I haven’t done it in a while, because I haven’t had anything to offer. But I was going through some old short story drafts yesterday and I found one I really kind of liked. Except…that I think it fell a bit flat somewhere along the way. I like my character, I like the setting, I think the concept is good. But something is missing.
I have my own theory on what that is. But I’m going to put this out there for my audience, which is ever full of critics, to pick apart. You tell me what you think it’s missing. Maybe I’ll even revise the draft accordingly.
Home on the Range
The low, pulsating buzz of Cicadas fills the canyon, an eerie but familiar sound in the orange twilight. The shadows are growing long, and at this time of year, the daytime heat of the Kaibab plateau will give way to bracing cold only minutes after sunset. It will also bring Mexican Gray Wolves, which have been making a rather aggressive return to the non-endangered species list, thanks to some overzealous environmental restorationists. Far as Flaco is concerned, they’re just a bunch of whackos who got lucky, getting their hands on a cloning gun and a bio-printer. His employers have been trying to track the culprits for months, but their kit must be black market, since it has no federally required GPS locator or RFID tags. Probably Korean. Their tech was starting to show up everywhere. With a solar generator and enough starter gel, these whack jobs could be operating out of any cave large enough to hide their equipment, making them virtually untraceable. Until they’re found, he’ll just have to deal with Los Lobos.
Flaco slows his horse and searches the landscape for a suitable place to make camp. He chooses a rocky ledge that juts out from one of the big cliffs he’s been following West all afternoon. The wall of rock offers a natural defensive position that experience tells him will help keep a secure camp and offer a good vantage point on the herd. Below the ledge, a natural pool carved in the rock by centuries of snowmelt and summer monsoon runoff offers a chance to replenish his water supply.
He puts his foot in the stirrup and swings down, feeling the soreness in his lower back. Too many days in the saddle. I’m getting too old, he thinks, but doesn’t allow himself to finish the thought. He’ll never be too old for this. It’s in his blood.
He usually makes camp the old-fashioned way, like the vaqueros taught him in the Nogales of his youth. Unless it was raining, a man didn’t need anything but a bedroll and a fire, and there’s nothing on God’s green earth like sleeping under the stars. But things are different these days, and, only a few months away from forty, he’s feeling the wear and tear of life on the range. The doctor they flew in to see him over in Marble Canyon says his spine is impacted, which is part genetic problem and partly a result of his chosen profession. Genetics they could have compensated for if they caught it early enough. Nothing they could do, though, about the constant bounce of the horse and the nights spent on hard ground. It all adds up over time.
He hesitates, feeling the spasms that tell him he’s overdone it again, then gives in and reluctantly pulls a small gray polymer brick from his pack. He flips it over, presses a green power stud, and listens as the tiny motor whines to life like a giant mosquito. The brick crackles, jerks apart, and begins to expand with a stuttering motion, pausing every few as the air pressure builds before beginning a new round of pulsating growth. In less than a minute, the tent is ready, the nearly untearable carbon nanofiber weave surprisingly pliant and comfortable when filled with its cushion of air.
The sun is disappearing below the horizon, and he works quickly, piling wood for the fire. Dense, Heavy ironwood will give a good, slow burn, while Mesquite adds its unique, pungent aroma. That smell has, for as long as he can remember, made him feel at home. Which is odd, now that he thinks about it, since he doesn’t really have one. He has a cabin up in Page, but he rarely stays there, and it’s not much but four walls, a bed, a toilet, and a wood stove. He hasn’t been back to Nogales since the narco-wars that took the lives of most of his family and led him across the border and into the arms of the law. If he has any real home to speak of, the open range is it. His bank deposits may come from BioGen, but this is his wilderness, his plateau. The haunting cliffs of sand and limestone, the ponderosa pines, the lonesome howling of the wolves – this is his back yard.
BioGen, despite its fancy Manhattan headquarters and fast-moving blue chip stock, derives the majority of its annual revenue from the time-honored profession of ranching – with a few notable upgrades. The agri-conglomerate now owns more head of cattle than ever roamed the old West at any time in history. With an undisclosed number of herds on ranches and leased-range across the U.S., BioGen is Big Beef. Flaco’s herd, Lot# 4238b, were, like the rest, personalized to consumer taste: free-range, naturally-fed, transgenic Angus clonestock beef. The lab rats had long-since hacked the DNA on these cattle and cut total cholesterol by double-digit percentages on final product, and the cows, though as dumb and unassuming as any down home cud-chewer, synthesize enough sirtuin proteins to balance out any remaining saturated fat, with plenty of excess to harvest for supplements. People want to have their humanely-treated, organic, antibiotic and hormone-free beef and eat it too, and the boys and girls in R&D found a way to give it to them. When given a choice between a skinless chicken breast or a filet mignon with the same nutritional content but the tenderness and flavor of a Kobe steak, for most people, the choice was obvious. Flaco takes pride in the fact that his cattle are popular with consumers. For all the biological tinkering, he’s still the one who keeps them pastured and on the move, and he knows it’s the aromatic shrubs and hardy grasses here that contribute their distinctive flavor, whatever the scientists say.
Darkness has settled in now, and he sits down by his fire to check the water purification pump, its retractable intake hose snaking down to a stagnant pool nestled in the hollow of a rock. The cartridge’s green ready light tells him he won’t have to switch it out for another few days, and the clear Lexan reservoir is full. He pours some of the newly-decanted water into his camp kettle and puts it on the grate above the fire to boil. He has a pocket ultrasonic wand that will do it instantly, but just like sticking a mug into a microwave, water boiled that way just doesn’t taste the same. From the side pocket of his pack he extracts a thin foil envelope, which he tears along a perforation and dumps into his tin cup. The smell of fresh microground coffee wafts up, ready to dissolve when the water is hot. He used to be able to drink the hi-test stuff and sleep like a baby, but not anymore. Now he tosses and turns and has the shakes. Decaf, he finds, is just one of the many concessions he must make to the relentless tide of years.
While he waits for the water, he prepares a simple meal, opening more foil packets and carefully feeding them into the portable recycling compactor he keeps in his saddle bag. Refried black beans, some decent flour tortillas, a lump of hickory-cured bacon, and some fresh chiles he picked up at a roadside stand he saw the last time he had to make a crossing. These last he keeps wrapped in a handkerchief, their picant, earthy aroma filling the air as he roasts them above the fire.
He looks up, his eyes tracing the path of a satellite as it arcs across the starry sky. As a boy, his grandmother, a retired schoolteacher from Guadalajara, imparted a love of reading that was uncommon among the children from his barrio. He fell in love with stories about adventures in space, devouring them, always dreaming of becoming an astronaut as he made his way through Asimov, Bova, Heinlein and Silverberg, sometimes translated into Spanish, other times in the English those books helped him to master. These were the classics of his youth, bought cheaply or borrowed as the libraries across the border digitized their collections and sent their old paper to Mexican school districts that still used dead trees.
He remembers looking up at the night sky, always believing that the future would be among the stars, and that he would be a part of it. He never expected that it would instead consist of a return to the old ways, of cowboys and cattle drives across the endless American plains. He is, through some strange twist of fate, a man on the very cutting edge of progress, steeped as he is in the dusty old traditions of his father, uncles and grandfather, cow hands all.
When the big crash came in the earlier decades of the century, he was too little to understand what was happening. But he remembers hearing the reports on the news. The Americans were cutting funding for space exploration, finally shutting down NASA entirely. A few corporations toyed with privatizing the space race, but ultimately they were too concerned with overwrought balance sheets to invest the billions or even trillions into projects that would offer any real return. In theory, there was profit to be had in being the first to attempt mining Helium-3 from the moon or in exploring the mineral potential in Jupiter’s many mysterious satellites. In reality, nobody wanted to be the first to try it. Too risky. Too much to lose.
Many doubted that Americans, who’d long since lost sight of the value of domestic industry, would be able to survive the collapse of the dollar. But America, as usual, failed to lie down and die. The dark years of depression and the blood bath of the narco-wars notwithstanding, Los Estados Unidos survived, and ultimately returned to its roots. There was an abundance of scientific talent in labs across the U.S., and it was put to work. The future, they said, wasn’t on red Mars, but in red meat. The worldwide obesity epidemic hadn’t been impacted by hard times in the way many analysts had predicted, and the need for a healthy, productive workforce to man the resurgence of the American industrial machine was paramount. As the world’s wealth returned and advances in genetics and bio-engineering accelerated, America had something everyone wanted: healthy food that actually tasted good.
Flaco eats in silence, wondering what would have happened if the world hadn’t given up on exploring the great beyond. He has a good life, and is well-paid – far better than hired hands he descended from would have ever expected. He is glad to be here, sitting by his fire, far from the days when he served as a hatchet-man for the Sinaloa cartel, or with the U.S. Army’s Special Forces after he was captured and offered a chance to use his unique aptitude for killing against the cartels in exchange for his freedom. He took the offer without hestitation, for he had no loyalty to La Federación, not before what they did to his family and certainly not after. In both the cartel and the army, he simply fought as hard as he knew how to survive.
He doesn’t have to fight anymore. Life is simple now. It’s just the cattle, his horse, and the stars. Someday, maybe, a wife, if he can find a woman who is willing to ride with him. Maybe she will give him sons, and he will save enough that he can buy a herd of his own and teach them the ways of the vaqueros. The agri-conglomerates control much, but not everything. Some people would still rather buy from a local businessman, deal with a face and a name they can trust. Some distrust the kind of meat that is designed in a lab. He washes his dishes with the rest of the purified water and switches the machine back on to filter more, so he can make fresh coffee in the morning and have extra for his canteen. He climbs into his tent and pulls his sleeping bag tight against the growing chill, wishing that he could at least see the sky, but it is warmer here. The cushion of air beneath his aching back offers welcome relief, and he is soon asleep and dreaming of time spent weightless, bounding across the moon.
He awakes to the sound of cattle lowing, and there is an edge to the sound that sends a chill up his spine. Something is not right. He used to bring dogs to warn him of the approach of wolves, but too often that warning only cost him good dogs. He has no desire to lose more companions to savage, hungry fangs. He pulls a device from his pack and turns it on. The screen comes to life, and glows brightly inside the tent before he has the chance to dim it. He’s glad after all that he’s chosen to sleep inside tonight, as the light would surely attract attention. He touches the screen, drags an icon, spreads his fingers to expand it. He taps, twice, and a pulse is sent out. He waits, as the device calculates positions. Then, the screen is populated with green dots, superimposed on the topography of the canyon. The cattle are microchipped, and the GPS-enabled device has triangulated the position of each and tallied their numbers. All accounted for. He taps a second icon, waits again. This time, new dots, in red, moving quickly among the green. He studies the screen, looks at the results of the ultrasonic burst. The red dots move too close together to be wolves. They are in formation. Outside, his horse whinnies, spooked either by the intruders or the high-frequency scan that is imperceptible to human ears. He taps again, stops the pulse, and the red dots disappear. If the horse continues to make noise, it will draw attention. He glances outside, sees that his fire has died down to the warm glow of coals. He pats the ground next to his bedroll, fingers seeking until they find the Mossberg 12-gauge he keeps beside his bedroll. The weapon is designed for stopping power at short range, and will do him little good from this distance, but it comforts him to have cold steel and graphite in his grip. The interlopers are nearly 300 yards from his position, and at a lower elevation. He is glad to have the high ground, but he needs the scoped, suppressed AR-15 he keeps with his saddlebags or the advantage is useless.
Ignoring the protesting muscles in his back, he commando crawls out of the tent, careful not to bump the tin dishes sitting to dry by the fire. His saddlebags are close by, and he reaches them quickly. He begins assembling his weapon, something he can do without looking even now, so many years after it has ceased to be a daily task. He mounts the scope and then unsnaps a side pocket, sliding out a snub-nosed, heavy suppressor, which he screws into the barrel. His eyes have adjusted to the darkness again, and before he flips the scope to night vision, he scans the vicinity where the map in his head tells him the red dots were moving. There’s a sliver of moon, but it’s not enough for him to make out distinct shapes among the many shadows, and the canyon is filled with sage, creosote and palo verde, making it impossible to distinguish one low, crouched shape from another. He powers up the scope and puts it to his eye, keeping the brightness on low and the magnification at its widest setting. Seeing nothing the first time, he makes a second sweep, tracking slowly along the milling cattle along the dry stream bed where they’ve settled in.
Something is moving in the brush. He dials up the magnification and brightness. A group of men, wearing camouflage and blackface crouch among the cattle. They have a military bearing, three standing watch, rifles at the ready, one working the cows and one at his flank. He can’t tell for certain, but they look to be Chinese, which can mean only one thing.
“Gene hackers.” Flaco spits, barely more than a whisper. He watches them closely, observes as they inject a cow that appears sedated. The DNA profiles of each herd of BioGen clonestock are patented, trademarked and closely guarded, but anyone with a lab can pull DNA from a raw steak. To protect their IP, the cattle are engineered to produce an enzyme that causes rapid breakdown of soft tissues unless a blocker is administered in regular doses. Each authentic BioGen cow is given an implant at birth that gives regular doses of the blocker. A cloned cow is, therefore, a useless cow. It will die before it is viable.
And yet, every once in a while, a competitor – virtually always the Chinese – decrypts the enzyme marker. When that happens, there’s more than just intellectual property violations at stake. It’s a poorly kept secret in the industry that Beijing’s Ministry of Agriculture has been desperate to cash in on the global transgenic beef craze since the collapse of the yuan and the decline of their own manufacturing sector. When they’ve successfully knocked off a beef varietal, Chinese gene hackers have been known to engineer retroviruses that can completely destroy the original clonestock in the field. Successful infections have been known to kill every cow in a herd in a matter of hours. The market is then flooded with pirated beef under the same label as the original stock — but at a steep discount. An attack of this kind, though rarely successful, can take out a varietal for years if done correctly, costing untold millions of dollars in losses.
Flaco is acutely aware that he cannot let that happen. He likes his new life, and intends to protect it. He sights in his scope, does his best to compensate for wind without test-firing, and squeezes off a shot. The first one goes wide. He’s not using tracers, so it’s hard to tell how far, but the figure sticking the cow with the needle looks in the direction of whatever just whizzed past him, and that’s enough for Flaco to adjust. The second shot grazes the hacker, who jumps up and screams out, and with the third bullet he’s on target, and the man goes down without another sound.
The other four are on alert now, and Flaco curses himself for not target shooting more often to keep himself proficient. Three bullets spent could have meant only two armed men left to deal with, but instead, he has four. They’re scanning the ridge now, and suddenly they’re firing, the bullets flying past him, zip-zip-zipping into his tent. It’s an expensive tent, and he finds himself absently wondering if the warranty will cover the damage, but then he’s firing again, squeezing off another round, two, then three, and another intruder is down, but still breathing.
“Damn it!” he growls low and quiet. He is angry. His equipment isn’t properly calibrated, and it’s costing him precious time and resources. The scope is off by quite a bit, and as he twists at dials, the spray of bullet-chipped stone raining down on him brings him to the realization that he doesn’t have time to get it right. He pulls his phone from its holster, pauses to consider whether he really wants to do what he is about to do, then dials the number.
“BioGen security, what is your operator code?”
“Flash, Delta, Four-Nine-Seven. I need tactical support.” Flaco fires three more rounds, this time at the injected cow. He won’t let whatever they put into it start infecting everything else in the herd the minute it wakes up and starts wandering around again. The phone rings again as the call is connected. A voice answers on the second ring.
“BioGen Tactical, FD497, what is your situation?” Flaco stays low to the ridge, turning his head away from his attackers, and speaks.
“I have hostiles, one dead, one wounded, three actives moving among my herd. One of them was injecting something into one of my cattle. I’m guessing DNA bomb, maybe some kind of retrovirus. They look like PLA to me.”
“Damn Chinese.” The operator sounds disgusted. “Do you have a fix on them?”
Flaco punches up his GPS tagger again, fires the ultrasonic burst. The horse is already terrified from the gunfire, and it ignores the sound this time.
“Sending coordinates now. Do you have a….a package in the area?” He always wants to laugh when he is forced to talk like this. It reminds him of the way children play, veiling their plans in easily-decrypted code. But BioGen tactical is strictly ex-military, and long experience means he knows how to talk the talk.
“Negative, FD497. I’m sending unlock codes to your mockingbird. You are authorized to proceed.”
“Yeah, if I can get to it without getting my fool head blown off,” Flaco mutters. He fires a few more rounds in the vicinity of the intruders, sending them scrambling for cover. That’s it. Stick around. I’ve got something for you. He sets the rifle down and rolls over to the saddlebags, extracting a wide, stiff tube of rugged plastic. He peels a safety seal strip from around one end, and the top pops off like the little tins of biscuits his mother used to bake. Sliding his fingers inside, he finds the pull tab, then extracts a tangle of black material. It’s surprisingly light, he thinks, as he sets it down on a flat rock. He presses a button on the top, and a blue LED begins to flash as the unlock codes are downloaded. The light goes solid once the authentication process is complete, and the tangle begins to unfold, nose cone and wings unfurling and snapping into place. When the transformation is complete, he finds himself staring at a miniature aircraft, not much bigger than a skateboard. Tiny engines in the wings power up, and the small but powerful turbo fans spin up to full speed as the drone takes off vertically. It hovers there, stabilizing, then ascends, and Flaco can’t help watching in amazement. He’s seen UAVs in action, but he’s never had a chance to use one until now.
“Package is deployed,” he says into his phone. “Transmitting coordinates. Send them my love.”
The blue LED flickers again, then goes dark, and the UAV darts out into the night sky. In seconds, its whisper-quiet engines are beyond hearing as it races toward its targets. His GPS tagger continues to transmit sonar data, feeding the mockingbird real-time positional info. At the top of his screen, he sees a new readout, the distance between aircraft and target closing quickly in the numerical display. In his head, he counts down from ten, and as he reaches three, the canyon lights up with concussive force as four pencil-sized missile shafts packed with the latest Japanese microexplosive find their way home. He checks his readout, and the red dots are gone.
“Mission accomplished. Does that thing re-pack itself?” he asks. The voice on the other end of the line laughs.
“It’s single-use. It has to be factory refurbished. Still, you’ll want to stick it back in that shipping tube and bring it in at the end of your assignment.” Flaco looks up as he hears the little turbo fans coming close. It sounds like some strange insect, and he wonders if the gene hackers even knew what hit them.
“Will do. Thanks for the assist, tactical.” He hangs up the phone and watches the mockingbird land vertically, the way it took off.
“Got to be some kind of crazy gyroscope in that thing,” he wonders aloud. When it’s touched down, and the engines have wound to a stop, he picks it up. It smells sulfuric, like burnt gunpowder, the way fireworks do when all the sparkle and light in them is gone. He packs it back in its tube, replaces the top, and shakes his head. He can only imagine what the Norteños in the cartel would have done with a few of these. Americans. Always coming up with some crazy shit that nobody else thinks of.
He looks down in the canyon and notices the small fires are dying out. Luckily, the intruders were hiding in the stream bed. Moist soil. Their bodies wouldn’t burn for too long.
Flaco makes his way back to his tent. The cattle have scattered after the explosions, and it’ll be hell rounding up the cattle tomorrow, but there’s no use trying to find them all tonight. They’ll settle down soon enough, and he can use his tablet to track them when the sun is up. Better that they wander, really, in case whatever they injected in that poor cow is already contagious.
The tent itself is surprisingly still in tact, and he can’t even hear the hiss of escaping air from his bedroll. That carbon nanofiber really is impressive stuff. He crawls inside, feels the ache in his back beginning to throb again, and wishes he had a bottle of good whiskey to help settle his nerves.
“Being a cowboy ain’t what it used to be,” he mutters, but the air cushion is comfortable, and it isn’t long before he’s back to sleep, dreaming of the stars.