Read Eating Memories Online

Authors: Patricia Anthony

Eating Memories

BOOK: Eating Memories
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EDITING IS ABOUT DISCOVERY.

Like explorers hacking their way through the jungle with a machete, editors cut and slash through piles of paper obstructions cluttering their journey toward a good story
.

The only problem is that explorers have it better chance of finding something good at the end of their journey than an editor does.

Most of the time, all an editor finds are unending paper trails, swamps of expository prose, mountains of simplistic plots, mazes of bad similes and metaphors, and a population explosion of hapless characters,

Explorers, on the other hand, can pluck ripe fruit from overhead branches to sate their hunger. They can cool off in a river. They might stumble upon a cache of ivory, or trip over a diamond, or fall upon a vein of gold.

The only equivalent for an editor is the discovery of a good writer.

But even that is a falsehood, because editors don’t really “discover” good writers. The writers do that. All an editor does is see the obvious.

And it was obvious from her first submission to
Aboriginal Science Fiction
that Patricia Anthony was that rough diamond, that vein of gold—a true writer.

Unlike the stories of many wannabe writers who deluge editors with manuscripts, which never vary except by way of a change of title, Pat’s work kept improving. She wasn’t content to write another story just like the last one (because it sold).

Instead, she worked on her craft. She took risks, she learned to convey the same thing in a short story that other writers needed the length of a novel to say. And most important of all, she learned to be her own best and worst critic.

That’s important, because the most important tool a writer possesses is a red pencil (or the delete key on a computer). It’s used to cut away the jungle of extra words to find a story’s true path.

Pat’s characters are real, and alive, They are cut from the dry plains of Texas, the teeming cities of Brazil, the heartland of America.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a “new” plot. Shakespeare knew that, and stole from the best.

But it was what Shakespeare
did
with those old plots that made him great.

And it is what Pat does with her stories that makes her one of the great new writers in the field,

There are no simple engineering solutions to complex problems.

There are no magic fixes.

If all you like are happy endings, read no further, because you don’t want to read literature, you want cotton candy.

You won’t get a sweet tooth reading Pat’s stories, but you will be touched. You will have your heart and mind opened. You will want to read more.

Each of her stories, whether it explores a temporary mini-universe or voyages to Jupiter’s moon Io, reaches through the white noise of life to pierce the human heart.

What more can you ask of any writer?

Author’s Note:
I had been trying for six years to sell a novel and for about six furious months to sell a short story. Then, suddenly (as we say in the novice writer’s game), I received a new magazine in the mail

a science fiction magazine! Immediately I sent off “Blood Brothers” with an SASE, and

guess what?

I got a reply back (sent in my SASE and with my story enclosed) but the editor (Charlie Ryan) would publish my story if I’d just answer a few questions about the science! And guess what, Charlie? I was right but I was wrong, too! And so finally I was able to change DNA (in the original) to RNA, because viruses are too small for DNA, I was later told by a virologist friend. Even with that, though, the story’s premise is pretty darned far-fetched. And I must say that I’m delighted to have been off base historically again

that once upon a time single-celled life probably did exist on Mars. Is it cheesy to say now that I kinda always figured it had?

I don’t know whether I’ll ever like rain again. When I was a kid I loved it, Even living in Washington State I loved it. And we got a lot of rain there. We had a window seat at home in a cranny on the second floor. From fifth grade until I got too sophisticated for that kind of stuff, sometime around my senior year in high school, I’d crawl into that cranny and read novels about Mars while the soft rain padded up to the window, nuzzled my shoulder and curled beside me to sleep.

Here in my room I’ve got a pictograph of a forest in the Pacific Northwest. In it the sun’s shining. On the other wall is a window that looks out over red flats splattered with lichens. To the east Olympus Mons rises from its gray shroud. I can sometimes track the blocks of ice as they make their incandescent way down the close, dark sky.

I know it was cold here to begin with, but sometimes I imagine the ice makes it colder. I imagine it carries baggage between the mass driver on Europa and here: suitcases full of chill, valises empty with solitude.

The loneliness drives you crazy after a while. That, and the never-ending torrents of rain. Out in the flats in the ATV’s with their bare half-inch of insulation, you go deaf. You start shouting at your driver and he starts shouting at you just to make yourselves heard, When you start to blame each other because the food’s cold or because your underwear’s damp or because the splintered Martian rocks are so ungodly barren, it’s time to come in.

I slogged through the compound, my boots making obscene sucking noises, an accompaniment to the timpani of the monsoon. Rain played frantic Impressionist Rock and Roll on my helmet. The door slid open as I approached and then slid shut behind me. In the deafening silence of the building I took my helmet off.

“Cap’n Henson, sir,” the guard said, bringing up a hand in a salute. His voice sounded strange. It took me a minute to realize it was because he wasn’t shouting.

I cleared my throat, “Harrison,” I answered with a disoriented smile. It always took me an hour or so to unwind from outside.

“Sir, the doctor wanted to see you as soon as you came in. Should I tell her you’re on your way?”

“I’ll see her later,” I told him as I ambled down the hall toward the cafeteria. But the doctor must have been waiting. Halfway down the corridor she stepped out of the lab and into my way.

“Greg,” she said. “You look tired.” Her brown eyes scrutinized me in a way that would have been flattering had it come a younger, less perceptive woman. “You feeling okay?”

“Sure.”

Helen’s question was standard. My answer was, too. She’d been querying me after I came in from outside ever since Marvin Torres had committed suicide. He hadn’t coped well with the solitude. Helen suspected I didn’t, either. Her childhood had prepared her for Mars in a way I could never understand.

Helen came from Arizona and still wore the mark of the desert on her face. It was hard, arid, knifed through with arroyos of worry. Nothing soft dwelled there.

I’m the opposite. My cheeks are round, all the bone hidden by flesh. A baby face at forty-seven years old. Sometimes I wonder how my men can accept my orders.

“Flu’s going around. I don’t want you to get it.”

What she said took me a heartbeat to understand. Then I think my heartbeat paused. “What?” I asked. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘The flu’s going around . . .’”

My expression must have given some indication of the lump in my gut because her words ground to a halt.

Abruptly I was aware of the warm light in the hall, the cold drip of water from the damp hair at the back of my neck, the exact rhythm of her breathing as it lifted the lapel of her uniform.
That’s funny,
I thought.
How she can be breathing when I’m not?

“Who has it?” I finally asked.

“Lieutenant Thomas.”

“He the only one?”

“So far, but . . .”

“Where is he?” I interrupted.

“In sickbay.”

“You got him quarantined?”

“With flu?” she asked,

I hurried past her. “It’s not the flu.”

Roger Thomas was sitting up in bed reading a
Playboy
and drinking a Coke. By the time I got there, I was breathing hard, as much from the thin atmosphere as from terror.

“Hi, Cap’n,” he said agreeably. He didn’t look very sick. “How was the trip?”

“Still raining out.”

He laughed.

“Howya feeling?”

Roger shrugged his broad shoulders. His mahogany face looked chagrined. “Just a little puky, sir. A touch of fever. Other than that, I’m fine.”

“You take it easy, Lieutenant,” Helen said at my right side. She’d moved so silently and so close that she startled me. Grabbing my arm, she led me away.

“How long has he been sick?” I asked when the door shut behind us.

“He came in complaining of a sore throat yesterday.”

“Isolate him.’

“You sure?”

“Damn it! Isolate him!” I shouted. My eyes were wide. Spittle flew.

Helen recoiled. “Okay. All right. So what do we tell him when the plexiglass comes down?”

“Tell him we just don’t want it going around the base. Tell him I hate having roll call in sickbay. Tell him we don’t have enough bathrooms to go around.”

Feeling silly at my overreaction, I walked into the lab and stared out at the dark, dead lava flows in the east. They were just visible through the gray gauze of the downpour.

“Could it be anything else?” I asked, knowing Helen had stopped behind me, I realized she was staring at my back. We’d known each other for three years, in the way jail inmates must know each other. I figured she was wondering if I’d finally cracked.

“Like what?”

“Like another type of virus. Other bugs have a longer incubation period, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but I’ve ruled those out. It’s ordinary, everyday stomach flu. The kind that keeps you near the toilet for three days until it finally lets go. That kind of flu.”

“That’s impossible,” I told her without turning around. “The ships are sterilized, No one’s been sick here. Not ever. And the shortest time anyone’s been here is nine months.”

“So it’s a glitch,”

“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s the thing I’ve always been afraid of.”

“So where do
you
think it came from?”

“It’s a present. From Mars.”

After a few moments, I made my way out of the lab, leaving Helen probably wondering which would be worse: man-killing Martian virus or my losing my mind.

Roger’s fever climbed to one hundred and three, He couldn’t keep liquids down. I spent a lot of time down in sickbay, just waiting for Roger to die. The kid would look at me through the Plexiglass screen, his chocolate face miserable. Roger wasn’t stupid. He’d figured it out; he’d known it the moment the isolation screen had lowered.

“It’s the flu,” Helen told me. “I’m sure of it. I’ve isolated the virus and that’s what it looks like. There’s no foreign RNA in there at all.”

I shook my head and risked a glance at myself in the reflective surface of the plexiglass. The skin under my round blue eyes was bruised. I looked exhausted. I also looked scared.

“Look,” she said reasonably. “Where did it come from if it didn’t come from us? The flu virus needs a host.”

“Well, its got one now,” I told her as I focused beyond my spectral image to Roger.

“Greg, let me give you a crash course in medicine, okay? This type of virus needs a host. It doesn’t live that long outside. Probably a few hours. A day at the most. Now that’s just for a start. The host needs to be similar enough to us for the virus to take root and grow. That’s why we don’t give the flu to our cats. Or pick up distemper from them.”

“Excuse me,” I said somewhat huffily. A pet peeve of mine is doctors who make their patients feel stupid. “Aren’t you forgetting zoonosis? You’re ignoring sort of major stuff like rabies, encephalitis and anthrax.”

“Not spread by droplet,” she replied, finally deciding to treat me like a well-read adult.

I didn’t bother to reply. I could see Helen’s face beside mine in the screen. She seemed pale.

“But the RNA’s still like ours,” she said. “Nothing alien there.”

“Who knows what alien RNA would look like? Would you.”

She tried again. “All right. Granted. But viruses don’t live in rocks. Even if there were Martians who were chemical carbon copies of us . . . even if they maybe died of the infection. . . when they died, the virus would, too.”

“It’s cold out there, Helen,” I said

“Yeah. It’s cold. It’s wet and ugly as a son-of-a-bitch. So what?”

“What if the organism were cryptobiotic? What if it were just freeze-dried? We’ve raised the temperature. We’ve added water. Maybe we just woke it up.”

I could see the transparent reflection of her face go somber. “So, maybe you’re right. Maybe this flu bug is cryptobiotic and woke up from the higher temperatures and the rain. But it’s our bug, Greg. It’s a human bug. Why is it so necessary for you to believe in aliens, anyway?”

“It’s a lonely planet, Helen.” Close to my shoulder I imagined I could feel the skeletal fingers of Mars. “Sort of a lonely universe.”

“You’re an incurable romantic,” she told me. Her voice seemed both guarded and sad.

Yes,
I thought.
I am.
I’d come to Mars, a suitor, and had been rejected by the blank red mud, the expressionless dark rocks. We’d added water. We’d added lichens. But we hadn’t given Mars our complexities. We hadn’t really given it life. Helen, a child of the desert, fretted about me.

Roger wasn’t reading anymore. He was coughing a lot. At the end of one coughing fit, he vomited. A nurse, standing on the other side of the screen, inserted her hands into the flexible gloves and cleaned him up. Roger grabbed her plastic-coated fingers and held them.

He was crying, so I looked away. It was the stereotypical masculine reaction towards emotional scenes. Roger embarrassed me. If I had the guts I would have asked if he were crying because he was hurting or because he was afraid to die—of because he was scared to die alone

Roger didn’t have to worry about loneliness. The next day three other MTF personnel came down with it. I gave the order to close the base.

In the next several hours four more people came down with it. The morning after that Roger’s fever broke, He got hungry. Nobody died. Nobody felt particularly good, either,

“Told you it was the flu,” Helen said. “You might as well take them out of isolation.

“No,” I told her. “Not until we know where it came from.”

“We may never know that.” Helen leaned back from her terminal, propping her feet on her desk. “What do the soil samples show? I know you’re gathering some.”

“Nothing.”

“Sterile dirt?”

“Sterile dirt.” I got up from the chair and eased the stiffness out of my spine.

“Where’re your Martians, Henson?” Helen asked just before I left the room.

I thought about it. “They’re out there.”

“You just want to believe in them,” she said.

I thought about that, too. “Yes,” I told her. “I do.”

* * *

When I got back to my quarters, the red light on my terminal was blinking. I logged on and brought the message up: MTV/GPE BLUE/73.15N/18.24W/13:01:49/MSG BASE CMDR CAPT GREGORY HENSON/CONFIDENTIAL **SOMETHING HERE YOU NEED TO SEE**/END MSG.

13:01. It had been sent over two hours ago. I hit the MSG key and indexed GPE BLUE. When the message header came up, I typed: TED, ORDERS WERE FOR YOU TO RETURN. SINCE YOU ARE STILL OUT IN THE FIELD, SUGGEST NOW YOU HEAD FOR NEXT AVAILABLE BASE, IF POSSIBLE. WE’RE UNDER QUARANTINE HERE WITH WHAT APPEARS TO BE THE FLU. IF YOU OR YOUR DRIVER ARE EXPERIENCING ANY, REPEAT, ANY MEDICAL PROBLEMS, ESSENTIAL YOU RETURN FOR MEDICAL EXAMINATION.

A few seconds after I hit the EXECUTE key, another message came up. MFT/GPE BLUE/73.15N/18.24W/15:36:39/ MSG BASE CMDR CAPT GREGORY HENSON/CONFIDENTIAL/**CAPTAIN, RECEIVED ORDERS, BUT I THINK YOU NEED TO SEE THIS. I THINK YOU NEED TO SEE THIS NOW. THERE IS NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT ON YOUR AGENDA**/END MSG.

MTF/BASE CMDR CAPT GREGORY HENSON/OLYMPUS BASE/15:37:20/MSG GPE BLUE/**SUGGEST YOU HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR NOT OBEYING FIRST ORDER TO RETURN. SUGGEST YOU ALSO HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR DRAGGING ME OUT IN THE FIELD**/END MSG.

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