A Novella in The Fundamentals Universe
The Terra Channel’s office was in Education Corporation’s downtown Austin campus. The campus had a short running trail looping its perimeter. Most mornings Ryan lapped the other joggers on the trail. His tall frame and long legs gave him the edge. At one in the morning, the trail was empty. The space dust dealer worked the trail near the interchange. He turned off the running trail for a sidewalk that cut through the heart of the empty campus. Best to avoid temptation.
Not so easy when a bag of Rainbows is lying in front of you like a mint on a hotel’s pillow. The Viking knew he was a junkie. But how? He didn’t have a record. He limited his public profile to the work he did at TTC. But here was a bag of Rainbows.
Rainbows was the perfect mix of space dust. Half-way between a rocket-ship and a hibernate, it was an amazing trip. You entered a psychedelic wonderland where the grass talked to you, and the clouds came out of the sky to be your friend. Space dust wasn’t special, it’s just phencyclidine—PCP—but mixed with a narcotic or an amphetamine.
You could go down or up with space dust; hibernate, or rocket-ship, your choice. What made space dust special was that if you went up or down you had the same experience. The problem was that once you rode the rocket-ship; you needed a hibernate to come down without getting sick. And if you went out like a bear, the pain of moving again made you crave rocket-ship. Addicts claimed they had mastered the art of managing the space dust cycle, and Ryan was a professional addict.
Marcus had graduated Education Corporation before Ryan and moved into a new apartment. Two months later, Ryan came home to find his parents naked and dead. A syringe lay between them, a knotted piece of rope around his father’s arm. He was sixteen, with no living relatives. The Delgadillo’s offered to take him in, but the State returned him to the shelters. He dropped out of school, started doing and dealing space dust, meth, heroin, anything for some credits, some tail, or an escape from his grief. Three years later, he was living under an overpass when Marcus found him; gave him a place to sleep, a job, and—with a lot of patience—got him sober.
Getting clean was difficult. He would alternate between muscle spasms that tried to break his bones, and nausea that made him wish he had no bones to break. When he wasn’t sick, or craving, he was looking for a way to sneak past Marcus’s guards. To keep him occupied, Marcus gave him assignments. He called them favors at first because that was the lingo Ryan knew. Accumulated favors turned themselves into reports featured on the Public News Networks.
The Terra Channel’s name came from a game he and Marcus would play in the apartment building’s hallways, aliens versus humans. Marcus, who stood for humanity in these titanic struggles, always won. Then Ryan would change roles, interviewing Earth’s humble hero.
“How did you get past the invaders’ defenses?” Ryan would ask.
“I was the lucky José that delivered the final blow,” Marcus would say.
As he predicted, Marcus couldn’t meet him Friday night. He walked to the bus stop alone. He had packed his leather luggage bag with Viper—his camera drone—in a shipping crate that an E-com drone picked up Thursday night. He wore khaki chinos, a white shirt, and a dark woolen jacket with his camera glasses, battery packs, memory modules, and two sandwiches in its pockets. He liked traveling light.
He boarded the crowded bus and found a seat in the middle row of the extended people mover. It left on time, rolling by rows of old wooden houses overgrown with scrub-grass and trees. Austin was one of ten Texas cities marked for repopulation by the Earth Committee for Habitation.
The Southwest United States had become an inhospitable desert in the twenty-second century, a process the Arabian Impact reversed. When the meteor struck the Arabian Peninsula, it threw tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere, cooling the overheated planet. Explorer Corporation developed airships to control the particulates and seed clouds over arid land. The program made the Southwest habitable again, but ECH controlled population centers, limiting recolonization of Texas to ten zones.
Clear of the city the bus accelerated into the night, the sound of its tires clopping over the road the only sign it had done so. He watched the Texas savanna scroll by his window; the sky filled with stars, and with nothing to do, he slept.
He woke with the bus stopped, but they were not in Alamogordo. They were at an E-Com rest station in the middle of nowhere. He caught the eye of an older woman. She had long gray hair, a square face, and brown eyes. She hid her hands under a red and yellow shawl that covered her body and most of the seat.
“What’s happened?” he asked her.
“Bad tire, or so the AI says.” The woman hunched her shoulders when she said AI.
Ryan exited to stretch his legs. With no civilization for at least a hundred miles in any direction, the sky was full of stars. The thick band of the Milky Way looked like an ink spill across a blue glow. Ryan caught his breath.
“Tires look fine,” someone on his right said.
Ryan stretched, keeping his gaze fixed on the stars. His teeth rattled with a yawn.
“Is this your first time out of the city?” The woman in the colorful shawl stood in the bus’s door. She moved carefully down the steps, holding the rail.
He extended a hand to help her off the last step. She was short, 150 centimeters at most.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“You would be the one to know,” she said, letting go of his hand. She limped toward a low-roofed building marked Cowgirls.
Ryan trotted in the opposite direction, to one marked Cowboys. After a long piss, he leaned against the north wall of the building admiring the night sky. He looked to the northwest, trying to spot the glow of the Santa Maria. He didn’t know one star from another, or anything about the constellations, but he recognized the light of the massive ship. She was the brightest star in the sky, just like the promotional videos for New Mexico promised.
The woman in the shawl limped back to the bus. He double stepped to help her. She took his arm. “So, is this your first time out of the city?”
“I don’t remember a nighttime sky like this,” he said.
The woman looked at the star-glow of the Santa Maria, made a sound in her throat. “That ship is going to visit another world,” she said.
“I hope to be aboard her.”
The woman let go of his arm, “You are from Explorer Corporation?”
The men near the bus’s tires stood, watching him and the woman.
“No,” Ryan said. “I am not.” He raised both hands, as if to surrender. The men returned to their conversation about the tires. The woman pulled herself into the bus. Ryan followed her in and sat next to her. “I don’t want to offend, but are you Native American?”
She nodded, “Comanche.”
The bus’s horn sounded. A warning it was about to leave the rest area. “I run a channel for PNN, The Terra Channel,” he said over a second horn. Passengers rushed on the bus.
“Yes! I recognize you. That Jameson fellow. I thought you looked familiar,” she said through the commotion. Her voice was strong, manly in its depth.
“You have seen my channel?”
The bus linked with a chain of cargo containers as it merged onto the busy highway.
The woman pulled a tablet from inside her shawl, flipped it on with an arthritic thumb. She tapped the screen with a fingernail of her other hand. “You did a report on the commune outside of Austin.”
Ryan remembered. Some independent groups had created communes outside the ECH approved habitation zones. The communes raised crops and livestock to feed themselves, but when the one near Austin proved successful another group, the Texas Liberation Army claimed the commune for themselves. Marcus got wind of the situation through the Governor’s office and asked him to report on it.
When Ryan arrived at the commune it had degenerated into a squalid, poorly run fiefdom. Kids played and drank from a stream that doubled as the commune’s sewer. Shelter was tents and lean-tos for the women and children, with the armed men of the TLA in wood framed houses.
Marcus used his reporting to get a bill on the statehouse floor requesting the expansion of the Austin habitation zone into the commune, but it was too late. The Earth Committee for Habitation used Ryan’s report as an excuse to send ECPO into the commune, killing hundreds. “I remember he said,” his jaw tight. “I am sorry, about the ECPO, what they did. That wasn’t our intent. We had hoped to push the TLA out by including the commune in the Austin habitation zone.”
She took his hand. “It wasn’t your fault. What PO did,” she squeezed. “The men running that commune were worse. They were little warlords, fighting with each other, making new rules up on the spot. We couldn’t fight back.”
He nodded. “the women I met looked abused, but they wouldn’t talk to me.”
“Rape was common after the TLA arrived, pedophilia too. Always a problem when a religious man gets a gun.”
“I am sorry. That so many died. The EC One reports said the TLA used women and children as human shields, but when I returned to investigate, the commune was empty.”
The woman nodded. “That’s true. Those big men with their guns were quick to hide behind us women.”
“You were there?”
She nodded, water in her eyes. “I started that commune with a group of families that needed out of the shelters.”
Ryan squeezed her hand, “I didn’t know. What is your name?”
“Semolina,” she said. “But my friends call me Sissy.”
Ryan smiled at her, she winked at him. “Sissy, why are you on this bus?”
“The Earth Committee for Habitation is meeting in Alamogordo this week. I am trying to get a by-law passed into the Habitation Charter,” she tapped open a document on her tablet, showed it to him. “It recognizes communes as protected. If a commune can support itself, then it will get the same protection and rights as the habitation zones.”
Ryan frowned. “That could mean ECPO,” he said.
She nodded, “Better than that liberation army.” She hunched her shoulders and tucked the tablet under her shawl. “When this by-law passes, then they can settle land too, create their own communes if they want. But they will have to do it right, under the rule of law, not by the force of arms. And they won’t be able to take a successful commune by force.”
Ryan’s heart swelled. “Sissy, can I interview you for The Terra Channel? A friend of mine is an aid to the Texas governor. He is why I did that story. He doesn’t know about this by-law. Maybe I can help for real this time.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, that’s so kind.”
He didn’t have Viper, and he couldn’t have assembled the camera drone in the narrow aisle of the bus, but he did have his working jacket and glasses. A combination Marcus invented last year.
A malfunction in Viper’s camera ball had caused Ryan to lose a story. As Marcus helped him repair the outdated system, they realized the PNN requirement was to carry the equipment. It said nothing about using other gear. Marcus gave him an old pair of camera glasses that government aids used for record keeping. They hacked the glasses to stream to memory units he carried in his jacket, then they sewed a network array into the liner of the jacket so he could upload video to PNN without unpacking Viper.
The glasses had micrometer cameras and microphones in the bridge and temples that he controlled with gestures and facial expressions. He winked to activate the cameras, then drew a finger along the left temple to zoom out and center Sissy in his view. They started with the basic questions of name, age, and permission to record. Two hours later, he winked off the cameras with water in his eyes. In her ninety-five years, Semolina had seen and accomplished more than most, and she had no intention of slowing. He felt inadequate next to her.
The sun was low and bright in the New Mexico sky. The realization made him nervous. The new clock on his tablet said that it was thirteen-hundred, ship’s time. His high from the interview turned to dread. He wished the cargo containers would get out of the way. They did, thirty minutes later, exiting the highway for another road.
It was ten minutes to fifteen hundred when the bus arrived in Alamogordo. Earth Channel One’s tower was a shard of glass with the blue ribbon of an elevated rail streaming from it to the San Andreas mountains in the west. He made the tower in two minutes, then spent another fifteen in a security line. He was late.