In the first week of September, a lagan bloom appeared in the south meadow below Sam Cadrey's kitchen window, and that was the day it felt real at last.
Something glinting in the morning sunlight caught his eye as he stood making coffeedislodged hubcap, plastic drum lid, discarded garbage bag, he couldn't be suresomething close to the road but definitely on his property. When he hurried down to see what it was, there was no mistaking the glossy quatrefoil of tartarine pushing up through the lucerne like an old bore cover made of fused glass. He kicked at the shell of opalescent stuff, beat on it a few times, then stood wondering how much his life would change.
Sam knew his rights. They couldn't take his farm back, he was sure of that. When that small container of mioflarinMFillegally buried in the Pyrenees had leaked in 2029, poisoning so much of Europe, then the rest of the world, he'd become that rare and wondrous thing, a true global hero: one of the twenty-two volunteers sent in to cap it, one of the five who had survived Site Zero and made it out again. Sam had freehold in perpetuity, and the World Court in Geneva had decreed that lagan blooms were land-title pure and simple. Sure, there were local magistrates, local ordinances and local prejudices to reckon with, but the Quarantine was officially over, the last of the embargoes liftedboth made a laughing stock by the sheer extent of the bloom outbreaks and their consistently benign nature. A disfigured, forty-nine-year-old MF veteran and widower on a UN life pension had recourse to legal aid as well. Looking down at the four-lobed curving hump of the bloom, Sam knew he was king of all that he surveyed and that, in all probability, his kingdom would be an alien domain for the next year or so.
Within fourteen minutes, orbiting spysats had logged it. Within forty, Mayor Catherine was in her living room with their local Alien Influences Officer, Ross Jimmins, to log the official registration, and a dozen lagan fishers were at the end of his drive waiting to bid for trawling rights. Protection agents and insurance reps were at his door too, offering assistance against the usual: everything from highly organized looters to salting by disgruntled neighbors. But Sam was a UN vet. Within the hour, there were two AIO lagan custodians at his front gate wearing blue arm-bands, and the usually strident hucksters pacing up and down the gravel drive had become unusually courteous.
"How soon before the hedges form?" Sam asked Mayor Catherine, sounding both cautious and eager, still not sure about the whole thing. Catherine was the closest thing to a rocket scientist Tilby had, a handsome, middle-aged woman with steel-grey hair, looking the perfect, latter-day nasa-chik in her navy-blue jumpsuit. The NASA look. The imprimatur of discipline and professional responsibility. Who would have thought?
"It's still three to four days," she said, taking the AIO notepad from Jimmins and adding her verification code. "Latest count, fourteen per cent of blooms don't hold. Remember that, Sam. They sink back."
"That's not many though," Ross Jimmins said, reassuring him, wishing Sam well with every puff on his lagan-dross day-pipe. The pipe was carved from lagan horn, a length of hollowed lattice from a "living" hedge. As well as the wonderful fragrance the slow-combusting dross gave off, somewhere between gardenia and the finest aromatic tobaccos of the previous four centuries, there was a welter of other positive side-effects, and the molecularly atrophying horn itself scattered its own immune-enhancing dusting of euphorines on the warm morning air.
"It is like some intelligence is behind it," Sam said, looking out through the big view window, and knew how inane it sounded coming from him, the Tilby Tiger, the great skeptic.
Catherine gave a wry smile. "It's good to have you back in the world. We lost you there for a while."
"At least Jeanie didn't see me like this." Sam had resolved he wouldn't say it, but there it was.
The Mayor looked off at the fields and hills, out to where a tiny orange bus was bringing more science students from the local high school to do a real-time, hands-on site study of early bloom effect. "Jeanie didn't and it's not what I meant, Sam." She changed her tone. "So, what are you going to do about it? Lease it out?"
Sam was grateful. "You think I should? Let them wall it off, rig up processing gantries? Put storage modules down there?" Stop me seeing it, he didn't add.
"Best way. Nothing is lost but spindrift through the flumes. You get the hedges; they get the lagan. There's no poaching and none of the hassles."
"You representing anybody?" Sam asked. He'd always been a wary and even harsh critic where the lagan was concerned. It had always been someone else's experience, the reality of others, thus easy to comment on. This had changed himwhat was the quaint old fin-de-siècle saying?had made it "up close and personal."
"I had a dozen phone calls before I left the office, but no. Hope you believe it, Sam."
"Eight calls. Nope."
Sam needed to believe them. They were his friends. They'd been with him when Jeanie died. He needed to brave it out. "Cat, I want to see it. I've gone revisionist pro tem, okay? If it's alien invasion, let's have it. I want hedges to form. I want them stretching along the road all the way to town. People should be able to poach stuff. Break bits off."
Cat answered right on cue. This was an area of major personal concern. "A lot of wildcat lagan owners agree with you. I've always said it. Keep the cartels out."
"I've got control, right?"
She gave a little frown. "Your property, Sam."
"What about outside options?"
"Some control. It's an official thing. What's on your mind?"
"I want it all hands-on. No remotes. None of those little science doovers. No aerostats."
"That's tricky, Sam," she said. "It's standard nowadays. Every general access unit means a thousand global onlines and probably a thousand research facilities. A fortune from sponsors to you. Even if you could close 'em out, you'd just get thousands more people coming in. You don't want that."
"Then only for part of the day. Only in the afternoon. Say, 1300 till sundown. None at night. Can we do that?"
"We can try," Jimmins said and keyed in the request, waited less than a minute, nodded. "You've got it for now, flagged for renegotiation later. Bless your MF, Sam. You'll get rogues slipping in, but we'll put up a burn field. Fry 'em in the sky."
Cat nodded, confirming how easy it was going to be. "They'll stop when they lose a few. So, what will you do?"
Talking the talk was easy, Sam found. "I'll fish it myself. See what comes up."
"Great idea. Can we help?"
· · · · ·
It all happened quickly once the Mayor and Jimmins left. The waiting fishers at the gate drove off the moment they learned Sam was going to wildcat it himself, all but one, the craggy-looking, grey-haired older man perched on the bonnet of his truck. When Sam went down to quiz him on why he stayed, he saw that it was Howard Dombey, the proprietor of the Lifeways produce market on the far side of Tilby. He was a part-time lagan fisher, and people said he did some lagan brokering as well.
"It's Howard Dombey, isn't it?" Sam said.
"Right on, Mr. Cadrey. Like to help if you're a mind." His idioms were straight from Life Studies Online, all very PC, optimally relaxing, maximally community building.
Sam found himself matching them. "Doing it myself. And it's Sam."
"Like to help just the same, Sam. Don't figure profit margins too well anymore. Just like working with it. Seeing it come to."
Howard Dombey shrugged, going with the role beautifully. "Just do. Watching the spin. Seeing it all flicky-flashy with lagan, pretty as the day. Give me five per cent and I'll do the scut work. Give me ten and I'll fence the bounty you clear as well. Save you the grief."
"There'll be slow days, Howard."
"Counting on it. At my age, they're the ones I like."
They made quite a teama vet skeptic with a face ruined by MF, a town mayor looking like a shuttle-butt spaceways groupie from the nineties, a pipe-smoking AIO officer, and a small-time entrepreneur who did the culture-speak of mid-twentieth rural USA.
They started early each morning and left off around 1300, with Howard often as not staying on at the sorting trays till sunset when the last of the afternoon's tek and spec groups had gonewhichever AIO officials were rostered for that day's site check.
It was funny how much of an unspoken routine it all was. By the time Sam had disengaged the perimeter sensors and AIO alarms around 0700, the four of them were there, ready to set off in pairs, carefully locating the newbies and keying spot and spec codes into notepads for their own constantly updating operations program and the AIO global master.
It was on a spell during one of these start-up checks, after Sam had pointed to a perfect cloudform lagan building on one of the hedges, that Howard told him about the name.
"You know what lagan originally was?"
Sam just stared; it seemed such an odd question. "I thought it was named after the river in that old Irish song. You know, My Lagan Love. They're always playing it."
"Most people think that. No. It's from the language of shipwreck. Flotsam, jetsam and lagan. Flotsam is wreckage that floats when a ship goes down. Jetsam is what's thrown overboard to lighten her. Jetsam when it's jettisoned, see. If it floats, it's flotsam. If it sinks, it's lagan. A lot of valuable stuff was marked with buoys so they could retrieve it later. There were salvage wars over it. Deliberate wrecking, especially on the coast of Cornwall and around the Scillies. Lights set during storms to lure ships onto rocks. Lamps tied to the horns of cows'horn beacons' they called 'em. Whole families involved. Whole communities."
"So why that name now? Lagan?"
"Some scientist came up with it. These are floats from somewhere else, aren't they? Buoys poking through. Lines leading down to stuff."
"I've never heard this."
Howard looked at him as if to say: You've been out of it for quite a while.
"Lots of folks haven't. But it's true. We get whatever comes up from the 'seabed.' "
"Okay, don't say it! There's no line. No seabed. It's how the whole thing goesfirst the shelltop like yours last week, then the bounty is hauled up."
"But it's not down is it, Howard? And it isn't hauled up. Words hide it. Tidy it up too much."
"Okay, but they help us live with it."
"And hide it. How's the weather? How's the lagan? Geologists and seismologists doing their tests all the time, finding nothing. No pressure variables under the caps. None of the expected physics. It's all so PC."
"See my point, Sam. The blooms link to somewhere else, somewhere out of sight, to something worth waiting for. Stuff comes up; you get the hedges with bits of lagan in them like fish in a net. At the very least, you get chunks of molybdenum and diamond-S and those funny little spindles ofwhat're those new words?crowfenter and harleybine? Now and then there's the gold and silver."
"But no Nobel Prizes yet."
"What? Oh, right. No, no Nobel Prizes in those hedges so far. No real answers."
"See, there's another word. Hedges."
"They follow roads and field lines, Sam. That's what hedges do. Hedges is what they are."
"Hides it, Howie."
"Hasn't stopped you."
Which was too close to the truth and too soon in their friendship right then, so they both gladly changed the subject. It was made easier by Mayor Catherine dumping her sample bag on the sorting table.
"New tally," she said. "Eighty-two viable. Sixteen fallow."
Howard keyed the totals into his notepad. "Sounds right. Everyone gets twenty percent that are empty."
"Looted?" Sam asked.
"Don't see how. Just empty. Nothing when the hedges form. Air pockets."
Sam kept at it. "Looted elsewhere?"
Howard watched him for a few moments. "Hadn't thought of that. Looted on the other side. You better watch 'im, Cat. Sounds like we got ourselves a new rocket scientist."
Howard knew well enough to take up a sample bag then and set off for the hedges.
· · · · ·
By the end of the fifth week, their four major branchings had become seven, and what started as an ordinary watchtower lofting on one of them swelled, brachiated and buttressed first into a classic "salisbury point," thenover another twenty daysa full-blown "chartres crown," finally a true "notre dame." It meant endless media fly-bys, countless tek visits, even more busloads of tourists and school groups, but so few blooms became cathedral that Sam couldn't blame them. It was the appropriate response. He would have been worried if there hadn't been the extra attention, though it made it harder to live with what his world was becoming. Having the lagan was one thing; now it was becoming too strikingly alien.
Again it was genial, friendly Howard who triggered the next outburst, dumping his bag on the sorting table, then coming over to stand with his newfound friend to admire the towering structure.
"How about it, Sam? A cathedral. Makes you believe in the mirroring, don't it?"
"What's that, Howie?" The word mirror often caught him like that. The Tilby Tiger lived in a house without mirrors. (But full of reflections, he sometimes quipped on better days, making the tired old joke.)
"The online spiel. That it's mimicry. Skeuomorphism. The lagan sees clouds; it tries to make clouds. Sees trees and roads, does its best to give trees and roads."
"You believe that?"
Howard shrugged. "Makes sense. Has a certain appeal. This stuff pushes through, looks around, imitates what it sees."
"Sees! Sees! Sees! Where the hell has my bloom seen a cathedral, Howard, tell me that!"
Again Howard shrugged. "Dunno. It goes into the sky; it blows in the air; it feels the sun and gets in among the flowers. Maybe ancient cathedrals were just imitations of high places too. Maybe other lagan blooms have seen cathedrals and pass on the knowledge. Anyway, Sam, I figure why resist what's as natural as what nature's already doin'. Why resist it? Why do you?"
Because, Sam wanted to say. Just because. Then, needing reasons, needing reason, gave himself: There's my face, there's the other MF impairment, my infertility, there's Jeanie lost (not MF-related, no, but more old sayings covered it: "collateral damage," "friendly fire"). This is too new, too fast, too change-everything insistent. For someone keeping someone lost as alive as possible in what had been, simply been for themviews, routines, sugars in coffee, favorite songs, the spending of days, the very form and nature of dayshow dare this brutal new lagan change it so. As Jeanie-bright, as Jeanie-fresh as Sam tried to make it, the lagan more than anything was always saying that time has gone. Jeanie is gone. Let them go.
Sam found himself trying so hard. Jeanie would have loved the lagan, arranged picnics, invited friends. Jeanie would have liked Howard and the others getting together, liked the little-kid thrill of them bringing in the bountygrown-ups acting like kids acting like grown-ups.
But try as he might, Sam always found himself on both sides of it, and his words kept coming out a bit crazy. He couldn't help himself.
"Look at what's happened. First the MF outbreak in '29, then the lagan five years later."
"They're not related," Howard said. "It's not cause and effect."
"Maybe. Experts in nineteenth century London didn't see the connection between smog and tuberculosis either."
"Between what and what?"
Sam was careful not to smile. For all his smarts, Howard was an aging child of the times, a true citizen of the age, lots of compartmentalized knowledge, but no true overview. He knew all about shipwrecks and 1930s Hudson locomotives and Napoleon Bonaparte and vintage CD-ROM games, but lacked the larger cultural horizon for such things. For him the old term PC still meant "Politically Correct" not "Pre-Copernican," though who remembered Copernicus these days, or Giordano Bruno, or William Tyndale, or the Library at Alexandria or, well, the economic conditions that had led to horn beacons and shipwrecking and the original lagan, all the other things that were lost? Things eroded, worn smooth and featureless by too much time.
It sobered him having Howard to measure himself by. It brought him back, made him remember to be smarter. Kinder. Set him in the present as much as anything could.
"But Howie, what if it's real lagan? In the shipwreck sense?"
"What, marked with a buoy?"
"Or sent up as a buoy."
"What! Why do you say that?"
"I have no idea. Just should be said, I guess."
· · · · ·