There were times on the island, late in the summer of 2027, when I thought I could hear the sun hissing off the ground. It was the same noise that the insects made in the jungle, out there on our miserable little cluster of Pacific islands, misbegotten and nameless somewhere south of the Marshalls, and it pressed down on me like the dust that hung in the air and stained it yellow.
But if I closed my eyes, I could imagine the noise was the sound of water, instead. On some days there was only the sun, hissing down on the islands and the ocean, but on the afternoon Sergeant Polaski was to arrive it was the sound of water, cool and clear in the shadows. I was standing on the rutted ground by the runway, remembering a picture I’d seen of a river in Las Serranías del Burro, when the cough of his airplane intruded, rough and dry on the still air.
It backfired again and throttled down over the jungle, then shuddered onto the dirt runway in a cloud of smoke. When it had rumbled by I closed my eyes again, unwilling to give up my thoughts to a man whose arrival would surely end what little peace I’d found here.
The plane turned and taxied back, then waited out in the sun with its engines idling. Minutes passed.
I opened my eyes. The airplane shimmered in the heat while its crew wrestled a crate down a ramp into the dirt.
When I turned in the direction of the voice I found myself looking into the barrel of a revolver, gripped in the hand of a short, blond man with a pale, unremarkable face and expressionless grey eyes.
He let down the hammer. "That’s not real bright, Torres, standing out in the dirt with your eyes closed." The crew pushed the ramp back up into the plane.
I hated Polaski. Hated him and loved him. I hadn’t seen him since 1st Engineers, where we’d served together until the unit was disbanded. It was broken up after Polaski killed an officer with an anti- tank round—broken up mainly because the MPs couldn’t decide who’d done it. Polaski himself fingered a half- breed Samoan named Tulafono for it; it was the day after Tulafono had beaten me with a tire iron for swearing in Spanish.
Polaski was kicked back to sergeant in a demolitions unit, but I’d kept warrant officer and was sent to join the forward units in the Pacific. Now Polaski was here, too, evidently as part of an Army plan involving heavy demolitions. It was a plan I didn’t like because I knew nothing about it, which was why I’d picked Polaski up at the airstrip in the first place. That, and the hint of anticipation I’d felt when I first heard he was coming, the sense of a change in the wind that I didn’t yet understand.
"What are they planning for these islands, Polaski?"
"Nothing you need to know about." With a shriek from the brakes the plane jerked forward again, a wavering blob of silver in the heat, and left behind a cloud of smoke and the crate, dumped on the runway like the stool of a great bird. "It isn’t going to work, anyway," he said.
The engines spun up and the plane bounced around over the ruts, then rose tiredly up over the jungle.
Polaski didn’t answer.
"I heard we’re looking for someone," I said.
Still he didn’t answer. I was almost wishing he’d gone, too, leaving me to my thoughts of how to get out of the war, how to get away and find a place of my own. How to get off of the planet altogether.
"Do you have a priest named Katherine Chan?" he said.
"The crate’s for her. Let’s go, I’m in a hurry."
Polaski and I had been picked up off the streets in Army sweeps at the age of fourteen, then sent to Technical Warfare School. For a country with too many immigrants, too little oil, and an aversion to drafting its own citizens, conscription as an alternative to deportation had become just another of the Army’s growing number of dirty secrets. The four-year Tech- War School, itself a secret and open only to the conscripts with the most potential, was designed to provide regular Army units with technologically sophisticated soldiers, able to fight in the Pacific with little support.
Polaski called us the "Shorts"; in addition to what ever the Army thought of as intelligence, it had picked us for endurance, and in the end that had meant squat and tough. So we were squat, tough, smart and educated, and something of an embarrassment: Greater knowledge of the war hadn’t always brought the Army greater loyalty.
"I need to see your captain," said Polaski. He’d taken over my truck by the runway, and now its electric motors hissed and spat as he ran down trees and rocks in the jungle.
"We haven’t got a captain," I said
"You need to see Bolton."
"No. We get them from Airmobile on the big island."
The jungle dropped away with a smack of high grass on the hood and a dry scraping sound as it dragged along underneath. We were in the big clearing by the beach, next to the helicopter pad and the mess canopy with its leaning, rusted poles. Scrub grass and rows of bungalows stretched away to the jungle on the far side.
Polaski dropped me off and drove away to find Michael Bolton. But before he’d gone fifty yards, a familiar furry streak raced in from the side toward the truck’s front wheels—McGafferty’s dog, low to the ground and barking for all he was worth.
Polaski swerved sharply. But he swerved toward the dog, not away from it, as though hoping the dog would overshoot. But it was a miscalculation, and with a sound muted by the distance into a soft thumping, the dog’s body tumbled out from underneath the wheels and lay still in the dirt. Polaski kept going.
"At least you could stop and look!"
I shouted at him again and looked for a rock to throw, but it was too late. He was gone across the clearing.
The dog was dead. Its back and neck were broken and it bled from half a dozen wounds. I stroked its muzzle with the back of my hand and pulled out a rock that had lodged in its mouth with the broken teeth. I moved him away from the track, then trudged back to the mess.
The air under the canopy was heavy and still, punctuated only by the wet sound of sunflower husks spat across the floor by Sergeant First Class Tyrone Elliot. He was leaning back in a chair with his feet up on the table, a tall, powerful Southerner with mild eyes and black stubble on his dark face. His jaw was broad and square with thick muscles bunching in his neck as he chewed. Deep lines ran from the corners of his eyes and down past his mouth, as though he’d been tired for a long time. The hands on his knees were big and still.
He didn’t say anything for a while, but sat and chewed and watched the receding back of Polaski’s truck.
"So your old buddy Polaski’s here," he said finally. He rummaged in his pocket for more seeds. "So maybe we’ll forget to tell him about the water, what do you think?"
"Polaski’s all right," I said. "He gets things done."
"He should have stopped, though."
Elliot launched himself out of his seat to slam his hands together overhead, then just as suddenly sat back down and wiped them on his fatigues. "Polaski’s crazy, Torres. I been with him in the 89th. He ain’t all there, you know, and he don’t see you when he look at you. He’s mean, boy, and he’s crazy. You stay away from him."
"It’s the war that’s mean, Tyrone."
"Don’t stick up for him."
"It’s the war, Tyrone. The whole planet. It’s gotten so bad I don’t even know any more when I’ll wake up puking blood from some new wonder we’ve dumped in the water. You saw what happened to the lieutenant."
"Yeah, I know." He spat another shell. "Anyhow, nothing we can do about it. Or you back to thinking about getting off?"
"Of course I’m thinking about getting off."
Far off, I was thinking. Off- planet with someone like Katherine Chan, someone still in one piece. As far and as fast as an engine could carry us, away from the memories that followed me everywhere I went. Memories of Mexico and hunger, memories of boats filled with children and the stink of death. Broken dogs, broken children. Memories of the frozen pavement in Chicago, memories of my father hanging from the wires in the desert . . .
"Uh- uh, no sir." Elliot stuck another seed in his mouth. "Ain’t no one gotten off this old ball of trouble for a long time, except rich folks in their tin cans up there. U.S. quit on the space tunnel years ago, I keep telling you. And no one ever built drones smart enough to send through it, anyhow. So that’s that. Rich folks is stuck in their cans, and you and me is stuck in 42nd Engineers digging out holes to piss in. So you take what you got, Torres, which is a fine afternoon and something to chew on. Here, have some."
I swatted at a fly. "What’s the Army planning for these islands, Tyrone? Polaski won’t say."
"You tell Polaski to piss off. Word I got is you’re the only one he pays any mind to, anyway. What’s happening on these islands is that Army and Air Force is going to try something funny on those skinny little atolls east of here, except folks is saying it ain’t going to work."
"Bolton says we’re looking for someone."
"Yeah, but that’s different. Been going on a long time. DoD’s looking for one of their smart- boys, went and slipped out on ’em. DARPA fellow with plans for counter- BCs that’s going to save all our asses. He took ’em a year ago, and now Army’s saying he’s out here somewhere and we got to get him back before all this other big shit comes down."
Out here somewhere? Out here was twenty-one barely-charted volcanic ridges and cinder cones off the shipping lanes and airways, which from above looked mostly like dried rabbit shit with green mold on it sticking out of the ocean. Before the war it had been a mecca for transoceanic racers, religious cults, and rich bastards on the outs with latest regime in Cambodia or the Philippines, but now there was almost no one. Out here was a hundred forty-seven half-dead, insect-ridden combat engineers who prayed every morning not to be noticed for one more day by the enemy or by our own battalion, eighty miles to the north on the island with the big air base. So why would someone hiding from the American military be out here? Like a flea hiding between the bear’s claws, it was either really dumb or really smart.
And we had to get him back before what came down? Too much was happening—the Army poking around after leaving us alone for a year, heavy equipment for the MI priests suddenly showing up on our eighty pitiful acres of dead grass and rusting tin, talk about heavy demolitions . . . and now Polaski back. To do what I told him to? Not likely. I was an Army hardware engineer, no more. I took care of the island’s machines, from the cooling rods in the big antennas to the drones we put up at night to listen in on the Japanese. I tuned them and I studied them, and I spent my nights alone with them and the sounds of the jungle, not wanting to sleep. And that was all.
Polaski’s truck skidded to a stop in front of Bolton’s bungalow across the clearing. Smoke trailed from the motors. He strode through the grass and jumped onto Bolton’s porch.
"Tyrone?" I said.
"Why would anyone steal the plans to counter- biologicals?"
He was quiet for a minute.
"I been hearing a long time," he said, "how you’re one of the real smart ones, Torres. I think maybe you got yourself a good question there. Japanese sure as hell don’t need to defend against their own shit, huh?"
"Why’s Polaski here, Tyrone?"
He shrugged. "Blow something up, I expect. It’s what he does."
Clouds scudded along the horizon over the ocean. I tried not to think about Polaski, and tried to remember the daydream he’d interrupted, instead.
There’d been a time when missions to the stars had been planned by the western nations, out through America’s "space tunnel." It was a moon- sized torus near Venus that was supposed to pass the ships onward, along with their cargos of colonists and seed and livestock embryos. The project had died from poverty and warfare, but it was those same trees and horses I’d been thinking about that morning. Trees and horses and Katherine Chan, and a piece of land far from Earth and the war. All of it impossible.
"Well," said Elliot, "I guess I don’t know what demolition’s got to do with MI folks, after all, now that I think about it. But you might have noticed the priests had something to do with a bunch of sonic diggers out behind Bolton’s bungalow."
"Yup. Big suckers."
Torres." Elliot’s voice, far away. The dog snarled and pushed its face in through the spokes of the wheel, in under the wagon where I’d crawled. "Jesus Christ, boy, wake up. What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway?" I was four, and the dog’s teeth were red and its breath was hot on my face. Its neck was bloody with open sores. Dogs behind it fought each other and tore at the entrails of an infant they’d dragged away from its carreta, away from its sleeping parents in their tin and cardboard house. My mother and father were nowhere. The little girl’s unseeing face jerked in the dust and blood spattered under the wagon. Helpless men across the road shuffled their feet and threw rocks at the dogs.
"Come on, Torres."
There was foam in the dog’s mouth, under its lip where it curled back from its teeth.
"Shit, what’s the matter with this boy?"
Later that morning I sat with Polaski on the slope of an island to the east of the company camp, watching the glare of the sun from under my eyelids. It reflected off the straits between the island where we sat and a deserted peak rising from the ocean two miles away. I was trying to keep from slipping down the stony hillside while I pressed my hands over my ears to keep out the roaring behind me. Two days had passed since Polaski’s arrival.
The sound changed pitch again, then surged from the roar into a howl, setting my teeth on edge and sending new pain into my temples. It warbled lower for a moment only to seize on a new frequency and lash out again, tearing the air apart with its shriek and bringing a sweat to my forehead.
On the island across the straits, angry jets of smoke tinged with purple shot into the air each time the digger found a frequency that worked, leaving behind a smoldering socket where tons of earth had been disintegrated. Now and then Polaski let the digger dip its massive barrel too far, and its beam swept across the ocean to send a wall of steam curling into the sky. It settled across us later in a cloud of humid air that mingled with our sweat and stung our eyes.
Squatting on its thick legs behind us, like a tank without treads, the digger probed with its beam higher up the far island until it found a new weakness in the rock, then leapt into its screaming again. The clanging of its cooling pump was like the metallic thumping of a cat’s tail as it hurled itself into its kill.
"God damn it, Polaski, turn that thing off!" Having Polaski take potshots for fun was more than I could stand. The noise was like an alien presence inside me that stole my concentration and dragged me closer to a pit I needed all of my wits to stay out of. A pit I’d slipped into that morning and stayed in until Elliot had finally kicked me awake.
"Jesus Christ, boy!" he’d shouted. "Wake up!"
Foam in the dog’s mouth, the wagon collapsing with the dog’s head still caught in the spokes . . .
Polaski hit the switch in his lap. The digger choked in mid- wail and spun down, muttering and spitting and grumbling in its disappointment. The armor on its haunches clattered, then with a hiss and a crump as the armature locked up, the machine was quiet and Polaski and I were left alone with the flies and the sun.
On the blackened ruin of the island across the straits, gullies glowed red and ragged pits steamed along the waterline. I struggled to my feet and climbed the hillside to sit next to Polaski.
"So aside from target practice, Polaski, how come you dragged me out here?"
He squinted at the pitted island with one eye closed, judging his work.
"We have to take test shots once the surface warms up." He squinted with the other eye.
"It’s warm," I said. Polaski had asked Bolton to have me assigned to him, but I didn’t want to be there.
"Another two hours," he said.
"Christ." I lay back and watched the clouds piling up to the north, wondering what possible use the military could have for such a little island. Polaski lay back, too, then began lobbing rocks up over his head. He was trying for the clang when they hit the digger, but most of them thumped into the hillside and came skittering back down past us. I couldn’t see them after they left his hand, so after waiting for the clang I had to wait again to see if one would smack into me on the way down. Each time one found its target I thought he was going to stop, and when he didn’t I wanted to snatch the rocks up and throw them back at him . . .
Don’t. I sat up and looked at the ocean. There was another scene from Piedras Negras that came back sometimes, more often than I liked. Running from the stinging sand that blew across the desert, into the heat of our tiny house with its iron roof. Running toward my father where he sat at the table with his hand gripped around his glass, staring at the tabletop and not moving. My mother at the basin, her head turning with the warning in her eyes: Don’t. That’s what I remembered—her dark eyes turning toward me and their warning: Don’t.
I let out my breath and ran a hand through my hair, then turned to look along the flank of the hill. Polaski was watching me.
"Pretty little thing," he said, "isn’t she?"
The image of Mexico faded. "You stay away from Chan."
"Really? I was thinking maybe I could diddle her for you, Torres, tell you what it was like."
"I said leave her alone."
"Sweet on Miss Chan, are we?"
When I didn’t answer he picked up a rock and pitched it carefully down the hill.
"Manufactured Intelligence," he said. "Man, those MI fucks have got it made. Jobs when they get out . . ." He reached for a bigger rock. "Don’t go crapping out on me again, Torres."
"I didn’t crap out on you. You fucked up and the Army busted us."
He toyed with the rock. "So what do you see in her, anyway?"
"Someone who’s still all right, Polaski. Someone whose insides haven’t been taken out and pissed all over like the rest of us."
"Nice," he said. "Nicely said. So what’s she see in you?"
I didn’t answer.
"Come on, Torres, I’ve seen the way she looks at you all the fucking time. What’s she see in you?"
"I don’t know. Come on, Polaski, what did you drag me out here for?"
"Because I need you, all right? I need your brains. Is that what you want to hear?"
"For what?" I said.
He didn’t answer.
He rummaged in his pack. "You tell me."
"Forget it, Polaski. All I want any more is out."
He got his radio into his hand and called Tyrone Elliot; he’d seen Elliot’s heli cop ter beating its way toward us across the ocean, just above the waves.
"Yes, boss," said Elliot.
"Make a detour, Elliot. Get Torres’ ass out of here. He needs something to do."
"Yes, sir, Herr Feld Marschall, sir. Tell him we’ll snap his little wetback ass off the ridge, sir." The radio shut off with a squeal.
"Get out of here," said Polaski. The helicopter changed course and headed toward us. "Go back where you came from, maybe."
I stood up. "So what about you, Polaski? Where did you come from?"
He was sitting a few yards away from me, facing down the hill, and now he put the radio down carefully between his feet. His movements were slow, calm. He looked down at the radio, then stayed that way, his head down, the muscles working in his jaw.
It was what I’d expected. The only other time I’d asked him about himself was at the school, after we met, when I asked him if he had family, and his reaction was the same. His face lost expression and his eyes narrowed, and he didn’t look at me or speak. He just walked away. When he returned three days later our relationship had changed: There were things that belonged in it, and things that didn’t.
I left Polaski stewing on the hillside and slogged up past the digger toward the ridge, while I scratched at my bites and thought back to when I met him.
I’d been in the U.S. two years when the Army picked me up and selected me out for Tech- War School. Until then I’d been working the reforestations in the summer and trying to stay warm in the winter, asking at doors for books and food and huddling under blankets at night to read them. I walked the streets during the day and tried to sound Anglo and think Anglo, trying to get out of the trap. In cities filled with poor I was the poorest, a wetback off the Gulf boats that snuck around the border wire, and I knew my only chance for a job was English and machines.
Then without warning I was in the Army. Polaski appeared a few days later, as though out of nowhere. Streetwise and confident, quick on familiar ground and sly when out of his depth. He picked me out for my skill with the books, then over the weeks grew prickly and watchful as though mindful of losing a new possession. The pointed guns began, the half- serious threats, always in private.
The pounding of Elliot’s helicopter brought me back to the present. It kicked up a trail of fine sand along the ridge, then threw up a biting cloud as it reared above me. A black arm reached down from the after door and heaved me in, and Tyrone Elliot’s equally black face appeared as he snapped a tether onto my belt. I grabbed at it just as the helicopter spun and plunged down the far side of the ridge. Elliot grinned.
"Getting on Polaski’s nerves, huh?"
"Nothing gets on Polaski’s nerves, Tyrone." The cabin was packed with soldiers from Elliot’s platoon, including Specialist Ellen Tanaka, a tiny woman almost inseparable from him and currently clinging to the back of his belt as she peered out from the open door.
"Who’s Bolton kissing up to to get all this air time?" I said. "Airmobile kills quicker than giving up fuel."
"Oh, this ain’t Bolton. This here’s straight from Battalion, and it’s sure enough major business. Mighty peculiar, too."
"Well, what we’re doing here, see, is searching for civvies and yanking ’em up off the island, then hauling their asses back so the Army can see if we got the fellow they’re looking for. And we gotta jerk ’em out real quick like, so not one whisper of nothing gets off the island."
"Not one whisper of what?"
"You’re asking a man who don’t know, friend. I just work here, if you know what I mean." He flashed another grin. "But I do hear that in thirty-six hours a whole lot of this here island ain’t gonna be here no more."
With that he turned and shouted at the pi lot. The helicopter reared up above the beach with its nose toward the trees, kicking up sand. Elliot shouted into the cabin.
"DeLauder! Your sector! Call in for pickups—go!" Tess DeLauder and two others fought their way forward and dropped from the swaying machine, rifles smacking against the deck.
"They need professional grunts to do this kind of work, Tyrone."
"No, sir. No one’s supposed to know that don’t have to."
"So why do we have to?" A wall of hot sand slammed in through the door as the helicopter spun.
"Lord almighty, boy! Because what ever screwed up thing’s happening to this island, it’s us that’s doing the screwing! Salvatore, you folks are next! Let’s go!"
We went on around the island and dropped the rest of the crews, then ended up over the shoreline less than a mile from where I’d left Polaski. Elliot was about to have the pi lot go around again when we saw roofs in the jungle and a satellite dish on the sand, tucked in against the tree line. He slapped the pi lot and pointed, and the three of us were dropped on the beach—Elliot, Ellen Tanaka, and me. The helicopter beat its way down the beach and off over the water, and the silence closed in with the droning of insects.
Tanaka nodded toward the tree line.
"What if there’re people in those houses?"
"Well, now," said Elliot, "I suppose that’s the whole point. Torres, move it back along there and cut the leads to that dish, before someone starts telling someone else there’s choppers fooling around out here. Then let’s go on back in and see who it is might be doing the telling."
"Tyrone," I said. "You don’t move islands in thirty- six hours."
His eyes widened in mock surprise.
"Why son, we ain’t going to move nothing in thirty- six hours. We’re going to move it in five minutes. And we’re going to do it sitting right on top of it, too!"
"We’re going to blow this island while we’re on it?"
"Yes, indeed! You’re gonna need faith, boy, faith."
"Why are we blowing it, Tyrone?"
He shrugged. "Shoot, Torres, details like that they ain’t telling us. Now get going."
I sawed through the cable leading from the dish into the underbrush. It was a small commercial device and nothing military, so we were probably dealing with civilian recluses or sportsmen. We were so close to the equator that the dish was pointed only slightly north, but it was pointing a fair bit east, probably at one of California’s big commercial machines. Someone was using it to listen to the radio and order his milk and eggs.
Elliot and Tanaka had headed straight into the trees, and I cut into the jungle to meet them. I was struck by how quiet it was. No birds or crickets, no scurrying among the trees. Only the snapping of twigs and the crackle of dry leaves under my feet. The jungle was thin and brittle, close to burning. And it stank; down at the waterline, rotting fish lay half out of the water.
"Okey- doke," said Elliot beside me, "let’s walk real quiet, like." We pushed in through the underbrush until a bungalow appeared through the trees. Beyond it a rutted track climbed up to the dirt road, after which the hillside continued up to the island’s ridge. The tangle of jungle followed the slope up a way, then petered out into rock and shale. The door to the bungalow was open, and Elliot motioned me in.
I peered into the gloom. It was empty, stripped of furniture, covered with dust.
"I don’t think we’re going to find anyone," I said when I came back. "This place is too crummy for air-dropped supplies, and there’s not much of a town or boat dock anywhere close."
"Yeah. Maybe we got us a long- time- gone nut case retreat or something."
"Tyrone," said Tanaka, "that was a pretty new McAllister dish on the beach."
"Yeah, true. Okay, here’s another one." Tanaka and I waited among the trees while Elliot pushed open the door.
I took the third bungalow. Its door was open like the others. I stepped onto the porch to look, but it was too dark to see in. Yet from the doorway came the steady purring of ventilating fans, and a current of warm air with an odd, sweet smell in it. I held up a hand for Elliot and Tanaka to wait, then stepped in.
There was the luster of wooden floors and off to the side, a little up from the floor, tiny equipment lights. The familiar green lights of MI cabinets. On the wall behind them hung charts and drawings, while papers and books lay scattered on the tables. By the door stood a terminal with a cable hanging from it, most likely to the severed antenna on the beach.
At the far end of the room, a man sat on a straight chair turned slightly away from me, at a table with books and a glowing screen. Small and elderly, he had the dusty yellow skin and fine features of the Vietnamese. He wore a rumpled black shirt and a soiled shawl over his shoulders. Limp, grey strands of hair clung to his scalp.
A keyboard was pushed to one side, while instead he was using fast- typing gloves clamped to the table. The arms disappearing into them were thin, and the tendons stood out clearly even in the poor light. A worn blanket hung across his legs, pulled up around his waist, while a bamboo cane hung from the back of his chair. He looked fragile, barely alive. A smoking pipe lay next to the screen, made from bone and brass. Tinny Asian pop music came from the back room.
He was leaning forward with a kind of stiff intensity, the gloves shaking so hard that he had to be working very fast, although several times he gave an abrupt sigh and glanced toward the back.
His head whipped around, and in the same movement he seemed almost to lunge toward the screen. But his hands were caught in the gloves, and after that one, convulsive movement he remained frozen in that odd position, his eyes locked on mine. There was something he didn’t want me to see, and from the expression that finally came over him after sitting there trapped by his own gloves for a minute, he knew that he himself had given this away. Had it really been that long since anyone had come to his door, since anyone had driven down this road, walked up this beach? His eyes finally lost focus and drifted to the floor. The tension went out of his shoulders and he slumped back into his chair, seemingly defeated by the mere appearance of an American soldier at his door. It was a strange performance in every way.
Elliot put a hand on my shoulder.
"We gotta go, Torres." He squinted into the room, then craned his neck further into the shadows. "The fuck?" He took another step in and looked around, then stepped back to the door in confusion.
"You’re shitting me," he said at last. "That’s him, ain’t it? The one we’re supposed to be rounding up? I thought this was all bullshit."
But I’d already seen the titles on the books.
"It’s not biologicals, Tyrone."
He hesitated, toying with the flap on his holster. "Listen, Torres," he said finally. "Battalion’s screaming for my ass. We gotta do this and get out."
"Go away, Tyrone."
He stared at me. "Come on, Torres, get his ass out of here. What do you mean, ‘go away?’ You know this place is getting trashed tomorrow."
"I’ll take care of it, Tyrone. I’ll get out with Polaski."
Elliot ran the back of his hand across his mouth, looked uncertainly out through the open door, stared around the room one more time, then frowned at me as though he didn’t recognize me.
"Fine, Torres, fine. I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, but fine, I ain’t been here. But you watch yourself, boy."
Then he was gone, and a minute later the helicopter pounded away overhead. Inside the bungalow, the man still hadn’t moved.
I walked along the tables and glanced again at the books. They were English- language texts in disciplines I scarcely understood, but whose significance I knew very well.
None of the machines along the near side of the room, idling in their racks or cluttered on top of the tables, appeared to be connected to the outside world, or to the machine the man had in front of him.
Next to the charts on the wall he’d pinned a clump of photographs and articles. He was in some of the photographs himself, standing next to Westerners in what looked like academic settings. One photograph of him alone was partway down an article entitled DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY DISMISSES SCIENTIST’S CLAIMS OF CHEAP POWER.
I looked at the title for several minutes. I scarcely wanted to think what it implied. If the man had really found such a thing, it was worth any amount of money—yet according to the article, he hadn’t. So why had he clipped it and saved it?
I read the rest of the articles, keeping one eye on the man all the while. And as I read them, a mixture of anticipation and fear began to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Could it really be that no one had ever put all the pieces together?
On the other hand, maybe someone had. The military. Maybe their story about the missing researcher wasn’t all fabrication. Maybe the military had indeed put the pieces together, and had gotten to the man first. Then killed the story, courtesy of the Department of Energy.
And if it was true, and he’d then gotten away from them, even to this strange, scarcely settled island cleverly in the shadow of the equatorial Pacific war zone itself, he wouldn’t really have been surprised to find the Army at his door.
Which makes it easier. I walked around behind his chair to the back room, and he turned his head to follow. What was I going to do, though?
Or did I already know?
"Who’s here with you?" I said. He continued to watch me, but didn’t answer.
The back room was smaller, with its own door to the outside, half open. On the floor were a sleeping mat and some personal items, including a battered radio playing the music and some faded girls’ clothing.
I walked back to the table and leaned down to look at his screen. His eyes left mine to watch as I pulled the keyboard toward me, and his mouth opened with a hoarse sound of protest. His breath was strong with the half- sweet smell of opium.
On the screen were mathematical series that meant little to me, so I reached for a key to flip through the pages of the document he was working on, finding the operating system and the editor he was using unfamiliar. I glanced at the corner of the screen to try and find a page count, then stopped when I saw something else.
Next to the page count was the machine’s free memory count. But what should have been a few hundred billion—a few hundred gigabytes, maybe terabytes—was instead shown exponentially in a way I’d never seen before.
1.97 × 1015. Two times ten to the fifteenth.
Not hundreds of billions. Not trillions. Two quadrillion—a thousand times the memory of any workstation I’d ever worked on. And I’d worked on the best. The man’s eyes met mine.
Without touching the keyboard I walked to the back of the table, around to the computer cabinet itself. To one side of it, a twenty- centimeter section of the power cord had been stripped of its insulation, and the three copper conductors inside it carefully strung between two small pedestals in plain view on the table, as though between tiny telephone poles. Other than that there were only old- fashioned, transparent fibers leading to the gloves and keyboard and screen, also in plain view—no wireless antennas—and nothing else. Nothing. Everything the man had was inside that one machine. He might have been mirroring his data among multiple memory stores inside the box to keep it safe, but it wasn’t leaving the machine. He had surrounded his computer with an air-gap and shielding, lest anyone hack his way in, intercept its signals, or add a tracer wire when he wasn’t there.
I unfastened the clips and drew off the heavily shielded cover. The man said something and pulled himself out of his chair, but then slumped back down, quickly out of breath.
In the center of the machine were two oblong, dull silver shapes side by side, about six inches long and two wide. They bore Department of Defense asset tags. I’d heard rumors about such blocks, but I’d never seen any. They were petabyte memory blocks, one quadrillion bytes each, two to the fiftieth power, all of it static, immune to accidental loss. The document the man was writing couldn’t have needed a fraction of that memory, but what ever he was writing about must have. It was an amount of memory used to solve the mysterious equations of chaos, or to simulate the interactions of ge ne tics or particle physics. The blocks would have cost millions each.
Blood was pounding in my ears as I walked back to the screen and began scrolling through the pages. Many of them seemed to deal with the rotation of super-symmetrical particles, the eerie fringe of quantum physics that had caught my attention in the book titles.
Somewhat more familiar engineering work followed. One page was titled SUMMARY DATA: OUTPUT IMPEDANCE. It dealt with the production of electrical power, and the numbers were very low. He was dealing with something that put out a tremendous amount of power, like a power plant generator.
Much farther down, a section was titled CRITICAL THERMAL THRESHOLDS AND WORKABLE MASS, and there, once I understood it, I stopped. It wasn’t a generator at all, but something that weighed only a few kilograms. The size of a car battery. It had to be some kind of pulsing device, then, because anything so small could only put out that kind of power for a few thousandths of a second.
The man was staring into his screen now along with me, at the same time tamping down his pipe absently with a finger.
The last page was titled OBSERVED SUSTAINABILITY, and had only a few sentences. But I stared at the words in those sentences for a long time. Over and over I looked at them, not believing.
Decades. Not thousandths of a second, but decades. The man was looking directly at me now, his face an awful conflict of what I took to be both pride and pain.
I walked away, reeling. A device like the one spelled out in those blocks would give the world the kind of power people were literally dying for. Was it really possible?
"Observed," it said. Not theoretical. Observed. A virtual observation in the blocks? Still, it would have been enough. Power—and with it, freedom.
Iwas standing next to the computer’s cabinet when I looked up again sometime later, facing the man across the table. The evening had left the room gloomy and dim, his face lit only by the screen. He’d lit his pipe when I’d first walked away, and his head was wreathed now in amber smoke that drifted through the glow between us, obscuring his features.
How long had I been pacing? Back and forth I’d gone past the clippings on the wall, past the now- darkened doorway, past the smoke and the keyboard, one eye always on the man and his hands, on the computer laid bare, on the silver blocks lying exposed in its middle like a beating double heart in an open chest. How many times had I remembered my father’s hands clutching his chipped and dirty glass, and how many times had I imagined, as on every other day of my life, an engine of bone- crushing power hurling me upward and away from it all? How many times had I wondered where this invention had really come from, only to tell myself that it surely wasn’t from this one, wretched man, that he himself, hidden away here with what ever guilty secret it was, could not possibly have had any intention of sharing it with the rest of a world so desperately in need.
My hand rested on one of the blocks. I ran my thumb down one side of it and my fingers down the other, feeling for the flange on the bottom. Don’t. There was a throbbing in my ears, a roaring sound. Don’t speak. The man sat in his smoky world of half- light and watched my hand. The block slid upward in its socket.
Don’t ask. A pair of dark eyes flashing their warning. Don’t want. I slipped the first block into my trousers pocket. The cloth lining of the pocket tore—the block was much heavier than I’d expected. The second block slid loose from its case. The man became agitated for a moment and pent up frustration seemed to pull at his features, but the opium soon took back its hold and left in its place only the moist, unfocused eyes, leaden already with resignation and the torpor of the drug. The block slipped free and the screen blinked out, leaving only a shadow in the gloom where he had sat, a memory fading away already into the night.
I don’t remember finding my way back to Polaski’s and my little two- man camp that night, but I do remember walking along the hillside above the jungle, smelling the hot air and the dust, and thinking I could hear someone playing a flute far off in the distance. The tune was familiar, but difficult to hear.
By the time I reached camp, though, the music was gone. Polaski was gone, too, leaving me just a sleeping bag and a packet of food.
I lay down on the bag and looked up into night, thinking that maybe my future lay out in the darkness, after all. A future bought with a single, quick, mean- spirited theft.
Just before falling asleep I remember thinking it would be good to hear the flute again. It remained quiet, though, and I reached down for the touch of the blocks instead.
I dreamed that night about a wolf. It walked toward me across a black planet at night, the color of ashes, its face smooth. And it had no eyes.
Excerpted from A Grey Moon Over China by Thomas A. Day.
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas A. Day.
Published in May 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.