Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

No Time Like the Present

A lot of new rich people have moved into the best houses in town—those big ones up on the hill that overlook the lake. What with the depression, some of those houses have been on the market for a long time. They’d gotten pretty run down, but the new people all seem to have plenty of money and fixed them up right away. Added docks and decks and tall fences. It was our fathers, mine included, who did all the work for them. I asked my dad what their houses were like and he said, “Just like ours only richer.”

As far as we know, none of those people have jobs. It’s as if all the families are independently wealthy.

Those people look like us only not exactly. They’re taller and skinnier and they’re all blonds. They don’t talk like us either. English does seem to be their native language, but it’s an odd English. Their kids keep saying, “Shoe dad,” and, “Bite the boot.” They shout to each other to, “Evolve!”

At first their clothes were funny, too—the men had weird jackets with tight waists and their pants were too short. The girls and women actually wore longish wide skirts. They don’t have those anymore. They must have seen right away how funny they looked compared to us, and gone to Penny’s and got some normal clothes like ours.

They kept their odd shoes, though, like they couldn’t bear not to have them. (They look really soft, they’re kind of square and the big toe is separate.) And they had to wait for their hair to grow out some before they could get haircuts like ours. This year our boys have longer hair than the girls, so their boys were all wrong.

Every single one of those new people, first thing, put two flamingos out on their front lawns, but then, a few days later, they wised up and took them away. It wasn’t long before every single one of them had either a dog or a cat.

When Sunday came, they all went to the Unitarian church and the women wore the most ridiculous hats, but took them off as soon as they saw none of us wore any. They wore their best clothes, too, but only a few of us do.

Even though they come to church, Mom says I shouldn’t make friends with their kids until we know more about them and I especially shouldn’t visit any of their houses. She says the whole town doesn’t trust them even though everybody has made money on them one way or another.

Their kids have a funny way of walking. Not that funny, actually, but as if they don’t want anybody to talk to them, and as if they’re better than we are—maybe just because they’re taller. But we don’t look that different.  It seems as if they’re pretending we’re not here. Or maybe that they’re not here. In school they eat lunch together at the very farthest table and bring their own food, like our cafeteria food isn’t good enough. They obviously—all of them—don’t want to be here.

I’ve got one of the new people in my class. I feel sorry for her. Marietta…Smith? (I’ll bet. All those new people are Smiths and Joneses and Browns and Blacks.) She’s tall and skinny like they all are. She’s by herself in my class; usually there’s two or three of them in each class. She’s really scared. I tried to help her the first days—I thought she needed a girl friend really badly—but she didn’t even smile back when I smiled straight at her.

The boys are all wondering if those new boys would be on the basketball team, but so far they don’t even answer when they’re asked. Jerry asked Huxley Jones, and Huxley said, under his breath, “Evolve, why don’t you?”

Trouble is, my name is Smith, too, but it’s really Smith. I’ve always wanted to change it to something more complicated. I’d rather be Karpinsky or Jesperson or Minnifee like some of the kids in my class.

I kind of understand those new kids. I have to eat a special diet, and I’m too tall, too. I tower over most of the town boys. And I’m an only child and I’m not at all popular. I don’t care what Mom says, I don’t see what harm there can be in helping Marietta and I’m curious. I like her odd accent. I try saying things as she does and I say, “Shoe Dad,” to my dad even though I don’t know what those kids mean by it. Maybe it’s really Shoo Dad.

One of these days I’m going to sneak into her house and see what I can find out.

But I don’t have a lot of time for finding out things because I have to practice the violin so much. Funny though, when I took my violin to school because I had my lesson that afternoon, Marietta looked at the case as if she couldn’t imagine what was in it. I said, “violin,” even though she hadn’t asked. And then she looked as if she wanted to ask, “What’s a violin?”

Those kids are all so dumb about ordinary things. Every single one of them has been kept back a grade. I don’t know how they can walk around looking so snooty. It’s as if they think being dumb is better.

Marietta is awful in school, too. The teacher asked her who was the vice president and she didn’t know. So the teacher asked who was president and she didn’t know that either.

That gave me the courage to ask her if she wanted help. But then she said her mother doesn’t want her to be friends with any of us and I said my mother says the exact same thing. Finally she laughs, we both do, and she says, “Shoe Dad, if we can keep it secret.”

(Those kids never say “Okay.”)

She says, “But I shouldn’t be too smart either. We don’t want anybody to notice us.”

So far I don’t think she has anything to worry about in that direction. I don’t say that, though. What I say is, “You’re getting noticed for the opposite reason. You need my help.”

I’m really curious about her house, but she wouldn’t dare invite me and I wouldn’t dare go there. And she can’t come to my house because Mom would be horrified. Too bad they look a little bit different otherwise Mom would never know. So we mostly meet in the woods by the railroad tracks where the bums used to hide out back when there were bums. Mom doesn’t like me to go there either. She thinks maybe there might still be bums around. Marietta and I always scope out the place first, not for bums, but because boys sometimes go there to smoke.

I discovered Marietta was so bad at math because she was used to writing out the problems in an entirely different way. Once I got that straightened out she got a lot better. But she said Huxley told her there was no need for her ever to know who was president here now. I said, “Why not?” She started to say it wasn’t important but she stopped in the middle. Then she said, it was just that there were some things she wasn’t going to bother knowing.

She tells me she really likes Judson Jesperson, but she says she’s not supposed to go outside her own group. And me, I like Huxley Jones, but Marietta says he can’t go outside their group either. She’s supposed to like Huxley and I’m supposed to like Judd.  I asked her if this was some sort of religious thing? I didn’t dare say racial but Judson has very dark hair and eyes though his skin is just like hers. She said, no, it was something entirely different and she wasn’t supposed to talk about it. She said it would be very dangerous for any of her group to marry outsiders. She said, “Who knows who would be president in a couple a hundred years if Judd and I got married?”

So anyway, we’re unhappy together and I can tell her all about Judson’s family but she can’t tell me anything about Huxley.

#

A dozen more families of the tall people move into town. They can’t take the best houses because they’re already gone, but when they get through with the second best houses, they turn out be almost as good except for not being on top of a hill and next to the lake.

The first group of kids is getting a little friendlier. Huxley even let himself get talked into being on the basketball team but he didn’t know how to play and had to be taught from scratch. Judd says they’re sorry now. All he has going for him is being tall.

I don’t care, I like him. I like his stooped over posture. As if he doesn’t want to be that tall. I like his kind of scholarly face. I like his pixie grin. At first he was always frowning at all of us, but pretty soon he wasn’t and especially not at me.

The first thing I said to him was, “I like your name,” and he actually did smile.

By now everybody is saying Shoe Dad.

#

Then we have the first snow and a snow day. It’s so beautiful. I want to see Marietta right away, but no school so I start out towards her house. I’m not going to disobey Mom. Besides, that’s our only good hill for sledding. Everybody will be up there.

And there everybody is, with sleds and garbage can lids and folded up cardboard boxes. Some kids even have skis. The new kids are even more excited about the snow than we are. They act as though they’ve never made snowmen and never thrown snow balls. They’re like little kids. Well, actually we all are.

Those new kids have skis and fancy boots. But not a single one knows how to ski.

Marietta’s there. I knew she would be. She says first off, “Look… these great boots….”

She has the fancy kind you  can’t walk around in. They’re white with dozens of black buckles. I admit they’re beautiful. I say, “Shoe Dad.”

“…and they only cost five hundred dollars.”

She’s always saying things like that. Everything is cheap to her. I wish something was cheap to me. I’d like to say, “Evolve!” but I don’t want to make her feel bad. I say, “Bite the…oh yeah, bite the ski boot.”

#

We don’t hear about it till lunch time, but that night in the middle of the storm, odd things disappeared. Half the fish at the fish hatchery, and that very same night, a big pile of lumber from the lumber mill disappeared. The night watchman swears he made his rounds every hour. Sometime between his two o’clock and three o’clock a whole section of lumber was gone and not a sound. The fish people are there early and late. They went to feed the fish at eight and found half the tanks empty. Some of us say the new people are getting blamed just because they’re richer than we are and just because they’re new, though nobody can figure out how they could have done it. Even so, I’m suspicious, too. Dad says the town is going to have a meeting about them.

Then we hear that exactly the same night, north of us, in Washington State they also lost a lot of lumber. And another place in Nevada lost half their grass-fed beef.

Funny though, Huxley said all this was our fault. Even that they’re here in the first place is our fault. He said we should have stopped cutting down trees. He won’t say anything more about it. That shows how odd these new kids are. But I guess that’s fair, we blame them for everything and they blame us.

Except for Marietta, those kids still don’t like it here at all, but Marietta says she’s getting to like it, partly because of being friends with me—where she was before she never had such a good friend as I am—and she also likes it because she always did like camping out and making do with what’s at hand. That makes me wonder all the more where she came from.

#

The new people often have meetings in one of the larger houses up on the hill. They can’t hide that because all the best cars in town are parked outside. After the fish and lumber disappear, the next time those cars gather, a whole batch of the town’s people storm the house. It isn’t fair, but the cops are on our side; they’re just like all the town’s people, they don’t trust those new people either. And it isn’t as if the new people had any higher up connections in the town that would help them. So the cops arrest them instead of us, even though we’re the ones that broke into their meeting. Did a lot of damage, too, and not only to the furniture. Six of the new people are in the hospital.

That leaves a lot of those kids with nobody looking after them. The school principal asks the town parents if they’ll take in some of the children temporarily until their parents can get themselves straightened out with the police. I get my folks to take in Marietta. Mom doesn’t mind it under these circumstances. In fact she acts nice. She even bakes cookies. Marietta can’t believe Mom made these right here at home. She’s so fascinated she forgets to feel worried for a while.

As usual I have to practice the violin. Marietta tries it out. All she makes is squeaks. She can’t believe how hard it is. She’s only played computer instruments. “Aided,” she says, so you don’t have to know anything. But you can have any sound you want and you sound good right at the beginning.

I have twin beds in my room so we get to be right in together.

At first Marietta seems to like it as much as I do. We talk until Mom comes in and tells us we have to stop because of school tomorrow. But a little bit after I turn out the light, I’m pretty sure Marietta is crying. I ask if there’s anything I can do.

She says, “I wish I could go home.”

I say, “It won’t be long before your parents come back.”

“I mean I want to go back where we used to live. My real home.”

“Where is it?”

“We’re not supposed to say.”

“Was it so much better there?”

“Sort of…some ways…except it’s nice being so rich for a change. Of course there’s lots you don’t have…. Oh well.”

I’m glad you’re here.”

“Well, I’m glad for having you.”

“Can I go up and see your house now that there’s nobody there?”

“It’s just like yours only richer. That’s because everything is so cheap here otherwise we couldn’t afford stuff. It’s supposed to be just like yours. Our parents made it special to be like that.”

“Can we go anyway? I like rich stuff and I hardly ever get to see rich things except on TV. Besides, don’t you need to go get more clothes?”

#

So we do that—skip school and go up. She’s right. There’s nothing odd about it…except there is. There’s a fancy barbeque thing in the backyard, but obviously never used. There’s a picnic table beside it but no chairs. The two flamingos are in a corner, lying on their sides. Inside it’s awfully—I don’t know how to describe it—cold and stiff, and kind of empty. It’s as if nobody lives there. There’s a National Geographic on one side of the coffee table and a Consumers Report on the other, and that’s all. No clutter. Mom would like it.

Upstairs, her room has all the right stuff. There’s a brand new teddy bear on the pillow and a small bookcase with brand new books, all very girlie. They don’t look read either. There’s not a single Tarzan or John Carter. I ask, and she never even heard of Tarzan. I tell her I’ll lend her some. Even though we’re too old for those, she’ll like them.

She has one whole drawer with nothing but fancy sweaters and blouses. We gather some up to bring back and she says I can have half of them.

On the way out, I open the hall closet and there’s a tangle of wires and silvery things along them like Christmas tree lights. At first Marietta tries to keep the door shut as if she doesn’t want me to see them, but then she says she trusts me as much as anybody she ever knew so she says, “Take a good look.”

I say, “I don’t know what it is, anyway.”

She says, “Time machine,” and starts laughing hysterically. And then we both laugh so hard we fall on the floor and I don’t know what’s the truth and what isn’t, except maybe I do.

I’m glad we went there. I don’t need to feel jealous after all. Even though Mom would probably like living like that, I wouldn’t.

#

The police hang on to those new people to see if any of them are guilty of anything at all and also as a sort of punishment, I suppose for being rich and taking up all the best places. That means Marietta and I have even more time together.

The lumber mill now has three night watchmen. They’re sitting right next to the biggest piles of lumber. The fish hatchery has people practically in with the fish.

But then—again in the middle of the night—all the new people disappear. The grown-ups, that is. So then we know who did the fish and lumber. But now there’s nobody to blame but their children. Some townspeople are so angry they want to put them in jail, too. Most of the townspeople don’t go that far, though. My parents and lots of others say they won’t let that happen. Besides, now that they know Marietta they like her.

But it’s not safe for the new kids to walk the streets anymore—two kids got beat up by a gang of boys and they weren’t even the new kids, they were just blond and tall and skinny. Mom dyes Marietta’s hair black so she’ll be safer. Some of the other new kids do that too.

Marietta looks good with dark hair. That doesn’t cheer her up, though. All those kids feel terrible. Naturally. But it’s odd, they keep saying they’re not surprised, they just wondered when it would happen.

We talk a lot in bed at night and Mom doesn’t tell us to shut up until it gets really late.

“How can your parents leave you like this?”

“We’re not allowed to say, but it’s for our own good.”

“Parents always say that.”

#

I try to cheer up Marietta. We go to lots of movies. She does like the Tarzan and John Carter books and there are lots of those to go through yet. Mom gives her valerian and chamomile tea almost every night. At first Marietta didn’t want hugs from my mom, but now she does.

I go around wearing her expensive sweaters and I wear her white jacket when she wears her shiny black one. That turns out to be a big mistake because I get taken for one of them. I’m as tall and skinny as they are. And here I am, wearing fancy clothes like they always do. And here we are, Marietta and me, one of us with dyed black hair and me, a darker blond than they are but that doesn’t matter to this bunch. They’re not high school boys. I don’t know who they are but they’re grown men—waiting for us after the movie.

They don’t think Marietta is one of the new people—they think I am. She’s wearing my faded blue jeans and my sweatshirt and I’m in her cashmere sweater and that white jacket.

They push her aside—so hard they knock her down—and come after me. They yank at Marietta’s jacket so hard the zipper breaks, and then pull the sweater up over my face so I don’t see what happens next. All I know is they suddenly stop and Marietta is pulling the sweater down so I can see. She yells, “Run,” and we do. When I look back I see all three of them collapsed on the ground.

“Don’t stop.” Marietta grabs my arm and pulls me along with her.

“What did you do?”

“I’m not allowed to say.”

We run all the way home and collapse in our front hall. That white jacket is lost and ruined out there somewhere and the sweater is all pulled out of shape.

Marietta right away says, “Don’t tell.”

“How did you do that?”

“I thought you had those here. Tazers. Don’t you? This is just a different form.”

“Where is your tazer?”

“I’m not supposed to say. See, where I come from it’s not safe anymore since the revolt of…. My drones—I mean my parents—they wanted me to be able to defend myself.  Besides, they thought everybody here had guns.”

“Where is it? You can tell me.”

“Here.” She points to her earlobe. (There’s not even a mark that I can see.) “I have some control over the direction.” She twists her earlobe. “I can even point it back.”

I touch it, but I don’t feel anything.

“They left us here, my drones. They said they would if anything happened. And things did happen. I guess it is better here. I mean the air and water and space to move around in…. And the food…it isn’t what we’re used to, and it’s awfully primitive, everything is, but it’s better some ways and we’re rich. I have a million dollars in the bank in my name.”

She’s about to tell me more but Mom comes in right then and finds us sitting on the floor, and me, all bedraggled and the sweater ruined. She gets really upset when she hears about it. (We don’t tell her the tazer part.) She insists that she’s going to dye my hair that very night no matter how long it takes, and I have to stop wearing Marietta’s nice clothes.

For once I agree with her. I let her do all that, even though I know the kids at school will tease me.

I wonder if those men are going to tell what happened to them? Maybe not, though, because they were breaking the law.

I’m going to stick close to Marietta from now on. I feel safe with her.

Most of those new kids are physically awkward—like Huxley trying to be on the basketball team—but Marietta isn’t so bad. She says it’s because her parents didn’t believe in the education boxes most kids had. She says those were like being inside a TV set. But she kept calling hers “Mommy” by mistake and that upset her mother so much she actually had her playing outside even though the air wasn’t that good anymore and even when it was too hot.

She’s been telling me everything, even about the air-conditioned sweater her mom got her.

She says, “Even so, it was getting worse and worse. Food riots sometimes. I know this is best for us.  But we have to be so careful and not change anything. Nobody knows what would happen if we upset things. Shoe Dad, I might not even exist. I’d go poof! Just like that.”

#

And then Huxley gets in trouble and that changes everything. He didn’t dye his hair like the others did. It might not have worked anyway. Three men attack him; maybe the same three that came after us. (You’d think they’d learn.) Marietta and I have to guess what happened: that he not only used his tazer, but tied up the men when they were down. Dragged them into the woods. Then he walked all the way home with bruises all over. Nobody found out about the men out in the woods till two days later. It rained all the next day and one of the men suffocated with his head in the mud. Marietta and I know Huxley didn’t use his tazer until he was practically all beat up. He was trying so hard not to cause any changes in the people living here but then he caused more of a problem.

The townspeople are blaming him. Of course they are. Besides, who knows what story those men told? So the police come to arrest him, but he takes off. They even shoot at him, but he gets away. We don’t know if he got shot or not.

All the new kids are even scareder than they already were. About going “poof.” They keep saying, “It’s gotta be even worse than that butterfly back in the Jurassic era.” I don’t know what they mean by that.

They stand there staring at nothing, as if thinking: Any minute and I never existed. They stop in mid sentence as if: Is it right now that I disappear?

On the other hand, they could disappear by going back home. We’d never know which it was. Marietta hangs on to me whenever she can. It’s as if she thinks as long as she has a good grip on my arm, she won’t disappear. It’s a bother but I let her.

#

I know where Huxley isn’t. He’s not at that place where the bums used to go and where the boys go to smoke. That’s too easy. But I do know where he could be. I don’t even tell Marietta. I get up real early before anybody is up. I make a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and take some nuts and apples and go. Good that Huxley and I never got together or the cops would be watching me.

So I head out into the woods. It’s a good place to get lost since there are so many crisscrossing paths and there’s a lot of undergrowth for hiding. I think Huxley is somewhere in there but I’ll have a hard time finding him. I whistle. I sing. I make a lot of noise and wander all over. I think I’m going to get lost myself.

But what if he’s disappeared already? What if he’s never been at all?

Then I hear a bird chirping above me, I look up and there he is and he’s not been shot. I climb up and give him the sandwiches. He’s changed a lot from when he first came. I don’t think he’d have been able to climb a tree. He looks kind of wild and haunted and dirty. That makes me like him all the more. I’m always embarrassed, being so close to a boy I like so much, and now even more so. I don’t ask anything I really want to. I’m too nervous.

He gobbles up both sandwiches and apples and nuts all in about five minutes. When everything is gone he thinks maybe one of the sandwiches might have been for me and apologizes. But I say none of it was for me and I’ll bring more tomorrow.

He admires my new black hair, but I think he’s just trying to be nice.

I move up closer to the branch he’s on. Turns out I don’t have to ask anything. He tells me he always did like me but didn’t dare show it. Now he does dare. He thinks everything is all messed up anyway so he might as well like me and he wants me to know it.

Then we hear the swishing of underbrush and voices of people coming closer.

We shut up. He moves higher and I move lower.

In a few minutes the woods are packed with people walking all over the place looking for him. Some of them are cops in uniform. Lots are just townspeople. Mostly men but a few women.

I jump down and move away from his tree. I shout, “Let’s look over by the little cave next to the stream.” So I and a group of others including one cop, head over there.

The cop says, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Yeah, but isn’t this important?”

“You’re lucky I’m not a truant officer.”

“What will you do when you find him?”

He pulls his cuffs out of his back pocket and rattles them. Says, “He’s dangerous.”

#

I know this whole woods better than a lot of them do. I lead them around to all sorts of good hiding places. I talk loud and make a lot of noise. I don’t ever look up.

It’s a tiring day for everybody. I had no idea I was going to get caught up in the search and get home so late. My folks and Marietta have been worried about me. I didn’t tell Mom where I’d been, but I tell Marietta. She feels bad that I didn’t ask her to come along, but I convinced her it was safer for Huxley if it’s just me.

#

Next day I don’t think I should keep on skipping school so I just skip my last class. This time I make four peanut butter sandwiches. It’s late so I bring a flashlight.

I head for that same tree first, but he’s not there. As before, I sing. I whistle. I keep looking up and chirping. I go to all the good spots. It gets dark and I’m worried about using the flashlight. There’s only a little moon so I stumble around tripping on things.

Pretty soon I know I’d better go home. I leave the sandwiches up in the tree where I first found Huxley. I leave the flashlight for him, too, and try to find my way out without it.

But I can’t. I thought if I just came to one of the streams and followed it, I’d be okay, but it’s muddy and slippery near the stream and I keep falling down. I decide it’s best to just wait till dawn. I huddle down against a tree. I wish I’d kept one of those sandwiches for myself.

In the morning I go back to the tree where I left the sandwiches. Something got into them and ate most of them and scattered what was left all over.

#

When I get back my folks are so worried and the police are all over looking for me. Thing is, Marietta disappeared, too, and first they thought we were off somewhere together. Then they thought that I got disappeared with all the others.

It turns out they’re all gone. I’ll never know if Marietta got to go home or if she never existed in the first place or maybe they decided it was a bad and dangerous idea to leave their kids here. Or maybe things got better so it was okay to go home. Or maybe they found better stuff from other times. Like way, way back before there were other people to get in their way.

She left a lot of her clothes in my room. Funny though, my old Tarzan and John Carter books—the ones she was in the middle of reading—are gone. That makes me feel that she didn’t disappear completely like she was afraid would happen. She’s still someplace, I’m sure of it, reading my books.

I wonder if I could write her a letter. I’ll bet there is a way, like sealed up in stainless steel. I wish we’d talked about that before she left. I wish I knew how long my letter would have to last to get to her. Maybe I’ll have to carve it in stone.

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Carol Emshwiller

Emshwiller, CarolCarol Emshwiller grew up in Michigan and in France. She lives in New York City in the winter and in Bishop, CA in the summer. She’s been doing only short stories lately. A new one will appear in Asimov’s soon. She’s wondering if she’s to old to start a novel but if a good idea came along she might do it anyway. PS Publishing is publishing two of her short story collections in a single volume (sort like an Ace Double), with her anti-war stories on one side and other stories on the other.