“Are we there yet?” Violet asked brightly.
Ichamus was tempted to clamp a hand over Violet’s mouth. They were in a stagecoach with three other passengers, jolting over bumps and banging down in potholes. A film of dust covered cracked windows and wooden seats. Dust settled on their clothes. Ichamus could feel dust in his eyeballs, and taste it on his dry tongue. His bony rear end was bruised from the jarring ride.
The other three passengers had been sullen at the start of the journey. After three straight days of Violet’s relentless chatter, they looked downright angry. One of them had begged the driver to leave Violet at a rest stop, and Ichamus had pleaded with Violet to be quiet, but she wouldn’t shut up. Relief would only come at their destination, Billy’s Bay, which was mercifully soon.
When she wasn’t talking, Violet oohed and aahed at spectacular views, the blue-grey Fraser River, imposing rocky cliffs, and thickly forested mountains. She screeched in delight at passing birds, scrubby patches of flowers, and herds of cattle. In places where the road was badly damaged, the passengers had to abandon the stagecoach and walk. Ichamus and the three strangers trudged along miserably, choking on clouds of dust, while Violet thrilled to their surroundings.
“Can’t you just picture the gold rush? Cowboys, harlots, can-can girls! Posses of outlaws!”
“What do you know about posses of outlaws?” asked one of the passengers, rolling his eyes. He was a teenager, a Slicker, with bad acne and greasy hair.
“Nothing! Please, tell me all about outlaws!” Violet giggled.
“Don’t even try,” Ichamus muttered to the boy. “It’s pointless.”
Mackelman had arranged the stagecoach ride to Billy’s Bay, where Harpminster Abbott was working on a big, important project, a venture that required hundreds of volunteers: a nuclear power generator. It was ambitious, Mackelman said, and visionary. Ichamus kept questions about radioactive spills and the safe handling of nuclear waste to himself. In recent years, earthquakes near nuclear reactors had caused many toxic accidents. Ichamus hoped Harpminster knew what he was doing. The scope of the project was impressive, Mackelman had insisted, and the Slicker movement was a stroke of genius. Fuel was required to build a nuclear reactor, and Slickers found fuel in exchange for crackers and stale pasta. Harpminster Abbott was skilled at getting other people to do things for him, and that, Mackelman said, was what made a great leader. And when you followed a great leader, Mackelman said, you had to make sacrifices. Like donating all your food supplies, and leaving a perfectly good truck parked at Wenderways Hot Pools.
The stagecoach bumped across high grasslands splotched with forest, and at last rumbled around a long corner, and came to its final stop. Ichamus rubbed dust from a window and peered outside. A knot of people stood on a barren hillside; there were no buildings in sight. The driver exchanged backslaps and handshakes with the strangers outside the stagecoach door. Anxious to be free of the rolling wooden prison, Ichamus undid the door latch, stepped outside, and recoiled in fear! The stagecoach was parked on the edge of a cliff, above a canyon two city blocks long, and twice as deep. A dirt path spiralled around the perimeter to the bottom, far below.
“Welcome to Billy’s Bay. Were you expecting a nice swim?” the driver quipped.
Ichamus gestured dumbly at the gaping hole in the earth.
“It’s an open-pit mine, stupid,” said the teenage Slicker.
Bandanas covered the faces of the people greeting the driver, and many wore cowboy hats. The lone unmasked man had auburn hair parted severely in equal hemispheres, and small intense eyes. A raw purple scar disfigured the left side of his face. Ichamus gulped.
“It’s not polite to stare, Icky Nickel,” said Harpminster Abbott.
The scar, lumpy and shiny as a squid tentacle, curved from eye to jawbone. Archibald Weevil had mutilated his boss with that sharpened letter opener, thought Ichamus. He tried to look away, but the scar dragged his gaze like a magnet.
“Don’t gawk at my scar,” said Harpminster Abbott, cracking his knuckles.
“Sorry,” said Ichamus, looking at the leader’s pointy-toed cowboy boots instead.
A screechy soprano sliced the air. “Have you tried aloe vera gel?”
Violet had donned a costume for her first Cariboo appearance, a showgirl-slash-cowgirl ensemble: red satin shirt, purple sequinned vest, and cropped jeans tucked into iridescent pearl rain boots. Sparkly eyeshadow, the same purple as her vest, extended to her eyebrows.
“I have some in my rollie-suitcase,” Violet chirped. “Harpy,” she scolded, “you should have used it while that thing was healing. But it certainly can’t hurt now. I’ll dig it out for you.”
“I forgot what she’s like,” Harpminster Abbott said softly, and he snapped his fingers. “Slim and Duke—take Violet underground, and put her to work in the kitchens.”
Two men seized Violet’s arms and dragged her, protesting, down a ramp leading into the pit. Ichamus exhaled in relief, and the other stagecoach passengers sighed as well.
“The rest of you, follow your driver,” said Harpminster Abbott. “Room and board, courtesy of Parleyment, will be payment for your service. Training starts tomorrow at seven o’clock sharp.”
“Where’s the bay in Billy’s Bay?” sneered the pimply boy.
Harpminster Abbott let a lengthy pause spool out before answering. “Tut, tut,” he said at last. “You sound ungrateful, young man. If you don’t want the job, please leave. No one will stop you. Go back to your miserable existence.”
“How can I leave? I don’t have transportation or food,” the boy protested.
“Oh, what a shame! It sounds like you can’t afford to be picky,” said Harpminster Abbott. “But it makes absolutely no difference to me whether you stay or go. I’m busy revitalizing civilization, so no time for small talk.” Brrrrring! An old-fashioned telephone on a belt holster rang, and the leader answered the black radio phone. “Highest Seat, speak. Oh—Mother—not now! I’m extraordinarily preoccupied at the moment. Can’s this wait?”
A distorted, outraged female voice blasted from the phone. “Don’t be pompous, Harpminster. It doesn’t suit you! Your father has taken ill, and you’ve been on holiday out west long enough. Get back here and do your family duty.”
“What’s wrong with Daddy this time?” Harpminster Abbott’s tone was withering. He rolled his eyes at his Posse members, their expressions hidden by bandanas.
“How should I know? I’m not a doctor. He’s coughing up blood, and slurring his speech.”
“Oooh, that sounds rough alright, but Daddy will simply have to rally. I’m at a crucial juncture in this project. I can’t spare an hour, never mind a month.”
“If you don’t come back to the Capital, I will make you sorry you refused me.”
Harpminster Abbott’s eyes widened in fear. He clicked the phone off, pushed it back in its holster, and cleared his throat. “So you received my note, Icky. I am quite touched that you have come all the way to Billy’s Bay. Doubtless you regret your poor performance last winter.”
“I did my best at the Battle of Christmas,” Ichamus whined. “But yeah—I’ll help.”
Harpminster Abbott’s scar eyes flared red. “That is a lukewarm commitment. I assume Mackelman informed you about my significant undertaking? It is a monumental achievement, and you’re here for the most exciting part! Indeed, I have a special task for you, Ichamus, a great honour, a contribution essential to the success of my project. Walk with me while I explain your crucial role.”
Harpminster Abbott sauntered down the path into the mine. Ichamus, his empty stomach rumbling, hefted his duffle bag and scuffed along behind the Highest Seat. The leader clasped pink hands casually behind his back as he spoke. “After our failed coup in Vancouver, I wondered why people resisted a return to the old ways, and the answer was simple: power. No one remembers the joy and convenience of unlimited electrical power. Oil and gas are out of fashion, and all the hydroelectric dams failed during the earthquakes, so I asked myself a bold question: why not go nuclear? I found this abandoned copper mine, and retrofitted it as a nuclear reactor. Slickers sourced fuel for the backup generators. All I needed was reactor fuel. Just yesterday, I unearthed a quantity of raw uranium, and transported it here. Ichamus, you have the honour of placing treated uranium into the reactor itself.”
The path led to a roadway that sloped down steeply into the mine, then flattened at a large entranceway, a hole in a wall of black rock. Inside, the air was cool. They were in a tunnel, lit with flaming torches set in sconces, like a medieval castle. Ichamus hoped the darkness would hide his reluctance. Wasn’t it harmful to handle raw uranium—wasn’t this whole operation dangerous? He vaguely recalled stories about nuclear reactors leaking or exploding, with terrible consequences for surrounding life forms: cancer, mutations in offspring, painful disabilities, and death. Why had he agreed to come to Billy’s Bay? Ichamus thought of the kitchen at Sassamatta Grove, and almost wept with regret. Harpminster Abbott’s boot heels clicked as they walked past wooden doors with barred windows and metal keyholes; the place felt like a prison. Ichamus, dragging his duffel bag on the rock floor, was worried. Harpminster Abbott stopped at a random door. A woman produced a jingling set of iron keys and opened the door, revealing a small cell containing a cot hanging by chains from the wall, a metal folding chair, and a washstand.
“Drop your bag in here,” said Harpminster Abbott. “Count your paces from here to the elevator, so you can find your way back. We will now tour of the facility.”
Weak with hunger, Ichamus trudged after the Posse to an open chamber full of long tables and chairs. For a moment, Ichamus was hopeful he would be fed, but they walked beyond the chamber to a rickety elevator, a metal box in a shaft with pulleys. As the elevator descended, Harpminster Abbott whistled tunelessly. At the bottom, an archway opened to the ground level of the mine. Ichamus recognized the cylindrical shape of a nuclear cooling tower, tapered in the middle. Workers marched purposefully from building to building. Inside one, technicians watched computer screens; inside another, labourers fiddled with tangled wiring. Everyone wore secondhand military fatigues.
“As you can see, an oil burner is creating steam at the moment. We’re testing the turbine, generator, and transformer. If all goes well, tomorrow you will insert fuel rods into the reactor vessel. It’s inside the containment building,” Harpminster Abbott pointed to a concrete, dome-topped structure. “Power at last! The comforts of the old world! Lights, fans, heaters, computers, saunas, hot showers, a fleet of electric vehicles!”
Ichamus bit his tongue; the reactor seemed risky and expensive. At Sassamatta they had solar-heated water, and wind generators produced power, stored in lithium batteries, for cooking and light. There was always a plentiful supply, and the Followers of the Grove had few power-based gadgets.
“What about the waste?” Ichamus asked.
“Excellent question, Icky.” Harpminster Abbott flexed his hands beside his hipbones. “This brings us to the sheer generosity of my endeavour. I acquired my special talents genetically, you see. My mother was exposed to radiation, which caused a mutation in her DNA. Her mutated genes were passed to my sister Vicky and myself, and Vicky passed them to Sarah, my misguided niece. Such gifts are infinitely useful, Ichamus, and it would be selfish to hoard them. Who knows what skills humanity might gain, with a bit of experimentation? We will treat drinking water with radioactive waste, and the babies whose parents drank our water will be astonishing specimens.”
Harpminster Abbott spread his arms victoriously. Ichamus produced a rictus of fake pleasure. Supper was tasteless, bean paste and oatmeal. Ichamus found his sleeping cell. When the door slammed, a locking mechanism clinked ominously. Yawning, he stretched out on the cot, and relished the soothing absence of Violet’s grating blather.