Domains of Opposition

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?”


“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.”


“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.

      ~    ~

What It Is

It only takes a patch swap to splash the STM’s interface across both workstation monitors and we begin to examine the reason for Denny’s insomnia. A couple remote adjustments and we’re treated to a color enhanced vista of something that, by all accounts, should not exist.

I need to caution you. If anyone asks… it does NOT exist. Okay?
You really need to trust me on this.

Monitor one on the left shows me a set of static images, representations of the staged sample on its three axes. It’s a wafer, only five or six atoms top to bottom, but no real detail. It’s quite a bit larger than I’d expected.

Screen two offers an expanded view from the probe poised above the first layer.

“This is… the stuff?” I say.

“Mm hmm.”

“We really have to call it something besides ‘the stuff’.”

“Plasmos,” Denny says.

“Bozonium,” Benn says.

“Come again?” I’m not sure I heard him right.


“Not you.”

Denny is staring at the enhanced image. 

“Barbarella,” he says. “The mathmos.”

And just like that, we’re playing Trivial Pursuit®.

“How do you know I’ve even seen that movie?”

It’s been a while, but some cinema is indelible.

“Okay,” I say. “The mathmos, so the script goes, is a sentient alien goo living beneath the only hospitable, habitable environment on an otherwise inhospitable world. Every now and then, the goo will reach out and swallow a citizen or two. No big deal. Not quite what you’d call symbiotic, but better odds than Outside.”

Denny’s grin is disturbing.

“The principal attribute of plasmos in its raw stage,” he says, “is that its properties are ambiguous, completely malleable—plastic in a literal sense.”

“Plastic mathmos.”


“It won’t eat us will it?”

Benn coughs. “Says the girl with sentient alien goo in her refrigerator.”

“Probably not.” Denny says.

“Two syllables,” I say. “Easy to remember. Works for me.”

“So, Bozonium’s out, right?” Benn sounds disappointed.

And that’s what consensus looks like.

The STM maps individual atoms in a material, but its modality doesn’t define subatomic particles. Rather, the software interprets and generates a representation that looks more like bubble wrap than anything else I can think of.

Raw plasmos, let’s call it then—patent and trademark pending—turns out to exhibit a near-homogenous surface to the scanning tunneling microscope. Not so much a bubble as the suggestion of a bump. Its color enhancement profile is monochromatic and disinteresting.

Plasmos, one might say, looks unnatural. What constitutes “natural” will become fodder for much speculation amongst the three of us soon, but we’ll get to that later, I guess.

Also, it’s evident we’re going to need something more powerful very soon. Right now, however, we have a working tool most folks aren’t typically able to fit into their kitchen.

These boys are lucky I found them when I did, is all I gotta say.

“Eric,” I say more or less symbolically in the direction of the gimbaled breadbox, “follow Denny’s direction to map the sample in the STM, please.”

“Okay,” says a pleasant tenor.

“Hi, Eric,” Denny says.

“Hi, Denny. Good to see you back. We missed you.”

“You did? I… I’m glad to be back.”

“I await your instruction.”

“Go ahead and tunnel down to the second layer. The first gradation will dissipate as the probe moves into it.”

The inert layer dissolves upon contact with the intrusion of the probe, as advertised.

A raster inches down from the top of both screens, displaying submicroscopic topography. My breadbox protégé maintains a precise, micro-micrometric separation between the probe and the sample, regardless irregularities in the atomic terrain, and there are many.

This is not what Denny calls ‘first stage’ material. It has been shaped with deliberate intention, and set. I notice my mouth is open and shut it.

Benn pipes up. “Hey, Eric, I didn’t know you were on or I would have said ‘hey’ before.”

“Hey, Benn. Power-save mode.”

“How’s it going in there, buddy?”

“Thank you for asking. I’m managing some precision work with the STM right now, but I want you to know it warms my circuits to see you, albeit not sufficiently to cause them to thermally reconfigure themselves.”

Benn snorts milk and the raster continues to trace the object’s surface at a pace I could never hope to achieve.

“Benn? Are you all right?” Eric sounds concerned. I like that. Maybe he is.

Benn, one hand pressed hard over the bridge of his nose, waves vague acknowledgement with the other.

Patterns emerge on-screen.

The software is doing its best to represent what it detects without prejudice. The bubble-wrap vista so far revealed is crisscrossed and ribboned with something that looks like grains of arborio rice strewn with a generous helping of Morse code in braille scattered among them.

I’ve not seen anything like this before and I’ve already seen some pretty wild stuff. I’m not sure something isn’t wrong with the equipment, but Eric continues to map the rest of the object as though there is no problem, so I just stare at it with my mouth open again.

An irregularity appears as a blister on the surface composed of the same braille stir-fry we see organized in interconnected clusters around it.

I nudge Denny with an elbow and point to the overview on screen one. “See those bright discolorations in the new scan lines?”

“Yes,” he says, eyes darting. “Eric, can you give us another scan of this segment, mark, and superimpose any changes?”

Eric says, “Once this initial pass is complete in another fifty-seven point zero two eight seconds from the conclusion of this statement and your anticipated response, I could give you a continuous progressive scan at sixty frames instead. Would that provide more context?”

“You could…? I mean, yes. Definitely. Do that.”

Fifty-eight seconds later, flashes of intense brightness overwhelm the output optics, enough to make us recoil. A star strobes from the screen.

Eric adjusts and it loses a couple orders of magnitude. Active pico-circuitry is apparent in real time.

Denny and I are both standing now, shoulder to shoulder, watching as clocked pulses energize the coded pathways. They radiate outward from the blister and across the surface of this near-infinitesimal thing.

One pathway in particular seems prominent. On it, we watch energy exchange across what might be a stylized synapse, fanning out into a dendritic cluster that terminates at the abrupt bottom edge of the tiny flake.

“Eric, that single cluster must be a power source. Zoom in close and put it up on two.”

A star, eclipsed now to an acceptable degree, flickers steadily from the right-side monitor.

“Eric, capture one full cycle and queue it up on two instead, please.”

Monitor two is lit up. I dial the image back three frames to see its precursor.

Remember what I said about the STM’s ‘bubble wrap’ interpretation of the surface? Well, this isn’t.

It looks like a cavity. An emptiness.

Three frames forward, a brilliant emptiness.

“Ohhh-kay. I am now officially interested,” I say. “Secretary, please note the date and time.

“There is so much going on inside this little sandwich, Denzil, but how did you get an atom of plasmos to produces energy?”

“It’s not an atom. It’s a singularity.”

I’d like to say something in response, but I’m going to need a minute to digest that.

“Hold on,” Benn says from the cheap seats. “Granted, I’m without the benefit of a formal education in Einsteinian or Hawking physics, but I have read ‘Black Holes for Dummies’ and I don’t think that’s a black hole. I don’t think so because it was in your pocket on the way over here and we’re all still here.”

“You’re right, of course, Benn. This is the other one.”

“I’m sorry?”

“A white hole.”

“Oh, I see. White hole. Sure, that makes sense. Sorry to interrupt you again.”

“I have a question,” I say. “I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin, but you didn’t make any of this, did you?”

“No. Well, yes; I made the stillpoint, the raw first stage ambiguity.”

“And the mystery woman, Abbey, made all of this… from that? Without any instrumentation?” I know I sound skeptical.

“I watched her while she did it. I felt her doing it in a way I won’t even try to explain. Maybe it was because I made the point she was shaping, I don’t really know. She doesn’t talk much and I’m still figuring a lot out. But when she was finished, she asked me to form the dielectric wrapper around her finished example and I didn’t have instrumentation then either.”

I cannot feature how that should even be possible, at any scale. But I know he’s telling the truth.

Did I already say I have no idea what his limitations are anymore?

“Eric, please reorient to map the butt end of the sample. Let’s see what we’re up against.”

The probe’s transition and its initial mapping pass on the new surface takes time. It’s worth the wait.

Eric narrates. “The sample itself varies from five to six atoms in thickness, but the flake itself averages eighteen wide and thirty-six long.

“There are exactly ninety-nine atoms in this end cap, plus a synaptic terminus for a pattern of no less than twenty-seven discrete conductors and each conductor projects two atoms beyond the terminus.”

“It’s a plug,” Benn says. “A real inconvenient one too.”

The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.

I want to get into the substrate of that and see what’s underneath. I want to know how this thing works and how to make it do other things. But what I really want to know is, “Why do you think they gave this to you?”

Benn has unreclined himself and joined us in front of the micro-panorama. One hand on his friend’s shoulder, he points, not at the images, but at the STM’s blurred hulk behind the drapes. “Let me see if I understand. That… thing there… is a hole the size of an atom.”

“That’s right enough.”

What’s in the hole?”

“I thought you said you read the book.”

Benn’s face scrunches up. “There’s no empirical evidence that all the matter collapsing into a black hole is expressed as either matter or energy out of some theoretical other ‘end’ or ‘side’, or whatever. That niggling detail aside, is the black hole at the hypothetical other “end” of this, also the size of an atom?”

“For the sake of conversation, let’s say that it is.”

“Good. And where is this other end right now, the black, ‘Oh God oh God we’re all gonna die’ end’?”

“I don’t know. It’s not a hose. Time-space deforms around the event, and this is a pretty small event, relatively speaking.”

“Listen, you know I’m not a scientist, right? But I read. I watch The Discovery Channel and Myth Busters and PBS when they’re not aggressively soliciting donations. I may not understand celestial or quantum mechanics, but whether you’ve got yourself a portable gravity well there or an explosion of literally astronomical proportions, it hardly matters which, does it?”

“Technically, in the context of your question, no.”

“Either way, brother, there’s no other place I’d rather be than right here, Front Row Joe, with the two of you.”

A grin plumps the whiskers around Denny’s cheeks and squints his eyes. It’s an alarming look on his gaunt, scruffy mug. “Thank you, Benn. That means a lot.”

“Besides, I couldn’t get far enough away now even if I wanted to.”

He’s right about that.

 Denny says, “I’d ask you both to consider that, up to now, neither of these catastrophic events have occurred.”

“As far as you know.”

“I could tell you what I believe, but that’s irrelevant. If you’ve followed the chain of circumstances that’s brought us together,” he gestures to the microcosmic close-up, “you already know what you believe.”

“No, I don’t,” Benn says.

“Anyway, Erica’s question is a valid one. Why do we have it? I’m not the one to answer that. It’s not my story to tell.”

“You mean the midget, right?”

“Dwarf.” I say it automatically now, it sems. “Eric, the usual criteria for Braden… what’s he say his name is, Den?”


The breadbox doesn’t miss a beat. “I parsed and filtered the usual sources when it was mentioned earlier. What I retrieved was a single, unambiguous, ‘go mind your own business’. I’m paraphrasing.”

I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m really not. I think I’m jealous, though.

“Your show,” I say and slide the definitely-not-a-flip-phone back in front of Denny. I sit down on my cajón. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”


Dry Leaves In A Culvert

“Weekend before last,” Denny says, “I’d driven home. Didn’t tell anyone I was going. Planned to meet Mom and Kath at the mall by the river.

“I got to the food court first. Busy. Lots of people. I bought a sandwich, found a table, and was just digging in when I saw this woman. Big. Linebacker big. No neck, but head and shoulders above anyone else standing at the time. Came straight up to my table and sucked every bit of oxygen out of the room. Nobody else seemed to notice the sudden vacuum. Maybe I’m just sensitive to it.”

“What did she look like?” says Benn around a mouthful.

“Like that old trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie,” Denny says without missing the proverbial beat. “Her cheeks were blown out like that. Her entire face was, really, but her features were all crushed together in the middle. Lips squeezed into a bow-tie pucker. Broad, flat nose. Didn’t look like she could breathe through it. Tiny, close-set, ball bearing eyes. Shark eyes. No eyebrows.

“Black. Did I mention that? Like obsidian-black black. Head shaved smooth except for a pile of bright red hair on top all bunched together with a scünci. Like a shock of flaming wheat. Bazooms like a truck bumper. Front-ass like a snowplow. Bulging back fat, hips to here, balloon-butt, cankles…”

“I am so sorry Benn asked you what she looked like,” I say. “Please stop.”

“Overall,” he sounds like he’s summing up, “she looked like she was smuggling medicine balls inside three layered tank tops and pink stretch pants. I seriously didn’t know whether to laugh in her face, shit my pants, or do both and hope security was already on the way.

“Oh, and her feet…”

“Oh, for the love of God! I don’t want to know this!”

Denny sighs. “She just sort of loomed over the table. Looked me up and down like I was a pork chop. Plunked a little groznic down in the middle of the table, about the size of a pack of cards. Told me to leave it alone. Even her voice sounded fat. Then she shambled away, jostling chairs, tables, people… making herself conspicuous. Shouldered her way into the line at the Sbarro counter. While everyone was watching the show, the midget climbed into the chair beside me.

“I can only imagine the expression on my face. He called me by name. Said I was not hallucinating and there was no need to draw attention to ourselves by making a show. So, I pulled it in. We shook hands. You know what? His fingers really are like sausages.

“He talked some. Braden is his name, by the way. Braden Fane. He only said it once and didn’t leave a business card. Seemed worth remembering. He told me to hang on to the little device the behemoth left on the table.

“There was a commotion over at the Sbarro counter and he was gone. I think I caught a glimpse of him once between the tables. Maybe. Gone is the operative word. The Hulk stalked off in another direction and Mom and Kath showed up all of half a minute later.”

Denny stops talking and searches my face a while. I can wait. He hasn’t touched his birthday feast-in-a-bowl, but he finishes off his coffee and sets the mug aside.

“I told you that story so I could tell you this one,” he says.

Benn levers his chair into a recline.

“I got a text from him the next day. Your guess how. He asked to meet me whenever, wherever I choose and I thought, what could it possibly matter now? I mean, in terms of my privacy and personal security. All that’s been breached now by what appears a flesh-and-blood breathing human being in the exact image of someone I met in a dream… or a vision, or a psychotic episode. I don’t know, Erica. What do you want to call it now?”

“I can let it go if you will.”

He nods. “I thought, what difference if I meet him in a crowded place or an empty lot in the dead of night? In for a penny, you know? I either trust in what’s happening and embrace it or go hide until it’s over. So, I invited him to my apartment. That evening. Him and Abbey. That’s her name.”

“Abbey what?” from the peanut gallery. “Normal?”

“Yes, I know I’ve painted her in an unflattering light. I meant to do that. See, this time they showed up together and I didn’t even recognize her.

“Braden was the same: short, charismatic, casually impeccable. But towering over him and me both was this… I’m sorry, I’ve been searching for a word to describe this creature. Goddess is a little dramatic, but closer to the mark than ‘tall, strikingly handsome woman’. Same obsidian flesh as the kaiju I’d seen the day before, same red hair, only luxurious now, and… terrifying, once I realized who or what I was seeing.”

“You’re sure it was her?”

“Good question. When you meet her, look in her eyes.”

“Maybe you were dreaming again,” Benn says.

“You’re really not helping,” I tell Benn and, to Denny, “Go on. Benn and I are done interrupting you now. Aren’t we Benn?”

He shoves a deliberate spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “Mmm hmm.”


“We talked,” Denny says. “Braden and I did. Abbey doesn’t say much. Braden showed me some stuff. I showed him some stuff. Then Abbey showed me some stuff with my own stuff and that’s pretty much when I stopped sleeping.

“I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening to me. Around me. I realized that others swept up in this, like yourselves, might be trying to understand and make decisions about what’s happening to and around them as well and what to do about it.

“I’ve involved you this far because I needed to process what’s happening with me and because I… trust you. I didn’t know if I could withstand it alone. I didn’t know anything. And then I knew too much. Now you do too.

“You didn’t ask for this and I’m not oblivious to your plight, either of you. I’m sorry you’re in it now up to your…”

I grip Denny’s shoulders and turn him until we have eye contact.

“Are you shitting me? Plight?! You and Benn are the most interesting people I’ve met in the last,” I pretend to count on my fingers, “twelve years. And you’re sorry?! This isn’t all about you, you know.”

“I thought you weren’t going to interrupt me anymore.”

“. . .”

“I saw Abbey again this morning,” he says.

“Which one?” Benn says. Apparently, the entire non-interruption contract has been abandoned without pretense.

Denny’s face is reliving that moment only a few hours distant. I thought he had appeared haunted before.

“I was taking trash out to the street and she was pushing a shopping cart up the sidewalk. A crone, withered onto the graceful frame I’d seen last, twisted, and wrapped in a shawl. She looked ancient. Braden was sleeping in the cart, bundled up on a bed of blankets. No, really. Sound asleep. Peaceful.

“Remember before, I said her voice sounded ‘fat’? This morning it was wind churning dry leaves in a culvert. She said Braden wants to talk to all of us after we look at this.” Denny indicates the laptop screen. “I would add, of course, only if you choose to do so. I have not presumed your level of commitment to this whatever-it-is we’ve done here beyond this point.”  

I hear the words he’s saying. They have a certain peculiar kind of continuity; I’ll give them that. If I didn’t know he wasn’t making it all up, I’d be a lot less agitated by it. I have questions.

“You said she said, ‘all of us’. How do they know about ‘all of us’?”

“I think you mean, how do they know about you.”

“How do they know about me?”

“Remember that quantum experience’ you mentioned a few minutes ago?”

“Doesn’t really explain it.”

“It kind of does, unless you want to have it both ways. I’ve never spoken of you. Braden hasn’t asked me questions about you, but he speaks of you as a matter of fact. And Benn.”

“Benn’s hardly a mystery.”

“I am too!”

Apparently, I’m not the mystery I think I am either.

“Given the unique circumstances of the last weeks, not to mention current events, I’m willing to give some latitude to my misgivings. And you. So, let’s see it.”


“Remember the whizbang you were invited to take home with you from that first meeting? It’s in your pocket right now, isn’t it?”


I tap out an up-tempo paradiddle on the cajón until he shows it to me.

It looks like a flip-phone, but sleek like flip-phones weren’t then. Or ever. It doesn’t open up like a flip-phone either. He puts it on the workbench between us.

“That’s not the deal just now. This is.” He redirects my attention to the laptop. “The night Braden and Abbey came to my place, Abbey shaped it herself from a stillpoint I made. In real time. No STM, no tools, no gimmick.”

“How do you know? Maybe she prestidigitated it.”

“Maybe,” Denny says. “First time I’ve seen it like this too.”

“Do you know what it is?”


I want to look, and I know when I do, I will know something new that will challenge some of my cherished biases, a holographic moment to change my perspective and, with it, everything. I am not sure I want that much understanding.

And, you know, how can I not?


The Bus Leaves At Noon

A squeak, a complaint of old wood and tired metal forced together by the weight of a footstep on the seventh tread of the outer stair, alerts me to an approach. I haven’t invited anyone to drop by.

A second creak and grate, much like the first, suggests not only are there two persons about to reach the upper landing—a precarious proposition at best—but that neither is concerned about stealth. Four jarring blows to the cheap, hollow-core barrier between myself and the outside world intrude upon my already divided concentration.

“This is the Eff Bee Eye!” says a voice loud, firm, and authoritative. “Open the door, Ms. Cozinki. We have you surrounded.”

“You got the wrong address. Cozinki lives in the dump over the garage next street over.”

“No mistake, Ms. Cozinki.”

“The place is a mess and I’m busy. Go away.”

“We can do this easy, or we can do it hard.”

I brush aside the magnifier on its swing arm, switch off the fusing tool, and sleeve it. The stool top swivels me toward the door.

“I’m not decent.”

“Don’t make us use the gas.”

It’s not exactly a short walk to the door. I kick a pizza box and a couple fair-sized clumps of packing material out of my path. There’s a sweatshirt in the dish drainer that’s at least a three out of five and I shrug into it. It’s suitably baggy and hangs discretely to mid-thigh. Emblazoned on the front is a tender sentiment:




I have to yank the door against a customary resistance. It swings inward with a metallic protest. I hadn’t noticed it was pouring rain, but the two men on the landing, without benefit of an awning, have a bedraggled, stray-like appearance. I motion them inside.

“Benn, you know you’re not capable of disguising your voice, right?”

“Am too.”

Benn’s a ropey, wholesome-looking boy. He’s got a warm smile for me and it feels nice. Denny looks haggard, his face hollow beneath grizzled stubble. The silver in it is new. His eyes are bright with excitement, though. We exchange air-hugs as he steps past me.

Both shuck off their hats and saturated outerwear, hanging them behind the door on hooks that were already there when I moved in. Handy.

I pull a hand towel off the refrigerator door handle and toss it underneath their coats to catch the runoff. Standing water makes the laminate flooring warp. It’s not so much the appearance I’m concerned about, as it is my cleaning and damage deposit. Besides, it was time to change that towel out anyway.

“What brings you boys out on a glorious afternoon like this?”

“We missed your company.” Denny says. He’s already halfway to the end of the kitchen counter where my STM’s framework is bolted to shock pads—you know, like you do.

“You look like hell,” I say to his back.

He’s pulling on nitrile gloves with a snap. “Pot. Kettle.”

He wakes the coffee maker and worries off one shoe with his other foot. Then the other. He slips through the triple plastic drape surrounding the equipment, his hands moving across the surfaces, caressing them, activating primary power, component systems, laptop interface. I feel more than hear the compressor under our feet come on-line.

“You’re contaminating my space with your sloppy protocols.”

Benn plops a damp, doubled, brown paper shopping bag in my hands, bulging with booty.

“And you,” I tell him. “I’m wary of geeks bearing gifts.”

“The Trojan Bag ploy only works if Denny and I can both get inside it. Besides, the ruse is pointless once we’re already at large within your gates.” He fixes me with an ominous look. “We have you surrounded.” He nods, indicating Denny, a specter behind the drape, oblivious. “You should surrender now.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

My hands are full, so I tip my head toward Denny. “What’s going on? Where’s he been?”

“I don’t know. Holed up for days. I figured he was emulating you, or something, and let him be. Couple hours ago, he called and said we were coming to see you.”

“I have a phone too, you know.”

“We knew you’d be here.”

He begins to extract items from the bag.

“You’ll probably want to save these for later,” he says, presenting me with two twelve-packs of Pepsis in tiny aluminum cans. Sweetened with real sugar, not corn syrup. Not even ten ounces. I call them ‘shots’. I don’t know why I crave that carbonation after-burn so much. But sugar? No mystery there. And no, we still haven’t converted to metric yet, stubbornly hanging on to our medieval standard.

Benn sets the shots aside and digs a bit deeper, producing an economy-sized air freshener with a handy pistol-grip sprayer, pressing it into my hands with a head-tilt.

“Oh, no you didn’t.”

He looks surprised and innocent and adorable, but mostly innocent.

“You don’t invite yourselves over and then criticize my environment’s carefully modulated atmosphere. That’s just impolite and I resent the implication.”

“Gosh, ma’am, I sure didn’t…”

“That delicate fragrance to which you so disrespectfully allude is a painstakingly faithful recreation of one my great grandfather developed in France during double-you double-you one, called eau de bee oh—which, by the way, I intend to begin marketing under the brand name, Gymnasium Number Five; patent and trademark pending.”

“Sounds divine. Regardless, the ambiance will benefit from a good spritzing before we open these,” he says. Both hands in the sack now, he pauses, real dramatic like.

“We had neither the time nor cumulative experience between us to bake a cake, so we sincerely hope this will do.” He withdraws an unopened package of Oreos, a half-gallon carton of milk, and two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Nobody swoons anymore. Have you noticed that?

“Happy birthday, Erica.” He stacks them on the counter. “Hey, Den, where’d you put the candles?”

Denny’s voice is muffled behind the plastic barrier. “Thought you had ’em.”

“This is… I don’t know, catastrophic or something.”

I’m still holding the paper sack in both hands.

“Anyway, we got this for you too.” Benn dredges a final package from the bag.

It’s wrapped in plastic. We affect an exchange.

He crumples the brown paper into a wad. It traces a high arc over his shoulder, tips off the rim of the trash can, and joins the general strew around the base.

“Good effort,” I tell him.

I can hear as well as feel the STM’s vacuum pump thrum to life beneath us.

Benn fixes an expectant gaze on the gift in my hands. It’s flat and narrow and doesn’t look particularly dangerous, slipping out of the plastic into my hands. An expedient gift-wrapping of newsprint and strapping tape proves resistant. I worry a slit under the paper with a ragged fingernail and it peels away from a top-of-the-line e-reader tablet. Books and pictures and music and video in a cargo pocket-sized hand-held. It looks new, no fingerprints or wear on the touchscreen either.

“You shouldn’t have,” I say, thumbing the tablet’s oh en button.

I think everybody says that when they clearly don’t mean it. I don’t; they totally should have.

Denny shoulders through the plastic drapes with the STM’s notebook interface in one hand. He snags a steaming cup from the coffeebot with the other and steers his way across the room toward the workbench.

“I practically stole it from some sport in Portland on Craig’s List,” he says. “It’s clean and I eclipsed the after-market tracking, of course, so you don’t have to.”

“You know me so well.”

Benn gives my shoulder a brotherly pat. “We did pre-load it with some tasty subject matter, though.”

I bring up the content menu with reservation, relieved to discover it’s not hyper-realistic Japanese tentacle porn.

“It’s Calvin and Hobbes,” I say with what I pray did not sound anything like a sob.

I know they know it’s not really my birthday. I think I have something in my eyes.

“Would you boys excuse me a minute?”

“Take your time,” Denny mutters, preoccupied again.

I clip the oh en switch of the stereo receiver on my way into the bathroom closet just for some radio noise. I don’t mind if they can hear me blow my nose, but I gotta pee, too.

Instead of music, though, I’m at the “we’ll be right back after these messages” leading edge of what will be several minutes of tedious, poorly produced local commercial content: enthusiastic, rapid-fire patter, uninspired jingles, and none of it adequate for my immediate needs.

I twist a spigot to run some water in the sink. A familiar shudder of the pipes is followed by a gasp of air cleared before the flow. I call ’em sink-farts. I wonder if they’ll think I made that noise.

Running water serves a secondary purpose, I suppose, as it takes a while for hot water to work its way up from the tank in the space below. By the time it does, its temperature’s sufficient to liquefy flesh. I temper it from the other tap and scrub my hands and face.

Reaching for a towel, I catch my reflection in the hazy mirror and wish I hadn’t. I also wish I hadn’t wiped it for a better look. I look like a carnie in a bally show pitched on the boulevard to the Gates of Hell. My complexion, particularly in this fluorescent light, is best described as ‘pasty’.

I know I’m not pretty. I have an unusual face. It’s not gross or anything, but it’s definitely my own. The bulky sweatshirt I’m wearing easily obscures what was once deemed a satisfactory, if minimalist figure. Not so much right now. Also, it’s been some time since I shaved my legs and…

Why am I looking at myself in the mirror again wondering if I have crud between my teeth?

I twist the spigots closed with a jerk. It makes the old pipes bang into an interstitial radio silence. I scrub my face again, harder. Maybe it’ll bring some pink back into my cheeks for a couple minutes anyway. I can’t do much about the hair; they’ve already seen me. I search the astonished face staring back at me.

“Who are you and what have you done with me?” she says. I hook a thumb at the door and she leaves.

It appears Benn’s given up looking for clean bowls and decided to wash some he found in the sink. The closest thing to a dish towel is under their coats, so he’s bunched up paper towels to swab the bowls out. He chucks the soggy glob at the wide-mouth a good twelve feet away and, just like that, he’s one for two.

I hit the oh ef ef switch on the receiver just in time to squelch a standard Grateful Dead impersonation of a garage band. I dig a pair of jeans out of a pile and shimmy into them. I’m buttoning the fly and look up to see Benn with the carton of milk in one hand, tumbler in the other.

“Are you wearing a merkin?” he asks, like he’s just wondering where the spoons are kept.

“Are you trying to get frisky with me?”

His face says this is the first time that’s ever occurred to him. He lifts carton and glass in his hands and says, “Do you want milk with your cookies?”

“Yes, please.”

I pluck the bottle of air freshener from the counter with a grumble and apply it to the less genteel corners of the room, away from the ‘birthday feast’ and sensitive electronics. Also, as a supplementary measure, I give a couple shots under the sink.

I’m afraid I’ve become inured to the odors I’ve spawned around me over time, but I can detect the difference immediately. It’s actually kind of pleasant. Not floral, more like clean linens or something. Huh.

A couple shots at the wide-mouth couldn’t hurt either before I put the unnatural thing away again.

Denny’s leaning in over the notebook. I can’t see the screen, but I know he’s prepped and staged his sample in the machine, fussing now, positioning the probe so we can view whatever it is. Precision work by a quick study. I don’t believe I could have done it better.

Benn’s melting ice cream over the Oreos in the microwave. I capsize the heavy duffle onto a relatively unoccupied section of floor space and roll the chair into another for his comfort and viewing ease. Who says I’m not a considerate hostess?

Meanwhile he’s capped the milk and opens the refrigerator to put the carton inside. If I’d been paying closer attention, I suppose I could have warned him.

“Hey, Erica. What is that?”

“Biology final.”

“A science project?”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s moving.”

“Mesmerizing, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s… wait. No. It’s got pseudopods.”

“I know.”

“Hold on. Erica, is it trying to climb out of the bowl?”

“Yeah. See, the light tends to agitate it. You should probably close the door now.”

“Wh…? It can SEE?!”

“It’s rudimentary.”

He’s still staring at it. “Jesus CHRIST!”

“You’re starting to piss it off.”

I think it’s a real testament to Benn’s character that he’s able to ease the door closed instead of slamming it shut and rearranging all my condiments. He leans his back against it, breathing. I’m not sure if he’s pantomiming or not.

“I had no idea your sensibilities were so delicate, little fella. Here. Try not to think about it.”

I lift my sweatshirt up over my boobs, give him two seconds and a smile, retrieve my bowl, and leave him to reboot his operating system.

Denny’s scooched the barstool over to his corner of the workbench and settled into it. The view into the microverse beckons. I haul my cajón over beside him and sit down on it.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Tell me what you think it is first.”

“I mean you. What is it with you? You’ve been a ghost for almost two weeks. What, are you dying or something?”

“No… what?”

“You have no idea how disturbing you look, do you?”

There is a depth in his eyes difficult to interpret.

“Never mind. You’ve arranged this get-together, and I have no doubt, like last time, you’re going to show us something else stupefying. I mean, it’s not like we’re used to it yet.”

“You’ve got to admit, that last one was pretty impressive,” Benn says.

Denny’s gaze seems impassive, coming from a greater distance than the few feet between us. I touch his sleeve and give his arm a squeeze.

“Cone of silence,” I say.

Benn’s sprawled in the chair where I parked it for him, feet up, bowl in one hand, mouth full. He makes a winding motion in the air with his spoon. Denny turns back and searches my eyes, as if the words he’s looking for are in there.

“I’ve been afraid to sleep. Afraid everything will have changed when I open my eyes.”

There’s an analog clock on the wall above the trashcan and, if I had replaced the battery a couple months ago, I could’ve watched it ticking off seconds into dead air right now.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” is all I can think of to say. I want to ask him if that means everything might change for him alone, or for all of us. “Has anything changed yet?”

“How would I know?”

“Well, you’d probably be the only one who would.”

“Odd how that doesn’t help me feel better.”

“We’re all still here so far. That seems promising.”

I can see him sifting words and stringing them together.

“Remember the midget from my dream?” he says.


“I met him.”

Now it’s my turn to try stringing words together. They pile up on top of each other like vehicles on the curve of an ice-glazed freeway. The first few to work their way past the jam are not the most conversationally useful. I know it as they come out anyway.

“The proper term is ‘dwarf’,” I say, “and it wasn’t a dream.”

“Yes, it was.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Are we going to do this again?”


“It was a dream, Erica. Dream-Benner even told me so.”

“Are you even hearing yourself? You had a quantum experience…”

“MIDGET!” Benn’s shout is a thespian’s exclamation, clear all the way in the back row.

Denny’s head and mine turn in unison.

Benn takes a slug of milk and wipes the froth on his sleeve. “The midget. Finish your story, Den. I don’t know about her, but the suspense is killin’ me.”

Denny’s stool rotates so he can look at us both. This close to him, he seems feral. So, I scoot back to give the man some space, and he tells us this story.

◄      ~   

This Is Then

This is me fifteen years ago, designing my empire. I am laying the foundation, even as it becomes apparent I will have accomplices. The important thing is, I am changing the world, one intention and micrometric tweak at a time.  The universe is holographic in nature, you know; any change made to my world changes everything. There are literally quadrillions of examples of this every second. Look around, you can’t possibly miss them all.

Look at me there. I look like a slob, don’t I? I think nothing of wearing the same clothes for days, if any, showering only when I can’t stand myself anymore, or on one of those rare and awkward occasions when I’m expected to present in person.

I had a cat for a while. Guess he couldn’t stand me either. I’ll admit, he’s not the first stray male, regardless of species, to leave me over a perceived lack of attentiveness. I was a lousy companion, too immersed in my work to even cuddle the poor, scruffy little thing. I feel kind of bad about that sometimes.

I don’t eat right. Nothing that would require much in the way of preparation or clean-up afterward. Cap that off with dangerous levels of caffeine and sugar and it’s not hard to figure out why I look the way I do.

My apartment’s an unadorned studio over the shuttered garage of what some used to call a “shade-tree mechanic”, the guy who could fix any car ever made before technology surpassed his experience. He used to live here; now he has a girlfriend. I still hear him now and then, rattling around down there. Nothing raucous. Days mostly and, if he’s thinking of working at night, he brings by steaks and a six pack.

Bob’s a benign landlord and this is an adequate environment for my purposes: a single, spacious rectangle with a Spartan kitchen at one corner across from a functional bathroom enclosed within an expedient-looking plywood closet. The whole place isn’t pretty and needs work. Like me.

Notice how the walls are bare, except for over there in the corner where my workstation monitors fan out like a pair of mismatched wings. There, mounted over the windows. Yeah, those are windows. I could look out of them if I wanted to. Same over the sink, but I’d have to take down sheets of aluminum foil to do it. Also, I’m out of Scotch tape to put them back up and I just don’t need the aggravation.

What’s out there? Schadenfreude Theater, mostly.

The hand-drawn schematics and notes to self on the whiteboards there in the corner are a cryptic roadmap to this moment in time and on the long wall over the workbench, the free-form collage of vintage album covers represents my only tangible nod to art. The vinyl that came in those sleeves warped beyond salvation years ago, as mismanaged vinyl tends to do. Regardless, I’ve got a few thousand tunes on the cloud shuffling through my headphones to supply the soundtrack of my life, so I’m good for now. I mean then.

If you noticed that hot mess in the gimbaled framework there on the workbench, that’s Eric. He’s still in a rudimentary stage, in terms of heuristics, but he’s a breadbox with a budding, teachable personality and a brutal tactician at Chinese Checkers, let me tell you.

A tall barstool with a pillow top and contoured back caresses my bottom with a sumptuous familiarity. Nearby, an expensive office chair, engineered for supreme ergonomics and comfort, provides firm lumbar support to a military duffle full of laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

You’ll notice the rest of my dorm-chic furnishings seem to be little more than flat surfaces covered with careless disorder. It’s not careless. Even my bed, a hard futon mattress on a two-by-four and plywood pallet, is little more than a catch-all for textbooks and manuals, a scattering of loose change and unsorted clothing, a couple more toolkits, a stuffed penguin named Farkle, and a box of cold, half-eaten pizza. I don’t mind. I hardly use it anyway. The bed, I mean. I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t sleep much.

The same disarray maintains over on the kitchen side, except around the holy triad: my coffee maker, microwave, and, inside that elongated, visqueen-draped area at the end of the drainboard, a scanning tunneling microscope. Yes, it is kinda big, isn’t it?

I had to shore up underneath to accommodate its bulk in addition to rendering a preposterous amount of vibration damping. Bob didn’t seem to mind. Happy to help out, in fact, and even offered some of the space below to secure a few of the bulkier, noisier components out of my working-living space. He’s awesome.

The cajón by the bathroom door is the other flat surface exempt from the apparent clutter afflicting the rest of my surroundings. You won’t see a plastic plant in a wicker basket sitting on top of it, nor cardboard box full of project discards. Nothing sits on that but me. I like to play it when I’m thinking. Sometimes I think until my knuckles hurt.

Rampant disorganization around me doesn’t seem nearly as problematic as the time and energy I would have to expend tidying up. I know where to put my hands on everything I need. File by pile, that’s my style. Anything on the floor between me and the exit is trash and I take a push broom and square-nosed shovel to it every few days as needed. You know, so that I have egress. In case of fire. I believe it’s written into the lease agreement.

I don’t need to remove the foil from my windows to contemplate the world outside my den. As I gaze outward from the high ground atop my plush barstool, I see pretty much every facet of global society at large, from business and politics to what passes for human interaction, rooted in little else but greed, fear, and high fructose corn syrup.

Governments around the world are invested in what the prophet Carlin used to call “The Bigger-Dick Foreign Policy”. Ancient hatreds and freshly brewed animosities appear to benefit equally from weaponized space-age technology. Meanwhile, biblical levels of intolerance and brutality are routinely brought to bear upon those least able to defend themselves from it. Business as usual, I guess, even here in the Land of the Free. Those who thought they knew how bad it could get were wrong, of course.

The End Times came and after that, things got complicated.

Here, I’m doing it again. I apologize. I’m skipping ahead and I don’t mean to confuse you with allusions to future history. You’ll know all this for yourself soon enough. Come on back to my cluttered little nest where we started. I’ll try to stay on track.

I am in my junior year at a well-recognized University. Never mind where. Peripheral to my personal as well as scholastic pursuits, I’ve been allowed unique insight into the nature of surveillance and myths of privacy. This is a particular point of focus for me because I’m reluctant to advertise my empire-building strategy and schematics. I want them to be a surprise.

Here’s a takeaway for you: Someone wants to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time. There are eyes and ears everywhere. They’re in the hallways of your schools, the aisles of your department stores, they’re on the streets and in your cars, hovering in the sky above and orbiting in space, Jehovah-like, able to observe and record activities below with intimate detail.

Do you have a device with an internet connection in your home or on your person? Do you have and enjoy a social network presence? Do you have credit cards with chips on them in your purse or wallet? Well, good news, citizen. There’s a proctoscope up your fundament so deep it can probably tell what flavor gum you’re chewing. You’d think that’d be uncomfortable, but you don’t even notice, do you?

If I say it’s not only possible, but inevitable that someone is able to track (almost) anyone anywhere anytime, does that make me sound paranoid? If you think so, you haven’t been paying attention. That’s why I’m here in this inconspicuous little hovel on a nowhere street in a quiet burg without much of a view fifteen years ago, changing the world. I may be nobody now, but no matter what develops from here, I intend to remain that way.

Hey, wait! What about me and my cloud-based musical library, you may ask. Isn’t that an invitation to the same scrutiny which I’ve neatly encapsulated in my heretofore strident harangue? A pertinent, perceptive question.

I like you. Tell you what I’m going to do; I’m going to level with you. No, it isn’t. Not even close.

Also, I’m invisible. I’ve made myself a phantom. I leave footprints that anyone who cares can follow with ease. There’s just enough variation to give the appearance of callow, youthful behavior—my digital doppelganger must seem human rather than mechanical—but ultimately the trail I leave runs in circles—routine, unremarkable, boring circles.


Prologue — That Was Now

Seems people still enjoy an engaging story, don’t they? As if the story they’re constantly making up in their own heads isn’t enough. Maybe it’s too much.  Maybe reality is only subjective anyway.

What do you mean, what do I mean? About reality or subjectivity? 

I mean, we share the same space in time in reasonable proximity in this vast universe and we tend to refer to this big thing we’re in as Reality. We accept and share many foundational conventions of this Reality, whether we understand them or not, like energy and mass, gravity, love, loss, and death. We share questions.

“Why?” seems to come up often.

Our individual reality is filtered and shaped by our perceptions, our experiences, and our comprehension of them, and by what we believe. But we don’t perceive, understand, or believe alike even about these fundamental things.

Imagine we sit on opposite sides of a table. Between us is a candle. Suspended above the candle flame is a stone. Describe the stone as you see it. My description will likely be different. Which of us is right?

Look into the candle flame and tell me, do you see the same light I do?

Do you?

If you have a rudimentary understanding of how light travels and how the human eye operates, you’ll agree the photons reaching my retina cannot be the same ones reaching yours. Same source, different rays of light. We see the same thing, yet we do not. Can you tell me the ray of light I see is the wrong one?

Our understanding and our belief about what we observe will have roots in our genetic code and in our socialization. That is, we will automatically concur about elemental components of this experience we share, up, down, table, stone, flame, but our thoughts and beliefs about it will, at best, coincide just enough to forestall argument.

Once you accept that no one else will ever perceive and believe what you do, exactly as you do, you may then consider that what we think of as Real is only a description of the world from our own point of view, discrete and unique, probably incomplete.

What’s that? Your reality? It is as subjective to me as mine is to you. Ask anybody; I’ll wait.

While you’re doing that, I’ll tell you about how deep subjectivity can go. I’ll tell you as much as I know, and I know more than most about how it was at the beginning of the story. This story.

At the beginning, the boundary wasn’t so fuzzy.

Our bodies may not have been fully devoted to what was mainly a visual experience, but those early ventures down the VR rabbit hole were glimpses into a frontier vast and uncharted, a parallel universe of wide-open possibility and, for the practical dreamers, profitability. Who would not be willing to immerse themselves in such a pristine sea of potentialities, create worlds, and play in them?

The technology has since enjoyed what the ad-men of yesteryear liked to call a ‘paradigm shift’. Let me tell you about it.

Imagine your deepest, sacred attention held rapt, fully absorbed in an environment so rich and visceral, so—you’ll pardon the expression—Realistic that every one of your senses is invested. When you feel your body move and react to physics you rarely, if ever, think about, your mind will barely be able to distinguish virtual experience from real. Nor will it care to do so. Even knowing at some primal level you’re engaged within a construct and won’t even be allowed to die there, it’s still real enough. The difference is inconsequential to your synapses.

Go ahead; explore the world. Explore other worlds. Go anywhere your nature leads you. Connect to any among a burgeoning constellation of hosted venues, intricately crafted realms in which to conduct real-world business and commerce, or accommodate any variety of amusements, impulses, fantasies, or perversions.

Build your own world if you can afford it. It’s manageable. Make up your own rules. It doesn’t even have to be pretty. Somebody will pay to experience it.

Real is infinite, they say, and immediate and overwhelming and absolutely nothing is assured, least of all your survival. It’s flooded with sensations and emotions and prayers you didn’t even know were prayers. But it’s your story and, in it, you are the center of the universe. You are the Prime Object. The voice in your head says so.

The virtual continuum, conversely, is not infinite. Not yet anyway, but it is immediate and overwhelming and, though constrained by rules, you are still the center of the universe.

Once offered the ability to disconnect from Real and reconnect at will, most will choose to work and recreate in virtua without harboring much angst. It’s safer there, for one thing.

No one contracts disease in vee. That’s a big deal. Also, only a handful of pioneers world-wide have ever died as a direct result of a failsafe anomaly.

For another, it feels Real; or so the compelling AsReal commercial presentations assert. In fact, in value-added ways you never would have expected, it’s often better than Real.

Within the Nexus of All Subjective Realities, as the corporate entity refers to itself, “the possibilities are endless”. The cost is as painless and ephemeral as a soul, and as affordable.

True Believers of many faiths consider the virtual realm to be anathema. Some devout sects have demonstrated violent opposition to its existence. A few billion others have come to see it as a necessity, bordering upon a God-given Right. Some have adapted to life there exclusively. Some have had no choice.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. It’s hard not to, standing in the only reality I know and afraid for the first time in I-don’t-remember-how-many years. I don’t understand what’s happened and I don’t know whose story I’m in now.

It’s been said there are no endings, only new beginnings. I’m here to tell you, some things end.

Spoiler alert: I’m looking at it.

But all of that was now.

~    This is then  

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 a painful 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 agonizing minnit transpired 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.

Once he was 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 a veiled disrespect, 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 advocates 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 huff.

“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 an unaccountable vastness beyond Hevn’s previously-considered-impenetrable Veil.

Therein lies a 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 human 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. 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 to nothing.

“D’kin Remert, I familiarized myself with the facility’s layout and operations before my transition. You will show me 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 apology and call for a different conveyance, Kudlac folds himself into the constricted space with neither complaint nor apparent discomfort. Remert takes the controls and the vehicle skims down the corridor toward the upper concourse loop. Existing traffic yields the center lane and their progress is unimpeded.

The upper loop brings the pair to a vertex, the point 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 outer 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, or Gray Troccs for that matter, on Hevn. 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.

Folding himself back into the cursed conveyance, Kudlac waves off a circuit of the residential hex where hundreds of human professionals, support staff, and their families live, procreate, recreate, and presumably die. Humans. T’sunguc. Rare ones actually display the acuity, both physical and mental, to advance into the laity and technical strata. Most are suited for simple duties, service work, labor, and passive occupation of territory.

The D’kin Remert is t’sunguc as well, of course, as are most in the Second and First Circles. The genetic strain has 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 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 mission’s success, the sheer numbers, commitment, and competence of the t’sunguc Remert has engaged to facilitate the mission’s numerous 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 certain small details assure 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 three 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 forgiveness, 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 any 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 ‘visor.”

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, D’kin,” Dr. Ahn says to Remert. “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 and, after his assessment is complete, 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. Decrease circulators to twenty-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. A cerulean 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 her Director, whose expression registers nothing.

“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.”

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

“Not only its mind, D’nal, but its physicality in actuality 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 Community 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 inquired of you, D’kin.”

“Other paradigms have evolved.”

“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.”

“You will insure that it is so.” Kudlac says and turns to look down on 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 else—difficult to determine given his peculiar gait and the vestments covering enough of him to make speculation necessary. He seems curious about what appears to be Hergenrather/H’seven within the container. And in the one next to it as well. His misshapen alien head turns the doctor’s way.

She indicates the first cannister. “What you see here, Ascendant One, is a fully mature physical clone of the Deputy Director’s current vehicle.” She gestures to the other capsule. “This is the next iteration, an advanced composite man-a’kin, awaiting transference.”

“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.”

Kudlac exits the facility with Remert behind, an unhurried second. He is settling into his section of the dartabout as the D’kin approaches.

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

“She will be honored 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 bob and Remert diverts the dartabout from the concourse into a proprietary corridor, narrower, sans traffic. The entrance irises closed behind them.

Kudlac’s environment suit has made adjustment again and the distress in his craw 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 to return with them to Kal’un Shiir’n. Or to the Underhome. The required training may have been difficult so late in their development. You did not deem them capable.”

“I believed the mission 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.”


“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.”

From above, he views his subordinate dismounting from the conveyance. Straightening himself and his own regalia, Remert lifts his head and holds the D’nal’s eyes.

“Nearly, D’nal?”

Kudlac chooses to disregard the glaring impertinence for the moment. “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.”

A ripple of disbelief and vexation perturbs Remert’s ever-lugubrious features, quickly suppressed. He 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. 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.”

There is a drawn silence suggestive of many possible responses from the Minister looming above him, indicative of none. A sipping sound becomes a soft rasping of air drawn through the filters in all 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 feigned 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 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 expected it to 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.

Pressors configured to project a wide, blunt buffer in front of their plummeting projectile create an intense shockwave. It deflects a great deal of the heat and their re-entry resembles a meteoric event. Still, 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-line 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 inches 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 gray and 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 rugged, looming stone face. Transition through the palisade into the bay is barely a waver of illusory visuals around the penetration. The holographic curtain across the mesa face remains 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 there. A good deal of pain awakens along with it. And something is pounding on the side of her sled.

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 roar of steam pouring off the fuselage in flags. She feels the 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. Her eyes focus on him. His eyes are so expletive blue.

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 anyway.

     ~      ~

Mr. Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Gray is shockingly inhuman, more obvious as it moves forward to stand over H’seven, more than twice his height.

A clenching thrill begins in the muscles of Pruitt’s perineum and races up his spine like an electric shock into his skull. His scalp prickles and the sensation elicits an unconscious shudder he wishes he could rescind.

A quick glance to Hergenrather for some sign of how to react offers no purchase in this encounter. He appears unfazed, but his voice has assumed an uncharacteristic, formal tone. “The D’nal will be taking over Directorship of all LocUS and ACMe operations, although D’kin Remert will continue in his current capacity at the old facility for the time being.”

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

At least two meters tall, at a guess, Kudlac’s skeletal physique is clad in what appears a close-fitting gray body suit and draped in intricate black and tan vestments. They look heavy. They look like some kind of armor.

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

His is not a human face. His flesh is slate gray. It looks hard, metallic. At first Pruitt imagines it might be some kind of mask, but that prospect flees as its real nature becomes obvious. It has an inverted triangular shape with an enlarged cranium and a pointed chin—a face like a splitting maul; Pruitt’s racing mind makes a connection.

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

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

At the inverted base of this alien visage, a trio of slit nostrils, each fitted with what might be a filtering medium, crowd together just above a small, lipless mouth. It parts, producing a sound like a brass instrument with an open spit-valve, shaping itself at the last into syllables.

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

“I am honored by your presence, D’nal Ku…”

“You were not invited to speak. Be silent.”

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

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

The bellows works beneath the D’nal’s raiment.

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

Another inhalation, less strenuous.

“Our transportation will be arriving momentarily.”

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

Kudlac’s silent deliberation is long and inscrutable.

“Speak, then.”

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

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

“… during our…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you serious? Why don’t you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just one will do.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

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

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

“You got a problem, Betty?”

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

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

“Yes, sir. I believe I can.”

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.

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

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


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

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

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 needs. H’seven’s avatar, in contrast, is an ominous 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?”

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

“I’m being told composite models indicate a ninety-eight percent probability of land impact in thirty-one hours if their current velocity and trajectory don’t deviate. They say either one is capable of damage at a level similar to Arizona’s meteorite crater. Point of contact for both will be northwest United States, specifically, the Puget Sound area. Right over your head. You might consider that your problem.”

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

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

H’seven breaks the connection.

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

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

Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, H’seven.”

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

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

“Have you gone insane, Hergen…”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”

“ALL RIGHT! All right, goddammit!” A long pause is marked by Bettencort’s breathing, as though he’d just 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.”

H’seven’s laugh is light, humorless, fueled by a joke Bettencort cannot fathom.

“Well, you’re half right. Once you deliver the authorization codes I require, your targeting information on the incoming threat will be relayed to our Operations. After that, resolution only hinges on a clear line of fire.”

Bettencort’s relief is tangible.

.      .      .

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

“Desk,” he says.

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”

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

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

He traces Margaret’s slouched form with his eyes. “I’m afraid she’s already gone.”

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

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

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

But H’seven has already broken the connection.

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An affable Hergenrather is confounding.

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?” he says.

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

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


Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

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

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

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

The hatch seals behind him.

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


Pruitt’s Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you,” Pruitt lies.

.      .      .

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

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

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

“It’s Kiry,” the voice informs her.

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

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

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

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

“Up and down?”

“No. Up and out. Mars One.”

“Get out of town!”

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

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

“Well… it’s Mars, Mom.”

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

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

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

“There are no nice boys above the atmosphere.”

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

“That was pretty tall grass.” Charli says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’d like that.”

The airlock’s outer door opens into the courtyard.

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

“Love you too, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enlighten me.”

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

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

“I don’t owe you shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

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

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

“That’s disappointing,” Pruitt laments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. So what happens now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Me, Jacob. What happens to me?”

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

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

“Procedure. You make it sound routine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad you’re okay with that.”

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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