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Authors: Terry Bisson

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Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories

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Bears Discover Fire

and Other Stories

by Terry Bisson, Inc.

Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories

by Terry Bisson

From the gentle fantasies that include the wry title story—winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards—to ecological allegories; a horrific novelette about experimental excursions into the realm of death; and a first-contact mini-epic, this collection showcases the wide range of Bisson's powerful talent. In every piece, Bisson's characters are just as absurd as their fantastic landscape, yet thoroughly ordinary, recognizable, and authentic. His pack of scientists, artists, rednecks, insurance salesmen, astronauts, truck drivers, owlish British gentlemen, and others will stay with you like your best friends and quirkiest relations.


Copyright © 1993 by Terry Bisson. All rights reserved.

Original publication: Tor Books, 1993.

Ebook edition of
Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories
copyright © 2000 by, Inc.

ePub ISBN: 978-1-59729-080-7

Kindle ISBN: 978-1-59729-070-8 and the ES design are registered trademarks of, Inc.

These stories are a work of fiction. All characters, events, organizations, and locales are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously to convey a sense of realism.

Cover art by and copyright © 2000 Heather Hudson.

Original Ebook conversion by, Inc.

For the full ElectricStory catalog, visit

Baen Ebooks electronic version by Baen Books


This ebook is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws, which provide severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized duplication of copyrighted material. Please do not make illegal copies of this book. If you obtained this book without purchasing it from an authorized retailer, please go and purchase it from a legitimate source now and delete this copy. Know that if you obtained this book from a fileshare, it was copied illegally, and if you purchased it from an online auction site, you bought it from a crook who cheated you, the author, and the publisher.


All stories are reprinted by permission of the author and the author’s agent, Susan Ann Protter.

“Bears Discover Fire”: First published in
Isaac Asimov

s Science Fiction Magazine
, August 1990, copyright © 1990 by Davis Publications.

“The Two Janets”: First published in
Isaac Asimov

s Science Fiction Magazine
, November 1990, copyright © 1990 by Davis Publications.

“They’re Made Out of Meat”: First published in
, April 1991, copyright © 1991 by Omni Publication International, Ltd.

“Over Flat Mountain”: First published in
, June 1990, copyright © 1990 by Omni Publication International, Ltd.

“Press Ann”: First published in
Isaac Asimov

s Science Fiction Magazine
, August 1991, copyright © 1991 by Davis Publications.

“The Coon Suit”: First published in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, May 1991, copyright © 1991 by Mercury Press, Inc.

“George”: First published in
, October 1993, copyright © 1993 by Terry Bisson.

“Next”: First published in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, May 1992, copyright © 1992 by Mercury Press, Inc.

“Necronauts”: First published in
, July 1993, copyright © 1993 by

“Are There Any Questions?”: First published in
# 62, August 1992, copyright © 1992 by

“Two Guys from the Future”: First published in
, August 1992, copyright © 1992 by Omni Publication International, Ltd.

“The Toxic Donut”: First published in
Science Fiction Age
, June 1993, copyright © 1993 by Terry Bisson.

“Canción Auténtica de Old Earth”: First published in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, October/November 1992, copyright © 1992 by Mercury Press, Inc.

“Partial People”: First published in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, December 1993, copyright © 1993 by Mercury Press, Inc.

“Volunteer”: First published as “Carl’s Lawn & Garden” in
, January 1992, copyright © 1992 by Omni Publication International, Ltd.

“The Message”: First published in
Isaac Asimov

s Science Fiction Magazine
, October 1993, copyright © 1993 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Magazines.

“England Underway”: First published in
, July 1993, copyright © 1993 by Omni Publication International, Ltd.

“By Permit Only”: First published in
# 73, July 1993, copyright © 1992 by

“The Shadow Knows”: First published in
Isaac Asimov

s Science Fiction Magazine
, September 1993, copyright © 1993 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Magazines.

For my children:

Nathaniel, Peter, Zoë, Kristen,

Gabriel, Welcome

Bears Discover Fire

the preacher, and my nephew, the preacher’s son, on I-65 just north of Bowling Green when we got a flat. It was Sunday night and we had been to visit Mother at the Home. We were in my car. The flat caused what you might call knowing groans since, as the old-fashioned one in my family (so they tell me), I fix my own tires, and my brother is always telling me to get radials and quit buying old tires.

But if you know how to mount and fix tires yourself, you can pick them up for almost nothing.

Since it was a left rear tire, I pulled over to the left, onto the median grass. The way my Caddy stumbled to a stop, I figured the tire was ruined. “I guess there’s no need asking if you have any of that FlatFix in the trunk,” said Wallace.

“Here, son, hold the light,” I said to Wallace Jr. He’s old enough to want to help and not old enough (yet) to think he knows it all. If I’d married and had kids, he’s the kind I’d have wanted.

An old Caddy has a big trunk that tends to fill up like a shed. Mine’s a ’56. Wallace was wearing his Sunday shirt, so he didn’t offer to help while I pulled magazines, fishing tackle, a wooden tool box, some old clothes, a comealong wrapped in a grass sack, and a tobacco sprayer out of the way, looking for my jack. The spare looked a little soft.

The light went out. “Shake it, son,” I said.

It went back on. The bumper jack was long gone, but I carry a little quarter-ton hydraulic. I found it under Mother’s old
Southern Livings
, 1978–1986. I had been meaning to drop them at the dump. If Wallace hadn’t been along, I’d have let Wallace Jr. position the jack under the axle, but I got on my knees and did it myself. There’s nothing wrong with a boy learning to change a tire. Even if you’re not going to fix and mount them, you’re still going to have to change a few in this life. The light went off again before I had the wheel off the ground. I was surprised at how dark the night was already. It was late October and beginning to get cool. “Shake it again, son,” I said.

It went back on, but it was weak. Flickery.

“With radials you just don’t
flats,” Wallace explained in that voice he uses when he’s talking to a number of people at once; in this case, Wallace Jr. and myself. “And even when you
, you just squirt them with this stuff called FlatFix and you just drive on. Three ninety-five the can.”

“Uncle Bobby can fix a tire hisself,” said Wallace Jr., out of loyalty, I presume.

self,” I said from halfway under the car. If it was up to Wallace, the boy would talk like what Mother used to call “a helot from the gorges of the mountains.” But drive on radials.

“Shake that light again,” I said. It was about gone. I spun the lugs off into the hubcap and pulled the wheel. The tire had blown out along the sidewall. “Won’t be fixing this one,” I said. Not that I cared. I have a pile as tall as a man out by the barn.

The light went out again, then came back better than ever as I was fitting the spare over the lugs. “Much better,” I said. There was a flood of dim orange flickery light. But when I turned to find the lug nuts, I was surprised to see that the flashlight the boy was holding was dead. The light was coming from two bears at the edge of the trees, holding torches. They were big, three-hundred-pounders, standing about five feet tall. Wallace Jr. and his father had seen them and were standing perfectly still. It’s best not to alarm bears.

I fished the lug nuts out of the hubcap and spun them on. I usually like to put a little oil on them, but this time I let it go. I reached under the car and let the jack down and pulled it out. I was relieved to see that the spare was high enough to drive on. I put the jack and the lug wrench and the flat into the trunk. Instead of replacing the hubcap, I put it in there too. All this time, the bears never made a move. They just held the torches, whether out of curiosity or helpfulness, there was no way of knowing. It looked like there may have been more bears behind them, in the trees.

Opening three doors at once, we got into the car and drove off. Wallace was the first to speak. “Looks like bears have discovered fire,” he said.

* * *

When we first took Mother to the Home almost four years (forty-seven months) ago, she told Wallace and me she was ready to die. “Don’t worry about me, boys,” she whispered, pulling us both down so the nurse wouldn’t hear. “I’ve drove a million miles and I’m ready to pass over to the other shore. I won’t have long to linger here.” She drove a consolidated school bus for thirty-nine years. Later, after Wallace left, she told me about her dream. A bunch of doctors were sitting around in a circle discussing her case. One said, “We’ve done all we can for her, boys, let’s let her go.” They all turned their hands up and smiled. When she didn’t die that fall she seemed disappointed, though as spring came she forgot about it, as old people will.

In addition to taking Wallace and Wallace Jr. to see Mother on Sunday nights, I go myself on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I usually find her sitting in front of the TV, even though she doesn’t watch it. The nurses keep it on all the time. They say the old folks like the flickering. It soothes them down.

“What’s this I hear about bears discovering fire?” she said on Tuesday.

“It’s true,” I told her as I combed her long white hair with the shell comb Wallace had brought her from Florida. Monday there had been a story in the Louisville
, and Tuesday one on NBC or CBS
Nightly News
. People were seeing bears all over the state, and in Virginia as well. They had quit hibernating, and were apparently planning to spend the winter in the medians of the interstates. There have always been bears in the mountains of Virginia, but not here in western Kentucky, not for almost a hundred years. The last one was killed when Mother was a girl. The theory in the
was that they were following I-65 down from the forests of Michigan and Canada, but one old man from Allen County (interviewed on nationwide TV) said that there had always been a few bears left back in the hills, and they had come out to join the others now that they had discovered fire.

“They don’t hibernate anymore,” I said. “They make a fire and keep it going all winter.”

“I declare,” Mother said. “What’ll they think of next!” The nurse came to take her tobacco away, which is the signal for bedtime.

* * *

Every October, Wallace Jr. stays with me while his parents go to camp. I realize how backward that sounds, but there it is. My brother is a Minister (House of the Righteous Way, Reformed), but he makes two thirds of his living in real estate. He and Elizabeth go to a Christian Success Retreat in South Carolina, where people from all over the country practice selling things to one another. I know what it’s like, not because they’ve ever bothered to tell me, but because I’ve seen the Revolving Equity Success Plan ads late at night on TV.

The school bus let Wallace Jr. off at my house on Wednesday, the day they left. The boy doesn’t have to pack much of a bag when he stays with me. He has his own room here. As the eldest of our family, I hung on to the old home place near Smiths Grove. It’s getting run-down, but Wallace Jr. and I don’t mind. He has his own room in Bowling Green, too, but since Wallace and Elizabeth move to a different house every three months (part of the Plan), he keeps his .22 and his comics, the stuff that’s important to a boy his age, in his room here at the home place. It’s the room his dad and I used to share.

Wallace Jr. is twelve. I found him sitting on the back porch that overlooks the interstate when I got home from work. I sell crop insurance.

After I changed clothes, I showed him how to break the bead on a tire two ways, with a hammer, and by backing a car over it. Like making sorghum, fixing tires by hand is a dying art. The boy caught on fast, though. “Tomorrow I’ll show you how to mount your tire with the hammer and a tire iron,” I said.

“What I wish is I could see the bears,” he said. He was looking across the field to I-65, where the northbound lanes cut off the corner of our field. From the house at night, sometimes the traffic sounds like a waterfall.

“Can’t see their fire in the daytime,” I said. “But wait till tonight.” That night CBS or NBC (I forget which is which) did a special on the bears, which were becoming a story of nationwide interest. They were seen in Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Illinois (southern), and, of course, Virginia. There have always been bears in Virginia. Some characters there were even talking about hunting them. A scientist said they were heading into the states where there is some snow but not too much, and where there is enough timber in the medians for firewood. He had gone in with a video camera, but his shots were just blurry figures sitting around a fire. Another scientist said the bears were attracted by the berries on a new bush that grew only in the medians of the interstates. He claimed this berry was the first new species in recent history, brought about by the mixing of seeds along the highway. He ate one on TV, making a face, and called it a “newberry.” A climatic ecologist said that the warm winters (there was no snow last winter in Nashville, and only one flurry in Louisville) had changed the bears’ hibernation cycle, and now they were able to remember things from year to year. “Bears may have discovered fire centuries ago,” he said, “but forgot it.” Another theory was that they had discovered (or remembered) fire when Yellowstone burned, several years ago.

The TV showed more guys talking about bears than it showed bears, and Wallace Jr. and I lost interest. After the supper dishes were done I took the boy out behind the house and down to our fence. Across the interstate and through the trees, we could see the light of the bears’ fire. Wallace Jr. wanted to go back to the house and get his .22 and go shoot one, and I explained why that would be wrong. “Besides,” I said, “a twenty-two wouldn’t do much more to a bear than make it mad.

“Besides,” I added, “it’s illegal to hunt in the medians.”

* * *

The only trick to mounting a tire by hand, once you have beaten or pried it onto the rim, is setting the bead. You do this by setting the tire upright, sitting on it, and bouncing it up and down between your legs while the air goes in. When the bead sets on the rim, it makes a satisfying “pop.” On Thursday, I kept Wallace Jr. home from school and showed him how to do this until he got it right. Then we climbed our fence and crossed the field to get a look at the bears.

In northern Virginia, according to
Good Morning America
, the bears were keeping their fires going all day long. Here in western Kentucky, though, it was still warm for late October and they only stayed around the fires at night. Where they went and what they did in the daytime, I don’t know. Maybe they were watching from the newberry bushes as Wallace Jr. and I climbed the government fence and crossed the northbound lanes. I carried an axe and Wallace Jr. brought his .22, not because he wanted to kill a bear but because a boy likes to carry some kind of a gun. The median was all tangled with brush and vines under the maples, oaks, and sycamores. Even though we were only a hundred yards from the house, I had never been there, and neither had anyone else that I knew of. It was like a created country. We found a path in the center and followed it down across a slow, short stream that flowed out of one grate and into another. The tracks in the gray mud were the first bear signs we saw. There was a musty, but not really unpleasant smell. In a clearing under a big hollow beech, where the fire had been, we found nothing but ashes. Logs were drawn up in a rough circle and the smell was stronger. I stirred the ashes and found enough coals to start a new flame, so I banked them back the way they had been left.

I cut a little firewood and stacked it to one side, just to be neighborly.

Maybe the bears were watching us from the bushes even then. There’s no way to know. I tasted one of the newberries and spit it out. It was so sweet it was sour, just the sort of thing you would imagine a bear would like.

* * *

That evening after supper I asked Wallace Jr. if he might want to go with me to visit Mother. I wasn’t surprised when he said yes. Kids have more consideration than folks give them credit for. We found her sitting on the concrete front porch of the Home, watching the cars go by on I-65. The nurse said she had been agitated all day. I wasn’t surprised by that, either. Every fall as the leaves change, she gets restless, maybe the word is “hopeful,” again. I brought her into the dayroom and combed her long white hair. “Nothing but bears on TV anymore,” the nurse complained, flipping the channels. Wallace Jr. picked up the remote after the nurse left, and we watched a CBS or NBC Special Report about some hunters in Virginia who had gotten their houses torched. The TV reporter interviewed a hunter and his wife whose $117,500 Shenandoah Valley home had burned. She blamed the bears. He didn’t blame the bears, but he was suing for compensation from the state since he had a valid hunting license. The state hunting commissioner came on and said that possession of a hunting license didn’t prohibit (“enjoin,” I think, was the word he used)
the hunted
from striking back. I thought that was a pretty liberal view for a state commissioner. Of course, he had a vested interest in not paying off. I’m not a hunter myself.

“Don’t bother coming on Sunday,” Mother told Wallace Jr. with a wink. “I’ve drove a million miles and I’ve got one hand on the gate.” I’m used to her saying stuff like that, especially in the fall, but I was afraid it would upset the boy. In fact, he looked worried after we left and I asked him what was wrong.

“How could she have drove a million miles?” he asked. She had told him forty-eight miles a day for thirty-nine years, and he had worked it out on his calculator to be 336,960 miles.

,” I said. “And it’s forty-eight in the morning and forty-eight in the afternoon. Plus there were the football trips. Plus, old folks exaggerate a little.” Mother was the first woman school-bus driver in the state. She did it every day and raised a family, too. Dad just farmed.

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