Posted on July 6, 2015
I missed this on Friday but a Monday is equally close to the weekend, just on the wrong side of it, yes?
Here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:
1) This story (Equipoise) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by me Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.
2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.
This month’s free story is called Equipoise. Enjoy.
by Jake MacMillan
1. The house was perfect. Natalie was pleased they had decided to build instead of buy. The plan from the beginning had been to have a party of some kind. Over the eighteen months approaching the designated date, they had switched the location from the estate in the Hamptons to the villa in the Roman hills, to the house above LA, and finally, just because the guest list had grown so large and time was too short to change it again, they settled on building a compound of houses overlooking Rio De Janeiro.
The six ranch style homes behind electrified fence and concertina wire would be big enough to hold all the guests and the weather would be wonderful that time of year, but also because Natalie wanted to be looking out upon Christ the Redeemer when the moment came.
The low, single story homes were all very Frank Lloyd Wright on the outside and Rat Pack on the inside. The guests were dressed in 1960s haute couture and the cocktail culture was in full swing. The robotic gun turrets with overlapping fields of fire were the only obvious anachronisms.
When it came to parties, Natalie thought of herself as a sort of brigadier general, an extremely senior manager who was still involved in the actual details of logistics. She chose the flowers but never potted a single plant. She made the list of approved cocktails but never purchased a single bottle of liquor. She made up the guest list but left the tedious task of rejecting the uninvited to her social secretary. The way she saw it, she was responsible for seeing that the dress got made, not threading every bobbin.
And this wasn’t the only party she was currently throwing. This one was just for those in the know. The others she had set aside in site-adjacent areas for special people whom she perceived might be more comfortable discovering the reason for the parties after they were over.
To make her job even more difficult, she had no servants beyond her secretary Louise. For security purposes, no one but the guests could be allowed into the compound so she had drafted some of the richest, most powerful and/or most talented humans in the world into service positions as chefs and bartenders and the like. Men like Karl Campbell, the beefy writer who had made a career of getting himself into trouble and then writing about how he got himself out of it, whom she had goaded into moving kegs of beer and boxes of liquor. He was always glad for a reason to take his shirt off. It was an open secret that Rex Dressler, famed Hollywood producer, had always fancied himself a first rate bartender so he was happy mixing drinks as long as his responsibilities didn’t restrict his own alcoholic intake.
The patio, with its broad view of Christ and the filthy, teeming metropolis below, was already occupied by a dozen international bankers, publishers, Broadway stars and the CEO of General Motors. She was a dreadful bore and a good example of why American business was in such decline, but her husband was a legendary flirt who was known to follow up on his promises despite his marital status. Several women at the party would have cried foul if they had not been allowed to sample his wares before the big finale.
Natalie’s son Bernard, the only partygoer she had real concerns about, interrupted her while she was watching as Louise counted cases of bottled water. “Mom?”
He was twelve and brilliant but he was also lonely and moody and not happy about having to leave his chums back home to come to Rio. “I’m bored.”
“Why don’t you play with the other children?”
“Because I’m too old? I’m almost thirteen, Mom. I can’t play with little kids anymore.”
She marked off the water bottles on her checklist and forced a smile. He needed something to keep his mind occupied until the denouement.
“Why are we even at this party anyway?” he asked.
She started to reply but then realized that this was the perfect thing for his idle mind: a puzzle. “You’re smart enough to figure it out yourself, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said without thinking and then backtracked. “I mean, if I had enough information, I guess.”
She took a moment to think about it, to sort out the details in her head, and then said, “This party is to commemorate something that happened thirteen years ago but which can only be celebrated now.”
“Einstein,” she said. “He knows, ask him.”
“Is he?” Then she turned her back on him and returned to work.
2. Bernard hated his name beyond all reason. It was the name of a boy with thumb-rubbed glasses who got two for flinching. It was the name of a boy who was no good at baseball or football. And, worse, it couldn’t be shortened to anything respectable. Bernie? Nard? Bern? He had tried to get his mates at school to call him Bear but it was a universal truth that you couldn’t give yourself a nickname.
The fact that his last name was Gale offered no relief.
And it didn’t help that he was trapped in a grownup party with lots of drunk adults and gangs of uncontrolled little kids roaming in packs like bored velociraptors.
He was a slight boy not given to physical confrontation, a boy who hated being close to other people so vehemently that he often got sick to his stomach when some strange adult tried to hug him. The tribes of wild children terrified him. They loved to gang up on big kids like him and bring them down for a tickle fight, something that he would find about as enjoyable as sleeping on a pile of concertina wire.
“What’s your name?” The voice belonged to a kid who sounded as bored and as dejected about being at this party as he did.
He looked up to find a girl with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes staring dully at him. True to the party’s theme, she was dressed in a miniskirt and white go-go boots and had a blue ribbon in her hair. Without thinking, he said, indicating his own sharkskin suit and narrow tie, “Now I don’t feel so bad about having to wear this.”
She didn’t take offense but she did say, “I can kick you so hard in your nuts with my go-go boots that you’ll vomit and die.”
“Please don’t,” he said after nervously clearing his throat.
She shrugged. “Okay, I guess, if you tell me your name.”
“I’m… They call me Bear.”
“Do they?” she asked, staring down his lame attempt with dead eyes.
“No,” he said.
“Too bad. That would be a good name for you.” She stuck out her hand. “Kat Satanic.”
He shook her hand as limply as possible, not sure how he should approach shaking a girl’s hand. “Your last name is Satanic?”
“Daddy’s a rocker. It’s an anagram for something I don’t care enough about to remember. Why are we here?”
“Here? On Earth?”
“At this stupid party,” Kat said.
“Oh, that,” he said, feeling nervous about the way she was looking at him. Objectively, she was just another pretty girl but there was something about her that made normally disused parts of him fly into sudden action. “I don’t really know. My mom just gave me some hints so I would go away and stop bothering her. How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” she said but it sounded like something a thirteen year old would say. “What clues?”
“She told me this party is to celebrate something that happened thirteen years ago but could only be celebrated now. When I asked her why they had to wait thirteen years, she told me Einstein would know.”
“He’s dead,” Kat said.
“Yes,” Bernard agreed. “But that’s all we’ve got.”
She thought about it, nodded to herself, and sat crosslegged next to him. “Okay, let’s get started.”
“Figuring it out,” she said. “What happened thirteen years ago?”
“I don’t know, I was barely even born yet,” he said.
“Then look it up.”
Bernard slipped an anodized metal tube from his pocket and thumbed a pressure point on the side. Articulated arms swung out from the body to form the base of a 3D projector that rendered his desktop in the air above the cylinder. He said, “Current Events, today minus 13 years.”
Kat leaned to add, “Span thirty days.”
They watched the headlines slide by — a mudslide in Argentina, a financial collapse in East Africa, an armed uprising in the Russian States — until they came across an item about the GDA SS Battle Group Henreid shipping out for Orion Colony. They quickly scanned the article and discovered that Orion Colony was actually a human owned mining operation on Luhman 16B. Travel time at warp to the colony was 6.5 years.
“Got it,” Bernard said. “The battle group thing is returning.”
“Yeah,” Kat said, a little disappointed. “I thought it would be more.”
“Well, your mom made it sound like a secret or something but it’s just, you know, they’re coming home.”
Now Bernard desperately didn’t want this to be the solution to his mom’s riddle because if this was the thing then Kat would have no reason to hang around with him anymore. And he really wanted her to hang around some more. She called him Bear. That was really cool of her.
“Well, maybe this isn’t it. It’s not like my mom makes things easy when she wants to get rid of me.” Now that he said it, he could see the actual sense in that. When his mom wanted him out from under foot, she doled out miniscule clues to intricate mysteries that kept him spinning until she had more time to deal with him. “Actually, this probably isn’t even it.”
“Yeah?” Kat said hopefully.
“Yeah, let’s go see.”
They padded off together until they could track Natalie down. They found her directing the storage of frozen food containers. She took a moment to be introduced to Kat and to listen to their theory before shooting it down. “If you think we’re celebrating the return of our battle group then I wonder if you understand what they were going off to do.”
That was it, but it was enough to send Bernard and Kat running off to the interior of the house to put their heads together on their next move.
Kat said, “What do you…”
The burping, ratcheting sound of the robotic gun turrets at the edges of the compound cut her off. She squatted in the relative isolation of a back bedroom with Bernard huddled across from her until the sound stopped. “What was that?”
“The machine guns,” he said. “People aren’t supposed to come up here unless they’re invited.”
“So they get shot?” Kat asked.
Bernard nodded solemnly.
Her attention span adroitly skipping over the inconvenient facts in her midst, Kat quickly returned to the mystery Bernard’s mom had set out for them. “What do you think is the reason for the fleet shipping out to Orion?”
“Dunno,” he said, quickly forming a search command for his phone’s desktop. The results were disturbingly chaotic but most of the seemingly salient ones had to do with an attack on the colony by the Dretch, a race of imperialists with a death-penalty-enforced code of conduct so intricate they lost more people to minor social infractions than they did to wars.
Like any other kids who had gone to private school, Bernard and Kat had studied all the extant factions of sentient life in the known universe. From the preening, arrogant Sleestaks to the boiling masses of the insectile Pestilents, they had learned the prominent characteristics of all the dominant races fighting for control of the galaxy and knew that the Dretch were bold of deed and silent of word. They spoke in action.
“Okay,” Kat said, “so the fleet shipped out to fight the Dretch because they attacked our colony.”
“Yeah,” Bernard said, nodding. But was that right? He didn’t want to go back to his mother with another half-baked response. “But…”
“But what?” Kat asked.
“But that’s not anything new for our argument,” he said, feeling for the words even as he said them, trying to use his mother’s vocabulary. “That’s just why they shipped out, it’s not anything more about why we’re celebrating today.”
“They went to kick ass,” Kat said. “Now they’re coming home with trophies.”
“Yeah,” Bernard said but he still wasn’t convinced. “I mean, that sounds right but it doesn’t fit with how my mom likes to torture me on things like this.”
Kat closed her eyes and thought about everything she had seen since running into this boy she called Bear. “Okay, so what did we miss?”
“Well, we already guessed that the celebration is to welcome home the fleet but she said that’s not right.”
“Yeah,” Kat said. “That can’t be it.” She scratched the bridge of her nose and blinked her eyelashes at him — something that made Bernard feel strange in his stomach — and then said, “If it’s not the fleet, who is coming home?”
“Why wouldn’t the fleet come home?” Bernard asked.
Kat shrugged. “They… got broke down or something? Maybe they got shot up in the battle and they have to come home slow?”
“Maybe,” he said returning to his phone. “Let me see what the matchup was like.”
“Between the Dretch and us.” Searching the newsfeeds and forums from thirteen years ago, he found something strange. “Is it kind of weird that the major news outlets would all be yelling for one thing while the experts in the forums were all yelling for the opposite?”
“I don’t even understand the question,” Kat said.
“The news outlets are all big headlines about how it’s time for justice and it’s time for humans to stand up for themselves. They’re all, like, ‘you should go out there and stand up to the Dretch,’ but the forums are all, like, ‘This is stupid. The Dretch are too powerful and they didn’t do anything anyway. We were the ones who built a mining colony in their sector.’”
Kat ran the fingers of her right hand through her hair, obviously having forgotten she had her thick, golden locks bunched into a ponytail. She got part way before the diamond in her pinky ring became stuck in the scrunchy that held her ponytail in place. “Ah! Ow!”
“Hold on, I’ll get it,” Bernard said and moved over to sit beside her so he could free the large pear shaped diamond ring from the knot of hair.
While he was tending to her, she said, “If the Dretch were so much more stronger than us, why would the headlines say we should go fight them?”
“There you go,” he said, setting her free.
She smiled at him and said, “Thanks, Bear.”
He blushed and looked away. “I guess because they had a different opinion?”
“What’s the difference between them?”
“Between the newsfeeds and the forums? I don’t know.”
“Can we ask your mom? Does she give hints?”
“Sometimes,” he said, thinking about the difficulty of dealing with his mother when she didn’t want to be bothered. “If the answer would help you get to the information you need but wouldn’t help you get the, you know, overall answer then she’ll help a little.”
“Would you be mad at me if I asked you why she’s like this?”
He laughed. “She’s not ‘like this’ she’s just, you know, always teaching.”
“You’re home schooled?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we travel a lot and she was all about me going to sleep-away school but I just couldn’t, you know? So she gave me the choice. I could put up with her or go live at a school somewhere.”
“I wish I was home schooled,” Kat said with a heavy sigh. “My school is boring and it’s all girls and they’re all bitches.”
Bernard didn’t know what to say to that and so, not for the last time when a girl said something that confused him, he simply changed the subject. “Let’s go ask her about the forums and the newsfeeds.”
“Yeah,” Kat said eagerly.
They found Natalie listening to a red faced, barrel chested man telling a story that had something to do with a counter insurgency in the Russian States where he had hitched a ride with a drunken truck driver through a minefield. Bernard knew better than to interrupt so he and Kat stood perfectly still at the very edge of Natalie’s peripheral vision until the whole group exploded into laughter and she finally turned to acknowledge them.
“Mom,” Bernard said, “we have a question about the puzzle.”
“Thirteen years ago, right before the fleet shipped out to fight the Dretch, the newsfeeds were all saying that it was a good idea and we needed to do that right away but the forums were saying we shouldn’t go.”
“Yes? And what’s your question?”
“Why would they be so different?”
Natalie cupped his face with her hand and said sweetly, “It’s not the mouth that matters. The mouth is just the voice of its owner.” Then she returned to the party.
“That sucks,” Kat said, watching her go. “It’s, like, zero information. Less than zero. It’s negative information.”
“I don’t think so,” Bernard said, furiously turning his mother’s words over in his mind. “She never says nothing. She’s never not helpful. If she gives you a clue, it’s a real clue even if it doesn’t look like one at first.”
“Well, I don’t see it,” Kat said, ready to move onto something else. She liked puzzles and she liked challenges but not when they were too puzzling or too challenging. “I wonder how much booze we can squeegee out of the glasses they’ve left around the place.”
“That’s what my mom calls being willfully ignorant.”
She spun on him with an “Oh no you didn’t” expression and said, “Say what?”
“You just gave up,” Bernard said, undisturbed mostly because he didn’t know that her expression was a warning that repercussions were imminent. “It got difficult and you quit. That’s what my mom calls being willfully ignorant.”
“Are you calling me stupid?”
“You know I’m not,” Bernard said. “You know the difference between stupid and ignorant. And I’m pretty sure you can guess what willful ignorance is. You just don’t want to try because you think you might fail.”
“Listen to me, Bernard,” she said, putting the very tip of her index finger at the very tip of his nose. “Nobody calls me stupid.”
Bernard liked this. For the first time since she had unceremoniously dropped into his life, he felt like Kat wasn’t driving the bus. He was. “Look, if you’re not smart enough to help me figure this out, then I won’t keep you. Go join the cheerleaders and sorority girls. There’s probably a lot you can share with them.”
She started to say something — okay, she started to punch him in the mouth — but then she got what he was up to and she smiled and nodded instead. “Okay, Einstein, where are we?”
“Who is the voice of the mouth?” he asked. “The voice tells the mouth what to say. That’s what my mother was telling us.”
“So who owns the newsfeeds and the forums?” Kat said, nodding. But then she shrugged and said, “I always thought they were, you know, not owned. They just sort of happen, right?”
Bernard flipped open his phone and went to work on a search. “Well, let’s just see who owns which mouth.”
The result was unsettling and the inquiry took hours and hours. By the time they had puzzled out the state of ownership for the various newsfeeds and forums, night had fallen and the periodic rumble of automatic gunfire had been replaced by the crackle of fireworks and the oohs and ahs of the guests assembled on the patio overlooking the fires and riots of Rio.
From what they could glean from the search results, the newsfeeds were all owned by corporations, many of whose CEOs were in attendance at this very party, but the forums were little more than a loose collection of experts using them as an outlet for their contra opinions. The newsfeed ownership was fine with Bernard and Kat. As children of privilege, they were all in favor of free speech purchased by position, but the unbridled voices in the forums bothered them.
The newsfeeds were alarmist and illogical, shouting panicky messages obviously targeted at the uninformed and the easily frightened, whereas the arguments in the forums were laid out logically and backed up with proof.
When it was boiled down for a quick scan, the debate was basically “We’re human and we should never be opposed because of Jesus and Democracy” versus “We shouldn’t attack the Dretch because we should never have built a colony in their territory in the first place and they are so much more powerful than us we’re sure to lose.”
Kat didn’t want to be accused of being intellectually lazy again but she was out of ideas. “Can we get another clue?”
“Not usually,” Bernard said. Then his face lit up and he said, “But there is another way. We can build a whole theory, end to end, and present it to her.”
“What good will that do?” Kat demanded. “We don’t have any idea what we’re talking about.”
“She’ll correct a theory as long as it is logical enough to make sense,” he said. “Her corrections might point us in the right direction.”
Kat felt torn. On the one hand, this boy was cute and was also one of the only boys her age at this dumb party, but on the other hand there were all these abandoned drinks glasses sitting out on tables just ripe for the picking. “Make a deal?”
“We squeegee one drink and then get back to work on the theory.”
“Grownups don’t like to finish their drinks. They put them down and forget them or they lose them and just get a new one. Whatever, that’s perfectly good booze going to waste in those glasses.”
“Oh,” he said. “Sure. Have you ever had it before? Alcohol, I mean.”
She responded with a derisive snort.
“Me, too,” he hastened to say. “Yeah, all the time.” Then, eyeing the glasses with their green and amber and black and white contents dotting every table, he said, “Which is your favorite?”
“I don’t like beer,” she said quickly. “It smells like right before bread goes bad. Whiskey is good except that it burns if the ice isn’t melted enough, but the best is a gin and vodka.”
“A gin and vodka?”
“It’s a drink that ladies like. It’s kind of like cranberry but it stings going down.”
“What does a gin and vodka look like?”
She pointed at a martini glass with the remnants of a red liquid in it. “That. Those are the ones you want. Dibs, by the way. Dibs on that one.”
Bernard decided all the burning and stinging wasn’t for him. Plus, he had seen his mother and her friends when they had been drinking alcohol and it was… confusing at best. So when he and Kat struck out to cadge an abandoned glass each, he decided to snag one that just had water in it. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible, he snapped up a martini glass half filled with clear liquid and snuck back to the place where Kat was already waiting for him.
“Bold choice,” she said, nodding at the glass in his hand. “I like that in a man.”
Bernard cleared his throat and lowered his voice an octave. “Well, I drink this stuff all the time.” But just lifting it to his mouth he could smell that something was wrong with the water in the glass. It burned his nose hairs and dried out the back of his throat even before he tossed the beverage he expected to be a thirst quenching blast of refreshment into his mouth.
As she was pounding him on the back, Kat asked, “Did it go down the wrong pipe?”
He tried to speak, could not stop coughing, nodded instead.
“I hate it when that happens. You okay, Bear?”
He forced himself to take a deep breath and then fought a silent battle against his body’s urge to cough out his own liver. Finally, he said, “Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s get back to work.”
“Good idea,” she said, tossing the remains of a Cosmo down her throat like a pro. “Of course, now I’m hungry.”
“Focus,” Bernard snapped. “We have to come up with a theory about what we’re here to celebrate…”
He was cut off by the sound of the gun turrets again. This interruption was followed by the buzzing of a dozen drones leaving their nests above the house to sail out into the night looking for intruders who were beyond the range of the turrets.
“Why do they keep coming up here?” Kat asked. “They know they’ll just get shot.”
“I wonder if that’s a clue,” Bernard said.
“Well, suppose the fact that we’re here is a clue and that the fact of the people who keep trying to get into the compound is also a clue. That could mean something, right?”
Kat shrugged. “Maybe? Possibly? I don’t know, she’s your mom.”
Bernard sat on the floor with his back to the wall, that familiar feeling of being very close to a discovery edging at his nerves. “Why do they want in?”
“Duh! It’s nice here. We have running water and lots of food.”
“Yeah, we do,” he said, still distracted. “But that’s not worth dying for. I mean, why would you leave a place where you’ve been surviving for your whole life just to get to a place where you know you will be killed?”
“You wouldn’t,” Kat said, “unless your safe place is about to get very unsafe.”
“They’re probing our defenses,” Bernard said. “That’s also a clue. They’re so desperate to get out of the city, they’re trying to find a way to get through our fences. Why would they do that?”
“Have you seen the city?” Kat asked with a roll of her eyes. “It’s a hole. They’ve got, like, ten people per square inch down there and not enough water for, like, half of them.”
“Yeah but that didn’t happen yesterday,” he replied. “Why did being in the city suddenly get so bad today that they decided to climb a mountain just to get shot by robots?”
“You think something is going to happen to the city?”
“Maybe,” Bernard said. “I mean, it makes sense, right?”
“It would explain why so many people are so desperate to get with us, yes. But what could scare that many people so badly?”
“It’s a clue,” Bernard said, returning to his thinking. “Just like everything else. We’re here to see whatever is going to happen to the city and the people down there know what it is, what’s going to happen, and they’re desperate to get away from it.”
He shook his head and sighed. “It seems like it ought to be obvious, right? It could be something like an earthquake or a volcano.”
“Except you don’t know when those things are going to happen. Maybe a super-storm is coming.”
“Good idea.” Bernard pulled up the weather for the region on his phone looking for the telltale shades of red and purple that indicated a massively destructive storm, something akin to a tornado the size of a hurricane, was coming their way. His spirits flagged. “Nothing. Besides, since we’re here, the government would just divert it anyway.”
“Yeah, there’s no way they’d let the people in this compound get chewed up by a storm.” Kat sat next to him and twiddled her thumbs. “You know what’s weird? The trip to Orion takes six and a half years.”
“So the trip out there and back would take thirteen years. Which is now. Why is it not the fleet coming back that we’re celebrating?”
It struck them at the same time. They pointed at each and said, overlapping each other’s words, “It’s the Dretch fleet that’s coming back!”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Kat said. “We wouldn’t be celebrating that.”
“Maybe they’re returning prisoners,” Bernard said hopefully. “Maybe they took some of our ships captive and they’re bringing them back for, you know, peace negotiations.”
“That sounds like it could be right,” Kat said. “Look up the Dretch. See if it sounds like something they would do.”
Bernard bent over his phone and pulled up articles on the Dretch. It didn’t take long for his shoulders to slump. “Not really.”
“Why? What would they do?”
“The normal thing for them when they defeat an opponent is to come to their homeworld and destroy every living creature and then move in,” Bernard said. “For them, it’s like capturing a chess piece. The square becomes theirs.”
Kat’s face went pale as she shrugged against the wall and slid over until her shoulder was resting against his. “Oh, my God, we’re about to die.”
“Maybe not,” Bernard said, quickly reading ahead, “that’s only when they want to take the planet.”
“Why wouldn’t they want Earth?”
“Because they breathe methane,” Bernard said. “They don’t want our world.”
“Awesome!” Kat cried but then said, “Wait, why are they coming if they don’t want our world?”
“Oh,” Bernard said blankly. He looked up from his phone and said, “As a warning against further aggressiveness, they destroy every major city on a planet.”
“And then they leave.” He sighed and closed his eyes. “It makes sense when you think about it. Something like that would totally put a civilization back to their pre-industrial age. They wouldn’t be a threat again for another couple hundred years.”
Kat got to her feet and stepped out into the flow of grownups so she could see Christ the Redeemer spreading his arms over the city. “That’s why they’re so desperate to get out. Their home is about to be destroyed.” Then she turned to him and put her hands on his chest. “Why are we so close? The fallout will kill us.”
“No, the Dretch use a gravity drive weapon,” Bernard said. “It’s not radioactive and it doesn’t do any disintegration. It just shakes everything so hard within the blast radius that the bits and pieces fly apart.”
“If it tears the molecules apart…”
“No, it’s not like that,” he said, showing her a video of a Dretch gravity drive attack playing on his phone. He had been right about it not being disintegration. It was more like a super intense earthquake shaking and shaking everything until buildings crumbled into shards and people were flung apart into wet sopping pieces. It looked awful and painful and terrible.
She swooned and had to hold onto him to stay upright. “I don’t want to die like that.”
“Trust me,” he said, glaring at his mother as she passed some sort of hilarious story with a group of sophisticates on the patio, “if my mother has anything to say about it, we won’t have to.”
“Then why are we here?” Kat pleaded.
It occurred to him then that his mother had given him a plum of a clue but at the time he had viewed it as just so much more chaff. “The mouth only says what the owner wants it to.” He flipped open his phone and did another series of searches. “Okay, I think we can get her to fill in the blank spots. Let’s go.”
“Blank spots on what?” Kat called after him.
“Our theory,” he said, not bothering to look over his shoulder to see if she was following. This whole thing had just been promoted beyond winning a cool girl’s affection into a something where he needed to worry for their safety.
He found his mother speaking to some journalist who was so drunk he couldn’t make both his eyes look in the same direction. He stepped in between them, not something he would have attempted under normal circumstances but panic drove his heel just now, and said, “Mom! We have to go! We have to get away.”
She looked down at him with heavily lidded eyes. “And why would we do that after we spent all this time and effort on this perfectly lovely compound?”
“The Dretch are coming,” he said with an urgent whisper as if he didn’t want to tip anyone off. “They’re going to blow up all the cities. They’re going to kill half the people on this planet.”
“More like eighty percent,” Natalie said. “The mortality rate will be extremely high for the first few years what with the disease and violence and what have you. But don’t worry, we’re perfectly safe here.”
He stared at her with blank confusion, his mouth working like a fish gasping for air. “The Dretch…”
“Yes, you said that already,” she said, smiling a little drunkenly. In the early stages, the alcohol gave her a slightly beatific look. “Once everything is settled, we’ll swoop in and offer housing and employment and healthcare to the survivors. They’re going to be so happy. You’ll see. They’ll have purpose again. They’ll be productive again. They’ll be contributing members of society.” She shook her head slightly, saying, “So happy.”
Bernard was almost sure she didn’t understand what he was talking about but couldn’t come up with a different way of saying it so he just added one word that he was sure would shake her out of her boozy insouciance. “They’re going to destroy all of our cities, Mom.”
“Well, they’re not really our cities anymore, are they?” She took a sip from her glass and grabbed a barrel chested man having a conversation next to her and said, “Are they, Karl?”
Karl Campbell allowed himself to be pulled out of a red-faced excoriation of some political concept with great good humor beaming from his big face. The kids found him a little bit terrifying but he didn’t seem to notice. “I should say YES because you’re my hostess,” he said, blurting out the words between big teeth that split a manly beard in a way that seemed like they might be the only things that could manage such a trick. “But I don’t know what you are talking about and I hate to be misquoted. Just as ask that fascist interviewer from the Post who tried to box trap me when I was in my cups. He’s got at least one porcelain tooth now thanks to me.”
Bernard noticed that his mother seemed especially girl-like as the big man hung over her, bloviating in booze-fueled good spirits. “I was just telling the children how the cities really don’t belong to us anymore.”
“No, Gawd no!” Karl Campbell bellowed. “They chased us from every city on the PLANET into the small towns and remote places and then they chased us into the GAWD-awful suburbs. The hell with you, Cheever! And then, when we tried to take our places again, they chased us into the high rises. So we left all of it behind.” His mood seemed to darken for a moment as his bleary blue eyes swept out over the balcony to momentarily take in the rash of urban sprawl below. “By GAWD it’s an awful thing. A goddamned awful thing.”
Now Natalie maneuvered him out of the conversation with the same ease she had used to auger him into it. “What Karl means is that we gave up the cities a long time ago. Our robotic hydroponics installations are linked to smart distribution centers that use intelligent highways to send food to our markets via driverless trucks with nary a raised middle finger. Meat is synthesized in protein extrusion centers. Automatic factories produce everything we need.”
Bernard felt oddly light, as if some weighty part of him had fled his body. His soul? Had he died while listening to his mother explain to him why eight billion people could be considered acceptable casualties because they were unnecessary. “So all those people have to die because they don’t make anything you and your friends want to buy?”
She nodded, confused that he had even asked the question. “The base of the pyramid has one job, Bernard. It holds up the top of the pyramid.” Then she adopted the tone she used with him when she was home schooling him in the Socratic style. “What happens to a pyramid when the base is too narrow?”
“It falls over,” he said reluctantly.
“And what happens to a pyramid when the base is too wide?”
“It collapses in on itself.”
“The base has been too wide and getting wider for hundreds of years,” she said, not unkindly. She honestly seemed distressed on some level to be hosting this party. “We’ve tried many things to return balance to society but nothing has worked. We even tried to engineer a war between India and China.” She smiled sadly and sighed. “It was a good try…”
Then Karl Campbell suddenly returned to their conversation, saying, “By GAWD it was wonderful. They managed to drag the Russian States into the thing. It was a sort of three front, two war configuration for awhile but they could never bring themselves to use their atomics. If they only knew that all of this that’s happening now could have been avoided if just one commander on one side had possessed the iron to pull the trigger.”
Natalie smiled up at him as she turned him away from their conversation for a second time and then returned her attention to the kids. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking the other way, but now their wanton ways are threatening to destroy the planet we all live on. We can’t simply complain that their end of the canoe is sinking. We are, in fact, all in the same boat and they’re taking us down with them.”
“So eight billion people have to die?” Bernard said. Now he noticed the skin on his hand was extra pale. If it really was his soul that had fled him, it must have taken his blood with it. He felt light headed and slightly dizzy.
“Yes,” his mother said. “The width of the base isn’t dependent on the size of the pyramid. That’s a faulty analogy. The base should be exactly the size the top needs it to be. But all these years as we’ve automated everything, effectively reducing the size of the base required to support us, the base has been expanding, nevertheless. So as we’ve needed fewer people to support the upper classes, the lower classes have been reproducing with wild abandon. For a short time, this provided an intermediate benefit as we globalized our operations because it provided a lower cost of labor, but it wasn’t long before there was just too much cheap labor in the world.”
Bernard was horrified by what she said. He turned to Kat for confirmation but her expression was unreadable. He turned back to his mother and said, “If the ‘point’ is life then why is some life less valuable than others?”
“That’s a poor reading of Darwin,” she replied sternly. This was the face of the unhappy school marm, the one he hated above all others. It was the way she looked at him when she thought he was being intentionally thick headed.
He cleared his throat nervously as Kat took an emergency step away from him, and said, “But that is the basic principle of evolution. Life is the point.”
His mother shook her head in slow turns, refusing to look at him. She was the most disappointed one room schoolhouse teacher in the world. “Please explain the disappearance of the dodo and the passenger pigeon within the confines of your theory that life is all it takes.”
Now this was a familiar feeling. Trapped in the headlights of an oncoming bus with no idea where to head for safety. “You want me to admit that some people are useless and I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Because it makes me sad!” he snapped. The truth was more complicated than this. He often felt that he himself was expendable, a piece of flotsam carried along in his mother’s wake. If the world suddenly started demanding that its people prove some kind of worth to remain among the living, he feared he would soon be sent down to Rio to die with the rest of his unnecessary ilk.
“You can be sad all you want but the decision was made a long time ago. There is no going back on this. It’s going to happen whether you approve or not. So my advice to you, young man, is to toughen up and accept the inevitable. The next few decades are going to be exceedingly difficult for all of us. We’re going to need strong people to take the helm. Trust me when I say that you do not want to find yourself considered to be extraneous during that time.”
There it was, the ever present threat that he would be ejected from a meritocracy that had no time for his failings. It was a terrible thing, but he realized that he would do anything to avoid that. Though he might remain scandalized at the atrocities that were about to be committed in order to regain global balance in the population, he would do what it took to fit in with the people doing it. Anything to not be tossed out with the rest of the trash.
“Okay,” he said, not looking at Kat. He hated her now. She was just one more unruffled hothouse lily who turned her back on the suffering of others. “But you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t want to gloat.”
“Gloat?” his mother said, eyebrow arching in surprise. “Is that what you think this party is about? Do you really think all these important people came here so they could watch the cold blooded murder of millions?”
Bernard nodded dumbly.
Now she was really angry. She got down in his face and said, “Are you familiar with the law of supply and demand, young man?”
It was a simple question but the way she asked it caused his intestines fill up with chilled ice water. He nodded rather than answer.
“When you have too much of something the price goes down. That’s the essence of capitalism. Value rises from scarcity. But what happens when you have too many people? Life itself becomes worthless. There are clubs down there where humans are forced to fight each other with chainsaws for the entertainment of others.”
“Life is cheap,” he said, swallowing hard.
“Life is worthless down there,” she said. “That’s what this is about. This decision was made at the highest levels and I can guarantee you that no one involved with making that decision has slept the night through in the last thirteen years.”
“Then why do we have to watch!” he screamed.
“Because you are going to be in charge, son. When my generation falls away, yours will be in charge and those people down there are going to come to you and ask if they can put their faith in a superstition that outlaws birth control. They’re going to want to reproduce without restriction. They’re going to beg to be able to start this whole mess all over again.”
“And what am I supposed to do about it?” he demanded.
She leaned in closer and said, “You’re supposed to remember what you saw here today and then tell them ‘no’ with a clear conscience.”
Finally understanding what she had planned for his future, he backed away from her, dumbstruck with intense dread, and started to offer up some kind of explanation as to why that was just crazy talk but he was drowned out by the enormous spacecraft settling in over the city of Rio.
Natalie teetered on the verge of losing her resolve, but she grabbed the children and pulled them to her, yelling over the sound of the gravity drive warming up, “It’s going to be okay! It’s all going to be okay!”