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Appleseed

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"Woven together out of the strands of myth, science fiction, and ecological warning, Matt Bell's Appleseed is as urgent as it is audacious." —Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

An epic speculative novel from Young Lions Fiction Award–finalist Matt Bell, a breakout book that explores climate change, manifest destiny, humanity's unchecked exploitation of natural resources, and the small but powerful magic contained within every single apple.
In eighteenth-century Ohio, two brothers travel into the wooded frontier, planting apple orchards from which they plan to profit in the years to come. As they remake the wilderness in their own image, planning for a future of settlement and civilization, the long-held bonds and secrets between the two will be tested, fractured and broken—and possibly healed.

Fifty years from now, in the second half of the twenty-first century, climate change has ravaged the...

Year:
2021
Publisher:
Custom House
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
0063090384
ISBN 13:
9782020050890
File:
EPUB, 497 KB
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Dedication





For Jessica





Epigraphs




Where now can one find the certainty that the world is a machine since in so many respects it resembles a tree?

—Magdalena Tulli, Dreams and Stones


When I added the dimension of time to the landscape of the world, I saw how freedom grew the beauties and horrors from the same live branch.

—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


A man is ruled by appetite and remorse, and I swallowed what I could.

—Elise Blackwell, Hunger





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraphs

Prologue

Part One Chapman

John

C-432

Chapman

John

C-432

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

The First Faun

Chapman





Part Two John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John

C-433





Part Three Eury

Chapman

John

Chapman

John

E-5

John

Chapman

John

Chapman

John

C-433

Chapman

John-X

C-433





Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher





Prologue




In the faun’s clawed and calloused hands the pomace comes out rich and sweet, a treasure of crushed cores and waxy skins and pulped flesh, a dozen colors of apples distinct in the gap between the cider mill’s grindstone and its wheel. He squeezes his fingers into the trough—if the wheel slips, he’ll lose his hairy hand—and jerks free a handful of mash, dumping it onto a stretch of cheesecloth spread across the floor. He hops side to side, his hooves sliding on the slick boards, his claws’ sharpness speeding the pomace’s recovery from the circular groove. Occasionally he lifts his horned head to nervously watch the millhouse door: if he strains he can hear his half brother’s voice outside, still negotiating for seeds already freely given.

The faun hurries to finish before his brother loses the miller’s attention: his brother has many gifts, but a penchant for entrancing gab is not one. Every seed he pries from the mill comes up wet, each black kernel is coated in mottled skin, browning flesh, ; strands of core—all moisture and fertilizer for the long walk ahead. The room is thick with apple-drunk wasps, but the faun ignores their buzzing and the prickling welts their stings raise along his forearms.

Despite the irritation, he harbors the wasps no ill will: What else should a wasp be except a wasp?

The faun digs and sorts, pushing more seeds inside his leathern bag, filling it to bursting, then tamping down the mash to make room for more seeds. The moisture of the pressed pomace seeps through the tanned skin; by the time the brothers reach the Territory, a musk of sickly rot and sweet fermentation will have worked its way deep into the faun’s fur.

Ten years into this apple planter’s life, the faun has come to crave this clinging, cloying smell: the smell of the future he and his brother are making, all their orchards to be, the smell of his truest hope, that the Tree he seeks waits inside these seeds—although even if this is the year he plants it, then still ten more impatient years must pass before the Tree the seed contains might deliver its first ripe apple, revealing itself—and as always whenever the faun makes himself sick with hope, it’s because the pomace’s rotted drunken scent promises him something else, something more than mere trees, and yes, as he lifts the next fistful of crushed apple to his nose and breathes in its ferment, there it is, that hoped-for future beyond smell, beyond taste, beyond want, where one day this faun must go, forgotten and forgetting.





Part One





Chapman

The Invincible Earth




Chapman wakes in the cold and the dark and the wet predawn slush to the sound of his brother, Nathaniel, already up and tending to the sputtering ashes of last night’s fire, cursing and shivering, huddled beneath his only blanket; despite Nathaniel’s ministrations, the coals beneath the ashes stay dead, the gathered wood wet, breakfast impossible. Shelling himself out from his bedroll, Chapman rises too, offering his brother a grunted good morning before stamping his cloven hooves against the frigid ground, trying to quicken blood sluggish with sleep. As first light breaks, he stalks silently away from their campsite, climbing the last ridgeline of this Pennsylvanian mountain pass to watch the night’s rainfall trickle off into morning mist, admiring the fine accidental melody of clean water falling branch to branch; a moment later dutiful Nathaniel follows along, dragging their bags and tools to where Chapman waits upon his outcropping of rock, one clawed hand raised to shield his golden eyes as he surveys the forest they’ll cross today, snowpack still jamming the forest’s shadows, sparkling ice coating its swampy glacial kettles and its irregular lakes, all this waiting beauty backlit now by the red shroud of sunrise, the new day’s dawn setting aglow a vast world not yet fully explored.

“This, brother,” Nathaniel says, placing one calloused hand on taller Chapman’s bare brown shoulder, waving the other out over the Territory below, “this is where we’ll make our fortune.” Pointing out the first landmarks they’re due to pass today, he traces a path out of this mountain gap and down through the slim strand of tilled earth that gives entrance to the Ohio Territory, then the way beyond into the unsettled, unmapped forest swamps of the interior, past the river bottomlands and sheltered ravines where they sowed last year’s nurseries, toward the next uninhabited acres where they’ll aim to plant this year’s seeds.

As Nathaniel happily details his plans, Chapman smiles his much-practiced smile, his sharp teeth slipping from behind his broad lips. “Look, brother,” he interrupts, pointing out dim campfires barely visible through the morning mist, flickers of flame and smoke rising in far-off sheltered dales. “There are so many more of us this year.”

Every year, these fires move deeper into the landscape, each one a distant sign of strangers come to expand the human mark, to put the land to what Nathaniel has taught Chapman are its rightful uses: here are settlers hunting and trapping and gathering wild foodstuffs, cutting down trees and tearing up rocks to make room for placeholder farms, making way for the towns to come, while others tap trees for sap and hang tin sugaring buckets over hot coals, sometimes passing the time with amateur fiddling, the inviting sounds of their instruments carrying across even the most desolate starless, moonless nights.

Together the brothers measure again the increasingly believable potential of this Territory, its wilderness cleared by war then emptied by treaty; as he has at the start of every other year’s journey, Nathaniel tells Chapman again how this taken land can now be brought to heel by industrious men, how by many hands the foundations of a new civilization will be laid here, the land year by year made ready for the coming of more people, until one day the uncultivated earth gives way to what he says will surely be the grandest of cities, each graced by the tallest buildings and the widest avenues, all populated by an endless parade of hardy settlers planting horizon-busting fields of wind-tilted golden grain, harvesting fruitful orchards planted by these two forward-thinking brothers.

Chapman and Nathaniel and these others gathered around their distant fires are only the first to come, he says. “Even if our industries should fail entirely,” Nathaniel concludes, “surely we will not be the last.”

Nathaniel has said this for ten years now, the same lines recited from the same mountain pass at the outset of each year’s venture. “It’s time to go,” Chapman says, suddenly impatient with his brother’s story. He ties his bedroll and his tools over one bare shoulder, slings his leathern seed bag around the other. The morning air is chilled and damp, but the bark of his skin keeps him warm enough that even in winter he wears no shirt or coat, only a pair of trousers hacked off above his inhuman knees. He dusts the last of the night’s frost from his flanks, then whinnies lowly, stretching tall to rub the smooth shells of his curved horns with his clawed hands, first his broken horn and then its intact twin, for luck. Nathaniel laughs, then mimics his brother’s superstitions, rubbing his own bare temples, where just recently a few gray hairs have started creeping through the brown.

“Meet you at the river,” Nathaniel teases, sidestepping onto the narrow trace path leading down the ridgeline, “if you can catch me.” He rushes to build his slim head start, but his advantage doesn’t last long. A moment later Chapman surges past him to drop down the steep plunge of the mountainside, his hooves sliding precariously on loose scree as he picks up speed, the joy of moving fast filling him from the inside out, his fur standing on end, his heart leaping with happy effort. He quickens his pace with every step until a barking cry rips free of him, the sound of his voice foreign enough to this Territory and every other to frighten all the nearby roosting birds into sudden startled flight, the gray sky filling with their black silhouettes, their many cries joining the whooping of this one faun, returned at last to wildest lands.



As many years as Chapman’s made this passage out of Pennsylvania, the thrill of arriving in the Territory has never ceased to provoke his fullest wonder. Propelled by joy, he runs dangerously this morning, his furred legs taking leaping, straining steps, his splayed hooves seeking purchase on sharp juttings of quivering rock, on old-growth roots thrust through black earth and slushy snow, other obstacles threatening to trip him and send him sprawling. When his descent smooths onto more level ground, he increases his speed again, his few possessions banging rhythmically against his muscular torso as all around him the forest deepens. The sun has only a pale power beneath these trees, where the frontier’s every shaded feature is a fresh barrier to progress. Searching for the way forward, Chapman follows a trail trampled by first peoples or fur trappers or single-file processions of deer, the path a barely visible scrawl plotting the way forward, then crosses dry strands of seasonal creeks strewn with the lacy bones of trout, an unremembered stream quickening with snowmelt; he encounters a thicket impassible except by hacking out each halting step with his tomahawk. He leaps fallen columns of oak and maple, vaults lichen-stung trunks maybe giving shelter to squirming snakes, the only animals he can’t abide; his movements scatter squirrels and chipmunks playing amid rotted leaves, forest mice leaping hungrily over melting snow. Once an explosion of foxes appears, a half-dozen pups running through the flattened grass of a meadow once purpled with loosestrife, yellowed with goldenrod; in the moist underbrush he spies the year’s first warty toads hopping hungrily through the moldings of mud rattlers and the pellets of horned owls.

Abundance everywhere, everywhere gathering and joy and predation and sorrow: amid all this untamed splendor, every acre of forest is an empire in the shape of the world.

Wherever Chapman ventures next there waits some unnamed waterway or unexplored meadow, some ridge never described, never made anyone’s landmark. Or so he once believed, come late to this landscape cleared of its most recent inhabitants. Now he just as frequently exits untouched woods to find newly planted lands, the forest’s brambles burned back, its glacier-spilled stones stacked into makeshift garden walls, so many trees felled to make rough-sawn boards, boards nailed into unsound houses held upright by mortar and tar and hope. New construction makes Chapman nervous; long inhabitation doubly so. From his youngest days, he could follow a wooded trail haphazardly stamped flat but couldn’t abide a road cleared by men with picks and shovels and mules; he could skirt the edges of farms but couldn’t cross their fenced-in fields without his skin aching with hives, his bones burning in their sockets.

Only after Nathaniel hit on the idea of planting frontier orchards did Chapman begin to better acculturate himself, their nurseries tucked amid their wilder cousins easing his flesh toward the idea of the domesticated, Nathaniel’s stands of apple trees wild enough for Chapman to pass among them as long as the trees are planted from seeds, never grafted.

By midday he reaches the river he seeks, the sun emerging over its clear, fast course, its waterline raised by snowmelt and spring rains. He squats over his hooves to scan the sparkling water for signs of trout coming up to feed on the gathering insects, hungry for their pleasurable slap and splash, then picks a tick from his fur, squeezing the pin of its head with clawed fingers, the pressure not enough to kill it but certainly to make it release. Half wild as he is, he doesn’t count himself as one of the forest creatures, but anything afflicting them might afflict him too, a lesson painfully learned his first wet season in the Territory, when he caught a hoof rot that Nathaniel treated as he would any common goat’s: with dreadful cuttings, then the application of stinking herbal salves.

Waiting for Nathaniel, Chapman swings his bag around his bare frame, rests it above his bony knees. He pulls it open even though he shouldn’t—the seeds could easily dry out despite the moist pomace and pulp—and then he plunges his head into the bag’s opening, breathes deep the wet ferment inside. Around him are a thousand fresher scents, all the Territory’s perfumes and poisons, promises and provocations, but Chapman’s favorite is the one he carries lashed to his chest, kept contained within his satchel: not the attractive smell of apples ready to be picked, not the smell becoming taste of an apple bitten, but this rotten stinking hope, the intoxicating promise of what next.

The Tree, the Tree, the Tree: taste and smell are almost the same sense, even in memory, even in dream; with his face buried in the leathern bag, Chapman imagines the taste-smell of the apple of the Tree he tells himself it’s possible to plant, to grow, to harvest one glowing apple from, one apple all he’ll need to change his life.

Let Nathaniel make his fortune, if he can. All Chapman wants is one particular apple.

The faun sneezes, snorts, and shakes. He removes his head from the bag, gives his attention back to the phenomenal world at hand, the light already different, the shadows slightly shifted in a moment, then more so by the time Nathaniel arrives an hour later, huffing down the narrow riverbank.

“Brother,” Nathaniel says, revealing a shirt wet with perspiration as he unshoulders his burden. He takes a knee, tries to catch his breath. “You waited for me this time.”

“Yes, brother,” Chapman happily replies, both of them grinning now, both glad to be back in the Territory, to be here together. Nathaniel has the steadiest step in the Territory, his stride is swift and sure; he is a man sure of his place, a plower of fields, a planter of seeds, a man charged to bring order to the wild chaos—but without Chapman he’d soon be lost. There are no reliable maps of the Territory and the brothers carry no compasses, relying instead on Chapman’s wilder parts to suss out wild ways for them to travel: as they leave the riverbank, he kneels, puts his nose to the wet ground.

“What is it?” Nathaniel asks, but Chapman only shushes him.

“Quiet,” he says, stretching low against the fragrant earth. He sucks in a deep breath through flared nostrils, finds his own smells intruding: sweat and dirt, tobacco, apple flesh; the wind within the skin, his trap of bark and fur. He filters himself out, tries again. This is trail as a container for sign, visual, auditory, olfactory: the stamped mud and broken twigs, the kicked-away pine straw and haphazard middens of fur-laced feces and owl pellets; the sounds of birds pecking at exposed seeds; the smell of decaying matter being carted away by ants or beetles. This is trail as time travel: to be able to read the signs is to know this place as it was hours or days before. In the dirt it is written: the last time it rained, the last time it snowed, flooding the landscape, burying it beneath white powder; how long since there was lightning overhead, bright danger sparking low above the tinder.

“This way,” Chapman says, leading Nathaniel through narrow bands of grass gently trampled by deer and moose, then along routes traveled by the wolves and coyotes and bobcats the brothers sometimes believe they see stalking black slates of dark slashed between the trees. Hours later, they make their first camp, their hearts glad for the smooth progress of their first day back in the Territory; tonight and every night they will sleep bared beneath the naked stars, without even a tent to spare them from the weather. Always they travel light, then endeavor to travel lighter. They can’t leave behind their bags of seeds, but much they believed they could not live without in Pennsylvania will be discarded in the wilder Territory, unnecessary weight left in the ruins of some minimal campsite, near a blackened splotch of earth where they burned a fire, a matted stretch of grass where they lay down to sleep upon what will soon be threadbare blankets.

As their westerly journey continues, the spring sun shines warmer every day, but in the shadows beneath the trees the snow often persists and the damp heavies their lungs, producing phlegmy coughs that leave Nathaniel racked in his bedroll but barely inconvenience hardy Chapman. Despite their hunting and gathering they are often underdressed and underfed, their bodies thinning as they grow irritated with each other’s constant presence, each other’s tics and habits; they squabble and bicker, but nonetheless there is laughter too, nonetheless there are moments of beauty beneath the great trees. The penumbra hemming the light of their campfire. The way yesterday’s rain trickles through the canopy of pine and oak. The deep moist loam pungent beneath their feet. The distant cries of coyotes, the happy snuffling of a nearby bear whose feeding goes unperturbed by their passage; few sounds are better than the bright tinkling of running water somewhere ahead, a chance to refill their waterskins.

Time and miles pass. To ease the hours as they walk, they sing together, their voices forming rough harmonies over snatches of half-remembered hymns, bawdy folk tunes; at night they crowd beside their campfire to dry their bones, lighting their pipes and talking of the nurseries they’ll plant every year forever, of the matured orchards they’ll revisit this autumn. “I believe in the promise of the wilderness,” Nathaniel says, staring into the firelight, as nightly he repeats his self-made creed. “I believe this continent’s far territories, each equally dense and foreboding and unpathed, await only the bravery of good men. And I believe in the taming of those wilds, how any acre not put to use is an acre wasted.”

The good earth, the invincible earth, the earth that can only be improved, made more useful, better suited for Christian inhabitation; an earth giving up its treasure for the good of mankind, a race of which Chapman is at least partly a part.

Mostly this future waits its distant turn. In the present, there is the dark forest to navigate, there are nurseries to plant and land to claim with trees, trees they’ll one year sell to settlers surely following behind them. Every morning Chapman and Nathaniel roll their dew-soaked bedrolls, pack their one pot, Nathaniel complaining his clothes will never dry from the forest’s damp, Chapman leading his shivering brother onward, his hooves following the trails of other hooved beasts. Unlike Nathaniel, who slinks off to hunt whenever the opportunity presents itself, Chapman never eats the flesh of these animals. But neither does he fear starvation, not here in the bountiful Territory, its lands filled with bright bunches of berries, with undomesticated fruits and wild corn, with pale tubers hidden beneath the rich dirt.

Despite the ever-present chill beneath the canopy’s shade, sometimes a bright shaft of sunlight beams through wherever some tree has fallen beneath the weight of winter snow or the sharp crack of spring lightning. Weeks into their journey, the brothers stand in one such pillar of light, clapping each other’s shoulders affectionately, this man and half-man united by their journey and by the destiny Nathaniel has designed for them to earn.

“I believe, brother,” he says, his face flush with the sunbeam’s warmth, “that you and I can put this place to its right uses, that you know best what might grow where, what land might take our seeds and make them thrive.”

In this Nathaniel is correct: whatever else Chapman is, his wildness is a boon, his faunish body a living dowser for good earth. By his guidance the brothers soon arrive at a sharp bend in a river’s creased arc, fertile soil holding a stand of tall trees tucked inside its watery curve, some of them healthy and whole, some recently lightning burned and therefore easier to remove.

“Here,” Chapman says, “right here,” he repeats, pointing at the level stretch of riverbank that surrounds them.

“Yes, brother,” Nathaniel agrees, rubbing his hands together. Even with the land waiting to be cleared, it’s possible to imagine a humble house appearing here, a home where a man and his wife and his children might grow some crops and raise some stock and even catch fish for dinner, brown trout leaping over a manageable rapid, their mouths hungry for the hook.

Chapman is one of a kind; he’ll build no house nor plant any garden, he accepts he’ll have no wife and raise no children, not like this, not as a species of one, half wild and half man, alone in the world except for his human brother. Later, Nathaniel says of his own prospects, deferring any pursuit of his desired family until he’s made his fortune in apple trees. For now only today exists, and today they’ll plant a nursery so some other man might come here and finish the work, all that must be done to settle this land as Nathaniel’s Lord intends: to the good life of husbandry and stewardship, to the total dominion promised all righteous men willing to put to profitable use every square inch of this God-gifted earth.





John

The Manifest Earth




John squeezes sideways through a slim slot in the Utahn stone, his shirt rasping against the rough surface of the red rock canyon, its walls baking with the desert summer’s heat; he emerges covered in rust-colored dust, dust worn free by burning winds over tens of thousands of scorching days. On the other side of the slot waits a high-walled cul-de-sac of stone, a roofless chamber gaped toward the sun and the wind, its floor piled with hundreds of sun-bleached bones, startlingly white femurs and skinny ribs and cracked skulls, other joints and struts of the many shattered skeletons cast into this pit. A bone might last forever in the desert, but it’s not the bones John has come to see. Painted across the chamber’s red rock walls are varnished figures, tall black smears of charcoal, once colorful inks blanched gray by time. Nearly every figure is male, each is an exaggeration of a man: men running, men hunting, men worshipping, raising lanky arms to a distended sun, their torsos overly long, limbs stretched and unarticulated.

Giants of a vanished earth, giving praise to a world now gone.

John’s come to stand among them, to confront their remains. He traces the black lines of the petroglyphs, their meanings opaque, untranslatable. Perhaps this one a bird. Perhaps this one a fox. Perhaps this one an ancient bear, more dangerous than the recently extinct grizzlies. Whatever the original intent, eventually the mode of every sign becomes elegy, even ink scraped into timeless rock. John kneels, scattering bones and stones, then runs his hands through the dust. He smears the cooling smatter over his face in hot white streaks, inhaling a deep breath of bone and rock; he matches a set of ancient antlers, rattling the bleached bones, their knotty knobs cackling as he raises the horns. When the bones touch his forehead, he starts, surprised at the feeling of bone on skin, his face flushing with shame or fear or both.

John throws the antlers away, lets them clatter forgotten to the canyon floor. In the quiet that follows, he stands, wiping his hands on his jeans, then turns in a circle to take in the paint and the bones one more time: intellectually he understands what he sees, but as always the feeling eludes him. Maybe it’s too late for him to feel what he thinks the people who worshipped here must’ve felt: to be of the world, not against it; to live with the plants and the animals, not apart or above them. It’s not so easy to shake off his culture, his fading but still omnipresent civilization, despite all it ruined and wasted, despite knowing all he knows about what it’s cost, what it will continue to cost; maybe he won’t ever be able to feel at peace with the world or at home in it, not as he desires.

Maybe not. But what he does next doesn’t have to be for him. Maybe all he can do is keep trying to give the world back to itself, to continue to free whatever he can from the long damage of human want.



Despite the disappointment in the Canyonlands, John’s pilgrimage continues. The next morning, he drives north into Wyoming, through the Grand Tetons toward what was once Yellowstone. At the park’s southern entrance, he retrieves his bolt cutters from the truck’s bed, then clips the chains sealing the gate. His presence here is a crime unlikely to be punished, the Park Service already shuttered ten years, but still he notes the solar panels powering roadside wireless readers, there to record his ID and report his trespass, a sure danger if he hadn’t already disabled the pebble buried in his right hand, that inescapable bit of Earthtrust tech embedded now in nearly every American body.

Earthtrust. After the catastrophic California earthquake finally struck, it was Earthtrust that pushed an emergency funding bill through the last true Congress in Washington, a rushed order seizing all lands west of the Mississippi; then using eminent domain and the president’s emergency powers to create the Western Sacrifice Zone, a long-planned takeover waiting only for the right shock: half the country abdicated and sold to Earthtrust for dollars an acre by a weakened government busy fleeing to dryer land in Syracuse.

“We hoped these days would never come. We promised to be prepared for when they did,” Eury Mirov had said then, the Earthtrust director’s broad smile flashing from the country’s every telescreen. “Now we are ready. Now we are coming to the rescue.” Two weeks later, unmarked convoys of soldiers and squadrons of lifter drones swarmed the West Coast, rescuing whoever they could—whether or not the victims wanted rescuing—and evacuating them to resettlement camps hastily erected in the Mojave, then to Ohio, where the first Volunteer Agricultural Community was being built even as Oregon and Washington seceded.

In those days, John had been in Ohio too, with Earthtrust, with Eury. He’d known her since childhood, but in those first months of the country’s collapse he’d felt constantly off-balance, unable to understand how Eury had moved so fast, carrying out previously unspoken plans with a brutal tactical efficiency he hadn’t realized she’d possessed. When he left her company, years after his first misgivings, he fled into the Sacrifice Zone with Cal and the others also quitting Earthtrust, all of them together promising to somehow one day push back. He hadn’t wanted to meet violence with more violence, like Cal had; he’d simply wanted to atone for his part in what had happened, for the world he’d help bring into being.

Today he arrives at Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley by noon, driving a browning landscape whose mountains no longer promise any hint of snowpack, only burned trees cascading down the slopes. John parks his truck at the top of a narrow ridge, leaving the unmaintained park road to walk into the valley on foot. Thirty years ago, John’s father had brought his son here to share his awe of this greatest of America’s preserves, the size of its wild-enough herds of buffalo and elk and bighorn sheep, the promise of spotting wolves at dawn; as a child of ten, John had stood shoulder to shoulder with other tourists to watch the last pristine bison herd, the Lamar Valley bison the only such animals never interbred with cattle to make them tamer, more amenable to human contact.

Now the Lamar Valley’s previous beauty has become a starkness unbroken by movement, its emptiness a bleak power. John takes in the eerie near-silence of the valley, no sound except the wind rustling dry plants, the river trickling down below; at the river’s edge, he momentarily closes his eyes to listen to the water’s gentle rush whispering over worn rocks, breathing deep the elusive scents of the dry grass and the sparse plants along the riverbank. Before he opens his eyes, he tries to picture that long-ago day spent at some similar part of this river with his father, when the hundreds of bison roaming the prairie had been entirely uninterested in the encroaching crowds. He’s come today hoping for any sign of the old magic he’d sensed then, so different from what he’d felt amid the fields of his father’s farm. If he could only see that something of the wild majesty that was had returned to this place, to these parklands emptied of people with the rest of the Sacrifice—but when he scans the opposing bank’s tree line, his gaze meets not the bison he craves but instead the narrow wedge of a wolf’s curious face, impassively peering from the pines.

John startles. He knows he shouldn’t approach—the wolf’s a hundred meters away, atop a steep embankment on the opposite side of the river—but he can’t help himself. How lonely he’s been, how devastated he’s become by his aloneness in the months since he last saw Cal or any of the others he’d come west with; now his loneliness colors every empty landscape, anywhere once home to more bountiful life. He fords the river, splashing loudly, the wolf already backing away from the tree line. Slowed by his sloshing boots, John clambers atop the ridge, pulling himself up by the fracturing branches of the dry pines; he’s soon out of breath, breathlessly hopeless. Likely the wolf was never there. Just more wishful thinking, in a world quick to punish such thoughts.

But then he finds it again, twenty meters away: gray furred, steel eyed, healthy enough, with no sign of mange or malnutrition.

The wolf permits John’s gaze, gazes back. Then it begins to nose through the grass at something John at first can’t quite see, then can’t look away from: surrounding the wolf are the corpses of dead bison, erratic boulders of shaggy fur.

John approaches slowly, wary of the wolf and its snuffling progress. He counts a dozen giant bodies, then glimpses more hidden by the rustling grass: here a powerful leg ending in a strangely dainty hoof, there a horn curving through the stalks. Through the tall cover, he sees an unnervingly large yellow eye, open and staring, jaundiced and bloodshot; it’s all he can see of a massive head except for the curve of one broken horn, the rest of its bulk obscured. The eye is cloudy, staring at nothing—and then it moves, rolls crazily in the broad black-furred face.

John cries out, unnerved; the wolf continues to pace nearby, unperturbed, its tongue lolling loose between its teeth. Watching John inch toward the injured bison, the wolf’s face is blank, its mask that of every wild mammal, full of nuances John’s never learned to read, but when he gets too close, it barks with a high-pitched yip, then barks again, the sound sharper now. At this second yip, the bison cries out too, its mournful groan shivering John’s skin. He carefully pushes back the grass to reveal the unbelievable bulk of the injured animal, its hooves jerking dreamily, its body rocking in the dusty earth as it tries and fails to stand. It’s a last juvenile, orphaned and alone, its stout ribs pressing through stretched skin and matted fur, its bold shoulders too atrophied to lift its heavy skull.

John kneels, rests his hand on the bison’s bony crown. The bison snuffles, presses back against his touch—or so John imagines. Not everything in the world exists for him, and certainly not this futureless herd. The wolf lingers nearby, packless in this valley where the most successful reintroduction program in the country once thrived. It stalks uncannily from corpse to corpse, nosing each of the dead bison in turn, sniffing and prodding but not eating. Something’s wrong, John realizes: a wolf alone wouldn’t ordinarily pass up such an easy meal. He stands, determined to shoo it away from the juvenile, but as he rises, he hears, distant but closing fast, the telltale sound of approaching rotors.

John flees, quick as he can go, back the way he came, sliding down the slope, feet clumsy in wet boots; he hits the river fast, slipping into the shallow water, crashing over loose rocks. Only when his scramble reaches the other bank does he risk a look back. Above the ridge a dozen drones fly, heavy lifter quadcopters with bright yellow claws dangling underneath, arrayed in formation around a cargo drone the ungainly size of a dump truck. John should keep running, but curiosity and duty override his caution. He reverses direction, heads back across the cold river, then crawls up the bank to pause among the pines at the rise’s lip. The noise from above is incredible, the downward thrust of the drones’ rotors flattening the prairie to expose more corpses alongside the barely breathing juvenile and the improbably calm wolf. The heavy lifters descend, belly-mounted winches dropping claws on high-tension cables, their serrated jaws opening to dig into deadweight. One by one they ferry the bison into the cargo drone’s open hatch, its bulk swaying and dipping with each catch, until one final drone lowers itself over the last living Yellowstone bison.

John forces himself to watch. The juvenile bellows a sustained cry, guttural and grieving as it struggles against the steel claw; its legs kick with late strength as it’s lifted from the brown grass, its hooves running futilely on air until the drone deposits it among the massed dead of its herd.

John hears the creaking cargo doors closing, then the heavy rushing wind of the drones turning in formation. Soon the sky is empty, not even a cloud remaining to color the sunset. Once again the voice of the world reduces to the howl of hot wind crossing the lonely expanse of the Lamar Valley, rasping the thrashed and flattened grasses where the bison lay down to die. Only the wolf remains, sitting on its haunches, staring at John, its expression blank but its eyes alive, watching.

As the wolf finally rises and trots away, headed in the same direction the drones flew, John begins to shiver, his skin goosefleshing. It’s one hundred degrees in Yellowstone today, one hundred degrees at least—but once John begins shivering he can’t stop, not for a long time, not until his anger once again overtakes his fear.



From that anger, John knows: sooner or later he’ll have to plant a bomb.

For five years he’s done this. Wherever he travels, he looks for chances to blow holes in dams over dry riverbeds, to use the truck’s winch to tear down anti-erosion embankments bolstering curves of freeway, to rip free chain-link fences from litter-strewn roadsides. The gutted cities, the thousands of kilometers of empty concrete claiming the earth for no one there—John’s task is endless and likely futile; he tries anyway, believing nature can reclaim what humans have taken, as long as you give it somewhere to start.

This is what John wants, what he followed Cal to try to make real: a rewilding of the West, beginning with a dismantling of the human ruins.

The highway leading south from Yellowstone is officially closed and theoretically vacated, the asphalt in disrepair but serviceable enough, its flaws jolting the truck without slowing its passage. The truck’s bed holds the makings for improvised weaponry: bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, canisters of gasoline, left-behind blast caps, and pilfered sticks of Tovex. Fossil fuel explosives to undo a fossil fuel economy, to break the infrastructure left behind when everything west of the Mississippi became the Sacrifice Zone, half a country forcefully evacuated so American lives might flourish elsewhere.

Whatever might be reused, John wants destroyed. If the steel was left to be recycled, it would only be made into something else, some new construction, some other machine. John doesn’t want more machines, doesn’t want more telephone poles and wind turbines stabbed into the landscape. He wants precious minerals and untapped oil left in the ground, he wants water to flow only where it wants to flow. No more unregulated, unrestrained extraction; no more conservation in one place making expansion possible somewhere else.

He flees across Wyoming, through Pinedale, Boulder, Farson, Eden, Reliance: empty, empty, empty, empty, empty. Wherever he passes a closed gas station, he ensures the underground tanks are off, then noisily pushes the pumps over with his truck; otherwise he lets the truck’s electric engine run solar, avoiding confrontation with any twitchy populations who might remain, anyone refusing to leave the Sacrifice Zone, anyone sneaking back in.

By late afternoon, he idles through the outskirts of Rock Springs, trawling between dust bowl fields and unpowered fast-food signs until he spies a signal he’d pretended he hadn’t been seeking, a direction and a number spray-painted in bright orange on the side of a burned-out diner. He pulls the truck into the trash-strewn back lot, kills the ignition, lets the engine tick to a stop. Window rolled down, he listens: no insects, no human voices, no sound but the hot wind. How many months has it been since he’s seen a blaze this fresh? He rubs his eyes, rolls shoulders sore from the road, opens the door, and steps out for a closer look. He’d recognize the graffiti’s hand style anywhere, the orange numerals two meters high obviously Cal’s, the arrow slashed below them making for a clear enough message pointing John forty-five kilometers east, even though the arrow points west instead: as Cal always says, sometimes the slightest, simplest misdirection is enough.

Tapping his foot, John scans the nearby buildings, the distant horizon. He listens again: nothing and no one, only the blowing dust, a distant creaking of rusting metal. No one now, but Cal was here, not so long ago. Cal wanting to see him, calling him back to her.

He drives, faster now, the dry ground along the roadside cracked as the concrete; following the blaze’s directions, he leaves the highway for surface roads, concrete giving way to dirt as he crosses more dead farmlands, fields of what was once barley and wheat and corn, now only hard clay punctured by toppled wind turbines, most of their masts felled not by human hands but by unpredictably violent weather. The kilometers tick by, and then there it is: another set of orange numerals and another misdirecting arrow, this time high on a fallen turbine’s bent blade.

He finds the next blaze twenty kilometers northeast, exactly as directed, and follows its order past more recently scorched splotches of infrastructure, bulldozed chain-link fences, a stretch of highway jackhammered vulnerable to erosion. The spray-painted distances keep going down, the blazes get smaller then disappear as the sun begins to set. Close now. He knows what to look for, even with less light left to find it: he turns onto a gravel road beckoning north, then follows a dirt road veering east toward a husk of a farmhouse beside an intact barn. He pulls in, parks beneath a leafless oak; he runs his fingers through his hair, scrubs his sunburned face with filthy hands. This time, when he rolls down the window, he hears clanging coming from the other side of the paint-stripped barn, a sound he follows to find Cal bent beneath the hood of her gray Jeep, her broad shoulders bunching with muscle.

Cal pauses her work, sets her wrench down carefully atop the oily mass of the engine. Even at rest she exudes an unruled energy: a violence in fatigue pants and a sleeveless undershirt. “Hello, old goat,” she says without turning.

It’s been months since John last saw her, longer since he was sure how she’d react to his affection, how he’d react to hers. He moves behind her, mirrors her posture, placing his hands beside hers on the lip of the hood, their hips close but not touching. Cal’s body coils beneath his, poised, tensioned but not tense; John smells motor oil and trace explosives, her sweat, his own. He shifts his hands to overlap hers, knows she’ll already have moved before he touches her. She twists beneath his leanness, her muscles rippling, and puts her mouth on his, mashing his lips beneath her teeth, then drives him to the ground, abruptly straddling him, her solid weight pinning his lean body to the clay exactly as he’d hoped she would.





C-432

The Earth Reset




C-432 urges the translucent photovoltaic bubble forward with a thought, moving the craft out of the crawler’s darkened hangar to drop onto the frozen crust of the Ice. Once outside, he shields his eyes against the sunlight, its pale glow reflected and doubled by every meter of the monotonous landscape, the glittery white flatness stretching endlessly beneath the low blanket of the heavy white sky, all this whiteness all he’s ever known, his every remembered life having been lived upon this high glacial shelf.

Emerging from the crawler’s shadow, he taps his right temple twice, just below the first tight spiral of his right horn: at his touch, an overlay tints the bubble’s curved glass hull, bright-colored flags winking into view to augment his vision. Each flag marks an entrance to the Below, some place where another C descended, while inside C-432’s skull the voices of the remainder enumerate what those predecessors found there, down in that deep zone continually covered over and crumpled and only sometimes exposed again by the always-advancing glacier, its massive moving weight having long since buried beneath itself the world that was, now battered and bent into a slowly dispersing layer of rubbled wreckage.

The Ice moves as one mass but the mass is not homogenous. Its surface is shaped by precipitation and ablation, but underneath it’s made of many frozen planes, shelves exerting incredible pressures against one another, a tectonics of ice causing stress fractures and sheer cleavings to continually open new crevasses to the air, their jagged breaks sometimes plummeting deep into the interior. As the bubble zips across this changeable landscape, C watches through the bubble’s shell, the virtual flags whizzing by as the frictionless craft zooms onward, following a path relayed instantly from the rung at the base of his neck to the unseen repulsors keeping the craft afloat. Thirty kilometers out from the crawler, an alert arrives from the bubble’s sensor array: there’s a newly opened crevasse several kilometers away, offering a possibly stable access. As the bubble closes the distance, C checks the remainder’s memories, then scans the bubble’s records of other descents in this area: just because this crevasse opened recently doesn’t mean there wasn’t once another nearby, where some other C descended via some passage since collapsed. A new entrance to the Below is a welcome discovery, but he can’t afford to chance exploring some previously spelunked wreckage.

There are no mundane descents beneath the Ice, every minute C spends Below too potentially deadly to risk death for the promise of nothing. The recombinant remainder is a cowardly voice in C’s head: it urges caution, safety, restraint, cowardice, though individual cycles haven’t always been so circumspect. Today it gets no argument from C-432. He’s lived a long cycle, longer than most, but he’s not stronger or smarter than his most recent predecessors, only more risk-averse.

However successful C-432 has been, he must know he’s a diminishment: cycle after cycle, the mind goes on but the body grows fallible. The remainder dimly recalls other, better bodies, capable of traveling the bitter landscape on foot, C’s then brown fur caking with dirty slush, the skin below blackening with frostbite but always replaceable, even before C’s epidermis became polymer and plastic, neither susceptible to pain like proper skin nor recovering from damage as real skin might have. Now, with his blue fur so thinned it no longer fully protects him from the cold, he dons a heavy cloak, faded with use and age; he covers his furred face with protective goggles, then tugs on scavenged gloves that snag over his plastinate claws.

Exiting the bubble’s quiet, C listens to the kilometers-high sheet of the Ice shifting and settling: beneath him lies the secret movements of cold against cold, so much frozen water compacted and crackling, creating both the icefalls breaking up the landscape and the passages leading through the glacial crust, toward the pitch-blue dark of the Below. Approaching this newest entrance, he tests the crevasse’s stability before dragging his portable winch from the bubble to a spot mere meters from the lip of the drop, securing the machine with a whir of gear-driven screws.

So far, C has survived every expedition below the Ice, depending on how precisely you define survive, on how precisely you define C. He remembers more descents than any one life could contain, discrete experiences crushed together by sheer volume, a conglomerate dream of all the lost places he’s been.

He has hundreds of cycles’ worth of memories already; if he brings back only more memories, it will not be enough.



C descends. Secure in his harness, he works the oversized buttons of the winch’s control dongle, setting himself dropping steadily upon the cable, kicking his hooves gently against the crevasse wall. After he falls below the last of the sunlight, he allows himself a moment’s blindness in the glacier’s dark interior before he reaches up to click on his headlamp, its narrow beam failing to illuminate much past his gloved hand steadying the cable, his dangling hooves, the harness straps digging into his furred thighs.

C presses the dongle’s down button again; above him, the winch whirs. His hooves continue their slow tracking down the near wall of the crevasse even as the one behind him falls away, disappears into the dark: after another thirty meters, turning his head reveals no other surfaces close enough to reflect the headlamp’s beam. This is the rarest and best kind of crevasse, one opening as C falls, offering a deeper descent than others. A lucky find, these days, and necessary too. In the past, C could sometimes avoid entering the glacier: despite the static appearance of its flatness, the massive moving pressures under the Ice frequently surfaced crushed boulders and frozen dirt, whole acres of concrete rubble and shattered plastic and the occasional bent wreck of crumpled steel, and occasionally even some rarer, better finds, once even the shriveled corpse of some unidentifiable creature, its thin skin mummified brown, peeling like paper when that cycle’s C unstuck it from the cold. But in recent years—in recent decades—he’s had no such luck: the surface of the Ice appears unchanged, but the once rich reserves beneath his crawler have undeniably begun running dry.

The winch’s spool contains five hundred meters of cable, but from his end C can’t measure how far he’s dropped. In the lamplit crevasse, distance becomes ever more impossible to judge, sight reduced to a single beam of light, sound to his scrabbling hooves on the rocky ice, the huffing echoes of his breathing, the free water coursing inside the glacier, its gurgling trickle moving below the frozen surface. He descends until the wall slopes suddenly away from him, leaving him dangling free, spinning in his harness straps. C panics, yelps out, the sound echoing off the invisible ice. With his free hand, he grips the cable until his harness stops spinning; then he continues his descent, dropping meter by meter into the freezing unknown.

How long before his hooves touch any surface? C can’t guess the likely span of his descent, he can only await its end; some time later there’s a surface reflecting his light back up at him, then solid frozen ground beneath his grateful hooves. He slips off his harness one leg at a time, stepping away from the cable before fully considering the chamber he’s found, this pocket of stale air carried along unbroken underneath the Ice.

The cave is cramped and low, but as C explores the contours of its walls he feels it funneling to one side, elongating toward a cramped tunnel. He hesitates at the tunnel’s lip, listens for how fast the nervous clicking of his hooves comes echoing back, the sound dulled by the passage’s uncertain length. On the surface, there is only the flatness of the Ice, novelty reduced nearly to zero, even its dangers long known; down here, beneath the great weight of the glacier, C knows he might find anything at all buried and frozen, much of it unnamable, unrecognizable, all of it the end of a world crushed and graveled and dispersed, ground down to finest grains.

There are many kinds of fears in C’s heart but only one that rules: if the tunnel becomes tunnels, then C might easily become lost; if he becomes lost and can’t make his way back to the cable, then he’ll die Below.

No matter what happens, no matter how badly he’s hurt, he must never die anywhere but in the crawler.

C’s headlamp barely cuts the darkness, rendering everything a flat grayscale except the occasional glimmering glitters of trapped particulate. As he proceeds, the tunnel slants down and away in a crooked, uneven break, evidence of some obstacle farther in, a stubborn obstruction the Ice couldn’t shove aside. He carries his ice axe in one hand, occasionally breaking his light beam with the other, because seeing his glove is better than seeing only more dark. The cold within the tunnel is an immense force; his breath fogs and freezes, his skin aches then burns, a painful tingling digging ever deeper into his muscles and bones.

Despite taking care, C finds the first sign of buried biomass not with his eyes but with his hooves, its surprise sending him tripping down the tunnel. He turns back to find a series of black roots wormed up from the floor, some as thick as his forearm, clutching in their wooden grips broken rocks and stuck gravel, captured dirt. It’s not so much a tree as an inverted stump, but near it C sees the sign of more buried wood, frozen hard as stone. He circles the exposed root ball, then sends his light back the way he came. How far is he from the cable, the winch, the free air above? It’s never easy to tell, once he’s stepped away.

To strike the ice is to court further danger—chancing the tunnel’s cave-in, the collapse of the crevasse—but if C wants to go on he needs to take as much of the buried tree with him as he can. He swings his axe at the root’s base. His shoulders shudder from the impact, but the ice is unmoved. He waits, listens. When nothing happens he strikes again. The risk is enormous but the possible reward great, if he can dig free this root ball, if he can discover more tree beneath it, if he can extract its entirety back to the crawler. While he works, the remainder remembers: years ago another C found a field of such stumps at the bottom of a recently opened crevasse, a long-lasting breakage wide enough that its contents could be cataloged from the surface. The best find in a dozen cycles, enough biomass that the next C was an improvement on his predecessor, a rare reversal of the entropy of their many stacked lives.

The roots are stubbornly resilient, surprisingly fragile: at first solidly stuck, then crumbling free. Every scrap is useful, every splinter worth retrieving. C removes a tarp from his backpack, loads whatever he can pry from the ice onto the plastic sheet. He hacks a depression around the root ball, unearthing more trunk farther down, more tree, possibly more trees. The glacier is capable of gathering anything in its path, and if it’s gathered a forest—

Greed clumps in C’s gut, churns him dumb. The ice beneath his hooves melts slightly, body heat and the friction of his steps leaving a scrim of water, making each movement more treacherous than the one before. When the tarp is nearly too heavy to drag, C wraps the edges over the precious wood, then loops nylon cord through the tarp’s stainless steel eyelets.

So much is left behind, the remainder complains, but there’s danger in being away from the crawler after the sun sets, the temperature at night far lower than during the day, the translucent photovoltaic bubble unable to run far without sunlight. C hurries, the heavy load compressing his spine, his hooves scrabbling for leverage. By the time he reaches the chamber where the cable waits, C’s back is hunched, his breath comes in wheezes. His hands shake as he regathers the four corners of the tarp and secures them into a bulky pouch, attaching the tarp’s eyelets to a carabiner dangling from the bottom of the safety harness.

He straps himself in next, then clutches the dongle, pressing the button to begin his ascent. His cargo follows, the tarp’s weight spinning in the open air. On reaching the high wall of the crevasse, relief washes through C, the icy chill against his scrabbling hooves an improvement over the uncertainty of floating free—but then the cargo tarp snags a lone outcropping set in the smooth wall, one of the bony roots within catching beneath an unseen ledge.

C curses, jams the up button to try to force the tarp free. When that fails, he plants his hooves on the ice, then leans back and pulls at the tarp, lifting with his legs. When the tarp slides from his gloved fingers, he wipes steam from inside his goggles, then pockets his gloves. He digs his claws into the tarp, regathers the loose plastic into his fists. He squats and kicks away from the wall, leveraging his flailing weight: if he can yank hard enough the frozen root might shatter and free the rest.

He pries, he pulls, he kicks, he jumps again, senses the frozen wood starting to break—and then the whole tarp comes loose at once while C is at the farthest point of a leap away from the wall. The momentum throws him, he loses control, the tarp slips from his grip as its weight jerks him sideways; when he swings back toward the wall he strikes it horns first. Dazed, he barely has time to register the spiderweb of cracks spiraling out before the loaded tarp hits too, the second impact shattering the already cracking wall, the ice above coming apart fast, loosing a hail of fist-sized chunks and razor-sharp spikes.

Afterward, there’s only the sound of his terrified huffing, of the cable’s friction against the slowly spinning safety harness; C’s face bleeds, his knee aches, he’s covered in cuts and contusions. He reaches up to stop the cable’s rotation, twisting himself toward the collapsed wall, its tentatively solid surface now impossible to reach until he climbs another twenty meters.

C secures the cargo tarp, then restarts the winch’s spinning. Almost there, he thinks, just a little higher. But he rises only another five meters before the next loud crack sounds above him. In a panic, he aims his headlamp upward just in time to see more ice collapsing, not the wall before him this time but the one behind, its weight falling not in broken chunks but in one solid pillar that slams him face-first against the fractured wall, a vast expanse of blue-white ice solid enough to knock him dumb.





Chapman




What makes an orchard? Nothing more than apple seeds and dank, dark earth, plus the labors and hopes of men: every seed the brothers plant is a dream of a tree grown, every completed nursery a belief in a more productive future. Upon their chosen plot, they drag the horizontal blade of their two-man saw through an oak’s stubborn heart, the steel passing from faun to man and back again. They make the cut close to the ground, aiming to leave as little stump as possible, even though the brothers will abandon the stumps to rot, their roots softening until more permanent settlers arrive to pull them. Whenever he pauses to wipe sweat from his sunburned brow, Nathaniel resumes again his endlessly repeated cant, the ever-evolving speech Chapman has heard beginning to end countless times. “The wilderness must be pushed back,” he says, before decrying the unruly contours of the Territory’s fish-rich lakes and malaria-ridden swamps, its many waterways waiting to be straightened and smoothed. He details the surveyor’s grid being laid down over the future shape of each of this new country’s settlements, each plot platted out, the first footholds for future states to be divided into holdings fit to be owned by new American men, each a kingdom exactly equal to the quality of the man’s efforts. Everywhere there will be newly productive farms and innovative industries, new concerns for timbering and the mining of coal and copper amid pastures cut from the forests, fruiting orchards replacing uninhabitable swamplands.

“It’s by our ingenuity that our civilization is produced,” Nathaniel says. “Other men have lived here for a thousand years, but wasn’t the country we found nearly as wild as the day they first strode it? Where was their imagination for right uses? Where are their fences, their domesticated herds, their smart households making useful goods, ready for market? Why did they lack brick and mortar, steel saw and iron axe, the long reach of the musket? Could these first men not hear the voice of God here, as we do? We followed them to this Territory less than two hundred years ago, and already we have named it better, this America; already we’ve set out to properly parcel and sell its splendor, to make ready the state to be.”

Chapman doesn’t drop his end of the saw, he needs neither his brother’s break nor his brother’s nation-building tall tale, this aspirational mythologizing, its many erasures of war and disease. “You wish to be like a god,” he says quietly, letting slip only this bland objection. He knows better than to argue his brother’s points more voraciously, when the only reward for doing so will be a day of Nathaniel’s stubborn anger in the fields or else his sullenness around the night’s cookfire.

“If we are all made in God’s image, why not act like Him as well?” Nathaniel asks, and Chapman lifts his horned head to object, Not all, not me—but before he can speak his brother says, “Now pull, and let us put this ground to right.”

Their clear-cutting is slow, the centuries-old trees terribly dense from bark to bark: it takes an hour to cut an oak, another to limb it, a third to saw the trunk into logs ready to be rolled and stacked at the river’s edge. Finally the oak crashes, half its branches breaking beneath its bouncing weight; afterward each brother works his tomahawk methodically up the tree’s length, hacking the rest of the branches free. Soon their hands and forearms are slick with fresh sap, soon the sap is riddled with flies and bees and other hungry insects; their labors litter the ground with bright tan sawdust, with cut wood ready to be dried for kindling. Chapman aims to hurt no other creature, but every fallen tree spills birds’ nests, squirrel hovels, spiderwebs, and wasps’ nests. Everywhere the brothers make a home for an apple tree is somewhere something else no longer lives, and surely it’s not only the saw that diminishes the world. What about every booted or hooved footprint stomping a stand of moss? Or the sparkling trout taken out of the river rapids by Nathaniel’s fishhook, its belly filled with roe? Or every honeycomb broken and licked clean, every handful of berries Chapman snacks on whose absence deprives a bright bird, a nosing doe, a lost cub—

“Yes, brother, yes, a tree must die so a man might heat his house,” Nathaniel says, “but surely there will never be any shortage of trees.”

It’s impossible to do no harm, but how much harm is permitted? Chapman has asked this question since he was old enough to wonder after his mother, to hear how in the birthing of his hooved body she met her end. Nathaniel tells him it wasn’t his fault, but if not his, then whose?

Chapman works through the afternoon rain, he does a settler’s work while settling nothing. He cuts and clears and hoes, he takes his turn dragging their makeshift plow through the rock-pitted ground until the brothers have turned this narrow plot of earth alongside the bright-sparkling river into quick-carved furrows of blackest dirt, their rows as straight as the stump-ridden earth will allow. After the rain trickles off, Chapman begins moving down each row, leaving behind cloven footprints in the soft turn of the soil. Unlike his faunish feet, his hands are human enough: fingers clawed, yes, backs furred, but all the rest commonly dull. He takes a handful of seeds from his leathern bag, he presses the seeds one by one into the black soil. Each seed is a bitter pill of wax and wood and cyanide-laced prophecy, leafed future: a tree in embryo, its nature impossible to know before it grows. It’ll be ten years before these trees bear fruit, but as he plants Chapman imagines them already past their flowering, each tree’s apples offering fresh wonders of touch and scent, texture and flavor: the skins might be red or yellow or green, dark-mottled matte or shined clear as glaze; the flesh moon pale, jaundiced, browned as if rotten. Only a few seed-grown apples are ever sweet; the others are destined to be peppery spicy or puckeringly sour, some repulsively bitter spitters.

Chapman plants another apple seed. By day’s end, he will have planted two hundred seeds in neat rows, each stringy with pulp and pomace, each given its own hole, each hole mounded over by a scooped handful of black dirt. It’s such a simple act, producing such a complex being, sprout and root, trunk and branch, leaf and flower and fruit unfolding. An apple seed becoming an apple tree is as much a function of time as of space, the years to come as necessary as rich soil and plentiful rainfall across the thousands of days it takes to make a tree fruit, for a tree to make fruit containing seeds of its own.

For the next stretch of nursery, Nathaniel hacks down more pines and maples while Chapman lifts moss-covered rocks from where glaciers let them lie, carrying them into the remaining forest or casting them into the sparkling river, where their accumulation forces free water into swirling rapids. From many a fallen tree there spills a nest of eggs or hatchlings, beneath every rock there is a wealth of worms. Chapman studies the riverbed hemming his nursery, how its new rapids also form a nearby pool of calm water that trout might find fit for spawning. When a bird’s nest falls to the ground he stops his work to carry it intact to a stretch of trees past the bounds of his planned nursery, despite Nathaniel’s scoffing, his entreaties for efficiency and haste, productivity above all else.

Wherever Chapman does not plant or plow, native abundance persists. Hundreds of miles of virgin forest lie in every direction—surely enough free woods will always exist for every displaced creature to find a new home. Surely the world Nathaniel aims to build can coexist alongside the world given and grown. Or so Chapman hopes. From these seeds will grow enough seedlings for Nathaniel to supply six families, six ruddy husbands and their brave wives and whatever squalling children are already born, the first of the many each man and woman might wish to have, the multitudes necessary to settle the continent. Thirty trees for each family, bought from enterprising Nathaniel and used to better secure their legal claim to whatever plot of cleared land each family has chosen to build a cabin, over whose door they might hang an oil lamp to light the unbearable dark of the Ohioan woods.

To plant an orchard takes a certain amount of time; hours pass, the sun flings itself high in the sky before falling fast. The temperature drops, the humidity becomes more bearable, a different hum of insects asserts itself. Chapman plants a seed, and whatever tree grows from it will create no exact copies, not without the art of grafting, unpracticed by the brothers. No matter how many trees they plant, they might produce any particular tree only once, and its uniqueness might easily be lost to weather or predation, to human whim. As the day at last dims, Chapman dreams again of re-creating one such unique specimen, the one he believes is the oldest fruit of the species, lost long ago but still hidden in the potential within each new apple tree, possible to grow from any particular payload of seeds.

This is the story he tells himself, his way of making sense of his years of labor.

But still, sometimes Chapman reflects on the backbreak of a day’s work and thinks, All this for an apple. All this for the only apple I want to eat. And what else might his apple cost?



The sun sets and though the work isn’t done it is done for today. The brothers make camp at one end of the nursery, Nathaniel shaking out his bedroll on a stretch of trampled grass, Chapman using a hoof to dredge a shallow depression to house tonight’s fire. Nathaniel stacks chopped wood over gathered kindling while Chapman bounds off to find dinner, gathering fistfuls of acorns, filling one pocket with wild blackberries and another with narrow tubers clawed from the dirt. He moves fast, reaching a gait he indulges only when assured he’s alone: preternatural, beastly, unnerving even to familiar Nathaniel. Running wildly through wild lands, reveling in sore joints loosened by his quickness, with every step he shakes off more of the afternoon’s efforts, his aches worked pleasurably free, thorny brambles scratching soothingly at his furred flanks. Birds squawk and flee the low branches at his approach; he frightens a doe and her young from a blackberry thicket, watching the white flags of their tails retreat into deeper woods—everywhere there is motion, every inch of the forest is alive at every scale.

Chapman’s half a man and half a beast, but with Nathaniel he lives only a man’s life, does a man’s work for a man’s reason: possession and enrichment, dominion and control. For Nathaniel, there’s no other life worth living. But lately Chapman has wondered if without Nathaniel he might have become something else: a wilder creature, unbound from human wants. How much ego would have to be given up? How much belief in singular destiny, individual experience?

Chapman isn’t gone long, but he returns to a slim cookfire already stoked, the brothers’ one pot hung over the flames and the pleasurable sound of water rapidly boiling. Sitting on a mossy boulder beside the fire, happy and slow in his evening reveries, Nathaniel smokes his pipe, a plume of fragrant tobacco smoke rising from his beard as Chapman spreads his gathered foodstuffs on the grass. He cracks the acorns and peels the tubers, then flourishes a hand over the slender bounty until Nathaniel laughs. Together the brothers share the cooking, together they dine: Nathaniel sits cross-legged on his bedroll while Chapman crouches near the fire, eating a steaming potato out of his bare hands, sucking bitter acorn broth from his battered tin cup, picking blackberry seeds from between his sharp teeth. Gnats and flies and mosquitoes fall from the sky, their mass a swarming anger until Nathaniel throws greener wood on the fire, letting the smoke drive them off. There are gray wolves and black bears and blacker panthers in the woods, but there’s little danger in the camp, at least while the fire blazes high, with Chapman’s odd shadow looming and his faunish smell upon the air: garlic and clove, musk and sweat and man, the sweet rot of damp moss, a forest growing beneath the fur.

After dinner, Nathaniel takes their tin cups down to the water’s edge to rinse away the last of the broth. The river isn’t far, but Chapman can barely see Nathaniel past the firelight’s glow, his brother’s image reduced in the far darkness to the winking cherry of his pipe. Dishes done, Nathaniel returns to his bedroll, then casts his eyes to the shell of stars above. Lying back, he recites for Chapman stories remembered from a Bible whose weight he no longer carries: the warrior whose strength lives in the tangles of his hair, the fierce queen who beheads her enemies to set free her people, the Christ multiplying the fishes and the loaves, offering his followers food made as endlessly plentiful as his platitudes. A beggar is healed, then a blind man or a lame man; a dead man is raised living from a tomb of quarried stone, a story Chapman has never believed, not even as a child.

“No,” Chapman says, turning restlessly. “The dead stay dead. And there’s nothing any god will do about it.”

Nathaniel knows who prompts this objection: their mother, whom Chapman never knew, whom Nathaniel speaks of only rarely. Instead he tells more stories, though there’s only one Chapman truly loves: the Garden of Eden and its endless bounty, every animal and every plant waiting to be named and put to their right uses by the first humans, the Tree of Knowledge from which they were forbidden to eat, an apple tree like the ones the brothers have come to the Territory to plant.

Chapman loves this story, but he quibbles at its telling, nitpicks the story’s shape to better fit his desires. “What good could a Tree of Knowledge do for immortals not yet cursed to die? Maybe they needed something else. Not a Tree of Knowledge but a Tree of Forgetting.” He gestures grandly, his clawed movement lost to black air. He says, “A way to become new. Apple as untrod dream, from whose taste you could awake fresh as a babe, freed from all your years, all your decisions, all your compromises.”

“All your triumphs,” says Nathaniel. “All your loves.”

“How few those are,” says Chapman. “Too few. A slight sacrifice.”

You wouldn’t have to know your crimes either, he doesn’t say. The dead stay dead, but at least you wouldn’t know what you did to make them so, wouldn’t know how it was what you were that had doomed them; such a fruit might even allow his body to forget itself, might let him become someone else, as ordinary as his brother. As a teenager, Chapman had once tried to cut his horns free of his forehead; after Nathaniel found him howling in bloody pain, their handsaw in one hand and half a broken horn in the other, Chapman explained what he’d hoped: that without his horns, he might have ceased being a faun.

Magical thinking, Nathaniel had scoffed then—Would you have kept going, he’d mocked, cutting off hooves and tail, filing your teeth and claws, shaving your fur?—but failure hadn’t stopped Chapman’s wanting. Fifteen years later, he again relates the tale he’s been telling himself, a dream of his own making, born of his brother’s retold scriptures: if a Tree of Forgetting has grown even once, then Chapman might plant it anew, might find in its fruit a magic by which a faun could forget he was ever anything but a man, surely a fate better than being both man and animal, torn between two worlds and forever home in none—

“Go to sleep, brother,” Nathaniel interrupts, then rolls over, putting his back to Chapman.

The faun falls quiet, restlessly awake as his brother begins to snore. Despite their differences, here in the Territory at the turn of the century they form a partnership of two, their goals parallel enough: for Chapman, his Tree; for Nathaniel, a fortune made speculating, by taming the land. But even tame is too strong a word: the brothers plant their seeds in fields plowed from wild riverbanks, but they build no proper fences, carve no passable roads, erect no sturdy houses. All they grow are barely domesticated trees, arboreal squatters planted on unclaimed land, destined to be sold to better settlers at passable profit. Even what grows in their nurseries will forever be unruly and ungrafted, each tree as twisted as the hairs atop Chapman’s horned head, each utterly as unique.





John




Inside the barn, Cal shows John the rare refuge she’s found, hidden by a steel hatch concealed under a dusty layer of hay and chaff. At the bottom of a narrow ladder waits a spare concrete room, an emergency shelter with a bunkbed, a store of nonperishable food and medical supplies, a tank of potable water. John’s immediately claustrophobic, but Cal shushes him, pushes him toward the corner shower. The water is rusty, stale, magnificent, stinging John’s sunburned skin, streaming over Cal’s stout musculature. The concrete muddies, the mud clogs the drain, they kick to clear the flow with their toes, playfully at ease as if they’d never parted, as if they’d parted on better terms. Afterward, John goes naked to his truck, enjoying the hot wind wicking away the shower’s moisture, his body dry by the time he returns to the barn in clothes at least marginally less dirty than the ones discarded below.

Instead of returning to the bunker, they sit at a plastic folding table Cal’s dragged into the moonlight near the barn’s entrance. Famished, John devours the simple meal Cal offers him, the first hot food he’s had in weeks. He sighs at the honest pleasure of rehydrated beans and rice heavy with preservatives and salt, a tumbler of cool clear water tasting of the tank, all of it a joy after the austerity of protein bars and boiled water. “How did you find this place?” he asks, sporking a second bite into his already-full mouth.

“I was working my way down the Dakota fracking fields, disrupting pipelines and breaking whatever I could,” says Cal, stirring her own food but not yet taking a bite. “You can probably guess what there was to see. Fleets of oil company trucks left behind when the wells went dry, office buildings filled with recent enough computers, already junk. Kilometers of server cables, electrical wires, leaking pipes. I found a bulldozer and used it to topple telephone poles, push over fence lines, break up the roads.”

“More terrorism,” interrupts John, making air quotes with his hands. That’s what the federal government in Syracuse calls it, unwilling to recognize rewilders as separate from the rebel groups roaming Wyoming and Montana, locals or new arrivals kicked out of the free Northwest: Bundyists with automatic weapons claiming swaths of land as patriot preserves, driving smokestacked pickups across the broken clay; bands of polygamists unwilling to be taken east, clinging to the strip of wasteland between what was once Arizona and Utah; the Navajo Nation and the other rightful owners of the Southwest, sovereign peoples refusing to be moved from their lands, to ever be relocated again. If Cal and John are terrorists, they aren’t the kind of terrorists who’d burned Reno to char, they weren’t the sort who’d detonated the crude oil tanks outside Houston, who’d set fire to the reserves stored below, setting off an inextinguishable underground blaze that had hastened the city’s evacuation.

Despite John’s occasional bombs, Houston burning forever wasn’t what he’d wanted—but now that the city was empty, he did want it gone, as if it’d never been.

“I stopped to dismantle a fuel station in South Dakota,” Cal continues, “taking apart the pumps and sealing the tanks before spending the night inside. In the morning, I woke to a truckful of Bundys parked outside, going through my Jeep. I saw one holding up my clothes, watched them figure out what they’d found. A woman, traveling alone.” She smiles, leans back, crosses her muscular arms. Cal, no damsel. Cal, a fighter who quit the country’s wars only to end up in this new one instead. “I knew it wouldn’t take them long to figure out where I was. I snuck to the nearest ledge, lifted my rifle into position.”

“Cal,” John says softly, “I don’t need to hear this.”

“You asked how I found this place. This is how I found it.” Cal mimes firing her rifle, three-round bursts taking each of the four men surrounding her Jeep in order, Cal working left to right, only the last man reacting in time to reach for his weapon. “There was a map in the truck’s glovebox. They were scouts, sent from Nevada to look for supplies, possible outposts. They’d marked this bunker in pencil, so I figured it was a new discovery: if they never made it back to base no one else would know it existed. That afternoon I started working my way here, looping the long way around in case I was followed.” She smiles again, her big teeth shining in the dark. “And also so I could leave a path for you.”

Finished eating, they sit quietly, John rapping his knuckles on the table, knocking to open a door inside himself. “How’d you know where I was?” he asks, which is not quite the question he meant to ask. What do you want? he might’ve said.

Cal laughs, husky, deep-throated. “You didn’t want to find me, old goat?”

“You know I did,” John says, flushing, moving away as she leans forward, her hands pushing across the table. “But what if I hadn’t seen your blazes?”

“Then I’d be fed and showered and unfucked, and you’d be as dirty and stinking and sad as ever.” She pushes her scraped food tin away. “But you’re right. There’s more. It’s time to go back east, John. Time to go see your girl.”

Eury Mirov, Cal’s enemy; John’s too, if he believes what he’s supposed to believe. Defending Eury to Cal has always been pointless, the anger she put in Cal permanent, scarring; Cal fought for Earthtrust too long, did too much she regrets. John’s woken her from screaming nightmares that left them both gasping and terrified in their tent pitched on some windswept plain, the back of John’s truck beside an empty highway, a dusty bed in an abandoned motel, some cramped room swept free of the carapaces of starved cockroaches.

Earthtrust—it’s always Earthtrust. John tells Cal about Yellowstone, about the strange wolf he saw there and about the drones taking away the dead bison, the last living juvenile heaving in the dirt. “What were they doing?” he asks. “What could they possibly have wanted?”

Cal unrolls a laminated topographical map of the West, its mountains and rivers bounded by the borders of political divisions now defunct. “I don’t know,” she says, gesturing at the reset country marked with fresh scribblings of permanent marker, colored pen. “But I met Noor in Montana a month ago. She reported seeing Earthtrust dronedozers gathering up fallen trees draped in tents of invasive moths in one place, dredging dry lakes in another, the machines moving right down the middle of empty riverbeds. Everywhere she went, everything dead or dying was being gathered up, taken away.”

“For what? What do they want with dead, stricken trees? Earthtrust barely even builds with wood. Almost every building in the VACs is printed concrete, extruded plastic.”

Cal throws up her hands. What good are his questions, which they can’t possibly answer?

“At least Noor’s all right,” John says. “Where are Mai and Julie?”

Cal fills him in: Mai is back at Earthtrust, returned to the Ohio VAC’s medical clinics, the only one of them who never directly resisted the company, the only one who’ll be a citizen of the United States the next time they all meet. As for Julie—“You heard about the Cochiti Dam explosion?” Cal asks, rising from the table to pull back a tarp tacked to the wall, revealing a stack of crates—supplies or weapons or both.

The Cochiti Dam: forty-eight million cubic meters of earth and rock, almost nine thousand meters across the Rio Grande, just north of vacated Albuquerque. A month ago, someone set enough charges to blow the dam open, freeing what little river was left. It wasn’t supposed to be easy to crack an earthen dam that size, but in the end all it took was effort and time, plus explosives.

“That was Julie?” John asks, already knowing the answer. Before the dam was built, the nearby banks of the Rio Grande had been inhabited by the Pueblo; the land the dam flooded was sacred, tended for generations, then abruptly condemned by bureaucratic language deployed to commit government-sponsored crime. This was land Julie’s ancestors had stewarded and protected; blowing up the dam couldn’t restore what they’d lost, but at least Julie could set free what remained.

“Good for her,” John says, and means it. His family’s land had been stolen from someone else, further back than he could feel. Now it’s lost to him too, all its soil blown away, that once fertile earth that gave generations of humans purchase. “What are we doing here, Cal?” he asks, exhausted. He runs his hand through his unkempt beard, its embarrassing tangle. He’ll shave in the morning, indulging in one more shower before they leave, after he unloads the explosives and the rest of his tools from the truck. “What’s changed?”

Cal returns with a tablet computer, a scanner wand trailing a fraying plastic cable gone yellow with age. At her touch, the tablet begins its slow boot-up process, its software burdened by a series of hacks and backdoor workarounds, bypassing security checks to keep the device from pinging home. “When we left Earthtrust, the Secession was ended, the Sacrifice had long since cleared Congress. I’d dragged people out of their houses, loaded them into trucks and buses heading east; you’d made sure the VAC in Ohio was up and running, putting your supertrees and your nanobees to work.” Cal’s face leans over the tablet, her profile lit electric by the screen’s glow: her chopped hair, the hard angle of her soldier’s jaw, the twice-broken nose hung above the toothy glint of her smile. “But we both knew the VACs weren’t the end goal, that Eury Mirov wouldn’t stop there. We decided we didn’t want the world she was bringing into being.”

John nods, agreeing, but was that all he’d wanted? Was it always so simple as that? “I chose you,” he says. “Me and Julie and Mai and Noor, we all did. The others too.”

“And because of that,” Cal says, “I’ve had to take responsibility for everything that happened. For everyone we lost.” And they had lost: a half dozen men and women who’d come west with them, then all the others who’d joined in the Sacrifice Zone, people who loved the land and wouldn’t be removed. The first year had been spent running from Earthtrust security forces intent on emptying the West, the next dealing with the ever-harsher conditions post-Secession, post-Sacrifice, amid the forever drought spreading beyond the Southwest. But as the community of rewilders swelled, caravanning in four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs, it eventually became easier to protect each other and to do their work, everyone working together to dismantle larger infrastructure projects, to effectively scavenge abandoned city blocks. For a while, everything had gone right, or at least right enough. And then it hadn’t, not ever again.

“I know, Cal. I’m not—” John pauses, not because he doesn’t know what to say but because he’s surprised to find out he means it this time. “I’m not angry anymore. We were always going to despair at the futility of it. And something was bound to go wrong, sooner or later.” One summer there were algae blooms on every reservoir, so that the water couldn’t be safely filtered or boiled away; always there was unbearable heat baking their tents into ovens, never mind their hotbox RVs, whose solar air conditioners kept freezing from overuse. Three men drowned in a flash flood that washed away a camp in northern Arizona’s red rock canyons, an unfortunate accident; it was so easy to die of exposure, it was so easy to fall and break a leg no one knew how to set, to succumb to a burst appendix no one dared remove. When the group was half its largest size, it started being preyed on by bands of preppers and survivalists, attackers they could repel but not without cost. A family was separated by an Earthtrust raid that captured the mother and daughter, sending the father and son rushing after by motorcycle: better to be caught together than be free apart. A suicide set off a run of copycats until they were all watching each other warily, talking gingerly, trying not to fight as their health worsened, as their sunburns flaked, as their teeth loosened against the hard nubs of expired protein bars.

Everything west of the Mississippi was desert, and those who stayed became desert creatures, stronger, tougher, leather-skinned. Years of struggle eroded their community down to its core: Cal and Julie, ex-military, ex–Earthtrust security, veterans who’d served together for years; Noor, a white hat hacker from California who’d gotten stuck on the wrong side of the Secession, having been in Dearborn visiting family when the big one hit; Mai, their doctor, an obstetrician from Great Bend, an adventurer, one of the last to hike the Appalachian Trail in those impossible-to-recall years when voluntarily living in the elements was something people did for fun.

And then there was John. Supposedly a brilliant programmer, an equally accomplished microbiologist. Not that he’d ever felt brilliant or accomplished, not while standing next to Eury, the only true genius he’d known.

Now it’s Cal’s turn to look away. “It doesn’t matter if you forgive me,” she says. “I need you even if you’re angry. We knew some of what Eury had planned, knew what to watch for.”

“You knew because I told you. Because I betrayed her.”

“If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t know what’s about to happen.” Cal pauses, sets her jaw. “Pinatubo, John. Eury Mirov’s actually going to do it.”

John’s been waiting for Cal to say this, but still he doesn’t quite believe it. “There’s no way the government will ever sign off—”

“Don’t be naive. She administers half the country. The cities would starve without Earthtrust, and most of the rural areas too. The same is true abroad now. With VACs everywhere, she owns the only crops anyone can make grow. Who can stop her, if she decides to go forward? You said once that however Pinatubo turned out, it’d need a delivery system capable of reaching the stratosphere. Mai says Earthtrust’s built a huge facility at the Farm’s center, a tower topped by a twenty-story needle aimed at the sky. An injection point, just like you said.”

“But Pinatubo was supposed to be a last resort,” he says, visualizing how Cal had gotten the news from Mai: from her post in the Ohio VAC, Mai sometimes passed messages to a sympathetic Earthtrust train engineer, who left them in a dead drop at the magrail terminus in Cheyenne. It was always Cal who risked going to look for Mai’s packages, never knowing when there might be a new one. What had Mai seen, back in Ohio? What did Cal know that she wasn’t saying? “We know Eury’s had the idea for the Tower for years. But that can’t be the most efficient way to—” Geoengineering on a global scale, locking the rising temperature in place for a generation, making a respite in which humanity could transition to a new economy and a new culture, then beginning the long work of repairing the planet. A future intended to start on the Ohio VAC, built on the land where he and Eury grew up.

Despite Eury’s assurances, he’d never once believed Earthtrust would amass enough power to pull it off.

Cal raises her hands in mock retreat. “Earthtrust doesn’t have to be an evil company. The Sacrifice Zone didn’t have to happen, the Secession didn’t have to be a bloodbath, the VACs don’t have to be surveillance states, they don’t have to force you to give up your citizenship to gain entrance. But all that happened on Eury Mirov’s watch. Maybe there’s reason enough to geoengineer the stratosphere too, but can we trust Earthtrust to do it right, for the right reasons?”

Only now does John realize he’s the last one Cal needs to convince. Mai already in place. Noor and Julie meeting up, heading east together. The five of them made their plans for getting back into the Ohio VAC years ago. All they have to do now is carry them out.

Cal leans forward, holding John’s gaze. “Are you in, John, as you promised you would be?”

Her radiant intensity, her unwavering conviction—all of it overwhelms him. He has to look away so he can think his own thoughts, make his own decisions. “I’m tired,” he says quietly, after a moment’s pause. “But yes, I still believe.”

“Good,” Cal says, as she wakes the tablet’s screen again, picking up the scanner wand. Maybe there’s nothing else to say, maybe she already knows all she needs to know about John, about what he’s good for, about plans he’ll agree to carry out. “Are you ready to reenter the world of the living?” she asks, then reaches for his right hand, splays it palm down on the table: every Volunteer, every Earthtrust employee, every refugee or prisoner, has an ID pebble embedded in the loose skin between their right thumb and forefinger. Before they’d broken their fellowship and gone their separate ways, Noor had crafted new identities in anticipation of this moment. John was to become Joseph, shortened to Joe, because keeping the first letter and syllable count ensured you’d react to your fake name when you heard it spoken aloud. Single, no children, a birth certificate and a national ID number that wouldn’t have held up to scrutiny ten years ago but probably would now, when there were so many refugees there wasn’t time for the processing centers to verify every last bit of information.

Cal taps the tablet screen a few more times, reactivating John’s pebble before installing the rest of Noor’s hack, a deep-seated series of hidden subroutines John can summon with the right sequence of hand movements and purposeful blinks. A row of dim white lights winks on beneath the skin, each light the size of a pinhead: indicators barely visible through the epidermis, used to communicate basic notifications. John squeezes his thumb against the palm of his hand until four of the lights flash: orange, purple, green, blue; Cal, Julie, Mai, Noor.

Only the five of them left, out of all those who’d gone west.

During his retreat in the parklands, after he’d last left Cal, John had been alone, responsible to no one, or so he’d told himself: a sleepwalker, dreaming in the desert, despite the bombs and the makeshift bulldozing. Now, thanks to Cal, he’s awake again, his solitude broken, his connection to her and the others restored; now he’s ready, despite everything they’d done and everything that had already gone wrong, to do whatever it takes to try to make the world they want instead of the world they have.

John squeezes his fist to watch the lights scroll their colors again; he opens his hand, then looks up to catch Cal’s stare, finally able to match the determination he sees there.

Whatever else had happened, John had never wanted to abandon the world.





C-432




C-432 is unconscious, C is injured, C is dying, this C is going to die, and soon. Waking for the last time, tangled in his harness, the tarp full of frozen wood still spinning below him, he throws back his head and howls with pain, then regains his wits: too much noise might further unsteady the already tenuous crevasse. He’s battered and bleeding and his ribs are bruised or broken, but the worst danger is his right arm, pinned between the immovable wall before him and the fallen pillar that fell from behind, a slab that must still weigh thousands of kilograms. Every attempt to pull his shattered forearm free twists the stuck elbow, the pain producing a new scream he has to choke back before it can escape his chattering lips. He reaches with his good arm, his sharp teeth stilling his tongue against the pain as he slides the ice axe from its loops—thankfully he’s left-handed, or else he wouldn’t have been able to reach—and then strikes it awkwardly at the wall, just above where his elbow is pinned.

The ice doesn’t budge, at least not where the pick end of the axe bites the surface. But from above, C hears another ominous creaking. It’s impossible to predict the effect of striking the ice here, to know all the ways the reverberations might move through the crevasse wall above.

C-432 is dazed and afraid, but the remainder has been mortally wounded many times. Now it instructs with calm, lucid brutality. If he cannot strike the ice, then the only other way to free himself is to turn the axe around, to switch from the pick end to the blade, then to put the blade to flesh and bone.

He queries the remainder, begging for some other option.

The remainder acknowledges his pain, but it will not offer false comfort.

The remainder doesn’t care about C-432 any more than it did any of his predecessors.

The remainder wants only to go on, in this body or any other.



C-432 has lived longer than any other recent cycle, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to die. After his escape, he drags himself away from the crevasse, one arm amputated below the elbow, the other dragging the heavy tarp, its plastic shot through with sharp shards of frozen wood and slick with steaming blood leaving a bright red trail brushed across the snow. His movements are awkward and pained, his vision swims and his legs wobble, but he can’t abandon the prize that cost him his forearm. The translucent photovoltaic bubble dips low at his approach, ready to ease his entrance; once aboard, he struggles to pull the tarp up after him, its weight nearly too heavy to heave one-handed into the bubble’s cramped space. There’s blood everywhere, so much spilled material he’ll have to replace, but that’s a problem for later. For now he has to concentrate at least enough to pilot back to the crawler. He steadies his severed limb in his good hand, holds the throbbing pulse above a makeshift tourniquet: how hot the skin is, how swollen the flesh, how much worse it will soon be. The AR command console swims in his blurring vision, but the craft sputters and starts to float; outside the winch remains secured to the ice, but C has no choice but to abandon it, hoping the crevasse won’t swallow it before he can return.

Not that it’ll be exactly him who comes back.

The rung backs up the mind; the Loom reboots the body. The remainder is a combinatory self, minds stacked one atop the other; each C has a body reprinted as closely as possible to the one before, but often a lack of biomass necessitates certain replacements, polymer and plastinate extrusions filling in the gaps. The Loom rarely reverses these permutations, no matter how it’s refueled: once a body part has been replaced with an inorganic substitute, every future C will bear the same replacement. Sometimes the replacement is an improvement, some part made less susceptible to injury, but each is also a diminishment of the real. If a polymer hoof can’t be as easily injured, it’s also less sensate, less aware of the surfaces the creature navigates. In recent years more drastic modifications have forced C to have to relearn how to walk or to perform other simple motor functions, like the one cycle when his left leg was made ever so slightly shorter, its bones lightened and augmented with inflexible plastic.

Among the remainder are those who believe that whoever became C must once have been a better being, fierce of claw and tooth, fleet of hoof, crowned with deadly turns of horn. Now he is only a creature imitating itself, a shadow of a better self unremembered by even the oldest among the remainder. But it doesn’t matter, not to C-432. Like many of his most successful predecessors, he is rarely introspective, barely curious. He does not wonder, only survives.

And now even that must come to an end.

C steers the bubblecraft at maximum speed, zooming back to the stable shelf where the behemoth crawler has always been crashed, its gray steel hull inset with outcroppings of pipes and sensor arrays, its flat roof covered with solar panels he has to constantly sweep clear of snow and other debris. Outfitted with eight sets of triangular tread-wheels, the crawler is nonetheless stuck, its hull listing several degrees atop two sets of treads broken against an obstruction some long-ago pilot missed from the squat polygonal command cockpit extending from the crawler’s uppermost floor, a room C-432 has always avoided. This C has always been uninterested in the warrens of dilapidated machinery and well-scavenged halls, where surely everything valuable was long ago cast into the recycler. For the two years of his cycle, it’s been the Ice that has demanded his attention, the Ice and the wreck of the Below, the buried past from which he’s spent this entire life trying to extract his next.

Back inside, he makes the staggering passage from the bubblecraft to the hangar exit, then through the labyrinth of barely lit hallways to the recycling chamber waiting before the Loom. There he kicks the tarp inside the recycler’s cylindrical tube, dumping its contents before throwing the plastic back outside. Wheezing for breath, his vision pulsing, he stumbles against the recycler’s far wall, crumpling awkwardly among the splintered black roots; he smells bark and dirt and soil, the rust of his blood mixing with old-world decay, ancient lignin thawed and awoken. Woozy with shock, he folds his legs, pulls his hooves inside the crowded recycler. As long as the blood falls inside the recycler it’s not lost: the blood soaks the wood, the blood circles the drain, the blood is due to be his blood again soon enough.

So much is missing, so much is lost; C has so much doubt about how the Loom might react, but he gives the necessary voice command anyway, the one that sets the recycler humming to life. The glass door slides shut and latches. A moment later a corded steel tentacle snakes out of the module’s ceiling to slide its interface needle into the port at the base of his neck: the needle turns and locks into the rung, implanted deep inside the port; the tentacle pulls, the rung sliding from his spine with a long smooth rip only C-432 hears.

The remainder lives in the rung; after its removal, the voices vanish.

Now, as his life ends, C-432 for the first time hears no voice but his own, a senseless howling he barely recognizes. The only living creature on the surface of the Ice, he has never before been alone; what comes next he suffers without company or comfort. Micropores open in the recycler’s ceiling, a hiss fills the air as the pores shower him with a hot pink liquid: viscous, acidic, melting; the pain is excruciating, unbearable, new. He turns his face away, his nerves screaming: one horn melts, then the other; fur sloughs off his face, then the face follows the fur. He squeezes his eyes shut, but the protection is temporary: his eyelid dissolves, then the eye. The peculiar feeling of the skull opening not with a blow but by dissolution, then the first acid droplets hitting the brain, burning bright holes through his perception. The body dies slow, but without the brain conscious agony ceases. One leg judders the floor involuntarily, the blood flowing from the injured arm sizzles when it drips into the pooling pink liquid, steaming fluorescence streaked brown with the mud of his melting body.

Dying, he lies amid the melting black roots of a tree whose species he thinks he’s never seen alive: while his nose lasts, he smells the sweet scent of scorched applewood, barely recognized by the only part of the mind predating the rung’s installation.

No one observes C-432’s final agonies. His life ends, and it’s possible to believe that before this torture it already had, perhaps in the moment when the rung was snaked free of its port. To believe this is to believe that what C is, what he really is, is not this melting flesh but the amalgamation of selves backed up in the rung, rebooted when the next body comes online.

But surely there is something alive in the recycler tube, surely there is someone: a creature suffering; a living being dying alone, coming apart in a shower of hot pink acid rain.





Chapman




Chapman and Nathaniel are given to industriousness, they work most days from dawn to dusk; but then come days of waiting out weather, days of needing ground to thaw or floodwaters to recede, days of hunting and gathering instead of plowing and planting. The morning after the year’s first nursery is finished, silent Nathaniel stalks into the underbrush, rifle in hand, leaving Chapman behind, sitting idly atop a fresh-cut stump. When a robin flutters from its tree, he studies the curve of its beak, how perfectly built it is for all the robin has to do, digging grubs and worms and caterpillars, plucking berries from blooming bushes, building a nest to attract a mate. Its locomotion is a highly evolved efficiency, nothing lost or wasted because loss and waste is the road of deprivation, despair, death; there is risk in being a robin but not recklessness.

The robin digs another grub from the dirt, sucking its meal back with a jerking gulp. After it’s fed it becomes more curious, cocking its head at Chapman’s strangeness. The faun offers his hand, palm up, fingers loose, his shoulder steady, his elbow level but relaxed; the robin leaps into the air at this invitation, its wings aflutter as it lands in his palm. It walks a circle around his hand, only momentarily intrigued by his mossy smell, then crouches upon its twiggy legs, ready to fly off—but before it can escape, Chapman closes his fingers, surprising himself with how easily he catches the robin in the cage of his fist. “When I’m done,” he whispers, feeling the robin’s breast thumping inside his grip, its heart bold behind its splinter of breastbone, “there’ll still be trees for you to nest in, but all will be only the trees I permit.” As soon as he says it, he gags, his mouth filling with the acrid taste of bile; the robin squawks with agitation and Chapman lets it go, the bird flying