Athena’s Businesses

What’s a merchant’s daughter to do once she immigrates to a land of opportunity? Why, start a business. Or more than one.

Sarah Ocampo was her father’s right hand “man” as he had no older son. She helped manage all his properties, which included chasing bandits who threatened them. She had learned much from him, and it near broke her heart when she decided she had to leave him. Now she can honor him by putting all she’d learned to use. With a WEE bit of help from the librarians of Grantville.

The country in and around Grantville is generally peaceful. But there are always some who would rather rob other’s businesses than work their own.

They should have left the businesses of “the African Princess” alone.

Here is the story that I’ve submitted to the Grantville Gazette.

__________________________________________________________________

Athena’s Businesses

by Laer Carroll

Grantville, Thuringia-Franconia, Europe

Athena Sarah Mawusi Akwete Ocampo received an arrivalday gift which made her tear up. It was a Ruger .357 Magnum revolver with a six-inch barrel.

Arrivalday was an increasingly celebrated day for down-timer Grantvillers. Many didn’t know their birthdays–or didn’t want it generally known. A good many were former mercenaries or bandits or political or religious refugees who wanted to remain anonymous. Arrivalday, the day they’d arrived in Grantville or its outlying areas, were for many of them a day of rebirth more important than their biological birth day.

That so many were possible criminals didn’t usually bother up-timers. As long as they hadn’t done anything really bad like commit atrocities, former West Virginia natives were cool with their past. After all, many of them, especially the hillbillies, had had their own scrapes with laws for such actions as moon shining and mild tax evasion and growing and selling weed. Or they had ancestors who’d been criminals. Indeed some up-timers bragged about just how terrible their awful ancestors were, so many that some perfectly white-bread up-timers made up outlaw ancestors.

Sarah took the pistol out of the box from her sort-of grandfather Bill Straight with the care one might handle a jeweled crown. Indeed, its jewel-like precision and subtle blue-black sheen invited the comparison.

“Oh, Bill! You shouldn’t have. You might need it some day.”

“Who, me? The most danger I’m ever in is if one of my chess-and-checkers buddies tries to brain me with a chess board. You’re the one who goes out on distant roads guarding merchants and families and the like. You need the backup.”

Sarah was a deadly warrior who had a rep back in the West African port city El Mina and its surroundings where she’d grown up. There she was known as the White Panther. Here in Grantville what they knew was that she’d killed more than a dozen bandits on the last leg of her journey to Grantville. Too, in the last year she’d killed more, as she set herself up as the head of the Athena Security firm with three other dangerous types. She was a rich woman but knew her fortune would not last forever. Besides, she was an active type and not made for an idle life.

With almost the same reverence Sarah took out the heavy box of .38 Special cartridges. Such were increasingly rare items and were almost literally worth their weight in gold. Also in the box were a cleaning kit and a small bottle labeled Hoppes #9.

She said, more to herself than to anyone else, “I’ll need to have a holster made for it. And my sword belt needs replacing with something that can handle it. Thank you, Bill!”

She jumped up from the chair in the Safarelli House boarding room’s event room where her arrivalday party was being held and hugged the old man, his whiskery face scratching her cheek. He felt alarmingly frail within her arms.

“OK, OK,” said a woman nearly as old as Bill, Sarah’s friend and accountant and business associate Olivia Bailey. “Now can you two cut out the kissy kissy stuff. Open my present.”

Sarah kissed Bill’s check, sat in her chair, and opened another box. Inside it was a small solar powered calculator, quite old but still functional despite being nearly 40 years of age.

“Olivia, I’m– I’m speechless.”

“Hardly, chatter box. Come here, give me a hug too.”

Sarah complied. Olivia was reassuringly solid. She’d once been portly but few up-timers ever remained that way. The first two years after the Ring of Fire delivered Grantville to the 17th Century had been very lean ones. The habit of eating sparingly had remained after the area recovered from its crops devastated by war.

The next two presents came in the same box. They were two throwing knives: eight-inch blades with thin glued-on hand grips. They were from the Weber Twins. Nobody knew if they were sister and brother, cousins, or lovers. They were both sturdy and pleasant-faced and ever-polite, but they were deadly fighters with long experience. They never spoke of their Ring-of-Fire past, but Sarah had had no problem accepting them as two of her three partners in her security firm.

She thanked them, then asked where Aramis was. This was her third partner, a dapper Frenchman whose past was equally obscure. Obscured by his many fantastic and occasionally convincing tales of a sordid and adventurous past. He’d taken the name of one of Dumas’s three musketeers in lieu of his real name, whatever it was.

Gina Weber handed Sarah a box with glossy rose-colored paper covering. “He said he had an assignation and gave us this.”

Sarah opened it carefully to keep the beautiful covering paper intact. Inside it was what looked like a red rose. It was a beautifully realistic fake with a nearly invisible clip which one could use to attach it to one’s hair or clothing. It perfectly expressed Aramis’s love of ironic jokes: lovely but something Sarah would never wear. She never adorned herself in stereotypically feminine fashion.

In an act of defiance she clipped the rose to her hair and accepted the remainder of her arrivalday gifts. They were mostly small things and came to over a dozen, from a couple of Bill’s chess-and-checkers friends, Safarelli House friends, and a few teenagers from Grantville High School who had taken the coffee-au-lait African goddess as one of their heroes.

Gifts given and duly opened and appreciated, the party started with access given to the table of snacks and drinks. In all another dozen people participated, some actual acquaintances and some strangers ready to celebrate almost anything if free food and drink were included.

<>

The next day Sarah, Bill, and Olivia met for lunch at the Golden Arches, which used to be McDonald’s, at Olivia’s request. It was near to Olivia’s home and quieter than at the taverns.

Not that its dining area was quiet. The business had gone through three ownership changes after the Ring of Fire, and had been stripped of much of its portable facilities. The latest owners were the most successful. The inside dining area in evenings was so in demand that reservations were required. Olivia was a favored guest since she did their books, but even so she reserved a table in the middle of the week. Weekends were so in-demand that reservations were made days or weeks in advance.

They began by drinking iced tea while their order was prepared, an expensive drink because it required refrigeration to make the ice. Olivia began the serious discussion that Sarah expected by gazing at Sarah.

“You can’t keep up this guard duty if you want to live long and whole of body. I think you should start another business, one that will keep you out of scrapes. I believe the technology base is ready to start a media empire.”

Bill lifted his brows. “Really?”

The phrase apparently meant something to the two up-timers. Sarah told Olivia to explain, starting with what the phrase meant.

“One of the more successful examples back up-time was the work of an Australian named Rupert Murdoch. He started with a newspaper he’d inherited and made it more profitable by, among other practices, publishing scandal stories and stories about celebrities. He bought more newspapers, ending up eventually with dozens of them. One practice he adopted was to share stories among his various papers of events of national as well as local interest. Written once, used often.

“He expanded to other countries. As TV became more widespread he expanded into that. Then into movie making. Then as digital communications became more widespread into that.

“In all those enterprises he championed something that was eventually labeled ‘synergism.’ This meant all the businesses worked together. A newspaper article might also be published electronically, and might serve as the basis for movies or TV shows.”

Bill said, “I remember synergism. A lot of companies tried it and failed.”

“It’s not like it’s something magical. You just have to do it right.”

Sarah said, “It sounds like you’re looking pretty far in the future.”

She held up a hand as Olivia started to say something. “Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I like it. My father–” She paused a moment. She still had not heard anything from him despite sending him and her family back in El Mina three long letters about her stay here in Grantville.

“My father always said you should set your targets far in advance of your efforts. I like this idea. In fact, I’ll add to it. One of my nerd friends at Grantville High was suggesting the other day that I should start a publishing house.”

The word “nerd” after the Ring of Fire had acquired a patina of respectability in the Germanies. It was sometimes still used as an insult to mean someone socially awkward and obsessively studious. But Germans in general approved of obsessive workers, as did most people who lived on the edge of starvation and ruin. Nerd was GOOD.

Bill said, “We already have several printers here who publish books and newspapers and things.”

“She had written a paper on it for a college class up-time. She said that printing was just part of publishing. In fact, most publishers didn’t own printing departments. They contracted printing out to printers.

“They had several departments. Uhm… Acquisitions accepted and sought out works to publish. Editorial checked to be sure works were in good shape and had them reshaped if needed. Marketing figured out to who and where they could be sold. The Art Department worked with Marketing to design a catchy cover. And so on.”

Olivia was frowning, from thought not disagreement. “I suppose… We could work publishing books into our overall plan.

“We’re going to need more people. Bill–“

He threw up his hands. “Don’t look at me!”

Sarah laughed. “OK, we won’t.” She looked at Olivia with mischief in her eyes.

“We need to start building our staff with an overall boss. That’s you, Olivia.”

“Me? I can’t–“

“Yes, you can. I may know you better than you do. You’re smart, strong, good with people. You’ll be the…”

Bill put in, “CEO. Chief Executive Officer.”

Olivia looked as if she were trying to get out of the job.

Sarah took pity. “You will start small. And you’ll have advisors. Me, to start. And Bill.”

Bill sat up. “I just said No!”

“You know you’re not going to be able to stay away from this. You’ll be criticizing and giving advice and in general making a nuisance of yourself. I hereby appoint you Senior, uhm, Research Consultant.”

Olivia laughed aloud. “Caught, you old bastard!”

<>

Olivia reluctantly accepted that to get Sarah to take her advice she’d have to become a CEO. Never one to put off unpleasant necessities she went right to work.

Sarah and Olivia started by visiting a lawyer who was expert in corporate law. For a couple of years after the Ring of Fire there’d been corporation fever in Grantville and beyond. Up-timers left and right and energetic Germans aplenty had created all sorts of good and many more bad corporations. Then the inevitable failures occurred and the boom in corporations burst. Leaving the successes as lessons in planning and good management.

The attorney showed the two several standard forms and explained them. Sarah chose one and the attorney and Olivia helped her customize it.

With a corporation in existence on paper the two retired to Olivia’s apartment to plan further. Olivia brewed tea and they set to work in her home office.

Olivia said they should first rough out the overall business, which they’d named Athena Enterprises Corporation. It would contain all the businesses which Sarah might eventually create or buy. A logo was essential, she said, so that the public could easily recognize the company. She suggested the initials AEC drawn inside a square, or maybe typed as [AEC]. This would go on the company letterhead and, writ large, on the front of any company buildings which they might acquire.

Sarah liked the image, but suggested they tilt the box to the right. This would suggest that it was moving like an automobile, not just sitting upright like an unmoving building.

Olivia suggested a further shortening to just [A] or if italicized [A]. Sarah argued for an E, for Enterprise, inside the box, but Olivia was firm.

“You’re already semi-famous. Let’s use that fame.”

Sarah reluctantly agreed.

Sarah had already created her first business: Athena Security. Olivia suggested an italic capital A surrounded by a stylized shield. Sarah was adamant that the letter should be an S.

“We’re selling SECURITY, not me. If you have your way I’ll never act as a guard again. Now let’s get to the reason we got started on this.”

“God, you’re stubborn.”

“Pot calling the kettle black.”

“Speaking of pots…” Olivia got up to reheat water and make more tea. She brought cookies back to the work table to sustain them.

“OK. Now…” Olivia crunched on a cookie and thought.

“The core of our media company is communication in all its form: newspapers, magazines, books. Eventually telegraph, telephone, radio, and TV.”

“And digital,” Sarah put in. She was fascinated by computers and wanted one. Unfortunately nobody was selling.

“And digital.”

Olivia suggested Athena Communications for the news and entertainment corporation. Sarah shook her head.

“Same reason. We’re not selling me.”

After some discussion they came up with Worldwide Communications Company.

Sarah snickered. She’d seen all three Star Wars movies and loved them.

“I’m tempted to call it Interplanetary Communications. Or Interstellar.”

“Nutcase. Restrain yourself.”

“I REALLY want a light saber.”

That silliness demanded more tea. Olivia got up to repair the shortage.

It took some brainstorming, but finally they created a logo of an italic capital C with a horizontal double-headed arrow through it. You could type it as <–C–>.

Next Olivia roughed out an organization chart. It came to almost twenty boxes arranged in an upside down tree structure. Sarah was appalled.

“That many?!”

“That few, chickadee. What we’ve embarked on will eventually employ several thousand people. Most full time. It has to be clearly defined what each of them is to do.”

“God! What have I started?”

“You will start small. And you’ll have advisors. Me, to start.”

“You’re an evil woman to throw my own words back in my face.”

“What goes around comes around, baby.”

That done they called their Senior Research Consultant to have dinner. Choice of place his but he had to pay for it if he wanted to know what they’d decided on today.

<>

The next morning Sarah had breakfast at Higgins Hotel as she often did. A fair number of business people in the several blocks surrounding the hotel did. The day was Wednesday when she also scheduled a weekly Athena Security meeting at one of the smaller conference rooms in the Higgins. She was joined by the Webers and Aramis.

They talked about no business during the meal as Sarah had long ago decreed. Sarah told of her birthday party. Aramis told a tale of his latest assignation, which the Webers listened to skeptically. Business speech was reserved for the business meeting when they retired to the conference room carrying a last cup of coffee or tea.

Sarah ushered her partners inside and closed the door, causing Aramis to raise his eyebrows. They all saw why when she opened her briefcase and brought out her newly acquired pistol.

“Bill’s birthday present,” she said as she opened the six-shot cylinder and removed the rounds inside it. Bill had given her a brief lesson in handling the weapon. He’d then given her a thin little booklet. It had contained diagrams and instructions on how to disassemble and reassemble the weapon and otherwise take care of it.

She carefully clicked the cylinder closed and passed the pistol around.

Aramis examined it first with the Webers watching closely. Then he handed it on to them and spoke to the air.

“How is it that she can bring a loaded weapon past the entrance and a worthy person like myself cannot?”

Aramis on duty wore a cap-and-ball revolver on his sword belt across from his rapier. Both of them had been surrendered this morning to be placed in the locked vault near the reception desk. He was expert in both weapons and had taught Sarah how to shoot.

“Start carrying a briefcase like me.”

Gina Weber was the last to handle the weapon. Like the others she’d pointed it at various targets in the room. She handed it back and Sarah reloaded and replaced the weapon in her briefcase.

“OK. Who’s first?”

Gina said that the Webers had successfully carried out their latest bounty hunter assignment. Aramis, a budding computer hacker, said he’d investigated the theft of proprietary information from a company which suspected they’d been hacked electronically. He’d found it was simply a case where a clerk had sold the information to a rival.

He sounded annoyed. He’d been spending a lot of time with computer nerds at the high school and elsewhere and dearly wanted a chance to exercise his newly gotten expertise.

“Don’t worry,” Sarah said. “If I have my way the internet is going to expand a lot in the not-so-far future.”

There were a very few small nets in Grantville and its two major satellite cities, Badenburg to the west and Rudolstadt to the east. They were based on equipment brought from up-time, but a few forward-looking nerds were working on down-time versions.

Sarah’s comment segued the talk into her new “media empire” enterprise.

“We’re planning on two stages. The first will be print: newspapers, magazines, books.”

Aramis said, “There are already several printers in town. They’re all over Europe. They sometimes print books.”

“Right. But it was explained to me that they still mostly focus on printing. That’s just a small part of publishing.”

“And there are already newspapers. We have a couple right here in Grantville.”

“We’re planning on something up-timers called a conglomerate. It owns newspapers, or stakes in them. Printers, or stakes in them. But I’m talking too much about this. Back to the internet subject. The second stage of the media company is electronic: telegraph, telephone, radio, and TV. Eventually digital electronics and nets. Some day a combination of them.”

Gina said all that would be a lot of work.

Sarah nodded.

“That brings us to us. I’ll not be going on the road a lot. We need a fourth partner to take my place. Start thinking about who that could be. Start. We want to be very careful who we bring in. All four of us have to approve of him. Or her. Bring back suggestions to our next meeting.

“Now, we have a couple of jobs coming up. The big one will be a caravan to Suhl. Gina, Georg, take on a couple of temps.”

Gina said, “Phillipe and Jean-Luc are available.”

“Good. Aramis, Dame Edith wants you to escort her and her daughters on a shopping visit to Rudolstadt.”

“I will be my usual charming and protective self.”

There was little need for his protection, though it was always possible SOME idiot even in the peaceful and well-protected area around Grantville would try to rob someone. It was more a prestige thing for “Dame” Edith, a rich merchant’s wife, to have an armed guard, especially one so flamboyantly and attractively French.

<>

Sarah’s next stop was a leatherworker recommended by Aramis, whose holsters had been crafted for him. Sarah gave instructions to the crafter based on her experience with Aramis’s holsters and her own taste. This included some ornamental stamped figures on the outside, but simple and “tasteful.” Placing her pistol atop a piece of paper he drew its outline and made some notes on the paper. He gave her an estimate of how much the job would cost and when it could be delivered.

<>

She arrived at the Grantville High School an hour till the cafeteria opened. She spent that time reading a history text about the growth of American and other businesses. She especially focused on “conglomerates” and other such large organizations. Among other information, the text echoed Bill’s comments on the limits of synergies, but also Olivia’s comment that conglomerates had to be built for the right reasons and managed well.

She was at the door of the cafeteria when it opened and among the first to go through the serving line. She called out Hellos to the serving staff, who answered back to the familiar figure. She got “her” table: a big round one in a corner with a good view of the entrance. A couple of nerd girls were already sitting there. This was no surprise: they were part of her fan group. Other students quickly joined the table, including jocks. She had her fans among them, too. After all, she was a jock too.

She was also a sports fan, coming to a lot of the games and cheering as loudly as any other enthusiasts.

A teacher walked by chatting with two other teachers. Sarah called out to him, “Hola, Tejano.” Jose Hernandez was the high school Spanish teacher and from Texas. He also had a linguistics degree and she and he’d had many discussions about the African languages she spoke. The discussions had often been at the home he shared with his wife, Monica.

He turned toward her, then back to his companions, telling them he’d join them shortly.

“Como ‘stas esta mañana?

“Bien. Y tu?”

They chatted briefly, still in Spanish. Sarah thought it set a good example for the high school students and thought (rightly) that her friendliness enhanced the teacher’s reputation. She also spoke in French to the school’s teacher of that language.

After he’d rejoined his companions and near the end of lunch Sarah spoke to the whole table.

“I’m starting a publishing company. Pass the word for anyone to contact me who might have ideas about how to run it and what we should publish.”

“My mom is a fan of romance novels. She and some others meet every few weeks to discuss them.”

“My dad is into those old PI books. You know, private investigators, shoot-em-ups, like that. His favorite book is The Maltese Bird.”

“Maltese EAGLE!”

“Maltese SPARROW!”

There was general laughter at that as everyone got up to go to their first afternoon class.

<>

Back in the library Sarah asked the librarian about a book called The Maltese Bird. The woman smiled.

“Someone was making a joke. It’s called The Maltese Falcon. She, or they, may have had it assigned it to them in a class. Hold on a minute….”

She walked off and came back with two books. One was an up-time hardback titled Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels. There were five titles listed on the cover page, including the one Sarah had asked about. The other was a smaller paperback book printed by a down-time printer.

The front page was crude: a red hawk outline viewed from the side, with the author name and title superimposed. She opened it, carefully, because the whole thing felt flimsy. She started to read. She could hardly get halfway down the first page before the crudeness of the writing made her quit.

“People bought this?”

“Oh, yes.”

“It was a big success?”

“Of sorts.”

“Then why isn’t this company–” She pointed to the name of the printer on the back of the book. “–a big success? So much so that even I would have heard of them.”

“I don’t really know. Part of it is that printers focus mostly on the printing. Success depends on marketing a work, distributing it, and lots of other activities besides printing.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“There are also practical difficulties. How do you market something when most communication is limited by the speed of a horse? Even if you’ve got a good product, your books may languish in a warehouse for weeks or months, not making money.”

“Hmm. Lots to think about. Let me change the subject.

“I’m planning to start a business. Your library has given me a good overview of the process. But I need specifics. Lots of them.”

“That’s where the Technical College comes in. They’re just down the road that way.” She pointed.

“I thought those buildings were part of the high school.”

“I think they started out that way. But it grew.”

<>

There was a guard at a desk just inside the administration building. Sarah said she wanted to get information about starting a business. He made a phone call, said someone would see her now, and told her she’d have to leave her weapons with him. Sarah gave him her staff, asked if she could also leave her briefcase with him, and followed the directions down a hall to an open office door.

The office was fairly large with several bookcases full of books. Behind a desk sat a young woman of about 30 dressed in business formal for women, which to Sarah’s sensibilities bordered on informal. She rose and put a hand out over her desk. Sarah shook it and sat in the indicated chair of two before the desk.

The woman, Diana Mora according to the name on the metal plate on a block of wood on her desk, just surveyed Sarah for a moment. She surveyed back.

“So you’re this African princess everyone is talking about.”

A princess in the TV shows and movies Sarah had seen was someone dainty and pretty. She grinned at the idea she was one of those.

“If ‘everyone’ saw me coughing and farting as I crawled out of bed in the morning, my hair all amess, they’d change their mind awfully fast. After they got through puking, that is.”

That got a smile from Diana.

“What can I do for you, Ms.–Ocampo?”

“Call me Sarah. I’ve been reading about businesses at the high school library. They don’t have much on specifics. I need detail if I’m to start my own. Especially lessons learned that we down-timers are still figuring out.”

“This is the right place to come. Why haven’t you come sooner?”

“I didn’t even know this college existed. Even more important, I needed a general education before I started on specifics.” That had been a point her father had made to her very early: look at the big picture first, then the little pictures.

Why hadn’t he written back to her? Was he dead? Still mad?

“What have you been studying?”

“Everything. My mother made sure I had what you up-timers call a ‘classical education.’ Greek, Latin, Aristotle, the seven liberal arts, like that. That’s all trivial, according to you people. I had to start at the elementary school level and work up. Skipping lots of stuff.”

“You were a student? In Africa?”

“In my father’s home. We had tutors.”

“Would you say you were a good student?”

“Hey, I’m not just a knuckle dragger.” She grinned. She’d heard that particular insult, listening to two high-school football players playfully insulting each other.

“I read everything available to us. It wasn’t much. I read it over and over again. Hell is living in a place without books.”

Diana leaned back in her chair and tilted her head, studying Sarah as she went on.

“When I first arrived and discovered this library I was delighted. Then I became depressed. So many books! I could never read them all.

“Thankfully I mentioned the feeling to one of the librarians. She set me straight. ‘Think of it as getting to know what you DON’T know.’ She showed me a math textbook and opened it to show the table of contents. ‘Look. Matrix math. Differential equations. Boolean algebra, the foundation of all computer science. And so much more. You don’t have to be an expert in each. You just have to know when you need it, and where to get it when you need it.'”

Diana said, “‘Learning to know what you DON’T know.’ A very evocative phrase. It’s the very definition of a liberal education. And why it’s important to get it as well as focusing on a particular job-related field.”

Sarah continued. “After some fumbling around, getting used to using the library and browsing lots of topics, I made two tracks for myself, with a LOT of help from the school librarians. One was world history, another was the sciences. I studied physics first, then chemistry because it’s founded on physics, then biology because it’s founded on chemistry. I’m studying sociology now. It’s the culmination of the physical sciences, and history.”

“That’s…impressive. All that in, what, a year?”

“I skimmed and skipped a lot. Also, I don’t have to work. I made sure I was well-supplied with money when I left Africa. Though I did create a security firm after I got settled in here. You know, caravan guarding, bounty hunting, stuff like that. That brings in some money.”

“All that studying shows lots of discipline.”

“Are you kidding? It’s paradise. I can read all day and half the night.”

“No fiction reading?”

“I have movies for fun. Though I suppose I have to know a little bit about novels now I’m starting a publishing company.”

“That is the business you want advice about?”

“No. Conglomerates. I’m starting a ‘media empire.'” She made quote signs with her fingers.

“And before you start in on how bad synergism is, I’ve already had that conversation several times. I know the companies must be selected to complement each other. And managed properly. That’s why I’m here. To learn how to manage lots of people.”

The woman spun her desk chair to the left and right while she stared at the ceiling.

“An interesting problem. Sets of problems. Hmm. I’d like to have you enroll in some courses, but I can see that wouldn’t be right for you. Maybe some personal tutoring. Though that’s a problem too. A teacher’s work tends to spill over from office hours. Not many of them are free. Still… We can work something out. I’ll have to think on this and get back to you.”

She stood. “One thing. A basic lesson every boss has to learn. You can’t get too caught up in details. You must find good people, trustworthy people, give them some very clear GENERAL commands, and let them surprise you.

“Now come with me. I need to introduce you some people.”

<>

Those were half a dozen, caught between classes or otherwise free. All were interested in her problem but could spend little time on it other than being willing to answer questions some of the time. One man loaned her a fat textbook and a slim one, charging her a big deposit for her to keep them for a limited time. If she didn’t return it by the due date her money would be forfeit and she’d be assumed to have bought them.

Sarah thought this was a sneaky way to sell books. Both had been reprinted by local printers from copied up-time texts. She didn’t mind sneaky as long as it didn’t cross over into cheating. She might even use this tactic herself in her publishing business.

She ate at the Higgins with a few business “friends.” She was following her father’s practice of building and maintaining a wide network of scratch-your-back associates. Then she watched the evening’s movie in the hotel’s viewing room, a VCR recording of two back-to-back episodes of Star Trek. When she left two groups were arguing Star Trek versus Star Wars.

She stayed up late skimming the fat textbook, getting a field for the “forest” (as Olivia called her father’s big picture) before descending into the “trees” of details.

She spent the next few days browsing the Technical College library for business topics, sharing lunch with college faculty and students, and having dinner at the Higgins restaurant and the Golden Arches. Most times she watched the early or the late-night movie at the Higgins, then retired to her boarding house to read.

Of the several books she’d borrowed or bought the one that was most useful was the slim one she’d bought early on. It was titled How to RUIN Your Business. At first she’d thought it was about RUNning a business even though the middle word was in all caps. Instead it was all about the many mistakes a business person could make with her business.

One lesson was the need to be prepared beforehand to fight off competitors. A lesson which was almost immediately useful. For Olivia showed up at a Golden Arches dinner with a legal ultimatum.

<>

“These effing a-holes want us to shut down our publishing house!” She was waving a piece of paper. She was clearly angry though not so much she didn’t edit her curse words. Bill hated cursing, especially by women. Olivia had a tendency to curse.

He took the paper, glanced at it, and handed it to Sarah. It didn’t take her long to understand: three of the several local printers had gotten an attorney to send them a warning to cease and desist all printing activities that would infringe upon their rights.

Olivia was threatening to counter-sue. Sarah disagreed.

“The best answer to a known ambush is a counter-ambush.”

“Is this some of that wisdom from that book you’re going on about?”

“Long experience in the African bush, partly. But Yes. Here’s what we can do.” She explained.

Halfway through Bill began laughing.

<>

The three met the three printers who were threatening to sue in a conference room in the Higgins at 2:00 in the afternoon. They came alone. The printers came with, seemingly, an aide each and one or two family members, including an older and a younger woman.

The oldest of the printers took one end-seat of the long oval table, another tried to take the other end seat. Sarah was behind the chair at that end as the man approached it, her hands on the back of the chair. She did not pull it out. Instead she turned and offered a hand to the man.

“Such a pleasure to meet you, Sir. We’ve heard so many good things about your business.”

He had to look up to her. A moment of hesitation, then he smiled back, shook her hand, introduced himself, and retired to sit to the right hand of the man at the other end of the table.

Olivia showed up a couple of minutes later. She’d been waiting in the lobby chatting with Bill, neither seemingly noticing the printers’ party walk by. The stage now set, they made their entrance.

Everyone’s eyes turned toward them as they came into the room, the end-seated man having to twist in his chair and turn his head to see Bill ushering Olivia in ahead of him. She nodded at him and strode in to approach Sarah, who pulled the chair out from under the table. Bill then took over and pushed the chair forward a bit as Olivia finished seating herself. Bill took the seat to her right. Sarah ambled down the table on Olivia’s left and settled herself two seats down. This put her next to the older of the two women. She smiled at the woman but turned her head toward Olivia.

Olivia and Bill were dressed in up-time business attire, Bill’s suit black, Olivia’s suit light blue. He wore with it a white shirt and blue tie and shined black shoes. She wore a lilac blouse opened at the throat. Sarah wore blue jeans, tennies, and a tee-shirt with the logo of an up-time rock group on its front. She pushed her chair back enough so that she was able to slouch in her chair, her crossed legs out from under the table.

The leader of the printers spoke up so everyone could hear him. The room was small; he did not have to speak very loudly.

“If everyone is here, Lady Ocampo, we can begin.”

“Fine with me,” Sarah answered him. “But talk to the boss. I’m just the financier.”

“We understood it was your company.”

“Oh, sure. But I get good people and let them do all the good things for me. SHE is the CEO. She’s the real boss.”

“Thank you, Sarah,” Olivia said. “I assume you’re going to sit in.”

“Oh, for a little while. Then I want to go visit Jean-Luc in the kitchen. He’s promising such a TERRIFIC lunch for us all.”

Only someone who knew Bill knew that his frown was keeping him from grinning at her performance.

“Oh, very well,” Olivia said. “We wouldn’t want to keep you from that important task.

“Now, Mister Fiedler. We were very happy to receive your attorney’s letters. We immediately knew you weren’t serious, of course. Grantville’s, and Thuringia’s, courts would never entertain such a restriction in trade. So we knew this was the opening of bargaining for a position at the table of the big business we have planned. Let me tell you what we’ve planned and we can discuss just what part you would like to play in it.

“We plan on buying several newspapers and on publishing books. Naturally printers will be essential to both.”

“We already publish books. Why do we need you?”

Olivia went into her brief “synergy” speech, then segued into her “publishing is about much more than printing” speech.

“So, how do you sell your books now? I know that S&S in Rudolstadt has a part-time sales person for that. By the way, Mr. Fiedler, you’re in Rudolstadt, too. Why didn’t they send someone with you? “

“You’ll have to talk to them about that.”

“You can send out flyers, but everyone does that now. Most people just use them to start fires or wipe their butts. You can put ads in papers, but most of those are boring and poorly written and hidden in the back. Ours won’t be, and they’ll be in prominent positions in our newspapers.”

The woman beside Sarah said, “What newspapers? We know all the owners and you’re not one.”

“We will be. Or we will be part owners, investors in them.”

“All of that is in the future.”

“Exactly. Which you are in a good position to be part of.”

Sarah pretended to yawn and got up to amble out.

Later the three had lunch in the Higgins. Sarah asked how it went.

Bill said, “Olivia knocked them dead.”

Sarah filed away the idiom as Olivia protested.

“Oh, nonsense. By the time we ended we had them all with their tongues hanging out wanting in on the riches they’ve been convinced will quickly flow.”

Olivia smiled. “Well, not quite. But they shut up about the lawsuit and said they’d get back to us about what they could give us and get from us. I expect that means they hope for business from us and if we can deliver a little they’ll be happy. We may not have been far off in our guess that their law suit was a way to get our attention. I’d say this meeting was a success in that we and they got to know each other better.”

“Go ahead, be modest,” said Bill. “It doesn’t suit you, but what do I know. I’m only a retired coach.

“Now let me tell you what I found out about the Grantville Times and the Daily News….”

<>

After listening to the two for a while Sarah grew satisfied they had the issue of printers for their publishing company well in hand for the time being. They had made a list of all the printers within a hundred miles and begun building a catalog of their facilities and practices. As she excused herself they’d just begun a similar list of newspapers to buy or to buy stock in.

Another matter had been pushing itself to the fore of her attention: book publishing. And she knew just the right person to go to deal with that business.

Her name was Barbara Reed. An occasional substitute teacher, she supplemented that meager income by working as a librarian at Grantville High. She was one of the several librarians who worked there, usually in the evenings because the off-hours paid a bit extra and her husband was out of town in Erfurt for most of the month.

At 7:00 that evening Sarah was deep in a textbook titled Business and Marketing Essentials when Barbara arrived. She’d skimmed the book fairly early after arriving in Grantville, as she’d skimmed a lot of textbooks to “know what she didn’t know.” Or as her father put it, “looking at the big picture before looking at the little pictures.”

A hand waved at her from the side a safe distance away. All her friends had learned soon after they’d become friends not to startle someone as alert and ready for danger as Sarah.

“Hey, cookie. You here for long tonight?”

“Hello, Barbara. Are your three fed and playing with their nanny?”

“Fed, but I don’t know about the playing. When I left the two oldest were arguing about some toy. The youngest was in his playpen playing, though, so Cindy doesn’t have him to contend with.”

“You going to be here till midnight?”

“As usual. You need anything?”

“A big long talk when you get some free time. No hurry, though. If it’s too busy I’ll be here tomorrow night too.”

“Maybe in an hour. Later.”

“Later.”

It was more like an hour and a half when Sarah’s friend returned. Sarah closed the textbook gently and carefully returned it to its location on the bookshelves, then followed Barbara to the front desk where they could talk and Barbara could keep an eye on things and be available for questions from other library patrons.

Seated beside the desk, Sarah gazed out into the room with her feet extended before her. Barbara said, “What’s up?”

“You remember the other week when you made a joke about starting a publishing firm ‘with all those millions in my bank?’ Well, I am.”

“Wow. That’s a big job.”

Sarah grinned as she looked up at Barbara sitting on her stool behind the reception counter. “You don’t know the half of it. The tenth of it. Olivia has me starting a ‘media empire.’ All print media. All ELECTRONIC media. Probably all telepathic media when you up-timers get around to inventing it.”

Barbara’s look became serious.

“Publishing is a tough business. Even the experts can’t perfectly predict what will sell well and what won’t. So they depend on bestsellers to support their search among newbies for the next big seller. Or just a middling seller. It’s a low-profit-margin business. You can’t expect quick returns or big ones.”

“You seem to know a lot about the subject.”

“I’ve always loved books. After college I expected to intern as a literary agent, maybe even eventually become an editor at a publisher.”

“What happened?”

A reminiscent smile took over her face. “Gerald happened. Babies happened. Still, I sometimes wonder…”

“Good. You’re hired.”

“What? What!”

“You’re the next CEO of…Athena Publishing. Athena. The goddess of wisdom. Appropriate, don’t you think?

“The first thing we need to do is create a logo. An icon. A motto.”

Barbara was looking stunned. Luckily for her composure an older man came up to her desk with a question. When she returned from the stacks Sarah was doodling on a piece of scrap paper from the reception desk.

“We can’t use an A for the logo. That’s taken by the conglomerate logo. See? An italic capital A inside a box leaning to the right.”

She pointed at the two versions on the paper, one the typeable version, [A], one the graphical version.

Barbara puzzled over Sarah’s scribbles, then began vigorously scratching them out. Then she drew her own: [L] and its graphical version.

“Libros. Latin for book. And the motto: Ex Libros Fortis. ‘From books strength.'”

Sarah, who knew Latin, though not as well as she’d like, marked out Libros and replaced it with Libris.

“I like it,” she said. “The L could also stand for Library. The motto can also be translated as ‘From libraries POWER.’ Fortis is more than physical strength. It can be other kinds.”

“OK. Good. Now, I’ll help out with your project but not as CEO. I’ll get in touch with the romance discussion group and some others. Did you know that Grantville has several published authors?”

“No. Really?”

<>

At 10:00 on a Saturday a week and a half later Sarah, Olivia, Bill, and Barbara met in one of the conference rooms at the high school, which rented it and other facilities to carefully vetted outside groups on weekends and evenings.

With them were a couple dozen students interested in books and publishing, some of whom hoped to earn a little money helping with various activities. This including jobs such as copy editing and translation, as there were some students who were fluent in two or even more languages. There was even one prodigy who knew a dozen languages and was nearly a poet in all of them.

Attending were also some concerned or merely curious parents, the members of the romance discussion group, and various other adults, including the three, count them, three published writers.

Sarah started the meeting by standing up on the podium at one end of the room and waving her arms above her head.

“OK, everyone. Let’s get started. I’m Sarah Ocampo, the President and Owner of Athena Enterprises Corporation. We’re here today to introduce the Libris Company subsidiary of Athena. I’m now turning the floor to Olivia Bailey, the CEO of Athena Corp and temporary CEO of the Libris Company.”

Olivia came to the podium and Sarah left it.

“Thank you, Sarah. Libris, as several of you no doubt guess from the name, will publish books, though we anticipate eventually publishing magazines.”

“Not newspapers?” someone said.

“No. That’s a different subsidiary. And, please, only speak if I recognize you after you’ve raised a hand.”

Several hands immediately shot up.

“Wow. So many interested people. Please put your hands down. After the meeting we’ll have a questions and answers and discussion period. After that we’ll adjourn to the school cafeteria where we’ve arranged a free buffet.”

There was a buzz at that. Olivia didn’t squash it. Instead she called Barbara up to the podium, then spoke loudly enough to quiet the room. She put a hand on Barbara’s nearest shoulder.

“Many of you know Barbara Reed as a substitute teacher here at Grantville High. She also often acts as librarian in the evenings. As it happened, up-time she studied the publishing industry extensively. She has been kind enough to give us at Athena advice on starting and running Libris.

“The floor is yours, Barbara.”

Barbara adjusted the microphone on the podium and put some notes on it. Then she looked out at the audience.

“Who of you know what a publisher is?”

A couple of hands shot up, then a few more. Barbara picked a teenaged girl.

“They print books and sell them.”

“That’s right. What else?” She pointed at a different audience member, an older man who was a parent judging by the teenaged boy beside him.

“They find books. But then they have to edit them if they have problems.”

“That’s right. Up-time they found them by looking in a ‘slush’ pile of manuscripts sent to them by someone. After a while they got so many that they said they’d only look at books sent to them by an agent who specialized in representing authors and taking a cut of the money earned by the books.

“I should say that we’ll begin by looking at any book someone sends us. You won’t absolutely need an agent. But you should start looking for one when you get serious about being an author. Good ones are very helpful to an author’s career.”

Olivia raised a hand and Barbara nodded at her.

“I hate to disappoint anyone but the first few books we publish will be proven sellers from up-time. We have to do that to get income coming in before we can take a chance on unproven authors. But that WILL change. Lots of up-time books won’t appeal to down-timers. Down-timers especially will better know what will. And you are better able to supply a lot of the details of background and custom and so on which a book needs.”

Someone raised a hand. Barbara nodded to him.

“You are talking about books as if they were mostly fiction. Surely you will be publishing factual books as well. I have a few ideas about that.”

“Yes, we will. Though to some extent the high school and the technical college are doing that. We hope to work with them on non-fiction books. And maybe with people like you, sir. But, be warned, getting involved with us may mean we put you to work.”

Bill Straight spoke up at that without raising his hand. He was standing nearby leaning against a wall where he could look over the audience. He put on a sour-looking face.

“That’s the God’s truth. Just point out something obvious to anyone with a half a brain and before you know it they’re slave-driving you.”

There was general laughter at that. Barbara waited till it died down before continuing.

“We have said enough that anyone unfamiliar with publishing should now know what we’re trying to do and how. It’s time to listen to you.

“First, we’d like to hear from the published authors in the audience.”

She knew the three women who qualified and had convinced them to sit near the front of the audience. She looked down from the foot-high dais at them.

Hazel McDonnell stood up. Barbara waved at her to come up to share the podium with her. The woman did.

Hazel was mid-seventies and retired till the Ring of Fire. She’d come out of retirement to tutor teacher trainees at middle school and technical college. A life-long artist, she’d sold the first of several illustrated children’s books to a Rudolstadt printer.

Barbara, with a hand on Hazel’s shoulder, introduced her to the audience, telling them of that.

“Hazel, what has been your experience as an author?” She moved aside so that the woman had full possession of the podium.

“Good and bad. Like a lot of life. It’s good to see your work published. To stand there and hold it and see all your hard work turned real. To know that other people will like it as much you do, and did while you were creating it. Money is kind of nice, too.”

There was laughter at that.

“The bad is that no matter how many people like what you do there is always someone who hates it. And you. And blabs about it loud and long. They just HAVE to be superior. Or they just hate anyone having success. Or just hate generally. It can really get you down if you let it.”

She was silent for a moment.

“On the other hand, SOME of the criticism you get is well-meant. And some of that is useful. There’s a woman at my printers who worked with me on my book. She loved it enough to spend time helping me. Most of her criticisms were helpful. A few were not. Value these people when you find them, or they find you.”

She was silent for long enough that Barbara visibly checked herself from taking back the floor.

“Now, a few things that aren’t good or bad. Just realities you must know if you set out to be a writer. First, your work may never be picked for publication. Maybe it’s just not good enough. Yet. Or maybe it’s almost too good, more than people are used to and want.

“Second, you have to write all the time. Or a lot of the time. The most successful writers back up-time wrote a lot. Every book is advertisement for all your other books. You keep building your readers with every book.

“This is true even if you can only work as a part-time writer. Everybody has a personal life that they have to spend time on. You have to make time every day. Or almost every day, to spend a little time on your writing.

“I don’t just mean typing or scribbling. A lot of writing is thinking time. It’s dreaming up the material that you type or pen.

“OK. I think that’s it.” She abruptly left to return to her chair to sit looking at her clasped hands.

Barbara began clapping and Sarah and Ben joined her, then much of the audience.

“Thank you, Hazel. I’m sure we all look forward to your next book. Now…”

She looked down at the two young women sitting with Hazel.

“I want to introduce you to two other authors, Anna Greiner and Elisabeth Müller. Would you feel comfortable coming up here?” That last was a real concern. The two girls had looked daunted at her first words and were holding hands. They were used to talking to groups but to students, being part-time teachers. This was a very different audience.

They got up, still holding hands, but had to break when they reached the low dais and had to step up to it.

Barbara pulled the closest to her with a half-hug then let go of her. She spoke to the audience to give the young women time to adjust to being on stage.

“The success of romance novels has been a surprise to me and a lot of up-timers. Romantic love is almost a modern invention. Down-timers, the ones we know anyway, are very practical. You wait till your late twenties to marry, and it’s usually for very practical reasons. A joining of families, for instance. Or…you all know what I mean.”

Which they surely did. Perhaps as many as 90% of the audience were down-timers. Though it was sometimes hard to tell.

Down-timers who moved to Grantville quickly picked up the habits or at least the dress of up-timers. Women had mostly abandoned floor-length dresses for below-the-knee dresses. Sarah herself had certainly acclimated. She loved tennis shoes and blue jeans, and beige jeans, and brown jeans, and green jeans, and even thought for instants of buying pink and red jeans.

“Girls,” said Barbara, “what do you make of the success of your novels? You’ve had, what, two books and three books already published.”

One, the blond, said, “I think it’s because women found what they really want from a marriage and books are a sure way to get it.” She looked at her friend, the black-haired of the two.

That woman nodded and said, “A lot of women do get it after they’ve been married a few years. That was the plot of my most successful book. It’s about how she finds out that her husband does love her, and how much, but only on his death bed. Or what she THINKS is his death bed.”

A man in the audience said, “Thinks? Does he die?”

She got an impish look. “Buy my book and find out.”

There was laughter after that and the young women relaxed and talked about the art and craft and business of writing. So much so that Barbara had to gently bring their talk to a close.

“Thank you, Anna and Elisabeth.” She led applause for the two women.

“The last item on our agenda is to find out what YOU all would like to see published. But that’s a big discussion, so we’ll adjourn now to the cafeteria for those free drinks and food so you can all discuss that amongst yourselves. Maybe you can make up discussion groups and get together with us in the days to come. Thank you all.”

There was considerable applause as she got down from the dais, dying quickly away as everyone headed for the cafeteria.

<>

After an hour in the cafeteria most of the crowd had died away. Left were perhaps two dozen people, busy with their food and each other, ignoring the four Libris people.

Sarah, looking around at the sights, said, “How many did we have?”

Bill said almost 40 and Olivia 39.

“How many came to our ‘free’ buffet?”

Olivia said, “Maybe a hundred.”

Bill said, “Lots of people are here on Saturdays. Any of them who heard about it came. Some may have phoned others.”

“Oh, my aching bank account,” said Sarah mournfully.

“It was a business expense,” said Olivia. “Meaning, it will be included in your income tax and you’ll get compensation on your tax burden.”

“I will be a poor woman soon.” Sarah was not about to abandon her tragic role so readily.

“Cowshit. You’re one of the richest people in Grantville, what with your income from Athena Security and the sales of your coins. Especially those. The bank has consulted me because of my numismatist background and called me in on selling your collectible coins and there are a lot of them.

“That octagonal Chinese coin? Bidding started at $1000 and is past ten times that and still rising. The word of it has even got to the Ottoman Empire and we have bids from there.”

Barbara said, “Even though we’re at war with them?”

Bill snickered. “Rich people everywhere can ignore such piddling annoyances as a war. Look out. Incoming.”

He and the other two women were rising before Sarah reacted. She rose too and turned to see the cause.

It was the Grantville High School principal, Victor Saluzzo.

“Please, sit, everyone. That nonsense is embarassing. May I join you?”

“Please do,” said Olivia. She sat as he pulled a chair over from an adjoining table and sat. Everyone else sat, too.

“How was the turnout at your meeting?”

Olivia said, “Pretty good numbers. Better than just numbers. They were mostly genuinely interested people who may become resources for Libris. That’s the name of our publishing company.”

“I know. It’s good to meet you at last, Madame Ocampo.” They shook hands. She said, “And you, sir.”

They’d semi-met at high school games and joined everyone else in yelling for the Grantville team. Badenburg, Rudolstadt, and Saalfeld all had high schools now big enough and their teams expert enough to give Grantville tough competition at games.

Soccer was the big one, there being plenty of small but agile down-timers to compete with the generally larger but slower Grantvillers. Baseball was popular, too. American football and basketball were less so since Grantville still had height and weight advantages over the others. Tennis and diving were gaining ground. Who didn’t want to see active young women athletes in next to nothing, and young men too?

“Well, I don’t want to take up much of your time. Just ask you if you plan any further of these buffets?”

“Is there a problem with them?” said Barbara.

“On the contrary. The extra income is always welcome.”

The four visitors looked at each other. Olivia said, “That might be a good idea. We gained a good deal of publicity with this meeting. We can always use more. And we can pull in some people who might be useful.”

“As free slave labor,” said Bill Straight. “Like me.”

Olivia looked at Barbara, who nodded. “It would be especially useful when we announce a new book. Or a new line of books. There was more interest in Westerns than I’d have thought likely among down-timers.”

Sarah was annoyed. “Oh, please. Fast-draw fights. Fisticuffs. No smart fighter would be so stupid. Attack from secret, attack with weapons. For your God’s sake, no woman matches muscles with a man. They use their brains and weapons.”

Olivia grinned. “Spoken like a true expert.”

Bill and Barbara grinned too. So did the principal.

“I gather the answer is Yes. Fine. If you need any help, just call on me. I or someone in my office will do what we can to help you.”

He stood, shook hands all around, and left.

They all sat back down. Sarah said mournfully, “Oh, my aching bank account.”

The rest grinned at her and turned to a more interesting topic.

<>

For the next several weeks the Libris business continued to build. Most employees were unpaid, or the more important ones with miniscule shares of stock. Finally they had another meeting at the High School.

Barbara took the dais and the podium and called for quiet. The noise died away.

“We have been very fortunate at the response of people to our requests for suggestions. Because of this we have established three subsidiary lines. These are for romances, westerns, and mysteries. We are still discussing lines for children, teens, and science fiction and fantasy. That last is one line, as the two kinds of stories have much in common.”

She held up in her hands a book, the face toward the audience. People in the front row leaned forward and squinted at it.

“This is Irish Thoroughbred by a popular up-time novelist named Nora Roberts. It is the first of three in a series. We will publish the next two if there is enough interest. We have leading contenders for the first book in each of the other two lines but have not yet settled on one. Each will be by other popular up-timers.

“I see some of you wanting to speak. My guess is you want to know if we will publish local authors.”

The hands went down and Barbara went on.

“The answer is yes. In fact we want to buy a romance by a woman who lives here in Grantville. The legalities are not yet satisfied, as she had work published by a Rudolstadt printer. We are in discussions with them to see if we can work together on this. When we have resolved the issue, and we hope are able to start publishing her work, we will have another press conference like this one.”

She waved at two teenagers, a girl and a boy. They nodded and showed her they each had a bucket and a batch of paper slips and small pencils.

“My two assistants will soon begin to pass down the rows of seats. We are going to have a drawing for the first ten copies of Thoroughbred. If you want to participate, write your name on a slip of paper and put it in the bucket. When that’s all done, we will draw the winners.”

After a pause the two helpers began to do their job. It took a while, as everyone seemed to want to enter the drawing, but finally it was done. The teens brought their two buckets back and Barbara poured them into one larger bucket. She held up the bucket so everyone could see she mixed the slips well.

“Now the winners will be picked by the members of the romance club, starting with their president.”

She called a woman’s name and she came up, picked a name, held it up, and handed it to Barbara. She peered at the slip of paper and called out the name. The winner, a man, came up and received a book with much catcalls and applause.

He examined the first few pages of the book and held it up. “I got Number One! Do you have any idea how much this will be worth in a year? Two years?”

“Yeah. Zero!” said someone. Everyone laughed, including the winner, and the remaining winners were announced.

As the last noise died down Barbara over-rode the last of it.

“Now, to the cafeteria!”

With much applause and laughter and other noise the fifty or more people left the room.

Barbara sat down on the edge of the dais and breathed for a few minutes. She was joined by Sarah, Olivia, and Bill who sat with her.

“Good job, Barb!” “Right.” “Yeah.”

<>

Matters proceeded in Sarah’s life, if not smoothly then with only a few rough bumps. Then mid-morning of one day she got a phone call.

She was in Olivia’s home office. Her friend handed her the phone.

“Sarah.”

“Gina. We had a spot of trouble on the trip back from Suhl.”

“Was anyone killed? Anyone hurt?”

“No. Well, Georg had a sprained ankle getting off his horse when the trouble started.”

“What about the cargo? And your animals?”

“The three wagons are fine. We’re in Rottenbach now. The same for one mule and its packs. But we lost two mules and their packs.”

“What happened?”

“We overnighted in Königsee as usual with a cargo this heavy and slow-going. We were about halfway to Rottenbach. You know where the eastern leg begins to trend northward?”

Sarah did. She’d traveled to Suhl three times as part of Athena Security’s caravan guard duty.

“It was about 8:00. The sunlight was in our eyes and we’d gotten careless, being so close to home after the long trip. We were fired upon. Per doctrine, we dismounted and took shelter around the wagons. That was when Georg sprained his ankle. The firing continued and we tried to see where they were. They were still hard to see because of the sun.”

“Nobody or anything were hurt by bullets, so they were delaying you.”

“We realized that afterwards. When we realized the last two mules were gone. By the time we did they were almost out of sight near where those hills rise up. We were still pinned down by fire. Slow fire.”

“They were keeping you from pursuit.”

“Right. The shots kept getting further apart. And from greater distances.”

“They were retreating.”

“Right. Georg wanted to go after them, despite his ankle. Idiot man.”

“Hey!” The words were faint over the phone. Georg must have an ear close to the phone Gina was holding.

Sarah was silent, thinking. Gina broke the silence. “Hey, I’m sorry. I know we screwed up.”

“If I wanted perfect partners I wouldn’t even have me. I’ll bet the next time you’ll use your hats to shield your eyes better. Maybe adopt Aramis’s deerstalker hat.”

Sarah heard Georg complain about that. He and Aramis had a long-running argument, he favoring baseball caps, Aramis the deerstalker. He was especially enfuriated by Aramis’s airy argument that if it was good enough for Sherlock Holmes it was good enough for him.

“Let me think, Gina. Good move going on to Rottenbach. Now let me think.”

She was silent for several minutes. Then she gave Gina some orders, then got off the phone to phone others and began giving orders to them.

She sent two more security guards to Rottenbach, ones who worked full-time, though part-time for Athena, to help the Webers and their helpers finish the run into Grantville. Gina was to stay in Rottenbach to prepare for Sarah’s arrival. Then she made some more phone calls.

A half hour later she dressed in her complete camo outfit of green and grey pants, long-sleeved shirt, and big floppy hat which covered all her head and most of her pony tail. Sturdy boots finished her clothing.

She geared up with straps which held a quiver of a dozen arrows on her back and, in an X-configuration, her four-foot long hardwood fighting staff. Around her hips she slung her pistol belt and its holstered Ruger revolver. In her pockets went extra bullets for the weapon.

She slung an extra quiver of arrows over her shoulder and took up her two bows, stringing and testing the strings, then unstringing them. Extra strings went into one of her many pockets.

Olivia, who’d come with Sarah when she left for her lodging, handed her a first-aid kit. Sarah slipped it into a pocket in her camo outfit.

“Come back safe, chickadee.” Olivia stood up tall enough to kiss Sarah’s cheek, then followed Sarah out to the waiting cab. She stood on the sidewalk watching as the cab pulled away.

<>

Sarah picked up Aramis and another security guard, both in camo outfits which were the unofficial uniform for Athena guards. Aramis wore his deerstalker hat, probably because he knew it would annoy Georg. Nevertheless, Sarah considered it a very well-designed hunting hat, with its forward bill to shield eyes from the sun and its rear bill to protect one’s neck from whatever debris or insect might befall it.

The two had various distance and close-up weapons. Aramis favored two cap-and-ball revolvers in cross-draw holsters and extra loaded cylinders in his pockets. He carried a 30.06 bolt-action Springfield rifle and his rapier, which would be slung over his back when they left the cab. Mateo Torres had a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun and buckshot cartridges and a billy club.

The trip northwest on Hwy 250 was brief. The border created by the Ring of Fire was only three miles away. Then the cabby drove the few hundred yards to Rottenbach because the several-times-upgraded road was as easy on car tires as 250 was. She took her fares and wished them Good Hunting. Then she drove on to the hotel/motel where she could pick up other fares for a return to Grantville.

Rottenbach, a village terribly small before the Ring of Fire, had expanded much in the last five years. This was partly because it was now the Door to the West. This included Badenburg only ten miles away, and partly because it was the main embarkation point to Ilmenau and Suhl and other points to the west and south. And to Frankfurt, where Sarah intended to go to the next book fair.

Sarah and her companions met their compatriots at a stable where their animals were being watered and fed. The Webers were diffident until Sarah greeted them with a cheerful Hello and got right to business.

“Did you get everything set up the way I asked?”

Gina said they had. Sarah left Torres to guard the three wagons parked outside the stable and the Webers and Sarah and Aramis went to the nearby inn. There they joined the two other guards on the Suhl trip, Phillipe and Jean-Luc, and the three wagon drivers.

Over drinks and snacks Sarah had all the Suhl travelers recount the attack in detail. One new fact came from one of the drivers.

“It looked like the ones taking the two mules were teenagers. I think one of them was a girl.”

“Big teens or little teens?”

“Maybe fourteen, fifteen. They were awfully skinny.”

“Interesting. Now, I want you all except Gina to finish the trip to Grantville. And, no, Georg, you are not going with us. You’re Athena’s official rep, and you’ve got a sprained ankle. Now, up and out. I’ll pay up here.”

Left were Sarah, Aramis, and Gina. Torres came in after the Suhl caravaners had left and sat, ordering a beer. He nibbled on the remains of the snacks on the table.

To Gina Sarah said, “You’ve all your weapons and trip supplies? Good. And you’ve got them for us: food, water, and so on? Good. And transport?”

“I’ve lined up horses and something else, if you’ll go for it instead of horses.”

Aramis groaned. “Oh, God. Not trikes.”

An enterprising down-timer named Rudolf Goldschmidt had been impressed with bicycles and especially the few makeshift trikes created by adding on salvaged parts of other bicycles. Those were especially popular with older people, as an exercise option to “keep them young” and carry groceries and such. He’d bought every bicycle people would let go of, hired a couple of workers, and begun making trikes. They sold well enough for him to expand.

By now he and his family had gone through several generations of trikes. Tires had been the biggest problem and he’d found some smart down-timers to come up with several “geared-down” substitutes. He also sold or rented some motorized trikes. Light-weight purely-pedaled “racer” versions had even inspired trike races. (Bankrolled by Goldschmidt as advertising for his products.)

“OK. Let’s go look at your trikes.”

Gina led them to a nearby wagoneer’s lot. It was big, with wagons of all sizes from large ones to lighter ones: buckboards and buggies and the like. And trikes.

Sarah had been teased into trying some by teenaged friends. She especially liked the ones with tiny motors. Some could get up to a blazing 15 miles an hour or greater. But they were loud. She pointed this out to Gina.

“We’re lucky. The grade to Königsee is mostly downhill. It’s slight, but real. We can coast or pedal down to the ambush site. Coming back we can use the motors or pedal. The grade IS very slight.”

Sarah remembered the terrain going to and from Suhl very well. On a horse you had plenty of time to observe the country, especially when you’re supposed to be alert to attack from out of it.

“We’ll take the trikes. After the ambush site we’re going to have to go afoot into the trees. Horses cost too much to abandon. Trikes will be easier to hide too. Torres, think you can ride a trike?”

The Spaniard was as about as far from the stereotypical excitable Spaniard as it was possible to be. He said Yes.

“I’ve seen them in operation. If old people can ride them I can.”

Aramis was not to be outdone. He said Yes too.

Shortly they were mounted on rented (“with an option to buy”) trikes and set off down the trail to Königsee. It was an easy ride at first. The roads leading away from Grantville had gone through several upgrades over the years, starting with almost none to improvements good enough for automobiles and trucks and their precious tires to ride on.

It was not quite 10:00 and the day was still cool. To their left, eastward, the hilly land opened into more or less flatland. Also to their left was a tiny stream with its guardian bushes, a pleasant sight.

To their right, westward, forest on hillsides crowded the highway. The tires of the trikes made a quiet shushing noise.

Ten minutes later the road turned from south to southwest. Gina had them slow down and stop. She got off her trike and spoke to Sarah.

“This is about where the shooters were. I think they were hidden in those trees.”

Sarah told everyone to stay with the trikes. She got off hers and walked slowly eastward where a long grove of low trees paralleled the road. The grove was perhaps a quarter mile long. They were near its south end. From it exited the little stream with its bushes to each side.

She looked down the very slight slope. She could see all the way to Königsee, about two miles away. A good place to spot the caravan coming toward her location. She walked slowly to the bushes on the stream. Several minutes later, walking very slowly and looking at the grass at her feet and nearby, she spied the first signs of the ambushers.

They were grass only just folding upright from being stepped on, a few leaves rubbed off bushes, and a few scuffs of barer earth. They would have been unnoticeable by most people but were obvious to someone who’d been taught by African bushmasters from childhood.

First slowly then more surely she paralleled the caravan ambushers. Once she saw a bush whose topmost limb had been scored by a bullet. The “ambushers” had been firing high over the heads of the caravaneers.

She left the bushes and the road side. Gina had been walking between her trike and Sarah’s, guiding both of them.

She mounted her trike and told the rest of her party what she’d found.

“Now let’s go to where our mules were taken.”

This was about a quarter of a mile, a long shot even for sharpshooter Aramis, another clue that the shooters had not intended to hit anyone. The signs of the ambush were clear.

Sarah looked around. Behind them, to the south, the land was mostly flat. To the west the road had turned more till it ran almost directly west. To the north, in front of her, there was a flat area between two hills about a quarter mile wide. Beyond were more hills, reaching higher.

Gina said the thieves had gone that way. Sarah agreed. The signs of two mules were distinct. There were also signs of two horses. They mounted their trikes and followed, pedaling still. There was a flat earth-packed road leading northwest between the two hills and the upward tilt of the land was slight.

Beyond the two hills the land opened out into a flat area about a mile wide and three miles long. There were a few scattered farms holding cattle and sheep. Near the center of the area was a small general store behind which was a large pen of several chickens and another for pigs. A couple of houses bracketed the store.

They parked their trikes and went inside. There was a woman behind the counter on the far side of the dim room. A man was doing something to a shelf, stocking it or just rearranging merchandise.

Gina, who was German and whose German was best, greeted the woman and went to talk to her. Aramis asked the man if they had beer.

“Yes. We make it here. Very good. They even buy it in Königsee.”

Sarah silently doubted that but joined Aramis and Torres in buying a big mug each.

Approaching Gina, taking a swig, she also bought a double handful of cookies from one of the several jars and folded them into a large clean handkerchief which she also bought.

Back outside they sat on a bench and finished their beers. Sarah shared the cookies around. Aramis, who’d stayed behind a few minutes, waved off his share and showed off a fistful of several sticks of smoked meat. He experimentally took a tiny bite of one, then began to nibble on it.

Gina shared her information.

“Our friends the Rohrbachers passed this way a couple of hours again. They weren’t friendly enough to stop and share whatever was in those packs on mules.”

Torres said that their “friends” didn’t seem like professional thieves. Aramis said more likely they wanted to get further away from the scene of the crime before investigating their plunder.

“Just what was in their ‘plunder’?” Aramis wanted know from Gina.

“Aside from the usual firearms and knife blades there was an assortment we bought for resale, the usual mixed bag: trinkets, oddities, some wine, food, some chocolate from Frankfurt–“

Aramis objected. “Frankfurt is a hundred miles beyond Suhl, at least!”

Sarah, a merchant’s daughter, disagreed. “Stuff travels. Bought and sold and bought and sold and bought and sold again. Back in El Mina, on the west coast of Africa, mind, we got stuff from as far away as Egypt. Passed THROUGH Africa, not around the coast on ships.”

Aramis shook his head in disbelief. Then he got a mischievous look on his face. He hauled out of one of his pockets a small paperback book and handed it to Sarah.

“Not one of yours, I gather.”

She examined it. It was poorly done and fragile, the pulp paper badly yellowed.

“They had a whole rack of them, would you believe it?!”

Sarah, who had a reading addiction, did believe it. She’d sooner go hungry than go bookless. She stood up, slipped the book into a pocket, and went to her trike.

The valley ended two miles further as more hills rose up before them. The path had become too bad for the trikes to follow. This is where horses would have been a better choice. Though not for long, perhaps. The path seemed to diminish into the thick forest ahead of them.

She said, very quietly, “We hide the trikes just inside the forest. Wait for me there. From now on we do not speak, we do not whisper. We make do with sign language.”

Aramis said, equally quietly, “I don’t know sign language.”

Sarah looked at him sharply. He shut up.

She gestured at them where to cache the trikes, off to the side of the slight path. Gina took Sarah’s trike while Sarah took a bow from its slot on her back harness, strung it, tested the string, all the while looking about. She nocked an arrow.

Then she walked slowly along the path, looking and listening with all her long years of moving through bush and forest. Every once in a while she stopped for several minutes.

The forest seemed to close around her. To greet her almost, though she knew this was a fantasy. She moved deeper into it, near but not on the path. It became ever more rough and invaded by bushes. This made tracking her prey easier, for hairs were pulled off mules and horses. Once she even found a long blond hair, clearly not from an animal. A hundred yards in she stopped near a tree and stood as near absolutly still as a human could. Only her eyes moved and, very slowly, her head turned to left and right.

She stood that way for at least a half hour. In that time she became one with the forest. She felt the long slow movement of the trees with the wind in their tree tops. Heard the trunks slowly shift position, their branches murmur, their leaves chat in barely heard whispers.

The forest seemed to open out. She could see further, hear sounds from further. Birds spoke back and forth. Squirrels made tiny complaints and comments. Once a rabbit hopped out of a cluster of longer grass, stopped and looked about, its tiny nose twitching. Sarah looked away from it lest it detect her thoughts.

There were no ambushers. Had not been for a long time if ever.

She ghosted back through the forest, still near but not on the path. Her feet in their tough boots avoided dried sticks and leaves without her guidance. Near where her party waited she clicked her tongue twice. Gina, who with Georg had been with her longest, clicked back. Sarah slowly lifted a hand and gestured Aramis and Torres to follow Gina, Gina to follow her. They did, almost as silently as Sarah. Gina kept about thirty feet behind the ghost ahead of her.

All of them were ghosts in their camouflage clothing.

For an hour, or maybe twice that, they went up and down slight rises in land which added up to more height. The green of the forest changed, became darker. Then for another hour or two the land sank and the forest’s colors became slightly yellower.

Sarah heard the voices first and slowed her pace, raising a hand though not quickly. Everyone slowed to a stop.

The voices were faint. There seemed to be no strong emotions in them. More like an idle conversation.

Sarah moved on. The others followed.

Sarah came near enough to the clearing to see it though the trees. She moved near a tree and the others did the same in a V with Sarah at the point. Torres, farthest back by automatic decision not discussion, was the one who kept eyes on their back trail.

In the clearing was a house, a faded red. The voices were coming from the other side of it. The small party of hunters drifted to the right and then around the house, staying several feet inside the greenery around the oval clearing. Sarah stopped where she could see the front of the house. Her companions moved closer but stayed yards away from her.

On the porch of the house were two rocking chairs. They were occupied by an older man and a younger man. Sitting on the edge of the porch was a teenaged boy, very skinny. In the yard a boy of perhaps eight was throwing a ball up and catching it. Sometimes he caught it straight on. More often he leaned far to one side or the other. Once he even bent over and caught it through his legs as it came down behind him. He tried that again and failed to much hilarity.

Sarah saw only a rifle leaning against the door jamb. She looked at Torres, farthest from her and barely able to see along the side of the front of the house. She held up a finger, made a gesture as if holding a long gun, and raised her brows. He shook his head slowly, raised two fingers, and pointed. Clued in, Sarah saw a shotgun lying beside the younger man’s chair, nearly hidden by the chair’s rockers and his legs.

She looked at the two other companions and made the long gun sign again and raised two fingers. They nodded back at her.

She pointed at Gina and Aramis, pointed back to the rear of the house, made a circling motion of her arms almost as if to hug someone, and curved her hands toward her body. She made a pulling motion.

Gina nodded her head. Aramis frowned then nodded his head. The two were to go into the back of the house and herd everyone out the front door, shooting anyone who resisted.

Sarah clipped the grip of her strung bow onto her gun belt opposite the holster. A jerk and it would be in her hand again.

She caught Torres’s eye, pointed at herself then the path she’d take out of the forest. Then she repeated it with him. He nodded.

As soon as she heard a scream and loud commanding voices she moved quickly forward. The people on the porch had their attention on the front door. The younger man stood, swaying, the shotgun in his hands.

“Mine,” said Sarah quietly.

Out of the door burst a teenaged girl, an arm around another girl of perhaps ten. Behind came an older woman and a younger. They halted just outside the door, hands in the air.

The teen girl shrieked. “Uncle! Uncle! Don’t do anything! It’s her! It’s her! She’ll kill us all. She’ll kill us all!” She was pointing with her free hand.

The men and the boys looked behind them. Sarah stood before them like some leafy denizen of the forest, half tree and half human. The black revolver in her hand had no origin in a leafy vale, however. It clearly came from some black metallic Hell.

The girl had spoken in German. Sarah responded in kind.

“Put the gun down, Uncle. Slowly. Slowly.”

He did as he was told, nearly over balancing and falling. Clearly, from his actions and the wine bottle beside his chair, he’d been taking too much advantage of his “plunder.” He straightened, his hands in the air.

The young boy in the yard had his hands in the air too. He said, “Please don’t kill my father.”

Sarah said to the sitting older man, “Anyone else comes on the scene I’ll kill all of you first then them.”

“There’s no one else. Only us.”

The older woman added, “There’s only us. See what you’ve done,” directing her words to her likely husband, “you’ve killed us all. I told you it was a bad idea. I told you time and again.”

Sarah said, “We’re killing no one unless they make us. Come out here and sit on the ground, hands on your head.”

Gina must have prodded the older woman in the back because she jerked, then came down off the porch to sit on the ground as directed. The rest of the females joined her, the teen girl giving the ten-year old a brief hug before putting her hands atop her own head.

The males joined them, the teen boy helping the older man who was even unsteadier than the younger man. The two men might have been pretending to be worse off than they were but the three empty wine bottles and the scent of alcohol on the men and the teen boy were evidence that any pretense was slight.

To Gina Sarah said, “No one else in the house?” Gina shook her head. Nonetheless Sarah entered it followed by Aramis. They looked everywhere carefully but there were no places to hide in or under. The beds, for instance, lay on the floor.

Sarah was struck with how clean everything was, even though the house had clearly been lived in for a long time. The cubbards were bare of almost all food, the “plunder” painfully obvious in its aloneness. This helped explain the almost skeletal appearance of this family or possibly two unrelated families. And their crime. They were on the edge or beyond of starvation.

Two facts struck her. The utensils in the kitchen and its drawer were clean and arranged very neatly. The older women were trying to maintain a proper household. And the bedrooms where the children must have slept had a cache of pulp paperbacks on the floor near a wall. They too were arranged neatly.

Back outside Sarah told Aramis and Torres to get the men up and to packing the mules and the horses. They went off the to rickety barn to do so, the young boy insisting he could help. Sarah and Gina returned the females to the inside of the house to pack up all personal effects and everything else in it.

“My kitchen?” the older woman wanted to know.

“That too.”

“I don’t see why we should obey you. It’s of no value to you rich people. Or to us when you hang us.”

“No one is dying. You’re all going to work for me.”

“What?” The younger woman had said nothing up till now. “Work for you? Not kill us?”

“Dead bodies are worthless. Alive ones are valuable. You stole from me. Now you’re going to pay off the debt.”

The teen girl had a concern. “My books? Can I take them?”

“Of course. Books are important. And you, be sure to bring your doll.” This last was said to the ten-year old girl.

“OK!”

Suddenly the two girl children were happy. They skipped out of the room.

“Poor children,” said the older woman. “They don’t realize they’re going to be slaves.”

“Nonsense. You’re not going to be sold or slave driven. Just worked hard. After we get some decent food in you first.”

“Food?” The younger woman’s eyes grew large.

“Of course. Weak workers are poor workers.”

<>

It took well under an hour to pack everything, there was so little of it. The two teenagers were assigned to lead the mules. After all, they’d done well at that job despite mules’ generally individualistic nature. The two women rode the men’s horses, clutching at reins. Behind them rode the young boy and the young girl, holding on for dear life. Not that the horses were likely to bolt anywhere, being older and plodders. The two men walked, carrying their rifle and shotgun, minus their loads. The four Grantvillers stayed well out of reach of any use of the weapons as bludgeons, but otherwise everyone would seem to the world as a big not-so-happy family.

The trikes were a revelation to the thief family, especially once they were on the road toward Rottenbach and their tiny engines were started up. The horses were nervous at the sounds but were such nags they settled down quickly. The mules were blasé, though they continued to eye the trikes with jaundiced eyes.

At Rottenbach Aramis and Torres were told to finish the transport of the mules and their burdens to a pre-designated warehouse, the extra burdens of the thieves’ property and the men’s two weapons to be stored at the warehouse. The thieves (now “my friends the Rohrbachers”) had a meal, a meager one. Sarah told the older woman, Gurda, it was her responsibility to ensure no one made themselves sick by over-eating. Meanwhile everyone was watched over by “my friend” Gina while Sarah arranged overnight lodging at the inn.

Then the eight “friends” were taken shopping for a change of clothes and footwear. They returned to the hotel with their burdens, then were sent to the baths awaiting them to appear scrubbed and pink a while later in their new outfits.

The little girl twirled before “Aunt Sarah” to show off her new pink dress and soft shoes. Nixie, the teen girl, shyly showed off her blue (“like the sky”) dress too.

The teen boy and younger boy were not to be outdone by mere girls. They showed off their new clothing too.

It was still early in the evening. In the guise of “keeping everybody busy” the Rohrbachers were treated to the nightly show at the inn. In this case it was a rock quartet with a lead guitarist and a female singer. Afterward Nixie and Frida, the little girl, both proclaimed they were going to be singers some day.

“If so,” said Sarah, “that means you will have to study music hard at the Grantville school. Can you study hard?”

They definitely could. The boys were equally eager to learn to be guitarists.

The two families, reeling with exhaustion and excitement and a long day, went to their two family rooms. Sarah and Gina retired to their “business” room with double beds and glasses of wine and beer respectively with their room service meals.

“Think they’ll run away?” Sarah said.

Gina said, “Nah. They’ve got a rich patron now. Or should I say matron?”

“Patroness.”

“You’re no fun now that you’ve got all literary and wedded to dictionairies. It’s ruined you. Before you’d never have gone after thieves and come back with a family.”

Sarah laughed, though sobered when she wondered what Bill and Olivia would say to her.

To Hell with it. She finished her glass of wine and got into bed.

“Turn out the light when you’re done. Good night.”

Gina chuckled. “Good night–Mama.”