The Victor's Heritage
(The Jonah Trilogy Book 2)
by Anthony Caplan
Genre: Dystopian, SciFi, Fantasy
Corrag is a Democravian teenager, smart, funny and bold. Maybe too bold.
It is 2045. America has been shattered into two countries. Democravia and the Republican Homeland. Peace between the two continental rivals is always fragile.
An ill-fated escapade with her boyfriend launches Corrag on a journey of revolutionary impact, driving her to exile in the Nenkaja from which there is no escape. Will she ever find a place for herself in a society dominated by the Augment?
The Victor's Heritage, Book Two of the Jonah Trilogy, is a science-fiction thriller, a roller coaster of a book.
**Meant to be read as a standalone!**
Anthony Caplan is an independent writer, teacher and homesteader in northern New England. He has worked at various times as a shrimp fisherman, environmental activist, journalist, taxi-driver, builder, window-washer, and telemarketer, (the last for only a month, but one week he did win a four tape set of the greatest hits of George Jones for selling the most copies of Time-Life’s The Loggers.) Currently, Caplan is working on restoring a 150 year old farmstead where he and his family tend sheep and chickens, grow most of their own vegetables, and have started a small apple orchard from scratch.
Chapter One --The Augment
Corrag smiled at the idea of Gurgie in her bedroom on Durkiev Drive across town and the shock of recognition when she realized her friend had signed off on MandolinMonkey rather than go in for the remnant. So characteristic of a truly dynamic soul, Gurgie would say, to quit nonchalantly on the verge. But for Corrag the reality was less comforting. She had ten minutes before her parents called for dinner. It was a more complex fear coming over her -- of facing Ricky and Alana, the stalwarts of St. Michael's Close, the exclusive, tree-lined enclave of Edmundstown where she had grown and lived her entire sixteen years. Her parents, the Drs. Lyons as they were titled in the annual consensus, had implied that this talk would be “important to her future.” Whatever that could mean. Something about the boring infinitude of possibilities always just around the corner. Like signing off on the game rather than face the interior of the obelisk, it was easier for Corrag to be present and accounted for -- ride the tide of her parent’s displeasure -- then to make a stand by remaining in her bedroom, the private space she continued to carve out of the increasingly imperiled Democravian Federation life she was about to leave behind.
She observed numbly as the icon came up on the nanowall, the family crest with the towering crane and the stylized image of the transgalactic, so twenty-thirties, and wished again she’d had other siblings, that Ricky and Alana had been more compelled by the recommendations of the Commission on Demography and less concerned with their augmented careers. But so be it. There were also advantages to being the basket in which were placed all the eggs of the Lyons family name. if only the crest design were more compelling. She hit the kill button before the music, theme of HG Wells acclaimed classic The Shape of Things to Come which she had performed during her sixth grade drama season in a stellar role as Hillary Perron, the Council leader responsible for the withering away of the former power of the state of California, the sclerotic, corrupt vestiges of what had once been democratic governance, could end. Now it just reminded her of her parent’s unfulfilled expectations for her development as a young woman about to assume the mantle of augmentation.
She descended the stairs covered in royal blue carpeting and sat at the dining room table of molybdenum, while her father, white beard trimmed neatly and his cardigan in the colors of the University of the Upper West, maroon with cream pockets, beamed at her. Her mother, Alana, continued to talk in that subtle, alluring monotone with hints of New Albion that had entranced many faculty parties on the shores of Mono Lake.
“And I’ve always maintained that tennis induces a better oxygen wash of the skin than yoga, Ricky. Well. Here she is. Corrag? Where is your file?” asked Alana.
“Oh my God. Can I get my food before the interrogation?”
“Of course you can. Don’t be silly,” said her father, trying hard to keep the sound of despair out of his voice. Alana sighed. Corrag hated hurting their feelings, but there was nothing else to be done. This would have to be endured. Not even Alana was going to come out of this smelling of roses. There was probably a word in another language for the moment when a young woman declared her independence from her family without a pre-approved plan in place. But Corrag felt herself destined for a new form of singular existence that depended on taking this risk.
“Have you taken a stab at the essay yet? When is it due?" asked her father, once she had served herself from the tray offered by the housebot of the lasagna and truffles.
“In two days,” said Alana. “It’s getting late.”
“I’m having thoughts about it,” said Corrag. “I’m not sure.”
“Not sure. Thoughts. That’s Corrag for you,” said Alana. “What is sure for you? Nothing is ever sure in your world. You are the classic case of choice overload. We never should have let her have a PlayCube of her own.”
“Let her speak,” said Ricky.
They waited breathlessly, the two anxious parents, while Corrag forked some lasagna and chewed without looking at them.
“Didn’t you always tell me to follow my desires, Dad? Well, that’s what I’m trying to decipher. I don’t really know what my desires are. I don’t know if it’s what I really want. That’s my problem. I want to know. I can’t just plunge ahead into fine-tuning until I do. It wouldn’t be right for me.”
“Right for me.” Alana repeated. She dropped her fork. It clattered on her plate. Ricky grabbed his head helplessly with both hands. The bot, sensing some urgency, circled the table speedily. Corrag waved it away with her hand and looked at it with a hard stare that sent it back into the kitchen through the energy panel.
"This uncertainty of yours is in total defiance of your education and privilege,” said Alana.
“I know,” said Corrag. “But it’s what I want. Until we reach augmentation, we can choose what we want, right?”
“Within reason, Corrag. The parents still have the final say,” said Alana darkly.
“It’s unbelievable, Corrag,” said her father. “There are no more exemptions. Look at the Calder boy. He wanted to take a year and read the books in his grandfather’s library because he said he “valued the experience” of holding the words in his head instead of instant upload. He tried to argue in the consensus - you don’t remember, do you? - that the year of reading was worthwhile. But there were no more exemptions. Do you understand? He was effectively exiled. The only thing left to him was the HumInt Corps. Is that what you want? Hundred mile marches in the swamps where not even the bots can go? Certain premature death? No augmentation means no physical corrections.”
“That’s not true. There are other things,” said Corrag, the color rising in her face.
“Like what?” asked Alana.
“I don’t know.”
“Uugh,” grimaced Alana, her face wrinkling like a prune despite the botulin implants.
Look,” said Ricky. Corrag could see the glint in his eye that told her he was probably in the cloud. “It’s a common condition of human childhood to seek individuation. We try to condition it away, but the vestiges of the trait are stronger in some and may require remedial conditioning. Or else you can choose the Vocag. There are some interesting possibilities. If you like manual work.”
“Okay,” said Corrag. She’d heard it all before, The path of the conversation had taken a familiar tack that apparently was not remembered by her father. But Alana would not have it.
“Do you know what that is? It’s not exactly gravy, is it. Give them run of the greenhouses. How ... utterly tacky.” said Alana.
“So? Somebody has to grow the food. I thought we were all in this together. Hail the Federation. Smile all the while."
“Corrag,” said Alana sharply.
“Look,” said Ricky. “I can accept that you need time. You’ve always been ... different."
"What are you talking about, Dad? I'm just like you. Have you forgotten? You've told me about refusing to play football. How your dad took it hard. How you had to find your own way."
"I know. You're ... different. Yes, like I was once. That’s why we love you. We’ll continue to support you in your choices no matter what.”
“But she doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Give her a year. What if we send her to New Albion to stay with Geoff and Joan. She can work with them, I don't know, the cows and the vegetable garden and get a real taste of life in the Republic. How does that sound, Corrag? It’s a world away from here. You haven’t seen your cousins since you were oh, two years old.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I agree,” said Alana, with the glint in her eye. “At first I thought it was a bad idea. After all, the Republic’s ideas on education and adulthood are very different than ours. I just don’t know how it will sit with the Council.”
“I’ll run it by Mitchell Culpepper. There is the youth emissary program. It’s usually staffed by graduates of fine-tuning, but they may make an exception for me."
“And I’ll get in touch with Joan. There’s the risk of course …”
“Of course. But … paradoxically there are less opportunities for young people in the Repho. The reliance on market forces will always prove inefficient as a mechanism to harness the singularity.”
“Do call Mitchell.”
“I will dear. Tonight.”
Ricky and Alana finished their dinner with occasional glances Corrag’s way. The matter was closed as far as they were concerned. Corrag watched her parents, wondering at their ability to turn on a dime conversationally once all the options had been thoroughly considered. For her, though, a year abroad loomed mysterious and menacing. She hadn’t heard them talk about the New Albion family in forever, and why that would be the best option for her was not clear. Corrag had, in the back of her mind, figured they would find a way to get her private tutors to prepare for augmentation, with some kind of mental health dispensation. Sure it would have channeled her into the arts, but that was where she felt at home, without the responsibility for determining the way forward for the entire civilization. Just entertain us, that was the mandate for the ArtSmile corps coming out of the Federation system. Most of their recent mindscapes and challenges were pretty bland. The occasional bootleg memes from Sandelsky, the main branding of the Republic that teenaged hackers sometimes spread around the play spheres, far outstripped Democravian productions in technical flair; and they just seemed deeper, somehow more important.
She advanced around the dark corner. The street was empty except for a parked vintage Bundeswehr quadcopter on the right. She passed it and lifted her head. In her hand she hefted the laser pistol and aimed it at the bonfire about three blocks away. The Mandolin headquarters was a square, black obelisk, modelled on a classic Anish Kapoor sculpture. The fire raged around its doors and she had to shoot her way through a crowd of ripper monkeys. They were easy. They always aimed right for your head and all you had to do was duck several inches and fire back at the same time in their general vicinity. The game makers had been recently faulted at a consensus for setting the adversarial level purposefully down market in order to secure continued funding. For Corrag, the subtext was clear. Life was a popularity contest. No matter how efficiently the council liked to think it was going you couldn’t do away with the basic human flaws of wanting, desiring, seeking what was out there. Greater RAM speeds and advanced neural networks had never gotten to grips with the pattern-making propensity of the human brain and the magnetic allure of pleasure which threw up the energy-matter continuum all around. MandolinMonkey did a good job of smoothing the jolts of scenic transition and stimulating the pituitary with each new level attained. Still, she found herself impatiently bypassing the obvious level trap with a joystick function and flying down the hallways unmindful of lesser adventures and parallel opportunities. Above and behind her avatar there sprung two Greckels, stoat-like creatures capable of quick extensions and sharp tears at limbs and throats. They were Gurgie and Mathew.
“Come with us,” said a high-pitched voice.
She had five seconds. She knew she should check the table for power surges at least, but she felt compelled to follow. If they were leading her astray, so be it. She would find a way to dodge an ill end, as the game makers called it. Her avatar, an Elfin, had the power over water and fire and so was a logical complement to the Greckels’ slippery land capabilities. What the game lacked was dimensionality of power, the ability to shape shift and entertain various outcomes at the same time. But for now it would do. In the end, win or lose, the only thing that mattered was displaying the innovative spirit that the Founders wanted in the future leader corps. Once you had that hacked, everything else was an easy trick. The person that had taught her the shortcuts that had helped her to climb the ranks Federation wide was Ben Calder. Where was he now? Was he still alive? Or had the stint in the Humint Corps in the Basin wars possibly killed him, as her father had suggested? A cold stab of fear hit Corrag at the thought of Ben dead.
They were in the obelisk. Corrag wondered how they had gotten in. Down the hall the two Greckels paused and stood on their hindfeet at a nanowall display. There in a neon gothic font flashed the message: Be a Vence with us at the Spring Fest. The Vences were a rebel punk band from the twenties, one of Gurgie’s favorites. She had their songs posted all over the soundscape in school. The Vences had painted their faces in ghoulish camouflage colors and had flouted the ideals of physical perfection and the singularity long enough to gain themselves a diehard following. Gurgie’s parents had been fans and so had Ricky, in his youth. But he hated their music now and cringed whenever Gurgie came over for a visit trailing “Blast Me Down Andromeda” out of her loose earpiece.
“Very smooth, Gurgie,” said Corrag, pressing the joystick dialogue button beneath the thumb hold. The Elfin jumped and clapped, signifying acceptance of a strange, land-based phenomenon. Corrag smiled at the clever algorithm that had allowed her avatar to anticipate her feelings. Then the Greckels faded into the ether and she was alone. A blank look on the Elfin’s severe, drawn face was intriguing, as if she were pondering the significance of life. Corrag saved and hit the power off with her index finger, before any other competitors could appear to threaten her, and lay down on her bed. Sometimes the Elfin almost seemed to come alive and read her mind. That was the most frustrating thing, the apparent gap between her capabilities and actual human feelings. There were some who believed that bots had already made the transition, but Corrag was not one of them. For a while she had believed, and her parents and teachers still fostered the foundational concept, that humans and bots would soon be equals in thought and feeling. But for Corrag the issue was now moot. In the last year, she would guess, she had come down thoroughly on the side that this equality was neither necessary nor desirable. Not that she dared to voice the opinion. It would place her beyond the sphere of Democravian influence and deem her “inconvenient” for continued leadership training. Because the ideal of the Democravian way ever since the initial founding of the institutional state in 2022 was to raise a cadre of youth who would merge with the bots in order to undergo the transgalactic mission -- colonize the most desirable Earth-like habitable planets, 23 of them, that had been so far identified as potential targets in the Milky Way. And in the intervening two decades since the first councils and consensus meetings, the notion of youth had of course expanded so that almost all citizens with the appropriate formation could potentially qualify for merger. It was this very accessibility to the highest ideals of the state that gave Democravia its missionary fervor, its self-styled exceptionalism, and made it all the harder for Corrag to accept that she was swimming against the stream. Though she knew, in the darkness, under the sheets, about to fall asleep in the silence of the Edmundstown night, that she was not really alone.
Edmundstown Senior School was divided into two floors, the Upper Deck and the Lower Hall. On the Upper Deck, Corrag took most of her classes except gym. Miss Schilling taught the humanities block for advanced seniors. They were touching on the literature of the transgressives, in the context of the decline of the West and the rise of the plural. Miss Schilling was a bright-eyed thirty-year old. Mathew and Gurgie sat in the front row and laughed at her references to James Joyce as “that old man in the trench coat hiding in the sand dunes.” Corrag sat in the back row between Julian Alvarenga and Prualyse Kopeckwitz. She wondered what was that funny about Joyce. Was it his notion of the circularity of time, so maligned and disparaged? Miss Schilling, with her bright smile and sharp hairstyle, looked at her as if reading her thoughts.
“And of course you have had the night to reflect on the links to our core curriculum factor nine, and that is what? Corrag?”
It had been flashing on the wall at the beginning of the class along with a soundscape by SwiftBoat.
“Oh yes. The need to transcend individuation and internalize utility.” said Corrag.
“And how does our study of Joyce tie in?”
“Well, I don’t quite know. I mean, yes, there were a lot of voices, but isn’t it admirable for a man to try and capture the essence of his reality like that?”
“But the end result is a cacophony. A cacophony that at best yields a meager portrait of one individual’s disillusion and bitterness. Democravian artists have dwarfed the possibilities of the transgressives. To end, Corrag, with Molly Bloom reminiscing on the romantic past, I’m sure you’ll agree. Such a shoddy counterfeit of reality. When we compare that to the works of the Ontavians, collaborations that we will look at next week that mix the perspectives of symmetry and harmonics, it will all be clear,” said Miss Schilling. Gurgie turned around and gave a hard stare.
“But it’s about the common people struggling with the weight of history. Isn’t that a part of what Democravia represents?”
“It’s not good enough, Corrag. Not good enough. It disparages women.”
“But so does The Great Gatsby Look at Daisy. Irresponsible and careless and destructive.”
“Yes, but Fitzgerald identified the malaise. the lack of tether in the primitive, unwashed American soul. The need for correction. The inevitability of self-destruction. That is a seminal work. if only Fitzgerald had correctly identified Zelda his wife as a collaborator in his life work. The myth of the heroic male was still too strong. There were too many economic factors at work in its perpetuation. You’ve seen that in your history block. I want you to reference the SwiftBoat parody of masculine artistry. Nietzsche and Me. You’ll find it in Unit 28, I believe in the Library archives for this course. In your reflective piece tonight remember to present in a visually appealing manner and to comment on the works of at least three of your fellow students. That’s all for this morning, students. Smile all the while.”
Julian Alvarenga smiled wanly at her.
“Nice try, Corrag. Going for the gusto, aren’t you?”
“What is that, Julian? An obscure reference to 20th century advertising? Let me guess. Cigarettes.”
“Close. Try beer.”
“Try beer. Funny. Very transgressive of you.”
Julian was the first of his siblings to attend the Upper Deck. They were a family of former farm workers, the dark-skinned people of the Valley, mostly displaced, like the majority of work sectors, by the first generation of semi-autonomous bots. He had a permeable quality, as if life was just passing through him that reminded Corrag of a sieve. She looked him in the eye to test her theory. He looked her right back and smiled. This was strange.
“Corrag? Can I see you a minute?”
Miss Schilling lifted her head at her desk. Corrag nudged past Gurgie.
“I’ll wait for you," said Gurgie.
“By the O tank.”
Miss Schilling looked tired. She patted her hair behind her ear and cocked her head at Corrag, who suddenly felt under siege, as if something had popped inside her skull.
“How is that essay coming?” asked Miss Schilling.
“I didn’t think so. I’ve seen this before, you know. I want to help.”
Corrag felt like crying.
“I’m taking a year. My father’s going to clear it with Axion.”
“Looks like poor Corrag is having a crisis.”
“You don’t need to rub it in.”
“I’m a little bit angry, frankly. I offered to help you months ago.” Miss Schilling thrust her hands out on the desk, splayed fingers on the console flashing slogans and cafeteria menus and student visuals.
“But I don’t believe in it anymore, Miss Schilling.”
“Don’t believe in what? Corrag, it’s a poor poet who cannot venerate a doomed civilization. What you’re going through is perfectly natural. Your feelings of nostalgia and ... and anger are the signs of a higher calling. I so much want to recommend you for higher order augmentation. And it’s going to raise questions about the entire program here if you don’t complete the application process for Axion Fine-Tuning. You can’t do that to us, Corrag.”
Miss Schilling was sitting straight up on the chair and suddenly looking at her with that eagle-eyed augmented focus that made Corrag instinctively want to squirm. She looked down and away. Again the easy path beckoned -- to follow along and do what she was told and hope someday it would all be okay. That was the subliminal message, the factor X of the hidden curriculum not just of the Edmundstown Charter School but of the town itself. Perhaps even of Democravia.
More than try. Put in the Corrag effort that we all know you’re capable of. Top shelf stuff. Give it all you’ve got. Do it for us, for the Wildcats. For Edmundstown. Make us proud.”
“Is that all?”
Yes, that’s all. Share with me, please. And Corrag?”
“Smile. All the while.”
Corrag got out through the faulty energy panel that zapped her back with a slight zap. The janitor, Mr. Breen, was already coming down the hall on the beat up old Segway with his laser torch repair tool swaying dangerously on the curves against his hip. At this time mid morning the energy grid constantly experienced minor fluctuations as the wind either rose or fell and the water desalination plants kicked in up and down the Kaiser aquifer, giving the bigger power users in the area headaches such as energy panel misalignments and nanowall absurdities. Mr. Breen smiled at Corrag as he would at a senior with some insider knowledge of these sorts of problems. Gurgie leaned against the wall and Mathew looked up and down the hall nervously at the river of well-dressed and contented Upper Deck students in their paisley and Kubik patterned neoprenes with the various interchangeable logos of self-satisfied Democravian memes. There were few other teachers in the Upper Deck as most of the classes conducted via upload and lecture needed only administrators to assist with student work in the study hall blocks. Miss Schilling had only a few more semesters of small class teaching before she would move on in the Axion system to upload lectures in a regional class encompassing the Western and Middle Southern districts.
At the O tank, Corrag fastened the mask to her face while holding her standard issue ExePad tablet in the other hand. The O had a sweet aftertaste. They added something to it, some kind of anesthetic. That was the rumor anyways. And on some days there was a caffeinated mix that heightened the fervor of students about to embark on a school-wide mission, one of the collaborative, experiential pieces. The last one, to Haiti, led by Mrs. Wilson, the head of the PTA, had been a disaster. Seven students had caught new forms of the pulmonary virus that had decimated the Caribbean and South America and had needed long stays at the BethIsrael-XenKai Hospital in Matamoros.
“So Corrag. Do you have anything to say?” asked Gurgie
“Yes, I saw your visual. And yes, Of course I’ll go with you to the Spring Fest. What did you think?”
“Well, you have been acting very strangely lately,” said Mathew, eyeballing her with mock augmented focus.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind. I haven’t finished my application essay.”
“Why not?” asked Gurgie. “You can’t be thinking about transferring to the Vocag?”
“Jesus, Corrag. You need to come with us tonight.”
“Okay. I said I would. But more importantly: How do we dress? We’re a team, right? Forget the Vences. Everybody’s going to do that. I have an idea we go as Daisy and Tom and Gatsby. I’ll be Gatsby. I have the perfect idea for a pants suit that my mother used to wear. It’s in a box in the attic.”
“But I thought we had discussed going as Joseph in The Assistant,” said Gurgie.
“No, I was going to be Tobler the Inventor,” said Mathew.
“Oh, that’s right,” said Gurgie, distracted by the sudden thinning of students as the next class began. They walked together towards the cafe. Corrag wondered at how easily Gurgie gave up on the Vences. The changes they all went through were happening way too fast and Miss Schilling was having way too big an impact on their social lives. Outside, a flock of small birds flew in a cloud by the energy panels, distorting and magnifying so as to seem a shade, like a hand drawing down upon the three of them as they walked along.
“The thing is,” said Corrag, thinking aloud. “I like Daisy and Tom and Jay Gatz, whereas I don’t like Joseph. He’s too pleasant ... and passive.”
“Exactly. Just like Gatsby. Only the mask never slips,” said Gurgie.
“Well, I’m not feeling very Chinese. But I am feeling destructive,” said Corrag with a cackle, turning and leering at Mathew and Gurgie.
“Okay. Springfest is our last fling at childish role-play. So you want to celebrate that bourgeois trope of creative destruction. Be our guest,” said Mathew.
“I just want to have fun,” said Corrag coldly. “Mathew.”
“Oh, God. Fun. Right, I forgot how important that was to you,”
Corrag’s brows wrinkled. Mathew was upsetting her.
“Doesn’t mean we all feel the same way.” said Mathew
“You’ll feel just like Miss Schilling wants you to feel, which is to say not feel anything at all. Isn’t that the preconditioning? Too numb to think for ourselves so we take on the augmented way and don’t have ourselves to answer to any more. How convenient.”
Mathew and Gurgie looked at each other, letting their confusion about Corrag’s defiance of the Democravian ethic of obedience just show in the glance held between them.
“Corrag. Okay. We’ll go as Daisy and Tom and you can be Gatsby. But we’ll be Daisy and Tom as Walser’s Chinese, as the assistants, and Gatsby will be the Inventor. We’ll turn the two books around.”
“That’s the Gurgie I love the best." Corrag threw her arms around Gurgie and spun in the hall. A teacher, Mr. Aarnits, glared at them through the open doorway of his classroom, and the emosensor directly overhead glowed a warning green.
The crowd outside the Taylor Jabones Civic Center seemed to undulate and throb as the Lyons family van pulled up to the curb. Mostly dressed in velvets and vintage chambrays and shades of purple and green, the colors of the Edmundstown Wildcats, purple for the Upper deck and green for the Lower deck, the students were an unrecognizable and restless mob in the customary spirit of the Spring Fest. Corrag had mixed feelings about the night. She mainly wanted to dance and forget about the issues confronting her at that moment.
“Good night,” she said to nobody in particular as she stepped away from the open door of the van.
“What time do you expect to be picked up,” said the driverbot, speaking from a juncture of the neckpiece and the swivel-cam head. It was Alana’s voice.
“One thirty, please,” said Corrag.
“Not acceptable. Twenty-two thirty at the latest. We will be at the loading station then. Please be there as well. Mind your manners.”
Mind your manners. That was just like Alana, to remind her of the proper way to behave at a Spring Fest. As if she had not been a party-girl herself in her youth, one of the late 2020s leading Unoits who had marched on Federation Councils demanding an end to suppression of the Vallegos and increasing availability of mezzopeptide and corrections to the disenfranchised dwellers of New Canaan, as Democravia had then called itself. Corrag shuddered at the image in her mind of her mother as a young woman just a little beyond her own age.
As she made her way through the sea of bedecked and masked youth of Edmundstown, Corrag kept looking out for the familiar sight of her two closest friends. She had on a mobster fedora over her mass of long curls and a bone white Venetian bauta mask, tight cut Wall Street pants with black neoprene Night Wolf galoshes. A low cut, long, red vintage Hollywood silk coat and in her hands a digital wand-clock with wings finished off the outfit. Somebody jumped into her path with a black Zorro mask and a Spritz gun.
“Who are you?” it asked.
“No. Who are you?” asked Corrag.
“Your best friend.” There were hoots of laughter as the crowd of booters egged him on. Corrag pushed by the group and they sprayed their Spritz guns into the air, letting off the rainbow hues of the plasmic concoction. This caused an outbreak of similar Spritz fire around the pedestrian square in front of the Civic Center. Then the real fireworks began from the roof of the Center, and the crowd went berserk with cheering and shouting. Corrag stopped in her frenetic rush to the entrance steps and watched the waves of exploding color fanning out over her and descending on the crowd from the black night sky. The explosions and the crowd’s reactive shouting merged into a dull throbbing at the back of her mind. Corrag had a flash image of the fireworks she’d seen in the desert at her grandfather Al’s ranch in Sonora. The old man had never been a hand at the consensus and thus remained outside the Democravian orbit until he died. But at his funeral he had been made an honorary recipient of the Arts Benefit Lifetime Award and his books uploaded into the official curriculum of the Augmentation Board, the 14 members from around the world, mostly Republican Homeland and Democravian, who controlled the IPP keys, the core of the Interneural Web, the old INW along whose frequencies ran the entire collective virtual sphere.
Corrag was about to look at her emosponder when she felt a tap on the shoulder and turned around to see two characters from some macabre production of bourgeois musical theater complete with wigs and vintage paper Chinese umbrellas.
“Where did you get the umbrellas? I love them.”
“You haven’t said anything about the matching boots.” said Gurgie. She pushed out her foot and Mathew rolled his eyes.
“Lizard skin. There was a Yaqui Indian in the family service who made them for my brother and I,” said Mathew, his V mask with the smirk in the dim light of the fireworks somehow perfectly fit him.
“Oh, you guys are absolutely the best. Shall we go in? These Spritz guns are driving me nuts.”
“Let’s do it,” said Gurgie.
Inside, the event organizers had pumped up the O to maximum levels and the band onstage was putting out a synthesized auralscape that was also simultaneously being relayed along a local intranet. Dancers were plugged into wireless earclips and gyrating along to the pulsating power chord driven harmonics. Refreshments in the form of fermented Maxergy drinks were being dispensed by generic bots laid on by the Western council, and info-point stands along the perimeter of the hall manned by Democravian council workers were representing the various work sectors, including a recruiting officer of the Democravian Military Defense Wing, a cubicle of mimics and aerobesthetes from the ArtSmile Corps, the VocAg table dispensing samples of hormone replacement snacks from local Valley growers, and of course the Daughters of Harmonious Memory, a social organization that looked after orphans and whose Members had ancestors who had fought in the New Canaanite wars, were flashing images of vintage industries such as the Hollywood cinema, the primitive visualscapes that had once so entranced the old-time ones.
Gurgie, Mathew and Corrag stepped along, driven by the sweep of the crowd into the middle of the dance floor where the lights from the emosensors were pulsating the fastest. The band began playing “Heaven’s Gate”, a classic Spring Fest staple. Dancers jumped together, craning their heads back and pumping both fists in the air to the bass line rocking the hall. They came closer together and then fell back like a human wave, the youth of the Valley celebrating the apogee of the year. The rockers with the Spritz guns, along with the girls, many of them costumed as simple sex workers or in jury-rigged uniforms with the insignia and the classic meme of the HumInt Corps, Ridet Geritur, linked arms on the outside of the dancers and began to circle. And then the choreographed symbolic imagery was lost, subsumed as the dancers spilled out beyond the circumference of the steppers.
When the song ended, Corrag looked around, slowly coming back to her senses. She unsnapped her earclip and felt her way towards the outside of the dancing mob with her hand. The next song increased the intensity, and the circle of Lower Deck steppers renewed their boundary walk. Corrag waited for the right moment, a lull in the energy pattern, and broke out through the human line. She walked over to the refreshment valve and slipped on an O mask. Her head cleared and she felt for an instant a sense of euphoria, somehow almost organic, as if she were suddenly light years away, on a distant moon of her own, with no impinging concerns about the future and what it held weighing her down. She wished she could hold on to the moment, even better, share it with someone.
All the Zolafs and Buzzyears and the Hillaries and Eunique Biebers, they were all kids she would have known from Lightning Leagues or fencing classes or the myriad theatrical productions she’d been in through the grade and middle schools. Corrag found it fascinating that in this sea of familiar yet bizarre anonymity she was free, free in a way that carried an exotic charge of exhilaration. She had overheard parental stories about the dangers of Spring Fest, about kids not being able to distinguish reality from fantasy and jumping from the upper balconies awash in feelings of euphoria and invincibility. This was their first taste of the augmented way, after all, of the freedom that came with giving up their childish identities. But Corrag wondered about herself. Would she be truly able to merge with the path and put the Democravian nation’s well being before her own desires? Sometimes she thought she was too enamored of her own thought processes, of the way her mind wanted to dig and scratch its way out of the traps the adult world set. She was a feral creature, a throwback to a more primitive way of life. It didn’t seem to be something she’d inherited from Alana and Ricky, the two of them epitomes in her mind of the deep-rooted and loyal communitarian ideals that ran in her family. Where did she get it, this unhappiness, this habit of solitary thought she’d secretly cultivated in the midst of privilege?
A boy in a uniform, tall, with a purposeless gait, approached from out of no particular direction, from the darkness. His mask was the same as Corrag’s, just a little older, not as shiny in the pulsating flashes of neon, and he stopped in front of her. Corrag looked carefully, noting the moment of recognition with some metacognitive distance. Nevertheless, her heart skipped a few beats and her mind raced. She didn’t expect this. It wasn’t fair of him to just show up. Without turning, Ben Calder addressed her, staring out at the dance floor.
”I thought I might see you, Corrag.”
“You don’t mind rocking the boat. Did you miss me?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“You never called. Why is that? Were you trying to forget? And now you’re here because you couldn’t? You never even called. I mean you have an emosponder, right? They couldn’t have taken that away. Why didn’t you ever call? I thought you were possibly dead.”
“Sometimes I wanted to be dead. But here I am. And you? I hear you’re entering your application for fine-tuning.”
She had a sudden need to see his face.
“Come with me. We’ll check out the balconies,” she said.
“That’s not allowed.”
“Just come. We’ll figure it out.”
“Do you know the way?”
“I’ll find it.”
Corrag led him past the stands to the far end of the hall. Gurgie and Mathew were dancing and looked over briefly in her direction. She pretended not to notice. She grabbed a Maxergy freshener shot and Ben followed suit and they walked together out past the dancers and the presenters from the ArtSmile Corps lounging and stretching in a circle by an unused energy panel exit. Corrag waited until the music reached a moment of high intensity, and then reached swiftly with her time wand and tripped the converter switch on the box like she’d observed Mr. Breen do. This turned the receptor back to the recently phased out former digital signal. The panel bars began to throb in a slow rhythm in line with the less powerful digital pulse. Then she looked at Ben and nodded and he slipped through the bars of the panel. She waited a few seconds, held her breath, and with a sudden movement jumped between the bars to the other side. She felt the hairs on her head and neck rise with the kinetic energy, but not enough to set off any alarms.
The music and hubbub from the center sounded distant. The walls of the hall were dusty and the cement left unpainted with splotches of water staining down from the ceiling. Ben was looking into the dim distance in some inert way. Corrag reached up and touched his cheek and he recoiled.
“Can you just take it off?”
“I ... you ,” Ben spluttered. “You don’t have the right, Corrag.”
He reached up and pulled off the mask. His face looked old, lined, tired. His eyes were dark, and he looked away when she stared. She tried hard to remember the way he had used to look, the memory she had of him the day he’d explained to her that he could wait with his avatar at a crossroad and, his belief was so strong that if he concentrated he could sense the virtual enemy before it appeared. He had been so alive, so focused, so quick to see a way. Underneath the mask of this face there was that other face, she was sure.
“Where have you been, Ben?
“In the south quadrant with the Corps.”
“What do you want to do now?
“Corrag, why do you think you can ask me that?”
“You’re Ben. My friend.”
“No. I’m Private Calder of the 175th Air Infantry Battalion, Mayagua Sector Six.”
“So, that doesn’t mean anything to me. You’re Ben. Why did you come back?”
“I don’t know.” He walked away, down the hall. Corrag followed. She wanted to touch him, to turn him around. Where was he going? It scared her to see him this way. She didn’t want to lose him. He was the last link to her childhood, to the hopes, unformed and unspoken as they had been, of a happiness of her own. At the end of the hall, where it emptied into a larger stairwell, he stopped and craned his head around, looking up into the dark of the stairwell.
“What do you see?”
“Nothing. Come on.”
“No, Ben. I mean about us.”
“About us?” Ben took his foot off the step and turned towards her. He shifted his weight uneasily and looked into her face intently.
“There is no us. We don’t exist.”
“What about trusting your instincts, Ben? What about finding the way?” Corrag’s voice cracked with emotion. She heard the echo of it down the hall and had the sensation of falling, as if she’d been dropped into some time warp.
“Shut up, Corrag. That’s just stupid.”
“Stupid? Ben, that’s what we lived for. Don’t you remember? You taught me everything I knew. You were the best gamer ever before you dropped it. Left it all behind. Said you’d be back and we’d figure it out. I believed you, Ben. We can find a way to be happy. In a new way. Our own way. What about all that? Are you going to say you don’t remember? Private Calder or whatever you are?”
Ben turned around and walked back towards her.
“You’ve never been on patrol in the Nicanor. You’ve never done three weeks on the hunt. You don’t know what it’s like to be holding a Nicanor prisoner and looking into eyes that just mirror back the hatred. There is no you and me. Just the next day. And the next camp. And the next. You disappears. Me is just a hole to put food into. The Nicanor kills you.”
“Don’t go back. Stay with me. We’ll join the open border, volunteer to clean and cook.”
“No, Corrag. Finish your fine-tuning. Be what you need to be.”
“And smile all the while?”
“Why, Ben? Why?”
“Because otherwise it hurts too much. We never knew pain, Corrag.”
Ben took her hands in his.
“I know it now.”
“There is no you. There is no me. Listen to me.”
“No. I won’t. I listened to you before and you lied,” Corrag pulled her hands away. She wanted to run back to the dance floor. Forget she’d ever seen him or ever wished to see him again.
“What’s a lie?" asked Ben, his voice small, tinny, just a remnant of the fire and humor that had once filled him.
“What have they done to you Ben? It’s like you’ve been augmented, only worse.”
Ben stared at her, unable to say a thing.
“What is it?”
Instead of answering, he turned and ran up the stairs, taking them two or three at a time, his legs churning and arms flailing. He’d disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds, just the sound of the boot strikes on the concrete echoing more and more distantly as he ascended. Corrag followed. She climbed at a slower pace, hands on the cold metal rail, listening for the sound of Ben up ahead. But there was just silence. When she reached the top flight, there was a metal door propped open.
Outside the cold night air rushed by in a breeze from the north. The San Fermin Mountains ranged in a dark silhouette. Ben was standing on the edge of the roof overlooking the Convention Center plaza. The red lights of Federation weather and surveillance drones filled the night sky. Corrag came up next to Ben and looked out over the city.
“That’s where we grew up, Ben. We existed in it. That was real. You and me we were real, right?”
"But you think I should fine tune?”
"But look out there. We can discover it for ourselves. We can be free.”
"There’s no such thing. All the desires will be reprogrammed and rebooted to the higher order.”
“Well, then why try?”
“Because otherwise we die.”
"But you’re going to die, Ben."
"Not if I kill first. In three months, with confirmed kills in the seven hundred or higher range, I can be a candidate for Officer Training School.”
“Is that what you want?”
"What I want. It’s what is, Corrag. That’s all. There is no other way. Some day we can live in the heavens on the planets of Betelgeuse or Andromeda. Our offspring will rule the galaxies, fill the universe with their thought forms and productions. Don’t you want that?”
“That’s not alive with me. I want to live here and now. With you. Have children, not offspring. Raise them to run and breathe and drink and dream in the mountains and valleys of Earth. That’s why I knew you’d come back. I knew you would, just not tonight. I expected you in the summer. That’s why I was holding out on sending off the fine-tuning application. I wanted to be here when you got back.”
“There’s a break in the fighting now,” said Ben distantly. “The Naguani have retreated. It’s strange. I expect they’re gathering strength for a major counteroffensive. We’ve tried to burn them out. Dry up the water cycle with localized cloud inhibition and carpet napalm bomb the basin. But they keep coming. They never stop. No matter how many you kill there’s always more of them. Especially at night. They can shape shift and come at you. The jaguars can get by the lasers. In your sleep. That’s the worst sound.
“The guys in their bunks being mauled, Corrag. All the guys in the Corp, we just want to survive long enough to get the kill range target and get out. It’s as if the war is bigger than we are.”
“What about the girls?”
“Well, it’s Democravia, right? The girls in the Corps can work their way up to augmentation with a kill rate, too. ”
“Yes, it is kind of.”
“Kind of, Ben?”
She couldn't see his face in the dark, but wanted to. At that instant she sensed he needed her. The distance between them was threatening to blow up and obliterate whatever they had left between them, any memory of a friendship, any hope Corrag had for the future. So she took his hand and pulled him away from the edge of the roof.
"Let’s go. I know where we can go.”
“Anywhere, I don’t really know where. It doesn’t matter where.”
“Then, let’s go.”
They went down and out through the dance hall with their masks on again. Corrag tapped the emosponder on her left wrist and picked up Gurgie’s avatar on the display.
“I’m going out.”
“Don’t know. I’m with Ben.”
“Please be careful, Corrag. Think about your steps before you take any. Be sure.”
“If I did that. I’d never get anywhere, Gurgie. I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.”
Corrag tapped three times on the emosponder, putting it to sleep. Together, she and Ben walked briskly, wordlessly, until they found a zipbike out on the street about five blocks from the Civic Center. After punching in the emergency code for civilian first responders on the meter, Ben mounted it and motioned for her to jump on the back. Corrag smiled. Now they were getting somewhere.
“How long do we have?
“Three hours showing.”
“That should get us to Ysidro.”
“Do you remember how to get there?”
“I think so. Go out north on the old causeway.”
Ben twisted the throttle and the zipbike responded instantly, silently accelerating to eighty miles an hour on the quiet streets. Ben braked on the corners and leaned as if he’d just gotten off the speed circuit training ground. Under the Spring Fest curfew, he didn’t have to worry about other traffic, and by keeping his headlights off, he avoided alerting any police radars of their highly illicit escapade.
Ysidro had been Ricky and Alana's favorite camping ground in her childhood. They’d often pitched a tent in the shadow of the canyon land. She felt herself feeling a way back towards those days, the sense of security, satisfaction and rightness of those summers, drinking in the sun on the slippery stones of the riverbed. In her mind the golden glow of the memory was a currency worth guarding. In those years, the wars of the New Canaanite alliance against the secessionist states had still been fresh in Ricky and Alana’s memory, and Ricky had always kept a firearm loaded inside the tent in case of surviving secessionist marauders, but they never saw any. Alana had always played up the possibility to keep Corrag close by, warning her to not go too far along the riverbed by herself. But one of them had always been there with their old sheepdog Haj, hovering, as she had built her fantasy castles with river stones worn soft in the wettish mud still left in early June from the melted snowpack, an afterglow of the past. She imagined that somehow Ben sensed her giving directions by shifting her weight on the back of the zipbike, and they did end up somewhere very close to Ysidro, on an old logging road. Ben pulled up on the shoulder and parked. They got off and removed their helmets. Around the corner of the mountain there was just a hint of the dawn to come. In a few hours the alarms would be going off and the search drones would be activated. She couldn’t see his face very clearly.
“What are you thinking?” Corrag asked.
“I’m thinking you’re brave to be out here with someone you hardly know. What would your father and mother think?”
“They already think I’m a lost cause. It doesn’t matter to me. Besides, what do you mean hardly know?”
“Do you think you know me, Corrag?”
“Of course. You haven’t changed for me. I know you’ve been through hell, Ben. Don’t get me wrong.”
“Then help me out here. Shine your light for me.”
Corrag knelt beside him with her open emosponder glowing. Ben used his utility tool to unclip the casing on the zipbike’s fuse and carefully pull two hair-thin filaments that powered the geopositioning transponder. Then he turned the bike on again and rolled it over to a stand of aspen and behind some rocks where it couldn’t be seen from the road.
They hiked up a trail that paralleled the creek in the canyon below and then crossed an old footbridge. The sign for the trailhead was lying on the ground, rusted and overgrown with weeds. Ben said he knew an old hunting cabin that had been used by his uncles before the war. Somewhat hesitantly at first, Corrag agreed on it as a destination. She really wanted to stay on the bridge and watch the water rushing underneath their feet, the way it sparkled and crystallized into the colors of the rainbow. The sun had come out and warmed up the trail. Flies buzzed around the body of a dead bird. They marched ahead, Ben pushing the pace, perhaps concerned about getting far enough up the trail to evade the authorities.
“Gurgie will tell them I’m with you. Mom and Dad won’t mind,” she said, thinking out loud.
“Colonel Bohjalian won’t be so easy-going. I’m supposed to be back on base as of twenty three hundred.”
“What will they do?”
“I’ll be assigned to care-taker duty for a month once we deploy back to the Basin.”
“Is that the worst they can do?”
“The worst is the CDC labor camp in the Ozarks for deserters. I don’t think they’ll send me there for going AWOL with my girlfriend.”
Corrag liked the sound of being called Ben’s girlfriend. She thought of her father’s exhortations against girls who relied on their boyfriends for their own sense of well being and acceptance. He wanted her to be more independent and self-reliant, but it was another area where she differed with his thoughts for her. Corrag liked the idea of being important in a boy’s life, of being necessary to someone and didn’t think it made her any less of a human being to enjoy or desire it. Alana didn’t like Ben for other reasons. She thought he was too smart to be completely trustworthy. People like Ben, she would say, often needed re-education components before being assigned to an augmentation track. This escapade would be further proof of the rightness of her judgment. But Corrag didn’t want them, her parents, the school, the Council, to blame Ben for leading her astray. She wanted to be the author of her own demise, if there was going to be such a thing. Let it be by her own hand at least. But for Ben, let it be, as he said, a mild reprimand, whatever caretaker duty was. It didn’t sound so harsh. She didn’t want him suffering on her behalf.
After about a mile, the trail took a turn up a steep, rocky face. There was a cabin just at the top of a ridge, sheltered from the prevailing wind by the mountain behind it. The siding was faded, and gaps showed between the boards of the roof and the scraps of old tarpaper that had once protected the wood from the elements. When they looked back, Corrag and Ben could see the desert with its fingers of green. There was Edmundstown on the eastern edge and Mono Lake far in the distance - just a dot of iridescence in the foothills. And far off behind those hills was the ocean. The momentary sense of peace was broken by the barks of a dog and the sound of a door clapping shut. They turned round. An old man, faded into the dirt, had appeared beside the shack. He neither waved nor moved. Nor did his attitude suggest fear. The dog barked again and the old man leaned down and scratched its ears.
“Hi there,” shouted Ben, but the old man made no sign of hearing.
“Let me handle this,” said Corrag, putting her hand on Ben’s arm. “We don’t want to scare him.” She was thinking of Ben in his uniform, and there was something frail and covert about the old man’s quietness. She walked over and the dog growled as she approached.
“Nice dog,” she said as she got close to the old man.
He looked up and squinted. The dog was a poodle mix, white, with blue husky eyes, an old mutt. The old man straightened. The top of his head was at a height with her shoulders, and his hair, greasy and long, hid his face. He wiped his hair away with one hand and looked at her with grey, lidded eyes.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for you,” he said.
“Who are you?” she asked with exaggerated wonderment, placating his delusions.
“Abel. Abel Marin. You and your friend are just fine. What are your names?”
“Corrag and Ben. What’s your dog’s name?”
“Perfect. Hi Sandy.” She petted the dog and the old man began to cry. She noticed he wiped his tears away and let the hair fall in front of his eyes again. Ben came over.
"Ben, this is Abel and Sandy. Why are you crying Abel? There’s no need for that,” said Corrag, horrified that he might think they meant to harm him.
“Crying is good,” said Abel. “This is how a man keeps a strong heart. I’ve been waiting a long time. I thought the world was done with me. And now you are here at last.”
Ben looked at her. She gave him a stern look back and shook her head.
“You’ve come back at last,” continued Abel. “Let me give you something.”
“No, you don’t have to give us anything,” said Corrag.
“Water would be nice,” said Ben.
Sandy began to bark as the old man moved back to the shack.
“Come in,” he said, holding the door open. The rusty springs squeaked as it shut behind them.
“This used to be my uncles’. My dad talked to me about the hunting cabin on Mt. Gabriel.” said Ben. “He and his two older brothers that used to come up here hunting.”
“The old boys knew how to live. They’ve died out now. Nothing left. We need to mourn for the earth and bring back the old ways again.”
It was dark once the door closed. There were no windows. Their eyes adjusted and Abel motioned for them to sit. He brought them two jars of water he poured from a metal bucket. The jars were old glass mason jars. They sat in the folding chairs by the sink. Their eyes adjusted to the lack of light, just cracks in the siding allowing some light inside, enough to see. There was a rough plank workbench against the wall piled high with animal skins and bones and dried plants, with tiny flowers and corrugated strange leaves in bunches. Corrag drank the water. She wondered who Abel thought they were. He was a crazy old survivor, one of the holdouts from the war of secession that the council had never bothered to track down because he had never appeared on anybody’s lists. The fact that he could still be up here on his own was itself an indictment of their claims of control.
“This water is strange. It has a taste of something,” said Ben.
“Spring-fed mountain water. I’ll show you where I get it,” said Abel. “When I first come up here there was no water. I had to find it. I was just a little tyke. But I hardly remember that. Anyway it’s not important. You need to know, but not about me. I’m just the messenger. It’s the earth that speaks.”
Ben looked at her in the semi-darkness. He thought Abel was a crazy old coot. But Corrag wanted to keep listening to him. There was something soothing and calm about the shack and his voice. Sandy poked her hand with his muzzle and she petted him.
“What does it say, Abel?” she asked absentmindedly
“Hmm? I don’t know. Listen you two is hungry. I forgot I need to feed you. Let me give you some food.”
He disappeared into the darkness between the workbench and the far wall. Ben and Corrag looked at each other, shifting the folding chairs around to see each other easier. Ben smiled, as if all of this was part of some plan he had foreseen and devised. Corrag had questions about Abel she needed answered. Wouldn’t he need inoculations against dengue and the killer giardia that had wiped out the population of the mountain states? How had he avoided the orbiting aerial surveillance satellites and their micro-infrared cameras that spotted the heat signals of life processes from space? Why was he allowed to survive here on his own? She wanted to whisper to Ben, but she stilled her curiosity. It was all right to not know all the answers. Clarity was over-rated.
When he returned, he brought with him a bowl with dried roots. He peeled them and then scraped with the knife into a mound of flakes and then produced part of a leg bone of some animal from which he cut sinews of dried meat and placed it all back in the bowl at their feet on the ground. Ben got out of his chair and sat cross-legged on the ground. Corrag followed suit. The meat was tough and hard to chew, but the vegetable matter with some moisture left in it gave it a palatable taste. They were both hungrier than they realized after the hike. It was about mid-morning but almost pitch black except for the light coming in the open door.
“My Mama and Papa came up here from Sonora with a bunch of folks. They were mostly Pima but they had some Apache. They were not people who farmed or went looking for that kind of work. They were looking for the mountains because they knew the end was coming and the Spanish missions had told them to be on the lookout for signs of the big war. They refused to fight for General Walker when he tried to put down the carpinteros who wanted their freedom so a lot of them were put in jail and then the rest took off in a big convoy for the north because that way was cooler weather and in those days there was tremendous heat, you two probably are too young to remember. For a while we were in Arizona. That’s where I learned my English in a little school there that was broken up by secessionists who wanted to kill my mother because she was the leader of this group of women, all kinds, whites, blacks, and teaching them the ways of the medicinals. You’re eating some there, that’s lechuguilla root which is good for your organs. The secessionists didn’t want us helping others to live free and together in nature. They wanted it all under their control in the name of the markets. You remember that part. The markets were going to be the answer to everything. Just put us all on the shelves of the market, you know. So anyway we came up here I was about five I guess by then and the deer were the first to notice and this was after the big battles in the Mississippi where they loosed the crazy winds and tornadoes that knocked us back and that got out of control and then there was sickness on the land for many years, but the deer helped us survive long enough to get our bearings and we lived up here pretty much on our own and once in awhile we went down to the highway and just stayed there watching the traffic, waiting for our cousins on a certain date, the anniversary of the lady of the rosary which is in October I believe. I’ve almost lost track of time. What year are we in? It doesn’t matter. Time is ending anyway. The planets will sink back into the fire of the suns and we’ll soon see if there is more than one Universe. I believe there is because the deer tend to believe that this is not all there is. That’s why they don’t mind dying and giving up their hearts for us. That is the sign, you see. That is the final sign of the grandmothers that they talked about and my mama and papa talked about and even you talked about the first time you came up here. Do you remember? You always said you would come back and now you have.”
While he talked Ben and Corrag ate. Soon it felt like they'd always been there and it was the most natural thing in the world to listen to Abel's voice telling his stories that opened up into a world they had never known, an alternative world, illicit in its meanings and implications, just like the escape they had embarked on together. Ben's initial anxiety went away and Corrag wondered whether there was something in the food, the venison and lechuguilla root that was altering their perceptions. Later, when the sun had risen halfway up the sky judging from the light coming in the door, she followed Sandy outside and saw Abel working in the ditch that ran along the back of the shack between it and the trail that she could see continuing up to the face of the mountain. She wandered over and saw Abel face down in a hollow through which she could see water running. He was mumbling words in a language she thought might be the Pima he had mentioned. Then a black bird flew overhead, she thought it was a crow, and Sandy barked at it. Abel got to his knees and turned to see her standing behind him.
"Hi there, Corrag. I was just thanking the water for bringing you here. You and Ben. After all these years you've returned. And the water alway promised. So I’m giving her thanks. You know you can bring the water wherever you go if you remember how. I'll show you later again. I'll show you and Ben."
"I've never been here before as far as I know," said Corrag.
"Well, there's stuff you're not aware of. Stuff about you you don't know because you've buried it. But that's okay. It's all part of the plan, Corrag."
"Plan? We don't believe in that. There's a process of space and time unfolding and we humans need to stay ahead of it. We can do that with our scientists who see and measure and analyze. Before the planet dies. What kind of God lets his planet die?"
"The planet dies? The planet's just getting started, Corrag. I'll show you. There's no need to look for others."
"Are you saying our scientists are wrong?"
"Not wrong. Sometimes they're looking at the world through their lenses and what have you and a little ant will come up from behind and bite them on the ass. That's God playing with them because he has a sense of humor. He thinks they're funny. That's all. Not wrong. It's good what they do. It's good to use what He gave us, and that's our eyes. Our eyes and ears and put it all together like, so it makes sense. But see what I mean? There's a lot of stuff we know that the scientists haven't figured out. Which is more important. Listen to the Universe with an open heart and know that anybody can do that but the scientists don't listen to the old time ones. They make war on us instead which is a big mistake. You know what I’m saying, Corrag.
"I never knew my grandparents."
"Listen to the grandparents. And the scientists, Corrag. They’re both right."
Abel laughed and jumped up from the ditch so that he appeared beside her. His age was impossible to gauge. He looked ancient sometimes, with his wrinkled brown skin and lidded eyes. But other times he seemed barely in his twenties with his strong sure movements and rapidly shifting facial expressions. Corrag thought he was like water himself, radiant, sparkling, and larger then he appeared, as if he contained within himself reserves of strength and wisdom.
They walked with Abel and Sandy up the mountain along a ravine. Ben and Corrag trailed behind, and Ben stopped to tie his shoes and look out over the valley from the ledges. They kept going higher up, scrambling over the boulders, barely keeping Abel and Sandy in sight up ahead. Corrag was trying to explain how she felt about Abel, as if she had known him for a long time. She had never met anybody so strange, and yet she had also never felt as comfortable with somebody in the first moments after meeting. It was as if he had some strange knowledge about her that was the missing piece of a puzzle she had been trying to reconstruct without knowing it all her life. The school, her parents, had all contributed valuable pieces, but had also missed the target for her.
Ben thought she should be more wary of her enthusiasm.
"Look, there's no way he could direct the water the way you think, with the powers of his mind," said Ben making vibrating gestures with his hands like some old vaudeville wizard from the movies.
Corrag couldn't think of an immediate answer. She was hurt that Ben couldn't see what she saw in Abel and could so easily dismiss him like some unimportant aspect of the landscape. He was focused on seeking advantage in a way that bothered her. As if the default setting in him was the gamer that was always looking ahead to the next junction, always seeing any opportunity to gain strength or tools for the next confrontation with the inevitably lurking enemies. But that wasn't the way the world worked at a root level. Not that she knew, of course. Maybe he was right and Abel was crazy, delusional, and just lucky to have found a little pocket out of the sight of the Democravian Federation and its surveillance machinery.
The trail was invisible except for a slight wear in the line of scrub. They were coming down the backside into a valley of young pines growing out of scrub grass. Abel detoured around the valley and kept along the ridges, hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. It was tough to keep up and even Ben was getting winded. At the end of the valley it became clear why he had detoured. There was a man-made concrete wall, an old dam from one ridge to the next. The valley had once been a lake.
"You know what this was?" asked Ben.
"Lake San Pedro."
"Yeah. It's pretty dry now."
"That's why they built the desalination plant before we were born. I remember my Dad talking about it. He said it gave the Federation more control over the water supply then the old system which was rigged for the big farmers and fat cats."
Abel waited on a flat rock with Sandy. Corrag and Ben took their time climbing down to him.
" ...wanted to show you the old world that's disappearing. You bringing the new way. The water flows strong. That's why you need to listen to your tears. It's the water calling from inside. Don't bottle it. Here look at this."
The flat rock was actually the top of the dam wall. Abel walked them out along it and they could look over and see to the north beyond through the mountains what had once been the old Inland Empire, the agricultural heartland of the United States until the years of drought and secession wars had put an end to the decrepit model of so-called representative government of the people by the corporate interests.
"This was lake San Pedro," said Ben.
"That's what your people called it. It never had a name," said Abel.
Out in the middle, they stopped and sat on the edge. Abel handed out some food from a satchel bag over his shoulder. It was a dried, almost unpalatable sort of plant matter. He even gave some to Sandy, who wolfed it down whole.
"I know it’s hard. Just eat it. You won't be hungry and it will help you see what is really here." Abel didn't say another word. Hours passed and the sun went behind the western mountain. Corrag fell asleep. In the dim light of the late afternoon, Ben asked Corrag to come with him. He had climbed down the face of the dam and come back up. She got to her feet and followed. It wasn't hard to get down the wall, since there were built in handholds and steps. Then at the bottom she could see what he had seen, the crack and the water flowing through, not a torrent, just a trickle.
"He's right. The water is winning," said Ben.
"Do you think it's safe?"
"The dam? It won't go immediately. But eventually it will crumble."
"What now? What about us?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we have a choice. He’s given us a clear choice. Follow the dam or the water. Which is it?"
"Corrag, I don't know what it is Abel gave us to eat, but I don't really see we have a choice. We can't stay here. We have to go back up and get home and carry on."
"Right now, Ben. What's your choice?"
"You're scaring me, Corrag. Don't talk like that."
She wanted him to hug her and kiss her, to be carried away with their feelings for each other. That would have been the right choice. Instead she could see he was as frightened and confused as she was when faced with the wall of the world and its seemingly inescapable logic. They sat together and waited for the night. Ben leaned over and put his arm around her and hugged her closer. The dam wall grew dim and the black bird swooped down from it overhead.
"Is that the crow?" asked Corrag.
Ben didn't answer. He was asleep.
Instead of the concrete wall, there was a waterfall, with an iridescent cascade of water broken up in a moonlit glow. Deer stood along the banks of the river and tall pines had grown up in the surrounding fields. She heard Abel call for Sandy. She heard her father call her name. Where were they?
"Ben. What time is it?"
Ben woke up and looked at his emosponder.
"Oh my God. It's late. Let's go, Corrag." He stood and pulled her to her feet. Where were they? Disoriented, she followed his voice as he called from above. Then she could see the wall of the dam as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Where had the waterfall gone? It had been such a vivid presence. But now she felt a gnawing in her gut and her legs shaking as she climbed. When she reached the top of the wall she collapsed in a heap. Sandy barked and dug at her hair with his paw.
"I'm okay, Sandy. I'm okay."
Abel held her by the chin and dribbled in water from an old tin canteen. It tasted sweet. Her eyes, ears, even her sense of taste were playing tricks on her. Then there was a loud noise and overhead lights blinded her. Sandy barked and Abel yelled.
"Run, Sandy. Go boy."
The lights were followed by cable dropping out of the hatches of the Federation Home Air UC7 reconnaissance choppers and rappelling soldiers descending to the ground in quick succession. Corrag screamed.
It took about a minute. They didn't say a word. They handcuffed and blindfolded the two of them and bundled them towards a chopper whose four blades were still whirling. Corrag cried out Ben's name. He didn't answer.
"Keep quiet," said a soldier with his hand on her shoulder, dirt and gravel kicked up from the downdraft of the whirling blades. Unseen hands pulled her onboard. Then they picked up and flew off into black space. Corrag cried for what she'd seen and for the childhood sense of possibility she'd left behind in that mountain valley. She let the tears flow as Abel had said. She never had the chance to talk to Ben and for years wondered if he had seen the same things she had, the waterfall and the deer and the moonlit wonders of a reborn world.