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The American
    by Bruce Worden

3rd Place - Best Story - 2010

The American
Artwork by Dean Spencer

As a young girl I was terrified of thunderstorms. I experienced them as living, malevolent creatures -- wild, unstoppable things that shook the house, wrought havoc on my family's farm, flooded the town, and generally behaved in the manner of demons. Even as recently as a few months ago, a thunderstorm still had the power to raise within me feelings of visceral dread. But now, in my twenty-first year, as I watch the storm clouds rolling in from the north, I do not feel the slightest pang of trepidation.

"Petra!" I hear my mother calling from the house. "Petra, are you upstairs?"

"I'm here," I reply. "In the garden." I expect she will come out to me, and we will have the talk I have been anticipating.

A mathematics instructor once told me that to make a hard thing seem easy, you must move on to the next harder thing. I think the same applies to fear: facing your old demons becomes easier when you are exposed to something much more terrifying. The storm clouds are huge, black, and roiling, but they seem almost comforting now as I plunge unstoppably into a much deeper darkness. The storm only threatens to kill me; my fear now is what will happen if I continue to live.

It started simply enough.

"I saw an American today."

It was Danijel who said it. We had gathered for the evening meal, and during a break in father's complaints about the local government, potato prices, the national government, fuel prices, the European government, and the host of other issues that conspired to make the Polish farmer's life miserable, Danijel just blurted it out.

Danijel was still at the age where fantasy and reality can blend together, so no one took the statement seriously. Mother -- seemingly more out of habit than actual curiosity -- said, "Did you? That must have been very exciting." She ladled stew into grandfather's bowl and handed him the bread.

Danijel nodded. "It was scary. At first I thought it was a big deer, a stag, that wandered away from the park, but then I saw the markings, like in Michal's book."

Our brother perked up at the mention of his book, "What markings?"

"Painted on his shoulder. An arrowhead patch with a sword and lightning."

Michal left the table and ran upstairs. A few moments later he returned, paging through one of his many books on military history. He showed a page to Danijel, "Like this?"

"That's it! That's what I saw."

Michal held up the book for the rest of us to see. It showed a picture of an insignia: a blue arrowhead-shaped patch with a vertical yellow sword and three yellow lightning bolts across it. Michal seemed a little stunned. "Army special forces," he said. "American."

"Nonsense," my father said. "There hasn't been an American in these parts for thirty years."

"I saw him!" Danijel said. "He was more than two meters tall, and as wide as a bull. His battle armor was black and shiny, like polished rock."

Michal looked at us, clearly taking the story seriously. "I had heard they switched their exoskeletons from gray to reflective black a couple of years ago. It's supposed to deflect energy weapons better."

That made no sense to me. "Energy weapons?" I said. "Who in the world has energy weapons except the Americans? And who would be stupid enough to shoot at an American soldier in the first place?"

"It never has to happen, Petra. They will upgrade even if they just think it possibly could happen someday."

He was probably right. The Americans had undoubtedly fought simulated wars with the rest of us that we could not even comprehend, let alone actually wage. But that had not stopped them from spending untold trillions on weapons to counter the threat we theoretically could pose were we somehow to find ourselves in a position to pose it, and suicidal enough to think it was a good idea.

"I bet he left footprints," Danijel said. "We should go see them tomorrow."

My mother reacted. "Do not even think it! You are not to go near that place again without permission."

"Where was he?" Michal asked before Danijel could lodge a protest with my mother.

"I was walking across the fields to Edward's farm. I saw him over by the river."

"And you were close enough to see the patch?"

"Yes, maybe fifty meters."

"That's close," said Michal, shaking his head.

"It was hazy, so I could only see him sometimes."

"That close, it is a wonder you saw anything at all. You must have been at the edge of his ECF." He looked at the rest of us. "Electromagnetic camouflage field," he explained. "Some people say they can bend light, but it is more likely that they just bend your mind."

"I don't think he saw me."

"Oh, he saw you," said Michal, confident. "He saw you from before you ever came into range of his suit's sensors. Their airborne and space platforms have watched your entire life. Their systems tied you into their global tracking grid and he knew who you were, your great-grandmother's maiden name, and what you had for lunch before you came within two kilometers of him."

"That's enough," my father said. "It makes no sense for him to be here, but it makes no difference, either. If a soldier passes through, he passes through."

"Was that it?" Michal asked Danijel. "Was he just passing through?"

"I don't think so. He seemed like he was looking for something. He walked along the far side of the river, then he left the river and went across to the forest, by the preserve."

"Wait," said Michal. "There are hills along there, and a line of trees. How did you see . . .?" Michal's eyes went dark with the realization. "Are you crazy? You followed him."

My mother slammed down her hand. "Danijel! You followed him? Do you know what happens . . .?" She took a breath to calm herself. "You have been told since you could first walk that if you see such a thing --"

"I did! I did! I stayed right where I was for an hour after he was gone. Then I continued with what I was doing. Just like you are supposed to."

"I thought you were going to Edward's," said Michal.

Danijel hesitated, caught in the lie, then recovered. "I was, but sometimes when I go that way I go out to Grudki Hill to play in the ruins. I saw him at the forest, from the hill. But I go there sometimes. They know that, right Michal?"

"They do," said Michal. "But they also knew you could see him from both places. If they thought you were following him . . . Pfft! You'd be gone. We would be looking for you and all we would ever find is a scorched spot on the ground."

Danijel was crying now. "But they know I play there. And they know we're not bad people. We're not a threat to them."

"They keep it that way by not taking chances."

"So he is here," said father. "That is none of our business. You boys mind your chores and stay away. When he sees there is nothing here to interest him, he will move on."

But he did not move on. And in the days following Danijel's experience, others reported sighting the soldier in the area north of town. There were no incidents, no confrontations, no mysterious disappearances. Still, the town was abuzz with rumor and speculation. And a great deal of worry.

It was early summer then, and I had been home from the university for about two weeks. I had not made plans, or given a great deal of thought to how I would spend my summer break. There were chores, of course. I generally helped my mother with the house and the garden, but that still left me quite a bit of free time.

A week or so after Danijel's sighting of the American, I was in my bedroom reading a book. Danijel came home shouting -- first for Michal, then for mother, then for anyone. But Michal had gone to town with mother, and my grandfather and father had gone to Zastawa to inspect a trenching machine a man there was selling.

"I'm up here," I shouted to Danijel, "in my room." I immediately heard the sound of his little feet running up the stairs.

Danijel came in breathlessly. "Petra, come quick. There is a bird." And then he was on his way back down the stairs.

I had no idea why that was so important, but his manner demanded some response. I followed him out of the house, past the cluster of outbuildings, through the gate to our small orchard, across the orchard and along the edge of the pasture, then off the path into the line of brush and trees that separates the back fields -- all the while Danijel admonishing me to hurry. Finally, despite the obviousness and commotion of our approach, Danijel crouched behind a low bush and pointed. "Look there," he said in a pointless and excessively loud whisper.

The bird-that-was-not-a-bird sat quietly on the branch of a large oak tree. The tree itself was quite beautiful, spreading its ample branches to shade the small grassy hillock from which it grew. I had, on occasion, spent an afternoon sitting under that tree, reading a book.

Danijel tugged at my dress. "Do you see it?" he asked. "Michal says they are always in pairs. But I can't find the other one."

I did not doubt the truth of Michal's information, but the Americans must have had millions of their little flying sensors deployed around the world, and it had to happen that such things would find themselves alone once in a while.

Danijel continued breathlessly. "This means they are watching us, doesn't it? Do you think he will come here? The soldier. Is he angry with me? Will he kill me?"

"He won't come here," I reassured him. "This is just an ordinary bird. It's probably just malfunctioning."

"But why would he come here, to our farm?"

"If his navigation system is broken, he might have flown off course, losing his mate. He landed here until they can collect him for repair, that's all."

But no one came to collect him, and the bird did not leave his perch. He sat there, unmoving, day after day, seemingly content to watch an empty field.

When the men from the government came, they arrived in a small motorcade. The three shiny black sedans from the pre-Transition era rolled into town and, when inquiries had been made, found their way to our farm. Of the dozen men who arrived, six stayed with the cars and six went as far as the front gate; only four came to the door, and only three came inside. Their names, their positions, and their ministries were never revealed to me -- I was not invited to participate in the conversations -- but I took to calling them the Accountant, the Lawyer, and the Politician.

Mother invited the government men in, and served them coffee while Danijel ran out to retrieve father. The Lawyer and the Accountant quietly sipped their coffee while mother chatted with the Politician about the year's expected harvest. When Danijel returned -- alone -- he reported that father was too busy to spend the day talking to anyone, and suggested that the men return when there was not "real work to be done." This seemed to provoke a sense of outrage from the Lawyer and the Accountant, who blustered for a few moments while looking to the Politician for guidance. The Politician suggested that they return to town to freshen up and take their evening meal, and asked my mother when would be a good time to return. Mother assured him that my father would be here and happy to talk with them that night following our dinner. The Politician thanked her, and he and his companions filed out of our home, collecting their entourage as they went, and drove back to town.

When father returned late that afternoon, mother was making a cake to serve that evening, and she continued to do so even as father railed against the very idea of allowing the men into our home. According to him, mother's cake would be better utilized feeding the pigs, and rather than talk to these men, his time would be better spent sharpening a stick with which he could poke out his own eye.

The government men returned after supper and were seated with father and grandfather while mother busied herself serving cake and coffee and cleaning up. I was asked to take my brothers upstairs. The fact that I was an adult, and that Michal was perfectly capable of keeping Danijel corralled, did not give me cause for offense. I know I have trouble keeping my opinions to myself, and mother certainly did not need me complicating the situation. Her maneuvering to keep my father's temper in check strained subtlety as it was.

Despite my mother's presence, however, the yelling began almost immediately. While I could hear only the murmur of the Politician's voice, my father's words reached us clearly. Apparently the government wanted our land. Not all of it, just some of our land. But it was the most important part of our farm and we could not survive without it. (Though from what I later learned, they wanted just a strip near the river that was part of a muddy pasture we rented to a neighbor.)

Father ranted for quite a while about how bureaucrats do not understand how a farm works and that you could not just take pieces away without disrupting the entire operation.

The negotiation took an ugly turn when my father accused the men of selling out our country to their "American masters." Voices were raised on both sides then. Father continued his accusations, and the Accountant charged that their offer was more than generous. The Lawyer argued that they had the right to make these decisions and did not need his acquiescence. The Politician then spoke quietly, and the Lawyer and the Accountant backed off. My mother called my father into the kitchen to help her, and when he returned he was quieter for a time. But only for a time, and soon his voice was raised again, this time about how maybe if the people in the government would actually listen to someone who does real work once in a while then things might not be such a mess.

The meeting ended when my father offered to bring the children downstairs so that the government men could shoot the whole family without having to trouble themselves with climbing the stairs.

After the government men left, father went out to the machine shed to work on the tractor, and mother tidied up. Grandfather, who had been present for the entire meeting but had not said a word, went to bed.

It came to be known that the government men had visited several other farmers in the area, and were trying to secure an unremarkable tract of land running from the edge of the forest to the bank of the river about six kilometers away. The ostensible purpose for the acquisition was to develop a potential geothermal resource. Not a single person in town believed this, of course. It was obvious to everyone that the Americans wanted the land for some mysterious and probably nefarious purpose. It was also generally understood that if the Americans wanted the land, they would get it. Still, it was important to make things difficult for the government men as punishment for their collaboration, however mandatory that collaboration might have been.

Since my first year at the university I had worked on a research project that had been ongoing for some twenty years. My department maintained a network of stations around the country that acquired weather and atmospheric data. This data was used in studies by faculty and students, and had proven to be a steady source of publishable papers. During the summer months my job was to periodically visit a few of the stations in our part of the country, maintaining the equipment, downloading the data, and transmitting it back to the university. I enjoyed having a reason to take long walks and the occasional short trip, and the job paid a small stipend that kept me in reading material during the summer.

I set out one morning to visit the nearest of the stations, one just to the north of town at the boundary between the agricultural land and the national park. It was not a long walk; the dew was still thick on the grass and the sun was low behind me as I approached the station. The task was simple: everything was physically intact, so I set about testing the battery and the solar panel.

As I busied myself, the light wind, which had accompanied me the entire morning, abruptly stopped. The air around me was suddenly warmer and damper, and had become unnaturally quiet. The air seemed to glow from within, as if the sunlight were reflecting off the water molecules in the air. Not only was the sound of the wind gone, but it had taken with it the sound of the insects, birds, and distant farm machinery. I felt as if I had fallen into a surreal, glowing void, where my own breathing was the loudest sound.

And then I sensed a presence behind me.

I stood slowly, and turned into the harsh glare of the low-hanging sun. Slowly, cautiously, I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the glare. The scene before me shifted and wavered like a mirage. The image was never complete but when my dazzled eyes and confused brain assembled it, I realized that I was in the presence a huge stag, standing attentively, watching me. A deer is not an uncommon sight in the fields that border the forest, but one this large was unheard of: his shoulder was easily as high as my own, and his rack was a dozen points at least. He was a beautiful creature, perfect in proportion and color. He stood, relaxed in his pose and breathing, and blinked his eyes once, casually.

"What are you doing?" the stag asked.

"I am checking this equipment," I said, indicating the little sensor station.

"What does it do?" he asked, though he must have known. Or perhaps he knew only that is was no threat to him.

"It records weather and atmospheric data," I replied. "I am a meteorologist. A student."

"Why did you come? You knew I was nearby." It seemed more a question of curiosity than of disapproval.

"I -- It is only weather data," I said. "I didn't think you would mind." This last statement was rather accurately phrased. When I had planned to go to that site I did not think he would mind because I did not think about him at all.

"Weren't you frightened?"

"I guess not. Not before."

He watched me for a moment. He seemed impassive, but I had the sense that he was engaged in some other interaction in a place I could not hope to understand.

"What have you found?" he asked eventually.

I looked around me and saw nothing of significance. "What do you mean?"

"With your sensors. Your studies. Do you have findings?"

"Oh," I said. He could not have meant it. He had access to inconceivably vast quantities of data, all filtered and processed by machines of incomprehensible sophistication and power, and presented to him in the most efficient ways imaginable. I could not believe that to him my work would be any more interesting than the idle dabbling of a child. I said, "The mean temperature has dropped a bit the past few years. It had stabilized after continuing to rise for the first few years following the --" I caught myself. "After things changed."

He watched me for a moment. "What do you call it?" he asked.

I did not know what he meant. "The temperature fluctuations?" I ventured.

"When things changed. What do your people call it?"

I did not want to insult or provoke him so I picked the least offensive term we used. "The Transition," I said.

He seemed to nod, if a deer can nod, and then said, "What else have you found with your research?"

"Weather patterns, rainfall. Nothing unusual. The temperature change is the most interesting."

"To what do you attribute it?" he asked.

"We have limited data," I said. "But carbon dioxide levels have dropped. Methane, too, a bit." He seemed to accept that, but the scientist in me did not have enough sense to shut up. "But more than makes sense," she added.

He cocked his head. "More than makes sense?"

"Even if all anthropogenic sources were shut off -- which has not happened -- the decline is too rapid." He did not respond. I was cringing inside, but the scientist blundered on. "It's you, isn't it? You are doing something that removes the carbon from the atmosphere?" No lightning bolt from the heavens struck me, though a part of me had wished it would, if only to make me stop talking.

"I can't talk about what we are doing," he said. It was probably my imagination, but in that moment he seemed a little sad.

He turned to go then, but before he took more than a few steps, I blurted out: "I have other instruments in the area." He stopped and turned back to me. As I squirmed under the weight of his calm gaze, I made a mental note to work on my impulse control. "Would it be acceptable for me to check on them?"

He did not respond for a long moment. "Come alone," he said, finally. "Don't carry a weapon."

It seemed funny, coming from a deer. As if he did not want anyone hunting him. "Thank you," I said, smiling. He turned and walked away with a heavy, predatory grace.

In the years before the Transition, there had apparently been much debate and consternation over the cultural contamination inflicted by the United States on other countries. As I watched the stag disappear into the haze, I thought about how, within the short years of the Transition, the Americans had so fully scoured from the world any evidence of who or what they were that the idea of them contaminating one's culture seemed preposterous. Like a black hole, America sucked in an incomprehensible volume of information, and emitted almost nothing. They imported and exported very little, and none of it revealing. Data regarding the country, its geography, demographics, and economy were all pre-Transition and therefore decades out of date. No aircraft or satellites that overflew the land ever reported back, and no ship or submarine that entered American waters ever returned. All business transactions were either completely electronic or else carried out through British agents. It had originally been the Canadians who acted as the Americans' agents; but as time passed, Canada, too, had all but disappeared. One could easily imagine Canada, like a space traveler venturing too near a black hole, being drawn irretrievably closer each time one of its intermediaries learned some fact considered vital to American security. And the Americans considered everything vital to their security.

It was this obsessive focus on security that Michal said led many to believe it had all started within a system developed to monitor and evaluate threats. That in some cold, deep bunker, the singularity flared within an inherently paranoid system whose tendrils extended into data banks across the globe, and whose hunger for information grew to require the vast global monitoring system that now tracked the activities of every human on the planet.

There were a few rules, primarily those restricting the manufacture of certain weapons, and those prohibiting the acquisition and distribution of certain data. But all attempts at diplomacy were simply ignored, as were inquiries regarding communication with relatives in America, trade, scientific research, or any other form of international cooperation. The few interactions that did occur happened only when the Americans initiated them.

That morning I had become the only person of whom I was ever aware that had directly spoken with an individual American -- if one could call something so preternaturally enhanced and electronically interconnected an 'individual.' He was more like the sensory organ of some vastly larger entity. But despite that contact, I did not even know what he looked like.

When the stag was gone, the breeze returned, clearing the air of its hot, damp heaviness and the painful shimmering glare. The sounds of the birds and insects returned, and the world snapped into focus. I discovered that my shirt was drenched in perspiration. When I could again concentrate, I finished my work, and then slowly wandered home. I never told anyone of my encounter.

After about a week of negotiating with the townspeople, the government men changed tactics. The Politician, who turned out to be more resourceful than I would have thought, left the Lawyer and the Accountant behind, and recruited the town's mayor, Tadeusz Kadlubek, and the head of the co-op, Wojciech Pechersky, to assist him. I had known these men since I was a girl, of course, and neither had the slightest discernable political ambition. Each accepted his official role out of a sense of duty, and either would have gladly given up his position were another man to have shown the slightest interest in it. But the glamour of being mayor or co-op chairman of a small town in eastern Poland had not drawn many aspirants. Despite their minimal interest in politics, these men's sense of duty made them vulnerable to appeals based upon the good of the town, the people, and the country. And that was no doubt a weakness the Politician had exploited in gaining their assistance in his persuasive efforts.

The effect was remarkable on most of the affected farmers. Apparently the sight of their friends Tadeusz and Wojciech pressed into cooperation with the Politician made the farmers more willing to listen and, once listening, be persuaded. The effect on my father was, not unexpectedly, the opposite. After a good deal of generalized shouting about the government, the Americans, and the woes of being a farmer, my father assured Tadeusz that he, my father, would have his things out by morning so that Tadeusz could simply move in the next day and take over his farm, his family, and his life. He then suggested that he might hang himself in the barn, but he did not want Tadeusz to be inconvenienced by having to dispose of the body, so he would probably just go drown himself in the river if that was acceptable to everyone.

After my father stormed out of the house, the Politician offered his thanks to my mother, and he and the townsmen went outside. I listened at the window and heard Tadeusz and Wojciech assuring the Politician that my father would come around in time.

During the days of this stilted and intermittent negotiation, I took to spending a few afternoons each week reading under the oak tree in which the strange American bird had chosen to roost. He did not seem to mind the company, and I had begun to think of him as my friend, companion, and protector. The ever-vigilant creature did not budge from his branch, but he was certainly not dead. He perched up there, a miracle of carbon fiber, glass, and electronics, seemingly immune to the effects of wind and weather. But if I watched him for long minutes, as I sometimes did, he would occasionally make tiny movements of his head, or adjust his talons' grip on the branch.

Whatever madness had inspired his creation and his ultimate arrival here, the bird seemed content to observe our quiet fields and keep me company. I knew he would transmit his images through communications relays, satellites, and tracking stations to be combined with countless other streams of data into a vast machine representation of the world that was continuously monitored by some immense, deranged intelligence that now controlled every aspect of life in America. And as I quietly read one of Michal's books on the politics of the pre-Transition world, I would hear an occasional "peep" that the bird alone could have emitted. Perhaps he was reading along with me, and commenting in his way on the bizarre machinations of international politics in a chaotic and violent world.

It was hard to imagine that that world had existed so recently, or how suddenly everything had changed. Whatever the spark, it had ignited a fire that swept through America in a matter of weeks, and within a few short years that fire illuminated every corner of the world. The sundry theories that attempted to explain the Transition's genesis were not uniform in their implausibility, but when compared with the event they sought to explain, even the most outlandish seemed possible. One thing was certain: however it was organized, the effect was irreversible, and the true cause would likely never be known or understood outside of an enigmatic and now unreachable America.

It was argued that it could have been stopped. If the Russians, the French, or the English had reacted quickly they could have used their nuclear missiles to disrupt it. It seemed a stupid argument. A nuclear strike on another country had been a terrible thing to contemplate, a tactic of last resort, and maybe not even then. And even before the Transition, a nuclear attack on the United States would have been utterly suicidal. The hindsight-proponents of this theory argued that an early preemptive strike would have so disrupted the already-confused American systems that retaliation would have been disorganized, if it came at all. That argument ignored the simple reality that by the time the world grasped the scale and implications of what was happening, it was far too late to do anything about it.

Still, there were those who hoped to stop the seemingly inevitable assimilation of the world. To avoid the fate of the Canadians, the Mexicans had sealed their border with the United States, and refused to have any dealings with their northern neighbor. The effort was futile: vast areas of northern Mexico, and the millions of people who lived there, were now within the ever-growing blackout zone. Some European countries were trying to quarantine the now-darkening Britain, hoping to prevent the spread to the continent. But I knew it would not work. They were using the wrong model. You may be able to quarantine the carriers of a disease, but you cannot quarantine a black hole. Once you are in its grip, the laws of physics deny you a means of escape. And we are all long since in its grip.

One of my weather stations was located in the forest preserve a few kilometers from town. On a warm and sunny morning, I set out for a visit. I followed the road west from town for a few kilometers before turning off onto a dusty track that edged up to the preserve, then ran parallel with it until reaching the marshy land that embraced the river on its course through the forest.

As the sun moved higher, the heat of day and the exertion of the hike made me uncomfortably warm. The hot sun increased the stifling humidity of the marshland. I came to a creek, a small tributary running from within the forest out to the main river channel. There, I felt a powerful yearning to escape into the cool forest. I turned from the path and made my way upstream along the creek's edge. It was not long before the creek came to a clearing in the woods -- perhaps thirty meters across -- that was occupied almost entirely by a clear pond.

An underground spring fed the pond, so the water was clean and clear. As I approached from the darkness of the forest, the sunlight flashed on ripples in the water, dazzling my eyes.

I walked into the clearing, and the world opened around me. The dark woods faded away and the brilliant, shimmering pond floated in an endless field of light. Then, within the glare of the pond, I sensed movement.

I shielded my eyes with my hand, and perceived an animal standing belly-deep in the water. It was a the stag. Huge, imposing, and stately, he watched me with muscles tensed. I stood motionless. After a moment of observing me, he relaxed and waded deeper.

The sounds of the forest -- the twittering birds, the buzzing insects -- seemed distant and unreal. The overpowering light intensified the mugginess of the day and I felt a dizzy, claustrophobic need to escape the oppressive heat. I slipped out of my clothing and approached the water slowly, carefully, so as not to spook the stag.

Then, in the shimmering light on the far side of the water, I discerned an imposing mechanized construct, rigid and unmoving. The brilliant, shifting light obscured its details -- it seemed a piece of construction equipment, then a vehicle, then a mechanical creature. But I knew it to be the battle armor, standing open, ready to embrace and engulf its owner. The stag watched me as I made these observations, judging my reactions. He, too, shimmered and shifted in the dazzling light, giving me glimpses of his true nature.

I hesitated a moment, but the urge to swim in that sea of light was overpowering. The light pulled me forward, and I stepped into the cool water.

Tadeusz and Wojciech arrived early one evening about a week after their previous visit. They came alone, without the Politician, his entourage, or his shiny motorcade. They came before my father had returned from his work in the fields, and sat down with my grandfather at the kitchen table. From my exile upstairs, I could only hear the murmur of voices. I assumed this was their appeal on behalf of the community. They knew, of course, that it was not my grandfather's decision to make (he was my mother's father and therefore the land was not his.) But my father respected my grandfather, and so he would have a role to play, whether he wanted it or not.

When my father arrived he did not wash up before joining them in the kitchen, and it was only moments before the shouting began. It started loudly and got worse, but was uncharacteristically impersonal. The theme of the accusations began and ended with the Americans. Everybody was working for the Americans, or in league with the Americans, or afraid of the Americans, but where were the Americans? This tirade grew in volume and vitriol until I heard my father's footsteps thundering out from the kitchen and across the living room.

I thought that would be the end of it; he had made his statement and would retire to the machine shed to tinker with the tractor. But when his footsteps hit the stairs, I knew things were different. I reached my door in time to see my father cross the landing and enter his bedroom. There passed a few mystifying, terrifying moments during which I could hear him rummaging violently through his closet, and then he emerged carrying an ancient shotgun. The gun had been my great-great-grandfather's. I thought it no more than a curiosity, a relic from a bygone era, a thing that had never served as more than a conversation piece when my father brought it out to show close friends or the boys. The idea that my father was brandishing it as a weapon was so shocking that I could not even cry out to him at the madness of it.

I followed him down the stairs in time to see Tadeusz's and Wojciech's eyes go wide at the sight of the weapon. Both men froze in terror, but my father turned toward the back of the house, not the front. He went out the back door and across the farmyard with a determined stride and a clear destination.

It was insanity. To be outside, in the open, with a weapon was risky enough -- though I had heard of people still using guns for hunting or pest control -- but to do so when there was an American soldier nearby was suicide. I followed my father outside, hoping to reason with him once reason, and words, returned to me. My mother and brothers trailed behind, and Tadeusz and Wojciech followed at what was considerably more than a safe distance.

When he crossed the fence into the orchard, I knew where he was going -- there could only be one place. I quickened my pace to catch up to him, and was only a few meters behind when he reached the oak tree where the American bird waited patiently for some development or instruction.

My father shook his fist at the bird and addressed it directly. "Why don't you face me yourselves, you cowards?" The bird had no response. "You send your lackeys, your thugs, but you will not face me man-to-man. What kind of people are you that you will take a man's livelihood, but you will not face him?" The answer to his question, I knew, was that they were not people. Not really. Not like us. Not anymore. But I had no way to communicate that to my father, or to anyone else for that matter.

The bird was unperturbed by the shouting and continued his vigil, his bright little eyes soaking up everything around him with unwavering diligence. My father raised the shotgun to his shoulder and took aim.

"Father! No!" I screamed.

But it was to no avail. He fired the gun.

The little bird disintegrated into a glittering puff of dust and debris. I turned away and shielded my eyes, not wanting to see my own father vaporized by a bolt from one of the American's ubiquitous, all-seeing, all-reaching directed-energy weapons. Mother, too, turned away, covering the boys' eyes.

But no bolt of energy came from the sky. After long moments of terrifying anticipation, I opened my eyes. If father was surprised by either his own impulsiveness or his inexplicable survival, he did not show it. He turned and stomped back to the farmyard, grumbling the whole way about the amount of time that was being wasted on foolishness and if we all starved this winter we would know why. When he reached the machine shed, he went inside, slamming the door behind him.

But that had been my father's final statement, his last stand before retreating in front of the remorseless tide. When the Politician returned a few nights later, he left Tadeusz and Wojciech behind, and brought instead the Lawyer and the Accountant. The conversation was free of the yelling that had until then kept me apprised of the negotiations' status. The Politician spoke only briefly. The Accountant did most of the talking, interrupted occasionally by my father. Following my father's interruptions, it was generally the Lawyer who spoke, and he did so in an unexpectedly reassuring tone. After a surprisingly brief time, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes, the government men left, never to return. My father left the house quietly, though not to spend time with his beloved tractor. Instead, he went into the fields.

It took a bit of coaxing to get my mother and grandfather to reveal the details of the transaction, but I am not shy about coaxing. The deal my father had negotiated was spectacular. The government -- the Americans -- would get their land, of course. That was never in doubt. They would hold a ninety-nine-year lease, but at a rental fee so favorable that any question of the expense of my university studies was now immaterial. The land would be returned to our family at the end of the lease and the government would take out a bond to assure that the land -- all of the land, including that of the other farmers -- would be restored to its original condition. In addition, we were granted title to a significant undeveloped plot of land in a resort area near Warsaw. The land could be developed by us to produce income, or used as a holiday retreat.

Given just how favorable the deal was for my family, one might be tempted to think that my father's blustering and outrage were merely tactics; that it was an act, cynically planned and carefully executed to extract the highest price possible, a price that was by any standard exorbitant. But that opinion would do my father a grave disservice. In the days following the settlement, he lapsed into a deep melancholy. There was little talk around the dinner table, except of the most perfunctory and mundane variety. Twice in the week that followed I saw him in deep conversation with my grandfather, once by the machine shed and once on the edge of the eastern field. His head hung low, my grandfather's hand on his shoulder, he nodded his unenthusiastic acceptance of my grandfather's reassurance.

To my father, the negotiation had been an utter defeat. To him, the only constant, the only thing that made possible the survival our family and our community through many difficult years, was the land. When famine came, the land allowed our family and our neighbors to survive; when invaders came or were repelled, our family was spared by the value of a working farm to whoever was in control; and when the Nazis came, my great-grandparents were able to protect and conceal helpless refugees. Even during the political and economic chaos of the Transition, our family had suffered less than many. Generations of our family had fought to keep this land, and no one, no invader, no communist or capitalist or fascist, had ever wrested a square meter of it from us. Until now.

It did not matter that the outcome had never been in doubt; that the land would have been theirs no matter what my father had done or said. It did not matter that he was faced with a power greater than any that his ancestors fought, or any that the world had ever seen. For my father, it was a betrayal of the trust his forefathers had placed in him, and a desecration of the legacy he would leave his descendants. There was no escaping that simple truth, and I think he had hoped to die rather than accept that shame.

But the Americans, by declining to murder him when he shot their bird, had denied him even the dignity of dying to preserve what he was.

The construction of the wall began soon after the Politician's final visit. It is made of a dark polymer, seemingly grown in place in large sections each night. The wall will encircle the Americans' newly acquired land, and will be high enough to keep even the most curious from glimpsing their activities.

Even knowing what I now know, it seems unlikely that such security is necessary -- given the unpredictable power of the Americans' machines, few will be willing to go near, and none will likely understand what they see if they did.

The construction began just a month ago, and here, on this cool and damp morning, I sit on a bench at the edge of the garden. I can see the forest in the distance, out over the fields. And beyond it, dark storm clouds roll in from the north.

My mother comes out of the house and sits next to me. We watch the brewing storm in silence for some time.

After a while, she says, "If the child is to stay among us and your father not go insane, you will need to marry."

That she knows is not surprising -- women in these parts can spot a pregnant girl before the girl herself knows. But, of course, I do know.

I nod, accepting her conclusion. It is logical. It is sensible. It does not matter.

We sit a moment longer, inhaling a warm rush of humid air that pushes away the cool morning mist. It is the storm's way of letting us know it is coming. Mother glances at me. Maybe I am supposed to say something. I can think of nothing.

"The father?" she asks.

I shake my head.

She nods thoughtfully, not requiring an explanation. "Then there are other options," she says. "Adoption?"

"No," I say. "She needs her mother."

My mother is quiet for a moment as the storm clouds roil nearer. The distant flashes of lightning bring no thunder.

"It's a girl, then?" she asks. I nod, and she asks, "How do you know so soon?"

I look away, across the fields, knowing that to explain in detail is to admit that I am insane. "She sings to me," I eventually say.

My mother accepts this with no apparent difficulty.

There is so much more I want to say, much that I long to tell someone. About how my daughter shows me places I have never been, places I could not imagine: a world of concretized quantum effect, where all things are everywhere and everything exists both always and never. Another place where abstract intelligences communicate through photons spinning within a tornado of probability. She shows me immense engineered structures whose purpose I cannot begin to identify, but that I know are being built even as I deny their possibility.

But I do not speak of such things. I know it would not be appreciated. Security is vital.

Mother watches me for a long moment. "I think Bronislaw might be a good choice," she says at last, referring to the carpenter's journeyman. "He has a trade, and is quite good at it. He would be kind to you, and a good father. And he is a soft boy; I think he will not make too many demands of you."

I have met Bronislaw. The thought of any "demand" by that hairy, sweaty simpleton nauseates me. But then I catch myself, knowing that it will never happen, not sure whether to be relieved or saddened.

I nod my agreement to her proposition, knowing that inquiries will begin immediately.

But it does not matter. It will never go that far. Mankind is being relentlessly drawn into a black hole. It is only a question of when, not if, we will all be plucked from the universe we knew and plunged into a place unimaginable.

How long will it be before we and everything we know are consumed and altered forever? Years? Maybe only months.

That short buffer of time will allow my neighbors and family to do something: whether it is to run away, or to convince themselves that they do not need to run, or to simply make their peace with what is to come, I do not know. But I have ventured closer than any. For me there is no buffer; no time. I can already feel the presence of an immense thing for which my experience provides no parallel.

That thing is a part of me now, and I a part of it. All that remains is to learn what it means. But I know it will never let my daughter live here, among outsiders.

My daughter must sense my apprehension. She coos comforting feelings to me: "Everything will be all right," she seems to say. "You will be with us. We will be together." I feel her love, and can only feel love for her in return.

I smile at my mother. "Don't tell father. Not just yet. He has too much on his mind right now."

She smiles back and chuckles softly. She says, "He always has too much on his mind," and we share a moment in a way we have never done before. I regret that such a moment will probably never come again. She adds, "I can wait, but it will have to be soon."

I nod. "Soon." Soon and never. I have seen a place where they are the same thing.

Across the fields, the storm continues its relentless march toward us. It reminds me of a time when I was a girl and I watched beautiful little eddy currents dance and whirl in a stream just before the stream went over a waterfall. I had always wondered what became of them.

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