by Ben Crowell
Ouellette approached the town along California
Route 520. What the bluejays and chipmunks heard first was the
of the soles of her shoes, which were just barely attached. Coming down
around a curve, she saw her
destination in front of her. The scene was close to what she'd been
from the map: the Tuolumne River, and the tiny mountain village, which
never been much more than a junction and a gas station. If the hamlet was
still inhabited, it
wasn't obvious, although she'd seen goats grazing nearby that were
domesticated. Downstream would be the bigger town of Muir. Back home in
the Tuolumne wouldn't even have been considered a riviÃ¨re, hardly more than a ruisseau. Reflexively, her
biologist's eye observed what climate change had done
to its valley: the eroded slopes, and the dense overhang of tropical
forest along the banks.
late in the morning, and if she didn't stop walking now she'd be
courting heatstroke. She found a good flat rock in a shady spot, and
to wait until evening. The Bugs had been getting thicker for the last
their thumb-sized blue-gray carapaces most easily picked out when they alighted on the reddish
dirt. She saw three of them by her feet, disassembling the body of a
They were thick by the river: she could hear as well as see them. She
there was every sign that she had arrived at their epicenter.
came, and as Lily
Ouellette continued down the hill, the
first person to see her coming was the goatherd Dan Bloom.
hell, he wondered, was the woman doing coming
from that direction? It didn't make sense. She looked like a refugee,
had been years since
he'd seen anyone come from that direction, so where was she a refugee
Dan said as she came around the
old rusted-out propane tank. She'd be a hell of a good-looking woman
was clean and not half-starved.
a little guy,
balding, sitting in the shade of the canopy in
front of the decaying gas station. He gave her the up-and-down look
so many times, those months stuck in Colorado after she'd learned that
could still snow some winters, some places high in the Rockies. First
she'd had to sell her car to
eat, and then when that money had run out she'd learned what the
levels of hunger were like. And finally it had become like this: the
up-and-down look, and How much for a blowjob?
hear the hidden desperation in her voice. A
refugee, then. Nice fishing rod tied to her pack — maybe
she'd want to trade it
for something. The main thing with the refugees was to let them hold on
was left of their dignity.
free to cool off down
at the river."
you," she said warily. "Is the
water safe to drink?"
upstream from Muir," Dan said, and
paused a moment to see her reaction: nothing. So she already knew where
come out of the mountains. "I drink from it here all the time, and it's
never made me sick,
but I wouldn't drink down below the town if I was you."
Papas had been waiting out the midday heat at his
favorite resting place, a shady spot on top of a high rock, on the way
Muir up to Dan's place.
He was thirteen, with swarthy skin, an unruly mane of black hair, and a
unusually perfect white teeth, a little too big for his face. Jeff saw
coming down the road nobody used, so he came around behind her and
in to Dan's place,
being careful not to let her see him, because you had to be careful
strangers. He got a good look at her backpack, and it didn't have the
on it. If it had the red leaf, it always meant they were rich Canadian
who came to look at
a system for making a buck off of the
tourists, and even though there weren't as many of them as there had
couple of years ago, he had it figured out well enough now so that any
there was at least one tourist around, he could have a full belly for
sure. His system was just to
figure out what they wanted, and then help them get it. One thing most
didn't know about the tourists was that when they used the outhouse,
wanted to use paper to wipe themselves with. Jeff knew about that because one
time he'd seen a
Canadian man pay another Canadian man a hundred C-dollars for a roll of
stuff. That was almost fifty thousand Sacramento dollars, and for a
had gone around collecting the old Sacramento one-dollar bills that they didn't make
anymore, and selling
them to Canadians to wipe with. People were using the Sacramento
stuff pillows, or to start their stoves burning. But the funny thing
tourists didn't seem to want colored paper to wipe with. So Jeff had made
friends with Mrs.
Petrofski, who owned the old school and rented out rooms in it, so she
let him borrow books out of the room where they were all piled in the
There would always be plain white pages in the front and back of each book, and he would
cut those into strips and wrap them into the shape of a tube.
walked casually into the gas station. The sun was
down in the trees, and a big round moon was peeping up over the
Dan. Ready for another
much light left. You want to drive a couple
dozen of the goats over the hill for me, and then we'll have dinner?"
I think. Doesn't look like she can
afford toilet paper. She came down the hill."
"Weird. Could be a tourist who
got lost." Jeff was pretty sure she
wasn't a tourist, but he wanted to see what Dan thought.
likely. Her shoes are almost worn out, and I
don't think your typical tourist could stay alive up there long enough
out her shoes. She
seemed to know where she was, too. She's got a nice fishing rod,
maybe she'll trade you something for some bait."
tourists go hiking around in the mountains
on purpose, you know, for fun. I ever tell you about the one that would go running around
town in a circle every morning, before he ate breakfast?"
woman picked this moment to reappear. They could
tell that she had made an attempt to wash in the river. Jeff thought
did look like a refugee — that empty look around the eyes.
someone to show you the way down to Muir,
Ma'am? I'm Jeff, Jeff Papas." He stuck out his hand, and she shook it
without offering a reply. "It's not far, and the road's not that hard
follow," he explained, "but the gates close after dark. The guards know
me." If she was a
refugee, she'd understand the implication: they might turn her away.
nice of you," Lily
answered, trying to be noncommittal.
She didn't trust the man, and didn't want to be bothered by the pesky
most of all she didn't want to walk into the bigger town in the state
in, dirty, underfed, and penniless. That would be too much like Colorado. And if
the analysis of the
satellite images was correct, the Bugs were spreading out from a point
here, not down in Muir. "Well, you see, my feet hurt." At least that
was the truth. She waved a Bug away from her face, trying to buy time. "I'll just
camp down by the river, if that's all right."
both welcome to stay here tonight,"
said Dan. "It gets a little lonely here, and I'd be glad to have the
company. I'm Dan Bloom, Ms. . . . ?"
supposed it wouldn't hurt to give her name. "Ouellette.
That's very kind of you, Mr. Bloom, but —"
that's settled, then. I have some brown trout
I just caught today, and some goat's milk, and it'll all just spoil if
get anybody to help me eat it."
soon back on her feet
again. Jeff took some of her fishing hooks to
town to trade for a pair of shoes, and with those she decided that she
respectable enough to walk through the gates without being questioned.
found a job in town washing and mending clothes, and that paid enough to let her
eat, but she was
frightened by the kind of squalid room she could afford to rent there,
ended up sleeping on Dan's roof, which he allowed her to do in return
labor. She called him Boss, and was satisfied that their business relationship kept a
between them. Without thinking about it consciously, she had continued
to steer clear of
getting tangled up with the
locals, or discussing the nature of her work. She had reached at least
between fear and loneliness, and she justified it by imagining herself
in a cloak of scientific detachment.
mystified by Lily, and even more so when she
started paying him to collect bugs for her. Not the blue-gray Bugs that
tourists came to see,
but just regular bugs. He understood that there was something special
Blue Bugs. They had appeared twenty years before he was born, and he
memorized speeches about them for use when acting as a tour guide. The Bugs don't have DNA or RNA like modern plants and
animals. Instead, they have a unique
genetic code that had never been encountered before they showed up.
scientists believe that the Bugs are living fossils, using an archaic
encoding their genes. Possibly they were restricted to a small,
hidden habitat for hundreds
of millions of years, until global warming recreated the right
them to reemerge. Jeff didn't understand
all the words, but he got the basic idea that some scientists thought
were like dinosaurs
that had stayed alive secretly, but they really they didn't know for
were using a lot of big words to keep from admitting it.
have understood the tourists' interest if Muir
had had real dinosaurs. He could even understand, as a stretch, why bored,
rich Canadians would
travel all that way to see the Bugs. But Lily was the first person he'd
encountered who was so intensely interested in normal, plain old bugs,
their own sake. She had a big collection of them now, pinned to a board. If he could
find a male and a female of the same species, or a grub and an adult,
pay him the same for each one, and pin them to the board next to each
Jeff imagined Lily and Dan as two bugs of the same species, a male and a female pinned to the board
side by side, who would never get together.
surprised at first by how much satisfaction
she got from the scientific work. It was a way of reasserting herself,
saying to herself that this was who she really was, and that what had happened in
Colorado had been an
anomaly. Fred Hrimaly, her thesis adviser, wanted to prove for once and
that Xenogonidius smithi was an archaic form of life,
with its body plan and genetic code dating
back to the Cambrian era or earlier.
Fred would wave his arms and get excited about how the theory was
"just crazy enough to be true." For a century, biologists had already
been batting around the RNA World hypothesis: that originally RNA had
only genetic code, and that DNA had been a later innovation. X. smithi would just rewrite the story
in three parts
instead of two.
Cale at McMaster opposed Fred's theory. Cale, he
said, was a molecular biologist first and an entomologist second
— and he
didn't mean that as a compliment.
Cale claimed that the molecular evidence for the history of life on
Earth was too well established to allow for the continued existence of
archaic genetic code as late as the development of multicellular life.
claimed that the Bugs were extraterrestrial in origin. This,
Fred insisted (she could
imagine him waving his arms even more vigorously), was not just crazy
crazy, stupid in fact. How could they have gotten here? There was
evidence, dating back to the turn of the twenty-first century, of fossil bacteria
preserved in a
meteorite that had originated on Mars. But multicellular animal life?
would leap out of his old leather armchair that he'd covered with
of duct tape.) Surviving such a voyage through interplanetary space, and
colonizing Earth? Bacteria or
spores might perhaps be able to do it, maybe even seeds, but not
"Preposterous!" he would shout, energetically enough to spray spittle
on anyone nearby. He disparagingly called it the War of the Worlds Theory. She could
almost imagine him here with her in the decaying shed at the gas
she was working that morning.
thesis project was to map out smithi's reproductive cycle, and
show that none of its
stages could possibly be viable
after lying dormant in a crack in a rock that had tumbled through space
for hundreds of years. Jeff hadn't turned up any larvae, but if Lily
the larvae and eggs, she could prove that they couldn't survive vacuum
extreme cold. Extreme cold was
hard to imagine now, with the morning heat invading the shed.
was no reply. She leaned over to open the door,
sweeping in a furnace-like
blast of hot air. On the ground by the door was an old quarter-liter
milk carton that Jeff used for bringing her specimens, its top folded
She saw him walking away quickly
through the trees. "Jeff!" Something must be wrong. Was he mad at her? She
ran after him.
heard her. He didn't want her to see him like
this. He tried to run, but he couldn't go very fast because one of the
landed a hard kick on his knee. She caught up and took him by the
She was a lot taller
than Jeff, even taller than most grown-up ladies. And now the worst
that he started to cry because he didn't want her to see him. He tried
her to leave him alone, but his mouth was swollen. He wanted her to
he hadn't cried
during the fight, hadn't cried at all until now.
him down in her lap under a tree, and as they
sank to the ground and she put her arms around him, it made him think
of how he
and Jim had slammed down onto the sidewalk together. Most people wouldn't have thought
it was enough of a reason to fight, just because Jim and some other big
were muscling in on the leftovers at the cafe, when that was supposed
to be for
the ones even littler than Jeff. Jeff wished Lily could have been there
so she could know
had knocked the wind out of Jim, and that maybe he could have even won
fight if the rest of them hadn't ganged up. It would have been good if
could have seen how it started, but not the rest.
knew what to do. A drunk
would often be this way, turning teary
unexpectedly. She cradled his head between her breasts.
while Lily felt Jeff relax, and Jeff could hear
Lily's heart beating. A long time passed, and the heat of the day was
When he stirred to go, she
gave him a kiss on the forehead. Nobody had ever done that to him
before, and he didn't know how to respond, so he stood up and shook
her, and said, "Thanks, I appreciate it." She gave him a funny look
then — he thought maybe she just hadn't been able to understand what
he had said, because he
couldn't form the words clearly.
could tell that something had happened that day,
but when he tried to ask Lily, she didn't want to talk about it. The
a champ at not talking about things she didn't want to talk
about. Finally he succeeded in
approaching the topic obliquely. They were eating goat and cabbage
the evening before she went up to the roof to sleep.
much of the work do you think Jeff
understands?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
mean the bugs I've been collecting?"
woman was exasperating, thought Dan. You'd think
she was working on the Manhattan project, the way she played it close
the insects. He's a smart
kid, but his horizons are
narrow. Beats me every time at chess, but thinks burning gasoline is in
same class as the burning bush. In his mind, the day-to-day nonsense
on around Muir is as important as anything else in the world. Oh, he'll
survive all right,
the tourist trade is drying up. But I think you're doing him a
You're denying him a chance to get a broader perspective, the kind of
perspective that would allow him to look for some higher purpose in
staying fed. Are you
worried about competition, scientific priority? Hell, do they still
publish entomology journals?"
startled by the accusation, and equally
startled that Dan's own horizons were less narrow than she'd assumed.
true, she admitted to
herself, that she'd built a wall around herself, but only because she
want to think or talk about her past, about Colorado. If it hadn't been
that, she would have liked nothing better than to talk to Dan, to
to him. She realized
in a rush just how much she cared about his opinion of her. Certainly
kept her distance from him, but she'd thought there was at least some
underlying level of trust and respect between them — not that
his respect would
last long if he knew what
up from the table and walked to the window so
he couldn't see her face. "I know I keep to myself about my past, but
you're wrong if you think it's because of some petty thing like that."
should in fact have had competition on her thesis topic, but the funding
situation had become
bleak, and the cost of travel had gone crazy because of wars and the
of the transportation network.
why don't you treat him more like an under
prepared first-year grad student, then, instead of an ignorant savage?"
stood there for a while, holding herself very
still. "It sounds like you've been to college yourself."
wasn't actually born in a goatherd's
"Where were you born?"
War of '87. Should
have left before that. The city was
already dead on its feet."
did you do for a living? Before the war, I
tech support for company that sold smart
materials. We ended up in Pennsylvania after the war, and then the
cholera hit, and it
was just me. Drove
a cab for a while until the infrastructure broke down, and then I got
for the Penn-Ohio War. Ended up here eventually."
lost your family?"
and our two sons."
sit down and finish your dinner."
protests on Jeff's behalf led to the year that
was to be the happiest of Jeff's life. Jeff noticed that Lily started
him differently, more like a grownup. Lily made him search through the
the old school, and find ones about
insects that he could read. They had one called Al Ubout Insekts that
was written with modern spelling, and was for little kids. She made him
that first, three whole pages every day, and she would ask him
make sure he understood it. One
time he thought a bug was wrong because its mandibles weren't like in
the book, but she told him that meant the book was wrong, not the bug.
time he got to the end of Al Ubout Insekts, he
could get through five or ten pages every day, but then Lily told him it was
time to start reading
the other two books he'd found. Those had old-fashioned spelling, and
was smaller, so there were a lot more words on each page. She also
talking to him about the Bugs. That was what really started to make his head
hurt. It was like
finishing a whole jigsaw puzzle and then finding out that you had an
piece you didn't even need. Sometimes at night he would lie awake for a
time, even if he'd had enough to eat, and think about the Bugs. If he could really
figure out what they were and how they fit into the world, he wondered
would hold him again like she had that time before, only this time it
happy instead of sad. He thought about what Dan would do when he got
old. Dan and Lily
eventually get together, and then Dan might not want Jeff around
tried to tell himself that that possibility was the only reason the
made him sad, but he knew that wasn't quite true. The truth was that he
morning in March, Dan and Jeff went fishing
together. Dan had driven the goats to good pasture by the light of the
moon that preceded the sun in the east. Then he had collected some
bait, and he
and Jeff had completed their hike while the air was still cool. Dan
was pleased to make the
trip with Jeff, because the boy had seemed moody recently, aloof and
almost hostile. Dan had always tried to make sure that Jeff didn't
him too much (he avoided thinking too hard about whether this was out of
concern for Jeff or for
himself), but even if he avoided the role of fatherhood, it hurt him
boy seemed to have put a new and wary distance between them.
settled down in a shady spot and unpacked their
tackle. Lily had
given them permission to use her old, factory-made hooks and
and Dan had filled a little clay pot with grubs.
come they can't make fluorocarbon line
anymore?" Jeff asked.
training was really in business, not
engineering, but you
could ask Lily. I'm sure she knows a lot of chemistry."
not what I mean. I mean, there must still
be books around that say how to make it. Like a recipe. People would
pay a lot
of money for it. It's way better than linen line. It's stronger, and you don't have to dry
it out after you use it."
— well, if they wanted to make it, they'd have
to have too many things that nobody has these days. They'd need a big,
supply of the chemicals, but probably nobody makes those chemicals anymore. And anyway, even if
you could set up a fishing line factory somewhere in California, how
sell your product? You couldn't advertise it, so nobody would know it
and even if they did, you wouldn't be able to get it to them. Our
civilization was one
big house of
cards. It's happened before, you know — the Maya, Easter
Island. In America,
all it took was for the temperature to change by five or ten degrees,
of a sudden the weather patterns were different, and you couldn't grow
corn and wheat where
to. Malaria and Chagas started spreading north. This latitude isn't
species' ecological niche anymore." He had just finished spearing a
on a hook. "Hey, what are these things, anyway? Termite larvae or
see, pass one over. You keep them in water
until you're ready to put them on a hook?"
that way they stay alive. I get them from
the hot springs."
don't think I ever saw one of these, even
before I started learning about entomology. If they're aquatic, they're
not termites. Termites
don't have aquatic larvae, but lots of beetles do."
had pretty good luck fishing for bass with
them." Dan cast his line, and when he turned around again, Jeff was
on his belly and peering intently
at a grub, which he had laid out on a flat rock. Dan began to
speak, but stopped himself. The helpless creature, removed from the
water-filled pot, was squirming energetically.
a hook," Jeff said. Dan complied,
and Jeff used it to slice the
creature open. "Eight segments," the boy said quietly, as if
to himself. "You can't see the legs that well without dissecting it.
it's a baby Bug."
moved fast after that. They found that the
larvae lived only in the warm water around the hot spring, and died in less
than a day when left in
cooler water. Lily identified the eggs, and checked that they, too,
tolerate cold. She had achieved her goal of proving that the species
capable of hitch-hiking to Earth on a dry, cold meteorite. She had the smoking gun
that would finish
off the War of the Worlds Theory for once and for all.
sent to Merced to get plastic bottles,
alcohol, and packing materials for the samples that Lily planned to
to Québec. He was proud to be entrusted with the
responsibility, and excited to be traveling
farther from home than he ever had before. He expected the trip to take
two weeks: three or four days of walking each way, plus time to locate
required items while he was in the city. It went as planned at
first. The desert heat of
the Central Valley was bearable so long as he kept to the shade along
canals. In the city he gawked, just like the Canadian tourists, at the
university buildings, still standing, done in the carbon-yarn style of the 2060's.
The problems began on the first day of his hike back, when he ran into
bedraggled and leaderless group of Sacramento army soldiers who robbed
his money and food. The army of the Sacramento Free State was on the
suffering a decisive
defeat in its attempt to conquer the Reno Republic.
been living on his own for years, ever since
his brother had died. He was proud of his self-sufficiency, but he had
before had to make his own way in an environment of anarchy — or
only in the kind of juvenile
anarchy that adult civilization suffers to exist within itself. For the
time, he was forced to live by begging and theft. It was theft more
because he was now old enough that he aroused more suspicion than sympathy from the
farmers. Traveling by
night, and avoiding soldiers and big roads, it took him three weeks to
to Muir. As he neared the outskirts of the town at dusk one evening, he
group of about forty soldiers pass in through the gate ahead of him. One of
them was mounted and
carried a sword, and the rest, on foot, carried spears. Jeff followed
at a safe
mounted soldier marched his men to the center of
town and stopped. Passersby looked on warily. "I'm Lieutenant Adam Arthur. Reno has
invaded Sacramento territory, and my men and I are here to protect this
Have there been any Reno forces in this area?"
was no answer. Adam Arthur looked down at the
crowd, knowing he was impressive on horseback. "That's good. While we're stationed
here, please rest assured that we'll pay a fair price for our food and
Depending on the military situation, we may only be here for a week or
Before we leave, we'll also need to procure food for the march,
probably dried meat,
and we'll pay for
that too, of course." He wiped the sweat from his brow and waited a
to gauge their reaction again. They seemed to believe it.
hitched his horse, and led his men into what looked
like an eating-house, its windows open to catch the evening breeze.
Inside, he slapped two
hundred-k notes on the bar, and found himself a table near the door
he could keep an eye on his horse. A waiter came over, looking nervous.
and drink for my men, please."
let himself relax a little. Sergeant Singh would
keep the enlisted men in line, he thought, and the people in this town
obviously didn't know yet that a Sacramento banknote had become a
piece of paper.
know, however, and he
had observed the scene from outside, through one
of the open windows. He ran to tell the mayor, who called a meeting at
house with a small group of landowners. Once Jeff had repeated his
was a worried silence.
first to speak was a man
Jeff recognized as Mrs. Petrofski's brother in
law. "Seems like all they really want is food, and lots of it. The
to do is keep them out of mischief and get them out of town with the
fast as possible. Let's figure out how to satisfy them, and if that means somebody
loses out, the rest of
the town can make it up to him."
want dried meat, not cabbages," said
the mayor, "Portable stuff. I don't think we have enough animals here
town. Jeff, you work for Dan Bloom sometimes, right? How many goats do you think he
couple hundred. Those men could eat for a month
off of that many goats, but it would ruin Dan."
we're not thieves like Arthur," the
mayor said. "We really would compensate Dan. And anyway we don't want
these jokers hanging
around here for a month. I think Dan needs to move most of his goats
else, so it looks like he only has twenty or thirty animals in his
that, everybody? Dan Bloom is the richest goatherd in this dirt-poor
town — why,
have as many as twenty or thirty goats in that huge herd of his."
decided that Jeff would run up to Dan's place in
the night to warn him, and then come back the same night. To give Dan
to hide most of his herd, the townspeople would tell Arthur in the
morning that Dan's place was far
away and hard to find, but Jeff would offer to guide him, and would
there by an indirect route that was impassable to a wagon. Without a
most or all of his men would have to come along in order to carry the meat
gathered up the things he'd obtained in Merced and
set out running up the road by the light of the gibbous moon, the heavy
backpack bouncing on its straps. When he got there, he saw Lily's clothes waving in
the breeze on the
clothesline up at the edge of the roof. He wanted to see her more than
anything. Instead of passing inside through the house, he climbed up to
roof by a way he knew, along a half-crumbled wall of cinderblocks. When he reached the
top, the clothes on the line were like a curtain surrounding Lily's
place. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath again. There was
dress of hers, fluttering just a little. He was still having trouble
catching his breath
— he didn't
know why it was so hard. He reached out for the hem of the skirt and
held it to
his face, and now the strangest thing was that he wanted to cry again,
there was no reason for that. He had done everything he was supposed
to, even though it
tough. He took a moment to get himself under control, and then called
her so she wouldn't be startled. "Lily?" He heard a stirring.
"Lily, it's me, Jeff. I got the stuff from Merced." He pushed his way
through the clothes.
It was Dan's voice, and Jeff saw that
Dan and Lily were both there, naked. Lily hadn't been in the sun as
Dan, and her skin looked white in the moonlight.
climbed down and waited by the rusty gas pumps,
his fists clenched in his pockets.
Under the canopy that was over the pumps, there were the two chairs
where he and Dan had always sat and played chess, but Jeff didn't sit
and Lily came out.
said Lily, "we're so glad you're
OK! We were really worried about you."
"Yeah, well, I got the stuff."
He swung the pack off of his shoulders,
and let it fall at her feet. He didn't meet her eyes.
hot inside the house," said Dan.
"I'll bring out another chair, and we can all sit out here. It's good
see you, Jeff."
Jeff tried to tell the whole
story, but he thought it somehow come out with
a different slant to it than the way it had happened in real life. He
want to say much about how he'd survived on the way back, and it seemed
from Dan and Lily's reactions
that they got the impression it had been a fun adventure for him.
Jeff was relating what had happened, Dan was
thinking that it had been a mistake to send a boy to do a man's job.
always dangerous these days, even when there wasn't a war. It wasn't fair to blame
the kid for the bad
news, but a war was bad news, that was for sure — and just
when things had been
starting to look up. He was so absorbed in these thoughts that he
the description of the meeting at the mayor's house.
what's that?" Dan demanded.
"They're coming here?"
the mayor you had a couple of hundred
oh, hell —"
but the soldiers think it's only twenty or
thirty. So you have to drive off most of them to another pasture, where
they won't find
Jeff thought that the whole thing was coming out twisted around so it
like it was his fault.
Maudit calice, thought Lily, now look what
I've got myself mixed up in, it's like
something out of the stone age. It had been a huge mistake to get involved
sexually with Dan. While
Jeff finished his explanation, she began to wonder how she was going to
herself out of this situation.
were you planning to lead them?" Dan
the ridge on the other side of the
river. I can keep them
on the other side of that. No road, no water, so that'll slow them down
From there, they can't even see anything over here in the valley. You
the twenty or thirty goats over there where we'll come across them, and the rest you can drive
farther off. Tomorrow's Monday, right? I should be able to keep them
getting here before Tuesday or Wednesday."
said Dan, "let's all try to meet
on Wednesday, then. Lily, between now and Wednesday, can you collect
the samples from the
wrap up your scientific work, and be ready to go? We can head down to
with the donkey and see about getting transportation to the coast."
Somehow, he thought, he and Lily could make a future together. If they
were married, could
she get him into
Canada? Traveling would cost money, and there would be bribes to pay,
he succeeded in keeping most of his flock from being stolen, he could
trade it to someone in town for some more portable form of wealth, like
gold or jewelry.
said Lily, "I can finish by
Wednesday. I just need to take some palynological cores. But this all
dangerous, and I don't want either of you to take a chance on getting
think there's any place in Sacramento
Free State that's safe right now," said Dan. "We'll just have to hope
for the best. Let's meet Wednesday at the hot spring. Lily will already
there finishing her work, and Jeff can duck out on the soldiers when they're not
if I don't make the rendezvous," Lily
insisted, "I don't want you guys to take any more risks by searching
me. I've caused enough problems for you already." Jeff interpreted this
an attempt by Lily to be noble, and an acknowledgment of the
problems he had been through.
Dan took the same speech as a gentle way of preparing Jeff for the idea
Dan and Lily would not be able to stay with him much longer. Lily had
her mind to get out of this place right away, alone, and not to show up
for the rendezvous. All
three of them left hurriedly.
Arthur took an immediate liking to his young
guide. A knight should have a squire, he thought. He didn't have any
he knew of, and he felt that he had reached a point in his life
where he knew some things
about the world that he ought to pass on to a kid like Jeff. Anyway,
weren't going to get any new recruits from Sacramento anymore, so he
to have to start picking up locals and training them. It was too hot to travel
during the middle of
the day, especially since there wasn't much shade or water along the
way, so he
took the mid-day break as an opportunity to talk to Jeff. He had
lesson for him while he was riding up the trail.
"Jeff, you seem like a smart
never had a chance to go to school
talking about school, I'm talking about
the brains you were born with. Anyway, school isn't the only kind of
I've spent a lot of time in school myself — does that surprise you?"
have, because they make you do that
before you can become an officer. But you have to realize that teachers
necessarily know much about the real world. Sometimes the things they
teach you in school, they
themselves don't understand what they really mean. Have you ever heard
Homer. He was a poet, lived in ancient
Greece. He wrote about a war that started because one man stole another
woman. That's something I studied
in school, poems like that from thousands of years ago. Have you ever
seen a man kill another man?"
Homer describes lots of killing in this
war, and let me tell you, he knows what he's talking about. You can
because of the way he describes
it, like how sometimes the dying man falls over stiff as a tree,
but other times he sort of crumples. But Homer also has to make it more
you see, so some things aren't strictly realistic. I took a whole class
school about Homer, from this pencil-necked
professor with glasses. Last time I saw him, he was begging
on the street in Sacramento. So anyway, this professor had never been a
soldier, so he didn't really understand what it all meant, what was
what was poetic and so on. Now lots
of times when Homer describes a big strong hero killing another man,
he says how the hero raises his sword way up high and brings it down so
that it slices the other man's whole body in half, from his head all
down to the crotch. Do you think
that's real, or poetic?"
right, but do you know the point of
describing it that way? The point is that it's supposed to take
that's really the easiest thing in the world, and make it sound like
That's something most people don't realize, Jeff, and I want you to
it." He pulled his sword out of its sheath. "Here, see this? Go
ahead, take it. Just don't touch the edge or the tip. Did you ever see
butcher cutting up meat?"
waved a Bug away from his face. "It looks
like hard work, doesn't it? Well that's completely different from
killing a man
with a sword. The butcher, he has to cut apart the bones at the joints,
Sometimes he has to cut straight through a bone. He works like that for
twenty minutes and he's
exhausted, needs a break. Well, to kill a man, you don't have to do
like that. All you have to do is cut him once so he's stunned, or knock
down hard so the wind goes out of him, and then you take the tip of that sword and
you stick it in under
the breastbone and push up into his chest. See that groove along the
That's for the blood, because once you see how easy it is, it's so easy
almost the only thing that can go wrong is that blood gets on your hand and your
grip gets slippery.
With a good sword like this, it's so easy you could do it all day and
even get tired. If you have a sword, you're the owner of the world.
way it was three thousand years ago, and that's the way it is now and always
will be. People like you
and me, who understand that, we're like the knights in the fairy tales.
ever had a woman, Jeff?"
what I told you Homer's war was about? A
woman, right? And in the fairy tales, it's always the knight who gets the
princess. That's what
makes you a man. Hey, Singh!"
woman we see, Jeff gets the first go at her,
got that? Pass the word."
repeated the sergeant with a grin.
right," Arthur said, "it's cooled off enough now. Let's
thought Arthur's promise to Jeff was
tremendously funny, but it became clear to Jeff that it was a real
nevertheless. He tried to protest to Arthur that he didn't want what he
been offered, but Arthur didn't
even look down from his horse, and Singh slapped Jeff on the side of
the head so hard that it knocked him down, with an admonition not to
discipline while on the march by addressing the lieutenant unless the
lieutenant spoke to him first. The men began inventing endless
humorous scenarios about Jeff's
first woman. She would be a grandmother, or a girl even younger than
would be a swineherd as covered with mud as her pigs, or the President
Reno's daughter. She would be so ugly that Jeff would be unable to complete
the act, or so
beautiful that he would complete it before he even got to touch her.
be so embarrassed that he would turn red and stutter, or so excited
other men would have to wait all day until they got their turns.
thought of running away, but he was afraid that it
would make things worse. Lily would be just on the other side of the
the river. Without Jeff's guidance, he was afraid the soldiers might
across the top of the ridge. He didn't know that Lily was in
fact a hundred miles away, in a caravan headed
north. She was already writing the first draft of her definitive paper
origin of the Bugs, which, although incorrect in its conclusions, would
being the first step in her
successful career as an entomologist.
day, Arthur again took Jeff aside at the
I'm getting the impression that you haven't
completely understood yesterday's lesson."
just that I don't want to do that to a
"It doesn't matter much whether you
do or not, you know. The
other men are all going to have a shot anyway."
see, I have a girlfriend, and we're going to
yeah? What's her name?"
Petrofski," Jeff lied.
"Jeff has a girlfriend in Muir,
name of Annie Petrofski. Let
the men know not to mess with her when we get back."
desperately considering his options. Maybe he
could kill Arthur, and then escape to warn Dan and Lily and the people
But wouldn't killing
be just as wrong as rape?
I'm glad you told me about your girlfriend.
You haven't had your first woman yet, so you don't know that your first
apt to be a disappointment. You can learn with another girl, and then
show Annie what a
great lover you
I'm trying to say is, look at what a mess
the world is these days. They used to be able to put up satellites, and
electricity, and everybody had enough to eat, but now it's all a mess.
because of the weather,
and germs, and a lot of crops failing, that shouldn't have been enough
everything fall apart. They could have coped with it if it hadn't been
let out a peal of laughter. "Jeff, that's
why I like you. You have all the wrong answers, but at least you
think for yourself. Have
you heard of the Neanderthals?"
surprised by the sudden swerve in the debate.
"You mean like cavemen?"
right, except they weren't men, they were
a different species. Their brains were just as big as ours
— actually bigger than men's, on
Jeff wondered if there might be some
way to get through to Arthur after all, without doing anything
Arthur wasn't an animal, he was an intelligent human being.
"See, this was the kind of
thing I studied in school, anthropology. Easy
major. It means the study of human beings. Do you know why there aren't
we made babies faster than they
all. Their ecological
niche got smaller and smaller, and
ours got bigger and bigger, and finally we took over completely."
killing people isn't the only way to win. You
can do it peacefully, just by having a wife and raising a family."
Jeff, you don't quite
see it yet. The reason the Neanderthals are
gone is because our ancestors killed them off."
thought you said it was because we had more
the key, it's all the same thing. Now do
you see it? You can't make babies if you're dead."
At that moment there was a
commotion among the men. They had seen a goat up
on the ridge, outlined against the sky. Ordinarily they wouldn't have
discipline, even at the siesta, but they were hungry, so they swarmed
slope in pursuit of the animal.
Arthur stopped to get on his horse, and motioned for Jeff to walk
along with him up the slope. Arthur let his mount pick its way slowly
from laming itself on the rough terrain. A sick feeling was building in
top they could see
the river with the strips of green trees along
it, and the road on the other side. There were more goats down below,
themselves in the water. They were still a kilometer or two down-river
Dan's place, Jeff thought; the goats Dan had left behind must have started
wandering back and
forth across the ridge. Arthur looked at Jeff.
said Arthur quietly, without taking
his eyes off of Jeff.
job, dammit, and let me see some order
here. I'm going to see if my horse can make it down to the
river. If it can, I'll wave for
the rest of you to come down. Jeff, follow me."
stomach convulsed, and there was the lemonade
taste of vomit at the back of his throat. He scrambled down the scree
Arthur, trying to think.
They were just upstream from the hot spring. Arthur already knew
something was fishy. Once he had figured it all out, he would take them
town by the road for sure: easy traveling, plenty of shade and cool
would take them right past the
hot spring, where Lily would be.
was blazing, and the sweat running down Jeff's
face was mixing with the dust kicked up by the horse. The Bugs were
the air, here near their breeding-ground. At the bottom, on the shady
the river, Arthur
began to dismount. He stood on the left stirrup, swung his right leg
made a hop to get down. As Arthur came down, Jeff put out his hand and
the pommel of the sword, and the weapon slipped out of its sheath.
turned toward Jeff,
and Jeff thrust the blade up under the man's breastbone. It was very
as Arthur had said.
horse was spooked, and went running away upstream.
The soldiers might not be able to see them down here under the trees,
they would realize
something was wrong, and Singh would bring them down. In this spot
there was a
wide pool that welled up behind a huge pile of rocks and boulders that
a remnant of a big landslide. The water flowed slowly into the dark
between the rocks, to
emerge on the other side, which was the hot spring. Lily was probably
the other side of the rock pile right now. If Jeff could run around to
side quickly enough, he could warn her, and they could run away down
toward the town. A soldier
could catch up easily on horseback, but maybe the horse would be
scared and hard to catch, or maybe none of the men knew how to handle
splashed across the river and began skirting the
giant rock pile, trying to stay hidden under the trees. He heard yells from up on the
slopes of the ridge, and caught a glimpse of the men coming down. They
catching up with him, and he realized that he wasn't going to make it.
could see him now, they were pointing at him and yelling. Looking
he saw a dark
crevice in the rocks. He ducked into it, and was up to his shins in
heard them coming closer, and retreated deeper into the darkness.
Bugs were swarming in and out past him. Looking back over his shoulder,
he caught a glimpse
of a man
moving across a patch of blue sky. They would be on him in a minute.
hadn't adjusted to the darkness, and he could barely see around him. He
around, and found a small opening down by his knees. He got down on his
hands and knees in
and began crawling through. It felt like it was going to be too tight
chest and shoulders to fit through. He blew out all the breath in his
try to make himself smaller, and pushed hard with his legs. With a
lurch, he felt his
clear the obstruction, but as he was shinnying through into the space
something jabbed through the heel of his left shoe and bit into the
sole of his
him! He's in here!"
through now, and there was space to breathe. He dragged
himself forward through the shallow water, and came up onto some dry
rocks. He seemed to be in a cavity big enough that he couldn't feel the
The men wouldn't be able to fit in through the way he had come. He
could endure the pain
in his foot, and
he didn't think it would kill him, but he was definitely crippled now,
there was no way he could outrun them. He would have to wait here, and
that there was no way into this space that would be wide enough for
them. There was more
splashing. With both hands he tried to grip his ankle tightly enough to
the bleeding, and huddled in a ball with his eyes closed and his teeth
clenched. He could hear the Bugs buzzing around him. He thought about
didn't really matter
about him now, but he hoped the noise of the men shouting had given her
warning so that she could get away.
what seemed to Jeff like a long time, the sounds
from the men weren't there anymore. It was very hot here. He was out of the water, but he felt
moisture coursing down his body: his own sweat. His belly was cramping,
felt like throwing up.
opened his eyes, and was disoriented — there was
light coming from over that way, but wasn't that deeper
inside the rock pile?
Maybe he'd gotten turned around. The light was
a funny color, a sort of orange like a sunset, but maybe a little bit
It was nowhere near sunset now, though, was it? Maybe more time had
he thought. If it really was around sunset, maybe he could slip past the
soldiers in the
twilight. His eyes must have adjusted to the light, because now he
the Bugs that were buzzing past him. He was beginning to think that the
was much bigger than he had imagined. He splashed toward the light on his knees,
hoping to find another exit from the rocks. He came around a corner
larger chamber, and both the light and the buzz of the Bugs became much
stronger. He felt like a loaf of bread being baked in an oven.
light was coming from
a glowing object, half-submerged in the water,
metallic and fashioned in the shape of a pear. Its surface was
the Bugs were flying in and out of it. He felt its heat, both directly
face and through the water — it was heating the water. He tried to rise to a
kneeling position, but
a wave of dizziness and nausea came over him, and he collapsed,
the steaming water. By turning his neck, he was able to get his nose
eye out into the air.
near the artifact, on
a sandy strip of beach, he could see a vast
fleshy shape through the shimmering air, attended by the small flying
other, bigger shapes. It was their queen. Jeff knew that it was their
even before he saw what it was doing: making babies, making babies.
© 2008 by Ben Crowell
Ben Crowell is a graduate of Clarion West 2007, and have made sales to Jim Baen's Universe, Strange Horizons, and Electric Spec..
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