John had insisted that he be the one to shoot the hog. When the big animal dropped limp and flaccid, twitching in response to neurons that hadn't yet quite gotten the news of death, Sarah took the gun and handed him the knife.
Then Dieter shackled one of its legs with a chain and hoisted it up so that its snout dangled two feet above the ground. Then he held it steady while John neatly made a short cut just above the breastbone; it was a tricky move, but he did it well. Using the breastbone as a fulcrum, he sliced down toward the backbone, severing the carotid arteries.
Sarah caught the rush of blood in a bucket, still surprised at how hot it was; the salt-iron-copper smell was strong over that of the pines and cold damp earth. Of course they only slaughtered one hog a year, but still, you'd think she'd get used to it. The smell of the blood made her stomach tighten, but it was hardly the worst thing she'd smell today.
In the background the classic radio station played the 1812 Overture; it seemed somehow appropriate.
Once the beast was sufficiently drained, John put a hook into its underjaw, and it being a smallish hog, he and Dieter dragged it to the edge of the butchering platform, where a stock tank full of boiling water waited. They submerged the animal, bobbing it up and down for about five minutes to keep it from cooking, then dragged it out again, having loosened the pig's bristles sufficiently for the scrapers to work.
Sarah helped the men hoist the steaming animal onto the sturdy board table. Then they went to work with scrapers while she removed hair from its feet with her hands. The bristly texture was oddly unorganic, like a brush—come to that, pig bristles had been used for brushes, back before synthetics.
They worked silently except for the music or an occasional grunt of effort, Sarah doing the prep work while the men did the heavy lifting. Working methodically, they reduced the animal to individual cuts of meat that, for the most part, bore no resemblance to a once living animal.
She knew John felt sorry for the pigs. They were just smart enough, some of them, to know what was coming.
Which gives them something in common with him!
The silence that had grown among them worried Sarah. It had taken her a long time to really notice it. One of the first disciplines she'd imposed on herself was to become a woman of few words; it was safer that way. But in Paraguay she and John had bantered and laughed all the time; they never did that now. She and Dieter had once talked a lot, too. Now they spent their time reading or working quietly, moving in concert from long experience.
Sarah wondered if it meant that they'd run out of things to say to one another. Was Dieter bored? Was it time for them to move on? She thought about it, testing herself by imagining her life going on without him. No! Sarah knew that she still loved him. Often their eyes met, and the look in his told her that she was loved in return. But the silence remained, and, if anything, grew.
She sensed its origin in John. He'd grown so distant. It was grief, she knew, and she respected that. She just didn't know how to handle it. Sarah had raised him in the snap out of it! school of mothering because she thought that was what the circumstances demanded. But she knew from her own experience that what he was feeling now wasn't something you could just snap yourself out of. It made her feel helpless, and she hated that. Sometimes it made her so angry she just wanted to shake him. Instinctively Sarah knew that giving in to that impulse might just drive him away completely.
As she loaded the basket with cuts of meat to take to the smokehouse, she looked at him. He'd topped out at just under six feet, and though he'd filled out some, his was a wiry build. At least, it was compared to Dieter, who was as glorious a slab of muscle as any woman could desire. John was strong, though. He still lost to Dieter when they arm-wrestled, but not every time, not even most of the time.
He wore his dark hair on the longer side, the bangs still obscuring his brown eyes. The beard was the biggest difference. She didn't think she'd ever get used to that. It was a full-faced beard, but trimmed, not ZZ Top–style, thank God. She gave a mental shrug. This was Alaska. Men wore beards. There'd even been a few especially bitter days when she'd wished she could grow one herself. Someday, she supposed, she'd get used to the way he looked.
He looked up and caught her eye, raising a brow inquiringly.
"Just thinking," she said.
"The beard," she said, and walked away.
John watched her go, then went back to work.
Later he sent Dieter in for the solar shower he knew the big man lusted for. Dieter hated hog butchering, despite being raised in a little rural village in Austria, though he never complained about it.
Well, I hate it, too. Every time, I swear I'm going to turn vegetarian. But I just like meat too much!
He'd just about finished cleaning up the butchering site when his mother came toward him holding a printout.
"Listen to this," she said, and began to read.
MILITARY PUTS UNPRECEDENTED POWER IN THE HANDS OF A COMPUTER
A jolt of fear chilled his stomach for an instant. Their eyes met. He forced himself to give his mother a crooked smile.
"That's badly phrased, isn't it? Computers don't have hands."
Sarah frowned at him, then continued reading:
"'Dateline Washington, D.C.'" She cleared her throat. "'The Joint Chiefs of Staff are enthusiastically supporting a new computer program named Skynet, which was designed to control all of the nation's nuclear weapons.
"'It's highly unusual for all of the branches of the service to be in such complete agreement,'" said General Ho, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "'That alone ought to tell you what we think of this program.'
"'During a lengthy testing period, now drawing to a close, the Skynet program was reported to have outthought and outperformed humans every time.
"'This is as close to an AI [artificial intelligence] as we're likely to get for some time,' General Ho enthused. "'We are standing at the dawn of a new age of military technology. We would be foolish not to grasp this opportunity with both hands.'"
"'His comment was made, apparently, in answer to objections from some Luddite senators who had protested that placing the fate of the nation in the hands of a machine was the height of foolishness.'"
"Mom," John said, "you've made your point. No more, huh?"
Sarah let out an exasperated breath and stared at him. He looked away and went back to sweeping up hog bristles.
"John!" she said. He seemed to ignore her. Frowning, she tried again. "John, this could be it. This could be how it starts."
He stopped sweeping and stood looking off into the woods, his hands on the broomstick showing white around the knuckles.
"John?" she said.
"Show a little faith, why don't you?" he asked through his teeth. His voice was low and gruff, almost a growl.
Sarah bit her lips and tried again. "You have to admit it's a worrisome development."
"Look, Mom, I don't have to admit anything. Wendy took care of the problem. And she took care of it in a way that prevented the people who were creating Skynet from noticing that anything had been done. She wasn't trying to keep it from doing the job it was created to do, she was trying to prevent it from becoming sentient." He waved a hand, smiling and somewhat condescending. "Different things, Mom. Different things."
Sarah looked at him, watching his eyes become dark pits with gleams in their depths in the rapidly fading light. For a moment she felt as though she didn't know him.
"Can you honestly tell me this doesn't worry you?" she asked.
He looked away, then tossed his head back and sighed. "No," he said simply, and patted his stomach. He turned back to her with a grin. "I felt it right here. But, Mom, what can we do? We can watch and wait and hope, but at this point that's all we can do." His expression grew serious again. "But my money is on Wendy. I believe in her work. I wish you did, too."
Suddenly Sarah felt a hot flash of annoyance and decided that maybe they ought to clear the air about Wendy right now. "John," she began, her voice strong with anger.
"Hey, you two," Dieter said.
Both of them started at the sound of his voice. It was true that the big Austrian walked softly, but both of them thought of themselves as having superior situational awareness. In other words, they considered it very difficult to sneak up on them. And here, without even trying, they'd been taken by surprise. They had both been feeling irritable; this didn't help.
"How long have you been there?" John asked sharply.
Dieter's brows rose. "I haven't been here," he said calmly. "I have been approaching. So to answer your question, I just got here. To answer your next question, yes, I heard what you were talking about. You weren't making a secret of it that I could see."
Sarah and John glanced at each other, then away, embarrassed.
"Supper is about ready," the Austrian said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
"Oh," Sarah said. "Thanks for keeping an eye on things." It had been her turn to cook tonight.
"Not a problem," Dieter said easily. "I knew you were dis tracted." He looked at John, a brooding presence in the growing dark. "Shall we go in?"
"Naw," John said, shaking his head. He rested the broom against the table. "I feel like heading for the Klondike." He'd been finding the local bar a more comfortable place to be of late. He hopped off the platform and headed for his truck. "Don't wait up for me."
"Shouldn't you at least shower?" Sarah mumbled, folding her arms beneath her breasts.
"Good night," Dieter called. He put his arm around her shoulders. "I doubt the patrons of the Klondike will notice," he murmured.
They watched John start the pickup, back up, and drive away before they spoke again.
"Let's go eat," Dieter said.
"I think I've lost my appetite," Sarah grumbled.
"Don't be silly, an old soldier like you knows you have to eat when you can." Gently he turned her toward the house.
They walked in silence for a while; the butchering platform was some distance from the house for obvious reasons. As they walked, Sarah forced calm on herself, altering her breathing, forcing tight muscles to loosen. Dieter noticed these things but didn't comment, waiting for her to speak.
"I'm worried," she said at last. Then hissed impatiently: "No, I'm not. I'm scared." Sarah stopped and turned toward him. "I'm really scared, Dieter."
"I know," he said softly, and gathered her in his arms. "You are wise to be scared. This is a worrisome development."
"Well, that's what I said to John and he kind of went quietly ballistic. Like I was slanging Wendy's memory or something." She leaned her head on his chest and sighed. "Something could have gone wrong with the program. She was a brilliant girl, I guess, but couldn't she have made a mistake? I'm not trying to be mean here, I'm trying to think strategically. Shouldn't we be preparing for the worst, just in case?"
She gave Dieter's chest a gentle thump with her fist, then buried her face against him. When she raised her head, he thought he could see the shine of tears on her cheeks, and when she spoke, her voice was choked.
"After all," she said somewhat breathlessly, "If there's never going to be a Skynet, then there wouldn't be a John. Would there?"
Dieter pursed his lips and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. His lady tended to ask hard questions. But then, she was more than tough enough to survive the answers. "You're right," he said. "On all points."
Sarah turned and started walking toward the house, leaving him behind. "So why can't he see that?" she demanded. "Why is he taking this so personally?"
"Because he's emotionally involved," he said.
Sarah spun toward him. "He knows better than that," she snapped.
Dieter knew she wasn't angry with him, or with John really, she was just worried; still, he couldn't help but feel it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. "Knowing better and being able to act accordingly is a lot harder at his age," he reminded her. "In fact, I haven't noticed it getting much easier as I get older."
She raised one eyebrow, aware that he was commenting obliquely on her own emotional state. Then she sighed, feeling the energy draining right out of her with her breath. "So, what do we do?"
He caught up to her and dropped his heavy arm around her shoulders again, then he kissed her brow. "I think perhaps we should, very carefully, renew some of our old acquaintances. I'll head for the lower forty-eight in a couple of days. On ‘business,' which I've done often enough before that it shouldn't get his back up."
"Lately his back is always up," Sarah muttered.
Dieter kissed her brow again, a great smacking kiss. "Come on, woman, I'm hungry."
She smiled up at him and shook her head. "Men!"
Copyright © 2002-2003 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>