The Pass

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2012.

The doe startled and bolted, so Chinchy Herrera put her arrow into the buck instead. Instantly she regretted it. It wasn't big for a mule deer buck, but it was still probably double the weight of the doe that she'd intended to take.

She dressed it and then slogged homeward with the hot sun on her back, alternating between dragging the carcass and staggering along with it in a fireman's carry. It would have been impossible except that she was a big girl, and it was a steep drop down through the foothills to the village where Bristlecone, California, had once been.

The men would all want to hear the story of how she'd killed it, as if that was the hard part. Chinchy was a novelty because she was the girl who brought back more meat than any two men combined. Nobody would say, “Chinchy, how far did you have to carry that monster? Does your backbone feel cracked in half?” Not even “I bet your feet hurt.” Oh, they'd honor her all right. Give her the big, fatty liver, crisped on the outside and bleeding raw at the center. The thought of it made her want to puke. Sweat dripped down into her eye, and she wiped it on the buck's belly fur.

She had a rope with her, and what she really wanted to do was haul most of the carcass up onto a tree branch. One haunch would be a feast for Mom and the other kids tonight. But that would seem like hoarding, and people would talk. Just like her father, you know about him. Actually, Chinchy's father was striding across the earth somewhere in the last days of man. He'd had better things to do than you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-pick-your-lice-off.

Her feet weren't too bad coming down the sandy part of the ridge. They plunged in with every step, like in fresh snow. But then she got to the rocky part, and her toes started jamming into the front of her deerskin boots. She was considering whether to check for blisters and readjust her load when her hunter's eye caught sight of a man watching her from the shade of an oak tree. She veered toward him, and after a delay he came up to meet her. One of his soles made a flapping noise with each step.

“Want some help with that?” It was a stranger with bad teeth and a sunburn partially hidden by dirt.

“Uh.” She let the deer fall to the ground, mainly to make sure she could defend herself if she had to. She'd never met a human she didn't know. It wasn't unheard of, but it was a threat. The usual reason you didn't know him would be that he'd had his ass kicked out of town and had been circling like a turkey vulture ever since. “I don't know you.”

“Yeah, but I think maybe I know you.” The man chuckled through his ratty beard. “Thought I might find you up here.”

Oh, crap. Worst possible situation. This guy rapes and kills her, and then to cover up his crime he hides her body where nobody will find it — not until her brain has rotted and it's too late to transfer her to the Cloud.

“Hey, don't freak out,” he said. Without realizing it, she'd taken two steps back, brought her compound bow down from her shoulder, and nocked an arrow. “Heh heh.” That annoying chuckle again, nervous this time. “You're Chinchy, right? I'm your father.”

“The hell you are.” This couldn't be him. Obviously. No way.

“Mark Herrera, that's me. Sorry I couldn't be here when you were ...”

Chinchy drew back on the bowstring just enough to feel the cams turn. She'd oiled them the night before with bear fat.

“...could you point that thing a little farther away from me?”

“Prove it.”

“Okay, that's reasonable. Sure, I can see's how you need time to adjust. It's not easy for you. Prove it, okay.” He looked away and pulled on an earlobe. “Do you still have that little paper umbrella? I found that in a bar over by Coso Flats. People took the liquor, but they didn't notice the umbrella. I brought it back for you when you were about three.”

The red umbrella didn't open and close anymore, but it was still stored in Chinchy's special box that her younger brothers and sisters weren't allowed to touch. The umbrella went in the box's back corner, underneath the old coin that had Sacagawea on one side and an eagle on the other. If this was really her father, then ... striding across the earth in the last days of man must have a way of making you not look your best.

“I think I might remember that,” she said. “What color was it?”

“Red, wasn't it?”

“I think I used to have something like that, but it was yellow.”

“Really? I remember it red. Maybe someone else gave you a yellow one after that.”

“I guess you wouldn't know what anybody else gave me, after you took off.”

“It wasn't like I wanted to leave, you know. They said I was hoarding, which was true. Kicked me out for it. You want to go sit in the shade? How's Carly doing these days?”

“Mom's all right.” The sun was hot.

They sat under the oak. There was blood from the deer on Chinchy's shoulder, drying and getting sticky. She shooed away flies. She found out that her father herded sheep, an animal that she only knew about from crumbly old paper books and the know-its. Sheep were what he'd been exiled for hoarding. Maybe the two of them could see each other once in a while, just to say hi. He didn't really seem like a bad person, just not as well bathed as she'd imagined.

“How'd you find me?” Chinchy asked.

“Jenny Shu trades this and that with me, couple times a year. Supposed to shun me, but she doesn't. She said you been hunting up this ridge the last week or so.”

If he'd managed to have regular contact with Ms. Shu, he could have done the same with Chinchy. Obviously the one was a necessity in his eyes and the other a burden — or maybe if she pressed him, he'd offer some rationalization about not wanting to get her in trouble.

“I should get going,” she said. The sun was close to the mountains. “I've still got to haul this buck home tonight.” She stood up and walked toward the carcass. It was a good excuse to escape, because her father couldn't go into the village. The way to handle it was that they were just two people who hadn't talked in a long time, and now they both had to go home. That would show that she was an adult now, and she didn't need him.

“You never asked why I came here today,” she heard him say from a distance.

“So why did you?” she asked over her shoulder.

“I'm cashing out.”

Cash was a kind of money, like the Sacagawea coin. “What?” She squatted down and thought about whether to carry the buck some more or drag it for a while.

“Transferring.”

“Oh yeah?” She stood back up and looked him in the eye. He'd be allowed to come back from exile for long enough to walk through the village and get to the transfer point.

“Yeah, about time for it.” He spread his hands. “You can see I'm wore out.”

“Mom ...”

“I don't think Carly wants to see me. After she transfers she's got forever to come by and say hi if she wants.” Her father walked up the hill, sole flapping again, to where she was. He put a hand up to shade his eyes. “And Ron, I'm grateful that he took care of you along with his own kids. I was real sorry to hear when he got sick. Tell you what, first thing I do after I transfer, I'll look him up and buy him a virtual drink, or whatever you buy for an old friend when you're in the Cloud. Him and Carly were meant to be together, not like me and her. It's good you and me got to talk, because Ron's going to want to know how everyone is.”

They dragged the buck down the ridge together. Chinchy insisted on going in front, so that he wouldn't be able to see in case she stressed out too much and had trouble keeping her face under control. She hauled on the short new velvet-covered antlers, while her father supported some of the weight of the hindquarters using a sling made from her rope that he slung over his shoulder.

They came down off of the ridge and into a canyon that was now shaded from the sun, then met up with one of the Cloud's tentacles where it wound its way up the bed of the creek. It had been a heavy snow year, and there was more water flowing down along the side of the tendril than it could suck up. Sometimes the pink roots spreading out from the Cloud's center reminded Chinchy of tongues, but at this time of year, tight with water, they made her think of tumescent penises. She and her father followed the tube down as it grew from waist- to chest-high, until they reached the edge of the area where the trees had been cleared around the village. Annie Pansegrau was playing in the young corn lilies. They put down the buck, and Chinchy sent Annie to go and tell Chinchy's family to come and pick it up before bears or coyotes found it.

“I don't know if you want to ...” Chinchy said, not knowing how to end her sentence.

“I'm ready. Let's do it.”

They scrambled up on top of the tentacle and started along it toward the center, with her father in front. The strand joined with others, rose and fattened, until they were high enough to see out over the quaking tops of the aspens that grew along the river. The shadow of the mountains was creeping out across the desolate sagebrush plain beyond.

“You must have been some places,” Chinchy said.

“Here and there.”

“Everybody in the village is afraid to get too far from the transfer point, because what if something happens?”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you been to — are there other villages, other Clouds?”

“Haven't gone searching for them. A sheep gets lost, I go after it. A griz took out a ewe a few weeks back, and the flock scattered. You know where the lake is that's shaped like a heart? Island in the middle, stays froze up until May usually?”

“No. I go up to tree line. Game's not as good higher than that.”

“The bear was what made me think about transferring. A grizzly will eat a man, I guess. No point pushing my luck. The rest of the sheep are still up there at that lake.”

They got to the top, the huge, pink central bulge that was even taller than the big Jeffrey pine by the railroad tracks. Her father put his hands on his hips and looked down by his feet at the transfer point's orifice, which was a circle a little smaller than a man's head. The protective iris that covered it was translucent, but in the dusk it was hard to see anything inside.

Her father slowly made a complete turn to take a last look around at the world.

“All right, thanks, Chinchy, for coming here with me. I'm sorry about ... the body —”

“It's all right. I don't mind.”

“You've grown up into a fine woman.” He put out a hand and they shook. “Guess I'd better do it before I lose my nerve.” Without saying anything more, he walked over and lay down on his back with his head on top of the iris. It was nothing like the usual ceremony. No singing, no speeches, no blanket drawn over him. Instead of closing his eyes, he shaded them with a hand.

The iris gradually started to open, the orifice widened a little, and her father's head began to sink into the goop underneath. The hand fell to one side, and his face slackened. People had always told her it looked like going to sleep, but it didn't. It happened faster than falling asleep, and his eyes stayed open. It was more like the way an animal would sometimes just turn wooden after finding an arrow through its heart.

The slime started to go into one corner of his mouth, creeping in slowly so that it was hard to tell whether it was only flowing downhill or consciously finding its way in. There was a hint of a gag reflex, and after that his head slowly sank until it was completely submerged.

Obviously striding across the earth in absolute freedom was a lot less glamorous than Chinchy had imagined. She didn't tell anybody right away about her father. There was always more time to tell something if you wanted to, but once you told it you could never un-tell it, and almost certainly everyone would end up knowing.

And if she was going to tell someone about it, what would the point of the story be? She hadn't thought it would be a big deal to go with him to the transfer point and drag the body to the burn pit afterward, but something about it did bother her. It wasn't the physical part, which was less messy than dressing a deer. She wasn't sad that she wouldn't be seeing him for a long time, since she'd never had any real relationship with him. What was gnawing at her was that it had forced her to think about her own transfer. Here in the world outside the Cloud, she had a job and she knew how to do it. If the little kids in the village only had acorns and camas bulbs to eat, they'd get kwashiorkor and end up retarded. As far as anyone could guess, that meant their minds would be that way forever in the Cloud. Chinchy was proud that she did so much — more than her share! — to keep that from happening to the kids.

But what would her job be in the Cloud? Her function here in the real world was to kill things for people to eat. There wouldn't be any need for that after she transferred. What reason would anyone have to respect her, and what would make existence worthwhile? She'd spent her life learning the ways of all the plants and animals that lived in the hills. She understood them better than she knew her fellow humans. What use would that be in a simulated world made out of ones and zeroes sparking back and forth in a mountain of bioengineered cells?

She finally felt ready to tell the story after sexing with Sophie on the sand by the river. They were cuddled up with Chinchy's head on Sophie's shoulder, as if Sophie was the mother bird and Chinchy the chick. Chinchy was a head and a half taller than pixieish Sophie, but somehow they always ended up in this ironic position.

“So he said the sheep were still up there at that lake, and then —”

“Waitwaitwait,” Sophie said. She propped herself up on one elbow, which made Chinchy's head feel like it was going to slide off. “The sheep are still there?”

“Yeah, and then we —”

“Oh, baby.” Sophie kissed Chinchy's forehead. “Does anyone else know?”

Chinchy sat up. “What?”

“Don't you see what a big deal it is?”

“You planning to go up in the mountains and be a hermit shepherd and never get a bath? I like your smell, but not when it's that strong.” She wrinkled her nose. “We're both kind of stinky now. I'm going to wash off again.” She went to the water, dove in, and came back up, shivering in the sun as the snowmelt sluiced off of her skin.

Sophie waded in up to her knees and splashed herself, but there was a distant look in her eyes. “Seriously, this is major. Think about how our society works.”

“As opposed to all those other societies out there in the world?” Chinchy waded to the shore and got dressed. She prepared herself to listen indulgently to one of Sophie's lectures. Sophie had a lot of time to spend with a know-it. Sophie's mother had transferred as soon as her only child was off the breast, so Sophie didn't have any younger brothers or sisters to take care of. She could read like lightning, faster than a person could talk.

“Your father did exactly the opposite of what he would have been smart to do.” She joined Chinchy on the sand and pulled on the fawnskin dress she looked so good in. “He's got these sheep, right? So what does he do with them? He takes them and puts them somewhere that people can't get at them. Well, obviously they see that as hoarding.”

“He admitted it was hoarding.”

“What's hoarding and what isn't depends completely on how you present it to people. I'm starved, are you? Let's head back.” They walked along the riverbank. “So all he has to do is, he just brings one sheep down to town. They're tame, right? Totally docile. So he ties a rope around it and just walks it down, and then they slaughter it and have a feast and everybody loves him.”

“Are sheep good to eat? I thought they were just for wool.”

“The meat is called mutton. They eat it all the time in the Jane Austen books. But of course you make a big show out of harvesting the wool, too. Give it to some old widow, and there's a way she can ... what's it called ...”

“Spin?”

“Right, like Sleeping Beauty. And you can make new blankets and things, and every time someone uses their new wool blanket instead of their ratty old blanket full of holes from before the Wig-Out, they're saying to themselves, Thank you, Mark Herrera.”

“So it's his fault, because he could have done the same thing but made people think it was a different thing. You always act like you're smarter than everyone. Maybe it's a good thing that my father wasn't like you, all Machavellian.”

“You mean Machiavellian.”

“My ancestors had the same genemods as yours, Sophie. My brain just hasn't had as much time as yours to practice multiplication and how to pronounce ‘Machiavellian.’”

“Don't get upset, Chinchy. I was just explaining —”

“Well, maybe you shouldn't have been explaining. Maybe you should have been listening. I haven't told anyone else about this. I thought I could tell you about it, and you'd listen and say, ‘there, there,’ and make me feel better. That's what I'd do if it was you telling me your problems.”

“But all I'm —”

“Oh, just shut up, will you?”

The annoying thing was that Sophie was right. It really would be smart to go and find the sheep. Chinchy spent some time thumb-tapping on a know-it, but it gave her a headache. She understood the general idea of a map. It was supposed to be what you would see if you were a bird flying up in the sky, looking down at the land. There was writing on it, too, which she could read, laboriously, or have the know-it read out loud to her. But that didn't mean that it made sense. Pacific Crest Trail. UTM GRID AND 2038 MAGNETIC NORTH DECLINATION AT CENTER OF SHEET. Topography by aerial photographs and multiplex methods. ONION VALLEY CAMPGROUND (SUMMER ONLY). Blue was supposed to be water, green forest. But the old dams and aqueducts had been cracked apart by the Cloud's tentacles, and the Owens Valley was no longer sending its water to Los Angeles. And meanwhile the Cloud had dried out some streambeds to quench its thirst, while spitting out its reddish wastes in other places. Where the land had been too wet and boggy for anything but onions and rushes, now it was forested. What had been forest was a meadow now, or sterile granite where the flow of waste had washed away the topsoil.

She needed some help. She decided to go see Gus Chen at the Snowcap Diner on Thursday night. The villagers had turned the Snowcap into a shrine for their best know-it. It was one of the few pre-Wig-Out buildings that was still upright and weatherproof. Gus was just as much of a know-it freak as Sophie, without rubbing anyone's nose in it, and that was why he volunteered to babysit at the Snowcap Tuesdays and Thursdays. The know-it at the Snowcap had a screen as wide as Chinchy's forearm, and its brain was a lot faster than the handheld models, so you could ask it more complicated questions and it wouldn't take forever to answer. Gus was good at asking questions the right way. After they figured out where the heart-shaped lake was, they could go and tell Sophie together. Chinchy would apologize to Sophie for her outburst, but she would have solved the problem without Sophie's help, so Sophie could see that she wasn't the only smart person in the world — or in Bristlecone, which amounted to the same thing.

On Thursday night, Sophie helped her sister Marcie get the youngest kids washed up and ready for dinner. Chinchy told her mother she wasn't hungry and she was going to the Snowcap. She ducked out under the thatch into the gathering darkness and walked up Main Street past the campfires. Jack Nguyen was dangling his short legs off the tail-step of the rusted and skewed old Hino truck where his family lived. He shyly waved an arm clad in baby fat, and Chinchy waved back. Some of the venison had gone to the Nguyens.

At the Pines, lines of yellow light showed through the cracks in the boards that covered the windows. Chinchy knocked perfunctorily and went in. Gus and Sophie were both there, sharing the same torn-up armchair and looking at a paper book. The chair was a tight fit.

“Hey, Gus. Sophie.”

“Hi.” — “Hi, Chinchy.”

The three of them had run wild together. There was no greater freedom than knowing that your parents weren't really sure why they'd had you, and didn't much care if you died, as long as you got dragged back to the transfer point before your brain cells started to rot. They chased chipmunks, climbed cliffs, and dug holes in the mud. Sophie was sexfriends with both Gus and Chinchy, which they all agreed was okay, because sexual jealousy was one of those things that didn't make sense anymore. How could you mate for life, Sophie argued, if you knew you were going to live forever? It occurred to Chinchy, not for the first time, that Sophie's logic worked out especially well for Sophie.

“What have you guys been reading?” Chinchy asked.

“Fantasic Four \#66,” Gus said, looking flustered. “You want us to clear out? The caretaker is supposed to let users have privacy if they want.” He levered himself out of the deep crater in the seat of the old chair. Regaining his usual irony, he said, “I guess we can wait 'til later to find out” — deep, ominous voice — “What Lurks Behind the Beehive.” Sophie stood up too, with more aplomb, and smoothed out the denim mini-skirt that she'd patched with yellow hibiscus flowers from an old beach towel.

“No, no,” Chinchy said, imagining what would probably be next on Gus and Sophie's agenda if they were forced to go out into the moonlight. “The whole reason I came over here tonight was because I knew you'd be here.” She explained her purpose. “Looking at the maps on a hand-held know-it is like squinting through a keyhole. And I feel like I need to understand more about how the landscape has changed since the Wig-Out. The Cloud's tentacles suck water and keep it from flowing downhill where it used to, so the heart-shaped lake probably wasn't a heart-shaped lake when the map was made. Most likely it was deeper and bigger. Come on and help me figure out queries.” She slid into the booth in the corner where the know-it was set up, with its wires running up through a hole in the plaster to the solar panels on the roof. Sophie and Gus came and stood by the table.

Chinchy leaned over the mic. “Turn on, know-it.”

“User: Chinchy Herrera,” the voice said through the speaker. Hell, she'd left her preferences set to voice, and now Gus and Sophie would think she was an illiterate dummy. “Bookmarks,” the voice went on. “Why a flying arrow doesn't fall down —”

“Stop. Switch to text output, but keep voice input, because I can't type on this keyboard.”

A window popped up on the screen. Bookmarks: Why a flying arrow doesn't fall down. The Magic Flute. Llamas with hats. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. MORE...

“Stop. I want to do a search. Let's start with places within fifty miles of Bristlecone, California.” If the sheep were farther than that, it wouldn't be worth going after them.

Thirty-two million hits.

But almost all of those hits had to be from before the Wig-Out, when there had been a network covering the whole world. “What year did Vons in Bishop stop selling food?”

2066.

“Let's narrow the search to, uh, 2064 and later.”

Seventeen thousand hits

“Now I want to know about stuff up in the mountains.”

Further narrowing your most recent search?

“Right.”

Eighty-seven hits.

“Give me a random one.”

To whom it may concern: — Why my landlady, Jenny Garcieres, is a bitch. I am taking care of this place for my landlady, Jenny Garcieres, and taking care of her chickens, too, and giving her half the eggs, and all I get is this run-down shithole. Anymore, there is no water or electricity or gas or nothing, and the sewer doesn't work either, so I can't even use the toilet, and I want to know what I am getting for all my work. I am at 137 Mountain Street, Bristlecone, California, and anyone who —

“Stop.” Mountain Street had matched the search.

“Suggestion, Chinchy?” Sophie asked. Gus was standing close behind Sophie, and Chinchy's brain conjured an image of Gus's hands on Sophie's hips, then the two of them down on the floor like that.

“Yeah?”

“They used to have rangers. They had uniforms, like soldiers, and when people would go walking for fun in the mountains the rangers would make sure they didn't get hurt, or start a fire, or whatever.”

“Like police.”

“Yeah, so they'd probably be the ones posting about how the water was changing because of the Cloud.”

“Yeah, good idea.” She tried to think fast. She wanted to set up the question herself. “Know-it?”

“Ready.”

“New search, everything within fifty miles of Bristlecone, plus it should be by a ranger or about a ranger, and I want you to sort it backwards in time, so the ones that were posted last, you tell us those first.”

“A hundred and twenty thousand hits.”

“Give us number one.”

We haven't had net connectivity for a couple of weeks now. I don't know if this will ever get saved permanently, or if it'll just sit in our local-area net where nobody will ever see it.

Anyway I thought I should try, since John's family would want to know what happened to him. I can't log in anywhere, but this is Julie Grueter. I'm a ranger in Inyo National Forest. John Colasciuta was my boss at the ranger station in Bristlecone. John thought it was wrong for people to be rushing like lemmings to upload, just because life was getting rougher and society was falling apart.

I think that's why it hit him so hard when his girlfriend Shizuko transferred. They planted a new self-supporting biocomputer right here in Bristlecone, out of town next to the river where it would have plenty of water and sunlight. I guess it's like planting a tree, you just don't want to plant them too close together. So because of that Shizuko didn't even have to drive to the Bay Area. She left him a note, said she looked forward to meeting him on the other side. That ate at John, and eventually he decided to do the upload himself.

“Stop.”

They spent hours trying to construct more elaborate queries, with no success. Society had been cracking to pieces. Who cared about hypothetical changes in the landscape that Bristlecone's Cloud might someday cause? People had imagined the Cloud as a lifeboat, a temporary way of preserving the consciousnesses of the people who would otherwise have starved to death because farmers and truck drivers had stopped doing their jobs.

Chinchy started a fire and made yerba santa tea, and then they turned to the old maps. They scrolled back and forth, zoomed in and out, but didn't find any heart-shaped lakes near Bristlecone. The lakes they knew about were all smaller than on the maps, because the Cloud used up so much water. The maps had contour lines that showed altitude, so if there had been an empty heart-shaped valley, they could have found it. But there were no contour lines within the outlines of the lakes, just featureless blue to show where the water's surface had been — when it was higher.

The morning sun woke Chinchy as she lay curled up in the armchair. Gus and Sophie were asleep on the couch together, his arm wrapped protectively around her. Chinchy crept out of the diner with her boots in her hands.

In the distance, at the end of Main Street, the big mound of the Cloud was cold and mysterious in the morning shadows. If she couldn't hold someone's love for a short time on earth, how much more lonely would it be in the Cloud forever?

As spring went on and the snowline retreated, Chinchy started exploring higher and higher in the mountains, and farther away from Bristlecone. There wasn't any large game at the high altitudes, and in any case she wouldn't have been able to drag it home from so far away, but she set traps and got marmots, pikas, and squirrels. She visited as many lakes as possible, and while she was there she fished for trout. She wasn't bringing back enough food to feed four or five families anymore, but it was enough to make sure her own family had enough fat and protein.

She saw her life as the champion hunter in a new light now. It had all been wasted effort. No, not just wasted but counterproductive. Why work herself to death just so that people could feed more kids? If Ron hadn't died, he and Mom would have still been having babies. How long would it be until Sophie let Gus get her pregnant? What would humanity become if everybody kept on cranking out kids and not even trying to build civilization back up? They'd already lost agriculture. Pretty soon the last know-it would break down, and they'd lose all the old books and music. She imagined a fallen race, living just long enough breed and then upload into the Cloud, where they'd arrive howling and grunting. If Chinchy could bring a herd of sheep to Bristlecone, she'd be doing something to stop the downward slide.

She found the herd grazing in a little box canyon with sides so steep that you couldn't see into it until you were about to fall in. There was a creek running down it, with a Cloud-tentacle the size of her arm that looked like it had been damaged by frost. It took her most of the afternoon to struggle down through the thick chaparral, with the animals peering up nervously at her. By the time she'd reached the creek bed she was scratched and bleeding all over her arms, legs, and face, and she suspected she'd have a horrible case of poison oak the next morning.

She'd planned to tie a rope around a male and a female and lead them home: a breeding pair, just like Noah's ark. Quickly she found out that her plan wouldn't work. The sheep weren't shy, probably because they'd gotten used to her father. But whenever she tried to separate one from the rest, they all got upset and ran away. They had an instinct to stay in a herd, and if they wanted to evade her, they could, because they could move faster through the brush. In the end, she managed to split the herd in half, driving one half down the canyon. She spent a sleepless night in the foothills with her captives, afraid that if she closed her eyes they would run off.

Chinchy was feted and praised for her accomplishment, and the festivities involved slaughtering and barbecuing a ram. After all, you only needed one ram for breeding, not all four. Adult sheep started to disappear, and people said that was all right because the lambs would grow up. Lambs disappeared, and that was a shame, but everyone agreed that lamb was awfully tender and tasty. Eventually all that was left was a lactating ewe and her one female lamb, and that was a shame, wasn't it? So much for breeding. Everyone disapproved of whoever it was who had eaten the last male.

“So much for your career as an agricultural innovator, Chinchy,” Sophie said, as the three of them lay naked and sunning themselves on a rock by the river.

“I'm going to guess what ‘innovator’ means and agree with you,” Chinchy said. In some ways it was easier to get along with Sophie now that they weren't sexing.

“It's pretty inconsiderate of you to have let this happen,” Gus said. “People are saying you shouldn't have left half of them up there, or wondering when you're going to go back up and bring the rest down.”

“Oh, yeah? Well I've been thinking about it, and that's exactly what I'm going to do, but this time I'm not going to leave them here in town.”

“They'll say you're hoarding,” Sophie warned.

“They can say that if they want, but it'll be after I'm long gone.”

“You're going to transfer?” Sophie asked, with real concern in her voice.

“Nope. I'm heading for the other side of the mountains. Sacramento River delta. It's the world's best farmland, and the river is so big that no Cloud could ever suck it all away.”

“I don't get it,” Sophie said.

“I think I do,” Gus said, and followed up with his Doctor-Doom evil laugh.

“You'll die of thirst.”

“No,” Chinchy said. “The west side of the Sierra is pretty wet, especially when you get up north. I'm going to go through Yosemite Valley on my way out, see if it's as pretty as the pictures.”

“You'll starve,” Sophie insisted, being the densest one of the three for once.

“Ba-a-a-a-a,” Gus said.

Chinchy found spoor showing that the rest of the herd had headed up the mountain, to where fresh grass was just beginning to peek out of the snow. The next day, Sophie and Gus set out with her to bring the sheep back.

“No, seriously, I think our god is dead,” Gus said as the three of them climbed toward tree line. Sophie was in the middle, and Chinchy, the strongest, brought up the rear to make sure she wouldn't set too fast a pace for the others. This, unfortunately, gave her a nostalgia-inducing view of Sophie's cute little butt in her short denim skirt with the flowers sewn on.

“Come on, Gus,” Chinchy said, “the Cloud is as alive as a tree or a blade of grass. I've seen its roots grow into new places that it wasn't in when we were little.” They had just stopped for lunch and shared a pipe of dumbweed sitting right in the shade of a tentacle, so Gus's outrageous statement struck her as kind of funny. It was as if Gus, Chinchy, and Sophie had just had a visit with Grandpa, and then Gus had said that there was no such thing as Grandpa.

“What I mean is, its body is alive, but its brain is dead. Anybody ho-o-o-o-me in there? Nope, nobody here but us genemodded plant cells.”

“If you start a fire too close to it, it smells it and sprays that stuff that puts it out,” Sophie protested.

“Sunflowers twist around and follow the sun,” Gus countered. “Doesn't mean they know what they're doing.”

“If I kick a dog, it growls or runs away,” Chinchy said. “Is the dog the same as a sunflower, maybe it does it without knowing what it's doing?”

“Maybe it is the same,” Sophie said. “Maybe Gus died yesterday, and from now on whenever he has an audience he'll just knee-jerk the same thing about how the Cloud is dead. Nobody home, pure reflex, like my old great-auntie babbling about airplanes and the president until she was a hundred and ten.” Sophie, unlike Chinchy, had remembered that satire was the only way to poke Gus.

“No, it's not the same thing,” Gus said with self-assurance. Obviously he'd thought about this a lot already. “Let's say you could make a dog a million times smarter, so its brain worked a million times faster.”

“You don't even know what a million is,” Chinchy said.

“Sure I do, it comes right after eleventy-seven. Some big number, okay? Doesn't matter what number it's called. So that dog would be smarter than a human, smarter than all the souls in the Cloud put together, right?”

“I don't think a million would be enough,” Chinchy said.

“What I'm saying is, if a million's not enough, just pick some bigger number, okay? And say you make another dog super-super-slow, so it takes all day to decide to scratch a flea. You've got these three dogs, normal, fast, and slow, and you can tell the difference. One's a god, and one's dumber than Chinchy.”

“Chinchy can still kick your ass,” Chinchy said.

Sophie said, “My auntie told me that after you transfer, if you're rich you can make your stream of thought go fast, but if you're poor they give you one second every year to think something.”

Gus said, “Right, I heard that too, and that's what started me thinking this way. But here's how you can tell that nobody inside the Cloud is thinking anything at all. You can tell the difference between a slow dog and a fast dog, and that's how you know a dog can think. But what's the difference between a fast sunflower and a slow sunflower? None. It does things on a one-day cycle because that's the how long it takes the sun to go around the sky. The Cloud is just like a sunflower. There's no difference between a fast Cloud and a slow Cloud.”

“No difference you can tell from the outside,” Chinchy objected.

The bull session threaded its way through calf-stabbing yucca and up past the last pine trees, starved and wind-whipped into krummholzed shapes frozen above the talus slope. The gradual dying out of the trees was paralleled by the tapering of the Cloud's tendrils, until finally the hiking party was in a landscape that could have made a believable twentieth-century picture postcard. If Sophie's auntie was right, then consciousness was a valuable commodity in the Cloud, like the energy that flowed in the sap of a tree. That would be a good reason for the tentacles to climb up into this barren place, trying to fuel itself by sucking up every last drop of water and ray of sun.

Clouds were flowing from the south and west, drawing over them like a blanket. “Might get some rain,” Sophie said, and, as if on cue, a faint roll of thunder came over the mountains. It was getting late in the afternoon. They stopped to drink where a creek splashed into a little granite-bottomed pool, and Chinchy couldn't help ogling Sophie when she got down to drink. After Chinchy took her own drink, she saw that Gus was rubbing his temples with his palms.

“You all right?” Chinchy asked while fishing a ratty pre-Wig-Out cotton sweater out of her sack.

“Little headache.”

“The altitude must be hitting you,” Sophie said.

“It's not bad.”

They resumed their climb, paralleling the creek, but Gus was slowing down, and soon Chinchy was having to consciously moderate her tempo to keep from stepping on Sophie's heels. There was more distant thunder, and a light rain was starting to fall, but a summer-afternoon shower in the Sierra was nothing to worry about. Gus took a long time to work his way around a little waterfall, and Chinchy took the opportunity to scan the barren, high-altitude landscape, first by naked eye and then using the scope that she'd removed from her bow. No sheep.

“Rock!” Sophie and Gus yelled at the same time. Chinchy took the scope away from her eye and saw a half-meter boulder tumbling down the slope from Gus's position. When they caught up with Gus, he was nursing his ankle.

“Twist it?” Sophie asked.

Gus flexed his foot gingerly. “I'll be okay. God must be mad at me because I know he doesn't exist.”

The rain was falling harder, and the wind was coming up. Gus was wearing a faded and grimy red windbreaker, and Sophie had produced a wool sportcoat with corduroy patches on the elbows. Chinchy shucked her own cotton sweater and stashed it back in her bag, because if it got wet it would be useless for the rest of the trip. In the bag she had a lightweight tarp, a pristine lucky find from the back seat of a car she'd found two years before, half-full of mud at the bottom of a gully. Wrapped up in the tarp were three sleeping bags, each cinched up in a raggedy old trash compactor bag. The sleeping bags would at least take off some of the chill, even though the insulation had gotten wadded up into clumps over three or four generations of use.

“If we can find someplace that's flat and not so exposed, we can pitch the tarp.” Uncomfortably, she imagined sleeping huddled together with Gus and Sophie. Who would go in the middle?

They started back up, following a ridge-line. Something pinged Chinchy on the head, and she looked up reflexively to see where the pinecone had come from. But of course there were no trees up here. It had been a hailstone, not a pinecone. The stones, as wide as Chinchy's pinkie, clattered on the rocks around them. Hail in July!

“Ow!” — “Look at that stuff coming down!”

A searing flash strobed the darkening landscape, and then, with almost no pause in between, came a crash that rattled their bellies as much as their eardrums.

“Okay,” Chinchy said, keeping her voice calm and authoritative, “that was close. Let's keep moving and get through that gap up there, and then we won't be the highest thing sticking up and attracting lightning.” A lightning strike could fry your brain like a duck egg. There wouldn't be anything left to transfer.

Gus took off fast uphill, slipping and sliding on the hail-covered rocks, falling down and picking himself up. The wind had picked up, and the sleeves of his red windbreaker flapped like flags. Chinchy wanted to tell him to pace himself, but there was another lightning strike, right near her. After a while she realized that she wasn't standing and needed to get up — and then by the time she'd regained her feet and shaken her head to clear it, Gus was too far above Chinchy to hear her voice.

“You all right?” It was Sophie.

“Yeah, let's just keep moving.”

The hike turned into a scramble. Chinchy concentrated on staying sure of her hands and feet, testing rocks to see if they were solid before she put her weight on them. It was still hailing, and the stones were getting in her hair and inside her shirt. A lightning flash cast light into a little crevice in front of her face, and she saw that hail had sifted in and filled it up. She realized that she needed to keep track of Gus, and decided to keep her eyes on where she thought she was, so that when the next lightning flash came she could pick him out.

Without warning, there was a bang, and the mountainside lifted itself upward, leaving Chinchy behind. Something slapped her in the shoulder, and then in the head.

“Chinchy?”

“What?”

“She's come around.”

“I'm fine. What are you talking about?” Chinchy was cold and wet.

“Chinchy, that gap was a pass over the mountains. We need to get down. You got a concussion and you fell in the creek. All the sleeping bags are soaked. Can you walk?”

“'Course I can walk. Why is it so dark?”

“It's dark 'cause it's night-time, you dope,” Gus's voice said. The lack of creativity in the insult wasn't like Gus, and there was something funny about his voice, a burbly sound like he was underwater. “It's cloudy so we got no starlight.”

“Gus —”

“— I'm just —”

“— let him —”

“Shut up!” Chinchy yelled, and they did. She tried to sit up, but her face hit something. The tarp. It was going fwuhp-fwuhp in the wind. “Let me up.”

Immediately she wished that she hadn't said that. Gus and Sophie had been holding down the two windward corners with their hands, shielding the three of them from the weather. The hail had turned to freezing rain.

“All right,” Chinchy said, “I'm ready. Sorry. Let's go.”

“We don't know which way it is,” Sophie said.

Chinchy was incredulous, and it took a while for Sophie to convince her. There were two directions they could go down, and they didn't know which was which. They had a compass, but it was too dark to read the dial. Meanwhile she noticed that Gus wasn't saying much. She grabbed one of Sophie's soggy corduroy elbow patches and pulled her aside.

“What's up with Gus?”

“Altitude sickness. Besides the lightning, that's the other reason we've got to get down.”

“Is it that bad?”

“You heard his lungs. He keeps throwing up, and a lot of what he says doesn't make sense. He kept falling down.” She must have been scared to death, with both Chinchy and Gus messed up, but she wouldn't show it.

Distant lightning faintly lit up the pass for one instant. Chinchy saw the two possible ways down, and Gus curled up in a ball. “Want me to pick?” she asked Sophie softly.

“Might as well.”

“You guys couldn't tell?” she said loudly. “It was that way.” She pointed randomly in one of the two directions — not that anyone would be able to see her arm or her finger.

Gus couldn't walk more than twenty or thirty steps on his own without falling down, so Chinchy and Sophie had to put their arms around his shoulders and hold him up.

There were times when not just Gus but all three of them fell down, and those times got closer and closer together. Finally, one of these times, Chinchy landed in a crevice between two rocks, and she felt an irresistible urge to burrow into the rocks to stay warm.

Cold and darkness. She must be in the Cloud, and it was nothing but a cold, dark emptiness that would last forever.

Chinchy's head was downslope from her body, her right cheek in water and sunlight coming in through her eyelids. Reluctantly she opened her eyes and saw that her face was lying in the shallow edge of a puddle that was covered with a film of ice except where her body heat had kept it thawed. She tried to get up, but found herself wedged in place by a rock at her back and a human body pressed against her legs and hips. When she dropped her chin against her chest and clenched her teeth and turned her eyes as far down as they would go in their orbits, she saw Gus's shoes and the top of Sophie's head. Sophie stirred and groaned.

Gus had spent the night sandwiched between Chinchy and Sophie, which was good because that would have kept him warm — but Chinchy realized guiltily that Sophie had been the one most exposed to the wind. Chinchy and Sophie stood up, but Gus was a small man-sized rag doll full of rocks. His head lolled, but his breath still wheezed in and out of his chest. Chinchy and Sophie tried half a dozen ways of carrying or dragging him before finally laying him on his back, head down-slope, and dragging him by his arms. The sky was just starting to lighten, and the narrow valley they were descending was still in shadow.

The exertion warmed up Chinchy's blood, and her blood started to heat her brain above the animal level. She almost tripped over a finger-width pink tendril with its tip lying in an ice-covered mud puddle. Sophie saw it too, and they laid Gus down gently.

“So we came down the right side?” Sophie asked.

Chinchy shook her head and tried to think logically. “Which way's the sun?”

They staggered around like two meshed gears, squinting at the narrow strip of overcast sky.

“I think it's brighter on that side,” Sophie said. “The sun's over that ridge.” She pointed to the side on their right and then clasped her arms around herself again for warmth.

Chinchy tried to figure out what that meant. At the moment she didn't feel smart enough to count to ten. “So we're headed north? That doesn't make sense. The tentacle should be coming up from the east.”

“We must be going down a different way than we came up.”

“But as long as we follow the tentacle, it'll take us home for sure. After a while it'll turn to the right, maybe after we get out of this valley.”

“I guess that's right,” Sophie said uncertainly. “I hope it didn't get up here by growing straight up a cliff or something.”

It started to snow, and they couldn't see very far. They followed the sickly-looking tentacle, which was covered with scabs and scars. This valley must have been at the very highest altitude where it could survive over a winter.

The tentacle joined up with another one and fattened to the diameter of an arm, and then it started to veer to the left.

Not to the right.

When they put Gus down so they could rest, Chinchy checked the compass and silently showed it to Sophie. They were headed downhill to the west now. They'd crossed over to the other side of the crest of the Sierra.

“Shit,” was all Sophie said.

There was no other choice but to follow the tentacle downhill. Late in the afternoon it met up with the remains of a narrow dirt road and continued downhill, hugging an eroded groove in the dirt. As they descended, the tentacle got fatter and healthier, the air got warmer, and stunted trees started to appear. The road became more well defined, the trees got bigger, and then the road turned into crumbled-up asphalt with yuccas growing out of it. The snow turned to rain.

As it was getting dark, they came to a tent cabin with a fallen pine tree lying on top of it that had torn half of the roof to shreds while leaving the other half intact. They dragged Gus across the threshold and over against the wall on the dry side, then slumped down, exhausted, next to him.

They had a fitful night's sleep, bundled up in the tarp with Gus in the middle of the sandwich again. His breath was mostly shallow, but once in a while he would wake Chinchy and Sophie by taking a deep, shuddering gasp. Whatever the altitude had done to him, he didn't seem to be getting over it. Would he get better if they brought him down low enough?

Chinchy was the first to wake in the morning. The rain had stopped. She took a thorough look around the cabin, and what she found disturbed her. There was an ax with a carbon-composite handle and a well-sharpened stainless steel blade. Why hadn't such a valuable artifact been found and salvaged before Chinchy was born? Mixed in with the dirt and leaves and useless junk were three or four other items that should have been scarce and prized, including two still-sealed bottles of wine and a set of four wine glasses, three of them perfectly preserved. The cabin wasn't hidden. It was right next to a road. Someone should have found and looted it a long time ago.

She went out with her knife to see if she could find a chipmunk or a marmot, but only managed to stuff her pockets with miner's lettuce. As she came near the cabin, she heard Sophie's voice singing an opera aria. She remembered when she and Sophie spent an evening together on the roof of the Pines Diner listening to the know-it play back the Vienna Philharmonic's performance of The Marriage of Figaro, with pauses for plot summaries and English translations. (Gus liked jazz and blues and rock and roll, not opera.) The men would kiss the women's arms and sing about how sexy they were. Afterward, Sophie could effortlessly sing back every number. (If that was a genemodded talent, it was one that hadn't found its way into Chinchy's chromosomes.)

She sat on a rock for a few minutes and allowed herself the luxury of listening to the beautiful sound. Sophie sang a slow, sad number, then a lively one. Finally Chinchy got up, walked a hundred paces away from the cabin, turned around, and approached it again, this time without using her hunter's skill of stepping quietly. The singing stopped before she got to the door.

“Hey, Sophie. Sorry, hope you weren't worried about where I was. I figured you guys both needed the rest.”

“No, that's all right.” She was fussing with the tarp, which was tucked around Gus. She'd hung the three wet sleeping bags up on the wall to dry. “He's still breathing, but that's about it.”

“We just need to get him down lower.”

“He's a lot lower already.” Were those tear-tracks on her cheeks?

“Do you think he can drink?” Chinchy asked. “I could take one of those wine glasses and fetch some water.”

“We shouldn't dick around. He needs to transfer.”

Chinchy tried to focus on the fact that Gus was one of her two best friends, but she couldn't keep another thought from scratching at the door of her skull. Things might be different between her and Sophie if Gus transferred — and Gus would be safe and happy in digital paradise, no harm done.

“If he can drink, he should,” Chinchy said.

“Yeah, sure, but that's not the main point.”

Chinchy tried to put her own feelings aside and think about what Gus would want. “Well, it kind of is the main point. He thinks there's nothing after you transfer. It's stupid, but that's what he thinks. If you buy that, then all that matters is making him have the best chance of coming alive again in this world.”

“Gus says all kinds of nonsense he doesn't believe. Everything's a joke for him.”

“So you're saying just transfer him, even if it's not what he said he'd want?”

“No, I'm ...” Sophie turned toward the cracked plastic window so Chinchy couldn't see her face.

“What?”

“If we transfer him ...” Her shoulders were shaking. Chinchy wanted to hold her and comfort her, but she couldn't do it.

“If we transfer him, what?”

She turned around, and tears were streaming down her face. “If we transfer him, I'll never see him again!”

“But — of course you will — someday — ”

“No, because we have to transfer him in this Cloud, and I'll be in the other one.” She ran out the door and into the forest.

Cedar Canyon, CA. Population 270. Elevation 2900 m.

The entire post office, along with part of the adjoining Ski 'n' Climb Mountain shop, had been tipped onto its side by the tumefying pink center of the Cloud's root-ball. There was a broken-up skeleton of a dog or a coyote in the street, but no human remains so far. At the post-office door, Sophie tilted her head sideways and laboriously read a notice that had almost faded into illegibility.

“It says even though ... tra ... transportation is wiped out, everybody should just stay calm. You can transfer here, because they've got their own self-supporting ... biocomputer as a lifeboat, or you can try to hike out and transfer in Vi-sa-li-a. If you upload to the lifeboat, your consciousness will go really slow, so you'll barely even notice that time has been passing while you wait for all the lifeboats to get linked up to the net... network. After that your consciousness will get uploaded to the operation center at Yucca Mountain, and you'll start thinking at full speed again. It'll be like going to sleep and then waking up again.”

They dragged Gus to the apex of the root ball, where a human neckbone was sticking out of the orifice that had swallowed the skull.

“Son of a bitch,” Sophie said, and looked away.

Chinchy's brain initially put it in the same category as the carcass of one of the many animals she'd killed and butchered for food. It was hard to see it as the used-up shell of a human being who was still alive, somewhere in this other Cloud. She couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. Would that person care that crows had picked at the flesh he no longer had any use for?

“They all went in,” Chinchy said. “Every single one.”

Sophie turned around. “I guess if you're the last one, there's nobody left to drag your body to the burn-pit.”

“Maybe our town is the only one that isn't normal. Pretty stupid, right? Why fuck around and have babies when all you have to do is go to sleep and wake up, and all your troubles are gone.”

“Just a nice little nap.” Sophie folded her arms and didn't look up at Chinchy.

“Well, I guess we better do it.” Would it be safe to pull the skull out? She'd had to pop her father's head out, but it had been smooth and covered with flesh. A skull would have sharp corners. Was there a risk of tearing the iris? Maybe it would be safer to cut the neck bones apart. After all these years the joints were probably barely hanging by a thread. She should find an excuse so Sophie didn't have to see her do it.

“No,” Sophie said.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“It's Pascal's wager. Gus told me about it.”

“Yeah?”

“There were two philosophers called Blaise Pascal and Terry Pratchett, and they got in a bet. I forget which one took which side. The point is that if you're risking your chance of living forever, you have to bet whichever way you think has the bigger chance of letting you live forever, because nothing else matters.”

“Uh huh?” Chinchy looked down at Gus, whose tongue was sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and tried to imagine him having this big philosophical conversation with Chinchy. Chinchy and Sophie had The Marriage of Figaro, and Gus and Sophie had Pascal's wager. Go figure.

“So this Cloud is just a lifeboat, and so is our own Cloud back in Bristlecone. They were supposed to hook up with the mother-ship in...”

“Yucca Mountain.”

“Right, but obviously that's not going to happen.”

“How do you know?”

“Because obviously they screwed up, that's how. They thought these were going to be lifeboats.” She spit the word out like a sunflower seed. “They weren't supposed to last for year after year, and they won't last for year after year. Maybe a hundred years go by, or a thousand, and then these Clouds gets sick. Some kind of mold starts growing on them, or an animal evolves that can eat them, or whatever. The thing is, these two Clouds can't get over high mountains. If they try to grow over high mountains, they die back in the winter.”

“You don't know that for sure. We don't even know where Yucca Mountain is. Maybe you can get there without going over mountains.” Chinchy picked Gus up by the collar of his shirt and started dragging him toward the orifice.

“Right,” Sophie said, “but you never know anything for sure. That's the whole point of Pratchett's wager.”

“Pacal's.”

“Whatever. Put him down, will you?” She got between Chinchy and the orifice and pushed her away from Gus. Chinchy staggered and fell on her ass, barely saving herself from an uncontrolled slide down the side of the tentacle. “Will you just listen?” Sophie said. “So the thing is, these two Clouds have a pretty crappy chance of surviving forever. But if Gus wakes back up, maybe he heals up, finds out where Yucca Mountain is. He goes there, uploads, lives forever.”

“I've never heard of Yucca Mountain. It's got to be really far away.”

“Yeah, but Gus has at least some chance of getting there before his body dies. It's probably a bigger chance than the Cloud has of stretching a tendril all the way out to Yucca Mountain. And then he gets to eat chocolate.”

“What's chocolate?”

“It's something you eat, the best thing to eat that there ever was. They used to have it in the real world, and they can make a digital kind in the Cloud.”

Chinchy thought about it. “But you're assuming the two Clouds just sit there while mold grows on them, or mutated futuristic chipmunks take bites. The Clouds are smart, they've got smart people inside. They can react to what's going on.”

“That's what I would have thought. But look at that skeleton.”

“What about it?”

“If you were dead, would you want your body to sit there rotting like that, with maggots and worms eating it? I sure wouldn't. I'd say, ‘Yo, Cloud-buddies, could you please deal with the outside world enough to do something with my carcass? Swallow it down, or smoosh it under a tendril, or something? It hurts my feelings to know that my old self is out there rotting and smelling bad.’”

Gus couldn't take water. When they laid him on his back and poured a sip into his mouth, he started to choke horrifyingly. His skin became like paper, and his eyes sank into their sockets. Sophie and Chinchy kept him out of the sun and weather, made sure he was warm at night, and steadily dribbled as much water into his mouth as they could without making him gag.

On the morning of the third day Gus's breathing stopped and his heartbeat faded away. They transferred him into the foreign Cloud and climbed back over the pass to Bristlecone. The next day, without warning anyone, Sophie transferred.

Chinchy found the sheep a few weeks later and drove them down to lower elevation where she could keep an eye on them. It was autumn now, much too late in the year to start her trek to the Sacramento Delta. Word got around about the other Cloud where every soul had transferred without leaving anyone behind. There was a rash of transfers as some people in Bristlecone decided that the people in Cedar Canyon had it right: why should anyone spend another cold winter on earth?

It was a light snow year. Spring came early, and the snow began to melt. Chinchy was out hunting one day when she came across the tentacle that reached up along the route they'd taken last summer on the ill-fated hike. But now the tentacle was huge. It had fattened up so much that she could only climb up onto its back by dragging a log up to it to use as a ladder. She traced the pink track upward with her scope toward the pass they had discovered. She camped on the tentacle's lee side that night and in the morning she followed it upward. Its tip was almost to the pass — much higher than she'd ever seen a tentacle grow before, higher than it could possibly overwinter.

She climbed up to the pass, and at the saddle she found another pink tentacle growing up from the western side.