County Fair 2094 by KaRylin +quot;Here, boy.+quot; Roger, repelled by the smell of decompo
County Fair 2094
"Here, boy." Roger, repelled by the smell of decomposing blood,
held the lump of hamburger well away from his face. "Come on, Duke,
there's a good dog." But Kenneth's Great Dane wouldn't come out from
under the porch.
Damn, Roger thought to himself, must've weakened him too much the
He considered going in after the dog, but it was dirty under there.
The problem was, the neighborhood was getting so overrun with Aren that
half the time, he couldn't even catch a lousy rabbit. He couldn't even
remember the last time he'd seen a deer in the dwindling patch of woods
near the house. It sometimes seemed to him that his formerly rural
neighborhood had been absorbed by an uninterrupted urban sprawl
stretching from Detroit to Chicago. Roger considered it more trouble
than it was worth to hunt warmblooded humans for food, although the Aren
were the only animal species whose numbers had increased rather than
diminishing. The herd instinct, combined with intelligence, made them
He threw the meat to Duke and wiped his hand on the grass. When he
heard the porch door open, he stood up and peered through the railing,
and saw Andrea standing and staring off into the warm, moonless night.
He climbed over the railing and leaned against it, facing her, but she
did not notice that he was there, so he gave the porch swing a shove
with his foot, allowing its distinctive creak to announce his presence.
"Roger! I didn't see you."
"Beautiful night, isn't it? Have a seat and keep me company for
awhile." One way or the other, Andrea was likely to provide him with
some breakfast. When she didn't respond to his invitation, he walked
over and took her hand. "Come sit on the porch swing."
Andrea pulled her hand away. "Don't you ever give up?" Her eyes
narrowed with annoyance, and Roger could tell the annoyance was real; he
could smell it. But she was also tempted and intrigued, and he could
smell that, too. She could hide it from herself, to an extent, but not
from him. That was why he had no intention of giving up on her. He
didn't usually make a nuisance of himself--just when he thought there
was a good chance of getting something out of it.
"I'm sorry," he said, summoning up a contrite expression. "I
forgot myself. It's just that you look so lovely this evening."
She flushed, and then her expression softened. "You're hungry,
aren't you. Come on up to the lab."
Well, it was better than nothing. Andrea was a medical doctor and
was currently engaged in hematological research, which Roger considered
a subject well worthy of study, even if he couldn't follow half of what
she had to say on the topic.
He followed her up two flights of stairs to the attic, which had
been converted into a thoroughly modern laboratory, except for the
unconcealed wooden rafters overhead. Andrea put a couple of bags of
fresh human blood in a water bath to heat up, then sat at her computer
console clicking and muttering to herself. Roger sat on a couch in one
corner of the room and waited with the patient stillness of the natural
predator--although, recently, he'd felt more like a house pet. It
galled him to have to rely on Andrea's charity. It would be different
if she'd let him bite her--then, he'd be giving her something in return.
More fun for him, too.
But the cultured blood she supplied him with tasted pretty good.
It did lack a certain quality of individuality; it was grown in a vat,
subject to a rigorous scientific standard. Because it was gender-
neutral, it made him feel as if he were feeding on a small child, and
the anticoagulant gave it a slightly bitter aftertaste. But Andrea was
very generous with it. He smiled and thanked her when she handed him an
oversized mug of the stuff, heated to body temperature. He closed his
eyes while slowiy sipping it from the cup, but was aware nonetheless of
Andrea watching him. He wished he knew what she was thinking.
Andrea began to ignore him after awhile, so he went downstairs.
Denise was sitting in the living room, and her eyes lit up at the sight
of him, which he couldn't help but find gratifying. It was a pity she
was only fourteen.
"The county fair starts tonight, Roger, would you take me to the
fairground?" She looked at him entreatingly.
Roger took a moment to consider his answer. Kenneth, Denise's
father, would not approve. . . of course, he was out of town for the
weekend. Roger was not particularly attracted to bright lights and
noisy crowds of strange Aren, but when Kenneth found out, he'd be livid.
His face would turn just as red as a cherry tomato.
Roger smiled. "Well, all right. I'll run upstairs and tell your
mother where we're going."
"Maybe we should just leave her a note."
"No, I'd better make sure it's okay. I'll be right back." Roger
did not intend to leave himself open to charges that he'd removed Denise
from the premises without parental permission. But asking Bellera was
just a formality; she was a placid, accommodating creature (the only
kind of woman, in Roger's opinion, that would have married a penny-ante
martinet like Kenneth). Unfortunately, her compliancy had its limits.
If Roger got too close or tried to touch her, she shrank away and her
eyes filled with tears. She had no control over the fear and revulsion
she felt toward him, and he tried not to take it personally.
"Don't worry," he told Denise, to erase the worried look from the
girl's face. "I won't bother your aunt. She's up working in her lab."
Roger drove Denise to the fairground just outside of Wixton in the
2033 Ford XOS that he lovingly maintained. It took them twice as long
to get there by way of the pitted ruins of the highway as it would have
if they'd taken a repulsortrack capsule, but Denise didn't seem to mind;
to her, the antique roadcar was a fascinating artifact.
The fair was every bit as loud and busy as Roger had feared. Once
they had found a place to park, Denise made her way to a concession
stand and asked for something called Choo-Eetz. She extended her left
hand, allowed a scanner to be passed over her credit bracelet, and
thumbed the pad to validate the transaction. Then she turned her hand
over to receive a box about the size of a deck of cards. She held it
close to her face, opened her mouth, and pressed a recessed button; one
end of the box popped open, and there was a shrill whirring noise. A
stream of some frothy, blue glop was spat out, then the box closed with
a resentful snap, cutting off the string of goo, which Denise began to
chew as if it were a wad of gum. "Poor Roger," she said, sotto voce,
"I'm afraid they haven't got anything for you, but you might be able to
catch someone out behind the chemical toilets."
"I don't do that," Roger said hotly. Denise gave him a disbeliev-
ing and conspiratorial smile.
They wandered down the avenue formed by two lines of booths and
attractions. Denise wanted to see everything; she led him across the
close-cropped meadow grass at a snail's pace, paying her own way when
she ducked into one of the exhibits and consuming so much Choo-Eetz that
she almost seemed to be inhaling it. Roger began to wonder how much of
the stuff that tiny box could possibly contain.
"Oh, look--there's the Universal Equilibrium!" Denise stopped in
her tracks, looking up worshipfully at several dozen white spheres that
floated serenely over a fenced-in platform. These spheres, held up by
invisible bands of force, first began to revolve slowly around a central
axis near the middle of the platform like planets circling an invisible
sun; then they sped up and began to spiral inward, provoking a few
screams from those watching, because it looked certain that they would
"You're not scared to ride it with me, are you?" Denise asked
teasingly. "You have to have two people, in case one of them passes
"Scared?" Roger looked dubiously up at the gyrating white spheres.
He hadn't realized there were people inside. "Not at all, I assure
"Good, because I've never gotten to ride before." Denise slipped
her Choo-Eetz dispenser into one of the many pockets on her loose,
hip-length uniform jacket. For nearly two years, now, she had been a
member of the girls' auxiliary of ISIS (International Sisterhood In
Solidarity). Her father would have preferred that she join the youth
program associated with the American Decency League, of which both he
and Bellera were members--but Andrea, an ISIS officer, had talked him
into letting the girl make her own choice when she turned thirteen.
They waited in a long line leading up to the entrance, and when
their turn came, Denise insisted on paying for both tickets. The padded
interior of the sphere was very cramped, more so after a bored-looking
attendant inflated the pneumatic restraints which held the passengers'
legs and torsos firmly in place. "If you wish to terminate your ride
early," the attendant droned, "press the red STOP bar at the front of
the pod but if you press the STOP bar even by accident the ride is over
and you are not eligible for a refund enjoy your ride." The upper half
of the sphere slammed into place, and they were off. Roger was relieved
to find that they could see out, a little, although the world beneath
them appeared fogged and indistinct. Their pod rose to join the others,
and they were spun through a series of tight loops as the pod described
a corkscrew pattern. Denise's face began to turn pale. "I don't feel
so good, Roger. I think I'm going to throw up."
He reached for the STOP bar, but she grabbed his wrist and clung to
it grimly. ' No, don't you dare! We won't get any proofs!"
So there he was, trapped inside a tumbling ping-pong ball with an
Aren who was likely to regurgitate half-digested blue glop all over
him. Very distressing.
"Promise me you won't press it, Roger! Promise me!"
"All right, but please tell me you're not really going to vomit."
"Probably not--OH!" The pod gave a sudden lurch and began bouncing
up and down, causing Roger to feel as if he were trapped in a giant paint
mixer. Denise clamped both hands over her mouth, and Roger closed his
eyes, trying to recall his religious training. Let's see, Now I lay me
down to sleep. . . Our father, who art in Heaven. . . nothing about
teenage girls chucking up their Choo-Eetz on a carnival ride. He decided
it would be rather audacious of him to call on God for assistance, anyway,
since he hadn't been inside a church in nearly two centuries.
They finally made it to the ground without disaster, and the
attendant gave them each a small plastic clip which seemed hardly worth
the trouble to Roger.
"Could I have yours?" Roger handed it to her, and she fastened
them both to the collar of her jacket. Her own equilibrium seemed to
have let her for the moment and she clung to Roger's arm.
Her Aren body-warmth felt awfully nice. He reminded himself
sternly that she was just a kid. Even if she would be fifteen in a few
weeks. Even if she didn't smell like a kid, anymore.
"Look, let's go in there!" Oblivious to the effect she was having
on him, Denise pointed to a portable building that looked as if it were
about to collapse under the weight of the hologram just above it. The
roof appeared to be dripping with pink, fleshy vegetation, and the
holosign read FORESTS OF VENUS.
Roger spared it a disinterested glance. Denise had regained her
balance, but had not released his arm. His fang teeth were threatening
to break through the skin of his lower lip, and he caught himself
scanning the surrounding buildings and tents for some shadowed corner,
someplace where he could find a little privacy and make the fair a
really memorable experience for Denise. It wasn't as if she didn't know
what to expect. And it wasn't as if there were any doubt as to whether
she would agree to it. . . .
Paulie would kill him. Paulie, Roger's protegee and Denise's
great, great, great grandmother, would never let him get away with
breaking the Tsaia law that declared Aren under sixteen years of age
strictly off-limits. Not if it involved one of her descendants.
He forced his fangs to retract, and focused his attention on the
building she'd pointed out. "It's probably all papier-mache."
"Come on, let's go in!" There was a puzzled note in her voice; she
could tell he was upset but, thank the Goddess, hadn't figured out why.
"All right, if you like."
They had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the entrance, where
they joined a line of people shuffling slowly down a narrow boardwalk.
It was dim and gloomy inside, but to Roger's surprise, the fleshy trees
were real. Their trunks were as big around as the torso of a large man
and covered with white, silky fur. There were no cordons to keep the
customers in line; the trees themselves served that function, with a
dense intertwining of pink, hairless branches, flexible as a nest of
snakes. Smaller branches, resembling long fingers, clutched at any
available surface. A few ventured into the aisle, seeking with slow,
underwater movements for something to hold. A girl behind Roger and
Denise squealed; "It PINCHED me!" The people around her laughed
The trees weren't from Venus, of course; there was nothing beneath
those hot, thick clouds but algae and cockroaches. No, they had to be a
product of recombinant DNA. Roger reached out covertly and made a small
nick in a nearby trunk. A drop of vermillion fluid welled up--not sap.
It smelled absolutely delectable.
As they neared the exit, Roger pulled experimentally on a set of
clutching fingers, separating them from the fur of a nearby trunk. He
stepped off the boardwalk onto soft, loamy soil, pulling Denise with
him, and gently parted the tendrils that blocked the section just ahead
The forest closed seamlessly behind them.
"Roger, what are you doing, it's dark, I can't see! And I don't
think we're supposed to be in here." But she followed, clinging to his
He made his way to the back of the enclosure, twice stepping over
ridges where the large planters had been placed up against one another.
The branches groped blindly through his hair, and Denise had a death-grip
on his shirt, but Roger was undeterred. Presently he reached the door
which he'd been just barely able to see from the boardwalk, pulled Denise
through it, and switched on a light--only a fifteen-watt bulb, but
sufficient for his purposes. He examined the sacks and bottles of various
chemical substances that were stacked on rough wooden shelves in the back
of the store-room, reading labels and sniffing. A few minutes later, an
exterior door opened abruptly, and the proprietor strode into the tiny
room as if in response to some silent alarm. He stood looking at Roger
and Denise expressionlessly.
Roger's own alarms went off the minute he met the stranger's eyes--
he was Tsaia, what ignorant Aren referred to as a vampire. He looked
to be older and more powerful than Roger, and as if that weren't bad
enough, he was better than six feet tall. Roger lowered his eyes
submissively, them flicked them up briefly with what he hoped was an
endearing and unthreatening expression.
When it appeared that he was expected to make the first overture,
he said, "Pardon me for intruding, but I couldn't help myself--your, ah
plants, they're so beautiful." The stranger's face appeared to thaw a
little. "Do you mind my asking what kind of care they require?"
Denise looked bored and shot a streamer of Choo-Eetz into her
mouth. The stranger gave Roger a long, calculating look, then said in
high Tsangue, "I could sell you a pair if you're interested."
Denise's eyes widened when she heard the blend of low coughs,
birdlike cries, and other sounds that could not quite be duplicated by
an unmodified human larynx. She straightened up in a hurry, put her
Choo-Eetz away and tried to look sultry. To Roger's relief, their host
ignored her. "Why don't you come back later tonight, or anytime this
week, and we'll talk. You can even sample the merchandise." He stepped
to one side, and added, "You can leave by the back stairs."
A few minutes later, Roger and Denise found themselves back on one
of the bustling, grassy thoroughfares that traversed the fairground.
Denise pulled out her Choo-Eetz dispenser and pressed the button, but it
only gasped and spattered a few tiny blue globules into the air, then
wheezed anticlimactically for a few seconds before falling silent. She
dropped it into a nearby collection bin (they were shaped, not surpris-
ingly, like giant Choo-Eetz packages stood on end).
"Shall we head back now?"
"Roger, it's only three! I want to ride the Universal Equilibrium
again. Can we?"
"What? No, absolutely not. I found it most distressing."
"All right--we'll go on the Ferris wheel, then. It's an antique.
And I want to see if I can win some of that stuffed junk. But first, I
have to get some more Choo-Eetz!"
When they finally left the fairground, the eastern horizon was
starting to turn that curious greenish-yellow that had become so common
in recent decades. And Roger hadn't even thought to bring his
Denise fell asleep in the front seat on the way back, and was
snoring gently by the time they pulled up in front of the house. She
looked so awfully young. Roger was horrified that he had, even
momentarily, been tempted to seduce her. He hated to wake her up, but
he was afraid that if he carried her into the house and Andrea saw,
she'd assume the worst.
With no little effort, he persuaded her to get out of the car.
"Say, Denise, you don't have that Activities Camp of yours today, do
"Oh, that's right. It's Saturday." She sounded as if she found
this a profound revelation.
"Maybe you'd better skip it, this once."
"No, I'll be all right. And," she added scornfully, "it's the
Junior Girls' Camp, not the Activities Camp."
"Right, I forgot, that was last year. Come on, let's go inside.
It's getting light."
The following night, Roger returned to the fairground alone. He
purchased two small, pink, furry saplings from Jojo, the proprietor of
FORESTS OF VENUS (Jojo also threw in a sack of dry chemicals and a great
deal of advice on the care and feeding of what he referred to as
When he got home, Andrea was sitting on a bench in the garage
workshop, a dire expression on her face. He decided to show her the
trees some other time, when she was in a Better mood.
"Andrea! I would offer to take you for a ride, but I--"
"You know perfectly well that my Brother would never have permitted
you to take Denise into town for that fair."
"I didn't see any harm in it. Her mother--"
"Bellera! Don't talk to me about Bellera. You kept that girl out
all night, and didn't feed her anything but Choo-Eetz. I am very upset
with you, Roger."
"She wanted to stay there all night. I hope to tell you it wasn't
my idea. And she could have bought a hot dog or something if--"
"But that's precisely my point, damn it! She's only fourteen. She
sometimes needs to be told what to eat, and what time to go to bed.
She's still a child. You DO understand that, don't you?"
Roger sighed. Andrea was a very intelligent woman, but subtlety
was not her strong point. "Yes, of course I do. You're probably right,
I should have gotten her something else to eat. I hope you kept her home
from that camp of hers so she could rest. She seems to think they'll
court-martial her or something if she takes a day off."
"One of the functions of the ISIS training camps is to cultivate a
sense of discipline in young women. Maybe she'll learn something from
this, even if you haven't. She's sleeping right now--she went to bed as
soon as she got home. Don't you even think about waking her up."
Andrea stalked out of the garage, and Roger opened the cargo hatch
of the XOS. The bloodfruit trees clung to each other, their rootlets
whispering against the smooth upholstery of the car. Jojo had said
that their rudimentary brains were endowed with a degree of telepathy,
and that he could not sell Roger just one tree, because it would waste
away and die if separated from others of its kind. But if he planted
the two at a moderate distance from one another, they would reach out
for companionship the only way they knew how; by propagating into small
clusters that would spread until they merged into a single grove. It
seemed a little cruel to separate them, but Roger was entranced by the
idea of his own private orchard, which he planned to locate in the
dirt-floored cellar of the house (the bloodfruit trees neither required,
nor could they tolerate, much sunlight).
He carried the trees and the sack of dry chemicals down into the
basement, then returned to the garage for an electric shovel. Jojo had
told him to loosen the dirt and then lace it with the chemicals he'd
prepared, and while physical labor was anathema to Roger, he couldn't
see any way around it. Denise was asleep; Andrea was mad at him; and
Bellera was not in good physical condition, as she spent most of her
time lying on the couch jacked into a virtual reality program.
He took the shovel down into the basement and began to dig.
The night of Kenneth's return, Roger could hear raised voices,
coming from the kitchen, all the way up in his hidden room underneath
the attic stairs. He crept down into the living room to eavesdrop, and
heard Denise screaming, "You can't make me! You can't sign me up for
it, I have to sign myself up, and I won't do it, YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!"
"Hartland is another story, young lady," her father replied. His
volume control was better, but he sounded just as angry as Denise.
"You hate me!" Denise stormed out of the room, saw Roger, and
gasped. She made an effort to repair her appearance, then gave up and
threw her arms around him. "Oh, Roger! They want to get rid of me!"
"What?" He could hear Bellera calling plaintively after her
"Let her sulk for awhile," Kenneth said. "It won't do any good to
go running after her."
Roger hustled Denise out onto the front porch, where he sat her
down firmly in the porch swing and leaned against the railing, facing
her. "Now, what's this? Did they sell you to the Gypsies?"
"They're sending me away! Daddy says if I don't apply to the ISIS
training academy in Alaska, he'll send me to Hartland--that's where they
send kids who get caught troffing, for godsake!"
"Better apply, then. I thought you wanted to go to the ISIS
school. Let's see, Kenneth was a Nazi because he wouldn't let you go,
"That was last year!" Denise explained impatiently. "You're
supposed to start the year you turn fourteen, but I turn FIFTEEN next
month, I'd have to join a group that's been together for a WHOLE YEAR.
And besides, I'd miss you." She gave him a beseeching look.
"Oh, Denise. I'll be here when you get back, and it's only for two
She looked crestfallen. "You want to get rid of me too."
"Nonsense." He kissed her gently on the mouth, then vanished while
her eyes were still closed.
Six weeks later, Denise left for Alaska. The bloodfruit trees had
begun to fill out, and a furred lump no bigger than a crouching rabbit
had appeared next to one of them. Roger, returning from a hunting
expedition, slipped down into a window-well and through the basement
window to admire them. He tore the exsanguine body of his kill--a
rather mangy squirrel--neatly in half, breaking the spine with a sharp
twist. He offered the hindquarters to the nearest tree; a branch felt
its way slowly toward him, then conveyed the meat to an aperture at
the top of the trunk. The other tree began to stir restlessly.
Already, they had sent their thick-skinned roots deep into the
earth to seek out groundwater, minerals and burrowing creatures. Not
confined to planters, his trees would not need as many artificial
chemicals as the ones at FORESTS OF VENUS, and they had a subtly
different smell, a wild perfume that made him want to taste the elixir
they produced. . . but for the time being, he wanted to let them grow as
quickly as possible. The squirrel had satisfied his hunger; there was
no need to be greedy.
He gave the remaining half of that unfortunate rodent to the other
tree, and went upstairs. It was nice to be able to walk around without
having to worry about whether Denise was lying in wait for him, but the
house seemed empty. He decided to go upstairs and see Andrea.
She was sitting on the couch, reading a magazine on the lit-plate,
but she set it down when she saw him. "Hi, want some breakfast?"
"No, thank you." He flopped down on the opposite end of the couch.
"It's awfully quiet around here, isn't it."
She smiled. "I'm glad Kenneth finally decided to let that girl
grow up a little. He's so overprotective."
Roger looked at her closely. "If she thought you had anything to
do with it, she'd never forgive you."
"But I didn't," Andrea said innocently. "I could argue until I was
blue in the face, but my brother would never have agreed to send his
little girl to a place he regards as 'a hotbed of lesbianism and
twentieth-century values', not unless he regarded it as the lesser of
"You vixen," Roger said, not without admiration.
"A couple of years away from home will do her a world of good."
"I don't appreciate being used as a bogeyman."
"Poor Roger, we don't treat you very well around here, do we?" To
his surprise, she covered his hand with her own. He moved closer to
her, and was delighted when she did not object.
"Your brother despises me," he said dolefully, "and Bellera thinks
I am some kind of monster. But you're always very nice to me, Andrea."
He entwined his fingers in her hair, and she still didn't object, but he
sensed she was getting a little nervous, so he disentangled them and
drew her to her feet. "Did I tell you I have a new hobby? Come down in
the basement with me, and I'll show you. I think you'll enjoy this."
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank