part I, installment 2
by euhal allen
Part I, installment 1 appeared in issue 99.
It didn’t seem to President Walters that the lights ever went out any more. He was so tired that he would have given his grandkids for a good night’s sleep. And now this new trouble. The Bridge was letting people on it. Anyone could go on, it seemed, except soldiers. Even soldiers could go if they left all their weapons behind.
There were a lot of reports of the structure talking to people. What was it Captain Johnson had said?
“Yes, sir, it does talk. It has a voice that reminds everyone of their favorite uncle.”
For the nth time since his inauguration he was wishing that he had lost the election.
* * *
Boyd Hobart sat by the road and argued with the Bridge.
“What do you mean I can’t take my car aboard. You just told me that you are to serve, to bring men closer together, to speed up communication. That is what my car does, it speeds up communication.”
“I am sorry, Boyd, but no weapon may come aboard, and considering the number of your people that the automobile has killed, it should be classified as a weapon, should it not? More importantly, it is not needed. You can walk.”
“WALK! Because of you, I walked eight miles every day until you were so kind as to let me go across to my classes. I hate walking. You don’t know what a battle it has been for me to get my old comfortable figure back again.”
“But I do, Boyd. Mellony has asked me to close to you three or four days a week. Naturally, I cannot do that. I did tell her that you might like an exercycle, instead”
“So, you’re the one behind that. Thanks, Pal.”
Hiram Tinker sat with the old wooden chair tilted back on its rear legs, like he always liked to sit. “You know, Sis, that old Bridge ain’t so bad after all. Why, if it weren’t for that thing, I wouldn’t be here jawing with you.”
“Is that right, Hiram?”
“Yep. Just this morning, I was talking to it, saying how it’s been years since I seen you, and how I wished I had a car to make the trip out here. Well, that old Bridge told me to get on and I’d be out here likity split. It was right, too. Didn’t take more’n ten or fifteen minutes to make the trip.”
“Is that right, Hiram?”
“Yep. You should see Tommy. Growing like a weed. He’s smart, too. Why he just flows over with big words. He said to tell you Hi. Told him that I’d be out here for a week or two, catching up on family gossip.”
“Is that right, Hiram?”
* * *
Alexis stood in the middle of the Bridge, looking out at the guns pointed in his direction, cursing his stupidity at not being careful this time, and being caught seeking warmth when he should have been guarding. Worse yet was the fact that his gun was lying outside in the snow. If he had it with him, he could have at least tried to convince them that he saw someone else on the Bridge and was investigating.
“Corporal Shapirov, come out immediately or we shall shoot you where you stand.”
With a shrug, Alexis started toward the soldiers, hoping Siberia wasn’t as bad as he had heard, and hoping secondly that he would get there alive.
“You do not have to go, Alexis. They cannot harm you while you are here.”
Alexis stopped and, thinking he would have to trust someone, decided that he would much rather trust the Bridge than them. Besides, his fingers would probably get numb in Siberia and a writer couldn’t have that, could he?
Seeing that he wasn’t coming after all, the order was given and the soldiers shot.
Alexis grinned at them.
The squad of soldiers charged the Bridge, but soon found what it was like to run into an impenetrable jell.
Alexis began walking down the road and, blurring in their sight, disappeared.
“Cyr,” said Katia, “do you know why we are the way we are?”
“Your question lacks meaning as you phrase it. Are you asking why your people, the whole earth’s people, lack unity of purpose and feeling?”
“Yes, sort of,” admitted Katia
“This is indeed a problem that has been studied many years. Not only your people are this way when they are young. Others also have faced this passage.”
“Passage, Cyr? What passage?”
President Walters gazed at the Bridge up close for the first time since it appeared.
“Blasted Secret Service,” he mumbled to himself, “takes all the fun out of being President.”
Striding rapidly, he said in a loud voice, “Guess I had better check this thing out for myself.”
His unexpected motion had caught the Secret Service men by surprise.
A Presidential tour of the Bridge was not on the schedule. Hurrying after him, they soon found themselves unable to move forward, but not in any way harmed. This situation wasn’t covered in the training manual.
Out in the middle of the road, President Walters, thinking that it wouldn’t do for the President of the United States to look too impressed, folded his arms and looked around. “Okay, Bridge, I hear that you talk to people. Here is your chance to talk to me.”
“What would you like to talk about, Mr. President?”
“Even if you expect it,” thought President Walters, “it’s still eerie.” Loudly he asked, “Who built you, and why are you here?”
“Mr. President, are there things that you keep secret from your people, things they are not yet ready to hear, or things that they shouldn’t hear?”
“As do I. Is there something else you would like to talk about?”
* * *
“Boyd Hobart, you are the most stubborn man I have ever seen. Your research is not more important than my mother. Surely you don’t think that I am going to spend your whole sabbatical shivering in London while you stick your nose in some dusty old archive, do you?”
“Yes, my dear, I do. That is the usual procedure, I believe. Professors’ wives have always found it most exciting to live in another country for a while as their husbands did research to further their careers.”
“That was before the Bridge came. Now, you could just as well stay home here and commute to London every day. After all, it only takes a few minutes.”
“I walk across the Bridge to my classes because it is otherwise inconvenient. However, I wish to have no more than that to do with it. I certainly shall not become dependent upon it to run my life. If it were possible to still get sea or air transportation to London we wouldn’t use the Bridge for that little job, either.”
“All right, dear, you go ahead and get us an apartment in London and we’ll stay there, but I shall use the Bridge to see Mother. She is too old not to have me check on her.”
“Cyr, you are different than you were,” complained Katia, “not so calm, not so solid.”
“That is an interesting statement, Katia. My structure is of one unit, it is no less solid then ever. I can not be but calm.”
“I am not talking about your old road or your towers; I am talking about you. You seem upset or worried about something.”
“I am a machine, little one. Machines do not get upset or worried.”
“You are a person, Cyr. And you do worry; I hear it in your voice, in your words.”
* * *
“They is more of them, Uncle Hiram. Down in the meadow chasing the calves.”
Hiram pulled himself up out of the old rocker and headed after Tommy toward the meadow by the Bridge, grabbing a willow switch as he went. “Guess I’ll have to teach them kids a lesson this time.”
Reaching the meadow, Hiram caught the young vandals by surprise and began laying into them with the willow switch. “I’ll not have you chasing my cattle and doing them harm anymore. Now, git!”
In the middle of a swing he felt his arm caught and held.
“My kids was just having a little fun,” said an angry voice. “Maybe you’d like a little beating like you’re handing out.”
Hiram felt the big man’s fist in his old stomach, then again, and again, and then nothing. Hiram Tinker was dead.
* * *
Seiji Kurihara had seen a lot of the world swimming in his own water these two years. It seemed to him that he had swum well. He had never made a better decision than to be a friend to the Bridge. It worried him a little that fewer and fewer people were using the Bridge now; that more and more pickpockets and thieves were waiting in the shadows away from the Bridge’s protection. Unless the area where one left the Bridge was well lit, it was usually dangerous to get off.
* * *
The governments no longer patrolled the areas near the Bridge and refused to interfere in what they claimed to be the problems of illegal immigrants. Seiji had asked the Bridge about it.
Even the Bridge seemed confused by these things. ”This,” it said, ”has never happened before. Nothing like it is in any of our records.”
“I am puzzled, Bridge,” he said. “I wish to go home, to see my father. He is a wise man, maybe he can help me understand.”
President Walters was on the red phone again. “Yes, Sergei, it does seem to be working. Getting the military units away from the Bridge; clearing a hundred feet on each side of the roadway and letting a few specialized squads take over has just about cut out all traffic. Hard on a few, but if they want to be traitors, tough... Yes, we are going to start our machinery going on that other idea. Shouldn’t be too long before everything that happens can be blamed on illegal immigrants. We may not be able to destroy the thing, but it seems that we can stop its effects on us as nations.”
* * *
Alexis Shapirov stopped briefly in a shadow to catch his breath. He had to make it back to the Bridge soon or he wouldn’t make it at all.
“So much,” he thought, “for the good old USA and their vaunted freedoms.” It was a good thing that he was only a hundred yards or so away. With care, quiet, and a little blessing from someone, he had a chance. Flitting from shadow to deep shadow, Alexis edged his way closer to his goal. He heard foot steps on his right and he had still had fifty yards left to go.
He ran for the Bridge.
Shots rang out, missing at first, but then they found their mark and Alexis fell and rolled the last few feet onto the Bridge.
“I’m back, Bridge,” he whispered weakly. “I’m back, take care of me.”
* * *
“Who is he, Cyr?” said Katia looking down on the wounded man.
“His name is Alexis. He is a writer. I must call for help for him.”
“Will he die?”
“I do not know. It is not supposed to be this way. It has never been this way before.”
* * *
Boyd Hobart felt good. The speech had been well received. The logic was inescapable. Tracing out the history of the Bridge and the evil it had done to man, his nationalities and his cultures, had convinced even the most skeptical of them of the dangers that the Bridge had come to symbolize. The new statistics that Washington had released on the illegal immigrants and their relation to the horrendous crime rate around the Bridge had been the clincher. He was sure that now no one would even use the Bridge for a campus crossing anymore. He hated the thought of the eight mile hike every day, but better that than be a traitor.
* * *
Jonkil et Sharma gave orders for the transfer of Alex Shapirov to the medical facility. “How could such a thing happen? Always good has come from a Bridge. What kind of creatures are these?”
Nobody got off the Bridge in Tommy Tinker’s meadow anymore. Tommy and his hunting rifle saw to that.
Dec Hansen looked up as another body was brought in and deposited in the illegal immigrant area. “Got any I.D. that we can use?”
“Yes, but it’s in Japanese,” was the answer.
* * *
Machines are not made to know sorrow. Nor should they be able to cry.
The Bridge was not just a machine. It had tried to warn Seiji not to stop anywhere for something to eat, but Seiji chose to swim in his own water. At least the net was swift and sure.
* * *
“Cyr, what is wrong? What is happening to you?”
“I am doing what no other Bridge has ever done, Katia. I am dying.”
“Dying! You can’t die, Cyr. We need you.”
“Yours is a strange people. You revel in your diversity, and that is not bad. It is, in fact, good. What is so strange is that you use your differences to hate. In order to help your people, I must die. I can unify your world only if I become the Great Enemy defeated.”
Conditioned as it was to protect and help, to bring all of a species together, the Bridge could not exist as a source of division. It began to disintegrate.
As it broke up, it sent one last message to those waiting patiently for it to do the work that now would never be done in the same way it had been done in the past.
Katia stood on the spot she had filled when she first saw the Bridge.
Looking out over the bay, she saw the great broken spans that had been her friend.
It was no longer beautiful.
Her father had been right. Her miracle had been judged by others as a disaster.
She felt the warmth of the crystal in her pocket. A last gift from her friend. Held in the light one could see an image of the Bridge in the crystals‚ center. It was all she had left of her friend. Somehow, it was enough.
Jonkil et Sharma read the report.
Never in all history had such a report been written.
Always a Bridge had brought a race together. Always the intercommunication of peoples had caused growth and maturity. Never had a Bridge brought out of a race anything but good.
Still, this girl, this Katia, carried a Bridge seed, one with the events and lessons of the past two years programmed in. She will live long, and some day she or one of her children would plant the seed and another attempt would be made.
Pushing the communicator switch, Tranquility Administrator Sharma spoke quietly. “About the last message from the Bridge: Alexis Shapirov, is he doing well in our care?”
There was a moment of silence and then the answer. “No, sir. He died.”
Copyright © 2004 by euhal allen