Maps in a mirror, p.33
Maps in a Mirror, page 33
“Have you Americans been trapped down here ever since the war began?” I asked, trying to put awe into my voice, and succeeding. Horror isn’t that far removed from awe, anyway.
They beamed with what I took for pride. And I was beginning to be able to interpret some of their facial expressions. As long as I had good words for America, I was all right.
“Yes, Captain Kane Kanea, we and our ancestors have been here from the beginning.”
“Doesn’t it get a little cramped?”
“Not for American soldiers, Captain. For the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we would sacrifice anything.” I didn’t ask how much liberty and happiness-pursuing were possible in a hole in the rock. Our hero went on: “We fight on that millions may live, free, able to breathe the clean air of America unoppressed by the lashes of Communism.”
And then they broke into a few choice hymns about purple mountains and yellow waves with a rousing chorus of God blessing America. It all ended with a mighty shout: “Better dead than red.” When it was over we asked them if we could sleep, since according to our ship’s time it was well past bedding-down hour.
They put us in a rather small room with three cots in it that were far too short for us. Didn’t matter. We couldn’t possibly be comfortable in our monkeysuits anyway.
Harold wanted to talk in lingua deporto as soon as we were alone, but I managed to convince him without even using my monkeysuit’s discipliner button that we didn’t want them to think we were trying to keep any secrets. We all took it for granted that they were monitoring us.
And so our conversation was the sort of conversation that one doesn’t mind having overheard by a bunch of crazy patriots.
Amauri: “I am amazed at their great love for America, persisting so many centuries.” Translation: “What the hell got these guys so nuts about something as dead as the ancient U.S. empire?”
Me: “Perhaps it is due to such unwavering loyalty to the flag, God, country, and liberty” (I admit I was laying it on thick, but better to be safe, etc.) “that they have been able to survive so long.” Translation: “Maybe being crazy fanatics is all that’s kept them alive in this hole.”
Harold: “I wonder how long we can stay in this bastion of democracy before we must reluctantly go back to our colony of the glorious American dream.” Translation: “What are the odds they don’t let us go? After all, they’re so loony they might think we’re spies or something.”
Vladimir: “I only hope we can learn from them. Their science is infinitely beyond anything we have hitherto developed with our poor resources.” Translation: “We’re not going anywhere until I have a chance to do my job and check out the local flora and fauna. Eight hundred years of recombining DNA has got to have something we can take back home to Núncamais.”
And so the conversation went until we were sick of the flowers and perfume that kept dropping out of our mouths. Then we went to sleep.
The next day was guided tour day, Russian attack day, and damn near good-bye to the crew of the good ship Pollywog.
The guided tour kept us up hill and down dale for most of the morning. Vladimir was running the tracking computer from his monkeysuit. Mine was too busy analyzing the implications of all their comments while Amauri was absorbing the science and Harold was trying to figure out how to pick his nose with mittens on. Harold was along for the ride—a weapons expert, just in case. Thank God.
We began to be able to tell one little person from another. George Washington Steiner was our usual guide. The big boss, who had talked to us through most of the history lesson the day before, was Andrew Jackson Wallichinsky. And the guy who led the singing was Richard Nixon Dixon. The computer told us those were names of beloved American presidents, with surnames added.
And my monkeysuit’s analysis also told us that the music leader was the real big boss, while Andy Jack Wallichinsky was merely the director of scientific research. Seems that the politicians ran the brains, instead of vice versa.
Our guide, G.W. Steiner, was very proud of his assignment. He showed us everything. I mean, even with the monkeysuit keeping three-fourths of the gravity away from me, my feet were sore by lunchtime (a quick sip of recycled xixi and coco). And it was impressive. Again, I give it unto you in abbreviated form:
Even though the installation was technically airtight, in fact the enemy viruses and bacteria could get in quite readily. It seems that early in the twenty-first century the Russians had stopped making any kind of radio broadcasts. (I know, that sounds like a non sequitur. Patience, patience.) At first the Americans in 004 had thought they had won. And then, suddenly, a new onslaught of another disease. At this time the 004 researchers had never been personally hit by any diseases—the airtight system was working fine. But their commander at that time, Rodney Fletcher, had been very suspicious.
“He thought it was a commie trick,” said George Washington Steiner. I began to see the roots of superpatriotism in 004’s history.
So Rodney Fletcher set the scientists to working on strengthening the base personnel’s antibody system. They plugged away at it for two weeks and came up with three new strains of bacteria that selectively devoured practically anything that wasn’t supposed to be in the human body. Just in time, too, because then that new disease hit. It wasn’t stopped by the airtight system, because instead of being a virus, it was just-two little amino acids and a molecule of lactose, put together just so. It fit right through the filters. It sailed right through the antibiotics. It entered right into the lungs of every man, woman, and child in 004. And if Rodney Fletcher hadn’t been a paranoid, they all would have died. As it was, only about half lived.
Those two amino acids and the lactose molecule had the ability to fit right into that spot on a human DNA and then make the DNA replicate that way. Just one little change—and pretty soon nerves just stopped working.
Those two amino acids and the lactose molecule system worked just well enough to slow down the disease’s progress until a plug could be found that fit even better into that spot on the DNA, keeping the Russians’ little devices out. (Can they be called viruses? Can they be called alive? I’ll leave it to the godcallers and the philosophers to decide that.)
Trouble was, the plugs also caused all the soldiers’ babies to grow up to be very short with a propensity for having their teeth fall out and their eyes go blind at the age of thirty. G.W. Steiner was very proud of the fact that they had managed to correct for the eyes after four generations. He smiled and for the first time we really noticed that his teeth weren’t like ours.
“We make them out of certain bacteria that gets very hard when a particular virus is exposed to it. My own great-great-grandmother invented it,” Steiner said. “We’re always coming up with new and useful tools.”
I asked to see how they did this trick, which brings us full circle to what we saw on the guided tour that day. We saw the laboratories where eleven researchers were playing clever little games with DNA. I didn’t understand any of it, but my monkeysuit assured me that the computer was getting it all.
We also saw the weapons delivery system. It was very clever. It consisted of setting a culture dish full of a particular nasty weapon in a little box, closing the door to the box, and then pressing a button that opened another door to the box that led outside.
“We let the wind take it from there,” said Steiner. “We figure it takes about a year for a new weapon to reach Russia. But by then it’s grown to a point that it’s irresistible.”
I asked him what the bacteria lived on. He laughed. “Anything,” he said. It turns out that their basic breeding stock is a bacterium that can photosynthesize and dissolve any form of iron, both at the same time. “Whatever else we change about a particular weapon, we don’t change that,” Steiner said. “Our weapons can travel anywhere without hosts. Quarantines don’t do any good.”
Harold had an idea. I was proud of him. “If these little germs can dissolve steel, George, why the hell aren
Steiner looked like he had just been hoping we’d ask that question.
“When we developed our basic breeder stock, we also developed a mold that inhibits the bacteria from reproducing and eating. The mold only grows on metal and the spores die if they’re away from both mold and metal for more than one-seventy-seventh of a second. That means that the mold grows all the way around this installation—and nowhere else. My fourteenth great-uncle William Westmoreland Hannamaker developed the mold.”
“Why,” I asked, “do you keep mentioning your blood relationship to these inventors? Surely after eight hundred years here everybody’s related?”
I thought I was asking a simple question. But G.W. Steiner looked at me coldly and turned away, leading us to the next room.
We found bacteria that processed other bacteria that processed still other bacteria that turned human excrement into very tasty, nutritious food. We took their word for the tasty. I know, we were still eating recycled us through the tubes in our suit. But at least we knew where ours had been.
They had bacteria that without benefit of sunlight processed carbon dioxide and water back into oxygen and starch. So much for photosynthesis.
And we got a list of what shelf after shelf of weapons could do to an unprepared human body. If somebody ever broke all those jars on Núncamais or Pennsylvania or Kiev, everybody would simply disappear, completely devoured and incorporated into the life-systems of bacteria and viruses and trained amino-acid sets.
No sooner did I think of that, than I said it. Only I didn’t get any farther than the word Kiev.
“Kiev? One of the colonies is named Kiev?”
I shrugged. “There are only three planets colonized. Kiev, Pennsylvania, and Núncamais.”
Oops, I thought. Oops is an all-purpose word standing for every bit of profanity, blasphemy, and pornographic and scatological exculpation I could think of.
The guided tour ended right then.
Back in our bedroom, we became aware that we had somehow dissolved our hospitality. After a while, Harold realized that it was my fault.
“Captain, by damn, if you hadn’t told them about Kiev we wouldn’t be locked in here like this!”
I agreed, hoping to pacify him, but he didn’t calm down until I used the discipliner button in my monkeysuit.
Then we consulted the computers.
Mine reported that in all we had been told, two areas had been completely left out: While it was obvious that in the past the little people had done extensive work on human DNA, there had been no hint of any work going on in that field today. And though we had been told of all kinds of weapons that had been flung among the Russians on the other side of the world, there had been no hint of any kind of limited effect antipersonnel weapon here.
“Oh,” Harold said. “There’s nothing to stop us from walking out of here anytime we can knock the door down. And I can knock the door down anytime I want to,” he said, playing with the buttons on his monkeysuit. I urged him to wait until all the reports were done.
Amauri informed us that he had gleaned enough information from their talk and his monkeyeyes that we could go home with the entire science of DNA recombination hidden away in our computer.
And then Vladimir’s suit played out a holomap of Post 004.
The bright green, infinitesimally thin lines marked walls, doors, passages. We immediately recognized the corridors we had walked in throughout the morning, located the laboratories, found where we were imprisoned. And then we noticed a rather larger area in the middle of the holomap that seemed empty.
“Did you see a room like that?” I asked. The others shook their heads. Vladimir asked the holomap if we had been in it. The suit answered in its whispery monkeyvoice: “No. I have only delineated the unpenetrated perimeter and noted apertures that perhaps give entry.”
“So they didn’t let us in there,” Harold said. “I knew the bastards were hiding something.”
“And let’s make a guess,” I said. “That room either has something to do with antipersonnel weapons, or it has something to do with human DNA research.”
We sat and pondered the revelations we had just had, and realized they didn’t add up to much. Finally Vladimir spoke up. Trust a half-bunny to come up with the idea where three browns couldn’t. Just goes to show you that a racial theory is a bunch of waggy-woggle.
“Antipersonnel hell,” Vladimir said. “They don’t need antipersonnel. All they have to do is open a little hole in our suits and let the germs come through.”
“Our suits close immediately,” Amauri said, but then corrected himself. “I guess it doesn’t take long for a virus to get through, does it?”
Harold didn’t get it. “Let one of those bunnies try to lay a knife on me, and I’ll split him from ass to armpit.”
We ignored him.
“What makes you think there are germs in here? Our suits don’t measure that,” I pointed out.
Vladimir had already thought of that. “Remember what they said. About the Russians getting those little amino-acid monsters in here.”
Amauri snorted. “Russians.”
“Yeah, right,” Vladimir said, “but keep the voice down, viado.”
Amauri turned red, started to say, “Quern é que cê chama de viado!”—but I pushed the discipliner button. No time for any of that crap.
“Watch your language, Vladimir. We got enough problems.”
“Sorry, Amauri, Captain,” Vladimir said. “I’m a little wispy, you know?”
Vladimir took a breath and went on. “Once those bugs got in here, 004 must have been pretty thoroughly permeable. The, uh, Russians must’ve kept pumping more variations on the same into Post 004.”
“So why aren’t they all dead?”
“What I think is that a lot of these people have been killed—but the survivors are ones whose bodies took readily to those plugs they came up with. The plugs are regular parts of their body chemistry now. They’d have to be, wouldn’t they? They told us they were passed on in the DNA transmitted to the next generation.”
I got it. So did Amauri, who said, “So they’ve had seven or eight centuries to select for adaptability.”
“Why not?” Vladimir asked. “Didn’t you notice? Eleven researchers on developing new weapons. And only two on developing new defenses. They can’t be too worried.”
Amauri shook his head. “Oh, Mother Earth. Whatever got into you?”
“Just caught a cold,” Vladimir said, and then laughed. “A virus. Called humanity.”
We sat around looking at the holomap for a while. I found four different routes from where we were to the secret area—if we wanted to get there. I also found three routes to the exit. I pointed them out to the others.
“Yeah,” Harold said. “Trouble is, who knows if those doors really lead into that unknown area? I mean, what the hell, three of the four doors might lead to the broom closets or service stations.”
A good point.
We just sat there, wondering whether we should head for the Pollywog or try to find out what was in the hidden area, when the Russian attack made up our minds for us. There was a tremendous bang. The floor shook, as if some immense dog had just picked up Post 004 and given it a good shaking. When it stopped the lights flickered and went out.
“Golden opportunity,” I said into the monkeymouth. The others agreed. So we flashed on the lights from our suits and pointed them at the door. Harold suddenly felt very important. He went to the door and ran his magic flipper finger all the way around the door. Then he stepped back and flicked a lever on his suit.
“Better turn your backs,” he said. “This can flash pretty bright.”
Even looking at the back wall the explosion blinded me for a few seconds. The world looked a little green when I turned around. The door was in shreds on the floor, and the doorjamb didn’t look
“Nice job, Harold,” I said.
“Graças a deus,” he answered, and I had to laugh. Odd how little religious phrases refused to die, even with an irreverent filho de punta like Harold.
Then I remembered that I was in charge of order-giving. So I gave.
The second door we tried led into the rooms we wanted to see. But just as we got in, the lights came on.
“Damn. They’ve got the station back in order,” Amauri said. But Vladimir just pointed down the corridor.
The pea soup had gotten in. It was oozing sluggishly toward us.
“Whatever the Russians did, it must have opened up a big hole in the station.” Vladimir pointed his laser finger at the mess. Even on full power, it only made a little spot steam. The rest just kept coming.
“Anyone for swimming?” I asked. No one was. So I hustled them all into the not-so-hidden room.
There were some little people in there, cowering in the darkness. Harold wrapped them in cocoons and stuck them in a corner. So we had time to look around.
There wasn’t that much to see, really. Standard lab equipment, and then thirty-two boxes, about a meter square. They were under sunlamps. We looked inside.
The animals were semisolid looking. I didn’t touch one right then, but the sluggish way it sent out pseudopodia, I concluded that the one I was watching, at least, had a rather crusty skin—with jelly inside. They were all a light brown—even lighter than Vladimir’s skin. But there were little green spots here and there. I wondered if they photosynthesized.
“Look what they’re floating in,” Amauri said, and I realized that it was pea soup.
“They’ve developed a giant amoeba that lives on all other microorganisms, I guess,” Vladimir said. “Maybe they’ve trained it to carry bombs. Against the Russians.”
At that moment Harold began firing his arsenal, and I noticed that the little people were gathered at the door to the lab, looking agitated. A few at the front were looking dead.
Harold probably would have killed all of them, except that we were still standing next to a box with a giant amoeba in it. When he screamed, we looked and saw the creature fastened against his leg. Even as we watched, Harold fell, the bottom half of his leg dropping away as the amoeba continued eating up his thigh.
by Orson Scott Card / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Poetry / Nonfiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes