by A.L. Sirois
Camille Burris was sliding the bread pans into the oven when two sharp raps sounded at the front door.
After checking to make sure the biobricks were burning evenly she grabbed her mask from its hook and pulled it down over her face. She was saving up for a silk one, but for now this one of closely woven lace hid her features well enough. No one could tell whether—or how badly—she was scarred by the disease. Another knock at the door. She paused, adjusting the mask. “Who’s there?” she called, smoothing it over her face.
“Dominion Authority,” said a gruff voice. She stiffened, stabbed by a bolt of cold fear. Had the DA found out what she and Father were doing? But how could they? He only brought his books out at night when no one was around to see. Were anyone ever to discover that she could read and write—
“Hey, Cammy—I’m joking. It’s only me.” The voice lost its gruffness and her breath burst out in a gasp of relief.
“Jeremy!” She threw open the door. There stood Jeremy Sloam, tall and handsome in his black uniform, his dark hair stirred by the breeze. His brilliant smile was his best feature. “What a nice surprise!” Another Authority officer loitered by the motorcycles sitting on kickstands in the Burris’ dusty front yard.
“I was hopin’ you’d be home.” He took off his helmet and wiped his forehead. The smile vanished like a candle flame snuffled out.
“I didn’t hear you pull up.” Her attention flicked to the sleek two-wheelers and back to Jeremy. “Those are the new electric motorcycles Dad told me about, aren’t they?”
Jeremy nodded. “That’s kind of why I’m here. David… he’s out with the tractor, I guess?”
“Dad? Sure. There’s a lot of plowing to do before—”
“I came to give him this.” He took an official-looking envelope out of his uniform pocket. “It, uh, it permits the Authority to requisition your tractor.”
She could only stare in astonishment at him.
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. His tall leather boots creaked. He smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I dunno if you saw it on TV; gasoline engines are now officially reserved only for government use; and higher-level government than local Dominion Authority cops.” He shrugged. “Even we can only use electric vehicles now.”
“I’m sorry, Cammy. It’s called ‘eminent domain.’” He reached into another pocket. “I have a check for you, too. It’ll buy a couple horses.”
“But Dad’s old; he can’t be plowing with a team of horses, Jeremy!”
“Look, I really am awfully sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
She knew he couldn’t see her features through her mask, but she kept her face composed anyway. They had known each other since they were children, so his mental picture of her stopped at six years of age, before she’d donned her mask like all the other girls. The Gender Specific Syndrome pathogen only attacked females six years of age or older, ravaging their faces. Now all girls and women over six wore a mask: victims to hide their appearance, non-victims in mutual support.
She held out her hand. “Let me see that order, Jeremy.” As the words left her mouth she realized her mistake. His eyes narrowed. A chill passed through her but she kept her hand out, and steady. “I… just want to be the one to give it to Dad.”
He handed the papers over, slowly, then sniffed the air. “Baking bread, huh?”
“It’s Tuesday. Baking day.” She would have sagged with relief had she dared. He hadn’t noticed her gaffe.
“Guess that’s why you’re sweating? From the heat?”
She nodded. “Listen, would you and your, uh, partner, like some lemonade?”
“Sure, that’d be okay. We have to be on our way pretty quick, though; got more of these orders to deliver.”
She poured glasses of lemonade for them. The other officer, a slender man with a narrow face that was mostly hidden by his helmet and dark visor, drank his right down. There was something familiar about him, but before Cammy could place him, Jeremy spoke. Rotating the cold glass Camille gave him slowly in his hands, he said, “There’s a revival church comin’ to town this week.” He looked down at the glass. “Gonna set down right where that nightclub was some weeks back? At the Cox’s place?” He looked up at her.
The other agent seemed to take this as his cue to give them some privacy. He handed the glass to her, said “Ma’am,” and walked away toward the motorcycles.
Jeremy said, “I thought maybe you might like to go to Sunday service with me.”
Jeremy had been courting her for several months now, but although she liked him fine as a friend, she felt nothing romantic for him. The courtship proceeded because it wasn’t wise to brush off Dominion Authority officers. Not even those who’d been childhood friends.
But now he looked so boyish and shy that she could be genuinely warm as she said, “Of course I do. I’ve never been in one of those flying buildings before. It sounds exciting! What time?” He seemed to have forgotten about her slip of the tongue. The danger in the look he’d shot her must have been her imagination.
“Oh, eight o’clock, the usual.” He looked at her, a full-on gaze. Had he caught her mistake after all? The chill returned to her spine. “There’s something else,” he said softly.
“And w-what might that be?”
He leaned closer. “David’s getting on, like you said. Soon this place’ll be yours, and that’s a lot of work for a woman. Particularly with the plowing and all? So I was hoping you and I, we might agree to work it together. So, do you know what I mean, Cammy?” He reached out and tapped the folded order in her hand.
She nodded. She had a momentary glimpse of him naked in bed, then wiping sweat from his brow while plowing. There could be children. He certainly couldn’t be called bad looking. That she knew of, he wasn’t cruel. He was a man with what was called career potential. Perhaps, someday, power. Love? She wasn’t sure what that meant. Perhaps it didn’t matter. “I understand, Jeremy. We can… talk on Sunday.” She tilted her head in the smile gesture adopted by mask-wearing females.
His own wonderful smile spread across his face. “I was hoping you’d say that. I really was.” He snugged his helmet back on his head. Its visor masked his eyes. “I’ll pick you up at seven forty-five, then.”
She nodded, unable to speak.
* * *
After he and the other DA enforcer left, she waited for a few minutes before hurrying off to find her father. As she had feared, the news almost unmanned David. He scanned the notice, his face going pale. “They can’t do this!”
“Apparently they can,” she said, staring away from out over the plowed acreage. The farm had been her home all her life. She’d never even been to Philadelphia, only thirty miles distant. Not that there was anything to see there aside from ruins. “What are we going to do?” she asked the farm, her father, herself.
“This gives us a voucher for a couple of horses.” He lifted his eyes at her over the paper without raising his head. “Thoughtful of them, eh?”
“Dad, with your heart you can’t—”
“I know, honey; I know.” David sighed. “I could hire a hand, though.”
She scoffed. “And where’s the money to do that?”
“God will provide. He always does.”
Cammy had her doubts about that, but she kept them to herself. David didn’t like hearing anything he called ‘nervy.’ With a sigh, she turned toward the house as her father climbed back aboard the tractor.
Scuffing her feet in the thick loamy soil, hearing the tractor chugging behind her, she felt the walls of an inescapable future closing in. The way out of this dilemma was clear: she would have to marry Jeremy.
That she didn’t love him wasn’t much of a sticking point. Most other women did not love their men. They whispered about it during church meetings and other social occasions. Only one or two of her friends seemed to genuinely be in love. Cammy didn’t know what “being in love” felt like. The last time a male had made her heart flutter was Anthony Whitworth, back when she was ten. At Christmas parties or church dances, she always hoped that he’d ask her to dance, though he never did. But that was just puppy love, as her father had explained, smiling, and sure enough, she’d grown out of it by the time she turned fourteen.
In those days Jeremy Sloam had been a stick, really, with pimples. She had always liked him, found him funny, but had never considered him as a potential husband. Now, the choice seemed to have been made for her.
Is it God’s will? Or is it just damn bad luck? Even the unvoiced blasphemy made her cringe a little. I’m such a little sparrow! Just afraid of everything.
With Jeremy, she wouldn’t have to be afraid. The wonderful smell of the bread she’d baked swirled around her as she entered the kitchen. It was such a cozy, comfortable room, in a warm house. She didn’t want to have to leave it, ever.
She sat at the table drinking a cup of tea, wondering how Jeremy would be able to work the farm and keep his job as a DA agent. Farming was a full-time job, as she had reason to know.
* * *
The visiting church had the same general configuration as most of the “itinerate” flying buildings: two-and-a-half level affairs about as big as a double-wide trailer, eighteen meters by nine. Cammy, who had never been inside one, noted the details with interest. The main part of the body could be partitioned off or, as for today’s church service, used as one large room.
“I don’t understand how it flies,” she said as she accompanied Jeremy to a couple of folding chairs. She wore her Sunday best; a long dress and white gloves, with black leather shoes.
Thanks to some of the lessons given her by her father, however, she did in truth understand the principles behind the church’s operation; but she enjoyed playing into Jeremy’s interest in machines—he always became more affable and expansive when talking about them. And, of course, it made sense to appear ignorant, to sound like a typical Bucks County farm girl.
“The engines are in the lower level,” he said, “with computers and fuel tanks. Up above us is a half-level with a crawlspace for storage and a navigation bubble.” His admiration for the thing’s design seemed genuine. “Add fold-away solar cells, two pairs of outboard turbines and landing gear, and there you are. It doesn’t fly high or fast, but that’s not the point.”
She nodded, wide-eyed, amused all the while.
What would he say if he knew the extent of her education?
At that thought her amusement faded away. He’d be outraged; any man would, but especially a Dominion Authority agent.
She didn’t follow the service particularly closely, though she kept a fascinated posture. It was hard to see the preacher through her veil, and anyway it was more of the same obedience and thankfulness and humility thing she’d been hearing for years, since her childhood. People nodded and said “Amen!” every so often, and she did the same. She sang the hymns, which she knew by memory, and prayed the prayers.
After the service she stood chatting with several of the other young women, all veiled as she was, all the type she privately thought of as “silly fillies.” They were her friends and had been since childhood, but the banality of their conversation was such that she could barely keep her attention on it. She would rather have gone crawling into the showboat’s innards to see how it worked.
What will become of me? How can I possibly endure fifty or sixty more years of this life?
She stood listening to the sillies, occasionally dropping in a remark about baking or laundering, while keeping her eyes on the men as best she could through the eye slits in her veil, happy that no one could read her depression on her face.
Jeremy was a commanding presence among them, taller than most and charismatic. Her brow furrowed as she considered him as a husband.
Suitable or not; congenial, kind, strong or not; there seemed no other way out of the strictures of her life. While her father lived, she would have a safe place in his home. But his death would bring change. She could not tell if she feared that more than she longed for it.
* * *
Change came that very night. She sat in the barn with David, going over some basics of astronomy. A small kerosene lantern sat on a crate, its light casting a warm glow. She had not been aware that the Earth circled the sun, nor that Earth had brother and sister worlds, nor that machines from Earth had visited all the worlds during the previous two centuries.
“It’s knowledge that no one under Dominion rule is meant to have,” David said with a sigh as they leafed through the old astronomy text book. “It’s the reason we have to keep books like this one hidden and pass them around in secret.”
“Is this how you learned?” Cammy asked.
“Yes, more or less. There were still schools back when I was a boy, though they were subject to increasingly restrictive government rules. The result is what we have today; circuit tutors for boys, and nothing at all for girls except what their mothers teach about cooking and sewing. And you must know the Bible.”
She opened her mouth to speak when the doors banged open, and Jeremy Sloam stalked in, dressed in full DA regalia. His pistol was pointed at David.
“Aw, Cammy,” he said in a tone of regret. “You’ve really put me in a bad position.”
“Wh-what do you mean” she whispered.
“The other day when I gave you the eminent domain order. What you said… you wanted to see it. As if you could read it. It got me thinking, Cammy. It really did. So I’ve been watching you ever since, coming out here at night to see what you and your father, here, were up to. And now I know.”
He turned to David. “You’ve taught her to read.”
David was impenitent. “And write, Jeremy, if you want to know. And ride a bicycle, drive the tractor… as many things as I could.”
“That’s all against the law,” Jeremy barked. “God’s law as well as the law of the land! And you know that. But you know all about breaking the law, don’t you?”
Taken aback at the venom in his voice, Cammy looked back and forth between the two men. “Dad? What’s he talking about?”
David only looked at her, his face growing red.
“I’ll tell you what I’m talking about,” Jeremy said. He yanked his helmet off his head. His blonde hair was disheveled but he made no attempt to smooth it. “Your father had an affair with my mother. You and I, we were just little kids. It was because of him that she got branded an adulterer and was banished. It killed her—she committed suicide a few months later.” He snorted. “Nothing ever happened to him, of course. It was all swept under the rug.”
“Dad? Is this true?”
David hung his head, and nodded. “I’m sorry, baby, but it is.” He looked up at Jeremy. “And I’ve never had a day of peace in my heart about it. I guess that’s one reason why I tried so hard to get Cammy to be different from the other girls. What happened to Ingrid, your mother, shouldn’t ever happen to anyone.”
“Well, you’re right about that, at least—but not to the extent of making Cammy, here, complicit in your heresy.”
“What are you going to do?” Cammy asked in a soft voice.
“I don’t know! I want you for my wife, but your father—” He couldn’t continue.
Cammy realized: He’s scared. She said, “If things like that shouldn’t happen to women, why are you threatening us when my dad teaches me to be better informed?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that easy. You put me into this position, Cammy. I can’t turn you in because I love you, and he’s your father; and I can’t let you go because of the law.”
“You got yourself into this,” David said. “If you hadn’t come to spy on us, you wouldn’t have known.”
“I had to! My conscience wouldn’t not let me do it,” Jeremy said. “Some of us have one, you know. You already made your choice, David, when you chose to educate her. But you both knew it was wrong; and now I have to decide whether to turn you in to the authorities.”
“I have been selfish,” David said to his daughter. “I have tried to raise you up to ease my guilt about Ingrid.”
“Then pray to God for forgiveness,” Jeremy said roughly. “Because you’ll find none here.” He raised his gun. “I’m sorry, David. I really am, but—”
The sound of the gunshot all but deafened Cammy, and she cried out in fright. Jeremy slowly collapsed, blood flooding from an exit wound in his back. She stared at David, unable to take in what had happened, and he stared back, jaw open.
A second DA agent stepped in through the open door, his gun was trained on the fallen agent. Jeremy never moved.
“Are you folks okay?” the newcomer asked, his voice muffled by his helmet and visor.
Cammy and David could not speak. The agent took off his helmet.
“You,” said Cammy. “Aren’t you Jeremy’s—his…”
“Partner?” The man grinned. “I am.”
Cammy knew him then. “Andrew? Andrew Whitworth?”
Andrew nodded. He spurned Jeremy with a foot. “I always hated this bastard,” he said. “Friggin’ bully.” He sighed. “There have been financial irregularities in the Authority’s books, you know? I traced them to him. Turns out, he’s been skimming money off land permits to sideshows like the church, and that nightclub. I thought, when he started coming here to watch you at night, that you were in on it.” He shrugged. “It was something else.”
David started to speak, but Andrew held up a gloved hand. “I don’t care, David, really. Not all of us agree with the law. And I’ll prove it. Can you ride that bike of his? The motorcycle?”
“I think so,” said David. Then, more firmly, “Yes.”
“I’ll give you a quick lesson on it. You and Cammy, you’re going to have to leave. I was never here, right? I’ll disable his bike’s video recorder and tracking system.”
Cammy shook her head, but her father seemed to know what Andrew was talking about.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. But then what?”
“Ontario,” said Andrew. “It’s maybe four hundred and seventy-five miles. You could make it from here in seven, eight hours. Up 476; you can cross near Niagara Falls. Women are free in Canada, Cammy, masks notwithstanding. Dominion Authority has no jurisdiction there.” He grinned wryly. “Yet.”
David nodded. “I know the route. Used to go fishing up there sometimes with my dad.”
“Go tonight,” Andrew urged. “Or tomorrow just after dark. I wouldn’t wait any longer or else someone may come out here looking for him.”
“We’ll go tonight,” said David. “Hide during the day, we can make it easy in two days.
“What about you?” Cammy stepped up to him and laid a hand on his arm.
“I’ll stay, smooth over what I can… and maybe join you. Later.” He paused, looking at Cammy. “If… you’re interested.”
She nodded. “I always wanted you to ask me to dance, when we were kids, but you never did.”
“I was too shy. But you know, I have always had you somewhere in my heart. And then this piece of… well,
“We might need help crossing the border,” David said, as though to himself.
“I’ll give you a name,” said Andrew. The men shook hands.
“Thank you,” David said.
“I’m just doing the right thing.” He looked down at Jeremy’s body. “I’ll take care of this. You two get going.”
“I’ll go pack some things,” said David, and hurried toward the house.
Cammy found herself in the sheltering circle of Andrew’s arms.
“I always had a crush on you,” he said.
“Bu-but I had one on you!” Her smile slipped away. “I’m… kind of afraid, I have to admit,” she said.
“To leave here? I would be, too. But your dad’s smart. He’ll get you there. I’ll be along soon. Then we’ll see what we’ll see.”
She lifted her veil.
He drew back with a small gasp. A woman showed her unmasked face only to her husband. “You’re beautiful.”
She smiled. “No scars, at least,” she said. “GSS never got me. And one more thing…”
“We’ll have to take up dancing.”
He stared at her in perplexity for a moment, then smiled. “The sooner the better.”
He kissed her slowly, sweetly.
A.L. Sirois is a writer, developmental editor, graphic artist and a performing musician. He has had fiction published in Isaac Asimov‘s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantastic, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, among other publications. His story In the Conservatory was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a children’s book, Dinosaur Dress Up (Tambourine Press / William Morrow). His graphic novel, THE ENDLESS INCIDENT, based on a video game, was published in February, 2016. Al has been playing drums for over fifty years in rock and jazz combos. As an artist, he has hundreds of drawings, paintings and illustrations to his credit. Al has contributed comic art for DC, Marvel, and Charlton, and has scripted for Warren Publications. He wrote and drew “Bugs in the System” for witzend #12, the famous comics fanzine started by MAD artist Wally Wood. He lives in Rockingham County, North Carolina with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus. Together they are writing a Young Adult novel set in ancient Egypt. Al is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/