Maps in a mirror, p.85

Maps in a Mirror, page 85

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Sift your fingers through the soil, all you who read my words. Take your spades of iron and your picks of stone. Dig deep. You will find no ancient works of man hidden there. For the Wreckers passed through the world, and all the vanity was consumed in fire; all the pride broke in pieces when it was smitten by God’s shining hand.

  Elouise leaned on the rim of the computer keyboard. All around her the machinery was alive, the screens displaying information. Elouise felt nothing but weariness. She was leaning because, for a moment, she had felt a frightening vertigo. As if the world underneath the airplane had dissolved and slipped away into a rapidly receding star and she would never be able to land.

  True enough, she thought. I’ll never be able to land, not in the world I knew.

  “Getting sentimental about the old computers?”

  Elouise, startled, turned in her chair and faced her husband, Charlie. At that moment the airplane lurched, but like sailors accustomed to the shifting of the sea, they adjusted unconsciously and did not notice the imbalance.

  “Is it noon already?” she asked.

  “It’s the mortal equivalent of noon. I’m too tired to fly this thing anymore, and it’s a good thing Bill’s at the controls.”

  “Hungry?”

  Charlie shook his head. “But Amy probably is,” he said.

  “Voyeur,” said Elouise.

  Charlie liked to watch Elouise nurse their daughter. But despite her accusation, Elouise knew there was nothing sexual in it. Charlie liked the idea of Elouise being Amy’s mother. He liked the way Amy’s sucking resembled the sucking of a calf or a lamb or a puppy. He had said, “It’s the best thing we kept from the animals. The best thing we didn’t throw away.”

  “Better than sex?” Elouise had asked. And Charlie had only smiled.

  Amy was playing with a rag doll in the only large clear space in the airplane, near the exit door. “Mommy Mommy Mamommy Mommy-o,” Amy said. The child stood and reached to be picked up. Then she saw Charlie. “Daddy Addy Addy.”

  “Hi,” Charlie said.

  “Hi,” Amy answered. “Ha-ee.” She had only just learned to close the diphthong, and she exaggerated it. Amy played with the buttons on Elouise’s shirt, trying to undo them.

  “Greedy,” Elouise said, laughing.

  Charlie unbuttoned the shirt for her, and Amy seized on the nipple after only one false grab. She sucked noisily, tapping her hand gently against Elouise’s breast as she ate.

  “I’m glad we’re so near finished,” Elouise said. “She’s too old to be nursing now.”

  “That’s right. Throw the little bird out of the nest.”

  “Go to bed,” Elouise said.

  Amy recognized the phrase. She pulled away. “La-lo,” she said.

  “That’s right. Daddy’s going to sleep,” Elouise said.

  Elouise watched as Charlie stripped off most of his clothing and lay down on the pad. He smiled once, then turned over, and was immediately asleep. He was in tune with his body. Elouise knew that he would awaken in exactly six hours, when it was time for him to take the controls again.

  Amy’s sucking was a subtle pleasure now, though it had been agonizing the first few months, and painful again when Amy’s first teeth had come in and she had learned to her delight that by nipping she could make her mother scream. But better to nurse her than ever have her eat the predigested pap that was served as food on the airplane. Elouise thought wryly that it was even worse than the microwaved veal cordon bleu that they used to inflict on commercial passengers. Only eight years ago. And they had calibrated their fuel so exactly that when they took the last draft of fuel from the last of their storage tanks, the tank registered empty; they would burn the last of the processed petroleum, instead of putting it back into the earth. All their caches were gone now, and they would be at the tender mercies of the world that they themselves had created.

  Still, there was work to do; the final work, in the final checks. Elouise held Amy with one arm while she used her free hand slowly to key in the last program that her role as commander required her to use. Elouise Private, she typed. Teacher teacher I declare I see someone’s underwear, she typed. On the screen appeared the warning she had put there: “You may think you’re lucky finding this program, but unless you know the magic words, an alarm is going to go off all over this airplane and you’ll be had. No way out of it, sucker. Love, Elouise.”

  Elouise, of course, knew the magic words. Einstein sucks, she typed. The screen went blank, and the alarm did not go off.

  Malfunction? she queried. “None,” answered the computer.

  Tamper? she queried, and the computer answered, “None.”

  Nonreport? she queried, and the computer flashed, “AFscanP7bb55.”

  Elouise had not really been dozing. But still she was startled, and she lurched forward, disturbing Amy, who really had fallen asleep. “No no no,” said Amy, and Elouise forced herself to be patient; she soothed her daughter back to sleep before pursuing whatever it was that her guardian program had caught. Whatever it was? Oh, she knew what it was. It was treachery. The one thing she had been sure her group, her airplane would never have. Other groups of Rectifiers—wreckers, they called themselves, having adopted their enemies’ name for them—other groups had had their spies or their fainthearts, but not Bill or Heather or Ugly-Bugly.

  Specify, she typed.

  The computer was specific.

  Over northern Virginia, as the airplane followed its careful route to find and destroy everything made of metal, glass, and plastic; somewhere over northern Virginia, the airplane’s path bent slightly to the south, and on the return, at the same place, the airplane’s path bent slightly to the north, so that a strip of northern Virginia two kilometers long and a few dozen meters wide could contain some nonbiodegradable artifact, hidden from the airplane, and if Elouise had not queried this program, she would never have known it.

  But she should have known it. When the plane’s course bent, alarms should have sounded. Someone had penetrated the first line of defense. But Bill could not have done that, nor could Heather, really—they didn’t have the sophistication to break up a bubble program. Ugly-Bugly?

  She knew it wasn’t faithful old Ugly-Bugly. No, not her.

  The computer voluntarily flashed, “Override M577b, commandmo4, intwis Ct-TttT.” It was an apology. Someone aboard ship had found the alarm override program and the overrides for the alarm overrides. Not my fault, the computer was saying.

  Elouise hesitated for a moment. She looked down at her daughter and moved a curl of red hair away from Amy’s eye. Elouise’s hand trembled. But she was a woman of ice, yes, all frozen where compassion made other women warm. She prided herself on that, on having frozen the last warm places in her—frozen so goddamn rigid that it was only a moment’s hesitation. And then she reached out and asked for the access code used to perform the treachery, asked for the name of the traitor.

  The computer was even less compassionate than Elouise. It hesitated not at all.

  The computer did not underline; the letters on the screen were no larger than normal. Yet Elouise felt the words as a shout, and she answered them silently with a scream.

  Charles Evan Hardy, b24ag61-richlandWA.

  It was Charlie who was the traitor—Charlie, her sweet, soft, hard-bodied husband, Charlie who secretly was trying to undo the end of the world.

  God has destroyed the world before. Once in a flood, when Noah rode it out in the Ark. And once the tower of the world’s pride was destroyed in the confusion of tongues. The other times, if there were any other times, those times are all forgotten.

  The world will probably be destroyed again, unless we repent. And don’t think you can hide from the angels. They start out as ordinary people, and you never know which ones. Suddenly God puts the power of destruction in their hands, and they destroy. And just as suddenly, when all the destruction is done, the angel leaves them, and they’re ordinary people. Just my mother and my father
.

  I can’t remember Father Charlie’s face. I was too young.

  Mother Elouise told me often about Father Charlie. He was born far to the west in a land where water only comes to the crops in ditches, almost never from the sky. It was a land unblessed by God. Men lived there, they believed, only by the strength of their own hands. Men made their ditches and forgot about God and became scientists. Father Charlie became a scientist. He worked on tiny animals, breaking their heart of hearts and combining it in new ways. Hearts were broken too often where he worked, and one of the little animals escaped and killed people until they lay in great heaps like fish in the ship’s hold.

  But this was not the destruction of the world.

  Oh, they were giants in those days, and they forgot the Lord, but when their people lay in piles of moldering flesh and brittling bone, they remembered they were weak.

  Mother Elouise said, “Charlie came weeping.” This is how Father Charlie became an angel. He saw what the giants had done, by thinking they were greater than God. At first he sinned in his grief. Once he cut his own throat. They put Mother Elouise’s blood in him to save his life. This is how they met: In the forest where he had gone to die privately, Father Charlie woke up from a sleep he thought would be forever to see a woman lying next to him in the tent and a doctor bending over them both. When he saw that this woman gave her blood to him whole and unstintingly, he forgot his wish to die. He loved her forever. Mother Elouise said he loved her right up to the day she killed him.

  When they were finished, they had a sort of ceremony, a sort of party. “A benediction,” said Bill, solemnly sipping at the gin. “Amen and amen.”

  “My shift,” Charlie said, stepping into the cockpit. Then he noticed that everyone was there and that they were drinking the last of the gin, the bottle that had been saved for the end. “Well, happy us,” Charlie said, smiling.

  Bill got up from the controls of the 787. “Any preferences on where we set down?” he asked. Charlie took his place.

  The others looked at one another. Ugly-Bugly shrugged. “God, who ever thought about it?”

  “Come on, we’re all futurists,” Heather said. “You must know where you want to live.”

  “Two thousand years from now,” Ugly-Bugly said. “I want to live in the world the way it’ll be two thousand years from now.”

  “Ugly-Bugly opts for resurrection,” Bill said. “I, however, long for the bosom of Abraham.”

  “Virginia,” said Elouise. They turned to face her. Heather laughed.

  “Resurrection,” Bill intoned, “the bosom of Abraham, and Virginia. You have no poetry, Elouise.”

  “I’ve written down the coordinates of the place where we are supposed to land,” Elouise said. She handed them to Charlie. He did not avoid her gaze. She watched him read the paper. He showed no sign of recognition. For a moment she hoped that it had all been a mistake, but no. She would not let herself be misled by her desires.

  “Why Virginia?” Heather asked.

  Charlie looked up. “It’s central.”

  “It’s east coast,” Heather said.

  “It’s central in the high survival area. There isn’t much of a living to be had in the western mountains or on the plains. It’s not so far south as to be in hunter-gatherer country and not so far north as to be unsurvivable for a high proportion of the people. Barring a hard winter.”

  “All very good reasons,” Elouise said. “Fly us there, Charlie.”

  Did his hands tremble as he touched the controls? Elouise watched very carefully, but he did not tremble. Indeed, he was the only one who did not. Ugly-Bugly suddenly began to cry, tears coming from her good eye and streaming down her good cheek. Thank God she doesn’t cry out of the other side, Elouise thought; then she was angry at herself, for she had thought Ugly-Bugly’s deformed face didn’t bother her anymore. Elouise was angry at herself, but it only made her cold inside, determined that there would be no failure. Her mission would be complete. No allowances made for personal cost.

  Elouise suddenly started out of her contemplative mood to find that the two other women had left the cockpit—their sleep shift, though it was doubtful they would sleep. Charlie silently flew the plane, while Bill sat in the copilot’s seat, pouring himself the last drop from the bottle. He was looking at Elouise.

  “Cheers,” Elouise said to him.

  He smiled sadly back at her. “Amen,” he said. Then he leaned back and sang softly:

  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

  Praise him, ye creatures here below.

  Praise him, who slew the wicked host.

  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

  Then he reached for Elouise’s hand. She was surprised, but let him take it. He bent to her and kissed her palm tenderly. “For many have entertained angels unaware,” he said to her.

  A few moments later he was asleep. Charlie and Elouise sat in silence. The plane flew on south as darkness overtook them from the east. At first their silence was almost affectionate. But as Elouise sat and sat, saying nothing, she felt the silence grow cold and terrible, and for the first time she realized that when the airplane landed, Charlie would be her—Charlie, who had been half her life for these last few years, whom she had never lied to and who had never lied to her—would be her enemy.

  I have watched the little children do a dance called Charlie-El. They sing a little song to it, and if I remember the words, it goes like this:

  I am made of bones and glass.

  Let me pass, let me pass.

  I am made of brick and steel.

  Take my heel, take my heel.

  I was killed just yesterday.

  Kneel and pray, kneel and pray.

  Dig a hole where I can sleep.

  Dig it deep, dig it deep.

  Will I go to heaven or hell?

  Charlie-El. Charlie-El.

  I think they are already nonsense words to the children. But the poem first got passed word of mouth around Richmond when I was little, and living in Father Michael’s house. The children do not try to answer their song. They just sing it and do a very clever little dance while they sing. They always end the song with all the children falling down on the ground, laughing. That is the best way for the song to end.

  Charlie brought the airplane straight down into a field, great hot winds pushing against the ground as if to shove it back from the plane. The field caught fire, but when the plane had settled upon its three wheels, foam streaked out from the belly of the machine and overtook the flames. Elouise watched from the cockpit, thinking, Wherever the foam has touched, nothing will grow for years. It seemed symmetrical to her. Even in the last moments of the last machine, it must poison the earth. Elouise held Amy on her lap and thought of trying to explain it to the child. But Elouise knew Amy would not understand or remember.

  “Last one dressed is a sissy-wissy,” said Ugly-Bugly in her husky, ancient-sounding voice. They had dressed and undressed in front of each other for years now, but today as the old plastic-polluted clothing came off and the homespun went on, they felt and acted like school kids on their first day in coed gym. Amy caught the spirit of it and kept yelling at the top of her lungs. No one thought to quiet her. There was no need. This was a celebration.

  But Elouise, long accustomed to self-examination, forced herself to realize that there was a strain to her frolicking. She did not believe it, not really. Today was not a happy day, and it was not just from knowing the confrontation that lay ahead. There was something so final about the death of the last of the engines of mankind. Surely something could be—but she forced the thought from her, forced the coldness in her to overtake that sentiment. Surely she could not be seduced by the beauty of the airplane. Surely she must remember that it was not the machines but what they inevitably did to mankind that was evil.

  They looked and felt a little awkward, almost silly, as they left the plane and stood around in the blackened field. They had not yet lost their feel for stylish c
lothing, and the homespun was so lumpy and awkward and rough. It didn’t look right on any of them.

  Amy clung to her doll, awed by the strange scenery. In her life she had been out of the airplane only once, and that was when she was an infant. She watched as the trees moved unpredictably. She winced at the wind in her eyes. She touched her cheek, where her hair moved back and forth in the breeze, and hunted through her vocabulary for a word to name the strange invisible touch of her skin. “Mommy,” she said. “Uh! Uh! Uh!”

  Elouise understood. “Wind,” she said. The sounds were still too hard for Amy, and the child did not attempt to say the word. Wind, thought Elouise, and immediately thought of Charlie. Her best memory of Charlie was in the wind. It was during his death-wish time, not long after his suicide. He had insisted on climbing a mountain, and she knew that he meant to fall. So she had climbed with him, even though there was a storm coming up. Charlie was angry all the way. She remembered a terrible hour clinging to the face of a cliff, held only by small bits of metal forced into cracks in the rock. She had insisted on remaining tied to Charlie. “If one of us fell, it would only drag the other down, too,” he kept saying. “I know,” she kept answering. And so Charlie had not fallen, and they made love for the first time in a shallow cave, with the wind howling outside and occasional sprays of rain coming in to dampen them. They refused to be dampened. Wind. Damn.

  And Elouise felt herself go cold and unemotional, and they stood on the edge of the field in the shade of the first trees. Elouise had left the Rectifier near the plane, set on 360 degrees. In a few minutes the Rectifier would go off, and they had to watch, to witness the end of their work.

  Suddenly Bill shouted, laughed, held up his wrist. “My watch!” he cried.

  “Hurry,” Charlie said. “There’s time.”

  Bill unbuckled his watch and ran toward the Rectifier. He tossed the watch. It landed within a few meters of the small machine. Then Bill returned to the group, jogging and shaking his head. “Jesus, what a moron! Three years wiping out everything east of the Mississippi, and I almost save a digital chronograph.”

 
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