Winona Cheung was dripping wet as she made the difficult climb up the cliff face. She had just plummeted twelve meters into a crystal clear mountain lake and it had been exhilarating. She heard a loud whoop and in her peripheral vision saw the flash of a naked body fly past. Judging by the merest glimpse of long blond hair it was Jens. She looked down to see the splash of water as he disappeared under and holding on using just one hand she waited to see him resurface. One minute, two, three, four. She looked up to see Letitia peering over the edge; her shape a silhouette because the sun was behind her and her skin was a rich dark brown.
“He’s just showing off,” she yelled up. “He’s probably gone deep to explore the bottom.”
“Yeah, well I can’t very well dive until I see where he is. I don’t fancy cracking my skull on his thick head. He’s being a selfish prick,” Letitia yelled back.
Another head peered over the edge. It was Joji. “Water cold?”
“Bracing deeper down – the climb will warm you up.”
She heard Jens yell from below. He had resurfaced.
“About time,” she heard another voice yell, probably Riva, the new girl. She heard more whoops and yells and then three bodies flew past, spinning and somersaulting.
They allowed themselves an hour of diving, daring each other to perform complex routines, racing each other up the cliff face and generally just goofing around, followed by half an hour to relax in the sun and relieve the pent up adrenalin with sexual play. There were eight of them in all (adding Carlos, Amy and Katjka) and Winona was the designated group leader. She’d been coming out here every summer since she was five and she knew these woods like the back of her hand.
“Okay guys, if you don’t want to eat just plain old staples for supper, time to head out and find food, six to forage, two to fish, there should be plenty of trout.”
There were the usual groans, lame protests and joking around as they wandered back down to the main camp, a group of rough hewn log cabins on the lake shore. They rummaged through their gear and dressed practically. Some in cargo shorts to make use of the utilitarian pockets, no shirts (it was too warm), slip on walking sandals and equip themselves with knives, machetes, fishing lines and sacks. She decided to stay naked except for a utility belt to hold a knife and a tomahawk. This camping trip was primarily for fun but it was also a kind of survival test, an important psychological break from the routine of academic life. Here they were completely free from all supervision and could do as they damn well pleased. The only downside was that they were totally on their own. They couldn’t even use comms to call in help. But that was the point – the risk, the thrill, the challenge of seeing how well they could manage the responsibilities that came with freedom.
She took Jens with her; he stayed naked too, except for an open shirt to keep the sun off his shoulders. Being a blond with Scandi and Irish heritage he had the fairest skin and tended to turn red at the end of a day in the full sun, but she had Indian, Chinese and Latino genes and simply tanned a darker shade of brown.
They were on fifty-six thousand hectares of former Appalachian forest and farmland managed by MIT as part of project Pardes – the regeneration and genetic improvement of complex ecosystems damaged by close to three centuries of deforestation, concentrated farming, species loss, climate change and catastrophic wildfires. The project had been such a success the university was considering introducing higher order predators to control the growing numbers of middle order species. In a few seasons they might have to contend with wolves and bears.
“You figured out what your junior dissertation is going to be about,” Jens asked as she got down on her hands and knees to dig into the soil to loosen a bunch of wild carrots, the remnants of a farm destroyed by a large fire decades ago.
She frowned as she grabbed at the green stems and pulled. He was talking around the issue. She knew he wanted exclusivity with her that night and was trying to find a polite way to ask. “I’d rather not talk about school. We’re supposed to be on a break. There’s probably dozens of other far more interesting topics we could discuss.”
Jens seemed offended and reacted defensively. “It’s what we all have in common and I don’t really know what else you are interested in, but let me check my mental list of socially acceptable topics of mindless conversation: sport, the latest gourmet fad, the weather, art, pop music maybe. There’s the one, weather. What do you think of the new Chinese carbon capture towers, will they have an affect on the climate and this damned hot weather we’ve been having this past half a century?”
She laughed. Like her, he had a sarcastic sense of humour. “You can just ask you know. There’s no need to invent a clever way to broach the subject.”
She shook the carrots free of soil and looked up at him. He had undergone a growth spurt and was now close to two metres tall, well on his way to two plus: lean, with broad shoulders and long legs, his long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. He blushed and she noticed that his cock had expanded, proving that she had guessed correctly. He was still horny, but then, being an adolescent, he was always horny.
“I am doing neuropsych you know. Your voice patterns were incongruent with the topic of conversation. What you really wanted to say is that you want to couple with me tonight. Well, so happens I haven’t arranged exclusivity with any of the others, so yes. I was kind of thinking it was your turn anyway.”
“It’s easy for you,” he pouted, acknowledging that she had been correct. “You are more experienced. This is really just my first summer where I’ve been interested or even physically capable. I only had my first conscious ejaculation nine months ago.”
He had a point. She had been precocious, well ahead of her age cohort. She had sought permission to become sexually active a couple of summers ago. The elders had agreed she was emotionally and cognitively capable, despite the fact she still hadn’t reached puberty. And yes, it had been easy for her. She was a natural, the result of advanced social intelligence. She even thought she might specialise in the neuropsychology of sex, although much of it was, by now, well understood. But for some of her cohort like Jens, this was their first summer of open experimentation. Of course he would be uncertain and awkward.
“I’m sorry, maybe it wasn’t fair of me, but it’s part of the process of negotiating exclusive sexual encounters. People can tell you know. Anyway, we’ve got to focus on foraging first. There should be some herbs and berries nearby.”
They found a small glade of wild apple trees. Birds had taken most of the fruit, but there were enough left for the taking. They also found rosemary, mint and camomile. With their sacks full they rested in a small meadow filled with flowers and ate an apple each. Content, she laid back, her hands behind her head, and looked for shapes in the clouds drifting by. The number of bees and insects buzzing around her told her that the meadow was in prime health and with the task of foraging done, her mood changed. They had time to spare; besides, the others were also probably indulging. It was just too nice a day not to. She turned to look at Jens. He was dozing and had become fully erect. Possibly due to the relaxing effects of the sun and what she assumed must have been an erotic daydream.
She tapped him on the shoulder and he opened one lazy eye to look at her.
She smiled. “Now would be an appropriate time,” she whispered as she leant in to kiss him.
They were late getting back to camp. Joji and Katjka had already started a campfire and the others were helping to prepare the food: trout and catfish, roasted beets and a salad of greens, cucumber, young walnuts, plus the carrots and herbs she had found – desert would be roasted apples topped with berries.
Their stomachs full they sat around the campfire and told stories and sang popular songs; Letitia taught them a tribal dance and they settled into the night’s sleeping arrangements: Katjka with Amy, Letitia with Carlos and Joji, she with Jens. This left the new girl Riva on her own. She went up to her to check if she was okay with the arrangements and found her staring wistfully at the night sky.
“It’s beautiful. You can see so many stars up here, away from the light pollution of the city,” she said to start the conversation.
Riva nodded and pointed. “I was looking for Mars, there, found it.”
She followed Riva’s finger and searched for the familiar red dot.
“Just sending my thoughts to my sister. She’s just arrived at Lovelace…” Riva explained.
“What! You didn’t say anything…” she said excitedly. “You’re a dark horse…”
“Hey everyone, Riva’s older sister is on Mars.”
Riva seemed to blanche at the sudden attention.
“Who?” asked Jens as the others gathered close to hear her story.
“Oh, Darja, Darja Kass…” she replied shyly.
“So you’re that kind of Kass, that must mean your mother is Professor Sula Kass, the famous Latvian geneticist?” exclaimed Katjka, impressed.
Riva nodded, clearly embarrassed by her family’s fame.
‘Wow, big shoes to fill… She’s working on the genetic reconfiguration of the human body to handle interstellar travel isn’t she?” asked Letitia.
“Not quite yet. It may not be possible anyway…” Riva said softly. “For the moment they’re just looking at the mods for living on Mars.”
“You’re not…?” asked Joji.
“Me, no. It’s decades away, they’re still testing the interstellar drive. But maybe some of my ova will be modified and stored…”
“Will your genome be represented on the ark?” asked Amy with reverential awe.
They were stunned into silence, some stared at the stars, their imaginations excited by the presence of a girl whose descendants might one day camp out under an alien sky.
When the excitement had calmed down she took Riva aside. “You are welcome to join me and Jens tonight.”
“That’s okay. I’m kind of tired. Big day. Besides, I don’t think he wants to share. Not tonight anyway. You won’t be offended?”
She squeezed Riva’s arm gently to reassure her, kissed her gently on the mouth and left her to her thoughts.
Their moods became pensive after the revelation. They still retired into their groupings but the sounds of their intimacies were subdued, their minds fascinated by more exciting possibilities.
After breakfast and a refreshing swim in the lake, Riva sought Winona’s company. They held hands and walked quietly as they followed a creek into a glade of willows.
“Makes you wonder what it will be like on another world,” Winona said finally, probing Riva for a more expansive response to the previous night’s conversation.
“I suppose. The chances of failure are high,” Riva replied dispassionately. “I wonder if we shouldn’t just stay here and fix this planet, especially after the mess we’ve made. Sometimes I think we should just appreciate what we’ve got.”
“Is that what’s on your mind, you don’t agree with your mother or sister’s choice…”
“No, I just… I guess I don’t understand. I mean; I get that humanity needs the challenge, but Mars is barren and unforgiving, without a core to provide a protective magnetosphere, it sort of seems futile. We have to build everything from the ground up and shield it, and it’s not self-maintaining, not like Earth. Besides, I worry about her. If she dies up there, they won’t bring her body back.”
She understood the fear. Mars had so far claimed four lives. “I suppose people are curious and want to at least try.”
Riva stopped her talking by kissing her on the mouth and reaching between her legs with a sudden, desperate passion. This wasn’t about the release of sexual tension, something was clearly troubling Riva, something unconscious. Going on vacation could loosen the normal constraints and allow suppressed material to rise to the surface. It was one of the reasons they came: to daydream, play; develop bonds, to explore neglected parts of their psyches.
She was about to gently question Riva to try and uncover the dilemma when she saw the body, at first just the hint of pale blue cloth behind a fallen log. She gasped and dragged Riva closer to see. It was a muddied girl dressed in a long, blue cotton dress, black stockings, boots and a white bonnet covering wet, tangled red hair.
“A refuser girl. Is she dead?” Riva asked, her voice quavering from the shock.
Winona bent down to feel the girl’s neck. “Her body is still warm. She’s got a faint pulse. She’s probably just exhausted and dehydrated.”
“What’s she doing here? She must know it’s restricted.”
“Perhaps she’s a runaway?”
“Poor thing, what shall we do with her? If she’s a runaway they’ll be wanting her back, the treaty…”
“Not if she is deemed competent and requests asylum.”
Riva bent down and cleared some of the hair from her face. “She’s pretty, Celtic, but she looks young. She might be stupid, a lot of them are. And the dress… She looks like she belongs to one of those weird sects.”
“If that’s the case she’s a long way from home. Here, help me remove some of these damp clothes. I need to check her for any serious injuries before we can carry her back to camp. I don’t want to do more damage.”
“Do you think we should? They teach them that we are demons. She might become terrified. Perhaps the most compassionate thing would be to put her to rest? It would be legal under the treaty.”
Winona looked at Riva horrified by the thought. “We have to determine if she’s competent first.”
“And if she resists and becomes violent? You know they believe we have no souls and it’s okay to deceive and steal from us, even to hurt us. She could be dangerous.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Not all of them believe that nonsense. If she becomes a problem I’ll dispose of her as humanely as possible myself.”
They gently undressed her and pulled their faces in disgust. She had soiled herself.
“She’s so tiny and pale and weak,” Riva complained. “Has she got any visible defects apart from her pale, freckled skin?”
She checked the girl for any broken bones, deep cuts or malformations. All she could see were bruises, superficial scratches and blisters on her feet from walking, otherwise she seemed okay. She picked the girl up, she was as light as a bird, and took her to the creek to wash her. It was then they saw the scars on her back, buttocks and legs. She had clearly been beaten.
“No wonder she ran away, poor thing,” said Riva beginning to feel pity rather than disgust.
“Some of the sects believe it is okay to beat wives and disobedient children. We have to give her a chance to at least explain herself.”
Riva nodded her agreement and Winona picked her up and cradled her in her arms. They walked silently back to camp, Riva carrying her torn and muddied clothes.
There was considerable excitement and shock as they lay the girl on a bunk and wrapped her in a cotton blanket to warm her. Jens was studying medicine so he made a more thorough examination of her injuries.
“Poor thing’s malnourished, dehydrated, exhausted and in a state of shock. She’s also got a mild curvature of the spine, scoliosis, and her teeth are a mess. I’d guess she’s thirteen or fourteen…”
“But she’s tiny…”
“Refusers tend to enter puberty later, in part due to diet, stress, genetics… You didn’t notice the swelling around her nipples?”
Winona shook her head. “Wasn’t really looking, but you agree that she has been physically assaulted?”
“Unfortunately yes. The scars on her back are of different ages but her hymen is intact, so it might not have been sexual, although some of these sects indulge in sexual sadism of various sorts. She hasn’t had a good life that’s for sure.”
“So what do we do?”
“We should get some water into her and a light porridge with mushed berries, the fructose should give her system an energy boost. We don’t have a drip so I’m afraid we’ll have to force feed her. Then we wait and see. I give her a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the night.”
“Poor thing,” Carlos muttered as he looked down at her. “Just so unnecessary. We could fix all their problems if they just let us.”
“If is the operative term,” Letitia snarled. “The sooner they die out the better as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard some have reverted to a feudal serf society.”
“Looks like she might have been a servant girl herself. Just because she’s a Celt doesn’t mean she was a part of the ruling class,” Joji reminded her.
Jens prepared the liquid gruel and Winona helped him hold her mouth open as he pushed a spoon in, forcing the girl to swallow reflexively.
“Like feeding a baby,” Letitia scoffed dismissively.
“I’ll take first vigil,” Winona said.
“I’ll relieve you in a few hours,” Jens offered with a gentle smile.
The girl woke mid morning. She tossed and turned, stretched, opened her eyes and then sat up with a start.
“Where am I?” she demanded in a strong Confederate accent.
“Safe,” Winona replied as she went immediately to her side.
The girl closed her eyes in disbelief and then opened them again. She recoiled in alarm as she saw other figures standing in the distance. She looked around instinctively for a weapon or a way to escape.
“Don’t be alarmed, we won’t hurt you. After all, we rescued you, probably saved your life.”
The girl realised she was sitting up in bed naked. She pulled at the blanket to cover her upper body and returned to staring directly at Winona. “Your eyes… You are new men?”
“Yes, I suppose you could call us new men, although we do not call ourselves that. As for where you are, you have crossed the border into the New Commonwealth of America and trespassed onto a restricted reservation. Does my appearance frighten you?” Winona asked with a smile and a reassuring tone.
When she realised she was under no immediate threat the girl’s fright turned to curiosity. “No, but I heard tales, never expected… You’re tall, sort of pretty in a weird sort of way, like some long, lost tribe, or something.” The girl looked at her closely trying to find the words. “Maybe it’s the high forehead and larger eyes. Folks back home say you’re unnatural, freaks, but it don’t immediately seem that way to me.” She looked over at the others. “You always naked like animals or savages or damned hippies or something?”
Winona smiled at the girl’s bluntness. “No, not always. We just don’t believe in wearing clothes when it’s not necessary. It’s summer and there’s no one around to object, so… Now, are you hungry? And I’m Winona by the way. What’s your name?”
“Gracie ma’am, Grace Mary Roberts. Thank you for your kindness… I didn’t mean no harm and no disrespect. I reckon I got lost, that’s all. I’d best get out of your hair…”
“I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere Gracie,” said Jens as he stepped into view. “Not in your current condition anyway. You’ll need to get your strength back first.”
The girl blushed and looked down.
“Gracie, this is Jens. He’s in his first year of med. He tended to you.”
The girl would not look up.
“Best get used to us Gracie. You are on Commonwealth land now and subject to our laws and customs and we are not about to change to please a refuser,” Jens said firmly but kindly.
She opened just one eye and looked up at him, trying not to notice his nakedness but unable to avoid it. “You? A doctor? You look like you’re just a boy, tall as a man mind. It’s hard to tell without, you know…”
“I’m roughly the same age as you, twelve, but we are taller and we mature earlier and you are right, we don’t have body hair. We are modified to withstand the higher temperatures. It’s another good reason not to wear clothes, to allow the body’s natural cooling, the way it was designed.”
“I ain’t twelve, I’m fourteen. Damn, y’all this goddamned tall and, well, good looking?” she said, trying to make a joke of her embarrassment.
“We average over two metres, seven feet in your measure, some reach eight,” Jens explained. “But Saps can get tall too. It’s where we get our genes for height from.”
“Homo Sapiens, your species. We call ourselves Homo Excultus. It sort of means cultivated or improved man.”
“Although many just call us mods, as in modified,” said Riva bringing her a cup of water and porridge of oats, rice, diced apricot and wild honey.
The girl gulped down the water and the porridge.
“Slower,” Jens insisted, holding back her hand. “Your stomach has probably been empty for a few days.”
The girl nodded and slowed her pace. Riva fetched her another cup of water.
The others had heard the girl was awake and came into see. Winona introduced them as the girl ate. She looked up at them shyly to acknowledge each of them with a small nod, her expression a mixture of shock and wide-eyed wonder, especially when she was introduced to Letitia, who was the tallest and most physically imposing of them all.
When she was finished she blushed. “Um, where’s my dress? You got an outhouse or something?”
“I’m afraid your clothes are still wet. We’ve washed them as best we can, but they’re pretty much ruined,” offered Amy, speaking for the first time.
“Well, I ain’t like you…”
“We understand your skin type needs protection from the sun. You’re a prime candidate for skin cancer, although you look like you have a vitamin D deficiency so some sun would be advisable. It’ll help give your immune system a boost,” said Jens tossing her a khaki hiking shirt. “Here, this will have to do, the material has UV protection.”
‘It ain’t quite what I meant,” the girl said angrily, folding her arms across her chest. “Y’all gonna watch?”
They left silently, all except Winona and Jens. She glared at them and refused to move.
“I’m not going anywhere, besides, who do you think undressed you and tended to your wounds?” Jens replied gently.
She frowned and realised she was in no position to make a fuss. Winona pulled back the blanket and the girl reached for Jens arm. She stood unsteadily and he gently helped her put her weakened arms into the sleeves. It was oversized and covered her to her knees, but at least it was functional.
They were standing around waiting for her to return, watching the others play volleyball (they kept some sports equipment stored in the main cabin). The girl tiptoed up silently behind them, surprising them.
“How come y’all roughing it? I heard y’all got metal heads as servants. It don’t look like you even got solar or wind or satellite,” she said pointing to the roof. “We might be backwards and poor, but even we got those.”
“Metal heads?” asked Jens, puzzled.
“Bots, it’s refuser slang,” Winona explained.
“And why y’all keep callin me a refuser?” the girl asked.
“Because your lot have rejected the benefits of science on religious grounds. Your government has outlawed genetic engineering, robotics and AI because they believe it goes against God’s design. Creationism is state doctrine.”
“Oh, I don’t know nuthin about all that,” said the girl, cannily avoiding the subject.
“But to answer your other question…” Winona said. “Sometimes it’s just good to get away from the city and tech, get back to nature. We’re here on vacation. We all go to the same university, the university that manages this reserve.”
“Just you?” she said nodding to the others. “No grown-ups, no teachers or supervisors?”
“Kinda like summer camp?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
The girl turned her attention to the volleyball game. Carlos had just sent a blistering serve that had been barely saved by a dive from Katjka. The ball went high and Letitia and Amy positioned themselves for a spike/block combination. When the ball was in the right position Letitia leapt high, her body all muscle and power. Amy leapt too, but couldn’t quite reach her height and Letitia slammed the ball into the back, right pocket.
Winona watched the girl’s expression, a mixture of embarrassment and fascination.
“Sweet Jesus, will you look at that. Y’all goddamned super athletes too?” asked the girl.
“I suppose,” said Jens. “It’s just normal for us…”
“Well it ain’t fair that’s for sure, and I suppose y’all are like super smart too?”
“We are optimised; our genomes have been constructed from the best sap genes available, the best minds, the best athletes…” he replied proudly.
“Oh,” she said looking down at her feet in a gesture of submission.
Jens saw it and blushed because he knew he had been arrogant.
“And what do y’all geniuses plan on doing with me? I suppose you’re gonna turn me into the authorities?” she asked with a sigh of defeat.
“Yes, you’ll have to be assessed. If you meet the criteria you can seek asylum, otherwise you’ll probably be returned to the Confederate authorities as an illegal immigrant,” said Winona.
The girl looked startled. “Go back? I can’t… They’ll…”
“They’ll what? I think it’s time you told us exactly who you are, where you come from and why you’re here Gracie,” demanded Winona, deliberately adopting a sterner tone.
They sat on the small porch in the shade as the girl told a simple but sad story. She spoke in an emotionless monotone. Winona knew it was the effect of trauma, of deliberately numbing her emotions as a form of protection. She explained that she had been born in West Virginia to two schoolteachers. “Old Virginians, our families go back a long ways.” She was an only child. When she was ten both parents were killed in a car accident and given there were no immediate relatives who could look after her, she was sent to an orphanage run by a religious charity. They had branded her a troublemaker and she had been bullied and abused.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” Winona sighed, appalled that people could still use corporal punishment.
“Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Psalms. They made us recite it every damn time we was disciplined. My Ma and Pa didn’t believe in it.”
“So you ran away?”
“Twice, but they caught me and disciplined me. They said when I turned twelve they’d marry me off to the Dominionists…”
The girl seemed surprised by the question. “Yes, the biblical age of marriage. When the Temple turned Mary over to Joseph, according to some. And if they can’t marry you off, they send you into domestic service to pay your debt.”
“Debt for the misfortune of loosing your family?”
“The Dominionists believe misfortune is God’s punishment for sin. You regain His grace through repentance, obedience and hard work,” the girl answered.
“Sounds like an excuse for indentured labour,” Winona said dismissively. “So you ran away again, and here you are?”
The girl nodded. “I was hoping to get to the coast and find a way to catch a boat.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “To not ‘merica, that’s for damned certain. Grandma Rose told me about a place called Paris. That’s where she had her honeymoon, before the troubles.”
As she told her story Winona and Jens shared knowing glances. Winona listened very carefully to her tone and watched her body language. With each comment the girl revealed what she did or did not know about the real world, and whether she was lying or only telling part of the story.
“And did you learn about the troubles Gracie?” Winona probed.
The girl gave a self-deprecating shrug of her shoulders. “I dunno, some. There was a second civil war wasn’t there? And the Confederacy of Free Christians won back its independence from the godless Yankees. No disrespect to y’all. It’s just what they say.”
“Well I suppose that’s one way to put it,” said Jens sarcastically.
The girl reacted to his tone. “Why, what do y’all say then?”
“It’s a bit complicated, but basically tension between the north and south had been brewing for decades. When an evangelical president was elected…”
“Yeah, Spencer, wasn’t it? They named the new capital after him…” the girl interrupted.
“Things got worse. A group of states decided to secede because his anti-science policies were hurting research and investment into vital new technology. He was acting on behalf of the old mining and fossil fuel industries.”
The girl scrunched her eyes to indicate she didn’t quite understand.
“Oil and gas. Things came to a head when he attempted to place restrictions on research at the major universities: Caltech, Harvard, Yale, our university, MIT. This upset some of the new tech billionaires. In the end all wars are about money,” Winona explained.
“They say that God answered their prayers and returned them to the path of righteousness…”
“The old US had always been two nations anyway, the religious and the secular. It was never an easy fit,” Lens sighed. ‘Now the whole world is divided into anti-science theocracies – in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East – and the developed, pro-science nations.”
“Our mistake was thinking we could tolerate intolerance. We had to learn an old lesson all over again. Intolerance doesn’t play nice,” Winona added.
“Yeah, you mean we’ll burn in hell whilst the righteous spend eternity in heaven,” said Letitia dismissively, overhearing the conversation as she stepped onto the porch to go inside inside to fetch some refreshments. “Apparently we have no souls, we are not even human.”
“Letitia…” Winona said to stop her.
The girl became angry. “It ain’t what I say. It’s what I been told, that y’all have been tricked by Satan, that you are demon spawn. That only Almighty God made man.”
“And do you think I’m a demon?” said Letitia standing before her, her hands on her hips.
The girl froze. All she could see was a perspiring, muscular, dark skinned girl over two metres tall glowering at her with vivid yellow cougar eyes as if she was about to pounce and rip her throat open.
Winona watched the girl clench her fists in defiance, ready to defend herself. “No ma’am, it’s just what I’ve been told.”
Jens stood to pull Letitia away. “You’re not helping, you’re scaring her.”
“She shouldn’t be here,” Letitia complained as Jens dragged her inside.
“I should go,” the girl stood unsteadily.
“You won’t get far…”
“Don’t matter, I ain’t going back, best leave it up to the Lord. If He wants to take me…”
“I can’t let that happen Gracie. You’re under our protection now. Don’t mind Letitia. She’s got a reason to be angry. Confederate thugs lynched her grandfather. Her grandmother barely made it across the border to safety.”
“Was it Klan militia? Coz he was a nigger or wetback or faggot or something?”
Winona drew in her breath at hearing the harsh words, even though she knew they were still commonly used in the Confederacy. “No, because of his political beliefs. They said he was a Commonwealth spy.”
“And was he?”
“Yes Gracie, I suppose he was.”
“I just don’t trust her, they’re cunning,” Letitia complained.
They were sitting around the campfire, baking apples in the fire. The girl was asleep in the cabin, still exhausted.
“It could all be a lie,” Katjka suggested. “There have been problems with poachers up and down the border. She could be a scout who got lost. They send children because they know we’ll go soft.”
“How do you explain her condition then?” asked Joji.
“Just because they beat their children doesn’t mean she isn’t one of them,” Amy added.
“Stockholm syndrome. They use brainwashing techniques, in fact their whole society has been brainwashed. That’s what caused the problem in the first place. The intransigence of the religious groups,” Carlos said.
“Look, I’m not saying these things aren’t possible, they just aren’t relevant,” Winona argued. “We were the ones who found her so she’s our responsibility. Our task is to get her back so she can be assessed.”
“What, leave early and spoil our break?” Letitia complained.
“No need for that. She’s not fit to walk out anyway. It’ll take her a few days to recover,” Jens replied.
“Yeah, but she’ll still be hanging around gawking at us like we’re freaks. It’s creepy, especially with their narrow, puritanical minds. I can sense her judging us,” said Amy.
“Just ignore her,” said Winona. “She’s on our turf now. She has to abide by our rules.”
“It’s not that easy. She makes me feel self-conscious, especially as far having sex goes. I don’t want to feel like I have to sneak off into the bushes to avoid traumatising her. Who knows what backward ideas she’s been taught.”
“I suspect she’s not that innocent,” said Jens to defend her.
“Maybe not, but if she’s been sexually abused she might have a traumatic reaction to anything sexual. We don’t know how she’ll react to our ways. She might freak out.”
“Let her go, I say,” said Letitia. ‘We are not legally required to assist her. She hasn’t made a formal request.”
“We still have to file an incident report, or at least, I’ll file an incident report. There will be an investigation and we’ll all have to justify our actions,” said Jens looking pointedly at Letitia. “What we do here may affect our final assessment and our future career prospects. You know how competitive it is, especially at the top tier.”
“They won’t care about one refuser child,” said Katjka. “They found eleven bodies last month alone, just across the border. Some had been shot by their own and left to rot.”
“Some were criminals crossing the border to escape justice,” Riva reminded them.
“If you can call their justice, justice,” scoffed Amy, who was studying first year law.
“Even more reason to help her. Look, I understand. When we first found her she was in such a pathetic state I said we should put her out of her misery, but now I’m not so sure. I think there’s something there. I mean, she may be a sap, but the sap genome still throws up the odd surprise or two,” Riva suggested.
“You think she might be gifted in some way?” asked Katjka.
“If that is the case her genome is protected,” Lens reminded them.
“And we can’t possibly know that until she’s been assessed,” said Winona, repeating her point and ending the discussion.
“Well this has turned out to be a fun vacation,” Letitia moaned.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s kind of exciting,” Joji disagreed. “I mean; I’ve never met a real refuser before. I think it’s fascinating and it is kind of cute.”
“You sound like you’d like to keep her for a pet,” Letitia laughed sarcastically.
“Please, please. We’ve allowed our stress levels to rise,” said Winona walking up to Letitia and stroking her face to placate her. “Let’s forget this now.” Winona kissed her and she responded. She waved Joji over and he joined the kiss. He became erect quickly and Winona guided Letitia’s hand to stroke it. Her anger dissolved quickly to passion.
The others responded just as quickly and soon they were a mess of bodies comforting and pleasing each other in the flickering orange light of the campfire.
In the morning the girl asked if there was somewhere she could wash her hair.
“Sure, it’s rather basic I’m afraid. We sit on the edge of the pier and fetch water from the lake in a bucket. I’ll help if you like, your hair looks like it’s got a few knots and tangles,” Winona replied. “You’ll have to undress of course.”
The girl nodded her head and made a sarcastic comment. “Yeah, kind of figured that part for myself.”
Winona understood that her sarcasm was a face saving gesture signalling that she was preparing to compromise.
When they reached the edge of the small wooden pier they stood for a moment to admire the view. The surface of the lake was mirror still and covered by a light mist backlit by a golden, morning sun. A large flock of loons came over the hill and settled onto the water.
“Sure is pretty. I’ve never seen so many birds all at once.”
“Look,” Winona said, pointing to the shore in the middle distance.
The girl squinted her eyes. “What?”
“A group of deer, and there, three fawn… coming out from behind those pines to drink.”
The girl sighed. “Jesus wept, your eyes, you can see them? I can hardly make em out. You don’t see deer anymore where I come from.”
“That’s because they’re not protected. We don’t allow hunting and we’ve engineered them to help them adapt.”
“You engineered everything round here?”
“Most things, to help them tolerate the warmer temperatures and boost their immune systems so they can handle some of the new, warm climate diseases. I understand you’ve got a lot of dieback over the border and increasing problems with tropical diseases.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “Some places is poisoned from sucking gas out of the ground. They say God made the earth in six days so he can remake it anytime he wants.” The girl made a shooting gesture with her hands. “Better hope them deer don’t cross the border. Bam! Bam! Can’t go into the woods back home for fear some stupid redneck will mistake you for game. I never liked hunting, or guns.”
“They won’t wander over the border. Life’s too good here. They go where there’s food and they’re safe. If anything we’ve noticed wildlife crossing over from the Confederacy, most of it diseased and half-starved. Somehow they know.”
“Just like me I reckon,” said the girl with a sigh.
“Maybe, but their numbers are growing and soon they’ll start to strip the land of food. That’s why we’re going to introduce higher order predators and later, humans who want to live a tribal lifestyle. It’s all about restoring balance.”
“Like injuns?” The girl remained silent, looking out across the lake, lost in a moment of thought, perhaps imagining what it would be like.
“Yes, I’m part Shawnee on my mother’s side. These were our traditional lands. And Letitia has a bit of Cherokee on her father’s side. This is just the beginning. We’ll create more reserves like this all the way up to the Catskills and on into Canada, same over in the west along the Rockies. It’s called rewilding – for humans too. It’s not good for us to get too far from nature.”
“I got part Choctaw in me,” said the girl to indicate she understood the concept. “Some ways back, some sort of family scandal about an illegitimate half-breed. Ma said it happened more often that folks wanted to admit. There’s an old drawing. Her name was Mary, my great-great-great grandmother, or something. Ma used to joke I took after her, that I was part savage. I kind of liked the idea. I wasn’t allowed to speak of it at the orphanage. The Confederates have outlawed the tribes, said everyone has to be a Christian,” the girl explained with a touch of sadness.
“Well, they’ve tried to ban them. Some still exist, underground.”
The girl nodded and took a deep breath as if steeling herself. “Well best get this done.” She looked around to see if they were alone, Joji and Katjka were in the middle distance talking. When they saw the girl looking in their direction they waved.
“They’re not going anywhere on your account.”
The girl seemed to have already made her decision. She shrugged her shoulders and angrily pulled the overlarge shirt off in one quick movement. She glared defiantly at Winona, daring her to tease her about her pale, scrawny visage.
“Might as well turn native like ya’ll,” she said as she attempted a smile of resignation.
Winona smiled in return. The girl’s anger was a good sign. It showed she was protective of her boundaries, a sign of psychological resilience.
“It’s going to be cold,” she warned as she lifted the bucket. The girl watched her with admiration as her arm, back muscles and gluts flexed under the weight.
“Won’t be the first cold shower I’ve had,” the girl said gritting her teeth in readiness.
Winona tipped the water over the girl and she shivered with the shock before quickly regaining her composure, wanting to prove that she was tough. She handed the girl a squeeze bottle of herb-scented soap.
‘Will you help me scrub my back?” the girl asked. Winona took it as a welcome invitation to intimacy.
Together they lathered her body. It gave Winona time to study her more closely. Once she got some meat on her bones she would become quite beautiful. Apart from the slight curvature in her spine her limbs were well proportioned and with physical training she could develop a reasonably strong, athletic body. The scoliosis and scars would be easy to fix.
As she massaged the soap into the girl’s hair the girl gave a deep sigh and relaxed her shoulders. The physical contact was releasing oxytocin, helping to build a neuropsychological bond. It did not surprise her when the girl broached an intimate subject.
“You know, it’s kinda hard to tell y’all apart, y’all look alike, at least from certain angles,” the girl stated in her characteristically blunt manner.
“Huh? What do you mean?” asked Winona as she started to untangle some knots with her fingers.
“Male and female. I mean, I don’t want to be rude, but Jens. He’s sort of pretty, and gentle, like a girl. I mean he’s obviously male if you understand my meaning…”
The girl hesitated and blushed and Winona laughed. “Yes, he is rather pretty and I know exactly what you mean.”
“And you, you’re, well…”
“More muscular? It’s okay; you’re not being rude. We’ve been modified to remove some of the gender differences. Mod females are just as tall and strong as males, and males can be a bit more feminine…”
“Oh.” The girl thought for a moment, unsure of how to broach the subject. “But you still, you know…?”
“Well yeah, and you know… like normal folks.”
“Have sex?” asked Winona as she worked on a particularly tough tangle.
“Folks say y’all are sodomites… I don’t mean no disrespect, but I saw him give that guy Carlos a hug and a kiss. Is he… you know?”
“Ah yes, that rather quaint biblical term. I’ve heard that your lot refer to the Commonwealth as either Babylon or Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“Babylon the great is fallen and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication. It’s from Revelations. I mean, that’s what they say, the Dominionists that is. They drummed it into us. But I could never make sense of it. Not as I can judge. They accused me of being unnatural because of Lizzie.”
“Yeah, Elizabeth Jones, she was in the orphanage with me. We kinda became best friends. They caught us in bed together and accused us of wickedness, but we were just keeping each other warm. We kissed is all, not seriously. That earned me a whipping I can tell you.”
“Well nothing like that happens in the Commonwealth. We don’t see anything wrong with a girl liking a girl or a boy liking a boy, or both. But that’s another mod, we are non-hierarchical and bisexual, more like bonobos than chimps.”
“Bono-whats? I mean, I heard of chimpanzees, seen them in a zoo when I was younger.”
“They’re sort of like chimps but without the aggression and alpha male hierarchy.”
“Yeah, you know, the top males, the ones with all the power and privilege – the leader.”
“Assholes you mean?”
Winona laughed. “Well yes, I suppose you could say that. When geneticists unlocked the sequences that made the bonobos different, they realised it would be easy to modify humans to make them less violent. Thing is, humans are a little closer genetically to bonobos than chimps anyway. It worked. We don’t have the problems with male violence you saps have. And it turns out the bonobo cooperation model is far more efficient than chimp competition. We don’t have the social and economic problems: the domestic violence, male crime gangs, social alienation, that sort of thing.”
“Just by altering genes?”
“Well, it’s a bit more complex than that. Genes certainly affect behaviour, but behaviour can also reinforce genetic selection. Saps select for alpha males and reinforce it in their culture, so we changed the culture too. We see alpha male dominance as a psychopathology.”
The girl did not seem that shocked, perhaps because she did not fully understand; instead she became pensive. “But y’all still have children the normal way? I heard tell y’all were born in test tubes.”
“Yes, we were born the normal way. It’s just the first lot of modified genes that are produced in a lab, but after that they’re passed down the normal way. A child needs human contact, needs to gestate in a womb and hear the beat of a mother’s heart, to feed on her breast, to have human affection. There’s no machine or bot that can ever replace that.”
“You going to have a child?”
“Very likely, but I’ve got plenty of time before I think about it.”
“I’ll have a career first and probably wait until I’m fifty or sixty…”
“Sixty, but won’t you have gone through the change?”
“Not when you live to a hundred and fifty, maybe more. Gives you plenty of time.”
“Hundred and fifty! Holy crap!”
“You didn’t know? Well, I suppose I can understand why they’d want to keep that quiet. We’ve cured most of the genetic diseases that lead to premature old age.”
“But only for new men like you?”
“No, for saps too. We could increase your life span and fix you up, correct your scoliosis, get rid of your scars, remove any diseased genetic sequences… You could live a long and happy life.”
“But there’s a catch?”
“Yes. You’d have to declare loyalty to our secular constitution. Some refugees find that incompatible with their religious faith, in which case they are asked to leave. That was the problem before the war. Faith and reason are fundamentally incompatible.”
“So it’s true, y’all are Godless atheists?”
“And proudly so. Will that be a problem for you?”
“I reckon not. The Dominionists said I had the devil in me anyways…”
“Well being an atheist means there’s no devil either.”
The girl nodded. “Will I be modified?”
“Yes, the Commonwealth has mandated stage one modification for all citizens.”
“What’s stage one?”
“The removal of all genetic diseases to prevent any chance of passing them on. In fact it’s illegal to knowingly pass on a curable genetic condition, just as its illegal to knowingly pass on a transmissible infection.”
“Stage one? Are there are other stages?”
“Stage two is modding your children. It’s not compulsory but most people choose it.”
“And if I don’t agree?”
“Simple really. You can’t be part of the Commonwealth.” She passed her fingers through her hair. There were no more tangles. “There, finished,” Winona said as she gave the girl a quick hug. “We usually rinse off in the lake, you game?”
The girl nodded, accepting the dare out of pride. “My folks had a pool. Even went skinny dipping in a creek once, so I suppose I don’t really mind, seeing as there’s no adults or perverts around.”
Winona yelled out to Joji and Katjka. They didn’t hesitate. Jens heard the commotion and poked his head out from one of the cabins. They came running. The girl was wide-eyed and blushing as Joji came close, simply because he was well equipped and it was flip-flopping comically as he ran.
“I do pity boys sometimes,” Winona said nudging her playfully, letting her know she understood what the girl was thinking. “Come on then, last one in.”
They fooled around in the water for a bit. The girl laughed when Jens got her to climb on his shoulders so they could wrestle Winona and Joji, with Joji on top because he was slightly lighter. Jens did most of the hard work but in the end they were toppled. They relaxed on the bank in the sun to dry and the girl told them more about her parents. She seemed to have forgotten her inhibitions.
“Then God said: I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”
The girl was speaking in a mock preacherly tone as she perched naked on Winona’s shoulders reaching for wild plums. She had made a good recovery and had insisted she start making herself useful. She was still weak but Jens thought she needed to rebuild her strength through incremental periods of exercise, provided she was monitored. So she had joined him, Winona and Riva on a small, late afternoon food gathering trip to an old orchid, nothing too strenuous.
“Genesis?” asked Winona.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to preach, but this place is so abundant it kind of reminds me of the Garden of Eden. I feel like Eve reaching for the apple.”
“And are we the serpents?” asked Jens as a gentle tease.
“I think they’d see us as more like the children of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. And besides, it wasn’t apples, it was pomegranates,” said Riva to correct him.
“Pome- what? But I’ve seen pictures and it’s definitely an apple, and who was Lilith?” asked the girl as Winona lowered her down gently.
“Apples are native to Central Asia. They became known as the forbidden fruit through Greek mythology, particularly the myth of Heracles,” said Riva. “The Semitic tribes believed it was the pomegranate that symbolised wisdom. Their priests had stylised pomegranates sewn onto their robes. That’s the problem with Christians, they don’t even understand the real meaning of their myths.”
“That’s right, one of Heracles’s tasks was entering the Garden of the Hesperides to get the golden apples from the Tree of Life. I bet in the pictures you saw Adam and Eve were white. Bet they didn’t tell you they were really dark brown,” added Winona.
“Dark brown? How do you figure that?” asked the girl.
“Well, what were the four rivers that ran through Eden?” asked Riva.
“Um, Gihon, Pishon, um, the Tigris and the Euphrates,” the girl answered confidently.
“Hmm, I’m impressed, at least you have a good comprehension, even if it is the bible. The Tigris and Euphrates are in modern day Iraq and Syria and the people there are dark brown.”
“Huh, I never thought of it like that, although I did know Jesus was a Jew, from the land of Israel. But who was this Lilith?”
“Well, I think you know that Genesis is one of the books of the Jewish bible, the Torah?”
“Ahah,” the girl nodded. “The Old Testament.”
“Well the story of Lilith comes from another Jewish book called the Midrash and it says Lilith was created from soil at the same time as Adam. She was his equal and she refused to obey him. Christians believe she gave birth to demons because she disobeyed God.”
“Well, there’s a blasphemy. You wouldn’t dare say that where I come from,” the girl said, delighting in the taboo.
“Well, I’d rather see us as the nymphs of the Garden of the Hesperides myself. That version of the garden myth is much more uplifting,” Jens suggested.
“Nymphs?” the girl asked with a frown.
“Yes, the spirits of nature. They’re usually depicted as beautiful naked girls and women. I guess that’s one of the main differences between the Commonwealth and the Confederation. We’ve decided to return to the Garden of Eden and look after it, like the nymphs of the woods and meadows.”
“And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it,” the girl quoted.
“Something like that,” said Winona. “That’s where we think the Garden of Eden story got it wrong. It created the idea that this life is a punishment for original sin. Christians long for a heaven that doesn’t exist and in the meantime, create a hell on earth. We think the opposite. This reality is all we have and so we have to create heaven here, now.”
“Well I reckon I don’t mind being a nymph,” said the girl with a big smile. She swirled around, relishing the freedom. She did a cartwheel and spontaneously broke into a happy song, an old Appalachian folk tune.
“Well, there’s a talent. You have a very beautiful voice,” said Winona in admiration.
“Pitch perfect too,” said Jens.
“My Ma used to sing,” said the girl. “I ain’t done it a long time.”
“Can you sing us another song?” asked Riva.
On their way back the girl rode on Jens’s shoulders entertaining them with Appalachian folk songs. They came over a crest of hill and because she was higher up, the girl saw it first, a thin line of smoke rising just behind a distant hill. Their hearts beat faster. Wildfire!
“We’ll have to leave straight away and alert the authorities,” said Riva in a panic, remembering the wildfire that had destroyed her home in the forests of Estonia just a few years earlier.
“The satellites would have already detected it if it was a wildfire. The drones would already be on their way,” Jens said to calm her.
“I reckon it’s a campfire,” said the girl. “And I reckon they’re looking for me, which means I’d best be going. You don’t want to mix with that lot.”
Jens pulled the girl off his shoulders. “Who are they?”
The girl had tears in her eyes and she had started to tremble. “A search party most like. They’ll have guns and they don’t like new men. I have to go. It’s just me they want. I don’t want there to be trouble on my account.”
Jens looked at Winona with alarm. They all knew then that girl must have done something serious. The Confederate authorities wouldn’t send an armed patrol into Commonwealth territory without good cause.
“What haven’t you told us?” said Jens gripping the girl’s shoulders in alarm.
She collapsed on the ground in tears. Through her sobs she told them she had killed a man, an important man.
“In self-defence?” asked Jens softly, bending down to comfort her, immediately regretting his lapse.
She nodded. “Yes, he was… You know… They did it to my friend…”
“Lizzie?” asked Winona in a soothing voice and stroking her hair to comfort her.
The girl bowed her head, not wanting to acknowledge such an awful reality.
“Well you’re not going anywhere Gracie. You’re under our protection and they don’t know who they are dealing with,” said Riva, horrified by the revelation.
The girl stopped crying and stared at them with utter fear. “Y’all don’t understand. They don’t care. They’re militia, Klan militia. That’s who he was. The Dominionists. He was the Grand Titan.”
“What the fuck is a Titan?” Riva asked with incomprehension.
“A Klan title, a couple of levels down from a Wizard, county level leader,” Winona explained, shrugging her shoulders to indicate she agreed that such titles were juvenile. “The Klan are very influential in the government. We have to think about this very carefully.”
“I have to go. They won’t hesitate to kill you and I can’t have that on my conscience.” She girl stood up. She was shaking but she was determined.
“And we can’t let you go. We can’t have that on our conscience,” said Jens pulling her into a comforting hug.
“I’m so sorry. This is all my fault,” the girl apologised.
“No, it’s their fault,’ said Winona. “Now let’s get you back to camp and we’ll figure out what to do.”
“We’ll have to send someone out. Amy, she’s our long distance runner,” said Letitia.
“I can go now,” said Amy standing in preparation. “Letitia is right. If it’s militia then it requires a military response. They won’t be able to repel drones.”
“It’ll take too long. They’re camped just over the hill. It could all be over before the drones get here, even if you run all out.”
“Shit,” said Joji. “They’ll probably be armed.”
“I don’t like it. This smells of something else,” said Katjka. “They might want to provoke a military response.”
“What do you mean?” asked Winona, beginning to suspect Katjka might be right.
“Well, you know I’m studying history and diplomacy. We were discussing in class how the threat of war was used by governments as part of foreign policy, not to gain territory and resources, but to sue for concessions.”
“A negotiating strategy?” asked Amy, who had sat back down. “But how does it pan out in this scenario?”
“Hard to say. They could use it as a false flag. Use an attack on Confederate militia to whip up patriotic sentiment back home and use the escalation of tension to sue for concessions. Their economy is a wreck, there have been food shortages, there’s growing dissent. Governments often use external threats to redirect civil unrest.”
“They could also be calling our bluff, probing us to see how we’ll react. If we don’t act forcefully now, they may consider it a weakness. Next time they’ll be bolder.”
“I don’t know why we don’t let their whole rotten system just collapse. Isn’t that the plan anyway?” Letitia argued.
“Over the long term, yes. We know that their system cannot be sustained. They’ve got maybe thirty to forty years.”
“I don’t know why we don’t just march in and end it. They don’t have anywhere near the same level of technical capacity. We could do most of it with drones,” said Carlos.
“Well yes, we could easily take their cities and standing armies, but the population is heavily armed. You’d have to go small town by small town, cult compound by cult compound. That’s why we signed a treaty. We didn’t have the capacity to root out the citizen militias. We faced a long and very costly insurgent war. Sure, we would win now, but the cost would still be high, especially in Confederate citizen deaths. Besides, any war would undo a good deal of our environmental patching. The Confederacy has a stockpile of some very nasty chemical and nuclear weapons. They won’t hesitate to use a scorched earth strategy.”
“They don’t care. They want Armageddon. They all think they’re going to heaven anyway. Fuck the planet. God made it. He can remake it. That’s what they believe.”
“Well, they’ve poisoned so much of their land it hardly seems worth doing. Korea is still struggling to reintegrate the north,” argued Carlos.
“The most ethical approach is to allow them to understand the consequences of their actions at their own pace and to generate internal pressure for change,” said Winona.
“Yes, but still at the cost of a lot of suffering. There are more girls like Gracie out there. You’ve all heard the horror stories,” said Jens.
“The AIs have crunched the numbers,” said Riva. “Fewer suffer and die if we leave them alone. I agree. There are times I think we should just walk in and takeover, but we just can’t. It would be counterproductive.”
“Well the sooner they go the way of the Neanderthals, the better,” Letitia spat.
“That transition still took thousands of years,” said Amy. “It’ll happen eventually, but not now, not using force.”
“That’s all very interesting but it doesn’t solve our current problem,” said Winona. “Our immediate ethical imperative is to protect Gracie. The militia are here illegally. We have a duty to resist. We can’t second-guess the larger strategic consequences. Hopefully we can persuade them to turn back.”
“And if they refuse.”
“We will have to neutralise them.”
“Terminate them you mean?”
“Only if we have no other choice. Hopefully we can just disarm them and see them on their way.”
“What weapons do we have?”
“Some bows in the sports cabinet, hunting knives. I don’t know that there’s many arrows.”
“Who can use them? I can’t.”
Letitia and Joji held up their hands.
“Letitia and I are part of the varsity archery club. Letitia is current junior champion,” said Joji proudly.
“That’s competition archery. They’re still no match for guns.”
“Depends,” said Letitia. “Arrows are silent.”
“If the archers remain hidden we’ll have the element of surprise,” added Joji. “The sound of a gun reveals its location. If we hide in different positions, perhaps outflank them, release and move; they won’t be sure where we are. Some sort of camouflage will help, they don’t have the visual acuity.”
“That would suggest some kind of ambush?”
“It’ll be like the old days. We can pretend to be Shawnee scouts raiding settlers.”
“Don’t be childish.”
“No, she has a point. This is Shawnee land. They’ve been cooperating with the university from the beginning. They would do exactly what we are suggesting. They were very effective at harassing settlers in the early phase. We can learn from their tactics.”
“We don’t know how many militia there are.”
“There won’t be many, probably just a small group disguised as hikers. They’ll know our satellites will detect any unusual movement.”
“They’ll have dogs…”
“Maybe not. Dogs aren’t as good on long hikes, especially if you are masquerading as ordinary hikers.”
“We’ll have to do some reconnaissance, check out their camp.”
“I should still go. The sooner backup arrives, the better,” said Amy, keen to get moving.
Winona nodded and Amy left.
“Shit, I didn’t sign on to kill anyone,” protested Carlos, clearly frightened by the talk of violence.
“You don’t have to, but you did sign on to defend the Constitution and that carries a moral and legal obligation to defend its citizens. Any action we take will be purely defensive. We won’t act unless they are about to harm us and I’m sure you won’t let that happen.”
“Look, all of this is moot. We simply don’t have the luxury of choice. If we don’t act they’ll just come to us. Chances are they’ve already seen the smoke from our fire. My guess is they’ll approach us mid morning. Best to confront them on our terms, not theirs.”
“So what do we do?”
“We exploit our advantages and their disadvantages.”
“And those disadvantages would be?”
“They fear us. They think we are demons.”
“You seem to have lost your way.” Winona said as she walked out from behind a bush with Katjka by her side. They had decided to try a classic bonobo tactic of letting females approach alpha males.
The man was bending over a fire boiling some water in a camp kettle. He jumped and turned quickly to see who it was. He did not expect to see two girls, naked, freak girls. He stood frozen, momentarily confused. Their provocation had worked. He didn’t know how to respond. Winona was amused as she watched several conflicting emotions pass rapidly across his face: shock, arousal, revulsion, fear and disbelief.
“Shit, you know how to scare a guy,” he said finally, trying to cover his shock. He was tall with ruffled black hair, full black beard, wearing jeans and a check shirt with rolled up sleeves.
“We just dropped by to give you a friendly reminder that you’re trespassing. You should pack up and leave.”
“Who’s that?” Another man came out from a tent doing up his shirt. He was overweight, his hairy stomach hanging over his trousers. ‘Well fuck me, what have we here?” he said with a salacious smile. His eyes almost bulging as he looked them up and down.
Winona did not like this one. He was a creep. He couldn’t look them in the eyes; instead he seemed fixated on their bodies, especially their vulvas. She realised he’d probably never seen a naked girl before. At least there was one consolation. As long as he was staring at them, he wasn’t paying any attention to his surrounds.
“Seems to me you’re the ones who have lost their way,” said the first man, shakily trying to assert control. “Far as I know this is public land and we have a right to camp here.”
“This is private land,” Katjka said.
The first man laughed. “Oh I see, well our mistake. We must have misread the map or taken a wrong turn. If you don’t mind we’ll go when we’ve had something to eat,” he said bending down, ignoring her.
“That’s an illegal fire. You will have to douse it; you know how devastating wildfires can be. And it also looks like you’ve done some poaching.” Winona said nodding towards the remains of rabbit on a spit. “We’ve had a problem with Confederate poachers in recent months.”
The two men looked at each other, unable to hide their guilt.
At that moment a third man came out of a tent. He was shorter but more muscular, fitter. It was clear by his demeanour that he was professional militia. He kept his hand behind his back; Winona assumed it was because he had a gun tucked in his belt.
“Seems to me you are in no position to be throwing around allegations. You are just children, where are your parents? Are they aware you are out here butt naked, playing at being damned savages?” he said dismissively.
“Well, thank you for confirming our suspicions,” said Katjka.
“Huh?” said the first man.
“If you were Commonwealth citizens you wouldn’t be surprised by our appearance,” Winona replied. “This has now ceased to be a friendly reminder. You are clearly hostile aliens.”
The trained militiaman assessed her coldly and decided he had nothing to loose by telling the truth. “Okay, fact is; we’re looking for a girl. She’s wanted for murder. We know she’s around here somewhere. Soon as we find her we’ll be on our way. She’s dangerous, we’d be doing you Yankees a favour.”
“If she’s on our side of the border she has our full protection. Now for the last time I suggest you get on your way.”
“Fucking Lilith’s spawn,” said the fat man as he took a few steps forward. “Why don’t I just come on over and get me some of that freak pussy, seeing as it’s on offer?”
Winona shook her head in disbelief and looked briefly at Katjka, who seemed amused and not the least bit intimidated.
“You’re welcome to try,” Katjka half snarled, half laughed.
The third man held up his hand to warn the fat man to stay back.
“I heard they was fast and strong Joey, best not get close,” said the first man as he looked nervously around, trying to gauge how quickly he could get to his tent and his gun.
Winona could sense the men’s adrenalin rise. They were demonstrating classic sapien territorial aggression and it was beginning to override their ability to think clearly.
The third man laughed to try and ease the tension. “Well you’ve got guts that’s for damned sure, but there’s three adult men and only two of you and now that you’ve kindly hinted you know of that little bitch, we’re inclined to finish our business.”
Winona gave a little sigh. They were too proud and stupid to back down. “What makes you think we are alone? We were legally obliged to inform you of your transgression in a non-threatening manner. We’ve done that. Unfortunately you have just compounded your offence by threatening a Commonwealth citizen with sexual violence, a far more serious matter. It is now legal for us to use force. This is your final warning. We know you are armed. Surrender your weapons, leave your camp exactly as it is and move quickly, otherwise we will arrest you. You might just make it back across the border before the drones arrive.”
She held her breath. Now was the most dangerous time. They would either back down or do something impulsive and stupid.
They did something stupid. Humiliated and no doubt overcome with rage and lust, the fat man reached for a gun hidden in the back of his jeans. Letitia, hiding behind a tree, did not hesitate. Her arrow found his skull before he could find aim. She released it with such force that it almost went clean through. He fell hard, dead before he hit the ground.
The third man pulled out his gun reflexively but was unsure of where to aim it. An arrow from Shoji hit him in the arm. He spun to shoot at where he thought the arrow had come from and a second arrow from Letitia hit him the neck. Katjka did not hesitate and raced up to the first man. He held up his hands weakly to try and block her advance, but he was reacting more from fear than a trained, defensive response. She threw him to the ground like an empty sack and put him a chokehold. The violence was over in a few seconds.
Katjka looked up at Winona to ask if the man should live. She held up her hand to stop her, despite wanting to watch her squeeze the life out of him. “No, keep him alive for questioning.”
Letitia walked out of hiding, her body covered in painted stripes as camouflage. She walked up to the third man to retrieve her arrow. “This one’s still breathing.”
“Will he survive?” said Lens as he walked out from his hiding spot, also covered in body paint.
“Not for long. He’s loosing a lot of blood,” Letitia replied.
“Fuck him,” said Winona, an adrenaline fury coursing through her veins.
Letitia did not hesitate. She gripped his head, lifted it slightly and with clinical precision snapped his neck.
Winona looked at the two dead men with a mixture of anger and sadness but without regret. They were a stupid species on their way out and it was that stupidity that had caused their deaths.
“Probably for the best,” said Lens as he walked up to the body of the fat man. “My guess is that they would’ve circled back anyway.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Would have been pointless though. Drones would be out looking for them,” said Winona.
“What shall we do with the bodies?” Shoji asked as he pulled his arrow from the body of the third man.
“Nothing,” said Lens. “Technically this is now a crime scene. We’ll have to let a forensics team do a thorough examination.”
“Savages, they should be given a Christian burial,” the first man protested, his voice muffled by Katjka’s chokehold.
“This isn’t a Christian land, should of thought about that before you trespassed,” said Carlos as he revealed himself.
“Look at this.” Letitia said holding up a hunting knife she had found sheathed on the fat man’s lower leg. “Klan.”
They gathered around to look at it.
“The blood drop cross,” said Katjka, pointing to the insignia etched into the bone handle.
“This identifies them as members of a terrorist organisation,” said Lens. “This is a serious matter. I hope you’re all prepared for the fallout.”
“We deserve commendation,” said Letitia.
“Okay, let’s get this pathetic sap back to camp. A search team should be here soon,” said Winona
Katjka grabbed the man by the scruff of his neck and lifted him off the ground with one hand. “It’ll be pointless for you to try anything,” she said as she put him on his feet.
“I won’t be telling you devils a damned thing. You can go to hell.”
Winona walked up to him and leant in close. “You won’t be able to stop yourself from telling the authorities everything they want to know. One injection is all it will take. Think yourself lucky. Our prisons are quite decent places, not like your hellholes. You may yet live a long and fruitful life, even if you are an imbecile.”
The search and recovery team arrived mid-afternoon; a medivac chopper, three single-man drones along with specialist robotic drones as support. The girl hugged Winona for security, relieved, but also fearful of the commotion and the police.
A tall woman dressed in light grapheme body armour dismounted her drone, took off her helmet and walked over to introduce herself. She had a Mohican haircut, facial tattoos and a warm, generous smile. The girl noticed that the new men did not react with either suspicion or fear. Across the border the police were corrupt and prone to terrorize the citizens, but these police were different. Winona said they weren’t really police, but citizen assistance personnel – caps.
“Hi, you must be Winona,” the woman said extending a hand. “I’m commander Tina Martinez.”
Winona shook her hand and then the commander bent down so she could look the girl directly in the eye. “And you must be Gracie, pleased to meet you.” She saw the suspicion in her demeanour and gently stroked her cheek. “Don’t worry sweetheart, you’re safe now.”
“Thank you ma’am. I really didn’t mean for there to be trouble.”
“No one is blaming you Gracie. We are sorry for your ordeal. Seems there was a failure in our intelligence. We should have detected them earlier. ” The commander turned her attention back to Winona. “Congratulations, you seem to have the situation under control. What happened?”
Winona told her the story in full. The girl watched on amazed. The new men had not bothered to put on clothes and the police seemed totally unconcerned. She had heard that their whole society had reverted to paganism, but she hadn’t quite believed it. Jens and Letitia brought them refreshments and chatted and joked with them as if they knew each other.
Amy walked up to her. She had returned in the chopper and retrieved a parcel. “It’s not much, but at least they’re your size.”
The girl opened the parcel. It was a fresh set of clothes and boots her size – hiking gear – as well as some chocolate-coated energy bars as a treat.
“For the walk out to civilisation tomorrow, unless you’ve gotten used to being naked?” Amy laughed.
The commander and Winona talked for a while longer. She proudly put on her new clothes and devoured a chocolate bar; then the commander asked her a few questions, mostly to confirm her story about her treatment. She was not to know that every word she said and every facial expression she made was being recorded and analysed by an AI to detect any inconsistencies.
“Is that all?” she asked when the commander finished much sooner than she expected.
“Yes, for now Gracie. We’ll ask you some more questions in a week or so, when you’re settled, but only when you’re ready.”
They loaded the prisoner onto the chopper and the police mounted their drones. The chopper flew back to the city and the drones flew off like a flock of birds over the hill to the militia campsite.
“I thought they’d arrest me and take me back,” said the girl as she watched the drones disappear.
Winona hugged her. “No, we’re stuck with you for one more night.”
After dinner Winona noticed the girl missing. She found her sitting on the edge of the pier dangling her feet in the water, watching the full moon rise and fire bugs dance around the reeds.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Sure. I was just thinking.”
“I’ll miss this place.”
“Yes, me too. It’s beautiful, but there are other beautiful places for you to see.”
“Is it true there are people up there?” the girl asked, pointing at the moon. “There are some folks back home who say it ain’t so, that the whole thing is made up.”
Winona laughed and shook her head. “Seriously? They’re still spreading that nonsense? It amazes me how stubborn beliefs and superstitions can be. The truth is there are three bases on the Moon, two Chinese and one European. There are about one hundred people up there right now. There are also two bases on Mars with around thirty people. Perhaps by the time you’re an old woman there will be people on Qianqing.”
“A planet around another star. JW4123c. The Chinese were the first to detect life – it means Palace of Heavenly Purity. It’s like earth. We think it might have majestic wildernesses just like this, only totally unspoiled.”
“How do they know that?” the girl asked sceptically.
“They measure the light of the sun. Powerful telescopes can read the shift in the spectrum when the sunlight passes through the atmosphere. They’ve detected oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water. They’re planning to send a probe using a new kind of interstellar drive. We should start getting data back in about forty years.”
“Hah,” the girl scoffed. “So they damn lied about that too, said the rumours was all nonsense, that God only put life on earth.”
“They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I guess they just find it hard to admit, so they keep the lie going.”
The girl looked back down at the water. She clearly had something on her mind. “I saw otter this morning, one was just lying on its back like it didn’t have a care in the world.”
Winona knew the change of topic was a temporary avoidance strategy so she decided to play along.
“Yes, they are very cute. There’s a beaver dam at the far end.”
The girl remained silent, lost in a thought. Winona looked back up at the sky and a small dot traversing from east to west. Judging by the pace she thought it might be ISS3, but that was just a guess.
After a minute or so the girl spoke. She sounded angry. “I ain’t sorry I killed him, the man who tried to rape me. I didn’t mean to, but I ain’t sorry. You sorry?”
Winona paused before speaking. It was a conversation that needed moments of reflection. “I’m sad, angry too I suppose, but no, I’m not sorry. We gave them a clear choice. We’ve always given them a clear choice.”
“Will you get into trouble?”
Winona understood that the girl was worried she might face some sort of punishment. “No, we won’t, we acted in self-defence. Oh, there’ll be an official coronial enquiry and we’ll have to answer lots of questions. It’ll be a bit of a chore, but it has to be done.”
“And what’ll happen to them?” the girl asked, nodding in the direction of the border.
“There will be some form of retaliatory action, maybe a tightening of sanctions. Although this is a serious escalation so there might be a restricted military response targeting the people who ordered the incursion. The truth is they’re weak and divided. It might even be possible that the folks in the capital will act against the rebels themselves.”
“I think maybe that’s what they wanted.”
“Hmm, I think that you may be right. I understand that some counties are talking about joining the Commonwealth. The Klan isn’t happy. You might have been just an excuse to provoke a conflict.”
“Well fuck em, I don’t want no part of it. I’ve decided I want to become a Commonwealth citizen. Do you think I can? Maybe I’ll even get to see Paris?”
“Yes Gracie, I reckon you just might.”
“So you think they’ll accept me?”
Winona nodded. “Yes, I do. Just now, when you were looking up at the moon, it seemed to me that you were wondering what it would be like to visit?”
“Yeah, I liked looking at the stars and the satellites as they whizzed by when I was a kid.”
“Well, it tells me you are at least open to wonder and possibility, not closed and fearful like they are. It’s important. I reckon at heart you’re really one of us.”
Just then they saw a shooting star.
“Make a wish,” said the girl as she pointed.
“You realise it’s probably just a bit of space junk burning up on re-entry…”
“Y’all spoil sports? Well I don’t fucking care,” she declared as she broke into song just to tease Winona. It was the old classic When You Wish Upon a Star.
Winona smiled. She remembered it from her early childhood and sang along.
“Come on,” she said when the girl finished. “That’s the reason I came to find you. We want you to join us around the fire tonight; even Letitia has warmed to you. You could sing us some of those beautiful old folk tunes.”
The girl seemed willing but unsure. “I don’t have to, you know?”
Winona laughed. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but you know you can if you do, boy, girl or both.”
The girl blushed and took Winona’s hand. “Well, I suppose I best get used to your ways.”