a novel by Ran Prieur

Book 1 Chapter 5

Apocalypsopolis Main
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The coyote, whose name was Scent-of-Moonlight, padded up the dark canyon. Half a night and half a day ago the two destroyers had come and killed her pups. They had come up the wind while she slept, so she had not smelled their sickness until they were upon her. She awoke to the thin one raising his gun at her and she bolted. Some would stand and fight, but the coyote kind have always survived by learning quickly, and she had already learned that there is no fighting a gun. The shot missed, and she got away, and when she heard the thunder killing her pups she mourned for half a day and half a night. Then the Mother Of All came to her with a mission.

She was to go west over the many mountains, to a camp of the destroyers so big that the buildings touched the sky and the lights drowned the stars. Normally the journey would take many weeks and probably be fatal for a lone coyote, but the Mother Of All was opening the Sideways Lands.

The Sideways Lands are where the buffalo go in winter, and where the legends wait. A few creatures can move sideward at will, but most go only sometimes by accident, or by following others, or not at all. Mother keeps the paths hidden and closed, because otherwise the world would go out of balance. But now, the Mother had told her, the destroyers have already sent the world far out of balance; whatever harm the opening would do to Her, the destroyers have already done, and it will be their world of dead things that suffers in the opening.

Then the Mother had reminded her of what the legends tell but short-lived creatures often forget: The destroyers are not destroyers by essence. Their polite name is not destroyers but the name they call themselves, the humans. And as everyone knows, the difference between humans and all other animals is that humans have no soul. The soul of the hawk is to ride the columns of heat and dive on small animals; the soul of the salmon is to swim home up the river and spawn. But the humans -- oh, they have a little soul in their animal bodies, but mostly it's just a vast empty space, that gets filled up with spirits. Usually they are spirits of the Earth, and the humans are wise stewards of the other animals. But sometimes they are spirits of cold, hateful worlds, jealous spirits that despise the Earth and want to destroy it. So it is now. They are strong this time, and have already destroyed much and will destroy more. But because they don't love, they don't understand, and because they don't understand, they fail, always. Other spirits are even now moving into humans, the Mother said, and your mission is to help them. A thousand generations are at stake, and a billion billion souls, but in some form I will survive. This is not the first time I have opened the Sideways Lands, or the last.

Scent-of-Moonlight came to the top of the canyon and sniffed the wind. There, behind the ponderosa pine, the arrowleaf balsamroot, the ever-present machine-smoke, was something both old and fresh. She turned right up a ridge, skirted a peak, and moved down into another canyon. It was closer now. She pushed through a thicket and found a path, a deer trail. The sideward openings are always along paths, even if they're only insect paths or the habits of the wind.

Now, as she walked, she walked another way with her mind. It was so easy! So this is what it's like when the Sideways Lands are open. Around her the trees grew bigger, older, the sounds of the night insects deeper, and the smells thick and sharp. She smelled plants and heard birdcalls that she had never smelled or heard, but that stirred the memories of her ancestors who lived in her. Once, where two paths crossed, she was sure she recognized the scent of Two-Stars-behind-his-Eyes, the uncle of all coyotes. She moved on through the night.


Sirach spent long hours just holding the baby. She liked to play with the beams of sunlight and move her hands in and out of them, as if she were catching the light and dropping it, catching and dropping it, moving her fascinated gaze back and forth. So he nicknamed her Suncatcher. He would come home after going on errands and say, "How's my little Suncatcher?"

He talked to her constantly, being careful to speak clearly and using his full vocabulary. While he was building her a little ramp, so she could come and go at will from the back yard, he said "You know, there are seven billion people in the world, and only one who would do this for you -- me, because of my fanatical devotion to autonomy. But I won't let you go out the front, because your biological instincts won't recognize cars, and you'll get squished! Or taken away."

She gave a little cry of distress. Although he refused to believe in telepathy or anything whose mechanism he could not understand, he had to let this disbelief stand side by side with the obvious fact that whenever he thought seriously about giving her away, she began to cry, and when he decided to keep her, she stopped, and otherwise never cried, but communicated through other little sounds. He tested her once, by thinking about giving her away without really meaning it, and strangely she was quiet.

She continued to feed from the raccoon at night, and during the day he fed her a mixture of nonfat goat milk, organic whipping cream, and bee pollen, which she grimaced at but still drank.

He had gone to a downtown chain bookstore and asked if they were discounting or giving away their water-damaged books, but it was company policy to destroy them, so he broke in that night and took 20 pounds of waterlogged books on baby care, wild plant identification, and the history of pirates. For diapers, he got a garbage bag full of cotton clothes from a thrift store dumpster and cut them up into diaper shapes. When they were used he just threw them away, since he had saved them from the garbage in the first place.

"What would I do," he said to Suncatcher, "if this society wasn't so wasteful? I guess it would depend on why it wasn't wasteful. If it was because people paid attention and wanted to help, that would be even better. It would be like this but not secret. Stores would just set stuff out openly, and I could make a big garden in the back yard and open the windows.

"But suppose it was because there wasn't anything to waste, so there wouldn't even be any food that they had to destroy to stop poor people from getting it free and not having to work at McDonalds sucking up to insecure middle class people. But then we'd all be poor, so we'd band together and help each other, so that would still be good.

"Ah, but suppose it was some nightmare dystopia that was super-efficient but based on control and not empathy, and all waste was carefully channeled in a way that forced everyone to obey the dominant system or die. But you know what? We're already in that world, and it's full of cracks because life hates to be controlled, because we all want to act from the heart. So we just have to find the cracks and bide our time until the whole thing breaks down.

"You can see it in the soldiers who are taking over the city. They either have to stupidly command us, which is awkward and makes us hate them, or they have to learn to empathize with us, which leads them to contradict their orders. And we either learn how to play off them and work around them, which makes us smarter and more resourceful, or we just stupidly obey them, which... It's like a big machine that gets more and more rusty until it just seizes up and falls over. It's to the point now where the only thing it can effectively do is kill. There are really only two ways out -- they let us build an autonomous bottom-up system, or they kill us all."

There came a knock at the door.


Arch wondered why the manager would be knocking on his door this late at night. Could it be one of the neighbors? He was in the bathroom, in his pajamas, flossing his teeth. He went to answer the door.

It was two men in suits, obviously some kind of government agents.

"Lind," one said, "You have been selected for a special mission on the west coast, leaving now."

"I have to get dressed, pack..."

"You have ten minutes."

The two agents drove him to the airport and escorted him to the gate, where two other agents, poorly disguised as ordinary people, got on the plane with him and sat beside him. The flight was direct to Los Angeles.

He knew better than to ask about the mission. They almost certainly wouldn't know, and if they did they wouldn't tell him until he needed to know. He wondered for a few minutes and then went to sleep.

In L.A. the two agents drove him to a chain restaurant for breakfast, and they all sat there a couple hours -- probably, Arch thought, because it was still too early in the morning. It turned out they were just waiting for the next flight. They went back to the airport, and at 10 AM Arch boarded a flight to San Francisco, accompanied by a new pair of agents.

In San Francisco the same thing happened. It was even the same chain restaurant. At 4 PM, with yet another pair of agents, Arch was on a flight to Seattle.

At 7 PM Arch stood with the two agents at the edge of Westlake Center, a triangular square in downtown Seattle, whose red and gray paving stones were barely visible under thousands of muddy footprints. It was only the second day after the tsunami, and the whole area still smelled of brine and decay. The day was still bright and there were people about.

The agents pointed to a fountain. It was running with apparently clean water which splashed down and splattered out a few feet. "Your mission," said the agent, "is to take a sample from that fountain." He handed Arch a laboratory bottle, a glass beaker with a black rubber cork. "We'll wait here."

Now Arch became suspicious. As he walked to the fountain he thought: Why me? Anyone could do this. If they think the fountain's contaminated, why haven't they given me protective gear? Am I expendable? Is this all some bureaucratic insanity? And this is not the kind of container we use to collect samples.

At the edge of the fountain he stopped, his hand on the beaker inside his jacket pocket. The splashes made a bit of a mist, which indeed could infect people if something survived in the water. He turned his head and saw the agents looking on. And there -- is that another agent? And that -- it is! -- one of the men who flew with me to L.A. Is anyone here a regular person?

He pulled the beaker out and fumbled with the cork. Across the street a man was taking photographs, and as Arch pulled the cork off the beaker, the camera turned to him.

Drop the beaker and run! The urge was sudden and strong but he stifled it. Where could he run? How could he survive in a strange city? His entire career commanded him to numbly lean down, fill and cap the beaker, and stand there as the agents closed in.

A car pulled up and they steered him to the back seat. The urge didn't let up: run now! But the time to run would have been before. Now it's too late. Or is it? Now the door is closing -- I could still reach my foot out, kick it open...

The door closed. The locks clicked. The car drove.

There were three agents in the car, two in front and one beside Arch in back. They did not look at him or speak. Maybe I'm being paranoid, he thought. They'll drive me to a hotel and we'll stay the night and fly back to DC in the morning. They're testing me, and I've passed, and I'll move to the next higher security level.

In the light industrial area between Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia, the car pulled into a dim garage and the three agents drowned Archibald Lind in a deep puddle of flood water. When his pulse stopped they took off his clothes and dressed him in dirty jeans and flannels. Then they drove his body to a parking lot under the Alaskan Way Viaduct and dumped it in a water-filled ditch.

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