Dashel’s First Day – pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that likely?” I asked.

“What? Burn your ass up?”

“Their good side.”

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

“You coming?”

“Gotta piss.”

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

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

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

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

I think that’s the way we do everything.

Alone.

Even if we’re with other people.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you look like shit.”

“Look who’s talkin’.”

“I mean it. What’s your problem?”

“What, are you a doctor now?”

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

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

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

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

“I know who you are.”

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

“Why don’t you take a flying…”

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

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

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

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

Time stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

I looked up.

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

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

“What’s this, guy?” she asked.

“Sorry. What?”

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

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

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

“Really?” she said. “What position?”

“High Anchor.”

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

“Uh, Greensprings. You?”

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

“Good view from the top, though.”

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

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

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

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

“Or Beanie,” Molly said, still smiling.

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

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

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

“Why do they call you that?” I asked.

“‘It’s my name.”

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

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

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

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

Someone chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are? Why?”

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

Benae mouthed a silent, ‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a jock strap?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staker hailed her. “Rohnee?”

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

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

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

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

“When do we start?” I asked.

“Started when the door closed behind you.”

“Great. Now what?”

“Are you turned on yet?”

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

“I don’t mean her, Wingnut.”

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

“Where? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

    ~     ~

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