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When the Chips are Down

Jonathan Cresswell and Scott Washburn

The tool bit reached the shoulder of the shaft and the steel chip it was peeling off suddenly widened. A screeching noise hammered at Larry Wild's ears. Frantically, he hit the panic button on the lathe, remembering a split-second too late that—

Bang! The tip of the cutting tool shattered as the lathe slammed to a halt. Larry stared glumly at the ruined tool bit. Nat Davis was heading his way and Larry could hear the lecture already. From the expression on his face, the owner of the machine shop was pissed, pissed, pissed.

"—many times do I have to tell you, Larry? Carbide's fragile, dammit, you can't slam it around like you can high-speed. You stop a cemented carbide tool in the middle of a heavy cut and you'll bust it nine times out of ten! You're supposed to stop the feed before you hit the shoulder and ease it in by hand."

Angrily, the middle-aged man pointed to a small wheel on the side of the lathe. "That's what that's for."

Larry looked at the machine shop's proprietor sheepishly. "Sorry, Mister Davis."

Davis looked as though he was going to explode; but after he took a few very deep breaths, the red color slowly faded from his face. "Larry, you can't treat a piece of precision machinery like one of your damn video games! This is the third time you've done this. Take it easy, for Pete's sake. Learn how to do it right before you start trying to do it as fast as possible. Look at this! The tool's busted—and there's no way to repair it. Not cemented carbide—and that's the last thing we can afford to be wasting. There's no way to replace carbide in the here and now. Not for years, anyway."

"I'm sorry," Larry repeated dully.

Davis snorted. "Sorry doesn't cut it around here . . . Look, kid, it's almost quitting time. Why don't you go home before you wreck anything else?"

Oh, and I guess you were born knowing how to do this? thought Larry; but he just muttered, "I didn't do it on purpose."

Relenting, Davis clapped Larry on the shoulder. "I know, I know. But go on home anyway. We can try it again tomorrow."

"Okay. Good night, Mister Davis."

" 'Night, Larry."

As he headed toward the shop's exit, Larry brushed the metal shavings off himself. He started to remove the safety glasses but decided to wait until he'd left the shop itself. The last thing he needed was another lecture from Nat Davis.

A few more steps took him out of the shop and into the December twilight. It got dark early these days. Cold, too. He pulled his bicycle out of the rack and started pedaling toward town. He felt a little silly riding his old bike, but with the gas restrictions, he couldn't use his dirt bike anymore. One more irritation. It seemed like life had become just a collection of irritations now. Since Grantville had been deposited in seventeenth-century Germany, things had gotten worse and worse.

Oh, it had been exciting enough at first. The realization that they had actually traveled through time and space had fascinated Larry. And then there were the battles and Jeff's wedding to Gretchen Richter and the influx of refugees and all the other new things. But now that winter was here, there were no more battles; just a daily grind with everyone trying to survive.

And everyone trying to do their part.

Larry hadn't been sure what his part should be. Before the Ring of Fire, he'd had some hopes of going to college. That was now on indefinite hold—instead, he'd become a motorcycle scout for the Grantville army. But the campaigning season was over, and he needed something else to justify the food he was eating. He needed a job.

But he was starting to suspect that "machinist" was not something that suited him.

Today's mishap was one of a series. Nat Davis had been remarkably patient with him, but Larry wasn't sure how much longer that would last. And, for all its intricacy, Larry found the work pretty boring anyway.

Larry cycled slowly into the center of town. The trailer where he lived lay on the far side, about a four-mile ride. Normally, he would have made it in about twenty minutes, but today he was slowed by crowds of people on the streets. He coasted to a stop and looked around. Dozens of people balanced on ladders, stringing lights and hanging wreaths. Hundreds of others, many of them German refugees, stood and watched.

Christmas decorations, he thought in surprise. Christmas is only a week away. That's not enough warning—guess they forgot you have to start advertising it in August. 

Larry shook his head. He hadn't even thought about Christmas. It had always been a big event in his family, although with little money, presents were few and simple. But they still managed to make it a holiday. They would decorate the trailer and the little pine tree that grew outside. They would walk around the neighborhood and sing carols. His mother would make that great stuffing of hers to go with the turkey. And her pumpkin pie . . . he could almost taste it.

Almost before he realized it, he was wiping away tears. There wouldn't be any Christmas with his family this year—or ever again. His mom and dad and sister were centuries away—forever out of his reach. "I miss you guys," he whispered. He had cried once before when it had sunk in that he would never see them again. But then he had been busy with lots to do and forced it from his mind. Now the loss came back to him—worse than ever.

His private mourning was jarred by a cry of amazement and pleasure from the watching crowd. Someone had plugged in a big batch of the lights and now hundreds of them sparkled along a row of houses. The Germans pointed and gasped and the smaller children shrieked in delight. He was surprised that anyone was taking the time to do this now, with so much work to do. They'd almost completely ignored Thanksgiving in the desperate scramble to find food and housing for so many refugees before the weather turned bad. But now things had slowed down . . .

"Hi Larry!"

He jumped in surprise and jerked around. Bonnie Weaver, a girl from his high school class, smiled at him from a few feet away. He liked her and they'd dated a few times, but with his after-school job at the machine shop, he hadn't even talked to her in weeks. Had she seen him crying . . . ?

Sorry doesn't cut it around here. "H-hi, Bonnie. Where are you going?"

"Choir practice," she said brightly. "We're getting ready for the big Christmas celebration."

"What big celebration?"

"Where have you been? Everyone's been talking about it for weeks! I think it was Rebecca Abrabanel's idea, believe it or not, but everyone's getting involved."

"I . . . I guess I've been busy."

"The choir has been translating some of the carols into German and we've been practicing them. Want to come along?"

"I can't carry a tune in a sack," muttered Larry.

"Well, you ought to get involved in something, Larry. Gotta go! See you later!" Bonnie skipped off down the street.

Larry stared after her for a few seconds and then pushed his bicycle into motion and slowly wove his way through the crowd. Christmas! He couldn't remember ever having less interest in Christmas than he had right now.

He worked his way through town and headed for his home. It was completely dark now, but roads had little traffic anymore, so he didn't worry that the light on his bike hadn't worked for years. Last week's snowfall had been plowed, but he still worked up a sweat in his parka. A few minutes later he turned into the driveway that led to the trailers he called home. Lights shone in all the windows; most everyone would be home by now.

He propped his bike against one of the trash cans and walked up the steps to the left-hand trailer. This was the "bachelor's quarters" for the extended family that now lived in all three trailers. Larry, Jimmy Andersen, Eddie Cantrell and Hans Richter all shared it. Jeff and Gretchen and the baby and little Johann had the one in the middle, and Gramma and the other girls had the far one. It was a bit crowded—okay, a lot crowded; but still, better than coming home to an empty house. And the women surely cooked better than any of the boys . . .

To his surprise, the only person inside was Jimmy, hunched over the computer and working the joystick madly. He didn't even look up. He wore two lumberjack shirts and fingerless gloves; the trailers were heated by natural gas now—Jimmy's standing joke about that had worn pretty thin—and they got chilly at night. That was fine for the Germans in their sleep-heap, but there was no way Larry would even think about that as a solution.

Larry shucked off his parka and tossed it in a corner. "Where's everyone else?"

"Hans had an appointment at the clinic," said Jimmy, still not looking up. "Not sure where Eddie is. Dinner's in an hour."

Larry grunted. Hans had been badly wounded a few months earlier in the fight that had brought Gretchen and her family to these trailers. He had only gotten out of the hospital a few weeks before, and crowded their own trailer even more, although at least he didn't move around a lot. Larry walked over to stand behind Jimmy and look over his shoulder.

"Playing OrcSmasher again? Aren't you sick of that?"

"Of course I'm sick of it! I'm sick of all these crummy games! But the nearest game store is three hundred and fifty years away, and my time machine is broken."

"I hear you—watch out for that Skraknar behind you."

"Crap!" exclaimed Jimmy as he lost half his hit points. "Stop distracting me!"

"I'm not, you're just a weenie."

"Oh yeah? Hell!"

"Game over, bro'."

"Yeah, yeah," said Jimmy in disgust. He pushed his chair away from the computer, scowling. Then he pointed. "Have you noticed the way the screen flickers lately?"

"I guess so. It's been doing that for a while."

"It's not going to last much longer. I'm not sure I'll be able to fix it. What'll we do when it craps out on us?"

"Find another one, I guess."


"From some computer that's broken but still has a good monitor! How the hell should I know?"

"This really stinks, y'know," grumbled Jimmy. "Old games, out-of-date equipment, and pretty soon we won't even have that anymore. How the hell do the locals stand it?"

"Don't know what they're missing, I guess," shrugged Larry. He turned and went over to a shelf and plucked out a video tape. He turned back to the television and stopped in his tracks.

"Where's the VCR?" he demanded.

"Oh, Gretchen borrowed it earlier. She wanted to show some cartoons to the kids."

"Why didn't she just use the one in their trailer?"

"Don't you remember? Johann dumped his oatmeal down the tape slot last week."

"Oh, right. Think you can fix it?" asked Larry. Jimmy was pretty good with electronic gizmos. His afternoon job was in the school's computer lab.

"Dunno. It's gummed up pretty good. I'll have to strip it down completely and see."

"What's on the school station?" Larry turned on the television set and after a moment grimaced. "Not The Seven Samurai again! What's with those guys? They've got other tapes than that!"

"Hey, Reverend Jones is in charge of the afternoon programming. What do you expect? Anyway, the samurai are pretty cool."

"Not cool enough after a dozen times." Larry turned off the set, sighed and flopped down on the sofa. What a pain. Old computer games, no VCR. Reruns. Christmas. "What's for dinner?"

"What do you think? Venison, bread and boiled turnips."

"Ick. I'm getting tired of that."

"A long way 'til spring. Better get used to it."

Larry sat there grumbling to himself. After a while he noticed his stomach grumbling, too—but not for boiled turnip. There had to be something better . . .

Why the hell not? At least there's one thing I can enjoy. 

Larry got up and went to his bedroom. He opened up a dresser drawer and rummaged around in the rear of it, pushing aside his stash of girly magazines to reach for . . . for . . .

"Where are they?"

He pulled the drawer all the way out. Gone! He slammed it shut and stormed back into the living room.

"Who ate my cheese curls!?!" he roared. Jimmy jumped in his chair.

"What cheese curls?" he asked with a totally unconvincing veneer of innocence.

"The ones in my drawer! I was saving half a bag! Where are they?"

"They were stale anyway," mumbled Jimmy.

"I like 'em stale! And they were mine!"

"Chill out, man," said Jimmy. "It's nothing to get wound up over." But Larry was wound up—as wound up as the shrieking lathe that he'd mishandled. I make an honest mistake and get reamed for it—and he steals my stuff and tells me to chill? 

"There aren't any more at the stores, they're all gone! They were the last ones! The last ones in the whole goddam world! And you stole them, you son of a bitch!" Suddenly all the frustration and anger of the day boiled up in Larry—and unfortunately for Jimmy, he was the only possible target for it. Larry stepped forward and punched an astonished Jimmy square in the face, spilling him out of his chair. He lunged after him, but the toppled chair was in the way and then Jimmy recovered enough to fend him off with a few frantic kicks.

"Are you crazy?" he shouted, scrambling to his feet with blood gushing from his nose. Larry waded into him; in a moment both boys were throwing punches like windmills and cursing like sailors. They tripped over the chair and rolled around on the floor, still punching and kicking. They collided with some furniture and there was a loud crash and tinkle—oh, perfect, thought Larry as a fist rang off his skull, that's the TV gone.

Suddenly, something bristly slapped Larry's head and he heard a shrill German voice close at hand. "Dummkopf! Dummkopf! Halt!" He rolled away from Jimmy and there was Gramma whacking at him with a broom. Larry rolled further away, cringing, and she turned and whacked at Jimmy for a while. "Halt! Halt!"

"Okay! Okay!" shouted Jimmy. "I've stopped! Now you stop!"

Gramma stopped her whacking and glared at the two boys. She spouted off a string of German that they couldn't follow. Then she tossed the broom at Larry and pointed to the broken drinking glass where it had fallen. "Swine! Pigs! Clean up!" She turned and stalked out of the room, slamming the connecting door to the next trailer behind her.

The boys lay there and glared at each other. Larry spat out a straw.

"You are nuts, you know that?" said Jimmy, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve and frowning at it.

"Yeah, I probably am," grumbled Larry. He got up and grabbed the broom. Jimmy flinched reflexively, but Larry merely began sweeping the glass into a pan with as much dignity as he could muster for the chore, secretly relieved that the crash had only been the glass and not the TV after all. Then the trailer's door swung open and clipped his elbow, re-spilling half the fragments. Eddie Cantrell leaned around the panel.

"What's all the dummkopf-halting about?"

"I ate his cheesh hurls," said Jimmy thickly, holding his head back and forcing a plug of tissue up one nostril.

Eddie whistled. "And you lived to talk about it? Lucky boy! Larry has killed men for less than that!"

"Well, he nearly hilled be."

Larry finished his sweeping, dumped the glass in the trash can and flopped back on the sofa. He patted at one cheekbone; there was no blood on his fingertips, so it just felt as though it had been split. "Give me a break. I've had a bad day."

"What was so bad about it?" asked Eddie.

"Oh, Mister Davis yelled at me when I screwed up . . . and Bonnie Weaver was . . . and this big Christmas celebration . . . and . . . and he ate all my cheese curls."

"Oh, well, no wonder you're being such a jerk," said Eddie. "Who wouldn't be in your place?" Larry glared at him.

"So what do you guys want to do tonight?" continued Eddie.

"How abou' some Dunheons & Drahons?" suggested Jimmy to the ceiling. "We habn't played tha' for a long time. . . . Ah, sproo this." He pried out the tissue and wiggled his nose gingerly with two fingers.

"Not much fun with just three people. You think we could get Jeff interested?"

"Are you kidding?" snorted Larry. "The only thing Jeff wants to do anymore is make love to Gretchen. He's got no time or energy left for kid stuff." The bitterness in his voice made the others look at him in surprise.

"Hmm, maybe we could get Hans interested when he comes back."

"I tried," said Eddie. "He can't understand the point of the whole thing. He does like the miniatures though. He tried painting a few before the paints all dried up. He's pretty good. . . ."

"Hell, I don't feel like playing anyway," said Larry. "I don't know what I want to do. We can't even watch TV."

"Yeah, I really miss that," admitted Eddie. "No football, even. I wonder who's going to win the Super Bowl this year?"

"I wonder who won this year's World Series . . ." Jimmy blinked. "That year's. Oh, hell, you know."

"I wonder if Voyager is ever going to make it home?"

"I sure wish we could get home. I . . . I miss my folks."


The three boys sat in silent gloom, thinking of all the things they had left behind. Of all the people they would never see again. They were just seventeen.

"I sure could go for a Big Mac," said Eddie, suddenly.

"Oh, don't start on that!"

"And those incredible fries . . ."

"Stop it, Eddie, I'm warning you . . ."

" . . . and a triple-thick shake . . ."

"Stop!" shouted Larry and Jimmy in unison.

"Okay, okay."

"I'd just settle for some stale cheese curls," grumbled Larry. "But I can't have those either."

"Maybe we could make some," said Jimmy after a moment.

"What? How?"

"I don't know. They gotta make them somehow. What are they made of?"

"Cheese. And curls."

"They're mostly corn, I think. You still got the bag with the ingredients listed on it?"

"It's in the recycling bin. I'll go get it." Jimmy hastened out the door without even putting on his coat. The town was not actually recycling very much at present, but every bit of metal or plastic or paper was to be saved. They might or might not find uses for those things, but it was a sure bet that they could not get any more.

After a few minutes Jimmy returned, shivering, with a flattened-out snack food bag. He brought it over to the light and they squinted at the tiny print.

"Corn meal, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, cheese flavoring and salt. No preservatives added," read off Eddie.

Jimmy looked uneasy at that. "How old were they?"

"Years," Larry said deadpan. "What's that other list of stuff below it?"

"The 'cheese flavoring.' "

"Ick. Looks awfully complicated."

"Yeah," agreed Larry. "And how do they make these things out of corn meal? It doesn't look like corn to me. They're all puffed up."

"I think they get shot out of some machine and then deep fried or something."

"It says 'baked' on the front of the bag."

"Okay, baked then. But we don't have the machine to make the things in the first place."

"Hell, so much for that idea." The boys all flopped back in their seats.

"What about something else?" asked Jimmy after a while. "Corn chips or something?"

"We don't know how to make those either. There must be some sort of fancy processing involved to make corn come out like that."

"What about potato chips?" said Larry. "They've got to be pretty simple. Just slice up potatoes real thin and fry 'em."

"That might work. I've seen recipes for homemade potato chips," said Eddie.

"Probably still a lot of work," said Jimmy. "Hardly worth it just to make some chips for the three of us."

"Well, we could make them for the whole family," said Larry. "None of the Germans have probably ever tasted a potato chip. We . . . we could do it as a Christmas present."

"Cool! That's a great idea!" Jimmy and Eddie started talking about what they would need and how they could get it, but an idea started growing in Larry's brain. He remembered the people putting up the lights in town. He remembered Bonnie Weaver . . .

"Say guys . . ."


"What about making a lot of potato chips? I mean a whole lot of potato chips?"

"What for? They'd just get stale," said Eddie. "Better to make smaller batches every now and then."

"No," said Larry, firmly. "We are going to make a lot of potato chips. Enough for the whole town! And we're going to make them in time for Christmas!"

* * *

The first requirement was potatoes—although as Larry found, the first problem was rationing. "Sorry, son. They've all been collected to make a seed crop. Mister Hudson's orders." He wasted an evening going from store to store; and it seemed the only variety left now in stores was in the way that their owners told you no. All right, what about local producers? Potatoes were pretty common, right? He wasn't looking for pickled artichokes, after all. But no one he asked seemed to know anything.

He thought about asking his teachers during the next day. But if this was to be a surprise—the sort of surprise that impressed a girl like, say, Bonnie—then he could hardly stick up his hand and ask a teacher about making potato chips. . . . At the end of classes he borrowed a book from the school library, Applied Agronomy: The Potato. It was possibly the dullest thing he had ever voluntarily taken home to read.

"The potato has a series of ploidy levels . . ." What the hell is that? Jeez, I miss the Internet! No search engines in books. 

Noises from the next trailer made it clear that both Jeff and Gretchen were home; Larry tried to block them out and concentrate on his reading. The information he could puzzle out looked promising; potatoes had terrific yields per acre. Twelve tons? That's a lot of chips! Forget just snack foods, we could feed a huge number of people! 

But the rest of it . . . "In Lemhi Russet potatoes, gene escape by pollen is unlikely, unless sexually compatible relatives are in the immediate proximity." Well, that's definitely a yes. Larry winced at a particularly enthusiastic bellow in German. Extended family living, they call it. Yep, I'm getting extended already—that was a five on the Richter scale. Where's Gramma when you need her? 

Now there was an idea. Gramma might be a terror with a broom, but she ought to know whether there were any potatoes being grown in the region. She lived in the third trailer, so Larry would have to duck out into the early evening chill and that seemed like an even better idea just at the moment. He folded the book shut on his finger and slipped outside, scurried to the last trailer in the row, and knocked at its door.

Gramma peered around the panel. "Was?"

"Guten abend," ventured Larry. "Ah . . . Do you know about any potatoes near here? Farms? Gardens?"

"Was?" repeated Gramma blankly. She didn't invite him to step inside.

"Do. You. Know . . ." Larry said carefully. "About. Potatoes." He opened the textbook, and pointed to the picture of a potato.

Gramma's eyes widened in recognition. Hey, we're getting somewhere! She slammed the door; he waited, shivering, for a few seconds. Then she opened it again much wider in order to swing the broom fully through the doorway.

"Hey!" yelled Larry. He dropped the book to cover his head from the blows. "What—"

"Swine! Pig! Ist skandal!" She added a string of German syllables. "Raus! Scram!"

Larry stumbled down the steps and grabbed the textbook. The door slammed loudly, a universal language. He dusted snow off the book—and straw off himself—then stamped back to his own trailer to get his parka and bike. That's it. I've had it. 

Time to go to the top on this; in fact, it was the last straw.

* * *

The corridors of the high school milled with people who, like Larry, had some kind of petition for their leaders. Several languages filled the air. He used his status as a combat veteran to get through, and his shoulder when necessary. The meeting that had attracted the crowd was just finishing up; after a few minutes of jostling, the doorman—another underemployed motorbike scout—nodded slightly. Larry slipped past him into the meeting room.

Willie Ray Hudson, the farm czar, was shrugging into a Peterbilt jacket older than Larry; he looked as worn and creased as the leather. "Mister Hudson?" asked Larry. "Ah, can I talk to you a moment? I think it's important."

Hudson cocked his head and stared at him. "You been fightin', son?"

"Just a disagreement." Larry cleared his throat. "Mister Hudson, a few of my friends and I want to make something special for the Christmas feast, and we thought that potato chips would be good. But I don't know if anyone around here grows potatoes . . . and some people get kinda, um, strange when I ask them about it. And this book I was reading about potatoes said that they could feed . . . uh . . ."

"A whole lot of people?" finished Hudson. "Bet they quoted twelve tons an acre, didn't they? Well, son, that's with fertilizer, irrigation, and spraying Lorox twice a week. Here, we'd be lucky to get two, three tons an acre. This is farming, not agribusiness."

"Oh," said Larry, somewhat taken back. He hadn't exactly thought that farmers were dumb—but they didn't go to college either, did they? He could feel himself blushing.

"But there's no point anyway," Hudson continued. "Sure, it'd still be a good yield, but we can't get 'em to grow the damn things. The locals think 'taters are animal fodder—or worse." He turned, although not far enough that Larry could slip away. "Hey, Melissa!"

The slender woman sorting folders at the table's head looked up. "Yes?"

"How'd that Prussian guy get his peasants to grow potatoes?" Sounds like a joke, Larry thought.

Melissa Mailey sniffed. "Frederick the Great? He cut off their noses if they refused to. Inspired leadership." She resumed her work.

Typical seventeenth-century punchline, though. Or was he eighteenth . . . never mind. "Maybe we could persuade them instead?" offered Larry.

"We're trying to stop people from killin' each other over which Bible they thump," said Hudson wearily. "Vegetable tastes aren't exactly top priority."

"Well, I don't need a lot of potatoes. A couple of bushels at most. And maybe if they eat something that tastes better than boiled turnip, they'll change their minds . . ." But Hudson was shaking his head.

"Nobody here I know of has any potato seed, Larry. We need to keep the potatoes we have to plant 'em as cuttings, so we can grow more potato plants. Otherwise, the only potatoes around are somewhere in the Andes, and we aren't goin' there anytime soon. Hearts and minds is all very well, but when . . ."

Melissa stopped next to them as though the phrase had physically hooked her. She had a parka slung over her arm and a scarf already wrapped around her neck. "Willie Ray, you're going to freeze like that," she said sharply.

"Aw, it's not cold," said the farmer, looking down.

"There might be influenza this winter. Don't wear yourself down when you don't have to." She looked at Larry. "Men. Have you been fighting, young man?"

Damn you, Jimmy. "Just a scuffle, ma'am. I was asking Mister Hudson about potatoes. My friends and I want to make potato chips for the Christmas feast."

"Sounds great! What's the problem?"

"No potatoes," said Larry. "I asked Gretchen's grandmother, but she just yelled at me."

She frowned. "Well, what was she yelling?"

"It was all German. Teufels-wurzel, I remember that . . ."

Melissa turned and waved vigorously. "Becky! Hey! I need some translating."

Larry bowed instinctively as Rebecca Abrabanel joined them. She just did that to him somehow. "Larry here's running into some language problems," Melissa added. "Larry, you know Rebecca, right? Everybody does."

"Hi," he managed. I just wanted to ask about potatoes . . .

"You have been fighting, I see. What is the language?" The National Security Advisor had donned a woolen shawl; now she slipped it free again with a graceful tilt of her neck.

"German, what else? Teufel . . . something. Larry?"

"Uh . . . Teufels-wurzel, I think."

"Devil's root," said Rebecca. She glanced to Willie Ray, then back to Larry. "You are discussing agriculture? Devil's Root is a common term for what you'd call potato. It is used by apothecaries, and even eaten in England and Holland, but I do not recall that it grows here."

"C'mon, Larry," urged Melissa. "Think. What else did she say?"

"Ah . . . Verke . . . her, ter . . . then Knave or something like that."

Rebecca lifted an eyebrow. "Verkehrter knabe would be 'perverted boy.' Just what sort of conversation were you having, Larry?"

Larry knew the school floor couldn't open beneath him and swallow him; he just wished that it could. "I asked Gretchen's grandmother about potatoes. That's all! And she went Jeet Kune Do on me!"

"Went . . . ?"

"Hit me with her broom. A lot."

"Ah." Rebecca nodded. "You are . . . off the hook, as Michael says. Potatoes are very exotic here. They are believed to be Aphrodisiakum—an aphrodisiac, a sexual stimulant, like rhinoceros horn—but that is superstition. My father says that rhinoceros horn is much more effective."

Larry opened his mouth, thought, and closed it again.

Hudson grinned sympathetically. "You should have heard what they called me when I tried to suggest planting 'em in gardens."

"This is rather interesting," mused Rebecca. "Missgebildete Schmutzknolle? Ugly dirt-tuber object? That's a common one as well. Do you recall it?"

"It was hard to hear, uh . . . with the broom and all."

"Jeez, you must have gotten her riled up," muttered Hudson. "Look, son, I appreciate your stopping by, but there's a rationing system for a reason. I'm not breaking it just for some snack foods. Go shoot yourself a deer."

Rebecca looked back to Hudson. "I am distracting you, I'm sorry. Good night, gentlemen."

As Hudson and Larry made replies, Melissa jumped into the gap. "Now just hang on, Willie Ray. Potatoes could be a useful crop, right?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"And if people eat tasty snacks made from potatoes, they'll like potatoes, right?"

"Melissa," said Hudson with heavy patience, "you're not runnin' rings around me on this one, okay? We got to have some priorities. Snack foods just aren't in there."

"Mister Hudson . . ." Larry gestured at his own face. "I got this from fighting over a bag of cheese curls. She's right—people really like junk food."

Hudson's face tightened stubbornly. "It's a seed crop. You don't eat that."

"If we don't get people to plant the seed potatoes by this spring, won't they just rot anyway?" said Melissa. "It took Frederick the Great years to make them do it. Better the carrot than the stick—even better carrot sticks, of course . . ." Melissa still hadn't quite made the mental adjustment from calories make people fat to calories allow people to survive. "But junk food's powerful stuff—it conquered the world in our time, and they won't have any built-up immunity to it. Now, we can't spare sugar for anything nonessential—"

"Now that's right," put in Hudson. "Salt we can get, but I can't grow sugarcane in central Europe without a greenhouse." He shook his head ruefully. "Got me agreeing with you already, don't you?"

"No sugar?" blurted Larry. Sure, it was being rationed, but—none?

"There's only a few plantations nowadays," explained Melissa. "Refined sugar's still about as expensive as cocaine was in our time. Pretty much the same kind of people running things, too—the world's first drug lords. But just wait until we get some sugar beets growing here!" She bit off the rant. "Sorry. Long day. Anyway, salt we do have. If you can make the chips, and get people to change their minds about potatoes by tickling their taste buds instead of cutting off their noses, it's worth doing. Come on, Willie Ray! He only needs a bushel or two."

"All right," muttered the farm czar. "I'll give you a slip for one bushel. But it isn't gonna work."

Melissa looked at the door; figures could been seen milling behind the reinforced glass pane. She reached up to lay her hand solemnly on Larry's head, then grinned. "Gotta go. Larry, you are now officially in charge of . . . Project Quayle. May you do better at it than he did."

A few minutes later a pleased but puzzled Larry slowly pushed his way through the crowd, clutching the precious authorization slip. Quail? Why would she name a potato chip project after a bird? 

* * *

It took all three of them to carry a bushel of potatoes back home from town; then Larry discovered they'd forgotten to give the storeowner the ration slip, and had to ride back with it, then meet the others in town again. Two different stores had no cooking oil at all. Night had fallen before they started peeling, and the moon was up before they managed to get an even slice.

And it was one-fifteen in the morning when Larry stumbled, choking, out of the trailer, Jimmy and Eddie treading on his heels with Hans slung between them. The half-moon barely threw enough light to show the clouds of smoke billowing from the open trailer door. Larry wiped his eyes, coughed rackingly until nothing seemed to be shaking loose anymore, and turned back to the others.

"Okay," he wheezed, "so that's what they meant about smoke point."

"I guess that oil's no good," said Eddie. They'd had to settle for olive oil at the store; the high-temperature oils had all been requisitioned for emergency diesel fuel. Eddie's hopes for "Italian flavor" chips had clearly been a little optimistic.

"Jimmy, go back and open all the doors and windows," said Larry. "Hans, you okay?"

"Okay, okay," said Hans. He sat on the ground with his legs stretched out, still blinking in surprise, while Eddie braced him upright. They'd bundled him outside wrapped in the blanket he was sleeping in—Larry was relieved to see he wasn't coughing hard. That wouldn't be good for someone with a wound still healing.

"Why me?" grumbled Jimmy, but he pulled his shirt over his face and darted inside.

"Fire? Is fire out?" asked Hans anxiously. "The other trailers—"

"It wasn't a fire," said Larry. "I don't know why Jimmy wasted that extinguisher—crap, those things are priceless now! The oil just started to smoke. A lot. The stove's turned off, and the oil's cooling down now. It's okay, Hans. We'll go back inside in a minute." The windows were rattling open one by one.

"Okay," Hans repeated. He wrapped the blanket closer and settled down to wait. At least he had a blanket; Larry was freezing already after the boiling confines of the trailer's kitchenette. In a minute or two, though, they could go back in, close up, and crank the heat.

Jimmy trotted down the steps, coughing pointedly. "All done, Darth Tater. Got any holes to dig—bales to tote?"

"Kicking of butt are you seeking, young Jedi," singsonged Larry. "I think there's another extinguisher in the shed; go get it."

"What, so we can eat smoke again instead of chips?"

Larry bunched his fists. "Jimmy, do you remember the last time we had an argumen—" He stopped in midword as a smoke detector started keening. "Shit!"

"Didn't you turn it off?" said Eddie.

"I took out the damn battery myself!" Larry followed the sound with his eyes. The second trailer.

"Jimmy," he said carefully, "did you open all the doors?"

"Sure, like you said."

"The connecting door?"

"But you said all—"

"You moron!" howled Eddie. He stood up abruptly; Hans wobbled, but braced himself on the ground with one palm. "They're gonna be out here any second! Jeff's gonna kick—"

"Jeff's off doing a courier run," snapped Larry. "Gretchen's gonna kick our butts." He walked grimly towards the noise and the second set of steps, framing an apology in his mind. Behind him, Eddie and Jimmy railed at one another, voices rising like baseball players grabbing the bat before a game; but he was starting to feel concerned.

Something's wrong. There's no lights going on in there. They can't sleep through that! God, there can't be enough smoke to—

It hit him as he set one foot on the steps. Night. Smoke in the house. A wailing noise. Jeff's away. Loud voices outside. The memory of a stone-faced Gretchen, standing with folded arms as she waited for the mercenaries to come, flashed into his head. Oh, shit! 

"Hans!" he shouted—just as Gretchen slammed out of the darkened door with a blanket wrapped over one shoulder and a pistol gripped in both hands.

Larry recoiled a pace, skidding in the snowpath. There wasn't enough light scattering from his own trailer to show him or the figures behind him very clearly—but there was damn well enough moonlight to shoot by. She'll see Hans on the ground, surrounded by figures—targets, just like me! He was already raising both hands palm-out. "Gretchen!" he shouted, his voice breaking as it hadn't for two years. "It's me, Larry! Gretchen, it's okay!" 

She was down on one knee on the front stoop; her arms foreshortened as she swung the pistol onto Larry below. The faint light that caught her face showed as much expression on it as a steel lathe spindle might have. This close, the nine-millimeter slugs would blow clean through his chest, splintering bone like balsa wood. Gretchen was a crack shot, too; once Jeff had shown her how to use the pistol, she'd taken to it with a passion.

Hans called out in English behind him. "Gretchen, is okay! Me, friends, all okay!"

Larry was frozen from his guts outward, much colder than the air accounted for. Instinct screamed at him to turn and run, but that would be the worst thing he could do—and even more importantly, he wouldn't let himself die like a coward in front of his friends. That had kept him from running on a battlefield before; now it kept him alive. Gretchen blinked hard once, twice, and suddenly became just an angry human being. She lifted the pistol's muzzle, and Larry took a long and shaky breath.

"It's okay," he husked, and swallowed. "Just a cooking mistake." Shit, what a stupid way to get killed. 

Feet thumped to the ground on the third trailer's opposite side. Larry glimpsed motion between the foundation blocks. The kids? They went out a back window? Oh, God, that's why she went out the front. While she's being killed by the men who set her house on fire, they might get away. It's a German fire drill. He rubbed at his face. I'll never complain about my childhood again, ever. 

"Was?" snarled Gretchen. "Cookink?" Her brother called out something in German. Presumably he'd shouted first in English because that was less of a threat. Her eyes scanned along the treeline while she sorted out what he'd said; then she safed the weapon and got to her feet. Larry turned away sharply. Part of him wanted very much to stare at places the blanket didn't cover—but the rest was still thinking about survival, not reproduction.

At least the threat of gunshot wounds had stopped Jimmy and Eddie's arguing, although the smoke alarm continued to wail. Hans looked startled, but unharmed. The trailer door banged shut, and Larry turned back again as Gretchen yelled out the opposite window at the kids. He crouched to look through the blocks; they'd popped up in the snow-dusted underbrush just short of the trees, their faces pale blobs lifted to her voice. They'd been low-crawling, and he'd wager that they hadn't looked back once until she called. That's one damn scary fire drill. 

A thud came faintly from the trailer, then another. The electronic wail stopped abruptly. Gretchen opened the door and flung a handful of plastic shards onto the plowed driveway. She'd wrapped the blanket properly this time; Larry rose from his crouch and stepped forward. Blame Jimmy? No. Jimmy could be a jerk sometimes, but he was still Larry's friend.

"I'm really, really sorry. It was an accident. I—" He twisted aside as the kids pounded up the steps and glued themselves to Gretchen like limpets. One of them was carrying Gretchen's baby, who seemed to have slept through the whole adventure. Now that the emergency was over, two of them were crying, and guilt gnawed at Larry as he looked at them. You must have been scared half to death. Arson's part of warfare for you. 

He'd seen far worse in battles, but for all its crowding and irritations, this was his home—and they were his family now. "I'm sorry," he repeated softly. "It shouldn't be like that here."

Eddie and Jimmy took up the chant behind him. "Sorry, sorry . . ."

"Sorry doesn't cut it around here!" shouted Gretchen. "Look at zem!"

Larry nodded, although his mind muttered Does everyone in town say that when I screw up? "There's no fire. No fire. Just some oil that got too hot and made a lot of smoke. We'll clean up anything we have to."

"Uh, maybe the kids would like some Italian chips?"

"Shut up, Jimmy."

Gretchen sniffed. "You all say sorry to Jeff, ven he gets back in mornink! Maybe he just hit you with hand, not hit you with motorbike!" She ushered the kids inside with her left hand. She still held the pistol in her right; the edge of her palm was bleeding from a small cut. Larry was very glad that the smoke alarm's housing had taken the worst of her anger. "Cooking always makes fires. If kitchen burns, houze burns—you must watch, always! You are all stupid!" She slammed the door behind her.

"I guess we are," said Larry to the door. He turned and sat down hard on the steps; his legs were a little shaky. What a Goddamned stupid way to get killed that would have been, all right. He rested his head in his hands. "Okay. Eddie, you help Hans back inside and close the windows. I'm gonna sit here until I decide not to rolf; then we figure out how to get some real oil before Jeff gets back, because about the only thing that's gonna stop him from killing all of us slowly and painfully is a handful of fresh potato chips."

"What do you mean all of us?" said Jimmy. "It was your idea—"

Larry glanced to the end trailer as its door opened. Gramma stood in the opening, holding her broom at high port. At least she hadn't tried to go out through the windows . . . Between the wisps of smoke still eddying around and the light silhouetting her, she looked like a bad remake of The Terminator. "Yeah, you're right, Jimmy," he said slowly. "Go help Gramma sweep up the smoke alarm bits, and maybe you can stay in her trailer overnight."

"Sounds good to me," grumbled Jimmy. "You guys are bad news to be around." He trotted down the trailers. "Hi, Gramma! Give me the broom."

Larry settled his head again and closed his eyes. Whiskery thuds and yelps and guttural curses sounded to his left; he found it kind of soothing while he thought. No stores open this time of night. Grantville wasn't quite the sleepy town it had once been; merchants locked up their stores now, and the gas station—where the diesel substitute oils were kept—was actually guarded. Larry wasn't going to run a risk of getting shot again for the damn potato chips.

Jimmy slammed their trailer door in a delayed echo of Gramma slamming hers. Larry looked up and realized he was shivering with cold. Time to go in and admit it; I haven't got a clue. Sorry, guys, we'll draw straws to see who Jeff gets to beat up in the morning. . . .

"Sorry doesn't cut it around here," Larry said aloud, and snorted. Nat Davis would laugh his head off at this scene . . . His jaw sagged open. Hang on. We use lube oil to cut gears. And the lathes need oil. What if Mister Davis grabbed some of that stuff in case he needed it later?  

Larry didn't have keys to the shop. But there was that window at the side alley, the one that Mister Davis always cursed because it wouldn't shut properly . . . and that he never had time to fix. It wouldn't be stealing—we'd just borrow it for a while. It's not like we'll use it up.

He jumped down from the steps and hurried to his trailer. The doorknob wouldn't turn; he rattled it with increasing force. "Hey!" 

"Go away," said Eddie's muffled voice. "No one's home. We've cashed in our chips."

"If you—" shouted Larry; then he lowered his voice. "If you guys want something better to do than a D & D game, I need a couple of Level Four Fighter-Thieves for a quest."

The door edged open. "Huh?" said Eddie.

It took them three hours—plus the fifteen minutes it had taken Jimmy to find his ninja mask in the litter of his room; he'd refused to go without it—two frostbitten fingers, a set of flashlight batteries, one skinned knee, and a fuming half-hour putting all the drill bits back into the storage bin that Eddie had knocked over before they switched on the lights; but when they finally staggered home with six one-quart containers of canola oil, Larry knew that it had been worth it.

Then the real work started. Batch Two. 

"I didn't know you could get blisters from peeling things," complained Jimmy.

"Shut up. Keep peeling, it's almost dawn."

"Never mind!" yelled Eddie from the living room. The kitchenette wasn't big enough for three to work in—not with a pot of hot oil on the stove. "I've already got enough sliced for a batch. Is the oil doing okay?"

Larry stirred the big pot doubtfully. "Looks pretty hot. All right then, load!"

The cooking rig was an old oversized egg basket, with additional levels of mesh provided by screening pulled out of the bathroom window and wired in place. As Jimmy had pointed out, mosquitoes were a distant problem compared to Jeff. They arranged the slices within; Larry thought he saw a wisp of smoke and hastily backed down the burner, although the connecting door was duct-taped around its seal now. "Let's try two minutes of cooking."

The resulting chips could have been used themselves for lubricant. "Okay, too long. Load! Half a minute."

Jimmy crinkled up his face at the first bite. "Pthaw!" He flicked the half-chip at the window; it stuck. "Ugh. That can't be good."

"One minute, then." Larry was sweating, and it wasn't entirely from the burners. "Load!" A minute later the basket came out of the oil. The things inside actually, sort of, looked like potato chips . . .

Another anxious minute while they drained and cooled. Jimmy snagged one, blew on it and popped it into his mouth. It crunched in a very satisfactory manner.

"Not bad! Bland, though."

"Crap, we forgot the salt!" Larry dug a shaker from a cupboard and unscrewed it. "I think there's enough here for now. Get them salted fast, before they cool off. Load!"

They didn't stop for breakfast; semi-failed batches kept all of them nourished. By the time it was fully light and Jeff's motorbike rumbled into the driveway, there were several bowls stockpiled.

Larry turned off the burner. "Show time, troops."

"He's gone inside their trailer," reported Eddie, holding the Venetian blind open with two fingers; he was a scout, after all. "Maybe he'll want to wash up, eat breakfast first . . . Uh oh. Guess not." He released the blind and strolled casually toward the bathroom.

"Oh no you don't," said Larry. "That's not why we took the screen out. All for one, one for all."

"Gretchen did it for her folks," muttered Eddie; but he slumped onto the sofa with the others. "Is the door open?"

Jeff slammed the panel inward, catching its expected rebound from the computer desk with his arm.

"Is now." Larry leaned forward. "Hi, Jeff! Sorry about the trouble. We're . . ." He trailed off. Courier duty? Looks like mud wrestling instead. Jeff was slathered in road gruel from boots to cap; he'd taken off his goggles, leaving a raccoon mask of clean skin around his eyes. He'd also taken off his gloves, Larry noted, as Jeff cracked the knuckles of first one hand, then the other. The room got more crowded as he advanced into it.

Hans was back in the third bedroom. They'd asked him to speak to Gretchen, but he'd explained that the phrase death wish had originated in German. . . .

"You. Stupid. Shitheads. What were you doing? You scared the crap out of my entire family. You scared my kids."

Jimmy opened his mouth, but said nothing. Thank God for that, Larry thought. They were Jeff's kids now, no matter whose genes they had. "Jeff, we're all really sorry about that. It was our fault—my fault. We were cooking . . ."

"Sorry doesn't cut it around here!" bellowed Jeff. "Would've served you right if she had shot you, you stupid jerk! You know what they've been through?"

"Yes," said Larry evenly. "I was there at that battle. We all were."

Jeff checked momentarily at the mention of Gretchen's rescue. "Yeah, you were. So you should know better! Waking her up like that—smoking up two trailers—we need a new smoke alarm, and they're goddamned expensive now—"

"Pretty much ruined a broom, too," muttered Jimmy.

"You're right," agreed Larry as Jeff stooped, closed a hand in Larry's shirt, and lifted him to his feet. "Absolutely right. Here, have a potato chip." He edged a bowl between them.

"What? There's no chips since—" Jeff looked down. "Where'd you get these?"

"We made 'em last night," said Eddie proudly. "We're gonna make enough for everyone."

"Probably taste like crap." He scooped up a handful. "Hmnoh. Y'know why Gretchen didn't whale you, Larry? In German families, the husband does all that stuff . . . Hmnoh. Not bad. Y'see, I know Gretchen can take care of herself, but I still gotta do the right thing. Hmnoh. Six hours riding with nothing to eat . . . C'mon outside a minute."

Larry sighed and put the bowl down. "No, bring that," said Jeff. He dragged Larry onto the stoop and down the steps, taking fistfuls of chips with his off-hand, until they both stood on flat ground; then he let go, his breath smoking in the freezing air. "Here, gimme those."

Larry complied. Jeff grinned and took the bowl—

—with his right hand. Larry didn't even see the left hook coming. He was just suddenly there on the cold, hard ground, his head ringing. Some pretty-looking red clouds filled the morning sky. Is that a hawk circling, or a vulture? Jeff looked awfully big, standing up there. . . .

"Hmnoh. That settles that," said Jeff. He turned. "Hey, kids! Gretchen! You gotta try these!"

* * *

Larry leaned against the row of lockers and let the chattering crowd flow past him. Conversations just didn't sound the same after cell phones had stopped working—they all had at least two sides. His eyelids drooped. God, I'm tired. Two more classes, some more fun at the machine shop, then home and more chip-making . . .

"Larry!" He jerked upright. "Oh, your face looks awful! Were you fighting again?"

"Uh, sort of, Bonnie. So, how are you doing?"

"Never mind that!" She twisted out of the crowd's current. "Is it true? You're making potato chips for the feast?"

"Well, it was supposed to be secret, but I guess I can tell you." A few feet behind her, Eddie bounced on his toes to be seen over the crowd, dragging one hand's edge repeatedly across his neck. What's with him? "The prototypes have been a success, my minions served me well—and we're gonna change German agriculture, one chip at a time."

"Great!" Bonnie squealed. "I'll tell all my friends so they can be first in line! Oh, this is gonna be great!" She dove into the crowd.

"Didn't you see me?" snapped Eddie a moment later. "You told her anyway, didn't you?"

"Well, why not? You're just ticked 'cause you don't have anyone to impress yourself."

Eddie pressed his palms to his forehead. "I've been trying to get you for—Never mind. We're screwed. Why'd you have to go and—"


"Don't you listen to what they tell you here? Do the math, Larry. It took us two hours to make a few bowls of chips—and Jeff and Gretchen ate all of them already! There's gonna be four thousand people at the feast. We can't make nearly enough in four days! Are you gonna tell ninety-five percent of 'em that 'there's no chips left, try again next year'?"

He felt a sinking feeling. "We'll get faster at it."

"Not that much. None of the Germans are gonna help, either. Maybe some of our people would . . ."

Larry frowned. "They're all our people now, Eddie."

"Sorry," said Eddie, looking as though he meant it. "But they're all gonna be hungry people, too." He looked over his shoulder. "Damn! I'm late. Look, just stop telling everyone, okay?"

"Okay." But it wasn't okay; and Larry brooded on that for the rest of classes, for his shift at the machine shop, and for the slow ride home. He wiped out twice; the roads had melted during the day and were already refreezing at dusk, making them treacherous. After the second fall he just lay there a while until a truck rumbled up and someone asked him something loudly in German. He staggered to his feet. "I'm not hurt, just tired. Thanks. Danke."

"Naw, he's sayin' to get out of the way!" yelled the driver of the truck. One of the figures in the open back stooped and straightened; a shovelful of sand fanned over Larry's feet.

Well, that figured.

Lights glowed in all three trailers when he wobbled into the driveway. At least we won't wake anyone up. Eddie's right, but we've gotta keep trying. He trudged up the steps. Why is there a brick in the doorway? He looked to his right; the other two doors were also chocked open. He shrugged and pushed open the door.

A row of hulking garbage bags barricaded the living room. Are they throwing out my stuff? Jeff said it was settled! But the bag that toppled against his leg hardly seemed to weigh anything. It rustled when he touched it. Chips? 

Then he saw the kids sitting beside a composting bin, peelers flying like cavalry sabers—Johann and the girls, plus another boy he recognized from down the street. They hardly glanced up as the door clunked against the brick behind him. Hans' voice sounded from the kitchenette. "Driese!"

"I'm out!" called Eddie from the next room. Johann jumped up with an armful of peeled potatoes, scurrying around the corner. Larry followed him in a daze. Eddie sat cross-legged on the floor; Johann dumped the potatoes beside him. "Thanks, Johann. Hi, Larry!" He held up an orange plastic food-slicer. "Found this baby in the shed—whoever lived in this trailer before us already thought like we do, and they didn't throw out anything." He skimmed a potato into a blizzard of slices. "I'm just not as fast as Gramma with a knife. Look at her go!"

Larry leaned past Eddie to look through the open connecting door. Gramma stood at a counter that had been covered with a plank; her dark iron cooking knife hammered out a volley on the wood, and a potato dissolved under it. She caught Larry's eye, grimaced, spat out "Teufelwurzten chippen! Ist skandal!" and looked down again.

"Einse!" barked Hans. Larry turned and stumbled four steps to the kitchenette. Gretchen had just lifted a cooking rack from one of three pots at full flame; she held it over a fourth—unheated—pot to drain, blew a strand of hair out of her eyes, and looked witheringly at him. "Stupid men," she growled. "Not to use kitchen right." She shook the drained chips out onto a towel, then dropped the rack onto the counter. The half-familiar neighbor behind her—Traudi?—dealt fresh chips into it.

"Triese!" cried Hans, wedged into a corner of the kitchenette and holding three wristwatches. The open window beside him wafted in cold air—ah, that's what the brick's for. Why didn't we think of that? Gretchen lowered the freshly loaded rack into a pot and drew another out. "Jeff likes po-ta-to chips much," she said. "Und Jeff is husband, und you Jeff's kamerade, zo I make chips. But not stupid way! Jeff talkink about man Henry Forhd . . ."

Melissa will kill Jeff if she finds out, thought Larry dazedly. Death by liberal feminist. "Ah, where is Jeff?"

"In our kitchen, mit Grossmutter und Jimmy, und Dolores und children from next . . . road. Need strong arms, to lift chippenmaaschen so many from kettle."

All right, maybe not . . .

"Billy Wallins from Reynolds Crescent is in the last trailer with his wife and kids," put in Eddie. He massaged his slicing hand while he paused. "They brought all their cooking pots—"

"Edvard! Schnell!"

"Yes'm." Eddie bent to his task.


"I'm out! Johann!"

As he watched in amazement, another trash bag filled with chips was added to the pile. This timeline's United States is gonna be unstoppable, thought Larry.

* * *

By the next day they had used the last potato. A rough guess told them they had enough chips for about a quarter of the people who were going to be wanting them. A quick trip and a generous sample of their work, and an enthusiastic endorsement by Gretchen convinced Willie Ray Hudson to write out another slip for three more bushels. He even authorized the gas for a pickup truck to deliver them to the trailer. Nothing succeeds like success, I guess, thought Larry, shaking his head.

Two days to go and fortunately there was no school. They cut back on the frantic production pace a little so there was some time to sleep. Still, they were hard at it on Christmas Eve.

"Hey, guys, it's snowing!" said Jimmy, looking out the window during a break.

"Hard?" asked Larry.

"Coming down like gangbusters right now."

"Damn, if we get a lot of snow it will screw up the celebration!"

"And no weather forecasts so we don't know what's coming," said Eddie. "What a pain not knowing what the weather's going to do tomorrow." Several of the Germans looked at him like he was insane.

About two in the morning, the last potato was peeled, sliced and cooked. Almost every cubic foot of all three trailers was packed with bags of chips. They couldn't leave them outside for fear the raccoons would get into them.

"How are we gonna get them all to the school tomorrow?" asked Jimmy.

"We'll figure that out in the morning," yawned Larry. "Assuming we can get to the school at all with this snow. Right now, I'm going to bed. Great job everyone!"

* * *

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. Larry guessed that there was about three inches of fresh snow on the ground. Not too bad, but it was going to make it harder to get their chips over to the school. He was still worrying about the logistics when the roar of a diesel engine outside caught his attention. He squeezed past the mound of bags in the living room and opened the trailer door. Outside was one of the town's two dump trucks. This one had a plow fitted to the front of it. He thought it might be the one that had almost run him over the other day. The driver was swinging down from the cab.

"Hey! I understand you've got a special delivery for the school?"

"Sure do!" cried Larry. "And Merry Christmas!"

* * *

The high school was the only building in town big enough to handle the crowds—barely. Naturally enough, the food would all be served in the cafeteria, although people would have to find other places to actually eat it. As Larry gently tossed bags of chips down from the back of the truck, he could see that he and his fellow-chippers had not been the only ones laboring through the night to get the feast ready. Hundreds of other people were already bustling about, making sure there would be enough for everyone. He and the other chipmeisters were assigned spots in the serving lines and they piled up their bags behind them so they could keep the serving bowls filled. By about ten o'clock, most of the preparations seemed to be complete. Larry could see a huge crowd forming outside, as nearly the entire population of Grantville—new and old—converged on the school.

But before the feast there was something far more important to do.

An announcement over the school's loudspeakers sent everyone heading for the football field. It was cold outside, but not really bad: bright sun, no wind, and snow beginning to melt here and there. Crews had already swept the snow off the bleachers, leaving dry seats. Larry and Jimmy and Eddie and Hans and Jeff and Gretchen and Gramma and all the kids grabbed a section for themselves and huddled together near the forty-yard line. At midfield a podium had been set up on a platform, framed by an arbor of evergreen branches. Folding chairs lined the field in front of the podium, but most folks were heading up into the bleachers where their feet could stay out of the snow. Another, higher platform stood behind the podium; the choir had assembled there. He could just make out Bonnie Weaver.

Mike Stearns appeared, ushering the movers and shakers from the town and the community toward the metal seats. Larry grinned when he saw a few of them glance towards the bleachers enviously. Sometimes rank's privileges were uncomfortable ones . . .

Rebecca Abrabanel came over to Mike, spoke with him and pointed. Larry followed Becky's gesture and saw a small group clustered by the south goalpost. He recognized Becky's father and Mr. and Mrs. Roth and a few others. He puzzled for a moment; then nodded. Jews at a Christmas celebration. No wonder they're hesitating! 

But Mike Stearns walked briskly over to them and took Mrs. Roth by the arm and led her and the others over to the folding chairs. Larry had seen military formations maneuvering on the field before, and there was a certain military precision in what happened next. The group were seated, but somehow there were no unoccupied sections big enough for all of them. They had to split up—just enough to create a mingling, a merging. No ghettoes here in Grantville! Not even temporary ones! 

Finally, everyone had found a seat. The stands were filled with people and the blending of brightly colored synthetic fabrics with dull wools and leathers made a patchwork pattern in the morning light.

The people of Grantville were assembled. All of them.

The crowd fell silent as three small groups of people entered the field. Father Mazzare, wearing colorful robes, strode in from one sideline. Reverend Jones, in more sedate clothing, approached from the other. And a third group was coming in from the north goal. The first two groups had people carrying books and small crosses. The third had someone carrying a small menorah. There was a stir in the assembled crowd and Larry realized he was witnessing something that must have taken a lot of planning.

All three groups met in the center of the field and bowed to each other; and four thousand people looked on in utter silence.

A man from the third group came forward and hesitantly approached the microphone; Larry didn't recognize him. He must have been one of the German refugees. No, refugee no longer—one of the new citizens of the town. He glanced back at Father Mazzare and Reverend Jones; the two men smiled and gestured for him to go ahead. The man began to speak, and after a momentary flinch when his voice boomed out from a dozen loudspeakers, he went on. Larry could not understand the words, but he recognized that it was Hebrew he was hearing; and the effect on the Jews seated in front of him was plain. Rebecca clutched at her father and the Roths seemed to be crying, too.

The man finished and stepped back. Father Mazzare took the microphone and Larry was a bit surprised when he could not understand him either. He was speaking in Latin. He spoke for perhaps five minutes and at least a few of the people in the crowd seemed to be reacting to it.

Then it was Reverend Jones' turn. When he stepped up to the microphone, he held out his hand and Rebecca Abrabanel came forward to stand beside him.

"My friends, welcome," he said. "And a very Merry Christmas." Rebecca leaned forward and repeated it in German.

"This is always a very special time of year," continued Jones. "But this year's Christmas is perhaps the most special since the very first, so many years ago. This is the first Christmas since the Ring of Fire." He paused while Rebecca translated.

"Many of us have wondered what the Ring of Fire was. How did it happen? Why did it pick us? Why did it bring us here? How did so great a power leave us alive and unharmed? I cannot answer those question, my friends, I can only tell you what I believe in my heart.

"I believe that we have witnessed the Hand of God in this thing. He has brought us here for a purpose. It is not for Man to question God's Purpose, but there are some things we can try to understand. His hand has brought us here. All of us. American and German, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant. We have all been brought here, to this time and this place to serve His Purpose.

"What that purpose will ultimately be, we can only imagine. But we have begun a great task here. We are building a place where people can be free; truly free. A place where people, no matter their origins, can live and raise their families and serve God as they see fit. A place free of the fear and superstitions of the dark past. A place where people can worship God as they please."

A place where they won't be spooked by potatoes, thought Larry.

As the reverend's words sank into the English-speaking listeners, and as Rebecca translated it for the Germans, the impact spread through the crowd. Larry felt it, too, even though he did not at first have the words to describe it; and then he realized he did.

A place for me. 

"We must become a single people," continued Jones. "Rich in our diversity, but unconquerable in our unity. As we have begun, so let us continue. I ask Almighty God for his blessings. May He guide us to a bright new future. Amen."

Four thousand people echoed with one voice; but it seemed to Larry that the six adult voices on both sides of him were particularly strong. Or perhaps it was just that he'd heard them a little more clearly than any of the others. . . .

He shook his head ruefully. C'mon, it's just Christmas feelgood crap, isn't it? He knew where his family still was, and it wasn't here—or now. Still, two different timelines, both of them real; maybe there's room for two different families. . . .

Jones stepped back from the microphone and the choir began to sing. It was a sweet, sweet sound. All the traditional carols were sung, first in English and then again in a German translation. Or in the case of "Silent Night," in the English translation and then the original German. Soon everyone was joining in.

Larry told himself he was singing along with Bonnie, down in the choir; but by the fourth carol, he'd admitted it; he was singing with his folks. His family. Not a perfect one for sure, not even one he'd have chosen if he could—but then you never get to choose, do you? 

During breaks in the singing, the clerics did more formal services. Father Mazzare held mass; Larry had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing at the thought that if they had substituted their potato chips for the Communion wafers, they might see a mass conversion. Gramma leaned forward to glare at him from two seats away. Damn, she's a telepath! 

By the time it was all done, it was nearly noon and most of the people were getting pretty chilly despite the warm sun. A call blared over the speakers for all the food serving people to man their stations.

"That's us folks!" Larry called to the family. They made their way down off the bleachers and headed for the cafeteria.

* * *

The chips were a great success.

It took several hours to serve everyone, but each and every person who wanted them got a large handful of potato chips to go along with the turkey and ham and venison and stuffing and turnips that were being handed out. They kept telling people "no seconds" until everyone was served, but Larry noticed that a few faces in the line seemed awfully familiar. In the end it didn't matter, there were plenty for all and even some left over for the dance.

"Well, congratulations, Larry," said Melissa when she came up. "Project Quayle has accomplished its mission. Willie Ray is being mobbed by German farmers asking about potatoes."

"That's great!" said Larry. "But all we were really trying to do was have some chips for Christmas."

"You did that, too, Larry. Everyone's really enjoying them. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Miss Mailey."

After the meal, music and dancing filled the gymnasium. They could only fit a fraction of the people in at a time, but they had cranked the heat up to the point that people gladly went outside after staying a while. They also lured people out by having the gift exchange outside. Larry wasn't sure whose idea the exchange was, but it seemed like a good one. It was just a big pile of stuff. Clothes and blankets and old toys and nicknacks. Anyone who had something to give added it to the pile. Anyone in need could take from it. The exchange went on all day.

Once the last of the chips had been distributed, Larry slipped away; he'd been tracking Bonnie as best he could in the crowd, and after a few minutes of squeezing past enthusiastic—and unskilled—dancers, he managed to cross her path.

"Oh Larry, isn't this a great day?" she asked when she saw him.

"One of the best. The choir sounded wonderful."

"Thank you! And your chips were fantastic!"

"A lot of people chipped in to make them. . . ."

"Ugh," said Bonnie; then she grinned. "Want to dance?"


It was a very nice day—scarcely even dimmed by Nat Davis' comment about wanting to do a lubricant inventory at the shop—but eventually it drew to an end. People started drifting off toward their homes as the early night came on. Larry had lost track of the rest of the family but he was in sort of a daze anyway. Bonnie had kissed him goodnight.

He hitched a ride home on one of the buses that was shuttling people back to town. He was surprised to see that only the lights in his own trailer were on.

He was even more surprised when he saw that the only one there was Jimmy. He had disappeared early on, and Larry had been wondering where he had gotten to. Most surprising of all, Jimmy was back in the kitchen, slicing up another few potatoes he'd found somewhere. A funny odor wafted through the trailer. . . .

"Hey, Jimmy! Aren't you sick of making potato chips? What are you working on now?"

Jimmy didn't even look up. "Sour cream and onion flavor," he said.


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