"A prophet is not without honor,
save in his own country."
Acknowledgments: (a) The word "Monopolated" was coined by the late Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. (b) I have also borrowed a few ideas from P.D. James' Children of Men, but I think they are minor enough to fall under "fair use."
"Tell us a Winter Solstice story, Grandpa," the children begged. "It's too cold to go outside. But a true story; not one of your fables."
"'A fable is a bridge that leads to the truth,'" the old man replied. "'And fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.'"
Many winters ago, in the sixth year of the reign of Emperor Caesar Barackus, there went out from the Imperial City a decree that the whole world should be enrolled. But the Imperial websites malfunctioned, and many poor souls had to travel to their own cities to enroll. And there was much bitterness and frustration, and weeping and gnashing of teeth in the darkness outside the beltway.
Thus it came to pass late one cold afternoon that a young couple named Jose and Maria hurried into the emergency room of a local hospital and stood waiting patiently at the reception desk, but the receptionist was totally absorbed in an Oprah Winfrey re-run and ignored them.
"Excuse me, ma'am," said the man finally.
The ponderous form rotated slowly. "Yeah? What do you want? ... I mean, I'm sorry! Welcome to the Allentown Monopolated Hospital and IRS Auditing Center. If you folks be lookin' for the IRS, they's in room 101. Mr. O'Brian's gone home, but there's always somebody there." She motioned to her left where a whimsical red, white and blue LED sign proclaimed: 'Internal Revenue Servicing Center. We service cash cows 24/7.'
"No," said Jose. "We need medical care."
"Is Allentown yo' city?"
"Actually, we were supposed to go to Bethlehem, but our car broke down in Saginaw and we had to hitchhike. It took us four days, and now my wife has gone into labor. It's an emergency."
"Labor? Oh my gosh! Havin' a baby? Wow, that is sooo cool! We ain't seen one of them around here in ages. Well, honey, just gimme yo' Universal Medical Status Life History Photo Identification and GPS Tracking Card, and we gonna get you logged into the system and taken care of right away."
The young woman reached into her inner pocket, pulled out the holographic card that shimmered like a thousand points of light as she handed it to the receptionist--now in an upbeat mood--who grinned and slipped it into her card reader. But a few seconds later her smile had vanished. "What the f--?" she said loudly. "What kind of sh...?" Everyone in the waiting room was staring as she turned to confront the girl.
"Is this some kind of scam? This card says you's a virgin. So how can you be havin' a baby? Huh?"
There was a pregnant silence in the waiting room. A middle-aged woman who had been cuddling two kittens dressed in baby clothes quickly gathered up her young charges, snapped tiny earmuffs on them, returned them to their stroller, and hurried for the door. As she passed, she cast a venomous glance at the hapless young woman who blushed and stammered. "I--I--I just..."
"You better not be runnin' no scam," the receptionist continued. "If this is some fraud to get around the One-Child-Per-Family rule, I'll have to call the cops. All of us here at Monopolated HealthCare are firmly committed to fighting Waste, Fraud, and Abuse."
"No, of course not," said Maria. "This is my firstborn son and I--"
"Son?" said the receptionist, peering at her computer screen. "You ain't had no sonograms, so how you know it's a boy?"
"My cousin Elizabeth said--"
"Your cousin? I shoulda known. You Spics are so...Oh my God! I'm so sorry, Miss...umm, Ms. I never shoulda used a hurtful, derogatory stereotyping epithet like that. All of us here at Monopolated HealthCare are firmly committed to respecting ethnic diversity--even Latino-Americans. We are all equal in the eyes of Big Brother." The enormity of her faux pas had completely changed her attitude, and--with a quick, apprehensive glance at the security dome--she continued in a respectful, almost apologetic voice, "I'm sure things must be very different down there where you folks are from, but--"
"We're from Michigan, actually," interrupted Jose with a touch of exasperation.
"Oh my, that's so wonderful," replied the receptionist. She stared at the computer screen again, and then turned back to Jose. "And you, sir. I don't mean to pry or anything, but this woman is your lawful espoused wife, and...ummm, and according to the government computer printout, you have known her not. So, I just wanted to inform you. Well, please keep in mind that all of us here at Monopolated HealthCare are firmly committed to celebrating diversity in sexual orientation and lifestyle choice, but if you were interested, we do offer a government-approved program of Gender Identity counseling."
"Thank you, but--"
"That's okay, that's okay! I'm not the least bit prejudiced myself. Actually, some of my best friends are...ummm, well, you know...ummm, people like you...ummm, I just love Ricky Martin, don't you?"
Jose started to reply, but Maria suddenly gasped and bent over in pain. "I really think the baby's coming soon," she said.
"Hon, please! Get it through your head. There ain't no baby. It says so right here on my computer."
"But ma'am," said Jose, "can't you see with your own eyes that--"
"What do you expect me to believe? This government-certified computer or my own lying eyes?"
"Dang right I'm gonna believe the computer! Betcha anything this is one of them psychosemantical pregnancies. We been getting more and more of them ever since the new mandatory family planning rules kicked in. But look here, hon. I'm gonna do whatever I can to get you folks taken care of. I'm sorry I was rude when you first came in, but it's been a long day, you know? Lemme have your Universal Medical Status Life History Photo Identification and GPS Tracking Card again; I'm gonna try to log directly onto the Federal website and enter your data by hand."
She hunched over her keyboard and began typing, but after a moment, she startled back in amazement and surprise. "Oh shoot!"
"What's wrong?" asked Maria.
"Now you done it, honey. You went and crashed the government server. The whole bleepin' system is down, and I'm gettin' a blue scree--no wait, I'm gettin' a 409 error and...Oh sweet Jesus, even a 451 error....451-F, never seen that before."
"451? What does that mean?" said Jose.
"'Restricted for legal reasons.' Jeez, this is freaky. Listen, kids. I'm really, really sorry to tell you this, but there ain't no way we can admit you now."
"It's the law. We ain't permitted to admit nobody without a Federal Instant Background Check. Gotta' make sure you ain't on no Watchlists, you know like terrorism, hate-think, consumption of trans-fats, stuff like that. And we can't do that if their servers are down."
"But this is an emerg--Oh my gosh, that was a strong one," gasped Maria, clutching her abdomen.
"I'm sorry, hon, I truly am. All of us here at Monopolated HealthCare are deeply committed to the safety and comfort of our customers--but we got to obey the Law. ...But wait a minute, I have an idea. Would you be interested in terminating your pregnancy? Assuming, I mean, that you really was pregnant? For that, you don't need no background check or nothin."
Maria turned pale. "What do you mean by 'terminate'?"
"Why you know, hon. Retroactive birth control."
"You mean an abor--" she started to say, but the receptionist interrupted her sharply.
"Hey! Don't you ever use the 'A' word around here, okay? It's upsetting to the other customers, and we at Monopolated HealthCare are firmly committed to--"
"No, I'm not the least bit interested in terminating my pregnancy, okay?"
"Okay, hon. I was just trying to help. There's just two cases where we can admit folks without an Instant Check: terminating pregnancies and Quiet Homecoming procedures, if you're over sixty-five. But wait a minute. Do you folks have any close friends or relatives that work for the government? If you do, we could get you an exemption pretty easy."
"Are you transgendered? That's another way to get you in with no delay."
"Think hard, hon. You sure you ain't never been a man?"
"You got a secret desire to become a man?"
"No, I feel blessed to be a woman."
"Shucks ... Wait, I got another idea. Did either of you work for King Harry's election campaign?"
"King Harry?" said Jose. "Who's that?"
"Harold Reed, the King of Pennsylvania."
"Huh? I thought Harold Reed was a senator from someplace out west; how did he get to be King of Pennsylvania?"
"It was so sad! He was defeated for reelection to his sixteenth term in the Senate. It was just heartbreaking. A hundred years of dedicated public service, and all of a sudden he gets dumped. God, I hate those mother-bleepin' tea-baggers! And almost bankrupted too; they said at one point his net worth got down to less than ten million...six or eight, I forget, but definitely into the single digits. But anyhow, he was able to establish legal residency in Pennsylvania, and we elected him King."
"No, we never worked for any politician. How long will the government website be down?"
"All night, probably. The website was built by the low bidder--or maybe the company that made the biggest campaign contributions. You tell that baby he's just gonna' have to wait--if there really is a baby, which I doubt."
Maria fought to hold back her tears. "I can't wait all night. The contractions are coming ten minutes apart now." There was a dignity and innocence about her that melted the older woman's heart.
The latter looked around cautiously, turned so that the security cameras could not read her lips, and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Listen, kids. I got another idea, but swear to me that you ain't gonna' tell nobody that I told you this, okay? I don't feel like spending the next twenty years of my life in no re-education camp, okay?"
The young couple nodded. "Sure."
"Just outside of town, to the southwest, there's an Amish farming community, and they have midwives. Ask for Miriam Stoltzfus."
"Thank you so much," said Maria. "But why does it have to be so secret?"
"Attempted conspiracy to practice medicine without a license means twenty years in Graterford, hon. That's why. So, please, don't snitch on me--no matter what."
"Was Caesar Barackus a good emperor or a bad emperor?" asked one of the children.
The old man paused for breath and took a sip of low-calorie green soynog, grimacing silently as the thin gruel assaulted his palate. "Well, he wasn't 'bad' in the sense of being an evil genius. Nothing like Lyndonius or Franko Delanus, let alone...let alone...'She who must not be named.' Most of the ancient historians ranked him a little lower than Carterus Babulus. In fact, even his own courtiers referred to him as Barackus Ineptus--behind his back, of course."
"So what happened next, Grandpa? Did Jose and Maria find the midwife in time?"
"Yes, but their troubles were only beginning."
The young couple walked down the gravel lane as fast as they could, Maria leaning heavily on her husband's arm. Anxiously, they scanned mailboxes in the faint light of the quarter moon, looking for the name Stoltzfus.
"There it is," said Maria, pointing slightly ahead and to the right.
"Oh, but there's another one on the other side of the street, too," said her husband. "Let's try the closer one first."
They walked up the driveway and knocked on the door; a matronly woman in a long dress and a bonnet answered. "Ja?"
"Are you Mrs. Stoltzfus?" asked Jose.
"I'm Rachel Stoltzfus," the woman replied, looking very carefully at Maria, "but I suspect you are probably looking for Miriam, ja?"
"Three blocks further down, on the right. The farmhouse with the barn. I'd better go with you." She put on a shawl, picked up a kerosene lantern, and led them through the darkness. Arriving at the farmhouse, she pushed open the door and led the couple into the entrance foyer. "Miriam! An English couple here to visit thee. Clients, I'd say. Mak schnell! They look legitimate, and pretty far along."
Miriam wore the same kind of bonnet and long dress as Rachel, but she was a tall, slender, fortyish blonde with a wary attitude. She looked suspiciously at Jose, and then turned to Maria. "May I listen to your stomach?" When the girl nodded assent, she motioned for silence, got down on her knees, and put her right ear on Maria's abdomen. After a moment, she stood up, smiling broadly.
"Is my baby okay?" Maria asked.
"Everything is perfectly okay, Liebchen. Let's get you comfortable in the barn."
"In the barn?"
"It's safer that way. I'll explain everything after we get you settled. How far apart are the contractions?"
"About five minutes."
"Perfect! We ought to have an hour or so to sit and chat before things get hectic."
"I'll be going home now," said Rachel. "I'll let you know right away if I see anything suspicious."
"Danke," said Miriam over her shoulder, as she guided the couple to the stable. They passed a row of cows in stanchions and a dozen lambs in a stall before arriving at a locked door labeled 'Veterinary Supplies.' Inside the sealed room was a mattress with spotlessly clean sheets and pillows arranged over a base of hay bales. A pot of water sat on a small electric stove between a sink and a curtained-off toilet. An old manger had been converted to a bassinet. "Get yourself comfortable, Liebchen," said Miriam as she turned on the stove.
"What should I do?" asked Jose.
"Just sit beside her and hold her hand. Later you'll need to help her control her breathing."
"If you don't mind my asking," he said, "I thought you folks weren't allowed to use electricity."
"We don't use it in the house, only in the barn. Open fire is just too dangerous here." She hesitated for a moment and then added, "I guess you're curious about all the secrecy, aren't you?"
"Yes, we are," said Jose, while Maria nodded in agreement.
"By the way, my real name is Miriam Smith, but I go by Stoltzfus to avoid attracting attention. We have a religious exemption to offer midwife services to our own people, but we are strictly forbidden to do it for you English. The government had to give us an exemption because they are totally dependent on us for agricultural production. Without us, they'd starve. The English are so far out of touch with the natural world that they don't even know which end of a chicken the egg comes out of. They think we're an insignificant little religious sect, although we won't be insignificant forever."
"Why not?" asked Jose.
"TFR. We average 3.7 children per woman, but the English are down to 1.2 and dropping."
"But why can't you deliver babies for people like me?' asked Maria. "Would you be taking business away from the government-licensed doctors?"
"That's part of it, but the main reason is that the government's Central Planning Council wants total control over all births. Did you ever hear of the "Full Employment and Crime Reduction Act" that passed a few years ago?"
"I vaguely remember reading about it," said Jose. "It sounded like a pretty great idea. No more unemployment and no more crime, right?"
"It sounds like a good idea, all right," said Miriam bitterly. "But the devil is always in the details. Don't you know what happens now when a pregnant woman goes to a government-licensed hospital?"
Maria blushed and Jose stammered. "Well, not really. You see...well, for us this was a totally unplanned pregnancy, and so we never thought about any of this until just a few months ago, and then we got all distracted with this enrollment nightmare..."
"Well, I'll tell you then, but it's really ugly. First of all, the Central Planning Council uses micro-psychohistory to predict which occupations are going to be overstaffed thirty years in the future, and which ones are going to be experiencing manpower shortages. When a woman in labor goes to the hospital, they do an ultra-high resolution brain-scan on the fetus using neutrino tomography--that's like an MRI, only a thousand times more accurate--to predict what their mental abilities and personality will be like when they are grown up. If there are no criminal tendencies, and if the predicted personality indicates good employment potential, then the birth is allowed to proceed; otherwise there is a mandatory termination of the pregnancy."
Maria was aghast. "You mean they abort perfectly healthy babies based on a computer simulation?"
"And what do they do with the bodies?" asked Jose.
"They re-cycle them."
"Ja. The Swift division of Monopolated Pharmaceutical has an exclusive contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to re-cycle aborted fetuses. They use them to manufacture cosmetics and beauty products. It started out as a modest proposal to help protect the environment, but now it's a multi-billion dollar business."
"That's so unbelievably sick," said Jose. Maria was weeping.
"Tell me about it," said Miriam. "But now you can see why unlicensed midwives like me are considered Enemies of the State. We can throw a huge monkey-wrench into the whole operation."
"Are you in danger?" asked Jose.
"Yes. Mostly it's just petty harassment, but every once in a while they do a full-scale SWAT raid, and sometimes people get killed. Did you ever hear about the Keturah Johansen case?"
"No," they replied.
"It was somewhere south of here. The poor old lady. They got a warrant by bribing a confidential informant to swear that she had sold him unpasteurized milk, and they used that as a pretext to do an all-out SWAT raid. The old woman thought it was a home invasion by criminals, so she tried to defend herself with a pair of docking shears and a turnip fork, which gave them the pretext they needed to pump thirty-nine bullets into her. Then they handcuffed her and left her to bleed to death while they went around her farmhouse, planting baggies of unlicensed baby formula."
Maria started to say something, but was interrupted by an especially strong contraction. Suddenly the sheet was drenched.
"Oh no!" cried Jose. "What happened?"
"Relax," said Miriam. "Her water just broke. That's perfectly normal, and it won't be long now. Hand me some clean towels from that cupboard, then you sit next to her, let her squeeze your hand, and remind her to take slow, deep breaths. Everything will be just fine."
"Is my baby okay?" said Maria.
"Perfect! The handsomest little boy I've ever seen, and I've been doing this for twenty years. I'll just clean him up a bit and then put him by your breast. He probably won't be ready to suck for a while, though. Then I'll go get you folks some food. How does apple cider, scrapple, and shoo-fly sound?"
"Fantastic, said Jose. "But how soon do we have to leave? And I don't know how we're going to pay you. We--"
"Relax. It's almost sunrise now. You can stay all day today and tonight. Probably tomorrow also. I'm not expecting any more clients. Just relax for a few days and bond with your new family." She turned to Maria. "Have you decided on a name yet?"
"I'm going to call him Benito."
Nobody in that peaceful, rustic stable had any inkling of the chaotic scene that would unfold a few hours later in a secret government installation.
The surveillance clerk rushed into his supervisor's office, clutching a sheaf of computer printouts. "Where's the Chief?"
"Chief Buck is not available."
"What do you mean, 'not available'? I saw his car in the parking lot before lunch."
"He's in his private office with Miss Scott, and he does not want to be disturbed--if you catch my drift. What's going on?"
"We have to disturb him. We got a major threat here and King Harry's on the red phone, having a hissy fit. There was an unauthorized birth last night, somewhere in the southwest sector, and--"
"That's not a big deal, we'll track them down eventually."
"Wait, I'm not finished," the clerk continued. "A recon UAV happened to be passing over, and they got a partial brain scan on the kid. He rated ninety-ninth percentile on humanitarianism and on leadership abilities; furthermore--"
"Humanitarianism and leadership? That's a dangerous combination. Could lead to political instability."
"Exactly. Furthermore, the kid's future IQ is going to be off the charts, 180 at least. But that's not the worst part."
"It gets worse?"
"Yeah. He's got a really weird pattern of synapses way down in the prefrontal area that indicates he might become a king someday."
"Yes sir. So you can see why Harry's having a cow. He's demanding a proactive drone strike with a tactical nuke. But the thing is, that's a heavily populated area; if we try to do a strike there--even with a conventional warhead, let alone a nuke--there's going to be a lot of collateral damage, and bad publicity. The Chief has to authorize it himself. No way I'm putting my nose into that hornets' nest."
"Okay," said the supervisor. "I get the picture. Look, you contact Air Defense and tell them to get a drone prepared, just in case. I'll get King Harry calmed down, and then I'll grab the Chief as soon as he comes out."
It was early evening, already dark, when an ashen-faced Miriam, accompanied by a raven-haired woman, rushed back into the stable. "I'm so sorry, folks," said Miriam, but I have terrible news. This is Angelica, and--"
"I'll explain everything to them," said the newcomer. "You go and get yourself ready to leave." She walked over to the bed and held out her hand to Jose and Maria. "I'm Angelica Morlock. I'm from the underground and I have some really bad news. You have to leave here right away. Your baby--well, all of you, really--you're in terrible danger!"
"But how?' said Jose. "My wife isn't ready to walk yet."
"We can give you a ride, at least for a while."
"You have a car?"
"Horse and buggy. The government surveillance satellites have micropulse LIDAR sensors that can pick up unauthorized automobile activity instantaneously. Exhaust gas thermal signatures. But don't worry; modern buggies have excellent suspension systems, just as good as cars. Maria will be perfectly comfortable, I promise. I'll explain everything after we get started."
They bundled up Maria and Benito with warm clothes, and headed to the buggy waiting at the door of the stable. A brilliant star twinkled overhead. "Oh my word," said Maria. "I never saw such a bright star in my life."
"And you never want to see it again," said Angelica. "That's no ordinary star; it's a mini-Death Star from the VSSP."
"The Vaterland Sicherheit Staadt Polizei. Used to be called 'Homeland Security' but somebody decided it would sound more authentic in the original German. They have a secret launching base somewhere to the east of here."
"In Easton?" asked Jose.
"East of Easton," replied Angelica. "In the Land of Cain. Anyhow, they launch hypersonic drones against so-called 'terrorists.' We have a mole in the government who gave us a heads-up that they're after your son. I have no idea why, but we have to get you away from here fast. All I know is that King Harry is behind it, or King Horrid, as we like to call him." They got into the buggy, with Angelica and Miriam at the front, Maria and Benito lying on a mattress on the floor, and Jose near the back door. "Giddyup," said Angelica, lifting the reins, and the horse headed southwest into the darkness at a quick trot.
"The death-star is changing color," said Jose, a while later. "It's turning red and it seems to be growing."
"That means it's going into sub-millimeter spectroscopic search mode," said Angelica. "But don't worry. We're almost out of range, and besides there's no way they would launch a strike against a horse."
"PETA and the SPCA would be all over them. The political repercussions would be immense if they injured an animal. Besides, we're doubly safe if we stay right behind the horse."
"The drones are programmed. If they see a horse's ass, they assume it's a congressman and they leave it alone...I'm just kidding on that one, by the way," she added.
"It's a really dark, ruby red now," said Jose.
"At this point, they call it the Eye of Moloch," said Angelica. "Or just 'God's Eye.'"
"I think I see a sort of a ring around it."
"That's the moat, where they launch the drones from," said Angelica. "Let's get out of here." She flicked the reins, and made a clicking sound to the horse, which went from a trot to a full gallop. A few minutes later, just as they were crossing a low ridge, a searing pencil of white light shot straight down from the death-star toward the farmhouse. There was a blinding flash on the ground, followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud. Angelica gasped in surprise. "A nuke? They used a tactical nuke? My gosh, they must hate you guys! What on earth have you done?"
"Nothing that we know of," said Jose. "None of this makes any sense."
"Well, we will have you out of Pennsylvania before sunrise. Once you get to West Virginia, you'll be safe for at least a few days. They think they got you, and it will take them a while to realize that you escaped."
"West Virginia by sunrise? But isn't that several hundred miles? The horse can't possibly--"
"In another hour, we'll transfer you to a car. But as I was about to say: You need to get your son completely out of this country and take refuge in the Desert Republic of the Southwest. As long as King Horrid is alive, you're not safe anywhere here."
Jose was shocked. "The Desert Republic of the Southwest?"
"Yeah, what's wrong?"
"Well, nothing. It's just that ... well, you know my ancestors fled from economic bondage in the Desert Republic generations ago, during the reign of Pharaoh Chubbi-Helu. They thought they were coming to the Promised Land; and now you're telling me this isn't the Promised Land after all?"
Angelica bit her lip and glanced at Miriam who was also fighting back tears. "Sometimes promises can be inaccurate, I guess. We are so sorry, really...Look, changing the subject, there's a portable flat screen TV under the seat. Why don't you turn it on and look for a news broadcast so we can find out what's going on--or at least find out what lies the government is spreading."
"Won't they be able to track us?"
"No. This set's been modified to be untraceable. Go ahead."
He turned the TV on and waited for the channels to scan. "And now for the local news," an announcer was saying, "with co-anchors, Bambi and Kent." The camera panned to a vapid blonde with a gigantic bosom and an equally fatuous male with blow-dried, gray hair.
"Fear gripped the southwest corner of the city today," said Bambi, "after an hours-long standoff between government security forces and a large group of heavily armed terrorists who had taken refuge in an Amish farmhouse just outside of town. Authorities believe that the terror cell had converted the farmhouse into a bunker, stocked with a huge quantity of explosives, which they deliberately detonated just as the police were closing in. The resulting blast caused a large number of civilian casualties, but exact figures are not yet available. Kent?"
"And the whole metropolitan area remains under an unprecedented level-9 crimson alert," said Kent. The highest alert that we ever had here previously was a level-7 scarlet a few years ago."
"Is level-9 higher or lower than level-7, Kent?" asked Bambi.
"Well, 9 is greater than 7, isn't it?" he replied contemptuously.
Bambi's lip trembled slightly. "That's not fair. You know math is hard for me."
"Yes, 9 is definitely higher than 7."
"Oh my gosh! So this really is unpredni ... umm, unpredisent ... unpresidented, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is," Kent agreed. "And do you have any other news?"
"Yes," said Bambi. "This just came in: King Harry has announced that today's terrorist attack may have released significant amounts of radiation in the metropolitan area. Consequently the State Office of Public Safety has been forced to order mandatory fourth trimester terminations of all pregnancies that began between February and May of this year. Ladies: Please pay close attention if this applies to you. Just take your Universal Medical Status Life History Photo Identification and GPS Tracking Card and hold it up to the telescreen in your bedroom. A few seconds later, your monitor will display the exact day when you conceived. If this was between Groundhog Day and Cinco de Mayo, you must report immediately to the nearest Family Planning Center for a brief and painless procedure. Furthermore--and this is very important--if your fetus has already been born, he or she must make the trip in a government-approved car-seat; there are no exceptions to this important safety rule."
Jose turned the TV off. "I really don't want to hear any more," he said.
"Me neither," said Angelica. "Anyway, I see the minivan up ahead that we are going to transfer you to. Remember, get your family to the Desert Republic as soon as possible, and don't even think of coming back until King Horrid is dead. That little boy is very special, and you need to take good care of him. Vayan con Dios."
After the family was transferred to the minivan, Miriam and Angelica watched the taillights receding into the distance, then they turned the exhausted horse around and let him plod slowly northward.
"So what finally happened, Grandpa?" the children asked. "Did they make it safely to the Desert Republic of the Southwest? And did they come back after King Horrid was dead?"
"Well, they probably made it, but nobody knows for sure. One thing for certain, though, is that they never came back."
"Because King Horrid never died."
"Huh? How is that possible?"
"I don't know how. Every year, he got a little older, and he shriveled up a little more, and he got meaner and smaller, but he never actually died. Finally they had him sealed into a tiny bell-jar with a miniature life-support system, and he was presented to the Empress Michalina to use as a paperweight."
"But why don't we know if the family arrived safely?"
"Right around that time was when the Great Epoch of Bad Luck began in this country. And so lots of people started trying to flee and immigrate to the Desert Republic. But, you see, the Desert Republic had always had a very tough, zero-tolerance immigration policy. They were intensely proud of their sovereignty and their national identity; they never fell for the great Diversity Delusion that swept over the western world around that time. So they were exceedingly unhappy about mobs of refugees from the north. Meanwhile, our government was worried about the brain-drain; they didn't want to lose the best and the brightest."
"So what happened?"
"The two governments got together and built an impenetrable fence--a gamma ray force-field--along the entire border and a hundred miles out to sea on each side. Ever since then, there has been almost no contact between the two countries. Fifty thousand Zeks died in the construction of that fence, but it was well worth it; it's the eighth wonder of the world. At night, the people in the lunar colonies can see it plainly, without even binoculars."
"Do we still have people on Luna?"
"Yes, but not the kind of people you'd want to associate with. Felons, rational anarchists, classical liberals, convicts, rugged individualists...even libertarians. I think they're revolting. But anyhow, as I was saying, nobody knows for sure if the family ever arrived, but there are rumors that a great leader arose in the Desert Republic of the Southwest, several decades later, and ushered in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity."
"Was our Great Epoch of Bad Luck related to the fact that the family had to flee?"
The old man shrugged. "Nobody knows. There's a theory that bad luck can result when a society starts driving away their exceptional individuals. Personally, I think it was just a coincidence, though. But look, we better continue this discussion some other time. Grandma has the Winter Solstice Dinner ready."
"What are we eating?"
"We're going to have meat this time! Grandma managed to get some crow on the black market."