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Igms issue 15, p.11

IGMS - Issue 15, page 11

 

IGMS - Issue 15
 


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  "John," I said, reaching over his head. "Sorry I had to leave. This place . . ."

  "Can I help?"

  "Sure, if you feel like it. Can you take these trays to the dining room?"

  He took a handful of the trays with him. When he came into the kitchen, all the kids stopped what they were doing. He was the first client they had seen up close.

  He worked beside me in silence while we loaded the dishes with creamed corn and two-day-old rolls and canned green beans and chicken broth. I gave the kids their final instructions and unlocked the door. Most of the pick-ups had gone back to the streets, but we still had a larger than normal crowd due to the cold. I guided John toward a side table.

  "This is my favorite part," I said. "See that girl serving the green beans. I don't know anything about her except that she lives in a nice neighborhood and her clothes cost more than I earn in a month. Watch her face as the crowd gets there. See, she's smiling -- and it's not some forced beauty-pageant smile. Now, look at the boy on the end, the one with the saggy jeans and the gray hoodie. He looks like he's going to throw up if one of the men touches him. These kids go to the same church, same schools, probably have the same hair stylist. But their reactions are so different. You know why?"

  John Truro laid his aluminum tube on the table. "Because she understands that the world is about more than her . . . that she owes something back. Right?"

  I actually was going to say something far less profound. I liked his idea better.

  "So tell me more about this . . . thing," I said, pointing at the tube. Then, dropping my voice to a whisper, I asked, "Why do you have it, and not NASA?"

  "When Von Braun hired me, he set me up in a special office with a vague title and a high security clearance. I worked through the physics and he worked through the mechanics. I never reported to anyone but him. I liked it that way, I've always been . . . uncomfortable . . . around people. The last time I went to his office he told me he was resigning.

  "I was floored." Jon Truro said.

  "What about the stars?" I asked him.

  He looked at me with those piercing blue eyes and ran his fingers through his beard. He asked me if I had ever seen the movie they made about him: I Aim at the Stars. "Have you seen it, Scott?"

  I admitted I hadn't.

  "It was a horrible movie, but he was my idol and I had watched it three times anyway. There was a comedian who used to make a joke that Von Braun aims at the stars but sometimes hits London. Von Braun looked at me and repeated that line, with his voice cracking when he said London. Scott, you should have seen the man at that moment. He had worked his whole life to put a man on the moon, had ignored the fact that he was designing rockets for Hitler, that his rockets now carried nuclear weapons that could hit anywhere in the world, that he had brought mankind to the brink of self-destruction. He did it for a great cause, and I think most times he didn't regret it. He was a proud man, he was proud of his rockets, he was proud of the moon. But on that day he couldn't look me in the eye."

  John was rolling the cylinder in his hands as he talked. He closed his eyes as if struggling to remember every word in detail.

  "Von Braun told me that we only went to the moon to beat the Russians. Now that it was done, nobody cared about the stars. He said that the power of our drive, the power of anti-matter, was enough not only to reach the stars, but was also enough to level cities in the blink of an eye. It could make a weapon more horrible than any nuclear bomb ever tested.

  "But the stars?" I asked. "What did he say about the stars?"

  "He told me the plans were too valuable to lose," John Truro said. "He told me to keep them secret until the time was right, until I could trust that we would use it for the stars and not against ourselves. I promised him. I swore I would do exactly as he said."

  Truro paused, looking down at the floor. "That was the last time I saw Wernher Von Braun. He died of cancer three years later. His estate forwarded me a letter he had written and kept in his drawer. Just a few words. Aim for the stars, he wrote."

  His voice broke when he spoke of the letter. I put my arm around him while sobs wracked his body.

  "I've never said a word about any of this. I quit NASA after a few years. We were aiming at low-earth orbit, not the stars. I followed the news, when the Cold War ended I thought that would be my chance, but there was always war, always greed, always people using each other. I had never noticed it before, that humanity doesn't deserve the stars. I lost hope. I quit job after job. How can you work if you've already created the greatest thing imaginable? How can you top it?"

  "And you've told no one?" I asked.

  "Just you."

  "Why me?" I was afraid I knew the answer to that already.

  "I'm dying," he said, "and I can't let the stars die with me. You're a good man, Scott. I want you to take this after me. Keep it safe. I need you to honor my promise."

  "I don't know anything about physics. I'm not the right man."

  "You know about people. The physics explains itself."

  I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I didn't know about people, except that they're all scum who will cheat, lie, and steal to prove their dominance of their fellow human beings. That the only people that I trusted were the ones that had been brought so low by the trials of life that their pride had been ground to a pulp. But I think he knew that already. I think that's why he had chosen me.

  "So you'll do it?"

  "I'll think about it."

  That night I let John Truro sleep in my office. I set up a cot that we used for overflow nights and gave him an extra set of blankets. He tucked the tube beside him. As I locked the office door, I heard the rasping sound of his breathing.

  The next morning John Truro was dead. His cold, bony hands were still clutching the battered aluminum tube.

  I said a prayer over him, and then took the tube from his hands and put it in my file cabinet. When the coroner came and asked for his personal effects I lied and said that he only had what he was wearing.

  They cremated him and buried the ashes in a pauper's grave. The tube sat in my cabinet for a month before I looked at it again. Finally, one night when the weather was warm and the halls were quiet, I opened it and spread the sheets on the desk, trying to make sense of them. Was it the pathetic scribbling of a delusional bum, or the greatest, and most horrible, technology ever devised? What was I supposed to do? Nobody would believe me, even if I believed it myself.

  I began to roll the drawings up when I noticed something stuck in the lip of the tube. A small plain white envelope. I opened it and pulled out a note in precise, small handwriting. "Aim for the stars," it said, and it was signed Wernher Von Braun.

  I watch the news every night now, hoping that today will be different than the last. It never is. Some days I want to give up, to destroy those drawings and be content with the lot we have been given.

  But then I remember that girl's smile, and I hear John Truro's whispered words, "Aim for the stars," and I pray that one day we will become worthy of his dream.

  Pageant Wagon

  by Orson Scott Card

  Artwork by Scott Altmann

  Deaver's horse took sick and died right under him. He was setting on her back, writing down notes about how deep the erosion was eating back into the new grassland, when all of a sudden old Bette shuddered and coughed and broke to her knees. Deaver slid right off her, of course, and unsaddled her, but after that all he could do was pat her and talk to her and hold her head in his lap as she lay there dying.

  If I was an outrider it wouldn't be like this, thought Deaver. Royal's Riders go two by two out there on the eastern prairie, never alone like us range riders here in the old southern Utah desert. Outriders got the best horses in Deseret, too, never an old nag like Bette having to work out her last breath riding the grass edge. And the outriders got guns, so they wouldn't have to sit and watch a horse die, they could say farewell with a hot sweet bullet like a last ball of sugar.

&n
bsp; Didn't do no good thinking about the outriders, though. Deaver'd been four years on the waiting list, just for the right to apply. Most range riders were on that list, aching for a chance to do something important and dangerous -- bringing refugees in from the prairie, fighting mobbers, disarming missiles. Royal's Riders were all heroes, it went with the job, whenever they come back from a mission they got their picture in the papers, a big write-up. Range riders just got lonely and shaggy and smelly. No wonder they all dreamed of riding with Royal Aal. With so many others on the list, Deaver figured he'd probably be too old and they'd take his name off before he ever got to the top. They wouldn't take applications from anybody over thirty, so he only had about a year and a half left. He'd end up doing what he was doing now, riding the edge of the grassland, checking out erosion patterns and bringing in stray cattle till he dropped out of the saddle and then it'd be his horse's turn to stand there and watch him die.

  Bette twitched a leg and snorted. Her eye was darting every which way, panicky, and then it stopped moving at all. After a while a fly landed on it. Deaver eased himself out from under her. The fly stayed right there. Probably already laying eggs. This country didn't waste much time before it sucked every last hope of life out of anything that held still long enough.

  Deaver figured to do everything by the book. Put Bette's anal scrapings in the plastic tube so they could check for disease, pick up his bedroll, his notebooks, and his canteen, and then hike into the first fringe town he could find and call in to Moab.

  Deaver was all set to go, but he couldn't just walk off and leave the saddle. The rulebook said a rider's life is worth more than a saddle, but the guy who wrote that didn't have a five-dollar deposit on it. A week's wages. It wasn't like Deaver had to carry it far. He passed a road late yesterday. He'd go back and sit on the saddle and wait a couple days for some truck to come by.

  Anyway he wanted it on his record -- Deaver Teague come back saddle and all. Bad enough to lose the horse. So he hefted the saddle onto his back and shoulders. It was still warm and damp from Bette's body.

  He didn't follow Bette's hoofprints back along the edge of the grassland -- no need to risk his own footsteps causing more erosion. He struck out into the thicker, deeper grass of last year's planting. Pretty soon he lost sight of the gray desert sagebrush, it was too far off in the wet hazy air. Folks talked about how it was in the old days, when the air was so clear and dry you could see the mountains you couldn't get to in two days' riding. Now the farthest he could see was to the redrock sentinels sticking up out of the grass, bright orange when he was close, dimmer and grayer a mile or two ahead or behind. Like soldiers keeping watch in the fog.

  Deaver's eyes never got used to seeing those pillars of orange sandstone, tortured by the wind into precarious dream shapes, standing right out in the middle of wet-looking deep green grassland. They didn't belong together, those colors, that rigid stone and bending grass. Wasn't natural.

  Five years from now, the fringe would move out into this new grassland, and there'd be farmers turning the plow to go around these rocks, never even looking up at these last survivors of the old desert. In his mind's eye, Deaver saw those rocks seething hot with anger as the cool sea of green swept on around them. People might tame the soil of the desert, but never these temperamental, twisted old soldiers. In fifty years or a hundred or two hundred maybe, when the Earth healed itself from the war and the weather changed back and the rains stopped coming, all this grass, all those crops, they'd turn brown and die, and the new orchard trees would stand naked and dry until they snapped off in a sandstorm and blew away into dust, and then the gray sagebrush would cover the ground again, and the stone soldiers would stand there, silent in their victory.

  That's going to happen someday, all you fringe people with your rows of grain and vegetables and trees, your towns full of people who all know each other and go to the same church. You think you all belong where you are, you each got a spot you fill up snug as a cork in a bottle. When I come into town you look hard at me with your tight little eyes because you never seen my face before, I got no place with you, so I better do my business and get on out of town. But that's how the desert thinks about you and your plows and houses. You're just passing through, you got no place here, pretty soon you and all your planting will be gone.

  Beads of sweat tickled his face and dropped down onto his eyes, but Deaver didn't let go of the saddle to wipe his forehead. He was afraid if once he set it down he wouldn't pick it up again. Saddles weren't meant to fit the back of a man, and he was sore from chafing and bumping into it. But he'd carried the saddle so far he'd feel like a plain fool to drop it now, so never mind the raw spots on his shoulders and how his fingers and wrists and the backs of his arms hurt from hanging onto it.

  At nightfall he hadn't made the road. Even bundled up in his blanket and using the saddle as a windbreak, Deaver shivered half the night against the cold breeze poking here and there over the grass. He woke up stiff and tired with a runny nose. Wasn't till halfway to noon next day that he finally got to the road.

  It was a thin ribbon of ancient gray oil and gravel, an old two-lane that was here back when it was all desert and nobody but geologists and tourists and the stubbornest damn cattle ranchers in the world ever drove on it. His arms and back and legs ached so bad he couldn't sit down and he couldn't stand up and he couldn't lay down. So he set down the saddle and bedroll and walked along the road a little to work the pain out. Felt like he was light as cottonwood fluff, now he didn't have the saddle on his back.

  First he went south toward the desert till the saddle was almost out of sight in the haze. Then he walked back, past the saddle, toward the fringe. The grass got thicker and taller in that direction. Range riders had a saying: "Grass to the stirrup, pancakes and syrup." It meant you were close to where the orchards and cropland started, which meant a town, and since most riders were Mormons, they could brother-and-sister their way into some pretty good cooking. Deaver got sandwiches, or dry bread in towns too small to have a diner.

  Deaver figured it was like all those Mormons, together they formed a big piece of cloth, all woven together through the whole state of Deseret, each person like a thread wound in among the others to make a fabric, tough and strong and complete right out to the edge -- right out to the fringe. Those Mormon range riders, they might stray out into the empty grassland, but they were still part of the weave, still connected. Deaver, he was like a wrong-colored thread that looks like it's hanging from the fabric, but when you get up close, why, you can see it isn't attached anywhere, it just got mixed up in the wash, and if you pull it away it comes off easy, and the cloth won't be one whit weaker or less complete.

  But that was fine with Deaver. If the price of a hot breakfast was being a Mormon and doing everything the bishop told you because he was inspired by God, then bread and water tasted pretty good. To Deaver the fringe towns were as much a desert as the desert itself. No way he could live there long, unless he was willing to turn into something other than himself.

  He walked back and forth until it didn't hurt to sit down, and then he sat down until it didn't hurt to walk again. All day and no cars. Well, that was his kind of luck -- government probably cut back the gas ration again and nobody was moving. Or they sealed off the road cause they didn't want folks driving through the grassland even on pavement. For all Deaver knew the road got washed through in the last rain. He might be standing here for nothing, and he only had a couple of days' water in his canteen. Wouldn't that be dumb, to die of thirst because he rested a whole day on a road that nobody used.

  Wasn't till the middle of the night when the rumble of an engine and the vibration of the road woke him up. It was a long way off still, but he could see the headlights. A truck, from the shaking and the noise it made. And not going fast, from how long it took those lights to get close. Still, it was night, wasn't it? And even going thirty, it was a good chance they wouldn't see him. Deaver's clothes were all dark, except his t-s
hirt. So, cold as it was at night, he stripped off his jacket and flannel shirt and stood in the middle of the road, letting his undershirt catch the headlights, his arms spread out and waving as the truck got closer.

  He figured he looked like a duck trying to take off from a tar patch. And his t-shirt wasn't clean enough for anybody to call it exactly white. But they saw him and laid on the brakes. Deaver stepped out of the way when he saw the truck couldn't stop in time. The brakes squealed and howled and it took them must be a hundred yards past Deaver before they stopped.

  They were nice folks -- they even backed up to him instead of making him carry the saddle and all up to where they finally got it parked.

  "Thank heaven you weren't a baby in the road," said a man from the back of the truck. "You wouldn't happen to have brake linings with you, young man?"

  The man's voice was strange. Loud and big-sounding, with an accent like Deaver never heard before. Every single letter sounded clear, like the voice of God on Mount Sinai. It didn't occur to Deaver that it was the man might be making a joke, not in that voice. Instead he felt like it was a sin that he didn't have brake linings. "No, sir, I'm sorry."

  The Voice of God chuckled. "There was an era, before you remember, when no American in his right mind would have stopped to pick up a dangerous-looking stranger like you. Who says America has not improved since the collapse?"

  "I'd like a bag of nacho Doritos," said a woman. "That would be an improvement." Her voice was warm and friendly, but she had that same strange way of pronouncing every bit of every word. Jackrabbits could learn English hearing her talk.

  "I speak of trust, and she speaks of carnal delights," said the Voice of God. "Is that a saddle?"

  "Government property, registered in Moab." He said it right off, so there'd be no thought of maybe making that saddle disappear.

  The man chuckled. "Range rider, then?"

  "Yes sir."

  "Well, range rider, it seems trust among strangers isn't perfect yet. No, we wouldn't steal your saddle, even to make brake linings."

 
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