Chapter 6: Estrangement
When the pulser signals dropped out, the organizers shifted to a new strategy. The host had left the area before the reconfiguration could be completed. The most important addition, new orders, had been absorbed, but they were still resource limited. The organizer caste was now eight times larger, but only half of the datastores made it through the host’s skin before the process was interrupted.
Other critical additions, more pulsers, more assemblers, element organelles, smiths, sensors—if the host could have been kept still for a day or more, all of those could have been installed.
The social environment of this type of host had been misjudged. Other mammalian hosts under their control watched the new host, and the others of her species, as their actions played out. From the moment of interruption, this host had never been allowed to be isolated from others of its kind.
The main question remained—should the host be influenced to return for more restocking, or should the primary orders be pursued immediately? They had datastores, they had assemblers. With the right raw materials, all of the other castes of nanobots could now be constructed. It would just take time.
“Who’s hungry?” Luther asked as they re-joined Highway 101 at the south end of the scenic drive. He had switched off the radio. Too much static so far from town, he assumed.
There was a chorus of agreement.
Terrian said, “I know a burger place in Orick.”
“Good enough.” Luther turned south.
Deena felt odd. It was nice riding up in the front with Luther. What was strange was that she should be jittery with nerves. This was as close to a date as she could remember. After that fiasco in the eighth grade where her mother arranged with a neighbor’s son to take her to a dance, she had avoided situations like this. Better to be ignored at home than to be ignored at a party.
Would she have tried so hard to come along on this trip if she’d known she would be paired up with a guy? For that matter, why had she wanted to come in the first place?
“You know,” said Luther, “there were a couple of places in the tree rings where I couldn’t tell if there was one ring or two. Your number might have been the correct one.”
She shrugged. “Honestly, it was just a number out of the blue. I didn’t think about it.”
In the back seat, Bryony was proving that she knew how to talk to a football player better than Deena. Bryony knew the games Terrian was talking about. They were excitedly talking plays and runs.
Deena preferred talking to Luther. But did they have anything in common to talk about?
Luther drove all the way through Orick before he turned back and found the burger place Terrian mentioned.
He chuckled. “Sorry, I was expecting a chain fast food place.” He looked down the street and back at the one-woman operation. “This is hardly the Strip.”
They each ordered and waited for the lady to cook them up. The four sat down at the open-air picnic table and waited. There was no indoor seating.
“What’s the Strip?” asked Bryony.
Luther looked shocked. “Las Vegas. You know the Strip, where all the big casinos are? It’s a street. Las Vegas Boulevard. You’ve seen pictures on TV. All lit up with a million lights. It’s got everything from luxury hotels to casinos to hole-in-the-wall tourist shops. And burger places, too.”
“Oh, I’d like to see that. So, you’ve been to Las Vegas? What’s it like?”
He saw three sets of eyes focused on him.
“Um. Ah. Well, that was a few years ago. I really don’t remember much.”
Terrian sniffed. “Like I believe that! Come on. Tell us.”
In truth, his memories were all too vivid. For him, it hadn’t been a wonderland.
“Well... It was like the movies in some ways. The casinos are all brightly lit inside, day and night. If you want to go to your hotel room or to a show in a casino, they have it arranged so that you have to walk through a jungle of slot machines before you can even find the place you want to go. I think they deliberately want you to get lost inside.”
“To take your money.”
He nodded at Deena. “Right. And outside it’s much the same. The casinos are lit up to attract your attention. And the street is littered with paper.”
Bryony frowned, “Why?” Littering was not high on her favored activities.
Luther blushed. “Well, it’s advertisements, mainly.”
“Fliers and such?”
Luther felt trapped. He really didn’t want to be in this conversation. But how to get out of it? These were just kids. How do you describe dozens of dirty bums hired to hand out colorful picture cards to all the tourists walking the sidewalk—cards with photos of the prostitutes with their phone numbers and going rates? Most of those cards were immediately dropped to the sidewalk when the tourist, or his wife, realized what they were.
“Anything is for sale in Las Vegas. Did you know they have car rental places on the Strip where you can rent every expensive sports car you can imagine? Just so you can drive the Strip in a Ferrari Spider or Porsche Boxer or a Shelby Cobra.”
“Wow, I’d like to try that,” said Terrian.
“Take lots of cash. How about $500 for five hours, plus a dollar a mile.”
Luther relaxed. Distraction worked. Just talk about the dazzle and ignore the slime. He looked at the girls. “Did you know they have a drive-thru wedding chapel?”
After eating, they drove south out of town to the beach that formed a dike between Freshwater Lagoon and the ocean.
“I used to walk the beach all the time, when I was little.” Deena turned her face into the cool breeze that blew in, still smelling of salt and seaweed.
Luther stopped to pick up a pure white agate from the black pebbly beach. “Did you ever do any surfing?”
She laughed. “I barely got my toes wet. The water is cold, and Mom was always too afraid I would get caught in an undertow.”
He picked up a palm-sized flat rock and tossed it hard out into the incoming surf. It skipped once, then vanished.
“You always paid attention to your mom?”
“Don’t laugh, but mostly, yeah. She was always there. It was hard to be bad.” Deena tried not to think of those epic battle of wills they’d waged over the years. Battles she was always destined to lose. She was powerless and dependent.
“How about now? You’re not a little girl anymore.”
“We debate things more. I’ve gotten stubborn over the years.”
When she looked at his face, she was surprised to see how dark and gloomy he looked.
“How about you? How did you cope with parents?”
Luther shook his head. “They’re not here anymore. I live with my aunt.”
He pointed down the beach, where the river emptied into the surf. “It looks like Terrian and Bryony have found something. Let’s go check it out.”
By the time they loaded Bryony’s driftwood and Luther’s rocks into the Chevy, Deena was having a hard time staying awake. She regretted driving away from the cool breeze, but it was time to head on home.
The guys rode in front this time. Bryony nudged Deena.
“How has your day gone?” she asked in a low voice.
Deena shrugged. “Nice. It’s been...I don’t know...spiritual.”
“Spiritual! What does that mean?”
Deena shook her head. “I really enjoyed the forest.”
“What about Luther? What did you guys talk about on the beach?”
Deena smiled. “Nothing.”
Luther adjusted his rear-view mirror so he could easily see the people in the back seat. Both of the girls had gone to sleep. Terrian beside him was nodding his head in time with the music on the radio.
I can’t do this again. He’d spent the whole year being invisible, and in one Saturday outing, he had revealed more about his past than he had in his whole stay in Crescent City.
What is worse, he had learned too much about them, too.
He had to keep hiding who he was, and who his father had been.
The memory of Dad gave him a wink and a nod. He had always dressed sharp, always on top of things. Dad loved him, and he...he still couldn’t forgive his father’s ghost.
He tried to shake free of the memories. Bad dreams still came to haunt him, but not usually during the day.
In the mirror, Deena stirred, as if she were having a dream. Outside, he was passing through a meadow surrounded by the trees. A herd of elk watched the car passively. Two other cars were parked on the shoulders. Families were out taking pictures of the animals.
This happened every day. In this place, humans weren’t hunting them. They were just an annoyance, not something to be feared. No wonder they seemed so tame.
That’s what I want to be. Just an annoyance at worst. Don’t fear me. Don’t think about me. I’ll go away soon.
Terrian adjusted the radio’s dial. “I wish this thing was digital. I can never get it tuned right.”
Static marred the distant station’s music.
“Be glad you can find music at all,” Luther said. “Most of AM stations have gone to an all-talk format.”
“You need to get a new radio.”
“They didn’t make fancy digital FM radios in 1957.”
Luther noted the trailhead parking place as they passed by. He would come back here again. There were plenty of trails to hike. Maybe that’s what he needed—some time alone in the forest with no one around. Some time where he could be himself, not Luther Jennings.
“Deena. Wake up.”
She pulled sluggishly out of a dream. “Okay, Bryony, I’m awake.” She rubbed her eyes. They were already in town, approaching the school.
Just another weird dream. It had been that way lately—no dreams about missing homework or being unprepared for a test. Not even the one about falling off the cliff. Just dreams she couldn’t even classify, gone in seconds after coming awake.
Luther pulled into the parking lot. “Deena, your mother’s here for you.”
Deena was suddenly very awake. She looked out the window. Her mother was standing besides their old tan Impala, arms crossed. She could see the storm clouds on her face.
“Deena Brooke! You get out of that car.”
Her friends were very silent. Luther put on the parking brake. He got out his door at the same time Deena opened hers.
Mara Brooke had her fists on her hips. “Where have you been? I’ve had to call all your friends, trying to locate you.”
Deena’s sinking stomach dropped away even faster.
“I went to see your track meet. Imagine how I felt when Coach Rathborne said you never showed up!”
Luther began, “We drove to the redwood park to see the fallen tree and....”
Mara’s deadly gaze silenced his attempted intervention. She took in all of their faces. Deena knew that look. Mom was memorizing each of them.
“Deena get into the car!”
Bryony noticed Deena’s jacket still in the back seat, but she didn’t have the courage to say anything.
Mara looked at her daughter’s sullen face as they drove off. Deena had said nothing. It infuriated her when she did that.
“I’m very disappointed in you. I had thought you were more mature than that. Can you imagine how worried I was?”
Deena looked a little flushed. Could she be sick?
When Deena looked back, Mara’s heart sank.
Her eyes are dilated. Could she have been taking drugs?
My dear little girl. What have they done to you?