Nothing has been done to prevent climate change, and the United States has spun into decline. Storm surges have made coastal cities uninhabitable, blistering heat waves afflict the interior and, in the South (below the Heatstroke Line), life is barely possible. Under the stress of these events and an ensuing civil war, the nation has broken up into three smaller successor states and tens of tiny principalities. When the flesh-eating bugs that inhabit the South show up in one of the successor states, Daniel Danten is assigned to venture below the Heatstroke Line and investigate the source of the invasion. The bizarre and brutal people he encounters, and the disasters that they trigger, reveal the real horror climate change has inflicted on America.
Daniel Danten didn’t really want to have a family. What he wanted was to be a scientist, to teach at a university and produce original research. But this seemed so unlikely, given the state of things in Mountain America, that he decided to hedge his bets or he’d have nothing to show for his life. So he married a woman he convinced himself he was in love with and had three children. As it turned out, somewhat to his own surprise, he achieved his original goal, probably because he switched fields from astronomy to entomology, a subject of enormous practical concern these days. And now, with a secure position at one of Mountain America’s leading universities, his own lab, and a substantial list of publications to his credit, he spent most of his time worrying about his family. His wife, Garenika, was depressed, his ten year old son Michael was suffering from one of the many mysterious ailments that were appearing without warning or explanation, and his fourteen year old daughter Senly was hooked on Phantasie and running wild. Worst of all, his sixteen year old, Joshua, who had always been such a reliable, level-headed and generally gratifying son, had become an American Patriot.
On a blazing, early September afternoon, with the outdoor temperature spiking at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, he was sitting with Garenika in the waiting room at Denver Diagnostic Clinic while Michael was being examined by still one more doctor. Garenika thought they would get some sort of answer this time, but Dan was convinced that the doctor would come out of the examining room and say that she really couldn’t tell them what the problem is. Senly was spending a rare evening at home and Joshua was on his way back from his field trip to the Enamel, an expedition that, Dan felt sure, was designed to make the participants angry, rather than providing them with information. The doctor appeared and Garenika jumped to her feet.
“Well,” the doctor said,” I really can’t tell you what the problem is.”
“Why not?” Garenika asked, her voice tinged with its increasingly frequent sense of panic. “Why can’t you find an answer for us? Look at him –he’s losing weight, his skin keeps getting blotchier, and he’s exhausted all the time.”
“I’m sorry. As you probably know, we’re pretty sure that we’re seeing all these new diseases because the climate change has wiped out a lot of the beneficial bacteria that we used to have in our bodies. Commensals, they’re called. But we’ve never really figured out how they work, so it’s hard to compensate for their disappearance.”
“Okay,” said Dan. “So what can we do for Michael?”
“Keep him comfortable and give it time. Put cold compresses on any area where there’s a rash. Try to get him to eat, lots of small meals if he can’t tolerate a large one. We’re expecting some new medicines from Canada that may relieve the symptoms. Michael’s getting dressed; he’ll be out a few minutes.”
When Michael came out, they went back down to the clinic carport. Dan set the car for Return and sat in the rear with Michael, letting Garenika sit alone up front. They were quiet on the drive back home. Dan kept watching his discolored, fragile little boy, trying to think of something reassuring to say, but nothing came to mind. So when they arrived at the house, where Senly was waiting for them, he just gave Michael a long hug and told him to take a nap.
“Be quiet when you go into the room” Senly said to Michael. “Josh is sleeping.” She turned to Dan and Garenika. “He was really tired out from the trip, so he decided to rest up. But he’s looking forward to having dinner with you.”
“Wonderful,” said Dan, “we’ll all be together.”
“Well, actually,” Senly answered, “I figured you’d be occupied with all the news from Josh, so I made plans to go out. Anyway, the kitchen might break if it we have to program another meal for tonight. It hasn’t been working very well.”
“That was our decision to make, Senly, not yours,” said Garenika.
“I was just trying to be considerate. Remember, you told me that you wanted me to take other people’s feelings into account without being asked. So that’s what I did. I even took the kitchen’s feelings into account.”
Dan couldn’t suppress a grin. Senly got up to leave. “You can reach me on my wristlink. I’ll just be having a quiet dinner with Ranity and Sharana.”
As soon as she was out of the room, Garenika turned on Dan. “You did it again. You smiled at her for her smart-ass comeback. You seem to think that anything she does is okay, as long as she acts clever.”
Garenika was right. Dan knew that he valued intelligence too much. Somehow, he thought Senly’s good mind and quick wits would make up for her surly irresponsibility, and that she would turn out well in the end. But it was his job as a parent to exercise more control over her, to keep her from getting into some kind of trouble she couldn’t get out of, and maybe even to teach her some sense of morality.
“You need to be more careful, Dan. You have a career, but these three children are all I’ve got.”
In fact, Garenika was a food inspector for the government, but she hated her job.
Josh appeared in the multi-purpose room promptly at 7:15, just as the servo-robot was putting out the plates for dinner. He looked completely refreshed and as handsome as ever. After announcing that he was glad to be home, asking where Senly was, and telling Michael that he was looking better, he launched into his account of the trip by using his wristlink to project images onto the wall.
“I couldn’t send anything from the Enamel, of course, but that’s what it looks like. I know you’ve seen it Dad, but Mom and Michael haven’t. Isn’t it awful?”
A scene appeared of wide, flat land, part brown rock and part dark clay, with scattered pools of water, jumbled piles of brick and stone, and a few stunted, scrawny bushes. Josh had taken the footage on an overcast day to heighten the effect.
“This used to be the richest farmland on Earth,” he continued. “Until the Canadians raped it. You know where the term Enamel comes from, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Dan. “NML — No Man’s Land.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Michael.
“They called it that because it’s supposed to be a buffer between us and the UFA, didn’t they?” Garenika asked.
“That what I thought, particularly because of the Canadian communications blackout there,” said Josh, “but Stuart told us that the Canadians would actually have been glad if we kept fighting with the UFA. American netnews writers named it No Man’s Land because no one could live there after the Canadians got through with it. Stuart really knows a lot about it.”
“I should hope so,” said Dan, “he’s probably the leading American history professor at the University of Mountain America.”
“He’s really nice. And he ran a great trip.”
“If he hadn’t been running it, dear, we wouldn’t have let you go,” said Garenika.
“There are the train tracks,” said Joshua, switching scenes. “You can’t really get a good sense of them from a picture, but it’s horrible to see them in real life. There are three sets, each twenty feet wide and running straight into Canada. Did you see them Dad?”
“No, I went to the Enamel to find insects. I never got that far east.”
“Maybe if you’d seen the tracks you would feel different about the whole thing. Stuart said it took three years for them to transport all that topsoil up to Canada, even with those giant trains. Just think, three years ripping the surface off seven states.”
“Well, we did drop nuclear bombs on their two largest cities,” Dan replied.
“We were justified. They were supposed to let our citizens move into the Arctic, instead of taking in all those Aussies, Brits and Frenchies. They just let us die from the heat. What were we supposed to do?”
“Not that. Even the Russians didn’t do that when China conquered East Siberia.”
“But both sides used nuclear weapons.”
“Just tactical ones, on the battlefield. The United States was the only country that ever used them against civilian targets.”
“Are you two going to start arguing again?” said Garenika. “I thought we were just hearing about Josh’s trip.”
“Well, the purpose of Josh’s trip was to get him revved up so he’d argue with me.”
“The purpose of my trip was to provide me with information so I can explain to you why it’s so important to be a Patriot. We were the most powerful nation on Earth before the Second Civil War. And we could be powerful again if the three Successor States united. Just think, we’d have almost as many people as Canada.”
“How do you figure that?” said Dan.
Josh was obviously waiting for that question. “Mountain America has 24 million people, the UFA has 25 or 26 million, and Pacifica has 12 or 13.
“Well, that’s a little over 60 million by my math. Canada has 150 million.”
“Yeah, but five million of them are in New England, and another 20 are in Alaska. Those used to be part of the United States. If you subtract 25 million people from Canada and add them to us, the difference gets a lot smaller.”
“But why would all those people want to leave a richer, stronger country with a decent climate to join three smaller, overheated ones?”
“Because they used to be part of the greatest nation on Earth.”
“Not the people in Alaska. They came from Australia, Britain and France, as you just mentioned.”
“Only some of them. There are plenty of Patriots in Alaska. Plus another five million people in the Confederacies, and almost all of them are Patriots.”
“They may be Patriots,” said Dan, “but according to the last count, there’s only about three million of them.”
“That information comes from a Canadian satellite survey, and they falsify the data to make the Patriots look weak.”
“Did Stuart tell you that?”
Josh was getting rattled, but he held his ground. “No, Noah told us that.”
“Noah!” Dan exclaimed, with a snort.
“Noah knows a lot.”
“Noah’s a nut case,” said Dan. “A Revivalist nut case.” He was about to add that Josh would be a nut case too if he kept listening to people like that, but he caught Garenika’s eye and restrained himself.
“I’m tired,” said Michael. Can I go back to bed?” Dan noticed that he had barely touched his food.
“Of course, darling,” said Garenika. “I’ll come in to say goodnight in a few minutes.”
“Actually,” Dan continued, trying to be slightly less contentious, “even three million people is impressive. Most of the areas below the Heatstroke Line are completely uninhabited these days.”
“That’s American ingenuity for you,” Joshua said.
“And that’s just a Patriot slogan.”
“Dad, if all the Successor States were unified, we could repopulate the South. Crops grow there, so there’s no reason it couldn’t hold more people.”
“That’s impossible, Josh. I’d be surprised if they can even sustain the present population very long.”
“Why exactly is that?” Garenika asked. “You can live below the Heatstroke Line if you have air conditioning. I mean, I’m a nutritionist, not an h-vac engineer, but the Halcyon units are really good. Ours can handle 150 degree weather easily.”
“So it would seem,” said Dan, “but it never works. It’s a matter of social organization, not engineering. You’ve got to keep a power plant going all the time. As soon as it breaks down, or the fuel supply is interrupted, or one of your enemies blows it up, you die. Then there are the biter bugs. And you’ve got to give everyone a stun gun or life is just intolerable. Even with the guns, it’s pretty damn unpleasant. You’re always on edge.”
“But everyone in the Confederacies does have a stun gun” Josh responded. “And the power plant situation isn’t as bad as you say, because they’re not so far south. You can survive in winter without air conditioning, so it’s only a little more than half the year that a power failure actually kills you.”
“Well, that was the idea behind President Garcia’s program of repopulating West Oklahoma, Central Texas and New Mexico,” said Dan, “but the problem in that case is that there’s no water. It’s a lost cause.”
“The problem,” said Josh, “is that it created an unnecessary conflict with the Confederacies in Arkansas, East Oklahoma and East Texas. We need to start working together, not competing for little bits of extra territory. The Canadians never could have invaded us if it hadn’t been for the Second Civil War.”
“Well then,” said Dan. You should be an enthusiastic supporter of President Simonson.”
“Simonson’s a lot better than Carletta Garcia. At least he’s trying to establish better relations with the Confederacies. But he’s not a Patriot. He has no vision. One day we’ll elect a real Patriot as President and start putting this country back together.”
“One day,” said Dan, “you’ll go back to fantasizing about being a medieval knight, or hunting dinosaurs, or something else that’s more realistic than the lost cause you’ve got for yourself now.”
When Dan and Garenika were in bed that night, she told him that he was being much too hard on Josh. Dan was tempted to respond that he was just following the advice she had given him about Senly, but he realized that would be a smart-ass, Senly-type remark and stopped himself.
“You know,” he said instead, “what Josh is doing can be dangerous, maybe more dangerous than Senly’s Phantasie parties with those so-called friends of hers. I trust Stuart, but when they were looking at the train tracks, they were pretty close to territory claimed by the UFA. And American Patriotism is a criminal offense there; they could all have been arrested.”
“But it’s legal here. And at least he’s using his mind and doing something constructive.” She paused. “Oh hell, you’re right. I’m worried about him too. I’m worried about all of them.”
He has published four books, three edited volumes, two casebooks, and more than one hundred articles about various aspects of law and political theory. The Heatstroke Line is his first novel.