Hope and the Change
©2012, Dale Cozort
This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Dale Cozort in 2012, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.
The spring of Year Zero was a gray time, with gray clouds of debris from burning cities muting the sun, with a hint of decay, of distant death, always in the air.
The Change was in the air too. It was in our chilled bones and our constant thirst. It was in the dust-covered, immobile cars, the silent electronics, the streets and houses lit only by flickering candles and torches. It was in aching muscles, blistered hands and feet, in cigarettes smoked carefully and worshipfully down to the filter, in the desperate eyes of diabetics fast running out of insulin. It was in our own eyes as we pretended not to understand what it meant when the safety committee sent ragged, desperate road people staggering through town without the clean water we could no longer spare and they could not live without. It was in the hardening of our hearts as we stood by while nursing homes emptied and those inside them were thrown on the meager resources of their families, if they had families. It was in the fear that kept improvised weapons near us and scouts ever alert for outsiders.
Rumors spread fast, even when transportation slowed to a walk, or at best the speed of bicycle. The most persistent of those rumors had somebody — usually scientists at some distant university or government agency, discovering what caused the Change and how to fix it. Surely MIT would figure it out, or Fermilab, or some tech wizard at Carnegie Mellon. Bill Clinton would toss unlimited resources at the problem. Even people who considered him a womanizing jerk agreed that he got things done. We waited in the twilight times, kept things going as best we could, and hoped.
Knowing only what we knew at the time, hope wasn’t irrational. Surely something had to cause the Change. If was a beam from some satellite, someone would figure out how to shoot the thing down. If it was something in the air, someone would figure out how to filter it out. Then the cars and the tractors would start. The lights would come on. The full power of the federal government would come sweeping in to bury the dead and save the living.
With hope and desperation inevitably come scams and con games. Scams against desperate people, worried about surviving the summer, carried an informal death penalty, yet the scams kept coming and working because hope survived beside desperation.
Most of us in Port Louis thought scam when the delegation from Fermilab came calling; especially when they made their pitch to Mayor Falcon. Fermilab is near Batavia, far too close to Chicago to have survived more than a few days after the Change, we thought. The former home of the Supercollider was probably now home to a few hundred ragged survivors of some street gang, infesting the buildings and gradually killing off the buffalo herd that ranged the prairie above the collider before the Change.
The Fermilab delegation, five military-looking men who rode into town on expensive-looking bicycles, painted a different picture, and invited us to see for ourselves. As the youngest, and probably most expendable member of the Port Louis city council, I went to check out the claims, along with Dr. Jim Stevens from the university and a couple of police officers from the pre-Change bicycle patrol. We left early on a Thursday, gray as usual, but with the sun of a early spring morning powering through the haze and forcing spring flowers to bloom in the road ditches. We went the Illinois 38 route, due to roving bands of road people near Sugar Grove on the tollway.
I-38 is rural from Port Louis most of the way to St. Charles. Grim-looking farmers holding pitchforks watched our progress on the other side of barbed wire fences, many of which had new wire strands among the old and rusty ones. Hastily lettered signs declared, “Beware of dogs” or in one case, “Hidden steel traps! Stay on the road!” Those signs mixed with ones saying, “Experienced farm hands and gardeners wanted! Will pay in food!”
The Fermilab delegates, if that’s what they really were, didn’t talk to us much. They rode in a cluster, watching the road, butcher knives or baseball bats tucked into easily accessible compartments in their backpacks. We were armed too, Dr Stevens and I with short hatchets and the policemen with cool-looking expandable night-sticks that would probably be far less effective in combat than our hatchets.
The trip to Batavia is about forty miles, a two-hour journey by bike under normal circumstances. The circumstances weren’t normal, of course. Every little burg or farmers protective association had a checkpoint along the road — wrecked cars or piles of tires created chokepoints that forced riders or hikers on a narrow path. The glass and wreckage were mostly off the road now, though usually just pushed into the road ditch. Rain had washed away most of the bloodstains.
We rode past a white minivan, sitting carefully locked at the side of the road, neatly aligned on the gravel shoulder, its roof covered with dust. Half a mile later, we passed an infant’s car seat forlornly at the exact center of the shoulder, upright and empty. Two miles further, we passed a long mound of dirt with a smaller one next to it. A piece of plywood nailed to a fencepost made a crude cross over the graves. Someone had scrawled “Unknown females, adult and infant” on the plywood in black paint.
“St. Charles and Geneva are still holding west of the Fox River,” one of the Fermilab people said. “They’re getting mostly road people, but a big bunch out of Oak Park and the inner burbs came through and took down most of the east side of Geneva. Street gang types. Dupage and Wheaton let them come through — didn’t try to stop them as long as they stayed on I-38 and didn’t loot as they went through. Nice people, huh? Not smart either. If the burbs are going to make it they have to keep punks off the farmers so they can get some kind of crop in.”
“What happened to Chicago?” I asked. We had heard rumors, of course, rumors of fires driving a relentless, unstoppable horde of starving Chicagoans toward us, eating the land bare like two million human locusts, and leaving a crap-strewn, stripped landscape behind them, urine soaked, plague-filled and empty of food, shelter or usable water. As the twilight days stretched into a week, two weeks, and now working on the third, the hordes from Chicago plagued our imaginations, but only our imaginations. We saw only a trickle of bicyclists and well-equipped hikers from Chicago, with most refugees from among those caught on the highways on that chaotic night. That didn’t keep us from expecting the hordes. If they didn’t show up now, they certainly would later.
“Fires and smoke killed a lot of them,” the Fermilab guy said. “Most of the rest are staying near Lake Michigan. Smart, actually. Fresh water, and enough of it that even a million people peeing and crapping near it can’t foul it enough to make it undrinkable for a while. If you’re living outside of Chicago anywhere along the lake within ten miles of it, you’re screwed, from what I hear.”
That made a kind of sense. Lack of water will kill you in a hurry. Hypothermia will do the job even faster. Hunger takes it slow, grinds you down over weeks or months, makes you desperate, then makes your body eat your muscles bit by bit until you can’t walk, can’t lift your arms. Then it starts on your brain, shutting it down until you sit apathetic and stop struggling or caring, until you wait for the end, accept it and even hope for it.
Some people struggle to the end though, and those are the dangerous ones, the ones among the road people who kept the farmers edgy and the suburbs always watching through the dark nights.
We passed a stenciled sign that read:
Farm Hands Needed For Jimmy’s Hog Confinement Operation.
You Work, We Feed You All the Pork You Can Eat.
Most of the families of Port Louis had someone working there, or at one of other big hog farms. They came home bone-tired and smelling of barbeque and hog crap, but carrying enough meat to feed their families, plus a little to trade.
Ironically, while people were starving not more than forty miles away, Port Louis County was awash in pork. Farmers had far more hogs than they could feed and water and they rushed the surplus to market so they could get something for the animals rather than having to dispose of the carcasses. And they had water rights… which is why we were so short on water. It still hadn’t sunk in — the permanent nature of the change.
In these early days of the twilight times, our deprivations were of a different kind. They may seem petty, but they were very real. I craved soft drinks and ice cream and fresh fruit with an intensity I can still feel.
We rode into Fermilab a little after noon. I had been there a few times before the Change and it didn’t look much different. Cars sat in the parking lots with no dust on them, looking as though their owners could hop in and drive away at any time. The sidewalks and driveways were free of glass or other debris. Neatly kept flowerbeds flanked the walks. As we parked our bikes, two middle-aged men in khakis and polo shirts came out to greet us. They were both tall and lean, but not starved-looking, with well-trimmed hair and short beards, one with black hair and one with blonde.
“Doctor Greg Poulson here. Interim director of the lab for the duration of the current emergency. And you’re the evaluation team from Port Louis.” The blond guy smiled and held out his hand as he said that. His grip was strong but without calluses, the grip of a man who didn’t do hard physical labor but worked out a lot. His hands were free of blisters, or any other signs of recent physical exertion. Dr. Poulson had a confident air about him, a charisma. I felt and instinctively distrusted it, the distrust of one politician for another. And yes, I admit I’ve become that over the years, a politician skilled at the art of attentiveness and making everybody I meet feel special, charming them — a far cry from my origins in NIU’s Geology department. Jim Stevens didn’t look too impressed either, the stereotypical clash of scientist versus administrator or politician.
Dr. Poulson leaned in, smiled at Jim Stevens, and said, “Dr. Stevens! The guy who broke the speed limit! We heard what you did with the kinetic energy car from the top of the student union. Trivial solution, of course, but it did prove that the Creepy-Crawlies can be beaten, or at least gotten around.”
“Creepy-Crawlies?” I hadn’t heard that term before, not in reference to the Change.
“It’s not a natural phenomenon, of course,” Dr. Poulson said. “It’s too specific, too calculated to cut industrial civilization off at the knees without causing animals to die off or the planet to poof into fragments. So something intelligent is behind it, something that calculated exactly how much to tweak the laws of physics so internal combustion engines wouldn’t work, but a heart could still pump oxygenated blood to the whole blue whale at any depth, a sneeze still has its full power to blow crap out of your respiratory system and a bicycle tire can still hold a hundred pounds per square inch of pressure. We call them the Creepy-Crawlies. Not sure why.”
“Doesn’t have to be artificial,” Jim Stevens said. “Could be that this is the way most of the universe works. Maybe we’ve been in a little patch where things work different for the last two or three hundred years. Animals evolved to fit the normal limits, and we never invented good steam engines or used electricity much until the planet wandered into an anomalous patch where they happened to work. Fits all the facts. Occam’s Razor says that’s probably the way to go. Which means, pardon the bluntness, that you’re full of crap.”
Dr. Poulson’s smile didn’t dim. “That theory fits all of the facts you could figure out in your little university out in the cornfields. Pardon the bluntness, but we have more resources here, a more complete set of facts, and those facts don’t work without Creepy-Crawlers.” He turned to the black-haired guy with him. “Matt, take these guys to the demo field and show them what we have. I’ll have our security people entertain their escort.” He turned to us. “We can beat those bastards. We are beating those bastards. You can too.”
The black-haired guy introduced himself as Dr. Matt Van Dorchester and told us to just call him Matt. He led us to a section of train track with improvised looking windmills towering at intervals along it. The gravel along the track looked new, though the rails and ties looked well used. A train of sorts sat on the tracks, a light-weight, hastily built thing with the carts made mostly of PVC pipe and plywood, with bucket seats salvaged from sports cars.
“We salvaged the track for our experiments,” Matt said. “The windmills power projectors that locally neutralize the Creepy-Crawler tweaks of physics. Before we go any further, do you understand what they’re doing?”
“I know what changed,” Jim said. “Metals won’t conduct electricity. Gases won’t compress beyond a certain point, and won’t expand rapidly, which makes them almost useless for powering engines or firing chemically-powered weapons. How that can possibly work, I don’t know. Are any of those facts among the things that our little university in the cornfields hasn’t figured out and you have?”
“Maybe, partly.” Matt grinned. “Sorry about Dr. Poulson. He can be — ”
“A condescending bastard?” Jim suggested.
“Proud of our accomplishments here,” Matt said. “And maybe a little insensitive.” He swung into one of the train cars. “Hop on board and hang on. The Creep-Crawler fields are weaker near the windmills, so the engine will start working with a jerk and then cut out as we get further away.”
He waved his hand, and the train jerked into motion with a grinding sound that we felt through the seats. Within a second or two it was moving faster than a man could run. A second jerk brought the speed to that of a fast bike ride, then faster, sending the wind whistling through the open cars and bringing a wild burst of hope to battle my skepticism.
Matt took a Compact Disc out of its box. “When we get really close to the neutralizers we can sometimes get a CD to work for a little while. It won’t be loud. Like ‘Ride of the Valkyries?’” He popped it into a built-in player before either of us responded. A few seconds later we heard the faint strains of the music, barely audible over the noise of the train. I stared at the CD player. Tears welled up in my eyes as I savored the first bit of recorded music I had heard since the Change. I brushed them away. As promised, the train’s speed peaked not long after we passed the windmill, but picked up again as we approached the next one.
The train completed its circuit and stopped. Matt hopped out and escorted us to a large building, mostly glass. Dr. Poulson was there. He grinned. “Can you make trains work back at your university, Dr. Stevens?”
“If I thought about it a while, maybe,” Jim said. “If your neutralizer ray or whatever it is has any electrical components you have a chicken and egg problem. How do you get electricity to get it started?”
“The Creepies had to leave a loophole,” Dr. Poulson said. “Nervous systems run partly off of electricity and photosynthesis requires it. The trick is to build a circuit that can run off the kinds and amounts of electricity they had to leave alone, then use that circuit to bootstrap to larger and larger spaces. Once you get a full-sized neutralizer going, you can turn the next one on in the space the first one is neutralizing. Sort of like using a burning torch to get the next torch burning.”
“That’s an answer,” Jim said. “Got anything else to prove it works?”
“Like to see us shoot something?”
We walked to a target range in the shadow of a huge windmill. Dr Poulson said, “We can’t neutralize what they’re doing completely, so we have to use jujitsu of a sort, turning what they do against them.”
He picked up a piece of PVC pipe and can of lighter fluid. “Typical spud gun, only the way the Creepies twisted physics means that it can’t burst. That’s an advantage of having a speed limit. If we’re near a neutralizer, we can raise that speed limit enough for it to get interesting, but not enough to burst the plastic.” He aimed the tube. “The trick is to take two hundred pounds per square inch of pressure and turn it into something real. You do that multiplying the number of square inches by ten, without changing the weight of the projectile much. A couple of pieces of Styrofoam two or three inches in diameter, with a ballistic cap, all shaped around a long nail and set up to fall away when they leave the barrel. That’s all it takes. Nail goes on with the bulk of the energy, over a thousand pounds per square inch, which takes us into handgun territory.” He fired the improvised gun. “Not real accurate, but you can put a nail an inch or two into the wood at fifty paces.”
We went back to the table and Dr. Poulson said, “And now to business. We need time to perfect what we’re doing here. We can buy time with food. We know you have a Nestle’s Warehouse and hog farms with around two hundred thousand hogs under your control in Port Louis County. We can have our scientists out scratching in the dirt and trying to fight off hungry mobs once the suburbs run out of food, or we can keep those guys working on solutions that work more than just locally. Two hundred thousand hogs at two hundred and fifty pounds per hog and sixty percent meat content at a thousand calories per pound of meat works out to thirty billion calories. Figure twenty five hundred calories per day, and those hogs equal twelve million man/days of food. That’s enough to feed your county for a hundred and fifty days on pork alone. We want twenty thousand of those man/days worth of pork — enough to feed a hundred scientists for two hundred days. We also need a hundred able-bodied men for guard duty, supplied with weapons and fed by authorities in your county. In return, we’ll give you first access to any technology we develop. If we don’t succeed, almost everybody will spend their lives digging in the dirt, forever.”
Jim didn’t say anything. He sat doodling on his napkin. Finally, Dr. Poulson said, “We’ll let you think about it overnight.”
Matt escorted us to an inner room lit by candles and with a couple of cots in it. He said, “Relax. Make yourself at home.” When he left, the door swung closed with a solid thump.
I stared at the dim, flickering light of the candles and felt a surge of hope. “We’re going to have light bulbs again, and cars.” I admit that I laughed with a hint of hysteria and tears mixed. The candles seemed to burn brighter, to glow with almost the brilliance of a real light bulb.
Jim stood and watched me, not saying anything. Finally he pulled me to the side of the room farthest from the door and said in a low voice. “They’re going to kill us, you know.”
“Because it’s a fraud, all of it and I saw through it. If they were watching my eyes they’ll know. A magician directs your eyes. I looked where they didn’t want me to.”
“But the train worked, and the CD and the gun.”
“The train worked because they had spun up a flywheel using their windmills before they took us there. The flywheel took us close enough to the windmills that the train would trigger a pop-up chain mechanism connected to a gear buried under the tracks and driven directly by the windmill. Hooks on the bottom of the train engaged the chain and in essence the windmill drove the train. It wouldn’t work with a full-sized train, but with lightweight cars and not too many people it does fine for a short distance.”
“What about the CD and the gun?”
“The CD was actually an old-fashion vinyl album with the song encoded in the grooves and a windup turn-table. It didn’t generate much sound because they had to amplify it with some kind of purely acoustic speaker, like a megaphone. The gun didn’t require anything beyond applied physics. It’s the old sabot principle that a lot of tank guns used to use to get their shells going faster. A hundred pounds per square inch isn’t enough to do much, but multiply it by ten times the area and you’re into ‘it will do damage’ territory. You don’t really get ten times, but you get close enough.”
I felt the darkness close back in. “But these are scientists, nationally, internationally known.”
“Actually, they’re administrators, and second tier ones at that. I don’t know what happened to the people who should be in charge. They’re also hungry, desperate men trying to save themselves and their families, trying to survive long enough for the real scientists to actually figure this out.”
We waited, watching the candles burn down. “Should we try to escape? Figure out something to use as weapons?” I eyed the candles. Too short to use as clubs. Sweep them aside and take our chances on a fight in the darkness?
“Poulson will want to talk,” Jim said. “He’ll want to know when I knew and why. He’ll also want to put me back in my place. That part doesn’t make sense if he’s going to kill us, but I know he will.”
Dr. Poulson walked in, along with four guys with axes in their hands and ‘cop’ in big letters in their expressions and posture, with ‘thug’ written between the lines. He opened his mouth, but Jim spoke first. “Before we came. Actually, before the presentation to the Port Louis council was over.”
“You were going to ask when I knew. I knew you had to be faking because my team back at my little university built a Faraday Cage and tried to make simple circuits work in it. We tried lead shielding We tested for anything foreign in the atmosphere — “
“Oh. You haven’t figured out how to do that yet? It’ll come to you, or one of the real scientists here.”
“We thought you might figure out what we were doing, which is why we brought you here,” Dr. Poulson said.
“And I thought you might be bringing me here for that reason, so I left detailed notes on how you did it,” Jim said. “My team opens them if I don’t get back. Check and mate.”
The rest is anti-climactic, I’m afraid. Jim agreed not to release his notes on the Fermilab fraud and to send them half of the hogs they had demanded, though none of the people, in exchange for a chance to talk to the real scientists at the institution. I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything meaningful about that conversation, except that all concerned seemed fascinated by questions like “Are satellites still functioning? Is the Van Allen Belt still strong? Are there any really deep coal mines in the area?” That last one was apparently to figure out if whatever happened to our machines still worked at depths humans could get to. There was some question as to whether it could because of the life that lives or lived far down in the ocean under high pressure. I don’t understand the issue completely, so I may be botching the explanation.
In any case, my main question was the one I asked on the way home, as we peddled along out of earshot of our escort. “Why did you let them get away with it? And why did you agree to give them the hogs?”
“We have more hogs than we have people to take care of them. We’ll be giving them a small fraction of the hogs that we’ll lose to neglect anyway. In return we get hope. You and I know it’s false hope, but we desperately need it. This is going to make me sound like the most cynical human being in the world, but when they run out of hope, millions of people in the suburbs will flood out into the countryside. They aren’t trapped like the people in Chicago. If they come out now, they’ll come out organized and equipped, and they’ll swamp us. Port Louis county has eighty thousand people. We can survive, but only if we don’t get plundered.”
“What does that have to do with hope?”
“Hope may keep those hordes home for another week or two weeks, eating up their food reserves, drinking their water reserves, getting weaker, creating a logistics desert that will leave people trapped in the inner suburbs because there is no food left to be looted in the outer burbs. If they hope too long, wait too long, most of them will die along the way.” He gave me a haunted look. “And that’s our only hope.”
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀