Bring Good Things to Life
o one could figure it out....
Some days they ventured from their homes, small groups clustered on the high spots (where the grass was still green), and gazed, necks twisting in corkscrew fashion--a simile for their question-marked eyes.
Of course they were frightened. But human beings tend to deny the unfolding of catastrophe. At the very least, they postpone. Acknowledgement is a slow cancer.
Even when the obvious is out of control....
* * *
Jarod caught a glimpse of his wife's face just before she flitted from view. Bland. "Isn't there something left in the pantry to use for flavoring?" he griped.
The edge of his plate fried his fingers-- A reflexed withdrawal awarded him a mere grazed shoulder, as a canister of red paprika dinged the wall. He retrieved it from the floor, saying nothing, and casually sprinkled scarlet dots across his meal's shiny grey "skin." The ooze sucked them downward, the effect much like watching a vast universe of supernovas smolder to a dull maroon...finally, growing cold...inert.
Jarod's appetite was gone, but he speared the largest mushroom and stuffed it into his mouth. Tasteless. "Damn! Tess, I know we had potatoes in the cellar. Why--"
"They're for Tara and Julian!" she shrieked. She re-emerged from the sleep-room, her accusing finger trembling.
His anger evaporated. Guilt gnawed.... "I'm s-sorry," he faltered. The void between them filled with the sound of rain drumming the roof. Feeble rays of green light cast a pulsating mosaic pattern over the entire kitchen, as the unrelenting drops splattered the mold-etched windowglass.
"Sorry" wasn't enough-- "I'll go over to see Barry. Right now," he said, rising from his chair. He plucked another mushroom from his plate. Sustenance, to fuel his determination.
"And will you pay him for his help--with no job? He never had much use for you before. He despises you now...and-and so do I!"
"Tess...." The way she'd said it ruled out future amendment. Not that it mattered anymore. Her words were justified...and her retreat finalized them.
He followed robotically, but her path led straight to the Tele-Scan. No use competing with its encapsulating drone. "News Views" was dominating all wavelengths. He pitied those in the lower regions without access. Their hysteria had to be reaching a peak....
Jarod groaned. It was evident that media information would be all but useless to them now. "It's w-worse," he babbled. "It's-it's...." His fists tightened, fingernails gouging his palms. Floods were claiming victims beyond estimation, the rains distributed in an even, impenetrable cloud...blanketing the Earth.
Shock had parted Tess' puffy eyelids. She flipped through the screens, stopping to alternate between the Sudanese and Australian reports. Isolated camps of drought-stricken Sudanese were dancing outside their tents, ecstatic children cupping their hands to drink the water falling from the sky.
Her laugh dripped acid. "No more drought. No more famine, Jarod--the world is saved! Amazing what thirty-two days of constant rain'll do, isn't it?"
He couldn't speak. Words had never been his domain. He knew only the hieroglyphic language of statistical research, mathematical formulas. Precise and predictable. He was a scientist, not a philosopher...and certainly no prophet.
The screen switched to Australia. The announcer's pale hair reflected the overhead lights, and her vermillion mouth moved in perfect symmetry. Tess frowned, increasing the alternator to its most rapid pace....
The Sudanese announcer's face merged. The same poreless skin, aquiline nose.... Only the backdrop footage varied. Both women's eyes syncopated a rythym of blinks and blanks, in tune with each syllable, and the inflection of good cheer never deviated a notch—
"They're cloning them now," Tess said. "I just know it."
"...No. Don't be ridiculous." Jarod eased a foot inside one of his boots and braced, pulling hard.
Tess threw up her hands. "Oh, you're so right!" She slapped her knees. "The last thing I need is to be ridiculous." The Australia screen steadied. Within seconds, her grin vanished.
He winced and looked down again, positioning his toes strategically. A sharp tug finished the job.
"Australia.... Australia is gone!" Tess wailed, fleeing the room. Jarod's pulse was throbbing beneath his temples. He choked on a sob as he yanked at the second boot. Then, raising his head, he allowed himself a peek....
* * *
Already, his hands were beginning to callous. The boat glided smoothly downhill for at least thirty seconds, after the last push from his oar. Two stops to make, he reminded himself. The image of the watery grave that had been Australia rattled about in his head, adding another layer to the horrors disguised within curtains of rain.
Each day, each hour compounded the assault on one's eyes and ears. Midday...and visibility was five feet at best. He could see only vague outlines of rooftops as he completed his descent. The water had risen dramatically, licking at the base of the mountain. Their mountain, where he and Tess had built their home...and their dreams-- He lurched forward, his elbow twisting painfully as he nosedived and clung to the criss-crossed oars.
The boat had slammed into a solid object. He fought the rocking and swaying, and reached out to shove an exposed chimney. Cockroaches scuttled from its rim-- Shaking his arms violently, he dislodged his craft and flung the glistening insects into the murky depths.
He shuddered. An intermingled sense of awe and repulsion had developed toward the loathsome creatures, one of the few species to succeed at scaling the mountains in increasing swarms. Some residents had resorted to utilizing them as a food source, pulverizing and mixing the paste into substances their children would accept.
Not my babies, Jarod promised fiercely! He adjusted his hat at a slight tilt, directing the rivulets away from his line of vision. In the total absence of wind, liquid arrows were piercing the mustard hued heavens. A ghoulish mystery...or was it?
He willed his mind to blot the flesh crawling anxiety. The stench of rotting organic matter offended far beyond his olfactory perceptions.
The stagnant pool teemed with a soup of decomposing plants, animals, and human fodder. He'd turned his head, silently retching, these past weeks when the Tele-Scan zoomed in on such scenes, but there was no longer a choice but to wade through the worst of it. He knew the mountain peaks stubbornly jutted skyward. Illusions of sanctuary, he thought dismally, but prayed he was still on course. The occasional whirr of an airship cut into the muddle of crashing destruction. He pulled harder on the oars, steeling himself against the pleas from neighbors with whom he had always exchanged only polite smalltalk. He would slither through the gully, unseen--
The boat pitched to one side and a face exploded from its edge, dipping and sloshing behind a stranger's firmly latched knuckles. "Let me in, damn you-- Help me!"
Water rushed in, snatching the oar from Jarod's right hand. He clawed, lodging his body between the seat and hull, until he'd recovered the handle. Without hesitation, he lifted and swung, concentrating his strength as he brought the oar down on the man's arm.
The head bobbed again. "My kids...." The mouth filled with garbled sounds--
Jarod's second blow bashed the man squarely between the eyes. The grip released....
* * *
The dwellings appeared untouched by the mayhem, almost idyllic. Numerous times during his arduous trek up Barry's mountain, Jarod had questioned his own sanity. Decay and decline had just peeled away, layer by layer-- Impossible!
But as he stood outside the compound, heaving and lightheaded, Barry's voice confirmed reality. Jarod did as instructed, turning his face into the Security Sentinel's red beam until his identity was established.
Beyond the gate was a virginal Eden. A cool mist anointed him with the fragrance of lilacs and honeysuckles. He squinted, making his way through a dreamlike intensity of color....
Barry closed the entrance panel behind them. The subdued lighting revealed a half-smile. "You don't look good at all. How are Tess and the children?"
Brackish liquid from Jarod's slumped shoulders spattered the floor. He forced pride down his parched throat. "Dying. Unless you help them."
"Tess chose you, even after--"
"She regrets it. Her feelings for me are gone. You've won, do you hear me?" Jarod's eyes went wild. "How...how did you manage this-this.... Do you know how widespread this mess is? Why is it skipping over you? Our homes are at the same elevation! This isn't logical--"
"How did you get through the valley?" Barry motioned to a young man passing the interior doorway. "Please bring us a pitcher of juice. Whatever's freshest...and a tray from the afternoon meal for this gentleman."
"Boat," Jarod said flatly. "No other way left. Doesn't take much searching. They're floating thicker than flies.... Sometimes, you dump the dead from them, or fight the living to steal them. Sometimes you don't even bother to dump out the dead...."
"Sit here. The sunroom's furniture is washable." Barry's forehead was lined.
Uncertainty? Compassion? Jarod took a seat, exhaustion stilling his tongue.
"So you say I've 'won'... I would have to disagree. No," Barry emphasized, "I come in second. Always."
Jarod's anger imploded. Too much at stake.... "I've lost everything. This is no time to let rivalry get in the way. We all stand to lose if we don't set it aside, just this once-- Th-this is real!" He waved his arms in expansive circles. "The whole planet is dying...but there's a chance-- Only you can get me in to see Terbrock."
"You expect him to give you your job back?" Barry roared with laughter.
"Job? Hell, no!" Jarod's fist hit the armrest. "There'll be no more 'jobs', no anything if he doesn't let me try to-to undo this--"
Barry sat back, wearing a residual smirk, and Jarod quickly hid his hands beneath the table top. Dishes were being placed before them, the server's movements exhibiting an athletic grace.... His exit, like his entrance, was made in silence.
The aroma of a savory stew mingled with the tropical fruit essence from a frosty ceramic jug.
"Go ahead. Eat." Barry helped himself to a large cup of juice. He stood up, pausing to sip, then resumed. "Your guilt is self defeating when it reaches martyrdom. I'll leave you to ponder that while I make arrangements to send food to your family-- Yes, I have an airship in working order. Two, in fact." He glanced over his shoulder. "Oh, and you'll have a tour of the hydroponic gardens when I return."
* * *
It was an orgy for the gourmand, its grandeur almost obscene. Jarod had eaten his fill, yet his mouth watered. He stifled a response, unsure if he was on the verge of laughter...or tears.
"It's so simple, really." Barry led the way between two concise rows of mango trees.
Jarod tracked his guide's magnetic footfalls, steered by radar, his eyes goggled with wonder....
"The answers were there, laid out before us. But only the chosen have ears and eyes. It comes down to that, Jarod, my friend." Barry pulled a ripened summer squash from a vine which bore resemblance to a weighty green power cord. Dense etchings of shade crawled across his face. "We were once the best of friends, were we not?"
"...We were." Their games of Chess had become habit in early childhood. Contests, without the need for words. Jarod remained undefeated.
Barry's steps took them into the brightest sector. Pineapples towered above their heads, their precisely centered topaz insets gloating perfection. Jarod chafed....
"Water has proven itself an excellent growth medium," Barry pointed out. "The delivery of nutrients is flawless."
"I had no idea...." Jarod took in the dimensions of the clear domed ceiling. "The expansion is...is incredible--"
"Enough to feed an army, yes...or a colony."
Jarod felt a flush of heat. Clammy. "Humidity. Humidity's highest here."
"Sensor controlled, the entire operation. Your prototype was right on target, Jarod."
"The last millennium was a 'figurative' washout," Barry smiled. "The year 3000 will arrive literally fresh and clean."
"Cl-clean? It's a cesspool out there! What are you babbling about? Don't you--"
"You asked to speak to Terbrock," Barry cut in crisply. "Correct? I agree it's fair, and now's the time." He pressed a touchpad on his wristband. "And I am the only one who can arrange it. True. I'm second in command...always second, you know."
"It's up to Terbrock to tell you what's happening...or not. His call--"
Jarod snatched at Barry's arm. "Tell me what? What?"
"It could have been different," Barry mumbled, backing away. "I wish...." His hand rose, swiping Jarod's shoulder in a distinct gesture of affection. Then he was gone.... Jarod felt a curt tug on his sleeve.
"The ship's ready to depart, sir. I'm the navigator."
* * *
I wish.... Barry's unfinished phrase paralyzed Jarod with dread. The view out the porthole only reinforced his anxiety as the airship floated beyond the mountain's line of demarcation. Fog, then leaden bolts of rain slowed the flight considerably.
Wishes.... He drifted. Tess came to the forefront, a poignant diversion. He had coined her "the wish girl" after chance arranged their first uninterrupted lunch chat.
She had been an elusive butterfly, vibrant in contrast to the blankness of sterile white lab coats. And she had wished for things. Unselfish things.... World peace. Strong, healthy children.
The occluded porthole suddenly cleared. Not a drop of rain. Atop the gargantuan mountain range, the steel and glass mega-structure loomed, its support tubes sprawling outward, poised on the peak like a voracious spider.
The new logo struck Jarod as vulgar in size. "Colonial Dynamics Corporation" had officially replaced "Center for Disease Control." He had yet to find out why....
* * *
He braced against the ship's backdraft, wrestling an urge to call it all off. The red beam flashed, and the employee entrance hatch was sliding open—
Tess nudged again. Had she even acknowledged his leaving? His final glimpse had revealed her pinched smile, the unnatural stupified contentment of exhaustion. Her diminished frame was squeezed into Tara's bubble chair, her only response a wordless gentle rocking....
He shoved aside his aversion to airlifts and ducked into one of its circular steel "coffins." The ride commenced, with an unsettling vibration. He diverted his tension by rehearsing his plea.
Midway, a sputter...then, a violent shimmying. A pause—and blackness swallowed. His stomach reacted before his brain had a chance to calculate the "fear equation." Partially digested goo shot up his throat.
As he reeled backward, a vacuous swoosh caught the capsule in an unseen net, the rebound propelling it upward. Light flooded its reflective interior-- Freshly glutted with power, it sped to the top of the shaft....
An empty corridor stretched out before him, echoing stillness like a vault. His initial steps were spongy, but his gait steadied as he plowed forward. Overhead, the automatic illumination squares signaled his approach, one by one, and the nape of his neck prickled from the intrusion of "observers."
* * *
Terbrock's greeting was a slight nod, the only indication he had heard Jarod's footsteps. His profile was highlighted against the windowglass, his eyes fixed upon the slope of his long thin nose...quite literally looking down on the swarming masses.
"No need for formality, Jarod." Terbrock's solid bulk swung full circle. "No need for your long journey to recover a job no longer needed, either."
"Sit. You know I look up at no one."
"I'm not here for a job." Jarod hastily seated himself. "I can find out what went wrong. I can backtrack...I can." He ripped his hat from his head, feeling the sting from hairs uprooted. "But I'm helpless without the lab!"
"Your tunnel vision is what has handicapped you." Terbrock's pupils widened. "You still don't see the full picture. Even now."
Jarod fell silent. Too much to take in.... Terbrock's uniform bore a curious new emblem. But the words made no sense. Jarod's lips moved—
"It was meant to restore the ozone layer. Only that. Th-the rain.... I put out an order to scrap the project. Too risky. Wasn't ready to be implemented. I--"
"You had no authority to scrap it. See, Jarod? You gave yourself too much credit, and now you give yourself too much blame. If 'blame' were the accurate term, that is."
"What?" Jarod rasped. "What do you call it?"
"Genesis. We christened your 'amplified' project with an appropriate title. Global warming has been vanquished--"
"Wait! We? You knew Barry tampered with.... You knew he stole my--"
"Stole? Hardly. The company had purchased the rights, remember? Stipulated in the contract when you were affixed. You were hired on a trial basis, and you proved to be a fine drone. Meticulous in your research. Diligent, but...you pretended to ignore the obvious."
Jarod's focus centered on Terbrock's gaudy insignia. G E.... Genetic Excellence-- Perspiration beaded on his forehead. A mathematician. Yes. Unable to add up simple clues. "You had no right," he hissed. "Violating nature caused this massacre."
Terbrock's laugh was forced and brief. "A duty, not a right. You've had it all backwards. This is no blunder. The 'Cloud' is self-limiting, timed to dissipate when the task is finished."
A faint, swelling buzz permeated the entire complex. Jarod sensed it now. The building vibrated with an invisible force. "The 'Colony....' Tell me."
"At last you see us." Terbrock's index finger tapped a rhythm attuned with his words. "The Colony has existed, loosely cohesive, throughout decades...centuries, if one stretches deductive reasoning. We have metamorphosed as we developed our goal, adjusting our plans to align with nature's plans. That final perfection is now in progress. The oblivious or resistant have fallen, their carcasses encumbering all but the most enlightened."
A tranquil smile played at the corners of Terbrock's mouth. "We do regret the loss of an intellect of your calibre, to be sure. Alas, it's housed in a swamp of naivete and delusion.... Wasted, " he clucked. "But after the present process is complete, the organic sludge will amply fertilize--"
"The dead, you mean-- Billions of murdered children--"
"The planet will re-new and cleanse. This past decade's mandated conversion to biodegradable materials in every possible aspect of daily living will all but eliminate a 'clean up' problem."
Beastlike rage took Jarod by surprise, and he lunged-- But a blow to the base of his skull brought him and his clenched hand down hard on the desk's glossy surface. He knew Terbrock's throat would be forever out of reach, yet he kicked at the fanning black shapes as they draped over and around him.
Jarod's fist made a solitary contact with warm yielding flesh. But attached to its yelp of pain was a sizable price tag-- Gloved hands pummeled his spine and ribs as one of the robed thugs yanked him from the desktop by his ankles. His chin struck the floor, the excruciating crunch and searing fire melting his surroundings into a fast approaching sensory blackout....
There was a brief wave of nausea as he was rolled onto his back. Only his eyes retained muscle control. They jiggled-- The semi-circle of guards standing over him shared the same unimpassioned face.... exactly the same face, anchored atop identically clad frames, aligned at equal height. Detailed duplicates of Terbrock.
Jarod was unaware of his extended moan. He was swirling, weightless...sinking into mercy's oblivion.
* * *
It was a hum, comprised of indistinguishable blends of sound bytes from past and present. Intuition told him he existed. His eyes begged to open, but had forgotten how, his brain at odds with the concept of sensation. Jarod's desire might have been to stay in this "place." If not for the pain--
The scream was his own, bursting through the muffled cacophony, restoring sound and sight to a hideous clarity! His voice brittled, then broke, clearing space for Tara's wailing and Julian's asthmatic sobs. Tess' eyes exhuded fright beyond measure from their hollowed sockets--
Someone wake me, Jarod thought.... Why doesn't mama shake me free of this nightmare?
He could feel fingers cradling his head. Tess' familiar touch, versus the bludgeoning within.... Yes, he was awake. And the fury of the storm was loosening chunks of ceiling, the powdery flakes dancing around Tess' matted hair. For a moment, he envisioned a halo. "My angel," he murmured.
He detected Tara's plaintive, tissue paper voice.
"Did you bring us some food, daddy?
The perception of his quickening heartbeat manifested only as a rush of blood to his jugular. An odd detached anguish. He was so very, very thirsty. And there was water, water....
"Tess...I...I can't m-move."
It was a desperate question, not a statement. She replied by shaking her head. But Jarod knew it meant "yes." He knew he would never move his body again. And he wouldn't feel the rise of the flood water...
...until it reached his neck.
©2001 Jane Gwaltney