Sunday, May 20, 2018

A PIG TALE by Guy Stewart, ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact, June 2000



A PIG TALE
by Guy Stewart



            Damp, cool air carried the words clearly.
            Rachel Sheffield said, “We’re splitting, Dad. I know you don’t like it, but…” The words seemed to hang between them as they tramped along the back road. Their heavy boots plowed through ankle-deep layers of tawny oak, golden poplar and yellow elm leaves.
            “Tried working it out with…um…Ray?” her dad asked. The plaid ears of his blaze orange hunting cap were turned up, showing wisps of salt-and-pepper hair tousled beneath it. His tan hunting jacket was stained, torn, mended, and worn thin by the years. Yet it covered his long, rounded frame as it had when they’d hunted squirrel, deer, and pheasant when she was a teenager.
            She didn’t say anything for a long time. Her hand went to the braid at the back of her head. She played with it for a moment, thinking that it was like the pigtails she’d worn as a child. Had she really tried to work things out with Ray? After he found out about her and her boss, Glenn Furman, he’d barely said a word. He’d spent every free moment with Jessica and Scott. He was civil when the kids were around, but he’d started coming to bed long after she was asleep. He was gone when she got up. She’d factored the equation pretty quickly and kept out of his way.
            Then he’d moved out with the kids and she’d gotten the separation papers.
            That was Thursday. She’d walked into Furman’s office and told him she’d be taking a leave of absence. He’d been furious. They were in the midst of clinical trials of a broad-spectrum memory reconstruction virus that she’d been instrumental in developing. The test results looked nothing short of miraculous. There was a medical ethics battle brewing regarding the use of the virus on Alzheimer’s patients.
            Fanatics were not limited this time to the Religious Right. The Liberal Left was weighing in with some hefty legal fist shaking, too. Things were about to blow.
            But she didn’t care. Didn’t care about Ray. Didn’t care about the kids. Didn’t care about her job. Didn’t care about Furman any more, either. He’d been a diversion. Nothing more. An attempt to stave off a haunting feeling of worthlessness. She’d walked out of the lab, gotten into her car and driven to Kenyon, Minnesota, in seven hours.
            She’d caught the scent long before she reached the hog farm. Most people hated it. So did Ray, but he’d learned to suffer in silence. But to Rachel, it evoked only one memory: safe haven.
            The back door had been unlocked when she pulled into the barnyard late at night. Ruthie remembered her and the car and didn’t bark. She’d crashed in the Twin’s old room and waked to the smell of coffee, fried eggs, bacon, sausage links, and peanut butter toast. She’d also waked to the sound of squealing pigs in the out buildings.
            “I think I did, Dad,” she replied.
            He stopped and turned to her, his shotgun angled down, draped casually over one arm. He fixed her with a long gaze.
            She returned it at first, then her vision blurred and she looked away.
            Her dad grunted, then started walking again. She wiped the pair of tears from her face and shuffled after him, fiddled with the pigtail again.
            They moved up a hill, then stopped on the crest that overlooked the back forty. A narrow stream – only full of water after a hard rain – wound its way through the fields. The back road dipped down into the small valley it had created. Beyond, crowning a hill in the distance, was a grove of cherry trees.
            She stopped beside him, looking out over the fields. The last harvest had been taken in, and the cornfields left stubbly for winter. Alternating with the stubbled fields were fields of alfalfa, still faintly green even though it was November. “When you weren’t tellin’ the truth, Rachel, you always had a guilt glint in your eyes. Like the time you took the car into town and went to that college-boy party.”
            Rachel hung her head. He’d known all these years. Yet the next day she’d lied bald-faced to him that they’d had an all-girl slumber party at Shelly’s. He took her at her word and never even implied that he knew he’d been lied to.
            “I see the guilt-glint then, and I seen it a second ago.” He turned to face her. “You really try everything?”
            This time she lifted her head to look him in the eye and said, “I haven’t tried it all, Dad.” She let her eyes wander back to the cherry grove. “The fact is that I don’t know what I want. I thought I’d be happy. I got the job I’d always dreamed of, respect in my field, a husband I once loved, and a pair of wonderful kids. I thought this would be it.” She blew softly, a cloud of white condensing before her. “But it’s not.”
            Her dad did the same thing. Exactly. He said, “Happy. Funny word that. Happy seems to come and go. Peaceful seems a more important thing to look for in life.”
            Stung, she snapped, “You don’t know what I’ve been through lately.”
            He looked at her, nodded and said, “You don’t know what I been through lately, either.”
            She scowled, curious despite the sting. Curiosity won. Always had. She asked, “What?”
            He started walking again. Stopped for a moment at the stream, looked both ways, then stepped gingerly over it and went up the other side. She followed. He stopped again and turned to look back. Rachel did, too.
            They couldn’t see the house from here, but the vent boxes on the tops of the barns seemed to float over seven acres of oak forest behind the house. Farm sounds drifted back to them: someone running a tractor, the conveyer belt going up into the barn loft rattling and squeaking away, hog noises. The safe smell of pig manure drifted on the chill autumn wind.
            “Gonna lose the farm.”
            “What?” Rachel exhaled.
            “The farm. Repossessed. Can’t sell enough pork at a good enough price to keep up on the bills. PorkCo down the road’s offered to buy me out. After this winter, I’ll sell out the hogs, and your mom and I’ll move into town.”
            “But, Dad, why?” Her voice pitched high – the way she’d sounded at her wheedling best in eighth grade.
            “Your Mom’s not getting any younger. Me neither. Little farms can’t produce at the big corp‘s level. We can’t sell our pork that cheap and still pay the bills. So now we can’t sell our pork at all – and the bank’s after all us small-timers.”
            “Can’t you do something about it? Organize? Something?”
            Her dad smiled. “It’s been coming a long time, Baby Doll.” He shook his head sadly. “We expected it. We’re gettin’ on. I forget things sometimes. Things I should remember. Your mom and I figured we’d retire on our own. As it is, they’re forcing us out.”
            “But how, Dad?”
            He made a motion with his head to the east. “You ever seen PorkCo’s operation? They have a hundred and twenty-eight barns. Four hundred hogs in each barn. You’re the doctor, you do the math. The larger the population, the more economical it is to deal with. PorkCo can feed, water, and heat more hogs than I can. But I still need to feed, water and heat ‘em. Same equipment, same supplier, same cost – and less than half the profit when all’s said and done. The meat plant don’t want to deal with us small-timers anymore, either. So we don’t have anywhere to sell locally…” He spun away and stomped off in disgust.
            Rachel stood looking at the barn vents. She turned and followed Dad. By the time we caught up with him, he was nearly to the cherry grove. When she pulled alongside of him, he said, “Besides, none of the kids want the farm, really.” He looked up suddenly. The hope in his eyes made her wince. “Do you?”
            He stopped, this time at the edge of the cherry grove.
            Memories rode from a mothballed past, things she hadn’t remembered for years. Adventures with her three brothers and her sister in the grove, the barns, the oak forest. Tree houses, treasure hunts, hide-and-seek, rope swings, and wild runs through moonlit forests. Hansi hit by a car, litters of kittens, piglets, a visceral understanding of Charlotte’s Web, and a crush on a handsome new veterinarian when she was fourteen.
            So much of her had remained here. The best parts of her. Then she shook her head and said, I’m not a hog farmer, Dad. And I can’t imagine Jessica and Scotty wanting to move out here…” Then she remembered that, as of yesterday, she was legally separated. “It would never work. I’ve got my job and now I don’t have much of a family left – except for the one I started with.”
            Dad grunted, then put his big, heavy arm around her shoulder. They stood that way for a while, watching as a pair of crows flapped heavily into the air.
            “Gonna shoot ‘em?” Rachel asked after a moment.
            “Naw. Don’t shoot much of anything anymore. Gettin’ old, I guess. Don’t have much fight left in me.” After another moment, he dropped his arms and turned back toward the main buildings. “Should be gettin’ back.”
            She nodded as they set off together.
            They were at the foot of the hill again when he said, “Staying long?”
            Rachel shrugged they stepped across the dry streambed. She stopped, studying the hard, dry rivulets. Stones lay exposed by the water that had run along here days, weeks, or months ago. She looked up at Dad. “I don’t know. I took a leave of absence when Rau had the papers served to me.”
            He nodded, then looked off into the distance. She looked down at her feet again. With a long sigh, she set off. Dad walked alongside her. Gray clouds overhead made for a silvery, featureless ceiling, promising neither rain nor fair weather.
            When they got into the house, it was time for the evening chores. The silvery sky had taken on a deeper, softer shade of charcoal.
            Mom was standing by the stove, peeling potatoes and dropping them into a pot of boiling water after deftly slicing them into quarters. She looked at the two of them, deep lines crinkling at the corners of her eyes. “Just like when you were a kid,” she said softly. “I suppose you’ll be going out to help Dad with chores?”
            Rachel looked at Dad, then at Mom, shook her head. “I think I’ll stay in here, if you don’t mind. I brought some journals I want to look at – never any time at work.” Both of them nodded, and Dad went out into the mudroom to pull on his work clothes. Mom went on making dinner as Rachel headed for the family room.
            The glass doors of the fireplace were closed and there was a chill in the room. Rachel called, “Mind if I build a fire, Mom?”
            Her mother cam to the door, wiping her hands on a blue gingham dishtowel, a delighted smile on her face. “That would be wonderful! We haven’t had a fire in there since – oh, I don’t even remember. But the things are all there, dear. Go right ahead. Dinner will be in about an hour and a half. After Dad gets done with chores and cleaned up.”
            Rachel nodded and knelt by the fireplace and busied herself. Dozens of memories began to tumble again as the stream of happy past thawed. Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings (she’d missed the last two), baptisms, funerals, confirmations, and weddings past bounced by her, each one glittering like wet corundum. On her fourth, a flame flickered and ate away at the dry tinder. She fed it until it was a snapping fire, almost forgetting to check that the damper was open. She rested back on her heels and closed the glass doors part way. An old, orange plaid chair sat nearby. She climbed into it and curled her feet hp, watching the flames eat away at the wood. Orange and white and blue. She smiled a little for the first time in weeks, the heat of the fire warming her knees and hands, adding a smoky, piney odor to the air already smelling of roast pork.
            Abruptly the kitchen door was thrown open.
            “Pat! Pat! It’s Chuck!”
            Rachel was on her feet and in the kitchen before the stranger had turned and run from the house.
            Mom threw her a terrified look.
            “I’ll go,” Rachel said. She shoved her feet into the boots still sitting by the door and ran out into the cold night air. It was dark. The yard light was on and the few windows in the big, main barn glowed yellow.
            Her mother was right behind her.
            The stranger – a hired hand, Rachel thought – was standing at the open barn door. “Hurry!” he shouted.
            They pushed past him and a second hired hand – a blond teenage boy. Dad lay on the floor, pale, eyes closed.
            “Heart attack?” Rachel asked as she knelt beside him.
            “We called 911. He must have just done it when we found him. He was kicking and swinging something terrible.”
            Rachel looked up at the first man. “What do you mean he was ‘kicking and swinging’?”
            He glanced at Mom, his eyes round. Mom huddled closer to Rachel, grabbing the material of the flannel work shirt she’d been wearing all day.
            Horrible realization swept like spring runoff over Rachel. “You’re telling me he tried to hang himself?”
            The teenager looked directly at Rachel, blue eyes pleading. He nodded.
            Mom gave a faint, moaning sigh and sank to the floor. The first man caught her as a wailing siren Dopplered into the barnyard. He gestured with his head and said, “Get ‘em in here.” The teenager waved the paramedics in and a moment later, there was no way to talk as the room was filled with people.

            Seven hours later, Rachel sat beside Dad. He was awake, staring up at the ceiling from his hospital bed. Eyes blinking slowly. Rhythmically.
            The bed was new. It monitored his vital signs without cuffs or pads or wires. All information was displayed on a screen at the floor’s monitor station.
            Mom was propped up in an easy chair, the footrest up, her head lolling to one side, mouth slightly open, eyes closed, sleeping. Rachel had asked for a sedative for her about an hour ago. Rachel wanted to talk. To Dad.
            “When were you and Mom going to have to leave the farm?”
            He didn’t move for a long time. Finally, he licked his lips and whispered, “Monday.”
            Rachel hung her head. “I thought you meant that you’d finish out the season, sell off the spring farrow and closed down after that.”
            He moved his head slightly from side-to-side, winced. “First of December,” he whispered. There was an angry red rope burn around his neck.
            She cursed silently, long, inwardly, deeply, viciously at…nothing. Dad had never approved of coarse language. He and Mom and been churchgoers all their lives. Once she left home for college, she’d never set foot in a church to worship again. It hadn’t been her and Ray’s style. They respected Mom and Dad’s beliefs without sharing them. Bitter regret threatened to sweep her away in a wash of frigid memories. She focused on Now.
            To let loose with a string of invective would probably wake Mom and upset Dad. So Rachel mentally flayed officials, the economy, the bank executives and the PorkCo magnates who had made Dad’s cry for help so harsh. She patted his upper arm in the non-silence of the hospital room.
            “Don’t hate me,” he whispered.
            She stared at him, dumbfounded. “Hate you for what? Trying to escape and intolerable situation you’re powerless to change? For trying to maintain a lifestyle you, and generations before you created close to the land you love?” Silently she added, For acting as keepers of one of the best parts of my life? “I don’t hate you, Dad. I…” Pressure built behind her heart. Feeling penned carefully inside pressed against the walls of the pen like hogs downwind of the special hot corn mash she and her parents and brothers and sister had doled on Thanksgiving day every year for as many years as she could remember.
            They broke free.
            Rachel wept.
            It was a long time before she lifted her head. Mom was asleep. Dad’s eyes were closed. For one horrible moment, she thought he’d died. Disoriented, she looked around frantically, her eyes finally coming to the monitor. Vital signs still normal. Breathing rhythmic and slow. Heart rate steady.
            Three o’clock in the morning. She stood on weak legs. Pins and needles surged from hips to toes as circulation came back and crimped nerves straightened.  Sleeping while leaning head-first against a hospital bed rail, lack of sleep the night before, rich food and her father’s attempted suicide had given her a sour mouth, queasy stomach, gritty, painful eyes and sense of temporal disorientation.
            She tottered from the room leaning heavily on the doorframe, then the wall as she stepped into the carefully neutral colors of the hall carpet and walls.
            Kenyon’s hospital was joined to a nursing home and served the town as well as the county and a half-dozen surrounding communities. It was warm – homey in an odd way that country hospitals have. Nothing like their big city counterparts. She wandered to the front desk, smiling blearily at the nurse working at the monitor station. He smiled back and said, “Can I help you find anything?”
            “No. I’m here with my dad and my mom,” she said. Her normal, professional tone had disappeared some time between her arrival and weeping. The nurse nodded and went back to his work.
            She made her way to the lobby. Overstuffed chairs were arranged in psychologically sensitive small groups. The wallscreen television was off. A massive, transparent column holding a marine aquarium grew in the center of the lobby. She went to a chair and dropped into it, facing the tank. Columns of tiny bubbles dribbled upward from the bottom. Brilliantly colored reef fish darted, swirled, hovered and back-finned over achingly white sand and muted orange, red, cream and yellow coral. Anemones and urchins fluttered and trundled as if blown by a slow-motion wind.
            She drifted off to sleep a moment later, dreams of dancing sea stars studded with silvery bacteriophage T4s – heads shaped like large, connectable baby toys, a collar, tail sheath, base plate and tail fibers fluttering around her, puncturing sea stars and making them shrivel and turn to sparkling glitter as they broke up. Then she was sitting in the farrowing shed on a bale of hay, piglets nursing, the warm, moist air close and comfortable. She plucked a lemon-colored sea star from the air and tossed it to one of the sows. She swallowed it and then suddenly someone was clearing their throat right beside her. She jerked into a sitting position, swaying dizzily.
            “Excuse me, ma’am?”
            Rachel looked stupidly up at a young man, long hair held back in a plaited braid. “Hmmm?” she managed, her mouth and lips dry.
            “Your mother is awake. She wants you to take her home.”
            Rachel nodded and pulled herself to her feet. The lobby’s clock showed that it was a little after five a.m. Without really looking at him, she rasped at him, “Thanks. I’ll…uh…take her now.” She made it back down the hallway to Dad’s room. Mom was standing, staring at Dad when Rachel walked in.
            “What’s wrong, Mom?”
            Her mom shook her head, then went to the window and pulled up the blinds. It was pitch dark outside. Winter solstice a little over a month away. “He likes looking out the window. Likes to be outside. Hates being cooped up.”
            Rachel nodded, then went to her mom and gently took her arm. All the lights in the room but a softly golden lamp set above Dad’s head were out. Its light made his face seem tan. Healthy. A shadow covered the noose burn. “Let’s go, Mom.”

            They drove home through the steady darkness, stars shining so brightly they seemed to be holes poled through some heavy fabric, allowing the light from a white-hot fire behind it to shine through. Cold, stubbly fields slicked past silently once they left the bright, reddish lights of town behind. Rachel closed her eyes hard, then opened them, trying to squeeze out the grit. By the time they reached the farm, she was shaking from fatigue.
            Mom stopped in the middle of the gravel turn around as they made their way from the garage to the house. “How are you, Rachel?”
            She briefly considered lying, then thought better of it. “I came out here to get away, Mom. Ray and I have separated. He’s got the kids right now. I left Chicago to…” abruptly she didn’t know why she’d left the city behind. Not to bury herself – the City had more to bury herself than the little town of Kenyon. She stammered, “I…I don’t know why I left. I don’t know for sure why I came here. And now, all this…”
            Her mother nodded, slipped her arms through Rachel’s and started moving again. Together they walked over frozen, crunching gravel. Hog song drifted from the nearby barns and the well pump came on suddenly, humming in the not-silent night. Overhead, the yard light buzzed, busily exciting mercury vapor to emit photons.
            “It’s why you came back, Dear,” Mom said.
            “What? To see Dad try and kill himself? To spend half the night in the hospital?”
            “No, to be here. Where you started.”
            “Where you’re going to end, Mom! Where Dad almost did end!” she shouted. Anger surged up past her normally rigid defenses. At work, she ignored the feelings that didn’t clearly move her closer to her goals. Her feelings for Glenn Furman had greased the wheels for special requests, made her projects magically rise to the top of the head and kept her ahead of everyone else. The anger faded. “Sorry, Mom. It’s been a long night. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
            They reached the back steps, walked up and through the mudroom, into the dark kitchen. Mom slid off her coat, draped it over the back of a chair. Rachel did the same. Mom said, “Want a cup of cocoa?”
            Rachel hesitated, then shook her head. In the dark family room, she could see the faint red glow of coals in the fireplace. “I’m going to get the fire going again.”
            Mom nodded. “Good night, then, Rach,” she pronounced it “Raych”, like she had all of Rachel’s life. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
            “Night, Mom,” she kissed her, then went into the family room, listening to Mom walk up the creaking steps, then cross the ceiling. Quiet shuffling, then squeaks from the bed as Mom got in. By then, Rachel had the fire blazing. She settled back in the chair, the reading lamp on, a journal in her lap. This one had an article by her and the team at ViroMax. She flipped it open. She flipped open to it, scanned it, smiled. Her work was good. Some were hailing her as the Louis Pasteur of viruses. She and her team – Furman included – had already developed a vaccine that arrested HIV-1 and HIV-2. She’d have had the Nobel last year if Jamal Harris at GeneTech in Atlanta hadn’t KO’s the most common cold virus. Next year, though – Americans were aging and Alzheimer’s was an increasing disturbing problem. ViroMax and others had shown that Alzheimer’s was a complex interaction between genetic factors, certain types of viral infections and memory-related steroids in the brain.
            She scanned other articles, mostly by people she knew personally. One article by Dr. Christine Hester touched the genetic engineering of specific viruses for use in terraforming Venus. Furman had tried to hire Hester. She’d turned him down flat, laughing at his money.
            Rachel started suddenly. When had she started calling him ‘Furman’? His name was Glenn. She looked at the fire and closed the magazine. She stared at the flickering orange, white and blue flames, momentarily frustrated by all that seemed to be happening. But only one thing was important now: Dad and Mom. Together. At the farms she’d been brought to as a newborn; grown up on – she smiled briefly – longed to get away from; returned to.
            It was going to be sold and her parents would move into town. And now with this suicide attempt, someone would suggest that they move into a ‘retirement’ home, and that would kill Dad just as surely as a noose around the neck. Yet what could she do?
            She tapped the Journal of Research Virology in her lap. There were many things she could do. Engineer a virus – perhaps something insidious – and infect PorkCo’s stock with it. Maybe something that needed lots and lots of pig breath to thrive. The is would skip over family farms and only hurt corporate farmers. She scowled and stood up. She put another log on the fire, stopping at the picture window that looked out over the empty fields to the place down the road. She couldn’t see anything this early in the morning. But she knew the Duerkops were down there. Dave, Barb, Nathan, Caleb, Elise. Always had been. Always would be.
            Not.
            Maybe they were just like her father – a family forced out by bigger and bier corporate farms. Maybe they were packing boxes at this very moment, bone-tired from the preparations for the move. Bone-tired, but with nowhere to lay their heads because some massive conglomerate had to make a few more bucks and destroy a little bit more of the competition so they could have a little bit bigger piece of a rapidly shrinking pie…
            Rachel went back to the chair and, closing her eyes, leaned back for a moment, trying to order her chaotic thoughts. She couldn’t change the world. She couldn’t even manage her own. She couldn’t save Dad and she couldn’t save the farm.
            She couldn’t do anything right…

            She woke with a start and the family room was bright with sunlight streaming through the picture window.
            The smell of coffee hung fresh in the cool air. The fire was dead. “Mom?”
            There was no response. She went into the kitchen, wrapping an orange afghan around her shoulders as she walked. There was a small square of paper on the kitchen table. She smiled, remembering the uncounted number of notes left the same way all through her childhood. She read, “Went to Hospital. Nurse said Dad was fine. Come if you want to. Mom.”
            Rachel poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot on the warmer. Two dirty cups sat in the sink, half-filled with water. One had a spoon in it. She picked it up, rinsed it, and spooned sugar into her own cup, stirring as she walked back to the recliner. She sat again, looking out the window.
            Abruptly, a memory surfaced. Snowmobile rides with Luke Jacob flashed back. She was fifteen and he was an older man. All of sixteen she recalled.
            They’d been racing another boy and girlfriend across the filed. The other boy had lost control of his sled. His girlfriend had been thrown clear, but he’d broken his neck. She and Luke had flipped their sled turning back, but they escaped with nothing but bruises. After the look of stark terror in her parents’ faces when they’d heard the story, she’d been banned from dating Luke for the rest of her natural life and grounded for the rest of the school year. It had taken Mom and Dad years to actually forgive him. She doubted if they’d ever forgotten the incident. She hadn’t.
            She caught her breath. The idea appeared complete, slamming her in the face like the hard, icy furrows had that day racing with Luke. Elegant. Stunningly complete. Simple, in fact, though experimental after a fashion and certainly not the use toward which the research had been intended. But Furman would never know, and she could easily alter a record here and say a few words there to cover any tiny tracks she made.
            She stood and went to the phone after looking up the number for the nearest airport. Once she was finished, she scribbled Mom and note and drove ninety minutes to Rochester. The flight in a twin-engine Baron to Chicago took just over an hour and a half. She slept hard even so. In a taxi, she was at Viromax an hour later. Her clearance got her through security had no problem, even though it was Saturday. In fact, she knew the weekend staff almost as well as she knew the regular crew. They knew her, too. Well enough that the college guy on duty at the check-in desk flirted with her – again.
            But she wasn’t interested in teasing him today. She hurried to her own lab and logged on. After a few moments, she started manipulating the images on the screen. Clearly imaged in her mind was the configuration of the memory reconstruction virus. The results of the initial tests were spectacular, but not everything was neat and clean. It was now clear that success was determined by various factors including the time between onset of symptoms, physical health of the subject – there were even some simulations that indicated that the individuals who were rarely exposed to preservatives or certain kinds of petroleum products, or who had been careful to eat well-balanced meals through their lives stood a better chance of recovering a larger portion of their memories – and current age. The virus ViroMax had designed helped to reconstruct damaged links between memory recall and storage by stimulating growth in the nerve cells.
            When she finally backed away from the screen, she had what she thought she wanted. She typed in a command that would set an automated, elaborately protected lab to manufacturing the viruses. In twenty to forty hours, there would be sufficient  product to conduct thousands of tests. In an hour, there would be enough for her purpose.
           
            The back door was still unlocked when she pulled into the barnyard early Sunday morning. Rachel rolled into bed without a sound, gently setting her shoulder bag on Eric and Ernie’s old desk. She peeled her clothes off and slipped into an old flannel shirt Eric had passed on to her years ago. She fingered it briefly, savoring the smooth, worn material. She lifted it to her face and breathed in. The odor of hay and sweat – a scent so distinct, the recalled abruptly a day he’d worn it. He’d been sixteen, she only twelve. Not long after, she’d asked for it and he’d laughed and given it to her.
            She slipped it over her head, and her mind drifting in memories, she fell asleep.
            Rachel woke to a silent house. The only smell was from decades of early morning pots of coffee and fried, roasted or baked pork. Cold light edged the green plaid curtains that were closed over the bedroom window. Rachel stood and picked up the shoulder bag, carrying it into the family room. The fire was long dead, and Mom had drawn the shade over the picture window while she was gone. She tugged the drawstring down and the shade rolled up. Thick gray clouds scudded before a brisk wind. Snowflakes bled sideways across the window. Sometimes she could see all the way down to the Duerkops. Other times, she couldn’t even see the edge of the field.
            She went to the kitchen. A note sat on the table. She picked it up. It read, “Dad comes home today. Between 12-3. Come if you want.”
            She took a deep breath, then started setting up the equipment.
            When they showed up at quarter past one, she was ready. She ran out to meet them as Mom pulled up in the old station wagon.
            She opened Dad’s door. He smiled faintly up at her, then grunted as he got out of the car. She took him by the elbow, and said, “I made us some lunch.”
            He grunted again and said, “It’ll be a damn sight better than that hospital garbage they served me.”
            “Chuck! Watch your language,” Mom snapped.
            He grunted again, but said, “Sorry, Hon. It was bad, though.”
            She nodded, conceding the point as they went into the mudroom and then into kitchen.
            The aroma of bread-and-butter pork roast wrapped around them, all the more rich for the cold, snowy air outside. Dad shot her a glance, then smiled. Genuinely this time. “My favorite,” he said.
            Mom smiled, too when she saw that Rachel had set the dining room table rather than the kitchen table. The old china, painted with faded roses and stems, set off the faintly tarnished silver and crystal goblets she’d arranged over a maroon, tie-dyed tablecloth she’d sent them from Liberia, long ago.
            Mom said, “I’ll just get…”
            “It’s all right, Mom. Just have a seat and I’ll get the sparkling juice.” Rachel ushered them into the dining room.
            Mom giggled and said, “I feel like I’m in a restaurant.”
            Rachel smiled as she retrieved the sparkling grape juice from the mudroom. It was cold enough to frost slightly in the damp heat of the kitchen. She set it out while her parents washed up and them pulled up to the table.
            Rachel pulled the roast from the oven, deftly lifting it from the roaster and on to the china serving platter. Fragrant steam rose from the tender meat. She spooned the soft potatoes and carrots and onions from the juices in the roaster and arranged them neatly around the cut. She placed it in the open spot in the center of the table and returned to the kitchen for a loaf of bread from the town bakery. She sat down.
            “I’d like to say the grace this afternoon, if you don’t mind,” Rachel said.
            Her parents looked at her, then at each other – then at her again. She laughed. “Don’t be so surprised! Maybe I’m coming back to my roots now that I’m getting old and gray.”
            Dad nodded and bowed his head and squeezed her hand. Mom did the same. Rachel said, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Thank you, Lord, for bringing Dad safely home – and for bringing me back home, too. Bless us now as we eat and fellowship together, and use this food to strengthen us to serve you better. Amen.”
            They repeated her, “amen”, then squeezed her hands tightly.
            They ate and drank and chatted about nothing in particular. Rachel watched them closely. Toward the end of their meal, they both began to lapse into longer and longer periods of silence. Their words seemed to slur together as they appeared to lose their train of thought. Finally, both sat silent, staring vacantly into space.
            Rachel sagged back in her chair. For a moment, she could feel her head throbbing. Though she’d thought this through a dozen times, she still had doubts about it. Ethical qualms. Moral instability.
            She took a sheet of paper from her back pocket. She looked at Dad. Degraded brain cells were experiencing rapid growth, reconnecting areas that had long been disconnected. He would be remembering incidents, scents, sounds, sights, tastes and touches he didn’t even know he’d forgotten.
            She started to read aloud. It was a simple story, really. As the cells regrew and were hyperstimulated, audio input would theoretically create accompanying multisensory input to match the words. Whatever they heard would become a complete memory – whether it had happened or not. It if worked the way they thought it would, an Alzheimer’s patient would need to be in isolation for the period of regrowth or risk introducing memories that had never really happened. Memories that would be indistinguishable from events that had actually occurred.
            Furman had called it the miracle drug of the Twenties. The Right and Left jointly denounced it as the ideal brainwashing drug.
            Her story was finished before her other thoughts were.
            She sat in silence with her parents. After an hour or so, they started talking again.
            Dad said, “I got a sore throat. How about a cup of honey-lemon tea, Hon?”
            Mom stood up, blinking as if she’d just awakened. But she worked slowly and by the time she presented the cup of tea to Dad, she was merely blinking as if she’d been dazzled by a bright light.
            “So, when are you and Mom moving out?” Rachel asked, her pulse roaring in her ears.
            “Well dear, the movers will be here Monday. Dad and I will be going to spend a few days with your Auntie June in Rochester.” She shrugged. “When we get back to town, everything will have been moved to the new condo.” She frowned slightly as she sat down with a cup of tea for herself. “We showed you the place, didn’t we, Rach?”
            Rachel nodded, watching Dad drink the tea. He rubbed his neck once and her heart froze. But he didn’t say anything else. They sat wrapped in a quiet, warm quilt of golden light over the remains of dinner.
            In the family room, she’d built a fire and her magazine lay waiting for her. Instead, she said, “Why don’t you let me get the dishes, Mom, while Dad goes out to the barn?”
            Her mom  smiled and waved at her. “Nonsense, Rach. You cooked, I’ll clean up. You just scoot to your chair by the fire. I’ll take care of this.”
            Dad stood and headed for the mudroom, just like he had for all the years Rachel could ever remember. He’d always looked forward to retirement. And now he was moving Monday because he and his wife were tired and wanted to spend the last years of their lives dancing, seeing movies, traveling, and enjoying one another. There was no bitterness. He wasn’t being forced out of his home. He had never tried to hang himself in the barn. Rachel shuddered at the memory of that night.
            She padded in stockinged feet into the family room and sat down slowly, pulling the multi-colored afghan over her lap. She stared at the crackling fire. Without thinking, she reached back and played with her braid – a single pigtail, really. She tugged at it, then absently put the tip of it into her mouth. A moment later, she pulled it free, staring at it. She thought she’d broken that habit ages ago. She smiled faintly and settled back into the chair. She read until late, Dad first, then Mom stopping briefly to say their goodnights.
            By the time her eyes were tired, it was after one. She clicked off the lamp, then sat and stared at the glowing embers of the fire, listening to the wind blow snow against the window. Beside her sat the case she’d brought form Chicago. Inside, a second dose of the memory reconstruction virus nested beside its empty twin. In her pocket, a long, involved letter she’d written for herself. She pulled it out and smoothed it on the afghan. It began, “You are a lab tech in a big city. A perpetrator of alcoholic-type behavior, you lost your husband and your children. You are jobless. Destitute. Your behavior has been successfully treated. Your parents gave you a plane ticket to Chicago in order to reconcile your marriage. You have always loved your husband – you still love him. He will completely satisfy you…”
            When the words grew blurry, she stopped and folded the sheet of paper in thirds, swallowed hard against the urge to cry.
            She stood up and headed for bed, leaving the case by the chair in the dim light of  a quarter moon shining through the window. In the morning, she would be ready to begin again. Forever.  
*First appeared in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, June 2000      

Sunday, July 16, 2017

INVOKING FIRE by Guy Stewart

On the last day of Autumn, Na’Rodney Jones Castillo-Vargas Daylight Hatshepsut lost his only friend. Sitting beside Great Uncle Bruce’s body, gently holding the cool hand, he said softly, “This isn’t what I meant when I said I wanted things to change.”
There was a heavy knock at the door downstairs.
He bolted to his feet and shouted, “Don’t answer the door, Payne!” He dashed out of the bedroom and took the steps down the narrow staircase six at a time, using the rails like parallel bars, swinging his feet down. He heard the door unbolt and cursed.
Payne screamed but stopped abruptly. Na’Rodney landed at the bottom of the stairs. Two women dressed in black suits, white shirts with black ties and sunglasses held Payne between them.
Then someone clotheslined him with a forearm, knocking him backwards and partway up the stairs where his head slammed against the edge of a step and he blacked out.

When he woke up, his head throbbed and his ears rang.
The farmhouse was an inferno and black suits were using flamethrowers on the well-kept, red painted barn, the old Quonset hut storage shed, the slat-sided corn crib and the new garage.
Another man and women stood near him. He couldn’t see Payne.
Na’Rodney scrambled to his feet, fell back to his hands and knees and threw up.
“You should take it easy there, kid. You have a concussion,” said the woman.
“Who are you?” Na’Rodney said, lifting his head.
“Doesn’t matter,” said the man.
“What about G’Uncle Bruce’s books? They matter!” He flexed his fingers, digging into the cold soil.
“They’re burning,” the man said.
“What are you going to do with Payne?”
The man laughed, “Nosy kid, aren’t you?”
The woman’s voice was a cold counterpoint to the waves of heat from the fire. “We’re making your uncle disappear.”
“He’s my great uncle,” Na’Rodney muttered as he surged to his feet, launching himself forward and hitting her at the knees. She hit the ground as the man punched him in the head and Na’Rodney went down again. The man said as the woman kicked him in the head and Na’Rodney blacked out, “He’s as stubborn as the old man.”

When Na’Rodney woke up a second time, we was sore all over. Especially his ribs. Something jingled as he rolled to his side then rolled back. When he patted his belly, he found a pair of cold metal disks. He picked them up and held them to his eyes, vision blurry for a bit until he recognized them as maglev train tokens. He threw them as far as he could. He wasn’t leaving until he found Payne. The nearest train was in Duluth which was being torn to bits by giant deconstruct and recovery robots – “dearr” – reprocessing pavement, brick buildings and concrete rebar into raw materials to be shipped south for the construction of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village. He would be refusing their oblique invitation.
Besides, Duluth was over a hundred and forty klicks away.
He shivered. From his EMT classes, he knew he was shocky and possibly had a concussion. He also knew had to find his cousin, Payne. The sun was setting. He rolled to his hands and knees, gagged and tried to throw up his insides. Nothing came out but a thin trickle of nose-burning hydrochloric acid. By the time he could move, it was dark and the Minnesota December night breathed frigid at his back.
Blue flames still wandered over what was left of the house, flaring sometimes into orange fire. The ground was frozen hard but he crawled like a baby until he could feel heat. Fuzzy thoughts were starting to jump out at him with startling clarity.
Payne. He had to find his cousin before he got hurt. He’d spent his life protecting Payne from town bullies the way G’Uncle Bruce had spent his life protecting both of them from bigger bullies. As a retired president of InterPol he’d called in favors if anyone powerful chose to bother him or his un-adopted sons.
Na’Rodney knew he couldn’t protect Payne or Angelique. The most powerful person he knew now was professor Manaar Minix who ran the Coleraine Minerals Research Laboratory. He had little education. Less power.
His breath formed a cloud in front of his face. He wasn’t going anywhere tonight. He’d die of exposure if he let himself curl up on the bare ground too far from the house. Besides, him and G’Uncle Bruce and Payne had slept out under the stars plenty of times. Of course they made sure Payne was tight in his bag so he wouldn’t wriggle free and wander around. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder had whittled him down from a smart, sassy pre-adolescent to a twelve-year-old-sized toddler.
Suddenly he felt dizzy and said loudly, “This is a post-hypnotic suggestion, Rod. Go to the split rock cache for further instructions.” Slapping his hands over his mouth, Na’Rodney silently cursed as he lay down. He wasn’t going anywhere tonight.
He crawled to the foundation of the burning house until the ground felt hot then laid down, parallel to the wall. Heat radiated from the ground. He was on the back side of the house, so anyone coming up the driveway wouldn’t be able to see him.
Not that anyone would be coming. Most everything outside of the Vertical Villages had been shut down. Squinting into the night he caught the flicker of firelight from the white wind turbine a quarter mile from the house as it turned slowly in the wind. He watched the rhythmic whirl while his back warmed up, then rolled over again to warm his front. Something banged and he jumped. A plume of sparks swirled into the night air. With that image, Na’Rodney drifted off to sleep. His last thought was that anyone who thought he’d die in his sleep was crazy.

He opened his eyes on starry darkness. He sat up stiffly and stretched. He could still feel heat from the coals when a breeze blew, but it was over. He let a wave of dizziness pass before he tried to get to his knees, then stood up all the way, swaying a bit. Shadowy lumps lit by fire flares were all that was left of the four outbuildings. Only the chimney remained of the house, the lower third buried with blackened debris. The charred ruin of a CHEAPALIN converted Jeep Cherokee sat in the pile of garage charcoal. And under the house’s charcoal? An incinerated library and G’Uncle Bruce’s bones.
Na’Rodney’s eyes teared up and he turned away, heading for the trail to the back forty. He’d hiked it hundreds of times and picked his way along the familiar path even in the moonless darkness. The horizon was starting to glow with sunrise.
It was going to be the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter.

Na’Rodney turned off the main path on a deer trail that meandered through low underbrush. He kept his head down as the morning light grew stronger and the sky to the east bled red. That usually meant, “Snow. Crap,” he said. His stomach rumbled, too.
The glacial terrain of this part of North America was strewn with boulders of every size. Another rough kilometer off the main trail, Na’Rodney stopped in front of the house-sized rock he’d been looking for. The hike had kept him warm after leaving G’Uncle’s pyre but he wouldn’t stay that way long in his thin blue sweater. His feet would be freezing soon in the gray canvas Converse® tennis shoes. Turning sideways, he slipped into an inverted V-shaped cave. Half-way in, the crack widened to a hollow, almost as if the thing had once been a massive geode.
In the dark, he reached for a ledge where they kept an LED flashlight.
He touched flesh instead and staggered backward, falling on his butt.
The flashlight flared to life in his face, blinding him. A female voice said, “Oh, it’s you.”
He recognized the voice and replied, “What the hell are you doing here?” as he got up from the cold ground, careful to keep his head down. He’d cracked it more times than he cared to remember. “This was G’Uncle’s and my secret.”
“Bruce said I was supposed to come here if anything drastic happened to the farm,” the voice replied. The female attached to the voice turned off the flashlight, plunging them into the dark again.
“Why would he want the housekeeper to come here?” Na’Rodney snapped. Angelique Mary Ozaawindib had been a pain in the neck since she started working for them two years ago. Her parents had died in a car crash, though she’d declared her independence from them when she was sixteen because they were, in her own words, “failed crack-chemists and everything that that implied”. No matter what kind of people Angelique’s parents been, he hated that she’d just dumped them. He’d have given anything to still have his whole family – Mom and brother dying by a Toronto terrorist’s bomb; unable to deal with it, Dad left him in G’Uncle’s care two months later.
Angelique was saying, “...same reason he wanted his unadopted great-nephew and retarded nephew to come here.”
“Take that...” He froze, motionless. All he needed was to make his concussion worse and he’d never be able to find Payne. He rubbed his forehead, then thumb and middle finger rubbed his temples. “Just shut up.”
In the darkness, Angelique relented, “I meant that everyone he drug into his orbit looked like something the cat ate and threw up.” She paused, “Where’s Payne?”
A heavy silence fell then Na’Rodney said, “G’Uncle Bruce didn’t care about you.”
“Was that why he was tutoring me in differential equations and made sure I learned jujutsu from the only Master in Duluth?” Angelique snapped. “Now where is Payne? You didn’t leave him back at the house, did you?”
Jealous, he ignored the second question and said, “He let you do that?” Na’Rodney turned away from the voice. “He said I couldn’t.”
Angelique had the grace to remain silent. A moment later, the flashlight came back on, this time aimed at the roof of the cave. “You still haven’t told me where Payne is.” She was sitting on the floor, on a thick mat, her legs crossed. She held out an envelope. “This is addressed to you.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t read it already.” He reached for the envelope.
She pulled it back a bit, “I said it was addressed to you. Where’s Payne?”
“Why would that stop you?” he tried to snap the envelope with his fingers.
She pulled it away. “Because I loved your great-uncle Bruce.”
Na’Rodney swallowed hard then took the envelope. The flashlight reversed as she illuminated herself. He grunted and tore it open, shaking. If she hadn’t been such a pain, and if G’Uncle Bruce had ever given him time to do anything but chores, study and teach Payne, he might have gone for her.
He took the light then the letter. Holding the light in his teeth, he unfolded the paper. It was one sentence in G’Uncle’s tight handwriting, though the hand was steadier than it had been in years. He folded it, put it in his back pocket and said, “There’s a door in the floor here that leads to a secret chamber where he has stuff stored for us. By the way, the people who burned the farm down and immolated G’Uncle Bruce’s body kidnapped Payne.”
“What?”
Shaking his head, he pointed the light at the floor and said, “You’re gonna have to move your butt if I’m gonna open the door.”
“No! What about Bruce? What about Payne?”
Poking in her direction to get her to scoot off the door, Na’Rodney explained the death, folks in black and Payne’s disappearance. He bent over, moved the mat aside and scooped his fingers under a recessed handle.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting – maybe an underground redoubt stocked with a furnace and air conditioner, food, computers, a library and entertainment systems in order to survive a nuclear winter. What he found was a ladder leading down to a concrete floor two meters below.
“Well, at least he left us something.”
“What?”
“Let’s find out,” he said and climbed down the ladder. Dim lights came up showing a room walled with unfinished concrete blocks and shelves. He turned off the flashlight. On the shelves were stacks of clothing for various seasons, labeled packets of freeze-dried and dry foods and two external frame backpacks, a red one half full, a green one empty. They sat beneath a shelf jammed with camping gear appropriate to different seasons.
Angelique climbed down after him and he moved aside. On one of the shelves, sitting by itself, was a clipboard. He felt Angelique beside him. It was a single page, but when he was done, he sniffed and handed it to her. She said faintly, “He pretty much knew this was going to happen, didn’t he?”
Na’Rodney squeezed his nose, wiped his fingers on his blue jeans then said, “He was smart.” He turned the flashlight on again and strode to the half full pack, put the light in his mouth and aimed it inside. He reached in and began to take out books, turned to lay them out on the floor in a semi-circle around him. He swiveled around on his knees and aimed the light, reading, “CARRIE, by Stephen King; DUNE, by Frank Herbert; PHILOSOPHI AE NATURALIS PRINCIPIA by Sir Isaac Newton; ORIGIN OF SPECIES by Charles Darwin; and a German Bible, probably a GUTENBERG.” All five were sealed in plastic bags that had inflated sides, holding each book in a transparent bubble. At the bottom was another envelope addressed to Angelique. Na’Rodney took it out and handed it back to her.
She tore it open and read it under the dim light. She said, “Each one of these is worth a lot of money – the King is a first edition, signed copy. Bruce says that if we approach any of the people on his list, we should be able to sell it for market value.” She paused and choked.
“What?”
“The Gutenberg?”
“Yeah?”
“When he wrote this, the copy he has there he got from someone he knew at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s worth somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty million dollars.”
His mouth opened and he squeaked. “Excuse me?”
Angelique ignored the squeak and added, “The buyer he lists here lives in Augsburg, Germany.”
“How are we supposed to get there?”
She held up the letter, “The first buyers – the ones that might be interested in CARRIE, are in or near Duluth.”
“So?”
“The copy of DUNE has a buyer in Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village.”
Na’Rodney gulped, the sound audible in the hidden underground room. He managed, “Then?”
“The one by Sir Isaac Newton? We’re supposed to sell that for ninety-five thousand dollars in Chicago Vertical Village.”
“Does he say what we’re supposed to use the money for?”
“He says we’re supposed to bribe people then pay for passage in whatever way we can to cross the country, the Atlantic and Europe.”
“Where are we going?”
“The Erg of Bilma?”
“Which is where?”
“I think it’s in Niger – it’s a part of the Sahara.” He didn’t respond. He went back to the pack and replaced the books in the order in which he’d taken them out. He leaned the pack against the wall, crossed over to the ladder and climbed up. “Where are you going?” Angelique asked.
“Home,” he said back down. “You can go to the Erg of Bilma for whatever crazy reason G’Uncle Bruce is sending you. I’m going to go find Payne. I don’t think his kidnapping was part of G’Uncle’s plan. Have a nice trip.” He turned, climbed and left the cave behind. Reaching the main trail, on impulse, he ran back to the house. He was kicking through the foundation debris which were still hot, cursing and crying when Angelique caught up with him.
She called from the side, “I brought you a winter coat, a change of clothes and boots.”
He walked out of the charred ruins and took the coat, sat down, flipped off his tennis shoes and put the boots on, lacing them tight. They were his, well-broken in and they fit like warm gloves. He’d wondered where they’d disappeared to. She handed him mittens when he stood up.
She was wearing the red pack. He studied her until she said, “I packed as much food as I could get in there. Layered the clothes, and added the tent,” she turned showing him the tent and a slender, rolled sleeping back on top.
“You’re going to the Erg of Bilma, then?” he asked. She nodded. “Why?”
She shrugged, “There’s nothing for me around here anymore. Coleraine will be shut down in another year – there’s already talk of one of the dearrs making its way along US 2, eating deserted towns. It’ll get here. Then what could I do, become a driver for the robot dearr? A farmer?” She paused, shrugging her shoulders hard enough to toss the pack up and settle on her shoulders better. She belted it around her middle.
“Why does he want us to go there?”
She dug the letter from her back pocket and handed it to him. “He says that a coalition of African nations is building something like the Ptolemaic Ancient Library of Alexandria. They are requesting copies of everything that’s ever been printed.”
Na’Rodney rolled his eyes skyward. “Another group that believes that ebooks are a bad thing?” He shook his head in disgust, “Just like G’Uncle Bruce.”
“You think ebooks are a good thing?”
He swung his arm around to take in the farm and then pointed at the house, “Look how far paper books got G’Uncle Bruce – his freakin’ funeral pyre!” He couldn’t stop the tears that welled up, but he’d be damned if he was going to wipe them away in front of her. “Of course paper books are stupid! Ereaders were the most profound revolution in the world! Paper rots, it’s heavy and impossible to keep for very long. Books take up space and they make you take care of them when you should be taking care of more important things!”
She glared at him. “Funny you should say ‘the world’ when what you meant was ‘for the wealthy’.”
“That’s not what I meant! Anyone can buy an ereader. They’re cheap and easy...”
Angelique held up a hand, saying, “This isn’t an argument we can finish in five minutes – or five hours. The only way we can do justice to the discussion is if you come with me.”
 “You’re going to the Erg of Bilma right now?”
“Coleraine for starters, then it seems to me Duluth would be next,” she said.
“I have to find Payne.”
“Can’t we do both? Coleraine’s an hour away by foot.”
He snorted and said, “Follow me.” Leading her around the concrete block foundation they scurried to the tree line, ducking into the half-leafless woods of mixed hardwood trees and pine. He stopped at another pile of glacial till boulders. Kneeling, he moved a flat stone to one side.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking out my skateboard.”
He pulled a hunter’s orange body board from a small cave under the rocks. “What good’s that going to do us?”
He stood up and tapped the surface of the board. It changed color from orange to a rippling copy of the dry brush underneath it. Tucking it under one arm, he said, “It’s not going to do us any good until we get to US 2. It and 169 were coated with CHEAPALIN years ago.” He flipped it over. The bottom was coated with a thick, black, asphalt-like substance. “This has CHEAPALIN, too.”
“You’re kidding!”
He snorted, “Yeah, G’Uncle Bruce didn’t know about it ‘cause he’d have screamed his head off about me risking my life road surfing.” He shrugged. “Now THAT was fun.” He led the way to the power line clearing right-of-way and turned east to follow it to Swenson Road about one kilometer further. Once they reached that and had hiked another klick or so, they took Scenic Highway, staying to the side of the road while Angie muttered, “No idea why this stupid road ever got such a stupid name,” and ready to duck into the ditch if anyone else was out. She said, “So we get to Coleraine and you find Payne. How are we supposed to get to Duluth? Walking will take forever.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Na’Rodney said, setting off for town.
Muttering to herself, Angelique said, “There aren’t any bridges in northern Minnesota.”
There’d also been no large towns north of Coleraine even when Na’Rodney had joined G’Uncle Bruce on the farm. There’d never been much traffic. There was less now since the Consolidation and Recovery of the Wild had spawned the dearrs and their harvest of building materials for the four-kilometer-tall Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village.
When they heard the whine of an electric Polaris Ranger XL ATV with the loud, gravel-crushing noise of fat tires on the road behind them, they panicked at first, rolling into the ditch after tripping each other. The vehicle was covered by a complete, metal cab in the same camouflage green as the body with the Coleraine Minerals Research Lab logo stenciled in white on the side.
Na’Rodney jumped up, “Doctor Minix! Doctor Minix!” The ATV’s whine faded and the vehicle rolled to a stop then backed up.
A thin, graying woman with a large hair bun pinned at the base of her neck opened the door and leaned out and exclaimed, “Na’Rodney! Why are you hiding in a ditch?” Na’Rodney signaled to Angelique, hurrying to the ATV, relating what had happened. Dr. Minix gestured to the two of them, saying, “Get in. Put my mineral samples on the seat and get down on the floor.”
“There’s not much room...” Angelique said.
“Place the backpack in the boot. We’re not going far. Na’Rodney, toss the board in the front seat.”
Settled, she started the ATV rolling again, saying, “That explains the sky last night. I was hoping it wasn’t going to come to this.”
“Come to what?”
“Your great uncle has espoused some pretty radical ideas to the technophiles in Washington.”
“Like his book love?”
“He was a highly vocal Paper. He also believed that regular people should be able to check up on anyone in authority over them.” She paused, adding, “Though I dare say he made plenty of enemies when he worked for Interpol. I take it he never made it clear why he opposed ebooks, did he?”
“Information fluidity, he called it,” Angelique spoke up.
“He was a misanthrope,” Na’Rodney exclaimed at the same time. “He didn’t trust anyone to leave the written word alone. He said it changed often enough when people had to do it by hand – like when scribes or typesetters shortened things for convenience or if they didn’t think a word or two were necessary. He figured there would be nothing stopping anyone making whatever changes they wanted to make...”
“Shut up and get down,” Doctor Minix breathed sharply. She tossed the body board into the back seat. Na’Rodney pulled it over them and tapped it to life. “I’m taking the railroad bed trail back into Coleraine. I don’t think there’ll be anything on 169, but we best not take the chance.” They drove for twenty minutes, then the ATV slowed and came to a stop, Dr. Minix spoke with someone for a few moments, then drove on. She breathed again, “I see your cousin.”
Na’Rodney tried to sit up. Angelique held his arm while Dr. Minix pressed down from above. She said, “Not now. He’s with two men, drinking a can of soda.”
Na’Rodney squirmed harder, “What kind is it? Artificial color or artificial flavor or preservatives can set him off! If they gave him the wrong kind…”
Angelique whispered, “Stay down! If they see you, they’ll just beat you up worse than yesterday then arrest Dr. Minix and me.”
Dr. Minix cursed then said, “They’ve got a CHEAPALIN car, probably armored, but something far worse.”
“What?” Na’Rodney tried to sit up again.
“It looks like they’ve called up a dearr. I can see it from here.” Dr. Minix kept driving, turning right then left twice. The ATV rolled to a stop as she said, “You can look now.”
Na’Rodney and Angelique peeked over the front seats. To their right was the dearr, an asphalt grinding milling machine and concrete crusher with an earth-mover trailer behind it. Fifty meters long, it was as wide as the highway. Silent now, it hulked, steaming and buzzing at the edge of town. Angelique whispered, “Bruce said they wouldn’t get here until the town closed down!”
Dr. Minix drew a deep breath and said, “Looks like the town is about to get closed down. Starting with your farm.”
“They can’t do that!” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
“Earth Government can do anything it wants to as long as they say it’s in the name of technological advancement, Humanity’s best interest. When they’re done, the Vertical Villages will be humanity’s greatest achievement since space travel,” she murmured.
“What about your job?”
She snorted, “We still need iron, copper, nickel, tungsten and sulfides – and we need people to supervise the High Energy Physics Lab at the Soudan Mine. I’ll be here for a long time.” She paused. “As long as I don’t get arrested helping you.” She looked back up the highway to where the folks in black were standing beside the car. She said, “We have to get your brother back and then send you on your way.”
“My cousin,” Na’Rodney said. “Payne is my cousin.”
“Whatever,” Angelique and Dr. Minix said at the same time. The doctor stepped into the intersection. She signaled for them to follow, saying, “Bring your things. This is where I have to leave you off.”
“What?” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
Angelique stopped with the backpack half on then jerked her chin at Na’Rodney. “Listen, I have an idea. You have to take the pack.”
“I’m not gonna take that thing! It must weigh a ton!”
“It doesn’t weigh a ton! Now get over here and take it before the folks in black see us and pack Payne into the car and leave town!”
Na’Rodney huffed, walked over and took the pack. It was lighter than he’d expected. He settled it on his hips and belted it without thinking. He said, “I think what we should do...”
“What we’re going to do is this...” Angelique began.
“There’s nothing for it but to...” said Dr. Minix.
From the edge of town, the dearr roared to life, lowering the massive blade and rumbling forward, pushing up a wave of worn asphalt, grinding it and spewing it into the trailer behind it. In the distance, a yellow blob moved. “There’s another scraper bowl coming up from behind,” shouted Angelique.
Dr. Minix pushed them back to the ATV and shouted over the noise of the dearr, “You’re going to have to rescue Payne, get past the dearr then take Itasca County 10 south until you can intersect with US 2. Even then, you’ll need to travel at night.”
“Why can’t we just beat up the folks in black and take their car?” Na’Rodney asked. Both women stared at him then shook their heads in unison.
Dr. Minix shouted, “We need a distraction...”
Na’Rodney shook his head. G’Uncle Bruce often decried his great-nephew’s impulsive behaviors. He tossed the road board to the surface of US 169. CHEAPALIN on the road reacted with the board’s CHEAPALIN. It was a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells, more commonly known by its acronym CHEAPALIN. The entire network of asphalt roads in North America had been converted into living organisms and the two identical magnetic fields repelled each other. He felt like he was sliding on resurfaced ice with newly-sharpened ice skate blades. The advantage was that he could push off from rough asphalt because his foot wasn’t magnetic and wouldn’t slip. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw someone, but ignored it. He was accelerating toward the folks in black like he was on a frictionless skateboard! None of them was paying attention to him as he slipped toward them, shoving as fast as he could. Terminal velocity – he couldn’t push himself any faster – so he crouched, leaning forward to tilt the board. The extra mass of the pack allowed him to accelerate “downhill”.
When they noticed all they did was stare. Neither one drew a gun. Or a flame thrower.
Payne dropped his can of soda and cried, “Na! Na!”
They went for whatever weapons they carried concealed.
He was ready to stand, bracing himself to grab Payne, just as Angelique streaked from behind a house, leaped into the air and kicked first one, then the other folk in black, laying both out in the road and then landing on her feet, crouching, facing the two unconscious agents.
Na’Rodney grabbed his cousin in a trick they’d practiced several times when supposedly out sleeping under the stars. Na’Rodney swung his cousin up. The younger boy wrapped his legs around him from the side, under the backpack, crooning, “Na. Na. Na.”
Na’Rodney spun the board under his feet, reversing its direction so it would slow down, then dropped to his feet, Payne still clinging to him. He looked at Angelique and said, “G’Uncle was right, you’re downright scary.” She opened her mouth to reply, but one of the folks in black groaned. “We should get moving,” he said. “Should we take the car?”
“Only if we want them to track us from the air and pick us up any time they want to.” She looked around and said, “The Doc said we should hike down 10 then pick up 2. Sounds like a good plan to me.”
“Yeah, but they’ll expect that.”
“What else can we do?”
“Blue Bill Bay Road to its end then cut through the marsh to Rydberg Road...”
She closed her eyes. “Trout Lake shoreline to what, Blackberry?”
He tilted his head sideways. “That’s what I was thinking.”
“Sixteen klicks; a day of hard walking, maybe three for us. Cold,” she said.
“You have a tent, there’s three of us, shouldn’t be a problem. We should take our time. We can camp out in one of the old places on the lake.”
“I didn’t pack much food.”
“Should be able to forage.”
“When we get to US 2?”
“Take it south to Duluth.”
Payne smiled and said, “Doof!” Na’Rodney ruffled the boy’s hair and nodded.
“We can’t all ride on your road board,” Angelique said.
“We’ll keep an eye out for a POS and cannibalize it.” He held up the board, “That’s how I built this.”
“What about Payne?” The female folk in black lifted her head, looking blearily at them. Angelique kicked her in the face.
“Cruel.”
Angelique shrugged. “Your G’Uncle did things he regretted too so he could protect you guys. Like killing people who found out too much about you and paying people off who found out too much out about me.” She paused, lips thinning and added before Na’Rodney was able to, “Both of us owe it to him to deliver the coordinates of the Last Paper Library in the US to the Library of the Information Apocalypse.”
“The what?” Na’Rodney said, prying Payne from his side and walking east toward the 169-County 10 split. They still had to get past the dearr and any potential human occupant.
Angelique kicked the other folk in black in the head just in case. Na’Rodney said, “Search their pockets. See if you can find something like a magic wand,” he held up his hands indicating length, “Maybe about this long.”
She searched then pulled something free from the male’s back pocket. “This it?”
“Yup. Point it at the car and trigger it.”
“How?”
“Don’t know. Fiddle with the thing...”
Fire leaped from the end, engulfing the car. She kept it on long enough for the fire to continue on its own then ran to join him and Payne. “Now we need to get going.” They crossed the highway and kept walking, watching the dearr. It had continued to tear up the road unabated. It didn’t slow down as they approached it. “There’s a cab in the middle,” she said. “For a human occupant.”
The asphalt scraper led the dearr, in the middle was a concrete grinder, crunching curbing when it came up. At the end, it towed a scraper bowl into which crushed concrete and broken asphalt poured from a conveyer belt. Between the grinder and the bowl was a small, caboose-like cabin with a cupola jutting above and wrapped in windows. On the very top...
“Machine gun,” Na’Rodney said, unconsciously crouching and pulling Payne into a crouch as well. His cousin giggled, going along with the game.
“Or laser cannon,” Angelique said.
“Nah – too dangerous to leave with a computerized destruction machine. Same with no missile launcher. Besides, a machine gun can tear up a human or a car easy as a laser and more cheaply.”
They scurried past as the dearr clanked along. Once they reached the intersection, Na’Rodney said, “Looks like they’ve decided not to put humans in the...”
Gunshot sounded from the approaching replacement bowl. “Who is that?”
He scooped up Payne again and ran. Alongside him, he got the clear impression that Angelique was holding back. Frozen ground jumped up in a puff after another gunshot rang out. “Rifle!” he shouted as they ran alongside 169 then ducked into the trees and brush and kept running.
“The dearr will follow us!” Angelique cried.
“It’s a robot!”
“What about the extra bowl with the human in it?”
“It’s a robot, too! He can’t drive it anywhere – it’s programmed to replace the full one that’s headed into town!”
“You’d better hope you’re right!” They ran until they came to Blue Bill Bay road, running deeper into the woods. Panting, they stopped at a rectangular, empty hole in the ground, an exhausted Payne now on Na’Rodney’s back.
Once they’d caught their breath, Na’Rodney said, “We have to keep walking. At least until nightfall.”
Angelique nodded and they kept on in silence until Na’Rodney said, “The Papers and the Library of the Information Apocalypse?”
“Bruce was a Paper. The African nations building the Library are Papers.”
“Why would anyone want to be a Paper?”
Angelique shook her head. “We can’t understand it very well here, but once the developed countries stopped making paper books, they stopped sending the used ones to developing countries and the information flow stopped.”
“They can get e-readers.” Na’Rodney exclaimed, throwing his arms into the air and with them the backpack, tossing him off balance.
Angelique caught him and shoved him forward. “They can get them but can’t maintain them. The Library is intended to be a place anyone can come, whether they have technology or not, and read. They’ll send out trucks full of books as well – that way, anyone, anywhere can borrow a book whether they live in powerless foxhole in the middle of the Great Plains or at the pinnacle of Nairobi Vertical Village.”
“Why would they need books?” Na’Rodney exclaimed.
Angelique shook her head. “Take out your phone.”
“What?”
“Your phone. Take it out. Call up a copy of Stephen King’s CARRIE.”
“Why?”
“Just do it,” she snapped, then stepped behind him and unzipped the backpack.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting the real copy of CARRIE.”
“What,” Na’Rodney began. Angelique cut him off by forcing him to his knees. “Hey!”
She pulled the wrapped book free, popped the plastic and took it from the bag.
Scrambling to his feet, Na’Rodney spun around. “You can’t do that! G’Uncle Bruce sealed those for us to...”
“You won’t believe me until you see it with your own eyes. Read the first paragraph of your online copy of CARRIE.”
“What?”
“Just do it!” she snarled, waving the hardcover book. He looked down at the screen. “Shut your mouth and follow along while I read from the original. ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.’”
“Mine doesn’t say that,” said Na’Rodney softly. “This is what mine says, ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She knelt down and touched Carrie gently on the shoulder. She hardly would have admitted how much this poor girl needed a guiding hand in her life. The daughter of a religion-crazed bigot, her mother regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, Miss Desjardin believed that all children were good.’”
Na’Rodney blinked and said, “Again.” He read his passage, eyes on his phone as she read the paper copy out loud. He looked up, “They’re different.”
“That’s what your great uncle and the rest of the Papers are worried about. If someone, somewhere went to the trouble of changing an electronic work of fiction, how many works of nonfiction will be changed?”
Na’Rodney took a deep breath and blew it out. Turning away and taking Payne’s hand, he started walking. The noise of the dearr had faded behind them. All they could hear now was the sound of themselves walking, or in Payne’s case stumbling, through the woods. “We have to keep moving.” He paused, throwing her a look, “If we want to make it to the Erg of Bilma before we all die of old age.”
Anger flashed on Angelique’s face and said, “Good plan. Besides, you have an argument to lose with me.” Pushing roughly past Na’Rodney, she led the way through the woods as the sun fell quickly to the horizon on the first full day of Winter.


First appeared in PERIHELION SCIENCE FICTION, June 2013 
Copyright © 2013, Guy Stewart