Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scurvy Logic

"That's right," she said, "When they ask, tell them Maria sent you."

Her companion nodded. "Right."

'Maria' looked at her, pity slopping around in her heart but not, she hoped, spilling from her eyes. Carrie's skin was sallow, and last week a tooth had fallen out. Both of them were pretty sure she had scurvy, but she couldn't get a job and all the food stamps were good for were discounted processed items denatured of almost any kind of nutritional value, like to eating cardboard with artificial flavor. Fruits and vegetables were expensive, what with the winter that had stayed winter through spring and then come back with a vengeance in the early autumn. And as for dietary supplements, well ... those were controlled substances, these days. Maria couldn't remember what the pretext was, and wasn't sure it mattered. Everyone knew the real reason, by now.

Carrie's eyes were dull with hunger, the spark that had once danced in them dimmed to an ember. Noting this, Maria leaned in and said, "Tell me the passphrase again."

"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logic.'"

"Close. Logos."



"'The Light of Heaven shines from Logos.'"

"Good. Don't forget it." She didn't know whether or not they'd show leniency if Carrie messed up the passphrase. She was so far gone, on the edge of delerium ... possibly they'd forgive her. That was no reason at all, though, not to try and see to it that she remembered it as well as possible.

All Carry needed, she thought, was vitamins. With those to supplement the carbohydrate diet the state kept her on, she might just pull through to summer, if there was to be a summer. Perhaps they'd have a tea of some kind, as they'd given her, or maybe just some proper herbs to sprinkle over her food.

"What's logos?" Carrie asked.

Maria sighed. "It's ... um, 'word', I think, in Latin or Greek or something."

"Oh, so like the Word of God or something like that?"

"Something like that." Maria knew that wasn't right, exactly, but wasn't clear on the details herself and didn't feel like getting into a theological exegesis with a woman so sick she'd barely been able to get out of bed this morning.

She'd chosen Carrie the way Steven had come to her. He hadn't waited for her approach, but had identified her as someone in need of real medical attention and, discretely, approached her himself. He hadn't more than vaguely alluded to his real purpose until they'd met at a small club, a place where the music could be guaranteed to drown out any hope of someone's cell overhearing them, and whispered his instructions in her ear. She'd gone the very next day.

Well, Carrie was in no shape to go to a music club. But she was sick, and it would be no strange thing if her friend visited to minister to her. And if that friend had recently had a cancer scare, well, it was within the accepted parameters of human coping behaviour that she'd be skittish of the unwelcome device that had no doubt caused it and taken to leaving it at home, or (more recently) carrying it in a case lined with lead foil. Though she wasn't sure; with the case she might be deviating outside accepted parameters and beginning to trigger the Watcher's unpredictable paranoia.

So she'd come over around noon, carefully left Carrie's cell next to a speaker blaring something rockabilly from her mp3 collection, and sat close beside her as she stroked her friend's hair and murmured directions into her ear that might save her life.

That was how they solved the distribution problem, Maria figured. Rather than selling to the highest bidder and letting the Market do it's work for them, they relied on their own customer's judgment to direct those most in need in their direction, and thereby moved a limited supply of herbal medications and dietary supplements grown in extreme secrecy under desperate circumstances to the people most desperately in need.

She'd wondered what they called themselves. Some time after her visit she'd asked Steven. "Dunno," he'd shrugged. "I think of them as the Underground Herbalists, but that's just me."

Funny; she'd never have thought to ask what her dealer called his organization, back in the day when she had money and time for things like drugs. She wouldn't even have assumed he had a name, and frankly would have been a little frightened to find out he had, because that meant you weren't just dealing with your friendly neighborhood pusher but ultimately with a gang, and that was a whole different kind of ugly. And while you might know that ultimately it was a gang that your hydro was coming from, your discerning middle class pothead preferred to keep at least a couple of middlemen between herself and the ultimate origin.

Whoever these people were, she felt, they weren't a gang. Oh, there were similarities, sure; and if the one basement shop she'd been in was anything to judge by, there were elements of the criminal underclass that had thrown in with them ... but they weren't in charge. She couldn't see real crooks getting into a business whose 'profits' were the goodwill and favors of anyone who happened to survive what they'd come to have treated. No, they were clearly in a subordinate role for ... what, exactly? How were they being paid? In medicine?

Well, that wasn't so ridiculous, when you thought of it. Not these days. Those men had families too, and a supply of natural medications and nutritional supplementation would go a long way to ensuring those families would survive the winter.

Carrie shifted, and grimaced. Her hand moved down to rub her knee. "Can you go for me?" She asked. "I know you just spent all that time telling me the directions, but my knee's really been hurting today."

Maria frowned. "Can I have a look at it?" Seeing the hesitation in her gaze, Maria leaned over and lifted Carrie's skirt up. Her knee was swollen and read. Internal bleeding, she judged. She'd heard somewhere that the joints did that, in the late stages. At any rate it didn't look like she'd get very far on that knee, not even in the pleasantest weather. Let alone the raging snowstorm that had kicked up just after she'd arrived: the howling wind outside was driving snowflakes at a hundred kilometres an hour, according to the news. They got to be like little shuriken at that speed. Every one of them cut into the skin before it melted, abrading just a little of it off. You'd notice even one hitting your skin, but in this weather they'd hit you by the million.

People died in those storms. First there were the unlucky ones, the ones who didn't find shelter until too late, simultaneously cut to pieces and frozen solid. Then there was the aftermath, with downed powerlines and roads closed by massive snow-drifts and toppled trees and sometimes lamp-posts. Things didn't get back on their feet with the speed they used to, and every time one of these storms hit a few more froze to death.

"Sure, I'll go for you," Maria said, gingerly replacing the skirt. "But I'll wait until the snowicane blows over first, OK?"

"Absolutely not!" Carry said, shocked. "I want you to go now! Now, now, now!" She teased, her expression entirely genuine. Then she burst out laughing, and for a moment Carrie's old self returned, the Carrie of happier times who went clubbing and rock-climbing and worried about makeup and boys and her resume.

Maria giggled along with her, and they were plunged into darkness as the music cut out. Around them they heard nothing but the thin scream of the wind, and for a moment they were both blind.

"Oh, damnit...." Maria started, involuntarily.

"I thought that might happen." Carrie tried to sit up, failed and dropped back down into her chair. "Listen, I've got some big quilts and some candles I've been saving up. Maybe if we throw the quilts over us, and sit with a candle or two between us we can keep warm. It'll be like an igloo made from cushions and blankets."

"That's a wonderfully awful idea, hun," said Maria, smiling. "We'll set fire to the place and burn to death."

"At least we'll die warm."

"And that's why I said, 'wonderfully'," Maria returned, rummaging in her capacious shoulder-bag. It took her a time, in the darkness, but finally she held up a small LED finger-light and turned it on, bathing the room in a soft luminesnce that was just enough to see by. She stood up. "So," she said, "Where did you say those quilts were?"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Comet Boy

Clover and goldenrod vied with one another for supremacy across the expanse of the meadow, whilst at the crest of the low hill a bank of trees stood silent witness to the slow seasonal struggle; through its midst came two men, mounted on horseback, their animals moving along at an unhurried trot. Both were barefoot, wore loose, light clothing and sported hair and beards that were two years or so long, but there the resemblance stopped for one had a carefully kept appearance and an old face deeply lined with character and weather and the other, younger, looked something of a wild man.

As they rode their eyes scanned the world around them, taking in everything from the ladybug eating aphids on a passing stalk to the play of light beneath the branches and the thin clouds beyond racing through the sky beyond. They paid everything close attention, not in a frightened or wary fashion but simply in a state of high alertness ... not looking for something, but waiting for something to come to them, something they knew to be out there.

It had been a long ride already, and it was in the middle of the meadow, their mounts stepping gingerly through old ruts torn by farm machinery or logging equipment or some other long-passed behemoth, that it came to them: a shout from the treeline, and then a small form, running towards them.

The younger of the pair immediately dismounted and stood, waiting, arms open at his sides for the young boy to run up and through his arms around him. He returned the embrace, wrapping the child in his arms and holding him for a brief but powerful moment, before pushing him back and regarding him cooly. The boy was filthy, grime and dirt smeared on every surface, as though he'd been running around in the forest for days. Clean, wet trails beneath his eyes and nose, however, said that he'd recently been crying and....

Pulling back, the boy wiped his arm across his nose and stared daringly, defiantly at the adult, before turning tail and running back off in the direction he'd come. The man contemplated the retreating form until he was halfway to the treeline, at which point the head start was used up and he took off in pursuit. His older companion watched as the two of them disappeared into the trees, before turning his attention back to the world.

It was tough work, keeping up with the kid. He sprang through the woods like an animal, hopping from tree to root to mossy patch whilst dodging through low whip-like twigs, over and under fallen logs, around puddles and stumps. A couple of times his pursuer had to stop, not so much to catch his breath as to wait for the snap of a twig to give him a fresh clue as to the direction his quarry had gone.

When the kid finally stopped, he almost fell on top of him he came up on him so fast.

He was kneeling next to the carcass of a wolf ... no, that wasn't right. Not a carcass, yet. It was still breathing, just barely, but it had a long, nasty wound in its side and there was blood everywhere. The man stepped slowly up to the boy, put a hand on his shoulder; the boy, crying, looked up. The man squatted next to the animal, placed his hand on its head and gave it a gentle scratch behind the ear, eliciting a low, quiet whine in response. With his other hand he reached into a large pocket, which in his clothing many were concealed, and withdrew a long, sharp knife.

The wolf opened its eyes and looked at him. It gave a noise that might have been a growl, though there was no threat in it, and, holding its gaze without daring to blink, he opened the wolf's throat with his knife. A quick, choked sob from the boy accompanied the movement, and after a short time that seemed to him a forever the grief really came.

The man held him while he cried, patting him on the back and stroking his head, until such time as the sobs had subsided and the boy was again able to hold his gaze. Then he stood, gave the child a last pat on the shoulder and walked off. He didn't get too far, though, because the boy was just standing there, watching him. Turning, the man saw him again run off into the woods. With a long-suffering sigh he made after him.

Before long he heard the sound of rushing water, and sure enough they came up to a spot where the ground fell suddenly away to reveal a river running over a mixture of rock and broken concrete chunks. Trees on either side crowded up to the very edge of the low cliff; had the child not known where to stop, the man might have plunged right over the side. Which, looking down at the river bank where the child was pointing, was exactly what had happened to some other unfortunate soul, lying splayed at the side of a river unconscious or perhaps dead. An urban dweller, judging by the clothes, which weren't completely impractical but certainly wouldn't have been his first choice.

Losing not a moment he clambered down the side, waded across the river and, checking to see that he was still breathing, verified that he was alive. A quick once over revealed that the man's arm was broken but nothing else; pulling back an eyelid, however, showed evidence of a concussion. He stood and climbed the river bank, pausing at the top to look back at the boy who was staring at him with naked anger. There was no mistaking how he wanted the injured man disposed of, but the only response he got was a quick shake of the head and then a matter-of-fact disappearance into the trees.

Shaking his head and looking thoroughly disgusted, the kid slammed a trunk with his fist and turned to wander back into the woods.

A few minutes later they met back up at the river, arriving at almost exactly the right time with armloads of various-sized branches and some twine. The man set his load down by their patient, then waded across the stream to get the kid's load, which was just too deep to walk through. Setting it down next to his own, he stood for a moment scratching at his beard and then, producing the knife again, set to work on the pile.

First he got a rough splint on the man's arm, improvising out of a couple of short, straight branches and part of his own shirt. The arm secured, he set to work on the pile, and some time later had constructed a serviceable frame on which to carry his patient. The whole time the kid sat, sullen, on the other side of the stream, watching the activity but lifting not a finger to help.

Shortly after the frame was finished, there came a crash of movement from the trees above and he found himself looking up at his older companion, dismounted and leading both horses. He handed the reins to the child and then went down to the river himself, to help ferry their new cargo across. When everything and everyone was on the right bank, the old one paused suddenly and stared hard downstream.

They all saw it: a small reflective glint, far downstream on the opposite bank, with a black smudge around it. When he saw its presence the man's face froze for a second, then broke into a large and slightly savage grin. He directed a large wave towards the light, gave it an exaggerated wink, and when he was finished mugging for the camera turned his back on it and returned to his responsibilities.

Working together they soon had their charge up the bank in one piece, at which point they quickly lashed him to the frame, tied the frame to a horse, and then proceeded off, the two of them walking on foot while the child road the back of the unencumbered mare.

It was a long walk home, through meadows and glades, around ponds and old, ruined houses, and the time passed in companionable silence until almost the moment when the Sun was to first kiss the horizon, at which point the man stiffened, an involuntary shout breaking from his lips.

The older man caught his gaze and, glancing at the boy and the casualty, nodded in agreement; the boy was removed from the saddle and within moments the man was galloping off as fast as the horse could carry him, leaving the other three to complete the journey on their own time.

As the first stars of twilight broke the Sun's fading glare, the older man looked down to see the casualty's eyes flickering open, dazed but coming back to the world. "Where the hell..." he moaned, and stopped, staring at the weirdly dressed old guy standing above him, a smile twinkling in his eye but reaching not a single other part of his face. The guy said something Randy couldn't quite make out, something that unpacked itself after a few moments into perhaps, "You're safe," but it came out too fast, low and mumbled, as though speech were too slow.

Before long the concussion whirled his mind back into dreamless sleep, but before he went he thought he saw the man pointing up, to the sky, and he and (was that the kid, standing next to him?) both looked and saw a black rock wrapped with blue and orange flames shoot by overhead, gone as fast as it had come and taking his consciousness, it seemed, with it, followed by the old man's steady, appraising look and the boy's astonished shout of glee.