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17 - The Squirrel Wood

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THE PLANE HAD GONE to ground near the sound of running water. Turner could hear it, turning in the g-web in his fever or sleep, water down stone, one of the oldest songs The plane was smart, smart as any dog, with hard-wired instincts of concealment. He felt it sway on its landing gear, some-where in the sick night, and creep forward, branches brushing and scraping against the dark canopy. The plane crept into deep green shadow and sank down on its knees, its airframe whining and creaking as it flattened itself, belly down, into loam and granite like a manta ray into sand. The mimetic polycarbon coating its wings and fuselage mottled and darkened, taking on the colors and patterns of moon-dappled stone and forest soil. Finally it was silent, and the only sound was the sound of water over a creekbed.

He came awake like a machine, eyes opening, vision plugged in, empty, remembering the red flash of Lynch’s death out beyond the fixed sights of the Smith & Wesson. The arc of the canopy above him was laced with mimetic approximations of leaves and branches Pale dawn and the sound of running water He was still wearing Oakey’s blue work shirt It smelled of sour sweat now, and he’d ripped the sleeves out the day before. The gun lay between his legs, pointing at the jet’s black joystick. The g-web was a limp tangle around his hips and shoulders. He twisted around and saw the girl, oval face and a brown dried trickle of blood beneath a nostril She was still out, sweating, her lips slightly parted, like a doll’s.

“Where are we?”

“We are fifteen meters south-southeast of the landing coordinates you provided,” the plane said. “You were unconscious again. I opted for concealment.”

He reached back and removed the interface plug from his socket, breaking his link with the plane. He gazed dully around the cockpit until he found the manual controls for the canopy. It sighed up on servos, the lacework of polycarbon leaves shifting as it moved. He got his leg over the side, looked down at his hand flat against the fuselage at the edge of the cockpit. Polycarbon reproduced the gray tones of a nearby boulder; as he watched, it began to paint a hand-sized patch the color of his palm He pulled his other leg over, the gun forgotten on the seat, and slid down into earth and long sweet grass. Then he slept again, his forehead against the grass and dreamed of running water.

When he woke, he was crawling forward on his hands and knees, through low branches heavy with dew. Finally he reached a cleaning and pitched forward, rolling over, his arms spread in what felt like surrender. High above him, something small and gray launched itself from one branch, caught an-other, swung there for an instant, then scrambled away, out of his sight.

Lie still, he heard a voice telling him, years away. Just lay out and relax and pretty soon they’ll forget you, forget you in the gray and the dawn and the dew. They’re out to feed, feed and play, and their brains can’t hold two messages, not for long. He lay there on his back, beside his brother, the nylon-stocked Winchester across his chest, breathing the smell of new brass and gun oil, the smell of their campfire still in his hair. And his brother was always right, about the squirrels. They came. They forgot the clear glyph of death spelled out below them in patched denim and blue steel; they came, racing along limbs, pausing to sniff the morning, and Turner’s.22 cracked, a limp gray body tumbling down. The others scattered, vanishing, and Turner passed the gun to his brother. Again, they waited, waited for the squirrels to forget them.

“You’re like me,” Turner said to the squirrels, bobbing up out of his dream. One of them sat up suddenly on a fat limb and looked directly at him. “I always come back.” The squirrel hopped away. “I was coming back when I ran from the Dutchman. I was coming back when I flew to Mexico. I was coming back when I killed Lynch.”

He lay there for a long time, watching the squirrels, while the woods woke and the morning warmed around him. A crow swept in, banking, braking with feathers it spread like black mechanical fingers. Checking to see if he were dead.

Turner grinned up at the crow as it flapped away.

Not yet.

He crawled back in, under the overhanging branches, and found her sitting up in the cockpit. She wore a baggy white T-shirt slashed diagonally with the MAAS-NEOTEK logo. There were lozenges of fresh red blood across the front of the shirt. Her nose was bleeding again. Bright blue eyes, dazed and disoriented, in sockets bruised yellow-black, like exotic makeup.

Young, he saw, very young.

“You’re Mitchell’s daughter,” he said, dragging the name up from the biosoft dossier. “Angela.”

“Angie,” she said, automatically “Who’re you? I’m bleeding. She held out a bloody carnation of wadded tissue.

“Turner. I was expecting your father.” Remembering the gun now, her other hand out of sight, below the edge of the cockpit. “Do you know where he is?”

“In the mesa. He thought he could talk with them, explain it Because they need him.”

“With who?” He took a step forward.

“Maas. The Board. They can’t afford to hurt him. Can they?”

“Why would they?” Another step

She dabbed at her nose with the red tissue. “Because he sent me out. Because he knew they were going to hurt me, kill me maybe. Because of the dreams.”

“The dreams?”

“Do you think they’ll hurt him?”

“No, no, they wouldn’t do that. I’m going to climb up there now. Okay?”

She nodded. He had to run his hands over the side of the fuselage to find the shallow, recessed handholds; the mimetic coating showed him leaf and lichen, twigs… And then he was up, beside her, and he saw the gun beside her sneakered foot. “But wasn’t he coming himself? I was expecting him, your father.”

“No. We never planned that. We only had the one plane. Didn’t he tell you?” She started to shake. “Didn’t he tell you anything?”

“Enough,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder, “he told us enough. It’ll be all right…” He swung his legs over, bent, moved the Smith & Wesson away from her foot, and found the interface cable. His hand still on her, he raised it, snapped it into place behind his ear.

‘Give me the procedures for erasing anything you stored in the past forty-eight hours,” he said. “I want to dump that course for Mexico City, your flight from the coast, anything…”

“There was no plan logged for Mexico City,” the voice said, direct neural input on audio.

Turner stared at the girl, rubbed his jaw.

“Where were we going?”

“Bogotá,” and the jet reeled out coordinates for the landing they hadn’t made.

She blinked at him, her lids bruised dark as the surrounding skin. “Who are you talking to?”

“The plane. Did Mitchell tell you where he thought you’d be going”“

“Japan…”

Know anyone in Bogotá? Where’s your mother?”

“No. Berlin, I think. I don’t really know her.”

He wiped the plane’s banks, dumping Conroy’s programming, what there was of it: the approach from California, identification data for the site, a flight plan that would have taken them to a strip within three hundred kilometers of Bogotá’s urban core…

Someone would find the jet eventually. He thought about the Maas orbital recon system and wondered if the stealth-and-evasion programs he’d ordered the plane to run had done any real good. He could offer the jet to Rudy for salvage, but he doubted Rudy would want to be involved. For that matter, simply showing up at the farm, with Mitchell’s daughter in tow, dragged Rudy in right up to his neck But there was nowhere else to go, not for the things he needed now.

It was a four-hour walk, along half-remembered trails and down a weed-grown, winding stretch of two-lane blacktop.

The trees were different, it seemed to him, and then he remembered how much they would have grown over the years since he’d been back. At regular intervals they passed the stumps of wooden poles that had once supported telephone wires, overgrown now with bramble and honeysuckle, the wires pulled down for fuel. Bees grazed in flowering grass at the roadside…

“Is there food where we’re going?” the girl asked, the soles of her white sneakers scuffing the weathered blacktop.

“Sure,” Turner said, “all you want.”

“What I want right now’s water.” She swiped a lank strand of brown hair back from a tanned cheek. He’d noticed she was developing a limp, and she’d started to wince each time she put her right foot down.

“What’s wrong with your leg?”

“Ankle. Something, I think when I decked the ‘light “ She grimaced, kept walking.

“We’ll rest.”

“No. I want to get there, get anywhere.”

“Rest, he said, taking her hand, leading her to the edge of the road. She made a face, but sat down beside him, her right leg stretched carefully in front of her.

“That’s a big gun,” she said. It was hot now, too hot for the parka. He’d put the shoulder rig on bareback, with the sleeveless work shirt over it, tails out and flapping. “Why’s the barrel look like that, like a cobra’s head, underneath?”

“That’s a sighting device, for night-fights.” He leaned forward to examine her ankle. It was swelling quickly now. “I don’t know how much longer you’ll want to walk on that,” he said.

“You get into a lot of fights, at night? With guns?”

“No.”

“I don’t think I understand what it is that you do

He looked up at her. I don’t always understand that myself, not lately I was expecting your father. He wanted to change companies, work for somebody else. The people he wanted to work for hired me and some other people to make sure he got out of his old contract.”

“But there wasn’t any way out of that contract,” she said. “Not legally.”

“That’s right “ Undoing the knot, unlacing the sneaker. “Not legally.”

“Oh So that’s what you do for a living?”

“Yes.” Sneaker off now, she wore no sock, the ankle swelling badly. “This is a sprain.”

‘What about the other people, then? You had more peoples back there, in that ruin? Somebody was shooting, and those flares…”

“Hard to say who was shooting,” he said, “but the flares weren’t ours. Maybe Maas security team, following you out. Did you think you got out clean?”

“I did what Chris told me,” she said. “Chris, that’s my father.”

“I know. I think I’m going to have to carry you the rest of the way.”

“But what about your friends?”

“What friends?”

“Back there, in Arizona.”

“Right. Well,” and he wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, “can’t say. Don’t really know.”

Seeing the white-out sky, flare of energy, brighter than the sun. But no pulse of electromagnetics, the plane had said The first of Rudy’s augmented dogs picked them up fifteen minutes after they started out again. Angie riding Turner’s back, arms around his shoulders, skinny thighs under his armpits, his fingers locked in front of his sternum in a double fist. She smelled like a kid from the up-line ‘burbs, some vaguely herbal hint of soap or shampoo. Thinking that, he thought about what he must smell like to her. Rudy had a shower “Oh, shit, what’s that?” Stiffening on his back, pointing.

A lean gray hound regarded them from a high clay bank at a turning in the road, its narrow head sheathed and blindered in a black hood studded with sensors. It panted, tongue lolling, and slowly swung its head from side to side.

“It’s okay,” Turner said. “Watchdog. Belongs to my friend.”

The house had grown, sprouting wings and workshops, but Rudy had never painted the peeling clapboard of the original structure. Rudy had thrown up a taut square of chainlink, since Turner’s time, fencing away his collection of vehicles, but the gate was open when they arrived, the hinges lost in morning glory and rust. The real defenses, Turner knew, were elsewhere. Four of the augmented hounds trotted after him as he trudged up the gravel drive, Angie’s head limp on his shoulder, her arms still locked around him.

Rudy was waiting on the front porch, in old white shorts and a navy T-shirt, its single pocket displaying at least nine pens of one kind or another. He looked at them and raised a green can of Dutch beer in greeting. Behind him, a blonde in a faded khaki shirt stepped out of the kitchen, a chrome spatula in her hand; her hair was clipped short, swept up and back in a cut that made Turner think of the Korean medic in Hosaka’s pod, of the pod burning, of Webber, of the white sky… He swayed there, in Rudy’s gravel driveway, legs wide to support the girl, his bare chest streaked with sweat, with dust from the mall in Arizona, and looked at Rudy and the blonde.

“We got some breakfast for you,” Rudy said. “When you came up on the dog screens, we figured you’d be hungry His tone was carefully noncommittal.

The girl groaned.

“That’s good,” Turner said. “She’s got a bum ankle, Rudy. We better look at that. Some other things I have to talk to you about, too.”

“Little young for you. I’d say,” Rudy said, and took another swig of his beer.

“Fuck off, Rudy,” the woman beside him said, “can’t you see she’s hurt? Bring her in this way,” she said to Turner, and was gone, back through the kitchen door.

“You look different,” Rudy said, peering at him, and Turner saw that he was drunk. “The same, but different.”

“It’s been a while,” Turner said, starting for the wooden steps.

“You get a face job or something?”

“Reconstruction. They had to build it back from records He climbed the steps, his lower back stabbed through with pain at every move.

“It’s not bad,” Rudy said. “I almost didn’t notice.” He belched. He was shorter than Turner, and going to fat, but they had the same brown hair, very similar features.

Turner paused, on the stair, when their eyes were level. “You still do a little bit of everything. Rudy? I need this kid scanned. I need a few other things, too.”

“Well,” his brother said, “we’ll see what we can do. We heard something last night. Maybe a sonic boom. Anything to do with you?”

“Yeah. There’s a jet up by the squirrel wood, but it’s pretty well out of sight.”

Rudy sighed “Jesus… Well, bring her in…”

Rudy’s years in the house had stripped it of most of the things that Turner might have remembered, and something in him was obscurely grateful for that. He watched the blonde crack eggs into a steel bowl, dark yellow free-range yolks;

Rudy kept his own chickens. “I’m Sally,” she said, whisking the eggs around with a fork.

“Turner.”

‘That’s all he ever calls you either,” she said. “He never has talked about you much.”

“We haven’t kept all that much in touch. Maybe I should go up now and help him.”

“You sit. Your little girl’s okay with Rudy. He’s got a good touch.”

“Even when he’s pissed?”

“Half pissed. Well, he’s not going to operate, just derm her and tape that ankle.” She crushed dry tortilla chips into a black pan, over sizzling butter, and poured the eggs on top. “What happened to your eyes, Turner? You and her…” She stirred the mixture with the chrome spatula, slopping in salsa from a plastic tub.

“G-force. Had to take off quick.”

“That how she hurt her ankle?”

“Maybe. Don’t know.”

“People after you now? After her?” Busy taking plates from the cabinet above the sink, the cheap brown laminate of the cabinet doors triggering a sudden rush of nostalgia in Turner, seeing her tanned wrists as his mother’s…

“Probably,” he said. “I don’t know what’s involved, not yet.”

“Eat some of this.” Transferring the mixture to a white plate, rummaging for a fork. “Rudy’s scared of the kind of people you might get after you.”

Taking the plate, the fork. Steam rising from the eggs. “So am I.”

“Got some clothes,” Sally said, over the sound of the shower, “friend of Rudy’s left ‘em here, ought to fit you. The shower was gravity-operated, rainwater from a roof tank, a fat white filtration unit strapped into the pipe above the spray head. Turner stuck his head out between cloudy sheets of plastic and blinked at her. “Thanks.”

“Girl’s unconscious,” she said. “Rudy thinks it’s shock, exhaustion. He says her crits are high, so he might as well run his scan now.” She left the room then, taking Turner’s fatigues and Oakey’s shirt with her.

“What is she?” Rudy extending a crumpled scroll of silvery printout.

“I don’t know how to read that,” Turner said, looking around the white room, looking for Angie. “Where is she?”

“Sleeping. Sally’s watching her.” Rudy turned and walked back, the length of the room, and Turner remembered it had been the living room once. Rudy began to shut his consoles down, the tiny pilot lights blinking out one by one. “I don’t know, man. I just don’t know. What is it, some kind of cancer?”

Turner followed him down the room, past a worktable where a micromanipulator waited beneath its dustcover Past the dusty rectangular eyes of a bank of aged monitors, one of them with a shattered screen.

“It’s all through her head,” Rudy said “Like long chains of it. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen, ever.”

Nothing

“How much do you know about biochips, Rudy?”

Rudy grunted. He seemed very sober now, but tense, agitated. He kept running his hands back through his hair “That’s what I thought. It’s some kind of… Not an implant. Graft.”

“What’s it for?”

“For? Christ Who the fuck knows? Who did it to her? Somebody you work for?”

“Her father, I think.”

“Jesus.” Rudy wiped his hand across his mouth. “It shadows like tumor, on the scans, but her crits are high enough, normal What’s she like, ordinarily?”

“Don’t know. A kid.” He shrugged.

“Fucking hell,” Rudy said. “I’m amazed she can walk.”

He opened a little lab freezer and came up with a frosted bottle of Moskovskaya “Want it out of the bottle?” he asked.

“Maybe later.”

Rudy sighed, looked at the bottle, then returned it to the fridge. “So what do you want? Anything as weird as what’s in that little girl’s head, somebody’s going to be after it soon. If they aren’t already.”

“They are,” Turner said. “I don’t know if they know she’s here.”

“Yet.” Rudy wiped his palms on his grubby white shorts.

“But they probably will, right?”

Turner nodded.

“Where you going to go, then?”

“The Sprawl.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve got money there I’ve got credit lines in four different names, no way to link ‘em back to me Because I’ve got a lot of other connections I may be able to use. And because it’s always cover, the Sprawl. So damned much of it, you know?”

“Okay,” Rudy said. “When?”

“You that worried about it, you want us right out?”

“No I mean, I don’t know It’s all pretty interesting, what’s in your girl friend’s head. I’ve got a friend in Atlanta could rent me a function analyzer, brain map, one to one; put that on her, I might start to figure out what that thing is. Might be worth something.”

“Sure If you knew where to sell it.”

“Aren’t you curious? I mean, what the hell is she? You pull her out of some military lab?” Rudy opened the white freezer door again, took out the bottle of vodka, opened it, and took a swallow.

Turner took the bottle and tilted it, letting the icy fluid splash against his teeth. He swallowed, shuddered. “It’s corporate. Big. I was supposed to get her father out, but he sent her instead Then somebody took the whole site out, looked like a baby nuke. We just made it. This far.” He handed Rudy the bottle. “Stay straight for me, Rudy You get scared, you drink too much.”

Rudy was staring at him, ignoring the bottle. “Arizona,” he said. “It was on the news. Mexico’s still kicking about it. But it wasn’t a nuke. They’ve had crews out there, all over it.

No nuke.”

“What was it?”

“They think it was a railgun They think somebody put up a hypervelocity gun in a cargo blimp and blew hell out of some derelict mall out there in the boonies. They know there was a blimp near there, and so far nobody’s found it You can rig a railgun to blow itself to plasma when it discharges. The projectile could have been damn near anything, at those velocities. About a hundred and fifty kilos of ice would do the trick.” He took the bottle, capped it, and put it down on the counter beside him. “All that land around there, it belongs to Maas, Maas Biolabs, doesn’t it? They’ve been on the news, Maas. Cooperating fully with various authorities. You bet. So that tells us where you got your little honey from, I guess.”

“Sure. But it doesn’t tell me who used the railgun Or why.”

Rudy shrugged.

“You better come see this,” Sally said from the door.

Much later, Turner sat with Sally on the front porch. The girl had lapsed, finally, into something Rudy’s EEG called sleep. Rudy was back in one of his workshops, probably with his bottle of vodka. There were fireflies around the honeysuckle vines beside the chainlink gate. Turner found that if he half closed his eyes, from his seat on the wooden porch swing, he could almost see an apple’ tree that was no longer there, a tree that had once supported a length of silvery-gray hemp rope and an ancient automobile tire. There were fire-flies then as well, and Rudy’s heels thumping a bare hard skid of earth as he pumped himself out on the swing’s arc, legs kicking, and Turner lay on his back in the grass, watching the stars..

“Tongues,” Sally said, Rudy’s woman, from the creaking rattan chair, her cigarette a red eye in the dark “Talking in the tongues.”

“What’s that?”

“What your kid was doing, upstairs. You know any French?”

“No, not much. Not without a lexicon.”

“Some of it sounded French to me.” The red amber was a short slash for an instant, when she tapped ash “When I was little, my old man took me one time to this stadium, and I saw the testifying and the speaking in tongues. It scared me I think it scared me more, today, when she started “Rudy taped the end of it, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. You know, Rudy hasn’t been doing too good.

That’s mainly why I moved back in here. I told him I wasn’t staying unless he straightened himself out, but then it got real bad, so about two weeks ago I moved back in. I was about ready to go when you showed up” The coal of the cigarette arced out over the railing and fell on the gravel that covered the yard.

“Drinking?”

“That and the stuff he cooks for himself in the lab You know, that man knows a little bit of damn near everything. He’s still got a lot of friends, around the county; I’ve heard ‘em tell stories about when you and him were kids, before you left.”

“He should have left, too,” he said.

“He hates the city,” she said. “Says it all comes in on line anyway, so why do you need to go there?”

“I went because there was nothing happening here Rudy could always find something to do. Still can, by the look of it.”

“You should’ve stayed in touch. He wanted you here when your mother was dying.”

“I was in Berlin. Couldn’t leave what I was doing.”

“I guess not. I wasn’t here then either I came later. That was a good summer. Rudy just pulled me out of this sleaze-ass club in Memphis; came in there with a bunch of country boys one night. and next day I was back here, didn’t really know why. Except he was nice to me, those days, and funny, and he gave my head a chance to slow down. He taught me to cook.” She laughed. “I liked that, except I was scared of those Goddamn chickens out back.” She stood up then and stretched, the old chair creaking, and he was aware of the length of her tanned legs, the smell and summer heat of her, close to his face.

She put her hands on his shoulders. His eyes were level with the band of brown belly where her shorts rode low, her navel a soft shadow, and remembering Allison in the white hollow room, he wanted to press his face there, taste it all. He thought she swayed slightly, but he wasn’t sure.

“Turner,” she said, “sometimes bein’ here with him, it’s like bein’ here alone.”

So he stood, rattle of the old swing chain where the eye-bolts were screwed deep in the tongue and groove of the porch roof, bolts his father might have turned forty years before, and kissed her mouth as it opened, cut loose in time by talk and the fireflies and the subliminal triggers of memory, so that it seemed to him, as he ran his palms up the warmth of her bare back, beneath the white T-shirt, that the people in his life weren’t beads strung on a wire of sequence, but clustered like quanta, so that he knew her as well as he’d known Rudy, or Allison, or Conroy, as well as he knew the girl who was Mitchell’s daughter.

“Hey,” she whispered, working her mouth free, “you come upstairs now “


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