David R L Erickson

Orlah’s Lament

Early on the second turn following my precipitous arrival, I found my brother, Orlah, standing alone atop a precipice at land’s edge. I know he hears my approach. Whatever else may lie between us now, we are Brethren after all.

I let my pace carry me to a place barely a reach from him and wait in silence for his acknowledgement. A minute passes, and then another. The concussion of breakers battering the cliff face below fills the waiting.

I wonder at the person he has become in the space since last we were together, sparring, gaming, laughing… he is now withdrawn and ominous. Dressed in his skin, save for a breechclout and harness from which his weapons are slung, the pair of sunburst scars on his back stand out in Solva’s green glow like puncturevine flowers.

Beneath us, driven by the violence of the Churn’s surge, a cannonade of waves persists without relent. I imagine I feel the rock beneath our feet shudder with each detonation. Twenty beats pass, a languid inhalation, before the next standing wall of water erupts against the escarpment and sizzles among the  crags.

Into the spray and measured pause, Orlah begins to speak. “In crèche, callow and rambunctious as we were allowed to be, even then we were being groomed to walk these Lands as the Lord of Hevn’s dire and irresistible Hammer. We were bred, trained, and armed to confront any challenge to His agency, His Law.

“His aegis gave us abilities beyond our simple natures, allowed us to cross the Colors without effect or harm—to go, in fact, anywhere. We were like gods, feared and revered, were we not? Loved by some, even.

“Bolstered by the indomitable might of those who came before us, we believed ourselves invincible as well. Look at us now, Narregan. Neither loved nor feared, discredited, beaten, outcasts…fugitives, in truth. To this we have fallen.”

His reverie stalls. His head turns just enough to cast a look askance. “Where were you?”

“That is a story for lastmeal, perhaps. Someplace dry, certainly. Not at land’s edge. What has happened to you, brother?”

He lifts his hair away from his neck, beckons me to observe his symbiote. It is devastated, its petals twisted and blackened. Its heart, an unhealthy ochre hue, quivers. Surrounding it, raw red tissue seeps a foul-looking pus. It appears a malignant coal affixed to the base of Orlah’s skull, burning there. My own symbiote reacts with shock and revulsion for the space of a beat.

Orlah shows me his face at last. I remember his eyes a sharp, sparking violet, dulled now and haunted. The anguish in his face is terrible. It is hard to hold his gaze.

“It still lives, you see,” he says, “after a fashion. Still a part of me, but disconnected from its greater self. Where once the pool of our Order’s combined experience was an activating thought away, it now keeps me in silence.”

A shudder runs through me to my boots.

“With one exception.”

A gust of spray erupts over the cliff’s edge. Orlah’s skin sluices water better than my other-world cloak. He seems oblivious to it.

“Swon’s cry in my ears as they killed her is just a memory, Narregan, and a memory’s immediacy fails with time. But not here.” He touches the ember on his neck without flinching. “Here is her last instant of life as the traitors’ bolts tore her to pieces. Not a memory. It will not be blunted by time. It is she! Always here! The sum of her last moments burned into me by this undead thing I cannot be rid of!”

He draws a shuddering breath.

“I should have died, too. I thought for a time that I had. Then, for a while, I was glad to be alive, enthusiastic to plan our retribution for this betrayal. That did not last the turn.”

We stand in silence, misted from below. I do not know what to say, but know enough to say nothing. Orlah is deep in his private misery.

“Her scream of helpless fury and pain is endless. You do not want to know what I have to do to sleep, but the LOSS of her, Narregan…” He makes a plaintive sound. “It is as immediate as an amputation and it is more than I will bear any longer. Better one merciful step now, than another turn of this torture and the promise of an unwinnable campaign—our ragged little band of renegades against the singular Force that tamed all Hevn.”

I have heard enough and into my brother’s pause I tell him, “I recognize you in there, Orlah, damaged but also able. Are you so afraid of Him you would abdicate your Oaths, abandon us, knowing this ragged little band needs your unique experience and ability?”

“Did you not hear me?”

“This Fayne did not tame all Hevn,” I remind him. “His predecessor brought the Law to the Colors. Not him. He is an administrator; the Acachi his enforcers. The First Fayne conceived the Acachi to be His Arm, His emissaries and, as necessary, His lawful Fist. As you said, brother, engineered and augmented over the course of an Age, WE were the Force that tamed all Hevn.”

“Were.”

“Even Takt-ot-sutoc sides with us. Think of that for a moment.” I brush the floret at the back of my own neck. Its petals riffle against my fingers. “This incomprehensible collective mind has understood our predicament and our purpose, and has chosen to risk its existence in support of ours.”

“That does nothing for me.”

“Tu’chah-j’toc abets us as well.”

I watch something cross Orlah’s features like a ripple of… hope would be too strong a word, but whatever momentary light shone from his eyes, a darkness I gratefully cannot fathom chases it from him.

“The legendary artifact,” he says. “Oh, Narregan, my credulous brother, always the wide-eyed innocent. You would bait me with a crèche-tale like that?”

“These circumstances, this juncture in time, and our place in it have never occurred before. The spinning shard will stop where it will and we may not prevail, but we will never have a better chance to finish this. The outcome remains…”

“…inevitable,” Orlah says with finality.

A wave explodes up the wall and rains down like a sheet. Orlah is screaming at the top of his lungs.

“None of that matters! He is T’sunghan! We are not! Wake up, you fool; we are already lost!”

“We are not lost!”

The sea inhales.

Orlah’s face is stone.

“I am lost.”

And there it is. There is nothing more to say.

He did not ken the figure approaching us as he gave voice to his despair.

Barth’s tread is familiar to me, as is the bow-wave of heat and fury that now precedes him. Regardless of any legendary status that may have been attributed to me in my absence, I am not fool enough to impede him.

Orlah pivots to meet the Warder.

Barth steps in close and bellows into his face.

“Had your own Warder witnessed your cowardice, heard your sniveling, comprehended the liability your weakness and stupidity pose to every one of us, he would have dutifully hurled you to the death you so ardently crave! Better perhaps he died without knowing the tragic waste of his effort you have become. Give me your t’sungathrah, ward, that I may see it to Soulbridge for you when you are gone.”

“Stand away from me, Barth! You bark like a dog at sounds in the distance without the least cognizance of their nature or purpose. Your noise does not move me.”

“Oh, I will move you, sloke!”

Barth’s lunge is explosive. Orlah turns with fluid grace off the line of Barth’s trajectory. I see his small blade flash from its place at his side, a thrust unerring to the old Warder’s heart. It is an outcome as natural as the cycles of the turn.

Barth sweeps the repost effortlessly aside, turning Orlah’s stroke in a lazy, harmless circle, and slams an elbow into the warrior’s throat. Driven backward, somehow managing to keep his feet under him, Orlah throws himself at the Warder in an oblique zagging charge, blade dicing.

“THAT’S the spirit, boy!”

Orlah’s edge cuts air.

The hard ridge of the Warder’s foot smashes Orlah’s breath away in a gust, loops beneath a last, vaguely motivated slash, and sweeps into the side of the warrior’s head, spinning him about like a drunkard. Orlah’s blade skitters once on stone and gone.

Bent back with a gnarled fist entwined in his hair, the tips of his toes alone anchor my brother to Hevn’s firmament. Beneath him jagged stone teeth and Havoc’s thundering breakers gnash. Barth raises his voice just enough to be heard above the din.

“You clamor for death. Have it then.”

A fractional release, a reflexive gasp.

“Or not. But choose now, or I will choose for you.”

Orlah’s lips work, but his punished airway produces only a gagging sound.

“I cannot hear you, porc’uc vomit. My ears must be failing. I am old and weak. I cannot hold you like this much longer.”

A burst of spray washes them both from soles to crown.

Orlah gags and sputters, “Life…” His voice is raw. “I will hon…,“ a gasp, “honor my oath.”

Barth is unmoved.

“Hear me then, ward; I’ll not repeat it. Your life, pathetic as it is, is now mine. I will direct how and when you may end it. Do you understand me?”

Orlah’s nod is not enough.

“Say it, ward!”

“H… ha’eh, Barth je! Ha’eh. On my honor.”

“You have none with me this-turn. It will likely take the rest of your life to restore it.”

Barth jerks Orlah away from the precipice, releasing him.

Orlah stumbles, hits his knees. His voice is a hoarse grating thing without subtlety. “I have disgraced myself, dishonored my Guardian’s memory and that of my Warder, Ybarra. I am unworthy, Barth je.”

“I find it encouraging that you have so accurately summed up your vast inadequacy.”

“Let me die.”

“When your Death calls to you, only when the lives of your Brethren and Bonded are no longer at risk will I allow you to join with her and not before. Until then, remind yourself always, each one of us carries with us personal loss and grief. No one thinks yours, however unique it may be, is in any way softer or easier to bear than their own… but for Gog’s sake, SHUT UP ABOUT IT!”

Head lowered, perhaps out of respect, more likely to mask the anger I now sense in him, Orlah nods. “Ha’eh, Barth je.”

“Good. Get out of my sight.”

Orlah straightens and, turning on a heel, strides past me back along the path to the encampment. His retreating form is swallowed by the vegetation even as Fayneem Occu paints the far nor’n horizon with a thin, crystalline halo.

Barth turns to me with a look of shifting emotions. One heavy eyebrow lifts, his question obvious.

“He will hold himself as long as he must,” I say. “I believe in him yet.”

The old Warder nods acknowledgement if not agreement. “His reflexes seem adequate still, given his handicap.”

“Your feint was convincing enough, but he nearly split you with his reply.”

Barth’s scowl is counterbalanced by a flicker at one corner of his scarred lips. “Pfff!” he says and tips his head toward the corona limning the far Edgelands. “We should be well beyond the ken of His Eye before it opens upon us, Narregan.”

“There is still some time before that. Sit with me, Barth je. I have been thinking.”

Bathed in mist and streaming rivulets, Barth sounds almost jovial. “I don’t share your sense of leisure. Fewest words, ward.”

I think of all I intended to say, bore down to the nut of it, and say that. “The Book of Turns.”

My Warder locks eyes with me, unblinking. My taproot opens to him without my bidding. I let it; it saves a lot of time.

An uncharacteristic astonishment owns Barth’s expression for a long count.

“Right under the nose of the madman himself,” he whispers and, for maybe the third time in my life, I see his face do something it was not made to do.

Weathered, creased, and scarred by time and violence, his grin is an awful mask—nothing but teeth and savagery. He steps in close. If I did not know and love him, I would have stepped away.

There is an unfiltered, maniacal merriment in his eyes. It transfers through the tap to me in a rush. “I like it,” he says, giving me an affable punch in the chest.

He steps off toward the encampment, into the thicket that seems to part before him, then close around his form. Another wave explodes below me and drowns his laughter filtering back up the trail.

Fayne’s Eye opens in a blaze of white incandescence over the edge of the world.

 

~     ~     ~

Orlah’s Lament Read More »

Dashel’s First Day – pt 3

When the entire Pacific Northwest convulsed eleven years ago, I was there.

I remember my guts knotting as the ground beneath me heaved and flung itself in every direction until it felt like liquid sloshing in a bucket. I was ten and I was terrified the earth was going to swallow me.

Up and down the West Coast from British Columbia to Northern California, except for a single, inexplicable zone of exclusion around Seattle, cities were shaken to their foundations. Some of them shattered. About a quarter hour later, over fifteen hundred kilometers of the North American west coastline began to be scraped bare of human habitation. A sizeable chunk of Southern California became an extension of the Pacific Ocean. Ten hours later, a wall of water reached Asian shores.

Several locations around the Pacific Rim’s legendary Ring of Fire awakened, along with the Yellowstone caldera, punctuating the so-called “End Times” with a little episode they called “The Long Winter”. The addition of Gonji rot was just a bonus.

But during that initial violent oscillation, the surge and pitch and collapse and swell of what had been, moments before, solid ground, something astounding happened. Out here in the wilderness of the mythical State of Jefferson, a mountain split apart. What diastrophism could not accomplish over millennia, the force of a tectonic plate suddenly whiplashing against centuries of escalating pressure was achieved in a matter of hours.

For an undocumented age, the rocky ridgeback had been just another undistinguished example of folded earth among hundreds, blanketed nearly to the top of its elongated, stony spine in coniferous forest, barely able to peek over the tops of its nearest neighbors. The shock exploding through the foundations of the Siskiyou Range broke its back open diagonally, fractured it, and thrust it upward. In the prolonged churn and upheaval, each half sheared away from its counterpart, mated jigsaw pieces forced asunder.

One side presents a sheer vertical concavity over three hundred meters from root to crest. Its opposing half, a raw, jut-jawed moai, lifts startled, abstract features to the sky.

Arrayed along the crest, flanks, and faces of each disjointed segment, is Lithia. The inhabitants call it Prime, the first redoubt.

Arrayed around the base of the sundered mountain’s southern flank, a secondary accretion of souls has gathered to build Down Town. The suggestion of a feudal community clustered beneath a castle’s walls is an unfortunate one.

 

.     .     .

 

The sensation of crossing the null-field is momentary and technically painless, I suppose, but I can say this without fear of contradiction; it is remarkably unpleasant. It feels like being dissected vertically, head to toe, front to back, and reassembled in the same instant. Painlessly. Try to imagine that again.

Mind and body flinch from the interface as it reads living tissue, passing it through unharmed and, in principle, unaffected.

Devices, however, do not generally fare as well. Within the field, unless powered by something referred to colloquially as a “spark”, all else become inert—undamaged, but inoperative.

 

The shuttle came to rest upon a precarious-looking balcony on the busy concave north inner face of Lithia’s divided peak. Everyone piled out in orderly fashion.

“Catch up with us when you can,” Benae said with a wave on her way out.

Rohnee started to say something, changed her mind, gave me another enigmatic half-smile, and joined the rest at the vestibule of a small grotto cut into the rock. I saw a people-mover slide into the rear of the grotto. They got on and it took them somewhere.

The man with the white hair and moustache showed me where to go next. He and the odd kid got me on a different people-mover and showed me where to get off. I know we talked some, but I still can’t remember what about.

I remember finding myself in an antiseptic, clinical environment.

A very kind, patient woman, I think her name was Julie, or Julia, asked me a lot of questions and monitored my vital signs while another technician, focused on her own task, did something with the mesh in my head. It didn’t hurt, but I don’t remember her name, or how long I was there.

What I remember most about the next part is a series of sharp images floating in nothing much. Like many of my early childhood memories, these little scenes swam up from a murkiness, played out in sharp relief, then a nebula flowed in from all sides to obscure whatever might have come next, and nothing seemed to connect these vivid instances to each other. But I remember, even now, each of them.

Then, I remember being in a room with three other people. Two of them were familiar, Mr. Germane and Mr. Crozier. The woman I’d never seen before.

I’m certain I’d know if I had. Face neither pretty, nor unfortunate, but very much her own, a singular composition of pale features framed by a tumble of copper-red ringlets. Her lips, also pale, never quite broke into a smile, and her eyes, an unremarkable brown, sought to identify what little facade I might still be attempting to employ. I’m pretty sure her name was Erica.

We all talked. I don’t remember clearly what about, but I remember noticing the sound, a brass instrument, trumpet maybe, playing a melody with some busy, rhythmic band behind it.

“Mark,” said the woman. Her foldie was laid on a tilt-table in front of her. Her hands moved across it with deliberation.

“Mark what?” I asked her.

She looked up. “Chuck Mangione.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The music you’re hearing. Chuck Mangione.”

“That him playing the trumpet?”

“Flugelhorn, actually.”

“Was that ‘mark’ some kind of threshold?”

I saw her blink and nod a couple times. Her attention returned to the media in front of her and resumed her fluid passes over it surface.

“Say, that’s kind of…”

I have no clear idea what I was thinking then, but I searched for an adjective for a second. Or a while. Hard to say.

Something began to flash in the upper right corner of my vision. I focused on it.

“Mark.” Erica again and it stopped pulsing.

I saw a familiar face. “Hi, Mr. Crozier,” I said to the image. “This is unexpected.”

His image said, “Mostly around here, the crews refer to me as Mr. Cee. I will invite you to consider doing the same, Mr. Crippen. A moment ago, when you looked at the alert, what did you see?”

“Your face.”

“What did you hear?”

“I heard your voice.”

“Anything before I spoke to you?”

“No. Another test?”

“Calibration,” Erica said. “Baseline references and thresholds.”

A tone intruded in our little conversation before she was finished speaking.

“Mark,” she said.

Mr. Cee turned to Erica and I heard him say, “Go to channel four.”

She nodded.

They said some things to me.

I said some things back.

We all smiled and the man with the white hair and moustache took me for another ride and showed me to my room. Rooms, actually. Two of them. A suite. One of them was my own bathroom. Sweet.

“Who are you again?” I said to the man.

“My name’s Harland. My title here is Uncle.”

“Uncle… Harland.”

“Yes.”

“Do I call you by name or title?”

“Like most everything else, it depends on the circumstance. You’ll pick it up. I’m the Push of this little group, all of whom you’ve met. Debo, the Hook, answers to me and I answer to the Council.”

“What Council?” I asked.

A nice man named Mr. Patel showed up with greetings and profuse apologies for interrupting our conversation. He handed me an armload of linens, offered sincere encouragement, and left.

“Plenty of time for all that after breakfast,” my new uncle said. “Settle in. I’ll see you in the morning.”

I realized I had no idea what time it was, but knew I was remaining vertical on sheer inertia.

“Okay,” I said and he let himself out.

I carried the armload into the next room. It had a bed in it. I might have hit it running and I don’t remember anything after that until it was tomorrow.

 

 

     ~       ~

Dashel’s First Day – pt 3 Read More »

Dashel’s First Day – pt 2

Barney’s runabout was a sleek, kit-built, three-wheel two-seater. It rolled out the gravel drive and onto the surface road with a throaty purr most uncommon in an electric. He let me drive it up to the shuttle. I don’t have a license to drive and he didn’t care.

By the time we’d left the surface streets and took our place in a trac approach queue, Barney had put away almost a liter of water, two pocket-samitches, and opened the seal on a third.

We had a brief wait in-queue, as usual. I released control to the trafficomp while the system made subtle adjustments to the trac’s flow, allowing our insertion onto the pattern. There were only a dozen or so other vehicles staged in front of us.

We eyeballed a clutch of stalwart outdoorspersons, free-rangers, and feral people, all living more or less temporarily within the margins of the queue conduit. Some slept back in the recesses of the tube amid a clutter of possessions and trash. The rest were lined up at streetside with their creative signage.

There were a couple new faces, transients here for a day or two before moving on; north or south, it didn’t matter. Most of the gaggle we recognized, tenured panhandlers, fixtures with their assigned positions. Some of their signs were standard fare, the apparent products of the same old underground self-promotion seminar, evidenced by the simple fact that most printed harangues still closed with the scrawl, “God Bless!” or something equally uplifting.

“FAMILY STARVING! PLEASE! ANYTHING HELPS!,” cried the uninspired signboard of one we knew to be a shameless opportunist, raggedy-ass beggar by daylight, home by nightfall to his wife, kids, and their lovely home in the East McAndrews hills.

“VIRGIN GALACTIC LOST MY LUGGAGE!” the scrawled pretext on a sign in the hands of a naked woman whose message placement was almost strategically perfect.

“WILL WATCH YOU WORK FOR FOOD,” said a placard in the hands of a middle-aged woman with sadness etched into her features.

A hirsute yeti in filthy rags and deranged eyes promised, “PILLOW TALK. $1/MINUTE—DRIVE-THRU OPEN.” Barney and I exchanged a cloned look of puzzlement.

An aging hipster, his signature look tattered, but appropriately ironic, thrust his scuffed whiteboard in our direction as though it was a conjuration. In neat block lettering it challenged, “KICK IN THE NUTS—2 BUCKS.” Barney & I were divided as to who’s kicking whom, but obviously, HE gets the money either way. It seems an odd choice that the movement of the trafficomp’s staging sequence makes any engagement with him unlikely.

We spotted our favorite, a grizzled veteran of the cola wars with an achingly poignant placard affirming, “COPS ATE MY BRAIN” and nothing more.

Barney pointed, scrolled down his window, and the fellow extended a battered steel thermos body on the end of a telescoping rod. Barney dropped a few bills into the container. The rod retracted as the trac moved us forward. The old man flashed us a gap-toothed grin, waving us on.

Barney wondered aloud around the last of his third sammich, “I don’t see old ‘CEREAL KILLER–NEED $$ FOR MILK’. You think he moved on?”

“Maybe he decided to try his luck in Seattle.”

“I hope not. Competition for space and green energy is an order of magnitude more immediate in Seattle. This place, at least, is benign.”

Our turn came and the system accelerated us with precision into the stream.

Trac bypassed Medford’s partially restored commercial district and dumped us onto the Five, which is also trac. Convenient.

Traffic was light, mostly freighters and, like us, people with somewhere to be and something to do there. Few tourists these days. We made good time southward toward the NorCal border. A warm, pelting rain was falling, streaming down the sides of the tube.

The arterial trac roads are protected, as you may have already observed. An envelope encompasses the trac, shielding the flow from inclement weather, debris, random animal crossings, and like hindrances to the unimpeded movement of traffic. The Five and its wrapper stretches from Vancouver, B. C., where the lava fields end, to the Angeles Sea, and includes arterials in each reconstructed center along its route.

How a few thousand kilometers of this vital interconnection was constructed with its enclosure in under five years is as much an industrial secret as how Eric Gerzier’s teams were able to repurpose many kilometers of heavily damaged infrastructure to put the trac system on-line in the same amount of time.

But then, no one really knows how Gerzier does anything he does, do they?

Well, yes and no. The people who designed and operated the machinery used to accomplish these feats knew. They were all his people, you see. And Barney knew.

For the last few years, he’d been part of a team that supported Gerzier’s operations, but he never told me shit about any of it. I wasn’t part of the team then; I was just his friend. These people take the concept of ‘Need To Know’ to an airtight level.

Anyway, I figured today I’d start to get some serious answers.

 

Trafficomp shunted us off the Five onto a capillary egress tube where the trac released us and I took back manual control of the runabout.

To the left, a wide, once well-traveled lane tunneled through a green rampart and, from there, penetrated deep into mountainous country. The historic Mount Ashland Resort and Ski Lodge lay in ruins some several klicks up that winding road. More twisting kilometers beyond that broken landmark is the outer boundary of Lithia and the very peculiar—no… eclectic community growing like a phage on the southern flank of the split peak. The inhabitants call the place simply, Down Town.

If I’d looped left one-eighty, we could have pulled into Callahan’s for some fine dining, still a popular local destination and a strong testament to entrepreneurial survival through catastrophic times.

Instead, I turned a sharp right off the lane and transponders signaled us through the gated entry. Beyond the barrier, I slipped the runabout into a vacant cover near our shuttle at its dock and listened to the motor purr down to silence.

Four meters high, nine across, the shuttle’s shape is reminiscent of a popular appetizer served in many Asian-themed foody bars, known alternately as a dumpling or a potsticker. This particular potsticker looked like wet gunmetal. The entire upper half of the bulbous leading edge was a transparency and, in the pinched trailing edge, an ample entryway stood open with a couple shallow steps dropped down almost to the paving surface.

The entire dumpling hung motionless a few centimeters from the deck.

I shook Barney awake and, as I did so, an unexpected anxiousness awakened in me again. I had thought I’d reasoned my way through it several times before. Perhaps you can appreciate this if you’ve ever been thrust by your own choices into a situation where you have no clear knowledge of what you will find, or what will be asked of you.

I felt two sensations competing within me for my commitment to one or the other. The first was disbelief at my own apparent lack of common sense, although the choices that lead me here made perfect sense to me when I made them. The other, excitement at the prospect of experience beyond yesterday’s limitations.

Barney took a long pull at a bottle of some vitamin-slash-energy concoction he’d premixed for the occasion, looked at me with the kind of brotherly detachment for which he had become infamous, and said, “Pull yourself together, boy. Try to pace yourself or they’ll burn your ass up before you even get on their good side.”

“Is that likely?” I asked.

“What? Burn your ass up?”

“Their good side.”

“Only one way to find out. Don’t work too hard at it. They’re not the easiest crowd, but I wouldn’t have sponsored you if I didn’t think you’d fit in. Now get out of my car.”

“You coming?”

“Gotta piss.”

He hoisted his cocktail in a kind of salute, tipped his bottle up, drained it, and flipped it back over his shoulder into the cubby behind his seat. “How do I look?”

“Like Wile E. Coyote after a particularly volatile misadventure.”

He made a dismissive that-a-way gesture. “Okay then. I’m right behind you.”

He veered off before I was halfway to the shuttle. And I was alone.

I think that’s the way we do everything.

Alone.

Even if we’re with other people.

Yes, we have our circles and our orbits and we desire, even crave the presence of others around us, those kindred spirits, to validate us, to hold us close. But we make our choices to hold fast or let go, give, take, stand or fall, all within those seventeen centimeters or so between our earbuds. And in the end, no matter how many are around us when it comes, we will meet that alone too.

Something my mom used to tell my brother and me when we were little. I didn’t understand it then. I do now. She said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything”. I heard her reminding me to let the next moments unfold without expectation or resistance. I heard myself reminding her again that’s easy to say.

I climbed aboard the craft with my bag slung over one shoulder, determined to begin defining myself in this new context from the first moment. Was my hair perfect? My fingernails clean? My nose hairs trimmed? My fly up? Too late to worry about any of that now.

 

Six individuals were already inside, standing at the forward transparency. I registered their initial reactions in that first blink: curiosity, amusement, unfocused indifference, and a singular instance of what felt like naked contempt. So, I walked up to her first.

Dark-skinned Amazon with a femullet—dusky purple with flame-red tips spiked up sharp and perilous in the front, tumbled down her back in a blaze. She had an easy fifteen centimeters on me and at least another complete layer of muscle more, all over, than I currently own. Her features were plain in a square-jawed, Statue of Liberty sort of way: strong slab of nose cantilevered over pursed lips drawn tight as a sphincter.

Attractive is one of several words one could not realistically choose to describe her, but hers was the exact face in my mind of someone never to be screwed with.

“What’s wrong with YOU?” she barked over my shoulder. Her voice had a husky depth and sounded like it should have hurt. One corner of her mouth didn’t move much when she spoke, giving the impression she was sneering her words.

Barney didn’t even look at her. He dropped his duffle on the floor and said, “Nothin’, babe. I’m rooty tooty and ready for duty.”

“Well, you look like shit.”

“Look who’s talkin’.”

“I mean it. What’s your problem?”

“What, are you a doctor now?”

“Are you going to make me come over there?”

Barney took an aisle seat, reached over to pat the one next to him, said, “I’m working on a new project. C’mon, I’ll tell you all about it.”

He let the invitation hang in the air, she glared at him, and I stepped into the momentary lull between them. “Hi, I’m Dash.” I offered her my fist. You know, like you do.

She stared at my hand a moment, then at me. Her scowl should have left blisters.

“I know who you are.”

Barney, from his sprawl, “Dash, this is Debo, the Hook. Deeb, why don’t you take it down a notch?”

“Why don’t you take a flying…”

“Yeah, Deeb,” said the young woman next to her. “Play nice for a few minutes. You can eat him later.”

About my height with short black hair, gorgeous almond eyes, and lips just the way I like them—one on the top, one under it. Figure and features perfectly arranged. Her voice sounded like velvet feels.

No question about it, Deeb doesn’t like that name. Her glower shifted from Barney, back to me, then to the beauty, who seemed unfazed.

“Hi, I’m Molly.” She offered me her knuckles.

Time stopped.

Her eyes pulled me into their gravity well. A smokey heat seemed to emanate from her. I could feel its pressure, but instead of pushing me away, I felt drawn to it. Her stance and posture, that tight body, those smoldering eyes— I knew at a molecular level I needed to sleep with this woman… at least, you know, once. Soon, right now, later, whatever.

And then time resumed and we all continued to stand there without apparent transition. It was my fervent wish that the intense flash I’d had of Molly and me in a tangle of hot monkey sex had not been transmitted broadband. It might well have been misconstrued, had it done so. Testosterone, it’s a hell of a hormone.

I was seeking, with marginal success, to regain my equilibrium when Molly brushed the back of my hand with hers, a slow, sensual contact. Succulent lips parted in a smile. Her teeth were white and perfect and I knew she knew. I felt my face flush.

Her smile widened. “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?”

I heard a single, soft, derisive snort overhead. “Oh, it’s definitely you, Cupcake. And stop playing with your food.”

I looked up.

Debo was peering down at me, arms folded across her chest—pecs, if you want to get technical, way more muscle than mammary—and somehow she managed a less threatening glower.

That went well, I thought, and felt a hand on my shoulder. It was gentle enough I let it pull me around to face another young woman. This one, short and stocky with chubby cheeks in a good-natured brown face, seemed friendly.

“What’s this, guy?” she asked.

“Sorry. What?”

“Why are you sorry? Never mind. Back of your jersey.”

“Oh, that. A gift from my teammates,” I said. “We played pitball at the dorms.”

Across the yoke was my name, sort of. Instead of printing out ‘Dashel’, as just about any reasonable person would, my mates just went with a single horizontal stroke chasing a perfectly conventional number nine.

“Really?” she said. “What position?”

“High Anchor.”

“Oh, that’s weird with a beard! I was a top-stop too. Where did you room?”

“Uh, Greensprings. You?”

“Cascade,” she said, nodding. “Greensprings gave us some of our best games. I might’ve even played against you a time or two; hard to tell on opposite sides of a four story building, though. Right?”

“Good view from the top, though.”

That earned me a grin, and I grinned back. I didn’t remember seeing her over the top, but her enthusiasm was like sunlight, like her own personal sunbeam was shining through her. I liked her right away. I think I knew then, if she was okay in this crowd, I would be too.

“I’m Benae,” she said. “Glad to meet you, Dash Nine.” She offered the back of her fist and I skinned it.

“Say it again, please,” I said to her.

“It’s Benae. But mostly they call me Beans.”

“Or Beanie,” Molly said, still smiling.

“Or Beaner,” said the man at my other shoulder. I thought it a discordant note.

“I’m Staker,” he said and offered me the back of a ham. I mean hand. I gave it a proper buffeting.

About my height, built like a tree stump, Staker’s cap of short dark hair was threaded with gray. And there was humor in his eyes and in the lines of his face. I found that encouraging.

“Why do they call you that?” I asked.

“‘It’s my name.”

“Oh. I thought it might be like a handle or something… you know, like ‘Beaner’.”

“Oh, you mean like a code name?” He swiveled his bullet head on a neck the size of my thigh to address his mates. “Hey, everybody! We’re gonna use code names again! Who wants one?” No one responded and he faced me again with an expression of disappointment. “Do you want one anyway?”

“Seems a bit premature for that kind of thing,” I said. “You don’t even know what my superpower is yet.”

“Nonsense. Your new name is ‘Three-step’.”

Someone chuckled.

Quick footsteps and a rustling at the hatch turned heads that way.

An older man ushered a boy through the doorway. Pre-teen, maybe. Both appeared to observe the current trend in monochromatic attire. The youngster surveyed us all, just a quick scan. Face was odd. I couldn’t hear him talking, but thought I saw fangs. The man guided him toward empty seating.

Medium height and slender, all corded muscle and grace, the contrast of his snow-white hair, a mane pulled back into a long braid, and his full-on Zapata moustache against mahogany skin tended to capture one’s attention.

He appraised the contents of the shuttle compartment, held my eyes for a moment, gave me a nod, and turned away to take a seat. That was it.

The outer door hushed shut and the shuttle rose up. I barely felt it.

“Anyway, I’m glad you’re here,” Staker said.

“You are? Why?”

“Because now me and Beaner are not the ‘new kids’ anymore.”

Benae mouthed a silent, ‘Thank you.’

“Uh, well… sure. I’m happy I could help you both out,” I said. I took one of those deep breaths like you take before you jump into cold water, let it out slow and quiet, staring ahead through the fog. “Relax now, I’ve got this.”

We were gaining altitude in no seeming hurry. The cover of gray flannel with its heavy load of precip obscured the view below and ahead.

I knew where we were. I’d taken this ride three times when the Promethean School’s fluid curriculum brought our class here for… well, honestly, I don’t know what for. I thought I did at the time. Pretty sure there was more going on than I knew.

“Oh, you haven’t got it yet,” Staker said, affecting a sage nod. “Cinch up your jock strap, Three-step. You’re in for a choppy ride.” He gave me a brotherly pat on the shoulder.

My brother hit me in that spot with a two-by-four years ago. It felt about the same.

“What’s a jock strap?” I asked.

“Hmm. Maybe that’s your code name.” He hooked me by the elbow. “Let me finish your tour.” I let him steer me toward a pair of individuals further along the railing of the fore transparency.

He dragged me to a halt in front of a tall, whipcord-slim fellow with swept-back blond hair styled with a knife-edged part to the left, casual elegance accomplished with precision. His back to the view, he seemed preoccupied, cleaning and filing his fingernails with meticulous care.

I recognized him right away. The high school student body president, varsity football quarterback, homecoming king, captain of the chess club, linchpin of the Debate Team, and all-around social douchebag, grown up into his feet, as they say.

Staker, on point. “Dash, this is Madison. Madison, Dash.”

“Yeah, hang on,” Madison said without looking up, abrading the nail on the protruding middle finger of his left hand with a small file and an acute attention to detail. He magicked the file gone and a nail clipper appeared. He snipped off a cool micrometer, then the file was back and he smoothed the edge down.

I’d never seen a demonstration of fastidiousness quite like that before. It was weird and hypnotic at the same time, but mostly weird. He held his hand out to inspect his work, blew away some microscopic keratin particles and, apparently satisfied, met me with eyes so blue they seemed incandescent.

“How’s it going?” he said, casual words delivered in a tone of frosty indifference.

I held his gaze. No future in acting submissive. “It’s a little too early to tell.”

“That much is certain,” he said and went back to work with his little tools. Audience over.

Staker gave my elbow a tug and we stepped away. At a respectful distance from His Majesty stood a young woman with her back to the viewport as well, a bookend to Madison. About my age, I guessed. Longish, strawberry blond hair spilled across one eye and over the collar of her gray-black jumpsuit. She was making mystical passes at her foldie.

Staker hailed her. “Rohnee?”

Her foldie bunched in one hand, hands on her hips, her appraisal of me approached a distracting level of scrutiny. I saw her eyes, too, were blue, but unlike Madison’s disturbing luminescence, hers were the color of faded denim. And she had freckles. God, I love freckles.

“Rohnee,” I said. “Hi, I’m Dash.” I offered her an unpretentious smile and the back of my fist. “I was told you’re to be my mentor. I’m glad to meet you.” Why did my mouth feel full of cotton?

Instead of the expected bump, she gripped my forearm and held it, a deliberate breach of End Times etiquette. She glanced down at my hand, fingers still curled under in a loose fist, looked back at me. I opened my fingers and returned the grip on her forearm. Half her mouth smiled at me; the other half hadn’t decided to commit. I began to retrieve my hand and arm. She turned my wrist up and looked at my palm, nodded once, let me go.

“Mentor might be a stretch.” Her voice was blue denim too.

“When do we start?” I asked.

“Started when the door closed behind you.”

“Great. Now what?”

“Are you turned on yet?”

I’m pretty sure I had a stupid look on, blinked two or three times, swallowed a couple obviously wrong answers, and studiously did not glace at Molly.

“I don’t mean her, Wingnut.”

She seemed to look through me for a long second and said, “No, I can see you’re not. Come find me when you are.”

“Where? How?”

“Well, that’d sorta be your first test, wouldn’t it?”

I started to say something witty and, to my lasting surprise, thought better of it.

Staker lowered himself into the nearest seat in the first row of comfortable, form-fit butt-holders and I thought of no good reason not to do the same.

Barney was slumped into his seat, eyes closed. Across from him, were the two that skidded in before we lifted from the dock. The funny-looking kid on the aisle was staring at Barney with a focused curiosity. The old guy had separated himself by a couple seats, stretched out his legs, and looked to be sleeping too.

Benea took the seat one over and winked at me. “Welcome to your next life,” she said. “Know what I mean, jellybean?”

Save for the subdued resonances of human beings in proximity, the cabin was otherwise still. The storm rushed to meet us mid-air, hurling itself against the shuttle’s forward transparency, ribboning away to linger briefly in our wake before adding itself to the downpour below. The shuttle’s agencies of lift and propulsion operated soundlessly with neither vibration nor tumult. No one else spoke and I offered no attempt to impose myself on the rhythm of rain.

The shroud in our path began to break apart. Rain abated. Its last vestiges streamed from the viewport. I felt the familiar and wholly unpleasant anatomization as my body flinched through Lithia’s null field perimeter.

The mountaintop village/fortress, brilliant in morning sunlight, opened its stony arms to welcome us.

 

       ~       

Dashel’s First Day – pt 2 Read More »

Dashel’s First Day – pt 1

Barney called it his apartment, an old, single-wide mobile home, no longer mobile, blocked up in back of Mrs. Palmer’s house. Still in decent shape inside and out, it had its own gravel driveway curving in from the street with a rickety carport at its terminus. Reasonable rent and relative privacy were the dwelling’s defining features.

His place was a short free-run from the quad I was housed in—out the third-floor bathroom window, a quarter mile of some technical stuff, and finally pachinko down the spreading arms of an old sycamore into the Palmer’s back yard. Hard left to Barney’s door.

I guess it’s safe to say I spent a fair amount of my free time there. For one thing, Barney had actual furniture. The tip-out on the port side of his immobile home was filled to capacity by a huge sofa with recliners on either end and a long coffee table I don’t think I’ve ever seen the top of.

He’d covered the opposite wall and window with sheets of plywood, then mapped that surface with circuited polycarbonate. It mimics the feed from any foldie linked in proximity. We could lounge in the evenings when Barney wasn’t working and watch any of our subscriptions, play games, or pick and choose from a library of content most of those plugged into vee would dismiss as “one-dimensional”.

Neither Barney, nor I, had any use for cloud people. For us it was never a religious thing—I’m not even sure we could be accused of being religious in a colloquial sense—it’s just that we were never keen to be sleepwalkers.

Early morning light filtered through a dirty window in the little booth between the galley and the “family room”. The booth sports a table bracketed to the wall on one end and supported by a drop-down leg on the other. Bench seats on either side await, their tired cushions covered in fabric with a festive pattern. I sat with my back to the kitchenette where, behind me, the compact range and a hotbox crowded a minimalist countertop.

Barney sat across from me, bleary-eyed, his hair splayed out like a radiation-mutated starfish with extra arms at weird angles. He slurped something green and repulsive from a mug, and his arm draped with casual intimacy around the shoulders of Mrs. Palmer’s daughter, Brenda.

Pretty little thing in a pudgy, budding, jailbait fashion, I guess.

Brenda had sashayed into our morning a few minutes ago wearing silky pajamas designed to cover everything and hide nothing. Snuggled into the crook of Barney’s arm, she was nursing coffee, eyeing me with a kind of vacant disinterest.

I remember I was spooning up the last of some unsatisfying, half-soggy, cardboard cereal and asked, “Your mom concerned you’re out here?” as though I were concerned.

“You mean dressed like this?” She squared her shoulders for better effect. “She probably would be, but she took her meds last night. Won’t wake up for another couple hours.”

She’d already taken time to apply makeup. Still kind of new at it, but a sincere effort at least. She sipped her coffee, other hand underneath the table. She nestled against him and smiled up at me with ingénue eyes. “We have plenty of time.”

“Well, that’s nice,” I said and sidled out of the confinement to rinse my bowl in the sink, still hungry.

Brenda had discovered Barney’s abode hospitable shortly after he moved in. There was an obvious primitive chemistry at work between them, but all she’d ever done for me was act the tease. She seemed to enjoy testing her awkward, blossoming allure on me. Dog knows why.

I cracked the fridge, finished off the rest of a carton of something fruity, and tossed the container in the recycle hopper. I found a breakfast pocket and slipped it into the hotbox.

I could see Brenda silently trying to coax Barney to come with her to the back of the trailer, but he wasn’t finished with his healthy breakfast sludge yet and hadn’t moved much more than his eyebrows, lips, and left forearm in the last several minutes.

I tapped a command on the hotbox control surface and let it go to work.

Barney gave a supple contour an appreciative squeeze. She slapped at his hand as if to brush it away, then closed hers over his and purred.

“Sorry, darlin’,” he said. “Not this morning. “Dash and I have work,” he said. “We’ve got to get ready to go.”

He lifted his hand away from her to scratch his head with a crackle of static.

She sniffed him. “You can’t go like that. You need a shower.” She retrieved his hand and pressed it to her. “Come on, I’ll soap your back for you real quick. Or, you know, whatever.”

I could literally see his resolve begin to dissolve.

“No can do, hotpants.” He shook his head. “Not today. I’d love that. You know I would, right? But Dash and I seriously cannot be late today. C’mon, scootch over.”

He hip-bumped her toward the aisle.

Frowning now at Barney’s apparent insensitivity, she hitched up her indignation to leave in what I could only characterize as a snit. Standing, she hailed him with several choice names reserved for the tragically disenfranchised among her social strata. The little girl already knows how to cut a fella.

Unprepared for her thespian departure, I found myself crowding the narrow space, blocking a flouncing exit that would have been suitably melodramatic had it been unimpeded. My presence earned me a scalding glare.

I put my back to the fridge allowing her room to brush past. Instead, she faced me and smeared herself across me in a slow, rhythmic undulation, her hair soft and fragrant in my face, her hand trailing across the front of my pants.

“Eunuch,” she said by way of good-bye.

“Trampoline,” I replied.

She gave me a pat. I gave the curvy part of her silky pantaloons a slap that produced a satisfying pop. She stifled a yelp, but couldn’t uncouple an adorable little two-step.

She turned in the vestibule to fix me with a practiced glare. “You wish!”

“I wish you had an older sister.”

She yanked open the door and plunged down the steps. I heard the sound of solid impact and a grunt, a distinctly male grunt. She squealed once, followed by the crisp smack of one hand clapping against something resilient. Barney and I listened as her footsteps retreated toward the main house and a man’s laughter accompanied a heavier tread on the steps.

An unfamiliar presence entered Barney’s tin tipi, closing the door behind him.

“Been a while since a sweet handful like that just threw itself into my arms,” he said, squeezing ripe, but invisible fruit with both hands.

He shucked his jacket off onto a spare hook on the near wall and hung his mask with it. “That’s a tender slice, Barn. Have you got an exemption on it?”

I noticed his left cheek was radiant.

About my height, probably about my age, standard build and, except for his jacket and shoes, his clothes appeared straight off the bargain rack at the Wally-verse. His hair, a sunny blond, was spiked straight up and his moustache was thick, black, and dreadful. He looked like an actor in one of those old Bollywood action movies—not the lantern-jawed lead, to be sure; more like one of the villain’s expendable henchmen.

“You get that salacious thought out of your head right now,” Barney said.

The newcomer looked me up and down once. “Who are you?”

“I’m Mr. Gaston’s public relations representative and scheduling secretary,” I said. We had good eye contact. “Do you have an appointment?”

He blinked.

“We don’t do walk-ins until Thursday,” I explained.

Barney stood up, wiping away a dark green moustache.

“Hey, Dash,” he said. “This is Chase. He works in R&D up on the hill. He’s following up on one of my projects.”

The three of us real cozy there in the galley corridor, Barney completed the ritual. “Chase, Dash here is one of my oldest friends since middle school, before the…” He licked his lips. “I’m surprised you haven’t met yet; he’s almost a roommate.”

“Well shit, Barn,” Chase said. “Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.”

I stuck out my fist. Knuckles down. Like you do.

He bumped the back of my hand with his own, like you do. Not aggressively, but hard enough to let me know he was someone not to be taken lightly. Or maybe he has poor depth perception. I’m not judging.

“Dash’s got an appointment up at hilltop in a couple hours,” Barney said. “He’s being assigned today.”

“Really?” Chase said, all chummy and oily and interested. “I could probably help you get a comfy placement inside Prime if you want. I’ve got some influence with …”

“I’m going to crew on the Sagan,” I said.

Chase’s expression conveyed dismay. “With the Nancys? Oh, no. No no no. You don’t want to get hooked up with them. They’re not right. It’ll make you bugshit just being around them.”

“Shut up,” Barney said.

“You know. Like him,” Chase said hooking a thumb.

“Thanks all the same,” I said. “You want some coffee?”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

“No! No coffee! That’s the last thing you need now.” Barney pointed to the seat he’d just vacated. “Go ahead and sit down there. I’ll just be a minute.”

Chase didn’t jump to comply, instead gave me a skeptical look that tracked back to Barney, tipped his head my way.

“He knows.” Barney said.

Chase’s head swiveled back to me. “You do? You tried it?”

“Tried what?”

“Express.”

“Oh, hell no! My body’s a temple.”

The hotbox chirped and I took my egg, cheese, and sausage pocket out on its little paperboard tray, opened it up enough to spooge sour cream and a couple packets of pico inside, pinched it shut.

“S’cuse me,” I said, edging back into my seat. “The temple requires periodic fortification.”

“Your temple’s had an implant recently.”

“Why don’t you two take a few minutes,” Barney said, fingers in his crazy hair. Tiny static discharges twinkled. “Get to know each other. I’ll be right back.”

He and Chase exchanged positions in the rectangular cylinder of the galley and its nook. His slipper-shod shamble carried him through the galley and the entry, out the door, and into the carport’s little storeroom. He didn’t some right back.

I took a bite of my samitch. I still remember that initial burst of flavor even now. Funny that’s stayed with me after everything that’s happened.

I recall, too, how my scalp was sore where the implant was still settling into it. I’m told I shouldn’t be able to feel micro-filaments delving into my favorite brain, either. That morning, I was sure that I could.

I spread my foldie out in front of me and began sifting through my preferences. An image and its header caught my eye—one of my favorites. I promoted it and let it run, woke my earbuds.

Chase made up his mind. Barney took a few steps out of the runway and Chase slid into the empty seat across from me.

“Barney said we should get to know each other,” Chase said. “I feel like I already know a lot about you, Dash. I observe people. Student of human nature, you might say. Part of what I do.”

That’s disturbing, I thought, while I chewed off another bite and gave my reply around it. “Mmmm… mmhm.”

“Unless I miss my guess, you’re an outie. Or at least you were. No implants. No neural tech,” he passed a hand over the top of his own head, “until now, that is. If you’re hired, you’re wired. Right? No Community profile, either. Right? In fact, I’ll bet the only personal tech you sport besides your new haircut is that foldie and… what are those? Earbuds. Am I right?”

I swallowed, looked up. “Oh, sweet Jeebus! Yes! Wow! That’s fantastic! Are you a psychic or what?”

“Ha ha. No, really, you see I…” and I just let him run on for a while about his favorite thing. I turned my attention back to the ‘cast and my buds up a notch, looking up for effect, several times while chewing.

Chase finally realized he was talking to himself and when he tuned up again, his tone was a bit less genial.

“What are you looking at?”

“Sieb Forward,” I said and dabbed a finger to pause the playback. “I try to follow him.”

“No shit? I follow him too! I’ve even seen him on assignment a couple times.”

Oh, great. Now we’re simpatico. Only half of the connected planet follows Stanford Seib’s unique and wildly creative brand of roving reporting. A real fluke would be running into someone who doesn’t follow him.

“What a coincidence,” I said. I think I sounded sincere.

“Yeah!” Oh, he’s a fan alright. “Anything goes trapezoidal anywhere in the world, he’s right there in the middle of it. The guy’s a-mazing.” He points to my foldie. “Where is he now?”

“South America. A contingent of naked, indigenous malcontents are attempting to defend their patch of rain forest and their tree-top community against a squad of monkeys with automatic weapons. No, I mean real monkeys. With guns.”

“Are there earthmovers in the background, too?” Chase said. “That would figure.”

“Can’t tell. Sieb was just about to interview a speaker for the tree-people. They’re both up in some really big ones. Lots of birds and clouds and bugs. Can’t see the ground. Looks like he’s completely at home there.”

“He’s a performer.”

“I heard he’s a stump.” I said.

“Sieb? Oh, yeah. He’s all in. Has been since he began. Warehoused, wired, a tube in every orifice and some tubes where no orifice had ever been before. He is the ultimate cloud tenant. Sort of the antithesis of someone like you.” He gave me that little, ‘you know I’m just kiddin’ around, right?’ smile.

“You could say that.” I don’t care if he’s kidding or not. He’s seen Sieb, though. That’s worthy. “I’d assumed his physical presence on-site is a shiny mechanical. You’ve seen his production. How does he show up?”

“It’s pretty smooth, but it’s not shiny.”

“Hmm?” I said around almost my last tasty mouthful.

“All the mechanicals he used when I saw him weren’t shiny. Most were a little beat up, but expertly maintained. Plus a two-man on-site crew, his media-bot, and a hefty ACMe-powered lifter to provide transport, supplemental imaging, and manage the uplink.”

Chase likes talking. He keeps doing it.

“It’s an impressive package, and his producers have several of these cells staged around the world for rapid deployment. Between the startup and upkeep on a stable like that, and the cost of moving them around, it’s hard to believe his subscription is so inexpensive.”

I think I’ve already mentioned his subscription has global appeal, so no; I didn’t think it was hard to believe at all. Not difficult, either, to imagine the cost of advertising on Seib Forward to be astronomic and, no doubt, companies world-wide were falling over themselves in a daily scrum for the privilege to pay for it.

I heard Barney clumping up the steps. He left the door open with the screen in place and shuffled back to the table, slid in beside me.

A small box in his fingers, smooth, smoked plastic with rounded corners, found the tabletop with exaggerated care. With one finger, he eased it across the surface to his guest.

Chase studied Barney’s eyes for several seconds. Barney planted his elbows on the table, cradled his chin in both hands, and showed him a sleepy half-smile. Faced with the patience of Buddha, Chase turned his contemplation to the little container.

He popped it open and plucked from it a single, translucent capsule, rolling it in his fingers. Amber-colored. He sniffed it and seemed dubious of its greasy coating.

“This is it?”

“Well… yeah,” Barney said. “What did you want, one with a lightning bolt embossed on the side?”

“You could do that?”

The last gooey bite of my samitch was in my hand, and Chase saw me take it all in a sensuous slow-mo.

“What you’ll want to do is…” Barney said and Chase popped the pill into his mouth.

“SHIT!” Barney’s hands flew out. “I mean, WAIT! Hold on! Don’t swallow that!”

I probably shouldn’t have burst out laughing like I did, but I couldn’t help it—too late to reel it back in. The expression of naked revulsion on Chase’s face was so perfect, even better than watching Brenda storm out in a huff. Barney was struggling to hold back his own amusement and failing.

Chase hacked out the pellet into his hand and sat staring at it, then glared at each of us, his mouth working without opening. He snatched a wad of paper napkins and horked up a wad of his own into some of them, wiping his tongue on the rest.

“Jesus Homunculus Christ! That tastes like…” I could see him searching for words sufficiently descriptive to convey his disgust.

“It’s a suppository,” Barney said, his grin far too wide to imply remorse.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?!”

“No. It is, in fact, the most efficient delivery method. Besides, I know how repulsive that lubricant tastes. Yeah, I really do. It tastes like asparagus piss smells, doesn’t it? Anyway,” and here he let go a merry little chortle again. “I sure wish you could’ve seen your face.”

“You are one sick fuck, Barney. You know that? You know what else? I don’t even want to know how you know what that…” he spits into one of the napkins he’s still holding, “…tastes like.”

Chase spread his hands in an unconvincing gesture of resignation. The napkin wads fall away. “Was it everything you hoped for?”

I spun my foldie on the table and passed it over in front of Chase. On it was a single, full-spread image of his face screwed up in disgust, his lips puckered against the vile pill within. He seemed to hover over his likeness, still, barely breathing, taking it in.

Then he laughed—a real, unselfconscious whooping guffaw.

And then we were all doing it. Barney’s tin can must have rung with it for a few seconds at least.

The merriment subsided, Chase slid my foldie back to me with a cheerful, “I’m going to stick with my original ‘fuck you’, okay?”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said.

Barney eased out of the booth, poured a tumbler of some sparkling, citrusy-smelling beverage from the fridge. “Here,” he said and placed it in front of Chase. “It’ll clear your palate.” Then he poured a couple more for himself and me.

Too much grapefruit in the mix for my taste, as I’d had a traumatic grapefruit experience as a child, but I sipped on it anyway. You know, to be polite.

Barney pointed Chase toward the bathroom. Chase got up, favored us both with a frosty scowl, and took his little pill with him. Barney reached out, eased my foldie in front of him where he could fiddle with it, manipulating the interface with practiced fluency.

The wall screen in the living room lit up with a live concert vid by an odious ‘alternative’ band called Riddled With Polyps. The particular tune in the moment, if one were charitable enough to call it a tune, began with a studious violation of all known musical convention. Not necessarily as simple as it sounds. Well, they’re professionals, after all.

A synthesizer furnished a cat-strangling reproduction of the hrnk and skirl of bagpipes, lending a curious counterpoint to the fusion and fury of what I took to be three guitars and a working sawmill. These were under percussive assault by, in my best estimation, a chain-gun, concussion grenades, and a dumpster tumbling down an endless flight of stairs, which produced its own recognizable rhythm, of course, although nowhere close to synchronization with either instruments, or a toneless, genderless vocalist.

Over all of this, its voice delivered a staccato word salad which failed to repeat a single bewildering stanza over the course of a protracted and ruthless molestation of the senses. The production values were professional quality and impressive, but I thought it an infuriating choice for background music.

“Jesus, Barn! If this is what we’re listening to here, what’s playing in Hell?”

“Same thing, probably.”

“So, you’re saying this could be Hell. What’s it called?”

“Butter Enema.”

“I’d rather have one than hear it.”

“No, you wouldn’t. But when our boy accelerates, that music…”

“That’s not ‘music’.”

“… is going to sound completely different to him and, more than anything else in the immediate vicinity, it’ll snap his mind like a rubber band. Watch and learn, Grasshopper.”

“You’re the devil.”

Barney passed my foldie back.

The bathroom door lurched open and Chase returned to the table. His gait sort of crabbed sideways a couple times, as though he was attempting to adjust an errant bunching of his boxers without the use of his hands. He squirmed noticeably again as he sat down.

“Did you wash your hands?” Barney asked.

“No. I wiped them on your toothbrush.”

The most obnoxious music on Earth assailed the air around us without threat of relent, and together we watched Chase and he watched us watching him.

A minute and change passed almost without event.

The cacophony from Barney’s sound system was borderline intolerable, an auditory brutality with a beat, more or less. But Chase was tapping fingers on the tabletop before an expression of bewilderment eclipsed his features and his entire body began to vibrate.

He let out a sound, high and thin and tight, and I watched as his expression changed from one of confusion and alarm to panic, then comprehension and, at last, wonderment. All of that in the space of maybe ten seconds. Then he was still, looking right at us. I couldn’t even guess what he was seeing. His eyes were a blur.

His body coiled in the booth seat. I barely saw it happen and then he was staring at the wall screen in the living room. He was riddled by the Polyps, I remember thinking, because I still thought I was funny then. I had a momentary impression of him turning back to look at us, but I blinked and he was gone.

What I mean is, one second, I saw him in profile, head cocked as though listening to the Polyps’s torturous ear-rape, but hearing instead something I could not. Then he sort of smeared across my vision leaving empty air where his face had been when I blinked. Ditto the rest of him.

The screen door had banged open, already rebounding closed as I turned too late to catch a glimpse.

Barney had told me what the concoction he called ‘Express’ was supposed to do, but I didn’t really believe it until that moment. I started to say something to Barney and noticed his eyes were blurred too.

“I am going to have to go after him before he hurts himself,” he said. His words were enunciated with precision, as if sending me a message from a great distance and, in a sense, I guess he was.

“Or someone else,” I said to Barney’s after-image as the screen door closed again.

“You boys keep moving that fast,” I shouted into the vacancy, “you’ll set your pants on fire!” and I wondered what it might feel like to slip between seconds.

Riddled With Polyps was still flailing away in the background with no perceivable expectation of finding either recognizable time or key signatures, comprehensible lyrics, nor conclusion. I killed the mind-numbing playback and crystalline silence descended.

I finished my samitch in blissful peace while it was still warm, grimaced down the last of the grapefruity drink, and put Sieb Forward on the main wall view, something to do until Chase’s trial dose ran out. I didn’t know if it would pour him out back here or not, but Barney was certain to return. He was my ride to my new job.

Three or four minutes later, the pair regained the threshold, Barney pressing Chase up the steps and through the doorway. Chase managed a tentative shuffle under his own power back to his seat and slumped down into it. His eyes, though still wild, seemed to gaze through me toward some distant horizon. He appeared dazed, possibly in shock.

Barney began transferring packets of food into the hotbox, poked the control surface a few times, and it started to hum. He placed a reassuring hand on Chase’s shoulder and a tall glass of water within easy reach.

“Four hundred milliliters of di-hydrogen monoxide. I know I don’t have to tell you about the importance of self-hydration,” he said. “No, don’t just sit there and stare at it, Speedy. Bottoms up.”

He poured another for himself, downing it in a single go, a practical demonstration.

Chase’s hand, in uncertain, almost mechanical increments, approached and closed around the tumbler. He tried to lift it from the table, seemed surprised by the weight of it. A silent battle of wills ensued between himself and the inanimate object, with the latter emerging as the early winner. He managed to conquer inertia by way of some Herculean effort, and only a little water dribbled onto the front of his shirt as he sluiced it down.

“That’s a good boy!” Barney said, giving him a brotherly pat on the shoulder.  “See? Doesn’t that hit the spot?”

Chase nodded.

“Here, give me that. I’ll fill ‘er up again for you.”

Chase mumbled something.

“C’mon, use your words,” Barney said, plucking the empty tumbler from Chase’s feeble grip.

“Dough nee denny more.”

“Yeah, you do.”

Barney slipped the brimming glass back into Chase’s right hand and doled an assortment of colorful capsules and tablets into his left.

“…’s this?”

“Supplements. It’ll help put you right again.”

“Phhh. Aye doan do thhh-em. All be ahh-rite.”

Barney released an almost-patient sigh and leaned down close to Chase’s ear.

“Do you like cramps? Listen to what I’m telling you, dumbshit. I didn’t give you the eye-opener dee-luxe you asked for. I gave you a little girly-man sample. Still, you just managed to burn off almost a day’s-worth of your energy in about five minutes. Did you like that?”

Chase just stared up at him, fish-mouthed, nodding.

“Then understand what I’m saying to you now very clearly. Snap your sorry ass out of whatever this stubborn, unproductive funk is that you’re wallowing in right now. Unless you want your first ride on the Express to be your last goddam ride on the Express, stop being a testicle and DO WHAT I TELL YOU!”

Looking back, as I am, I think at that particular moment in time, Chase would have done some pretty egregious shit, best left unexplored further, to obtain once again that velocity of consciousness. Unachievable without Barney’s magical bolus.

I could see it in his eyes. They seemed to burn with a hungry, almost-cunning light. Sure, they were badly bloodshot, but that wasn’t it.

“Chase,” Barney said, “Dash and I are going to make like babies now and head out.”

“Huh?”

“We’re going up the hill. People to do, things to see. Gotta run.”

“Wait. What am I …? What about the …?”

“Okay, listen to me.” Barney said. “Do what I tell you to do, and we’ll talk later. Don’t do what I tell you to do, I will know about it and all you’ll get is a shiny memory. No discussion, no refund, no recourse, no bullshit.”

He gave Chase’s shoulder another friendly pat. “As soon as this food’s hot, eat it. Eat it all. There’s more in the fridge when you need it, and you will. And plenty of water, too. Nothing else. Don’t even argue with me about this, man. I meant what I said. Just do it. Eat up, drink up, go lay down in the back, and sleep as long as you need to. The lock will throw itself when you leave.”

Chase waved a hand, acquiescence and dismissal in a single gesture.

Barney slapped me on the back. “Let’s roll, Kato. You’re driving.”

 

    ~ 

Dashel’s First Day – pt 1 Read More »

The D’nal’s Briefing

Pruitt and H’seven stand together in silence at the wide transparency of the outer wall. The Miles reach out from their viewpoint, just beneath the mesa rim, to a distant, uniform haze.

Pruitt’s features exhibit a mosaic of competing emotions, nostalgia, apprehension, a vague, translucent hope. H’seven is impassive. Behind them, the doorway fissures open with a hush.

Remert enters. The look on the D’kin’s face, apparent only to one who’s known him for a lifetime, is murderous.

Kudlac’s loose form and oddly spider-like strides are a chilling thing to witness as the creature enters and crosses the floor toward the two men.

Behind the D’nal, a lone man dodges inside before the door breathes closed. Tall, pencil-thin, and deliberate, the D’nal’s retainer chooses not to approach, settling instead into a wide seat against the wall. A rigid container shaped like some kind of instrument case lands on an adjoining cushion.

The Minister of the Change steps close to Pruitt and the outgoing Chief Executive Officer allows himself a fresh look at the bizarre thing towering over him.

It kneels, bends, or folds somehow beneath its raiment in a manner Pruitt would rather not consider further. The Minister’s weird head is above Pruitt’s own by a mere half-meter, far too close for comfort.

With only a whuffing exhalation as preamble, Kudlac says, “I have a working familiarity with the history of the Mission from its inception through what has been communicated to me as ‘an unavoidable alteration of the timeline’. One in which Lord Shiric has been unable, at his vast remove, to determine the extent of its impact upon the Mission.”

The bellows refills.

“Further communication with Lord Shiric has been hampered, due in part to a local disruption. Mister Hergenrather will assist me later in understanding more about that circumstance. There are, perforce, disparities in the data I have gleaned and I expect each of you to assist me in correcting them.

“Since my arrival, I have heard little else but how this t’sunguc, Eric Gerzier, has developed technologies that threaten your carefully chosen and patiently nurtured markets and associations. It is suggested his operations, of which you admittedly know little to nothing, may threaten the Mission in some incomprehensible fashion.

“While the prosaic aspects of your enterprises are ancillary at best to our ultimate goal, I would understand this encroachment, the individual responsible, and the scope of his technologies as you have assessed them.

“I require from you, Mister Pruitt, an accounting of these matters so I may reconstruct, from a mosaic of poorly framed observations and historical recollections of questionable veracity, a cohesive perspective. My course of action will pivot, in part, upon the reliable, verifiable intelligence you and D’kin Remert provide me here. Be as specific as you are… humanly able.”

Kudlac makes no move toward any of the available seating. Maybe it already is sitting, or something.

Pruitt leans into his cane and withdraws the fold-out from his vest pocket, opening it to an easily managed quarter of its size. With fingers far more agile than when he had last held the matte sheet in them, he moves frames with practiced fluency.

H’seven glides a recliner closer to the show and slouches into it. Remert has seated himself in a straight-backed chair at a small table and busies himself, spreading his own foldie, linking it to Pruitt’s, and Pruitt, with all the confidence his station and preparation will allow, begins.

“Eric Gerzier came literally out of nowhere nine years ago. His is the proverbial Cinderella story. A complete unknown with an indistinct origin, a disadvantaged childhood, lackluster performance on a pedestrian educational path, and no credentials. And yet, without fanfare, he has achieved global recognition.

“I think it is safe to say he has single-handedly altered the course of our civilization. He’s done so, in fact, well beyond the scope of our own not-insignificant investment in global economics. He has been called by some ‘the New DaVinci’.”

A wheeze from the creature gathers strength and recognizable arrangement.

“I do not recognize your colloquial reference, ‘Cinderella’, and what he is ‘called by some’ is equally irrelevant. You will refrain from further idiomatic citations and provide only details pertinent to the topic I have instructed you to address.”

Pruitt blinks away the rebuke. “As far as we can determine from efforts to delve and reconstruct from fragmented records, Gerzier was born in northeastern Africa, probably Ethiopia, in the latter nineteen hundreds. The exact date is uncertain as his birth was either unrecorded, or the records destroyed. At that time, the region had been ravaged by civil conflict for nearly three decades.

“Orphaned at an early age and subsequently institutionalized—those records were also destroyed, an unfortunate side effect of survival in a strife-torn environment—his youth was otherwise unremarkable.”

Pruitt pauses and, as an aside, enunciates into the air, “Sonder, please display Eric Gerzier image one and sequence.”

In response, the high desert vista beyond the transparency darkens to a uniform opacity. The room’s lighting takes on a subdued ambiance, and a full-size three-D image of a slender, nappy-headed, pre-pubescent male youth smiles out at them.

“This is an extrapolated composite, D’nal, as there were no extant records from that period.”

The boy’s likeness is replaced by a grainy, blemished photograph, ostensibly of Gerzier. The quality is poor; it could arguably be anyone. Other images riffle slowly past as Pruitt continues his narrative.

“He was adopted by a Canadian couple, Rene and Daphne Gerzier in nineteen ninety-two. He lived with them on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he received a conventional education. Efforts to locate his adoptive parents revealed that his father had died on assignment at the US/Canada border when Gerzier was in his early teens. His mother died later when a significant portion of Vancouver Island was devastated by natural disaster shortly after Gerzier himself relocated from it.

“He inherited a modest estate, but managed to leave a surprisingly negligible financial footprint, or any other for that matter, until his introduction into the mainstream and period of ascension in the year twenty-fifteen.”

The progression concludes with a representation of the man as he appears in contemporary media.

His mocha features are shown in characteristic repose, unaffected by the struggles and dramatic episodes that daily seem to dog the common man. His smile beatific, his eyes bright, but kindly; taken as a whole it is a snapshot of a powerful permutation—innocence melded to intellect and purpose.

The sound of air escaping through a restriction becomes, “This representation of Gerzier displayed is one of current obtainment?”

Pruitt nods, realizes the gesture may not convey meaning to the creature. “Yes, D’nal. It is, in fact, stock imagery from his own Community public profile. We estimate his current age to be forty-two years.”

“Clarify.”

Remert interjects, “Your forbearance, D’nal. Almost seventeen yarnn.”

“A child.”

“For many years prior to the development of Community,” Pruitt says, “extravagant measures were in place to observe, track, predict, and direct individuals’ market preferences and all public transactions were recorded and shared across multiple platforms as were most ostensibly ‘private’ transactions.

“Every person with a bank account, a credit card… any person transacting any kind of business almost anywhere in the world has acquired a digital dossier. Most are extensive, but until Gerzier stepped into the spotlight that year, he was a cipher, inconspicuous to the point he simply did not register in the database.”

The D’nal huffs. “As if he did not exist before that date.”

“Uh… no. No, D’nal. I mean his patterns of activity did not warrant notice by those employed to discriminate and inform. His patterns exhibited no anomalies beyond, or even close to, an established reference level.

“We salvaged transcripts of his school records. His grades were unexceptional. His cumulative scores were median. He apparently stood out at nothing. No sports, no clubs… no friends among those that might remember him, and there is no indication of further scholastic endeavor on his part.

“He remained in that general vicinity, engaged in menial employment. Some payroll records and the like were all that survived. We uncovered a minor juvenile offense; nothing beyond youthful pre-teen exuberance and expunged from public record upon his eighteenth birthday. There is no indication of further unlawful behavior on his part either, D’nal.

“We’ve attempted to interview those of his teachers or classmates we could locate from that time, as well as coworkers, with unsatisfying results.”

“Explain.”

“All local, county, and regional municipality records were lost in the circumstances I mentioned previously that took his adoptive mother’s life, along with many others, including individuals we would have interviewed, D’nal.

“We were able to track down and question three surviving alumni from his schools, and one coworker, they having left that locale prior to the catastrophic events I’ve described. None had any clear memories of Gerzier.”

“That seems an accurate answer, Mr. Pruitt, and yet, it is incomplete. There is something you are withholding.”

There is no time to contemplate how this thing knows. Pruitt swallows a wad that wasn’t there a moment ago.

“Our corporate twin entity, Advanced Concepts Methodic, was complicit in that destruction, D’nal.”

“Explain.”

“An outbreak of a virulent contagion was discovered there, the second known instance of the disease anywhere in the world since the period you may have studied known generically as the End Times. The ability of the infection to propagate rapidly among groups of humans was, and remains, unprecedented.”

The D’nal says, “The term ‘gonji rot’ was conspicuous during my review of the period.”

“The name is apt, D’nal. The term was coined by the sensational media and later adopted by those who had seen the final stages of the infection.”

The D’nal’s metallic-looking, triangular melon of a head swivels back to regard Pruitt. “I would understand more detail regarding this contagion,” it breathes. “You will upload all relevant information for my personal access at the conclusion of your presentation. Also, you will provide references to ‘the sensational media’ of which you spoke. Continue your elaboration regarding the destruction to which Advanced Concepts Methodic was a party.”

Pruitt shifts his weight to relieve a familiar creeping discomfort in his low back and the back of his legs. He reframes this as a respectful, if awkward, turn toward the D’nal, cane in hand, and it helps.

“There is no antidote for gonji, D’nal,” he says. “No vaccine, no narrow percentage of survivors from which some practical countermeasures might be gleaned. Wherever gonji is concerned, airtight quarantine is the only practical defense.

“Military containment of the locale in question was swift and uncompromising. Given the geography of the region, however, its broad areas of wilderness and the concomitant difficulty of insuring an impenetrable perimeter, there was a very realistic fear of another broad-scale, potentially global pandemic should any infected penetrate the dead-lines in any of several directions.

“We were approached in covert fashion by representatives of the United States and Canadian governments to assist with a containment solution.

“After arriving at a reasonable methodology and compensatory fee, we redeployed one of our Helio satellites and drove a focused beam into the tectonic plate subducted beneath that vicinity. The resultant volcanic upthrust was particularly spectacular, accompanied by seismic activity of moderate magnitude.”

The D’nal says, “I had opportunity to review data specific to the Helio power generation satellites. It is my understanding these were set in orbit as one of your contributions to ‘End Times’ survival and restoration. There was no indication they possessed this capability.”

“We did not advertise the satellite’s full capability, D’nal. Nor, during the course of this transaction, was its full capability revealed.”

“Continue.”

“The pyroclastic cloud from the eruption served to sterilize the general area. It also provided adequate cover for us to sweep the containment area with an experimental device somewhat beyond the established quarantine perimeter.”

This prompts a scrutiny from the D’nal. “Elaborate upon this ‘experimental device’.”

Remert speaks up. “Your forbearance, D’nal. Because of the excellent cover provided by the eruption, this site was also used for a test firing of an advanced molecular disruptor weapon.”

“I have heard nothing of this device. Make all data relevant to its inception, development, and current operational parameters available to my Inquiry, D’kin. Summarize the results of the test.”

“The beam’s current minimum focal width was determined to be within ten meters in diameter, short of our objective, but promising. We further determined the maximum effective dispersal pattern is capable of erasing every living organism in a sub-tessellate.”

Kudlak observes, “The obvious efficacy of that episode notwithstanding, there would appear to be a consistency relative to the coincidental destruction of records in Gerzier’s wake. Resume your recital, Mister Pruitt.”

“Prior to his entry into the public arena, before the End Times, he began providing small-scale environmental clean-up services, contracting out to various private and local concerns at first. He began by lending himself to community projects, removal of rubble and scrap from municipal greenways and watersheds, parks and scenic areas, that kind of thing.

“The reputation of his front company, Clean Sweep, developed, although his contributions, while significant in retrospect, went almost unnoticed by most while his capabilities multiplied.

“State and federal agencies began to take advantage of his services. These he offered at such absurdly affordable rates no competitor could outbid him and, to be fair, because of the incredible versatility of his people and equipment, he had and still has no real competitors to speak of anyway.

“At the time, no one could figure out how he managed some of the results he obtained, but they were extraordinary. Today, Clean Sweep has become the go-to for specialized tasks in any environment, any terrain, no job too large or complex.

“He has other business interests and investments, to be sure, D’nal. Significant among them is a power generation methodology we remain unable to duplicate. He has created a small island in the Pacific Ocean. It represents a second base of operations and a vivid demonstration of his capabilities. He also leases a vertical launch site at Spaceport America where something is very much going on under an opaque canopy, one I will characterize as ‘impenetrable’.”

“You have prepared examples,” the D’nal says. “Proceed, Mister Pruitt.”

Pruitt feels a bit of his old self-assurance returning as he’s able to circle back once again to his prepared material.

 

 

Crisp imagery of an inhospitable badland fills the blank window-wall. The locale is a maze of spires, breaks, and chasms spread over many hundreds of square kilometers.

Twisting, rough-hewn walls of near-vertical stone crowd together or split apart in odd tangents defining a labyrinthine topography. Obstinate shrubbery and sparse, stunted trees cling to any toe-hold on the flanks of these fissures and cleft valleys fractured by merciless time and weather.

Pruitt narrates. “A mid-air collision brought two commercial airliners down in an area of very rugged canyonlands so deep and narrow it would seem dangerous to navigate any kind of craft through them at all.”

Drone footage displays the wreckage strewn across a couple square kilometers of razorback ridges and constricted gorges, ornamenting the landscape and choking the stream at the base of a plunging ravine. The length and breadth of the site is littered with twisted metal and burnt shapes.

The scene changes, shot from a significant distance at night. Regardless, the detail is crisp. An enormous flying craft glides in above the wreckage.

It has the general appearance of a mated pair of broad, swept-back flying wings, one atop and embracing a broad central fuselage. The second set is slung below and slightly rearward of the first and each pair of wings sport, at their conjoined tips, some sort of empty, boxy construct, an unrecognizable propulsion system, possibly.

The entirety is anything but aerodynamic in appearance, yet despite its improbable size, it hovers on station without the slightest deviation, a shadow mass above the rim of a dozen craggy, steep-walled chasms.

What appears to be daylight pours from the belly of the craft and, from its tapered aft extension, bays open to release a variety of working vehicles. They busy themselves through the inhospitable landscape and wreckage, darting, hovering, operating without the least apparent familiarity with aerodynamics or gravity.

The D’nal is intent on the image. “Indicate for me the scale of this craft, Mr. Pruitt.”

Pruitt’s fingers shuttle data and image segments and five silhouettes appear as an overlay. The first shadowed shapes represent the two downed airliners, the next, Gerzier’s air-ship. It appears three times the size of the first two together. Beside it, a representation of one of the darting, hovering vehicles. All are presented alongside a minute human figure to provide additional scale.

“Does this help clarify, D’nal?”

“Ha’ch.”

Pruitt assumes this syllable represents an affirmation and continues. “When the craft moved on,” he says, “with the exception of the inevitable initial scarring and vegetation burn, there was no trace of the wreckage, no debris anywhere in the crash site, and without the slightest observable incidental damage to the natural environment.”

 

 

Pruitt shifts images on his foldie and the 3-D display remaps. “Perhaps two of his most notable later efforts, undertaken on his own initiative and without compensation, were these.”

A long, green valley lies cradled between rugged, jutting mountains, their slopes swathed in lush tropical vegetation. Two mothership platforms hang suspended, one at either end of the valley. Beneath them, bare meters from the ground, smaller utility vehicles move and hover.

Beneath them, individuals in close-fitting, monochromatic garb range purposefully across the terrain. None appear to wear any obvious form of protective equipment and the line moves with neither haste nor careful precision in a ragged scrimmage line.

Each individual on foot, operating a hand-held, tubular apparatus, will stop at random, press one end of their implement into the ground, withdraw it ,and move on to the next, and the next.

“The first is the clearing of thousands of hectares of third-world minefields without compensation or apparent mishap. Until Gerzier involved himself, removal was expensive, time consuming, and perilous. The toll on innocent civilian life and limb was extensive.”

The D’nal is studying the enhanced images with intent. “His people do not seem concerned about the potential danger,” it observes.

“You will note, D’nal, there is no effort to expose or extract the devices. After their departure, an investigation of the area indicated not only were there no devices remaining either active or inactive, but each location where you see one of his workers penetrate the soil revealed a cavity roughly matching the size and shape of devices known to have been utilized at that time. Analysis of residues therein were inconclusive.”

A prolonged silence is perturbed by the exchange of air through the Director’s nostril filters. Pruitt notices, for the first time, a faint, colorless fume expresses with each exhalation, dispersing in an instant.

“Inconclusive,” it says. “Move on to your next example.”

Pruitt shifts elements on his fold-out. The holo display echoes and magnifies the arrangement.

 

 

“Our subject is also responsible for the removal of thousands of square kilometers of floating rubbish in the Pacific Ocean—again without contract or compensation. The first views we acquired of this effort were from satellite imagery. You can see, however, there are now three of the platforms engaged in this endeavor.”

A trio of what might otherwise seem ponderously large vehicles, if not posed against the massive scale of the ocean itself, have joined in an improbable formation. Seen from orbit, each of the three obtuse triangular shapes have joined at their apexes to form a single, massive compound vehicle, all moving as one in slow procession across the face of the ocean and the continent of buoyant scum accreted on its surface.

“While the platform craft themselves obscure the bulk of activity taking place beneath them, D’nal, we sent surface and low altitude craft into the area to observe.”

Images from steady-cams aboard what appear to be a pair of SEAL attack craft, show the consolidated motherships and, beneath them, smaller ancillary craft can be seen ranging beyond the periphery of that impromptu canopy, laying down some form of barrier to contain and consolidate an undulating mass. Some of these craft can be seen submerging.

As the boats begin to close on the activity, the scene blanks out, video and audio commentary abruptly cancelled.

“As with other encounters, our teams met an apparent dead zone almost three kilometers from the location upon approach. All electronic and mechanical devices simply ceased to function.

“A pair of drone aircraft dispatched to provide reconnaissance strayed within that perimeter as well. Both would have been lost had not one of Gerzier’s darting craft caught and held them somehow, depositing them with adequate floatation beyond the effect envelope where recovery could later be staged as the hovering array moved away from them.”

Kudlac says, “I would ask you to explain how all this has been accomplished, but I know from your delivery you cannot.”

“Nothing remotely like it has ever been encountered before.”

“This field of energy negation is the reason all still and moving images have apparently been taken from a significant distance. While there is sufficient detail to make educated assumptions, there are no intimate close-proximity views of personnel or equipment that would be useful to our areas of inquiry.”

“I agree, D’nal. The best optics available provide, as you say, reasonable definition, but we would hope for more.”

“What of augmented-beam imaging? I understand such was pioneered by your technology arm, ACMe. Surely that medium would provide finer resolution.”

“It absolutely would, D’nal… if Gerzier’s field effect didn’t nullify it.”

The D’nal releases a pensive sound very much like a hum and says, “There were personnel on-board the small surface vehicles. The physiology of these living beings is maintained by electro-chemical reactions. Energy is converted and expended in the act of simply sustaining life. And yet, Gerzier’s energy-damping effect does not appear to influence those who strayed within its range.”

“Apparently, D’nal, beyond a paper-thin boundary at the periphery of the field, living organisms are not adversely affected by it. I am told, however, by those that have done so, that passing through that margin is… disturbing.”

“Move on, Mister Pruitt.”

 

 

The final image before the D’nal becomes a sweeping circuit of Spaceport America’s almost seventy-three square kilometer imprint in the desert of southwestern New Mexico.

Set apart at a significant remove from the central facilities and the amateur, professional, and commercial lessees, a pavilion of sorts is shown at close range from several angles both aerial and at ground level.

Each tiled sequence shows the flimsy, fabric-looking construct in proximity to and dwarfed by one of Gerzier’s platform ships. Two of the frames show a forward area of the craft and pavilion making physical contact. No activity is visible from either perspective.

A fast-forward shows the pavilion expanding outward and upward, still maintaining the single point of contact with the ship, but overshadowing it now, enveloping the remainder of the site in what appears a dull cocoon eighty meters high and more than twice as wide.

The ship separates from the cocoon and drifts upward. Once clear, it reorients and heads northward.

“As you have seen already, D’nal, Gerzier’s constructs have the capability to neutralize any energized or energy producing device within an as yet unspecified range. And it would seem, D’nal, Gerzier’s constructs have acquired the ability to switch off, or draw in, their field of negation, apparently a recent development. For reasons of security, Gerzier has set a field perimeter at the spaceport. It extends no further than the exact boundary of the site he’s leased to the top of the canopy.”

Kudlac pivots to Remert. “Mark this subject for further review. He has the ability to achieve the removal of many gorams of debris. His vehicles are able to maneuver in spatially restricted environments, craft capable of flight, albeit unconventional flight as I understand it to have developed on this world. Has this Gerzier somehow acquired our agile repellor technology for his own use?”

Pruitt shakes his head. “We assumed so at first.”

“With your forbearance, D’nal,” Remert says. “Examination of the imaging and four-D we’ve acquired reveal no characteristic quarrmalyne field effect or consequent proximity distortion. Extrapolation of available data suggests a causation beyond our previous experience.”

Remert gestures to Pruitt, a cue to resume his exposition.

“Early on, D’nal, no one was paying particular attention to his methodology, only his results. We understood, however, the threat Gerzier’s operations could impose on our own initiatives and have been able to hamper them only marginally. Clean Sweep continues to operate throughout the world with neither aggression nor regard for geopolitical boundaries or threats of retaliation.”

Pruitt says into the air, “Sonder, Lithia community from vantage three.”

The holo remaps. Sharp three-D images depict the rugged contours of a single mountain pushed up and split in half by forces unknown. An enclave is fastened onto and delved into the inner face of each half to their crests.

“As Gerzier was achieving wider recognition, D’nal, he was developing a model community in the Siskiyou mountains at the border of northern California and southern Oregon.”

Something about the nature of the structures and the seeming unfettered hive of activity throughout gives the impression of ‘business-as-usual’, whatever that might imply in such a precarious setting.  

“Ostensibly, the site was developed to provide housing and essential services for his many employees, serving additionally as both a base of operations for his branching enterprises, and perhaps more importantly, a showcase for a number of innovations, to which he invited a strategically select group of influential individuals.”

Provided for the D’nal’s Inquiry later, a listing of these influential individuals scrolls in a narrow aperture to one side of Eric Gerzier’s beatific features. He is saying, “Many of the constructs, vehicles, and environments you will experience can be explained by the fact that, before this, the materials and the means to develop these capabilities were unknown or unavailable, lost in the ages, perhaps, or simply too far-fetched to receive serious consideration.”

Pruitt’s monologue resumes. “At Gerzier’s suggestion, those approached responded via his self-managed portal on NoASR’s homogenous Community platform.

“Our current virtual galaxy of offerings was a mere solar system then, so to speak, but we had achieved vast popular acceptance during the End Times as a safe place to conduct business, transact, and interact without fear of the numerous contagions or random pathogens that may be lurking in the next breath.

“Our growth during that period was exponential, as was Gerzier’s. His portal was then and remains a registered, bona fide Community node, an unusually fluid, well-crafted, and superbly managed one.

“His virtualizing model has been studied and replicated with widely varying results since those early ventures into the NoASR. Linkage through portals to and from his environment is described as ‘transitionally uneventful’, high praise in virtua, D’nal. High pr…”

The D’nal’s bellows has refilled before Pruitt can finished speaking. “Show me details of the tour Gerzier gave of his mountaintop colony.”

“I… I cannot, D’nal. We did not receive invitation.”

“Your next statement,” the thing says, “will reveal to me that you have been unable to penetrate Gerzier’s shield around his own portal within your own virtual nexus, just as you have been unable to pierce the physical barrier around any of his facilities in this world.”

Kudlac’s head revolves to fix upon Remert. It draws air. “My next report to Lord Shiric will include reference to these failures.”

Remert meets the D’nal’s gaze, manipulating data on his open foldie by braille.

“The lens chamber door has been repaired, D’nal. The lens surface and function appear to be unaffected, awaiting only your activation to restore contact with Lord Shiric.

“Also, D’nal, regarding our inability to breach Gerzier’s unnatural perimeter defense systems in Real, you should know we have achieved a notable breakthrough at one of his facilities. Detailed information on that encounter and outcome is included with all relevant data collected to date on his so-called ‘null field’. The whole is now available to your Inquiry, D’nal.”

Kudlac’s bulbous lidded eyes close. The triangle of glowing red ‘eyes‘ above them seems somehow less intense. The D’nal remains motionless, breathing in slow rhythm, less than a minute passes.

“That is an adequate summary, D’kin,” it says. It’s head swivels back to regard Pruitt.

“My current understanding of this phenomenon, the ‘Nexis of All Subjective Realities’, suggests it is a non-physical frontier accessible to any with the proper credentials and accessories. One may move and interact at will within and through pre-established portals, thresholds to a potentially endless variety of environments; all completely subjective, yet appearing real to the individual in the moment.”

“Very concisely phrased, D’nal, except the experience is real.”

“Perhaps I do not understand the word ‘real’ as you do.”

“As you said, D’nal, the interaction is objectively non-physical, yet the experience is subjectively physical in almost every aspect. It conveys vivid sensation, giving rise to experiential and emotional content both immediate and intimate, and the memories generated by the experience.

“It doesn’t matter whether the setting is commercial, recreational, a virtualization of a real-world locale, or an entirely imaginary scenario. Given the degree of immersion, the human mind interprets it as a ‘real’ experience, and so it is. We have redefined the concept and boundaries of what is Real, D’nal.”

“And the…” Kudlac’s breath pauses as the D’nal searches its memory. “The corporate entity you and D’kin Remert founded, LocUS, has become the central clearing house for these numerous portals as well as the repository of—what is the word?—validations.”

“That is correct, D’nal. We did not develop the foundational technology, nor the specific apparatuses necessary to access the virtual stage. Instead, we accurately read the need to consolidate and manage the myriad applications and venues that would erupt from it.

“From a plethora of competing entries into that arena, thanks in large part to the unparalleled efforts of Mr. Hergenrather,” he gestures toward H’seven, “only we remain. Today we are ‘The Nexus of All Subjective Realities’.

“We have since redesigned neuro-connective implantables for our own use based on the Ampellov model’s conceptual framework. Modified versions of these devices have been employed throughout our organizations.

“Additionally, Advanced Concepts Methodic has derived significant advantage by offering these devices at deep discount to this nation’s military establishment. An unintended, but positive by-product of this has been a sharp increase in voluntary enlistments.”

Kudlac shifts his attention toward Remert once more. A spindly arm reaches to tap the top of his own broad cranium. “This intimate interconnectivity to your subjects in the virtual plane was the motivation that prompted your unsanctioned self-mutilation, D’kin?”

Remert nods once, slowly, signifying agreement with the D’nal’s basic assumption, if not his choice of words.

“My assessment of your augmentation may have been preemptory, D’kin. I will re-evaluate your apparent disregard for the Claven’s directives in light of that understanding.”

Remert’s acknowledgement appears both reverent and sincere.

“And what of the constraints,” the D’nal says, “imposed upon such processes and practices by your own numerous, arbitrary, and intrusive governmental agencies?”

H’seven, silent to this point, says, “We have discovered that most imposed constraints become non-existent when proper leverage is applied.”

The D’nal fixes him with a brief and indecipherable scrutiny. “And you, if my understanding is correct, are the fulcrum.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Here in the United States,” Pruitt says, “the Department of Homeland Security and the Domestic Security Alliance Council maintain continuing oversight of our public records, those pertaining to US citizens, that is, while the Combined National Security Authority monitors all foreign ‘guests’.

“We currently maintain seventy-two satellite nodes in other countries, all with similar oversight by their host governments, but all of them, nodes, agencies, and their representatives, all are linked through our core at the Center.”

“You do not have representation from every nation and culture on this world in the virtual nexus.”

“Not yet, D’nal. There are still societies lacking the requisite level of technology, many still recovering from the so-called “End Times”. There are also a number of nations undergoing internal strife of sufficient intensity and frequency to preclude them from participation at this time.

“Within those cultures there are always a privileged few with the means to utilize Community’s personal applications at their discretion, or its distractions at their leisure. Additionally, certain religious cultures and sects have strong objections to interaction in the virtual world, while other faiths have found vee to be fertile ground for their proselytism.” 

“I extrapolate, then,” Kudlac breathes, “since these validations and the connections to personal data they represent flow through your core, and since various government agencies throughout this world have links to these validations of their respective citizenry,” the bellows refills, “that you have, in turn, access to all individual records to which each are related.”

“If such an intricate series of accesses and permissions existed, D’nal, it would be illegal in every realm.

“Even if it were possible to navigate the complex pathways and protections around the systems containing such privileged levels of information, if such practices could be determined by any agency with authority to act, we would all be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisoned for life, if not summarily executed in the streets.”

Once more, the D’nal’s reaction is a disturbing parody of a human one. Even without the familiar architecture of eyebrows or facial musculature, Kudlac’s expression conveys astonishment.

H’seven’s laughter is an explosion of raucous, unconstrained amusement pulsating against the walls of the room. It is impossible to interpret the expression on Kudlac’s inhuman face as the Minister unfolds to its full height, head pivoting toward the resonant sound, bulbous eyes wide.

“Of course we do,” H’seven’s mirth remains apparent in his voice. “Not only are we the hub about which the subjective universe, Community, and its outlying frontiers revolve, but those deep and intricate clandestine interconnections were ultimately the point of all our efforts after all, don’t you suppose?”

“I clarified this for you at the outset, Mister Hergenrather. The prosaic details of this enterprise are irrelevant. Those ‘deep and intricate clandestine interconnections’ have no meaning in the context of Mister Black’s mandate for this world.”

Pruitt’s inner turmoil at the result of his little jest has settled in the pit of his stomach well before Kudlac’s attention returns to him.

The D’nal’s sheer size, its distressing alien presence, its aura of singular authority, and its seeming dismissiveness of Pruitt’s station in these interactions, have tightened a knot of dread in Pruitt’s throat. He does not remember having a sensation like this in over a hundred years.

“That must have been the articulation known as ‘humor’.” Kudlac vents the words. “It was referenced briefly in my preparations as an aberrant behavior having gained common acceptance in this culture.

“Hear this, Mister Pruitt. There will be no ‘humor’ in my presence until you are ordered to provide it. Affirm that you understand me with utmost clarity.”

 Pruitt’s self-consciousness at being reproached so aggressively in front of Hergenrather and Remert is a close match to a fresh and plausible fear reaching into his gut right now. He feels the need to swallow an unexpected and prodigious lump in his throat, but cannot. Nor can he answer the D’nal around it, and answer the D’nal he must.

He manages a nod, hoping devoutly it will suffice. The thing continues to stare at him with its awful face and too many eyes.

“Speak, sloke!” it says.

Pruitt cranes his neck to address the D’nal and chokes out, “I under… stand, D’nal,” his sense of authority having fled.

“I recognize you and the outgoing Deputy Director have adopted a manner of conduct suggesting an intolerable lack of piety. This is likely to prove unhealthy if allowed to continue. Your attitudes are undisciplined, your concentration and communication so distressingly chaotic, it is unlikely you could have accomplished any of this,” he gestures with a spindly arm toward Remert, “without the sustained intervention of one versed in the Method.”

Something about the vent from the D’nal’s filters has teased Pruitt’s notice of it, colorless still, but lingering.

“I warn you,” it continues, “any subsequent diversion from the subject at hand, or attempt to offer commentary that does not pertain directly to the topics I have specified, will result in punishment. Do not make the mistake of imagining yourselves, because of your station, above such consequences.”

The D’nal’s inhuman stare sweeps across the room.

Remert’s bare axe-face meets its gaze for a long moment and some wordless exchange occurs between them. The D’nal’s examination turns to H’seven.

H’seven glances up from a scrutiny of his fingernails and says, “A moment ago, you mentioned my position with the organization as ‘outgoing’, and before that, suggested I could help you understand something about a communications interruption with your boss. You’re not much of a motivator, are you?

“Tell you what. After you’ve finished with this meaningless investment of your time into people and events completely irrelevant to your mandate, we’ll talk, you and me.”

Kudlac stares as if dumbfounded.

“Go ahead,” H’seven says. “I’ll wait.”

The fume from the D’nal’s nostril filters has taken on a conspicuous substance. It coils in the air like oil on water. The D’nal completes a slow turn back toward Pruitt.

“Organize your thoughts, Mister Pruitt,” it says, “and then move your presentation ffforward with… “

The D’nal’s breathing stutters.

“…out fff–urther… “

The D’nal’s attendant is on his feet, rushing toward the Minister with the instrument case.

“… deviation,” Kudlac says, slumping to the floor.

 

       ~       ~

The D’nal’s Briefing Read More »

The D’nal’s Tour

The simple familiarity of the passageway’s shape pleases the D’nal as he treads the length of it with the long-absent missionary at his elbow.

Towering almost fifty centimeters above Remert, the D’nal has no need to stoop. The corridor’s high ceiling accommodates his stature with room to spare and, from it, a comfortable level of illumination washes down over all. This too is pleasing.

His arrival on this outpost mission world earlier this “day” was met without pomp, although the ceremonial trappings were, to his surprise, impeccable.

His introduction to the physical environment, however, was unanticipated to an agonizing degree, introducing a level of discomfort with which the D’nal has had no previous familiarity.

The excursion suit beneath his vestments was calibrated improperly for the gravity and pressure differentials between Kal’un Shiir’n and this place. His personal retainer traveling with him, being similarly disposed, was unable to crawl to his aid with any haste. An excruciating minnit passed before the necessary adjustments could be made.

It was an awkward and embarrassing first interaction with D’kin Remert and his troubling second-in-command for the D’nal.

Once able to resume, the bare ritual proceeded.

Aside from himself and his aide, the strict parameters of the ceremony to transfer responsibility for the Mission precluded everyone but D’kin Remert, his Deputy, and the machine-mind that names itself Sonder from attendance. A less likely gathering he could not have imagined.

Remert excused himself immediately afterward, returning to the remote facility and alleging “processes in motion requiring [his] immediate attention”.

The whole of it has left Kudlac in a sour humor.

Remert’s Deputy Director is a further matter of discontinuity.

Kudlac was told before he left Kal’un Shiir’n that the one referring to himself as H’seven had been dismissed. Yet, H’seven was there as the D’nal and his retainers unfolded in this space through Lord Shiric’s portal. He was watching as Kudlac fell, huddled in silent torment, helpless until his excursion suit self-corrected the erroneous preset.

Both of these issues will figure at the top of Kudlac’s next report.

More immediately, there is something unsettling about the D’kin’s manner, conspicuous from their meeting upon arrival. It implies, if not a veiled disrespect, at least a lack of proper veneration for one of the D’nal’s station.

This may be attributable to Remert’s long dissociation from his kind, from the strictly metered hymnody of his Order, and an unavoidable abridgement of the influence of the Claven in his decision-making. It is a reasonable theory and one he will consider along with the other that suggests the D’kin, left to his own devices for nearly two yonn on this unregulated world, has become a deviate.

They have arrived at a divergent path, a meeting with a wider, arterial corridor.

Here there is activity. Foot traffic and workers pushing sledges yield to conveyances navigating the center of the passageway.

“Sonder,” Remert says to the air, “display elemental facility schematic and overview for the D’nal.”

The air in front of Kudlac shapes itself into a tidy wireframe representation of the Reservation. Elements of the image highlight along with an indicator of their position in it as Sonder narrates.

“The facility is defined by a tessellation of seven identical hexagonal containments, each a half kilometer to a side, all together forming a larger hexagonal colony two kilometers across.

“The central hex contains entry portals and command facilities above, critical processes below, and access to the surrounding containments by way of the outer concourses. At its deepest penetration, the facility delves four hundred fifty meters beneath the mesa’s surface and, from there, beneath the desert beyond the mesa’s terminus.

“The whole provides ample space for the various cultures that live and work within this self-contained microcosm, shielded beneath layers of native stone and soil, aggressive vegetation, and, upon the mesa top, a sparse veneer of rural occupancy.”

Kudlac ends the narrative with a gesture both familiar and unexpected. A single word, “Enough,” comes out in a gust.

“If you have a specific question of me, D’nal Kudlac,” Sonder says, “you have only to speak it.”

Kudlac’s accelerated immersion in preparation for this position of both great honor and heavy responsibility has left him with an as yet uncatalogued number of things learned “in process” about this place. What he knows is that it exists somewhere in the vastness beyond Hevn’s previously-considered-impenetrable Veil.

Therein lies another revelation that must await his return to the Claven.

The summaries he was given about this world, its populations, their current cultures and beliefs, were less instructive than the psychological development summaries he prompted for and received.

The overall development of the species—this conglomeration of Gray t’sunguc and their chaotic societies, their limited perceptions and their biases, their aggressive, greedy, antagonistic natures, and their incompatible yet all-too-similar religions—all remind him very much of Hevn’s own lesser component. Easily manipulated or deterred, they will present no obstacle to the Mission.

The summary he received of the Mission itself, however, was an education into Lord Shiric’s astonishing reach and grasp, and into the vicissitudes of remote management.

The most recent report received before his deployment indicated there are unsettled and fluid issues Kudlac is expected to address and resolve in a short period of time. His understanding has proven adequate to the task so far, but gaps in that knowledge are now becoming both apparent and urgent.

His preparation, for example, was without reference to the machine-mind, Sonder. The D’kin introduced him to it and it seems to be everywhere. He finds that fact singularly disconcerting.

He presses the wireframe schematic aside. It dissipates.

“D’kin Remert, I will see the results of your secondary and tertiary objectives now.”

Remert directs their progress toward an open dartabout hovering in an alcove near the junction. It was not designed for one of the D’nal’s stature, but before Remert can offer to call for a different conveyance, Kudlac folds himself into the constricted space with neither complaint nor apparent discomfort.

The D’nal’s retainer, a long toothpick of a man in simple traveling vestments, scrambles to find a seat. His odd traveling case lands on the available cushion. He finds a foothold and hangs on as Remert engages control and the vehicle skims down the corridor.

 Existing traffic yields the center lane and their progress is unimpeded toward the upper concourse loop.

The upper loop brings them to a vertex where the central and two outer hexagonal containments meet. Corridors branch off from the loop, as does a vertical drop lane equally as capacious as the loop corridor itself.

Remert guides the vehicle into it and they sink, a liquid-like descent toward the depth of the facility.

The adjoining containment walls are transparent and the D’nal is afforded panoramic overviews of both adjacent bio-hexes and their extensive environments before settling at the service level.

Both containments are home to tribes of Gray Moct’unguc She’chah, a stunning achievement. There are no Gray Moccs on Hevn. Nor Gray Troccs for that matter. Analyses have confirmed there never were any. The why of it is irrelevant.

This accomplishment alone is certain to garner Lord Shiric’s approval and, with it, Methshe Marama’s approbation as well.

The next segment on the service loop reveals a bizarre twist on the Troct’unguc genome, a model already considered by most to be a base aberration of little use beyond applications of brute force and heavy labor. Troccs, considered as a whole, tend to be particularly fond of the former and unanimously disinterested in the latter.

These specimens, despite their ludicrous deformity, possess a potential for aptitude and rational thought inconceivable in their savage cousins. Intelligent Troccs is a notion anyone with sufficient information on the topic would find oxymoronic. The D’nal finds the concept singularly alarming.

Kudlac waves off a circuit of the residential hex where hundreds of human professionals, support staff, and their families live, recreate, procreate, and presumably die.

Humans. T’sunguc. Some display the mental acuity to advance into the laity and technical strata. Most are suited for simple clerical & service work, menial labor, and passive occupation of territory.

The D’kin Remert is t’sunguc as well, of course, as are most of the Third Circle and many in the Second. Their genetic strains have been refined over countless yonn to yield successes just such as this one.

Raised to Third Circle in less than a yonn, promoted beyond his experience and potential, some said. They were wrong and Kudlac finds it noteworthy that he was one of the most vocal among them.

He considers this cramped vehicle to be the only true failure of preparation on the D’kin’s part that he might identify upon this, his first, cursory familiarization with the facility at the heart of the Mission.

The intricacy he has so far observed in the processes throughout is beyond any expectation he might have entertained upon his own preparation and immersion. Beyond the undeniable fact of this outpost’s success, the sheer numbers, commitment, and competence of those Remert has engaged to facilitate the Mission’s objectives is impressive.

It is irrefutable fact that Remert’s ingenuity, devout faith, and perseverance deserve effusive praise. In fact, but for two niggling details, Remert’s conduct and accomplishments would see him returned to the Congregate with honors heaped upon him, elevated before all to position above his Order, beyond that normally deemed possible for such a one as he; raised surely to D’nal.

Kudlac’s abbreviated sigh of something that might be regret, if allowed to ferment, sounds exactly as his breathing does and goes unnoticed.

How unfortunate for the D’kin that none of those potential honors will ever transpire.

The last stop on the D’nal’s tour has captivated his attention, as though he has stepped back somehow into Kal’un Thudra’s Underhome.

A broad, brightly lit expanse is occupied by three rows of upright capsules, each with a single mass of bundled cables and conduits sprung from ports in the floor and fused into a single file on one side of the cannister. They look like modified versions of a crèche-nan’s growpods. There are twenty-four of them.

Eight are Trocc-sized enclosures, all unoccupied.

Several technicians in cleansuits with helmets navigate among these vessels, monitoring, recording, moving on. The cumulative low hubbub of disconnected conversations throughout the facility has dwindled to a smattering of subdued exchanges.

Where the purposeful stride of individuals about their business has slowed to a pace less resolute, surreptitious glances have given way to outright gawking distraction. One such, a workman of indeterminate purpose, has simply stopped in his tracks, staring at Kudlac with slack-jawed stupefaction behind his faceplate.

Remert crosses the space between them in four long strides, bends down in front of the individual’s foolish expression, and says, “Explain the reason you have forgotten your duties, sloke.”

The fellow’s eyes skew from the inhuman wrongness that entered with the Director to the dour face of the Director himself. Recognition of his immediate predicament awakens.

“I beg your forbearance, D’kin,” he says with a deep obeisance. “My responsibilities here remain unattended due to my failure of self-assessment and control. I will report this negligence to my ‘visor and accept remedial measures deemed appropriate. Will you permit me to resume, D’kin?”

Remert holds his response, watching the man’s reactions, waiting for him to snatch a glance at the D’nal several meters away, but he does not. His eyes remain fixed upon the ceremonial amulet at Remert’s throat, and there is an unambiguous apprehension in them. Both of these things are appropriate.

“Very well, then,” Remert says. “Complete your immediate assignment and report to your supervisor.”

As if by some magic, before Remert’s glare sweeps the room, normal activity has resumed. Attentions have returned to tasks at hand and a murmur of relevant intercourse has begun to reassert itself into the acoustic backscatter of the life-support mechanisms.

Remert detours slightly, swiping a touchpad on a nearby module, keying diagnostics.

A figure in cleansuit approaches at a march between the rows of pods, a flat-faced woman with deeply folded almond eyes and an angry mouth behind her faceplate. Two technicians follow behind her guiding a manger between them. She halts at a respectful distance and does not appear disconcerted by Kudlac’s appearance.

Remert acknowledges her with what would have been a lifted eyebrow if he had any, and says, “Doctor Ahn, I present to you the Ascendant, Baul Kudlac, a D’nal of the Second Circle. He has come to us to be Minister of the Change.”

The D’kin continues without the requisite adjustment of stance or tone. “D’nal, I present Doctor Ahn Soo Rin. She is my surrogate in this department. Her understanding of the process we employ matches that of any Class Five in the Overhome.”

The flat-faced woman honors the D’nal with a deep bow. He nods in return, a generous acknowledgement to a t’sunguc subordinate who appears to know her place.

“Your pardon, Ascendant One,” She says. “These two have been directed to transport this subject to theater northeast five for a staging process. May we proceed?”

Remert makes no move to do other than advance the diagnostic display with a long index finger. His assessment complete, he addresses the woman.

“You have been monitoring its recovery.”

“Religiously, D’kin. Eighty-seven percent integumentary regeneration at the interweave sites. No rejection components are evident. It is a resilient subject.”

“So it is. Increase circulators to thirty-eight percent and maintain the nutrient broth at its current concentration. I do not want to rush the process just because we can. Let its systems do their work.”

“As you say, D’kin.”

“You will pass my instruction along to Dr. McIntosh.”

“Of course, D’kin.”

“Proceed then, Doctor.”

The manger’s tiny, caged quarrmalyne sphere rages dark and silent in its receptacle near the operator’s hand controls. An azure flood beneath the sled paints the floor and the technicians’ fabric slippers.

The operator positions the sled behind the module. The other engages the chamber’s onboard systems. The entire series of hose and conduit couplers disengage. The upright capsule is laid back, coming to rest in the manger’s rigid sling.

“This specimen holds particular significance,” Kudlac says to the flat-faced woman.

Dr. Ahn looks to Remert, whose expression registers nothing.

“Ascendant One, this is a uniquely hybridized Moct’ah hermaphrodite,” she says. “Its designation is ST-One, a promising emergent from a particularly viable strain and the current subject of a critical series of trials. Its central and peripheral nervous systems have been augmented and its extremities redesigned. Our intention is to join its unusually acute non-linear intellect with the heuristic intelligence that manages almost every tactical phase of the Mission.”

“It is man-a’kin.”

“In every regard, yes, D’nal.”

“And you would meld its mind to a thinking machine.”

“Not only its mind, D’nal,” Ahn says, “but to become its physicality in Real as well as in vee. S/he will become Sonder’s avatar, able to operate within the context of Real with the same fluidity as any human.”

“As to the concept of ‘thinking machine’,” Remert says, “Sonder not only manages all LocUS AsReal validation processes and portals, but also oversees administrative and environmental control in both the Center and in this facility. It is interrogative, speculative, and creative.”

“You have observed consistent evidence of Methodic thought in your interactions with it?” Kudlac says.

“It is familiar with Methodic concepts and paradigms, D’nal.”

“That is not what I asked of you, D’kin.”

“Other paradigms have evolved, D’nal.”

“Your timetable for this project and Lord Shiric’s are synchronous?”

“If the interface is successful, ST-One will be ready and in place at the Center, where Sonder’s core will reside at transition.”

“It is your responsibility to insure that it is so.” Kudlac says, and to Dr. Ahn, “You will walk with me, Doctor.”

If the doctor is disconcerted by this, her expression behind the faceplate appears unfazed. She is forced to a quick-step to keep up with the D’nal’s pace, nearly tripping to a halt as Kudlac stops to regard another capsule.

He squats, or folds, or something— his peculiar gait and vestments make speculation necessary. He seems curious about what appears to be H’seven within the container. And in the next three capsules next to it as well. His alien head pivots the doctor’s way.

She indicates the first two cannisters, passing them at a quick-step. “What you see here, Ascendant One, are fully mature physical duplicates of the Deputy Director’s current vehicle.” She halts between the last two capsules.

“This is the next iteration, an advanced composite man-a’kin.”

“This is your work?”

“Everything you see here, Ascendant One, is the product of many hands working in concert. I have been given responsibility for the success of this project and have…”

“I will credit your effort in my report, Doctor.”

“Thank you, D’nal, for your generous recognition.”

“You may go.”

The doctor steps back with a deep bow as Kudlac exits the facility with Remert behind, an unhurried second. His retainer follows at a respectful distance.

“Doctor Ahn will return with us at the alignment,” Kudlac says to Remert. “Her bearing is acceptable. Her responses, while not properly articulated, were an adequate attempt for an uninitiate.”

“She will be gratified by your gracious inclusion of her in the transference, D’nal.”

Remert has guided the vehicle into another vertical corridor. Kudlac is unable to sense whether they are being pushed or pulled, but experiences a profound moment of dissociation as their conveyance rises at a dizzying pace. Some renegade component of his digestive system is threatening to disgorge a remnant of his latest nutrient.

Their ascent ends with a bob. Remert diverts the dartabout from the concourse into a proprietary corridor, narrower, sans traffic. A portal irises closed behind them.

Kudlac’s environment suit has made adjustment again and the distress in his gut is diminished. There seems a way yet to go and he must prepare Remert for the next phase.

“The facility is impressive, D’kin. Given the circumstances of its development and the primitive tools at hand to accomplish the feat, I had anticipated, in this remote station, a gesture at best, a crude approximation of Kal’un Thudra’s sacred architecture.” The D’nal’s bellows refills. “It satisfies me to find, instead, a faithful re-creation of classic Methodic design. I commend you on the compound’s clean, utilitarian layout.”

“The Method and Mong’s Example, coupled with Lord Shiric’s generous resources at the mission’s commencement, were both critical to its inception here. The design follows, as closely as was practical, the Underhome Center of Inquiry, Analysis, and Advancement.”

“An appropriate model, adequately executed, D’kin.”

“Your graciousness is legendary, D’nal.”

“I hear you speak to me in the vernacular of the Method, yet I find your pace and intonations strange.”

“It has been many yarnn since the Thudran language was in my ears. I have been speaking the muddy tongue of these round-worlders for so long, and no other with whom I might share my own. It seems strange to me to hear it spoken properly.”

“You had the songs.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You sang them.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You produced offspring with one of these round-worlders.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You did not teach these offspring the language. You did not teach them the songs.”

“No, D’nal.”

“Your reasoning for not doing so must have been compelling.”

“It was obvious, D’nal.”

“Share it with me, D’kin.”

“I had no way of receiving Benison, or even Acknowledgement from the Order for my children and no way to initiate them into the Order without it. To teach them the songs without initiation is forbidden and without the songs, they could never be consecrated.”

“You did not intend them to return with you to Kal’un Shiir’n. Or to the Underhome. The required training would have been difficult so late in their development. You did not deem them capable?”

“I believed the Mission had been abandoned after losing contact with Lord Shiric for the best part of a yonn. There was no viable plan for return without His instrumentation. My sons are capable for their purposes here and that, D’nal, is sufficient. Let us return to the work before us. There remains much for you to digest.”

“Proceed.”

“With few exceptions, D’nal, the t’sunguc inhabiting this Earth have no guiding discipline, nor direction beyond their own self-serving interests. Mong would have a glorious time bringing them into alignment.

“My own sons, for instance, have inherited their mother’s nature and inclinations. It is unfortunate, but anticipated and, because of that anticipation, they are educated in sufficient Methodic practice to be of continuing value to the Mission without compromising Mong’s Imperative.”

A pass-through at the end of the way irises open and closes behind them. The vehicle settles to the lower limit of its pressors within a bare vestibule, and Remert says, “We have arrived, D’nal.”

Kudlac unpacks himself onto the polished stone of the anteroom and straightens with sinuous ease. His vestments fall into place without effort and the slender reed of the D’nal’s neck, braced within his raiment’s gorget, turns his head, scanning the area.

A proper doorway stands just paces away.

“As you know, D’kin, I did not agree with those who advocated your commission. The Claven saw differently and, I admit, accurately. Their wisdom in this is apparent. You have surpassed expectations. You have, in point of fact, conducted yourself in nearly every respect with honor and credit to the Method and its myriad Children.”

“Nearly, D’nal?”

Kudlac chooses to disregard the glaring impertinence. “You present me with an awkward problem, D’kin. As regards your use of the insidious poison, shosht’at-lool, that which Lord Shiric names ‘Good Water’, you have knowingly violated a lawful edict of the Claven.

“And this…” he taps Remert’s head with all three fingers to indicate the webbed map of the neural implant beneath the Director’s bald pate, “This is sacrilege.”

Remert pitches his voice in unemotional tones. “Surely you, D’nal, received Lord Shiric’s benefaction, as did I. Having accepted his commission, he is Nee’m and no other. His purpose is ours. We have so sworn and having sworn, our faith and honor binds us to that oath. I have held my vow inviolate and conducted myself accordingly.”

“Right and true. Regardless, Methshe Marayma is Naa’m. Without breaking the oath so sworn to Lord Shiric, our allegiance is first and always to Her. Her directives, passed down to you through the First Circle, were to be followed meticulously. Now it is time, D’kin, despite any rationalizations, to meet the consequence of your transgression.”

The bellows refills.

“Your commandment was never to partake of the shosht’at-lool and this you have willfully disobeyed. Furthermore, to allow such enhancements as this,” Kudlac thumps Remert’s skull with slate-dark fingertips, “without the Claven’s direct endorsement, is a profanity. It pains me, but I cannot, upon my return, stand before the Claven and Methshe Marayma to recite my report and sanction either your disobedience or your heresy.”

Remert forces down his fury and replies in a tone devoid of inflection. “I will say this to you now and will not speak it again until my return to Underhome and consideration by the Claven and Methshe Marayma.

“I found myself, without explanation, abandoned upon this Mong-forsaken ball of fung without means of communication or resupply. After nearly ten yarnn without contact, I understood the complex fields and energies of this world would end me long before the Event, before I could execute my charge. I chose a narrow way in order to fulfill my mandate and fulfill it I did. I would defy any in my circumstance to achieve what I have done with so little.”

“This sounds dangerously close to hubris.”

“You recall the Threnody of Beelem, D’nal.”

“Every initiate knows it. You are attempting to draw a parallel between your work in this Mission and B’sho Beelem’s accomplishment.”

“Once the Full Claven is made aware of the exigency of my situation, I am confident they will grant me dispensation in this.”

A sipping sound becomes a soft rasping of air drawn through the filters in each of the Minister’s nostrils. The bellows in the Minister’s thorax release in a long, slow gust. At the end of it, the tiny, grim mouth shapes words.

“I will agree to reconsider your position.”

Remert produces a deep bow with as much respect as he is willing to simulate at this juncture, but it is enough. “I leave you to your conference with Mr. Pruitt, D’nal. I will join you later in the…”

“You will accompany me now, D’kin.”

“Your pardon, D’nal. As you might anticipate, given the timeline, I have numerous processes ongoing at accelerated pace, each requiring my specific attention.”

“You mention time again, D’kin, as though it is something I am unable to track or, perhaps, fathom.”

“Time does not move in the same way here as you are used to in Kal’un Thudra, D’nal. You will not like it.”

“Heed me, D’kin. Your capable subordinates will manage in your stead until I have relieved you. Do as I command.”

Remert turns on a heel and strides though the near doorway before Kudlac can skirt the conveyance in his path and calls back without turning, ” As you instruct, Minister. I will announce your arrival at once.”

 

     ~   

The D’nal’s Tour Read More »

Transit

The plunge from sub-orbit is a turbulent downward pitch complete with all the rage and heat of atmospheric re-entry. The pressors could have slowed the descent to minimize the friction and buffeting, but speed was ordered and downhill is where to get the most of it.

Charli regards the Deputy Director’s original ambivalence toward the use of a pressure suit with a shrug like a shudder. His disregard for the physical ramifications of their ballistic trajectory is, at the least, disturbing. It has, however, been her intuition since their first meeting, without ever finding it necessary to test her belief, that questioning Mr. Hergenrather’s decision-making at any point would be an effective barrier to further career development.

She had pushed the winged needle to within an RCH of its limit on the climb, an effect similar to being catapulted into the mesosphere. The Gs, even with her best suit on, blurred her vision to a troubling degree, and hurt more than she thought it would do.

Cresting, she makes a calibrated course correction and applies thrust, more than enough to overcome what might have been a brief, enjoyable weightlessness, making the vehicle more bolide than aircraft.

If there was a naked eye to witness their descent into the northeastern New Mexican desert, they would appear little more than a tiny fireball streaming into the wasteland.

Then, nothing.

What her boss is experiencing in the generously appointed rear cabin she can only imagine, but at least if he blows beets all over the upholstery, he won’t blame her for doing as she was told. That’s really all that matters. And hope to St. Elvis he was strapped in at least.

With only modest maneuvering altitude to spare, by her reconning, onboard alarm systems clamoring, Charli bangs the repellor array full on and the dive bottoms out a mere four hundred meters above the desert floor—tight, but adequate—and she has found her mark within a kilometer. Not a hole in one; more like a long tee shot rolling out a tap from the cup.

She keys the ID protocol and the pre-established routine to align and deposit the craft in the first available berth initializes.

An arcing turn and deceleration threatens to tear some of her favorite organs loose from their moorings, but lines her up with the approach beacon. Her head feels full of clouds, her vision fuzzy.

Somewhere along an imposing wall of ancient, weathered rock, transformation optics conceal the docking portals and the ordnance bracketing them. She is trying to recall with clarity her one previous visit here as she braces for collision with a looming stone face.

Transition through the palisade into the bay is barely a waver of holography around the penetration. The curtain spanning the mesa face remains otherwise undisturbed.

Cooling mist fogs onto the craft and steam billows from its skin as it is nestled into its docking cradle. Silent fans suck at the cloud of superhot vapor bursting from the interface.

 

A banging sound intrudes upon Charli’s first conscious moments of a near-blissful peace—one derived from a trajectory best described as stationary. The sound awakens an awareness of where she is and why she’s here.

Something is pounding on the side of her airsled.

She reaches out, allowing the grimace and groan she would have withheld almost any other time, pokes an index finger into a panel over there, and then flips a couple switches here and here. Her hatch unseals with a gasp and the banging sound stops.

She allows only enough gap to hear the sounds of the bay mechanicals at their tasks through the sizzle of steam still wisping off the fuselage in flags. She feels heat forcing itself through the crack.

Mr. Hergenrather is smiling up at her.

“Good job.”

An affable Hergenrather is confounding, as is his apparent ability to withstand physical extremes.

“I’ll be a while. Make yourself at home.”

Her eyes focus on him. His eyes are so expletive blue, as if alight. He gives her a wink, turns into the cloud, and it swallows him.

She manages a perfunctory salute into the billow where she saw him last. The hatch seals and Charli rolls back into her seat. It hurts less there and nobody around here cares what she does now anyway.

 

 

     ~      

Transit Read More »

Margret’s Last Day At Work

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 back against the toilet tank, 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 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. 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. “Yes, H’seven.”

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

“Done.”

“That’s all,” H’seven says. A glance at the time on his wrist tattoo suggests there is still time 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.

Phil Bettencort appears a man near his physical limits, slumped in a chair behind the famous desk in the Oval Office, the one his previous boss no longer occupies.

H’seven’s avatar, in contrast, is a razor-edged near-silhouette framed in a dead, grayish-green backlight.

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

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. His eyes are puffy with drooping bags under them. His jowls did not seem as pronounced yesterday. 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 yet to confirm that.

“I am 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 liquefied matter, rolling 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 some 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 suggested a minute ago you could 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? You can’t…”

“Mark.”

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 did you say to him?”

“What I said to him isn’t nearly as important as what you’ve got to say to me, Phil. You want me to realign a HelioStation and vaporize a pair of incoming space rocks for you and, I swear to some God or other, Phil, I’d love to do that just for the sheer fun and spectacle 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 sprinted 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.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“This isn’t an ‘ask’; it’s a 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.”

“Well, you’re half right.” H’seven’s laugh is light, humorless. “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. Hasty farewells follow and H’seven steps out of vee.

 

The last of Margaret’s motor functions are disengaging.

“I couldn’t have harmed Mr. Folt, you know,” Sonder says.

“He didn’t seem to be confident of that, did he?”

A serious tug is required to dislodge the metal straw from Margaret’s skull. 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, sir. Thank you, sir. I’m sure I’ll see her when she checks out.”

“No, you won’t. I wanted her to enjoy a limo ride home…” He traces Margaret’s slouched form with his eyes. “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. I’ll find it and have someone run it back down to you later with her cart.”

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

But H’seven has already broken the connection.

 

Charli’s G-suit, 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 bullet of a fuselage. The Q-powered thrusters are capable of propelling the craft at or near Mach six peak and will cruise over 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 capable of slicing intended victim and bystander alike, without regard for sensibility or consequence. Upon occasion, these characteristics can be employed concurrently.

It is an unachievable exercise to square what she’s experienced of Mr. Hergenrather’s personality thus far 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 just before I left. It must have been on her mind.”

His outburst of laughter reverberates within the cavernous aerodrome, its vibration decaying moments later until nothing remains but her employer’s 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.”

“We?”

Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

Mr. 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. Now. If you make me late, Mrs. Stafford, you’re going to walk home.”

The hatch seals behind him.

“Well, that’s more like it,” Charli says with something like relief.

 

 

     ~      

Margret’s Last Day At Work Read More »

The Well

Shading her eyes against crystalline morning light with her free hand, Hattie makes her way to The Well with her wicker-sleeved jug. The woven basket handles are generous and would make for comfortable carrying even if the jug was full, which it never is.

Hattie has acquired the habit, as others before her have done, of referring to The Well with a particular emphasis, as though the word was a proper noun.

Instead of catch-basins closer to the edge, farther back a’ways, there are wells. Some are productive enough. There is, however,  only the one capital “W” Well, and it’s maintained with a vigilance resembling a military installation.

Located in what might be called a plaza at the roughly defined center of town, The Well remains sealed against the elements in a manner to discourage unauthorized access. Not that anyone in Woebegone would ever avail themselves of the good water beyond their allotted ration.

Distribution is a daily ritual following a rigid, one might say an uncompromising protocol, established over time by the meager flow and sparse reserve of the precious resource. This protocol is overseen by the one individual whose personal nature could also be considered uncompromising, an obvious asset in this case, given the good water to be a treasure beyond price, one to be protected at any cost.

Four women are gathered at The Well when Hattie arrives.

Poor Reena Ledbedder, large with twins and miserable today, shifts her weight from one foot to the other behind Shea Buford, hugging her jug.

Shea waits with almost catatonic patience for her allotment without so much as a look or grunt of acknowledgement in Hattie’s direction, or any other. She’s still new hereabouts and the turning’s been hard with her.

Beautiful Ruthie Mallory, on the other hand, bless her sweet, child’s heart, cannot wait to tell Hattie about a dream she had the night before.

Velma Hawley’s features are pinched into a familiar grimace.

There is a smoldering hatred in the gray eyes of the self-appointed Water Mistress that refuses to be restrained. It boils out expansively and without selectivity. She seems to dislike everyone with equal fervor. How sweet, doddering old Pete could stand the lemon-sucking old bat is beyond Hattie’s ken.

The people some people choose.

That their only child is an equally unlikable, oversized, combative road-apple is no unsolvable mystery, however.

The Water Mistress has continued to measure the good water into their individual containers. Now, she’s stopped.

“Mizzy Pruitt, I heared you had a visitor come in out the blowin’ sand last night.”

“Drifter. Doody brought him to me. He was in terrible torment. I gave him some good water and he quieted right down.”

“Well, that was generous of ya. You use yer share however ya want, ‘course, but I ain’t able ta give ya any extra ‘cause of it. Tell me, though, did he look tasty?”

Hattie suppresses the scowl that would only serve to further perturb the Water Mistress, no doubt influencing the measurement of her ration for days to come.

“He looked haunted.”

The clatter of Jamie Mallory’s buckboard being drawn up the main street by Jamie’s two mules, Sister and Sarah, intrudes. Heads turn toward the noise.

Jamie, lounging against the bench seat’s padded backrest, lifts his little cap and waves to the women with a grin. “Marnin’ to ya, foin laidees,” he hails in passing and, to Ruthie, a doting, “Hoy, dorlin’.”

Ruthie and Hattie wave back. Reena’s raised hand awards her a tiny kick in the abdomen. Shea stares into the distance.

Velma heaves a resonant sigh. “I don’t have all day, ladies.”

Newt, bent over the traces, peeks out from under the brim of his hat and winks at Hattie. Her sweet man, even yet. She winks back.

The wagon turns off the main street toward the Stores. It’s tracks in the dirt look deep, suggesting a heavy load underneath the buck’s oilskin cover, but the only outward indication of the success of the outing is a pair of big, rough-looking dogs trailing close behind on heavy leads.

Velma, watching the dogs round the corner out of sight, licks her lips.

Shea Buford shuffles away, hugging her bottle of precious liquid to her bosom.

“Ruthie,” Hattie says, “why don’t you tell me about your dream, honey?”

Ruthie’s eyes slip from Hattie to the Water Mistress. Velma has resumed metering her allocations.

“Well, okay. I was havin’ a picnic momma made for me, sittin’ right by this nice little crick. There was all sorta good things in the li’l basket. I was real happy.”

The Water Mistress gives a derisive snort. Hattie keeps a look of vexation sheathed.

“But then the water in the river it becomed all icky… thick like porridge, an’ there was a fog comin’ offn it, like it was steamin’, or maybe smokin’. I couldn’t tell which it was but it made the trees an’ grass all wilt an’ die an’ I ‘member my skin sorta felt funny whur it touched me.”

Ruthie swallows hard.

“I was ‘fraid ta breathe it in an’ I tried to get up to run away, but I seed there was somethin’ on my arm like a little animal, ‘r maybe a big kinda bug thing! It had feet with toes an’ it held onta my arm with ’em an’ its head…”

The girl tremors twice, the memory vivid. Her voice is too loud.

“Top its head was awful, Auntie! Long, like a… a knittin’ needle. An’ sharp! It scared me sore much I ‘member I screamed an’ tried ta shake it offn me an’ ‘at’s when it… it smiled at me, Auntie Pruitt! A wicked, hateful smile. Then it sticked its head right inta my arm an’ it hurt sore fierce that I woked up.”

Ruthie’s eye are huge, staring into Hattie’s.

“I thunk fer a minute it was still on me! But Momma came runnin’ cuz I was cryin’ an’ weren’t nothin’ there. She tolt me be still cuz it was jist a dream, but…”

“But what, Honey?”

“But when I tolt her what happened, I seed she looked sorta funny her own self. Then she jist tolt me it’d be awright an’ sent me ta fetch water an’ not say nothin’ an’ here I am.”

Ruthie raises her arm and lifts back the sleeve of her frock. Her forearm is discolored, purple-black with a long welt at the center of the bruise. Hattie takes the youngster’s arm and probes the site with delicate attention.

Ruthie flinches, draws back with a wince and whimper, pulling her sleeve down.

Hattie’s concern for the girl’s injury balances precariously in the moment with the memory of her own similar dream not so long ago, the recollection of it grown perhaps imprecise, but the description of the little creature could not have been more intimate. She had forgotten about the smile.

The recollection sends a prickly wave under and over her. How very, disturbingly evil, it had seemed then. She happens to catch Reena Ledbedder’s eyes and sees the look of consternation in them. She knows that look.

The thing that used to be Velma Hawley braces her fists on her hips and produces an impatient harrumph. “S’prised atcho, Mizzy Pruitt.” Her voice drips condescension. “S’prised you ain’t seen such b’fore, you bein’ th’ new ‘n’ better witchy woman here ‘n’ all.”

“Instead of me,” is the part Velma did not say aloud and Hattie reminds herself that no response could be in any way helpful at this moment. Velma is in teaching mode, teaching Hattie a thing or two.

“Simple fact is, the child must’ve started her red days recent.” She fixes Ruthie with a sharp stare. “Ain’t that right, Missy?”

Ruthie looks at her shoes.

“Thought so. Them’s the times, girl. Nice hot comfrey poultices’ll take it right down inna day ‘n’ that’s that. Nothin’ ta git yerselves all worked up over.

“I’ll tell you this too, D’kin Remert sez to me th’other day the needle-head thing people keep sayin’ they seen is jist some kinda lergic reaction to somethin’ in the vironment. He sez he’s figurin’ it out.”

This last Velma has directed toward Reena, the most likely to go into a faint at the troubling thought of the needle-headed dream creature being somehow—sweet Jesus, though we’ve all gone an’ forsaken ya, please don’t let it be, you know… real.

And Hattie knows the older woman’s been speaking to her all along.

She wants as much as anything to ask Velma what it all means, knowing before she does so, she’ll get no satisfaction there. Instead, she offers a sincere, “thank you” for the unsolicited advice and hoists her jug with disappointing ease.

“Come along, Ruthie. Let’s take care of you,” she says and starts off up the street toward the Stores. “But first let’s see what the men brought back with them, shall we?”

      ~    ~

The Well Read More »

The Midget In the Room

Denny opens the not-a-flip-phone on its long axis. It separates and he draws the halves apart. A translucent film spreads between them, becomes opaque, and a man’s face resolves on the surface.

Mid-forties, if I’d have to guess. Piercing blue-green eyes in Mediterranean-esque features. Fashionable salt and pepper stubble frames a square jaw and expressive lips, grinning, with the glowing stub of a cigar between his teeth.

One eyebrow crawls upward. He unplugs the butt and flicks it away.

“Whoa! Each of you…?” He looks through us. “Abigail. Yes, all three.” And back to us. Eye contact with him is intimate and disconcerting. “This is wonderful. Can you all see me all right?”

Denny nods. “Fine enough, I guess. What do you guys think?”

Benn leans in between us. “Hey, I’ve seen you on campus.”

“You have a keen eye, Mr. Germane. I try to keep a low profile.”

“Well, no shit.”

I hear a little girl’s laugh.

Braden looks through us again and says “Hey, do you want to do this?”

His eyes return to Benn. “I’ve seen you around too, of course. Always a confident, good-natured presence. It’s encouraging to finally make your acquaintance.”

“Small world, huh?” Benn says.

“You’ll be surprised, I think.”

Braden looks at Benn and me leaning in around Denny and says, “This is a pretty small aperture, Denzil. Let me move so you can rest your arms.”

The little screen blanks and monitor two, the one previously displaying the mother of all sub-microscopic power generators, shows us Braden’s face and upper torso instead. Behind him is an unremarkable backdrop of furnished apartment chic. He seems to take in the scope of my studio’s volume and décor before regarding the three of us again.

“That’s better,” he says. His voice emanates from my sound system. “You all good?”

Do I need to mention none of that should be happening? No, I didn’t think so.

“Miz Cozinki, do you mind if I call you Erica?”

“Not as long as you don’t mind me asking questions too.”

“I believe we all have questions,” he says. “Why don’t you begin?”

Oh goody, because everything that’s happened since I met Denny, up to and including this afternoon’s eye-popping revelations plus the bonus unforeseen plot twist just seconds ago, could not have left me less prepared to formulate an impromptu, yet coherent interrogative sentence on cue. Here it goes.

“What is it?”

I know, but it’s the best I can do on short notice. I gesture helpfully over thataway toward the STM, in case there’s any confusion about what it I’m talking about.

“And why did you give it to Denny? To us?”

“That’s like three questions.”

“I’ll skip my next turn.”

“All right. Think of it as a battery that never runs down. Simplistic, I know, but accurate enough for our purposes.

“In an old permutation of High Speech, the t’scah-ctn’zho u’chah refers to both a spark and a fount. It will provide a stable, gated response to the demand of a balanced system properly connected to it.

“Let me add, it cannot be induced to allow thermal runaway. In your case, that means it will not become a nova in your living room.”

“You might imagine how much Benn appreciates that.”

“As to why, Erica, I will ask you to hold that thought close for now. It is a pertinent question. I promise we will come back to it.”

Braden’s gaze turns. “Benjamin, if I may call you by your given name?”

“Sure.” Benn points to the not-a-flip-phone, lying inert on the workbench, then at Braden’s face, still smiling out at him larger than life from monitor two. “How do you do that?”

“I have a knack. Ask the question that really matters to you.”

“Well… wait. That one mattered to me.”

“Take your time.”

Benn checks to me. I give him a wink, a nod, and a cheery thumbs-up. It’s exactly what he’d do for me.

His friend’s face is harder for him to read. Denny’s street-dweller appearance does little to soften a gaze troubling in its intensity. No help there. Benn shifts his attention back to Braden.

“All right, then. Who or, God-help-us, what are you?”

“An excellent place to begin, Benjamin. The simplest answer will be the hardest for you to accept, but I’m just going to start there and trust your innate curiosity and intellect to save us all a lot of time.

“Abigail and I are emissaries of an outreach program none of you have ever heard of. Today, we are reaching out to you. We have chosen to be here because of Denzil’s unique actualization, and because of his relationship with the two of you. Both elements are pivotal and their potential sufficient that we have altered our course.

“In doing so, we have pledged ourselves to this experience with you, whatever comes, for as long as we are able to sustain life within us, or until this is done and we can choose a new course. Think of us as similar, in terms of our commitment and our extremity, to early Christian missionaries in wholly unaccustomed, often hostile environments.”

I want to ask Braden what he means by the phrase, ‘until this is done’, but he’s not done.

“This world is on the cusp of rigorous alterations. You are aware of some of these as they begin to intrude upon your comfort and then your security. Climate-related disaster and political strife on a global scale will not be the least of these, nor the greatest.

“The three of you are wild cards in an alignment unlike anything recorded before—and the records go back an impressively long ways.

“Denzil’s creation and his intention for it offer a narrow, yet achievable path toward curtailing much of the damage already in progress, and minimizing the destruction to come for as many as possible. Your own participation with him increases the options for positive outcomes significantly.”

Silence ensues.

Benn breaks it.

“You said the phrase ‘this world’ with an interesting inflection, that and a few other things suggest you’re not from what we like to call ‘around here’, are you? We don’t get a lot of that. What are you? Aliens? Time travelers? I dunno… both? I know that’s a lot of questions, but help me out here.”

A child looking like a shadow in a blood red dress tugs at Braden’s sleeve. He allows her to guide his ear toward her, one delicate obsidian hand cupped over her mouth. He nods.

“Hey, don’t misunderstand me,” Benn says. “I’m fine with it either way. See, I get why Denny and Erica have your interest, but seriously… why me? I don’t have any superpowers.”

I see Braden point with accuracy at the door between me and the world, and Denny was right; his fingers really do look like little sausages.

“You walked through that door with your friend, Benjamin, choosing your course into the next moment knowing you have no control over what that next moment will bring.

“This is that moment, and I have no idea ‘why you’. I only know you are here and that is enough for me. Is it enough for you?”

Benn blinks first. Several times. “Right,” he says, nodding. “Yeah.”

Braden’s image leans in toward us. “Let me answer your first question, Benjamin. We are, like yourselves, human. Unlike you, we have developed upon somewhat divergent paths. Different understandings, less mythology, perhaps. Different potentials and capabilities, and yet, we are related, identical in essence, alike in nature.”

The child tugs at his sleeve.

“And purpose,” he appends.

He smiles at the little girl and touches her face.

Benn expression is puzzled. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You and the little girl are missionaries from a heretofore unknown benevolent society that knows the future, or something, and you’ve come bearing a priceless gift beyond any currently known technology. What did I miss?”

“It’s not a gift,” I say.

Benn’s head tracks back my way. “Huh?”

“It’s an aptitude test.”

Braden, grinning again, taps his nose with a pudgy index finger and points at me.

I grin back at him. I didn’t mean to. Part of me, maybe like Benn, doesn’t want to trust Braden’s story, unique as it is. But it’s far more than a story at this juncture, isn’t it?

I like him. And I don’t even know why. Maybe he’s a good actor.

“Where’s the rest of it?” I ask.

Benn’s still watching me. “The rest of what?”

“This power supply is incredible, but pointless without something to energize.”

My printer, off and forgotten in its cubby, begins its start-up sequence and our heads all spin toward it in unison. It purrs out a page that feeds into its little tray, a new sheet loads, and the thing continues to hum to itself.

“Oh, that,” Benn says and steps around me to retrieve the output.

Braden is smiling out from monitor two and I say, “Now you’re just showing off.”

Denny’s expression sweeps from me to the printer and back again. He looks baffled. Or pissed off.  Difficult to determine in his current guise.

I ask him, “Do you know what this is going to be?” Because I think maybe he might.

He shakes his head. “Not a clue.”

“How many pages you got there now, B?”

“Goin’ on four.”

“I really wasn’t thinking of making it that difficult,” Braden says, “but Abbey came up with it, so it is. She likes puzzles.”

“How long do we have to figure this out?”

“Not long. Abbey says any time before your calendar year twenty ten will probably give you enough window to affect the outcomes. Of course, the sooner the better, as windows and outcomes go.”

“Erica’s last questions remain unaddressed,” Denny says. “Let’s go ahead and talk about why and what you expect or need from us.”

He said “us” and I realize I don’t just have accomplices anymore. I am one.

Braden manages to hold each of us in his gaze from monitor two as he says, “It may be difficult for you to understand that we wish neither to direct your path, nor share in your glory, should you choose that sort of recognition. Our purpose is to help you on your way for the benefit of all, and what we want from you is what you seem determined to provide anyway—your best effort.”

He’s looking at me now, as though he’s waiting for me to say something. So, I do.

“You said, ‘for the benefit of all’. I believe that’s an objective we can agree upon, although it’s too nebulous to provide much focus. It implies legion. Besides you and Abigail, who else is in this with us?”

“All who would choose to support and nurture life. All who will participate in the transformation of this world to that end. All who will not be able to participate, but will be affected by that transformation. All who do not yet know such possibilities exist.”

“And what of those who would not so choose?” Denny asks. “What of those driven instead by their ignorance and fear to experience the world through the filter of their baser natures?”

“Their path is not yours.”

Braden checks to me. “Another question, Erica?”

“I’m skipping my turn now.”

Benn has the pages from the printer in his hand and gestures around the room with them.

“Well, yeah, I’ve got another question. Again, and seriously, you’ve got a knack? What does that even mean? Yeah, yeah, I know. Okay, here’s my question. What exactly does privacy look like anymore with someone who can… you know, do whatever it is you do?”

Denny reaches out an unhurried hand and slips the documents from Benn’s fingers.

Braden holds Benn’s gaze. “If you allow yourself to be astonished at every turn, Benjamin, you will spend an unproductive amount of time in self-imposed paralysis. I will not eavesdrop on your personal and private conversations. I have no reason to do so, if you think about it. You called me, remember?

“Abigail and I have made our commitments. The next is on each of you.”

Denny is examining the pages retrieved from Benn. He hands them off to me and his voice pitches up a few decibels. “You already know my answer. I’ve seen these before, Abbey. If this represents a sense of humor, then I have continued to misunderstand you.”

I skim the pages. Four of them. Single-sided.

Three are reproductions of tight drawings and tighter handwritten text to all four edges of the page. There are no margins. I didn’t know my printer could do that.

The fourth was penned by a different hand. At a glance, the words all appear to be in English and I recognize numbers and scientific notation. I understand enough to know I understand none of it.

I am not sure why I’m holding these pieces of paper aloft to indicate what I’m talking about, but I am. “Braden, if we upscale this—let’s just call it ‘the prototype’—as well as an adaptor for the pico-scopic… what did you call it, Benn?”

“A plug.”

“…an adaptor for the plug on the output surface of this power supply. If we do that, would the increased demand result in damage to either the prototype or the power supply itself?”

“No.”

“Will this micro micro thing power the prototype no matter how large we make it?”

Braden leans back in his chair, regarding me with an expression I cannot quantify. Curiosity? Amusement?

“How ‘large’ are you thinking about?”

“A breadbox.”

“Yes.”

“A battleship.”

“Depends on the limits of your materials.”

“Wow. Okay, what would happen if we were to upscale the aperture, or the pathways of the power supply?”

“The former is not an option. However, there may come a point at which you require terajoules of output. The latter is one way of achieving such an increase. Great for quick, but effective impulse-maneuvering in an orbiting harbor, for instance. That would, of course, be excessive for the purpose of this exercise.”

“Hold on…” I’m pointing at our aptitude test in the STM behind its drape. The pages are still in my hand. “Terajoules? Are we still talking about that?!”  “Is there an upward limit to this tuskok-tinzoochuh thing’s output?”

Braden’s smile at my pronunciation becomes a serious line.

“No. Although, in a practical sense, you might choose to impose one. In fact, I recommend it. Particularly as you are already considering modifications beyond the scope and limitation of this aptly described ‘test’. Containment and conductor integrity has always seemed the ultimate limiting factor.”

“Valuable safety item. Noted. Thanks.”

 

You know what’s crazy? I see it with such clarity it’s almost infuriating that it eluded me before. Of course, before, I didn’t know there was a power source capable of providing terajoules of energy free for the taking. So, you know, there’s that.

And something-something about an orbiting spacecraft harbor.

Designs in my mind that seemed impenetrable and far-fetched before, are not only possible, but suggest to me advances in so many technologies with the potential to alter the course of human history and, just maybe, save the world from mankind.

Maybe save mankind from itself.

I know. Heady stuff. You should have felt it the way I just did.

The improbable events of the last hour have afforded me a weirdly altered perspective and, even more importantly, provided me with a brand-new set of resources from which to draw both inspiration and instrumentation.

The solution to Abigail’s puzzle almost appears to be laid out like a paint-by-numbers still-life. The cues to each step, breadcrumbs on the twisting path from inception to working prototype are highlighted by rays of light.

 

I begin clearing space at my corner worktable. “This might take some time,” I say over my shoulder. “Are you boys willing to spend the night with me?”

Benn appears to choke on something.

Denny’s returning my stool to its usual spot. “I’ve got nowhere better to go.”

“Aren’t you the gallant one?”

“That didn’t come out right.”

Benn appears a man in deep thought. “To be honest, I was thinking about going to a movie this evening with a couple budding young… let’s call them thespians.”

He turns to address Braden. “Now I’m thinking about sticking around here a little longer. You know. Keep an eye on these two; see what develops. They may need a cooler head to help keep them from skating off the edge of the world.”

Braden says, “I am encouraged by your choice, Benjamin.”

The obsidian child is peeking around the back of Braden’s chair. She tugs his sleeve, whispers something in his ear, and he laughs, a hearty guffaw, quickly squelched.

“I am shocked at you, Abigail.”

She hands him his stogie, still smoldering. He plugs it between his teeth at the corner of his grin.

“Also, I’m trusting Eric will not allow the three of you to destroy yourselves with that.”

The item I have previously described as “The Mother of All Sub-Microscopic Power Generators” is back on monitor two.

Braden has, as they say, left the building.

Benn, mustering a bravery I will come to admire in the days ahead, jerks open the refrigerator door and snatches out a two-liter bottle of that sweet nectar of the cola gods, pressing the door closed again without undue haste. Attaboy.

He hesitates.

“Is there anything in the freezer I should know about before I reach in there for ice?”

“Yeah, but the cold’s made it really slow now. You’ll be fine.”

There is, in my mind, a snapshot of that skewed, goofy look on his face. It seems long ago and far away now, but it still makes me smile to think of it.

 

 

      ~    ~

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