Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

The Francher

by Rob Hunter


"My great-grandfather said if he built what his customers wanted, he'd build a faster horse. Now we will build what our customers want."

--Ford Chief Executive Bill Ford, 2006.

An odor of mint attracted the francher to an unpromising patch of brown scrub. It spread its fetlocks, a legacy of embedded Przewalski horse genes, and arched its neck down to feed. It munched contentedly for some minutes then collapsed. The francher's nostrils flared as it gulped at the thin unsatisfying air. Wide speckled eyes bulged; oval pupils stared. A pounding bright blue sky watched, thin and close, as the francher's body stiffened. Under the brilliant glare of the high, dry sun its knee joints cracked, emitting soft popping sounds. An Andean vulture circled closer.

####

Barry Jillson stepped into the waiting elevator and called out a floor. "Sixteen." The elevator did not reply. The expected female voice, suggestive yet aloof--omnipresent throughout the GMO campus--was silent. The bay lighting flickered, the car dropped an inch then shuddered to a stop as the automatics cut in. A growl from the sub-basement as an auxiliary generator sent the car homing back to its threshold.

The elevator spoke. "What floor, please..." languorous, almost sexual. It was a synthesized voice with a detectable mechanical edge.

"Oh, you're back. Sixteen. On a coffee break?" The doors lurched shut.

"Watch the closing doors..." The doors were already closed. Another brownout.

There was a cough from the sub-basement and an odor of diesel exhaust. The lights brightened then dimmed before flaring into full luminescence. The door opened. "Floor please?"

"Sixteen."

As the doors slid shut, partially blocking the fumes from the standby generator, a young woman made a desperate charge for the car shouting, "Hold the doors. Hold the doors!" Jillson slapped the rubber safety edges and the woman slid past. "Hey, thanks."

"Sorry. Overcapacity." The car shuddered to a stop between floors.

"You'll get used to it. New here?" The young woman smiled at Jillson. "Melanie. Melanie Gamertsfelder. What's yours?"

"Sixteen, godammit," Jillson said. The elevator did not reply. "There is no overcapacity. There are only two of us."

"Watch the closing doors." The elevator heaved and rose in its shaft. "Have a nice day."

Jillson turned to the woman. She seemed to be waiting for a reply. "Jillson, Barry Jillson."

"Ahh... I was afraid for a while there that I'd be calling you by a number. And you don't look sixteen. More like forty, I'd say." A row of freckles danced across the bridge of Melanie's nose as she made a shy grimace. "Sixteen is Product Development..." Melanie pronounced the words with distaste. "You are a biotechnician," she added.

"No, I'm from Legal." Good-looking, thought Jillson, ...and she knows it. I must be the first new face she's seen in three years. "...and forty is a bit old for you is what you are thinking?"

Melanie blushed becomingly. "You're going to see the witch," she said.

Witch. "I'm here to see Dr. Francher. Is she a witch?" Jillson smiled--his best try, but then he hadn't had much practice. And little with attractive young women.

"Oh, no. Though sometimes she'd like you to think so. They named them after her, you know. Here's my extension." Melanie flashed her company ID. General Motors Organics, Melanie Gamertsfelder, Marketing Liaison--followed by a number. The distant generator ground to a stop, echoing dimly in the shaft.

####

A Bell L-4 LongRanger landed on a slate outcropping in the central Andes. The dust raised by its rotors stung the eyes and irritated any exposed skin. "Salt," said the chopper pilot. He had been here before. But not often--replacement parts were hard to come by.

James Edward Locker--Big Jim--unlatched his safety harness and undogged the helicopter's passenger hatch. On the ground he threw up, gasped for air in the thin atmosphere and leaned into the side of the chopper for a series of runner's stretches. "Cramps," he grinned to the pilot. Big Jim threw up again.

"Altitude," said the pilot.

"Fuck you," said Big Jim Locker. "Where's the franchers?"

"There's a dead one under that pile of vultures." The pilot fired off a pistol round and the feeding vultures looked up, curious but not alarmed. The Altiplano was theirs. The pilot tossed down a thermos and a bottle of pills. "Acetazolamide. Take two."

"Damn things make me pee."

"If you enjoy barfing, headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, drowsiness, and cerebral edema, then don't take them. It's all the same with me." The pilot reached out for the pills.

"Fuck you sideways," said Big Jim Locker as he knocked back the pills.

"Burraow. Hick. Hick." A llama-like creature approached with bared teeth, its tail up. The francher stood with head and ears erect, mouth open. A split upper lip curled derisively to display its fighting teeth.

####

Six thousand six hundred eighty-six point-nine kilometers to the north, Dr. Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher approached the paddock at General Motors Organics in Flint, Michigan. This close to the former factory sites toxic residue in the soil precluded food use for humans even after fifty years. Harvesting parties came, carrying weapons and riding armored threshers and combines. The crops were destined for the fermentation vats to feed the Organics.

A llama came over to the chain link fence. Dr. Buitrago pushed her hard hat back and fitted a respirator over her lower face. She hummed a low-pitched warbling as if she were imitating the purring of a large cat. The Organic's ears perked up. "Burraow. Thurrump, thurrump. I am orgling. Getcha hot, Barney?" she asked as it approached.

The Organic orgled back at her. "Burraow. Hick. Hick." It pawed the ground and bared its fighting teeth.

"Wrong answer. Thurrump, thurrump, thurrump is what I wanted to hear." She drew a 9mm pistol from the holster at her side and fired three rounds in rapid succession into the animal's head.

####

One hundred twenty-one kilometers to the southeast in Grosse Pointe Estuary, Claude Ellis smelled burning hair and reeled back coughing. A flare-up had set off the scalplock that swung at his side. He undid its knot and let it fall to the ground. Goddammit. "Helen! Did you get the methane tanks refilled?" The gas grill where he had been superintending a line of rib-eye steaks died with a tiny blue sputter.

"Ye-esss." His wife's voice came warily over the twittering of children at play. "Yesterday, sweetheart. Did you remember to turn on the valve?"

"Uh-huh. On." He thought he had. He grabbed a set of jeans off the washline and beat out the flaming hair. Helen bitched and moaned when he wore his scalp belt in front of the kids; grilling was the only time he was allowed to strut his trophies. Claude felt the first suggestion of a white rage, should he allow it, come slithering up his spine. His knuckles whitened as he fought it down. Sidetracked by the problem of the moment, he walked behind the massive red brick barbecue to where 80-gallon methane tanks--thirty-two in all--had been daisy-chained together. The rage hunkered at the base of his neck to wait. Next time.

"Burraow. Thurrump, thurrump, thurrump." Wide speckled eyes with oval pupils looked questioningly at him.

"Holy shit. Sweet bleeding Jesus." The creature had the severed end of a methane hose in its mouth and was chewing as if deep in thought. Claude smelled gas.

"Thurrump, thurrump." The Organic pulled back as Claude reached for the half-chewed gas line between its teeth. "Hick, hick," the beast's upper lip curled to show three pairs of fighting teeth, two upper pairs and one lower pair. There was an odor of methane as it belched.

"It's a francher," said Helen Ellis. "The things they make at GMO? They are dangerous."

Claude crossed himself. "Jesus, Helen." She had invoked the name of the enemy. A shadow, swift and low, passed between them and the sun; they ducked from reflex. The GMO chopper pilots liked to make occasional strafing runs on outlying farmsteads. They did it to no apparent schedule.

Claude straightened and shielded his eyes to scan the sky: a homing pigeon circled the house. It took a tentative spin at the grill where the byproducts of burnt flesh clung in a tight, dense cloud. The now-charred steaks--cut from boneless prime rib, thirty-six hundred colorful, inflated dollars' worth--gave off a rank, chemical smell.

"And I wish you wouldn't wear those things in front of the kids."

"We'll see." Claude shushed his wife and left the Organic chewing on the methane hose. He stuffed the still smoldering scalp back into his belt and stroked it lovingly. The safe arrival of the bird meant rendezvous time--gas to cook the mash, whiskey to trade for the gas to cook the mash to make the whiskey. The pigeon veered around and settled on its roost as the incinerated steaks dissipated on a light afternoon breeze.

Claude reached into the dovecote; the bird's throbbing body barely filled one of his big hands. Claude kissed it, mouth to beak, and removed the message cylinder tied to its leg. "Guess you want to get laid, huh? Go to it, buddy." He released the bird and it was welcomed back with appreciative cooings. "Talk English, Godammit." Life was good and he still had his pigeons, but the bird had been over two months with the Frenchmen. Claude pried the lid off a plastic barrel, scooped out a handful of hybrid corn and threw it after him.

The Over-Homers--Canadians from Chateauguay and Trois-Rivières--paraded their trade talk and swaggered, and didn't that get him some pissed-off. But they got a hold on the gas commerce early; you had to hand it to them. Claude and Helen ran a whiskey still with Dotty and Ted, the neighbors. It was a profitable sideline.

####

At a brainstorming session with relevant personnel from Creative, the brand manager from General Motors Organics reached into a carton on a table piled with mechanical art.

"Get in touch with our frontier past, lean and Levi's, the whole mishigass. Explore the mild West with your own Organic: sloganeering, semiotics at work. But what it is really about is distribution, infrastructure. 'We feed the Breed,' now there's one hell of a hook." Sid Landrigan surveyed his catch of the day--probably the best he would ever do, considering. He tore open a cellophane bag and dumped the contents over a billboard proposal. The bag's contents were refrigerator magnets shaped like tiny llamas. Sid's title was North American Sales Manager.

"All those gas stations, supply routes, connectivity. In place, a whole network." Sid trailed off. He had lost them. A copywriter from the agency was staring out the triple glazing of the conference room's sole window to where a perimeter of razor wire and guard towers disappeared gradually to an indistinct horizon. Another attendee, an attractive young woman with great legs, was absently digging inside her ear with a coffee stirrer. "Ahem." Sid cleared his throat.

The young woman looked up, "You forgot the hostiles, Sid."

Who the hell was this person? Sid rummaged through his salesman's memory vault for the girl's name. She caught him staring and tugged at the hemline of her minimal skirt. Names and faces--his stock in trade. Melanie. Melanie Gamertsfelder. Melanie--wasn't she screwing some guy from Legal? Behind its razor wire General Motors Organics was a tightly-knit shop; you made do with what was on hand. She was probably reporting back everything he said. So be it.

Melanie was still talking, "Rust never sleeps. Crazy Horse?"

Sid reclaimed eye contact. "I... what?" He wondered if he had missed anything. "Crazy horse...?" She looked smug at having caught him exploring her enticements and was waiting for him to catch up with the historical reference. Patches of jaundiced yellow had discolored the length of her thighs like a topographical map of futility; she wore the Stain. The backwoods zealots called it a judgment. Great legs, notwithstanding.

"It's an old Rock N Roll band?--from before. What hasn't been siphoned off has been blown up. And the infrastructure is junk--no gas." She re-crossed her legs, allowing a flash of Promised Land as if to imply Sid would never get to go there.

"It's not a horse, Ms. Gamertsfelder; it's an Organic. And not gas--methane. Pony rides for the kids, though--did I mention that?" Melanie was now staring at his fly. Sid looked through her at a point in space. "And they don't shit, they respire. Like a composting toilet that mows the lawn, hauls the family wagon to the Pick N Pay for the weekly groceries. And nuzzles your hand for a sugar treat."

"No infrastructure, no more, not nowhere." Melanie Gamertsfelder returned to doodling on a yellow legal pad. "Abandoned, left to rust." She shifted in the chair and tugged again at her hemline.

"Of course, with heavy use there are solid wastes. No smell, though." Yellow pad, yellow skin. The inoculation didn't work--everyone knew that; he had gotten one himself. "At least not an unpleasant smell. Sort of like a cat's litter box. You like cats?"

"Bullshit. But very evocative, Sid." A small, tightly-knit woman in her early 60s had entered the room. She wore HazMat coveralls and a hard hat. "Their exhalations kill, what Marketing would call a downside. It's all that methane, but you have to suck up a whole lot for a lethal dose. Did you guess that? Good boy, of course you did. Here we are at the end of the world and I do my stuff, you do your stuff, and Corporate just keeps on hustling a buck--there is no spiritual vacuum."

Legs squeaked as Melanie Gamertsfelder pushed back a chair for the newcomer. "Their breath kills..." Notepad and doodles set aside, Melanie leaned forward. "And they can only live on the Altiplano?"

"Silly girl. They can thrive in Toledo and Grand Rapids. In a slightly altered, much less combative form." The woman gave Melanie an intense look. "The Altiplano, then, is it? My, but you are well informed. I'll just bet you are a fountain of information for any interested parties. Well, tell them to forget about it. The Organics get short of breath, a thing a proper llama would not do. And the Organics are finicky eaters. That is because of Przewalski horse genes--talk about putting fruit fly DNA into kumquat."

"Then why not use those--the Grand Rapids Organics?"

"They are defenseless."

"I beg your pardon?" said Sid Landrigan.

"Sid, Sid, Sid. Humanizing the product sells Mickey Mouse and Bambi, but Organics are non-human creatures. They appear to be small horses, the Disney effect at work. The mossbacks at Ford wanted to get some extra mileage out of their proprietary brand. The Mustang? Cute."

"Cuteness sells, Doctor. Besides, the pilot organism was up and running at the time Ford Organics absorbed GMO. They are transgenic organisms created in the laboratory--and by you, I might add. By you and hundreds of millions of research dollars courtesy the stake-holders of General Motors Organics. Why didn't you try an animal that at least gave milk? Goats, cows--a Basset hound even."

"Ever try getting that number past Marketing? I did. They sat me down and patronized me. If it moos, Sid, my old and rare, we're fucked. People would rather ride a bicycle."

"Hmm... bicycle..." Sid had been distracted by a suppressed giggle. A gaunt, youngish-looking man with an unruly shock of orange hair was doubled over, hands in his lap. Harry Fenderson--wasn't he one of those propeller-heads from over in Engineering? Harry had been staring out the window. He was looking wistful, a bad sign; Sid prayed he wasn't jerking off. "The world, Mr. Fenderson, is on the brink of collapse and it's all I can do to hold a meeting together for an hour. Harry?" A handheld device was sheepishly placed on the table. Miniature sorcerers and dragons gamboled in living color on a tiny screen. "Sorry, Mr. Landrigan."

"Work with me, Harry. Dr. Buitrago, we are, you and I both--Harry too, God help us--employees of a multi-national that for over a hundred years has been promulgating testosterone fits in the male population by equating transportation with muscle, image, style and sex."

"And increased lubricity in the female, I'll give you a free pass on that." Ann Mari Buitrago, Ph.D. Neuroendocrinology, Rutgers University, 2016, stood and, scooping a llama magnet from the table, slapped it to her forehead. It stuck. "And they say women have no capacity for abstract reasoning."

"Ouch." Sid took a backward step, as if distancing himself from the concept.

"But right on the mark. Abstractions--almost always never. Usually. Mustang, my ass. Like I said, this is bullshit. I quit."

"You can't quit, Dr. Buitrago. It's your project."

"Not any more. When I am dead, I will have left Big Jim Locker, the Organics--and you, the corporate you, that is--a surprise." The llama magnet peeled away from her forehead and fell to the floor tiles where it bounced once.

Sid Landrigan made a fluttering gesture. "You look to be in great shape. That won't be..."

"Next Tuesday. After dinner. I have a little farewell fling scheduled. You are not invited."

####

"Hi there, neighbor."

"Howdy." Claude and Ronnie looked suspiciously at the two men who came on foot leading a pack mule. They wore patched white coveralls and the brassard of the Michigan Confederation. They went unarmed in pairs, the more fools they.

"This land yours?" Behind them was a trampled path through the parched tassels of the field where corn was left out to dry on the stalk, to be harvested later.

"Most likely." It was a bright fall morning and the dust of the men's passage followed them and hung in the air when they stopped.

"Snaring rabbits?"

"Guess so. Can't deny it," Claude gave a tight laugh and nodded toward his twelve-year-old son who carried a five long-eared hares slung on a string over his shoulder. Claude looked from Ronnie to the government men. "You trampled my corn."

"Mighty fine stand of corn. A man could brew up a kettle or two of liquor."

"If he had a mind. Wanna taste?" Claude pulled a flask from his rucksack.

The man looked relieved. "Don't mind if we do." The man reached for the flask and came away with the hilt of Claude's bowie knife protruding from his stomach. "Why...?"

"Ronnie. Now," said Claude. There was the report of an ancient single-shot .22 and a small hole appeared between the second man's eyes. "Good shot, son." If he'd sat by and let the epidemiology crews kill off his homing pigeons, there'd be rendezvous all right, but not for him--he would never know about it.

Claude and Ronnie dragged the corpses to the pond and sunk them there weighted with stones. Claude supposed those two to be last of the lot. There were no more callers.

"Figure the percentages," Claude told Helen in bed that night. "A million and a half dead the radio said. Do the numbers: million and a half, that's small change against the total population. Of course the government always lies. Do we know anyone ever died of the flu? Remember that rendezvous I let you come along: you got freaked and made a run for it. Missed all the fun 'cause you were afraid of catching something."

Helen remembered. Claude had followed her home with a full Mason jar of gold teeth as a peace offering. That was when he started wearing his trophy belt.

Only the Over-Homers had the secret of capturing and compressing methane and they were not about to share. The Over-Homers guaranteed free passage for all who came to trade. Going for a piece of the Canadians' action, the Detroiters tried to set up a rendezvous of their own at the Port Huron Portage. A confrontation turned bloody and the Detroiters now wintered-over at St. Claire Shores. The Over-Homers had the bullets and the hired men to back them up. Ted Baillargeon and Claude Ellis liked that; in the woods you were anyone's game.

In fairness to the former owner of Claude's prize scalp, a wayward Detroiter lost in the woods, he had never heard of Claude Ellis; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been dead anyway, along with a whole lot of others. The Over-Homers most likely caught them sniffing around and shot first. The Canadians were OK, not like the government men: rendezvous, free food, free whores and no trouble. The Over-Homers owned the lakes with their wood-fired sternwheelers--their methane cargo too valuable to burn--downriver from Sarnia to Lake St. Clair where Grosse Pointe was an open city. Claude and Ted showed up late for the slaughter but not too late to pick over the corpses.

####

"Shh... she'll hear you. She doesn't ah... communicate well." Harry Fenderson, General Motors Organics Product Engineer, was conducting a visitor. They didn't get many visitors on the sixteenth floor. Not lately. "With human beings--people, you know. You don't want to spend too much time with her. She talks like one of those AI programs--programmed to bust your balls. They say she named the thing after herself."

"Talking about me again, Harry?" The woman was short, wide-hipped but athletic; her voice was muffled. She wore a hard hat and a self-contained positive pressure respirator.

"You are the main attraction, Doctor." The product engineer broke off his sentence with a self-conscious, embarrassed laugh.

The woman removed her hard hat, let the respirator dangle loosely from one strap. "Harry's right, you know--about the name. What the guys at Creative first came up with--now get this--was the Wrobot--with a W. Back to the archetypes: robots gain consciousness; robots take over humanity; humanity fights back; shopkeeper hordes storm Frankenstein's castle with torches and halberds. Bad shit all around."

Barry Jillson looked more closely. Aztec bloodlines held at bay what had to be an advanced middle age. Sixty, seventy, even. A handsome woman doing her best against time. A laminated nametag said Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher.

"You are gawking. It's pronounced Boo-oui-TRAH-goh. Everybody says Bu-TRAY-goh. Help yourself. This is my Frida Kahlo look. Like it? I do." Her hair was braided and coiled to give the illusion of added height: long, burnished and black, a macramé confection that achieved an aerial climax several inches above her head. A startling effect. All that glossy black, too black to be natural--vanity, then. She dyed her hair.

The woman stood on tiptoe and patted Harry Fenderson on the head. "You're a good boy, Harry. Go back out front and play with your little friends." The product engineer muttered deferentially and made an awkward retreat. "Mind if I smoke? He can't help it. I'm the tour. And you are...?"

"Barry Jillson, Legal." Christ, she is short, thought Jillson, those heels must be three inches high.

Dr. Buitrago withdrew a green packet of cigarettes and waited--for a light, Jillson supposed. None being forthcoming she shrugged and put it back. "I've got matches in the lab." She gestured for him to follow her. They threaded their way through a maze of corridors. At a door with a biohazard trefoil she stopped. "In here." The door opened into a research library with carrels, shelves and rows of filing cabinets. "Legal, huh? Wow! A pontifex minimus, I should feel honored. You are no more a lawyer than I am. You are a spook, a corporate snitch." She pulled a file drawer out and withdrew a bottle and two plastic cups. "You can cut the 'Legal' crap. We must have an Organic loose somewhere. Cool scenario, an Organic on the rampage. I would expect a visit by the grand frommage himself on that one. Big Jim out at golf? Or has he decided to keep his head down while whatever crisis wears itself out?" She sipped appreciatively at her plastic cup. "Its corn whiskey, all we can get. Musty, an acquired taste. We trade machine parts with the hostiles for it when we're not out shooting at each another."

Jillson made an appreciative grimace and swallowed. "Doctor Buitrago, I am here as a friend. We are only exploring our options in case things get out of hand."

"So it is trouble, then. Not for me, for the Company. They drop the ball and I get a visit from the spooks. Hypothesis: an Organic makes a run for it and kills somebody. And God forbid a noseypoke TV crew with an uplink gets it. Let's see--how's about in the mountains of Wyoming? Wyoming is supposed to be beautiful this time of year, oodles of mutagenic wild plants to nibble; the wind spreads genetically altered pollen for miles. Our hypothetical transgenic stops for a wee nibble and is knocked flat by a long-chain protein polymer that his ancestors never met up with. Uh-huh. It would be dead in a day, a week at the most. My guys don't pose a threat. Sorry."

"Some of your organics do appear to thrive in the wild. James Edward Locker, he is dead. His pilot brought the body--what was left of it--back to the field station this morning. He was shredded like lettuce at a sushi bar. No TV crew. Not Wyoming, Doctor. The Altiplano."

"Ooo." It was a small Ooo, and out of tune with the doctor's in-your-face style.

Jillson nodded sympathetically. "As we see things, Jim Locker made it by steps to the high Andes--one of our antique choppers. The place is pretty damn isolated."

"Tell that to the Incas. The Altiplano--so Big Jim went over my expense vouchers. I never credited him with the initiative to snoop. Mea Culpa. I should have cooked the books but now it's too late. For Jim Locker. Too bad. I did so enjoy getting him wound up." The woman looked up into Jillson's eyes, challenging. "I had a dream for the Organics. Big Jim Locker--and the dumb klutz never caught on that there might be a pun in his name--bought in early: freeways become the footpaths of commerce, diminishing to the horizon in single-point perspective, clogged with foot traffic--man and beast. McLife as we know it wouldn't get much better. On paper. We were lovers, did I tell you that?"

Jillson's jaw dropped as he expelled an all too graphic image of this older woman and the late CEO naked in bed. "Ahh... McLife?" He clutched at the nearest incongruity.

"The hamburger chains. McLife, Big Jim loved that word; he boasted a highly-developed sense of historical irony. He compressed his relationships into mini-experiences, McMoments. And I'm not that worn out, young man. It is a corporate skill to express intimacy in 15 well-chosen minutes. I was younger then; so was Jim." Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher took another slug of corn whiskey. "Alpacaburgers. My guys are too good to end up on a bun." One strand of her aerial hairdo had come loose and she brushed at it, a curiously feminine gesture. Jillson revised his first assessment. The doctor was attractive in an exotic, Latinesque way.

"But they will not all die. Not all," she said.

####

Claude Ellis and Ted Baillargeon dragged their sledge, straining against twin tumplines yoked at the shoulder. They stumbled along a bracken trace hardly well enough defined to be called a path. The 80-gallon pigs were empty but the demijohns of home-brew were a heavy haul; the sledge would be lighter going home. Coming in to the meet-up with the Over-Homers they took different routes when they could. The depth of mud or snow made the choice of a way back for them. This particular route cut across flat terrain, frozen in winter and easier to slide a sledge; they hadn't used it since late March. Ahead the bracken ferns opened onto an upland swamp where jewelweed and stinging nettles kept the idly curious at a distance.

"Shit!" Pushing through a copse of black spruce and deadfall tamarack Claude took a twig in the eye.

"Ted. Wait up." Claude peeled back the eyelid and poked around with a fingernail in case there were loose splinters left inside. He rubbed at the eye until a sort of blurry vision returned. "OK." As he stood, one of the scalps he wore at his waist snagged on a splayed limb. He gave a yank that left a red clump caught behind. The Detroiter had had long hennaed hair, worn in dreadlocks. "Shit." Claude retrieved the lost strands and plaited them back in. As they trudged ahead of the sledge, to the east the pillar of a thunderhead climbed and billowed to an overarching gray and black that filled the horizon. There was a growl of invisible turbine helicopters.

"Like the fuckers are laughing at us," said Ted.

Claude agreed and pulled a rifle from its case between the methane pigs. "In case there's a decent shot." Those GMO pilots were a quick study; their choppers flew in low, coming over a rise before you could react. He studied the wind as he fitted a silencer and extracted a handful of parabellum loads from his belt.

From behind the tamarack copse they had just left, a Bell LongRanger rose, seemingly out of the ground. Claude got off three quick shots, jacking the cartridges as he fell, flattening himself into the swamp. There were three satisfying pings, a contact hit--cockpit or the belly tanks.

Claude shot for spite as there was nothing that could be salvaged after a crash. When they hit a ball of flame erupted, toasting the engineers, executives, private army--whatever--from the GMO tank farm. And burned up all the gas.

####

Buitrago y Francher tamped her pack and withdrew another long brown mentholated cigarette. "Stop me if I am wrong on this, Mr. Jillson. La Paz is out of countenance at having Jim Locker's shredded remains strewn across their sphere of interest. Legal... if you don't mind me saying, you have more the look of a gunslinger than a fixer of parking tickets. You didn't kill him yourself, did you? And by-the-bye, get any fresh tidbits from that little girl you sent to snoop on me?"

How many of those damn things does she put away in a day? Jillson wondered. "Jim Locker's death was unfortunate but an accident. You have nothing to fear, doctor." He made a deflecting gesture. "And why would I be snooping on you? This is your project after all."

"No, no, no, no, help yourself--snoop away. I don't object one little bit. Melanie's quite nice, attractive. Probably smart, too. And I'd just bet she's got her hooks into you already. What surprises me is Jim Locker puddle-jumping down through North to South America, through the hostiles. I mean why not just go around?"

"Thanks for the information. I have, in fact, met Ms. Gamertsfelder. In the elevator. But your saying 'hostiles' implies that there are 'friendlies.'" Jillson made a halfhearted cough to demonstrate disapproval of the cigarette smoke. "The young Turks of La Paz--sorry for the metaphor, but it's appropriate--feel understandably cut off from North America. No matter we've got the former Greenland glaciers lapping at our collective ass. It is theirs for the taking."

"You mean, yours for the taking, do you not, Barry Jillson?"

"I represent certain parties, let's leave things there." Jillson gulped his whiskey. "Anyway, around does not exist as a timely executive option. The LongRangers piss away aviation kerosene 25 gallons to the hour and eighteen choppers are all we have left; La Paz is concerned. But why South America for your private project, the high Andes in particular? It is so, so..."

"Far away? That is why. I, too, have certain friends--old Turks to hijack your metaphor. And no, I do not speak Spanish. I get VIP treatment, did you know that? A translator--the works. My dad wanted his kid to grow up assimilated. I got the DNA of los indios and a taste for flan is all. And I am so pleased that La Paz is concerned with fuel economy."

"Executive junkets on a whim are expensive. Plus, any breakdown and a managerial scalp is swinging on some hostile's belt."

"Hostiles, friendlies. Silly me: we're out of gas. I should get out more, I know--they are all hostiles down on the ground. Only last week a chopper I hitched a ride on took three bullets in the cockpit from a war party headed for Lake St. Claire. The material as well as the spiritual world is running on empty and now it is someone else's turn."

"The franchers?"

"'Four legs good...' That's a literary reference, young man."

"I have read George Orwell, doctor."

####

"Where do they get the fuel to fly, anyway? General Motors Organics have got to be hoarders, the bastards." Claude was home from rendezvous and feeling resentful. It was an unsatisfactory trip.

"Thurrump, thurrump." The Organic looked offended as he snatched away a half-eaten corn cob.

"Can we keep him? Please?" From atop the animal's back three tow-headed kids determinedly stared down at their parents. The francher took a tentative nip at Claude Ellis. Helen started and jumped away, "Honey..." Claude stood his ground; wide speckled eyes with oval pupils stared curiously back at him.

Claude held the corn cob out again. As the francher bit into it, he fished a plug of chewing tobacco from his pocket and held it up with his other hand. The francher looked confused, waited a moment, then chose the tobacco.

"Dad..." The kids were pleading now.

"Well... yeah, sure." Here was protein on the hoof. Claude Ellis temporized. "But you'll have to find something else for him to eat. We need all the corn we can grow for the still. And gas and tobacco are hard come by. Try him out on the compost. Godammit it Helen, if you kept the methane tanks topped off like you are supposed to..."

"Yes, the compost," Helen Ellis quickly agreed. She still nursed a black eye and a broken rib from Claude's last silent, white-faced rage. It was the little things that got him crazy. When Claude was happy, she was happy.

The Ellis children hopped down and led their new pony to the compost. "Thurrump, thurrump." It thrust its nose deep into the heap of rotting corn husks and cabbage leaves. "Thurrump, thurrump." The francher surfaced with a mouthful of cabbage. The Ellis kids cheered.

"We'll call him Wally," said Claude. "Waldorf, get it? After the salad?" We'll fatten the thing up, thought Claude. "Tastes like chicken..." he chuckled to himself. They used to say that for anything this side of a bicycle tire. "Dog, now..." Household pets had been the first to go. He leaned back into the sun-rotted webbing of a lawn chair. There was a reassuring creak as it accepted his weight. Solid comfort. He liked feeling fixed into an undefined future.

As did Helen Ellis. She thought of the Mason jar of gold teeth hidden away in a recess of the cellar stairs. In spite of everything, Claude was a good provider and the big things he took in his stride. It would soon be time to move--shallow as it was Lake St. Clair had pushed a mile inland over the winter. If they could get some of the franchers as pack animals, Well... we'd be sitting fat and happy. Next year said her husband. Next year would be fine.

Rita, Ronnie and Yolanda scrambled down and off, up and on Wally's back by snatching at the thick clumps of his wooly pelt. As long as he could get his nose back in the compost pit every twenty minutes, he was theirs to command.

####

Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher ground out her cigarette with the toe of a platform shoe. "The francher--see, even I call them that--is a metabolic engine, with the proper care and feeding a draft animal. I had hoped to breed the bloodlust out of them. No soap, aggression is recessive. These particular Organics--the ones who killed Big Jim Locker--are fine-tuned to survive only on the Altiplano. My home-grown guys are the ones I worry about."

"Then the franchers of the Altiplano will have to live or die on their own hook?"

"La Paz will close the research station because that is where Big Jim Locker died, Q.E.D.: Eat raisins, shit rivets. They are not pets. The Altiplano franchers are a robust strain. They are capable of taking care of themselves. Like the hair?" She shook loose her luxuriant braids and they fell down past her waist. "Took me almost as long to grow my hair back as it took for my cancer to recur. Ovarian cancer. It used to go to the floor before chemo. Strange weather we've been having."

She's leading me, thought Jillson. "The weather? It's always strange." The announcement of cancer had not been made for sympathy. She wants me to know this for her reasons, whatever they are. Jillson filed the statement.

"We all like to envision a sunny day when we die, a lagniappe sent to usher us to the Other Side. Bluebirds, rainbows and lollipops, it's an ego thing. You can't predict the weather from one day to the next. Laddie--that's my husband--has a cake on order. Yellow and blue icing, quite festive. You can take the girl out of the country, etc. That's a Quechua joke. You may laugh or not--your call."

"I'm not laughing, Dr. Buitrago."

"I'm not doing chemo again. My husband is a dentist, an oral surgeon: Alfonso Francher, Celebrity Dentist. He has squirreled away morphine by shortchanging deserving patients of their painkillers--not enough to matter to them but over the years it accumulates. I have one final mega-dose saved up. Watch and wait."

"Huh?"

"That's what the oncologists tell a cancer patient when they've run out of options. GMO has a problem, Barry Jillson. So hang tough, maybe it'll go away."

####

Ted had come over to ask for help beating back a brush fire that threatened his potato patch--that was how Claude and Helen found out about the Baillargeons' secret stash of fuel. After the breakdown of social order, Ted and Claude eked out a marginal living trapping, trading and dealing in contraband. They held all things in common: the kids hitched to the plow: all hands on deck for harvesting and scavenging: all together with guns and clubs when wanderers from the cities--the dispossessed, the hungry and lost--went foraging through. With the arrival of the Over-Homers, they jumped together at the challenge of freebooting capitalism and built a whiskey still.

Ted ran up out of breath. All around, at street and grade level, the shoulder-high lawns smoldered. He stood, knees flexed and gasping, trying to get the words out. "The backfire I started went the wrong way. Shake a leg; it might blow out the still." The women and the kids were set to passing buckets up while the men strung together lengths of plastic hosing. The water in the pond was near bottom after twelve weeks of drought and the bodies of the two government men had been partially exposed.

They were making some headway wetting down the dry grass where tendrils of fire crept toward the whiskey boiler when the pump coughed and stopped for good. The weary generator, re-jigged to run on the wood boiler when methane was low, had stalled. "Shit." Each time the generator stalled, the line to the pump had to be primed again. Claude and Ted checked the hoses; they had been sucked flat by the pressure and the pump was clogged with mud.

"I got tarps down cellar," Ted shouted. "We can beat the fire out with those."

They ran to Ted's bulkhead door and dived down into the earthy wintering-over smells of carrots and potatoes in the ground. Dotty and Helen followed and hovered at the head of the steps, keeping an eye on the children. Ted started feeling around in the dark, "I've got them somewhere... here."

"Ted." As Claude's vision adjusted to the lack of light he spoke softly, every syllable carefully articulated. "What... is... that?"

Ted backed away, panic growing behind his eyes. "Just a little something put by. Not a lot..." Number 2 burner fuel in 55-gallon drums and half a dozen 250-gallon pressure tanks of methane lined the far wall of the cellar.

"Sooo..." Ted and Dotty were building their own little nest egg without him. He must look a fool. A fragile indefinable balance had been broken and he had to know where to turn, who to trust. He had trusted Ted. "Everything in common. We said that. You are stealing from me."

Claude's hand moved toward the pistol he wore in a shoulder holster. Ted's hand moved simultaneously in an echo of Claude's. "Careful," Helen screamed, "the gas!" Ted wore his sidearm low, at his belt. Claude's hand was closer to his gun. The right side of Ted's face disappeared and he moaned on the floor, giving little shrill yelps. Two shots took out Ted, then Dotty. Dotty was hit full in the chest. Helen cut their throats with a hunting knife.

The discovery changed things and Claude did not like change. He had liked things the way they were. The fuel had not ignited.

####

Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher lit up a fresh long brown cigarette. "Do you play the guitar, Mr. Jillson?"

"No." Jillson coughed. "Are you supposed to be smoking in here?"

"Nope. I do it all the time. See?" Buitrago y Francher held up her cigarettes. "More Menthol--they still make them in Russia. Doesn't bother the Organics one bit. I think they like the mint aromatics, reminds them of grazing."

"I thought the things were supposed to be docile--the perfect family Organic. With a chemical safety interlock, strepto something."

"Pity... Jim Locker played the guitar. Rather well, too. Yes, Streptozotocin, you have done your homework. It was one of the early chemotherapy drugs; we had known it about for years. In a camelid--or a horse analog, we tried those--it becomes a time bomb. They die of starvation. The Andean Organics are genetically booby-trapped; the North American strain are not."

"How long does it take?"

"In the laboratory test subjects dropped like a bag of hammers. My fault, I wanted to talk with them."

"Talk."

"The recessive for aggression is manifest in their utterances, the way they talk. They don't have much to say--warning, challenge. Challenge without a threat: very human, don't you think? The franchers can tear an opponent limb from limb when they are annoyed. Some are irritable all the time."

"But if they don't eat they die anyway."

"Maybe... and with all our tinkering it turned out we made a critter that could metabolize methane. Relativity, go figure..." said Buitrago y Francher as she turned her back on him. "Ain't that a kick in the ass? If you played the guitar you'd have a clue. It's on the fingerboard: the higher you play, the shorter you get. We call the period their 'transcendence.' The slower they metabolize the longer they live." She slid open a file drawer and flicked. An ash dropped, the bottle and cups were replaced and she closed the drawer. "Clean living--that's what will kill an Organic. But you've got to get it to eat its carrots and Brussels sprouts."

"I thought..."

"Whoa, boy. You didn't pick up on the carrot reference. An extract of hemlock root was given to Socrates. The Greek philosopher? Poison hemlock belongs to Apiaceae, the carrot family. The toxic alkaloid in poison hemlock causes paralysis, asphyxia and death. Socrates was judged to be an enemy of the people in 399 B.C. He was condemned to die: They killed himself, death by carrots. That's a joke."

"OK. Let's start all over again. I apologize for barging in here."

"And I conditionally apologize for blowing smoke up your ass," said the doctor. "Conditionally." Buitrago y Francher ground her cigarette out on the spotless polished terrazzo tiles of the floor.

####

The Ellises had some spare oil drums in their cellar and #2 burner fuel was as good as methane for firing the still. "We'll drain a tank, then move it empty for the next one," Claude said. The methane they'd leave where it was, pipe it out as needed. Helen nodded an assent; she was left in the cellar with the bodies of Dotty and Ted to assemble the pieces of copper tubing. "And take their hair. It'll be a lesson to them." He untied the Detroiter's scalp from his belt and threw it at her. "And comb this out."

As he trudged home past shattered street lights and knee-high lawns bleached and burned by wildfires, Claude avoided looking back at the Baillargeons' house. Finicky and fickle, chance spared some, eliminated others. This time it was Ted and Dotty's turn.

While the kids played with Wally, Claude improvised a siphon and unkinked the lengths of plastic garden hose sucked flat when the pump failed. He trailed these behind him across the smoldering seregrass over to Ted and Dotty's cellar bulkhead. "Got it. You about done?" He shuffled down the bulkhead steps and froze. "What..." Where there were two mismatched sections, Helen had wrapped long red dreadlocks around the joint. "Godammit, Helen..." He crouched to unwind the Detroiter's hair. "This is mine." Grabbing her by the ears, he slammed her head again and again against the side of a methane tank. There must have been a leak, some static buildup, a spark.

After the fire and the ensuing explosion that took the gas, the oil and the corpses of the Baillargeons to an apocalyptic hereafter, the Ellises and the children were preoccupied with saving the still and the remaining house.

####

Barry Jillson squinted through eyelids stuck fast with the mucilage of sleep. "Mel...?" The world pulled itself together by degrees, a hazy reality assembled out of far-flung pixels.

"In attendance, and feeling much-loved. I have been watching you sleep." Melanie Gamertsfelder coalesced through an astigmatic haze. She was naked and seated in a cross-legged pose that suggested yoga. Melanie was peeling a lime. "Funny..." Melanie continued with her lime-peeling; she did not look up.

"Funny..." Jillson reached out for her but couldn't quite make it. He fell back, lethargic after inspired, Olympic sex. Christ, she was glorious naked. Melanie peeled the lime slowly, thoughtfully, as if her soul's salvation depended upon the outcome, fingernails insinuating themselves forward under an unbroken spiral of lime peel. Melanie's limes came at three thousand the 5 kilos at Grosse Point Shores where the Canadians had a kind of thieves' market, a dodgy place for grocery shopping if you hailed from GMO. "The limes are for you," he had said. "They say it helps," she had said.

"What's funny?"

"You. You didn't notice. I'm fading; it's going away."

He had noticed. "Your skin--you wear it well." The jaundiced color was returning to a healthy, fleshy pink.

"Why, thank you, kind sir." Melanie rubbed the lime segments into her thighs. She snuggled closer, "I'm all sticky..."

The pandemic had done its worst and was abating. Leaving them--Melanie and him--where? "Let's see..." Maybe she loved him; he said he loved her.

"I thought you'd never ask."

####

"Mr. Jillson?"

"Huh? Yes." Jillson sighed and looked around for Melanie. Her clothes were gone. The cobwebbiness of broken sleep dissipated. The call was to his Company number. "Yes?" Company business, he had left the autopager enabled. "Yes, yes. Barry Jillson. And this is..."

"Laddie Francher. Sorry to call you at this hour. Your machine must have caught you at home."

"I forgot to turn it off. And I'm not at home." Jillson put his hand over the transmitter, "Mel...?" No, she was gone, slipped away after he dozed off. He returned to the autopager. "Francher. Oh, the doctor, Ann Mari. She..." A remembered phrase returned, abstracted from their conversation. "...told me you are a dentist."

"Oral surgeon. Yes, a dentist." Jillson could hear the smile. "Celebrity dentist. I do tooth capping for starlets. Or did when there were starlets. She is dead."

Jillson smelled menthol-tinged tobacco smoke. "When? How?" The doctor had spoken of a planned suicide.

"Oh, an hour ago. Right here, with me. She left a piece of cake for you. She asked me to call you, left a note with this number. Strange weather we've been having. She said you would know what that meant. I don't, if this is any comfort to you."

"To me. Comfort. You are--were--her husband."

"I still am--it's just that she is dead. Could I come by? With the cake: tell that to Security; it should get me through. They were quite fond of her."

Jillson met Laddie Francher at the Security desk. His crinkly gray hair worn short, Laddie Francher was a Zorro, Joaquin Murieta--a Prince of Thieves with his mask off and with a quizzical, knowing turn at the corners of his mouth. He knew a joke, a joke he relished and that he was going to enjoy sharing slowly. He wore a seersucker summer-weight suit and had the social skills that put you immediately at ease.

"It's OK, Hank, I'll escort him myself."

Dr. Alfonso Francher was fitted out with a biometric ID badge and the two returned to Jillson's office. He accepted the offered chair and placed a cardboard box, the kind a boutique patisserie would give you with a single napoleon, in his lap.

"Do you believe in God, Mr. Jillson? Ah, I have embarrassed you; you needn't answer. If we have a God, well... then why not all living things? The beans in your garden surely look to you for nurture and support in time of drought, the bringer of nitrates. Ann Mari believed the Organics had come to look upon her as a divinity, and why not, I ask you?" He handed over the crisply folded bakery box.

"Uh, thank you." Jillson opened the box. Inside was a piece of cake frosted in yellow and blue.

"The Cordillera Occidental--llama grazing lands, lakes, and salt flats. She was at home there in the Altiplano, like coming back to the womb of los indios. It is--was--her heritage, after all. She knew she would die, sooner rather than later, and provided for them, her creations."

"I recall there was a woman who left a baseball team to her cat," Jillson said. "Is that what we are talking here?" He felt a guilty twinge as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He again smelled the mintier-than-mint exhalations of the doctor's long, brown cigarettes. "I'm sorry, Dr. Francher."

"No problem, Mr. Jillson. 'And I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold, there came four chariots from between two mountains; and the mountains were mountains of brass.' That is Zechariah, not Revelation. A pale horse, pale rider scenario, Armageddon later..." Laddie Francher smiled his Latin bandit smile. "And the caballeros apocalípticos come astride a protein molecule. My late wife was a neurologist--viral biology and, alas, cancer, were not her areas of expertise. She could not save herself but had high hopes for the Organics."

"I'm sorry, Dr. Francher, but all this is preposterous. What could she..."

"Good genes, Mr. Jillson. The Organics are quick learners and they need us. But first we have to be domesticated. Humankind are a violent tribe. Take a bite."

Jillson did as he was told. "Carrot cake. Delicious. Oh, Jesus."

"Nonononono. You haven't gotten the Socratic death-dose. Think of it as a farewell chuckle from my wife. She would be happy to know you got the joke. And there is a note." Laddie handed over a piece of paper torn from a spiral-ring steno pad. "It's to you. Read it."

The handwriting was small and precise, albeit with elaborate flourishes, like the doctor herself:

"Sorry I had to leave you with the problem, Mr. Jillson. You piss off one person--a single solitary nabob in the corporate food chain--and suddenly you've got them all on your ass. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't. And if that was the choice, I opted for damned if I do.

"Do not terminate the Organics. Let them live free and forgotten. They may be all we have left. Remember the Orwell quote.

"Cordially, the late Ann Mari Buitrago y Francher."

####

As the last of the fires was beaten down, Claude and Helen, faces streaked with soot and sweat, fell into a pair of lawn chairs. "Hey, we came out even. How's about that?" They looked one another over and broke out laughing. "Hey, you're sexy when you get all sweated up, you know," said Helen.

Claude's broad grin collapsed. "Godammit, Helen. The Detroiter's hair. It's all fucked up--what's left of it." He pulled her up and hit her again and again with his free hand, then threw her to the ground, tossing the ruined scalplock after her. His field of vision narrowed in a white, shimmering rage.

"I know. I'm sorry." A large purple bruise was rising on the side of her face. Helen struggled to find anything to hold up to ward off the blows. Her groping hand found the last package of frozen ribeyes, melted but still cool. She held the dripping steaks between them to ward off any blows.

As Claude pulled a thirty-ounce shingling hammer out of the bottom of a toolbox, Helen Ellis pressed herself far, far into the ground and prayed for death. This was going to be a long one, unless he killed her right off. The three children gaped and backed away.

"You bitch, you fucking bitch. Godammit, Helen, Get up."

"Look. My shoulder," she whimpered. She stripped off her shirt. As an under-layer to the blue and yellow marks--some partially healed, some fresh and welted with red--Helen's skin was a jaundiced yellow. "It's getting better."

"The Stain. You got the inoculation. The one time I let you on rendezvous and you peddle your ass to the Over-Homers for a hit at the needle. Don't deny it."

"I didn't get any needle, I swear it. And look." She undid her jeans and let them fall. "It's getting better. It's going away. Fading... it is... I swear."

Claude dropped the shingling hammer and fell weeping beside his wife. "You got the inoculation. What about me, the kids?" As held her in his arms they began to rock gently back and forth.

"I didn't get the needle. It gets better by itself."

"Helen..." Claude touched his wife. The touch was tender, furtive. They drew one another down and rolled together in the dirt in impulsive, euphoric sex. The children looked up, alarmed, and then went back to slapping at escaping embers. Wally munched placidly in the compost. Yolanda stuck a thumb into her mouth and began sucking furiously.

Later, the Ellises stood together in the long shadows of a Michigan summer evening.

"Too bad about Dotty and Ted," said Helen Ellis.

"Too bad," said Claude.

"Burraow. Hick. Hick."

Helen and Claude, Rita, Ronnie and Yolanda looked to where Wally was savaging the last of the now thawed ribeyes.

"Thurrump, thurrump, thurrump," Wally dropped the steaks, now half eaten, and looked inquisitively at the family grouping, his head and ears erect, mouth open. A split upper lip curled derisively to display his fighting teeth. "Burraow. Hick. Hick."

Claude Ellis stooped to retrieve the fallen shingling hammer.

THE END


© 2009 Rob Hunter

Bio: With the onset of late middle age Rob Hunter is the sole support of a 1999 Ford Escort and the despair of his young wife. He does dishes, mows the lawn and keeps their Maine cottage spotless by moving as little as possible. In a former life he was a newspaper copy boy, railroad telegraph operator, recording engineer and film editor. He spent the 70s and 80s as a Top-40 disc jockey. Mr. Hunter's publishing history can be viewed online at "About" at his website A Rob Hunter Reader.

E-mail: Rob Hunter

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.