Breakfast did not taste normal, so I went to Gilcren, questioning.
He cracked me on the face and said there were ants in the cereal, which was of course my fault. I had, years ago, dislearned, which made me always to blame for trouble of this kind. I have an idea how this will sound, but events do map a life. Smarting from Gilcren’s hand, I came again to the single fact: Ministry would chart the vector. They alone defined progress: forward, backward, diagonally.
Or, I thought, perhaps I’ll escape.
“Grace,” I said, “I have been instructed.”
“Hear any wisdom?” Gilcren asked.
“A student must,” I answered him.
I left our kitchen by the back door, as if to go and weed some dirt. When all the scrub is gone from here, we’ll plant the seeds of our blessed fruit. Engineered for the hotter planet, it’s bound to thrive and feed the world. This we declared each night.
But, for now, the rutted acres of dust. Not an edible root within. We could have sown the messiah plant, had it not declined to exist.
I walked as far as the succulents. Shalo stood guard in a big straw hat.
“Morning’s on,” she said.
“Morning’s on, Shalo.”
“There’s no approved off-land.”
On her belt were chemical sprays, set in order of pain and burn. Two of these I had sampled. I risked acquaintance of a third.
“I have self-approved off-land.”
Shalo rubbed underneath her jaw with her silver rod. The hat she tipped so I missed her eyes as she hastily scanned me for the lie.
“That’s very clever,” she said. “Ministry’s not what I hoped, either. Although better than what I had.”
“Then I may go?”
“I cannot stop you. When you meet Huntz at the end of the path, tell him you are on a mission to buy the Governor cigarettes.”
“Cigarettes? What are they?”
“Waste no time,” Shalo said.
“That time does not waste me,” I replied.
A mile past the gate I spotted Huntz, who sat on his ankles, watching a striped lizard as it sunned itself on a smooth, flat rock.
“Cigarettes,” he said without looking up.
“The Governor’s,” I assured him.
“Elmid,” he said, having placed my voice. “Recall for evening seminar.” I did not know the response to this, nor why the command had space for my name, but the reptile zigzagged after a beetle, and Huntz was lost in his entertainment.
The slope came into the shadow of a taller hill. A road went to the top, and great metal towers strung with wire. Nearing these, I heard the crackle of power above. The heat was more troubling. I took off my robe, exposing skin for photosynthesis. But as I had no water, it did not replenish. I put the robe back on.
To my exhausted gaze, the town appeared to spring from nothing. A truck almost hit me, its driver slowing to shout through his window. I stumbled to the footpath, where a dirty man sat leering from his blanket.
“Guy’s a maniac,” he said.
“I know him not.”
“Nice poncho. Wanna trade? You gimme that, have anything on this blanket.” The objects laid out were as filthy as he. “This,” he said, aiming a mossy branch at my chest, “is a genuine magic wand.”
“Magic’s not real. You have dislearned.”
“Harsh. Okay, your poncho for this.” He held out a shirt with blue trees and yellow birds, soft on my fingers. My robe itched. It didn’t only itch right then—it had itched for all the years I’d worn it. I traded it without remorse.
In the colorful shirt I was more relaxed, yet my face got hot as I trekked on. In a plate-glass window: my rough reflection. I needed water soon, or cereal without ants in it.
I found a door and went inside. It smelled like Genesis Cabin. Dust floated across racks of old clothes. Pants, coats, dresses, and ties. To my left, a shelf of shoes. And right at the entrance, a stand of colorful shirts like mine.
“Buying or selling?” a woman said. She sat at a counter doing figures with a pencil. I hadn’t used one since the Governor put an end to schooling. Children deserved real jobs, he’d said, each one special to Ministry.
“Neither,” I said. “I am here for water.”
The woman glanced up from her pad.
“You busy? I need to get about thirty boxes of coats to the basement. Nothing that heavy, but if I lean over too far today, I’ll never have another moment of comfort in my life. I can pay. How’s five dollars?”
The boxes were light, much lighter than the sacks of soil and fertilizer I spend my days toting back and forth, and the woman seemed very pleased to solve her problem. She smiled and picked at her hairy chin when I asked again for water, then disappeared somewhere in back, returning with a wet mug. I drank it fast.
“Thirsty down to my roots,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, staring at me as if I had done backbreaking work. “It totally slipped my mind.”
Soon after I left, I found another door wide open, music streaming out of it. Here, too, the lights were off—it seemed Ministry was not the only place with electrical issues. An elder stood at a row of oddly shaped levers, with several people sitting opposite him on stools. They were all drinking a brownish water. I watched one man give the elder his glass, which he refilled from a lever.
“Evening,” the elder said. “You made it to happy hour. Two bucks for a beer and whiskey shot.”
“Two . . .?” I said.
“Coming right up,” he said, pouring two tall glasses of the brown water and two thimble-size glasses as well. The water in the larger glasses foamed mysteriously, while the water in the thimble glasses was clear as amber. Both tasted horrible, however. I noticed the other men watching me struggle to drink, and laughing, as did the man who served these toxic fluids.
“I must contact law enforcement,” I said, having already gotten everyone’s attention. They laughed a lot more at this request, to my alarm.
“Hear that, Norm?” one man yelled. “You’re busted!”
“That’s what you get, overcharging for this swill.”
“What you need police for?” asked the one called Norm, who now looked annoyed. “Health inspector was here last week.”
“It’s about us living over the hill.” The laughter was over, and I felt more at ease. I gulped down the rest of my drinks.
“First of all,” said Norm, “that’ll be four dollars.” I gave him the money I had from the woman who could not lift boxes. “You need change?” he inquired.
“I would like it,” I said.
“Don’t call the cops, it’s that rookie at the station,” a man sitting next to me said. He wore a green cap and had a bushy face. “But I’m meeting chief at the alley for league night. Give you a lift?”
After I had collected my remaining dollar, the fellow and I departed. He led me to a truck full of bottles and greasy papers that he swept onto the floor. All of it was marked with garish symbols. Ministry had warned us of rival churches, full of bright shapes and mindless devotion. I did not see what promise the scraps afforded.
“So you’re up the hill?” the fellow asked as we drove.
“Yes,” I said.
“You see, that land is useless. Completely barren.”
“That is correct,” I told him. The headlights caught a coyote prowling. My companion braked and held an arm against my chest. The animal threw us a stare with glowing, hateful eyes and continued into the desert.
Moments on, we pulled up near a low building. There was a sign of crooked black letters on glowing white.
“Thank you,” I said. “I am glad our vectors aligned.”
“Wait a minute,” the man said, and slammed his bristling mouth on mine. He tasted like that brownish water. His fingers grasped at my sapling, and I wasn’t sure how to make them stop. His tongue was trying to strangle mine. Finally this found a conclusion and he drew away.
“Didn’t mean to upset you,” he said.
“I’m ready to see the chief.”
The noise inside was astonishing. Bony crashes like hollow thunder. It was the falling of white pillars at the ends of wooden lanes, struck by the colorful balls that people hurled down at them.
At the far side was a broad woman who, as we approached, knocked down all the pillars and turned to yell in victory. Others were yelling with her. It seemed terrifically fun except, I must repeat, quite loud.
“Chief,” my companion shouted. “This guy wants a word.”
“Yeah?” said the smiling chief. She rubbed her hands together. “Pro scout over here?”
“I’m here to inform you,” I said, “that Ministry is a sham. Our science is inadequate to the task of eradicating hunger. I believe my superiors have no realistic intent of pursuing that goal. We ourselves live on meager rations. Distressing as it is to speak it, I can hardly imagine the pain of receiving my news.”
“How’s that?” said the chief, squinting.
“You’ve awaited salvation,” I said. “You are starving.”
“He’s from over the hill,” the hairy man added.
“Ah. Great,” said the chief. “I do appreciate your honesty.” She picked up her turquoise ball, which had returned to her by way of a silver track that led into a little cave. “It takes courage to admit something like that.”
She and the others and the hairy man returned to their game, which went on for some hours. I observed with great interest. When they were done, the chief took me back over the hill in her police car, all the way to Ministry’s front gate. As I prepared to step out, she pressed a thin box into my palm.
“For the Governor,” she explained. “Barely met him a couple times, but I haven’t forgot he likes these.”
I thanked her and stole into the barracks, where I climbed to my bunk lightly, so as not to disturb Gilcren, already slumbering below. The steady half-snoring of Huntz reached out to me from the center dark. I placed the cigarettes under my pillow and, with clean conscience, gave myself up to the finest sleep I have known.
At dawn I woke with a sneeze, startling Huntz and Shalo, who stood next to the bed, caught in the act of rousing me.
“Morning’s on,” said Huntz.
“The Governor,” said Shalo, before I had the chance to reply.
When I had dressed in my new shirt, they led me out of the barracks, across the dead vegetable garden and up the little canyon to the Governor’s residence.
As a child I’d climbed this way to peek at the dome of steel and tinted glass that turned deep black in the heat—but never had I been inside, a privilege reserved for those who overcame dislearning. Nor had the Governor emerged in years. His messengers said he always worked and had no need for sleep.
Huntz and Shalo pulled open a heavy sliding door and waited for me to enter. Both stood there without expression. I felt sure I was forgetting some customary thanks, yet other than that, my mind was perfectly blank.
A veil of cooler air passed over me as I stepped into a circular, carpeted room with an empty desk in the center. Around the curved walls of the dome were shelves of books, a kitchen area, rows of leafy potted plants, a shower fixture above a concrete patch of floor, a stone counter with lab equipment, and a clear section of panorama that showed the canyon beginning to smolder in daylight.
Then, farthest from me, the bed where the Governor lay, flanked by two chrome chairs. He raised one hand with his palm upturned, beckoning.
I was most confused by his wispy cloud of hair. I remembered him as dark-featured. All sharpness had left him. At his gesture, I carefully sat.
“My boy,” he breathed. “How did you grow so tall with nothing to eat?”
“Sir, I am often punished for stealing extra.”
“You are a survivor. Like me.”
“No one is as strong as you.”
He smiled, pleased that I’d known just what to say.
“I suppose not,” the Governor agreed. “But I understand you went into town for my cigarettes. That is no easy task. Have you brought them?”
I presented him the package, which bore the drawing of a skull. Maybe some material for experiments. Then he wanted to hear of everything I’d seen and done off-land. I told him the entire story, and he remained silent, though more than once I could tell he wanted to laugh or curse at my foolishness.
“An adventure,” he said at last. “But could you live in that world?”
“My home is here.”
“That’s not what I asked.” I fell quiet, and the Governor nodded, peeling the shiny wrapper from my gift. “For a while,” he said, “I wasn’t much in the mood to see you. Reminding me too much of me. Your mother, too.”
“I have a mother?”
“Don’t look surprised. You could have the land,” the Governor said. “You just won’t make it worth anything, so you might try dying. Except you’re young, and you have seen another place. The only thing you can’t do now is go back to the way it was.” He told me that once I left his bedside, I was to set fire to all the buildings at Ministry. “Whether you burn as well is entirely up to you,” he added.
I started to mention the others, but the Governor was sliding open the little box to withdraw paper tubes. He inhaled their scent and passed one to me, repositioned it in my fingers. Then he snapped a flame on his, pulling smoke that he let out through his nose.
“Listen,” the Governor said.
He lit mine too, so I breathed in.
“That,” he said, “is a cigarette.”