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The Sound of Distant Thunder
Diallo brushed himself clean of gray de-fabricator dust outside the kitchen door.
The dust coated his clothes and collected in the sweaty creases of his skin, and if
he didn't clean himself well enough before coming inside his mother would anger.
He entered his home, pausing long enough to kiss his mother's cheek as she
prepared dinner. Upstairs, in his bedroom, he retrieved the Tutor, his most valued
possession, from the sunny spot on his desk. The Tutor was a window onto the world and it was a found object, discovered in
one of the 120 cubic yard containers of electronic junk his father purchased as
feed stock for his business. The Tutor woke at his touch and its silver surface shimmered like oil on water. "Good afternoon," said the Tutor. "Good afternoon," said Diallo. The Tutor asked many questions and provided few unearned answers. It taught
him philosophies and equations, generated a hologram instructor to teach him
stick fighting, filled his room with images of this world and the ones around
Eridani, Tau Ceti, and a place with only numbers to describe it. He enjoyed the
pictures of faraway places though sometimes he had a hard time deciding which
was stranger, the eerie fog forests of Eridani or the crystal towers of New York
City. "What is my destiny?" asked Diallo. He could have a good life carrying on his father's business, but smashing circuit
boards into a de-fabricator held little appeal. He wanted more than to prosper and
come home covered in gray dust. "Destiny," said the Tutor "is a pre-ordained future. From what I know, there is no
pre-ordained future. Perhaps, there is an optimal path for an individual to follow,
but there are too many factors to calculate. Let me ask you a question: What do
you choose for your destiny?" Diallo sat down and thought. "I want to see more. I want to be the first. I want to
be brave." "Good answers," said the Tutor. "Attendance at a university or emigration to a
country with greater opportunities are avenues for achievement, but both are
expensive and arduous." "What am I to do?" asked Diallo. He imagined his father as a young man asking himself the same question and then
seizing the first opportunity. With borrowed money, his father purchased a broken
down United Nations de-fabricator and repaired it in time to capitalize on the
mountains of LED televisions, computer hardware, game decks, and obsolete
military circuit boards dumped into Alexander Bay by monstrous robot freighters.
The de-fabricated electronic waste yielded enough precious metals to keep his
family safe and comfortable. His father's achievement would be difficult to match.
"Perhaps an astronaut is a good choice?" said the Tutor. Diallo thought about the Tutor's question. He dreamed of flying to the stars.
Above him a cardboard and tinfoil model of the Mars cyclers orbited a plastic
model of a Near Earth Stellar Survey starship. "I can't afford a good school, nor can I emigrate." "There are ways, and then there are ways," said the Tutor. An address displayed on
the surface of the machine. "First steps are the hardest." Diallo stared at the distant address and spoke it aloud. So far away, he thought, but
then, the address presented itself as a point on a globe and with the world made
miniature it seemed within reach. He could not un-think the possibility. He
envisioned scintillating pastel clouds light-years across, odd creatures crawling
out of primordial ooze, and black-leafed plants under a red sun. "I have decided
what my destiny is," said Diallo. "I know," said the machine. "Good luck." "Thank you for helping me decide," said Diallo. He wrote the address down in his
notebook. "That is what teachers do," said the Tutor. "Now you will give me to your sister. I
am done with you." The Tutor turned itself off. Diallo tapped the blank silver surface to wake the
machine, but it refused to talk to him. He walked to his sister's room and parted
the beaded curtain. His sister looked up from her studies desk and smiled. He
handed her the Tutor. "It is for you," said Diallo. "Thank you," said Abeni. Abeni touched the machine and it awoke just as it had done for him when he had
found it four years ago in a trash bin from another country. "Hello, Abeni," said the Tutor.
by Mike Barretta
Artwork by Andres Mossa
Diallo brushed himself clean of gray de-fabricator dust outside the kitchen door. The dust coated his clothes and collected in the sweaty creases of his skin, and if he didn't clean himself well enough before coming inside his mother would anger. He entered his home, pausing long enough to kiss his mother's cheek as she prepared dinner. Upstairs, in his bedroom, he retrieved the Tutor, his most valued possession, from the sunny spot on his desk.
The Tutor was a window onto the world and it was a found object, discovered in one of the 120 cubic yard containers of electronic junk his father purchased as feed stock for his business.
The Tutor woke at his touch and its silver surface shimmered like oil on water.
"Good afternoon," said the Tutor.
"Good afternoon," said Diallo.
The Tutor asked many questions and provided few unearned answers. It taught him philosophies and equations, generated a hologram instructor to teach him stick fighting, filled his room with images of this world and the ones around Eridani, Tau Ceti, and a place with only numbers to describe it. He enjoyed the pictures of faraway places though sometimes he had a hard time deciding which was stranger, the eerie fog forests of Eridani or the crystal towers of New York City.
"What is my destiny?" asked Diallo.
He could have a good life carrying on his father's business, but smashing circuit boards into a de-fabricator held little appeal. He wanted more than to prosper and come home covered in gray dust.
"Destiny," said the Tutor "is a pre-ordained future. From what I know, there is no pre-ordained future. Perhaps, there is an optimal path for an individual to follow, but there are too many factors to calculate. Let me ask you a question: What do you choose for your destiny?"
Diallo sat down and thought. "I want to see more. I want to be the first. I want to be brave."
"Good answers," said the Tutor. "Attendance at a university or emigration to a country with greater opportunities are avenues for achievement, but both are expensive and arduous."
"What am I to do?" asked Diallo.
He imagined his father as a young man asking himself the same question and then seizing the first opportunity. With borrowed money, his father purchased a broken down United Nations de-fabricator and repaired it in time to capitalize on the mountains of LED televisions, computer hardware, game decks, and obsolete military circuit boards dumped into Alexander Bay by monstrous robot freighters. The de-fabricated electronic waste yielded enough precious metals to keep his family safe and comfortable. His father's achievement would be difficult to match.
"Perhaps an astronaut is a good choice?" said the Tutor.
Diallo thought about the Tutor's question. He dreamed of flying to the stars. Above him a cardboard and tinfoil model of the Mars cyclers orbited a plastic model of a Near Earth Stellar Survey starship.
"I can't afford a good school, nor can I emigrate."
"There are ways, and then there are ways," said the Tutor. An address displayed on the surface of the machine. "First steps are the hardest."
Diallo stared at the distant address and spoke it aloud. So far away, he thought, but then, the address presented itself as a point on a globe and with the world made miniature it seemed within reach. He could not un-think the possibility. He envisioned scintillating pastel clouds light-years across, odd creatures crawling out of primordial ooze, and black-leafed plants under a red sun. "I have decided what my destiny is," said Diallo.
"I know," said the machine. "Good luck."
"Thank you for helping me decide," said Diallo. He wrote the address down in his notebook.
"That is what teachers do," said the Tutor. "Now you will give me to your sister. I am done with you."
The Tutor turned itself off. Diallo tapped the blank silver surface to wake the machine, but it refused to talk to him. He walked to his sister's room and parted the beaded curtain. His sister looked up from her studies desk and smiled. He handed her the Tutor.
"It is for you," said Diallo.
"Thank you," said Abeni.
Abeni touched the machine and it awoke just as it had done for him when he had found it four years ago in a trash bin from another country.
"Hello, Abeni," said the Tutor.
Diallo sat with his big news bottled up inside of him. His father walked through the kitchen door covered with a light coating of grey dust that escaped the de-fabricator's first stage. He washed in the sink, dried his hands, and sat. His mother set the table with spicy chicken and brown rice. His sister placed a bowl of salad greens and carafe of vinegar on the table.
"Ah, my family, it is good to be home. Did you all have a good day?"
"Yes," chorused Kamili and Abeni.
The smell of the spicy chicken set Diallo's mouth to watering.
"Diallo and I had a good day at the shop," said his father. "Six grams of palladium, sixteen of gold, and forty-three of silver, and many grams of rare earths. Soon, we can buy another de-fabricator and perhaps an actual fabricator. We could make new things like shoes and buttons and cell phones instead of breaking old things." He looked at Diallo. "Would that make you happy?"
Diallo felt no joy in what he must say. His father offered him opportunity, the rarest of all things.
"I'm sorry father, but I can't," said Diallo.
"I am going to be an astronaut."
"Who put such an idea into your head?" His father stood and leaned over the table.
"You did father."
"Me? I have never spoken to you about such a thing."
"You did when you worked hard so I could go to school. You did when you made a safe home. I have big dreams because you made it possible for me to do so," said Diallo.
His father sat down. His smile could not hide his sadness. "This is a big dream, too big for our country. You must go where people are allowed to have such dreams."
"I am leaving tomorrow to go to the United States," said Diallo.
"No," said his mother.
Diallo's father put his hand on her arm. She looked down at her plate of cooling food.
"Father, I must," said Diallo. He felt like an ingrate and traitor. He looked at his father looking at him and hoped he would understand. "I must," he said again so softly that he could barely hear the words leave his lips.
Hs father stood and retrieved a coffee can from a cupboard that hid household money kept for emergencies like bribing a police officer, purchasing a vaccine, or escaping a revolution. He peeled off two purple five hundred dollar Reagan bills, seven red one hundred dollar Clintons, and regular green bills of lesser denominations. He counted out two thousand dollars, enough to feed a family for a year. He folded the money and held it out.
Diallo never held such a fortune in his life.
"Diallo, my son, I would give you this entire world if I could, but I don't think it would be enough for you. You will make us proud when you take the family name into the sky."
Diallo's mother stood. The unbalanced chair toppled to the floor behind her. Tears filled her eyes and her lower lip trembled with fear. Her son was leaving and there was nothing left to say.
"I will make you a secret pocket to hide your money." She fled the kitchen.
"It is a good dream to have, Diallo," said Abeni.
At breakfast, his mother offered him a sad smile and fried eggs. His father came in from outside with a box. He handed it to Diallo.
"For an easier journey," said his father.
Diallo opened the box and took out new shoes still warm from the fabricator. He took off his old shoes, set them aside, and laced the new ones on. The expensive western pattern felt like air strapped to his feet. "Thank you."
He finished the eggs, hugged his mother and sister, and whispered good bye into their ears. His father gathered him up in his arms and pressed a smooth, metal baton into his hand when they broke apart.
"Diallo, you are a good boy and the world is unkind to the good. When you must be brave," said his father. "Be brave."
Diallo pocketed the baton. He left the house and his family followed him to the street. He walked away and did not look back, thinking that if he turned, his resolve would fail, and he would fall back to comfort and safety. Much later, when all that he loved receded into darkness, he turned to see where he had come from. Though he could not see it in the morning dark, he knew it was still there.
Diallo walked along the edge of the Western Trans-African convoy road to the inspection station. The road stretched from the Cape of Good Hope along the Atlantic coast to Morocco and then across the Gibraltar bridge to Spain. The road defied nature's efforts to reclaim it and man's attempts to destroy it. Its polished surface betrayed buried bombs, and disturbances to the cleared zone around it would alert the truck's mapping radar scanners.
He adjusted the faded orange backpack to ride easy on his shoulders and scuffed his new shoes so as to not attract unwanted attention. People still died because of clean, white shoes.
A few trucks waited in queue for inspection. The airbrakes on a gleaming Mitsubishi multi-trailer truck hissed. Its red, laser beam eyes and radar scanners sniffed the road. Beneath one lumpy turret, optical fire-control sensors correlated with radar and directed the autogun to track him. The Mitsubishi slowed and joined the other trucks to go through the weigh and inspection station.
He skirted the fence around the station and considered his possible rides. Big super-diesels, the size of trains, pulled the heaviest loads with their massive engine assemblies and gas recyclers. They accelerated too fast and their armored flanks offered no purchase. He needed something smaller and less modern, like the turbo-electric trucks that idled silently on polymer batteries. They accelerated slower out of the station and, for the most part, were unarmed.
He found a spot packed down by human feet, sat down, and waited. The refuse of many meals and fires scattered about before him.
"Hey boy, where you going?"
He stood, turned to look, and saw two men emerge from behind the blocky green roadway power converters. They split apart to flank him.
"Boy, you got any money?" asked the skinny man.
"No," said Diallo.
"You a smart boy."
"Then you are the money."
Diallo wrapped his hand around the baton his father had given him. His thumb poised on the button. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out something menacing and black. He closed to within striking distance and Diallo felt that now was an appropriate time for bravery. He swung his arm and thumbed the button. Coiled steel sprung from the baton and struck the man across his shoulder delivering 50,000 volts of sparking blue electricity. The man jerked and fell. The stunner fell from his hand. Diallo sidestepped and felt the brush of fingers on his arm. He swung blindly and raked the electric baton across the other man's chest.
A truck pulled out of the inspection station and he ran for it not caring what kind it was. The first man staggered to his feet and gave chase. The other followed. Diallo's heart pounded as the truck pulled even with him. He grabbed hold of a tie-down fitting and heard the thunk of doors opening. The induction brushes descended and swept the roadbed for power from the buried grid. The whine of the electric engines increased and the truck accelerated. The tires hummed and Diallo took huge stumbling strides with the spinning black tires inches from his heels. The truck dragged him and he thought that his journey would end mangled under the truck's wheels or carted off to an illegal diamond mine or brain farm. He hoisted himself up using his arms and levered himself into the service platform between the truck and trailer with his left leg. The wind filled his ears and the landscape blurred with speed. He found an inspection door into the trailer and entered the gloom. The door slammed shut behind him and in the swaying light of battery powered lanterns he saw that he was surrounded.
"Chimpanzees," said Diallo.
"Pans," said a grey-bearded chimp, rising to meet him. "Pan Sapiens, not chimpanzees, little human boy. You picked the wrong truck."
The Pans watched him with deep set eyes. Water bottles and backpacks hung from the ceiling from bungee cords and carabineer clips.
"Pans," said Diallo. "I'm sorry."
A low, rumbling growl came from the throat of the menacing Grey-beard.
"Stop," said a younger male.
"You know what we have to do," said the Grey-beard.
"No, we will not," said the younger male. "He is only a boy. You wouldn't sell us to the catchers would you boy?
"My name is Diallo. No, I would not."
"Satisfied," said the younger-male.
"No," said the Grey-beard. "Besides we are hungry."
"We don't," said the younger male.
"We will, house ape," said the Grey-beard.
The younger male moved closer and the other Pans backed away.
The Grey-beard sneered and leapt upon the younger. The two males traded blows that would kill a man, and snapped jaws that would rend flesh from bone. Most of the Pans on the periphery broke into a chorus of hoots and shrieks, others turned away in disgust. The younger male moved faster, but the Grey-beard was stronger and more experienced fighter. The Grey-beard flipped the younger male on his back and rained down hammer punches. Diallo pushed the button on the baton and tapped the Grey-beard. The Pan jerked as 50,000 volts hit him. The younger male struck the stunned Grey beard a hard blow to the temple. The Grey-beard fell to the ground and the younger male scrambled on top, grabbed his arm, and twisted. He placed one foot on the neck of the Grey-beard and the other foot pinned the opposite arm. The Grey-beard grimaced, then shrieked as his arm snapped.
The Pans erupted in fierce cacophony of words and hoots as troop order rearranged itself with shoves and threats. The younger released the Grey-beard's broken arm and leapt toward the nearest male and shoved him hard, other males scattered to the reaches of the trailer. The victor advanced on Diallo.
"My name is Moki," said the younger. He leaned close to Diallo's ear. "Thank you."
The Grey-beard cradled his broken arm. Tears of pain and rage streaked his face.
A female in a stained white cotton dress unzipped the back of his shirt and groomed his whip-scarred back.
A female, taller, more slender, and more erect, stood.
"Look at you, two" she said to Moki. "One step from the tree."
"Quiet," said Moki. "And splint his arm." Moki scanned the troop looking for challenges. "Sit down."
All of the Pans sat. Diallo sat also.
"We are going to Europe to find our freedom. We no longer wish to work in diamond mines or plantations. We were made for better things," said Moki to Diallo.
"I too was made for better things. I am going to America to be an astronaut."
"America," murmured several Pans. They leaned forward into the conversation.
"We have heard about America," said a male.
"What is an astronaut?" asked Moki.
"A traveler to the stars," said Diallo.
A youngster let out an atavistic shriek and his mother cuffed him. "Your words! Use your words."
"I have climbed many trees and watched the stars in the sky. No tree grows tall enough. No bird flies high enough," said Moki. "There can be no such thing."
"They are Americans. They have ways," said Diallo. He left it at that. To explain something like space travel to the recently sentient would take too long.
"I have heard of Americans. I have heard that they are fat and lazy. I have heard that they are smart and can do magic," said Moki. "I have heard that if you go to America you will become an American. I do not know if this is good or not." He paused. "Maybe they can go to the stars," he conceded.
"You will eat with us?" asked a female. She passed out plates
"Yes, I have some food to share," said Diallo.
After they ate, the warmth of the truck and the monotonous hum of the road conspired to make Diallo sleepy. As he dozed half-in and half-out of sleep a small female Pan lay down next to him and scratched at his head and shoulders.
"Human lover," sneered the injured Grey-beard.
Her hand, warm and soft, lingered on his back for a moment. She crept away to a far corner and cried.
The truck pulled into the port facility at Lagos in the early morning hours. After a brief search, it found its designated parking spot. The engine idled for a few minutes and shut down. Moki consulted his watch, opened the door, and peered into the dark.
"Maybe the Conductor will help you too," said Moki. "I promise nothing."
"Are you scared?" asked Diallo.
"Yes," said Moki. He closed the door. "Runaways never come back. Either they make it to freedom or they die. I do not know which."
Someone tapped on the maintenance door and the Pans startled. Two bared teeth and prepared to fight. Moki opened the hatch and a black, human face peered in.
"Come," said the man. "It is safe."
The Pans exited first, with the Grey-beard last. Diallo followed. Assembled in the parking lot, the anxious troop exuded a ferocious energy and purpose. Only a fool would threaten them unarmed.
"Who are you?" asked the Conductor.
"My name is Diallo and I am going to America."
"No stupid boy, you are not. No one goes to America without money," said the Conductor. "Do you have money?"
"I need five hundred dollars." said the Conductor. "American dollars."
"What does that much money buy me?"
"My silence, your life" said the Conductor. "And contact with someone who traffics humans."
"I will give you half now and the other when you give me the contact," said Diallo.
Diallo reached into his hidden pocket and felt the smooth paper of the bills. He counted out two hundred and fifty dollars and handed it over. The Conductor wrapped the money in a metal foil wallet.
Diallo ran a finger across the secret pocket. His mother had made the pocket, but in her sadness, forgot to line it with foil to block the RFI tags embedded in the money.
He heard the sound of running men and the flare of light reflecting off the slumbering trucks.
"Over here, over here," said a man's distant voice.
The fur on the Pan's shoulders bristled. Unarmed men stood little chance against Pans.
"Fool," said the Conductor. "We must run."
They followed the Conductor in his flight. The Pans strode with loping strides between the trucks. High above, robotic cranes maneuvered and dipped their skeletal hands to pluck the multi-modal containers from the truck's spines.
"There," said the Conductor. He pointed. The Pans scrambled up and over a chain link fence. Two Pans helped the Grey-beard over. Diallo and the Conductor climbed slower and dropped to the ground without any simian grace.
"It says two thousand," said a voice. "Someone will make us rich."
Diallo searched through drifts of paper, packing foam, and plastic. He found a foil food wrapper. He extracted a twenty dollar note from his hidden pocket and cast it into the drifts on the other side of the fence. He wrapped the remainder of his money with the foil.
Strong Pan arms pulled him into the tall grass that hummed with the sound of insects. Between the blades of grass he saw three security guards approach the fence. Two held handguns and the third held a small electronic device in his hand. He waved it back and forth to get a bearing on the money and settled on a direction. He walked to the fence, crouched, and reached into the drift of refuse. He pulled his hand out clutching his reward.
He checked the machine again. "Ah, a twenty. Not two thousand. Stupid machine." He holstered the device. The men retreated, vanishing among the trucks.
The Pans and the two humans stood up in the tall grass.
"You must give me more for almost getting us caught," said the Conductor.
"We have a deal," said Diallo.
Moki grabbed the Conductor's wrist and twisted, dropping the man to his knees."Man, take us to the next station. Now."
"Take your hands off me stupid chimp," said the Conductor.
"Pan," said Moki. "Tell me why I need to suffer your insults, man?"
"For all those that wish to come after you, dumb ape," said the Conductor. "Now, let go of me."
"One day," said Moki. He released the Conductor.
"But not today," said the Conductor. He rubbed at his wrist and then disappeared down a swampy path laced with reflective pastels of toxic waste and oil. "Deal with you later, boy," said the Conductor.
The troop followed the Conductor along the trail. They crawled through a hole in another chain link fence and made their way to the docks for smaller human-crewed ships. The Conductor flashed a light onto the bridge of an old, but well cared for, freighter. A light flashed back.
"This is where you go," said the Conductor to the Pans, pointing to the freighter. He looked at Diallo. "You will come with me."
"Go," said Moki to the troop. The Pans broke and dashed to the bow of the ship, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. A British officer, wearing an impeccable white uniform, greeted them on the quarterdeck.
Moki put his hand on Diallo's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Good luck with your freedom."
"Good luck with yours," said Diallo.
Diallo hid in the grass for a long time and waited for the Conductor to return. He checked and rechecked the riot baton in his pocket.
The Conductor came back to the hiding place. "I have made arrangements. Building seventy-four is for the Ombudsman's use. They are the ones that take care of the ship's services." He pointed down the road. "You go there and deal with them. Now pay me."
"Take me there," said Diallo.
"No, that was not our agreement. I do not wish to be known by such men and neither do you. Now pay me."
Diallo paid the Conductor. The Conductor took a few steps and turned back. "Boy, I am a business man. The animal lovers pay me and I feed my own. Those you go to see trade in humans. They are war witches, survivors of this continent's darkest hours. Do you know what that means?"
Diallo said nothing.
"If you are smart you will go home. Do not meddle with them. This advice is worth the five hundred you have given me. It is worth more."
"I do not believe in witchcraft."
"Your belief does not matter. They believe and that is what matters." He walked away, opposite of the direction he indicated for building seventy-four. "Heed me boy. Faith is strong in Africa, but like all good things, even faith can be corrupted."
Diallo stalked his way to building seventy-four, a small wood-framed structure illuminated by dull florescent lights. Concealed behind overflowing garbage cans, he studied his surroundings. A singular shadow moved inside the building to unknown purpose. Across the street, a tiny red flare bloomed. He saw another man sitting in an open-topped and door-less four-by-four vehicle smoking in the shadows. Once he went inside the building the other would come from behind him and capture him for sale to a brothel, or rare earth mine, or worse yet, for vivisection on a brain farm.
Going home would be smartest option, but it wasn't the bravest. It was time now to be both brave and smart. He approached the smoking man from behind and crept with animal quiet. He pressed against the knobby spare tire and deployed the baton. The man turned, exhaling a plume of smoke. His eyes widened in surprise. Diallo touched the man's head. The man kicked a beat against the vehicle floorboards and tumbled to the ground unconscious. Dark blood leaked from his bitten tongue. Around his neck, he wore a talisman to ward off evil or put it upon someone else. A gold nugget ring wrapped the middle finger of his left hand.
War witches, thought Diallo, those that believed that virgins cured AIDS or that walking backwards across battlefields made one invisible. Scars and tattoos illustrated the man with the superstitions that mired Africa in human misery.
For a moment Diallo considered taking the man's finger, thinking that if the man could afford the ring, he could afford a new finger, but instead, he threaded the ring onto the talisman's leather lace and hung it around his own neck. He dusted himself with white clay road-substrate and dipped his fingers in the man's blood and drew three streaks down the center of his face. He blackened his fingers with the exhaust residue from the vehicles tailpipe and darkened his eye sockets and lips. It did not matter what he looked like as long as it was terrifying. He checked his visage in the truck's mirror.
"Abiku," said Diallo.
The Ombudsman faced away and did not hear Diallo enter.
"Ombudsman," said Diallo. "I am very hungry."
The Ombudsman turned and his cruel face twisted in fear. He could not escape what he had done. He could not help what he believed.
"Ombudsman," said Diallo again. "The children here are poor fare. I wish to go to America."
"Who . . . who are you?"
"Abiku," said Diallo. "Send me to America where the children are fat."
The Ombudsman glanced down and focused on the talisman and nugget ring. He gasped and looked to the door.
"Ombudsman, no one is coming," said Diallo.
"Yes, yes," said the Ombudsman. He keyboarded an input to the computer at the counter. A mini-fab printer warmed up.
"I need to take your picture," said the Ombudsman.
"Yes," said Diallo. "Come closer."
"No, this is fine."
The flash went off and Diallo stepped forward uninvited.
"Please," said the Ombudsman pitiably.
The mini-fab whirred and clicked and lay down the identifications one molecule at a time. The machine beeped and the Ombudsman took out the identifications and waved them in the air to cool. He set them on the counter.
"You must go to the deep quay where the big ships are. This ID will show you as a contract fumigator assigned to the Atlantic Conveyor on pier 14. It is a dumb ship and it will let you onboard. It is going to Jacksonville."
Diallo snatched the documents off the counter. "Ombudsman, you should stay inside tonight. I am very hungry."
Diallo woke thirsty and hungry to the sound of rumbling diesel engines. He gathered his backpack and ascended from his hiding place, past stacked containers loaded into the belly of the ship. He opened the hatch and burst into bright mid-day sun. A deep canyon of containers stretched ahead; the blocky superstructure of the ship towered behind. Confused sparrows chirped and flitted between the containers. The small birds forayed over open water before curling back to safety.
He walked aft to the superstructure. Windows at the uppermost deck glinted in the sun. Dish antennas and hooded sensors gazed out over the horizon. Diallo opened a door into the superstructure and sour air burst out. Paint flaked and peeled from the wall and scabs of rust bloomed on exposed metal. A coiled firefighting station dripped water that pooled in a salt-rimmed depression on the floor.
He washed the worst of his Abiku disguise off in the puddle and it spiraled away down the deck drain. He climbed higher in the superstructure and investigated crew quarters stripped bare. He feared that he had made a terrible mistake coming aboard so ill-prepared. At the uppermost deck, he opened a door with a brass plaque labeled "Captain's Cabin." The room was hot, dusty, and empty.
He peered through a door window opposite the Captain's cabin into the bridge. He could see past the long length of the ship and the stacked containers to a distant blue horizon. Movement caught his eye and he pressed his face against the glass to get a better angle. A robot, a General Dynamics MK IV Wraith, arranged short, silver cylinders, lethetic processors, upon the ship's control consoles. The robot touched them one at a time and Diallo thought he heard the robot speaking, but could not imagine the necessity of it. Behind the robot, he saw stacks of plastic gallon jugs of water and cartons labeled: MRE. He saw a chessboard on the floor. He stepped away from the door to the stair well. The MK IV Wraith model had pacified Tehran, Damascus, and most of Africa. Its heirs explored worlds around Eridani and Ceti without human help. Nothing good would come from encountering a combat robot that talked to itself and played with the brains of its brethren.
He descended into engineering spaces, wary of alarms and sensors, but saw none. He found a door labeled: Reverse Osmosis, but when he entered, he saw that the machinery used to turn salt water to fresh had been removed. He turned creaking freshwater valves that yielded dribbles of rancid, rusty water unfit for drinking. His thirst, currently a minor discomfort, would become unbearable and hamper his ability to think. And then, after several days, he would die.
He climbed back up to the bridge, paused at the bridge's door for a moment, and opened it. The robot turned and stared at him with its three blue eyes. One silver arm extended and the hand beckoned him to come in. Diallo knew that there would be no escape from the machine.
He entered, closed the door, and sat behind the chessboard.
The dark pieces were laser-carved metal fashioned into classes of robots, the king, a fearsome Imperator, the queen, a Lockheed Destroyer. Jaguars, Wraiths, Reapers, and Centurions completed the set. The lighter chessmen, humans, carried a variety of Chinese, Russian, and American weapons, and were elaborately carved from bone. Diallo recognized the king as Thomas Morgan, the genocidal Liberian dictator that swept through Africa with his murderous armies until defeated by relentless American robots.
The Wraith deployed bladed weapons from its two arms. The runnels were stained brown.
"My Tutor taught me to play chess," said Diallo. "Do you want to play?"
"Tutor," said the Wraith. The blades retracted. The robot cocked its head for a moment and then with a fluid grace breezed toward Diallo and sat behind the chessboard. "Yes. I will play." The machine reset the pieces.
Diallo selected a bone-carved pawn, a tearful child-soldier carrying an AK-47, and made his opening move. When he set the piece down, the pawn collapsed into a cross-legged position with the AK-47 on its lap.
"Where did you get the bone to make the pieces?" asked Diallo.
"People, who lost the game," said the robot. It picked up a pawn and set it down to answer Diallo's move.
Diallo advanced his knight from G1 to F3.
The Wraith moved its pawn from D7 to D5.
Diallo studied the board and moved the D2 pawn to D4. To his surprise the Wraith did not exploit an opportunity to capture a pawn in jeopardy, but moved its knight from G8 to F6.
Hunched over a chessboard, the machine looked like a toy, but he had seen footage of the machines in action and knew how fast they could tear through human armies. He put the thought from his mind and put his bishop, carved in the form of a Catholic cardinal, into play.
The Wraith answered with his own bishop, a winged reaper.
The Wraith castled with the rook at G8.
Diallo advanced his E2 pawn to E3 and wiped sweat from his face. He sacrificed a pawn to the Wraith's knight and captured the Wraith's bishop with his own which, in turn, was taken by the Wraith's queen.
They reached the middle game and pieces fell every move and to his surprise and confusion he realized that the machine took just as long to decide on a move as he did. Diallo checked the Wraith's king with his queen on E8. The machine executed its remaining move and placed its king forward one square to G7. Diallo slid his queen to H8 putting the king into checkmate between the queen and the rook. The Wraith sat back and cocked its head. It looked up at Diallo and then with a stiletto finger that no doubt, had plunged into soft human bodies, toppled over its king.
"Good night," said Diallo. He crossed the bridge to the stacks of water and MREs. He selected a gallon jug and two of the brown, plastic-wrapped meals. The Wraith studied the board and looked up at him with its blue eyes as he left the bridge.
"Puzzling," said the Wraith.
Diallo and the Wraith played many games. When Diallo won, which was most of the time, he took a gallon of water and an MRE to the Captain's cabin. When he lost, he left empty-handed. Once, in mid-game, the robot took his notebook and turned the pages, lingering at each, as if considering the aspirations within. The machine displayed odd behavior. On a daily basis it arranged the loose cortical stacks in formations on the ship's consoles, touching and talking to them before putting them away in a canvas bag. The cortical stacks, powerful lethetic processors or memory engines, were trained, rather than programmed. Like all computers, they were capable of a binary yes or no, but disagreements between the two halves of their bicameral architecture could also generate a maybe. Those that believed in AI believed that these machines had an identity.
"Who are they?" asked Diallo.
"Comrades lost in the wars. I find them and bring them home."
The machine is on a mission, thought Diallo. It would not want to get caught, which meant it had motive. "Are you going to kill me?" asked Diallo.
The machine looked at Diallo and cocked its head. "Not today," said the Wraith.
As they approached the American coast, the ship's expert systems flashed commands meant for human eyes. The ship changed course, veering south, in response to a notice of an impending Sea Dragon launch.
"It is coming again," said the Wraith. An airborne speck showed on the horizon and then resolved itself into an armed NASA Enforcer drone sent to ensure compliance with the exclusion zone. Satisfied, it overflew the ship and banked away.
"It's almost time; look to the north," said the Wraith.
Diallo saw a bright flickering flash of light on the horizon that steadied into a miniature sun that rose higher in the sky on a pillar of billowing white steam. The massive Sea Dragon rocket arced to the east, ascending the sky like a man-made daystar. The sound of distant thunder broke over the ship and filled his head with a magnificent roar that went on and on. This is what I am here for, thought Diallo. He watched as the recoverable first stage fell away, buoyed by massive parachutes. The rocket vanished into the blue.
The deck canted as the ship heeled over and changed course back to the northwest. Specks of orange light swarmed the water in trail to the setting sun. Distant city lights winked in the twilight horizon. The ship turned again setting up for its approach and threaded its way through Sealaunch platforms and fueling stations built to service the near earth stellar survey ships. A spidery gravity-lifter overflew the ship with a cargo pod slung beneath its legs.
The ship entered the channel and followed the twists of the St. John's River past the rapier sharp destroyers of Naval Station Mayport. North of the city center, it pivoted on its bow and stern thrusters, and docked on the western bank's piers. From the Captain's cabin monitor, Diallo and the robot watched the pier crew tie the ship and drop a brow into place. They hid when men came onboard to hookup shore power. Late in the evening, a stilted crane rumbled over and picked containers from the ship. Below, trucks lined up to receive their multi-modal containers.
"The machines in America are smarter than the ones in Africa. They will see and report us," said the robot.
"How will we get off?" asked Diallo.
An electronic counter-measures pod on the Wraith's back opened. Tiny dish and rod antennas extruded. "We will become invisible to them. Gather your belongings."
Diallo retrieved his backpack and met the robot in the passageway. They descended the stairwell and stepped onto the deck between the shrinking stacks of containers. The wraith's antenna's swiveled in the direction of the crane, shielding them from electronic eyes.
"This one is next," said the Wraith. "Climb."
They reached the top of the container just as the tethered crane claw started its descent.
"Lie down and hold on," said the Wraith.
The crane claw plummeted from the dark sky like the hand of God to smash Diallo. The fingers splayed wide and the palm stopped inches from his face. Metal fingers slid into channels and the container lifted with terrifying speed and ease. Diallo flew two hundred feet high and then just as fast as he rose; he fell. The container thumped onto the spine of a truck and clamps snapped into place. The crane lifted away and the truck drove off, leaving the pier behind. At the exit to the port facility, the truck merged with highway traffic. Diallo felt the cold fingers of the Wraith robot as it gripped the collar of his shirt to help hold him on the ridged roof of the container. They drove for a few miles and then exited onto side roads and drove a few more. The truck stopped. Diallo and the robot climbed off. The truck sat for a moment, confused as to its location. It recalculated and departed.
"This way," said the Wraith.
Diallo thought of running, but knew it would be pointless. He would just die tired if the machine decided to kill him. They walked a short distance into a small stand of trees ringed by a barricaded concrete entry ramp to a crumbling highway. In the center of the pocket forest, silver hobos sat in front of a fire. The machines, some twitching with unknown robot ailments and concerns, did not look up. The Wraith approached a battle-scarred robot and handed over the bag of cortical stacks. The battle-scarred robot turned to observe Diallo with scratched plastic lenses.
"It has been decided," said the Wraith to Diallo.
"What has been decided?"
"Give me your notebook."
Diallo opened up his backpack and took out his notebook. The robot turned past the drawings of spaceships and never-before-seen beasts to a blank page. With rapid-fire pulses of its commlaser it burned a map.
"You are here," said the Wraith pointing to a little star. "You must go here," it said pointing to a bigger star. The Wraith handed him back his notebook and then the wooden case that contained the carved chess set.
"I can't accept it," said Diallo.
"There are plenty of bones in the world. I will make another," said the Wraith. "When I first met you I thought I would carve you into a pawn."
"And now," said Diallo.
"Now I would carve you into a king. Goodbye, Diallo. Give my regards to the Tutor."
"I will," he said, confused. His sister, Abeni, possessed the Tutor and after coming so far he had no intention of going home. "Goodbye, Wraith."
Diallo walked along the business road, no more than fifteen miles from his destination. A mongrel bitch, her teats heavy with milk, trotted out of the woods. She paced Diallo, head held low, ready to dash into the dark.
"Food?" asked the dog.
Diallo stopped and shrugged off his backpack. He took out a packaged meal and handed it to the dog's mouth. The dog sat on her haunches and opened the plastic with dexterous paws and sniffed inside the package.
"Thank you," said the dog. She picked up the meal in her mouth and padded away into the brush.
Diallo left the business road and entered the winding side streets of an unguarded residential area. He stopped at a park to eat dinner and rest a bit before he presented himself. He finished his last meal at a picnic table, then took off his shoes to wiggle his toes in the moist, green grass. He crawled into a child's play structure and shimmied through tubes and climbed ladders. He perched in a castle turret that commanded the entire park. Later, teenagers congregated on the picnic tables and listened to horrid atonal music. They drank each other's blood with lab grown fangs and sipped beer from plastic bottles. They laughed and cursed and then disappeared. Diallo thought them strange and then fell asleep with his head on his backpack.
The next morning he woke to the sound of sprinklers spraying the emerald green grass. He climbed out of the play structure and, to his horror, realized that he had left his shoes outside. He searched to no avail. He left the park, dodging the arcs of water, and walked the final four miles.
His destination did not look like a place where one became an astronaut. He checked his map. A small wood-clad bungalow sheltered under the canopy of an ancient oak. Gnarled roots, like the scaled backs of sea serpents, broached the emerald green grass.
Diallo climbed the porch stairs to the front door. Ceramic planters, bursting with flowers and herbs, flanked the door. Wind chimes in the shape of stars and crescent moons tinkled in the breeze. He grabbed the brass knocker and rapped three times.
The door opened, and a black man, white of beard and hair, stood before him.
"Who are you?" asked the man.
"My name is Diallo Joseph Truman Mokele and I have come here to be an astronaut," said Diallo.
"Diallo," said the man. He looked to the sky for a moment as if considering the plausibility of a potential astronaut coming to his doorstep. "It is too early in the morning to be an astronaut. And why would you want to be one? It is nothing but hard work and suffering. You should go back home and farm metals with your father and have babies. You will have an easy life." The man looked at Diallo's feet. "Besides you have no shoes. Whoever heard of an astronaut with no shoes?"
"I do not want an easy life and I don't think shoes will keep me from being an astronaut." He wondered how the man knew his father farmed metals, but he heard that American's always knew more than what they should.
"Maybe not Diallo, but you have to admit, you will need shoes sooner or later to walk on the moon," said the man.
"Perhaps," said Diallo considering the notion. "My father will make me shoes when he buys his fabricator."
"Maybe he will, but I am not so sure a simple fabricator can make astronaut shoes," said the man. "Why do you want to be an astronaut anyway?"
"I will be an astronaut like my father and his father before him."
"Ah, so you come from a long line of astronauts. It is the family trade, so to speak." The man smiled and Diallo knew he had won him over.
"Precisely, my father and his father have suffered and endured and made something of themselves and I, like them, have walked through strangeness and danger. That is what makes good astronauts."
"That might be important," conceded the man. "It might be the most important."
Diallo shuffled his bare dirty feet. "I will make my family proud when I take our name to the stars."
"I think they shall be proud of you when you tell them," said the man. "But first you will have breakfast and tell me how you came to my door."
"I took a test," said Diallo. He thought of the Tutor and the numerous lessons and questions that introduced him to possibilities he otherwise would never have dreamed of.
The man smiled. "It always begins with a test."
The man sat at his home workstation and reviewed his files. He leaned back in his chair and watched Diallo eat scrambled eggs and sweet cinnamon rolls. The boy came into possession of Tutor DX113-044 and exhibited remarkable scores in all areas of study. His sister, Abeni, the current possessor of the Tutor, showed even greater promise. He made a notation in the folder and closed it out.
The Tutors, clever machine intelligences, thrown into trash bins, scattered into war zones, abandoned in back alleys, and distributed to impoverished schools that had no right to such fabulous devices, suffered no fools in the pursuit of their mission. The violent slums of the tired, hungry, and hopeless proved the most fruitful hunting grounds for astronauts and explorers. Those that built comfortable nations in the past were the best candidates to build worlds for the future. So that is where the Tutors went. If a man dared to cross an ocean on a raft or if a woman risked her family trekking a desert, then odds were, they would make fine astronauts. Such people were cunning and resourceful and accustomed to hard decisions. Bereft of security and opportunity, they understood the value of such things.
They searched for ability and desire and then guided candidates to the man's front door. Not everyone survived; this world, still, was a dangerous place. Some abandoned their courage at their own thresholds, others were lost to the road, but enough made it that the program was worthwhile.
"Diallo, Diallo," said the man to himself. "You will make a fine astronaut. Eridani or Ceti or the place with just numbers, I don't know, and perhaps when you get to the world on the other end of the voyage you will found a nation. Oh, how I envy you."
The fabricator pinged.
The man turned off his workstation.
"Diallo," said the man. "Your shoes are ready."
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