tagSci-Fi & FantasyBackscatter

Backscatter

byhammingbyrd7©

Copyright 2007 hammingbyrd7 *

Chapter 1. Chance Meeting

Time: Friday, May 10, 2047 6:16 PM CDT Ft. Hood, Bell County, Texas

Megan O'Connor walked into her civilian barracks with a careful gait, her poncho soaked from the blowing rain. It was still two hours before sunset, but the dark clouds outside the distant hall window and usual lack of power in the building made the interior corridor feel like late evening.

She had just had a very successful stop at the base commissary. Bundled and protected in her arms and backpack were two small kegs of lamp oil and numerous bags of foodstuffs, two 5-kilo bags of rye and barley flour, six kilos of rice, a three-liter bottle of vitamin-A enriched cooking oil, new yeast, a month's supply of dried herbs and simple spices, and her prize finds, dried fruits from southern California, a half-dozen fresh eggs, and 500 grams of sausage. She had more than enough ration coupons to make the purchases legal. The trick lately had been arriving at the commissary at the right time to use them.

Megan walked slowly across the slick puddles of oily water on the old linoleum. As she reached her ground-floor apartment, she heard the main entrance door open and close behind her down the hall. Not wanting to spoil her precious cargo with the grime on the floor, she pressed up against her apartment's steel door and kept her packages in her arms. She fumbled for a moment, trying to work her door-key loose from an inner pocket. She suddenly felt the presence of another person in the darkness near her. As Megan turned to see, the lamp-oil kegs in her backpack shifted. She started to topple over, her feet sliding on the slippery floor. She gave a small cry and grimaced as she thought of her eggs.

A strong pair of arms caught her just in time. "Hello! So sorry to startle you, I should have announced my presence."

"That's okay. Thanks for the catch!" Megan straightened out and tried to see the face of the man beside her in the dim light. She shifted her packages to the outside of her wet poncho. "Would you mind holding these for a moment?"

A minute later she was out of her poncho and lighting a lantern in her common area. "My name's Megan by the way, Megan O'Connor."

"Alvaro Lopes. I'm very pleased to meet you."

Megan nodded back and got her first clear look at her visitor. He looked fit, definitely not as thin as most of the people Megan was used to. He was also dressed as a civilian, and the complexity of the security badge near his shoulder puzzled her. It identified him as a U.S. citizen, but also had the blue and gold cross giving him the high-level rights of a foreign diplomat, something Megan thought would be impossible for a U.S. citizen to have. There was something else out-of-place too, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

She unslung her backpack and headed for the kitchen area. Alvaro followed with the bundles and placed them on the worn counter. He gestured at the cots in the sleeping area nearby. "So, you share this small space with three other people?"

"Sure. This is a standard quad," Megan replied, waving her arm around her home. "Are you going to live here at the complex too?"

He nodded. "Just for a few days. I'm being housed in one of the apartments on the third floor."

"Oh, the high-rent district. It's nice up there."

Alvaro flashed her a brief grin and raised his eyebrows. Megan took it as a sign that he thought she was being sarcastic. "I was being serious! You must be new to the area!"

"Yes, a long way from home. My plane arrived at Houston early this morning." He returned her smile and started to help her unpack.

Megan looked at him, her eyes for the first time giving a brief expression of sympathy. "Hell, with all the detours, that's a 300-kilometer trip from here. And I know how bad the roads are." She stood on tiptoe to reach a high cabinet and put away the two bags of flour he handed her.

As Megan stretched high, the front of her wet shirt clearly defined her feminine shape. Alvaro gave a soft sigh of appreciation. "Need any help with that?" he asked.

"No, I got it, thanks." Standing next to her visitor, Megan judged his height to be about twelve centimeters above her own height of 175 cm. She took a closer look at his face. "Wow, what a handsome guy," she thought. "Boyish grin, wavy black hair, and those eyes! So alert and cheerful... When was the last time I saw a guy this cute?" She smiled at him and said, "Houston huh? You must be exhausted. And where's home?"

He handed her the rice and cooking oil. "Oh, I'm okay. My party and I were flown here by the military a few hours ago. And home is Madeira."

Megan raised her eyebrows at the mention of the second air trip. More groceries went into the lower cabinets, and then she remembered something. "Wow, what a coincidence. One of my roommates grew up in Madeira."

Alvaro looked at her quizzically.

Megan stared back. "You mean Madeira, Ohio, don't you?"

"No, the country of Madeira. It's about 700 km off the coast of Africa."

"Oh wow, really?! I was wondering about your diplomatic immunity. But your badge says you're a U.S. citizen?"

"That's right, dual citizenship. In the early 2040's, I was a graduate student at Princeton. The reforms of 2041 required that I swear allegiance as a U.S. citizen before I could get my doctorate."

Megan laughed. "It sounds as if you got your doctorate about the same time I got mine! Veterinary school at U.C. Davis, Class of 2045."

Alvaro bowed respectfully as he handed her the last of the dried fruit. "Doctor..."

Megan playfully curtsied. "Doctor..."

"So, a long way from California, Doctor."

"But not as far as from New Jersey, Doctor." She squatted to store the kegs of lamp oil under the sink and thought for a moment. "Actually, I take that back. Davis and Princeton are probably about the same distance from here. Or did you say you live in Madeira now?"

He nodded. "The islands are my home. I haven't been back to New Jersey since graduation." All the groceries were now unpacked and stored away. He nodded at her politely and excused himself. As Megan walked him to her door, a bright flash of lightning lit the room, followed immediately by a clap of thunder so loud they both felt the vibrations. Sheets of dark rain lashed at the windows.

An impulse of generosity came over Megan. "Would you like to stay for dinner? My roommates will be here shortly. Our bread was just baked yesterday, and we have garden vegetables and fresh eggs and sausage! There's enough for five."

"You're very kind, but I have a meeting starting shortly on the other side of the base." Alvaro studied her expression of disappointment for a moment. "But tomorrow evening I'll be free. Would you do me the honor of joining me for dinner? Our briefing said there would be some safe restaurants just outside the base."

Megan sighed and shook her head. "Oh, they're safe enough. But it's nothing I can afford."

"Oh, I'll be happy to pick up the tab. Seriously."

"Are you sure? You're very kind, but I hardly know you, and a dinner there is a week's wage for me."

"Very sure. Please?"

"Well..." With the current scarcity of food, a man offering an unknown woman a meal would normally expect a sexual payment in return. But Megan didn't think Alvaro was soliciting her for sex and thus his offer was not impolite. Accepting such a courtesy offer on the other hand would be almost shockingly rude. The social norm was for Megan politely to decline. But Megan realized she had actually been hoping Alvaro would have accepted her offer tonight. She decided to trust her instincts about the sincerity of his request. "Okay! What time would you like to go?"

Alvaro stood by the door and gave her a kind smile. "Seven be okay?"

"I'll be ready. Thank you!"

They gave each other brief nods and then he departed. It was Megan's turn to make dinner for her roommates, and she whistled happily by the light of the small lantern as she worked.

The next evening...

The restaurant was worn but clean and cozy, with comfortable leather seats and real electric lights and even a working ceiling fan for circulation. It was also less than a quarter full. The waitress had told Megan and Alvaro that business had been drying up over the last year, and this was now a typical crowd even for a Saturday night. Megan recognized the few people dining. They were high-level officers and their wives from the base, and they had given her brief nods of recognition when she and Alvaro had arrived. The base commander had even given a respectful nod to Alvaro. Megan was rather glad the place was not crowded. It made it easier to talk, and the lack of people around them made her date seem more intimate.

Megan's eyes went wide as the waitress delivered her dish. It was a large breast of chicken, artistically served on a bed of imported bell peppers and mushrooms and brown rice, with a generous portion of steaming broccoli on the side. And this after shrimp cocktails?! She hadn't eaten this well in... Actually, it was so long ago, she couldn't remember when, certainly not since coming to Texas.

She was wearing her one good dress, white with a flowery print. It had short sleeves and a hem just below the knees. It was somewhat out of style for women to show bare calves and arms in public, and Megan would never have worn such a dress in the larger cities. Women had been known to attract suicide bombers in such garb by affronting their standards of religious decency. But the Fort Hood area was much more laid back, and Megan decided to chance it. She was glad she did. The dress showed off her figure, and several times as they walked to dinner she had noticed Alvaro glancing at her in open admiration.

They had agreed not to discuss Alvaro's mission while at the restaurant, so the conversation focused mainly on Megan. Megan wound up describing most of her life's history as they ate. By the time dessert arrived, she had walked him through Oregon and Washington and California and was finishing up with Texas. Megan gave a big smile as a small dish of homemade vanilla ice cream was laid before her, a perfect ending to a fine meal. It was genuine homemade ice cream, rich and creamy and with small embedded ice chips from the churn.

Alvaro joined her for a few bites with his own dish, and then realized his date was enjoying her dessert so much, he waited until coffee was served before starting up the conversation again. "So, you care for the horses of the Texas Rangers?"

Megan savored her first sip of coffee in two years. "That's right. I'm the principal equestrian doctor for a full troop, over two hundred mounts. Plus I'm on call tonight with the army stables, in case of emergencies." Earlier she had shown him the military cell phone in her purse, a coveted possession. "The army runs joint policing now with the Rangers. In the two years I've been here, they've become very integrated."

"How's it working out?"

"Very well. We had only two attacks in all of Bell County last year, and nothing this year except for one rogue bomber in January." Megan sighed. "That was a really bad one. Last year's attacks were against the power grid. The January bomber targeted the children's hospital. The police estimate over forty kilos of high-tech explosive. It collapsed the building."

Alvaro grimaced. "It's a common target in Europe too. Such brutality, and it's so hard to decentralize such critical care facilities."

"Yes, I know... and the extremists know too... We've tried to compensate, but... Tell me Alvaro, do you have horses in... where you come from?"

"We do. We built extensive stables in the first half of the 2030's, just before the plague years. They came in very handy when we lost our shipments of oil."

"Yes, I'm sure they did." Megan thought for a moment as she sipped her coffee and shuddered. "The plague years... I lost so many classmates in 2036. It was my last year in junior-high."

Alvaro looked at her sympathetically. "The Satan Bug?"

Megan shook her head. "No. Our school was attacked by extremists with automatic weapons. It happened during our graduation ceremony. The primary targets were our teachers, but almost half the senior students were killed too." She took a long sip, staring into her coffee cup for a moment. "You're right though. I lost classmates to the Satan Bug earlier in the term, so many friends, and my grandfather too. The anthrax attacks of 2037 were nothing in comparison." She paused for another sip and then added, "Portland now has laser detectors for the spores. If I remember correctly, the technology for that was invented at your Alma Mater about forty years ago."

Alvaro nodded and sighed.

Megan asked quietly, "Alvaro, did you lose many classmates to the Satan Bug?"

He was silent for a long moment and then whispered back, "The strain that attacked us was much more lethal with the adults. Relatively few children were taken by the Bug, less than 3%... 2036, hell, what a year. Satan was the perfect name for the disease."

Megan grimaced. "Oh my gosh, I remember. You're talking about the A-strain, aren't you?"

His face was like stone. "We suffered 70% fatalities in the adult population."

"My God," Megan hissed. "In a single year?!"

"In a single month!" he hissed back, and then sighed at his outburst. "Forgive me. I was a senior in high school at the time ... I lost both my parents."

Megan shook her head to dismiss his apology, and then reached over and held his hand. It was a gentle human contact, and then she squeezed firmly. Alvaro acknowledged her compassion with his eyes and squeezed back. They finished their coffee in silence, Alvaro occasionally caressing the back of Megan's hand with his thumb.

Megan felt a brief pang of embarrassment when the bill arrived, but Alvaro calmly paid with the new script and left a tip so generous that the waitress blinked before she took it. As they got up and to walk out of the restaurant, Megan offered Alvaro her hand again and he readily accepted.

She took a deep breath as they came out into the street and into the evening air. It was delightfully cool after the day's heat. "Alvaro, you and I are about the same age. It's a great puzzle to me."

He nodded. "I'll tell you more when we're back on the base." They walked in silence for a while. There was no moon, and as they left the lighted commercial district and the hum of the private generators, the streets became dark and silent, bordered by rows of empty and looted buildings. On impulse, Megan let go of Alvaro's hand and shyly pressed her hand against the small of his back. She was rewarded with his arm hugging her and his hand resting on her opposite side, in the curve of her hip.

It was what Megan was hoping for. Holding each other closely, they walked until they reached the main gate and back to the security of the base. Megan decided to walk along the inside of the fence and take the long route home.

"So," said Alvaro, gently holding her hip with one arm and gesturing to the base with the other. "This has been your home for the last two years?"

"Just about. I got to Texas in early July of 2045, about a month after getting my doctorate. So much of the world was different back then, just two years ago. I rode the trains and the trips were completely uneventful, no bombing delays at all. People weren't even that concerned about hidden bombs. It seems so hard to imagine now..."

Alvaro switched to Spanish. "Pick up any Spanish?"

Megan answered slowly in Spanish. "A little, enough to understand... I have to guess sometimes... Speaking is even more difficult... I know I should know more. Mexico is so close. There is so little time to... learn? No, study. Study is the word I want. I studied... In school I studied..." Megan paused and switched back to English. "I don't know the Spanish word for Latin. That's what I studied in high school. Knowing the Latin roots was very useful for premed."

"Yes, I can imagine." He smiled and then almost laughed. "Latin is the same word in both English and Spanish." He gave her a joking smile. "Ever think of being a priest? The church in Rome did open up the option for women a few years ago."

"Yes, I know! So you think I'd be good at giving Latin Masses huh?" She laughed good naturedly. "I'm also fluent in Hebrew, both modern and liturgical."

"Ah. That's interesting."

Megan nodded. "The language was spoken by part of my family. My mother's mother is Jewish. I spent a lot of time in Portland studying the Hebrew Bible with her. It was fun! A lot of weekends my grandmother would take me to the main city library and we would study ancient Semitic languages and how people guessed they were pronounced. We practiced with each other."

"Ah, then you must know about the Sidon dictionary scrolls of the ancient Canaanites."

"Know about them?! That's what we were studying! The scrolls were incredible, clear proof that the Canaanites were the inventors of our alphabet. I remember when the news broke in the summer of 2030. I had just turned six. Our library got complete copies by the fall. What a find! Extensive cross reference tables between the Hebrews and the Canaanites. People knew they had writing and books, but before the scrolls their language was almost completely lost, just a few inscriptions on tombs."

Alvaro nodded thoughtfully. "Is it similar to Hebrew?"

"Well, it's a Semitic language, somewhat similar to liturgical Hebrew and some say even closer to Aramaic. The grammar is almost the same and many words are either identical or have the same roots. You could almost guess the Hebrews and the Canaanites could half understand each other. And then there are lots of words that seem to have completely different roots and pronunciations." She paused and sighed. "Just a hobby. It's been so long since I've had time for a hobby."

" But you know how to speak it?!"

"Well, there's a lot of guesswork involved but yeah. There were pronunciation guides in the scrolls, phonetic cross references into the Hebrew."

"Say something in the language of the Canaanites."

"Okay!" Megan paused for a moment and looked at the stars. And then the dead language came to life. "The sky is clear and a young woman's heart sings in happiness."

"Wow, that does sound a bit like Hebrew."

"Well, not too much like modern Hebrew. Do you speak it?"

"Hebrew? No, not at all. What did you say?"

Megan paused for a moment and then told him. They walked for a long while in silence, and then Megan asked, "Alvaro, is Portuguese much different than Spanish?"

Alvaro smiled. "The difference perhaps is similar to the one between Hebrew and Canaan. There are many words that are greatly different, and also so much similarity that you can almost get by in one language by knowing the other. I'm okay in Spanish, speak it about as well as English, but I'm much more comfortable in Portuguese. I'm really impressed with your language skills Megan."

"Enough of me!" she replied, giving her date an affectionate hug. "We're back inside the base now. You promised to tell me about Madeira!"

"Okay. What would you like to know?"

"Everything! Start with the most important."

Alvaro paused for a second and then said, "Das ilhas, as mais belas e livres."

Megan was silent for a moment. "What a beautiful language. So that's Portuguese."

Alvaro nodded, "And the motto of Madeira: Of all islands, the most beautiful and free."

"Ah. You love your home very much, don't you?"

Alvaro laughed. "The islands are impossible not to love. They form the top of a massive shield volcano, ancient, five million years old. The ocean floor is 6 km below us, and the highest point is Pico Ruivo, 1862 meters above sea level. That's..." He paused for a second, "... just over 6100 feet."

"Oh, the U.S. has been on the metric system for years now. I know what meters are."

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