As Amy and Aaron's relationship grows stronger, we get a glimpse into their respective lives -- and a shocking revelation threatens the whole affair.
Part three brings Amy and Aaron closer together, and we creep towards the resolution of the novel. Most of it is spent in clarifying his feelings for her; he isn't quite certain what to make of them, and I suppose that's fine. It'll have to be fine for now, anyway, won't it? No smut in this one; they're the types who like to take it slow, apparently.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
Water, Paper and Clay, by Rob Baird. Part 3: "There will come soft rains"
Jake, facing me across a lunch of reheated pasta, looked skeptical. "I can't possibly imagine how it wouldn't be awkward," he said.
"We didn't really get together of our own accord. That was Dezirian's doing, I think."
He focused on getting some of his lasagna to behave, and when he finally got it to his mouth he chewed at length, as though the topic of conversation was bound up in it. "Well... you two are about the most logical choice, aren't you? I guess attraction is a funny thing. How are you and your girlfriend doing, by the way?"
"I don't think it's that serious. We're just friends, for now." It was not for the lack of anything on my part — Amy was constantly in my thoughts, and I treasured our every conversation as though it carried the kernel of universal truth.
"But that's not your aim, is it? You want it to become something else, after all. How's that part of it going?"
"It's going alright."
"You know, it's pretty hard to read you, Aaron."
I tilted my head. "What do you mean?"
"You're willing to make a lot of strange choices; hooking up outside your class and all that, it's not something most people would take kindly to. But whenever I ask you anything about this person, you give me these ambivalent one or two word replies. I guess she must mean something to you, otherwise you wouldn't be involved with her at all, but..."
"But I have to — " he stabbed at a piece of lasagna with sharp purpose. "Drag it out of you. You've said she works at a coffee shop. I think you said she was a cat of some kind?"
"Well, no accounting for taste, is there? But good, now you're up to six or seven words of description. Alright, a raccoon. You say she's kind of cute. Okay. But this is a person you're willing to sacrifice your reputation for, isn't she? Why? What could you have to do with her? What do you see in her?"
My reticence was largely due to worrying about what other people might think. Certainly, not everyone would respond as well as Jake — that was his point. But there was part of me, too, that was afraid of listing my reasons for fear they might be exposed. "You know how you're a cynic, Jake?"
"Practical," he clarified. "A practical cynic."
"Fine. But you know how you're that? She's the same way, I think. That's what I like about her. I can give her something to read, or we can be talking about something, and her answers are completely free of all the nonsense Ad Int shoves down your throat if you're in our classes. Her ideas are completely untainted."
That, at least, seemed to motivate the cat a little. "So she's an alternative to all the brainwashed folks up at the Project? I guess that makes sense. I could see how you'd come to be pretty wary of Ad Int, in a class five settlement. More than Yun, definitely, I'm sure. More than Wells, though?"
"More than Wells. I'd say that they're two sides of the same coin, in a way. Maria's very smart, and very dedicated, but she's been brought up in this system — the same as you and I have. That changes somebody, you know? Amy — her name is Amy, by the way... Amy doesn't have that burden. So she reads a book, This Perfect Day or something, and the conclusions she comes to are completely different. Maria is smarter, I think — I mean, she's smarter than you or I are, so why not?"
"But she's not as unorthodox."
"Yeah. I think working in a coffee shop in Eleazaria will break you out of being willing to trust Ad Int very quickly. Our cynicism, it's a bit more learned — not everybody feels that way. Dezirian's pretty pro-Ad Int, after all. Amy's is ingrained. None of the propaganda. She's like a blank slate."
I looked at Jake, whose face was still largely expressionless. "Clay?"
He shrugged. "You give her books, it sounds like; you tell her what to think about. You say she's a blank slate, I just wonder if it's more like a clay figure, you know?"
The question gave me pause, because I didn't have a quick rebuttal. Outwardly, he was wrong — I left her to draw her own conclusions, after all; that was what I liked best about her. On the other hand, I had to admit that I liked the learning process I saw taking place — liked that I was responsible for it. It was a constructive act, and it, like Maria's apple trees, required some faith in the future.
So I started reading George Shaw. I had almost finished Pygmalion, by the next time I saw Amy. The final act was in my thoughts, where Eliza Doolittle finally begins to come into her own as a completely emancipated figure. This outcome, I figured, was ideal for Buchanan; the question, of course, was whether or not I wished to play the role of Henry Higgins.
No, not really.
Amy was busy in the back when I entered — as a rule, the café was not busy at night, and she frequently started cleaning up early. So engrossed was I in the play that I didn't notice her until she sat down opposite me, carrying two cups of coffee and a bagel.
"Evenin'," she said. I wasn't certain, but I thought that her elocution had improved a bit since I'd first met her. Or was that my mind, playing tricks on me?
"Same to you."
"Particularly interesting book?" She gestured to my copy of the play — a worn paperback I'd picked up at a thrift store on the periphery of Olympia, just outside the dome. It was easy enough to find digital copies of older books, especially by authors as famous as Shaw, but the story seemed the sort of thing I'd want to keep in my library, and there was nothing like the spine of a book to mark out the space on a shelf.
I replaced the book quickly within my satchel. "Ah... it's alright."
"What's it called?"
I wasn't certain why the question made me feel somewhat self-conscious, but I stammered through the first parts of my reply. "Oh. Ah, Pygmalion. It's rather old. I'm sorry I didn't notice you — I think I must be tired."
She nodded, and sliced the bagel in two, giving me half. "Long day at work, then?"
"Desperately," I confirmed.
"If I didn't know better," she said, and took a bite, continuing to speak around the bagel. "I'd say that you weren't just thinking about work. Personal stuff?"
I nodded, just once. "One of those things where I can't really see a clear answer, either."
"What's the problem?"
"I'm thinking about what it means to have your own personality, I guess. What it means to be your own person. Your own consciousness. What are we, really?"
The raccoon rested her muzzle on a black paw, setting the bagel down. "Didn't you say that was that French guy, that philosopher... 'because I think, then I know that I am here'?"
"Yeah. That was Descartes. But the way I've been thinking about it is a little more complicated, I guess. What makes us who we are? We have this thing we can do, at the Project. We call it a 'cut and paste.' We scan the brainwaves of an animal, and we can then... clone it, or take another animal if it's closely enough related — the same litter, say — and we can... we can imprint it, we call it. So they become identical twins. We can't do that with sapient creatures like us; we're too complex."
"And maybe there's some... moral concerns, right? Like maybe it's just wrong to do that?"
It hadn't exactly occurred to me, though, yes, she was right. "Yeah. I mean... yeah, it would raise some... substantial ethical concerns. But the main thing is, the main thing I'm curious about is... we can't do that with people but... even if we did, it wouldn't take long before they diverged again, right? We... we're constantly changing, based on the people around us."
"Learning things? Making new friends."
"Yeah. And sometimes, I mean... we learn a great deal from just one person. They impact our thoughts, our manner of speaking, our view of the world..."
Her ears flicked, and the raccoon pursed her lips in thought. "You mean to say you're asking where one personality ends and somebody else's begins?"
I nodded. "Mostly."
"Damn good question, ain't it?"
It was, and the question was still on my mind when I returned, two days later. I didn't have the chance to suggest an answer, however, because as soon as I answered Amy was upon me. "So you think that's what you've done, huh?"
I flattened my ears, taken aback. "Excuse me?"
She held up her computer so that I could read it — Bullfinch's treatment of mythology. "Pygmalion and Galatea? You didn't think I'd be curious about what you were reading?" Her eyes were aflame, and her voice was sharp — each word cleanly enunciated.
"No... or..." I started to clarify my flat denial, but she cut me off.
"Or what? Do you consider me some kind of project? Like I was one of your simulations?"
"No." That was easier to deny. "Can I explain? It was a question... an issue that a friend of mine raised. He asked me what I liked about you, and I said I liked your independence. But all the same, I mean... you said that you didn't like reading; now you do. You've changed, since we first met. I like that change, I just... I wanted to make sure I wasn't trying to do that to you. I wasn't reading Shaw for pointers, Amy, it was... a cautionary tale. I didn't want to become that."
"But you didn't tell me you were having these kind of doubts?"
I squirmed a little. "No. And I wasn't going to... I... I'm always doubting myself, you see?" It was a terrible flaw of mine. I doubted myself, and I dwelled on my doubts. This is why I still thought about the epithet I had earned at JDARC, even though nobody had mentioned it in half a decade — because I thought that it might very well be true. "I thought it was just another one of those things. I wouldn't have troubled you with it."
She frowned heavily. "Why would you think that in the first place, though?"
"Because I've fallen for you. I mean, you have to know that. But I needed to be sure I wasn't just... projecting, I guess. There wasn't any plan; there wasn't any great game afoot. Just me, trying to make sure I wasn't dreaming. That's what coming here is like."
"Fallen for me," she repeated quietly.
"Yes. It's not easy..." I paused, and tried to think of how to put it — now that I was the one lost for words, without any frame of reference. "That's not really something that's very easy to say, actually, but it's true. We only met a couple of months ago, and ever since then, basically, you've constantly been in my thoughts. But it's the self-doubt thing, again... I needed to know that you weren't just some creation I'd built up in my mind. I didn't mean for you to think that I was out to own you, or control you in some way. I just wanted to be sure..."
"And?" Her voice had softened; her head was half-cocked, curiously. The fire had gone from her eyes, replaced with a more muted emotion.
"And of course you weren't a creation. Of course you were your own person, and it's exactly that person that I've been so captivated by. I love you, Amy."
Her ears splayed for a moment, and then she wrapped her arms behind me, in a warm, comforting embrace that told me, without words, what summer must once have been like.
Back at McChord, the arks looked very nearly complete. Inside, of course, there was still much work to be done: the engines had not yet been fueled, and none of the supplies had been loaded. Wells and I went down to the gantry, late one night after work, and stood above the number two ark — it had yet to be named; there was an ongoing competition, with some trivial reward.
The floodlights kept the spaceships constantly in sunlight, there was an incessant high-pitched hiss as raindrops struck the red-hot shields over the great lamps; where they did not hit the gantry, the drops slanted like meteorites, down against the curved white hull of the ship.
The ship itself was massive, long and sloping like a humpbacked whale. Where its fluke would've been, one could perceive the nozzles for the engines that would carry it out of the atmosphere; along the sides, two nacelles buried into the hull marked the stardrive it would use to get to Mars. They were recessed, and the entire ship seemed fluid and organic. Now that they were painted, they looked elegant; the eye was drawn to wander over the outlines of the hull.
"It's beautiful," Wells said. "Like a work of art. If all human endeavor on this planet has truly come down to those things... perhaps we have not done so poorly, as a species."
"Perhaps not." I was not an aesthete, myself. The ships were massive, and I could appreciate the lines of their form, but for me the true beauty came from within. They were very nearly self-sufficient, once launched. I had seen computer simulations of the resource consumption rates, which were astronomically low. Every square centimeter of the ship had been perfectly designed and calibrated; the only wildcard in the equation was we organic creatures, whose muscle and blood could not be plotted so cleanly.
The news was saying that the terraforming process continued apace. The atmosphere would not be fully developed by the time we got there; we would be living in domed structures for a time, and the animals would inhabit what amounted to a massive zoo. The domes were also nearly complete, we were told; robot constructors, supervised by a small and lonely team of humans, had been hard at work for two years now. They sent back pictures of the Earth, viewed through a telescope from atop one of the habitats. Looking at that blue dot, vibrant and unassuming, for the first time in some years Maria and I were given cause to feel hope. Perhaps we were going to survive, after all — and these ships would be the ones to empower us.
As an employee of the Renaissance Project, I was guaranteed a ticket on the ark. So, as it happened, was my spouse. Amy and I had not really discussed this, and indeed, though we had spoken several times since I had professed my love for her, she had not done the same. I wasn't terribly put out: all I had offered her was honesty, after all; I didn't really expect anything by way of return.
Regardless, I looked forward to her joining me — which I felt fairly certain was guaranteed, especially given that the alternative was lingering on Earth, waiting to be drowned by the ever-present rains. I found myself thinking frequently about our future: where would we live? What would we do, on Mars? Geneticists like Maria and I were guaranteed work, at least until the colony was up and running; it was harder to see whether or not Mars needed a coffee shop.
I told Dezirian about Buchanan, finally, at lunch a week after Maria and I had gone to see the ships. He looked briefly surprised, his eyebrow lifting. "Marriage, though, really?"
"I think so. I haven't felt this way since high school. Mostly I'm concerned about how AIDA is going to respond. I spoke to Yun, awhile back, and she said it wasn't frowned upon, but of course they don't sanction it, either. What with the class system, and all."
"A five middle? They'll have a hard time justifying the marriage incentives, that's for sure. Do you have any idea why she was rated like that?"
I shook my head. "A friend of mine, Jake Ellis down in life support, suggested poor spatial reasoning. Of course, she might've just been unlucky."
"That's true enough," Dezirian admitted. "Have you gone about filing a twelve-twenty form?"
The 1220F form had been created to permit an appeal for the class assignment, though they were generally regarded as completely useless — widespread challenging of the system undermined its legitimacy, which was not a step Ad Int was about to permit. "I haven't, no — you and I both know they'll just ignore it."
"Probably, yes. But in the runup to commit and launch, folks are starting to become real sticklers for the rules. They've increased security, down by the ships, too."
"I noticed. Wells and I had to show our badges to three different people."
Dezirian smiled. "Well, they weren't supposed to let you in at all. No, not even Project employees. Like I said, Aaron, real sticklers about the rules. I'd make sure you put a twelve-twenty in. I'll sponsor, if you want. It won't matter — you've already guessed that — but it'll look good. I presume you're planning on marrying her, to get her on the ark? No, don't look so noncommittal, I know that's what you're planning. I don't think they can deny it, one way or the other, but I wouldn't want to give them any room to complain."
We filled the form out — all eight pages of it — and scanned it over to Ad Int's headquarters in Denver. I didn't expect anything to come of it, and neither of us were surprised when, in the coming weeks, nothing did.
I was more irritated at this than Amy was; the raccoon simply shrugged when, several days past the window that the form alloted for Ad Int to generate a response, we had still heard nothing. "It's what happens, Aaron; ain't worth getting too worked up about." It marked another sort of difference between her and I: I was still frustrated by Ad Int's failures; she had never experienced anything else.
Frowning, I stirred some creamer into my coffee. It had been getting worse, of late, which lent some credence to my theory that the only supplies left were freeze-dried beans that predated the worst of the weather. Regardless, it made me irritated with the government and their general dysfunction. "I guess I'm just not quite as willing to forgive and forget? This is important, Amy."
She shrugged again. "Weren't saying it's not, but that don't mean they're going to be any better about it, now does it? Do it? Does it?"
"Does it," I nodded at her self-correction. "I do; it does. And no, of course it doesn't mean it's going to get better, it's just... god damn it, all these bureaucrats, you know? And what comes out of it? No response at all. Sometimes I'd like to walk on over to Denver and really give them a piece of my mind."
Amy grinned. "You know what the difference is, between me and you?"
I was rewarded with a wider grin, and she stuck her tongue out at me playfully. "No. At least not just that. I think the big difference is that you don't trust the government on principle, do you? I can understand that, they do a lot of things that makes 'em not worth trusting, but I mean it's like a principle thing for you. Like if they released a bulletin that said you should eat more red meat, you'd up and become a vegetarian just to show 'em what for."
"They've never really given me reason to trust them, no."
"Now, me... I believe them, mostly. I don't believe that they do good, mind you. I just think that they mean good. Like, take this coffee... you don't normally put so much cream and sugar in it — in fact most days I don't think you put any in at all, do you? So it must not be very good today."
I didn't want her to think that this reflected poorly on her, but I shrugged lightly. "It's not especially good, no. It's very bitter."
"That's fair. Now, I know that means the government guys sold us some bad grounds. But do I think they did that on purpose? Naw, I ain't so quick to judge. I think they either made a mistake, which lots of people do, or it was the best they could find."
I knew that, while they were never, strictly speaking, liked, most people had a slightly more favorable view of the Ad Interim Democratic Authority than I did. My experience, though, had done nothing to convince me that they were anything other than a bureaucratic, dysfunctional, and self-serving mess — the existence of slums like Eleazaria only reinforced my opinion. "You're saying that you think they're a good thing?"
"I'm saying that I think we're better off with leaders than without leaders, so I guess that makes them... well, not a bad thing, anyway. I think they have our best interests in mind, generally."
"Our best interests as individuals, or our best interests as the NorthAm district?"
The raccoon thought about that, her claws tapping a faint rhythm against the tabletop. "Both, I think. Maybe it's true that if some Ad Int guy saw a little kid suffering, he'd really think that was best for the rest of NorthAm, but why? I don't think they're that... evil, I guess."
"Oh." I dumped another packet of sweetener into the coffee and took a drink with a slight wince. "No. I didn't mean to say that they were evil. I don't think that."
"Then what do you think?"
"I think that Ad Int is composed of people, that's what I think. There was a man, last century — a scientist who studied the way we form social networks. He came to the conclusion that we could only readily distinguish a hundred and fifty people. Past that, our brain simply can't cope. We don't recognize that many people, and we can't empathize with them. How many people would you say you really, sincerely, genuinely care about?"
I loved Amy's black paws, and the way the fur crept up her lower arm to a stark divide against the flat grey of her elbow. Now her paws twitched as she counted on her fingers. "Four, I guess? I guess I'd say I really care about four people. But if you counted, like, regular customers here and all, I bet it's closer to a hundred or two that I could name."
"I'm in the same boat as you," I said. "There's my coworkers, but even then there's only about a dozen people I really, honestly care about. But that's my point, right? I'd go out of my way to help them. Would I go out of my way to help some random guy on the street? I don't think so, and I don't see that there's any reason to believe that Ad Int is much different. It's not that they mean harm, it's that our brains just aren't wired that way. So most people are out for their own interests, and the interests of the few people close to them."
"Like they're... greedy?"
I shook my head. "No. Like they're human. I expect from them the same thing I expect from any human being — that they behave in a logical, rational way. But that means they aren't always looking out for me, and they aren't always looking out for the human race. They might very well be doing the best they can, as a group. But as individuals, they're just trying to get through the day. So they ignore the coffee, and they ignore the forms, and they ignore whatever else would require them to stretch that empathy out a bit."
She nodded, slowly. "So it's science, then, you're saying?"
"That we can only empathize with a hundred and fifty people? Science, yeah. And I'm guilty of the same thing, I know. That's why I figure the way I do. It would be somewhat hypocritical of me to expect the employees of Ad Int to be supermen, the way I see it. It's human nature, anyway, I guess. How do you even care about thirty million people? What are thirty million people?"
"A number," Amy said quietly. "Basically, ain't that what you're saying? Thirty million people is a number."
I splayed my fingers out against the table, fidgeting. "I guess it's not the nicest thing to say, is it?"
"No," she agreed. "No, it ain't. But I guess you're right, though. If you don't care about them, why would they care about us? No... no, that seemed like I was trying to be mean. Sorry, I didn't mean that. I meant it logically-like. You're right, it's probably just some guy, trying to do his job... if he came into the café — like if he came through the doors right now? I'd do my job, nothing else."
"I try to care," I said — quiet, too. It almost sounded like a plea. "But they beat it out of you. They turn you into a number, or... they make up some new word to try to take the sting out of some new deprivation. But I try."
"I know you do," she said. She took my paws, resting hers atop mine and keeping them in place. "I know. And you know what? Maybe that means there's someone down in Denver who cares, too."
I smiled at her, softly — unconvinced, but willing to take the fiction on faith. "Perhaps."
In general, though, we found more pleasant things with which to occupy our time.
Thinking about Amy made me giddy, and so, naturally, I did this as often as possible. It was like being in love with Maddie Cross all over again; I wanted to spend every minute of the day with her, but I found that even those moments when we could not be together were made more pleasurable simply by the thought that there was always the evening yet to come.
On occasion — always on the weekend — we stayed at the Eighth Street Café past the final yellow line bus. The first few times this happened, Amy simply kept me company in the coffee shop, waiting until the busses began running again in the very early morning and, still invigorated by her mere presence, I could journey home for a few hours of sleep.
She had already closed up shop, save for a final two cups of hot chocolate, and we were arguing over what Ad Int should do in response to requests for food aid from the Eurozone when, both at the same time, we realized that it was just turning 2 in the morning; the last bus would already have left. "I need to keep a better eye on that," I muttered. "Keeps getting the better of me."
Amy smiled. "Well, you ain't the only one, are you?" She saw that I was glancing around the café and shook her head. "Look... there's no reason to be stupid about this. You can crash at my place, Aaron — it's like two blocks from here."
"You wouldn't mind?"
The raccoon rolled her eyes. "No, I think I can handle it. Weren't expecting company, though, so... my place is probably a mess. You'll have to be able to put up with that — but it's a bed at least, ain't it? Better than one of the chairs here."
I admitted to her that it was, indeed, and she stood up, pulling on her coat. I followed suit, and a few minutes later we stood outside, back in the summer drizzle. "Which way?" The café was on one of the better streets in Eleazaria, such as there were any — it didn't take long in any direction for things to get substantially worse.
She jerked her head to the side. "Lincoln Street, it's the next block up." She started walking, swiftly, and I had to trot to catch her — it was a practiced, easy, purposeful gait she had, and I noticed that nobody bothered to ask her for change or even remark upon her passage.
Her apartment was, in fact, quite close, and at her pace it only took us a few minutes. It was an older building — judging by the absence of any flat concrete on its face, it had to have been from the last century. "It looks nice." She shot me a look, and I raised an eyebrow. "Well, it does. From the outside, anyway."
"It's got surprises, then," she said. She slid a key into the front door, with some effort, and then turned the knob while giving the door a sharp kick. It opened with some resistance; when we were inside, she had to kick it closed as well. "Water gets into the frame, swells it up. We actually got somebody from Ad Int to fix it once, about three years back, because it was rotting. Only time I seen one of 'em. Come on, I'm on the seventh floor."
The stairs creaked precariously beneath her feet, and I followed behind a little hesitantly. "The stairs, too? They're sound?"
She laughed, and, quite close to my face, her tail flicked playfully. "Yeah, I think. I wouldn't worry too much about it, Aaron." So I didn't — focusing on the steep climb, instead. Amy made very good time; I was winded and panting slightly by the time we reached the door to her apartment. She stuck her tongue out at me. "You high-class guys, you don't get enough exercise."
"No, probably not." I waited for her to open the door, and then followed her inside. "Well, it's warm enough in here, isn't it?"
Amy nodded. "Space heater. That must mean the power's on..." She reached out to flick a lightswitch; after a moment of hesitation, an old fluorescent came to life. Her apartment was small — a studio with barely enough room for the mattress that rested up against the wall. The floor was littered with clothes, sprawling haphazardly against the tile or spilling from a few cardboard boxes. Besides this, there was a wooden table and two chairs — though one was liberally covered in envelopes and sheets of paper. "Like I said, it's... it's kinda rough. I ain't picked up awhile, nor done laundry... the boxes are kinda like my dresser, I guess..." She kicked the boxes up against the wall quickly. "Don't mind it none."
"No, it's okay. Is the power a problem for you often?"
"Eh." She sighed. "Comes and goes, you know? We get our power from those nuclear plants, up where you guys are at... but, folks short the power cables and steal 'em, sell 'em for scrap. They started burying them below ground, and that helps... I'd say we have power about three quarters of the time now?"
"What do you do when it goes out?"
"Go next door, most times. My neighbor's got a wood-burning stove — he's a garbage collector in Olympia. You'd be surprised what you guys throw out. Anyway he got the stove, an'... I go over there and hang out, wait for things to start again. You can cook on it, if you're careful... sometimes I make us dinner. Real nice guy, he is. What are you looking for?"
I turned, shrugging off my coat. "Place to put this?" She took her own jacket off and threw it unceremoniously onto the table; I folded mine and set it down next to hers. "It's not a bad place, really."
"No, it's pretty good," she admitted. "Got a working lock, that's something."
"And you live by yourself?"
"Oh, yeah. I mean, that's — I'm gonna change; y'ain't modest, are ya? Good." She grabbed something from one of her boxes and retreated to the bathroom; I waited politely in the kitchen, which was separated by a wooden partition. "People think we're all living like it's a barracks, or something... I think we're supposed to? But the reality is, there's so many empty houses that you can basically squat wherever. I mean, if I weren't employed and all? That'd what I'd be doing. Could do it now, and try to save some money, except that it ain't really worth it in the long run. What do you wear to bed, Aaron?" She reappeared, clad only in an oversized t-shirt, the remainder of her clothes having transformed into a tight ball of fabric, which she tossed at one of the boxes. "You probably got some fancy aristocrat clothes or something, huh?"
I laughed. "No. A shirt — like that, basically. When I'm home, anyway; I guess I figured I was probably going to mostly keep these clothes on, just in case the space heater drops out overnight. If the power's an issue."
Amy raised an eyebrow at that — then grinned and stepped closer to me, shaking her head. "That's another thing you upper-class folk do, ain't it?"
I tilted my head as the raccoon pressed up against me, looking into those wonderful eyes of hers. "Hmm? What do we do?"
Now I could feel her paws, her fingers toying with the buttons of my shirt, undoing them one by one. "You're always so damned overdressed..."
It was not something I could've accused the raccoon herself of. In either case, I had no opportunity to make any reply; she leaned up, then, and I could feel her lips against mine, warm and soft and inviting. Her mouth tasted vaguely of cocoa, and I could smell just the faintest hint of the café still lingering in her fur, coffee and vanilla and hazelnut and cinnamon. When she pulled away, after a moment, I pressed my muzzle forward to capture her lips again; when the kiss broke, finally, we were both out of breath.
She recovered first, and laughed. There was something about her eyes, and the dark mask of her face, that made her grin devilish and irresistible. "What do you say," she breathed, and I could feel her tail curling against my thigh. "That we change into something more appropriate?"
I cocked my head, feeling my ears perk. "Mm? Appropriate?"
Amy stepped back with a nod. "Appropriate." She reached down to take the hem of her t-shirt, pulling it up and off of her in one smooth movement — within which I could watch the soft grey fur of her body reveal itself, centimeter by centimeter. She was wearing nothing beneath the shirt, and the effect, as she grinned at me, baring her sharp teeth playfully, was utterly captivating.
She waited until I had followed her example before entwining me again in her charcoal colored arms; our thick fur met, and mingled, and when she pulled me to bed the dingy, worn mattress seemed to be the most comfortable one I'd ever felt. The blanket her fingers pulled over us was threadbare; the stuffing showed through a poorly mended tear.
But what was a thin blanket, other than an excuse to be closer together?
We spent most of the weekend at her apartment, though not all of it in bed — there were books to discuss, and a simple meal to prepare on her temperamental stove. I resolved to repay the favor, though it was liable to take some doing — it was harder to get into a class two settlement like Olympia than it was to get off the bus in Eleazaria, self-evidently. This would take some time; back in the quotidian world of the Renaissance Project, Wells and I continued the methodical task of planning Evolution, Version 2.0.
Fortunately, our job was getting easier. Buckminster Fuller wrote, more than a century ago, about something called tensegrity. A structure, Fuller said, was strongest when it was supported not just by tension or compression, but by a mix of the two. He was talking about buildings, objects like his famous geodesic spheres — if you've been to any of the class one settlements, the dome that keeps the rain out is a geodesic as well. It's the triangles that do it.
The same principles, though, defined an ecosystem. The more species that are present — the more links there are — the stronger the overall whole is. As we added more and more into the simulation, layer upon layer, it became paradoxically robust. Our simulations started to fail less frequently; the margins of error grew much wider.
Jake, who first taught me about tensegrity, told me that there's a point, when you're building a geodesic dome, that the structure pulls new members into it — you hardly have to do any work at all. That was where Maria and I now were: we could add in the species that the Selections Department had identified practically without plan at all. We continued to model the system, for our peace of mind if for no other reason, but it had become self-supporting. We spent most of our days in exceptionally good cheer.
Maria Wells herself had other reasons to be happy; one morning she took both my paws in a firm squeeze, and let me know that she was pregnant. Biological science told her this, and biological science would ensure its eventual success — but, almost certainly, on Mars. She had the embryos removed less than a week later — as she had pointed out, the continuation of our species was far too important a matter to be left up to our outmoded natural processes.
Even after this, she continued to remain close to me; we took lunches together, generally — sometimes with Dezirian or Ellis as well. On occasion she allowed me to dine alone, but this was rare. And while she continued her quick, diligent work — Yun and Dezirian were right; nothing was capable of impacting our dedication to the Project itself — she engaged me after work, as well, more often than not.
"It's starting to sound different, I think," she said — nearly randomly, so far as I could tell. The sky was still light, although the sun had gone down a few minutes before.
"The rain." Her ears were pricked up, and they twitched a little as a particularly forceful gust drummed the rain down against our office window.
I closed my eyes, and tried to focus on the sound. That is more difficult than you might imagine; growing up with it, you just naturally take the rain as part of your environment. You forget about it, in the same way that you forget about breathing. "I'm not sure," I said. "It's hard for me to tell, at least."
Maria smiled, and came to stand next to me, looking out at the tarmac of what had once been McChord's runway. "Normally, you think it's just something that soaks you; makes you cold, ruins your papers and your computers... I mean, that's still true, yes, but there's a softer cadence to it, I find."
"There will come soft rains," I said.
"Like the poem. 'There will come soft rains.'"
She turned, and looked at me somewhat strangely. Then she took my paw in her own, and gave it a squeeze, her muzzle sweeping back towards the glittering lights of the Renaissance gantries. "There will come soft rains, and the smell of the ground, and swallows circling with their shimmering sound. And frogs in the pool, singing at night, and wild plum trees in tremulous white. Robins will wear their feathery fire, whistling their whims on a low fence-wire... and not one will know of the war; not one will care at last when it is done. Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly. And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, would scarcely know that we were gone."
"You know that poem?"
I felt, rather than saw, her nod. The bright orange fire of sunset had started to spill into the clouds; I watched this, wondering what it must've been like to see the end of the world, when the atomic war had started — Teasdale had not been wrong, only slightly ahead of her time. Reputable men said that six hundred million people had died in only a few days. Precipitation, like rain and snow, forms from a nucleus, a small particle around which the water can start to gather. Much of the soft rain that fell upon us, I had no doubt, was borne of human ash.
"We probably won't see spring, here," I pointed out.
"Probably not. Have you ever considered going to a place with raw sunshine?"
At higher altitudes, and separated from the coast, one could still find places where the rain was infrequent — Denver was one of these. The Atacama, I'd heard, was another; once it had been the driest place on Earth, to hear some tell of it. But journeying was frequently difficult, and the spots were highly contested. "No. I guess not really, at least. I've travelled through Denver, when it was only mostly overcast. You forget how blue the sky really is..."
"I try not to." The shepherdess's paw abandoned mine, and she pulled a pendant from within her jacket, so that it hung freely from between her dark fingers. The silver rim caught the dying glow of our star, but in the full-spectrum light of the office one could see the clean blue of the turquoise centre. "This was my mom's, before me... it has the right color, don't you think?"
"It does. You'd not confuse it for anything else."
"My mother was a jeweler," Wells said softly. "Back when she could still work. After the war, when nobody cared about jewelry anymore, she started collecting these stones. She said it was so we wouldn't forget. There's a mosaic she made, a few years before she got too sick to work... twilight, or how twilight used to look, in the desert. It's all dark stones; lazuli, obsidian, a band of beautiful green jasper. The moon is done in an iron spinel, hematite I think. It's not worth fifty dollars, the whole thing." She turned the pendant over and over in her fingers, stroking along the silver. "Not worth one damned thing."
It was a peculiarly introspective side of Maria, one I hadn't seen before. "For some people..."
"No." She shook her head, and looked back out at our twilight, which now appeared sickly even to me. "Nobody needs to be reminded of a fantasy. This is our sky now, Aaron. We used to live in a world of turquoise, and now it's one it's one of slate. But what can you do?"
She let the pendant fall again, along with her arm, and I took her paw lightly. "Indulge the reckless hope that things will get better."
"Reckless," she echoed. "Well, it's better than the alternative."
It was clear enough to me, as the days marched on, that Maria had not wholly given up her interest in me, in the long run if nothing else. Perhaps she assumed that the other person I'd spoken of was a fling, and would not be accompanying me to the red planet — it wasn't a terrible assumption.
Fortunately, we both had the presence of mind to ignore the implications, at least when at work, and things continued more or less as normal. August tumbled inexorably into September, and the return of the driving, incessant rains that marked winters in the Pacific Northwest.
About the Renaissance Project, there was a sense of raw energy, a feeling that our hard work was cresting into something magnificent. Wells and I turned our simulations over to Dezirian and then immediately began work on contingency plans we didn't really believe we needed. So optimistic were we in the strength of our models that the simulations themselves became lighthearted and easy.
Outside, the ships looked much the same, but we knew that they were changing from within by the hour. Long-term supplies — food, fuel; canisters of oxygen — were being loaded in quantity into the arks, which swarmed with intensity like a disturbed anthill.
Maria and I were by no means particularly cheery souls, but even we cynics allowed ourselves to be caught up in the excitement; our work became more playful, our exchanges filled with the levity that comes from a great burden being lifted. Amy noted the change in my demeanor and, securing a yellow-line day pass for her from a friend in the system, I took her up to the gates at McChord, where, half-a-kilometer beyond, the ships rose up like the living embodiment of a promise.
For a reality check, I met Jake at lunch, one Thursday in early September. "We've still got a long way to go. Well, maybe you guys don't — in engineering, at least, there's a lot of work to do."
"I spoke to Dezirian earlier this week, and he said engineering was all four to six weeks ahead of schedule. What happened?"
"You weren't at the brief Monday? No, I guess you wouldn't have been. The East Asian and the Indian arks are ahead of schedule, too — word is the Ni-Si-Ko guys are pretty much ready to load and launch, and India's only a couple weeks behind us. The Eurozone and the UN, they're behind schedule, but... I guess somebody figured we could lend a hand, so, we're putting in overtime trying to get the modules for the arks in Toulouse ready."
"Oh. No, I wouldn't have been at the briefing. There's so much infighting about what species to preserve as it is... I'm sure they wouldn't listen to a NorthAm selections committee, and they're not going to release their choices to our sequencing department." It amazed me that politics still played such a role, even at the end of the world — but it did. I was half-surprised that they were even willing to talk to our engineers.
"Yeah, well, that's because you don't solve engineering problems." He gave a derisive snort. "God damn it — I'm sorry, but these idiots should've asked for help six months ago. Four weeks to commit on our project, and we have to pick up something completely different? We'll make it, I'm sure, yeah, but... Christ on a crutch, Turner, this is bullshit."
"Well, have you considered trying to — "
The cat waved his paw. "No, leave it. I don't really want to dwell on this; I'll start ranting. How's your life going? Sequencing is done, I heard?"
"Pretty much. We're just waiting, at this point, to hear back from anybody with comments or criticism. I gave our stuff to Vasily, and he passed it on over to engineering and the loadmasters — far as I know. It almost feels like we're going to make it, doesn't it?"
"Almost," Jake agreed. "I have to admit... I have to admit, it's pretty impressive. We've come a long way, that's for sure. When do they start releasing boarding passes?"
"Two weeks from now. Why, are you worried about your room assignment?"
"It's not me I'm considering. You must be thinking about it, I assume?"
"A little. It's a long shot, obviously, but I'm kind of hoping that Amy wins the lottery on that one. Dezirian had us fill out a 1220F, but, of course, we never heard back, so I guess her class assignment stands. That's not supposed to matter, though, right?"
"So I hear," Jake said. All told, the three arks at McChord could hold ninety thousand people. Half of these had been preselected — including all of us at the Renaissance Project, though the majority of the preselected were engineers, scientists, and bureaucrats from other organizations throughout North America. The other half of the manifest was to be randomly selected — so as not to give the appearance of impropriety — although forty-five thousand people from across all of North America still did not tend to put the odds in my favor. "Of course, if she's not picked, then... you can just marry her, right? It's Renaissance employees and their immediate family, I believe?"
"Yes. But if I marry her, then... that means somebody who would've been randomly selected gets bumped. I mean. That just feels a little... coldhearted, to me. Who knows what I could be doing?"
"I wouldn't worry about it," Jake said. "It doesn't really matter."
"Well there's us — the people they need to actually keep the arks working. Beyond that, there's the functionaries, people who can write employee management software and people who can give speeches and whatever. Those are the important ones. The rest of 'em? The people who are just going to be on Mars to clean filters or do data entry? Shit, we don't know what life there is really going to be like. Any one random person, hell, that's like as not to be as good as any other random person. I wouldn't sweat it, Turner."
I didn't, really. I had more important things to concern myself with. That evening I met Amy at the Eighth Street Café, and waited patiently until she could close up shop — staying close to her, toying with her paws and that marvelous tail of hers. She stuck her tongue out at me, but said nothing to dissuade me from distracting her.
When she clicked the lights off, I checked my watch. Time, or close enough. We stepped outside, and when she turned towards her street I took her paw, pulling her to a halt. "Hold on a second."
"If you're not careful, it's going to start raining," she said. "I ain't gonna be responsible for your clothes if my space heater's out."
"We'll improvise. Do you need to go home tonight?"
She thought about this, and shook her head. "Not especially, I guess, though I don't have anywhere better to be that I know. Do I have somewhere better to be?"
There were lights, coming closer on the street. Presently they resolved themselves into a taxi; I opened the door for Amy. "You do now." She looked at me questioningly, but then took her seat; I joined her, nodding to the driver. "Olympia, please. The 590 tower."
Taxi service was difficult to come by — more difficult still were taxi drivers willing to take a fare in Eleazaria. I'd had to call around a few times before finding this one, who charged an exorbitant fee. At least the trip would only be one-way: the yellow-line bus didn't check ID cards in the McChord-bound direction. Seems you don't always have to be so discerning.
Amy turned, her ears questing about, eyes flicking over the scenery as it swept past. Her tail flicked against my ankle, and she finally turned back to me curiously. "Where're we going?"
"Well, you were nice enough to show me your apartment, I figured that I could repay the favor to you — if you don't mind. And it may be a bit unfair — I actually did have the opportunity to clean up. A little bit. I don't really have that much, which helps."
She laughed. "Bastard. I want a level playing field."
"Too bad." I pulled her into a quick kiss — the cab driver asked no questions. It didn't take much to know exactly what he was thinking: that Amy was just another trick, an indulgence picked up on the streets of a class five slum. To hell with his speculation; I didn't require the vindication of a random cabbie.
Amy didn't either, or said nothing about it. She was, actually, very quiet throughout; she rested her muzzle on my shoulder and watched the world passing by — if it was not her first trip in an automobile, it would at least have been a rare experience. For that matter, it was for me; it was strange to be in such intimate quarters.
Soon enough, however, we pulled up in front of my apartment; I tipped him, and the cab wandered off for greener pastures. Amy leaned back to look up at the tower, and then at the geodesic dome beyond it. "It don't rain here, do it?"
"No. They got that fixed pretty well."
She pulled the hood of her coat back to let it rest around her shoulders. "Ain't that a good idea? You live here? Really?"
"Yeah. It was live here or live up in Redmond, and I didn't want to do that. Ad Int doesn't even like me living here — they want to keep everyone in one place, you know? So that we don't up and cause trouble." I punched in the code to open the front door of the building, and it slid open with a soft hiss.
Inside the elevator, I gave Amy a tight hug, and when I let her go I squeezed her paw, watching the black fur mingle with my own. Her eyes drifted over the control panel for the elevator, and the display as it crept steadily upwards. "How far up are we going?"
"Second from the top. The top's a greenhouse — which is nice, actually, it's a good place to go relax. The whole thing is just messed up, you know? They built the dome so that rain doesn't get in, but then when they need to water the plants, then... well, then they need to pump rainwater all the way up here. Nothing about anything makes sense."
"Story of our lives, ain't it? I always figured that's probably how it went everywhere. Is this it? Do we need to get out now?" The elevator doors had opened.
I nodded, and led her out, turning down the short hallway to my apartment. Tapping my ID card against the door, I turned the handle and opened it. It was cause for a brief moment of self-consciousness; I had never thought of my apartment as anything particularly spectacular, but at the little gasp from the raccoon next to me I remembered that the standards of class one occupancy were somewhat different. Dezirian's house, for example, was magnificent — actually, my residency was rather plain, for my class. "Make yourself at home. I don't... I mean, sometimes I have clothes on the floor, but I did pick them up, this time."
She glanced around, and shook her head. "God damn, Aaron. This room's twice as big as my whole place... what's this even for?"
"Entertaining guests, I suppose. It's my living room." It led out to the balcony by way of the large, plate-glass windows that covered one wall; the others held my bookshelves. "But I don't really have guests often, so I just put books in it. Can I take your coat?"
Amy shrugged it off distractedly. "Are these all your books?"
When I had hung our coats up to dry, I joined her, and nodded. "Yeah. I pick 'em up at flea markets and the like. Nobody really reads paper books anymore, because computers are so much simpler... I'd rather they not be burnt, though, you know, or recycled? So... so I bring them here. It's kind of like a book retirement home."
The raccoon nodded slowly, turning and canting her head. "And the windows? What's that for?"
I took her over, and opened the door out onto the balcony. "Fifty years ago, you would've... I dunno, had a party out here? Or a pool, or something... more entertainment. A barbecue. Now it's just where I keep some plants. And the chair... sofa... thing. Do you want to sit down, by the way? I didn't ask you."
"I'm fine." She was standing at the railing, looking down the skyscraper to the streets far below. "You know what's funny, though, Aaron?"
I stood next to her, and when I put my arm around her Amy leaned heavily against me. "What's that?"
"You've got this apartment, with this gorgeous balcony, and what's the view? Grey buildings and the clouds. Could be anywhere, couldn't it? They spent all this money to build this place — probably costs a fortune to rent it, too, I ain't stupid about that — and what do you get? Same view you could get anywhere."
"Like you said, it's the story of our lives." I let her go to sit down on the sofa, and after a moment she joined me. I fumbled for a moment for the catch, and then pulled it, bringing the sofa flat so that I could lie back and stare up at the geodesic dome above us. "I can't see how it's all supposed to make sense, you know? But I've been ignoring it, more. Focusing on other things."
Amy flopped back, and after a moment her face entered my vision, head cocked curiously. "Other things?"
"You, for one." I reached up a paw to brush back the fur of her muzzle and cheek. "That's a pretty good distraction, all things considered."
She snickered, and reclined to lay flat on her back. "Me an' Eliza Doolittle, huh?"
I found her paw and held it tightly. "Eliza Doolittle was a fictional character. You, miss ringtail, are very real. Now if I tried to tell anyone how wonderful you were, perhaps they might think I was making that up. But that's their loss, isn't it?"
"I don't always understand you, Aaron," Amy said. Then she returned the squeeze to my paw. "But I love you anyway. You thought about what you're going to do when they finish your ships?"
"Well that's... that's a bit of a question. We're supposed to go with them, to Mars. I... I'd been planning on doing that. I have a guaranteed ticket. They already gave out half of the seats on the ship. The other half is going to be done by random lottery. Everybody's eligible, and that includes you."
"To go to Mars?"
"To go to Mars. But... the odds are against it, obviously, and... well, there is one way to guarantee you a ticket. If we were married, then you'd get a provisional class two rating — and a ticket."
"If we got married," she said. She was quiet for a few seconds. "Are you asking me to marry you, Aaron?" She propped herself up on an elbow and looked at me curiously, her black-gloved paw reaching out to give my muzzle an inquisitive poke. "Really?"
"Sort of," I admitted. "I'm saying I would love you to come to Mars with me, and if you don't get a ticket through the lottery, I can get you one through other channels."
Amy laughed, and turned, swinging her leg over to straddle me, putting her paws on my shoulder and peering curiously down at me for several seconds. "Well... I'll agree. But only on one condition, alright? 'Cause... we'll see if the lottery happens first, of course."
"Of course. What's the condition?"
"Will you at least, like, get down on one knee and ask me to marry you? If it's not too much trouble?" When I nodded, she leaned down to give me a lingering kiss, and when she drew back, she looked at me with a toothy grin. "I'm going to hold you to that, alright?"
This was not something that bothered me one bit.
They contacted the lottery winners directly, but at Renaissance they released a copy for internal review and of course I scanned it eagerly. Amy Buchanan was not on the list, which wasn't really a surprise. The lack of concern situations like this were paid led me to conclude that I was in a very unique situation: nobody else seemed to have any people outside Renaissance (or their immediate family) that they cared about very much.
Late on the night after the lists had been released, I pulled them up, scanning through them again to look for names that I recognized — old high school friends, coworkers from back at JDARC. The only ones I found were those I expected to find — people at high-level positions, back east. And, with a population as large as North America still maintained, it wasn't exactly surprising to think that nobody would've made the random cut.
Something about the numbers still bothered me, though — even the randomly selected names seemed to have far too few class fours and fives. At first, I rationalized this — thinking that there must've been some criteria that they used, age or health or something, that tended to reduce the number of the marginalized. Then, judging that I was ill-suited to make such an analysis myself, I gathered the numbers together and went down to the engineering department. Jake was still there, his eyes scanning over a big systems monitor.
"Hey," I said, to catch his attention. "Can I trouble you?"
"You don't trouble me, Turner; you just distract me. But... I guess this isn't going anywhere — what's up?"
"Did you look at the passenger manifest?"
He shook his head. "I don't really care about it, to tell you the truth. Why, did you? I guess your girlfriend wasn't on it?"
"No. But, I mean... that's not that surprising. I'm just... I was noticing that in the randomly selected people, there are still very few fours and fives — and virtually no sevens and eights." Class seven included the elderly, the mentally ill, and the nonworking; class eight was criminals, the homeless, and those who Ad Int had lost touch with.
"You think they're fiddling with the numbers?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure yet — I just figured that I'd ask you, because you can probably write something to analyze these faster than I can. It's a 205-formatted table, according to the file extension. I don't know what all information is included." I handed over the thin computer.
Jake took it, scanned it for a moment, and then tapped a few keys to transfer the data to his workstation. "Well... I'm all for paranoia, but... there could be a lot of stuff at work here. I don't know what exactly Ad Int has got cooked up, and... well, either way, we don't know what rules it took to get you into the initial selection criteria. Could be something pretty restrictive." His claws clicked at his computer for half a minute or so. "Alright, so it looks like — this is just the randomly selected? It looks like it's coming up fifteen percent class one, twenty-five percent class two, thirty percent class three... twenty percent class four, nine percent class five and less than one percent anything else."
"That's not real random, is it?"
"No..." he murmured, distracted by the numbers. He typed something else, and then cocked his head. "Look at the vocational codes on the class fives, too. I mean, the occupations are all over the map — cooks, janitors, whatever... but the vocations are all... comp sci, civil engineering, agriculture, mechanical engineering, nursing... CE again, agriculture again, agriculture again... there's all at least some education. Oh, huh, that's odd."
I hadn't noticed before how quickly Jake's fingers could move; he clicked a few more keys and then nodded his muzzle at the computer screen. "Fifty-three people — all different classes. Look what unifies them. They did a stint at the Cheyenne College, and I'll bet... let's get the transcripts... yeah. Here you go. Forty-seven of them took the same class in engineered agricultural genetics, between 2046 and 2052. You know who a Hahn is? Looks like an E. Hahn? He taught that class."
My blood was starting to go cold, although the reason for this was still drifting around the periphery of my senses. "Jesus Christ. Yeah, Eric Hahn, he runs the aeroponics department of the sustainability division here. He works up on the seventh floor."
"I don't think this is a random list, Turner. I think these guys have all been selected. I mean, I caught the agricultural thing but... look at the vocationals. What are the odds that you'd pull more than a hundred people trained in library science and archival studies? Look at this — look at this — this has to be half of all the reclamations specialists in Mexico City. What the fuck, Turner? You sure this is the final list?"
"It's what they gave us, yeah. What were you saying, about any two random people having the same utility?" I sighed, and leaned in to look at the numbers. "What I don't get is why they'd do that... I mean I get the choices, I just don't get the charade. Unless..."
Jake turned to me, and his emotionless veneer dropped for half a second. He'd come to the same conclusion as I had, and the cat's face looked briefly haunted in the second before he caught himself. "Unless this is it. Oh, god, Turner. They're really going to do it. There aren't going to be any more arks."
"Vasily," I said, the next morning — I hadn't slept the night before, and was back on the Project's property before eight. "We need to talk."
"Sure," the wolf said — his ears quirked, and he tilted his head at me. "Is everything alright, Aaron?"
"I don't think so, no." I was willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I'd been given no cause to think that everything was, in fact, alright. Dezirian beckoned me into his office and shut the door. "Have you looked at the manifest?"
"Your friend isn't on it?"
My mind had dropped this fact entirely, and it took me a moment. "What? Oh. No. She's not, no."
"You can marry her, don't worry — I checked. Just do it soon, so we can try to adjust our manifest to compensate. You don't even have to get permission from Yun."
"That's not... look, brother, this list isn't random. I know that. What's going on?"
I didn't mean to catch him in a trap, but even I could see the wolf's face twitch, slightly and only for a fraction of a moment. "What do you mean?" The words were chosen carefully — not the practiced dialogue of a real Ad Int natural like Yun, to be sure, but close enough.
"I ran these figures, and it's immediately clear that this isn't a random sample. There are... groups of people, connected to taking a course that Eric Hahn taught in Wyoming. There's nearly every veteran of the team that put together the bridge in Toronto. Almost everyone has some education — even the class eights, of which there are only sixteen."
"The algorithms for the manifest, that wasn't my department, Aaron. I... agree, it looks strange, but... I don't know... why those people are there. Or... why... the list looks the way it does to you. I know it's not nice, that your friend didn't show up on it, but... I promise you, there won't be any issues."
"That's not what I'm talking about, either. I know you didn't pick these people, brother, but you have to know what's going on, up at the top levels. Can you at least answer one question — a yes or no question, very simple. I know you know the answer to it."
The wolf's eyes scanned my face — Dezirian had been putting on weight, I noticed; he looked older, as though the years were finally catching up to him. "Aaron, brother, you know I can't turn you down, we go back too far... but please... please don't ask..."
I swallowed heavily. "The arks. All along we've been saying the launch infrastructure would be reused, but... I... Just tell me, are they going to build any more ships?" I could see his ears droop with each word of my question; his shoulders sagged precipitously.
His voice was scarcely a whisper. "No."
"This is it?"
Vasily nodded, and said nothing.
I sat down opposite him, because my knees had failed me — the confirmation of our suspicions was crushing. My voice, too, was starting to give out. "How long have you known?"
"Last week. They gave us the numbers last week. Just the department heads, and some politicians. Nobody else knows. Nobody else is going to know."
"We have to tell someone, brother. We have to." My voice was pleading — trying to salvage my humanity, I guess. "If this gets out..."
"They'll kill you, Aaron. And they'll kill anyone who tries to run the story. It's too important now; we're too close. Why do you think they sent out the notices by hand? They're sequestering everybody. If it got out that the list was non-random, then anyone could draw the same conclusion that you did. If and when that happens, then it's... civil war, Aaron. Riots, fighting... we'd lose everything we've worked for."
"We're abandoning them," I said. "Isn't that their right, to fight back?"
"Yes," he said flatly. "It is. But it's beyond our control. The powers that in play here... they go beyond you or me, brother." He bunched his paws into fists, and choked back an angry, wretched noise. "They're not going to let anyone stand in their way. In fact, they're probably going to want to terminate you now, Aaron. I can protect you... I think... you didn't do anything wrong."
"For certain definitions of wrong, maybe." I was still in shock, trying to figure out what to do. "They'd kill their lead geneticist?"
"It's not enough to buy you anything. That senator, last week, in the helicopter accident?" I must've looked even more surprised, for he nodded sadly. "They'll get you too. I won't make you promise anything, because... I wouldn't want you to have to break a promise. But... I need to know who you told this to. I know you didn't come to all this on your own, not just last night. You work with Wells?"
"Ellis?" He must've caught a brief change in my expression. "Ah. I guess that makes sense."
"We haven't told anyone else."
"Keep a low profile, alright? It might matter; it might not. And don't... well, try not to do anything stupid, brother." He reached across the table, took both my hands, and squeezed them. As the long, long seconds ticked forward, I could tell that he was trying to hold back tears.
"I won't. I won't, I... that's why I came to you first. I figured you might know... you might... you might have some plan..."
"The projections..." he swallowed heavily, and let my paws go to dab at the corners of his eyes as he shut them tightly, trying to keep his composure about him. "Good god, Aaron. Forty years of uranium left before we have to go back into the dead zones to get it. Twenty years of coal. Maybe we could get around that... geothermal has been picking up; I'm sure they could make something of it. But there's only three years of fertilizer left — we've had to use so much more of it, now that we're growing things in greenhouses, without natural soil, and the reclamation doesn't work nearly as well as they said. And... even with the projections from the next crop, there's only six months of grain."
"Six months?" I couldn't quite believe what he'd said. "They said there was a bumper crop."
He shook his head. "They opened the granaries up. Some of the last ones, the ones that they'd been keeping in reserve... we're empty, Aaron. The planet's empty. We can't..." he choked, and when he removed his paws from his face the dark tears staining his fur were impossible to miss. "It's over — everything here is over. Nobody knows. Nobody knows it." His words were coming in short little bursts, and his chest heaved. "Just... buying time, it's all just buying time. Renaissance is it, Aaron — it's our only hope."