Fran Van Cleave
The Army logger dropped his ax. "Timber-r-r-r!"
The blue spruce shivered as if chilled by the brisk spring breeze. Slowly and majestically it began to fall, upper branches curving like scythes against the billowy purple-gray sky.
Virgil Smith tilted his head back to watch, unconsciously duplicating the attitude of the tree.
"Yo, Bern!" a viddie shouted. "A smidgen of dirt on that one's face, eh?" He pointed to Virgil, who was immediately assaulted by a brawny little meep wielding a dusty powder puff.
Be just like a grunt to drop the first one smack on the holo op, Virgil thought as he twisted away from the makeup man.
"... count of three, I want all you kids to say 'cheese'!"
The groan of the falling tree sublimed suddenly to a breathless hush.
"... two, three!"
"Cheese!" the Volunteers shrieked happily.
The 'Daks flashed like heat lightning.
"Beautiful!" one of the older talking-heads cried. "It's so righteous!"
The spruce hit with a rumbling thud, making the ground tremble -- no more than twenty feet behind them, Virgil decided, blinking as stars of sunlight spangled the snow-scattered forest floor. How many millennia had it been since that happened?
"Senator Lilly, how do you feel about witnessing this historic moment?" It sounded like an echo chamber, with the crowd of wee-heads all repeating the same question in their most sonorous talking-head voices. Every wee-head was an aspiring tee-head, every broadcast an audition.
The ancient sun-bronzed Boomer grinned, his dental display as white as the sugar on a Nobbie's table. "I am deeply humbled and honored to witness this day for posterity. It is a day for healing ... for binding up the wounds of Eastern and Western America. This long-awaited Lane is both our only hope for saving the country, and the grandest project we the people of this United States have ever embarked upon, bigger than Mount Rushmore or the Golden Gate Bridge put together." His hand, brown and wrinkled as a walnut, landed on Sierra Svensdotter's shapely shoulder. "We can leave no greater legacy for our children."
"Thank you, Senator! And how do you feel about it, young woman?"
Sierra's toothy smile almost paralyzed Virgil's optic nerve. "I'm just so glad to be growing up in a country that cares about investing in my future. And I want to thank each and every one of our brave Army boys for saving the forest for us kids!"
Virgil sighed, and decided that of all the Volunteers, Sierra was the best-looking. It seemed so cosmically unfair, her being a Nobbie while he was a Blue. Virgil knew that suffering would make him a better person, but didn't understand why God had to give him so much of it.
"... mention savin' us from the sci'ntists and the snake eaters," Jimmy Tuttle was saying earnestly. A hologenic ten-year-old with baby-blue eyes and dust-blonde hair, he stood on Sierra's right.
"And why are they so bad, young man?" the tee-head prompted, tossing her wind-blown coiffure and smiling at the cams.
"They're the twin world-class threats to democracy in the 21st century!"
She nodded solemnly. "This is Jeyn Fiers from RBN News, coming to you from just north of Ft. Buckingham, in the former North Cascades National Park. Out of the mouths of babes...."
The viddies rolled a few seconds longer, then shut off their cams. "OK, kids, that's a wrap."
Butterfly McTavish, the Volunteer Facilitator, raised a pudgy outspread hand. "Five minutes, people! Make the most of it."
The kids scattered like marbles; Lilly's hulking bodyguards materialized from behind their respective trees and lit clove cigarettes.
"Young man, do not approach the perimeter," Colonel Sterling called after Jimmy. "The troops are trigger-happy today."
"Yes, sir!" Jimmy said.
The colonel was old and fat, with mothball-gray hair about five mike-mikes long, and so many medals he practically had to list right to keep from falling over. His forehead wrinkled as his gaze wandered over the remaining Volunteers, and Virgil wondered why. He must be really phammed about leaving the search for Dr. Lochland to be in a boring holo op.
Past the fur-hatted sentry in his portable tower, Virgil could see the grunts spreading out, hacking away with their axes like Gabriel swinging his Heavenly sword. Teams of horses hauled dead trees from the clearing, now already fifty yards wide. A half-mile away billowed the tell-tale reddish-blue cloud as Army choppers dropped Agent Purple on the evergreens. The bitter crushed-persimmon odor of the defoliant made his nose twitch, an annoying almost-sneeze that never quite made it.
Imagine two thousand miles of this. One hundred thousand men, chopping trees down and hauling them away. And God only knew how many tons of Agent Purple. They weren't saving the forest, they were ruining it, and Virgil wished there was some way he could make it all stop.
A brown crescent against the cloud drew his gaze upward. The eagle spread his pinions wide and caught an updraft with avian grace, gliding north into the Commonwealth of Canada.
"Hey," the Runt exclaimed, "he's in the No-Fly Zone!" She stood gazing upward, her freckled nose almost as sharp-angled as the bird's beak, a cold-reddened hand shielding her odd bicolor eyes from the sun. Her short, spiky hair was the color of Christmas tangerines. Despite the quadruple handicap of being a minor of twelve, a girl, and an Easterner, Techno Class, the Runt was simpatico.
"No-Fly Zones don't apply to eagles," Virgil said.
She uttered a declassed snort. "Applies to this one more'n anybody, I'd say."
"Don't let Butterfly hear you say that," Virgil muttered. He leaned against a lightning-struck pine and stuck his hands in his pockets.
"Butterfly! How does she stay so fat? I bet she has a secret candy stash."
Virgil shrugged, bored with speculation about secret candy stashes. He could hardly remember what candy tasted like. Anyway, he wanted to hear what the colonel was saying to the senator.
"... suggest we return to the fort immediately," the colonel was saying. "We don't have the firepower to deal with so much as a small band of snake-eaters."
Lilly puffed out his sunken chest. "Renegades don't scare me! Treasonous rabble -- they're all cowards!"
A few of the tee/wees nodded as they continued taking holos of the senator; most began darting their eyes at the north timber like a herd of white-tail at a wolf convention.
Sterling fixed with senator with mild blue eyes. "If you think they're cowards, you've never seen them in action. I recommend we get a move-on."
Virgil glanced up and saw one of the Agent Purple choppers list laterally out of the sky and crash into the trees. A distant ka-boom sounded, vibrating the evergreen branches.
"Oh, if you say so." The senator scowled at his bodyguards, then pulled out a sassafras cheroot and lit it with trembling fingers. "My concern is one hundred percent for the children. Dammit, are you suicidal? Let's get out of here!"
Virgil felt a thrill of fear at the thought of the renegades. Why had the colonel brought them here? If the Senator demanded his holo op, he'd've had to. But why'd the senator drag them out here where they could be murdered by the snake-eaters, and then say he cared about their future?
The colonel gestured to Butterfly, who trotted to the center of the clearing, clapping her hands imperiously. "OK, people! Does everyone know all the words to "It's a Lane, Not a Wall? We'll sing it as we march onto the bus, and whoever sings the best gets their very own interview with Ninth Circuit Daily Truth!"
The children squealed; the Runt rolled her eyes. The Vidphone Brown Pages were a literary masterpiece compared to the dense-as-a-neutron-star prose of Ninth Circuit.
Snatching up their cams, the tee/wees scurried up the rise and onto the armored bus, which was surrounded by Army escorts wielding light-heavy Dicksons and vortex rifles. Virgil squinted. Jimmy was talking to one of the guard-tower grunts -- hadn't the colonel told him to stay away from there?
"Chummy little brat, isn't he?" the Runt remarked, following Virgil's gaze. "Watch him grow up to be president."
The Volunteers straggled into formation, preparing to march onto the bus in alphabetical order, girls left, boys right. As the forest rang with the contrapuntal song of Army axes, the voices of the Volunteers rose sweetly above it:
"It's a Lane that guar-an-tees ... safety and security....
Our great Land shall never fear ... with our borders strong and clear....
America is standing tall ... we've no need to build a wall...."
On the way back to Ft. Buckingham, an idea occurred to Virgil, of a machine to cut wood with almost no effort from human muscles. Yea, that was the immoral thing about machines -- they made folk lazy and slothful. But it didn't hurt anyone to think about how a machine might be created, did it? And suppose that folk kept so busy inventing new things and caring for them, they never had time to be lazy?
He was working out details of the engine by envisioning it in three dimensions when the bus jounced to a stop. All the kids rose and began to file out, which seemed to indicate they were back at the fort rather than victims of the usual boonie breakdown. Rubbing the small of his back, Virgil got up too. As thin as he was, he felt every pothole transmitted by that uncushioned seat.
Outside, he saw about twice as many civilians as when he'd arrived this morning -- guys in blue jumps putting up enormous lights, sober-sides Middle suits with narrow shoulders, gloomy as vultures at a picnic, plus a couple of fancy Nobbies in real leather cloaks, all milling around the media tent.
".... ridiculous!" sniffed a familiar-looking pop-eyed man in a pearl-gray cloak with onyx stickpin and white superfine shirt. "I can't possibly do the show under these conditions. You'll simply have to get us more power."
Virgil's eyes rounded. He hadn't cared for the tone of J. Jeremiah Watkins' broadcasts on the Secesh Slaughter but attributed that to his own prejudices rather than a defect on the part of America's most famous talking head.
The colonel strode forward. "Here, now, what's going on?"
His aide saluted. "Sir, the generator crashed. We've no electricity, which renders tonight's broadcast problematic. It rather puts a damper on the whole gala."
The colonel's brow wrinkled. "I see. Can we get another generator?"
Virgil felt a little sorry for him. Riding herd on a bunch of viddies this close to the border on tonight of all nights had to be a royal pain in the behind. The more worrisome item on the agenda was how much this would slow down the installation of the Lane's acoustic fencing tomorrow.
"No, sir. Not without taking one away from another part of the Lane with fewer troops."
"I've often thought," the Senator said, "that we should save the gala 'til we're done with the Lane."
"Why can't we have two galas?" asked one of the Nobbies.
"How TwenCen," J. Jeremiah Watkins remarked, his deep, resonant radio voice imbuing that observation with a laser-sharp irony.
The Nobbie turned red as a cardinal, while the Middles hid their smirks by smiling at the Volunteers. "Oh, look at all the children! Aren't they adorable?"
"We're gettin' on vid!" Butterfly whispered hoarsely. The older girls whipped out their cornstarch compacts and began to powder their noses and rebraid their hair. Butterfly peered in her mirror, agonizing aloud about whether she dared use tinted lip paint. The Runt seated herself on the nearest woodpile and fiddled with a pair of broken spectacles.
Watkins folded his arms. "Well, Colonel Sterling? What are you going to do?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid," Sterling replied. "The men from the Electrician's Guild will not be here until tomorrow, so you media folk will have to pool your batteries or do without. I'm sorry for the...."
"This is totally unacceptable! I have a commitment to my studio. I'm going to complain to the general." Watkins stomped off.
The colonel stood looking after him, a bemused look on his kindly old face.
A tall Nobbie with a long, thin nose and elegant white hair stepped forward. "Colonel, you can't possibly imagine what we've been through today. Our maglev was accosted by brigands. They detonated one of the cars, and we couldn't leave until those beastly engineers pried the wreckage off the tracks. We must've sat in Glacier Pass for hours without any heat or car service. That's why we missed the holo shoot. Except for stills, our only chance to document the most important event of the century is now gone. You've got to do something...."
Sterling raised his hands wearily. "Congressman Fitz, I will be glad to discuss this with you later. Right now I have too many other things to do to prepare for tomorrow."
"You and your installation cannot even operate a toaster, let alone find the most blatant gang of criminals in the Cascades!" The congressman flipped open his portable satphone. "I shall inform President Buckingham of what is going on, and I daresay...."
Sierra Svensdotter batted her long eyelashes at Fitz. "Why, Congressman, I bet Cz. Smith can fix that old generator. He's got a regular computer brain in his head -- he can fix anything!"
Virgil was astonished. Could there be a genius lurking among the grunts, one with the same surname as himself? How had he managed to keep from being denounced?
The colonel and the Congressman goggled at her like a pair of elderly bookends. "Who?"
Sierra pointed at Virgil. Butterfly and Jimmy stared at him as if he'd just sprouted scales and a tail.
Four Humvees roared past, bristling with Dickson-toting grunts, while Virgil wished a trapdoor would open in the earth, thence to drop him into Gehenna. The memory of the last Volunteer that Butterfly denounced was still burned in his mind. Did Sierra hate him? When had she ever seen him do anything that would justify this?
"That?" Congressman Fitz shouted in order to make himself heard over the rumble of the Humvees. "Dear child, you must be joking."
Frowning, Colonel Sterling took off his hat and ran a hand over his bald pate. "Is it true, Smith? You can fix machinery?"
Virgil trembled. "I ain't no mechanic, sir."
"I didn't ask that. I asked if you could fix machinery."
Virgil considered saying that Sierra was mistaken. She might respond by saying she'd seen him build that pair of StarLite Specs he thought nobody knew about, or she might have no evidence at all, in which case she'd be in trouble. Neither of these was an acceptable alternative.
"I plays around with it a tad," he admitted.
The Nobbies tittered. "Listen to that cowboy accent! I'm sure he can't even read."
"I'm willing to try anything," stage-whispered one of Watkins' entourage, with the clear implication that anything had just arrived.
Virgil was boiling mad, but didn't let it show. He could read rings around these overfed tiffs -- he just didn't speak the way they did. He'd been brought up not to ape his betters.
"Do you suppose you could 'play around' with our generator?"
Virgil took a deep breath. "Sir, I'll do my best to help out, but I reckon I'd better not make any promises. If I need parts, and they ain't avail...."
"Let me worry about that, son. Now, the generators are about fifty meters down that path to the left. Requisition all the tools you need from the quartermaster, and report to my aide when you're done."
"Yes, sir. You want I should start before or after I set the tables for the banquet?"
"Don't worry about the tables. They'll find someone else."
Virgil nodded, grinning. Then out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Runt glaring at him.
Oh, he could just hear her telling him that the first thing a Volunteer learns is never to volunteer for anything, especially nothing technical, which would give you a reputation for being elitist and anti-democratic and too smart for your own good.
Well, the colonel needed help, didn't he? A nice old gramps like him wouldn't let anyone denounce Virgil over a simple case of helpfulness. And maybe if the broadcast came off and the rest of America saw the damage caused by defoliants, they'd find another way to root the renegades out of the forests. Wouldn't Sierra be impressed if Virgil made the broadcast happen! This was history in the making, and he was playing a pivotal part...
Virgil enjoyed having a problem to solve -- it was disappointing to see that the new 10 kilowatt generator appeared to have blown a fuse. Someone had tried to suck more out of it than it could produce, and this was the predictable result.
The motor didn't start after he replaced the fuse, so he checked the ethanol tank. Dry as a bone. If the colonel could only make the grunts stop siphoning fuel and drinking it ... ah, well, maybe it really had run out on its own.
His hands moved swiftly and steadily, pumping fuel into the tank and priming the system. As he worked, he thought about the powered saw. He envisioned a handheld, with a fanbelt driving a flexible steel-toothed loop. Good tungsten-steel for hardwoods, not the spongy stuff they had now, and of course you'd need a kerosene engine -- cutting green wood'd drink power like water -- or hydrogen, if you could swing the Dispensation. What to call it? A "sawchain," maybe.
He tugged on the starter chain again. The engine moaned and sputtered and died.
If there was a leak in the fuel line, he could probably fix it, but it'd be better if he could replace the hoses. Man, but they were in sorry shape!
With machines, you gave them what they needed and they responded by doing what they were supposed to. With humans, you gave them what they said they needed, and half the time they did nothing, the other half, they disliked you for it.
Maybe the problem wasn't all humans, but that they'd put Virgil in with a bunch of tiffs. The Runt was pretty all right, but the rest of them.... Maybe someday they'd understand that not all Westerners were Secesh devils, but he wouldn't count on it.
East is East and West is West ... and wasn't Kipling right about how 'never the twain shall meet'? East and West were bound together by chains of fire, not understanding.
He felt a sudden black-hole emptiness at the loss of Writer McCracken's Public Library in down-town Cody, with its vast maze of books to lose himself in. That was the only thing he really missed about his home in the Tenth Circuit. Sometimes he missed Maw, but missing her here was a whole lot better than missing her the way he did at home.
Perversely, the more Youth Volunteers for America tried to make up for him being an unwanted bastard, the worse he felt. That ache inside when he woke up in the middle of the night ... where else could it come from? Maybe it had something to do with turning thirteen last month.
A half-moon dangled above the pines, orange as a chunk of sandstone. Virgil stared hungrily at it. With a decent telescope, he felt sure he could spot the base at Angus Bay, near Mare Crisium. Not that he'd be able to see any buildings, which were all underground, but if there happened to be a ship landing....
He picked out landmarks: Tycho, the Sea of Tranquillity, the Hadley Rille, where they made the big helium-3 strike.... He realized with a guilty start that he was daydreaming again.
He yanked the starter chain hard, and the generator roared to noisy life. Yellow light flooded the fort; figures sprang into action around the media tent as if they had also been electrified.
Virgil smiled, and went to work on the other generator. A 5 kW, it could share the load with the first one to generate a combined 15 kW. Piddling by New Hong Kong standards; not bad for the middle of nowhere. They'd need every watt to run lights and vid for the show tonight.
Once again, it took little time to solve the problem. With so much grease all over the armature, it was no wonder that the brushes weren't making adequate contact. It angered him to see machinery so abused. What had these poor innocent contrivances done for people to treat them so badly?
He cleaned the contacts and checked the wires, now and again glancing up at the Moon. He didn't know why he tortured himself like this -- he would never get a chance to go. Anyway, it wouldn't be right. With things so messed up at home, the U.S. couldn't afford to have its people traipsing all over the solar system.
The wiry figure of Lieutenant Barrenger emerged ghostlike from the long blue shadows. "Smith, you're invited to the banquet. The general's compliments."
Virgil flinched in surprise, then he recovered himself and saluted. "Me, sir? Oh, no! I wouldn't know how to act."
"Arrive at 1800, wear your dress uniform, speak only when spoken to, and dispute no opinions, no matter how foolish."
"Yes, sir ... I mean, no, sir, I wouldn't dispute anyone's opinions, sir!"
The lieutenant smiled crookedly. "It'll be tedious as hell, and the food isn't any too wonderful, either. But there's plenty of it." He turned on his heel and strode away. "You're a good boy, Virgil. A little too good, if you know what I mean."
Virgil did not know what he meant, but he knew better than to ask an officer to explain himself, even one as nice as the ell-tee. He snapped the cover on the back of the 5k, fired it up -- it started just fine -- collected his tools and took them back to the quartermaster. The red sun extinguishing itself in the distant Pacific, and the friendly twinkle of Venus low in the sky, said it was just past 1730.
The long trip up from San D'Angeles on the maglev, plus the labor of setting up camp and laundering uniforms for the grunts, had left him bone-tired. He did not feel up to eating with fancy folks. Say, they wouldn't be vidding this dinner for the broadcast, would they?
His stomach noisily reminded him of how long it'd been since last he'd eaten. The food had to be better than mess tent fare. And he couldn't turn down the general.
He decided to take a shortcut through the fort back to his tent. But the Army tents all looked alike in the twilight, and Ft. Buckingham had as yet no walls or palisades for easy orientation. He shortly became lost in what appeared to be a vast olive-drab forest. Hearing voices gladdened his heart, and he approached the tent from the rear, intending to go around to the front and ask directions.
"... don't care what Bucky said about good press, bringing those kids into the middle of a free-fire zone is the stupidest thing you've done yet!"
Virgil froze. That sounded like the colonel! Was he yelling at somebody about the Volunteers?
"You've got a lot of nerve talking to me like that," the second voice said. "But that's why you'll never make general. The fact is, Bob, you don't have the brains to play politics, or the guts to shut up and soldier."
"My deficiencies are not the subject of this conversation. Tonight of all nights, you know damn well we should've cleared all women and children within two hundred miles of the border...."
Something hard poked Virgil in the spine. He whipped his head around. A granite-faced grunt stood glaring at him, so close that the onions on his breath practically knocked Virgil over. The light-heavy machine gun in his hands didn't look too friendly, either.
"Move along, sonnyboy. You ain't got no business sneakin' 'round the general's tent."
Virgil swallowed hard. "I wasn't lookin' for him -- I'm lost. How do I get back to the Volunteer section?"
"Past them chinooks thataway." The grunt pointed. A group of ragged folk were being trotted down the gangplank of a van under the watchful eye of two guards, to the bored cadence of "Move along, move along, that's right, move along...." Beyond them, Virgil could just make out the red, white, and khaki flag of the Volunteers wrinkling and snapping as it was lowered in the evening ceremony.
Virgil got going -- 'way to one side of the van, so as to avoid crossing the line of chinooks, who must've been picked up during today's defoliation.
A little girl turned to look at him, and called out in a high, piping voice, "Please let us go! We weren't hurting anyone. All we did was try to go to Canada."
"I got no control over that," Virgil replied, embarrassed and annoyed at being singled out. A woman followed him with strange pale-gray eyes, red hair identical to the child's whipping around her bony shoulders. "This wouldn't happen if not for sheep like you!"
His fingers clenched. "You shouldn't try to leave -- you're shirking your fair share of the Debt."
"I didn't get this country into Debt!" the woman shouted. "I've paid taxes since I was seventeen years old! Hundreds of thousands of....."
"MOVE ALONG!" a grunt yelled, shoving her. She stumbled, and the chinook beside her leaped on the grunt, who reversed his rifle and hit the man a terrific blow to the temple. He dropped to the ground like a sack of rocks; the grunt picked him up easily and slung him over his shoulder. "Let's go!"
Virgil ran without looking back. A boy's scornful catcall echoed in the evening stillness. "Hitler Youth!"
Back at his tent, he filled the wooden bucket at the spring, stripped off his dirty clothes and washed up, scrubbing hard.
Unlike most Volunteers, he'd read about Hitler Youth. Maybe a few of the kids were like that, but he wasn't! Chinooks were all crazy, anyway. He was sorry the grunts hit that man, but it wasn't his fault. Of course, he shouldn't've spoken to the woman ... but he was just trying to tell her what she did wrong. Theirs was not arbitrary punishment.
Virgil would've liked to be free -- who wouldn't? But no man owned himself, nor woman either. That was simply the way of things.
He thought of the argument between the general and the colonel. Virgil knew the border was dangerous, but he had never heard it called a 'free-fire zone' before. It all seemed terribly exciting. It was good of the colonel to care about the Volunteers, but even renegades had more brains than to attack Fort Buckingham.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed and combed to within an inch of his life, Virgil, hat in hand, presented himself at the media tent, to which he'd been guided by heavenly aromas and the babble of conversation.
The guard passed him promptly, and he ducked inside the tent flap. He'd pictured beautifully dressed women holding glasses fragile as dragonfly wings; instead, he saw gray-suited media folk and their dour tea-drinking wives in tasteful navy-blue dresses. He glanced around, hoping to see Sierra. He had quite forgiven her for calling him 'computer brain' in front of everyone.
A live band played in the corner, not the wild and woolly Rip music Virgil had grown up on, but something he'd never heard before, stately and dignified. And there were cams everywhere.
He shrank back by the tent opening. His dress uniform was in good shape -- he'd only worn it once, when first presented to the Master of Volunteers. But it was still made of hemp, that cheap but durable fiber without which the lower classes would probably go naked. Next to all these Middles in wool and silk, he felt a ham-handed peasant.
J. Jeremiah Watkins bustled up to him, one hand extended. "Virgil, my boy! Let me be the first to congratulate you on the marvelous job you did this afternoon. Shall we step outside for a moment?"
Virgil gulped and shook hands weakly. "Uh, sure."
Outside, the smile slid from Watkins' face; he lit a clove cigarette and frowned at Virgil. "Can you read?"
"Of course I can read!"
"Don't get offended, son, most Blues can't. I know -- I used to be one myself. Grew up in Globe, Arizona, the ultimate blue-collar town."
Virgil was amazed. "How'd you become a talking head, then?"
"Ran away to Phoenix when I was fifteen. Bought myself some topflight fake ID and got a janitor job at a mid-sized radio station. Took voice lessons, read everything I could get my hands on, and the rest is history."
"I'd never've guessed -- you talk nicer than anyone I ever heard."
"Thank you, my boy."
"You ever think of doing a show about ... well, the way folks think about us Westerners?"
The talking head chuckled. "Nope. Nobody wants to hear hard-luck stories. Times change, so do attitudes and laws -- why kick about the inevitable? They're all opportunities to a man with brains."
Virgil didn't know what to think of him. "Why d'you want to know if I read?"
"Because we're vidding this gala. The American people want to know that all of you patriotic kids are bright and funny and sympathetic. Right?"
"I reckon so." Virgil hadn't thought about it.
"So, you need to be able to read the TelePrompTer. I want diamond-in-the-rough brilliance, not boring blather about the weather or how your chickens are doing. Takes a lot of the stress out've being on vid to know you don't have to improvise."
"That's right nice of you, Cz. Watkins, but I don't want to be on vid."
Watkins laughed. "Don't be nervous, boy. You've only got a few lines, and then you can eat your supper in peace."
"Yes, but I...."
"You're not going to let that great dialogue I wrote for you go to waste, are you?"
"Uh, no sir."
"Good." Watkins clapped Virgil on the shoulder. "Now let's get back inside -- we're late."
Inside, the talking head guided him to a big fancy table in the middle of the room. Virgil was completely taken aback to see General Arthur, Senator Lilly and Congressman Fitz there, sitting next to three hatchet-faced old ladies who were probably their wives. "Cz. Watkins, this can't be the right table!"
"Sure is. Don't sweat it -- ain't nobody here from the 'Do's and Don'ts Bureau.'" Watkins grinned and waved a hand. "Sit down, and here's your copy of the script. Your TelePrompTer is number eight, right there on the wall."
Virgil sat, but could not stop himself from fretting. The snooty look he received from the senator's wife told him that she, at least, recognized that he didn't belong here. He did notice that there were several empty seats, so he couldn't be all that late. A couple of fellows in blue jumps were unrolling a vidscreen in the back. He forced himself to concentrate on the script.
Jerusha Eddings, a Volunteer, came by and poured Virgil a glass of icewater and a cup of tea. He hardly recognized the girl in her fancy blue and red skirt with the white apron. The calf length seemed scandalously short, but he wasn't about to complain.
Jimmy Tuttle trotted over to the table, carrying the forest-green backpack he'd brought with him on the maglev. He slung it under a chair and plunked himself down on Virgil's left. "Hi, Virg."
"Hi." Virgil wondered if Jimmy was going to have a career on vid. The way the cams turned to follow the ten-year-old Volunteer, they certainly seemed to love him.
A plump elderly woman smiled at them from across the vast cloth-covered expanse. "I'm Cynthia Sterling, Colonel Sterling's wife."
Virgil remembered in time to bow over her hand rather than attempt to shake it. Which helped cover, at least temporarily, the pinking of his face. "Tenderfoot Virgil Smith, YVA Troop 9710."
"You're the bright young fellow who brought our power back. Where on Earth did you learn such skill?"
"Ma'am, I don't know -- I've always played around with machines. It's slothful, I confess, not honest work."
She sighed. "If it weren't for sloth, there would be no advances anywhere. Our society has gone too far in renouncing machinery without subtracting the human costs."
"Yes, ma'am." He thought the colonel's wife could get away with voicing heretical sentiments at the dinner table, but it wasn't smart to agree too loudly. You never knew who might be listening.
She took out a clove cigarette, which Jimmy lit for her with his expensive-looking silver lighter.
Youth Volunteers streamed out of the kitchen, toting enormous platters. In the forefront, crisp white aprons ballooning over their skirts, Sierra and Paulette moved gracefully around the tables dispensing carved maple bowls of greenhouse salad, brought here on the maglev specially for the banquet.
Sierra's braids were the lovely shade of monofilament fishing line, and swayed as she bent over, reminding Virgil of dances forbidden by New Reformed Calvinism, not to mention YVA's own Clean Life Pledge. She smiled as she placed his salad bowl beside his plate, her blue eyes flicking sideways at him.
Virgil's face burned like fire. He stared at his plate, the part of his brain still working recognizing it as china. He wondered if it would make the food taste weird, then told himself not to be stupid. Clay was an insulating material, nonconductive and nonreactive.
"Just wait 'til you folks taste the boiled kasha," Lilly said expansively from the other end of the table. "It's an old family recipe, from the days when I first swore off meat."
Jerusha cocked her head at Virgil like a little bird. "Care for some seitan stew, citizen?"
"Uh...." Virgil was stymied; he'd never heard of seitan.
She ladled a sparrow-sized helping onto his plate. "Wheat gluten with root vegetables," she murmured, moving on to the pudgy man seated to Virgil's right.
"Look up," said a voice over his shoulder. "Gabriel save us, look at that shine!"
It was the makeup meep again. The cloud of face powder made Virgil cough. When he could open his eyes again, Watkins stood haloed in bright lights in front of the vidscreen.
The music died down as the talking head raised his hands. "Good evening, citizens! This is J. Jeremiah Watkins coming to you from Fort Buckingham, where tonight is a night for rejoicing! Thanks to the hard work of everyone here, plus that of other loyal Americans too numerous to mention, the great Lane of Freedom is about to become a reality. This special broadcast tonight celebrates each and every contributor, starting with our great president and a montage of images that began us on this road, then segueing into our featured heroes and wrapping up with a few choice words from selected speakers."
Colonel Sterling appeared in the tent flap and headed for the table, where he took a seat by his wife. He wore his dress uniform with miles of gold braid. He was puffing with exertion, and except for a brief smile aimed at his wife, did not look particularly happy.
The lights darkened and the vidscreen brightened. Martial music thundered out of the speakers; the great Seal of the United States appeared on the screen. It parted and they were looking at the grizzled features of President Brent Buckingham. He held himself straight and tall, his dark hawklike eyes as fierce and bright as a young man's.
Virgil forgot his ambivalence and joined in the applause. Whatever you thought of the man, you had to admit he looked presidential.
"... evening, citizens of this great land, the United States of America. Today is a day for celebration. Today we come together as a people, East and West, North and South, united at last in common cause. You are to be congratulated, for you have taken that first difficult step on the road back to financial parity. The Brain Drain is over, and you have ended it. You have done so despite the threats of drugged-out pseudo-intellectuals, half-baked terrorists and the relentless anti-Americanism of foreign provocateurs, criminals whose only wish is to bring down the greatest and freest country in the world...."
Virgil recognized the aerial view of the old Salt Lake City; he knew the saga of the Secessionists by heart: how the City Fathers had voted to pay no more taxes and secede, and how when Federal troops arrived, they had barricaded themselves in the city's heart with hundreds of civilians and the Utah National Guard.
But as always, he shuddered at the images of the orbiting microwave battellites. He understood that the misfortunes of war made it impossible for many loyal soldiers to escape the deadly beams. And it was one of God's tests that many of the surviving loyals turned disloyal and ran off to the Cascades. But why couldn't Buckingham have given the civilians a chance to surrender?
A dish shattered on the floor behind him; he turned and saw a white-faced Jerusha kneel to pick up the pieces. Now that he thought about it, he recalled that she was from Utah.
Thankfully, the vid did not linger on the results of the "sanitary measures," but switched to a view of carefree, sun-browned inner-city teenagers harvesting grain at a collective farm in California.
This went on for a few more minutes, then the lights came on and the cams focused on Watkins, who approached the general with his microphone. "General Arthur, sir, we have you and your intrepid men to thank for the hard, dirty work of building this Lane while fighting off hordes of traitors and anti-democratic insurgents. Any guesses on how much longer it'll be before the counter-revolutionists come to their senses?"
"No more than a month, tops," General Arthur said, dabbing at his lips with a napkin. "Thirty days from now, we'll have defoliated virtually their entire habitat in the zone of the interior. After that, it's a simple matter of demonstrating the alternative to surrender. Of course, that's assuming the Commonwealth has enough sense not to give that train-robbing Major Henry and his gang of traitors political asylum. If they do ... well, that's up to the president. One way or another -- I shall prevail!"
"Yes, indeed, sir!" Watkins turned his smile on the senator. "Senator Lilly, I understand you're the one who pushed the bill on Agent Purple through the senate."
"That's exactly right. Oh, they were all against it at first! But I showed them that this truly was a kinder, gentler defoliant. It won't kill the tree, merely stunts its growth for a while. A year or two, and they'll be back good as new. Of course, it can't work unless the tree goes into hibernation and then gets plenty of fertilizer, but I'm confident our young people have what it takes to get the job done. And I did see a large number of horses out there today...."
Everyone laughed in accordance with the directions flashing on the TelePrompTers. Virgil kept worrying about how well he'd speak his lines, and consequently had been unable to eat more than two bites of his salad.
"And Senator, what do you say to the critics who claim that Agent Purple is just as bad as Agent Orange, and who also claim that the clear-cutting the Army is doing to build the Lane is even more destructive of habitat?"
Senator Lilly thumped his fist on the table, making the tea-cups vibrate. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs! This Lane'll stop the insurgents and the poachers, once and for all, and that, my boy, is what will save our forests. Anyone who thinks otherwise is on drugs."
Virgil couldn't imagine how the Lane would stop anyone from poaching. Canadians weren't poaching; the Lane's only use was to stop illegal U.S. emigration, and perhaps to make it difficult for terrorists to recross the border. If the Army could've found a way to deploy the acoustic barrier without cutting any trees, they surely would've done it. But wood absorbed too much sound, created too many dead spaces. You could use satellites to find chinooks dumb enough to walk out in the open and wear exposed metal, but former members of Special Forces were not that dumb.
"Congressman Fitz, I understand we have you to thank for the tough new anti-smart drugs legislation?"
The congressman preened. "Quite so, quite so. I saw right from the beginning that smart drugs threaten our entire way of life. Every child that's ever taken any has gotten hooked on VirReal gendershows, all that immoral nonsense. Everyone knows that scientists are undemocratic -- we've all seen how a single one of them can create in an instant something society has worked for years to suppress. God help us, what would happen to America as a nation if all our kids were as smart as Jens Lochland?"
Watkins' eyebrows lifted a notch. "Any idea where he is?"
The congressman shrugged. "The strategics fellows think he's heading for the coast, looking for a smuggler with a stealth hovercraft. If he does, the Coast Guard'll catch him. Either way, he's got to move tonight."
"Sooner he's locked up, the better," Lilly said decisively. "Can't have dangerous folks like that runnin' around loose, givin' the Canucks a new space drive. Why, it's just the sort of thing that'd help them ruin the ecology of other planets. Assuming it's real, of course, not just his crazy imagination."
"Scientists love machines, not life," his wife said with a shudder. "They're like machines themselves, cold and inhuman!"
Watkins nodded seriously. "Sad but true, Citizeness. Thanks again for your very courageous stance, Congressman Fitz! And you've got even more good works coming up in the future, don't you?"
"Yes, the Caffeine Crusade. Mark my words, before the year's out, Big Coffee'll be as illegal as Big Milk."
Virgil wished he had a glass of milk. Poison or no poison, it settled his stomach.
The tee-head went on to congratulate the colonel, the designers of acoustic fencing, all the loyal patriots who'd built and launched surveillance satellites, the grunt Master Sergeant, the smiths, the horse-handlers, particular grunts, etc.
Virgil steeled himself. He was last. His stomach felt like it wanted to throw up the two bites of salad.
And then Watkins was grinning at him. "Virgil Smith, stalwart young Volunteer! Congratulations for bringing our power on line this afternoon. It's good to see a boy with a knack for fixing things."
Virgil knew already that knacks were good, reasoning your way through problems was bad. "Thank you, sir. I inherited it from Father. He built our house from scratch, without any plans or anything."
"You must look forward to getting out in the fresh air with our brave boys in green."
Virgil sipped his glass of water, eyes fixed on the TelePrompTer. "I'd like that, sir. Mostly we stick around the fort and do chores. It sure would be fun to be out in the woods!"
"Well, son, you get your wish. The Army needs help, and the Volunteers have been nominated."
Shocked, Virgil stared at his TelePrompTer, then back at the general. Please say it's not true!
General Arthur nodded so vigorously his jowls wobbled. "Got to save more of the men for sentry duty. They can't harvest trees all day and guard the border all night, more's the pity."
Watkins pursed his lips. "Some would say, General, that our Volunteers are a tad young for tree-harvesting."
"Nonsense!" the general declaimed. "It's good old-fashioned exercise, the kind I did as a boy. They'll be ready to pass their Army physicals in no time."
Good old-fashioned exercise? Virgil thought the general must be nuts if he expected the Volunteers to work side-by-side with grunts. The only one close to strong enough was Bee Hunsaker, and he'd be draft age next week.
From the disgruntled expression on the general's face, Virgil suddenly realized that he'd missed the cue for his last line. Clenching his hands into fists beneath the table, he forced himself to say, "Golly, General Arthur, sir, I'm ready now!"
"So am I!" Jimmy chirped, making a biceps with his chubby little-boy arm.
Watkins clapped Virgil and Jimmy across the shoulders. "There's a couple of fine American boys, eh folks?"
The applause was deafening.
Sierra appeared on Virgil's right, pouring him a glass of cider from an earthenware jug.
Virgil inhaled deeply, overcome by the scent of vanilla emanating from behind Sierra's shell-pink ear. Maybe chopping trees wouldn't be so bad. He and Sierra could get married, and if he worked long enough, they could apply for a two-kid license, and....
"Remember the time you put those bats in the flashlight?" Sierra whispered.
"Bats? You mean batteries?"
"Uh-huh. And then you snapped the cover shut? And just like that, it went on?" Sierra giggled. "I knew right then you could fix anything."
Virgil was mortified. He didn't expect someone as beautiful as Sierra to be a genius, but this--! If you held your ear up to hers, you could hear the ocean roar.
"... I say to you today that these one hundred thousand stalwart young men and women are the cream, the flower of American youth," Congressman Fitz declaimed. "They are the guardians of our culture and our precious national heritage. What greater gift can we give to our children than the gift of themselves?"
"Hear, hear," Lilly rumbled. "Believe I said something similar earlier in the day, yes, indeed."
Lilly held his glass of cider aloft. "A toast! A toast to our esteemed General Arthur! Without him and others like him, America would be finished!"
They all drank, and then the congressmen and the senators began vying to see who could propose the best toasts.
"To our gallant Army!"
"To our brave little Volunteers!"
"To President Buckingham, the Abe Lincoln of the Twenty-First Century!"
"And last but not least, to the red, white, and blue -- long may she wave!"
Virgil was glad he wasn't old enough to drink; he'd've been stewed as a Mexican tomato by the time they finished. But maybe that would've been better -- then he wouldn't keep thinking about how dumb Sierra was -- how dumb everybody here was. And what he'd be doing tomorrow. A draft animal had a better future than he did.
As soon as Watkins finished the show, Virgil stood up.
Cynthia Sterling regarded him with sad eyes. "Virgil, you've hardly touched your food. And you haven't had dessert."
Virgil could barely hear her over the applause of his dinner companions. "That's all right, ma'am. If I'm to be chopping trees tomorrow, I'd best turn in early." He noticed that Jimmy had already disappeared -- probably into the kitchen to get a head start on dessert.
She whispered something in the colonel's ear; he shook his head and extended his hand to Virgil. "Good night, son. You're a good boy. Stay out of trouble, won't you?"
"Yes, sir." Virgil was puzzled; it sounded like a dismissal. But the "son" warmed his heart. "I wish you both a real good night."
Outside, Virgil took a deep, cleansing breath of the night air. Or what he thought would be a cleansing breath -- a whiff of smoke told him he was not alone.
A pair of figures occupied the darkness beneath the kitchen window, one standing, one squatting, cigarettes carelessly aglow. Tobacco. Virgil knew he should report them; he also realized that he didn't care if the grunts smoked the evil weed. What difference did it make if they lost a few years of chopping trees down and killing people?
Stars twinkled overhead, big as hen's eggs, bigger still was the Moon, and lovely as a promise. Virgil wondered if Dr. Lochland was looking at it now from wherever he was holed up. It made Virgil's head ache, trying to figure out if Lochland was right or wrong. If they wouldn't allow him to build his rocket drive, then how could he stay? But if all the smart people left, dumb ways of doing things would prevail and ruin this country. So how could you be smart and patriotic at the same time?
It was too much for Virgil to puzzle out by himself. He would go find the Runt and ask her.
As he walked to the western periphery of the girls' tents, where the Runt's was located -- the Volunteers set up camp in the same order at every site -- he whistled a Reformed Calvinist hymn, about the Great Mother in the District of Columbia, and the wise and kindly Sam, Uncle of us all.
But his stomach grumbled with hunger, which made his whistling less enthusiastic than usual, and the dinner had so annoyed him, he felt entirely out of sorts. Inherited it from Father ... yeah, right!
Snow crunched under his boots as he made his way down the path to the Runt's tent. A light glowed inside, making it look like a green icebox candle. He stopped at the zippered entrance, which was embroidered with the leaping silhouette of a panther, and whistled like a mockingbird. "Terloo, terloo ... doity, doity, doity!"
No answer. But someone had to be there, either the Runt or her tent-mates, Ursula and Ling-Ling.
When there was no response to his verbal request to enter, he decided to leave a note in her foot-locker and shut off the lantern. One left burning unattended was a fire hazard -- the three girls would land in the hole for forty-eight hours if Butterfly heard about it.
He opened the locked zipper with a bit of wire he kept for such purposes -- he'd been locked out of his own tent more times than he could count -- then unzipped the tent flap and stepped inside.
The Runt lay on her sleeping bag with her eyes closed, a pair of clunky old headphones over her ears. From the rapt expression on her face, she was completely absorbed in whatever she was listening to.
The lantern cast a golden nimbus on the Runt's orange locks, like those halos surrounding the heads of saints. She'd hate the comparison, and anyway there was nothing saintly about her beaky nose and missing front tooth.
Virgil knelt ... and felt something sharp prick the tender skin of his throat.
"You!" Frowning, the Runt lowered her knife. The headphones had come off during her lunge, and lay on the floor by her knee. "Babyface, what're you doing skulking around my tent? Trying to get your ears pinned to the floor?"
"I just wanted to talk." Virgil rubbed his neck. He reckoned he deserved it. "Sorry I scared you. What were you listening to?"
"Nothing much. Girl stuff, you know?"
"At this time of night?"
"It's prime time, you dope. 'Heidi's Household,' a serial about a plucky war orphan who keeps her extended family together against all odds. In tonight's episode, she sprouts alfalfa in the windowsill to cure Granddad's scurvy."
"Jeez." Virgil thought it didn't sound like something she'd listen to. Something in her expression caused him to say, "Are you sure it was 'Heidi's Household'? Or was it Radio Free America?"
"Keep your voice down," she said with quiet dignity. "Listen to it yourself if you don't believe me."
He wasn't going to, but found himself yanking out the headphone jack. "...ing all you listeners out there to give the first-finger salute to Tyranny, wherever it may...."
The Runt snapped off the power. "So what did you wanna talk about?"
Virgil struggled to control his outrage. "I should've never put the scanning circuit in there for you! That show is banned for good reason!"
She stared at him wide-eyed, the lighter eye sky-blue, the darker one nearly opaque. "Will you make formal accusation, then?"
Virgil was in turmoil. He was duty-bound to report it. And she hadn't denied it. But... well, what difference could a few subversive slogans make? And this was the Runt, his only friend.
"N-no," he said. "I could never bring accusation against you, Runt. I know it's just your curiosity. You've got more curiosity than any six people I ever met."
She sighed, and patted the sleeping bag next to her. "Sit down, Babyface. If you'd listen to some real news once in a while instead of that predigested pap they feed us on RBC, maybe you wouldn't have fixed those stupid generators today."
"I know what's going on in this country," Virgil said bitterly. Too agitated to sit, he began pacing up and down. "No one ever lets me forget about the Confederation of Western States." She'd picked up some anti-American notions after all. He'd better straighten her out before she got into real trouble. "Secession and border-jumping are the same thing: theft. What did America ever do to you to justify that?"
"It took my future! Don't you understand? Our technology's gone, it won't come back in a generation. With the country isolationist and the border patrolled by subsonics, we'll be lucky if we get any technical advances in five hundred years. It's just like when China was the most advanced country in the world, and they decided to shut out the West."
"But there's a reason this time. We've got to pay off the Debt or go under!"
"And that's the worst part! Believing you can't leave because the country owns you. It doesn't. You own yourself."
"Don't talk foolishness," he whispered fiercely. "Somebody paid for me to be born, and put clothes on my back and food in my belly. It sure wasn't Maw. This country footed the bill. I owe them, and so do you."
The Runt jabbed her finger at his chest. "If you want to make the argument that us orphans owe the taxpayers a certain number of sols, OK. Since my parents were killed at taxpayer expense, I happen to think they owe me." The Runt's folks had been famously outspoken intellectuals. They'd been killed in a tobacco raid two years ago -- one of those wrong-address things. "But let's let it lie. Where are you worth more? Fixing crappy little wood-alcohol generators and helping to build a two-thousand mile wall? Getting drafted into the grunts at sixteen? Or becoming an engineer in West Canada, the 'New Hong Kong' of technology? Getting a job on Moonbase, maybe leaving the solar system on Dr. Lochland's new rocket drive? You could probably afford to give the tax-payers a few hundred grand."
Virgil shook his head helplessly. "You and the Secessionists ... you make it all sound so simple."
"Truth is simple. It's lies that're convoluted."
He heard a stray sound outside. It might've been a mouse -- or a boot squeaking on snow. He raised two fingers in the danger sign, then pointed to the back of the tent.
The Runt nodded, then continued talking, which covered the sound of him getting up and sliding out the front flap.
Virgil saw a largish dark form squatting at the back of the tent, head cocked in an attitude of listening. Fortunately Virgil had picked the eavesdropper's blind side; as he came closer, he saw that the fellow carried an unsecured pistol. Virgil snatched the weapon and hit him on the side of the head with the grip. The intruder grunted and collapsed like a two-dollar suitcase.
The Runt popped out and surveyed the carnage. "Babyface, it's time I revised my opinion of you. You're a lot tougher than you look."
Virgil felt the bottom drop out of his stomach as he caught sight of the intruder's face in the moonlight. "Gabriel save us -- it's Butterfly!"
Her pistol was a puker, operating on the same principle as the acoustic fence, though too low-powered to resonate anything heavier than the hairs of the inner ear. He shoved it in the waistband of his trousers and knelt beside the felled facilitator. Taking her wrist, he felt her pulse thud against his fingers, and sighed with relief. "Oh, we're going to be in so much trouble when she wakes up! I'm sorry, Runt."
"Sorry? Don't be silly, no one's ever paid me a bigger compliment." The Runt pulled an old .22 scrap gun from Butterfly's right boot, opened and closed the magazine, then searched her pockets.
"What're you doing? I've got her pistol."
"This little popgun of hers is loaded, in case you hadn't noticed it." The Runt pried a thick green fold of Army scrip from Butterfly's hip pocket. "Well, well! Where d'you suppose the loot comes from?"
Virgil blinked in surprise. There was no legitimate reason for a Volunteer to have that kind of money. Could Butterfly be on the take? For what? "I can't imagine."
"I can." The Runt crammed the scrip back into Butterfly's pocket. "Help me carry her over to her tent."
"What good will that do? Sooner or later, she'll wake up."
"With any luck, we'll be in Canada by then."
"Canada! But that's...."
"Desertion? You want to spend the next six months in the hole? You prefer building your own cage to a life of freedom?"
Virgil felt as if his heart would burst his chest. "Of course I'd like that kind of life." To have a shot at an engineering degree, Moon Colony.... "But America's depending on us."
"Show me the contract! The 14th Amendment outlawed slavery. I've got a news flash for you: the Boomers won't tear up our slips when the Debt's paid."
"Whether or not it's paid off in our lifetime is irrelevant. But if we don't pay some of it, Europe will never trade with us again. The Boomers can't do it, Runt -- they're too old."
She made a rude noise. "You're trying to make up for your deadbeat parents by becoming a Class-A Slave-aholic."
His face flamed. "That's not true!"
"Sorry to be so blunt. The Boomers aren't just deadbeats, they're vampire bats -- the only way to keep from being sucked dry is to head for new ground. America's dead, long live America."
"I don't get it."
"I know," the Runt said gently. "I'm going to miss the hell out of you, Babyface. If you'll give me a hand with ol' Butterfly butt, I'll quit bothering you."
Sighing, he picked up the unconscious facilitator by the armpits, while the Runt got her feet. He'd muscled up in the last few months, but Butterfly was heavier than she looked. With an effort that made sweat pop out on his brow, he and the Runt lugged their burden to her tent and inside. Despite Butterfly's lack of tent-mates, he kept expecting somebody to spot them while they were tying her up with leftover tent rope -- maybe whoever it was who'd laid all that cash on her. But aside from the hooting of an owl, no sound disturbed the peace and quiet of the Volunteer camp. Apparently no one saw ... or maybe they saw but didn't give a rip. Butterfly was not exactly popular.
The Runt thanked him, then returned to her tent and stuffed a few things into her backpack.
"I'll help you," Virgil said.
Her face lit. "You're coming with me?"
"No -- I'll help you across the border, then I'll come back."
"Risk your life twice to come back here? That's the craziest thing I've ever...."
"It's my decision." Everything in Virgil's ethical background argued that to help the Runt run away was theft. So why was he helping her? What had the United States ever done to him that could justify this sort of thing?
Well, she was just a little girl. He couldn't let her run a gauntlet of armed grunts all by herself.
Wedged in between a pair of boulders, Virgil crouched on a rocky hillside about sixty meters above the southern perimeter of the No-Man's-Lane, the horses tethered twenty meters behind him. The Runt hunkered next to him, peering through a pair of StarLite Specs. One lens was crazed with cracks, a legacy of the non-com who'd trashed them. In her shapeless gray-black jump, her bright hair hooded, she looked like an erudite but clumsy gargoyle.
Her 'plan' had been to simply find the Lane, wait 'til the nearest sentry takes a leak, then run as fast as she could for the Canadian side. She figured there'd be plenty of other folks out tonight with the same idea, giving the sentries too many targets to keep track of.
At least he'd been able to talk her out of that bit-brained scheme.
It was, according to his best estimate, about 2300 hours. It'd taken this long to steal a couple of horses and make their way to this rugged section of the Cascades. A few klicks northeast of the fort, it was the best place to cross -- actually the only place -- that he'd been able to find on the computerized satellite map in grunt headquarters.
Virgil's own light-amplifying lenses, which he'd built months ago from an old pair of binoculars and a few odds and ends, showed the forest as phosphorescent green, every leaf and branch picked out with amazing clarity. Tree bark reminded him of wind on water -- what'd they call those shapes, fractures? Fractals. Straight ahead was a gash where the defoliant helicopter must've crashed. The clearing looked kind of dull black-green, and when the wind blew his way Virgil could smell the smoke. The wreckage was gone -- probably taken out via the rutted half-road, half goat-track below, which meandered below through the trees to the guard-tower. The road was obviously something to be avoided, as was the burnt clearing.
Along with the emerald-green guard-tower and emerald-green sentry carrying his emerald-green vortex rifle.
Virgil adjusted his headphones, thinking it was his own fault there were so many sentries tonight. If he hadn't fixed the generators, there might still be another night for chinooks to rush the border before the acoustics went up. Chinooks were crazy, but they weren't stupid; they knew how much time was left. They had eyes everywhere.
This was the last night, and the border jumpers and catchers would be tripping over one another.
The sentries were equipped with HUD data helmets, throat-mics, IR scanners, morph dogs, and vortex rifles. A few would be cloaked in chameleo-camo, the expensive new concealment which made the wearer invisible to all but infrared detectors. Virgil thought that if they were as bad at woodscraft as other grunts, the crunching of snow, the smell of unwashed flesh, and the crackle of twigs would give them away. The problem was you couldn't depend on that, just as you couldn't depend on them sticking to nonlethals. They surely had enough firepower to down aircraft -- General Arthur was notorious for his rants about not letting smugglers slip through the No-Fly Zone from the Canadian republics.
Virgil had two advantages: one, the helicopter crash had shut down work on the Lane for quite some time, so there was still plenty of cover; and two, he had the Runt's modified radio. Tonight's com frequency was secret, of course, but the scanning circuit would find it sooner or later.
Armed with the puker pistol and the scrap gun, faces and hands blacked out with charcoal, Virgil and the Runt crept silently forward among the boulders. It couldn't have been more than forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, the wind out of the north dropping it at least another ten through wind-chill. He wished he had the sense to be back in his nice warm sleeping bag.
It was too bad the Runt hadn't had time to make friends with any sentries, her being several years short of having the right equipment. Virgil decided he didn't like the idea of her trying that. They were called grunts for a reason.
When Virgil and the Runt got close enough for the sentry in the tower to spot them among the rocks, they'd have to make a run for it. Given the width of the Lane so far, it'd be about thirty, thirty-five yards from the sentry station to the Canadian side. Virgil thought it could be done, provided the sentry's attention lay elsewhere during that critical instant when they left the cover of the boulders. If they made it behind the trees fast enough, the sentries might never know they were there.
The tower sentry coughed noisily. Somewhere in the forest, an animal uttered a strange wailing cry.
Snow had drifted among the boulders, thicker than on open ground. Twice Virgil found partial human footprints, fresh enough not to be iced over. These weren't the sentries' -- they were too small, and lacked the characteristic waffle pattern of Army boots. And whoever had passed by here had tried to conceal it.
It worried him. If others had already tried this gambit tonight, the sentries would be watching these rocks carefully. He and the Runt could be walking right into the lion's mouth. They should turn back ... but he knew the Runt well enough to know that wasn't an option. This was her last chance. She wouldn't think about consequences, she'd be utterly reckless ... she wouldn't give up 'til she was free or dead.
He remembered the chinooks back at the fort. Would they manage to escape tonight? Maybe they had already, and these were their tracks. He couldn't wish them luck -- particularly not if it got him and the Runt killed -- but he found himself feeling a little sorry for them. How much harder it must be to cross with little kids!
The granite seemed to leech the heat from Virgil's hands, and his knees were shaking -- whether from the cold or fright, he wasn't sure. He cursed the necessity of leaving his coat behind. His nose was running, and from time to time he pulled a Kleenex from his pocket and stanched the flow. Sounds carried a long way at night.
God, please don't let me sneeze.
The Runt stayed close behind Virgil, moving silently. She'd wanted to be in front, but he was better at picking a trail and they both knew it. Mainly, though, he wanted to be between her and the sentries in case they were shot at. If that happened, it was probably futile to hope that she'd get away. But if there was any chance, he'd make sure she had it.
"... missing from the fort since 2130." Virgil flinched, startled by the sudden voice in his headphones. "... Smith, thirteen-year-old male, and Elizabeth Bowen, twelve-year-old female. They are armed and considered dangerous."
"Dangerous girl scouts!" one of the sentries scoffed. "Gimme a fuckin' break."
"No shit," another voice agreed. "I wish all them little nicks'd go to Charlie-land -- save us the trouble of stranglin' 'em. Got any joes?"
"Yeah, and I ain't givin' you none." The two sentries began haggling over the price of contraband cigarettes.
The Runt was looking quizzically at Virgil; he pointed to the two of them, then to the radio, to explain that an announcement had just been made about their escape.
She chewed her lip, then gestured for him to keep going.
He didn't argue. After the 'armed and dangerous' announcement, anyone seeing them would likely shoot first and ask questions later, and too bad if their little scrap gun had only one bullet. Who had found Butterfly so soon? The person paying her off?
They worked their way down the hill to the draw, and were within five meters of the now-empty guard-tower when the rumble of a Humvee became audible, then quickly grew louder.
Without thinking Virgil turned, hastily shut his eyes, and yanked off the glasses; the Runt followed his example. It was fortunate that the pair of headlights jouncing along the road-goat track were only yellow running lights. Had they been halogen headlights, the amplification in his glasses would've ruined their night-vision for at least twenty minutes. The sentries had auto-safeties in their helmets, so they didn't need to worry about it.
"What the hell?" the first sentry growled, putting out his cigarette.
"Probably the sergeant," the second one said, extinguishing his also. "This's the big night, gotta play the game."
"Unless that damn kid turned me in. I don't like the timing on this one little bit!"
"Calm down. With all the smoke here today, he'll never notice." The two men hurried to meet the vehicle.
The Humvee rumbled to a stop less than three meters from where Virgil and the Runt crouched in their stone cocoon. Virgil barely had time to wonder if the 'damn kid' selling the grunts their contraband was the one paying off Butterfly. Then the passenger door popped open and the colonel stepped out, so close that Virgil smelled peppermints wafted along on a warm breeze from inside the vehicle.
Oh, God! Don't look this way, don't look, don't look.....
The sentries snapped to attention and saluted.
Colonel Sterling returned it, continuing to walk toward them. Lt. Barrenger exited the driver's side of the vehicle and fell into step beside him. "At ease, men. How's it going?"
"Real good, sir," replied the first sentry. "Quiet like a mouse."
Virgil thought the man sounded nervous. He didn't blame him -- he felt the same way. What else could happen?
"No activity at all, Corporal?"
Maybe it was Jimmy who'd sold them the cigarettes and paid off Butterfly. That would explain the lighter, the backpack, his early disappearance from dinner, his camaraderie with the grunts.... The little creep!
"Sir," Lt. Barrenger said, "I imagine that Henry has better sense than to attack when we're out in force. He'll save it for our weak spots."
"You could be right," the colonel said. "But after what happened to our Comanche today...."
A man's voice, amplified by a loudspeaker, cut him off. "This is Pax Henry. You are surrounded by armed men. Drop your weapons and place your hands on your heads. And that goes double for that jack in chameleo-camo by the big spruce!"
"Shit! It's Major Henry!" The second sentry dropped his machine gun.
The snake-eaters. Virgil felt his liver turn to ice; he grabbed the Runt's hand. He was sure the voice came from the Canadian side. How could he let her go among those?
Something sprang from the boulders opposite the sentries and bolted across the snowy ground.
The first sentry snapped his rifle to his shoulder and fired.
Virgil heard a loud crack as the vortex left the shock tube. Spinning faster than Mach 1, the spinning shock wave slammed into the two runners, knocking them flat.
The effect had been described to Virgil once as like having a heavy rubber blanket thrown on you. It was possible that the weapon had been dialed up a bit to contend with "the special intransigence of the chinook," as President Buckingham put it. Whatever the reason, the boys yelled as if they'd been mortally wounded.
Gunfire exploded across the No-Man's-Lane; the first sentry clutched his chest and fell.
Someone was shouting over the radio, "... four-five-niner, get us some goddamn backup now!"
The colonel and the lieutenant had already hit the dirt -- Virgil had no clue about the second sentry, who was shouting on the radio, or anything. The boys had quit screaming, but somebody was moaning and bullets were thocking into trees and ricocheting like hail off the side of the Humvee.
He pressed himself as flat as he could inside his rocky nest, the Runt next to him, clutching his hand so hard his fingers felt numb.
Virgil heard a roaring sound, and did not recognize it for what it was until yellow light flooded the boulders and he realized it was the Humvee. The lieutenant, at least, had made it back to the vehicle. Thinking of its bulletproof armor made Virgil wish he and the Runt were inside. He didn't dare stick his head up, not with all that tungsten flying around.
The Runt shrieked in his ear. "Look!"
Instead of turning or backing up, the Humvee had bounded forward, crashing over rocks and around trees. It was crossing the No-Man's-Lane!
What the devil was going on? Was Colonel Sterling trying to rescue one of the sentries, or had Pax Henry stolen the Humvee?
White light burst into the air above the trees, so bright Virgil was nearly blinded. He blinked, the cold north wind blowing his hair wildly back from his face. A gleaming metal shape hung in the air above the No-Man's-Lane!
Blades so muffled it made only a soft thrum, wreathed in light like some magnificent God of machines, the helicopter touched the burnt ground of the clearing with a dragonfly's grace.
The shooting stopped. So did the Humvee. Its doors flew open, and the dark shapes of several people burst out.
"Come on!" The Runt jumped up, still holding his hand, and ran pell-mell for the helicopter, almost yanking his arm out of its socket.
Virgil dropped the radio and ran, swerved past the body of the sentry, kept going. He recognized the portly silhouette of the colonel in front of the helicopter ... and wasn't that his wife? Who were these other folks? How could a nice old duffer like Colonel Sterling be mixed up with renegades like Pax Henry?
As the helicopter's cargo bay yawned open, something hit its left side and detonated in a shower of white sparks and whistling debris.
Oh, God, they're going to start shooting again!
One of the people climbing aboard tripped and fell, two others turned back to help him.
"Hurry!" the Runt gasped. "We can make it!"
Virgil didn't reply, simply stretched his legs, his lungs burning. For all the hard work, winters among the Volunteers tended to be anaerobic.
They were maybe four strides from the landing gear when the pitch changed on the rotor blades. Colonel Sterling and the Lt. were still helping somebody -- a chinook, Dr. Lochland, maybe? -- into the cargo bay as the landing gear lifted off the ground.
But instead of ducking inside to safety, the colonel turned around and extended his hand to Virgil and the Runt. "Come on!" he shouted.
A spray of bullets chewed its way across the black-green side of the helicopter.
Virgil skidded face-first into the pine needles, arms wrapped tightly around the Runt.
"Get up, Babyface, oh, please get up!" She was crying and trying to get him up, probably under the mistaken impression that he'd been shot.
Virgil let her up when the gunfire stopped.
By some miracle, the colonel hadn't been hit; he was still standing in the cargo bay, the chopper already ten feet off the ground. "Come on!" he shouted again, and something landed in a coil of muddy snow at their feet.
A rope ladder.
Dizziness approached and receded, carrying its own blackness that had nothing to do with the night.
Virgil snatched the end of the rapidly ascending ladder and shoved it in her hand. "It was nice knowing you, Runt."
"You're coming too!"
"I told you, I'm staying here!"
"But you're hurt! You--"
"You want us both dead? Get going, your ladder's almost gone!"
"Oh, you're such a lunatic!" The Runt kissed him hard on the mouth and tucked her torso through the tail end of the ladder. Virgil could still feel her breath on his lips when the helicopter yanked her off the ground.
His cheek pressed to rough bark, Virgil leaned tiredly against a tree. A good-bye kiss! Nobody had ever kissed him like that before.
He'd rest up a bit, then drive the Humvee back to the fort. Maybe they'd cut him a little slack for being wounded. Sheesh, he'd never even tried to use the puker pistol.
Somebody tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around to see who it was. But there was no one there. The dizziness returned, and he knew he had to lie down right now, or he would fall asleep on his feet, and that would be a very silly thing to do, falling asleep on his feet in the middle of a gun battle....
Virgil collapsed on the thick red snow at the base of the tree. It felt soft and warm, better than his sleeping bag. Only his side was starting to hurt really bad. It became suddenly clear to him why Dr. Lochland couldn't stay in this country. This was no place for an intelligent man.
He could see the curving belly of the helicopter through the branches, and a slight, monkey-like form ... the Runt, flying through the air like a salmon swimming upstream, one arm extended as she grasped the colonel's hand.
Chinook, he thought drowsily. What a perfect name. Good leap.....
When he awoke, he was in a prison cell. They had it fixed up to look like a hospital room, but it was a prison cell just the same. There were two Eyes watching him, perched high on the institutional green walls, and the drafty nightgown they'd given him was a bright orange. All the better to see you with. Had that been unconvincing, the barred window and the handcuffs attaching his wrists to the bedrails were plenty persuasive.
There was an IV running into his arm, but nothing to drink, and he was thirstier than he'd ever been in his life. His ribs hurt, his shoulder throbbed with unholy fervor, and his head ached. He wondered about the cost, and decided it would be added to his share of the Debt. Figuring out the interest would give him something to do in his spare time. Before sentencing, anyway.
The door opened, and a woman entered the room. Dressed completely in white, she wore her hair pulled back in a severe bun, and a pair of spectacles so large they made her look like a mosquito. "Well, well, I see we're awake now. Virgil, my name is Citizeness Doctor White, and I'd like to help you. But you have to help me do that. Will you?"
Virgil reflected that this was going to be a long afternoon. "May I have some water, please?"
"Why, certainly, Virgil honey. But first tell me one thing: did your mom ever give you smart drugs?"
"No, 'course not. I'm not that smart."
"Yes you are. The sad fact is, Virgil, your parents were incapable of having anything other than a normal child. Intelligence like yours must've come from somewhere, right?"
"Honest, Czs. White, I never took no smart drugs. That's against the law."
"Your parents might've hidden them in candy. Some people will do anything to have an above-average child. They thwart the will of society, which has evolved beyond using children to satisfy a sick need for superiority."
"That's playing God. Maw would never do such a horrible thing. Say, what's all this about, anyway?"
"Well, I'm afraid someone's sworn out a statement saying that he believes you to be under their influence. We have your denial on tape, of course. It's being analyzed by our experts right now."
Virgil wished he'd never touched those damned generators. "Experts, you call them. Folks who hold things in their laps and babble about vibrations!"
"You know nothing about it," she said with prim certitude. "Furthermore, we believe you were part of the smuggling ring which spirited a certain Dr. Lochland out of the country. Pretty sophisticated activity for a 'normal' thirteen-year-old."
So he did get out. Virgil felt good for the first time since he woke up. "That's complete bullshit."
Czs. White cocked her head like a little bird. "In case of doubt, Virgie honey, the evidence lies on the side of the state. If we save only one child's life experience, it's worth it."
"'Lies' is exactly the word."
She stayed for an interminable length of time, asking all kinds of questions about smuggling rings and trying to trick him into an admission. Finally he threw a screaming little-boy fit, and she brought him water, but no pain patches. That was OK – he didn't want his senses dulled for any reason.
Apparently that wasn't the reaction she expected. She fixed a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look on her watery-eyed phiz and stomped out.
The worst they could do would be to test him for the presence of smart drugs. Since he'd never taken them, they wouldn't find anything, so they'd have to let it drop.
He hoped that the Runt, the colonel and his wife were making out OK in New Hong Kong. And Dr. Lochland, too, of course.
Virgil emptied the water pitcher, then got to his feet and tottered to the window. He fell a couple of times, and the handcuffs wouldn't let him go far, but finally he found a spot by the end of the bed where he could steady himself to look out.
Sky. The pure color of Texas bluebonnets above a vast rippling two-shades-darker expanse of water.
He must still be on the west coast, near the sea. Bellingham, or maybe even as far south as San Francisco.
He stared out the window for as long as he could stand upright, then staggered back to bed and collapsed on the mattress. He pictured Colonel Sterling coming back for him, leading his own army of Special Forces renegades. They would blow down the walls of the prison, melt off his handcuffs with their lasers. Cynthia would pick him up tenderly in her arms, the colonel saying, "We couldn't leave him behind, he's just like a son to us....."
OK, so it was epic orphan-fantasy. Anything wrong with that?
"Wake up, Virgie honey. It's time for your treatment."
Virgil opened one eye, saw Czs. White standing over him with a hulking young man, also in white. Probably an orderly. "What treatment?" Virgil asked, opening the other eye.
"Your therapy," she smiled, then added helpfully, "The doctor ordered it."
Virgil lost his temper. "Well, he, she, or it didn't discuss it with me!"
"Virgie, honey, I know just exactly how you feel. Really and truly. But we know how to take care of abused little boys better than you do."
"So go take care of them. I want to be left alone."
The orderly's gap-toothed grin revealed the absence of several teeth. "Don' be skeered. It'll make you normal. Afterward, you're gonna thank us."
"I already am normal. I'm normal for me!"
Virgil sank his teeth into the orderly's arm twice, but it only postponed the inevitable for about forty seconds. Sharp pain lanced his biceps, and presently he went slack on the mattress, like one of those nightmares where you know you'll be OK if only you could move some part of your body. Only you can't.
"There, there," Czs. White cooed. "We'll make those bad smart drugs go away."
Picking him up like a pair of loose socks, the orderly carried him into another room and strapped him into a chair surrounded by racks of equipment, gleaming chrome-bright under a stark white light. A long metallic arm clutched a syringe full of ominous red liquid.
Virgil moaned with terror as the syringe hummed toward him, the exposed needle tip diffracting wildly.
In a matter of seconds, he would no longer be himself. He would be someone else, condemned to a hideous numb-dumb existence. He would no longer reason. He'd watch everything on vid, and like it. Worse, he'd probably forget everyone he knew, everything he'd cared about ... how was this different from death?
The needle stabbed his arm.
Someone was shaking him. "Wake up, child! Wake up, now."
Bright. Pain. Dark. Bright. Pain. Dark....
He'd had such a terrible dream. That he and the Runt had decided to jump the border, and they'd been crawling through the snow for hours when the renegades attacked, and then the colonel.....
Gabriel save us.
He opened his eyes. Czs. White was staring at him from six inches away, her fingers knotted prayerfully, wide blue eyes misty with concern. "I've been holding an angel's feather for you, Virgie honey! How do you feel?"
"Um ... strange." The strange thing was, he felt normal. Except for his ribs and his shoulder, that is. One and one is two. He visualized a circuit diagram for a simple radio. It came to him just as it always had. He reviewed a Hohmann orbit, then the basics of string theory. Why, he hadn't changed at all!
Beaming, she checked a box on his chart, then undid the straps on his arms. "Of course you do. That's what everybody says. But you'll get over it -- the important thing is, you've been saved!"
Virgil felt dizzy. This was how they evaluated the effectiveness of their ridiculous treatment -- by asking?
"I've scheduled you for a meeting with Bellingham Brains Anonymous this afternoon," she went on. "Right now they're working on a patriotic craft project -- a one-sixth replica of Old Ironsides. Why, it's so realistic-looking, you'd swear it could set sail tomorrow!"
Virgil sat up in bed, his mind already racing with plans. Bellingham! The Runt was only twenty-five miles away, across the strait in Victoria. "I like boats."
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