Their accommodations were Spartan but more than adequate. The tiny cot with its scratchy sheets was a divine luxury compared to the car seat Bridge had slept in most of the day. Sleep swallowed him as soon as the light was out, but he tossed and turned with forgotten dreams all night. He woke with a start as sunrise broke through the window directly into his eyes, his interface jack an itchy distraction. The sounds of feet on the hut’s porch let him know that Bud did not intend his visitors to sleep the day away. Immediately after a breakfast of surprising quality, Bud mustered an escort party of three burly men carrying rifles and side arms. The group headed off on an eastern trail with the sun’s rays barely peeking above the tree line.
Bridge had expected to see the dome just over the next rise. After ten minutes of walking through mountainous forest on tracks that barely qualified as a trail, he asked with ragged breath how far they were going. The Naturalists chuckled. Bud said, “Well, best vantage point is the amphitheater ‘bout two clicks thataway.” He pointed into the rising sun. “I reckon it’s about forty-five minutes at you city boys’ pace.”
Bridge ignored the snickering and continued walking. “Two miles, huh? I should have packed my hiking boots.” The Naturalists kept snickering while they walked, their breathing much less labored.
“So how do you guys stomach living all the way out here without any of the amenities of the modern world?”
Bud let out a boisterous laugh. “Amenities? Like GlobalNet access? We got that. All the TV streams, full running water, electricity 24/7, hell we even have a crèche for those so inclined. We’re not Luddites. We use all the tools of modern life; we just choose not to be chained to them.” As he said that, Bridge noticed the scar on the back of Bud’s freckled neck. The weather-beaten skin of the old Naturalist’s neck was the color of old newspaper with the textured marbling of age, except for an area that almost glowed white with scar tissue. At the base of the skull along the hairline sat a roughly circular area of healed-over skin, bereft of the gray stubble of hair on the rest of the man’s head. Bud had surgically removed an interface jack.
“You used to be a runner?” Bridge asked.
“No, they jacked me up to kill people. And I did a damn good job of it,” he commented matter-of-factly in a thick Texas drawl. Bridge had noticed the tattoos on Bud’s right arm indicating Marine service the previous night, but in the daylight he finally got a good look at Bud’s other arm. The skin was much less weathered than the rest of Bud’s body. It still had the well-tanned coloration of the rest of his body, but without the freckling and leathery texture. The hair on the left arm was darker than the stubble on his chin or the gray hair on his right arm. The limb wasn’t an original; it had to have been vat-grown. Bud had not only removed his interface jack, but a cybernetic arm as well. Stonewall was right. This motherfucker was hardcore.
“And now I rescue people from that soul-destroying grinder you call cities and bring them back into a relationship with nature like God intended.” Hardcore and a zealot. “You’d be amazed how much about living off the land is stored in our DNA. We bring people out here and teach them to remember their roots as stewards of nature, not masters. Farming, eco-conservation, we teach a holistic life that has a symbiosis with nature. We aren’t meant to push numbers around in the ether while our bodies vegetate in a coffin full of cold people soup. I’ve turned doughy cube farmers into lean, mean farmers, ain’t that right, Darryl?”
The lead Naturalist nodded. “Yeah, I was a 60-hour a week crèche junkie a year ago. Now I rope cattle like a born cowboy.” Darryl was a wiry six-three, with a shock of tousled chestnut hair topping the shaved sides of his head. He had the natural muscle of someone who has worked for a living like most of the Naturalists they’d seen. Bridge was amazed how little clothes they all wore. Patches of snow were scattered all over the forest floor, and Bridge’s breath was visible on the chill air. He had put on a heavy trench coat, but the rest of the Naturalists ran around in short sleeves.
“How’d you end up out here?”
“We send out recruiting parties to some of the major LGL’s regularly,” Bud answered. “They’ll spend about a month out, then rotate back for another crew. Darryl here was…”
“I was a bad week away from a suicide,” Darryl finished. “Met Aretha at this GlobalNet support group and we hooked up in real life. She introduced me to the Naturalist Manifesto and I was here within a month. Best decision I ever made.” The funny thing was that Bridge believed him. He genuinely seemed ecstatic. Maybe there was something to a life of farming in the clear mountain air, but Bridge sure didn’t see it. He was already light-headed from the altitude, his nose was running and he was wheezing like an asthmatic.
“You gon’ be all right there, Bridge?” Stonewall asked.
“Yeah, I got it. How much further?” he gasped.
“It’s just over that ridge,” Aristotle said. Bridge tossed him a questioning look. “My grandmother used to take me to shows here every summer.” The bodyguard had been silent, but Bridge could read the pain on his face from miles away. The party continued on in tense silence.
Go To Chapter 9.66
Wednesday, April 8, 2009