Prelude (Scroll 17)


 

PRELUDE cover

CONTENTS


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CHAPTER FOUR


IN



1310-SQ-Angelv2

 

I am too impatient to write. I stow my laptop in my bag and stand up. I step toward Vassal. He turns to me and bends to take my waist. Whenever he does that, I think for an instant that he is bowing to me. He is always a gentleman, unfailingly considerate of me. I do not need that from him, but I notice and do not dislike it. At times like this, he is bowing to me some, tongue-in-cheek; he reaches to me with a courtly flourish of his arm. But mostly he is bending to me because, tall as he is, he must, to get hold of me.

We stand together, his arm around me. He knows what I am thinking: Let’s go home; the time has come; we have drifted enough. He relaxes his hold on me and moves away. As he does, his hand trails across the back of my jeans. He mumbles an endearment, which I will not quote. My feelings flare, my throat tightens, and my eyes flood. I am worrying again: What will happen to us? How long until we regain some normalcy?

He sits down at the console of the boat. I follow and sit beside him, in my seat. He grips the wheel with one hand and with the other twists the ignition key. The starter motor whirs. The engine coughs, catches, and then idles, drumming the air. It has never failed to start, but I feel relieved.

He grabs the shift lever, tugs the motor into gear, and nudges the throttle. The motor snarls. The propeller spins and digs down; the water around it foams and fizzes. The propeller generates a wave, and begins to push. Vassal turns the wheel hard, swinging the boat away from Seguin. We pirouette on empty sea, the world a blur.

He points us toward the river, and shoves the throttle to its limit. The engine roars. The propeller digs deeper. The boat rears up, pressing us into our seats. Then it plunges ahead, rises smoothly, and accelerates.

Our boat is an open skiff with no windshield. As we zip along, the air swats at our faces, pushes into my pile of hair, and tickles my scalp. The engine is at maximum RPMs now. Its cylinders, pistons, and linkages sing a cacophony of hum, whine, and clatter. My face relaxes, bathed in the noise and wind.

We are traveling as fast as we can. Vassal steers confidently. We slice up and down broad swells, then bump across the smaller waves of the upper bay. We zoom past the government gunboat—we wave to it—and continue along the beach, past the fort, back into the mouth of the river. The mist has dissipated. The early morning sunlight has brought a golden glow to everything, and warmth to the air. The world around us seems like a setting, a backdrop to the story that is about to unfold.

We head upriver. We speed across glassy water, along forested shores. We see gulls and terns flying alone and in twos and threes. They straggle and dip, peering down for baitfish, drifting crabs, and anything else they might eat. We pass familiar coves, ledges, mudflats, and tidal rips. Many days, we stop in those spots to try our luck fishing, or to watch wildlife, take photographs, write, read, or just sit in the boat and see what there is to see. This morning we do not stop or slow down. We have no desire to, preoccupied as we are with where we are going and what may await us.

Nevertheless, passing those places reminds me briefly of the river’s history, a topic I love. During my years with Vassal, I have studied it thoroughly: the river’s cosmological and geological origins; the millennia of living things, including prehistoric peoples; the centuries of European exploration and settlement; the heydays of the fur trade, sailing ships, shipbuilding, lumbering, ice harvesting, hydropower, commercial and sport fishing, tourism; and more. To me, the river and its shore bear imprints of those subjects. They have given me much to research, which I have relished.

This morning, my knowledge of those matters rises within me, then falls away and does not engage me further. We are racing home, if home it still will be. Have our guards there learned what we have done? If so, have they taken any action? Are they waiting to arrest us and carry us away, or will their commanders in Washington allow us to remain? Now that we have done the unthinkable, will they continue to protect us and let us do what we want to do?

We are about to find out. As I sit in the boat beside Vassal, with my back straight, my head high, and my eyes half-closed against the wind, I smile at the prospect. Me, smiling, at a time like this! Are my nerves acting up, contorting my face, or am I happy.




Vassal slides our boat tight to the dock. We tie up, grab our boat bags, and jump out, eager to see what is happening at the house. We hurry up the ramp to the shore. At the top, he jogs ahead of me and lopes along the path through the brush and the trees, toward the barn and the gravel driveway. His long legs swing like a giraffe’s, hardly bend at the knees. He holds his bag high, to keep it clear of the brush.

Behind him, I am running faster than I am accustomed to. I cannot keep up with him. I force myself forward. With each stride, I breathe harder. My body feels detached from my perception. I ride myself, my body a mechanism, unwieldy object of my volition. I begin to falter. I feel faint. My heart pounds, my lungs gasp, my mind constricts. My feet land so clumsily that I am afraid I may trip and fall.

I have walked this path countless times. I should be able to run it blindfolded. But this morning, as I rush, the ground is difficult. I struggle to watch its undulations, and to avoid patches slick with morning dew. I try to skip over tree roots that cross in front of me, but I continue to stumble. I did not anticipate that we would run so hard. I doubt Vassal did, either. Once ashore, we just uncoiled like this. That has been easy for him, but I am unraveling.

He pushes along in front of me. Past the barn, a hundred feet from the house, he turns up the driveway. With the end in sight, he runs faster, sprinting like a kid. I hear him laughing. No doubt he is full of his usual pleased curiosity, and finds this run exhilarating. I am glad he does. I do not mind the difference between his moods and mine. I am long past such resentment. He and I are yin and yang of the same universe. Or so I like to think.

I am beside the barn now. I have slowed to a fast walk. Vassal’s laughter has cheered me up. Giddy, oxygen-deprived, I, too, feel an urge to laugh. But as soon as I feel that, I am unhappy again. Normally, whatever occupies my mind orients me, especially when I am engaged in my routines: listening to Vassal, writing, researching, creating art. Those tasks give me solace, keep me sane or at least somewhat levelheaded. Now, however, I feel lost. I want to wail to the world, wail until I escape this circumstance.

A few paragraphs ago, I wrote that I never begrudge Vassal his equanimity and good humor. But now, as I, too, try to sprint the final yards to the house, I feel angry at him. I wish that he felt as worried as I do. I am surprised to be wishing that, and disappointed in myself. My unhappiness grows.

He is indeed feeling good.

“EeeYAAH!”

With a gleeful cry, he hurdles the steps of the front porch, clomps across the boards, reaches out, and sweeps open the screen door. Then he stands aside and waits, holding the door for me. He is once again playing the gentleman, polite despite his eagerness to go inside. He stands at calm attention, the perfect doorman. I labor up the steps and across the porch. He raises an eyebrow to me.

“Good morning, madam,” he says as I pass.

Is he really being courteous, or is he making fun of me? Or does he want me to be the first to confront bad news inside? More likely, he is suggesting kindly that I relax. Whatever this courtesy is about, I only care for a moment. I am concerned with what may await us once we enter. Will it be gunfire and our deaths? Arrest and prosecution? Nervous officials from the government, bent on interrogating us? Or nothing so heated; only the sweet home, quiet and welcoming, that we departed a few hours ago? Is that possible?


* * *

 

I stagger through the door. Vassal ducks through behind me.

“And now!” he exclaims, still histrionic.

I cannot see clearly. The room closes in. Vassal stands beside me in the center, his arm half-raised. His index finger points upward, touching the ceiling. He looks like he is playing the hero who enters the melodrama at the climactic moment, when the adventure is about to take a decisive turn.

I think, ungenerously, that I should play his fool and insult him, as if he were a pompous monarch in need of comeuppance. Better, I should play the slave in the Roman triumphs, who stood in the chariot behind the victorious general as he and his army returned from battle at one of the empire’s distant margins. The general, dressed as a god, led a throng of prisoners, horse-drawn carts of captured riches (gold and other precious metals, jewels, textiles, ceramics, exotic animals), and rank after rank of his weary soldiers. As they paraded through the streets of Rome and around the long oval of the Circus Maximus, crowds shouted their praise to him. Meanwhile, at his shoulder, the slave spoke reminders of his mortality into his ear: “Memento homo” (“Remember, you are human.”) and “Sic transit Gloria mundi” (“Thus, the glories of the world pass away.”).

Vassal needs no such humbling. He knows his limits. Despite his occasional bluffing, he is self-deprecating. I will play no fool with him, and no insolent slave. I will continue to serve as his dutiful scribe, recording his words and deeds, sometimes altering them to my liking.


* * *

 

We survey the living room. Everything is still. No one else is here. The room seems as pleasant and safe as when we left it. As usual, it feels like home. I am breathing more easily.

Over the years, we have refused all media requests—relayed to us by the Bigheads—for photos of our hideaway. We may include some in this book or another, but for now, for readers who want to know how it looks, I will describe it.

The house, cottage really, is funky and worn. It is an old, two-story wooden structure, always in need of repair, which we neglect. It dates from soon after World War II. When Vassal bought it in the early ’70s, the prior owners told him that it began as a duck hunting camp belonging to some Boston patricians—Saltonstalls, they said. Subsequent owners expanded it haphazardly and on the cheap. It is not well put together. Vassal says some of its construction is so amateurish that it reminds him of a fort he hammered together in his backyard when he was eight years old; the first wind to come along blew it flat.

This house is better built than that. It has withstood hard winters, and nor’easters in every season. Outside, however, some of the old brown shingles on the walls are missing, and there are cracks in most of the rest. There is paint peeling from the dark red trim boards, some of which have fallen to the ground. There are curling and broken asphalt shingles on the roof. And the porch roof has leaked for years. We keep a bucket out there to catch the dribbles when it rains.

Inside the house, mice live in the walls and squirrels in the soffits. Most evenings and early mornings, we hear the squirrels scampering around the attic. Sometimes, they roll acorns like boys playing with marbles.

Vassal could afford to rebuild the place, or fix it up, but he considers neither course necessary or desirable.

“This way, it’s more of a piece with the outdoors,” he says. “I like that, as long as it doesn’t fall down too much more. If I ever need to, I’ll prop it up and patch it enough to be livable, but meanwhile it’s doing fine. I respect its poverty and longevity. It’s well broken in, a part of the countryside, like a lot of old houses in this state.”

The living room is full of inexpensive wooden furniture and earth-toned fabrics. Unbleached cotton curtains, carelessly hemmed by me, hang from rods over double-hung windows. Next to one wall, near the kitchen, sits a flowery chintz couch with dark brown pillows slumped at either end. Beside the couch, an old steamer trunk with leather handles holds spare blankets. It also serves as a side table. We have put a pair of brass candlesticks there with etched glass globes; also a stack of art books and catalogs containing works of Homer, Welliver, Hartley, Steichen, and several dozen twenty-first-century artists from every continent; and an old kerosene lamp, now electrified, with a brass base, glass chimney, and translucent green shade.

On the floor on the other side of the couch, a magazine rack holds some of the technical journals Vassal subscribes to, along with catalogs from eight or ten university presses. Opposite the couch are two unpainted wicker armchairs and a rocking chair. In front of the couch, on a plain oak coffee table, Vassal’s laptop sleeps with its cover closed. Years of sliding our computers on and off the table have scraped finish from its surface.

Around the room, framed prints, mostly maritime—lighthouses, saltwater gamefish, sailing ships—hang on white sheetrock walls. So does a few shelves of bric-a-brac: seashells from the beach, antique photos, wee glass beasties, and small model boats. In a corner stands a chart table made of dark-stained pine, where we plan boat excursions. On the floor, from wall to wall, lies a Berber carpet made of tight loops of beige and black fiber—one of few new items in the house, but nothing fancy. Doors in the front and back walls open to the front and rear porches. Open doorways to either side lead to the kitchen and the hallway.


* * *

 

Vassal cocks an eyebrow.

“No greeting party for us?”

He walks across the room and down the hall, where he looks into the utility room, the bathroom, the second bedroom, and, at the end, the master bedroom. I walk into the kitchen, back through the living room, up to the upstairs bedroom, and down to the screen porch. On the porch, I look out from our point of land, through the oak and pine trees, toward the river.

I go back into the living room, to the window beside the front door. There, I look past the barn, to the road. The usual three or four guards stand at their posts. They seem normally attentive, not looking our way or conferring with each other, as they might if they knew what Vassal has done. They do not seem about to confront us, round us up, or otherwise interfere. Nor do we see any military brass arrived among them, or civilian officials bristling in suits, preparing to steam to our door with their briefcases swinging, to cordially—or brusquely, for once—ask us what the hell we think we have done, and do we have any idea how much trouble we are causing.

We have found no intruders, and nothing out of place. Perhaps some officials will arrive soon. Perhaps even now they are roaring via government jet to the naval air station ten miles upriver, where they will transfer to a convoy of fast black cars, whose skilled drivers will hustle them down the highway, then along the two-lane road that parallels the river, and down the half-mile of gravel road that drops from the last ridge, through the trees, to our driveway.

 

government plane ridegovernment plane ride


“So,” Vassal says to me, “this is how the transformation of civilization, universal non-wakeup call, or whatever it is we have precipitated arrives, eh? Our bolt of lightning has flashed, but no air is rushing to fill the void. There’s no clap of thunder, no storm swirling around us, no noise at all—no hint of any problems.

“I’ve thought that by now our guards’ local commander would have come tell us that some bigwigs are en route to see us. Maybe he’ll come in a few minutes. Or in a few hours. Or not at all. Or he’ll tell us something else. In this adventure, anything could be normal, I suppose. We know that things are happening; they just aren’t happening here yet.”

I have recovered from our run to the house. I am worrying less, too. I even feel some of our familiar sense of tranquil isolation. But I know that this calm cannot last. While Vassal is ready for anything, and eager to face it, I am not. I half expect calamity to come crushing through our door.

We are standing together again in the middle of the living room, both of unsure what to do. Vassal shrugs.

“It looks like you and I will have to await developments,” he says. “For now, I guess, it’s a day like any other. Since nobody has come yet, we might as well go about our lives the same as always. As for my bugs, it’s probably too soon for anyone to have sent any of those here. It won’t be long, though.”

We take off our shoes and place them on the mat by the front door, beneath the coat pegs. I go to the bathroom to pee. As I pull down my panties to sit down on the toilet, I wonder if someone somewhere is getting a glimpse of my bare butt and curly pubes. As Vassal said, it is probably too soon for anyone to have flown any of his bugs here, but it is possible.

While I pee, I look around. On the wall opposite me there is a poster of the folksinger Arlo Guthrie. Long ago, when Vassal and Victory lived out west for a few months after returning from Europe, they pried it from a phone pole in Taos. It is filled with an image of Arlo’s face surrounded by his nimbus of hair. Reflector shades perch above his affable smirk. This morning, more than usual, he seems to be looking right at me.

On the wall beside me, an antique tin souvenir tray depicts the FDR White House. Beds of long-stemmed tulips border the North Portico entrance. The colors are faded and the paint chipped, but the scene looks idyllic, verdant: springtime in the antebellum South. In an upper corner, the president himself looks out full-face from a little gold-rimmed oval. He appears jaunty but mild-mannered, showing his strong jaw and toothsome grin, but without a politician’s exaggeration. He is not in one of his grand, crowd-pleasing postures. He is not wearing one of his stylish fedoras, nor does one of his cigarettes in a holder jut priapic from his incisors, inclined to cheer the troubled nation. There is a domestic warmth to him. But he is posing nonetheless, in quarter profile, not looking straight at me like Arlo.

I stand, flush, wash my hands, glance out the window, and leave the bathroom. I walk back through the living room, take my laptop from my bag, and place it on the coffee table beside Vassal’s. Then I walk into the kitchen and sit across from him at the kitchen table. He has turned on the gas burner beneath the teakettle. When the steam comes, the kettle will whistle two notes at once, in harmony. We will brew a cup of coffee for him, herbal tea for me. Maybe that will settle me down further, though I doubt it.


* * *


The kitchen table is a maple trestle, end-on to a picture window. While we sit waiting for the water to boil, we look out toward the river. We see nothing to concern us. I want to relax, but I cannot. I am feeling increasingly vulnerable and threatened.

To distract myself, I look around the kitchen. As I said, we often sit here when we are not out on the screen porch. It is a comfortable place to hang out. Like the living room and the rest of the house, it is not fancy. Open shelves line one wall, loaded with cans and jars of food, and bottles of fruit juice and wine. Clear plastic bags of beans and grains crowd each other. Old kerosene lamps rest on the top shelf, for us to use if the power fails. (Power loss has been a nonissue since before I arrived. The government installed a gas-powered generator for Vassal.) At one end of the lowest shelf sits a stack of empty wicker baskets, a wooden salad bowl, and the jar of creamy peanut butter that we use to bait the pails of water with which we trap and drown the resident mice. (Note to lovers of small rodents: If those little buggers were toilet-trained, we would leave them alone. As is, I do not like finding their dark little poops on our counters and shelves, nor do I enjoy seeing their pee and diarrhea stains running down our water pipes and walls.)

In a corner stands a tall open hutch painted glossy white outside and matte red inside. On one shelf, inverted wine glasses circle a brass vase of dried flowers. Another shelf displays a plain, turkey-sized, white china platter. Across the room, beside the gas range, an old black woodstove squats on a rectangle of bricks, its black pipe running to the ceiling. Beyond that runs an aisle, then the counter, with a rectangular metal sink in its center and varnished pine cabinets above it. The refrigerator stands beside it. On the countertop sit a plastic bottle of dishwashing soap, a couple of sponges, a roll of paper towels in a vertical dispenser, a microwave oven, a cheap coffee grinder, and a thirty-year-old toaster.

Past the sink and counter are a couple of windows. Red floral curtains adorn the frames, hung from rusting, spring-loaded metal rods that I bought years ago on an outing from our compound. The windows give a view past the screen porch, through trees, to a section of the river.

Beneath our stocking feet, a cheap shag carpet spreads from wall to wall. It is thicker, softer, and more worn than the carpet in the living room. Tufts of blue and black yarn lie pulled out of it in dozens of places, in need of trimming. For several years we have talked about taking the scissors to it. It keeps getting worse. Vassal has suggested, in jest, that instead of using scissors we should bring in the lawnmower and mow it.

This would be a good day to do something that nutty. The mower would probably rip up the carpet and stink up the house with exhaust, but our routines are that out of joint, and may stay that way for a while. Usually, this kitchen is a favorite room of mine. This morning, however, it holds no charm for me. Much as I love it, it feels inert, unsupportive. That should improve, and may get back to how it was, but probably not today. We will not mow it, of course. We have plenty else to do. But imagining that cheers me up a little. What would visitors to us think if they found us doing that? What would the world think?

 


 1310-SQ-Angelv2

 

“A

re they there, our Navy guards? They didn’t get called off the job and buzz upriver, did they?”

Vassal is looking out the window beside the table, toward the river. When we looked before, we scrutinized the land near us, but for some reason we did not look beyond that to the water. I panic, and lean to look with him. We spy the government boat at its usual post, a hundred yards offshore.

“There they are,” he says, “our steadfast protectors.”

He watches for a minute.

“Nothing unusual.”

We are living in a war zone now, or we may be. We must be vigilant. That lapse of ours has frightened me. My heart rate has risen again. I concentrate on my breath.

“There’s no sign yet that they know what’s up,” Vassal says. “They seem unaware, like the guards on the road. But the honchos at their headquarters in Washington must know by now. They must realize that my device is out there in huge numbers, that it is out of their control, and that their enemies around the world may already be using it against them. They have many secrets to keep, so that must concern them a great deal.”

The thought diverts me. Already, Vassal’s invention must be prompting tough times in many places, not just inside my head. As he says, fevers must be rising in thousands of government offices inside the Beltway. Anxious reports must be pouring into them from the provinces and overseas. As I have speculated, his invention will soon expose the workings of governments and ruling elites in every country. Disadvantaged persons may revolt, including in our fair nation. An era of social unrest may ensue. There will be blame games, power plays, threats, intimidation, and inflammatory talk by all parties. There will also be hunts for the guilty, followed by show trials, destruction of reputations and careers, and real and figurative executions. In some parts of the world, governments may fall and reigns of terror commence.

A few weeks ago, one of the Bigheads said to me, “A dark age is coming. As Vassal says, though, it will be no darker than any other. There’ll be all kinds of bad, but no more than usual. We’ll all continue to be who we are. Our light and dark will be the same as ever.”

At the moment, I do not feel that optimistic. Adrenaline must be pumping through the phone lines and computer networks of officials everywhere, and pouring through their hallways and spraying around their conference rooms. As everyone will recognize, there is much reason for authorities to feel concerned. They must defend against an overwhelming, unconventional threat to their power and legitimacy. They are not ready for that. They have presumed that nothing like this would ever happen, that Vassal would keep a lid on his device. Its release today must be a terrible surprise to them. I am anxious to see their responses.

“It has been only a few hours since it arrived,” Vassal says to me. “It’s too soon for our government friends to come talk with us, apparently. But by now they know the scope of what we’ve done. Maybe they aren’t sure we’re the ones who did it. You’d think they’d suspect us right away. They probably do. But they’re accustomed to us keeping quiet up here in the boondocks, doing nothing year after year. We’ve seemed so unthreatening.

“Maybe they don’t know what to do about us. But they’ll think of something. Soon, they’re going to jump to our door, probably just to talk, but they’ll have their combat faces on. Until then, it looks like you and I still have some time to ourselves. We may have minutes, or an hour or two, or conceivably until tomorrow; maybe even a few days, though that seems unlikely. My bet is that some excitement will start around here any time now.”

He looks up at a corner of the ceiling.

“I wonder . . . Do you suppose any of my little whizbangs are visiting us yet? Could anyone have launched one already and guided it to us? Some government smarty-pants, for instance. Or someone else.”

He speaks to the room: “Are you here yet, boys and girls?”

He listens for a moment, then says to me, “If any of them were flying around here, I would hear the whining of their wings, but I don’t. A bunch could be in this room right now, though, perched somewhere, not moving, watching us. They could’ve been here before we returned from our boat ride. There are plenty of ways they could have got in: through little rips in our window screens and the screen porch, or through gaps in the screen porch door, or through the eaves under the roof, or down the chimney. There are plenty of holes in this place. And some could have come in when we opened the front door.”

He squints, looking at the top shelves and the edges of the ceiling.

“I don’t think any could have arrived so soon, but they could’ve. As we’ve said, now that my bugs are out you and I and zillions of other people may never again be without someone spying on us every minute of our lives. Or at least we’ll think someone is spying on us. Everyone is going to think that. We’ll all feel so exposed: ‘Thou, God, seest me!’ As if anyone will care about us enough to watch us as much as we imagine they will. For most of us, usually, nobody will care that much, but this is going to boost everyone’s paranoia and self-consciousness.”

He shakes his head.

“Strange to be thinking about this, isn’t it? It’s not at all what we’ve been used to. We’ve known this was coming, but now that it’s here and we all have to live with it all the time, it’s incredible.”

He has been looking out the window, watching the Navy inflatable. He turns to me.

“A lot of good my invention is not going to do. Whose idea was this thing, anyway? Who invented it? What madman, what sociopath, what dumbo? Not me, was it? And why is he letting everyone play with wildfire like this? Has he no decency? Evidently not. I mean, maybe it will introduce a new kind of realism into our lives, with less that’s hidden from anyone, and less that we hide from ourselves, but who needs that? Will people benefit? No. It’ll just stir things up for a while, generating more craziness than some of us can handle.”

He winks at me.

“Oh, dear.”

He laughs—not his easy laugh. Are you feeling guilty, Vassal? No, of course not. He looks again at the shelves and ceiling.

“We’ll all get used to it, though, as I say. We’ll have to and we will. The same old.”


* * *


As he says, it may be too soon for people to have sent devices to visit us. Their operators will have to know how to get them here. If they come from far away, their operators will want them to hitch rides on trains, planes, buses, and so on rather than fly through the countryside at their own speed, which is only a few miles an hour.

They will also have to elude natural defenders. Around here, as in much of the world, real, live, insectivorous predators patrol the air outside. They zip around everywhere: on the roads and fields, through the woods, and over the salt marshes, mud flats, and open water. Among the most impressive are the dragonflies, some of which can fly thirty miles an hour or more, snatching and eating smaller flying insects. They are rapacious, and can consume their weight in a half hour. Vassal admires them greatly. When he devised his invention, he studied them carefully and modeled aspects of it on them.

 

dragonfly 

“Those beauties are far more refined than my bugs,” he says. “They’re much faster, way more agile, and they have 360-degree vision. But what do you expect? They’ve been around for three hundred million years, since before the dinosaurs. In that time, they’ve developed plenty of brain and body smarts, tuned to their purposes. That’s not surprising; their brains are the size of pinheads, but contain almost a million nerve cells. There was no way I could build anything that sophisticated.

“Someone will someday, though, some smart scientists and engineers. And before that, they’ll be able to harness those creatures. They’ll figure out a way to attach some of the payload that’s on my bug to real insects. Then they’ll figure out a way to build those payloads in, as implants. After that, they’ll learn how to take over those critters’ brains and neuromuscular systems, and control where they go. Sooner or later, they’ll be able to do that with all insects, birds, fish, and mammals, including humans. Plants, too. Eventually, they’ll be able to tap into and control everything that all creatures—and maybe all things—think and do, including all our behavior and everything we experience.

“That may seem far-fetched, but bit by bit that’s what we’re fetching. We’re on the way there, and always have been. These days, electrophysiological and chemical studies of molecular biology, particularly of learning, memory, and other mental processes, are bringing us closer to that reality. And when we get there, Wow! There will be some excitement. We’ll have some interesting capabilities, and they’ll raise interesting issues.

“Beyond that, who knows. Sometimes I wonder if plants and animals will tune into us at the same time we tune into them, and maybe end up controlling us as much as we control them. Or maybe they do that already, and we them. Once again, where we’re headed may be where we already are.”


* * *


There are fly-catching birds swooping around outside the house, too, not just farther afield. They include phoebes, kingbirds, swallows, flycatchers, and, come dusk, hoarse sounding little nighthawks. Also at dusk, brown bats pour from their daytime resting places. Each one eats hundreds of flying insects every night. Altogether, the dragonflies, birds, and bats comprise a predatory force to reckon with. They are hungry, sharp-eyed or -eared, and agile, as Vassal says. They are more than a match for his device.

Their presence does not worry him, though.

“My devices will give them target practice, but that’s about all. Each one is nothing but metal and plastic. If any of those critters try to eat one, they won’t do it twice, if they’re smart. They won’t be able to break it down. It might get stuck in their throats. If they manage to swallow it, it could go down hard. And if it gets to their digestive systems, the consequences won’t be agreeable, since it’s indigestible. I wouldn’t be surprised if they learn to leave it alone. And even if they do wreck a few of my things, there’ll be so many more that plenty will get through.”

Now that Vassal’s device has arrived, I would like to watch that sideshow as well as many of the others that will happen. I am eager to get up from my chair in the kitchen, go to my laptop in the living room, finish writing this book, email the manuscript to our publisher, and then settle down and watch all that unfold.

I would like to see what is appearing about it now in the news, on websites, in social networks and forums, in blogs, and in messages that I may already be receiving from family, friends, colleagues, students, acquaintances, and others who know that I work with Vassal. For the time being, however, I will remain in my chair, saying nothing, making mental notes about what I will write when I can resume. This day is his more than mine. We will go to our computers when he is ready. I await his initiative. 


* * *


The kettle whistles. I jump up, walk to the stove, and pour the boiling water into my teacup and Vassal’s coffee press. Then I pick up his coffee mug, put everything on a tray, and return with it to the table. He is looking out the window again.

“We could fish for those birds, bats, and dragonflies, couldn’t we?” he says, “We could use my device as bait. Do you think there would be any sport in that, or would that just be a mean thing to do to those creatures? They’re our relatives, after all. We have common ancestors, as we do with everything. Our little cousins.”

I have not yet reported it here, but he mentioned that fishing idea to me yesterday, using the same words. Does he know that he is repeating himself? Is his mind elsewhere, or is he just tired, as both of us have been for days? Or—of course—he is not talking just to me. He is also entertaining any outsiders who may be watching and listening to him by means of his invention.

“Those critters will think that mine are real insects, the same as trout in streams and ponds think of the artificial flies that you and I cast to them. I bet we could attach little fishhooks to my gizmos and catch a lot of birds, bats, dragonflies, and other bug eaters around here. Don’t you think so? With the right lure you can catch anything, as long as what you want to catch is hungry, which living things often are. We’d try not to hurt them, of course, and we’d turn loose any we catch, as long as they aren’t killed in the catching.

“Hooking them could be cruel, though. Same as it is cruel to catch fish, not that we let that stop us. It would stress them, even if they aren’t able to feel what we call pain. It might be okay to do that if it served some greater good, like keeping them from intercepting my devices, or if we wanted to eat them, or if catching them were some kind of important accomplishment. But it’s not like catching trophy fish, or hunting for big game. Nobody would want to mount them and hang them on the wall as trophies, or to take pictures of them to brag about. As for eating them, Europeans used to kill songbirds to cook into pastries—four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, and all that. But birdie pie isn’t all that appealing to most people nowadays.”

songbirds, from a painting by Franz Snyderssongbirds, from “Still Life with Dead Game” by Frans Snyders (1661)


He laughs, his snort.

“May we never get that hungry. First, we’d have to pluck their feathers off them, which would be a lot of work. Then, we’d cook them. Then, to eat them, we’d have to either pick the tiny bits of meat off them or just bite into them and either fish their little bones out of our mouths or swallow them whole and sometime later poop them out of us undigested, the way owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, and other bird-eaters do. And on their way out of us, those bones would be prickly. Youch!”

He pauses.

“What a ridiculous subject. I don’t know why I’m thinking about it. As I say, those critters flying around out there won’t be much problem for us. We won’t need to still their little hearts, or interfere with them in any way.”

He stops talking. Probably, the thought of killing even so-called lower life forms reminds him of losing Victory. Years after that misfortune, the memory of that tragedy comes easily to him, and hard. It still sobers him. But he dwells on it only briefly, and then shakes it off. This time, after a moment, he stands up, coffee mug in hand, and gestures toward the living room.

“Shall we?” he says to me. “Join the human race?”

He heads for the door, talking as he goes.

“Let’s welcome our arriving guests and see what kind of party is beginning.”

At last. I stand and follow him. At the doorway, he stops and looks ahead into the living room. He scans the ceiling and walls. He sees nothing new. He looks at his computer on the coffee table. He is probably imagining, as I am, the uproar he will find when he sits down to it.

“Cue the heraldic horns, then enter stage right,” he says. “Are people calling me bad names yet? A monster of infamous egotism, perhaps? That would be fair, but equally true of everyone else. And no doubt other people are being nicer than that, saying instead that I’m the hope of mankind. That would be lovely, wouldn’t it? But they, too, should know better. You and I certainly do, Professor. My feet are made of the usual clay. People are smart; they’ll figure that out.”

He laughs.

“Like the Bigheads said, people will call me all kinds of things, good and bad. They’ll call you things, too, and the rest of our crew. I bet some people are doing that already.”

He gestured toward his computer.

“That’s not to fault them, though. Naming things is never accurate, and always oversimplifies. It’s a way to misunderstand things, and to avoid understanding them. But we all do that. We have to. We can’t get by without language, so we do the best we can with it. Crickets gotta chirp, birds gotta sing, bulls gotta bellow, and all that—same story for all. In this case, we’ll soon see what comes of it. Among other things, we’ll see what rush to judgment begins.”

He holds his hands in front of him, makes circles of his thumbs and index fingers, then brings the circles to his eyes and looks through them.

“But we don’t have to guess anymore about how people will respond to my invention. We can watch them.”

 


 

 

1310-SQ-Angelv2 

We walk from the kitchen to the living room many times a day. This time feels surreal. As we stand in the doorway, Vassal is relaxed as ever, but I am jittery. My eyesight cannot settle. My chest and shoulder muscles are tight, and my breath labored. My fingers are wooden, clumsy. I clasp my cup of tea in both hands. I am afraid I may drop it. I cannot feel its warmth. My whole being feels wired wrong.

Are people here yet, watching me, watching us? If so, how many, and with what discernment? What are they thinking about Vassal and what he has done? And what are they thinking about me and my part? How many people are going to judge us sympathetically, and how many will judge us harshly? How many will consider me a decent person? To how many will I seem evil or an unholy mess, at best a victim of my phantasms? How extreme will people’s feelings be toward me and us?

What about their own situations? Are any panicking yet? Will any go insane—stark raving? And will I? I am sure that the coming of Vassal’s device will lead some people to commit suicide. What will be the reasons, and the circumstances? Before and in the deed, what will be their thoughts, emotions, and physical perceptions? What violence will they do to their bodies and spirits? And what transfiguration may be theirs? As they die, what portal, if any, will they pass through, to what nullity.

 

suicide doesn't end it

 

Of course, I tell myself, those unfortunates will be a small minority. As Vassal says, no matter how disruptive his invention turns out to be, no matter how much stress and strain its presence causes, almost everyone will end up feeling okay about it, and not a few people will feel that its coming is as positive a development as they can imagine. Or so I like to believe.


Vassal steps from the kitchen doorway and glides down onto the couch. I follow and sit beside him. We lean back. I exhale. My head aches. I relax into the back cushion of the couch; I soften my abdominal muscles, shoulders, arms, and neck. My head settles forward. I still feel restless, my mind a muddle. I tilt my head up again. I stare across the room at nothing. I raise my cup of tea to my lips, but I do not drink. I lower the cup.

Vassal leans forward to his computer, and sets his coffee mug beside it on the table. He turns his head and shoulders, and looks back at me with concern. I return his look without expression. He places a hand on my knee—an act of warmth and generosity, but I feel nothing. He continues looking at me. He wants to cheer me up. He frowns at me, and pouts, trying to be funny. I smile, the slightest squint.

“Feeling better?” he says.

I do not respond. He squeezes my knee.

“Let’s see what’s doing.”

He turns to his computer and taps the keyboard, awakening it. He types, clicks, and scrolls. I should get to mine, too, and resume writing; I have not written a word since back on the boat. I still cannot move, but I think I will be able to move soon. I feel less stressed, but lethargic. I wait.

He is looking at his screen. After a few minutes, he describes to me what he is seeing. His manner is hearty and a bit stiff, as if he is hosting a TV show, playing to our possible audience as well as to me.

“It’s out there, Reverend Professor. It has begun. People are broadcasting from it, and they’re posting videos they’ve recorded through it. They’re writing and talking about it, too, telling each other what they’re seeing and doing with it, and asking questions about what’s developing elsewhere. Social media are full of that. It’s the topic of the day. Not surprising, is it?”

He reaches over and softly swats my knee with his fingertips.

“News media are onto it, of course, receiving wide-eyed reports from all over, and spreading the word. Soon, no doubt, they’ll start taking polls, gathering people’s opinions. They’ll affix data points to the void, points on a compass, to give people a better idea what to think. It’ll help guide folks through the tempest.”


direction, as if to reassure us and help us know our minds

 

“I can’t tell yet to what extent people are feeling good about what’s happening, and to what extent they’re hot and bothered. Both, I expect, but more on the upbeat side at the moment, seems like. There’s confusion and concern, but less than I would have thought. There’s a fun factor in using it, so there’s a lot of positive excitement out there. People are taking my device and trying it out, getting the hang of it. At the same time, they’re learning how widespread it is, and realizing what that may mean to them. There’s an air of anticipation, like when people are going to a festival or a big game. We’ll see if that holds up.”


* * *


I am still leaning back in the couch, behind him. His head and shoulders shift slightly as he controls his laptop. From what he has been saying, it sounds like the response is as we expected. Many people are sensing opportunity and feeling hope, while others are upset. I sense invisible fuses burning, hissing, setting off explosions in people’s minds as they realize what Vassal has given to them. I try to imagine those explosions. Outwardly, they are as silent as the sky and as countless as the stars. I envision chains of them, and carpets of them, each one somebody’s moment of discovery: Boom! Ba-ba-boom! Ba-ba-ba-BOOM!

Many people may be enjoying their gifts, as Vassal says, but there must be deeper impact, too. People must be worrying some, trying to figure out how best to proceed. They will know that some people—their rivals, competitors, and enemies, real or imagined, not to mention curious family members, friends, and acquaintances—may already be using his device to uncover their secrets. Many must want to prevent that, though they realize that they cannot. Some must be appealing to authorities—police, town and city officials, judges, legislators, governors, the White House—to reverse the irreversible.

Vassal is seeing some confirmation of my thoughts.

“Of course,” he says to me, “this love fest we’ve begun isn’t just bringing good times. Many people are using my device with enthusiasm, and looking forward to more. Some are flat-out celebrating. But it’s bringing complications, too, as we anticipated. There’s an air of crisis about it along with the curiosity and optimism. As people think about its implications, they’re getting concerned, and feeling unsure about what to do. Some, understandably, are furious, frightened, lashing out. The Bigheads are sending me messages saying that they’re seeing the same mix of responses I am.

He watches some more, then reports to me again.

“People are already beginning to sort it out and settle down. The stakes are high, but not too high for them to manage. As for the people who still feel angry, many of them are feeling stuck. They’re getting angrier. They know that people may be sending devices to where they live and work, looking to cause trouble. Some angry people are demanding my head, as we knew they would. Some are hysterical, threatening not just me but you, too, and the rest of our gang, as we thought might happen. They’d like to take revenge in any way possible, as if that could improve anything.

“One thing we haven’t known is to what extent the furious people will get official help. Everybody knows that our government friends have been protecting me for all these years partly because they don’t want bad guys to get at me, and partly because they’ve been afraid that if they don’t protect me I might revive my invention and use it against them. They’ve thought I might pull back the curtain on them and let the world see how they operate. That would make their work more difficult, and could bring down their whole house of cards.

“As you know, Reverend, I don’t think I ever would have done that, even in the early days, when I didn’t think too highly of them. I never told them that, though. I’ve taken advantage of their fear, to get them to guard against any crazies who might come at me. As you also know, I haven’t felt guilty about doing that, since many of those crazies were their enemies, not mine.”

He chuckles.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be saying those things out loud. Government people may be in here listening to me. I haven’t seen evidence of that, here or online, but I haven’t gone looking, either. I’ve been more interested in everyone else’s response to what I’ve done. I’ve figured that the response by the government people is pretty predictable.

“Last night we delivered devices to many of them, of course, same as we did to everyone. We gave them a good pile, over a thousand. Considering all they’ve done for us for so long, and their years of coveting my device, it’s only fair that they get their share. Also, many of their citizens have it, including everyone from just plain folks to friends and families of their own employees, not to mention nosy journalists and pesky academics. Plenty of interested foreigners have it, too, including governments and all kinds of international organizations.

“Obviously, many people have stakes in what our government does. Those people will fly my bugs into every government office, meeting room, hallway, and chamber, and they’ll broadcast to each other and everyone else whatever is going on there. Probably that has already begun. So, our government buddies deserve their own, same as everyone does, to help them take care of what they take care of.

“As for exactly what they’ll do with it and about it, who knows? They may try to sit tight and ride out the storm, then repair the damage after things calm down. Or they may be more active, either in response to what happens or preemptively, to keep things from getting too difficult for them.

“You and I have wondered what they might do about us, for instance. We’ve known they might come after us for causing trouble. For the time being, as we’ve said, there are plenty of laws they could throw at us. They may decide that the best defense against the many people who will spy on them is to make an example of us. They could start doing that any time now.”

He looks up from his laptop.

“Are they here yet, do you think, watching and listening? I have thought they could be, but I think I’ll inquire.”

He spreads his arms and addresses the room.

“Are any of you government dignitaries here, sort of, visiting us from your breakfast tables or offices? Senators, are you here? And Congresspeople? And Mr. Vice President, summoned to your office early today, were you? And staff members from every department, visiting us from your desks and conference rooms in the White House, Executive Office Building, Capitol Hill, and so on, or from your homes all over Greater D.C.?

“All of you are hard at work on this, I’m sure, looking out for the wellbeing of your institutions and the people they serve. If you’re here, we welcome you. I hope you find your time here well spent. I doubt you will; probably your time would be better spent elsewhere. But that’s for you to decide. Besides, thanks to my bugs, you are spending your time elsewhere as well as here, or you can be if you want. Pretty cool, isn’t it?”

He looks back at his screen.

“It’s early yet,” he says to me, “but I expect more of them are in their offices than in their homes. I’m guessing that most government workers, at least at the managerial level and above, rushed into work as soon as they heard what was happening. Now, if they’re watching us, I bet they’re also conferring with each other and outside advisors, and hearing from constituents, lobbyists, donors, and so on. They’re trying to get a grip. As I said, this is a crisis for many people, certainly including them.

“What they’re seeing here, though, is pretty boring and not very instructive—just me muttering and you writing. It’s probably going to stay that way, too, as you and I know. We’ve already done what matters. We did it hours ago, when we turned my invention loose. Our part of the game is over. As I told them a minute ago, their time will be better spent doing other things.”

He addresses the room again.

“In case you didn’t hear that, everyone, the game’s over around here, and The Reverend Professor and I have gone home. What’s done is done. We did what we did. We can’t undo it now, and wouldn’t if we could. You’re welcome to hang around here, if you want to. We can’t stop you, and don’t want to stop you. How you spend your time is up to you. But things are going to be slow here—a few unproductive meetings with government people, probably, and that’ll be about all. You might want to consider alternative places, if you haven’t already.”

To me, he says, “Whatever else our government friends do about us, it’s a good bet they’ll send more guards, to keep people away from us. Members of the press and others may already be pouring down the road and the river, or getting ready to fly over us in helicopters. If they’re doing that in the flesh, our guards will stop them before they get to our door. But if they’re doing it inside my bugs, no one can stop them.

“Elsewhere, who knows? In some cities, maybe a few thousand demonstrators will take to the streets about this. Some might even come demonstrate out there on our road, if they’re allowed to. Some of them will approve of what I’ve done, and some will disapprove, as if there’s any use being either for or against it. But most people won’t demonstrate. As we’ve expected, they’ll be too busy using my invention. As the Bigheads said, it’s party time for everyone.”


* * *


No one else is here, not in person. I am surprised no government officials have shown up, but I realize it might take them time to get here. As we have said, they may on their way, or they may still be thinking about what to do. Or, though everything about our guards appears normal, they may be doing things we are not aware of. For instance, I would expect them to set up their roadblock farther up the road, not just a few hundred yards, as it has been. They may also be imposing a larger no-fly zone, and prohibiting access to more of the river.

Vassal is thinking about that, too.

“We’ll probably need additional guards,” he says. “As the Bigheads have said, some pissed-off group may try to bust in here and shoot us, string us up, or suicide-bomb us, turning us into a spray of detached limbs, wet bone fragments, and bloody paste. Our government buddies won’t want to let any of that happen. That’s one reason they’ll keep protecting us. It’s very unlikely they’ll stop doing that and leave us on our own. If they do, though, we’ll hire mercenaries or round up a battalion or two of gun-totin’, grenade-launchin’ volunteers. Private security with serious weapons isn’t hard to find.

“Of course, the government may just haul us off to Washington, whether or not we agree to go. They may want to play their usual hot-air hardball: grim interrogations, melodramatic hearings, impassioned speeches, preening news conferences. But I think they won’t. It’ll be in their interest to keep behaving well toward us. I expect that the most they’ll do is politely ask us to go down there with them for a few days to discuss things with some rooms full of traumatized officials. Or they’ll just talk with us here, maybe with an audiovisual link that connects with people down there.

“I don’t think they’ll be very mad at us. What’s the use? My invention is released. They’ll just want to make it work for them as well as they can. If we can’t help them, which they’ll see we can’t, they’ll get along without us, same as everyone else will. At least, that’s how I think it will go. I can’t be sure, of course. That’s part of the fun of this, and—”

Abruptly, he turns his head toward the front door. I gasp. Did he hear something?

“I thought I heard voices,” he says, “but maybe I didn’t.”

We listen. A breeze rustles through nearby trees, and brushes one side of the house. Out over the river, an osprey calls to her mate—a half dozen sharp screeches. We hear nothing more.

 

 

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