Dashel’s First Day – pt 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


.     .     .


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I remember finding myself in an antiseptic, clinical environment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mark what?” I asked her.

She looked up. “Chuck Mangione.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

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

“That him playing the trumpet?”

“Flugelhorn, actually.”

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

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

“Say, that’s kind of…”

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

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

“Mark.” Erica again and it stopped pulsing.

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

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

“Your face.”

“What did you hear?”

“I heard your voice.”

“Anything before I spoke to you?”

“No. Another test?”

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

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

“Mark,” she said.

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

She nodded.

They said some things to me.

I said some things back.

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

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

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

“Uncle… Harland.”


“Do I call you by name or title?”

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

“What Council?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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



     ~       ~

Dashel’s First Day – pt 3 Read More »

Dashel’s First Day – pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that likely?” I asked.

“What? Burn your ass up?”

“Their good side.”

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

“You coming?”

“Gotta piss.”

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

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

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

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

I think that’s the way we do everything.


Even if we’re with other people.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you look like shit.”

“Look who’s talkin’.”

“I mean it. What’s your problem?”

“What, are you a doctor now?”

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

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

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

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

“I know who you are.”

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

“Why don’t you take a flying…”

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

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

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

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

Time stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

I looked up.

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

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

“What’s this, guy?” she asked.

“Sorry. What?”

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

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

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

“Really?” she said. “What position?”

“High Anchor.”

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

“Uh, Greensprings. You?”

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

“Good view from the top, though.”

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

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

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

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

“Or Beanie,” Molly said, still smiling.

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

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

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

“Why do they call you that?” I asked.

“‘It’s my name.”

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

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

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

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

Someone chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are? Why?”

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

Benae mouthed a silent, ‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a jock strap?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staker hailed her. “Rohnee?”

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

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

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

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

“When do we start?” I asked.

“Started when the door closed behind you.”

“Great. Now what?”

“Are you turned on yet?”

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

“I don’t mean her, Wingnut.”

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

“Where? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Dashel’s First Day – pt 2 Read More »

Dashel’s First Day – pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could literally see his resolve begin to dissolve.

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

He hip-bumped her toward the aisle.

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

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

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

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

“Trampoline,” I replied.

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

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

“I wish you had an older sister.”

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

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

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

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

I noticed his left cheek was radiant.

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

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

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

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

He blinked.

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

Barney stood up, wiping away a dark green moustache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up,” Barney said.

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

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

He shrugged. “Sure.”

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

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

“He knows.” Barney said.

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

“Tried what?”


“Oh, hell no! My body’s a temple.”

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

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

“Your temple’s had an implant recently.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you looking at?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s a performer.”

“I heard he’s a stump.” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Chase likes talking. He keeps doing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is it?”

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

“You could do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you out of your fucking mind?!”

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

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

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

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

Then he laughed—a real, unselfconscious whooping guffaw.

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

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

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same thing, probably.”

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

“Butter Enema.”

“I’d rather have one than hear it.”

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

“That’s not ‘music’.”

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

“You’re the devil.”

Barney passed my foldie back.

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

“Did you wash your hands?” Barney asked.

“No. I wiped them on your toothbrush.”

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

A minute and change passed almost without event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase nodded.

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

Chase mumbled something.

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

“Dough nee denny more.”

“Yeah, you do.”

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

“…’s this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Dashel’s First Day – pt 1 Read More »

Dashel’s Interview

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

“Eric, the interview with Benn and young Mr. Crippen,” Denny says. “Are they ready to initiate?”

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

“I’ll wait for them inside.” Denny 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 stockings 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? Your sense of humor reminds me of Benn. Why is that?”

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

“God help us.”

“No need to get political.”

The radiation subsides to a less-than-incandescent 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 throughout 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 classroom 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.”

“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 am 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. A friend I didn’t even know I had, saved my life and…”

He seems to reset. He leans back in his seat.

“I realize that 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 dossier that goes with it. Let me try to answer you in 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,” his attention returns to Mr. Crosier, “and I hope it answers your question, sir.”

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

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

“Of course.”

“My friend got me into the Promo school. 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?” Mr. Crosier says.

“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 covering distance 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 Mr. Crosier.

“Sounds kind of timid,” says Mr. Germane.

“Both, I guess, though not at the same time. 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.”

“I take back that timid crack,” Germane says, “What’s your standing?”

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

“I’d like to see that. Maybe I will.”

 Mr. Crosier says, “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, or 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, 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?” Mr. Crosier extracts a foldie from his jacket’s inner breast pocket, opening it about halfway, fingers questing on its surface.

“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. 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?”

“Remember when the NOASR was hailed as a milestone of human achievement? Maybe it is. And it might have been coincidental that Dr. Ampellov’s original neural net innovation received AMA approval about the same time, allowing the platform to expand rapidly, then exponentially as waves of inexpensive, but as-functional competitive models flooded the market… up until the Ends anyway.

“The marriage of those technologies through the NOASR—it’s an overused word, I know, but it’s an accurate one—allowed societies to survive the enforced isolations that followed the Ends, allowed them to continue to operate. The virtual environs became an affordable and, best of all, 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 live there, and commerce in all its forms, I observe people so deeply engaged in subjective experience, that they’re divorced from each other in widening circles. They’re entrenched in vee to the point that Real 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. For many it has ceased to be a tool; it’s an addiction.

“I enjoy my limited interactions there, but I prefer to live and experience in Real. I’m able to press the actual edge of danger that doesn’t exist within the scope of the AsReal community. Well, maybe in the Outlands.”

“The Outlands?”

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. The United States would do so, of course, to keep it safe from the amorphous, ever-present ‘Enemy’, although speculation exists that we may represent an emergent threat. Similarly, those who view us as competitors for certain technological niches, would be happy to see us eliminated. From their respective standpoints, 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.”

The applicant leans back in his chair, weighing the question.

“Barney doesn’t talk about what he does, 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 downsides, sir?”

“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 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,” Mr. Crosier says, “we won’t kill you. The mesh will obscure certain details of your experience with us before it’s removal. There’s your downside.”

“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 and places. You will know those memories have 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.

Mr. Crosier says, “I think you’ll agree we’re offering a lot in return. 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?”

“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 are 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 with a grave look. “Only for the first three months. Probationary period, you understand. You’ll be fine. Probably.”

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. 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, bodies flailing, chairs clattering. The three brutish figures rush the lone applicant.

 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 with meaty fists.

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 grasps the back of each man’s collar and drives his weight toward the floor. Both topple backward and their heads bounce some more.

Still in motion, Crippen 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.”

Mr. 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.”



      ~      ~

Dashel’s Interview Read More »

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