Delia Ruggles Higgins was five foot nine, whipcord thin, and a self-described packrat. As of the Ring of Fire, she was fifty-nine and had been a widow for seven years. She had graying hair and black eyes. She figured she had "gracefully surrendered the things of youth." Not without regret, but with what she hoped was grace.
These days she ran the storage lot that had been her living with her late husband Ray, and still was now that he was gone. For the last four years she had also managed her daughter Ramona, who had a true knack for picking Mr. Wrong. Ramona and her boys David and Donny had moved back in with her a few months after Donny's dad had dumped her and gone back to his wife. David was small for his age, skinny with brown hair. Delia was expecting a growth spurt anytime now. Donny was thin too, but his growth spurt was still probably some years away.
Ramona did most of the routine work at the storage lot, and since the house was next door, Delia was available if something came up that Ramona couldn't handle. Which happened all too often. She took after her father physically. She was plump and short with light brown hair and pale blue eyes.
Delia had a big doll collection. It was not, she would cheerfully acknowledge, a great doll collection. It was almost entirely cheap plastic dolls bought at the Goodwill in Fairmont, the local thrift shops, and Valuemart, whenever they had something cheap. She had, for example, five Michael Jordan dolls: three ten-inch ones, and two eighteen-inch ones she had found still in the box at a clearance sale. She had lots of fashion dolls, Barbies, Sandies and others. Some she had posed with members of the Enterprise crew. She liked Star Trek. There were also baby dolls, and Santas, which you could get really cheap right after Christmas.
It wasn't, with the exception of a few gifts, an expensive collection, but it was a big one, collected over the last twenty years or so. Ray had not commented when she started collecting dolls. He just shook his head and from then on bought her dolls for Christmas, birthdays, and whenever the mood struck. She used her grandmother's old Singer sewing machine to make doll clothing and to repair and fit people clothing she got at Goodwill and other thrift stores in the area.
She gardened quite a bit, growing both vegetables and flowers. She grew vegetables in the back yard, which was larger than the front by a considerable margin. Not enough for a truck garden, but enough to add fresh fruit and vegetables to the larder in spring and summer. The front yard was devoted to flowers. They were just for fun. She had roses and daffodils, and a variety of others. She had even planted flowerbeds outside the mobile home that served as an office for the storage lot.
Then came the Ring of Fire. Delia came home from the town meeting three days after the Ring of Fire in a state of shock, which was replacing her previous state of denial. She had not believed the rumors. In spite of everything, she had not wanted to believe the stories. Now they were confirmed.
She still had the storage lot, but it wasn't the steady income it had been. The circumstances had changed. She had no idea how the change would affect the storage rental business. Hell, with Mike Stearns running things, we might get nationalized, she thought half seriously. Delia had never been fond of unions, or union bosses. There was some money in the bank—though what, if anything, it was worth now, she had no idea. Things had been tight before the disaster. Now?
She looked over at her daughter. Ramona was not taking things well. Then again, Ramona never had taken changes well, not even as a child. Right now she was going though the pantry, picking things up and putting them down, with little rhyme or reason. David, Ramona's elder son, was doing better. He had taken his younger brother Donny to their room as soon as they got home, but David had been better than his mother in emergencies, even when he was ten. Delia sighed.
The house had clearly needed cleaning, and it helped keep Ramona busy. Delia made an inventory of everything they found. About the only exceptional things in the house were her dolls and the sheer amount of unfinished sewing. She had obviously gotten behind in her sewing.
Then there was The Storage Lot. About three acres of their five acre lot were devoted to the collection of used metal shipping containers that made up the storage lot. Before the Ring of Fire it had provided the family with a living. Three quarters of the containers had been rented, about half of them to people outside the Ring of Fire. Since the Ring of Fire, though, she was left with only a third of the containers rented—and things were only getting worse as people emptied their containers for items to sell to the merchants in Rudolstadt and Badenburg.
There were two ways of looking at the property in the storage containers rented by people outside the Ring of Fire. One theory was that it now belonged to her, since it was on her land and in her containers. The other was that it belonged to Grantville, like the land that was owned by people outside the Ring of Fire.
Delia was not sure which way the powers-that-be would come down on the issue. She understood that they might feel that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. She even agreed, in theory, but she had Ramona and the boys to consider. So, for now, she was keeping a fairly low profile, trying to figure out which way things were going to go. She had not opened any of the containers that were rented by people left behind because if she waited till their rent was overdue she would have up-time legal precedent on her side. Meanwhile, her income had gone down by over fifty percent, and any gain represented by the stuff in the containers was both iffy and short term.
They needed another source of income. There was all the old clothing, quite a bit in the sewing room, and still more in a storage container. One good thing about owning a storage lot: you generally had a place to put your stuff. It was the perfect job for a pack rat, Delia thought, grinning reminiscently. She would look into repairing and selling some of the old clothing.
Dinner that night was venison steaks, well done, with salad, both bought at the grocery store for about what beef steaks and salad would have cost before the Ring of Fire. The venison was cheaper than the beef would have been, but the salad was more expensive. Bread for the moment was priced through the roof. The table was set with a silver plate candelabra and light for dinner was provided by candles rather then light bulbs, not to make dinner more romantic, but because the Wendells had figured out that light bulbs were going to be expensive and hard to replace. Still it lent an elegance to the family dinner. At the head of the table sat Fletcher Wendell, a tall gangly man with dark brown hair and hornrimmed glasses. He was not a particularly handsome man but his face was rendered charming by animation. Across from him sat his wife Judy, statuesque rather than gangly, with mahogany hair and blue eyes. Recessive genes had played in making their daughters. Sarah was a carrottop with rather too many freckles distracting from the evenness of her features. Which left Judy the Younger, twelve and so pretty as to border on the beautiful. Rich auburn hair and a pale complexion with only the lightest sprinkling of freckles.
Judy the Younger asked: "Mom, Hayley says that money is worth more now than it was before the Ring of Fire, but Vicky says it's not worth anything cuz there ain't no United States no more. So who's right?"
Judy the Elder stalled while she thought about her daughter's question. "Because, not 'cuz,' dear. And 'isn't,' not ain't."
Fletcher Wendell came to his wife's rescue, sort of. "Back before the Ring of Fire, there was a bank in Washington that had a bunch of fairies with magic wands. They made new money when they were happy, and made it disappear when they were sad. Apparently, when the Ring of Fire happened, one of those fairies was in town, and it now resides in the Grantville bank."
"Daaad!" Judy the Younger complained, while her older sister Sarah smirked.
"I take it," said Daaad, "that you don't believe in Federal Reserve Fairies? That's just the problem, don't you see? Neither do the down-timers, at least not yet. Part of my new job with the finance subcommittee is to keep the Federal Reserve Fairies happy. Another part is to convince the Germans and all the other down-timers that they are real, because they perform a very important function and it only works really well if most people believe in them."
Judy the Younger looked disgusted. Sarah didn't even try to hide her smirk. Judy the Elder was moderately successful at disguising her laugh with a cough, then she gave Fletcher the "look." At which point Fletcher held up his hands in mock surrender.
"All right, I surrender," he said, which no one believed for a moment.
Judy the Elder gave her husband one more severe look then spoke again. "Your father's subcommittee recommended to the cabinet that they declare that money on deposit in the bank and the credit union is still there, that debts owed to people or institutions inside the Ring of Fire are still valid, but debts or accounts in places left up-time are gone. Just common sense, but some people argued about it. Some wanted accounts in other banks honored. Sort of transferred to the local bank. Others wanted all debts to the bank erased."
Fletcher grimaced. "Well . . . pretty much—except there's still a big argument about mortgages. People who owe their mortgage to the local bank are raising a fuss because they think they're being discriminated against. They think the out-of-area mortgages should be assumed by the new government. Truth to tell, they've got a point—and Lord knows the government could use the money."
Judy the Elder plowed on. "Leave that aside, for the moment. Right now, wages paid by the city government or the emergency committee are being kept the same as they were before the Ring of Fire. Dan Frost is still paid the same. The coal miners are getting paid according to their pre-Ring of Fire contract, as are the people at the power plant. The difference is that now the emergency committee, which is receiving the income from coal sales and electric bills, is paying them. As will whatever government follows it. Unless it divests itself of the businesses. What that does is provide a stable point in the money supply which, hopefully, will help keep the money from increasing or decreasing in value too quickly, but no one wants wage and price freezes to last any longer or be any more widespread than absolutely necessary. So the owner of the grocery store sets the prices at the grocery store, with suggestions by the emergency committee. Now back to your question, how much is a dollar worth? If you're talking about paying the electric bill, or the house payment, it's worth exactly what it was worth before the Ring of Fire. If you're talking about buying groceries, it's fairly close to what it was before. For a Barbie doll, it's worth a lot less, because no one is making Barbie dolls any more, and the down-timers are buying them up. So take care of your Barbies, they are going to be worth a lot one day."
"Ah, but the down-timers don't have any money," Fletcher put in with a grin. "At least, not American money. So right now, everyone is trying to figure out how much of our money their money is worth, and vici verci. Which is where the Federal Reserve Fair—" Fletcher paused, casting an overdone look of meek submission at his wife. "Ah, the bank comes in."
"Oh, go ahead Fletcher," Judy the Elder put in, with an equally overdone, long-suffering sigh. "You won't be satisfied till you've run those poor fairies into the ground."
"Not at all. I'm very fond of the Federal Reserve Fairies. They do the kind of magic we need done." He smiled cheerfully at his daughters. "The thing about the Fed Fairies is they hate it when prices go up too fast. It makes them very sad, and they wave their magic wands, and make the bank have less money. Then the bank charges more interest when it loans out what money it does have. What makes the Fed Fairies really happy, is when prices stay the same, or go down. When that happens, they can't help themselves, they just have to wave their magic wands to make more money. As a matter of fact, they look into their crystal balls to see what the prices will be like months or even years in the future, and wave their magic wands in response to what they see. At least they did before the Ring of Fire. I think the crystal ball must have gotten bumped or something cuz the predictions we're hearing at the subcommittee meetings are bouncing all over the place. So one of the things we're working on is trying to determine the 'real' value of all the goods and services within the Ring of Fire, measured in up-time money, so we can help the Fed Fairies figure out which way to wave their wands."
His face grew comically lugubrious. "Now, when people don't believe in the Fed Fairies, they have to come up with some other explanation for where the money comes from. Like, 'The Government.' The problem is, governments always need money, and if they can make it themselves, well, people are afraid they will. And that they will keep on making more of it until it takes thousands of dollars to buy a ham sandwich. So, an important part of my new job is to convince the down-timers that Mike Stearns can't just make more money whenever he wants to. That, instead of the government making the decisions, the Fed Fairies will decide how much American money there is, so they can trust American money to hold its value."
Sarah was always happy to play along with her father's teasing of her little sister. "How are you going to make the fairies happy so they will make more money and we can all be rich?"
"The more stuff there is to buy, the more money you can have without the prices going up too much. We brought quite a bit of stuff with us through the Ring of Fire, but to make the Fed Fairies really happy, we need to find stuff that we can make here."
The rest of the evening was spent in discussion of production and levels of usage. In spite of the dry subject matter, or perhaps because it isn't quite so dry as most people think when presented right, it was an enjoyable conversation, and even Judy the Younger had fun.
David Bartley had a crush on Sarah Wendell; which he of course, would never admit to. This was bad enough. What made it worse, was that Sarah had a crush on Brent Partow; which, of course, she would never admit to. Brent and his twin brother Trent were David's best friends, and had been since his family moved to Grantville in ninety-six.
Brent didn't have a crush on Sarah. He was the second largest boy in the ninth grade. He was interested in football, all things mechanical, and recently all things military. Girls, as Girls, had been creeping into his awareness, but only creeping, and the Ring of Fire had pushed them back several steps. He was good looking, and enthusiastic in his interests, willing to share them with others and listen to their views, so far without regard to their gender. Which may explain Sarah's crush.
His brother Trent, the largest boy in the ninth grade by about a millimeter and maybe a half a pound, acted as a governor for his exuberant fascinations. Brent would come up with a plan to make or do something, and Trent would come up with all the reasons it wouldn't work. Then they would argue it out, using David, and lately Sarah, to act as referee and deciding vote.
The upshot of all these social interconnections was that the four hung out together, and talked about football, all things mechanical, and recently, all things military. All things military focused on the Ring of Fire, and the changes it had and would bring about.
Where the kids sat, near a small creek, the buildings of Grantville were hidden by steep tree-topped hills, as well as quite a bit of the sky. "Flat," around here, meant any angle less than thirty degrees. If there wasn't a building right next to you, it seemed as though you were in virgin forest never touched by men.
Sarah was talking about her dad's new job at the finance subcommittee, and its importance to all things military. "Dad says that we're going to be in trouble if we don't come up with stuff to trade with the Germans."
Trent argued almost by reflex. "We have plenty to trade, TV and radio, cars and microwaves. All sorts of stuff." It was, after all, obvious that people from the end of the twentieth century must be rich in comparison to people of the first half of the seventeenth.
Sarah was not impressed. "Can you build a TV? What about a TV station? My Dad says 'We have to buy food, and we are gonna keep right on needing food.' We're not gonna keep having TVs and so on to sell. Once they're sold, they're gone."
Sarah, an astute observer might note, was a bit pedantic on the subject of My Dad Said. She might have a crush on Brent, but she loved and respected her father. That last part, had he known it, would have come as quite a shock to Fletcher Wendell. He was convinced that his daughter's youthful admiration had gone the way of the dodo a year and a half hence.
Before the Ring of Fire, that youthful admiration had indeed been on the decline. When his job disappeared with the Ring of Fire, Sarah was naturally concerned with how that would affect her. This entailed a certain amount of resentment; youthful admiration had gone almost comatose. What use after all, is an insurance salesman in the Dark Ages? Then, with his new job with the finance subcommittee, Fletcher Wendell suddenly had an important role in the survival of Grantville. His older daughter's admiration for Dad had popped right out of its sickbed as if it had never even been asleep. Which fact she had gone to some length to hide—admiration for one's dad being damaging to fourteen-year-old dignity.
"There're things we can build," David said, "We have the machine shops." This comment had less to do with defending Trent, than the fact that David, for all intents and purposes, didn't have a dad and sort of resented Sarah's harping on hers.
"What?" Sarah asked.
Alas, David had no ready answer, so he had to make do with a disgruntled shrug and a vague "Lots of stuff." Not nearly impressive enough. Shortly after that the gathering broke up and the kids went home.
David was bothered by that shrug, and the lack of knowledge it represented, much more than anyone else in the group. Partly that was because it's always less pleasant to taste your foot than to see someone put theirs in their mouth. But mostly it was because the grim reality of Sarah's comments hit a bit closer to home for him than for the others. He remembered some bad times from before they moved back to Grantville after "Uncle" Donovan left. David's world had come apart before, and it showed all the signs of doing so again. There was a sort of directionless tension in the air. As if the grownups around him knew something had to be done, but didn't really know what. And there were major money concerns, always a bad sign. Worse, unlike last time, it seemed to cover the whole town, not just his family.
David started actively looking for something to make. Something for people to spend their energy on. Something that would bring in money. Something, anything, to make the uncertainty go away.
Brent Partow spent the night thinking about what Sarah had said as well. He wasn't worried, he was interested. Brent spent his life in search of the next interesting thing to do. To Brent, Sarah's concerns about saleable products simply meant a fun game of what can we build? By the next day he had a plan. He talked it over with Trent, who only had minor objections. Trent was afraid that if the grownups found out they might like the idea. Which, of course, meant they would take the thing over, put it in a class, suck all the fun out of it, and turn it into work. Trent was also afraid that if the grownups found out they might be displeased. Which, of course, meant they would forbid the kids the game, and just to make sure, assign them something boring to do. So his sole restriction was: no grownups.
David was the first to arrive. Then Brent and Trent arrived together. By the time Sarah got there, the issue was decided.
Sarah, feeling somewhat left out, initially scoffed at the plan. But then David pointed out that, if what her father said was true, it was their duty to Grantville to do something. That ended that. David was a dedicated and marginally astute observer of Sarah Wendell.
So the four began their search for the right thing to make. First they compiled lists of things. Guns, airplanes, hovercraft, cars, electric engines, nails, pliers . . .
The lists got very long because Brent had declared that the first winner would be the person who came up with the most possibilities, whether they turned out to be possible or not. So the first list included such practical and easy to make things as phasers, space shuttles, nuclear submarines, and cruise missiles. Each of which was greeted with raspberries and giggles, but each of which gained the originator a point marked down by Trent. A number of the suggestions that were to eventually be made by one or another group of up-timers were greeted with the above accolade. After about an hour the kids were starting to get a little bored. Trent's suggestion that they adjourn, and each make a separate list over the next couple of days, met with general approval.
Sarah won by fifteen entries. There was some debate as to whether all her entries were indeed separate items. In a number of cases she had included the final item along with several component parts. Among the four lists there were close to a thousand separate items. If you eliminated duplicates, there were still over five hundred. When you eliminated the utterly impossible, matter transmitters and the like, there were still over three hundred.
Then they tried to eliminate the impractical. But what makes the difference between practical and impractical? That is not so easy a thing to determine, and each kid came at the question from a different angle. To Brent and Trent it was still very much a game, so their version of practical had more to do with interesting than anything else. Sarah imagined presenting her parents with a list of things that could be sold and gaining their respect, so her version paid much attention to what would be saleable. David was the only one who was actually looking for something that would make a good investment for his family. His problem was, he really wasn't sure what that meant.
All in all, the whole thing was a lot of fun. Some things—nails, for example—were eliminated when Sarah informed them someone else was already working on them. The finance subcommittee was apparently keeping track of that sort of thing. Other things, such as airplanes, were marked as practical but not for them. A number of things were marked as practical for them; but they didn't stop at the first of these, since they had agreed to go through the whole list.
Then they reached the sewing machine. Brent, who had little interest in sewing, proclaimed that it was impractical because it needed an electric motor—and they had already determined that for them, the electric motor was impractical.
David remembered his grandmother's old Singer and that it had been converted from treadle power. This was not actually true, merely a family rumor, but David didn't know that. So he pointed out that a sewing machine did not need an electric motor, which was true.
Sarah, who recognized the root motive of Brent's rejection of the sewing machine—sexism, pure and simple—naturally took a firm position in favor of the sewing machine.
Poor Trent didn't know which way to turn. Arguing with Brent was dear to his heart, as was tearing down impossible schemes, but sewing machines were for girls.
"They're too complicated," he claimed, "we could never make one from an encyclopedia entry. We would need a design or a model or something."
"We have one!" David was well pleased to be on Sarah's side against Brent. "At least my grandma has one, and it's old. It was converted from treadle or pedal power to electric sometime, but all they did was put on an electric motor to replace the pedals."
What are you going to do when faced with such intransigence? You just have to show them. Trent and Brent were going to show that it could not be done. David and Sarah, that it could.
Delia was sewing when the kids arrived. She had been sewing quite a bit lately. She had worked out a deal with the Valuemart, and she had been patching, hemming, and seaming ever since. It was now providing a fair chunk of the family income. Still, she was pleased enough to hear the pounding hooves of a herd of teens to take a break. Such herds had been in short supply since the Ring of Fire.
She was a bit surprised when the kids wanted to look at her old Singer. Kids took an interest in the oddest things. She showed it off readily enough. She was rather proud of it; almost a hundred years old, and still worked well.
Brent was converted. There were all sorts of gadgets and doohickeys, and neat ways of doing things. Figuring out what did what and why, and what they could make, and what they could replace with something else would be loads of fun.
Trent resisted for a while, but not long. A sewing machine really is a neat piece of equipment.
As Delia watched David at the dining room table, his dark eyes studying some papers with an intensity rarely lavished on schoolwork, she thought about the incursion of the small herd of teens. David was up to something, she could tell.
She remembered a phone call she had gotten four years ago, from a ten-year-old David, explaining the hitherto unknown facts that Ramona had lost her job two months before, that they were about to be thrown out of their apartment, and there was no food in it anyway.
"Could we come live with you Grandma? Mom can help you out with the storage lot."
"Where is your mother?" Delia has asked.
"She's out looking for work. 'Cept she ain't. She goes to the park and sits." David hastened to add: "She looked at first, she really did. But Mom don't like it when things don't work. After a while she just quits."
They had worked it out between them. It was mostly David's plan. She had called that night and asked if Ramona could come home and work at the storage lot, to give her a bit more time with her garden.
It had been a while after they got back to Grantville before David had gone back to being just a kid. There had been a certain watchfulness about him. A waiting for the other shoe to drop, so he could catch it before things got even more busted. The watchfulness had slowly faded. Ramona had never been aware of it. Any more than she had ever known about the plot to bring them home. But Delia remembered that watchfulness, and it was back. Subtler than before, more calculating, but there. David had decided that he needed to save his world again, and was trying to figure out how.
This time Delia would not wait for a phone call.
She finished dressing the Barbie in her version of a 1630's peasant outfit. "David, come give me a hand in the garden. I just remembered some lifting I need you to do for me."
Delia kept a compost heap for her garden. This occasionally involved David, Donny or Ramona with a wheelbarrow. In this instance, it made a good excuse to get David alone for a quiet talk.
David, deep in the process of determining which parts of a sewing machine might best be made by a 1630's blacksmith, grumbled a bit; but did as he was told.
It took all of five minutes, and more importantly a promise not to interfere without good reason, to get David talking. This didn't reflect a lack of honor on David's part, but trust in his grandmother. Once he started talking it took a couple of hours for him to run down. During those two hours, Delia was again reminded that kids understand more and listen more than people generally gave them credit for. Or than they want credit for, mostly.
The economics of the Ring of Fire were made clear. Well, a little clearer. She learned about Brent and Trent's talent for making things, how they worked off one another. She learned about Sarah's understanding of money, and the financial situation of Grantville as a whole, and how Delia's family's situation was a smaller version of the same thing. That they had lots of capital in the form of goods, but nothing to invest it in. That what were needed were products that they could make the machines to make. David had to explain that part twice to make it clear. He used the sewing machine as an example.
"It works like this, Grandma. We have a sewing machine. If we sell it, it's gone. Mr. Marcantonio's machine shop could make sewing machines if we didn't need it to make other stuff, but eventually it's going to have breakdowns, and it won't be able to make sewing machines any more. Especially if all it's making is sewing machine parts and not machine shop parts to keep the machine shop running. But if Mr. Marcantonio's shop makes some machines that make sewing machine parts, then when those machines break down we have some place to go to get more of them. Every step away from just taking what we have and selling it costs more, but means it takes longer for us to run out of stuff to sell. The machines that make the sewing machine parts don't have to be as complicated as those in Mr. Marcantonio's shop, because they don't need to be as flexible. 'Almost tools,' Brent says."
Sarah Wendell and the Partow twins made a new friend that evening; their parents, even more so. Delia was impressed by the kids and the parents who had given them the knowledge they had.
She was also impressed with David. She promised not to interfere unless asked, but made him promise to ask for her help if needed. She added her vote to the sewing machine because it was a machine itself, so in a way it added yet another level to the levels he had talked about. She gave permission to disassemble her Singer if it was needed. She also promised backing if the kids came up with a plan that they convinced her could work.
"We'll find the money to do it, David. You and your friends come up with a plan that has a good shot of working and I'll find the money."
David Bartley went to bed that night at peace with the world. For the first time since the town meeting after the Ring of Fire, his stomach didn't bother him at all.
That is, until he remembered that grownups weren't to be involved. How was he going to tell the others? He had to tell them. Grandma could help a lot.
David had admitted his breach of confidence three days before. After being shunned for a day and a half, he had been invited conditionally to rejoin the group. They wanted to know what his grandmother had said, and they wanted assurances that she would not call in their parents or try to take over the project. He had provided the assurances, and added that she thought the sewing machine was a good idea.
After much enjoyable debate, they had narrowed the list of things down. The sewing machine was now top of the list because they had permission to take apart the Singer. Before that it had been fairly low on the list because of its complexity.
Besides, Sarah had noticed a trend. Sewing machines were renting as fast as people could find them, and the price was going up. After some obscure conversation with her parents she had realized that meant there was a ready market for a fairly large number of sewing machines. Brent had thought of several places where a single machine could make up to three or four parts. You would make a bunch of one part, then change an attached tool and make another kind of part. If they could get a good start, they would be ahead of local competitors.
Trent felt it would be better in the long run to make separate machines for each part. "You're making them too complicated Brent, you always do." Lots of really fun arguments in the offing.
The sewing machine was starting to look like a really good product, if they could build it—and just maybe they could. They had an incomplete list of the parts involved, most of which could be produced manually, and now they were in a position to get a complete parts list.
The Great Sewing Machine Disassembly took most of the morning and reassembly was scheduled for the afternoon. Since Delia was now in on the secret and Ramona and Donny were at the storage lot, the kids could talk freely about what they were actually doing.
The sewing machine was carefully disassembled. As each part was removed it was placed on an old sheet spread on the floor. Its outline was traced on the sheet and it was numbered. Trent made a list describing each part and where it came from. Sarah had brought a digital camera from home.
Each step in the process was explained to Delia, which added to the fun. There is something very gratifying in explaining something to a grownup when you're fourteen and in charge of it. It remains gratifying, of course, only so long as the grownup listens and does not try to take over. Delia listened. Delia offered no more than words of encouragement and the occasional leading question. In this way Delia managed to get her suggestions listened to. Not many were needed. Brent and Trent were knowledgeable, and Trent was meticulous. A born bean counter, Delia thought, but carefully did not say.
A part would come off the sewing machine and be placed on the sheet. While Trent recorded its function, Brent would suggest ways it might be made, with only a little regard for how practical those ways might be.
When Sarah got bored with the mechanics Delia engaged her in discussions of salability versus cost. This involved several repetitions of "My Dad said" and some of "My Mom said" as well. All of which Delia listened to with unfeigned interest. She was noting the differences between David's version and Sarah's. Sarah's version had more detail and quite a bit more references to what the finance subcommittee was doing. They were working to establish American money as an accepted local currency with surprisingly good success.
Surprising because American dollars, being paper, did not at first appear to be worth anything. But the down-timers were familiar with several forms of monetary notes. Sarah wasn't familiar with all of the mechanisms the down-timers used to transfer value through paper notes, but she had been told that they did, especially for large sums. The tricky part was, what was backing the American dollar? It was not gold or silver in a vault somewhere, but a calculation of goods and services. The Germans, at least some of them, saw the potential value of such a system. But they also saw how the system could be abused, and their experience had not taught them to have faith in governments. On the up side, Grantville had a lot of stuff the down-timers wanted to buy, and there was nowhere else for them to get it. Unfortunately, too much of that stuff was irreplaceable. It wasn't stuff made in Grantville, but stuff bought from elsewhere up-time.
David took his own notes on the various subjects, trying to follow both conversations. His notes were a bit chaotic, but then again, so was the situation. David was beginning to develop something approaching a management style. It consisted of finding out as much as he could about everything he could, and then keeping his trap shut till there was a deadlock, or bottleneck of some sort, and giving credit for the idea to someone else. "Brent suggested," "Sarah said" or "Trent said"—sometimes even "Grandma said." David did his best to properly attribute credit, but sometimes he got it wrong. Sometimes there was no one to attribute the idea to. In those cases David fibbed. He went ahead and attributed it to the person he figured most likely to have said it if he hadn't.
It was getting close to noon and David, as the least essential person, was assigned to make lunch. No hardship. David liked to cook. They had some jars of homemade spaghetti sauce in the icebox and plenty for a salad in the garden. Delia called the parents and arranged for the gang to have lunch with Delia and family.
Lunch was a quiet meal. The kids didn't want to add to the list of who was in the know, and for now, neither did Delia. Ramona was unwilling or unable to admit that David could think for himself. To the extent it was possible, Ramona handled the fact of her children growing up by ignoring it. As soon as the sewing machine project came out into the open, Ramona was going to have to face some things.
After lunch they went back to it. The sewing machine was going back together with only a little trouble, but it meant a lot to Delia and each sticking screw bothered her. So she concentrated on continuing her conversation with Sarah.
About three that afternoon, Delia brought the whole question of whether this was a game or for real to a head.
"How do you form a company, Sarah?" she asked. "When Ray set up the storage lot all it amounted to was registering at the county courthouse and getting a tax number. But the county courthouse is three hundred years away in another universe. So how do we do it in the here and now?"
Somewhat to the surprise of the group, each member had decided that they really wanted to do this. Most of the hesitation had been the belief that they would not be allowed to—that the project would be declared frivolous, and they would be told not to waste time. Or that it would be declared too important to be left in the hands of children, and taken away from them.
Brent and Trent wanted to do it because really making sewing machines offered a more concrete outlet for their creative urges. Sarah, because this was the sort of thing that Grantville needed. David and Delia, because the family needed a source of steady income and neither had that much confidence in the longterm outlook of the storage lot. It was running at a loss at the moment and might well go broke within the next year or so. A storage container is, in its way, a luxury—and one that people apparently could not afford, at least for now.
"To form a company," Sarah said, after they got back to the question, "is pretty standard. I think. I'd have to check with Mom, but I think it's just a contract between someone and the government, or several people and the government. That is what the registering Mr. Higgins did at the county courthouse was. A corporation is more complex. I don't know which we need but I can find out. What we need to do, is work out how much everyone is putting in, in labor and money. Then figure out who owns how much of the company and register it that way. The thing is, this is going to take a lot of money."
At that point every one got quiet. The kids because they didn't have any money to speak of; Delia, because she wanted the kids to realize that they really weren't in a position to just build the sewing machines in their back yard, that the game was starting to get real. Delia wanted to give them a chance to back away without losing face. So she waited a bit, to let it sink in, watching.
Then, liking what she saw: "How much money?"
"I don't know. Mom says that it's a law of nature that every thing costs more and takes longer than you expect."
"We have around a hundred parts," Trent interjected. "Some can be hand-made, some will take special tools, and some will take machines. Some must be finely tooled. I have the numbers right here."
"But that doesn't tell us what we need to know," Sarah pointed out. "At least, not all of it. How long will it take a blacksmith to make a part, how much will it cost? The only real way to find out is to go find a blacksmith and ask him, and you know some are gonna lie, and others are gonna get it wrong, because they think it needs fancy work, or because they don't understand how precise it needs to be. So the only real way to find out for sure how much it will cost to make a sewing machine part, is to make one. Actually, to make several. Until then we're guessing."
"Well, a guess is better than nothing," said Delia. "What if we go through Trent's list one item at a time and make our best guess at the cost of each item?"
The rest of the afternoon, as Brent put the sewing machine back together, the others went though the list of parts and guessed.
When they were getting ready to go home Delia asked: "Have you kids looked at the museum on Elm Street?"
This was met with blank looks. Then Trent hit his head. "Oh. I remember, they have lots of old sewing machines."
The light came on. They had all been there on school trips. On your mark. Get set . . .
Delia held up a hand. "Not tonight. You're expected at home. We'll work something out tomorrow."
That's the trouble with grownups—they don't understand urgency.
Ramona was at the lot, but Donny was home, wanting to get in on whatever the older kids were doing. So when the twins and Sarah arrived there was a certain amount of awkwardness. Which brought up the problem of keeping this a secret. Delia suggested that David take Donny into the kitchen and make everyone a snack. In other, unsaid words, keep him occupied for a little while. Donny understood the words left unsaid, but a look from Grandma was enough; he went, grumbling.
Once Donny was out of the room, Delia got right to the point. "Keeping this a secret won't work much longer. Donny already knows something is up. If we want to create a company to make sewing machines. Is that what we want?"
Delia waited, looking at each of the three in turn and received their nods of confirmation. "Well, that isn't something that can be kept from your parents, and even if I could, I wouldn't." Not without a really good reason, anyway, she thought to herself. "Up to now, it's been a game. The first step to making it real is to bring your parents into it. I can talk to your parents, if you like. Or you can talk to them and I'll give what support I can. How do you want to handle this?"
Sarah had never been all that concerned about her parents' reaction anyway, so she was in favor of full disclosure. Though she offered the warning that "Mom and Dad will probably make us include Judy."
"Oh no! Rachel!" moaned Trent, referring to their ten-year-old sister.
"Naw," countered his twin brother. "She's been following Heidi around since the Ring of Fire. Heidi might be a problem though. She's pretty pissed."
Brent paused with a nervous glance at Mrs. Higgins. Delia looked back with a raised eyebrow.
"Uh, upset with guys right now," Brent continued. "Might try to get back by horning in."
Brent was referring to their older sister, who was sixteen—but, in the twins' opinion, not at all sweet. Heidi had just gotten her driver's license, and suddenly there was no gas for the car. A pretty blond girl with a good figure, she had expected the boys in school to be mooning over her this year, but the Ring of Fire had focused almost the entire male teen population of Grantville on matters martial. It had all come as an unwelcome shock to Heidi. She was a bit self-centered.
"Maybe. Mom's got her number, but might stick us with her just to get her out of her hair. Which," Trent continued, "is why I'm worried about Rachel. Mom has a lot to do right now, and she is worried about Caleb." The twins' older brother had gone into the newly formed Grantville Army the day after graduating high school. "So we are liable to get Rachel and Heidi, whether they want in or not."
There was a glum silence for a moment, as the kids worried about the prospective interlopers. On the other hand, with the adult backing that Mrs. Higgins had offered to provide, it seemed less likely that the project would be either taken over or cancelled by adults.
Sarah nodded and with dignity made the formal request. "Both my parents are at work right now. Let me talk to them this evening, but if they could call you tonight, Mrs. Higgins, it would probably help."
"Dad's at work, but Mom's home. Maybe we should call her now?" suggested Brent. At Delia's nod, he headed for the phone. There was some discussion, then Delia was called to the phone. More discussion followed while the kids looked on, ending with: "Thanks, we'll see you tomorrow night."
"Boys," Delia said as she hung up the phone, "your mother, and probably your father if he can get away, will be here for dinner tomorrow. I imagine you'll be grilled tonight. If you would care for a little wisdom from the ancient, I suggest you don't try to promote the project but simply answer questions as calmly as possible." The boys nodded respectfully. This confirmation of her status as ancient, while not unexpected, wasn't particularly comforting.
"Sarah, I hope your parents will be able to come too. I think it would be a good idea if we all got together and talked things through before going much further." David and Donny returned with a snack tray.
"Meanwhile why don't you four take Donny and go to the museum. Spend the day, take notes, and explain what is going on to Donny. Take the snacks with you."
Telling Ramona about the sewing machine project was much less difficult than Delia had imagined. Ramona was, after all, the one who had been presiding over the emptying of supply containers. She knew things weren't going well for the lot, and she understood that the Ring of Fire had changed things. What she didn't understand was how things had changed, or what she was expected to do about it. Her biggest concern—terror really—was that as an adult she would be put in charge of something. That Mom was still in charge came as quite a relief.
The Partows had, over some strong objections, left Rachel at home with Heidi. The Wendells had brought Judy the Younger. While there was some discussion of the sewing machine project over dinner, it wasn't till after dinner that the pitch got made.
"You four," said Delia, grinning, "take Donny and Judy into the sewing room, so your parents and I can talk about you behind your backs."
The kids retreated at speed. Which impressed their parents.
It can be uncomfortable, but still gratifying, to have a casual acquaintance spend a couple of hours telling you how great your kids are, and how much they respect you, complete with quotes of things you have said to them while convinced they weren't listening.
Uncomfortable, because it's really easy to remember changing diapers—they make an impression, after all—and forget some of the changes the intervening years have made. They sneak up on you. Are my kids really that bright, hard working, and mature, and why didn't I know about it? Gratifying, because you want to believe they really are what you raised them to be, and it's nice when someone else tells you that you did a good job. With teenagers, it's especially nice when you find out that they actually listen to you.
At least Fletcher and Judy Wendell and Kent and Sylvia Partow found it so, probably because of those concrete examples from Delia:
"I never understood how the federal reserve worked till I heard Sarah's discussion of the Fed Fairies."
"My family has owned that Singer since before I was born. I have repaired it countless times, and I have learned more about the how and the why of its inner workings in the last few days than I had learned in the preceding fifty-nine years, mostly from Brent and Trent. I've watched Brent sketch out a machine to build a part of the Singer—one that I am sure will work—and then seen Trent tear apart the design and add or change details that make it work better. It's been a privilege to watch the kids work."