NEW FICTION: OR WE WILL ALL HANG SEPARATELY by Nancy Jane Moore

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2010

This month’s fiction from Nancy Jane Moore takes us back to a post-collapse America, but this isn’t your average post-apocalyptic story. “Or We Will Hang Separately” brings together a bunch of favourite Futurismic themes – post-capitalist lifestyles, changes in climate (environmental, political and social), and resilient communities – and dares to dream that the end of an era doesn’t have to be the end of the line, that our technology can rebuild as well as destroy. Quiet, powerful and optimistic, this is where determined people work together to transcend a difficult future. Enjoy!

Or We Will All Hang Separately

By Nancy Jane Moore

Marty Shendo knew both the truck and the roads best, so she drove. Ooljee Yzaguirre rode shotgun – literally: She kept a rifle in her lap. Tomas Perez sat in the back, his gun also in easy reach. Within most communities – or at least the ones Ooljee knew – no one went armed. Traveling between them, everyone did.

The dust blowing in the open windows made it difficult to talk. Both Marty and Ooljee had covered their mouths and noses with kerchiefs, like old fashioned bandits, and Tomas had pulled his cap down over his face to block the worst of it. It was too hot to close the windows.

Ooljee stared out at the parched southern New Mexico landscape. Even before the extended droughts brought on by climate change, this had been harsh country to live in. Now, though, most people had given up trying to make a living out here. Even goats, who can survive on land incompatible with any other domesticated animal, need water.

She wondered what they would find up at Los Alamos — the enclave of scientists they were hoping for or just another group of people trying to survive in a world in which few things worked any more. Or maybe bandits, or, even worse, nothing at all. It was a long way to travel if it turned out to be nothing, especially in a jerry-rigged solar-powered truck that hit its high of 25 miles per hour only on downhill stretches.

“Please don’t let it be for nothing,” Ooljee thought. It might have been a prayer, if she’d known of any gods to pray to.

#

Their trip had started in the high desert country of Texas, at a meeting of the Fort Davis/McDonald Observatory communities. Marty had been there because she had tagged along with the regular delivery person from the Las Cruces Dairy Co-op to interview older people in the high desert country. The Rio Grande and some artesian wells had kept the dairy farmers in Las Cruces going, and they delivered to a wide swath of country from Silver City in the west to Ruidoso in the north, and over into the western corner of Texas, skirting El Paso/Juarez.

The idea that Los Alamos hadn’t disappeared in the general collapse had come from outer space — more specifically, from the people living on the Amity Space Station. Amity had noticed a significant heat signature from the Los Alamos area, enough to indicate not just a human presence, but a technological one. They’d tried to make contact, with no result.

“They aren’t sure why they never noticed it before,” Matt Garcia told the community. Matt was their oldest resident – getting close to eighty now – and their unofficial leader. “It could be as simple as equipment glitch. Their computers are as old as ours. They lost touch with Los Alamos about twenty-five years ago, same as we did. At the time, we speculated that a gang of bandits blew through there – that happened a lot in the Twenties – but maybe the folks just holed up. Or literally went underground. And now they feel safe enough to come out.”

“But not safe enough to contact anyone,” someone said.

“Or maybe it’s some new people entirely who moved in and took over the space.”

“There are a lot of possibilities,” Matt said, “and even the least useful ones are long shots. But if some kind of community managed to survive up there, and kept up an education system, there’s a chance they preserved some knowledge we can all use. We need to find out what’s going on. Someone needs to go check things out.”

Ooljee nodded in agreement, but the woman sitting next to her said, “It’s got to be 500 miles up to Los Alamos, maybe more. And we don’t know anybody up that way.”

“This isn’t just important to us,” Matt went on. “The people on Amity and the Moon are just barely hanging on. Their hydroponic gardens don’t produce enough to feed them. They’ve got enough water from mining comet ice, but their seed stock is very limited. If we could find a way to travel back and forth to the station, we could exchange food for water.”

The word “water” lingered in the air. Fort Davis never had enough water. No one in the southwest did.

“I’ve never understood how Amity could get to the comets but can’t fly down here,” someone said.

“Because,” said Matt, patiently, as if he hadn’t explained this many times before, “they’ve only got tiny vessels that would burn up on re-entry to our atmosphere.” Enough satellites had survived the collapse that they had regular conversations with both the station and the smaller lunar community.

“Even if someone at Los Alamos knows how to build a space shuttle, how will we ever put the resources together to do it? Look at how much effort and money it took the first time.” Nods and approving murmurs echoed the speaker’s sentiments.

That was when Marty jumped in. “You don’t need to build a ship. You just need to retrofit one. The old spaceport at Upham has a couple of perfectly good ships. They weren’t designed to go as far as the space station, but someone who understood spaceship construction could probably figure out a fix. They’re big enough. Of course, we’d also need someone who knows how to fly the things.”

“The spaceport survived, then,” Matt said. “I’d assumed it hadn’t made it.”

“I guess it wasn’t on anybody’s bombing list,” Marty said. “Unlike Cape Canaveral or the Baikonuer Cosmodrome. And the people of Upham decided it was worth protecting from bandits. The co-op delivers over there. It’s a tiny community, but they’re proud of those ships. You could send some people back to Las Cruces with us, and we could hook you up with Upham. Los Alamos is just a straight shot north from there.”

“I’ll go,” Ooljee said. She’d wanted to go when she’d first heard the news. “I’ve got enough training to talk with any scientists I might find at Los Alamos. And you know I can take care of myself.”

Although Ooljee’s official job was as an engineer at the observatory, she’d  begun training with the militia when she turned fifteen. At twenty-seven, she now led a squad.

Matt nodded. “A good choice.” He didn’t call for more volunteers. Ooljee hadn’t expected him to. This was a gamble, and their community had not survived by risking too much on any one gamble.

Marty sought Ooljee out after the meeting. “This mission needs more than one person.”

Ooljee said, “Well, I guess we can’t spare anyone else.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Her tone suggested that she thought the community was not contributing as much as it could. “Anyway, if you’re willing, I’ll go with you.”

Ooljee nodded. She’d barely met this woman, but she liked what she’d seen.

“In fact, I think we might be able to get a vehicle in Las Cruces. It won’t be much — nothing like as good as the co-op delivery trucks — but it will beat walking.”

“A vehicle — you mean a car or truck of some kind? I was thinking I could stick my bicycle on the dairy truck, and ride it north.”

“Well, the truck I think we can get isn’t a lot faster than a bike, but it will carry more stuff and protect us from the sun. And I can probably be of some help to you. Most of the people in the area around Los Alamos are Pueblo, like me. They’ll be more likely to talk to a Navajo like you if I come along.”

Ooljee, embarrassed, muttered something about not being much of a Navajo. “It’s only on my mother’s side. And I’ve never traveled out to Arizona to meet any of her relatives.”

“Maybe after this trip, you can find a way to track them down. I’ve heard a lot of communities are thriving over that way, though their water problems are even worse than ours. I’m sure they’d like to know you.”

Ooljee doubted that. Her mother hadn’t cut all ties, and had tried to teach Ooljee something about the Navajo Way, but since her mother’s death she hadn’t found any reason to keep it up. She had a picture of her shimasani – her grandmother – but it had been taken before Ooljee was born. The address she had was probably out of date, too. Besides, she didn’t even know how Navajos acted in their daily lives, if it was really any different from anyone else, especially since the collapse. Most of the people she knew in Fort Davis were either Anglo or Chicano; the few others with Native American background were Apache.

Marty was older than Ooljee – in her late forties – but her hair was still coal black. She wore it coiled into two buns on the sides of her head. Ooljee’s own hair was just as black, what there was of it: she kept it cropped very short. She was taller than the Pueblo woman, but despite her militia experience, Ooljee felt a little in awe of Marty, whose powerful presence radiated from her even when she was doing something as simple as sipping a cup of tea. Natural born leader, Ooljee thought.

Tomas had joined them at Upham. He was nineteen, and one of the few young people in that community. His desire to go up in the ships was palpable from the way he showed Ooljee around, not neglecting the smallest detail of their design. Once he heard they hoped to find someone at Los Alamos who might know how to get them operational, he begged them to take him along. His mother cried and insisted he wear a San Cristobal medal around his neck – to keep him safe – but she let the young man go.

They made it to the edge of the Sevilleta Refuge the first day out from Upham, suffering nothing worse than one flat tire and hours of bumpy ride. No community existed in that region and most of the trees were scrubby mesquites that gave little shade. They camped behind an abandoned barn.

They were headed first to Jemez Pueblo, where they hoped to find someone who knew Los Alamos. Marty had grown up in Jemez, but she hadn’t been back in years. “It’s a long trip, and there’s not much up there. People are barely getting by. Of course, life was always like that in the pueblo – climate change didn’t make a lot of difference and it was isolated from most of the rest of the collapse. I wanted something more. I heard the university was still functioning in Las Cruces, so I took off. And I just stayed.” She taught literature, history, anthropology – culture. During school breaks she collected stories from people in the region.

“My mother left her family behind for education, too,” Ooljee said. “She wanted to study the stars, so she ended up at the observatory. She met my father and stayed.”

“Are you an astronomer, too?”

“No. I spend some time looking through the telescopes for fun, but I’m an engineer. I like making things work. Of course, no one specializes too much. I can give a pretty good star tour.”

“Tell me something,” Tomas said. He’d been staring at the sky ever since it got dark.

“Well, you probably know the North Star.”

He nodded. Celestial navigation had made a comeback.

“In a few thousand years, that star over there” – she pointed at Vega – “will become the North Star. The Earth’s axis wobbles, and it will eventually shift.”

“Wow. If we could get the ships to run, could we travel there?”

“It’s too far. But we could get up to the station, at least. See it over there.”

Tomas was still sitting there watching the stars when Ooljee and Marty climbed into sleeping bags for the night.

They stopped near Escabosa the next night, having gone to the east even though it was out of their way. “I don’t want to camp too close to Albuquerque,” Marty said. “I’ve heard things are improving, but I’d rather avoid it. We’re outside their zone of influence here, and we should be able to make it to Placitas tomorrow.”

Ooljee nodded. Cities had fallen harder than the small towns, perhaps just because there were too many people there when resources started to fail, perhaps because city people didn’t know their neighbors well and hadn’t been able to create the small cooperative communities that had made survival possible.

Marty seemed more tense the next day. “Too much traffic.” They had passed a couple of vehicles after not seeing anyone at all for two days. The first was a slow moving small car plastered over with solar panels not unlike their own. Two people were visible in the front seat. They didn’t stop, but gave a friendly wave, after the custom of the region. Marty waved back, but pushed the accelerator to the floor in an effort to get maximum speed out of their truck.

The second one was a van, much larger and faster, with no side windows. “It must run on gas or maybe cooking oil,” Tomas said, obviously thrilled to see such a powerful machine. The man driving waved and Marty waved back, but her jaw tightened.

“Where would they get fuel?” Ooljee asked.

Tomas shrugged, but Marty said, “There’s a refinery in Artesia.”

“That’s pretty far south. Do you think they pipe gas up this way?”

“I don’t know. We don’t do business with them.”

Ooljee got the hint: In Las Cruces they considered the refinery community to be at least a variation on bandits.

An hour later, they heard an engine in the distance. Ooljee looked back through binoculars. “Could be that same van.”

“A return trip,” Tomas said.

“We’ve changed roads twice since we saw them,” Marty said.

They went over a small rise and spotted  a weatherbeaten farmhouse near the road. No cars, no animals – clearly abandoned. Marty pulled behind it. A minute later the van shot by.

“Well, they’re gone,” Tomas said. But Marty didn’t start the engine and Ooljee was still looking through the binoculars.

“If they’re looking for us,” Ooljee said, “they’ll come back to find where we left the road.”

“And it won’t be hard to find,” Marty added, in the grim voice of one who’d seen her share of fights.

Ooljee nodded. She slung the binoculars around her neck, picked up her rifle, and got out of the truck. Marty went around to the back and opened the locked crate, where several more rifles were stored. She handed one to Ooljee and took one herself, checking to make sure it was loaded.

Tomas crawled out of the truck, looked at Ooljee, then at Marty, and said, “Oh.” Marty handed him a gun. Now they each had two weapons. He followed her lead in checking it. Clearly he knew how to handle a weapon. Just as clearly he’d never been in a real battle.

The house they were hiding behind was frame construction, and the roof had long since caved in. “This building doesn’t give us much protection,” Ooljee said. “If they’ve got any firepower at all, one good round will come right through that wall.”

A three-foot-high cement block wall that intersected the side of the house looked like a better bet, though it was crumbling. A propane tank stood just beyond where it petered out. “That tank would provide a solid cover,” Marty said.

“If,” Ooljee said, “there’s no propane left in it.”

Tomas dropped down to the ground and peered underneath. “It’s rusted out down here. I don’t smell any gas and it’s bone dry. What was left probably leaked out and evaporated.”

“If we’re lucky,” Marty said. And then they all heard the whine of a vehicle. Marty dropped down behind the wall and Tomas stayed on the ground near the tank.

Ooljee stood at the corner of the house next to where the block wall met it, so she could watch the van through the binoculars. It was driving slower now. Marty had parked their truck practically inside the house – the back wall was gone – so it shouldn’t be visible. But it wouldn’t take a genius tracker to figure out where they’d left the road, if the van slowed down enough to look.

It went past. Tomas stood up, as if the threat were gone, but Marty stayed put behind the cement block wall. Ooljee realized she’d been holding her breath, and deliberately breathed all the way down to her diaphragm.

A couple of minutes passed. Then they heard the engine. Ooljee watched through the binoculars, holding them with her left hand. Her right held one of her rifles, her index finger on the trigger. The van came into view, moving much more slowly. “Get down,” Marty hissed at Tomas, and he crouched behind the propane tank. The van stopped within twenty feet of where they had left the road. Three men got out. Each carried a gun.

Three and three, Ooljee thought. Good odds, assuming they don’t have a flamethrower or grenades. She could hear them talking now.

“That shack over there is the only shelter around. They gotta be around here somewhere.”

“Oh, hell. It was just a old beater. They probably ain’t got nothing of value.”

“It was a woman driving, asshole. When was the last time you had a woman?”

Ooljee’s index finger tightened on the trigger. She let the binoculars drop and put both hands on the gun, ready to aim and point. She heard a sharp intake of breath from Tomas and out of the corner of her eye caught sight of Marty raising her gun.

“Hey, here’s where they left the road,” the third man yelled. Now all three stared at the house.

Ooljee’s shot hit the man who’d mentioned women in the center of his chest. She dropped to the ground beside Marty, not even looking to see if he fell. Assault rifle fire peppered the house and the wall and bounced off the propane tank, which didn’t blow.

There was a brief lull, in which someone said, “I think Ben’s dead.” Tomas stood up behind the propane tank and let rip with a volley of his own, though his semi-automatic didn’t provide the same volume of attack. The men responded with another round, and Tomas suddenly cried out and hit the ground.

Marty was firing over the far end of the wall without looking and the attackers were aiming at that spot and at the propane tank. Ooljee crawled back to the side of the house and stood up to shoot. One of the men was limping. She dropped him and was back on the ground before the third man could change his line of fire.

Marty had shifted to the propane tank and leaned over it to shoot the last man. She hit his shoulder, and he dropped his gun. Ooljee stood, and saw him get to his feet and start running for the van, his gun forgotten. She shot him in the back.

Marty looked at her. Ooljee said, “I didn’t want him to get reinforcements.” Marty nodded, though Ooljee caught the reservation on her face. They both turned to take care of Tomas.

He’d taken a bullet in his left shoulder. Marty got the first aid kit from the truck and pulled out a syringe preloaded with morphine. “I can’t put you out,” she told the boy, “but I can give you this to ease the pain a little.” He nodded.

She took out a surgical knife and expertly cut the skin open enough to see the bullet. It was lodged in muscle; the bone seemed intact. Tomas yelled once as she pulled it out. She began cleaning and bandaging the wound.

Ooljee said, “That’s a professional job. You’re more than a teacher.”

“You’re more than an engineer. That was sniper work.”

“My mother died when I was fifteen, not from disease. I dealt with my rage by learning to fight.”

“I see why your community thought you could handle things alone,” Marty said.

Both praised Tomas for his bravery. He had opened fire at just the right moment – not bad at all for someone new to a firefight. He looked a little pale – and not just from his injury – as they gathered the dead men’s weapons. “Are we going to bury them?”

“Buzzards need to eat, too,” Marty said.

Maybe Marty didn’t disapprove of her tactics at that, Ooljee thought.

Tomas wanted to take the van. “It’s way faster than our truck.”

But Marty refused. “I’m not touching that thing. Let it rot out here, too.” Ooljee agreed, though she did raid it for supplies and disabled the engine, just in case.

They made it most of the way to Placitas before stopping for the night.

#

The dust was blowing as they drove into Jemez Pueblo. None of the creeks they’d crossed between Placitas and the pueblo held water and the trees on the rocky hillsides looked parched. A building on the edge of town advertised “slots, slots, slots,” though the windows were boarded up and the front door swung open.

Several men came out to meet them as they parked near the town center. Marty spoke to them in the Jemez version of the Pueblo language. They recognized her, and tension subsided. “You’re just in time for the corn dance,” one man told them. Someone brought them water.

Tomas and Ooljee sat on the porch of what had been a post office, while Marty went off to meet her family in one of the old adobe pueblos built around the central square. They talked about weather and farming with people who gathered around, curious about visitors.

Marty came back an hour later. “I’ve got you two a place to sleep. I need to stay with my family. We’ll get with several families for dinner. People are very touchy about Los Alamos, but I think we’ll be able to get some information. My brother knows someone who knows someone. And we’ll have to stay for the corn dance tomorrow.”

“But that’s another whole day,” Tomas said. “We need to get there.”

“Not if they won’t let us in when we arrive,” Ooljee said, controlling her own impatience as she answered the boy’s. “If the people of Los Alamos weren’t skittish about others, they’d have responded to Amity or my people. We need an introduction, and people here want to be sure of us before they say anything. The chance of more connections is worth the wait.”

Their place to stay was a tent in a field on the edge of town – one of many set up for visitors coming for the dance. The place grew busy as more people arrived.

People packed into Marty’s family’s house for dinner: Mutton stew spiced with a variety of peppers. They were curious about life in other places and asked Ooljee and Tomas lots of questions.

As it grew dark, one of the old men said, “The people in Los Alamos lived too much in the future. They forgot to live in the present.”

Ooljee felt Tomas stir next to her. She laid a hand on his knee, and bit her own tongue.

“They destroyed much. The land is still ruined down near where you live.” He nodded toward Marty.

He is thinking of the Twentieth Century, Ooljee thought, when they developed the atomic bomb out there. Ancient history. But she didn’t interrupt.

“There are people living there now, but who knows what new disasters they may be bringing on us. Once we had water here. Once it was easier to live.”

Judging from the murmurs in the room, others seemed to agree. “They haunt the land,” someone said.

Well, Ooljee thought, at least that confirms someone is up there, even if no one trusts them.

Sometime later, Marty’s brother sat beside her. “There is a man from up near Jemez Springs, a sheepherder. Navajo, I think.” He grinned. “He usually comes to the dances to sell mutton. He may already be at the campground. I have heard he sells meat to Los Alamos. Tomorrow I will make sure you meet him. Perhaps he can help you.”

The corn dance was an all day affair, a ritual dating back centuries. Ooljee, Marty, and Tomas sat on the porch of Marty’s family’s home – her mother and brothers were all taking part – and watched. Ooljee made herself relax into the slow time of ancient tradition.

The men appeared first, some with skin painted gray – “Squash people,” Marty whispered – and some painted blue – “Turquoise folks.” Then the women came, with tablets on their heads.

Ooljee heard a sound beside her. Marty was crying. “I danced for the first time the year before I left,” she said. “I would like to dance again. I always loved this time.”

“Why don’t you come back?”

“I want to help rebuild civilization, not just survive. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe so much collapsed because it wasn’t the way humans were supposed to live. That’s what my mother would say. Certainly tradition is wonderful and should not be lost, but the Pueblo people aren’t the only ones with a worthy history. Look at the many wonderful things – not just terrible things – human beings have invented. I think people are capable of more than living like their ancestors.”

Ooljee had never thought about things that way before, but she liked how Marty explained it. Still, watching the dance made her wonder what Navajo rituals were like. Maybe, after this was done, she would try to find her shimasani. She thought about the men she had killed two days before – killed without thinking. Now she shivered slightly, hot as it was. Had she become a stone cold killer? She wondered if her mother’s people could help her. Like Marty said, the future was important, but the old ways were important too. A balance. She wanted to find that balance.

Tomas had wiggled impatiently through the early part of the dancing. His shoulder was probably hurting. But Ooljee had caught him looking at one of the young women dancers. A little later, she noticed the young woman looking back at him. Hormones would keep him from being too impatient.

When people settled for dinner, Marty’s brother took Ooljee to meet Mr. Begay, the sheepherder. He was an old man, probably as old as Matt Garcia back in Fort Davis.

“It’s nice to see another Navajo at these affairs,” Begay said. “My people are from Shiprock.”

“My mother came from Chinle, but my father was not Navajo.”

“I thought not. You do not live in these parts?”

“I live in Texas, in the mountains.”

“Ah, so far from home. But it is like a Navajo to live away from people.”

Ooljee decided not to explain that the people at the observatory, at least, lived more like the Pueblo than the Navajo. “I hear you sell your sheep to many communities.”

“Yes. Life in the open is very good, but one must trade to survive.”

“Do you trade to the east as well?”

“I trade with whoever wants wool or mutton. And yes, I trade with the people of Los Alamos. I understand you are interested in them.”

Ooljee’s face must have betrayed her surprise that he mentioned it so openly, because he added, “I may be a simple sheepherder, but I am not a superstitious man. Things may be different in Los Alamos, but people live there, decent people, and they need to eat same as you or me. I am supposed to meet one of them the day after tomorrow.” He paused, obviously expecting something.

“We can offer you a ride,” Ooljee said.

“That will be very kind. I will take you to meet that man.” He turned to go. “Of course, there are others in Los Alamos, not just people.”

“Ghosts?”

“Not exactly.”

#

They took Begay to his hogan, and made camp for the night nearby. Next morning they loaded up his supplies and took off for the last leg. Tomas was in high spirits – he was convinced they would find a coven of engineers and pilots. Marty seemed more pensive and Ooljee was trying to restrain her own feelings of enthusiasm.

They traveled into taller mountains, where the trees shot up higher and the air cooled a little. As they reached the outskirts of the old town, Begay said, “I think only Ooljee should come with me. Too many people may scare my customer, but he will not be so surprised to see another person who looks like me. ”

Even Tomas could see the logic in that, though he worried: “What if they attack you?”

Begay seemed to find that amusing. Ooljee said, “Well, then, it’s better if you are back here to warn others.”

They met the man at an empty house on the edge of town. It was obvious to Ooljee that no one lived nearby. She thought of how her community welcomed the regular visits from the dairy co-op and the cattle ranchers from north of them in Texas, then remembered that when she was a child they had been much more careful, and had still lost people. We have made progress, she thought.

The man from Los Alamos was anglo, tall, probably mid-forties, though with his sun-weathered skin it was hard to tell. “Dr. Barnes,” said Begay, “this is my friend Ooljee Yzaguirre.”

Barnes relaxed slightly. Navajo face, Navajo name. Perhaps he considered Navajos more trustworthy than other people, or maybe it was just because it was logical for her to be with Begay.

They exchanged goods. Barnes had brought a battery and several solar panels. “The battery is a new design. It will hold power for a longer period.”

Begay was pleased. “I think this will work on that old motorcycle I found. That will make it easier to make deliveries.”

Ooljee looked at the battery. It was the kind that used the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen to store power, but had been adapted to require much less water than the original model. “I see how you did that. Would you mind if I tried out this design?”

“Ooljee is a scientist like you,” Begay said.

Barnes looked surprised. “A scientist, out in that country.” He waved a hand toward the west.

“Actually, I come from south and east. West Texas. We have a community there, built around the observatory.”

“My God,” Barnes said. “Do the telescopes still work?”

“Oh, yes. We classify stars and study nebulae.”

“You’re an astronomer?”

“An amateur. I’m more of an engineer than a scientist. I work with things like that battery. But we have astronomers and physicists, and programs in biology and chemistry.”

“Not just survived, but kept an observatory going. I didn’t think it was happening anywhere else.” Barnes was trembling.

Careful, Ooljee thought. Don’t scare him. “You’ve obviously kept studying things, if you can improve on a solar battery.”

“Well, there are some others …” His voice trailed off.

“We’re not alone, you know. There are people on the space station …”

“That can’t be possible. They must have died.”

“Human beings seem to be made of stronger stuff than we might have thought. Though things are tough for them.”

“Hydroponics, of course,” he said, when she had described how they lived. “They must be mining comets for water. But how do you know?”

“There are still satellites. The people of our community made a point of keeping in touch with anyone they could, even when things were at their worst. Pretty much every observatory kept going – they were isolated enough.”

Barnes looked as if he might cry, but his survival skills kicked in. He asked one question, then another, testing Ooljee’s knowledge. He paused occasionally, as if he was thinking about what she said. Her explanation of how they altered the blades on wind turbines so they worked in the slightest wind, and the various methods they used to increase their power capacity – running the telescopes sucked a lot of juice – seemed to convince him that she was, in fact, what she said she was. “You must come meet the others. Can you come with me now?”

Ooljee hesitated. She wanted to go get Marty and Tomas, to bring them along. But the way Barnes was fidgeting told her he was nervous. It might scare him off if she mentioned others. And she might be walking into something dangerous, in which case it would be better if he didn’t know about her friends.

Barnes had taken her hesitation for fear, because he said, “We can bring you back out to this meeting place after we’ve had time to talk, so that you can get back to Mr. Begay’s.”

She decided to let him keep his assumption. “Yes, that would be good.”

Begay smiled at her, and she knew he would tell Marty and Tomas. Tomas would be furious, but Marty would understand. She shook his hand formally, and he whispered, “Don’t forget there are others there, not just people.”

She puzzled over that comment as she helped Barnes carry the meat and wool, and followed him up a paved road past vacant houses. Each house was topped with solar panels. They were gathering vast quantities of power.

He saw her looking. “On the other side we have quite a few turbines, though we haven’t improved them much. Perhaps we can try your idea.”

Ooljee also noticed a region with no buildings, no trees, even no scrubby bushes. A bomb crater, perhaps? These people had reason to hide out, she thought. No wonder we hadn’t found them before.

They came over a rise and Ooljee saw a number of large buildings scattered about in a campuslike setting. One of the buildings was a complete ruin — another bomb? — but the others looked intact. Several people walked out to meet them, all carrying guns and binoculars. Obviously they had been watching out for Barnes. Ooljee tensed at the sight of weapons – she had left her own behind, on purpose – but made herself relax. If they killed her, so be it.

“Welcome, Ooljee,” a tall woman said. Barnes looked shamefaced, and showed her his small radio. Obviously others had been listening to their conversation; he’d probably been getting instructions from others when he’d asked her questions. Ooljee smiled, to let him know she understood security, though it made her uncomfortable that all these people knew more about her than she knew about them. Too bad she didn’t have radio contact with Tomas and Marty.

“We have let everyone know,” the woman said to Barnes. Ooljee thought she emphasized everyone. “We agreed with your suggestion to meet with this woman.”

That sounded even more unsettling, but Ooljee walked on with them. They entered a large, featureless building – concrete block construction, no windows – and took an elevator down several stories to a large conference room, where about twenty people were waiting for them: men and women of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with more people of Asian and African descent than the other communities she knew.

A man brought her water – the ultimate gift – and she sat. Questions began immediately, as if people had stored them up, waiting for someone like her. She talked for what seemed like hours about what they were doing at the observatory, what they knew of the space dwellers, the old space ships at the spaceport. Even the dairy co-op and the corn dancers fascinated them, and they were particularly excited to hear of contact with Arecibo and the Keck observatory in Hawai’i.

“Goddard, Cape Canaveral, the Houston space center – they all went down so fast,” someone said. “We thought no other science centers survived but us. So we hid out, to protect what we had.”

People from the various high tech groups in Northern New Mexico — the Santa Fe Institute, the clumps of transhumanists, the enclaves of multidisciplinary thinkers — had gravitated to Los Alamos because of its superior protection. Even after the federal government pulled out of Los Alamos at the height of the crash, taking their security personnel with them, the construction of the building and the location made it far easier to defend from bandits and freelance militias than the open buildings in Santa Fe and other towns.

Ooljee was stunned to think how much knowledge this group might actually have stored in computer files or even in old fashioned file cabinets. Some of the oldtimers at MacDonald Observatory had told her about the eclectic research that had been centered around Santa Fe in the early part of the century, but it hadn’t occurred to anyone that those people might have been able to move into the Los Alamos complex.

“When things hit the worst point, we moved everything we could underground. We’re fortunate that the people who tried to attack us over the years mostly weren’t smart enough to aim for the solar and wind arrays, or we wouldn’t have been able to create enough power to survive. But it’s just amazing to think that so many other communities are going strong. And you say they’ve even saved the spaceport at Upham?”

Ooljee nodded. “There are still many dangers out there, but a lot of communities have built solid foundations. If we all work together, we can start the process of reclaiming civilization.”

Some looked skeptical, some nodded, and a new round of questions began. As Barnes had done when they first met, people asked questions that probed at Ooljee’s level of knowledge. Was she really the engineer she claimed to be? Did she really know enough about the workings of the observatory to be from Fort Davis? Was she making up what she said about the space station? Ooljee answered the questions as best she could – saying she didn’t know when she didn’t know – and replied with ones of her own.

Even with what she had been told about the different groups that had moved out to Los Alamos, the diversity of disciplines surprised her. Those in the room represented everything from physicists to biologists to linguists. And they were not the whole community, not by a long shot. They were raising children, educating people. Despite their ghostly reputation, they had brought in others who stumbled upon them – their method of vetting visitors was practiced.

They were comparing notes on how the different communities had dealt with a particularly virulent virus outbreak when a voice spoke through a speaker. “Ooljee, you are welcome here. We would like to know you better.” The voice had no inflection, no accent – it seemed almost mechanical.

“What was that?”

Barnes looked embarrassed. “That was Avi.”

“Some kind of artificial intelligence?”

“Kind of. Avi was once many people, but now their brains are combined.”

Ooljee shuddered. It sounded like something from a horror novel. A bad horror novel. She looked around the room, but no one else seemed disturbed. Had she wandered into some kind of transhumanist cult?

“Oh, don’t worry. No one was forced into it. It was a way to save their knowledge.” Barnes produced a small device. “It will be easier to understand if you communicate with them directly. This electrode hooks into your brain and picks up your thoughts. The connection to Avi is wireless. It doesn’t really hurt much to install it. We all have them, see?” He turned his head and pulled up his hair so she could see a tiny piece of black plastic.

Ooljee fought down an urge to snatch the device from his hand and toss it across the room. Were they all controlled by this computer, this AI or whatever it was?

One of the others said, “You don’t have to do it. Avi, you can just talk with her for now. This is too new.”

Avi said, “All right.”

Barnes laid down the device.

Avi said, “Please ask any question you wish.”

I have come all this way to find something like this, Ooljee thought. We need to know what these people have done. If they intend to harm me, we need to know that, too. Though perhaps they will make me into some kind of zombie, send me back to kill everyone. No, that was completely ridiculous. These people were not evil; she had tested them as they had tested her. But they might be misguided, might do harm while thinking they were doing good. A reasonable thing to fear; just jumping in would not be wise. “Explain to me how this thing works.”

“It turns your brainwaves into signals the Avi mainframe can read, brings your knowledge and information into the mix, so that everyone can share it. And it lets you see all the information available from Avi and the rest of us here. It makes research much faster, because we can quickly find out what is already known about any given subject.”

“It reads minds?” Ooljee thought of all the things she hadn’t told these people, all the things she wouldn’t want to share.

Barnes said, “Not really. It does tap into your knowledge, but not your emotions, not your personal self. It will show us things you are thinking about, but it will also show you what is going on with us. And you will be able to pull answers to your own questions directly from Avi’s multitude of databases.”

“We are not the singularity,” Avi said in that flat voice. “We are just a more advanced form of computing and communication.”

Ooljee was far from convinced, but she found herself thinking back to what Marty had said about the ability of humans to create new things. This could be one of those steps toward human progress, one way to build a healthy new civilization on the ashes of the old one. It could also be something like the bombs that had left the crater she’d seen. But there was no real way to find out without trying it. You are a warrior, she told herself. You must take risks. She sipped the last of her water, took a deep breath, and said, “No. I will do it your way.”

They shaved the hair from a small space at the back of her skull – “not enough to be noticeable” – and stuck the electrode through her scalp. It hurt briefly, like an injection from a hypodermic, but the pain vanished quickly, replaced by a wave of information.

Certainly the Virgin ships could be retrofitted to reach the space station. A set of details on how to do it went by, constantly upgraded and corrected as it came. Bringing spent comets back to Earth would be trickier: Another set of details on how to build a cargo vessel to carry comets, a general consensus that it would be easier to build such things in space, where dust would not be a problem.

The history of human civilization flew by – Chinese emperors succeeded by Roman caesars proceeding to western democracies. Genes came together to create life. Ants foraged for food, horses ran on open plains, elephants tramped through a savanna. Pages of mathematical formulae scrolled by.

“It’s like an encyclopedia,” Ooljee thought/said. And the response came back, “No, a wiki.”

Of course. Because all this information was constantly being updated, corrected, revised. Nothing was set in stone. She tried to control the flow – she knew that others were able to do this, but she could not quite get the hang of it. Impatience, again: She wanted to know everything, and everything seemed to be here. The device must be picking up some of her thoughts, because here came information on Navajo religion and the kind of ceremony that might be performed for a warrior after battle. She reached for more information, more, even more, and finally passed out.

She woke a few minutes later to silence in her mind. She was lying on a couch, and a young man was squatting by her side. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “It was just Avi overload.”

Ooljee sat up carefully, and accepted another glass of water. “What was that?”

“In 2009,” Barnes began like a professor giving a lecture, “a core of people came together – some computer scientists, medical researchers, engineers, high tech billionaires. Research indicated brain functions could be translated into electrical signals and read by a computer, and these people wanted to make that happen – without the government’s involvement. If you’ve read history, you know that the U.S. government was foundering even back then, despite an heroic effort to salvage it.”

Ooljee nodded.

“It was kind of like the private space travel businesses that gave rise to those spaceships down south – amazing they haven’t been destroyed. The high tech business made wealthy the kind of people who were more interested in ‘what’s next’ than in building vast estates and dropping thousands on flights to Paris for dinner.

“It took five years to get the system to work, and by then things were really starting to collapse. But they were able to find more people to join in – quietly, privately. People agreed to upload their brains when they were on the verge of death. A vast bank of mainframes were connected to each other. A hospice was set up nearby. The whole thing was set up to run on alternative fuels from the beginning.

“There were news reports marveling at how many certified geniuses decided to spend their last years out here, but it was put down to an intellectual community and the mild climate.  Let me let Avi give you the rest. They can do it more gently than before.”

Thousands of minds – great minds, creative thinkers, multiple disciplines – all working together to solve problems. Ego seemed to be missing. It wasn’t so much a collection of individual people as it was of information they had, combined together in a way that let the facts held by one person affect the research done by another. People had come to join them for ten years, until the outside world deteriorated so badly that Los Alamos decided to close off outside contact. By then a sizeable community of supporters had been built up, and thousands of minds uploaded.

Some in the community kept the power running – the wild storms of the Thirties had threatened to bring them down, though they never lacked for sunshine. Others made sure the mainframes remained functional. Most took turns as guards. All planned to become part of Avi – Advanced Variable Interface – when they died. Avi could talk, but it was easiest to access their information directly. Besides, Avi could take in information from people, and work it into their vast store of information.

Avi felt alive, but the people who made it up were not. This was not quite the transhumanist dream. Or perhaps it was — perhaps the transhumanists had dreamed of knowledge without individual personalities. But that was the weakness of Avi: it — they — could not act on their own. Without living people, not just for protection and energy, but also for new knowledge about the ever changing world, Avi would just be a fabulous encyclopedia.

“Someone should go get Ooljee’s friends.” This time, because she was connected, it was simply a thought in Ooljee’s mind, not spoken words. She felt the others join in, noted their surprise — even their fear — that she had told them nothing of the others, “heard” Avi reassure them that Tomas and Marty were people that Ooljee trusted, that they would bring more knowledge into the mix.

#

By the next morning, Tomas had already hooked into Avi, but Marty had chosen to communicate solely through conversation for the time being. The impetuousness of the young, the caution of one who had been around long enough to see disasters.

Ooljee herself was growing comfortable with Avi now, learning to control things so that she could find information without being overwhelmed, getting the feel of how to share information while still protecting those things she felt were no one else’s business.

Not only knowledge, Ooljee thought. But ongoing learning. Working with Avi they wouldn’t just recreate what humans had discovered before; they would be able to go forward to the next steps. Avi, or at least part of Avi, could be copied and downloaded into a spaceship computer, sent off to explore other galaxies.

But Avi needed people, to protect them, to bring them new information. They had been excited by the news of all the communities that had survived, even thrived; Ooljee had watched that information work into the brain. Cooperation. Avi was based on cooperation. Humanity had survived because of cooperation.

Ooljee’s heart soared, to think of all that could now come together. They could set up communications networks among all the communities they could find. Possibly versions of Avi could be moved to other places; perhaps they could all be networked.

Once more she reminded herself to rein in her enthusiasm. Avi was vulnerable. They – she found herself using the plural pronoun as the others had done – were not aware of much that was happening in the world. Not ultimate salvation, but another tool, another community, another building block toward a civilized future. She let herself hope she would live to see it.

She checked in with the others. Marty was talking with Avi, still resisting the link. Tomas was deeply immersed in researching space travel.

“May I take the truck?” Ooljee asked.

“Sure,” Marty said. “But why?”

“I want to go out and talk with Mr. Begay.”

Marty looked puzzled, but she passed over the key.

Ooljee hadn’t explained. She wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do herself, except that she thought Begay might be able to help her find her mother’s family, or perhaps a Navajo healer who could help her come to grips with the violence she had seen, the lives she had taken. Begay, a man who lived a traditional life, and yet was not frightened by what he found in Los Alamos: He would understand what she needed.

She was done with killing, or at least, she was done with the rage that had made her learn to kill. She wanted to clear out that part of her soul, to provide herself with a clean slate so that she could become more builder than warrior.

The time for warriors wasn’t gone, and Ooljee harbored no illusion that she would ever be completely free of the role. But she needed to make her peace with it. For that, she thought, the old ways would probably be best.

Old ideas and new, coming together. Perhaps the world had a future after all.

###

Nancy Jane Moore jumps around within the speculative fiction genre, varying both form and content. Her work ranges from straightforward science fiction to fantasy both traditional and urban to slipstream and varies as much in length as it does in subject matter. Her work has been published in a variety of venues, print and online, including Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Farrago’s Wainscot; she is also a regular contributor to the Book View Cafe fiction community. After many years in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Austin where she reports on Texas developments for a national legal publisher.

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Responses to “NEW FICTION: OR WE WILL ALL HANG SEPARATELY by Nancy Jane Moore”

  1. Sarah Brand says:

    Great story! It started off slowly, but the end was worth it.

  2. Jason J. Willis says:

    I really liked this story. The AVI is amazing and the story is well crafted. On a side note it’s nice to see a magazine with the audacity to publish a story that’s not depressing these days.