SFReader 2009 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
Four hours more to Simpton and five back to Porter. Jesse Matten had nothing ahead of him but hard, cold clay and nothing behind him but hard, cold clay. He turned the truck radio up loud–just because he was feeling reckless–and reached over into his cooler for a bottle of Dry.
The bottle-cap joined the pile of its brothers on the floor and the bottle touched his lips.
Was that a shape just up ahead? His hand tightened around the steering-key and he set the bottle down. The monitors showed nothing behind or beside him except clay and road. He checked again and adjusted the night-vision settings, but still nothing. And still the shape in front.
The shape moved. Jesse sat upright. Shapes didn’t move out here at night. It was eighty below outside. Any shape with the bad sense to be on the clay at all would surely find somewhere to lay its head long before darkness fell.
Radio reception dropped off, the music replaced by the hiss of static. Without taking his eyes off the shape Jesse reached out, turned the sound down and slowed the truck to a crawl. Most likely the shape was just a sick refoe separated from its herd and finding somewhere to die. Even so, Jesse didn’t want to spook it. Even sick refoes could do a lot of damage to a truck.
An auto-scan came up on screen to his upper left. Not a refoe, this shape. There was too much heat–and it walked upright like a man. That couldn’t be. Jesse gave the side of the screen a slap. The image shuddered but didn’t change. Still, it couldn’t be. No men ever walked the clay. That was impossible.
He upped the night-vision to its brightest and squinted at the frontviewer. Well, it could be a man. The diagnostic said it was and it sure looked the shape. His throat was dusty and his hands clammy. Eyes might lie on the clay sometimes, but diagnostics never did.
What to do now? If it was a man he couldn’t leave him out here. But what if it was a trick? He’d heard tales–mostly in hashish bars, mind–of varels who disguised themselves in men’s robes and waited at pit-stops for weary runners. Not that he had ever seen a varel. And not that any of the other runners he knew had ever seen a varel. But still, whenever a runner didn’t berth on schedule the rumors went around like a preacher’s wife on leave.
It was so beautiful and clear tonight. Out here, where stars sparkled like diamond specks in the distant sky and the only noises were the low rumble of his truck engine and perhaps the radio if he felt like company, things weren’t confusing or uncertain. Stuff like this wasn’t supposed to happen on nights like this. Jesse wiped a hand across his forehead and it came away wet.
The shape stopped and turned to face the truck. It wore a baggy robe, but no ice hung from it. Another thing to add to the list of couldn’t be’s. And then Jesse drew abreast of the shape and it reached what had to be arms up and pulled the hood of its robe back.
Without any conscious thought, Jesse twisted the brake key full-circle, automatically correcting for any swerve with deft flicks of the steering key–the truck such a natural part of him. But what he saw, that couldn’t be natural. No way on this fine earth.
It was a man! How in the name of all that was preached could this be? And this man’s face, though lined with cracks, was not frozen. It was a man and it was alive out here, somehow, in the void of clay.
Jesse’s lips quivered. He wasn’t given to holy words, but if ever there was a time for prayer now was it. He silently recited the only one he could remember and raised his head. Maybe this man who couldn’t be a man would be gone. But no, Jesse wasn’t about to get off that easy. The man stood directly in front of the right sideviewer feed, an expression of concern on his unfrozen face. His lips moved, but no sound came from them.
Memories of stories told him as a child, of glass-crawlers and clay-reapers, crowded his mind. Old-wives tales told to keep little ones from doing bad or to scare you at church. His hands gripped the steering key so tightly his arms shook.
Get a hold of yourself man. You’ve served three tours, fought alongside strange aliens while fighting against fellow humans, seen this earth rotating from far above, yet an unfrozen man on the clay is about to give you a heart rupture.
The man tapped at the sideviewer. The speakers! No wonder he couldn’t hear the man’s words. Most of him wanted to kick the truck back into gear and drive away as quickly as possible, but what if this person needed help? What if another runner had dumped him out here? He turned the volume up.
“–thing all right in there?” The voice was tinny, but that was the speakers’ fault.
Jesse switched his external mike on and held it close to his lips. “Who are you?”
The unfrozen face looked confused for an instant. “I am Aron. Are you sure everything is all right in there?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m okay I guess. Just not used to seeing a man walking the clay. ‘Specially not without protectives.”
“Well, I am sorry to startle you, Jesse.”
Jesse clapped a hand to the base of his neck and squeaked, “How do you know my name?”
Aron laughed. “Your truck has Jesse’s Dream painted down this side. Naturally I assumed your name was Jesse.”
“Oh.” Jesse felt his cheeks redden. “Okay, that, uh, that makes sense.”
“I am sorry. I forget what a shock one of us can be to you dome-heads. Oh dear. Sorry again, I did not mean that in a nasty way.”
“That’s okay.” Jesse’s mind was too busy processing all the information in the statement to take offense. “So… Aron. How are you out here on the clay? Why aren’t you frozen?”
Aron didn’t respond immediately. He looked past the truck instead, brow scrunched.
Jesse glanced at his instrument panel. Temperature was still eighty below. Yet somehow there this man was, staring off into the distance with a face unfrozen and pink-cheeked. At the very least there should be icicles hanging from his nose, but by all rights he should be a corpse.
Finally Aron turned back to the sideviewer.
“I am hitchhiking,” he said with a sad smile.
It was more than eerie having this ‘person’ in his cab. Aron still wore the thick robe, but his boots and satchel were in the lock. They too were somehow free of ice. Jesse watched Aron wiggle his toes and stretch out his feet and make himself comfortable in the hastily cleared passenger space.
So far Jesse had resisted the urge to reach out and touch his passenger to make sure he wasn’t a hallucination. He did, however, find himself pressed uncomfortably against the side panel–as far from Aron as possible–and stealing glances at him every two seconds. All the scans showed him to be a man–a man letting off almost no body heat, but a man nonetheless. He carried no concealed weapons, his body wasn’t full of lethal germs, his physiology was ninety-nine point-nine percent human. Jesse had no good reason not to let him in the truck. But that didn’t mean any of this made any kind of sense.
“Where is it you want to go, exactly?” Jesse said, gaze back on the road before Aron could make eye contact.
“Whichever direction you are heading, Jesse.”
“Okay.” Jesse nodded. There was so much he had to ask before this could be anything more than a lane-runner’s dream.
“What is it like, to live in the domes?” Aron asked.
Jesse looked directly at him, entirely unprepared for that question. And, truth be told, he didn’t really have an answer for it either. “Well, I guess it’s, well, it’s just natural I s’pose. Though I probably spend more time out here in my truck than under the Glass.”
“Is it warm?”
Jesse couldn’t help a chuckle. “Warmer than out here, that’s for sure.”
“I have always wondered what it would be like to live under… ‘the Glass’, as you called it. Away from the heat of day and the cold of night, in dwellings made with machines and not underground, able to get places without using one’s feet, able to eat all sorts of strange and different things. I would love to experience that so much.”
Aron’s tone was so wistful Jesse’s apprehension faded. He reached into his cooler for a bottle of Dry, twisted the cap off and handed the bottle to Aron. The boy–for Jesse suddenly realized from Aron’s speech and expression that was what he was, despite his weather-beaten face–took the bottle gingerly and held it below his nose.
“Drink,” Jesse said.
Aron took a sip. His mouth wrinkled, but then his eyes lit up. “This, this is wonderful.” He took another sip. “Is everything your people make this amazing?”
Jesse smiled, but then he had a sudden, overwhelming need to dampen Aron’s enthusiasm for a world in which he himself rarely felt at home in. “It’s not all tea and cupcakes, Aron. Because of the Glass sometimes the air doesn’t smell good and is bad for your lungs. And a lot of the food might taste real nice, but isn’t good for your body. And every little thing you want to do has some different rule that goes along with it and there are so many people crammed in such a small area it’s real hard to have your own space?-”
“But, surely,” Aron said, “the good outweighs the bad. Do your people know Vlenter fever?”
“No, I don’t think so. Though we could have another name for it.”
“How about dust poisoning?”
“I’ve heard of it, but only among runners who get punctures in their protectives.”
“And I can see your face has not withered from the cold and wind like mine has.”
“No, I guess it hasn’t.”
“And is it true you can go anywhere within your dome and even to another dome at any time you choose without restriction?”
“To a certain extent, I s’pose. Of course, things like traveling from one Glass to another are a little restricted– y’know, travel permits and background checks and such, but yeah, within a Glass travel is pretty much unrestricted.” Jesse corrected the truck for a gradual turn in the road.
“And if you really want to, you can sit under a covering and watch the sky and clouds through the dome without going blind?”
“Yeah, if that’s your thing, sure.”
“Well,” Aron said, “I would trade everything I have for any of that.”
“Hold up just a tick. I still don’t know who you are or where the hell you’re from. Yet, you seem to know everything about the world I live in.”
Aron took another sip of his Dry. “How can you not know about me and my people? Our leaders and your leaders talk and trade. Our people have even worked together in the past. Without us, this road you are driving along could never have been built.”
Jesse gave Aron a suspicious look. “Before tonight I’d never heard of anybody living outside the Glass. And nobody I know, except maybe the odd crazy man piped up on hashish, has ever mentioned anything about anybody living outside. Didn’t think it possible. Temperature it is right now, you should be dead and frozen solid. Temperature it is during the day you should be dead and burnt to a crisp. And yet here you are, looking as healthy as me and talking my language. I’m still not entirely sure you aren’t some version of a preacher’s torment come to punish me for my sins.”
“That is very strange.” Aron sounded genuinely baffled. “We are both of the same stock; it is a basic thing taught in our schools. The Settlers’ came, this world was not what they thought it to be, there was a difference of opinion and then a rift, some were asked to leave the domes, and here we are today, many, many centuries later.”
“Well, I know this world wasn’t quite what was expected, and the First Ones didn’t have the resources to leave, but why don’t I know about you? Why haven’t I been taught this? Why weren’t you fighting alongside us in the Boresk conflicts?”
“I do not know.” There were red patches on the skin beneath Aron’s eyes. “But I am sure what I have been taught is the truth. Your scanners say I am a human male, do they not?”
“Well, they say you’re ninety-nine point-nine percent human male.”
“If that were outside of their margin for error, I truly doubt you would have let me on board.”
“Maybe so, but how the hell can you walk the clay?”
Aron shrugged. The bits of arm visible outside his cloak were thin and sinewy. “It is another basic thing. When the Settlers came they had special doctors amongst them, doctors who could change the structure of our human code. That was what the difference of opinion happened over. Some thought we should engineer our bodies to coexist within this environment, but others said doing so was a sin against Nature. Eventually, after a prolonged argument, the supporters of those who thought changing our code constituted a sin won out and our ancestors were exiled from the domes, to wherever they could find to survive, unprotected from the elements.”
“So now where do you live?”
“In caverns, well below the surface of the planet. Some of us live in caves within the mountains, also.”
So much information and Jessie didn’t think he understood half of it. “And your people’ve lived there ever since?”
“Yes, Jessie. We need shelter like that to avoid the harsh sun. Unfortunately, we can only walk above the ground at night. The engineering of our ancestors’ bodies was never completed. They were, if you like, the first batch.”
“But I thought you said you had special doctors, who could, what’d you say, change your code?”
Aron let out a sharp laugh. “Those doctors were not exiled with my ancestors. We do not know what happened to them, but we do know they could not perform such changes on themselves, only on the strings of data contained within a man’s emission and within a woman’s egg. And even that was a difficult process and required special machines and environments where nothing could contaminate their work. Apparently it took them many, many attempts to engineer my ancestors successfully.”
Silence filled the cabin for a minute. Jesse didn’t know what to say. Could any of this be true? But there Aron was, drinking from a bottle he had handed to him, and talking as if all he said was undeniable fact.
“Let me ask you a question, Jesse,” Aron said. “What would happen if you did not have this truck to shield you from the cold?”
Jesse snorted. “If I stepped outside this truck right now without my protectives on I’d be dead sharp quick.”
“And yet you and other ‘runners’ continually risk yourselves transporting cargo between domes. Why, Jesse? What makes you do this?”
That was a personal question. Jesse wasn’t sure he felt like answering it. Instead he asked, “Why aren’t your clothes and boots all frosted up?”
“Varel hide is a very useful thing.”
“Varels? Now you’re really telling tall tales.” Jesse gave Aron a long look.
The redness on Aron’s face had spread and beads of perspiration littered his forehead and upper lip.
“Hey, are you all right?” Jesse said. “Maybe you shouldn’t have any more of that Dry. It might not agree with you.”
“I am fine,” Aron said, holding his bottle with both hands. “I am just a little warm.”
“Okay, if you say so.” Jesse turned the temperature down a bit. It was already on the chilly side. “But Varels? Varels are just characters in stories told by old men at hashish bars.”
“Where do you think characters for stories come from? They have to be based on something, do they not?”
“Varels are creatures perfectly adapted to the harshness of this environment.” Aron’s voice sounded a little strained. “Able to survive both the days and nights of this world. Our makers researched them extensively when creating us, or so the tradition goes. They are not easy to hunt, and some think they have thoughts like men, but their hides are so valuable for protection that we do take a few, when we need to.”
“And they are where, exactly?”
“They live mainly in the hills and mountains. They fear us, and you, and especially in the last few generations have retreated far away from any human settlements.”
As much information as Aron readily gave out, it still felt like the real question wasn’t being answered. Jesse tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and said, “So how come I’ve never seen one of you before? Sure, you live underground, but I’ve been running the lanes more than half my life and I’ve never seen even a glimpse of someone like you. What do you even call yourselves?”
“We call ourselves humans. What else would we call ourselves? And tell me, how often do you stray from the road?”
“Point.” Jesse corrected the truck for another long straight. “But still, it’s not like I drive blind. I love it out here.”
“If we never come near the road and you only ever drive on the road, in darkness, then how likely is it that you will see us?”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re full of answers. But you say our governments talk.”
Silence, again. Aron stared at the control panel, then said, “We are still abominations to your government. Unnatural, men who are not men. Your government would prefer nothing to do with us. The fact we have survived in exile is a slap to their faces. But we have access to resources that you cannot have access to, and that we would not let you have access to. The caverns and caves we control have things in them that your society considers very valuable. We trade these for things that are valuable to our society, building materials, basic medicines and, occasionally, old teaching texts. But we do not stray from our place any more than we need to. It is a fragile peace, and war is the last thing we want.”
“So what exactly were you doing on the road then? It wasn’t like you leaped out of the way when you saw me coming.”
“I already told you what I was doing.”
“Hitchhiking isn’t exactly an all-inclusive answer now, is it?”
Aron didn’t say anything. He began to unbutton his cloak, mouth open and eyes wide.
“You sure don’t look okay, bud,” Jesse said. He turned the heater down further and began twisting the brake key.
“No, please do not stop,” Aron said, in between gasps of air. “I will be fine.”
Jesse shook his head. “I don’t think you will. Seems to me the heat doesn’t agree with you.”
“Please,” Aron said. “I want to see a dome. I need to know what it is like to live under the Glass.”
“I’m sorry.” Jesse meant it, too. He actually found himself liking the boy, try as he might to find a reason to distrust him. “But I can’t do that. If the heat here in the truck does this to you, then there is no way you could survive under the Glass, short of living in a freezer.”
“No! I have to see what it is like. It must be so wonderful, being able to see the sky during daylight. Please.” Aron clutched at Jesse’s arm, but his wheezing intensified and he slumped back in his seat, hand massaging his throat. “Please.”
The last barely made its way out of Aron’s mouth. Jesse pulled the brake-key full-circle and the truck came to a sideways halt. He reached behind him, cycled the lock and grabbed Aron by the cloak. The only sound he could hear was the rasp of Aron’s breath. The boy struggled weakly, but Jesse wrapped his arms tight around him, dragged him into the lock and deposited him inside.
Aron looked up, both terror and pleading in his wide eyes. He moved his lips, but no words came out.
“Wanting to live under the glass is not worth dying for, Aron,” Jesse said, prying the bottle of Dry from the boy’s fingers. “And as much as I would like you to keep this bottle, it will explode the moment I open the outside doors.”
Jesse stepped back into the cab. Then he closed both inside lock-doors and began depressurization. Aron just lay there, seemingly nothing more than a puddle of clothes, no movement visible on the lockviewer. The boy better not die. That would be just Jesse’s luck. Meet someone from a branch of humanity his government neglected to tell anybody about, then watch the poor sod die because Jesse was stupid enough to let him face an environment so alien it might as well be another planet. And the boy was just so damn open and innocent and likeable.
“C’mon,” Jesse muttered. The cycle was nearly complete. He could see nothing that indicated breath.
The green light above the gauge lit up and Jesse twisted the outside lock-key. Frigid air rushed in, immediately frosting the viewer over. Seconds later visual feed was lost. Jesse cursed silently. He’d been meaning to fix the lens-shield for months, but kept putting it off. Hopefully voice feed still worked.
“Aron,” he said, reciting holy words in his mind. “Can you hear me? If you can, don’t say anything, because I won’t be able to hear you. Just walk around to one of the sideviewers.”
He glanced at the monitors. Nothing. He repeated himself into the mike.
A person appeared on the screen, staggering, but alive. Jesse’s heart double-tapped. He pumped his fist.
“I thought I was dead, Jesse,” Aron said. He gathered his cloak about himself and sat, cross-legged and barefoot, on the road. “But here I am, alive, but never to see the inside of a dome. Never to see what you call home.”
“You’ve already seen what I call home, Aron.” Jesse couldn’t wipe the smile of relief from his face. “You’ve sat in it. Jesse’s Dream. This is my home.”
Aron nodded slowly. “I see.”
“You’ve got the whole planet, kid. I wish I could walk the clay like you. You can’t live under the glass. So what?”
Aron didn’t respond. He pulled the hood of the cloak over his head.
“Tell you what,” Jesse said. “I’m pretty sure I know a way to store bottles of Dry so they won’t explode outside. I’ll bring some for you when I come back this way.”
Aron’s head rose. The hood of the cloak made it impossible to see his face. “But I have nothing to give you in return.”
“Yes you do. You have knowledge and history which I have never known. If you promise to tell me everything you can about your people and your life out here under the clay then I will bring you as much Dry as you want. And maybe some other things as well.”
“I promise. You just get someone to check the Dry before you drink it. Don’t want that to be what was disagreeing with you.”
“It is a deal, friend.” Aron stood.
And Jesse drove off, watching the shape in the middle of the road until the bend of the horizon removed it from his rearviewer. He would dream of unfrozen faces and thoughtful eyes for many sleeps. It was only when Aron was gone from sight that Jesse realized the radio reception was back.
The recent increase in tension between Boresk and Litchni– although they were both light-years away–meant that everybody was pinching their pennies. Scared of war coming back to visit.
But, after two weeks, Jesse finally had a run. He was at his regular bar on the edges of Simpton nursing something a little stronger than a Dry when someone clapped a hand on his shoulder.
He turned. Cyrus Walkabee, another runner, looked down at him with a peculiar expression on his face.
“I had the strangest thing happen to me today, between Porter and here,” Cyrus said, his eyes darting from side to side.
“Thought I was about to see the preacher’s torment, I did.”
“There’s this shape smack-dab in the middle of the road. I think maybe it’s a refoe, so I put the brakes on hard. But this is a man’s shape wearing a cloak. I nearly had a heart rupture.”
Jesse raised the glass to his lips to conceal a smile. “And did you?”
“Course not,” Cyrus said. “I’m made of tougher stuff than that. So anyway, I stop completely, mostly sideways and the shape, calm as you like, walks up to the sideviewer, pulls the hood of its cloak down and taps on the viewer. And it’s a man’s face, no ice or nothing on it.”
“Wow.” Jesse raised an eyebrow, his smile widening behind the glass.
“And I’m saying as many holy words as I know and the man-shape taps on the glass again and then I remember to turn on the external feed and I say ‘hello’ in a whisper like a fool and do you know what he says?” Cyrus’ hands shook and his face was completely white.
“What did he say?”
“He says into the monitor, serious as you like, ‘Ask Jesse where my bottles of Dry are’. And I say ‘what?’ and he repeats himself, real slow, ‘Ask Jesse where my damn bottles of Dry are’. And then he pulls his hood back up, turns and walks off the road onto the clay and just like that he disappears into the night.”
Jesse burst into laughter. “Sit down; let me buy you a drink. Sounds like you need it.”
With a look at Jesse halfway between confused and suspicious, Cyrus sat on the stool next to him and gave his order to the barkeep. Once Cyrus had a drink in his hand he said, “Tell me what I saw, Jesse.”
“Don’t play like a preacher’s wife with me.”
Jesse smiled. “How about we talk tomorrow night? You can come with me on my run. I’ve got some Dry to drop off on the way.”Share