Fragments, p.21Dan Wells
Heron looked at Samm. “The same reason you did.” She looked back at Kira. “The same reason you trusted me: because Samm trusted me, and that was good enough for you. Well, Samm trusts you, and that’s good enough for me.”
Kira nodded, watching her. “And if we keep going?”
“I’ll think you’re an idiot,” said Heron, “but if Samm still trusts you . . .”
“Your signal’s starting to break up,” said Marcus. His voice was growing garbled as well. “Where are you? Over.”
“We can’t tell you,” said Kira. I can’t even tell you who I’m with. “We’re looking for something, and I wish I could tell you more, but . . .” She paused, not certain what to say, and eventually just said, “Over.”
They waited, but there was no response.
“Passing atmospheric conditions,” said Afa. “Our reception might have been temporarily boosted or broken by clouds or storms or virga.”
“I still trust you,” said Samm. “If you think this is the way to go, I’ll follow you.”
Kira looked at him, long and hard, wondering what he saw in her that she didn’t. Eventually she gave up, shaking her head. “What about the Failsafe?”
“What about it?” asked Samm.
“We don’t know what it is, but the word means something that can’t go wrong—or something designed to jump in and fix things when they do. What if the Failsafe can solve all our problems, and all we have to do is find it and activate it?” She thought about Graeme Chamberlain, the member of the Trust who’d worked on the Failsafe and then killed himself as soon as he was done. She shivered despite the heat. “What if it’s something horrible, and right when we think we’ve fixed everything, the Failsafe jumps out and screws it all up again? We don’t know what it is. It could be anything.”
“How do you know it even matters?” asked Heron.
“Because it has to,” said Kira. “The Trust had some kind of plan. The cure for the human disease is in the Partial pheromones, plus there’s me, a Partial something-or-other living in a human settlement. None of this is by accident, and we have to figure out what it all means.” She paused. “We have to. It’s the same old argument I used to have with Mkele: the present or the future. Sometimes you have to put the present through hell to get the future you want.” She held the radio to her mouth. “We’re going on,” she said simply. “Over.”
Another pack of Watchdogs trailed them from Camelback Mountain to the Susquehanna River but never moved in to attack. Samm tied their food and equipment high in the trees every night, and Heron and Kira did their best to protect the horses. Afa stopped talking to Samm completely, and only barely to Heron; the few times he did, both girls began to suspect he was confusing her for Kira. He was better in the mornings, when his mind was rested, but as each day wore on he became more suspicious, more furtive; Kira began to see a third personality emerge, a dangerous cross between the confused child and the paranoid genius. It was this version of Afa that stole a knife from Kira’s gear, and tried to stab Samm with it the next time he got too close to his backpack. They got the knife away from him, but Kira worried that the struggle was even more damaging in the long run, feeding his distrust and paranoia.
As they traveled, Kira thought about her experience with the link—about the times she could sense something, and the times she couldn’t. She couldn’t quite puzzle it out, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make sense, just that she didn’t yet have all the tools she needed to make sense of it. She tried to concentrate, willing herself to feel Samm’s emotions, or to transmit something to him, but it didn’t seem to work—unless they were in a high-stress situation, like combat. After a few days of trying and failing, she approached Samm about it directly.
“I want you to teach me how to use the link.”
Samm looked at her passively, though she knew he must be sending some kind of link data to reflect his emotional state. Was he confused? Skeptical? She clenched her teeth and tried to sense it, but she couldn’t. Or she couldn’t tell the difference between that and what she thought she was picking up intuitively.
“You can’t learn how to link,” said Samm. “That’s like . . . learning how to see. Either your eyes work or they don’t.”
“Then maybe I’m already doing it and I just can’t recognize it,” said Kira. “Teach me how it works, so I know when it happens.”
Samm rode in silence for a moment, then shook his head—a surprisingly human gesture he must have picked up from her or Heron. “I don’t know how to describe it because I can’t imagine not having it,” he said. “It’s like not having eyes. You use your eyes for everything—vision is so important to human and Partial function that it colors every other aspect of our lives. Even that—the word ‘colors’ as a synonym for ‘affects.’ It’s a visual metaphor being used to describe something nonvisual. When you imagine someone trying to function without sight, that’s how I imagine someone trying to function without the link.”
“But vision fails all the time,” said Kira. “Blind people can still function in society, and I bet all of them understand metaphors like ‘colors.’”
“But blindness is still considered a handicap,” said Samm, “at least among Partials.”
“Okay then,” said Samm. “And no one would argue that blindness is a stylistic difference, it’s literally a lessening of ability.”
“Take a look at this,” said Kira. She widened her eyes, making an exaggerated “surprised” face, and Samm didn’t respond. “Did you see it?”
“I just opened my eyes really wide.”
“You do that all the time,” said Samm. “Different parts of your face and body move constantly while you talk; Heron does it, too. I used to think she had a facial tremor.”
Kira laughed. “It’s called body language. Most of the social cues that you communicate with pheromones, we communicate with little facial movements and hand gestures. This means I’m surprised.” She widened her eyes again. “This means I’m skeptical.” She raised her eyebrow. “This means I don’t know something.” She shrugged, holding her hands to the sides, palms up.
“How do you . . .” Samm paused, in the space where a human would furrow his brow or wrinkle his lips—something to signify confusion—and Kira assumed that he was sending out “I’m confused” data through the pheromone link. “How do you teach that to each other? A new member of your culture, or a new child—how long does it take them to learn all these weird little hand signals?” He tried to emulate the shrug, looking stiff and mechanical.
“That’s like asking a Spanish speaker why they bother with all those weird words when it would be so much easier to just speak English,” said Kira. “Do you have to teach the link data to new Partials?”
“We haven’t had new Partials in years,” said Samm, “but no, of course not, and I think I see where you’re going with this. Do you really mean to say that this ‘body language’ is as inherent to human beings as the link is to Partials?”
“That’s exactly it.”
“But then how—” He stopped, and Kira could only guess what link data he was expressing now. “I was about to say, ‘How can you understand each other over the radio when half your communication is visual?’ but I suppose the link doesn’t transmit over the radio either, so we’re even there. But on the other hand, Partials can still understand each other in the dark.”
“I’ll grant you that,” said Kira, “but we also have a lot of verbal cues you don’t. Listen to these two sentences: ‘Are you going to eat that?’ Now: ‘Are you going to eat that?’”
Samm stared back, and Kira almost laughed at what she assumed was his confusion. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that the difference in volume changes the meaning of the sentence? We use the link for most forms of emphasis like that.”
“I suppose that gives us a leg up on radio communication,” said Kira, and
Samm laughed, and Kira realized that laughter, at least, seemed to be fairly common among the Partials. They probably didn’t need it, since they could express enjoyment or humor through the link, but they still laughed anyway. Maybe it was built into some human segment of their custom genome? A vestigial response? “Enough about body language,” said Kira. “I want to practice the link, so hit me.”
“Hitting you won’t make the link easier to detect.”
“It’s an expression,” said Kira. “Send me some link data—start throwing it out there. I need to practice trying to pick it up.”
They spent the next few days practicing, with Samm sending her simple pheromonal messages and Kira trying everything she could to feel them, and to recognize which emotions they represented. A couple of times she thought she could sense it, but most of the time she was completely lost.
They passed through the Appalachians on a wide highway marked with a number 80, run-down and crumbling in places, but mostly unbroken. They made better time across the river, leaving the dog pack and, they hoped, any other potential observers far behind them. With less fear of attack they could travel more openly, but the open stretches of farmland only accentuated what Kira understood was a growing agoraphobia in Afa, and he tried to stop at almost every town they passed through, holing up in a bookstore or library and obsessively sorting the titles. Much of the area was covered with long, low hills, and he did better when they could travel between them, comfortably hemmed in by reassuring masses that, while not buildings, at least limited his sight line. Kira hoped that this kind of terrain would continue all the way to Chicago, but as they moved west, the land got flatter and flatter. When they crossed the Allegheny River and the midwestern plains stretched out before them, Afa’s mutterings grew more sporadic and disorganized. By the time they crossed the border from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Kira realized he wasn’t just talking but arguing, mumbling furiously at a choir of voices in his head.
Afa’s lone saving grace in the Midwest were the cities, which were bigger here and more frequent; Heron, on the other hand, grew more cautious in each, always wary of an attack by some unseen force. They stayed on Interstate 80 as much as possible, passing through Youngstown and following it north to a place called Cleveland. Both were eerie, empty cities, lacking the kudzu that gave such a junglelike quality to Kira’s home on the East Coast. New York was still and silent, but the vegetation at least gave it a feeling of life. Here the cities were dead, bare and crumbling, eroded by wind and weather, fading monuments in a vast and featureless plain. It made Kira lonely just to look at them, and she was as happy as Heron to leave them behind. Their road took them along the southern edge of a rolling gray sea, which Samm insisted was just a lake; even seeing it on the map, Kira found it hard to believe that it wasn’t another part of the ocean she’d left behind. She’d never liked that ocean before, feeling small and exposed on its shores, but now she ached for it. She ached for her friends—for Marcus. Bobo nickered and shook his mane, and she patted him gratefully on the neck. How the old world ever got by without horses, she couldn’t understand. You couldn’t pet a car.
In a city called Toledo the lake met a wide river snaking up from the south, and they reined in their horses on the edge of it, a ledge off which there was a fifty-foot drop down to the raging river. There was no longer any road before them; the rubble of the I-80 bridge lay in the river far below.
“What happened here?” asked Kira. The precipice was dizzying, the wind whipping through her hair. “The bridge looks too new to just fall apart like this.”
“Look at the beams,” said Samm, pointing below to the metal infrastructure twisting out of the concrete on their side of the chasm. “This was blown up.”
“That should make you happy,” said Heron to Afa. Afa was turning in circles on his horse Oddjob, ignoring them and muttering threats that Kira guessed were only half directed at the horse.
“We’ll have to go around,” said Samm, pulling Buddy’s head to the left to head back. Kira stayed near the edge, peering across to the far side. The fallen bridge had made a sort of barrier in the river, not big or tall enough to block its flow, but intrusive enough to send the placid river roiling and bubbling over the rubble before smoothing again on the other side.
“Who would have blown it up?” she asked.
“There was a war,” said Heron. “You probably don’t remember it, you were pretty young.”
Kira did her best not to glare at her. “I know there was a war,” she said. “I just don’t understand which side had a good reason to blow up a bridge. You told me the Partials focused on military targets, so they wouldn’t have done it, and the humans wouldn’t have destroyed their own structures.”
“That’s the attitude that started the war,” said Heron, and Kira was surprised by the angry undercurrent in her voice.
“I don’t understand,” said Kira.
Heron looked at her, a mixture of calculation and disdain, then turned and looked out over the river. “Your tacit assumption of sovereignty. This bridge belonged as much to the Partials as it did to the humans.”
“Partials were given property rights in 2064,” said Afa, staring at the road as Oddjob turned him around and around. “These rights were never recognized by state courts, and Partials were still unable to get loans to buy anything anyway. New York Times, Sunday edition, September 24.”
“There’s your answer,” said Samm, pointing down at the line of broken water as the river rolled over the fallen bridge. “There, sticking out of the water about twenty yards out.” Kira looked, following the line of his finger and shading her eyes against the spots of glare off the water.
Where Samm was pointing, Kira saw a metal prong sticking out of the water, lodged somehow in the pieces of the bridge. She pulled out her binoculars and looked again, focusing them in on the metal, and saw that it was the cannon of a tank. The body bulged up, just under the flow of water, wedged between two pieces of concrete and steel. The markings on the side read 328. “There was a tank on the bridge when it went down.”
“Probably dozens of them,” said Samm. “328 was a Partial armored platoon. I’m guessing the local militia rigged the bridge and blew it when the Partials were crossing, killing as many as they could.”
“They wouldn’t have done that,” said Kira.
“They did that and worse,” snapped Heron.
Samm’s voice was more gentle. “By the end of the war they were desperate enough to do anything,” he said. “The Partial victory was already decisive, and the release of RM made everything worse. Humans were dying by the millions. Some of them were ready to blow up anything they could—their bridges, their cities, even themselves—if it meant killing even one of us.”
“Really great ethics,” said Heron.
“What about the fleet off New York Bay?” Kira snapped back, whirling to face her. “I saw it in Afa’s documents—twenty human ships brought down, all hands lost, the most devastating attack of the war.”
“Twenty-three,” said Afa.
“Self-defense,” said Heron.
“Are you kidding me?” asked Kira. “What could the Partials possibly be defending themselves from?”
Heron raised her eyebrow. “Why do you keep saying that?”
“Saying ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ You’re a Partial—you’re different, but you’re one of us. And you’re most definitely not one of them. You keep forgetting it, but your human buddies aren’t going to. And they will find out.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Kira.
“You tell me,” said Heron. “What’s your little boyfriend Marcus likely to do to you when he finds out what you are?”
“Easy,” said Samm. “Everybody just calm down. This argument is not going to get us anywhere.”
“Neither is this bridge,” Kira growled, and turned Bobo’s head to
Chicago was flooded.
It had taken them nearly a month to get there, anticipation rising with each new day. All their solar panels were gone, powering a string of radio repeaters behind them—if the records they found included a way to extend the expiration date or synthesize the cure for RM, they could radio it home in seconds instead of traveling another month back through dangerous country. Afa grew more eager as the city appeared before them, a giant metropolis that seemed even bigger, if possible, than New York City. It sat on the shores of another giant lake, curving around the eastern and southern sides, and spread out into the plains as far as Kira could see—towering skyscrapers, elevated trains and monorails, vast factories and warehouses and endless rows of houses and offices and apartments.
All crumbling. All mired in oily, swampy water.
“Is it supposed to look like that?” asked Kira.
“Not a chance,” said Samm. They stood on the top of an office complex on the edge of the city, surveying the scene with his binoculars. “It’s not all flooded, just most of it; looks like there are rises and falls in the terrain, though nothing huge. I’d bet most of the water’s just a few inches deep, maybe a few feet in the worst places. Looks like the lake overflowed its boundaries.”
“Chicago had dozens of canals running through the city,” said Heron. “Some of your shallow streets are going to be deep rivers, but they should at least be easy to spot.”
“Those canals were the most heavily engineered waterways in the world,” said Afa proudly, as if he had engineered them himself. “The old-world engineers actually reversed the flow of one of the rivers—those are the glories we used to have, when mankind kept nature under tight control.” His eyes glowed, and Kira could only imagine what the thought did to him; after four weeks in a wilderness run wild, a city so fiercely technological must have felt like an answer to a prayer.
Fragments by Dan Wells / Young Adult / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes