By Bryan Condon
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 19th contest was Prediction.
Erin's new office had most of the same things in it as her last one: a regulation gunmetal desk, a regulation green-shaded lamp, a regulation uncomfortable chair. Egg-carton foam lined the walls, snuffing out exterior sound when the door was closed. The SURGE terminal was a little cleaner, but no less chunky and loud. There was the standard NO SMOKING sign, and the standard overflowing ashtray. The document safe was bigger and bright orange; allegedly the better to be able to find it if the building ever fell in on itself. There was no window, but that was the price you paid for moving up in the Company: moving down into the basements, where the bigger secrets were kept.
The one new thing her office did have was a problem.
A problem called ARCTIC TERN.
It had started with a combine harvester and a grid square called Kharkov-37.
"... with the formal conclusion of hostilities now a reality in the 1960s, the German government and private interests invested in the Eastern Territories have assigned a high priority to increasing the agricultural output of their colonies, particularly in the breadbasket regions of Reichskommissariat Ukraine. To that end, extensive technical and industrial efforts have been made to modernize and replace outdated farming equipment, much of which had been inherited from the Soviet Union.
In particular, a new model of combine harvester, the MNH 2000, has been designed and designated for mass-production. Obsolete machinery from the pre- and immediate post-war periods have been cited in the unnecessary extension of the harvesting season and the loss of millions of tones of grain. Furthermore, the MNH 2000 has been designed to be capable of harvesting other crops, like soybeans, corn, sunflower oil, and several others.
Reich Minister for Food and Agriculture Gerhard Krüger stated at the 28th Annual Meeting of the European Community's Common Agricultural Commission that 3,000 units of the MNH 2000 had already been produced and delivered to farming colonies in Ostland and Ukraine, and that future production was anticipated to reach even the world market, with advertisements subsequently appearing in national US newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Herald..."
Grid square Kharkov-37 was pretty utterly typical of the places it was Erin's job in Satellite Analysis to observe and interpret. Here was the perfect, almost toy-like model colony village of perhaps a thousand souls, surrounded by fields in all directions. There was the wide-gauge rail line, linking it to the prior and next settlements along the chain of towns that fanned out hundreds of miles from Gotenburg on the Crimean Penninsula. Over here was the idyllic village school, the imposing party meeting hall, the well-maintained firing range adjacent, the vehicle park, the medical clinic. There behind a wire fence was the squat, prison-like barracks for the slave laborers, who had once been Poles or Ukrainians or something else with a name, but now simply were. In the right light, sometimes Erin could even see the faintest traces of the Soviet city that had once been just to the northeast of the town, the ghostly impressions of streets and building blocks vanishing under tall stalks of wheat and corn.
Half a dozen MNH 2000-shaped combine harvesters had been brought in by train in mid-June of 1973, and moved to the Kharkov-37 vehicle park. Erin had noted their arrival in the file and forgotten about them, moved to other observations: Black Sea Fleet maneuvers, the open-cycle nuclear power stations sprouting up on the Caspian shore, the wreck of Luft Hansa Flight 799 being dredged from Moscow Lake, an Ahnenerbe dig site in the foothills of the Caucasus. Pure routine.
"... mandatory evacuation of villages in the region can be confirmed by the absence of vehicle traffic, electrical lighting at night, and the customary purge of evacuated local non-German labor [See Addendum G, photographic notations for Frames Pechora-23-105, Pechora-23-106, and Pechora-27-299]. GENETRIX high-altitude technical means have confirmed the presence of certain radioisotopes along atmospheric weather tracks consistent with observations of the industrial facilities at Pechora-21, particularly caesium-137 and strontium-90 [See Addendum H, Summary of GENETRIX Observations, July to August 1974]. Despite the apparent extreme local contamination, forecasts suggest the risk to populations outside the region is limited, and to the United States, virtually nil. No public notice is required or recommended.
The ultimate cause of the disruption to activity at the Pechora-21 facility remains unclear and likely cannot be confirmed from image analysis. The serious damage noted to the slave barracks, well away from the destroyed main buildings, might point to some degree of sabotage by the non-German workforce, or reprisals against them for an unconnected incident. It is also possible that the exact nature of the Pechora-21 facility has been misconceived, as it lacks certain analogous infrastructure considered by US experts vital to the safe operation of a conventional atomic power station [See Addendum K, Report of the Department of Atomic Power Reich Affairs Advisory Commission].
No apparent changes have been noted at the Pechora-1 Kriegsmarine naval station, with ice breaking activities continuing apace in advance of the annual Arctic Circle exercises..."
It wasn't until months later that she came back to Kharkov-37, inspecting the settlement for signs of a major reconstruction of the settlement's medical clinic. She'd confirmed the new smoke stacks, and had been searching her index of industrial incinerator reference pictures when she noticed something funny about the pictures.
She switched back to the wider-scale image, chewing the end of her pencil, frowning.
She checked out the prior month's images, and then the ones before that, finally pulling every Eight Ball pass over Kharkov-37.
Not one of the harvesters had moved.
Every machine was still exactly where it had been left in June. No image showed a shift in position or tracks on the ground. Some were oddly smaller than they had been on delivery, or had become fuzzy about their edges.
She'd taken it to her unit supervisor, a man named Trench, who squinted carefully at each file, listening silently as Erin explained what she'd found. Long minutes passed as he peered at the photos, wheezing softly with what little of his lungs that hadn't been coughed up on the Kanto Plain.
"This one's been pulled apart," he finally said, tapping the diminished shape in the southwest corner of the vehicle park. "You don't think they're using them?"
Erin shook her head.
"Write it up."
Erin's memo had come back not just questioned by the Top Floor, but actively down-checked, red ink splashed across the pages like she'd failed an algebra test in school. Humiliated and confused, but with her stubbornness egged on by Trench, she'd tried again.
She started pulling frames from other grid squares: the town at Kharkov-19, the agricultural college in Bock-15, the camps of Lemberg-91, a dozen others, then two dozen, then almost a hundred. She came in early, stayed up nights, chain smoking and missing Mei's birthday again, second-guessing herself to confirm the Soviet-era machinery was still hard at work in the fields of each settlement.
The memo sprawled to fifty pages, her running total of MNH 2000 combine harvesters sitting dead in their vehicle parks and farm yards from delivery passing seven hundred somewhere around Christmas. Not a single one had shifted so much as ten yards. At a railroad junction near Treblink-5, she found a score of the machines that seemed to have been simply pushed off flatcars and allowed to rust at in the weeds outside the fence of a freight yard.
She pulled in an expert from the Department of Agriculture who had consulted on Reich farming techniques before, and he'd confirmed that some of the harvesters didn't even look as if they'd been finished, or delivered simply without any of their major components.
It was absurd.
That memo didn't come back at all. Instead, Trench pulled her into his office a week later, his fixed frown even deeper than usual.
"They want me to fire you, Ms. Sherman. I'm of a mind not to, so you have two choices in front of you," he said, regarding Erin with his one good eye. "You can drop this combine harvester thing, and go back to actually doing your job, and everybody will forget you ever wasted so much time on it. Your career will be fine, it won't even be mentioned in your file."
Erin grimaced, inclined her head slightly, waiting.
"Or..." Trench smiled a little, the expression more disturbing on his ruined face than the frown. "I can tell you why you've been wasting so much time on it, and you can stake your career on being able to tell the Top Floor why you're right, and they're wrong."
In her new office, Erin looked dourly at the latest ARCTIC TERN report, unconsciously worrying the curled corner of her laminated ID badge lanyard. Much of it had been redacted away, reports on Ural partisan activity and preparations for the Germania Olympics compartmentalized away with a thick black marker, but the agriculture section was clear enough.
According to the report, the MNH 2000 combine harvester was a wild success. Production had passed 120% of forecasts, grain harvests had doubled and harvest times had been cut in half. Foreign governments - Turkey, Ireland, Argentina - were already reaching out to buy their own units. The desire for hard foreign currency was almost palpable.
It didn't sound any different from the glowing reviews being pushed across the pages of the Völkischer Beobachter or the London Times, and Erin would have given it just about as much weight, were it not for the detail that had required she sign away what few constitutional rights she still had as a Company employee to learn about.
There, at the bottom of the page, the Führer's signature.
ARCTIC TERN passed reports almost directly from his desk into the Company's pocket. There was no arguing with that level of access, on the Top Floor or in Germania. The entire system was predicated on ruthless efficiency. The Reich had not sprawled across a continent and flatted half the world powers by brooking even a hint of internal dissension or deceit. It was axiomatic. Germans could lie to the world, but never to each other. For forty years, it had been the iron law of Europe, a system of total accountability sweeping aside craven democracy and brutish communism alike. Men had tried lying to the Führer before, and men had died for it, in piano wire nooses swinging from meat hooks. Those films were among the less pleasant things Erin had been asked to look at from the Company's archives.
But she just couldn't square it with her own report. The images where there. The analysis was there. Her draft report questioning ARCTIC TERN felt thinner and thinner the longer she squirmed in her chair.
She gave up, stuffed the papers into her orange safe, logged off the SURGE terminal, signed herself out of the building and went home. It would still be there on Monday, she had a few more days before the rope Trench had payed out for her would pull taut.
She was late getting home and missed dinner. Again. There were tight lines around David's mouth when she let herself in and waved hello, but Erin was too tired to offer more than a weak apologetic smile.
Mei was excited to see her, at least, bedtime forgotten as she bounced down the stairs in her pajamas and into Erin's arms for a hug.
"You were gone for forever, Mommy, I counted!"
"I know, hun, I'm sorry."
"Can you read to me?" Mei asked, applying her most irresistible wide-eyed look. Erin glanced at David, his arms folded and his expression sour, not wanting to take that from him, but he waved it off and disappeared into the kitchen without a word.
"Alright, sure. Did you brush your teeth?" Erin asked, looking down at Mei and her innocent but abruptly closed-mouth smile.
"I did, I swear!"
"Ahuh," Erin said, her skepticism well-founded. An investigation quickly turned up a bone-dry toothbrush.
"I did," Mei protested, lamely, pouting.
"We'll just have to do it again, then," Erin sighed, too tired to say anything else.
David had lit one of his abominable sandalwood candles when Erin came back downstairs, Mei and about twenty pages of the Fantastic Mr. Fox tucked under her covers.
"Everything okay?" he asked, his voice tight, a bottle of wine open on the coffee table next to him. Only one glass.
"Yeah, yeah." Erin massaged the her temples, trying to push away the nagging pain settling in behind her eyes. "She didn't brush her teeth. Again." David didn't say anything, and it was a moment before she caught his unhappy stare. "No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."
"Yeah," he said, flatly, looking away, pouring himself another drink.
"No, really, I mean it, I wasn't criticizing you," Erin said, sinking down onto the arm of the sofa, reaching for David's shoulder, which he almost but not quite pulled away. "It's like she believes her own lies when she tells them, it's tough to put the screws to her when she puts on that little face." Erin smiled, rubbing David's shoulder reassuringly. "I know she's a bit of a handful sometimes, but you've been doing a great job with her."
"I think she'd be happier if she had a little brother or sister around," David said, softly.
"Yeah?" Erin felt her smile broaden. "Okay, maybe, yeah. It should be easier this time, we passed all the background checks and things already, so-"
"I didn't mean that," he interrupted, not looking at her. "I meant having one of our own."
"She is ours," Erin snapped, voice rising sharply before she bit down, and it was David's turn to back up.
"I didn't mean it like that."
"I... you... alright, yes, I did," David said, looking up at her, his face red from the wine or the frustration banding his voice like iron. Probably both. "It's not the same, you understand? It's just not. I'm not saying I don't love her, I just-" He held up his hands, grasping at the empty air for meaning.
"You know what? Fine, okay, sure." Erin yanked her hand away, got up off the sofa, and snatched her cigarettes from her bag. "Things aren't really good at work right now, but we can talk about it, okay? Soon, we will."
"Yeah, sure." David didn't look at her again, burying his face in his wine glass.
"I mean it."
"I do, okay? I promise." Her words hit the silence between them and sank slowly as it thickened, broken only by Erin's fumbling with her lighter.
"You know what, I think you're right about Mei," David finally said, getting up and rinsing his now-empty glass in the sink. "She's such a good liar because she believes it. She lies to herself as much as she lies to us."
"What did you say?" Erin asked, looking up at him, past the ice-blue flame between her fingers.
"The best liars lie to themselves as much as they lie to everyone else," he repeated, with a pointed, exasperated glare.
"They lie to themselves...?" she repeated, slowly, wonderingly. "No. No... can't be. Could it...?"
"Erin, are you even listening to me?"
"Yeah, no, sorry, David, I have to go," she said, grabbing her coat and fumbling it on.
"They lie to themselves!" she said, triumphantly, taking care not to slam the door as she sprinted back to her car, leaving David standing by the sink, his face a mask of bewildered pain.