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Igms issue 20, p.8

IGMS Issue 20, page 8


IGMS Issue 20

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  The government men returned after supper and were seated with father and grandfather while mother busied herself serving cake and coffee and cleaning up. I was asked to take my brothers upstairs. The fact that I was an adult, and that Michal was perfectly capable of keeping Danijel corralled, did not give me cause for offense. I know I have trouble keeping my opinions to myself, and mother certainly did not need me complicating the situation. Her maneuvering to keep my father's temper in check strained subtlety as it was.

  Despite my mother's presence, however, the yelling began almost immediately. While I could hear only the murmur of the Politician's voice, my father's words reached us clearly. Apparently the government wanted our land. Not all of it, just some of our land. But it was the most important part of our farm and we could not survive without it. (Though from what I later learned, they wanted just a strip near the river that was part of a muddy pasture we rented to a neighbor.)

  Father ranted for quite a while about how bureaucrats do not understand how a farm works and that you could not just take pieces away without disrupting the entire operation.

  The negotiation took an ugly turn when my father accused the men of selling out our country to their "American masters." Voices were raised on both sides then. Father continued his accusations, and the Accountant charged that their offer was more than generous. The Lawyer argued that they had the right to make these decisions and did not need his acquiescence. The Politician then spoke quietly, and the Lawyer and the Accountant backed off. My mother called my father into the kitchen to help her, and when he returned he was quieter for a time. But only for a time, and soon his voice was raised again, this time about how maybe if the people in the government would actually listen to someone who does real work once in a while then things might not be such a mess.

  The meeting ended when my father offered to bring the children downstairs so that the government men could shoot the whole family without having to trouble themselves with climbing the stairs.

  After the government men left, father went out to the machine shed to work on the tractor, and mother tidied up. Grandfather, who had been present for the entire meeting but had not said a word, went to bed.

  It came to be known that the government men had visited several other farmers in the area, and were trying to secure an unremarkable tract of land running from the edge of the forest to the bank of the river about six kilometers away. The ostensible purpose for the acquisition was to develop a potential geothermal resource. Not a single person in town believed this, of course. It was obvious to everyone that the Americans wanted the land for some mysterious and probably nefarious purpose. It was also generally understood that if the Americans wanted the land, they would get it. Still, it was important to make things difficult for the government men as punishment for their collaboration, however mandatory that collaboration might have been.

  Since my first year at the university I had worked on a research project that had been ongoing for some twenty years. My department maintained a network of stations around the country that acquired weather and atmospheric data. This data was used in studies by faculty and students, and had proven to be a steady source of publishable papers. During the summer months my job was to periodically visit a few of the stations in our part of the country, maintaining the equipment, downloading the data, and transmitting it back to the university. I enjoyed having a reason to take long walks and the occasional short trip, and the job paid a small stipend that kept me in reading material during the summer.

  I set out one morning to visit the nearest of the stations, one just to the north of town at the boundary between the agricultural land and the national park. It was not a long walk; the dew was still thick on the grass and the sun was low behind me as I approached the station. The task was simple: everything was physically intact, so I set about testing the battery and the solar panel.

  As I busied myself, the light wind, which had accompanied me the entire morning, abruptly stopped. The air around me was suddenly warmer and damper, and had become unnaturally quiet. The air seemed to glow from within, as if the sunlight were reflecting off the water molecules in the air. Not only was the sound of the wind gone, but it had taken with it the sound of the insects, birds, and distant farm machinery. I felt as if I had fallen into a surreal, glowing void, where my own breathing was the loudest sound.

  And then I sensed a presence behind me.

  I stood slowly, and turned into the harsh glare of the low-hanging sun. Slowly, cautiously, I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the glare. The scene before me shifted and wavered like a mirage. The image was never complete but when my dazzled eyes and confused brain assembled it, I realized that I was in the presence a huge stag, standing attentively, watching me. A deer is not an uncommon sight in the fields that border the forest, but one this large was unheard of: his shoulder was easily as high as my own, and his rack was a dozen points at least. He was a beautiful creature, perfect in proportion and color. He stood, relaxed in his pose and breathing, and blinked his eyes once, casually.

  "What are you doing?" the stag asked.

  "I am checking this equipment," I said, indicating the little sensor station.

  "What does it do?" he asked, though he must have known. Or perhaps he knew only that is was no threat to him.

  "It records weather and atmospheric data," I replied. "I am a meteorologist. A student."

  "Why did you come? You knew I was nearby." It seemed more a question of curiosity than of disapproval.

  "I -- It is only weather data," I said. "I didn't think you would mind." This last statement was rather accurately phrased. When I had planned to go to that site I did not think he would mind because I did not think about him at all.

  "Weren't you frightened?"

  "I guess not. Not before."

  He watched me for a moment. He seemed impassive, but I had the sense that he was engaged in some other interaction in a place I could not hope to understand.

  "What have you found?" he asked eventually.

  I looked around me and saw nothing of significance. "What do you mean?"

  "With your sensors. Your studies. Do you have findings?"

  "Oh," I said. He could not have meant it. He had access to inconceivably vast quantities of data, all filtered and processed by machines of incomprehensible sophistication and power, and presented to him in the most efficient ways imaginable. I could not believe that to him my work would be any more interesting than the idle dabbling of a child. I said, "The mean temperature has dropped a bit the past few years. It had stabilized after continuing to rise for the first few years following the --" I caught myself. "After things changed."

  He watched me for a moment. "What do you call it?" he asked.

  I did not know what he meant. "The temperature fluctuations?" I ventured.

  "When things changed. What do your people call it?"

  I did not want to insult or provoke him so I picked the least offensive term we used. "The Transition," I said.

  He seemed to nod, if a deer can nod, and then said, "What else have you found with your research?"

  "Weather patterns, rainfall. Nothing unusual. The temperature change is the most interesting."

  "To what do you attribute it?" he asked.

  "We have limited data," I said. "But carbon dioxide levels have dropped. Methane, too, a bit." He seemed to accept that, but the scientist in me did not have enough sense to shut up. "But more than makes sense," she added.

  He cocked his head. "More than makes sense?"

  "Even if all anthropogenic sources were shut off -- which has not happened -- the decline is too rapid." He did not respond. I was cringing inside, but the scientist blundered on. "It's you, isn't it? You are doing something that removes the carbon from the atmosphere?" No lightning bolt from the heavens struck me, though a part of me had wished it would, if only to make me stop talking.

  "I can't talk about what we are doing," he said. It was probably my imagination, but
in that moment he seemed a little sad.

  He turned to go then, but before he took more than a few steps, I blurted out: "I have other instruments in the area." He stopped and turned back to me. As I squirmed under the weight of his calm gaze, I made a mental note to work on my impulse control. "Would it be acceptable for me to check on them?"

  He did not respond for a long moment. "Come alone," he said, finally. "Don't carry a weapon."

  It seemed funny, coming from a deer. As if he did not want anyone hunting him. "Thank you," I said, smiling. He turned and walked away with a heavy, predatory grace.

  In the years before the Transition, there had apparently been much debate and consternation over the cultural contamination inflicted by the United States on other countries. As I watched the stag disappear into the haze, I thought about how, within the short years of the Transition, the Americans had so fully scoured from the world any evidence of who or what they were that the idea of them contaminating one's culture seemed preposterous. Like a black hole, America sucked in an incomprehensible volume of information, and emitted almost nothing. They imported and exported very little, and none of it revealing. Data regarding the country, its geography, demographics, and economy were all pre-Transition and therefore decades out of date. No aircraft or satellites that overflew the land ever reported back, and no ship or submarine that entered American waters ever returned. All business transactions were either completely electronic or else carried out through British agents. It had originally been the Canadians who acted as the Americans' agents; but as time passed, Canada, too, had all but disappeared. One could easily imagine Canada, like a space traveler venturing too near a black hole, being drawn irretrievably closer each time one of its intermediaries learned some fact considered vital to American security. And the Americans considered everything vital to their security.

  It was this obsessive focus on security that Michal said led many to believe it had all started within a system developed to monitor and evaluate threats. That in some cold, deep bunker, the singularity flared within an inherently paranoid system whose tendrils extended into data banks across the globe, and whose hunger for information grew to require the vast global monitoring system that now tracked the activities of every human on the planet.

  There were a few rules, primarily those restricting the manufacture of certain weapons, and those prohibiting the acquisition and distribution of certain data. But all attempts at diplomacy were simply ignored, as were inquiries regarding communication with relatives in America, trade, scientific research, or any other form of international cooperation. The few interactions that did occur happened only when the Americans initiated them.

  That morning I had become the only person of whom I was ever aware that had directly spoken with an individual American -- if one could call something so preternaturally enhanced and electronically interconnected an 'individual.' He was more like the sensory organ of some vastly larger entity. But despite that contact, I did not even know what he looked like.

  When the stag was gone, the breeze returned, clearing the air of its hot, damp heaviness and the painful shimmering glare. The sounds of the birds and insects returned, and the world snapped into focus. I discovered that my shirt was drenched in perspiration. When I could again concentrate, I finished my work, and then slowly wandered home. I never told anyone of my encounter.

  After about a week of negotiating with the townspeople, the government men changed tactics. The Politician, who turned out to be more resourceful than I would have thought, left the Lawyer and the Accountant behind, and recruited the town's mayor, Tadeusz Kadlubek, and the head of the co-op, Wojciech Pechersky, to assist him. I had known these men since I was a girl, of course, and neither had the slightest discernable political ambition. Each accepted his official role out of a sense of duty, and either would have gladly given up his position were another man to have shown the slightest interest in it. But the glamour of being mayor or co-op chairman of a small town in eastern Poland had not drawn many aspirants. Despite their minimal interest in politics, these men's sense of duty made them vulnerable to appeals based upon the good of the town, the people, and the country. And that was no doubt a weakness the Politician had exploited in gaining their assistance in his persuasive efforts.

  The effect was remarkable on most of the affected farmers. Apparently the sight of their friends Tadeusz and Wojciech pressed into cooperation with the Politician made the farmers more willing to listen and, once listening, be persuaded. The effect on my father was, not unexpectedly, the opposite. After a good deal of generalized shouting about the government, the Americans, and the woes of being a farmer, my father assured Tadeusz that he, my father, would have his things out by morning so that Tadeusz could simply move in the next day and take over his farm, his family, and his life. He then suggested that he might hang himself in the barn, but he did not want Tadeusz to be inconvenienced by having to dispose of the body, so he would probably just go drown himself in the river if that was acceptable to everyone.

  After my father stormed out of the house, the Politician offered his thanks to my mother, and he and the townsmen went outside. I listened at the window and heard Tadeusz and Wojciech assuring the Politician that my father would come around in time.

  During the days of this stilted and intermittent negotiation, I took to spending a few afternoons each week reading under the oak tree in which the strange American bird had chosen to roost. He did not seem to mind the company, and I had begun to think of him as my friend, companion, and protector. The ever-vigilant creature did not budge from his branch, but he was certainly not dead. He perched up there, a miracle of carbon fiber, glass, and electronics, seemingly immune to the effects of wind and weather. But if I watched him for long minutes, as I sometimes did, he would occasionally make tiny movements of his head, or adjust his talons' grip on the branch.

  Whatever madness had inspired his creation and his ultimate arrival here, the bird seemed content to observe our quiet fields and keep me company. I knew he would transmit his images through communications relays, satellites, and tracking stations to be combined with countless other streams of data into a vast machine representation of the world that was continuously monitored by some immense, deranged intelligence that now controlled every aspect of life in America. And as I quietly read one of Michal's books on the politics of the pre-Transition world, I would hear an occasional "peep" that the bird alone could have emitted. Perhaps he was reading along with me, and commenting in his way on the bizarre machinations of international politics in a chaotic and violent world.

  It was hard to imagine that that world had existed so recently, or how suddenly everything had changed. Whatever the spark, it had ignited a fire that swept through America in a matter of weeks, and within a few short years that fire illuminated every corner of the world. The sundry theories that attempted to explain the Transition's genesis were not uniform in their implausibility, but when compared with the event they sought to explain, even the most outlandish seemed possible. One thing was certain: however it was organized, the effect was irreversible, and the true cause would likely never be known or understood outside of an enigmatic and now unreachable America.

  It was argued that it could have been stopped. If the Russians, the French, or the English had reacted quickly they could have used their nuclear missiles to disrupt it. It seemed a stupid argument. A nuclear strike on another country had been a terrible thing to contemplate, a tactic of last resort, and maybe not even then. And even before the Transition, a nuclear attack on the United States would have been utterly suicidal. The hindsight-proponents of this theory argued that an early preemptive strike would have so disrupted the already-confused American systems that retaliation would have been disorganized, if it came at all. That argument ignored the simple reality that by the time the world grasped the scale and implications of what was happening, it was far too late to do anything about it.

  Still, there were those who hoped to st
op the seemingly inevitable assimilation of the world. To avoid the fate of the Canadians, the Mexicans had sealed their border with the United States, and refused to have any dealings with their northern neighbor. The effort was futile: vast areas of northern Mexico, and the millions of people who lived there, were now within the ever-growing blackout zone. Some European countries were trying to quarantine the now-darkening Britain, hoping to prevent the spread to the continent. But I knew it would not work. They were using the wrong model. You may be able to quarantine the carriers of a disease, but you cannot quarantine a black hole. Once you are in its grip, the laws of physics deny you a means of escape. And we are all long since in its grip.

  One of my weather stations was located in the forest preserve a few kilometers from town. On a warm and sunny morning, I set out for a visit. I followed the road west from town for a few kilometers before turning off onto a dusty track that edged up to the preserve, then ran parallel with it until reaching the marshy land that embraced the river on its course through the forest.

  As the sun moved higher, the heat of day and the exertion of the hike made me uncomfortably warm. The hot sun increased the stifling humidity of the marshland. I came to a creek, a small tributary running from within the forest out to the main river channel. There, I felt a powerful yearning to escape into the cool forest. I turned from the path and made my way upstream along the creek's edge. It was not long before the creek came to a clearing in the woods -- perhaps thirty meters across -- that was occupied almost entirely by a clear pond.

  An underground spring fed the pond, so the water was clean and clear. As I approached from the darkness of the forest, the sunlight flashed on ripples in the water, dazzling my eyes.

  I walked into the clearing, and the world opened around me. The dark woods faded away and the brilliant, shimmering pond floated in an endless field of light. Then, within the glare of the pond, I sensed movement.

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