Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Niche

by Ben Crowell


Lily Ouellette approached the town along California Route 520. What the bluejays and chipmunks heard first was the flap-flap-flap 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 expecting from the map: the Tuolumne River, and the tiny mountain village, which had 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 probably domesticated. Downstream would be the bigger town of Muir. Back home in Québec, the Tuolumne wouldn't even have been considered a rivière, 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 riparian forest along the banks.

It was 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 sat down to wait until evening. The Bugs had been getting thicker for the last few days, 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 cricket. They were thick by the river: she could hear as well as see them. She thought there was every sign that she had arrived at their epicenter.

Evening came, and as Lily Ouellette continued down the hill, the first person to see her coming was the goatherd Dan Bloom.

What the hell, he wondered, was the woman doing coming from that direction? It didn't make sense. She looked like a refugee, but it had been years since he'd seen anyone come from that direction, so where was she a refugee from?

"Evening," Dan said as she came around the old rusted-out propane tank. She'd be a hell of a good-looking woman when she was clean and not half-starved.

Lily saw 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 she'd seen so many times, those months stuck in Colorado after she'd learned that yes, it 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 different levels of hunger were like. And finally it had become like this: the up-and-down look, and How much for a blowjob?

"Hello."

He could 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 to what was left of their dignity.

"Feel free to cool off down at the river."

"Thank you," she said warily. "Is the water safe to drink?"

"We're upstream from Muir," Dan said, and paused a moment to see her reaction: nothing. So she already knew where she had 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."

Jeff 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 from Muir up to Dan's place. He was thirteen, with swarthy skin, an unruly mane of black hair, and a set of unusually perfect white teeth, a little too big for his face. Jeff saw the lady coming down the road nobody used, so he came around behind her and followed her in to Dan's place, being careful not to let her see him, because you had to be careful with strangers. He got a good look at her backpack, and it didn't have the red leaf on it. If it had the red leaf, it always meant they were rich Canadian tourists who came to look at the Bugs.

Jeff had a system for making a buck off of the tourists, and even though there weren't as many of them as there had been a couple of years ago, he had it figured out well enough now so that any time 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 people didn't know about the tourists was that when they used the outhouse, they 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 the stuff. That was almost fifty thousand Sacramento dollars, and for a while Jeff 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 singles to stuff pillows, or to start their stoves burning. But the funny thing was, the 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 would let him borrow books out of the room where they were all piled in the back. 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.

Jeff walked casually into the gas station. The sun was down in the trees, and a big round moon was peeping up over the mountains.

"Hi Jeff."

"Hey Dan. Ready for another chess lesson?"

"Not much light left. You want to drive a couple dozen of the goats over the hill for me, and then we'll have dinner?"

"OK. Got a visitor?"

"Refugee, 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.

"Not likely. Her shoes are almost worn out, and I don't think your typical tourist could stay alive up there long enough to wear out her shoes. She seemed to know where she was, too. She's got a nice fishing rod, though, so maybe she'll trade you something for some bait."

"Some 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?"

The woman picked this moment to reappear. They could tell that she had made an attempt to wash in the river. Jeff thought that she did look like a refugee — that empty look around the eyes.

"Need 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 to 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.

"That's 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 kid, but most of all she didn't want to walk into the bigger town in the state she was 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 near 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."

"You're 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. . . . ?"

She supposed it wouldn't hurt to give her name. "Ouellette. That's very kind of you, Mr. Bloom, but —"

"So 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 I can't get anybody to help me eat it."

Lily was 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 looked respectable enough to walk through the gates without being questioned. She 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, so she ended up sleeping on Dan's roof, which he allowed her to do in return for some labor. She called him Boss, and was satisfied that their business relationship kept a certain distance 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 a temporary compromise between fear and loneliness, and she justified it by imagining herself wrapped in a cloak of scientific detachment.

Jeff was 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 about the Blue Bugs. They had appeared twenty years before he was born, and he had 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. Most scientists believe that the Bugs are living fossils, using an archaic method of encoding their genes. Possibly they were restricted to a small, hidden habitat for hundreds of millions of years, until global warming recreated the right conditions for them to reemerge. Jeff didn't understand all the words, but he got the basic idea that some scientists thought the Bugs were like dinosaurs that had stayed alive secretly, but they really they didn't know for sure, and were using a lot of big words to keep from admitting it.

He could 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, for 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, she would pay him the same for each one, and pin them to the board next to each other. 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.

Lily was surprised at first by how much satisfaction she got from the scientific work. It was a way of reasserting herself, of 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 for all 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 been the only genetic code, and that DNA had been a later innovation. X. smithi would just rewrite the story in three parts instead of two.

Martha 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 an archaic genetic code as late as the development of multicellular life. She 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 but too crazy, stupid in fact. How could they have gotten here? There was disputed 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? (Here he would leap out of his old leather armchair that he'd covered with patches made 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 animals. "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 station where she was working that morning.

Lily's 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 could find the larvae and eggs, she could prove that they couldn't survive vacuum and extreme cold. Extreme cold was hard to imagine now, with the morning heat invading the shed.

She heard something.

"Dan?"

There 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 cardboard milk carton that Jeff used for bringing her specimens, its top folded shut.

"Jeff?" She saw him walking away quickly through the trees. "Jeff!" Something must be wrong. Was he mad at her? She ran after him.

Jeff 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 boys had landed a hard kick on his knee. She caught up and took him by the shoulders. She was a lot taller than Jeff, even taller than most grown-up ladies. And now the worst part was that he started to cry because he didn't want her to see him. He tried to tell her to leave him alone, but his mouth was swollen. He wanted her to know that he hadn't cried during the fight, hadn't cried at all until now.

She sat 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 kids 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 that he had knocked the wind out of Jim, and that maybe he could have even won the fight if the rest of them hadn't ganged up. It would have been good if she could have seen how it started, but not the rest.

Lily knew what to do. A drunk would often be this way, turning teary unexpectedly. She cradled his head between her breasts.

After a while Lily felt Jeff relax, and Jeff could hear Lily's heart beating. A long time passed, and the heat of the day was building. 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 hands with 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.

Dan could tell that something had happened that day, but when he tried to ask Lily, she didn't want to talk about it. The woman was 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 together in the evening before she went up to the roof to sleep.

"How much of the work do you think Jeff understands?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Your scientific work."

"You mean the bugs I've been collecting?"

The woman was exasperating, thought Dan. You'd think she was working on the Manhattan project, the way she played it close to the chest.

"Yeah, the insects. He's a smart kid, but his horizons are narrow. Beats me every time at chess, but thinks burning gasoline is in the same class as the burning bush. In his mind, the day-to-day nonsense that goes on around Muir is as important as anything else in the world. Oh, he'll survive all right, even if the tourist trade is drying up. But I think you're doing him a disservice. 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 life than staying fed. Are you worried about competition, scientific priority? Hell, do they still even publish entomology journals?"

Lily was startled by the accusation, and equally startled that Dan's own horizons were less narrow than she'd assumed. It was true, she admitted to herself, that she'd built a wall around herself, but only because she didn't want to think or talk about her past, about Colorado. If it hadn't been for that, she would have liked nothing better than to talk to Dan, to really talk to him. She realized in a rush just how much she cared about his opinion of her. Certainly she'd 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 she'd been.

She got 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." She 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 breakdown of the transportation network.

"Well, why don't you treat him more like an under prepared first-year grad student, then, instead of an ignorant savage?"

She stood there for a while, holding herself very still. "It sounds like you've been to college yourself."

"Yeah, I wasn't actually born in a goatherd's hut."

"Where were you born?"

"New York."

"Refugee?"

"Yeah, War of '87. Should have left before that. The city was already dead on its feet."

"What did you do for a living? Before the war, I mean."

"I ran 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 drafted for the Penn-Ohio War. Ended up here eventually."

"You lost your family?"

"My wife and our two sons."

"I —"

"Come sit down and finish your dinner."

Dan's protests on Jeff's behalf led to the year that was to be the happiest of Jeff's life. Jeff noticed that Lily started treating him differently, more like a grownup. Lily made him search through the books at 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 read that first, three whole pages every day, and she would ask him questions to 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.

By the 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 the print was smaller, so there were a lot more words on each page. She also started 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 extra piece you didn't even need. Sometimes at night he would lie awake for a long 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 if Lily would hold him again like she had that time before, only this time it would be happy instead of sad. He thought about what Dan would do when he got old. Dan and Lily might eventually get together, and then Dan might not want Jeff around anymore. Jeff tried to tell himself that that possibility was the only reason the thought made him sad, but he knew that wasn't quite true. The truth was that he was jealous.

One mild morning in March, Dan and Jeff went fishing together. Dan had driven the goats to good pasture by the light of the crescent 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 sometimes almost hostile. Dan had always tried to make sure that Jeff didn't depend on 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 that the boy seemed to have put a new and wary distance between them.

They settled down in a shady spot and unpacked their tackle. Lily had given them permission to use her old, factory-made hooks and fluorocarbon line, and Dan had filled a little clay pot with grubs.

"How come they can't make fluorocarbon line anymore?" Jeff asked.

"My training was really in business, not engineering, but you could ask Lily. I'm sure she knows a lot of chemistry."

"That's 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."

"Oh — 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, reliable 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 would you sell your product? You couldn't advertise it, so nobody would know it existed, 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, and all of a sudden the weather patterns were different, and you couldn't grow corn and wheat where you used to. Malaria and Chagas started spreading north. This latitude isn't really our species' ecological niche anymore." He had just finished spearing a grub on a hook. "Hey, what are these things, anyway? Termite larvae or something?"

"Lemme see, pass one over. You keep them in water until you're ready to put them on a hook?"

"Yeah, that way they stay alive. I get them from the hot springs."

"Huh. I 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."

"I've had pretty good luck fishing for bass with them." Dan cast his line, and when he turned around again, Jeff was lying 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.

"Hand me 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. Yep, it's a baby Bug."

Things 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, couldn't tolerate cold. She had achieved her goal of proving that the species wasn't 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.

Jeff was sent to Merced to get plastic bottles, alcohol, and packing materials for the samples that Lily planned to bring back 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 about two weeks: three or four days of walking each way, plus time to locate the 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 the 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 a bedraggled and leaderless group of Sacramento army soldiers who robbed him of his money and food. The army of the Sacramento Free State was on the retreat after suffering a decisive defeat in its attempt to conquer the Reno Republic.

Jeff had been living on his own for years, ever since his brother had died. He was proud of his self-sufficiency, but he had never 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 first time, he was forced to live by begging and theft. It was theft more often, 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 get back to Muir. As he neared the outskirts of the town at dusk one evening, he saw a 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 distance.

The 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 town. Have there been any Reno forces in this area?"

There 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 lodging. Depending on the military situation, we may only be here for a week or so. 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 moment to gauge their reaction again. They seemed to believe it.

He 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 from which he could keep an eye on his horse. A waiter came over, looking nervous.

"Sir?"

"Food and drink for my men, please."

"Yes, sir."

Arthur 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 worthless piece of paper.

Jeff did 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 his house with a small group of landowners. Once Jeff had repeated his story, there was a worried silence.

The 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 thing to do is keep them out of mischief and get them out of town with the food as 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."

"They want dried meat, not cabbages," said the mayor, "Portable stuff. I don't think we have enough animals here in town. Jeff, you work for Dan Bloom sometimes, right? How many goats do you think he has?"

"A couple hundred. Those men could eat for a month off of that many goats, but it would ruin Dan."

"Jeff, 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 somewhere else, so it looks like he only has twenty or thirty animals in his herd. Got that, everybody? Dan Bloom is the richest goatherd in this dirt-poor little town — why, he must have as many as twenty or thirty goats in that huge herd of his."

It was 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 more time 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 lead him there by an indirect route that was impassable to a wagon. Without a wagon, most or all of his men would have to come along in order to carry the meat back.

Jeff 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 the 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 sleeping place. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath again. There was that white 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, but there was no reason for that. He had done everything he was supposed to, even though it had been tough. He took a moment to get himself under control, and then called softly to 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.

"Jeff?" It was Dan's voice, and Jeff saw that Dan and Lily were both there, naked. Lily hadn't been in the sun as much as Dan, and her skin looked white in the moonlight.

Jeff 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 down. Dan and Lily came out.

"Jeff," 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.

"It's hot inside the house," said Dan. "I'll bring out another chair, and we can all sit out here. It's good to 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 didn't want to say much about how he'd survived on the way back, and it seemed to him from Dan and Lily's reactions that they got the impression it had been a fun adventure for him.

While 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. Travel was 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 almost missed the description of the meeting at the mayor's house.

"Wait, what's that?" Dan demanded. "They're coming here?"

"I told the mayor you had a couple of hundred goats —"

"— 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 them." Jeff thought that the whole thing was coming out twisted around so it sounded 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 get herself out of this situation.

"Where were you planning to lead them?" Dan asked Jeff.

"There's 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 a lot. From there, they can't even see anything over here in the valley. You can drive 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 from getting here before Tuesday or Wednesday."

"OK," said Dan, "let's all try to meet on Wednesday, then. Lily, between now and Wednesday, can you collect the samples from the hot springs, wrap up your scientific work, and be ready to go? We can head down to Merced 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, too. If he succeeded in keeping most of his flock from being stolen, he could probably trade it to someone in town for some more portable form of wealth, like gold or jewelry.

"Yes," said Lily, "I can finish by Wednesday. I just need to take some palynological cores. But this all sounds dangerous, and I don't want either of you to take a chance on getting hurt for my sake."

"I don't 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 be there finishing her work, and Jeff can duck out on the soldiers when they're not looking."

"Well, if I don't make the rendezvous," Lily insisted, "I don't want you guys to take any more risks by searching for me. I've caused enough problems for you already." Jeff interpreted this as 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 that Dan and Lily would not be able to stay with him much longer. Lily had made up 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.

Lieutenant Arthur took an immediate liking to his young guide. A knight should have a squire, he thought. He didn't have any sons that 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, they weren't going to get any new recruits from Sacramento anymore, so he was going 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 prepared a lesson for him while he was riding up the trail.

"Jeff, you seem like a smart kid."

"No, I never had a chance to go to school much."

"I'm not talking about school, I'm talking about the brains you were born with. Anyway, school isn't the only kind of education. I've spent a lot of time in school myself — does that surprise you?"

"No."

"Well, I have, because they make you do that before you can become an officer. But you have to realize that teachers don't necessarily know much about the real world. Sometimes the things they try to teach you in school, they themselves don't understand what they really mean. Have you ever heard of Homer?"

"Homer who?"

"Just Homer. He was a poet, lived in ancient Greece. He wrote about a war that started because one man stole another man's 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?"

"No."

"Well, Homer describes lots of killing in this war, and let me tell you, he knows what he's talking about. You can tell 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 poetic, you see, so some things aren't strictly realistic. I took a whole class in 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 real and 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 hard that it slices the other man's whole body in half, from his head all the way down to the crotch. Do you think that's real, or poetic?"

"Poetic, I guess."

"That's right, but do you know the point of describing it that way? The point is that it's supposed to take something that's really the easiest thing in the world, and make it sound like it's really impressive. That's something most people don't realize, Jeff, and I want you to think about 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 a butcher cutting up meat?"

"Yeah."

Arthur 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, right? 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 anything like that. All you have to do is cut him once so he's stunned, or knock him 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 blade? That's for the blood, because once you see how easy it is, it's so easy that 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 hardly even get tired. If you have a sword, you're the owner of the world. That's the 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. You ever had a woman, Jeff?"

"No."

"Remember 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!"

"Yessir."

"Next woman we see, Jeff gets the first go at her, got that? Pass the word."

"Yessir," repeated the sergeant with a grin.

"All right," Arthur said, "it's cooled off enough now. Let's march."

The men thought Arthur's promise to Jeff was tremendously funny, but it became clear to Jeff that it was a real promise nevertheless. He tried to protest to Arthur that he didn't want what he had 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 break 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 Jeff. She would be a swineherd as covered with mud as her pigs, or the President of 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. Jeff would be so embarrassed that he would turn red and stutter, or so excited that the other men would have to wait all day until they got their turns.

Jeff thought of running away, but he was afraid that it would make things worse. Lily would be just on the other side of the ridge, at the river. Without Jeff's guidance, he was afraid the soldiers might wander 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 on the origin of the Bugs, which, although incorrect in its conclusions, would end up being the first step in her successful career as an entomologist.

The next day, Arthur again took Jeff aside at the siesta.

"Jeff, I'm getting the impression that you haven't completely understood yesterday's lesson."

"It's just that I don't want to do that to a woman."

"It doesn't matter much whether you do or not, you know. The other men are all going to have a shot anyway."

"And see, I have a girlfriend, and we're going to get married."

"Oh yeah? What's her name?"

"Annie Petrofski," Jeff lied.

"Singh!"

"Yessir."

"Jeff has a girlfriend in Muir, name of Annie Petrofski. Let the men know not to mess with her when we get back."

"Yessir."

Jeff was desperately considering his options. Maybe he could kill Arthur, and then escape to warn Dan and Lily and the people in town. But wouldn't killing be just as wrong as rape?

"Jeff, 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 time is apt to be a disappointment. You can learn with another girl, and then show Annie what a great lover you are."

"What 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 make electricity, and everybody had enough to eat, but now it's all a mess. Just because of the weather, and germs, and a lot of crops failing, that shouldn't have been enough to make everything fall apart. They could have coped with it if it hadn't been for all the wars."

Arthur 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?"

Jeff was surprised by the sudden swerve in the debate. "You mean like cavemen?"

"That's 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 the average."

"OK." Jeff wondered if there might be some way to get through to Arthur after all, without doing anything desperate. 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 any more Neanderthals?"

"No."

"Because we made babies faster than they did."

"That's all?"

"That's all. Their ecological niche got smaller and smaller, and ours got bigger and bigger, and finally we took over completely."

"So killing people isn't the only way to win. You can do it peacefully, just by having a wife and raising a family."

"No, Jeff, you don't quite see it yet. The reason the Neanderthals are gone is because our ancestors killed them off."

"I thought you said it was because we had more babies."

"That's 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 broken discipline, even at the siesta, but they were hungry, so they swarmed up the 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 to keep from laming itself on the rough terrain. A sick feeling was building in Jeff's belly.

From the 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, cooling themselves in the water. They were still a kilometer or two down-river from 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.

"Singh," said Arthur quietly, without taking his eyes off of Jeff.

"Yessir."

"Do your 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."

Jeff's stomach convulsed, and there was the lemonade taste of vomit at the back of his throat. He scrambled down the scree with 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 back to town by the road for sure: easy traveling, plenty of shade and cool water. That would take them right past the hot spring, where Lily would be.

The sun was blazing, and the sweat running down Jeff's face was mixing with the dust kicked up by the horse. The Bugs were thick in the air, here near their breeding-ground. At the bottom, on the shady bank of the river, Arthur began to dismount. He stood on the left stirrup, swung his right leg over, and made a hop to get down. As Arthur came down, Jeff put out his hand and grabbed the pommel of the sword, and the weapon slipped out of its sheath. Arthur turned toward Jeff, and Jeff thrust the blade up under the man's breastbone. It was very easy, just as Arthur had said.

The horse was spooked, and went running away upstream. The soldiers might not be able to see them down here under the trees, but soon 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 must be a remnant of a big landslide. The water flowed slowly into the dark spaces between the rocks, to emerge on the other side, which was the hot spring. Lily was probably just on the other side of the rock pile right now. If Jeff could run around to that side quickly enough, he could warn her, and they could run away down the road 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 it.

Jeff 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 were catching up with him, and he realized that he wasn't going to make it. They could see him now, they were pointing at him and yelling. Looking around desperately, he saw a dark crevice in the rocks. He ducked into it, and was up to his shins in water. He heard them coming closer, and retreated deeper into the darkness. Clouds of 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. His eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness, and he could barely see around him. He groped around, and found a small opening down by his knees. He got down on his hands and knees in the water, and began crawling through. It felt like it was going to be too tight for his chest and shoulders to fit through. He blew out all the breath in his lungs to try to make himself smaller, and pushed hard with his legs. With a lurch, he felt his shoulders clear the obstruction, but as he was shinnying through into the space beyond, something jabbed through the heel of his left shoe and bit into the sole of his foot.

"Got him! He's in here!"

He was through now, and there was space to breathe. He dragged himself forward through the shallow water, and came up onto some dry sand and rocks. He seemed to be in a cavity big enough that he couldn't feel the walls. 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, and there was no way he could outrun them. He would have to wait here, and hope that there was no way into this space that would be wide enough for them. There was more yelling and splashing. With both hands he tried to grip his ankle tightly enough to slow 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 Lily. It didn't really matter about him now, but he hoped the noise of the men shouting had given her enough warning so that she could get away.

After 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, and he felt like throwing up.

He 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 purplish. It was nowhere near sunset now, though, was it? Maybe more time had passed than 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 could see the Bugs that were buzzing past him. He was beginning to think that the cave 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 into a 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.

The light was coming from a glowing object, half-submerged in the water, metallic and fashioned in the shape of a pear. Its surface was perforated, and the Bugs were flying in and out of it. He felt its heat, both directly on his 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, prostrate, in the steaming water. By turning his neck, he was able to get his nose and one eye out into the air.

Lying 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 Bugs, and other, bigger shapes. It was their queen. Jeff knew that it was their queen, even before he saw what it was doing: making babies, making babies.

The End


© 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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