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.”
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… “
“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