by David Walls-Kaufman
This story went into the “Overmorrow” sci-fi anthology in 2020. I developed it from chapter seven in “Robot, Archangel”, and liked it so much that I included it in the final version of the novel.DAVID
“Do you want to fly to dinner, Jason?”
The boy couldn’t believe the luck. “Sure! Hell, yeah!”
“Alright. Take it easy with the tough language,” Aras warned.
“Where are we going? Can I pick?”
Ginger came around the corner from the expansive, gallery-white living room with a deviant smirk on her mouth for her teenage son. “Why are you editing his language?” she said to Aras, her husband. She goosed her son’s bony ribs. He clinched to escape her thumb. “Let this growing boy cuss all he wants! Right?”
Jason tittered at his mom’s patronizing. “Yeah.”
“Don’t encourage ugly behavior,” Aras told his wife.
“Oh, please. Screw ugly. Right, buddy?” She made to goose Jason again.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“‘Ey! I’m on your side! Gen Fed, baby!”
“So, where are we going?” Jason asked his father.
Ginger wondered why she tried so hard with this kid. No matter what she did or said, he always seemed to look up to his father.
“Luigi’s. It’s sunset. Sit outdoors.” Aras glanced invitingly at his wife. The roof deck had been one of their date spots since before Jason was born.
“Can we leave after I finish my game?”
Ginger hooked her arm over her son’s neck and smooched him on the cheek. “You bet. And don’t forget to wash up. You reek.”
The family gathered at the lip of the living room over a clear evening rich with scarlet slashes in the sky. Jason had his learner’s permit, and leaned out awkwardly over the lip of the living room floor. “Wha-hoo!” Jason hollered as they dropped. He was copying verbatim the move his father used quite a bit. Aras, uneasy in the virtual passenger seat, said, “Alright. Not too fast. Not too much drop. . . . ”
Ginger razzed her husband. “You hilarious prude!” Wasn’t she the one always trying to give Jason more slack?
“Dad! You do this all the time!”
“And I’ve been flying a lot longer.”
“Dad. Tech won’t let anything happen, jeez.”
“You want me to upchuck down your neck?”
The family flew out into the twilight, climbing unevenly back around the girth of the building toward the golden onion domes of Center City half a city away. Jason enjoyed the flight even more since he was the one doing it, and lowered them down to Luigi’s Tuscan where they got a stone table under the hanging lights.
“So, Dad,” Jason said, “some of the kids are talking about there being a secret plan to wipe out the waste. Is that true?”
Ginger grinned around a bite of pizza.
“Uh. Who’s talking that up?” Aras asked.
“There’s been talk like that for four hundred years,” Ginger said.
“Some of the kids. Like Felix. He says he has a robot idea to do it and do the environmental clean up. He also says he has a way to glimpse food into our stomachs so we don’t have to eat any more. Isn’t that a cool idea?”
Aras shook his head impatiently. “So guys, I have a surprise.”
“That idea was dropped long ago because people enjoy eating,” Ginger said to her son. “Tell Felix I said he’s stupid.”
Aras found it interesting that even school kids were thinking about the issue. But then, why wouldn’t they? “So—guys, we’re going on vacation.”
“Yeah!” Jason barked. “Where to?”
“Buffalo Safari,” Aras said.
“Yeah, baby!” Jason crowed. “When are we leaving?”
“I’m assuming this is okay with you?” Aras asked Ginger. Ginger could have glimpsed up any request he made for leave or for safari or anything. But if she ever did she would only have spoiled the surprise. “We’ll leave tonight, if it’s okay.”
Ginger shrugged, touched by the effort. “Cool with me.”
“Yeah! Buffalo Safari! Can I invite any of the guys?”
The family rose up from Luigi’s and Jason omitted the dive since they had just finished eating. He could have had Tech buffer it but he didn’t want to because it might aggravate his dad. They soared west over the great featureless expanse of territory outside of the metropolis. Pittsburgh came up on the right. Chicago would be next. Ginger grew annoyed at how long the flight was taking since Jason could not fly as fast as his father was able. And the unevenness.
“Baby, let your dad or me take over,” she said to Jason.
“He’s got it. He’s got it,” Aras responded gently. He gave her a look to be more patient. She rolled her eyes at him.
Jason got better, but there was only unending dark below. “Are we there yet?” Ginger carped. Finally, Aras told Jason to descend, into the massed twilight. The grassy prairie came abruptly into focus like a threat, and they gently landed beside bundles of equipment that Tech had pre-stationed. Jason’s nose immediately caught the sharp, damp, woolly odor of the great herd nearby. He heard grunts and quiet squeaks of grass ripped up by blunt teeth. He smelled the loamy black earth. He ordered Tech to raise his retinal sensitivity. The herd was just thirty yards away! Aras, grinning ear to ear, hand-signaled Jason and Ginger to be sure to stay quiet. Tech would not let them be hurt, but it was so much more fun and raw to keep Tech to a minimum. “Oh, my God!” Ginger whispered the words to Aras.
Aras signaled them to follow. They tiptoed right into the massive disheveled creatures with towering shaggy humps. Jason saw their eyes in the infrared enabling. Buffalo safari was his new favorite thing. Smells and memories from the two other trips tumbled back, but they were knocked aside by the new sounds and sensations of being in with the herd. The Ngorongnoro was so cool—but bison. Their smell. The dust, the sweated mounds of wool—his Dad was the greatest.
Jason made out fleet shapes of wolves! The herd had not sensed them yet. Jason jabbed his finger to show his father.
Ginger felt a wave of fondness for Aras. She liked him trying this way. But recently, something had been gnawing at her. Everyone had always said they were crazy. But they were having Jason. They hadn’t cared about convention. They had felt in their gut that a child needed both parents, although that was not the belief widely held in their society. But this lurking question had been stalking. Now, next to the godlike primitiveness of these beasts, the emotion leaned out of hiding just enough. Milton Aras was hunky, he dressed well, he was relevant, he had the rarest thing in the world—a job that wasn’t fake. He was Deputy Chief of Security on his way to being Chief one day. The sinecure bureaucrats in a pointless bureaucracy looked up to him because he cared, he actually did things. . . . But, there it was. Ginger watched him grin at her for this crazy shared thrill. This was incredible, but he had been oblivious to her doubts, amazingly. She thought about how Tech scanned the minds of these beasts and etched out any realization about her and her family intruding on their space. It pushed their minds to keep them from stepping on one of them. Ginger waved to Aras flirtingly. She didn’t like that he was a stickler for the rules. She could have glimpsed up the Rules of the Great Wichita Game Preserve for herself, or Tech would just block her if she did something against the rules. But she didn’t give a rat’s ass. The reckless boredom for her marriage made her want to touch a buffalo. Boredom could do that; like a saline drip of grey poison. She reached up for the mane of the bull towering next to her, and pouted naughtily at her husband, who gawked at her. Her fingers disappeared into the stiff carpet of coarse hair that echoed the warmth of her skin. Ginger yanked down hard as if she intended to climb up and ride the thing. The brute swung his massive black head around, his weak eye trying to pierce the dark. His huge wet nostrils snuffled wet and cool against her knee, then he went back to foraging. Ginger marveled at the massed muscular energy pent up under the wall of hide.
Aras thought, “What the hell!” Tech seemed to shave hairs in these encounters sometimes, as if to keep people on their toes. He and Jason shared a sober glance over how crazy mom could be. Ginger slapped the bull dismissively. Tech blocked the sensation, or made it into a horsefly, and the beast moved on.
Aras squatted Indian style right there among the unbreakable legs. He snickered over at Jason and Ginger at the craziness. Ginger lay all the way back on the grass, suddenly feeling every mile of the trip. Or maybe that internal release when the toxin from the boil pops out. She sensed her son and husband close. Her thoughts traveled back to this new feeling of finally realizing what had been in her mind. A shadow leaned over her. An enormous hoof came down beside her face. She touched it, the hard, cornified dermis. She edged off toward sleep, aware of the tiny islands of space carved out around herself, her son, and her man.
Ginger started when Aras whispered in her ear to wake her.
The herd was a mass beyond Jason, tails pricking.
Aras indicated the canvas box tent he had already set up. Aras had Tech start the fire. A Dutch oven slowly cooked a stew of bacon and beans. Aras had let his family sleep while the problems from work nosed into his mind again. There really had been no good options with the paroles for four hundred years. Like the plan for letting them rot where they fell if they killed them all and let the immune system of the planet clear up the mess in it’s own time. The worry here was the concentrated release of toxins built up from coal smoke, dung smoke, dust and whatever was left in the soil from ancient times that would be re-introduced to the environment. Proles ate their rats and their rats ate them. All those billions. A nonstop cycle of concentrated toxicity for half a melenium. The prole revenge would be their own die-off. Aras unhooked the heavy pot from the iron cross rail, pushing away the thought. “Well, how was all that for starters?” he asked his wife and son, licking stew off his thumb.
Jason shrugged, grinning noncommittally. “I’m going to ride one.”
“Are you really, baby?” Ginger said, smiling.
Ginger directed Tech to uncork the wine. It emerged with a crisp snap. “Let me ask you something,” Ginger asked Jason. She took a seat in a rickety camp chair. “Don’t you think that eating is fun? And you’d like to keep doing it rather than be injected with your pizza by Tech?”
“Pizza was earlier, Mom,” Jason said. “This is stew. And it wasn’t my idea! And!—you can’t have Tech inject you with food!”
Jason’s tone reminded Ginger of some old movie she couldn’t remember. She poured two glasses of wine to the top. Tech made the best damn wine. “Be sure and tell Felix I said he’s stupid.” Every bottle flawless. And it knew exactly what you loved. Her mouth watered. She took a hefty draught. The full flavor cocooned splendidly around her tongue. Bullseye. This was going to be a two bottle night. She wouldn’t finish both, but she was going to talk to Millie about what had come up, before it turned.
“All the guys think it’s a good idea, Mom!”
“God, you’re at that stupid age,” she said with tired affection.
“We’re not stupid, Mom. You don’t have ideas!”
“I know I don’t want to be injected with pizza.”
“I told you that’s impossible!”
Aras felt his mind towing him back to the slums. Why? How many millions of unmarked square miles did he have around him now? He watched Ginger refill her glass. Was she going to hit it hard tonight? What was going on with her? Should I look it up? He decided he would. . . . Oh. Oh, yeah? Ginger looked over guiltily at him. He pursed his lips at her and nodded in understanding. What did she expect? After sixteen years. Ginger frowned at him in remorse, and took another swig. Aras glimpsed in to see if she wanted a divorce. She didn’t.
“You want to go for a walk?” he asked her gently.
Jason knew something was up. “Are you guys going for sex?”
“No. You little idiot,” Ginger snapped. “And don’t look!”
“I’m not!” Jason didn’t want to look. He sensed already his father had blocked him, just in case. Tech read every thought in order to guard the State. “I’m fifteen!”
“It’s parent stuff,” Aras assured him.
“Are you guys getting a divorce?” Jason immediately regretted asking as soon as he let the question go. But he realized he never would have asked if he had thought it was true. He was just being catty. “Don’t have sex! Wolves can smell it!” He had no idea if this was true, but the worry occurred to him.
Ginger and Aras walked out from the box tent. He laced his fingers inside her’s. He was surprised she was this far along with this idea. He felt deceived, and not. Her shape next to him felt strange, their shoes in the grass. The herd was an indeterminate distance away against the bottom of the night.
“I don’t know why I felt it,” Ginger said absently. “It’s not anything you did.”
“Baby, by any measure—we have a great marriage,” he said. They walked on. “You might as well speak your mind,” Aras offered. “We’re about the only young married couple we know. Nobody’s going to help us.” An abrupt hill loomed ahead like a buffalo hump against the pricks of stars along the horizon. They headed toward it like a sacred relic from the Indians six centuries ago.
Now, Ginger felt stupid. He is a good man! You can’t ask for better. “Are you looking?” she asked him, smiling shyly. Their boots met the rocky bottom of the hill. Lumps of grass mounted steeply to the top. A coyote popped up above and dashed toward the summit with ears pinned.
“No. I’m waiting for you.”
Ginger had said nothing by the time they reached the top. Aras took both her hands while Ginger stared at the ground. “We got married for our son. He needs us.” He tried to find her eyes. Ginger would not look up. The breeze plucked a strand of hair over her face that she turned away from. “We change things up,” he said. “You know we do. If you’re bored then you know it’s only psychological. There’s no end to what we can do and how we can change things up. If you’re trapped it’s in your own head.” He shook her hands to let her know he meant it, that he was with her, that he would do whatever she needed. “If you want to take some time off, feel free. But you know this is a psychological inevitability that people run into with each other. And I don’t think you should wipe it. Keep it. It’s real. Don’t make it easy on yourself. That’s not living. People do it too much.” He rubbed his thumb over her fingers. “Why don’t you start your bronzing again? Get refreshed.”
They could see the dark of the herd from above. Ginger did not make a sound as they looked off. Once, she moved another strand of hair.
Next morning, Jason opened his eyes to the sun blindingly gilding each grass blade as if they were made of metal. He stayed in his sleeping bag listening to his old man make breakfast. He smelled the eggs popping in the skillet. Jason stood and stretched and saw the herd far off. He asked Tech if there were some edible Indian fruit or plant and it showed him a few tiny strawberry-like things that the herd had missed. He added them to the pancakes and they tasted delightfully of licorice.
“I think Felix still likes Cassie,” Jason said while eating, “but she thinks she’s better than everybody else.”
“Hey,” Ginger said. “Our family on both sides were editors and publishers of The New York Times. This world would never be what it is without the press. Remember that. Tell Cassie that. Your family is as important as her’s.”
“I know. Cassie is conceited. Just because her family had three Chancellors.”
“No way, baby. We made this world.”
Aras watched his wife and son. “Ready to find the herd?”
“I might go off on my own,” Jason said. “Can we hunt, Dad?”
“Our permit covers it. You want some steaks?”
“I might. I’ll have Tech handle the mess. But it might be cool. I could get like a buffalo skull, and a big ass buffalo robe!”
Aras had hunted twice before. He remembered the time Jason saw the open water buffalo with fly-blown bowels, killed by a lion pride lazing nearby. Hunting was nasty business, but didn’t people need to know where their food came from? Civilization had been jolted when they learned food could not be made from inert materials. They had wanted not to kill so desperately. At least not animals. They had been sobered by the discovery that nothing ate if it didn’t kill something. Now, people didn’t care. Strange, how different ideas came and went.
Jason glimpsed Tech and had himself lifted up. Ten feet off the ground he saw the dark cloud stretching to the horizon. Jason saw two bald eagles way up, slicing though invisible drafts. He went up to them. Tech, how many buffalo are in this herd?
This is the Wichita River Herd. It has 2,503,256 members in population.
Jason did want to ride one.
He swooped down and floated, looking for the biggest bull. He found an old warrior with a particularly thick, pitted cape. Jason came in tentatively and straddled the broad back just like a rodeo cowboy. A dull rimmed eye looked back and the black tongue stuck out. The bull stopped dead at the unknown sensation. Jason felt the muscles gird. The beast exploded. Tech read the neurological telegraphing and appropriately confined the muscle firing in real time to keep Jason safely aboard. Jason clenched deep into the cape and directed Tech to lay off 5% more. Jason felt himself losing it and Tech rescued him by instantly restricting the jump.
“Whoa! Whoa!” Jason laughed crazily. “This is wild!” The bull jumped and whirled furiously, tossing his head and legs. Jason raised Tech control by 20% because his arms were suddenly turning to noodles.
The other buffalo panicked away from the bull wondering what was the matter with him. They did not see Jason riding him because Tech actively wiped his image from their brains so they would not stampede.
Then, suddenly, Jason felt under him the unchecked mania of the animal. He was off—upside down, high up. “Tech!” Up he went, in reverse. How could Tech have let this happen? “TECH!” Jason screamed, as he dropped. Flashing hooves slashed like combine blades. He bounced off the ground and one walloped him, sending him sideways. He tumbled in a ball, dust and grass in his teeth. His miraculous appearance romped the cows and bulls away from him. Jason could tell he was broken up. A dark wall of shaggy heads and bovine eyes enveloped him.
“Oh, my God. Tech! Tech, get me out of here!”
Nothing. No comment, no action.
—I could die here!
Jason couldn’t use his right arm. He leaned his weight and staggered up. The old warrior slashed menacingly with his horns, one of them broken like a beer bottle. “Tech! Tech! Please, somebody! Mom!” The old warrior lowed, slop falling from his black mouth. He lowered his rack and charged. Jason dove. The warrior missed, hooking his snout and yellow teeth in passing. He wheeled on Jason again. Jason limped away as best he could. Luckily, the wall of bison gave. But more were beyond them. Jason flailed and cried out, and the bison kept giving ground.
What if they stop?
“Yah! Yah! Let me out!”
God. His arm had snapped in two places.
“Fix my arm, Tech! . . . Tech! Please!”
The enormous bull followed him out of the herd, his mouth open to take Jason’s scent. Jason squeezed together all his strength to get away.
Ginger and Aras ran from camp. The herd shouldered together curiously with the old warrior. Ginger grabbed her son around his slender shoulders, panicked.
“Tech went out! It’s not helping me!”
Aras grabbed his wife and son. “C’mon. Back up!” He hurried them ahead. “Tech! Tech! . . . We need help!”
“It isn’t on?” Ginger said. “What’s wrong with it?”
The hill stood forever two hundred yards off. The herd began trotting. They lowed in unison. The hard earth drummed from hooves. Aras made the bottom of the hill and pushed his little family ahead of him. The loose grass and earth gave, and Jason’s arm hung limp, and the herd of massive skulls closed in behind, led by the bull. Ginger didn’t want things to end this way. Aras had been so good. Aras pushed his family higher, hoping. “Tech! . . . Where the hell are you?!” The angry bull glared with a white-rimmed eye, unwilling to climb at first. Then he lunged, cape dropping dust, on his way up, eyes insane. He reached the top and slashed so fast that his horns disappeared. He tossed Aras, Ginger and Jason in the air one at a time like snatches of turf. Scattering the enemy, he turned and carefully descended the hill.
Aras huddled over his battered family. Jason groaned, Ginger wept, her face and chest abraded from rocks. The Tech came back on an hour later. What the hell happened? Tech never answered. The family stayed another two days, telling people back home what happened, testing the Tech. Ginger refused to let go of her men. Aras would go back to the camp for food. Finally, they flew down slowly from the hill, flying low over the ground in case of another failure. Aras wondered now if maybe the Security Council would let him do his investigation.