don't know what happened to the grid, and we can't find out. There's no communication from outside of the immediate area."

Bill nodded. "Okay, I'm instituting Emergency Protocol One. Everyone needs to be here. We can't call, so I want one person to take the list and go get everyone. Most of the people who live in the local area are already here, but not everyone. I also want someone to go to the school and find the police chief. He needs to be informed about Howard." Bill paused and hung his head. Nissa had refused to leave Howard's side until the ambulance arrived.

"What about our families?" Gannon Emerson, "B" Crew's senior operator asked. "I don't want to leave Mary and the kids alone . . ."

Others immediately joined in, demanding that they be allowed to go home to their families. "Okay, okay, enough already. Whoever goes out will hit every house. Tell the families that they can come here."

"I want to go . . ."

"No! We need an operational staff. We'll get your families here as soon as possible," Bill interrupted once again. "We have a responsibility to the community . . ."

"We have a responsibility to our families first, Bill," Gannon continued.

"Then do them a favor and get their lights back on," Bill snarled. "We all need electricity. How many of you can cook right now?" His question silenced them. "How much of your food is going to spoil in the fridge and freezer if you don't have power? Think about it. I want any of you who used to work the lines to get out and grab a truck. We have to clear the faults and get the power back on. But I want "C" and "A" crews here. The rest of you grab your cars and get to the depot. Grab a service truck, drive to the end of a line, fix the problem, and come back here. Go home for your families if you want." Bill paused. "And someone stop in and tell Jill to come out here too."

The men and women who were from "B" and "D" crews immediately went to their cars. No matter what Bill said, families first. Even his.

* * *

It was completely dark before any of the field service crews returned. Men and women climbed wearily out of the trucks, stretching their aching backs and in some cases limping. Each crew reported on the lines that they had checked. And each report was eerily alike.

"The lines were cut, slick as a whistle. Just ended. So did the road, about where the lines would have been."

Once all of the crews had reported and all of the faults were clear, Bill ordered the main generator brought back on line. Two hours later, after carefully warming the turbine and bringing it up to speed, power came back to Grantville.

Gannon found Bill once the generator was on line. "Bill, I ran into some people who said that there was some trouble out south of town. A fire and then some fighting. Apparently Dan was shot."

"Dan? Dan Frost? The police chief was shot? Who's in charge? What happened?" Bill immediately asked, but Gannon was shaking his head.

"Don't know much more than that. The people that I talked to didn't either."

Bill looked around him at the plant that was his responsibility. "Tomorrow. It'll have to wait until tomorrow." Looking around, he took a deep breath to calm himself. "Maybe by tomorrow we'll have our answers."

* * *

Morning brought more questions than answers. The story of the fight south of town had made its way to the plant with a speed that only urgent gossip can attain. The woman that Stearns and the men of the United Mine Workers of America had rescued told them that they were in Middle Ages Germany. Thuringia. A mutter of "Where the hell is Thuringia?" had swept through the plant. Worse was what they couldn't find out.

Where was the rest of the world that they knew?

Where was the United States?

And worst of all, where were their families?

Claude and Nissa sat in almost stony silence as they listened to what the various members of the plant crew had learned. They were lost, and alone. Both of them had lived out on Route 250. Beyond the cut. Bill Porter's family was also gone, left behind in Barracksville.

It was decided to turn some of the plant's unoccupied offices into bunkrooms until something could be done about the situation. The three were taken off of the watch rotation and unobtrusively watched. Each was encouraged to talk, to let the healing begin. Each saw a priest, but Claude was not a religious man and found little comfort in "God's Will."

Nighttime darkness and pilfered sleeping pills saw them to bed with the hopes that morning would bring better news.

Claude was missing the next morning. Nissa was the first to notice his absence when he failed to meet her for breakfast, and raised the alarm. A quick search of the plant showed that he had not gone alone. Ross Flemming's .300 Savage was gone as well.

* * *

Claude had stared at the ceiling for half the night before making up his mind to go. Rising quietly, he had dressed in the hall and headed for his car. He was just pulling up to the gate when his eye caught the silhouette of a rifle in the back window of a truck. A smile crossed his face when he realized whose truck it was. Ross is going to be so pissed, he thought to himself as he opened the door. A brief search under the seat yielded a box of ammo, as expected. Some people were just too predictable for their own good.

Claude had a destination in mind. He had been rolling the idea around in his head since the Ring of Fire, and the rumors that they had been hearing had convinced him to go. It was only twelve miles from the plant to home. Or at least where home had been. Driving up the road, he felt a tightness in his chest begin to ease. He was finally going home.

The end of Route 250 was abrupt and chilling. He had heard the stories of the line crews, but they hadn't prepared him for the reality. The road ended at the edge of a three foot tall cliff. The ground had crumbled a bit, but the edge of the pavement was cut in an almost glass-smooth line. The land beyond the cut was strange in the moonlight.

There should be hills there, he thought, and the stream. But there wasn't. Still, his sense of direction led him on, and his feet knew the distance. Forest that hadn't existed in West Virginia impeded him, slowing his progress. Bushes that he couldn't identify tangled his legs.

The sun was peeking over the horizon in the wrong place according to his senses, but it matched what they had been told was east. He slowed now, walking carefully and looking ahead at each clearing. He was depressed and homesick, but he wasn't suicidal. Not yet, at least.

His legs told him that he was near home. Just ahead was a shallow valley where there should have been a hill. Staying in the trees, he made his way to where his heart said home was.

An old oak had grown in his front yard. It had been there since before the area had been developed, and he had cherished the gnarled old tree like one of the family. But there was no tree here. A small meadow with a trickling creek ran through where his heart said his house should have been.

He drew a long, shuddering breath, never looking away from the empty space where his home should have been. Deep in his heart he had held out hope that he would find it. That Beth and the kids would somehow be there. Now he believed, and that belief was tearing him apart.

The sound of movement in the bushes caused him to snap his head up some time later. Searching the area with his eyes, he fumbled with the rifle in his hands. Thank god that Ross kept it loaded. He hadn't even thought to check. Clicking the safety off, he wrapped the shoulder strap around his hand as he brought the stock up to his shoulder.

The sound wasn't repeated, and he carefully eased back to the tree line, continuously scanning the area. The story of the German soldiers came to his mind, and sweat beaded his forehead. Taking one last look around, he began the trek back to the plant. Then it hit him. Where was the plant from here?

* * *

Nissa was almost frantic as the day wore on. Claude was no wimp, but he was no Rambo either. Nearly fifty, with a beer belly and bad eyes, Claude wasn't exactly a prime specimen of American manhood, but he was the best friend that she had. All through her marriage it had been Claude to whom she had taken her troubles. He had been the sounding board for her sorrows, and had shared her joys.

Her marriage to Jim Pritchard had been all but over. Nineteen years with no children had left them more like friends sharing a house than lovers. It had only been her deep faith that had kept them out of divorce court. She wondered if him not even being born yet would suffice for "Till death do us part." Now, at age fifty, she was facing the loss of someone who meant more to her than her husband.

Nissa was facing off against half of the men in the plant with her fists planted on her hips and a snarl twisting her lips. "What do you mean? Won't any of you pussies go out and look for him?" she shouted, sweeping the men with a gaze that said just how little she thought of them.

"Now, Nissa, we understand how you feel, but . . ." Bill Porter began, but she shouted him down.

"Horseshit! That's horseshit, Bill. Claude is out there alone someplace, and you bunch of pussies won't even go look for him!"

"Where!" Latham Beckworth shouted back. "Where are we supposed to look, Nissa? No one knows where he went, and it's too risky to just go charging around beating the bushes. Claude is a grown man, and he's armed. Give the man some space. Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while."

Nissa glared at Latham in silent fury. Still, even she had to admit that he was right. Claude was no child. Stamping away in frustration, she climbed to the highest point in the plant and began scanning the area with a pair of binoculars.

* * *

The day was wearing on toward noon as Claude made his way through the forest. He was thoroughly lost, alone, and hungry. Thirst had, fortunately, not been a problem. There were a number of small creeks crossing the area, and he had drunk his fill at each one. Unfortunately, he had no idea which plants he could eat, and he was not going to shoot a squirrel with a .300. There wouldn't be anything left but bits of hair and bone if he did.

Sounds filled the forest, but they weren't sounds that he knew. He found himself jumping at the calls of birds, and all but shouting at the chattering squirrels above him. Sounds that he had no way of identifying assailed him from every direction. Then a sound that he could identify caught his attention.

A roaring sound silenced the animals and made him turn to his right. That sound had no place in seventeenth-century Germany, but he knew it by heart. It was the sound of the steam pressure relief on the boilers being tested, and it was the sweetest sound that he knew.

The sound was repeated every half hour. It didn't last long, but it gave him a direction to go. His path was still far from straight, but within a few hours he sighted the edge of the land that had come with Grantville. He could see the plume of smoke from the plant in the distance, and gratefully turned toward it. It was still a long walk to his car, but he was back.

* * *

Nissa saw him coming and all but ran down the stairs to reach the gate. She was there in moments, and her worry and fear had turned into anger by the time that he arrived. "Claude Yardley, you son of a bitch! What the hell do you think you're doing!" she shouted as soon as he pulled in and parked.

Claude waved his left hand over his head, but didn't shout back. He was too tired and relieved to shout. Walking toward the office, he was met by half the crew. Especially Nissa and Ross.

Ross was the first to reach him. "You bastard! You'd better not've scratched my rifle."

Nissa was right on his heels. "Claude, what the hell did you think that you were doing? Where did you go?" Her shout was muffled because she was burying her face in his shoulder. When she pulled her face back, there were tears running down her cheeks. "How could you leave me like that?" she whispered.

Claude was taken back by her last question. "I went home. Or at least I tried. I walked half the night away, following my nose to where home should have been. I thought . . . I don't know what I thought. I had to see it for myself, Nis. I had to see that the house really wasn't there."

"Selfish bastard," she said in an almost normal tone. "You could have told someone rather than have me worry myself to death."

"Sorry, Nis."

* * *

It was days later that their answers were to come. Everyone who could be spared was at the high school for the town meeting. Sitting there, listening to the discussion, Claude stared at the podium with bleak eyes. Nissa was at his side, nearly as numb as he was. They were stuck in Germany, more than three centuries from their families. Nissa clutched Claude's hand as Greg Ferrara said those fateful words: "We're here to stay." A choked sob drew her attention back to Claude.

"I loved her, Nis. I really did."

"And I loved Jim. What now, Claude?"

Claude just shook his head. "I don't know. I don't even know if I care."

Nissa squeezed his hand and laid her head on his shoulder. "You care, Claude. We all care."

Claude nodded and stood to walk out of the gym. The commotion behind him didn't even make him turn his head as the mayor once again took the podium. Nissa stayed at his side, still clutching his hand.

They had come in Nissa's jeep, and Claude naturally took the passenger seat for the ride back. His eyes were haunted as they drove back out to the plant. All that he could think of was how alone he was.

The plant was running, but just barely. Looking up as they neared the plant, he saw the figures of three men walking along the highest catwalks. One of the first precautions that they had instituted was to have the workers arm themselves. The fear of someone going "postal" was overridden by the fear of the unknown. Claude and Nissa were off-shift, but with nowhere else to go they went to the control room. Sympathetic eyes met them as they entered, but no one spoke. There were no words. Of the seventeen people at the plant that day, only Bill, Claude and Nissa had been left alone by the Ring of Fire.

The two stayed, helping where they could, but as night came they felt their uselessness. By unspoken agreement they walked out and headed for the office.

Cots had been set up in the plant offices, and the two old friends stopped in the hallway outside the room that had been designated the "Women's Dorm." "Good night, Nis. I hope that you can sleep, 'cause there's no way that I can."

"You will. You can sleep standing up, Claude. But if you can't, look in on me. I'll probably be counting spots on the ceiling again tonight."

* * *

Bill Porter called a meeting just after supper the next day. The off-duty personnel were all gathered in the plant's lunchroom. "All right, people, listen up. After the town meeting yesterday it was decided that we would begin planning and building a smaller plant. One that will supply our needs, but isn't so large that it will eat us alive. This is Andy Frystak and Scott Hilton." He nodded to the two men sitting behind him. "They are both steam engine buffs. Our basic plan is to build a steam engine and generator that is capable of supplying ten to fifteen megawatts. That may not sound like much compared to our two hundred megawatts, but it's more than enough to handle the area and any reasonable amount of growth."

A man at the back stood and raised his hand. Bill nodded for him to speak. "How are we going to do that? We don't have the facilities to wind a generator that big?"

Bill nodded. "Not at the moment, but that doesn't mean that we can't build them. Look, people, I figure that we have eighteen to twenty-four months before this plant becomes a monument to the future. And I'm not talking about one generator. I want two, maybe three, to give us some backup. Remember, we're all that we have. Even the diesel isn't going to do us much good once it's out of fuel. And that's another thing. Fuel. As of last night fuel, gas and diesel, became a vital resource. No driving into town. No driving home. Sorry, but the new U.S. Army has first call on the gas."

After the meeting Claude and Nissa walked out of the office side by side, but not touching. "A ten to fifteen meg plant. That's barely enough to . . ."

"It's enough for Grantville," Nissa interrupted. "Even with growth, our load is going down, not up. No new appliances. Fewer lights. Hell, Claude, where are we going to get light bulbs? Someone is going to have to build a plant to build them. By the time that we need more than fifteen meg . . ."

"We'll be dead and buried," Claude said morosely.

* * *

Claude and Nissa were both being kept under close supervision, as was Bill. Claude's little escapade had brought everyone's attention to the stark realities of their situation; the three of them were alone, with no home to go to.

Claude immersed himself in his job. The plant had been his home away from home for years, and he knew it better than just about anyone else. Now he haunted the catwalks and workshops. He did everything that he could to avoid returning to the office that was his bedroom. It was only when he could no longer keep his eyes open that he would leave, but he often came back just hours later. Sleep was a reluctant lover who kicked him out of bed as soon as she could.

Nissa was in better shape. Always self-sufficient, she became almost cold. Her emotions ran to the extremes, with bouts of rage alternating with bouts of crying. But in between she was all but a mannequin walking around the plant. It was only around Claude that she began to show some signs of life.

Claude and Nissa had been partnered in the control room for six years, and it was there that they began to recover their spirits. Other workers occasionally heard the sound of crying from behind the closed doors. Less often, they heard laughter.

* * *

It was after the first big battle that Nissa and Claude began to really take notice of the world outside the plant. The new U.S. government had built a refugee center next to the plant to take advantage of the waste heat from the boilers. After the battle, the prisoners that were brought to the refugee center were, for the most part, pathetic. Nissa stood on the middle level of the #2 Boiler catwalks and watched them as they sat in the sun. Few of them really looked like soldiers. Most of them looked like farmers, and all of them looked thoroughly miserable. The bright lights at night left them confused and dazed. The loud voices that came from high in the air left most of them terrified. And the armed men who surrounded them simply stared, never answering even the most innocent question.

The refugee center had been equipped with several makeshift water heaters that had been built using spare heat exchangers and pumps from the plant. Low-pressure steam was piped over and run through the heat exchanger shells while water from the plant's fire main was passed through the coils. Hot water, a most uncommon luxury, was available for everyone. Even the soldiers.

Claude returned from the refugee center chuckling. Nissa looked at him with a question in her eyes, and he burst out laughing as he explained. "They just made all of the soldiers take a shower. Talk about a bunch of miserable mo fo's. I swear, most of them would rather've been shot!"

Nissa grinned, more from seeing the life come back to Claude's eyes than from his story. "I wish that I could've seen that."

"I'll bet! Couple of hundred naked men to ogle. Wouldn't have been right though. It was bad enough that the army guys were watching 'em. Worse than prison. One of the Scots was there and said that most of the prisoners were convinced that they were being condemned and wailing about the Inquisition. It seems that their own people are likely to turn against them and denounce them if they appear too clean. Be the first time that I've ever heard of someone being shot for not stinking."

Nissa's eyes clouded for a moment. "They wouldn't be shot. They'd be tortured and then burned at the stake."

Claude calmed down immediately. "Oh. Didn't know that. Still, from what I've heard, burning would be too good for some of them. Did you hear about the family that hid their girls under a shithouse to save them from the 'friendly' troops?"

Nissa nodded. "There's a long history of that, Claude. I've been talking to Ms. Mailey, the history teacher. Seems that the losing side's baggage becomes the property of the winning side. Including any women and children that are there. What she describes sounds a lot like slavery to me. White men taking white girls as sex slaves and drudges. Makes me sick to think about it."

"Well, those boys down there ain't taking nobody for nothing, I can tell you that. Even the toughest are a bit timid in the face of a twelve-gauge shotgun."

Now Nissa did grin. "Especially bare butt naked."

Claude nodded. "I need to get something to eat. Coming?"

Nissa nodded and joined him on the short walk. "I'm getting sick of this place," she murmured.

Claude nodded but that was all the answer that he could manage. They made their way to the plant break room and grabbed a couple of sodas. The machines were running low, and they were all too aware that when they were empty, they would never be refilled.

"I've been thinking about home, Nis. A lot." He paused to look around. "This isn't a home. This is . . . work. I . . . I need someplace to call home."

"Claude, please don't. You're tearing yourself apart, and me, too."

"Sorry, Nis. I'm really sorry. I'm really depressed." He paused to sigh deeply. "I'm really lonely."

"You're really going to get smacked in the nose if you keep that up," Nissa said softly. "I'm depressed enough without your help."

"So what do we do?"

"We? What's this we shit, White Man?" Nissa grinned as she spoke, uttering the punch line of a joke that was almost as worn out as she was.

Claude gave her a lopsided grin. "Us. I've been thinking about us lately, Nis. About how we used to be. You know, Bill has turned his office into an apartment of sorts. He already had a fridge and coffee maker, and his office has a private bathroom. He has to shower in the locker room, but that's not a big problem. I was thinking about doing something like that."

"Oh? And just where do you plan to do this?" Nissa asked, curious in spite of herself. Claude rarely talked about plans that he hadn't thoroughly thought out.

"Well, I want a place with a private john. I hate having to walk down the hall to piss in the middle of the night."

"Where, Claude?" Nissa said softly.

"A nice, big place. Not as big as a real apartment, but with enough room for a king size bed." Claude grinned and winked at Nissa as he mentioned the bed.

"Where?" she growled.

Now Claude was grinning. "Well, it has to be close. Don't want to walk to work in the snow, you know."



Nissa just looked at him for a moment. "Ya ain't getting Bill out of his office, Claude."

"Nope, sure ain't."

Nissa's eyes narrowed with real anger. "Talk or die, Yardley."

Now Claude laughed. "Remember when this was going to be the central plant of a huge power corporation?"

"Before my time, but go on," she answered softly, intrigued.

"Well, there are other offices upstairs besides Bill's."

Now Nissa's eyes grew from slits to round orbs. "You're insane."

"Yep. Ain't it great! The CEO's office is just sitting there, ready for us to move in."

Nissa eyed him carefully. "Us, Claude?"

"Us, Nissa. I'm not talking anything permanent, unless that's what you want." There was a twinkle in Claude's eyes as he continued. "What d' ya say? Wanna shack up?"

Nissa's laughing assent was punctuated by her punching his chest.


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