Story Excerpt

Bury Me in the Rainbow

by Bill Johnson

 

“People never think about what happens next.”

Oly adjusted his chaw, turned to the side, and spat a brown stream onto the winter dead/spring fresh grass just coming up.

“For God’s sake, Oly! We got company. At least use a can.”

Dakota—home—always made me feel comfortable and exasperated at the same time. Comfortable, because I was home, not stuck in one of those places where I just didn’t fit. Like New York or Los Angeles or D.C. or London or Beijing or . . .

Exasperated because, well, it was Dakota. More than that, it was Summit. Which even for Dakota was in the back ass end of nowhere and filled to the brim with misfits.

I stood next to Foremost, the alien ambassador from the Ship. Akicita stood on the other side of me. She watched Oly and huffed out a chuckle. Oly glared at her, frowned at Foremost, then grumbled, stepped back a step, looked around, and picked up a tossed-aside beer can off the ground. He swirled it, hopefully, then scowled. It was empty. I closed my eyes and shook my head.

“She shoots something.” Oly jerked his head toward Akicita. “The bad guy goes down and dies, and everybody is happy and cheers and tells her what a great guy she is. Then they all walk away and have a party. Until someone thinks to call me to clean it up.” Oly sounded disgusted. We were used to it. We knew when to ignore Oly and when to pay attention.

I reached into my jacket pocket and handed him a flask. He nodded, appreciatively, opened it up and sipped. He made a face and handed it back to me.

“What is that crap?”

“Thirty-year-old Highlands single malt scotch. We got it as a thank you for saving this fool’s,” I jerked my thumb at Foremost, “ass.”

“No flavor,” Oly grumbled. He smacked his lips and stuck out his tongue. “Like drinking water from the lake. No bite to it. You need some fish moonshine, that’s what you need.”

I capped the flask and slid it into my pocket. Oly nodded at the ground.

“So what do you want to do with this thing?”

Foremost, Akicita, Oly, and myself stood in the backyard of Oly’s shack. It stood by its lonely self just below the crest of a little hill, a knob, really, with no trees, just a few half-buried boulders, tall prairie grass, and a continent full of wind. Above us was a sky of broken clouds, and around us were more prairie grass hills, taller, with a clear view out to the horizon. It looked like it must have looked in the old days, empty and clean. All we needed to do was add some buffalo and we could have been in a time before even the First Nations people arrived.

In front of us, laid out on a black tarpaulin, was the body of the Synth assassin. Its body was covered so only the head showed.

The dead alien had a strong jaw and heavy orbital ridges. Its lips were pulled back and showed several large canine teeth—top and bottom—and broad molars in the back. The lips were brown, like tanned leather, and short tendrils, which writhed and whipped when it was alive, limply draped below the nose and across the lips.

“And what the hell do I call it?” Oly asked Foremost.

“It’s probably a male. If I remember my childhood stories correctly, Synth males are the muscle, and the females are the brains.”

Foremost sounded uncertain. And I didn’t want to strip the Synth and start digging around for some kind of alien genitals. I remembered the Synth just a day ago as he charged the ambassador and me at the cemetery, a killing machine determined to do his job. He seemed indestructible, completely unfazed as I emptied my handgun into his chest, and his armor shed the bullets like water. He’d lifted up his laser and I knew we were going to die.

Suddenly, there was a small bullet hole just above his muzzle of a nose, and a larger exit wound in the back of his bald head. The Synth hesitated, almost puzzled, as if he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. I remembered I wondered if his brains were in his head or tucked somewhere less obvious, less vulnerable.

Then he fell and was still, and Akicita stepped out of the brush behind us, her rifle ready, another round already jacked into the chamber, and Foremost and I were still alive.

Which led us to today’s problem.

I turned to Foremost and tried to read his expression.

Impossible. He said nothing, just looked calmly back at me, the cowls of his robe loose around his neck, his face one damned fine impersonation of a giant wolverine.

“Well?” I demanded.

“Well, what?” Foremost replied. He seemed almost amused. “Let me guess. I’m alien, so I’m supposed to know everything about every other alien race? I’m supposed to know what to do with a dead Synth?”

He shook his head.

“Tony, I have no idea what to do,” Foremost admitted. “I’ve never seen one of these before.”

“It came off your ship.”

“It’s a big ship. A huge ship. It’s almost the size of your moon. And these things,” he nudged the body with the toe of one foot, “are rare. I’ve never seen one before. Heard about them, yes, but never seen one. Somebody hires them, they do their job, and they’re gone. Never heard of one getting killed before.”

“So you have no idea what to do?” I asked, almost accusingly. Foremost shook his head.

“None.”

Disgusted, I turned to the other two.

“Oly?”

He held up his hands and shook his head.

“Not me, Tony.”

“We’re the Pool Hall lodge. This kind of stuff is our business. And you were Sam’s Counselor,” I said. Oly nodded but then shook his head again.

“I agree,” Oly said. “But this,” he pointed at the Synth, “is above my pay grade. This is the kind of stuff Sam took care of.”

Sam was my grandfather. Not by blood but by something more important. When the Default and the Second Depression started, my dad’s family hit the roads and worked the northern fields, from the orchards in Oregon to rogueing beans in Dakota.

The family always came home to Summit for the winter. One year, there was nothing. No place to rest or sleep. Sam let my family use an old shed, even piled up bales of hay against the walls to insulate it and break the wind. My dad was just a little kid, but he used to walk into town to work at the pool hall. One day he sent word back that he was staying with Sam and Laverne. Everyone agreed it was for the best. So when I grew up, I had an extra pair of grandparents.

Problem was, the Default was hard and there wasn’t any extra money for medicine. Sam ran the pool hall but he gave most of the money away. Then, just these last few years, his heart got sick and . . .

“Sam’s dead.”

“Well, no shit,” Oly said tartly. “That makes it your problem. Tell me what you want done and I’ll do it, but I don’t make the decisions. That’s your job now.”

“Damn it,” I said to myself. I looked down at the Synth and tried to think about what I knew about funerals.

I’d gone to them, of course, particularly the exile funerals in D.C. and up and down the east coast and west coast and everywhere else in the flatlands. Sam made me go, said it was part of my job and I was his representative—both from our lodge and from Summit, when one of the exiles died.

So I went.

To burials. And cremations. And organ donations to hospitals. Hell, even to some kind of a celebration for one woman who’d spent all her money to have herself frozen and stuck in a warehouse along with a thousand other stiffs. Her plan—her hope—was that science in the future could wake her up, cure her, and give her a fresh body. Like they’d do that for free. Even in the future I figured you were going to need money.

But this was a new one to me. What do you do with a dead alien?

“We could just leave it here.”

I tried to sound hopeful. Oly shook his head and squatted next to the Synth. He leaned over, sniffed, and jerked his head back. He stood.

“Already starting to go bad. Can’t leave it here. Not in my backyard. Too much rock to dig a decent grave. And if we went shallow, the coyotes would smell it and dig it up. They’d eat it and scatter the bones and the skin all over the place. And for all we know, it’s poisonous and they’ll end up dead, too. It’ll be a mess.” Oly turned to Foremost. “You think they’d like that, upstairs?”

“No.”

Oly looked back at me.

“How about we take it to the county morgue in Webster?”

“No.” Foremost interrupted firmly. “I don’t want any other governments involved. The fewer people who know I’m here, the better.”

My job back in D.C. was to protect foreign diplomats. I’d taken a bullet on my protective vest to save Foremost’s life. After that, he’d headed back upstairs, to the Ship. Thing was, it seemed whoever wanted him dead wasn’t only on Earth. Someone upstairs tried to shoot down his shuttle and damned near succeeded. He’d limped his ship for Summit because he knew I was here.

I glared at both of them.

Oly smiled back, smugly. Foremost concentrated on the Synth. I wanted this problem gone. I decided to try another tack.

“I’m part of the government. Maybe I shouldn’t be involved either.”

Foremost didn’t seem impressed.

“You’re not part of your federal government anymore. You resigned when Sam died. So you don’t count. Besides, your old job was to hide and protect foreign dignitaries. Like me. Think of this as one last job you have to finish.”

Foremost nodded down at the Synth.

“And so far I’m still alive. You’re doing just fine on your own.”

Foremost spoke absently and knelt down next to the Synth, his head cocked to the side. He looked up at me.

“Well?”

I wanted to curse and swear and punch a wall and sweep everything off a table, like an actor in a bad video. Thing was, in real life, none of that helped much. Problem was still there, and now you had a mess to clean up later.

“Seems to me like a local matter,” Oly opined. “Which would mean Sam, as mayor, would take care of it. Problem is, his heart got Sam before any of this even started. So it’s the deputy mayor’s problem.”

Oly turned to Akicita.

“Just who is the deputy mayor these days, Aki’?”

“Shut up.” I spoke to both of them. They ignored me.

“I seem to recall Tony was elected deputy mayor.” Akicita and Oly, the bastards, both openly grinned. “The last two elections. So doesn’t that mean he’s in charge now?”

Mayor. Damn it, I’d forgotten about that. Didn’t seem like anything to worry about back when Sam put me up for the job. He was healthy then and I lived in D.C. What could possibly go wrong? Okay, I had to go to a few funerals, but what else?

Screw it. Not a damned thing I could do to make any of them listen to me. It was like trying to change Carole’s mind when she knew she was right and I was wrong and she was just going to humor me until I gave up and did what I was told.

And I still had a dead body to deal with.

“Fine. We take care of this ourselves. No other governments.”

“Good.”

“But it doesn’t go just one way. Sam always told me not to do favors. He said it was better to collect debts.”

I tried to make Foremost feel guilty. He didn’t look terribly impressed.

“And I’ll remember that. When I have time.” Foremost stood and pointed down at the Synth. “But that’s not right now. So?”

“You killed it, Aki’. What do you want to do with it?”

Even to me my voice sounded resigned. I kept my attention focused on Foremost and watched Akicita out of the corner of my eye.

“Never seen anything like it.”

Akicita spoke slowly, her voice musing. She took one step, another, paced around the body.

“Burn it,” Oly suggested. “Get a bunch of wood and some gasoline. Sink the ashes in one of the pothole lakes the state doesn’t have on their maps yet. Got a new one that just popped up a month ago, south of Bristol. Fifty, sixty feet deep. Piece of cake. Nobody will ever find it.”

“Enough.” I spoke sharply, irritated. “You said you didn’t want to make the decision.”

“Still don’t.” Oly sounded wounded, as if I’d hurt his feelings. “Just trying to help.”

I rolled my eyes and silently asked for patience.

“Aki’?”

Akicita shook her head.

“I don’t think we should throw it away. That’s not the way my people would do it. And I don’t like burying it. Personally, I never liked the idea of rotting in the ground. Even if I was dead.”

“Keep it? You really want to do that?”

“Keep it,” Akicita agreed.

“Ambassador.” I turned to Foremost, my voice clear and formal. “The Synth tried to kill you.”

“Even though they’re both from the same damned ship,” Oly said under his breath. I glared at him, and he went quiet.

“True.” Foremost’s voice was a low rumble.

“When it tried to kill you, the Synth went into your debt. Akicita made her claim. Now you also have to make a decision. Do you make your claim?”

“What are the laws of your state?” Foremost asked cautiously.

“This is Summit,” Oly interrupted, his voice flat and expressionless. For once, he was being serious. “This is our business. Nothing to do with the flatlanders. Our land. Our laws. Our ways. We don’t give a damn about what the state thinks. Screw the state. Screw D.C.”

“Is that how it works, up on the Ship?” Akicita asked Foremost. “Do each people rule themselves? Or is there a state that rules over everyone?”

“There are Ship regulations everyone must follow, for those things which could hurt the Ship itself.” Foremost spoke cautiously, like a diplomat, unwilling to give anything away.

“Just a few regulations?” Akicita asked suspiciously. “Or something more like a treaty?”

Sore subject, I thought and winced. Stay away from treaty talk.

“Not a treaty. Just a few safety rules,” Foremost said hurriedly. “Other than those rules, each people, in their own territory, governs themselves, their own way. No one tries to tell anyone how to mind their own business as long as they stay in their own territory.”

“How many species are on the ship?” His answer made me curious. Like he was dodging the question.

Foremost was silent for a moment. I wondered if he was trying to be diplomatic, to avoid offending us or to avoid giving something away.

“I can’t answer that, Tony. I’m not sure how to answer that.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’d have to see for yourself. Some places seem to be empty, and they’re not. Other places seem to be crowded, but they’re empty. Some are like you might expect. Different, but you’d recognize them. We mostly deal with those people. It has to be something big, something Ship-wide, to get the others involved.”

“So we wouldn’t recognize everyone on board the Ship?”

“No,” Foremost admitted. He hesitated. “There are thousands of species on the Ship. Maybe millions? Some of them are quite . . . different . . . from you or me. Or even the Synth. We don’t really understand many of them.”

He turned to Akicita.

“So we leave each other alone. Except for the safety regulations. Everyone has to follow those.”

All politics is local. I could hear Sam’s voice as well as if he were still alive, the memory so fresh it hurt. Which brought me back to the cemetery and the Synth.

“Ambassador?” I asked. “I still need an answer.”

“I will make my claim on the Synth.”

“You hear that, Oly?” I asked. “Since these fools make a claim, I might as well do the same.”

“You know what that means?” Oly asked. I nodded.

“I do.”

“This is your decision? As Mayor? And as Keeper of the Pool Hall?”

“It is,” I said. “As both.”

“What about the flatlanders? What if they try to get involved?”

“Not a problem. Cousin Beth might be Kadisha but she’s also a lawyer. And she owes me,” I assured him. “I’ll put her on this when I get back to town. She’ll throw enough legal crap together to keep the flatlanders tied up in court for years, if they get involved at all. By then, one way or another, it’s not going to matter.”

I looked down at the Synth. I nudged the body with my boot.

“In the meantime, this is your problem. Get him ready.”

Oly took a deep breath and shrugged. He tilted his head to the side and rubbed his chin.

“I need a cigarette.”

“You quit twenty years ago,” Akicita reminded him.

“Shut up.” Oly spoke without rancor. “I can still want one. Just don’t give it to me.”

“Oly, that doesn’t make any—”

“How long do I get?” Oly interrupted. He looked up at me.

“One week.”

Oly shook his head.

“Can’t be done. Maybe in two.”

“Seven days. You don’t have to go all Ga on him. Just get the job done.”

“Damn it, Tony! I can’t work miracles. A week and a half.”

“You have one week. It’s got to be done by that morning.”

Oly threw up his hands and glared at me. I met him, eye to eye, until he looked down at his boots and scuffed the ground.

“One week,” Oly grumbled. “Can’t do a proper job in one week.”

“Doesn’t have to be perfect. Just good enough to meet the rules. I’m not telling you to work in stone, for God’s sake!”

Oly knelt next to the Synth.

“I’ll need salt,” he warned. “Forty or fifty pounds. Maybe five, six, pounds of borax. A solid mannequin. None of that cheap hollow crap all the youngsters use these days. I’m going to have to do some carving.”

“Make sure you keep everything,” I reminded him.

“Screw you, Tony.” Oly spoke absently and without emphasis, his concentration already past me and on to the Synth. “I won’t lose anything.”

“And keep something for the Oya and the Kadisha.”

Oly looked up, startled. Akicita turned to face me and frowned.

“He’s not from Summit.” Oly tipped his chin at the Synth. He looked almost angry. I cut him off.

“Where did he die?” I demanded from Oly. Oly bit off whatever he was going to say and looked over at Akicita. She hesitated, then shrugged.

“He got shot in the cemetery,” Oly agreed reluctantly.

“He got shot in the cemetery,” I repeated. “In the Summit cemetery. What happens to people who die in Summit and get claimed?”

“He’s not a people!”

“He died in Summit.” Akicita spoke slowly. “We all claimed him.”

Oly started to object. I stared him down until he dropped his eyes. He grumbled and looked away.

I had no idea what to do next, so I was going to follow the rules Sam taught me. Everyone in Summit would at least recognize it if we handled the Synth the usual way. And when times are uncertain, people cling to tradition. It gives them a point of reference. I smelled politics in the air, and I knew this was just the beginning. The rest of it was going to be a lot harder.

Akicita stepped closer to me and spoke in a low tone. Foremost leaned imperceptibly closer to hear better.

“You’ll go talk with the Custodian?” Akicita asked me.

“I’ll talk with the Custodian,” I agreed. “You tell Flipper to bring Oly everything he needs.” I called over my shoulder, back at Oly. “Anything special you need right away?”

“Black marbles.”

“Black marbles?”

“Make sure they have yellow specks in them. I definitely saw yellow in his eyes.”

Oly always was a perfectionist.

*   *   *

Three of us walked past the shack and down the hill to Sam’s old blue Ford truck. It was probably as old as Sam, a four on the floor with the long, skinny, shift levers that sprouted up through the steel. In the city I was pretty sure they’d call it an antique and offer me too much money for it. Here, it was just Sam’s old truck.

I pulled the lever-style door handle down and stepped up on the running board. Far to the east, at the edge of the plateau, a shaft of sunlight must have cut through the clouds and hit the glass just right; I saw the flash and glint of red and orange and yellow and blue of the Abbey and the Rainbow.

I shook my head and settled on to the front seat bench, pulled the door shut with a little more force than necessary. Foremost climbed in on the passenger side. Akicita stopped a few steps away.

“You need a ride?” I jerked my thumb at the truck bed behind us. “Got room in back.”

“Nah. Faster to walk.”

I have no idea where she’d stashed it, but Akicita’s rifle was now strapped comfortably in place across her back.

“It’s five miles across the hills,” I reminded her.

“Fifteen miles by road. And you’re not going to Flipper’s place.” Akicita adjusted the rifle, made sure the strap was tight. “You take care of your business and I’ll take care of mine. See you back in town.”

She turned away from us and started walking, a long, easy stride that ate up distance. A minute later she was deep in the grass, then over a ridge and out of sight. I started the engine, shifted into first, and started down the barely visible trace that led away from Oly’s place.

“A week isn’t a lot of time,” Foremost said as we drove, bouncing over a set of rugged tracks. It wasn’t bad for a Summit road. At least it was corncobbed for traction on the top of the hills.

“Nope,” I said. I shifted into second gear and gunned the truck through a rut and over a clump of weeds. “But he’ll have it done.”

“I’ll send word up to the Ship. Maybe someone knows someone who knows a Synth,” Foremost said. He changed topics. “One week from today. Sam’s death auction is that afternoon, isn’t it?”

“That is a fact,” I agreed. I shifted into third just as we popped over the top of a hill. I twisted the wheel and we hit the ground, hard. Foremost grabbed the seat and the door. I hit the gas and a rooster tail of dirt and dust spun up behind us. I grinned. Damn, it was good to be out of D.C.!

“You still don’t understand us, do you?” I asked.

“No,” Foremost said. “But that’s one reason we need you on the Ship. Different points of view, different ways of looking at problems, are just as important to us as air or water or power.”

“Is that an official invitation to join the Ship?” I asked.

“No,” Foremost said, reluctantly. “Call it an informal invitation. I still need a full vote from the Council to make it official.”

“It would be different up there,” I mused.

“Then you agree?” Foremost asked. “Your lodge, and the rest of Summit, will move to the Ship?”

“Hell, no, I don’t agree!” I said, shocked.

“But the Pool Hall is the most respected lodge in Summit,” Foremost protested. “The entire town was at Sam’s funeral out at the cemetery.”

“Sam was good at keeping the peace,” I admitted. “Oly always said Sam could talk the knickers off a nun. But that doesn’t make one damned bit of difference.”

“You can’t order the others to move to the Ship,” Foremost said slowly.

“Of course not! For God’s sake, don’t go around saying things like that. You trying to start a feud?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Life isn’t like they show on the video,” I said patiently. “Most people here have lives already. Kids and grandkids and jobs and friends. They’re not going anywhere. The best we can hope for is to get the Keepers of the lodges to let anyone go who wants to go. Give them permission to take what they need to get them started upstairs. We get that permission, and we’ll get the restless and probably a lot of the young people. That’s who we really need.”

We were back at the county road. I looked both ways and turned off the dirt and on to the county gravel.

“I’ll talk with the others,” I said. “I’ll get my brothers busy on it, too. Akicita and I can both talk to the First Nations.”

“You have First Nations blood?” Foremost asked, surprised. I was surprised myself, that he even knew what I was talking about.

“This is all reservation land.” I gestured at everything outside the window. “Or it used to be. Hell, it gets confusing even to us. Then you get the lawyers involved and, well . . .”

“Yes?”

“Thing is, there’s not that many of us permanently up here in the hills. But a lot of us are born here and leave and come back and leave and come back again, with a change in husbands and wives and kids and such. Everyone has aunts and uncles and cousins all over the place. Do I have First Nations blood? Probably. Does Akicita have Irish or German? Probably. Black? Mexican? China? Japan? Indian? Viet? Iraqi? Probably. Even the gene tests don’t work so good here. So we all kind of ignore that shit. Think of it as Summit and the lodges against the flatlanders in Minneapolis and New York and Beijing and London and everywhere else. Makes it easier.”

“You’re the castoffs. The people who never fit in anywhere else.”

I nodded. I pointed out the window.

“Our land is poor. Not very good soil, lots of rocks, no oil or gas or anything worth a damn. Hardly any railroads. No airports. Hell, no highways until a few years ago. If you want to make it up here, you need a lodge, a group of people who work together and live together and share together to make a living. Some of us are farmers. Some are water people. Some are mechanics or construction or something else.”

“What happens to the children? The ones who want to see what it’s like in the flatlands?”

“We’re not stupid,” I said, sharply. “If anything, I think we’re more driven up here because there’s no extra. Helicopter parents? Dream on. Up here your parents and your friends and every relative is on you to succeed. If you leave, life in the flats seems easy.”

“And lonely?” Foremost pushed.

The county road ended, and I stopped for a minute. The cloud of gravel dust behind us drifted up and over and around us, thinned out, and was gone. In front of us, the top bar of a T, was a choice.

“Maybe a little,” I admitted.

To my right was the state road, asphalt and concrete, smooth and straight and clean. Turn right and it was high speed and easy, all the way to the flatlands, to where someone else took over all my problems. Turn left and it was uphill with nothing but dirt and potholes and rumble crap and into Summit. The Ship was still faintly visible on the horizon, fading as the sun hauled itself up into the pale blue sky.

“You run Sam’s pool hall,” Foremost mused to himself. “You sell everyone drinks and food.”

“And we hire the bands for Saturday night and sponsor the softball league and the bowling league and roller skating Sundays,” I added.

“They relax around you and tell you things,” Foremost said thoughtfully. “And if there’s a big problem, you get the lodges together to solve it.”

“That’s one way to look at it. The Pool Hall is like the oil in an engine. Our job is to make sure everyone else gets along. But we can’t survive by ourselves. We need the others.”

“And if you don’t have them?”

“Then we’re not going on the Ship.”

“Your lodge will die out if you stay on Earth,” Foremost warned. “Change is coming to the Dakota hills.”

“I know,” I said softly. “But if we go alone to the Ship, we’ll die for a fact, body and soul. We aren’t big enough, don’t have all the skills we’d need. We need farmers and mechanics and water people and all the rest to survive. Hell, I’ll admit it, sometimes we even need Mother Lu and the Nacacijin to deal with the outside world.”

“So you must convince the other lodges to come to the Ship,” Foremost said, and I swear he gave a very human shrug. “That’s what Sam would do.”

You never even met Sam!”

“True,” Foremost said. He shrugged again. “But you have.”

I started to spit out some smartass answer, but I stopped myself. He was right. It didn’t matter whether he had ever met Sam. This was about me, and what I thought Sam would have done.

Yeah, I thought to myself, gloomily. Problem is, I’m not Sam.

So I broke the rules and changed the algorithm. Instead of going right or left, I drove the truck straight ahead, through the T, off the road and down the ditch and around the fence onto a little path that no one would ever know was there, unless you were born up here. We crossed up and over a ridge and the Abbey was ahead of us, in the middle distance.

Time to see the Custodian and talk about the Rainbow.

*   *   *

Blue Sky Abbey faced us. It was a five-story octagon with glass walls, on top of a hill, with each wall separated from the next by strips of sandstone colored concrete. A bell tower, connected by a ground floor walkway, stood to the side. Downhill, another walkway connected to a small dormitory for the monks.

I parked in the lot and stepped out, Foremost beside me. I walked up to the entrance, rang the bell, and waited by the double doors. Someone was always awake inside.

A minute or so later one of the doors pushed open. The Custodian stood in the doorway.

“And look what the cat brought in!”

Brother Stephanie smiled up at us, her short brown hair neatly tucked back. She was barely five feet tall with a round, almost pixie-like face, freckles, and soft blue eyes. She hugged me, pulled my face down, kissed me on the cheek, and urged me inside. She did the same with Foremost, without any hesitation. Alien or not, nothing seemed to bother her.

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. Abbey monks were tough. The Custodian was even tougher.

We stood in the walkway for a moment. Stephanie looked at me and Foremost shrewdly.

“I would like to think you’re here for my professional guidance and wisdom,” she said drily. “But I know you, Tony, so I doubt it. As for you, Ambassador, I have seen the Ship and read about you. Even Tony might hesitate to waste your time.”

“Stephanie—”

She talked right over me.

“So, Tony, is this a personal visit, something to do with expanding the Ambassador’s knowledge of Earth and the Church? Or is this Summit business and the Ambassador is your tagalong?”

“Damn it, Stephanie,” I started. I stopped myself. I was in church, but old habits—both ways—died hard. I knew not to swear in church, but I also knew what to say when she teased me. This time she smiled at me, with just a hint of the grin she’d used on me when we were in grade school together.

“I need to talk to you, as the Custodian. And Foremost here needs to be with us while we talk. Then you get to decide whether this visit is personal business or Summit business.”

Brother Stephanie looked at me for a moment, then shook her head.

“Nothing is ever easy with you around, is it, Tony?” She sighed. “So is this an opportunity? Or a problem?”

“Yes,” I said. She didn’t smile. She gave me that you haven’t done your homework? Again? look.

“Office?”

She pivoted on her heel to turn down the walkway toward the base of the bell tower. I shook my head and turned the other direction.

“Ah.”

Stephanie studied me for a moment. I felt like I was back in grade school and I had suddenly done something unexpected, and one of the smart nuns realized it and gave me that look. The one that said maybe you’re not quite the dumbass everyone thinks you are.

I hated that look. It was a lot safer to stay quiet in a nice, comfortable box of expectations and be overlooked. When people started noticing you, all those comfortable expectations got tossed up in the air, and life suddenly became a lot more complicated.

“Right. Well, not a waste of time, then. I have a little work to do in the chapel.”

“The Nguyens? Linh and Hieu?”

“You knew them?”

I nodded.

“Nice couple. I felt bad for their grandkids when I heard.”

Stephanie took Foremost’s arm and led us down the walkway toward the chapel. She explained as we walked.

“Car accident down by Lake Traverse a week ago. Some drunk flatlander coming back from ice fishing. Took his car off self-drive, bypassed the GPS, and blew a stop sign.”

She reached into the pocket of her brown monk’s robe and pulled out two thin glass tubes, one a light green, the other a soft yellow, each stoppered with a clear cap. Inside one was a small piece of bone, and the other held what looked like a baby tooth.

“Happened outside of Summit, so that was easy,” Stephanie said. “The flatlander’s remains went back to Minneapolis and the Kadisha took care of the arrangements here and the Oya approved it. The Nguyens’ names and history went into the Registry this morning and Dove brought over the tubes.”

“Same lodge?”

“Actually, no. Linh worked out at the wind farm. She was an accountant, but she was invited into the Engineer lodge. She was always very proud of that.”

“Hieu?”

She held up the green tube.

“A cook. Best pho up here. Opened the place after you left town. Grew his own herbs in a greenhouse behind the restaurant. He joined the Farmers.”

“You’re going to separate them?”

“Roy G. Biv, Tony,” Stephanie scolded me gently. “Remember the colors. Yellow and green are right next to each other.”

I looked at the tubes again. The yellow might have had flecks of green in it, and the green shaded a little toward yellow when she held it just right in the light.

“I think we can get these in the right lodges and still get them next to each other.”

We stopped at the double doors to the chapel. I pulled them open so Foremost and Stephanie could step through.

“Time to put these in the Rainbow.”

*   *   *

One way to describe the Rainbow was to say it was a chapel, with a simple altar at one end of the room, a carpeted floor, and a dozen pews separated by a single aisle. And the walls were five-story-high frosted glass, so that sunlight poured in on every side, even above the altar.

Except the walls weren’t really just walls. . . .

The walls of the chapel, from top to bottom, on all sides, were made of thousands of little medicine bottles, test tubes, small glass containers. A rare few were clear, but most were red or rose or orange or yellow or green or blue or indigo or violet. Sunlight streamed through the windows, and through the bottles and into the chapel, in arcs and bands and mixtures and spilled across the floor and the altar and the pews and us.

Foremost and I walked down the aisle, through the middle of the Rainbow. Stephanie stopped behind us and let us go ahead.

I always wondered when I walked through the Rainbow. One thing I learned, one thing Sam drummed into me, was that every person who ever lived was the hero of their own story; every person was the center of their own little universe. Inside the Rainbow I wondered about all those stories, about all those universes.

Thousands of stories, thousands of universes, stretching back through the history of Summit . . .

I heard a noise and looked back. Brother Stephanie maneuvered a rolling ladder, locked the wheels, and climbed up. She unlocked a transparent protective panel and slipped a datapad out of her robe. She studied it and then slid the two glass containers carefully into place, by their family and kin and lodge. She wrote all the information down on the datapad, sent it to the Registry, then locked everything, and climbed down. I helped her put the ladder away.

“Well?”

I looked at Foremost. He stood in the middle of the chapel, behind the pews. He watched the colors and patterns slowly change as the Sun moved and clouds crossed the sky outside. We walked over to stand next to him.

“So what do you need from me?” she asked.

“I need approval from the Custodian.”

Stephanie stared at me, puzzled, for a moment. Then her face cleared and she nodded.

“The other alien. The one at the cemetery.”

“He’s called a Synth.” I shrugged. “Other than that, I don’t know his name.”

Foremost turned, slowly. He didn’t really look at either of us. His eyes were on the colors and the walls and the ever-changing patterns.

“He died in Summit,” I said to Stephanie. “Aki’ and I and the ambassador made a claim on him. Oly’s getting everything ready.”

“Ah,” Stephanie said. She frowned for a moment, then her face cleared and she looked up at me.

“He doesn’t have a lodge, then?”

“No.”

“Not a problem,” she said. “The answer is still yes. I have a spot for him, and he’s welcome to it. He died in Summit.”

I nodded back.

“I’ll do the best I can to find out anything about him, to put in the Registry,” I said. “Thank you.”

I moved in front of Foremost, to get his attention. He started, as if he had forgotten where we were and who I was.

“You all right?”

“Yes,” Foremost said. He glanced at the Rainbow, then down at the floor.

“My eyes aren’t like yours,” Foremost said.

I studied him closer then, just for a moment. He looked back at me calmly. I realized his eyes were slitted vertically and there was a hint of another, inner, set of eyelids.

“I saw a video once, on the internet,” I said. “Video said that cats don’t see things the way we do. That they’re not color-blind, but they see colors lower in the spectrum and they see things more sharply, to detect movement. You like that?”

“Something like that,” Foremost said. He gestured to the Rainbow. “You start at red and work your way up to violet. I start lower than red and go higher than violet.”

“I don’t have words for colors like that,” I said.

“I know.” Foremost looked up again, at the walls and the colors and the arcs. “But you have those colors here, all around me.”

I gave him another few seconds and that was enough.

“Time to go,” I said. “We need to get back to Sam’s house. We’ve got things to do.”

“Of course,” he said. He turned to the Custodian.

“Thank you.”

Brother Stephanie smiled and tilted her head. We walked across the chapel, down the hallway and out the doors. We climbed back into the truck. I saw Stephanie wave at me from the doorway and gesture for me to roll down the window.

“The container,” she called.

“Yeah?”

“It needs to be clear.”

“Clear.”

“So the Rainbow goes through it.”

“Not a problem.”

“And old. Old would be nice.”

I thought for a moment, then nodded. I rolled the window back up and turned the truck around to head back to town.

“Old and clear?” Foremost asked as we got on the road. “I’m going to make a guess here. Clear means he belongs to all of Summit, not to any particular lodge or family. Old simply means he’s important.”

“See?” I said. “You are starting to understand things around here. . . .”

*   *   *

I parked the truck in the driveway behind Sam’s old house. Kelli and Rose, two of my brothers’ wives, waved and then ignored me and went back to their argument. Tom and Bob and Steve, my brothers, walked over as Foremost and I got out of the truck.

“What’s wrong now?” I asked and gestured at the women.

“The usual,” Bob said. I looked puzzled.

“Kelli wants the backyard fence,” Tom explained. “She thinks it’ll look nice around her garden.”

I turned to Steve.

“Rose wants the bushes and the other plants along the fence line,” Steve said. “She’s afraid if Kelli takes the fence, she’ll rip up the plants doing it.”

I studied the plants and the fence for a moment. The brothers waited.

“Tell Rose she can have half the plants,” I said, finally. “And Kelli gets half the fence. The rest has to stay here to go with the house at the auction.”

They looked at me. I looked at the wives. Everybody waited a minute.

“Fine,” Tom said. Steve nodded. Tom tipped his head toward the fence and the bushes.

“But how?” Tom asked. “We still might break the fence and kill the plants.”

“Damned if I know,” I said firmly. “Not my job to figure that out. You want the fence and the plants, fine, that’s how much you can have. How is not my problem.”

“That’s not fair,” Steve protested. “They’re not going to be happy.”

“So? Life’s not fair,” I said. “And tell them if they don’t work together, then neither of them gets anything and it all goes at auction.”

Steve and Tom looked at each other for a moment, then back at the arguing women.

“That fence is pretty long,” Tom said, thoughtfully. “A lot bigger than our garden. Just this one side of fencing would be enough for us.”

“And my van’s already pretty full of plants Rose wheedled out of the neighbors,” Steve observed. “Not room for a hell of a lot more. Only need a few really.”

“I could use some help getting the fence out,” Tom allowed. “I could help you with the plants.”

Tom and Steve glanced at each other, then turned and spat in the same piece of dirt. They both ground it with their boot heels, then nodded to me and walked toward the garden. I turned to Bob. He held his hands up, palms open.

“Your girlfriend doesn’t want anything?” I asked skeptically. Bob was divorced, but there was always a new girlfriend.

“Didn’t say that,” Bob replied. “But Sam’s house doesn’t have what she wants.”

“Then why do you look so guilty?”

“She collects medicine bottles, Tony. The older, the better.”

“You showed her the Rainbow. And that gave her ideas.”

“She was at Sam’s family service, Tony,” Bob said defensively. “Remember when the sun broke out and the light hit the glass? She grabbed my arm so hard I thought she was going to rip it off.”

“You know what happens if anyone messes with the Rainbow,” I warned. “You want to face off against the Kadisha, and after that with Mother Lu? The Nacacijin will take you back in the hills, make sure you understand the rules, and weight down what’s left of you in one of the pothole lakes.”

Bob shook his head.

“I’m not crazy,” he said, stubbornly, “but she still wants some of the old bottles.”

“Does she know where the pioneers used to throw their garbage?”

“I told her about Outhouse Ned,” Bob confirmed. He did not look happy. “She made me call him. They talked and he’s coming over before the auction. Says he thinks Sam might have been squatting on a gold mine. Says the pioneers and other people used to throw all kinds of stuff down there. Antique dealers in Minneapolis love that crap.”

“I don’t want to know any more.” I winced, and Bob grinned. I knew his choice of words had been deliberate and precise. Smart-ass.

I glanced at the outhouse in Sam’s backyard. I’d seen pictures from when Sam was a baby and from when my Dad was a baby and from when I was a baby. Different house each time on the lot, but the outhouse was always there, in the background. No telling how old it was.

“She’s got to work out a way to share with all of us, to make sure there’s no hard feelings.”

“Ned can dig around? She’ll check over what he finds.”

“Yeah,” I said, reluctantly. “As long as they work on it together, to make sure Ned doesn’t pocket anything good. He’s got to be done and out of here before the auction starts. And I need one medicine bottle, in good shape. An old one. And it has to be clear glass. And clean.”

Bob thought for a moment, then nodded and stepped away. He took out his phone and held it up to his ear.

I watched the brothers and the women back Tom’s truck into the backyard. They looped one end of a chain around the tow hitch and the other end through and around the links and bars in the fence. As I watched, Kelli got into the truck and Rose stood back to give her directions.

“Put her in first and go forward slow,” Rose called out. “Slow, slow, slow.”

The truck’s engine came to life. I turned away and headed for the house.

The back door of the house opened and Carole stepped outside. She wore her official jacket, with SECRET SERVICE in huge letters across the chest and back. She saw Foremost and me and headed toward us.

“Ambassador,” she said. “Tony.”

“It is very good to see you, Agent Carole,” Foremost said gravely.

“You were gone a long time,” Carole said, and glared at me.

“I was quite well protected,” Foremost assured her. “If I remember correctly, you once said Keeper Tony was almost good enough to be in the Secret Service.”

“How many times have I saved your life?” I asked Foremost. “Twice? Three times? Almost good enough, my ass.”

They both ignored me. I expected that, and I wasn’t upset. It seemed comfortable, somehow.

“I understand, Ambassador, but at the same time, the president has made it very clear your safety is now the Secret Service’s responsibility. Specifically, it’s my responsibility. If you would just let me bring in a regular protective detail, I would be much, much happier. And you would be much safer.”

“I understand your concern,” Foremost said politely. “My own people up on the Ship have told me much the same thing. And I would not interfere with your official duties in almost all other circumstances. However, this is Summit, and things are somewhat different here—”

The engine on the truck roared and the truck ground forward. The chains pulled and tightened. Rose waved Kelli to hold it, while Tom and Steve checked the fence and the chains and made some small adjustments. Rose waited until they were done and then waved Kelli to go ahead.

Kelli slowly let up on the clutch. The truck inched forward. The chains seemed to hum as the truck strained. The fence stayed in the ground, stubbornly refused to give any ground. Kelli gave it just a little more gas, and the fence bent, and then, reluctantly, the rods began to slide out of the ground. Rose stepped back, slipped, and fell flat on her ass, just in time to avoid getting a metal rod through her head as the truck jerked forward and the fence popped free and whipped through the air.

Tom and Steve ran to Rose, shouting. Kelli killed the engine and jumped out of the truck and joined the rest of the pack.

Rose just sat on the ground, completely covered in mud, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

“Things are different in Dakota,” Carole said drily.

“They are indeed.”

Foremost turned to me.

“When will you and the rest of the lodges decide if Summit will go to the Ship?”

“Seven days. Everybody will be here for Sam’s auction. We’ll settle the death gifts, then we’ll vote. Doesn’t make any sense to wait longer.”

“Good.”

“You’re going back to the Ship today,” I said, matter of factly. Foremost’s head jerked up.

“How did you know that?”

I shrugged.

“Your shuttle was sabotaged, and that’s how you ended up here, in Summit. So I know someone, upstairs, wanted you dead. Wanted it bad enough to hire the Synth and send it down here to kill you when you managed to land in one piece. Biggest thing your Council is deciding is whether to bring humans on the Ship. If your enemies are willing to kill to stop it, and you’re willing to risk your life to push it forward, then I figure you need to be upstairs, not down here.”

“Maybe you can survive upstairs.” Foremost sounded like he approved.

“We’re not stupid. We might be behind you in technology, but we’re not stupid.”

I turned to Carole. “And you’re going with him, aren’t you?”

She took a deep breath, blew it out, then looked up at me.

“My job is to keep the Ambassador alive. I got my orders last night, after you two talked with the president. I stay with the Ambassador everywhere he goes.”

“Even on the Ship?”

“Even on the Ship,” she confirmed.

“We’ll come back that morning, before the auction.” Foremost sounded like he was trying to be reassuring. It didn’t help.

“Bring me a Synth. Someone who can make decisions.”

“No promises. I’ll be back, but I have no idea what’s going to happen upstairs.”

“Do your best,” I suggested. “Otherwise, you’re going to have to make some decisions on your own.”

“About what?” Foremost asked, cautiously. Now it was my turn to smile.

“Can’t tell you,” I said. “Not sure it will work. But if it does, and Oly can make it happen, then you better bring a Synth with you.”

Foremost opened his mouth as if he was going to start an argument, then he just shut his mouth. I turned to Carole.

“We’ll meet you that morning, in the clearing by the cemetery. Get me a message when you’re coming down.”

“Not a problem.”

I shook my head. Carole smiled, stood on her toes and put her arms around me, and kissed me. The smile folded up and was gone by the time she was off her toes.

“I’ll do my best to find a Synth.” Foremost sounded cautious. “I may have to call in some favors.”

“All politics is local,” I said, automatically. “Someone up there wanted you dead. Instead, you’re coming back alive and the Synth is dead. People are going to ask questions upstairs. Find them and talk with them.”

Foremost looked at me and, for the first time, tried a human smile. His lips pulled back from his teeth and the fangs showed, long and curved and sharp.

“Exactly right,” he said. “All politics is local.”

*   *   *

Carole kissed me again, and I got all the usual promises to be safe and careful. We both knew she was lying, that there was no way to go into a completely unknown situation and be safe and careful.

But we felt better. Sometimes lying is the best you can do.

An hour later I stood next to the truck on the outskirts of town. A shuttle from the Ship, fresh and not smashed up like Foremost’s vehicle, rested in a little pasture between a pair of cow tanks. Foremost and Carole walked into an airlock. She waved goodbye, and the door shut behind her.

The shuttle lifted, silently and effortlessly, no wind, no exhaust, and went straight up. A moment and it was gone.

I stood for a minute. The sky was pale blue with spots of puffy clouds. From where I stood I could see down off the hills, all the way to the big lake. Minnesota was a vague, misty place on the horizon.

I turned and got back in the truck and started the engine. I had work to do.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. Bury Me in the Rainbow by Bill Johnson

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