"Ron!" came an enormous voice.
"I'm here!" Ron hollered. "Right here!"
Ron was still lying in her tunnel. Nothing much had changed. People yelled into the tunnel periodically, to make sure she was still okay, but apparently a lot of other people needed help as well, and whatever was on top of her was too big for anybody to move.
"Hang on!" Vicki said, closer now. "I want to make sure I do this the right way, so things don't shift and crush you."
"That's okay," Ron replied. "Take your time."
"Jan and Marshall are coming. We couldn't take the car onto the bridge. There were some big holes in the pavement, so they're walking across. I ran ahead."
Ron was willing to wait. She'd been stuck in this tunnel for a while – several hours as far as she could tell – and a few more minutes was no big deal. And she really didn't want to get squashed. A couple of times she had tried to ask people what was going on, but they hadn't known, or they hadn't been able to explain it. "It's big!" was about the clearest thing anybody had said.
She still didn't remember when things had changed. She remembered sitting on the piling, as she did every morning, and then the next thing she remembered she was trapped in here.
"Ron," came Marshall's voice, and Ron wiped her eyes with her good hand.
"I'm here, Dad," she said.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Fuck, no. I think my leg is broken and maybe my arm, too. Can you get me out of here?"
"Vicki is working on it. It should be–"
There was a sort of metallic crashing noise, and Ron could see a few strips of dim light. Then Marshall picked up the wooden thing that had been on top of her. It turned out to be one of the pallets that some of the food deliveries came in on.
Looking up, Ron saw one of the delivery trucks. It must have fallen sideways and been lying on top of her, resting on the piling that blocked the bridge, until Vicki had pulled it off.
And, yes, she was glad to be free, and to see her parents again, but Ron was still determined not to cry. But then she saw the tears in Marshall's eyes, so she figured it was okay. And even Jan Sleet, the very rational amateur detective, took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. Then, as Marshall leaned over and hugged Ron, being very careful not to move her, Jan asked, "What's broken?"
She touched Ron's left leg, causing a burst of profanity. "I need to see your leg," she said. "I'll need to take your pants–"
Jan, seeing her daughter's resolve, called to Vicki. "I know you're eager to go," she said, "but I need your help with a couple of things."
"Sure," Vicki said as she trotted over.
Vicki Wasserman was generally described in newspaper articles as the most unusual-looking head of state in the world. She was sixteen years old, with long, straight black hair, and she usually wore a leather jacket, a black T-shirt, black jeans, and high-top sneakers. She was also the smallest world leader, being somewhat less than four feet tall. As she said at times, it was appropriate that she was the smallest head of state because she was the head of the smallest state.
People didn't always realize at first how small she was, because her proportions were completely normal; she was just in miniature. People sometimes commented that their initial impression had been that she was simply farther away than she really was.
"I need to look at Ron's left leg," Jan said, "and then I'll probably need a splint."
Vicki reached down and split the leg of Ron's jeans halfway up her thigh, and then, as Jan's long, capable fingers began to probe, causing more profanity, she pulled one of the boards from the pallet. She snapped it in half across her knee, then she split piece one down the middle with a blow of her tiny fist. She banged the broken ends on the tarmac to flatten the worst of the splinters.
"Good enough?" she asked.
Jan glanced over and nodded. "Fine. Thanks. We'll see you at the hotel, as soon as we can get there."
"Okay," Vicki said. "By the way, somebody just telling me that the hotel is okay but the hospital is flooded and unusable." Jan and Marshall looked over, horrified. "I know," Vicki said. "What a time to lose the hospital. The power is out here, too. I'll learn more when I see the others. See you soon."
She ran off, moving so fast that she vanished almost immediately into the smoke and dust that was all around them.
"The femur is fine," Jan said, "but the tibia is broken, I think." She noted Ron's grimace. "I'm sorry, dear. I wish you weren't in pain; I wish I had painkillers; I wish I was a doctor..." She looked around. "I wish I knew what happened here." Ron craned her neck up to try to look over the barricade into U-town. Marshall helped her sit up as Jan took off her sneaker. Marshall felt her shoulders sag as she saw the area for the first time.
Ron had sat on this piling every morning for months, looking at this view of U-town, waiting for the mail delivery. She knew every street, every building, every storefront, every crack in the pavement, every broken streetlight. And now, the building that had held U-town's informal post office was a pile of rubble with one part of one wall still standing. The window of the flower store was shattered and most of the plants were knocked over. There was a long crack in the pavement and one piece of the tarmac had buckled up like a throw rug. There was a small fire in the little park in front of one building.
There were several shapes around that she was sure were dead bodies. There was no one moving that she could see. The air smelled foul. Her eyes stung, and she wiped them.
It was quite dark. Ron had no idea how long she'd been trapped, but she couldn't believe it as nighttime yet. It looked like it was, but if the whole day had passed she would have been a lot more hungry.
"What happened here?" she asked, looking around at the devastation.
Marshall shrugged, attempting a smile. "You were here. We weren't. You tell us."
She thought it was a good sign that her father was able to joke. What it really meant was that, with all the death and injury and uncertainty, the most important thing to him was that she was alive. He helped her lie down again.
Jan opened the small overnight bag Marshall had been carrying and began to tear a shirt into strips.
"I'll tell you about our trip," Marshall said. He held her hand, and she would squeeze it periodically as Jan's bandaging of her leg became painful. "Perry was surprised to see us," he said. "He hadn't heard anything about the book."
"Fuck," Ron murmured and Marshall squeezed her hand.
"Frankly, the other reason we wanted to talk to him was because he's written a couple of articles about U-town. He's against the whole idea, and–" He glanced at Jan, who didn't look up from her work. "–your mother thought she could win him over."
"Ow," Ron said.
"Things didn't go that well with Perry, but then Alex and Sam showed up this morning."
"Fuck. Who's Sam?"
"Alex's boyfriend. Didn't I mention him yesterday?"
"I don't know. Fuck. Ow. I can't remember. Shit!"
"Sorry," Jan said. "The worst should be over. I just need to look at your wrist."
"It hurts if I move it."
Jan smiled. "Then don't move it. I'll look at it where it is."
"So," Marshall said, "things got a bit tense, as you can probably imagine. Sam and Alex had come to talk to Perry as well, but they hadn't planned on doing it with us there."
"So, what happened?" Ron asked. She was looking at her father very intently, aware that he was distracting her from what was going on with her arms and legs.
"Then, right after they arrived, your mother had a strong feeling that something had happened here, to you. She turned on Perry's radio and found a news report which said that there had been an explosion, or a series of explosions, or an earthquake, or something, in the city and in U-town. Then the radio station went dead, replaced by static. We couldn't find another station broadcasting, so we set out. Sam and Alex came, too, in their car. Sam's sister was in U-town, and he was worried about her. Perry couldn't decide if he was coming or not, so we left him behind. We needed to get here as quickly as possible."
"I'm done," Jan said. "We need to get going."
Moving very carefully, Marshall slid his arms under Ron and then got carefully to his feet. Her left leg had splints tied to it with strips of cloth and her left arm was in a sling. She put her right arm around Marshall's shoulder.
"Okay?" he asked her.
Jan was kneeling by the bag, pulling out a notebook and a pen that she put into her jacket pocket. "We're leaving the bag," she said. "I'm going to have enough trouble walking without my cane as it is, and you have your hands full. Literally."
"I could hold it," Ron said.
She shook her head. "I think we're going to have to get used to leaving things behind."
Ron had no idea what that meant, but she decided not to ask right then.
They walked the first couple of blocks in silence, just looking at the devastation around them. They saw more bodies, and injured people, and a lot of people trying to help.
"Runner!" Jan called when she saw a familiar face. A boy, probably about Ron's age, came running over to them.
"Miss Sleet!" he said. "I'm glad you're back. Is Vicki–"
"She came back with us. Do you know what's happened?"
He shook his head. "I was asleep. I don't know. We've just been trying to account for people, and some people are trapped in buildings. Some we can't find at all."
"And the hospital?"
"Flooded. We're sending people to the school. It was the best we could think of."
She nodded. "Thanks."
Ron hated to be helpless, and she hated it especially now that her parents would have a million things to do and she would just be lying around, hurt and unable to help. She hoped against hope that her leg would turn out to be okay, maybe just strained or sprained or something. But this wasn't likely. Her mother knew a lot about injuries. Jan and Marshall told stories sometimes about a place called Bellonna where she had written a series of articles about a war there, including fixing up people with broken legs and so on.
Ron had never seen her mother so bedraggled looking. The usually-immaculate detective's hair was uncombed, her face was streaked with grime, her tie was loose, and her suit was dusty and rumpled. Ron frowned. "Mom, where's your cane?"
Jan smiled. "I had to lend it to Tammy. She got us through the police blockade."
"The whole city is closed off," Marshall explained. "All we saw on the highway was cars leaving; no one was being allowed in. Vicki tried to convince the soldiers that they should let us through. That worked at the first blockade, but not the second one. Tammy had to talk them into letting us through."
"Who's Tammy?" Ron asked.
"Well," he said as they turned the final corner to the hotel, "that's a–"
"Jan! Marshall!" Pat said, running toward them. She had been standing in front of the hotel. Jan hugged her awkwardly.
"Is Vicki back?" she asked. "Someone said they'd seen her."
Jan and Marshall looked surprised. "She was ahead of us," Jan said, "and certainly moving more quickly than we could. I'm surprised–"
Vicki appeared from a side street, running toward them and launching herself into Pat's arms, knocking off the taller girl's ever-present baseball cap in the process. "I had to stop and get some people out of a cellar," she explained.
Ron woke up disoriented. She cautiously opened her eyes and looked around. She was in the meeting room in the hotel, the room where Vicki and the others had their meetings and ran things. She didn't spend a lot of time there, but it was usually where she delivered the mail in the mornings.
There was nobody else in the room. The lights were still out, and the windows were dark. The air still smelled bad, and her leg still hurt. Marshall had given her a couple of painkillers, but they'd obviously worn off.
One reason she was disoriented was that she was lying on something, and she didn't know what it was. She poked at it with her good hand. It seemed to be a sofa, but there weren't any sofas in the meeting room. She turned her head. It looked like one of the sofas from the lobby. Somebody must have carried it in for her. She vaguely remembered this, and she remembered Pat bringing her a peanut butter sandwich.
She'd stayed awake for a while after they'd got here, so she'd heard her parents report that things in the city were pretty much the same as here, and how nobody had any idea what had happened. She was not used to situations that her mother couldn't figure out pretty quickly.
The door opened and a woman came in. She was tall and lean, with shoulder-length ash-blonde hair and a narrow face. She wore glasses and her eyes were large, but her nose, mouth, and chin were small. She was wearing a light-colored sweater over a dark brown collared shirt, tan slacks, and dark brown boots.
She looked rather tense, but Ron did notice that, unlike everybody else, her clothes and face were completely clean.
Seeing that Ron was awake, she pulled over one of the chairs and sat beside the sofa. She held out her hand. "I'm Terry Nelson," she said. "I'm a school teacher."
"Ron," she said. "I'm Jan Sleet's daughter."
"Don't try to sit up," Terry said. "Are you in a lot of pain?"
"Yeah," Ron said, keeping her voice low, though they were alone in the room.
Terry said, "I guess there aren't any painkillers or anything like that."
"I don't know. My father gave me a couple that he had, but..."
"But they've worn off. I see. Is there anything else you need?"
"Well, I'm really thirsty. And I'm kind of hungry, too." Ron hated asking for help, but she didn't seem to have any choice.
Terry stood up. "I'll see what I can do." She looked down on Ron for a moment, her expression difficult to read in the gloom. Her hair fell around her face, throwing it into more shadow. She took off her glasses, then she reached out her hand and touched Ron's cheek for an instant.
Ron's reluctance to be touched by strangers was overcome by her surprise that the pain suddenly went away.