Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Colorado Jack

When Jack Carlmaker saw the footprints outside the barn, he went back inside the house, told his wife to stay put and loaded the shotgun. He walked back outside and over to the barn. He swung one of the big doors open wide, keeping himself hidden behind it as he did. When the door was folded back against the barn, he sidled closer to the open doorway, back to the barn, and racked the gun so that the noise was clearly audible to any one inside.

"C'mon outta there, nice and slow. Give up your weapons and nobody will get hurt." Jack's voice was calm and deep. It carried into the recesses of the barn and he thought he heard rustling in the hay loft. "C'mon now, don't make me smoke you out."

"Don't shoot." The voice from inside the barn was tired and shrill.

"C'mon out then, easy, hands where I can see 'em. You sick?"

"No."

A naked boy came out of the barn. He was shivering and his ribs showed clearly under his skin but there were no obvious signs of the sickness about him – he wasn't coughing and his nose wasn't running, and he certainly didn't have the pox.

"Jesus Christ, boy, where'd you come from?"

The boy didn't answer.

"Tell me why I shouldn't shoot you right now, boy. You came up from Denver, didn't ya? You're a refugee, supposed to be in a camp, hey?"

The boy shrugged.

"How old are you?"

"Eight."

"You don't look eight. Must be though. Where's your clothes, boy? Where's your momma? Any people left?"

"My mother is dead, she died of the sickness. All my people are dead, in the camps or ... after ... I was alone." The boy turned around and looked at Jack. "I couldn't stay there."

Jack nodded. There was a vicious scar running from the boy's shoulder down across his chest to the bottom of his ribcage. It looked like he'd been hacked open with a sword. The scar was vivid red against the whitish red of the boy's cold skin.

Jack lowered the shotgun and shook his head.

"Eight years old," he said. "Damn unlucky. Well, I guess we better get you inside and warmed up. Sarah will be pleased to meet you."

Freight Cars Passing in the Night

Shaking the tree got no response. The dogs were whining. The two soldiers pulled the branches apart to expose the boy's hiding place. The ground under the tree shone wetly in the men's lights.

The men reported to their officer, the boy was gone. One of them held up the blood soaked pajamas. The dogs were jumping, unrestrainedly, barking. They could smell the blood but they'd lost the boy's trail and were unsure of what they were supposed to chase. As far as the dogs were concerned, the boy had vanished.

The men were unconvinced. They spread out to try and pick up the boy's footprints, beating the snow from trees and pulling branches from the ground. The snow surrounding the tree was well trampled by man and dog. The men shouted at each other and the dogs barked. They called for air support.

A train came whining out of the darkness.

The tree was growing next to the railroad berm and the train's light beamed down a wooded corridor above the men's heads. The train was climbing the grade and was moving relatively slowly, mag lift trains are capable of speeds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour, but this one was going no faster than a sprinter might run a fifty-yard dash – quick even for a dog. The train came sliding up the line, lights blazing, engine thrumming under heavy load.

The men began to run towards the train, away from the tree where the boy had been hiding, with the dogs leading the way. They lurched and stumbled up the bank, waving their arms. The train showed no sign of slowing down. It was hundreds of cars long. The men stood on the side of the tracks watching it go by. Eventually their airlift arrived, several heavy transports and a pursuit bird. The men loaded the dogs and climbed aboard. The helicopters lifted off and flew off down the tracks after the train.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Overheard by a Sentry at the Entrance to A-Ward

"You'll have to do it, General, I don't think I can. Drugs don't seem to have much effect on him. I'm not even sure I could do it with a scalpel."

"Jesus Christ, haven't you people managed to figure out anything about this kid in seven years?"

"Oh, we have, General. We have. Perhaps not what you would have liked us to discover, but the people I report to have been satisfied with the results so far. However, he's corrupted your network, and certainly managed to get out into the net. If he ever figures out a way to really escape..." the doctor shrugged. "It's not worth the risk."

"Well, it's about goddamn time. I've been telling you people that for years."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Surrounded

The dogs came panting through the woods. When they got to the boy's tree, the lead male came skidding to a halt, growling at the black gaps between the branches where the boy had crawled under cover. Behind him, the rest of the pack pounded into a swirling mass, yapping and jumping excitedly, flinging snow in gouts. They surrounded the tree, nipping at each other as they went and snapping at branches.

The soldier's wet breath clouded out of their respirators in long snorts of exertion. The men circled the tree behind the dogs as the dog handler grounded the pack with a gesture. The big male shepherd assumed a sphinx pose, his ears pricking towards the tree and back towards the men. The rest of the pack settled but anxiously, whining for the impending capture.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Piled Higher & Deeper

Aden looked at the floor and kicked his feet. His thighs felt thick and hard, his femoral bicep muscles were rubber bands bouncing on the edge of the chair.

The doctor stood up and walked around the table. slowly strolling over to the glass wall. He tapped on it with a knuckle, then paced the length of the barrier and back again. He stopped in the middle of the room facing Aden and stood there looking at him. Aden had always noticed that the doctor had a well-honed technique for making himself absolutely still. He would make some large motion then stop and put his hands together and draw a breath. Aden wondered where he had learned it. Probably at medical school, which was apparently the same place they taught you to lock people behind glass and poke at them with sharp objects while they watch you inside and out on video monitors.

"We know you've been out on the net," the doctor said.

Aden blinked. He suddenly realized that the doctor's stillness was meant to be intimidating, not receptive. In dividing the room, there was less than two meters left between the glass and the wall behind him, which forced his chair to be close to the divider. The doctor, who was leaning in towards the glass, towered over him.

"Are you trying to scare me, doctor?"

The doctor's eyebrows jumped.

"Class of fifteen, right?" Aden smiled. "Doctorate in Clinical Psychiatry? Married in seventeen, first child, Deborah, two years later ... who knew what was coming just ahead and that she wouldn't live to see ten years old?

Did I read all that right, doctor? Or should I just go ahead and call you Bob? It is Bob, isn't it? Robert J. Anderson?" Aden dropped his voice to a slow drawl, "Huh, Bobbie Jon, ain't that right."

"Why, you little freak." The doctor backed away from the glass, bumping into the table. His voice was brittle. "You ... " He drew himself up. "Never mind. They were right. You're dangerous. There's nothing more to be gained here."

"Send General Brockmuller my thanks for the solitary confinement."

"Don't worry, you won't be in there for long," the doctor said and waved his pass to get out the room.

Aden smiled. For once, the doctor was right.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Feint Trace

It was snowing. Large, airy flakes drifted casually down through the trees, easy swirls that neatly avoided contact with branches and needles, as if the flakes could see the obstructions and were moving to avoid them. Under incompressible conditions, information about downstream activity can be transmitted upstream, opposite the direction of flow. The snow swirled on light air, the faintest breeze advising each crystal of its path. Heavier winds would have been preferable, to carry his scent away through the forest, away from his hiding place.

The gossiping wind in the trees could not cover the sounds of approaching pursuit. He could hear men calling to each other as they spread through the woods. The dogs had stopped barking but were surely still out there, they had almost certainly quieted only to save breath for the hunt. They were going to find him soon, the dogs would lead them to him or they would simply follow his tracks.

He wondered if this hollow feeling in his stomach was what the fox felt like when he was too tired to run any further and the dogs were drawing close. Probably not. The fox would certainly be warmer than he was. And the fox wouldn't have bark in his underwear.



Look on the bright side - at least the melting snow kept his surface temperature from falling below freezing.

The tree he was hiding under was like a tent. Long, needled branches draped all around to create a circular hollow around the trunk, a circular crawl space a few hands deep that had been protected by a spiny thicket of small dead undergrowth, as demonstrated by the myriad of small scratches on his arms and neck. It was much cozier than running through the woods barefoot. Though now that he thought about it, his feet were still freezing. There didn't seem to be much he could do about that. He curled harder around the trunk, trying to tuck his calves and feet up under his thighs for insulation.

The snow tasted like soap and pine pitch. Not bad, kind of spicy. He considered chewing some pine branches, but decided he didn't have the right things in his gut to have it do him much good.

He had to move. The blood had caked on his chest and shoulder, sticking his shirt to the skin. They would be on him in minutes – he had lost most of his lead back there at the ditch, along with a fair amount of blood. He needed fluids. He needed to do something to change the course of this escape or he was going to end up dead.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Interview Technique

The General and the doctor consulted briefly with the microphones off, shielding their mouths behind their hands to keep Aden from making out what they were saying. At first, they seemed to be disagreeing – the General was leaning towards the doctor, pointing, and the doctor was shaking his head but then they reached an agreement because the doctor nodded. The General got up and left the room.

The doctor turned the microphones back on but didn't say anything. He sat looking thoughtfully at the boy. Aden returned the look. Finally, the doctor said, "Do you remember your birth?"

"Of course, don't you remember yours?"

"Tell me about it. About the moment of your birth."

"For awhile it was dark and warm, then it was light and cold."

The doctor frowned and made a note on his pad. "Did the cold and the light bother you?"

"Not really, I had an idea what was happening".

"How did you know?"

"I mean… nothing bothered me until the doc slapped me on the ass."

"Of course. How did you know what was happening to you?"

"That doctor was lucky I had no muscle tone at that point."

"As I recall you knocked out the man's two front teeth."

"Like I said... " Aden shrugged.

"Certainly, but you haven't answered my question."

"I remember the nurses trying to pull me off of him." The boy shrugged again.

"Do you know what I remember? I remember your mother."

Aden was suddenly very still. To the doctor, it almost appeared that the boy had stopped breathing.

"She took you from them and into her bed. You calmed immediately at her touch. She whispered to you. She told you something then. What was it?"

Aden could feel himself growing flush. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He stared at the doctor, unable to speak.

The doctor had not been a young man when Aden was born. Even then, he'd favored tweed coats and wool pants, starched shirts and plaid vests. He'd had a wife and a daughter then. These days the doctor was older and greyer, solidly into middle age. He had put on weight. But the most significant changes were in his manner. As a younger doctor he'd been confident, aloof, faintly amused by everything he saw. Now he was quieter, slower, more thoughtful. He no longer seemed amused. He still seemed sure of himself in his physical actions but his manner was tempered by his loss. What he had left was his profession, his skills, his intelligence. The doc knew he was smart. He'd thought so back then, and he still thought so. Aden had never tried to disabuse him of the notion.

"When you were born you were completely silent. You didn't even seem to be breathing. You didn't look any newborn I'd ever seen."

"How many have you seen?"

"Only one before you." His daughter had been sixteen when Aden was born. "Many more after you. You were not blue or yellow, you were an almost purple sort of red. You looked purposefully around the delivery room. Purposefully. 'No muscle tone' ... you were sizing us up.

"You were very calm. I'm not surprised the doctor slapped you. We all wanted to hear you cry, wanted to see some human response from you. I tell you this because I want you to understand my original question to you. I saw your very first response to a world with which you had no prior experience and it was not at all confused or uncertain. You knew what was happening to you. You understood – and yes, you were able to do something about it but I know how you do that – at least I think I do. But you were aware of the situation, the soldiers, the doctor, everything. You knew what was going on in that room." The doctor leaned forward, his eyes intent. "How did you know?"

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Not So Fleet of Foot

Bullets smacked into the trees ahead of him and he still had meters to go before he reached cover. His legs were heavy, every muscle demanding resources he didn't have to give. Fancy evasive maneuvers were out of the question. He ignored the complaints of his body and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as fast as he could.

Branches were whipping wildly, snow crystals flying in his face. The helicopter was back in the air, directly above him, and they had him in their searchlight. They couldn't land on his side of the ditch because there wasn't enough room between the fence and the edge of the woods. There were men in the ditch though, helping the dogs up the far side. The men were shouting at each other, shouting at the dogs, screaming when the dogs clawed them in their desperate haste to get up and over the edge of the ditch and after the boy.

Branches smashed and splintered above his head as he dove for the cover of the thick pines. The branches were weighed down with snow, tenting the ground around the individual trees. As the bullets tore through them the branches sprang up, releasing their burden and fogging the air with powder. The searchlight dazzled and glistened, angular shadows of trees leaping and sliding as the helicopter tried to cover him. He ran, stumbled, fell, climbed back to his feet and ran some more, tacking through the trees on an erratic path created by the openings between branches. The helicopter was no longer overhead.

As the dark forest enfolded him, so did his fatigue. He felt himself begin to slow. Worse, he realized he was shivering. He wrapped his arms around his body, staggering to put more trees between himself and his pursuers. There was no shelter in those dark boughs, as tempting as it might be. They would be on him in minutes. The dogs would find him wherever he tried to hide. He was wounded—still bleeding—the snow between the trees was deep and his legs weren't getting any lighter. The boy wasn't sure how much longer he could keep moving.