The protesters were so far from the launch pad that they couldn't even see the rocket, and nobody could see their little group but the bored cops who were paid to watch them. A hand-painted sign said that if the rocket exploded, a billion people would die, but the cops doubted this, and anyway it wasn't their business. All they had to know was that if any one of them permitted the protesters to disrupt the launch, his career would be over and he would be as good as dead.
Indeed, the rocket held a space probe with enough plutonium to kill every human on Earth several times over if it were optimally distributed, but no one knew how it would be distributed if the rocket exploded on launch, or -- the more deadly scenario -- if it reentered the atmosphere later. Like previous space probes, it was aimed to catapult around the sun, picking up speed from the sun's gravity, and then come back and catapult around the Earth.
"It's insane," said one of them. "It's almost like they want
to kill us all."
"That's exactly what they want. It's no metaphor. The whole history of what we call technology, and science, is based on hatred of life. Descartes himself--"
"I think it's more like they hate their particular lives, the way they have to live in this world. Just like an abused child will play with fire until he burns the house down, because he hates his whole existence and wants to destroy everything."
"That's an exaggeration."
"I feel like that all the time."
"Did you know every Western religion has the idea of God destroying the whole world? And a lot of Eastern ones, but no indigenous ones."
"What about the Hopi purification?"
"That's just of humans, not the earth, and it's just a thinning out, not total extinction."
"Sure, because the Hopi didn't know what humans are capable of. If they really understood, they wouldn't want to take any chances."
Now, with a deep rumble, the rocket lifted off the launch pad and into their vision, riding a ball of light into the sky. They all turned to watch it. A young dreadlocked white guy who called himself Tree muttered, "If we're lucky, it'll crash into the sun. Just burn up."
"No." The speaker was a big Lakota named Bruce Johnson, who until now had been quiet. "If it goes into the Sun, the Sun will be angry."
A couple of them opened their mouths to speak and then thought better of it. The sun is just a big ball of hydrogen, a giant fusion reactor. But they didn't want to insult his cultural beliefs. Then one of them said, "Actually it could do more than just burn up. When that probe went into Jupiter, some people think it took months to sink down through the atmosphere, because it's so dense, until the pressure collapsed the plutonium to critical mass, and it blew up and made that anomalous spot on the suface."
Bruce nodded. "Jupiter was angry. I wonder what the Sun would do."
"I'm leaving," Jenny said. She and Carl were lying in the warm sun on the grass in Volunteer Park, the first day their scabs were all gone and they could go out in public.
He studied her face. A few years ago he would have thought she meant she was leaving the park, but now his social perception was better. "Do you mean leaving me, or leaving the city?"
"Both." She lay on her back looking up at the sky, and Carl waited for her to continue. "I'm going back to LA. They need my help."
She turned to look at him. "You're not even upset!"
Carl did feel a little sad that she was going, and also a little relieved that he would have more free time. He didn't say anything.
Jenny sighed. "I liked you after the flood because you were so calm. Everything was out of control -- I craved something solid. And now that things... I've got no place to complain -- you never pretended to be who you're not. But now that things have settled down, I need to be with someone who loves me, and you don't love me."
She was softly crying now, and Carl put his hand on her shoulder. She turned on him. "Don't!"
"When you touch me, it's like you're just doing it because you're supposed to. Like you're forcing it. I hate it!"
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I thought it would get better. It never did."
Now Carl was angry. "I do the best I can. I try hard to do the right thing. I watch couples, the way they touch each other, and I always wonder how they know when to do it and how, or if they're just guessing like I am. I thought it was enough that I was trying."
"No." She shook her head. "It's not enough. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I snapped at you. You're a sweet guy. It's just, it's like you're not even in your body, like you're floating off in some other world."
"Yeah," Carl said. "That's what it's like."
Jenny left early the next morning, walking downtown to catch the bus down the coast. With the reduced traffic, the morning air was fresher now, and the songbirds seemed louder and more cheerful. Carl sat in the back yard empty and sad. He had given Jenny his email address, and his mom's address in Minneapolis, but he didn't expect to ever see her again. Sirach was gone too -- he had left a few days ago on his bike trip. It was just himself and Arch and the baby.
Suncatcher was out in the yard with him. A couple weeks ago she had discovered that the ground under the long grass was full of all kinds of tiny life, and since then she had spent nearly every daylight hour watching it, and sometimes tasting it. Carl figured she already knew more about ants and spiders than he could learn, with his lumbering adult brain, in the rest of his life.
Then he remembered that their household had a fourth member, the coyote that was right now sleeping in her junk-and-blackberry den just 20 feet away. He wondered what she ate, other than the occasional dumpstered meat Sirach had fed her, and then he remembered seeing a few signs about missing cats. Oh shit! Well, he thought, since the cats themselves eat cat food made from the rendered carcasses of other cats and dogs killed in the "shelters," they can hardly complain if a few of them get eaten by a wild coyote to supply milk to a human superbaby. Dang, this has got to be one of the strangest things that's ever happened in the Great Circle of Life.
In a little while Arch came and sat in the yard. He was reading books now. They had a bunch of Dr. Seuss books from a yard sale, which they were planning to read to Suncatcher, and he had started with those. Now he was obsessed with the monster descriptions in Carl's D&D manuals. He sat leaning against the fence in the sunlight, flipping intently through the pages, and then said to Carl, "What monsters live around here?"
"Um," Carl said, "most of those aren't real."
"What do you mean?"
Now Carl had to think. It's not easy to come up with a non-circular definition of "real." At last he said, "Most of those creatures aren't in that book because someone saw them and wrote them down. They're in there because someone made them up. They wrote them down out of their heads."
"How did they get in their heads if they never saw them?"
"They... Suppose you see a horse, and then you see a rhinoceros, and you put them together. You give the horse a horn in the middle of its face and then you've got a new animal, a unicorn... Although, actually, there have been a few unicorn sightings."
"So people did
see them and then write them down!"
"Maybe not. They could have had the idea in their head first, which made them see a unicorn."
Arch's eyes widened. "Believing in something can make you see it?"
Arch looked around. "Then maybe all of this, we're seeing because we believe in it."
Carl laughed. "You've got me! You're probably right."
"And if we all believed in unicorns, we'd all see them, and they'd be real."
Carl's eyes narrowed. "...No."
"For them to be real, we not only have to see them -- they also have to see us."
Arch frowned. "I don't get it."
"Remember your vision you had, when you died?"
Arch looked sad and shook his head. "I'm forgetting."
"Remember you told me that 'you' and 'I' don't exist? Only the whole universe exists."
"I said that?"
"Yes. And for something to be real, we can't just decide for ourselves. The whole universe has to agree."
Arch gazed into space. "Maybe the universe already agrees, and it's just waiting for us."
"Yeah," Carl nodded, "That's possible."
"I think," Arch said, pointing to the book, "that's where the monsters come from, how they get in the head of this book that never saw them. Because the whole universe wants them to be real." He found the drawing of the unicorn and stared hard at it. "OK, I want to see one... now!"
Excitedly he looked up and around the yard, then stood and looked over the fences. After a minute he sat down and stared at the picture again.
Carl said, "The problem is there are a lot of different books, and they all say different things. Even within the fantasy genre, names like "dragon" or "troll" or "unicorn" can look -- holy shit!"
On top of the opposite fence sat a white cat with only one ear, looking at them with an unsettling intelligence.
Arch followed Carl's gaze. "What?"
"Don't you see it?"
Arch shook his head. "That's not a unicorn."
"It's a white animal with a single pointy thing on its head! You're being too literal-minded."
The cat stood, walked along the fence, and hopped down into another yard.
"Do you mean I made it come?"
Carl considered. "I don't know if the cause and effect are that simple."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe it made you wish for it to come, or the two things kind of grew up together."
Arch grimaced. "That's silly." He flipped back through the book and began staring at another picture. Carl leaned over and looked. It was a demon.
"Uh, I'm not sure that's a good idea. Maybe you should try to bring something--"
"There it is." Arch pointed to the street, where, just now, a black SUV drove by slowly.
"I don't think that's..." But Carl stopped, seeing Arch's serious expression. He looked a lifetime older, not like a simpleton sitting in the grass looking at pictures of monsters, but like the care-worn scientist he used to be, as he turned to Carl and said:
"There's an atomic bomb in that truck."
Mariana and the Troll were alone in her apartment. Jenkins and Freejohn were off at the library, working on their web site, and the Troll was sitting on one end of the couch with Mariana curled up in a blanket in the middle, not quite touching him.
"Eric," she said, because that was his real name, and hearing it, as always, he blushed.
"When you were in the war, did you ever rape a woman?"
"It's all right if you did. I know that's a different world, a world I can't imagine, and you can get caught up in things..."
"No," he said. "I can control myself."
"Ah!" She smiled. "So you had the opportunity. You were tempted."
He didn't say anything.
"If you had raped a woman, it would have made you feel good."
He scowled, and still said nothing.
"You've got a demon inside you."
"Don't believe in demons."
"Then call it something else. Some part of you that takes pleasure in causing pain, in not caring. Because there's so much pain in this world, so many people in trouble, that you can't do anything about, and you have to get your pleasure somewhere. It makes sense. But at the same time there's part of you that wants to do the right thing. I know there is, and it's strong, because you do the right thing so often. Do you know why?"
He shook his head.
"I don't know either. I've often wondered why anyone ever helps anyone else, or gives anyone pleasure, when it's so much easier to hurt people and feel good about it. You know what I finally decided? That love must be stronger than hate, or even indifference. It must be a lot stronger, to still come through in a world like this, where we're all told to be selfish, and the only reason to do 'good' is so God doesn't fry you or you don't go to jail. 'Morality' just means obeying a bully, and even 'love' means possessiveness. We don't even have a word anymore, for caring about other people on their own terms, but we still do it."
She sighed. "Sometimes I think this whole world is like a dare, to see what kind of a wasteland we can survive in. Do you want to rub my shoulders?" She looked in his eyes. "I'd like that. Would you like it?"
She laughed. "Good for you. You stand up for yourself. There are women who would take advantage of a guy like you."
She'd been thinking about asking him to kiss her, but he was already panicky, rolling his eyes like a spooked horse. This was going to be harder than she had thought.
Anyway, the kids would be back soon. She called Jenkins and Freejohn "the kids" even though they were both at least a decade older than her. Something about this culture, she thought, keeps men from ever growing up. Some of them get puffy-faced and rich, and some of them can think circles around me with their intellects, but they're still just little boys. Even Si is only about sixteen -- well, a mature sixteen. Wait, does that make any sense? Am I full of shit? If no men act their age, how am I defining how an age is supposed to act? Maybe some biological memory, or by looking at women. No wonder there are so many lesbians -- the alternative is almost like pedophilia.
The door opened and Jenkins and Freejohn burst in. Freejohn said, "We've done it! The story's up on three different servers, so they'll have to shut them all down to stop it, and we submitted it to a bunch of conspiracy sites--"
Jenkins corrected him: "Non-dominant contemporary history."
"Right." He pumped his fist. "This is the age of information!"
Mariana said, "What exactly does that mean?"
Jenkins said, as if he'd rehearsed it, "The almost limitless ability to communicate instantly over great distances leads to qualitative changes in human society and consciousness."
"But what if the communications are lies?"
Freejohn said, "Then the truth comes out faster. That's what it all means. Everything happens faster. When this story hits--"
Urgently, Mariana said "Turn on the TV."
"Not that fast."
"No. I mean it. Something's happening."
The Troll leaned over and switched it on. On the screen appeared the stark, washed-out image of the baseball stadium, slowly rotating as the news helicopter circled. A woman's voice was saying something completely meaningless, like "At this time we're still trying to get an update on the situation." They went to a guy on the ground and again it was a vaguely described "situation" which somehow required a lot of soldiers and tanks to surround both stadiums. A minute passed.
Freejohn said, "Why don't they say what's going on?"
Mariana's face lit up with amazement. "They can't!"
The others all looked at her and she continued:
"Something's happened that's so interesting that they can't say the words!"
"What do you mean?" Freejohn said.
"Look, suppose the president was giving a speech, and somebody tore his mask off and underneath he was some kind of monster or alien..."
"Yes," Jenkins said. "And then Peter Jennings comes on and says, 'Apparently, as you've just seen, the president is a space alien.' They could never say that."
Mariana said, "They wouldn't even see
it. They would blank it out of their consciousness."
"So what are we seeing?"
Over by the door, the Troll had already put his shoes on, and now he slid a clip of bullets into his gun, and for the first time any of them had ever seen, smiled. "Mutiny." Then he was out the door.