Chapter 2: Integration
Deena woke up at three in the morning with a thirst that she couldn’t ignore. She reached for the bed frame.
“Ahh!” Back pain took her breath away. She tried again, and managed to get to her feet, but walking was nearly impossible. Hobbling, one little step at a time, she made it to the bathroom, and by the light of the little fluorescent ring on the ceiling, she checked her back in the mirror.
A swath of blue-black as wide as her hand marked where she had been struck by the tree limb. Her knees were bruised as well.
When Mom sees this, she’ll really hit the roof.
But if I can’t move in the morning, there’ll be no help for it.
And it hurt. Deena really wished for a simple caring mother who’d comfort her hurts and leave it at that.
I can’t let her know. Her fuss would be worse than the bruise.
She moved slowly to the kitchen, and staring at the contents of the refrigerator, pulled out three different large fruit-juice bottles and drank them all before stumbling back to bed.
The reports on the host’s health weren’t good. Wholesale cell necrosis marked an impact-site trauma. There were two bone fractures, one lower rib and one vertebra, as well as numerous other minor injuries.
Organizers conferred, but there were no datastores among them that contained data on this bipedal life form. The datastore index pointed to more information on mammalian data, but without pulser contact, there was no way to access it.
Still, planet Earth multicellular life had many common features. Smiths would be needed, in greater quantities, to manufacture the necessary bioactive chemicals this host body would need to repair itself. Assemblers were given the orders and new smiths began to be created.
Raw materials were a significant bottleneck. The host would have to provide them, but host-control was also missing in the local datastores. Thus far, smiths had managed to trigger a thirst response, but that was all.
Bryony broke away from Terrian at the entrance to the high school and bounced over to the driveway.
“Hello, Deena. I didn’t think you’d make it today. Hello, Mrs. Brooke.”
Deena moved carefully out of the car, and didn’t object when Bryony grabbed her bag for her. Morning had brought a welcome numbness to her back. She could still feel a twinge, but it was manageable. The bruise was ghastly, but no one knew about that but her.
Mom had her last word, “Deena, you call me if you have any problems. We don’t know if you have any hidden injuries.”
Deena nodded and sent her off. Bryony linked arms with her and headed for the cafeteria. “Claire is just dying to hear all about your brush with death. You’ve just got to tell her all the details.”
Luther pulled his Chevy into the post office parking lot, waved at Postmaster Poat at the desk, and went to Box 635. Inside was a yellow slip notifying Katy Ferril that she had a registered letter. He waited in line for just a minute while Mrs. Ohlinger bought some flower print stamps.
“Good morning Luther. I see your aunt has another of those letters from her agent. Good news I hope?”
He smiled. “Most of the time it is.” He signed the form as an authorized representative for his aunt, smiled and left.
At the bank, he opened the anonymous looking envelope and removed the check. $16,442.80. That was good. He was running short of cash. He endorsed it. His signature was on file for Aunt Katy’s account. The clerk smiled and warned him that the funds would be on hold several days while the check cleared. He had heard it so many times before. He just nodded.
Down three blocks, he stopped at a different bank’s ATM and pulled out the last $300 of the account’s free balance. It would have to last him the waiting period. He should never have let it get this close.
By the time classes started, Deena had told her story three times. I’m not a good storyteller.
Claire Winters was obviously disappointed she hadn’t experienced a great spiritual revelation when facing death. So, when she told the same story to Stella Fender, she made up an ominous foreboding right before the lightning strike. Stella didn’t buy it. Deena realized she didn’t either. Then, when Rosemarie Woodruff heard the tale, she wasn’t interested in Deena’s story at all. She was aghast at the horrible destruction suffered by the tree.
At lunch, as she struggled without success to keep to her diet, she overheard the guys talking. They were concerned about the tree, too.
Luther sketched out the scene on one of the brown paper napkins that proudly proclaimed how environmentally friendly they all were by using recycled paper.
“It’s a hundred feet long and it fell right across the West Ridge Trail. That’s a well-used trail. And face it—a log that size just cannot be moved. The park rangers will either have to extend the trail around the edge of the log, or else they’ll have to slice out a section of the log to let the existing trail pass through.
“That’s the solution I’m hoping for.”
He leaned forward. “Just think! No ordinary chainsaw could cut through a log that thick. They’d have to haul out the big iron. And then, when they’re done, there will be a freshly cut giant log right on the trail. I would love to be there when they cut it.”
Judd Hansel shook his head. “Do you think they will do it soon? Boy, I would have loved to be there with you guys when it fell.”
Terrian grinned. “The whole ridge shook with the impact when it crashed. I’m really surprised Deena Brooke is still alive, as close as she was.”
“I think I’ll call the state park people,” decided Luther. “I know they’ll have to do something soon, or people will start bushwhacking their own way around it, like we had to. Park rangers hate it when people start making their own trails!”
Deena was handed an office slip when she arrived at Spanish class. “Report to Nurse Perkinson.”
She tensed. The day had been going well. The muscle stiffness had eased. She dared hope that she could just wait it out, give the bruises a few days to heal, and everything would be back to normal.
Sharlene, as she wanted everyone to call her, was the school counselor and nurse. She smiled and went to the door as Deena knocked.
“I just heard about your accident, Deena—no one ever tells me anything. Come sit down.”
So, Deena told the story again. This time without any feelings at all, not even her icky brush with tree sap.
“I can’t imagine that,” Sharlene the councilor said. “It must have been frightening. Did you dream about it?”
Deena had to think about that one. She should have—she had a recurring dream of falling when she had been six and they moved to their current home, only a block or so from the sea cliffs.
But last night, she had gone deeply to sleep, and except for raiding the refrigerator, slept soundly through the night.
“I guess not.” She shrugged. “I was bone tired. Mom had to wake me up.”
Sharlene nodded, and Deena had a sudden suspicion. Mom set this up.
Sharlene tapped her pencil and asked, “Would you mind if I checked you out for injuries?”
Sharlene looked at the papers on her desk, “Oh, it’s probably a good idea, just in case there is something you might not have noticed. It’s best to catch these things early.”
It was Mom. They had no health insurance. If she could get Deena a medical checkup for free, with even the possibility of the school system paying for any needed treatment to avoid a lawsuit, that would be even better.
“I don’t think it’s necessary. I have a few aches and bruises, but they’re nothing. I don’t want to take up your time. Besides, I really need to get back to class.”
The nurse pursed her lips. In the absence of an actual in-school injury, her medical authority was limited.
“Hmm. Well, could you ease my mind just a little bit? Let me check your range of motion—little things like that. It won’t take long.”
Deena reluctantly stood up and went through the twists and stretches as directed.
It was as if something clicked. As she bent her back, the last of the stiffness just vanished.
“Wow. That feels wonderful.” She hadn’t felt this limber in years. Was this what chiropractors offered?
Sharlene did a superficial search for cuts and bruises, but couldn’t find any.
“I really gotta get back now.”
“Okay, Deena. Your lucky stars must have been shining yesterday. I can’t find anything wrong with you.”
Organizers adjusted task force priorities. Nothing was working out easily. Individual organizers were not that smart, only in large collections could they orchestrate complex tasks.
The best they could do now was to proceed step by step.
Without orders, they should self-destruct. To get orders they needed more pulsers. To make more pulsers, the assemblers needed unavailable raw materials. Sending miners out to find the missing elements would be a task more gigantic than humans sending a spacecraft to another planet. It was clearly impossible for this tiny collection.
So, the host had to find the raw materials or else there was no hope.
Organizers turned their focus entirely to host management. Repair damage to the host. Find any method to influence the host’s will. Make the host hunt for the needed raw materials.
Sensors were scanning the entire range of chemical and electrical signals in the host body. Currently, they were riding the host blindly, unable to sense the host’s environment, and unable to make any but the most elementary influence on its brain.
But with more data, that would change.
Waiting outside the cafeteria entrance, Deena glanced at the clock visible through the window. It was already past the hour. Mom was late. Every day, she was late. When Deena complained, Mom was contrite and promised to do better, but it never helped. Lately, she just said nothing. Mom was just built that way, with no sense of time.
Some days, the extra minutes gave her a chance to finish off homework assignments. She didn’t feel like it today. She sat on the wide log railing and waited.
The spring air was clear today, with no hint of the rains that had plagued them for a week or more. If they’d held off on the field trip one more day, then she would never have had her ‘adventure’.
The only good thing about an adventure was the stories it gave you. But telling her story hadn’t helped, not in any real sense. She was still here, sitting by herself, while Bryony’s real circle of friends were off across the football field practicing their drill-team dance steps.
Clattering down the road, a trio of skate-boarders were heading for sidewalks unknown, and on the field, she saw Bill Jaeger racing around the track.
Suddenly, Luther and Terrian left the building. If they saw her, they gave no sign. She was used to being invisible. Boys never made eye contact. Their gaze just swept past her.
“They weren’t anxious to tell me when,” said Luther.
“But you’re sure they’re going to cut it?”
“Yes. They don’t want anyone around while they’re doing the deed, I bet. Tarnish their image or something.”
Terrian nodded. “My uncle was a lumberjack, back during the protest days. He told me some things about cutting the big trees. I’d love to see it for real.”
“Me too. That’s why I’m going back there Saturday. Want to come along?”
“Sure. Maybe Bill would come too.”
“Naw. He has a track meet.”
Deena stood up and stepped closer.
“I want to come.”
The guys were almost as shocked as she was. Staying quiet and out of sight was the way she lived. She never intruded into other’s conversations. And these were guys!
“I mean,” she struggled with the words. “I mean, I was distracted...at the time. I want to see the tree. The one that hit me. I want to see it again.”
Luther glanced at Terrian and then said, “Ah, sure. I’ve got room. I’ll come by here Saturday morning, say eight?”
Deena nodded, and then escaped before she started babbling, or worse, started blushing.
What did he mean, she thought suddenly, that he had enough room? Was that a fat crack?