7th Sigmaby Steven Gould
A swarm of small, metal-eating, self-replicating machines has appeared in the desert southwest. They are attracted to and devour all metal - from bridges to pacemakers. This is the story of the people who still live in the territory, and of one boy who is rapidly becoming a man.See more details below
A swarm of small, metal-eating, self-replicating machines has appeared in the desert southwest. They are attracted to and devour all metal - from bridges to pacemakers. This is the story of the people who still live in the territory, and of one boy who is rapidly becoming a man.
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When the Student is Ready, a Teacher Will Come
High atop the Exodus Memorial in the plaza of Nuevo Santa Fe, Kimble paced back and forth, his hand raised to strike down the impudent. The Memorial had nothing to do with the early events of Judeo-Christian tradition, but there were several scriptural references on the ceramic tiles inset in the thick adobe wall, and young Orvel, whose father was the local LDS bishop, and young Martin, whose eldest brother was a deacon at the Church of Christ the Rock, argued from below that these affiliations entitled them to the place occupied by Kimble, an avowed apostate and frequent blasphemer. Alas, neither their spiritual superiority nor their physical efforts had dislodged the smaller boy from his perch.
“Let me up!” yelled Martin.
Kimble smiled kindly down at him. “Never while I breathe.”
Martin stepped back to the side where Orvel was trying to form an alliance with César, an altar boy at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. César was bigger than any of them and might have turned the tide against Kimble, but César was having none of it. There was historical animosity. If Orvel and Martin had not previously sided against César in the affair of Mr. Romero’s broken shop window (and borne false witness at that), César might have been more receptive to their appeal to Christian solidarity.
Rebuffed, Martin and Orvel steeled themselves for another attempt on the monument, a two-front assault from opposite ends of the wall. Unfortunately for them, Kimble was monkey quick, and a sudden flick of his hand toward Orvel’s face sent that worthy sprawling in time for Kimble to turn and meet young Martin, pudgy and less fit, before he achieved the summit. A mild blow on Martin’s grasping fingers sent him down into the dust of the plaza.
Their injuries were slight, but César’s mocking laughter was like salt in a cut.
The Territorial Administrative Complex and the Territorial Rangers headquarters bordered the great square on two sides. The Commercial Galleria, a series of businesses clumped together around the main heliograph office, occupied the third side, and the fourth side held the sprawled booths of the city market, open every day but Sunday. Now, shortly after the end of siesta, people strolled the plaza and shopped.
As Kimble watched, a woman wearing goatskin boots, wide-bottomed gaucho pants, and a cotton smock walked out of the market and into the square. She was pulling a travois, a modern one, glass composite poles with a small wheel where they came together. A strap running between the two handles crossed her shoulders and helped support the modest, tarp-covered load. Though her short dark hair was peppered with gray, her face seemed young, or at least unlined.
“Gentlemen,” she said, apparently addressing all four of them. “Would one of you be so kind as to tell me where the Land Registrar is?”
Orvel, still on his bottom in the dust of the square, didn’t know, and he was mortified, convinced the woman had seen his ignominious descent. Martin, following his church’s creed, was unwilling to talk to a woman not of his family. César didn’t know but he said politely, “I would be glad to ask inside, ma’am.”
“No need,” said Kimble. “I know.” He dropped lightly off the monument and rolled to absorb the impact, rising smoothly to his feet. He jerked his chin toward the fiberglass awnings of the Galleria. “If you’ll walk this way?”
She fell into step with him, the trailing wheel of her travois squeaking slightly as it turned. “I would’ve thought it would be over there,” she said, jerking her chin at the Administrative Complex.
Now that he was closer he could see that fine lines radiated from the corners of her eyes and her mouth. Not young, then, though not as old as the market manager, a veritable raisin of a man. “’Twas. Both the Land Office and the Census Department needed more records space. Census stayed and Land Office moved into an annex earlier this year.”
“You know a lot about it. Does your mom work there? Or your dad?”
He shrugged. It was not his place, he felt, to inform against himself. The less said the better. He found that people filled in the gaps all by themselves with details that felt right to them. It wasn’t his fault if they made assumptions. “I run errands. Sometimes it’s messages. Sometimes it’s guiding people to where they need to go.” He waited for her next question but it was nothing like he expected.
“Where did you learn to roll like that?”
He blinked and looked sideways at her from the corner of his eye. “Pardon?”
“When you jumped off the monument. The forward roll.”
Kimble opened his mouth to answer, but then shrugged again.
She sniffed. “As you like.”
They entered one of the arched passageways back into the Galleria, past Bolton & Cable, specialty printers (ceramic type, of course); past Duran, importer of ready-made clothing and the hard plastic needles that fetched high prices over in the market; past the law firm of McKensie, Duncan and Lattimore, specialists in Native American, territorial, and immigration law. “Up there,” said Kimble, pointing up a narrow stair to the second story and the sigil of the territorial government, the old Zia of New Mexico rising above the Star on the Horizon of the old Arizona Flag.
The woman eyed the two flights and the tight landing and looked at her travois.
“I can watch it,” Kimble offered.
She gave him a look, which made him add, “Really. No harm will come to it and it will be right here.”
Again she considered him. “What payment would you want?”
He raised both hands palm up. “You decide.” He smiled ingenuously. “No doubt you’ll want to take into consideration how long I have to wait.”
The woman snorted. “Your name?”
“Is that your first name or last?”
He bowed as a player, one hand on his heart, “Yes.”
She raised her eyebrows and then nodded. “I’m Ruth Monroe. See you in a bit, Kimble.”
Her business took long enough to close the office—the great ceramic bell atop the Territorial Admin Complex had rung eight different quarters of the hour when, watching from below, Kimble saw one of the clerks escort Ruth to the landing outside the office. The clerk shook her hand and then took down the OPEN sign before vanishing back into the interior. As Ruth came down the stairs, perusing a piece of paper, Kimble heard the doors being barred from within.
“Well, Mr. Kimble, I am hungry. Can you recommend a reasonable eatery? I’m going south, toward the Rio Puerco, but I’d like to eat before I leave town.”
Kimble’s stomach rumbled at the thought, audible, almost echoing in the passageway.
“A meal for both of us,” Ruth amended.
“There’s Griegos—it’s a taqueria by the south gate. The cabrito … this is a good time to go. Early enough—they run out.”
They ate the goat tacos (whole-wheat tortillas, black beans, red onions, and pico de gallo) in the alley beside the taqueria, where Ruth could watch her travois. They were not alone. The alley had several diners as well as a few hopeful dogs. Ruth and Kimble were among the first, but as the alley filled, Ruth shifted the travois so that it leaned against the wall, handles down, wheel up, to clear more space. An older teen, not eating, took the opportunity to grab a spot by the wall on the other side of the travois from them.
A Jicarilla Apache couple sat against the opposite wall with their burritos. The woman was wearing a traditional deerskin dress with beaded trim. The man wore jeans converted for the territory—all metal removed. The rivets had been pulled and replaced with over-sewing and the zipper fly was now Velcro. His moccasins had thick rawhide soles and buckskin uppers.
The woman gestured at the travois. “I like your outfit,” she said. “The wheel is a good notion.”
“Thank you. It’s worked pretty well as long as I grease it regularly.”
“How far have you come with it?”
“I entered the territory at Needles.”
The man seemed impressed. “That’s almost five hundred miles. Walking the whole way?”
Ruth nodded. “Five weeks. Walk six days, rest one. I averaged fifteen miles a day.”
“What do you mean?”
“Bugs. Grass fires. Weather. Ladrones.”
Ruth glanced sideways at Kimble and he translated, “Thieves, bandits.”
Ruth shrugged. “I’d been briefed on the bugs—I was careful. And it wasn’t too dry—saw one grass fire far to the south. Wind was bad for a few days but fortunately it was at my back. I did have some trouble with la-ladrones? West of Montezuma Well. Two men wanted to take my outfit and, from what they said, rape me.”
The woman’s eyes grew large. “What happened?”
Ruth pursed her lips. “They decided not to.” And then she surged to her feet and was standing over the teen who’d sat next to her travois. “They were clearly smarter than you.”
The teen looked up at her, eyes wide. “What?”
Ruth pointed at the lashing on her tarp. “You cut it. I saw the cord jerk when the tension released.”
The boy gathered his feet underneath him. “I never touched your stupid rope.”
Kimble watched with interest. If the boy had cut the cord what had he used? Was it still in his ha—
The boy slashed upward with a chunk of obsidian as he rose. Perhaps he meant to scare Ruth, to make her recoil, so he could bolt, but it didn’t work out that way. Suddenly he was face down in the hard, baked dirt of the alley, his arm pinned to the ground by an absurdly small hand. The teen tried to move and yelped in considerable discomfort. Kimble saw Ruth’s free hand take the back of the teen’s hand and bend it, fingers toward the elbow. The teen’s fingers spasmed, releasing the obsidian flake. Ruth released the hand but kept all her weight on the elbow.
Kimble was impressed. “Nice ikkyo!”
Ruth, without taking her weight off the teen’s arm, looked at Kimble. “I knew you learned that roll in a dojo.” She took up the flake of obsidian. The teen began to struggle again and she held the flake against his ear. “Feel that?” she asked.
The teen froze.
“I could just cut off your ear.” She moved it down to his neck. “Or, since you attacked me with a lethal weapon, I’m sure the Rangers would understand a lethal response.”
His voice, previously deep, broke, now high pitched. “I just needed some food, for my mother and sisters!”
“Kimble, check his pockets.”
Kimble found a small roll of dollars and a handful of plastic territorial coins in the teen’s pants and showed them to Ruth.
“Try another,” she said to the facedown boy.
The teen didn’t respond.
Ruth looked up. “Where would we find a policeman? It’s not like we don’t have witnesses.”
The Jicarilla Apache had started to rise when the boy surged up, but now he was back against the wall since he saw Ruth had things well in hand. He said, “There were Rangers at the city gate when we came in.”
Kimble winced. The gate was only two hundred feet away. Conviction on charges of theft and assault could get the boy a trip outside where, at the very least, he’d be tagged, then jail time or community service. But it was the tag, a surgically implanted LoJack, that would keep him out of the territory. Not just because he could be tracked, but because the bugs would go for the EMF and metal like the chewy nougat center in a candy bar.
The teen spoke then. “No! All right, I did it! Take my money, just don’t call the Rangers, I’m already on probation!”
The Apache woman said, “Maybe break his arm, too. The taking arm—his right.” She said it seriously, but Kimble thought she didn’t really mean it. The corners of her eyes were crinkling.
Kimble offered the money to Ruth but she said, “Just the coins. To replace the rope. Put the dollars back.”
“What? He came at you with a blade!”
Ruth turned her gaze on Kimble.
“All right, all right.” Kimble shoved the roll back in the teen’s pocket. When he’d moved back, Ruth folded the teen’s arm across his back and then leaned on it as she stood, keeping him pinned until she was all the way to her feet. She took a sliding step back, releasing him. He got up slowly, rubbing his arm.
Ruth held up the obsidian flake and said, “I’m also keeping this.”
The teen turned suddenly and walked out of the alley, his steps quickening as he reached the open street. He took a sharp right, away from the city gate, and was gone.
A growling tussle broke out at Ruth’s feet as two of the stray dogs fought over something.
“Crap,” said Ruth. “I dropped my taco.”
Kimble shook the coins together between his cupped hands.
“You can afford another.”
* * *
“I’D like to talk to your parents,” Ruth said.
She’d replaced and eaten her taco, knotted the cut rope, and now they were standing near the south gate.
Kimble’s mouth went still. He could’ve told her one of the many fabrications he used on occasions like this, but he was reluctant. My parents are working. They are out of town until next week. My father is on assignment with the Rangers. I’m only visiting today. We live near Grants.
Ruth seemed to sense this. “I’m not going to inform on you. Runaway?”
He held out his hand and rocked it side to side. “My mother died when I was little. My father had heart trouble, uneven heartbeats, last year. He had to have a pacemaker—so he can’t live in the territory.”
“He left you here?”
“They airlifted him out. I was supposed to take a caravan north and join him in Denver.”
“I sold the travel voucher to someone who wanted to go.”
She sat still, regarding him without speaking.
Finally, Kimble gave in. “My dad … he’s not a nice man. Maybe when my mom was alive but not so much after. I hardly stayed at home when he was in the territory, not if I could help it. Not if he’d been working.”
“If he worked he could afford liquor. When he wasn’t drinking he was just grumpy. When he was—better not to be home.”
“Where do you live now? The same place?”
“No. We lived in Golondrinas, but the Rangers there knew me too well. I joined a sheep drive here—dishwasher and orphan lamb care. I’m a useful citizen here.”
“Yes,” she said. “A guide.”
“But where do you live?”
“It depends on the season.” He had a bedroll hidden in a roof garden near Eastgate. Everything else he owned was on his person. “In the winter there are shelters, but they preach at you something fierce.”
“I would still think the authorities are looking for you. I mean, your father must’ve noticed when you didn’t show up.”
“Well, they’re looking for Kim Creighton. I’m Kimble. The picture they have is three years old and I was so much pudgier then. I’ve been asked, you know, if I’ve seen myself around.”
Ruth smiled briefly. “And had you?”
“Oh, yes. Traveling with a caravan headed into old Arizona. I was positive I’d seen the boy.”
She swung her arm, backhanded, toward his face. There was no warning and, he thought, no reason, but she didn’t connect. He moved his head back out of the way and took a back roll.
“Hey!” Kimble said, rising to his feet and eyeing her warily.
She smiled at him.
“Tell me about the dojo.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” he said, in a quiet voice. He squatted on his heels, still out of arm’s reach. “That was back in Golondrinas. The kids’ class was free if you did dojo chores. They taught karate and judo and aikido.”
“The same teacher?”
“Oh, no. It was a cooperative. There were four different styles of karate. There were two judo instructors, but just one old guy who taught aikido.”
“Old guy?” She stared at him. “Which classes did you take?”
“Aikido, of course.”
“Of course? Is that what all the kids took?”
Kimble shook his head. “Oh, no. If they were the wrestling type, they liked judo. Otherwise, they all wanted to take karate. Punch, kick, punch, kick, and more kicking.”
“So … why aikido?”
“They were the kids who weren’t that interested in kicking and punching.” Kimble looked down at the dirt. “I got enough of that at home. Besides, once I got the hang of getting off the line, aikido worked pretty well against the kickers and punchers.”
Ruth was silent for a moment, then said. “I am building a dojo on the Rio Puerco.”
“Oh. Really? You teach aikido?”
“For over twenty years now.”
He raised his eyebrows. “So you already had a dojo. Why did you leave?”
She sighed. “Divorce. You know what that is?”
Kimble glared at her.
“Sorry, of course you do. My ex-husband and his new wife kept the dojo. I left. I left … everything. I’m starting over.”
Kimble narrowed his eyes. She looked back at him, very still, like a rock, like a predator, like a statue.
“You’ll need students,” Kimble finally said. “You can’t be a teacher without students. I mean, at least one.”
She nodded. “Get your things.”
“Yes, Ms. Monroe.”
“Sensei,” she said gently.
Copyright © 2011 by Steven Gould
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