The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 3
Hope and Fear

Bos Tercos slapped the mosquito, with a combination of annoyance and alarm. They weren’t supposed to bite. Not here. Human blood should have been too foreign for their tastes, the smell unappealing. When had they learned to bite?
The lean, weathered man picked up the crushed insect by the wing, and studied it the best he could in the leaf-dappled light. Not really a mosquito, not actually related at all in even the most remote way, but everyone called them mosquitos anyway, the closest equivalent that this new Earth grew. He carried it over to the lab and left it on a tray of specimens. Even if crushed past structural analysis, they could study the DNA, see if the insects had already mutated enough to adapt to this new food source. Maybe these local bugs could just feel cranky and in the mood for biting.
He scratched at the growing welt, not without a shudder. What pathogens might also adapt, faster than they could, themselves? “Oh, it will be a tropical paradise!” his sister had cooed. “Why, the insects don’t even bite us–the children will love it.”
Looking out the window, he had to admit that at least he enjoyed the view: lush jungle of a deep blue-green tumbled down the sides of competing peaks, with their school established in the valley in between. He could not see it from here, but the valley descended all the way to the most pristine beach that he had ever set foot upon. Well, of course, pristine–no one had yet arrived to litter it. Interwoven with the curling vines he saw tropical blossoms, some so huge that a baby could nestle inside one, some in drooping clusters of tiny blossoms smaller than a fingernail, and everything in between. The open window carried an incredible mingled fragrance, in an oxygen-rich atmosphere like Earth might once have boasted in the days of Eden. (Still, he’d have to put screen upon those windows, when he found the time.) Mists added humid depth to the view, slopes behind slopes and trees beyond trees in ever-softening layers of imagery, till all faded back to silver. It all looked lovely, except that the heat melded with humidity uncomfortably, and Bos had never liked to sweat if he could dodge it; he’d done enough of that to last a lifetime.
“Tropical paradise!” Bos snorted, as he typed a memo to double check the inoculations, make damn sure that every child got their shots before setting foot on New Earth, before so much as taking one deep breath. At least for every possible communicable disease that his labs had isolated so far. Finding a close enough parallel that humankind could gain nourishment from its lifeforms meant that its lifeforms could also gain nourishment from humankind.
But Consuelo just had to call it a paradise, didn’t she? In naming them, Mama gave her that job from birth, to look at the more hopeful side of things, and oh how Connie had tried to live up to it, at least before the first breakdown.
“What did you expect, Ma?” Bos asked the air. “For Consuelo to always carry the burden of optimism no matter what, and for little Fobos to always cower in her protection?” He picked up a paperweight, gripping it so hard that it hurt his fingers, but stopped himself in time from throwing it out the window.
He studied the paperweight for a moment, the scratched old heirloom. A starfish, forever cast in resin in its protected little globe, nestled among tiny shells on a field of sand, looking as if alive. He wondered if, somewhere, living starfish might yet dwell on Earth, hidden in some protected cove?
He set it down too hard, with a faint growl. Protected cove! No protection remained on Earth, not anywhere.
“I became the braver twin, Ma–the more practical one. How do you like that?” The one who took the world as it came (or worlds, now) and calculated even the hardest facts into the larger picture. The strong one who took care of his sister, nursed her back to health, safe from the pharmaceutical conglomerates that leaped at any chance to create another legal addict for their enrichment: the brother who made feasible her dream to establish a safe place for all the gifted children of the world. Well, at least from the Americas, to start.
Now she just had to get cold feet. Typical.
“You need me,” Consuelo said, standing in the door. “You need me as much as I need you, Bos.”
He swiveled his seat around, smiling. “Reading my mind again, Sib?”
“Maybe.” She came in and propped one slim hip against his desk. They had kept this running joke between them, that twins read each other’s minds. Yet it seemed these days almost as if she really could. “You don’t understand my change of heart–it’s all over your face. You blame it on my moodswings. You always do. I don’t need psychic powers to figure that out. But you need me, and you know it.”
He leaned back in his chair, dark locks brushing the screen behind him. “Ah, my most annoying muse! Source of all of this inspiration,” he said waving his hand about him, “And now you want it all shut down!”
She turned more thoughtful. “No, not really–it’s too late for that. Not with the warrants out, now...”
“ several countries,” Bos said, as if referring to accolades.
“...we can’t return to Earth Prime now. And we can’t return the children–not yet, at any rate. Surely the older ones have already figured out enough to help the authorities find us, until we can win them over. If we can win them over.”
He turned back to the computer. “Our stock, at least, is rising.”
“For all you know,” she retorted, yet leaned over his shoulder to study the screen anyway. “At least as of yesterday.” For the internet could only download information whenever the transfer-device returned to Earth prime, once every twenty-four hours. “And at least until the authorities discover the dread kidnappers behind Technological Laboratories and freeze all our assets.”
“Which authorities? The border between Chile and Bolivia keeps changing these days. Who has the time–or the authority--to ferret out a band of harmless eggheads in a lab lost somewhere in the Andes?”
“Anger over stolen children can bridge a lot of conflicts.”
“Bah! You’re just depressed–or anxious. We fund too many political campaigns for anyone to trace us very far.” He shouldn’t have to repeat all this, yet every so often she needed him to. “And the guerillas won’t hurt someone who gives them all the medical supplies they need, no matter what we do. Besides, you’ve made too much of a maze for anyone to figure out who owns what company before it even comes to that. The funding will come on schedule.”
Consuelo studied the screen. Their reflections competed with the flow of words. “Why do we have to deal in so many poisons?”
“Because parallel-worlds create the best poisons in the multiverse–proteins almost compatible with ours, but not quite, just enough to get into the system and block what ought to be there.” He saw her begin to tremble and reached for her hand. In a softer voice he said, “It’s not like we’re supplying assassins or anything, dearheart. Completely organic pesticides and herbicides, that break down naturally after they do their job–the world cries out for it. We do good, mija. We do enormous, worldwide good.”
She pulled away from him, and tossed her hair defiantly from her face. “And what about all of the pharmaceutical companies you now hold stock in? The same companies that you shielded me from to begin with?”
“Parallel worlds make good drugs, too–lifesaving drugs, Connie. A drug is just a poison in a subfatal dosage, with beneficial side-effects. It has to be a wee bit poisonous to change the body’s status quo–and heaven knows enough bodies need changed..” They stared at each other a long moment before he said, “I never sell psychiatric medicine. You know that.”
His bipolar sister slowly relaxed. “Yet you help to sell it. You milk the same cash-cow, getting as many people legally addicted to expensive remedies as possible–drugs that kill their inspiration, their visions, that make them docile little gears in the machine, feeling nothing.”
“I’m trying to change the system from within, you know that.”
“And you know it’s never going to change–otherwise why would you try to make a brand new start on a brand new world?”
He stood, and gathered his brilliant, crazy sister into his arms. “In a filthy world we can’t help but do filthy deeds. Perhaps this new way–your new way–will give us a chance to come clean again.” And he held her, quivering against his chest, for a long, long time, waiting for the shudders to subside. He did drug her sometimes–whenever she had not slept for more than four nights in a row, whenever she verged on suicidal, or when her impulses flew dangerously out of control. He watched her carefully and knew when to shoot which dart armed with what amount, just enough to get her past the crisis, but never, never, never so much as to damp her down to normal and placid and less than the visionary genius that he had come to rely upon so much.
Ah, what a world did their mother envisage when she named her twins! Hope as wonderfully, tragically mad, Fear as practical, staring straight on into necessity! Consuelo and Fobos. Even then civilization had started to come apart, though Ma faced the inevitable future more frankly than most. The rest of the world had hardly noticed, in the beginning of the century, when the Mexican government held sway over progressively fewer urban centers and the rest managed the best they could locally without it. Yet when the same chaos hit the United States, it slammed those folks harder, far removed from their pioneer ancestors by generations of commercial brainwashing to become consumers rather than doers. The Norteamericanos crashed mightily from their higher position, and the quake shattered the globe.
In her ear Bos whispered, “Do you need help, Sib?”
She let go. “No. No. I’m okay. Keeping up my vitamins and exercise, sticking with the meditations. I don’t need that kind of help today.”
He smiled on her, squeezing her shoulder. “Good. I believe in you. You have my backing, as always–but never too much.”
“Never too much,” she agreed, and passed through his office to her workshop beyond. Bos stared after through the door that she’d left open, at all of the electronics heaped upon her workbench, in a chaos that only she could make sense of. He expected any moment for a flood of emails to hit his computer, asking him to do this or that calculation of voltage. She never did do well in math. But once he did the equations for her...why nothing could stop her!
“Who would have thought,” he said softly, out of her hearing, “That you could invent the most revolutionary piece of equipment that the old world ever knew, out of what you scavenged from a Tijuana garbage heap?” One rich in garbage discarded from the States, smuggled across the border when their own landfills overflowed–full of last year’s fashion in machinery, or broken things that anyone but a consumer could have repaired, or hopeless wrecks with an awful lot of perfectly good components still within them, left to leak heavy metals into the soil as they corroded in the rain. Lessons learned in self-protection, and in leeching poisons from the body when protection failed, soon came in handy as they explored those first, dangerous worlds.
Soon the rumors abounded (yet no one knew for sure) how this company that sprang up out of nowhere, Technological Laboratories, could come up with so many amazing new products without a factory in sight anywhere. Yet not everything in those laboratories harnessed electrons or much else recognizable.
For Consuelo had dared to tap into something other. Something that only a madwoman would have considered. Fobos shuddered, glad that his sister bore the burden of thinking about it, not him. One of them had to stay sane.
He opened up more stock information, perusing the enthusiastic response to products manufactured on ecology-free rocks of worlds–nothing to pollute, nothing to disfigure. No living thing on them except for the encapsulated droves of laborers that he paid well and took good care of, carefully chosen for their low social status or precarious legal standings. The rumors that they spread among their communities on their visits home would never travel very far with any credibility. And some, now gaining respect, who feared the temptations of vices left behind, refused to go back at all.
He didn’t hear his sister re-enter until she said, “We’re going to Hell.”
“Nonsense! Tomorrow you will tell me that the angels themselves will reward us for our work.”
“They probably will,” she said, “Right before they shove us into Hell. Maybe God’s bipolar, too. Maybe Heaven and Hell are just God’s moodswings, and that’s why we can’t seem to do good without bad, bad without good.” She straightened, and looked down on him solemnly. “Why shouldn’t He be? He feels more intensely than mere mortals, after all–He does everything more intensely, that’s what makes him God. And He’s more of a creative genius than any of us.”
“But then God wouldn’t be perfect.”
She laughed, in a way that scared him just a little. “You think His handiwork is perfect? By His fruit so shall ye know Him–surely God is at least as mad as His handiwork. Have you got a better explanation?”
“What about the devil?”
“And who made the devil? I tell you, a mad god made the whole crazy universe!” At his look she sobered. “You need me, Fobos. Lunacy and all. I think the things that no one else dares to think no matter how much it hurts. I stare into the sun. I find the darkened treasures in the sun’s cold heart. I never shut off my brain, you see, and it drives me over the edge sometimes, but without me you’d still be one more engineer in a cubicle, designing toys that hardly anyone can afford, for a company on the verge of bankruptcy, three paychecks away from coming home to the dump again.”
“Toys!” he snorted. “I’ll have you know that nobody so far has matched my Multipersonnel Armored Transport.”
“Another reason that we shall go to Hell. Do you know how much everyone in the world has come to hate MAT?”
“MAT can defend himself, so why should I worry?”
“Because God may be crazy, yet He is also just, and good. As good as anything can be in this lopsided universe.”
He took her hand, seeing her growing agitation. “You don’t worry about God, little sister...”
“Little sister! I came first.”
“I mean it–you don’t worry about God. He’s bigger than we can understand, and has answers we never guessed at. You should know better than anybody how much genius looks like craziness to those who can’t follow along.”
She stared at him a long moment. “Are you God’s protector, now, too?”
He turned back to his work. “I protect anybody I have to.”
Consuelo and Fobos. Their mother saw it all, from the day that they were born. Oh yes, she saw what the future must bring, what children had to prepare for. Less and less funding for schools, no more counselors for the few schools that remained, religious institutions stretched beyond capacity, prisons bursting and overflowing, libraries closing down, only a few international corporations with the clout to keep their heads above water, and those programmed for profit alone, not the well-being of humankind. And on top of it all more stress, and more stress still, tearing families apart like a horde of whirlwinds, leaving in their wake a whole world of lunatics giving each other warped reality checks.
“Earth’s no place to raise kids,” he muttered without even realizing it, till he saw the reflection of his stricken sister’s face on the screen, her hands upon her belly.
“You shouldn’t have made me do it.”
“Don’t go bringing that up again...”
“I didn’t know what I wanted.”
“You didn’t know your own best interest at the time, Sib.. Somebody has to make the tough decisions.”
“It wasn’t your choice to make.”
He slammed his hand on the desk. “Then who the hell’s was it? Yours?” He swiveled around violently to stare at her. “We;ve been through this, Connie. You couldn’t take care of yourself at the time. You don’t even know for sure how you wound up pregnant. How could you have taken care of a baby?”
“Someone could have adopted her.”
“Who, Consuelo? Who on God’s green Earth was left?”
“Somebody,” she whispered, wringing her hands. “Fear doesn’t see all things clearly, Fobos. Somebody must have been out there who could have raised my baby.”
“Must have been,” he sneered. “I’ve seen too many ‘must bes’ fail. Just because we need something doesn’t make it happen.” He stood up. “We make things happen, Sib.” He waved out the window. “We made that happen. But we had to find a new world to do it.”
She moved to the window, leaned upon the sill, and took a deep breath of the perfumed air. “Somebody else’s green earth,” she said. “Maybe the god of this world never went mad. Maybe no one ever fell, not here.” She turned a tentative smile to him. “Maybe this world has no Hell.”
“Maybe,” he said gruffly, went to her, gave her shoulders a bit of a rub. “In any case, you will soon have lots of children, who all need someone to adopt them.” At her widened eyes, he quickly added, “You’ll have plenty of help–don’t worry. All of the best teachers and child psychologists that money can buy.”
“All of the most desperate,” she breathed, staring at the jungle’d hills. “Who else would have thrown in their lot with us, with so much shadiness?” She laughed, unhappily. “All of that training, and no one to hire them anymore. Seeing all of that need, surrounding them, for all of their skills, all the suffering, angry children, starving with them, robbing each other when they had to, nothing they could do about it–though they knew exactly what to do.” She looked back at Fobos. “Have they, too, gone mad? I mean, how could they not, under the circumstances?”
Fobos shook his head, trying to see the beauty out the window, but memories of a slum got in the way. “Aw, maybe nobody’s quite sane anymore,” he muttered. They had grown up there, on the edge of that Tijuana dump, scavenging to live, long before they ever set up a base hidden in South America, and decades before they found a new world altogether. “But we’re doing the best we can, girl. We’re doing the very best we can.”
Just then the computer beeped insistently; the transfer-device had entered this world, bringing the latest downloads, plus a report on the arrival of the children. The twins both read the screen at once, though Bos wished Consuelo hadn’t been there at that particular moment.
“Four dead,” she breathed. “Drug overdoses.”
Bos went cold inside, forcing himself to face the facts. “It doesn’t matter, not really. Anyone who needed sedated that often would’ve been past saving anyway.”

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