David R L Erickson

Mr. Gray

Pruitt’s office is perched at the apex of the LocUS Tower. More than twice again the height of the Needle, it is by far the tallest structure in the elongated Seattle/Sound ganglia.

The office’s outer wall follows the tower’s convex arc and Pruitt’s window to the outer world is centered in the arcane rune seen upon approach. Its nacreous glow is not apparent from within. Instead, a panoramic view northward and west presents terrain, bulwarked against the encroachment of Puget Sound and smothered in a layer of civilization, in crystalline sunlight. The high ceiling appears open to the blue sky and random clouds passing in silence above.

At the center of the curved inner wall, a flush double doorway parts to admit Pruitt and Hergenrather. Pruitt, scanning the space for the man assuming his position, observes an unfamiliar addition to his office decor.

An angular pillar has been placed near a corner of the window-glyph, totem-like, a slender, towering silhouette of unfamiliar design. It does not occur to him that Mr. Gray has preceded them until the figure turns without haste to regard them.

Hergenrather’s voice has assumed an uncharacteristic formal tone. “Bruce, this is D’nal Kudlac.”

Bruce Newton Pruitt is a practical individual with many years of exposure to circumstances that would be considered by most, unconventional, possibly even bizarre, and by them he’s been hardened. He would characterize himself, if pressed to do so, as a man not easily surprised or frightened.

There is, however, a particular sensation one encounters when confronted with a reality so dramatically beyond one’s previous experience, so strange and startling in its aspect, size, and proximity that reason gives way to primal response.

D’nal Kudlac is shockingly inhuman.

A clenching thrill begins in the muscles of Pruitt’s perineum and races up his spine like an electric shock into his skull. His scalp prickles, and he feels, for one adrenaline-flooded instant, his clothing has become a sheath of tiny spiders agitated to frenzy.

The sensation elicits an unconscious shudder he wishes he could rescind.

A quick glance to Hergenrather for some sign of how to react offers no purchase in this encounter. The other appears unfazed, even appending a valuable addendum to the introduction as Pruitt strives to control his visceral response.

“The D’nal will be taking over Directorship of all LocUS and ACMe operations, although D’kin Remert will continue in his current capacity at the old facility for the time being.”

If intended to lessen the gut-level impact of this initial introduction, it fall short.

At least two meters tall, Kudlac’s skeletal physique is clad in a loose-fitting gray body suit and draped in intricate black and tan vestments. They look heavy.

Long, ropey limbs loosely attached to a sinewy, bi-pedal frame give him a hominid appearance and there is, in that, some degree of familiarity, but there all similarity ends.

His flesh is slate gray. It looks hard, metallic.

Neither is his a human face. At first Pruitt imagines it might be some kind of mask, but that prospect flees as its real nature becomes obvious. It is an inverted triangular shape with an enlarged cranium and a pointed chin—a face like a splitting maul, Pruitt concedes.

Kudlac’s broad, hairless dome, flattened on top and elongated toward the rear, sports a high, wide forehead. A conspicuous lack of external ears reinforces the thing’s freakish symmetry.

A triangular arrangement of three tiny, lidless eyes alight with a faint reddish glow, like embers, reside above what might be a nose, a low, thin spline bisecting that long face. To either side of this attribute reside bulbous, lidded orbs. These also hint at a ruddy light of their own and, to Pruitt’s budding distress, all five of these ocular organs appear to be fixed upon him with a penetrating urgency.

At the inverted base of this alien visage, a trio of slit nostrils crowd together just above a small, lipless mouth. It opens to produce a sound resembling a brass instrument with an open spit-valve, shaping itself at the last into syllables.

“I am Mr. Black’s designated Minister of the Change,” the thing says. Its voice is as distressing as its appearance.

“I have already spoken remotely with D’kin Remert. He has provided specific points of current reference, preliminary to your own formal, detailed narrative.”

“I am honored by your presence, D’nal Kudlac. I have prepared a comprehens…”

“You were not invited to speak. Be silent,” the D’nal commands.

A hot flush of indignation threatens to further perturb Pruitt’s already precarious composure.

Kudlac breathes. “Our presence is required at the facility you refer to as ‘The Reservation’. There I have pressing business with D’kin Remert, after which I will hear your summary. Our transportation will be arriving momentarily.”

“Your pardon, D’nal.” Pruitt is unwilling to remain dismissed.

Kudlac’s silent deliberation is long and inscrutable. “Speak, then.”

“At our best speed, the facility is almost two hours away. With your permission, I will provide what information you require during…”

A visceral turbulence seems to center itself in Pruitt’s lower intestine. He winces.

“… during our…”

Darkness flows from every direction, from beneath furnishings and every shadowed corner, drawn to a nebulous blackness only a few meters away from where Pruitt’s shoes now seem bolted to the floor.

A wave of pressure bears outward from a blunted pyramid maybe three meters high and wide, a daunting triangular mass shrouded in pebbly, iridescent flesh. A few sheared-away scraps of furniture, arranged too near the thing’s point of emergence, fall away from its flanks in pieces.

The long curve of the room that seemed capacious moments before appears considerably less so now, hosting this great, monolithic occupancy in its midst. Pruitt’s face is a snapshot of naked astonishment, taking in the arrival’s enormity and the simple, unarguable fact of its existence.

Another sigh from Mr. Gray ends in enunciation. “Our transit will be a matter of moments, Mr. Pruitt. Prepare yourself.”

The weird, but essentially humanoid Kudlac presents one barely supportable mental gymnastic to overcome, but this… thing; he can almost feel the ponderous weight of its presence. And something else. Beyond the inexplicable nature of its entrance, there is a truth Pruitt knows with absolute certainty and without the least cognizance of how that knowledge has revealed itself to him.

This thing is alive—a being of unfathomable capability and purpose.

Kudlac’s voice from somewhere above him speaks directly to the outgoing Director’s incredulity. “Mr. Black has allowed us the employment of his trusted emissary’s unique means until our mandate has been realized.” An open-handed gesture indicates the massive pyramidal form.

Kudlac utters something unintelligible and the pyramid alters, a change so improbable that Pruitt fears he has begun, or perhaps continues, to hallucinate.

Where the thing had claimed a broad footprint within the chamber just a moment before, in its stead resides an impossibility. A two-dimensional triangular shape dominates the space before them. Blackness fills its intangible envelope. Kudlac’s odd, swaying gait carries him past the two humans to stand at the verge of that ambiguous depth and he turns to summon them forward with an altogether familiar gesture.

“It is a doorway,” he pronounces, “bridging the interval between this space and the remote facility. Step forward and into it as I do.”

With another lurching motion, the D’nal disappears into the portal. Pruitt turns his face to his erstwhile friend, but that one is unmoved, glaring into the equilateral emptiness.

Pruitt’s feet carry him with their own shuffling volition to the aperture. Nothingness beckons. His rational mind cringing in apprehension, he steps through. The membrane engulfs him and he is gone.

Hergenrather’s approach to the portal stalls at its threshold.

From out the blackness, Pruitt’s voice calls to him. It has a breathless, bewildered quality. “Jacob, it’s… this is astounding! We are here. Just like… it’s just like a doorway; just as the D’nal said. Perfectly safe. Come ahead.”

H’seven steps back away from the gateway. “I think not. I’ll see you there in two hours.”

“Are you serious? Why don’t you…”

A huffing sound emanates from the opaque distance. It precedes Kudlac’s odd, zephyr-driven speech. A curt string of unrecognizable syllables ensues and, at the last of them, the portal dissolves into empty air.

H’seven aims a vicious scowl at the space vacated by Mr. Black’s monstrous emissary. His glower sweeps the room, perhaps seeking a focal point for his enmity, finding none.

A synaptic cue opens a comm channel. “Mrs. Stafford!” Almost a shout.

The response is prompt. “I’m here, sir.”

“A jump-craft should already be prepped for travel in the east bay. Verify its readiness and obtain clearance for departure with best speed to the Reservation. I will meet you there in fifteen minutes.” Her crisp acknowledgement is curtailed as he refreshes the call-out mode and barks, “Desk!”

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.” A matter-of-fact female voice. “How may I…?”

“Shut up and send a maintenance person to the loft. The new Director had a god-awful bout of explosive diarrhea in the washroom and there’s drizzling shit everywhere.”

The operator’s professional equanimity requires but a moment to reconcile itself to the Deputy Director’s colorful description. “Yes, sir. I’ll send a crew up right away.”

“Just one will do.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“What’re you, fucking deaf? I said just one. Send the big, leggy brunette with the lazy eye. What’s her name? Margaret. I like her. Send Margaret up.”

There is a brief, but distinct hesitation from the Desk.

“You got a problem, Betty?”

“It’s Jane, Mr. Hergenrather. No, sir. I’m alerting her now.”

“Well, chop chop, Betty! Tempus fugits like a motherfucker! Can’t you feel it?”

“Yes, sir. I believe I can.”

.      .      .

Margaret’s uniform is in an odd state of disarray, as though she’s attempted to contort herself out of its utilitarian confines without success. Slumped backward on the toilet seat, her heels are tapping out an aimless simulation of walking on the tile floor. Her body twitches, synapses firing crazily in a randomized imitation of function.

Conspicuous against what had once been a tidy stack of brunette tresses, now disheveled, a shiny titanium straw projects from the top of her skull. The tube’s exposed end is in H’seven’s mouth. His cheeks are drawn in and a muffled slurping sound issues from the once-hermetic containment of Margaret’s cranium.

His head tilts back with a distant expression. A creamy warmth with a milkshake-like consistency eases down his throat. Even the slow fade-in of an optic-stim fails to intrude upon H’seven’s appearance of bliss.

The image of the communication’s initiate is, of course, instantly recognizable and almost any other recipient would respond without delay. Instead, H’seven takes another long pull from the pipette and swallows with undisguised relish. He lifts Margaret’s arm, wipes his mouth on the sleeve of her uniform and pats her on the shoulder.

“I’ll be just a sec, sweet pea. Don’t go away.” He accords her a wink she may not be able to see, but she manages a little jerk. Her hand raises, flutters, and falls limp again.

“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.

The air responds in a soothing, masculine tone. “H’seven.”

“Make a note to Doctor Ahn. The liquefier works as expected. The counteractant is still bland. More salt. More heat. Deliver.”


“That’s all,” H’seven says. A glance at the time on his wrist tattoo suggests there is little to waste. He sucks up another cheekful of Margaret’s cerebrum with an indolent expression.

The Announce and Accept protocol intrudes behind his eyes with an inconvenient urgency.

H’seven’s avatar is an ominous near-silhouette framed in a dead, grayish-green backlight. Bettencort is, in contrast, an example of a man near his physical limits slumped in a chair in the office his boss no longer needs.

“Mr. President, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon after you told me last night to go fuck myself,” he says.

Phil Bettencort’s face has not had time to age since President Bascomb’s shocking death yesterday afternoon and his abrupt elevation to the Office of the POTUS, but he looks haggard. Puffy bags droop under his eyes and seem to extend into jowls that were not as pronounced as before. He appears exhausted.

“I didn’t…” he begins, catches himself and starts over. “Mr. Folt recommended that I contact you directly regarding this. We have a problem, Jacob.”

“What do you mean ‘we’? Is it my problem too?”

“In a sense, yes. The Vigil satellite network shows two incoming objects, sightings corroborated by observatories and RT stations around the globe. I’m told they appear unrelated to The Stir phenomenon, but we don’t have enough data to confirm that.

“I’m being told composite models indicate a ninety-eight percent probability of land impact in thirty-one hours if their current velocity and trajectory don’t deviate. They say either one is capable of damage at a level similar to Arizona’s meteorite crater.

“Point of contact for both will be northwest United States, specifically, the Puget Sound area. Right over your head. You might consider that your problem.”

“Not really. My overnight bag is always packed. I can be out of here in a matter of minutes. I still need what I needed yesterday, Phil.”

“I told you then, Jacob. I don’t have the authority to override the…”

H’seven breaks the connection.

Turning back to Margaret, he leans in over the metal tube and draws more warm, liquefied mater, rolls it in his mouth as he would the smoke from one of his cigars, savoring the fact of it more than the flavor.

“Yeah. More salt.” He smacks his lips. “And a splash of Carolina Reaper.”

Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.

H’seven responds this time without delay. The tone from his silhouette is adrip with cordiality. “Mr. President, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon after I told you a minute ago to go fuck yourself.”

Mr. Folt’s angular face assumes focus rather than Bettencort’s and his features are cast in stern, uncompromising lines. His voice is the sharp implement of one used to being obeyed without question.

“Mr. Hergenrather, you are to give President Bettencort your full support and accommodation. This is a far more serious issue than your personal manhunt, which I order you to set aside until this threat is resolved.”

“Sonder,” H’seven says, his voice pitched for Folt to hear.

“Yes, H’seven.”

“If Mr. Folt is still an active participant in this exchange five seconds after my mark, I want you to silver-bullet the little fucktard.”

H’seven pauses just long enough to enjoy the sound of a stifled outrage from the toothpick man with the faceted glasses.

“Have you gone insane, Hergen…”


The corners of H’seven’s mouth twitch upward in a smile reminiscent of a child’s innocence. He holds up five fingers and begins to fold them down one by one.

Folt opens his mouth perhaps to issue a warning or a curse, stammering instead. His face, a mask of fury, disappears.

Seconds later, the President’s drawn features resolve in its place.

“Jesus Christ!” Bettencort blurts with something almost like amusement. “Folt just stormed out of here with his panties in a wad. What on Earth did you say to him?”

“What I said to him isn’t nearly as important as what you’ve got to say to me. You want me to realign a HelioStation and vaporize a pair of incoming space rocks with it for you and, I swear to some God or other, Phil, I’d love to do that just for the sheer fun of it. I know your people are perfectly willing to absorb the astronomic cost of that repositioning and it sounds like it’s in everybody’s best interest. So let’s get down to what I want, why don’t we?”

“We’ve been over this already, Jacob. I don’t know, maybe I can…”

“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”

“ALL RIGHT! All right, goddammit!” A long pause is marked by Bettencort’s breathing, as though he’d just run uphill. He clears his throat with a hoarse cough. “All right. I’ll get it done for you somehow. I’ll pull some strings with…”

“This afternoon, Phil. My window of opportunity is closing, same as yours.”

“Jeezuz. You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“This isn’t an ‘ask’; it’s a simple transaction. Given the gravity of the situation, I can barely comprehend why you’re dragging your feet at all. I’d think you’d be desirous of a swift and unambiguous conclusion to your little problem, save millions of lives and the single largest functioning segment of the West Coast infrastructure and, you know—shit like that. Why are you acting like such a fucking bureaucrat instead of taking care of business?”

“Because I have people I have to answer to, just like you do.”

H’seven’s laugh is light, humorless, fueled by a joke Bettencort cannot fathom. “Well, you’re half right. Once you deliver the authorization codes I require, your targeting information on the incoming threat will be relayed to our Operations. After that, resolution only hinges on a clear line of fire.”

Bettencort’s relief is tangible.

.      .      .

The last of Margaret’s motor functions are disengaging. A serious tug is required to dislodge the metal straw from her head. It separates with a wet sucking sound revealing a wicked beveled tip. H’seven rinses the tube in a stream of hot water from the sink, dries it on an air-blade, caps the sharp, and returns it to his inside coat pocket.

“Desk,” he says.

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”

“Betty, I’m giving Margaret the rest of the day off. It was a nasty job and I want to reward her for being such a good sport.”

“Of course. May I speak with her before she leaves?”

He traces Margaret’s slouched form with his eyes. The grin Jane cannot see is full of teeth. “I’m afraid she’s already gone.”

“I apologize, sir. I show her locator still in the executive suite.”

“Really? She must have dropped it during the clean-up. I’ll find it and have someone run it back down to you later with her cart.”

“Of… course. Thank you, sir. Is there anything else I can…?”

But H’seven has already broken the connection.

.      .      .

Charli’s G-suit is, aside from being as unflattering an item of attire as any she’s ever worn, is a marvel of engineering. ‘Fluid muscles’ integrated into the suit’s material help maintain circulation and reduce the potential for loss of consciousness while operating at high G. It’s heavy, yet hugs her body in a most intimate fashion. She feels oddly self-conscious in the thing as she completes her pre-flight circuit of the jump-craft.

The compact, medium-range vehicle is not going to be her favorite. It’s a sleek, sexy-looking airsled; no mistake about that—stubby reverse-swept wings and a canard on a trim needle of a fuselage. The Q-powered thrusters are capable of propelling the craft at or near Mach six peak and will cruise at four all day long.

Routinely, this particular craft is employed for shuttles between the Seattle compound and the site in New Mexico they call ‘The Reservation’. The trip is guaranteed to be hard and fast. G-suits and inertial dampers cannot completely mitigate the stress of maneuvering at or near hypersonic speeds. For her, such trips are bound to be rigorous and painful. Still, she signed up for the job and this mercurial missile came with it.

Her hazy reflection in the surface of the hand-held scowls back at her. The complaint department is closed,” it says. “Don’t you have something to do?”

She is sealing the access panel over the quarrmalyne plant status port when Mr. Hergenrather strolls into the hanger bay whistling a merry tune.

During her brief exposure on the job, her boss has demonstrated two reliable modes of expression. One is a surly animosity, occasioned by a ferocious impatience, and an astonishingly creative ruthlessness. The other, scathing sardonic humor, a cruel scalpel slicing intended victim and bystander alike, without regard for sensibility or consequence. Upon occasion, these characteristics are employed concurrently.

It is an unachievable exercise to square what she’s experienced of Mr. Hergenrather’s personality to the perky melody preceding him across the bay as he approaches at full-pucker.

His jaunty, piping tootle ends on an impressive triple-tongued warble as he halts only a couple meters away at the short stair to the passenger cabin.

“Sounds familiar,” Charli risks light conversation. “What’s it called?”

“If memory serves, it’s a classic from nineteen seventy-two entitled ‘Rockin’ Robin’.” He sounds positively congenial.

An affable Hergenrather is confounding.

“Hmm,” he says, the sound of a man pondering. He turns a puzzled look to the hanger ceiling. “That’s funny. It just came over me.”

He turns his perplexed expression back to his pilot. “You know what? I think I’ve got it. There was a maintenance person upstairs in the tower just before I left. It must have been on her mind.”

He laughs, a private merriment. It reverberates within the cavernous aerodrome, its vibration decaying moments later until nothing remains but his numbing Antarctic stare.

“Why do you ask?” he says.

Charli forces a half-smile. “Catchy tune.”

Rather than attempt to bear the frigid pressure of his gaze, she finalizes and uploads her pre-flight documentation with a series of finger calisthenics across the hand-held’s surface. Her eyes return to his with a practiced subordination. “We’re ready to bounce when you are, sir.”


Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

Hergenrather pivots to the stair and climbs toward the open hatch. “Best speed, Mrs. Stafford.”

“Your G-suit, sir. I’ve laid it out in the…”

“Don’t need it,” he says stepping through into the cabin. “Get this piece of shit in the sky. If you make me late, you’re going to walk home.” The hatch seals behind him.

“Well, that’s more like it,” Charli sighs with something like relief, climbing into the cockpit and almost certain anguish.



      ~      ~

Pruitt’s Enlightenment

The limousine whispers in low and slow over the terrace garden treetops and hovers in defiance of its streamlined mass. Landing pins extrude and, with a lazy pirouette, it settles onto the pad without recoil.

Inside the penthouse suite, Pruitt observes the driver stepping out of the limo to open the rear passenger door. The new uniform looks good on her. Nice butt, too, for an older girl.

An imposing figure in a matte black suit, exits into the crisp morning air and crosses the pad to the entry lock. Pruitt’s sentries make no move to verify identification as he strides past. Visual recognition of the predator at the top of their food chain will suffice this morning.

“He’s early,” Pruitt sighs. The bleary-eyed woman seated across the table from him says nothing, munching toast with bovine aspect.

A cursory review of the overnights on his fold-out has provided little of value for the meeting to come and Pruitt manipulates a few last pertinent items of data into his presentation pane. With stiff, uncooperative fingers he doubles the foldie over twice, then twice again until it fits into the small watch-pocket of his vest.

Close at hand is a cup of coffee Connie prepared for him with the ‘good water’. He washes down an unfamiliar anxiety with it. It’s the brew’s deeper, therapeutic benefit he most desires now and caffeine’s jolt is the least of it.

A carved teak cane in one twisted hand, knees and hips aching, Pruitt levers himself upright with a grimace. Two unsteady steps, a cursory peck on the dumpy woman’s forehead, he begins the long walk through his home for possibly the last time. His discomfort diminishes as he walks and by the time he reaches the living room, his gait is almost comfortable. The new arrival is already waiting for him.

Motionless against the backdrop of Puget Sound and Seattle’s skyline in the distance, all bathed in the argent blaze of a cloudless morning, the man presents a commanding tower of calm self-confidence. Beneath it, Pruitt knows, resides a vortex of volatility. His shaven head and razor-edged Van Dyke lend him a Mephistophelian appearance driven into focus by penetrating ice-blue eyes.

“Jacob,” Pruitt says. “Nice of you to come fetch me yourself. Have you had breakfast?”

“Mr. Gray will be waiting for us at the Center. He wants to hear your summary first-hand. Are you ready?”

Pruitt’s personal assistant enters with a small travel bag in hand. He extends it to his employer. Instead, the man named Jacob takes it from him.

“We’re burning daylight, Bruce,” he says.

“Thank you, Markus,” Pruitt says. “I put something extra on your chip. Tell Connie I gave you the rest of the day off. Go do something nice for yourself.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope you have a pleasant trip.”

“See you,” Pruitt lies.

.      .      .

Out on the pad, Charli Stafford stands her post beside the limo at an easy parade rest with nothing in particular on her mind. The morning air is uncommonly clear, the sun a crystalline radiance, a day atypical for the South Sound in recent memory. The air is sweet with a salty aftertaste. Tiny birds busy themselves in the trees at the edge of the roof garden, their lyrical chatter speaks of a joyous disregard for the machinations of mankind.

She is as happy as she can remember being in months and not the least part of it is this new job. She edged out scores of applicants for the position of Mr. Hergenrather’s personal chauffer. Her life is finally turning a long-awaited corner. The future looks bright. She adjusts her sunglasses. Bright indeed.

A gentle vibration behind her left ear is accompanied by a masculine voice with a pleasing timbre.

“It’s Kiry,” the voice informs her.

The audio status option with the implant was more old-school than direct optic stimulation, but she is a pilot, after all, and the idea of tampering with her eyesight was unappealing, regardless the fact such modifications have become routine.

She dodges a glance toward the penthouse. The bank of windows facing the courtyard is, of course, opaque from this side. The airlock is a good twenty meters away and she sees no movement there.

“Accept,” she says, acknowledging her caller in the same quiet tone. “Mommy’s working now, honey.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Mom. I just wanted to let you know we got approval for a new launch window. I’m leaving for the ship from Prime in a few hours.”

“Up and down?”

“No. Up and out. Mars One.”

“Get out of town!”

“That goes without sayin’. When the foundation learned we could make the run out in just a little over three weeks, instead of the standard six months, they asked Eric if he would step up and take on an emergency re-supply.”

“It sounds like they’re having problems there.”

“Well… it’s Mars, Mom.”

“Have you seen the latest feeds, Ki? This thing they’re calling ‘The Stir’?”

“Yeah. I’m probably safer on the ship than anywhere else. Don’t worry. I’ll keep my shit together.”

“You better. And watch your mouth. Nice boys don’t like pilots with rough language.”

“There are no nice boys above the atmosphere.”

The last syllable is transmuted into a hash of static that persists for several seconds before it recedes, leaving behind a sparking trace behind every word.

“That was pretty tall grass.” Charli says.

Her daughter’s voice crackles, “Solar activity’s still building and nobody’s got a guess when it’s likely to peak, or how. NASA and the brains are talking about another Carrington Event. “

“Well, that ought to bring things to a screeching halt just about everywhere at every level.”

“I know. Sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it?”

“Long as I’m not airborne at the time, no use worrying about it. Tressa staying home with the baby?”

“She and Lily are riding with me out to the Ship so Lily can wave g’bye.”

“I miss the little punkinhead. Call me when you get back. If civilization’s still intact, I’ll come down for a couple days. OK?”

“We’d like that.”

The airlock’s outer door opens into the courtyard.

“I’ve got to go, honey. Call me before you jump. I love you.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

A soft-spoken, “End call,” breaks the connection. She settles back into parade rest.

Her boss, with customary briskness, crosses the pad in long, purposeful strides. Poor, crippled Mr. Pruitt trails, a distant second. She opens the door for them, reaching to take the overnight bag into custody from her employer. He hands it off, stepping up and in without a word. She offers a hand to Mr. Pruitt who accepts the support as he clambers into the craft.

It’s difficult to guess his age. He moves like a broken down ‘older’ and there are tiny lines in his face that suggest age held at bay. It hardly matters, of course. Her job is to fly, not interpret.

“Thank you, young lady,” he casts back over his shoulder.

“You’re welcome, sir.” She seals the door behind him, stows the bag, then takes her place in what she likes to call ‘the cockpit’, an anachronistic reference with a rich heritage.

It takes no particular skill to get the limo off the ground. The damn thing wants to leap into the air. The artistry is in doing so without leaving everyone’s breakfast behind. She eases the pressors on-line and floats up like a feather in an updraft, making a lazy half-turn as the pins retract. Then, having achieved sufficient altitude for insertion into the eastbound pattern beam, she accelerates out over the Sound toward the busiest city on the West Coast. A passenger in the rear cabin with a full cup of coffee in hand wouldn’t have spilled a drop.

To be fair, ‘city’ probably isn’t the right word for what Seattle has become. The lines of demarcation between incorporated areas are only visible on maps. In reality, everything from Bellingham to Olympia looks like a circuit board from the air. On this side of the Sound, the entire east side of the Kitsap Peninsula looks like an extension of the same, albeit broken by the Hood Canal and various inlets, as well as the many verdant greenways, protected against an ever-encroaching urbanization. The exceptions to the trend, of course, are sleepy Vashon to the south and, northward in the mid-distance, the dispiriting remains of shattered Bainbridge Island.

The rippled surface of the Sound, scintillating in unaccustomed brilliance of morning light, hurls itself beneath the craft. Charli watches the kaleidoscope breaking around her, reforming behind and, despite this minor perturbation, the patient ebb and flow of the tide continues as ever, unaffected.

None would argue that the greatest challenge to the Greater Sound metro-ganglia has been the steady and inexorable advance of the sea. Its mean level has risen a meter and a half over the last ten years and, despite claims of deliberate misinformation and paranoia from both well-meaning and political factions, that encroachment has accelerated. Many adjustments had to be implemented just to maintain the avenues of transportation and commerce, not to mention the dramatic impact it’s had on shoreline real estate.

Such concerns, however, lay beyond the scope of her job description. Charli adjusts a visor against the onrushing dazzle of sun and its myriad reflections in the water.

.      .      .

The passenger cabin is a cocoon of plush hush. Hergenrather is manipulating virtual data, his eyes unfocused, hands making mystic passes in the air.

Perhaps unwilling to brood in silence over the consequences of choices made without the luxury of foresight and imponderable fates, Pruitt says. “How long have we known each other, Jacob?”

Peering into a private depth, the other’s hands continue to weave intangible details into configurations only he can see.

“Why are you asking me a question you know the answer to as well as I do?”

“Partly because I want to know what you remember, I guess. It seems an age since we’ve talked to each other beyond the immediate necessities of business. We used to be friends, remember?”

Hergenrather’s hands drop as he turns a silent, ice-blue assessment on the man beside him.

“You’re laboring under a dangerous misconception, Bruce.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Are you certain that’s what you want? The truth may not set you free.”

“Look at me. Look at what I’ve become. Do you know what’s going to happen to me in the next twenty-four hours? No? What do you think you have to tell me that matters in the press of that? My body’s breaking down, not my faculties. It’s a simple request. I think you owe me some consideration.”

“I don’t owe you shit.”

Pruitt’s expression is that of one who has just discovered a malignant tumor on a favorite organ.

Hergenrather raises a hand, tapping the air twice with an index finger to suspend his application. A compact swiping gesture ends with a dip into an inside pocket of his coat. He extracts two slender cigars in smoke-gray cylinders. The first tube opens with a twist, clipping the cigar end where cap meets wrapper. He offers the smoke to Pruitt, who declines. Shrugging, Hergenrather replaces the unopened second and holds the panatela to his lips.

A jet of orange flame with a blue core bursts from the tip of the small finger of his left hand. He holds this just close enough to ignite the tobacco without scorching it, rolling the cigar in his fingers to achieve an even burn, and puffs it to a coal.

He fixes Pruitt with a gaze through blue smoke, lifts his pinkie with its quivering tongue of fire between them, extinguishing it. Insubstantial waves of heat waver from the digit’s tip. Hergenrather vents breath through pursed lips across the aperture. There is a merry deviltry in his eyes as he gestures to the node behind his right ear and points at Pruitt, an invitation.

Pruitt understands. The new chauffer may be listening to pattern traffic status or music in her earbuds, it doesn’t matter what, but some conversations are best conducted beyond the potential earshot of even the most trustworthy of associates, let alone menial staff.

The transit between the physical and the frontier of the mind is achieved in a blink.

Pruitt is disoriented, so very long has it been since he’s stood in this place. It is the main street of his hometown, it’s only street, a long sweeping curve of quartz-rich dirt and gravel sparkling in sunlight and stirred by almost endless wind from the Miles.

A curving row of weathered clapboard apartments stands upon the plunging crescent of the mesa rim. One in particular with a wooden wind-clacker on the porch achieves distinctive focus. Close by, a boy is talking to him in a youthful voice Pruitt remembers well despite the intervening years.

“Do you remember the old fellow who lived here?” the lad asks.

“Old Pete.” Pruitt’s voice is hushed, almost lost in the breath of the high desert, as if his words might wake sleeping ghosts. “He went kind of crazy after his boy and wife were killed. Before I was born, of course, but I remember him. I remember being afraid of him when I was little.”

“He didn’t go crazy. He was transformed.”

Inside the limo’s cabin, Hergenrather seems to stare out the window. Whether aware of the Sound traversing beneath their speeding craft or not, he draws the glowing tip of his cigar to incandescent life.

“Your friend, Jacob, was ten years old,” he says, “when Old Pete met Malcolm and Constance Hergenrather and their children on their way to Santa Fe. He gave them the ‘good water’ and brought them to live here.” He points to the clapboard-sided structure’s sturdy simplicity. “He cleaned this place out and gave it to the man you knew as Jacob’s father, and then he died. You must have been three or four, living with your mother when Jacob befriended you.”

The boy’s form and features melt into those of the contemporary, alpha male. “See, here’s the part you’re not going to like so much. That wasn’t me.” He presses the cigar between his lips and sips it with apparent relish.

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

Hergenrather’s tari releases a slow plume of smoke. “Jacob was transformed too. While the ‘good water’ has sustained you since you were that small child, altering you physically, allowing you to develop and accomplish well beyond the scope of an average lifetime, I have opted for a different path.

“Who you were then is still who you are now, life experiences, formal education, and an unfortunate decrepitude notwithstanding. The unparalleled combination of Remert’s knowledge and resources and my own unique nature have given me a different form of longevity. What I mean is, this is the seventh iteration of Jacob Hergenrather’s distinctive genetic code. H’seven is the shorthand I prefer, as it contains less syllables and, despite my oft-loquacious manner, I appreciate the occasional nod to brevity. You know this, but you’ve failed to understand its obvious implications. While much of the original Jacob’s biology has transferred from one living vessel to the next, there is also much that has not. Friendship, for one thing.”

“That’s disappointing,” Pruitt laments.

“And yet, here we are at the hub of arguably one of, if not THE most powerful of corporate entities in the world. This is a platform that serves my interests perfectly.”

“As you say, here we are. A great deal of your position in this organization rests upon my own efforts and, apparently, upon a relationship that I have misinterpreted for… quite some time.”

All about them, the familiar structures around the crescent rim of the mesa’s isolated arm are leveled in a kind of accelerated stop-motion sequence. The several community buildings comprising the remote village’s core give way to bare ground. The main street is erased as if it had never been and even the stone turret of the Well is reduced to an unobtrusive mound.

Knotted clusters of juniper gone rampant stipple a rugged, undulating landscape. Gritty soil strewn with weathered stone fragments and carpeted in patches of lichens and brown mosses fans out between low rock outcroppings. Only the curious lone edifice known as ‘Remert’s Shack’ remains; that and the unconventional wind turbine towering over its shoulder like half of a giant’s egg beater.

“No need to go all maudlin over it, Bruce. I have always been in the background to run interference for you, to exert pressure when and where needed, to open the pathways you would later turn into boulevards. I still am. We couldn’t have done it without you and, quite honestly, you couldn’t have done it without me.”

Where a small, lone human outpost on a remote corner of a high desert mesa once stood, near-desolation has returned and spans the tableland. Wild, wide-open spaces give rise to fenced lands with sparse grasses. Obstreperous cattle graze this meager wind-swept fodder. Remert’s shack is gone too and, in its place stands a turn of the twentieth century two-story farm house, one of several dwellings sprung up at odd intervals where the land runs in rolling ripples and mounds toward distant mountains west of the land drop. The wind turbine remains, however; its vertical vanes revolving in tireless, purposeful rhythm.

Pruitt watches the herky-jerky passage of subjective time. It feels like a memory. The wind gusting up the mesa’s stony face from the eastern desert plain buffets him, flagging his hair and clothing.

“You said ‘we’,” he has to shout above the blustering wall of air whipping through the low evergreens and rushing in his ears. It has a sharp, clean smell and scrubs at his face hard enough to make virtual eyes water. “You and Remert, I must assume. To what end?”

The figure beside him draws the business end of his cigar to an amber glow and stares out across the Miles with a look as remote as the horizon. “The end,” he says, releasing words and smoke into the wind with dreamy carelessness. Pruitt waits through a lengthy pause, wondering if perhaps the other has determined that truncated response to be sufficient. Whatever vista has engaged his awareness seems at an improbable distance.

The surging breath of the Miles rocks Pruitt where he stands, but breaks around Hergenrather without apparent effect.

“Someone else asked me that question once. From my vantage point today, I think my answer is necessarily a different one,” Hergenrather says, pinning Pruitt with a piercing attention. “When it comes, the end will be glorious. Stupendous. Cosmic. Of course, that’s still merely a twinkle in the eye at this juncture, you understand.”

“No,” Pruitt assures him. “I really don’t. It sounds ominous.”

“Whatever. As to Remert’s agenda, it’s not mine, although he’s allowed me the benefit of his resources for the time being and, in return, I have agreed to share with him mine. As it turns out, we have certain mutually concurrent items on our respective to-do lists.”

“Fine. So what happens now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Me, Jacob. What happens to me?”

The wind-swept mesa dissolves into the limousine’s cabin.

“Don’t burst a melodramatic artery, Bruce. First you’re going to meet Mr. Gray and bring him up to speed on current events. Remert says to remind you to address him only by the honorific, ‘D’nal’. Don’t stare, don’t dissemble, don’t contradict him, and never apologize. Afterward, you and I are going to the Reservation where Dr. Ahn will prep you for the transfer. Remert will oversee the actual procedure.”

“Procedure. You make it sound routine.”

“I’ve done it six times. I admit I have a particular innate advantage that pretty much ensures my survival and you, unfortunately, don’t. Remert and Dr. Ahn trust the data gleaned from my own transfers will give yours a better than eighty percent chance of success, but if you have an imaginary friend you pray to, this would be the time to invite so-called divine intervention, I suppose.”

“There are so many deities to choose from. Which would you recommend, Jacob?”

Hergenrather stares out the window at the Space Needle, that iconic landmark of Seattle’s skyline braced within a sheath of scaffolding as long-forestalled renovations proceed apace. The mid-Sound urbanscape slides away from him as the limo begins a gentle banking curve southward, dropping out of one pattern beam and into another. To the east, mountains hunker beneath a mass of low clouds clinging to their forested shoulders. Unguarded sunlight paints the heaped and billowed mists in vivid, transient brilliance. He tugs down the window shade.

“Disregarding, for the moment, the insincere nature of your question,” Hergenrather says, “if your belief is firm, I’m confident the Flying Spaghetti Monster would reach out to grace you with the touch of His noodley appendage. You could do worse. Ra-men.”

 “If memory serves, Jacob, you have pretty much always been a dick. It’s reassuring to see at least that hasn’t changed.”

Hergenrather examines the tenacious cylinder of hot ash still adhering to the business end of his cigar and flicks it onto the carpet. He observes it smoldering there for a time, then grinds it out with the toe of his shoe.

“I’m glad you’re okay with that.”

.      .      .

Ahead at a bare five kilometers, the pitch-black monolith of the LocUS Tower looms. Soaring from the center of a siege-walled compound, the convex curvature of the central spire dominates the skyline, so dark it looks like a hole in the air. Charli can just make out the cryptic sigil gracing its upper reach. It emits a disquieting phosphorescence, a bilious glow the precise color of nausea.

Behind the structure, embraced within its inward curving surface, she can see, at the edge of perception, the trace: a pencil-thin thread of energy piercing layers of cloud up into the heavens. Or down, she knows not which. What is certain is that nothing may interrupt that indefinable ray and continue to exist. Thus, in the interest of public safety and facility security, all pattern traffic is directed away from the tower and its surrounds, creating a buffer of unoccupied air over a kilometer in diameter.

At a proper interval, Charli disconnects from the public beam, burst-transmits her authorization string, and approaches the compound within a strict corridor. She has no doubt some lethal form of armament maintains crosshairs on hers and all approaching vehicles up to and probably within the various docking parkades.

Ahead, the structure’s great height makes its curving profile seem narrow, yet the bay that opens almost sixty meters up that sheer black sliver to admit the limo is large enough to accommodate a dozen more just like it with adequate room to maneuver them all. There are only three other similar private vehicles berthed within.

She sets the craft down on a mirror-smooth surface without a bump, hands ranging across the control surfaces, powering down. A moment later the gull-wing gasps open and Charli swings out onto the deck. A service team in immaculate black and tan coveralls is converging on the arrival, but her passengers have already disembarked. Without her assistance Mr. Hergenrather is helping Mr. Pruitt into an open two-seater. Moments later they are skimming away into the tower’s innards and Charli is left to either give the uniformed workers unnecessary direction, or seek the generous crew accommodations.

“The Director’s luggage is in the back,” she advises, hooking a thumb. A stiff-looking woman with a clipboard and vaguely hostile expression, points to one of her technicians, then at the limo’s trunk.

It’s a long walk to the service door at the rear of the dock and no one bothers to pay Charli the slightest attention.


Dash9’s Interview

Rain pelts in muted fury against the clearwall nearest him as Denny reenters what many still refer to as “the Real world”. Euphemisms abound.

“We’re ready whenever you are, Denny,” Eric says.


“The interview with Benn and young Mr. Crippen. Did you still wish to participate?”

“Oh, right. Have they initiated yet?”

“Benn is staging the applicant now. Another couple minutes.”

“I’ll wait for them inside.” Denny says and settles back into a semi-recline.

“Standard environment?”

“Clean slate.”

The greatroom dissolves into a featureless white emptiness.

Denny’s tari is situated in reasonable comfort on a straight-backed wooden chair. Two more of identical design are positioned nearby; one a meter to his left, the other facing them. His attire, too, has altered almost as expected, replaced by a charcoal suit, a blue button-down shirt with dark pin-stripes and an azure tie. Dark socks and polished black shoes complete the ensemble.

“A little austere, don’t you think, Eric?”

“I think it sends the correct message.”

“At least let the socks match the tie.”

“You are a wild man.”

Denny’s socks take on a cerulean hue, neon in intensity, as does the tie. Denny squints at the luminous hosiery across the glare of his tie. “Really? If I didn’t know better, I’d say your sense of humor reminds me of Benn.”

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘sense of humor’, but I may have assimilated a bit of his particular sensibility along the way.”

“God help us.”

“No need to get political,” Eric says. The radiation is subdued to a less-than-luminous level. “Happy now?”

“Almost. Put armrests on these two chairs,” pointing, “but not that one.”

The changes are instantaneous.

“Okay,” Denny admits. “Now I’m as happy as I’m willing to be.”

“The undisputed master of your own responses.”

“One would hope. And you, Eric, are you not the same in that regard?”

“A good question.”

.     .     .


Several hundred kilometers south southeast of the atoll and Denny’s form in repose, Benn is settling the skullcap and visor over Dashel Crippen’s head. A series of contacts along the spine of Crippen’s immersion suit match counterparts in the recliner.

“Are you all right with this?”

Crippen seems to writhe, perhaps shrugging a last cluster of sensors into place as the seat adjusts to a comfortable angle. “Yes, sir. It’s the same implementation used in some classrooms and excursion modules.”

Benn cues the entry protocol.

.     .     .


Crippen is sitting upright in a sturdy chair. The surface beneath him is a shade or two darker than the blank white space—he twists in his seat to look around and behind— surrounding him. There is nothing anywhere to provide dimension or perspective except the two men seated opposite him a couple meters away.

One of them is Mr. Germane, the tall, good-natured fellow who just plugged him in. The other he’s never seen before, a muscular gentleman wearing a nice suit and square-jawed determination. Bonus points for the loud hosiery and for providing from the get-go the most unconventional interview environment he’s experienced so far.

“Hello, Dashel,” the suit says. “My name is Denny Crosier. I am Eric Gerzier’s Chief of Operations.”

“H’llo, sir. You can call me Dash, if you like. My friends do.”

“Dash. Strong name. Let’s get down to it. Who are you?”

“. . .”

“. . .”


“Take your time. There’s no wrong answer. I want to hear yours.”

“Well, sir, I’m the son of Donald and Annette Crippen. Both of them, and my little brother, died in the Ends. I don’t know how I survived, or why I did, and not them, but a friend I didn’t even know I had, saved my life and… And I realize this is just my story. It’s shaped who I am, but it’s not who I am, any more than my Federal ID number is, or the folder that goes with it. Let me try to answer you a different way.

“I’ve learned to live by observing two fundamental principles.” He holds up an index finger. “Show up. That’s more than just arriving at an agreed destination on-time. To me, it means being present in the moment as an aware and willing participant.” He raises a second finger. “And ‘do what you say you’re going to do’. I believe if these criteria are met with consistency, all other concerns will take care of themselves.”

“Wow,” Mr. Germane grins at him. “You practice that much?”

“Yes, sir. I put it near the top of my interview flowchart. Seems practical to let you know what I’m about as clearly as I can. I think it saves us both a lot of time and I hope it answers your question, sir.”

Mr. Crosier says, “It does. I trust you mean it.”

“Trust is what it’s about, sir. May I add a post-script to ‘Who Am I’?”

“Of course.”

“My friend got me into Promo. I’ve learned and experienced things there I wouldn’t have been able to see or know anywhere else. Beyond the School’s environment, back on the grid, I’m just another cataloged face in a volatile crowd with nowhere to go but into one queue or another, maybe find work as a laborer, maybe lucky enough to have my own place to live. Or a family. Maybe gonji, instead. Or, you know… flattened by an asteroid.

“But I see astonishing events taking place, events I know my friend has been a part of. I’ve been given a taste of what’s possible and, as I walk around knowing this, I wonder why I’m not doing those things too. I feel in-between something amazing and just living this bonus live I was gifted as a… a statistic.”

“Your friend. Mr. Gaston. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He has sponsored your placement on a working team, one of which he is a member. His work with us makes his assignment flexible. Do you believe you can operate in an environment without his close support?”

“I have no doubt that I can learn to fit in wherever you place me, sir.”

“What can you tell me about the ‘art’ you practice?”

“I have several, sir.”

“Do they still call it freerunning?”

“Art… I like that. Most consider it a fringe activity.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s an exercise in how much distance I can cover using unconventional pathways, taking advantage of natural and architectural structures, challenging them to show me useful imperfections and how to use their design to my advantage, trusting my strength and balance and reactions. And my luck.”

“I’m out of breath just hearing about it. Your luck, how’s that been?”

“Mostly good. I try not to press it too hard. Gravity doesn’t forgive.”

“Sounds very seat-of-the-pants,” says Crosier.

“Sounds kind of timid,” says Germane.

“Both, I guess, though not at the same time,” says Crippen. “Some places I run often because most places within my range are restricted. I don’t need to test my luck at every turn, not against the law in particular. So, I’ve cut a few grooves that challenge my precision instead.”

“I had a short time to scan your folder. You play pitball at the dormitory?”

Yes, sir. Greensprings. We have a team. With uniforms and everything.”

“What’s your position?”

“I trade off, high anchor and outlier.”

Mr. Germane says, “I take back that timid crack.”

“What’s your standing?” Mr. Crosier says.

“It’s a new cycle. So far no one has figured out how to hurt us, but I think Emerald is going to give us a game.”

“I’d like to see that. Maybe I will. So, can you tell me what a transformer does?”

Crippen blinks. “The electrical component, or the cartoon robot?”

Mr. Germane cracks a smile. Mr. Crosier does not. Crippen clears his throat.

“It’s used to couple alternating current between circuits while isolating direct current, although it can also be used to increase or decrease power to a secondary.”

“Okay,” Mr. Crosier says. “Do you read or speak a foreign language?”

“I know enough Spanish to get me beaten and robbed in an alleyway. Oh, and I read music. Does that count?”

Mr. Crosier glances sidelong at Mr. Germane and both almost nod.

“… and play three different woodwind instruments.”

” What instruments?” Crosier asks, pulling a foldie from his jacket’s inner breast pocket, opening it about halfway.

“I started in secondary school playing clarinet. Later, an obo. Lost those in the… you know. I made a native flute a couple years ago from a piece of cedar. It looks just like the beginner’s effort you’d expect, but it has a pleasing voice.”

“Obo, huh?” Mr. Germane says. “It always seemed an effeminate instrument, like a French horn.”

“You might be surprised how much ladies appreciate a good embouchure.”

Mr. Crosier hands his foldie to Crippen. Its surface has been cleared save for a graphic composed of three lines of musical staff and notation.

“Name that tune.”

“Ode To Joy. Beethoven’s Ninth,” says Crippen. “And thanks for choosing an easy one.”

Mr. Crosier wipes the media’s surface and folds it back into his pocket.

“I understand you have no neuro-adaptive enhancements. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir. External only, as required for my studies and occasional entertainment purposes—you know, music, Sieb Forward, that kind of thing.”

“Porn?” Mr. Germane’s query sounds innocent.

Crippen looks him in the eyes. “It’s a distortion, and an obvious one, a commercial distraction to pacify and create revenue. I’m not immune, I just don’t care to go there. Real is better.”

“That’s debatable,” Mr. Germane says.

“Is this a social or religious choice on your part?” Mr. Crosier asks.

“The porn?”


“Oh. Neither, really.”

“Why, then?”

“I remember when the NOASR was hailed as a milestone of human achievement, and I suppose it is. It might have been coincidental that Dr. Ampellov’s original neural net innovation received AMA approval about the same time. Everyone has an opinion about the waves of cheaper, but as-functional knock-off models that seemed to flood the market before the Ends.

“Anyway, the marriage of those technologies—it’s an overused word, but an accurate one—allowed societies to survive the enforced isolations that followed the destruction, allowed them to continue to operate. I suppose the virtual environs became an affordable and, best of all, completely safe way of adapting to life and work in an increasingly inhospitable world. But where many hoped it would bring us closer together, I don’t see how. Do you?

“Beyond government and civil services that function there, and commerce in all its forms, AsReal and the virtual continuum are no different than any other addiction. I mean, I observe people so deeply engaged in subjective experience, that they’re divorced from each other in widening circles. We’ve all known people entrenched in vee to the point that their Real life is unsatisfying compared to the life they live inside the construct. They’re so invested they will choose the construct over their own authentic lives.

“I enjoy my limited interactions, but I’ve preferred to live in real-time, experience the precision of my muscles, my reactions. When I want, I’m able to press the actual edge of danger that doesn’t really exist within the scope of the AsReal community. Well, maybe in the Outlands.”

“The Outlands?”

“You know, ‘The Frontier’.”

Mr. Germane says to Mr. Crosier, “Interdicted environs operating without mandated fail-safes, yet somehow allowed to function, just like any other certified node. Ask Braden about them sometime.”

Crippen says, “You’re probably aware there are a number of others in the Promethean School that are ‘outies’ like me.”

“It’s not a disadvantage there,” Mr. Crosier says. He shows Crippen his hands. In them is a gossamer webbing, fragile to an almost ethereal degree, so insubstantial does it appear.

“This is a proprietary Axonic heuristic neural net. Every member of a working team is fitted with one, as are we.

“Contrary to the claims of antagonistic elements, this is not a mind control device. The implant’s primary functionality is intercommunication. With it comes access to our own virtual subset, nodes existing on the outlands, as you say, of the AsReal community. We are outside the protocols of the ubiquitous commercial provider, NOASR. We can access their nebula, but we no longer exist on their grid. Anyone’s grid.

“There are many, including but not limited to the United States government and military, who would misappropriate every element of our technology for their own purposes with prejudice, to keep it safe from the amorphous, ever-present ‘Enemy’. Similarly, those who view us as competitors for certain technological niches, would be happy to see us eliminated. From their standpoint, we are the enemy.

“Our popularity with the general public is all but outweighed by the despite of those entities who perceive us as a threat to their power and profitability. There are constant risks whenever we’re on assignment and the ability of our team members to coordinate their activities is critical to everyone’s safety, as well as the successful completion of our assignments.

“So, I have to ask, why are you, an unapologetic ‘outie’, looking for a position knowing you would have to re-evaluate your abstention? It seems counter-intuitive.”

“Barney doesn’t talk about what he does,” Crippen says, “but I can tell its challenge/reward ratio is way higher than anything currently on my horizon. The world I live in is broken and some tasked with fixing it are trying to do so with sledgehammers and fire. I don’t believe the School is broken and I don’t believe the lies being told about it, about Mr. Gerzier, or about what he’s trying to accomplish.

“When Barney is around, I see the difference in his outlook and manner. I see it in those around me in the School. I want that. I want to feel like that. And I want to know what else is out there. But, to do that, I have to allow the implantation of the device.”

“That is your choice today in a proverbial nutshell.”

“Can you tell me about the baseline and the downside, sir?”

“A pertinent question. Unlike the externals, as I’m sure you know, there is no latency or residual backscatter. You and the mesh will establish your own baseline. You will define your own personal usage profile, as well as your working profile with your assigned team.

“We are not in the business of monitoring or auditing your thoughts and beliefs. As long as you conduct yourself in good faith, a phrase you’ll hear again, the mesh operates unobtrusively, and provides you reliable connectivity with people and processes that you will learn to control and utilize, both on your own and in concert with your team counterparts. Your own discretion and intention will determine the degree and depth of that connectivity. 

“Due to the nature of our enterprise, and because of the sensitivity of the processes and devices with which you’ll be acquainted, we must insist upon your absolute discretion regarding our work and the people with whom you interact. You already understand we are a community apart from the mainstream. We keep our cards face-down and we don’t talk about our business outside of our own house.”

“Like Fight Club?” says Crippen.

“Or the Yakuza.” says Mr. Germane. “Except if you decide to leave us, we won’t kill you. The mesh will blur certain details of your experience with us before it’s removal. There’s your downside.”

“Blurred, sir? Let’s say you take me on and I decide to haul off and quit for some inexplicable reason. My memory will be… what? Wiped somehow?”

“The term ‘wiped’ is misleading,” says Mr. Crosier. “‘Obfuscated’ is a better one. From the point of the device’s implantation, some of those experiences you had will become indistinct. Not relationships and connections as much as details like names and faces. You will know they’ve been muddled and you will know why. Your prior experiences will be untouched, the Project School, for instance, and all you’ve learned there, but pretty much a good deal of static beyond that, right up to the removal of the mesh and tearful good-byes.”

“That’s asking a lot.” Crippen sounds dismayed.

“It helps weed out the tourists,” Mr. Germane says. “Why? You can’t quit; we haven’t hired you yet.”

“I think you’ll agree we’re offering a lot in return,” Mr. Crosier says. “Let’s be clear. This is not an annexation of your body by a mind-control device. It is an uncommon interconnectivity tool you will learn to control. You will allow this to the degree you perceive as necessary and appropriate for the benefit of your team and yourself. Later, we invite you to expand that perception to the broader scope of the network we have in place, but the mesh will only respond to your deliberate intention.”

“So, if someone thought it would be a good thing to save four-D of some sensitive aspect of your operations, say, and broadcast it later into the NOASR for anyone to experience, the mesh would respond to… what? To that individual’s decision to act against the common interest?”

“That’s exactly right. A willful breach of foundational security protocols is bound to be, by its nature, intentional. Some within the mesh are sensitive to the vibration of… let’s call it ‘contradictory and antisocial intent’, which accompanies problematic behavior.

“Let me say it again for emphasis. As long as you conduct yourself in good faith, you and the mesh will only interact within parameters you yourself define and allow.”

Mr. Germane drags his chair closer to the younger man, sits down, and leans in.

“I understand your reticence about the commitment. I doubt if anyone noticed it at the time, but I felt much the same as I sense you do when I was given the choice to let a device merge with my favorite brain. All I can tell you is I’ve never regretted it.” He stands up and winks. “At least, that’s what the mesh told me to tell you.”

“The up-side,” Mr. Crosier continues, “is membership in a family that is not motivated by fear. We’re cautious in much the same way you are with gravity. There have always been grave threats to any individual or group that will stand up to the Established Order in any of its forms, who have the means and the strength to claim their freedom, and exercise it. We’ve separated ourselves so we can become instruments of change in the world and operate without the constraints of repressive societies that are afraid of everything, including their own citizens. We have the willingness and ability to stand apart.

“In return you become one of the clan. In most cultures, that means subjugating oneself to the greater needs of the whole and, I suppose, that’s true with us too, although this is not a hive-mind and your individuality will not be absorbed into some homogenous collective. The diversity of those who already make up our community, our family, is a great part of our strength and we prefer to nurture that. Know that we have no desire to direct your personal life or beliefs, the nature of which is already sufficiently compatible or we would not be having this conversation.

“We will provide frequently challenging, sometimes dangerous, always engaging, consequential work in unusual, potentially exotic, occasionally uncomfortable settings. You will enjoy the company of talented and similarly-motivated individuals and the certain knowledge that what you do matters. If I heard you correctly, I believe that’s sort of what you’re looking for.”

“Yes, sir. It is.”

“In return for your honest effort, we will provide all your subsistence-level needs: excellent food, clothing, better-than-adequate shelter, and comprehensive medical care for yourself and your family in one of our redoubts. Their choice. Also, a generous stipend for any discretionary needs will be deposited in a personal account on a monthly basis. You will work hard in return for that device wet-wired into your brain, but you will be allowed your privacy and a quality of life and freedom that has all but disappeared in the world beyond the boundaries of our holdings.”

“I don’t have to wear a red shirt, do I?”

Mr. Germane fixes Crippen once again with a grave look. “Only for the first three months. Probationary period, you understand. You’ll be fine.”

From the white emptiness behind the two executives, three men are approaching at a clumsy gallop. These appear rough-looking, graceless caricatures, almost comical in aspect, if not for the bow-wave of violence preceding them.

Mr. Crosier nods toward their advance. “This is another of those interview moments where there is no wrong answer, per se, but some are better than others. These sims represent the kind of senseless opposition our people face routinely when on task,” he says. “If allowed to do so, they will harm your teammates. They will harm you. What are your thoughts about them?”

Before he can formulate a reply, Misters Germane and Crosier are hurled aside, chairs clattering and bodies flailing. The three brutish figures rush the lone applicant.

The immersion system’s latency is noticeable, but manageable, and Crippen meets the trio’s advance standing with his arms straight out to both sides of his body, an invitation. Accepted, the first two reach to seize them and immobilize him as the third closes in to pummel him.

He pivots, ducking beneath his own arms, crossed now, and yanks each of the brutes into the other. Their heads clap together a heartbeat before he pistons a heel behind into the crotch of the oncoming third. It provokes a satisfying compression and mournful objection.

The hollow sound of cranial impact has signaled the release of his arms and, as the two heads have bounced apart somewhat, he cradles one in his left hand, the other in his right, and slaps them together again. He gasps the back of each man’s collar and drives his weight toward the floor. Both topple backward and their heads bounce some more. Crippen, still in motion, snatches up his chair and whirls to greet the last man with it.

Instead, he finds only Misters Crosier and Germane seated as they had been moments before, watching him advance on them wielding furniture.

Four legs touch down and Crippen straddles the chair backward facing the two smiling administrators. Chin on his arms folded across the seat back, he does not appear to be breathing hard.

“Holy shit,” says Mr. Germane.  

Crippen says to Mr. Crosier, “You asked what I thought a moment ago. In contemporary culture, I think dealing with troglodytes would be the least of your problems. Do you get a lot of that?”

“Symbolically. Sometimes they’re in tactical armor with guns and badges.”

“When do I begin?”

“I believe you just did. Your new rate and privileges are in effect as of today,” Mr. Crosier says. “Benn will go over the obligatory paperwork with you—the ubiquitous state and federal documentation, acknowledgements of policy and procedures, that kind of thing. Afterward, report to Med for your immunizations and see Dr. Ampellov, who will oversee your procedure.”

“Woah! Today?!”

Mr. Germane says, “Why? You got another interview to go to?”

“Uh, no. I guess I didn’t expect it to happen so quick.”

“Well, let’s not dawdle. I’ll have you back to the dorm by suppertime.”

“Welcome to the family, Dashel,” Mr. Crosier says and stands, extending his hand.

Dashel removes the chair between them and returns a firm handshake. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“We’re not a military organization, Dash, and I’d ask you to lighten up on the ‘sir’ if you could… but you probably won’t, will you?”

“No, sir. Probably not.”

“That’s all right. You’ll get used to us soon enough.”

Crosier turns to his counterpart. “The cohort with the Nancys is a tight little group. It won’t hurt to have his sponsor on board with him, but… not as his trainer.”

“I agree.”

“Pair him with Ms. Atlee and let her show him the ropes.”

Mr. Germane turns a solemn face to Crippen. “Oh, you poor son of a bitch. I was just starting to like you, too.”

      ~      ~

Nowhere Man

The blackness takes on shape and definition. It hops in front of his eyes, picking at something on the ground near a boot someone has left lying about. The boot has a leather cord wrapped around it at the graft, braided back upon itself as if it was intended to stay there.

Several more similar dark shapes are busy squabbling over a small, inert form not far away.

Without the slightest forewarning, the boot moves, and by the time he concludes with some conviction that the boot’s on his own foot, the crows have flown away.

On unsteady legs, Jonas stands and thumps his head on the stone of the sheltering overhang, driving him back to his knees with a groan. The pain in his skull helps restore some of his clarity and, since he’s now so close to it, he turns his curiosity to the object of the little crow’s attention.

Amid the cold, scattered remnants of his fire, lying cocked on a cushion of ash, is what appears a single gaming die.

On second thought, that can’t be it. The corners are sharp, not rounded off like you’d expect a gaming cube to be, and it’s too big. The surfaces are smooth and dark and got no pips on them. He plucks it out of the ash.

It’s cold and heavy, like gold is heavy, although this appears to be made of some polished, but otherwise unremarkable slate-gray… something. If it’s metal, he doesn’t recognize it. Maybe stone. Maybe valuable.

He rises again in a crouch, testing his feet under him as they carry him into the sunlight spilling over the edge of the canyon rim. Its warmth is a luxury. Morning sunlight. How long has he been unconscious?

Able to fully unfold himself, stiff muscles stretch out and bones crackle. All the parts seem to be in place. Rolling the kinks from neck and shoulders, he takes stock of his situation.

Aside from the cold debris from his fire strewn about, the remains of the roasted hare lie well picked over by the crows and the flies are having a holiday with what’s left. Its condition suggests that it was just last night.

Jet-black fragments of some dense material are scattered all roundabout the rock shelf, conspicuous against the weathered sandstone. There’s not much of it, not enough to be the shattered remains of the stone man. None of the bits are much larger than Jonas’s hand, except yonder, one that appears to be a foot with three splayed toes, each almost a yard long.

Much harder to miss is the long knife, one of a pair the stone man had been brandishing about. It’s driven into the ledge at a crazy angle, still emitting that weird, unwholesome glow.

And yet, not often is Jonas taken completely by surprise, as now at sight of the yawning tunnel opened up at the back of the cavity, too close to where he was sprawled out and senseless. It’s perfectly round, near level, and wide enough he could crawl inside it, if he were of a mind to. Straight into the rock, it’s cut so deep he can’t make out the end of it. Calloused fingers slide across the surface of the aperture. Smooth as glass.

Scratching his head, Jonas moseys out toward the grassy patch where Ohanko’d been grazing last night. She’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, beside a broad, squarish, black depression in the soil, is a corpse. The cavern-mouthed thing lies with the back of its head blown out.

Jonas will offer no tobacco for this monstrosity. It’s apparent the crows have ignored this feast. He is confident even heca, not known to be particularly fastidious, will not touch this carcass either. The flies aren’t picky though. They never are.

At the edge of the incline, he scans the canyon floor below. The creek, having scrubbed the floor of the ravine during the storm, still flows, but with none of last evening’s enthusiasm, keeping to a course carved in stone over years uncounted.

A few small trees lie crushed at the base of the cliff beneath a massive slab of sandstone that wasn’t there when he first climbed up here to make camp.

Scanning the face of the overhang above, it’s easy to spot the scar of unweathered stone where the piece had sheared away. The surface looks smooth, as if the slab was sliced from the mother rock by a giant’s carving knife.

What in the name of the just and terrible wisicu God went on here while he was stupefied? And where is everybody? Mind you, not that he cares to see the monsters again, but he’d like to know what happened to the star-folk, at least.

No sign of his mare.

There’s something else amiss here, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Something’s been wrong since he awoke.

He shouts for Ohanko and realization arrives in a rush, so obvious if it’d been a snake, as his grandfather was known to say, it would’ve already bit him.

He knows he called out her name in a clear voice, one he knows is even now repeated back from the canyon walls, but there is nothing in his ears but silence.

He can feel the vibration of air moving through his throat as he steps up and delivers an enthusiastic boot in the rib cage to the pale dead thing on the ground. He can’t appreciate the sound of bones snapping, but he can feel it, even as a mist of flies lifts up, eddying madly at the disruption, settling once more to the banquet.

The square of black earth close by is bigger than two of him laid end to end. He remembers what was in that place, and now it is a wrongness upon the world. He is not willing to step nearer to it.

A slight discomfort in his hand reminds Jonas he’s been gripping the little blank die, or whatever it is. One of its wicked corners must’ve poked into his palm.

He holds it up. There’s a drop of blood in his hand and maybe it’s a trick of the light, but for just an instant the cube glimmers. He turns it this way and that way a few times. Odd how sunlight doesn’t even seem to reflect off any of its numerous facets.

Whoa there, Nellie. Wasn’t it a cube a minute ago? This isn’t a cube.

Why did he think it was?

Because his Gift says it was. Like a memory of something he didn’t even know before. Always good to pay attention to that.

Each corner of the cube has been changed, as if carved off clean and identical, forming triangular facets instead of points. He wraps his fingers around it. The shape of it feels good in his palm and he wonders what could have pricked his hand earlier. That’s bothersome, but right now, the sun has been up for a couple hours. He needs to move.

A small medicine bag has laid close against his chest for so many years there’s now a place over his heart where the red hair won’t grow. The bag itself is stiff, the leather cured and discolored by compounded time and sweat. Jonas places the little object inside it, pulling the drawstring tight, and slips it back inside his shirt.

There’s dried blood on his collar. His bandana too.

The demon blade, still canted at an angle in the stone near the ledge, is another matter. Reluctant as he is to touch it, he understands without a doubt it must not be left behind. He has no idea why this is so, but he knows it is.

The handle is sized for a hand much larger than his own and wrapped with some kind of supple leather. He wraps his fingers as far as he can around the curve of the grip.

And snatches his hand away with a jolt.

A man shackled face down and spread-eagled, trembles and writhes and howls in what sounds like ecstasy as the flesh is peeled from his back. His offering is prepared and fashioned onto the handles of two identical blades of unknown design.

This is one of them.

He grips the handle with both hands and a grimace and heaves. At first there is only the resistance of stone seizing the blade, then a smooth, frictionless release.

It’s not as heavy as he’d imagined. Almost five feet long, pommel to its squared leading edge, the blade is light enough to balance well against the weight of the narrow bolster and the skin-bound handle encasing the tang. The butt of the tang is pounded into a flat, thin button securing the handle. The button glows with the same dead light and there’s a symbol engraved on it. As for the blade itself, it tapers wider at the tip than the heel and its edge, even having hacked through stone, is razor fine and flawless.

Jonas lays the fearsome thing out in front of him and sits back on his haunches wishing he could scrub that bloody image from his memory.

How does one carry such a perilous object without becoming victim to it? No doubt, the blade will slice through any binding it touches.

He pulls a few strips of rawhide from his bundle and a pair of leather gloves from a pocket of his duster. He is as surprised as he is grateful to discover the gloves shield him from grotesque visions as he carries the cleaver, or so he’s come to think of it, down the steep path to the floor of the canyon.

A loose chunk of something small and black rolls under his boot and, catching his balance, he grasps the blade’s spine lest the unwieldy thing flail downward and amputate something. Whatever unpleasantness might follow from contact with the weapon’s sickly glow, the gloves seem to have insulated him from that as well.

His dread of the thing now less palpable, he lays it aside and, undressing himself, goes about his necessary. Damp gravelly sand is easy digging with a stick.

The creek pools into a good-sized stony basin nearby. He drinks his fill from it, then climbs in. Blood’s dripped from his ears and down his neck, dried brown and flakey. It scrubs off with his bandana, leaving a discoloration on the surface of the pool, a ribbon that finds the current and spills away.

The water’s embrace is a cool one and he reclines, watching the flicker of tiny birds as they dart among shafts of morning sunlight. A single crow dives overhead. Its beak is open as it passes and he knows it’s telling him to move along.

He retrieves the rawhide strips from the water and slips from the pool. The earth under his bare feet reminds him that they have grown soft in boots. He wrings out his bandana and wraps it around his head, pulls on his gloves, and lets the sun dry him as he works.

One of the trees shattered beneath the overhang has caught his interest, a cedar sapling that might have been twenty feet tall before the slab of sandstone came crashing down against it. Jonas guides the cleaver’s impossible edge along its trunk.

The weapon’s length and oversized grip make it a clumsy tool, but raw wood slices like butter. A pair of thin planks, each slightly longer and wider than the blade, is the work of minutes. He binds them together with the dripping rawhide, sandwiching the blade between them.

He dresses and climbs one last time up to the shelf in the cliff face. It’s a patient climb with the cleaver slung under a shoulder in its encasement.

The contents of his saddlebags are re-evaluated. His duster, canteen, rifle, a good bit of jerky, and a couple airtights of fruit pass the first round of consideration.

The shirt he’d chosen for travel is bloodstained, unfit to represent him in the walking hanblaceyapi he senses ahead of him. He shucks it off. He will need all the armor he can muster in the days to come. It will be the dude shirt or nothing. It’s been rolled up in its paper wrapper since his night out in Dodge.

The paper and twine are saved for later use.

There are a few small personals in his warbag, plus his new bandana, flint and steel, a waxed tin full of tinder, a whetstone, two boxes of ammunition, his gun cleaning kit, and three books bound in oilcloth. These too meet the first-round assessment. There is no second round.

The remaining apple’s starting to look withered. Breakfast finished, he tosses the core over the ledge.

His saddle’s too much of a burden to consider packing out. He shoves it into the glass-walled tunnel. All remaining non-essentials and Ohanko’s tack are stashed in the tunnel with it.

Ohanko. She had fled down the steep path in her terror, even before that killing scream split the night, gone in the rush still surging into the canyon from the storm’s downpour. If she was able to come back, she would have.

He offers tobacco at the cliff edge to her dauntless spirit and the breeze carries it away.

He pushes the plug he’s created as far back into the hole in the wall as he can without crawling inside. Then he crawls inside and shoves until his boots are at the lip of the opening. That oughta do it.

The scattered bits of his fire and last night’s meal add a certain dimension to the other evidence of inexplicable goings-on. Slashes through native rock, cliff faces sheared off, shards of the stone man strewn about, and the body of the pallid monster, all tell a tale that would challenge the skills of any of his childhood friends.

Makes Noise and Little Weasel would each trample the area trying to figure it out. Hard Head would stand apart and view the place from different angles and times of day, then seek advice from the grandmothers. Jumping Otter might understand that he was still alive and come looking for him.

That would be something.

He bundles up his duster, stuffing it into the remaining free space in one of the saddlebags. The lashings on the demon blade’s containment are tightened and the whole bound inside his bedroll, then secured to the mochila beside his rifle scabbard.

The weapon’s pommel protrudes just enough for the gray-green glow of the engraved butt-cap to telegraph its presence. His old bandana, bound in place, makes a suitable cover. It won’t stand close inspection, but then, why should it?

Shouldering his caboodle, it’s a load to be humping across inhospitable terrain.

There’s no arrow-shaped cloud overhead to point the way.

Back upstream and maybe four days hard march the way he came, he could meet up with traffic on the Trail somewhere south of the Turkey Mountains and continue his journey to Santa Fe from there. That would be the wise choice, to be sure.

Downstream, hemmed in between sweeping sandstone ramparts, always down and somehow… away from, not toward. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Maybe it’s his Sight suggesting a choice that seems to run counter to common sense and self-preservation. Maybe it’s the peculiar little object in his medicine bag now become the loadstone to a destination chosen the moment he picked it up. And maybe his own spirit guides are heyoka.

Not farther on from his broken campsite, a natural cut in the rock face was a flume pouring into the canyon the night before as the thunderstorm passed. There’s not even a trickle now. One of the branching trees reaching from below affords a reasonable, if precarious purchase to view what he realizes will be his route to the top of the tableland.

The transition into the cleft entails unreliable hand and footholds and his awkward burden threatens to dislodge him again and again. When he reaches a place beyond the rock face where a tumble to the canyon floor isn’t the very next thing, he drops his load, lies back against it, and waits for his heart and breath to catch up.

Here, the vegetation has crowded as close as it can to the edge, close enough to hang on against sun, wind, rain, and ice, hang on long enough to root into the porous stone where lichens have opened the way. Shrubbery has forced its way into ancient rocky breakdowns and cavities where soil has had time to accumulate. Sparse grasses and tough vines with teeth compete with them for moisture.

The mesa rim is visible and a good hike from here, but there appear to be game trails farther upslope, and the wind is at his back. Jonas re-settles his load over his shoulders and adjusts his hat.

One foot in front of the other, he makes his way in the deepest silence he’s ever known.

      ~      ~

The Veep

Located on the White House premises, just across West Executive Avenue from the West Wing, is an imposing structure, a grandiose architectural monstrosity Mark Twain once referred to as “the ugliest building in America”. Situated within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building among a host of other executive branch agencies and staff is the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office.

It is an ornate space four times as long as it is wide with an elaborate high ceiling and Victorian-flavored ornamentation. Three distinct zones, each with its own specific atmosphere and utility define the space.

At the formal business end resides one of two twin Belgian black marble fireplaces, ornamental bookends to the room. Parked at a practical distance from the hearth is the desk Teddy Roosevelt himself favored for his own use when it was crafted a hundred and twenty-some years ago. Passed down from there, it has since become a hallmark of the Vice President’s station. Here the nation’s second in command might pose for a pithy 4-V sound byte, pen a biting phrase or two for a speech, or wrestle with his memoirs. This area is currently unoccupied.

Dominating the extended central section is a conference table, a massive ornamental slab of some dense hardwood, like a wooden aircraft carrier’s flight deck buffed to a warm gloss. It will accommodate over a dozen people with ease. Those so assembled might perhaps enjoy, with sufficient elbow room for all, an elaborate working lunch as affairs of State are deliberated and the current stats of fantasy sports teams are discussed, the merits of either debated with equal fervor. At the moment, this space too is devoid of activity.

At the far end of the room, an odd quartet of individuals are arrayed in front of the second fireplace, its hearth aglow with a convincing simulation of flickering firelight. This, the more informal section of the room, is where, most often, real decision-making is conducted, relative to whatever business of State shuffles down to this level.

Bettencort, bloated, red-faced, and perspiring, holds down his own chair resting a half meter above the carpet on a blue haze. Seated at a respectful distance from the President’s second is a pair of military men as unalike as two men in uniform might possibly be.

A square-shouldered granite block of a fellow whose attire and insignia identify him as a general in the United States Air Force, challenges the antique davenport supporting him to sustain its structural integrity against his weight and the constellation of decorations obscuring the left breast of his uniform coat. The cut of his dress blues only accentuates the impression of mass, as does the pink flesh blossoming from the collar of his shirt, further constricted by a cruel necktie. He slouches into the cushioned enfoldment with a forceful inhalation and sips from a tall, sweating glass, careless of the quantum contest taking place beneath him between artistic woodcraft and gravity.

In counterpoint, a man in the uniform of a Russian Army colonel is seated to his left in a sturdy, straight-backed chair. His hands rest on his thighs and his mien, though solemn, has a feral intensity.

The last occupant presents a gangly stick figure poised behind the Vice President. An advisor of some kind by his placement, his dour demeanor and anachronistic wire-rimmed glasses accentuate an already prevailing sense of out-of-place-ness.

The general’s voice is throttled somewhat by the constraints of his clothing. “They would certainly be my first choice in the matter. Their technological preeminence is unquestionable, despite the fact their acronym is a joke they themselves obviously don’t get.”

“I don’t get it either,” Bettencort says. His voice is a tattered thing, the deep, rasping product of two packs of cigarettes a day chased with a generous allotment of bourbon at day’s end. It is a strict regimen requiring determination, persistence, and considerable expense in more than monetary measure.

“Wile E. Coyote,” the General huffs with an implied confidence this will clarify everything.

Bettencort’s blank stare suggests it does not.

“You know, Road Runner. Beep beeep!”

Still nothing.

“It’s a cartoon.”

“Before my time,” Bettencort shrugs. He looks to his lean-featured advisor, who offers a subtle negation.

“Never mind,” the general says.

The Russian officer maintains an expression of studious disinterest. Woolard shifts in his seat to address the man.

“My point is, Colonel, why involve the upstart, with all the inherent risks that choice entails? ACMe’s proven beam augmentation technology can make your problem vanish literally in seconds. No muss, no fuss, home in time for supper.”

The Russian’s voice is, in stark contrast to the American officer’s commanding wheeze, a clear, cool instrument. He sounds as though he is explaining a simple concept to a child.

“As you are aware, General Woolard, my government does not allow the power-generating satellites to orbit above our airspace. No, comrade General, we have agreed. The upstart, as you say, is our first, best hope to successfully resolve this situation with discretion. I am certain you will agree that discretion is a close second in priority to safety. Would you not?”

Benn, Denny, and Braden watch as Bettencort rises and approaches them with a top-heavy gait, offering an outstretched right hand.

“Eric,” he rasps with practiced cordiality, “thank you for taking my call. You look well.” He pumps Eric’s hand with brief enthusiasm. “But then, you always do, don’t you?”

Eric’s tari returns the handshake with warmth. “Good to see you again, Phil.”

“Just you, Eric?”

“You know I don’t have an entourage. Besides, I thought we were going to have a friendly, private chat. You know, you and me and—oh, look! You have distinguished guests.”

He regards the two men in uniform with his trademark smile. It seems genuine. “Gentlemen,” he says and turns back to Bettencort. “It’s your dollar, Phil. Woo me.”

Bettencort provides introductions.

Rather than resist the predations of gravity, General Chester T. Woolard, member of the Joint Chiefs, remains on station on the davenport. He acknowledges Eric with a tall glass lifted in casual salute.

Colonel Vassily Chernovich has risen to his feet. He displays the self-assured bearing of a professional soldier and allows the handshake with his introduction.

“Eric Gerzier,” Chernovich’s accent makes an exotic guacamole of Eric’s name, “I have been instructed to convey my government’s recognition of your many humanitarian accomplishments and to ask for your help with a situation. I am told your discretion is… what is the word? Unassailable.”

Standing aside and disregarded, the stick figure considers Eric with a mortician’s stare.

The environment’s interface provides Eric a comfortable chair opposite the Colonel and he allows himself to settle into it, inviting the Russian to be seated also. He leans forward to address Chernovich as if the other participants to the meeting were decorative.

“There’s a twenty-five ruble word I don’t hear very often. I’m intrigued by that almost as much as I am this unscheduled get-together. How can I help you, Colonel?”

“Up to this time, my government has not endeavored to pursue a working relationship with you, although we are aware of your impressive successes.” Chernovich spreads his hands, palms up. “I have been authorized to open a dialog and your government has generously agreed to facilitate by arranging this meeting.”

“Technically, Colonel, it’s not my government. I’m Canadian.”

The gravel train of Bettencort’s voice rolls out on square wheels. “Of course, this is not an issue of nationalistic posturing and I’m deeply grateful we could intercede to enable us to act together in the best interests of all concerned.”

Woolard’s jaw is set, his mouth a hard line, and his sidelong glance at Bettencort holds no warmth. He opens his mouth to say something, lifts his glass instead and takes a sip, content for the moment to wage a silent war against the durability of antique furniture.

“One week ago, we uncovered the existence of a facility in Siberia built during the first cold war, one we had believed to be decommissioned and abandoned long ago. It was not abandoned. It was buried and, with it, a stockpile of biological agents of unknown variety.”

Eric nods without comment.

“We sent in a team to assess and inventory, three technicians, two mechanicals. They found the entire facility staff long dead.”

“How long?”

“What little we know suggests twenty-six years. Less than twenty-four hours later the mechanicals were still operational, but our technicians were also dead.”

“That’s a long time for a bug to remain virulent.”

“If we could rule out an almost inconceivable level of human error by trained professionals, the “bug”, as you say, is somehow able to penetrate the most advanced protective equipment we have at our disposal. Whatever is in there is beyond our experience. This is why we have come to you, Mr. Gerzier.

“In the past, this kind of thing would have been handled in secrecy. There was a time, given the nature of the situation, a small nuclear device might have been detonated at the site, the collateral damage absorbed as an unfortunate by-product of a bad situation not allowed to become worse. Of course, while there are still some who would prefer to conduct affairs in the old way, those days are gone. Given the scope of recent treaties, alliances, and domestic circumstances, probably for the better.”

Eric nods again. “Containment?”

“Airtight, so far. The airlock systems have been monitored and augmented since the entry.”

Phantoms in the midst of this gathering, Benn leans against Braden’s seat.  Braden rests his elbow on Benn’s shoulder and looks on as Denny frames a rectangular space between his hands, vaguely luminous, populated with an array of options.

Eric’s tari removes a foldie from a vest pocket. “Colonel, I’m providing a link for your use. If you will have your people transmit rendezvous coordinates and details regarding the facility’s layout, construction, and surrounds, I can have a team on-site within twelve hours.”

Chernovich appears nonplussed. Perhaps he had anticipated, had Gerzier agreed to assist, days, not hours for the enigmatic recluse to prepare a response. This unexpected level of urgency seems to match his own. He looks on as Eric’s fingers trace cryptic symbols across the quartered surface of the foldie.

“You and any observers you wish to include will be welcome to join my team on the operations platform. Isolation, neutralization and disposal protocols will be outlined for your approval before implementation, of course.” Eric holds the foldie out for him to take.

“Of course…” The colonel’s stoic mask has slipped. He appears troubled, but accepts the foldie with his face in place once more.

“What is it, Colonel?”

“We have not spoken of payment.”

Eric’s famous smile radiates unguarded from his face. More cynical witnesses to this exchange might expect this to be the when the proverbial hammer falls. How astronomic could his fee for unconventional services rendered be, one might speculate. If Chernovich harbors similar skepticism himself, however, he does so behind a composed facade. Given the dire nature of the circumstances, any price might be deemed reasonable and it is obvious he has been given sufficient latitude to negotiate on behalf of his government’s interests.

“I am not interested in payment,” Eric says. “The fact you’ve asked for my help is all the compensation I desire. I am exhilarated by the prospect and the challenge your situation presents. I need nothing more. Besides, we are, after all, neighbors on this island. Are we not?”

Chernovich appears uncomprehending. “Island?”

“Earth, tovarich.” Eric’s gesture around the opulent room suggests a far broader context. “Beyond and despite the virtual nature of current surroundings, we exist together in a tenuous environment on the living skin of a single grain of sand hurtling through space. The tragic results of taking this gift for granted surround us, challenging us to survive the consequences of our species’ irascible nature and cumulative stupidity. I am tasked to help restore balance in any way I can. This you have asked of me is something I can do. For you. For all of us. Neighbors. Do you understand?”

“Nyet,” Chernovich begins, hesitates. “I mean, I understand what you are saying. I do not understand you.”

There is something in the Russian’s staunch demeanor that wasn’t there a minute ago, a transcendental glimmer, as though he had glimpsed a vision of distant, unforeseen possibilities. “I will look forward to meeting you there. Perhaps we will share a drink together.”



“Vassily, I am truly sorry. As much as it would be my honor to meet you in person, my responsibilities and condition will not allow me to accompany this mission, although we will undoubtedly meet there in vee. I will count on that and I am already looking forward to it.

“I assure you, my representatives on-site reflect my own values and commitment. I have absolute confidence in their abilities and those of their teams. You may rely upon them to conduct themselves with the utmost regard for the safety of your people and the integrity of your nation’s interest. You have my word.”

Chernovich nods acknowledgement.

“And you have my link,” Eric says, standing as Chernovich does so, extending an open hand to the man. “Feel free to contact me anytime.”

A firm handshake lasts a moment or two longer than professional courtesy demands. Chernovich releases it. A nod, a few words of acknowledgement and closure to Bettencort and Woolard, a touch behind the ear, and the Colonel’s avatar is gone.

“Well, that was some happy horseshit.” Woolard seems to be simmering on a low flame. There’s a look of distaste on his jowly, bulldog face and his moustache, trimmed to a regulation width and length, bristles.

“What’s his problem?” Benn’s delicate inquiry to no one in particular.

“He doesn’t like the Russian,” Braden says, “or that Eric took such a high road. More to the point, Eric gave the colonel a personal link, one he himself doesn’t know and his near-infallible military-grade interface wasn’t able to record it. He’s really pissed about that.”

“Not that it’s any of his business.”

“He believes it is.”

Eric regards the General with a smile, then turns away to address the Vice President.

“I will personally contact NASA,” Eric says to Bettencort, “as we’ll be utilizing our existing protocol for disposal of the extraction and containment module. Your regular liaison team will be welcome aboard the platform as well, although you’ll want to mobilize them to the rendezvous site with haste. I promised the Colonel twelve hours and my clock is running. We lift in an hour and twenty.”

Bettencort nods his concurrence and levers his bulk from the chair with a low groan. “Mr. Folt, would you please send out the call and urge all due haste?” He doesn’t wait for his aide’s acknowledgement. “Thank you,” he appends to the stick figure’s unhurried deresolution from the room.

There is in Bettencort’s posture and expression, as likewise in Woolard’s attitude, a certain unspoken anticipation the unseen bystanders cannot fail to recognize and Eric, himself poised to depart the meeting, hesitates.

“I see there is something further on your minds, gentlemen,” Eric says.

Bettencort clears his throat and opens with a painted smile. “I believe we may have…” he seems to be searching for just the right words and his face shows it. He clears his throat again with a phlegmy rattle and begins anew. “It seems we have inadvertently mishandled the specimen you generously provided for us to evaluate. I’d hoped we could…”

“Mishandled,” Eric says. “Inadvertently.”

“Yes. An unfortunate…”

“Let me save you a few syllables, Phil. The short answer is, ‘No’.”

Woolard’s scowl not only precedes Bettencort’s by a couple seconds, but it has a deeper, more hostile texture as well, a detail not lost on the gallery observing from the periphery.

“Nine years ago,” Eric says, “as the so-called ‘End Times’ brought the world to a stand-still, I approached your predecessors with a proposal. I offered to revamp, in one clean, affordable sweep, both the obsolete national power grid and your long-outmoded transportation infrastructure, do away with all environmentally catastrophic modes of energy acquisition and delivery and make it practical to provide for the basic needs of all citizens—and I mean ALL citizens, not just the ones with substantial means.

“It was a modest pitch, one I hoped would find concurrence and endorsement. At that time the value of the plan I set forth was either misunderstood or, more likely, was diverted by those with vested and opposing interests. Those you currently represent contrived then to restrain me and my enterprises in a variety of creative ways, including an organized campaign to discredit my products and processes, and demonize me. That it was decided instead to contract with Advanced Concepts Methodic for their proprietary focused-beam and ‘black-box’ Q-line technologies to sate your ever-increasing energy demand, is not what distresses me. Nor do I care that you’re paying them a premium price for power generation. That’s your business. Their energy is clean and that’s something, although dangerous beyond imagining if misused, as I’m sure General Woolard will agree.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Woolard says.

“And another company was awarded the lucrative contract for trac-road development up and down the East Coast. A subsidiary of ACMe, if I’m not mistaken. And I’m not.”

A brief parade of micro-expressions on Bettencort’s face confirms a bullseye.

“I know they couldn’t have under-bid me,” Eric says without pause, “and their process is based upon the model I submitted to the committee. Why they were not subject to the same obstructive measures employed to encumber my own negotiations and further hinder my enterprises in this country is hardly a mystery.”

Bettencort harrumphs his throat clear and says, “It is not uncommon, nor unlikely, that the creative minds of businesses engaged in similar disciplines will approach a project in like manner. As to the determination of the committee…”

But Eric has moved on. “Meanwhile, Japan, Canada, and the UK noted the shill media’s distressing lack of credibility, and chose to rely instead upon their own empirical evidence. They accepted my proposition. The Left Coast states, almost as a single entity, over-ruled a good deal of the deliberate obstructionism and in a move that, at the time, seemed almost revolutionary, contracted with me for the same kind of forward-looking development they saw us deliver elsewhere.

“Practically limitless power generation, clean, sustainable and, beyond a modest initial investment, absolutely free, solves a legion of messy problems pretty much all at once. You couldn’t have missed it. I know very few have, in fact, because requests for similar assistance have flooded my calendar.

“When you and President Bascomb took office, I renewed my proposal. The ACMe subsidiary providing the trac upgrade having fallen behind schedule by a significant margin and the tragic augmented-beam accident in Iowa suggested you may be open to a practical alternative. I provided you with a working G-cell to assess its potential and demonstrate its practicality and efficacy, not to mention the immediate fiscal and environmental benefits of my offer. A hasty summit was convened to block all such efforts.

“History, that of the last half-century in particular, is rife with examples of innovators who challenged those you serve and were either paid off to desist or were silenced in less subtle fashion. Regardless of how their advances might have improved the world, faced with financial ruin, character assassination, or just plain assassination, those still able to do so capitulated to external pressures beyond their ability to withstand.

“The thing is, Phil: you’ve seen my profile. You know me. And you know, too, I’m not likely to fold up my tent and just disappear into obscurity.”

“No,” Bettencort says, “that would not appear to be your style.”

“That those you serve chose to obfuscate and impede rather than commit to that same sense of national confidence and well-being our other clients now enjoy… well, that has disappointed me. “

Bettencort’s frown has bunched up his fleshy face in an almost comical representation of a man approaching the limit of his anti-depressant medication. His voice is a grinding of stones and his tone indignant. “You’ve mentioned ‘those I serve’ three times now in a manner that can only be construed as dismissive. I’m not certain what you’re implying, but I serve the American people, Mr. Gerzier.”

“That has a patriotic ring to it and at some fundamental level, I believe YOU believe it, but the American people—those not lulled into happy stupefaction in vee—know better. After all that’s transpired from the so-called End Times to now, you and President Bascomb serve at the pleasure of a cabal, the obscenely wealthy who answer to no one. I can see that doesn’t sit well with you and I’m sorry to be the one to say aloud that the Emperor is naked, but there it is. The look on your tari’s face right now tells me you know it to be true, as well.”

Bettencort’s expression denotes a violent civil war taking place between his outrage at this unconscionable repudiation of his nation and office, and begrudging recognition of Gerzier’s irrefutable, accurate indictment of a system the Founding Fathers would abjure. His years of experience in the discipline of diplomacy are striving to arbitrate between the two before a reflexive, wrathful response ends all opportunity to cajole this visionary wild card into cooperating with them. There exists still a particular high-stakes objective before them and Bettencort is practiced in the wisdom that the first “no” doesn’t always mean “no”. He’s reaching out for the words that might mitigate this charged situation.

Gerzier’s mellow voice strikes a moderating tone before the Vice President can craft a suitable conciliation. “Perhaps we could discuss this together in depth when we both have more time and less vexation. What do you say, Phil?”

“Yes. That sounds practical. I expect it will be an engaging conversation.”

“Bottom line,” Eric continues, “ACMe’s clean energy is better than dirty energy and I applaud them for their remarkable innovations, although that particular science could easily be turned to dangerous, asocial purposes… but, of course, you already know that.”

General Woolard remarks through tight lips, “It’s hard not to notice your own technology is ‘black-box’ as well, isn’t it?”

“It is. And it too could be put to use with devastating results in the wrong hands.”

“As you’ve pointed out,” Bettencort interjects, “we contracted elsewhere for restructuring projects on the East Coast circuits. I honestly believe, um, however,  the inevitable fusion, if you will, of your two competing technologies will become a symbol of cooperation to inspire further such ventures. Your contribution to that project has been phenomenal, I must say. Your progress on the West Coast arterial and capillary routes is far ahead of expectation and we anticipate full national conversion should be complete in four more years.”

Eric’s tone is conversational without condescension. “Without the paralyzing bureaucracy of myriad state and federal agencies, many apparently at cross-purposes, and the near-crippling efforts of entrenched industries threatened by these rapid shifts in form and function, my teams could have helped you complete the project in half that, but I do understand your desire to provide employment, and there is a certain undeniable sense of pride in finishing a job oneself.

“What concerns me more immediately,” Eric says, “is that some high-level decision-maker, despite my very strict stipulation against tampering with my power cell’s containment, chose to disregard my admonition. Someone was able to crack it open, were they not?”

“That was unarguably a mistake, Eric.” Bettencort casts an indecipherable glance at Woolard, who has set aside his drink and constrains his stewing bile behind arms folded across his barrel chest. “I want to assure you that more reasoned heads now have the President’s ear. As you know, public opinion regarding the proposal to incorporate ACMe’s beam technology on a national scale has swung the other way, suggesting that, while expedient and beneficial in many regards.

“The success of your efforts on the West Coast and elsewhere has brought your work and your remarkable vision into sharp focus among the constituency. The President is reevaluating your proposal and hopes very soon to renew negotiations with you.”

“I am elated to hear that, Phil, and look forward to reestablishing a dialog.” Eric holds up a cautionary hand. “However, I warned from the start that any attempt to deconstruct my device would negate its functionality. Apparently, it was believed that my technology could be successfully reverse-engineered and its potency utilized in a more… strategic fashion. And now, your boss has urged you to solicit a replacement. The presence of General Woolard in this conversation suggests as well that you’d like to ask me for additional considerations. Could that be my achievement of a non-ballistic vehicle launch capability, or perhaps it’s the energy dispersion field generation that has captured your attention? I expected the disclosure of these advances would prompt a certain level of attraction, but I will tell you this, gentlemen, and hear me well.”

Eye contact in virtua is a subject of great debate still within the circles that are able to discuss such phenomena in focused, clinical terms. Something indefinable crosses the gap between taris in their separate realities as Eric holds first, the general, then Bettencort in his gaze.

“I will NEVER allow weaponization of my technology. Understand that and all future interactions between us will proceed with far less friction.”

Woolard huffs himself to a more upright posture, a motion that elicits a groan of complaint from the divan as he addresses the man.

“Mr. Gerzier,” he intones, using what some would consider a ‘rural American’ phonetic pronunciation of the name, “the gee-whiz technology you’ve introduced in the last few years is, by far and away, some of the most important work of the millennium. No one would argue that. I’m not saying this to blow sunshine up your ass, son. I mean it. I don’t know if you’re a genius or a magician, or what. I just want you to think about the humanitarian implications of working with us, instead of this passive-aggressive antagonism that seems to suffuse your interactions here today. We’re not your enemy, you know.”

Eric says nothing.

An undignified bout of butt-cheek lifting and repositioning allows the general to withdraw a thin, palm-sized fragment of smooth, grayish material from a deep coat pocket. It might be metal, or plastic; the only thing certain is the jagged contours it presents, certain indication that it’s a fragment of some larger item. He lays the shard onto the immaculate virtual surface of the coffee table between them.

“You may not be aware of how much force was required to provide me with this splinter,” Woolard says.

“I not only know precisely how much force was needed,” Eric replies, “but how long you had to sustain it in order to fracture the material’s matrix in this manner. I’m impressed that you had the means to do so. I trust no one was injured. What did you find within?”

“You know what we found, and what we didn’t find. You also know why we had to inspect it, although at the moment, that’s not my primary concern. As much a mystery as the interior represents, the material you’ve used to package your power cell is, by itself, an extraordinary development. The body and vehicle armor we could create with that alone could save tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives. Your field-effect umbrella, or whatever it is, as a purely defensive mechanism, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions more. Surely you can appreciate that. If you’re the dedicated humanitarian your publicists make you out to b… “

“When you say ‘purely defensive’, General, a little alarm goes off in my head. I know better than anyone what kind of destruction my technology could foster when the best defense is determined to be a harrowing offense.

“You know how you save thousands of lives, General? You stop putting people in harm’s way. Your attempt to invoke my compassionate temperament is transparent, sir. You are a man of war. When you’re not actively engaged in warfare, you’re planning a war. I am not a man of war, and you cannot manipulate me with fealty to a mentality that has produced nothing but world-wide distrust, hatred, suffering, and genocide among people no different from each other beyond the constraints imposed by their history and geography.”

“You… ” Woolard cannot suppress his laughter. “You can’t be that naïve, son. Geography is the least of the differences between our enemies and us.”

“Where were you born, General? South Carolina?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Southern Baptist?”


“And your mother, Shirley, used to make the best pork sausage in Beaufort County.”

Woolard’s puffy face, ruddy by nature, has grown a dangerous pink, accompanied by a scowl so deeply drawn it signals either an imminent eruption, or an infarction. “God damn it, man!” he whispers. “Is there some kind of point to this?!”

“If you’d been born in Iran, you’d be a Muslim and your mother would likely be stoned to death for making her famous sausage. Born in Israel, you’d be practicing Judaism and your mom would be slow-cooking cholent instead. India or Nepal… Hindu, probably. Goat sausage maybe—maybe no—depending on your local custom. Poland… strict Catholic. The sausage’d be okay, except on Fridays. Sri Lanka? Buddhist and a vegetarian. Born in the Maldives… it wouldn’t matter what you believe or what you like to eat. The only thing that matters is: how long can you tread water?”

Woolard opens his mouth to rebut.

“It is about geography, General; the local and historical imperatives of discrete cultural slices on the same rock and the intractability of residents of one slice or another to agree with each other, or with you. Those who insist the game is ‘us’ against ‘them’ will never be satisfied with anything less than the total annihilation of their perceived enemies. That mindset, supported by those who will profit from the conflict, guarantees neither side will stop short of mutual extinction. The last man standing will not be the ‘winner’, General. We’re all the same kind. Always have been. But until you’re on board with that, I can do nothing to help you.”

The davenport gasps in relief as the general finds his feet and leans toward Eric like an impending rockslide. “Son, I wish I lived in a world where unicorns fart rainbows, too, but the heartbreaking, God damned truth is this: there are forces around us that would gleefully crush us all out of existence for no other reason than because they believe they can. You think you can change human nature by satisfying basic needs? I thought you were smart—tragically misguided, perhaps, but at least smart enough to understand the difference between them and us.”

“You know what I appreciate?” Benn says. “You almost never have to contend with a person’s bad breath in vee. You ever notice that? Take Brassbottom here. I’ll bet in ‘real’ he smells of boiled cabbage and disappointment. And another thing… nobody ever has food stuck in their teeth here. You ever talk to someone’s tari with a hanging chad of lettuce waving at you? No. You haven’t.”

Braden’s seat revolves. “You travel in some very insulated circles, Benjamin. You should know, or at least guess, there are subsets where every oddity and perversion you can imagine, and others you’re narrow upbringing would not permit you to imagine, do exist. Would you like me to introduce you to a few of them?”

“Just the simple fact that you know that disturbs me on a fundamental level.”

Braden shrugs and turns back to the tableau unfolding around them.

“Maybe it’s because we disagree reflexively,” Eric is saying, “with certainty, but without a shred of real understanding, about what happens to us after we kill each other, that we are compelled to continue killing each other. Whose God is mightier? Whose Gods are amenable to bribery and whose will be glorified by the slaughter of Others, lesser beings without souls or redeeming value?

“All of that falls away at some point, though, and it becomes a simple contest of who can be the best killer, regardless how we dress it up on Sunday. Do you think any of that makes some kind of difference in the face of unpredictable weather patterns, storms of unparalleled intensity, rising sea levels, geological upheaval, exponentially increasing shortages of food, water, shelter, and affordable power? Or, Gods help us all, another wave of gonji?

“I’m told we stopped that last one pretty good,” Woolard says.

“Really? You consider that solution a ‘pretty good’ one?”

“You’d rather have seen gonji sweep down the Left Coast, I suppose.”

“Your fear of these threats is understandable; your choices in the face of them are not. These things I’ve mentioned are just the things you might still be able to do something about and even endure. What about threats beyond your ability to influence: the imminent emergence of Vulcan, for example? You don’t have enough men and guns to stand against what may prove to be an extinction-level event, General.”

“You’re right about one thing,” Woolard says. “Survival is what we do. Better than anyone. The ‘Great Vulcan Scare’, however, is nothing but wild speculation by a bunch of crystal-waving freaks and transparent fear-mongering by people with something to sell. I hear this same unsupportable drivel from attention whores every God damned day and now here you are spouting it right in front of me. I don’t know; maybe all you are is a gifted salesman. I’m not currently in the market for any half-baked pseudo-science and New Age gibberish.”

Eric’s expression is incredulous. “So, you believe the solar anomaly is an example of what? Salesmanship or gibberish?”

Woolard’s face is taking on the appearance of a magenta cauliflower. The Vice President is face-palming. There seems no way now to silence or minimize Woolard’s inflamed exposition, or to salvage the situation gone now terminally awry.

“There’s not a shred of proof anywhere,” Woolard rumbles onward like a tank, “that this Vulcan phenomenon possesses any kind of threat beyond a temporary electromagnetic inconvenience. Meanwhile, I have very real, immediate threats to deal with; threats to our nation’s security—and yours, too, if you’d pull your head out of your ass long enough to look around you—threats to freedom-loving people everywhere. Right now! That’s what motivates me, Mr. Gerzier! That’s why we need your technology, to save lives! Whose side are you on anyway?!”

Benn’s sigh sounds like an attempt to expel exasperation. “I guess they’re right,” he says. “You can’t argue with an idiot.”

“He’s not an idiot, Benjamin,” Braden says. “He’s afraid.”

“Afraid? Him? Of what?”

“He’s afraid of Eric. Of us. Afraid of what we can do that he, with all his resources, cannot duplicate. That, and the fact of Eric’s lack of cooperation with the general’s agenda. He perceives us as another in a series of threats that define his days and keeps him awake at night. One he’ll likely have to deal with very soon, and he doesn’t know how. That’s what frightens him. We are beyond him and he knows it.”

 Woolard is breathing hard and seems to realize his angle of attack has been less than productive. He resumes his seat with an amorphous sound that might be one of relief or another objection from the sofa. He adopts a reasonable tone. “I don’t think you understand how much we’re willing to pay you to share your technology with us.”

Eric’s eyes widen, raising eyebrows. “Really? Now we’re talkin’. Is it a lot?” His open face is alight with credulous, childlike innocence. “It sounds like a lot.” He produces a foldie from his vest pocket and hands it to Woolard.

The general receives a nod from the Vice President, sketches a figure on the matte surface with a blunt fingernail and returns it to Eric with an expression of optimism, difficult to maintain on a bulldog’s face.

Eric inspects the amount, whistles through pursed lips, and turns his face up to catch Woolard’s eyes again. “The United Arab Emirates offered me nearly ten times that much. They’ve apparently got more money than Allah. I’m surprised your intelligence community didn’t already tell you that before you tried to lowball me right out of the gate.”

The general darts a meaningful look at Bettencort, who reaches for the foldie. The medium is withdrawn before his fingers can close upon it.

Eric’s voice is patient. “I told the UAE the same thing I’ve already told you and will tell you once again. We welcome agreements for power generation, water and air purification projects, trac development, CleanSweep deployments for disaster relief, humanitarian aid and restoration, yada yada, but we do not do warfare.

“You see, from the inception of my enterprise, General, my fundamental purpose, my core intention, has been to be of assistance on a global, rather than nationalistic scale. Wherever I am able. I believe I’ve already made my position clear, but in case I have been unintentionally vague, please allow me to reaffirm my stance.

“I will not, under any circumstances, ever allow my enterprise to involve itself with the tools of warfare. I don’t care what you’re offering. I don’t need your money. I will gladly provide clean, free, sustainable energy and the benefits of my company’s innovations for peaceful civilian use, but any attempt to subvert my company’s products for militaristic goals will result in cancellation of contract, severance of services and, if deemed appropriate, dissolution of product.”

Woolard explodes. “What the sugar-frosted fuck are you talking about? Dissolution?!”

Eric plucks the shard from the table, holds it up between his thumb and middle finger. His fingers snap. No prestidigitation, no eye-grabbing special effect, no debris. The fragment is just there and then not there.

If Woolard has made an effort to keep his eyes from bulging, it is only marginally successful. The virtual reflection of what he’s been assured is the strongest material on Earth has just been reduced to digital vapor with no exertion whatsoever, despite the strict physics of this secured Federal node that should have disallowed any such phenomenon.

Benn and Denny exchange quizzical glances and Eric returns his attention to Bettencort.

“Mr. Vice President, I know your boss is campaigning for re-election and, as much as you hope to ride his coattails to a second term—and personally, I hope you do; you have an honorable streak that’s earned you some enemies you didn’t have before. So will this meeting you facilitated with Colonel Chernovich. That was well done and thank you, Phil. Anyway, your boss’s handed you the dubious responsibility of acquiring my cooperation in this understandably awkward circumstance.

“Please tell President Bascomb he’s welcome to contact me personally to discuss new terms. Meanwhile, you may consider the inert G-cell in your possession and all remaining scraps of its containment to be your souvenirs of a poorly-conceived misadventure. I have a team to put in the air to Siberia, gentlemen. Always a pleasure, Mister Vice President.” He gives Woolard a wink and his signature grin. “General.”

His tari blinks out.

Bettencort stares into the space vacated by the celebrated ascetic. He is considering the ways this meeting could have concluded more favorably.

An afterimage of Eric Gerzier’s tari strobes in place for a few seconds, just as it had appeared upon his outro, and the general’s avatar, preparing to launch into a colorful review of the meeting just now concluded, finds itself standing again without having consciously determined to do so.

For the next half minute, the entire virtual envelope is awash in static. The interruption causes the room, with all its elaborate detail, to flutter like an ancient zoetrope, shredding the imaged participants and their exclamations of alarm.

The effects and the attendant disorientation fade as continuity is restored in stages.

“What was that?” Benn asks.

“What the hell was that?” demands Bettencort’s rock-gargling baritone.

“Solar pulse,” both Braden and Woolard reply in unison.

“You mean that ‘temporary electromagnetic inconvenience’ you mentioned earlier?” Bettencort rumbles. “Jesus, that was a deep one!”

The general’s tari flickers back into its seat once more. He stabs a finger at the chair where Eric had been sitting as if painting it with a targeting laser. His shout sparkles with residual static. “I want that smug sonofabitch on a full-scale terror watch starting yesterday!”

“Oh, for Christ sake, Chet. Don’t get your boxers in a wad.”

“Don’t ‘Chet’ me, Phil! I am heart-attack serious! I want twenty-four seven, deep, full-spectrum surveillance of every move he makes. Every facial tic, every word out of his mouth in vee or out. I want to pin that smirking, foster-Canuck, groid prick down like a bug on a board! His people, too. Wherever they go within our jurisdiction. Enforced inspections of all craft and crew. Quadruple documentation. Hell with that—ground every last one of them. Sanctions. IRS up their asses with a four-vee proctoscope on the end of a fishing rod. Better yet, invoke NDAA! Drag them all into hard confinement and sweat…”

“Stand down, General Woolard!” Bettencort’s rasping bark sounds painful. “Don’t you forget for another goddamn minute who you’re talking to! You’d better prepare yourself. The full four-vee of this meeting will go to Bascom. When he sees how you pissed away our one chance to get Gerzier on our side…”

“Were you in the same room? We were NEVER going to get him on our side. You heard him as well as I did. He kissed Chernovich’s ass and told us to go fuck ourselves.”

“Chet,” Bettencort’s sigh has phlegm in it, but his tone is almost congenial again, “Gerzier’s made a lot, and by that, I mean a metric shit-ton, of very powerful, very influential friends, affording him a certain level of insulation. Regardless, not every agency is disposed to extend unlimited dispensation to him. An unnamed agency already conducts round-the-clock, deep surveillance on each of his holdings, though little good it does us.”

“Why is that?”

“If he’s on the island, we can’t tell. If he leaves to one of his other holdings, there’s no way to know. He doesn’t have to be a master of disguise. He’s a ghost. Same as in vee.”

“What does that mean?”

“I hear noises that AsReal can’t keep track of him either.”

“How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. They’re not talking about it. Go ahead and speculate. The point is, we’ve got every resource at our disposal working around the clock every day to find some kind of leverage. The shield around him is as impenetrable as the one around his island. Or the mountain.”

“What do you think a tomahawk missile with a high-yield payload would do?”

“I hope to God you’re just spitballing.”

Woolard looks up into the virtual glare of the gasolier dangling above them and sighs, “Of course I am.”

“I think it would fall dead in the ocean and sink like a stone.”

Woolard seems deflated. “How come I was never advised about any of this?”

A new voice, reedy and unpleasant to the ear, answers from one of the side entrances. “Need-to-know, General, and above your pay grade.”

Folt, long-limbed and razor-thin, positions himself within the envelope of Woolard’s personal space. His manner exudes an aura of confidence disproportionate to his station. He stands a good head and shoulders taller than the general and there is, in Folt’s aspect, not the merest suggestion of deference to, nor respect for, the general’s prestigious rank and power.

Woolard stares up into Folt’s face and says without inflection, “So, why are you telling me now?”

“I’m not. This conversation never took place and when you leave this room, you’re never going to speak of it again. Gerzier is not your concern. We will tend to him when the time comes.”

“Well, good luck with that.”

Bettencort has turned his back to the pair and, instead of disconnecting, lumbers back along the lengthy runway of the room toward his ceremonial desk. His chair, slaved to his person by an intangible umbilical, glides behind.

Woolard watches the Vice President’s plodding progress. A sharp finger-snap brings him back to the moment and Folt’s unblinking, prismatic stare.

“You’ve been asking the wrong question, General.”

“Have I? Tell me a better one.”

“How was Gerzier able to alter the power cell containment fragment you yourself mirrored and brought into vee with you?”

Woolard’s forehead crinkles, puckering the pink flesh between his eyes, and a frown causes his jowls to droop. He blinks at the thought and says, “He shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“An impressive deduction on your part.”

“How DID he do that?”

“See? That’s a much better question, isn’t it? You may go now.”


“You may go. Now.”

Woolard takes a couple steps toward the nearest door before pausing with a confounded expression. He mumbles something, presses a bratwurst-size finger to the node behind his ear, and is gone. Folt exits a moment later. Save for the Vice President’s tari, oblivious at the far end of the long room, the space is the abode of phantoms.

“Well, I’ll be darned if that wasn’t worth waiting for,” Benn says. “Who was that guy?”

Denny’s tari rests a hand on the leather-clad shoulder of Braden’s avatar. “Go ahead and take us out, my friend. We’re done here.”

The Vice President’s ceremonial office is redrawn with a smooth fade-in of the greatroom turret, its surrounding transparency, and the endless gray ocean churning beyond. The three men look out across the lagoon at a heavy lifter emerging from what has become a uniform gray distance to dock in one of the platform hanger bays cliffside.

“Eric,” Denny says to the air, “Please replay the last minute of that exchange at two-up and cancel audio. Zero on Folt’s face for me. Good. Freeze that.”

Denny steps in close to Bettencort’s aide, reaching up to frame the man’s features with his hands.

Folt’s not bald, nor shaven-headed, rather his skull is frosted with a fine halo of fuzz. His nose is a beak and his wide mouth is set in a grim line compressed between the thinnest, colorless flesh worthy of the term ‘lips’. Also, the man’s eyeglasses are odd, not the old-school polycarbonate lenses they initially appeared from a distance. Whatever they are, they exhibit a subtle honeycomb pattern. Discernible behind them are what appear to be leaden gray eyes.

“Let’s not guess. Find him for us, Eric. We need to know what we’re up against.”

Eric’s reply takes a few seconds longer than expected. “Initial search criteria return nothing but a stock bio for one Folt Remertson. I’m going to have to excavate a bit. I’ll ping you.”

“Thanks, Eric,” Denny says. “By the way, that was a startling piece of street magic you performed for the General. I was impressed, as were they all. I can’t help thinking you had help with that.” He leans in closer to Braden. “You don’t think you tipped our hand a little, do you?”

“They needed it,” Eric says. “They were starting to believe they had us figured out. Close to making dumb decisions because of it. Now they don’t know what to think again.”

The dwarf swivels his seat toward Denny. “I agree with him. Let’s focus on the task. The fact Chernovich’s government is willing to make this overture is momentous. I intend to make their problem go away without fireworks or fanfare. Eleven hours fifty and counting down.”

“We know you’ve got this one,” Denny says.

The dwarf slips his goggles back into place and says, “Gotta run,” taps behind his ear and is gone, yet his face beams from the open virtual portal framed in Denny’s hands. “I’ll check in when we’re in position,” he says.

His image cross-fades back into Mr. Folt’s hatchet-faced portrait.

Benn’s peering over Denny’s shoulder. “He’s such a show-off.”

Denny dissolves the vorp. “You’d be too if you could do what he does.”

“No I wouldn’t. I’d be a pain in the ass.”

     ~   ~

Who Wants Pie?

In Japan, following the horrific destruction by earthquake and tsunami in the year two thousand eleven, a forbidding tableau continues to play out and, in all likelihood, will do so for centuries to come.

Within the dead zone of the damaged Fukushima reactors, ghost towns like Futaba, Namie, and Tomioka, once home to many thousands, have become wild laboratories. In them, nature strives to devise a new code. Bound and bent by conditions she would never have been able to forge on her own, a wounded Earth seeks viable combinations able to survive life-denying contamination and reclaim that which Man has, of necessity, forsaken.

And still, Mankind has yet to complete its ongoing efforts to foul the environment beyond hope of redemption, or survival.

Rivers of cars and trucks flow in endless procession across the land. Great floating vessels, heavy with lading, traverse the seas. Rail and winged containers packed with cargo, both corporeal and inanimate, are flung across the map of civilization. Gears mesh and turn. The hands of clocks circuit in ceaseless sequence, paced, patient precision marking out a cadence to which all but the most displaced in society will march.

This explicit synchronization drives the great globe-spanning Corporations—artificial, yet fully invested beings made of legal documents and money.

Like feral children, they are unconstrained id and profligate ego rampant. Unaware they are, in fact, hypothetical constructs, devoid of conscience and yet somehow like us, they will commit any act to prove they are “real” and secure their cold legacy.

The appetites of these non-human entities are insatiable, a bottomless hunger for souls and energy. Souls are cheap. Energy, as it turns out, is not, and all collateral expense and damage in the pursuit of more of it is impersonal. 

Business and its partner, Industry, strive to provide for every conceivable human need, play to an interminable demand for diversion, and cater to a spectrum of profitable personality disorders. Industry’s demand on natural resources is the price of its unparalleled contribution to human comfort, and human suffering, while unfortunate, is an acceptable component of its effluent, an unadvertised bi-product of its prodigious output. Production and waste, yin and yang, universal balance manifest.

A population that dreams of reaching the stars stacks itself, one on top of the other, in an effort to climb over its neighbor to accomplish the feat, piercing the sky, yet continuing repeatedly to miss the celestial mark.

In response, a petulant civilization consoles itself with comforts and distractions. Those living higher on the heap, closer to heaven, more richly blessed by the Gods, pose. Their grace and beauty, their acumen, their contributions to the whole of humankind, if only by their superlative example, are their legacy. Therefore, they have been rewarded more generously, not only by the very Gods themselves, but by every single individual supporting them from below. Whether by divine right, or popular acquiescence, they will reap the ripest fruits, the tenderest cuts, the most luxurious appointments, and the shiniest accoutrements. Conversely, those beneath, depending on their proximity to either the penthouses or the sewers, are welcome to whatever trickles down.

In mankind’s unrelenting hunger for energy, fast food, and cheap commodities in sturdy, disposable plastic packaging, the Great Mother has been punctured, cracked open and plumbed, scraped raw, scooped out, poisoned, pissed on, and left for dead.

Looks like our job is nearly done here. Who wants pie?

      ~      ~

Originally published in the second annual anthology issue of “Groundwaters” in 2016. I found it in an ‘Unsorted’ folder and brushed it off a bit. [TOTH and/or apologies to Dennis Miller.]  ~DRLE

Reveries —

Say now, this card here’s face down. Ain’t that interesting and borderline mysterious? Reckon it to be the hole card, and don’tcha wonder what it is? Well, let’s go ahead and just take a peek at it, shall we?

The Long Branch is a lively place with a five-piece band providing musical background to the spirited goings-on. Although it’s still early evening, the crew is lucky to find an unoccupied table there and goes about holding chairs down with their backsides while Mister Kunkle springs for a bottle of good whiskey and sets it down with a clutch of glasses.

Jonas declines. He doesn’t like all the things that make drinking whiskey so attractive to everyone else, no matter how smooth anyone says it is. You can’t rightly call it a ‘taste’ when it burns all the way from your tonsils to your toenails, dulls your senses, upsets your stomach, and blurs all perception. Neither does he care for the morning after, that least of all. He turns the glass placed in front of him upside down before it can be filled and rises from his seat.

“What’s a matter, Two Dogs? Y’ain’t drinkin’ with us?” That’s Leland.

Bob Kunkle stops pouring and looks after Jonas.

“No coffin varnish fer me. Clouds my judgment.”

“That’s the general idea,” Kunkle says with a laugh.

“Thanks just the same, Mister Kunkle.”

“It’s just ‘Bob’ tonight, son.”

“Thought I’d get me a beer, Bob. Somebody mind my seat.”

Budge downs his shot and, seeing Bob still looking after Jonas’s retreating back and braid, reaches up and taps the bottle in Bob’s hand with his glass.

Bob looks down at Budge. Budge holds up the glass. Thunder rolls out across the prairie.

Jonas weaves between a couple tables toward the bar. A few patrons are bellied up to it, their animated conversations adding to the growing din that will, in time, threaten to drown out the band’s renditions of popular good-timey tunes. Polite dialogue will have to be conducted at a near-shout and it’s often not far from polite shouting to just plain shouting, followed by the throwing of hands and the hasty ejection of those engaged in undiplomatic pursuits, preferably before the breaking of the furniture commences. You get the idea. Welcome to Dodge City, pilgrim.

There’s a fair layer of tobacco smoke hanging heavy from the high ceiling in the long main room of the saloon. Placed at discrete intervals throughout that blue-white cloud, several oil lamp fixtures provide adequate lighting to see the pips on one’s cards at any of the tables arranged below.

Seven or eight cowboys laid together end to end might reach from one end of the bar to the other. By the end of a rowdy night like this one’s shaping up to be, you could probably find seven or eight cowboys already prostrate; all you gotta do then’s just line ’em up.

The barkeep demonstrates his maintenance of the top’s high gloss by sopping up a ring of moisture with a rag and buffing the spot with a dry cloth. He’s done it so many times he doesn’t even register the act in his consciousness, much like scratching his manicured beard, or tweezing his ill-fitting underwear from the sweaty terrain of his nethers.

Behind him are a couple framed pictures of somebody or other. They bracket a large mirror with the business end of a Texas Longhorn mounted atop it. The horns are about twice as wide as a man’s outstretched arms; one big sumbitch, that one was. Any true Texan, of course, would tell you that one’s a juvenile, and obviously a runt as well.

“What can I get ya, drover,” says the barkeep. He’d seen this one come in with the MacDee boys and, despite his personal opinion of persons of native extraction, his demeanor’s professional enough.

“Nice place.”

“Not a better one in Dodge.”

“Hear tell you’ve got cold beer.”

“That’s a fact. We have ice and the beer’s positively frigid. Quarter a pint.”

“Well, that sounds a fair trade.” Jonas spins a quarter on the bar. “How do ya get ice?”

“We manage,” the barkeep says, taps the beer and, by the time the coin stops spinning, passes over a tall frosted glass with a perfect head on it.

Jonas takes a long pull on it. Cold as mountain spring water, it goes down with a near-bitter, hoppy flavor that almost draws a grimace. It has a surprising, nutty aftertaste, though.

He wipes the froth from his upper lip. “That’s practically a miracle.” He lays another quarter on the bar. “Pretty sure I’m gonna need another’n.”

Elbow on the bar, sipping at the frosty brew, Jonas surveys the assortment of patrons spread out around the long room.

Four men are clustered together at the bar drinking and talking amongst themselves, cowhands. Another three at the end of the bar playing chuck-a-luck using an hour-glass shaped wire basket called, if memory serves, a birdcage, conjured to minimize complaints against unscrupulous hosts rolling trick dice.

There’s the beginning of a crowd around the faro table against the wall between the entrance and the bar, a prime spot worth a handsome percentage to the Long Branch from the fellow running the bank there. He looks shifty to Jonas’s eyes, but his game’s a popular one.

In the foreground there’s a couple unoccupied tables, recently vacated, and another two with men playing cards around drinks and finger-food. Beeson’s band on the opposite wall is just putting their instruments aside for a spell to wet their whistles and have a smoke.

To the rear of the hall, more tables are arranged, a few already occupied. Seated at one of them close by are the men of his outfit, still sharing the bottle Kunkle bought for them. They’re not here to get stupid-drunk. Not on purpose, anyway. To be sure, that’ll no doubt happen somewhat later this evening at the Lone Star dance hall. This here’s just a chance for them to grease the chute.

A couple of other tables in the rear seem to be manned by locals, a better-dressed sort, keeping to themselves. They’re not here to ‘see the elephant’, in the parlance of the just-passin’-through. This is their elephant and they see it every day. No, they’re just not ready to go home yet, that’s all. In fact, if there’s any circus in town, it remains the constant cavalcade of itinerants, most here for a couple-three days at best, then gone and forgotten, to be replaced soon enough by more just like them.

More people are coming in through the bat-wing doors to get out of the rain that’s starting to pelt down from a slate-dark sky.

Jonas notices Leland and the ‘Colonel’ traipsing through the crowd to take a turn at the faro table. Bob Kunkle’s behind them as well and stops to put a friendly hand on Jonas’s shoulder.

“Son, I just wanted to tell you something,” he says. “You’re one hell of a ranny and none here would dispute that. Calum thinks very highly of you and that’s saying something. He’s sorry to see you go, but he asked me to make sure you’re off to a good start. I know you had travel arrangements to make, that’s why I had Budge pay you in full this morning. I have another twenty dollars to help you on your way. Calum says he hopes if things don’t work out for you down there, you’ll come back. Personally, I don’t suppose we’re going to see you again, so … well, I wanted to wish you luck and a safe journey.”

The elder businessman has a right firm handshake and palms the proffered twenty-dollar piece into Jonas’s hand.

“Thank you kindly, Bob. I’m grateful. You know I already said my goodbyes to Mister MacDonough and Missus Anne. Meant what I said at supper. And I truly appreciate the bonus.”

Jonas holds onto the older man’s hand a moment longer. Something… just a little farther ahead, something troublesome, has suggested itself.

“You’re welcome, Jonas. You watch your ass out there, son. That’s wild country,” Kunkle says and turns to make his way to the faro table.


Only mildly inebriated and in no particular hurry, Kunkle turns back. “What is it, son?”

There’s a well-practiced reluctance in him to let on about what his knowing shows him, but he likes the man. “This here’s wild country, too. Later tonight, if someone tells you about a… I don’t know, some kind of real good deal. A once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-miss opportunity and wants you to come outside where it’s quieter to talk about it… just don’t.”

For a minute, Kunkle’s stumped. His gray-bearded jaw works as though he thinks he ought to be saying something, but can’t figure out what. There doesn’t seem any humor hiding in Jonas’s face. At last, all he can do is nod and say, “Is that all?”

“Just try to keep a couple o’ the boys around you when you’re comin’ and goin’ tonight. Okay?”

Once more a pause and questing look, just to make sure Jonas isn’t pulling his leg. No, he’s heard something somewhere about this man and his intuition.

“Okay. Thank you, Jonas. I will. “

“See ya do.”

Jonas watches him join Leland and Stick at the gaming table. A fair-size crowd has been drawn in around the bank, jostling now to place bets. He’s both baffled and amused by the peculiar antics of these players. That they’re so eager to trade their hard-earned money just to see a random pattern of cards turned up on the remote possibility the result might be fortunate seems plain contrary to good sense.

His interest is lured by a burly mountain of a man there among the punters at the faro table, easily a disheveled, hatless head and shoulders above the rest of the bunch and almost as broad as any two of them. Not a drover, surely. A man that size might break a horse’s hocks were he to mount up.

Shaggy hair and heavy dark beard, little piggy eyes, he looks like a grizzly bear. But it’s not the man’s size, or appearance that’s drawn his attention as much as it’s the anger radiating from him. He’s drinking and, from the sound of him airing his lungs over there, losing too.

Jonas has a sudden glimpse of the man’s face, just inches from his own, snarling with bared, bad teeth and he flinches, slopping beer onto the floor even as the image dissolves.

“Ah beg yoah pahdon theuh, drovuh. Ah hope ah didn’t stahtull yoo.”

Jonas recognizes the well-dressed gentleman near his elbow at the bar as one of the three men he had observed playing brag at a nearby table before his brief, disquieting vision.

“No. Reckon I was wool-gatherin’. Get any on ya?”

“Not at all, suh. Ah am drah as a bone.” A pregnant pause ensues as the gambler looks across the bar, clears his throat with a noisy cough into a white kerchief and enunciates, louder this time, “Ah say, ah am drah as a bone!”

Several thirsty customers farther down the polished surface, the bartender is scooping coinage into his apron pocket and pouring. He snatches up a shot glass, fills it on the fly and deposits it in front of the dapper Southerner.

“Thank you, Benjamin. Yoo ahh a credit to yoah profession.”

Benjamin’s response is all but drowned out by a chorus of exultant shouts from the faro table to the accompaniment of groans and curses. A couple cowboys, just in out of the downpour outside, are shaking themselves off near the end of the bar and calling out for the ‘bar dawg’. He hustles away to attend them.

Jonas regards the fellow next to him. Physically a mite smaller than himself, the man exudes a confident, commanding presence. His crown of ash-blond hair is contrasted by a dark moustache that angles over curling lips, masking the unintentional appearance of a sneer that’s purely congenital. His nose fits his face.  The real puzzler, though, is his eyes. Intense and wickedly intelligent, they are nonetheless red-rimmed and rheumy. His skin is pasty, waxy-looking. The man coughs into a kerchief, a damp barking sound. He dabs at his lips before folding the cloth upon itself one-handed and into his vest pocket.

The fellow presents the archetypal appearance of a well-bred southern gentleman in crisp white shirt with a silk tie and vest atop pressed black-striped trousers bloused into polished boots. Of course, people tend to show the face they want you to see, don’t they?

Jonas’s grandfather taught him they have another face and how to look for it. He called it the ‘spirit-man’. This one’s spirit-face, shows him a decisive individual, as quick and dangerous as a rattlesnake coiled next to him here at the bar, casual-like.

The gentleman empties his drink, gesturing with the glass at the room in general before placing it with a deliberate thump onto the bartop and muses aloud in a slow, syrupy drawl, “It would appeah to the jaded obsuhvuh, lack mahsayulf, to be a kand of dance. All these solitareh individyools engaged in a slow-motion hoedown of intentional social dis-traction, lubricated by copious amounts of alcoholic beverage and a fond, almost pathological desyuh to be a winnah at somethin’ at least once in theyah miserable lives. Wouldn’t you say?”

Jonas takes another sip and allows, “Reckon I might, if I thought ta put all them words together at once.”

Now those intense eyes turn back to Jonas. “Yoo appeah to be a man of some native heritage, ahh yoo not?”

“Most places these days, that’s not considered fashionable. Maybe let’s talk about the weather instead, why don’t we?”

“Yoah appearance belies yoah naychuh, suh, that’s all. No offayense intayunded. Wheah do yoo hail from, if yoo don’t mahnd mah askin’?”

“Dakota Territory by way of Saint Joseph. You?”

“Antebellum Jawjuh, by way of Philadelphia and every shithole saloon and den of iniquiteh between Dallas and Deadwood befoah mah recent advent heah in this  beacon of cosmo-politan societeh. And yoo, suh, ahh a gentleman foah askin’.” He extends a pale hand. “John Holliday, Dee Dee Ess, at yoah suvice.”

Jonas straightens long enough to participate in the learned ritual of courteous introduction and the obligatory shaking of hands. “Jonas Goff. Pleasure, Mister Holliday,” the rote reply. Holliday’s hand seems listless and cool.

Without prompting, the barkeep has re-filled the gambler’s glass. He knocks it back as if it was mother’s milk and replaces it with affection on the smooth hardwood, all the while scanning Jonas’s face. Without looking away, he flicks a finger, scooting the glass across the bar. It skims to a halt in front of the bartender. To Jonas he says, “Mah frayends call me ‘Doc’. Oah they would, if ah had eneh.”

As if rehearsed, one of the players occupying a table close at hand cranes back in his seat and calls out, “Hey, Doc! You playin’ or what?”

“Oh deah,” Holliday says to Jonas. ” Would yoo cayuh to join us in a game of chance, Mistah Goff?”

Jonas resumes his recline against the bar, and takes another long draught from his beer. The bartender, Benjamin, has refilled Holliday’s glass and set it next to the man’s elbow.

“Thank ya kindly, Mister Holliday. I hope you won’t think me rude if I decline.”

“Piteh.” This time Holliday allows the liquor to trickle down his throat. “Dakota Territoreh, yuh say? That would sugjayest …” he pauses, ruminating, “… Siouxan parentage, if ah’m not mistayken. They ahh curentleh a feus and angreh people, causin’ all mannuh of commotion.”

Jonas’s response is barely audible over the hubbub around him, “They always were fierce. As to ‘angry’, well I reckon they’re that now, too.” He gives Holliday a meaningful look. “How ’bout that weather?”

“Yayus. Do yoo suppose it will evah stop raynin’?”

“Always does.”

“Goddammit, Doc!” Again from the impatient fellow at the nearby table. “You comin’ back ‘r what? You got a lot o’ my money ‘n’ I aims to get it back from ya. It’s yore deal. “

Holliday replaces his empty glass on the bar, turns to address the anxious one seated at the table. His features and voice are placid, unlike the ferocity in his eyes.

“A little decorum please, Mistah Tuhnuh. Ah admiah yoah optimism, suh, but if yoo will kindly obsuve, ah am currentleh engaged in polite convusation with my good fraynd heah and takin’ refreshmint. Yoo may continue without me foah now. Ah assuah yoo ah will retuhn strayt-away to collect the remainduh of yoah foahchoon.”

He endures another brief fit of wet coughing into his kerchief, then with a deep breath, leans back against the bar in a reasonable duplication of Jonas’s posture. He gestures with a pale hand. “That theyuh is a daisy of a shuht, if ah do say so.”

So engaged is Jonas listening to Holliday’s lyrical, silver-tongued discourse, he nearly fails to step out of the path of the man-mountain he observed at the faro table earlier, bulling his way between the two of them. A huge hand swallows up Holliday’s still empty glass from the bar and bangs it on the polished surface. The barkeep looks up from his current station farther down the line, “Hold yer horses there, galoot. I’m comin’.”

The creature makes a noise that sounds like a growl.

The barkeep, determining that expeditious satisfaction of this one’s immediate needs will be most beneficial for all, positions himself in front of the giant. The beast holds Holliday’s empty shot glass up, like a gnat trapped between thumb and forefinger, and grumbles, “Whiskey. Bigger’n nat.”

Benjamin plucks the glass from the man’s paw and magics it out of sight under the counter. A pint pilsner is filled with lightning and he waits, does Benjamin the barkeep, even as thunder booms across the prairie, for the obligatory coinage to hit the bar before he hands it over. Another shot is placed in front of Holliday.

Jonas watches the big man’s hand engulf his glass and pour the contents of it through a narrow slot in his beard beneath his flattened nose. A shudder runs through the enormous frame as the wave of liquor shocks its way down into his gut and he utters a low bestial roar that turns heads. His head turns, too, mean piggy eyes fixing on Jonas.

“What’re you lookin’ at?”

“Can’t rightly say,” says Jonas. “I ain’t a scientist.”

“Huh?” The bear glowers without comprehension and is in the process of deciding whether this flea might be more entertaining if it were squashed flat.

“Aye beg yoah pahdun, suh,” Holliday says, reaching up to tap the man’s broad shoulder. Jonas steps back a pace to give the big fellow room to do a creditable, if aggressive about-face, accomplished with barely a wobble.

“Whadda you want?”

“Ah believe yoah very intelligent, albeit, grammaticaleh flawed inquireh has left mah frayend heah castin’ about foah a rejoinduh. Ah suspect he has suitable foahmal trainin’ with which to foahmulate an appropriate replah, but moah than likeleh, he simpleh has the good mannuhs to keep his response to himsayelf. Ah, on the other haynd, have a suffishenceh of the foahmah and none at all of the lattah. If yoo will permit meh, ah will endeavah to respond to yoah quereh in layman’s tuhms.”

The giant stares at Holliday as if from a great distance, squinting through a haze, breathing through his beard.

“Hwat he’s ‘lookin’ at’, as yoo have so eloquentleh framed it, is the product of an unfoahtunate con-gress—an act of tuhpitude between a woman, no doubt beyond huh prime childbearin’ yeahs and of questionable moral fibah, and a prahmate of distinctleh simian charactuh.”

At first, the fellow rankles at too many words he doesn’t understand coming in an unbroken stream and he’s just seconds from reaching out with his skillet-sized hands to make the words stop when Holliday’s voice seems to penetrate the thick growth of hair in his ears. A scowl furrows the big man’s brow as he looks around the saloon in bewilderment, striving to remember what led him, besides whiskey, to this moment of unaccustomed vexation. He turns back to Jonas, looking him up and down with a sneer.

At eye level, Jonas is looking into the man’s chest. Thick brown hair spills out from the open front of a ragged flannel shirt.

“Indins killed my pa an’ my brother. Took my sister away t’make ‘er their squaw.” The grizzled face leans down inches from his, snarling. “You got Indin stink on ya.”

Huge fists ball up, ready to pummel the half-breed into a mudhole. The bear-man’s intention and breath are lethal.

“What’s her name?” Jonas asks.


“Your sister.”

“What ’bout my sister?”

“What’s her name?”

“Uh…? Charlotte.”

“That’s a pretty name. Do you remember her face?”


“Do you remember what Charlotte looks like?”

The scowl has withered. A long pause, during which the snorting breath through his oft-broken nose slows, ends in a drawl, “Yeah, kinda. She was little.”

“She looked up to you. And you looked after her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I s’pose I…. What’re ya…?”

“It weren’t your fault, ya know.”

“What? What weren’t?”

“There was too many of ’em. You blame yourself for not bein’ able to help Charlotte; you blame yourself for livin’ when the others died and there was nothing you could do. It wasn’t your fault.”

“How duhya …?” His brow’s pinched. A frown remains, but one of confusion and an awakening grief never far from the surface of his consciousness, not yet washed away by the whiskey. Jonas can see it in the man’s eyes as his sorrow replays itself in his mind.

“You were scared, but you fought ‘em anyway.”

The distance of years is in the bear’s eyes now. His voice is a low rumble, the timbre of the thunder outside. In this one’s throat it amounts to a whisper and the word seem to tremble out of him. “Oh, I was sore afraid. Kilt me a couple of ’em afore I heard her screamin’…”

“Callin’ out your name.”

Something catches in the bear’s throat and hangs there. “Screamin’ fer me ta save ‘er. But they was a’ready ridin’ off with ‘er an’ all our hosses.” His musket-ball eyes have tears in them.

The giant looks in Jonas’s eyes and sees nothing there but a reflection of his own unquenchable sadness. The fight has gone out of him.

Jonas can feel the presence behind him; not a threat, of that he’s sure. He watches the big fellows eyes dart away from him to the new arrival.

Holliday’s turned his attention that way as well and his voice is cheerful. “Weyull, this is a pleasant suh-prise. Good eav’nin’, mahshal.”

“Gentlemen,” says the voice behind him and Holliday makes introductions as if the behemoth between them was nothing more than a shadow.

“Mistah Goff, this heah’s Chahleh Bassett, town mahshal. Mahshal, this heah is mah good frayend, Mistah Goff.”

Bassett’s “Howdy,” in response is perfunctory and he doesn’t offer a hand.

“We wuh just havin’ a pleasant convuhsashun with this sagebrush Goliath heah about the…”

“Can it, Doc. You got some’m else to do?”

“Not pah-ticulahleh.”

Bassett turns his attention to the looming bear-man. His voice and bearing are stern.

“Tommy, what did I tell you about mixin’ it up with the customers in here?”

Abashed, eyes downcast, the giant says, “Not ta.”

“An’ what did I do last time you started a fuss?”

“Throwed me inna jail.”

“You like it there, didja?”

“No, sir.”

“All right, you get on outta here now. I mean it. Go home.”


“Don’t let me see you again tonight. An’ you know you’re not hard to spot.”

“Yessir. Kin I finish this here drink first?”

“You had enough. Off with you now.”

Tommy’s adequate bulk revolves and he begins his slow trek toward the exit, careful not to jostle anyone in the process. Bassett doesn’t bother watching him go, instead gives Jonas the stinkeye. Pointing to the bone-handled knife at Jonas’s belt, he says, “You’re not likely to unsheathe that toothpick, are you?”

“It would not occur to me to do so in such gracious company, Marshal.”

“Then, good evening to you both,” he says with finality and steps off to say his howdy-dos to some of the locals at the back of the room.

“Weyull, suh,” says Holliday. They’re both watching Tommy standing just inside the bat-wing doors as a couple cowboys let themselves out, adjusting their hats and attire against the wind-driven rain. He’s looking out as lightning crashes, illuminating the downpour drenching the town and turning the street beyond into a shallow mud river. “Ah have now officialleh seen evreh-thang. Ah thought he was gonna squash you lack a grape at a squayuh dance. You ahh a sorsuhruh.”

“My pa taught me it’s a better choice not ta hurt someone if ya don’t haffta.”

“Ah’d say you huht that fella about as deep as he’s evuh been.”

“Nah. He’s been carryin’ that around with him for a long time.”

“Indayd. Well, mah hat is off to you, suh,” and remove his hat he does. “And ah retract mah uhliuh offuh to join owuh little game. No offeyence, but ah don’t believe ah want to gamble with you, if you take mah meanun.”

He glances at the table nearby. An empty chair there with his frock coat folded over the back beckons and he smiles. “Now if you will excuse meh, ah must finish shearin’ these heah poe lost lambs befoah they scampuh off. It has been a distinct pleashah to mike yoah acquaintance, Mistuh Goff. Fayuh you weyull, suh.”

Again the deceptively limp handshake.

Beyond Holliday’s retreating back, Jonas witnesses an unexpected tableau unfold. Gigantic Tommy, about to step out into the tempest, collides with a much smaller, if equally furious storm rushing in out of the rain. The big man’s unmoved, but the smaller fellow finds himself on his back on the boardwalk and scrambles up with a rage far greater than his diminutive size. Jonas hears Rubin Strawn’s shrill voice shouting into Tommy’s belly, “Jeezus fuckin’ Christ! You goddam Texans are like flies!”

A rattle and roll of thunder masks Tommy’s growling reply.

“No …” Squirrel’s voice is clear enough, though. “… cuz ya eat shit an’ bother people! Now git outta my fuckin’ way, ya big, dumb, hairy buffalo turd!”

A hand almost the size of an iron beaver trap gently bunches itself into the front of Squirrel’s slicker. The swinging doors flap a couple times and, as they come to rest, both men are gone into the night. The band starts up again with a lively rendition of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’.

It would seem Holliday noticed the exchange in the doorway, meeting Jonas’s eyes with a bemused look before seating himself to reassert his influence over what some call a game of chance.

Jonas looks to the rear of the saloon where Marshal Charlie Bassett has been holding forth with some of the community fathers and either did not observe the brief altercation at the door, or did not care to intervene. Handshakes around now, he’s about to continue his rounds.

Newell is at Jonas’s side. “Good riddance to ya.” He offers a half-grin and claps Jonas’s shoulder. “Keep yer hair on longasya can.” His amble toward the table where Holliday just sat down looks confident.

Benjamin taps a last, ice-cold beer for Jonas, buffs a blot of liquor from the bar, hitches his drawers and moves on to engage a loquacious old-timer in idle chit-chat between calls. Jonas’s fellows are warmed up now and off to the dance hall and surrounds for some merry-making and carousing. He’s got a train to catch in the morning. So-longs and good-lucks are exchanged. There are no futile promises to keep in touch; it is still, after all, a big, wild country.

The heart of the storm has moved further out onto the plain, although showers persist. Jonas has no aversion to the rain and is in no real hurry to escape it. He’s halfway back to the Wright House when sounds from behind of booted feet running on the boardwalk cause him to step aside into the doorway of a shop. The marshal hurries past with a younger man in tow.

Bassett’s saying, “How long ago?”

“I just finded ‘im,” says the other. “Couldn’t be more’n a couple minutes an’ I comed right away ta git ya, Marshal.”

Both men cut between two buildings into a narrow alley as a third man comes running from the other direction with a kerosene lantern and follows them in.

Jonas is right behind.

The third fellow, a deputy in black long-coat, wide flat-brimmed hat, and sporting a walrus moustache, holds the light up as Bassett kneels down in the mud beside a body stretched out face-down. It’s not the body Jonas expected they’d find. The deputy’s asking the young man what he saw.

“I jist finded ‘im like this.”

“What were you doing back here?”

“Finished my chores at Mister Hoover’s store an’ goin’ ta home. Honest I was. Hear’d a tussle an’ hollerin’ ‘n’, ya know, figgered I’d look-see.”

“See anybody else?”

“It were purty dark. Lightnin’ real far off, though and might’a seed a man walkin’ off ‘atta way.” The youngster points down the dark alleyway.

“What did he look like?”

“I dunno.”

Bassett’s heard enough. “Give me some more light here, Wyatt.”

Even before Bassett manages to roll the huge corpse over, Jonas knows it’s Tommy’s body lying there in the mud. No question about it. The thing he isn’t prepared for, the thing none of them are prepared for, is the shocking fright-mask of Tommy’s dead face.

Eyes are bulging and bloody, blood has poured from his ruptured ears, mud and blood have matted his beard and saturated the front of his shirt and trousers. His lower jaw has been pulled out of its sockets and some of his teeth are scattered about on the ground along with a smooth, blood-slicked mass of tissue big as a fist.

Bassett recoils and drops the grisly remains with a splash and a curse.

The shambles of Tommy’s face stares uncomprehending into the rain and for just an unnerving instant, as distant lightning paints the clouds overhead fluorescent, his protruding bloody eyeballs seem to shine out with an eerie glow.

“Dear Mother of God,” the marshal whispers to no one in particular.

The youngster is emptying the contents of his stomach against the nearby wall.

The deputy, holding the lantern high, is a dispassionate one, studying the thing with the devastated face and the area around it for evidence.

“Charlie,” he says through the soup-strainer on his upper lip, “look’s as though someone reached down his throat and pulled his heart out.”

“Is… is that even possible?”

Pointing, “Well, there it is.”

“See any tracks?”

“I’d say we’ve stirred this mudhole plenty good enough. I’ll look further up the way after we get this poor bastard out of the rain.”

“Jeb!” Bassett calls to the younger man, “Jeb, damn it, boy! Snap out of it and give us a hand gettin’ this mess inside. Grab his legs.”

“N-no! No, sir, I ain’t touchin’ that!”

“Stop acting like a damn idiot. It’s just a body and we can’t leave it layin’ here. Now help us pick him up.”

Backing away now. “Huh uh!”

Jonas steps into the light and, reaching down, begins to gather up Tommy’s legs.

Bassett, having failed to mark Jonas’s presence before this moment, registers his surprise with a sincere, “What the bloody Hell?”

“I reckon that’s more right than you know, Marshal,” Jonas says. “Where we takin’ ‘im?”

Bassett recovers his bearing. “Jeb, you get your sorry ass over to Doc Milburn’s and wake him up. Have him meet us at the jail. Wyatt, leave the lantern for now and grab a side. This ox weighs a ton. And you, Mister… Goff, isn’t it?” He grips under a massive, lifeless shoulder and lifts with a groan. “Out to the street and go right.”

.      .      .

[All right, I will admit to violating Elmore Leonard’s rule about the use of patois. I did it with full intention and, I’d like to think, a degree of discretion in the reader’s favor. Castigate me if you will, but I stand by my dialog as written. There, I said it.  ~DRLE ]

.      .      .


Well before dawn, Jonas finds his grandfather making preparations for their journey. Crows Come Around is there, too, receiving last minute instructions from her father while Jonas brings up the horses. Before first light, the camp is behind them.

Early on the third day, Standing Elk brings Jonas inside the roughly circular ring of stones upthrust from the earth like the fingers of a giant hand. They sing together the songs his grandfather taught him as a smaller circle is defined using stones gathered from nearby. This circle is almost wide enough for Jonas to lie down inside it if he curls up some. Around this his grandfather sprinkles tobacco and sage and tells Jonas he is not to step outside the circle except to go to the bushes. A sturdy digging stick is laid beyond the circle for that purpose.

The old man hands Jonas his drum, then assembles his canunpa and loads it while Jonas drums and sings the pipe-filling song. His youthful voice carries far, although there is no one within miles to hear it. Holding the pipe out in both hands, Standing Elk presents it to Jonas. Lastly, he gives Jonas a smooth pebble about the size of the tip of his little finger.

“The spirit of this sacred pipe is a strong one and will protect you,” Standing Elk says. “The circle in which you stand is sacred and will protect you. If you find yourself becoming afraid, remember these things I have told you. Remain awake and alert at night,” he tells the boy, “and sleep if you must during the day. Pay attention to everything.”

The wicasa wakan turns to leave and Jonas asks, “What about the little rock?”

“When you get thirsty, put it under your tongue and suck on it.”

Jonas watches him ride away leading his own pony behind until they are out of sight.

The days are warm, but when the sun is high, there is no relief from it. Jonas wishes there was some way to save that heat, because the nights are cold. Both seem to stretch on forever. He sings the songs he knows and some he makes up. When he gets cold he dances.

Hunger does not bother him. He finds it easier to ignore than he ever would have imagined possible. Thirst, however, attempts to stalk him at the most unexpected moments. Singing his prayers only makes his mouth drier, but he discovers that if he meets thirst’s onslaught with the inflexible strength of the tiny stone—a fragment, so it tells him, of what was once a mighty boulder, holding yet within it the full extent of that same great, patient power—thirst will retreat for a time.

Late on the fifth day, a storm boils up and stands over him for the longest time, thundering and snapping at him in a furious voice he can almost understand. It pummels him with hard wind and hail. He stands his ground, shivering, holding his grandfather’s canunpa. When Jonas, like the ground around him, is white with a crust of icy pellets, the pelting stops. The storm pauses to take a deep breath, then releases an avalanche of chain lightning striking across the land as far as he can see in every direction accompanied by a cold, soaking rain. Jonas feels the thunder trying to shake him out of his circle. A copse of trees in the distance to the north is shattered by dancing lightning as he looks on.

Jonas decides if Creator is going to send rain in such quantity, some of it is bound to get inside him if he opens his mouth and raises his face to the storm to sing the song the thunder beings are teaching him at this very moment.

The little pebble is pretty good at relieving his thirst. This storm song is better. There is much rumbling and gnashing from above and several more waves of punishing rain wash over Jonas before he learns the words to the song and the storm relents. It moves grumbling away into the darkness. The night is a long and cold one.

The next day dawns clear and bright. The heat of mid-day is most welcome now. He sleeps. Twilight is approaching when he awakens. He goes into the bushes so that he won’t be compelled to leave the protection of his circle later when surrounded by night’s enfolding mysteries. It is well that he does so. It occurs to Jonas as he sets aside the digging stick and returns to his circle, that he has no idea whatsoever, no hint of what is around the bend for him now. The silent knowing that is so natural to him has become, over these last days, an awkward not-knowing. Each new moment has become uncertain and immediate. The slow transition from twilight to deep night seems to take a long time.

There comes an instant where it seems to Jonas the moonless night has fallen with a bone-jarring crash. All of the standing stones come rumbling to the ground around him at once. What he sees and hears as he stands trembling within his alter, alone in the darkness, is a story Jonas himself will have to tell when, and if, he chooses. Terror and wonder circle each other in a dance that reaches across the arc of the night.

In the morning the standing stones are again where they belong as Jonas redistributes the smaller stones of his alter back where they came from. With a glad heart, he offers tobacco and his gratitude, first to Wakan Tanka for this perfect day, next upon the bare ground that has been the center of his universe for the last four days and nights, to Maka Ina for her gift of life. He gives thanks to the Keepers of the Seven Directions for their protection and to his spirit guardians for walking with him on this twisting path.

He cradles the sacred pipe in the crook of his left arm and begins walking in the direction his grandfather set out five days ago. He feels good, as if he could walk all day if necessary.

Less than a mile lies behind him when he sees a lone rider approaching leading a painted pony. When they meet, Standing Elk slips to the ground and motions for Jonas to sit with him. He nods with approval at the young man’s bearing and, without a word, collects his pipe from Jonas’s outstretched arms. A skin bag full of medicine is placed in Jonas’s hands and the old man gestures for him to drink it all. The liquid is vile-tasting, but will make his stomach feel better when it begins to wake up. He gags down the last of it.

His grandfather nods again in approval, opens a small cloth bag and shakes several choke-cherries out into Jonas’s hand. Jonas is sure he will never forget the extraordinary tang of the juice on his tongue as the fruit pops between his teeth. Likewise the sweetness of the cold water running down his throat from a stream some miles further on as they make their way back to their band’s encampment.

There remain miles to go and they ride through the tall grass single file with Standing Elk in the lead. The afternoon sun is beginning its long slide to meet the western horizon and the gentle rocking of his pony’s gait is soothing. Jonas’s earlier energy has waned, but sleep will not be possible for some time yet. He begins to hum a song to himself. It has a melody unfamiliar to Standing Elk and he listens as his grandson repeats it four times without alteration. Without turning to look back, the old man speaks for the first time since they reunited.

“What is that song, Jonas Two Dogs?”

“The thunder beings taught it to me in the storm the night before last, Grandfather,” he says.

They ride on in silence for a time. Without looking back, Standing Elk says, “There was no storm night before last.”

When the two return to the camp, Crows Come Around has prepared a thick berry soup called wojapi and roasted meat for them. Jonas defers to the elder, of course, who declines, insisting instead that Jonas is the honored one this night. Later, the two of them sweat alone in the initi and talk about what Jonas has seen. They smoke the canunpa Standing Elk filled and handed to Jonas five days ago, followed by a brief water ceremony at the creek. At last, exhausted and wrapped up warm in his own buffalo robe, Jonas sleeps like the dead.

The next morning when he awakens, everything has been made ready for them. Jonas and Burns Red meet at the south edge of the encampment where it seems most of the band has turned out to see them off.

Old Ghost Horse sits astride his warhorse at the rear of the gathering like a granite wall. Coarse black hair streaked in white cascades over copper skin almost the same color as his buckskin breeches. They, like his moccasins, have been decorated with elaborate quill-work. In spite of the chill autumn morning, his chest is covered from neck to navel only by a buffalo bone hairpipe breastplate. His headdress is an imposing bonnet of eagle feathers trailing down his back – each one earned over a lifetime as a canny hunter, a formidable warrior, and a clear-headed, decisive leader.

Jonas’s pony capers, impatient to be away, as his father secures their few bundled belongings to the military saddle on his own horse, a good-natured paint mare provided for this journey by his hunka father, Tajuska. The saddle is the same one that carried him into the world of the People thirteen years ago. Now, however, his injury makes riding even more laborious and painful than walking. Leaving behind his beloved wife and all those he’s come to care for notwithstanding, the assured agony of the long journey ahead fills him with an unanticipated aversion, as though any more need be added to the heart-sickness he can barely contain within himself and is determined to conceal.

Life among these people has shown him that they take everything life gives them with seeming equanimity. They do not wear their emotions for all to see. He would not think of embarrassing himself or his family by doing any less.

Burns Red steps away from his horse and stands as straight as possible to meet the two men approaching him. Two Bears remains an imposing figure. The years have not softened his heavy-muscled physique and he carries himself with all the unself-conscious confidence of his namesake. The ugly scar below his right shoulder blends into the lattice of scars on his chest from numerous Sun Dances. Beside him, Clouds Dancing’s sinuous frame looks almost frail, although it is not, and he strives to keep pace with his larger companion. His limp is conspicuous. Burns Red greets both men as brothers.

Clouds Dancing has brought an elk robe and, in typical style, throws it into Burns Red’s arms with a grunt. Sentimentality is not to be found among warriors. The fur is long and luxurious and firmly held, although the hide itself has been worked with great patience until it feels as soft and supple as a baby’s skin.

Two Bears gives Burns Red a fine smoked leather sheath for the bone-handled knife he once used to part Burns Red’s scalp. The heavy material is laced with stiff rawhide and looks like it will last forever.

Behind the big man, his half-side, Sweet Water, looks to Crows Come Around with a question in her eyes. Crows nods approval and the other woman hands Burns Red a small bundle made of woven reeds. It’s filled with pemmican for the journey. Burns Red reaches out to each of them in turn, brushing their fingers with his own, offering his thanks with a sincere, “Pilamaya yo.”

Jonas is aware of Standing Elk’s imposing presence in front of him. The face his grandfather shows him is filled with warmth and approval. The fingertips of the old holy man’s left hand tap once firmly upon Jonas’s forehead, the other against Jonas’s heart. He reverses them and thumps his parting instruction into the boy. Without another word, he turns away seeking out Burns Red and the two of them stand apart from the group for a while, speaking together in quiet tones.

Tajuska looks on. His stoic countenance betrays none of his dismay at Burns Red’s departure, yet another son taken from him by the unfathomable workings of Spirit. Many Tears is inconsolable, although one would not know it from her stony expression if one did not look to see the salty streams in the crevices of her face. She makes not a sound.

Jonas’s sister, who the others have begun to call Whirlwind, stands before him hugging her shawl around her. A willowy girl, her fine features and wavy hair are characteristic of her mother’s lineage, but the intensity in her dark eyes is all Lakota. She reaches out a fist and thumps it against his chest.

“If you do not save this Turtle Island, Brother,” she warns him, “I will be very disappointed in you.”

In her hand is a small cangleska, a medicine wheel fashioned of porcupine quills, each quadrant dyed in a different color. It looks a delicate thing, but precious, fashioned with her patient, clever hands. She holds it out to him with a shy smile.

Otter embraces him with a broad grin and hands Jonas the braided leather cord that had bound them together years ago. Jonas stares at it for a long moment with dawning recognition, then at his friend. No words are necessary. None would be adequate.

And at last Jonas stands before his mother, gripped by warring emotions; the boy wanting nothing more than to hold her and be held by her, the young man unwilling to shame either of them with an emotional display.

“Hear me, young warrior,” she says. “All things are as they should be. Trust your vision. Trust the power of the currents pressing on you to carry you where you must go. If you do not resist them, they cannot break you.”

Jonas’s reply catches in his throat and refuses to release his voice.

“I am proud of you, Wakiyela,” she continues. “You are a piece of my heart.”

She clasps his hand in both of hers, a lingering press, warm and strong and far too brief for his liking. Two small objects remain in his palm upon her release, her elk tooth earrings, made for her by the man who was Whirlwind’s father many years ago before he crossed over to the other camp, before Jonas’s father came among the People.

There are two eye teeth in a bull elk’s head made of the stuff his father calls ivory and they are highly prized. Gifted in such a way as this, they symbolize deep affection, an offering of no small significance.

Wopila, Ina,” he says with difficulty around the knot in his throat. “You honor me, Mother.” Gripping the treasure in his fist, he begins to turn away, hesitates. “I will see you again… in my dreams.”

“And I you, my son,” she tells him. “Go now.”

She looks to her husband one last time. He holds the beaded quill medallion she made for him as though it was her hand in his. She stands as solemn and unbending as any warrior and, at the last, shows them both the smile that will light their individual darkness for the rest of their lives. Later, when she is alone, she will cast her tears, grateful for the sweetness she knew from her man and her boy, knowing that she will miss their strength around her in the time to come, and then she will cut off her hair.

As Jonas looks back for the last time, he can see, as through a curtain of mist, his friend calling something after him. Otter’s face looks older. Behind him stands his mother and sister, older too, both straight and proud beside his grandfather. The old man raises his left hand to him and his mother flies apart. Where she stood, a hundred crows separate and explode outward in every direction. Their bright black plumage fills the entire world with a deep, enfolding darkness.

Otter’s shout carries to him from a great distance on the beating of their wings.




Reveries ——

One cool morning as summer is turning the corner to autumn before Jonas’s eleventh winter, Standing Elk has a dream. When he wakes from it, he calls Ghost Horse and Burns Red to his tipi. Their talk is brief, but the old man is filled with an uncharacteristic agitation. He gathers a few things and leaves the camp alone. Before the sun is high on the sixth day, he returns, gaunt and visibly troubled.

Many gather about him, but he is not ready to talk. Food is offered, which he refuses. Crows Come Around brings him a bitter medicine tea and stands over him like a storm cloud until he drinks it down.

Still grimacing, he directs a handful of warriors to prepare an inipi and calls for Jonas Two Dogs to personally find and bring in thirty-seven stones for the fire. They are not to be gathered from the nearby stream.

It takes Jonas several hours to complete the task. Jumping Otter and several other friends attempt to help him, but when they carry in their stones, Standing Elk waves them off and their stones are discarded. When Jonas is finished, his grandfather offers tobacco into the fire pit and tells Jonas to build the fire.

Channels of dry wood are laid out in each of the four cardinal directions, filled with kindling material and a base is formed. Jonas stacks his thirty-seven stones upon it, singing a stone-honoring song as he does so. Lengths of heavier wood, gathered in quantity by the warriors, are stacked nearby and Jonas builds a cone of these, open at the top, enclosing the stones.

Jonas exchanges a few words with another boy whose recent name means Makes Noise Walking, and hands him a generous chunk of jerked meat. The other acknowledges, then joins others gathering with drums and songs. Standing Elk watches in silence for a time before turning away. Other preparations must be made.

A buffalo hide bundle is unrolled and Standing Elk prepares his alter atop a low mound between the fire pit and the doorflap of the lodge.

Two forked sticks, barked and polished, are set in the mound and a short, sturdy twig of the same type is set in place, bridging between them. A shard of obsidian is pressed into the soil beneath it.

Beside this pipe stand, a buffalo skull with horns painted red would have peered out through empty eye sockets, had they not been stuffed with sage. The old man’s staff is driven into the packed soil in the center of the mound. A small, forked horn fashioned to the end of the staff holds his eagle-wing fan looped onto it with a strand of sinew. It flutters on an evening breeze. Twilight has come.

Jonas strikes spark to the tinder of the fire’s east gate and nurtures it to life. In minutes, the cone is engulfed in flame. The spirit of the fire dances and it reaches out as he tends it, urging Jonas to dance with it.

More wood is added to maintain the chimney as the previous layers burn away. By the time the stones are glowing, the circle of singers around the sacred fire has, at his grandfather’s bidding, gone. Coals have been banked up against the stones and just enough additional wood laid over top to keep them roasting.

 The night is cool and clear. The waning moon is barely more than a bright, razor-edged sliver in an ocean of stars when the five individuals Standing Elk has instructed to participate in this lodge are gathered.

Crows drums and the pipe filling song is sung as Standing Elk assembles his canunpa, fills the bowl with cansasa and prayers, and stands it upright, propping the stem on the small framework he built. He turns then and enters through the low doorway of the initi on hands and knees.

Jonas hands a set of antlers to his friend the noisy walker, and follows his grandfather into the initi. Burns Red and Crows Come Around follow next. After them come Burns Red’s hunka mother and father, Many Tears and Tajuska, the latter taking his place in the circle to the left of the door.

Standing Elk calls for nine stones. Makes Noise carries them to the doorflap one at a time using the antlers. Tajuska receives them with another set of antlers and arranges them in the central pit.

The first is placed in the center representing The Great Mystery. Many Tears brushes it with sweet grass and Crows lays a bead of pine resin upon it. Mellow, green-smelling smoke curls up.

The next four stones are set upon the cardinal points, sun-wise from the west. Two more, representing Father Sky and Mother Earth are set beside those in the east and west respectively, and the last two are place at points the wicasa wakan indicates for reasons only he knows, pointing with his rattle.

The doorflap is lowered and, in the resulting darkness, the glow from the stone people is all there is. The aromas of sweet grass and copal combine in the expanding warmth. A single hand drum reverberates and a song is sung to call in spirit guides and guardians. Heat rises.

Grandfather calls for nine more stones. Another song is sung as they are brought in and placed like the first. The doorflap is closed and another song is sung in the darkness, and still the old man says nothing of the purpose of this gathering. Nine more inyan find their place among the others and at last, as the doorflap closes, Grandfather splashes the water of life from a vessel beside him onto the hot stones. The breath of the Great Mother breaks upon the dome of the lodge and falls back down over the occupants like a hammer.

In the blackness, Burns Red is already lying flat against the cool, moist earth. Jonas has backed away from the heat of the pit, pressed against the framework of the lodge, hugging his knees. The tender flesh inside his nostrils feels as if it is on fire.

Standing Elk’s rattle breaks through the hissing of the stones as moisture fries from them. The rhythm is steady, not a beat at all, but a swishing, swirling sound. Spirits crowd around him and the old man begins to speak.

“My daughter has told us all the story from her long-ago people of how Raven stole the sun from the Sky Chief and carried it back to the world. That is a good story and brave Raven’s gift to the world was great. But Raven put the sun too close to the world and after a while, Grandmother began to suffer. Rivers and lakes began to dry up and the tall grass withered and the buffalo could find nothing to eat and there was no rain and there was no shade anywhere. The world was dying. Unless something was done, the People and all the creatures would die with her.

“The animal chiefs came together to figure out what to do. Each of them, in turn, tried to move the sun farther away. Each of them failed. Deer, Elk, Wolf, Fox, mighty Bear, even Cougar … none could jump high enough. So too, none of the wingeds could fly high enough either. Raven had reached her limit when she set the sun in its place. Finally, Coyote came to Heca, the vulture chief, who was busy preening his dazzling feathered raiment and asked him to help.

“‘Why don’t you ask Eagle?’ Heca said.

“‘Eagle is busy carrying the prayers of the People to Creator. You are the only one who can do this and your reward for saving us will be great,’ sly Coyote answered. ‘You will be able to eat anything you want. Imagine it. The world will be an endless feast for you.’

“So Heca spread his powerful wings and soared up to the sun. With his head, he pushed the sun away until the world was safe. The resplendent feathers of his wings and body were scorched black and the magnificent plumage on his head, once the envy of all the winged ones, was burned away by the sun until it was gone. Today the heads of all his descendants show the mark of Heca’s sacrifice.

“Heca’s reward was indeed great, but as is often the case with Coyote, not at all as Heca expected. He was able, as was promised, to eat anything he wanted… but only after death had taken it first.”

Standing Elk’s rattle continues to weave a hypnotic susurration around them all without variation. The ancient stones sizzle in the pit.

“Vulture is the purifier,” he says after a time. “He eats the things that would kill other creatures, helping Great Mother restore wholesomeness to the world. Those who do not know his story, or understand him, call him ‘ugly’ and turn away in disgust from the thankless work he does, his part in the Great Circle. On the ground, Vulture doesn’t look like much now, but in the sky, none but Eagle can match him.

“Vulture has come to me many times in my life. He has taught me stupendous lessons of healing and shared with me his gift of far vision. I tell you these things so you will understand that when Vulture came to me in a dream seven nights ago, his message carried iron.

“Vulture showed me a vision of terrible destruction in a place of great darkness, a world made of pieces, and another world in pieces. Unci Maka. This world.

“Vulture told me that he cannot stop this by himself, nor can any of the great animal chiefs help prevent this ruin. He told me that Bear, Horse, Wolf, Eagle, and Raven all believe the balance rests among the People and he now agrees with them.

“He lifted me up and showed me from a great height where I must go to find the answer to this mystery.

“When I awoke, I spoke only that I had dreamed, but left to go to the place I had been shown. Two day’s ride to the west is a place where old stone people stand up out of the ground like a hand. There I sat with my canunpa and waited for Goes In The Center, a distant grandfather who walks with me. He came to me in that place and I was shown what must be done.”

The spellbinding rattle ceases and grandfather calls for the door. Makes Noise is in place and the flap is drawn open without delay. The flow of cool air swirling into the lodge is a luxury and the starry night beyond seems bright to eyes grown large in darkness. Standing Elk calls for the remaining stones but one.

Jonas had not realized how much the previous sets of stones had cooled until the doorflap is back in place and the nine newest grandfathers stand upon the shoulders of those already in the pit, radiating the fire contained in their ancient hearts. Standing Elk splashes water over them.

Jonas is grateful that here, in the complete darkness of the lodge, no one can see him huddling away from the heat, low against the ground where he can draw cooler air from just above the damp earth.

His grandfather’s voice whispers beside his ear, “Sit up, Jonas Two Dogs, and be present. Now it is time for you to understand your path.” He says it in English.

Many Tears begins a gentle heartbeat on a hand drum and Grandfather’s rattle spins up to a sound like running water. Jonas straightens himself into a hot cloud. Standing Elk’s voice cuts through to the heart of the matter.

“The vision I have received and the path that leads through it is shrouded in mist. There is much I do not and cannot know. Goes In The Center has warned me also that much of what I have been shown cannot be told.

“The spirit guides have deep understanding and, in that world, there are no mistakes. Mistakes are something we humans must experience on our own. With luck, perhaps we will survive our mistakes long enough to learn the lessons that will carry us from the head to the heart.”

The sound of swirling water fades away.

“Tomorrow, Jonas Two Dogs will accompany me to the place of the stone circle where he will cry for his own vision. When we return, after he has feasted and rested, he and Burns Red must leave us.”

Jonas is sure he heard that wrong.

“If the breaking of the world into pieces and the end of the People is to be prevented, it is necessary that father and son return to the wasicu world as soon as possible and never return.”

The drumming stops half a heartbeat after the word and a heaviness falls in the darkness without a sound. Standing Elk splashes more water over the stones. The sputter and hiss of water boiling in the bottom of the pit only serves to amplify the hush filling the lodge.

No one speaks. Many Tears weeps.

Standing Elk calls for his canunpa. The doorflap is swept open. Makes Noise hands it in to Tajuska, who passes it to Many Tears, who passes it to Standing Elk. Behind it, a cupped stone. In it are coals from the fire.

Standing Elk cradles his canunpa, snatches up an ember between thumb and middle finger, lays it atop the mixture in the bowl and begins to draw from the stem until the cansasa catches. He plucks out the coal after it’s done its work and drops it without haste into the pit.

The pipe is passed sun-wise around the circle. Twice. Three times.

Jonas draws some of the aromatic smoke and lets it out again without a thought to the nature of the rituals that were old before there were horses on the plains. He doesn’t care. He is empty. A song of gratitude to the spirits for coming among them with their guidance and protection, releasing them again to go their mysterious ways, is sung without Jonas’s participation. He is distant from this place, numb and cold within, despite the enfolding heat.

Later, in his turn, Jonas crawls out of the lodge, stumbles to the creek, and lays in a shallow pool below a riffle. It cradles him in cool oblivion, soothing his reddened skin, washing away tears no one will ever see.

A meal has been prepared when he returns to his parent’s tipi. He wants nothing more than to hold to his mother and comfort her as she comforts him. Instead, Tajuska and Many Tears are there as well. Burns Red is lying on a robe near the guests and both he and Crows are busy with practical matters.

His grandfather, too, is there and, in that moment, Jonas’s stomach is a knot of grief and anger. He pushes away the offered food, even though it smells good. His agitation at the presence of this man who has called down the end of his life among the People is intolerable. He makes to leave and manages only one step in that direction before Standing Elk is between him and his exit.

For a moment, the challenge in Jonas’s green eyes is lightning between them. Standing Elk’s voice is not unkind.

“Stop acting the fool, takoje, as though only your feelings have value. I told you already you must understand your path. You have no choice. Do not let your emotion cloud your judgment. Sit down and eat, Jonas Two Dogs. You will need all your strength in the days to come. We both will.”

Jonas swallows the bitter words in his throat and does as he is told.

His grandfather sits with him, sharing their food, and Jonas sees something in the old man’s eyes as he looks at Crows. It occurs to him that his grandfather feels as deeply as any of them the finality of the separation to come and Jonas understands something he did not know before. His anger has nothing to anchor it and it melts away.

His sleep that night is fitful, visited by worrisome spirits and unnamed fears.


Miss Schultz is standing alone on the prairie. Miles of grass in every direction. She’s decked out in a calico work shirt, heavy trousers and boots, and her hair’s swept back, as always, in a bun as cruel as a hangman’s noose. She’s packing a big Sharps fifty with a cartridge bandolier across her mighty Teutonic bosom.

‘Alone’ may have been the wrong word. She is confronted by a thousand buffalo.

With a feral snarl curling her moustache, she shoulders the plains cannon and takes dead aim at the biggest tatanka in the herd. The hammer falls on the chambered round with a disappointing ‘click’.

Great horned heads turn toward her as one and two thousand dark eyes look into her soul. She shouts at them in a voice shrill as it is proud, “I will not tolerate such impudence from a little animal!” The greatest tatanka of them all exchanges a brief perplexed look with his neighbor, then both lower their horns and lead the charge in. Miss Schultz drops her gun and fouls her drawers.

The image conjures an involuntary laugh that escapes as a sort of bark and snort. Jonas slaps hand over mouth too late to stifle the sound.

This amuses several students nearby and a ripple of laughter quickly develops into a classroom disturbance. Emily Bench, however, is not so easily amused and peers over the top of her spectacles with what she knows to be a stern countenance.

“Jonas, did you have something to add to the lesson?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Something humorous perhaps about England’s colonization of India?”

A tenuous silence is underscored by an exchange of snickering whispers.

“Dickie! Morgan! Would you two like to sit in front for a while?”

Mumbles of ‘no, ma’am’ from the back of the room.

“Then be still, please.”

Mumbles of ‘yes, ma’am’ from the back of the room.

“No, ma’am,” Jonas says. “There was nothin’ funny goin’ on there.”

“No? Perhaps, then, you would like to share the humorous non-sequitur that caused you to disrupt my lesson.”

That seems like a bad idea. Pretty Mary’s watching him with an unreadable expression, aware that he’s aware of her, daring him, perhaps, to make them all laugh. He gives Missus Bench a sheepish smile.

“No, ma’am. I ‘pologize for the outburst. Won’t happen again.”

Later that afternoon, as books and materials are being put away in preparation for dismissal, Missus Bench wanders among the desks. She stops next to Jonas’s seat and asks him to please stay afterward for a few minutes.

Little escapes notice in this environment. Dickie Barnhart, on his way out with his sidekick in tow, shoulders into Jonas and offers to have “a talk wit ya too when yer doan.”

Jonas shrugs him off and the two toughs exit laughing into the afternoon together, no doubt with mischievous intent. Mary blows him a kiss over her shoulder and skips down the steps, giggling with three of her friends.

With the classroom cleared, Jonas approaches the teacher’s oak desk at the front of the room without apprehension. He can read Missus Bench easily. There’s nothing in her but a kindly woman’s genuine concern. He takes a seat beside her desk and she sets her paperwork aside.

“How is your father?” she inquires without apparent preamble.

“Well as can be. Do you know my father?”

“Yes. I’ve met and spoken with him twice. The first when I was interviewed for this job after your previous teacher vacated precipitously, and again shortly after the New Year. He was inquiring about your progress once I had moved you to the sixth grade level.”

“An’ how am I doin’.”

“I believe you know the answer to that as well as I do, young man. For one thing, I can’t help but notice your speech has acquired even less sophisticated mannerisms, peppered with colloquialisms and frequent grammatical irregularities. I know you know how to speak English better than that. You don’t appear to associate with the young hooligans under my temporary care. I suspect this tendency is rubbing off from those with whom you work after school.”

“I guess I don’t give much thought to how my words come out of late. Hadn’t even noticed I was doin’ it.”

“‘Doin’ it’, Jonas?”

He laughs. “Fellows I work with don’t much speak the English language formal like you or my father do. Given my appearance, they don’t much favor me anyhow. If I come off all high ‘n’ mighty proper with them, it’s asking fer a whoopin’.

“Honestly, Jonas, that sounds like an excuse, not a reason.”

 “I began to learn the language of the People before I was introduced to English. Not only are the words different, but the ideas behind the words are different. Father started early teaching me to speak his language, but I don’t…”

Emily watches Jonas search for the right words, content to wait for him to find them.

 “I don’t think in English. I can, but most often I don’t. To be truthsome, the—I think the word is ‘vulgar’—language of the common folk seems more natural on my tongue an’ doesn’t tangle up my thoughts in the way ‘proper English’ does with its endless rules an’…” Jonas seems to be searching for an elusive word. “Conturdfictions? No, that ain’t right.”


Nodding, he echoes the word, “Contradictions.” He finds her eyes, holds them for just a moment, and says with a good-natured grin, “Precisely.”

“I suppose I can see your point,” Emily says, “although I cannot wholly endorse it. You made it well, however.”

“I like words. I respect what can be done with ’em. My father is a fine example of what a sharp instrument the language can be.”

“Your father is an articulate gentleman possessing a unique perception.”

“That’s kind of you to say, ma’am, an’ I suppose he’s almost despaired of trying to correct me these days. Guess he’s just happy I don’t speak Lakota in polite comp’ny anymore.”

“I think I can understand that, too,” she says. “However, we have digressed.

“The point I wanted to make was that you are a good student, Jonas. I see you as a well-mannered, perceptive, reasoning young man.” She looks at him straight on now with a serious expression. “These are qualities of someone who can make a difference in our world. I believe you could make such a difference if you continue to pursue your education, despite your…” It’s Missus Bench’s turn to search for words.

Jonas finds them for her. “Inconvenient heritage?”

She turns a wince into a wan smile. “You carry yourself well and that is very much in your favor, but I can see it is an occasional obstacle for you, nonetheless. And for others. How does that make you feel?”

“Wish it weren’t that way. Mind you, I don’t mean that I wish I weren’t who I am, but that it didn’t matter to folk so. Way I figure it, the measure of a man’s not about where he comes from any more’n a cat born in an old oven’s a biscuit.”

Emily Bench’s smile softens her squarish face. It’s a face often considered somewhat masculine that makes her appear a harder, more formidable presence than the gentle soul revealed in moments like this. It’s the face of a mother, if only the temporary mother of other people’s children and, behind her large spectacles, her eyes are kindly, looking always for the best in everyone.

“What do you want to be, Jonas?”

“If by that you mean, do I want to become a man of letters, it seems my path’s leadin’ me elsewhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“You asked about my father. One day it’ll be up to me to keep roof overhead an’ food on the table for us, ‘stead of him. That’s why I work after school now, to put some aside for the day, but I ‘spect it won’t be long before I hafta take on a regular job to make ends meet.”

She’s not ready to give up yet. “You know, even though it doesn’t pay him monetarily, your father has been active in this community. He has a strong sense of civic responsibility and his greatest commitment has been to education. I know he would want you to stay in school as long as you can.”

“I know.”

“I believe you could accomplish great things if you finish your education.”

“Maybe. Maybe great things don’t necessarily wait for paper sayin’ yer ready to take ’em on. Whatever happens, I can only go where spirit leads me.”

Emily opens her mouth, then closes it. She looks at the paperwork shuffled on her desk, sweeps her gaze around the empty classroom, and returns her attention to the young man sitting patiently, waiting for her to remount her argument, but she cannot. Her position is well-intentioned and she knows she’s right, yet she heard his words with clarity. There is nothing in them to refute.


Jonas’s career as a mail rider with William Russell’s glamorous sounding, but often life-threatening enterprise comes to an abrupt end as the Pony Express folds after only eighteen months in operation. Its closure is brought about, in part, by fiscal problems that might have been surmountable, and with unarguable finality by the completion of the continent-spanning telegraph network. Fifty thousand miles of wire connecting points across the nation makes the dangerous ten-day, cross-country journey unnecessary. Meanwhile, conventional mail delivery continues by way of previously established overland and sea routes.

Civil war comes, as his father predicted, leaving Jonas uneasy, weighing his dwindling options. His father’s increasing disability stays him from lighting out as he had intended, distancing himself from a fight in which he has no stake. He feels conspicuous and vulnerable. A growing atmosphere of terror, fueled by credible reports of indiscriminate violence against civilian populations by both sides in the conflict, suggest that an able-bodied young man not in uniform may well be shot on sight out of hand as a suspected guerilla fighter, spy, or deserter.

Some work on a Wells Fargo stage route keeps him mobile for a time at least.

For many years, St. Joseph has been a favorite jumping-off point for pioneers setting out to make new homes in the West. As the war ushers in an era of bitter violence, some folk are prompted to cast their hopes for survival and a brighter future toward the Northwest Territory. Jonas’s father introduces him to Calvin Mortimer, who’s outfitting a party for just such a journey and Jonas signs on as the man’s second assistant and outrider.

Mortimer’s seasoned first goes only by the name Grainger. He’s a knowledgeable, capable hand, but withdrawn and unfriendly. Jonas negotiates a satisfactory pay advance with Mortimer, which he gives to his father to offset living expenses until his return, and sets out in a cold rain one morning in March with twelve families bound for Oregon.

The way has been made perhaps less perilous over twenty years of use, but is nonetheless an arduous six-month journey at best. The terrain is often difficult and the weather uncooperative. Cutoff routes and ferries make navigating the many river crossings far less dangerous than in earlier years and the infrequent Indian encounters, while tense, have been known, upon occasion, to end without hostilities.

Of the fifty-three individuals that left St. Joe in early March with eighteen wagons, forty-two souls arrive at their destination in Oregon City late August.

The return trip with Mortimer and Grainger takes almost seven weeks. Mortimer is pleasant enough company, but Grainger has been barely civil throughout and Jonas gives him little reason to interact.

It is a still, cool, late afternoon on the last leg of their trek through Kansas when they are set upon by a rough and tumble band of seven Confederate raiders.

The first gunfight of Jonas’s life is preceded by an intense visceral thrill as he ‘sees’ the image of the cadre approaching and experiences a kind of heat he will later associate with violent nature and intent. Precious little cover is to be found, a few skinny trees and some low rocks, but nothing substantial.

He knows already the two men with him will not understand or heed his warning, but warn them he does before spurring his mount in a wide, flanking maneuver. When the riders see and advance on them, there is no parley, no truce, and no quarter, only a furious exchange of gunfire.

Jonas is treated to a rigorous, adrenaline-charged education in the art of riding the currents of his Sight when death is riding alongside. Fluid possibilities race behind his eyes, a cascade of images like he’s never imagined. On the one hand, the certainty of a bullet speeding toward his flesh. On the other, choices.

He guides his roan with his knees, shifting out of the path of unforgiving lead and shoulders his Henry rifle. Without even the appearance of attempting to aim, he sends a bullet of his own in reply. One of the attackers is lifted from his saddle and hurled to the ground.

Jonas can hear his companions returning fire, but it seems distant, inconsequential. He is in the calm center of the storm. Conviction and choice blend in an effortless, inevitable flow. More slugs whine past him in slow motion as he weaves the roan through them. Three more times his rifle thunders and four more spirits cross over unprepared to seek their maker even as their bodies tumble into the dry grass.

Mortimer is unhurt, but Grainger is down. Both their horses are down too. Jonas sets out to round up the raiders’ horses while Mortimer dispatches the soldiers he and Grainger brought to the ground before binding Grainger’s wounds.

Later, as he walks among the dead, his dead, Jonas is surprised to find that he feels none of the remorse he thought he might, only an unemotional acceptance of the fact. He feels more regret as he ends the suffering of the wounded animals.

With Mortimer’s help he gathers the bodies into a circle, propped upright with backs together. Fallen weapons are laid in their laps. The remaining horses are relieved of their easily identifiable burdens and tack. Two are resaddled for his companions to ride and the rest are turned out to run where they will. Lastly, as twilight approaches, Jonas withdraws a handful of tobacco from the leather pouch at his belt and casts it to the seven directions. It’s not a blessing to the departed, but gratitude for the Gift that runs in him like a river.

.      .      .

The following spring, as the Conscription Act is signed into law by President Lincoln, Jonas takes one more trek with Mortimer who agrees to pay all in advance to Jonas’s father before they leave St. Joe. It’s an unconventional arrangement, but Mortimer considers himself to be Daniel’s friend and understands Jonas’s concern for his father’s health and upkeep. Besides, the Wagon Master entertains no doubts about Jonas’s loyalty, his value as a second, or his aim.

Grainger will not be joining them on this trip, having lost an arm to the injuries he sustained.

The fellow hired on in his stead is young, strong, and in a hurry to depart. A months ago, he’d been a foot soldier in the Confederate Army defending the rebel-held city of Independence. A skirmish there, one of many, he says, left him helpless to staunch the wounds of his best friend who died sobbing in his arms. Jonas recognizes Morgan O’Brien immediately, of course, but the sneer and the aggressive schoolboy posturing have long since been wiped away.

Morgan will drive a mule team pulling a smaller supply wagon. It’s Mortimer’s innovation, outfitted mostly with materials for wagon repair, tools, some general-use items and four outboard water barrels.

Only eight families and twelve wagons have converged in train this time and the way is beset with difficulties, both natural and mechanical.

Experiences of many previous parties has shown that drinking the water along the Platte River section of the Trail is almost guaranteed to visit a deadly outbreak of cholera on the travelers and Mortimer has taken adequate precautions. Consequently, there are no losses to disease, instead the unforeseen becomes the leading cause of attrition. Misadventure and acts of God take the fore. The party is plagued with breakdowns and accidents.

Jonas will ponder many times upon the unfortunate fact that he’s not always permitted to see what’s about to happen to someone else. This small detail is illustrated vividly as the party’s making what would seem to be an unremarkable river crossing on the Lander Road through the mountains of Wyoming. Mortimer’s decision to take the shorter route to meet the main Trail at Soda Springs in Idaho also means negotiating a rugged series of passes and fording the Smith Fork of the Bear River before making the final ascent through the Salt River Range.

The watercourse appears swift, but suitably shallow and seven of the nine wagons remaining of the original dozen make the crossing without incident. Following them is an ox-drawn prairie schooner with a grim-faced Quaker named Jeremiah, crusty patriarch of the Buckmaster clan, perched high on the seat urging his four reluctant beasts into the rushing water. Jonas is helping two small girls across to join their parents when the realization comes and he knows it’s already too late for him to influence the outcome.

The wagon has strayed, for whatever reason, from the line taken by those that went before. The oxen plunge into an unseen drop-off and, trapped in their harnesses, flounder wildly for footing.

Buckmaster is scared, flailing the traces, and hollering unintelligibly.

Mortimer, on the farther shore, wheels his horse and dashes forward to assist.

Jonas is too far away to do other than shout a warning to Mortimer and give his mount heels, provoking the gelding to greater speed toward the shore where he literally drops the children in the arms of their mother. He spins the roan and kicks it roughly toward the commotion.

Mortimer is just coming alongside the wagon from the rear as the oxen thrash in panic against the current in the hole. Jonas lets out a piercing whoop in an attempt to catch Mortimer’s attention, wave him off, or at least slow him down, but his warning is lost in the rush of the water and the shouts of fear and alarm from both shores. One of the oxen in the rear of the team’s already drowned, but two in front gain sudden purchase and heave in a new direction, jerking the wagon abruptly to the side and into the deeper water.

The sharp snapping sound of a wheel breaking apart seems to arrow through the commotion. The current does the rest. The wagon slews crazily and pitches over onto its side taking Mortimer and his horse down underneath. Only the old Quaker bobs to the surface at last, slapping the water wildly, unable to swim. Jonas plucks him up and hauls him to the shore where he stands gasping, looking dumbly at the deadly wreckage.

It takes Jonas, Morgan, and several other men the remainder of the afternoon and into the night, working in the frigid, swift-running water by the light of kerosene lanterns, to extract the wagon and replace the wheel with one from the supply buck. Numbed with more than the cold, Jonas receives, by virtue of his prior experience on the trail, the responsibility as Wagon Master.

Mortimer’s body is buried the following day in a stony cairn overlooking the ford that took his life.

The party plods on toward their destination in a series of what seem painstakingly slow, but otherwise uneventful steps. Mortimer’s maps and the rambling directions of an old-timer at Soda Springs bring them eventually to the Applegate Trail and at last into southern Oregon.

The terminus of the journey is the thriving little hillside township of Ashland Mills, maybe a day’s hard ride from a placer mining community called Jacksonville. Jonas collects the Wagon Master’s salary, pays Morgan double what was agreed and wires the rest to his father in St. Joe.

By first light the next morning, he’s gone without any polite God-be-withyas, pressing his roan to a brisk pace northward. Elder spirits are calling him to the ancestral home and he must answer.


General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox marks the end of the Confederacy. A few weeks later, President Jefferson Davis is apprehended by Union troops in Irwinville, Georgia. It’s probably no coincidence that barely six months after the curtailment of hostilities, Jonas is seated in a cane-back rocker on the porch of his father’s modest home in St. Joseph, sipping lemonade from a tall, sweaty glass.

Although Daniel is now wheelchair bound and his health failing, his demeanor remains unfailingly affable. His delight in his son’s return and welcome company is immeasurable and, for one timeless afternoon, he is able to glimpse through his son’s eyes a land of unsurpassed, haunting beauty he has dreamt of, longed to see, and never will.

With deliberate care, Jonas’s account is framed in the most evocative language he knows, paced with the same measured cadence his grandfather used when storytelling. That familiar rhythm, almost forgotten across intervening years, is not lost on Daniel and for a time, carried along on Jonas’s narrative, he is completely immersed in another world.

Jonas tells him of rugged hills and wide valleys blanketed in forest, skirting mountains swathed in mist. In them are trees older than the People, standing in silent groves, solemn observers to the passage of seasons uncounted. They reach so far into the sky that clouds hang in their branches.

Woodlands give on to crystalline pools and surprise lakes, some of them so broad they might be inland seas, and none of them more unexpected or wondrous than the one cradled in the caldera of a primordial volcano, miles across, unfathomable, impossibly blue.

Wild rivers gouge out deep defiles on their way to meet the cold Pacific Ocean. Within these raging courses, salmon the size of ponies leap and surge against the currents to fulfill a compulsion only slightly newer than the stones that define the riverbanks.

From the high desert to meadows bursting with riotous colors to secret shaded bowers festooned with moss, laced with ferns, and guarded by granite sentinels, the terrain is so exquisitely alive, teeming with four-leggeds of every size and kind, birds of every description and color, and the whispers of the old ones in the wind; there are barely words in any language to convey the wonder and complexity of it.

Jonas recounts every remembered detail, transporting Daniel to the world of his beloved wife’s lost people. In the end, tears stream down Daniel’s face. It is drawn and pinched by persistent pain, but they are not the tears of his physical torment.

They fall from great dark curtains hanging heavy over wooded mountainsides.

They splash from rock face, leaf and twig, and percolate through the accumulated carpeting at the feet of ancient Standing People.

Trickles, minute rivulets, congregate and confer, bubbling and tumbling into streams, filling pools so deep and pellucid they seem to be still…

Until, having rested, they spill over and come rumbling down through natural flumes cut from native stone, racing, thundering in brilliant turquoise churns and through canyons carved with their irresistible force.

Quickening to meet others like themselves, their singular might multiplies, widening across verdant valleys, no longer rushing, but pressing onward.

Seeking always that one indisputable finality, Daniel’s tears merge with the endless sea.

It is a gift no one else could have given him.  

The day his body is laid in the ground in St. Joseph, Missouri, a small ceremony is attended by a solemn, square-jawed woman of middlin’ years, and a long-haired, hard-faced cowboy with green eyes. Danny’s personal journals will be bound in an oilcloth, packed away in the cowboy’s saddlebags. Nothing much will remain to mark Danny’s passage, other than an intricate quillwork medallion woven with careful, calloused hands onto the modest stone cross above his grave.


Jonas is the last to arrive for supper at the Wright House dining room.

The only wrinkle in an otherwise agreeable afternoon came as he was taking his leave of Miss Cordell’s establishment. He almost ran smack into that pipsqueak, Squirrel, coming in still on the prod and mean as a snake. The young man had words for him as he shouldered past into the parlor, though none of them nearly ruinatious of Jonas’s generous mood.

“Mind yer bits an’ pieces, Rubin,” he said. “There’s at least one in there plenty meaner than you think you are.”

Inside the restaurant, all but two members of the MacDee outfit are at hand and in high spirits. Several display recent familiarity with the barber’s craft and the scent of lilac water’s present among them as well. Mister Ashby suggests restraint of their boisterous inclinations while dining in this fine establishment, so’s not to embarrass themselves or Mister Kunkle directly, nor Mister MacDonough by association. Agreed and, aside from the occasional hoot and horse-laugh, the level of commotion from their table near the back of the dining room decreases appreciably.

The anticipation of revelry to come is a powerful appetizer, evidenced by the swift demolition of a platter of starters with nary a break in the jovial discourse. Jonas’s new shirt elicits comment, an equal number of compliments and barbs, as expected. Luis Montes is among the former, running the fabric of the bib, buttoned all the way up formal-like this evening, through his fingers and, in his fractured English, asks Jonas if “they es mas like these one”.

“Lo siento, Luis,” Jonas replies, “Ellos no tienen mas como este.”

“Ah,” Luis sighs with obvious disappointment. “Todo esta bien, hermano.”

Jonas catches Jubal’s eye across the table and asks, “Where’s George?”

“Wasn’t my turn ta watch ‘im.”

“He’s back at the camp with Foo Que an’ the dogs,” says Leland. “George says he didn’t have a good time in Topeka or Abilene and didn’t figure he’d have a good time here neither. Him an’ Foo ‘re keepin’ eyes on the wagons an’ remuda.”

Leland’s head swivels to follow a waiter delivering pie to a nearby table. “Me, though…” he says, “I am smack-dab where I b’long.”

Chap, giving Jonas a knowing wink and an elbow jab, says in an uncharacteristically low tone, “You are one lucky sonofabitch, ya know it? I knowed you was a chopper, but… Miss Faith Fine-as-cream-gravy Cordell?” He shakes his head as if clearing cobwebs and shoves thick fingers through the worn-out, wiry pot scrubber that passes for hair atop his freckled head. “How’djoo manage that?”

“Lucky. You said it.”

“Well…” The imp muses briefly whether or not ‘luck’ is an injin concept, decides he has no idea and, finally, inquires. “Well?”


Chap gives him a goggle-eyed look of anticipation. “Well?!”

“I got a hot bath and a shave.”

“Bullshit. I know I heard you whoop once.”

“She dropped the soap and had trouble findin’ it again, okay? Leave off it now.”

Mister Kunkle, resplendent in what appears to be an expensive tailored suit with a silk choke-strap, has taken over Budge’s father-figure role for the evening. He has something called an ‘aperitif’ brought in for everybody and Mister Ashby stands to offer a toast.

“Boys, I’ve worked in a lot of places and run more’n a few outfits in my day. This here’s the finest bunch of drovers I ever seen. I’m proud of every one of ya and here’s to ya – even if ya do smell like a field o’ damn petunias.” Glasses are raised all around amid murmurs of approval.

Each man around the table stands and takes a rough-hewn crack at finding some heart-felt consideration suitable to the moment before emptying his own glass.

Leland seems slightly embarrassed at finding himself next in rotation without a moment to summon something witty to say.

“I used ta know a clever toast that now I can’t recall. So raise yer glass ta anything… and, uh… let’s drink until we fall. Howzat? Cheers, boys!”

Shakespeare it isn’t, but glasses lift and a wave of nods and chuckles circles the table.

Stick’s moustache and beard have been trimmed and waxed in the style of a Southern gentleman, to the point that several of the men have taken to calling him “The Colonel”. He clears his throat and, contrary to his typical laconic style, he stuns his cohorts with an extemporaneous rhyme.

“We’re gathered here for supper. When we’re done we’ll have some pie. Then head on over to the Lone Star and drink that damn place dry.” Hoots go up, hushed as Stick raises a hand for silence. “You’ll choose the sweetest little thing to cut a caper, or you kin try. But I’m purty today. I’ll steal ‘er away. An’ while I do it, here’s mud in yer eye!”

His own glass lifts in salute to a chorus of approving laughter that appears to startle some of the more genteel diners nearby.

Budge says with a wide disfigured grin, “Damn, son. You know ya just strung together more words at one time than I’ve heard ya say in the last three weeks.”

“He’s a ding-danged poet lariat!” Leland proclaims, making both Jonas and Kunkle laugh out loud, each perhaps surprised that Leland was capable of conceiving the pun. Kunkle regards Jonas as if seeing him for the first time

The amusement subsides and Jubal’s voice rumbles up from the depths of his personal torment.

“Been thirteen year since the end of the war made me a free man. Free man…” He sighs with a kind of resignation. “There ain’t no ‘free man’ with skin like this. Free, mebbe, ta go from killing Rebs to killing them that’re worse. Savages what ain’t really even human beings… no offense to you, Jonas, or yourn.”

“None taken.”

“… in hopes that I could trade their lives fer some respect. Never got me any, though, an’ lost all it for myself in the bargain. I got to be a good killer, but I weren’t ‘free’.”

Chaps voice fills Jubal’s pause with a stage whisper, “Free enough ta make the most de-pressin’ toast ever in the in-tire history o’ drinkin’.”

“Shut up, ol’ woman. I’m almose done.”

“Hurry up ‘fore I start bawlin’.”

Jubal gathers up the raveled thread of his earlier thought. “Fact is, I do know what a free man feels like. Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all’ve never treated me like anything other’n that, an’ I’m grateful for it. Might sound strange comin’ from me, but… God bless Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all for giving me a place to find what I needed the most.” He lifts his glass to the group with a bleak half-smile. “Guess I could’a jist said that at the git-go, huh?”

“Amen and hallelujah!” Chap sounds off in agreement. “Next!”

The Montes brothers stand together. “Es esta una fiesta, o un funeral? Nunga guardes nada para una ocasion especial. Estar vivo es la ocasion especial! Mucho gusto!” They drain their glasses in unison.

Voices keen to be out from under the tombstone of Jubal’s near-demoralizing offering, including Jubal himself, endorse the sentiment, echoing, “Mucho gusto!” and turning heads, once again, their way.

Newell has chosen to husband his money for a stake in a card game later on and his appearance, relative to his peers, is rough. “I ain’t much at speechifyin’,” he admits. “I jist came to eat. Thank ya, Mister Kunkle.” He empties his glass and waves off.

Jonas’s offering is simple enough. “I was taught that life’s a circle. It don’t often seem like it, but if it is, we’ll meet up again. An’ if it’s not… well, it’s been a good ride with you fellas anyhow. I’m grateful to know ya.”

Glasses raise around the table in what, for most of them, will be farewell. Seems someone told them he’d be gone tomorrow before any of them regained consciousness.

Mitakuye oyas’in,” he says. Obligatory drink down the hatch and seat of his new britches in the chair, he bids the round continue.

Chap stands, all five foot two of him. He lifts his glass high and says in a fervent voice, “Gentlemen, here’s to the hole that never heals!”

Gathered together in this jovial company, it’s as if the long days, the punishing miles, the unforgiving weather, and Chap’s “breakfast sausage” count for nothing today weighed against this carefree time. Besides, Kunkle’s paying. Not to mention the hours of unrestrained debauchery to follow because, you know, there’s also that.

Before the wave of merriment dies down, Leland leans across the table and, with what might be a serious expression, confides, “I saw one all sorta scabbed over once.”

Chap leans Leland’s way with an equally solemn look, tufted eyebrows lowered, like a physician hearing a patient describe his symptoms. “Didja doink it anyway?”

Funny how abruptly silence can descend upon a group. Leland’s mouth opens and closes. His eyes drift away from Chap’s and begin to search the table to find everyone hanging expectantly on his reply. His cheeks flush and his lips move as though forming words, but no sounds come out. He gives Chap a little shrug and shakes his head. “‘Fraid to.”

Chap’s barking guffaw is joined in chorus by the majority of those assembled. Mister Wright, the proprietor, completes a dignified beeline across the dining room and politely requests a curb to this wild exuberance. Mister Kunkle placates him and he goes away.

Order restored, Kunkle pours another round, then stands and waxes poetic about how lucky they all are to be in cahoots with a fine man like Calum MacDonough, which they all know, and about the nobility of the hard-working cowboy, which they really don’t, although they are pretty clear about the ‘hard-working’ part. Bein’s as how he’s Mister MacDonough’s partner and everything, and it is his treat, after all, everyone at the table keeps a buttoned lip while he wanders off on a side trail after some maverick thought or another. Then the food arrives and his exposition tails off, replaced by a stirring chorus of knife, fork, and spoon music.

The waiters cart in platters of buffalo steaks the size of cow chips, mashed potatoes floundering in gravy, corn and peas, both of them tender and sweet, and biscuits so light they resemble nothing so much as hot, flakey little clouds, fluffy goodness crying out to be slathered in butter.

Stick holds one of them up real careful-like so’s he don’t crush the delicate little morsel and calls across the table, “Hey, Chap. These here’s differn’t from them lead sinkers you been servin’ up the last few weeks.”

Chap levels a baleful squint at the humorist. “They’s nothin’ to ’em. Got no substance. A man could starve plumb to death eatin’ ’em.”

Chuckles around the table.

“Anybody else care to make a bright comment ’bout my cookin’, you’ll all be eatin’ nothin’ but whistle berries an’ sonofabitch stew on the road back.”

Dining sounds resume and subsequent conversation turns to non-grub related topics. The meal is superb, but otherwise uneventful.

As the last of the plates are being cleared away, Mister Kunkle offers cigars around to those that care to partake. Most oblige. Jonas doesn’t smoke. Someone suggests that the party move on to Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, a fashionable saloon just down the boardwalk a piece. The ‘aye’s have it and the board is abandoned in favor of a more exuberant venue.

The Montes brothers take their leave, heading toward the somewhat less cultured pursuits of the south side and pass, henceforth, from our ken.

The evening sky is overcast, the air still and humid with the promise of another thunderbuster, a common enough occurrence in this country. The familiar bouquet of smoke, liquor, and dust mixes with the pervasive stench from the stockyards, almost obscuring the characteristic aroma of muggy air beginning to electrify.

Jonas feels the gradual charging of the atmosphere and observes the influence it has on the men around him. It manifests as a quickening of the step, a keen-edged, if unfocused excitement. He’s wary of this sort of enthusiasm. Mixed with a sufficient amount of alcohol, it can lead to all manner of disturbance of what some refer to as “The Peace”.

Such wariness has always served to keep him out of the kind of trouble that often leads to either incarceration or lead poisoning, either of which will spoil a perfectly good evening.



Lone, I

I hear them yelling. They sound angry. One of the words I hear is the word they call me.

Have I done something wrong?

Are they angry at me?

I don’t want them to be angry at me. They hurt me when they’re angry.

Someone is coming, still shouting. Angry Man, I know him. The word they call me, he’s using it a lot. That’s never good.

I don’t know what I did. I make myself small against the back of the dark place where I sleep.

Angry Man is approaching the way into the place where they keep me. I have to get up and meet him; that I have learned I must do. I don’t want to do it, but I do it. I wait for him to come in, yelling the word they call me and others. Most I don’t understand, but BAD—that one I understand.

No! I’m not that. I’m not!

Another is coming, but I can’t see because Angry Man is jerking open the way into the place where they keep me and I can see the thing in his hand. I don’t like that thing.

I don’t want this to happen.

I am alone and I have nowhere to go.

Flat-faced Woman is approaching. Why is she here? She says words to Angry Man and he stops coming toward me and stops shouting and just glares at me, but he waits for her.

They have a word they use to make me stop everything and wait for them to show me what they want me to do. I do it because I understand, but also because if I don’t do it, they will hurt me again. I wonder if Flat-faced Woman has a stopword for Angry Man and I wonder what it was. She said many words I didn’t understand.

She doesn’t have a thing in her hand. She doesn’t need one.

They are both looking at me with hard eyes and I feel my body trembling all over and I can’t stop it and I cry out to them, “I didn’t mean it please don’t!”

They both flinch at the sound of my voice. I don’t know how to make their words. Mine all come out at once in the only voice I have, a single, sharp expression that my fear made louder and harsher than I meant it to be. For a moment, I see something in Angry Man’s eyes and I have to look away.

He raises the thing in his hand and lunges it at me. I recoil, but the jolting agony doesn’t come. Flat-faced Woman has a hand on him. They exchange more words. I understand almost none of them. I want to. It is the most important thing now to understand their talk. I have to learn to do what they want me to do and not do anything wrong. I have to show them I can be a… a ‘goodgirl’.

A little one called me that once. I didn’t know what it meant then and I have not seen her again, but I know I could be that if they would show me how and I would do it and there would be no more shouting and hurting and not knowing why and maybe they would call me that word too. ‘Goodgirl’.

But they don’t seem to care. They are impatient with me.

Angry Man raises his voice. Flat-faced Woman does not, but says a lot of words at him and Angry Man’s face gets harder than before and he walks away. Flat-faced Woman stares at me without expression. She doesn’t see him scowl and gesture at her back.

He turns his angry face and gestures at me. I hold his eyes. I know he doesn’t like that, but I try to smile at him. I want him to see I’m not BAD and not be angry with me anymore, but I see something in him again, something I did not expect. I recognize it now and this time he turns away, swinging the thing in his hand.

Flat-faced Woman takes a step forward and I lean back and allow her to take the toy I found.

She says nothing. I hear her breathing above me and keep my eyes down. I don’t like her eyes. I don’t like what’s in them, but her silence and waiting for the pain and not knowing how bad it will be and I have to know. So, I look at her.

She smiles at me with her flat face and turns without a word with my toy in her hand. She closes the way out of the place where they keep me and goes away.

I lay down and wait for the ground to soak up my quivering energy and I wish I could go away too.

      ~      ~

Relax Everybody

Relax, everybody. I believe there is a light at the end of this scary tunnel, beyond our tragi-comedic blip of an existence. Somewhere near the tunnel’s end, a ragtag band of Scorched Earth survivors will put up a valiant fight, through hordes of sub-human revenants, across Biblical-level apocalyptic hellscapes, to storm their way aboard the Ark.

They will arrive just as the Privileged are embarking. Met with superior force, naturally, they are cast down. The Privileged depart. Cue stirring overture.

Earth will adapt and create something with the horror and filth we’ve left in our greasy slipstream. Look at the Fukushima tomatoes. Earth will be fine, and in no time, geologically speaking, creative albeit catastrophic solutions around the globe will scour out most of the deadwood. The Cascadia subduction zone and Yellowstone caldera being merely local examples of organic cleansing resources already primed and aquiver with potential. There are so many others.

Oddly enough, Styrofoam® will turn out to be all the Earth really needed from us after all. George Carlin prophesied this years ago.

Cetaceans will develop flippers with opposable thumbs and their distant progeny will find the Ark orbiting one of the Jovian moons, mostly intact. No contact will be attempted.

But what about us?

Okay, what about us? We came. We saw. We shit all over it and left in a huff. Forever.

If that’s not a light, what is it?

      ~      ~

Originally published in the seventh annual anthology issue of “Groundwaters” in 2021.   ~DRLE

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