(Fiction) Trouble

The bus pulled onto the shoulder to report the bleeder on the side of the highway. A car had clipped the man’s leg, which bent awkwardly to one side. His hands were frozen into fists and his feet had gone completely limp. The tips of his loafers wobbled over the asphalt like a record needle as he dragged himself forward on his elbows, one after the other, as if fleeing for his life in slow motion. He felt neither cold nor pain, and his frosted eyes remained fixed on some distant salvation even as a gargantuan bus rolled to a stop behind him.

“I dunno why we gotta wait for this,” a white-bearded man declared loudly from the back.

“It’s the law,” someone whispered.

Nio heard the bus conductor, who tended the self-driving vehicle from a console, speak softly into his radio as passengers leaned into the aisle to peer out the high windshield. In the distance, the overcast sky was beginning to retreat, leaving waves of cotton-ball clouds. A pair of teenagers, too young to remember the outbreak, snapped pictures of the awkward, broken man now illuminated in the alternating flashes of the bus’s hazard lights. The tires of a passing car sprayed icy slush across the shoulder, which struck the undercarriage in heavy clumps and doused the disheveled bleeder, who simply lurched forward again, dragging himself limply along.

“That poor man,” a woman near the front told her companion.

“He shoulda lined up like everyone else,” the grisly bearded man declared. He removed his red NRA cap and waved it like a banner. “Hey, let’s get goin’ already. I gotta take a piss.”

There was a click of static as the conductor announced over the speakers they would be waiting approximately ten minutes for the highway patrol to arrive. The grisly man threw up his arms in frustration.

A second passing car honked its horn at the partial blockage of the road and the baby in the seat across from Nio, one aisle ahead, began to cry—softly at first, then much louder.

“Great . . .” the bearded man sighed.

The infant’s mother rocked her child gently and tried to quiet him, but he was hungry or cold or had simply had enough of the bus and was letting the whole world know. Several passengers shuffled in annoyance.

“Shhh . . .” the young mother intoned. Her round, smooth face was darkly complected and bore equal measures of patience and fear.

Nio leaned forward across the aisle with one hand extended. “He’s beautiful. May I?”

The young woman nodded, happy to have an ally. She froze awkwardly a moment later when Nio pressed her hand to the child’s forehead, as if feeling for a fever, instead of caressing it tenderly. Almost instantly, the crying baby stuttered. After another moment, his eyes brightened and he began sucking an invisible pacifier. Nio heard quiet exhales of relief. As she leaned back into her seat, more than one person turned from the front to peer at her through the gaps between the seats. She certainly stood out, with a shaved head and heavy loops in her ears. She grabbed the collar of her puffy winter coat and turned it up nose-high.

Colored lights flashed across the ceiling as a patrol car pulled around the bus and parked at an angle, shielding the bleeder from oncoming traffic. The trooper got out and walked around to the door of the bus, which opened with a hiss. Cold air whipped up the aisle and around Nio’s ankles. After trading a few words with the conductor, the trooper touched her hat in thanks and waved him on.

“Finally . . .” the grisly man said. “My teeth are frickin’ floatin’ back here.”

The bus tires carved valleys in the slush as the big vehicle pulled onto the highway and began accelerating smoothly. Several passengers clapped. Nio watched from the half-frosted window as the broken man on the shoulder receded from view. In his stead was the bleak landscape of the North American high plains. Tufts of brown grass poked up through a fondant of white. Low hills were cut into even barbed-wire squares. She had traveled nearly 300 miles. Somewhere ahead, a woman she had never met was dying, perhaps inexorably. Nio took out the unopened letter from her coat pocket and stared at it.

Pasture and fields gradually gave way to repair shops, fast food chains, and half-derelict shopping centers, but it wasn’t until the bus passed a boarded Dollar-Savr that Nio noticed all the damage. It looked like a tornado had hopped across the town on a pogo stick. A leafless tree had left a three-meter hole in the earth after it was uprooted and dropped onto a snow-topped house. A plump Buddha had fallen from its perch over a Chinese buffet and now golden-mooned passersby from the top of a parked car. Ice-covered vehicles were scattered about the ditches and fields like a giant child’s abandoned toys. No one noticed the huge donut hanging in the sky until the bus passed the cluster of old buildings along main street, five blocks away. A teenage girl saw it first and half-screamed in surprise. She pointed.

“What the hell . . .” The grisly man said, getting up from his seat and leaning over Nio to get a look out her window.

It was made of colored fiberglass. The words Wonder and Land curved around the top and bottom in colorful sprinkles. It seemed likely that somewhere nearby, a donut shop was missing its sign.

“How’s it staying up there?” a woman asked.

The donut hung motionless, 50 feet in the air. Everyone on the bus immediately raised their phones or tapped their lenses, triggering AR tags to appear on-screen. Nio glanced around the bus. No two devices seemed to use the same information source, meaning each gave a different cause or description. Everyone was seeing the same thing, and yet no one was.

The donut disappeared as the bus turned a corner and stopped in a parking rectangle near a 24-hour diner. Its engine rumbled gently as the conductor announced a thirty-minute break for those continuing to Jamestown. Nio lifted the strap of her rolled bag over her head and stepped down to a sidewalk pockmarked in frozen footprints, like the fossil of a prehistoric riverbed. Her breath billowed over her puffy coat’s high collar, and she huddled into it for warmth. It was the fourth day of record-setting April cold. It was supposed to last another four. The few townspeople that had ventured out looked like they were preparing for an inland hurricane. Storefront windows were being taped in large Xs. The sidewalk display in front of a nail salon was being chipped from the ice so it could be brought inside. A handwritten note on the door of a 100-year-old pharmacy announced that it was closing early for Moving Day. A similar announcement was posted to the door of the diner, next to the one that declared it was for “Patriots Only.”

Nio pulled out her phone as the old man in the red cap and overalls hurried past her on his way to the bathroom. The last message she received had simply said Please. She scrolled through the thread to confirm the address. She tapped it, which brought up her map application, but it could only display the blue track of the 300-mile bus ride. The signal icon at the top of the screen was gray—there was no encrypted coverage in the town. Her state-of-the-art untraceable phone had no service.

“Shit . . .” Her breath erupted in a cloud, and she shivered.

A tall, dark-skinned man had parked his vintage 2000s truck in front of the hardware store next to the diner, where he was loading large bags of fertilizer into the back. He was smart enough to wear gloves and an insulated mechanic’s body suit. He noticed her looking.

“You lost?”

“What makes you think I’m not local?” she joked, very aware of her appearance.

He smiled as he slid a bag over the ice to the curb, where he could get his hands under it. “That haircut would be enough.” He grunted as he lifted. “But the jacket clinches it.”

Nio looked down at herself. The exterior of her knee-length puffy coat was a plain gunmetal gray, but the interior, visible only at the cuffs and inside the high collar that circled her face, was bright orange.

“Out here,” he explained, “we wear the hunter’s orange on the outside.” He nodded to a round-bellied man in a light hunter’s vest over a camo-print collared shirt.

“Well, it’s reversible,” Nio said. “So, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You do that.” He tossed another bag with a grunt.

“I don’t suppose you could tell me how to get to The Cedars.”

He stopped. “The apartments?” The name seemed to catch his attention. “Why would you wanna go there?” He stepped around to retrieve another bag.

“Something wrong with it?”

“It’s kind of a dump,” he said in a way that implied there was more.

“I’ll have to risk it.”

“Suit yourself.” He pointed. “That way. Turn left on Marshall.”

“Thanks.”

“You gonna walk the whole way?” he asked, watching her depart.

“Is it far?”

A utility worker in the cradle of an articulated crane appeared over a distant roof to take measurements from the donut, which was just visible to one side.

The man in the mechanic’s suit saw her looking and turned. “Don’t see that every day. Guys at the Harley dealership are taking bets on when it’ll fall.”

“What happened?”

He pointed the opposite way. Nio turned and wondered how she could’ve missed it. Far away, on a bluff near the horizon, a banded deep core mining platform straddled a hill like a four-legged god. Its massive pillars and broad, sail-like protrusions caught the red of the setting sun.

“Deep crust miner,” he said. “Pulls up rare metals. Stuff with funny names.” He bent to lift another bag. “Bitterbase or something.” He tossed it, exhaling loudly.

“Bitterbase?” She almost laughed. “You mean Ytterbium? Or Ferropericlase?”

The man looked to be in his 30s and was in good shape. His narrow eyes were constantly smiling. The cold, dry air pulled tendrils of steam from his forehead, and he wiped it with the back of his glove. He stood straight and caught his breath.

“You don’t look like a mining engineer,” he said, panting.

“What do they usually look like?”

“More facial hair, for one. You work up there?” he asked skeptically.

“Nope.” She glanced again. “Never seen one before.”

Unlike oil platforms, which rose no more than a couple hundred feet in the air, the deep core miner was a skyscraper. But since it had similar proportions to its oceangoing cousins, the winds at altitude were a serious problem. Where an oil rig could be boxy and exposed, a deep-crust driller was louvered and aerodynamic, including two large adjustable metal sails that rose in parallel from its center mass, which looked like a shell that had been cut and separated into halves. Red lights spaced evenly along the sails’ central masts blinked in alternating intervals. Nio could just make out the white of a massive corporate logo.

“So, you just happen to know about funny metals?”

“I know about lots of things.” She started backing away. “Nice to meet you, Del.”

He looked down at his padded work suit. The name Del was stitched in fancy blue letters inside a white oval on his chest.

“Sharp,” he said, reaching for the last bag. “More proof you’re not from here. Come for the big show?”

“Show?” she asked, taking tiny steps to extricate herself from conversation.

“Moving day.” He nodded again to the platform. It looked like a mountain.

“They move that thing?”

“All 800,000 tons.”

How?

“Same way we got the amazing floating donut.”

Nio scowled. “I thought anti-grav emitters were outlawed.”

“They are. For people like you and me.” He hefted the last bag. The bed of the truck rattled as it landed on top of the others. “But international mining conglomerates get special exemptions.”

Nio looked up and down the frozen street. Hardly anything traveled. “Is that why everyone’s packing up?”

“Couple arcs of radiation cut through town the other night. You shoulda been here. Like a circus,” he said dryly. Then he shook his head. “Can’t even be sure of the ground under our feet anymore.”

He glanced to scalp again but quickly pointed north in a clear effort to avoid staring at the six oval scars just visible under the flat stubble of her hair.

“There’s three,” he explained. “One just across the border in North Dakota, one out west in the badlands, and that one, about fifty miles out.”

Nio ran a hand across her head involuntarily.

“Ever since they started drilling, there’ve been tremors. Couple weeks ago, we had the big one. Couple folks died, so they’re moving it west while they figure out what to do.” He squinted skeptically. “You sure you’re not here for the big show? Protest, maybe?”

She smiled broadly. “You think I’m a protester?”

“We get them. You should be careful, though,” he said turning grave. “Environmental types aren’t real popular here.”

“Good to know.”

“Sometimes we get the odd tourist or two. Supposedly you can see the legs light up. Gotta stay up late, though.” He looked up at the clear blue sky. The light was fading. “When they planned it, it wasn’t supposed to be this cold.”

“Sound riveting. But I’ll have to pass.” She started backing away again.

“Good, then you’re free. How ’bout letting me buy you dinner?”

Nio smiled again reflexively as her cheeks flushed. “That was pretty slick.”

“Come on,” he said, slamming the truck’s tail shut. “Otherwise I’m stuck with reruns of The Lowdown.”

“I’m glad I rate higher than reality TV.”

“Not counting anything with a drive-thru, you have your choice of two not entirely terrible restaurants.”

“A whole two?”

He shrugged. “Everybody else is closing.”

“It’s very flattering,” she said to the space between her boots.

“So say yes.”

“I mean it. I’ve not actually been asked out in a very long time.”

“But?”

“I can’t.” Nio started backing across the street again. “Maybe next time, cowboy.”

“At least lemme give you a ride,” he called to her. He opened the truck door with a creak. “It’s 12 below, in case you haven’t noticed, and getting colder as the sun goes down.” He blew fog to underscore the point.

“A ride?” she asked, her legs shivering slightly. “After shooting you down? Isn’t that like taking advantage?”

“How? In this town, we’re five minutes from everywhere you could want to go. Besides, I get the better deal.”

“How’s that?”

He took off his dirt-tipped work gloves. “You’re the one who’s gotta ride with a guy who smells like fertilizer.”

Nio closed her eyes and felt his bioelectrics. The hum was weak at that distance, but the pattern was precise. Organized. He didn’t have the high-pitched urgency of a man on a violent or sexual prowl. He was calm. Curious. She could feel him modulating up and down evenly in a pattern common with athletes and soldiers—anyone in the habit of reacting quickly.

As usual, the modulation reminded her of a song.

“Turn to Stone,” she breathed. Electric Light Orchestra.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Okay, cowboy. It’s a deal.”

He got behind the wheel and leaned over to open the passenger’s side door. Except for a folded letter on the seat, resting on its torn envelope, the inside of the old car was immaculate. Nio picked up the paper to move it.

“We all get one,” he said.

The embossed seal of the State of South Dakota sat proudly at the top. Nio unfolded it and read aloud.

This letter is to remind you that from 11:00 p.m. on April 23rd until 3:00 a.m. on the 24th, Central Daylight Time, the gravity in the vicinity of Long Lake will be reduced between sixty and eighty-five percent. Water and power services across Brown, Campbell, Corson, Dewey, Edmunds, Faulk, McPherson, Potter, and Walworth Counties will be suspended from 10:00 p.m. in the evening until such time as the region is deemed safe. No evacuations are ordered. However, the Long Lake area remains closed and you are urged to secure any loose belongings weighing under 30 lbs. and to remain indoors. Persons wishing to apply for relocation—” She stopped reading and folded the paper again.

“The Cedars, right?”

She nodded. “Thank you.” She set the letter on the dash

The engine started with a rumble and he backed into the road. He was right. The interior of the truck smelled vaguely of earth and manure. Nio rolled her bare fingers in front of the vent, and they tingled in the coming heat.

“Just promise you’re not lookin’ to score,” he said.

“I thought this was the land of the brave and the pure,” she joked.

Del snorted once. “First time outside the city, I take it.”

“No . . .” she said hesitantly, adjusting her rolled bag on her lap. “Not exactly.”

The traffic light turned yellow and he rolled through it. Almost no one was out.

“I just keep hearing how it’s all God and country out here,” she explained.

They passed a small boutique bakery on the right with the NRA seal on the door. A pair of young women were chatting at a table near the window. A handwritten sign in the window said LIBTARDS NOT WELCOME.

Del saw her looking. “Don’t worry. The Starbucks near the interstate goes the other way, if you’re so inclined.”

Nio didn’t answer.

“You got a name?” he asked.

“Nio.”

“Ny-oh,” he repeated. “Interesting.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Is it rude to ask what nationality that is?”

“I dunno. I can’t keep up with the rules.”

Del studied her appearance. The long, two-tone jacket with the high collar, the shaved head, the metal loops, the wide, sad eyes with lingering bags underneath.

“New York?” he guessed.

She made a face. “New York?

“Chicago.”

She shook her head in disbelief.

“Detroit.”

Nothing.

“You can’t tell me you’re from the West Coast. Not with that jacket.”

“What is it with you and my jacket?”

“Gimme a hint,” he said.

She raised her nose. “That takes all the fun out of it.”

He chuckled once. “Alright, then how about telling me what ferroperiscope is or whatever?”

“Interested in geochemistry or making conversation?”

“I just wanna know what’s so important two people had to die.”

“It’s a kind of iron oxide.”

Rust?

Nio nodded. “Same as on your truck,” she joked.

“I’ll have you know this is a Chevy and it’s a classic.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, wait, people died so they could mine rust?”

“Not exactly. Iron oxide crystallizes at very high temperatures and pressures, like hundreds of thousands of atmospheres.”

“Sounds like a lot.”

“The human body can handle maybe five. Deep in the earth’s crust though, rust forms crystals similar to table salt, which conduct electricity in one orientation only. Otherwise, it’s actually a good insulator. That’s really important in certain applications of solid state physics.”

Del waited for more.

“If you bind ytterbium ions to an electrosensitive enzyme that—”

“An enzyme? Like something organic?”

“Yeah. Similar to how hemoglobin binds iron. The enzyme changes configuration to either inhibit or encourage quantum tunneling. That creates a quantum logic gate. Put ion-enzyme complexes inside tiny cavities of ferropericlase and you can construct a molecular circuit where you control when electrons move via tunneling and when they move classically. Changing the source and destination cells is analogous to neurons making or trimming connections. If you stack a bunch of biomechanical wafers like that, you get a 3D quantum matrix similar to what they use for the Shri-class intelligences.”

“I thought we agreed not to make anymore of those.”

“Well, no one really knows what the Chinese or Russians are doing, but whatever it is, I doubt they’re doing it with rare earths from North America.”

“Then what’s the big deal?”

“Research. Everyone wants to be the first to design the next class. That’s all Shri Brahma does actually: contemplate consciousness. But ferropericlase has other applications as well—large-scale data-transfer systems, for example.”

After a moment of silence, she turned to see the smirk on his face.

“You sure you’re not an engineer?” he asked.

“Ha. Would I be taking the bus? But what about you, cowboy?” she asked quickly. “Been here your whole life?”

“Naw. Mom moved us here from Minneapolis when I was in junior high. Had a chance at double-A ball.”

It was his turn to notice the look on her face. “You don’t know what that is,” he said.

She shook her head.

“Wow.” Del stopped at a red light. He leaned back to examine her again in mock study. “You’re really, really not from around here. Who doesn’t know about football?”

She shrugged.

“Come on, you gotta tell me.”

“I grew up in Taiwan,” she explained.

Taiwan?” He paused as if there was some punchline coming. “You don’t look even a little Chinese,” he said.

“I’m not.”

“And you don’t have an accent.”

“It was an international private school. All English.”

“Do you also speak . . . whatever they speak in Taiwan?”

“Taiwanese.” She smiled again. “Yes. I do.”

Del drove in silence for a moment. “I blew it, didn’t I?”

“Blew what?”

“You’re smart and know about geochemistry and shit and I don’t even know what folks speak in Taiwan.”

“I know very little about geochemistry. But you were right.” She pointed ahead. “Looks like we were five minutes from everywhere.”

Del slowed and pulled to a stop in front of three blocks of aging, cheaply built 2020s apartments. A pile of planks and downed branches in the corner of the parking lot was topped in mounds of snow. Hanging inside a second-floor window, back-lit so it was clearly visible even at night, was the red, green, and yellow TruBoi flag.

“I see what you mean,” she said.

“Yeah. You got friends here or something?”

“Not exactly.” Nio opened the door and stepped down carefully. Her unlaced boots nearly disappeared in the slush.

“You sure I can’t interest you in a not-entirely-terrible dinner? This town’s gonna get really dead in a couple hours.”

“Worried about me?”

He glanced to the flag. “How do you know I’m not just trying to get in your pants?”

“You’re not.”

“So, you’re psychic, too, is that it?”

She waited for an explanation, but Del only shrugged.

“Come on,” Nio urged. “I told you where I was from.”

He exhaled slowly. He looked down the road. “I saw you get off the bus. People like you come out here, they’re one of two things: lost . . . or trouble.”

“Which one am I?”

“I was hopin’ lost. Why you think I offered the ride?”

Nio smiled. “See ya around, cowboy.”


The opening to my latest novel, a near-future mystery available free from my website while it goes through the query process.