A Remnant Man Rode a Linguahorse Across the Plain of Conn
by Richard Wolkomir
Richard Wolkomir is a long-time contributor of articles and essays to magazines, ranging from Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, and Woman’s Dayto Geo (in Europe), Playboy, andNational Geographic. Now he is turning to an original interest in speculative fiction, with fantasy and science-fiction stories either currently published or archived in a variety of on-line literary magazines.
His writing has received a variety of awards, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Distinguished Science Writing in Magazines, the American Society of Journalists and Authors June Roth Memorial Award, and the Clarion Award.
Currently, besides writing short stories, he is finishing a fantasy novel.
“We require three,” said the Variant with the huge head.
His visitor, Avid, no chair being offered, stood. He studied the Variant’s fungal-chromosome desk, its curves and its luster, remembering the growth of its cell mass in his commune’s ovens, and its shaping. Which calmed him.
“Three,” the Variant repeated. “Infants.”
Avid finally spoke: “Engineer, I assumed you summoned me to demonstrate our newest product, which is here in my backpack….”
“I am City Engineer-in-Chief!” the Variant said, tinny voice rising to shrill. “It is I who specify—this time, I specify infants!”
Next to Avid stood a linguadog, monkey-faced, with lips for word shaping. But the dog only growled.
“Limper, hush,” Avid whispered.
The dog glared into the Engineer’s white-on-white eyes and asked: “Bite?”
“No!” Avid said.
From a drawer the Engineer extracted a hollow stalk, with a knob for thumbing, and laid it on his desk.
“No need to thorn the dog,” Avid said.
“You issue me orders?” demanded the Engineer. “You threaten?”
Avid smiled, bitterly.
But he thought: Do you feel threatened?
Something inside his backpack mumbled. Avid shrugged it into silence. Then, for a moment, Remnant Man and Variant stared at each other, as if across a gorge.
Abruptly, the Engineer spoke: “Our farms feed you primitives, and we supply your ovens’ chromosomal brews, and we buy your products.”
Avid thought: You refuse us seed, so we can only craft.
“We give you life and livelihood, and what do we tax?” the Engineer said. “A mere three?”
Avid thought: Five communes stood around this city, all gone now but us. Harvested and gone. And we are down to so few.
“You have already taken our grandparents,” Avid said. “And our parents.”
“Inefficacious,” the Engineer said. “Aging-induced neuronal degradation.”
He raised a foreshortened arm and let it fall, so that his miniaturized hand slapped the desk. Mentator Variants like the Engineer were designed, back in the Long Ago, to plan and administrate. They did no handwork.
“Now you take our children?” Avid said.
A child’s doll, broken on the ground.
That was five years ago, when the commune’s thirty-footed truck ran amok. Lanya dead, and their toddler daughter. It had stomped Limper, too, a puppy then. In a way, it had stomped Avid. Afterwards, he felt separated, alone. Even so, he was mayor now. He pictured his linguahorse, Whitemane, grazing outside the city’s southern portal, waiting for him, snorting revulsion with the city’s smell. He imagined riding her back across the plain to the commune, to his empty cottage, gathering the people to tell them, “Three….”
“Take me,” he said. “I’m only thirty-two.”
But the Engineer shook his head.
“We need infants….”
“We have no infants,” Avid said.
He thought that would end it.
“Then children,” the Engineer said. “Their neurons still….”
Three children? Three out of three?
From his knapsack, a honeyed voice sang: “Blue thoughtberries, red thoughtberries, ripen in your mind….”
Avid shrugged the singer in his backpack into silence.
To the Engineer, he said: “And when you cull us down to nothing, like the other Remnant communes, where will you get your unengineered neurons then?”
White-on-white, the Engineer’s eyes blazed, coldly. But the heatless flames guttered. Abruptly, the Engineer slumped in his chair, resting his huge head on his tiny hands.
Avid thought: We number only ninety-two. Out across this emptied world, are we the last Remnant commune? And does any Variant city beside this one still respire and pump sap through its walls?
He remembered a trading trip to the city last autumn. He had ridden Whitemane across the Plain of Conn at dawn, feeling a cold wind through his jacket’s oven-brewed leather. It seemed to blow from far away. A lonesome wind. For comfort, he had looked up into the Berk Hills to watch the rising sun turn crests gold.
I saw a wild Remnant galloping on horseback along a ridge….
“We have only three children,” Avid said.
No expression on the Engineer’s antlike face. Avid thought: He does not see a man standing here. We are livestock. What was the old adage? “Behold a Remnant—designed by nobody, engineered for nothing.”
As a child, coming into the city with his father, peddling crafts from the commune’s ovens, he saw Variants pointedly pinch closed their nostrils, heard their children’s taunts.
“Remnant, Remnant, pugly, bugly, Remnant, Remnant, ugly, ugly.”
Yet, only the Remnants crafted new things. Variants did not innovate, or make up songs or tell stories. They only did what their genes specified, when their particular line was engineered in the Long Ago.
“Not our children,” Avid said.
He saw the engineer’s white eyes intensify. Anger, perhaps. But in that cold fire Avid also sensed despair. And fear. And something like erratic sparks.
Limper whispered: “He thinks sticks are food.”
Avid understood, but Limper pressed the point: “Headworms.” Not hearing the dog, or ignoring him, the Engineer sat staring with those white-on-white eyes. Finally he stood.
“Come,” he said, walking to the office’s window.
Avid followed. They stood side by side, the Mentator with a large head atop an attenuated body and the stocky Remnant man, head shaved bald to remind him always of his dead wife and daughter, blue eyes alert.
“What do you see?”
With a tiny forefinger, the Engineer pointed out the window at the city’s green domes and spires. Their shingle-like leaves now were raised, maximizing solar intake, their chloroplasts reacting with photons to nourish the city’s living walls and vessels and organs. Beyond the city stretched golden croplands tended by Agricola Variants, engineered strong and stolid for soil tilling, in the Long Ago, when the ancients first began rearranging genes to take evolution into their own hands. Beyond, across the open plain, dots on the horizon marked the cottages and brewshops of the Remnant commune. Westward loomed the dark-forested Berk Hills, where nobody lived or went.
But I saw a wild Remnant galloping on horseback along a ridge….
“What do you see?” the Engineer repeated.
Avid said: “I see our world.”
“No,” said the Engineer. “Look again—you see The Waning.”
Yes, since he last traded here, another dome had browned, and a spire, green when he saw it last, although brown spotted, now stood dark and oozing black. One entire sector, blackened, had now collapsed. Even in portions still green, maintaining chlorophyll, Avid saw browned spots.
“We will visit the Director,” the Engineer said. “Come.”
Avid followed him, Limper at his side, out to the podshaft—riding down, he wondered if the browning also afflicted the oven-brewed tendons that lowered the pod down the tower. And if the tendons did rend, the pod plummet….
Who would care for Whitemane?
Gently, the pod bumped to a stop and they walked out into the city’s subterranean underpinnings, bone ribs arching far overhead. They walked past banks of oven-grown hearts pumping sap up through the city’s cellulose and lignin walls, and water into its taps.
“What do you see?” the Engineer demanded, pointing.
In a glass vat, twice his height, Avid saw a gray mass faintly pulsating. From the mass, whitish neuronal cords stretched upwards into the city.
“I see the Director,” Avid said.
“Look closer,” the Engineer said.
Sections of the gray mass had gone black, or sickly white. Some outstretching neurons had browned. Several hung limp.
“The Director is senescent,” said the Engineer. “The Director is dying.”
Avid saw something like emotion on the Mentator’s face, as he stood studying the ancient neuronal mass in its vat.
“We are the last, the final city,” the Engineer said.
He swung his puny body to stare directly at Avid, and spoke.
“To that, what are a few primitive children?”
Avid stood silent, eyes shut. Finally he looked at the Engineer.
“It no longer works,” Avid said. “You know the transfusions no longer work.”
“There is no pain,” the Engineer said, ignoring him. “They sleep, deeply, sweetly, and only then do we harvest.”
“No,” Avid said.
They stared at each other until the Engineer finally spoke.
“I could send Gendarmes riding to your commune in their stampers, with thorn guns,” he said. “I could take.”
Our kitchen knives against thorn guns, maybe we all would die, and we are the last, and when you have finally driven the Remnants extinct, what will your city do then?
“Blue thoughtberries,” the voice in his backpack sang. “Red thoughtberries….”
Avid shrugged out of his backpack, laying it on the floor. He opened its flap and reached inside, pulling out a furry brown ball, featureless, except for a mouth. He held it out toward the Engineer. They stood silent, the furry ball between them. And then the ball moved its lips and sang:
“An ending, a turning…..”
Does it sing to the Engineer? Or to me?
“It is new from our ovens, an entertainment,” Avid said. “It merely sings, but we have made advances….”
Shaking his head, the Engineer raised his tiny hands and made a motion of dismissal.
“It’s sensitive to thoughts, currents,” Avid persisted. “We don’t know how—we experimented, certain chromosomal mixes…”
Impatiently, the Engineer shook his head and walked toward the podshaft. Avid hurried after him.
“We could improve it,” Avid said. “Grow it—it has potential for complex thought.”
At that, the Engineer turned, regarded him.
“A new Director,” Avid said.
He watched thoughts run across the Engineer’s face, crisscrossing, dead-ending, reversing, miring.
You do not feed your own neuronal tissues into that vat because of their engineered-in specialization. Your brains cannot rejuvenate the Director. Primitives, you call us. But our brains still flex, our neurons weave and reweave, form new patterns.
“Our commune’s truck ran crazy,” Avid told the Engineer. “We eventually figured the reason—its little oven-brewed brain degenerated, over the years, because all it did was run the truck’s legs, and neuronal networks need renewed pathways and connections.”
Now the Engineer looked at him, expressionless.
“Let us experiment, we’ll work together,” Avid said. “Give us the brews.”
In the silence between them, he listened to the city’s oven-grown hearts pump sap in the city’s otherwise silent sublevel. It struck him: so few Bio-Techs bustling about, adjusting. When he was young, coming down here with his father, specialists seemed everywhere. Now, except for the few Bio-Techs he saw working in the distance, he stood alone with the Engineer. Since the Long Ago, how many Variant breeds, engineered for vanished functions, had moldered into nonexistence? He remembered an ancient disc he once viewed in the city’s library—what might Zero-Grav Spacers have been?
“Sing a song
Until its tune is gone….”
Whether the furry ball in his hand sang for the Engineer, or for him, he did not know.
He heard the Engineer mutter to himself.
“Gendarmes, that’s the correct choice. Rule 69807A—Remnants, maintain docility. Uprising now, refusal to be taxed. Four squads will do, riding in four fifty leggers….”
Avid’s stomach lurched.
He watched the Engineer shuffle off down the row of pumping hearts, toward the podshaft. Halfway, the Engineer stopped and turned, shouted back to Avid, his voice risen high, to a nasty child’s screech:
“Remnant, Remnant, pugly, bugly, Remnant, Remnant, ugly, ugly.”
Avid watched him disappear into the pod, a stick figure with an enlarged head, like a child’s drawing. He suddenly pitied the Engineer.
Our neurons did once rejuvenate the Director, temporarily. But that stopped years ago. What fails to work, the Engineer tries again, thinking it will work yet, because his brain is too stiff to try a new thing. He sneers at us. Yet, in the Long Ago it was the unengineered who began the engineering.
And what of my own cowed people?
“Limper,” he said. “Home.”
They hurried to a pod, ascended, then strode along the city’s phosphorescent-lit streets. Only a few Breeder Variants shopped for children’s clothes or groceries, and only a few Commercials waited on them. Fixers passed, carrying their toolboxes toward yet another breakdown. But few of them. Avid heard his footsteps echo in the emptied tunnels, and the sound frightened him.
I’ll never come here again. And it will blacken.
He told Limper what he meant to do.
Limper said: “Will there be food?”
“I don’t know what we’ll find,” Avid said.
And the dog said: “I hope there’s food.”
They emerged from the city’s southern portal, where Whitemane waited. Monkey-faced like the dog, also with lips for word shaping, she glared at them.
“Stink! Stink!” she complained. “Always the same—you and Limper go in there and leave me out here, smelling city sicky stink.”
Avid pulled himself up into the saddle. There were no reins, no need for reins.
“We’re going home now,” he said.
She started southward, out onto the Plain of Conn, flicking her white tail, petulant. At her approach, eyeplants winked protectively shut, then reopened to watch. Avid thought of the old saying: “Eyes to look, no brain to see.” And the proverb: “Who can construe the ancients’ doings?”
“City stink, wait and wait,” Whitemane grumbled as she walked. “Just stay home!”
“Hush,” Avid told her. “I’m trying to think what to tell them.”
Limper, running alongside, tongue lolling, said: “I think we’ll find food, Avid.”
When they finally reached the commune, Avid rode Whitemane to his cottage, telling people he passed to gather there for a meeting. He still did not know how to tell them, how to convince them.
They knew only this life, with its central rite: the Sacrifice. Terrifying. A sadness. Yet, they believed it kept their world alive.
He watched them assemble in the open area before his door. So few now, since the Variant city had exhausted the other communes, leaving only this one for culling. His people waited quietly before him. Off to one side, the commune’s three tots played, thinking this a festival.
“They demand three children,” Avid said.
A low moan welled up from the crowd. Eyes shifted, nervously, to the three laughing little ones.
“I told him, ‘No,’” Avid said.
They looked at him, not comprehending.
“He’s not sane,” Avid told them. “And the city’s dying—it can’t be saved.”
Somebody in the crowd said: “What will we do?”
“He’s sending Gendarmes,” Avid said. “Four squads in fifty leggers.”
Again the crowd moaned.
“We’ll have to give them the children!” somebody cried, a man who had no children.
“If we do, the city will die anyway,” Avid said.
Silence from the crowd, taking it in. Finally someone spoke.
“Then what will we do?”
Avid stood silently, feeling the enormity.
“We have to go into the hills, before the Gendarmes come to take the children, and begin again,” Avid said.
They looked at him blankly. Then they murmured.
“No ovens in the hills, so how will we craft?”
“In the hills, there won’t be any Agricolas to grow meatatoes for us, and where will we buy peppermint melons?”
“No cottages in the hills.”
“It’s just wildness in the hills, and things that were never engineered.”
“We’ll go back to the Long Ago,” Avid told them. “We’ll begin again.”
He held up a hand to silence the alarmed muttering.
“Last year, I saw a wild Remnant riding a horse along a ridge in the hills,” he said. “She looked down at me, and she smiled—we would find them, and they would take us in.”
They looked at their feet. After awhile, one man turned, leaving the crowd. Avid watched him trudge toward home, head down. In the silence, another man left. Then the parents of one of the children took the boy by his hands and led him between them to their cottage to cook supper. Now, silently, the crowd fell apart, trudging home or to the breweries for a final adjustment of the chromosomal brews before night. Avid stood before his empty cottage watching them walk away. Finally, he stood alone, with only Limper and Whitemane.
“Avid, why do you weep?” Limper asked.
He touched a hand to the dog’s head. Then he went into his cottage and packed what little he needed to take into his backpack, including a broken doll.
Later, he rode Whitemane out of the commune, with Limper running beside. He did not look back. But on the northern horizon he saw four dots moving toward the commune. He looked away, squinting into the setting sun, now resting atop the Berk Mountains.
“That ridge,” Avid said, pointing. “That’s where I saw her.”
Whitemane turned that way. Limper ran ahead, scouting, visible only as a parting of the grasses. From Avid’s backpack, a honeyed voice sang:
“Sing a song
Until its tune is gone….”
Avid rode Whitemane across the Plain of Conn, westward toward the Berk Mountains, and he knew not what.