In a role reversal to Ideomancer’s September interview, Featured Author Greg van Eekhout answers a few questions from fellow writer Tim Pratt.
Tim Pratt: You’ve just taken the great leap into full-time writing, at least on a trial basis. Do you have any specific goals for the next six months, either artistically or practically? Or, to make it a bit less lofty: what are you planning to work on?
Greg van Eekhout: Well, primarily I hope not to turn into Elvis or Howard Hughes over the next several months. I basically have about a six-month window of opportunity in which I get to be a full-time writer, and at the end of it, I need to have a novel written and a handful of short stories. I’m a bit skittish about discussing the projects in much more detail than that, but I will say that the novel is a contemporary fantasy that’s been gnawing at me for a long time, and it’s got valkyries and zombies and big, scary dogs.
TP: There’s a lot of talk online, at conventions, and in magazines about various perceived movements in current SF — the New Space Opera, The New Weird, Interstitialism, and so on. Do you identify with any of these movements, or have any comments about such movements in general?
GvE: Back in the 70’s there was a line of Mattel action figures, Big Jim’s P.A.C.K. There was Warpath, who was a kind of scout or tracker guy; and Dr. Steel, a strongman with a steel hand; and The Whip, who was the weapons guy; and Big Jim himself, the brains of the outfit. I always thought that kind of categorization was a bit forced. Why couldn’t The Whip use Warpath’s stunner arrows? Why couldn’t Dr. Steel toss The Whip’s boomerangs? And why was Big Jim the only guy with a radio? What if he got separated from the rest of the P.A.C.K.? It was just a crazy way for men of action to organize themselves.
That’s kind of how I feel about these movements.
TP: Let’s hear a little about your writing habits. Any special places, personal rituals, habitual oddities, or strong preferences? Where and how do you do your best work?
GvE: Well, basically I spend $1.70 every time I write, because I like to write in cafés, and it’s no fun without a big-ass mug of strong black coffee. And by mug, I mean something made of ceramic with a handle. Something with some satisfying heft. None of these paper cups for me.
I get most of my writing done in the morning, which is really important for me. That way, no matter what else happens during the day — bad time at the office, traffic ticket, bee sting, a monkey steals my sack lunch — at least I started the day off doing what I love doing. There have been so many times when being able to think back on that little bit of space carved out for writing has gotten me through a bad day at work. Day Job crap could be flying all around me, and I’d close my eyes and remind myself that I started the day off writing, and that means the day was a success.
TP: Tell us a bit about your influences, literary and otherwise.
GvE: Wow, I’d love to say Borges and Coletrane, because I think that’d make me look classy and smart, but I’d be fibbing. In no particular order, some of the creative people who’ve most directly influenced my work would be Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Stephen King, Jim Henson, Bill Watterson, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, Rod Serling, and whoever was doing Mad Magazine when I was 8 or 9 years old. I think a screen adaptation of IT done with Muppets would absolutely kick ass.
TP: Do you ever attend writing workshops? Do you like working with other writers in that kind of setting, or do you prefer working in isolation?
GvE: I went to Viable Paradise in 1999, a week-long workshop held every year on Martha’s Vineyard and a great option for people who can’t take six weeks off to do a Clarion-type thing. And this past August I went to the Strange Horizons workshop at Rockaway Beach, Oregon. The key to a good workshop is proximity to the ocean, really. In both circumstances, I got helpful feedback on my submitted pieces, but even more valuable than that was the opportunity simply to hang out with other writers. There’s the stereotype of the writer as some twitchy, poorly socialized, unbathed misanthrope, but that doesn’t map to my experience. The writers I’ve met at workshops have been hilarious fun. Smart, interesting, warm and generous people.
Writers certainly can work in complete isolation if they wish, but I don’t know why anyone would want to when instead you can walk down a beach with half a dozen people who share your passion for Moleskine notebooks. So, yeah, I like workshops and hope to attend more of them. But I do admit I go to socialize as much as I do to get my work critiqued.
TP: You’ve written a number of well-received short stories, and you’ve mentioned a desire to write a novel soon — are there any other forms you’re interested in trying, or that you have tried? Poetry, comics, screenplays, opera librettos, Iron Chef slash fanfic, etc.?
GvE: Hey, who told you about my Iron Chef thing? That’s messed up, man.
Like many writers, I want to try my hand at everything. Comics in particular have been a lifelong love of mine, and I’d love to collaborate with a talented, like-minded artist some day. That said, I do have to face the fact that my talents are probably not suited to every medium. For a time I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I thought greeting cards might be a good outlet for me. I even met with a guy who owned a printing press and wanted to give Hallmark a run for its money. He took one look at my samples and said, “Okay, these are actually disturbing. Your stuff is actually creeping me out.” So, you know, I’m going to focus on short stories and novels for a while before branching out too far afield.
Darwin was seated on the sidewalk in front of his building, enveloped in stink. Green plastic bins stuffed with garbage stood to his left, blue plastic bins spilling over with recyclables to his right. He’d been sitting there for quite a while, thinking of absolutely nothing at all, when he chanced to look up and saw the woman who looked exactly like him. Exactly, right down to the slightly bulbous tip of her nose and the overlong, chubby earlobes. Darwin goggled. The woman was bent under a bursting backpack, was hauling a bulging shopping bag in each hand, and was paying him no attention, so he didn’t feel too bad about staring. He did, however, feel sick. The resemblance was perfect. Okay, except that she didn’t have a week or two’s worth of stubble on her cheeks, there was that. And she was pregnant. And a woman, of course.
Darwin cleared his throat, the immediately flinched. Idiot! What the hell had possessed him to do that? He certainly didn’t want the woman who looked exactly like him to turn her head and notice him.
She didn’t. She crossed the street and walked up the five or six concrete steps of the building directly across the way. Putting down her bags, she hooked a keychain out of her pocket, unlocked what seemed like three or four locks, and went inside.
“This your new veg-out spot?”
Darwin didn’t need to tilt his head. He know Raul, his roommate, was standing at the top of their building’s own steps, glaring down at him.
“Makes a change from the couch, huh?” Raul said.
Sometimes Raul agreed to be ignored, sometimes he didn’t. This, apparently, was one of his less amendable days. Darwin felt another small stir in his stomach, a fresh lick of queasy despair. He couldn’t deal with Raul now, he really couldn’t. Shoulda stayed in bed, he thought. Unable to sleep, he’d been gripped by a stray spasm of responsibility, and had leaped up to shovel some of the shit in his room into a couple of garbage bags and haul it out to the trash. Thought it might make him feel better. Yeah. There was almost as much crap in his room after he’d filled two bags than before he’d started. Uselsss, he thought. Futile. His small spurt of energy had drained away after the first trip. Too tired to go back inside, Darwin had sat down on the pavement, his back against the chilly cement-block wall.
He had seen the sun rise.
On the step above him, Raul uttered a sound of disgust. Probably at Darwin’s bare feet, or stained t-shirt, or the burgeoning gut spilling out from under it. Or simply at Darwin’s general condition. The envelope of stink he sat in wasn’t generated only by the trash bins on either side of him.
“Somebody’s moving in across the street,” he said.
“It speaks.” Raul clattered down the steps. Hard shoes, jacket, tie. Going to work. “Where?”
“That building.” Darwin pointed.
“That’s a warehouse, numbnuts. See the sign? Moving and Storage?”
Shrugging was too much effort. But she went inside with stuff, Darwin thought.
At that moment the woman who looked precisely like him opened the door of the building across the street and stepped outside, minus her shopping bags and backpack. Darwin felt a spark of something hot and spiteful. See. Told you. “Her,” he said, barely above a whisper.
“That woman.” Shut up, Darwin told himself. There was so no point in talking to Raul. Except that the woman, who was more clearly, more extremely, pregnant than he’d first thought, still bore a pore-by- pore resemblance to the face stuck on the front of his own wortheless head. “Look,” he said to Raul.
Raul looked, in between glances at his watch. “Take a shower, man. This shit is getting old.”
“Look,” Darwin repeated. “See anything?”
But Raul was already striding away, not looking back, not looking around, totally focused on whatever lay ahead of him, even if it was only the damn bus stop. Raul was oh so goal-oriented. He had his eyes on the prize. He was making something of himself, going somewhere with his life, heading straight to the top. Yeah, Darwin thought. In a couple of years, Raul was going straight from Gadget Palace salesclerk to Gadget Palace assistant manager.
Darwin looked up, and his heart began to pound. The pregnant woman with his face was standing over him, gazing down with a small frown of concern. Damn, she’d blindsided him, backtracked when he wasn’t looking, crossed the street at the other end of the block, and come up behind him. Suddenly Darwin was acute aware of his bare feet, and just how filthy they were.
“Are you all right?” she asked. The day was still cool, but her face bore a light sheen of sweat. Well, yeah, she was hauling around all that extra weight, wasn’t she. Her stomach was about as big as a beachball.
“Yeah,” Darwin mumbled.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I live here,” he added, jerking his head toward his building.
Darwin was having a lot of trouble meeting her eyes. It was easier to focus on her belly, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t, and he just looked at the sidewalk. He could feel her eyes on him, though. Her gaze felt like twin lasers scouring every millimeter of his skin.
“I live over there,” she said, waving at the building across the street.
“Thought it was a warehouse.” His face was hot. He hadn’t had a conversation with a living, breathing person in months, if you didn’t count Raul. And this was a living, breathing, female person. For a moment the fact that an actual woman was speaking to him, and rather nicely at that, was more astonishing than the fact of their facial resemblance.
Any second now, she was going to mention that resemblance.
She didn’t. She just smiled, said, “Well, I’ve got to get the rest of my stuff. Nice to meet you,” and walked off.
Darwin blinked. “Yeah,” he said, but she had already reached the end of the street before he managed to get the word out of his mouth.
A week later, the monster came.
Darwin had been sleeping on and off all day. What with the quilt he’d staple-gunned over the window in his room and the wobbly halogen lamp he kept on all the time, telling day from night was a constant challenge. When the roar woke him, he groaned, cursed, dragged the grungy sheet over his head, then yanked it down again and glanced at the miraculously still functioning Aqua Boy clock some dippy girl had given him once. 2:14. Morning, afternoon, he had no clue.
He was rubbing his eyes when a thud like a semi slamming over on its side rocked the building. Immediately car alarms wailed all up and down the street.
Earthquake? he thought, in disbelief.
He had forgotten the roar, but when it came again Darwin recognized it instantly, a sound like breathy tearing of metal, a scream ripped from a steel throat. That was the noise that had broken his sleep. The roar was so loud it momentarily drowned out the syncopated sirens of the dozen or so car alarms.
Darwin got out of bed. Fear and curiosity tugged him to the window.
Underneath the persistent wailing of the car alarms, Darwin heard a heavy, bass-in-the-bones thudding, slow but…angry. Something out there was pacing, seeking, something monstrously weighty and extremely pissed off.
Darwin yanked on the corner of the staple-gunned quilt. His hands were shaking and a big part of him was incredulous at what he was doing. Could not freaking believe it. You do not want to see what’s outside, this part of him told himself, and more importantly, you do not want whatever’s outside to see you.
A couple of the staples came away from the wall. Darwin pulled harder.
The quilt came away with a loud rip, a raspberry of cloth tearing. Fuck, Darwin thought, but grimly kept pulling.
Outside the window, it was dark. Two-something in the morning, then. Darwin pressed his face up against the cool glass. It was hard to see anything outside with the halogen lamp flooding the bedroom with light. A shape, down below, dark and humped, indistinct but large, filling the street…Darwin thought he could make out shoulders, perhaps a head. The form seemed vaguely reptilian, the way those blurry snapshots of that Loch Ness thing looked reptilian.
Darwin felt his flesh creep. Really. Fuck, so that wasn’t just an expression. Felt like a thousand cold ants crawling over his skin. His stomach flipped, and flipped again. Any second now he was going to shit his shorts.
Darwin leaped to the lamp, fumbled for the off switch, couldn’t find it, wound up yanking on the power cord until the plug sprang out of the socket. He darted back to the window, his eyes still light-dazzled; when they adjusted, he caught a glimpse of a massive muscular tail whipping out of sight, around the corner.
Raul had managed to sleep through the whole thing, thumps, thuds, roars, car alarms, and all, but the next morning he stood on the street for a long moment, gazing in amazed disgust at the damage visible up and down the block.
“Kids?” Raul muttered, half to himself. “Like, you know, drunk teenagers?”
Darwin, sitting on the steps with a cup of coffee Raul had uncharacteristically treated him to, nearly choked.
The asphalt on their street had been pounded into a minefield of potholes. Its footsteps, Darwin thought. The sheer weight of its feet, thudding down, stomping down. The telephone pole at the corner had been snapped in half, and the streetlight on the corner opposite bent backwards; its middle amber light blinked in distress. Caused, possibly, by the quick passage of the reptilian thing’s shoulders. Darwin had no doubt what had scored the ragged-edged scratches on brickwork and cement block and aluminum siding all along the block – the thing’s claws.
Darwin said nothing to Raul about what he had seen from his window. He drank his coffee, and stared at the deep grooves clawed into the door of the building directly across the street.
Twice more he heard the monster come, both times more quietly, more surreptitiously, than the first. Both times he jumped to the window, and both times he saw nothing, though he heard its roar, muffled now, and once he got the window open, smelled its snake-house stench. Smart monster, Darwin thought. It’s learned to hide. Its shape, anyway. And if the thing were truly intelligent, soon it might learn to conceal its sounds and its stink as well.
Both mornings following the nighttime visitations, the scratches on the door of the building directly opposite his own were more numerous, more blatant, deeper.
And the next time Darwin saw the woman, she was walking very slowly. She walked like someone who could barely stand to put one foot before the other. She was wearing a long-sleeved blouse whose loose cuffs concealed most of her hands, and whose high collar shielded her up to the jawline. She’d combed her hair forward and was walking with her head tucked down, but he could see the scratches on her face from across the street.
Darwin ran to her.
She recoiled as soon as he came off the steps, caught herself against the side of her building, then turned to flee. Then she saw him, saw him and not some random form hurtling toward her, and stopped.
She was breathing hard. So was Darwin.
He raised his hand — slowly, for she was watching him with steely wariness — and lightly touched the scratches on her forehead, the deep one under her eye, the glancing one on her chin.
Darwin’s fingers began to tremble. He burst into tears.
After more than a minute in which he just stood there scared and sobbing, the woman reached up and took his hand away from her face.
Then she put her hand on his cheek and made him look at her. “It’s all right,” she said. “You’re safe. It won’t hurt you. It’s only after me.”
Utterly wretched, ashamed of his tears, humiliated that he was getting her hand wet (fuck, he was crying on her hand), Darwin forced himself to point out the obvious. “But we look exactly the same.”
The woman smiled. She let out a small sound that was almost like a laugh. “That’s all right. Millions of people look alike.”
She was shaking her head, as if in amusement, though Darwin was still wracked with fear. At least she didn’t laugh again, he thought, as she dropped her hand and said, kindly, “You’ll be all right. Really.”
He caught her hand as it fell to her side, unbuttoned the cuff, drew back the sleeve. She let him. Her smile was sad now.
Darwin bit his lip and trembled.
She undid the front of her shirt, flashed him a quick peek.
Under her long-sleeved, high-necked blouse, her arms and torso were scored by dozens and dozens of deep, raw cuts, some starting to crust, others still oozing.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
“You could stay at my place,” he offered immediately. “I’ll hide you.”
“You can’t help me.”
“Yes I can. I will. I want to. I’ll — ”
“No,” she said, in a voice like scissors snapping shut. “You can’t. It isn’t in your power. But don’t be afraid, okay? It’s not going to hurt you. You’re safe.”
Darwin stepped back. Something inside him was swelling, growing bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier, hotter and hotter. His heart, he thought. If it swelled any more it might explode in grief. Let me save you, he wanted to plead. Let me try.
“It’s all right,” she said kindly. She made a move to get past him, and reluctantly Darwin shifted sideways. “It’s all right that you can’t help me. Maybe,” she offered, over her shoulder, as she made for her door, “you can help the next one.”
“Oh, there’s always a next one,” she said softly, and went inside.
She emerged again a few minutes later. Darwin was still standing where she’d left him, slowly turning over in his mind whether it was worth the effort to re-cross the street, or whether he might not just sit down where he was, sag down on the sidewalk with his back against the wall of her building, and just…sit. Just sit.
“Hey,” she said, “here,” and held something out to him.
Darwin took it without looking at it. He could only look at her, at her face.
“I’m leaving today,” she said. “Bye.”
“Bye,” he murmured, and then she was gone again, back into the building.
When Raul came home from work that evening, he found Darwin sitting at the counter in the kitchenette, perched on one of the stools, turning a small object over and over in his hands. The surprise of encountering Darwin in the kitchenette, and not vegged out on the couch or hermiting in his room, made Raul stop dead for a second. Then he saw what Darwin was fiddling with, and rolled his eyes. Raul let out a loud, exasperated sigh. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Darwin shrugged slightly.
Raul got a beer from the fridge, started poking around for leftover takeout. “That’s real retarded, man. Shit, you’re getting worse. Playing with an empty box.”
“Maybe,” Darwin said. For the object was indeed an empty box, slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes, and made of dingy gray pressed paper, not even as durable as cardboard. It had a hinged lid, the hinge a single bit of flimsy plastic. And it was empty, completely and totally empty, there was no doubt about that.
Darwin set the box down on the counter. He stood up.
An empty box. He’d almost cried when she gave it to him, disappointed, wanting something more. He couldn’t help it; he thought she was making fun of him. He’d returned home with his face burning. It had taken him a couple of hours to realize that the woman who looked exactly like him had not been mocking, had not been joking in the least.
He went and found his jacket. He brushed it off, then put it on.
He went and found his shoes. He put them on.
“I need another beer for this,” Raul said, snapping the pop-top. “What the hell is going on?”
“Nothing.” Darwin checked his jacket pockets, then glanced back at the box. He could carry it with him if he wanted to, it would fit easily. He didn’t think he needed to, though, and in any case the box was fragile. Better leave it home.
“What are you doing?”
“I…” Darwin trailed off, then took a breath. “I am going for a walk.”
“No shit,” Raul said, with some wonderment.
“No shit,” Darwin confirmed, with a small wonderment of his own. An empty box, after all, was a promise of a sort. A promise that it might be filled, and with an item of his own choosing. Any item at all. Or left unfilled, should he so choose. There was freedom in that, and more trust than anyone else had ever shown in him.
Then he left, and took his walk, the first walk of many, to see what he could see, and to do what he could do.
I spend my days shoving monkeys into vacuum. You can’t hear ‘em scream, but it’s a good thing they do, or their lungs could explode. I’ve seen the video of those tests, with the monkeys’ mouth and nose duct-taped shut, and I’ve got one word of advice if you ever find yourself in hard vacuum — exhale.
Then find some pressure in a hurry. We once had a chimp that stayed conscious for seventy-four seconds in the suck before passing out. Of course, even if BrownBag (I know it’s a bad idea to name them, but the little ones are so cute), had lived to the three-minute mark the protocol called for, he’d have suffered damaged soft tissues, embolisms, hypoxia, and GI tract ruptures (for those of you who care, you can’t make a monkey fart on command, but sticking a tube up their ass works pretty well to release the pressure.)
For humans, you’ve got about ten seconds before passing out. If a conscious friend is around to help out, you might have about forty-five seconds before any permanent damage is done. If you don’t mind living with severe brain damage go ahead and take as long as two minutes. The good news is, that despite popular belief, your blood won’t boil. Arteries are elastic enough to maintain blood pressure without rupturing (as long as the heart is beating.)
I admit it, there’s blood on my hands. It’s research-sanctified, instantly sanitized and vacuum freeze-dried (which makes it kinda crunchy), but it’s blood. Innocent blood. PETA hasn’t made it up here to Luna, but they’d shit if they did. (Actually, shitting isn’t a big problem. Peeing, however, is. Pee freezes. Often while still in the urethra, which can cause some serious problems — we had to rename one male chimp survivor “Cauliflower” after a particularly dramatic event.)
I’m comfortable with the work I’ve done. Hell, every post-grad space-researcher I know stuck on Earth says they’d kill to spend time on the moon. When I explain that that is exactly what it takes, they laugh, like I’m joking. I’m honest with anybody who asks me what I do — we owe the damn monkeys at least that much respect.
As is often the case with scientific research, sometimes the unexpected is revealed. There’s an exposure time, roughly between twenty- and forty-seconds which changed the monkeys. Subtle changes. Changes not measurable on a single one of the very advanced diagnostic tools we used.
I first noticed the phenomenon when I was strapping down a three-year-old rhesus, “Longfinger,” for a repeat twenty-five second exposure. First time in she’d struggled, eyes showing white, nostrils flaring, literally scared the shit out of her. The second time she sat still and looked me in the eye. She blinked once and looked away. She lasted seventeen seconds before passing out. When she regained consciousness I tried to look into her eyes again, but they’d clouded with micro-ruptures. She’d gone blind. Twenty-five seconds was a short exposure for that effect, but not unheard of. Longfinger reached up and touched her face. She turned her hand out towards me, then slumped on the table and died.
That inept idiot Doctor Singh listed “non-specific cause of death” on Longfinger’s autopsy. The party line on non-specs was that they were anomalous. We’d been directed to track non-specs as footnotes, but separate them from the main data. That didn’t trouble me so much until I realized they were the main data.
After Longfinger, I was better prepared to witness it. At the instant a liquid freezes into a solid it exists in both states at the same temperature. Lower the pressure enough and you can achieve a triple point, that temperature at which a substance can exist simultaneously as a solid, a liquid, or a gas. Longfinger’s final gesture made me think that somewhere in the twenty- to forty-second exposure range, was the triple point of conciousness.
We had not witnessed it because our diagnostic tests are only designed to measure the physical — the temperature not the state. If our liquid monkeys changed into gas right before our eyes, we’d have no way of quantifying it.
That didn’t invalidate the data we’d already collected. It just needed re-interpreting. The brain-mapping work was extensive and easy to access. Watching a brainscan of a two-minute vacuum exposure was like watching a blackout hit a major city as the power grid shut down in area after area until the landscape was totally dark. Dead. A couple dozen people, including me, had analyzed years of that data, carefully noting that diminished function as product of brain damage, on average, started appearing in test subjects exposed to longer than forty-two seconds. Forty-two seconds. It took three years (and twenty-seven-hundred forty-eight dead monkeys) to come up with that number. Now, thanks to us, when some construction grunt slices his suit open on a jagged spike of rebar, he’ll have a good idea exactly how quickly he is screwed.
Science is all about what questions you ask. The study’s significant questions had always been, “When do the bad things start happening to bodies in zero-pressure?” A temperature question.
The evidence for a state of conciousness change was subtle, but I found it. Spikes in the cerebellum we’d ignored as adrenal. Blooms on the medulla which looked like pain. Fear flooding the cerebrum. I don’t blame everybody else for missing it. Who the hell knew what enlightenment would look like anyway?
Retrieving a replacement for Longfinger down in the control group storage area further confirmed my hypothesis. The place was, well, a monkey house. Psycho little primates screeched at my entrance and rattled their cages for attention. They leapt across their cages in the low, lunar gravity, crashing into the sides with rattling thuds. As I paced the aisles searching for the ID-number on the randomly selected replacement subject, arms and hands thrust through the wire mesh trying to grab at me. Finally I found #F22, Lot-68-2062, Rhesus.
She shrank to the back of the cage and held tight when I went to retrieve her. I pinned her to the wall with my forearm and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck with my other hand. She arched her back and squealed, but I pinched her hard, just under the clavicle, and she quit squirming so I could shove her in the canvas “monkey tote.” Monkeys are like kids, you’ve got to establish control early or they take advantage of you. Though genetically and physically identical to Longfinger, a name for #F22 didn’t come to mind.
When I shoved a shivering #F22 into Longfinger’s cleaned out cage, the other test subjects, all of whom had undergone at least one exposure to vacuum, watched me calmly. We measured every behavioral aspect we could think of. I guess nobody thought to put “freaking out when somebody enters the room” on the protocol. Once I started to look, the evidence was everywhere. The monkeys had transcended into a higher mental state.
I’d skipped the Friday team meeting the last few times, and Delacroix notes demanding that I attend were getting more shrill and more frequent. I figured it’d at least be a good place to mention my findings. Until I saw the damned agenda. Delacroix had planned another session of her favorite game: “beat-up on Doctor James Hanson”.
It started when I walked in and Delacroix, Baxter and Singh were sitting around a metal table laughing. They’re all a bunch of backstabbing gloryhounds. If they spent as much time on research as they did playing cards in the campus community-room they might even have a chance to receive the Nobel they so busily plotted about.
“Ah, James. Welcome.” Said Delacroix. “Thank you, as always, for staying up so late to meet with us. Shall we begin?” At least they quit the chitchat when I’m around.
“First up is the quarterly LAT reports,” Delacroix said. “Arlington e-mailed me complaining that they haven’t received one in over a year. Is that true James?”
“Probably. I’m already doing the work of six grad-students, I don’t have time for bureaucratic hoop-jumping.” I least we were on familiar ground.
“None of us do, James. But this one’s important. The Live Animal Testing Reports allow us to remain a self-monitoring program. If we lose that, life becomes a lot more difficult.”
“I thought the whole point in hiding out in this shit-hole isolation ward was to avoid regulators,” I said.
“We’re here because the facilities are the best for our research. The low-profile it affords us is a minor part of that equation.” Delacroix sipped from her water bottle.
“The real issue here is all these non-specs, James. Frankly they worry me.”
“Why dump that on me. It’s Singh’s fault we can’t get a decent autopsy.”
“James, Doctor Singh has noted, appropriately so, that a variety of factors have contributed to a marked increase in test subject mortality. Don’t mistake his reluctance to jump to conclusions as anything other than good scientific practice.”
“That doesn’t seem to stop any of the rest of you from jumping to conclusions about my work.”
“James, this isn’t about your work, it’s about the reality of working with live test subjects. When unexplained deaths happen it raises a lot of questions, and I don’t want anybody to think we treat our subjects carelessly.”
“And it’s not careless to put an oxygen breathing soft-tissue organism into zero-pressure,” I stood, too quickly in the low gravity, and smashed my knees on the heavy metal table.
“James, why don’t you hear her out,” Baxter said. He lifted a giant meaty hand, as if to grab me. It’s unclear to me how they justified launching his enormous ass into space when they wouldn’t even let me bring along my dog.
“She’s accusing me of abusing the test subjects, and you want me to listen to that crap.” I said, not sitting down.
“Nobody said anything about abusing the subjects.” Singh slapped the table. “Why can’t you listen?”
“Doctors.” Delacroix spread her hands out on the table and took a deep breath. “Let’s not get side-tracked from our common objective of getting good data. Doctor Hanson, to what do you attribute this high number of anomalous deaths?”
“I…” I almost shouted: Species Transcendence. Some experience in the vacuum has lifted the little buggers from their mean animal state. But, ten minutes after I told Delacroix that, I’d be headed down the gravity well to Earth. “I’m not sure. Could be any number of factors combining.” It should have been a safe answer. If Delacroix hadn’t been on the rag.
“James, I need to ask this.” Delacroix paused and took a deep breath. She looked at Baxter and Singh before continuing. “Have you done anything which might bias the study…”
“…or compromise the validity of the findings.”
“Have you abused the subjects?” Singh asked.
“Fuck you, Ditmar.” I almost punched Singh’s smirking face.
“Dee, that was inappropriate.” Delacroix sighed, she leaned back in her chair shaking her head.
“Why?” Baxter said, his voice, normally high-pitched, came out like a whining schoolgirl’s. “Isn’t that’s the whole point of this discussion? Why pretend that we haven’t all witnessed Hanson inflict some bit of casual pain on the subjects. God knows he threatens the rest of us with violence on a regular basis.”
“If I weren’t here you sanctimonious idiots wouldn’t even be able to figure out which end of monkey eats and which end shits. I have a spotless twenty year record of working with live test subjects and I’m not about to throw that away, because you scientific midgets don’t know how to interpret data.” I returned Singh’s smirk. It was almost as satisfying as punching him. “I’m sure if you looked hard enough, the answers are there. I’m leaving.”
“James. The LATs?” Delacroix said. “We need them.”
“Two days.” All they really cared about was the signature line on the affidavit page. Filling out the forms would only take fifteen minutes to cut and paste my care log into the form, but I didn’t want Delacroix to think it was too easy.
“Two days is acceptable.”
As I fled to my room I heard Singh snort out, “Well, that went well.” The three laughed, no doubt already breaking out the playing cards.
I knew I couldn’t trust the three stooges to actually make a profound scientific discovery, so that left it up to me.
At this point, I figured the monkey’s probably deserved, hell, expected, better treatment than ordinary animals, so over the next week I brought them treats. There’s no such thing as fresh fruit on Luna, or I would have smuggled in some bananas, but it turns out the monkeys were total chocolate sluts. They’d do anything for a little nibble. I blew my entire eight-ounce monthly allowance in under ten minutes. Shit, after a lifetime of nothing but carefully measured food pellets and water, anything sugary or fatty made ‘em as happy kids at the circus.
I tried a variety of ways to communicate with them, but they remained inscrutable. They’d accept my gifts, but huddle in the back of their cages to eat. I came closest to a breakthrough when Booger bit me. I’d been re-attaching his water-bottle and he’d gotten too close. I shook a backhand at him but he dodged away, then unexpectedly moved in and nipped me on the finger. I was so startled I flipped him backwards. Booger bounced off the wall and stood defiantly, staring at me. Daring me to make another move.
I knew then how a father must feel when his teen son finally grows into a man, angry at the defiance, of course, but proud. Booger, and all his brothers and sisters were on the verge of just such a change.
I wept when Booger died. For an entire thirty-five seconds of full vacuum he stared straight into the video-camera, asking a reproachful “Why?” with his eyes.
The monitors dutifully recorded his heart stopping, followed quickly by the cessation of brain function. “For science,” I answered to the screen.
I re-pressurized and ran to him, cradling his icy cold head in my hands.
Singh, listed him as a non-spec, but I knew the real reason. Booger’s specific death made that clear. Booger was done being an ordinary monkey. He didn’t want to return to his cage. His future, all our futures, waited in the great vacuum of space.
Delacroix blamed me for Booger’s death. She woke me up and made me come to her office. She didn’t say anything, but turned her monitor for me to see. She had video of Booger biting me, but the angle was bad, so all you could see was Booger flying backward into the wall of the cage. “He bit me.”
“After he bit you, did you alter the test schedule to punish the subject?”
“No. I…” She wasn’t ready to hear the real reason — That I’d rewarded Booger with an opportunity to lead us all into the vacuum.
“Interfering with the subjects puts the results of the study at risk,” she said. She tapped the screen, watching video of me strapping a struggling Booger into the test chamber. “Maybe you need some time away, a trip to Armstrong Station, to regain your perspective. ”
“Perspective,” I said. “I’m the only one here with any damned perspective.” She was trying to cut me off from the research. If she wanted to play her petty political games and squeeze me out, she’d have to play a lot harder. “Care for the subjects is part of my resume. I made a perfectly acceptable modification to the regimen. If you’d like, I’ll show you my notes.” I stared at her, daring her to call my bluff.
She didn’t, immediately, but said, “The extension of your fellowship requires my approval. At this point, I’m unlikely to grant that. I will, of course, give your application a full review, and I expect you to submit your notes at that time.” She turned her chair quickly back to the monitor, over-rotating in the low gravity. I hoped for a minute she’d tumble out, but she regained her balance and snapped the video off.
I had two months. Hell, I’d just begun to identify the phenomena of Vacuum Transcendence, and now I needed to complete the work on describing its function in two months.
I needed direct experiential data.
The breath ripped from my lungs as I vomited air out my mouth and nose. The vacuum wind tore my shirt open. Burning cold flamed across my bare skin. Pain pierced my head, easing slightly as my eardrums ruptured. To conserve oxygen, the rapid-decompression chamber was small, but the walls became hard to see. Then disappeared altogether.
I regained consciousness on the floor. The roar of the vacuum still echoed in my ears. Gritty warm air scratched its way into my lungs like an alien intruder. Each painful breath required a conscious effort to complete.
My vision cleared enough to make out the octagonal pattern on the rubber mat. The pattern didn’t tessellate, and the make-up squares among each group of octagons was off-center, throwing the whole thing inelegantly out of kilter. Despite the fact that this was the only type of rubber mat in the entire research complex, I’d never once noticed that flaw before. Typical though — a multi-billion dollar facility filled with inferior product. Part of my brain made a mental note — Heightened awareness of surroundings.
I know it’s bad practice for the observer to participate as a subject in research, but sometimes, direct sensory experiences are necessary to understanding. This is especially true in animal studies, where one can’t conduct subject interviews. As I reviewed the tape of my twenty-five second vacuum exposure, I was able to correlate my experiences with my years of study. I remember the adrenal surge of fear. The brief chemical clarity of mind. From the moment the lock cycled I don’t remember taking a single deliberate action, yet I acted with seeming purpose. Just before I passed out, I stood up. I spoke, though I have no memory of what I might have said. A message of enlightenment which I couldn’t yet decipher.
I’d passed out at the seven-second mark. As I watched myself crumple slowly in the Lunar gravity, I tried to relive that clarity, regain the moment. I’d been close to something — if only I’d stayed conscious I’m sure I’d have the answer to the monkey’s advance. My head rolled away from the camera and on the image I noticed a bloody blossom growing out of the side of my head. I reached up and touched my ear. I pulled the crunchy, strawberry-sized clot free, and warm, liquid blood dripped onto my shoulder.
I never heard Delacroix enter the lab. I didn’t even realize she was there until she spun my chair around. Her face was bright red. Her mouth moved in furious silence.
I smiled at her. I was too close to the answers I sought for her posturing to bother me now. She reached to grab my shoulders and brushed her hand against my bleeding ear. She pulled back, staring at her blood-smeared fingers. She backed to the supply cabinet and pulled an alcohol swipe from the box and wiped at her hand. Her mouth continued to move as she used five more towels folding each neatly and shoving them in the bio-haz box.
She bounced out of the lab, in a hurry to implement her silent threats. The monkeys and I, we calm survivors of the zero-pressure void, watched her leave. We’d evolved beyond her petty academic gamesmanship, and though the scientist I am wished for time to fully analyze the zero-pressure experience, time was a luxury I no longer had.
In her haste Delacroix had left the bulkhead door ajar. I pulled it closed. There wasn’t any way to lock it, but a chair leg jammed into the top and bottom release bar would slow anybody down. Our lab was in an isolated module, removed from the rest of the research base because the designers were terrified of a decompression accident. At the slightest hint of a pressure drop, the whole module would seal up tight to keep out intruders.
The monkeys watched me with calm expectation. #F22, a thirty-five second veteran now, reached through the cage, beckoning, signaling. She wanted freedom.
I went up the rows opening cage doors. There was no mad rush to freedom, no monkey games. Final proof of their transcendence. Instead they conducted a careful, tentative investigation of their new condition, carried out in perfect, contemplative silence. I’d created them as research tools, born to die in vacuum. They’d entered the vacuum, lived, and returned to enlighten me.
The tiny pressure chamber would never hold us all, but if I could override the safety features, it wouldn’t need to. I planned to turn the entire lab into a large scale experimental decompression chamber. It took me a couple minutes of experimenting to discover that a needleless syringe stuck into the reinforced latch braces was the best tool to fool the safety sensors into thinking that the inner and outer doors were closed. I jammed a towel in the hinges to keep the door from closing when the pressure dropped. The monkeys milled about, waiting.
The longest depressurization the computer would accept was nine-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-nine seconds, not quite three hours. I started the cycle.
Usually the chamber depressurized instantly. The volume of air in the lab was several orders of magnitude greater. It gave me time to savor the experience. I noticed the wind first, as air rushed through and out the chamber. A warning light flashed, and there should have been a siren, but none sounded. The monkeys, excited at last to be joining me, started climbing the cages and leaping about.
Moved by intuition, or insight, or some new preternatural awareness, I turned to look at the main lab lock door. Delacroix, Baxter, Singh and several others stood in the open lab door looking in. Baxter, the largest of them, gripped the edges of the door. I raised my arms, welcoming them. Beckoned them to join us.
The wind whipped through me. Baxter started forward, but Delacroix grabbed him and pulled him back. They were afraid of the vacuum. They were not ready. The lab door shut and sealed.
We were alone, we fellow pilgrims on the further path. Scientists on the edge of discovery.
A rush of escaping air carried us back into the void to finish our journey.
I watched the bird circle over town, its wings a black shadow in the moon-silvered sky. Father was mayor then, and we lived on the upper floor of the town hall. While the town slept, I would stand at the window in my nightdress, shivering, and gaze out beyond the thatch and clay rooftops, beyond the animal pens and the orchard and the fields, beyond the Wall, to the jagged black mountains on the horizon. So, when the bird came, I was the first to spot it.
After a few moments, I guess the watchmen in the tower saw the bird, too, and they rang the bell. I was ten years old and I knew my bells. There was Fire, which meant we grabbed our buckets of water and sand and burlap sacks. There was Storm, which meant the clouds had formed spirit shapes and we had to take the animals indoors. But the night the bird came, they sounded a bell I’d never heard before, a single low tone that you felt in your chest and in the backs of your eyes.
Down below, grownups rushed out of the houses and into the square. Father was one of the first there, his hair sleep-matted into a crest, white legs sticking out from the bottom of his nightshirt. He was joined by Mr. Cragg, the miller, and his wife May, both of them solid as sacks of flour. And there was tall Doc Gish in his long coat, his face hidden by the vast brim of his hat. They all watched the bird circle in silence.
One of the watchmen came down the tower and trained his long rifle on the bird, but Father put his hand on the barrel.
“Mayor, let him shoot the damn thing,” said Doc Gish.
And Father, with his white legs and funny hair, said, “It’s not open for debate.”
The bird soared in slow, graceful circles. I could see now that it had something in its talons. Something round and yellow, about the size of a muskmelon. Whatever the object was, the bird dropped it, and the grown-ups reached toward the sky. A skull fell into Father’s hands.
The bird made one more circle, then flapped its wings and headed out into the far-away. I watched it for as long as I could.
“Let me see it,” said Doc Gish, and without taking his hands off it, Father showed him the skull the bird had dropped. I saw big, round eye sockets and teeth.
“It’s too soon, John,” said Doc Gish to Father. “We haven’t had enough births. We can’t afford it.”
Cragg spoke up: “You don’t get to decide when we can afford it, Doc. We take the walk when it’s time to take the walk. We pay the price when it’s time to pay the price. Me and my wife, we’ve paid more than anyone, and we don’t cry about it. We take the walk.”
Doc Gish put his hands in his coat pockets and craned his neck. In the moonlight I saw his smile. He wore that same smile when he looked at a newborn and knew it wouldn’t survive the night.
“Mayor,” he said, “maybe we should lose everything. Maybe, if this is the only way to keep it, we don’t deserve what we’ve got.”
Cragg’s wife walked up to Father. “No,” she said. “It’s like the mayor said. It’s not open for debate.” She held out her hands to Father. “Now give me my son.”
And Father handed her the skull.
The next morning, for the first time in my life, I went outside the Wall. Everybody in town gathered, and the two eldest watchmen pushed open the gates. As soon as we walked through, as soon as we were outside, the gates were shut, and the bars clanked back into place.
Father had woken me up that morning with a kiss on the forehead and told me to dress in the clothes folded at the foot of the bed. I did, and he led me by the hand downstairs and outside.
“We’re going for a walk,” I said. “Aren’t we?”
And he looked at me strangely and nodded. “Yes, Abigail.”
Cragg was there with his son, Robert, and Doc Gish with Michelle, his little girl, and Mr. Tander with his twin boys, and Mr. Yim with his son and three girls. The Yims were something of a wonder in our town: four children, and all of them still alive.
There were fourteen of us gathered outside the wall. All the children in town.
The Rider was there, too, with his apprentice, each of them on a mule.
Michelle, a pale girl with bird-thin wrists asked me where we were going. “Poppa won’t tell me,” she said. It was strange hearing Doc Gish called Poppa. He was Doc Gish.
We each had a backpack containing hard rolls of bread wrapped in cloth, dried pears, small lumps of salt, and jars of white cream — a sun ointment that smelled of agave. We also had skins of water, and the Rider told us to drink only when he said so.
“Everybody stays together,” he barked. He was looking at Doc Gish when he said it.
And so we set out, walking behind the Rider and his apprentice, away from the town, toward the black hills on the horizon.
After a while — an hour, perhaps eight hours, I didn’t know — my legs ached and my feet burned. My tongue felt like wood, and only my deep fear of the Rider kept me from sneaking a drink.
“Abigail, look.” Father turned me around and pointed me back toward town. It was so far off, now. So small and pretty, like a sliver of my mother’s china.
“It’s a miracle, Abigail. It’s a miracle that such a fragile thing survives in the middle of all this.” He swept his arm in a gesture that encompassed the wasteland. “But you can’t take miracles for granted. It’s the kind of thing you have to tend. Lose sight of that, and it goes away.”
On our third day out, the Rider’s apprentice died. Sundown had brought aching cold, and an easterly wind came blasting across the desert, vicious and free. The men were stacking rocks to build a shelter when the apprentice let out a short scream.
He looked to the Rider, his cheeks red as though embarrassed. “Something bit me,” he said.
The Rider scanned the ground, and then his eyebrows went up suddenly. He made a motion and there was a knife in his hand, and he threw it to the ground.
I never got a good look at the thing that killed the apprentice.
Doc couldn’t help him. We left his body beneath a mound of rocks and built camp somewhere else, even though it meant more hiking in the cold.
“Peter’s mother is past child-bearing,” Doc said to Father as we set up camp. “Won’t be another to replace him.”
Father said nothing. He stacked rocks.
“And even if there were another,” Doc Gish said, “that’s not really the point.” He handed father a stone.
We walked more the next day, cutting our hands as we climbed over piles of charred, twisted metal. We crossed a river of sluggish water the color of rust. We walked, and my back hurt and my legs hurt and my feet bled, and we walked.
On the fourth night, I hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep, even as tired as I was. I snuck away from Father and went to see Doc Gish. I found him sitting watch on a rock at the camp’s perimeter.
“Hey there, Abby,” he said as I approached. In the darkness, I couldn’t see his face under the brim of his hat.
He had something in his hands, which he put in mine.
I ran my finger along the edges of the narrow, slanted eye sockets, the blade-sharp cheekbones. I let the long canines almost pierce my thumb.
“This isn’t what the bird dropped in the square,” I said.
“Nope. Found it here in camp. Things get buried, things get revealed. It’s the way of wind and sand.”
I thought about our town. Until we’d started walking, it had been the center of the world, all I knew. It seemed so far away now. Just a little cluster of buildings, a tiny thing surrounded by the rest of the world. It could get buried like a skull in the desert. Of course it could. The realization was like ripping away a scab. Of course it could.
“What is it?” I asked, indicating the skull. “A sand wolf?”
Doc Gish took the skull back from me. “Not a sand wolf. We really don’t have a name for them. Isn’t that funny? All we surrender, and we don’t even have a name for them.” He tilted his hat back and looked at me, and I turned my head away from his smile. “You really want to know, Abby?”
“Good for you. Most people don’t, but it’s good to know, even if it isn’t easier. You’ve always been one to see, always looking out into the far-away. You’re more like me than your old man that way.” He tossed the skull into the sand. “There used to be thousands of these damn things. A long time ago. We lived in bigger towns back then, and the creatures lived in the nooks and crannies. Dark places, where we couldn’t see them. They hunted us. You know how a sand wolf hunts a goat?”
I didn’t, really.
“It was like that. But then, during the sick years, there were as few of us as there were of them. They couldn’t hide anymore. We went after them, and they went after us, and before long we would have wiped one another out if it hadn’t been for the arrangement.”
I was going to ask him what he meant by arrangement, but then someone said Doc Gish’s name. We both turned toward the voice. It was Father.
Sand crunched under his boots as he approached. “Go back to your shelter, Doc,” he said. “Your watch is over.”
Doc Gish put his hands on his knees and rose to his full height. “Keep seeing what you can see, Abigail. Look at something long enough, and you’ll see it for what it is.”
His shoulder almost brushed against Father’s as he returned to the center of camp, ending his watch.
Later that night, as the others slept, I saw them on the horizon. Twelve shapes, cloaks billowing behind them like smoke. They seemed to float over the ground.
I rose to my feet and took a step forward, and then Father was there with his firm hand on my shoulder. The others awakened and gathered.
Plumes of dust trailed behind the twelve, lit by flashes of lightning, green and gold and purple in the sky.
Soon, they stood at a small distance, towering, their faces the color of moonlight, diamond eyes sharp and glittering. The creatures shone like polished knives while we huddled together in the wind.
One of them glided towards us, stopping a few dozen yards off. Father met him in the middle distance. The creature parted its thin lips to speak, and in a whisper that carried, it said, “Are you the same one as last time?”
Not animals, then, I thought. And with that they went from being frightening, like a sand wolf, to something I could hate.
“No,” said Father. “That one died a few years ago. I’m mayor now.”
“I’m sorry,” said the creature. “The differences among you are very subtle to our eyes.”
“Let’s get this over with,” said Father.
The creature nodded. It parted its cloak, and from the shadows emerged three small, white shivering things. The creatures had children, too. Their arms were twigs, their eyes white and enormous.
The tall creature said something to the small ones in a language that sounded like singing, pretty sounds, and the small ones stepped forward, gazing up at Father.
Father had a knife. He grabbed one of the creatures by the chin and pushed its head back roughly. He slid the blade across the creature’s throat. Blood fanned over him. He let the creature fall to the sand.
Knees and thighs and belly soaked with blood, Father rejoined us. The tall creature followed him.
It approached me. Putting a cool finger to the side of my neck, the creature smiled and I saw its teeth.
“No.” A single word, softly spoken.
Then, a loud crack that rolled over the desert.
I turned and saw Doc Gish, belly-down in the sand. There was a pistol near his shuddering hand. His face was turned to the side. The handle of Father’s knife stuck out his left eye.
Father put Doc’s still-smoking pistol in his backpack while Michelle knelt at Doc’s side, her hands fluttering over his body as if she wanted to touch him but didn’t know how.
Father spoke to the creature. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He acted on his own.”
“We will take this one,” said the creature. He put his hand on Robert’s shoulder.
Cragg the miller screwed his eyes shut as the creature pulled Robert toward him. Robert shrieked. He kicked sand and spat. He clawed at the creature’s hands, drawing pale blood. Just before he disappeared into the creature’s cloak, Cragg opened his eyes. “Thank you, boy,” he said.
And then Robert was gone.
Days later, when the town once more appeared on the horizon, it looked like a sliver of bone.
“It’s a garden,” Father said. “Thing with gardens is, you have to tend them.”
Cragg had maintained a stoic silence on the way home. In later years, when I’d encounter him in the street or when buying my flour, I would sense in him a peculiar kind of pride, even superiority.
There was none of that in Father. One night, just a few weeks after we’d returned from the walk, he came into my room to tuck me in, and I found myself holding him, comforting him.
Michelle, Doc Gish’s little girl, lived another eight years. There was a sickness that struck down most of the town and she tried to use the powders and oils in Doc’s office. She read all his notebooks and even went out beyond the Wall with the Rider for a time to talk to the wise men of the trade caravans. But in the end she failed. We lost many adults and more than half the children. Michelle got the sickness herself and died without a trained apprentice to take her place.
Still, we live on.
I am grown now, married, and I have a son, Thomas. I have been mayor since Father died. I may be the last mayor this town ever has, and it will be my fault.
The bird came back last night and dropped a skull into my hands.
My backpack sits by the doorway. It contains crackers and dried fruit and salt lumps and sun ointment.
It contains my Father’s knife.
And also Doc Gish’s pistol, loaded with bullets fashioned from my mother’s silver teacups.
Sousa’s voice crackled through the mechanical hare’s intercom. “Ease off on the steam pressure.”
John didn’t envy the captain-pilot his station up in the eyepits. Sure, Sousa got the glory and first pick of the girls, but incoming fire often found the head. But expert gunners shot for the joints first, he reminded himself smugly. NCAA rules required sub-lethal munitions, but there were ways to hurt the other guy. He had the best job on the team.
“Within ten percent of optimum.” That was their third team member, Philip, down in the bowels of engineering. Literally, given the hare’s layout. At least John’s barred viewing slits providing a forward glimpse from his seat in chest. More to the point, he had an array of electronic targeting systems, as much as would fit within the NCAA’s wattage limits.
The steam-powered autocannon was another matter entirely. Outside the power limits, not covered in the rules. An innovation by their team.
Noting the pressure on his weapons lines, John ran the barrels through a dry-fire rotation.
“Fifteen seconds until we go hot,” Sousa said.
John adjusted the straps of his sling. Despite the massive shocks in the hare’s drive legs and the state-of-the-art gyros, it would be rough ride. He scanned the rolling hills ahead of their starting line. This was a big match, their four University of Nova Eboracum hares facing off against the Mohawk-Iroquois Tech varsity hounds.
Klaxons hooted outside. A rumbling cheer rose from the nearby stands as the hare lurched into a showy leap that no captain-pilot would ever use during close action. The crowd loved it.
After that it was a game of patience and cunning in the wooded dells of the Niagara Reserve. They were lead squad, but Sousa avoided further showing off. Instead the captain-pilot kept them moving along the creek beds. It was tough to hide a twenty-cubit steam-powered hare, but then MIT had the same problem.
First blood went to the indigenes. A rattle of low-velocity flechettes echoed off the starboard flank. They’d been blindsided!
John shifted precious fire control resources to his starboard cameras and periscopes. One lens was crazed by a lucky hit, but the redundant systems let him spy the MIT hound moving away.
“Damn,” John hissed. Judging by the smooth gait of the enormous brass dog, MIT had come up with a working fluid joint articulation. Nova Eboracum’s athletic engineering department had prototyped similar, but it hadn’t survived field trials.
How good was MIT’s?
The NCAA limits on weapons wattage meant designers eschewed armor. The point of hares-and-hounds was to disable the opponent’s equipment, not kill their players. But the steam bypasses John and the athletic engineers had spent the summer plumbing into the autocannon just itched to be used, at a hell of a lot more cubit-pounds of force than those MIT skinheads ever imagined.
“Overpressure,” John shouted. “Give it all to me, right now!”
The hare shuddered as Philip opened the pressure valves full on. John tracked the vanishing dog to give the MIT team sixty rounds of copper-clad lead right in the port hip joint.
The dog went down like a drunk sorority pledge.
“Wah-hoo!” shrieked Sousa over the intercom.
John smiled. Spring was a great time to be young.