Kathleen Ann Goonan : Light Music

Dania drove onward, westward, across the vast Republic of Texas. She was heading toward Hollywood. Why not? She'd always wanted to go there, ever since she was little, and people always told her she had so much talent. She'd gotten sidetracked, that was all. Sidetracked by history. A small part of her nagged that she should not have left her companion behind, but he'd got scary last night, staggering around like he was drunk though he couldn't have been; he never touched her liquor because he preferred beer, in long-necked bottles. He wasn't the songy sweet cowboy of their campfire nights, who had almost, but not quite, succeeded in seducing her. Now she sure was glad that she'd resisted. A certain rage had emerged in him that reminded her a lot of her kid's daddy. She'd sworn to herself that she'd never put up with that kind of asinine behavior again. How many years ago? Seventy-five? One corner of her mouth quirked in a grin. Well, she'd sure made that stick. Her wind-snarled hair whipped out behind her. She hoped that the sunscreen was working. Back in Crescent City, which seemed like a distant dream, sunscreen, but something not even as primitive as that, something better, had come out of the showers and protected them from skin cancer. Even if you got it, the damage could be repaired; it just took more energy. But these sunglasses… She had unfortunately gotten hold of some sunglasses at the flea market that seemed to have come from Tennessee, for whenever she wore them they called up the particulars of her divorce case and marched them down the right side of her lenses. Such helpful, kind sunglasses, smart sunglasses, sunglasses that recognized her DNA. She guessed they were cop sunglasses, or, more likely, lawyer sunglasses. Divorce lawyer sunglasses. If she could figure out how to run them she could at least have someone else's divorce information scrolling faintly across her upper vision. Or if only she'd gotten some kind of physicist glasses, not that she could understand that stuff again, or even children's storytelling glasses, she would have been happy, but no, she had to rattle through that anonymous jumble set out on the folding table of the dark-faced man in the straw hat and pick out these for the utterly Dania-type reason that she liked the way they looked; she liked the way that green dot flashed excitedly in the top corner of the right lens when she touched them. Excited to find a victim, she knew that now. She'd even paid extra, because, as the man pointed out, they seemed to be made just for her. Indeed. The road was self-repairing and utterly smooth. There wasn't much to driving out here, but Dania was getting kind of dry. She needed some soda pop. Some beer. She needed some cigarettes too. It had been a long, long time since she'd had cigarettes. Something about driving out here brought out the need in her. Maps were no preparation for the size of Texas, not that they had one; Cowboy insisted that they only needed to go west. They had passed an unguarded checkpoint at the border near Texarkana. Texans had tried to keep nanotechnology out but how could they? She and Cowboy had read with interest a list of contraband. Her glasses, certainly, and the car for another and everything inside it. Probably them, too. NATURAL HUMANS ONLY, read the list, and NATURAL ANIMALS too. Texas had tried to be a natural sort of place, but things got past them in the end. Unfortunately, she hadn't seen any of the drive-thru stores that had so willingly scanned the Sun-O-Rama in Arkansas and given them whatever they wanted in return. Probably some kind of chain that Texas didn't allow. Her foot on the energy pedal let up a little. There was something up ahead. BEER CIGARETTES BATTERIES the faded sign read. Well, now she was getting somewhere. She pulled onto the eroded concrete pad and sighed. The doors and windows were nailed shut with boards. CONTAMINATED was painted in dripping letters across what looked like the main door. NO ENTRY BY ORDER OF BUG RANGERS. 2 BACON OR SAUSAGE, 3 EGGS, JUICE & COFFEE ALL DAY EVERY DAY $3.29 TEX-DOLLARS ONLY! Well, shoot. Two huge trucks and a smaller metal trailer were to one side of the main building, wracked by time and looted by vandals, who had carted off everything removable. Dania got out of the car and stretched. Her long skirt blew around her legs, and she doubted that she would ever get a comb through her hair again, it looked such a sight in the darkened glass of the window. She ought to have braided it but she had been too irritated to think straight when she left. She remembered that she'd thrown the palomino kit on the ground, the one that Cowboy whined took up too much space, with a particularly satisfying rush of snottiness. It was hot, and there wasn't a soul around. She had only passed three vehicles going east all day, and had seen no one else heading west. The plains were treeless and the hot wind brought a steady smell of slow-baked grass, sweet and crisp, and she experienced a distant memory she really ought not have. It was like that, she'd found. She could enjoy these memories, the memories of others who had found this land so beautiful, even though Dania herself had never made it this far west in her quest for Hollywood. This feeling was all that was left of somebody's memory. Some cattle rancher, some trucker, some traveling saleswoman. Just the pure pleasure of this vast flat land, and how brilliant it all was in the sun with the grass rippling tall then short where the wind pressed it down. The hills they'd been in were finally flattening out. She could still see them, low rises to the east where she'd been that morning. Radio Cowboy was probably still tromping along back there. She felt a very, very slight pang of guilt. She remembered how he had rescued her in Crescent City and kept the pirates from killing her. She remembered his nifty show tune pistols. There was something else she was trying to remember. Something about Houston. Hell. It was too hard to remember. "The bug police!" she said scornfully, and strode over to the door, which was boarded up. It would need to be pried open. The large front windows were covered with thick iron bars. Something banged, somewhere. She strode around the phalanx of looted trucks to the west side of the building and stopped just before she would have tumbled into a huge gully. It was about twenty feet deep and looked like it stretched a quarter mile away. At the back of the place she found a metal door, scoured clean of paint by the wind and the sun, swinging open and banging shut. She went inside. Yeah, bugs. No kidding! She had stepped back in time. It was seventy years ago, and everything was perfect. As perfect as it had been for that short time when nanotech worked as they had been told it would, never mind the plagues of thought, the terrorism, the vanishings, the fear. Here was stuff: perfect, beautiful stuff. She realized that the loaves of bread in plastic wrappers, the soda dispenser, the rack holding pre-sealed movie blobs, and the floors and walls themselves were maintained by a program that would never give up. It used solar energy and the stuff that it sucked out of the ever-growing crevasse outside. Since people so rarely came here it probably hadn't been necessary to replenish much in quite a long time. Thin lines of sunlight coming in between the boards on the windows draped smooth perfect orange counters. Rows of crinkle-wrapped snacks were stacked in wire holders. She stepped closer and examined a package of Cheeze Crackers. One might expect a corner of the package to be gnawed by small teeth, and the package empty, but all of these wrappers were apparently as hard as steel, and were only openable by people with two hands, one of which wielded a knife. Critterproof. She walked toward the counter, behind which were bushels of cigarettes. She was not afraid of anything, since there was nothing to fear out here save snakes, but when a beam of light thickened and grew into an oblong shape, kind of like a gigantic roly-poly easily as large as her, Dania's heart began to thud. Despite all the strangenesses she'd seen since she was transported down the Mississippi River on a boat filled with and piloted by raving madpeople, and then all the technological changes and ages she'd whipped through since, this blob of light for some reason took the cake and revved up the fearmeter she thought she'd lost long ago. She did not know why she believed it was sentient. She did not know why she felt as if it were observing not only each hair and freckle but each act of her life, each thought, as if it could see through time. She realized that she had ceased to breathe, and forced her lungs to expand. Air passed through her narrowed throat in a kind of croak. This thing was between her and the cigarettes. She took a few steps forward, but the thing didn't budge, didn't float away or vanish like a trick of vision might. "Um, excuse me," she said, in a kind of gasp. "I would like to get hold of those cigarettes, back there." The thing pressed itself away from the cigarettes. Dania about fell to the floor. It listened! It understood! It even understood English! "Well damn," she said, putting her hands on her hips and looking at it. "Who are you? What are you doing here? What you want with me?" A low hum filled the air. There was an almost imperceptible vibration of the things around her. She recalled that the Lone Elephant in Crescent City had trumpeted its yearning messages in sound that could not be heard by humans. "Can't hear that," she said. "Needs to be pitched higher. I can hear sounds between thirty and four thousand hertz. I can see in the electromagnetic spectrum from a wavelength of about four hundred nanometers to, um, maybe seven hundred fifty." She wasn't sure where these ideas and numbers were coming from. She was astonished and pleased. Apparently she had not lost all of her older self. It had just been folded away inside somehow. Or maybe this…thing…had something to do with her restoration. The air smelled like ozone. She was at least ten degrees smarter, or at least smart enough to feel dumb. The light seemed to be changing from white to blue, and its sound was now a low moan like the wind might make. Then it vanished. She had a clear path to the cigarettes. "Um, guess that wasn't such a good idea," she said, but the thing was clearly gone. She no longer felt observed. Beneath the counter was a stash of bags. She filled one with cigarettes. Then she walked around the store and filled more bags with bread, cheese, beef jerky, licorice, candy bars, and Reddy-Fill bags of soda, soymilk, and juice. And beer. She moved quickly and looked around when she was done, wondering if there were more things she would need. She drove the Carlyle to the back door and loaded up until the little car was almost overflowing with stuff, and settled into the driver's seat. She had to decide which way to head. She had to admit that the light-thing had spooked her just a mite. Not enough to need companionship; there was hardly enough spook power in creation for that. But she thought of Radio Cowboy Shorty hiking along that rough road, maybe stopping at a spring and trying to figure out how to grow the palomino, and she just had to turn back the way she'd come. Maybe he'd learned his lesson. Maybe he'd know something about the light that spoke like an elephant. With the elephant, another small chunk of Crescent City came back. Despite that, Hollywood called. She peeled onto the highway heading west, popped open a warm beer and took a foamy swig. An hour later, her car stopped. It had been so long since a machine had actually stopped working while Dania was using it that at first she was simply puzzled as it coasted to a stop. Wasn't it supposed to be different from the interminable parade of broken-down Chevys and Fords and Toyotas which sat outside cheap apartments on the back streets of Memphis, floors paved with crushed-down layers of trash, smelling of kids? She popped the hood and stepped out into the hot wind. She leaned over the shaded place where engine ought to be and was baffled. It was indeed different. There were the hoses she remembered, but everything was exceedingly clean. Several large chunks of metal she thought ought to be there were not. There was no battery, so it couldn't be out of water. The road itself was the battery. She left the hood up and went back inside and after studying the dashboard found a button labeled diagnostics. That was more like it. She pushed it. The fuel converter was broken. When she asked for more information she was told that some chemical essential to fuel breakdown had degraded past use and what's more since she had ignored this, the bla bla—the name of which she would never remember anyhow so why try?—was now also broken and a new one had to be grown. In plain language, she would have to go to a garage, or some kind of all-purpose nanotech mart that had at one time presumably existed. Dania wrenched off the sunglasses. They were stuck on replaying the testimony of her accursed ex-husband and the seedy friends he'd recruited to try and convince the judge to give the kids to him. In fact, the case had gone to the State Supreme Court. The docket number was even here. This brought back bitter memories. In a fit of anger she crushed the glasses beneath her bootheel. But they sprang back into shape the instant she lifted her foot. Of course, how else could they have lasted so long? She gave them a good kick and they skittered across the road. How aggravating the world was out here! She wished that she had stayed in Crescent City. Everything out here was so big, but it seemed as if her head had contracted by a million degrees. So. She was stuck here with lots of beer, cigarettes, beef jerky, and licorice. All of the essentials, anyway. A mile back she had seen a sign pointing north with the name of some little town. Eyesore or Heatstroke or some such place, she assumed by the look of things. She rummaged around and found the small leather pouch of Mississippi silver coins and looped it over her neck. She upended a gallon of water and let it pour right down her throat until she felt like she was going to burst. She headed east, her feet scuffing the dirt because the pavement was like to melt her boot soles, keeping an eye out for rattlers. Whatever the sign had once said was obscured by bullet holes. The town had an H and a P in it for sure. There was no guarantee that anyone was even there. Where was it? It had to be countless miles away. Otherwise, why couldn't she see it? But after another ten minutes she came to a gulch a half mile wide and down in it a meandering row of cottonwoods and tucked halfway up the gully on the other side a row of low faded buildings. A tiny creek glinted at the bottom of the gulch and cows ripped scant grass from the hillside. Dania was soaking wet, but her sweat didn't seem to be cooling her much. She trudged down the switchback road. When she got down to the creek she climbed down next to the modest bridge, took off her boots and socks, and lay right down in the shallow run, not caring that sharp rocks poked her back. She could almost hear steam sizzle as she cooled. After about ten minutes she felt positively icy. She stared up at the cloudless blue sky for a few minutes longer, until a shadow fell across her. Someone poked at her side. She turned her head. A man loomed over her, blocking the sun so she could see, foreshortened, his brown ten-gallon hat, his rough red beard, his vest, plaid shirt, and jeans, and the inevitable hand-tooled boot, severely pointed at the toe, propped on a rock dangerously close to her head. She raised up out of the stream on her elbows. "What the hell do you want?" "What are you doing here?" asked the man. "Cooling off." She collapsed back into the stream and closed her eyes, hoping that he would go away. He might have the secret to starting her car, but the icy water washing over her brain seemed much more important at the moment. He seized her arm and pulled her up. Slipping on the wet stones, she gained her balance, pulled her arm from his grasp, and glared at him, wishing now that she had brought her sunglasses, which would give her a more formidable mien. "What's the problem? This private property?" "I assed you a question." His eyes were flat-looking, as if he stared out on a world long since grown boring. Or, thought Dania, suddenly recognizing the look, as if he regularly soaked his breakfast flakes in whisky. "I'm just passing through." She waded from the stream, sat on a rock, rubbed her left foot dry with a sock, put it on, and shoved her foot into its boot. She got started on her right foot. "If that's your broke car on the road, you ain't passing through. You're stuck, lady." Dania deeply longed for Radio Cowboy's show-tune pistols. She wanted to see this guy dance. Maybe babble "A Spoonful of Sugar." She finished with her boots and stood up. The heat had already sucked most of the wet from her clothes. "I'll figure it out. I just needed to cool off some." "You got something to do with the light at the feed store?" "I just got here and I don't have much to do with anything." She tilted her head and shaded her eyes, watching him as she crouched down and wrapped her hand around a good-sized rock. "Light showed up an hour ago. Think that's about when you musta broke down. Now come on and stop your bullshit." He took a few steps then turned back. "Maybe you can help, is all. Don't kid yourself, you ain't goin' nowhere without some help yourself." Startled, she watched him walk toward the row of buildings perched on the brown hillside. Was that…thing…following her? She hiked down to the end of town. A number of the usual odd-looking transportation permutations were parked head in on the potholed blacktop stretch, which was all of a quarter-mile long. Above the town proper, where the road looped higher, were several shacks and two or three good-sized houses. She climbed onto the porch of the saloon. A gray-haired woman sat just inside the door on a folding chair smoking and watching her. Dania saw a small grocery and butcher shop, a sign that said Bugs Limited, an old franchise for ostensibly safe nanotech seed-goods, and finally, down at the end of the street a small crowd of women, men, and children, most of them wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and boots, at Henderson's Cash Feed Store. The smoking woman gave her head a long nod in that direction. "They're waiting for you," she said. Dania stepped inside and breathed in the smell of spilled beer. "How about a drink?" As her eyes adjusted she saw a beaten tin ceiling, about ten scarred old tables scattered around with a number of chairs, and some battered stools in front of an incongruously ornate carved wooden bar. The woman did not rise from her seat. "Got a lot of money, I suppose." "What do you use for money around here?" "Money. You from Colorado?" "Tennessee." "That accounts for your ignorance, I guess. Two bucks silver." Dania reached into her pouch and pulled out the coins. Silver was silver, and although you could build silver coins nanotechnologically, that still took energy. She slapped them on the bar. The woman went behind the bar and set the coins on a small yellow tray, across which arched the phrase Insta-Analyzer in old-fashioned lettering. The tray turned green. "What'll it be?" "Pint of that Sun Ale. So what's all this about a light?" The bartender became slightly more animated. "Saw it come down the street. Like a shadow, but a bright shadow, you know. Thought my eyes were goin' bad. Things got dim behind it but when it was right in front of me it was all real sharp and bright, lots of colors so I had to close my eyes. Like a mirror winking on the mountain but strong and close and over right away. It got up on the porches and when it was out of the direct sun you could see that it kind of gave off a glow. Finally it went into the feed store—" she looked up to a clattering of boots on the boardwalk and her eyes grew large. Dania turned around, pretty much knowing what she would see. The ovoid shape kind of drifted through the wall while the crowd of people filled the doorway. It coasted to a stop near Dania and she felt chilly. She took another sip of ale and watched it. A feeling of awe pervaded her. It was like Sunday morning in Salvation when they all sang the old hymns, all those old folks who truly believed, with their natural harmonies and their fervor. She could almost see the plain white interior, the age-polished wooden pews, hear the birds sing outside in the moments of rich silence. In all of her years since she had not felt this. What was it? What did it want with her? Was there anything different about her compared to all these people around her? Probably. There probably was something different about her. For one thing, she had a genetic anomaly for which she had been tracked down when younger. They put her in a clinic for six months and did painful tests on her; she remembered them as a blur of needles and questions and feeling extremely sick before they tossed her out, saying she was defective. Her father had raged that if she had done better he would have gotten more money from the guvment. And then, there was the music. It was something she lived with, like the color of her hair. It wasn't always there. But it was now, with a sharpness that brought tears to her eyes. "Damn," she said, and swallowed the rest of her ale. "What are you doing here, lady?" demanded a young woman with short black hair. She crossed her arms and stepped forward. "You brought this thing—" At that moment a boy, just older than a toddler, shrieked and laughed and ran directly toward the light. "Ben!" screamed someone, but the child darted into the light. He vanished. There was silence, save for the tones of the light, which Dania was not sure that others could hear. A woman screamed. Someone yelled "Get out of the way while I kill it!" Through all this the light sat there unperturbed and Dania spied a back door. She began to slide toward it. Then a gunshot quieted everyone. "It's her!" hollered the man who had met her at the creek. "She brought this thing to kill the only kids any of us have managed to have in fifty years! And the rest of us too!" Dania could not run for they caught her arms. A woman shot into the light twice and others yelled at her to stop. Then Dania was shoved into its center. Her life, every instant of it, like you were supposed to see just before you died. Each instant a point all equal. Something in the mixing apparatus of her brain gave them the motion everyone called time, an arrow, a direction, an intensity. Her memory returned in a rush. All she had forgotten in Crescent City, everything about superstrings and gravity waves and light, was there. She was aware of all of it in a new way, a way beyond names and theories, and she saw how she would die, alone and dreadfully lonely, and it was mixed in with all the other times. Most too fast to tell what it was. A blur of pictures and sounds and even talking like a brook might talk when you turn your back to it. A sudden brief blackness. She was certainly not lonely. So…if that sad vision was correct, she thought, coming to staring up at the ceiling, she would live past this place, anyway. The light was gone. She could not lie there, helpless in front of all these people. She got to her feet. She jammed her shaking hands into her skirt pockets, startled because the radio she had there had come alive and was playing a tinny sounding polka. Everyone was staring at her. That bright watery smell was still in the air. She fooled with her thumb and switched off the radio. A thin man pointed his pistol at her across the bar's corner. She really had no idea why, except that perhaps if one had a gun, it might often seem necessary to point it at someone. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," she said in her flattest, most authoritative voice. She put her hands on her hips and stared at him. "What did you do with Ben?" asked a little girl, her blond hair falling back as she tilted her head to look up at Dania's face. She knelt and looked in the girl's face. "I didn't do anything," she said, gently. She stood and walked toward the front door. The crowd parted. Hoping that she would not throw up from sheer nervousness, she quickly got into the closest vehicle, a low-slung solar job. It started with a reassuring purr. The bartender ran out onto the porch as Dania backed up. "Hey, that's my car! Somebody stop her!" In the rear view mirror Dania saw her waving her arms wildly but no one made a move. Dania drove like hell up the switchbacks, raising a cloud of dust. She paused for a moment at the canyon's rim. There appeared to be no one following her. Maybe they thought she'd kill them too. Maybe they were right. With a tightening of her throat as she thought of Ben, she sped west and shrieked to a stop next to the pitifully fragile Sun-O-Rama. She ran to it and started tossing things into the stolen car, but she kept dropping things. Looking back once again, she gave up, got back in the car, slammed her door, and headed off into the lowering dark of the eastern sky. The light had done something. She remembered. She remembered Crescent City. She remembered Peabody. And she remembered Houston.