Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Kids In Town

published in Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, IGMS #58

The old pickup truck bounced along the dirt road.

It shook and juddered, parts against parts, as Mom bucketed along.  Mom always drove faster than Dad.  She drove a lot faster than Dad.  Behind the truck, a cloud of dust rose from the road like blood from a wound.

Once, Enoch had asked her if it was safe to go so fast, if the truck might break, and she had just laughed. She had a bright laugh, like silver bells.

"Knock," she had said, as his teeth had rattled in his head.  "This old truck is built to last.  They used to make 'em tough, tough for these roads, they really did."  She'd turned, flashed him a quick look with her dark brown eyes.  "And nobody tells me how to drive."  The eyes narrowed, a dark beam, an ultraviolet laser, framed by the wild wiry thundercloud of her hair.  "Nobody.  Not even my little Knock."

So he didn't, didn't ever do that again.  Today he looked out the backseat window, the brisk air of a fall morning vaulting in through open windows, sharp against his skin.  It was a little too cool, but he did not say so.

They were going to town, and going to the store.  Enoch did not really like going to the store, but Mom wasn't one to ever give him a choice in the matter.  They were done with school for the day.  He'd read his texts, watched two edvids on the old player, and done his problems.  He'd watched the ants for a while, nosing around in their noodly way, and drawn the pictures that showed how the colony had grown.  Then they'd said their closing contemplations, and Mom had told him he could go out to play in the yard for an hour.

He'd gone out, and Krom had come bounding up, all doggity licks and bright eagerness.   There was a ball, one of dozens all over the yard, and Krom had gone to get it, holding it delicately in his massive jaws.  

Play with me, his eyes said, smart and sharp set into his huge watermelon head.  So of course they played, and ran, ran until the breath was out of the both of them.

Enoch loved Krom.  Krom was his best friend, and anyway, there was nobody else to play with.  There had never been anybody else to play with.

There had been kids once, back when Becky and Zack and Jake were little.  They'd lived down the road, down in the circle of houses where the Davidsons and the Becketts and the Lees lived all together.  Before she left, Becky told him they used to all play together, to run like a wild tribe through the woods on a Sunday after meeting.  But all those families had come here when Mom and Dad had come here, and now they were old, and their kids had all grown up.

Even Becky was gone, Becky, who'd been the youngest before Enoch showed up.  "Our last surprise," Mom would call him sometimes.  He liked that, a little, but he didn't like it, too.  He felt like a present brought by a guest who has missed the party.  Becky was eleven when he was just born.  And now he was seven, and she was gone.  All the other kids were gone.  All except him.

But Krom was there, and they romped and played in the yard and in the woods.  They talked without words.  They got crusty with mud and got bitten by bugs and stank like boys and dogs should stink.

He smiled as he thought of Krom's big dumb ol' head, and as he smiled there was a whir, and the chill against his skin faded.  Mom rolled up the windows.  Her hair, windblown, settled down like a tangle of yarn on her shoulders.  It caught the sun as they turned left at the tee-bone.  It shone, moon-silver and a warm honey brown.  Mom was still so pretty.

They'd reached the bottom of the valley, and were on the big road to town, paved flat and straight.  The big tires of the pickup sang loud, and Enoch hummed along with them, harmonizing softly so that only he could hear.  The song hummed in his head, a quiet song of his own making.

Town was close now, as was the store.  He didn't like going to the store.  It was boring.

He had told Mom that, last time and the time before that and the time before that.  "You just have to help me, Knock.  You're my only little helper, you know that."  He had said he did.

It was boring, the store, because there was nothing he could see.  He remembered the first time he had gone there, and he'd been excited at first.  He was old enough to go to the store!  He thought it might be interesting.

It wasn't.  It was very, very big, big to the point of being huge, like a hundred houses all lumped together, wrapped about in a black stone field for the trucks and drones and utevees.  It was very full of things, and very bright.

But there was nothing to see.  Just bags and boxes, all the same, all plain white with nothing on them except those strange little squiggles at the corners.  There were no signs.  There were no words.  There were no pictures.  Just whiteness on whiteness, as stark as a field after snowfall.

If he wore a band, it would be different.  Dad had a band, an older one, that he wore when he went to the city to work.  The city was far, far away, farther than the town.  When Dad got home, he wasn't wearing the band.  You could still see the mark of it on his temples.  He took it off, the moment he left his work, whatever that was.  Dad had explained his work, once, and it didn't make any sense to Enoch.  Dad's work had seemed kind of like it wasn't a real thing, and he said so.

Dad laughed, and rustled his hand through Enoch's hair.  "Oh, Knock," he'd said.  "You're right.  It isn't.   You and Mom and Krom, and the gardens, and the woods?  You're real.  This is real.  That's why we live out here, remember?  So we can be real."

If you had a band like Dad's, or a better one, you could see the store the way the townies saw the store.  Mom had showed him, on the thick old screener she carried in her bag so she could tell what was where in the store.   It danced alive with colors, every box in motion.   Cartoon characters like from the edvids danced on the surfaces of the boxes, and moved like watercolor phantasms through the aisles, pointing, laughing, leaping.  It was a wild romp, bright and dizzying.

From the tinny old speaker on the screener, they called out her name,  seemed to know her, seemed to know who she was.

If you looked through Mom's screener, that's what you saw and heard.  But it was all just silent white sameness if you didn't.

Townies would pass them, muttering to themselves like ghosts, dressed in monochrome.   Their carts would follow, softly.  In their ears, you could hear the romp, as the store called out their name and sang to them.  From the tiny projectors that sat at the tips of the band antennae, a thousand images poured back into townie retinas, painting over the canvas of nothing with a thousand living pictures.

The stocking drones would be there.  They'd whisper around on electric motors, replacing featureless containers with other featureless containers.  And the carts?  They'd follow you, silent as a stalking cat, their rubber treads softly squeaking against the tile as you filled them.

Enoch didn't like the store.  It was creepy, like it was alive but not alive.

But he had to help, because that was what Mom wanted.

They pulled in, now, parking a distance off, way at the far end of the lot.  It was mid-day, when Mom always went, and there weren't many other vehicles in the lot.  But Mom liked to be a distance away.  "Better for us to walk," she always said.  "Keeps us healthy."

She killed the engine, and Enoch unbuckled and popped open the door.  He slid down, down the long way to the pavement, then circled around the truck to where Mom stood, fiddling with her screener.  She hated the screener, hated it.  It was old, and it barely worked any more, but Enoch knew that wasn't why she hated it.

Dad had offered to get her a band, for her birthday.  He had brought it up one dinner, after she had told him of another problem her screener was having.  "Just a simple one, and only for going into town.  I can filter and encrypt it, shut down the metadata inputs.  I don't know if I can kludge that old thing much longer.  It just can't handle most of the new retina-specific protocols.  I mean, I know you don't"

Mom was looking right at him.  With that look.  "I'm still a human woman, Doug," Mom had said.  "I'm still a human being."

And then Dad had stopped talking, because Dad was not stupid.

As Mom muttered, Enoch looked across the street.  There, about thirty meters away, the playground.  There it was, right where it always was.

It was old, near what had been a school, before all the schools closed.  Behind a collapsed wire fence, the plastic and metal towers and slides, swings and wobbly bridges were all faded in the sun, but they still rose up with their invitation.  The paint was flaking, and here and there, there were rust spots like spattered mud.  It was always quiet.  There were never any other children.  They were in the Centers, Mom said, although he didn't know exactly what that meant.

He wanted to play on it.  But he hadn't asked, because he was there to help.

Today, though, was cool and alive, and the chill in the air made his body want to run and climb.  He edged up to his mother, muttering as she restarted the frozen, balking screener.

He asked, quietly, politely, if he could go play in the playground.  And then when she came out, he would do the loading.   Could he please?  He'd never done it before.

Mom stopped her muddling, and looked at him.  It was not the scary Mom look.   It was deep and soft, and she let out a sighing breath.  "You really never have, have you?"  She let out a tight little breath.

"Sure.  Just come to help once I'm done.  And watch yourself.  That's pretty old now."

He said he would be careful, and then--checking carefully for passing transdrones, scampered across the street.  He found a place to pass through the fence, and there it was.  He clambered up a ladder, then crossed a bridge.  The next bridge was a plastic tunnel, and inside it was a nasty mess of cold wetness and decomposing leaves.  It smelled.  It stank.

On the far side, a tower.  He must cross the moat to get to the tower!  The tower of the Dark Lord, echoed a book from his memory, and he was in an imaginary battle.

He scrambled through it, feeling the chill of the shadowy water like a shock on his knees, soaking his pants, bracelets of wet stench on his cuffs.

Didn't matter.  Wet was just water, and smell was just smell.

At the far end of the tunnel, he clambered up a small ladder to a platform, the very top of the tower.  There, he could see out across the field.  It was unmowed, and the grass was dry and faded.  By the old school, a patch of asphalt, and an old parking lot.  The surface was cracked and broken, and grass pushed through the cracks.

As he watched, he could see a great battle playing across the field.  He was King Knock, the noble ruler of a beleaguered land in a desperate battle against the endless army of the Dark Lord.  He shouted instructions to his troops, rallying them, redirecting them.  He cast spells from the great magic sword his father had given him.

The battle raged in his mind, and time drifted as he lost himself in his daydream of martial prowess.

A transdrone pulled into the old lot.  It was a large one, windowless, and scattered about with lenses.  The battle stopped, and Enoch watched it, curious, ducking down a little bit as if he was hiding.  There was no reason to hide, none, but he did anyway.  It pulled up, and stopped, the faint hum of its motors whining and then ceasing.

On the near side, a door swung open.

Out of the door came children.  Enoch looked more intently.  He never saw children.  Never.

First one, then another, then another, until a half-dozen milled about on the broken surface.  They were mostly the same age as Enoch, seven, eight, or nine.  A couple seemed older, and all of them were girls.  All were neatly, identically dressed, in featureless clothing.  All were wearing bands, cast in silver across their foreheads.  From the top of the transdrone, a compartment opened, and a handful of small autonomous quadrotors leapt into the air, whizzing upward, bearing their payload of sensors and cameras.

They must be from the Center, Enoch thought.  And he knew what the drones meant.  Mom told him about them once.  It meant their parents were watching them, from far away, through the glass eyes of the little fliers.  Or their teachers were watching them.  Someone always watching them.

Helicoptering, Mom had called it.

The children stopped for a moment, as if hearing something, then together moved over and formed up into a loose gaggle in front of the school.  They stood, still, and minutes passed.  They were clearly listening, listening to something.  Every few moments, they'd look one way or another, all on cue, as if hearing the same instruction.  Which they were.

Then, suddenly, they broke up, on cue, and gathered in a circle on the remains of an old basketball court.  There was nodding, and they were speaking to each other, high insistent voices, one voice and then another.

Enoch clambered down the ladder on the side of the play tower, and, curious, moved a little closer.  But not too close.

Suddenly, one of the children made a movement, like throwing a ball or a dart or a knife.  Another child ducked, and gave a shout, and the group scattered about wildly.  They dodged and tossed, casting their arms at one another, forming up and reforming.  It had a rhythm to it, a pattern like a dance, but it changed so often it became hard to see.

What were they playing?  Enoch couldn't tell.  He'd never seen this game.  He couldn't really see this game, he knew.  It wasn't the kind of game you could play if you were unbanded.

Suddenly, one of the girls threw the imaginary object up, and they watched it rise, higher and higher.  She pointed up to the sky, and they all shrieked as one--not frightened, but pretending.  They began to dance in a circle, and some of them made movements like casting spears or darts upwards, as if a creature was sweeping down from the sky towards them.  Below the spot in the sky where the girls were staring in mock terror, in the center of the circle, a tall girl now stood.  She cried out, and roared, and rushed at the surrounding circle.  Wherever she ran, the circle of girls opened before her, the dance becoming like an unfolding flower, then closing again as she passed through.

The tall girl ran sternly towards Enoch and the climbing towers, inscribing an arc across the field, preparing to swoop back again towards the circle of dancers.   She moved easily, gracefully, swiftly.  She had nearly reached him when she turned and stopped.  She looked right at him.

She was eleven or twelve, and had a fine-featured face, the color of honey, cheeks slightly flushed from the running and the play-dance.  On her forehead, the silver band, studded with tiny specks of glass, a baker's dozen lenses like a spider's eyes.  In the center of her forehead and above her eyes, the band projectors sparkled like stars, and their starlight twinkled in her eyes.

She took a half-step back, a confused look on her face.  She focused, like Dad when he tried to read without his glasses.  She was trying to see him, peering at him like he rested in shadow, like his face was missing pieces.

"SenTeekoh Brnsalsl.  Hashwho?" she said, three quick words, in a voice as quick and high as a bird.  She moved slowly to his left, circling, eyes still watching him.  There was a hum in her ears, and a faint redness colored the sparkling in her eyes.  "SenTeekoh Brnsalsl.  Hashwho," she said, again, a look of surprise growing on her face as the red sparkles returned.

"I'm Enoch," said Enoch, looking up at her.  He thumped his chest with a closed fist, leaving muddy stains on the front of his shirt.  "Enoch."  He thumped again. "What's your name?"

She made a guttural noise, deep in the back of her throat, and two of the spider's eyes on her band were suddenly brilliant with light.   "Yootoobeh Wreck," she said.  "Atsenterseven Hashtranger."  She stepped in, and forward.  "Ha Shnoo kid," she added, with a little smile.

All of the other children had stopped playing, and were looking over, and began to filter across the broken court towards Enoch and the tall girl.  There was a whirring in the air, a rushing, continuous exhalation.  Two of the four quads dropped down, hanging in the air just a few meters above them.

Enoch stood, and puffed himself up a little.  He looked the girl hard in the eye, and thumped his chest a third time.  "Enoch," he said, insistently.  Then, slowly,  "I'm.  Enoch."

There was a cluster of kids, now, standing behind the tall girl.  They grunted and subvocalized, and their bands lit up, like lights on a Christmas tree, dozens of tiny spotlights.

The girl stepped forward again, almost close enough to touch.  "Eeenik," she said.  Then, she touched her own chest, lightly, with a delicate hand.  "Atjanelledanseven."

He pointed to her.  "Atjan..Elle..Danseven?"

She shook her head.  He didn't have it right.

"At," she said slowly.  "Janelle," she said again, tapping her chest.  "Dance," she said.  Then she twirled, slowly, gracefully, up on point like the ballerinas in that book Mom had from when she was a girl.  "Seven," and she made a wide open gesture that included all of the kids around her.

Her name was Janelle.  "Hi, Janelle," Enoch said.

"High...Ateenik," she said, and again that bright, pretty smile.

"Ateenick...Hashed Arkie," said a pale, slim girl behind Janelle.  She was smiling, too, but Enoch thought it wasn't a nice smile.

"AtsenterSeven Bitlee Grzaltzn Hashed Arkie," the other girl went on, and every band-antenna flickered in time as vid poured into a dozen eyes.

There was giggling around the group, and the girl made a harsh noise like a cough.  "Loh Loh Loh Loh Lohl."

Definitely not a nice laugh, thought Enoch.

Janelle turned to her, suddenly flushed.  "Hashed Arkie?"  She looked angry.  "AtsenterSeven Hashall Wayz BrightzBeebe Rightest."

"BrightzBeebe Rightest," echoed the other girls, sounding sheepish.

Janelle stepped towards the smaller girl, glowering, a full head taller.  "Sendadmin?  Ataylor Danseven?  Hashed Arkie sendadmin?"

The two nearest quad drones dropped down, their lights now trained on the pale girl.  All eyes were on her.

"Dileet dileet Attaylor Danseven Bitlee Grzaltzn Hashed Arkie," the girl stammered, looking a little alarmed.  "Dileet dileet."  She took a couple of steps back, face bright red, wilting under the gaze of the other children.

Janelle gave a satisfied sniff, and turned back to Enoch.  The drones thrummed back up to their holding pattern around the group.

"Hoowear, Ateenik, " she asked him.   Then, slower, "Hoo...wear."

He thought for a moment.  "Oh, right," Enoch said.  "Who.  Where.  I live out of town.  Up in the valley.  With my Mom and Dad and Krom."

Janelle's forehead wrinkled around the band, as she tried to concentrate on what he was saying.  "Inthuh Valee.  MomanDad.  And...Krom?  Krom?"

"Krom's my dog," said Enoch, matter of factly.  "He's a great dog, a shepherd mastiff mix.  Dad says he has a head like a watermelon.  Here, I got a picture."  He fished around in his front pocket, where he kept his knife, a compass, and a couple of printpics.

It was an old one, a bit crumpled, from when Krom was a puppy, all fuzz and giant paws.  He handed it to Janelle, who focused in on it.

"Squeee!" said Janelle, delighted.  "ReelPuppeeee!  Klik Klik Klik!  Instag Ram Puppee Hashkyoot AtsenterSeven!"   Her lights flashed three times, and there was flickering in every eye, and cooing and aaahing from the group.  Even the pale girl smiled, as she edged back into the thick of her friends.

Janelle handed the picture back.  "Tee Why. Hashkyoot, Ateenik."

"Yeah, he's bigger now.  Good dog, though."

Janelle nodded, and then turned to the other girls.  Something passed silently between them, and she turned back.

"Dans, Ateenik?  Ha..."  She paused, thought for a moment, composing her words.  "Elves."  She spoke the word slowly, carefully, and pointed to the group.  "And."  She paused.  "Dragon?"

She pointed to Enoch.  "Dragon?"

"Same game you were playing?" Enoch asked.  She nodded.  "I'm the dragon?"  She nodded again.

"OK," he said.  "I can do that."

"Raar," he said.

Janelle peered at him intently for a second.  "Locreff Ateenik," she said.  "Runstart Elvandrag Tensec, Dragref Ateenik."

The girls moved away, and began the dance again, Janelle in the circle.  She winked at him.

Suddenly, together, they all screamed.

Knock roared towards them, breathing dragonfire as he swept down from the sky, passing through them on giant leathery wings as they danced.

It was good to play with other kids once in a while.