Domains of Opposition

Mr. Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D’nal Kudlac is shockingly inhuman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… during our…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you serious? Why don’t you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just one will do.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

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

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

“You got a problem, Betty?”

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

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

“Yes, sir. I believe I can.”

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H’seven breaks the connection.

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

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

Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, H’seven.”

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

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

“Have you gone insane, Hergen…”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bettencort’s relief is tangible.

.      .      .

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

“Desk,” he says.

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But H’seven has already broken the connection.

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An affable Hergenrather is confounding.

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?” he says.

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

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


Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

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

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

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

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



      ~      ~

Pruitt’s Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you,” Pruitt lies.

.      .      .

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

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

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

“It’s Kiry,” the voice informs her.

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

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

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

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

“Up and down?”

“No. Up and out. Mars One.”

“Get out of town!”

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

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

“Well… it’s Mars, Mom.”

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

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

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

“There are no nice boys above the atmosphere.”

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

“That was pretty tall grass.” Charli says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’d like that.”

The airlock’s outer door opens into the courtyard.

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

“Love you too, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enlighten me.”

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

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

“I don’t owe you shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

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

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

“That’s disappointing,” Pruitt laments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. So what happens now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Me, Jacob. What happens to me?”

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

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

“Procedure. You make it sound routine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad you’re okay with that.”

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dash9’s Interview

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

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


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

“Oh, right. Have they initiated yet?”

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

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

“Standard environment?”

“Clean slate.”

The greatroom dissolves into a featureless white emptiness.

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

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

“I think it sends the correct message.”

“At least let the socks match the tie.”

“You are a wild man.”

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

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

“God help us.”

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

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

The changes are instantaneous.

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

“The undisputed master of your own responses.”

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

“A good question.”

.     .     .


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

“Are you all right with this?”

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

Benn cues the entry protocol.

.     .     .


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

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

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

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

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

“. . .”

“. . .”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“I have several, sir.”

“Do they still call it freerunning?”

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds kind of timid,” says Germane.

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

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

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

“What’s your position?”

“I trade off, high anchor and outlier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… and play three different woodwind instruments.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Name that tune.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s debatable,” Mr. Germane says.

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

“The porn?”


“Oh. Neither, really.”

“Why, then?”

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

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

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

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

“The Outlands?”

“You know, ‘The Frontier’.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like Fight Club?” says Crippen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir. It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit,” says Mr. Germane.  

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

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

“When do I begin?”

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

“Woah! Today?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir. Probably not.”

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

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

“I agree.”

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

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

      ~      ~

The Veep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bettencort’s blank stare suggests it does not.

“You know, Road Runner. Beep beeep!”

Still nothing.

“It’s a cartoon.”

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

“Never mind,” the general says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just you, Eric?”

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

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

Bettencort provides introductions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric nods without comment.

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

“How long?”

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

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

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

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

Eric nods again. “Containment?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Colonel?”

“We have not spoken of payment.”

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

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

Chernovich appears uncomprehending. “Island?”

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

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

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



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

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

Chernovich nods acknowledgement.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that it’s any of his business.”

“He believes it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mishandled,” Eric says. “Inadvertently.”

“Yes. An unfortunate…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Why?”

“Southern Baptist?”


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

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

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

Woolard opens his mouth to rebut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Afraid? Him? Of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His tari blinks out.

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Benn asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

“What does that mean?”

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

“How is that possible?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, good luck with that.”

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

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

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

“Have I? Tell me a better one.”

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

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

“An impressive deduction on your part.”

“How DID he do that?”

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


“You may go. Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ~   ~


The ocean, temperamental, pacific in name only, reaches to meet a hazy, gray horizon. Wind has churned the surface into white-capped folds marching without cadence across an open expanse. Braced against a force that cannot touch him, Denny stands within the encircling transparency of the greatroom watching breakers expend themselves against the seawall below. Their spent volumes spill into the lagoon, surging and siphoning out again through the shallow neck of the atoll.

There are a number of specks conspicuous in the dawn light, a scattered flotilla of observers representing various agencies, governments, and incompatible concerns, all stationed judiciously beyond the periphery of the null field. Its unseen margin is evident only by the example of previous misadventures.

They are a familiar presence, these watchers, and while their individual mandates may be dissimilar and their cooperation strained, their curiosity and common distrust of what cannot be directly controlled or quantified makes them reliable attendants to daily routine on the island, remote witnesses to mundane activities they are meant to see and little more.

Denny’s interest is drawn toward the northern curve of the turret. He sketches a pane on the transparency with his fingers and gestures, magnifying and enhancing the image. A ship has, for whatever reason, crossed the invisible boundary and is now adrift in a rolling sea, powerless, unable to so much as issue a distress call without semaphore. It would not do any good anyway. None of the hapless craft’s widely dispersed neighboring vessels would hazard sharing the same undesirable outcome.

It is generally accepted among experienced onlookers that testing the intangible barrier garners repeatable, unproductive results.

Erica’s unique stamp is imprinted somewhere behind Denny’s eyes. Her voice is in his ears, although it’s really not. Direct stimulation of the auditory centers of the brain tends to give that impression. Denny’s own memory adds the rest.

“It’s dressed up like a fishing trawler,” she says. “Another obvious attempt to neutralize, or insulate against the field. They’ve been dead in the water for about fourteen hours. I decided to let ’em sleep on it. Jiro and I are going out now to see if they’d like a friendly tow. Any message you’d like me to convey to their captain?”

“Nothing they don’t already know.”

“Ten-four, Igor.”

Denny wipes the viewing pane and turns his attention to the eastern curve of the atoll’s crescent where morning sunlight is filtering through a fleeting cirrus curtain. A cross-hatching of light and shade plays upon the new-growth vegetation finding purchase on the high ground above the lagoon’s verge. No palms at this latitude; pines and vines, tenacious shrubs, and tough grasses have native advantage.

A heavy lifter is easing out of one of the platform hangers and, just for show, makes a lazy, clockwise circuit of the island before skimming out just above the chop to meet the stranded vessel.

“Denny?” A familiar stamp and voice is allowed throughput directly after validation without the standard ‘announce and acknowledge’ protocol. A jovial face images itself somewhere within the nebulous tangle of pathways in Denny’s brain.

“Hey, Benn. Welcome back, buddy. How was the vacation?”

“Is that what it was? Obviously too long. You busy?”

“Just watching Erica head out to parlay with another ship over the dead-line.”

A waver in the substance of their individual surroundings flows into the nearly thousand kilometers between Benn and Denny and, despite their respective geographic locations, both are standing side by side. Around them, the encircling transparency of the greatroom looks out upon a surging gray sea. Benn gives the panorama a slow turn in place.

“How many’s that this month?” he says. “Four? Not that it isn’t entertaining to watch them bangin’ their heads against the wall, figuratively speaking, but… When do they stop?”

“When one of them gets all the way to the dock and detonates a warhead, I suppose. Besides, it’s only three so far this month. Most are content to just park outside the circle and watch.  Erica enjoys the occasional break from the work down below. Well, that and the delicious confrontation, of course.”

“Ahh, that’s our girl.”

“She was just talking about you last night. Said she wished you were here to help us with the desalinization plant and water treatment conduit runs. Said you’re almost the best extruder she knows. We could use your touch with some of the finish work.”

“What do you mean ‘almost’?”

“There’s a young woman here on Jiro’s team named Xochilt. She jumped in to help us.”

“Who’s So-chee?” Benn says.”

“Tall, razor thin Aztec beauty.”

“Oh, that’s how you pronounce it.” 

“Yeah, just like it’s spelled. She fabbed and printed over two miles of conduit last night with only four splices. You should’ve seen her.”

“Wish I had, but if she’s so great, what did you miss me for?”

“You always bring the best tunes.”

“Well, that is true. How did the Chandra boy work out?”

“His name’s Rahm. He is an impressive young man, Benn. A crystal. I was pretty sure he was a maker when I saw his profile; knew it when I met him. He feels something stirring and doesn’t know what it is yet. He really wants to.”

“So why don’t you sound more enthusiastic?”

“Mrs. Chandra has refused to support his application.”

“Oh. Let me guess… “

“Cult army.”

“Dammit, I said ‘let me guess’. What else did I miss that I want to know about?”

“Both Braden’s team and the Nancys are focused on the large Sweep tasks. Jiro’s running small Sweeps until we need his team at the ‘Robert’. Abbey’s been seen at the foundry or at Hilltop off and on. I heard she showed up here at Taquo a couple times, though I can neither confirm, nor deny these reports. Most days nobody sees her at all.”

“Or they don’t know they did.”

Denny’s narrative stalls a beat. “Oh, right. So, we’ve outfitted four more road crews each in the UK and Scotland to continue their domestic trac projects and Saidou’s team will be training them for two more weeks.”

“Saidou.” A chuckle and snort, a laugh stifled. “Let me just drink that in,” Benn says. “At some point in time, a Zulu warrior will be conversing with Brits and Scots, and I would actually pay to see that if I didn’t already know I don’t have to. You’re more insidious than I anticipated.”

“First of all, I am not ‘insidious’; Erica is. Besides, all other teams were on task and his crew was available. I plan to look in from time to time, of course, just for the sheer serendipitous entertainment value that little slice of cultural diversity will afford. It will also give his team members a chance to come out front for a change. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m at Hilltop now. Landed here last night. How’s it looking there besides So-chee’s fabulous conduit shaping and extrusion? Are we prepared to inhabit yet?”

“Yes, in a perfunctory fashion. I’d like to finish the gardens and… you know, button the buttons and zip up the zippers before we move families in.”

“I disagree,” Benn says. “I think we should start moving them in now and worry about the trim molding and shower curtains afterward. Did you know we had an intrusion this morning at the foundry?”

“No. I’ve had neither briefing nor breakfast.”

“A fairly organized pack of Juggalos, six of them, crashed the gate at shift change and raised hell all the way up to the upper parking lot where it turned into a rousing slobberknocker. We were able to round them up and hand them off to the local constabulary. Nobody died. It was an obvious, kindergarten-level diversion.”

“There was a bunny.”

“One young woman came through the backdoor, all the way through level one, and across the blue line before a response team neutralized her.”

“That’s pretty good penetration for a tourist. I have questions.”

“She got inside with what appears a valid ID chip,” Benn says and shows him a 4-V of a young woman’s face, hooded. The cowl is withdrawn and she is clown-masked in vivid makeup, maybe dyes or tattoos, difficult to distinguish at this remove. Her eyes are orange cat-slits and her hair is buzzed to a nub in front to feature small prosthetic horns.

Denny flinches. “Wow!”

“You know no one has been able to duplicate our protocol,” Benn says. “It was definitely one of ours. Freshly sub-qued and re-wired into her mesh. I went over this morning to visit with the employee it was assigned to. Her off-campus quarters are vacant.”

“That is even more disturbing.

“I want to stress this part to you, Den. Had this exercise been far more expertly planned and executed, the outcome could have been devastating.”

Denny’s “I presume the investigation is ongoing. How did they stop this delicate creature?”


“I don’t know what that is.”

“Reformulated foam grenade.”

“I never really liked the foam. Sure, it’s effective and fun to watch, but clean-ups were always a bitch.”

“I remember. I helped make some of the first ones we cleaned up. Skin is a major improvement over those days. Naturally, it adheres on contact. It expands completely in two to three seconds, and sets up like rubber in about five. It’s completely rigid in eight. You could use it for construction in twenty.”

He shows Denny an image of the intruder, encased mid-escape attempt, upright, arms and legs akimbo.

“She looks kinda like Solo in carbonite,” Denny says.

“You’ll like this part. A dilution of instant hole in water with a bonding key turns any residue into a pliable shell. It just peels off without observable effect on skin or surfaces.”

“Who’s the chemist?”

“I’m told Mr. Kennit did the R&D, but I suspect Barney formulated it and handed it off to him.”

“Mr. Gaston. Yes, that figures,” Denny says. “Is he back there at Hilltop now?”

“Been here and gone again. He’s crewing on the Sagan with his old cohort.”

Denny is quiet for a long count. The neck of the atoll churns and rain pelts the transparency.

“Every one of our people and their families off-premise is vulnerable. We have a responsibility to protect them. Maybe you’re right, Benn. I’m no longer certain the safeguards we’ve put in place for each of them is enough. I don’t want any of them hurt and I don’t want them used against us.”

“Well, that ship has flown.”


“I’m here, Denny.”

“Put out the word. Bring as many inside the redoubts as possible and advise any that defer of the increased alert status and recognition protocol at access points—along with potential mitigation of access privileges, should things go trapezoidal.”


“Benn, how did the intruder act once inside?”

“Her progress suggests she didn’t know where she was going specifically, a mapping foray. She was implanted to record her encroachment, but of course, once she crossed the null field, that went out the window. All she had was her memory when we turned her over to authorities. Still, that’s the deepest anyone’s made it yet, so kudos to her and to whoever she works for.”

“She probably doesn’t even know.”

“Doesn’t matter who it is, does it? They all have the same objective. As long as they can’t control us, as long as they’re unable to possess what we have and turn it to their own purposes, we are The Enemy.”

“I believe it matters very much who it is. Now more than ever.”

“You make it sound like a puzzle, Den. I don’t think it is. Anyway, Eric has been accessing his own resources with a solid 4-vee of the incident. We’ll have more detail soon enough. Meanwhile, I’ve got Barney’s friend, Crippen, waiting for a second interview to fill a cohort position. You want to do that now or wait?”

“You must have liked this one. Why?”

“You mean, despite the fact that Barney’s sponsoring his application? I like his attitude as much as his metrics, really,” Benn says. “Genuine sort. Fit. Good instincts. Inquisitive. Low bias. Shows initiative. He’s been through phase one of the Promethean school. Meets upper median for aggregation compatibility and a high pairing augment if creatively directed. He’s clever, centered, got a bit of the smart-ass in him, but knows how to keep it on a leash.”

“I guess you’d know.”


“What’s his Keirsey score?”

“Ee en ef pe. Abstract-cooperative. Follow-up evals all placed him well within the same temperament bracket. IQ score’s high median.”

“What’s his SEM?”

“One five zero. He’s got ability, if given the environment to develop.”

“Is he aware of his potential?”

“I don’t think so. Also, he has no marked personality or psych concerns, other than he’s an ‘outie’. He’s a little conflicted over the implant, but Barney says he wants the placement. I believe he’ll make the leap.”

“What’s his first name?”


“Okay. Hook him up and let me take his pulse.”

Eric’s voice, still only heard in their heads, says, “Hold on a minute. I’m receiving a validated announce from Vice President Bettencort. He sends apologies for the unscheduled request and says he has a matter of some urgency to discuss with me. Why don’t we take this first?”

“That seems prudent. Benn, do you want in on this, too?”

“Does the pontiff poop in the Vatican?”

“Eric,” Denny says, “stall Bettencort a couple minutes, will you?”

Eric’s voice is soothing, his cadence unhurried. “Mister Vice President, it’s a pleasure to hear from you, sir. I apologize in advance, but if you will allow me two minutes to bring another conversation to a polite conclusion, I will promise to give you my full attention.”

Bettencort’s response is cordial; he did, after all, initiate without the usual courtesies.

“Thank you, sir,” Eric says. “I appreciate your patience.”

Denny calls into the aether, “Braden, can you break away for a few minutes, please?”

The dwarf’s tari materializes, sandwiching himself between Denny and Benn at an uncharacteristic eye-level with them. His hair, silver-streaked and luxurious, spills from an antique leather aviator’s cap, and his tanned face is highlighted by both a brilliant white grin and goggles so deeply tinted they appear to be opaque. A distressed leather bomber jacket tops a white tee-shirt and pocket-festooned cargo shorts bulging with what one must presume to be some manner of cargo. His stubby, muscular legs dandle from his perch atop a high pedestal seat, and terminate in a pair of classic high-top Converse All-Stars; red canvas, white rubber, immaculately preserved, worth a modest fortune on the collector’s market.

He slips the goggles up onto his forehead.

“Ahoy, boys! I’m pretty sure this platform can land itself. I’ll let you know in about a minute. What’s the buzz?”

Eric replies, “Veep Bettencort is awaiting an impromptu audience with me. I want to get an idea of what’s prompting him to reach out like this before I go full vee with him.”

“Okay. Gimme a second…”

Braden’s fingers, nimble despite their sausage-like appearance, range over controls neither Benn nor Denny can see. “Wouldn’t do to wrinkle any of the local architecture with a craft the size of a golf course while I’m multitasking, I suppose.”

“Bettencort’s node is alive, waiting for me to renew and enter,” Eric says.

“Man, that makes it a lot easier,” the dwarf says, frictioning his palms together with a grin. “Let’s all just sneak a peek, shall we?”

      ~      tbc

Komila Chandra

The Bean Counter’s atmosphere is bright without glare and just crowded enough at any time to suggest the site’s quiet popularity. Komila is seated, as is her custom most days, alone at a small high-top near a street-side window, cup in one hand, foldie in the other, scanning headlines without much interest.

Not for the first time, she marvels at the coffee’s aroma, its heat in her nostrils, and the visceral certainty of each luxurious sip. She sets the cup aside and her fingertips graze its surface as she releases the handle. Its ceramic context is undeniable.

That such nuanced sensations as these can be conveyed within a construct always manages to baffle her. The craftsmanship of the experience here is among the best anywhere, and she looked around with deliberation before choosing this one.

Likewise, the continuity of the scene proceeding streetside is completely convincing. Unlike most fee-comp nodes, as The Bean Counter has ever been, the exterior view architecture and activity is impeccable. She’s watched it with curiosity over the course of many subjective hours and the virtual tableau through her high-top by a window—always hers, no matter the time of day nor the volume of clientele, well worth the extra simoleons—proceeds without apparent loop or even a subtle reordering of recognizable components.

It has become her preferred entry portal, a casual, unpretentious ambiance from which she can decompress after work, review and select from a menu of experiences, meet with friends, play, relax, commune. The value of such experience is proven to be therapeutic.

She swipes across the foldie, shifting all the content into a corner, scrolls through a short list of personal messages without reply, and schedules a day trip with her friend, Yunie, to visit a mountaintop monastery in Nepal this weekend. A breathtaking teaser assures her the monks themselves have developed a masterful virtual reflection of the vertigo-inducing site.

No one seems to pay any attention to Eric as he makes his way between knots of patrons engaged in animated exchanges and others, like Komila, in quiet pursuit of personal interests. He stops at a polite distance from her table and graces her with an open smile.

Komila’s avatar is of the current trend for many older citizens of the virtual milieu, an unpretentious representation of the corporeal without excessive post-corrections. She appears a slightly plump, fortyish woman with pleasant, dark-complected, East Indian features. She wears an ornamental bindi with a small peridot on her forehead. She doesn’t stand, but stares at him over her cup with a narrowed brow.

“Whoever you are, everyone knows that face. You should go away.”

“You are correct, Mrs. Chandra,” he says. “That is why no one else would try to wear this face but me. You are also correct to be skeptical. Here is my validation.”

A Character wouldn’t know her name outside of a scenario and this isn’t one. Komila has an unclocked moment. The documentation is authentic; unless the concrete foundations of AsReal have broken down, there is no question. It really is him.

“You’re really him,” she says and wishes she could have those words back. She places her cup in front of her. “Why are you here at my table, sir?”

“I apologize for the interruption in your experience, Mrs. Chandra,” he says. “I have a matter of personal importance to discuss with you.”

He has a likeable, boyish face and all the lines in it turn upward, as if they’ve done it often. A good-looking man, as famous for his asocial behavior as for his numerous accomplishments and, if one can believe accounts, questionable, possibly terrifying motives.

 There are so many things she thought she might say to this person, should the implausible opportunity ever arise. Flustered now, she settles for, “I’m not sure whether to be flattered or afraid that you even know who I am, Mr. Gerzier.” 

She says his name with the proper French-Canadian pronunciation, rather than the American bastardization so typical among those who do not like him, and there are so many of them.

She places her cup between them with deliberate care. “I am, as you may imagine, confounded as to why you would need to speak with me at all. Discuss what?”

“Your son, Rahm, Mrs. Chandra.”

Komila blinks.

“This venue is an open one,” he says. “More so than is prudent for our conversation. Will you spare a few minutes of your time to accompany me so we may speak privately?”

Her peridot tips into the furrow between her eyebrows and she allows herself to give the surroundings a critical review. She considers a number of responses as she does so, some of them civil. She isn’t concerned for her safety; wherever he might take her to ‘speak privately’ must exist, if that’s the right word, within AsReal. As bizarre as this moment has become, she reminds herself, she is in no real danger from this man. Or anything, really. Her Autonomy and Exit Rights guarantee it. Aside from any of that, what does the notorious Eric Gerzier have to do with her child?

“May I ask where we are going?”

“My home. And I apologize in advance for the abrupt transition.”


Komila is weightless a startled heartbeat as the coffee shop motif dissolves before the new site’s physics capture and settle her into an overstuffed chair.

“Oh!” she pipes and cannot get that back either.

Eric’s chair faces hers at a discrete distance.

“Again, Mrs. Chandra, I apologize,” he says, “but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to reach out to you. Are you all right?”

She’s had rougher transitions.

They say the more coherent the communication becomes between AIs on either end of a transfer, less visceral responses will become commonplace rather than exceptional. Sometimes it seems like two pilots trying to land the same aircraft, each only able to control the opposite side of the plane. A soft landing like this is a memorable one. Her personals have followed her as well, as they should, cup steaming on a side table, clutch and foldie next to it.

“I’m fine, thank you.”

Her first assessment of the interface is a quick one. Impressive presentation, stunning aesthetics. Her natural curiosity would draw her straight in, but she knows enough not to be spellbound by a site’s glamour until it’s time to do so. The nature of this particular interaction precludes it anyway.

“What is your interest in my son, Mr. Gerzier?”

“Rahm has made direct application to my Promethean Project School. It is unusual, given his age… twelve next week, is that correct?”


“He’s not?”

“I mean no, I will not co-sign his application. I will not allow him to join your cult army. He is a boy. He does not understand what he is doing and you…” Komila is surprised that she is able to keep her voice level. “You cannot have him.”

Eric’s expression does not alter, except maybe around the eyes, as if perhaps she’d stung him with that ‘cult army’ jab. She expected him to look angry or something, but he doesn’t. She’s waiting for his rebuttal. It doesn’t come. He just sits there and twinkles at her. She notices herself noticing that this irritates her quite a bit and knows that’s not a good place for her next words to come from, but here they come anyway.

“I have heard things about your students and your school,” she says. “Even if they’re not true, the accusations disturb me deeply. It is common knowledge, I’m told, those enrolled in your school stand to lose their American citizenship and that alone is reason enough to decline your offer.” She watches for him to react, a hint of a smirk or scowl, a hasty denial, something to confirm her words. If anything, he looks solemn.

“I have asked to speak with you like this because it is the School’s responsibility to notify you of your son’s application within a very specific and prohibitive timeframe. Any number of my associates could deliver this information to you in a formal setting, but this is personal to me. It is precisely young people like Rahm for whom the School was created. I consider it a courtesy to bring you into this moment personally and as directly as possible. This I have done. In similar fashion, I have made it possible for you to bring your husband, Madhu, into this moment as well, if you wish it.”

Oh no, she thinks.

“No,” she says.

Dammit, she thinks. Madhu will be all for it.

“Very well,” Eric says. “A moment ago, you mentioned declining my offer. I have made no offer. Rahm has made application, quite on his own initiative, and I am following protocol. He is a gifted young man. That much is obvious. He has a window of opportunity to understand and develop those gifts. The fact that he understands this and has taken responsible action, at an age when an overwhelming number of his peers are adrift, is significant. The Promethean Project School was created to nurture talented young people like Rahm, help them focus their abilities toward overcoming the challenging aftermath of the so-called End Times. You have, no doubt, seen some of the work that’s being done around the globe by my ‘cult army’.”

“I know you’re trying to change the world by bullying governments into doing things your way because you think no one can stop you.”

“That is an unproductive exaggeration. We are striving to help heal the damage our species has done to the planet. We are not alone, but we have taken bold steps others cannot. We are not trying to change the world, Mrs. Chandra. We are trying to change how we live with it, if it will still allow us do so.

Komila knows it will be unproductive to say, “You sound just like Madhu,” but there it is anyway, right out there, word for word.

Her peaking frustration, both at her own impetuous speech and at this shadow celebrity’s obvious ploy—attempting to weave Rahm’s uncharacteristic and troubling recent behavior into what she knows to be twisted facts about his own lofty actions and motives—have given her medications in Real a test. She can feel her anxiety spiking. “What I mean is, I see no reason to continue this conversation. Rahm is not of age to make this choice for himself and I will not change my mind.”

She stands, and Eric with her. “Will you have your agent return me now, or must I exit here?”

“Your previous frame will be restored, Mrs. Chandra, exactly as you left it. Before you go, I will ask you to share this with your husband.”

Eric extends an open hand with something in it she’s heard about. She doesn’t reach for it.

“What’s in it?”

“It is the complete four-dee record of Rahm’s application exam submission to the School. I am still following protocol, Mrs. Chandra. As a minor, Rahm understands he is not legally entitled to Privacy and, by his submission, has allowed this record to be made. It is your parental right to have it.” He holds the thing between them in the steepled fingers of one hand.

“Is this the original and only iteration?”

“The original, yes. The School will retain a copy for its records, of course.”

It is the size of a robin’s egg, but angular, and its surface seems to be indistinct, shifting in conflicting Escher-esque motion. It is unpleasant to look at.

“Of course,” she says and plucks it from his fingertips. It squirms in her palm. She snatches her clutch from the side table and releases the weird thing into it, snapping it closed even as her cup bounces and coffee splatters the carpet.

“Oh!” Hand over her mouth, furious at her gracelessness and the mess it’s caused, she reminds herself this is vee. There is no mess, no good reason to feel foolish. She looks at her cup on its side, the dark blot contrasting with the carpet pattern, splattered drops on Eric’s shoes.

She expects to see on his face the look her father would show her whenever she spoke or acted without thinking; he showed it to her often. Instead, Eric’s eyes are kind. She can’t remember ever seeing a validated image of him without an expression of good-natured patience. Her favorite channeler often likens it to the vacant look of a lobotomy patient. Ha ha. Up close and personal, Komila isn’t seeing that.

Yes, this is vee, but she reminds herself, this is a Person, not a Character. His manner seems effortlessly genial and respectful. Even here, he maintains a polite distance and demeanor, not quite the arrogant, polarizing figure as he’s been depicted. She has a brief glimpse of how her information stream has narrowed, and her views with it. She wonders what’s become of her old skepticism and inquisitiveness. And she is curious.

Behind the man, the entire long wall from floor to ceiling is cabinetry crafted from some rich vermillion wood. An eclectic assortment of mementos and artifacts, some of them recognizable, and objects of either artistic or inexplicable purpose dominate open shelving. Books stack, stand, or slump between them all. Nearby, a wide stair curves upward to a mezzanine and what appears a spacious, softly illuminated common area beyond. At the far end of the study, a single painting commands the wall, an energetic abstract backlit to allow translucent elements to stand out in colorful relief.

Turning to see what’s been at her back the whole time, she barely realizes her tari has begun walking toward it. A single, monolithic transparency spans the entire length of the room. A few steps carry her to what seems a precipitous edge. Beyond is an undulating sea under a crystalline half-moon. Dark, roiling surf scours the lagoon below.

Komila realizes she’s allowed herself to be drawn in against her best intentions and drags her attention from the view, back to the contradiction of the man.

“I understand your reticence,” he says, “and I don’t presume to know the precise narratives that dominate your perception of my work. I trust you haven’t predicated all your hopes and prayers upon their guidance alone. More immediately, however, I trust you and Madhu will choose to understand why Rahm has made this decision. I believe he wants that understanding from you more than anything.”

She wants to ask why he thumbs his nose at laws and governments where he has no right to involve himself at all. They say his workers are given implants and become robotic. And does he really grow inhuman creatures in tanks as laborers and soldiers? And why, maybe the most telling question of all, does he care what one disturbed little boy does or doesn’t do?

Her opportunity to probe the celebrated recluse will never be any better than this and Komila is disoriented once more to find herself in the Bean Counter, seated alone at her high-top by the window. The transition was flawless.

There is a small node the size of a pea behind her right ear—not really; it’s an AsReal thing—but pressing it just so initiates the exit protocol.

… and she is in a cubicle, a soft-cornered booth as immaculate as it is austere. A luxurious reclining couch covered in a tough synthetic hide is central and a low, integrated shelf runs the length of one long wall for personal belongings. These, a charging stack on the shelf, and a double hook at the door to hang her coat and hat, represent the only differences between a virtuary and a cramped walk-in closet.

She reaches for her tiny handbag and her foldie within. The back of her hand brushes the encapsulated vorp. It is still obnoxious. She opens her foldie to its margins and a three-dee three-sixty of Eric Gerzier’s study displays on its seamless matte surface. A linking icon accompanies the image with a personal note from Gerziere in a casual, cursive script. It seems merely a polite close with no answers to the questions she was not even allowed time to ask. She folds the sheet into neat quarters and slips it into her clutch. Well, maybe she will ask them.

She cups her mask to her face and it seals below her eyes and under her chin. A breath in and out to test it, she steps into the hallway toward the exit with a purpose. There will be no more socializing in virtua for Komila today. No time for further diversions of any kind. Nor will there be, as much as she is committed to maintaining her rigid fitness regimen, time for an energetic workout. She’s got something in her clutch that will make Madhu just absolutely shit himself.

~      ~     

The Lens

“D’kin Remert. Why has it taken you so long to respond to my summons?”

“Lord Shiric, I… ” Remert swallows a knot, fear and elation at war within, held at bay by an effort of will. “I never thought to hear from you again. I believed you had abandoned the undertaking.”

Lord Shiric’s voice rumbles from the lens. “What are you talking about?! I spoke with you not five turns past.”

Myriad faces, some of them disturbing at a visceral level, are suggested in the swirling eddies of Lord Shiric’s smokey Visage. They stare out at him in their turn and Remert struggles to maintain outward calm as the implications of Lord Shiric’s words strike home.

“Lord Shiric,” Remert adjusts his stance and bearing, “it has been nearly twenty-five thousand turns—one hundred and forty-nine years as they measure cycles on this Gog-forsaken world—since last you spoke to me.”

A protracted silence ensues.

Within the lens, smoke becomes mist blowing away to reveal the faces of two humans.

“Do you recognize either of these t’sunguc, D’kin?”

It could have been no others, of course. Perhaps something in his eyes spoke for him, or maybe it was the way he drew his next breath.

“So.” A boil of dark vapor eclipses the images. “A temporal disruption has occurred to separate me from you, D’kin; one beyond my power to prevent and too late now to rectify. I must assume the state of preparations, events, and outcomes previously reported to me have all been redefined subsequent to the disruption itself. Be succinct, D’kin. What is the status of your mission?”

“My Nee’m, the primary objective has been met. Centralization of the transfer locus is established. Our secondary and tertiary objectives have yielded mixed results. Even so, the several positive outcomes have been exceptional.”

“Elaborate upon the latter for me, D’kin.”

“The effort to foster Gray Moct’unguc has succeeded beyond expectation. Significant increases in both fertility and intelligence have been nurtured with auspicious results. Efforts to force development of Gray Troct’unguc were hampered by the destruction of the original breeding stock and a favorable phase one mutation. The genetic foundations of the Grays on this world do not lend themselves to such radical hybridization without altering the outcomes in unanticipated, often unacceptable fashion. Still, a promising hybrid stock has displayed unique characteristics and I am enthusiastic about the potential these specimens represent.”

“I find your optimism encouraging,” Lord Shiric says. He sounds pleased. “More than that, I am moved by your perseverance in the face of what you perceived as abandonment. Tell me, D’kin, why did you persist in what must have seemed fruitless effort?”

“The Method guides me, My Nee’m. My Mission was given with your aegis, but with or without it, I could not stand one day before Mong and excuse my failure by decrying my circumstances.”

“This is why I chose you over more highly-positioned applicants to be my surrogate on this world, D’kin Remert. Your resolve and persistence have surpassed my expectations. I look forward to celebrating your accomplishments.”

Remert is unused to effusive praise. He likes it, and it balances well against the blossoming uncertainty this conversation has birthed and nurtured.

“Due to the disruption and the presence of my adversary’s minions,” Lord Shiric says, “I have chosen D’nal Kudlac to assume the responsibility of Minister of the Change. You have three hands to prepare yourself for return to Kal’un Shiir’n. Here you will have sufficient opportunity to provide the D’nal with the detail he will require before he translates across the gulf, at which time your charge to me will be completed. You will be given a champion’s welcome with holiday and feasting throughout Kal’un Shiir’n, all in your honor before I return you, with my gratitude and endorsement, to your Congregate and certain elevation.”

The lipless slash beneath Remert’s blade of a nose opens to form the words that will lead him home, then closes again, his throat working to swallow them before they can leak out. He tries to recall how long ago he had despaired such a moment as this might ever be possible. The end of his exile, recompense for all he has endured, and the fruition of his paramount personal aspiration, that of elevation to the Second Circle, to be D’nal.

“Lord Shiric, I am exultant that the rift separating us has contrived to bring me back to you again. I am grateful beyond measure that my humble accomplishments have met with your approval.”

He performs a stiff, formal obeisance.

“I would beg your indulgence, My Nee’m. Processes currently in motion regarding the ’unguc variants of which I spoke have reached a critical juncture. I am loathe to leave them in the hands of those less intimate with their nature and development. If you would permit me to remain until this pivotal phase is completed, I will have served you to the best of my ability.”

A viscous plume roils Lord Shiric’s ceremonial mask. It churns, like liquid smoke, rising beyond the limit of the lens to capture it. Vaporous expressions in the boil might be an intimation of displeasure at having to revise plans at this late hour, or perhaps Remert’s racing mind is assigning meaning to random, shifting patterns. Vague suppositions, difficult to dismiss.

This late hour, Remert muses. How unconsciously he has come to think in the conventions of this world. After these many years—fifty-nine point six yarnn on this chaotic ball of confusion—who could blame him for adopting these conventions in the interest of survival and sanity? How long, he wonders, might it take to restore proper patterns of thought once returned among his kind?

His kind… How like them is he now? Will the Congregate hierarchy honor him for his accomplishments and, more to the needle’s point, will the First Circle and The Methshe forgive him for his deliberate transgression?

How could they not with Lord Shiric’s benefaction?

Lord Shiric is speaking. “I will send the D’nal at the rising, to whom you will relinquish operational responsibility. He will oversee the displacement and ensure continuity, leaving you sufficient autonomy to continue administration of your secondary and tertiary directives. Will that satisfy your need for closure, D’kin?”

“My Nee’m, you honor and humble me. I am grateful beyond measure for your gracious consideration of my request and for allowing me…”

“Nothing has changed. I require results from you and the D’nal on each element of your respective commissions. It will be your responsibility to deliver all specimens to the transfer locus prior to the displacement. My timetable is unaltered. You have five turns.”

So soon! So much yet to do! Finally! If Remert is in the least unsettled by the immediacy of his nee’m’s deadline, his face exhibits none of it. “Measured here,” he says, “ten point six six days. Deviation?”

“No more than one half-turn.”

“Plus or minus twenty-five point six zero hours,” Remert says to himself, calculating the least time remaining for him to accomplish everything. “All will be in readiness, Lord Shiric. You may rely upon me.”

“I continue to do so, D’kin.”

The lens darkens and Remert’s axe-faced stoicism reflected in it alters not at all. The revelations of the last minute are stupendous. The weight of the task before him and its immediacy invigorates and appalls him. The soon-to-be disastrous addition of an unprepared and officious D’nal to the equation is the very last thing he needs now. There is nothing for a D’nal to do but meddle and confound well-laid strategy. He exhales a fervent prayer to Mong for Precision With Haste and unseals the door. It swings inward to reveal H’seven at the portal.

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Remert says.


“The audience is over. He’s gone.”

“No, he’s not.”

Confounded, Remert looks back at the lens.

H’seven grasps the collar of Remert’s ceremonial raiment and drags him from the portal. Stepping through, he approaches the darkened lens, squares up to it, and says, “I am H’seven. I have something you need. Let’s talk.”

A profound stillness answers. The lens is blank.

Remert, from the vestibule, “I told you. He’s gone.”

H’seven is strident. “I know you can hear me. You gain nothing by your silence.”

The door to the chamber seals with a soft, solid finality, leaving Remert excluded in the vestibule, fuming.

Total darkness pours from the lens, flooding the chamber, engulfing H’seven in Night.

Shiric’s voice is ponderous. “You speak as though you believe yourself my equal. I do not know you.”

“How fortuitous, then, that we have come to this intersection.”

“What do you have that I need?”

“An object of power you believed was lost to you.”

“The object. It is in your possession?”

“I have only to reach out my hand.”

“Then do so. Show it to me.”

“When we meet, I will present it to you.”

“Show it to me now. It is within my capability to reach out my hand and end you where you stand, if only for your presumption.”

H’seven shrugs. “Which is why I will not present this prize for you to have absent an agreement. I would prefer to consider this a collaboration of mutual benefit. As to equals: such speculation invites unfair comparison. I offer you the solution to riddles that currently vex you. In return I ask only a modest boon, one you may effortlessly grant.”

“You appear to have a measure of comprehension well beyond the scope of anything my agent there could have conveyed to you. Some might deem the knowledge you possess uncommon. You should consider such familiarity perilous.”

“I consider it currency.”

“What is it you want in exchange for this intangible object of indefinite potential?”

“To stand with you in the place where worlds are made and unmade and receive your aegis as Marshal in the war to come with your upstart adversary.”


“Nothing more. Well, parades and feasting and revelry, of course. Same as Remmy. But no, just those things and that.”

Silence draws out so long the blackness pouring from the lens seems to breathe.

Shiric breaks it. “No.”

“Just like that?”

“The object you speak of is better lost on your world than mine.”

“Lost? Did I say it was lost? It is in motion. Do you assume that motion to be in your best interest?”

“So. It is NOT in your possession.”

H’seven taps the lens with a steely forefinger. “Is this thing on? I said it is within my grasp.”

The darkness laughs as though he had said something hilarious. It winds down to a chuckled, “Thank you for that, anyway, but the answer is still ‘no’.”

“Who is to say, when I reach out MY hand,” H’seven says. “the object might choose to return to you in a way less conducive to your exaggerated primacy?”

The darkness is not laughing now. “Are you… attempting to challenge me?!”

H’seven taps the lens again. A fragment of its dark material chips off and plinks onto the stone floor. “Pray I do not.”

A pulse of Black power smashes against the chamber walls with sufficient force to shatter stone, casting flechettes about in total darkness as the great door buckles with a metallic scream and pieces of its frame splinter off with gunshot sounds. Illumination does not return.

.      .      .

Kami is standing just inside the vestibule to the lens chamber, watching Remert. He appears stunned, staring as if in disbelief at the heavy portal door, twisted, hanging askew.

“Are you all right, Director?” she says.

He seems to awaken from his daze, straightens himself. “Yes,” he says. He takes a step back from the portal and turns her way, fixing Kami with a haunted expression. “No.”

He recognizes the insignia on her uniform. If he was wondering what she was doing in this highly restricted area at this inopportune moment, at least her classification is appropriate.

“May I take you somewhere, Director?”

“No. Thank you, Technician. I trust you will arrange damage assessment and clean-up.”

“Of course, D’kin.”

“Then I will leave you to your responsibilities.”

Kami follows him out into the corridor and watches him make his way to the nearest bounce. He enters and does not reemerge.

She rummages up a spreader from her waiting runabout’s toolbox, using it to pry the blasted door open enough to peer inside. The lens is intact, but the clean-up detail is going to need a high-pressure hose and some wire brushes to remove the erstwhile Deputy Director from the surfaces of the chamber.

“Doctor Ahn,” she says to the air. A few seconds tick by. “Yes, I am. Thank you, Doctor. I’m ready for an upload, are you? Good. No, not yet; another Seven will be fine. Ten minutes. Wait, hold on… “

Another runner slews to a stop beside Kami’s idling rig. A lanky fellow, whose uniform displays the same emblem and nomenclature as her own, steps out onto the raw stone floor of the corridor and affects a casual amble in her direction.

“Make it twenty,” she says. A pause to listen produces a laugh. “You’ve got a filthy mind, Doctor. I’ll try that. Get a fresh one out of the vat and I’ll be there by the time you have it warmed up for me.”

     ~   ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Remert’s Perspective

The door to Remert’s private office snaps back into the pocket behind the armoire and the Director’s hurried exit is blocked. The Deputy Director is an unwelcome obstacle to egress.

“I have business elsewhere,” Remert says.

“I’ll bet you do.” H’seven appears unwilling to step back out of the doorway. He speaks an abbreviated command to the media wall and excerpts from the incident at the Sandia Pueblo fill the multiplex projection.

“I do not have time for this now. I am needed…”

“Make time.”

The door has sealed again behind H’seven and he leans against it, pointing at the montage of images. Remert’s sense of urgency stymied, he gives way with a scowl and turns in frustration to see the woman in white disappear with the young police officer.

“You had them bound in chains when I first saw them,” H’seven says. “If she’s able to pull shit like that, why do you suppose she didn’t?”

Remert’s thoughts are distant, attempting to process a rush of discordant, troubling possibilities. The Call, unexpected after all this time, will change everything. Exactly what, how much, and how soon will be known after this inconvenient episode has concluded.

He returns his intention toward the door and his apostate Deputy. “I can extrapolate two plausible reasons.”

“So can I. They were playing you from the jump.”

“Your hindsight is flawless.”

“What the Hell are they?”

“They have the potential to invite a level of trouble the likes of which we have not seen before. I trust you are following these events and individuals with diligence. I will be prepared to entertain your progress report when I return. My business now is urgent.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“My responsibilities here are not yours and I have imperatives that do not require your attention or participation. Let me pass.”

“It pisses me off when you try to lie to me, Stretch.”

H’seven strides forward. Remert takes two steps back and bumps up against the media wall.

H’seven sits in the chair that doesn’t touch the floor and says, “I think you’re developing a dangerously cavalier attitude toward our relationship. Your kind prides itself on its ability to absorb and incorporate the impact of important lessons. Odd that you’ve failed to do so. Maybe this place has rubbed off on you. Still, it has been some time since our little understanding, hasn’t it, D’kin?”

The use of Remert’s honorific sounds disrespectful, striking a defiant, scornful note. H’seven’s stare becomes a perturbation in the aether between them. Remert tries to look away and cannot.

He feels his pulse dancing, skipping, leaping. His heartbeat has doubled, tripled, but it isn’t pounding; it flutters like a bird on the ground, unable to rise. A sensation of lightheadedness is followed by a crushing weight in his chest and a rush of agony. His groan is stifled, reshaped into a few words of a familiar litany by an effort of intention only Mong and this grievous creature will ever witness.

A spear twists in his entrails, wringing a strangled cry. He gulps air like a fish and every muscle in his body tries to contract at once. He pitches to the floor screaming out his last breath with barely a sound.

Eyes wild, unseeing in a mask of terror, Remert experiences the crystalline recognition that all his single-minded purpose and sacrifice have come at once to nothing, his goal beyond his grasp, his commitment unfulfilled.

Writhing. Helpless. Dying.

Like a bubble popping, the pressure in his chest, the auger in his intestines, the bone-shattering contraction in his limbs… gone, nothing more than a phantom of pain and a blistering memory not to be touched again. His heart rate is accelerated, as dying in anguish is likely to do to anyone, but its rhythm is strong and vital. Quaking, drawing convulsive breaths as if he’d just run kilometers, Remert drags himself to a sitting position against the media wall. Stone against his back feels somehow reassuring. The damp squishiness in his trousers, not so much.

H’seven is sprawled in Remert’s chair. His voice and face are cheerful.

“How’s that for perspective, Remmy? Will that do you for a while, or would you like to go again?”

Remert raises a trembling, dissenting hand. His relief at being alive has overshadowed his studied Methodic aplomb, but the brutal truth is this: his life, his survival, and the furtherance of his efforts to fulfill his mandate to Lord Shiric is bound by a tenuous thread of compliance and faithfulness to this being whose existence may well be beyond the vast comprehension of Mong Himself. If that be heresy, may Mong Himself prove him wrong. And soon.

“All right, then,” H’seven says, claps his hands, and rubs them together. “Let’s get back to business, why don’t we? I was asking you to tell me about these two Blacks with the halfblood. I need to know what they are.”

Remert’s tremors have not subsided. His protruding Adam’s apple works up and down. Twice. His voice quivers. “They are of the Aca’chi Aht-U’chah, known everywhere on Hevn as the Fayneem Bloch—Fayne’s Hammer. The Faceless Ones. A warrior caste nurtured by and unquestionably obedient to The Fayne and no other.”

“What the fuck is a fain?”

“A glorified jailer and a despot. He is far from here, imprisoned by his responsibilities, and no threat to either of us.”

“I’m sorry. Perhaps I stuttered. Give me a straight answer, Remmy, or I swear to—what’s his name? Mung?—I’ll give you some more perspective until you shit yourself hollow.”

Remert swallows his instinctive wave of fear and compresses his fury until it looks and sounds like compliance. “According to excerpts from ‘The Book of Turns’, The Fayne is the emissary of the Tu’chah Aht-T’sungahn, the so-called ‘Lords of Order’. To place it in a Terran framework, he is the marshal in town and the Fayneem Bloch are his sworn deputies.”

“And these two are significant why?”

“They are progeny of Hevn’s Black Lands and exhibit the physical characteristics of their kind. How they came to be in company with the Fayneem Bloch is a puzzle only less confounding than how they have come to be here. Nevertheless, these are The Fayne’s minions. As such, in addition to any individual innate gifts either of them may possess, The Fayne has doubtless granted them augmentation. If allowed to gain proximity, these two could present a formidable imposition to our plans.”

“Two people? Don’t be stupid.”

“They are NOT ‘people’. They are thinking weapons of extraordinary capability.”

H’seven stands, towering over the Director. “I’m not exactly ‘people’ either. Pick your nasty ass up off the floor and get yourself cleaned up. Take care of your ‘imperatives’. I’ll meet you there.”


“I think it’s time I introduced myself to him, don’t you?”

“Introduce… “ Remert realizes that somehow his mouth is hanging open again. “To HIM?! No… I think that is an incredibly dangerous idea.”

“Yeah, I know, that’s why I like it.”

“No! I forb…” The Director is astonished to discover he is unable to complete his pronouncement, unable to make a sound. He tries anyway.

The door snaps back into the pocket behind the armoire and the Deputy Director steps aside.

“You get along now. I’ll catch up to you.”


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.


The private office of the Director of Advanced Concepts Methodic might be likened to a monk’s cell in a mountainside cloister. It is a compact, windowless space relieved from stone in the fashion of his Society with a ceiling proportional to the Director’s height. What it contains that a monk’s personal space does not is a massive armoire crafted from a single monolith of exotic hardwood native to no place on Earth, and a chair that does not touch the floor. These are the only furnishings.

Between him and a passageway beyond, a heavy door fashioned from the same unfamiliar wood stands at the center of one long wall. Opposite it, a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling collage of images is in constant motion.

Remert’s feet find the floor and his joints grate as he rises. This discomfort is insufficient to alter his bearing, of course, as he straightens to his full height, a decimal over two meters.

The armoire crowds one side of the door. He palms open a panel and removes a tray. An aide assigned to support the Director’s daily routine, an individual he’s never seen nor heard, left it there for him. Remert nods in grudging approval of that one’s proper execution of fundamental duties. A handful of gel capsule supplements washes down with a catalyzing liter of liquid nutrient infused with a generous percentage of the good water.

He closes the panel and turns to scrutinize his shifting global mosaic, hands resting on the sharp projections of his hip bones. Hairless, pale skin stretched over a grim, hatchet face, Remert’s wide, lipless mouth is set in a line. Leaden gray eyes sweep the montage, a multiplex viewport of everything from two-dee footage to vee-centric feeds. The whole is continuously culled from domestic and international sources and curated for his consumption by Sonder itself.

Scenes of sporting events are discarded out of hand by Sonder’s presets unless flagged by the Director. Rare instances of pageantry, performance art, episodic or formulaic productions, either dramatic or comedic in nature, and celebrity fluff-pieces that leak through the filters, all receive similar dismissal. One such is a cursory motion from removal when recognition prompts Remert to bring focus and enhancement to the item instead.

Two women and a man arranged in a casual studio setting present just the sort of tribute to meaningless drivel the Director finds an unacceptable waste of time. One of the women, however, is a respected helioseismologist with a near-unpronounceable Nordic name. Remert’s spider-leg fingers gesture in the air and the program’s volume achieves a satisfactory level.

“… continue to collate data,” the scientist is saying. She is tall and dowdy with shapeless blond hair and penetrating sky-blue eyes. Unpretentious and plain-spoken, her manner marks her as the most intelligent person on the set.

“The upward extent and duration of these perturbations,” she says, “are hypothetical at this juncture. Unguessable. I know that’s not the answer you were seeking, Gretta, but nothing of this magnitude has ever been encountered before. We are learning, quite literally, moment by moment. It requires the concerted efforts of scientific professionals across multiple disciplines to not only decode the information we are receiving, but also to give us guidance on how to prepare for and, Gods willing, weather the potential worst-case scenario.”

The female host, her avatar looking as young and vital as she did a decade ago, nods with a sage expression. “It is a stirring tribute to how far we’ve come as a species, I think, that we are able to acquire this great depth and breadth of useable information, as we have done, to be analyzed by those who will guide us through these difficulties.”

“Shut your mouth, you stupid cow,” Remert says, “and allow the one with a modicum of actual knowledge speak.” Here is one of the prime reasons he eschews these types of programming beyond the obvious fact of their reliably insipid content: they make him disagreeable. That outburst will cost him penance later.

Gretta Carsten, the grand dame of talking heads, drawing on her years of broadcast and early three-vee experience as a newspersonality, adopts a look of deep concern—no doubt solicitude for all humankind—and says, “Would you give our audience your impression of what that worst case might look like, Doctor?”

Doctor Astrid Koninklijke appears reluctant. She fidgets, matching her words. “I am uncomfortable adding my own conjecture to the already inflammatory media furor I see taking hold among those more… excitable members of the population. This is not a time for wild presumption and unfocused alarm.”

“I understand your reticence, Doctor, but our viewership is comprised statistically of well-educated and reasonable individuals. Won’t you share with us please, at least an educated guess?”

The scientist sighs reserved acquiescence. “Worst case? If the new planet were to be expelled farther outward from what we believe to be its cradle orbit around the sun, and depending upon a host of variables too random to even consider at this point, given its significant size, orbital shifts of the inner planets is seen as possible outcomes. Such adjustments could alter every facet of the Earth’s already compromised biosphere and revise the conditions that support life as we know it.”

The male host, spray-tanned and moderately handsome, but otherwise an unremarkable generic foil, reveals an impressive battery of perfect white teeth. Ignoring the implications of his guest’s apocalyptic speculation, he grins a question at her any member of his well-educated viewership would have deemed, by now, redundant.

“The name that has achieved acceptance among so many of the scientific community, seems an unusual choice, Doctor. If I am not mistaken, the name “Vulcan” is an homage to an iconic two-dee science fiction entertainment franchise that continues to enjoy a broad cult following even today. Why has the scientific community chosen to adopt such an obvious popular-culture reference?”

“I’m afraid you are mistaken, Matthew,” the scientist says. “In the year eighteen sixty, a French mathematician named Le Verrier advanced the premise of a planet in orbit between Mercury and the Sun. He encouraged a number of astronomers to help him verify the existence of that body he named Vulcan, in accordance with accepted convention of designating astronomical bodies after figures in Roman mythology. Some of those he enlisted reported findings, other did not, and eventually, the search stagnated. The name and concept of Vulcan, however, has remained and is perhaps the foundation of the popular cultural reference you mentioned.”

Matthew’s flustered, “Oh, …” is preempted by the scientist.

“While it is generally believed that previous sightings and suppositions were based upon mistaken assumptions and the limitations of the technology of the times, today we know that within the last seven years, a body nearly three times the size of our Earth is being expressed outward from the sun. The actual mechanism of its genesis remains the focus of intense scrutiny, as you might imagine. We are watching it happen; we just don’t know how it’s happening. Or why. But, as we assemble data, we can make some informed assumptions.”

“You know what they say about assumptions.”

“Shut up, Matt,” says Gretta.

Koninklijke continues. “Vulcan is separated from the solar sphere by a mere eight thousand kilometers, and connected to its parent by a plasma stream sufficiently large Mercury would fit inside it.”

Indifferent now, Remert swipes the program into obscurity. A scene of sweeping urban devastation catches his attention, but his focus shifts to another frame. This one presents a scene from within the facility and two particular individuals who rarely interact.

Doctor Ahn Soo Rin, as stiff and intractable an individual as Remert has ever encountered—qualities that have endeared her to him—appears to be having words with the current operational lead of the single most important program in process within the whole of his downward-tall complex.

Doctor Denise McIntosh’s posture and facial expression suggest an abnormal level of emotional investment in the exchange and Remert’s interest in such a conversation is keen.

“… you abandoned the prosthetics we designed for ST-One,” McIntosh is saying with unmistakable heat, “patterned upon our unambiguous specifications, in favor of your own radical redesign at the last minute and have demanded additional modifications far beyond the mandated scope of the project. Your interference has compromised our timetable and jeopardized the ultimate viability of ST-One himself. I will not allow any further hindrance. If you have …”

“Doctor,” says Ahn in a voice as flat and hard as her face, “you enjoy the freedom to pursue your work in this facility, quite outside the restrictions of the conventional moratorium against such activity. You do so only insofar as it pleases us, I might add. ST-One is not YOUR project, Doctor. You and your staff are the tools we have selected to implement the ST project objective.”

“Without me and my staff, there would be no ST-One and you know it. I’ve cleared each phase through Ten Eyck and …”

Ahn waves a dismissive hand. “I’ve heard from Doctor Ten Eyck about your very creative contributions to ST-One’s self-image. Try to understand this. ST-One is also a tool, nothing more. The shape of its delicate self-image is meaningless. Do not make the dangerous, unprofessional mistake of attempting to attribute to it a soul.”

“Or to you, apparently. ST-One is a person, as intelligent, intuitive, and as human as you and… well as human as I am, anyway.”

“ST-One is a product. Because of your misguided attempt to imbue it with some imprudent belief that it is human—which it is not—I believe it to be too expensive and mentally fragile to be of great utility in the end. I hold you responsible for the project’s degradation and imminent failure.”        

“It’s fortunate for us all, then, that yours is not the last word.”

“Wrong, Doctor. I have been given administrative responsibility for the continuance and success of this project. You have a new timetable and additional objectives to meet within that framework. You will report to me daily until I am satisfied the ST program is back on track.”   

“I don’t believe this. Even with all the resources the foundation has at its disposal, no one else could have brought this project halfway to where it is today. Despite your continued attempts to retard the program and your relentless obstruction, ST-One is on schedule and performing to the specifications set by the Director himself. If you want to keep it that way, conduct your administrative tasks away from my labs, my staff, and ST-One in particular. Do you understand? If you impede this project further, I will take this to the Director and we’ll see how he feels about your deliberate efforts to sabotage my work on the one program that we both know has his singular attention.”

Doctor Ahn is without emotion. “As I have mentioned and will not do so again, you have new specifications. ST-One is only one of several options being explored to meet our needs. If another project bears fruit before yours, I will be delighted to dismiss you, your staff, and your anatomically correct, but useless tool. Try to find another facility in the world where you can work and create with such toys as these, Doctor. Either way ST-One’s life, such as it is, will be mine to direct.”

Remert observes McIntosh with a sour expression. It fails to convey his curiosity and mild amusement at her fierce, most un-Methodic attachment to the project and her defiance in the face of Doctor Ahn’s uncompromising rigidity.

McIntosh remains motionless in the corridor and appears to be projecting a volatile current of molten hatred at the retreating backside of the thick Korean woman. He hears her say something about a “sanctimonious rice-faced bastard-flavored sack of assholes” before discarding the tile.

Fresh images of the destruction noted earlier receive prominence. Splayed fingers of both hands create an expansion and a series of imbedded vorps fan out from the primary, presenting a matrix of still and moving images. Central to them is an orbital view of the northern tip of South America and Remert uses it to zoom in.

The aspect shifts to the bottleneck linking Lago de Maracaibo to the Gulf of Venezuela. A meteorite crater half a kilometer across has obliterated an area of the upper left quadrant of the scene and carnage radiates outward from it in concentric waves.

One of the views holding Remert’s interest presents scant imaging, but a wealth of plots and projections of the meteor’s path, from the point of its discovery to its starting point, accompanied by a progression of scientific notation. Remert follows this cascade of data until a specious assumption makes the results moot and his attention shifts to a nearby vee-cast he was tracking in his peripheral vision.

An artful holographic banner splashes behind the avatar of the most ubiquitous and prolific field reporter in the virtual continuum. He is just taking his mark as his veedio team pans in from the devastation all around him.

“Hello, everyone. This is Stanford Seib reporting from Maracaibo, Venezuela. I am standing at ground zero where a rogue meteorite believed to be another resultant of the astronomical phenomenon dubbed, ‘The Stir’, has struck northwest of this vibrant, thriving city.”

Seib’s tari appears to be standing, without the benefit of protective garb, at the blasted rim of the crater. His aerial cam sweeps across the city beyond.

“Where wide, tree-lined boulevards had once woven through plazas and modern high-rise intermingled with colorful traditional architecture, a bludgeoning shockwave of force and heat has leveled everything within a two-kilometer radius of the impact site and rained destruction for several kilometers beyond. Emergency services are only now able to move into the outlying areas.”

Four-vee imaging arrays digitize and parse the devastation for those gathering to gawk at it in the virtual realm and Seib provides narration. As he speaks, two enormous aircraft are on approach from the north and Remert’s eyes betray an unguarded emotion.

They appear identical, these massive ships gliding in tandem, silent. Although each sports paired, swept-back, flying wing configurations, neither looks remotely aerodynamic. They slow to a halt and hang motionless, one over the city, the other on station above the crater.

Seib’s tari looks into his second mark and says, “Presidente Medina has accepted an offer of humanitarian aid from Eric Gerzier and his CleanSweep® teams to assist with rescue, rubble removal, and recovery of the space rock itself. We have just witnessed two of Gerzier’s physics-defying motherships taking position as we speak.”

The floating behemoth over Seib’s head appears to be perhaps two hundred and fifty meters from one conjoined set of wingtips to the other with a deep-bellied fuselage slung between them. Even so, it seems to hover motionless, as if lighter than air. There is no characteristic hazy blueish disturbance beneath it from pressors. No turbulence buffets the reporter. Even if his avatar were to be excluded from the physics of the environment, which is unlikely, the surroundings are not. Remert’s scowl of vexation at the power maintaining these gargantua aloft is a bitter one, guaranteed to reoccur every time one of these craft makes an appearance.

A cascade of smaller craft spill from the aft bays of the suspended platforms like hornets chivied from their nest. Some are tiny, darting vehicles, others are small only in relation to the gigantic shapes from which they have emerged. A few of these pause among the devastation to release squads of technicians onto the rubble, then rise to hover over the operations of their teams. Others settle into the debris and begin dislodging the bones of collapsed structures with an eerie combination of care and efficacy.

Remert is about to move on from this distant calamity, the plight of yet another huddled mass of these insufferable round-worlders with their fragmented belief systems and disjointed thinking, too aggressive and habitualy confused to ever be converted without overwhelming direct motivation. A comment from the correspondent, Seib, gives Remert pause.

“… before we speak with Presidente Medina,” he says. “My producer tells me Eric Gerzier is on-site with his team and has consented to a brief interview.”

“Sonder!” Remert refrains from shouting. “Eric Gerzier has just manifested in a Community network node. Source him now.”

“Eric Gerzier is not present in the LocUS register.”

Gerzier’s tari steps into frame with Seib and they exchange a backhand bump.

“Eric,” Seib says, “previous efforts to utilize your craft for rescue purposes have left civilian emergency operations unable to function and, obviously, given the circumstances, those services are right now critical to the thousands who may be still alive and require life-saving measures to survive.”

“Unacceptable!” Remert says. He stabs a spear-like index finger. “I am looking at his avatar! The timestamp is this Gog-damned second. Run self and system diagnostics against this inconsistency.”

“Thank you for leading with that, Stanford. I’ve been able to suppress the energy damping field that’s caused such inconvenience in the past. Local emergency services are fully operational alongside my workers and their vehicles.”

Beyond the pair, Seib’s vorpcrafter weaves aerial and ground-level activity in intimate detail and Sonder’s response is without emotion. “All processes and routines relevant to the administration of Community’s access, use, and client management are operating at design parameters. There is no indication of compromise at any security level. Eric Gerzier’s ident and validation subset is both verified and unverified at the Maracaibo location.”

“… will strive to save every life possible,” Eric says. “My people are already arranging to resupply power to the city and outlying affected areas, restoring essential services. I have two teams from each of the platforms on-task providing shelter, food, and immediate critical care sites at the periphery of the current no-man’s-land.”

“What does that mean?” Remert’s pique has gained a Methodic edge. “You reported a moment ago his ident did not appear in the register.”

“It did not, D’kin. It did validate at the node, however, and, at the timestamp that validation was made, the register recorded the same.”

“How do you explain this discrepancy?”

“I cannot, D’kin.”

Seib’s tari has a let’s-get-down-to-business expression on his face and Gerzier is saying something about a tour of one of his motherships and Remert resists an impulse to whisk the frame from the virtual tableau and crumple it, if only subjectively, in a bony fist. A gesture stores the vignette for later review instead.

“I will disassemble your core with my own hands if you do not provide me with a satisfactory interpretation of this aberration and a workable solution to this annoying individual’s ability to use our proprietary version of subjective reality as if it was his private playground.”

Two things occur so closely together they seem to be part of a singular event and Sonder’s reply is lost in their passage.

A physical wave, paralytic, but painless, flows from his feet to the top of his head. It lasts but an instant and leaves him light-headed, ears ringing, his next breath a luxury.

H’seven’s face appears full screen on the world-wall, eclipsing the entire viewport, and somehow Remert has lost his balance. He recovers with a graceless two-step, hop, and shuffle.

“What the hell are you doing? Dancing?” The Deputy Director seems to be laughing. Laughing at him.

The lens has called him. Unmistakable. So many years have passed since the last one, as these chaotic Grays record time here, so many changes have taken place, he did not think to anticipate another Call. Ever.

Improbable as it seemed moments ago, everything has changed and he must answer. With haste. His uncontrollable second, however, is an unwelcome interruption at this moment.

Remert’s face communicates nothing. It is the expression all learn in early teaching, a tight-lipped, emotionless detachment and penetrating eye contact. H’seven returns the stare with a scornful twist of the lips and spreads his hands, revealing a captured vorp. In it, a mismatched trio of figures assumes sharp focus.

Remert’s life of rigid self-discipline meets open-mouthed, pop-eyed astonishment in a collision that rattles his cadaverous frame. He reaches a tentative hand to manipulate each of the images in turn.

The face of the White warrior, clad in an incongruous, indigenous culture vestment, is obscured by his nondescript mask, but the woman’s features are not. Even after all this time, her features are unmistakable. Both of them wear the trappings of the hated Fayneem Bloch. The half-blood drifter, too, is recognizable. They had traded words face to face, and that one’s lack of proper deference is memorable. He appears as Remert remembers him and, beyond all expectation, seems to have aged not at all after nearly a yonn. How that might be possible for a t’sunguc of this world, challenges Remert’s curiosity. It will be an intriguing line of inquiry when the hybrid is finally pinned down and unable to wriggle free.

“Where are they?”

“Close enough.”

“I want them here.”

“As do I. But what I don’t want is further involvement by Homeland Security.”

“I concur. I believe you have all the resources you need.”

“I’ll make do.”

H’seven’s face dissolves into the multiplex window on the world. Remert’s immediate preparation for his audience represents a level of exigency to which he has become unaccustomed. Of all the revelations received this day, not the least is the realization that he can feel fear again.

~   ~    

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.


The images displayed are as sharp and clear as the best law enforcement recorders can generate under the circumstances and the burly brown bear peering over the shoulder of a somber technician is experiencing an unaccustomed level of anxiety.

It’s not the content arrayed before him causing his misgiving, although the subject matter is disconcerting. Nor is it the luxurious pelt of body hair matted beneath his clothing that’s challenging the efficacy of his anti-perspirant. Rather, it is the certain knowledge that the images the system has just filtered for review are going to require him to do something he most definitely does not want to do. Even so, sweat has begun to trickle down his back and beads upon the brow of his big, pink, baby-face.

“What do you make of that irregularity?” he says.

The technician, a slight Hispanic woman with a poker face, says, “The woman in white?”

“Yes. Has the record been edited?”

“No, sir. Validation and parallel routine confirmed it’s raw feed. The corruption we’re seeing is sunfade.”

“The trainee?”

“Medical on-site reports he is physically unharmed.”

“Do you have a marker at the disappearance of the woman and the trainee?”

“Yes, sir. I have markers at each instance of her anomalies.”

“Show me.”

He watches each of the records twice, reviewing, despite the degradation, the detail from both officers’ personal recorders and the one in their vehicle. The unidentified woman vanishes from her place in front of the local civilian, materializes in front of the junior officer, and both vanish. A momentary pucker in the air marks the spot where they stood and nothing more. The junior officer’s body cam ceases working at that time. Seventeen seconds later, the woman reappears alone to confront the senior officer who simply disengages and returns to his vehicle as though nothing had happened. He drives off the Pueblo property to a McDonalds drive-thru in nearby Bernalillo, where he purchases three Big Meals and consumes them with an eerie urgency.

There is nothing in Pojade’s experience to help him place this in a reasonable context.

“Can you clean it up so we can see more detail?”

He’s just stalling now and he knows it.

It’s an aversion stronger even than his embarrassing and inexplicable fear of amphibians. While the proximity of a toad may drive Henry Pojade to an illogical state of apprehension, the thought of contacting the Deputy Director of LocUS, even in vee, spawns within him a wave of unreasonable dread difficult to drive down or rationalize. After all he’s experienced in his often-violent career, something about Jacob Hergenrather repels him at a primal level. Regardless, he’s committed and the connection is initiated.

The obligatory ‘announce and validate’ protocol is acknowledged without haste. Almost a half-minute passes before Pojade’s unease is rewarded. The ‘accept’ cue is followed by full engagement in subjective space. Resolution is instantaneous. And, as expected, distressing.

The Deputy Director is cast in near-silhouette against a sickly, greenish-gray phosphorescence. The color and intensity of the envelope remind Pojade of things pustulent and rotting. It never fails to make his stomach lurch. Hergenrather’s suit is a razor-edged shadow, but his eyes are the color of sunlight through an iceberg. Shaved head and scowling facial hairstyle only accentuate Pojade’s perception of malevolence.

He’s seen dangerous men before. Lots of them. He’s experienced the deadly, surgical precision of a textbook military insertion, the randomized mayhem of a well-planned incursion gone hopelessly awry, and known the inhuman brutality of men to whom torture is a craft. He has survived mindless violence spawned of desperation and faced the murderous aggression of street thugs and professionals alike.

This one is like none of them.

No one has ever accused Pojade of being a churchgoing man. The constraints of organized religion have always tended to run more or less counter to his personal set of principles. The antithetical concepts of Heaven and Hell seem designed to keep the ignorant and gullible in line, and he perceives himself as neither. He doesn’t believe in angels and yet, given all he’s seen in his circuitous path on this bloodthirsty rock, the existence of their dark counterparts seems more than likely.

Perhaps it’s merely his experimental and, as yet, unbalanced anti-depressant talking here, but assuming for the sake of argument that the demon Beelzebub contrived to walk the Earth in the guise of a man, he would look and sound like Jacob Hergenrather.

He’s big, Samoan rugby player big, without the flab. Hergenrather is head and shoulders taller. The only thing that ameliorates Pojade’s anxiety and the knot in his stomach is his own self-loathing at the realization that this meeting is in vee, for Christ’s sake. Nobody dies in vee, not in a NoASR regulated environment, and certainly not with the kind of failsafes his agency’s interface has in place.

The smile on Hergenrather’s face carries nothing of warmth nor humor, his silence broken by neither greeting nor inquiry, merely a narrowing of the eyes and tilt of the head. Instead of meaningless pleasantries or unnecessary verbiage, Pojade conjures a virtual portal cloned from his technician’s feed.

Within the vorp, five individuals are imaged near a well-used personal cargo vehicle, a roller with a vintage body type. It’s a custom job of a style popularized at the beginning of the transportation reboot, a cheap conversion, functional and unattractive, just the kind of heap one would expect to find on Indian land.

The vehicle and two of the individuals have linking icons afloat in the virtual air beside them, catalogued references. One of them is an indigenous man, a local, and the other, a short, rotund woman, is far from her home of record. The other three are unidentified, not in the uncharted depth and breadth of Sonder’s memory, unrecognized by any linked agency database. A watchdog program, a legacy routine embedded in the system, had lit up like a proverbial pinball machine, flagging them for immediate scrutiny.

The pair in white garb are unaccountably bizarre. Of the two, the big one looks armored up, packing a hefty sidearm on his right hip that looks as though it could use some counterbalance. The smaller one, a hardbodied female, appears unarmed and carries herself with a self-assured poise he’s seen before. Her cosmetic choice, an all-over blackface, is curious. He had thought she looked every bit as troublesome as her much larger companion, even before he saw what she is able to do.

The third among them is a male, early forties at a guess, a lean, ropey fellow about six-foot nothing, maybe a buck sixty. He refuses to internally calculate the metric equivalents. Long, straight black hair, high cheekbones, prominent nose, hard lines, likely Amerind. This one might belong to any segment of a small, but recalcitrant population of unchipped, disenfranchised, rebellious trash who think their disdain for the society they reject insulates them from the responsibilities of citizenship.

Hergenrather walks around the vorp, a slow turn, stopping to stare at the man in the battered, wide-brimmed hat. It’s pushed back on his head enough to reveal a weathered, stony face, a hawk nose, and eyes green like new grass. His hair is long and black, but the stubble on his jaw and upper lip is an  unexpected red in the bright sunlight.

If it had seemed Hergenrather could not appear more unnerving, Pojade watches his features transformed by undisguised joy. The effect is grotesque. And short-lived.

“Where is this?”

“This is within the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, a sequestered community that does not embrace uninvited visitors.”

“How long ago was this acquired?”

“Four and a half hours.”

A scowl. “And I’m just hearing about it now?”

“Tribal Police protocol doesn’t require continuous feed. This was captured during a global upload following the most recent sunfade and an algorithm that’s been running for—hell, I don’t know, so long it’s become canon—pushed these three records through CBP. The Assistant Commissioner handed it off to me thirty minutes ago. I allocated a drone to locate the vehicle’s transponder and acquire visual confirmation of the target before I contacted you. Who are they?”

“Walking dead. Where are they now?”

“Northwest New Mexico, near Four Corners. They’re off the trac network, westbound on an unconverted highway. We won’t be able to detour or shut them down directly, but I can have them detained within the hour.”

“No. Do nothing. Wait while I bring this to the Director.” His avatar recedes into the dead, gray-green backlight and the air of frigid malignance relaxes.

Seconds crawl past as Pojade observes how the phosphorescence seems to demonstrate some subtle fluid movement within. It reminds him of urine. He works to relax the gorge rising again in his throat. Hergenrather’s return to the conversation is not a relief.

“Show them to me,” says the Deputy Director. It sounds like an order.

Chaffing, Pojade delivers terse instruction to his operator.

A new vorp opens in the space between the two men and envelops them, each sharing an aerial panorama. Beneath them, a near-deserted highway stabs through hundreds of square kilometers of bleak, high desert barrens. The highway begins to fall toward them, accelerating in a precipitous plunge that terminates an abrupt, gut-wrenching two meters above the pavement.

Neither man is moved, as anyone might be, even in the virtual realm, to clutch instinctively at a nearby stationary object. There are none and Pojade observes Hergenrather with grudging approval.

The eye’s relative position and speed is displayed in an unobtrusive optic in the upper left corner of Pojade’s vision. It does little to distract him from Hergenrather’s glacial stare as their view levels on the target vehicle.

Ocher light from a lowering sun washes the front end of the geriatric utility van and highlights the two individuals in the cab. The abbreviated nomenclature of the boxy roller’s linking icon is sufficient to indicate its license and inspections are current, and another icon floating in the virtual air beside the roly-poly driver indicates her file has already been catalogued for reference. Right now, it is enough to verify the target has been correctly acquired. The woman in the passenger seat with no linking icon and jeweled eyes seals it.

“She looks like her skin is dyed black.” Pojade says. “What’s that all about?”

“Irrelevant. Are you sure the other two are in the back?”

“They made a rest stop ten minutes ago. Everybody piled out, including those two big dogs from the pueblo. Everyone did their business, climbed back inside, and off they went. No stops since.” Are you certain you don’t want us to intercept?”

“Under no circumstances will you make contact with the subjects. Do you understand me?”

Pojade’s “Yes,” comes at the end of a reflective pause to reconsider his tone. “I understand you.”

“Then transfer full copies of all records to me and release the eye to my control. I’ll take it from here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can’t do what?”

“I can’t give you the drone.”

“Why not?”

“My operator is copying the SPD records to you, everything the eye’s recorded so far, and a stream of everything it continues to record, but I don’t have authority to turn the asset over to you.”

“I don’t think you want to start a pissing match with me over a fucking drone, Henry.”

“I have revised directives from the AC-IOC. Our inventory has been decimated by the so-called Vulcan storms. Models sporting avionics and telemetry hardened to maintain operational integrity against the electromagnetic interference are spread thin. I’ve stretched my own authority just keeping a valuable asset that’s been requisitioned elsewhere focused on your persons of interest, although the level of that interest has unquestionably been justified.”

“Wake your Operations Chief and have him give you authorization.”

“No, Mr. Hergenrather. I’m not going to do that.”

“And I thought we were pals.”

The technician, invisible at Pojade’s right hand says in his earbud, “Sir, are you seeing this?”

The woman in the van’s passenger seat is pointing. Afternoon sun sets her jet features in vivid relief and, despite its glare in her face, she is pointing as though she has somehow seen the tiny thing pacing almost half a klick ahead of the vehicle. She appears to be pointing at them.

“Take it up. Now!” Pojade says and the technician’s response is a stomach-churning vertical ascent for those within the virtual portal. The drone’s pressors slingshot it a full kilometer above the vehicle in seconds. Tiny, silent, its chameleon skin renders it effectively invisible.

Pojade straightens himself, shaking off the visceral effect. Hergenrather appears unmoved.

Below them, the van slows to a stop off the blacktop’s edge. The passenger-side cargo door opens. The largest of the subjects steps out and looks up. He’s removed his mask and he seems to be scanning the bottomless blue of late afternoon sky. His eyes cease tracking.

A swash of burnished metal sweeps up in his hand. A bright turbulence becomes a burst engulfing the vorp for an instant before man, van, highway, and desert are erased in a silent flash.

Outside her supervisor’s virtual envelope, the operator is pressed back against her seat, squinting at her deck. Save for a couple rows of small function tiles at its margin, her viewport is blank. Her hands twiddle virtual controls in an attempt to reestablish connection to the asset.

“It’s gone, sir,” she says.

Blinking against a dazzling afterimage for the moment it takes the agency’s AI’s physics to catch up, Pojade’s tari is surrounded by the envelope of putrid ambiance once more. Beelzebub is beside him and its expression is furious, a thunderhead.

The sweat rolling down Pojade’s back feels cold, though his tari does not exhibit the shiver he feels in Real. He silently curses this sense of dread he cannot shake off. This creature can’t harm him.

“I will contact the Assistant Commissioner and task another drone,” he says, “and I’ll notify you when the target is reacquired.”

“You do that.”

The sickening backdrop and the razor silhouette wink out.

Two calming breaths are barely enough. Wrestling a pill bottle from a deep pocket, Pojade turns to his technician.

“You alright?” he says and pops a couple tablets into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

Poker face restored, she nods. “I may have found another eye we can redeploy. Top of the call list. There will be some blowback.”

“I just lost a drone I misappropriated from the call list earlier today. Of course there’s going to be blowback. It’s nothing like what will happen if we lose that vehicle and its occupants.”

“I have your authorization, sir?”

“You have to ask?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“All right, then; you have it. Make it happen and alert me when you have a lock on them. Also…”

The pause is a long one. She looks up from her deck again.

“Let’s not let them see this one.”

      ~      ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
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