Read Wireless Online

Authors: Charles Stross

Wireless (8 page)

BOOK: Wireless
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The heat makes her mind drift: she tries to remember what sparked her most recent quarrel with Bob, but it seems so distant and irrelevant now—like home, like Bob arguing with her father, like their hurried courthouse wedding and furtive emigration-board hearing. All that makes sense now is the stifling heat, the glare of not-sunlight, John working with his camera out in the noonday sun where only mad dogs and Englishmen dare go. Ah,
it was the washing
. Who was going to do the washing while Maddy was away on the two-day field trip? Bob seemed to think he was doing her a favor, cooking for himself and taking his clothes to the single over-used public laundry. (Some year real soon now they’d get washing machines, but not yet . . . ) Bob seemed to think he was being bighearted, not publicly getting jealous over her having a job that took her away from home with a male superior who was notoriously single. Bob seemed to think he was some kind of progressive liberated man for putting up with a wife who had read Betty Friedan and didn’t shave her armpits.
Fuck you, Bob,
she thinks tiredly, and tugs the heavy strap of the sample case over her shoulder and turns to head in John’s direction. There’ll be time to sort things out with Bob later. For now, she’s got a job to do.
John is leaning over the battered camera, peering through its viewfinder in search of . . . something. “What’s up?” she asks.
“Mock-termites are up,” he says, very seriously. “See the entrances?” The mock-termites are what they’ve come to take a look at—nobody’s reported on them from close-up, but they’re very visible as soon as you venture into the dusty plain. She peers at the foot of the termite mound, a baked-clay hump in the soil that seems to writhe with life. There are little pipelike holes, tunnels almost, emerging from the base of the mound, and little black mock-termites dancing in and out of the holes in never-ending streams. Little is relative—they’re almost as large as mice. “Don’t touch them,” he warns.
“Are they poisonous?” asks Maddy.
“Don’t know, don’t want to find out this far from the hospital. The fact that there are no vertebrates here—” He shrugs. “We know they’re poisonous to other insectoida.”
Maddy puts the sample case down. “But nobody’s been bitten, or died, or anything.”
“Not that we know of.” He folds back the lid of the case and she shivers, abruptly cold, imagining bleached bones lying unburied in the long grass of the inland plain, where no humans will live for centuries to come. “It’s essential to take care out here. We could be missing for days before anyone noticed, and a search party wouldn’t necessarily find us, even with the journey plan we filed.”
“Okay.” She watches as he takes out an empty sample jar and a label and carefully notes down time and date, distance and direction from the milestone at the heart of Fort Eisenhower.
Thirty-six miles.
They might as well be on another planet. “You’re taking samples?”
He glances round. “Of course.” Then he reaches into the side pocket of the bag and removes a pair of heavy gloves, which he proceeds to put on, and a trowel. “If you could put the case down over there?”
Maddy glances inside the case as he kneels down by the mock-termite mound. It’s full of jars with blank labels, neatly segregated, impassable quarantine zones for improbable species. She looks round. John is busy with the mock-termite mound. He’s neatly lopped the top off it: inside, the earth is a squirming mass of—things. Black things, white things like bits of string, and a pulp of half-decayed vegetable matter that smells damply of humus. He probes the mound delicately with the trowel, seeking something. “Look,” he calls over his shoulder. “It’s a queen!”
Maddy hurries over. “Really?” she asks. Following his gloved finger, she sees something the size of her left forearm, white and glistening. It twitches, expelling something round, and she feels her gorge rise. “Ugh!”
“It’s just a happy mother,” John says calmly. He lowers the trowel, works it in under the queen and lifts her—and a collection of hangers-on, courtiers and bodyguards alike—over the jar. He tips, he shakes, and he twists the lid into place. Maddy stares at the chaos within. What is it like to be a mock-termite, suddenly snatched up and transplanted to a mockery of home? What’s it like to see the sun in an electric lightbulb, to go about your business, blindly pumping out eggs and eating and foraging for leaves, under the eyes of inscrutable collectors? She wonders if Bob would understand if she tried to tell him. John stands up and lowers the glass jar into the sample case, then freezes. “Ouch,” he says, and pulls his left glove off.
“Ouch.” He says it again, more slowly. “I missed a small one. Maddy, medical kit, please. Atropine and neostigmine.”
She sees his eyes, pinprick pupils in the noonday glare, and dashes to the Land Rover. The medical kit, olive green with a red cross on a white circle, seems to mock her: she rushes it over to John, who is now sitting calmly on the ground next to the sample case. “What do you need?” she asks.
John tries to point, but his gloved hand is shaking wildly. He tries to pull it off, but the swollen muscles resist attempts to loosen the glove. “Atropine—” A white cylinder, with a red arrow on one side: she quickly reads the label, then pushes it hard against his thigh, feels something spring-loaded explode inside it. John stiffens, then tries to stand up, the automatic syringe still hanging from his leg. He staggers stiff-legged toward the Land Rover and slumps into the passenger seat.
“Wait!” she demands. Tries to feel his wrist. “How many of them bit you?”
His eyes roll. “Just one. Silly of me. No vertebrates.” Then he leans back. “I’m going to try and hold on. Your first-aid training.”
Maddy gets the glove off, exposing fingers like angry red sausages: but she can’t find the wound on his left hand, can’t find anything to suck the poison out of. John’s breathing is labored and he twitches: he needs the hospital, but it’s at least a four-hour drive away and she can’t look after him while she drives. So she puts another syringe load of atropine into his leg and waits with him for five minutes while he struggles for breath hoarsely, then follows up with Adrenalin and anything else she can think of that’s good for handling anaphylactic shock. “Get us back,” he manages to wheeze at her between emphy semic gasps. “Samples too.”
After she gets him into the load bed of the truck, she dashes over to the mock-termite mound with the spare petrol can. She splashes the best part of a gallon of fuel over the heap, coughing with the stink: she caps the jerry can, drags it away from the mound, then strikes a match and throws it flickering at the disordered insect kingdom. There’s a soft whump as the igniting gas sets the mound aflame: small shapes writhe and crisp beneath an empty blue sky pierced by the glaring pinprick of S Doradus. Maddy doesn’t stay to watch. She hauls the heavy sample case back to the Land Rover, loads it into the trunk alongside John, and scurries back toward town as fast as she can.
She’s almost ten miles away before she remembers the camera, left staring in cyclopean isolation at the scorched remains of the dead colony.
The big ground-effect ship rumbles softly as it cruises across the endless expanse of the Dzerzhinsky Ocean at nearly three hundred knots, homeward-bound at last. Misha sits in his cubbyhole—as shipboard political officer he rates an office of his own—and sweats over his report with the aid of a glass of Polish pear schnapps. Radio can’t punch through more than a few thousand miles of air directly, however powerful the transmitters; on Earth they used to bounce signals off the ionosphere or the moon, but that doesn’t work here—the other disks are too far away to use as relays. There’s a chain of transceiver buoys marching out across the ocean at two-thousand-kilometer intervals, but the equipment is a pig to maintain, very expensive to build, and nobody is even joking about stringing undersea cables across a million kilometers of seafloor. Misha’s problem is that the expedition, himself included, is effectively stranded back in the eighteenth century, without even the telegraph to tie civilization together—which is a pretty pickle to find yourself in when you’re the bearer of news that will make the Politburo shit a brick. He desperately wants to be able to boost this up the ladder a bit, but instead it’s going to be his name and his alone on the masthead.
“Bastards. Why couldn’t they give us a signal rocket or two?” He gulps back what’s left of the schnapps and winds a fresh sandwich of paper and carbon into his top-secret-eyes-only typewriter.
“Because it would weigh too much, Misha,” the captain says right behind his left shoulder, causing him to jump and bang his head on the overhead locker.
When Misha stops swearing and Gagarin stops chuckling, the Party man carefully turns his stack of typescript face down on the desk, then politely gestures the captain into his office. “What can I do for you, boss? And what do you mean, they’re too heavy?”
Gagarin shrugs. “We looked into it. Sure, we could put a tape recorder and a transmitter into an ICBM and shoot it up to twenty thousand kilometers. Trouble is, it’d fall down again in an hour or so. The fastest we could squirt the message, it would cost about a thousand rubles a character—more to the point, even a lightweight rocket would weigh as much as our entire payload. Maybe in ten years.” He sits down. “How are you doing with that report?”
Misha sighs. “How am I going to explain to Brezhnev that the Americans aren’t the only mad bastards with hydrogen bombs out here? That we’ve found the new world and the new world is just like the old world, except it glows in the dark? And the only communists we’ve found so far are termites with guns?” For a moment he looks haggard. “It’s been nice knowing you, Yuri.”
“Come on! It can’t be that bad—” Gagarin’s normally sunny disposition is clouded.
“You try and figure out how to break the news to them.” After identifying the first set of ruins, they’d sent one of their MiGs out, loaded with camera pods and fuel: a thousand kilometers inland it had seen the same ominous story of nuclear annihilation visited on an alien civilization: ruins of airports, railroads, cities, factories. A familiar topography in unfamiliar form.
This was New York—once, thousands of years before a giant stamped the bottom of Manhattan Island into the seabed—and that was once Washington DC. Sure, there’d been extra skyscrapers, but they’d hardly needed the subsequent coastal cruise to be sure that what they were looking at was the same continent as the old capitalist enemy, thousands of years and millions of kilometers beyond a nuclear war. “We’re running away like a dog that’s seen the devil ride out, hoping that he doesn’t spot us and follow us home for a new winter hat.”
Gagarin frowns. “Excuse me?” He points to the bottle of pear schnapps.
“You are my guest.” Misha pours the first cosmonaut a glass, then tops up his own. “It opens certain ideological conflicts, Yuri. And nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news.”
“Ideological—such as?”
“Ah.” Misha takes a mouthful. “Well, we have so far avoided nuclear annihilation and invasion by the forces of reactionary terror during the Great Patriotic War, but only by the skin of our teeth. Now, doctrine has it that any alien species advanced enough to travel in space is almost certain to have discovered socialism, if not true Communism, no? And that the enemies of socialism wish to destroy socialism and take its resources for themselves. But what we’ve seen here is evidence of a different sort. This was America. It follows that somewhere nearby there is a continent that was home to another Soviet Union—two thousand years ago. But this America has been wiped out, and our elder Soviet brethren are not in evidence and they have not colonized this other-America—what can this mean?”
Gagarin’s brow wrinkled. “They’re dead too? I mean, that the alternate-Americans wiped them out in an act of colonialist imperialist aggression but did not survive their treachery,” he adds hastily.
Misha’s lips quirk in something approaching a grin: “Better work on getting your terminology right the first time before you see Brezhnev, comrade,” he says. “Yes, you are correct on the facts, but there are matters of
to consider. No colonial exploitation has occurred. So either the perpetrators were also wiped out, or perhaps . . . Well, it opens up several very dangerous avenues of thought. Because if New Soviet Man isn’t home hereabouts, it implies that something happened to them, doesn’t it? Where are all the true communists? If it turns out that they ran into hostile aliens, then . . . Well, theory says that aliens should be good brother socialists. Theory and ten rubles will buy you a bottle of vodka on this one. Something is badly wrong with our understanding of the direction of history.”
“I suppose there’s no question that there’s something we don’t know about,” Gagarin adds in the ensuing silence, almost as an afterthought.
“Yes. And that’s a fig leaf of uncertainty we can hide behind, I hope.” Misha puts his glass down and stretches his arms behind his head, fingers interlaced until his knuckles crackle. “Before we left, our agents reported signals picked up in America from—damn, I should not be telling you this without authorization. Pretend I said nothing.” His frown returns.
BOOK: Wireless
8.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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