County Fair 2094 by KaRylin +quot;Here, boy.+quot; Roger, repelled by the smell of decompo

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County Fair 2094 by KaRylin "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 last time. 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 dangerous prey. 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 collide. "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 out." "Scared?" Roger looked dubiously up at the gyrating white spheres. He hadn't realized there were people inside. "Not at all, I assure you." "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." "What?" "Plastic. Fake." "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 uneasily. 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. Blood. 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 shoulder. 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 sunglasses. Ouch. 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 you?" "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 bloodfruit trees). 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 daughter. "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, he was--" "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 years." 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 two evils." "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." --KXR--


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