With a perfect memory and hyper-acute senses, Ryder is the leader of a group of five children, all highly specialized thanks to the genetic engineering pioneered by Dr. Aaron Florida—scientist, philanthropist, and genius.
They represent a new generation of genetically tailored individuals, created to help build a brighter future. But some effects of Dr. Florida’s work were unforeseen—and these children will soon discover the shocking truth about the new world they stand to inherit . . .
“Very similar to some of the better works of John Varley.” —Science Fiction Chronicle
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Cody's mothers had heard the rumor, and they had told Cody and Cody had told us, of course, making us promise to keep it secret. Of course. And that's why the five of us were waiting up in the old oak. We were waiting for Dr. Florida.
I remember all of it.
I remember trying to keep calm. It seemed so unlikely, us actually seeing Dr. Florida; but nonetheless I was terribly excited, lying on my back on the long bench with my feet propped up in a window, in the sun, and the dry warm wind slipping between my toes. It was afternoon, and it was spring. I can still smell the old dust and fresh sawdust, and I heard Cody on the roof, walking and then hammering and then walking some more. One of my hands fell to the floor and stroked the smooth, foot-worn faces of the boards, the cool round heads of nails and the empty nail holes fringed with mold and rust. If I had time and the inclination, I would focus my mind and recall where we'd found each of those boards — from old treehouses or trash heaps or blind garages left open. I would retrieve the look and feel of every nail I handled, the angle and scent of every saw cut I made; and I would be able to remember — with utter clarity — every moment of every hour that I spent in that treehouse. Or anywhere else, for that matter. I have a talent, a unique skill. I forget nothing, not ever and not for anyone, no matter how many times I wish it might be otherwise.
The treehouse TV was off. The personal was running, softly humming. Marshall had brought some new game — a hexagon-shaped board with blond and steel-colored pieces — and he had taught the personal how to play it, the two of them facing each other across the little game table. Beth, blessed Beth, was watching the pasture for us, humming a sweet song under her breath. Like always. Jack Wells was sitting on one of the old plastic freezers with his legs crossed and an encyclopedia unrolled on his lap. I watched him changing the pages. He would touch a corner and cause the bright liquid crystals to flow, creating new words and pictures and graphs inside the encyclopedia's thick plastic matrix. The buttery sunshine fell in around Jack, and I watched him. He read and examined and considered, skipping between subjects in a random fashion. Then he quit and looked at me. He smiled at me. Jack had a round face and dirty-blond hair, big freckles beneath his tan and welfare genes beneath everything. I could see his toughness. He was a little kid, several years younger than us, but he had hard old eyes that belonged in an adult's head. Those eyes gave me a smile. "Ryder?" he asked. "How are you doing, Ryder?"
I said, "Fine."
"You excited?" he wondered.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Sure."
He bent forward. "I've got something." Lying on the floor, in the shade, was a small cloth sack. Jack lifted it to his lap. Its fabric was rough and porous, stains overlapping stains, and the sack's neck was tied with an old leather cord. I saw the sloppy bow knot and his little fingers pulling the bow undone and him reaching inside while something moved, squirming. Jack grinned and told me, "Now watch."
I remember every detail, every feature and face and word.
But I can't tell everything, I realize. There is never enough time for everything. What I need to do now is pick and choose, repeating the essential parts. That's what he expected from me — in a different context, true — and so that's what I expect from myself.
I must think clearly and tell it fairly.
And never, never can I pretend to know more than I know.
Jack Wells pulled the snake out by its tail. "Caught it last night," he told me. "It's a ringneck." He held the prize toward me and I saw the smallish body and the dark gray topside, nearly black, and the pale, speckled belly with a slender, fire-colored band encircling its neck. A tiny red tongue was working the air. "I don't catch many," Jack admitted, "but they're sure pretty. Ever catch one yourself?"
I said, "Yes." I had been eight years old and lucky. Ringnecks are sleek and secretive, impossible to anger, and I'd kept mine inside a glass fishbowl filled with dried and musty grass. I'd offered it garden worms and meal bugs and it ate nothing. Not once. Then it died after several months, and I grieved, feeling ashamed for having kept it. I had brought it down here in the end, burying it in the deepest woods, and all of those memories came to me when I saw Jack holding that snake in his hands.
"Where'd you catch it?" I asked him.
"Past the slabs." He motioned toward the west and the woods, smiling and nodding while the snake slipped from hand to hand, weaving through his fingers. Jack Wells loved snake hunting. He loved a snake's looks and life, and he seemed to understand each of them in some mystical way. "Watch," he told me. He held the ringneck behind its tiny head and extended his arm, and I felt something feathery against my bare foot. I saw the tongue working, testing my scent, and Jack grinned and said, "Now he knows you."
"He knows me," I said.
It was Jack's fondest belief that snakes could identify people by their peculiar scents. They were like bloodhounds. Jack measured and marked every snake that he captured, recording the data on liquid crystal paper, and before he released them he made them sniff at him with their tongues. It was a ritual, a routine, and he persisted even when older, smarter people told him he was wrong.
I saw Marshall glance up at us and frown.
Jack took back the ringneck, and Marshall said, "It's way too stupid," with a hard, certain voice.
Jack said nothing. His hard old eyes studied Marshall for a moment, and then his face got a devilish look. He put aside the empty sack and the plastic encyclopedia, jumped off the freezer and approached Marshall with the ringneck wrapped around his right wrist and hand.
"Leave me alone," warned Marshall.
"But he wants a whiff," Jack told him. "He does."
"It's a stupid snake," said Marshall, "and it can't remember shit." He shook his head and set his mouth and said, "How many times do I have to tell you? I'm talking facts here. That's a dumb, dumb animal."
"Facts?" asked Jack.
"A tiny, minuscule reptile brain. It's all it can do to crawl." They had had this argument a hundred times in the past. Marshall spoke with conviction — he always spoke with conviction, on any subject — and he had no patience for Jack or Jack's teasing. Motioning with one hand, he said, "I'm busy here. Get away from me."
"Just a whiff," Jack persisted. He held the ringneck close to Marshall's frowning face. "He wants a quick whiff —"
Marshall pushed at Jack's arm and groaned.
Beth quit singing. "Would you quit?" she asked. "Please?"
I heard Cody on the roof. Bwink! Bwink! Bwink! The hammering was powerful and steady. Bwink! Bwink! Bwink! The noise drove through the roof, making everyone jerk and pause. Then Cody quit hammering and Jack held the ringneck to his own ear, smiling and nodding about something no one could hear. "What was that?" he asked. "What?"
Marshall said, "What?"
Jack told Marshall, "He knows you."
"Oh, Jesus —"
"No, really! He smelled you last week, and saw you." Jack began to laugh, the devilish look growing.
"Leave me alone," said Marshall.
Beth said, "Quit it, please —"
"Want to know what he said?" asked Jack. "Do you?"
So Jack tilted his head and laughed. "He saw you in the woods last week. Alone."
Marshall shifted his weight, his chair creaking.
"You had some magazine stuffed in a log," Jack said. "A wildlife magazine, I guess. He said it was full of beaver shots —"
Marshall rose and shouted, "Stop!"
"— and you had trouble with your pants. Because you were touching yourself down here —"
"Damn you little shit!" cried Marshall. He came around the game table, Beth yelling, "Cody!" and Marshall swinging at Jack with one of his clumsy long arms, missing and nearly falling, then shouting, "You little welfare shit bastard!"
Beth was standing now, hands raised high and her face terrified. "Cody!" she called. "Oh, God!"
I heard Cody running on the roof. Marshall bumped the game table, scattering the playing pieces, and Jack screamed, "Ryder!" once and tossed the ringneck at me. I bent and scooped it off the floor. I felt its glossy smoothness and looked up and saw Jack kick at Marshall once and then lift his hard white fists. There was a pause for a moment, both of them hunting for openings; and then Cody came over the edge of the roof, her body hanging in the air and twisting hard with her feet coming first through a window. She yelled. Jack and Marshall started slamming away at each other, and Cody grabbed them and jerked them apart, getting between them and telling them to quit. "Now!" she snapped. But they kept swinging and kicking, wanting one last good blow, and she finally pushed them with one motion, neat and easy. Their butts hit the floor, and I felt the big old oak rocking. Marshall gulped and said, "Welfare shit —!"
Cody struck him. She was tired of their noise, and she popped him in the chest once, and Marshall turned pale and said nothing for a long time.
Beth went to Marshall. "Are you okay?"
Cody looked toward me. She took a breath and wondered, "What happened?" and waited for me to tell everything. Every word and gesture, giving her enough so she could judge —
"Are you all right?" Beth persisted.
Marshall had no color in his face, but he managed to nod slightly.
"What about me?" asked Jack.
"Are you hurt?" Beth's pretty face was long and ever so worried. "Do you need anything?"
Jack didn't answer. He just shook his head and shot hard looks at Marshall now and again, and I picked up the cloth sack and put the ringneck inside it and tied the sack with the old leather cord. Cody was watching me, waiting for my story. So I started to focus, and by chance I looked out the east windows. I saw the early spring grass in the pasture and the far houses and the little gravel road coming down onto the pasture. Vans and limousines were stacked up on the road. When had they arrived? I wondered. I could see a fresh cloud of settling white dust. I saw little white dishes perched on top of the vans aligning themselves, and several dozen pretty-dressed people stepping into the sunlight. I couldn't see faces, they were too far away. But I knew the insignias on the limousine doors, and one limousine was enormous; and I felt funny in my belly and my legs went numb, a little bit, and the tips of my fingers began to shake.
Cody said, "Ryder?"
Beth said, "Goodness," and pointed.
I was weak and ever so excited. I couldn't have been more excited about anything in the world.
"It's true," said Beth. "Look!"
The rumor was true. Cody's mothers weren't right with all of their rumors, but this was just what they had predicted. Out of all the miles and miles of parkland in the city, Dr. Florida had brought his cars and his people to this pasture on this fine spring day. This was contest time! Dr. Florida had come to launch the contest!
I gulped and moved to the window and saw people walking and cameras flying about their heads, and amid the crowd was a single man, tall and distinguished, wearing his usual wide-brimmed hat and long pale raincoat glistening in the sun. I'd never seen him in person, in the flesh, but I'd seen him on TV ten thousand times. This type of seeing was better, I knew. I felt crazy with nerves, and I leaned forward and squinted. Beth and then Cody grabbed me and pulled me back inside. I'd been leaning out of the window, on my tiptoes, and Beth said, "Oh now Ryder," and hugged me. "Are you okay? Are you?"
Dr. Florida was the richest man in the world. He owned a hundred companies and half of our city, and maybe twenty million people worked for him, on Earth and in space. But he was more than that. He was very likely the best man in the world, I believed. He was kind and wise, a saint in the flesh, and that's what I thought when I watched him from the treehouse. I could very nearly feel the goodness welling out of him.
"You're getting lost," Cody warned me. "Ryder?"
I didn't want to get lost. Not now. No, not with Dr. Florida so close. So I breathed and concentrated, using the tricks I'd learned to gain a measure of normalcy —
"It's really him," Marshall declared, his voice bruised but confident. "Would you look at him?"
"Father-to-the-World," I muttered.
"Father-to-the-World," Beth echoed.
"Let's get closer," said Jack. "Why not?"
Then I didn't hear anything for a long moment. I was staring at Dr. Florida, nobody else, and I felt ice in my blood and a weakness in my legs and finally, from a great distance, I heard Beth and Cody saying, "Ryder? Ryder?" with one voice. "Concentrate Ryder. Focus. Get a hold on yourself," they told me. "Come on."
Our treehouse was high in the massive oak. The oak grew halfway down a short wooded slope. On the slope's high side was the pasture — wild grasses and weed grasses softly rising to a line of fences and trimmed lawns and tiny new houses with solar-cell roofs and candy-colored walls. Plus the old white farmhouse where the Wellses lived. Beneath the oak and the slope were the bottoms — long and narrow and flat to the eye, choked with taller, ranker weeds than the pasture weeds. The bottoms ran straight through the parkland, north to south, and on the west was a long steep slope covered with woods. The woods were dark and cool in the afternoon light, the wind making the highest branches nod. There were maples and more oaks, ashes and elms, plus some huge old cottonwoods with their glittering, singing leaves and the occasional old treehouse perched high and turning pale with the slap of the sun and the rain.
"Let's go!" Jack prompted. "Come on!"
"First," said Cody, "you two shake hands. I mean it."
I looked at her thick arms and muscled legs and her breastless broad chest. Cody was wearing shorts and an army jacket, her hair cut stubbly short and her skin baked brown. Her face was square and adorned with a golden peach fuzz. Her smooth voice wasn't a girl's voice or a boy's. She had four toes on each foot. Her mothers had decided that the fifth toe was vanishing anyway ... so why wait? They had also made her powerful and quick, endowed with an incredible sense of balance, of place and poise. Some people made noise about so much tailoring. Old adults liked to say there was too much strangeness in kids and parents were wrong for doing so much. For tinkering with that many genes. The foolish ones called Cody ugly, though usually not to her face. Cody was my very best friend, without a doubt, and everyone who knew her respected her. It was all the colors of her strength, and her independence, and her sense of fair play.
She told Jack and Marshall, "Shake hands," and they did it. They didn't like it, no, but they knew not to quit until she said, "Okay!" Then she winked at us and said, "Let's go watch. Come on."
We broke for the hatch, Cody leading the way.
Our treehouse was a huge creation. It had a flat overhanging roof covered with old-fashioned solar panels and super-loop batteries. The big room below had seats for a dozen kids or more, and all sorts of gear were stored in cabinets and crannies. There was fresh water in a big tank and some old plastic freezers Cody herself had found in a junkyard and brought up with block and tackle. Beneath the big room was our maze — a tapering jumble of wood and plastic braced with old steel, passageways leading everywhere and only one course leading end to end. The maze had been my idea. If kids ever broke through the first hatch, I figured, there were more hatches and false hatches and thumbprint locks coded just to us. Plus wrong turns and dark dead ends. The treehouse and oak were ours by right, no one else's. And no one knew the pasture and bottoms and woods half so well as us — an empire stretching for blocks in all directions; a miniature wilderness full of snakes and obscure corners and marvels only visible to the kids.
We crawled free of the maze, straddling a small branch worn smooth from all the hands and butts. Then it was a hard climb down the trunk to a simple bridge — a flat mess of planks crossing from the oak's waist to the top of the slope. Someday it would be a fancy drawbridge. We had plans in our personal, and Jack knew where an old garage door winch was rusting to nothing. All we had to do was steal the winch and rebuild it, and maybe this summer we'd do the work. We'd have the time, come summer. It was part of our plans, at least.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Milk"
Copyright © 1989 Robert Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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