Return to Earth
|He who climbs onto the roof|
should not kickaway the ladder.
Sep. 5, 2258
“Eureka, I have found it!”
That’s what I should have said when my prototype Synthesizer finally produced a balanced nutrient that didn’t kill me when I ate it. High-sounding phrases should have leapt from my lips, but speech was alien after all my years alone beneath the Atlantic.
I lived in the Nereid, my submersible laboratory two hundred feet of water, seventy miles east of Maryland, near the edge of the Baltimore Canyon.
In 2238 I had abandoned topside life. The Sea Catastrophe began affecting daily activities. At Enoch University, I taught plastics chemistry, specializing in plants rather than petrochemicals as source stock but bulk deliveries became unreliable, even with exorbitant surcharges. Extensive repair of the port terminals, bridges, tunnels, and roads sapped the city and its businesses. Although no one believed all of Antarctica’s ice cap would melt, the twenty-foot rise of oceans had overwhelmed infrastructure. How much of BaltSea is under water now?
I shook myself out of dour reflections. Focus on my breakthrough. I wiggled into the padded armchair, facing the Nereid’s seaward window. A surprising luxury in this small research vessel, but I thanked the original owner for the spatial extravagance.
The view outside calmed me. A shark cruised, searching for yesterday’s tuna. The searchlight illuminated pink sea cucumbers, a forest of anemones, and the small body of a sea spider walking on tall, skinny legs. And although I couldn’t see into them from my vantage, my lobster traps held one fewer crawler than earlier.
I went over to the laboratory bench. I dialed up C2H5OH on the Synthesizer. The device looked plain, ordinary, but it was anything but.
The fruit of years of effort, the Synthesizer consisted of four parts: an input chute, the disintegrator, the synthesizer proper, and the output slot. After I entered the formula for ethyl alcohol—I wanted to celebrate this last essential tweak—I tossed two sea cucumbers and a large orange-backed lobster into the input. The disintegrator broke the input into elemental hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, sulfur, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and a tiny trace of gold. A small residue became waste product.
The directed fusion beam flicked through bonding enthalpies, crisply breaking the bonds, which had united the elements. In the synthesizer unit, stoichiometric proportions of ingredients were lasered with specific formation energies, sequentially building the requested compound.
Just feet from where the sea creatures entered, an Erlenmeyer flask collected a clear liquid. Two kilograms of input mass and some energy. Voila! Half a flask of 200 proof drinking alcohol.
The excess elements were liquefied and stored in reserves. The waste massed less than two percent in this case. Over the years of development, my incidental gold came to one half ounce.
Mixing chilled water with the alcohol, I sipped it and savored the view.
When I left … Chaos and damnation! What I thought back then matters not at all. At first all I wanted was to be free of the millions digs and zings which, at the end, accompanied my every conversation with Meredith.
On arrival at the canyon’s edge, I focused on improving a variant of Irish moss. It was red, edible, and grew well in salty water. It yielded fifty percent polysaccharides that would help in coastal areas where farms sat atop saline groundwater, which could no longer support their longtime crops.
But then the seaquake which wrecked my work! It took me six months to realize the remaining strains, the inferior strains which I had set aside, could never serve as a saline replacement foodstuff. That was eleven years ago. I threw aside my work on algae and switched to developing a device which could synthesize edible compounds from natural elements.
I rubbed the left side of my neck. Sulfuric acid had splashed on me when the Nereid rocked with the compression of undersea water after the quake. That’s when I let my beard grow long, covering the damaged skin.
With the lead shot ballast released, the Nereid rose quickly towards the surface.
As the Nereid rose away from the base, I waved goodbye to my traps and took a last look around the undersea park. How long might the searchlight wait for me to return and request it? Below the ocean was good while it lasted … but twenty years!
My first surfacing in eleven years, since immediately after the earthquake, when I listened for news of how the topside was doing. I only heard snippets. Perhaps it was the static of electrical storms that destroyed the coherence of transmissions.
Just like back then, a strong storm churned the ocean’s surface. I didn’t have the luck of the dry cycle. I took the Nereid down to fifteen feet for a smoother ride. Unfortunately, it was not made for speed.
At two knots, it took a day and a half to reach the Maryland coast.
The Nereid surfaced to a weak storm. I vainly scanned the horizon for Ocean City, the resort where I spent happy vacations with Meredith before our marriage unraveled.
Although I scanned with 7×35 binoculars, there was no trace of the barrier island. I didn’t expect it, but I looked nonetheless. The depth gauge indicated fifteen feet. The Nereid’s chart, dated 2187, indicated ten.
An increase of five feet in seventy years! Nearly an inch a year.
I turned south, towards the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. When the weather permitted, I stayed on the surface, the marine radio scanning, watching distant lightning and hoping scattered blue in the north would come south.
|There is nothing makes a man suspect much|
more than to know little.
|Chesapeake Bay Inlet|
Sep. 10, 2258
Three days later, as the bay inlet neared, the scanner squawked. I strained to hear it.
“Ssss…qqqqkkk…nightly broadcast on September 10, year 11. Neopolis, North American Consortium. The Antis have attacked Neopolis on Sea Day once again.”
Year 11. A new year counting. Like the French Revolution. Months and days are the same and to me, the number of the year is just a shrug.
“Red Jackets of BaltSea, led by the infamous team of Jack and Meri, focused their attack on the hydroponics laboratories. Damage in the south building was extensive. Dr. Lucia Reyes reports that the Anti-Scientist attacks damaged the heat exchanger, resulting in extreme temperatures in the mutation vats.
“According to Dr. Reyes, the saline-immune algae had great promise. This setback, she says, will make her redouble her efforts in Hydroponics II …”
Attacks. Sounds like a civil war. What is … where is Neopolis?
“Ssss…qqqqkkk…In other news from the Midlantic region, a referendum will be held next Tuesday.
“Thirty-seven per cent of the world’s population is at risk from rising ocean levels and storm surges. Regional Coordinator Tamesha Li will lead the discussion— should we try to save all or focus our resources on the best and the brightest?
“To pass the voting qualification test …
Electricity from a distant storm swamped the signal.
The first news from the surface: cold-blooded calculations of hot-blooded suffering.
Neopolis. Antis! Jack and Meri! Must be Meredith. It had to be her. She still must be under his spell. Meredith had stood mute, not supporting me, when Jack ranted that scientists were the cause of the world’s problems. I was especially damned as a designer of factories to convert wood into plastics, destroying nature’s balance.
Our marriage had been cool already, but then I learned what cryogenics in a relationship really meant.
When I left, there was no goodbye.
Five days after leaving my underground hermitage, the Nereid passed the southern nub of the Virginia Eastern Shore and entered the Chesapeake.
Back on the surface, I enjoyed the quicker speed. Traveling north, the scanner picked up weak, local transmissions. There were pleas for fuel, calls to barter fairs, and various words that made no sense to me.
I watched the shoreline through my binoculars. A few miles up the bay just past the York inlet, I spotted a low-profile crabbing boat heading my way, but my elation with easy contact was dashed. The crabber at the bow clutched a semi-automatic.
The Nereid crash dived to forty feet in the Chesapeake central trench.
|A clear conscience is usually|
the sign of a bad memory.
– Steven Wright
Sep. 13, 2258
A few days later, the GPS indicated the Nereid had arrived at the Patapsco channel.
I surfaced the squat submersible to a stormy night. Patiently I searched for signs of life, of activity. Through the thick growth of the shoreline, a flicker that could be a campfire caught my eye, then another. Several on my right and a solitary one, on my left.
To the left one, but I would leave the Nereid off-shore.
While the Zodiac inflated, I donned an oilskin duster, putting the lab journal-chip and gold vial in one pocket and the 200-proof flask in the other. I lamented that my river hat wasn’t a hood, but still it protected my head from the wetness.
After synchronizing the Nereid and the Zodiac’s systems, I directed the Nereid to the bottom of the harbor channel. It would stay until I called for it later.
The stiff wind chop made control by the Zodiac’s little electric motor difficult, but the tide flowed in, generally toward the lone campfire. That suited me. Minutes later, I made landfall. Sort of.
The tough plastic of the Zodiac bounced off a tangle of wooden branches. Through the moonless night, the rising knees of mangroves formed the edge of the swamp. I inched along the perimeter, until a narrow path opened. In the swamp, the chop disappeared, but the mist thickened.
I couldn’t find the flickering light again. The angle and thicket of branches hid it.
Slowly winding my way through mangrove maze, a faint scent of something disgusting assaulted my nose. Up water, further to the left. The smell strengthened. I turned off the Zodiac’s motor and pushed off mangrove roots, making slow progress. The mist changed into light rain.
I turned into a narrow slot between trees. Ah, the flicker of a yellow flame highlighted a figure huddled next to it.
“Ahoy, mate.” My voice cracked, out of use. I wanted to say, “Lend me a hand,” but I just lifted my arm. Water dripped from my hat brim onto my neck. I lowered my arm.
The dark figure, hidden within a poncho, stood and ambled over to the edge of a pier. “Is a damn fool out there?”
“Yes.” I waved again and threw the docking rope.
The rope fell short, into the water. I pulled it back and threw again. The stranger caught it, used a double hitch, and secured the Zodiac to the pier.
As I got out, I sneezed. It hurt my throat and ears. “Inside?” I asked.
The stranger, a scraggly young person in homemade clothes, motioned with a forefinger for me to follow. We walked off the pier. I carefully placed my feet in his footprints. In the shadow of the overgrowth, we arrived at his shack. He removed two side slats and lifted a flap. I followed him into his three-sided shack. It was open towards the harbor.
I got my first good look at him. At her. He was a she. Her hair was short, but full lips, high eyebrows, smooth skin, and narrow chin couldn’t hide what her clothes did.
“Look-it,” the woman said. “Don’t be a fool. Close the damn flap. Don’t get wetter.” She harrumphed. “Get in here. Get dry. You know, the rain must fall.”
After I lowered the tarp, I glanced about the inside. Crates as furniture. An especially large one in front of a rolled-out carpet. A black stowaway pot filled with bubbling stew over the fire by the open wall. Her home.
She gave me a sharp look, then took off her crude poncho. When I didn’t say anything, she chastised me. “Your manners are poor, but mine not. I’ll offer my name. Muskt. Muskt, to friends.” She extended a thin black hand.
I shook it. “Never heard a name like Muskt before. Is that like Musket?”
She ignored that. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m Professor Bellamy Shalimar.”
Muskt’s eyes narrowed, her manner stiffened. “Blasted! Are you a talk master or an Accursed?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m a scientist.” As I answered, the sea broadcast came back to me. It mentioned Anti-Scientists. “That is,” I backpedaled, “I used to a scientist. Haven’t been for twenty years.”
“Hah. It’s lucky for you, Belly, you came ashore here. Not everyone is as forgiving as me. Some would rather feed Accurseds to the swamp.”
Muskt’s easy antagonism against scientists raised my concerns.
I didn’t want the conversation to rest on there. “My friends call me Bellamy.” I swallowed, with difficulty. The scratching in my throat had developed flames. “I’ve been watching the rain for the last week. How long do you think this storm will last?”
Muskt shifted against her crate and stirred the liquid in the large kettle above the fire. “One storm can blur into the next. It’s always rainy season in the rainy year. The rains, they must fall.”
Carefully watching me, Muskt added, “Where you be from, Belly, asking such a thing? Not to mention admitting you’re an Accursed!”
“I’ll tell …” My voice broke. I still was unused to talking. I paused and pointed to my throat. “Parched.”
She handed me a cup of liquid. “Homebrew. You’ll welcome the grove extract after your outing.”
I sniffed it. The foul smell magnified. The thought of drinking it disgusted me. The impurities, the nastiest that nature had to offer, but I couldn’t turn it down, not if I was to win her trust and help. I took a teeny sip. A cough of burning surprise was followed by mild alcoholic warmth spreading from my stomach.
My new friend, if I could make her my friend, smiled. “Probably hungry too.” She ladled stew into a battered bowl. “Ain’t much. Mud skippers from today, the crabs I catch, and the spuds I steal.”
I mastered my revulsion and touched the spoon to my tongue. For two decades all my food had been processed and purified.
It didn’t make me throw up immediately, but death by water-borne parasites might kill me. Unless I killed them first.
“Before I begin …” I pulled the flask from my oilskin pocket. I opened it and handed it to her.
She took it and sniffed. She scrunched her nose, looked askance and said with a sneer. “What do I want with an Accursed product?”
“It’s 200 proof. Pure alcohol. Add some to the brew, then easier talk.”
Muskt poured some into my cup. “You, first.”
I drank some. When I didn’t keel over, Muskt cautiously added some to her cup.
My next swallow went down smoother and hotter. My throat burned but I no longer cared. “I haven’t talked much lately. My throat aches.”
“Look-it,” she said. “Tell me your story. I ain’t heard a good story in forever.”
“Muskt,” I leaned back against a crate, “for the past twenty years my home has been hundreds of miles east of here. Two hundred feet below the surface of the ocean.” Away from Meredith. I held that part back.
“Blast me!” Muskt said with wrath in her voice. “Ain’t there enough accursed water around here for you?”
“More than enough,” I readily agreed. “I left during the riots after the Freedom Dam collapse. You’re probably too young to remember them.”
Muskt bobbed her head. “True, but I know of them. My father … we … I was five or six then. My parents joined the Antis. At first, I thought the government would help us, then I thought they would destroy us, but finally they gave up on us. They abandoned BaltSea. Their new city, Neopolis, has its own government, the Coordinatorship. It’s far above the high water, in the rolling hills in the Piedmont. They took the best of everything. We got the scraps.” She took a good swig of her drink and stared into the fire. “After my parents died, three wet years ago, I set up my camp here. I see as little with others as I can, either Antis or Accurseds.”
She glanced at me. “Belly, you must have been here when the new city was being built. Why didn’t you go there?”
I wasn’t ready to answer that question. I barely understood why myself. “I had a research project, off-campus. I left the surface for personal reasons. Now I’ve returned. I have created a food crop to crop in salty estuaries. I want to get it to the Enoch campus. Will you lead me there?”
The small woman eyed me levelly. “What’s in it for me?”
What would interest her? “Food, warmth, comfort. You could have a job there.”
Muskt snorted at that. “A job! I’m free out here.”
“But you must need things.”
“True. I go to fairs, but the trades are often too dear.”
From my pocket, I pulled out the vial. “Do they accept gold?” I swung it back and forth.
She grabbed it out of my hand. “That’s a good down payment. Your little rubber boat ain’t much of a fit for the swamp, but add it in and I’ll take where you want to go.”
I took another sip of my fiery drink, mulling over her greedy reply. She had my gold and wanted the Zodiac, and then I remembered my goal. This was just the price of accomplishing it. “If you get me there, I won’t need the Zodiac again so it’ll be yours.”
“A deal then.” She stuck out her hand.
I took it. “Let’s go now.”
“No hurry,” she said. “A bit later, a bit better. When the rain slackens. Relax a while. What’s the rest of your story?”
I could wait. I’d been waiting twenty years. I rested back again the crate. “As I was saying, back in ’38, the Freedom Dam collapsed.”
“I … we lost our home then. Sykesville was swept away.”
Ignoring her, I ploughed ahead. “My wife, Meredith, blamed all scientists, including me, for the entire weather mess. Especially me.”
“Interesting,” she said, “an Anti at heart.”
“That may make sense to you, but as I practice science, I improve things. Just like you do with your work.” Her mouth started to form a rebuttal, so I hurried on. “Meredith and I argued. After two decades, the details are unimportant. I bought a surplus laboratory for living under the ocean.” Some truths are too difficult to explain to others.
Muskt eyes widened. “An entire ship. All your own. You’re rich on the backs of Freemen.”
“No. No, though I got a good deal.” I didn’t want to dwell on my past actions. “I couldn’t make progress on bioplastics topside. Couldn’t get materials on a regular schedule. The electricity would fail. My experiments and prototypes got ruined. I had to restart the same lengthy reaction sequences and could never finish.”
“Electricity!” she broke in. Waving her arm around her little shack lit only by burning embers, she said, “I see electric lights at a distance and sometime in the Boss’s office.”
“You do realize electricity is available courtesy of science.” I quickly turned to a different direction. “For years I struggled in my undersea lab, but I switched from bioplastics to nutrients from algae. The seacoast farms now have salty groundwater as do the lands in many estuaries. The traditional crops don’t grow at that concentration of salt.”
My vocal cords demanded rest. I stopped and take a sip of the brew.
Muskt stared out the open front, into the blackness of the wet night.
She seemed satisfied, but I wanted to get my lie finished. “I now have a very promising alga strain. It could feed whole villages.”
“Hah! A dish of seaweed.” Muskt spat. “Yuck.”
Damn fool. I hate to argue with a person, especially when she’s right against the lie I was telling. However, I wasn’t willing to disclose my true invention to her, yet I needed to secure her help.
“Not a dish of seaweed. A saline farm of proteins, sugars, and fatty acids. The grains of the Delmarva Peninsula replaced with algae farms. I need your help to get to the people who could make it happen.”
An odd smirk crossed Muskt’s face. “Does seem like there might be potential, but you’ll have to be doing me a tad more of a favor, in return.”
“I thought we already agreed on that. You took my gold. I said you could have the Zodiac. What more?”
She picked up my soup bowl. I’d eaten two small scoops of the noxious meal. “Between you and me eating my stew, my supplies are dwindling. I know a place, right near the university, where I can replace them. Help me and afterwards, we’ll go to the campus.”
“Aye.” A loose cough erupted in my chest. “Aye.” Underneath my beard, a hot flush rushed to my cheeks.
Muskt watched me closely, aware of my distress. “Lean back, Belly. Close your eyes. It’s too early to be leaving yet. Close your eyes. Rest.”
She huddled by her crate, with the open view of the mangrove swamp, enjoying the never-ending precipitation.
Thankfully, the talking was ended. I shut my eyes, relishing the peace.
Half-awake, images and memories merged into a dream. A new dream. My first, in years. Meredith murmured, “I understand. You’ve atoned for your sins, Bellamy. Return to Earth.”
|All power comes from the individual|
and never returns there.
– Gabriel Laub
Sep. 14, 2258
Muskt shook my shoulder. She wore a dark, deer poncho. Water dripped on to me from the rim of her black trekking hat.
Groggily, I muttered, “What …”
Instead of answering, Muskt thrust a sheepskin coat and a belt at me.
The animal-skin bag on the belt had waterproof matches, a candle, and two folded plastic bags. I added my lab journal-chip into it.
Shortly, we stepped out, into the night’s darkness. The rain had stopped, but the air remained thick, like the heat in Manaus, Brazil, where my bioplastic factory would have been built. That dream of twenty years ago, cellulose to neuro-polyprene, to power agrobot brains.
We walked across the floating pier into the thicket of low-growing branches and uncertain paths. I tried to keep exactly in her footfalls.
After a long, slow slog, the ground firmed. Also, through thinner overgrowth straight, vertical, black edges appeared. Buildings, but no lights. An occasional snort, some howls, chirps, and buzzing were in the air, but no sounds I recognized as human.
The path split. Muskt raised her arm. “Stay.” She pointed behind a fir tree snag. “Look-it, don’t move.”
Nodding, I nestled off-trail where she pointed. I was glad to rest. A general ache and more walking than the lobster traps required made me glad to rest. I tugged at the sheepskin, wishing it was darker, less obvious and pulled my hat down to protect my ears and neck.
Entirely too soon, Muskt returned. “Show’s on, Belly. Let’s go.”
I shrugged in agreement.
She led us to a path of broken asphalt. The path gradually turned into a real road, leading into a quiet, secure neighborhood. There were houses, residences ensconced behind concrete walls or high fences.
After two blocks, the inhabited neighborhood ended. These houses were caved in. More than one had a tree trunk through the roof.
Just as the road led into a fresh, thick woods, Muskt pointed to a low, stone cottage half-hidden behind overgrown bushes. She gestured for me to be quiet and follow. In the back, she stooped by a basement window.
“Now,” Muskt whispered, finger to her lips. She pulled tape from her pocket and made a crisscross on the basement window. With a rock in her right hand and the left holding the dangling tape trailer, she struck the window sharply. The glass shattered, but the pieces stayed in place.
Carefully and quietly, she pulled the tape which brought the shards along with it. She dropped it all under a bush. She removed the frame-stuck fragments by gripping them through her poncho. That completed, Muskt crawled in. She turned with a peremptory gesture for me to follow.
This was beyond my imagination. I expected, at the worst, a midnight raid on a potato patch, never breaking into a building. This reminded me of childhood pogey bait runs to the Foundation’s kitchen. How far civilization had fallen in BaltSea. It hardly seemed a city now. Not every man, but every household was an island.
The darkness and steady rainfall inhibited seeing, but I knew I was somewhere in an old area of north Baltimore.
I clambered in. Muskt lit a candle. The flame’s flickering shadows seemed like Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters.” Half of her face was illuminated while the other half and the corners of the room were in darkness and shadow.
“Look-it!” she whispered exasperated. “Wipe that stupid look off your face. Quick and quiet Follow my lead.” From her pocket, she pulled a plastic bag. I did the same. She started bagging onions. She pointed me to carrots.
When my sack was nearly full, she motioned to stop. Muskt poked around the shadowy basement. “Look-it, see if you can find garlic or mushrooms or anything but more onions, potatoes, zucchinis, and carrots.”
I saw a shelf with a thick bowl. I pulled it forwards and must have disturbed a rat’s comfortable night. It jumped forward and bit my finger. I stifled a scream and swung my arm up, but the rat held on. I slammed its body onto the shelf.
That broke its hold, but the floor-to-ceiling storage rack rocked, and then fell over. Cooking utensils from the top shelves clattered and clanged onto the concrete floor.
Astonished, I spread my hands out to show my innocent intention.
Muskt ignored that. She scrambled up and was out the window before I recovered my wits. Stepping carefully through the clutter, I went to the window. Muskt reached back in and grabbed my first bag, tucked it into her poncho, and was off.
I was half in and half out of the basement when a thickset man in a red checkered jacket pointed a rifle at me. “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
|Whoever sees nature as it truly is,|
simply sees the backstage of a theatre.
– Bernard de Fontenelle
Sep. 14, 2258
“Okay,” the burly man said. “Out and up against the wall. Face first. The Boss will be happy to meet the thief who’s been poaching his storehouse.”
I obeyed, but resisted. “I’m not a poacher …” The press of cold metal shut me up.
“Talk when I tell you to talk. Name?”
Professor was forming on my lips, before I remembered and shortened it to, “Bellamy Shalimar.” I turned to explain, but the red jacket man pushed my head back.
“Keep your face to the wall.”
His voice trailed away. A strong hand on my back held me immobile.
“Where’s your partner?”
“I have no partner.”
“Sure. Those two zucchinis walked outside without help. Come here.” He grabbed my arm and pushed me forward. At the storehouse’s front stairs, he took my poncho and handcuffed me to a metal railing. “Don’t go anywhere.” He laughed. “I’ll be back. Count on it.”
Fifteen minutes or an hour passed. I don’t know which. I shivered in the gusts of wind, tried to wiggle out of the cuff, and agonized over how I ended up here.
At last, I heard noise from the direction my captor had left by. The hedge of skip laurels rustled. Muskt stepped forward, without her deerskin jacket, hands cuffed in behind her.
Our captor laughed. “Got me a Muskrat.” He smiled at me. “Got me double rations for catching thieves.”
He pushed Muskt prone, held her still with his foot on her back, then he transferred my handcuffs from railing to behind my back.
He got Muskt up and prodded us into the woods as the early morning sky reddening. We walked until a patchwork field opened before us. Not too far off, a large brick building with a tower cast a silhouette familiar to me.
As we neared it, flickering shadows illuminated otherwise empty window frames.
Our captor pushed us forward, to the faded white steps of a wide, formal entry. There was no front door at the top. The entry porch roof was missing, but the tower still rose, although cracked with age and ill-repair. For many hours, decades ago, I ruminated out my lab window, with Enoch Hall as the view.
Muskt whispered, “Look-it. The school like I promised. Dinghy’s mine.”
“Shut up.” Red Jacket pushed us through the doorway. “Although it’s barely morning, the boss will want to know, pronto.”
Enoch Hall retained little of its former grandeur. Interior doors were missing from most jambs. The breeze entered through a window covered by makeshift drapes. Across the darkness of the foyer, I saw the source of the flickering. An indoor campfire.
Our captor pushed us across the open space. Once in range, he raised his voice towards of a figure wrapped in a quilt. “Boss. Wake up. Good news.”
A tall, shaggy red-haired man sat up, wiping sleep from his eyes.
“I caught these two stealing from the storehouse basement, Boss.”
Jack Bressler looked at us with the weak flames barely illuminating.
Jack and I had only met once, at the Markov Center decades ago. He wouldn’t recognize me … I hope.
The woman by the boss’s side lifted her head, never opened her eyes, then returned to the arms of Orpheus. She was older than I remembered, but still as attractive. Time had been good to Meredith. Her hair, though still thick, was liberally streaked with gray. She looked as trim in her 50s as when she swam laps at 25. Meredith, chaos and damnation! If she wakes, could I hide enough of my face that my outlandish outfit and beard might hide my identity?
“Good work, Rufus.” Jack praised our Red Jacket captor. “When you stop in the kitchen, anything you want.”
Was the gleam in Jack’s eyes the reflection of flames or his fanaticism? Returning his attention to Muskt and me, he said, “Stealing from the people’s storehouse. Very serious.”
Muskt jerked her thumb at me. “He forced me. I am a simple fisherman living off the swimming creatures of the swamp, happy to eke …”
Rufus interrupted. “We call her Muskrat, Boss. Everybody knows she’s a thief. The other one I ain’t never seen.”
“I never bother anyone.” The words flew out of Muskt’s mouth as if by talking quickly she could deny any accusation. “My needs are small. If this Accursed had not forced me, I would still be in my little shack, bothering nobody and nobody bothering me.”
“An Accursed!” Jack jumped to his feet. “Here!”
Meredith eyes opened, but closed again.
He glared at me. “Accurseds are the enemy of the Red Jackets. All our efforts can’t overcome the disasters they’ve visited upon the world. It’s more serious than stealing from my storehouse. Well, what say you, Accursed?”
“I am not an Accursed.” My mind raced. “My name is … William. I’ve been living on an island in the bay.”
Jack Bressler, the Boss of the Red Jackets, laughed. “I hear that story daily. So Accursed …”
Meredith roused; her eyelid fluttered.
“No, I’m not an Accursed!” Although Jack had studied the ancient sediments released by flooded rivers before he changed to hating scientists, he had turned 180 degrees. I continued my lie. “I am a fisherman.”
“Jack.” Meredith sat up. “Fisherman or Accursed, couldn’t we use these two for our new plans against Neopolis?”
“Excellent idea, my dear.” He returned his attention to us. “Luck is with you. Instead of become alligator food, you will help us thank the Elites for the swamp and the northern alligators. If your help is worthy, I might forgive your thievery.”
Jack commanded Rufus. “Two for the barracks. See they are ready when I give the order to head out.”
Light rain returned with the lifting of night. We passed the storehouse on the way to the barracks, our new home. The lockup guard was sullen. He tapped an unlit cigar with a wooden match while he got his orders.
“Two for lockup, Stony” Rufus told him. “I’ll pick them up when I’m ready. Until then water, nothing more.
|He who considers too much|
will perform too little.
– Frederich Schiller
Sep. 16, 2258
Upstairs, Muskt and I shared a locked room. I collapsed onto the springs of a bunk without a mattress. Drafted to attack the only place that could help me. Irony and fear tinged my fatigue and fever.
“Attack Neopolis!” Muskt was excited, as if we weren’t even prisoners. “Never been up that way. You? Of course, you ain’t. Living where you’ve been living.”
I refused to answer, to move, to even lift an eyelid. I had to rest and think over events. That was my way. On the Nereid, there was only a small set of variables—very much like an experiment. Here, topside, chance events overwhelmed my thoughts with possibilities, forcing me to admit it was impossible to reason my way through.
“Look-it. On Sea Day,” Muskt continued to talk despite my silence, “every red-blooded Anti wants to lay siege to an Accursed city. Finally, I get my chance. Those Elitists! The rich, the politicians, the technocrats who fled BaltSea are going to get theirs.”
The pungent smell of a lit cigar wafted up to our lockup. Half-asleep, memories of youthful days at the Foundation arose unbidden. My matron nemesis smoked a noxious cigar. I hoped she was long dead.
“This year the Red Jackets and the Seven Hills gang coordinated an attack,” Muskt continued her monologue, “on a Hydroponics lab. Perhaps Neopolis’s guard will be down with Sea Day passed.”
I had difficulty waking. At first, I thought I was on the Nereid, below the sea. Then in Muskt’s shack. The hand shook me harder. It came to me; I was in the Red Jacket’s lockup.
“We need to talk, Bellamy,” the soft whisper of Meredith voice.
I sat up but looked away, at the sleeping Muskt.
“Come now, you didn’t think a beard would fool me.”
“I hoped.” Despite two decades of anticipation, the perfect accusations I had rehearsed flew from my mind. “What …”, the thought continued in my mind, do you want?
Her smile was no longer even, as if parts of her mind were in disharmony. “I want to know things,” she said. “I haven’t revealed who you are. Doesn’t that show some good faith?”
“The poor light and the beard did throw me for a moment. Once you dressed a dandy, for official duties and seminars with grad students.”
Fierceness in her eyes. “What are you doing here?” She demanded. “What are you up to?”
“I have only the best intentions. I want to return to Enoch. The real campus, not this place … this charade.”
“Charade! You never could see past the official line. When they pulled up roots for the new city, I couldn’t abandon the homeless as they so easily did. They, the nicest term is Elites, fled not just Enoch but looted all the top institutions still here. Their best intentions, hah!”
Her voice began to rise in anger, but she regained control. “I am one of a very few Freemen who will admit the Elites started trying to do well, but in the end, they ruined this city and cities around the world. They took all the wealth to new cities and left nothing good for the people they left behind. The one hereabouts, they call Neopolis.”
She grabbed me my shoulders and made me look into her face. “Where have you been these last two decades? And why are you back now?”
My mouth opened in surprise. She didn’t seem to know. I had assumed that Meredith would know somehow.
I told her briefly of my life beneath the ocean these two decades, of the promising alga, neglecting to mention the earthquake destroyed all that. I made no mention of the Synthesizer in the Nereid or of the laser specs on the lab journal-chip in my pocket.
“Not every improvement is for the better,” she declared. “Where is this miracle alga?”
“Back where I landed. Help me get its genetic information to the university.”
“Are you still such a fool? I don’t want the Accursed civilization to rise here again, Bellamy. They’ve ruined everything. We’re building a new society. It’s rugged here, but it’s honest. We know if we work hard, we can go to sleep with a sound conscience and the chance of making things better tomorrow. At Neopolis they fill their stomachs and sleep uncaring of Freemen. The scabs who provide them services barely have the rights of farm animals.”
“Rubbish!” I objected. “I suppose you and Jack worked hard to gather the storehouse food.”
Meredith didn’t respond. She got up, walked to the door, and then said, “You’ll get to see your blessed Neopolis. You’ll be on the first assault.”
She closed the door. I heard the bolt slide home. In the darkness I laid back, wondering about her comment, she “didn’t want the accursed civilization to rise again.” Really?
Muskt turned over in her rack. “Look-it, Belly. You and the Boss’s lady. Interesting.”
We trained in the area for three days. Mostly we hiked and practiced throwing rocks, the size of a grenade. I saw other Red Jackets, but they knew we were lockups and ostracized us.
At sunup, Rufus would lead us to a stream. Muskt and I hauled buckets of water back, many times a day. Enoch Hall had pipes that looked intact. However, when I turned the spigot, no water came out.
I felt a serf from medieval Europe.
|When a rainbow has lasted long …|
we stop looking at it.
Sep. 17, 2258
The morning we left; it wasn’t raining. The sun was out with scattered, puffy cumulus clouds. We were a tattered group of three men and two women. Rufus led Meredith, Stony, Muskt, and me out of camp. Where was Jack?
Muskt and I were given ragged Red Jackets, but the lack of trust was obvious. Stony trailed me. Rufus pushed Muskt ahead. Meredith was light on her feet. She often walked with Rufus while other times scooting by me, looking for something afield.
We walked north and west out of the old campus. We skirted any neighborhoods, staying on large concrete, mostly unbroken roadways. Erosion was visible everywhere. When rain flooded the streets, it ate down into the underlying seams of road support, making for numerous sunken spots. However, as we travelled uphill, the roads gradually became less broken.
After an hour, Stony pointed ahead. A good distance ahead, a large vehicle barreled its way towards us.
An old M35 cargo truck. Its cargo space was uncovered. A rifle on a swivel mount and a motorcycle lay the back.
Jack Bressler swung open the driver’s door, stepped onto the door step and addressed us.
“Red Jackets, you’re on a mission to destroy a valued weapon of the Accurseds. Unfortunately, I am denied the opportunity to be on this raid with you. In the disorder after the last attack, Seven Hills overran people on our south flank, people who depend upon us. I’m leading the rest of the Red Jackets to recover their freedom.
“Although you were few, Meri and Rufus are very capable. Bring honor to us and destruction to them. God be with you. Meri, the truck’s yours.”
Jack got down and went to the back of the truck. He lowered the cargo bay’s metal half-hatch. A small footlocker had been hidden by the motorcycle.
He pulled out a pistol and a shotgun out of footlocker. After locking it, he waved the pistol at me. “Help Rufus and Stony get my ride down.”
Minutes later, his motorcycle was on the ground.
He gave the pistol to Meredith, waved to us, and headed south.
Meredith got in the driver’s seat. “Rufus, take this pistol. Watch them close. Stony, up here with the shotgun. In case we run into any trouble on the way.” The rest of us got in the cargo area. When Rufus tapped the cab roof, we took off at a good pace west. Neopolis.
The warmth of the sun felt good on my skin. I shuffled until my back wedged against the footlocker, then turned to let the sun warm my skin.
“Muskt,” Rufus said, “what are you going to do when we get there?”
“Destroy whatever I can of the Accursed city. Watch it burn. Smash the world globe I hear it has at the entrance.”
Rufus smiled. “You’ll have to be lucky to see the globe the way we go in, but the rest … do that and the Boss will give you a real Red Jacket.”
Muskt shook her head and replied cautiously. “I’m not worthy. Scat like me should live by myself.”
Neither Rufus nor Stony talked to me, which suited me fine. How long ‘til we get there? Neopolis must be around the new campus, new twenty years ago near Hagerstown. If roads stay good like this, we’ll be there in hours.
After life undersea in the submersible, the views from the truck were expansive and wonderful. Forests and fields were green and lush, even in mid-September. Couldn’t surpluses from inland and upland get to the old areas, like BaltSea? Where were other vehicles? I hadn’t seen any since we started off.
With the Synthesizer everything could change. Every house could use its fusion generator to power the Synthesizer, eliminating the problems of transportation and isolation.
The Shalimar Synthesizer! World Famous! Well-Loved! I shook my head, trying to rid my mind of fantasies. There were real problems in the present.
Fortified compounds and dilapidated buildings rolled by. Secondary roads that required treads rather than tires led into the hinterland.
We drove past neighborhoods superficially normal, until I took note of falling slats, heavy yellow-green mildew of exterior walls, and bushes and shrubs taking over sidewalks, porches, and open spaces. Occasionally tree branches grew through window into a house. Yet there were small clusters of homes, well-maintained, protected barriers of fortified fences with well-defined entry points. Sometimes guards leaned there, rifles at their side, but others compounds had windowed huts, blocking entry.
Nobody walked around idly that I noticed. Those out were in small, armed groups. Rufus and Stony raised their own rifles in salute. On we rode, unharassed.
I tried to ignore my throat and sleep when we turned onto a two-lane country road. We rode down the middle. Its asphalt edges were heavily broken. Weeds, grasses, and Jack-in-the-Pulpits crept through the black gaps.
When we came to a bridge washed out, Meredith skillfully drove around, through the creek, up the bank, and back to the road.
Most farm buildings were collapsing. In my last foray to the countryside years ago, the countryside had been well-maintained. No longer. Silos had caved-in roofs. Shutters flapped in the wind. Telephone poles lay flat by river runs. Severed strands of electric wire lay along the road’s edge. This was nearly as bad as BaltSea.
Two hours later, we arrived at Patapsco Crossing, where a high bridge once connected two ridges. For many years, I was unaware there was water far below the bridge.
The river had widened in the past decades. Meredith and I had attended a dinner not a half of mile further from where the truck now stopped. Once a twenty-foot stream now spanned seventy feet. The water was thick with mud and sediment.
The forested hillside had a clearing going down, wide enough for the truck. We drove down the rough path to a ferry landing. The bounces had Muskt and me straining to stop the locker from banging our legs.
The grizzled man at the landing knew Meredith.
The five of us with our locker got on the flat bottom of the small ferry. Rufus tapped his rifle on the locker. “Make sure our gear stays safe.”
Meredith paid no money. She told the ferryman someone would come for the truck and on his next trip to BaltSea he could count on the Red Jacket’s hospitality.
He cautioned us. “The leaving and the landing are the roughest. The middle current is fast, but steady. Not so near the banks.”
The ferry’s small gas engine spurted, then caught with a thick puff of grayish smoke. Such pollution. I laughed at my reaction. There was no need to worry about little emissions when so many other sources were history.
The ferryman was adroit. The trip across the stream was quick and easy. If I weren’t pressed into this mission, I might have enjoyed the swaying and swooping. I turned to Meredith. “Why would he ever want to visit BaltSea?”
“If you are friendly and have enough food, BaltSea can be great. We have seafood, rice, and numerous staples. You didn’t suffer from famine. Jack took care of you, even though you were a prisoner.
“When you ran away from Earth,” she made a grimace that I recalled from our fights, “you also fled the problems that you, the Elites, created. We’re isolated from the rest of the world, but we’re making it.”
There was no point in arguing.
“Time to go,” Rufus yelled when we landed. Muskt and I picked up the locked box by the end handles. It weighed about fifty pounds. It wasn’t full-sized, just four feet wide by a foot and a half on its other dimensions.
We scrambled up the hillside. At the top, there was a road, but we no longer had the truck. Rufus led us to the wide, grassy shoulder of the road, next to thick woods.
The afternoon grew hotter and more humid. The cumulus clouds developed a black underside, but it didn’t rain. The ground was soft and squished under our feet.
Muskt and I fell into a steady rhythm, with occasional, quick stops to switch sides.
We walked all afternoon and into twilight. There were isolated houses, but no people. No improvements.
I wondered about that.
“Would you,” Meredith answered me, “flaunt your success? No, a Freeman keeps a low profile in this no-man’s land between BaltSea justice and the Accursed city.”
I paused, considering.
Muskt threw down her side of the box. “Look-it, keep in step, Belly. I ain’t doing your work too.”
Meredith smirked. “Muskt, we’ll make you a Red Jacket yet. As for you, Bellamy, keep up your side. It’s a bit further.”
“It’s heavy.” I hated to hear myself whine, but I couldn’t stop. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it.”
Stony jabbed my back with his shotgun.
Meredith waved him away. “Perhaps a story will occupy your mind, Bellamy, so it doesn’t focus on your body. Let’s resume.”
Rufus led us off at a slower pace.
“Twenty years ago,” she started, “I ran a medical clinic. You remember my clinic, don’t you? Down below Freedom Dam. A rambling construction that gave aid to thousands escaping the flooded areas east of BaltSea. They had nothing, except what they could carry.”
“I remember,” I said. “Wasn’t Enoch University the sponsor of the clinic?” That stopped her a second. I quickly added, “And Jack Bressler was on the university payroll too. You two are turncoats!”
“That’s the pot calling the kettle back, Mister I-Run-Away. You don’t understand work. When it’s hard, you quit.” She came to a decision. “Stop, Muskt. Put down your side.”
To me, she waved the pistol at me. “Pick it up. You’re dogging it. It’s not too wide and it’s not that damn heavy.”
I lifted it, hands on the front corners. I tried to tuck the bottom atop my belt to relieve the strain. We resumed our march, the footlocker bouncing against my thighs on every stride.
“That’s the end of story time. Here’s something else for you to mull,” Meredith said. “A dozen years ago, all the BaltSea leaders demanded a meeting with Neopolis. When we got there, what did they offer us? Free weather forecasts. That’s it and don’t come back.”
We trudged on. She returned to her thought. “Did you know, Bellamy, the last census estimated only one hundred thousand people remained of area’s two million when you left.”
I didn’t want to ask, but couldn’t stop myself. “What did everyone else go?”
“Most died during storms or fled to somewhere else to die.”
In the gathering darkness I stumbled and fell across the locked box and couldn’t move.
Meredith called for a stop.
“Rufus, Stony. Take ten.” To me, she added, “Get your second wind. Muskt, help with the other handle. We need to get to the waypoint tonight.”
We got back in step. My legs moved, on automatic.
The sloping hills became steeper. Soon, we crossed a ridge and below us was a wide openness. The darkness of the night made it impossible to make out details other than the dropping hillside and a forest below the far horizon.
“Almost there.” Meredith said. The moon peeped through a hole in the rapidly moving cloud cover. She pointed down. Moonlight glimmered on a wide river in the valley.
Rufus and Stony started down the hillside.
“No way we’re wading across that river,” I said.
“I know another way. Let’s go.” Meredith led us downhill to a small cave entrance.
“We’ll rest in there,” she said. “Come daylight, we cross.”
“I’ll take first watch,” the taciturn Stony said.
Thankfully, it was a dry cave. Exhausted, I fell asleep imagining the blunt rock pressing my side was a fat cushion button on my armchair back home … in the warm, cozy confines of the Nereid.
The next morning Meredith woke us early. It was with disappointment that I awoke. My last dream was actually true. I was in the cave on a Red Jacket mission. Rufus sat watch at the cave’s mouth, looking out. Muskt rubbed her eyes and sat up. Stony did the same.
“Hurry.” Meredith rushed us. “I want to cross the river early, without being seen. We can eat on the other side. If you want something now, grab a berry or a walnut off the ground.”
We walked and slid down the hillside. When the trees thinned and the morning broke, our transport came into sight. An open metal cage attached to a platform on the river side of a large tulip polar. A trolley. An overhead wire cable disappeared into the early mist toward the far shore.
“Meri, that holds three most,” Rufus said. “How do you want to do this?”
“Me and Bellamy with Stony on the first trip. You keep Muskt. We’ll take this counter-cable.” She pointed to a coil under the platform. “When we’re across, use it to pull the cart back and then come over.”
“You’re taking the locked box?” Rufus asked.
“I think so. Yes.” She turned to me. “Bellamy, put it in the middle against the front panel. Don’t let it move when we’re crossing. Stony, take the other side of the box.”
The metal floor groaned and creaked as I stepped on. Stony tied the coil to the trailing strut. Rufus tugged his connection at the platform, ensuring it was firm.
Meredith came on. She elbowed me out of her way, taking the front post. With a key from her pocket, she unlocked the box and pulled out field glasses. She scanned the far shore. “Nothing.”
But I had seen inside the box. Not a lot in it, but not nothing. Full pistol clips, two stopwatches, and a pack of grenades.
At her nod, Rufus pushed the trolley off. We gained speed quickly.
I held tight to the sidebar leading up to the cable housing, worried about slipping on the wet metal floor.
We sped out to the river’s middle. The thin return coil played out easily. As we passed the middle of the wide river, a high-pitched sound grew from the cable above.
The trolley hitched in its motion until a final, high-pitched screech heralded a surprise stop.
Meredith who had been scanning the shoreline with her field glasses flipped over the front rail. Only her hold on the front bar kept her from falling twenty-five feet down to the river.
In momentary shock, I held fast to my bar and didn’t move, but Stony leapt into action.
He reached over the front railing and grabbed Meredith’s upper arm. He turned to me. “Aren’t you going to help?”
That knocked me out of my stupor. I reached over the railing and grabbed her other arm. As I leaned over, the journal-chip slipped out of my pocket. It fell into the water below.
Stony and I helped Meredith up and back in the trolley. Safely aboard again, with surprising poise, she took stock. “At least, the locked box didn’t go over.” Looking up at the overhead cable, she said, “Rust.”
“That can’t be true,” I said. “Aluminum doesn’t rust. It corrodes.”
“Bellamy, an academic distinction is a useless detail.” She handed Stony her field glasses and said, “Make sure we stay still now and your knife.”
“They can pull us back by the rope,” I said.
“Never.” Meredith shook her head. “We’re going forward, not backward.”
“Stony.” He gave her his knife and pushed down the handbrake.
Meredith grabbed the rising shaft and lifted herself to stand on the sidebar. After a quick look at the cable assembly, she scrapped the cable leading into the exposed wheel. From her pocket she crushed the paraffin of a candle on the assembly.
Hopping down, she nodded to Stony to release the brake. We slid forward a distance but stopped a dozen feet short of the shoreline, ten feet up.
She shrugged. “Although we’re free now, the stopping ruined our energy.” She looked back the way we had come, then to the near shore.
“I’m going to swim it. When I get onshore, toss me the end of the wire cord. I’ll tie it to the trolley stop.”
My feeble thoughts were vanquished by her fearlessness.
Meredith climbed over the trolley front bar. When a quick look upstream revealed no dangerous debris, she jumped into the quick-moving river. She righted herself and swam. Like a vector equation, with current and swim speed, Meredith made the bank many feet downriver.
On shore, she walked back to the nearest shore point. Stony tied the field glasses to the end of the coil. He chucked the coil with glasses as hard as he could. It landed not far from Meredith.
She grabbed it. She looped the coil over the pulley on the receiving platform. Wrapping the coil as tightly as possible, clutching the field glasses, she jumped down from the tree platform to the ground. Her weight pulled us several feet shoreward. Meredith kept the coil taut and slid down the hillside several more feet. That pulled Stony and I above dry land. Some feet short of the platform and six feet above ground.
“You first,” Meredith ordered me over the side. “Careful,” Meredith called up. “Just like jumping out of a tree when you were a kid.”
They didn’t allow us to climb trees at the Foundation, but I didn’t say that. I tumbled on landing.
“Help me with this.” She held the coil. “Stony’s too brittle to jump. We need to pull him in.”
It was easy work for the two of us. In a short time, all three of us stood on the landing and the trolley was being pulled back by Rufus and Muskt.
When we waited for them, I took the opportunity to look around. The Broadvalley Dam had crashed down during some storm while I was away. As a child, the Foundation had often brought us here for outings. It was free and well-maintained, back then. Now only two jagged, concrete buttresses remained. The concrete bulkheads, thirteen of them, which spanned the river with a road atop them, were gone.
Rufus and Muskt got across without a midstream stopping.
After we filled our canteens, Rufus said, “We’ve been lucky so far. Let’s get out of this exposed area.”
Walking today was easier than yesterday. We walked on the edge of hundred-foot-wide clear-cut. The dense forest beyond was thick with undergrowth.
Meredith took the front. Rufus touched my back with his rifle. Muskt and I were in the middle, with the locked box. Stony, with the shotgun in a shoulder harness, stayed between us and the woods. There was to be no escape other than death.
At times during the day’s march, we heard thrashing sounds beyond the hilly horizon. Rufus had us stop and huddle in the woods, until the noises moved away.
For lunch, we camped off trail in a thicket. No campfire. Lunch was trail mix, beef jerky, and water.
We made good time all afternoon. The weather favored us.
The sun crept below the tree line when we arrived at what I learned was a landmark of Neopolis’s influence. The stark end of forests opening to a wide plain of grass. Beyond which lay acres of cultivated farmland—long, straight rows of soybeans and swaying fields of corn stalks.
There were dark scarecrows scattered through the fields. Far beyond the fields, there looked to be an orchard.
“Where’s the fence?” Muskt asked. “Otherwise poachers would surely have everything.”
“Remember those sounds we heard this afternoon,” Rufus said. “They are the first line of defense. The Accurseds allow turncoats to patrol the edge of their lands. The turncoats can keep whatever they can find in the forest. No questions asked as long as the fields are not raided.”
After just a short rest, Meredith said, “Rufus, I’m going scouting. I’ll meet you back here.”
He nodded. “Stony, we camp here. You got the rat.” He shrugged towards Muskt. “I’ll take the Accursed.”
|What is to give light |
must endure burning.
– Viktor Frankel
Sep. 20, 2258
Meredith returned long after dark. The early moon peered through scattered clouds. She had identified an active hydroponics building and a huge solar array.
“Meredith, this doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Why try to destroy a building dedicated to creating food that can grow in the new environment? That would help everyone, including the Red Jackets and the Freemen.”
She and Muskt both laughed, without humor, but she did answer. “It’s very simple. Perhaps too simple for someone who lives in an ivory tower and believes every lie the authorities utter. Those crops are to make Neopolis independent. They’re not to help the people they left behind. Their crops are for the Elites alone.”
She turned to Rufus. “Enough talk. We have our targets. Wake me at 3, then we go.”
Meredith led us to a tractor break between fields. Muskt and I followed, keeping close to the tall stalks, lugging the locked box with us. Rufus and Stony shadowed us. The crescent moon though bright was low in the sky, its light mostly hidden by foliage.
Once beyond the fields, we entered a barnyard of the most intolerable odor. We skirted it, careful not to trip motion lights. A low, very long building was next. Faint moonlight flickered off mirrors on its roof. There were firewalls every thirty feet with extensions to support a retractable roof.
Passing the solar panel building, Meredith led us to a concrete two-story building. Through its windows, I saw a scattering of stars. Open sky above the top floor.
“Hydroponics,” Meredith whispered. “Put the box down.”
We did. She stooped down to unlock it.
“Is that the chemistry horror house?” Muskt pointed back at the first building. “I want a shot at that!”
“No, solar collectors,” I said, but that puzzled me. “I didn’t think there be enough sunlight to make solar worthwhile.”
Meredith didn’t look up, but answered. “Average sunlight hours increase dramatically as one moves above sea level. There’s more than one hundred days of sun a year at Neopolis.”
Such a logical, factual answer surprised me. “Sounds like you read that in a textbook, Meredith.”
She shot me a cold look, but didn’t answer. “Rufus, you take Muskt. Let her have fun destroying solar panels and take these.”
Rufus nodded and took the grenades. He kept two and handed Muskt the other. “Remember after the pin is pulled,” he said, “you have five seconds. Once the fusion flare ignites, the burn lasts three minutes. Five thousand degrees. Don’t be near it!”
“That leaves us one each,” Meredith said. I accepted the small explosive. Stony took one and spaced himself a good throw down from me.
She handed Rufus one watch and took the other herself. “In exactly two minutes, everybody throws. Meet back at camp or scatter if you must.”
Rufus and Muskt trotted back to the first building.
“Bellamy, get ready.”
Waiting for two minutes seemed forever, but finally Meredith shoved me forward. “Throw now!” She hissed.
My throw was weak. I deliberated missed the first-floor window Meredith had pointed at. The grenade bounced off the wall and fell to the ground where it roared into a blue-white inferno. It melted a hole into the concrete wall, exposing flammable material, from which flames quickly leaped.
Meredith tossed hers into a lounge chair on second floor balcony. It lit the night like a miniature sun.
Stony, twenty feet up from us, got his grenade all the way onto the roof of the long, low building. After a moment of flaring, it burned through the hydroponic lid. Its intense heat vaporized water. The air filled with the sound of small, but intense explosions.
An alarm on the hydroponics building blared. Then another and another.
In panic, I looked around. A blue-white flare also lit the building roof in front of me. The sound of cracking solar panels added to the clamor of sirens.
Perimeter lights came on.
“Bellamy. Come on.”
I turned to follow Meredith, but before two strides a thick, yellow gas rolled down the side of hydroponics building and across the ground. Like a wave it swallowed me up.
The last thing I recall was coughing.
When I awoke, my head felt like I had drunk all of Muskt’s homebrew. My arms were fastened down.
“Doctor, number three revives.”
Although I looked right and left, there was no one in the room. There was nothing in the room. No cabinets, tables, or chairs. Just the bed I was on and blank walls.
“Red Jacket,” it was as if the wall talked, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am not a Red Jacket!” I denied the accusation. “I was kidnapped. My name is Professor Bellamy Shalimar.”
“Hah,” the wall voice said. “You are the second today to claim to be him. You Antis must be learning what happens to saboteurs. We treat you as you treat us. Now answer, why did you try to destroy the hydroponics laboratory?”
“I didn’t. That is … I didn’t want to do. I was forced. A captive …” The last croaked out. My throat rebelled.
“That’s nothing that will change my opinion,” the disembodied voice said.
I took a deep breath and willed myself to speak slowly and sensibly. “I specialized in plastics from plants. I taught at Enoch University. They know me … ” A coughing spasm kept me from continuing.
“A nice story,” the voice said. ”Indeed, twice as likely today than usual. Which years do you claim to have spent with us, Red Jacket?”
“I taught students from 2229 to 2238. You said ‘us’. You are with Enoch University? Ask Dean Borkowski. She knows me.”
There was no reply.
Only then did I realize how I was straining against my confinement as I had talked. I lay back, exhausted. I waited in my bed, as if I had a choice. I dozed off.
I awoke when the voice returned.
“If you truly are Professor Shalimar, tell us what you have been doing since you vanished from the University. And why, no matter what you tell us, we should trust you when your wife is the co-conspirator of the infamous Jack Bressler?”
“I’m me,” I insisted, “but you can’t hold me responsible for my former wife’s actions. She’s the reason I vanished. I’ve been underneath the Atlantic Ocean in my personal laboratory. I’ve developed an end to famines from crop shortages.”
“Proof?” the voice prompted.
“I brought back my discovery.”
“We know all about that. The other Shalimar claimant told us about the mutated alga.”
I understood now. “You have been talking to Muskt. I told her that cover story and she told you. What I have is much greater and more promising. A Synthesizer. Raw material in. Nutrients out.”
I collapsed back from my half-upright position. Only then did I recall the loss of my journal-chip on the Broadvalley Dam trolley. I had the prototype, but it was in the Nereid under BaltSea harbor. How could I get them to take me there?
A section of the wall slid opened like a door. A nurse in a surgical mask wiped a cool towel on my face and neck. Under that cover, a sharp jab was administered to my neck.
Later, when I awoke, my arms were no longer shackled to the bedside. One wall now was a view portal to the outside. I sat up and slung my free legs over the side.
There was a note by my pillow.
Professor Shalimar, Dean Borkowski can’t confirm your story. She died in the riots of 2238; however, I am Doctor Lucia Reyes, head of Neopolis hydroponics. Perhaps you recall me from my days as a graduate student or when I visited your lab. I have confirmed your identity.
We have examined everything the attackers had with them. I found a flask of absolutely pure ethyl alcohol, two hundred proof with not a trace of impurity. Certainly not made by traditional processes. Perhaps you do have a synthesizer. We want to know more about that.
However, your illness worries us. You carry a prion that particularly worries our medical team. We have suffered more from Red Jacket diseases than from Red Jacket attacks.
We won’t send you back to them, but you can’t live among us. You will be kept in isolation until the next launch to Galen Orbital Hospital. There you, in low gravity, may help us develop your synthesizer, if it really exists.
There was another scrawled note under the first.
Belly, you okay? They’re sending this little fisher back to the BaltSea. Remember. The rains must fall!
Muskt will be okay. I wonder what they will do with Meredith. And Rufus and Stony.
I should be happy. I’ve reached my objective. The famine facing the world will be fought by a powerful new tool.
But is this fair?
I free myself from my hermitage, only to find that I am to be isolated again.