“Aqua Regia” by Karen Munro
Eden was a gentle boy, a little slow, a little sleepy, his mother’s favorite. He wasn’t as bold as his brother Osbert, or as timid as his brother Bon, or as quick and fiery as his little sister Vangeline. Eden, their mother said, had a long fuse.
Eden worked with the plants. His brother Osbert was old enough to use the rinse chemicals, and Bon was clever with engines, and little Vangeline could follow after their father’s picker and glean what it missed. But only Eden was patient enough to thin the tender green stems of the infant mustard, to mist the surface of the trial starts, to coax the best from every plant. Eden, their mother said, had a kind of magic in his hands.
One dark afternoon Eden was in the greenhouse, teasing the weakest seedlings out of the crowded planting lines, when he heard a cry. Through the warped plastic of the greenhouse window, he saw the long green rows of plants leading away to the company’s tall chain-link fence. Beyond that, only the vast dark forest. As he watched, Eden thought he saw a figure leap through the fence and disappear into the trees. But Eden’s sight wasn’t very good, and he thought it was a trick of his eyes.
He went back to work. It was ten more minutes before his father drove the picker to that end of the field, and found six-year-old Vangeline’s body crumpled on a bed of green plants.
Eden sat cross-legged under the kitchen table.
“We’re supposed to be safe.” Eden’s mother sounded faint, as if she were talking from somewhere far away. She had Bon on her lap, her arms wrapped around him. “What are all those fences for, if they don’t keep us safe?”
In the tiny front room, Vangeline was laid out in one of the clear plastic vacuum sacks they used to transport the crop. Their father hadn’t activated the vacuum lock yet. They’d put her doll in with her, and their mother had brought, from somewhere, a nugget of gold the size of the nail on Vangeline’s little finger. It was in her hand now, inside the bag.
Eden was using Vangeline’s gleaning knife to scratch a picture on the floor beneath the table.
“There was a hole,” his father said. “In the fence. It must have been an animal.”
Eden had already drawn his mother and father, Osbert and Bon and himself, and Vangeline above. Now he was adding a sturdy plant with a flower on top.
“They should have fixed it,” his mother said. “It’s in the contract, the fences are supposed to be safe.”
Eden concentrated on his picture of Vangeline in her Sunday dress.
“She was six years old,” his mother said, clutching Bon so hard that he squirmed.
“They don’t give a fuck,” said Osbert. He was standing against the wall, holding an oily part from the picker engine.
“Osbert,” said their father.
“They don’t,” said Osbert. “As long as we keep growing gold.” He opened the door and went out into the wind.
When the door slammed the knife slipped and scratched a line across Vangeline’s body. Eden wetted his finger with his tongue and rubbed it. The line stayed.
At the warehouse, standing in front of the canvas-draped bales of pressed gold, the governor said that Vangeline was a beautiful child taken too soon. Eden’s father sat staring at his scuffed boots. His mother sat staring at the gold.
After, waiting for everyone to leave, Eden stood by the door. Bon came over and stood with him. He had something in his hand; a notched plug of metal. Eden recognized it as the locking mechanism from a plastic vacuum sack. He looked at Bon.
“It’s not from hers,” Bon said. “It’s an old one. Look, I can pick it.” He put the tip of his gleaning knife into the lock, twisted it, and showed it again opened up like a flower.
Eden took the knife, and Bon showed him the trick of it. They took turns picking and closing the lock, over and over, while the warehouse emptied.
The men started building a taller fence on that side of the village. Eden climbed onto the roof to watch. After a while he turned to look at the governor’s house up on the bluff. They were building a new fence around it too, even taller than the one around the village.
Eden watched the pickers roll over the east fields, the metal teeth gobbling up the green plants and leaving black trails of overturned earth behind. Then he watched the smoke over the burn sheds for a while. It was a good day; the wind was blowing east, pushing the chemicals over the forest instead of the village.
At last Eden climbed down off the roof and went into the rinse shed, where Osbert stood running water through the gleaming steel trench into the collection basin. On the shelves were glass jars of ammonium thiocyanate, the different concentrations carefully labeled and stamped with the company logo. On the steel countertop below stood bottles of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, marked with skulls.
Eden stood with his chin on the cold steel counter, watching the water go down the drain. No matter how hard he looked he could never see the gold. Not in the plants or the ashes or even the rinse water. Only at the end, when it was all collected and pressed into bales — and by then it already belonged to someone else.
“Watch out,” said Osbert. “A couple years ago a guy mixed this stuff up wrong and it blew up in his face.”
“What happened?” asked Eden.
“What do you think?” Osbert said. “He died.” He swung the hose, sending the last few flakes of ash down into the filter. “So what? How many people do you think have died here, anyway?”
Eden shook his head.
“Whenever they start a new planet,” Osbert said, “they need people to do the grunt work. The really dangerous stuff, before the colonists come.” He coughed into his hand. “So they send out deportees. Because nobody cares if they get killed.”
Eden watched while Osbert shut off the hose and hung it in its rack.
“What’s a deportee?” Eden asked.
“Someone the company doesn’t like. Someone they can send out to the end of the universe and work to death.”
Eden touched a drop of water on the steel, then drew his finger back. “Are we deportees?”
Osbert laughed, then coughed. It was the same dry, hacking cough that many people had. “If we’re not, I don’t see the difference.”
Two months later they had a spell of deep winter cold. The ground was so hard Eden’s gleaning knife could hardly pry the mustard from it. The picker broke down and their father fixed it in the afternoon dark, his hands wrapped in dirty polythermals. The women who worked in the burn sheds joked that they had the prime jobs, feeding the plants into the furnaces and shoveling the ashes out to be rinsed.
Sometime in the windy darkness, another child was killed.
It was a Nunez, a curly-haired boy with a perpetually runny nose. Gutted and left in a drainage ditch.
Another service in the dreary warehouse, another speech from the governor. In the middle of it rose a yell. Mr. Nunez ran to the bier. Before anyone could stop him he clawed it over, dumping the box and splitting open its flimsy pressboard, spilling out the vacuum bag. The Nunez boy was a shriveled mummy, bathed in gold dust. Mr. Nunez knelt beside him, sobbing and wiping the gold away from the plastic over his face.
“I can’t believe it,” Eden’s mother said later that night at the kitchen table. “Those fences must be twelve feet high.”
Osbert, scrubbing dirt from his nails at the kitchen sink, snorted. Their father turned on him.
Osbert’s back was rigid and narrow. He said nothing for a moment. Bon fiddled with something under the table, clicking it.
“How tall is the fence around the governor’s house?” Osbert said. “Must be twenty feet at least.”
There was a moment of quiet. Osbert shut the tap off with his elbow and turned to dry his hands.
“That must have been their life savings,” their mother said, looking away out the window. “And they put it in the coffin.”
“What a waste,” said Osbert. Their mother stood up so fast she knocked over her chair, and slapped him across the face.
People started going into the woods, armed with their house rifles. Officially they weren’t supposed to leave the village, but the guards had families too, and they looked the other way.
The guns popped all night long. A pile of dead animals collected outside the warehouse, stiff and red, frosted over, until someone cleared it away.
“Maybe it’s not an animal,” said Osbert, one night at dinner.
“Of course it is,” their mother said. “It must live deeper in the forest. But we’ll find it.”
“If it’s not an animal,” asked Bon, “what is it?” He had the old vacuum bag lock in his hand. He held it constantly now, one hand always clicking the mechanism open and closed.
“A monster,” said their mother.
Their father took his plate and went to eat in the doorway.
At Christmas everyone went to the governor’s house.
In the big back room was a platter of roast meat and plates of roasted turnips. Green boughs from the forest were laid along the windowsills. Eden stood with a few other boys looking out the front windows, picking their own house lights from the homely golden glow of the village. The fence between, Eden noticed, had spikes on top.
Later he went to look out the back windows, which gave over the ravine behind the house. Water from the chemical rinse sheds came out of big pipes beneath the house, and drained into the ravine. The grass and shrubs along the riverbed had died long ago, and the trees had started to turn brown.
“Christmas,” said the governor, from the raised stone hearth, “is a time of celebration. And we have plenty to celebrate. This year’s crop is the biggest yet. Eleven hundred kilos.” He lifted his glass. A few people raised theirs too.
“Eleven hundred kilos means we’ve met our mark,” the governor said. “The company’s patented a new transgenic, just for us. Uptake is five thousand micrograms per kilo.” He waited, but no one said anything. With a smile, he added, “And every family here will get a brand new picker!” He raised his glass higher, and this time a few more people joined him.
A new picker was a tremendous gift. Eden looked over at his father, whose fingers were still black with grease from fixing their old, broken-down picker. But his father wasn’t smiling. He was leaning wearily against Eden’s mother. Neither of them was drinking.
“People don’t care about the pickers,” Bon told Eden later, as they sat under the coat hooks waiting to leave. There was music, but no one was dancing. “They want someone to kill the monster.”
“Who?” Eden thought of his gleaning knife, then of the figure he’d seen leaping away from Vangeline’s body, into the trees.
Bon shrugged. “A monster hunter.”
That night Eden woke up trembling and sweaty. He’d been crouched in the mustard field, frozen while a long-shanked figure stalked toward him. Its black eyes burnt with hunger. On its dirty leather jerkin was the red badge of the company, and in its backward-jointed hand was a bloody gleaning knife. The monster hunter.
Bon patted him. “Go back to sleep,” he said, without waking up.
The winter wore on, and the company sent its shipment. Out of the giant, battered container rolled fifty cherry-red pickers.
“What about the monster?” someone yelled, when the governor cut the ribbon that had been hastily pasted to the pallets of supplies.
“There is no monster,” the governor said. “A wild animal, that’s all. If we clear more land, it will go away.”
They raised the sheds and tilled more ground for the new seed. The brand-new pickers rolled over the fields. The guards stood on their raised platforms and looked down over everyone with their rifles in their hands.
Two mornings later Eden woke up very early, needing the privy. It was too cold to go outside so he climbed over Bon and went to the night basin against the wall. He was tall enough now to look out the window as he used it. There was something strange about the sky, he thought. Instead of the steady orange light from the safety lamps, there was a kind of flickering glow coming from the buildings beside the fields. There was a bitter smell in the air. It was smoke, he realized. At the same moment, he saw a figure dart away across the fields.
He ran, sprinkling urine, back to the beds. “The monster hunter!”
Osbert sat up, frowning in confusion. Then his face cleared and he leapt up. He pulled on his heavy canvas rinse coat and yelled for their father. Eden stood frozen until his mother appeared, grabbed Bon, and told Eden to button his fly. Osbert and their father had already run out into the night.
The house filled with acrid smoke. His mother soaked a cloth in water and gave it to him, another to Bon.
“The rinse chemicals are burning,” she said. “Breathe through these.”
He helped Bon into his coat and shoes while their mother filled a bucket from the sink. “Run up to the big house,” she said. “Hurry.”
Holding hands, they ran across the fields toward the governor’s house. The mustard stems snapped under their shoes. Broken plants couldn’t make gold, Eden thought.
But other people were running over the fields too, yelling and hauling hoses. The smoke cut Eden’s nose and eyes. He ran on, clutching Bon’s hand, until at last they were too terrified and exhausted to go on.
They weren’t at the governor’s house. Through the tears in his eyes Eden saw a gray-pink sky through black tree branches. All around them were bare trees, and muddy snow under his feet.
Bon was crying, clicking the vacuum lock in his pocket. “We got lost.”
Eden couldn’t think of anything to do, so he patted Bon’s shoulder and stood still, waiting for someone to come and find them. After a few minutes his toes started to hurt from the cold. He stamped. Somewhere nearby, a branch cracked.
Bon clutched Eden’s hand. They stood listening. In the distance the fire roared.
Another branch cracked. Eden crouched down, pulling Bon with him. There was no underbrush, nowhere to hide. Bon cried harder. The vacuum lock clicked frantically.
“It’s just an animal,” Eden whispered, and then an enormous figure rose up in front of them, blocking out the pink-gray sky. Bon screamed. Something hit the side of Eden’s head, knocking him down. He felt himself roll over an edge, then slide down an endless hill. Rocks smacked him in the face and head. Bon went on screaming. Then he stopped.
Eden lay still in a trickle of cold water. His face felt hot. His eyes burned. Above him, the sky was clouded with smoke. He wanted to lift his hand, to wave it away, but his body was too heavy. His eyes began to close.
Far above, on the rim of the world, a dark figure looked down on him. It advanced a step, then stopped. Its head turned toward the sound of shouts, coming closer. It looked down at Eden again, then turned and sank away, out of sight.
His wrist was broken, but that wasn’t the worst part. The water in the ravine behind the governor’s house came from the rinse sheds. Before Osbert found him, Eden lay in the runoff for almost half an hour. His face had been half-submerged, his right hand completely. The infirmary kept him sedated while the skin grafts took hold. There was nothing they could do for his eye.
When he finally got out of bed it was spring, the rinse sheds had been rebuilt, and his face was like the rubber sole of a work boot left too close to the fire.
Eden finished thinning the last of the trial starts and slotted the flats back under the lights. The newest hybrids reached maturity in half the time of the old crops, and took up twice the gold. They’d had to build another furnace to keep up.
Eden had worked in the greenhouses for seven years, since he was fourteen. There was no other job for him. He couldn’t rinse or burn; the slightest exposure to the corrosives made his throat close, and brought water streaming from his eyes. He couldn’t manage the long hours of standing and walking it took to harvest or glean. His vision was bad, and the grafts had made him clumsy.
But he could still tend the plants. He didn’t need to see well to feel when a start was dry or rootbound. With his fingertips, he could feel which seedlings to thin and which to keep. And alone in the greenhouse, he could sit and rest when he was tired.
He was resting on his stool when Osbert came in.
“Harvest’s up again,” he said, unslinging his pack. Osbert had gray in his hair now. He moved stiffly, as if he carried some invisible, bothersome weight on the back of his neck. “They’re saying we’re going to get another shipment.”
Osbert laughed, then coughed. It took him a minute to recover from it, to wipe his mouth and his eyes and stand up straight. “More people.”
He gave Eden the pack, which held his lunch — their mother’s dumplings in a tiffin and a flask of water. Eden started to eat.
“That’s good,” he said. “It’ll be nice to see new faces.”
Osbert shrugged. “They’re cutting another hundred acres,” he said. “Starting next week.”
Eden chewed his dumpling.
“The governor’s happy.” Osbert bent to peer into a flat of three-week starts. “They’re putting a new wing on the big house.”
Osbert fingered a seedling. “Doesn’t anything ever make you mad?”
Eden wiped his fingers on his trousers and cleared his throat.
“Forget it,” said Osbert.
He managed the rinse sheds now, and rode the family picker on their father’s days off. The cherry-red paint had flaked and rusted, and the motor needed constant adjustments.
It was Osbert who’d found Bon’s body at the top of the ravine. Their mother said he’d never forgiven himself for not seeing Eden at the bottom.
Osbert brushed his hand across the tops of the starts, ruffling them. Then he glanced at Eden and dug in his pocket. “Your eye,” he said, holding out his handkerchief.
Eden blotted the tears from his cheek.
A few days later Eden worked to the distant snarl of chainsaws. Smoke from the brush burns drifted in through the greenhouse intakes, and gave him a headache. Finally, when his eye was blurry and his hands trembled with fatigue, he put away the rooting hormone and went into the supply room to sleep.
When he woke up it was dark and quiet outside. He took out the hormone and the scissors and went back to rooting slips. Sometimes he worked all night, the walls of the greenhouse candled orange by the safety lights.
After a time he noticed something, some movement he couldn’t place. He looked up, but saw nothing. He was about to go back to his work when a shadow fell across the greenhouse wall.
Someone from the village, he told himself. But the shadow grew, until it stretched inhumanly against the greenhouse wall. Something about it was familiar. Eden stood up. He felt a sense of rising anticipation, almost excitement.
He found his lantern and went out, keeping one hand on the greenhouse wall to guide him. By the glow of the fence lamps he made out a dark figure on the path. He stopped and let it come to him.
It was thinner than he remembered, slower and more awkward. There was a hitch in its step.
It stopped at the edge of the lantern’s circle of light. The skin of its face was mottled and melted-looking, streaked with pink weals. It wore a pair of ancient black company overalls, many years out of date, ragged at the hem and sleeves. Its breathing rasped and bubbled.
There was something in its right hand. A long slender blade, like a gleaning knife.
“I know you,” Eden said. The monster hunter’s breathing paused. It came further into the light and looked at him with small wet eyes. On the breast of the overalls was printed a faint, faded corporate logo.
“You took my sister,” Eden said. “And my brother too.” As an afterthought he added, “And my face.”
In its eyes he thought he saw a flicker of recognition.
His gleaning knife was in his pocket. If he was Osbert, he thought, he’d take it out, lunge and slash. But he wasn’t Osbert. He couldn’t hold the lantern and the knife at the same time.
The monster hunter stepped forward. The knife came up between them, black in the lantern light.
“Wait,” said Eden. “Follow me.” He turned his back and started to walk.
For a moment there was silence. Eden kept his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t lose his footing. Then he heard it coming along behind him. Its steps were uneven. Its breath rasped like a saw.
He led it along the village road, then up the hill toward the big house. When he got to the spiked black fence he stopped and put the lantern down. The monster hunter stood close behind him. Its breath was hot against his neck.
Eden took his gleaning knife from his pocket. The monster hunter’s breath paused. Eden leaned over the lock and examined it, then put the tip of the knife into the keyhole. It had been a long time, and his hands were clumsy now. A couple of minutes passed in silence. Then something inside the lock clicked. Eden pushed the gate open.
The monster hunter stood staring up at the house. Eden looked too. Vaguely, he could see that the big windows were dark, and the chimneys were cold. When he looked back at the monster hunter it seemed to him that on its face was an expression of exquisite, almost painful fulfillment.
It brushed past him and started up the path to the house.
Eden put his knife back in his pocket and picked up the lantern. He closed the gate, listening for the click that told him the lock had caught. When he was sure of it he turned and started down through the darkness, making his way slowly and carefully toward the golden glow of home.
|Karen Munro’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Electric Spec, and elsewhere.|