Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 34

  It really is. Even I recognize him from vid. He’s medium height, a little stocky, not particularly good-looking. His family couldn’t afford any genemods except sleeplessness, according to the vid. He starts across the yard toward us, and Donna and I stand up. She thrusts Precious back at me and smoothes her skirt. Precious looks wide-eyed at the car that just dropped out of the sky, and all at once she stops fussing. There, that’s what we need: an aircar to land every five minutes to distract her from her aching teeth.

  “Hello. May I please speak with David Benson?”

  Donna smiles, and I see his reaction in his eyes. He doesn’t like reacting, but he reacts anyway. A Sleepless man is still a male.

  “David Benson’s not here right this minute. I’m his daughter, Donna. Can I help you, Mr. Indivino?”

  I say, “You’re here because of the dogs.”

  “Carol Ann!” Donna says. “Where’re your manners?”

  Tony Indivino hesitates, but only for a second. “That’s right. I want to talk to your father about the dogs.”

  I push. “You want to buy one.”

  He looks at me then, hard. His eyes are gray, with little flecks of brown in them. I say again, just so there’s no mistake. “You want to buy a dog. That’s the only reason my father talks about them to anybody.”

  He finally smiles, amused. “Okay. Sure. I want to buy one.”

  Donna cries, “But they aren’t even trained yet!”

  She doesn’t have a glimmer. Tony Indivino needs a trained guard dog like he needs a third foot. The Sleepless must have all kinds of Y-shields, bodyguards, secret weapons to protect themselves. Nobody’s going to hurt Tony Indivino. He’ll buy this dog so his scientist buddies can take it apart in some lab, see how it’s different from other dogs. All I care is how much he’ll pay for it. Maybe I can get a grand out of him. He’s one of the “poor” Sleepless (yeah, right), but his girlfriend is supposed to be Jennifer Sharifi. The daughter of an Arab oil prince and an American holo star, she’s the richest woman in the entire world.

  Maybe two grand. A bed for Precious, a terminal, some new clothes…

  Donna says, “Well, I suppose you could buy the dog now and then come back for it later, after I done finish its guard training.” She likes this idea.

  Indivino says, “How is the training going?”

  “Fine,” I say, real fast. I’m not going to give him an excuse to pay less. I stare at Donna, who finally nods.

  “Really?” Indivino says.

  “Why wouldn’t the training go good?” Donna says.

  His voice turns serious. “No specific reason that I know of. But that’s what I wanted to talk to your father about.”

  “Then you can talk to me. Daddy’s gone for two-three days, hunting in the mountains,” I lie. “But I can repeat to him any information you like.”

  He doesn’t even hesitate. Probably Sleepless are used to young people accepting responsibility, even better than the adults around them. The oldest Sleepless is only twenty-seven.

  He says, “What I wanted to tell your father isn’t hard data. It’s more a principle, but a very important one. It’s this: advanced biologic systems are very complex. They’re past that critical point beyond which behavior is complicated but predictable, and into the realm where behavior becomes chaotic, and more sensitive to small differences in initial conditions. Do you know what that means?”

  “No.” Donna says, and smiles.

  “Sort of,” I say, because I had this in the high-school software. He simplifies it for me anyway.

  “It means that genemod changes that worked one way in humans might not work the same way in dogs. Or they might work the same way in most dogs but not in your dogs. Or in some of your dogs but not in others from the same litter but with different genetic makeup, or different in vitro conditions, or different environmental conditions.”

  Donna says, “But our dogs are sleepless just exactly like you sleepless humans are, Mr. Indivino. Come see!”

  He looks at me. I say, “It means we should be careful.”

  “Yes,” he says, “there isn’t that much research on canine sleeplessness to guide you.”

  No applications to fund the FDA approval process, since no one has identified significant market opportunity. But, come to think of it, how had Tony Indivino heard of this particular market opportunity? Daddy isn’t advertising yet. He doesn’t have anything to advertise with: no terminal, no money. I feel a prickle on my spine, and Precious squirms in my arms. I put her down. She toddles toward the aircar.

  Donna’s saying, “You’ve got to come choose your pup, Mr. Indivino. Wait till you see them, they’re so cute you—”

  “How’d you hear about us?” I demand. “Who told you?”

  He doesn’t answer.

  “Are you going to report Daddy to the law?” Amazingly, this only occurs to me now. Sleepless generally keep inside the law, the vids all say. Maybe there’s too many eyes on them not to.

  “No, I’m not going to report to the law. I’m here only to warn you to be careful.”

  “Why? What’s it to you if our business fails?” I almost say “like our others,” but I catch myself in time. I don’t want him feeling sorry for us.

  “Your business is nothing to me personally,” he says coolly. “But we Sleepless like to keep an eye on genetic research. I’m sure you can see why. Even underground research. How we do that really isn’t your concern. I’m here only to tell you what I have. And maybe a little out of curiosity.”

  Donna says brightly, “Then you’re curious to see the pups and choose your very own!”

  She takes him by the hand and leads him away, toward the house. Precious is trying to climb the smooth, rounded side of the aircar, which of course she can’t do. In a minute she’ll be on her little ass in the dirt. I start toward her and leave Tony Indivino to Donna and the sleepless pups. It doesn’t matter which pup he picks, or if he ever actually comes back for it. It only matters that he pays before he leaves.

  Which he does. Two and a half thousand dollars, and in certified preloaded credit chips, not just transfers. I hold the chips in my hand while Donna dances and cheers around the kitchen, setting the dogs to barking, and Precious stands up in her high chair and crows. It’s chaos. For once, I don’t care. This money is going to make all the difference in the world to us.

  Three weeks later, everything ends.

  “Come look at this here,” Daddy calls through the screen door. He’s sitting at the kitchen table in front of our new terminal, researching what he calls “ad futures” on the Subnet. His friend Denny, with the truck, showed him how. Daddy won’t tell me how Denny learned, or what Denny’s buying or selling that he needs underground ads. But I know the Subnet’s not easy to ride. It isn’t all that hard to log onto, but after that it has a way of melting away unless you know all the key underground code words and procedures, which keep changing all the time. “The shadow economy,” vidnews calls it, or sometimes “the ghost market.” Supposedly you can get anything there, if you know how.

  “Carol Ann!” Daddy calls again, louder. “Come see this.”

  “I’m busy,” I call back from the yard. I’m watching Precious dig a hole with a kitchen fork. She sits in the slanting fall sunshine, covered with sweat and dirt, happy as day. Somewhere in the woods I hear Donna yelling at dogs. They still aren’t training properly. She’s having a terrible time with them.

  “I said come here, Carol Ann, and I mean come here!” Daddy yells. Reluctantly I get myself up and go into the house.

  It’s funny about getting a little money. All last winter and spring, when I was scrounging for rice and beans enough for us, and Daddy was working his ass off to get the money to buy the genemod embryos implanted in Leisha, and Donna had just one dress—all that long cold winter everybody was in a good mood. Sunny, hopeful. We were nice to each other. But since we got Tony Indivino’s credit chips, everybody’s been tense and snappy. Maybe I’m always that way, b
ut Donna and Daddy aren’t. Or weren’t.

  The stakes are higher now. Daddy has to figure out the right places to buy ads: Subnet sites that will be profitable, as well as safe from the law. We can’t afford to make mistakes. And the news is full of the feds closing illegal genemod labs, and the pups won’t listen to Donna unless she’s right there with a piece of meat—that’s what she meant when she said they’re like cats, they only do what you want them to if you’re standing right there with a prize or a poke. Everybody’s nervous.

  For once, we have something to lose.

  “Tell me what this means,” Daddy growls, and I bend over the screen. It’s an FDA recommendation to Congress about making genemod animals. The sentences are long and difficult, with a lot of scientific words I don’t understand.

  “It’s about what a new law should allow in genetic engineering,” I say. “The summary says ‘No genemods that alter external appearance or basic internal functioning such that a creature deviates significantly from other members of not only its genus and species but also its breed.’”

  “I can read!” Daddy snaps. After a minute he says, “I’m sorry, Carol Ann. But I need to know what every bit of it means. You explain it. One sentence at a time.”

  “Daddy, I can’t—”

  “Sure you can. You’re the smartest one of us, and don’t think I don’t know you know it.”


  “Please, baby. Help me understand.”

  So I do. One sentence at a time, guessing at words, groping around to lay my hands on the meaning. It takes a long time. Right up until the minute I hear Precious start screaming.

  We’re out the door in half a second. But I can’t see her anywhere. And then the screaming stops.

  Donna comes running from the woods, yelling “Richard! Richard!” and it takes me a minute to realize she’s yelling for the dog. Her eyes are crazy. We all stop like the air holds us, only our heads swiveling. I can’t see Precious. I can’t see her. And then Donna, who’s got hearing almost as good as the dogs’, tears off into the woods to the left of the house.

  I hear the snapping before I see Richard. His jaws are working over a piece of meat that Donna must have given him, a piece of reward meat. He lies down peacefully eating it, the shifting of his head and body on the fallen leaves making little rustling noises. I hear the rustles, because suddenly these woods are the quietest things I ever heard. The quietest things I ever will hear again.

  Precious lies about eight feet away, down a little hill with a stream at the bottom. Her neck is broken. Her hands are smeared with beef juice, from the steak she tried to take away from Richard. Maybe she wanted a bite. Or maybe she thought it was a game: tug-of-war. But Richard wasn’t playing. He tossed Precious away—the bite marks are clear on her little arm—and Precious fell down the hill and landed wrong. She hit her head, or twisted her neck, or something. Later on the coroner would say it was a freak accident. Except for her arm, she isn’t bruised at all, or wet from the stream. She lies there in her new dirt-resistant pink overalls like she’s asleep.

  Daddy shatters the quiet with a howl like hell breaking open. I run to Precious and pick her up. I hardly even hear the rifle going off not ten yards from me. The other shots—four more, and then a last, senseless one for Leisha—I don’t hear at all. Not an echo, not a whimper. Nothing.

  I don’t know what makes people stay glued together inside, or not. Maybe it’s like Tony Indivino said: Behavior is just chaotic, mostly sensitive to small differences in initial conditions. I don’t know. Anything.

  Daddy doesn’t stay glued together. He starts drinking right after the funeral, and he doesn’t ever stop. He doesn’t get mean or weepy. He doesn’t explain why he could ride out Mama’s death but not Precious’s. Maybe he doesn’t know. He just sits at the kitchen table, night after night, and quietly empties one bottle after another. During the day, he waits for night. Pretty soon, I think, he won’t bother to wait.

  Donna doesn’t stick around to find out. She cries all the time for a few months. She wants to talk on and on about Precious, and I can’t listen. I can’t. Eventually she finds someone who will, a government counselor in Kellsville, who also finds her a job waiting on customers in a fancy restaurant. Customers like her. Bit by bit Donna stops crying. She makes some friends, then a boyfriend. I don’t see her much. And when I do, it’s hard to look straight into each other’s eyes.

  And me. I don’t know if I stayed glued together or not. I’m too mad to know.

  “You’re Dave’s girl,” Denny says, just like he hasn’t taken me back and forth from Kellsville in his truck for years. He’s one of those men terrified of female scenes. “What can I do for you, uh…”

  “Carol. You can let me stay here and keep house for you.”

  He looks like I could be rabid. “Well, uh, Carol, I don’t know about that, I thought you were keeping house for your father, he sure needs you since, uh—”

  “He doesn’t need anybody,” I said. “And you do.” I looked around me. Denny’s wife left him, finally, last month. Denny had one girl too many. Since she moved, Denny hasn’t washed a dish or a sheet or a tabletop. His girlfriends, who he mostly meets at the Road Nest Bar, aren’t the type given to housekeeping. The two cats stopped using their litter box. Denny’s got all the windows open to control the smell, which it doesn’t, even though it’s pouring outside and rain is blowing in sideways on what’s left of his cat-piss-soaked couch. Everybody’s got a limit how much reeking mess they can tolerate. Denny’s must be pretty high, but I’m still betting he’s got one.

  “I’m a good housekeeper,” I say. “And I can cook. Daddy says he’d take it as a favor if you let me live here. He knows I need to get away from the memories in our house.”

  Denny nods slowly. It makes him feel better to think that he’s helping Daddy. But he still has doubts.

  “The thing is, Carol, you know how folks are. They talk. And you ain’t a kid no more. I don’t want nobody to think—”

  “The only one that matters is Daddy, and he knows better. Besides, if you go on having lady-friend company, the ladies will tell them I sleep in the spare room and that you treat me like a daughter for my daddy’s sake.”

  Again Denny nods. He likes the idea of having lady-friend company and a clean house, too. “But I can’t, uh, pay you nothing, Carol, things are tight right now. Maybe later when—”

  “I don’t want any money, Denny. All I want is for you to teach me how to use the Subnet. On your terminal, same as you taught Daddy. For two hours a day, at least in the beginning.”

  He doesn’t like that. Too much time. But just then one of the cats squats and shits on the table, into a plate of rice so congealed the rice grains are hard as kitty-litter pellets.

  “Okay,” Denny says.

  All winter I work like hell. I throw out Denny’s couch and everything else I can’t boil. I scrub and pound and make a new couch out of boards and blankets. I cook and launder and shop with Denny’s dole credits. Twice a week I walk over to Daddy’s to do the same for him. And half the night I practice what Denny teaches me, until I’m tired enough to sleep. A lot of days my eyes ache from the constant reading, and not only on the Subnet, either. I spend hours in the science sections of the Net. When one of Denny’s girlfriends complains that I “talk snooty,” I realize that my vocabulary has changed. Well, why not…everything else has.

  By the time crocuses push up through the snow, Denny can’t teach me any more. Actually, I know much more than Denny’s taught me, because I found other people on the Subnet who also taught me things. There’s an entire class of Subnet riders—mostly young, mostly with little to lose personally—who like nothing better than showing off what they know. I’ve learned how to let such people impress me.

  However, that sort of petty rider only knows so much. So does Denny. And I have nothing to trade. So far I haven’t been able to get the Subnet to tell me the one thing I want to know the most. And I’m not goin
g to find it out by staying here.

  I write notes to Denny and Daddy, and I walk down the mountain to the highway.

  The Red Goldfish Trucking Company is guarded by dogs.

  There’s a fence, too, of course, a single strand of token wire to mark the Y-energy-alarmed barrier surrounding the facility. I push against the invisible field with one hand, and it feels solid as brick. But any power-generated security system has to be turned on, and that means it can be turned off. Dogs are harder to turn off, unless you kill them, and it’s hard to get anything like a bullet or a slab of poisoned meat through most Y-energy security fields without setting off the alarm. There’s a Subnet rumor that the Sleepless have developed a missile to penetrate Y-barriers, plus a field that will stop that same missile and anything else, including air. But it’s only a rumor. Sleepless do not sell weapons. They’re too smart to arm their enemies.

  I stand a few inches outside the fence and gaze in at the Red Goldfish Trucking Company. It’s a windowless foamcast building standing in the middle of rows of white trucks, each with a red goldfish painted on both sides. Before the goldfish, those trucks bore flowing blue script that said Pennsylvania Shipping. Before that, they had the blue daisies of Flower Delivery Systems. Before that, the orange lettering of Stanley Express. It was a Stanley Express truck that delivered Leisha the pregnant dog to Daddy’s new business.

  No record exists on-line of that transaction. It’s hard enough to track the company itself on the Subnet, let alone its customers. Or its owner.

  I watch through the fence for two nights, very carefully, until I’m sure about the dogs. There are three dogs, all German shepherds, all unneutered males. They’re probably genemod for strength and hearing. They’re superbly trained, much better than poor Donna could have done. They sleep in shifts. They are not genemod for intelligence.