Dell 8, herder. She’s given the name and number to herself, trying to be like them, her guardians. They offer little help. Her earliest memory was fear they’d leave her on her own.
She prizes everything she knows. It’s come in pieces—from her guardians’ infrequent words, from shifts of their eyes and hands, from the goats they tend on scrub-covered hills, from a crumbling mass of paper found padding a sleeping rack in the hut: Animal Husbandry. From her guardians’ wristscreens and from text messages that scroll across the hut’s terminal on the rare occasions when it lights up.
When the terminal is live, she syncs data that waits in the guardians’ wristscreens. Some of the data is about the guardians, Pat and Mike, but most is what they’ve gathered from the goats’ ear tags. Pat and Mike like her to take care of this work, especially when they aren’t feeling strong, which is often.
Officially, Dell doesn’t exist. She has no wristscreen, no port in her arm for meds, no numerical suffix. Her guardians do not explain. They’ve taught her to be watchful for catchers and to hide at the rare times anyone comes to the outpost, like the tractor driver who pulls the herder hut to new grazing locations. She’d like to stop hiding and see what happens.
But now in the hut something unknown is happening. A line of text moves across the terminal. Herders Pat 49 and Mike 55 overdue for transformation, scheduled next noon. Herder Mike 55 reassigned to farm. New herder Rykart 64.
Pat rises from the table, slides her nutrition packet into the recycler, brushes a broom three swipes on the floor and lets it drop. Mike’s eyes look like they’re stuck open. He and Pat don’t speak or look at her or at each other, but in their actions she sees a dislocation. A new herder will sleep and eat in the hut. Pat will be transformed, able to work again. Dell won’t be needed to enter data. She won’t be welcome in the hut or able to show herself. Worse, Mike will be gone.
She runs from the hut. They don’t like to see emotion. Once transformed, Pat and Mike won’t be bothered by their separation. It’s useless to ask what she is to do, and if there’s anything they can do to help.
She’s tried to be like them. She wears a broken wristscreen stolen from the recycler. It has no port to her arm, syncs with nothing, and does not light up. When she was three-quarters their height, she started marking the spring season by adding a number to her name. Now she is as tall as Pat. The other name she’s given herself is “female,” a term associated with most of their goats. Only one time did she astonish her guardians by asking if workers were male and female too.
Pat and Mike look alike, especially when they’re past due for transformation and their skin wrinkles and sags, but Mike has body parts like the goats they call males, the ones they castrate so they won’t become bucks. She and Pat do not. A long time ago she asked if Pat’s parts had been cut off. To that question she got a rare response. No.
The guardians have warned that Dell’s desire to be found will bring endless trouble. They say this twice a year, when the tractor driver comes and she must hide. For a long time she’s been old and strong enough to follow the dust of the tractor and herd from a distance, but every relocation is troubled by memories of being left behind, tethered among rocks in the cold and dark. When her kid legs grew long enough to outrun Pat and Mike, she trailed them to the new outpost, exposed and in danger of being found. Not by the tractor driver, but by catchers on four-wheeled ramblers.
To catchers, she would be fair game, like the outlaws who roam the baked, scrubby hills beyond the farm. A catcher’s job is to send outlaws to the mines. Dell’s guardians make “send to the mines” sound bad, but they never explain.
Catchers won’t care that she’s always lived on nutrition packets from the farm, or that she’s a better herder than Pat or Mike. But catchers are unlikely to identify her as long as she stays with the goats. Her herder’s robe is earth-brown, a ragged castoff from Pat that should have gone into the recycler. Dell has learned to pull other necessities from the recycler, to milk a nanny and eat grasshoppers, because the herders’ rations for two have never been enough for three.
In their present, weakened state, her guardians remember, worry, and talk more than when they’re healthy. “It’s not just us that’s breaking down,” Mike says. “There’s sloppiness everywhere.” His body slumps. She feels his dread.
A white-coated medtech has come on a four-wheeled rambler. Alerted by the distant plume of dust, Dell hides near the goats. Her desires compete. Obey and hide. Stand and be discovered. What has she to lose? Soon she will have nothing.
Pat and Mike have never been transformed at the same time. They said they’ll get through it all right and will clean away the mess later. At Mike’s last transformation, a medtech injected drugs that caused old cells to be sloughed off in huge, stinking quantities. When the medtech left, Dell and Pat cleaned him for two days, while Mike seemed nearly dead. This time Dell will take care of both, alone.
Against the barren ground, her dirt-colored robe might be enough concealment, but she pulls the hood over her forehead and crouches in dry brush. Soon the medtech will come out, get on the motor and ride away. There will be only a moment to see someone new. She can’t depend on her guardians to tell her anything about the medtech, because their injections interfere with memory. Their words are so infrequent that she remembers everything they’ve said. In thousands of quiet days and nights, she’s repeated numbers, colors, names, instructions and cautions. In her loneliness, she’s called back to birds, lain among the herd and caressed newborn kids.
The medtech has been in the hut half of daylight. Accustomed to long hours with the herd, Dell adjusts her squat in the brush. Very little changes in her view: circling hawks, the herd ranging uphill, the scent of musk from a buck, the nearby snip of its teeth as it tears a briar.
The air stirs with dust and a fast stomp of feet. The buck leaps, and like one animal, the herd turns and races uphill, releasing an avalanche of pebbles. Forewarned, Dell hunches and tucks her head to her chest. Dusty, hairy outlaws run past, more than she’s seen at one time, and closer. Two tall outlaws hold a tiny one between them and swing it forward to help its feet keep up. She rises from her bush to see those small, churning feet, but drops down as others rush by, near enough to touch. The outlaws glance back. She has no name for the look on their faces. Goat-skin skirts flap against their thin-muscled legs.
She grips her ears at the sudden roar of motors. Two ramblers with big tires leap into view, each ridden by a worker in gray. Catchers. Outlaws and ramblers disappear over a ridge; then she hears screams like squeals of a gored goat. Too soon the ramblers return, each with an outlaw draped and tied behind the driver’s seat. They stop between her bush and the hut.
The outlaws’ heads and parts of their bodies are covered with dust and curling black hair, but they have the same skin as the catchers, the same as herself and the guardians, the color of sand.
“Hello the hut,” a catcher calls. “Show yourself.”
The white-coated medtech opens the door and shakes a fist in the air. Grumbling, the catchers make the motors roar. Strapped-down bodies of the outlaws flop as the ramblers speed over humps and dips, leaving a new cloud of dust.
When the medtech goes back into the hut, Dell leaves her hiding place and hurries to the ridge. The outlaws have disappeared. For a while she stands exposed, waiting to be noticed, then joins the herd, sits on a rock and cuddles a kid to stop the bad feeling. When goats come near, she cries. A nanny rubs her head on Dell’s back. They understand. Twice each year, some of the herd are taken.
She goes back to the hut when the medtech’s rambler disappears from view. Inside, she pulls her hood over her nose to filter the odor of the transformations. Already, like rot. Her eyes sting.
Mike and Pat are stretched on their racks, one on each side of the hut. She sits at the terminal, now lit with daily news. The farm has a new super. When they were lucid, her guardians said operations at the farm were sloppy, especially in regard to outposts. Pat and Mike weren’t transformed as often as needed, and they were allowed to live and work together many years beyond the limit.
Her guardians’ eyes are fixed and their bodies rigid as dead goats. But they’re up to date, and they’ve always been in the system. Their wristscreens display new numbers: Pat 50, Mike 56. Unlike goats and outlaws, unlike herself, they’ll never die.
The tractor driver has come with quarterly supplies and the new herder. On this move, Dell follows at a greater distance from the hut and herd. She might never see Mike again, but she’ll meet Pat sometimes on the range. The new location will be risky because it adjoins the farm. Other times when they’ve occupied this range she’s hidden by day in the hut. Never again.
The farm dome rises from flat land like a round, shining mountain, exciting her curiosity long before she’s close enough to hear the whirring blades and chug of the pumps, and long before its odor makes her gag. Over time, Pat and Mike have mentioned this place where animals and plants are reduced to powders and liquids and loaded on trains for the Chapter or the mines. They’ve said little about the Chapter, a place, by the tone of their utterings that must be as terrible as the mines. Yet the Chapter is the source of everything made and what she will need most: protection from the sun and wind, bottled water and nutrition packets.
The goats crowd in a shady grove of trees, and kids pull on teats and butt their heads on their mothers’ sacks to make the milk come down. She loves the way each kid knows its mother and each mother its kid. When she was kid-size, she crawled among them, nosing milk sacks. Pretending.
Crouched in the herd, she watches Mike stride away until he’s hidden by the trains that circle the dome. What will happen if she follows him into the farm? What will happen if she jumps onto a train?
The goats spread out on the hard plain, leaving her alone and exposed. She needs to belong somewhere. Night passes, and she shivers with her back against a thin tree. No place can be as bad as being alone. When the sun is high, she walks toward the dome. No one stops her as she merges in the crowd of workers shuffling toward the train, most in worksuits of green or brown, a few in white like the medtech, all quiet. Something will happen now.
The bitter odor of so many workers burns her eyes and nose. She lifts her sleeve to her face and breathes the scent of goats. Around her, no one looks at anyone else. At the entrance to a train car, they hold out their arms to a worker in green who taps wristscreens with a short rod. Those already tapped clog the steps.
“Move in,” the green shouts. Workers on the steps move into the car. Outside, the entire line presses forward. The green orders them back.
The train jolts, wheels roll forward, and another car stops. “Next,” the green shouts.
Those ahead of Dell raise their wrists to be tapped by the green. Do they know where they’re going? Do they care? And what will happen in a moment, when the green worker taps her wristscreen? Something new. She wants it.
She does not resist when her wristscreen fails the test. The green pulls up her sleeve and squeezes her arm in the place where the port should be.
“Dummy,” he shouts.
Two workers in gray close in and snap a metal band on her wrist. They hook the band to a chain. The green worker clicks his wristscreen in front of her eye. “My catch,” he says.
The grays pull her along a platform to another car. One unsnaps his chain while the other slides open the door. Together they push her up and inside. Her hands and knees scrape the floor. For a moment before they shut the door, she sees others hunched against the wall. Outlaws. They smell like the open air and make sounds like swarming bees. She sways and stumbles as the train jerks. Hands reach out and stop her fall, and two others scoot apart, giving her a place. She crouches between them, wondering if she’s seen them before, and if they’ve seen her with the herd. Several murmur at once. When she shakes her head, their murmuring stops. They seem to know that sign.
The car jerks forward. The outlaws gasp and sway and hook their arms together, hers too. Their voices tremble and soothe, their arms hold fast and do not flinch from touch. Bound among them, she feels stronger.
Pat and Mike will be all right. Newly transformed, they will not often remember her, and if they do, they will not worry.
She grows used to the sway of the train. Wind blows through cracks, and the outlaws huddle together. She’s warm on both sides, and when the cracks admit no light, she sleeps.
When she wakes, the train is no longer moving. The outlaws stand and peer through the cracks. They may not know where they’re going, but they’re more alert and aware than Pat and Mike.
Five move to a corner and whisper together, then come back and buzz in short bursts. The others straighten and nod. She stands with them, feeling included, understanding the nod, but not what she’s agreed to do.
When a rumble grows louder, they lift their heads and fix their eyes on the door. It slides to a narrow opening, and three gray workers with clubs and chains jump inside. At once five outlaws rush the grays and begin a struggle.
One of the outlaws shouts and waves, and one beside her jumps through the opening. Immediately others follow. Dell jumps too. Her robe flows up as she drops beside the train. On all sides, grays and outlaws roar and grunt, the grays swinging clubs and chains. She ducks a club, grabs a chain and pulls a gray to his knees. A struggle behind her knocks her to the ground. When she tries to crawl away, a tug on her ankle pulls her flat.
She lies still as a gray snaps a chain to the metal band on her wrist. He jerks her to her feet, then fastens the chain to a railing where other outlaws are tethered. At each end of the railing, greens stand guard.
Grays toss limp bodies from the train, the five outlaws who started the escape. Dell’s throat tightens as they’re dragged and chained. The outlaw beside her murmurs and holds his arm across his chest. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t understand.” When she speaks, two green guards share a look that makes her afraid.
A gray and two white-coated medtechs now move along the line. The gray holds each outlaw’s arm while the first medtech swabs a spot and the next jabs in a needle. Once pierced, the outlaws go still.
When the gray holds her arm, one of the greens steps forward. “We’re taking this one.”
“Not on your life,” the gray says.
The green grabs her chain, but the gray elbows him away. “Stop interfering. A mine car is coming for this bunch.”
A medtech lifts the sleeve of Dell’s robe and swabs her arm. She looks for help to the outlaw on her left, but his face now sags and his eyes seemed locked in place.
The green pushes the medtech away. “This one’s an organizer. Security wants it.” He snaps his wristscreen in front of the gray’s eye, then punches the screen’s buttons.
The gray’s wristscreen beeps. “Okay, it’s yours,” the gray says. “Move it out of here.”
The medtech steps back, and the green unsnaps Dell’s chain from the railing. The green tugs her chain, and she looks again at the drowsy outlaws. The smaller among them look like her—female.
“Move along, organizer,” the green says. She wonders if she is an organizer, and what that means. The other green falls in step, and they trot up a long stairway to a platform with many doors. At the last door, they take her into a space half the size of Mike and Pat’s hut.
“Open your mouth,” the second green says. He forces her jaws open. The first pulls something from a pocket and shoves it under her tongue. The second clamps her jaws shut.
“You’ll be all right,” the first says.
Peace touches her forehead like a tender breeze, flows to her cheeks, her chest, her limbs. The greens leave.
For a while she leans against the wall, then slides down and rubs her cheek against the stone floor, imagining it a soft kid goat. Her greens didn’t smell bad. She might be dreaming. It’s nice.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
Dell Zero is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon.com
6 thoughts on “Dell Zero”
I’m not normally a sci-fi reader but since this book was by Carol Ervin I just knew it would be good . . . and it was.
This is creepy and engrossing — and I know what will happen next because I’ve read the book! It’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, and that includes all the classics. I hope you have much well-deserved success with this novel.
I have not yet read any book by this author, but this beginning has me hooked. Who/what is Dell? How did all this ‘become’? I want to know!
Dell 8, herder – aha! Now I know where I subconsciously picked up the idea that Dell is age 8. It’s somewhat like dyslexia, maybe. No matter; I was completely engrossed by The Voice you achieve, and this is the hardest thing for a novice writer to learn. That cool, clinical narrator reels me in from the opening line. The mystery of what will happen if others discover the existence of this un-numbered girl. What a great premise! And what a journey from this opening scene to all the people she meets when she learns what’s out there. (But send the book to someone else: I have a Kindle, and hubby is about to dispose of our old, scenic looking encyclopedias for lack of shelf space!!)
My 5-star review is live at Perihelion Science Fiction ezine.
Very glad you loved it as much as I did, Carol K!