Apr/May 2011  •   Fiction

A New Definition of Treason

by Alice Whittenburg

Photo by Brice Barrett

Photo by Brice Barrett


1. Defense Prop 2020

"Of course it makes sense," my dad said. We were getting ready to go to dinner, just the two of us, because Mendel, Gabriella, and Curtis were obviously not going to show. "We live in a democracy, and we should vote before going to war."

It was Saturday. It was Dad's first time home from the capital in over a year — a surprise visit. On Friday night I invited Mendel, Gabriella, and Curtis to come see him; each gave a different reason why that wasn't possible. Dad and I played chess before we went to bed, and in the morning we watched the news. There was a report on the war referendum, Defense Prop 2020. Dad and I had been arguing about it ever since.

"I don't want any part of it," I said.

"Then just vote no," he answered.

"It's a scam," I said. "If the government really wants to go to war, will they let the voters stop them?"

"You're very cynical," Dad said, and we went outside and got into separate cars and drove to a restaurant he and Mom used to like.

"War has always been with us," Dad said as soon as we got a table. "At least now we can vote on it."

"But who in their right minds," I said quietly, "would ever vote to go to war?"

"People who think our enemies deserve to be punished, people who want to see justice served, or who just want some excitement." He shrugged.

"Crazy people," I said.

"Our enemies will vote for their wars, and if we don't vote for ours, they'll have the advantage over us. Sensible people know that."

"That's not my definition of sensible," I said. The waiter came just then, and we ordered wine and pasta.

After the waiter had gone Dad said, "Don't you want to see those bastards get what's coming to them?"

"What about diplomacy?" I said. "What about forgiveness?"

"What about it?" he said.

"If I hadn't been willing to forgive, we wouldn't be here now."

"Don't start on that," he said. The wine came, and he drank his first glass quickly.

"So how could we stop them if the voters said no but the government wanted war?"

"Vote out the warmongers, too," Dad said, smiling. He poured another glass of wine.

"What if we had voted? What if Mendel, Gabriella, Curtis and me had voted that you and Mom shouldn't fight any more? What would you have done?"

Dad said, "Don't start on that," and he drank down his wine.

"We could never stop you," I said. "Kids should have more power."


2. Replacing Giselle Trieste

Dad and I were sitting in my living room after our dinner out, and I asked him again to tell me where Mom was.

"About a year ago Agency was investigating a cell, and your mother was supposed to infiltrate it. She made contact and arranged to meet them, but when she arrived there was just one woman, Giselle Trieste. Your mother asked, 'Where are the others?' Giselle Trieste said, 'This is how we operate; a cell of one can't betray itself.'"

I was going to say, "You expect me to believe that?" but instead I asked, "How could Mom replace another woman?"

"Your mother asked Giselle Trieste, 'How do your people communicate?' And the Trieste woman said, 'Like the cells and tissues and organs of the body, we use a biologic code.' So your mother entered that cell the way a virus invades its host, and she replaced Giselle Trieste."

"How can you know all this if you weren't there?"

"I have my ways. She reported back for a while. Odd intelligence. Non-specific information. She gave Agency a key to that biologic code, but they haven't quite cracked it yet."

"That's not what you told me on the phone. When I asked about Mom."

"Isn't it?"

"I want you to tell me what happened to her. A true story about where she is and where I can find her."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't do that."

"So why tell me fictions?"

"To reassure you. To comfort myself."

Angry, I went off to bed. He sat and drank whiskey in the dark, making up new stories he didn't expect me to believe.


3. My Mother's Smile

After Dad was gone, I called Mendel, Gabriella, and Curtis so we could video-conference. I said I understood why they hadn't come to see Dad, and I told them about the visit.

"Obviously, he's a liar," Mendel said. Mendel is my older brother. "Dad's not big enough in government to know about Agency."

"He drives a black Jag with digital plates," I said. "He has some pretty sophisticated mobile security."

"That doesn't mean shit," Mendel said.

Gabriella is a middle child like me; in fact, we're twins. "Next time Dad visits, I'll come over," she broke in.

"I think you should stay away from him," Curtis said. He's the youngest. "Dad can twist your words and steal your secrets; you don't even have to say nothing."

"Anything," Gabriella corrected. "So what exactly did he say about Mom?"

I hesitated for a few seconds. "This time he said Mom replaced a woman named Giselle Trieste."

Mendel laughed an ugly laugh. "Giselle Trieste is probably the bitch Dad was with when Mom decided she'd had enough."

"But why did he tell me Mom turned into another person? Like a woman in a science fiction movie?"

"There are viruses that can reprogram DNA, that can change living things," Curtis said.

"You've been reading too many comic books," Mendel said.

"You don't know 10 percent of what you think you know," Curtis said.

"Stop it," Gabriella said.

I wanted to change the subject. "Dad thinks we should all vote on Defense Prop 2020."

They didn't pay any attention to me and continued to bicker.

So I said, "I asked Dad what would've happened if we would've voted. Us kids."

"Voted on what?" Mendel asked sharply.

"On them fighting like they did."

"They would've just done what they wanted. Like they always did," Mendel shouted. His video-conference window disappeared from my screen.

"Listen, guys, I gotta go too," Gabriella said, and her window blanked out.

It was just Curtis and me. "Stay away from it," he said. "Agency and government and that. Of course they'll win the vote and of course there'll be a war if that's what they want."

"I'm going to try to find Giselle Trieste," I said. "In case she is. Mom, I mean."

"You're so sweet," he said. "You're such a forgiving nature." He waved, and then his window blanked out.

I kept thinking about the virus idea—the possibility of invading cells and rewriting DNA and becoming someone else. Or they might become you. And what would that mean during wartime? Would we replace our enemies? Would our enemies replace us? Maybe they already had.

I began a search and found somebody named Giselle Trieste in a group photo at a barracks somewhere in Nevada. Her smile was something like Mom's. Her smile was something like the enemy's.



4. Pod/God

I was laying on the floor with the dog. The dog's name is God—for obvious reasons. I was using God as my personal therapist.

I said, "Pasquelina asked Dad where Mom is. Dad said Mom became somebody else. Like a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Why did he tell her that?"

God didn't answer.

It was getting dark. My apartment was cold, but there was a warm spot where God huddled up to me. I was just almost asleep. Then my phone rang.

"What?" I said into my phone.

"It's your father," Dad's voice said. It was his sad-drunk voice.

"I don't believe in my father," I said. I hung up and turned off the phone. Five seconds later it started ringing again.

"What?" I said again.

"Why didn't you come to Pasquelina's house?" my father asked. "We had fun. Like old times."

"I don't believe in old times," I said.

There was silence. God started running in his sleep.

"I'll come back soon," Dad said. "I really want to see you."

"How'd you get my number?"

"From Pasquelina."

"I know that's a lie."

"You shouldn't accuse your own father of lying."

"My own father shouldn't lie. About Mom and all. We need to know what happened to her."

"There's a special program at Agency. She volunteered. Do you remember that magician at your party? Tricks with coins and cards? Your mother is a kind of magician. She'll help us win the war."

"You told Pasquelina she became someone else. Giselle Trieste. But Mendel says Giselle Trieste was your girlfriend."

"Giselle Trieste doesn't exist."

"She doesn't exist? She does exist, and she's Mom? Make up your mind."

"My mind is made up. What about yours? Have you signed up yet?"

"I'm never going to fight."

"You will if they pass Defense Prop 2020. You'll have to go. The girls, too, maybe. Mendel's got a wonky head. They won't want him."

"I'll leave the country."

"What's wrong with you? Are you as bad as I always said you were?"

Dad was using his mean-drunk voice. He was trying to get me worked up. God could feel my tension, and he sat up and barked.

"What was that?"

"My dog."

"I like dogs. Mom had one at the base. It was trained to sniff out rare elements they needed for miniaturization."

"So you're going to tell me Mom is miniaturized?"

"I'm not going to tell you anything. Except you should sign up."

"You sound like some pod man who replaced my dad."

"I'm better than that. I'm in charge of the pod squad. I'm the pod god." Now he was using his crazy-drunk voice.

I hung up and turned off the phone. I put the phone under a pile of clothes. Then I huddled up to God. The phone kept on ringing and ringing, but my father couldn't make me answer.


5. AKA Orion

After I hung up on my dad, after he stopped trying to call me back, I couldn't sleep. So I went out on the balcony and looked into the night sky to see what I could see above the glare of lights. Orion was there, and while I looked at the line of stars making up his belt, I planned how to free some information about Giselle Trieste. Pasquelina is smart, and she's good at infometrics, but if I'm trying to find Giselle Trieste and Pasquelina's trying to find Giselle Trieste, nine times out of ten I will find Giselle Trieste first. Or whoever I'm looking for.

I went back into the apartment and called Chloe. "Meet me at Squid's," I said, and she said OK. God looked sleepy, but I brought him along anyway.

"No dogs allowed in here," Squid said, and then I sat at a table, and God laid underneath it, and I drank Mexican beer until Chloe got there.

"Problems with my dad," I said. "I have to go out of town for a couple days." She knows enough about my dad not to ask questions.

"It's getting cold," she said. "Wear that coat I got you."

"Tonight I looked at Orion for a long time," I said. "He's been in a constellation, hunting, for like thousands of years."

"I don't know about hunting," she said. "I'm a vegan."

"Could you take God while I'm gone?" I asked. She said she would and we kissed and I had another Mexican beer.

When I went back to my place it seemed lonely without God. I slept for a few hours, and got up while it was still dark. I put some clothes in a gym bag, along with my hardware, and I went to the bullet train station. I bought a ticket to the capital. By morning the train was full of government commuters, coming in from the ring cities, giving me the bad eye for the way they thought I smelled.

I worked my hardware all day, and I learned three things: There is something called genetic transformation, and cells can be reprogrammed. Dad does have top portfolio clearance. And Mom hasn't been at Agency for over a year. But I couldn't find anything about Giselle Trieste, so I decided to try again tomorrow.

After dark I went to a Draft Resisters meeting. I got as far as the door. I thought I recognized a few people, but then I saw a guy I knew was a narc and somebody from Agency. I turned away, and a big guy yelled, "Hey! Aren't you coming in? The meeting's starting." "No," I said, walking fast. "Hey! What's your name?" he shouted. "Orion," I said and kept on walking.



6. Killing Lambs and Sending Kids to War

Mom hasn't seen Krista for two years, and Krista has no memory of her grandmother. Now I'm having trouble remembering Mom, though to be honest she started fading away right after Mendel fell.

Krista cries when I fight with Anderson, just like Pasquelina and I did when Mom and Dad fought. Mendel used to try to stop them, until he fell down the attic stairs. He got a concussion and stayed in a coma for a while; he was bruised from head to toe.

"What were you doing in the attic?" I asked him in the hospital when he could finally talk.

"Spying on Mom and Dad," he said. He sounded like his mouth was full of wet cotton. His eyes were dark and hollow-looking.

I knew he used to do surveillance on all of us, put cameras and mikes in unexpected places, make recordings. "Why?" I asked. "When they fight we can hear them down the block. Why do you need to spy?"

"I don't remember," he said in a spooky, dead voice. "I really don't remember what it was about."

When Mendel finally got out of the hospital, Grandma Steenie came to live with us, and Mom and Dad mostly lived in the capital. "Help your grandmother," Mom said to Pasquelina and me. Pasquelina immediately started studying all the time so she could get all A's. That left me to do the hard work.

I guess that's what made me a practical person. When I got pregnant I married Anderson even though I knew he drank too much. When I turned eighteen I joined the Guard. I took an oath. And when Dad asked me about Curtis and Mendel and Pasquelina, I told him what I knew. I'd do the same with Anderson. I'd even do it with Krista.

"Are your brothers or sister disloyal in some way?" Dad asked.

I said Mendel had changed since he fell and he was just a guy with a damaged brain. But I gave away a few secrets about Curtis and Pasquelina. I felt like I was the disloyal one, but Dad always says, "The right thing to do is a hard thing to do." Don't people kill lambs to eat them? Don't parents send their kids to war?

Next week's the election for Defense Prop 2020, and I plan to vote for war. Even though it means I might get called up. Even though that means being separated from Krista. It's so cold over there I can imagine crying and having the tears freeze before they hit my cheeks.

The last time I saw Curtis I tried to get him to do the right thing and sign up for the Guard. He pouted and turned his back on me like Krista does when I tell her to put her toys away and she's not done playing. I wanted to smack him. He was twelve when Mom and Dad went away, and he's like a clay boy who wasn't ever really properly formed. War, I think, will finally form him.


7. Not Identical Twins

I decided I needed to talk to Dad, and it couldn't wait until his next visit. I searched and searched for the number he once gave me, but I finally had to call Pasquelina and ask her how to reach him. She's so smart she might as well be good for something.

"So why are you calling Dad?" she asked.

"I couldn't make it to your house, but I did want to see him."

"You used to say you were glad he was gone. Because of Krista," she said.

"I just want to ask him something. About the war."

"He thinks it's a good idea."

"So do I." There was a shocked little silence. "We're not identical twins, Patsy. We don't see things the same way." She gave me Dad's number, and we mumbled our goodbyes.

I left a message, and it was about four hours before Dad called me back. "Gabbie!" he said when I answered my phone. "How's my granddaughter?"

"Great," I said. "I wanted to tell you I'm sorry I couldn't come to Patsy's house to see you."

"All's well that ends well," he said. He sounded far away, and his voice was drug-cheerful instead of drunk-cheerful.

"Can we go on video?" I asked. I was surprised to see how different he looked — his hair and face were the same shade of grey. "I'll be there next time you come," I promised, smiling into the camera.

"You might be overseas by then, sweetie-pie." He said it with a certain ruthlessness as though he almost enjoyed the thought.

"I need to ask you something," I said. "If Defense Prop 2020 passes, will Anderson and I both have to go?"

He thought for a few seconds and said, "Not my bailiwick, honey. I don't know. Is Anderson in the Guard?"

I nodded.

"You'll have to talk to somebody locally, kiddo. I couldn't really tell you."

"It'll be short though, won't it?" I asked.

"Short and sweet!" he said. "We have tricks up our collective sleeve you can't even imagine. Stealth technology upgrades. Big news in camouflage and encryption. Personnel enhancements galore."

"Personnel enhancements?" I asked.

"Just wait till you get there, doll babe."

That was when Krista stumbled into the room, fresh from her nap. "Say hi to Grandpa," I said, but I could see she didn't know who he was and didn't care.

"Hey, my big girl!" Dad yelled, and Krista cringed away from the phone like she was scared. "She's grown so much it's amazing."

"She has," I said. "I wish Mom could see her."

"Your mother," Dad said, "is on a very special mission."

"Why did you tell Patsy she became Giselle Trieste?"

"You know how your sister is. She needs a lot of reassurance."

I said I understood and for a few minutes I felt glad Dad saw me as stronger and braver than Patsy. Which is true. But after we hung up, I held Krista for a while, and I wondered what kind of reassurance the Giselle Trieste story was supposed to bring, and wondered why he didn't know I need reassurance, too.



8. Head Case

I'm proud of myself. Pasquelina and Curtis both tried and failed, but I'm the one who found Giselle Trieste.

Tonight after work I called Patsy. "Can you come over here right now?"

She started whining about being tired and having an exam to study for. "You think you're tired?" I yelled. "I worked all day at a mind-numbingly boring government job, so quite bitching and get over here."

Patsy came through my door about twenty minutes later. She looked at the mess and made disgusted noises. "I'm a head case, remember?" I said. Then I put a strange vocal thing by Glee Monkeys on one player. I put a screechy dissonant thing by Jazzing for Power on another player. I turned on the water in the sink full blast, and I stood really close to Patsy.

"What the hell is going on?" she hissed.

"It takes one to know one," I said, "and I know surveillance guys. I don't want us to be overheard."

"Can we sit down?" she whisper-shrieked, making her eyes big and kind of crazy. We pushed a bunch of wires and plastic covers off the couch and sat as close together as we could.

"You know the only reason I have this job in government is because Dad felt guilty," I said.

"I know that's what you think," she said in that university-rationalistic way she has. All-A math student. Big time programmer.

That old and unreasonable rage started bubbling up inside me. "And I know what you think! Everything wrong with me is because I fell and cracked my skull!"

I was whisper-shrieking, too, and gesturing wildly. Patsy had that scared-little-sister look so I made myself stop. "I was a spy in a house of spies," I said quietly, right into her ear. "That's why it happened. Afterwards I shut the hell up because I wanted to survive. I shut the hell up because I didn't want you or Curtis or Gabbie to get hurt. But I was a pretty good spy, and over time I've remembered my secrets and kept them."

"So why are you telling me this now?"

"Because I found out who Giselle Trieste is."

She looked wild and tears came to her eyes. "But how?"

"At work."

"Oh, Mendel..."

"I've never done a single thing like this before. As far as anyone knows over all these years I'm a head case who doesn't remember anything. I'll tell you about Giselle Trieste, but first I'll tell you why Dad beat me up. Did you know Mom studied genetics? That she dropped out of a Ph.D. program before she went to Agency? That she was on the Crop Resource Board forcing other countries to use patented seeds? Mom started to have second thoughts. Dad was a play-it-by-the-rules guy. So they fought, and I listened in."

I could tell Pasquelina didn't know what to think, so I said, "Now I have some real information. Help me go through this stuff, and we can find out where Mom is." She looked scared, but she nodded once, and I got out my most secure machine. We started to look at files.


9. Code is Poetry

By the time Patsy and I had convinced ourselves we knew what there was to know, it was the middle of the night. I decided to call Curtis anyway.

"Hey, I need to borrow some money," I said when he shouted "What?" into his phone. "Meet me at Tacos y Mas and bring some cash." This was code; neither of us could imagine a universe where I would borrow money from him.

Tacos y Mas is open all night, and it's what they used to call a greasy spoon. By the time Patsy and I got there Curtis was sitting in a booth sucking beer from a fingerprint-covered glass. There was loud Banda music playing, and the waitress was at the other end of the room. I sat next to Curtis and said into his ear, "I just found Giselle Trieste."

He rocked back and forth with silent laughter. "I was in the capital looking for her," he said in a normal voice, "but I couldn't find anybody besides narcs and agents."

"Shhhh!" Patsy said. She was sitting on the other side of the booth. Her face looked blue, but maybe that was just from the fluorescent lights.

"You're gonna draw attention to us," Curtis said. "So just act normal and talk in code. Code is poetry, remember?"

The waitress came, and Patsy ordered coffee. I realized how hungry I was and ordered chimichangas. "How can you eat at a time like this?" Patsy asked.

"Easy," I said. "I feel very proud of myself."

"You should," Curtis said, but he seemed a little reserved. Jealous, maybe?

For a while we all fiddled with our phones. Then I said, "Basically there are three reasons why I need to borrow money off you."

Curtis said, "Yeah, well they better be good because I'm getting tired of bailing you out."

My chimichangas came, and I smothered them with salsa and ate two big forkfuls. "I'm waiting," Curtis said, and he did look eager.

"First," I said, "that bitch Giselle is seriously fucked up. Which is why I'm out of options."

"But where is she? I thought you were trying to find her."

"We have to distinguish between Giselle and the woman I love. That woman is in prison. And the reason she's in prison is because of her husband. We really, really do need to stay out of his way!"

By which Curtis understood Mom is in prison. And she's there because of Dad. Which are two of the things Patsy and I learned. What I couldn't easily tell him is Giselle Trieste means Genetic Transformation, the weaponized version, a process allowing a modified virus to enter seeds and rewrite DNA to make them toxic. Mom wanted to blow the whistle, and Dad stopped her. He got a big promotion for his troubles.

I told Curtis whatever else I could. Then Patsy asked, "Should we tell Gabbie?" Curtis voted no, but Patsy and I outvoted him.

"She needs to know," Patsy said, and I nodded while Curtis nursed his beer and scowled. Then he slid a couple of bills across the table, just to cover our story about borrowing money. He paid for his beer and left. I figured I'd probably never see him again.



10. A New Definition of Treason

After the arrest, I called Gabbie, and I said, "Sweetie-pie, I'm proud of you. You did the right thing."

She was very quiet, and her little girl, my only grandchild, was crying in the background.

"What about Patsy and Curtis?"

"Curtis, that good-for-not-much little bastard, is nowhere to be found. So we'll see where and when he surfaces. Patsy is on probation, but she can still go to school. Mendel's the problem and always has been."

"Where is he?"

"I'm not entirely sure, doll. That boy has had some serious head trauma in his life, so he needs medical facilities. I don't really know where all those facilities are, but some of them, as I understand it, aren't even in this country."

"Oh, Dad, they told me..."

"Honey, we're all just doing what we have to do. And we're all just fighting the bad guys. I know you are. I know I am. And we have to take treason seriously."

"So was it? Treason, I mean?"

"I don't think there's any doubt about that."

"And what about Mom? Can you tell me where she is?"

"You shouldn't ask me, angel-cake. Asking is a kind of treason, too, you know."

She was very quiet again. She's my girl, and she's a lot like me. But she is a woman, and I don't expect her to understand everything.

"That must be some new definition of treason," she said, sounding like she was fighting tears.

"Definitions of treason come and go. They can be re-written, when necessary, to help you do what you need to do. Didn't I always tell you the right thing to do is a hard thing to do?"

"I keep telling myself that."

"Good girl. Because Defense Prop 2020 passed, just like we thought it would, and we're going to war."

"Was it a landslide?"

"I think it got 42 percent of the vote."

"You mean 52 percent, don't you, Dad?" she said, but I just said, "Bye, sweetie," and hung up the phone because I know what I mean, God damn it.