Chapter 40: Transmission
In Redding, they stopped for food. Deena stoked up on pancakes with lots of syrup. “I need the energy,” she said. It was about all she said. He didn’t feel like talking either.
He should never have tried to get closer to her as she slept. This was the girl who blushed at everything. “Don’t get any ideas!” That’s what she always said, and that’s exactly what he’d done. That he was half asleep was no excuse. His hands should have stayed inside his own bag.
What is she thinking of me now?
Well, whatever had been their chances of getting closer, they were now out the window. She hadn’t trusted him before. She certainly wouldn’t trust him now.
Take care of the asteroid business, and if we survive, get her back to her mother, before I make an even bigger mistake.
Celibacy only works if you keep your distance. He knew that. He’d lived by it.
But now he was in her pocket twenty-four hours a day.
As they ate, Luther sat with his back to the window. He needed to see outside, through the reflecting glass. How widely would the Crescent City cops send their reports?
They were too near home ground. Mrs. Brooke would have filed a complaint. Maybe they would be looking for a kidnapper fitting his description. He couldn’t afford to assume that Redding cops wouldn’t have seen it. Deena had red hair, but he was still plainly Luther Jennings.
He mentioned his worry to Deena, but she just ate, unconcerned. She seemed in a daze.
It’s the Redwood grove. It’s a massive radio array and the signal must be a lot stronger. Deena had insisted she get as close as possible to maximize her influence on the system, but communication was a two-way thing. I just hope they don’t put her back in a zombie trance again.
By the time they crossed the mountains and wound their way down to Orick, Luther was having serious flashbacks of his own. Each turn in the road, each elk pasture, each pull-off at the trailheads, they felt so familiar, and yet part of another life.
Deena called him Luther, and he preferred that. Luke’s life was even more removed in the past. Still, he could never go back to being Luther Jennings, Crescent City high-school student.
He’d enjoyed being on the run with Deena, but perhaps that was done now.
And he missed his Chevy.
Deena slapped his chest with her palm. He slowed down and pulled into the parking area. She slipped off the back and without a word, dropped her helmet and shook her hair free.
He was glad of the words, but she was drifting away, heading straight into the trees again.
Begrudging every second, he took the time to stash the bike behind a tree, out of sight from the road.
Deena had already vanished into the forest.
If she’s heading back to the grove, I can get there faster on the trail.
After the first junction, he saw her through the trees. He paused, as she walked easily, gracefully through the undergrowth. She would indeed cross the trail up ahead. A beam of sunlight caught her and he noticed a trace of her natural light brown hair growing out from the roots. How long had that been going on? Would she waste energy now on accelerated hair growth?
A flicker of movement caught his eye. An elk doe walked up and approached her. Deena still looked entranced. She reached out and with an easy motion, like a priest bestowing a blessing, touched the doe on the nose. The animal shook, and then startled, bounded away through the forest.
What did you do to it? Luther wasn’t about to ask out loud. It was Deena’s time. She needed the quiet.
They had discussed the problem. The asteroid had to break apart at an exact time for the disastrous course correction to happen. They couldn’t stop the nanobots from tunneling away at the asteroid’s weakest point.
So, the only thing Deena could do was to give them orders to work faster. However, the asteroid construction work was extensive. The asteroid’s waist was hundreds of acres in cross-section. The count of nanobots working on the task was astronomical.
Deena would have to orchestrate a massive change, perhaps even cause the assemblers to increase their already incredible numbers.
He waited near the trail as she drifted to a familiar place in the trees. She stopped, and spread out her arms like a saint basking in the presence of God.
Like no other time, she could hear the trees. Her pulsers were fully functional, and she struggled to keep alert. If she drifted off into a trance now, the fight was lost.
Strangely, she felt an urge to head north. New orders had come. To the north, there was a river. Upstream, where a broad river was surrounded by cliffs, proper seeding of nanobots could cause a massive landslide.
Oh, no! I’m supposed to block the Columbia River. I can’t let that happen.
But the urge to head north was suddenly strong. And it wasn’t an order she could countermand.
Deena closed her eyes tight.
Listen you nanobots. I’m changing the priority. The deadline for the landslide is three hundred years from now. Set your alarm clocks and remind me about it then.
The urge to travel, like a tightness across her shoulders, began to ease. Okay. I can do this.
Images appeared, and they weren’t from her eyes, or any mammal-like eyes. The space between the planets was sketched out before her, but the scale was strange. The quarter million miles between Earth and the Moon fit in one view, and yet in that very same view, details on the approaching asteroid were plain to see, down to the microscopic burrows of the nanobots.
She accepted it. There were more important things to deal with than understanding her sight.
The asteroid was alive with activity. Tiny machines swarmed, like an ant-hill overturned. But each had its orders. Each had an agenda.
It was the web of organizers which gave it structure.
Deena reached out to touch it. The sense of her arm stretched across space. It lengthened. It turned sharp and steel gray. A sword held high.
After a while, Luther heard voices. He hopped up from the rock, his rump sore from sitting so long on the hard, uneven surface. He jogged a hundred feet to the top of a rise. A young couple were laughing as they hiked along.
He waved his arms. “Please,” he whispered loudly, “could I get you to be quiet for the next couple of hundred yards?”
The guy asked, “Sure. What’s up?”
They reached the rise and Luther walked with them a few feet and pointed out Deena, still standing there.
The girl whispered, “What’s she doing?”
Luther thought a moment. “She’s protecting the Earth—stopping an asteroid sent by aliens to destroy us.”
They both stopped dead. Luther didn’t bat an eye.
The couple gave each other a look and then moved on down the trail, perhaps a little faster than they had before. Luther kept a straight face until they were out of sight.
His grin didn’t last long.
The fate of the world depends on a high school girl manipulating gigantic forces with her mind.
Why was she in regular physics? She’s smart enough, even without the calculator gift, to be in Honors Physics.
I just hope she’s smart enough for this.
He was up, heading her way. Her arms began to droop. He started to run.
She reeled from the impact.
Her mind had expanded to encompass the entirety of the redwood grove—each tree, each collection of nanobots now a part of her. Her brain had become one with the super-collection of organizers.
The organizers on the asteroid were, after their fashion, fighting back.
In a way she couldn’t put into human language, her orders shifted in the heirarchy. Her agenda was absorbed blindly by the workers off in space, but it never stayed in place. The asteroid was several light-seconds off. Age long seconds in the reaction times of the nanobots.
She forced a change, and in the time it took for the signal to travel back to Earth, the asteroidal organizer super-complex noted the shift in priorities and put into place corrective actions.
Warrior Deena glared in the teeth of the Voice, as it swept over her in great long swells. Her sword held high, gray as her eyes, she hacked at the troll-beast, monstrously large as the hills. With each wave of the Voice, the troll’s massive fists threatened to smash her to goo between them.
But the troll was not her greatest threat. It was the Voice itself, louder than thunder, as complex and incomprehensible as the crashing surf, which threatened to beat her to the ground.
The troll turned to one side, protecting a gray bleeding cut. She struck there, at the beast’s waist, with her sword, putting everything into the swing. It left her defenseless when the Voice struck again.
When she collapsed, he was there to catch her.
Her arms were hot, but when he checked her face, it was normal.
Her eyelids were fluttering, as if she were dazed.
Her voice was so faint he could barely hear it. “It’s over.” She was limp. Her eyes were closed. He checked her pulse. It was there, but weak.
Getting his legs right, he lifted her, and began carrying her back to the trail.
She swayed in rhythm, only realizing after a time that she was being carried. Her arm tightened around his neck as she snuggled closer in to his embrace.
“Deena?” he asked.
“Don’t stop,” her voice was slurred. “Fat girl’s fantasy. Carried in a guy’s arms.”
He huffed. “Have to stop. Out of breath.” He set her down and collapsed beside her. “It’s a little guy’s fantasy to be able to carry the girl.” On uneven ground, it was a long way. He shook his head. “I may not be there yet.”
She didn’t answer. Maybe she hadn’t heard. She was asleep again. He rechecked her pulse.
I have to get her out of here. How much of her condition was due to exhaustion and how much was some nanobot interaction? I can’t trust anything until I get her out of these trees.
Nanobots were just machines. Deena’s experience suggested that. They didn’t care when Deena fought against the aliens’ plans. But that was just guesswork on their part. Coming here had been like Daniel in the lions’ den, just hoping that the lions didn’t care to fight back.
He took a deep breath and got himself under her weight again. The bike wasn’t too far ahead.
He took his time getting back to the motorcycle, but when he set her down, she stirred.
His voice tightened up. “No, Deena. It’s Luther. Are you strong enough to ride?”
She struggled to sit up. “Yes.”
He was uncertain, but once she put her arms around him and the engine roared, he felt a little more confident.
He was anxious to get her report on what happened, but she didn’t look strong enough to stay awake. The effort had depleted her.
“We have to get you some food. There’ll be something in Klamath, okay?” It was a dozen miles in the direction of Crescent City, but they had eaten in Orick twice already. If police had questioned people in those restaurants, they would recognize them immediately. They would have better luck someplace they had never been.
Evasion skills were settling back down on him, more so as they approached home ground. He wished he had a bandana or something to disguise his hair color, but the motorcycle helmet would have to do.
It won’t make any difference, if the asteroid hits. Whether he was on the run or in jail, the blast or debris would kill him quickly if it were close. If it hit far away, the dust blocking out the sun would starve or freeze them eventually.
But habits were hard to break.
“I’ll be right back,” he said when he parked.
She didn’t listen, and followed him into the little store. Like a sleepwalker, she ran her fingers lightly down the shelves, eyes flickering from one Indian craft trinket to another. She picked up a tin of smoked salmon.
Luther said, “We need a stack of those.” Portable protein might make a difference. They parted with a bundle of heavily preserved, packaged foods that he strapped to the cycle, in addition to sandwiches and water.
“Where to?” he asked.
She closed her eyes. “I want to go home.”
He noticed her hair. In spite of everything, the brown was still growing longer. Bits of red dropped away every time she turned her head. She was turning back into brown-haired Deena, the one her mother would recognize.
Stone-faced, he nodded. “In a bit. You need to eat first.”
He went back across the bridge and took the Klamath Beach road, heading south along the cliff top. He pulled in at a picnic overlook. The waves broke on the rocks below them.
Deena took a couple of sandwiches and sat on the stone outcropping and watched the waves, just as she had done so many times back at her perch at home.
The part of her that had gone off into space and directed the energies of trillions of units was exhausted. The radio was just noise.
Luther will want to know what happened. I can feel him back there watching me.
What will I tell him?
Her eyes began to water because of the wind in her face, but she quickly progressed to a sob.
“Deena? What’s wrong?” He came and sat a few feet from her.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m just tired I guess.”
He nodded. She needed him to put his arm around her, and to tell her it was okay, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Can you tell me what happened? Did you affect the asteroid?”
The surreal world of her communion with the nanobots faded in and out of focus.
She shook her head, “I don’t know.”
He just waited.
Deena tried to remember details. She recognized the warrior images for what they were, images her own mind had conjured to put a face on the faceless.
Luther needed technical concepts. She tried her best.
“There were so many of them! Billions, trillions of little worm trails through the rocks, only the worms were much smaller. I tried to get the assemblers to make more of the diggers, like we said, but they were already working at nearly maximum capacity already—their only energy is sunlight, and it had to be carried down into the rock like a bucket-brigade.
“Then an early fracture happened on one side. The super cluster of organizers which were overseeing the work stopped digging in that area, and before I could send the order to start up again, entire armies self-destructed.”
“What did you do?”
“You know the San Francisco bugs, the ones that left me? I said then that they collected water. Well I had assemblers create a whole slew of water-shifters. The diggers had left hydrogen and oxygen from their unzipped corpses. There was some water in the surrounding rocks as well.”
She nodded, “Right. I collected water and grew ice in the fracture. Managing the heat was difficult, but collecting water into nodes and letting them freeze and expand did what I wanted. The fracture expanded and it should have snapped the whole asteroid apart.”
She shrugged, “Luther, I don’t know! I...I burned out, I think. It was close, real close. I managed a few seconds at best. I don’t know if it was enough.”
She reached again toward that presence, that collection of organizers that was the mind of the redwood grove. It was so close. She could feel its activity.
“Luther, I can’t talk to the grove anymore. It’s just...” She waved her hand, like she could touch it. It fled before her every probe.
She leaned back again and closed her eyes. “I’m so tired.”
She could feel tears well up in her eyes again. Stop that. No need to cry.
If Luther would just hold her, and tell her everything was okay, she would believe him.
“It’s okay, Deena,” he said, standing up. “I’ll get you back home just as soon as I can.” He walked back to the bike.
Deena could only watch him leave.