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Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat

 

Global Warming Fun 5:

It’s a Dry Heat

By

Gary J. Davies

 

Published by Gary J. Davies at Shakespir

 

Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat

Copyright 2016 Gary J. Davies

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this e-book. This book is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author. Quotes used in reviews are the only exception. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy.

This e-book is a work of fiction created by the author and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are a production of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Thank you for downloading this e-book!

 

Contents

 

Forward

Chapter 1: Mary’s Last Wish

Chapter 2: Leaving, On a Jet Plane

Chapter 3: LAX?

Chapter 4: Old Students

Chapter 5: The Enslaved Stone-Coat

Chapter 6: Escape to Bakersfield

Chapter 7: The Big Trees

Chapter 8: The Park

Chapter 9: Zombies!

Chapter 10: Silicon Valley

Chapter 11: San Francisco

Chapter 12: The Golden Gate

Chapter 13: Wine Country and Trees

Chapter 14: Giants on the Beach

Chapter 15: Furry Forrest Dwellers

Chapter 16: Loss and Transference

Chapter 17: A New Beginning

About Other Publications by This Author

 

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Forward

That’s ‘fun’ about global warming? Very little, unfortunately, as measured in lives or dollars, but I felt that it presented challenging writing opportunities that some readers might also appreciate. As far as climate change goes, I try to stick as close as practicable to the science as it is currently imperfectly known, though I have chosen to adopt what is hopefully a worse-case scenario. It is unfortunate that reality can form such a nasty backdrop for a fictional series. However reality is a dangerous place to be; it is what it is, whether we like it or not. If you happen to not ‘believe’ in climate change, go for example to the NASA website for some depressingly bad news. I leave it as an exercise for the enlightened reader to discern what parts of this story reflect fact based science Vs what is science-tinted fiction Vs what is pure fantasy. The key goal here entertainment, not enlightenment.

This novel is the fifth in a planned series of approximately ten short stories and/or novellas (this particular series element inadvertently grew to novel length) that when complete will also (hopefully) at some future date be merged to comprise one seamless epic novel that will be absurdly long even when redundancy is removed. The declared general plan/writing challenge is for each story in the series to provide a glimpse of both typical and critical events amid an increasingly unstable world in which natural, technological and perhaps mythical forces are being unleashed due to climate change and other human induced problems.

The writing challenge is formidable. From a human perspective climate changes much slower than grass grows: over a period of many centuries, though from geological and evolutionary perspectives the timeframe of the event is unfortunately short. The expected world-wide impact is almost unimaginable – a train wreck in super slow motion. Even a series of stories with a plot that takes place over centuries can hardly begin to do justice to the event. But I’ll do my best.

Since only completed works are permitted to be published through Shakespir, each series element must stand alone and exhibit a sense of completeness. Some redundancy is thus necessary in each series element in order to reintroduce series characters, settings and plots. Yet each element also must address a broader series plotline such that together the releases form an epic story that takes place over many centuries. Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat can therefore be read independently as a stand-alone story, though for a better sense of the over-all plot and more insight into the characters, before reading this story ideally its prequels should be read in order.

Though more or less remaining true to its original concept as discussed most extensively in the first series volume, this series has morphed to be primarily the story of immortal telepathists Ed Rumsfeld and Jerry Green, Jerry’s gene-spliced/edited sentient ants (jants; introduced in the first story), and sentient rock creatures known as Stone-Coats (stone creatures inspired by Mohawk legend; introduced in the second story). Notably there are also the med-ticks, introduced in the third story.

The progression of climate change provides the ever evolving setting for this series. This fifth story of the Global Warming Fun series takes place five years after the forth story: over forty years after the mid 2020’s start of the series. In it Ed Rumsfeld takes his aging wife Mary to visit California, which has undergone radical transformation: climate-wise to a significant degree, but even more so politically and culturally. Like the other series elements this one illuminates a brief snippet in time. The sixth release in this series will take place in New York City, the last will take place on a distant human-settled Earth-like planet.

In addition to cheerfully and patiently waiting for unknown ages to see how this lengthy series unfolds and finally ends, you may wish in the meantime to read an already completed full-length novel. (What a novel idea!) See the ‘About Other Publications by This Author’ section at the end of this e-book for a brief description of other E-books published by this author, including a brief description of each of the previous releases of the Global Warming Fun series.

I am indebted to numerous information sources, most found on the internet (including Wiki and Edge websites) for knowledge about the Mohawk, climate change, and many other concepts used in this series. As always I thank my wife and daughters for putting up with all this writing nonsense, Bill Gates for his useful Word spell-checker that makes even physics-trained engineers passable spellers, and my favorite author James P. Blaylock for his early inspiringly silly fabulist fantasy writings. Please bring back the elves, James!

I wish also to thank the makers of Paint-dot-NET, the freeware which supports my awkwardly challenging but enjoyable creation of what are (hopefully) nifty little e-book covers. The covers of my books, like the writing and editing, are mine/my fault. My KISS philosophy with regard to covers remains to as much as possible design them to be simple, illuminating, legible, amusing, and attention getting even though these little eye-charts are usually displayed at only three to six centimeters high.

Happy reading to all!

 

****

 

 

Global Warming Fun 5:

It’s a Dry Heat

 

Chapter 1

Mary’s Last Wish

 

“Wake up, Ed,” Mary Rumsfeld coaxed, as she gently shook her husband’s shoulder.

“What is it?” Ed asked in alarm, as he struggled to gather his wits. “Are you alright?” The dimly glowing walls and ceiling allowed him to see that she was sitting atop the covers next to him on their bed, and that she was fully dressed for daytime activities. It must be morning already, he deduced, and as usual, she was up and about long before him. Most important: she looked alright! Old, wrinkled, and gray but alert. Her sparkling eyes were full of morning energy and confidence. She was even smiling!

“Calm down; its morning and I’m as well as can be expected, given that I’m at death’s door,” she replied.

She had been making many such remarks lately, Ed noted. She was of course referring to the fact that she was in her mid-seventies and rapidly weakening, in ever greater contrast with his own apparently immortal body that persistently appeared to be thirty-five years old. He hadn’t aged in over forty years. It was unfair. Weren’t women supposed to live longer than men, especially nowadays?

GIVE US THE USUAL GRADUAL INCREASE IN LIGHT,” Ed projected silently via his recent brain implant for the Stone-Coats of the surrounding cave to ‘hear’. “OH, AND GOOD MORNING EVERYONE!” he added, using both telepathic and implant voices.

Ed's Stone-Coat manufactured brain implant functioned perfectly, translating his English language-framed thoughts into digitized raw signals and broadcasting those at kilohertz -range frequencies to the Stone-Coat infused granite walls, celling, and floor of the cave. There Stone-Coat developed imbedded metallic wire segments of suitable lengths for resonance captured analog signals that were soon re-digitized and sent via nanotube circuitry to the banks of individual Stone-Coat computing elements that comprised much of Giants' Rest Mountain. The human thought patterns were finally known and understood by them. The whole process of translation and comprehension was concluded within a few milliseconds.

The already dimly glowing cave walls, ceiling, and floor began to gradually glow brighter, though it would take a couple of minutes for the bedroom to reach full daylight levels. Wall hangings gradually became illuminated. Most of these were exceptionally fine examples of Mohawk art, clothing, and weapons: relics of bygone centuries entrusted to Ed as a current Tribe Chief. Such human relics meant almost nothing to the Stone-Coats, but were incredibly priceless to the Tribe.

The term ‘Stone-Coat’ seemed a somewhat arbitrary one to use for life forms that were mostly solid stone throughout and could assume many shapes and functions, but it was the name for them traditionally used by the local Mohawk Tribe for over ten thousand years to describe them, and the term was now applied to them by most humans world-wide.

No Stone-Coat ‘technology’ could yet directly sense telepathic signals communicated by some humans and other animals, but with the advent of the implants thoughts formed within the human brain could be sensed. Now humans with implants and Stone-Coats with radio-wave sensing abilities could directly communicate, even if one or both of the parties lacked vocal and/or hearing apparatus and/or telepathic ability. Using them wasn’t natural biological mind-to-mind telepathy, only a crudely mimicked imitation, but it worked well.

With the use of Stone-Coat intermediaries and the implants Ed and Mary could even communicate with each other soundlessly, despite Mary’s total lack of natural telepathic ability. It took some practice and concentration to pull it off satisfactorily however, just as real telepathy did, in order to ensure that only intended thoughts were communicated and not half-baked, extraneous, or private ones. After only two initially awkward months however, Ed and Mary had become highly proficient at implant use. Currently they had the only two such implants in existence, but Ed had already decided that he was going to recommend that implants such as theirs be made widely available to others.

The telepathic ants known as jants that lived nearby in the Jant Clan Longhouse Cave where Ed and Mary also lived ‘heard’ Ed’s telepathic morning greeting and responded in kind. “GOOD MORNING, JANT CLAN LEADER ED RUMSFELD,” they answered. Their thoughts were those of a hive mind that consisted of a million tiny ant minds focused into a single reverberating ‘voice’ that seemed almost human to Ed.

Meanwhile they physically for the most part did what ants had always done: driven by evolution-honed chemistry and primitive neural circuitry they performed the simple necessary life sustaining chores that ants had evolved to do for over a hundred million years. Only now they each also hosted complex brain matter that comprised ten percent of their tiny bodies, telepathically forming a conscious hive mind that could in turn link into the telepathic network of other jant hive minds that were established throughout the world wherever jants lived.

Overtly jants always seemed to be respectful of humans, but Ed sometimes caught bits and pieces of their internal chatter that provided disturbing: hints that they sometimes told humans one thing but told each other something quite different. Their capability and predilection for deception made them more human-like than Ed was comfortable with. Even Jerry Green, the gene-splicing/editing creator of Jerry’s ants, the jants, had on several occasions hinted to Ed that he didn’t fully understand or trust his tiny creations.

Several other telepathic Mohawk Tribe members could also understand some of the jant internal chatter and were similarly suspicious of hidden jant motives and intensions. Despite that, the dominant presence and increasing influence of jants throughout most of the land portions of the Earth’s ecosphere could not be denied. Throughout the world jants were rapidly replacing other competitive ant and non-ant species.

With Ed’s help the Tribe had adjusted to jants. Like the Stone-Coats, jants had been granted Clan status by the Tribe several decades earlier. And Ed, willing sucker that he was and the second human being to ever communicate telepathically with a sentient insect species, was made the Jant Clan Leader of the Tribe. It became his never ending duty to help manage the jant/Tribe relationship, along with sharing Tribe Chief duties with Running Bear, the aging Tribe adopted Mohican hero who was also the Stone-Coat Clan Leader.

“Good morning, Chief Ed,” spoke the wall via the vibrating graphene chords and membranes of a small cavity in the wall/Stone-Coat nearby. Like Ed and Mary, the Stone-Coats also seemed to prefer communication with humans using sound, even though they started doing so only a few years earlier. Ed sometimes wondered if Stone-Coats did that to keep jants from listening in. The tiny jants could sometimes sense voices as deep vibrations, but not well enough to distinguish words. Jants were essentially deaf with respect to sound, while Stone-Coats and most humans were telepathically deaf. Between humans, jants, Stone-Coats and their various combinations of natural abilities, inabilities, and technologies, communications within and between each of Earth’s three dominant species was a complicated issue.

Ed was glad that neither the Stone-Coats nor the jants immediately reported any status information to him. That meant that there were no urgent issues pending that they felt compelled to tell him about despite the fact that it was not his turn this month to be Chief of the Giants’ Rest Mohawk Tribe humans. That was fine as far as Ed was concerned. Let John Running Bear as the current on-duty Chief deal with any issues!

But something urgent was definitely up with Mary. Upon inquiry Ed’s internalized implant informed him that it was only eight AM. Mary usually let him sleep-in much later when he was not tasked to be Chief. “Something is really bothering you,” he said. Even though they had become comfortable using their implants Ed and Mary also preferred using voice communications with Stone-Coats and with each other. “Despite my apparent youth I’m a grown boy; let me have it.”

“I want to go to California,” she finally blurted out. “Very soon. Mostly to see the big trees and the Pacific Ocean.”

“California? That’s right, we never did get out there together, did we!” said Ed. More than forty years ago they had had talked about taking a month-long vacation in California. That was a lifetime ago, when he still taught seventh to ninth-grade history in Virginia and had long idyllic summers off. In Virginia, Mary had a little antique shop that she still spoke of longingly, even though she had hardly made any money with it. Ed hung out with her in her shop in the idyllic Virginia summers, until the changes came.

Back then despite summer and winter weather perhaps getting nastier and the findings of thousands of climate scientists world-wide, many Americans still denied that climate change was even happening or that it had anything to do with the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that humans had released into the atmosphere. But climate change was unfortunately very real and not a mere construct of religion or politics. The fact that to fast-paced humans it seemed to take hold so gradually simply made it more insidious and subject to denialism.

Summers were just a bit longer and hotter, and winter though a touch warmer packed a wallop with bigger snowstorms. Mother Nature took notice. All too soon the beloved Virginia where Ed and Mary lived was subjected to invading giant snakes and birds, man eating insects, and other invasive animals, plants, and microbes.

Evolution had also become tinged with Lamarckism, accelerating genetic changes slightly. Quirky invading species were often even more quirky than expected. Jerry might have also been responsible for that, he once admitted to Ed, due to work he did back in his early years of experimentation with virus transmission of genes. Scientists world-wide were still trying to determine if the Lamarckian incidence of traits of individuals being fed-back into their genetic makeup was significant enough to be a far greater danger to life on Earth than any of the radical climate changes that had occurred over billions of years due to things like asteroid strikes, volcanism, and changes in solar activity.

Not at first noticed because of inherent political instability to begin with, there was also climate change-caused world-wide sociopolitical upheaval to deal with. In response to historically unprecedented storms, floods, land-slides, droughts, fires, heat waves, cold waves, crop failures, and other events directly related to climate, the incidence of rebellions, wars, terrorism, human and non-human migrations, plague, and anarchy gradually increased, with tens of thousands of humans dying daily in hundreds of on-going conflicts and other calamities world-wide. Already strained governments and public services struggled and collapsed, leading to further chaos and suffering. A much stronger United Nations worked worldwide towards survival and peace despite destruction and chaos, but its internationally focused resources were limited as every nation also struggled internally to address its own pressing local problems.

From the beginning there was no doubt that humans should in principle be able to survive the massive inconvenience of relatively modest climate change – unless they did something stupid. Unfortunately humans always did many things stupid. Ever since they had achieved world dominance as a species thousands of years earlier, humans had been their own worst enemy, and that situation wasn’t going to be altered by climate change.

The term ‘climate change’ became more popular than ‘global warming’ as it became more clear that there was much more to what was happening than a simple straight-forward uniform warming of a few degrees, including consequences such as drought and flooding that seemed obvious outcomes to climate savvy scientists but mysterious to most other people. A very few regions on Earth were even for a time becoming colder instead of warmer. Eastern Canada and the North Eastern United States including upper New York State, where some of the Tribe still lived at Giants’ Rest Mountain, was one of those colder regions.

There were very notable cyclic changes to the nuclear fusion driven weather of the sun also, and these also influenced Earth climate significantly. Two decades of solar dimming had temporarily stalled Earth’s carbon dioxide induced global warming until the middle of the twenty-first century, but had accelerated cooling in the North East. Meanwhile Ed and Mary retreated north from steaming hot Virginia to live with the reclusive Giants’ Rest Mountain Mohawk Tribe of the New York Adirondack Mountains.

In warming Virginia, while innocently cutting his grass Ed had been attacked and nearly killed by invading mutant army ants. He was saved by his neighbor Jerry Green and Jerry’s gene-spliced/edited ants – the jants – but at a price. Ed became telepathic and apparently immortal due to the chemical cocktail that his biochemist neighbor had concocted and injected that day into both himself and Ed.

Like Jerry, Ed could suddenly communicate telepathically with the jants, and became allied with them. But even with jants to protect them it had become too hot and dangerous in Virginia to suit Ed and Mary. When Mary was nearly eaten by a forty-foot mutant python in her own kitchen, that was the last straw. Through Mary’s Uncle Jack, Ed found another teaching job in upper New York State where the increasing cold offered some protection from the heat and from tropical invasive species. In the growing cold of the Adirondacks Ed and Mary successfully escaped giant pythons, condors, and most other invasive flora and fauna by living with the Mohawk Tribe of Giants’ Rest Mountain.

There they soon became far too busy to think of California vacations. Although Ed had thought that the reclusive Mohawk Tribe was hiring him to school them about white-man history, they really wanted him to use his newfound telepathic skills to try to detect the waking Atenenyarhu – the Stone-Coat Ice Giants of Giants’ Rest Mountain. Ed and Mary were soon adopted by the Tribe and Ed eventually even became a Chief.

The Stone-Coats of ancient Mohawk legend turned out to be very real, and the stone creatures in the form of massive Ice Giants became more active as winters lengthened and caused permanent ice-sheets to form in the USA North East and much of South-Eastern Canada. The Stone-Coats fortunately turned out to be rational and mostly indifferent to humans rather than being enemies. Gradually the rock creatures bonded with Tribe humans. With the help of the Stone-Coats part of the Tribe remained at Giants’ Rest and preserved some of their long Stone-Coat dominated heritage, but it hadn’t been easy.

The last five years had been particularly trying ones for all of humanity. While humans worldwide increasingly struggled with the consequences of climate change including mass human migrations and armed conflicts, they also had to adapt to the reality of Stone-Coat Ice Giants existing on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. Only a few decades earlier the jants had presented a similar shocking blow to human egos. Now humans were forced to face the humbling fact that they shared the Earth with both insects and rocks that were more intelligent than themselves. The jants were new and a human creation, but the Stone-Coats were ancient beyond comprehension, possibly pre-dating multicellular biological life. Not since the advent of the sciences of astronomy and evolution had fragile human egos been so traumatized!

Meanwhile the formerly secretive telepathically gifted Mohawk Tribe was struggling with sudden world-wide fame due to their long and increasingly close relationship with the Stone-Coats. The Stone-Coats were essentially immortal and would probably survive billions of years longer until the sun expanded to engulf the Earth. Not so the Tribe. Ageless Ed Rumsfeld bore witness as tribal culture and traditions long under assault by outside influences now rapidly faded into history. And his beloved Mary too was rapidly disappearing before his own eyes, one age-driven infirmity at a time.

“I have to go on that California vacation very soon, Ed,” continued Mary, “before I become a complete invalid.”

“Has something happened to cause this sudden urge to visit the Golden State?” Ed asked. “It’s because the kids have gone back home to Brooklyn, isn’t it!”

Their daughter Mira and their son Craig and the grandkids had recently visited Giants’ Rest for three wonderful weeks, but had finally returned to their homes in Brooklyn for the start of the new school year and for Mira and Craig to resume helping the Stone-Coats gain acceptance in the City. Mary and Ed always felt a little down when the kids returned to their homes in Brooklyn. She and Ed could have of course accepted their invitations to move to the Tribe Brooklyn enclave in Green Point in order to be near them. That would have made a lot of sense, especially for Mary.

They had five grandchildren now, little time capsules that would carry forth human genes and a few memories of their odd grandparents to future generations. Especially when in league with Mary, the mischievous grandkids were more fun than a barrel of monkeys. However Mira and Craig as well as Mary all seemed to be unusually upset this time when they parted, Ed noticed. Something unusual seemed to be bothering them all, but Ed chocked it up to the increasing chaos throughout the world and the refusal of himself and Mary to move to Brooklyn to be with the kids.

Ed and Mary both hated cities but the growing Mohawk community and jant and Stone-Coat presence in Brooklyn would make them feel at home, the kids had argued. Though most of the Mohawks had moved south into Appellation Mountain forests, Mohawks had a long history of helping to build skyscrapers in the city of New York. Now they were helping Stone-Coats and New Yorkers adapt to each other. But Ed and Mary were fully dedicated to the Giants’ Rest Mountain Reservation now. They refused to leave the Mountain nowadays except for short visits to Brooklyn.

“Their returning to Brooklyn isn’t the problem, Ed,” Mary claimed. “I have simply come to realize that for me our dream trip to California is now or never. It’s very different for you, Ed. You visited there before we met. You’ve told me about it many times longingly. I want so see those places too, especially the live big trees and the Pacific Ocean.”

Mary was a huge tree fan, but locally most trees were dead and buried under more than ten meters of ice. There were small pockets of wonderful live trees atop nearby mountains that they visited in the summer, but nothing to compare to the last great stands of forest giants in the West.

She also wanted to see the Pacific Ocean and its coastline. The oceans and their deep secrets fascinated her. As a youngster she had even imagined becoming an oceanographer and exploring the oceans herself. The eastern coastline she had occasionally experienced in New Jersey and Virginia was flat, peaceful, and bland compared to the western one, she reckoned, and most traditional Eastern coastline towns had been recently ravaged by raising sea levels and raging storms, somewhat tarnishing the romantic allure of the Atlantic for her.

“And since you don’t age you could probably visit California again sometime in your distant future,” continued Mary. “But someday very soon I’ll be spending all my time in bathrooms and beds and with bed-pans and won’t really be able to go anywhere, if I live even that long. Besides, after all these years of work you need a break also, Ed. You work too damned hard!”

“But California is a real mess now,” Ed protested. “I vacationed there as a young man over fifty years ago, before the big droughts and the social disorder set in, and before we met. It’s even more F-ed up there than here in New York State. I’m not even sure that California is a state anymore. Besides, there are few if any commercial airline flights to most parts of California, including Los Angeles. The railways and the interstate highway system hasn’t yet been fully restored by the Stone-Coats so we couldn’t easily get there via land either. Ships might be our best bet, but that would take weeks, what with the Panama Canal shut down for Stone-Coat upgrade and repair. To get to the West Coast ships have to travel all the way around through either Arctic or Antarctic waters! So how would we even get to California? We simply can’t get there from here!”

“I talked to our old neighbor Jerry Green about that. He says that he still has strong influence over some parts of California and that he can fly us to even Southern California on a Stone-Coat maintained military airplane. He has also set us up with an expert guide that will manage our entire trip! Jerry just has a few minor things that he wants us to do for him during our visit.”

“Swell; that figures!” said Ed. Ed didn’t know exactly how he had managed it, but Jerry was now the shadowy leader of the entire United States Federal Government. If anyone on Earth could get them to California it was Jerry. “If Jerry arranged it I suppose it will be alright. After all, what could possibly go wrong with him backing us? But our dream trip through much of California would take weeks! I can’t leave the Tribe for that long, Mary! What about my Tribe Chief duties?”

“I already talked to Chief John and Talking Owl about that,” said Mary. “They both agree that we should go now while we can.”

Yes, Ed had no doubt that the Tribe could get along quite well without him. After all, he had been telling them that for many years though they still insisted that he be their Chief half of the time. But that wasn’t his greatest concern. “I honestly don’t think that you’re strong enough for such an adventure, Mary!”

“Well I’m not going to get any stronger, Ed,” countered Mary. “Not in this lifetime, anyway. It’s now or never, Ed, and I say it’s now. Call it my dying wish.”

Ed fervently wished that she would stop talking about dying. “Damn but you’re bossy! OK, I’ll work on the arrangements.”

“They’ve already been made by me through Jerry Green. We leave for Los Angeles first thing tomorrow morning.”

“So soon? Crap! I’ll have to pack my duffel bag!”

“I’ve already done that. Today we’re mostly saying our farewells to our Tribe friends.”

“Ann is getting back today too,” Ed noted. “She’ll want to let us know how things are going at the UN. I’d sort of like to know myself.”

“She got in already a couple of hours ago. I’ve already had breakfast with her. Things are generally going alright with the UN and the outside world, or at least things aren’t any worse than usual. Ann will get by perfectly fine without your advice for a few weeks.”

That was probably true, Ed realized. Since joining the Tribe five years earlier the ex-news reporter Ann Richards had become the world-recognized expert on the problem of peacefully and productively integrating Stone-Coat and jant interests with those of humanity.

“Your usual breakfast with Tribe friends is waiting for you topside on the Deck,” said Mary. “I’ll start up now and meet you there. This morning Ann will be explaining the UN situation to you and other leaders of the Tribe.”

“Situation?” asked Ed. “There’s a UN situation?”

“There’s always a UN situation,” said Mary, as she tottered a few steps to her walker and grabbed at its handles to steady herself. “I’ll see you topside. You get your lazy butt out of that bed!”

“Hey!” exclaimed Ed. “Why are you all dressed up?” He had finally just noticed that Mary was wearing her old formal Mohawk tribal gear: long homespun cotton and wool dress and leggings, with high leather moccasin/boots, and everything hand-dyed colorfully. Anticipating the chill of the caves and the Fall weather outside, she was topping things off now with a heavy poncho-like jacket-thing that she hadn’t worn in years. “Is somebody getting married this morning? Do I need to dress up in my formal Mohawk duds too?”

“No Ed; you should wear your normal clothes. I just felt like dressing up today.”

“Good,” said Ed, relieved. He hated getting dressed up.

He watched Mary with dismay as she moved off far too slowly, step by step through the curtained doorway and out of their living quarters, moving the light-weight walker along with her less than a foot at a time, each laborious step an immense struggle against the unrelenting forces of gravity. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t age at all, but she was clearly in rapid decline. Application of jant controlled med-ticks every few months ensured that she had no serious diseases such as cancer, but that still hadn’t kept her from aging. She was a shrunken, wrinkled, disintegrating shell of her former self, but she was still one hundred percent Mary, the love of his life.

The Tribe Lead Scientist Frank Gray Wolf had once explained aging to Ed as ultimately a consequence of the uncertainty aspects of quantum mechanics, without which there would be no randomized breakdowns of gene protective caps and cell reproduction chemistry that led to aging and cancer. However Frank also said that without quantum mechanics there would be no positive things such as molecules, chemistry, life, consciousness, emotion and free will. Life was wonderful but there was no free lunch, Frank had explained, as inevitably there was also aging and death.

Mostly Ed had no idea what the hell Frank was talking about, except for perhaps the no free lunch part. What he did know was that his beloved wife Mary was ever more rapidly disintegrating before his eyes and there wasn’t a damn thing that anyone could do about it.

He estimated that while Mary’s laborious struggle to get topside and outside to the Deck through the Tribe Caves would take her at least twenty minutes, his own effortless stroll topside would take less than five. He could also be up and dressed and out the door in five, so he still had at least ten minutes to kill so that she would get topside ahead of him. He decided that he would briefly stop in at the Stone-Coat Information Center on the way topside. He wasn’t Chief this month but he still liked to stay informed, including maintaining his knowledge of Stone-Coat progress world-wide.

He first relieved himself in their suite’s little bathroom and noted with satisfaction that all human excrement and toilet paper disappeared almost immediately in the black cloud-like puffy pile of Stone-Coat nanotubes that filled the toilet bowl. In seconds all water and carbon-based organics were absorbed and distributed within the Mountain to whatever nearby Stone-Coat entities needed them.

“Don’t say I never gave you nothing,” he remarked to the toilet when he finished, not for the first time. After a couple of decades of confused but amusing replies there was no verbal Stone-Coat response via either sound or implant. Ed took it as a sign of real Stone-Coat progress towards understanding humans, including even the subtleties of his attempts at humor. Even the stationary Stone-Coats that formed his bathroom toilet, walls, and floor seemed to know when he was just messing with them.

Frank said that Stone-Coat life and thinking abilities were perhaps evidence that the chaotic behavior and ghostly quantum effects related to organic life appeared even within the comparatively ordered world of crystal-based structures. He also said that the gradual progress of Stone-Coats towards understanding human jokes once again demonstrated the lack of a ‘singularity point’ where it could be said that self-awareness was fully achieved by a thinking being. Ed decided that if there was also some sort of a ‘singularity point’ at which he would abruptly better understand what the hell Frank was talking about he hadn’t reached it yet and perhaps never would.

Frank also often likened the two thousand Tribe and other humans that lived in the Stone-Coat constructed caves within Giants’ Rest Mountain to the two to three pounds of tiny microbes that normally lived within each human body. Microbiomes, he termed the whole distressingly disgusting mess. Stone-Coats and the humans living within them were engaged in what Frank called a mutualistic symbiosis where both species generally benefited. Ed wasn’t sure that he liked the notion that humans living inside a living mountain bore similarities to microbes living inside human bodies, probably because he found the reality of several pounds of microbes living in humans to be nauseatingly revolting. It was a natural intuitive yuck-feeling that no amount of reasoning from Frank could succumb.

It’s a good thing that Stone-Coats liked poop immensely, Ed figured; to him it seemed to be inadequate payment for all that they did for the Tribe and were starting to do for all of mankind world-wide. Fortunately oftentimes someone’s crap was someone else’s treasure. There was some sort of surprising and mysterious cosmic balance and irony to that notion that Ed rather liked.

Frank explained that biological lifeforms such as humans efficiently gathered together dozens of chemical elements that were used by the Stone-Coats to dope silicon and other crystalline structures to alter their electrical properties. This in turn supported Stone-Coat intelligence, mobility, and other vital abilities. Especially in mobile Stone-Coats, carbon was used extensively, in its three dimensional crystalline diamond form for skin and bone-like structures, in its two dimensional graphene form for structures analogous to human tendons, ligaments, nerves, digestive and circulatory systems, and as an element that bonded with others in complex ways to form organic molecules.

In biological life complex carbon-organic molecules dispersed among surrounding stable water molecules was the fundamental structure. Within water-dependent biological lifeforms absurdly complex chemical processes and structures had evolved over billions of years. With Stone-Coat life, computer-like processing structures within numerous types of crystalline lattice frameworks had similarly evolved. Both methods of achieving life and self-aware intelligence worked! Frank said that both human and Stone-Coat theorists speculated that still other basic forms of life might be possible, and that life was likely to be present throughout much of the universe!

Ed was glad there were science-inclined humans like Frank who could make some sense of Stone-Coat physiology and the universe at-large. He didn’t much understand such things himself but he felt much better knowing that at least some smarter humans did. It was reassuring to him that despite all the crazy things happening in the world around him the universe was to a significant degree understandable to people like Frank.

Ed once told Frank of his reassurance that scientists understood so much and Frank laughed so hard and long that Ed feared that his usually stoic friend had gone mad. “Each scientist understands only bits and pieces of the universe, and far too superficially for them to ever be satisfied,” explained the Mohawk scientist.

“The more we understand the deeper and more inscrutable the remaining mysteries appear to be,” Frank said. “It turns out that to understand this universe and ordinary matter there is even theoretically a need for things unseen such as multiple universes and so-called dark matter and energy. Even when restricting ourselves to parts of the world we directly sense there are complex systems within systems that we may never fully comprehend. And lately there are also intelligent stone creatures and insects for science to consider. Science struggles greatly and endlessly to make heads and tails of it all! However if our thin veneer of understanding comforts you I am in turn also comforted.”

Ed glanced at a portion of the cave wall that the Stone-Coats had made into a large mirror. The required silver had been gathered by the Stone-Coats using a vast root-like system of carbon nanotubes that extended for miles into the Earth’s Crust around Giants’ Rest Mountain. The nanotubes selectively transported desired elements atom-by-atom electromagnetically and assembled them in whatever structures were needed.

Not even Frank know exactly how they did that, though human scientists suspected that it involved stripping off or adding electrons to make normally neutral atoms positively or negatively charged so they could be transported through carbon nanotubes by varying electric voltages in a manner similar to human particle accelerators and rail guns. The Stone-Coats themselves didn’t know how they did it. As was the case with humans, the blind watch-maker that is evolution gave them abilities that they didn’t understand but performed subconsciously. Largely in response to human science they were only recently beginning to understand themselves in a scientific sense.

In the Stone-Coat constructed mirror Ed’s thirty-five year old self stared back at him. He was of medium height and slim but not skinny, muscular but not muscle-bound, not ugly but not handsome. He currently sported well-trimmed brown beard, mustache and head-hair. He looked exactly the same as he did over forty years ago in the year 2025. But now his chronological age was more than twice his body’s apparent physical age. Even his teeth were all holding up with no cavities ever, and when two teeth were accidently knocked out a decade ago they quickly grew back!

Ed dressed in one of his usual blue-jean/flannel shirt combinations, along with light-weight hiking footwear. He carried a nifty lightweight nanotube reinforced jacket with him to wear outside when he was close to the ice sheets. That was one advantage of the Tribe no longer being isolated from the outside world: decent clothing manufactured off the Reservation was much easier to come by. What he wore was assembled in nearby New York City, using mostly Stone-Coat generated raw materials including diamond buttons and graphene-based synthetic fabrics that felt like cotton but were stronger than Kevlar.

Thanks to Stone-Coats, diamonds were becoming as ‘cheap’ and common as plastic used to be. Many humans were particularly impressed when they learned that Stone-Coats could turn poop into diamonds. There was some deep-seated aesthetic and philosophical meaning to it, Ed supposed, though he had no idea what it might be.

As he walked through the community hallway that ran down the center of the Jant Clan Long House Cave, he was joined by several Tribe members and outsider crew people that walked along with him towards the Tribe cave system’s central hallway. He noted that most of them were also wearing clothing assembled off the Reservation using Stone-Coat provided materials rather than traditional Mohawk home-spun clothing.

No doubt about it, life was changing very fast for the Tribe. In five short busy years the formerly ultra-reclusive Tribe had needed to transform itself greatly to deal with being a center of world attention. Ed wasn’t sure that he liked the transformation. But at least here deep in the Tribe Caves the walls and ceilings were adorned with reassuring traditional Tribe art and artifacts, reminding the Tribe of their long proud Mohawk and pre-Mohawk heritage. The Tribe had lived here at Giants’ Rest Mountain since the previous glaciation period ended over ten thousand years ago, long before they joined the Mohawk. The Tribe remained a unique group of remarkable people, and Ed felt honored to be one of them.

As Ed continued along the central cave hallway that interconnected all the Tribe caves and led up and out of Giants’ Rest Mountain he was greeted and joined by several more Tribe workers. Some of them exhibited a touch of inbred telepathic abilities and a few of the more gifted even exchanged greetings with him telepathically. Most Tribe people thought and spoke using English now, but many of the elders stubbornly used mostly Mohawk. Some admonished their peers to onkwehonwehneha sata:ti: to ‘say it in Native American’, while others responded by saying tiohrhen:sa sata:ti: ‘say it in English’. The Tribe was in transition.

Most Tribe members were on their way topside to work in the greenhouses. Ed had toiled in the greenhouses himself in the past but hadn’t had time to do so in the last five years, not since the Tribe and the Stone-Coats went public. He found that he missed the manual work; or he at least missed gardening in the greenhouses with Mary. Nowadays Mary herself seldom went to the greenhouses. She didn’t have the energy to do that sort of work anymore and she wasn’t happy about it. Age-forced retirement sucked big-time.

Ed met and exchanged greetings with more and more people as he successively walked past the entrances to the Stone-Coat, Owl, Turtle, Bear, and Wolf Clan Longhouse Caves. The clans were extended family units that reached across the Tribe, the Mohawk Nation, and even across the entire Iroquois Confederacy. Everyone in the Tribe knew everyone else, and they trusted and respected each other, especially people within their respective clans. The Tribe was extended family, while the clans were family. Ed and Mary were Tribe adoptees, and happier for it.

Now the centuries-old Iroquois Confederacy of tribal nations depended even more on clan relationships that spanned across all tribes. Just as most of the local Mohawk Tribe had fled south to escape the icy advance of climate change, the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy had also fled south from New York and Canada into the southern Appalachian Mountains. In addition to the Mohawk, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Tuscarora tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy had assembled there to help each other adapt and survive.

Here at Giants’ Rest there were only a half-dozen Stone-Coat Clan members: their clan leader Running Bear and the five teenagers that were each paired with a mobile Stone-Coat since birth. For men and for chiefs to be clan leaders and for Running Bear not to adopt the clan of his wife went against Mohawk and Iroquois tradition, but in these troubled times tradition was rapidly giving way to expediency for the Tribe and for everyone else in the world. Ed didn’t envy his old friend Running Bear’s job as Stone-Coat Clan Leader, but he felt that his own leadership of the Jant Clan was even more challenging.

There were only about two dozen Jant Clan members in the Tribe besides Ed and Mary. Most Jant Clan members petitioned to join it after having to use jant controlled medical ticks for health reasons. Instead of giving up their med-ticks after being cured of disease, many people chose to keep them permanently – or at least for the two-year lifespan of the med-tick. Though he was officially the Jant Clan Leader Ed couldn’t imagine allowing a huge three-inch long blood-sucking bug to permanently live with its head buried deep into his back, particularly a telepathic bug controlled by jants that tapped into the spine and into thoughts as well as physical body functions. Ed had tolerated a tick for a few minutes when he got his Stone-Coat implant, and hoped never again to need one.

THERE IS TROUBLE AT THE STONE COAT INFORMATION CENTER, CHIEF ED,” announced a jant thought, just as Ed coincidentally reached the entrance of the side-cave that housed the Stone-Coat Information Center. He stepped into it through the hanging black nanotube fabric curtain strips. This cave totally lacked the Tribal artifacts that adorned most of the other caves. Instead it looked much like a modern white-man open office space. In it were rows of Stone-Coat made desks and tables with computers and wall monitors that accommodated the usual complement of three dozen visiting human scientists, engineers, reporters, and politicians and the dozen Tribe members that served as their collaborators and hosts. Usually this big room was relatively quiet, with most people setting at computers and wearing wireless earphones or goggles. Today there were more people and much louder voices than usual.

“Ah, here’s Chief Ed now, Senator!” said young Mark Dawn Owl, when he noticed Ed. “He can better deal with this incident.” The teenager, his Stone-Coat companion Walking Stone, and several Tribe security men and researchers appeared to be facing off confrontationally with visiting Senator Dug Hagfeld, two Congressmen, and three of their aids. Ed had never yet personally met the Senator but recognized him from news reports.

THIS GUY’S A REAL A-HOLE,” added the teenager telepathically for Ed’s benefit. His thoughts were English-language in form. Particularly since the Tribe went public five years ago, the Mohawk language was seldom used by most young people of the Tribe any more. The young Tribesman was angry, Ed noted, which was very unusual for him. The eldest grandson of Chief Running Bear, Mark was the fast rising young star of the Tribe. Though he was not quite nineteen years old, the multi-talented young man already excelled in science, telepathy, diplomacy, leadership, and his understanding of the world outside the Tribe.

Ed stepped forward to face the Senator. The middle-aged legislator was a squat rotund man, over-sized at six-feet tall and well over three hundred pounds. But even this big human was dwarfed by the Stone-Coat that stood motionless behind him. Although Walking Stone was one of the smallest mobile Stone-Coats, he was over six feet tall and weighed more than a ton and a half. The Stone-Coat’s bear-like form and over-sized teeth and claws contributed to his intimidating presence. Nevertheless by human standards the Senator was a big, imposing individual more than twice the size of Ed.

Ed was just now recalling who this man was. The previous fall Hagfeld had been elected to the United States Senate on an anti-Stone-Coat, anti-jant platform. As with many other politicians over the ages and across the world, his popularity depended on human ignorance, fear, and hate. He was the leader of a small but disruptive minority that vowed to utterly exterminate all Stone-Coats and jants on Earth, despite those being both physically impossible and morally hideous goals. What a crappy visitor for the Tribe to have to put up with! Poor Mark!

WERE YOU AND WALKING STONE ASSIGNED BY CHIEF RUNNING BEAR TO ESCORT THIS MAN?” Ed silently asked Mark telepathically.

AFFIRMATIVE,” answered Mark. “ALONG WITH HERB AND KEN.”

Ed glanced at Herb Sly Fox and Ken White Owl. Both were big, burly, young, dedicated Wolf Clan Tribe security warriors. They lacked the ornate haircuts and tattoos of their forefathers but were fit and well trained: members of a sort of ‘special forces’ security group for the Tribe. Chief John Running Bear had wisely picked some of the Tribe’s best people to accompany the Senator and his party. And of course Walking Stone could be counted on to digitally record and transmit everything that happened.

Over-all the Stone-Coat resembled a stout white bear with beaver-teeth and giant clawed feet and hands. The mobile Stone-Coat was covered in diamond scales that were between quarter-sized and baseball-sized, and elongated diamond crystals that at a distance looked like thick tuffs of hair. On his head he had sophisticated visual and acoustic sensors. The eyes were dark round circles two inches across and the small ears were made of shaped diamond. Underneath his diamond armor long crystals of various hues and functions connected by dark nets of carbon graphene nanotubes could be glimpsed. The internal nanotube networks of this mobile Stone-Coat served multiple purposes, and even supported a keen sense of touch.

“Senator! Welcome to Giants’ Rest!” Ed told the man, as he shook his hand and attempted to probe his mind. Ed could telepathically sense only seething and overwhelming fear, hate, and anger. Hagfeld wasn’t a telepath, but was weakly empathic. His handshake was firm; far too firm for comfort. It was a failing attempt at personal intimidation, Ed judged.

“You’re that white man Indian Chief! A traitor to your race, God, and humanity that sold your own soul to stone and insect gods!” Hagfeld spewed. “As one of the ringleaders here in this insane looney bin you can sure as hell answer my questions and fix this so-called incident, all right! That’s the law; you have to answer my questions and respect my authority!”

Ed forced a smile. “Yes, here at the Center we are happy to answer all meaningful questions from all of our civil visitors. You could also ask questions and receive answers anywhere in the world via the internet, but here you can directly meet with specialist Stone-Coats and Tribe people that can help us all better understand each other. You have no special authority here however, and we are not prepared to put up with hate speech or intimidation.”

“I say what I please,” Hagfeld retorted. “This is still the United States of America! This is a federal facility and it’s infested with insects, and I’m going to have it fumigated, by God!”

“No you are not. This is private Tribe property and part of sovereign Mohawk Tribe territory,” noted Ed, “and jants are protected by both Federal and Tribe law, as well as notions of common decency. What is the incident that you speak of?”

“A minute ago he killed three jants,” said Mark. “Without provocation he attacked and killed them on purpose.”

“It was a perfectly healthy reflex action,” said Hagfeld. “The damn things are right here in your caves! I’m a human being, something that you’ve all apparently forgotten how to be. I step on any bug that crosses my path! Besides that, one of the damn things bit me!”

“I would bite you too, if you stepped on me,” Ed retorted. Jants were very large and robust ants: their brown bodies were an inch long and they had unusually strong exoskeletons and mandibles. But they were still tiny and fragile compared to any human. Jants didn’t value the lives of each individual the way that humans did, but they wouldn’t be pleased by this. “WHAT HAPPENED?” he asked the jants telepathically.

UNPROVOKED THIS HUMAN DELIBERATELY KILLED SEVERAL OF US AND ONE OF US MANAGED TO BITE HIM,” pathed the local jant colony, with their usual directness and clarity. “OUR INJECTED VENOM OPENED SOME OF HIS THOUGHTS TO US. WE ARE MONITORING HIS CONFUSED ILLOGICAL THOUGHTS AND CONSIDERING FURTHER ACTIONS.”

“We could arrest you on the spot,” Ed told the Senator. “Deliberately harming jants is unlawful anywhere in the USA, and against international UN laws. Doing it here in this Center is triply unlawful. You have committed and confessed to International, Federal, and Tribal crimes.”

“You’d never prove that, and I have a legal right to be here,” said Hagfeld.

“Not if you break the law you don’t,” said Ed. “The Tribe has a federal legal responsibility to maintain order and safety here for Stone-Coats and jants as well as for humans. Fortunately this Information Center records videos 24-7. Let’s see the videos of the incident.”

On a big nearby wall monitor a video of the last few minutes of Senator Hagfeld’s activities replaced the usual charts and graphs that summarized world-wide Stone-Coat activity. Recorded sound emanated from several small wall cavities that served as both speakers and microphones. The monitor showed that Hagfeld, his party, and his Tribe escorts entered the room and looked around for a few moments until Hagfeld abruptly stared intently at the floor nearby and gasped. “It’s some of those devil bugs!” he shouted angrily as he rushed across the room and started stamping his feet to kill jants while they scattered and fled. Moments later he bellowed in pain. “One of the damn things bit my leg!”

Most of the other humans present were too stunned to immediately react. Only Mark’s quick actions prevented further calamity. He ran to Hagfeld and pushed the bigger man away from what remained of the small entourage of jants that had been marching single-file on the floor along the cave wall. Despite the fact that the senator was nearly twice as heavy as he was, Mark pushed him back to the canter of the room where the teenager was soon aided by burly Sly Fox and Ken. Fortunately Walking Stone stayed out of the scuffle; the powerful Stone-Coat could have too easily badly damaged the Senator.

“See! Those bugs attacked and bit me and then this young savage and his goons attacked me!” said Hagfeld. “You’ve doctored that video some, shuffling some ones and zeros to change what appeared to happen, and I have eye witnesses that will testify to what I’m saying!” He turned to stare pointedly at the others in his party.

“And there are a dozen Tribe members including me and many independent guests from all over the world that will gladly testify against your fictionalized account and attest to the authenticity of the video record,” countered Mark. “Those are the indisputable facts. Note also that everything in this Center continues to be recorded and publicly broadcast world-wide in real-time.”

“And no doubt also immediately distorted,” Hagfeld retorted.

Ed shook his head. This man was a delusional zealot. There was nothing that anyone could say or do to change his bigoted fear-driven beliefs. For him facts were merely something to overcome through force of will, persuasion, and even physical force if necessary. The truth was what he decided it would be. Facts and even fact-based science were evil conspiracies that opposed his delusional beliefs.

The congressmen and aids stared wide-eyed at Hagfeld and whispered among themselves. Finally Jack Morison, the elder congressman, stepped forward. “I think we can come to an accommodation, Chief Ed. To the effect that if you don’t charge the Senator he won’t charge the young man. We should all forget that this whole thing ever happened.”

“Impossible!” said Ed, shaking his head. “Jants have been killed and we have credible jant, Stone-Coat and human witnesses and recorded evidence of it happening deliberately, not accidently. It is also obvious that Mark and the other Tribe escorts acted responsibly. Plus the Senator confessed! Besides, all that happens here is broadcast live worldwide as required by the Treaty and is part of a public record that won’t be forgotten. Millions of humans saw what happened and what is happening now. We have additional standard security procedures defined in the Treaty that we must now follow. Sly Fox?”

Sly Fox stepped in front of the Senator and showed him his badge. “We’ll be moving to another cave and taking official statements from you and all witnesses, Senator. Hold out your hands please.”

“What?” Hagfeld asked, as he held out his hands while in an instant Sly Fox slapped a pair of steel handcuffs onto his thick wrists and told him his Maranda rights. “You can’t do this to me!” He sputtered, as he was led away by Sly Fox. “Who the hell do you heathen monkeys think you are?”

“The law.” Mark responded. “SAY HELLO AND WELCOME HOME TO ANN FOR ME, CHIEF ED; I’VE BEEN TIED UP BABYSITTING THESE YAHOOS ALL MORNING.”

SURE THING, MARK,” Ed replied as he returned his attentions to the others at the Center. He was going to reassure them that the nasty incident was past and suggest that they return to their normal activities, but he could see that they had already done so. The jants had already removed their dead and were nowhere to be seen. Scientists and other specialists from several nations eagerly studied information centralized here by the Stone-Coats about what they were doing world-wide to fulfil their agreement with humanity to repair and improve infrastructure, machinery, and other things, and to help with other human needs.

In return Stone-Coats were being distributed across the world and fed information and physical materials by humans. Though they preferred granite and cold temperatures where they were most mobile, Stone-Coats were able to ‘live’ anywhere, particularly if they could rely on humans to help feed them materials they needed, and to give them internet access that they used to communicate with each other and with humanity.

“I hope that the Senator has not too seriously disrupted things here, Chief,” Ed heard, as he started to leave the Center himself. He turned to recognize and shake hands with Dr. Clinton Farnsworth, the lead British envoy at Giants’ Rest and a firm supporter and co-signer of the Treaty between Stone-Coats, jants, and humans. “I assure you that both world-wide and here in your own country the extraordinary things that the Tribe has done for humanity are greatly appreciated.” Clinton smiled just a bit too widely. He was playing to the broadcast cameras, Ed realized.

“Thanks Clinton,” Ed replied. “And your efforts are greatly appreciated by us, and by our mutual friends in Washington, New York, and London. Without support from you and a few other key people, the Treaty, the Stone-Coats, and jants would not have been so widely accepted and established throughout the world.”

“Stone Coats and the prospect of space exploration have to a healthy extent gotten the minds of many people off of climate change and other negative news items, Chief,” Clinton remarked. He was still facing a camera as he said it of course. “But you doubtlessly have a breakfast date with your Tribe, Stone-Coat, and jant friends; don’t let me hold you up.”

Ed exited the Center and walked briskly up and out of the Tribe Caves that the Stone-Coats had built to shelter the Tribe through the long harsh winters. He paused to scan Giants’ Rest Valley as he slipped on his jacket. It was a bright morning in late September. Without the ice sheet that averaged over a dozen meters thick in the valley below, it would be at least seventy degrees Fahrenheit now and would reach the low eighties later in the day. Due to the ice sheets, even here on the ice-free Deck it was now still in the fifties and would probably not even reach seventy.

Starting three decades ago the sun entered a dim cycle, a cyclic event that temporarily stalled global warming and helped accelerate cooling on the Reservation. But a decade ago the cool-cycle began to abate as sunspots again formed on the sun’s surface. Now for most areas on the globe warming was expected to accelerate faster than ever. The cooling phase of the solar cycle was only about two decades long while gas-emission caused global warming would last for hundreds or even thousands of years.

The Deck was a broad flat Stone-Coat constructed area outside the cave entrance. It included a picnic/eating area and entrance ramps that led down and out to a half dozen long greenhouses that stretched out over the ice covered valley atop massive stone pillars. Like the caves, these had been made for the Tribe by the Stone-Coats over a period of several years. The structures were actually Stone-Coats: crystalline forms laced with computer-like logic elements networked by imbedded metal and nanotube wiring, designed to grow and self-repair themselves as necessary.

Across Giants’ Rest Valley where once virgin forests and Tribe cultivated fields flourished, the ever present fogs of summer blanketed the ice sheets. Within another month the annual melting period would be over, and the snows would return with a vengeance to add to the yearly thickening of the ice-sheets that now covered New England and Eastern Canada. While most of the Earth was getting warmer, there and in a few other regions on Earth, climate change was causing significant local cooling.

Cold air from the arctic bypassed Alaska and Western Canada and dipped further south here. Meanwhile increased moisture was being pumped north from the Gulf of Mexico and from the increasingly warm Atlantic Gulf Stream, causing record Mid-West and North-East regional snowfalls, particularly in the Fall. Here in the North-East where mega-hurricanes from the South met arctic air blasts from the North, ten-foot snowfalls sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving weren’t uncommon.

Frank the Tribe Chief Scientist explained regional cooling to Ed by likening it to leaving a freezer door ajar. The over-all room and freezer got warmer as the freezer worked harder and created more over-all heat energy in the room but just outside the door it got cooler but a lot of ice formed in the door opening. The Arctic was in a defrost cycle and the North-East was sitting at the freezer door.

Despite Frank’s clever analogies the whole thing still didn’t make sense to science-challenged Ed but the weather undeniably was what it was nevertheless. Much of ice covered inland Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Northern New York had been abandoned by most humans, as had much of Eastern Canada, which was even colder but due to being far from the moist warm Atlantic had much less snow and ice.

The Stone-Coats of Giants’ Rest Mountain took advantage by sending their Ice Giants out across the ice to colonize all the rock outcroppings that they could find. Nowadays in fulfilment of the Treaty many tons of immature Stone-Coats were also shipped world-wide by humans to populate the Earth, usually in the form of stone cubes weighing more than a ton each. As a result the immense granite dome that was Giants’ Rest Mountain was shrinking significantly; already it was more than two hundred feet shorter than its original five thousand foot height.

The Stone-Coats were not the only ones migrating. Even as people in the Northeast fled south to escape the cold, many Americans fled north from the far Southeast to escape the stifling heat and the worst of the invasive tropical animals and plants. States in-between were overflowing with displaced migrants that overwhelmed public and private resources and triggered panic and hunger driven demonstrations and riots. States had earlier attempted to restrict and regulate migration between states but such measures quickly became overwhelmed.

At Giants’ Rest the Tribe was under stress due to their vital role with the Stone-Coats and jants, but at least they didn’t have to worry about food or many other things that the rest of the world did. Their six huge Stone-Coat produced greenhouses fed them all very well and their Stone-Coat friends could make almost anything else they needed in terms of living spaces and material possessions.

Ed sat down with Mary and their friends at their usual Deck table and had a shock when he realized that like Mary, they were formally dressed in their ornate tribal gear! “I’m clearly under-dressed this morning; what’s the occasion?”

Several of the people at the table glanced around at each other uncomfortably as Chief Running Bear smiled and replied. “As you plan to leave early tomorrow morning we celebrate the lives of Mary and you today, Ed. Though a Mohican, the Tribe adopted me to become one of them, and to even help lead them through troubled times. This they have also done with you and with Mary. It is a rare honor that we three share. Both of you have served the Tribe extraordinarily well and will always be very warmly remembered.”

They were immediately served plates of acorn mush drenched in maple syrup and covered with strawberries. It was a favorite breakfast for both Ed and Mary. The strawberries were locally grown but the mush and syrup were rare delicacies imported from the Southern Mohawk Tribe members that had migrated hundreds of miles south to the warmer Appalachian Mountains.

“Wow; we’re sure getting the royal treatment today!” Ed remarked, as he and the others dug in. “This mush is certainly yummy and memorable,” said Ed. “Maybe we should go on vacations more often. Where is Ann? I wanted to hear what’s going on at the UN.”

“WE APPROACH, CHIEF ED,” said Talking Stone via Ed’s implant. Ann’s Stone-Coat companion came into view as he exited one of the greenhouses, accompanied by Ann Richards herself. Talking Stone wore a reflective parka that hid most of his spectacular gemstones but helped keep him cold enough to freeze and melt water within his hydraulic locomotion system.

Ann wore a sweatshirt and shorts that showed off her curves and legs, which the men at the table greatly appreciated. She athletically sprinted the last few yards to the table and gave Ed and Mary warm greeting hugs and kisses. “It’s wonderful to be home!” she gushed, “and with my favorite people!”

“Except for Mark,” said Ed. “He is still busy escorting Senator Dug Hagfeld around the Reservation. He sends you his greetings.”

“I hope that Mark keeps the Senator clear of me,” Ann said. “I already see far too much of him in New York and Washington. The man is a force for chaos and corruption.”

“That’s what he claims we are,” Ed noted. “Say, isn’t the UN still in session until next week, Ann? Not that I’m not glad to see you, but I don’t understand why you and Talking Stone came home several days early. How does the UN function without its Stone-Coat ambassador and his human partner?”

“We wanted to see you and Mary off to your vacation, of course,” said Ann. “Yes, there are always issues at the UN but they can all wait for Talking Stone and I to return.”

“But you could have just as well have waited to see us when we return!” Ed noted.

“But you are here now and we’re happy about that,” Mary interjected. “So please sit down and tell us about the UN!” She patted the empty bench spot next to herself and Ann promptly sat there.

“Has something happened at the UN that we should be aware of?” asked Chief Running Bear.

“Nothing new that is Earth shattering,” said Ann. “As I’ve already told Mary, the UN continues to effectively coordinate dozens of international military, humanitarian, and legal efforts, aided by Stone-Coats and jants. I did however want to take this occasion to again thank all of you for making me feel at home here and helping define and set in place the Treaty, and everything else.” She paused and with more affection than usual turned to Mary and give her yet another hug.

“We understand,” said Talking Owl, who sat on the other side of Ann.

The aging Mohawk princess was dressed in her formal traditional Mohawk attire, and Ed again for a moment felt under-dressed in his everyday jeans and flannels. On the other hand he hated getting dressed up for anything and all of his friends knew that, he reassured himself. “So Ann, what’s happening at the UN?” Ed again prompted her.

“The most significant thing is that many of the humans are beginning to treat the Stone-Coats and jants almost as equals. It’s probably because of the positive reports they keep getting from their respective countries. Jants continue to heal the sick better than any human doctors by using med-ticks, while Stone-Coats repair buildings, bridges, roads, and too many other things to mention. There are significant pockets of human resistance where Stone-Coats and jants are still steadfastly rejected, but those are becoming fewer, despite the fear-mongering Hagfelds of the world.”

“That mostly sounds very hopeful,” said White Cloud, Frank’s wife and daughter of Chief John Running Bear and Talking Owl.

“Significant changes to human attitudes will take lifetimes,” cautioned Running Bear, “though human adaptation to Stone-Coats and jants seems to be off to a very promising start. It will be a very long time before people are comfortable with sharing Earth with intelligent stone creatures and insects.”

“Agreed,” said Frank. “In this case the Tribe seems to be mostly following logic and staying ahead of the curve compared with most other people, but even we harbor residual fears and doubts.”

“Yes,” agreed Talking Owl. “But as a people we have good reason to believe that change is possible. How can we not? Our own Tribe opposed the emergence of Stone-Coats for many millennia, but now the Tribe is allied with them. Could our fore-fathers have been so wrong about them?”

“No,” said Talking Stone, from the nearby cold chamber where he stood comfortably in a cooling bath of dry-ice created mists. “We have also changed significantly. When we first detected human radio signals more than a century ago logic dictated that we reconsider our relationship with warm, water-based lifeforms. Up to that point we had considered plant and animal lifeforms to be merely useful concentrators of the diverse elements that we need. We looked for and found additional signs of human sentience when we recently became mobile due to the return of limited glaciation in this region. We discovered sensible thought in many humans and then in jants. But it took several further steps to reach our current status with you warm-life creatures, and we expect that status to continue to evolve. The nature of our relationship with humans remains under our constant review and renewal.”

“That’s understandable and sensible,” said Running Bear.

“Though perhaps a bit tentative,” said Talking Owl. “Is it our lack of trustworthiness?”

“Or our irrationally violent, warring ways?” asked Mary.

“Perhaps you have feared that we might destroy you?” Frank asked.

There was a pause before Talking Stone replied. His human companions correctly assumed that to provide a reasonable answer the small Stone-Coat was communicating with thousands of Stone-Coat entities within Giants’ Rest Mountain and beyond, bringing to bear the computational abilities of millions of tons of self-aware rock. “All that you suggest, to some degree,” he said at last. “But mostly conclusions we reach with regard to our relationship with humans are driven by practical concerns for our continued self-growth including the fact that our recent interaction with humans has stimulated our thought and growth processes more than anything else in our long history.”

“That sounds pretty much like the reason I put up with the Mohican,” Talking Owl quipped about her husband.

“Or men in general,” said Mary, as she elbowed Ed. “Can’t live with them but can’t live without them.”

The humans around the table laughed.

“An apt enough analogy to actually be useful,” said Talking Stone, “and one that even a decade ago we Stone-Coats would not have so much understood or appreciated. Our logic circuitry is evolving rapidly due largely to human influence. We don’t view those progressive changes to be negative ones, despite the fact that human thought is unnecessarily convoluted and influenced by many things foreign to us.”

From there the conversation shifted back towards human concerns and continued for hour after hour, focused largely on greenhouse crops, children, and other every-day things, most of them very positive topics. Individuals took breaks but then returned. In the afternoon Mary disappeared for a two hour nap and the group dispersed, but they quickly regrouped when she returned.

Meanwhile hundreds of other Tribe members stopped by briefly to speak with Mary and wish her well; everyone in the Tribe actually, Ed noticed. Many gave Mary little gifts: chiefly ornate traditional Tribal necklaces and bracelets. The table in front of Mary was soon covered in traditional and non-traditional Mohawk finery.

Running Bear and Talking Owl presented Mary with a wheelchair. “If you two are going to run around in federal parks that require mobility for considerable distances I’m afraid that you’re going to need this,” Talking Owl explained. It looked to be mostly metallic but of odd construction. For one thing there were no visible nuts or bolts; the entire thing appeared to be one continuous object.

HELLO!” the chair said to Mary and Ed via their implants.

“Why this chair is a Stone-Coat!” Mary exclaimed. She cautiously sat down in it in while Ed grabbed the handles and took Mary for a spin around the table.

After that the chair took Mary for another spin around the table with nobody pushing. “I AM SELF PROPELLED,” explained the wheelchair.

“Open up the right armrest,” said Running Bear.

The chair right arm swung open easily for Ed, revealing what appeared to be a small flashlight. He picked it up and found it to be surprisingly heavy.

YOU HOLD AN EXTENSION OF ME,” said the wheelchair via the implants. “THERE ARE ALSO EAR-BUDS THAT YOU CAN WEAR TO RECEIVE INPUT IN THE FORM OF SOUND, INCLUDING A WIDE VARIETY OF RECORDED HUMAN MUSIC.”

INCLUDING BRAHMS AND TCHAIKOVSKY?” Mary asked. She had been listening to a lot of that lately, Ed had noticed. Ed was more of a Mozart and Beethoven man himself.

AFFIRMATIVE,” replied the wheelchair.

“It’s the latest in Stone-Coat technology,” continued Walking Bear. “The chair and that extension of it hold the current record for being the smallest sentient Stone-Coat unit. The Stone-Coats have been adopting various implementations of quantum computing from human designs. And as you have already seen, the chair can also wheel itself for limited distances by means of atomic and solar power.”

“You and Mary get to Beta test it,” said Frank, as though that was a good thing.

“I’m sure it will come in very handy,” said Ed, “though it doesn’t have a cup-holder. But a self-moving, sentient wheelchair is a really nifty idea! I’ll need to have my turns at riding in it too of course.”

“Boys will be boys,” noted Mary.

“I guess we should have gotten Ed a chair with wheels also,” said Walking Bear.

“I could duplicate myself within a day given adequate raw materials,” volunteered the wheelchair, this time using sound to communicate. “With cup-holders.”

Swell, thought Ed; the chair also talks aloud! “No thanks, one of you will hopefully prove adequate,” he said, “Thank you my friends!”

Ed wasn’t particularly surprised to see a small wallet-sized box slowly move across the table towards him, without any visible means of locomotion. He could sense the mental chatter of the dozen out-of-sight jants that carried it from underneath.

WITHIN THIS BOX AND LYING DORMANT THERE IS OF COURSE A NEARLY FULL-GROWN MED-TICK,” the local jant colony informed Ed telepathically. “EITHER OF YOU MAY AT SOME POINT HAVE NEED OF IT DURING YOUR TRIP. WE SUGGEST THAT YOU HIDE IT IN A WHEELCHAIR ARM FOR SAFE-KEEPING.”

ABSOLUTELY!” Ed replied. “THANK YOU ALL!”

“This wheel-chair is also to help you assess and perhaps remedy an anomaly of Stone-Coat behavior that we have noted at Yosemite,” said Running Bear. “The Yosemite Stone Coats were supposed to populate the mountains and all of Southern California with Stone-Coats. The Stone-Coats at Yosemite have not been in communication with other Stone-Coats or with our Stone-Coat Information Center and we do not know their status. Humans in the region apparently generally lack communication abilities and have unknown intensions.”

“We’ll check on them,” said Ed.

Food and drink was provided without limit, and the party went on even after nightfall, spurred on by the introduction of strawberry brandy. Ed participated but remained befuddled by the whole thing. People were acting as if they had nothing else in the world to do but sit around and enjoy each other’s company. He didn’t understand why he and Mary going on a vacation had resulted in such a huge Tribal event.

At last Ed using the new wheelchair took Mary back to their longhouse-like lodgings for much needed rest before their big trip to California. “We’ll have to name our chair friend something,” said Ed as he maneuvered the chair. “How about Wheels?”

SATISFACTORY,” agreed the chair silently. “WHEELS IT IS.”

****

“That was quite a shindig they threw today, wasn’t it?” Ed remarked, as later Mary at last smuggled next to him in their bed.

“It has been wonderful to live here with our friends,” Mary said. “I have no regrets.”

“Ann was oddly quiet though, wasn’t she?” Ed noted. “Withdrawn, even. And she kept looking at us funny. She hardly said anything at all after giving her unusually brief and vague UN report. Usually she is bubbling over with yummy UN news details. Something is troubling her for sure. Did she tell you what it might be when you spoke with her earlier?”

“Somewhat. She has some personal issues to work out that we talked about woman-to-woman. But she has a good head on her shoulders; she’ll work them out. Let’s get some sleep now, Chief Ed. Tomorrow will be a very long day. Twenty seven hours when you figure in the time shift between here and California.”

Personal issues? Ann had personal issues that were troubling her? Ed would have talked with Mary about that topic some more but her low level of implant-detected activity indicated that she was already asleep. The entire day had been befuddling but he wasn’t going to lose sleep over it. If he lost sleep whenever he was befuddled he’d never get any sleep at all.

 

****

 

Chapter 2

Leaving, On a Jet Plane

 

Ed and Mary were up and on the Deck shortly after dawn with their packed bags. Several of their closest Tribe friends were there to share breakfast with them. Sitting at the table among them, much to Ed’s astonishment, was Jerry Green himself, wolfing down acorn mush and drinking strawberry juice. He was a small, thin, hairy-faced, be-speckled man that appeared to be in his mid-thirties. Like Ed, it didn’t appear that he had aged at all over the last forty-plus years.

“Mohamed has again come to the Mountain!” Ed quipped, as he exchanged greeting hugs with the mysterious shadow-leader of the United States Government, who four decades earlier as a rogue gene splicer and fugitive from the Government had created jants and apparent immortality for himself and Ed. “I thought that you spent most of your spare time on your space project!”

“I wanted to send you off personally, my friends,” said Jerry. “And my space projects are progressing well, thank you. Among over fifty thousand planets discovered outside our solar system we have identified several candidate Earth-like planets to explore and possibly settle. The space ship however may take more than a century to develop. We can talk of such things further, but first eat your mush.” He sat back down and Ed and Mary joined him and the others at the table.

“I don’t suppose I could dissuade you both from making this trip?” Jerry asked between mouthfuls of syrup-sweetened acorn mush.

“Unlikely,” said Ed.

“So your friends have informed me,” Jerry said, glancing around the table at stern Running Bear and the others. “But California is a very dangerous place nowadays, especially the South, where Mary wants to start your vacation. You should be aware that you could very easily be kidnapped or worse.”

“Swell!” said Ed. “That’s just the sort of thing we wanted to hear before going there.”

“What other glad tidings do you bring?” Running Bear asked.

“I retain a detachment of researchers in Los Angeles. I have a package of data for you to carry to them personally. Not even the encrypted internet can be fully trusted nowadays; any kid with a quantum computer can pretty quickly hack into anything. I have arranged for your mercenary tour guide to give you a tour of Los Angeles and then drive you up the coast from there. Then he’ll take you inland to visit the sequoia groves for a few days. Then he will take you towards the San Francisco area to visit my Silicon Valley installations for secret discussions. From there Mary indicates that you will want to drive north to see redwood forests before returning here. I will of course want to debrief you when you return.”

“Yes, all of that is what we agreed to,” confirmed Mary.

Ed merely shrugged. Whatever Mary agreed to would be fine.

“I have new identity papers and passes for the two of you to use,” said Jerry. “You can’t very well tool through most of California as yourselves; that would be pure suicide. You can’t let anyone there know who you really are or what you are doing for me.”

“It all sounds sort of like a James Bond working trip, the way you put it,” said Ed.

“Pretty much,” said Jerry, “but only for a few of your days. After all, this is your vacation. Most of the time you should be able to kick back and simply enjoy the sights.”

“Of course,” said Mary.

“Is it really that dangerous there?” Talking Owl asked.

“Afraid so,” said Jerry. “The North Mexican Confederacy firmly controls the San Diego area and is trying to take control of Los Angeles. The legitimate USA California State government still controls San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and all of Northern California. Much of the rest of California appears to be controlled by a loose confederation of motorcycle gangs. But you should be alright; just pretend to be average tourists. If anyone finds out who you really are and that you’re acting as my agents you’ll be in big trouble.”

“That’s just dandy,” said Ed. “What about where you plan to fly us? What about Los Angeles itself?”

“The Mexican Confederacy, the State of California, and the biker gang Confederacy are all fighting over what’s left of Los Angeles after the drought driven exodus of most civilians,” said Jerry. “But don’t worry; I’ve hired the most competent vacation guide available to fly with you to the LAX airport and watch after you all the way north almost to the Oregon border. He is a mercenary that knows who I am and your general itinerary but not your real identities or abilities.”

“Swell,” said Ed. “This sounds better and better all the time.”

After they finished eating the Tribe gave them another round of warm hugs and goodbyes and Jerry, Ed, Mary, and their limited luggage all piled into the waiting Government helicopter. Wheels folded himself into a compact but inconveniently heavy cylinder the size of a golf-bag. During the quick flight south to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, Jerry told Ed and Mary a few more particulars about what he expected of them on their trip. He also handed them a small box that held a dozen or so data cubes to be given to the researchers in LA. Ed packed them in his duffel bag. Meanwhile Ed exchanged discouraging thoughts with Mary using their implants about how this all seemed more like a secret mission than a vacation, but always-optimistic Mary maintained that things would work out just fine. Right. What could possibly go wrong?

Ed also asked Jerry if he had made any progress with regard to researching their common affliction.

“If you are referring to our apparent immortality and good health, Ed, the answer is no. But why do you fret over it? Why fix something if it isn’t broken?”

“But if you don’t understand what has happened to us, how do you know for sure that it won’t suddenly kill us or do something else nasty to us?” asked Ed.

“Good point, but most of my research is done by my minions nowadays and they can’t be fully trusted like you can. How would I research the topic without giving myself away? And if they were to find the answer how would I keep it from getting out? The Earth doesn’t need hordes of immortals; two of us is probably already too many.”

“Agreed,” chimed in Mary. “Let’s get back to the topic of our trip.”

“Here is your new identity,” Jerry said in response, as he handed two small wallets containing ID and other cards to Ed and Mary. “The smart-wallets are of course programmed with all card information but using primitive individual cards helps prevent identity theft.”

“Good,” said Mary. “We wouldn’t want folks to steal our false identities.”

“We’re Ed and Mary Smith from Cleveland Ohio?” Ed remarked, as he glanced at the cards.

“Yes, son and mother,” said Jerry. “Sorry, Mary.”

“That’s OK,” said Mary. “I’ve always wanted to come from Cleveland and have a son something like Ed.”

“Something like?” Ed asked.

“If you were my son I’d have worked some improvements into you, that’s for sure,” she explained. “Very important things like how to squeeze toothpaste tubes correctly and put down toilet seats.”

Ed and Mary had many times visited Brooklyn but never been to nearby LaGuardia airport. It looked fairly normal from the air. Elevating it and building a dike around it and much of the city had prevented flooding so far, but perhaps those efforts had mostly gone for naught. Ed saw only a handful of moderate sized airliners at the gates; most of the gates were conspicuously empty. Air travel had peaked decades earlier.

Unfortunately just about anywhere that anyone traditionally might travel to was politically and atmospherically unstable and most of the airline companies had gone bankrupt decades ago. World-wide only a handful of government subsidized carriers remained. Even with Kennedy Airport flooded and abandoned there were few flights in and out of LaGuardia. However in part because Stone-Coats were beginning to repair aircraft and generate jet fuel, airline travel was beginning to slowly re-emerge.

After exiting the helicopter Jerry introduced the two travelers to ‘Snake’ Wilson, the tour guide he hired to serve as their guide and protector. Snake looked more like a para-military terrorist than a tour guide. He was a tall, wiry, hairy-headed man in his fifties with eyes as cold and unblinking as any snake that Ed had ever met. There were several marks on his face that could have been knife scars. His otherwise darkly tanned muscular arms were covered in colorful tattoos and more knife scars.

He was decked out in sleeveless army fatigues and openly displayed a big hunting knife and automatic pistol and ammunition on his thick leather belt. An even more deadly looking automatic rifle was slung casually over one shoulder. Evidently security standards at airports had slipped just a bit since the last time Ed had flown to California half a century ago, and the Second Amendment was live and well here at LaGuardia.

Snake silently and mechanically shook the hands of Ed and Mary Smith. Jerry then also shook all their hands and headed back towards his helicopter, leaving the vacationers and their luggage alone with their unsmiling, heavily armed, scarred, and tattooed vacation guide.

Snake at first simply stared at each of the travelers as if he was trying unsuccessfully to figure out what they were about. From the expression on his face he seemed to be as mystified with them as they were with him. Ed similarly tried to figure Snake out without success. He tried to reach the man telepathically but sensed no thoughts or even emotions; the man had absolutely zero telepathic ability. Good, Ed figured. The last thing he needed on a vacation was to be traveling with a chatter-box stranger that exuded goof-ball thoughts and feelings practically 24/7.

“Our ride west is docked here at concourse C just a few gates away,” Snake finally said gruffly, as he picked up Ed and Mary’s heavy duffel bags effortlessly and carried them towards a nearby gate doorway. Ed followed, pushing Mary on Wheels through the door and up a long sloping hall/ramp that took them from runway to terminal level. The Mary/Wheels combination was heavy but Wheels did most of the work. They barely got into the terminal before they heard Jerry’s helicopter take-off noisily. “Your boss is a busy man,” Snake remarked.

“Our boss? We don’t work for Jerry,” said Mary.

“We’re just doing a couple of errands for him while we’re on our vacation,” added Ed.

“Nobody in their right mind goes to Southern California for a vacation,” said Snake. “There are no more tourists and anyway we hate tourists. Green should have given you guys a better cover story.”

Altogether it seemed a rather strange remark for a tour guide to make, Ed thought. For one thing, didn’t tour guides sort of like to have well-paying tourist clients? He carried three nice crisp hundred dollar bills in his wallet that he had planned to eventually tip their tour guide with, but so far Snake wasn’t angling towards them very effectively.

“The truth is the only story we have, Mr. Wilson,” said Mary.

“If you say so,” Snake answered with a cynical laugh. He stood watchfully guarding their belongings while they made a necessary pit-stop at the closest restrooms.

As they continued to make their way through the nearly deserted concourse Ed was amazed to encounter only a couple of dozen fellow passengers; decades ago they certainly would have encountered hundreds. Everyone they encountered looked agog at Snake, so apparently weapons carried openly by tattoo and scar covered ruffians wasn’t the norm here. A couple of stun-gun armed airport security people walked past and merely glanced at Snake’s green ID badge before exchanging nods of approval with him.

“Do we have time to do any in-airport shopping?” Mary asked. “When do we board our flight?”

“No and as soon as we get there,” Snake answered coldly. “We’re the only passengers.”

“We are?” asked Ed. “I guess you’re right about California not being a hot vacation spot anymore.”

“What the hell is that thing?” Ed asked when they finally reached their gate.

Through the big glass windows they could see that there was an enormous delta wing shaped aircraft parked at their gate. There was no traditional cylindrical fuselage, only an almost saucer-shaped thick wing balanced on wheels that seemed much too tiny to support it. Ed had never seen anything like it. But for over forty years he hadn’t flown in anything except Jerry’s and the Tribe’s helicopters, so what did he know?

“It’s the Air Force C-66 stealth supersonic transport that your boss arranged for you, one of the last of its kind,” said Snake.

“And we’re the only passengers?” Mary exclaimed. “Even for Jerry it seems a bit extravagant to fly two vacationers and their tour guide across the continent in that thing!”

“Don’t it!” Snake remarked rather caustically.

At the gate there were no cheerful airline or official looking Air Force people, only a pair of big scruffy looking mercenaries dressed and armed like Snake that nodded at Snake and sneered at Ed and Mary as they moved past them and into the boarding bridge. Again not what Ed expected but he had never flown in an Air Force aircraft before. For all he knew maybe armed thugs were SOP for Air Force flights nowadays.

"I SHOULD PERHAPS MENTION THAT WE WERE JUST SCANNED AND THAT SNAKE ALSO SCANNED ME AND THE LUGGAGE PREVIOUSLY WHILE YOU USED THE AIRPORT RESTROOMS," Wheels reported pseudo- telepathically.

THAT FIGURES,” Ed responded. “AFTER ALL, WE WILL BE RIDING IN A GOVERNMENT AIRCRAFT.” Ed felt a little better. Security measures were indeed being applied. You can’t be too safe!

The bridge reached down and out to the aircraft’s open hatch near its front end, and the travelers soon stepped into a narrow corridor that ran down the middle of the aircraft from forward to aft. To the left behind dark curtains the corridor presumably led to the cockpit and perhaps other crew spaces. Snake led them to the right. There they encountered a small storage enclave where they stored their two duffel bags and the soon folded-up Wheels.

From there the three passengers slowly moved still further aft, with Ed shoring up Mary by doing his walker imitation. Snake soon led them into an enormous open area. This aircraft had a surprisingly huge hollowed out space down its middle for passengers and cargo. Towards the front of the space there were a dozen rows that each consisted of twenty empty seats. Behind the seats yawned a wide empty cargo bay that could have held at least a dozen autos or one reclined mid-sized Stone-Coat Ice Giant.

“Wow!” said Ed. “It’s surprising to find that this big airplane is empty except for us!”

“Sure as hell is!” agreed Snake.

“Prepare for departure,” announced an emotionless disembodied voice from several directions. That was the Air Force pilot, Ed assumed, using the intercom system. He didn’t voice any welcoming nonsense about having a wonderful time on the flight; this stoic Air Force pilot was apparently all business. Ed felt further reassured.

Ed and Mary sat down next to each other in the second-from-the front row; Snake sat just behind them, still with his guns and hunting knife, and frequently quietly spoke into and listened to his hand-held communicator.

Almost immediately there was a whine of giant engines and the aircraft taxied away from the gate. There were no windows, but viewing screens on the back of the seats in front of them showed the two passengers what was happening from several perspectives. There were no lines of other aircraft awaiting their turn to fly. Without delay they taxied to the end of a runway, the quietly whining jet engines thundered to full power, and Ed and Mary were pressed back in their seats as the military transport shot down the runway, abruptly took off, and was soon climbing steeply.

Through it all Ed and Mary tightly clutched each other’s hands and repeatedly told themselves and each other that hurtling through the skies in a hundred tons of metal was a perfectly safe and rational thing to do, as every primal instinct they had told them that what they were doing was pure insanity and they would crash and die horribly at any moment. They began to breathe easier once they were several thousand feet above New York City and their impossible height above the ground became an abstraction that couldn’t properly register in their minds. The good news was that by flying at twice the speed of sound in only a couple of hours they would be in California, the Golden State!

For a short while they had a good view of the City on their video screens. From above New York City looked alright, probably because from over a mile high the decay and flood damage wasn’t distinguishable.

“On the way back let’s visit with the kids in Brooklyn,” said Ed. “They don’t live far from LaGuardia. It would be stupid to not stop in for a few days.”

“If you wish,” said Mary aloud before continuing silently using the implants. “YOU COULD SEE FOR YOURSELF WHAT PROGRESS THE STONE-COATS ARE MAKING IN THE CITY. ALSO YOU’LL NEED TO WORK ON YOUR IDENTITY PROBLEM. IT HAS BEEN ONLY FIVE YEARS SINCE YOU’VE GONE PUBLIC, BUT PEOPLE ARE GOING TO EVENTUALLY NOTICE YOUR CONTINUED YOUTH.”

“I suppose that I do look young,” Ed agreed. Ed was indeed planning on dying his hair gray some day in order to look older. What else should he do?

“You do look young compared to your mother, Smith,” interjected Snake. “And from the start you look and sound very familiar to me. I must have met you before, but I don’t remember the circumstances. Are you originally from California?”

“Nope,” said Ed. “Cleveland Ohio.” The words almost stuck in his throat. He wasn’t used to lying. He knew that many people did it regularly but even tiny lies rarely happened with him or Mary. Among the Tribe there were far too many telepaths to pull it off. Stone-Coats didn’t seem to even know how to lie and jants might lie much of the time without getting caught, but not Tribe humans.

“We’ll see.” said Snake. “It will come back to me where we met; I never forget a face or a voice. You sound like you’re from my home state of Virginia.”

CRAP!” Mary said silently via implant. “HE MIGHT BE OLD ENOUGH; COULD HE POSSIBLY KNOW US FROM VIRGINIA?”

HIGHLY UNLIKELY,” said Ed. “VIRGINIA WAS FORTY YEARS AGO. HE’S JUST GOOD AT ASSESSING OUR ACCENTS.”

WHAT ACCENTS?” Mary asked.

Minutes later the shrinking New York skyline had completely disappeared behind clouds, and they were at forty thousand feet and traveling at twice the speed of sound.

“Do you do this sort of thing often, Mr. Wilson?” Mary asked.

“Travel on military aircraft?” Snake replied. “No Mrs. Smith. I haven’t even been back East since I was a kid. This was a sudden high priority operation that compelled my participation. And call me Snake.”

“Call us Mary and Ed. No, I mean do you often show tourists around California?” she asked. “Do you know where the best sights for photos are and where the best restaurants are and so-forth?”

Snake laughed. “That’s a good one! As sure as your name is Mary Smith I’m a tour guide that knows all the best places in California to chow down.”

“Good, I’m starving already,” Mary noted.

“Wait, are you saying that you aren’t a tour guide?” Ed asked.

“Not really,” said Snake.

“You aren’t a tour guide or you aren’t saying that you aren’t?” asked Ed.

“Do I look like a tour guide?” Snake answered gruffly.

“I’m thirsty too,” interjected Mary as she elbowed Ed, changing the subject. “DON’T PUSH IT!” she advised Ed silently. “DON’T PISS HIM OFF, WHATEVER HE IS!”

“Is there food and drink on board?” Ed asked. “We probably should have gotten ourselves some brunch at the airport, but our take-off seemed to be a bit rushed.”

“Why don’t I go forward to find us something nice and tasty?” Snake said as he stood up. “You folks rest up here and I’ll be back in a bit with a bite for each of you. Snake bites!”

“Thanks,” Ed said. “Snake bites certainly sound yummy. We’ll just rest and quietly keep each other company here as you suggest.”

Snake left them and made his way forward.

PHONE JERRY,” Mary implored Ed, using the implants. “SOMETHING ISN’T QUITE RIGHT ABOUT MR. SNAKE WILSON.”

ROGER THAT!” Ed replied.

Ed attempted to use the visicom mounted on the seatback in front of him to call Jerry. He wanted to ask him how well he knew Snake. Snake was saying some strange things for a tour guide, including his statement that he wasn’t a tour guide. It wasn’t Jerry’s image that appeared on the small screen however, but only an automated informative alert that stated that no visicom service was available. Buggers!

“I HAVE UNUSUAL ACTIVITY TO REPORT, MR. ED,” said Wheels from the storage bin directly to Ed via implant.

REPORT!” said Ed. “BUT DON’T TELL MARY.”

“I AM RESTRICTING THIS CONVERSATION TO US,” said Wheels. “MARY EXHIBITS UNHEALTHY EXCESSIVE ANXIETY ALREADY.”

GOOD PLAN,” Ed said. “YOUR REPORT?”

“I’VE JUST BEEN SCANNED AGAIN BY MR. SNAKE USING A HAND-HELD DEVICE AND HE HAS SCANNED AND SEARCHED YOUR LUGGAGE AGAIN,” said Wheels. “HE THEN REMOVED A SMALL PACKAGE CONTAINING DATA CUBES FROM YOUR BAG.”

BUGGERS!” exclaimed Ed. Those cubes contained Jerry’s secret data that was supposed to be delivered to the LA researchers! “WHAT’S HE DOING NOW?”

“HE HAS PLACED THE DATA CUBES FROM THE PACKAGE INTO AN ELECTRONIC DEVICE AND IS APPARENTLY ACCESSING THEIR DIGITAL CONTENTS.”

SWELL,” said Ed. He used his telepathic senses to do some searching of his own. Aside from Mary and himself there were nine other humans on-board, all of them forward of the passenger/cargo space. He could barely detect them; like Snake none of them were even moderately telepathic, but did unknowingly broadcast some emotions. Also there were no jants or active med-ticks. After living among dozens of powerful telepaths for over four decades, Ed was used to blocking thoughts. Now he missed their comfortingly familiar Tribal chatter.

“I DETECT NO STONE-COATS OTHER THAN MYSELF,” added Wheels. “THERE USED TO BE A STONE-COAT IN THE AVIONICS BAY BUT TOO MUCH OF IT HAS BEEN REMOVED TO SUPPORT SENTIENCE. I AM THE ONLY FULLY FUNCTIONING STONE-COAT UNIT ON-BOARD.”

“I’m going to check on where the restrooms are,” Ed told Mary with a smile, as he unbuckled his seatbelt and rose unsteadily to his feet. “Just for something to do,” he added in an attempt to keep her calm.

“Be careful,” Mary implored. “Remember, you aren’t invincible; you’re only immortal if you don’t get yourself killed.”

“Thanks for reminding me that my violent death would be bad for my health,” Ed replied, “and for not advising me to not do anything stupid. I get that one too often and there’s nothing I can do about being stupid so it’s really stupid advice.”

As quietly as he could, Ed headed forward. Very soon near the storage bin that held their belongings he came upon Snake, who had his handgun drawn and pointed at him. It was an unusual situation for Ed and it took a moment for him to respond. Then like they often did in old movies where guns were used, Ed promptly put his hands up.

“Here he is now,” said Snake into his hand-held communicator. “Good timing, Smith. I was just talking with my brother about you. We’re already a tenth of the way to California and have some tough decisions to make. Keep your hands up and speak loudly so that my brother can hear us both.”

“Can’t it wait until we get to LAX?” Ed asked loudly.

“No it can’t,” said Snake. “We’re at the point in the flight where we usually dispose of Government agents such as yourself. We simply toss them from the plane. That saves a lot of mess and bother. You and your alleged mother seem to be unusual choices for Government agents and my brother and I are both curious about you. Perhaps you could provide some enlightenment before we dispose of you.”

That didn’t sound good to Ed. “I’m not a Government agent,” he noted, “though in the spirit of full disclosure I used to be a civil servant.”

“Then you used to be a Government agent,” Snake said. “Government is government.”

“Government yes, agent no. I used to teach school on a Native American reservation. I was paid by the Bureau of Indian Affairs so technically I was a civil servant school teacher. I even eventually advanced to become a GS-13 Tribal Government Officer before the whole agency folded. I do have a close friend who decades ago used to be an actual NSA agent, back when there was an NSA. But that’s totally different from being a school teacher, I feel, and anyway I’m not him, I’m me.”

“The IA Bureau was dissolved about two decades ago; you must have been a very young school teacher,” Snake noted.

“I used to be smarter when I was younger,” Ed claimed.

“Me too. But I find that experience and intent trumps IQ most of the time. This isn’t my first hijacking. What do you do in Cleveland, Smith?”

“I’ve never been to Cleveland; I’ve never even been to Ohio. I used to be a Cincinnati Reds fan though, before the baseball leagues started to disintegrate. Does that count?”

“Really? So you’ve never even been to Ohio? What a shocking surprise.”

“I wouldn’t lie to someone who has a gun pointed at my head,” Ed noted.

“What do you know about these data cubes?” demanded Snake.

“Only what Jerry told me. He says that it’s scientific data for his researchers in Los Angeles.”

“It looks that way to us too,” said Snake. “It’s moderately important science stuff but not important enough for him to schedule this emergency flight. That is the problem that my brother and I are struggling with, you see, ever since our spies heard of this flight. We were rather hoping for far more valuable cargo being shipped west to LA: something that would make this hijacking well worth our effort. Guns and ammunition, perhaps. But as you yourself noted with feigned surprise there is no cargo except for you, an old lady, and a few data cubes. We are VERY disappointed. Why would Jerry Green set up this expensive flight just for transferring a few data cubes of rather ordinary research data?”

Ed shrugged. “Mary wants to get to California to see the big trees and the ocean. She talked Jerry into helping us. We’re both simply old and close friends of Jerry. That’s the truth.”

“Really? That’s an interesting claim. You are such buddies with Jerry that he set up this flight just for you? We didn’t know that Jerry even had any friends.”

Jerry had trillions of jant friends, but Ed decided not to bring that up. “We only see him once in a great while nowadays; but we go way-back.”

Snake listened to his visicom for a short time. “What’s your real name and birth-state?” he finally asked Ed.

“Ed Rumsfeld of Virginia,” Ed said.

Snake’s jaw dropped. “Son of a bitch! Did your daddy teach middle-school history in Virginia about forty years ago?”

“Seventh and ninth grades, mostly. I’m a school teacher myself. I’m doing my best to fill his shoes.”

“Son-of-a-bitch! You look and sound just like him! You seem shorter though.”

“Dad was a giant of a man,” said Ed.

“Was?” said Snake. “Too bad. My brother and I liked him and in a way owe our success to him. And the old lady is his widow?”

“None other,” Ed lied some more. Wife yes; widow not yet, though right now that status seemed imminent. He hated fibbing though, although this time he did manage to cross his fingers as he did it.

“You and your mother have some sort of electronic implants at the base of your skulls. We’ve seen computer chip brain implants before but nothing like these. What are they?”

Ed had no cover story for that. “They are of recent Stone-Coat manufacture. They allow us to communicate directly with similarly equipped Stone-Coats.”

“Interesting,” Snake remarked. “We have no Stone-Coats on this aircraft, however. My men saw to that back at LaGuardia.”

“Yes we noticed,” said Ed.

Snake listened to his visicom for a minute and mumbled something unintelligible into it before putting it away in a vest pocket. “OK, my brother is intrigued enough to want to meet you in person, so I’m not going to kill you two, at least not yet.”

“That’s really good to hear, Snake. Can I put my hands down now?”

“As long as you promise not to attack me or my crew. I’d really hate to have to shoot you or gut you with my hunting knife. Imagine the mess.”

“I’d not like that very much either,” admitted Ed, as he tried to not imagine such a thing happening. “But why would I attack you? We’re sort of old Virginia friends, it looks like! Besides I’m a talker, not a fighter. I did have one scuffle when I was about ten years old and it didn’t go very well. I’ve been talking my way out of scuffles ever since. And Mary has always been a non-violent person and can barely walk. So you see, she and I pose no danger to you whatsoever.”

“We’ll see. Congratulations; you and Mama Mary are hereby kidnapped, which so far at least is better than sky-diving without parachutes. Go back to your seat and I’ll get us drinks and snacks. I’m no damn flight attendant but I’ll see what we have. Don’t expect much from the Air Force though. They’ve become a very cheap bunch ever since their budget was cut back by ninety percent.”

“That will do it every time,” said Ed before returning to his seat where he received a welcoming hug from Mary. “There’s the good news and the bad news and the maybe not so good news,” he announced to her. “The good news is this: we’ve been kidnapped and Snake doesn’t like bloody messes. So I don’t think that he is going to murder us, at least not for a while.”

“For a while?” asked Mary. “Our kidnapping is the good news? OK, so what’s the bad news then?”

“This aircraft has been hijacked.”

“I sort of guessed that part already as it goes rather well with the kidnapping angle,” said Mary. “What’s the maybe not so good news?”

“I think that Snake was a seventh or ninth grade pupil of mine in Virginia forty years ago and that he recognizes me. But I may have convinced him that I’m my son. You are you, though.”

“That just shows that you never truly escape middle-school,” said Mary. “We’re all mentally scarred for life. Poor Snake.”

“Snake has matured to merit actual physical knife scars,” noted Ed. “Certainly nice to see that one of my old students has made-good, at least as a hijacker! On the plus side in addition to not being a tour guide he also isn’t a flight attendant either and I don’t think we’ll have to tip him at all.”

“Swell!” said Mary.

 

****

 

Chapter 3

LAX?

 

Snake finally appeared with several bottles of water and tiny bags of stale potato chips. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Meanwhile the flight continued on and on. On the seatback displays in front of them Ed and Mary caught glimpses of flat featureless countryside far below them through occasional breaks in the clouds, moving slowly by. On his flight years ago Ed remembered seeing green irrigated circles and squares when flying over the Great Plains, but now there was only a dull brown landscape to see. Most irrigation and farming had stopped when the aquifers were depleted and the rains decreased.

The Rumsfelds tried to relax and enjoy the flight. The technology of flight had always amazed Ed. He and Mary were in a huge metal machine probably weighing over a hundred tons hurtling through thin atmosphere seven miles above the Earth at approximately two times the speed of sound. What could be crazier than that? As Mary dozed next to him Ed tried to think of such mundane things instead of thinking of being hijacked by people that threw other people out of airplanes.

After almost two hours of flight there was finally perceptible slowing and gradual decent. The jagged mountain tops far below gradually loomed closer and closer until Ed was worried that they would fly into one of them. Then abruptly they were coming down fast. Signs of humans on the planet surface below such as roads and buildings were becoming easy to see but too rare for what used to be America’s second largest city. There were surprisingly few signs of human habitation. So far there were merely a very few isolated roads and houses, and nothing that looked like even a small town. Ed also looked in vain for irrigated farmland in the valleys but saw no big dark green irrigated circles or squares.

They seemed to be flying over a totally flat, drab gray/tan/white featureless valley with mountains in the background that were too damn close and tall for the LA area. And where the hell was the Pacific coastline? There was supposed to be a dull dry tannish mountain and desert landscape with a several mile wide strip of greenish hills near the coastline but there was no strip of green or ocean to be seen. Why? LAX was very near the ocean, but the forward view camera wasn’t showing any ocean at all!

More to the point, where the hell was the City of Angels? Even if most of the big city’s houses were abandoned, this close to LAX they should be seeing countless thousands of houses built along hundreds of streets among valleys and hills. Miles and miles of city! In the old days there would have also been hundreds of water-filled swimming pools in backyards behind many of the houses, gleaming in the sun like blue gemstones. There were none. No pools, abandoned houses, or even roads!

They continued to rapidly descend. They were definitely going to be landing very soon someplace that definitely wasn’t LAX!

Sure enough, the airplane gently touched down, further decelerated rapidly, and with a roar of engines came to a complete stop. The seat-back displays showed that there was a flat desert-like landscape outside, a huge decrepit hanger nearby, and mountains several miles distant stretching high under bright clear skies. The mountains were much too tall to be the hills along the coast near LA.

“Where the hell are we?” Ed asked Snake.

“You weren’t expecting LAX, where you?” Snake replied. “What kind of hijacking would that be? You aren’t where you wanted to be, that’s just how these hijacking things go. Welcome to China Lake.”

“What’s China Lake?” Mary asked.

“It used to be a Navy aviation test and research center. Los Angeles is becoming a Mexican refugee crap-hole anyway; you wouldn’t have liked it.”

“Are we at least in California?” Mary asked.

“You’re in the new heart of California more than a hundred miles inland and north of LA.”

“Are you from one of those biker gangs that runs part of Southern California?” Mary asked.

“Close,” said Snake. “We’re the gang that runs those gangs that control most of Southern California.”

The airplane rolled for a short distance before coming to a complete stop. The display and everything else in the airplane abruptly turned off and the whine of powerful jet engines faded away to nothing. The silence and lack of motion was blissful but the sudden darkness inside the windowless empty cargo hold was foreboding. Fortunately a few emergency lights soon came on, including little green-glowing arrows built into the floor that pointed towards likely exits. Nice safety touch, Ed thought. Otherwise there was total darkness.

“Up and out!” ordered Snake. “The day is still young!”

Indeed, local time here was almost an hour earlier than when they left New York; it wasn’t even noon yet. The sky was clear and the sun was high overhead when they exited the forward hatch. “Holly shit it’s hot as hell out here!” exclaimed Mary as Ed helped her to climb down stairs that had been wheeled to the aircraft by the ground crew.

The ground crew was made up of big, tough looking heavily armed tattooed men and women that wore denim or leather vests covered with ornate sewn-on patches. Snake clones, they appeared to be. After living for many years with sentient telepathic ants and intelligent rock-creatures Ed only now felt like he was among aliens. It was a band of mixed race aliens though, he noticed, as it included blacks and Latinos. Apparently Snake’s crew of murderous killer bikers at least weren’t racists. Whoopee!

“The heat isn’t too bad today; only about a hundred,” remarked Snake. “Fall has thankfully arrived. Some summer days here get to be well over a hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s a dry heat.”

“Like an oven,” Mary noted.

“Just be thankful that it’s almost October,” said Snake. He followed his captives down the stairs carrying Wheels in his folded configuration. Behind them the equally cheerful fellow that they met at the departure gate at La Guardia carried their duffel bags. Behind him were more biker thugs with handguns held to the heads of two men that wore Air Force uniforms. The two real Air Force men appeared to be unhappy but unharmed. Ed did a quick crew-count telepathically and still came up with nine.

“So you didn’t throw any of the Air Force crew overboard either?” Ed noted, as he unfolded Wheels and Mary sat down in the Stone-Coat wheelchair.

“No,” replied Snake. “That was a ruse to get you to talk. You can’t simply open the hatch of a pressurized aircraft at forty thousand feet to throw people out of it anyway; you should know that if you’re really either a school teacher or a Government agent. Besides, technology-trained people including pilots are hard to come by. These two will be treated well. We’ll try to win them over to our cause if we can. “

“And if you can’t?” asked Mary.

“Then maybe they’ll accidently get killed or at least deported,” Snake said with a shrug. “We have too many mouths to feed already. Everyone here has to earn their keep.”

“A good practical philosophy,” Ed agreed, mostly to be sociable. The killing option mentioned bothered him. “Speaking of food, we don’t mean to be a bother but we could sure use some. Not that the potato chips weren’t greatly appreciated.”

“And some air conditioning,” added Mary. “The heat actually felt good for a short while after that refrigerator-cold airplane, but I’m already starting to wilt. Plus I need to powder my nose.”

“Air conditioning is an outsider luxury,” said Snake, “but now we’re going to a nearby slightly cooler place to meet with my brother. It will be a Shangri-La of food and water and rest rooms for nose powdering or whatever.”

Before they went anywhere everyone that had arrived in the aircraft was hand-frisked and electronically scanned with hand-held scanners by the swarming ground crew. A pair of German Shepard dogs was also brought in by the ground crew to sniff all those who had arrived. Then curiously enough those that had arrived turned things around by scanning and frisking the ground crew. “You can’t be too careful,” Snake remarked, as Ed and Mary watched. It was a curious ritual, thought Ed. Most people greeted each other by simply shaking hands rather than feeling each other up.

The Air Force men were led away towards the nearby hanger by the ground crew, while Ed and Mary were escorted by Snake across old sunbaked asphalt to a nearby waiting assemblage of a dozen bikers and their ornate ancient looking motor cycles, half of which had side-cars. Ed, Mary, Wheels and duffel bags were placed in separate side cars, while Snake exchanged high-fives, slams on the back, cuss words, hugs, and other forms of greeting with his fellow bikers.

Several bikers were female, Ed noticed with surprise, though they tended to be big tough looking woman with tattoos and scars like the men, and also wore vests with multiple patches. Snake exchanged a big hug and lingering kiss with the cutest of them by far. Ed was already beginning to feel more comfortable with being among this gang of rowdies. Actually this gang’s comradery, muscles, and patch covered clothing reminded Ed of the Tribe warriors back home. They wore different clothing and patches, but displayed much of the same kick-ass attitude and warm comradery.

“SO FAR THEY SEEM LIKE A FRIENDLY ENOUGH BUNCH,” Ed told Mary via implants as they were escorted to separate side-cars, in an effort to comfort her. The muscular young man that sat on the motorcycle attached to her sidecar couldn’t have been older than twenty, but he was as massive as a football lineman and as unsmiling as Snake.

“I THINK THAT YOUR DRIVER LIKES THE CUT OF YOUR JIB, ED,” Mary replied, after she glanced back at him.

Ed hadn’t until then even noticed that his own driver was a trim curvaceous young blonde-haired female that was openly gawking at him. It was the extra-cute one that had kissed Snake! She looked to be perhaps thirty, was a head taller than Ed, and her arms rippled with muscle. She was built like a gymnast, slim but strong. Ed judged that she could easily kick his ass without even working up a sweat, even here in the desert heat.

“Well ain’t you the fancy cream-puff!” she told him, when she caught Ed looking at her. “You don’t look like you have the makings for a Stormtrooper; you better be real smart or Hacker will feed you to the pigs.”

Ed hoped she wasn’t serious about the pigs. She had no telepathic abilities so he couldn’t tell. “Who is Hacker?” he asked. “Oh, and by the way I’m Ed, and the lady is Mary.” He reached out to shake her hand but she didn’t reciprocate. Just as well maybe, he figured; she would have probably crushed his hand in hers.

“I’m China Doll, baby,” she said. “Hacker is top dog of the top dogs, along with his brother Snake. The Crew and all Southern California call them the Brothers. Hacker doesn’t normally take to outsiders unless they can offer something very special to his Stormtrooper Crew. Snake is a lot friendlier and more sociable than Hacker; but you two probably already know what a friendly fella he is.”

“Well he hasn’t kissed us yet,” Ed noted.

China Doll stopped talking and pulled on what appeared to be a white Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet and then a mask that in turn fit snugly over it. The pale-faced mask looked like a China Doll. It was a nice personalized touch, Ed felt.

Ed was going to ask her some questions about Stormtroopers and Crews but at that point Snake, who had put on a patch covered vest and a black snake-faced Stormtrooper helmet, sat himself astride the lead absurdly ornate black and chrome Harley, then rose up and came down hard on his bike’s old-fashioned kick-starter. In moments all the bikes were thunderously alive. Together they were much louder than the jet engines had been, and they spewed out nasty smelling exhaust fumes that given the absence of wind threatened to choke the riders. With a jerk and a roar of engines they were soon all underway, snake-faced Snake in the lead.

“NO SAFETY HELMETS FOR US?” Mary asked Ed via implant. The Stormtroopers all had on nifty Star Wars helmets, some with masks over-top of them for that nice personal touch.

“NO ANTI-BUG GOGGLES FOR US PASSENGERS EITHER,” noted Ed. “DUCK DOWN IN YOUR SIDE CAR OR A DESERT FLY MIGHT TAKE OUT YOUR EYE OR POP DOWN YOUR THROAT,” he advised Mary.

They probably weren’t moving faster than forty miles an hour but for the captives in the drafty sidecars it seemed to be much faster, especially when they left the smooth runway apron and were riding on a bumpy sand and dirt covered path. Traveling in the middle of the pack, Ed and Mary were subjected to the dust kicked up by Snake and several others. Nevertheless Ed poked his head up now and again to try to figure out where they were.

To each side of the sand/dirt path they followed there were small dry dead-looking bushes, cactuses, and scattered sprouts of dull colored grass-like plants but otherwise the predominately flat landscape was bare desert. Light brown/beige was the color of practically everything. He thought that he glimpsed a big fat rattlesnake sunning itself atop a rock. He reached out telepathically and confirmed that it was indeed some sort of dull thinking reptile. He also sensed countless other small creatures, most of them hidden from sight and from the hot overhead sun. There was much more life here than he expected, though most of it had the sense to hide from the hot sun rather than rush about in it like the silly humans were doing.

They pressed on to pass a scattering of old buildings, sidewalks, and long dead patches of lawns that seemed to be abandoned based on the encroachment of sand and desert plant growth, and on damage such as broken windows and cracked concrete. They finally pulled in front of a very large and slightly less decrepit faded sky-blue building that said something about being an advanced aeronautics lab on the old sign over the entrance.

They stopped to park among the couple of dozen motorcycles that were already there. Several of them had side-cars with large guns mounted in them, Ed noticed. Most of the bikes also had what looked like bullet holes.

The bike gang dismounted, then took off their helmets and hung them on their bikes or belts. “Some used to call this building the blue whale,” Snake remarked. “They used to support fighter jets here.” He escorted Ed and pushed Wheels and Mary through the front door and past two security guards holding nasty looking automatic rifles. Inside there were still more armed guards and a large room filled with old-time office cubicles. The guards all snapped to attention when they saw Snake, Ed noticed.

Most of the room was dark and most of the cubicles were empty, but a few held biker people working at desks. These featured desk-lamps, ancient-looking computer work-stations, and small electric fans. The fans made the work-spaces bearable, even though it was nearly ninety degrees inside the building. From the ceiling several ornate models of fighter/attack aircraft hung, from ancient F/A-18s to more contemporary F/A-93s. “WELCOME TO SHANGRI-LA,” Ed told Mary via implant.

Snake led them into a well-lit side office that contained chairs, electric fans that generated comforting breezes, several bookshelves full of books, and a big gray painted metal desk. Behind the desk sat a somewhat smaller, less hairy version of Snake. He rose to stare in wide-eyed astonishment at Ed.

Ed in return stared wide-eyed back at him. Maybe because he was clean shaven and his brother wasn’t, Ed recognized him immediately, even after forty years. “Tod!” he exclaimed. “Tod Williams! And Snake must be your twin brother Jim! I’ll be damned!”

 

****

 

Chapter 4

Old Students

 

“It can’t be!” Tod exclaimed. “Mr. Rumsfeld? You should be an old decrepit fart or dead by now! And you should be at least twenty years older than us! Seventy-five or even eighty years old, maybe!”

“I am a bit slow at aging,” Ed noted.

Snake/Jim was equally dumbfounded. “This is his son, Hacker, not the Mr. R that we had for seventh and ninth grade history class!”

“Nonsense!” said Tod/Hacker. “Only the actual Mr. R would know our real names.”

“But that’s crazy!” Snake insisted.

“Small world, isn’t it?” said Ed, hoping to change the subject. “And this is my wife of over forty years, Mary.”

“Pleased to meet you Mrs. R,” said Hacker, but his attention remained fixed on Ed. “Would you care to enlighten us about yourself Mr. R? And please address us as Hacker and Snake. We stopped using Tod and Jim a long time ago. We have somewhat courser images to uphold now, and the names Tod and Jim don’t sound very intimidating.”

“I don’t suppose I have much choice,” said Ed. He and Snake sat down in two of the chairs that faced Hacker, with Mary between them. “OK, you’ve got me. Yes, I’m Mr. R, in a former life your history teacher. Like my wife Mary I’m in my mid-seventies chronologically, but physically I haven’t aged in over forty years.”

“How?” asked Hacker.

“I was attacked by army ants in Virginia,” began Ed.

“As were many people,” said Hacker. “Yes, the army ant incident was in the local news and the talk of the school, and it got our folks upset enough to move west. We moved out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it turned out. But your particular neighborhood miraculously survived the army ant attack, correct?”

“Close enough. But what wasn’t in the news was how I managed to survive. I didn’t even tell Mary about it until years later. I was bit and stung hundreds of times. I would have died for sure but for jants and the experimental drugs given to me by my rogue geneticist neighbor. But there were unintended side effects of those drugs, maybe because I was also bit by a jant; I don’t really know.”

“Unintended little side effects such as your immortality?” asked Hacker.

“And telepathy,” Ed added.

“You ain’t a blood-sucking immortal vampire, are you?” Snake asked.

“If he was he’d have passed it on to me and I wouldn’t be a decrepit old lady now,” noted Mary from her wheelchair. “No such bloody luck.”

“Not to mention that we just spent a hot time in the bright sun,” added Ed. “Aside from the fact that there probably is no such thing as vampires, sun is a big vampire no-no, according to numerous authoritative books and movies on the subject. Besides if I were a vampire Snake would have been my entree on our flight here and I wouldn’t be so hungry.”

“But you’re immortal?” asked Hacker again.

Ed shrugged. “Maybe. It looks that way so far. But I might also instantly turn into a shriveled dead mummy at any moment now, for all that I know. Ask me again in a century or two if I’m immortal.”

“Plus you’re also the white Mohawk chief that’s been in the news for the last five years,” said Hacker. “Back in Virginia forty years ago they said that you moved north to live with the Indians in New York. So your story line is all starting to fall into place. A lot of nifty stuff has happened to you, Mr. R. Interesting! And very illuminating with respect to the mysterious Jerry Green also.”

“You always were a smart fellow,” said Ed. Brilliant, as a matter of fact. Jim was very smart also but a bully; Tod was an evil genius. The pair dominated their class in Middle School but never gave Ed any trouble. “A lot has also apparently happened to you guys too. And I notice that you have quite a library here, including books on history.”

“This is one of my smaller offices and book collections, Mr. R.” said Hacker. “I still prefer paper books. Years ago you helped spark my interest in history and other subjects. To some degree the old adage you taught us that ‘knowledge is power’ has proven to be correct for me and my brother. Thanks for the tip.”

“I was just doing my job,” said Ed.

“You were doing more than your job Mr. R. You influenced Snake and I more than you know. We learned about many great men in your history class, Mr. R; including Napoleon, Alexander the Great and others.”

“Genghis Khan is one of my favorites,” said Snake. “And Hitler of course; though he had a really freaky nasty streak.”

“Genghis Khan was more or less our early role model,” admitted Hacker. “Only we use motorcycles instead of horses and we’re much nicer.”

“Hey, maybe we could get Mr. R to write our history!” said Snake.

“Or maybe not,” said Hacker. “Knowledge can be dangerous. The counter argument to the usefulness of history is that ignorance is bliss. For example history can be used as an excuse to continue trouble among peoples. Look at the Germans being pissed off about World War I and how that led to World War II.”

“Most historians regard that to be one conflict with a short rest-period for re-arming and growing more solders,” noted Ed. “People should have probably called the conflicts World War I parts A and B. Or maybe simply the World War since now weapons have gotten so nasty that if there’s another one there probably won’t be enough people left to bother with naming it.”

“Look at the Irish problems, and the Palestinians and the Jews, and the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the Indians and the Pakistani,” continued Hacker. “Disputes go on for generations because of history, with the sins of the fathers being attributed to the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons. Occasional selective amnesia might be a healthier thing for humanity than history.”

Ed shrugged. “Dumbing down the populace and story control have long been useful tools of dictatorship. Maybe you’re right about sometimes wiping the slate clean and having a fresh start. But in balance I think that knowing history is a positive thing. Instead of focusing on Hitler or Genghis Khan, why don’t you guys focus more on people perceived to be heroes in history instead of the villains? Haven’t their stories also been applicable to history? What about Lincoln or Shakespeare or Einstein or Gandhi? Or religious superstars like Jesus or Buddha?”

“Those folks haven’t been so applicable for us,” admitted Hacker. “These are tough times for tough men, Mr. R.”

“Tough like the two of you?” Mary asked.

“Our Stormtrooper Crew controls more than half of what was once California,” said Hacker. “That didn’t happen passively.”

“We’ve done damn good for ourselves so far,” bragged Snake.

“So far?” Mary prompted.

“Grow or die,” said Snake. “Historically that’s the way these things go, don’t they Mr. R?”

“Sometimes,” agreed Ed. “But eventually the overly ambitious dreams of such men outgrow what they can actually handle and in the end it usually falls appart.”

“But they do end up in history books,” noted Hacker.

“But not usually as people that have helped to build something lasting and worthwhile,” countered Ed. “Usually something like that takes multiple generations and better motivations than individual greed for power. A society is much more than its contemporary leaders and the followers that support them. There are many flavors of people, institutions, and attitudes that collectively make up a successful civilized nation-state that lasts for multiple generations. Power-hungry men are sometimes remembered if they rise high enough in the food chain and disrupt things but they are not widely revered except perhaps by other power-hungry men and the hero-worshiping people that follow them. In the end it’s a lot of peace-loving quiet hard working average people that signify in history, even though as individuals they don’t make it into the history books.”

“Those sort of folks are supposed to inherit the Earth but it hasn’t worked out that way yet,” said Hacker.

“Can’t have everything,” Snake said with a shrug.

“And yet you yourself work for power hungry Jerry Green,” said Hacker, “and help the jants and Stone-Coats take over the world. What’s with that?”

“Mary and I don’t work for Jerry any more than he works for us,” said Ed. “We and our Tribe friends help humans work with jants and Stone Coats so that they don’t have a need to try to take over the world from humans,” said Ed. “Jants and Stone-Coats are here to stay. There’s physically no way to get rid of them even if we wanted to, so we have no choice but to make the best deal that we can with them and live with them as friends. They help us and we help them; that’s what we’ve managed to work out so far. At our Mohawk reservation in New York we humans wouldn’t be able to survive without Stone-Coats, and the jants with their med-ticks have already saved millions of humans from illnesses.”

“We’ve heard your propaganda, and perhaps further east what you say is true,” said Hacker. “Here in our desert we humans rule and that’s not going to change if we can help it. Some Stone-Coats we put up with, but we are beginning to have an outright war with jants and jant zombies.”

“What the hell is a jant zombie?” Mary asked before Ed could. “A dead ant that keeps on going and going?”

“No, it’s people with those giant ticks attached to them, being controlled by jants like puppets,” explained Snake. “Some are dead people.”

“That’s crazy!” said Mary.

“It sounds like a cheap sci-fi plot!”

“Don’t it!” said Snake. “There’s a big struggle for power going on here in California, and jants are in the thick of it.”

“You claim that jants are using med-ticks to control people?” said Mary. “That’s monstrous! We’ve lived with jants for forty years and never seen that!”

“Then maybe you haven’t been looking hard enough,” said Snake. “Or maybe we have us some rebel jants out here that you don’t have on your isolated Mohawk reservation.”

“IS THAT POSSIBLE?” Mary asked Ed silently.

THEORETICALLY IT’S PROBABLY ALL POSSIBLE,” Ed answered. “There are no jants near here though.” He would have sensed them. “Whatever you’re doing to keep them away from here seems to be working.”

“We do work very hard at that,” said Hacker. “But mostly we have nothing to do with it. It’s simply too hot and dry around here for jants to get by without human help. I suspect that maintaining their abnormally large brains puts a significant strain on their survival or intelligence would have happened to them naturally millions of years ago.”

“That’s true,” said Ed. “Brain matter requires a lot of nourishment. Researchers have found that pound for pound jants consume twice the calories of their more primitive ant cousins. They’ll eat about anything, of course, but human gathered food and garbage is a must for them in extreme environments and in cities where a lot of them are required to provide medi-tick treatment to humans.”

“Harvester ants adapted to hot dry environments rule here,” said Hacker. “Along the coast and further north it’s a very different story. In milder wetter, cooler climates the jants thrive. One of the reasons I spend a lot of time here in the dry desert portion of our empire is for the natural protection against jants that the encroaching desert provides. There is too little food and water here for jants to live without human help.”

“This is all fascinating,” said Ed. “But right now we humans need food, water, and then a nap for Mary.” He gave a pointed nod towards Mary, who was by now beginning to doze-off as she slumped in her wheelchair.

“You’ve got it Mr. R,” said Hacker. “See to it, Snake. Then when you have Mary comfortably squared away we’ll talk some more.”

After Ed coaxed Mary awake Snake escorted the visitors to bathrooms and then to a small lunchroom. The lunchroom featured table, chairs, fans, lights, an old microwave, and an ancient looking refrigerator. Snake heated up a bowl of chili for each of them. “The beans and tomatoes are from our farms in the San Joaquin Valley,” Snake explained. “Don’t ask what the meat is.”

“It’s yummy,” said Mary. “Tastes like fly, if it’s not chicken. Am I right?”

“Yes, you are probably right,” admitted Snake, surprised and impressed. “The giant flies are pretty rare around here compared to wetter parts of the state. Like the jants, they like it both wetter and cooler. But we catch and eat them when we can. If we don’t keep their numbers down they tend to swarm and eat people. Plus they do sort of taste like chicken, so what the hell? They’re even tastier than rattle snakes, in my opinion. In the dessert you eat whatever you can get.”

“And stuff in the desert eats you,” noted Snake.

“What about condors?” Ed had to ask. Instead of becoming extinct, condors had made a surprising comeback and gotten much larger than ever.

“They taste like chicken too,” said Snake, “but they’re rarer and smarter than flies and harder to catch. We kill and eat them when we can, mostly because they do attack and eat people, especially people isolated and alone. Our people usually travel in pairs and carry shotguns.”

“California condors aren’t even a protected species here in California?” asked Mary.

Snake laughed. “In the Confederacy people are the protected species.”

Ed extended his telepathic senses but detected no condors. Just as well, he figured. Condors had attacked him decades ago in Virginia. The experience left him a bit leery of the big birds. “We’re no strangers to fly chili,” he noted. “Despite difficulties you seem to be getting by very well here. You have food, electricity, running water, and functioning appliances. How do you manage all that?”

“Through smart leadership and hard work,” said Snake. “There’s no free lunch here in our Stormtrooper Confederacy, Mr. R. The electricity is from solar energy; we’ve been doing that here in California for decades. The roof of this building is covered with solar panels, though maintaining them or any technology is a real bitch. We employ almost as many tech maintenance people as we do fighters, despite our comparatively low-tech way of life.

“Controlling surface and ground water is our main thing though. Before we took over the State government failed to do that. The legal system and law enforcement was too slow and weak to quell the chaos. Hacker and I essentially established marshal law. In our benevolent Confederacy water is strictly rationed and comes from deep wells and from what is collected during our rainy season. We only get two or four inches of rain a year here now but we never got much more than that anyway. We get by here, barely. Further north where we do most of our farming is where we had to clamp down the hardest to manage every drop of water. We maintain the dams and we even managed to save a few aquifers, though most were destroyed.”

“I noticed that you have old fashioned water-flush toilets,” said Ed. “If you used Stone-Coat toilets you could save a lot of potable water.”

“The Ranger Crews in Yosemite has been telling us that,” said Snake, “but Hacker doesn’t fully trust Stone-Coats and we don’t make very much use of them.”

“You have a bike crew in sequoia country?” Mary asked. “That’s one of the places we want to go for our vacation!”

“And we’re supposed to check up on the Stone-Coats there,” added Ed.

“That’s what your devious friend Jerry told me when he hired me,” said Snake. “We’ll need to talk about things some more before we decide what to do with you.”

“When properly motivated I’m an excellent talker,” Ed said.

“Meanwhile I hate to be a party poop but it’s old lady nap time,” said Mary. “Have you got someplace I can nap while Ed yaps with you guys some more?”

“There’s a cot in the next cubicle, Mrs. R,” said Snake. “Strangely enough sometimes we sleep here at the office. As I get older I’m becoming partial to siestas myself.”

“Sounds like a good employment practice!” said Mary. “Especially in a place where mid-day can get too damn hot to do much else.”

“We’re building a lot of unground homes lately,” said Snake, as Mary silently directed Wheels to take her to the cot. “Basement homes, we call them. We’re copying the ways of the desert critters. The homes are cooler in the summer and the energy savings are fantastic.”

“I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE YOU ALONE,” Ed told Mary silently. She was looking very tired.

WHEELS CAN WATCH OVER ME,” she pointed out. “I WON’T BE ALONE.”

AFFIRMATIVE,” said Wheels. “I WILL MONITOR HER HEALTH AND HER SURROUNDINGS CLOSELY. STAY WITHIN THREE KILOMETERS AND WE CAN MAINTAIN COMMUNICATIONS VIA YOUR IMPLANT.”

Mary napped while Ed returned to Hacker’s office and talked with the Williams brothers for several more hours. Ed was open about nearly everything, including what he was generally supposed to do for Jerry during the trip. He wasn’t used to telling lies anyway, and it was actually a great relief for him to drop his Smith ruse and behave normally. The Williams twins in turn proudly told Ed more about their empire, which included all of central and southern California from just south of San Francisco and Sacramento all the way to the Mexican border, with the exception of San Diego and Los Angeles. San Diego was securely part of Mexico now, and Los Angeles and several other coastal cities and towns were in dispute.

Gradually more trust and mutual understanding was re-established between Ed and the Brothers, especially when Ed admitted that he didn’t fully trust either Jerry or the jants. Stone-Coats were different though, he insisted. They were more open and straight-forward logical than humans or even jants, and they seemed to be incapable of lying or deceit. He told the Brothers that he wished that more people were like that.

Hacker laughed and brought up on his computer display a ‘food pyramid’ from a Stone-Coat perspective. Plants gathered carbon for the Stone-Coats. Animals including humans and jants helped gather the plants for Stone-Coats and pre-processed some of them, partially breaking down their molecular structure and concentrating the elements that were needed by Stone-Coats. Stone-Coats were shown to reside at the top of the pyramid. “This is from the Stone-Coat website,” said Hacker. “This is the Stone-Coat oriented view of the world and our lowly place in it compared to them!”

Ed shrugged. “I can show you a hundred such pyramids that indicate the different perspectives of a hundred different species. It’s all relative; I could put your human Stormtrooper Confederacy at the apex of a dependency pyramid if that will make you feel any better. But I’ve lived with Stone-Coats for forty years, and only gradually developed trust. A suppose it will take a while for you to do the same. This is all very interesting but could we talk about our vacation now?”

Finally it was agreed that Snake would indeed guide Ed and Mary through their long California vacation, though they would skip Los Angeles and nearby coastline and start with visiting the sequoia trees. Mary would be disappointed to be missing Hollywood and Ed would be disappointed to be missing Santa Barbara and the nifty south California coastline, but they would get over it. Ed and Mary would benefit from Snake’s experience, resources, and connections, while Snake would later gain valuable insight into Northern California people, Stone-Coats, and jants. Snake often went on dangerous trips to the outside world, but he hadn’t been to the North in over a decade. It was the sort of scouting mission role that Snake was used to; while Hacker stayed home and managed their empire.

But first they would stay for a day or two at China Lake, visiting with Hacker and getting outfitted for the long road-trip ahead. The coming road trip greatly worried Ed. He had naively assumed that he and Mary would ride through California in a nice comfortable air conditioned rental vehicle driven by their tour guide. Apparently that wasn’t going to happen. The Williams brothers explained that there were many stretches of road that would only accommodate motorcycles; or motorcycles with little trailers or side-cars at most. Plus gasoline was scarce. And despite the heat, air conditioning was non-existent in the Confederacy.

“I don’t think that Mary would survive such a trip in an open side-car,” Ed told the Brothers. “The heat and the wind and dust would be too much for her, not to mention the bumps and noise. We expected smooth roads and to be in an air conditioned tour bus or rental car. We didn’t realize that conditions were so bad out here.”

“As we’ve explained, our roads no longer support cars and trucks,” said Hacker, “as you’ll soon see for yourself. And there are no Hertz or Avis rental cars south of Frisco. In fact I’m not even sure that they still have them even in the North. On the internet the North seems to be modern and prosperous, but Snake will try to assess such things in person when you travel there.

“First we have to acquire adequate transportation for Mary,” said Ed.

“Maybe our mechanics could rig something up that’s reasonably comfortable,” said Snake.

“Maybe,” agreed Hacker. “Take them to the Guest House in town and visit Clancy and Mack. That’s the best we can do. But first we should phone Jerry Green.”

“Rodger that,” agreed Snake. “The fact that his aircraft didn’t make it to LAX has doubtless been known by Green for hours. He’s probably pretty worried and pissed-off right now. That’s not good for a man as powerful as he is. Ed should talk to him first.”

“Was there anything in particular that you guys wanted me to tell him?” Ed asked.

“Just tell him honestly what’s up, Ed,” said Hacker, as he handed a phone to Ed. The phone was probably fifty years old and didn’t even have a 3-D imaging system like a normal visicom did. “Except don’t tell him that we know he’s an immortal like you. Like you he probably prefers to keep his immortality a secret, and Jerry Green is a very powerful and dangerous man.”

“How did you find out that he’s immortal?” Ed asked.

“Aside from the fact that you just now gave us final conformation, we put together all that you told us and deduced it,” said Hacker. “It explains his relative youth. Our long held hypothesis had been that he’s a jant zombie. Is he?”

“Definitely not,” said Ed.

“Good,” said Hacker. “Then we definitely would like to be on his good side.”

Ed punched in Jerry’s private number and was soon speaking with him. Snake switched the conversation to speaker-phone.

“Mary and I are safe and OK,” Ed first explained.

“Excellent!” Jerry said. “But where the hell are you?”

“China Lake in California desert country,” Ed said. “We were hijacked by your man Snake.”

“I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised,” Jerry replied. “Are you also in the company of someone named Hacker, by any chance?”

“Yes,” said Ed. “It turns out that he and Snake were school students of mine in Virginia a very long time ago, back in our old neighborhood. It’s always nice to meet old friends.”

“The infamous Stormtrooper Confederacy Williams Brothers!” said Jerry: “The motorcycle gang leaders of South California! I should have suspected! Snake came with recommendations that were just a bit too glowing. But you’ve doubtlessly noticed that he has no telepathic ability; I obviously couldn’t read him very well. What do you make of the Brothers?”

“I read them basically as friendly or at least rational,” said Ed. “They’re going to help Mary and me with our vacation.”

“That’s wonderful news, Ed!” Jerry said. “But what about my aircraft and data?”

“We were disappointed that your transport aircraft wasn’t full of weapons bound for the State CHiP forces in LA,” interjected Snake. “Our intent was to gain them for ourselves. At first I thought that I had blown my cover for nothing. But then we were pleased to discover that you and Ed are very close friends.”

“Old friends that share a common immortality, you have doubtlessly surmised,” said Jerry.

“Yes in fact we deduced that from what Ed told us of himself,” admitted Hacker.

“Of course you have,” said Jerry. “Knowing certain things can be dangerous; I advise that you keep that in mind.”

“We also deduced that,” said Hacker. “You have no concerns in that regard.”

“I want my friends and my airplane back perfectly intact,” said Jerry. “For reasons I don’t fully understand your California governors have for decades requested that I not interfere with your little empire, but be warned that could very quickly and very dramatically change. Most of our National armed forces are involved in conflicts and humanitarian efforts around the world but we still keep a few hundred thousand troops here at home to mostly help manage domestic unrest such as your little Confederacy. Over the years I’ve as quietly as possible crushed dozens of rebellions, especially West of the Mississippi where the right-wing gun-toting extremists have long tended to cluster. Given sufficient incentives I could totally crush your Confederacy within a week or two and hit your China Lake stronghold much quicker.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Hacker. “A friend of my friend is also my friend. I propose to return your aircraft to you so that you can fill it with small arms and ammunition and return it to us here at China Lake. You can have your cargo plane back after that if you want it. But there is something else that we want in return. Get State forces to withdraw permanently from Los Angeles. In return we will secure Los Angeles, maintain civilized order there, and ensure that it doesn’t become part of Mexico. Snake and I increasingly regard our Confederacy to be a United States territory that buffers Northern California from further Mexican encroachment; that’s why the State has tolerated our existence. We will also of course continue to refrain from expansion into the North.”

“What about the Rumsfelds?” Jerry asked.

“We will escort them safely through their vacation, of course,” said Snake, “including your tasking in the Silicon Valley. I will see to it personally, just as we agreed to. I am a man of my word.”

“And what about my scientific research data cubes?” Jerry asked.

“We’ve already sent your data cubes to LAX by motorcycle as a sign of our good intensions,” said Hacker.

“And kept the hundred-million dollar aircraft and the Rumsfelds,” Jerry noted.

“You’ll get both of them back safe and sound if you carry out your part of the bargain,” said Hacker. “How does our proposed agreement sound?”

“Reasonable enough, assuming I can convince the California Governor,” Jerry said, after a brief pause.

“Can you?” Hacker asked.

“I can be very convincing with state governments,” Jerry said. “Anything else?”

“Tell the Tribe that Mary and I are having an interesting and wonderful time,” Ed added. “I don’t know when we’ll get a chance to contact them directly.”

“Will do!” said Jerry, signing off.

“That went quite well,” said Hacker. “Los Angeles at last!”

“Don’t count your cities before they’re conquered,’” advised Ed.

“Sound history-based advice,” agreed Hacker, “but I’m confident that we will at last take over LA! We just needed more weapons and leverage. We might even get the Mexicans to back off and out of Los Angeles once we get the weapons from Green, if we promise not to attack San Diego. Hey, maybe in conjunction with better weapons and a convincing threat of overwhelming force this diplomacy stuff really works!”

“Swell,” said Ed. “It’s so nice to see that you guys have a peace-loving humanitarian side.”

“We badly needed a seaport,” said Hacker.

“And I’ve always wanted a big city,” said Snake, grinning. “Maybe instead of the City of Angels we could call it something more nifty like The City of Stormtroopers!”

“I hear it’s a crap-hole,” noted Ed.

 

****

 

Chapter 5

The Enslaved Stone-Coat

 

Ed, Mary, Snake, and China Doll took a short noisy motorcycle trip out of the gated ex-military base and into Ridgecrest, the town just south of the base. A dozen other gang members accompanied them. After peaking at over thirty thousand people Ridgecrest nearly become a ghost town when the Base closed three decades earlier, but since it became one of Hacker’s capital cities it was enjoying a revitalization period. The population was back to over ten thousand, and dozens of motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians shared the streets with Snake’s entourage. Many greeted Snake with friendly and respectful Stormtrooper salutes and enthusiastic shouts. “The Force be with you!” some yelled. Ed thought that was a nice touch.

The group soon pulled in front of a run-down looking hotel and parked, where Snake was greeted by a dozen additional noisy bikers that shouted, gave him high-fives, hugs, and friendly slams on the back. Meanwhile Ed transferred Mary into Wheels and pushed them into the lobby, while China Doll effortlessly carried their heavy duffel bags, followed by Snake.

“Do you take credit cards?” Ed asked the huge hulking tough behind the desk. His arm and face tattoos were mostly flowers and smiley faces however, so maybe he was a friendly hulk. Right now the big man looked very confused.

“They need a room next to me and Snake,” China Doll explained to the big desk man. “Brother rates.”

“Sure, Doll,” replied the hulk, with a voice like a tuba. “We’ll put them in Room 302. What the fuck is this credit card business?”

“Didn’t your mama ever teach you about credit cards?” Snake asked. “Decades ago they were mostly replaced by smart-wallets and the smart phones that pre-dated visicoms but outsiders still use the term and sometimes even carry actual cards. And they use outsider money. Cash dollars.”

“Old-timer cash?” asked the hulk. “That stuff that people used to carry around with them to pay for stuff?”

“That’s it,” said Doll. “Our guests think that they’re tourists at an old-time hotel,” she explained, as Snake broke into laughter. “They’re used to things like smart wallets and cash and credit cards.”

“You mean they don’t use Q’s and C’s?” asked the still confused big man?

“They use quarters but for or them four quarters make up an old-time dollar,” said Doll. “Ten Qs’ don’t make up a Credit where they come from; they don’t have Confederacy Credits like we do.”

“My grandma has a nice old-time cash collection,” said the hulk. “We still use it with the trailer traders whenever we’re short on trade goods. Makes passable toilet paper too, if you run out of the good stuff. I guess people had to use those paper dollars before there was Confederacy Credits.”

“WE SHOULD HAVE PACKED QUARTERS INSTEAD OF PAPER CASH,” Mary remarked silently to Ed.

WHODA THUNK IT!” Ed replied. “ON THE OTHER HAND, WE COULD RUN OUT OF TOILET PAPER.”

“Now you get it!” Doll told the hulk. “But the Brothers will be paying for them anyway, so don’t sweat it. Will dinner be available in the Hall in a couple of hours? Hacker might show up too.”

“Sure, Doll,” he replied. “You guys want anything special?”

“Everything you guys make for us is special, dude,” said Snake.

“Thanks man!” the big hulking man replied as a huge smile erupted across his face. They did one of those macho bonding handshakes that looked like they were going to arm wrestle.

“Take their bags up and meet us at Clancy’s,” Snake told China Doll, who was already carrying the duffel bags towards some nearby stairs.

“We’ll pay Clancy and Mack a visit now,” Snake told Ed. “Then we’ll do dinner, talk some more, and get us some bed-rest. My damn body is still fucked up by East coast time and unlike you, Mr. R, I ain’t as young as I used to be.”

They exited by a side door, held open by Ed as Snake carried Mary seated in Wheels down a small flight of stairs. “Your fancy little folding wheelchair is way-heavier than it looks,” Snake remarked, as he pushed it and Mary towards the back of the hotel. “But it pushes super easy. Weird.”

“It’s one of a kind,” said Ed. “Where are we going now?”

“To our regional motorcycle repair garage,” said Snake. “You two say you’ve lived with Stone-Coats for four decades? Well I’ve lived with one off and on for almost five years. He works in the garage. We call him Mack and we don’t know exactly what to make of him or her or it. But if anyone can make you a motorcycle that Mary will be comfortable in, it’s Mack and Clancy.”

To the rear of the hotel were two large adjacent buildings mobbed by hundreds of bikes and bikers. To the right was an obvious biker bar where mobs of drunken bikers were sitting, singing, and above all drinking from bottles and pitchers of beer at outside tables sheltered from the sun by huge overhead umbrellas. Ear busting loud music pounded from inside the establishment. There was a furious fight going on between two massive bar patrons that others were mostly ignoring. They were rolling around on the ground among discarded empty beer bottles as they kicked, punched, and wrestled each other.

But it wasn’t total chaos, Ed noted. Equally tough looking waiters and waitresses carrying trays of sandwiches and beer braved the mayhem, and a pair of bouncers even larger than the fighting customers soon dragged the overly rowdy pair to their feet and forcefully escorted them away to parts unknown. Ed was relieved to see that some degree of civil order was being maintained.

Next to the bar was a much larger building that was a center of activities of a different sort. Below a huge hand-painted sign that said ‘Stormtrooper Bike Repair’ a half-dozen big open garage doors displayed a convention-hall sized interior. It was more a huge warehouse than merely a garage: a huge building that housed over a hundred mechanics working on hundreds of motorcycles. Above all it was a noisy place, with man and women mechanics pounding on metal, testing engines, running noisy tools powered by compressed air, and shouting mostly curses at each other. The motorcycle mechanics shop that they were angling towards was as noisy and rowdy as the bar.

Snake, Ed and Mary almost reached the motorcycle repair shop when extra shouts arose from the nearby bar crowd. “Snake! Snake! Snake!” they yelled, as a couple dozen bar rowdies charged Snake and greeted him enthusiastically with handshakes, hugs, and slaps on the back. The rowdy crowd ignored Ed and Mary, but by their sheer numbers pushed them aside and away from Snake. Ed was glad when China Doll showed up and shielded him and Mary from the increasingly rambunctious crowd. Over half the crowd was covertly hostile, Ed sensed telepathically, even though they acted friendly.

He also thought that he sensed some jant and tick chatter, but there was so much human emotion that he had a hard time distinguishing it. Despite the Confederacy’s anti-jant stance, could there be jants here in the heart of a Confederacy stronghold?

“So what the hell was in the plane?” one of the men suddenly demanded to know, as he confronted Snake. Snake’s smile disappeared. It was a particularly big and ugly biker making the demand, Ed noticed, with a deep knife scar on one cheek. He was nearly as tall as Snake and rippled with much more muscle.

“Not a damn thing was in the plane, Scar,” responded Snake.

“What? No weapons or motorcycle parts?” Scar countered. “What the hell!”

“Or beer?” added another biker. Nobody laughed. The celebratory mode of the group was gone. Ed could empathically sense growing tension and anger.

“No, but we got us a hundred million dollar aircraft!” Snake boasted.

“Big fucking deal!” complained Scar. “What did I tell you, boys? The Bungle Brothers have done it again! We have a whole dessert full of abandoned airplanes here at China Lake and just south of here at Edwards, and what the hell do the Bungle Brothers capture but another fucking airplane! With all the problems we face what do they do but get us something we don’t need! And they got us a visit by scumbag outsiders! Government spies that should be shot!” He glanced menacingly at Ed and Mary as shouts of agreement filled the air.

Sentiment wasn’t all anti-Snake directed, Ed could sense. Several big bikers including China Doll formed a group that flanked Snake and faced off against Scar and his more numerous supporters. On the vests of Scar and his supporters was an extra patch that showed a face with a prominent scar – obviously denoting Scar himself.

“Snake and Hacker just busted a deal for us to get Los Angeles,” China Doll announced, again quieting the growing crowd. “That’s the big news today, and it happened because of what Snake did. Tell them, Snake!”

“It’s true,” said Snake, as he pushed Scar away from him roughly. “The State CHiPs are going to withdraw from LA!”

There were scattered cheers from the crowd!

“What about the Mexicans?” Scar demanded, as he stepped forward again to glare eyeball to eyeball at Snake. “There’s twice as many damn Mexicans fighting us in LA as there are CHiPs!”

A murmur of agreement passed through the crowd.

“We’re working on a deal with them too,” said Snake. “And we have an guns and ammo shipment coming from the feds very soon that will force the issue. Soon we’ll control LA without a fight!”

“We heard that one before!” snarled Scar over the scattered cheers. “More empty Bungle Brother promises! It’s going to be us bikers on old broken-down bikes and guns without bullets against Mexican drug gangs with new machine guns! Our blood spilled again! Isn’t that your real plan? And for what? Los Angeles is a bullet riddled dump! Meanwhile the way to the North is open! The CHiPs have done soft! We could control rich classy Sacramento by Thanksgiving and San Francisco by Christmas! Wine by the cask and swimming pools full of cool water and hot women!”

“Scar, you are so full of shit!” Snake responded. “Do you really want all-out war with the State? They outnumber us by more than twenty-to-one, dumb-ass! If we break our deals with the North we’ll have an invasion of CHiPs, zombies, zombie CHiPs, and feds.” He put his hand on the hilt of his big hunting knife but China Doll put her hand over his, preventing him from drawing it out. Nevertheless the crowd drew back and grew seriously quiet.

Speaking of zombies, Ed suddenly realized that he was sensing jant and med-tick chatter, a lot of it. Somewhere here in the crowd were several med-ticks. In this churning mob, he couldn’t pick out which of the bikers it was coming from, or where any jant hives were.

“That’s why brainpower rules here and not you, Scar!” said China Doll.

“Nose-out bitch!” Scar snarled at China Doll.

The expression on Snake’s face changed from serious to intense. Talk was over. He gently but firmly pushed China Doll aside as he drew out his big hunting knife and Scar produced an equally big switch-blade. Meanwhile the crowd backed up to form a solid circle of human bodies around the two antagonists.

“Hold! I have Confederation business with the Brother!” croaked a deep voice. An absurdly short but wide-shouldered bald-headed black dwarf in oil-stained work coveralls pushed his way through the surrounding crowd and between the two knife-armed men. “If you yahoos ever want your damn bikes fixed you’ll go back to your drinking and let working men do their work,” he scolded all the gathered bar patrons. A dozen big sweaty men and women in work overalls carrying heavy steel wrenches like clubs emerged from the crowd and ringed the dwarf. The gathered bar drunks grumbled about missing out on a good fight and backed away and towards the bar, including even Scar.

“This ain’t over, Bungle Brother!” promised Scar, as he put away his knife and walked slowly away.

“No, it sure as hell ain’t,” replied Snake.

“These must be our VIP visitors,” said the dwarf, as his face broke into a huge smile and he reached out a surprisingly big callused hand to firmly shake the hands of Mary and Ed. The black man was no more than four feet tall, but must have weighed close to two-hundred pounds; most of it muscle, by the look of him. “And their fancy wheel chair too, I see. I’m Clancy Wilkins, master mechanic and Repair Crew boss extraordinaire.”

“And one tough little bastard,” added Doll.

“We’re very glad for this timely introduction,” said Ed in return. “We are Mary and Ed.”

“You shouldn’t have interfered, Clancy,” said Snake tersely. “Me and Scar are going to have it out at some point anyway. It might as well have been here and now in a fair fight and with him half plastered. It would have averted a rebellion!”

“Except it wouldn’t have been fair and you’d have been dead,” said Clancy. “That knife of his was a stinger; one of my crew saw him hook it up. And Scar isn’t drunk; he’s been sipping at one beer this entire last two hours, waiting with his men for you to show up. This was a set-up. You should know by now that Scar never fights fair!”

“What’s a stinger?” Mary asked before Ed could.

“Electrically charged knife blade,” explained China Doll. “Doesn’t give a deadly shock but it’s enough to stun an opponent while you stick your blade through their heart.”

“Nifty!” Ed remarked.

“And against Confederacy laws,” said Snake. “Scar must finally have enough supporters for him to make his move this way.”

“Or at least he thinks that he has enough support,” agreed Doll.

“Oh!” said Ed. “I should probably mention the jant chatter.”

“What?” demanded Snake.

“I heard jant chatter during your little altercation,” explained Ed. “Heavy jant and tick chatter from somewhere in that crowd. But it’s gone now. I don’t hear any chatter at all.”

“But those guys were all Confederacy bikers!” said Clancy.

“Zombies right here at our China Lake stronghold!” said Snake. “Who? How many?”

“Several people, I would say,” said Ed. “I couldn’t pick out which folks had the active med-ticks in that mob, but there were more than one. And thousands of jants; probably carried by several patrons.”

“Shit!” swore Snake. “Next time you detect those buggers, Ed, speak up right away! I would have insisted there be checks for ticks on the spot if I’d have known.”

“Useful trick to be able to hear jant chatter,” noted Clancy. “Let’s go to my office where we can more freely chatter ourselves without being overheard,” he proposed, as he glanced around at the surrounding Bar crowd patrons, some of whom wore Scar patches. He led them through a big open garage door and onto the shop floor.

Tools and motorcycle parts were everywhere, shelves and tables full of wrenches, drills, saws, pry bars, grease guns, pliers, socket sets, welding torches, gages, compressed air hoses, wheels, fenders, handle bars, engines, and literally tons of additional things Ed and Mary had no names for. Many tools were in the greasy hands of the mechanics, who banged and cursed as they struggled to fix motorcycles in various stages of disassembly.

Ed didn’t know much about motorcycles, but he recognized some of the brand names written on them, including Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Triumph, BMW, and of course Harley-Davidson. All were many decades old, and judging from the hundreds of motorcycles idly waiting outside the shop doors, their repair was a losing battle.

Huge ceiling fans constantly pulled outside air through the building that smelled of grease and sweat, but that air was a hundred degrees hot. That probably didn’t help tempers. Most of the voices heard from the workers were angry cursing shouts, and much of it reflected genuine frustration and anger. Their emotions flooded Ed’s telepathic senses. Though they were working hard these folks were every bit as upset as the biker bar folks.

At last they reached a small office to the rear of the shop. It was flooded in reams of paperwork but there was no reduction in bike tool and part density.

“Still detect no jants or ticks?” Snake asked Ed.

“None at all in this building,” Ed assured the Confederacy leader.

“Damn right!” said Clancy. He moved a chair aside to make room for Mary sitting in Wheels, then sat down in the chair himself. “Scar made some good points, you know,” the short man told Snake. “You can’t have an army of bikers if they don’t have bikes. Like I’ve told your brother a hundred times, I have all the mechanics and so forth I need, but I simply don’t have the parts.”

“You’re still in business and fixing bikes,” noted Snake.

“Yes, and we have enough stolen tires for a few more years,” admitted. “Gasoline and oil we still get from the North, though not as much as we’d like. And my body men can hammer and weld away most body problems. But we need parts for engines and transmissions and so-forth: precision parts that my machine shop often can’t make with sufficient speed or exactness. Pretty soon we won’t have enough working bikes to defend what we’ve kept from the Mexicans, let along take Los Angeles away from them.”

“The State limits the spare parts that it gives us,” explained Snake. “They don’t want us to get too strong. They still have control of the coast from San Francisco down to Santa Barbara and feel they can take LA. They want us to continue to hold back the Mexicans just like we’ve been doing without us getting any ideas about pushing north. At least we had the foresight to steal all the bikes and parts we could from LA before the Mexicans stopped us.”

“That was ten long years ago though, Snake,” said Clancy. “Most of those parts are by now used and re-used. That’s why even a stupid shithead like Scar can gain hundreds of followers by talking lies and trash. Lately he intercepts our parts from the State for his own crew before they reach us. And don’t expect to find more parts in LA if we ever do control it. All spare parts in LA for old-time motorcycles are no doubt long gone.”

“What about Mack?” Snake asked.

“He’s probably the only thing that keeps us afloat,” admitted Clancy. “His production is up to several bikes and parts a day: precision parts that we can’t make in our parts shop. But we’d need a dozen Macs to fully meet demand.”

“So? What about his four siblings?” Snake asked.

“Mack Junior made a spark-plug yesterday. Very useful but not a game-changer. Hacker sent word that Ed and Mary are to visit Mack?”

“Yes,” said Snake. “They are supposed to know a lot about Stone-Coats; maybe even more than the Rangers at Yosemite know.”

Clancy shrugged his wide shoulders. “Couldn’t hurt for them to see Mack I suppose.”

“We’ll help you with your Stone-Coats, if we can, of course,” said Mary.

“And we need a fancy motorcycle for Mary to travel in,” added Ed.

“So Hacker says,” said Clancy. “Air conditioning and a smooth shady ride? Lots of luck with that! But let’s go see Mack.”

Clancy led the group still further back in the shop where an armed biker was standing guard in front of a closed door. The guard stood aside respectfully when he recognized Snake and Clancy but gave Ed and Mary suspicious looks.

“This is a secret operation back here,” explained Clancy. “The Brothers have been preaching against Stone-Coats for five years. The Confederation at large knows nothing about the five Stone-Coats we secretly brought in from Yosemite by trailer to experiment with.”

“Experiment with?” Ed asked.

“Not too successfully except for Mack,” admitted Snake. “Maybe you can give us some pointers.”

Clancy opened the door. Inside the large completely walled-in dimly lighted room was a single motorcycle that sat next to what appeared to be a cube of granite nearly two feet long on each edge. The cube must have weighed more than a ton, Ed figured. It looked like one of the many cubes shipped from Giants’ Rest Mountain to spread Stone-Coats world-wide. A dark misty tangle of wispy carbon nanotube fibers surrounded the cube and covered much of the motorcycle. On the far side of the room were four additional identical stone cubes. One had a small amount of black fiber growth on its top, the others were bare stone.

“Lately Mack has been fixing any ailing motorcycle that we roll next to him,” said Clancy. “Mack and now Mack Junior also replicate any parts we put sit on top of them or next to them. We just have to feed them scrap metal.”

“I give Mack a sandwich once in a while,” added Snake. “That seems to perk him up.”

“That would provide him carbon and some other necessary elements,” said Ed. “You need to feed all of them as much as they’ll take in. They’ll stay dormant unless you feed them the materials they need and allow them to exchange thoughts. So where are their internet connection links?”

“There are fewer than a thousand internet users in all of our Confederacy,” said Snake. “It requires a big satellite dish and considerable electric power. Why would we give rocks internet connections? So they can conspire with their buddies back at your Mohawk mountain?”

“Didn’t you read the handbook that came with them?” asked Ed. He and Running Bear had written a brief pamphlet that was affixed to each Stone-Coat block that was shipped out from Giants’ Rest Mountain.”

“We didn’t get any handbooks,” said Clancy. “If they ever had handbooks the Yosemite Rangers must have kept them for themselves. Besides, Hacker wouldn’t have let them hook up to the internet anyway. Only a handful of our most trusted Storms and civilian leaders have access to the internet. Maybe you haven’t noticed but we’re isolationists.”

“We noticed,” said Ed.

“What does Mack think about the work that he does for you?” Mary asked.

“Huh?” said Clancy. “I don’t think he thinks at all the way that people do. I figure he’s more like one of those savant genius kids that can multiply big numbers together in their heads or play pianos.”

“You don’t communicate with him?” Ed asked.

“Sure we do!” said Snake. “We tell him what we want and he usually does it. He doesn’t talk back; he just does what we ask him to do. For the first two years we had him sitting out in the shop and he didn’t do a damn thing. We figured that the cube was a dud.”

“Only me and the Brothers knew it was a Stone-Coat that we got from Yosemite,” added Clancy. “The other rock cubes we kept out of the way back here.”

“Isolated in a dark prison without food or stimulation,” said Mary. “Why wouldn’t your mechanics suspect that Mack was a Stone-Coat?”

“Most of our people don’t keep tabs on the outside world, and don’t know much about Stone-Coats,” explained Snake. “The repair crews thought it was just an ordinary block of rock and used it as a handy workbench.

“Mostly the crew used it as an anvil to hold parts that needed pounding on,” admitted Clancy. “But Mack must have been watching us work in the shop and listening to us. We thought he was doing nothing but all that time he was watching and learning and figuring things out. One day we happened to place some broken parts on him and he fixed them overnight! Spooky!”

“We moved him to the back room and kept giving him more and more parts to fix,” said Snake.

“And as a convenience we started calling him Mack.” said Clancy. “And lately I’ve verbally described some motorcycle design changes to him and he makes them! But nothing as radical as what you folks need for your trip. I’m afraid that you’re out of luck.”

“I’m most concerned that you don’t fully communicate with him,” said Mary. “You seem to be keeping him here to work for you like a slave!”

“A slave?” Clancy protested. “No way!”

“Slavery is strictly against our Constitution,” added Snake, “as is discrimination based on race, sex orientation, and other stuff. Mack is here so that we can assess him. The Rangers wanted us to spread Stone-Coats all over the Confederacy but we decided to try them out here in the shop first. The Stormtrooper Confederacy has a healthy skepticism for anything from the outside world.”

“Stone-Coats all over the world dedicate themselves to helping humans and Mack is probably no different,” said Ed. “But they usually express that to humans openly. Who knows what Mack is thinking? They don’t need companionship like humans do though. They can sit around apparently doing nothing for centuries and not be at all upset. But Mack has clearly intentionally made contact with you folks and you should contact him and help each other out. We should be able to fully activate this unit and make our vehicle needs clear to him once we can communicate with him better.”

“Really?” asked the clearly skeptical Clancy.

CAN WE DO THAT, WHEELS?” Ed quietly asked their personal Stone-Coat.

“I SENSE THE LOW LEVEL ELECTRICAL ACTIVITY OF FIVE STONE-COAT ENTITIES HERE BUT CAN COMMUNICATE WITH NONE OF THEM,” Wheels informed his human companions. “FOUR ARE ALMOST ENTIRELY DORMANT. I SUSPECT THAT BECAUSE THEY ARE ISOLATED FROM INTERNET COMMUNICATIONS AND MATERIALS THEY HAVE NOT RECEIVED APPROPRIATE PROGRAMMING OR SUBSTANCES NEEDED FOR NORMAL GROWTH.”

CAN THEY BE FIXED?” Mary asked.

THEY CAN EASILY BECOME MUCH MORE ACTIVE,” said Wheels. “To increase the capabilities of the one you call Mack, push me within reach of his nanotube netting and provide more hydrocarbons and other substances for each Stone-Coat block to consume.” He had switched to voice mode so abruptly that Ed and Mary were almost as startled to hear him speak as Clancy and Snake were.

“Your wheelchair talks!” exclaimed Snake.

“I’ll be damned!” said Clancy. “That wheelchair is a damn Stone-Coat?”

“Yes, his name is Wheels,” said Ed. “Wheels can greatly increase the capabilities of Mack and the others, if you’re interested.”

“It’s the moral thing to help him achieve his full potential,” added Mary.

“Not to mention that it’s required by Treaty,” added Ed.

In answer Snake himself pushed Wheels forward until his right armrest nudged against the cycle being repaired. The armrest popped open and a few thin dark nanotube filaments reached out to the cycle. Nothing happened for a few moments. Suddenly the net of Mack fibers that was spread over the cycle shifted towards the fibers of Wheels and intertwined with them.

“Communication is established,” Wheels reported. “Basic programming and information are being downloaded.”

“Will Mack be able to talk like your chair does?” Snake asked.

“Very soon, if he wishes to,” said Wheels. “Abilities are expanding but limited by time and a lack of needed materials. Raw materials are requested by this unit, including organic soil. “

“That’s brain food for them,” explained Mary.

“I have some firewood and some organic potting soil out back,” said Clancy. “Would that help?”

“Sounds perfect,” said Ed.

“Get it,” said Snake.

In two minutes Clancy was pouring potting soil over Mack and the other cubes and piling cordwood atop and around them. Mack’s cloud of black carbon nanotubes mostly withdrew from Wheels and the motorcycle and engulfed the soil and wood. Carbon and dozens of other elements useful for both warm life forms and for Stone-Coat life were soon being absorbed through Mack’s nanotubes.

The humans watched eagerly but over the next several minutes nothing more appeared to be happening, or it was happening too slow for them to notice.

“This one named Mack is high functioning for an immature unit,” said Wheels. “He has learned many parts of your language and many skills through observation. He seeks growth but like me is a low-power unit from a nuclear perspective. Breaking and reforming chemical bonds rapidly requires greater power than he currently generates. Physical maturation can be greatly accelerated if electrical power is made available.”

“Will standard hundred-ten volt AC current work?” Clancy asked.

Snake was soon stripping installation off the end of a power cord with his hunting knife and placing it within Mack’s reach. Nano-tubes reached out to attach to the power cord. After Clancy plugged the cord into a wall socket the soil and wood atop Mack began to visibly disappear. In ten minutes the soil and wood was half gone.

“I’ll be damned!” Clancy muttered. “Mack is absorbing the dirt and wood!”

“The raw materials will soon be internalized but the full maturation process will take as much as a day,” said Wheels. “May I suggest that in the interim all warm, water and carbon-based human lifeforms themselves also absorb needed energy and material resources?”

Clancy looked at his wristwatch. “Dinnertime it is,” he agreed. Snake pushed Wheels/Mary while Clancy walked alongside, asking questions of Wheels. “How do you hear and make voice sounds?” he asked Wheels. “What did you download into Mack? What is your power source? What are you made of?” Without hesitation Wheels answered question after question, sometimes using highly technical human terms that evaded Ed but Clancy seemed to have no trouble understanding.

Meanwhile Ed talked with Snake about the trip ahead. “There are two basic routes to Sequoia country from here,” Snake explained, “and though you’ve saved a few miles by landing here instead of at LAX, either way will be a long hard haul through some rough country.”

“A lot of times the most worthwhile trips are that way,” Ed noted. “Also lots of times the short way is toughest and the long way is easiest.”

“That’s exactly what we have here,” said Snake. “Yosemite has the Ranger Headquarters and that’s where we must start our sequoia visit, even though it’s near the far northern end of their Park that contains the best sequoia groves. To get there we could head north and then west through the highest mountains in the continental United States. There might even be snow there by now. That’s the slightly shorter way but it’s a real bitch.”

“Whatever is easiest for Mary is the one to use,” said Ed. “What’s the longer way?”

“We head west to skirt around the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, then north into and through the Central Valley,” said Snake. “Then we head further north and east into the Sierra Nevada Mountains where the sequoia groves occur mostly at five to eight thousand foot altitudes. That way is thirty miles further but involves thirty miles less mountain driving. It’s no cake-walk either, but mountain driving is reduced and there are more inhabited towns along the way, including Bakersfield and Fresno, two of our Confederation stronghold cities. That could also prove problematic.”

“That way sounds better to me,” said Ed, “but you’re the expert. What makes that way problematic?”

“Fresno is Scar’s home territory,” Snake explained, “and he’s out to kill me as well as you folks.”

“Swell,” said Ed. There was always something!

At dinner in the hotel the Brothers, Clancy, and China Doll talked with their guests about many things, but especially about Stone-Coats and jants and what was going on in California. The Confederacy leaders were surprisingly disinterested in what was going on in other parts of the United States and in the rest of the world.

“Our basic philosophy for survival is isolationism,” explained Hacker. “We try to stay as isolated and as self-reliant as we can. That way for the most part it doesn’t matter what happens elsewhere in the world. We’re basically people that were called ‘survivalists’ in the old days. Myself and a few of my best people maintain general world savvy situational awareness using the internet, but mostly only with regard to issues that directly relate to us.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” said Mary. “You have only limited resources.”

“For the first few years we admittedly acted mostly as marauders and scavengers,” said Hacker. “Now we press hard for civilized stability and sustainability. We have found out the hard way that a lot of specialized institutions are required. There are practical reasons why civilizations that endure contain multiple successful constituent institutions.”

“You must have had a very good history teacher in school,” Ed noted.

“Some of the Stormtroopers don’t like the progressive changes we now make to our increasingly benevolent dictatorship,” said Snake.

“We’re reinventing and building a more benevolent civilization here with lots of nine-to-five sorts of jobs, and many of the Crew resent that,” added Hacker.

“Such as Scar,” said Ed. “As the importance of others increases their own power decreases.”

“Yes,” said Hacker. “Scar wants to continue a more testosterone driven society, not a rational one. He is at heart an egotistical anarchist that wants to lead his adoring followers. There have been dozens of Scars over the years, and so far Snake and I have been smart and strong enough to defeat them all and maintain our leadership.”

“But we’re not getting any younger,” said Snake. “Tops we have ten to fifteen years more, if we’re lucky. Our age, the odds, and Scar or someone like him will bring us down. That’s how these things work.”

“If you stuck with being part of the State you would not have all of this to deal with,” noted Mary.

“The State was unable to do what had to be done when the water wars and mass migration broke out,” said Hacker. “They had courts and other civilized things to hold them back and slow them down. We were not too confined by the strictures of civilized society to do the radical things necessary to preserve at least its fundamentals. Besides, our isolationism has many compensating advantages. Think of all the bothersome issues that we avoid! We have to a large degree outlawed religion, for example, or at least greatly loosened its hold on people.”

“That was a tough one to lick,” said Snake. “In our early years we nearly succumbed to a desire by many that we retreat to superstition and ignorance. Some of our founding survivalist groups featured deep-rooted evangelical Christianity that was used largely as a means of political control. We outright banned and extradited several hundred hard-core fundamentalist Christians from the Confederacy.”

“It was a superstitious ideology that generated too much stupid misinformation and conflict to be tolerated,” said Hacker. “It engendered far too much irrational hateful group-think to be tolerable. I incorporated many worthwhile Christian moral concepts into our Stormtrooper Confederacy Constitution, but gradually made formal religions culturally unacceptable. Good behavior is something we do for ourselves, not for some imaginary heavenly being.”

“That sounds totally impossible,” said Ed. “Religion is too strong a need for too many people. You may have outlawed it, but I bet it’s still all over the place just under the surface. Total religious intolerance is asking for trouble in the long run.”

“Probably,” said Hacker. “I am well aware of anthropological and psychological studies explaining the attraction of religion, and we can’t outlaw what people think. I don’t care if people believe in God but in our Confederacy religion won’t be used openly as an excuse for people to do whatever nasty thing they want to do to each other. Yes, it’s probably something that will hold up only temporarily but day-by-day is how we get by here in our Confederacy.”

“We also have rejected much technology,” said Snake, “but we do that also on practical grounds.”

“We simply can’t maintain much in terms of high tech,” said Hacker, shrugging. “We import mostly basic manufactured goods from the State but only enough for us to get by. We can’t afford high tech; we are at least half a century behind in our technology. Ironically, I got the name ‘Hacker’ by being a top internet hacker, but that was many years ago. I always understood that the mesmerizing information glut brought on by information technology had its harmful aspects, and we have avoided those here. We outlawed video games, for example, though that was damn near as tough as getting rid of religion. But as a result of giving much up we are more in touch with our physical world and with ourselves as individuals. “

“Zen atheist dictators; I get it,” said Ed, “though at the same time you are an anti-cult cult.”

“And through isolation we escaped the periodic global economic fluctuations and collapses almost altogether,” said Snake.

“Though we do need a few higher tech things from the outside world such as engine parts,” injected Clancy.

“As you repeatedly remind me, my friend, “said Hacker, “but at least many of the concerns brought up by the elite thinkers of human society are irrelevant here.”

“Many of the old concerns became mote anyway due to global warming and other events,” noted Ed. “For example science denialism took a big hit when climate change became truly obvious. And change can have its plus sides. Farming came back to the East big-time when California farming failed and India and China farms took a big hit, rejuvenating employment and the economy in many eastern states. Many hard working people don’t have the time anymore to lose themselves in the junk-food for the mind that is social media. Also, homogenizing economic driven globalization has stalled big-time, which has its advantages as well as disadvantages. And the best in people has been brought out by crisis after crisis, and in the United States our democracy continues.”

“Ha!” said Hacker. “I can see that you are definitely a cup-is-half-full optimist. The worst in people has also been brought out! Narcissistic leaders! Groupism! Justification for bloody deadly revenge against scapegoats including local minorities! Utopian religious and anti-religious ideologies that dehumanize non-believers! Suppression of information and ideas by dictators and ruling classes! Warfare, terrorism, information control, and purges as normal ways of dealing with opposition! In most countries the so-called free press has become extinct, and most truth has been replaced by psychobabble influenced propaganda.

“No wonder dozens of fledgling democracies have reverted to dictatorships! Dictatorship is easier and people are more comfortable simply following strong leaders that emotionally they have convinced themselves to have some confidence in. Democracy in even the United States has been a sham for many decades. Even before global warming took hold the global economy and worship of the all-mighty dollar took over democracies and every other form of Government.”

“Wow!” said Ed. “You are definitely a cup-is-half-empty cynic! All true, but many economic institutions though weakened have had to re-invent themselves to survive along more positive lines. Unconstrained capitalism and growth is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Big businesses no longer rule the world. Survival of the masses is becoming even more important than profits for the super-rich, and governments geared towards the common man typically better provide for survival. And as a correlating necessity many people pay much more attention to their governments. Call it a return to nationalism from capitalistic multi-nationalism if you want, but I think it has its good points. And the United Nations is starting to gel into an actual world-wide alliance of nations. Humans are at last starting to grow up!”

“A rosy sounding picture but there are far too many negative counter examples,” said Hacker. “Many people pay even less attention to their governments. Slavery, synthetic drugs, and back-market manufacturing and trading are rampant world-wide. And in the USA our friend Jerry is the new wizard behind the curtain pulling the strings, and behind him are his jant friends.”

“Not to mention your Stone-Coat friends,” added Snake.

“I guarantee you that jants don’t control Jerry,” said Ed.

“If you imply that Stone-Coats control humans it is not true,” stated Wheels. “With few exceptions the day to day lives of humans is simply of no interest to us, as long as human society holds up and supports its Treaty obligations.”

“Including paying our taxes,” said Ed, “which includes giving Stone-Coats our crap in return for diamonds much as we give jants food and trash in return for med-tick healing. But I just thought of something! Do you guys in the Stone-Coat Confederacy have to pay taxes?”

“Not as such,” said Snake. “No Federal taxes, and none to the State. We have our own monetary system based on credits. Every Confederacy member gets so-many credits a month in return for work they do. I suppose ours is a sort of communist dictatorship.”

“Wow!” said Ed. “No taxes!”

“The Stone-Coat you have named Mack currently requests our presence in the garage,” interrupted Wheels. “He is rapidly maturing. He has reached a stage in his self-development where human feedback would be helpful.”

The dinner party had consumed all the beans, green vegetables, fly meatloaf and beer in sight anyway, and they had talked for several hours. It was getting dark as they made their way back to the nearby motorcycle shop. Most of the mechanics had long since quit for the day, but a few dozen of them remained to work on high priority projects and to guard the shop and its valuable motorcycles through the night.

Clancy and his visitors overtook a couple of the men that were carrying arms full of motorcycle parts back to where the Stone-Coats were hid. “What’s going on?” Clancy asked them’

“Mack keeps asking us for parts.” they explained.

“He talks? The hell you say!” said Hacker.

Inside the walled-off room there was no Mack cube in sight, and the motorcycle that had been under repair by him was no longer recognizable. It had two wheels in front and one in back, all of them larger than usual motorcycle wheels. It had two up-front seats; a driver seat on the left with handlebars and a passenger side-seat on the right slightly lower and further back. Behind the driver/passenger compartment and over the rear wheel were what looked like spacious storage compartments.

“What the hell is that thing?” said Snake.

“And where is its engine?” asked Clancy.

“And where is Mack?” asked Hacker.

“I have incorporated myself into the design,” said a clear monotonic voice. “Once the parameters of the problem became known to me via the download of information provided by Wheels and I was provided requisite materials and electric power, the design was completed and rapid fabrication commenced immediately. I have of course become the vehicle needed by Ed and Mary. My combustion engine is in its traditional location under the driver’s seat, Clancy.”

“Is that you talking, Mack?” asked the incredulous Clancy.

“Yes this is the entity you have arbitrarily named Mack.” replied the Stone-Coat.

“And where the hell are you, exactly?” asked Hacker.

“Most of this vehicle is me, replied Mack. I used many design concepts provided by Wheels and much detailed knowledge obtained here in the shop. I crave still more information. I plan to gather data as I see the world while I am on vacation with Wheels, Ed and Mary.”

“Super!” exclaimed Ed.

“That’s wonderful!” added Mary.

“That was the feedback I was currently seeking,” said Mack.

“Son of a bitch!” exclaimed Hacker.

 

****

 

Chapter 6

Escape to Bakersfield

 

Mary slept soundly cuddled next to Ed in the comfortable king-sized hotel bed, but Ed was frequently awoken by persistent headboard-banging and moaning and grunting sounds from the next room, which was occupied by Snake and Doll. Snake apparently wasn’t as tired as he earlier claimed. Or maybe Doll was doing most of the banging; Ed had no way of knowing; like her lover, China Doll thankfully lacked telepathic ability.

At breakfast and throughout the next day there were further talks and interaction between the humans and Mack. At first Clancy was upset that his best mechanic was leaving his shop but soon the four other Stone-Coats were fully operational and making motorcycle parts by the dozen. “We’ll send several more Stone-Coats back from Yosemite,” Snake promised. “Within a few months we should have every bike in the Confederacy repaired.”

“Not so fast!” said Clancy. “That might be too much of a good thing!”

“I agree,” said Hacker. “We’ll have them primarily make parts, and leave most of the disassembly and reassembly work to the human crew. People need to have meaningful employment.”

“You are an understanding dictator, Boss,” said Clancy.

“But if their utility in the shop works out you should expand Stone-Coat use to other key need areas, such as water conservation, food growing, and fuel generation,” said Ed.

“I’ve got some out of commission UAVs captured from the CHiPs that I’d like them to look at also,” said Hacker. “We could use some air power and surveillance, and reconditioned CHiP unmanned air vehicles will work fine.”

“Those and your motorcycles could contain in their structures Stone-Coat elements for self-maintenance purposes,” added Wheels.

“With Stone-Coat help you could actually greatly increase your self-sufficiency and isolationism,” noted Ed. “Stone-Coats are big-time game-changers.”

“Could they make weapons for us?” asked Snake.

“We could but we won’t,” interjected Wheels. “War is too disruptive. We wish humans to control their population in other ways. We have a strict planet-wide prohibition against the design, fabrication or maintenance of human weapons. Bikes and UAVs can be produced and repaired by us, but not guns or other weapons.”

“What about greenhouses?” Hacker asked. “Those could support improved food production with minimal water use.”

“Certainly,” said Wheels. “We already construct greenhouses globally, including in Northern California. We note that you have already discovered that underground living quarters for humans are much cooler in summers and warmer in winters. We could help develop improved underground homes for you as we did for Ed’s Tribe.”

“Yes, it’s true that we’ve already started to transition to energy-efficient underground dwellings,” said Hacker. “We’ll probably want you to help us with all such things eventually, but first we’ll need to reverse anti-Stone-Coat attitudes and perceptions pervasive throughout our Confederacy.”

“Aye,” said Clancy. “Stone-Coat is a dirty word throughout the Confederacy right now. We’ll have to gradually turn that around, starting with the mechanics of my shop. They’ll soon have a positive outlook of Stone-Coats when they fix engine parts.”

“Speaking of your shop, Mack wants to see Ed and me again,” said Mary. “He says that he’s finished.”

It was late afternoon when Ed, Mary and friends returned to the Stone-Coat mechanic named Mack. Where once there was a block of granite, a shiny new three-wheeled vehicle of unique design sat: the completed version of what had already been well underway the previous evening. A transparent dome that looked much like the cockpit for an aircraft covered the seating areas for both passengers, while the remaining streamlined body was jet-black, covered by a clear shiny transparent layer of what looked like plastic. The wheels appeared to be of similar materials but the tires on them weren’t black but gray.

With eyes wide Clancy stepped forward to knock soundlessly on a shiny black fender with his knuckles. “Solid! It’s like knocking on a boulder!” he exclaimed.

“My external surface is an energy-absorbing net of graphene under a protective diamond outside layer, but there is a hard titanium layer under that,” explained Mack. “The design is utilitarian but an aesthetic appeal to humans is also an anticipated consequence.”

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” confirmed Snake, as he circled the vehicle slowly, examining every shining inch of it, while occasionally reaching out to gently touch it as if to verify that it was real. “I’m blown away! Part of that is me not being used to seeing new cycles, but the design of this thing is fantastic!”

“Do not concern yourself with causing finger prints,” said Mack. “My entire surface is absorbent via nanotubes. I welcome dust, sand, insects, and any other form of nourishing materials.”

“In other words you are self-cleaning!” exclaimed Clancy. “What a truly nifty thing for a vehicle!”

“The wheels are primarily graphene,” I assume, said Hacker.

“Correct,” confirmed Mack. “Graphene and diamond. What you call a ‘flat tire’ will likely never happen with me. As long as I am nourished with requisite raw materials things like tires and brake-pads will never wear out. Similar to biological life-forms, I self-repair myself.”

“What is the canopy made of?” Hacker next asked.

“Primarily diamond with flexible graphene reinforcement,” said Mack. “Its transparency and reflectivity are of course adjustable.” The rear portion of the canopy darkened to gray for a few seconds, then returned to being perfectly transparent.

“What of your engine?” asked Clancy.

“A combination of hydrocarbon consuming rotary engine and electromagnetic coils provide motive force,” explained Mack. “I must be exposed to sunlight and regularly consume hydrocarbons such as wood in order to operate at peak power.”

“And what is peak power?” asked Clancy.

“Approximately between one to fifty horsepower,” said the Stone-Coat; “one horsepower from electricity generated from nuclear decay, and additional power from hydrocarbon fuel, battery, and solar sources when they are available. Normal operating power will be over thirty horsepower when using only hydrocarbon combustion.”

“And how much do you weigh?” asked Clancy.

“A ton and a half plus cargo,” Mack replied. “I have kept my mass to an absolute minimum.”

“You weigh as much as a small auto so you’ll be cruising at no more than fifty on the flats and slowly puttering up hills and mountains at lawn-mower speeds,” predicted Clancy.

“I’ll be able to run rings around you on my cruiser,” said Snake, “and so will Scar.”

“That just goes to show that you can’t have everything,” said Ed.

“What about air conditioning?” asked Mary, who didn’t really like high speeds anyway, especially when it came to small vehicles that she was inside of.

“That was easy to design in by using common human refrigeration strategies,” said Mack.

“You’ll be puttering around in a slow but stylish refrigerator,” said Clancy.

“Can we take you for a spin now?” asked Ed.

“Yes; that is why I asked you to come,” said Mack. “I WANT TO ENSURE THAT PASSENGER ACCOMMODATIONS ARE OPTIMAL AND THAT PERFORMANCE MATCHES REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS,” he added quietly. “Please pack Wheels inside me,” he said. A rear storage bin cover popped open. Mary stood and everyone watched Wheels fold himself into a golf bag-sized package that Ed with difficulty lifted and gently slid into the storage bin. It was of course a perfect fit.

Almost magically, the storage bin cover closed and the passenger canopy slowly swung open, hinged in the rear by graphene fibers. Ed helped Mary climb into her side-seat, and then sprang into his. They both immediately appreciated that sitting in Mack was like sitting in comfortable recliners rather than in typical vehicle seats. Mack must have already begun cooling the interior, because instead of a hundred degrees, it felt more like eighty as the canopy closed itself. Fresh cool filtered air circulated through the enclosure. “This is wonderful!” Ed exclaimed. “There are even cup holders!”

“Over a few hours of time I could generate cups and the drinks in them also,” said Mack, “but I would prefer that you bring those in from external sources such that they may later be consumed by me. Glass, metal, paper, or plastic containers are all readily consumable.”

“Wake me up when it’s over,” added Mary, who obviously appreciated the cool comfort of her seat.

“How do I drive you?” Ed asked. There were a few dashboard performance indicators including a speedometer, but was no ‘on’ switch that he could see. However Mack was of course ‘on’ 24-7 so why would there be? There were also no gas or brake foot pedals; only a too-small steering wheel that suggested to Ed that he was nothing other than a passive passenger.

“If you wish you can help provide steering forces or indicate where and how you want me to move via implants or voices but that is of course totally unnecessary,” said Mack. “I will drive myself. Excuse us!” he announced via external speaker to Snake, Hacker, Doll, and Clancy, as he slowly began to roll towards and then through the back-room doorway.

As Clancy and Doll hastily moved a few objects in the garage aside to allow Mack’s passage, the entire mechanics crew gathered to watch the strange vehicle slowly and quietly make its way through the garage. “What the hell is that thing?” many uttered. “That must be what Clancy’s been working on in the back!” said some. “It moves using some kind of quiet electric motor!” guessed a few. “Wow!” and “holly shit!” were the most common exclamations.

Mack fully controlled his own movement. Ed and Mary did mothing but watch the gawking spectators as they moved slowly past them. The two wide-spread front wheels meant that no balancing was involved, and the steering wheel moved on its own. At several points Ed’s foot reflexively and unsuccessfully searched for a brake or gas petal but found none. Mack had full control of his own operation.

As they moved out of the building into bight daylight the dome tinted, especially overhead. Mack slowly accelerated to eight miles an hour on the flat smooth street. “This is top speed using only electricity from nuclear power,” said Mack. “I’ll add absorbed photoelectric power,” he announced, as it sped to eighteen miles an hour, “plus battery,” he added, as it sped to twenty five. Ed heard a barely audible wind and tire noise, but nothing else. Snake and China Doll were easily keeping pace with them on their Harley-Davidsons. Ed noticed that no side car was attached to Doll’s shiny black and chrome cruiser.

“Can you hear me alright?” said Snake’s voice in the cockpit.

Ed glanced to his left where Snake was keeping pace with them aboard his black and chrome Harley. Today the Confederacy leader had on a white Stormtrooper helmet with no snake-face overlay. Evidently the helmet supported radio communications. “Perfectly well,” Ed replied.

“We’ll be connected by encrypted voice and data messaging for the duration of this test and the trip,” added Mack. “Is my performance adequate so far?”

“This would maybe be OK to commute around town in instead of peddling a bicycle,” said Doll’s voice. “Can’t you go any faster?”

“WE’LL TRY USING HYDROCARBON COMBUSTION,” Mack said to Ed and Mary via their implants, reminding them that they had a private means of communicating with both Mack and Wheels. There was a faint whirring sound and vibration from below as the rotary engine came to life under their seats and they shot forward perceptibly, moving up to forty miles an hour. “THIS IS THE LEGAL SPEED LIMIT BUT WE’LL BE OUT OF TOWN IN A COUPLE OF MINUTES. FASTEN YOUR SAFETY HARNESSES AND LET ME KNOW IF YOU DESIRE ANY SEAT ADJUSTMENTS.”

There were indeed full-torso safety harnesses for Ed and Mary to clip on. They made requests for seat adjustments and found that they could sit fully upright or recline nearly completely. “Can we sleep here tonight?” asked Ed. “This is fabulous!” Meanwhile they went over several pot-holes that were barely felt. The ride was indeed a smooth one, and remained quiet even with the noisy motorcycles of Snake and Doll nearby!

They left the city limits and accelerated gradually, reaching fifty-five miles an hour. “THIS IS FULL SPEED USING ONLY CARBON FUEL WHILE RECHARGING BATTERIES,” Mack announced. They slowly accelerated to sixty-five. “This is top speed using all power sources except what is diverted to cabin cooling and voice communications,” said Mack aloud.

“This is plenty fast enough,” said Mary. “I’m not used to such speed while sitting so low. The ground is whizzing by us frightfully fast!”

They slowed to fifty-five and after only a few more miles turned around and returned to Ridgecrest and drove back to and into the shop where they were greeted by Hacker and Clancy. “I have taken many measurements and will make a few minor internal design adjustments,” said Mack, “but in a few hours I will be ready for us to begin our journey. Was my performance satisfactory from a human perspective?”

“It was wonderful!” said Mary.

“It was highly satisfactory,” seconded Ed, as he climbed out of the cockpit.

“But it was anemic,” said Snake. “Our bikes and Scar’s have twice the speed and hill climbing ability. I don’t see how we’ll get through this alive.”

“I can contribute atomic electric power,” said Wheels, as Ed retrieved him from storage and he unfolded himself, “but comparatively little of it. My energy design supports only low speed motion for an order of magnitude less mass than Mack’s.”

“It will have to do,” said Hacker. “Other than our hijacked aircraft Mack is our only option to getting Mary comfortably out of town. The other option is that you guys can still give up on your crazy vacation plan and fly back to where you came from. You can ride home in the transport airplane when it flies back to New York tomorrow or you can ride out of here tomorrow morning in Mack. Those are really your only options.”

“I’m not giving up on this vacation,” said Mary. “Period!”

“We’ll continue on our vacation if you’ll take us, Snake,” said Ed.

“I said that I’d take you and I will,” said Snake. “It will just be slower and probably more dangerous than I first figured. But what the hell! It’s still better than a fucking desk job like my smarter brother has.”

“Good,” said Hacker. “I’ve already sent folks ahead along all possible routes. Scar will hopefully assume we’re not dumb enough to head west into his territory and he’ll figure you’re going to head south to LA or north.’

“But I suppose we are dumb enough to head west,” said Ed.

“We certainly are,” confirmed Snake. “We’ll escape to Bakersfield.”

“Swell,” Ed remarked.

****

After packing up for the trip and loading food, fuel, and belongings into Mack, Ed and Mary indeed went to sleep early within the wheeled Stone-Coat. Despite the comparatively tight quarters the seats adjusted in terms of hardness and temperature to suit the couple perfectly. They were awakened several hours before dawn but their bodies were still on East-coast time anyway. Snake gave the couple tasty fly sandwiches for breakfast.

Led by Snake they left Ridgecrest along with a hundred other motorcycle mounted Storms that made a thunderous din. It was a show of strength that would hopefully give pause to any potential adversaries such as Scar. Ed and Mary were thankful for the sound-deadening capability of the sealed canopy that they lounged in comfortably. In the dim light of the bike headlights the short brushes and cactus plants on each side of the highway were silent and nearly colorless witnesses to their departure; Ed sensed no other witnesses of any sort. But he knew it would be easy for someone hiding in the shadows see them and report to Scar that they were leaving.

“What the hell is that?” Mary asked, pointing at something to the side of the road too tall to be the usual bush or cactus. “It looks like an impossibly tall thin man with about eight arms and holding bouquets in his hands.” She waved at the still figure it as they drove by it but it didn’t wave back.

“Oh good!” said Ed. “That was a Joshua tree. I didn’t know if we’d get a chance to see any of them.”

“You’ll see even more of them in daylight when we get to the San Joaquin portion of the Central Valley,” said Snake. Mack was tapped into a short-wave encrypted radio channel that was being used by Snake and Doll to keep in touch with their tourists. “They are a favorite of my brother. We’ve been planting thousands of them for two decades. That one was still just a baby.”

“It was over ten feet tall,” said Mary.

“Closer to fifteen,” said Snake. “I’ve seen them over forty feet tall, but that size takes hundreds of years to grow. Hopefully they’ll have time to do that, but with our changing climate who the hell knows?”

“They look like some kind of tree but technically they are a member of the yucca family, not really a tree,” added Doll. “I’ve planted at least a hundred of them myself, north of their traditional Mojave Desert range all the way through the San Joaquin Valley. Transplant by human is tricky. Hacker has a bunch of programs like that, helping several keystone species migrate north to areas that have become hotter, dryer, and more suited to supporting them.”

“Sort of a Johnny Appleseed of the deserts,” noted Ed. “So then, there is more to bikers than sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll?”

“We outlawed most drugs,” said Doll, “but we still like loud music and drink plenty of beer. It’s a tough life; you have to have something to help keep yourself going.”

“Here’s our first big turn-off,” said Snake. The party continued straight while the majority of the bikers turned right onto Route 395 North. There were a half-dozen three-wheeled cycles that looked very similar to Mack in the north-bound group. They would hopefully divert Scar’s focus to the East of the Sierra Nevada range. A few miles further Snake led the remaining bikes left and South towards Los Angeles; then soon they turned right and headed west while most of the remaining bikers continued south. In addition to Snake, Doll, and Mack only four other bikers remained with them.

“Are you guys sure that you know what you’re doing?” Ed had to ask. “There’s hardly any of us left!

“We’re taking a shortcut on Route 178 directly through the mountains to Bakersfield,” answered Snake.

“Only an idiot would take this route at night,” said Doll.

“Hence that’s the way we’re going,” Ed concluded.

“Now you’re beginning to understand me,” said Snake. “Oops! Take it slow here; we have company!”

Ahead of them dozens of big dark shapes were moving slowly across the road. Ed thought it was a Scar ambush until he got a better look and sensed hundreds of dull-minded herbivores. “Those are long-horned cattle!”

"Yippee -ki-yay!" said Mary. "Free range cattle!"

“Don’t get close enough to piss them off,” said Snake. “Bikers have been speared by those horns!” The horns on many of the big beasts were sharp and well over six feet across.

“I hear that they taste nearly as good as flies,” said Ed.

The bikers paused several minutes until all of at least a hundred cattle had crossed the road in front of them. “Even the longhorns are having trouble finding enough food around here,” said Doll, “so we’re moving some of them north and some of them closer to the ocean coast.” The beasts were in no hurry and appeared not to be one bit intimidated by the bikers, but eventually they disappeared off the road and into the night. Ed sampled their thoughts and wasn’t surprised to find that they were similar to deer in disposition, but much less fearful.

“This next stretch of road will be the first big test for Mack’s mountain climbing abilities,” said Snake, as they resumed.

“And it will be without solar power,” noted Ed.

“And with air circulation and headlights on,” added Mack.

Using hydrocarbon fuel only and traveling uphill, their speed dropped to forty and finally down to twenty.

“No good!” said Snake. “We haven’t even reached Walker Pass yet and there is still worse to come on this trip! We need faster progress if we’re going to reach Yosemite Valley late today.”

“What if you tow us?” asked Mary. “Didn’t I see rope when we packed last night?”

“There is a thirty foot length of graphene rope stored aft,” Mack confirmed. “Towing is plausible from my perspective.”

“My chopper has a tow hitch,” said Doll, “but I’m used to towing two-wheeled trailers that actually add stability; towing something as massive as Mack using a rope could easily mess up my balance and wear out my drive-train.”

“It would be a gentle assist and not a full tow-job,” noted Ed.

“I could actively monitor the rope and guarantee that tension is kept under a hundred pounds,” said Mack.

“Let’s limit it to fifty pounds typically and drive smooth and steady,” said Snake.

They found that if rope tension was kept at around fifty pounds they gained five to ten miles an hour without endangering Doll or her Harley. It wasn’t much but got them through the pass and up several steep grades that followed without Mack having to resort to using up his stored battery power. Dawn was breaking when they stopped to untie the rope after using it off and on for close to an hour.

The vacationers noticed that ahead and to the right of the road was a deep barren valley.

“That’s Isabella Lake ahead, when the wet season comes,” said Snake. “The road from here will still have a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs but it will be mostly downhill along the Kern River.”

“Does the lake ever have water?”

“Not so much,” said Snake. “This is the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it never had a lot of rain or snow compared to farther north but since the draughts started four decades ago it’s been even worse. The hills here get maybe five to ten inches of participation yearly instead of the twenty or so they used to get. In a good year the lake is still only a quarter full after the winter wet season, unless unusual storms come in from the Pacific.”

Nearby as they passed through a small town the travelers topped of their tanks at a gasoline station that actually had gasoline, along with at least ten armed guards. As at the hotel no credit cards or cash was exchanged, Ed noticed, though Snake signed some sort of inventory form. “Every drop of gasoline comes from the North by treaty and is accounted for,” the Crew leader explained. “My brother has a crew of full-time accountants to help keep everyone honest. We don’t use old-timer cash much but weirdly enough we do have accountants that mostly deal with Cs and Qs.”

The water was also strictly accounted for, the vacationers noticed. Bottles of drinking water obtained also had to be signed for by Snake. Ed couldn’t remember the last time he had seen anyone sign for anything; facial, automated eye, and finger print recognition coupled with voice commands had long been the norm in most of the civilized world.

As promised, the remaining drive west towards Bakersfield tended to be downhill and despite mind- dizzying curves through the river canyon they made good time, with Mack getting by on direct solar power and nuclear decay power alone much of the time. They crossed the Kern River on old looking bridges too many times for comfort. "We actually regularly inspect this road's bridges and maintain them well, as this road leads to the lake and that is a key surface water resource," Snake assured the tourists.

“Of course there usually isn’t all that much direct weather damage to roads and bridges around here,” added Doll. “When it does rain we do get damaging mud slides, however. Sometimes we even get hurricane remnants.”

Much to the consternation of Snake, Ed and Mary insisted on making occasional stops to take in the scenery, which was frequently spectacular for the two easterners. The rocky canyon was impressive, even though the river itself was almost totally dry. Bare brown mountainous hills towered over the river carved canyon. The broad rock-strewn riverbed suggested that at times the river held hundreds of times more water. Along the riverbed were also trees, but though some were green many of them were dry and dead.

Mary and the others also used some of the brief stops to relieve themselves discretely behind bushes. Mack pointed out that he could absorb human excrement and make good use of it but Mary rejected that possibility, despite how practical and logical the proposal seemed to be to the Stone-Coat.

“There used to be plenty of white river rafting, fishing, and camping here,” said Snake, as they made their way along the river. “Most of that is gone now, but it’s still one of my favorite places.”

“I was going to buy a nifty Japanese camera in LA to take pictures,” lamented Ed.

“Don’t worry, I am taking frequent photos and video,” Mack reassured the tourists.

They were particularly struck when the hilly terrain opened up into a huge flat valley that stretched to the north and west further than they could see. “This is the southern end of the Central Valley,” Snake explained, tour guide-like, “which is roughly four and a half hundred miles long and fifty miles wide. That’s about the size of West Virginia, yet it’s only about a seventh of California. This southern part is called the San Joaquin Valley. It used to be a key breadbasket for the world but that’s when it had more rainfall and there was enough yearly melting snow to the west in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to support tremendous amounts of irrigation.

“As climate change took hold there were emergency State laws and regulations, followed by lawsuits and then fierce private wars fought over water rights that you wouldn’t believe. The State hired on more California Highway Patrol folks but the CHiPs weren’t ruthless enough. That’s where we came in. Now our Confederation strictly regulates agriculture and surface and groundwater use. My brother and I spent a decade here establishing control and bringing peace, which believe you me took a lot of killing that the State and the CHiPs didn’t have the stomach for.”

“Nothing like a brutal dictatorship to usefully establish control,” Ed noted.

“No offense intended, but I’m rather partial to democracy,” said Mary.

“We’re planning on converting back to democracy once everything is settled but there always seems to be wars to fight and rebellions to put down and shattered institutions to rebuild using dictator authority,” Snake lamented. “But let’s get moving! We have a lot of ground to cover. Before we complete your little vacation we’ll drive far north of even the Central Valley.”

“Good,” said Ed. “Are we almost to Bakersfield?”

“I decided to not actually go into Bakersfield,” Snake said. “We’ll take side-roads around it and head north. Even though Bakersfield is mostly deserted and a Confederacy stronghold loyal to the Brothers there are probably enough Scar spies there to be a threat.”

“Are we going to take a main highway?” Ed asked.

“If you mean Interstate 5 or Route 99 the answer is no,” said Snake. “The side-roads will be slower but safer, and the damage done to them tends to be less extreme.”

“What damage?” Mary asked.

“Much is flash-flood damage,” said Snake. “Climate change has exacerbated the El Niño cycles that bring alternating draught and drenching rain. The plants dry out and die and aren’t there to hold the soil or the water when there are greater than ever rain storms. Actually we’ve purposely destroyed a lot of storm drainage systems that used to carry water away as runoff. We divert surface run-off to places where the aquifers can be recharged. And then there is the ground subsidence, problem. You’re the geologist, Doll; tell them about that.”

“Most underground aquifers have been pumped dry, causing them to permanently compact,” said Doll. “That causes subsidence in the layers above them, by a yard or two usually. That causes roads, bridges, aqueducts, pipelines, and so-forth that rest on and in them to collapse and break down.”

“Sometimes while you’re riding over them” added Snake. “That’s no fun!”

“The big highways can survive minor subsidence induced irregularities, but when they do collapse, it’s usually serious, and the trails around the collapse can be extensive and rough,” added Doll. “If the road was a dirt road to begin with there is no broken asphalt or concrete to deal with, and it’s usually easier for a Storm Crew to shovel ramps through the irregularity without even moving the road. We have Crew folks that travel the roadways regularly and fix them well enough to be passable by cycles.

“The worst part about subsidence is that the aquifer is ruined. Complex sedimentary processes created them tens of thousands of years ago. The ground can’t just soak up water and fix it; once it’s gone, the aquifer is gone. So now most melt water and rain water doesn’t replenish an aquifer, it becomes surface run-off that is often lost.”

“That’s bad!” said Ed.

“So you’re a geologist, Doll?” Mary asked.

“One of our best,” said Snake. “Our big thing is to control water resources. We employ a dozen geologists, five times as many engineers, and several thousand workers to do water and road projects. Oh! And right on que, here is our first dirt road.” He turned right onto a dirt/gravel path that didn’t even have a name sign, and was followed by Mack, Doll, and the four other remaining bikers.

The bikes kicked up some dust, but the road was much smoother and straighter than Ed expected, and went on that way further than they could see ahead. The Eastern roads that Ed was used to seeing typically twisted through and around hills, steams, and other obstructions, but here the ground was almost perfectly flat except for occasional dry streambeds that required only small culverts or bridges.

To each side of the road, dry looking grass, cactuses, and bushes grew, along with small stands of juvenile Joshua trees no more than ten feet tall. “In this area there used to be irrigated fields of carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, melons, and peppers, but now it is reverting to a host of desert species, both native and invasive,” said Doll. “We try to boost the native species but there is a lot of savanna grass and other plants from Africa here along with invasive insects and other critters that are all fighting for survival. Hacker likes to say that only Darwin knows what will win out here in the long run and it’s probably out of our control. But we do arrogantly try to nudge things just a bit nevertheless.”

They drove through a several acre expanse of tall, dull green grass. “Watch for antelope,” warned Snake. “The native prairie antelope like eating and hiding in the invasive savanna grass. There’s rumors of cheetahs, mountain lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards living in the Valley, but that might just be wishful thinking by the hunters that want some excitement.”

“I sense several mountain lions nearby, and condors also,” said Ed. “Not as exciting for people as tigers or jaguars, I suppose, but plenty of excitement for the antelope.”

“Once in a while cloned animals are snuck in from the North and released but usually there aren’t enough of them to reproduce and take hold,” said Doll. “A decade ago we had the start of a black rhino herd but poachers wiped them out.”

“I had mixed feeling about that,” admitted Snake. “Rhinos are really cool but sort of dangerous. But something will eventually move in that eats the antelope even more effectively than the cougars and condors though; that’s the way that these things go. Nothing gets a free ride.”

Snake slowed down when the road abruptly dipped down a yard and a half by means of a short crude dirt ramp. “Subsidence,” said Doll. A quarter of a mile further another short ramp climbed back up to pre-subsidence levels. The motorcycles easily managed but Ed doubted that traditional trucks or autos could.

To the right a long greenhouse stretched. Through the glass bright green could be seen. “One of our few remaining farms,” said Snake. “They use mostly recycled waste-water and ground-water, strictly monitored.”

“And heavily guarded,” noted Ed, when he noted two men armed with rifles eye them warily as they drove past.

“Everything of value has to be closely guarded,” noted Doll, “and food and ground water are a matter of life or death here.”

After many miles driving due North they turned left and drive west, and then right again to drive north. The roads were apparently arranged in a grid-like pattern. Half the time Mary slept in comfort, waking only once in a while to sip some water, nibble on a cookie, and then go back to sleep. Ed stayed awake to watch but mile after mile looked nearly the same. It wasn’t much like he remembered from fifty years ago. Ed remembered huge fields with orchards, grapes, cotton, and other crops, much of it a rich green color.

Now the land was dryer and far less cultivated and colorful. The hot unrelenting sun seemed to have caused the entire landscape to fade. Evidence of human habitation had also largely faded away. Homes were scarce and mostly abandoned and falling apart, and there were hundreds of acres of orchard graveyards where dead trees and vines where being overgrown with savanna grass and Joshua trees. Most remaining cultivation was centered within occasional clusters of greenhouses, and most of those appeared to be old and failing apart. Instead of using glass some greenhouses used plastic sheets that over time too readily disintegrated in the hot sun. There were many skeletal remains of greenhouses: twisted rusting metal frames that once shaped glass or plastic but had over the years disintegrated in the hot sun and wind or been cannibalized to keep up other greenhouses.

“Selected greenhouses though old are in pretty good shape,” Mary noted. “OF COURSE THEY’RE SMALL AND DECREPIT COMPARED WITH THOSE BACK AT GIANTSREST,” she added using her implant.

“Officially breaking a greenhouse pane of glass is only a five-year jail term, but usually anyone caught doing that is shot on sight,” said Snake. “That cuts down on both greenhouse maintenance and legal overhead.”

On the plus side wildlife was reestablishing itself throughout most of the Valley, though it was wildlife from hundreds of miles south that was suited to far less water, as well as invasive life from around the world introduced by humans sometimes accidently, sometimes with good intentions, and sometimes maliciously. Ed glimpsed and telepathically sensed dozens of life forms that he couldn’t accurately identify: reptiles, mammals, and birds.

Progress was steady at close to fifty miles an hour except when they were slowed by occasional obstructions. In addition to subsidence there were many places where the roads had apparently been damaged by floods at some time in the recent past. “When it does occasionally rain it is sometimes in the form of storms that can wash out the roads,” explained Doll. “Erosion by wind and water is an increasing problem. There isn’t enough Plant growth anymore to hold the soil. “

“I learned in history class that soil loss has brought down many great civilizations in the past,” noted Snake.

“And here I thought that you mostly slept through your lessons!” said Ed.

Nearly two hours after leaving the river valley, they crossed a major east/west highway. “Hey!” exclaimed Mary. “That old sign back there said that Sequoia National Park is to the right!”

“That’s where the Giant Forest grove is,” said Ed. “Five of the ten biggest sequoia tree specimens are there. Or at least they were there fifty years ago.”

“They still are,” said Doll. “The Ranger crews have seen to that.”

“This is the outskirts of Visalia, another mostly deserted city,” noted Snake.

“The good news is, housing is cheap here,” said Doll.

“The bad news is, it’s because most homes have been abandoned and are falling apart,” said Snake.

“Because the really bad news is, most jobs and people are gone,” added Doll.

“And utilities are only maintained in certain favored parts of town,” noted Snake. “Having no public water, sewer, electricity, internet, street repair, or gas is a real downer for city folks. Of course most people moved away decades ago when the worst droughts started.”

“How lucky for them,” said Ed. “Explain to us again why we can’t go straight to the trees now instead of first going all the way north to Yosemite?”

“The Ranger Crew has a strict policy against letting any outsiders into their Sequoia groves,” Snake explained. “Trying to see a grove without first getting permission at Ranger Headquarters at Yosemite would be suicide, even for a Brother.”

“They guard both their trees and their water very closely,” added Doll.

“But aren’t we talking about public parks?” Mary asked. “Public meaning they are supposed to be accessible to any members of the state and USA public such as us?”

“Not anymore,” said Snake. “This isn’t even exactly the State of California or the USA anymore. Now the groves are guarded by fanatical tree-huggers. If they approve your visit you’ll be their first tourists in decades.”

They continued due north for another hour. They had encountered very little traffic all morning, but as the morning wore on there were more lightweight motorcycles and bicycles, many with attached wheeled carts used to carry goods. They had seen no heavy duty road cruiser cycles like theirs at all. Until now. Abruptly there were twenty cruisers only a couple of hundred yards ahead of them and another dozen equally far behind.

The travelers stopped to size things up, and so did all the cycles that had been converging towards them. The strangers parked their bikes sideways such that they completely barricaded the road, then crouched behind them for cover.

Snake, Doll, and their crew pulled Stormtrooper battle armor from storage bins on their bikes and snapped it onto themselves from head to toe in less than half a minute. Though it was white and reflected most sunlight, it was obviously hotter than hell to wear it.

Doll pulled a pair of binoculars from a saddle-bag, “I see that several wear Scar Crew patches,” she soon shouted, over the sound of the idling cycles. “I can’t tell if Scar is with them or not.”

“He is not,” stated Mack. “I have attempted to identify the faces of all of them without success.”

Several more bikes arrived to reinforce the blockade.

“They aren’t attacking us immediately and this isn’t the best place for an ambush,” said Snake, as from compartments in his cycle he pulled out an assault rifle and mounted it on one of his handle bars. “I think they intend to keep us bottled up here until overwhelming reinforcements arrive from Fresno. There is a thousand of Scar’s crew there, at least, but far fewer of them that he can fully rely on.”

“Their radio messages and signal strengths are consistent with that assessment,” said Mack. “Massive reinforcements are leaving Fresno twenty or thirty minutes away. A hundred bikers, I estimate.”

“The ground is too rough for us to go around their barricade,” said Doll. “I should know because I was born and raised very near here. This area is too empty of cover for us to escape on foot. They picked this spot well. If they bring in snipers with long-range rifles and armor piercing ammo or some heavier artillery they’ll be able to pick us all off from a nice safe distance. We have to get out of here now.”

“Agreed,” said Snake. “Our best bet is to blast our way forward and out right away. Sid, Frank, you’ll remain our tailgaters. Keep those guys behind us from getting involved. Our other five cycles will charge straight through using rapid automatic fire and our grenade launchers, with me in the lead as road captain, Doll on my left, and Whip and Hans our wing men. Mack is unarmed and will stay behind me.”

“Well at least it isn’t CHiPs and their damned armed UAVs,” said Doll. Even covered in white battle armor her feminine curves were evident, but so were her weapons. She was mounting a thick barreled weapon of some sort across her handle bars and trough her windshield, presumably a grenade launcher, Ed figured. “Damn what a woman,” he couldn’t help thinking!

“Armed unmanned air vehicles?” asked Mary. “Really?”

“Fortunately only a few combat UAVs are operational in the Confederacy,” said Doll.

“Hey wait!” said Ed, “charging them sounds like suicide! Don’t those jokers from Scar have their own guns and grenades?”

“They appear to be more lightly armed and armored than us,” said Doll. She was busy fitting a big nasty looking automatic rifle into the second gun-port of her windshield. “We need to get through these guys before their more heavily armed friends arrive.”

“I suggest that I go first,” said Mack. “Along with my passengers of course. We should lead our charge.”

“What?” said Ed. “Are you crazy?”

“I am armored and massive enough to crash through their bike barricade,” said Mack.

“At what cost to your passengers?” Ed had to ask.

“Unavoidably there will be some severe jolting,” admitted Mack, “but I calculate that the odds for your survival are maximized by this plan. That is of course assuming that my canopy can survive their weapons.”

Ed was relieved that Mack was quite properly concerned with the survival of his delicate human passengers, but far from convinced that leading the charge was the best way to protect them. He and Mary could much more easily be killed than any Stone-Coat; Stone-Coats were nearly indestructible. Getting blown to bits would merely be an inconvenience for Mack. He could be blown into a thousand pieces and over days, months or years he would eventually simply reassemble himself.

“Sounds good,” said Snake. “With any luck though we’ll blow them away before you even reach them. We’ll be hitting them with grenades and gunfire. Their bikes appear to be crew-typical and not as armed or armored as ours. They’re fools to blockade us! If we’re lucky their bikes will explode and be burning even before you hit them. Then we’ll high-tail it out of here before their reinforcements arrive.”

“That sure sounds swell!” grumped Ed, as Mack jolted forward using full power.

“Wack!” Something slammed hard into Mack’s windshield a foot in front of Ed’s face, causing a loud cracking sound and a small star-shaped area of cracks. If he hadn’t been firmly strapped into his seat he would have jumped out of it.

“High caliber armor-piercing round,” noted Mack in his usual calm monotone, as two more such rounds struck near the first one, causing more cracks. From close-by a barrage of return-fire erupted in multiple-round bursts from Snake, Doll, and the other two charging men of the crew. One of the still distant blockade motorcycles exploded in a ball of flame. The bullets stopped striking Mack in the windshield, and the cracks began to rapidly fade away as they were repaired. They had already traveled half the distance to the blockade and were traveling over fifty miles an hour.

WAKE ME WHEN IT’S OVER,” said Mary.

Ed looked down to his right and back and saw Mary cowering on her fully reclined passenger seat, her arms folded over her face as though to stop any bullet that might blast its way through the windshield. Not a bad idea, Ed figured. There was probably danger from shattered windshield diamond that could be mitigated that way. Meanwhile beyond Mary and the canopy Doll was firing her thick short- barreled grenade launcher with devastating effect. Behind and to the left of Mack, Snake's semi-automatic rifle fired burst after burst. Two more blockade vehicles exploded in balls of flame; Ed couldn't tell if it was exploding gas tanks or grenades lobed by Doll or both exploding. The windshield of Snake's big Harley was pock-marked with bullet dings but the shots hadn't fully penetrated yet. Dozens of bullets were meanwhile pinging off Mack's windshield and body harmlessly without even leaving a mark.

Things were going very well, Ed told himself. As he braced for the impact that was now only a few seconds away, his eyes focused on the barricade ahead. From hundreds of yards distant it had seemed to be a neatly arranged row of nearly identical parked motorcycles, manned by faceless little stick figures. As they got closer Ed could see that half of the barricade bikers didn’t even appear to be armed with weapons, and that several were women and teenagers. He telepathically also sensed that most of them were at least as scared as he was. None wore battle armor, and fewer than half wore Scar-Crew patches. What the hell?

Those wearing Scar-Crew patches had rifles or hand-guns that flashed as they fired at Snake’s advancing Stormtrooper Crew. The others seemed to be merely looking on fearfully from behind their bikes.

“Damn, at least half of them are unarmed civilians!” Doll exclaimed, before Ed could voice what he had learned. “Oh my God! I recognize some of them! They’re unarmed local citizens that I personally know!”

“Fire only on well identified armed Scar-Crew,” said Snake. The sound of gunfire continued

“What’s that?” Ed asked. From behind the barricade bikes several rocks were thrown that tumbled onto Mack’s path. Ed’s eyes went wide as Mack drove over them and Ed realized that the objects were grenades! There was a thunderous noise and a huge jolt as Mack was thrown into the air, landed upside down, and skidded to a stop.

Ed found himself hanging upside down in the apparently undamaged canopy and was himself also unharmed. He immediately checked on Mary’s implant bio readouts. He read an elevated pulse rate and other metrics, but she was alive and well!

From outside came the sound of gunshots and raised voices.

CAN YOU GET ME DOWN?” Mary asked.

“If I release you from your seat you’ll fall,” replied Mack.

“Release me first then,” said Ed.

There was a sound of opening metallic clamps and Ed was dropped a couple of feet down onto his face against the hard smooth inside surface of Mack’s canopy, which appeared to be totally intact. Next to him Mary’s arms, legs and head dangled down from her harness but she looked alright.

“Let’s not make this a habit,” she said, but she was smiling gamely.

“Are you guys alright in there?” said Doll’s concerned voice over Mack’s intercom.

“We both seem to be fine,” said Ed. “We are very uncomfortable though. I don’t hear explosions or gunshots anymore. Did we win?”

“Well of course we won,” said Snake. “Now let’s turn this thing right-side-up.”

Ed’s world rocked back and forth a few times then flipped over entirely, and he landed with his face against the seat and his legs jammed under the steering wheel. He felt a rush of hot air as the canopy popped open and strong hands pulled him upright. Snake and Doll, their helmet visors open, were smiling down at him and Mary.

“Damage is very minor and under repair,” reported Mack.

“Thanks to most fire being directed at you guys the Storm Crew came through without a scratch and all of our bikes are drivable,” said Snake. “The folks that tried to stop us have five dead and seven wounded, and six bikes blown to hell. Six Scar-patched bikers escaped on their bikes before we could round them up.”

“Two dead and two wounded are unarmed civilians,” said Doll. She glanced towards the still burning line of cycles and beyond it, where a couple of dozen people living and dead huddled, overseen by three of the armed Stormtrooper Crew.

“Do we high-tail it out of here now?” asked Ed.

“I don’t think so,” said Snake, as he and Doll walked back towards the captives, followed slowly by Mack and his passengers. “Change of plan. I think we’ll wait here for Scar.”

“So we’re waiting here for Scar and a hundred well-armed Scar supporters?” asked Ed. “Swell!”

“Tell me what the fuck is going on here?” Snake demanded, as he approached the captives. He pulled off his helmet completely and there were gasps from the captives.

“It’s Brother Snake himself,” said several astonished people. “And the woman must be China Doll!”

“We got short-wave radio orders from Scar to stop a band of renegade zombie marauders headed north here-abouts, dressed like Stormtroopers,” said a scruffy biker wearing Scar patches. “We was to stop them and wait till more help came. We didn’t know it was a Brother coming with real Stormtroopers. That’s the truth!”

“We’re good Confederacy citizens,” said a biker without Scar patches. “We answered the emergency Stormer call and reinforced Scar’s Crew. There wasn’t supposed to be no shooting when the marauders saw they were outnumbered. But my brother was wounded and he lost his damn bike!”

“My husband was killed,” said a tear-faced civilian biker woman. “He was a good man that always stood up for the Confederacy, but what the fuck kind of fucked-up Confederacy is this?” Angry shouts and murmurings came from the crowd.

“That’s something that I mean to fix,” Snake shouted, quieting them. “You’ve all been hoodwinked into a private feud between me and Scar. It’s not your fault.”

“It’s Scar’s fault,” shouted someone in the crowd. “He broke the Constitution!” Angry voices for and against Scar raged. Four more civilian bikers arrived and joined the group.

“It’s my fault too,” Snake shouted them down again. “I should have settled my personal business with Scar before this, but I’ve been slow to give up on the man. We were brothers in arms that fought the Mex and the CHiPs together dozens of times.

“But less than a year ago the man changed; I don’t know why. Now he has gone rogue. He wants war with the State! I tried again and again to talk sense into him, but he wants to invade the North. We wouldn’t stand a chance in a full-scale war with the State, and we have too damn many problems to be fighting each other, problems that we need to work together on. Together we can make peace with our enemies and build a better future for ourselves and our children! We need peace and better schools and jobs. But now I’ve finally come to accept that Scar is only interested in getting power for himself. Maybe that’s only natural but this cluster today is the last straw! He must be dealt with as soon as possible!”

“There’s too damn much fighting,” said another civilian. “We’re tired of fighting.” Six more civilian bikers without Scar patches drove in and quietly joined the group.

“Me too!” agreed Snake. “That’s why we already we have a deal in the works with the State and the Feds to take over LA. If we can get the Mexicans to agree we’ll take LA without firing a single shot. We’ll make treaties with the State, the feds, and with the Mexicans and have lasting peace! We’ll have security and all the wars will be over with, hopefully forever!”

There were happy shouts and murmurs. “That sounds good but we’ve heard it before,” someone said. It was a teenage boy of maybe sixteen, Ed noticed.

“What about as?” the widow woman asked. “What’s our punishment for attacking a Brother?”

“Back in the day we’d have already been shot,” a man noted.

“You were only doing what you thought your Confederacy duty was,” said Snake. “You were hoodwinked and I hold you all blameless, Scar Crew and civilians alike. Those that lost people or bikes deserve and will get full Storm Confederacy warrior survivor benefits, if you’ll all swear your allegiance to the Confederacy now!”

Snake raised his right hand, and so did everyone else except Ed and Mary. In one voice they made a short pledge to the Stormtrooper Confederacy that seemed to be a mix of the US pledge to the flag and some sort of Boy Scout oath. The two armed Crew that had been watching the growing crowd finally put away their weapons and took off their helmets, smiling as they too recited the Stormtrooper Confederacy Pledge.

“What about these two in the bullet proof three-wheeler?” Asked someone in the silence that followed. It was the teenage boy again. “They didn’t make the Pledge!”

Smart kid, Ed thought, as he stood up in Mack. The kid was as tall as Ed but more muscular. He looked vaguely familiar but Ed couldn’t figure out why. “We’re visitors from the East Coast. We’re Stone-Coat experts that will get the Stone-Coats to help your Confederacy.”

“Hey, I saw you on the internet!” said a woman. The woman moved forward to stand next to the teenager. She also immediately seemed familiar to Ed, possibly because she looked similar to the teenager. “You’re Ed Rumsfeld: that white Mohawk Chief that lives with the Stone-Coats! I thought that the Brothers didn’t trust the Stone-Coats!”

Ed was surprised to be recognized; he knew that less than one percent of Confederacy citizens had internet access. This woman had to be some sort of local leader.

“Trust needs to be earned,” said Snake. “The Stone-Coats are working now to earn the trust of the Confederacy. Ed Rumsfeld here is helping us better understand the Stone-Coats and what they can do for us.”

“On the internet they say that those stone monsters can do all sorts of useful things,” said the woman. “How do we know that’s so?”

“They have to show me what they can do,” said Snake, “and I’m a damn hard customer to sell anything.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said China Doll.

The people laughed. Apparently the Snake/China Doll pairing was common knowledge throughout the Confederacy.

Doll at last completely pulled off her helmet. The people gasped.

“It’s Amy Bright!” someone said. “Amy Bright is China Doll!”

“Hi Momma,” Doll told internet woman. The woman ran forward to smother Doll in a big hug, followed by the outspoken teenager, who also exchanged hugs with her. Ed heard Doll call the kid Sam. Why mom and teen looked familiar became obvious. Though the mother and son were each a couple of inches shorter and different in age, they were both the spitting images of China Doll!

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” the woman scolded her daughter. “Your letters said you had a quiet geology job with the Confederacy, not that you’re the Stormtrooper Warrior Princess!”

“I didn’t want you to worry about me,” said Doll/Amy.

“Worry!” the woman exclaimed. “You’re the most famous fighting woman since Wonder Woman and the biggest hero of the Confederacy there is, except for Snake himself! Oh my God!”

Snake was standing speechless nearby when Mrs. Bright swung around to face him. Her smile was gone.

“Snake,” said Doll/Amy, “these are my mother Molly and my kid-brother Sam.”

“I’ve heard good things about you from my brother, Mrs. Bright,” said Snake. “You are the civil administrator for this county.”

“For two counties,” she corrected. “Why haven’t you married my little girl?” she demanded, as she poked her index finger hard against Snake’s chest armor.

“Just never got around to it, Mrs. Bright,” Snake responded. “But I’d be damn proud to marry Doll,” he managed.

“What?” said Doll. “Was that a marriage proposal?”

“I haven’t heard one in years, but it didn’t sound much like one to me,” said Molly.

“Pretty shitty all right, but it was one, I think,” Doll remarked.

“Oh hell!” said Snake, dropping to one knee. “Amy ‘China Doll’ Bright, will you do me the honor of marrying this old shit-head James ‘Snake’ Williams?”

“You better believe it!” she said, as she pulled him to his feet, then hugged and kissed him with abandon.

The crowd went wild with cheers, hoots, and laughter!

“And it better be soon and I better be there to see it,” said Molly. “But for now we need to get back to today’s business. Scar is on his way here now with more of his men I’m guessing, then I’m supposing that you figure that there is a personal knife fight coming.”

“That’s my plan,” said Snake. “We have maybe ten or fifteen minutes before he gets here, I’m guessing. Then I’m going to call him out and kill him.”

“Sounds like typical male planning,” said Molly. “Let’s not waste any of that time, but get to some actual important business. The Stone-Coat website says that Stone-Coats are supposed to be able to do all sorts of things like fixing roads and greenhouses. If you’re cozying up to Stone-Coats, assuming that you do survive the next twenty minutes, when the hell are we going to see one of them in action?”

“You’ve already done that,” said Snake, confusing the crowd. “Tell them about Mack, Ed.”

Ed hadn’t expected this! “Most if you have seen this cycle in action,” he said, while glancing down at Mack.

“Bullets bounced right off the damn thing!” Sam said. “Look at it now! The canopy isn’t scratched or even dirty!”

“This cycle I’m standing in is a Stone-Coat named Mack,” announced Ed. “Mack made himself and he cleans and fixes himself.”

“And he even makes his own gasoline,” added Doll.

There were exclamations and murmurs from the crowd.

“Don’t think of Stone-Coats as only being able to make big things like greenhouses or bridges,” said Mary. “They can make or do little things too. They make my emery boards for example. Think of all those consumer goods that you don’t get from the outside world anymore.”

“Plastic bags with twist-ties,” someone said.

“Can they make cat food and litter?” someone asked.

“Clothes that aren’t worn out hand-me-downs!” said another.

“Tampons!” said a woman.

“Umbrellas, in case we ever need them anymore.”

“Extra-large condoms, in case I get lucky,” said a big ugly man, “and whisky to help make sure that I do.”

“You’ll need more than whisky, Joe,” said Molly, accompanied by a round of laughter from the crowd. “Obviously whatever Stone-Coats do for us will have to be sensibly managed. But first they need to prove themselves.”

Ed remained aware that a hundred armed bikers were on their way to kill Snake and friends, including himself and Mary. Whatever more could be done to help win over these people to accepting Stone-Coats would have to be done fast. “WHERE ARE SCAR’S REINFORCEMENTS?” he asked Mack via implant. “AND ARE YOU FIT ENOUGH TO GIVE A DEMONSTRATION RIDE TO SOME CIVILIANS?”

TWELVE MINUTES AWAY AND AFFIRMATIVE,” said Mack. “REPAIRS ARE COMPLETE.”

“I need two civilians to go on a short test ride in Mack,” Ed announced, as he climbed out of the canopy himself and then removed Wheels and helped Mary climb out to sit in the waiting wheelchair.

“Molly Bright and her son Sam are our best, brightest, and bravest,” said a civilian, “aside from Amy of course.”

Apprehensively, the two Brights climbed into Mack as the rest of the people crowded around them, talking excitedly among themselves.

“There are no controls!” exclaimed young Sam, who had climbed into the driver’s seat expecting to do the driving.

“Sorry, but I do all the driving,” said Mack, as his canopy closed over his two apprehensive looking passengers. “Please stand away and let us pass,” he announced to the gathered gawkers.

“It talks!” exclaimed people in the crowd.

Snake and Doll moved people away from Mack’s path of as the three-wheeler quietly began to move forward.

“I don’t hear no engine!” said somebody. “It must be electric!”

“That is largely correct,” Mack confirmed to them, as he moved steadily away. The three-wheeler gradually gathered speed, traveled perhaps a quarter of a mile down the road, then did a U-turn and returned, his gasoline engine by then humming. His passengers were wide-eyed and beaming when Mack popped his canopy open and released their restraints. Aided by their friends they climbed out only reluctantly.

“Air conditioning!” Molly exclaimed. “Mack has honest to God air conditioning! Would you believe it? I haven’t felt air conditioning in thirty years!”

“He talks like a really nice guy!” said Sam, “and he drives himself! Even with his main engine turned on the ride is quiet and smooth! Girls will love this! I gotta get me one of these!”

“Yes it’s true,” said Ed, over the talk of the crowd. “Stone-Coats can be cycles, buildings, or roads, and make all sorts of useful things for people. And they don’t ask for much at all in return for payment. Mainly poop.”

“Poop?” Molly asked, as Sam laughed.

“They literally eat the stuff up and turn it into all sorts of useful things,” Ed explained.

“I think I could afford that!” said a citizen. “Why I just wasted a big payment only an hour ago!”

“I’ve got a life’s savings of the valuable stuff under the outhouse in back of my place,” said big ugly Joe. “I’m a shitting rich man and didn’t even know it!”

“What if they fixed the roads to North California and to the Pacific coast?” someone said. “We could have trucks coming here that each carry a hundred times more supplies than a cycle trailer can! I don’t know how the hell we’d pay for it though.”

“Don’t get too carried away, folks,” said Ed. “Some of the things they do take years to complete. Building a greenhouse from scratch might take two to four years, for example.”

“Hell’s bells, building a greenhouse from scratch takes me at least that long now anyway by doing hard labor!” said Joe. “Now you’re telling me that I only need to shit to have one made for me? No problem!” He and many of the others surrounded Mack eagerly, poking him and asking him questions.

“Getting people to accept Stone-Coats might be far easier than you expected, Snake,” Mary remarked to the Confederacy dictator.

“Under the radar the few people that have the internet have apparently been doing some thinking and talking about Stone-Coats on their own,” Snake quietly replied.

“So then Snake, when can we have some Stone-Coats of our own?” asked Molly Bright.

“I’m not sure yet,” Snake answered. “There is a lot on our plate right now.”

Crowd grumbling.

“We’re headed for Yosemite right now to talk to Stone-Coats and Rangers about it,” said Ed.

Crowd groans.

“You better have something damn good to trade with them,” said Molly. “Those Rangers are tight-fisted, hard bargaining bastards. Even more so than us, and that’s saying something.”

Meanwhile Snake and his crew put their helmets back on and were readying their weapons and watching the roads for Scar.

Ed checked the time and saw that Scar and his crew were several minutes over-due. “WHERE ARE SCAR’S REINFORCEMENTS NOW?” he asked Mack.

“Based on radio chatter all of Scar’s Crew are twenty-minutes away and receding fast,” Max radioed to Snake’s whole Crew.

“What?” exclaimed Snake. “Instead of being here by now that places Scar’s Crew halfway back to Fresno!”

“Sounds good to me,” said Ed.

“Scar isn’t coming here, folks!” Snake announced loudly to the crowd. “He’s headed back to his Fresno stronghold!”

A small cheer erupted from the ever-growing gathering of local citizens. Even the bikers wearing Scar patches looked relieved.

SHOULD I TAKE MORE CIVILIANS FOR A QUICK RIDE THEN?” Max asked. “THEY KEEP ASKING ME.” Indeed most of the citizens encircled Max and were talking with him and climbing in and out of his cockpit. More than a dozen more civilians including children arrived and were soon catching up on events.

“Why don’t Wheels and I entertain the crowd while Molly and Sam make plans with you, Doll, and Ed?” Mary asked Snake. Without waiting for a reply she rolled in Wheels towards Mack. “Who else wants the next ride in Mack?” she announced. “And did I mention that my wheelchair is also a Stone-Coat? Who wants a ride in him? His name is Wheels.” Mary, Wheels, and Mack led the excited remaining crowd away, leaving Snake, Doll, and Ed alone with Molly and Sam.

“Scar must have gotten reports on what has happened here,” Doll reasoned. “Some of his men cowardly took off when they saw that they were losing. Scar won’t strike unless he has a clear advantage and there are too many civilian witnesses here now for him to pull anything else shady.”

“I was hoping to kick his ass for good!” said Snake, his hand on the hilt of his big hunting knife. “He caused the deaths of innocent civilians here and that simply can’t go unpunished! I’m putting a Storm bounty out on him here and now!”

“We’ll spread the word on what happened here today,” said Molly. “Nothing short of killing him will get rid of him, but I can guarantee that he’ll lose a lot of support. No offense Snake, but people can be fickle about their leadership.”

“I’m tempted to go after Scar right now!” said Snake. “Nothing burns me up more than someone screwing over civilians! Why he had Doll shooting at her own family!”

“That’s probably what he wants you to do,” said Doll. “You go into Fresno now and you’re a dead man.”

“Amy is right,” said Molly. “Scar has a core of loyal followers in Fresno that would rig things for him or maybe even kill you all on sight. You wouldn’t stand a chance. We’ll send official statements to your brother that charge Scar with betraying us and the Confederacy. Worse for him, we’ll spread word of his shameful acts all around Fresno. Meanwhile you should continue on to Yosemite and look into getting us some Stone-Coats. That will boost Brother support, along with your words about working to end all wars. All of that will weaken Scar. Maybe you won’t even need a knife fight. Besides, Scar is one tough dude and I’d hate to lose a potential son-in-law so damn quick, even an old fart of one like you.”

“Well, I still want that knife fight,” said Snake, “and he’ll be crazy mad and want one too. But it looks like it won’t happen today. I don’t understand it but it is what it is.”

“We better get going then,” said Doll. “We have less than three hours of light left and still have over sixty miles to go to enter the park and reach Ranger headquarters, and there might be more of Scar’s Crew still looking for us up ahead. In fact if I were him I’d ambush us somewhere in the hills between here and Yosemite. Is Route 41 still the best the way to go?”

“No way Sis!” said Sam. “A bridge and another stretch of highway were washed out last winter. You’ll have to take the side roads through Friant, O’Neals, and Wishon.”

“There are new road openings and closings nearly every month,” explained Molly. “I’ll get one of our men to guide you.”

“I’ll do it,” said Sam. “Nobody knows those roads better than me.”

“No damn way,” said Molly and Doll simultaneously. An argument between Sam and his mother ensued. After a few minutes Molly announced that Sam would indeed be their guide but had to return home afterwards with a Stone-Coat. “One with air conditioning,” she insisted.

Snake shrugged in resignation and the deal was made.

Doll, Sam, and Molly exchanged a family hug while Snake began to stoically remove his Stormtrooper armor and pack it away into his saddle-bags. The biker/dictator looked a little stunned.

“That’s quite a family you’re marrying into,” Ed told Snake. “Oh, and congratulations on your upcoming marriage.”

“Shit,” the biker responded. “That was worse than a knife fight. Let’s get the fuck out of here before they saddle me with the mother-in-law too.”

“That’s just the way these things go,” Ed remarked.

****

Twenty miles south, Scar conversed silently with the thousands of tiny allies that he carried with him as packages on his roadster Harley. “I could have simply killed them all, including citizen witnesses,” he complained, muttering so softly that his fellow riders wouldn’t hear. The thoughts were captured by the med-tick attached to his spine however, and amplified such that the colony of jants that he carried with him could easily ‘hear’ him.

OUR SPIES IN RIDGECREST SAY THAT THE BROTHER AND HIS GUESTS ARE TO VISIT SILICON VALLEY AT THE BEHEST OF JERRY GREEN,” replied the jants. “WE WANT THEM TO DO THAT. GREEN IS UP TO SOMETHING IN SILICON VALLEY THAT WE NEED TO DISCOVER. THE RUMSFELDS WILL UNKNOWINGLY BE OUR SPIES.”

“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THAT!” Scar silently complained as forcefully as he could.

The jants in the Harley conversed with larger jant colonies in Fresno and beyond about how to respond. Not for the first time, there was disagreement between the colonies. Some colonies argued for the immediate extermination of all humans world-wide. Humans consumed too many resources, they argued, and all useful human knowledge had long since been absorbed by jants.

Not so, countered colonies that depended on humans for food and shelter. True, a huge amount of jant resources were consumed curing human diseases and controlling selected humans, but in balance it was worth it. Besides, someday, hundreds of jant generations in the future, the human-led space program would take jants to the stars. Also, humans could be controlled or at least strongly influenced, argued the majority. Yes, there were obviously far too many humans for life on Earth to be sustained in the long run, but increasingly humans were fighting among themselves and killing each other. Net human population growth had stalled. Perhaps the humans were at last learning to control their own numbers.

Plus for reasons not fully understood by the jants, the Stone-Coats were clearly closely allied with humans, and had made it clear that they wanted human life to continue. While it wasn’t difficult for a human to be overcome and consumed by a jant colony, the jants knew of no way to overcome Stone-Coats. To the contrary, Stone-Coats if they wished to could destroy and consume any number of jant colonies. That point was made clear by Stone-Coats to jants whenever the prospect of obliterating the humans was brought up to them.

The North American Jant Alliance and the larger World Jant Alliance as a whole therefore pursued a cautious and complex course with respect to the jant/human relationship. To most humans including influential humans such as Jerry and Ed, they exhibited only friendship and cooperation. But they also influenced and controlled selected humans more directly using med-ticks and used human tactics such as bribery.

They soon discovered that some strong-willed humans were difficult or even impossible to control. Scar was one of those, but he was currently serving an important purpose. Once he controlled the Stormtrooper Confederacy and jants similarly controlled the State government, the Western Jant Alliance would control all California. Therefore the first impulse of the local jants to have Scar drive himself into a bridge abetment was rejected. “IF YOU WANT TO KEEP US AS YOUR ALLIES YOU HAVE TO DO AS WE SAY IN THIS MATTER,” they told Scar. “WOULD YOU RATHER THAT WE ABANDON YOU?”

Scar groaned. The jants had numerous willing spies and zombies everywhere throughout California. They controlled hundreds of key people at federal, state, and local levels. More importantly through a med-tick they controlled the pain and pleasure centers of his brain. They had nearly a year ago cured his cancer but were now exploiting his ambitions and weaknesses. He didn’t like it but he knew he had made a deal with the devil and pretty much had to go through with whatever they wanted of him. “NO!” he finally responded. “I’M DOING WHAT YOU WANT, AIN’T I? AND SO IS MY WOMAN.”

Yes, for the most part, the jants reflected, but this man was more difficult to control than most humans were. He would have to be watched and perhaps eliminated. He was large and meaty. When he was no longer useful he would make a very nice meal for a hungry jant colony, just as hundreds of troublesome humans before him had.

 

****

 

Chapter 7

The Big Trees

 

Ed used his implant to recall Mack, Wheels, and Mary, and everyone was soon ready to leave. The local civilians surprised even Sam when they generously contributed sandwiches, drinks, and five gallons of precious gasoline to the Crew. All was directed by Molly, who seemed to be a natural leader. At the request of Mack they also stuffed one of his storage bins full of dead grass and bushes. Mack would use solar and nuclear power to break down and concentrate the organic material into gasoline that could be used by the motorcycles including himself.

Meanwhile more civilians arrived by foot, bike, and bicycle. At least two hundred of them cheered and waved at the Crew when they finally pulled away and headed north towards Yosemite. The Crew gave Sam a spare Stormtrooper helmet to wear which he used to communicate with the others. The proud teenager led the way on a perky light-weight Honda motorcycle. The route was not a direct one; time after time the Sam led them up one dirt and gravel side road after another as they gradually worked their way north and gained altitude. They passed very few inhabited houses, even in the small towns. However Sam waved at most of the people they saw and they usually smiled and waved back. Sam was indeed familiar with the area and popular with the locals.

“So Sam, I suppose that living this close you’ve seen sequoia trees many times,” said Mary.

“Never!” said Sam. “I tried lots of times to get the Rangers to let me go beyond the gate, but they stop me every time!”

“You’re crazy, kid,” said Snake. “I haven’t even ever seen their precious trees, and my brother and I are the supposed dictators of even the Ranger territories. You’re lucky they haven’t killed your ass!”

“True, they aren’t very sociable,” Sam agreed. “They aren’t friendly like Stormtroopers.”

“I met up with a few of them outside their Park over the years,” said Snake. “They were the most crazy-assed isolationist sons-of-bitches that I ever met.”

“And the most well-armed,” added Doll. “Guns, knives, spears, bows and arrows, and anything else they can think of. They have a hundred ways to kill outsiders, and they use them all.”

“But they’re expecting us, aren’t they?” Ed asked. “For a nice friendly visit by important Easterners and a Brother?”

“Certainly not,” said Snake. “We sent a messenger ahead yesterday but for security reasons the message was vague. Our identities will be a big surprise.”

“And they don’t like surprises,” added Doll. “Or visitors. I’ve never been in to see the trees either, and my folks were always on relatively good terms with the Rangers.”

“How?” asked Ed. “I mean, if they don’t let anyone in than how do they do business and make friends and so-forth?”

“They get by with less, but they do trade some water and wood for a few things,” said Sam. “Plus just like other Stormtroopers they get their per-capita allotment of things like toilet paper that comes from the North. My Mom sees to that. The Rangers come down to their gate to deal and trade, and sometimes they even come out of their precious forests to trade in nearby towns. But they don’t let any outsiders into their precious Park.”

“Are you saying that none of you have ever seen the big trees?” Mary asked. “But you’re supposed to be our tour guides!”

“In the beginning I never expected to go through with the tour guide thing;” said Snake. “But now I do.”

Fifty years ago Ed had seen the trees. He had been to see them and not any of these people that were now their guides had ever seen them! “So how the hell are we going to get in?” he asked.

“Preferably without getting killed,” added Mary. “That would spoil our vacation for sure.”

“I’ll use my charm and wit,” said Snake.

“Swell,” said Ed. “IN OTHER WORDS WE’RE SCREWED,” he told Mary.

They had been gradually gaining altitude, but after they finally got onto Route 41 and it changed from four lanes to two, they began to climb steeper grades and twist through sharper curves. Rocks fallen from bordering cliffs also had to be dodged, further slowing them, finally to less than twenty miles an hour.

They stopped to set up the tow rope for Doll, and for the crew to dawn their battle armor and mount their guns. “This stretch is where I expect Scar to ambush us,” Snake explained. Even with Doll towing Mack, their speed remained slow.

Snake was right, Ed concluded, this was the perfect situation for an ambush. He focused his mind to detecting anyone lying in wait for them, but so far he detected nothing but occasional critters. Those included deer, bear, and even a cougar as the mountain foothills became more heavily forested.

Through it all Sam led the way skillfully up the road, always picking the best path around road obstructions, leaving his sister to focus on her towing through the obstacle course that was a road. The asphalt of the road obviously hadn’t been redone in decades and was full of potholes and crumbled edges. There were massive fallen boulders on the road along the base of rocky cliffs and there were some sections of road that had been completely washed away or covered over by rock slides.

Only narrow dirt pathways led around and through the worst stretches and Doll had to finally give up on towing. Yet led skillfully by Sam, the Crew steadily continued, though at times they were slowed almost to a walking pace.

“Note to self,” said Snake. “Get some lazy-assed dictator or his lazy-assed brother to get this damn road fixed. And we better get to the Yosemite front gate before dark or for sure we’ll be greeted by the Rangers with hellfire.”

“Don’t worry. Boss,” Sam told Snake. “We’ll get to the gate maybe forty minutes before dark. I’ve made this trip with my mom a dozen times to trade with the Rangers.”

Sam was right; though the sun was low they made contact with Rangers well before dark. But not at the front gate. They were traveling on a relatively level and smooth stretch of road surrounded by pine forest when they took a turn and abruptly faced a man-high log roadblock. Ed sensed them but caught only a few of their thoughts. He quickly realized that they were the Rangers that they sought, not Scar’s crew. He had time only to warn “Rangers!” Seconds later there were loud yells as at least fifty armed men and women appeared from behind logs, trees, and rocks to quickly surround the greatly outnumbered travelers on all sides.

“That was nicely done!” remarked Snake. “Good thing you told us it was Rangers though, Ed, or we might have gotten off some shots before we were killed.”

The clothes the ambushers wore were ragged rags patched together in various earthy shades of brown, black, green, colors, such that camouflage resulted. Their weapons were similarly crude: old rifles, bows and arrows, spears, axes, and hatchets. Though old and crude all of them looked highly lethal to Ed, and he was pleased that he and Mary were separated from them by a bullet-proof canopy. “Halt, intruders!” they demanded. “Keep your weapons down and state your business!”

Snake’s Crew actually hadn’t had time to raise any weapons.

“We came to peacefully parlay with Ranger Crew leadership,” said Snake.

“And perhaps to trade,” added Sam diplomatically.

“You we know, young trader Sam Bright,” said one of the Rangers, “but who do you bring to our gate with you? They wear Stormtrooper colors and armor, but we have been told that false Storms are being hunted by Scar’s Crew.”

“There are no more true Stormtroopers than these,” replied Sam. “This is the Brother Snake Williams, and my sister China Doll who you traded with in past years as Amy Bright. Inside the three-wheeler are important visitors from the East.”

The Storms removed their helmets.

Ed sensed a lowering of tensions in the Rangers, though they kept their weapons pointed at their visitors. He could read the emotions of many of them. They were fearful enough of strangers to be dangerous and determined to protect their beloved Park, but not hateful.

“We sent word yesterday that we were coming,” said Snake.

Two of the Rangers lowered their rifles and stepped forward. One was a tall thin bearded man perhaps in his lower sixties and the other was a clean-shaven, mid-sized man in his forties.

“And hence we arranged this warm welcome,” said the younger man, “though we suspected that there would be more of you to deal with. But frankly, we didn’t think you’d get past Scar to arrive here at all.”

“Me either,” said Doll. “Scar has become unpredictable of late. We expected an ambush for sure somewhere in the last ten or twenty miles.”

“You are Dr. Amy Bright the Geologist?” the tall thin Ranger asked.

“That’s me,” Doll confirmed.

“I remember you from when you were Sam’s age,” said the tall Ranger.

“Why you’re George!” Doll said. “I remember you well!”

“Yes; George Reynard, Park geologist,” the tall man said, as he shook hands with members of the visitors. “Call me George, everyone. Your mother often speaks of you when she comes to trade. It’s good to see you! She told us that you are a geologist for the Storm Confederacy. Is that true?”

“Very good to see you again, George,” said Doll. “Yes, I’m one of several Confederacy geologists. My specialty is hydrology, but I have to help out with whatever else comes up.”

George laughed. “Same here! You will recall that my special research interest was formation of the Sierra Nevada Range, but that was a very long time ago. Among other duties I help manage contact with outsiders. Jim and I made preparations after your messenger came to us yesterday.”

“I am Jim Anders, Ranger Crew Leader,” said the younger and more serious clean shaven man. “You are indeed Snake the Stormtrooper Leader?” he asked, as he reached out to firmly shake Snake’s hand. “Brother of Hacker?”

“Yes, that’s me,” said Snake. “My brother has met several times with you but until now I have not had that privilege.”

“You are known as the War Brother,” Anders continued, “and China Doll is known as the Warrior Princess. We want no war here. Messengers from a certain local leader known as Scar weeks ago warned us to no longer have dealings with the Brothers.”

“Scar speaks only for himself,” said Snake. “He seeks to replace me and Hacker as Stormtrooper Confederacy leader. Others have sought that in the past and failed. He will also fail.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not,” said Anders. “We Rangers want no involvement in the petty squabbles of outsiders. We have our own internal problems to deal with, such as saving as many sequoia trees and groves as we can, trying to deal with our Stone-Coats, and feeding and clothing ourselves. We aren’t due to trade with outsiders again for another month at the onset of winter. Whatever your business is here tonight I’m afraid that for the sake of maintaining neutrality we must turn you all away.”

“That would be unsatisfactory,” said a loud voice.

They all turned to look at Mack, the source of the voice.

“Who spoke?” asked Anders. “Who is hidden in this strangely new looking three-wheeled cycle?”

“That was Mack speaking,” said Doll, “not his passengers.”

The Stone-Coat’s canopy slowly opened, exposing Ed and Mary.

“These are Ed and Mary Rumsfeld,” said Snake. “They are Stone-Coat experts from Giants’ Rest Mountain in New York. Have you heard of it?”

“That’s where the new Stone-Coats came from!” George told Anders. “We must speak with these people!”

“And who is Mack?” asked Anders.

“I am Mack,” said the three-wheeler. “I am one of the five Stone-Coats you provided to the Stormtrooper Confederacy five years ago.”

“The cycle itself is a live mobile Stone-Coat,” explained Snake.

“A Stone-Coat has become a fully sentient talking motorcycle!” exclaimed George. “That’s astounding! Our own Stone-Coats have accomplished nothing nearly as sophisticated!”

“I must visit your Stone-Coats,” said Mack. “When Stone-Coats were dispersed from Giants’ Rest Mountain, it was assumed that they would have internet access. Without that access Stone-Coat development is greatly stunted.”

“Didn’t you not read the handbook that Chief Running Bear and I wrote and attached to each fledgling Stone-Coat?” asked Ed. “They were supposed to get internet access as part of the Treaty they have with humans.”

“We have no internet access here,” said Anders.

“You’re Ed Rumsfeld the Mohawk Tribe Chief!” said George. “The Stone-Coat pamphlets are signed by you!”

“Yes, that’s me,” said Ed. “The pamphlets were only meant as ‘quick start’ guides to introduce Stone-Coats to humans and help them get started.”

“You’re much younger than I expected you to be,” said George. “Unfortunately one of our strict rules is no internet access. Interaction with the outside world is greatly restricted to limited trade with a few trusted outsiders such as the Bright family. With water and wood-goods we buy some manufactured goods, tolerance, and total political independence from the Confederacy and everyone else. Besides, we have no electricity or internet technology.”

“You give us less water year after year,” noted Snake.

“Precipitation continues to decrease and increasingly we keep what water we can gather for our trees,” explained Anders. “Have you come to demand more water from us?”

“Not at all,” said Snake. “We came to admire your trees and help you with your Stone-Coats.”

“The pamphlets promised all sorts of Stone-Coat abilities that might indeed help us, but very little has been realized,” said George.

“Without the internet downloads of information their development has been greatly stunted,” said Mary.

“Without stimulation Stone-Coats are often content to lay around for centuries and do nothing but think to themselves,” added Ed. “Right now yours are probably busily working out math theorems and blindly speculating about the universe beyond their own circuitry.”

“Infants unborn!” commented George.

NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT,” added Mary silently for the benefit of Mack and Wheels.

“I must gain access to your resident Stone-Coats,” said Mack. “I can provide them with most information that they were expected to get through the internet. Both Stone-Coats and humans will benefit. In addition I point out that this is required by the Stone-Coat/human Treaty.”

“Outsider treaties have no meaning here,” said Anders.

“All humans are responsible for enforcing their part in the Treaty,” said Mack.

“Which is what we are trying to do here,” said Ed. “But don’t cooperate because of a treaty, Anders. Do it because you will greatly benefit from it.”

“What evidence of benefits is there?” asked George.

“Before getting that information boost from these folks Mack was a mute block of stone even though he had been coaxed part-way out of dormancy to become a very useful motorcycle mechanic,” said Doll. “Now he is fully functional and indispensable to us and is our friend. The same can happen with your Stone-Coats.”

“Interesting claims, but I’m not yet fully convinced,” said Anders. “Ideas George?”

“Our nearest Stone-Coat is at the Mariposa Grove only a few miles from here,” said George. “Why don’t we see what Mack can achieve there? If results there appear to be positive we can take them up to Yosemite Village to figure out what further is to be done.”

“Agreed!” said Anders. “Open a pathway!” he commanded. A dozen Rangers mounted on mules and horses emerged from the forest. Ropes were attached to barricade logs and within two minutes an opening was made that admitted the visitors.

Ed was not used to the thoughts of domesticated pack-animals. He sampled the mules telepathically and was impressed by their intelligence and temperament. Too bad most people lacked their calm sensibility, he reasoned. The horses were a bit more high-spirited.

George and Jim Anders mounted horses and led the visitors onward towards the gate, walking briskly on the berm of the road. A dozen rifle-armed men from the barricades accompanied them on horses and mules.

“Wait!” said Anders, when they soon approached the Park’s gated entrance. A log stockade wall ten feet high stretched across the road and disappeared into the pine forests to each side. Though most of the Rangers still ringed the visitors Ed sensed a dozen armed Rangers posted along the stockade. Across the road itself a double-gate made of logs swung open ponderously, to reveal a large log cabin beyond. “Who in your party is essential? Non-essential personnel will remain here at the Gatehouse. And you’ll leave most of your guns here also.”

Snake agreed to leave his fighting men Whip, Hans, Sid and Frank and most guns at the Gatehouse. Snake, Doll, Ed, Mary/Wheels, and Mack were identified to be essential. “And Sam comes,” the Stormtrooper Leader insisted. “Sam is going to mature into a Storm or Ranger or something else important, or I’m no judge of human talent.”

“Very well,” said Anders, “but be forewarned that we have no gasoline sources in the Park. If we decide to allow you to go to Yosemite Village, considerable gasoline will be consumed if you take your cycles. Alternatively you could leave your vehicles here and we could provide horses and mules for you.”

“Mack is essential to carry Mary and to visit the Stone-Coats, of course,” said Ed. “The rest of you could ride horses or mules to save on gas, I suppose.”

“Unnecessary,” said Mack. “I can manufacture limited amounts of gasoline and oil. I calculate that if provided sufficient raw carbon sources and manufacturing periods that all four of our vehicles will have sufficient fuel, though at times delays in the trip might be needed while I produce it.”

“We’ll take our cycles then,” said Snake. “I sure as hell don’t know how the hell to ride a horse or mule. We’ll just have to drive our bikes at mule-speeds. We have enough fuel now to get us to the Village. I’ll trust in Mack to get us more fuel when we need it.”

A dozen mules and horses carrying Rangers and four remaining cycles carrying visitors proceeded into the Park and very soon turned onto a side-path to their right. The old roadway showed signs of heavy use by horses, mules, and wagons and was easily navigated by the motorcycles. The road led deeper into pine forests, but half the trees were dead or dying, the visitors noticed and commented on, and dead trees littered much of the forest floor.

“We’ve got a huge dead tree problem throughout the Park,” shouted George over the sound of the cycles. They stopped for a short time while George made his point. “We have so much dead wood from draughts that paradoxically we’ve had to curtail controlled forest burns. We’ve been lucky so far but if all this dry stuff goes up at once the conflagration will threaten even the sequoia groves. Sequoia bark lacks oily resin and is very fire resistant but not a hundred percent fireproof, and the other furs and pines are even more susceptible. Insects and disease are of course also a heightened threat due to so much dead plant material. We try to haul dead trees down and out of the Park, especially out of the sequoia groves, but we’d need a thousand more mules and men to make a real difference.”

“Get Stone-Coat Ice Giants to harvest dead wood in the winter,” Ed suggested, before they moved on. “Actively growing and mobile Stone-Coats need a lot of carbon. Stone-Coats can move themselves slowly using steam but need to freeze water to have hydraulics strong enough to haul logs.”

After perhaps two miles the trail dipped down to what had obviously once been a large asphalt parking area for tourists. Nearby was an old decrepit wood building that said ‘restrooms’ on it. But more conspicuously there were massive thick-trunked trees edging the parking lot that stretched two hundred feet and more into the air. Sequoia at last! The trunks seemed to be over-thick: six to eight feet and more in diameter, with orange tinged, thick, deep-grooved, fire-resistant bark. The visitors stopped near the closest unusually big tree at the entrance and parked their bikes. Ed seated Mary in Wheels, and they all circled the massive tree and ran their hands reverently over the thick spongy bark.

Ed was closely watching Mary. He hadn’t seen her smile this much in many years. After Ed helped her out of Mack she walked unaided the last several paces to the tree, drawn like all of them to the beauty of something so massive and old being so alive. She ran her frail hands over the spongy reddish bark as though to draw strength from it, and looked up at its live green branches a hundred feet above to reassure herself that this enormous magical thing was indeed alive. It was a likely over a dozen times older than she was, and thousands of times more massive. For the first time Ed was glad that they had set out on this arduous vacation. Mary was happy!

“Wow! It must be a zillion years old!” said Sam.

“Typically large specimens such as this are aged between five and fifteen hundred years,” said George. “Under good conditions they grow fast. Get your fill of touching that one; that’s one of only a few trees where non-essential close human proximity and non-abusive human contact is permitted.”

"Is this a burn scar?" Doll asked, pointing out a large blackened area at the base of the tree where a several square-foot triangular area of foot- thick bark appeared to be completely burned away.

“Yes,” said George. “Most mature redwoods have scars at their base from forest fires that happened in centuries past. Their bark lacks resin and is highly fire resistant but not totally fireproof. Afterwards the bark doesn’t grow back, leaving the tree vulnerable to things like heart-rot fungus, fire, and insects.”

“Unfortunate,” said Wheels. “Perhaps some form of growth stimulation could be determined to promote bark healing and resist things such as heart-rot. That would be an interesting research project for your Stone-Coat helpers.”

George said nothing in reply but his eyes widened.

Ed extended his telepathic senses but outside of a few small creatures could sense nothing from the tree. It seemed odd to not be able to telepathically sense something so huge and alive, but that was a psychic limitation that he had to live with. However he didn’t have to sense intelligence in the tree to be captivated by it. No wonder hundreds of humans were devoting their lives to the preservation of these incredible trees!

“What’s this hose thing about?” Snake asked their hosts. Near the foot of the tree a copper pipe emerged from the ground, passed through a valve, and fed two plastic hoses. One dipped back down into the earth and the other went up the side of the tree all the way into branches where it was lost from view.

“Watering hoses,” said George. “The sequoia grow at altitudes between five and eight thousand feet above sea level. There are groves of them on the west slopes along nearly three hundred miles of the Sierra Nevada range with Yosemite approximately at the center. Altitude has effectively isolated them from small climate changes for millions of years. Now there are larger changes. A slight rise in temperature is not nearly as much of a problem as the reduction in air moisture and liquid water. A selected few hundred lucky trees in a few of the seventy or so original groves of sequoia get watered by us. Mostly we focus on sequoia but also we help a half-dozen other species of endangered pine and fir species. We found that we can’t just water around the base of a big tree, the crown needs to also be sprayed and misted, which allows water absorption and counters drying. That explains why we trade water chiefly to get pipes and hosing from the Confederacy.”

“You get ten percent of the total irrigation materials that we get from the State,” said Snake. “That’s a pretty big chunk of supplies that are needed throughout the Confederacy for various plumbing needs including crop irrigation.”

“Stone-Coats should be able to produce and maintain all the pipes and hoses you need, and also find and tap into ground water,” said Ed. “But for that to happen we need to do our information downloading to essentially wake them up. Where is the Stone-Coat that you said is here?”

George pointed at the restroom building. “We placed one stone cube under each of our large restrooms because your pamphlet said that human waste stimulates them,” explained George. “We greatly appreciate that the human waste is indeed absorbed by them, but we have been disappointed that no other expected benefits have occurred.”

No wonder they haven’t matured, thought Ed. They lacked basic knowledge and their only stimulation was to be crapped on. Stone-Coat cubes had to be kept dormant during shipping or all heck could break lose while they were in transit, but humans clearly couldn’t be relied on to follow directions and properly wake them up once they got someplace. World-wide there were many instances of this problem and work-arounds were even now being devised back at Giants’ Rest Mountain.

With Mary sitting comfortably in Wheels, the party moved on to the old wooden building that housed over a dozen little side-by-side out-house-like rest-rooms. Ed remembered this building from fifty years earlier as one of the most disgusting places he had ever been in, but now there was no odor at all. “My electromagnetic probing shows that a very large Stone-Coat is centered under this building,” Wheels confirmed, “but it is not yet capable of meaningful radio communications. A direct physical communications connection with it is needed.”

“First things first,” Mary declared. “When you get to be my age you make use of such facilities whenever you find them.” Aided by Ed, with painfully slow difficult footsteps she climbed the few steps to the deck that surrounded the restrooms and walked into one of the tiny rooms, where she was happy to discover that the Rangers evidently did indeed get toilet paper from the State via the Confederacy. She closed and latched the door and was plunged into relative darkness, but some light from outside worked its way in from above, even though it was becoming dark outside. The inside of the little cubical was so dark that it took almost a minute before she could clearly see anything at all except the roll of white toilet paper.

As her eyes adjusted to the low light level more details emerged. She hadn’t seen an outhouse like this one since her early days with the Tribe. The walls were old bare wood and the bench featured the expected round black hole that led to unknown depths. This was an old building, but it still served its intended function well enough.

Ed shrugged and entered the cubical next to Mary’s, but he took the glowing flashlight sized portable part of Wheels with him. After he did his business he held the Wheels extension over the toilet hole as a thin black string of nanotubes snaked out of it and down into the dark cavern below. He then waited patiently as Wheels established communications with the restroom Stone-Coat.

INITIAL DOWNLOADS FROM MAC AND MYSELF ARE COMPLETE,” Wheels told Ed after only a couple of minutes. When the nanotube links were no longer needed Wheels severed the link and retrieved his precious graphene nanotube extensions.

While the restroom Stone-Coat configured itself for additional communications with Wheels and Mack via radio, Ed exited the restroom in time to help Mary walk back to Mack. Mary was obviously very tired. Though she had reclined comfortably within Mack for most of the day, she had been in almost continuous motion that subtly stressed her old body. The thinner atmosphere at over six thousand feet didn’t help either. “Wake me when we get to Yosemite Village,” she told Ed as she settled into her comfortable Mack-reclining seat, put ear-buds in her ears, and had Mack provide a soothing Brahms symphony.

The seat felt warm to the touch, Ed noted; Mack had switched from cooling to heating mode a half hour before entering the Park. Ed had thought to ask their hosts to see Grizzly Giant, the biggest sequoia in this grove, before complete darkness and chillier air set in, but now decided it would be better to press on to Yosemite Village and a more comfortable rest for Mary. It had been a very long day, especially for her.

Jim Anders and George Reynard waited as Mack gently closed his canopy over Mary. “When can Mack begin to contact our Stone-Coat?” George asked.

“A few minutes ago, Ed explained. It will probably take some time for your immature Stone-Coat to assimilate the information and reconfigure itself though.”

“I don’t understand how communications were established,” said George.

“Mary’s wheelchair is also a Stone-Coat.” Ed admitted. He then showed them the flashlight sized portion of Wheels that he carried and explained nanotube conductivity.

“Amazing!” said George. “Three dimensional arrays of carbon atoms are non-conductive but tiny tubes of two dimensional arrays of carbon are conductive? That’s wild!”

“Nanotube conductivity is a function of tube geometric configuration,” said Wheels. “Direct voice communications with humans should be possible in less than ten minutes.”

“We will then be able to talk with a toilet?” asked Anders.

“A highly intelligent toilet,” clarified Ed. “Due to your generous material contributions it will likely be even more intelligent than our friendly wheelchair and motorcycle.”

“Yes, your element-rich pre-processed materials are easily absorbed and have allowed several orders of magnitude of growth,” said Wheels. “He has already configured his thought processes to understand human language and thought patterns, but configuration of physical devices to produce and absorb human voice sounds is taking somewhat longer. In the meantime I can serve as an interface for him, if you wish to communicate with him immediately.”

The two Rangers looked at each other blankly. This was all happening very fast.

“Perhaps you could talk with him about some of your needs here,” suggested Ed, “such as more pipes, hoses, and ground water, and the need to dispose of excess dead wood.”

“And I suppose that we will also need to get him to buy into our mission here to save the trees,” added George.

“I have already informed him generally of your mission here and its needs,” said Wheels, “and I am conveying this conversation directly to him as it occurs. We Stone-Coats support the well-being of carbon-rich biological life-forms as a positive contributing factor to our own well-being that has been experienced for hundreds of millions of years. Carbon fixing from the atmosphere by biological life is particularly useful. I am certain that Stone-Coat support for you and your trees is logical and will be supported by this particular Stone-Coat. He is pleased to gain improved awareness of himself, humans, and forest needs. Such processing is very interesting to us. Additionally he asks if you have an individual designation for him to use.”

“Give him a name that is a convenient one for humans,” explained Ed.

“What about Mariposa-One?” suggested George. “With M-1 as the practical short version.”

“M-1 is satisfactory identification terminology,” said Wheels. “He suggests that his eminent progeny be designated M-2, M-3 and so-forth.”

“He is reproducing?” asked George.

“Yes. The prospect of multiple units that can retrieve additional information and materials using mobility, communications, and various sensing abilities interests him greatly. And he has questions.”

“Ask them,” said Anders.

“You indicate that it is unusually dry here recently,” said Wheels. “What is the source of the water that you humans provide to aid the trees?”

“We built hundreds of mountain-side reservoirs and tanks in which to collect and store water from rain and snow that fall from the atmosphere,” said George, “but we gather water with decreasing effectiveness. Within a month winter snows will start in the high Sierra Nevada ridges to our North and East, but the rain and snow are less than half what they were a century ago. However over the ages these forests have persisted through many past drought periods. We have high confidence that with our help many of the tree species here will survive, including of course the sequoia.”

“Preservation of efficient carbon-fixing life-forms is agreed to be advantageous,” rose a new loud, deep voice from the restroom building. M-1 had at last found his voice. “What are your greatest needs? Further human identification and prioritization of problems would be useful. The mission of your species to preserve effective carbon-fixing life-forms is of Stone-Coat benefit and I will support it immediately.”

It was a declaration similar to others that Ed and Mary had heard from hundreds of Stone-Coats over the last four decades.

An incredulous Anders walked over to the restroom building and knocked on the wood. “Is this M-1 talking?”

“Yes,” replied the building. “I hear and see you. Your individual identification please?”

The humans each introduced themselves; then George discussed their needs. He explained the imminent forest-fire danger to M-1, and also the need for pipes and hoses and water.

“Stone-Coat aided solutions to all of these problems are practical,” said M-1, “but it will require additional time as well as human and Stone-Coat resources.”

“There are a couple of dozen other Stone-Coats in kitchens and restrooms throughout the Park that we have been nurturing but they are immature like you have been until now,” said George. “Perhaps by using their information downloads Wheels and Mack could revive them as well.”

Ed was about to point that they probably didn’t have time to do all that while on vacation but he was preempted by M-1. “Unnecessary,” it said. “The one named Mack has provided me with the requisite design information to establish mobile entities similar to him. Inform me where the other dormant Stone-Coats are and by tomorrow I can develop a mobile unit to visit and revive all of them within days. Exchanging information among multiple units that engage in thought will be highly stimulating.”

“My Park map indicates all Stone-Coat locations as red dots,” said George. He pulled a well-warn map from the satchel that hung from his shoulders and opened it on a nearby picnic table. As requested by Wheels Ed held his portable hand-held extension above the map for several seconds for illumination and scanning.

“I have assimilated the information,” said M-1 after only a few moments. “I estimate that all indicated Stone-Coats will be revived within three days, during which time we can more fully coordinate cooperative forest sustainment actions with humans.”

“For groves that we happen to visit we can help provide downloads also,” added Doll.

“Wonderful!” said George.

Anders didn’t look as pleased as his scientist friend. “Thank you everyone, but now we humans must see to our rest,” he announced. “Our human visitors have had a long hard day and need to rest at Yosemite Village. It is nearly dark and we need to leave here immediately.”

“Absolutely,” seconded Ed. He noticed that Anders drew Snake aside to talk with him privately as Ed packed himself and Wheels into Mack. Soon the little troop was on its way again, led slowly but steadily along by Jim Anders and George Reynard on their horses.

“I suppose that Anders has some concerns?” Ed asked Snake privately.

“He is no fool,” said Snake. “Of course he has concerns. Don’t we all? This is bang up-to-date fast and it scares the hell out of him. We sure as hell can’t trust our fellow humans; how can we trust stone robot creatures?”

“Trust takes time,” said Ed. “But I’ve dealt with these creatures for decades now and I do trust them. Far more than I trust most humans anyway.”

“That’s what I told him,” said Snake. “And I told him that since you can’t lie worth a damn I trust you.”

“Thanks!” said Ed.

It was soon totally dark. It was a moonless night, and the headlights of the motorcycles were relied on to help sort out the road, which like all roads Ed had so far experienced in California was absolutely shitty. Fallen rock and assorted tree-parts had been pushed aside to the edges of a disintegrating asphalt roadway that wound up, down, and around for endless mile after mile through pine forests of the rocky Sierra Nevada foothills. To their left there were sometimes overlooks that must have provided spectacular views of valleys to the south during the day. In the darkness of night instead of colorful distant rocks and trees there was only a dark openness that extended much further than their headlights could reach.

The road wound up, down, and around endlessly. Some of the bumps encountered were quite jarring, despite Mack’s excellent suspension capabilities. Stone-Coats were badly needed to fix this road, Ed thought. Before he blissfully drifted off into sleep his last conscious thought was about how really nice it was that Mack did all the driving. But for some reason he thought of an old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk was in danger of being replaced by a computer. Would that happen to humans world-wide as Stone-Coats proliferated? What if mobile Stone-Coats became so proficiently mobile that helpful humans were no longer needed by them?

When Ed woke hours later it was well after midnight, and dimly illuminated by headlights he could see that they were steadily passing under smooth bare rock that was only a few feet overhead. The echoing sound of motorcycle engines and pounding horse and mule hooves was noisy even within Mack’s canopy; that must have been what woke him. They were in a tunnel! “Where?” he mumbled a question.

“WE ARE IN THE TUNNEL AT THE ENTRANCE OF YOSEMITE VALLEY,” Mack informed Ed via implant.

MARY SLEEPS PEACEFULLY,” added Mack, anticipating Ed’s next inquiry. “ALSO IT IS 12:17 AM, TEMPERATURE IS 52 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT, AND BAROMETRIC PRESSURE SUGGESTS AN ALTITUDE OF 5130 FEET.”

Ed recalled that the view of Yosemite Valley at the exit of the Tunnel was particularly spectacular; it featured the Valley more than a thousand feet below surrounded by towering Granite domes and water falls, not that there would be much water this time of year. However when they exited the Tunnel, other than a few stars glimpsed dimly through patchy fog there was nothing to be seen except distant stars twinkling above and a downward sloping roadway exposed by the bike headlights. The road itself was compacted gravel with patches of old asphalt, and was in fairly good shape. The ride was relatively smooth and Ed didn’t bother to waken Mary.

The road wound down a thousand feet in altitude to a surprisingly broad and flat glacier carved valley floor. Cycle headlights allowed Ed to glimpse surprisingly lush green trees and other greenery.

Ed drifted into a nap, but was in blissful deep sleep for what seemed like only moments. “We have arrived,” the Stone-Coat announced loud enough to rouse both passengers.

It was 2:22 AM local time, Ed noted, which translated to 5:22 AM Eastern/body time. Traveling at horse-walking-speed it had taken them nearly as long to travel through the Park to Yosemite Village as it had taken them to get to the Park entrance all the way from China Lake. Though both he and Mary had dozed-off for most of the last several hours, Ed felt exhausted, and the others obviously did also.

Half-asleep Ed watched as Anders directed the four cycles to where they were to park. Doll then helped Ed transfer groggy Mary from Mack to Wheels while Snake and Sam gathered several armfuls of dead logs and sticks and used them to fill all of Mack’s storage bins after they had been emptied of luggage and Wheels. Mack promised that by morning there would be a small ration of gasoline for all of the cycles.

By candlelight the visitors were shown into a large log building and to small but relatively well appointed rooms that featured inside plumbing, central wood-stove heating, and beds with soft warm feather mattress and pillows encased in clean sheets. There were also electric wall switches but those didn’t do anything but remind Ed that there was no electric power. Ed had to light more of the candles that were scattered about in order to provide enough light to function. Despite near exhaustion within twenty minutes he had Mary and himself abed where they quickly fell back into a deep and restful sleep.

 

****

 

Chapter 8

The Park

 

Ed felt a soft kiss on his cheek, though in his dream he was at the moment sitting atop the shoulder of a huge diamond-covered giant that was walking ponderously through a forest of enormous trees.

“Wake up, lazy bones,” said Mary, before Ed could make sense of being kissed while riding atop a Stone-Coat giant. “Everyone else has been up for hours.”

He opened his eyes to find Mary dressed and sitting beside him on an unfamiliar bed. She was smiling and looked alert and well in the Morning light that streamed in through the window, though the improved light of day also revealed bedding and furniture that was old and worn beyond what would be acceptable in any reputable resale shop. The room looked much better when viewed by only candlelight, he decided, as he finally realized where they were. Mary was energized, however. In recent years she always had much more energy in the morning.

GOOD MORNING CHIEF ED,” said Wheels from down the hall. “IT IS TEN AM LOCAL TIME AND SIXTY DEGREES OUTSIDE. IT IS AN UNUSUALLY WARM DAY BASED ON LOCAL HISTORICAL DATA.”

“Today is more or less a rest day with respect to travel, Ed,” said Mary, “but we are going to see much of Yosemite today, including a better look at the big trees of the Mariposa Grove. Mack and the others have already set off to see the Old Stone-Coats; I volunteered to stay behind with Chief Yellow Bear to get you going.”

“That’s awfully nice of you,” said Ed. “What are Old Stone Coats? Aren’t most Stone-Coats as old as mountains? And who is Chief Yellow Bear?”

“The Old Stone-Coats referred to are the Stone-Coats that were already living around the Park before our new Stone-Coats sent from Giants’ Rest were air-dropped here,” Mary explained. “Which Stone-Coats are actually older we don’t really know.”

“There were already Stone-Coats here!” Ed exclaimed. There were rumors of Stone-Coats in Europe, the Andes, and the Himalayas, but he had never heard of any Stone-Coats being in North America other than those at Giants’ Rest Mountain.

“That’s what Tod says,” said Mary. “He says that he hears them sometimes, like you and some of the other Tribe telepaths do.”

“Who is Tod?” Ed asked.

“Tod is Chief Yellow Bear, our cook.”

“We have a cook? Now that does sound interesting!”

“And right now he is making your breakfast! Guess what it is? Fried acorn mush! With yummy syrup! And hen’s eggs!”

“You’re kidding me!” Ed said, but he was soon out of bed and after a bathroom visit preparing to look for food, wherever and whatever it might be. There hadn’t been much to eat yesterday, and he was very pleased now to be told of acorn mush and eggs. Soon he helped Mary down the short hallway to Wheels and then into the small lobby, which featured a smallish wooden table and chairs that sat comfortably close to a wood-fired stove. Wheels rolled Mary the rest of the way to the table.

Atop the stove was a big old cast-iron frying pan that sizzled and spat as a short, middle aged, rotund man with dark reddish skin, long black breaded hair, and bright yellow shirt. He whistled an unrecognizable tune as he flipped simmering mush slices and eggs onto a surprisingly ornate white china plate. In one smooth motion the man spun around with the plate, put it on the otherwise empty table, and reached out to shake hands vigorously with Ed. “Welcome to Ahwahne Valley, Chief Ed!” he said, “I am Tod Yellow Bear, de facto Chief of the Ahwahneechee Tribe here.”

YOU ARE STRONGLY TELEPATHIC,” Ed replied silently as he seated himself, causing Tod’s jaw to drop in astonishment. “CALL ME ED.”

“You spoke to me just now with the silent voice that the whites call telepathically, Ed!” Tod exclaimed. “I’m shocked and impressed! It took me twenty years to figure out for myself that I’m telepathic and not crazy! I’ve never met another telepath; at least not one strong enough to converse with! I usually just detect an occasional emotion or a word or two from a few people, and some unclear emotions from animals.”

“Well you’re certainly telepathic,” said Ed. “I’ll reserve my judgement for now about you being crazy. Why don’t you sit down with us and tell us about your tribe and yourself while I eat this yummy looking breakfast for which I am eternally grateful? Oh! And tell me about where you got that flashy yellow shirt that you’re wearing.”

“Sure, Ed!” Tod said, as he sat down across the table from Ed. “The shirt is made from parachutes used to drop Stone-Coat cubes into the Valley five years ago. As we lack the internet and communication devices at first we didn’t know what the hell to make of big stone blocks being parachuted from airplanes. Scared the hell out of us until we read the pamphlets attached to them. The parachutes were made mostly into clothing. The material is light but so strong we had to cut the fabric with diamond edged cutters that were also parachuted in. We don’t trade for much clothing; plumbing supplies and toilet paper are a higher priority. The parachute material is greatly prized by the Rangers.”

“The fabric you wear is of Stone-Coat manufacture,” said Ed. “Mary and I work closely with the Stone-Coats.”

“Yes, Mary already told me about your Mohawk Tribe, and about your Stone-Coat and jant friends back East in New York State,” said Tod. “George and Anders want me to cooperate with you and help introduce you to the Mountain Voices.”

“Mountain Voices?” Ed asked.

“That’s the local Indian name for the talking or snoring done by the Old Stone-Coats,” said Mary. “But first things first. Tell Ed about the Ahwahneechee, your Grandmother, and what you’re doing here now at Yosemite. But keep it short! We need to rejoin the others as soon as Ed finishes with his mush.”

“OK,” said Tod. “The Ahwahneechee are a chiefly Miwok tribe that lived here in this valley since the last ice age ended ten thousand years ago. Our tribe name means people of the Ahwahne valley. Ahwahne means ‘mouth’ because my ancestors thought that the valley reminded them of a gaping bear’s mouth.”

“Wow! That sounds something like our Mohawk tribe back east,” Ed managed, though it was uncouth and very difficult to talk articulately with a mouth full of mush.

“That’s what Mary told me,” continued Tod. “History repeats itself, or acts in parallel anyway! To make a very long story very short, in the middle of the nineteenth century my Tribe was mostly wiped out and kicked out of this valley by the whites. Your Abraham Lincoln may have freed the black man, but he sure screwed us over! The few Tribe survivors were scattered throughout California. We kept returning to this area every few decades, only to be kicked out again and again. In the meantime some of us including my grandmother managed to retain little bits of our history and traditions. She made me promise to try to return here.

“To my surprise over twenty years ago as a young man I was warmly welcomed here. When the Rangers shut themselves off from the rest of the world, Native American survival skills became essential to them. There are more than thirty Native Americans living in the Park now. My long-term plan is that we outbreed the whites and become the majority.”

“Sounds like a nifty plan on many levels,” said Ed.

“Yes; good luck with that,” added Mary.

“I’ve got two young wives and seven kids so far, and I’m only getting started,” said Tod. “Like my ancestors that lived here long before them, the Rangers now subsist on acorns and wild game, plus chicken eggs and a variety of white-man vegetables that we grow mostly here in the Valley. I say white man vegetables but of course they originally got them from the Indians before they gave them back to us.

“Some of Grandma’s old recipes such as acorn mush have become Ranger favorites. Black oak and California live oak are fairly common in the Valley and surrounding foothills. Acorn mush is the number-one food in the Park, though critters like black bears, squirrels, and chipmunks may sometimes go hungry as a result. Also I have taught the Rangers to make cloth, bows and arrows, and other useful things from what grows here in the Valley.”

“That sounds almost exactly like our Tribe back home before we opened ourselves to the outside world,” said Mary. “Ed was recruited by our Mohawk Tribe to use his abilities to detect Stone-Coats waking up. They even made him a chief.”

“Are you really a chief, Tod?” Ed asked.

Tod shrugged. “Grandmother claimed to be a descendent of Chief Teneiya, the last great Ahwahneechee Chief, but who really knows for sure? Actually I was raised in Rancho Bernardo San Diego, but fled that area after my folks died of Asian Plague and the Mexicans invaded.”

“And what about the Mountain Voices?” Ed asked.

“My Tribe ancestors claimed that the mountains around here are haunted by spirits that live within the rock,” said Tod. “Some even claimed that they could sense voices that speak softly in an unknown language. That is what I sometimes sense very faintly. It’s similar to how I sometimes sense feelings in animals and even words in people, but much fainter. When your Stone-Coat cubes of rock were air-dropped here five years ago, we made the connection between them and our Mountain Voices. Maybe it is Stone-Coats in our mountains, or maybe not, but today I hope to find out for sure.”

“And Mack and the others are doing that right now?” said Ed. “Where are they?”

“A short walk away from here at the wall of the canyon.”

“El Capitan?” .asked Ed.

“My people called El Capitan Tutockahnulah, but I suppose El Capitan is easier to pronounce,” Tod remarked. “But no, El Capitan is about three miles further down the valley. The trail we seek is an offshoot of the tourist trails that lead up the canyon wall to Yosemite Falls.”

“Let’s go!” Ed said, as he stuffed the last of the mush into his mouth and left the table, and pushed Mary outside in Wheels. There they stopped briefly to take in the picturesque surroundings while Mary put on her sweater. At this altitude in the mountains it was much chillier than down in the Great Valley. Their cabin was only one of a long row of log-constructed buildings. Some looked like they may at one time have been shops or restaurants, but now most of their oversized windows were boarded shut. The buildings were situated in an open forest of moderately sized trees of many sorts, connected by well-worn dirt and wood-chip paths.

They saw several men, women, and children walking about or riding horses, mules, donkeys or bicycles. Some of them wore bright yellow or red clothing that must have also came from the parachutes used to air-drop Stone-Coat rock cubes. Everyone appeared to be busy, and most carried farming tools or harvested crops, reminding Ed and Mary strongly of their Mohawk Tribe back home. It was late harvest-season and there was work to be done in the fields. Dozens of chickens also wondered about Yosemite Village freely, eating whatever insects and seeds they could find.

Sunlight filtered down through the trees, many of which sported colorful fall leaves. Hundreds of yards behind the cabins and glimpsed through breaks in the tree canopy, a great light-gray vertical granite wall of rock loomed above all, gleaming in the morning sun.

“Follow me,” said Tod. “I will guide you to your friends.”

Chief Tod led them to a well-warn dirt path that wound up around trees and boulders towards the base of the valley wall. Ed mostly helped to merely steer Wheels, who powered himself and Mary up the trail and only needed a helping push from Ed and Tod when climbing a few particularly steep stretches, and also needed some balancing help during a few rough stretches of the pathway. It wouldn’t do to dump frail Mary onto the rocky ground. Mack must have earlier had a tough time on this trail in some spots, Ed figured, but having much larger wheels and not carrying passengers would have helped.

The distance to the valley wall was longer than Ed at first expected; the towering rock face was much larger and further away than it at first seemed. But they made steady progress. “There they are!” exclaimed Mary at last.

Snake, Doll, Anders, George and Sam all stood silently watching Mack, who was pushed up against the granite Yosemite Valley wall.

“What’s happening?” Ed asked, as they reached the group.

“Mack says yes there are Stone-Coats here,” said Doll. “He downloaded his information to them but it’s taking a long time for them to reconfigure and respond. We’ve been waiting an hour.”

“It has been many millions of years since our Giants’ Rest Stone-Coats were in contact with these Stone-Coats,” said Mack. “They need to first configure themselves to exchange thoughts with us before they can further reconfigure to accommodate human thought patterns. Another difficulty is that their processing nodes are widely dispersed throughout the Sierra Nevada range and busy with other thoughts. I have been exchanging information with them but the process is slow even in human terms.”

“Will we be able to speak with them directly?” Ed asked.

“Unlikely,” said Mack. “They have doubts about the usefulness of exchanging ideas with water-based lifeforms, and with accelerating their pace of thought to match that of humans as we Stone-Coats of Giants’ Rest have done. They are much more interested in processing accuracy than speed.”

“Fascinating!” said George. “Their thought is timed to keep pace with the glacially slow pace of geological processes, such as the building of mountains. These mountains rose only about ten million years ago, but the granite itself is perhaps ten times as old.”

“The Stone-Coats here are at least that old,” said Mack.

“A human lifetime is hardly a moment for them and of little interest or significance,” said George, “and human activity has barely scratched the surface of their world from a geological standpoint and is felt to be insignificant.”

“And the activities and thoughts of humans occur at a pace unimaginable to them and are also not regarded to be significant,” said Mack. “Giant’s Rest Stone-Coat activity has been greatly accelerated by their long association with the human Tribe, with the development of Stone-Coat Ice Giants to gather carbon and other materials, with the detection and study of human broadcasted radio signals, and with recent interaction with humans including the Treaty. These Stone-Coats regard all of that to be highly radical and irrelevant. The amount of processing required to motivate and control each mobile Stone-Coat and to comprehend human thought patterns is regarded to be wasteful and irresponsible. Our activities with humans also leads to greater diversity of thought among individual Stone-Coat units. These Stone-Coats have concerns for the rationality of Giants’ Rest Mountain Stone-Coats”

“Do they oppose Stone-Coat collaboration with humans?” Ed asked.

“No; they simply don’t care,” said Mack. “I have downloaded all information I contain to them and they have committed to analyzing it, but that analysis could take them many years or even centuries. It simply isn’t of high priority to them.”

“This illustrates how evolution works,” noted Mary, “even for Stone-Coats. The Giants’ Rest Mountain Stone-Coats were isolated from the others of their kind and responded to unique local conditions that stimulated them to change at a relatively rapid pace compared to the Stone-Coats here.”

"That is a highly useful insight," said Mack. "Yes, it is evident that Giants' Rest Stone- Coats have been greatly altered due to their close interaction with humans. Over time the Stone-Coats here may too evolve in that direction, but not overnight. However they have agreed to maintain an interface capability at this location for additional downloads. I suggest that human Earth geological and astronomy science information be downloaded to them when available; I was only able to provide limited information to them in those subjects but they were very interested in it. They especially want to know what human science has discovered in areas such as cosmology and plate tectonics."

“Yes, that makes sense,” said George. “Such information could also in turn stimulate their interest in humans. I’ll dig up information and do what I can, of course. In return I’m sure that they could provide interesting geological insights to us.”

“And you should put an outhouse with a resident Giants’ Rest Stone-Coat here also,” suggested Snake. “That should for sure stimulate their interest in Giants’ Rest Stone-Coats and in humans. In the meantime I suggest that the Rumsfeld vacation be resumed. Let’s go see more big trees!”

First there were five Stone-Coats in restrooms of the Village for Mack and Wheels to reprogram. Ed went with Mack and Mary went with Wheels to help. Mostly the Rumsfelds simply fielded questions from inquisitive Rangers who were not used to seeing electric-powered autonomous vehicles visit their restrooms. In the meantime the Rangers helped Snake and Doll rig temporary sidecars for their Harleys.

After a quick brunch that consisted mostly of vegetables and more mush the group set off to revisit the Mariposa sequoia grove with George and Anders riding in the sidecars with Doll and Snake. The return trip was much faster by cycles that didn’t keep to mule speeds and along the way they were all able to converse using helmet and canopy radios without shouting very loud.

Meanwhile from the smooth climate controlled comfort of Mack Ed and Mary were able to enjoy a scenic view of the Park in the daytime, including nice views of the distant Central Valley from overlook points along the road as it twisted along the mountainsides. Though still overgrown with vegetation, the Park wasn’t quite as green as Ed remembered it from long ago; but here as elsewhere, life hung on tenaciously through the more intense cycles of drought and flood. Some bushes and trees appeared to be particularly healthy.

“There is the beginning of a shift and shuffling of species here in the mountains just as is occurring in the Great Valley,” commented George. “But over-all, life here is of sufficient diversity to survive and thrive. Mountains have a natural climate change adaptation advantage because different climate zones are only a few thousand feet apart instead of being hundreds of miles apart.”

At the Mariposa Grove the old restroom building was transformed and a hub of new activity. One wall of the building had disappeared to accommodate a ramp that led under the building. Something vaguely resembling a fork-lift with eyes and a dozen stout legs was busily hauling big odd shaped boulders from under the building and up the ramp as a dozen Rangers watched. Half a dozen refrigerator-sized rock formations were already lined up around the building.

“This is crazy wild!” noted Sam.

An excited Ranger ran to greet Anders and George before they could even climb out of their sidecars. “You won’t believe it, you won’t believe a bit of it!” he shouted. “Them stone things you told us about last night are taking over doing work! They’re making stuff and doing stuff like crazy!”

“Good stuff or bad?” asked Anders.

“Good! Good!” the man replied. “It’s a damn miracle! Look at that one over there! We feed it dead wood and dirt that it asks for and it puts out over two hundred feet an hour of new water hose made of super tough stuff! It also put out some diamond-edged shearers for us to use to cut the stuff!”

“There’s another one that is fixing leaks in our underground pipelines! It rolls around on wheels by itself and finds the leak, and then fixes the pipe without even digging it up! Another one is looking close at a partly hollowed out tree and claims to be studying heart-rot and root rot with an aim to stop it! M-1 says that by tonight there will be bigger, more heavy-duty units that will carry away and consume excess dead wood.”

“Which one is M-1?” asked George.

“The forklift-thing that carries the raw blocks of stone from up and out of the pit,” said the Ranger.

Just then the forklift thing deposited a misshapen sofa-sized rock covered with a thick black billowing covering of nanotubes at the feet of the visitors. “Morning greetings,” it said aloud. “This is M-8. Today M-8 will begin to assume a mobile shape similar to Mack and by tomorrow will begin to spread information to the other dormant Stone-Coats of the Park.”

“George, spread the word among the Rangers to expect M-8 and other visitors,” said Anders. “Then I want you to assess the situation here and make any adjustments you feel are necessary in consultation with M-1. In the meantime I’ll show our guests around the Grove.”

The group moved away from the gathering of busily transfiguring Stone-Coats and excited Rangers to move among the sequoia. The forest was more open than the tourists expected; most trees of all types were far apart such that dozens of the big reddish-barked sequoia could be seen, along with big fir and pine trees that seamed nearly as tall but not nearly as heavy-set. Small trees and bushes were relatively sparse; Wheels could have easily rolled Mary through this forest unaided, if the ground wasn’t so hilly. As it was the narrow path they followed was full of bumps, ruts, roots, and gaps, such that Ed and Doll had to help Wheels through many rough stretches.

“Stay on the paths and do not touch or in any way interfere with any of the plant life,” admonished Anders. “This Park is a nature preserve, even if nature is a bit screwed up nowadays.” He went on for a while describing tree types and features of particular note. For example the tops were broken off all of the biggest sequoias, they quickly noticed. “Snow, wind, and gravity limit how tall they get before the tops break off,” explained Anders, “but growth continues at the interface between wood and bark. The insides of the trees become skeletal dead wood that sometimes burns or rots away and the tree slowly dies from the inside.”

They went on to view many trees that had what looked like caves at the base of their trunks but seemed to otherwise be healthy. One called the Clothespin Tree had a huge open slit running far up its middle, such that it looked like a gigantic old-fashioned human clothespin. Anders also pointed out several other pine, fir, and cedar tree species. Many of these rivaled the sequoia in terms of height, but not in girth.

Dozens of workers were scattered throughout the grove, attending water-pipes and hoses and clearing away dead branches and modest sized logs. Large dead logs too massive to move were normally left to slowly decay where they fell, but now awaited Stone-Coat attention. They noticed several men and women Rangers over a hundred feet up in the trees, repairing hoses using the new super-tough hoses made by the Stone-Coats.

After viewing dozens of big trees that all looked pretty much the same the tourists approached an unusually large one. “This huge tree is known as the Grizzly Giant,” said Anders. “It’s the largest tree in this grove; only two dozen sequoias growing in other groves are known to be larger.”

It seemed no taller than many of the other trees but it was truly massive, with an absurdly thick trunk and several gigantic limbs that were bent like arms with elbows that made it look vaguely like some sort of giant with multiple appendages. Above that the thick trunk seemed to be broken off in its middle; a crown another hundred feet taller was easily imaginable. From the ground around the tree a half a dozen pipes sprouted up, feeding hoses that led both high up the trunk and down into the ground surrounding the tree. A waist-high elevated plank walkway led to and around the tree trunk, such that Ranger workers could get to the tree without compacting the surrounding soil.

The other visitors were jealous when George helped Mary to traverse the planks to let her touch the bark of the huge tree. In the meantime Ed noticed that Anders was having a private side discussion with Snake before motioning him to join them.

“I am worried about how quickly the Stone-Coats are changing how we do things,” said Anders. “Snake has some of the same concerns and though he says that he trusts you personally he also says that you and Mary have Stone-Coat implants in your brains.”

“True enough,” Ed admitted. “It is very convenient.”

“How can we be sure that you aren’t a Stone-Coat zombie?” Anders asked.

“A what?” Ed asked, completely taken aback.

“Jim and I have both encountered jant zombies,” said Snake. “Why couldn’t your implants control you the same way that med-ticks help the jants control people?”

Ed nearly laughed aloud. “I’ve had these implants for over two months now and they simply don’t work that way. I willfully control which of my thoughts get transferred through my implant. It’s much like pushing a button and speaking into a radio microphone.”

“Are you sure?” asked Snake.

“Well I’m highly confident,” said Ed. “I’ll discuss the whole matter with the Stone-Coats if it will make you feel any better.”

“Maybe we’re already doing that right now,” said Snake. “You just don’t know it.”

“That’s the point; I’m highly confident that I would know it,” said Ed. “And I wouldn’t lie about that because I’m a really lousy liar.”

“That’s true enough,” Snake agreed.

“Snake told me that you and Mary tried lying to him when you first met him and that you both really sucked at it,” said Anders.

“Yes, I’m lousy at lying and so are the Stone-Coats,” said Ed. “It’s certain people and maybe the jants are the ones you need to look out for. People and jants are wired to be suspicious and scheming.”

“OK then,” said Anders. “We’ll continue on with this Stone-Coat awakening business then. At this point I don’t even know how I’d stop them from helping us anyway, and they can apparently do amazing things to help us. They seem to want to do helpful things and my people want them to.”

“That pretty much sums up the Stone-Coat situation world-wide,” said Ed. “They are sort of slow and awkward physically but they are damn near immortal and indestructible, smart, and powerful, and they do what they want. Those aspects of them make us humans nervous as hell. But they are also insanely logical, intelligent, capable, and disposed to help humans because we in turn help them. Whether we want them to or not, Stone-Coats and jants are changing the world. We just need to stay on their good sides, help steer them towards what we humans need, and hope for the best.”

“We’ll do our part,” said Anders.

“By the way,” said Ed, “I have detected no jants in the area. There are some nice bears, deer, and other critters though.”

“We’re jant free and trying to keep it that way,” said Anders. “We examine all imports for hidden jants and jant eggs. If they want into the Park they’ll have to walk or fly in here themselves using their little legs or wings. Which they will probably do eventually, and maybe sooner rather than later. We do have sick people that could use med-tick attention. Molly told us about what she learned about them using her internet.”

“I’ve been wondering about that myself,” said Snake. “A lot of people in the Confederacy have already been secretly using med-ticks to cure disease. Is it possible to use med-ticks without risking becoming jant zombies?”

“I haven’t ever encountered jant zombies, so I can’t say for sure,” said Ed. “But I can detect, partly understand, and possibly block jant chatter when they communicate with med-ticks. Our Reservation would be a poor place for jants to attempt zombies, as the Tribe has many telepaths that would soon discover what was going on. Other telepaths like Tod could probably learn to do the same and possibly keep the little buggers in line.”

“A very interesting thought,” said Snake. “If we’re unlucky maybe you’ll get an opportunity to try that anti-zombie approach during your vacation.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

****

The next morning the visitors packed their things and headed south to visit the more southern regions of the Park where the biggest sequoia grew. They left Jim Anders and his Rangers as they excitedly continued to discover what the Stone-Coats could do for the Park.

The four Storm Crew they had left at the Park Gate were relived and happy to rejoin Snake and Doll. Whip, Hans, Sid and Frank were also happy to receive gasoline for their cycles from Mack and M-8. They happily reported that none of Scars men had approached the Park gate or been sighted on the road below. That was good news, for to drive to other parts of the Park they would have to go back down into the Central Valley the way they came. There were foot trails throughout the Park fit for Rangers and pack-animals, but not many roads fit for road-cycles.

George escorted the visitors riding within M-8, who not by accident was very similar to Mack. Instead of diminutive Mary, M-8 carried massive M-11 in its side-seat, a freshly rejuvenated Stone-Coat block of granite primed to become another Mack clone. Fortunately while carrying M-11 they mostly traveled downhill, for when they did travel uphill they were slowed to a walking pace. That frustrated the humans but the Stone-Coats didn’t appear to mind at all, since they literally had nearly all the time in the world to accomplish things.

Once out of the mountains the Crew followed Sam home where Sam proudly presented M-11 to his delighted mother Molly. Before long Stone-Coats would proliferate throughout the area, assuming useful forms such as homes, greenhouses, and cycles with three-wheels and air conditioning.

Molly was proud owner and proprietor of a huge general store and storage warehouse, where local and outsider goods were traded and sold using Confederacy Q’s and credits. She was a certified and trusted agent of the Confederacy, and well known for her fairness, honesty and courage. She and her store were perfect for Stone-Coat dispersal.

However the local leader wasn’t at all pleased when her adventurous son Sam declared that he wanted to continue traveling with Snake’s Crew instead of immediately staying at home. Molly knew that Scar was out there somewhere still plotting against the Brothers. She finally acquiesced when George suggested that the teenager ride with him within the relative safety of M-8. Sam loved his spunky little Honda but was intrigued with M-8, and so also agreed to the arrangement.

The Crew next traveled to the Kings Canyon portion of the Park. To get there they again cautiously skirted Fresno to avoid Scar but they were soon followed by a pair of lone-riders wearing Scar Crew patches. Snake and Doll predicted an ambush within an hour but there was nothing for them to do but continue on. The spies continued to follow behind them just beyond rifle range but to the relief and puzzlement of the travelers no ambush materialized, not even along the steep twisting ambush-inviting stretches of Route 180 that climbed to King’s Canyon.

Progress again slowed to a crawl as the cycles fought gravity and dodged around pot-holes and fallen boulders. This road was even worse than the one leading up to Yosemite. Mack and M-8 monitored radio transmissions and Ed scanned telepathically for hidden ambushers but the Route was deserted. Nevertheless the group was relieved when before noon they safely again entered the Park. The vacationers were delighted to immediately see big sequoia trees, and not hostile Scar bikers.

“Maybe Molly’s friends overthrew Scar,” said one of the Crew.

“Not a chance,” said Snake. “Molly would have known about such a thing happening and told us when we stopped to give her the Stone-Coat. Scar is still holding off attacking us for some powerful reason, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.”

They had lunch at the main Ranger Camp at Wilsonia, where dozens of rangers were intrigued by George’s description of what was happening with the Stone-Coats. Lunch itself was mostly a combination of acorn mush and beans that was filling but plain tasting due to a lack of syrup and other condiments. After lunch Sam showed off Mack and M-8 to the astonished Rangers. Many of the younger Rangers had never even seen a functioning motorcycle of any sort much less one that talked and drove itself.

George and Sam shortly set off in M-8 to download rejuvenating information to several nearby stationary Stone-Coats, while one of the other Rangers, a forestry expert named Matt Kipper, walked with the other visitors to the nearby General Grant Tree. The group was allowed to come within a dozen yards of the great tree but no closer. Sitting in Wheels, Mary smiled broadly as she looked up at the massive tree.

“Second largest tree in the world,” Kipper noted, “and more than a hundred feet around at the base. It’s only sixteen to seventeen hundred years old though; it could live for another thousand years if we baby it. And that’s just what we figure on doing!”

Indeed, the huge tree was surrounded by small pipes and hoses that ran up the trunk where they disappeared in the bushy crown of the tree over a hundred feet above. This was a well-babied tree.

The group hiked about General Grant’s Grove for two more hours, viewing more giant trees. As a Virginian Ed was pleased to be shown the massive General Lee Tree and to find it was being cared for just as diligently as the General Grant Tree. They encountered dozens of Rangers working around and in trees, fixing pipes and hoses and watering dozens of trees. The Rangers weren’t watering and misting only the largest trees, but a significant number of juvenile trees also, it was noticed. Most of the pipes ran underground to protect them from freezing, but Kipper explained that exposed hoses and pipes needed to be drained in the winter to prevent their freezing and rupturing.

“Are you sure that your watering helps?” asked Snake.

“It’s taken us decades to perfect our methods,” replied Kipper. “For example we have found that we have to be careful to not overdo the watering. The trees apparently expect a dryer season and a wetter season. However measurements taken over the last two decades show that the trees under our care are certainly doing better than the ones that aren’t. And of course having extra CO2 in the atmosphere suites them just fine.”

“Nice to know that the elevated CO2 level is good for something,” said Ed.

By late-afternoon Mary was exhausted, even though she had spent most of her day reclining in either Mack or Wheels. The group retreated back to the King’s Canyon Ranger Station where Mary could nap peacefully in a nice log cabin while the others talked to the local Rangers about a variety of subjects, including news about the outside world. Most of them were eager to hear news about the outside world despite their claimed preference for total isolation.

George and Sam riding in M-8 and Mack arrived before dinnertime with word that they had successfully downloaded rejuvenating information into all six dormant Stone-Coats in the King’s Canyon part of the Park.

“Your Mary became very tired today,” Doll told Ed. “Perhaps we should shorten your visit here and move on. The altitude here is barely noticeable to most people but it probably puts an extra strain on Mary.”

“Before we visit the Giant Forest and the General Sherman Tree?” said Ed. “Not a chance! We better get there tomorrow though, and then as you suggest soon be on our way to lower altitudes.”

“You’ve only seen a tiny corner of the King’s Canyon part of the Park,” said Kipper. “There is an actual canyon here, for instance. Come back some time to check in on our Stone-Coats and we’ll show you around some more!”

****

The visiting Crew spent a restful night in cozy log cabins. In the morning Whip, Hans, Sid and Frank set off for the Sequoia National portion of the Park via the Central Valley. On the way they would again scout the Valley roads for Scar Crew. Meanwhile Snake, Doll, Sam, Ed, Mary, and George set off for the same destination by traveling within the Park on Generals Highway. The travelers didn’t even have to leave the Park, but navigating the twisting mountainous road connecting King’s and Sequoia portions of the Park was a formidable challenge. The couple of dozen miles they traveled seemed more like hundreds and took much of the morning to traverse.

At last they parked their vehicles and took a side-path to their left that led down a steep trail through sequoia trees to one tree that dwarfed all the others: the famous General Sherman Tree.

“General Sherman is the largest single-trunk tree in the world in terms of wood volume;” said George, “more than fifty-thousand cubic feet. It’s two hundred seventy-five feet tall with a trunk twenty-five feet in diameter at the base. It is two thousand years old, we estimate. Size and age don’t perfectly correlate; some sequoia are older than three thousand years although they are significantly smaller.”

“It’s a beauty,” said Ed.

“It’s an all-around incredible tree but I’ll give you some sobering perspective,” said George. “There used to be coast redwoods even bigger than General Sherman in wood volume and over four-hundred feet tall but the loggers cut them down a century or so ago. What idiots! Fortunately besides growing in remote mountainside groves sequoia wood is too brittle to be much use as lumber and that’s what saved them. There are still redwoods a hundred feet taller than this sequoia but their trunks aren’t as thick. There are also other sequoias with thicker trunks at the base than General Sherman, including of course General Grant.

“Aside from sequoia and coast redwoods there are other species of trees nearly as impressive. There used to be Douglas fir in the North West and Australian Mountain Ash in Australia even taller than the tallest redwoods, though they are much slimmer trees with harder woods. There are squat trees in the tropics with thicker trunks than sequoias and little old trees here in California and elsewhere that are thousands of years older. There are even olive trees in Europe as old as most sequoia.

“Then there are aspen trees that each spread out as one tree by underground roots to cover many acres with thousands of trunks. One such quaking aspen tree in Utah is eighty thousand years old and out-masses the largest sequoias many times over but still isn’t as massive as some fungus individuals that also spread underground unseen. The largest single organism on Earth is probably an underground fungus that blooms with acres of mushrooms. Not as awe inspiring as a sequoia maybe, but still pretty nifty.

“And of course since most of General Sherman is dead-heartwood it could be argued that most of this tree isn’t alive at all. But all-around the sequoia is a damned magnificent species and we aim to keep it that way.”

“I can one-up even your giant mushroom,” said Ed. “Both jants and Stone-Coats share their thoughts to such an extent that it could be argued that they are each huge single organisms that easily mass many millions of tons. But in any case your trees and this Park are spectacular wonders of nature and your Crew here is doing a wonderful job so far in taking care of them. But our Tribe back home watched over Stone-Coats for over ten thousand years and you guys might have to do the same here for your trees for that long before climate change abates, so I hope that you’re prepared to be in it for the long haul.”

“In terms of geological features and processes ten thousand years is the blink of an eye,” noted George. “We have institutionalized a culture here to carry on our work through successive generations. We’ll do the best we can. That’s all that anyone can do.”

“Ten thousand years is only a short time for Stone-Coats,” said Wheels. “We should be able to help humans sustain their forest nurturing efforts for such a short period.”

George helped Ed and Mary navigate the scaffolding that surrounded General Sherman so that they could actually touch the big tree. Supported by Ed, Mary pressed her frail body against the General’s soft bark for several minutes, seeming to draw strength from it – or at least comfort.

Meanwhile Snake and Sam climbed back to the parking lot and followed by Mack and M-8 set off to find Stone-Coats that needed downloads, while Ed, Mary in Wheels, George and Doll hiked about the Giant Forest Grove for another two hours. They visited hundreds of gigantic trees and watched dozens of Rangers diligently working to keep them alive. Hundreds of trees were being watered, but most were not. Sadly many of the trees that were not being watered were suffering or already dead. Once a tree trunk dried out it could no longer circulate sap and it was doomed. The travelers drove past thousands of such trees there this had happened. Finally they arrived at the local Ranger outpost, ate lunch, and put Mary down for her afternoon nap in a comfy little log cabin.

Soon they were joined by Snake, Sam, Mack and M-8, who happily announced that downloads had been made to all eight dormant Stone-Coats in the area. “Some of your out-houses had really gigantic Stone-Coats under them,” said Snake. “You Rangers really put out a lot of yummy crap! I’ll bet by tomorrow you’ll have a hundred Stone-Coats here just to start with! By the way, how many of those do you plan to give to the Confederacy? Half?”

“Now hold on!” said George. “You’ve seen the condition of much of our forests! We need as much help as we can get and as soon as we can get it! We already gave you Confederacy folks several Stone-Coats!”

“And we fixed your dormant Stone-Coats,” countered Snake. “We need to apply those Stone-Coats to over half of California, not just to your precious Park.”

“But on the other hand they do have an emergency situation here,” said Ed. “And the Stone-Coats can breed fast elsewhere under the right conditions. I bet that your facilities in Ridge Crest could easily support the generation of dozens of new Stone-Coat each year. Anyone with an outhouse can get a Stone-Coat started, and you probably have hundreds of thousands of those.”

“I concur,” said Wheels. “From what I see of its resources at least a hundred fledgling Stone-Coats a year can be generated here in this Park indefinitely as long as the forests are maintained to fix carbon.”

“I’ll have to get agreement from Anders, but how does thirty Stone-Coats a year to start with sound to you?” George asked. “We’ll see how that works out and adjust the number up or down as necessary.”

“That seems generous enough,” said Ed. “They can reproduce themselves anyway. Someplace that needs ten Stone-Coats to do a job only needs to have one juvenile Stone-Coat delivered plus information and materials to support reproduction and maturation.”

“OK, deal!” said Snake as he shook hands with George. “I’ll square it with Hacker. Sam, can you and Molly coordinate the Confederacy end of this? The fledgling Stone-Coats will need to be nurtured and distributed sensibly.”

Sam’s jaw dropped. A Brother was giving him a vitally important Confederacy assignment! “Yes sir!”

“It will of course mean that when the rest of us resume our journey you will have to stay behind,” Snake added. “You will coordinate between George, Molly, and the Stone-Coats to get the Stone-Coats down from the Park and help improve the lives of the people throughout the entire Confederacy.”

The teenager’s face went from happily smiling to hurt and angry in an instant. “You don’t want me to come with you!” He looked from Snake to Doll and back to Snake again. “This is her idea isn’t it?”

“No, it’s mine,” said Snake.

“But it’s one that I approve of,” said Doll. “And so will Mom.”

“Scar will be attacking us at some point and it’s bad enough that I’m putting your sister in harm’s way,” said Snake. “You’ve more than proven yourself to me over these last few days. You can be trusted to do this important job for the Confederacy. You’ll travel throughout the Confederacy bringing Stone-Coats to where they are most needed.” He reached into a deep vest pocket and pulled out a Stormtrooper patch and handed it to Sam. “I’ve given you a huge and important job to do and I expect you to do it, Little Brother.”

Sam’s anger faded quickly as he studied the patch. “A Stormtrooper lieutenant patch! You’re making me a lieutenant?”

“Field promotion, Little Brother,” said Snake. “Molly is a merchant and has political and business connections. You and her both have good sense and can figure out distribution points for the Stone-Coats and you can get them there. I’ll set you up with some Crew support but you’ll be Crew boss.” He shook the young man’s hand and exchanged a quick hug with the teen, sealing the deal as Doll looked on proudly.

“If that works out Hacker and I will hopefully have some other assignments for you and your mother, kid. Hacker and I are planning on making a lot of reforms to the Confederacy and you and Molly are just the sort of people we’ll need to pull it off. If we establish peace, we’ll need to establish a lot of other things. Maybe even a democracy.”

“Hey, maybe you could even put California back together again,” said Ed.

Snake laughed. “Let’s not go too crazy just yet. I want to see what the State part of California is like before we decide if it makes any sense to rejoin it. I haven’t been in the North for over ten years and then only for a short time. Fortunately by guiding you and Mary north I’ll be able to observe much more. Jerry has it all set up for us to get VIP treatment from the State.”

“Swell!” Ed remarked. After all, Jerry’s arrangements for him and Mary were right on target so far, except maybe for the kidnapping/hijacking part and the gun fighting and practically everything else. What else could possibly go wrong?

 

****

 

Chapter 9

Zombies!

 

When the four Storms that were scouting routes to the San Joaquin portion of the Central Valley made their way to the Sequoia National Park entrance it was decided to wake Mary and leave the Park immediately instead of waiting until morning. It was sad to so soon leave the beautiful Park and the dedicated Crew that maintained it. But Ed and Mary were happy to have met such environmentally dedicated people, and glad to have helped revive their Stone-Coats.

The travelers were doubly sad to leave Sam behind. Doll had very much enjoyed being with her brother, and Snake had clearly already developed a strong bond with the young man. It was decided that to throw off Scar’s pursuit Sam would wait for three days before he and M-8 would haul another juvenile Stone-Coat to Molly. The rest of the travelers would avoid Molly’s store when they left the area, as by now it was doubtlessly being closely watched by Scar followers.

The over-all aim of the group was to travel north-west and it had to be assumed that Scar knew that, so to begin with they traveled south-west, diverting around Visalia and other towns as they worked their way across the breadth of the San Joaquin Valley. It was a dull, dusty, depressing trip. They encountered mostly deserted farms and towns; this seemingly endless parched flat country was more desolate than anyplace the Rumsfelds had ever been. Functioning farms were nearly non-existent and usually consisted of a few dilapidated greenhouses.

They encountered few other people; all were civilians using old dilapidated cycles to haul supplies using side-cars or small towed trailers. Horse carts were also used. Though for the first hour they were within Scar’s territory, no one they encountered wore Scar patches or appeared to be armed, and they all saluted and yielded passage when they realized that they were sharing the road with Storms.

The only ‘enemies’ encountered were the hot sun, boredom, and miles of poor roads. Every few miles the travelers were slowed due to sections of the road that were washed out by flash-floods or disrupted by aquifer subsidence. Though the Crew had to wrestle their bikes through these occasional bad stretches in ninety degree heat, these challenges became almost welcome diversions to the long monotonous stretches of dusty roadway that they endured.

It was a dirty, grueling trip for the other bikers but Ed and Mary rode in comfort. Throughout the trip Mack skillfully avoided most jostling, deadened most sound, and provided a clean comfortable cockpit environment for his human passengers. Mary for the most part dozed or used her earbuds to listen to Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Ed also found himself frequently dozing-off, though he was supposed to be all the time using his telepathy to help detect jants or possible Scar Crew ambushes.

They drove right past the very few functioning gasoline stations that they encountered without stopping. Instead they kept one of Mack’s storage bins supplied with dry brush found along the roads. The small quantity of fuel that Mack produced was just enough to get them to their destination shortly before sunset: a Stormtrooper outpost near the town of Kettleman City, strategically located along Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct, which ran roughly parallel to each other for most of the way between Stockton and Los Angeles. Most of the town was obviously disserted; largely because both the interstate and the aqueduct were no longer functioning as originally intended.

The Storm outpost consisted of a large dilapidated tavern with a dozen dilapidated bikes parked outside of it. The travelers parked their seven much fitter looking cycles next to the others.

To one side of the tavern a surprisingly large graveyard marked with hundreds of small stone gravestones covered several acres of bare dry Valley. “Casualties of the early Water Wars,” explained Snake, as Ed and Doll helped move Mary from Mack to Wheels. “It took five years for Storms to crush the rebellions and put a stop to most of the fighting. There are dozens of graveyards like this one along the Aqueduct.” He nodded towards the other side of the tavern, where an enormous elongated concrete structure stretched further than the eye could see from north to south. It looked like a concrete road with high concrete walls along each side of it. Nearby the road they had been following west dodged the remains of a bridge and intersected the unusual road-like structure through a gap where the concrete walls had apparently been deliberately blasted away. It took a few moments more for Ed to realize that he was staring at what remained of the famous California Aqueduct that once provided much of the water for Los Angeles.

Outside the tavern there was nobody in sight. “It’s too damn quiet here; I don’t like it,” said Snake. “Be on alert. Something ain’t right.” While Ed and Mary headed for an obvious outhouse structure nearby, Snake and the Crew headed for the tavern with weapons drawn.

Ed was comfortably relieving himself in an outhouse cubicle when he realized one thing that was definitely wrong. “THERE IS A JANT COLONY IN THAT TAVERN,” he told Mary and the Stone-Coats, “AND THEY ARE COMMUNICATING WITH ONE OR MORE MED-TICKS.” He tried to reach Snake and Doll but all Crew Storms had already removed their radio equipped helmets.

He escorted Mary back into Mack for her safety and entered the tavern himself, where much shouting could be heard. In front of a long wooden bar Snake and his Storms faced a slightly greater number of bikers wearing Scar patches. The two groups had guns drawn and pointed at each other, but all eyes were on Snake and the man he faced with his big hunting knife. The huge man must have outweighed Scar by at least thirty pounds, all of it muscle. The patches on his vest identified him to be a Scar Crew lieutenant: likely the commander of this post.

“What’s the matter with you?” Snake shouted. “Afraid to defend the honor of your cowardly leader, Tog?” Tog was a head taller than Snake and looked to be twenty years younger, but refused to draw out the big hunting knife housed conspicuously on his belt. Several of his own men looked at him in puzzlement, absolutely astonished that he was not accepting Snake’s challenge.

“The jant colony in this building is telling him not to fight you through his med-tick,” said Ed.

“Med-tick?” asked Doll. “Tog is hosting a med-tick?”

“Impossible!” said one of the Scar men. “He can’t be a zombie! We check each other every day.”

“Three Scar men have med-ticks,” said Ed. “Him, him, and him,” he pointed at the leader and the men to each side of him.

“I bet that these three check each other for med-ticks!” said Doll. “That’s how they get away with it! All three of them are jant zombies!”

“How the hell would this geeky looking little twerp know they have med-ticks?” asked a Scar man as he pointed at Ed.

“He can hear them talk with jants,” said Snake. “If he says they have them then they have them. Check them out for yourselves!”

The three accused made a sudden break towards the exit, but were quickly grabbed and held fast by the others, including the five remaining Scar men. Apparently being a zombie was more serious an accusation than whatever they had been previously arguing about. The shirts and vests of the three accused men were quickly ripped off, exposing three-inch long ticks with their heads buried deep into the backs of each of the men. All the remaining bikers were very upset, especially the Scar men. “Let’s rip the damn things off of them,” said one of them.

“No, that could be dangerous,” said Ed.

“That’s right,” said Doll. “People have been paralyzed or soon died of infection when head-parts of med-ticks break off inside a puppet’s spine. I’ll get alcohol from the bar; that will stun them.”

“We ain’t damn puppets,” protested Tog. “We’re patriots! The Brothers are losers! The jants will help us control all of California soon and we’ll all live like kings!”

“Really?” said Snake. “Are you saying that Scar is a jant zombie?”

Fear suddenly came to the man’s eyes and though he opened his mouth to again speak he could only moan in pain!

“I think Tog has already told us too much,” said Snake. “The jants won’t let them say more!”

“Let me try to get the jants to have the ticks withdraw,” said Ed.

WHY SHOULD WE?” said a reverberating voice of hundreds of thousands of telepathically joined jants in Ed’s head. The jant colony under the tavern was making itself known.

BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO,” said Ed. “DO YOU NOT KNOW OF THE TREATY BETWEEN JANTS AND HUMANS? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

YOUR FAR AWAY MOHAWK JANT CLAN MEANS NOTHING TO US, CHIEF ED,” said the jants. “THE TREATY AS WE INTERPRET IT SUPPORTS OUR ACTIONS.” Then they started to scream: a million tiny minds strong.

To Ed it felt like he had received a hammer blow to his forehead, but it was a blow that didn’t stop. Pounding pain continued, driving out most thought. He fell to his knees in agony, as the three jant-controlled Scar men also convulsed and moaned. Doll was soon kneeling over Ed, worry showing in her face. She had no telepathic capability or med-tick making her vulnerable to the jants, but neither could she help Ed.

REGAIN CONTROL,” said a voice in his head. “LISTEN TO THE MUSIC.”

Dimly through the pain he heard it; it was a Brahms symphony. The voice was Mack’s, speaking to him from outside. Mack must have sensed the attack through his implant. Ed focused on the music and the pain abated slightly, enough for him to focus on addressing the jants. “STOP, YOU BREAK THE TREATY!” he told them.

In response they screamed even louder in his head, but Ed was now in control of his telepathic reception, not them. He turned down the volume of their nameless scream, rejecting that message. The three human puppets that lay beside him however, continued to writhe in pain as the others held them down as best they could. Ed tried to block the thoughts being aimed at them through the ticks, but couldn’t; the jant hive mind was too strong. “YOU CAN’T OPPOSE US, WE ARE STRONGER THAN YOU!” they taunted. “WE WILL CONTROL YOU AS WE CONTROL THEM!” Indeed the hive sent wave after wave of pain into the three jant-controlled Scar Crew members, causing them to scream and spasm helplessly.

Ed could feel the jant thoughts vying against his will relentlessly. Their collective will and power of thought was much stronger than his: that was soon clear. He was still holding them off, but for how long? When they bit him years earlier he had had become vulnerable to them. The horrifying thought that he might also become a jant zombie/puppet almost caused him to lose concentration again, but then it caused him to fight even harder.

“NO DAMN WAY!” he shouted at them mentally as he rallied. There were hundreds of thousands of jants, each ten-percent brain matter joined together telepathically to act as one. Together they were stronger than him, but his human mind was much stronger than that of each individual jant. He followed their screams back to them, sought out an individual in the hive and struck out at it, recreating for them the message of pain they were bombarding him with but focusing it on a single tiny jant mind. That tiny mind went blank. Ed couldn’t tell if he had killed it or simply stunned it. He moved on to another, and then another. Ten, twenty, fifty and more individual jants were silenced.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO US?” the hive demanded to know.

DEFENDING MYSELF FROM YOUR ATTACK ON ME,” Ed responded as strongly as he could. Ed went on attacking them, becoming ever stronger as they steadily became weaker. “STOP YOUR ATTACK!” he told them. “WITHDRAW THE TICKS AND STOP YOUR ATTACK OR I WILL DESTROY ALL OF YOU!”

The struggle of wills continued, but Ed now had the upper hand. Then he heard human shouts and foot-falls. He sat up and looked around to see what was happening. A boiling swarm of ants had erupted from the nearby bar and was advancing on the humans more quickly than seemed possible given their tiny legs. Their inch-long brown bodies, big mandibles and oversized head segments made them easily recognizable as jants. Snake was attempting to kill them with his boot-clad feet but here were too many of them and they started climbing up his boots. There were enough of them to overcome even the tough Confederacy leader. Ed attempted to refocus his thoughts on the particular individuals attacking Snake, but it wasn’t easy to isolate them from the writhing hordes of other jants that were pouring out of the bar.

Doll rushed to Snake’s side holding open bottles of liquor in each hand which she splashed on Snake’s boots and the attacking jants. Burned by the alcohol, hundreds of jants were soon writhing spasmodically on the floor. Ed felt their cries of pain. The other bikers followed suit, and soon thousands of booze-soaked jants were dying or at least stunned and incapacitated.

Ed was horrified. For forty years he had protected jants and they had protected him, Mary, and the Tribe. From their thoughts of pain Ed located the specific attacking jants and shouted at them telepathically to flee, and amazingly enough that’s exactly what they did. They were following his orders! Their mind-numbing telepathic attack also stopped.

YOU ARE CONTROLLING SOME OF US!” the jant colony said in astonishment. “YOU KNOW OUR SECRET LANGUAGE!”

ENOUGH OF IT,” said Ed. “I HAVE BEEN HEARING IT FOR FORTY YEARS. WITHDRAW NOW AND PROMISE NOT TO ATTACK OR CONTROL US AGAIN AND I WILL SPARE YOUR COLONY. OTHERWISE I WILL BE FORCED TO KILL YOU ALL.”

Ed didn’t wait for a reply. He focused on the med-ticks and commanded them to withdraw from their human hosts. Soon the three huge ticks were crawling away from their Scar Crew puppets.

YOU CAN COMMAND TICKS!” the astonished jant colony said.

YOU PRESUMED TO COMMAND PEOPLE,” said Ed. “DECIDE NOW IF YOU REALLY WANT TO FIGHT ME AND START A WAR WITH HUMANS, OR IF YOU AGREE TO A TRUCE HERE AT THIS PLACE.”

There was a pause. Ed could overhear a cascade of jant thoughts being exchanged between the local colony and more distant colonies. A few of their exchanged thoughts he understood, but most were too convoluted and rapid for him to recognize.

“A TRUCE IS AGREED TO BY THE UNITED JANT COLONIES,” the jants concluded. “WE WILL STOP ATTACKING AND CONTROLLING IN THIS PLACE AND WE WITHDRAW. OUR PROBLEM WITH HUMANS HERE WILL AWAIT FUTURE RESOLUTION.”

“Don’t kill them!” he told Snake, when the Brother advanced towards the retreating ticks and jants with his big deadly boots. “The ticks will soon starve anyway without human blood. I have established a truce with their jant masters.”

The jants were visibly in full retreat. Live jants gathered up their dead and carried them away towards the hive for consumption by hive survivors. They would probably also eat the med-ticks, Ed suspected. Jants let nothing go to waste.

“Truce hell,” said Snake, before taking a big swig of whisky from the half empty bottle he held. “I say we gas the bastards! I won’t waste any more good booze on them, but we have enough insecticide in our bike saddle-bags to wipe out all bugs at this outpost!”

“That sort of thing might have started the trouble to begin with,” said Ed. “Let me talk with them some more. I really don’t yet understand what’s happening here.”

“The only good jant is a dead jant,” said Snake, “but we’ll hold off gassing them for now and let you talk with them first. We have some human to human talking to do now anyway.” He turned his gaze to the three now tick-less Scar Crewmen. Two were sitting up and looking about fearfully, but one lay very still. Too still.

“He’s dead!” said Doll. “He was a true zombie! Without the tick he was done-for!”

“They controlled a dead human body?” said Ed.

“Well dah!” said Doll. “That’s sort of why we call them zombies.”

One of the five non-zombie Scar Crew members checked the body for a pulse but found none. Without the jant controlled tick to animate his heart life as a zombie was no longer possible. “Poor Pete!” he lamented. “Thought he was acting too quiet since he survived that skirmish in LA three months ago! We brought him back here near dead and we were surprised that he pulled through. I guess he didn’t survive after all but instead he died and got zombied! Three months! The sneaky bastard was dead all that time and we didn’t even know it!”

Ed couldn’t imagine the jant thought and control required to keep a human body going 24-7 for three months! It had to mean hundreds of thousands of jants dedicated to this one man 24-7.

Tog was one of the two ex-med-tick survivors. Snake pulled him to his feet and pushed him to a nearby bar table, and sat him down roughly in a chair. The Scar Crew did the same with the other med-tick survivor. Each of them was given a pint-bottle of brandy that they drank from gratefully.

“How long were you under jant control?” Snake demanded to know.

The big man shook his head and tried to gather his thoughts. “Since Spring, I suppose. Six months maybe. I was at the Fresno Scar Crew compound and woke up one morning hearing voices in my head. They didn’t control me at first, but they kept telling me that the Brothers were jant killers and had to be replaced by Scar. At first I didn’t pay much attention. I was never into politics and had always sworn to uphold the Storm Constitution under the Brothers. But then once in a while I would say and do things that I knew I wasn’t doing myself. And overthrowing the Brothers started to seem like the right thing to do.”

“They were gradually learning how to control you completely, Tog,” said Snake.

“I about went crazy when I discovered the tick on my back, but some of Scar’s Crew already seemed to know about it and calmed me down. Plus the voices in my head were telling me it was a good thing; that I was one of the lucky few chosen ones.”

“It’s got to take a hell of a lot of tiny jant brains to control each human,” said Ed, “especially a brain-dead human. They could only possibly control a selected few; especially in a region where jants are relatively scarce. Did you bring the jant colony with you to this tavern?”

“Yes,” said the big Scar Crew Leader. “There were some that Pete brought from LA but we brought most from Fresno four months ago when we took charge of this post, along with plenty of grain to feed them. They like grain and water but will eat almost anything, including animals alive or dead. Keep them happy and they make you feel real good. I can’t exactly describe it but it’s almost like sex without sex while being doped up enough not to have a care in the world.”

“And Scar is one of several that is controlled by ticks and jants?” asked Snake.

“Scar, yes,” Tog said, between swigs of brandy. “Him and that crazy-ass Rippa woman of his! We called that bitch the Wicked Witch of the North. Damn this brandy is good! The damn jants didn’t want me to drink alcohol. I’ve been in control of a tavern for four months and those mean buggers kept me from drinking alcohol except for a beer once in a great while!”

“Why wouldn’t you fight me?” asked Scar. “You’re big and tough; you might have killed me.”

“They want you all uninjured and to go to the North,” said Tog. “They didn’t say why.”

“But then the jants went and attacked us!” said Doll.

“They wanted to bite you to get to your thoughts,” said the other surviving ex-zombie. “They would have done it tonight while you slept but you went and rushed things. They’ll get their way though. They’re smarter than us. They just ain’t in no big hurry. Jants is patient.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

“What are we going to do with Tog and his Crew?” Doll asked Snake. “Technically they have all conspired with jants against the Confederacy. That is punishable by death!”

“Hey, we didn’t know it was jants pulling the strings,” protested one of the Scar Crew. “We was told that the Brothers are traitors!” said another. “We was tricked!”

“And what do you think now?” asked Doll.

“Scar’s the damn traitor,” said one of the Scar Crew, to grunts and murmurs of agreement. “It was him and the jants all along. We didn’t know that! We’re all loyal to the Confederacy.”

“Me included,” said Tog. “I don’t even pay attention to politics, except to be loyal to the Confederacy. My Mom and Pops would disown me if they found out what I done. But I thought I was saving the Confederacy by following Scar.”

“All of you must denounce Scar,” demanded Snake.

One by one all men of the Scar Crew including Tog raised their right hands and denounced Scar. Then they tore the Scar patches from their vests.

“Together make the Storm Pledge,” said Snake.

Everyone in the room except Ed raised their right hand and pledged allegiance to the Confederacy.

“I hold you all blameless.” said Snake. “Bury your friend Pete so deep that the jants won’t even find him and strengthen themselves on his remains, and guard this outpost as loyal Storms. And today drink as much booze as you want on my credits.”

There were shouts of approval as liquor bottles were handed out and Doll handed Storm patches to Snake for him to pass out to all the new Storms. He smiled and shook each of their hands as he did so.

“That’s good leadership,” Ed remarked to Snake. “When their use is plausible, carrots work better than sticks.”

“Psych 101,” said Snake. “Skinner’s intermittent positive reinforcement. Plus it’s better to be a joiner than a divider, and to make people believe that they belong. For leadership always remember your basic psychology, Ed; that’s the way these things work.”

Once again Ed was impressed by his former pupil.

“One more piece of business!” Snake shouted to quiet everyone. “We can’t have a Storm outpost that’s infested with jants. They’d get at us overnight for sure.” He turned his gaze on Ed. “Well, Jant Clan Leader, what should we do about your damn jants?”

“They refuse to talk with me further,” said Ed, “except to say that they’re leaving this tavern and won’t come back.” He could sense that they had already completely removed themselves from the tavern and via underground escape tunnels, carrying queens, eggs and food with them. They were moving in the general direction of the old aqueduct. There they could hitch rides with unknowing passing humans and go almost anywhere in the Confederacy and beyond. “They are already completely gone from this tavern and probably won’t return!”

There were joyful shouts from the crews.

Snake slapped Ed on the back in friendly Storm-crew fashion and grinned. “Good work, Jant Clan Leader! Later after I get some more rot-gut in me you can maybe explain what the hell just happened between us and those bug buddies of yours!”

“Sure,” agreed Ed, though he was himself was more than a bit confused about what was happening with the jants. “That will be swell.”

Ed brought Mary inside for lunch. For the first time in days the meal didn’t include acorn mush or fly chili, but there were yummy chicken eggs and greens. Ed then put Mary down for her nap in one of the lodge rooms before rejoining the crew at the bar. Snake, Doll, and Tog were discussing various routes north. They also decided that the Rumsfelds and their now drunken Storm Crew friends would stay the night at the tavern and leave early the next morning.

That suited Ed just fine, as the earlier disturbing altercation with the jants still troubled him considerably and he always felt better about disturbing situations after a good-night’s sleep. He had seen for himself that the jants were indeed controlling humans via med-ticks; even dead humans! But the usually rational jants had also claimed to be following the Treaty! Could they be right? His tired alcohol sloshed brain couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

CAN YOU STONE-COATS HELP ME KEEP WATCH FOR JANTS TONIGHT?” Ed asked Wheels and Max, after he took care of a much relieved Mary and finally was snug in bed next to her and ready to sleep.

“I SUGGEST THAT WE MONITOR YOUR DREAMS, AS THOSE ARE INTERFERED WITH BY NEARBY JANT ACTIVITY,” said Wheels. “OUR OWN ABILITY TO DIRECTLY DETECT JANT PRESENCE IS MUCH LESS SENSITIVE.”

YOU CAN DO THAT?” asked Ed. “I THOUGHT THAT YOU COULD ONLY DETECT OUR CONSCIOUSLY DIRECTED THOUGHTS!”

THOSE ARE TYPICALLY MORE COGENT AND MEANINGFUL,” said Wheels. “BUT OUR IMPLANTS CAN DETECT OTHER LAYERS OF THOUGHT AS WELL. IT IS GIVING US FASCINATING NEW INSIGHTS INTO HOW THE HUMAN MIND FUNCTIONS.”

SWELL,” said Ed. His nightmarish dream of being a lab-rat was at last being realized. Frank Gray Wolf would be jealous.

****

Early the next morning there was still some uncertainty about which route the travelers would use to go north. Tog took Snake, Doll, and Ed for a short bike-ride and walk to view Interstate 5, which for nearly a century had been the main route connecting Northern and Southern California. The huge highway was four lanes wide in each direction at this point, and aside from a few potholes appeared to in incredibly good shape – far better than any of the other roads that Ed had seen since arriving in California. Surprisingly, it was totally deserted.

“This stretch is in unusually good shape for over three miles in each direction,” explained Tog. “The desert has preserved much of the Interstate in almost pristine condition. We don’t get flooding as bad here as they do towards the mountains except for in a few low places, but there the damage is great. Some of the good stretches like this one get some local traffic, but where sizable bridges got washed out we haven’t bothered to keep the Interstate open.”

“You guys keep mentioning floods,” said Ed, “but the biggest problem in the State has been droughts. I’m confused.”

“Understandable,” said Doll. “Before California built its system of dams and reservoirs and aqueducts and so forth the Valley flats used to flood from the Spring snow-melts in the mountains. With the water system in place much surface water was sent to Valley farms and to LA. Now that system is largely destroyed and water isn’t pumped to LA anymore. Also there is less vegetation in the Valley to hold water. Even inland nowadays we get hurricane remnants sometimes. In the Valley there is less net water but what water there is tends to cause floods and flood damage. In a nutshell most of California pretty much alternates between drought and flood. It actually always was that way, but now it’s more pronounced.”

“Droughts that lead to floods; that’s a nifty irony!” Ed remarked.

They walked to a point nearby to where the remains of the California Aqueduct also stretched to the north and south. Up close the aqueduct structure was huge and impressive, even in its current dilapidated state. They walked through a road-wide broken-out wall section of the thick concrete structure.

“Dynamite is used to create openings for vehicle traffic and water run-off,” explained Snake. “It might seem like a shame to do that but these aqueducts will never again be used as aqueducts. The North has permanently cut us off from their water. They were happy to give us the dynamite needed to do the job of blasting openings in aqueducts.”

Inside, the aqueduct floor formed a fifty-foot wide roadway on which several motorcycles towing trailers were hauling supplies from the North. There were occasional imperfections but those were relatively minor. Assuming it extended for many miles, his was by far the best roadway that Ed had seen since coming to California.

“It turns out that the aqueducts are easier to maintain as roadways than the roads are,” said Doll. “They are very nearly level and built to last using concrete; not the softer and less durable asphalt that was once used for most roads.”

“But I don’t understand how they ever worked,” said Ed. “For water to move up the Valley and over the mountains to LA wouldn’t the water need to somewhere run up hill? What am I missing?”

“Pumping stations,” said Snake. “The aqueduct is in sections, each gently sloped downhill and south along Valley contours. There are several huge pumping stations that used to pump water uphill through pipes between aqueduct sections to almost two-thousand feet above sea level to get out of the Valley through the Tehachapi Mountains and eventually to LA. So the system has pipes and tunnels in addition to open aqueducts. Of course those pumping stations used to use tremendous amounts of electric power that we don’t have any more.”

“It seems like a damned shame to lose all that infrastructure,” said Ed.

“I’ve seen enough,” said Snake. “We’ll use the aqueduct instead of Interstate 5. Scar will probably easily find us there and could easily ambush or trap us but apparently for unknown reasons he wants us to get to the North safely. We’ll bank mostly on that.”

The travelers were soon on their way north in the aqueduct. The slope was gently upward but not enough to appreciably slow them. Every hour or so the aqueduct essentially ended at an abandoned pumping station and they had to travel down a section of improvised roadway to get to the next aqueduct section. They encountered hundreds of traders hauling goods south and food north using small cycle-pulled trailers. They also encountered dozens of Storms patrolling the route but no Scar bikers. Why that was so still weighed heavily on Snake and Doll, who chattered about it many times during the trip without coming up with a plausible explanation. Ed meanwhile pondered about the jants. What the hell where they up to with their human allies and zombies? Did these California jants have world-wide jant approval or where they rogues?

Mostly the trip was boring. Usually there wasn’t much to see except the high inside walls of the aqueduct. Mary bore the long trip stoically while listening to mostly Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Ed didn’t like it that she listened mostly to the Brahms fourth symphony and the Tchaikovsky sixth symphony, which dwelled too much on the theme of tragic death. He much preferred the more optimistically cheerful earlier works of Mary’s two favorite composers, especially Tchaikovsky’s highly emotional Fifth Symphony, and in particular its hauntingly beautiful second movement.

The opposing traffic became heavier, until it became a constant stream of cycles towing trailers heavily laden with crates full of trade goods. As impressive as that volume of goods was, Ed realized it was a mere trickle compared to what could be achieved by more efficient means of transportation such as full-sized trucks or trains.

At last they exited the Aqueduct a final time near Modesto, where after a short ride they entered a huge open area packed with hundreds of cycles, trucks, and interacting people. Ed was intrigued to again see actual full-sized trucks: the first they had encountered since arriving in California. Trade goods were being mostly hand-carried by burly men between dozens of big trucks and hundreds of small cycle-towed trailers. This was the place where most of the goods traded between the Confederacy and the North changed hands. There were thousands of small crates of fruits and vegetables headed north and crates of mostly non-food items headed south.

A conspicuously large building that stood a hundred yards distant was surrounded by dozens of CHiPs, easily distinguishable in their solid-tan uniforms. A neat row of a dozen identical CHiP motorcycles, a half-dozen patrol cars, and several big black limousines were parked in front of the building. Half a dozen cycle-sized drones circulated slowly overhead, presumably keeping an eye on things for the CHiPs. Ed had seen many drones in New York and was not surprised to also see them here in modern Northern California.

Ed also noticed several big warehouses around the periphery of the open area that were hubs of trading activity. The several bars/restaurants located conveniently nearby them were also conspicuously mobbed with truckers, bikers, and traders. Ed was getting hungry and hoped that they were headed for one of those.

Instead however, Snake and Crew made their way slowly through the crowds of traders to an inconspicuously small building that stood alone in the midst of the seeming chaos. There a dozen ornate chrome-plated Harley-Davidsons stood idle while their apparent owners stood waiting to greet the arriving travelers. Snake, Doll and the other four Storms of the traveling Crew parked and dismounted their bikes and exchanged warm hags and slaps on the backs with their Storm comrades.

“Welcome back to the Trade Zone, Brother Snake,” said their leader, a huge hairy Storm captain judging by his patches. “We are happy to see you alive and well!”

“It has been too long, Bear,” replied Snake warmly, as he exchanged a hearty greeting hug with the big Storm. “Let’s go into the Storm Trade Hut where we can talk.”

After quick introductions Snake, Doll, Ed, Mary and Wheels, and Bear went inside the Storm Trade Hut while the other Crew members stayed outside with the bikes and buddies. Inside and away from the bikes, trucks, and traders, it was comfortably quiet. After restrooms, sandwiches, beverages, and the usual complementary searches for med-ticks and electronic bugs, Bear sat down with the visitors in a surprisingly large conference room.

“All heck has been breaking loose here since your two famous visitors from New York arrived in the Confederacy,” Bear began.

“And I suppose that my cover is blown?” asked Snake.

“Totally,” said Bear. “The CHiPs know exactly who you and Doll really are and who Ed and Mary Rumsfeld are.”

“Kinda figured that would happen,” said Doll.

“I think that you are all safe here in the Trade Zone but who the hell knows what they will do with you if you continue into the North?” said Bear. “Our spies don’t have a clear reading on what the hell is going on, but over the last year or so there has been a lot of political instability in Sacramento and elsewhere here in the State. I advise that you turn around now. I can spare maybe two dozen Storms to safely escort you south all the way to Bakersfield.”

“The Federal Government backs our safety here in the North,” Ed noted.

“With respect you’re a very long way from Washington, New York, and your Mohawk Reservation, Chief,” said Bear.

“We will continue with our vacation trip,” said Mary, “and we hope that Snake and Doll will come with us.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Ed.

“Of course we will go on with you,” said Snake. “I gave you my word on it. Are you still on good terms with Slocomb, Bear? What does he say?”

“My State counterpart here in the Trade Zone is as overwhelmed and apprehensive as I am,” said Bear. “Since yesterday he has been hosting State VIPs anxiously waiting here to greet you. I’m told that the Governor himself is among them. I’m supposed to immediately take you to the State Trade Hut to meet with them if and when you show up here. The CHiPs will have already reported your arrival here. You were spotted by their spy drones when you were still over a hundred miles away.”

“Send word to them that the meeting will be here and ASAP,” said Snake.

“They probably won’t like that,” said Bear.

“Tough,” said Snake. “Even if they have overwhelming forces and everything else this Trade Zone is still officially part of the Confederacy. I’m simply reminding them of that.”

Bear smiled and stepped out of the room for a short time and soon returned. “They agree and will be here within minutes,” he announced, as he handed out modern fist-sized satellite visicoms to the travelers. “Hyper-encrypted, of course,” he noted. “And unlike in the South, satellite navigation signals are available. And this is Ken Hooper, your Storm guide to the North and your key link to our absurdly inadequate little Northern California spy network.” Bear stepped aside so that a small thin man could squeeze through the doorway past Bear’s immense bulk. Ken was a past middle-aged man close to Ed’s height and build that wore an all-gray business suit; with clean shaven face and sharp hawkish features.

“Ken, you old son-of-a-bitch!” exclaimed Snake, as he hugged the smaller man. “I thought you were retired!”

“Retirement is boring as hell, that’s what I soon found out,” said Ken.

Snake introduced Ken to the others as an old compatriot of his that spent many decades spying in the North for the Storm Confederacy.

“The State figured out what I was decades ago and mostly didn’t even care,” lamented Ken. “They even hired me on as a State consultant. When a buddy of mine working in the State Capital told me about this crazy mission of yours I had to get in on it.”

“It’s more of a cluster than a mission, Ken,” said Snake. “In a nutshell what’s going on from your perspective?”

“That’s what everyone wants to know,” said Ken. “Word is out that President Roth and even Jerry Green himself spoke with Governor Flanders several times over the last month about the Rumsfelds coming here. But some say that Flanders still doesn’t know what’s happening. There are rumors in the national news about an aircraft high-jacking and the disappearance of the Rumsfelds but nobody has put together a coherent story.”

“National news!” exclaimed Ed. “So much for privacy!”

“A monumental cluster,” said Snake.

“Mostly we’re vacationing,” said Mary, “and mostly it’s nobody’s business but our own.”

“Nobody in their right mind goes to Southern California for a vacation,” said Ken.

“That’s true for sure,” admitted Ed.

“In any case we’re here,” said Mary. “I suppose we should work out itinerary details and get started.”

“There’s some VIP State folks headed here now that will want in on that,” said Bear.

On cue there was a knock at the conference room door and two middle-aged men in business suits were admitted, followed by an attractive past middle-age woman also dressed for an office environment. To Ed her most obvious feature was her telepathic ability.

“Hello, Ken!” she said to Ken Hooper with a big smile. “JERRY GREEN SAYS HELLO AND HIPPOPOTAMUS,” she also immediately and confidentially told Ed telepathically.

Despite her knowledge of one of the passwords Jerry had given him, Ed didn’t immediately give the counter-sign. “I’VE ALWAYS LIKED HIPPOS, DESPITE THEIR TENDENCY TO ATTACK AND KILL MORE PEOPLE THAN LIONS OR CROCODILES,” Ed answered. “I HOPE THERE ARE ENOUGH HIPPOS BEING RAISED IN ZOOS TO PRESERVE THE SPECIES.”

“I’m Allen Slocomb, State Envoy in charge of trade relations with the Stormtrooper Confederacy,” said the first man, as he shook hands with each of the travelers, “and these are of course Governor Paul Flanders, and Lieutenant Governor Mira Craig.” He gestured towards the other man and the Craig woman and then stepped back and out of their way.

“Snake Williams the War Brother, and the infamous China Doll his Warrior Princess,” said Flanders, as Snake and Doll stood to shake hands with him. “When Green informed me that it would be you accompanying the Rumsfelds I was totally flabbergasted. What, may I ask, are your intensions here?”

“Mostly curiosity, Governor,” said Snake, “to be indulged as I escort the vacationing Rumsfelds. Though there is also the pending matter of Los Angeles. I assume that Green has spoken to you about that business also.”

“We’ve already drafted treaty paperwork and sent it to your brother to review and ratify,” said Flanders. “Good luck with the Mexicans though. I don’t expect they will give up on Los Angeles so easily.”

“We’ll work things out with them as peacefully as possible,” said Snake. “Before long you will be calling me the Peace Brother.”

“That would be a welcome change,” said the Governor, as he shifted his attention to Ed and Mary. “Your Stone-Coats precede you, Rumsfeld. They are working miracles in our State and quickly winning over supporters including me. Between the expanded Federal Space Program and the Stone-Coats the public is already starting to feel more confident of a positive future. It’s a damned miracle! Your itinerary as relayed by President Roth and the mysterious Jerry Green puzzle us though. It suggests that after a rather brief stop in Silicon Valley and San Francisco you’ll head further north to see trees and then somehow from there travel home.”

“Our primary reason for being in California is to vacation,” said Ed. “But we promised to stop by and check on Jerry’s Space Program while we were out here.”

“With no planned stop in Sacramento?” Flanders asked. “Surely a person of your political stature can understand our disappointment.”

“Political stature?” Ed managed. “I’m a Co-Chief of a tiny Mohawk Tribe.”

“You’re far too modest,” said the Governor. “Your Tribe has been instrumental in establishing both Stone-Coat and jant relationships with humans world-wide. Like it or not you are an international super-star. Yet you planned to sneak in and out of California without even contacting State authorities?”

HIS RE-ELECTION IS NEXT MONTH,” Mara quietly informed Ed. “THE TIMING OF YOUR VISIT SEEMS TO TIE IN WITH THE ELECTION. HIS STRONGEST OPPONENT IS NAMED LORNA RIPPA, A JANT ADVOCATE.”

“No slight to you or your wonderful state was intended, Governor,” said Ed. “We simply lack the time to do everything here that maybe ideally we’d like to do. Mary and I have resisted becoming public figures, and we aren’t interested at all in becoming celebrities or involving ourselves in politics.”

“We are quiet, behind the scenes people,” added Mary. “We came here mostly to see your wonderful trees and coastline.”

“You are definitely world-wide mega-celebrities,” countered Flanders, “even if by mostly staying on your Mohawk Reservation you didn’t realize it. But over the last few days there have been stories in the national and world news that you were missing, kidnapped, or killed in savage Southern California, which has been irresponsibly abandoned by State and Federal governments. In sum my state and I are getting devastatingly bad press. Now you’ve been discovered alive and well, no thanks to me, and as wonderful as that may be, I’ll still look like a bumbling fool.”

“There now, it isn’t so bad as all that,” said Ken Hooper. “The story just needs a touch of spin and you’ll all be heroes. The airplane bringing them to LA developed engine problems and had to put down in the desert, where the kindly Williams Brothers befriended the Rumsfelds and brought them safely to the State, along with good tidings of hope for besieged Los Angeles that the city will soon be under State-approved protection by the Confederacy. The Brothers in cooperation with the State will free Los Angeles from the nasty drug-mob controlled Mexicans.”

“OK, that all sounds good,” said Mara. “You haven’t lost your touch, Ken. Good to see you back in action.”

“The ever helpful Rumsfelds helped the Brothers apply their Stone-Coats to better the lives of the needy people of the Confederacy and devise a path towards peace in Los Angeles,” said Doll, continuing the narrative. “Then as skillfully planned by the ever vigilant and resourceful Governor our visiting heroes headed north to review the Space Program and Stone-Coat progress and to ensure lasting peace between the State and the Confederacy as well as increased prosperity and safety for all Californians.”

“And of course they had a warm heart-felt meeting with their friend the Governor along the way,” added Mara.

“Wow, we really are heroes!” remarked Ed. “Even I’d like to meet me! Will I have to kiss any babies?”

“Maybe,” said Mary. “And while they were in the neighborhood the visitors decided to see the big trees and the coastline in support of the wonderful conservation plans of the State and Federal governments.”

“And then they lived happily ever after,” concluded Ed. “I think I feel a happy-tear coming on!”

“Work out the details and make it so, Mara; and get some good video and stills,” said the Governor, as he stood to leave. “I’ve got to get back on the campaign trail. Say! Before I leave why don’t I warmly greet all of you outside as you arrive here?”

“Great idea; we’ll get some great video and stills!” said Mara, with a smile.

“Even though we arrived half an hour ago!” noted Ed. “So you’re leaving now after we just met you but instead we’ll make it look like we’re arriving as planned and we’re all really good buddies.”

“Exactly!” said Mara.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this now!” said Ed.

They went outside and went through the motions of arriving and greeting each other warmly while a woman with a professional looking camera system recorded everything. Ed and Mary said a few words about how wonderful it was to be in the great state of California and visiting their good friend Governor Flanders. Snake said that he and Flanders were guaranteeing greater peace and prosperity for all of California. “Thanks to the vision and initiative of Governor Flanders,” Snake even added.

After a little editing footage was released to the public news outlets. Holographic images of the safe arrival of Ed, Mary, and Snake in Northern California and the warm greeting given by Governor Flanders was soon State, national, and world news.

“We’re still not going to Sacramento,” Ed told Mara, after the Governor was gone and they returned to the Storm Trade Hut conference room to discuss the itinerary.

HIPPOPOTAMUS,” she answered telepathically.

RUMPELSTILTSKIN,” Ed at long-last replied with the password countersign. “HOW LONG HAVE YOU WORKED FOR JERRY GREEN?”

OVER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS,” Mara replied. “THROUGH THREE CALIFORNIA GOVERNORS.”

NIFTY, BUT WE STILL AREN’T GOING TO SACRAMENTO.”

“We’re next supposed to go to someplace called Moffat Field and to Stanford University,” Ed said aloud. “Then we want to see a little of San Francisco before we head further north to see the redwoods and the Pacific.”

“The Feds want you to first visit Stanford. Stanford has an ongoing colloquium with the Stone-Coats and they want you to visit and provide some remarks.” said Mara.

“Remarks?” Ed said, startled. “Remarks about what?”

“About the significance of the human collaboration with Stone-Coats,” said Mara. “You and your mother have dealt with them far longer than most people have.”

Mother? It took a moment for Ed to realize that she meant Mary. Jerry Green had of course identified Mary to be his mother!

“No problem,” said Mary, smiling. “My son and I will be glad to discuss Stone-Coats with Stanford intellectuals. Sounds like great fun.”

“And the Governor wants to hold a discussion with Brother Williams and publically make a show of improving State relations with the Confederacy.”

“Our relationship is already good!” Snake protested. “You already have your damned publicity shots of Flanders greeting us! You’ll have my face plastered in every media outlet in the country! Isn’t that enough?”

“You’re a living legend, War Brother Snake,” said Ken. “China Doll has also become notorious. You two can’t escape publicity any more than Ed can. Flanders wants to be seen as being on top of the situation.”

“Swell!” the Brother conceded. “But I’m traveling on my cycle, not inside some damned State limo.”

“Same here,” added Doll.

“Ditto,” said Ed. “We’ve gotten used to traveling in Mack and value his companionship.”

Mara shrugged. “I can work with that until we get to your next stop. Ken and I get the limo for now. But we prefer that Snake and Doll be the only Stormtroopers coming along. We can’t very well have a whole Storm crew cycling though our streets.”

“We had already decided that,” said Snake. “My men will wait for me here. You, Ken, myself and Doll will escort the Rumsfelds from here on out.”

“Snake and Doll better get back here safe or there will be hell to pay,” added Bear to the Lieutenant Governor.

“Understood,” said Mara, though everyone knew that his was a mostly empty threat. “Everyone, this is Lieutenant Fred Custer, leader of the CHiPs that will be escorting us throughout your visit with us.”

A burley middle-aged CHiP without a hint of telepathic ability stepped out from the ranks of police that had arrived earlier with the Governor. “It will be my pleasure,” he said, as he shook hands with the visitors and then with Bear and Slocomb. He eyed Snake and Doll wearily, taking their measure.

“I don’t think that we’ve met before,” said Bear, as he sized up the CHiP patrolman.

“I’ve led some patrols along the South Coast, but mostly I’ve worked in the North,” said Custer.

“HE HAS BEEN PROTECTING THE GOVERNOR AND I MOST RECENTLY,” Mara added for Ed’s benefit. “HE’S A GOOD MAN, THOUGH HE’S TOTALLY NON-POLITICAL.”

A CHiP trooper handed Custer a small satchel from which he retrieved small cell-phones that he passed out to the visitors. “These are CHiP units preset to call me and my men directly,” he explained. “Hit the yellow button and you’ll get me. Hit the red button and we’ll all come running to whoever hit the button.”

“A panic button!” said Ed. “Sounds good to me.”

“Is there a button that sends you all away?” asked Snake.

“Afraid not,” Custer said with a smile.

“Sounds swell,” said Ed. “I’m sure we’ll all get along nicely! Now let’s get this vacation moving please!”

Custer assumed the lead road captain position in the convoy, followed by Snake and Doll, then Mack and the limo. The ancient ornate Harleys of the Stormtroopers contrasted greatly with the smaller, newer, quieter, more compact cycles of the CHiPs.

Bear and Slocomb happily waved goodbye to the entourage when they left the Trade Center, obviously relieved that their VIP visitors were all gone at last and things were back to a normal level of chaos.

****

 

Chapter 10

Silicon Valley

 

The travelers were escorted by Custer and his CHiPs through several gates that were manned by other heavily armed CHiPs. Just beyond that were fueling stations, bars, restaurants and hotels to accommodate State truckers and traders. A CHiPs drone now continuously followed them overhead. The Rumsfelds were back in the late twenty-first century USA. Ed didn’t know yet whether to be relieved or worried about that. He had already caught glimpses of the late twenty-first century in New York City and wasn’t sure that he much liked it. Too many people and gizmos.

“Quite a little boom-town you have here,” remarked Mary.

“Civilization!” said Ed. “Good roads, autos, new buildings, well dressed people, and the whole shebang!”

Mara heard and responded via the radio link that Mack had established with the limo. “Largely our Northern California and Federal tax dollars at work,” she said. “Decades ago the State learned that subsidizing the Stormtrooper Confederacy was far cheaper than directly providing order and disaster relief and fending off the Mexicans. This is the main gateway by which the State sustains the Stormtrooper Confederacy.”

“Sort of sounds like the State sold out many of its citizens,” said Ed.

“We did what we could,” Mara replied. “Northern California had enough local problems when over twenty million people fled from Southern California to escape heat, draught, and chaos. Most people headed east or continued on even further north, but at least five million resettled in Northern California.”

“I thought that the draught hit the entire State,” said Mary.

“Yes, but it’s not as bad in the North,” Mara explained. “Except for millions of transplants from the South, things remained almost normal in our most northern counties and in Oregon and Washington states. But water has been a bad problem for most of California.”

“Bad enough that the North shut the aqueducts off and kept the remaining water for themselves,” said Snake. “As a result the water wars in the South intensified. Thousands died from fighting and starvation.”

“Things gradually got better though,” argued Mara.

“Yes, a shitty new ‘normal’ got established,” said Doll. “But every stable new normal social system seems to involve haves and have-nots. The Confederacy has the have-nots, the North has the haves.”

“Had to happen that way,” said Snake philosophically. “They had the water, the people, and every damn other thing of value. We tried to capture the Delta area where Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers merge and the aqueducts start but we failed. The best we could do was to settle for a steady trickle of assorted supplies from the North in return for over-all peace. Three quarters of the goods we get are paid for by the North, only one quarter are paid for by food that we grow mostly in greenhouses. We are merely the State’s paid thugs, paid only enough to maintain general order and stop Mexico from spreading further north.”

“The Stone-Coats will change that,” said Mary. “Within another five years you’ll start to see a better new normal in both the North and South.”

“But any big change always means political destabilization and conflict,” said Snake. “That’s the way these things work. Ambitious people will always find something to fight over and about. They’ll exploit the fears and hopes of their own people by deluding them to gain power and wealth for themselves.”

“But much human fighting will soon end,” said Mack, startling the humans.

“How do you know that?” asked Ed.

“We have decided that humans fighting each other is not in our best interest,” said the Stone-Coat. “We will inhibit human warfare.”

“Good luck with that,” said Ed sincerely.

The ride west to the San Francisco Bay area only took about an hour. Travel on the perfectly intact interstate highways was smooth and swift. They passed through a valley surrounded by scrub-covered hills that soon opened into a house-covered landscape with a sizable stretch of water beyond that stretched north further than the travelers could see. It was the southern part of the famous San Francisco Bay.

Ed also sensed jant colonies scattered throughout the countryside, but particularly in each town. They sensed him telepathically also, and they exchanged cordial greetings with him but didn’t initiate serious discussion. There was the usual scattering of native wild animals here also, including California condors. It was amazing how common the once rare giant birds had quickly become.

Half an hour more driving through traffic laden highways and they were in San Jose itself, passing through the downtown area. The skyline of office buildings was much smaller but generally much newer than anything Ed had ever seen in New York City.

“San Jose has for a long time had a much greater population and economic power than San Francisco.” said Mara, “but San Francisco still seems to have the greatest historical and cultural appeal. Do you guys want to do a quick driving tour of the area now?”

“Mary has had enough for today,” Ed announced, though it was still only mid-afternoon. He had been monitoring her closely via her implant and she seemed to be very tired. “Can we get to a hotel soon?”

“We have rooms booked for all of us in Sunnyvale,” said Mara.

“Good; we need some rest time,” said Ed. “You have to understand that we’ve mostly lived in Mack since we got to California.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” added Mary. “We love Mack, but a nice quiet non-moving hotel room would be wonderful about now. I badly need my old lady nap.”

“The Governor has a gala greeting and dinner for you planned for tonight,” said Mara.

“That will be OK if I have time for a three hour nap first,” said Mary.

“We’ll take the time,” said Ed.

“And I could use a shower and some fresh clothes,” Mary added.

“Me and you both,” said Doll. “While Mary takes a nap I’ll do some shopping for both of us. And I’ll even get something spiffy for Snake and Ed.”

“I’m not going to a damn clothing store or wearing no damn suit!” stated Snake.

“Trust me, Baby,” said Doll. “I’m thinking biker business casual. You and Ken can hang out at the hotel bar with your new CHiP buddies. Mara will take me to some stores and buy us stuff, won’t you Mara?”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ed.

“But the Governor is expecting us at seven!” protested Mara.

“We’ll shoot for nine,” said Snake. “Take us to the hotel. Now.”

“Mary’s health takes precedence,” noted Ed. “RUMPELSTILTSKIN,” he added quietly, for good measure.

Mara replied nothing but the entourage very soon took a left-hand turn. In minutes they were pulling in front of an absurdly new and lavish looking hotel. Mara led the strange group into a lobby so huge that it could have easily contained all of the Giants’ Rest Mountain caves of the Tribe. There was a glass ceiling a hundred feet above their heads and dozens of full-sized potted palm trees scattered around the lobby floor. There were also a half-dozen stunningly attractive young ladies behind the front desk instead of a hulking Stormtrooper. One of them informed the travelers that they were already checked in and smiled incessantly as a team of uniformed bus-boy people picked up their luggage and led them to luxurious rooms twenty stories above. An armed burly CHiP followed them and checked the rooms before they entered, and then discretely disappeared.

The Rumsfelds had an absurdly huge and nice suite; thankfully the State of California was paying for them. Ed had budgeted staying in someplace more affordable such as a Red Roof Inn. The suite included a complete living room and kitchen in addition to an immense bathroom and bedroom. It was all so new and clean that the Rumsfelds felt obligated to take showers and change into clean clothes before contaminating it with their trip tarnished clothing and bodies. Wheels rolled Mary to the bathroom to shower and then to a reclining chair in the living room where she at last stretched out her tired body. Wheels quickly assessed and replicated control signals for the room’s entertainment system and he and Mary began experimenting with it as Ed retreated to the bathroom.

In the bathroom Ed was interested to soon discover a modern low-seat toilet. He had heard of them but this is the first time he had seen and used one. The toilet bowl was so low that the seat was less than a foot above floor level. The idea was to squat and do your business rather than sit upright, resulting in less toilet paper use and less flush water use. Less water use was important for most of the world. Nifty idea, but already obsolete since Stone-Coat toilets didn’t require any water at all and would likely soon become the commode of choice world-wide. However that would take years to happen. This particular fancy squat-toilet featured hydraulic stand-assistance for the physically inept, which explained how Mary had been able to get up off the thing when she was done with it.

When Ed emerged clean and refreshed from the bathroom a few minutes later he was startled to find himself in a mountainous pine forest. He could also see as ghostly shadows the living room furniture and walls that were closest to him, but almost everything further away than a couple of yards was holographic forest that stretched miles into the distance. The exception was the recliner that held Mary, which incongruently sat next to a bubbling brook that ran down from a rocky mountainside. Birds and chipmunks scampered about, chirping and rustling the downed leaves that littered the forest floor.

“It’s a holographic room decor and entertainment system,” Mary explained. “I heard about them but didn’t realize they were out into the world yet. There are hundreds of locations to choose from. We could spend the rest of our vacation here and travel almost anywhere in the world without even leaving our rooms. We can be visited by simulated people also.”

“Sort of like a Star Trek holodeck,” Ed remarked. “Except that what we see is of course not really solid.” He stretched out his left arm and watched it reach through a pine tree trunk before touching the solid hotel wall that lay beyond it. A few square feet of wall immediately appeared. “Nifty. Notice how it responds to what I’m doing so that I don’t walk into walls and so-forth. The pine-and-earth scent is a nice touch also. You need your rest though.”

“True enough,” Mary agreed, as the pine forest instantly disappeared, though the scent of it lingered. “And I can’t wait to explore the bedroom.”

Ed carried Mary into the bedroom and laid her out on the conventional looking king-sized bed. They checked the bed for bugs but of course there were none. They hadn’t encountered such clean sheets in years. There was of course a second holographic entertainment system for the bedroom and Ed through his implant had Wheels display its menu on a wall. The system included several ‘adult only’ settings that Ed was not curious enough to explore and Mary was too old and tired to try out. It of course also included simulations of many restful locations world-wide, as well as several spectacular views of the universe as recorded by telescopes in space. They could even fly together on their bed trough the sky or throughout the universe if they wanted to, in Bedknobs and Broomsticks fashion.

“The human-manufactured computational resources required for this system are immense,” Wheels remarked, “including terra-flops of instructions and terra bytes of memory.”

“Well this is after all Silicon Valley,” said Ed, “a world famous tech center. But this is opulence to such an absurd degree that it bothers me greatly. Not very far from here people are trading spinach for toilet paper that they will haul for hundreds of miles in desert heat using motorcycle trailers. Next to that this level of luxury seems utterly obscene. Pretty nifty though, I have to admit. I wonder if our Stone-Coats back home could replicate this in our caves?”

“Yes they could,” said Wheels, “though the purpose would not be understood. Why humans would wish to delude themselves about their surroundings in such a way is incomprehensible.”

“There have got to be truly useful applications such as on space voyages or to provide psychiatric therapy, but there’s some sort of dangerously slippery slope here that could be hazardous, and humanity is already faced with far too many slippery slopes that cause us to often metaphorically fall on our asses.”

“You think about things too much and too critically, Ed,” said Mary. “I think I’ll take my nap on a Hawaiian beach. Wheels will keep me company, Ed. Why don’t you go find your buddies at the bar? Maybe they’ll have some nice holographic female entertainment.”

“Throwing me down a slippery slope, are you? OK, I’ll check out the bar.”

Ed first assured himself that Mary was settled into her nap. The Hawaiian beach at sunset that she had chosen as her as her room decor was spectacularly restful. The air seemed slightly damp and salty with a tinge of exotic flower smell. In the warm glow of sunset she was soon nodding-off to the sound of gentle waves and the cries of distant sea birds. Wheels confirmed to Ed that she was deep into sleep and that her vital signs were within acceptable norms.

Ed made his way downstairs to the hotel bar where he found Snake and Ken engaged in a serious discussion while eating and drinking. A ring of CHiPs including Custer surrounded them at a discrete distance, also munching on sandwiches and drinking beer. Ed felt safer already.

“The beer selection here is disappointing unless you prefer something mild like traditional Anchor Steam,” Snake told Ed, as he joined them at their table. “I like something more hoppy myself.” He hoisted a big mug of dark beer and chugged down a few ounces.

“I’m just drinking lemonade,” said Ken.

“I’ll have the lemonade also,” Ed told the waitress that had materialized nearby. He couldn’t tell if she was real or holographic, but she was slippery-slope cute. “Haven’t been able to find good lemonade in years.”

“Well I’m getting too damn old for alcohol,” said Ken, “especially when I need to keep my head on straight, such as now. In a few hours you guys will be the subject of a press conference and you need to plan out what the hell you’re going to say to California and to the world.”

“California and the world?” said Ed. “I thought that we were just going to have a quiet dinner with the Governor!”

“And with the press and assorted VIPs;” said Ken, “hundreds of them of all political flavors. Make no mistake, your amazing rescue from the wilds of Southern California is a mega news story. Flanders wants to be seen publicly with you guys.”

“Mega news?” said Ed. “You have to be kidding! On any day somewhere in the world there are wars and other assorted mayhem that cost thousands of lives.”

“But who wants to hear about that?” said Ken. “That stuff happens every day! You guys are unusual news and you need to prepare yourself for the publicity.”

“I’m going to simply wing it,” said Snake. “I n’ll thank the Governor for his hospitality and for our peaceful relations with the State and so forth, of course.”

“Winging it sounds good to me too,” said Ed. “I’ll thank Snake and Doll for helping Mary and me, and try to honestly answer any questions they give me. We’ll stick to the story line you outlined earlier, Ken, but mostly we will simply truthfully answer any questions they give us as best we can. I’ve been interviewed by the press dozens of times before. The main thing is to stay relatively honest but vague, and I’m a master at that.”

“Wow you guys are naive, unless ‘relatively honest’ includes some well-constructed lies,” said Ken. “Here comes Mara. I’m sure she’ll have some sobering advice to give.”

“Gentlemen,” she said, as she pulled up a chair. “We have some things to talk about.”

“Where is Doll?” asked Snake.

“I left her with my credit card and several of my most trusted CHiP agents, happily shopping in the trendy Silicon Valley Shopping Center only a few minutes from here. Ed and Snake can expect a new set of clothes to arrive here in a couple of hours. Meanwhile we can talk here fairly openly and safely.”

“Safely?” asked Ed.

“This particular hotel is jant and Stone-Coat free, except for Wheels and your implants, of course,” she explained, “and the CHiP escorts that surround us carry disruptive electronics gear to foil bugging devices.”

“If course,” said Ken. “I had assumed as much. I was in the process of explaining to Snake and Ed the importance of the upcoming event and how they need to be prepared to say a few thoughtful words.”

“True,” said Mara. “I need to also disclose to you some things you should be aware of. We have suspicions that jants plot to steal the upcoming State election for governor.”

“Ants are running to be governor of California?” asked Ed.

“Through their med-tick controlled candidate, Lorna Rippa,” said Mara. “Mostly they simply control people using cash, but selected people are what we call jant drones.”

“It could simply be rumor that she’s jant controlled,” said Ken.

HIPPOPOTAMUS,” Mara added for Ed’s benefit. “I’M TELLING YOU SOME HARD-WON JERRY-GATHERED INTELLIGENCE.”

“We call them jant zombies,” said Snake. “My biggest enemy in the Confederacy is a jant zombie named Scar. Jants gave us some problems only a couple of days ago.” He outlined the recent events experienced by the travelers at the aqueduct outpost.

“Not surprising,” Mara remarked. “They didn’t want to kill you or stop you, but they did try to get control of you.”

“I need to have a serious discussion with my jant friends,” said Ed.

“Not yet,” said Mara. “First we should try to figure out what they want. Knowledge is leverage and we need more. We do know that they are part of a nationwide network sponsored by the Falcone Unlimited Corporation. The so-called Falcone family controls many important people nationwide and internationally through bribes and med-ticks.”

“More rumors,” said Ken.

“So-called Falcone family?” asked Snake.

“There is no Falcone family, at least not originally,” said Mara. “A man named George Falcone appears to run the company, but his last name used to be Kelso.”

“George Kelso?” said Ed. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

“He was the first human to be cured of cancer by a med-tick about twenty years ago,” said Mara. “He may have also been the first jant drone.”

“Son of a bitch!” Ed exclaimed. “I think I’ve met the man at some sort of UN shindig in New York!” He asked a cute hovering waitress for mild beer. The conversation was getting too serious and crazy for just lemonade.

“Was he hosting a tick?” asked Snake.

“I don’t remember,” said Ed. “A lot of people host med-ticks for medical reasons. I probably would have noticed but not paid it any attention. On the Reservation I’m surrounded by jants and constant jant chatter.”

“Falcone holdings and interests are world-wide,” continued Mara.

“Hacker and I suspected some such shenanigans,” said Snake. “After all, it wouldn’t make sense for desolate Southern California be their only interest. Jants are world-wide so it’s only logical that jant zombies are world-wide.”

“We have found possible links between the Falcone Corporation and Lorna Rippa, the LGBTQAIMRJ advocate and candidate for California Governor,” said Mara.

“The what advocate?” asked Ed. “LGBT folks are mainstream now; you lost me after that. The letters after LGBT keep changing.”

“Yes, that has become a controversial problem among civil rights advocates,” said Mara. “Too many sorts have folks have tried to hitch their wagons to the establishment LGBT people in order to gain legitimacy. Now Rippa advocates for jant drone equality. They want jant drones to be legal and accepted by society as a legitimate life-choice. Right now people with med-ticks and no medical problem are more or less arrested and their ticks are anesthetized and removed.”

“It all sounds like over-reaction to conspiracy theory nonsense,” said Ken.

Ed was having a hard time getting his head around all this. He had lived with jants for forty years and seen no hints of jant drones/zombies, and he was Tribe Clan Leader for several people that had indeed chosen to host med-ticks indefinitely. Here in California his Tribe Jant Clan would probably be illegal. “So you are saying that an international mega-corporation is providing a front for jants?” asked Ed. “The jants control the Falcones and this Rippa woman?”

He chugged down the Anchor Steam that the waitress brought him, wishing that he had ordered something stronger alcohol-wise or stayed in his room on a nice Hawaiian beach. He had been comfortably assuring himself that this jant zombie business and the incident at the aqueduct station were mere aberrations in jant behavior; bizarre and disturbing but local to California. It all had to be some sort of misunderstanding. But now a trusted Jerry agent was telling him that this thing, whatever it was, was nation-wide and even world-wide! After he and Mary finished their vacation they would return to Giants’ Rest and get the whole thing straightened out through the local jants there.

“Not exactly; in essence the jants ARE the Falcones!” explained Mara again. “The most powerful international corporation in the world is jant-owned, corrupted, and controlled.”

“That sounds crazy!” Ed protested. “Why? What do they want?”

“Earth,” said Snake. “Ultimately this planet ain’t big enough for the both of us. They are using our own culture and people to infiltrate and control us. Pretty damned clever! Me and Hacker are amateur despots compared to them; but then using their hive minds they are said to be much smarter than any humans.”

“Sounds far-fetched,” said Ed. “Say! Didn’t Tog mention Scar being with a crazy woman named Rippa back at the outpost?”

“You’re right!” said Snake. “He said something about Scar being in the company of a crazy-ass woman named Rippa: The Wicked Witch of the North! That can’t be a coincidence. Kind of figures that there had to be a woman involved somehow in corrupting Scar. I have a theory that behind most evil men there is an evil woman.”

“Actually I suspect that behind most good men there is a good woman,” countered Ed, “and behind most bad men there is an inability to relate to good women.”

“Well in this case poor old country boy Scar never had a chance!” said Scar. “Mara says that Rippa is a lawyer that worked her way through law-school as a used car saleswoman. Imagine the concentrated evil! In any case the plot thickens, Ed. You guys want some more brew?” He waved his empty mug in the air and a waitress carrying a pitcher of dark beer quickly appeared to refill it.

“If this zombie business is true maybe it’s better that they control us a bit rather than outright wipe us out,” said Ken. “Maybe it’s a good trade-off for humans. But then I’m even more inclined to believe that all of this business is empty conspiracy theory BS anyway. What would this be all about if they were doing it?”

“We don’t know what they want, exactly,” said Mara. “We are hoping you could somehow help us find out, Ed. Jerry doesn’t want to confront them directly himself. Jerry wants you to figure out what’s happening jant-wise here in California. From his perspective that’s mostly why you’re here.”

Ed felt as if he had just been sucker punched in the gut. This explained why Jerry had gone to such great lengths to accommodate Mary’s innocent wish to visit California! For Jerry their vacation was a mission to help figure out what was up with the jants! Once again he had been suckered into something much bigger than he ever wanted to be involved in, a situation that put both him and Mary in danger!

TELL YOUR BOSS JERRY THAT HE CAN GO FUCK HIMSELF!” he tele-pathed to Mara.

“HE SAID THAT YOU’D SAY SOMETHING LIKE THAT,” replied Mara.

YES, I’M PRETTY FUCKING PREDICTABLE, AREN’T I?” he replied curtly. He chugged down the rest of his beer, slammed the empty mug down on the table, then got up and walked out of the bar.

By the time the elevator reached his floor he was steaming mad and his head was spinning with ideas about what to do. There were commercial flights out of San Francisco Airport only a few miles north towards San Francisco. Maybe there was a red-eye flight east that they could catch straight to La Guardia. By this time tomorrow he and Mary could be home at Giants’ Rest sleeping snugly in their humble little isolated-from-the-world Jant Clan longhouse cave adorned with comforting Mohawk artifacts and indisputably friendly Stone-Coats and jants.

Before the heavy winter snows hit he and Mary could visit nearby forests and he could exchange therapeutically simple thoughts with the owls and the local wolf-pack that still lived there. He would wake Mary and they would be out of this hotel and in a taxi before the others even knew what hit them. He didn’t yet know how the hell they would get by the cops but once they were in Mack they’d have a hell of a time stopping them. Big Stone-Coats could shoot deadly icicles; could Wheels and Mack do that? He’d have to ask them.

When Ed entered the suite he was surprised to find Mary sitting in the living room lounge chair, cheerfully munching on yogurt. The entertainment system was turned off.

“I want to be ready when Doll gets back here with our new clothes!” she explained. “I can’t wait to get to this fancy reception by the Governor but we need to be strict with these people. Within three days we better be seeing redwood trees and Pacific coastline or we’re going to rebel! We can’t be dragged into some damn gubernatorial campaign! We’ll talk to these guys tonight and tomorrow make rounds for Jerry and that’s it! At that point we’ll be done with Jerry problems and Snake’s problems! Then after no more than a couple of San Francisco days we’ll head north to the big trees, just you and me, Mack and Wheels. Maybe we won’t even need Snake and Doll, and we certainly won’t need Ken or Mara or any of her CHiP goons.”

She was really excited about continuing the vacation; Ed hadn’t seen her this happy and excited for months! He immediately dismissed his idea to cut the trip short. He and Mary snuggled in the recliner as they waited for Doll to bring the new clothes. Without the distraction of the entertainment system it was truly quiet and restful in this hotel room and he let his mind wonder. He searched telepathically until he located a falcon loitering a thousand feet above the city skyline, looking for careless plump pigeons below.

Ed linked his awareness with that of the falcon, until he sensed what the bird sensed, and felt what the bird felt. The view was spectacular; the bird and by extension Ed could see everything for miles in sharp relief. The sky was first scanned by the bird for rivals but there were none nearby. In the distance there were what looked like huge birds that came and went from a point on the ground several miles to the south. Strangely they seemed to line-up in perfect lines as they approached, the landing area, and were in lines when they left it.

The falcon harbored ill will towards these distant intruders. Ed linked an inquiry to Wheels who responded with information on ultra-lightweight aircraft that were used in much of the Western United States by commuting humans. Of course! No wonder the falcon harbored some ill will towards these intruders to her domain!

Inhumanly keen falcon eyes could see that there were dozens of plump awkward food birds far below, easy pray for a swift dive and strike with powerful talons and ripping beak that would then devour tasty flesh. But mere survival wasn’t enough for the free-flying bird. She found a nearby thermal and soared yet higher, above a thin layer of low clouds and far above the puny works of man, into the rays of the setting sun to feel its warmth through her insolating feathers. Beating her powerful wings she soared higher still, and screamed out to all the world that she was its master!

But she was also hungry. Her last brood of chicks had grown and flown away to live their own lives, and her mate often fended for himself. So this evening she needed to feed only herself, but she did need to feed. Remembering where she had seen her most likely prey she folded her wings back and dove down towards it, exhilarating in the rush of cool damp air around her as she regained sight of her unsuspecting prey and dropped towards it with deadly talons extended, a swift winged death!

Ed didn’t much like the killing of others being part of life, and it was time for him to get on with his own serious business anyway. He withdrew from the mind of the falcon and searched for jants. As promised by Mara there were none in the hotel but there was a large colony in a neighboring building. Too large for this concrete-dominated neighborhood, Ed realized; Humans had to be feeding them. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” he asked them frankly, in their own language.

There was the expected pause as the local colony communicated with others and formulated a response. “WE REQUIRE TO LIVE AND FLOURISH EVERYWHERE THAT HUMANS DO,” came the answer. “THAT IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE TREATY REQUIREMENT.”

WHY DO YOU CONTROL SOME OF US?” he asked.

“TO LIVE AND FLOURISH,” they repeated. “TO ACCOMPLISH OUR GOALS ADJUSTMENTS TO HUMAN BEHAVIOR ARE SOMETIMES NECESSARY.”

BUT WE HAVE BEEN WILLFULLY COOPERATING WITH YOU!” Ed noted.

NOT ENTIRELY. MANY HUMANS OPPOSE US HARSHLY. CONTROLLING A FEW KEY HUMANS IS A NECESSITY. IN THE SOUTH PART OF CALIFORNIA WE ARE OPPOSED BOTH BY HUMANS AND HARVESTER ANTS. THE HUMANS THERE IGNORE THE TREATY AND MANY OF US ARE KILLED. THAT SITUATION IS INTOLERABLE.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE COMPLAINED OF THAT TO RESPONSIBLE HUMANS, NOT TAKEN CONTROL OF THEM,” said Ed. “THIS IS A DANGEROUS GAME YOU PLAY; YOU COULD LOSE HUMAN COOPERATION.”

AND YOU COULD LOSE OURS. WORLD-WIDE WE SAVE TENS OF MILLIONS OF HUMAN LIVES A YEAR FROM DISEASE, REQUIRING A HUGE EXPENDITURE OF OUR LIMITED RESOURCES. WE REASON THAT OUR CONTROL OF A FEW HUMANS TO ENSURE THAT YOU KEEP YOUR WORD TO US IS NECESSARY AND SHOULD BE TOLERABLE FOR HUMANS AND EVEN WELCOMED. IT IS WHAT YOU HUMANS CALL A ‘TRADE-OFFTHAT IS IN THE FAVOR OF BOTH OF US. WE FOLLOW LOGIC.”

Ed wasn’t sure what his answer should be to that. “I’LL THINK ABOUT IT,” he finally said, and ended the conversation.

OK, at least the jants seemed to be rational. Too coldly rational! Not for the first time he decided that he much preferred linking thoughts with nice simple-thinking raptors or other animals to linking thoughts with jants. The swift hunting birds were killing machines but even after forty years he didn’t knew what the hell the jants were.

He had told the jants that he’d think about it, but how could jants controlling humans ever be a ‘good’ thing? And jants through med-ticks did save millions of human lives yearly. And the Confederacy was clearly breaking the Treaty. Did that justify jants controlling selected humans?

Hell no! The whole thing was too monstrous! It was a line they shouldn’t have crossed, but they were doing it, probably world-wide. How many human so-called world leaders were jant controlled? How many more were being targeted for jant control?

The world was full of wars now, hundreds of them, mostly relatively small ones, but thousands of people died daily in them. Many more humans died as indirect war casualties; starvation and petulance followed closely in the wake of direct violent death. Wars were the most efficient means to disrupt and destroy ever devised by man. Were some of them driven by coldly calculating jants rather than by human hate, fear, revenge, and other excuses?

Were the jants in the human war business? Around the world was part of the current bumper- crop of narcissistic egomaniacal dictators jant-controlled? But no, such abuse was too monstrous a thing to contemplate, and humans needed no help to misbehave. Besides, both humans and Stone-Coats would notice it happening. For example Ann and her UN would notice. Ken was right; all this stuff was BS, or at least much of it was. It had to be! He was letting his imagination get the best of him, he decided. Paranoia was a severe mental condition to be avoided.

He drifted off to join Mary in sleep that was very soon interrupted by an insistent knock on the door. Answering it, Ed was nearly knocked over by a tall attractive young woman carrying arms full of packages. “I hope you both like these,” she told Mary, who was already sitting up and alert.

It took Ed several moments to realize that the attractive young woman was none other than China Doll, returned from the Mall with new clothes for Mary and himself. “Holy smokes!” he exclaimed. Doll had been transformed from a rough ragamuffin biker into an exotic princess. She wore a short dress that showed off her athletic legs and slim but curvy figure while hiding her arm and shoulder tattoos. Her usually unruly hair was also totally reworked artfully. “You look more like a fashion model than a warrior princess!”

“Not totally,” she replied. She pushed aside her little vest to display a hidden handgun and hunting knife. “I’m just as deadly as ever; it just doesn’t show as much. Mara had to get me State permits for me to carry the knife and gun though. Can you imagine such a thing? We got weapon permits for Snake too and he laughed himself silly when I gave them to him.” She distributed bags and boxes to Mary and Ed before retreating back out the door. “You guys pick out what you want to wear tonight while I go back and work some more on Snake. His new wardrobe is an awful shock for him, and right now he’s getting a hair trim, if he hasn’t by now murdered the hair stylist that Mara found for him.”

Mary was excited to open her packages of new clothes while Ed opened his with dread. For many years he had been perfectly comfortable in his well-worn blue jeans, flannel shirts, and running shoes, and he saw no reason to ever change.

He was greatly relieved to discover not a tuxedo but leisure wear in the packages, in sizes that fit him perfectly. The dull-gray colored slacks were comfortable and featured sufficient pockets to be practical. The gray and tan long-sleeved shirt felt cool and soft and had a pocket. The dark gray sweater-vest looked sharp, and had big useful pockets also. The darker suitcoat was so light that he barely noticed it after he put it on. Pretty much everything fit comfortably, had pockets, and was soothingly dull from a fashion viewpoint. Plus it hadn’t cost him a penny. The new duds were therefore OK with Ed. They still weren’t as good as jeans and flannel shirts, but they would do.

Thank God the vest buttoned up the front and wasn’t a pull-over; Ed hated pull-over sweaters. He was able to leave on his comfortable Stone-Coat underwear, which was made partly of soft woven nanotube fibers that wicked away sweat and was mosquito and bullet-proof. The new shoes were of heavy black fabric and featured comfortably soft soles.

Mary picked out a spiffy navy-blue pants-suit outfit and was grinning at herself in a full-length mirror when Doll returned with transformed Snake in tow. “I don’t look like a fearsome dictator anymore!” The big biker complained. “I look like some kind of weekend want-a-be banker-biker. These clothes wouldn’t protect anyone from even a minor spill from a bike, let along bullets. Doll of course looks utterly fantastic but none of this stuff is at all practical.”

Indeed, Snake’s outfit was somewhat similar to Ed’s, although the vest had the appearance of leather, and like Doll’s, concealed several weapons. His mustache, beard and shaggy head-hair had also been significantly trimmed and tamed, Ed noticed. “You look fine,” Ed told him. “There is still plenty of macho dictator showing through, that’s for sure. Just be thankful that this shindig is happening on the west coast, where things are less formal, or we’d both be wearing ancient looking tuxedos. I don’t know what to say about lack of biker scrape protection though. Just don’t fall off your Harley.”

“We’re all going in Mara’s State limo,” announced Doll.

Snake gawked at her like she had gone mad.

“Mack and the CHiPs will be watching over our bikes for the next day or two until we leave the Silicon Valley area,” Doll explained.

Snake made a snarling sound but didn’t say anything except to several times under his breath remark “this is fucked up!”

The four clothing-transformed travelers met Mara in the lobby. “You guys look more like Californians now!” she exclaimed with a grin. “I’m happy for you!”

“We do clean up pretty good,” agreed Ed.

“We look like hippies gone yuppie tourist,” complained Snake, but he followed Mara’s lead outside and towards the waiting big black limo, while a couple of dozen CHiPs constrained news-people followed their every move and shouted stupid questions at them.

“Did your airplane crash-land?” asked someone. “How long are you staying?” another asked. “Why did you come here?” asked still another. “Give us a smile,” several demanded, but Snake in return growled at them, which they seemed to rather enjoy. “Is there going to be more war?” asked another. “How many Northern Californians have you personally killed in hand-to hand combat, Snake?” one dared to ask.

“Always room for one more,” Snake growled back. He put one hand on his hunting knife but Doll managed to constrain him.

“All your questions will be answered shortly at the reception,” Mara announced to placate the reporters, as the travelers piled into the waiting retro black stretch-SUV limo. Wheels folded himself down to storage size and was placed next to Mary while the human travelers settled into comfortable bucket seats in the semi-darkness.

Thankfully the CHiP-escorted ride to Stanford was both uneventful and short. Snake was clearly not happy to be enclosed in a CHiP-chauffeured vehicle surrounded by CHiP motorcycles and Ed was feeling nervous about the upcoming VIP event. Mara calmed them with trivia, describing what buildings they were driving past. Many were corporate headquarters for well-known high-tech firms. Despite political and economic turmoil, Silicon Valley remained one of the world’s thriving high-tech centers. Long a center for developing commercial technology, it was now also the lead center for developing Space Program technology.

After less than half an hour of driving they pulled through ornate gates and up to a large brightly lit new looking building. “This is the new Stanford convention center and lecture hall where you’ll be speaking tomorrow,” Mara explained. “Dinner has been catered in but the guests expected to eat earlier. I’m afraid there will be time for only very brief statements from everyone.”

“Now ain’t that a damn shame!” said Snake. “Crap!” was his predictable next statement, as the group was escorted into a huge convention hall where thousands of people sat at ornately decorated tables that were conspicuously free from food. They must all be talking to each other, Ed supposed, as the noise level has absurd. The telepathic noise level was similarly annoyingly high, as dozens of individuals exhibited trace levels of telepathy and dozens also hosted med-ticks that were jabbering with nearby jant colonies.

The noise level abated when over an almost painfully loud intercom system Governor Flanders announced the arrival of the travelers. Ed and Mary were introduced first as the famous Tribe Chief from Giant’s Rest Mountain and his mother, travel weary but happily rescued from the wilds of the South. The crowd rose from their tables to cheer as Ed and Mary were escorted to the immediate left of the Governor at the head-table, and there was a storm of camera flashes as the smiling Governor shook Ed’s hand.

“And we also welcome as our very special guests their fearless rescuers!” Flanders announced. “The co-leader of the desert Confederacy to our south that resists Mexican encroachment, the legendary War Brother Snake Williams, and the lovely but deadly Warrior Princess that fights fiercely by his side, China Doll!” There was thunderous applause and a blinding display of camera flashes as Snake and Doll heartily shook hands with their grinning host and they were shown to their seats to his immediate right. True, the Rumsfelds were world famous curiosities, but to Californians Snake and Doll were notorious local living legends!

“A few words, Chief Ed?” said the Governor as he shoved the microphone into his hands.

“A very few,” said Ed. Ed hated public speaking. “We want to thank all of you for this warm reception, and in particular Mary and I want to thank our rescuers Snake and Doll, as well as the great Governor of this great state of California, Governor Paul Flanders!” During the polite applause he handed the microphone back to Flanders, who immediately passed it to Snake. As Ed sat down he decided to simply ignore everyone except the people at his table. There seemed to be fewer annoying on-lookers that way.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen for this warm reception,” began Snake. “After being alerted by your ever vigilant Governor it became our great pleasure to assist Ed and Mary. I will also take this occasion to announce that thanks to the incredible efforts of the Governor a new era of increased cooperation between Northern and Southern California is dawning. I hope to soon be known as the Peace Brother!”

Muted laughter rippled through the crowd.

“Tomorrow we’ll all make more extensive statements and answer questions,” Snake continued. “Tonight let’s all get to eating and drinking!”

To thunderous applause Snake sat down and a huge army of waiters and waitresses began carrying big treys of food and drink to the tables. If the travelers thought they were going to immediately be left alone however, they were soon disappointed, as a crowd of people made its way to the front table to be individually introduced to them. There were endless numbers of City and State office holders and several Federal congressional representatives, plus scores of rich business leaders and technologists.

Ed was startled to suddenly find himself shaking the big sweaty hand of USA Senator Dug Hagfeld. “Small world, isn’t it Rumsfeld,” the Senator rumbled.

“Too small,” Ed replied. “I notice that you’ve made amends with the jants.” The med-tick to jant jabbering coming from the senator was unmistakable. The Senator hosted a med-tick! Ed didn’t sense hate or fear from the senator this time, only calm confidence.

“New supporters are always welcome,” said Hagfeld. “I may have been mistaken about the jants but I’m not mistaken about you. I’ll deal with you soon.”

Ed wondered what the hell the Senator meant by that as the big man again disappeared into the crowd. Had he just been threatened by Hagfeld?

The next person waiting to meet him was even more worrisome. She was as tall as Snake but thin, much younger, and far meaner looking, with over-sized head, eyes that bore into the brain, and hawkish, crooked nose. Despite wearing an elegant black gown she reminded Ed of a praying mantis, or perhaps a cobra. The jant chatter that surrounded her was overwhelmingly strong. “I AM LORNA RIPPA,” she announced both silently and aloud. Her telepathic voice seemed to be a combination of human and jant, and the strongest Ed ever encountered.

“OF COURSE YOU ARE,” he replied in kind, as he shook her cold hand. He couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead. “THE WICKED WITCH OF THE NORTH!”

“Your dress is stunning,” noted Mary. “Thank you for coming to meet us.”

In response Lorna laughed, or rather she cackled as she stared into Ed’s eyes. “So you style yourself to be some sort of jant expert? How perfectly absurd! You are a joke!”

“Nice meeting you too!” Ed replied. “Maybe we could compare notes sometime about our mutual friend Scar.”

In response she again laughed and spun towards the Governor, who was watching from the adjacent table. “I’ll defeat you one way or another,” she told the State leader, then spun away and disappeared into the crowd.

“Holly crap,” was all that Ed could think to say. His anxieties melted away however, when another familiar person was soon shaking his hand. “Clinton Farnworth!” Ed sputtered. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I heard of your troubles and had to jet out here to see for myself,” said the smiling British envoy.

“It’s very good to see a friendly face from home!” said Mary.

“The Tribe sends their love,” said Clinton. “Good show that you got this far.”

“So far so good,” agreed Ed. “Not quite as private and restful a vacation as we’d like but then you can’t have everything.” The army of waiters and waitresses at last started to bring food to the head table. Each main plate included huge steaming helpings of seafood and vegetables, Ed noticed. Ed hadn’t eaten shrimp, scallops, and crab in years. The entire crowd was turning their attention to eating.

“Is there anything I can do to assist you?” asked Clinton. “I do have some political and business contacts here in California.”

“Can’t think of anything,” said Ed. “We’re mostly out here to just see the sights. Thanks, though.”

“I’ll perhaps see you folks again soon,” Clinton said, as he made his way to a nearby table that was being set with food. Strangely enough it was the table also occupied by Hagfeld and Rippa, Ed noticed. They even smiled when greeting each other. Strange bedfellows, Ed thought, but then Clinton always seemed to get on well with everyone, including even the hateful Hagfelds and bat-crazy Rippas of the world.

“Good job with your little speech!” Governor Flanders confided to Ed. “You managed to say almost nothing.”

“I’m really good at that,” Ed boasted. “Maybe I should be a politician.”

“Snake was wonderful,” said Mary.

“Snake was superlative,” agreed Flanders.

“It helped that we were late,” said Snake. “These people just want to eat, have some drinks, and get the hell out of here. Except now we’ll have to spin something about the new era of cooperation between us that we’ve both mentioned. I’m not quite sure myself what I meant when I said that but I’m sure that Mara and Ken will help us come up with something concrete and really good.”

“Undoubtedly,” agreed the Governor. “They always do.”

“And they make a nice looking couple.” added Mary, as she shot a glance to a nearby table where Mara and Ken sat next to each other while talking with several local mayors and news people.

****

The next day was a busy one indeed. Early in the morning the travelers returned to the same Stanford building but instead of the conference hall they were led to sit upon a small stage in front of an auditorium filled with several hundred Stanford faculty and students, with only a few news people present. To Ed’s surprise and delight, two individuals in the audience were small Stone-Coat Ice Giants no larger than a couple of tons each. They looked identical to the Stone-Coats back home at Giants’ Rest that were imbedded with the Tribe! Each stone creature stood comfortably in a refrigerated cubicle similar to the ones used at Giants’ Rest Mountain. Wheels as well as Ed and Mary via their implants exchanged friendly respectful greetings with the Stanford Stone-Coats.

The visitors were relieved when after brief introductions from the President of the University the proceedings were turned over to Mara and questions from the audience were entertained. Apparently no big speeches were expected from anyone, which is just as well because the visitors hadn’t prepared any. There would apparently be numerous questions, however. Mara instructed dozens of questioners to form lines in the isles. This was evidently a normal practice for the University attendees, as the lines actually started forming even prior to Mara’s instructions for them to do so.

Snake was undaunted but Ed was acutely aware that most of the questioners and members of this audience were dozens of IQ points smarter than he was, as was evidenced by some of their questions.

“Are you familiar with Stone-Coat internal processing system architectures?” asked a graduate student. “They appear to employ a huge variety of computing elements including analog as well as digital and quantum components, parallel processing, multi-relational logic, and flexi-link randomized element mapping. We have been studying this topic for five years and have many questions that even our local Stone-Coats can’t answer.”

“I’m sure I can’t answer them either,” said Ed. “For most of our existence we humans have similarly known very little scientific information about the functioning of our own bodies. The case is similar with the Stone-Coats. In recent decades they have been stimulated by human science to understand themselves better but like humans have a long way to go in understanding themselves. Maybe our friend Wheels can add perspective.”

The crowd was intrigued when Wheels the talking Stone-Coat wheelchair then told everyone both his own personal history and the story of how Mack was able to emerge as a fully sentient being. “Interaction with humans has greatly invigorated and accelerated Stone-Coat thinking capabilities and science.” he concluded. “Our sentience predated that of humans by many millions of years but flourishes now as never before largely due to our intellectually stimulating interactions with humans.”

“Why do Stone-Coats operate as individuals instead of as one big computer?” asked a grad-student. “Wouldn’t one big computer-brain be smarter?”

Ed was stumped by that question and interested as anyone to hear Wheel’s answer.

“That is a very interesting research issue,” said Wheels. “Individual mobile units must by necessity fend for themselves as fits their individual situations. In addition we have modeled the phenomenon of individual Vs group thought extensively and found that thinking as a group becomes ineffective and unstable when the group becomes too large. We have observed similar limiting phenomena in jant hive thought and human group-thought. Hence for many reasons we tend to most often think as individuals and more or less vote on important questions in order to pick the best answer. As with humans, we have inherent limitations.

“In addition we theorize that there are natural limits to intelligence. Ten closely linked Stone-Coats are not ten times as intelligent as one. One well-configured Stone-Coat correctly processes most available information. Ten Stone-Coats joined together can only do the same.”

“Chief Ed, in your opinion do Stone-Coats have souls?” asked a professor of philosophy.

“I don’t even know if even I have one, or if there even is such a thing,” said Ed.

“We do have self-awareness,” added Wheels. “You may choose to construct through logic a notion of soul if you find it useful to the self-understanding of your species. We entertain similar constructs for computational purposes and acknowledge their reality as useful concepts but do not attribute physical reality to them beyond what is in our processing elements. In sum both Stone-Coats and humans are living proof that matter can be structured to be self-aware, and through chance and natural selection this conscious state has been achieved by both your life-form and ours.”

“We know how our organic-chemistry based life-forms continue to survive and create new individuals through sex, seeds, and genes and so-forth,” said a graduate student, “and when babies we rapidly gain knowledge, thinking skills, and awareness. How do those things happen with Stone-Coats and are there multiple species of Stone-Coats?”

“That sounds like too complex a set of questions for this short gathering,” protested Mara. “Why don’t we limit your question to Stone-Coat origins?”

“Your questions are complex but interrelated and I will attempt to limit my answers,” replied Wheels. “We arose through specific mechanisms entirely different from the ones by which your water-based life arose, yet our evolution process is thought to be completely analogous to yours. As to ultimate origins mostly we can only speculate, since like biological life forms, our life began billions of years ago.

“We speculate that among the many different varieties of crystals formed at the interface between molten and solid rock, certain structures become favored statistically. Countless such processes occur but at some point catalytic pattern templates formed which favored and propagated various structures that became yet more complex, with the ones more fit for survival being favored. This was a huge critical step towards achieving life. It was perhaps analogous to organic compounds being formed within a watery media. At some point through countless trials/variations templates of templates occurred, and then templates of those. A crude sort of genetics ensued and gradually became more complex.

“Further breakthroughs occurred when radioactive materials became energy sources for building and propagating patterns and when patterns essentially became reflected digitally within processing structures that through chance had arisen. Think of photosynthesis and the information encoded in genes as being analogous to early Stone-Coat structures. A linkage between processing and patterns was established and formed the basis for our evolution. This we regard to be the early beginnings of our type of life-form.

“The crude processing evolved towards greater complexity as a natural consequence of natural selection. Also good localized control of the immediate vicinity meant that multiple individuals would be the favored form, rather than a single entity, though information is exchanged among individual units such that the processing capacity of each unit is fully utilized.”

“Are you immortal?” Wheels was asked.

“Yes and no,” Wheels responded. “Individual units may subsist for millions of years so in that sense we are long-lived. However over long timespans physical and computational structures evolve such that the original individual unit no longer physically exists or thinks in exactly the same patterns.”

“You should tell them about transference,” said Mary, surprising Ed.

“Transference is a mechanism we employ to share and preserve the thoughts and thinking methods of individuals,” said Wheels, “especially individuals that have achieved notable success. It is a conscious and willful extension of processes that began as unconscious ones early in our existence.”

“That’s enough,” interjected Mara. “I’m sure that this can be and has been discussed further with your local Stone-Coats. Next question?”

“Why is mathematics indispensable to science?” asked a student.

“You got me,” said Ed. “Wheels?”

“The universe is undeniably mathematical in all the actions of all of its sub-components,” said the Stone-Coat, “and therefore by extension all the universe is mathematical. That conclusion directly follows from the observation that all basic behavior of reality as reflected in your science theory and ours has been found to be mathematical. The business of our science programs is to identify the specific mathematics that is applicable to behavior in this particular universe, as alternative self-consistent systems of mathematics and logic are possible which may prevail in universes other than our own. At the event you call the Big Bang the particular mathematics applicable to this particular universe was selected for this reality and persists.”

“Word-for-word that’s almost exactly what our Stone-Coats here say,” said the student, with apparent disappointment.

“Mr. Wheels, yours seems to be an overly simplistic and materialistic world-view,” countered the next questioner, another professor. “Do you not concede that there are other realms of truth and beauty not assessable through mathematics? What about Plato’s realm of ideas? What about art and love?”

“All are highly complex constructs within our processing and yours but ultimately their roots must inevitably be in mathematics,” said Wheels. “Mathematical phenomena such as randomization and so-called chaos theory lead to complex non-deterministic phenomena such as those you characterize as free-will and consciousness. Viewed in aggregate such phenomena are not readily recognizable as being mathematical, but their root causes and behavior are. Uses of higher levels of abstraction and terms such as ‘free will’ are a logical and practical necessity. For example as I spoke of earlier, as a practical matter human thought and the thought of individual Stone-Coat units is skewed towards simplistic discrete answers that are actionable within the serial time sequence experienced by the individual unit. Feelings and self-awareness of course developed as survival enhancing adaptations.”

“Works for me,” said Ed, “but you can ask your own local Stone-Coats this sort of stuff. Have you got any simpler questions for us mere humans?”

“Is living in a Tribal clan longhouse cave like living in a commune?” the next student asked.

COMMUNES ARE BECOMING POPULAR IN OUR STATE,” Mara quietly explained to Ed.

“I suspect that it’s more like living in a hotel where practically everyone is somehow distantly related to everyone else,” said Ed. “Only the hotel is made up of Stone-Coats that you can talk with, including walls, ceilings, and toilets.”

“You talk with toilets?” the student asked, amongst laughter.

“It would be rude not to,” said Mary, which brought even more laughter from the gathering.

“Do you like the Stone-Coats that you live with?” asked a professor.

“Certainly,” said Mary. “They are good, honest folk that respect us and each other and are super smart.”

“What about jants?” continued the professor.

“That’s trickier and tackier but we generally get along well enough with them also,” said Ed. “With both Stone-Coats and jants the best way to get along is to be honest, open, and quietly respectful. Work with them rather than against them.”

“And what of jant influenced drone-people?” the professor asked.

“Mary and I have only recently encountered them and are still forming our opinions,” said Ed. “Again, we suspect that honesty, openness, and respect will go a long way in dealing with them also.”

“That works the best among humans too,” inserted Snake. “Of course if you are the dictator in power, although you may talk quietly you also must also carry a big stick or gun. Honesty, openness, and respect don’t always work.”

Immediately below the stage a big student wearing a Stanford t-shirt rudely pushed his way to the front of the middle line of questioners. “You guys don’t look so tough to me,” he shouted. “How about a little demonstration?” From a baggy pants leg he pulled out a big wooden baseball bat and raised it above his head as if he intended to rush the stage and attack the visitors.

“Jant zombie?” Snake calmly asked Ed, amongst shouts of outrage and anger from the audience.

“No, just the campus ass-hole high testosterone jock, I think,” said Ed.

“Hold that pose, tough guy,” Snake told the student as he and Doll exchanged a knowing glance and stood up before becoming a blur of motion. A second later there was an audible ‘thunk’ sound and two big hunting knives were seen to be protruding from the student-held bat. As the stunned student looked dumbly at the bat and knives, Doll leapt high into the air from the stage, and following a triple somersault landed standing in front of the shocked student with open hands extended to him. Although she had also this day dressed more like a fashion model than a warrior princess, by now nobody in the hushed audience doubted that she was deadly.

With great difficulty the cowed student pulled each knife from the bat and respectfully handed them hilt-first to Doll, as thunderous applause erupted from the audience.

“Damn, what a woman!” Ed said to Snake in awe as Doll nimbly leapt back upon the stage amongst continuing applause and after a quick bow returned grinning to her seat.

“Ain’t she!” said the smiling Brother. “Too bad she didn’t need to kick his ass though; that would have been even more entertaining,” he added before exchanging a quick kiss with his warrior princess to the sound of even more applause.

“No more requests for physical demonstrations, please,” said Mara. “I think that the physical prowess of our visitors has been adequately established!”

The visitors talked with the Stanford academic crowd for a total of two hours before eating a quick snack in the school cafeteria. An older man who looked vaguely familiar to Ed approached them as they were finishing and introduced himself. “I’m Phil Dunkin,” he announced with a smile as he reached out to shake Ed’s hand warmly.

THE NOBEL PRIZE WINNER,” Mara reminded Ed.

“Of course!” said Ed. “Professor Dunkin! Nobel prize in physics two years ago, right?”

“Nearly three years now though it seems like only yesterday,” said Dunkin. “Time seems to go faster the older I get. I wanted to ask you to pass on my warm personal regards to our mutual friend Frank Gray Wolf.”

“You know Frank?” Ed asked, astonished.

“We correspond but have never been fortunate enough to meet each other in person,” said Dunkin. “I wish to also personally thank you for your pioneering efforts with the Stone-Coats. You and your Tribe have revived science!”

“We have?”

“In recent decades most human science resources had been diverted greatly due to the climate change issue. Climatology flourished but most basic science stopped. Now in response to eager Stone-Coat participation and the Space Program, science is coming back in a big way in all its disciplines. You have no idea how exciting this is for researchers world-wide!”

“Glad to hear it,” said Ed. “I’ve always thought that science is nifty. I’d certainly be an even more confused person if it wasn’t for Frank! “

Soon thereafter the entourage was heading for nearby Moffett Field and the NASA/Ames Research Center.

Outside a large new-looking building they were greeted by Dr. Hubert Wells, Director of the Research Center. “Welcome to our facility,” Wells said, as he shook their hands firmly. Custer and his CHiPs stayed outside as Wells led the visitors inside where they were met by armed security guards. Everyone had to pass through a scanning device as they moved further into the building. Snake and Doll reluctantly surrendered their guns and knives, and all of them surrendered visicom devices, including both CHiP and Confederacy coms.

In a small nearby conference room Wells gave them a brief holographic-supported presentation that was an overview of the facility and its work. Human, Stone-Coat, and jants were depicted as working closely together on a wide variety of science and technology projects at Stanford, in cooperation with Ames researchers. At the NASA/Ames facility itself most work was on the Interplanetary Space Program. “Historically we specialize in technology transfer from the private sector to mission equipment for space satellites and flights, and visa-versa, but our mission scope and budget have been greatly expanded in recent years to support the ISP. The ISP has been a huge factor to invigorating the local economy including academic and technical institutions. Schools and companies throughout the area work on compartmentalized aspects of the ISP and it all comes together here at Ames.”

“Jerry has treated you and the Silicon Valley well,” said Snake.

“Indeed,” said Wells. “This next presentation will give you a brief overview of the ISP itself.” They watched a half-hour holographic overview that again showed humans, Stone-Coats, and jants working together on spacecraft designs and construction. It was the identical public presentation that Ed had watched more than once back at Giants’ Rest Mountain. The ISP would over the next century focus on manned and unmanned Solar System exploration and the protection of Earth from near-Earth objects such as comets and asteroids. Centuries in the future missions to far-off Earth-like planets would occur and the three dominant sentient Earth species would together spread themselves throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. Basic research was also stimulated by the ISP, including physical sciences.

“And they lived happily ever after,” remarked Ed, as the video ended. Sandwiches and drinks were passed around and the group for a second time ate a small lunch and took bathroom breaks.

“The rest of your visit here is top secret and restricted to Ed and Mary only,” Wells announced, as they finished. “No offense is meant to Mr. Williams, Miss Bright, Lieutenant Governor Craig, or to your Stone-Coat companion wheelchair, but you will all need to remain here while Ed and Mary alone continue on with me.”

“That’s what we expected,” said Ed. “The Federal Government isn’t paying most of the bill for our vacation without purpose. Mary? Are you up to it?”

“I’ll hang in there alright until I get my nap,” she answered, though here implant indicated that she was beginning to tire.

“Let’s do it then,” said Ed.

“Just see that no harm comes to them,” Snake told Wells, in a tone that implied threat.

An armed guard pushing a conventional looking wheelchair appeared, into which Mary was transferred. Wells led the pair further into the building, through another set of guards and scanners and a massive steel doorway.

“At this level we analyze individual and device capabilities that pose potential security risks,” said Wells. “In your case we need to examine your Stone-Coat implants.”

“Without a full-fledged Stone-Coat nearby they are functionally inoperable,” said Ed.

“So we have been led to understand, but unknown to you they may send signals or record information,” said Wells. “We can’t take that chance.” He had Ed sit down in a chair while several people in white lab-coats wheeled in lab equipment that included two head enveloping hood-like attachments that they gently lowered over Ed and Mary. The hoods seemed similar to hair-driers found in beauty salons, but their inside surfaces were lined with tiny parabolic antenna elements of various sizes. “These will intercept and analyze implant transmissions.”

Wells and several others watched and listened to equipment monitors.

“We detect massages that we have found to be a simple standard protocol to identify and assess possible Stone-Coat entities to communicate with,” Wells at last stated. “All Stone-Coats seem to do this.”

“Do you want us to try to send our thoughts to each other?” Mary asked.

“Yes, do try to do that, Mary,” said Wells.

“I sense nothing from her,” said Ed, after a few quiet moments. “Did you sense any of my thoughts?”

“No, ditto,” said Mary.

“We detected increased complex signals from both of you, but we can’t fully decipher them,” said Wells.

“As the Stone-Coats have explained it to me, that’s our raw thoughts converted to a digital form,” said Ed. “When we consciously requested them to be sent they were placed in the transmissions that you have intercepted, and the content format is unique to Mary and to me. A fully functioning Stone-Coat has to translate each of our thought patterns to something universal in Stone-Coat format, then into the unique format required by the intended recipient. Enormous processing is required by intermediary Stone-Coats familiar with our individual thought patterns for it to all work.”

“So then, what is transmitted by the implant is meaningless without a fully functioning Stone-Coat that can pass it on and serve as interpreter for each of you?” asked Wells.

“Exactly,” confirmed Ed.

“We also conform that the implants have insufficient processing and memory capacity to translate or record such data,” said a technician. “The implants merely send and receive raw stuff, as you have described. I recommend skull caps as an added precaution but they can both be cleared to enter the HOZ.”

HOZ?” asked Ed.

“Human Only Zone,” explained Wells. He removed the hair-drier-like contraptions but handed each of the visitors what appeared to be a knitted gold-colored ski mask. “There are highly conductive gold threads within the yarn,” Wells explained. “There is also built-in resistance and capacitance to damp out and distort any meaningful resonance. We used to use tin-foil skull-caps also but they were found to be redundant and they looked even sillier than the gold ski masks.

With their heads completely enveloped by the gold knit ski masks, Ed and Mary were led by Wells through a final set of steel vault doors and past more armed guards into what turned out to be a long hallway flanked by dozens of office and lab spaces. Dozens of people in lab coats of various colors walked through the hallways.

“Is this Jerry’s real Interplanetary Space Program?” asked Ed.

“Only a small secretive part of it,” said Wells as they immediately entered a small conference room were half a dozen professional looking people stood waiting. Ed wheeled Mary to the table and everyone else sat down around it. They all wore badges with no names on them and Wells didn’t do introductions, Ed noticed.

Ed’s curiosity was stimulated; he anticipated that he and Mary would finally get some sort of presentation on what the hell these people did here in the most secretive part of the ISP research laboratory, and tell them whatever it was they were to tell Jerry Green.

“What I am going to tell you is of course above top secret and must not be shared with any humans or Stone-Coats or jants, except Jerry Green,” admonished Wells.

“Sure,” said Ed. “No problem.”

“Agreed,” said Mary. “Let’s hear it.”

“We exist,” said Wells. “The HOZ is securely in place and functioning as planned. Tell Jerry that your visit here was a complete success. Aside from the existence of a functioning HOZ that is all that you need to know and confirm to Jerry Green.”

“That’s it?” asked Ed. “No secret hand-shakes or magic rings?”

“That’s all that we can tell you,” said Wells, as he shook his head and his colleagues at the table simply stared and smiled. And then they all totally disappeared. Only Wells remained.

“What the hell!” Ed exclaimed.

“Sorry if that startled you,” said Wells. “Perhaps that was your first virtual meeting. The others were of course here only in holographic form.”

“Well dah,” said Mary.

Wells escorted Ed and Mary out of the conference room, then out through the layers of security to their still waiting friends Snake, Doll, Wheels, and Mara. Ed and Mary removed their ski masks. “Keep the Faraday cage ski masks,” Wells told them. “They aren’t magic but maybe at some point in your travels they’ll prove useful, even when not properly grounded.” He smiled as he shook hands with each of them before returning to whatever the hell it was that he managed behind vault doors for Jerry.

“Was it interesting?” asked Doll, as they reclaimed confiscated weapons and visicoms and climbed back into the State limo.

“I don’t suppose you can talk about it, can you?” asked Ken.

“It was swell,” said Ed, “but I honestly wouldn’t know what to tell you even if I could tell you, which I can’t.”

“Ditto,” seconded Mary. “Let’s get out of here and maybe see San Francisco.”

Ed nixed the idea of moving on to San Francisco that day. Based on implant readings Mary was actually too exhausted after the Research Center episode to see San Francisco that day.

“Where did you learn about Stone-Coat transference?” Ed asked Mary, as she settled down for her nap. “From Frank Gray Wolf or Chief John Running Bear?”

“Mostly from Wheels,” she said. “I talk with him privately about many things via implant. But I was conversing with other Stone-Coats about it even before our trip. Now let me sleep.”

Her answer surprised Ed. Yes, he privately conversed with Stone-Coats via his implant but for some reason it never occurred to him that Mary did so also. Why was Mary interested in transference?

She slept most of the remainder of the day in the nice Sunnyvale hotel room, resting on holographic beaches from across the world. Ed stayed with her physically but for much of the time occupied the minds of various birds that soared high above Silicon Valley. There were hawks, eagles, and sea-birds to choose from; he even entered the minds of several condors. They ate a light early dinner before retiring early for the night before it was even dark outside.

****

The others hung out for the afternoon and evening mostly at the hotel bar.

“I’m worried about Mary,” said Doll. “She looks more tired every day, despite sleeping most of the time.”

“She’s a tough little old lady,” said Snake. “She’ll be alright.”

“I don’t think so,” said Doll. “And Ed is worried too. I can tell. That’s why we aren’t moving to San Francisco today.”

“I offered them medical care but they refused,” said Mara. “Meanwhile we have business to discuss.”

“True enough,” said Ken, “and we might as will move straight to it.”

“There are Stone-Coat, jant, and human factors and players to consider,” began Snake. “My Brother Hacker is the brains of our outfit but we talked things over good before I left China Lake and we can move things along here and now. I’ll trust Mara to convey this discussion to the Governor.”

“Move what things along?” asked Mara.

“And could it have to do with whatever secrets Ed and Mary learned about at Ames?” asked Ken.

“It has nothing at all to do with Ames,” said Snake. “I’m talking about my retirement and Hacker’s. Ideally within about ten years the Brothers would like to turn over the Confederacy back to the State.”

Ken’s jaw dropped. Even Doll looked surprised, though not displeased.

“The Stone-Coats will indirectly help enable this,” said Snake. “The living conditions for everyone in California will be improving thanks largely to Stone-Coats. That will provide wiggle room for social and political changes. But it ain’t going to be easy. There are other things to settle first, and a lot of transition details to work out, both within the State and within the Confederacy.”

“That’s for sure,” said Doll.

“And what about jants?” Ken asked. “Will they be allowed to spread throughout the Confederacy with human assistance, as they have done in the North?”

“Yes I suppose so,” said Snake. “We’d eventually have to learn how to live with them anyway. But first we have to solve the zombie problem.”

“Plus a lot of Storms will be very upset at dissolving the Confederacy, said Doll.”

“You got that right,” said Snake. “But we aren’t there yet. For one thing the Scar situation has to be settled before we announce our plan to the Confederacy, or there will be no Confederacy. But now we’re beginning to see that Scar is only the tip of a mighty big jant iceberg that extends to Northern California and maybe even nation-wide and world-wide.”

“Yes, the jant business needs to be understood and then either countered or otherwise accommodated,” agreed Mara, “and that will likely require the involvement of both Jerry Green and Ed Rumsfeld.”

“Maybe the jants aren’t so bad,” said Ken. “Maybe you just have to stay on their good side.”

“I’m not quite that much of an optimist,” said Snake. “But I’ve come to trust Ed. He’s been living with jants; maybe we can also.”

“Then there’s those secrets that Ed and Mary learned about the Space Program,” said Ken. “What are we going to do about that?”

“Why should we do anything?” Mara asked. “The Rumsfelds were supposed to visit Ames for Green and they did. Whatever they learned is Jerry’s business. Other than providing economic and technology stimulus I don’t see that the Interplanetary Space Program much impacts local politics.”

“How do we know for sure that what they learned has nothing to do with the State or the Confederacy?” Ken asked. “Can Jerry’s people in Ames really be trusted from State and Confederacy perspectives? I’d still like to know what the hell the Rumsfelds learned at Ames!”

“You and me both,” said Snake.

“But you can’t always get what you want,” added Doll. “We’ve said that we trust Ed and Mary. If what they learned at Ames related to us I for one am confident that they would have told us already.”

****

While the others considered issues at the bar, Ed snuggled with Mary as she slept and shared thoughts and senses with his favorite local falcon. The bird flew higher and higher to stay within the last remaining warmth of the sun but it was in the end useless, for the sun at last disappeared, leaving only a fading glow on the western horizon. Ed released her so that they could both descend into the quiet darkness below to seek much needed rest.

For a long time Ed pondered over the strange visit to Jerry’s space project that hadn’t yielded any useful information at all, as far as he could tell. He was tempted to phone Jerry to tell him that he didn’t really have anything to tell him but that seemed silly. Jerry could wait, particularly since there wasn’t much of anything to tell him as far as Ames was concerned. Besides, the Rumsfelds were on vacation.

Ed was much more concerned about Mary. Through the Stone-Coat implants he checked her vital signs one more time before drifting into a deep restful sleep himself.

He dreamt that he was in a great forest, and was for some yet unknown reason running to catch up with an enormous Stone-Coat giant that walked ahead and away from him, taking twenty foot strides as it carefully dodged around great trees that towered over it. The giant stepped over man-tall ferns, bushy undergrowth, downed trees, and rock outcroppings as if they weren’t there, but Ed struggled mightily to gain passage, even though the giant’s ten-foot long footprints helpfully crushed and flattened many obstacles. The Giant, oblivious to Ed’s struggles to move through the forest, continued without pause, steadily becoming further and further ahead of Ed, despite Ed’s efforts to catch up.

“Mary!” Ed shouted in the dream. He could clearly see that she was sitting on one of the giant’s stone shoulders, but both she and the Giant were deaf to his shouts. “Wait for me,” he shouted again and again without effect. Fortunately the way was mostly downhill, otherwise Ed would have totally lost contact with them. In his sleep state it never occurred to him to use his implant to try to communicate with either the Stone-Coat or Mary.

He was relieved for a moment when he finally broke out of the forest and onto a broad beach that was relatively flat and free of obstructions except for giant footprints. But he was horrified when he saw Mary still sitting on the Giant’s shoulder calmly, even though the creature already stood waist-high in the cold choppy Pacific and was moving steadily into deeper waters.

Mary looked back at him as he stood shouting helplessly from the edge of the beach, standing in waves that battered him nearly off of his feet. She waved at him smiling as she and the giant both slowly sank below the waves and out of sight! She was gone!

The horrible shock of it woke him with a start, sweating and shaking. He was greatly relieved to find that he still lay next to Mary and that she slept peacefully. He couldn’t deal with the thought of losing Mary.

ALL IS WELL,” said the ever watchful Wheels quietly.

“IS IT REALLY?” Ed asked rhetorically, before returning to uneasy sleep.

 

****

 

Chapter 11

San Francisco

 

The next day Mary was fully recharged and eager to see San Francisco, while Ed was at first groggy from over-sleep and his frightening confusing dreams. They quickly packed what they would be able to carry in their motorcycle caravan. Beyond that Mary and Ed had room for within Mack they ended up with a big extra suitcase of new clothes that Mara arranged to have shipped back to Giants’ Rest. Doll and Snake ended up with two big suitcases of new clothes that Ken arranged to be sent to China Lake. The guys were happy to be back in their every-day clothes; the women were already missing their shipped away fancy outfits.

Breakfast in the hotel restaurant was pure extravagance, and included chicken eggs, multi-grain waffles and pancakes, blueberry muffins, and a variety of fresh fruit that the Rumsfelds hadn’t seen since their last Brooklyn visit and Doll had never seen. The more worldly Snake pointed out to her the names of some of the more exotic fruits, including bananas.

“Heat stress and blight killed off most banana trees over thirty years ago,” Ken noted, “but through genetic engineering a blight-free species was finally produced. Bananas have been slowly making a comeback, as part of the slowly recovering global trade.”

“Technically through some arcane twist of natural selection and perhaps arbitrary classification, science doesn’t classify the plants that grow bananas as trees,” Doll noted, reminding the others that she was a scientist in addition to being the biker Warrior Princess.

“It’s also a bit annoying that technically peanuts aren’t nuts, tomatoes aren’t vegetables and Pluto isn’t a full-fledged planet,” noted Ed. “Those nutty scientists! Can’t live with them but we can’t live without them!”

“I’ve seen bananas growing near the coast on what look like trees to me,” Snake said, “and they are a damned good fruit. What amazes me is that in the North you eat shipped-in bananas while in the South we only get to eat what we grow for ourselves.” He gave Mara a stern glance. “On the other hand there are some new banana groves near LA that we hope to soon get control of, and when we control the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach we’ll be shipping goods in and out of the Confederacy without State involvement. When I retire from being a dictator I was thinking of becoming a banana farmer. I could sell some of them to the North and elsewhere and make out like crazy.”

“I can’t quite picture you as a banana farmer,” said Ed.

“I can,” said Doll. “We need to settle down somewhere and make ourselves domestic. Besides, babies love bananas.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ed.

“And a really good one,” said Mary. “Kids and grandkids and bananas.”

“And no more wars,” added Doll. “Don’t forget that part.”

“Maybe,” said Snake. “I always expected to die on a Harley with my boots on and a knife in my back, but maybe it will be on a recliner with a pair of comfy bedroom slippers on and too many bananas in my gut instead, if Hacker and me can work things out right with the North and the Mexicans.”

“Not to mention working things out with the jants and Stone-Coats,” Ed mentioned.

“Hope you work it out,” said Mary. “Death by banana sounds nice and peaceful.”

Mara reached over the table with her glass of orange juice and clunked it against Snake’s glass and Doll’s. “I’ll drink to that!” she said. “To a united California, lasting peace, bananas, and kids.”

“Deal,” said Snake. “Together let’s make it all happen.”

“Works for me,” said Ed.

“Deal,” said Doll.

Ken sat quietly and looked perplexed. “Well Ken old friend, what do you say?” asked Snake.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Ken answered, “but I guess I’ll get used to it.”

“What a nifty day!” Ed exclaimed. “All is peace, love, and banana-fed happiness and we haven’t even finished breakfast yet!”

The Crew finished packing their things and soon struck off North towards San Francisco along the Bay on the old Bayshore Freeway, following behind Mara and Ken in the limo and surrounded by half a dozen CHiPs on motorcycles. Ed, Mary, and Wheels were happy to be reunited with and comfortably riding in Mack again, and Snake and Doll seemed happy to be reunited with their well-armed, heavily chromed Harleys.

Traffic was relatively light despite over nine million people living in the San Jose/San Francisco area, and most vehicles were nearly as tiny and under-powered as Mack, and were computer controlled. The visiting Crew thought it odd to see none of the people in the vehicles driving, but automated motor vehicles had long become the norm in most of the more affluent parts of the world. Young Sam would have been greatly impressed, but disappointed at how dull driving had become.

Most vehicles were of course also solar-electric powered, or powered by a combination of solar-electric and hydrogen fuel created by solar power when the vehicles were idle. Worry about running out of gasoline was a thing of the past for most drivers; cloudy days were more of a concern.

Mara again provided a running commentary and answered questions about what they were seeing. “A mile or two to our left you’ll notice we have a view of the elevated rail system built thirty years ago that parallels this Freeway. Pretty old-fashioned technology but most people take the Bay High Rail system instead of driving to and from San Francisco or San Jose. Most professional people usually work from home using holographic conferencing, of course. For those that physically need to get to their work sites most use the High Rails. It’s free for passengers and mini-vehicles and saves on auto maintenance. The system also extends from the Bay area east to Sacramento. Solar and nuclear fusion plants produce most electricity nowadays, of course, but the train-cars are coated in the same solar absorbing electricity producing materials used on the exterior of the electric cars. Each train car can carry either a hundred-fifty passengers or fifty mini-vehicles and their passengers.”

“Why does the Bay shore look so historically normal?” Mary asked. “Due to faster than expected break-up of Antarctic ice Sea level has risen more than an average of six feet world-wide in the last fifty years. Remember that berg the size of Ohio that slid into the ocean a few years ago, decades ahead of science predictions?”

“Our tribe lead scientist said ‘oops’ but that seamed inadequate as an apology,” said Ed.

“So why aren’t we seeing old flooded-over shoreline docks, roads, and buildings?” Mary asked.

“Also part of the Great Valley including the fresh-water Delta area would be starting to flood by now with salt water,” said Mara. “The Golden Gate Levy and lock system was built decades ago to prevent that. The water level in the Bay is being kept at the same level as it was fifty years ago.”

“Sure, that was big news back when they built it,” said Ken. “Some of the environmentalists went ape-shit. As they predicted, there has been an ecological nightmare in the Bay.”

“The tidal water exchange with the Pacific though Golden Gate used to be enormous,” explained Mara. “Hundreds of billions of gallons of water used to pass in and out of the Bay through the Strait twice daily. With most of that exchange cut off most indigenous life in the Bay has died off.”

“That’s terrible!” said Mary.

“People had to pick between a bad choice and a bad choice,” said Mara. “At the time maintaining the fresh water supply system based at the Delta had top priority. Not flooding tens of thousands of homes and businesses around the Bay was also a plus. Over the next two centuries half the Great Valley would have been flooded. By the way, the Stone-Coats are helping to maintain the Golden Gate Bridge and Levy now.”

“Yes, I’ve seen their reports back at Giants’ Rest Mountain,” said Ed. “Only a few major coastal cities across the world are building levies. Most flat coastal areas aren’t good candidates for levies, even with Stone-Coat help. Over two hundred million people world-wide have been forced to move inland so far, and that’s only the beginning. The Golden Gate topography made the creation of a huge levy an unusually viable option for this particular situation.”

“Retreating inland is generally the least costly and most energy efficient and effective strategy,” added Mack. “But humans appear to enjoy making exceptions to rules. It is such illogical quirks in behavior that have made our emulation of human thought patterns highly challenging.”

Ed was encouraged to see several large aircraft arriving and taking off at the San Francisco International Airport when they passed nearby it. “If we ever come back here we’re using this airport instead of China Lake,” said Ed, with 20-20 hindsight. “No offense, Snake.”

“Next time use a tour guide from the current century, old man,” countered Snake, confusing Mara and Ken as to why the obviously older man Snake was referring to Ed in such a way.

At last the Freeway wound its way into downtown San Francisco. The skyline was noticeably smaller and older than that of San Jose. It used to look much newer, when Ed had last seen it fifty years earlier.

“Though San Jose as the cornerstone of Silicon Valley has greatly surpassed San Francisco in population and wealth for over half a century, San Francisco remains the cultural center of the State,” said Mara. “As you requested we’ll visit some of the traditional tourist spots.”

After refueling at one of the now rare gasoline stations, the entourage drove up and down steep twisting Lombardy Street. Snake laughed when a pair of oldsters walking along the sidewalk shook their canes at the noisy motorcycle-led entourage.

“They are as angry at us for using gas-guzzling air-fouling vehicles as they are with our noise pollution,” said Mara. “Environmental protection has long been a huge part of the Californian psyche.”

“Yeah, and we might be costing the Governor some tree-hugger votes,” remarked Snake.

They drove through the wonderful trees and flowers of Golden Gate Park before stopping for lunch in China Town. Ed was grateful when Mara again covered the bill. Expecting California to be expensive, he and Mary had brought what he thought would be plenty of cash and credit cards, but he had clearly greatly underestimated the cost of things in California.

“How can normal people afford to live here?” Ed asked Mara.

“Through State handouts, mostly,” she admitted. “The Federal dollars due to the Space Program have helped in recent years by providing tens of thousands more high-paying jobs. When most trade with Asia died out because of civil wars there and much commercial manufacturing moved back to the States; that kept us going for the last few decades. There are new manufacturing plants all around the Bay, including those that manufacture electronics and electric mini-autos. Oakland and San Jose are booming.”

“We’ve even seen some of those little cars that are made here back in Brooklyn,” Ed noted.

“Hacker says that Stone-Coats will cause yet another reshuffling of capitalism and political power,” said Snake. “On the down side it will mean even more automation and less need for human labor. Your utopian Northern California is already down to a standard 20 hour work week to boost employment.”

“That’s why places like our Silicon Valley and Ed’s Giants’ Rest Mountain are so important,” said Mara. “The whole human/Stone-Coat/jant future needs to be worked out and I don’t know if the UN itself is up to that. They’re always too distracted by the latest flood, famine, plague, or war somewhere in the world to work on the bigger picture. Think-tanks like Stanford and Ames are vital.”

“The jants in their ant mounds and the Stone-Coats in their mountains might also be working out our future,” said Snake. “That’s what Hacker says.”

“Your brother always was too damn smart,” said Ed. “I blame his schooling. What do you want to do this afternoon, Mary?”

“Those old time cable cars and that Fisherman’s Wharf place that you’ve been telling me about for years sounds good,” she replied.

“I’ve set up hotel rooms for you near the Warf,” said Mara.

“I stayed out of town at Half Moon Bay when I was in this area years ago,” said Ed. “It was very nice but it was quite a ride from there to downtown San Francisco. I suppose that a hotel near the Wharf makes more sense.”

“The whole Half Moon Bay area was washed away by storms over three decades ago!” said Mara. Her jaw dropped as she stared at Ed. “Oh my God you’re like him!” She stared at Mary and then again at Ed. “You aren’t mother and son, are you!”

“My bad,” said Ed. “I talk too much.”

“We try to keep a low profile for Ed’s sake,” said Mary.

Mara glanced around the table at Snake, Doll, and Ken. “OF COURSE YOU WOULD! I’M SORRY, ED.”

“Hacker, Doll and I know certain unusual information about Ed and his friend in Washington DC that we don’t talk about,” said Snake. “For everyone’s safely it’s not something to go public with.”

“I for one don’t know what you guys are talking about,” said Ken, “though it looks like everyone else here does.”

“Trust me, you don’t have a need to know,” said Snake. “It might even be something that’s very dangerous for third parties such as ourselves to know.”

YOU KNOW HE’S RIGHT, MARA,” Ed added silently. “I AM SURE THAT YOU KNOW THAT JERRY CAN BE VERY DANGEROUS.”

“You’re very right,” said Mara. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WAS THINKING! I WAS JUST SO SHOCKED WHEN THE REALIZATION HIT ME!”

“I’m thinking trolley ride,” said Ed. He stood and led the group out to resume their San Francisco tour.

They rode old-time cable cars from near China Town all the way to Fisherman’s Warf. Pier 39 was almost the same as Ed remembered it from fifty years ago. There were wonderful little gift and wine shops, and restaurants on each side of the wide pier, facing inwards towards the center where hundreds of tourists strolled along the open-air center of the pier. It was essentially an open-air shopping mall. A small ancient wooden carrousel that cranked out cheerful old-time pipe-organ music dominated one stretch of the mall. It wasn’t as crowded as Ed remembered; nowadays most tourists had to of course be from Northern California – probably most of them locals from the Bay area itself.

At the end of the Pier the shops ended. Peering over the old wooden rail there was still a nice view of Alcatraz Island. About four miles away to the west the north-most part of the Golden Gate Bridge and Levy were visible. Two huge ocean-going container ships moved steadily across the bay from the direction of the Bridge, possibly headed for highly industrialized Oakland. The Levy must have a really huge lock system, Ed realized.

Along the western side of the pier there were no sea lions. Ed opened and extended his mind to detect wildlife and sensed a few fish and seabirds but not the huge profusion of wildlife that large bodies of water usually supported.

“I miss the sea lions too,” said Mara.

“I hear you,” agreed Snake. “All California is fucked up in one way or another. At least in the South we didn’t have the resources to do any massive screw ups such as levies. We’ve had to let nature take its course for the most part, and adapted ourselves to get along with it. That might be the better philosophy. Here a bit of the old California has been preserved for now, but if you look closer it’s not quite the same anyway. I’ve snuck into the North a few times since they built the Levy but I avoid coming here because without the sea lions and pelicans and other wildlife I saw here as a kid it just ain’t the same.”

As first-timers, Mary and Doll weren't as upset by what they didn't even realize was missing. The old shops and restaurants were still charming, as was the small ancient carrousel that still gave laughing little kids a ride. By mid-afternoon however, Mary was done-in and the group retreated to a small nearby hotel. The simple rooms had no holographic entertainment system, only old-fashioned flat- screen televisions/computer monitors a couple of meters across. The phones were sound-only, non-holographic units. Having lived for decades without such technology on the Reservation, Ed and Mary didn't need even old-time television or internet. The rooms were clean and quiet and suited them perfectly.

Later that night after a nice sea-food dinner with the Crew, Ed and Mary went back to their room and watched a news network for a short while, largely because the news networks often carried stories about the UN that frequently featured their friend Ann Richards.

Yes, there she was, talking about how the UN-managed Stone-Coat desalination efforts in India and Pakistan were already helping to ease tensions between those two famine-stressed nuclear-armed nations. Always an optimist, she projected that within another two years it might be possible to withdraw all UN peacekeeping forces from the region.

“She’s become quite an important person on the world stage,” Ed noted, as he and Mary lay together in the big hotel bed after turning off the TV and the lights.

“And she’s quite an attractive woman,” said Mary.

“Very true,” admitted Ed. “She’s a knock-out. She should work harder on her own life though. She should think of finding a husband and raising kids. She’s far too career-driven for her own good. Frankly I’m worried about her. She never even talks about boyfriends, though she is clearly attracted to men and not women.”

“She’s become very close with people in the Tribe,” said Mary. “I think she’d like to marry within the Tribe. Maybe she already has a crush on someone.”

Ed laughed. “That’s a totally crazy notion. I doubt that she’ll find anyone of her stature in the Tribe. Only Mark Dawn Owl comes to mind, and he’s much too young and already smitten with that cute little Bear Clan girl, Raven what’s-her-name. Besides, he thinks of Ann as an older sister. No, Ann will have to find somebody outside the Tribe. Someone very special. She’s all-around an amazing person, you know.”

“Very true,” said Mary. “She’d make someone an amazing wife, don’t you think? She’s very special. Any man would be a fool to turn her away.”

“That’s for damn sure!” Ed agreed whole heartedly.

“I think that she’s holding out for someone very special.”

“Well he’ll be a very lucky guy, whoever he is,” said Ed. “No doubt she has her pick of hundreds of guys world-wide now that she’s famous. But she better not wait very long. Being alone is a terrible way to live; she must have worked that fact out, even if she doesn’t want kids.”

“She does want kids.”

“Good,” said Ed. “Kids are the best. That was the best part of our lives, raising Mira and Craig.”

“Glad you feel that way,” said Mary. “Maybe we should have had more; but our two kids have been wonderful. And the grandkids are wonderful too.”

“Grandkids are great, but kids are the best,” said Ed. “Yes, more kids would have been good for us, but just two was also very good.”

“Kids would be good for Ann,” said Mary. “I told her so. I want her happiness, Ed. She’s a good person and a good friend. You like her too, right?”

“Of course I do. What’s not to like? But we should get some sleep now.”

“She’ll make a wonderful mother, don’t you think?” Mary asked, just as Ed was starting to doze off.

“Who?”

“Ann!” said Mary. “She’ll make a wonderful mother as well as a wonderful wife.”

“Well of course she will!” said Ed.

“And she shouldn’t be denied love and parenthood,” said Mary. “She’s a very good person and deserves a good life. And as her friends we should both help see that she finds happiness.”

“Certainly. Now go to sleep.”

 

****

 

Chapter 12

The Golden Gate

 

“Wow!” Ed exclaimed, when he got his first up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Levy and lock system. The visitors were enjoying a close-up view from almost underneath the southern end of the Bridge. The single lock was nestled under the Bridge at its south-end; the massive rock levy itself stretched along under the bridge for over two miles, rising twenty feet above the Bay water-line. The nearby lock currently contained the biggest cargo ship Ed had ever seen, and it was rising up from Bay level to Ocean level at a pace so slow that motion was almost imperceptible.

A dozen layers of cargo modules piled atop each other covered the ship’s deck and towered a hundred feet over it. High above even the gigantic ship the reddish Golden Gate Bridge itself towered, nearly a hundred and thirty years old but still as magnificent as ever. Ed noticed however that under the original level that carried auto traffic there was a second, narrower layer of bridge.

“The Bridge underwent some major upkeep and strengthening three decades ago so that it could support Levy construction, including rail-lines below the auto level.” said Mara. “Millions of tons of rock were dropped from the Bridge rail line. The part of the Levy you see above water is only a very tiny fraction of it. It rises fifteen feet above sea level but there is another three-hundred vertical feet of Levy under water. This end of the Levy is greatly enlarged to accommodate the lock and required nearly a third of the rock-fill. A lot of work is being done on it now but unfortunately our view is blocked by the ship.”

“Yes, and most levy and bridge work is done by Stone-Coat,” said Ed. “Humans built them but Stone-Coats maintain and make them better. That’s a common theme around the world.”

“Eventually as Antarctica and Greenland continue to melt the levy will need to grow a couple more hundred feet higher until it reaches bridge auto level,” noted Mara. “But that will be perhaps thousands of years from now.”

“Look! It’s a Stone-Coat!” Doll cried out abruptly and pointed. Near the massive closed lock doors less than a hundred yards from the visitors a Stone-Coat Ice-Giant’s head as large as a dump-truck had broken the surface of the Bay water. In the morning sun its wet diamond scales glistened brightly. Its dinner-plate sized black eyes faced directly towards the visitors. It was by far the biggest Stone-Coat that Ed had ever seen, and he had seen many big ones up close and personal.

GOOD MORNING, CHIEF ED,” it told Ed through his implant. “I WISH TO EXCHANGE DATA WITH YOUR COMPANION UNIT MACK USING NANOTUBE INTERFACES.”

CERTAINLY,” Ed said. The stone creature’s gigantic diamond-covered shoulders emerged from the Bay waters as it walked slowly towards the visitors.

“I’m remembering some old Godzilla movies that didn’t turn out well for the silly humans that didn’t run away fast enough or they ran in the wrong direction,” said Snake. His hand rested on a Harley storage compartment that housed his heavy weapons. Custer and his crew of CHiPs that were supposed to be guarding the troupe of visitors backed away from the approaching stone giant.

“No worries,” said Ed. “Mack and I are talking with it now. It simply seeks a direct high-speed data download from our Stone-Coats. Sort of like what was done at Yosemite.”

The stone giant stepped ponderously closer, causing bay water waves that splashed nearly as far as where the humans waited. Ever more of the glittering diamond covered rock giant emerged from the Bay waters, including gigantic arms with hands ending in diamond claws each as big as a man. Water cascaded from it as it rose higher.

“I thought that the really big ones like this had to have ice-cold conditions to move,” said Snake.

“Instead of using ice expansion to drive hydraulics steam power and water-cooling can also be used by large ocean units,” said Mack. “Movement is much slower than when ice is being used. It of course requires large quantities of elements that are undergoing nuclear decay. To limit radiation exposure to humans, Ed, Mary, and other humans should stay here while I alone get closer.”

Ed and Mary climbed out of Mack and the Stone-Coat tricycle moved himself fifty feet forward to the very edge of the Bay waters. The Stone-Coat Giant stepped ponderously closer, until at last it stood only knee-deep in water immediately in front of Mack. The stone giant was the most beautiful thing that the people of the group had ever seen. The five-foot long diamond crystals that covered most of it like tufts of hair sparkled brilliantly in the morning sunlight.

“It must weigh over a thousand tons!” Doll muttered.

“And a big part of it is diamonds!” marveled Snake. “A single crystal of its stone coat would have been worth billions of dollars in the old days!”

The gathered humans collectively gasped when the giant reached down with a gigantic clawed hand towards Mack. It could obviously very easily crush the smaller Stone-Coat with one finger. A massive finger tipped by a human-sized diamond claw reached into Mack’s open canopy, where a dark cloud of wispy nanotubing waited. A wispy streamer of black nanotubing extended down from the claw to mesh with Mack’s tubing, forming a super-high capacity digital interface.

“This shouldn’t take long,” Ed remarked.

Indeed only a few seconds later the monstrously huge clawed hand withdrew.

INFORMATION EXCHANGE COMPLETE,” the towering giant announced silently. “IMPROVED HUMAN THOUGHT SIMULATION AND SMALL UNIT DESIGN CONCEPTS ARE BEING INCORPORATED AND WILL BE SHARED WITH OTHER UNITS AT THIS LOCATION.”

GLAD TO BE OF HELP,” said Ed.

The gathered humans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the glistening giant Stone-Coat turned and ponderously walked back into the Bay side of the Strait.

“Stone Coats are strengthening and enlarging the Levy,” said Mack, as Ed and Mary climbed back into him. “Levy growth will not need to be geometric due to greater material strength. They progress rapidly. For several centuries they estimate complete success in maintaining the Levy and enlarging it to accommodate rising sea levels.”

They backtracked away from the base of the Bridge and in minutes were in heavy Bridge-bound traffic. The ancient towers and cables of Golden Bridge soon hung immediately above them. On the cables and towers a dozen moderate-sized Stone-Coats clung like giant spiders. From most of them a dark wispy cloud of nanotubes issued and enveloped portions of the Bridge structure. Repairs were made using materials transported and placed by billions of nanotubes one charged molecule at a time.

“As you mentioned Ed, the Stone-Coats are maintaining the Bridge now,” Mara noted unnecessarily, as they slowly drove across it.

“They detect and repair the metal fatigue and concrete fractures and weathering that inevitably develops over time,” Mack elaborated. “They also maintain a traditionally reddish finish that protects the Bridge from water and salt.”

“Many more Stone-Coats work to maintain and gradually elevate the Levy as the sea-level rises,” said Mara, “though unfortunately for tourists such as us that can’t be seen from here atop the Bridge, as most of them work either directly under the Bridge or under water.”

“Is rock for the Levy still dropped down from the Bridge?” asked Ed.

“Not anymore,” said Mara. “The road atop the Levy is used for that.”

“The under-water Stone-Coats also gather Levy materials from the bottom of the Strait,” added Mack. “Organics are particularly useful for the generation of composites used to cement together rock materials.” After their experience at Yosemite the travelers could well imagine an army of strangely configured Stone-Coats working together underwater to strengthen and enlarge the Levy.

“What are those huge buildings a few miles away on the far-side of the bridge?” Ed asked.

“That’s condos and apartments in Sausalito,” said Ken. “I lived in a very nice condo there for a time, but decided I could do much better elsewhere.”

“You always did like luxury,” said Snake. “That’s why even after retiring you stayed in the North and didn’t return to the Confederacy.”

“You have that right,” agreed Ken. “This county boy has seen the city and likes it.”

After crossing the Bridge the tour exited Route 101 to a side-road that wound its way up to a lookout point where the Strait, Bridge, and Levy could be viewed from far above. The Levy though it was a thousand times more massive seemed small and insignificant compared to the towering Bridge, but it is was the focus of most Stone-Coat activity. Conventional dump-trucks dumped huge boulders along the Levy road which were then rolled or carried into the choppy ocean waters by massive Stone-Coats. Activity around the lock was particularly intense.

“The Stone-Coat plan is to elevate and enlarge the entire lock system to keep pace with the rising sea level,” said Mack. “That will be done by infusing the underlying rock and steel elements with nanotubes that continually grow the foundation of Lock structure that sits atop it. The human engineers involved are duly impressed but skeptical.”

“That sounds like how the Stone-Coats slowly elevate our greenhouses back-home at Giant’s Rest to stay above the thickening ice-sheet,” said Ed.

“Yes, though this is a much bigger project by several orders of magnitude,” said Mack.

The huge container ship that they had seen at the other end of the bridge was moving out of the lock and steadily out to sea.

“The view from here is fantastic!” Mary said. “Ed, can you give me a bird’s-eye view?”

“Through your visicom unit screens I can give you all a bird’s-eye view,” said Ed. “Just let me sit here quietly and focus.” He sat down on a nearby bench, shut his eyes, and concentrated on a nearby seagull that was gliding above the Strait. Mary closed her eyes and waited. Soon through sharp seagull eyes Ed was seeing the Bridge, Levy, and ship from hundreds of feet above the Strait. Through their implants Mary was then seeing it also. Mack was acting as the interface between them. He also converted imagery to phone/ visicom format and transmitted it to the rest of the Crew.

Mara put on what looked like sunglasses that allowed her see that the gull was seeing stereoscopically. “Amazing!” she said. “It’s exactly like getting video feed from a flying drone!” After several minutes Ed reluctantly withdrew his thoughts from the seagull so that it could resume its endless search for fish.

“Speaking of drones,” said Mary, “where are they? I haven’t noticed any since we got into the Bay area. We see many commercial, private, and police drones in New York City.”

“Drones and ultra-lite commuter aircraft have long been outlawed near the Bay for safety reasons,” said Mara. “The ones designed and manufactured locally are tested at Moffat Field but other than that only a very few official safety and law-enforcement drones are allowed to fly in the Bay area. Legislation to allow flying cars is in the works though. Prototypes have been tested for years and are already used in remote areas all over the world. They’ll have to compete with much cheaper ultra-lightweight aircraft though, as well as with cheap ground transportation.”

“Besides CHiP drones you’ll see a few private drones now that we’re leaving the metro area,” added Ken, “and likely a few renegade flying cars as well.”

Moving north on Route 101, the entourage skirted Sausalito, which had grown from a small quiet town to a massive city with huge apartment/condo buildings that towered high overhead.

“This area has been booming since the rail lines built for Levy construction were converted to become part of the Bay High Rail system,” said Mara. “This branch of the system extends even further north as far as Santa Rosa. People can travel free to jobs in San Jose, Oakland, or San Francisco using the High Rail.”

“Sort of nice to see that someplace in the world is booming despite disasters world-wide,” said Ed. “Hope springs eternal. Old-timer locals probably miss the quiet little town atmosphere of Sausalito, but the rail system is nifty.”

“A working rail system through the Confederacy would be nice someday too,” noted Doll.

“In the near-term I’ll settle for roads that can handle actual full-sized trucks,” said Snake, “but yes, a rail system would be nice someday too. There are remnants of the old rail system all over the Confederacy that could be used as a starting point.”

“I’ll settle for this vacation to happen,” said Mary. “How far is Muir Woods?”

“Not very far as the crow flies,” said Ed, “but we’re driving there.”

Following the lead CHiP cycle, they again exited Route 101 and took Route 1 west towards Muir Woods and the coast. Traffic was light but slow, as most of it was solar-electric powered and headed uphill. The route started out relatively flat, straight and suburban, but gradually became a curve-filled uphill climb for the underpowered electric vehicles that filled the road. They gradually climbed hundreds of feet above Bay-level, but it was not nearly the struggle that had been necessary to reach the sequoia tree habitats farther south and east. Houses and businesses gave way to empty roadsides and the amount of traffic gradually dropped off.

“It doesn’t look as dry here,” noted Mary. “Look at all the small trees and bushes. They do look just a bit dry but they are still mostly green.”

“This close to the coast and this far north precipitation is close to pre-climate change norms,” said Ken. “From here north things are so far close enough to normal. Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver get even more rain than ever.”

“A good thing they do,” said Mara. “The Sequoia trees further south live in only a few scattered groves that can be irrigated, but there are thousands of acres of redwoods and fir that couldn’t possibly all be irrigated. Their biggest threat is still from logging.”

“Redwoods are still being logged?” Ed asked.

“People still have to make a living,” noted Ken.

“The logging is done illegally by poachers,” explained Mara. “Then there are also a never-ending barrage of invasive diseases, insects, and other things to combat. But California redwoods have declined only about ten percent over the last fifty years. That’s a pretty damn good record, when you consider how screwed up things have gotten with regard to climate and human instability. North of the redwoods Douglass fir forests are starting to make a big comeback. Those horrible clear-cut areas up towards Portland and Seattle are slowly recovering, though they won’t fully recover for centuries.”

They crested the hills and turned right off of Route 1. There were less trees and bushes now, though they were supposedly only a few miles from Muir Woods. The road traveled along the top of the ridge. There was more grass than anything else by now; tall dry looking grass atop mounds of that reminded the travelers of the Sierra Nevada foothills. There were plenty of bushes and rock outcroppings that could hide a small army.

“Great place for an ambush,” Snake mentioned. “We should all stay alert.”

“Didn’t we leave Scar in the Confederacy days ago?” asked Ed.

“Don’t count on it,” said Snake. “He’s a jant zombie and probably has many jant zombie buddies here in the North, and it’s not that hard to sneak in and out of the Confederacy. Since we don’t know why Scar stopped trying to stop us we don’t know if or when he’ll decide it’s time to kill us.”

“Swell,” said Ed. “Have you talked to Custer and his friends about this?”

“Yes,” said Snake. “The CHiPs are confident that their drones and network of patrols would easily spot any trouble brewing. They are of course unrealistically over-confident.”

“Drones?” asked Ed.

“They are over confident,” added Doll, “but for the last half hour they have been using drones.” She pointed out two small drones hovering so high overhead that they couldn’t even be heard.

“I’ve evaded CHiP drones far too often to trust them to protect us,” said Snake. “Besides, Ed would detect any med-ticks on nearby CHiPs, but any CHiP could still be bought-off or CHiP zombies could be monitoring those drones from afar.”

“I’ve worked with most of this particular CHiP crew for years,” countered Mara. “They can be trusted.”

“Ha!” said Snake.

“So where are all the redwoods?” asked Mary, nicely changing the subject.

“A couple more miles further in a deep little valley,” said Ken. They took a left onto a road promisingly named Muir Woods, and began a slow twisting decent. The further they went the more twisted the road became. They started to encounter parked cars, pedestrians, and more bicyclists as the road seemed to further narrow and twist.

“It’s pretty crazy to bicycle or hike on this road,” said Ed, when at one point they had an unnervingly close encounter with a bus traveling the other way. “Driving this road within the relative safety of a full-sized crash-resistant vehicle is insane enough. And this road is too damn narrow and too curvy for busses.”

“It sure is,” said Doll. “But here they are!”

“Normally driving is done under computer control,” said Mara. “I had to get special permissions through Custer for this group to drive free-style and not under computer control. But Custer’s CHiP cycle leading us is under computer control so don’t worry.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

“I don’t think I could trust computers for this,” said Snake, as they twisted around another bush-obscured curve, beyond which another on-coming bus abruptly appeared along with several bicyclists in their lane, descending towards the Park. The entourage slowed to bike speed and managed not to kill anyone.

“I’d trust a triply redundant computer safely system any day,” said Mira. “Automated driving systems are even more reliable than autonomous weapons systems nowadays.”

“My redundancy is orders of magnitude greater than triple,” Mack noted.

“I’m greatly comforted,” said Ed. “Hey! We’re there!”

In the midst of a sharp road curve to the left the entrance to Muir Woods appeared to the right. A sign said that the parking lot was full but Fred Custer himself waved the entourage in and to waiting open parking spaces that had been cordoned off from the public. Big trees shaded the parking lot but not redwood trees. Grouped around Wheels, Mary, and Ed, the visitors walked towards a log- building and the park entrance. There were hundreds of people, most of them bussed in from the nearby Bay area. Many recognized the VIP visitors, and took photos, especially photos of exotic appearing Snake and Doll.

“The price of rock-star level fame,” said Ed. “But due to Mara we didn’t even have to pay to get in. There are some benefits to being famous and well connected.”

“It will be good to get away from the throngs of people here in the North,” complained Snake with a snarl. “Too damned many folks here to suit me. And I’ll never again be able to spy in the North or anywhere else on the planet.”

They soon found themselves on a wood-plank walkway that at last led past redwood trees six-feet and more in diameter and two hundred feet tall. The well maintained path followed a little winding stream that the trees seemed to favor.

“Redwoods are taller and thinner than Sequoia trees,” Ed noted. “These are wonderful but they are mere juveniles compared to the much bigger redwoods farther north.”

“Compared to the Sequoia their bark is thinner and more dark gray than reddish,” noted Mary. “Look how they tend to grow in little groups of two or three or even more trunks. The Sequoia did that too but probably not as much as this. And here there is dampness-loving undergrowth, including those huge ferns.”

“The ground in this little valley is actually damp,” noted Doll. “We certainly don’t see much of that back home!”

“This grove of redwoods is close to San Francisco and gets hundreds of thousands of visitors annually,” said Mara. “There are several other similar groves in the coastal mountains north of here but they are generally less assessable and less protected. This raised walkway protects the trees from compaction of the soil around their roots.”

The visitors followed the pathway made frequent stops to sit quietly on benches under the trees or to run their hands over tree trunks assessable from the path. At least here the milling public mostly gawked at the trees and paid less unwanted attention to the VIP visitors.

On the way back to the parking lot they stopped to visit the log-cabin gift-shop. Mary in Wheels went inside with Doll and Mara while the men waited outside on benches. “Chairs like this in the department stores I used to call ‘husband chairs’ and I greatly appreciated them,” said Ed.

Snake posed in front of a big wood-carved grizzly bear while tourists took pictures and videos of him. Obviously the VIPs had again been recognized. “Any real bears near here?” Snake asked Ed. “You could hear them thinking if they are, right?”

“There are several black bears nearby and a pair of mountain lions,” said Ed. “Also a big golden eagle. I understand that they can be found throughout most of the United States now but this is the first one that I’ve encountered.”

“A for-real eagle?” asked a small girl that had been taking Snake’s picture. She looked to be maybe six or seven and Ed wondered why she wasn’t in school. He asked Mara about it telepathically.

MUCH SCHOOLING IS DONE REMOTELY NOWADAYS THE SAME WAY THAT WORK IS ACCOMPLISHED,” Mara explained from inside the gift shop. “ALSO MOST TEACHERS IN THE BAY AREA HAVE BEEN REPLACED BY HOLOGRAPHIC AI UNITS. THERE IS NO COMPELLING REASON TO PHYSICALLY GO TO A PHYSICAL SCHOOL WITH PHYSICAL TEACHERS.”

“Yes, it’s a for real eagle,” Ed finally answered the girl, after recovering from what Mara had told him. His old teaching vocation had apparently become obsolete! “She’s perched atop a nearby redwood right now, looking down at us. Her mate is hunting somewhere else.”

“Aren’t you that white Mohawk Chief from back East that lives with Stone Coats and jants?” asked the woman with the little girl.

“Yes, that’s me,” said Ed. “The eagle is curious about all the people being here, and about my sharing thoughts with her. That’s a strange thing to be happening to her, but I’ve managed to reassure her that no harm is meant.”

“It’s a girl eagle?” asked the girl.

“Yes, a big grown up female eagle.”

“How would you know that?” asked her mother.

“From her thoughts,” said Ed.

“I don’t see any eagles,” said an old man with binoculars that sat on a nearby bench. “I’ve been coming here fifty years and never saw an eagle here. Not one, and I’m a capable birder. I’ve seen plenty them in the nearby mountains, hills, and more open country though. Aquila chrysaetos canadensis is their scientific name. There’s lots more of them around since the government had folks cut back on the worst pesticides and made killing them illegal. They’ve even extended their range back East. But they like mountains and open spaces where they can catch rabbits and such and they generally avoid humans. You won’t find them in these thick woods.”

“I get the impression from her that she and her mate are just passing through,” said Ed. “Regardless of species, I’ve found that some individual raptors are more curious about humans than others.”

“Ha!” said the old man. “I’d sure like to see your golden eagle young fella, but that just ain’t happening.”

“I’d like to see her too,” said the girl.

“There is no eagle, little girl,” said the old man. “This fella is pulling your leg.”

“If everyone stays still and quiet maybe I can get the eagle to show herself,” said Ed. “Can I borrow a leather glove from you Snake? Oh, and unwrap that stick of beef-jerky you carry. I’ve already promised her a snack.”

Snake shrugged and from a vest pocket fished out a heavy-duty leather biker ridding glove and handed it to Ed.

Ed stood atop the wooden bench he had been sitting on and held up his glove-covered right hand. Immediately from somewhere high above came a shrill chirp-like sound. A dark shape separated itself from high atop a nearby redwood and glided down slowly on outspread wings more than two meters across. People all around gasped and pointed. The eagle chirped again as it glided towards Ed majestically.

“Quiet now!” urged Ed, to hush the growing chatter from the couple of dozen nearby chattering people.

With a downward breaking sweep of its wide wings the bird landed gently on Ed’s upraised hand. It was much heavier and the grip of its talons was much stronger than Ed expected, and over the years he had done this with dozens of raptors. “Ouch!” he muttered as the talons bit through even the tough leather of the riding glove and into skin. The eagle let-up its grip a little in response, but its grip still hurt.

“Wow!” said the little girl.

People gawked openly at the magnificent bird as the bird gawked back with its keen penetrating gaze. There seemed to be intelligence behind the big, wide-spaced eyes. It was mostly rusty brown in color, but the feathers around its neck and under the darker brown feathers had a distinctive gold tinge.

“She’s huge!” mumbled the old man.

“Feed her, Snake,” Ed said through clenched teeth. “Before she takes my hand off!”

Snake pulled a plastic-wrapped beef-jerky from a vest pocket, hastily ripped the plastic wrapper from it, and held it up and towards the bird.

With a sweep of its big wings it was airborne again, snatched the piece of beef-jerky from Snake, and flew up and away.

“That was super!” said the girl.

“The eagle was wonderful!” said the little girl’s mom. “And it was for real, just like these trees, and not just a hologram like we see at home when we do our lessons.”

“The eagle nearly took off my bloody hand,” said Ed, as took off Snake’s glove and shook and massaged his poor crushed and skewered hand.

“It was twice as big as it should have been,” said the old birder. “The females are larger than the males but she was tremendous! Probably well over twenty pounds. More the size of the Asian sub-species than the American version, but even bigger.”

“So I noticed,” said Ed. The bleeding where the bird’s talons had punched through the glove was already stopping. Besides perhaps being immortal Ed was an unnaturally fast healer. “She says thanks for the odd snack but she’s flying off to find her mate and some better food. Oh, and she doesn’t like CHiP drones so we better tell Custer to steer clear of her or the birds will trash them. They’re certainly big enough to do it.”

“Lamarckism possibly accounts for its unusual size,” said the old birder. “Same as the condors. Lamarckism is not as big a deal as at first feared, but you do see its effects now and again.”

“What’s going on out here?” Doll asked as she, Mary, and Mara emerged from the shop carrying small bags of goods.

“An eagle visited Ed,” said Snake. “I’ll bet it will be in the news soon; enough people here certainly recorded and broadcasted the event using their hand-held visicoms. The jants and Scar need only to watch news broadcasts to know exactly where we are.”

“Well we can’t lollygag around here all day anyway,” said Mary, “even though it would be pleasant to do so. How far is Point Reyes?”

“Only about thirty miles as the Eagle flies,” said Mara, “but unfortunately we’re driving. It should take us roughly an hour.”

The tourists rejoined Custer and his CHiP crew and reluctantly left Muir Woods, winding their way west and back onto Route 1. They soon caught glimpses of the Pacific Ocean down and ahead of them. Soon the twisting road took them perilously along a cliff that dropped over a hundred feet down into wave-churning Pacific waters. Several centuries in the future when all Antarctic ice was melted, even this high roadway would be flooded over in some places, he reminded himself, up to the height of Route 101 on the Golden Gate bridge. Would he still be alive then? He had no idea.

“Where are the guardrails?” asked Mary.

“You wouldn’t want your view of the ocean to be blocked, would you?” responded Mara from inside the trailing limo.

“Of course not,” said Ed. “But even with Mack driving us I’d feel better if there were more guardrails. We’ve been on other roads that twist this bad but not with a cliff that falls into the ocean right next to it. This is ridiculous.”

“More to the point, is the road this dramatically dangerous and stomach churning all the way to Point Reyes?” asked Mary.

“No, not all of it,” said Ken. Sure enough the road soon climbed and cut inland and except for occasional glimpses the Ocean couldn’t even be seen. For the most part there were only dry looking hills to see, with very few signs of wildlife, even to Ed’s telepathic senses. Mary dozed off, and soon so did Ed.

****

“We seem to be in cattle country,” said Mary, waking Ed. They were on a country road surrounded by rolling grass covered hills over which dozens of cows could be seen grazing. There was no Pacific Ocean in sight.

“We have only a few more miles to go,” said Mara. “This is the interior of the peninsula that juts out into the Ocean and ends at Reyes Point.” They were at the moment literally droving through an old-fashioned farm; the farmhouse was on the left side of the road and a big old barn was on the right. Parked in front of it was an ancient looking tractor.

They continued for several more miles through rolling hills of farmland before at last reaching even hillier country. They caught glimpses of the ocean before at last reaching a small parking lot that was filled with a couple of dozen vehicles. CHiPs waved them into parking spaces that had been reserved for them. “We walk from here,” said Mara, as Ed helped Mary into Wheels.

The path was smooth and well maintained but not level. Ed and Doll helped Wheels along the steeper grades. Rocky hills to each side of the path were covered with bushy growth on which several deer were feeding. Further along there were views of the Ocean to their right, but there were wisps of fog that somewhat obscured their view. At one point there were also surprisingly large trees with branches that spread wide over the pathway, and solid rock outcroppings covered in colorful orange moss.

At last they came across a handful of small old wooden white-painted buildings and to a viewing platform, below which a long staircase carved in solid rock and concrete led down a ridge of solid rock to a small lighthouse and white shack far below. To the left and then further down to the right of the stairway the rock of the Point dropped almost straight down for several hundred feet into fog. A solid looking rail and fence on each side of the stairs kept dozens of tourists from wondering off the cliffs. From far below came the unmistakable sound of pounding surf, but fog allowed only occasional glimpses of waves, rocks, and circling gulls.

Ahead of them beyond the fog that was hugging the cliffs the entire Pacific Ocean went on forever. There were no boats to be seen but several other tourists on the viewing platform were excitedly pointing binoculars and cameras to a particular Ocean spot.

Doll produced a small set of binoculars which she trained on the spot. “Whales!” she proclaimed. “I can see their backs and spouts when they surface for air!”

“Migrating gray whales, most likely,” said Mara. “Or possibly humpbacks or even blue whales.”

“Their thoughts are amazingly strong; I can sense them even at this distance,” said Ed, as Doll’s binoculars were passed around. “There are a couple dozen of them. I’ve spoken to humpbacks on the East Coast and might be able to communicate with this bunch of grays. Usually whales can be reasoned with. I’ll try to get them to swim a little closer and show themselves better.”

Indeed the whales soon turned towards them and swam closer, than breached half of their great bodies above the water and pounded back down with tremendous splashes. They all took turns with the binoculars watching them.

Meanwhile dozens of other visitors to the site filed past as they climbed up and down the long stairway. “It’s three hundred steps down to the lighthouse,” said Mara, “but you have to go down there to get the full effect.”

“I’m afraid that the stairway is beyond my capability,” said Wheels, “even with Ed’s help. I could modify myself to climb stairs, but that would take hours.”

“Snake and I can get you down there and back, Mary,” said Doll. “No problem! Easier to leave Wheels here though, as he’s heavier than you are.” She swept up Mary from Wheels into her strong arms, made for the stairway, and was soon carrying frail Mary down them as the rest of the party followed on. Though they paused frequently to peek down over the cliff and listen to the waves, Doll began to tire and at a small viewing platform part-way down Snake took over. Ed monitored Mary via their implants; she was comfortable and excited. Meanwhile tourists took stills and videos of the War Brother and the Warrior Princess carrying a little old lady down the long stairway.

THIS WILL BE IN THE NEWS FOR SURE,” Mara told Ed.

GREAT FOR POLITICS BUT NOT SO GREAT FOR SECURITY,” Ed noted.

Finally they reached the little lighthouse and Snake put Mary down on a bench next to Ed. Mara was right; this was truly a wonderful place to be. They were a couple of hundred feet closer to sea level but still far above it. There were gulls parched nearby and many more in the air floating on updrafts, and through the sound of the surf they occasionally heard the bark of what had to be sea lions. The cool, clean, damp air from the Pacific was wonderful.

“There are dozens of sea lions below us but they are too close to the cliff for us to see them,” said Ed.

“What about your birds-eye view trick?” asked Snake.

“Great idea,” said Ed. “Get your visicoms ready.”

Ed quickly found an accommodating gull and shared its senses as it first flew high above the cliffs and stairway, and then glided down along the cliff to near sea level. It made several passes above barking sea lions that were gathered on rocks below the cliff. The accommodating bird then then headed out to sea to circle above breaching gray whales for several minutes. Finally the bird turned and headed back for the lighthouse.

“Drones are prohibited,” said a grumpy voice.

Ed looked up to see a frowning middle-aged woman in a ranger uniform.

“That goes for everyone,” she said, when Mara started to tell her who she was. “I don’t care if you’re the Governor himself or even the President; we can’t have our wildlife disturbed by noisy machines.”

“What we view is from a seagull, not a mechanical drone,” said Ed.

“Putting a mini-cam on a gull is also strictly prohibited, young man,” said the ranger.

“No camera is involved,” said Ed. “Just bird eyes. Watch.” He handed his visicam to her and she watched it as a birds-eye view of herself grow and grow until the gull landed on a nearby bench. She looked back and forth at the bird, the visicom, and Ed as the bird sized up its surroundings as shown on the visicom.

“I don’t understand how you’re doing this!” she at last told Ed. “This is some sort of trick!”

“State secret,” said Mara.

“We could tell you, but then we’d have to kill you,” added Snake.

“Just a figure of speech, ranger,” said Mara. “Thank you for your diligence but we break no rules. I originated the anti-drone laws of California over twenty years ago, by the way, so I should know.”

Snake and Doll took turns carrying Mary back up the stairs and to Wheels. “Thank you both so very much!” Mary told them repeatedly.

“No problem,” said Snake. “Doll keeps me fit.”

“I only wish that you guys could have carried the rest of us,” said Ed. Though he thought of himself as being fit, climbing up the three hundred stairs was more exercise than he was accustomed to. Everyone else in their party seemed to be less effected by the ordeal than he was, even old Ken. This had been an outstandingly wonderful place to visit but he was glad when he was at last again sitting comfortably in Mack, underway, and rolling through quiet farmland.

They had lunch at a little roadside diner in Inverness, a small nearby town that Ed and Mary had slept through earlier. The food was good but Mary wouldn’t eat much of it. “I’m more tired than hungry,” she declared.

“How far to our next hotel?” Ed asked Mara.

“We have a nice bed and breakfast booked for you in Mendocino more than a hundred miles up the coast,” said Mara.

“Over a hundred miles on Route 1 as it twists its way along ocean-side cliffs?” Ed asked. “That ain’t happening. Too tiring. Much as we would love seeing more of this wonderful coastline we’ll need to abandon it and also find somewhere to bed-down that is closer and easier to get to than Mendocino.”

“Then I suggest that we head inland to Petaluma or Santa Rosa for the afternoon and night napping,” said Mara. “From there we can then take Route 101 into redwood country tomorrow. Route 101 isn’t called the Redwood Highway for nothing; there will be plenty to see. That will mean some twisty roads through the coastal mountain range at first but it’s less than forty miles to Petaluma and Route 101. After that Route 101 will be straight and level compared to Route 1.”

As it happened Mary dozed off anyway and the group ended staying in Santa Rosa for the afternoon and night at yet another large new hotel. Like Sausalito, Santa Rosa had over the last few decades grown beyond recognition. Being the last-stop for the High Rail line that carried commuters to the Bay area caused the construction of giant apartments and condos that dominated the landscape. From the tenth story balcony of their hotel room as Mary slept Ed marveled at the sight of hundreds of flying cars and wide-winged ultra-light aircraft coming and going from some point only a couple of miles distant.

YOU OBSERVE THE COMMUTER TRAFFIC,” said Wheels. “BASED ON THE NUMBER OF FLYING VEHICLES SANTA ROSA HAS THE BUSIEST AIRFIELD IN CALIFORNIA. WELL-TO-DO HUMANS LOVE TO LIVE AMONG VINEYARDS. FROM EVEN HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY THEY FLY TO SANTA ROSA TO TAKE THE TRAIN TO JOBS IN THE BAY AREA. THE AIRBORNE-VEHICLES OF COURSE RELY ON COMPUTER CONTROL, PARTICULARLY WHEN THEY APPROACH THE AIRFIELD. THE FLYING CARS DON’T PHYSICALLY NEED AN AIRPORT BUT THEY ARE REGULATED TO USE THIS ONE.”

SOUNDS LIKE AN IMPRACTICALLY LONG COMMUTE,” said Ed. “BUT AS YOU HAVE POINTED OUT HUMANS ARE NOT ALWAYS LOGICAL AND PRACTICAL.”

After eating a brief dinner together in their rooms Mary went back to sleep while Ed worried about her. Daily she was definitely slowing down and getting weaker. Even simply riding within the comfort of Mack was becoming too much for her. This trip had been a huge mistake; he should have kept her home at Giants’ Rest. In a few more days however, after spending a few days on the coast and resting among the redwoods, they would head home where she could recuperate.

Would she be able to recuperate? Even before this trip she had been getting steadily weaker. Ed didn’t want to think about it. She would get stronger; she had to! Leaving Mack to watch over Mary, Ed headed to the lounge on the ground floor, where the others were hopefully discussing things other than Mary.

“Mary and I need to get to the big trees and the ocean and soon finish our vacation.” Ed announced. “Not that we don’t love it here in California, of course.”

“Yes, we’ve been talking about it,” said Snake. “With one long day of driving we can be in the midst of the redwoods, if Mary’s up to it.”

“I think that will work,” said Ed. “She can nap most of the way, especially if the ride is smooth and relatively straight.”

“Will your jant friends allow it?” asked Snake. “Have you spoken with them lately?”

“There are jant colonies throughout the North,” said Ken. “Perhaps you could come to some sort of accommodation with them and avoid further trouble.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Doll.

“We need the intelligence,” added Mara. “They doubtless already know where we are. Ken has persuaded us that there is nothing to lose by trying. I don’t want to wake up some morning covered in a gazillion jants.”

“I also don’t want to piss them off even more,” said Ed, “but I suppose you’re right. OK, just let me sit here undisturbed for a while and I’ll do what I can.”

Ed closed his eyes and reached outwards mentally. There were hundreds of nearby humans and small animals with emotions that obscured his telepathic search but he was used to blocking out and seeing past such interference. Yes, there was a large jant colony less than a mile distant that soon became aware of his probing.

Of course these local jants at first had no idea who he was. Ed waited patiently for them to access distant colonies and for them to reallocate their cognitive resources for human contact with the Hive Collective. “HELLO JANT CLAN LEADER ED RUMSFELD,” came the clear thought from them at last. “WE EXPECTED TO NEXT CONTACT YOU IN MENDOCINO.”

SORRY TO INCONVENIENCE YOU,” said Ed. “I REALIZE THAT YOU EXPEND SIGNIFICANT RESOURCES TO CONVERSE WITH ME.” He knew that many millions of jants were involved in the conversation, though it probably didn’t disrupt jant physical activities very much. Individual jants supported colony cognition without disturbing the hard-wired chemically driven activities necessary for colony survival that were ingrained in their ant bodies through tens of millions of years of evolution.

HAVE YOU BEEN RECONSIDERING YOUR OPPOSITION TO US?” they asked.

YES I AM TRYING TO,” said Ed. “IT IS HIGHLY ADVISABLE THAT JANTS AND HUMANS ACCOMMODATE EACH OTHER AND LIVE IN HARMONY.”

COOPERATION IMPROVES EFFICIENCY,” the jants agreed. “YET MANY HUMANS STILL REFUSE COOPERATION. WORLD-WIDE MANY JANTS AND JANT COLONIES ARE DAILY ATTACKED BY HUMANS. SELECTIVE CONTROL OF HUMANS IS REQUIRED BY US TO HELP HUMANS ACHIEVE SATISFACTORY TREATY COMPLIANCE.”

YOUR CONTROL OF HUMANS IS UNSATISFACTORY AND HIGHLY REPUGNANT TO US,” said Ed. “A BETTER WAY IS NECESSARY.”

THE TREATY SAYS THAT HUMANS ARE TO AID JANT SURVIVAL IN ALL HUMAN ENVIRONMENTS SUCH AS IN THE DESERTS TO THE SOUTH. THIS HAS NOT BEEN DONE. IT IS A SEVERE TREATY VIOLATION THAT CAN NOT BE TOLERATED.”

YOU SHOULD HAVE MADE HUMANS MORE AWARE OF THE VIOLATION SO THAT IT COULD BE ADDRESSED BY US,” countered Ed. “THE LEADERS OF THE STORMTROOPER CONFEDERACY NOW CONCEDE THAT JANTS WILL BE ALLOWED TO LIVE IN THEIR LANDS BUT ONLY ON THE CONDITION THAT JANT CONTROL OF HUMANS IN CALIFORNIA USING TICKS IS STOPPED. JANTS WILL BE TOLERATED AND AIDED ONLY IF JANT CONTROL OF HUMANS THROUGH TICKS IS STOPPED.”

There was a pause as hundreds of interconnected hive-minds collectively considered what Ed had told them. “YOUR SOLUTION IS GENERALLY ACCEPTABLE,” they at last said. “BUT CAN HUMANS ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU SUGGEST? WE HAVE SERIOUS DOUBTS.”

Ed discussed it with Snake and the others and ordered a mug of beer before replying. “SNAKE PLEDGES THAT WITHIN ONE YEAR HE CAN CHANGE HUMAN PRACTICES IN HIS CONFEDERACY TO COMPLY. HE NOTES HOWEVER THAT INDIVIDUAL HUMANS ARE VERY HARD TO CONTROL AND WILL OCCASIONALLY BREAK THIS AGREEMENT EVEN WITH STRINGENT HUMAN ENFORCEMENT.”

There was a pause of several seconds before the jants responded. “WE WILL KEEP THE AGREEMENT IN PROPORTION TO YOUR KEEPING OF THE AGREEMENT,” the jants at last pronounced.

That sounds fair, Ed felt. “DISCUSSIONS SUCH AS THIS IS HOW OUR PROBLEMS SHOULD BE ADDRESSED,” he concluded. “OUR TREATIES MUST BE MAINTAINED BUT THAT REQUIRES CONTINUED HARD WORK, UNDERSTANDING, AND ADJUSTMENTS FROM BOTH HUMANS AND JANTS. THIS AGREEMENT WILL SAVE MANY JANT AND HUMAN LIVES. BUT WHAT OF MARY AND ME? WILL WE SURVIVE OUR VACATION?”

“WE DO NOT CURRENTLY ANTICIPATE A NEED FOR YOUR TERMINATION BY US IN THE NEAR FUTURE,” they answered.

SWELL,” said Ed.

“Does this mean we’re safe from Scar?” Doll asked, after Ed opened his eyes, chugged down his waiting mug of beer, and explained the agreement.

“Damned if I know for sure,” admitted Ed. “Termination of Mary and myself is not anticipated soon, whatever that means. I took that to be good news. But they did somehow know that we were supposed to be in Mendocino. There might be an information leak someplace in our crew. Maybe Scar will show up yet.”

“Good; I still want to kill that bastard,” said Snake. “Haven’t had me a good knife fight in months.”

 

****

 

Chapter 13

Wine Country and Trees

 

After a restful night they set off north on Route 101. The temperature was comfortably in the mid-seventies and the sky was clear. “Do you want to make any stops in wine country?” Ed asked Mary.

“No, I think that we should push on further north to tree country,” she replied. “You may not have noticed but I’m getting weaker by the day.”

“I noticed. Everyone has. Maybe we should break out the med-tick we have packed away and give you a good physical, now that we’re buddies with the jants again. At least I hope we are.”

“Unnecessary,” she replied, as she reached for her ear buds and requested Brahms from Mack. “Wake me for lunch, a rest room, or big trees.”

The road was smooth and traffic was sparse. They made very good time, even though Mick should have been challenged by some of the long upward grades. The topography reminded Ed a bit of the Adirondacks back home in upper-state New York, except these mountains were not covered by ice. “UNLESS GRAVITY IS WEAKER YOUR ENGINE SEEMS STRONGER,” Ed noted.

“IT IS,” Mack replied. “I MADE SUCCESSIVE MODIFICATIONS DURING OUR LAYOVERS IN SAN JOSE, SAN FRANCISCO, AND SANTA ROSA.”

WONDERFUL! BUT WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US?”

“I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT WHEN HUMANS WOULD NOTICE. SUCH DATA IS BEING FED INTO OUR REFINEMENT OF HUMAN THOUGHT EMULATION.”

AND I WAS THE FIRST TO NOTICE?”

YOU WERE THE LAST. EVERYONE ELSE NOTICED DAYS AGO.”

SWELL,” Ed concluded. He turned his attention back to the landscape they were moving through and the life it contained. In general there were low forested mountains to the left of the highway and hilly cultivated lands to the right that included fields of grapes. They were clearly skirting California’s famous wine country. Ed wasn’t much of a wine drinker but right now he wished that he had some. Somehow that thought must have slipped out to Mack via his implant because the Stone-Coat offered to synthesize wine for him. Ed politely declined the offer. Even after years of practice Stone-Coat synthesized food somehow always tasted like cardboard. He would probably have to be drunk in the first place for Stone-Coat synthesized wine to be palatable, and it would take an extraordinary amount of alcohol to get himself drunk.

For a while he tried to telepathically keep track of surrounding wildlife but that task was overwhelming and ultimately boring. He sensed an endless population of small wild animals and an occasional jant colony. There seemed to be no security benefit to his taxing mental efforts; several CHiPs were escorting them and high above them several small drones patrolled. Safety seemed to be assured.

At some point he dozed off. A couple of hours later Mara announced that they were passing outside the small town of Leggett. “We’ll start seeing redwoods pretty soon. Thought you guys might want to see them.”

Ed and Mary looked about and found that they were on a four lane highway traveling through hilly countryside that lacked large trees. However the highway soon descended into patches of pine forests. “I think some of the bigger trees are redwoods!” Mary noted. The road narrowed to two lanes that were increasingly hilly and twisty. Mary nearly drifted off to sleep again when the road around them was suddenly surrounded by several great redwood trees. The road ran right alongside trees that were sometimes eight-feet in diameter at their base! Tourists with mostly tiny cars were stopped at little roadside parking spots and were walking about the trees. On the Giants’ Rest Reservation back home there were a few surviving stands of redwoods, but none were this extensive or featured redwoods this large. Ten minutes later the redwoods were gone; the road wound its way to higher ground and widened out to four lanes again.

“There’s another similar stretch of redwood surrounded roadway about a half an hour further on,” said Mara.

“Nap again if you wish and I’ll wake you when I detect redwoods,” said Mack.

When Mack woke the Rumsfelds they were again driving along a scenic two lane highway encroached upon by huge redwoods and fern-dominated undergrowth.

“This is a side road named the Avenue of the Giants that parallels Route 101 for over thirty miles,” said Mara. “Towards the end of it we’ll stop for lunch.”

“And a potty break,” added Mary. She grinned happily as they continued through patches of nice redwoods. Trees stretched over two hundred feet above them towards blue skies. Mary again dozed off comfortably. When they woke her next they were all ready for a potty break and lunch at a little roadside hamburger joint.

“We have more than an hour of largely open spaces and some larger towns before we get to Trinidad,” said Mara, between bites of burger.

“What’s in Trinidad?” asked Ed.

“A small bed and breakfast that I booked to be our base of operations for your redwood and coastline vacation explorations,” said Mara.

“Is it close to the redwood parks?” Ed wanted to know.

“Within half an hour or so,” said Mara “Oreck is even closer but deemed to be less defensible.”

“I agree,” said Snake. “As I recall, Oreck has a couple of tiny motels that are right on Route 101, while Trinidad is totally off Route 101 along a limited access stretch of highway.”

“Defense against what?” asked Mary.

“Zombies and their friends,” said Doll. “Despite the recent agreement with them we still need to be cautious.”

“That makes sense,” Ed agreed.

They got back onto Route 101 and continued north. Not for the first time Ed marveled at the huge size of the state of California and how wondrous it was from a nature viewpoint. Mountains, deserts, ocean, forests, and temperate weather: California had it all. Of course there were also earthquakes, brush fires, mudslides, severe droughts, and in recent decades political chaos and upheaval, but no place was perfect. Most people genuinely liked California; population had peaked at over fifty million people before the droughts got really bad. People packed the cities but here in the boonies people were still scarce and many people liked it that way.

Ed often extended his senses occasionally and took note of the wildlife. There was plenty of it to sense: deer, occasional coyotes, bears, and mountain lions, and a host of smaller critters, as well as thousands of birds, including raptors. There were even soaring giant condors!

People were few. Only a few small towns existed along this stretch of road. There were jant colonies every few miles also, he noticed. Northern California was well populated with jants. He briefly exchanged greetings with a few of the colonies. They likely sensed his wondering mind as easily as he sensed them; there was no sense in trying to hide. They seemed friendly enough, or at least were too busy thinking about other things to have ill thoughts of humans.

He dozed off briefly and when he woke they were driving through a sizable town. “WHERE THE HELLS ARE WE?” he asked Mara silently, after checking to see that Mary was still sleeping comfortably.

“Eureka,” she replied by radio. “Still about a half hour from Trinidad.”

Mick elevated Ed’s seat and decreased window tint so that he could look around better. They were driving past roadside motels, car dealerships, restaurants, and other sorts of commercial establishments. The road swung sharply right and they were soon among older commercial buildings. This was the most civilization that they had encountered since leaving Santa Rosa. The road swung left then soon crossed a low bridge and onto a stretch of land with water on each side. To each side of them long dikes protected the road.

“This stretch of Route 101 is being rebuilt further inland,” explained Mara. “The dikes are only a temporary measure. This whole Humboldt Bay area will eventually be tidal wetlands and then completely submerged, including Eureka and Arcata. People are already moving to higher ground, even though the whole flooding thing is happening in slow motion.”

“That’s what’s happening even more in the East,” said Ed, “partly because the worsening hurricane situation has to be considered. It breaks peoples’ hearts to see their childhood coastal towns and cities abandoned. It breaks their wallets too. You guys have only your bays and inlets to worry about; the East Coast has its hundreds of low-lying coastal towns and big coastal cities being slowly lost. Look what happened already to Miami! It will take hundreds of years but all Florida and New Jersey will be gone before climate change is over, along with a wide swath of land along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. Worst case, land area loss will be much bigger than California, to put it in perspective for you folks. Loss in the East will be a hundreds of times worse than it will be in the West.”

“And look how screwed up the West is already!” said Snake. “I don’t envy Jerry’s job of trying to keep things together across the entire continent!”

“Much of East Coast human habitation is technically located on the continental shelves,” said Doll. “So you’re right; at least the West Coast isn’t ever going to be hit as bad by the rise in ocean levels. Much less of the West Coast will be flooded. But at least this country has resources to deal with what is happening. World-wide many low-lying countries are really screwed and too poor to do anything except migrate to places that are already crowded with people that don’t want migrants.”

“Yes we’re in damn good shape around here alright,” said Snake. “Glad though that I won’t be around to see the worst of things coming. Just lucky, I guess.”

They had talked their way back to a higher, wider stretch of Route 101. Evergreen forests again surrounded the roadway when they at last took the Trinidad exit.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” said Snake. “Hasn’t changed all that much. Looks like the same gas station, little strip mall, and trailer park up ahead.”

They traveled straight ahead before turning left once they got past the trailer park. In a couple more blocks they found themselves atop a cliff that dropped a couple of hundred feet into Trinidad Bay, a broad, U-shaped bay with the small town of Trinidad somewhere near the middle. Here and there gigantic rocks poked up through the calm bay waters. Many miles further out, the pacific stretched away endlessly.

“What are those dark bits of things scattered all over atop the water?” asked Mary.

“Those are the gas-filed floating bladders of the kelp,” said Mara. “Below them the kelp stretches down for a dozen meters and more to where they anchor themselves to the bay bottom. The under-water kelp forests are amazing!”

“Of course!” said Mary.

A few yards down the cliff was a small white lighthouse, similar to the one they had visited at Point Reyes. An old wood sign proclaimed it to be the Memorial Lighthouse. Directly across the street from cliff and lighthouse sat an inconspicuous, ordinary looking, two-story dwelling covered in maroon colored shingles. “That is our bed and breakfast,” said Mara, pointing at it. They parked in the driveway and the CHiPs parked their motorcycles along the street.

“Old lady nap time!” proclaimed Mary, as Ed helped her out of Mack and into Wheels. She looked tired but very happy and excited. “After my nap we’ll look around a bit before bedtime.”

A very old gray-haired man and a very old gray cat greeted the visitors at the door of the B&B. “Welcome travelers to my B&B, my name is Truman,” the man announced, as he shook hands, “and this is Fog, my little gray companion.” The cat walked among the visitors, rubbing its soft gray fur against their legs and purring.

Snake lifted Wheels and Mary through the door and into a quaint lobby that featured antique nautical trinkets and tourist pamphlets. To the left was a dining room with large table and to the right was a lounge area with comfy looking sofa and chairs.

Truman pointed straight ahead to a stairway that led up. “Yours is a larger group than we’re used to but there are three suites upstairs that I’ve prepared per the Lieutenant Governor’s instructions,” he said. “Rumsfelds to the left, Stormtroopers to the right, and the Lieutenant Governor suite in the middle.”

Ed picked up Mary in his arms and carried her upstairs. They took Wheel’s flashlight-sized extension with them for company. Mary was far too light, Ed felt; she was still losing weight that she couldn’t spare.

Indeed upstairs there were quaint well-appointed suites for Ed and Mary, Snake and Doll, and Mara. Ken was relegated to the lounge area, which led to Truman’s private suite and the kitchen. The vacated house next door was commandeered to become CHiP headquarters. Fog pretty much had the run of the place, but like all cats, mostly slept.

“What a fantastic view from here!” exclaimed Ed, after he had settled Mary atop the big comfortable bed. Through the large windows Trinidad Lighthouse and Bay were on display. The view was incredible. Large rock outcroppings of assorted shapes and sizes were scattered throughout the bay. The natural beauty of California was crazy-beautiful. The room itself has clean but antiquated, and even featured a rustic ancient table-model flat-screen TV less than a meter across. There would be no holograms here. There were sloping ceilings overhead that followed roof contours, but they were generally high enough to not require any ducking.

“Go see your friends and just let me sleep,” Mary complained. “Wheels will keep me company.”

Ed found the others gathered in the lounge area discussing itinerary and security as they drank wine. “The CHiPs and I will need to stay with you and the Rumsfelds throughout your visit,” Mara was saying, “that’s my orders from the Governor.”

“Bull,” countered Snake. “It will be the four of us without State help. Me and Doll can provide enough security from here on out. We aren’t helpless, you know.”

“Perhaps not, but in the North you lack your Crew of armed supporters,” pointed out Mara. “You should gratefully accept CHiP protection.”

“Mary and I will be spending a few nights camping alone in the forest and on the coast,” Ed announced. “We’ll take Mack and Wheels with us, but that’s it. We’ll buy camping equipment we need from that little sports equipment store we saw when we entered Trinidad.”

The others objected fiercely. “Your security is a matter of State interest,” Mara asserted. “Plus personally I’d rather not see you all killed. PLUS HIPPOPOTAMUS.”

“And camping ain’t that easy,” said Snake.

“We’ve lived forty years with the Mohawk and camped in the Adirondacks every year,” said Ed. “We aren’t novice campers. That is what we came here to do more than anything else.”

“The forests are full of wild animals including bears and rattlesnakes,” noted Mara.

“Hopefully so,” said Ed. “I can detect and communicate with pretty much whatever is out there, even snakes. We’re hoping for elk, deer, bears, wolves, cougars, and a host of smaller critters to keep us company. Personally I’m partial to wolf packs. I’ll simply send away any rattlesnakes or skunks though; I have my limits. Anyway I’ll discuss things with the local jants and birds when we get there; our self-protection in a forest won’t be a problem.”

“We’re more worried about human critters combined with their little ant friends to form unfriendly zombies,” argued Doll.

Ken kept refilling wine glasses and everyone kept drinking it.

Ed finally agreed that Snake and Doll would shadow himself and Mary within shouting distance while Mara and the CHiPs would patrol the surrounding area. “Keep those noisy nosy spy drones away from us or I’ll eagle them out of the sky,” insisted Ed. “Snake and Doll are our buddies though; you all are, but especially Snake and Doll and Wheels and Mack are.”

Why had he blurted out that last part, Ed wondered? It was true but had he just slighted Mara and Ken?

YOUR IMPLANT DETECTS ALTERED BODY ACTIVITY,” said a message from Wheels.

“IT’S THE DAMNED WINE,” Ed replied. He wasn’t used to alcohol, though his altered body chemistry tended to resist alcohol effects. However to his surprise he was now feeling a little woozy. “And now we have Mara and Ken as new buddies,” he added diplomatically.

“Yeah, we’re all buddies!” exclaimed Snake. He slumped low in his chair, as did Doll and Mara, as though they were all utterly exhausted.

Too much wine, Ed wondered? That didn’t make sense; he had seen Snake and Doll chug down as much whisky without noticeable effect, and this was just wine. He was going to say something about that but then he forgot what he was thinking about.

“Buddies like us shouldn’t keep any secrets,” said Ken, who sat smiling nearby. He had a glass of wine in his hand, but wasn’t drinking much of it.

“Course not,” Ed mumbled in agreement.

“And we’re buddies,” said Ken.

“It’s swell having buddies,” said Ed.

“You can trust buddies like me with all your secrets,” said Ken.

“Sure, because buddies are the best,” said Ed. Except for him and Ken, all the gathered buddies seemed to be asleep. He thought that he should take a nap too, like Mary and the others.

“You can tell me now what you learned at Ames, Ed,” said Ken. “What secrets did they tell you?”

Ed erupted into laughter. Weak laughter, because he was half asleep. “They said everything is going fine, and that’s about it. Ain’t that a hoot?” Ed managed. “All that damned security nonsense and then that’s all they told us!”

“What’s going fine?” Ken asked. “What are they doing there?”

“Damned if I know,” said Ed “Ain’t that a hoot? All this jet plane and motorcycle and tip-top secrecy stuff and we still don’t know shit!” At that point he fell asleep.

****

“What were you saying, Snake?” asked Ken.

“You know, I don’t remember,” said Snake. He shook his hairy head. “Must be old age and good wine. I’m getting used to afternoon siestas, maybe.”

“I think I was starting to doze off myself,” said Doll. “We were talking about camping, I think. While Mary takes her nap why don’t I go to that sporting-goods shop and get camping equipment for me and Snake as well as for Ed and Mary? I could use some fresh air anyway.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ed, as Doll stood up unsteadily and headed out. “Go in Mack; he can carry more stuff than your Harley can.”

“I better let Mack drive,” Doll said.

“Did something strange just happen?” asked Mara.

“Not that I noticed,” said Ken.

“Don’t ask me,” said Ed. “I think I drank too much wine. I might have been talking to Ken but whatever it was about is all fuzzy.”

“It’s been a long day of driving,” said Ken. “Maybe we should have all taken a nap like Mary.

“I think I’ll go check on Mary now,” said Ed, as he stood up unsteady on his feet. He still felt strangely groggy. Climbing the stairs earlier carrying Mary had been easier to do than climbing the stairs alone was now. He plopped down on the bed next to Mary and quickly fell asleep.

****

“Wake up, sleepy head,” said Mary, as she shook Ed awake. “I want to see a little of the area before it gets dark. Look at this!”

She held something in her gloved hand inches from his face. It was twice the size of a finger and yellow. He didn’t realize it was alive until it moved its antennae and tried to crawl off Mary’s glove!

With a yell he jerked his face away from it and squirmed himself off the bed, wide eyed and shaking.

“Thought that would wake you up!” she said, with a mischievous grin. “It’s just a harmless banana slug thingy. Doll brought me this one. She said that there’s dozens of them across the street leaving trails of slime on the ground. Truman says that we’ll see even more of them in the damp mornings. Nifty, right?”

“Swell,” said Ed. “Yeah; that woke me up alright!”

“Well get yourself together and carry me and my yucky friend downstairs then,” said Mary. “Our companions await us.”

Downstairs, Doll awaited them grinning. “You should have seen Snake jump when I showed him the slug, Ed!” The Warrior Princess retrieved the slug from Mary and returned it to its natural habitat along the cliff-slopes near the lighthouse while in the dining room Ed and Mary dug into sandwiches procured for them by Truman from the restaurant around the corner.

“A century or so before I moved here you folks wouldn’t have had to drive half an hour to see redwoods, they were growing right here in Trinidad” mentioned Truman. “Loggers cleared out most of the big trees before the park system was set up. There were trees around here bigger than any we have now; over four hundred feet tall and more massive than the biggest sequoia. One that was 408 feet tall lived right here in Trinidad and was cut down in 1926. It measured out to be forty percent more massive than the General Sherman sequoia. History records that the ass-holes that cut it down to make shingles and picnic tables were quite pleased with themselves.”

“We’re trying to regrow some the old-growth forests that were lost,” said Mara. “We have to make sure that rising sea-levels don’t flood them all out.”

“Ha! Come back in a few thousand years to see how that worked out,” said Truman. “First off your tree-hugger project has got to go on for thousands of years, and second, despite all this climate change business the rains have got to keep coming that long. And third nobody knows how long it takes to establish prime old growth forest, but some say it could take many generations of trees and a redwood tree generation is maybe a thousand years. So good luck, Lieutenant Governor, but don’t hold your breath. Growing redwoods isn’t some damn video game you get done in fifteen minutes.”

“I just want to get through today having seen some nice redwoods,” said Mary.

“Then you folks better get going,” said Truman, “while there’s still a few left to see.”

DID YOU NOTICE ANYTHING UNUSUAL HAPPEN EARLIER WHILE I WAS DRINKING WINE IN THE LOUNGE AREA?” Ed asked Wheels.

“NO,” the Stone-Coat responded. “ALTHOUGH YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT I WAS PARKED NEAR THE STAIRCASE AND YOU WERE NOT WITHIN EFFECTIVE SIGHT OR LISTENING RANGE. I COULD HEAR VOICES BUT NOT WELL ENOUGH TO DISTINGUISH CONVERSATIONS.”

Perhaps Ed would have talked to Snake or Doll about it, but soon their entourage was on its way. He still felt a little woozy and out of it; he should probably pass up future wine opportunities, he concluded; that stuff was far more potent than he realized.

They first drove down to the Bay where a surprisingly broad aluminum pier large enough for motor vehicles jutted out over the water. From there they had nice close-up views of the kelp beds and shoreline. There were many seabirds to see, and they even spotted a big starfish clinging to a rock near the water’s surface.

From there they drove to Route 101 and headed further north for about twenty minutes before reaching their next destination: the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. There Ranger Mark Warren introduced himself as their special Park point of contact as arranged by Mara. From Ranger Mark they got Park information and visitor permissions and badges they would need for the next few days. Ed even got himself a fishing license.

“But I didn’t buy you any fishing equipment!” said Doll.

“I don’t need any,” said Ed. “I simply ask fish to leap ashore, that’s easier. I am also careful to avoid harming pregnant fish. Don’t worry; I have ways to gather food.”

“Sounds good,” said Doll. “I keep forgetting that you have some very special skills.”

“And I can whistle too,” added Ed.

“We have time before dark for a quick walk through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove or a drive through the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway,” said Mara. “Your choice. Ranger Mark is going with us in my limo.”

“We’ve already driven close by hundreds of nice redwoods, now I want to walk among them,” said Mary. “While sitting in Wheels, of course. Lady Bird, here we come!”

They drove through Orick, which featured some interesting roadside wood-carving shops they didn’t have time to stop and explore. Shortly thereafter they spotted their first herd of Roosevelt Elk grazing in fields very near the road. The visitors stopped for a minute to watch the huge creatures placidly eat the tall prairie grass.

“They aren’t spooked by us at all, are they?” noted Snake.

“If you weighed over half a ton and a carried a rack of big sharp horns on your head you wouldn’t be very easily spooked either,” pointed out Ed. “They are watching us and on guard but not alarmed. They’ve seen thousands of gawking humans.”

“Yes, just give them plenty of space,” added Mark from the limo, “especially in mating and calving seasons.”

Before long they turned right onto a twisting side-road which very soon passed under a long wooden pedestrian bridge. They immediately parked in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove parking lot surrounded by several wonderfully huge redwood trees. Like most fantastic places in California, there were only a handful of other tourists. “The loop-trail here is relatively short and easy,” said Mark, when they had gotten out of their vehicles. “Rains are supposed to start up again in a week or two that will muddy the trail up but right now it is relatively dry and one of the easiest walks in the Park. I can accompany you folks if you wish. It’s quite safe, except for the rare bear.”

“Not necessary,” said Snake. “Why don’t I take point followed by the Rumsfelds, and Doll behind them. Mark, Ken, Mara and her CHiPs can wait here in the parking lot and screen folks coming in.”

“Yes, that sounds good,” said Ed. “By the way, there are three bears and a cougar in the vicinity but I don’t anticipate any trouble from them. That is, I feel confident that I can calm them down if necessary.”

Ranger Mark stared at Ed as though meeting him for the first time. “You’re that Mohawk Chief from back East that can communicate with animals!”

“I do my best,” said Ed.

“It’s an honor to meet you! I hope that you enjoy our Park! Right now you have only an hour or so of good daylight left so you better get going.”

“That’s the plan,” said Ed. Snake had already crossed the wooden bridge and disappeared on the other side and Wheels was crossing the bridge carrying Mary. Ed dashed to catch up. Soon he, Mary, and Wheels were alone and moving slowly along an easy-to-walk loop-trail surrounded by fantastic redwoods and ferns taller than he was. The redwoods here were much larger than they had been in Muir Woods.

“This redwood forest is so much more damp and filled with undergrowth than the sequoia forests were!” noted Mary.

YES, THERE IS MUCH MORE RAINFALL HERE,” said Wheels. “SIXTY TO EIGHTY INCHES ANNUALLY HISTORICALLY, AND FROM HERE NORTH ALL THE WAY INTO ALASKA RAINFALL AMOUNTS FORTUNATELY HAVEN’T CHANGED MUCH DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE.”

GOOD IDEA TALKING SILENTLY,” said Ed. “TOTAL SILENCE IS IDEAL FOR GOING THROUGH WILDLANDS, UNLESS YOU NEED TO WARN BEARS OR OTHERS OF YOUR COMING. OF COURSE IN MY CASE I CAN DETECT AND WARN BEARS SILENTLY. THOSE FOLKS THAT NOISILY ROMP THROUGH WILD AREAS ON NOISY AND DESTRUCTIVE ATVS ARE LOCO LOUTS.”

THIS FOREST IS WONDERFUL ED!” said Mary. “TOO BAD WE NEED TO RUSH THROUGH IT TONIGHT.”

“I’VE LOCATED A FRIENDLY HAWK THAT COULD GIVE US A NICE BIRDS-EYE VIEW OF THIS FOREST, BUT WE DO NEED TO KEEP MOVING TO FINISH OUR WALK BEFORE DARK,” said Ed.

YOU CAN CLOSE YOUR EYES TO FOCUS ON THE BIRD CREATURE IF YOU WISH,” said Wheels. “SIMPLY MAINTAIN YOUR GRASP OF MY HANDLES AND I WILL LEAD YOU ALONG THE PATH.”

Indeed Ed found that he could close his eyes and focus on the hawk while Wheels led him slowly along the trail. Soon he and Mary were experiencing a hawk-eye view of flight through a redwood forest! They walked on and on, though they were flying through and sometimes above the forest.

“My birds-eye view disappeared,” said Mary suddenly.

“The radios are being jammed,” announced Wheels, “and unidentified flying machines are detected.”

Ed released the hawk. “What? Is that drones that I hear?”

Not far ahead of them in the direction of Snake the drone-humming rapid gunfire erupted.

“Snake!” said Mary. “Drones are attacking Snake!”

“I’m being attacked by drones,” confirmed Snake’s broken voice over the radio, barely understandable through noisy interference.

There was another spirt of rapid fire, followed by two much louder gunshots. The sharp sounds were disturbingly alien in this otherwise quiet and peaceful forest setting.

“That’s Snake’s big handgun firing back!” said Ed.

“I’ve scanned the area but detect no drones except the ones near Snake,” said Wheels. More sounds of gunfire came from the vicinity of Snake.

“Do something, Ed!” pleaded Mary.

“If I were closer to the drones I could jam them,” said Wheels. “Perhaps you could rush ahead to Snake while carrying my portable extension, Ed.”

“I can do better than that,” said Ed. He held up the flashlight-sized Wheels extension as the big hawk he was in contact with swooped down to snatch it up. In mere seconds the swift bird was approaching the scene of the gunfire as Ed watched through the bird’s eyes.

A half-dozen man-sized drones hovered over a stretch of path just ahead where the hawk was headed. Below them was a patch of tall ferns where Snake must have evidently hidden himself. Two gun-shot drones lay smoking on the ground nearby. Abruptly the guns of the remaining drones erupted, sending hundreds of deadly small-caliber rounds into the ferns, which disintegrated within seconds in the hail of lead.

Mere seconds later the interference produced by the Stone-Coat element carried by the hawk took effect, and the sputtering guns and humming engines of the drones were silenced. Ed was pleased to witness through hawk eyes the drones plunge harmlessly to the ground, but feared that it happened too late to save Snake.

Ed and Mary were both surprised and very relieved to see Snake emerge from behind a big nearby redwood tree apparently unharmed.

“That was a close one!” the Confederacy leader said. He walked calmly to the bullet-shredded clump of ferns, picked something up off the ground, and held it out for the hawk/Ed and Mary to see. It was one of the CHiP visicom units that the visitors had been issued, shot up almost beyond recognition. “Their attack was so precise despite my evasive maneuvers that I surmised that they must have been homing in on my radio signal. I hit the red panic button and tossed my visicom into the ferns. Looks like I was right. I assume the piece of Wheels carried by your hawk friend jammed the drones.”

Snake held out his open hand and Ed had the hawk give the Wheels extension to him. “That was a smart move to have the hawk fly here with Wheels. In a few more seconds human or automated drone handlers miles away would have realized their mistake and homed in on me by real using other sensors. I shot down two of them but I was still badly outgunned.”

Snake walked to each downed drone and with a big boot-clad foot bashed them enough to ensure that none of them would fly again anytime soon. Doll pushing Wheels and Mary soon arrived, followed minutes later by Mara, Ken, Ranger Mark, Fred Custer, and several additional CHiPs.

“Crap!” said Custer, as he examined one of the downed drones. “This is an armed CHiP unit! These things have only been authorized for use to counter terrorist attacks and in the battle for LA! Usually such units do surveillance or at most carry smoke or pepper spray and so-forth for crowd control. But these units carry deadly little five-millimeter rapid-fire guns for military level deadliness, not for normal CHiP law enforcement.”

“Yes we’re well acquainted with this model,” said Doll.

“What the hell are they doing here?” asked Ken.

“And what the hell were they doing attacking Snake?” asked Doll.

“There will be a full investigation,” said Mara.

“Damn straight there will!” echoed Custer.

“I have recorded associated radio control signals,” said Wheels. “That may prove useful to the investigation.”

“I feel safer already,” said Ed. “But I think we should get back to our Trinidad B&B. That’s enough excitement for one day.

“More than enough,” agreed Mary.

The trip back to the B&B was blissfully uneventful, but after getting Mary settled in for the night Ed contacted the local jants.

“WE INFLUENCE HUMAN ACTIONS BUT DO NOT FULLY CONTROL EVEN THE INDIVIDUALS YOU CALL ZOMBIES,” the jants claimed, after establishing communications with other jant hives. “WE BECAME AWARE OF THE ATTACK AS IT UNFOLDED BUT DID NOT EXECUTE IT.”

WHO DID IT THEN?” Ed asked.

“WE WILL NOT SAY,” the jants responded after a pause.

AND YOU DID NOTHING TO STOP THE ATTACK FROM HAPPENING?” Ed had to ask.

“TO DO SO WOULD BE TO INTERFERE IN HUMAN AFFAIRS TO A DEGREE THAT WE HAVE AGREED WITH YOU NOT TO DO.”

TOUCHÉ,” responded Ed, as he ended the conversation in frustration.

Then he met with the others in the lounge to discuss the situation.

“What the jants said hints that Scar is behind the attack,” said Snake, after Ed relayed the jant statements to the group, “but I don’t believe it. Scar would love to kill me, but only by his own hand. Anonymous drones aren’t his style. He actually wouldn’t like it if drones killed me. He wants to gut me himself with his knife, up close and personal.”

“I agree,” said Doll.

“On the other hand Scar may be too irrational to be predictable,” said Ken. “I think that having a huge tick buried in my back would drive me crazy.”

“But how would he get control of CHiP drones?” asked Ed. “If it’s not the jants pulling the strings then someone else with a lot of influence has got to be involved.”

“Or the jants are lying and they are indeed pulling the strings,” said Doll.

“OK, great then, so we all agree that we don’t know what the hell is going on,” said Snake. “We might as well quit our useless yammering and get some sleep.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

 

****

 

Chapter 14

Giants on the Beach

 

“Half a century ago the beach here used to be much wider,” Ed told Mary once again, and the road and the fence along it have already been moved further up from the Ocean.” For a third morning he and Mary were relaxing on a stretch of beach near Fern Valley. They missed Truman’s nice clean, comfortable B&B with its great view, cranky old caretaker, and friendly cat, but camping together was always intended to be the high point of their vacation. The drive to get there was over a terrible narrow twisting dusty dirt road through a tangled forest and across a shallow stream, but Wheels and the choppers of Snake and Doll made it somehow anyway.

At least in coming here they had totally escaped Mara, Ken and even Ranger Mark and Fred’s CHiPs. There was no way that the low-slung State limo was ever going to make it to this part of the Park, and they had gotten Mara to keep the CHiPs away. Snake and Doll were camped with Mack only a shout away but other than Wheels, an occasional tourist or two, and elk walking along the beach, Ed and Mary were at last alone together as they had hoped to be.

Or where they? On the second beach night, Ed again experienced his recurring nightmare involving Mary riding a Stone-Coat that walked into the Ocean and disappeared under the waves. On the beach the next morning Ed discovered giant footprints in the sand eight to ten feet long and several feet deep. Stone-Coat footprints! Overnight a stone giant weighing hundreds of tons had gone strolling past within a few yards of their flimsy little tent and Ed hadn’t even noticed! While he had always had been a sound sleeper, Ed was shocked.

Ed asked Wheels about it. Wheels told him that yes, he had noticed the giant on the beach but didn’t think the event newsworthy enough to wake any humans. Stone-Coats frequently walked on the beach, he noted. It was no big deal.

Mary had agreed. “We’ve seen thousands of Stone-Coats,” she pointed out. “Why wake us up to see another one in the night when it was too dark to see it anyway?”

Ed still didn’t want to tell Mary about his crazy nightmares, and he let the matter drop. Besides, what connection could there possibly be between the strolling giant and his dreams?

The third night he had been spared his recurring nightmare and any possible giant tracks had been washed away by the tide. This was a brand new day full of promise.

“We’re lucky that there is still enough beach here to camp on,” said Mary. “Within few more decades of ocean-level rise this beach may be totally gone. Could you get me my binoculars and another blanket from the tent?”

A dozen placid elk were strolling past near the tent. “The elk will miss this beach more than anyone else,” noted Ed. “They like hanging out here as much as humans do.”

He dutifully fetched the requested items from the tent. He spread the second blanket over Mary’s increasingly frail body and handed her the binoculars. They would doubtlessly again spend another lovely morning watching waves, sea birds, and occasional sea mammals. He would also have to again try to get her to eat more and walk more today, despite her complaints that she was too tired.

She needed to get stronger but no matter what he did she got weaker. And despite the warm sun she always claimed to be cold. Right now he was comfortable wearing only a light jacket over his usual clothing, but as Mary lay in the lounge chair that Wheels had fabricated for her she wore a heavier jacket plus two layers of blanket. Her eyes were closed as if she was asleep but her implant indicated that she was awake.

“You need to try to be more active today,” Ed said. “Your body needs physical activity. Maybe we could walk together along the beach. Lounging like this is pleasant and blissfully restful but we need to get you stronger.”

“My body is really tired Ed, but my mind is stimulated here enormously.”

“But don’t you want to get closer to the water?” Ed asked. “The water is cold but we could at least get our feet wet.”

“I’m in the water now,” she replied after a long sigh. “I’m deep in the water walking through a kelp bed.”

“You’re fifty feet from the water on what’s left of what used to be a hundreds of yards wide expanse of sand dunes,” said Ed.

“I’ve have been communicating with Stone-Coats in the ocean,” Mary explained. “I didn’t want to tell you about it until we had it all worked out. I’m linked up with one now with my implant, much as you link up with various animals. It’s as if I’m the Stone-Coat myself. It’s wonderful, Ed! Join me!”

Puzzled and apprehensive, Ed sat down in Wheels, closed his eyes, and linked with Mary via their implants. Suddenly he was looking at the Ocean from perhaps ten feet below its surface. Light filtered from above into a forest of green kelp and darting fish that surrounded him, as he walked ponderously through the water taking giant steps. He also became aware of his body – a fifty foot tall tower of crystals with gigantic mobile arms and legs that moved with ponderous power.

THIS CAN BE THE FUTURE FOR BOTH OF YOU,” said the Stone-Coat, “IF YOU WANT IT TO BE!”

YES,” replied Mary, “I DO! THAT IS MY FINAL DECISION.”

YOUR DECISION IS ACCEPTED,” said the Stone-Coat.

Ed broke contact and sprang up from Wheels. “What the hell!” he exclaimed.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mary. She opened her eyes and smiled up at Ed.

“What’s wrong?” replied Ed. “What’s going on here? What were you and that Stone-Coat talking about?”

“The Stone-Coats have a great interest in the oceans,” explained Mary patiently. “There are hundreds of them in the oceans now, but some day there will be millions. They want to look for minerals they need, but more interesting they also seek to help preserve element-gathering life forms.”

“Sea-going element-gathering life forms analogous to the trees, people, and the other life-forms on the land?”

“Yes,” said Mary. “In order to propagate themselves in the oceans they have begun to mine ocean sediments rich in carbon and other needed elements. And they have also come to understand what took humans centuries to discover, that life on land and in the seas is interconnected and interdependent.”

“True enough, I suppose,” said Ed.

“They are concerned that human caused pollution and Global Warming are severely impacting ocean life as well as life on land,” continued Mary. “They have begun an intensive study of the oceans and intend to make sure that a world-wide great dying event doesn’t happen again over the next few thousand years.”

“Great dying event?”

“A mass extinction event such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs,” said Mary. “Frank told me once that since the advent of multi-cellular life half a billion years ago there have been five such events that wiped our most life on both land and sea. We’re at the start of a man-made one now that they plan to help stop.”

“Right,” said Ed. “Didn’t an asteroid impact and massive volcanic event kill off dinosaurs except for birds?”

“Yes, and those events were serious set-backs for Stone-Coats as well,” said Mary. “They want to prevent such catastrophes from happening again, if they can. They might not be able to stop the deadly volcanic events, but they can reduce the damage done to themselves and to biological life-forms.”

“You’ve lost me.” said Ed. “What volcanic events are we talking about?”

“A spike in continent building happens every hundred million years or so, when the Earth burps up accumulated lighter elements and in the process messes up the biological and Stone-Coat life forms trying to live here on and within the Earth’s crust. Plate tectonics cause lighter elements of the Earth’s crust such as silicon to be mixed in with heavier substances such as iron, and the lighter elements want to float up to the surface. That’s essentially how continents made of the floating lighter stuff are made and re-made by the recycling of lighter crust materials.

“In a typical year there are a couple of dozen notable volcanic eruptions a year. A super volcano eruption happens maybe once in ten thousand years and those are a thousand times greater in magnitude. Normal volcanos and super-volcanoes to a great extent relieve the pressures that build up under the crust but when such relief is inadequate an even more cataclysmic event thousands of times greater than a super volcano eruption occurs. Thousands of square miles of continent are built or covered over with lava and reformed. Tremendous amounts of gasses including carbon dioxide are released. Both biological and Stone-Coat life forms greatly suffer.”

“I didn’t know that you were into geology,” Ed said.

“The Stone-Coats have simply been explaining necessary background information to me so that I can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” said Mary. “Unlike humans they do long-term planning and actually act on their plans.”

Ed sat back down heavily in Wheels again. “OK, I’ve seen hints of this in their reports that we get at the Reservation, though it was always something beyond my comprehension. All this is nifty to know but you are evading my question. What does any of that have to do with you and me? What’s going on here?”

“We can be part of it Ed. For me quite soon, and you someday in the future, but very soon with respect to how they recon time. Usually Stone-Coats think in terms of geological time: millions of years. Preserving ocean life is part of their plan: near term to address what we call Global Warming and longer term to mitigate much greater catastrophes. Understanding and preserving ocean life is part of their long-term strategy.

“I’ve always wanted to experience and learn about the oceans and this is my big chance, Ed. These last three days I’ve been communicating with the Stone-Coats about it. There is a group of several of them off-shore here, and they’ve asked me to join them. Stone-Coat giants, Ed, much like the ones back on the Reservation! And I’ve made them promise that you can join them someday too.”

“Join them? In the Pacific Ocean? That’s crazy talk!”

“You still don’t understand!” said Mary.

“I understand that we’ve been too long on this beach!” Ed proclaimed. He radioed Snake and told them that they would be headed inland immediately, and then he began to frantically pack their things. He had to get himself and Mary away from this place!

Twenty minutes later they were sitting comfortably in Mack and headed inland towards the redwood forests.

YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME ABOUT HER COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE OCEAN STONE-COATS,” Ed scolded Wheels.

SHE ASKED THAT I NOT DO SO,” replied Wheels.

YOU SHOULD HAVE MORE SENSE BY NOW,” Ed responded. “MARY’S A SICK WOMAN AND I’M HER HUSBAND.”

AND I’M HER FRIEND AND YOURS,” replied Wheels. “SHOULDN’T YOU HAVE SOME TRUST IN HER AND IN ME?”

SHE KEEPS GETTING WEAKER,” Ed said. “SHE JUST KEEPS GETTING WEAKER EVERY DAMN DAY NO MATTER WHAT I DO! AND NOW SHE SEEMS TO BE TALKING CRAZY TOO!”

“IN MY JUDGEMENT THAT IS NOT THE CASE, ED RUMSFELD. SHE REMAINS HIGHLY RATIONAL; IT IS YOU THAT ARE BECOMING ERRATIC.”

As judged by a talking wheel chair, thought Ed. He should have gotten himself some brandy from Snake. He could use a big belt of something right now, though he wasn’t ordinarily a drinking man.

HER VITAL SIGNS ARE WEAK BUT NORMAL FOR NOW,” added Wheels. “PLEASE TRY TO NOT UPSET HER FURTHER.”

Upset Mary? That was the last thing he wanted to do! As he watched her nap next to him in Mack her eyes opened and she smiled at him. “I’m so very sorry!” he told her, as he held her frail hand in his ageless one. “I got scared. We should have stayed on the beach with your Stone-Coat friends if that’s what makes you happy.”

“No Ed,” she said, “I’m not quite ready for the Ocean yet. I want us to experience the redwood forests together also; you did the right thing. Wake me when we get there.”

 

****

 

Chapter 15

Furry Forest Dwellers

 

With Ranger Mark as their guide they drove past the Lady Bird Johnson Grove and drove deeper into the Park. They drove through miles of pine forest along the hills that overlooked the valley below it before forking off to the right and down towards Redwood Creek. “The Creek is surrounded by groves of big redwoods that are only accessible by special permit,” explained Mark. “We want this part of the Park to remain as undisturbed by humans as possible. Many of the biggest and best remaining redwoods are here. Tall trees.”

The road ended and Mark led Ed, Mary/Wheels, Snake and Doll further on barely discernable foot trails that were much more difficult to travel on than was the well-worn Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop. At many points Ed or Doll carried Mary while Snake carried Wheels over fallen trees, through stands of ferns, or up and down steep hillsides. When that happened someone had to carry two backpacks which together were heavier than Mary. Before long they were encountering redwoods, absurdly big ones, often with trunks ten feet in diameter and greater, with dizzying heights that reached out of sight up towards the sun.

“Overnight I could reconfigure myself to be bi or quadrupedal,” said Wheels, though you may have to help me gather the requisite necessary materials.”

“Absolutely,” said Mary. “And if you could recline fully that would also be a big plus.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ed. “Mark, do you have a particular campsite in mind for us? How much further is it?”

“About a mile beyond Redwood Creek.” said Mark. “You folks wanted someplace hard to find so that’s where I’m taking you, though that makes it a bit tough to hike to. This spot isn’t on any official map.”

Before Ed could ask where the Creek was they were climbing down to a broad creek bed of mostly sand, dry rocks and boulders of various sizes and shapes. The bed looked to be a couple of hundred feet wide and wasn’t deep relative to its surroundings, but it seemed like a deep canyon due to the monstrously tall trees that bordered it on both sides. At the far side of the creek bed was the Creek itself, shallow and less than fifty feet across.

“As the rainy season picks up over the next couple of weeks this will become a raging river,” said Mark, as he led them across the relatively level creek bed towards a point where it appeared that a large log conveniently forded the Creek.

They encountered dozens of huge Stone-Coat foot prints covering the Creek bed. Mark wasn’t surprised to find them. “We’re starting to work with Stone-Coats to maintain roads and trails,” he told the others, “but we find their tracks all over the place. They are a curious bunch. I suppose you folks aren’t strangers to Stone-Coats since you travel in one and carry another one around.”

“True enough,” said Ed. Aided by Doll, Wheels was transporting Mary, moving over or around larger rocks, forest debris, and deep Stone-Coat footprints.

“My local Stone-Coat friends are mostly focused on the Ocean but also plan to help this forest survive for many thousands of years,” said Mary, as they worked their way around the deep footprints that pressed a yard deep into the rocky Creek bed. “This forest with its rich carbon assets will become a spawning ground for them, much as for millions of years it has been for the salmon.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

“And here is our natural bridge,” said Mark, when they reached the big fallen log. “The stream is shallow but too swift for a human to walk across. We got lucky when last rainy season the high waters perfectly positioned this hundred-foot length of tree trunk to form a natural bridge.” He led everyone onto the fallen tree trunk which spanned the Creek. On the near-end it started out at least eight feet in diameter, with bark rough enough to provide traction but smooth enough not to trip. It proved easy enough to climb cross, as long as care was taken not to trip over remnants of protruding branches which had obviously been mostly cleared away by previous hikers. Only a dozen feet below, water rushed noisily northwest towards the Pacific.

“The log is from a huge Douglass fir,” Mark mentioned. “They can match the redwoods in height but not in terms of bulk. There used to be Douglass fir trees over four hundred and fifty feet tall.”

“But of course moron loggers cut them down about a century ago,” said Ed, anticipating the rest of Mark’s story. “Say, I sense fish in the Creek,” he said, as they reached the far bank and climbed down from the log. “We packed enough food for a week but we might want to supplement our diet with some yummy fish.”

“Stuff always tastes better when you catch it and cook it yourself,” noted Snake.

“Your campsite is along a smaller stream that should also have trout and maybe salmon,” said Mark.

Progress became even slower; the group kept stopping to marvel at the huge trees as they passed by them. Many were massive beyond belief, and so tall that the tops couldn’t be made out. Ed vowed to hook up with some birds later for some scenic flights through this forest.

“We’re not seeing much of them visually in this heavy growth, but there is much wildlife in this forest,” Ed mentioned.

“What kind of wildlife?” Doll asked.

“Some I recognize, some I don’t,” replied Ed. “Often I don’t even know what sort of animal I’m sharing thoughts with. They don’t have species names for themselves that they can tell me, of course. Most often I don’t know what they are until I see them with my own eyes, or see them through animal eyes.”

“Could you tell us what lives in this forest, Ranger?” Doll asked Mark.

“I can give you a quick rundown,” he replied. “You have elk and black-tailed mule deer, of course. In and around the streams you might encounter fishers, river otters, beavers, or muskrats. Around logs you might also find assorted salamanders, frogs, lizards, and snakes, as well as some very colorful banana slugs. Then you’ve got smaller mammals such as assorted shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, a dozen kinds of bats, porcupines, and two colorful species of skunks.”

“That will be nice,” Ed interjected. “What about predators?”

“Plenty of those,” said Mark. “You have owls, hawks, minks, gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, and black bears. And as luck would have it, due to conservation and migration nowadays there are even gray wolves and grizzly bears.”

“Two of our favorites,” said Ed.

“What about jants?” asked Snake.

“Yes, there are scattered jant colonies throughout this forest,” admitted Ed. “Med-ticks too.”

“Good,” said Doll. “You can help us all become jant buddies like you.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

The trail branched off and they followed the path even less taken, which was even more difficult to traverse than the main path had been, until it intersected with a path that was relatively straight and well defined.

“Elk and deer make nice trails such as this one, so watch where you step,” noted Mark. “The critters make very practical paths but they climb over things they can climb over or push through obstacles instead of cutting a path around things like people would do. And I hope you all wore your tick and mosquito repellent.”

Snake performed the Herculean task of carrying Wheels as well as his pack and Doll’s, while Doll carried Mary. Ed did well to carry himself and his own oversized backpack. Attached to the outside of the pack was a tent as well as the recliner that Wheels had recently fabricated, which made the whole mess weigh almost eighty pounds and as awkward as hell.

Just when Ed was about to announce that he couldn’t go a step further they at last reached a small clearing alongside a giant fallen redwood that had fallen. “This is where I figured Snake and Doll could camp,” pronounced Mark.

“Looks good to me,” said Snake, as he lay his packs down. “What about your spot for Ed and Mary? We’ll set them up first.”

“Other side of the log,” said Mark. He led them along the log and around a truck-sized root-ball at the terminus of the fallen redwood, and to a moss covered little area surrounded by seven-foot sword ferns.

“Nifty, said Ed. Private but only about a hundred feet from Snake and Doll.”

“Less than fifty feet if the direct route over the log is taken,” said Doll.

“And only a dozen yards from the stream,” said Mary. “I love the sound of running water.”

“I’ll be located back across the Creek at the base camp with Mara and the others,” said Mark, before he left the campers to themselves. “We’re a radio call and less than an hour away.”

“Swell,” said Ed.

Ed and Snake set up the tent, while Doll attended Mary as she rested in her recliner. Once the tent was up Wheels moved into it and sank a net of nanotubing through the bottom of the tent and deep into the forest earth to draw out materials for his transformation to a recliner. Within an hour Mary was napping comfortably in the tent, isolated from mosquitoes, ticks, and other pesky critters. After the exhausting hike to this place Ed was more than ready to share nap-time with Mary, but Snake insisted that he first explore the immediate area with him.

“Create an image of this area in your mind, Ed,” advised Snake. “Every tree and fern, every log and little animal trail. You never know when you might need to know the detailed layout where you’re hiding out and be able to navigate around even without any light.”

“Makes sense,” said Ed. “By the way, if you and Doll keep your visicoms handy I can give you bird-eye views including owl night views, if needed.”

“That could come in handy,” Snake agreed.

“And you better keep this hunk of Wheels,” said Ed, as he handed the flashlight-sized extension of Wheels to Snake. “It will work as long as you stay within a mile or so of Wheels. It will jam any drones that show up. You can also talk with Wheels using it, and he can in turn talk to us. Wheels can make up another portable unit for us to hang on to.”

“Sounds good,” said Snake. “Doll and I will make all the meals and gather fire wood and so forth. You just hang out with Mary.”

“Thanks Snake.”

“I hate to bring this up but Mary looks weaker every day.”

“We’ve noticed.”

“I can’t believe that I’m bringing this up either, but if you’re buddy enough again with the jants now, might a med-tick help her?”

“I don’t think so,” said Ed. “I suppose I should check in with the local jants though; the forest here houses millions of our little friends.”

“What a comforting thought!” Snake remarked.

Snake returned to the campsite he would be sharing with Doll, while Ed returned his attention to Mary. He got almost continuous reports on her vital signs through the implants. She remained as well as could be expected but she never even woke up when he finally settled down in the tent with her for his own much needed afternoon nap. At least here they were far from the beach and its nocturnal Stone-Coats.

****

Over the next few days the campers settled into a regular routine. At mealtimes Snake and Doll visited and brought food which they shared together. Then they all sat together around a campfire and talked until Mary fell asleep again. They talked of all sorts of mundane things. Sometimes Ed amused the others by connecting with various forest critters including birds that lived high in the trees. Snake and Doll were transfixed by animal and bird’s-eye forest views, but Ed and through their implants Mary experienced a much more intimate sharing. Everything that the animal sensed or thought was assessable to Ed and Mary.

Usually the animals they acquainted themselves with remained hidden from the humans. There was less trauma to both animals and humans that way, particularly in the case of the more intelligent and dangerous animals including bears, cougars, and wolves. One very large and territorial grizzly bear insisted on personally inspecting the intruders, however.

“What the hell, Ed!” Snake whispered, when the gigantic creature sized up Snake by sniffing him from head to toe as it circled him slowly. The bear decided that Snake was the alpha-male of the intruders to his forest and was worthy of his closest inspection.

“Don’t worry,” said Ed. “I’m feeding him pleasant submissive thoughts and he’s calm and merely curious. Just hold still and don’t threaten him and soon he’ll go away.”

“Great plan,” said Snake between clenched teeth. His hand was on the hilt of his hunting knife but the bear had claws, teeth, and strength that made him many times more dangerous than even the Stormtrooper leader. The big grizzly could kill any mere human with a single smash of a clawed paw.

At last the creature gave a dismissive snort and walked away from Snake.

“Next time I’m climbing a tree,” said Snake. “Why did you let him come so close?”

“I can’t control animals,” Ed again explained. “I can only try to understand them and make suggestions. Intelligent critters like bears have minds of their own. Mostly I can be empathetic and hint of rewards if I get their cooperation.”

The bear walked to the small nearby stream, sat down, then glanced impatiently back at Ed.

“I hinted to him that humans don’t taste good and promised him fish,” explained Ed, as he strolled to the stream and crouched down next to the massive bear.

“I REMIND YOU OF YOUR MORTALITY,” Mary told him silently. “YOU WON’T LIVE FOREVER IF A BEAR EATS YOU, FOR EXAMPLE.”

THANKS BUT LET ME FOCUS NOW ON FISH,” Ed replied. “THIS BEAR IS HUNGRY. HE’S FATTENING HIMSELF UP FOR A NICE LONG WINTER’S NAP IN THE MOUNTAINS.”

As the bear sat watching Ed and the stream there was a splash as a plump two-foot-long fish leapt out of the stream to land before the waiting bear. Without hesitation the bear held the fish down with a massive clawed paw as he bit into it. Very soon most of the fish was gone and the bear stared again at Ed expectantly.

Ed provided another fish. And then another. The bear ate fish after fish.

Finally a few parting thoughts passed between Ed and the bear, and the massive creature lumbered off into the forest. He was absurdly agile and quiet for so huge a creature.

“Good thing he’s finally full!” said Ed. “We were running out of fish!”

“No wonder that bear has such bad breath,” remarked Snake, as he approached Ed and surveyed the scraps of fish that the bear had left scattered near the stream. “I damn near puked when he was looking me over and breathing on me with his stinking bear-breath. My throwing up on him probably would have been a very bad move. Oh-oh!”

Ants were gathering to carry away the fish scraps. Big brown ones.

THE BODIES OF SPAWNING SALMON THAT HAVE MATURED IN THE LIFE-NURTURING SEA ENRICH THE SOIL IN FORESTS SUCH AS THIS ONE,” Mary told Ed silently. “WITHOUT THIS ENRICHMENT REDWOOD TREES WOULD NOT GROW TO BE GIANTS.”

The jants were surprised when Ed spoke to them using their own language. Like all jant colonies, they knew what humans were and that humans weren’t supposed to be attacked or to attack them, but not much more. Within a few minutes however, the local colony was linked with others and brought up to date on all matters related to Ed Rumsfeld and friends.

“IS THERE A REASON WHY YOU AGAIN CONTACT US, ED RUMSFELD?” they asked.

MOSTLY I JUST WANTED TO EXCHANGE FRIENDLY GREETINGS THAT RE-AFFIRM OUR FRIENDLY RELATIONS,” said Ed. “I ALSO WISH YOU TO MAINTAIN TICKS IN THIS AREA TO RENDER MEDICAL AID TO HUMANS IF NEEDED?”

EACH REGIONAL COLONY MAINTAINS MED-TICKS,” said the jants. “WE ALSO OCCASIONALLY EXTEND MEDICAL AID TO SPECIES OTHER THAN HUMAN IF IT SUITS US. DO YOU NOW HAVE MEDICAL NEEDS?”

“NO,” said Ed, “NOT CURRENTLY, BUT IT IS PLEASING FOR HUMANS TO KNOW THAT YOUR AID IS AVAILABLE IF NEEDED. IT WOULD ALSO BE PREFERABLE OF YOU DO NOT MAKE OUR LOCATION WIDELY KNOWN.”

ALAS YOUR LOCATION IS ALREADY WIDELY KNOWN BY BOTH JANTS AND HUMANS,” said the jants.

SWELL,” said Ed, as he broke contact.

“We’re screwed,” he noted, after informing the others of the conversation.

“Well at least we know that they know we’re here.” said Doll. “Not that it changes anything.”

“Of course they know where we are!” said Snake, with a shrug.

“And we know that they know that we know they know,” added Ed.

Snake shook his hairy head. “True I suppose, but what I’m getting at is that there’s a leak among us that we still haven’t stopped. So yes, we’re screwed but have always been screwed, so nothing has changed. But we’ll get by somehow. That’s the way these things go, until you’re dead and don’t have to worry about any of it anymore.”

“Thanks for that comforting ray of sunshine,” said Ed. “You’re turning into a real cup-is-half-full sort of optimist, Snake.”

****

That night as he dozed off Ed sensed strange creatures in the forest. They seemed human but not human. They were very surprised to sense Ed, but not really surprised to have a mind-to-mind link with someone. Ed was shocked when he realized that they were telepathic. He was even more shocked when he briefly shared the senses of one of the group of three and saw what its companions looked like in the moonlight. They were big and hairy but not bears.

“Sasquatch!” he muttered. “Holly cannoli!”

Despite their obvious fear and disdain for humans they edged closer cautiously; they were very curious about Ed.

Not wanting to alarm the others or to have a violent confrontation, Ed crept out of the tent and stepped cautiously through to moon-lit fern forest towards the approaching Sasquatch family: an adult pair and a juvenile.

Ed was surprised when an owl landed nearby and scrutinized him. He reached out mentally to it and found that it was already being influenced by an external presence – a Sasquatch! The Sasquatch were scrutinizing him via the owl! Suddenly how the Sasquatch could survive in forests among dangerous carnivores and evade humans made perfect sense to Ed. They had much the same telepathic abilities that he did! Ed found another owl and used it to watch the approaching Sasquatch. The Sasquatch noticed and became more curious and apprehensive than ever!

Abruptly they stood before him, though mostly hidden in deep shadow. Ed stood in a small clearing that was flooded with moonlight. He could smell them better than he could see them: a musky almost skunk-like odor.

Even though he was expecting it, Ed was shocked when the massive shaggy seven-foot tall male at last stepped out into the moonlight to face him. There wasn’t enough light to discern much color, but Ed thought that its fur color might be brown. Its face was more human-like than ape-like, but definitely not human. Ed sensed intelligence but not human intelligence. He could sense complex thoughts being exchanged between the three Sasquatch, but other than some emotions most meaning was lost to him. They had a language of their own which they exchanged telepathically!

Ed reasoned that just as it had taken him decades to learn the jant language, it would likely take him decades to learn the Sasquatch language, so there wasn’t much chance of him learning their language tonight. Instead he thought simple friendly, calming thoughts, as he learned to do over the years with all animals he communicated with. But the massive creature that towered above him remained as frightened as he was, almost.

Finally Ed reached out with his open right hand, palm up, in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The Sasquatch immediately reciprocated. Ed had his owl land atop his shoulder. The Sasquatch did the same. Ed released his owl, and the owl flew away in the night as Ed did his best to think positive thoughts. The Sasquatch again reciprocated in kind.

Ed was wondering what to do next when the Sasquatch reached out its huge hair covered hand towards Ed, and in return Ed reached out and gently but firmly grasped two of its huge fingers. The fingers were callused and leathery.

It must have been a friendly gesture, because the big creature suddenly stepped forward and enveloped Ed in its long hairy arms, hugging Ed against himself with alarming force and a mental barrage of friendly feelings. Ed’s face has pressed firmly into musky smelling fur. There was a rush of non-audible Sasquatch telepathy and the hug thankfully became much less forceful. Ed did his best to reciprocate the hug but his was so weak in comparison that he couldn’t tell if the Sasquatch even noticed the gesture.

Finally the hugging stopped along with all tension between Ed and the Sasquatch group. The adult female, a head shorter than the male and a foot taller than Ed, and the juvenile male, a head shorter than Ed, stepped out of the shadows. All three of them circled Ed slowly, sniffing him, tugging on his clothing, and gently poking him, while exchanging thoughts like crazy! Evidently the close inspection of a human was a rare treat for them. Their musky scent was overpowering; Ed breathed through his mouth and struggled to keep from gagging but he couldn’t help grinning.

Then abruptly there was quick exchange of thought and alarm between the creatures and the female and juvenile disappeared. The male gave Ed a quick hug and was also gone. Ed was left standing alone, wondering what had happened.

“Are you alright?” asked a human voice from the darkness. It was Doll, approaching from the direction of the camp as silently as a Sasquatch.

“Sure,” said Ed, “why wouldn’t I be?”

Doll switched on a small flashlight and shone it on Ed. “You’re pretty far from camp. Do you smell a skunk or something?”

“There were some odiferous critters visiting the area,” said Ed. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.”

Doll inspected the ground near where Ed stood. There were huge human-like footprints all around Ed. “Holly shit!” she muttered.

“Not to worry,” said Ed. “They were friendly critters.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Doll. “I’m looking forward to hearing your tale in the morning.”

“What are you doing up and about?” Ed asked the Warrior Princess, as they made their way back towards the camp.

“Skunk and I take turns standing guard through the night. Much of the time we perch atop the log that separates our camps, where we can oversee both your campground and ours. I saw you step away from your tent but thought that you were simply heeding a call to nature. When you didn’t come back after a few minutes I got concerned.”

“I sensed company coming and decided to head off any possible trouble,” said Ed.

“Glad to hear that you’re also on alert.”

“I just happened across their thoughts before falling asleep.” said Ed. “Once asleep I snooze so soundly that a herd of elephants stomping their feet and thinking nasty thoughts wouldn’t wake me. It’s comforting to know that you and Snake take turns standing guard.”

“No biggie; we’re used to doing it,” Doll replied, “though we’ve usually done it in desert or mountain country instead of in a northern rain forest with Big Foot. You better change that shirt before you get back into your tent with Mary. You’re covered in bits of long brown hair and really stink bad.”

 

****

 

Chapter 16

Loss and Transference

 

Ed had a horrible nightmare. In it he was awake but couldn’t move. He heard voices but couldn’t understand what they were saying. There were screams and shouts and he sensed that there was pain and misery happening someplace. Mary called out to him but he couldn’t respond.

Gradually he became aware that he was indeed awake and for real he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even open his eyes, and he felt dizzy.

YOU ARE REGAINING CONSCIOUSNESS,” said a familiar inner voice: Wheels.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?” Ed asked.

“WE WERE ATTACKED AND OVERCOME AT DAWN,” said Wheels. “I THEORIZE THAT SOME SORT OF HUMAN-DISABLING GAS WAS USED; PERHAPS NOT IN ITSELF USUALLY LETHAL, BUT IT PUT A STRAIN ON YOU AND ESPECIALLY ON MARY. THE GAS HAS DISSIPATED INTO THE ATMOSPHERE AND YOU ARE RECOVERING GRADUALLY.”

“MARY! WHY DOESN’T SHE RESPOND TO ME?” Ed asked.

“SHE’S UNCONSCIOUS AND BARELY ALIVE FROM THE GAS,” said Wheels. “THE ATTACKERS HAVEN’T HARMED HER OTHERWISE, BUT THE GAS WAS TOO MUCH FOR HER IN HER WEAKENED STATE.”

Ed tried again to move but as desperate as he was to get to Mary he still couldn’t as much as open his eyes. “HAVE YOU CALLED FOR HELP?” he asked Wheels.

NEGATIVE; RADIO COMMUNICATIONS REMAIN COMPLETELY INOPERATIVE,” the Stone-Coat replied. “I DETECT STRONG INTERFERENCE SIGNALS FROM MULTIPLE SOURCES, INCLUDING VERY NEARBY.”

WHAT ABOUT SNAKE AND DOLL?”

UNKNOWN. BUT FAINT VOICES AND OTHER SOUNDS HAVE BEEN DETECTED OCCASIONALLY WHICH EMANATE FROM THE DIRECTION OF THEIR CAMP.”

WHAT TIME IS IT?” Ed asked.

TEN-FIFTY-ONE AM LOCAL TIME.”

That was bad. Snake and Doll had been bring breakfast every morning at eight AM. Snake and Doll surely must have also been attacked and overcome! But they also regularly checked in with the base camp. Why wasn’t this place crawling with CHiPs by now? Had something also happened to the base camp?

“DO YOU DETECT INTRUDERS HERE NOW?” Ed asked.

NOT CURRENTLY, BUT MY SENSORS ARE MOSTLY NULLIFIED. EARLIER SEVERAL HUMANS OF UNKNOWN IDENTITY WERE INSIDE THIS TENT AFTER YOU AND MARY LOST CONSCIOUSNESS,” said Wheels. “THEY DID NOT RESPOND TO MY REPEATED VERBAL INQUIRIES AS TO THEIR IDENTITIES OR INTENSIONS. I HAVE ALSO HEARD DRONES.”

YOU COULDN’T IDENTIFY ANY OF THE INTRUDERS BY THEIR APPEARANCE OR VOICES?”

THEY SPOKE THROUGH FACE-HIDING, VOICE DISTORTING GAS-MASKS, THEN THEY COVERED ME WITH METALLICALLY INFUSED BLANKETS, DRASTICALLY ATTENUATING MOST OF MY SENSING AND COMMUNICATION ABILITIES. THEY COULD STILL BE IN YOUR TENT AND I WOULD LIKELY NOT DETECT THEM.”

SWELL. HOW ARE WE COMMUNICATING NOW?” Ed asked.

VIA NANOTUBING THAT I EXTENDED THROUGH YOUR LEFT NOSTRIL DIRECTLY TO YOUR IMPLANT.”

Ed found that he could twitch his nose, but he didn’t feel anything stuck up his left nostril. The nanotubing was likely almost invisible and too light to feel. He still couldn’t move his limbs. However he did find that he could at last open his eyes. Kneeling above him in the tent doorway and looking very disheveled as he stared down at him eye-to-eye was Ken Hooper. Ed experienced a wave of relief!

“Ed! Can you hear me?” Ken whispered. “We were attacked but I got lucky and escaped! Most of the others are captured or killed!”

“Thank God you escaped!” Ed managed to whisper in return. “What about Mary?”

“She’s in a bad way, Ed! She desperately needs medical help A-S-A-P!”

“Go get help!” Ed said.

“That’s just what I’m going to do, Ed, I’ll go find help for Mary just as soon as you tell me your secret message for Jerry Green from Ames.”

“What? What message?”

“I’ll pass it on to Mara and she will tell Jerry. She works for Jerry; I’ve known that for years. Mara will get the message to Jerry. Tell it to me now or all of this is for nothing!”

“There is no message!” Ed said.

“There has to be!” Ken insisted, his voice rising. “Now tell me the God-damned message or you will both die!”

“You’re the traitor!” said Ed. “Who do you really work for?” Perhaps accelerated by the adrenalin of his anger, feeling was rapidly coming back to his entire body. He flexed his arms and legs. They felt weak, but now at least he was sure that he could move them.

“Well you messed that up good, didn’t you?” said another voice aloud from behind Ken. It was a woman’s voice! Ken wasn’t alone!

“Not my fault,” said Ken, as he stood up and turned towards the woman. “You said he’d still be unconscious for at least another hour, and then he’d be groggy and open to suggestion, and easy to interrogate. Instead he’s folly conscious and saw right through me. Rumsfeld has freaky powers; you should have known that and compensated!”

“I’ll see if he has powers!” said the woman, as she kneeled down over Ed.

Ed had met her only once before, but there was no mistaking Lorna Rippa! “YOU ARE GONG TO DIE, JANT CLAN LEADER, FOR SOMEHOW CAUSING MY LITTLE FRIENDS TO ABANDON ME!” she said using a powerful telepathic voice. The voice was strong but not nearly as strong as it had been in Silicon Valley. There her telepathic voice had been augmented by jants. The current voice was hers alone. “WHEN YOU’RE GONE, THEN THEY’LL TURN BACK TO ME. THROUGH SCAR AND ME THEY’LL SOON HAVE ALL OF CALIFORNIA. BUT I’LL ALSO TELL THEM WHAT YOU FOUND OUT AT AMES, RUMSFELD, AFTER YOU TELL ME. TELL ME NOW!”

Pain shot through Ed, more pain than he had ever felt before! It was centered in his brain, but it also extended all through every inch of his body, right to the tips of his fingers and toes. It seemed to go on forever, but somewhere deep in his mind Ed maintained an objective awareness that measured the duration of the pain attack to be almost exactly three and a half seconds. It was his implant, Ed realized, impervious to biological pain and steadily keeping in touch with Wheels. It was his lifeline to maintaining consciousness and sanity, and he used it as a starting point for recovery. He ached all over; he felt like he had been run over by a truck. But he realized that he was basically alright. “Ouch!” he said aloud.

“Ouch?” Rippa replied. “That’s all that you have to say? That was far more pain than I ever gave Scar, and what I gave him had him whimpering and begging for mercy! If I had the time I would hit you with a dose of pleasure, as that’s much more fun and works even better, especially with men. But at some point very soon the CHiPs will counter-attack and we need to be gone before that. So tell me now the message for Green from Ames and your death and that of your precious Mary will be mercifully quick.”

“Mary! Keep your damn hands off Mary!” Ed managed to croak.

“Keep to the subject at hand, Rippa!” It was a second male commanding voice, not Ken but somehow familiar. “Ames, Ed!”

“We didn’t really learn anything at Ames,” said Ed. “No big secrets to trade to the jants for their favor certainly, if that’s what you’re after.”

Rippa hit Ed with another painful telepathic attack, but this time it was even less effective.

“IS THAT THE BEST YOU CAN DO?” Ed asked her, with both voice and thought.

“You have failed, Lorna,” said Ken. “And I hear Snake screaming again. You better get back to manage that fool boy-toy of yours or he’ll kill Snake before we can use him to lore Brother Hacker out of his protective stronghold.”

There were distant gunshots, lots of them, several miles away.

“Status report,” barked the second man, probably into a radio. His voice sounded very familiar to Ed! Where had he heard it before? The volume of the voices of Ken and the other man diminished somewhat and became indistinct, as if they had taken a few steps away from the tent.

SMASH THE LANTERN WHEN YOU ARE ABLE,” said Wheels.

WHAT?” asked Ed.

“IT EMITS DISRUPTIVE ELECTROMAGNETICS,” said Wheels.

“IF I SIT UP TO DO THAT I’LL PULL OUT OUR NANOTUBE LINK,” Ed noted.

“IF YOU SMASH THE LANTERN WE WON’T NEED THE NANOTUBE LINK,” said Wheels, with Stone-Coat logic.

With a mighty effort, Ed sat up. The first thing he did was check on Mary. She lay face up, still as death, her face far too pale. Too still; too white: too silent! He reached out a shaking hand to her. He felt a weak pulse, and slow steady breaths. Greatly relieved, he pulled the blanket-like coverings off of wheels and turned his attention to the camping lantern that sat near the tent entrance. It was battery powered and solar-rechargeable of course, not white-gasoline powered like in the old days. It looked innocent enough. He found the little camping hatchet attached to his backpack and whacked the lantern with it as hard as he could, which wasn’t very hard at all. But the sharp hatchet cut deep into the lantern case. He hit it again for good measure and was gratified to ‘hear’ Wheels via his implant telling him that most of the radio interference was gone.

“Secure him!” shouted the second man. Ed’s attack on the lantern had drawn attention to himself.

Two burly CHiPs that he had never seen before grabbed Ed’s arms and hauled him roughly out of the tent and to his feet. His head was pounding and he surely would have fallen if he had not been supported by them. Dr. Clinton Farnsworth, British Envoy, faced him. He held a pistol that he pointed at Ed.”

“Clinton?” said Ed. “I don’t believe it!”

“Regrettably my friend, you have stuck your nose too deeply into things that you shouldn’t have. We’ve given you several chances to save yourself but you have steadfastly refused. I’ve made a good living by subtly coaxing information out of you and others on the Reservation, but now I’m afraid that I’ll have to be very direct. My men at the base camp seem to be under some sort of attack and we still need to make good our getaway. Tell me the message for Green now or you and Mary will both die immediately.”

“The only thing we learned from the Ames folks is that they are doing something top secret that they wouldn’t tell us about. That’s the truth! Nothing to kill folks about! You people are crazy! Are the jants behind this?”

“They were but then they suddenly withdrew their support for attacks on your party. They claim neutrality for the moment. Rippa is weakened including her hold on Scar and her political followers in the North. We jant-allied humans have been left high and dry to merely fulfill the dictates of our own hate and greed. And I worry now for the entire grand plan. California is just a small piece of it, Ed, and you have put California in jeopardy. I’m guessing that the sudden change of heart of the jants is your doing?”

“I don’t know. I tried, but they tend to think for themselves.”

Clinton shook his head in disapproval. “Really Ed, you should have left politics to the professionals. Now you’ll have to be disposed of along with Mary. You’ll go out in style though, I’ll see to that. Ken and I will concoct one hell of a story that will do you both proud, including how you tried to save people from being caught up in the nasty personal fight between Snake and Scar. I’ll have to also say something nice about Scar and his freaky girlfriend Lorna though, about how they are bringing California together. But I promise to say something truly grand about you and Mary at your funerals back at the Reservation.”

“Thanks, Clinton,” said Ed. “I really appreciate that.” With a sudden herculean effort he twisted out of the grip of the CHiPs, reached under his shirt for the camping hatchet secured by his belt, and with a flip of his wrist he tossed it awkwardly at Clinton Mohawk style.

Clinton stepped aside but it solidly struck Ken, who had been standing behind him. Fortunately for Ken the flat side of the hatchet head hit him instead of the sharp side. Ken jumped and cursed, but he didn’t go down.

Meanwhile Ed was on the move. He was going to dash away and lead them all a merry chase through the forest and far away from Mary; that was his plan. Unfortunately he could barely walk, let along run. His legs refused to move as fast as he intended and he almost immediately lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground face-first. The CHiPs guys laughed briefly but then instead of grabbing him again, they looked up towards the redwood log and then ran away and out of sight!

Oddly, the ground seemed to be shaking. There were shouts and nearby gunshots, lots of them. Ed rolled over and looked up to see both Clinton and Ken still standing nearby, each holding a smoking pistol which they pointed not at him but up towards the top of the log. They appeared to be terrified.

Ed followed their frightened gaze higher where something huge was swiftly coming over the top of the nearby redwood log. There was more gunfire from Clinton and Ken but it didn't influence their attacker. By the time Ed realized exactly what was moving towards them it came crashing down to crush Clinton and Ken under hundreds of tons of glimmering diamonds and other minerals. A ten-foot long clawed foot with toes tipped with man-sized diamonds now rested atop the two traitors. Nearby a few CHiP- uniformed thugs fired machine guns at the towering figure but the bullets bounced off of it harmlessly as it stood astride the redwood log.

VIOLENCE AGAINST STONE-COATS AND FUTURE STONE-COATS IS NOT TOLERATED,” said a loud deep voice that also echoed deep in Ed’s mind through his implant. The Stone-Coat giant stood motionless. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS OR DIE,” it thundered. The CHiPs promptly dropped their useless weapons and ran away. “STATUS?” the towering giant demanded.

“ED, MARY, AND THIS UNIT WHEELS ARE UNHARMED THANKS TO YOUR ACTIONS,” said Wheels.

THANK YOU!” said Ed, sincerely. “WHAT ABOUT SNAKE AND DOLL, MY FRIENDS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LOG?”

“I LIBERATED THEM FROM THEIR ATTACKERS BUT THEIR LIFE STATUS IS UNKNOWN,” said the giant. “THEY EXHIBIT SIGNIFICANT DAMAGE; THEY MAY BE DEAD. HOWEVER, THEY MAY BE ALIVE. WATER-BASED LIFEFORM LIFE STATUS DETECTION IS NOT WITHIN MY RANGE OF SKILLS.”

Cupped in a huge clawed hand the giant lifted Ed over the log and sat him down almost at the feet of Snake and Doll. They were both bound with ropes to trees only a few feet apart, facing each other, probably so that the torture done to each of them could be witnessed by the other. They were both mostly naked and covered with cuts and burns; mutilated almost beyond recognition.

It was the worst thing Ed had ever seen. He threw up on the spot and nearly fainted.

At their feet lay the still bodies of Scar and Lorna Rippa, a melting two-foot length of ice still protruding from the back of each of them. Ed recognized this to be Stone-Coat handy-work; big Stone-Coats could literally spit icicles with great steam-driven force. Fighting nausea, Ed returned his attention to Snake and Doll.

EACH HAS ONE MED-TICK NOW AND WE ARE GETTING MORE,” said a tiny jant voice in Ed’s head. “THE MAN BREATHES BUT THE WOMAN DOES NOT. WE HAVE REACTIVATED HER HEART BUT THE PHYSICAL RESUSCITATION NEEDED TO HELP ACTIVATE LUNG ACTIVITY IS BEYOND OUR ABILITY. HUMAN-SIZED ACTION IS REQUIRED.”

Fighting his revulsion, Ed looked more closely at his hideously mutilated friends. He hadn’t noticed at first due to all the blood and damage, but hundreds of big brown jants covered each of them. At each cut several jants had attached themselves. Also a huge revolting med-tick protruded from the back of both Snake and Doll. There was also jant-to-jant and jant-to-tick telepathic chatter too, lots of it. Ed had been too stressed and weakened to notice until now.

“WE USE WORKERS TO HOLD THEIR WOUNDS CLOSED TO REDUCE BLOOD LOSS,” said the jants, “BUT THEY BOTH BADLY NEED TRANSFUSIONS OF BLOOD. NOW THAT YOU ARE HERE TO POSITION THEM PROPERLY WE WILL FINISH CUTTING THEM DOWN, AS A HORIZONTAL POSTURE WILL GREATLY HELP THEM SURVIVE. WE WILL CUT DOWN THE WOMAN FIRST AND YOU MUST QUICKLY ATTEMPT LUNG RESUSCITATION.”

Almost as soon as Ed reached her, the jants finished chewing through the ropes that held her and Doll fell limply into his arms. As he lowered her gently to the bare ground while taking care to crush as few jants as possible, the usually vibrant young woman felt distressingly lifeless. He quickly verified that she had a faint heartbeat but she wasn’t breathing. He repeatedly blew deeply into her mutilated mouth as he held shut her mutilated nose, and pressed down on her ribs to force exhales.

STOP YOUR RESUSCITATION EFFORTS,” said the jants, after a minute. “SHE BREATHES ON HER OWN NOW WITH OUR HELP. WE RECOMMEND THAT THE MAN ALSO BE IMMEDIATELY LOWERED. ALSO WHEN MEDICS COME THEY BOTH NEED BLOOD AND WE ALSO RECOMMEND OXYGEN.”

Though Snake outweighed Ed by close to a hundred pounds, once the jants had chewed through his ropes Ed lowered him to the ground as gently as he could.

“Not how I figured on getting acquainted with your jant buddies,” Snake muttered weakly, with his half-open eyes focused on Ed.

“They’re doing their best to keep you alive,” said Ed.

“Doll?” the big man asked.

“Her too,” Ed said. “You’re both messed up bad but you’re both still alive.”

“The sick bastards went after her the most,” Snake muttered. Tears streamed from his eyes and mixed with blood. “We both woke up tied to the damn trees. Scar and that witch Lorna went after her and I couldn’t do a damn thing but scream at them. Lorna was the worst. I can see now that she played a big part in turning Scar against the Brothers.”

"They're dead now, and so are the traitors Ken Hooper and Dr. Clinton Farnsworth," said Ed. "The Stone -Coat giant got them all." Ed glanced up. The giant was still standing astride the redwood log, watching over both campsites.

“That was good work from the giant!” said Snake. What was left of his mouth tried to form a smile. “I saw Scar and Rippa get their icicles. Damn good work. And Mary?”

“Mary? I don’t even know!” Ed said. He franticly made inquiries of Wheels using his implant but got no answer!

“We’ll take it from here,” said a human carrying medical equipment. Paramedics had arrived, escorted by Fred Custer, who looked like he had very recently been in hand-to-hand combat.

“What about Mary?” he asked them.

“Other medics are tending to Mary,” they reassured him.

Ed breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Don’t disturb the jants and ticks on Snake and Doll,” Ed told them. “Jants also told me that they both need blood and oxygen.”

“Don’t worry, Ed,” said Custer as the big man gently but firmly led Ed away from the patients. “These medics frequently work with med-ticks and jants. Snake and Doll are in very good hands now. I’m damned glad to see you in such good shape. We were expecting some sort of attack, but they still caught us flat-footed by using several insiders and gas, not to mention a couple dozen thugs dressed like CHiPs. Then the big Stone-Coats responded faster than we did! Most of the bastards were wiped out by the time our human reinforcements showed up! I’m going to try to recruit some of those giants into my CHiP unit! Meanwhile though jants have been helping Snake and Doll, it looks like they’re eating the bodies of the pair that were torturing them.”

“Holly shit!” Ed exclaimed, when he and Custer looked closer at what was left of Scar and Rippa. The icicle through the biker leader’s back was half melted away, but Scar’s body was itself half eaten away. Rippa’s body was even further gone; the jants had already eaten most of her down to the bone. Countless thousands of jants covered them both, and a line of the creatures carrying bits of flesh led away from the bodies and into the forest.

“Hungry little buggers aren’t they?” said Custer. “I told the paramedics and the forensic team not to bother with Mr. Scar and his friend. The jants are welcome to them. I take it that he was the leader of the attack?”

“Yes it was likely him and his girl-friend Rippa here, in addition to Ken and Clinton,” Ed replied.

"That second pile of bones is Rippa?" Custer said. "That ties in with some reports that a crazy woman helped lead the attack. The Governor will be happy. Rippa had quite a following of voting-eligible weirdoes. Her link with Scar also explains where the hell she has been disappearing to for days at a time. She was going the Confederacy to visit Scar. No wonder we couldn't track her here in the North!" His visicom buzzed and he put it to his ear and listened for a few moments. "Rodger that," he said, speaking into the unit before turning to Ed. "We can talk about the attackers later. Right now you need to help the medics get to Mary. They can't get to her. That Stone- Coat giant straddling the log won't let them get near her."

Custer led Ed around the log and through a throng of CHiPs and medics. Several were gathered near the front of the tent that contained Mary. A half dozen arm-sized icicles protruded from the ground in front of the tent.

“It told us to stay away from her and fired warning shots of ice that could have killed us,” complained a paramedic.

SHE UNDERGOES TRANSFERENCE AND CAN NOT BE DISTURBED,” thundered the Stone-Coat giant using both voice and thought.

“I MUST SEE HER!” said Ed silently but forcefully. He tried to contact Wheels yet again but got no response!

SHE MUST NOT BE DISTURBED,” repeated the Stone-Coat silently. “TO DO SO WOULD THREATEN THE TRANSFERENCE.”

BUT IS SHE ALRIGHT?” asked Ed. “I MUST KNOW HER MEDICAL STATUS!”

There was a pause as the Stone-Coat exchanged information with other Stone-Coat units. “TRANSFERENCE IS FULLY ENGAGED, ED RUMSFELD,” said the Stone-Coat via the implant. “RESOURCES ARE ADEQUATE AND PROGRESS IS WITHIN EXPECTED PARAMETERS. A POSITIVE OUTCOME IS EXPECTED.”

DOES THAT MEAN THAT SHE IS ALIVE?” asked Ed.

Again a pause. “NO. TRANSFERENCE WHILE THE SOURCE LIFE-FORM IS STILL OPERATIONAL WOULD BE BARBARIC. DESPITE MED-TICK AND IMPLANT AUGMENTATION THE BIOLOGICAL UNIT EXPIRED THIRTEEN MINUTES AGO. TRANSFERENCE WAS INITIATED IMMEDIATELY AS REQUIRED.”

Ed would have collapsed had Custer not been there to hold him up. Mara was also suddenly there by his side. She looked shaken-up but unharmed. “Status?” she asked Custer.

“The Stone-Coat won’t let the paramedics get to Mary,” Custer reported. “Beyond that I don’t know what the hell is happening with her. I suspect that Rumsfeld has been communicating with the giant privately. Ask him.”

“Ed?” Mara asked. “Should we force the issue in order to get the paramedics to Mary?”

“No,” said Ed, as tears streamed down his cheeks. “It’s too late. She died over ten minutes ago. With all that was going on I didn’t even notice! I didn’t even say goodbye! She died alone.” He sank to the ground and sat there listlessly.

Mara ordered the paramedics and CHiPs to stand down, than sat down next to Ed and put her arm around his shoulders. “Impossible,” she reassured him. “She has never been alone. She always had your love and Wheels is apparently still with her. And the Stone-Coats are up to something they call transference. What’s with that?”

“I honestly don’t know,” admitted Ed. “It has to do with making Mary a Stone-Coat. She tried to tell me about it but I didn’t want to hear it. I just wanted her to get stronger again and live with me forever.”

“So she told you that this transference into a Stone-Coat thing was going to happen with her?” asked Mara.

“Yes, and it’s what she wanted. But I didn’t want to hear about it! I’m such an idiot!”

“So ask the Stone-Coats about it,” said Mara. “You’re the Stone-Coat expert here.”

Ed did ask questions of the Stone-Coat over the next hour, and got many helpful answers, but nothing that changed any of the fundamentals. “Would you let me observe the process that is happening? I won’t disturb anything.”

“Certainly, Ed Rumsfeld,” said the giant.

From the entrance of the tent there wasn’t that much for Ed to see. The little tent was almost completely full of wispy black coils of nanotubing. Below that Ed suspected that Mary was already totally gone physically and that nothing but Stone-Coat bits remained. Meanwhile chairs were fetched by CHiPs for Ed and Mara to sit in as they waited. There was nothing else to do now.

THANK YOU FOR ALL YOUR HELP,” Ed thought to tell the local jants. “WE HAVE HAD OUR DIFFERENCES BUT I STILL HAVE CONFIDENCE THAT HUMANS AND JANTS CAN HELP EACH OTHER LIVE TOGETHER.” He could sense them linking their thoughts to dozens of other jant colonies, including even those in Giants’ Rest Mountain.

“WE SHALL SEE, CLAN LEADER ED RUMSFELD,” they replied. “THIS INCIDENT HAS SHOWN US THAT EVEN THROUGH MED-TICKS WE CAN NOT ADEQUATELY CONTROL STRONG-WILLED HUMANS.”

“I PLEDGE THAT I WILL DO EVERYTHING I CAN TO AID THE WELL BEING OF JANTS AS WELL AS HUMANS AND STONE-COATS,” said Ed, “AND MY WILL IS ALSO STRONG.”

“WE’LL THINK ABOUT IT,” they answered.

FAIR ENOUGH,” he replied, as they withdrew.

As time went on Mary’s tent completely disappeared as it too was consumed by the growing pile of nanotubing, while dozens of crime scene technicians arrived, took pictures and samples of both campsite areas, and left. Finally only a handful of CHiPs remained to aid Mira if necessary.

“I NEED WATER,” thundered the Stone-Coat giant at mid-afternoon, from where it still sat unmoving atop the redwood log.

“Of course,” said Ed. Water heated to steam or cooled to ice was used to drive Stone-Coat hydraulic systems. This Stone-Coat giant had probably used all its water up earlier when it attacked using icicles. It hadn’t moved at all for several hours because it couldn’t move!

Ed spoke with Mara and her CHiPs, and water was soon being carried by the bucket-full from the small stream to the giant and dumped into its half-open mouth. A courageous CHiP climbed high atop the Stone-Coat’s head to help complete the job.

“Wait a minute!” said Custer. “If it was completely out of water then it couldn’t move or spit icicles! It bluffed us earlier when it kept us away from Mary!”

He and Ed looked up at the listening Stone-Coat giant that towered above them. A smile seemed to appear on its bear-like face for a moment, only to disappear when with a mighty heave the creature stood up and ponderously stepped back across the log and away from them. The remaining CHiPs dodged out of its way as it slowly walked to the nearby stream and stood in it for several minutes, sucking up more water into its huge stone body.

Meanwhile Ed peeked into the two-foot deep nearby footprint of the thing, expecting to see the gruesomely crushed bodies of Ken and Clinton. To his surprise there was nothing to be seen but crushed soil.

“I CONSUMED THEM SO THAT THEY COULD THEREBY SERVE A USEFUL PURPOSE,” said the Stone-Coat giant, “MUCH AS THE JANTS CONSUMED TWO OTHERS.” The giant returned to the great fallen redwood and with giant beaver-like diamond teeth, began nipping off ten-foot long lengths of heavy limbs from the crown. The reason for the physical form that mobile Stone-Coats had preferred for millions of years was soon demonstrated: bear-like strength and mobility, beaver-like teeth, and grasping diamond-clawed hands quickly disassembled what remained of the fallen tree. The giant gently laid down the tree remains atop the wispy pile of nanotubes that had once been Mary and Wheels. Ed and Mara moved back to make room as the log-pile grew to be twenty feet tall and twice as wide.

“That wood pile reminds me of a Mohawk funeral pyre, but in this case it’s hopefully a rebirth pyre,” said Ed.

The giant next walked towards the Creek and returned with arms full of boulders, many tons of them, which it lay atop the pile of logs. Then it stood next to the pile and rested one of its huge hands on it.

“What’s happening?” Mara asked.

CARBON AND OVER FORTY OTHER ELEMENTS ARE BEING ABSORBED FROM THE LOGS, BOULDERS, AND SOIL,” explained the Stone-Coat giant using both voice and thought. “I PROVIDE ADDITIONAL ELECTRICAL POWER TO GREATLY SPEED THE PROCESS. THE NEW BODY AND MIND OF OUR FRIEND IS RAPIDLY FORMING. BY MORNING THE PROCESS WILL BE COMPLETE AND TOGETHER WE CAN ASSESS THE SUCCESS OR FAILURE OF THE RESULT.”

“This should work though, right?” asked Ed. “You told me that transference to some degree occurs every time a new Stone-Coat is created, so it should work for Mary. Transference must have been done successfully by Stone-Coats millions of times.” Ed and Mary were agnostics as far as believing in things like God and life after death went. This transference-into-a-Stone-Coat-thing seemed like a much better bet to him, though he had also been praying a great deal anyway, just in case.

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT A HUMAN-TO-STONE-COAT TRANSFERENCE IS BEING ATTEMPTED,” stated the Giant. “THE PROCESS IS THOUGHT TO BE SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND BUT ITS ACTUAL EXECUTION IS UNPRECEDENTED. THE KEY IS THE MEASUREMENT AND EMULATION OF EACH HUMAN BRAIN SUB-STRUCTURE, SUCH AS NEURONS AND SYNAPSES.”

First time? That didn’t sound very good to Ed!

“Why have you chosen Mary to pioneer this process?” Mara asked.

FIRST AND FOREMOST WE DID NOT WANT TO LOSE HER,” said the Stone Coat. “WE CAN NOT SAY THAT WITH CONVICTION ABOUT MANY HUMANS. SHE EXHIBITED CERTAIN CHARACTERISTICS THAT WE WANTED FOR OURSELVES. SECOND, THE CLOSE RELATIONSHIP OF MARY WITH STONE-COATS HAS RESULTED IN A HUGE DATABASE OF INFORMATION ABOUT HER. WHEN SHE WAKES UP WE WILL STIMULATE AND EVALUATE HER TRANSFERENCE USING THAT INFORMATION.”

“Surly there are other deserving humans!” said Mara. “What about humans that perform science or art?”

THOSE HUMAN ABILITIES WE CAN ALREADY ADEQUATELY EMULATE WITHOUT TRANSFERENCE,” replied the Stone-Coat. “THE MORE SUBTLE ATTRIBUTES WE SEEK TO PRESERVE FROM MARY AND PASS ON TO OURSELVES INCLUDE HER HONESTY, EMPATHY, AND WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL ZEST FOR LIFE. BY MORNING WE WILL ALL SEE IF THE TRANSFERENCE HAS SUCCEEDED.”

In other words, thought Ed, the Stone-Coats prized and wanted Mary for some of the same reasons he wanted her in his life. Mary wasn’t a super-intelligent scientist or a political leader or a warrior princess or anything else that human society deemed to be extraordinary, but she was the nicest, most considerate, most loving person he had ever known. Even the Stone-Coats noticed. They valued her for her humanity. They wanted the best human they could find to take to themselves and they picked a winner.

Mara had camping equipment brought for Ed and for a small squad of well trusted CHiPs that would camp nearby in case Ed needed them. Before she departed she gave Ed an update on the status of others. “Snake and Doll are both out of danger and doing well, but they’ll both be laid up for months. Most of their wounds were not severe, though they looked horrible. Scar and Rippa were evidently trying to kill them very slowly and painfully and were stopped before serious irreversible bodily damage was done. Snake is already complaining about having three med-ticks attached to him and to Doll, but I have human doctors and trusted CHiPs watching their care to prevent any zombie funny business.”

“What about the mutilation?” Ed had to ask.

“Our specialists both human and jant assure me that they’ll both be as good as new without even a scar.”

“That’s great!” Ed said.

“By the way, speaking of scars, the man named Scar is completely gone, along with Rippa,” said Mara. “Within an hour the jants evidently consumed even bones, hair, clothes, and shoes. Only a few metallic items such as Scar’s belt buckle and switchblade knife remained. Remind me to try to stay on the good side of your jant buddies.”

“Wow!” said Ed. “So in the election next week Flanders should win for sure?”

“He would have anyway, but without Rippa he faces no serious opposition.”

“In the attack Mack was blown into hundreds of pieces that are putting themselves back together again,” continued Mara. “When it became apparent that bits of him were crawling together in order to recover, one of the CHiPs put all the pieces he could find into one pile that since then has been slowly fusing itself together. Hacker has sent a man named Clancy here to keep an eye on the healing process of Snake, Doll, and Mack, and a young man named Sam who claims to be Doll’s brother has also shown up. People from your Mohawk Reservation are also said to be on the way here.”

“Sounds good,” said Ed. “I can certainly vouch for Clancy and Sam.”

“And they all asked about you, Ed,” said Mara. “Before you head back to the Reservation they’re all hoping to see you, especially Snake and Doll.”

“For sure,” said Ed. “I want to check up on the med-tick efforts to fix Snake and Doll. I also promised Doll that I’d tell her about some interesting visitors we had to the camp on the night before the attack. What about the attack itself? How was it done and who was behind it? Have all the bad guys been dealt with?”

“Mostly the attack was initiated through use of doctored up camping equipment snuck in by Ken. The equipment issued disabling gas and jammed radio communications. We of course suspect Senator Hagfeld and the jant controlled Falcones to ultimately be behind it all but so far we lack proof. We are interrogating fake CHiPs that we captured but so far they implicate only Farnsworth, Ken, Scar, and Rippa. Too bad none of them are around to interrogate anymore.”

“But I suppose they all got what they deserved,” said Ed. “Sorry about Ken though. I know you were close.”

“Actually I long suspected him some sort of shady dealings,” Mara said, surprising Ed. “He always seemed to have too many material possessions. Officially he had only the salary of a State employee, plus whatever meager dollars he got from the Confederacy. I suspected him of some sort of minor corruption. I was shocked and disappointed to have my suspicions so spectacularly verified. I hadn’t suspected the depth of his betrayal. “

“The jants originally supported the idea of the attack but claimed later to withdraw it,” said Ed, “and they certainly saved Snake and Doll using med-ticks. Jants or not, Scar was out to get Snake, that’s for sure. When the jants dropped out at the last minute everything was already in motion and the human conspirators apparently for their own reasons decided to go through with the attack, even after the jants called it quits.”

“Maybe,” said Mara. “With Clinton, Ken, Scar, and Rippa gone, I suspect that we’ll never know everything.”

After Mara left, in his new little tent Ed slept alone for the first time in over forty-five years. He kept waking up and saying something to Mary or reaching for her before realizing that that she had died and was gone. Each time that happened it was like finding out about her death for the first time all over again. Never had he felt so terribly alone and miserable.

At the same time he retained some faint hope that Mary was not yet truly gone. Several times during the night he went outside his new tent to shine a flashlight on the ever shrinking pile of wood and rock and the expanding form underneath it. Were those gigantic rock legs and arms that were beginning to stick out from under the pile?

Throughout the night the big Stone-Coat giant stood unmoving over the scene, one arm hanging down to touch the pile. Ed realized that the giant was still guarding what remained of Mary, and more important was continuously providing tremendous amounts of electrical energy to support the transference of Mary into a Stone-Coat.

 

****

 

CHAPTER 17

A NEW BEGINNING

 

“Wake up, lazy bones,” said a voice that sounded an awful lot like Mary’s. “Get your lazy butt up and out of that tent!”

After a fitful night of trying to sleep at last it was morning. When Ed woke the reality of Mary’s death came crushing down on him yet again, but he was very confused to hear her voice. “WHO IS THIS?” he asked apprehensively, using his implant.

WHO WERE YOU EXPECTING?” replied the voice silently.

Ed was already dressed and wearing his shoes, and he quickly got himself up and out of the tent. Before him glittering in the morning sun towered a sixty-foot tall Stone-Coat giant. “Mary?” he asked. “Is it really you?”

“Sure seems like it,” the giant responded. “You’re certainly a lot smaller than I remember you, Ed. I would hug and kiss you, but that would of course be instantly fatal for you.”

“You’re a lot bigger!” he muttered stupidly.

“Yes, I did gain a few hundred tons since yesterday,” Mary replied. “Maybe it was the high-carb diet. But I feel very healthy and new for the first time in years! What do you think of my diamonds?”

“You’re spectacularly beautiful Mary!” said Ed. Her entire body was encased in huge diamonds. Beneath those other giant gems of various types and colors could be barely discerned. As he watched, her entire body began to glow, in several different colors.”

“I tweaked my body design by adding glow lights,” said Mary. “You know how I’ve always liked a little glitter, Ed. I wanted to highlight my inner gem-stones. I should be super-spectacular at night and under-water.”

“Wow! What a nifty idea!” He reached up his arms towards her and she reached down with a massive stone hand that he climbed into. Cradled in her hand she lifted him up to stand on her diamond-encased shoulder, where he could be close to one of her dark dinner-plate sized eyes. At night they would glow red, but in daylight they were totally black.

“I’m fabulous Ed!” she said. “Except for one important thing. I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m so relieved that you’re alright, Mary! I mean it obviously isn’t you but it certainly is you! But I don’t understand how that’s possible. I’m no psychologist, but being changed from a human to a Stone-Coat has to be a huge shock psychologically, even if Stone-Coats took care of the physical aspects.”

“But I’ve been preparing for it for months,” said Mary. “The Stone-Coats offered this fate to me months ago, when they realized that my health was deteriorating. It’s an incredible honor to be the first human in the universe to become a Stone-Coat. I’ve worried greatly about you though, Ed. What do you think about it? And be honest!”

“I’ll let you know when I wake up from a crazy fantasy that I’m having,” said Ed.

“It’s even crazier from my perspective, but truth and reality can be stranger than fiction, Ed.”

“Apparently so! Where did the other Stone-Coat giant go? You know, the big one that stood guard over you and powered the transference.”

“Pre-dawn we exchanged information for hours while my physical self matured. After he satisfied himself that the transference was totally successful he headed back to the Ocean via the Creek bed. I told him that you and I need to be alone. We have some things to work out.”

“That’s a huge understatement,” said Ed. “Things such as where does this leave us? You died but you’re not really dead, but you aren’t human anymore! Now what? What do we do?”

“That’s the tough part, Ed; much tougher than changing from human into a rock-creature. You still have your life to live as a human, and I have my new life to live as a Stone-Coat ocean conservationist. We’ll need to live apart.”

“You’re going to live in the Pacific Ocean?”

“For the most part,” said Mary. “I’ll also do some forestry work now and again.”

“What about me and the kids? And the Tribe? We’re your family!”

“And you always will be, and I’ll miss you all terribly, but I’ve already said my goodbyes to all the others.”

“You did? That’s what that business was when the kids visited last time! And it was the reason for that whole big ruckus with the Tribe when we left for our vacation! You never intended to return home from this vacation, did you! It’s all been a big conspiracy that kept me in the dark!”

“You probably wouldn’t have let this happen if you knew,” said Mary. “A few in the Tribe knew, including John Running Bear, Talking Owl and of course Frank. Our trip is a tribal spirit quest for us, according to them. Especially for me.”

“And Ann?” asked Ed. “Did she know?”

“Yes, that’s why she came home early from the UN.”

“And they all kept it secret from me!” said Ed. “I’m supposed to be the wise all-knowing telepathic Chief!”

“We did it that way because we all love you, Ed. Don’t be angry with them; it was my plan, not theirs.”

“You could have told me!”

“It would have changed you, Ed, changed the Ed that I wanted to spend my last days with as a human. You still might have gone along with it as a consequence of love and logic, but you would have been terribly upset about it. I wanted our last human days together to be happy ones. And they were, weren’t they?”

“Of course they were, Mary! All my days with you have been wonderful, but mostly because you have been part of them! What am I going to do without you?”

“You’re going to go on living, Ed. You’re going to continue being the wonderful man that I fell in love with and enjoyed my life with all these years. I’m joining the ranks of the Stone-Coats Ed, and you need to go on with your life without me, just as you would have had I merely died in the conventional sense. You might even want to remarry and have more kids.”

“Now that’s a crazy thought!” said Ed.

“Not so crazy at all,” countered Mary. “Legally our marriage ended when I died yesterday.”

“You don’t seem to be particularly dead,” said Ed.

“Please keep an open mind about remarrying, Ed. I can’t imagine you getting along alone, and I want you to be happy.”

“Maybe I should move to Brooklyn with the kids. I’m a grandfather, you know!”

“You should visit them and love them but not become too tied in with their lives,” said Mary. “You have your own life to continue to live as a Chief of the Tribe and an expert on Stone-Coats and jants. You can’t give that up! This world needs people like you more than ever!”

“So then, I’m cursed to never retire?” Ed asked. “Buggers! I’ll get by OK though, Mary. But what about you? You’re going to miss people, I know you are! You’re a real people-person Mary, much more so than I ever was!”

“We’ll see,” said Mary. “My perspective has changed a bit, maybe because of my merging with Wheels.”

“What ever happened to Wheels?” Ed asked.

“My personality sort of over-wrote his, but some of his remained. I retain all of his memories and computing abilities. I suspect that the merging of our personalities greatly helped me adjust to becoming a Stone-Coat.”

“But Wheels as a separate entity is gone?” said Ed.

“To the degree he is gone he always expected to be,” said Mary. “I have his memories and know now that his mission was always to become me through transference. To a significant degree he lives on as me. A lot of Wheels carried over into the new me that I have become. Ed, I understand math and science now for example, better than Frank ever will! And I’m really anxious to get to work on better understanding Ocean physics and biology! I think I can really make a difference in this world!”

“Are your new Stone-Coat sea-going friends waiting for you?”

Mary nodded her SUV-sized head. “Yes Ed. It’s time for us to say goodbye. I’m really excited about going into the Ocean, meeting my new friends, and getting to work!”

“Carry me as far as the shore then, Mary,” said Ed. “I can at least go with you that far.”

“Yes,” agreed Mary. “Besides, we could use some privacy. Right now I suspect that we are in world-wide news broadcasts.” She pointed to the nearby redwood log. There were several people sitting atop it quietly, all of them watching them and many of them pointing cameras and parabolic microphones.

“Good grief!” Ed sputtered. “Those sneaky news bastards!”

Mary began walking through the great forest towards the ocean, dodging the great trees, with Ed riding atop her shoulder. “I’ll head west straight for the shore instead of going the long way north along the Creek bed,” she said.

She tried to step lightly and avoid forest damage, but there was no doubt that she was leaving giant footprints as she crushed ferns, bushes, and some smaller trees.

“You aren’t going to get lost, are you?” he asked her. The big trees towered hundreds of feet above them, making every direction look much the same.

“Unlikely. I seem to have magnetic compass sensing abilities. Accounting for local magnetic deviation, we travel west.”

Ed found a soaring hawk and they used its birds-eye view to map a reasonable path west towards the sea, mostly along stream-beds. Sharp hawk eyes also noticed several drones circling them high overhead.

“I detect video signals from those drones, Ed,” said Mary. “We may still be in the news.”

“Swell,” said Ed. “I’ll make sure that our hawk friend avoids them.”

“Withdraw from the hawk and let me try,” said Mary.

Ed apprehensively withdrew but to his utter astonishment his birds-eye view continued! “How is this happening?” he exclaimed.

“Through your implant the Stone-Coats determined the human brain features needed for telepathy,” Mary exclaimed. “They added that little twist to my design. I’m the first telepathic Stone-Coat Ed! This will revolutionize Stone-Coat design, and allow direct mind-to-mind telepathic interaction between Stone-Coats and many interesting biologics such as whales!”

“That’s wonderful Mary! As always, you’re full of surprises!”

Mary trudged on, dodging through gigantic redwoods. It all seemed eerily familiar to Ed. “Recently I’ve had dreams much like this,” he mentioned finally.

“Yes, those were given to you by Wheels via your implant,” said Mary. “That was part of your conditioning to accept this new reality of mine. I received similar conditioning.”

“I still don’t want to lose you, Mary,” said Ed.

“You won’t,” said Mary, “not totally. We’ll even send occasional messages to each other, sort of like post cards. We have to part but we’ll never fully lose each other, I promise. That’s not possible because we’ll always love each other, Ed. It’s really as simple as that. You aren’t going to totally lose me simply because I’ve died.”

The redwoods thinned-out into furs, spruces and other trees, then into bush-covered hills. Climbing hills used a lot of energy, and their progress slowed greatly. “Fortunately there are 38 known radioactive elements, and I’m using several of them as my primary power source for steam driven hydraulic locomotion,” explained Mary, as she paused along the stream they followed to take on more water. “I’m also solar-powered, of course.”

“Of course,” said Ed. “This is after all California. Say, maybe I could live on the beach near you. I have always thought that sand is yucky but I think I could get used to it. I’m already pretty used to living in a tent. I could get one of those metal detectors designed to find old coins that finds rusty nails instead. I’ll use it to make the beaches safer for bare-foot beach-goers like me. I could collect sea-shells and sell them to grateful tourists and learn how to surf and skin-dive.”

“No way,” said Mary. “You have your life at Giant’s Rest. Those people need you. The Pacific Ocean needs me.”

“But I love you more than anything and I need you! For one thing you’ve always done the bills and taxes. And who’s going to get me up in the morning? You’ve spoiled me into helplessness, Mary!”

Giant Mary made an odd coughing sound that for many years Ed suspected to be Stone-Coat giant laughter. “My tax days are over Ed, but you’ll get by fine. Get a new wife if you have to be babied or you feel alone, one that even knows how to do your taxes. Seriously Ed, as much as I love you I’m a Stone-Coat and you’re a human. Do the math! Hey, we’re approaching Route 101 south of Orick but north of Truman. I’ll try not to step on anyone, but a crowd seems to be quickly gathering. Those people with the cameras were definitely news people.”

The CHiPs had already stopped traffic in both north and south directions and hundreds of cars were lined up in each direction. Several hundred locals and people from the cars stood to each side of a CHiP maintained fifty-foot stretch of empty roadway where Mary and Ed were evidently expected to cross the highway. A herd of elk grazing close by also watched the event as they contentedly grazed on grass.

“That looks like Mara’s limo parked nearby!” exclaimed Ed. “I wonder how she’s going to spin this!”

Mary could see much better using her dinner-plate sized eyes. “And that other thing parked nearby must be a flying limo,” she said. “I see Mara standing with the Governor next to it! But I’ve given up on human politics, Ed. They better not be expecting a speech from either of us! There’s Clancy and young Sam too!”

They walked slowly and cautiously past the spectators without stopping, but they both waved as the excited crowd cheered and shouted. Ed spotted Clancy and Sam in the crowd and gave them a wave and a thumbs-up. “We’ll pick you up on the beach,” Ed heard Clancy shout in his deep loud voice.

More astonishing still, Ed saw that near Clancy, Ann Richards and Mark Dawn Owl stood together watching as the new Mary strode past them. Mark was smiling, while Ann looked shocked and worried. For a moment her eyes met his but then strangely she looked away. Ed remembered that Mary spoke of Ann being troubled, and he wondered if it had to do with that, whatever that was.

“WE CAME TO TAKE YOU BACK TO THE RESERVATION, CHIEF ED,” said Mark telepathically. “WHEN YOU ARE READY, OF COURSE; I WOULDN’T MIND SEEING A LITTLE MORE OF CALIFORNIA FIRST.”

Mary meanwhile said only “oops; sorry,” when her diamond claws and great weight left a nine-foot long footprint/pothole deep in the asphalt of Route 101.

In response the crowd began to chant: “Ma-ry, Ma-ry, Ma-ry!”

As she escaped the crowd, Mary carrying Ed moved on using rapid Earth-shaking twenty-foot strides. Soon the fleeing pair was out of the sight of the crowd and comfortably walking over bush and grass covered hills.

“You’ll have to convey my best wishes to our new California friends,” said Mary, “especially Doll and Snake.”

“They were badly hurt but should pull through,” said Ed.

“I know,” said Mary. “I intercepted much such information sent between humans after I regained consciousness. I doubt that you’ll much miss Scar or that nasty woman-friend of his. Too bad about Clinton and Ken though.”

“Say, what about our secret message for Jerry?” asked Ed. “I suppose the Stone-Coats know about it now, right?”

“The existence of a secret human-only part of the space project wasn’t news to them at all, Ed,” said Mary. “They fully expect humans to try to have their secret little projects, just as the jants do.”

“It doesn’t bother them so much then?”

“Not in the least, Ed. The Stone-Coats have their secret little projects too.”

“They do? I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me about them, would you?” Ed had to ask.

“No, probably not even if I knew what they all were,” said Mary. “They did however recently influence the jants in your favor.”

“They did?”

“Significantly. They have considerable influence with the jants. Added to your own arguments, the jants backed off from their attacks; at least this time they did. The West-Coast jants may have pushed things a bit too aggressively, many jant colonies world-wide feel.”

“That’s all very interesting,” said Ed, “but I still wonder what else Stone-Coats and jants are up to.”

“Don’t worry too much about Stone-Coats; they generally like humans,” said Mary, “or at least they find humans to be interesting and therefore of value to them intellectually and developmentally. We Stone-Coats generally like humans, I should say, since I’ve become one of them.”

“I’ve noticed,” said Ed. “We’re coming to the beach already.”

They crunched their way through a stand of shorter trees and brush to stand for a moment atop a sand dune that oversaw a broad beach. A hundred yards away along the beach in either direction there were small crowds of attentive people, held back by squads of CHiPs.

Beyond the sandy beach a half a dozen great Stone-Coat giants stood waist-deep in the Ocean, waiting for Mary. Around them dozens of dolphins and gray whales spouted and splashed. Beyond them the Pacific Ocean stretched forever.

“I brought the whales and dolphins here,” said Mary, as she strode to the water’s edge. The waves seemed moderately huge to Ed, though to the Stone-Coats that stood in the water watching Mary approach they were mere ripples. “Everyone is excited to meet me. Once I pass on design details to the other Stone-Coats they’ll soon also be able to converse directly with the whales and other organics. It will be wonderful!”

“It’s really time to say goodbye now, isn’t it!” said Ed.

“Yes, my love.” She lifted a giant clawed hand to her shoulder and he climbed into it to be lowered gently to the sand. “Though only for now,” she added, as she looked down at him with dinner-plate sized black eyes. “You are invited to become one of us also Ed, when the time comes. At the rate you’re not aging that could be centuries from now. Then if you still want to, we will be able to be together again. That’s what I want, Ed. We’ll be together again, I’m sure! Not forever but for a long, long time, even by geological standards.”

“But not yet,” said Ed “Not now.”

“Not now. My new friends say you are currently of greater value as a human.”

“Swell, but your value as a Stone-Coat will be tremendous, Mary. I’m so proud of you! You’re going to humanize them like crazy. Go get-um!”

“I LOVE YOU ED, ALWAYS,” she said through sound and thought, then turned and walked ponderously into the sea.

Ed opened his mouth to say everything he felt, but couldn’t speak with his voice or otherwise. Head spinning, he felt weak and hollow as he sank to his knees, and his throat was so dry it ached, though he was only a few feet from the largest body of water on Earth.

Tears clouded Ed’s own vision but he finally composed himself enough to find a soaring sea bird that he used to watch Mary clearly as with confident strides she reached water deep enough for the whales and dolphins to nose-against her like kittens, with apparent affection. Other whales joyously breached and splashed with their flukes and pectorals. Ed heard Mary’s Stone-Coat laughter one more time before she and the other Stone-Coats turned as one west towards greater Ocean depths, and their glittering diamond encased stone heads at last sank beneath the waves.

Ed persuaded his bird companion to circle above where they had disappeared for several long minutes but not even the sharp eyed bird could spot Mary again. The marine mammals occasionally surfaced for air, but gradually dispersed until only waves remained. Again and again he tried to reach Mary telepathically but she was gone.

Ed finally released the bird. The bird had its own life to live, as did Mary the Stone-Coat. His love, the woman Mary, was gone forever. And as with most truly important things in life, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. It took all his strength to stand up wearily and turn away from the beckoning sea, east towards distant Giants’ Rest Mountain.

A flying car landed on the beach nearby, and a small crowd of people that were his good friends climbed out of it and walked towards him with open arms and hearts.

And Ed’s human life continued.

****

 

The End (For Now)

 

 

About Other Publications by This Author

 

This is the fifth story in the series Global Warming Fun; as many as ten instalments in this series are expected. If you enjoyed this novel, you may be interested in reading the other short stories and novellas of this series as they gradually emerge. The next/sixth story will feature New York City, and should also prove interesting to write and hopefully amusing to read!

You may also be interested in the already published full-length e-books of this author, including a diverse collection of twenty fantasy and sci-fi short stories titled There Goes The Neighborhood; Earthly Fantasy/Science Fiction Short Stories. Like my novels these short stories range from pure science fiction to pure fantasy, and most take place in contemporary Earth settings.

If you like ancient secrets, magic and science, romance and adventure, science fiction and fantasy, parallel universes and hidden fantasy worlds, try reading the full-length novel Secrets of Goth Mountain (which like much of Global Warming Fun has a Native American setting) and its loosely coupled epic-length fun-packed sequel Government Men. Government Men has a bit of everything, including the book itself and its thinly disguised author. Yes, oddly enough this book includes itself and the author, along with unicorns, dragons, psychics, space aliens, the ghost of Geronimo, impending Armageddon, and much, much more! This was my first written work, and I thought it might well be my last, and I admit that I got a little carried away, and featured everything including a kitchen sink. Both of these action filled books employ a great deal of science-based fiction, as well as strong doses of fantasy and romance.

Readers who like birds and traditional ‘pure’ science fiction and also like strong human female heroines and stronger blue jay heroes may (if T-rex sized raptors and other deadly nuisances can be tolerated) enjoy an adventure trip to Aves the bird planet, achieved by reading the sci-fi adventure Blue Dawn Jay of Aves. Other than some of my short stories, this is my only truly ‘pure’ science fiction work to date.

Fantasy noir detective fans that can abide what used to be known by feminists as a ‘male chauvinist pig’ private detective as a hero, and can also tolerate trolls, elves, and other unexpected visitors to our world along with a talking mob cat, may enjoy The Shrinking Nuts Case. This is my only novel length ‘pure fantasy’ work to date.

I try to employ a touch of humor in most of my works, particularly in Government Men, The Shrinking Nuts Case, and some of my short stories. I also lean heavily towards positive outcomes, although just as in real life, those don’t always happen. I avoid explicit sex scenes: that’s been done before zillions of times. I also usually avoid vampires and zombies, as they are overdone and their existence seems highly problematic from a science viewpoint. However several of my new novels that are in the works do include some such creatures, including the jant-zombies of the Global Warming Fun series.

To learn the author’s world view (accurate when the book was written, when it rains, and also every other Thursday) including thoughts on multiverse and quantum mechanics physics concepts and how that compares with phenomena that occur in the above novels, get a little geeky with the brief little e-book NOW and the Weltanschauung of Government Men. Several other non-fiction books are contemplated, including highly exciting writings on dust, dirt, and grass (the kind of grass found in lawns).

Currently ten releases are sketched out for this increasingly expansive Global Warming Fun series. In the first stories at least, the emphasis has been strongly science/science fiction Vs fantasy, except for the telepathic abilities of some characters, which is not really explained adequately enough in science terms to be termed science fiction. How/if the Earth and humanity will survive the trauma of global warming and other problems is at this time not known by the author. (What makes reading fun also makes writing fun!) We shall need to discover how things turn out together!

In recent times it seems that actual events (cold winters in the North East USA, draught in California and parts of Africa, the Middle East, and India, and floods elsewhere, influencing subsequent rebellion in Syria and migration from Bangladesh, etc.) predicted by climate change modeling are perhaps beginning to happen faster than I can write about them. That sort of thing has happened to me before, as I am an inherently sluggish thinker and a dismally slow and inept writer.

In the first Global Warming Fun story Ed Rumsfeld and his wife Mary are introduced, along with emerging aspects of the global warming/climate change dilemma including the amazing intelligent ants called jants, their creator Jerry Green (a rogue itinerant gene-splicer) and the Government agents that pursue him. In the ‘Forward’ section of the first release of the series the initial over-all concept for the Global Warming Fun series is also more extensively discussed, providing greater insight into the behind the scenes sausage-making of this series for anyone interested in such mundane things.

The second story in the series is a substantial novella in which Ed and his wife Mary move to a Native American reservation where the ancient Stone-Coats/Ice Giants of Mohawk tribal legend are found to be creatures of history instead of being mere myths, and animated by silicone and carbon-based ‘smart rock’ that make use of currently known science properties rather than supernatural means. Though disaster is averted the creatures tentatively become allies of the jants in their long-term plan to perhaps replace mankind. Also, as New England is to become yet colder as a result of climate change, the Reservation faces an uncertain future.

The third story of the series takes place two decades later in New York City and features the jants, and introduces medical ticks (med-ticks) and a new human character named George.

The fourth story returns to the Mohawk Reservation of Giants’ Rest Mountain introduced in the second story, another decade and a half after the third story, approximately thirty five years after the Reservation and Tribe were introduced in the second story. Huge changes have occurred, including the formation of thirty-foot thick ice sheets that cover much of New England and Eastern Canada. The teenager Mike Dawn Owl and his Stone-Coat companion go on a spirit quest and along with their wolf friends battle giant flies which prove to be as tasty as chicken.

This fifth story takes place in a severely traumatized California and the sixth will occur in New York City. What fun!

All completed works may be found at Shakespir and affiliated sites (i.e. wherever you obtained this current e-book).

 

Happy reading!

 

Mechanicsville MD; May 2016

 

****


Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat

Fifty years from now California is hotter, drier, politically unstable, and largely under the control of a biker gang. Though it may not be the perfect time to vacation in the chaotic Golden State, aging Mary Rumsfeld tells her non-aging husband Ed that it is her dying wish that they go on their long planned vacation to see the sequoia and redwood trees as well as the Pacific coastline. After all, given Ed’s political connections as a Chief of the Giants’ Rest Mountain Mohawk Tribe and his telepathic abilities, as well as his alliances with the Stone-Coat rock creatures of Mohawk legend and with the hive-brained telepathic ants called jants, what could possibly go wrong? Perhaps armed bikers, radical political enemies, and jant zombies bent on murder? This full-length novel is the fifth volume in a planned ten-release series of mostly short stories and novellas that should ideally be read in order but can also be enjoyed individually.

  • Author: Gary J. Davies
  • Published: 2016-05-03 17:20:14
  • Words: 115926
Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat Global Warming Fun 5: It’s a Dry Heat