Sunday, November 21, 2004

Paranoid Apocalyptic Short Story

He was sitting in the mountain hut he called his home, his mind focused to boil water for tea, when he heard the echoes of distant battle. When he diverted his attention from the water, it ceased boiling. Up here in the Cascade Mountains, southern Washington, 60 miles upriver from Portland, such sounds of battle could mean only one thing. Only one thing, and it was not good.

Now the man opened the door of his hut a crack. He glanced out over the Columbia River. Combat, all right. He counted at least eight flying pancakes weaving in the air above the river. Homeland Security, no doubt. They were firing down into the Gorge, firing on a position just downriver from Home Valley, not as far downriver as Carson and Stevenson. A surface-to-air missile lifted out of the Gorge toward one of the pancakes, went wide of its mark, spun off harmlessly toward the Oregon side.

The man stepped outside, walked shod in deerskin amidst the pines. Down a hundred yards toward the brink of the bluff. He felt outward gently with his mind, testing. Gently: a tripwire was unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Up in the air, eight flying pancakes. Down there on Highway 14, along the Washington side of the River, a band of local boys. They had armored vehicles, they had ordnance, salted away no doubt back in the waning years of the last century. But they were outmanned and outgunned.

The man paused and pondered. He had once, several years ago, taken considerable pains to go in quietly and erase every last trace of his identity— birth records, Social Security, IRS, national identity card— erase every trace of evidence that he had ever even existed. Not only did he not want the feds to know any longer that he existed, he didn't want the feds to know that a man like him existed. That was back in the days when Homeland Security was trying to close every last loophole. Had he been an ordinary human being, he could not have squeezed through a loophole and vanished off the charts as he did.

Since then, he had lived up in the mountains, only rarely daring to venture in to civilization. Hood River, over on the Oregon side, when he must. Once to Portland. He wanted to stay very thoroughly hidden.

But now those boys down below were taking a beating from the flying pancakes overhead. Those boys down below... they no doubt belonged, like him, to the dwindling minority of Americans who refused to take an RFID chip in their hand or forehead.

The man looked up in the blue, at the flying pancakes. He furrowed his brow. One of the pancakes shuddered and bloomed into white fire.

Now he raised two fingers of his right hand, as if in a gesture of blessing. One, two, three, four, five of the pancakes crumpled like tinfoil, and dropped like burning raisins toward the dammed waters of the Columbia below. The man remembered a time, years ago, when he discovered what horrific vengeance he could wreak on a late-night mugger. The man remembered a time, shortly before he dropped out, when he was learning how he could lay his hands in healing on those who were sick. But in these quiet years alone up in the mountains, he had grown and matured. He had become a quiet pool of glacial water.

The river rose here and there, slow and majestic and white, where the downed craft struck. One of the two remaining flying pancakes turned and fled downriver. It was now beyond the range of physical sight, but it was no problem for the man to ignite its fuel tanks and bring it down.

Now the last of the pancakes turned toward the bluff... Could it have sighted him? Impossible! But... The man raised both hands and tore the craft apart, but not before it got a smart missile off in his direction.

He let the missile strike him full on, the explosion washing over him like colored tissue paper and lukewarm water, as his mind abstracted from the phenomenal world to a level where the flow of information manifested as visible wavefronts. More important than stopping the missile was tracking down and expunging every last trace of data it might be transmitting. There... and there... and there! Five hard drives from Seattle to San Mateo were instantaneously slagged, reduced to white-hot molten metal. Quick and dirty, no way to do it without leaving a trace. They would know that something out there was afoot, but they would have no way of knowing who or what. And by the time they began to figure out where, he would be long gone.

He looked back up the slope at the hut which had been his home. He felt a pang of regret: suddenly the hut was out at sea, five hundred miles off the Pacific coast, sinking, sinking. The man turned and started walking up Dog Leg Mountain, toward the old Pacific Crest trail. He walked several feet off the ground, so as to leave neither scent nor footprint. He would have to find another retreat, much deeper within the mountains.

The lava beds, perhaps, up toward Indian Heaven? Acre after acre of boxcar-sized chunks of lava. Ideal hiding place... but no, there was a colony of Paranthropus up there, he didn't dare endanger them.

For a moment, the man almost regretted having intervened. From now on he would have to live with the fear of the hunt, the fear that some night while he slept they would come and shoot a tranquilizer dart into him and take him away, take him away to be probed and tested and analyzed and ultimately used. Or if they tried to take him by day, he would see how many battalions he could take on at once, singlehanded.

He almost regretted having intervened. But there comes a day when a man's got to do what a man's got to do. He'd known that, ever since the decree of a state of national emergency came down. Ever since the Director came on TV to announce that Congress was dissolved and the President was in custody with a sudden case of "high blood pressure."

Ever since he covered his tracks and fled, rather than submit.

The man now walked on the air atop the mountain crest, under cover of the trees. Sunlight glinted and flickered through the branches. For the time being, he remained a free man.

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