Winterdim

Chris Howard

38

Bridges



We stopped to rest after a three-hundred kilometer dash to the south, swinging back in toward the Mississippi on some map and course guidance from Carlos. My ass was sore, my legs didn’t want to work, and I felt a humming pressure in my bones and brain—but only when I faced southwest.

Damn humans.

Not the living breathing walking in this world ones—what remains of them. They’re fine. Damn the billions who went into the Spheres a hundred years ago, the ones who went completely virtual. Their security technology fucking god-handled my senses.

I tasted something in the air from the east, could have been the Leaf Father, but I think it was just people, recovering towns. Could have been a whole series of towns. Hard to tell.

And it was faint.

We’d kept inland from the river, and whatever it was in the East, drowned in what my senses snagged from the southwest.

Carlos, looking up from the map display on Fritz’s runner, pointed along the direction of my weird pain. “The Mid-Mississippi Sphere is that way.”

“Little Rock?”

He looked at me, but not quite focused, rooting around in his memory. Then he fingered through the map display. “Possibly. A city? I’ve heard the name before. Where do you know it from?”

Reed turned around, caught some of the discussion.

I elbowed him. “We hitched a ride with a trucker on the way out. He mentioned a city called Little Rock in connection with the ‘Mid-Mississip Sphere’ and I figured they’re the same place.”

Carlos touched his way through the map another minute and came up with, “Could be the city was consumed in the making of the Sphere. Happened in a lot of places. I heard all of Houston is gone. Also heard Yokohama’s completely gone.”

“Where’s that?”

“Place called Nippon—or Japan.”

Carlos was a rather worldly soldier. “How many are there—I mean total?”

“Spheres? Guessing somewhere around two thousand worldwide, enough for eleven and a half billion souls. They were regional—some covering and consuming the populations of several whole countries. I know the UK and northern and central France map moderately well...”

I nodded, passive listening, recalling the power I’d felt out of a tiny sliver of the Chicago Sphere showing itself over the horizon. That was some serious world-making technology.

Pulling the runners under some trees, we napped for an hour, and then we were back on the road.

We picked up an ancient asphalt highway, dried and age-crumbling to the consistency of packed sand. The vehicles kicked up dust and Brazley sped up to run alongside us as we approached rows of low buildings, what looked like the edge of an old town or city.

More signs of ancient civilization coming at us.

Standing over the road, a billboard for some long gone mental healthcare agency or provider proclaimed in giant white letters on a solid purple background—long faded to lavender,

* * *

We can know everything that’s going on inside your head.

Understanding ... and making a difference.

That’s the bridge we will have to build together.

Come see us. Sign up is free.

Open enrollment now!

* * *

Exchanged a glance with Fritz, shared a shrug.

The sun was right above us, the air moist and warm, when we slid into a town called West Frankfurt—well, what used to be called West Frankfurt. The big welcome sign still had the word “Welcome” in fancy script, and the word “West” was pretty clear, but we got the rest off faded store signs, West Frankfurt Laundry and West Frankfurt Pizza—which was “Best in the State.”

“Which state?” someone asked.

I shrugged.

Fritz rubbed his hands, played a tune, suddenly vigilant. Yeah, he felt it, too. Place wasn’t as deserted as it appeared. Carlos killed the engine on our runner when we heard the baby crying. Brazley, driving with Fritz in the back, spun her marshrunner perpendicular to ours, nose pointed out, and then edged closer, shifting the shields all the way up.

Carlos jumped up, stood on his seat, scanned the storefronts and second story apartments of the quaint old town of West Frankfurt, both hands shading his eyes. When he’d made half the circuit he noticed Brazley’s perfect combat readiness maneuver and laughed, nodding at her approvingly.

“What, you read the entire op manual and tactical docs?”

She shrugged, still looking around warily, thumbing the safety off her gun. “Mostly. What else was there to do on the drive down?” Clearly quoting a line out of the manual, “’They nearly drive themselves.’ One of my renderers read them also and we traded knowledge. So, I believe I have most of both books down, yes.”

Carlos covered the rest of his circuit, looking back up the path we’d just come down. “Well done.”

I swung one leg over the third seat, stood up and stretched to the sky, arms over my head, on the left side running board, then hopped to the street. Old gray cracked pavement, weeds growing up through it in busy zigzags. Twenty meters further along, the street Y’d around a central grassy area with broken curbing and one lonely tree, lightning shattered, in the center.

Looked like my turn to go.

I felt some concern behind me as I broke from the group toward the central green, but I wasn’t going to get a read through the concrete. Didn’t matter how wide it was cracked.

I stopped at the edge of grass, bent to brush away the caked mud off a block of stone with a tarnished metal plaque.

* * *

Ramirez Green

Dedicated to the memory of Arthur N. Ramirez

for tireless service to country and community

* * *

The grass was brittle under my feet, a little dry, but the whole block of life in the middle of Main Street seemed alive and charged—felt a lot more than green and ghosts through my skin. Standing in the middle of it, I placed a hand against the old tree, looked up into broken branches and scattered clusters of green leaves, whispering, “You still waiting for Arthur Ramirez to come home, old man? Or are you just keeping his name alive in a world that left everything behind?” I patted the bark, leaned away to get a better feel for what was going on in this town. “Well, you’re doing a fine job.”

The baby cried again, off to my right in one of the open second story windows.

“The one with the curtains blowing in,” said Reed, pointing—not with his gun, praise all that is green and good.

“Don’t bother mom and the baby. Fritz? You have a second. I want you to feel something.”

I slid to my knees in the center of the green and pressed my hands into the ground, moist grass coming through my fingers, felt good, felt...more than I expected. A shudder and I jumped right back to my feet, sprinted to the street, spinning to run backward, almost expecting something monstrous to come clawing out of the ground at my heels.

Fritz was at my side, plucking invisible strings. “What is it?”

I shook my head, still a bit stunned. “Don’t know. It felt Rootworldish to me, but nothing I’ve come across before. Big. Under the ground. It felt... very big.”

Fritz took my arm and pulled me back a step, nodding off to his right. “I feel it, but there’s something else moving, restless, about a klick that way.”

He made a palm out gesture, then snapped his other hand up and over his head, signaled everyone else to heightened alert. A snap of guns and other weaponry behind us.

Carlos, at the scanners, called, “Blow in at noon.”

All of us looked up.

A thin man in a full-length jacket whipping around his body was coming up Main Street.

Fritz gave me a questioning jump of his eyebrows.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s not Art Ramirez.”

“Who?”

I waved it away, folding my other hand across my brow to block the light and get a better look. “Our caller’s carrying something, looks like a serving bowl.”

Sending out a couple traces to see if the newcomer—a “blow in” in whatever Carlos sourced for jargon—was human or not, I glanced over Fritz’s shoulders, caught some motion through an open doorway, across the dark interior backlit by a window.

I felt a good tension-curl in my toes. “Yeah, we’re not alone here.”

Fritz shrugged, but I felt the fear, a twitchy response he’d cranked down. “I know. Let’s see what this guy has to say before we pull out and go around.”

Wind blowing and my heart beating—and I counted a nice square one-twenty-one beats before the guy with the bowl was close enough to chat with. A glance at Fritz to see what he was doing, his eyes half-closed, focused on some power or other he employed. I just glared and gave our new friend a good up and down study.

He didn’t look like trouble. Not exactly.

But I never would have guessed the first line out of the mouth of our bowl carrying man about town. Never, even if I had a million years to guess

He stopped at a cautious distance, at the edge of the green, right over whatever had made an underground home for itself there. He was nearly bald, way too thin to be eating normally, with sad sunken eyes and fingers shaking. He extended the bowl toward us, tilted it a little, lumps of bloody meaty stuff in the garish orange and vivid blue party pattern painted around the bowl’s rim.

He sounded younger than he looked, voice coming out smooth. “We believe it’s a human liver.”

Certainly not something you hear every day—if ever in my line of work, trees and green growing things. I don’t normally do livers, human or otherwise.

I curled my fingers around Fritz’s arm, gave the malnourished man a jut of my chin. “What are you looking for? Confirmation?” I’m sure Fritz or any of our renderers could identify the stuff.

But Brazley got there first, walked right past us, gun swinging along her back, right up to the man, and looked into the bowl, sniffed the contents, even prodded at it with one finger.

“No.” She shook her head, her mind made up. “It’s two livers. Both human.”

“Great. Demons who take out human organs. My fave.” I spoke up. “What’s your name?”

“Michael Jevard. I’m a doctor.”

“But those aren’t your livers, right?”

He shook his head. “Started about a year ago. Anyone who died, disappeared.”

“Except their livers?”

“No. First time I seen this.”

I waved up and down the street. “How many live here?”

Michael the Doctor gave it some serious thought. “Ninety-eight, if you count the Aravedoes.” He pointed west. “Live just this side of the canyons.”

I nodded as if “the canyons” meant something to me.

Fritz sank lower in his stance, eyes going to squints, arms out, fingers still playing something discordant. Reed or Carlos, one of them, shouted a warning from their direction, but Fritz was into something deep, and didn’t even flinch.

Michael the Doctor looked up, cocked his head one way to follow Reed’s extended arm.

Then he dropped the bowl.

Blood and livers went everywhere.

Dr. Jevard raised a hand hesitantly and called, “Vince? That you?”

The second confirmed citizen of good old West Frankfurt came walking out of the blue.

Vince looked to be in better shape, long strides, arms swinging. He wasn’t whistling a chipper tune, but he looked like he ought to be.

I gestured toward our newer-comer. “Vince looks like he’s been getting enough to eat. What’s your excuse?”

Michael gave me a worried look. “Vince was dead eight days ago.”

I turned all the way around, gestured to Brazley to check it out. Dead, and eight days later striding into town with the high spirits of a guy who just got a hell of a good fucking. That seemed a little unusual.

I sent out some remotes, let them roll off the ends of my toes, planted a net of them all the way down the street in little patters of dust, glancing at Brazley as she fingered the interface of some analysis gear she’d pulled from her pack. Vince was clean. Brazley and I exchanged a nod.

Whatever was going on, didn’t appear to have harmed Vince, just revived him.

I was about to ask Jevard if he was sure Vince was dead...but, he was a doctor. I assumed he could handle that much.

The doctor wheeled away from me, and yelled, “Helen!”

A woman and two teenage boys slipped from the shadows into the sunlight, edging cautiously along the store fronts toward us. Four more West Frankfurters crept from their homes. The woman with the crying baby, looked to be around my age, brushed aside the curtains, and glared down at us.

In ten minutes, twenty people had gathered to welcome Vince—who, I have to say, looked absolutely glowing, a new man, about as far from dead as anyone ever gets. He was mid-sixties, a bit gray, strong on his feet, and everything my senses picked up told me he could run a nice 30 minute 10k and still have strength for some post-race activities with Helen. Bravo, Vince.

Helen, who I took to be Vince’s love, shot out from the group at a sprint, arms over her head, starts and stops of screams—all of them joyful. I think she’d been confused, Dr. Michael calling her out from hiding. Pretty clear she’d been expecting some explanation about my friends and I, not that her eight-day-dead boyfriend / husband / possibly father of these teenagers was strolling back into West Frankfurt.

It was beautiful. Like something out of a story. Two lost lovers find each other in an abandoned town on the edge of nowhere.

They met, hugged, a flurry of kissing, tears glistening on both their faces in the noon sun.

Like I said. Beautiful.

I turned back to Dr. Michael, pointing at the livers. “So, I assume neither of these belongs to Vince? He’s as hale as can be, better than most men his age. You want to give us a little more info on your loose human organ collection, doctor?”

“I...I don’t know...”

He had trouble getting started, but I waited patiently, set my face with a calm smile—not easy for me. I mean, sure, I have kin who are trees, I possess some interesting botanical qualities, can do some wild things in the forest, but patience isn’t part of the package. I had to work really hard at it.

“Please, tell us what you think. We can help. We just need to know what’s going on.”

Felt Brazley looking over at me, wondering at my offer of assistance. I know. I know. It isn’t me.

But I’m looking around at my friends, and, well, we make a pretty intimidating group. What’s an organ hungry demon going to do against the five of us?

I stepped toward Michael, opened my hands, kept my voice soft. “Seriously, Dr. Jevard, we don’t scare that easy. Tell us everything. I’m sure we can help you out of trouble.”

He broke down, not all the way, but the cracks opened, and he stumbled. I caught him. We locked eyes. I smiled. He jumped in my grip, frightened. Could have been something in my expression. Maybe I grabbed him too hard, too firmly. Hey, I was solid, both feet on the ground. It’s going to take more than a skinny old man to move a dryad with roots deeper than a fucking core-line.

I nodded at the look in his eyes. “Right. I’m not entirely from this world, Dr. Jevard.” Glancing down, “Neither is the thing under the ground there.”

“But you look...”

“Human?” I shrugged. “Close. I’m half.” Then I let my hair twist and braid, and spun out ten meters of vines, let them coil in the air, a bit showy, but it made the point. “Why does that matter? I’m also willing to help.”

The crowd had backed up, some of them tripping and crawling away from me. Brazley came to stand at my side, glaring at the doctor as if he’d stirred things up and she might have to make him real quiet.

“No problem here, Braze. The kind doctor is about to tell us what’s happening so we can help him, help his town, help everyone here.”

Fritz moved closer, only half paying attention, still pushing some elaborately trilling vocals into the earth, felt it tickle my toes.

Michael Jevard looked around at the frightened faces of his fellow West Frankfurters, got some nods back, and he spilled it all. “We’ve had four deaths in the last year, and not one funeral. Any time someone dies, or it’s a terminal case...” He pointed up the road at Vince still grinning like a kid between minutes of excited talk and clinging to the face of Helen. “Vince died. No pulse, no brain activity, nothing. I have gear, and I have my own eyes and senses...Miss?”

“Thea. Call me Thea.”

Jevard held his hands open, useful steady hands that knew how to use tools down to microsurgery scales. “Vince was the last death. Marilynn died eleven months ago, eighty-seven years, heart failure. It broke our community. Marilynn held us together, she was like a mother for the whole town.”

Something about the way he said her name. “She was your wife?”

Jevard jerked, threw his hands out for support.

I grabbed one, glancing around, a quick read of expressions. “And not everyone has a mother. Marilynn was mother to—”

“Marilynn’s dead.” He caught the loose-running edge in his reaction, reeled it in. “We never buried her. Her...body vanished the night before the funeral service.”

“And the other two?”

“The same. Only Kenny Bromlen was young, early twenties, fell from some mine rigging, broke his skull and everything inside. Nothing I could do.” His hands started to shake, and I squeezed the one I held.

“I think I understand.” I gestured behind me. “So the same goes for Vince, only he—”

“No. Helen kept Vince hidden. Of course, I knew he’d died, signed the notification, but there were only two of us who did. Me and Helen. Even their boys didn’t know. Vince vanished in the night, right out of Helen’s house.”

Fritz spoke softly from somewhere faraway. “And no one knew about Vince’s death but you two?” He nodded to himself, not waiting for an answer.

From somewhere between a total trance and clowning around, Fritz waved everyone off the green, jabbing a finger at the bowl and pair of loose livers. Jevard shoved them back in the brightly colored bowl and backed away from the grass, wiping his hands on his shirt.

I gave him a nod. I liked a guy who could wipe someone else’s blood off on his shirt.

Fritz crawled over the curb, and then he was on the ground, stretched out, singing with his lips brushing the tips of the grass, his eyes closed.

“What can you tell us, Fritz?”

It was like talking to someone on another planet, a three minute delay before he even knew there was a conversation going on. He swiveled his head, eyes blinking before they fixed on me. “Welldwellers and physicians always travel as a pair.”

Which made about as much sense as anything else I’d heard so far.

Fritz rolled slowly to his knees, took a few more deep breaths and climbed to his feet. He looked worn out.

Waving to Carlos, a hand signal that everything was fine, he turned to the citizens of West Frankfurt. “I’d say you are blessed. A welldweller and his physician have chosen to make their homes among you, to keep your health, to make your lives long, your burdens lighter.”

Fritz was starting to get preachy, and I poked him with a stiff finger.

“So, what’s a welldweller?”

He nodded back at me. “Like you suspected. A Rootworlder.”

“Why here?”

“His name is Inwenorran—if I got that right.” Fritz held Dr. Jevard’s gaze for a bit, then took in the rest of the townspeople. “He says, they were invited here.”

Michael snapped a look around at his fellow citizens as if one of them had called a few organ swapping demon buddies for an extended vacation.

“By who?” Echoes of my question sputtered through the crowd.

“Not someone. It was your big printed invitation that called them.” Fritz pointed back down the road we’d come in on. “The purple sign at the edge of town.”

“Billboard?” Someone asked, think it was one Helen’s boys, the red-headed one named Jason.

“The welldweller says he and his physician partner stopped and moved in because they wanted to help ‘build the bridge’. Enrollment was open, and you offered an opportunity to build a bridge between ‘understanding’ and ‘making a difference.’” Fritz only gave us a few moments to let that sink in. “You’re broadcasting to the world what you want, and this welldweller and his physician took the job. He says they just wanted to make a difference, as it says on the sign.” Fritz, always the showman, turned and smiled. “Perhaps you would like to meet them. This isn’t their world, and they don’t like mixing openly, but I can persuade them if you like?”

“Can’t you make them leave?” One of the late arrivals, didn’t get his name. He already sounded hysterical. Dimwit.

Fritz gave him an easy shrug. “How long would any of you like to live? That’s a serious question. Think about it, and tell me. Would you like to live and enjoy nearly perfect health for a long time? For centuries? Forever maybe?” He gestured at Vince as a shining example—and with something in his smile that added the fact that Vince will be having fun later with Helen.

A couple nods, some more vigorous than others. There was certainly some indecision, but I didn’t catch one “no” in the crowd.

“Then you want to make sure your welldweller and his partner physician feel at home.” Fritz let his gaze slide over them. “Because they can. I mean it. Keep you alive as long as you like. It’s what they do. It’s what they live for.”

No one seemed overjoyed to meet something called a “welldweller”. I was even a bit shaky on it. Fritz called him anyway.

“Here he comes. He’s quite large when fully expanded, doesn’t weigh a lot, but he’ll have ten or so twenty-meter long legs in a radial spread. You’ll see when he comes out of the ground. He uses them to feel what the populace is feeling, takes readings on your health, your pain, your troubles. Very good at what he does.”

Fritz turned back to the center green, lifted his arms, playing notes and singing under his breath. The ground shifted, a spider web of cracks cut across the old asphalt, lifting in places to expose the foundation of hard packed gravel.

“Fritz? He better not bother my tree!” I shouted the command over the rumble of ground motion.

He danced into action, arms raised, singing a different tune, and the head of the welldweller broke through the surface in the space between the tree’s roots and the north corner of the central green.

Took almost twenty minutes, but it was worth the wait. We lost three of the good citizens to fainting. It was that good.

The welldweller’s body stood about four meters high, pointed at the top and base like a giant seed or maybe something fired out of a gun—a giant gun. His skin, streaked in dirt, showed some functioning organs and structures underneath, ridges that expanded and contracted, gill-like, nothing that looked like eyes. Made sense for something called a welldweller. No light, no eyes necessary. His legs were the most magnificent things, twelve of them, at least twenty meters long, articulated and skinned in a metallic covering, the tips pointed and bristling with some kind of sense array. He pulled them out of the ground under him, four at a time, bracing his body on giant coiled loops of his own limbs.

Fritz stood right next to him, a tiny human form beside a Rootworld creature that stood almost as tall as the commemoration tree. He placed one hand on his skin, fingers sliding through some of the caked-on dirt.

“I’d like you all to meet Inwenorran. He’s a little shy, not used to being above the ground. Isn’t he beautiful?”

No one answered right away.

Fritz pointed. “And here comes his partner, the physician.”

The physician was a completely different kind of being, almost entirely made of a shadowy body and thick appendages that smeared through the air like oily smoke.

He walked into town, past Reed and Carlos on the runners. He even appeared to walk through obstructions, or maybe he oozed around them. But he had legs and a roughly human form.

Fritz spent another twenty speaking to the physician—whose name was something like “Ulrendalen”, and also male. Fritz told him that the people of the town were afraid, that they didn’t understand the purpose or nature of beings like a welldweller and physician.

To Dr. Jevard, Fritz explained that the livers were nothing more than a misunderstood offer of communication—both being fully developed cloned copies of Vince’s liver, and meant to represent the abilities of the pair of Rootworlders.

Oh yeah, clear as water, that.

You know, Fritz even organized an impromptu medical class there, signing up doctor Jevard, a woman—I didn’t get her name, and Jason, one of the teenage sons of Vince and Helen.

He was a natural at this getting people and Rootworlders together. I just watched him proudly, my cherished friend, my musicman.

Fritz then used his people handling skills in maneuvering the town closer to the two new celebrities, while shifting Brazley and I with him through the crowd, a soft touch at my elbow, a gentle nudge, shifting his feet to keep us moving. Before I knew what was happening, the three of us stood behind everyone else, Carlos and Reed even farther back, still manning the runners, watching us and exchanging a few words and questions.

I still had one of my own.

I poked him in the shoulder, trying to knock the smile off his face. “Back at the treehouse—your beautiful treehouse. When we were all talking?”

He lost his smile. “Yeah?”

“We never heard your story.” I gave him elbow jab. “Why not?”

He froze, clearly not sure how to respond, ended up settling on something light, elbowing me right back, his smile resurfacing. “Carlos has been trying to get it out of me for years.”

“You fuck.” I was laughing. “You guys broke me down like a damn reusable box, and you’re telling me, you’ve been with Carlos for how long, and you still haven’t told your story?”

“Carlos, sure he can needle, but he’s just one guy. You’re all going to have to band together if you want my story, Thea. It’s buried that deep.”

He kept the smile, but it was masklike, and I let it go, put my arm around his shoulders.

“We can wait.” I jerked a chin at the crowd. “We’re not done here yet, are we?”

“Almost.”

“Want to tell them what they’ve won?”

“Sure do.”

I let him go. He had one more important message.

Fritz stepped to the edge of the crowd, held out his hands to the welldweller and the physician, his gaze shifting over the townspeople of West Frankfurt. There were nearly seventy now, just about everyone in calling distance had gathered. They’d come to see the gift, the otherworlders, the thing that lived under their town and—“if you took the word of these helpful strangers”—kept an eye on our health and feelings and corrected problems.

Fritz called for some serious listening. “Just so you know...in their world—the Rootworld, if a welldweller and physician move or are driven away, it’s considered a curse. There have been whole populations of cities who have given up their lives, poisoned themselves, because they lost their welldweller and partner.” Fritz shrugged, but he held Doctor Jevard’s eyes with a hard stare. “Just something to keep in mind.”

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