Molly, Free City, Earth, 2048
YOU ARE SWIMMING IN HONEY, sweet and yellow and viscous, so thick that your arms ache from the effort of movement. You can’t breathe; you must reach the surface, and your struggling body moves forward so very very slowly. You hear a distant beating rhythm like the sound of a moth’s wings against a window pane. It’s your heart. Then your arms are free and flailing and you have broken through to the air. The thin tube which has been inserted down your throat slides out and you gag and cough violently, fully awake now. Memories return, filling the void where the mucous has been. This is how they told you it would be.
You’ve crossed over. You’re on Earth. The room looks much like the room on the other side: white walls, concrete floor, five wombs—you aren’t sure what you think of that term, they look more like coffins—bolted securely to the concrete floor, doctors and technicians in lab coats. Across the room, they are removing your companions from identical incubators, their new bodies dripping thick amniotic fluid. You struggle to stand but your legs are unable to carry your weight. The doctors or nurses or whoever they are carry you to a shower and steady you while they wash off the phlegmy substance that coats every centimeter of you. Then they towel you down, put a gown on you and lead you to another room where you’re placed into a bed. All of this without speaking a word.
You are soon joined by your companions. Sister Korinna and Joey each wear identical blue hospital gowns. When you attempt to greet them, your voice fails, and you begin to cough again.
“You will be unable to speak for a time.”
The woman stands in the doorway and smiles at you. Her voice is deep and gravelly, a tobacco voice. You’ve read that phrase in a book once. The woman’s smile is warm and comforting. “I’m Dr Conklin. We’ve given you an expectorant to rid your pulmonary system of excess fluid. You should try to lay on your side for the next hour. If all goes well, the physical therapists will start working with you then. Push the buzzer on your bedside table if you need assistance.” Dr Conklin smiles again and softly closes the door. On the other side they had informed you that there would be several days of intense physical therapy before you and the others would be fit to venture outside the clinic. “Working the kinks out,” they had called it.
You are totally exhausted a half hour into therapy. You can’t quite get your head around the idea that you now inhabit a new body, different from the one you lived in previously, actually improved in some subtle ways, according to the engineers, but essentially a quantum clone of your previous one. This new body has been physically “toned” in the incubator, but it has never gone for a walk or worked in a field or bounded up a flight of stairs. It’s muscles have never performed real world tasks.
Not she, but it.
Your alien body.
Planting the Seeds
Joe, Portland, Free Cascadia, Earth, 2048
SOMETIMES IN HIS DREAMS he lies in a field beneath an other-worldly sky, Bridge in his arms, smelling of earth and sex and the perfume of unfamiliar blossoms, her belly pregnant with their child, her black hair and black eyes like the midnight sky. The sun is rising, casting a deep red glow across the eastern horizon. “I’m so happy you decided to stay, Joe,” she says, as the purple shadows retreat into the morning twilight. Then he hears a whistling like a high-pitched hum somewhere in the distance, gradually growing louder, until it seems as though it’s in the room with him, tearing at his eardrums, and he is in the bedroom of his Portland apartment, and the woman in his arms is Allison, not Bridge, and then, once again, the world explodes around him.
Joe Larivee wakes screaming in terror, sweat pouring from his body. He snaps upright in bed, head between his trembling hands, trying to reassure himself.
The nightmares seem to come with increased frequency. He seldom remembers anything about them afterward, just that cold, horrible fear. The terror itself he has no trouble identifying—it’s the terror he felt seven years ago, the night the bomb exploded in his apartment complex leaving Allison lifeless, her blood splattered everywhere, on the floor and the walls and the ceiling, on his naked arms holding her as the light left her eyes. The subsequent horror of witnessing countless friends and comrades slaughtered before his eyes, the aftermath of two bloody wars. He’s resigned himself to the nightmares.
But tonight, he awakens from that dream remembering Bridge, before the wars, her small, emaciated body lying in his arms in a Seattle basement, the horrible pain and despair he had felt those many years ago. And, like a miracle, he had found her afterward again on Sweetland in her new body. Jessie had been there, too, and he had spent four short, exultant hours in that alien place before he was compelled to decide between that world and this.
OUTSIDE HIS WINDOW, THE SUN was about to rise on a clear, May morning, outlining Mt. Hood in orange-red haze. In the bathroom, he examined his face in the mirror, noting the haggard look, the sagging skin around his cheeks and jowl, his balding pate, graying at the edges. He felt as old and tired as he looked.
He took a quick shower to rid himself of the night sweat before dressing for work. Several appointments were scheduled this morning with various citizens’ committees concerned about the recent changes in the Ministry of Wellness. As the Minister’s Ombuds, he took the flack when unpopular decisions were made, but on the flip side he had extraordinary influence on whether those decisions stood or fell. It wasn’t a perfect system. After a decade of struggling with consensus decision-making—and its endless meetings—the people of Free Cascadia had finally given some of their democratic power over to the bureaucracy. Free Cascadia, as a loose federation of city-states, held stubbornly to its socialist-libertarian ideals, and if pronouncements became too unpopular, the citizens would toss Joe and the Minister and the whole bureaucracy out on its ear. But, for now, they were still the idolized Heroes of the Revolution.
Joe arrived at the office early to find Melissa Monroe, Chair of Biological Research, in the break room sipping tea and nibbling on pieces of shredded pastry leftover from the previous day. He sat at the table across from the pretty, young woman who had once been his daughter’s best friend.
“Joe,” she said. “Just the one I wanted to see. Do you have a moment?” There was hesitation in her voice—it was something personal, something she feared would be sensitive. What was the old phrase Amy always used? Walking on eggshells.
“I always have time for you, Mel. I came in a bit early this morning, in any case—not sleeping well.”
Joe nodded, and Mel placed her hand on his. “I’m sorry, Joe.”
“It’s okay, Mel, really, they’re part of who I am now, I think.” It’s just, he stopped himself from saying, the dream is fading, and I don’t know if any of it—the death, the sacrifice—means anything, anymore.
He gazed into Mel’s sad, dark eyes and smiled. Jessie would be her age now, a grown woman. It had been the one downside of working with his daughter’s best friend, being reminded daily of Jessie. He had foreseen that problem when he recommended Mel to the Department Collective. In the end, she had turned out to be one of his most valuable colleagues. She had become something of a substitute daughter as well.
“Joe, are we still on for tonight? You know, Benson High, the Sisters?”
So, that was what the hesitation was about. He had nearly forgotten her request, made several days ago—wanted to forget, actually—but he had promised. He nodded unenthusiastically, unable to completely banish the scowl.
“Joe, this will be good for you. I knew I’d have to convince you. You need to be around people who understand. We’re not the only ones who have loved ones on Sweetland. There are millions of us. We can support one another.”
It’s the religion crap I can’t tolerate, he wanted to scream. But who was he to deny Mel her comfort. The Temple of New Life wasn’t the only thing that bothered him; after all these years, he no longer believed in Sweetland, either. With no letters or news after seventeen years, nothing about it had become real for him; the Jessie he knew was gone, and he was resigned to the fact that he would never see her again. What did it matter if there was a planet out there, across some vast incommunicable distance, if it was inaccessible, if his daughter was lost to him, if he had no way of knowing whether she was safe or not, alive or not?
JOE WATCHED FROM HIS OFFICE WINDOW as Mel discon’d from her node, gathered up her bag and jacket, and made her way down the corridor in his direction. He hoped to the last minute that she would somehow change her mind, but when she arrived, he knew he had no such luck. He gave her a forced smile as she took his arm, and together they walked out into the Portland rain.
The old high school gymnasium was packed when they arrived. Mel led him to a side door where they could push their way to the front of the stage. Inside, a current of apprehension charged the crowd. People talked in intensive whispers. He picked up fragments, but the gist of it eluded him.
“What’s the excitement?”
“A rumor’s going around about a messenger from Sweetland. We’re hoping to learn more tonight. Everyone’s nervous because the only way that could be possible is if they somehow have a d-gate online.”
“Or they’re spiriting them over from those New America d-gates in the US.” His sarcasm was thick. Too thick.
Mel put her hand on his arm. “It’s hard, Joe, but if you could just suspend disbelief for the evening. What you experienced on Sweetland was real, damn it.”
For just an instant, it came back to him, those four hours he had spent with Jessie and Bridge so long ago under that strange sky, the alien air smelling of exotic spice. He had been pushing it away for so long; and what if it was true; what if he could somehow talk to Jessie again?
“I wish it were that easy, Mel. I don’t understand why all of this has to be wrapped up in this religious mysticism.”
“Because people have been burned by science. Science can’t fix everything—and science can’t explain everything.”
“I can’t believe you’re attacking science, Mel.”
“Joe, I’m not attacking science. I’m attacking historical excess. I’m attacking the conceit that science can discover an answer to everything. All of the mathematics and quantum physics will never figure out how something is created out of nothing. So, what is that eternal something, Joe? What is it?”
“I don’t know, Mel. I don’t know that it matters.”
“The thing is, for millions of people, it does matter. They need to believe they know what that thing is. It’s called faith.”
“But, you’re a scientist, Mel. Why do you need faith?”
Mel didn’t answer, so he just let it be. There was no point in working himself up any further.
A WOMAN WEARING A RED ROBE approached the podium, and a murmur of excitement filled the room. The woman was exceptionally tall, with blond hair and striking, chiseled features. Joe guessed she was about his own age, fifty-five or so. She tapped the microphone to verify it was on.
“She’s a Sofia…the red robe,” Mel’s tone of reverence gave him a chill.
“Good evening,” said the woman. “I am Sister Norea. I am here this evening to bring good news, and to give a warning. But first, let us have an invocation of the spirit.”
Here we go, thought Joe. He looked around uncomfortably as chanting voices filled the hall, drowning out the angry and impatient grumbles of the less-that-true believers.
Holy Spirit, Mother of Chaos, descend upon us,
Illuminate us with the True Light of the Pleroma.
Science through the back door; is that what Mel was trying to say? If so, this is what happens when science becomes religion—theatre, mystification, ritual, hierarchical order. No different from any other religion. He began to fervently wish he hadn’t come. It all seemed so wrong, and he felt a wave of embarrassment for being here—and especially for the enthralled Mel.
He closed his eyes, attempting to focus his mind on something else, anything else. He imagined Jessie, thirty years old, living in a forest community tens of millions of light years distant. Somehow he could almost see her there with her children—his grandchildren. Yes, he wanted it to be true, but no trick of his mind could make him believe it was true. When he dreams, though, he dreams it is true.
“…and now, the good news.” Sister Norea’s voice drifted through his reverie as Mel gently nudged him. “In three weeks, a Messenger from Sweetland will make a public address. A young man born in the village of Meadow Springs will arrive in Free City bringing important news—news so monumental, in fact, that the Temple is organizing a pilgrimage. I encourage every one of you who can to be there. We have reserved two maglev coaches to Free City. We expect them to be booked up quickly.”
The crowd hushed for several seconds before a murmur rolled across the auditorium as the audience realized the meaning of her words. “It’s true. A d-gate,” a woman shouted, her voice indignant. “They have a working d-gate. They’ve been lying to us.”
Before an angry mood could escalate, Sister Norea held up her hand, signaling that she wasn’t finished. “It’s true. Scientists in the Communities have resurrected a d-gate. And the rumors you have heard for years is also true. New America Corporation has secretly maintained large d-gates in East Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia. New America Corporation is building an empire in Sweetland’s West. It’s population is now many times that of the Communities. It is possible that within a few months a war will commence for the soul of Sweetland. The Sisters and Brothers of The Temple have tried our best to protect our fledgling offspring, but the enemy may soon overwhelm us.”
Pandemonium broke out in the hall, and Sister Norea waited as the mood of the crowd built to a seething anger.
“War,” someone shouted. “If they want war, we’ll give them war.”
“But there is hope,” the Sister’s amplified voice boomed over the crowd. “There is a plan.”
“What plan, Sister?” someone else shouted.
“You will find your answers in Free City. The Mother be with you.”
A phalange of guards took position around Sister Norea as she stepped away from the microphone and into the now tumultuous mob. The crowd shoved and shouted, some surging toward the Sister, but the guards, efficient and intimidating, held them at bay.
Clearly divided, the mass began to argue among themselves. “The Sisters have been lying to us.” “Why are they keeping us apart?” “Damned Americans, still trying to control us all…”
“Meadow Springs, Joe!” Mel shouted in his ear as they attempted to retreat toward the side door. “That’s where Jessie is. It’s someone who knows Jessie.”
Joe looked at Mel in astonishment. He didn’t know whether to be humored by the show he had just watched or furious at the shameless manipulation. This kind of talk was bound to stir up new anger against the U.S. and the New America Corporation. Relations were strained enough already. What purpose would it serve?
Grim faced, Sister Norea moved through the crowd slowly, flanked by her guards. When she moved toward him, Joe deliberately turned away.
“Joe Larivee,” someone called, and he looked back to see a colleague at the Ministry standing at the Sister’s side. “Joe, I would like you to meet Sister Norea.”
The guards enveloped Joe and Mel in their protective circle. No getting out of it, now.
“How do you do, Sister? It seems you’ve stirred up quite a row this evening.”
“Mr. Larivee, the pleasure is mine. I’m afraid the stir was unavoidable.” The Sister hesitated for a moment before continuing, “I heard you would be here this evening. I need to speak to you.”
Joe turned to Mel, who looked away evasively. He felt betrayed. They had set him up—but why?
“Of course. The Ministry’s ears are always available.”
“This isn’t concerning the Office of the Ombuds, Mr Larivee. It’s a private matter.”
“Private? I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain. Is there somewhere we can escape the crowd?”
Mel pointed out the hall door, and the three of them, still surrounded by the guards, worked their way to the edge of the auditorium.
“Please join us, Ms Monroe,” said Sister Norea when Mel stopped short at the door. “You will also be interested in what I have to say.”
The hall was empty except for a few stray individuals seeking the toilets. The din of the crowd inside was muted, but not Joe’s curiosity.
“So, Sister, what is this about?”
“Mr. Larivee, we need you and Ms Monroe to come to Free City.”
“It’s not possible,” Joe said. “My job…I couldn’t.”
“I believe you will find the way easier than you anticipate. Please consider it.”
“Why, Sister? I am not one of your followers. Why should I do that?”
“Because,” Sister Norea said, “the Messenger is your grandson.”
Gabe, Tsalagihi, Earth, 2048
UNLIKE THE BUSES HE RECALLED from childhood—and there had been plenty of them—the Tulsa to Tahlequah was quiet and comfortable, a sleek solar-powered electric bus built by the Sovereign Cherokee Nation at a plant near Stilwell. This according to the driver, a neatly dressed man with a pot belly, about forty or so, who looked as though he might be part Cherokee himself. Gabe Proctor explained that his family was from Lost City, and that he hadn’t been home since he was a child.
“I was nine when we left,” he said.
“Who’s your family?”
“My father was Nate Proctor, and my mom is Carla Cochran. I’m Gabe. Gabe Proctor.”
“Hi Gabe. I’m Vann Cobstill. My families out of Tahlequah. My Great Uncle Merle married a Cochran. There’s other Cochrans and Proctors still living in those hills. Nate Proctor…hmm…wasn’t your dad a scientist or something—disappeared about thirteen, fourteen years ago, just after the First Continental War? I remember reading about it in the Phoenix. I thought you and your mom disappeared too. Maybe my memory’s gone bad.”
Damn, thought Gabe, I need to be more discreet. It wouldn’t take much digging for Vann Cobstill to find out his memory was perfectly intact. The university would not be happy about that.
“No,” Gabe said, wincing at the lie. “Mom lives in Tulsa. I’ve been away at school.”
“Did they ever find out what happened to your Dad?”
“No, he just vanished.” He had, in reality.
“Sorry to hear that. You going to be staying with relatives up there?”
Gabe thought about Aunt Liz and the big old farmhouse up alongside Fourteenmile Creek. He had loved that old house, the house where he spent most of his early years before they immigrated to Sweetland. Could Aunt Liz still be living there? He suddenly had to know. It would be breaking all the rules, but how could he come home and not say ’siyo to his auntie?
“I think so,” he said. “It’s all sort of spontaneous.”
“I can drop you off at Lost City Road, if you want.”
“Would there be someplace to get a bicycle in Hulbert? I think I’d like to ride up there.”
“I think there might be a bicycle shop on Highway 51.” Vann shook his head and laughed. “I drive through there three times a week, but I still couldn’t tell you for sure.”
Gabe thanked him and found a popular science journal on the Libro. The articles were uninspired, the illustrations eye candy, and before long he closed his eyes and slept. He dreamed again about the forest from Aunt Liz’s porch.
A hand gently shook his shoulder.
“We’re in Hulbert.” The voice of the driver drifted into his dream, and Gabe forced open his heavy eyelids. “Passed that bike shop a couple blocks back—it’s by the library.”
Gabe gathered up his bags.
“Wado, brother,” he said, and stepped off into the oppressive heat. He guessed the temperature to be 34-35 C, hot enough to be called a sweltering day, especially for mid-May. Hotter than he could remember it ever getting on Sweetland.
He entered a landscape at the same time familiar and foreign. The parched hills and hot summers were vaguely as he remembered them, but dryer and hotter and less green. The remaining walnut trees, elms, and catalpas were dying or dead. Even the ubiquitous willows along the creek bed west of town were mostly gone, indicating a chronic lack of water. He wondered if Fourteenmile Creek still carried water in the summer, or if it too had gone dry. Many of the agricultural fields around Hulbert were overgrown with thistle as desertification slowly crept north and east from the great southwestern desert. Here and there he saw a small corn field, or someone’s garden, yellowed and struggling. It seemed so much more bleak than he remembered.
There were a few bicycles on the road, and some people on horseback. Every now and then an old pickup truck passed, undoubtedly running on homemade biodiesel. When Gabe was a kid, the Nation had invested millions of dollars in solar technology, and he had hoped to see more solar vehicles like the ones he had spotted in Tulsa and Free City, but if locals had them at all, they weren’t out with them today.
“Sure, they’re making ’em up in Stilwell, along with them buses,” said the old white guy at the bicycle shop when he asked about it. “But people around here can’t afford them. We’ve got some ambulances and a fire truck, but the school buses are old biodiesel models from between the wars. Farmers—what’s left of ‘em—are pulling wagons with horses, just like in the olden times.”
For a moment the old man drifted into a quiet reverie, then he shook his head and grinned. “At least the bicycle business is going good. You got something in mind, young man?”
“You carry any Tsalagi-made models?”
“It’s all we carry. We’ve got a good basic model, cheap and subsidized, made over in Tahlequah. Super light weight graphene. Or we’ve got a couple of spendier ones out of Muskogee that the city folk like, auto-shifters, thirty-two speeds, and so on.”
The department had given Gabe enough cash, he could afford to buy whatever he wished, but he saw no reason to spend it on something he might use for only a few weeks. “Give me a basic with some sturdy road tires. And I need some panniers to carry groceries and a water bottle—maybe a tool kit.”
“Sure thing.” The man had been adding it up on a hand held calculator. “That will be two hundred fifteen Sequoyahs.”
Oops. This was something new. He pulled out his wallet, but he knew he didn’t have the local currency. “Can you take Free City dollars?”
“Yeah. Let’s see…we’ll round it down…with the exchange rate, that will be three hundred sixty-two Free City dollars with the taxes. You got a color in mind?”
Gabe shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll give you that nice cornflower blue over there,” he said, pointing it out to Gabe. “That’ll take about an hour, young man.”
“That’s fine,” he said. He could wait over in the town library.
THE LIBRARY WAS COOL, almost too cool after stepping from the premature heat wave outside. He parked himself on a comfortable, but somewhat shabby, couch near the science section. He leaned back, ignoring the pop of a broken spring, and closed his eyes. He thought about his mom, back on Sweetland, and Dr Zharkov, whose somewhat grudging support had been responsible for this opportunity to test his theory on Earth.
Gabe pulled himself from deep reverie. Feeling a bit lost, he scanned the library shelves and, finding nothing that interested him, made his way to the periodicals where he discovered the Cherokee Phoenix on the libro. It hadn’t changed much in fourteen years. He clicked through it absent-mindedly, not sure what he was looking for. He had been a child when his family emigrated, so most of the local names were meaningless. A few he remembered hearing around the dinner table: Morgan, Ketcher, Cornsilk.
He found a Technology and Environment section. The Nation had been working with nanotech and bio-engineering to improve heat resistance and water retention in native plants. There were plans to extend an enclosed aquaduct system which fed off of the Arkansas River and provided water for farms using new micro-irrigation techniques. When it was finished, it would bring precious H2O to small communities like Hulbert.
A new state-of-the-art biology research facility was dedicated at Wilma Mankiller University—formerly Northeastern State in Tahlequah—the school where his parents had taught. He wondered if the Sisters could get him access there. It would be convenient. If he stayed out here in Hulbert, he could bicycle the fifteen miles or so into Tahlequah. Maybe he could even find a place in Tahlequah, although his old stomping grounds felt more like home to him. The problem was he hadn’t bothered to ask permission to travel to the Nation. But it might be worth the risk. The worst that could happen is they would insist he return to Free City, cutting short his time here. But the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like a pipedream.
He skipped quickly through the school news and sports, landing on the cultural pages. He always enjoyed the stories and articles written in Tsalagi syllabary. His parents had insisted he learn the language as a child, and while he wasn’t fluent, he could usually make out the gist of a story. But when he tried to read a tale about the underground people, he found that he had forgotten much of the little he knew.
When Gabe looked at the clock, he started, surprised to find that over an hour had passed. He was about to shut the libro down when he saw an ad hiding in the lower right corner. Wilma Mankiller University was sponsoring a two week All-Nations Powwow in June, near Wagoner, at the old 4-H camp by the lake. Of course, the lake was no longer there, since the destruction of the dam in the first war. The powwow would be starting about the same time as the big continental health conference in Free City, but he figured maybe he could attend the closing ceremonies.
THE BICYCLE WAS READY WHEN HE RETURNED to the cycle shop. It was sturdy and sleek, and he was delighted at its performance. He stopped at a grocery story and bought some fancy bread and cheese as an offering for Aunt Liz. If it turned out that she was no longer there, then he would have something for dinner before heading back down to the tumble-down bed and breakfast he noticed on the edge of town. He placed the food in his pannier and turned left up Birch St. toward Double Spring Creek. The creek, which had been robust in his youth, was now a trickle, with the driest summer months yet to come. A few sickly willows hung on near the water’s edge, but most of the growth around the creek bed consisted of tall grasses and bramble thickets.
He rode along broken and deteriorating asphalt through mostly-abandoned farmland up into the yellowing hills. When he reached Fourteenmile Creek, he was gladdened to see a much healthier flow of water, although the cottonwood trees had died back to a pitiful green strip along the banks. He followed Lost City Road across the creek and turned right on Cochran Lane, actually a long, narrow driveway which led to the old family farm. The giant pecan tree still stood by the house, but the black walnuts were gone, and the red oak. A few mulberries still grew down by the creek. The house was in serious need of paint. The banister on the front porch had come loose from its mooring and leaned over uselessly. The place looked abandoned, except for the well-tended garden on the east side of the house. These were hard times, and Aunt Liz was a spinster with little close family to fix things for her. At least that had been the case fourteen years ago. Much of the extended family had already abandoned Lost City when Gabe was a child, and the Cochrans who were left may not even know she was out here.
He remembered his mom complaining when they left about how extended family didn’t mean anything anymore to the “white-ized Indians,” as she called them. But, the irony is, she too had left Aunt Liz and the rest of the extended family behind, had gone off to another world, and he hadn’t really understood his mother, how she could have all of this bitterness toward her family, and then do the very act she was so angry about. Gabe hadn’t wanted to go to Sweetland, but he’d had no choice, and when Dad died, he blamed his mom for a long time. Even now, even though he knew something of the pressures they had been under, he still felt a lingering resentment toward her.
He rode his bike down the path to the house and leaned it against the porch. “Aunt Liz,” he called out as he made his way carefully up the dilapidated wooden steps. There was no response. He swung open the screen and pounded on the door. “Aunt Liz.”
Inside, he could hear someone rustling. “I’m coming,” said a voice he barely recognized. “Is that you, Tommy?”
The door swung open, and a small, thin woman peered out, her graying black hair tied back in a bun. She was older now—in her fifties—but it was definitely Aunt Liz standing there with a puzzled look on her face.
“It’s Gabe, Aunt Liz” he said.
“Gabe?” She was still trying to reconcile what she knew was an impossibility. “Gabe? How can that be?”
“It’s really me, Aunt Liz. I’ve come home for a visit.”
“Oh my god,” she said, finally allowing it to be true. She threw her arms around him. “Gabe…Gabe…I can’t believe it. You’re all grown up. Come in. Come in.”
“BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” SAID AUNT LIZ as she spooned another helping of rabbit stew onto his plate, the rabbit trapped by a neighbor who had dropped it off earlier in the day. “I thought that the gates were all destroyed. Why didn’t Carla ever send me any word, a letter or something? I thought you were all dead—gone forever.” She sat back in her chair and dabbed at her eyes with her napkin.
Gabe faltered, not knowing what to say. Maybe the truth, he thought. Maybe it’s time for the truth.
“The grid-gates were destroyed, Auntie. The ones that worked on nanotech. But the d-gates—the large ones they mostly used to transport materials—they weren’t all scrapped. One is tied to the Compound, the scientific community on Sweetland where I live. Only the scientists are allowed to use it.” And the Sisters, he didn’t say.
“But couldn’t you have sent word, let people know you were alright?”
Gabe sighed. “The Sisters were afraid there would be panic and riots. They wouldn’t be able to handle the angry demands from Earth.”
“Damn right there would have been anger. What right do they have?”
“Auntie, you don’t understand. Every time someone goes across, there is an extra body left behind—a body that will die if it isn’t placed in suspension and fed nutrients.”
“Couldn’t they have at least set up a postal service, God damn it?”
Gabe really didn’t know how to respond to Aunt Liz’s anger. The elite political hierarchy of the Temple, with its unnecessary secrecy, had not blessed him with any answers. He shared her resentment, but the discussion, and his need for discretion, made him uncomfortable, so he ate awhile in silence before Aunt Liz spoke again.
“So, tell me about your Mom and Dad. How are they doing, Gabe?”
Gabe stopped mid-bite. “Mom lives in Sangre del Corazon. She teaches Tsalagi Studies.” In an area known as Refugee City, and I never write to her, even though she writes to me weekly.
“And what about Nate? Is he working with you at—the Compound, is it called?”
He swallowed his food slowly, putting off having to say it aloud. “Dad never made it. He died in transference.”
Aunt Liz’s face filled with empathy as she reached across the table and put her hand over his. “I’m so sorry, Gabe. That must have been hard on you.”
He closed his eyes for a long moment, holding back the pain. “We knew there was a ten percent chance of not making it. They did it for me, you know.”
“But you were only nine years old, Gabe.”
“They were fighting over me, Auntie, the government and the universities.”
“Everybody was fighting over me and all I ever wanted to do was ride my bike along the trails and go fishing, do boy stuff. Mom was always carrying on about how I had a Gift and responsibilities. When the Sisters came by and told us there was a gate to Sweetland still open, that they needed scientists, Mom said, ‘Let’s go.’ I guess I was just sick of the fighting, because I didn’t object. If I’d objected, maybe we wouldn’t have gone. Maybe Dad would still be here.”
“It’s not your fault, Gabe, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I blamed Mom for a long time.”
“It’s not her fault either. You were too young to know what those times were like. The economy had gone to hell. Another war was coming. Every night some university or government agency would call. They hounded your parents constantly. Your mom just wanted you to have some time to grow up.”
Gabe thought about that. He knew it was true, but it didn’t yet feel true.
“Aunt Liz,” he said after a time, “all this conversation tonight…I’m not supposed to be talking about this to you. You’re not even supposed to know I’m here. We need to keep this between us.”
“Of course,” said Aunt Liz. “I’m just so happy you broke the rules, Gabe. I won’t whisper a word.”
AUNT LIZ PUT GABE UP IN HIS OLD ROOM with its large dormer window facing south over Fourteenmile Creek. To the west, he could see the pecan tree, planted to give the house summer shade. To the east, the naked hills sloped up away from the creek. He remembered a grove of chestnut trees and a big, red oak, now gone, the dead wood no doubt burnt long ago for winter warmth.
Gabe spent the first few days repairing the porch out front, and when he had the last plank in place, he started scraping old paint from the window casings. He biked into town and bought a few gallons of paint, as much as he could carry in the panniers. He could at least paint the south and west sides of the house, where the sun had done the most damage.
In the afternoon, when it became too hot to work, he plopped himself down in the shade of the Pecan tree and considered his life. Why had he come here to his old home town? What was he going to do now? Had coming back to Earth all been a mistake? He dreaded returning to Free City, but he knew he would have to eventually. He had promises to keep. After his physical therapy, he had told the department secretary that he needed to get away for a few days. A few days, a few weeks, what did it matter? But they wouldn’t let him stay, would they? It had been a hair-brained idea from the start.
Mojhdleh, Free City, Earth, 2048
THE ARENA STINKS OF FEAR and human sweat. Hearts pump to the rhythm of pounding fists—wap wap wap—frenzied spectators cheer on their woman, their man, bring on the blood, they cry, bring on the blood.
Then the blood comes.
I’m not squeamish, but I turned away, nauseous. Not actually the blood, but the bloodlust, repelled me, sent my eyes wandering back into the frenetic crowd, settling on the blonde woman, who, like me, seemed uninterested in the spectacle. The woman whose eyes I met appeared human, but I knew she was not. There was a familiarity in those eyes, even through all the filters, the filters of the Memories, the filters of time and distance, the filters of my own cryptic design.
I allowed myself to stare at her for too long. I couldn’t tell if she recognized me. I hoped not—she would be trouble. She had been trouble before, in an earlier time. If she recognized her old lover, she gave no clue.
I ignored her as I surveyed the crowd, searching for a certain special person, someone hungry enough to be loyal, at least for as long as the money flowed. Places like this drew those sorts, street-savvy hustlers who know their way around the alleys and back ways, who know the language of the city’s subcultures.
Earth is as backward and filthy a planet as any I’ve visited, and that includes more than I’d like to admit. But a mender for the Convergence can expect to see the worst, I suppose, and I wasn’t just any mender, I was the target of the influential House of Djeneh’s wrath, so I expected to be assigned the worst of the worst. I’ve tried to appeal to fairness from my superiors, but at home there is no chain of command, no court of justice, that is not under the sway of that venerable House.
I refuse to take responsibility for the death of Jovijh roh Djeneh. As his partner, I tried my best to have his back. But I’m not prescient, and as hard as we try to be thorough, we can only see the things in our line of vision. I can hire more eyes and ears, but, in the end, the only ones I can trust are those attached to my head. Even these old friends have been known to betray me. The deaths I do take responsibility for will haunt me for the remainder of my days. Ironically, Jovijh played a role in that tragedy as well. Jovijh and Ren nar Qadj, the female we both loved.
I never expected to see her again, especially in a pisshole like this at the end of the Memories.
A wild cheer from the crowd told me that someone had hit the floor, or that blood had been drawn, but I refused to look again at the sordid action in the ring. My eyes were now fixed on a figure at the back of the arena, near the exit. A young, skinny, hyper-attentive male. His military khakis bore the insignia of New America Corporation. I could tell a runner when I saw one, his skittish eyes darting this way and that, looking for a face he could trust, a sanctuary. And this young fellow was running from just the right nastiness—the very organization I was assigned to investigate.
I made my way through the crowd, taking my time, so as not to draw attention to myself. As I neared, I knew that he had spotted me. Something in his eyes, his posture, revealed a man on the verge of flight. He couldn’t see or know about the detail of New America mercenaries lining up behind him in the dark hall.
“They’re waiting for you out there,” I said as I sidled up to him, blocking his path to the door.
“Who you talking bout?” His frightened eyes sought a way past me.
“Your compatriots in uniform. The ones you are running from. They’re not going to let you out without checking you off their list, I think.”
“Fuck,” he said, barely audible.
“I can help you,” I said.
He looked me up and down, harumphed in derision. I am small in human terms, and as I appeared human to him I’m sure he was less than impressed with my physical presence.
“Nobody can help me, unless your some kind of fucking angel or something.” He spat on the concrete floor.
I pulled back my jacket, revealing the Skurge tucked into my belt. The Skurge, a human weapon used for crowd control, is very effective on its targets.
“You polis, mon?” His accent was distinct. Some sort of regional dialect.
“In a sense,” I said. “But I’m here to recruit you, not turn you over to those brutes.”
I could see a momentary flash of hope in his young eyes, quickly replaced by cynicism—a certainty, perhaps, that he was, as they say here, about to jump from the pot into the kettle.
“Shall we depart for some establishment more accommodating to conversation?” I said.
Without waiting for his reply, I removed the Skurge from my belt and sent a pulse down the hall, where the mercenaries were conveniently lined up like fish in a row—as they say. The young hunters crumpled to the ground in physical distress, and the crowd behind us began to go wild with panic, agitated by the back-wave. I grabbed my stunned young soldier by the shirtsleeve and dragged him to the outside exit.
By the time we had burst out of that grimy warehouse into the open air, he had regained some sensibility, and we fled that place until we reached a commercial district, where we paused to catch our breathe and allow our vital systems to relax. The young man collapsed to the sidewalk outside a darkened establishment, leaning his back against the concrete wall. I joined him on the filthy ground, studying him for a moment. I had only been on Earth for a short time, my first experience with humans, but I could tell this was a very young one, barely out of the nest.
“I’m Mojh,” I said, using the shortened name given to me by another young human who had trouble pronouncing Mojhdleh roh Sejh, my full name.
“Yanis,” he said. “Yanis Chatterjee. Thanks for getting me out of there, mon. Owe you big time.”
“You owe me nothing, Yanis. But I would like a few moments of your time, if you will.”
He returned to his feet. I could see his legs were still shaky. “No ‘fense, mon, I not work for gwazil. Thanks anyway. Like I say, owe you.”
A curious phrase, I thought. Another idiom. One with no apparent meaning. I stood next to him, now, as he was about to walk away. I still had the Skurge in my palm, and I discreetly turned down the setting.
“I’m sorry,” I said as his legs buckled and he fell into a heap. “I really do need to talk to you.”
THEY CALL THIS PLACE Free City, a name so thick with irony, it is as palpable as the poisonous fog which suffocates it. What humans call freedom is a mind slavery of the worst sort. It is the freedom to live in misery, whether it be the misery of poverty or the misery of the soul. This so-called “freedom of the individual” maintains its liberty at the expense of life itself.
Humanity’s failure to rise from this squalor has resulted in a planet on the verge of extinction. I have no special feelings, good or bad, about these creatures. I have met those with promise and those who are no more evolved than dogs who fight over rancid remains. I am somewhat sympathetic to that opinion among the Guardians which maintains it would be a kindness to end this misguided trajectory now, before it spreads. But I am a loyal servant of the Convergence. As such, I will accept the judgement of the Memories.
I helped Yanis to his feet when he began to regain consciousness. That was after I had removed his jacket and tossed it into a nearby receptacle. There was a tracking device of some sort in its fabric. I learned within hours of arriving on Earth to expect these espionage instruments everywhere. The humans seem oblivious to their ubiquitousness. I was desperate to get Yanis off the street, knowing his mercenary friends would be out looking, not at all happy with the surprise I gave them at the boxing arena. We stumbled along the sidewalk for a time, his weight an awkward burden, when I saw an intoxicant establishment open ahead of us. I dragged him, only half unwilling, inside to an unoccupied corner table. I ordered two beers from the attendant.
I noticed that Yanis was once again considering flight, and I put my hand firmly on his.
“Yanis, listen to me. If you run they will catch you. They won’t be happy with you. Do you understand?”
He nodded his head, pulling his hand away, but his eyes remained defiant.
“I’m willing to pay you well. I have a place you can stay where you will be safe from New America Corporation.”
“I tell you, I not work for no cops.”
“As I said, I am not a policeman. My job is investigating problems and mending them. You could say I’m a mender.” Of course, there is a grey line between fixing and enforcing, but I didn’t want to become involved in that debate.
His eyes narrowed, mistrustful. “You not work for the mobs, eh? Not want that either.”
“No mobs.” I said, although unsure what a mob was in this context, and my translator wasn’t helping.
“Then, what kind of problems do you fix, Mender Mon?”
I had to think about this. I didn’t want to further frighten him. Too many recruitments go sour when the wrong words are spoken, and I had no intention of losing this one. “Let’s say some organization is behaving unethically—”
“—Unethically? What’s that?”
“Doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”
“Like piss in public, or something?”
“Like unprincipled cloning. For instance. Or slavery.”
He snorted. “What planet you from, mon?”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“That I’m not from this world?”
He began to laugh too loudly, drawing attention to us. “You a hoot. Look, mon, ain’t we all just fucking slaves?”
I looked at him with a soupçon of respect. At least someone on this planet recognized the truth.