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His mother put an arm around his shoulders. "You
know we can t wave a magic wand and get rid of them.
You ve got the latest counter ware. All we can do is
send a sample to be analyzed, do our bit to speed the
The cure could be months away, or years. Lincoln
moaned pitifully. "Then lock me up! Put me in the
His father wiped a glistening streak of sweat from
his forehead. "That s not going to happen. If I have to
be beside you everywhere you go, we re still going to
treat you like a human being." His voice was strained,
caught somewhere between fear and de ance.
Silence descended. Lincoln closed his eyes. Then
his grandmother spoke.
"Maybe the best way to deal with this is to let him
scratch his damned itch."
"What?" His father was incredulous.
"He wants to go to Atlanta. I can go with him."
"The Stevelets want him in Atlanta," his father
"They re not going to harm him---they just want to
borrow him. And like it or not, they ve already done
that. Maybe the quickest way to get them to move on
is to satisfy them."
Lincoln s father said, "You know they can t be sat-
"Not completely. But every path they take has its
dead end, and the sooner they nd this one, the
sooner they ll stop bothering him."
His mother said, "If we keep him here, that s a
dead end for them too. If they want him in Atlanta,
and he s not in Atlanta---"
"They won t give up that easily," his grandmother
replied. "If we re not going to lock him up and throw
away the key, they re not going to take a few setbacks
and delays as some kind of proof that Atlanta s beyond
Silence again. Lincoln opened his eyes. His father
addressed Lincoln s grandmother. "Are you sure
you re not infected yourself?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don t go all Body Snatchers
on me, Carl. I know the two of you can t leave the farm
right now. So if you want to let him go, I ll look after
him." She shrugged and turned her head away impe-
riously. "I ve said my piece. Now it s your decision."
Lincoln drove the truck as far as the highway, then
reluctantly let his grandmother take the wheel.
He loved the old machine, which still had the en-
gine his grandfather had installed, years before Lincoln
was born, to run on their home-pressed soybean oil.
"I plan to take the most direct route," his grand-
mother announced. "Through Macon. Assuming your
friends have no objection."
Lincoln squir med. "Don t call them that!"
"I m sorry." She glanced at him sideways. "But I
still need to know."
Reluctantly, Lincoln forced himself to picture the
drive ahead, and he felt a surge of rightness endors-
ing the plan. "No problem with that," he muttered.
He was under no illusion that he could prevent the
Stevelets from in uencing his thoughts, but deliber-
ately consulting them, as if there were a third person
sitting in the cabin, made him feel much worse.
He turned to look out the window, at the aban-
doned elds and silos passing by. He had been down
this stretch of highway a hundred times, but each piece
of blackened machinery now carried a disturbing new
poignancy. The Crash had come 30 years ago, but it
still wasn t tr uly over. The Stevelets aspired to do no
harm---and supposedly they got better at that year by
year---but they were still far too stupid and stubborn
to be relied upon to get anything right. They had just
robbed his parents of two skilled pairs of hands in
the middle of the harvest; how could they imagine
that that was harmless? Millions of people around
the world had died in the Crash, and that couldn t all
be blamed on panic and self-in icted casualties. The
government had been crazy, bombing half the farms
in the Southeast; everyone agreed now that it had only
made things worse. But many other deaths could not
have been avoided, except by the actions of the Steve-
You couldn t reason with them, though. You
couldn t shame them, or punish them. You just had
to hope they got better at noticing when they were
screwing things up, while they forged ahead with
their impossible task.
"See that old factory?" Lincoln s grandmother
gestured at a burned-out metal frame drooping over
slabs of cracked concrete, standing in a eld of weeds.
"There was a conclave there, almost 20 years ago."
Lincoln had been past the spot many times, and
no one had ever mentioned this before. "What hap-
pened? What did they try?"
"I heard it was meant to be a time machine. Some
crackpot had put his plans on the Net, and the Stevelets
decided they had to check it out. About a hundred peo-
ple were working there, and thousands of animals."
Lincoln shivered. "How long were they at it?"
"Three years." She added quickly, "But they ve learned
to rotate the workers now. It s rare for them to hang on
to any individual for more than a month or two."
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