Chapter 16

 

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.

Only that day dawns to which we are awake.

– Walden

In the dream, Spur sits in the kitchen of Diligence Cottage with Comfort, who is wearing the jade-colored pajamas. There are pies everywhere. Apple and cherry pies are stacked on the counters and across the table. Blackberry, elderberry and blueberry pies are lined up on the new oak floor against the wall with its morning glory wallpaper that Comfort ordered all the way from Providence, which is where Spur’s mother lives. Maybe. He should find out. Comfort has set fiesta pear and peach surprise pies on top of the refrigerator and laid out the rhubarb pies two to a chair. Whatever else people in Littleton say about her, everyone agrees that Comfort makes the best pumpkin pies anywhere. In the dream, the pies are her idea. She has made enough pie to last him the rest of his life. He will need it if she goes. In the dream, though, it’s not certain that she is leaving and he’s not sure he wants her to. Besides, she certainly isn’t going to catch the train back to Longwalk in those pajamas. They slide right off when you tug at them, the smooth fabric sliding lightly against her skin. In the dream she threads her way around a strawberry pie so she can kiss him. At first her kiss is like a promise. After a kiss like this, he should kick open the bedroom door and throw back the covers. But the kiss ends like a question. And the answer is no, Spur doesn’t want this woman to be unhappy anymore because of him. He doesn’t want to dry her tears or… .

Enough sleeping, son.” A sharp voice sliced through his dream. “Wake up and join the world.”

Spur blinked, then gasped in disappointment. It wasn’t fair; he didn’t get to keep Comfort or the pie. The strange room he was in seemed to be a huge bay window filled with sunlight. In it was a scatter of dark shapes, one of which was moving. A cold hand pressed against his forehead.

38.2 degrees,” said the docbot. “But then a little fever is to be expected.”

Dr. Niss?” said Spur.

I’m never happy to see repeat customers, son.” The docbot shined pinlights into Spur’s eyes. “Do you know where you are? You were a little woozy when we picked you up.”

He licked his lips, trying to recall. “The hospital?”

Allworthy Memsen’s hover. Open your mouth and say ahh.” The docbot brushed its medfinger across Spur’s tongue, leaving a waxy residue that tasted like motor oil.

The hover?” There was something important that Spur couldn’t quite remember. “But how did you get here?”

I’m on call, son,” said the docbot. “I can be anywhere there’s a bot. Although this isn’t much of an implementation. Feels two sizes too small.”

Spur realized then that this docbot was different from the one at the hospital. It only had two gripper arms and its eye was set on top of its headplate. What did he mean, repeat customers? Then the memory of the burn went roaring through his head. “Comfort!” Spur tried to sit up but the docbot pushed him back down. “Is she all right?”

Still with us. We’ve saved her for now. But we’ll talk about that after we look at your burns.”

How long have I been here? Did they stop the burn?”

The docbot reached behind Spur’s neck, untied the hospital gown and pulled it to his waist. “I kept you down all last night and the better part of today to give your grafts a chance to take.” The new set of burns ran in rough stripes across his chest. There was a splotch like a misshapen handprint on top of his shoulder. “You’ll be on pain blockers for the next few days — they can poke holes in your memory, so don’t worry if you forget how to tie your shoes.” The docbot flowed warm dermslix onto the grafts. “Dermal regeneration just 13 percent,” it muttered.

The burn, what about the burn?”

Your people have it under control, according to that little Pendragon girl. I guess there’s still some mopping up to do, but at least those kids are finally settling down. They were bouncing off the walls all last night.” He pulled the gown back up. “You’ll be fine son. Just stop playing with fire.”

Spur was already swinging his legs off the bed as he fumbled with the ties of the gown. But when he went to stand, the deck seemed to fall away beneath his feet.

Whoops.” The docbot caught him. “Another side effect of pain blockers is that they’ll tilt your sense of balance.” He eased him back onto the bed. “You’re going to want someone to help you get around for now. The docbot twisted off its medfinger and dropped it in the sterilizer. “I’ve got just the party for you. Wait here and I’ll send him in.”

The docbot had scarcely popped out of the room when the High Gregory came bursting in, pushing a wheelchair. The entire bubble wall collapsed momentarily to reveal the L’ung, who started whooping and applauding for Spur. Memsen slipped in just as the wall reformed.

You are the craziest, luckiest, bravest person I know.” The High Gregory was practically squeaking with excitement. “What were you thinking when you picked her up? We were cheering so loud we thought you could probably hear us down there. I couldn’t sleep all night, just thinking about it. Did you hear the L’ung just now? I taught them to clap hands for you. Here, have a seat.”

Spur allowed Memsen and the High Gregory to help him into the chair, although he was certain they were going to drop him. He shut his eyes, counted to three and when he opened them again the cabin had stopped chasing its tail. “How do you know what I did?”

We watched,” said Memsen. “From the moment you stepped off the ramp, our spybugs were on you. The High Gregory is right. We were very moved.”

You watched?” He felt his cheeks flush. “I could’ve been killed.”

Watch is all we’re supposed to do,” said Memsen, “according to your covenant.”

But Memsen said we couldn’t just leave you after you jumped into the water with her,” said the High Gregory. “So we mowed down some forest to get to you, pulled the two of you out of the creek and qiced Dr. Niss into a bot that Betty Twosalt made.” He wheeled Spur toward the hull so he could see the view. “She’s good. She won a prize for her bots once.”

And Comfort is all right?” Spur glanced back over his shoulder at Memsen. “That’s what Dr. Niss said.”

Saved,” said Memsen, clicking her rings together. “We were able to save her.”

The High Gregory parked the wheelchair as near to the hull as he could get, and set the brake. He made the deck transparent too, so they could see more of the valley. “It’s huge, Spur,” he said, gesturing through the hull at the remains of the burn. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

They were passing over Mercy’s Creek headed for the Joerlys, although he scarcely recognized the land beneath them as he surveyed the damage. The fires Comfort had started must have been sucked by the indraft back toward the burn as Spur had hoped, creating a backfired barrier to its progress. The backfire and the head of the burn must have met somewhere just east of the Joerlys. Comfort’s house, barn and all the sheds had burned to their foundations. Farther to the west, the Millisap and Ezzat farmsteads were also obliterated. And more than half of Lamana Ridge was a wasteland of blackened spikes rising out of gray ash. Wisps of white smoke drifted across the ravaged land like the ghosts of dead trees. But dispersed through the devastation were inexplicable clumps of unscathed forest, mostly deciduous hardwood. Spur was relieved to see a blue-green crown of forest to the north along the top of the ridge, where the Corps must have beaten the burn back.

What about the east?” said Spur. “Where did they stop it?”

But the hover was already turning and his view shifted, first south, where he could see the steeple of the communion hall on the Commons then southeast where CR22 sliced a thin line through intact forest. The High Gregory was watching him, his yellow eyes alight with anticipation.

What?” said Spur, irked to be putting on a show for this fidgety upsider. “What are you staring at?”

You,” said the High Gregory. “There’s so much luck running in your family, Spur. You know we tried to pick your father up after we got you, but he wouldn’t come, even though we told him you were hurt.”

He was still there? That old idiot. Is he all right?”

He’s fine.” The High Gregory patted Spur’s hand. “He said he wasn’t going to give his farm up without a fight. He had all your hoses out. He had this great line — I can’t remember it exactly.” He looked to Memsen for help. “Something about spitting?”

Memsen waited as a bench began to form from the deck. “Your father said that if the pump gave out, he’d spit at the burn until his mouth went dry.”

Spur had raised himself out of the wheelchair, craning to see as the farm swung into view. The big house, the barns, the cottage were all untouched. But the orchards… .

He started his own backfire.” Spur sank back onto the seat. Over half the trees were gone: the Macintosh and GoReds and Pippins were charred skeletons. But at least Cape had saved the Alumars and the Huangs and the Galas. And GiGo’s trees by the cottage, all those foolish Macouns.

The wind had changed direction.” Memsen sat on the bench facing Spur. “When we arrived, he had just knocked a hole in the gas tank of your truck and said he couldn’t stop to talk. He was going drive through his orchard and then set the backfire. We thought it seemed dangerous so we put spybugs on him. But he knew exactly what he was about.” She showed Spur her teeth. “He’s a brave man.”

Yes,” mused Spur, although he wondered if that were true. Maybe his father just loved his apples more than he loved his life. Spur felt the hover accelerate then and the ground below began to race by. They shot over the Commons and headed west in the direction of Longwalk.

We watched all night,” said the High Gregory, “just like your father told us. Memsen made Penny let everyone have a turn talking to Commander Adoula on the tell. The fire was so awesome in the dark. We flew through it again and again.”

The High Gregory’s enthusiasm continued to annoy Spur.

Three farmsteads were gone and his own orchards decimated, but this boy thought he was having an adventure. “You didn’t offer to help? You could’ve dropped splash on the burn, maybe diverted it from the houses.”

We did offer,” said Memsen. “We were told that upsiders are allowed to render assistance in the deep forest where only firefighters can see us, but not in plain sight of a village or town.”

Memsen is in trouble for landing the hover on the Commons.” The High Gregory settled beside her on the bench. “We haven’t even told anyone yet about what we did for you by the creek.”

So.” Memsen held out her hand to him, fingers outspread. “We’ve been called back to Kenning to answer for our actions.”

Really?” Spur felt relieved but also vaguely disappointed. “When will you go?”

Now, actually.” Her rings glittered in the sunlight. “We asked Dr. Niss to wake you so we could say goodbye.”

But who will take Comfort and me to the hospital?”

We’ll be in Longwalk in a few moments. There’s a hospital in Benevolence Park Number 2.” Her fingers closed into a fist. “But Comfort will be coming with us.”

What?” Despite himself, Spur lurched out of the wheelchair. He tottered, the cabin spun, and the next thing he knew both Memsen and the High Gregory were easing him back down.

Why?” He took a deep breath. “She can’t.”

She can’t very well stay in Littleton,” said the High Gregory. “Her farm is destroyed. You’re going to have to tell everyone who started the burn.”

Am I?” He considered whether he would lie to protect her. After all, he had lied for her brother. “She’s told you she wants to do this? Let me talk to her.”

That’s not possible.” Memsen pinched the air.

Why not?”

Do you want to come with us, Spur?” said the High Gregory. “You could, you know.”

No.” He wheeled himself backward, horrified at the idea. “Why would I want to do that? My home is in Littleton. I’m a farmer.”

Then stop asking questions,” said Memsen impatiently. “As a citizen of the Transcendent State you’re under a consensual cultural quarantine. We’ve just been reminded of that quite forcefully. There’s nothing more we can say to you.”

I don’t believe this.” Spur heard himself shouting. “You’ve done something to her and you’re afraid to tell me. What is it?”

Memsen hesitated, and Spur heard the low, repetitive pa-pa-pa-ptt that he had decided she made when she was consulting her predecessors. “If you insist, we can make it simple for you.” Memsen thrust her face close to his. “Comfort died,” she said harshly. “Tell that to everyone in your -village. She was horribly burned and she died.”

Spur recoiled from her. “But you said you saved her. Dr. Niss… .”

Dr. Niss can show you the body, if you care to see it.” She straightened. “So.”

Goodbye, Spur,” said the High Gregory. “Can we help you back onto the bed?”

Beneath them Spur could see the outskirts of Longwalk. Abruptly the hull of the hover turned opaque and the ceiling of the cabin began to glow. Spur knew from watching hovers land from the window of his hospital room that they camouflaged themselves on the final approach over a city.

No, wait.” Spur was desperate to keep the upsiders talking. “You said she was going with you. I definitely heard that. You said she was saved. Is she… this is like the other Memsens that you told me about, isn’t it? The ones that are saved in you?”

This is a totally inappropriate conversation.” Memsen pinched the air with both hands. “We’ll have to ask Dr. Niss to strike it from your memory.”

He can do that?”

Sure,” said the High Gregory. “We do it all the time. But he has to replace it with some fake memory. You’ll have to tell him what you want. And if you should ever come across anything that challenges the replacement memory, you could get… .”

Spur held up his hand to silence him. “But it’s true what

I just said?”

Memsen snorted in disgust and turned to leave.

She can’t admit anything.” The High Gregory grasped her hand to restrain her. He held it to his chest. “But yes.”

Spur was gripping the push rims of his wheelchair so hard that his hands ached. “So nobody dies on the upside?”

No, no. Everybody dies. It’s just that some of us choose to be saved to a shell afterward. Even the saved admit it’s not the same as being alive. I haven’t made my mind up about all that yet, but I’m only twelve standard. My birthday is next week, I wish you could be there.”

What will happen to Comfort in this shell?”

She’s going to have to adjust. She didn’t expect to be saved, of course, probably didn’t even know it was possible, so when they activate her, she’ll be disoriented. She’ll need some kind of counseling. We have some pretty good soulmasons on Kenning. And they can send for her brother; he’ll want to help.”

Stop it! This is cruel.” Memsen yanked his hand down. “We have to go right now.”

Why?” said the High Gregory plaintively. “He’s not going to remember any of this.”

Vic was saved?” Even though he was still safe in the wheelchair, he felt as if he were falling.

All the pukpuk martyrs were.” The High Gregory tried to shake his hand loose from Memsen, but she wouldn’t let him go. “That was why they agreed to sacrifice themselves.”

Enough.” Memsen started to drag him from the cabin. “We’re sorry, Spur. You’re a decent man. Go back to your -cottage and your apples and forget about us.”

Goodbye, Spur,” called the High Gregory as they popped through the bulkhead. “Good luck.”

As the bulkhead shivered with their passing, he felt a fierce and troubling desire burn his soul. Some part of him did want to go with them, to be with Comfort and Vic on the upside and see the wonders that Chairman Winter had forbidden the citizens of the Transcendent State. He could do it; he knew he could. After all, everyone in Littleton seemed to think he was leaving.

But then who would help Cape bring in the harvest?

Spur wasn’t sure how long he sat alone in the wheelchair with a thousand thoughts buzzing in his head. The upsiders had just blown up his world and he was trying desperately to piece it back together. Except what was the point? In a little while he wasn’t going to be worrying anymore about Comfort and Vic and shells and being saved. Maybe that was for the best; it was all too complicated. Just like the Chairman had said. Spur thought he’d be happier thinking about apples and baseball and maybe kissing Melody Velez. He was ready to forget.

He realized that the hover had gone completely still. There was no vibration from the hull skimming through the air, no muffled laughter from the L’ung. He watched the hospital equipment melt into the deck. Then all the bulkheads popped and he could see the entire bay of the hover. It was empty except for his wheelchair, a gurney with Comfort’s shroud-covered body and the docbot, which rolled up to him.

So you’re going to make me forget all this?” said Spur bitterly. “All the secrets of the upside?”

If that’s what you want.”

Spur shivered. “I have a choice?”

I’m just the doctor, son. I can offer treatment but you have to accept it. For example, you chose not to tell me how you got burned that first time.” The docbot rolled behind the wheelchair. “That pretty much wrecked everything I was trying to accomplish with the conciliation sim.”

Spur turned around to look at it. “You knew all along?”

The docbot locked into the back of the wheelchair. “I wouldn’t be much of a doctor if I couldn’t tell when patients were lying to me.” It started pushing Spur toward the hatch.

But you work for the Chairman.” Spur didn’t know if he wanted the responsibility for making this decision.

I take Jack Winter’s money,” said the docbot. “I don’t take his advice when it comes to medical or spiritual practice.”

But what if I tell people that Comfort and Vic are saved and that upsiders get to go on after they die?”

Then they’ll know.”

Spur tried to imagine keeping the upsiders’ immortality a secret for the rest of his days. He tried to imagine what would happen to the Transcendent State if he told what he knew. His mouth went as dry as flour. He was just a farmer, he told himself; he didn’t have that good an imagination. “You’re saying that I don’t have to have my memory of all this erased?”

Goodness, no. Unless you’d rather forget about me.”

As they passed Comfort’s body, Spur said, “Stop a minute.”

He reached out and touched the shroud. He expected it to be some strange upsider fabric but it was just a simple cotton sheet. “They knew that I could choose to remember, didn’t they? Memsen and the High Gregory were playing me to the very end.”

Son,” said Dr. Niss, “the High Gregory is just a boy and nobody in the Thousand Worlds knows what the Allworthy knows.”

But Spur had stopped listening. He rubbed the shroud between his thumb and forefinger, thinking about how he and the Joerlys used to make up adventures in the ruins along Mercy’s Creek when they were children. Often as not one of them would achieve some glorious death as part of the game. The explorer would boldly drink from the poisoned cup to free her comrades, the pirate captain would be run through defending his treasure, the queen of skantlings would throw down her heartstone rather than betray the castle. And then he or Vic or Comfort would stumble dramatically to the forest floor and sprawl there, cheek pressed against leaf litter, as still as scattered stones. The others would pause briefly over the body and then dash into the woods, so that the fallen hero could be reincarnated and the game could go on.

I want to go home,” he said, at last.