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The Star Country
By Michael Cassutt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Michael Cassutt
All rights reserved.
People's Republic of Chicago, Sunday Night
Lisa Marquez had just finished unpacking when someone knocked at her door. "It's open!"
Doug Shapiro, one of the mission's second secretaries, put his head in. "Sorry to bother you, Doctor. Did you hear about the latest changes?"
"What changes?" She stuffed the last of her empty bags into the tiny hotel closet. "Hey, you don't have to stand in the hall. Come in."
"Thanks." Shapiro squeezed past, noting the view outside. "Nice. I see Special Assistants rate windows."
The Hilton looked down on an ancient park which lay bare and peaceful under a thin blanket of snow. In the distance, toward the lake, there was an ice rink upon which pairs of stolid, well-bundled Chicagoans glided in the pale sunset. It was so pretty that Lisa hardly noticed the barricades separating the hotel from the park.
"Nice for Chicago, you mean."
"Well, yeah." Shapiro smiled. He was twenty-eight, five years her junior, thin, quiet, and all but invisible until you knew him awhile. They had become friends of a sort in the last two months. "My grandfather got his head busted down there, you know."
"In People's Park? When was this—during the War?" Lisa had turned on the TV, quickly sampling the three official channels serving the People's Republic, to her regret. She left set on, however; while her own counterbugging devices were in place, a dose of good old white noise never hurt—in the unlikely case anyone happened to be listening in.
"Oh, long before the War. Last century, in fact, about 1970. There was a riot during a political convention, Nixon's or Reagan's someone like that. Grandpa got arrested and roughed up and thrown in jail, along with a couple of hundred other kids. I guess it was a pretty big deal. He used to talk about it like it was."
Lisa stepped up to the window, wishing for a contraband cigarette or, at very least, an illegal drink.—"So you come by your deviationist tendencies naturally. I have to say I'm shocked to think that a counterrevolutionary like you could reach a position of responsibility in the service of the Great States of Texas." They both laughed at that. "Changes in what, Douglas?"
"Oh, sorry: itinerary."
"Really?" She kept a casual expression and tone—she'd had lots of practice—but began to worry. "Getting out of Chicago a day early, something like that?"
"No such luck. There's been what can kindly be described as a hitch in the negotiations with the Californians."
"A major hitch?" She really wanted that cigarette now.
"I'd say so, They're canceling the whole L.A. conference"
Damn! "Does anybody know why?"
"No one talks to me, but I get the feeling it had to do with basic admission criteria and access. The Californians want more than the Africans are willing to give."
"Christ, Douglas, everybody wants his people to have first crack at the Hocq when they come to town. They were probably just bluffing anyway. The 'workers' paradise' here gave us a lot of trouble, too, but here we are."
"Tell that to Bannekker and his buddies—"
"—All I know is, we'll make the stop in Minneapolis as scheduled and then go home. No Denver, no L.A."
"Great." She did not have to fake a tone of annoyance. "Do the Hocq know yet?"
"The Governor was on her way up there a while ago."
"I hope they take this better than they usually take bad news."
"Yeah, it'd be tough to explain to the folks back home that we let the Governor get eaten by aliens from outer space."
Lisa couldn't help smiling. "Still, it's too bad. I was hoping to try surfing."
"You're originally from that area, aren't you?"
"I was born there, yeah."
"Well ... maybe next year," Shapiro said. "I'd better finish my appointed rounds."
"Thanks for giving me the news."
When she was alone again she had to fight a strong urge to throw some heavy object against the wall. As soon as that impotent anger subsided she allowed herself to get depressed. The whole plan depended on that rendezvous in Denver ... Could the two of them now escape across fifteen hundred miles of hostile countryside? What a horrible idea.
The phone rang. She knew who it would be.
Lisa was used to his voice by now, an accomplishment she would have thought impossible only a few months ago. Each member of the Hocq mission spoke English, of course—but with the assistance of voders that made them sound like terribly grammatical car crashes. Harrek was one of the more understandable ones, but listening to him still gave her a headache.
"I assume you've heard the news," she said.
"Yes," the alien rasped. "Very distressing."
Aware that they might be under surveillance, Lisa was forced into the ridiculous position of communicating with an extraterrestrial by means of an improvised code. "How are you feeling?" she asked, knowing that, physically, Harrek was fine "Are your greater knees still giving you trouble?"
"I still suffer," the alien replied.
Lisa could easily picture Harrek, hunched by the telephone in the penthouse several floors overhead, the room crammed with support equipment ... and three other Hocq, including Big Bad Boroz. "Has the ... uh, doctor given you any medication?"
"Not yet." There was a pause. "She wishes to continue the treatment."
Oh my God, he wants to go through with it! "is that even possible?"
"There is no choice."
Was he telling her that one of his sisters suspected? It was probably inevitable that their plan would leak. You couldn't keep a defection a secret forever—
"Maybe I can help you out. There's some special medication in cruiser three, down in the garage."
"I'll meet you there," Harrek said.
She took a deep breath and looked around the tacky hotel room. These were probably her final moments as a good citizen of Texas. "Ten minutes," she said.
"That will be satisfactory."
She hung up, wanting only to lie down and sleep, preferably for a week—and that was sure sign that she was terrified. Relax. The worst they can do is kill you! Then she tried to pack her clothes, think about money, worry about her career, wonder about her skill with the cruiser, all at the same time. Another sign of terror. Calm down, kid. One step at a time. Pack up the clothes, the essentials. Forget about money right now: you'll have to make do with what you've got in your purse, since Chicago is closed on a Sunday night and hustling a few hundred bucks from other members of the mission would only raise suspicions. The keys to cruiser three? Ask Shapiro.
She took one last glance out the window. It was completely dark now. The skaters were gone and even the lines seemed shorter in front of the distant shops.
Slinging a single bag over her shoulder, she hurried out.CHAPTER 2
Central States of America, Monday Morning
"You'd best slow down," Ben Clayton said. "The road's washed out right around this turn."
Jeremy tugged the reins to his left and the wagon rattled noisily, tilting to one side as its wheels slipped off the cracked pavement of the highway and bit into the rutted shoulder. The lone horse tossed her head in protest, but Jeremy urged her along with the leather.
"Ease up on her a bit," Ben told him. "She'll find her way. The town isn't going anywhere."
"Sorry. I've never driven on this kind of road before."
"It's just one of the old state highways—Iowa 56. Used to be as smooth as a baby's behind and it'd take you all the way from the Hill to downtown West Union in no time. That was a few years ago, of course." Ben blinked in the cool early-morning breeze and played with the ornate rings on his fingers. His hands were raw already. "I suppose I should have taken you on this drive before now."
"There are a lot of things we should have done before now," his son replied. "Why pick today to start worrying about it? Besides, you'd still have to come along. I don't know where to go, I don't know who to talk to, and I sure as hell don't know what I'm supposed to say."
Ben grunted. He had been driving down to West Union once every other month for the past fifteen years. He was the official trader for the people of Arrowsmith—as much as anything in the community was ever "official"—having inherited the job from Dan Aucheron, once the old man finally realized that it was time to let someone else run the risk of contamination in the wicked Outside world. Ben was a good choice for the job. Born in the community's second generation forty-five years ago—before the changing climate and economic collapse devasted the Outside and brought on the endless civil wars—he was loyal enough to be trusted and bright enough to know a bargain when he saw one.
And over the years he had hauled wagons full of hand-carved furniture and woolens, fat tomatoes and golden corn, moonshine and marijuana, whatever the community produced, into town to trade for items they could not make or scavenge themselves: copper tubing for the solar heating systems, and for the still; most kinds of medicine; some tools; plastic containers for food storage; kerosene; wire; material for the storage batteries (though none of that for a long time now); and rarest of all, news. It was all very well for the people of Arrowsmith to talk about living in complete harmony with the planet, using only renewable resources ... it was quite another matter to go back to the Stone Age.
But today the wagon was empty.
They'd gone through a long spell of bad luck. Fields that drowned in last spring's flood brought forth crops only to have them burn in the unusually hot August sun. The weather was a challenge for the huge corporate farms in the area. For fields that had endured over sixty years of haphazard "experimental" farming it was a disaster. Sickness—measles and flu, especially—paid them a visit with every change of season, and there had been that horrible bug some years back that was either cholera or (so they said down at Kelleher's) a Texan chemical weapon. All of that thinned their numbers, as did the occasional fires and drownings and accidents—the usual fatal everyday mishaps. And, in spite of what Dan said or believed, there was still a trickle of defections to the Outside.
You could go just so far without food, without hope—and there was little left of either. Their perfect, self-sufficient commune, the New Age dream of the 1970s—a little world without smog, freeways, the draft, or middle-class rules—had survived the collapse of the Outside world by about thirty years.
"Damn." He had spoken out loud, which apparently startled Jeremy, who took his eyes off the road for a second. "Watch out here," Ben said, reaching for the reins. "I told you—"
It was too late. One of the wheels got caught in a rut and began to slide toward the ditch, taking the whole wagon with it. Together Jeremy and Ben managed to head up the horse and keep the wagon from turning on its side, but now they were stuck. Both men climbed down from their seats and pushed, and after a few minutes the wagon pulled free.
"Let me rest a moment." Ben said. He was a sturdy man, but a diet of cornmeal left you with a chalky taste in your mouth, a chronic tightness in your bowels, and very little strength. And then there was that nagging pain deep in his chest.
Jeremy didn't seem too anxious to push on. He squatted against the rear wheel and unbuttoned his bright-colored coat. He was tall for a member of the community and a bit on the thin side. He came by his thinness naturally—his mother, Elizabeth, was still as slim as a cattail. His face had sharp features, notably a prominent nose that he shared with Ben, a broad forehead that made his eyes look deeper than they really were, and brown hair that curled down to his neck. His beard was nicely full, with the exception of a place on his right cheek where he'd been accidentally introduced to Ben's scythe when he was six. Ben still remembered the incident with horror, grateful to this day that he was in the habit of keeping all his tools well cleaned and oiled. Those precautions had probably saved Jeremy from tetanus. Was it then that he allowed himself to take a special interest in the boy? You weren't supposed to, even if you were a biological parent, since all the children of the community deserved equal attention. But Jeremy had been, by far, the brightest and most likable child in Hill House, and once Ben had gotten permanently involved with Elizabeth, the boy's mother, it was impossible to stay away and let others watch him and teach him.
Enough of that. Ben stood up. For autumn, in this land, it was a beautiful morning. Just up, the sun poked through the clouds and steamed the frost off the road. It wasn't uncomfortably cold and, up on a hill like this, heading toward West Union, you could see far up the wooded valley of the Turkey River to the almost endless fields beyond. It was a peaceful sight and it never failed to fill him with a sense of belonging. This was home.
He stretched and said, "Let's get back on the road."
Jeremy was looking at the sky. "I think I Hear something."
Before Ben could ask, from far behind them came a whistling that soon grew to a full-throated roar. The poor horse reared and tried to pull the wagon into the ditch again. Ben looked back toward Arrowsmith and saw a dark shape eclipse the sun. Then it screamed over them with a wind that blasted like a tornado.
Suddenly everything was quiet again.
In the distance, down the river valley, a silver bullet sped toward West Union, hugging the curving highway, hopping over the hills as if they were steps in a stairway, until it flew completely out of sight.
"What was that?" Jeremy demanded.
"I believed that's what they call a tricar," Ben told him. "It's sort of a motorized wagon that goes on the ground or through the air or on the water. Every now and then somebody down at Kelleher's mentions one." He felt puzzled. "I don't know what it was doing out here."
The boy was bringing the wagon around. He barely stopped long enough for Ben to climb aboard, then slapped the horse into a canter. Ben got ready to chew him out again, then caught sight of the new light in his son's eyes. For the first time in months, it seemed, Jeremy looked interested in being alive. Let him go.
The wagon rattled down the former Iowa 56 at a speed Ben charitably classed as one full notch below breakneck.CHAPTER 3
West Union, CSA, Monday Morning
The driving got easier the closer they came to West Union. It was all downhill, for one thing, and the highway also began to show signs of recent repair. Dirt roads branching off in both directions bore fresh tracks, and Ben and Jeremy passed half a dozen occupied houses—all of them, to Jeremy's vast disappointment, much smaller than those of Arrowsmith. But he halfway expected that. Even though in his whole life he had never traveled more than a day's walk from Hill House, he knew that West Union wasn't much, as Outside cities went. However, it would do for the moment, especially since the thrill of the tricar encounter had not worn off. He was anxious to see more.
"How many people live here?" he asked.
"A thousand or so," Ben said, "more or less. I got stuck down here on a Saturday night about six years ago, when they had the whole crew in from Martin Farms. You had to fight your way across the street. I think they might have gone as high as two thousand in population that night ... and a lot of them were drunk." He coughed and spat toward the ditch, which was now straight and lined with concrete. "Don't worry, you won't be seeing too many at all this early"
Ben slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "I thought you wanted to come along? See the big city?"
"I did." He was telling the truth—but that was when he had been safe at Hill House and surrounded by a few dozen people at most. "I just don't know what to expect, I guess."
"Oh, they're not all that different, Jeremy, people down here. You know better than to pay attention to what Dan says. Sure, they've got a few toys that we don't bother with and they're hooked into the world information net and they've got a city council that keeps you from parking your wagon in front of the stores, and they've got the Central States Alliance to run Martin Farms and send the troops out any time there's an outlaw scare—but mostly they just breathe and make babies and bitch about the weather. Just like you and me."
"I hope they eat like you and me."
"Well, we'll wait and see about that." Ben shifted in his seat and said, "Stop at this corner here, and if there's nothing coming, make a right."
Excerpted from The Star Country by Michael Cassutt. Copyright © 1986 Michael Cassutt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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