Vision the First
Vision the Second.
We are heading into pessimistic territory here, but by no means the worst case: Wars abroad and chaos at home tore apart what little of America was left after GW Bush was through with it. Suburbia emptied out, then was repopulated by urban refugees once food supply lines collapsed for good. Climate change hit hard west of the Mississippi; the plains again became a Dust Bowl while sea levels rose roughly 20 feet (and counting), swamping most of the world’s great cities and inundating several small nations. Refugees from the former bread-basket collided with those fleeing the coasts, and the ensuing free-for-all was the final nail in the coffin of the US. The most optimistic estimates put the population of the former nation at just over 40 million; this remnant is scattered along most of the new coastal areas and around the Great Lakes. Planet Georgia’s inhabitants live mostly along the coast and the old pre-Fall city of Agusta (Augusta). Lately, both the weather patterns and civilization have begun to settle into new configurations…
Old Guy sat impassively in the wagon, cradling the ancient carbine, watching over the troop. Four of the younger folk sat or stood around the wagon, keeping watch although the whole month had gone by without seeing any hostiles. This far north, the wildlife had mostly forgotten about humans and made for easy pickings — this much seemed like the only luck on an unlucky trek. Old Guy had directed them north and west from Agusta, backtracking only once to put a wide margin between themselves and the ghosts that surely ruled Ol’ Lanna.
The old roads were more overgrown the farther they went; since skirting Ol’ Lanna, they had to cut their way through much of it. Fallen trees often blocked the way now, and they settled on having one horse pull the wagon and the second ready to pull trees out of the way. Kudzu covered the road; after rolling into a ditch once, Frenk and Tanni walked ahead and poked the ground to make sure the pavement was where they thought. It was slow going, unlucky, and the youths had begun to grumble when they were sure Old Guy wouldn’t hear.
Two nights ago, they had slept uneasily in a crumbling building at the center of a long-abandoned town; Old Guy called it “the old courthouse.” It was a government building, he reassured them, so they would offend no ghosts. But Tanni thought perhaps he had been lucky that the dream he’d dreamed in that place was just out of reach… to grasp it would have perhaps been grasping madness. Ghosts went where they would, Frenk’s da had once said, and those men who were more at home on the job might well haunt the offices and work stations that defined them in life. Since that night, they had managed all of eight or nine miles, going into a place where even the signs of long-abandoned dwellings were thinning out. It was an empty place, one that the kudzu and pines would try to fill in vain.
Around mid-afternoon, they reached a crumbling culvert. Old Guy leaned forward to look at the sides, and grunted in satisfaction. A creek ran under the old road here, quick and clear. “We’ll stop on the other side,” he said. “You can take the horses down for water, and take a break. It’s maybe a mile from here, up that hill and straight on.”
Take a break, the old pre-Fall phrase for a short siesta. Old Guy’s old way of speaking was one thing; the way he spoke person to person, low and almost slurring the words, made him nearly impossible to understand. But when he stood before the people with a song or story, it rang out loud and clear. He wasn’t just the eldest of the people, he was their bard (a word even older than the pre-Fall world, but it had come back in this time). That the people could afford such a luxury was a matter of honor and prestige — and a matter of life and death to Old Guy, whose other skills were suited mostly to a pre-Fall world of elektrissy and cahs. But anyone who had lived his entire adult life surviving the Fall and its aftermath commanded a modicum of respect and obedience; when he had asked the warlord for five young men and a wagon for a winter expedition, all was given without question.
Everyone worked their way to the creek, hacking a path through the ubiquitous plant life, leaving Old Guy to stand — or sit — watch. None of them felt guilty about this; he was often arrogant as a warlord, rude as a drunken teenager, and someone had to keep watch. Besides, they would have had to carry him: both feet and part of one leg were gone, long-ago victims to a pre-Fall disease they called die-beaters (Frenk often wondered at that name; a sickness that ate you piece by piece didn’t seem to have anything to do with living forever). But most of all, he had the carbine: a pre-Fall weapon, even older than Old Guy himself, and as old as he was he could shoot it better than any of the people.
So Old Guy sat in the wagon, under his hat, while the others filled flasks and watered the horses. Clouds were coming and going today; it was warm in the shade and nearly hot in the sun. The heat never seemed to bother him, but he would spend those few cold nights near the end of Janiary huddled close to a fire. After a quiet time, Frenk brought a flask of water to the wagon and offered it to Old Guy. He drank half of it at a gulp, nodded to Frenk, drained it then handed it back. Frenk turned back toward the creek, then stopped and turned back, putting a hand on the wagon and looking up at Old Guy. The old man looked back down and waited.
“You said we are nearly there,” Frenk said. “You know where we’re going then,” he said, looking expectantly at Old Guy. He merely nodded and looked back at Frenk.
Frenk looked back toward the creek, and leaned into the wagon. “Where?” he almost whispered. Asking a direct question, especially of an elder, was a grievous breach of protocol — unless one were inquiring about that person’s health or comfort.
But Old Guy was Old Guy, and only chuckled. “I wondered when you’d finally get around to it,” he said. “I knew those louts wouldn’t have the nerve or the wish to know.
“We’re going to my old home, Frenk, where I lived before the Fall. I’m going to make my peace with my family, since I’ll likely be joinin’ them before long.”
Frenk’s eyes grew to wheel size. “Their ghosts will be waiting.”
Old Guy laughed and shook his head. “Na. They won’t bother anyone but me, if they bother anyone. Tanni might have one of his dreams, though.
“Okay, go tell the others to come back up. We should get there before it gets dark.”
It took nearly an hour of cutting and pulling to make that last mile. Tanni spied the cemetery on a hill to the right, but nobody worried about the spirits of those who had a proper pre-Fall burial. Shortly past the cemetery, and on the left, stood an overgrown post with a sagging cross-piece pointing toward the edge of the road.
“This is it,” Old Guy said. “My old home.”
Frenk wandered over to the post, while the other youths chattered and worked at clearing what Old Guy said was the driveway, and stepped on something smooth and firm. He brushed away the leaves, and lifted a rusting metal sign; the remnants of a pair of chains showed how it had hung on the post. There was writing, which only Old Guy and Frenk knew how to read; it said simply: FAR Manor. He brought the sign to Old Guy.
“My dad called it that,” Old Guy grunted. “He had stupid names like that for everything.”
Finally, the driveway was clear enough to bring the wagon off the road. Old Guy strapped a pod to the bottom of his longer leg, picked up his crutches from the wagon floor, and slithered down to the ground. He paused only to make sure the carbine was secure, then led the hushed group to a large house, bigger than a warlord’s. Time and the Fall had not been kind to it; most of the windows were broken, and a large tree had at one time crushed through the roof of one wing (“my parents’ room,” Old Guy explained). The front door stood open; Tanni (the lightest) went in while the others went to work salvaging the good glass, wrapping the panes in old blankets and storing them in the wagon. Pre-Fall glass was hard to come by, and much better than modern glass. Enough glass might make this expedition worthwhile.
Tanni said the floor was weak but held him. “Go on,” Old Guy said. “Even if you fall through, you won’t go more than a couple of feet. The deepest part is under the bedroom, and I’ll go in there.” He didn’t feel it necessary to mention that the remains of his parents were in that room.
They filed into the house, scaring up birds and other wildlife. The few pieces of furniture were decrepit, moldering things barely suitable for the nests they supported. The walls had been ripped apart at some time, and the wiring was gone: Old Guy was not the first person to visit FAR Manor since the Fall, it seemed. But the looters were only after wire; the bathroom mirror and a glass door going to a porch were intact. The toilets were also whole, but nobody used those anymore.
Tanni went up the groaning stairs to check the upper rooms while the other youths carried their finds out to the wagon. Old Guy made his way down the hall, clearing the occasional spider web, until he came to a closed door at the end. The door resisted and protested his opening it, but Old Guy managed to push it open far enough to slip through. The crushed bodies under the tree had gone to bones, but otherwise the room was as he’d left it. He pushed the door closed and leaned against it.
Old Guy had lied to Frenk, but lying was his stock in trade and one believed Old Guy only at one‘s peril. There were ghosts here, all right. But Old Guy had been truthful about one thing: they weren’t interested in the others.
I told you to take care of yourself, didn’t I? his dad whispered. You’re lucky you still got all your fingers.
Why did you bother coming back? his mom asked. They obviously hadn’t gotten the word about new cultural mores, Old Guy thought.
“I came to wish Dad a happy birthday… today, if I got the calendar right. Your hundredth. And I came to say I’m sorry for all the stuff I put you guys through.”
Dad’s ghost made a sniff sound. You remembered. Good job. So what are you doing with yourself?
“I’m the bard in Agusta. I didn’t go on the world tour, but everyone still turns out to hear me sing and tell stories.”
That’s good, I guess, Mom’s ghost replied. At least you did something with that talent, instead of wasting it on that screaming crap.
“Huh. We all scream on new moon nights now. It’s how we chase away the other ghosts.”
Figures, Dad said. Is there anything left out there?
“Not much. A few cities. They say Chicago has electricity; one of the old nuke plants is still running. Could be a bunch of bullshit, though.”
Probably. I suppose my diary got rotted in the shelf over there, or started a fire.
“Nope. It’s in the library in Agusta. A couple of people, the ones who know how to read anyway, look at it from time to time. They say it gives them strange dreams, though.”
Dreams fade, Dad said. So do ghosts, Mom chimed in. We’ve been waiting for you. We’ll probably move on, now that you came. From the looks of it, you’ll join us before much longer.
“Yeah. They call me Old Guy now. The oldest man in Agusta, if you can believe it.”
A thumping noise came from under the floor, breaking the spell. Once again, Old Guy was alone in the room. The only thing in here worth salvaging was already in his memory, and he muscled the door open and stumped through, yanking it shut behind him. He made his way outside, and followed the sound of voices around the side of the house. Four of them stood there on the concrete between two garages, amazingly clear.
“Tanni said there was a back door down there,” Frenk said. “He’s checking it out. There’s a big old desk in that little brown shed over there — it’s too big to get out, but it was put in some way.”
“Sure. It comes apart. Lift the top off, and there’s screws underneath, I think. You can take it apart and carry out the pieces.”
Three of them went back to take the desk apart, and Frenk poked his head into the detached garage. “Pretty much empty in here.”
“If the roof looks good, we’ll sleep in there tonight, then. Have you looked in this garage yet?”
Frenk stuck his head through the door, ignoring the question; they were used to Old Guy’s ill-mannered ways by now. “Two old-time vehicles. We should get the sheet metal and glass from these, too.”
The others presently came by, carrying the dismantled desk, and then joined Frenk in cutting up the two vehicles. The larger of the two had a single word, Explorer, in chrome on the back. More blankets for the glass; the wagon would be fairly crowded on the way home. At least the way back was already cut. One of them snapped the Explorer off the sheet metal and tacked it to the back of the wagon, watching Old Guy for his reaction. Old Guy simply nodded; he’d lived here in the years before the Fall, and part-way into it, but it was new territory and they truly were explorers.
A sudden shout left Old Guy scrambling to unlimber the carbine, nearly falling off his crutches before the others caught and steadied him. If it hadn’t been for that, he might have shot Tanni when he burst around the side of the house, waving what looked like a red stick.
“Copper pipe!” he shouted. “A whole pile of it, stacked underneath the house!”
The others forgot everything: the hardships of the trip, the bad dreams, the bad luck, their resentment of Old Guy. An ancient wooden desk was a good find, sheet metal and glass were always useful, but copper pipe was treasure. They rushed to the back door, leaving Old Guy shaking his head and getting a better grip on the carbine.
“Damn,” he said to nobody. “I still don’t remember that being down there.” The warlord would take a share, to be sure, but the six of them were now rich. For the youngsters, it meant prestige, wives, all the good things. Old Guy had all the prestige he wanted and the attention of women when it suited him, but it was still good. Perhaps he would have his share made into bracers or jewelry; he could work it into a story. He would go the way of all folk, sooner or later, but someone else could become the bard. Meanwhile, all of them would have a story to tell.
Vision the Third