Day One

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 »

The D’nal’s Briefing

Pruitt and H’seven stand together in silence at the wide transparency of the outer wall. The Miles reach out from their viewpoint, just beneath the mesa rim, to a distant, uniform haze.

Pruitt’s features exhibit a mosaic of competing emotions, nostalgia, apprehension, a vague, translucent hope. H’seven is impassive. Behind them, the doorway fissures open with a hush.

Remert enters. The look on the D’kin’s face, apparent only to one who’s known him for a lifetime, is murderous.

Kudlac’s loose form and oddly spider-like strides are a chilling thing to witness as the creature enters and crosses the floor toward the two men.

Behind the D’nal, a lone man dodges inside before the door breathes closed. Tall, pencil-thin, and deliberate, the D’nal’s retainer chooses not to approach, settling instead into a wide seat against the wall. A rigid container shaped like some kind of instrument case lands on an adjoining cushion.

The Minister of the Change steps close to Pruitt and the outgoing Chief Executive Officer allows himself a fresh look at the bizarre thing towering over him.

It kneels, bends, or folds somehow beneath its raiment in a manner Pruitt would rather not consider further. The Minister’s weird head is above Pruitt’s own by a mere half-meter, far too close for comfort.

With only a whuffing exhalation as preamble, Kudlac says, “I have a working familiarity with the history of the Mission from its inception through what has been communicated to me as ‘an unavoidable alteration of the timeline’. One in which Lord Shiric has been unable, at his vast remove, to determine the extent of its impact upon the Mission.”

The bellows refills.

“Further communication with Lord Shiric has been hampered, due in part to a local disruption. Mister Hergenrather will assist me later in understanding more about that circumstance. There are, perforce, disparities in the data I have gleaned and I expect each of you to assist me in correcting them.

“Since my arrival, I have heard little else but how this t’sunguc, Eric Gerzier, has developed technologies that threaten your carefully chosen and patiently nurtured markets and associations. It is suggested his operations, of which you admittedly know little to nothing, may threaten the Mission in some incomprehensible fashion.

“While the prosaic aspects of your enterprises are ancillary at best to our ultimate goal, I would understand this encroachment, the individual responsible, and the scope of his technologies as you have assessed them.

“I require from you, Mister Pruitt, an accounting of these matters so I may reconstruct, from a mosaic of poorly framed observations and historical recollections of questionable veracity, a cohesive perspective. My course of action will pivot, in part, upon the reliable, verifiable intelligence you and D’kin Remert provide me here. Be as specific as you are… humanly able.”

Kudlac makes no move toward any of the available seating. Maybe it already is sitting, or something.

Pruitt leans into his cane and withdraws the fold-out from his vest pocket, opening it to an easily managed quarter of its size. With fingers far more agile than when he had last held the matte sheet in them, he moves frames with practiced fluency.

H’seven glides a recliner closer to the show and slouches into it. Remert has seated himself in a straight-backed chair at a small table and busies himself, spreading his own foldie, linking it to Pruitt’s, and Pruitt, with all the confidence his station and preparation will allow, begins.

“Eric Gerzier came literally out of nowhere nine years ago. His is the proverbial Cinderella story. A complete unknown with an indistinct origin, a disadvantaged childhood, lackluster performance on a pedestrian educational path, and no credentials. And yet, without fanfare, he has achieved global recognition.

“I think it is safe to say he has single-handedly altered the course of our civilization. He’s done so, in fact, well beyond the scope of our own not-insignificant investment in global economics. He has been called by some ‘the New DaVinci’.”

A wheeze from the creature gathers strength and recognizable arrangement.

“I do not recognize your colloquial reference, ‘Cinderella’, and what he is ‘called by some’ is equally irrelevant. You will refrain from further idiomatic citations and provide only details pertinent to the topic I have instructed you to address.”

Pruitt blinks away the rebuke. “As far as we can determine from efforts to delve and reconstruct from fragmented records, Gerzier was born in northeastern Africa, probably Ethiopia, in the latter nineteen hundreds. The exact date is uncertain as his birth was either unrecorded, or the records destroyed. At that time, the region had been ravaged by civil conflict for nearly three decades.

“Orphaned at an early age and subsequently institutionalized—those records were also destroyed, an unfortunate side effect of survival in a strife-torn environment—his youth was otherwise unremarkable.”

Pruitt pauses and, as an aside, enunciates into the air, “Sonder, please display Eric Gerzier image one and sequence.”

In response, the high desert vista beyond the transparency darkens to a uniform opacity. The room’s lighting takes on a subdued ambiance, and a full-size three-D image of a slender, nappy-headed, pre-pubescent male youth smiles out at them.

“This is an extrapolated composite, D’nal, as there were no extant records from that period.”

The boy’s likeness is replaced by a grainy, blemished photograph, ostensibly of Gerzier. The quality is poor; it could arguably be anyone. Other images riffle slowly past as Pruitt continues his narrative.

“He was adopted by a Canadian couple, Rene and Daphne Gerzier in nineteen ninety-two. He lived with them on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he received a conventional education. Efforts to locate his adoptive parents revealed that his father had died on assignment at the US/Canada border when Gerzier was in his early teens. His mother died later when a significant portion of Vancouver Island was devastated by natural disaster shortly after Gerzier himself relocated from it.

“He inherited a modest estate, but managed to leave a surprisingly negligible financial footprint, or any other for that matter, until his introduction into the mainstream and period of ascension in the year twenty-fifteen.”

The progression concludes with a representation of the man as he appears in contemporary media.

His mocha features are shown in characteristic repose, unaffected by the struggles and dramatic episodes that daily seem to dog the common man. His smile beatific, his eyes bright, but kindly; taken as a whole it is a snapshot of a powerful permutation—innocence melded to intellect and purpose.

The sound of air escaping through a restriction becomes, “This representation of Gerzier displayed is one of current obtainment?”

Pruitt nods, realizes the gesture may not convey meaning to the creature. “Yes, D’nal. It is, in fact, stock imagery from his own Community public profile. We estimate his current age to be forty-two years.”


Remert interjects, “Your forbearance, D’nal. Almost seventeen yarnn.”

“A child.”

“For many years prior to the development of Community,” Pruitt says, “extravagant measures were in place to observe, track, predict, and direct individuals’ market preferences and all public transactions were recorded and shared across multiple platforms as were most ostensibly ‘private’ transactions.

“Every person with a bank account, a credit card… any person transacting any kind of business almost anywhere in the world has acquired a digital dossier. Most are extensive, but until Gerzier stepped into the spotlight that year, he was a cipher, inconspicuous to the point he simply did not register in the database.”

The D’nal huffs. “As if he did not exist before that date.”

“Uh… no. No, D’nal. I mean his patterns of activity did not warrant notice by those employed to discriminate and inform. His patterns exhibited no anomalies beyond, or even close to, an established reference level.

“We salvaged transcripts of his school records. His grades were unexceptional. His cumulative scores were median. He apparently stood out at nothing. No sports, no clubs… no friends among those that might remember him, and there is no indication of further scholastic endeavor on his part.

“He remained in that general vicinity, engaged in menial employment. Some payroll records and the like were all that survived. We uncovered a minor juvenile offense; nothing beyond youthful pre-teen exuberance and expunged from public record upon his eighteenth birthday. There is no indication of further unlawful behavior on his part either, D’nal.

“We’ve attempted to interview those of his teachers or classmates we could locate from that time, as well as coworkers, with unsatisfying results.”


“All local, county, and regional municipality records were lost in the circumstances I mentioned previously that took his adoptive mother’s life, along with many others, including individuals we would have interviewed, D’nal.

“We were able to track down and question three surviving alumni from his schools, and one coworker, they having left that locale prior to the catastrophic events I’ve described. None had any clear memories of Gerzier.”

“That seems an accurate answer, Mr. Pruitt, and yet, it is incomplete. There is something you are withholding.”

There is no time to contemplate how this thing knows. Pruitt swallows a wad that wasn’t there a moment ago.

“Our corporate twin entity, Advanced Concepts Methodic, was complicit in that destruction, D’nal.”


“An outbreak of a virulent contagion was discovered there, the second known instance of the disease anywhere in the world since the period you may have studied known generically as the End Times. The ability of the infection to propagate rapidly among groups of humans was, and remains, unprecedented.”

The D’nal says, “The term ‘gonji rot’ was conspicuous during my review of the period.”

“The name is apt, D’nal. The term was coined by the sensational media and later adopted by those who had seen the final stages of the infection.”

The D’nal’s metallic-looking, triangular melon of a head swivels back to regard Pruitt. “I would understand more detail regarding this contagion,” it breathes. “You will upload all relevant information for my personal access at the conclusion of your presentation. Also, you will provide references to ‘the sensational media’ of which you spoke. Continue your elaboration regarding the destruction to which Advanced Concepts Methodic was a party.”

Pruitt shifts his weight to relieve a familiar creeping discomfort in his low back and the back of his legs. He reframes this as a respectful, if awkward, turn toward the D’nal, cane in hand, and it helps.

“There is no antidote for gonji, D’nal,” he says. “No vaccine, no narrow percentage of survivors from which some practical countermeasures might be gleaned. Wherever gonji is concerned, airtight quarantine is the only practical defense.

“Military containment of the locale in question was swift and uncompromising. Given the geography of the region, however, its broad areas of wilderness and the concomitant difficulty of insuring an impenetrable perimeter, there was a very realistic fear of another broad-scale, potentially global pandemic should any infected penetrate the dead-lines in any of several directions.

“We were approached in covert fashion by representatives of the United States and Canadian governments to assist with a containment solution.

“After arriving at a reasonable methodology and compensatory fee, we redeployed one of our Helio satellites and drove a focused beam into the tectonic plate subducted beneath that vicinity. The resultant volcanic upthrust was particularly spectacular, accompanied by seismic activity of moderate magnitude.”

The D’nal says, “I had opportunity to review data specific to the Helio power generation satellites. It is my understanding these were set in orbit as one of your contributions to ‘End Times’ survival and restoration. There was no indication they possessed this capability.”

“We did not advertise the satellite’s full capability, D’nal. Nor, during the course of this transaction, was its full capability revealed.”


“The pyroclastic cloud from the eruption served to sterilize the general area. It also provided adequate cover for us to sweep the containment area with an experimental device somewhat beyond the established quarantine perimeter.”

This prompts a scrutiny from the D’nal. “Elaborate upon this ‘experimental device’.”

Remert speaks up. “Your forbearance, D’nal. Because of the excellent cover provided by the eruption, this site was also used for a test firing of an advanced molecular disruptor weapon.”

“I have heard nothing of this device. Make all data relevant to its inception, development, and current operational parameters available to my Inquiry, D’kin. Summarize the results of the test.”

“The beam’s current minimum focal width was determined to be within ten meters in diameter, short of our objective, but promising. We further determined the maximum effective dispersal pattern is capable of erasing every living organism in a sub-tessellate.”

Kudlak observes, “The obvious efficacy of that episode notwithstanding, there would appear to be a consistency relative to the coincidental destruction of records in Gerzier’s wake. Resume your recital, Mister Pruitt.”

“Prior to his entry into the public arena, before the End Times, he began providing small-scale environmental clean-up services, contracting out to various private and local concerns at first. He began by lending himself to community projects, removal of rubble and scrap from municipal greenways and watersheds, parks and scenic areas, that kind of thing.

“The reputation of his front company, Clean Sweep, developed, although his contributions, while significant in retrospect, went almost unnoticed by most while his capabilities multiplied.

“State and federal agencies began to take advantage of his services. These he offered at such absurdly affordable rates no competitor could outbid him and, to be fair, because of the incredible versatility of his people and equipment, he had and still has no real competitors to speak of anyway.

“At the time, no one could figure out how he managed some of the results he obtained, but they were extraordinary. Today, Clean Sweep has become the go-to for specialized tasks in any environment, any terrain, no job too large or complex.

“He has other business interests and investments, to be sure, D’nal. Significant among them is a power generation methodology we remain unable to duplicate. He has created a small island in the Pacific Ocean. It represents a second base of operations and a vivid demonstration of his capabilities. He also leases a vertical launch site at Spaceport America where something is very much going on under an opaque canopy, one I will characterize as ‘impenetrable’.”

“You have prepared examples,” the D’nal says. “Proceed, Mister Pruitt.”

Pruitt feels a bit of his old self-assurance returning as he’s able to circle back once again to his prepared material.



Crisp imagery of an inhospitable badland fills the blank window-wall. The locale is a maze of spires, breaks, and chasms spread over many hundreds of square kilometers.

Twisting, rough-hewn walls of near-vertical stone crowd together or split apart in odd tangents defining a labyrinthine topography. Obstinate shrubbery and sparse, stunted trees cling to any toe-hold on the flanks of these fissures and cleft valleys fractured by merciless time and weather.

Pruitt narrates. “A mid-air collision brought two commercial airliners down in an area of very rugged canyonlands so deep and narrow it would seem dangerous to navigate any kind of craft through them at all.”

Drone footage displays the wreckage strewn across a couple square kilometers of razorback ridges and constricted gorges, ornamenting the landscape and choking the stream at the base of a plunging ravine. The length and breadth of the site is littered with twisted metal and burnt shapes.

The scene changes, shot from a significant distance at night. Regardless, the detail is crisp. An enormous flying craft glides in above the wreckage.

It has the general appearance of a mated pair of broad, swept-back flying wings, one atop and embracing a broad central fuselage. The second set is slung below and slightly rearward of the first and each pair of wings sport, at their conjoined tips, some sort of empty, boxy construct, an unrecognizable propulsion system, possibly.

The entirety is anything but aerodynamic in appearance, yet despite its improbable size, it hovers on station without the slightest deviation, a shadow mass above the rim of a dozen craggy, steep-walled chasms.

What appears to be daylight pours from the belly of the craft and, from its tapered aft extension, bays open to release a variety of working vehicles. They busy themselves through the inhospitable landscape and wreckage, darting, hovering, operating without the least apparent familiarity with aerodynamics or gravity.

The D’nal is intent on the image. “Indicate for me the scale of this craft, Mr. Pruitt.”

Pruitt’s fingers shuttle data and image segments and five silhouettes appear as an overlay. The first shadowed shapes represent the two downed airliners, the next, Gerzier’s air-ship. It appears three times the size of the first two together. Beside it, a representation of one of the darting, hovering vehicles. All are presented alongside a minute human figure to provide additional scale.

“Does this help clarify, D’nal?”


Pruitt assumes this syllable represents an affirmation and continues. “When the craft moved on,” he says, “with the exception of the inevitable initial scarring and vegetation burn, there was no trace of the wreckage, no debris anywhere in the crash site, and without the slightest observable incidental damage to the natural environment.”



Pruitt shifts images on his foldie and the 3-D display remaps. “Perhaps two of his most notable later efforts, undertaken on his own initiative and without compensation, were these.”

A long, green valley lies cradled between rugged, jutting mountains, their slopes swathed in lush tropical vegetation. Two mothership platforms hang suspended, one at either end of the valley. Beneath them, bare meters from the ground, smaller utility vehicles move and hover.

Beneath them, individuals in close-fitting, monochromatic garb range purposefully across the terrain. None appear to wear any obvious form of protective equipment and the line moves with neither haste nor careful precision in a ragged scrimmage line.

Each individual on foot, operating a hand-held, tubular apparatus, will stop at random, press one end of their implement into the ground, withdraw it ,and move on to the next, and the next.

“The first is the clearing of thousands of hectares of third-world minefields without compensation or apparent mishap. Until Gerzier involved himself, removal was expensive, time consuming, and perilous. The toll on innocent civilian life and limb was extensive.”

The D’nal is studying the enhanced images with intent. “His people do not seem concerned about the potential danger,” it observes.

“You will note, D’nal, there is no effort to expose or extract the devices. After their departure, an investigation of the area indicated not only were there no devices remaining either active or inactive, but each location where you see one of his workers penetrate the soil revealed a cavity roughly matching the size and shape of devices known to have been utilized at that time. Analysis of residues therein were inconclusive.”

A prolonged silence is perturbed by the exchange of air through the Director’s nostril filters. Pruitt notices, for the first time, a faint, colorless fume expresses with each exhalation, dispersing in an instant.

“Inconclusive,” it says. “Move on to your next example.”

Pruitt shifts elements on his fold-out. The holo display echoes and magnifies the arrangement.



“Our subject is also responsible for the removal of thousands of square kilometers of floating rubbish in the Pacific Ocean—again without contract or compensation. The first views we acquired of this effort were from satellite imagery. You can see, however, there are now three of the platforms engaged in this endeavor.”

A trio of what might otherwise seem ponderously large vehicles, if not posed against the massive scale of the ocean itself, have joined in an improbable formation. Seen from orbit, each of the three obtuse triangular shapes have joined at their apexes to form a single, massive compound vehicle, all moving as one in slow procession across the face of the ocean and the continent of buoyant scum accreted on its surface.

“While the platform craft themselves obscure the bulk of activity taking place beneath them, D’nal, we sent surface and low altitude craft into the area to observe.”

Images from steady-cams aboard what appear to be a pair of SEAL attack craft, show the consolidated motherships and, beneath them, smaller ancillary craft can be seen ranging beyond the periphery of that impromptu canopy, laying down some form of barrier to contain and consolidate an undulating mass. Some of these craft can be seen submerging.

As the boats begin to close on the activity, the scene blanks out, video and audio commentary abruptly cancelled.

“As with other encounters, our teams met an apparent dead zone almost three kilometers from the location upon approach. All electronic and mechanical devices simply ceased to function.

“A pair of drone aircraft dispatched to provide reconnaissance strayed within that perimeter as well. Both would have been lost had not one of Gerzier’s darting craft caught and held them somehow, depositing them with adequate floatation beyond the effect envelope where recovery could later be staged as the hovering array moved away from them.”

Kudlac says, “I would ask you to explain how all this has been accomplished, but I know from your delivery you cannot.”

“Nothing remotely like it has ever been encountered before.”

“This field of energy negation is the reason all still and moving images have apparently been taken from a significant distance. While there is sufficient detail to make educated assumptions, there are no intimate close-proximity views of personnel or equipment that would be useful to our areas of inquiry.”

“I agree, D’nal. The best optics available provide, as you say, reasonable definition, but we would hope for more.”

“What of augmented-beam imaging? I understand such was pioneered by your technology arm, ACMe. Surely that medium would provide finer resolution.”

“It absolutely would, D’nal… if Gerzier’s field effect didn’t nullify it.”

The D’nal releases a pensive sound very much like a hum and says, “There were personnel on-board the small surface vehicles. The physiology of these living beings is maintained by electro-chemical reactions. Energy is converted and expended in the act of simply sustaining life. And yet, Gerzier’s energy-damping effect does not appear to influence those who strayed within its range.”

“Apparently, D’nal, beyond a paper-thin boundary at the periphery of the field, living organisms are not adversely affected by it. I am told, however, by those that have done so, that passing through that margin is… disturbing.”

“Move on, Mister Pruitt.”



The final image before the D’nal becomes a sweeping circuit of Spaceport America’s almost seventy-three square kilometer imprint in the desert of southwestern New Mexico.

Set apart at a significant remove from the central facilities and the amateur, professional, and commercial lessees, a pavilion of sorts is shown at close range from several angles both aerial and at ground level.

Each tiled sequence shows the flimsy, fabric-looking construct in proximity to and dwarfed by one of Gerzier’s platform ships. Two of the frames show a forward area of the craft and pavilion making physical contact. No activity is visible from either perspective.

A fast-forward shows the pavilion expanding outward and upward, still maintaining the single point of contact with the ship, but overshadowing it now, enveloping the remainder of the site in what appears a dull cocoon eighty meters high and more than twice as wide.

The ship separates from the cocoon and drifts upward. Once clear, it reorients and heads northward.

“As you have seen already, D’nal, Gerzier’s constructs have the capability to neutralize any energized or energy producing device within an as yet unspecified range. And it would seem, D’nal, Gerzier’s constructs have acquired the ability to switch off, or draw in, their field of negation, apparently a recent development. For reasons of security, Gerzier has set a field perimeter at the spaceport. It extends no further than the exact boundary of the site he’s leased to the top of the canopy.”

Kudlac pivots to Remert. “Mark this subject for further review. He has the ability to achieve the removal of many gorams of debris. His vehicles are able to maneuver in spatially restricted environments, craft capable of flight, albeit unconventional flight as I understand it to have developed on this world. Has this Gerzier somehow acquired our agile repellor technology for his own use?”

Pruitt shakes his head. “We assumed so at first.”

“With your forbearance, D’nal,” Remert says. “Examination of the imaging and four-D we’ve acquired reveal no characteristic quarrmalyne field effect or consequent proximity distortion. Extrapolation of available data suggests a causation beyond our previous experience.”

Remert gestures to Pruitt, a cue to resume his exposition.

“Early on, D’nal, no one was paying particular attention to his methodology, only his results. We understood, however, the threat Gerzier’s operations could impose on our own initiatives and have been able to hamper them only marginally. Clean Sweep continues to operate throughout the world with neither aggression nor regard for geopolitical boundaries or threats of retaliation.”

Pruitt says into the air, “Sonder, Lithia community from vantage three.”

The holo remaps. Sharp three-D images depict the rugged contours of a single mountain pushed up and split in half by forces unknown. An enclave is fastened onto and delved into the inner face of each half to their crests.

“As Gerzier was achieving wider recognition, D’nal, he was developing a model community in the Siskiyou mountains at the border of northern California and southern Oregon.”

Something about the nature of the structures and the seeming unfettered hive of activity throughout gives the impression of ‘business-as-usual’, whatever that might imply in such a precarious setting.  

“Ostensibly, the site was developed to provide housing and essential services for his many employees, serving additionally as both a base of operations for his branching enterprises, and perhaps more importantly, a showcase for a number of innovations, to which he invited a strategically select group of influential individuals.”

Provided for the D’nal’s Inquiry later, a listing of these influential individuals scrolls in a narrow aperture to one side of Eric Gerzier’s beatific features. He is saying, “Many of the constructs, vehicles, and environments you will experience can be explained by the fact that, before this, the materials and the means to develop these capabilities were unknown or unavailable, lost in the ages, perhaps, or simply too far-fetched to receive serious consideration.”

Pruitt’s monologue resumes. “At Gerzier’s suggestion, those approached responded via his self-managed portal on NoASR’s homogenous Community platform.

“Our current virtual galaxy of offerings was a mere solar system then, so to speak, but we had achieved vast popular acceptance during the End Times as a safe place to conduct business, transact, and interact without fear of the numerous contagions or random pathogens that may be lurking in the next breath.

“Our growth during that period was exponential, as was Gerzier’s. His portal was then and remains a registered, bona fide Community node, an unusually fluid, well-crafted, and superbly managed one.

“His virtualizing model has been studied and replicated with widely varying results since those early ventures into the NoASR. Linkage through portals to and from his environment is described as ‘transitionally uneventful’, high praise in virtua, D’nal. High pr…”

The D’nal’s bellows has refilled before Pruitt can finished speaking. “Show me details of the tour Gerzier gave of his mountaintop colony.”

“I… I cannot, D’nal. We did not receive invitation.”

“Your next statement,” the thing says, “will reveal to me that you have been unable to penetrate Gerzier’s shield around his own portal within your own virtual nexus, just as you have been unable to pierce the physical barrier around any of his facilities in this world.”

Kudlac’s head revolves to fix upon Remert. It draws air. “My next report to Lord Shiric will include reference to these failures.”

Remert meets the D’nal’s gaze, manipulating data on his open foldie by braille.

“The lens chamber door has been repaired, D’nal. The lens surface and function appear to be unaffected, awaiting only your activation to restore contact with Lord Shiric.

“Also, D’nal, regarding our inability to breach Gerzier’s unnatural perimeter defense systems in Real, you should know we have achieved a notable breakthrough at one of his facilities. Detailed information on that encounter and outcome is included with all relevant data collected to date on his so-called ‘null field’. The whole is now available to your Inquiry, D’nal.”

Kudlac’s bulbous lidded eyes close. The triangle of glowing red ‘eyes‘ above them seems somehow less intense. The D’nal remains motionless, breathing in slow rhythm, less than a minute passes.

“That is an adequate summary, D’kin,” it says. It’s head swivels back to regard Pruitt.

“My current understanding of this phenomenon, the ‘Nexis of All Subjective Realities’, suggests it is a non-physical frontier accessible to any with the proper credentials and accessories. One may move and interact at will within and through pre-established portals, thresholds to a potentially endless variety of environments; all completely subjective, yet appearing real to the individual in the moment.”

“Very concisely phrased, D’nal, except the experience is real.”

“Perhaps I do not understand the word ‘real’ as you do.”

“As you said, D’nal, the interaction is objectively non-physical, yet the experience is subjectively physical in almost every aspect. It conveys vivid sensation, giving rise to experiential and emotional content both immediate and intimate, and the memories generated by the experience.

“It doesn’t matter whether the setting is commercial, recreational, a virtualization of a real-world locale, or an entirely imaginary scenario. Given the degree of immersion, the human mind interprets it as a ‘real’ experience, and so it is. We have redefined the concept and boundaries of what is Real, D’nal.”

“And the…” Kudlac’s breath pauses as the D’nal searches its memory. “The corporate entity you and D’kin Remert founded, LocUS, has become the central clearing house for these numerous portals as well as the repository of—what is the word?—validations.”

“That is correct, D’nal. We did not develop the foundational technology, nor the specific apparatuses necessary to access the virtual stage. Instead, we accurately read the need to consolidate and manage the myriad applications and venues that would erupt from it.

“From a plethora of competing entries into that arena, thanks in large part to the unparalleled efforts of Mr. Hergenrather,” he gestures toward H’seven, “only we remain. Today we are ‘The Nexus of All Subjective Realities’.

“We have since redesigned neuro-connective implantables for our own use based on the Ampellov model’s conceptual framework. Modified versions of these devices have been employed throughout our organizations.

“Additionally, Advanced Concepts Methodic has derived significant advantage by offering these devices at deep discount to this nation’s military establishment. An unintended, but positive by-product of this has been a sharp increase in voluntary enlistments.”

Kudlac shifts his attention toward Remert once more. A spindly arm reaches to tap the top of his own broad cranium. “This intimate interconnectivity to your subjects in the virtual plane was the motivation that prompted your unsanctioned self-mutilation, D’kin?”

Remert nods once, slowly, signifying agreement with the D’nal’s basic assumption, if not his choice of words.

“My assessment of your augmentation may have been preemptory, D’kin. I will re-evaluate your apparent disregard for the Claven’s directives in light of that understanding.”

Remert’s acknowledgement appears both reverent and sincere.

“And what of the constraints,” the D’nal says, “imposed upon such processes and practices by your own numerous, arbitrary, and intrusive governmental agencies?”

H’seven, silent to this point, says, “We have discovered that most imposed constraints become non-existent when proper leverage is applied.”

The D’nal fixes him with a brief and indecipherable scrutiny. “And you, if my understanding is correct, are the fulcrum.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Here in the United States,” Pruitt says, “the Department of Homeland Security and the Domestic Security Alliance Council maintain continuing oversight of our public records, those pertaining to US citizens, that is, while the Combined National Security Authority monitors all foreign ‘guests’.

“We currently maintain seventy-two satellite nodes in other countries, all with similar oversight by their host governments, but all of them, nodes, agencies, and their representatives, all are linked through our core at the Center.”

“You do not have representation from every nation and culture on this world in the virtual nexus.”

“Not yet, D’nal. There are still societies lacking the requisite level of technology, many still recovering from the so-called “End Times”. There are also a number of nations undergoing internal strife of sufficient intensity and frequency to preclude them from participation at this time.

“Within those cultures there are always a privileged few with the means to utilize Community’s personal applications at their discretion, or its distractions at their leisure. Additionally, certain religious cultures and sects have strong objections to interaction in the virtual world, while other faiths have found vee to be fertile ground for their proselytism.” 

“I extrapolate, then,” Kudlac breathes, “since these validations and the connections to personal data they represent flow through your core, and since various government agencies throughout this world have links to these validations of their respective citizenry,” the bellows refills, “that you have, in turn, access to all individual records to which each are related.”

“If such an intricate series of accesses and permissions existed, D’nal, it would be illegal in every realm.

“Even if it were possible to navigate the complex pathways and protections around the systems containing such privileged levels of information, if such practices could be determined by any agency with authority to act, we would all be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisoned for life, if not summarily executed in the streets.”

Once more, the D’nal’s reaction is a disturbing parody of a human one. Even without the familiar architecture of eyebrows or facial musculature, Kudlac’s expression conveys astonishment.

H’seven’s laughter is an explosion of raucous, unconstrained amusement pulsating against the walls of the room. It is impossible to interpret the expression on Kudlac’s inhuman face as the Minister unfolds to its full height, head pivoting toward the resonant sound, bulbous eyes wide.

“Of course we do,” H’seven’s mirth remains apparent in his voice. “Not only are we the hub about which the subjective universe, Community, and its outlying frontiers revolve, but those deep and intricate clandestine interconnections were ultimately the point of all our efforts after all, don’t you suppose?”

“I clarified this for you at the outset, Mister Hergenrather. The prosaic details of this enterprise are irrelevant. Those ‘deep and intricate clandestine interconnections’ have no meaning in the context of Mister Black’s mandate for this world.”

Pruitt’s inner turmoil at the result of his little jest has settled in the pit of his stomach well before Kudlac’s attention returns to him.

The D’nal’s sheer size, its distressing alien presence, its aura of singular authority, and its seeming dismissiveness of Pruitt’s station in these interactions, have tightened a knot of dread in Pruitt’s throat. He does not remember having a sensation like this in over a hundred years.

“That must have been the articulation known as ‘humor’.” Kudlac vents the words. “It was referenced briefly in my preparations as an aberrant behavior having gained common acceptance in this culture.

“Hear this, Mister Pruitt. There will be no ‘humor’ in my presence until you are ordered to provide it. Affirm that you understand me with utmost clarity.”

 Pruitt’s self-consciousness at being reproached so aggressively in front of Hergenrather and Remert is a close match to a fresh and plausible fear reaching into his gut right now. He feels the need to swallow an unexpected and prodigious lump in his throat, but cannot. Nor can he answer the D’nal around it, and answer the D’nal he must.

He manages a nod, hoping devoutly it will suffice. The thing continues to stare at him with its awful face and too many eyes.

“Speak, sloke!” it says.

Pruitt cranes his neck to address the D’nal and chokes out, “I under… stand, D’nal,” his sense of authority having fled.

“I recognize you and the outgoing Deputy Director have adopted a manner of conduct suggesting an intolerable lack of piety. This is likely to prove unhealthy if allowed to continue. Your attitudes are undisciplined, your concentration and communication so distressingly chaotic, it is unlikely you could have accomplished any of this,” he gestures with a spindly arm toward Remert, “without the sustained intervention of one versed in the Method.”

Something about the vent from the D’nal’s filters has teased Pruitt’s notice of it, colorless still, but lingering.

“I warn you,” it continues, “any subsequent diversion from the subject at hand, or attempt to offer commentary that does not pertain directly to the topics I have specified, will result in punishment. Do not make the mistake of imagining yourselves, because of your station, above such consequences.”

The D’nal’s inhuman stare sweeps across the room.

Remert’s bare axe-face meets its gaze for a long moment and some wordless exchange occurs between them. The D’nal’s examination turns to H’seven.

H’seven glances up from a scrutiny of his fingernails and says, “A moment ago, you mentioned my position with the organization as ‘outgoing’, and before that, suggested I could help you understand something about a communications interruption with your boss. You’re not much of a motivator, are you?

“Tell you what. After you’ve finished with this meaningless investment of your time into people and events completely irrelevant to your mandate, we’ll talk, you and me.”

Kudlac stares as if dumbfounded.

“Go ahead,” H’seven says. “I’ll wait.”

The fume from the D’nal’s nostril filters has taken on a conspicuous substance. It coils in the air like oil on water. The D’nal completes a slow turn back toward Pruitt.

“Organize your thoughts, Mister Pruitt,” it says, “and then move your presentation ffforward with… “

The D’nal’s breathing stutters.

“…out fff–urther… “

The D’nal’s attendant is on his feet, rushing toward the Minister with the instrument case.

“… deviation,” Kudlac says, slumping to the floor.


       ~       ~

The D’nal’s Briefing Read More »

The D’nal’s Tour

The simple familiarity of the passageway’s shape pleases the D’nal as he treads the length of it with the long-absent missionary at his elbow.

Towering almost fifty centimeters above Remert, the D’nal has no need to stoop. The corridor’s high ceiling accommodates his stature with room to spare and, from it, a comfortable level of illumination washes down over all. This too is pleasing.

His arrival on this outpost mission world earlier this “day” was met without pomp, although the ceremonial trappings were, to his surprise, impeccable.

His introduction to the physical environment, however, was unanticipated to an agonizing degree, introducing a level of discomfort with which the D’nal has had no previous familiarity.

The excursion suit beneath his vestments was calibrated improperly for the gravity and pressure differentials between Kal’un Shiir’n and this place. His personal retainer traveling with him, being similarly disposed, was unable to crawl to his aid with any haste. An excruciating minnit passed before the necessary adjustments could be made.

It was an awkward and embarrassing first interaction with D’kin Remert and his troubling second-in-command for the D’nal.

Once able to resume, the bare ritual proceeded.

Aside from himself and his aide, the strict parameters of the ceremony to transfer responsibility for the Mission precluded everyone but D’kin Remert, his Deputy, and the machine-mind that names itself Sonder from attendance. A less likely gathering he could not have imagined.

Remert excused himself immediately afterward, returning to the remote facility and alleging “processes in motion requiring [his] immediate attention”.

The whole of it has left Kudlac in a sour humor.

Remert’s Deputy Director is a further matter of discontinuity.

Kudlac was told before he left Kal’un Shiir’n that the one referring to himself as H’seven had been dismissed. Yet, H’seven was there as the D’nal and his retainers unfolded in this space through Lord Shiric’s portal. He was watching as Kudlac fell, huddled in silent torment, helpless until his excursion suit self-corrected the erroneous preset.

Both of these issues will figure at the top of Kudlac’s next report.

More immediately, there is something unsettling about the D’kin’s manner, conspicuous from their meeting upon arrival. It implies, if not a veiled disrespect, at least a lack of proper veneration for one of the D’nal’s station.

This may be attributable to Remert’s long dissociation from his kind, from the strictly metered hymnody of his Order, and an unavoidable abridgement of the influence of the Claven in his decision-making. It is a reasonable theory and one he will consider along with the other that suggests the D’kin, left to his own devices for nearly two yonn on this unregulated world, has become a deviate.

They have arrived at a divergent path, a meeting with a wider, arterial corridor.

Here there is activity. Foot traffic and workers pushing sledges yield to conveyances navigating the center of the passageway.

“Sonder,” Remert says to the air, “display elemental facility schematic and overview for the D’nal.”

The air in front of Kudlac shapes itself into a tidy wireframe representation of the Reservation. Elements of the image highlight along with an indicator of their position in it as Sonder narrates.

“The facility is defined by a tessellation of seven identical hexagonal containments, each a half kilometer to a side, all together forming a larger hexagonal colony two kilometers across.

“The central hex contains entry portals and command facilities above, critical processes below, and access to the surrounding containments by way of the outer concourses. At its deepest penetration, the facility delves four hundred fifty meters beneath the mesa’s surface and, from there, beneath the desert beyond the mesa’s terminus.

“The whole provides ample space for the various cultures that live and work within this self-contained microcosm, shielded beneath layers of native stone and soil, aggressive vegetation, and, upon the mesa top, a sparse veneer of rural occupancy.”

Kudlac ends the narrative with a gesture both familiar and unexpected. A single word, “Enough,” comes out in a gust.

“If you have a specific question of me, D’nal Kudlac,” Sonder says, “you have only to speak it.”

Kudlac’s accelerated immersion in preparation for this position of both great honor and heavy responsibility has left him with an as yet uncatalogued number of things learned “in process” about this place. What he knows is that it exists somewhere in the vastness beyond Hevn’s previously-considered-impenetrable Veil.

Therein lies another revelation that must await his return to the Claven.

The summaries he was given about this world, its populations, their current cultures and beliefs, were less instructive than the psychological development summaries he prompted for and received.

The overall development of the species—this conglomeration of Gray t’sunguc and their chaotic societies, their limited perceptions and their biases, their aggressive, greedy, antagonistic natures, and their incompatible yet all-too-similar religions—all remind him very much of Hevn’s own lesser component. Easily manipulated or deterred, they will present no obstacle to the Mission.

The summary he received of the Mission itself, however, was an education into Lord Shiric’s astonishing reach and grasp, and into the vicissitudes of remote management.

The most recent report received before his deployment indicated there are unsettled and fluid issues Kudlac is expected to address and resolve in a short period of time. His understanding has proven adequate to the task so far, but gaps in that knowledge are now becoming both apparent and urgent.

His preparation, for example, was without reference to the machine-mind, Sonder. The D’kin introduced him to it and it seems to be everywhere. He finds that fact singularly disconcerting.

He presses the wireframe schematic aside. It dissipates.

“D’kin Remert, I will see the results of your secondary and tertiary objectives now.”

Remert directs their progress toward an open dartabout hovering in an alcove near the junction. It was not designed for one of the D’nal’s stature, but before Remert can offer to call for a different conveyance, Kudlac folds himself into the constricted space with neither complaint nor apparent discomfort.

The D’nal’s retainer, a long toothpick of a man in simple traveling vestments, scrambles to find a seat. His odd traveling case lands on the available cushion. He finds a foothold and hangs on as Remert engages control and the vehicle skims down the corridor.

 Existing traffic yields the center lane and their progress is unimpeded toward the upper concourse loop.

The upper loop brings them to a vertex where the central and two outer hexagonal containments meet. Corridors branch off from the loop, as does a vertical drop lane equally as capacious as the loop corridor itself.

Remert guides the vehicle into it and they sink, a liquid-like descent toward the depth of the facility.

The adjoining containment walls are transparent and the D’nal is afforded panoramic overviews of both adjacent bio-hexes and their extensive environments before settling at the service level.

Both containments are home to tribes of Gray Moct’unguc She’chah, a stunning achievement. There are no Gray Moccs on Hevn. Nor Gray Troccs for that matter. Analyses have confirmed there never were any. The why of it is irrelevant.

This accomplishment alone is certain to garner Lord Shiric’s approval and, with it, Methshe Marama’s approbation as well.

The next segment on the service loop reveals a bizarre twist on the Troct’unguc genome, a model already considered by most to be a base aberration of little use beyond applications of brute force and heavy labor. Troccs, considered as a whole, tend to be particularly fond of the former and unanimously disinterested in the latter.

These specimens, despite their ludicrous deformity, possess a potential for aptitude and rational thought inconceivable in their savage cousins. Intelligent Troccs is a notion anyone with sufficient information on the topic would find oxymoronic. The D’nal finds the concept singularly alarming.

Kudlac waves off a circuit of the residential hex where hundreds of human professionals, support staff, and their families live, recreate, procreate, and presumably die.

Humans. T’sunguc. Some display the mental acuity to advance into the laity and technical strata. Most are suited for simple clerical & service work, menial labor, and passive occupation of territory.

The D’kin Remert is t’sunguc as well, of course, as are most of the Third Circle and many in the Second. Their genetic strains have been refined over countless yonn to yield successes just such as this one.

Raised to Third Circle in less than a yonn, promoted beyond his experience and potential, some said. They were wrong and Kudlac finds it noteworthy that he was one of the most vocal among them.

He considers this cramped vehicle to be the only true failure of preparation on the D’kin’s part that he might identify upon this, his first, cursory familiarization with the facility at the heart of the Mission.

The intricacy he has so far observed in the processes throughout is beyond any expectation he might have entertained upon his own preparation and immersion. Beyond the undeniable fact of this outpost’s success, the sheer numbers, commitment, and competence of those Remert has engaged to facilitate the Mission’s objectives is impressive.

It is irrefutable fact that Remert’s ingenuity, devout faith, and perseverance deserve effusive praise. In fact, but for two niggling details, Remert’s conduct and accomplishments would see him returned to the Congregate with honors heaped upon him, elevated before all to position above his Order, beyond that normally deemed possible for such a one as he; raised surely to D’nal.

Kudlac’s abbreviated sigh of something that might be regret, if allowed to ferment, sounds exactly as his breathing does and goes unnoticed.

How unfortunate for the D’kin that none of those potential honors will ever transpire.

The last stop on the D’nal’s tour has captivated his attention, as though he has stepped back somehow into Kal’un Thudra’s Underhome.

A broad, brightly lit expanse is occupied by three rows of upright capsules, each with a single mass of bundled cables and conduits sprung from ports in the floor and fused into a single file on one side of the cannister. They look like modified versions of a crèche-nan’s growpods. There are twenty-four of them.

Eight are Trocc-sized enclosures, all unoccupied.

Several technicians in cleansuits with helmets navigate among these vessels, monitoring, recording, moving on. The cumulative low hubbub of disconnected conversations throughout the facility has dwindled to a smattering of subdued exchanges.

Where the purposeful stride of individuals about their business has slowed to a pace less resolute, surreptitious glances have given way to outright gawking distraction. One such, a workman of indeterminate purpose, has simply stopped in his tracks, staring at Kudlac with slack-jawed stupefaction behind his faceplate.

Remert crosses the space between them in four long strides, bends down in front of the individual’s foolish expression, and says, “Explain the reason you have forgotten your duties, sloke.”

The fellow’s eyes skew from the inhuman wrongness that entered with the Director to the dour face of the Director himself. Recognition of his immediate predicament awakens.

“I beg your forbearance, D’kin,” he says with a deep obeisance. “My responsibilities here remain unattended due to my failure of self-assessment and control. I will report this negligence to my ‘visor and accept remedial measures deemed appropriate. Will you permit me to resume, D’kin?”

Remert holds his response, watching the man’s reactions, waiting for him to snatch a glance at the D’nal several meters away, but he does not. His eyes remain fixed upon the ceremonial amulet at Remert’s throat, and there is an unambiguous apprehension in them. Both of these things are appropriate.

“Very well, then,” Remert says. “Complete your immediate assignment and report to your supervisor.”

As if by some magic, before Remert’s glare sweeps the room, normal activity has resumed. Attentions have returned to tasks at hand and a murmur of relevant intercourse has begun to reassert itself into the acoustic backscatter of the life-support mechanisms.

Remert detours slightly, swiping a touchpad on a nearby module, keying diagnostics.

A figure in cleansuit approaches at a march between the rows of pods, a flat-faced woman with deeply folded almond eyes and an angry mouth behind her faceplate. Two technicians follow behind her guiding a manger between them. She halts at a respectful distance and does not appear disconcerted by Kudlac’s appearance.

Remert acknowledges her with what would have been a lifted eyebrow if he had any, and says, “Doctor Ahn, I present to you the Ascendant, Baul Kudlac, a D’nal of the Second Circle. He has come to us to be Minister of the Change.”

The D’kin continues without the requisite adjustment of stance or tone. “D’nal, I present Doctor Ahn Soo Rin. She is my surrogate in this department. Her understanding of the process we employ matches that of any Class Five in the Overhome.”

The flat-faced woman honors the D’nal with a deep bow. He nods in return, a generous acknowledgement to a t’sunguc subordinate who appears to know her place.

“Your pardon, Ascendant One,” She says. “These two have been directed to transport this subject to theater northeast five for a staging process. May we proceed?”

Remert makes no move to do other than advance the diagnostic display with a long index finger. His assessment complete, he addresses the woman.

“You have been monitoring its recovery.”

“Religiously, D’kin. Eighty-seven percent integumentary regeneration at the interweave sites. No rejection components are evident. It is a resilient subject.”

“So it is. Increase circulators to thirty-eight percent and maintain the nutrient broth at its current concentration. I do not want to rush the process just because we can. Let its systems do their work.”

“As you say, D’kin.”

“You will pass my instruction along to Dr. McIntosh.”

“Of course, D’kin.”

“Proceed then, Doctor.”

The manger’s tiny, caged quarrmalyne sphere rages dark and silent in its receptacle near the operator’s hand controls. An azure flood beneath the sled paints the floor and the technicians’ fabric slippers.

The operator positions the sled behind the module. The other engages the chamber’s onboard systems. The entire series of hose and conduit couplers disengage. The upright capsule is laid back, coming to rest in the manger’s rigid sling.

“This specimen holds particular significance,” Kudlac says to the flat-faced woman.

Dr. Ahn looks to Remert, whose expression registers nothing.

“Ascendant One, this is a uniquely hybridized Moct’ah hermaphrodite,” she says. “Its designation is ST-One, a promising emergent from a particularly viable strain and the current subject of a critical series of trials. Its central and peripheral nervous systems have been augmented and its extremities redesigned. Our intention is to join its unusually acute non-linear intellect with the heuristic intelligence that manages almost every tactical phase of the Mission.”

“It is man-a’kin.”

“In every regard, yes, D’nal.”

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

“Not only its mind, D’nal,” Ahn says, “but to become its physicality in Real as well as in vee. S/he will become Sonder’s avatar, able to operate within the context of Real with the same fluidity as any human.”

“As to the concept of ‘thinking machine’,” Remert says, “Sonder not only manages all LocUS AsReal validation processes and portals, but also oversees administrative and environmental control in both the Center and in this facility. It is interrogative, speculative, and creative.”

“You have observed consistent evidence of Methodic thought in your interactions with it?” Kudlac says.

“It is familiar with Methodic concepts and paradigms, D’nal.”

“That is not what I asked of you, D’kin.”

“Other paradigms have evolved, D’nal.”

“Your timetable for this project and Lord Shiric’s are synchronous?”

“If the interface is successful, ST-One will be ready and in place at the Center, where Sonder’s core will reside at transition.”

“It is your responsibility to insure that it is so.” Kudlac says, and to Dr. Ahn, “You will walk with me, Doctor.”

If the doctor is disconcerted by this, her expression behind the faceplate appears unfazed. She is forced to a quick-step to keep up with the D’nal’s pace, nearly tripping to a halt as Kudlac stops to regard another capsule.

He squats, or folds, or something— his peculiar gait and vestments make speculation necessary. He seems curious about what appears to be H’seven within the container. And in the next three capsules next to it as well. His alien head pivots the doctor’s way.

She indicates the first two cannisters, passing them at a quick-step. “What you see here, Ascendant One, are fully mature physical duplicates of the Deputy Director’s current vehicle.” She halts between the last two capsules.

“This is the next iteration, an advanced composite man-a’kin.”

“This is your work?”

“Everything you see here, Ascendant One, is the product of many hands working in concert. I have been given responsibility for the success of this project and have…”

“I will credit your effort in my report, Doctor.”

“Thank you, D’nal, for your generous recognition.”

“You may go.”

The doctor steps back with a deep bow as Kudlac exits the facility with Remert behind, an unhurried second. His retainer follows at a respectful distance.

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

“She will be gratified by your gracious inclusion of her in the transference, D’nal.”

Remert has guided the vehicle into another vertical corridor. Kudlac is unable to sense whether they are being pushed or pulled, but experiences a profound moment of dissociation as their conveyance rises at a dizzying pace. Some renegade component of his digestive system is threatening to disgorge a remnant of his latest nutrient.

Their ascent ends with a bob. Remert diverts the dartabout from the concourse into a proprietary corridor, narrower, sans traffic. A portal irises closed behind them.

Kudlac’s environment suit has made adjustment again and the distress in his gut is diminished. There seems a way yet to go and he must prepare Remert for the next phase.

“The facility is impressive, D’kin. Given the circumstances of its development and the primitive tools at hand to accomplish the feat, I had anticipated, in this remote station, a gesture at best, a crude approximation of Kal’un Thudra’s sacred architecture.” The D’nal’s bellows refills. “It satisfies me to find, instead, a faithful re-creation of classic Methodic design. I commend you on the compound’s clean, utilitarian layout.”

“The Method and Mong’s Example, coupled with Lord Shiric’s generous resources at the mission’s commencement, were both critical to its inception here. The design follows, as closely as was practical, the Underhome Center of Inquiry, Analysis, and Advancement.”

“An appropriate model, adequately executed, D’kin.”

“Your graciousness is legendary, D’nal.”

“I hear you speak to me in the vernacular of the Method, yet I find your pace and intonations strange.”

“It has been many yarnn since the Thudran language was in my ears. I have been speaking the muddy tongue of these round-worlders for so long, and no other with whom I might share my own. It seems strange to me to hear it spoken properly.”

“You had the songs.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You sang them.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You produced offspring with one of these round-worlders.”

“Yes, D’nal.”

“You did not teach these offspring the language. You did not teach them the songs.”

“No, D’nal.”

“Your reasoning for not doing so must have been compelling.”

“It was obvious, D’nal.”

“Share it with me, D’kin.”

“I had no way of receiving Benison, or even Acknowledgement from the Order for my children and no way to initiate them into the Order without it. To teach them the songs without initiation is forbidden and without the songs, they could never be consecrated.”

“You did not intend them to return with you to Kal’un Shiir’n. Or to the Underhome. The required training would have been difficult so late in their development. You did not deem them capable?”

“I believed the Mission had been abandoned after losing contact with Lord Shiric for the best part of a yonn. There was no viable plan for return without His instrumentation. My sons are capable for their purposes here and that, D’nal, is sufficient. Let us return to the work before us. There remains much for you to digest.”


“With few exceptions, D’nal, the t’sunguc inhabiting this Earth have no guiding discipline, nor direction beyond their own self-serving interests. Mong would have a glorious time bringing them into alignment.

“My own sons, for instance, have inherited their mother’s nature and inclinations. It is unfortunate, but anticipated and, because of that anticipation, they are educated in sufficient Methodic practice to be of continuing value to the Mission without compromising Mong’s Imperative.”

A pass-through at the end of the way irises open and closes behind them. The vehicle settles to the lower limit of its pressors within a bare vestibule, and Remert says, “We have arrived, D’nal.”

Kudlac unpacks himself onto the polished stone of the anteroom and straightens with sinuous ease. His vestments fall into place without effort and the slender reed of the D’nal’s neck, braced within his raiment’s gorget, turns his head, scanning the area.

A proper doorway stands just paces away.

“As you know, D’kin, I did not agree with those who advocated your commission. The Claven saw differently and, I admit, accurately. Their wisdom in this is apparent. You have surpassed expectations. You have, in point of fact, conducted yourself in nearly every respect with honor and credit to the Method and its myriad Children.”

“Nearly, D’nal?”

Kudlac chooses to disregard the glaring impertinence. “You present me with an awkward problem, D’kin. As regards your use of the insidious poison, shosht’at-lool, that which Lord Shiric names ‘Good Water’, you have knowingly violated a lawful edict of the Claven.

“And this…” he taps Remert’s head with all three fingers to indicate the webbed map of the neural implant beneath the Director’s bald pate, “This is sacrilege.”

Remert pitches his voice in unemotional tones. “Surely you, D’nal, received Lord Shiric’s benefaction, as did I. Having accepted his commission, he is Nee’m and no other. His purpose is ours. We have so sworn and having sworn, our faith and honor binds us to that oath. I have held my vow inviolate and conducted myself accordingly.”

“Right and true. Regardless, Methshe Marayma is Naa’m. Without breaking the oath so sworn to Lord Shiric, our allegiance is first and always to Her. Her directives, passed down to you through the First Circle, were to be followed meticulously. Now it is time, D’kin, despite any rationalizations, to meet the consequence of your transgression.”

The bellows refills.

“Your commandment was never to partake of the shosht’at-lool and this you have willfully disobeyed. Furthermore, to allow such enhancements as this,” Kudlac thumps Remert’s skull with slate-dark fingertips, “without the Claven’s direct endorsement, is a profanity. It pains me, but I cannot, upon my return, stand before the Claven and Methshe Marayma to recite my report and sanction either your disobedience or your heresy.”

Remert forces down his fury and replies in a tone devoid of inflection. “I will say this to you now and will not speak it again until my return to Underhome and consideration by the Claven and Methshe Marayma.

“I found myself, without explanation, abandoned upon this Mong-forsaken ball of fung without means of communication or resupply. After nearly ten yarnn without contact, I understood the complex fields and energies of this world would end me long before the Event, before I could execute my charge. I chose a narrow way in order to fulfill my mandate and fulfill it I did. I would defy any in my circumstance to achieve what I have done with so little.”

“This sounds dangerously close to hubris.”

“You recall the Threnody of Beelem, D’nal.”

“Every initiate knows it. You are attempting to draw a parallel between your work in this Mission and B’sho Beelem’s accomplishment.”

“Once the Full Claven is made aware of the exigency of my situation, I am confident they will grant me dispensation in this.”

A sipping sound becomes a soft rasping of air drawn through the filters in each of the Minister’s nostrils. The bellows in the Minister’s thorax release in a long, slow gust. At the end of it, the tiny, grim mouth shapes words.

“I will agree to reconsider your position.”

Remert produces a deep bow with as much respect as he is willing to simulate at this juncture, but it is enough. “I leave you to your conference with Mr. Pruitt, D’nal. I will join you later in the…”

“You will accompany me now, D’kin.”

“Your pardon, D’nal. As you might anticipate, given the timeline, I have numerous processes ongoing at accelerated pace, each requiring my specific attention.”

“You mention time again, D’kin, as though it is something I am unable to track or, perhaps, fathom.”

“Time does not move in the same way here as you are used to in Kal’un Thudra, D’nal. You will not like it.”

“Heed me, D’kin. Your capable subordinates will manage in your stead until I have relieved you. Do as I command.”

Remert turns on a heel and strides though the near doorway before Kudlac can skirt the conveyance in his path and calls back without turning, ” As you instruct, Minister. I will announce your arrival at once.”



The D’nal’s Tour Read More »


The plunge from sub-orbit is a turbulent downward pitch complete with all the rage and heat of atmospheric re-entry. The pressors could have slowed the descent to minimize the friction and buffeting, but speed was ordered and downhill is where to get the most of it.

Charli regards the Deputy Director’s original ambivalence toward the use of a pressure suit with a shrug like a shudder. His disregard for the physical ramifications of their ballistic trajectory is, at the least, disturbing. It has, however, been her intuition since their first meeting, without ever finding it necessary to test her belief, that questioning Mr. Hergenrather’s decision-making at any point would be an effective barrier to further career development.

She had pushed the winged needle to within an RCH of its limit on the climb, an effect similar to being catapulted into the mesosphere. The Gs, even with her best suit on, blurred her vision to a troubling degree, and hurt more than she thought it would do.

Cresting, she makes a calibrated course correction and applies thrust, more than enough to overcome what might have been a brief, enjoyable weightlessness, making the vehicle more bolide than aircraft.

If there was a naked eye to witness their descent into the northeastern New Mexican desert, they would appear little more than a tiny fireball streaming into the wasteland.

Then, nothing.

What her boss is experiencing in the generously appointed rear cabin she can only imagine, but at least if he blows beets all over the upholstery, he won’t blame her for doing as she was told. That’s really all that matters. And hope to St. Elvis he was strapped in at least.

With only modest maneuvering altitude to spare, by her reconning, onboard alarm systems clamoring, Charli bangs the repellor array full on and the dive bottoms out a mere four hundred meters above the desert floor—tight, but adequate—and she has found her mark within a kilometer. Not a hole in one; more like a long tee shot rolling out a tap from the cup.

She keys the ID protocol and the pre-established routine to align and deposit the craft in the first available berth initializes.

An arcing turn and deceleration threatens to tear some of her favorite organs loose from their moorings, but lines her up with the approach beacon. Her head feels full of clouds, her vision fuzzy.

Somewhere along an imposing wall of ancient, weathered rock, transformation optics conceal the docking portals and the ordnance bracketing them. She is trying to recall with clarity her one previous visit here as she braces for collision with a looming stone face.

Transition through the palisade into the bay is barely a waver of holography around the penetration. The curtain spanning the mesa face remains otherwise undisturbed.

Cooling mist fogs onto the craft and steam billows from its skin as it is nestled into its docking cradle. Silent fans suck at the cloud of superhot vapor bursting from the interface.


A banging sound intrudes upon Charli’s first conscious moments of a near-blissful peace—one derived from a trajectory best described as stationary. The sound awakens an awareness of where she is and why she’s here.

Something is pounding on the side of her airsled.

She reaches out, allowing the grimace and groan she would have withheld almost any other time, pokes an index finger into a panel over there, and then flips a couple switches here and here. Her hatch unseals with a gasp and the banging sound stops.

She allows only enough gap to hear the sounds of the bay mechanicals at their tasks through the sizzle of steam still wisping off the fuselage in flags. She feels heat forcing itself through the crack.

Mr. Hergenrather is smiling up at her.

“Good job.”

An affable Hergenrather is confounding, as is his apparent ability to withstand physical extremes.

“I’ll be a while. Make yourself at home.”

Her eyes focus on him. His eyes are so expletive blue, as if alight. He gives her a wink, turns into the cloud, and it swallows him.

She manages a perfunctory salute into the billow where she saw him last. The hatch seals and Charli rolls back into her seat. It hurts less there and nobody around here cares what she does now anyway.




Transit Read More »

Margret’s Last Day At Work

Margaret’s uniform is in an odd state of disarray, as though she’s attempted to contort herself out of its utilitarian confines without success.

Slumped back against the toilet tank, her heels are tapping out an aimless simulation of walking on the tile floor. Her body twitches, synapses firing crazily in a randomized imitation of function.

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

His head tilts back with a distant expression. Even the slow fade-in of an optic-stim fails to intrude upon H’seven’s appearance of bliss.

The image of the communication’s initiate is, of course, instantly recognizable and almost any other recipient would respond without delay. Instead, H’seven takes another long pull from the pipette and swallows with undisguised relish.

He lifts Margaret’s arm, wipes his mouth on the sleeve of her uniform and pats her on the shoulder.

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

“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.

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

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


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

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

Phil Bettencort appears a man near his physical limits, slumped in a chair behind the famous desk in the Oval Office, the one his previous boss no longer occupies.

H’seven’s avatar, in contrast, is a razor-edged near-silhouette framed in a dead, grayish-green backlight.

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

Bettencort’s face has not had time to age since President Bascomb’s shocking death yesterday afternoon and his abrupt elevation to the Office of the POTUS, but he looks haggard. His eyes are puffy with drooping bags under them. His jowls did not seem as pronounced yesterday. He appears exhausted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

H’seven breaks the connection.


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

“Yeah. More salt.” He smacks his lips. “And some Carolina Reaper.”

Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, H’seven.”

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

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

“Have you gone insane? You can’t…”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”

“ALL RIGHT! All right, goddammit!”

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

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

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

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

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

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

Bettencort’s relief is tangible. Hasty farewells follow and H’seven steps out of vee.


The last of Margaret’s motor functions are disengaging.

“I couldn’t have harmed Mr. Folt, you know,” Sonder says.

“He didn’t seem to be confident of that, did he?”

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

“Desk,” he says.

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”

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

“Of course, sir. Thank you, sir. I’m sure I’ll see her when she checks out.”

“No, you won’t. I wanted her to enjoy a limo ride home…” He traces Margaret’s slouched form with his eyes. “I’m afraid she’s already gone.”

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

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

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

But H’seven has already broken the connection.


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

She feels oddly self-conscious in the thing as she completes her pre-flight circuit of the jump-craft.

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

Routinely, this particular craft is employed for shuttles between the Seattle compound and the site in New Mexico they call ‘The Reservation’. The trip is guaranteed to be hard and fast.

G-suits and inertial dampers cannot completely mitigate the stress of maneuvering at or near hypersonic speeds. For her, such trips are bound to be rigorous and painful. Still, she signed up for the job and this mercurial missile came with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An affable Hergenrather is confounding.

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

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

His outburst of laughter reverberates within the cavernous aerodrome, its vibration decaying moments later until nothing remains but her employer’s numbing Antarctic stare.

“Why do you ask?” he says.

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

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


Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

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

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

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

The hatch seals behind him.

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




Margret’s Last Day At Work Read More »

Mr. Gray

More than twice the height of the Space Needle, the LocUS Tower is the tallest structure in the elongated Seattle/Sound ganglia.

The office of the LocUS Chief Executive, Pruitt’s office, is perched at the Tower’s apex. Its window to the outer world is centered in the arcane rune seen upon approach.

The sigil’s nacreous glow is not apparent from within. Instead, a panoramic view northward and west presents terrain bulwarked against the encroachment of Puget Sound and smothered beneath layers of clustered civilization.

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

An angular pillar has been placed near a corner of the window-glyph, totem-like. It presents a slender, towering silhouette of unfamiliar design.

It turns without haste to regard them.

Bruce Newton Pruitt is a practical individual with many years of exposure to circumstances that would be considered by most, unconventional, possibly even bizarre, and by them he’s been hardened.

He would characterize himself, if pressed to do so, as a man not easily surprised or frightened. There is, however, a particular sensation one encounters when confronted with a reality so dramatically beyond one’s previous experience, so strange and startling in its aspect, size, and proximity that reason gives way to primal response.

Mr. Gray is shockingly inhuman. This is all the more obvious as it moves forward to stand over them, nearly twice Pruitt’s height.

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

A quick glance to H’seven for some sign of how to react offers no purchase in this encounter. He appears unfazed, his tone uncharacteristically formal.

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

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

Maybe three meters tall, at a guess, Kudlac’s spindle-thin physique is clad in what appears a close-fitting black body suit, and draped in intricate black and tan vestments. Their symbolism is unrecognizable.

Long, oddly-jointed limbs loosely attached to a sinewy, bi-pedal frame give it a hominid appearance. There is, in that at least, some degree of familiarity, but there all similarity ends.

Its flesh is slate gray. It looks hard, perhaps metallic or chitinous.

At first Pruitt imagines its face might be some kind of mask, but that prospect flees as its real nature becomes obvious. Its face has an inverted triangular shape with an enlarged cranium and a pointed chin—a face like a splitting maul—Pruitt’s racing mind makes a connection.

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

A triangular arrangement of tiny, lidless eyes, alight with a faint reddish glow like embers, reside above what might be a nose, a low, thin spline bisecting that long face. Set wide apart to either side of this ridge, bulbous lidded eyes appear to be fixed upon him with a penetrating urgency.

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

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

“I am honored to be in your presence, D’nal Ku…”

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

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

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

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

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

Another inhalation, less strenuous.

“Our transportation is arriving momentarily.”

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

Kudlac’s silent deliberation is long and inscrutable.

“Speak, then,” it says.

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

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

“… during our…”

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

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

The long curve of the room that seemed capacious moments before appears considerably less so now.

Pruitt’s face is a snapshot of naked astonishment, taking in the arrival’s enormity and the simple, unarguable fact of its existence.

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

The weird, but essentially humanoid Kudlac presents one barely supportable mental gymnastic to overcome, but this… thing; he can almost feel the ponderous gravity of its presence.

And something else. Beyond the inexplicable nature of its entrance, there is a truth Pruitt knows with absolute certainty and without the least cognizance of how that knowledge has revealed itself to him.

This thing is alive. A being of unfathomable capability and purpose.

Kudlac’s voice from somewhere above him speaks directly to the Chief Executive’s incredulity. “Mr. Black has allowed us the employment of his emissary’s unique means until our mandate has been realized.”

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

Where the thing had claimed a broad footprint within the chamber just a moment before, in its stead resides an impossibility. A two-dimensional triangular shape dominates the space before them.

Blackness fills its intangible envelope. Kudlac’s odd, swaying gait carries him past the two humans to stand at the verge of that ambiguous depth and he turns to summon them forward with an altogether familiar gesture.

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

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

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

H’seven’s approach to the portal stalls at its threshold.

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

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

“Are you serious? Why don’t you…”

A huffing sound emanates from the opaque distance. A curt string of unrecognizable syllables ensues and the portal dissolves into empty air.

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


He opens a comm channel. “Mrs. Stafford!” Almost a shout.

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

“A jump-craft should already be prepped for travel in the east bay. Verify its readiness and obtain clearance for departure with best speed to the Reservation. I will meet you there.”

Her crisp acknowledgement is curtailed as he refreshes the call-out mode and barks, “Desk!”

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

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

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

“Just one will do.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

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

There is a brief hesitation from the Desk.

“You got a problem, Betty?”

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

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

“Yes, sir. I… I believe I can.”




Mr. Gray Read More »

Pruitt’s Enlightenment

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

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

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

“He’s early,” Pruitt sighs.

The bleary-eyed woman seated across the table from him says nothing, munching toast with bovine aspect.

A cursory review of the overnights on his fold-out has provided little of value for the meeting to come and Pruitt manipulates a few last pertinent items of data into his presentation pane.

With stiff, uncooperative fingers he doubles the foldie over twice, then twice again until it fits into the small watch-pocket of his vest.

Close by is a mug of coffee prepared for him with the ‘good water’. He washes down an unfamiliar anxiety with it, desiring the brew’s deeper, therapeutic benefit and caffeine’s jolt is the least of it.

A carved teak cane in one twisted hand, knees and hips aching, Pruitt levers himself upright with a grimace.

Two unsteady steps, a cursory peck on the dumpy woman’s forehead, he begins the long walk through his home for possibly the last time. His discomfort diminishes as he walks and by the time he reaches the living room, his gait is almost comfortable.

The new arrival is waiting for him there.

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

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

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

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

“We’re burning daylight, Bruce.”

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

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

“See you,” Pruitt lies.


Out on the pad, Charli Stafford stands her post beside the limo at an easy parade rest with nothing in particular on her mind.

The morning air is uncommonly clear, the sun a crystalline radiance, a day atypical for the South Sound in recent memory. The air is sweet with a salty aftertaste. Tiny birds busy themselves in the trees at the edge of the roof garden, their lyrical chatter speaks of a joyous disregard for the machinations of mankind.

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

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

“It’s Kiry,” the voice informs.

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

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

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

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

“Up and down?”

“No. Up and out. Mars One.”

“Get out of town!”

“And then some. When the foundation learned we could make the run out in just a little over three weeks, instead of the standard six months, they asked Eric if he would step up and take on an emergency re-supply.”

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

“Well… it’s Mars, Mom.”

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

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

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

“There are no nice boys above the atmosphere.”

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

“That was pretty tall grass.” Charli says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’d like that.”

The airlock’s outer door opens into the courtyard.

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

“Love you too, Mom.”

Charli settles back into parade rest.

Her boss, with customary briskness, crosses the pad in purposeful strides. Mr. Pruitt trails, but not by much.

She opens the door for them, reaching to take the overnight bag into custody from her employer. He hands it off, stepping up and in without a word. She offers a hand to Mr. Pruitt who accepts the support as he clambers into the craft.

“Thank you, young lady.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

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


It takes no particular skill to get the limo off the ground. The damn thing wants to leap into the air. The artistry is in doing so without leaving everyone’s breakfast behind.

She eases the pressors on-line and floats up like a feather in an updraft, making a lazy half-turn as the pins retract. Then, with sufficient altitude for insertion into the eastbound pattern beam, she accelerates out over the Sound toward the busiest city on the West Coast.

A passenger in the rear cabin with a cup of coffee in hand wouldn’t have spilled a drop.

To be fair, ‘city’ probably isn’t the right word for what Seattle has become. The lines of demarcation between incorporated areas are only visible on maps. In reality, everything from Bellingham to Olympia looks like a circuit board from the air.

On this side of the Sound, the entire east side of the Kitsap Peninsula looks like an extension of the same, albeit broken by the Hood Canal and various inlets, as well as the many verdant greenways, protected against an ever-encroaching urbanization.

The exceptions to the trend, of course, are sleepy Vashon to the south and, northward in the mid-distance, the dispiriting remains of shattered Bainbridge Island.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enlighten me.”

“Are you sure you want that? The truth isn’t going to set you free.”

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

“I don’t owe you shit.”

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

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

He offers the smoke to Pruitt, who declines. Shrugging, Hergenrather replaces the unopened second and holds the first to his lips.

A jet of orange flame with a blue core bursts from the tip of the small finger of his left hand. It moderates to a soft, slow flicker. He holds it just close enough to ignite the tobacco, rolling the cigar in his fingers to achieve an even burn, and puffs it to a coal.

He fixes Pruitt with a gaze through blue smoke and lifts his pinkie with its quivering tongue of fire between them. It goes out. Insubstantial waves of heat waver from the digit’s tip.

Hergenrather vents breath through pursed lips across the aperture, gestures to the node behind his right ear, and points at Pruitt.

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

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


Pruitt is disoriented. So very long has it been since he’s stood in the main street of his hometown. Its only street.

And there is the Well, spoken of always with a particular emphasis, as though the word was a proper noun.

The street widens to accommodate the Well and then some, forming a small plaza. Beyond, its sweeping arc of quartz-rich gravel sparkles in shafts of sunlight, following the land drop’s curve.

Here, a row of weathered clapboard apartments stands between the street and the plunging crescent of the mesa rim. One of them in particular with a wooden wind-clacker hanging on the porch achieves distinctive focus.

Close by, a boy is talking to him in a youthful voice Pruitt remembers well despite the intervening years.

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

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

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

“I’m not sure what that means.”

“I know. Your friend, Jacob, was six years old,” the boy says, “when Old Pete met Malcolm and Constance Hergenrather and their children on their way to Santa Fe. He gave them the ‘good water’ and brought them all here. Not for supper, as it turned out, but to live here instead.”

He points to the clapboard-sided structure’s sturdy simplicity. “He cleaned this place out and gave it to the man you knew as Jacob’s father, and then… Old Pete died. You must have been four or five when that happened and sometime after that, Jacob befriended you. Sound about right?”


Everything here is as Pruitt remembers it, down to a pattern in the wood grain of the door on this particular structure, the noticeable slant of the streetside porch railing, seven cords hanging from the top piece of the wind clacker, all but two with a small wooden paddle at the end, each of them painted a different color.

The depth of this experience is astonishing and Pruitt is reminded of his first rule in the virtual realm: Do not get sucked into an environment just because you find yourself there. There are always choices. Look for them.

In almost every other situation, exit is an option too.


“Yeah. Sounds right,” he says.

The boy’s form and features have shifted into those of the contemporary alpha male. Hergenrather says, “See, here’s the part you’re not going to like so much. That wasn’t me.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

“Jacob was transformed too.”

“I know about your… adaptations. What do they have to do with…”

A gust of blue smoke breaks on the cabin’s ceiling and lingers.

“Do you? I doubt you know much of anything that you weren’t told specifically. Your story, on the other hand, Bruce, is a simpler one than mine.

“The ‘good water’ has sustained you since childhood, altering you, allowing you to develop and accomplish well beyond the scope of an average lifetime. Thing is, you are still who you were then, Bruce. I mean, your life experiences, formal education, and an unfortunate, accelerating decrepitude notwithstanding, of course.

“But the combination of Remert’s knowledge and resources and my own nature have given me a different form of longevity. I am the seventh iteration of Jacob Hergenrather’s distinctive genetic code. I am him, and I am not him.

“Incidentally, H’seven is the name I actually prefer.”


“Try not to slur it next time.” Hergenrather sips his panetela. “While much of the original Jacob’s biology has transferred from one living vessel to the next, each one a distinctive upgrade, there is also much that has not. That pesky ‘bond of friendship’, for instance.”

“That’s disappointing.”

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

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


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

Knotted clusters of juniper gone rampant stipple a rugged, undulating landscape.

Between low rock outcroppings, gritty soil fans out, strewn with weathered stone fragments and carpeted in patches of lichens and brown moss.

Only the curious lone edifice known to him always and ever as “Remert’s shack” remains, that and the unconventional wind turbine towering over its shoulder like half of a giant’s eggbeater upright.

“No need to go all maudlin over it, Bruce,” Hergenrather says. “I have always been in the background to run interference for you, to exert pressure when and where needed, to open the pathways you would later turn into boulevards. I still am. I don’t believe we could have done it as well without you and, quite honestly, you could never have done it without me.”

Where a small, lone human outpost on a remote corner of a high desert mesa once stood, near-desolation has returned and spans the tableland.

Wild, wide-open spaces give rise to fenced lands with sparse grasses. Obstreperous cattle graze this meager wind-swept fodder.

Remert’s shack is gone too and, in its place stands a turn of the twentieth century two-story farmhouse, one of several dwellings sprung up at odd intervals where the land runs in rolling ripples and mounds toward distant mountains west of the land drop. The wind turbine remains, however, its vertical vanes revolving in silent, purposeful rhythm.

Pruitt watches the herky-jerky passage of this subjective time. It feels like his memory of it.

The wind gusting up the mesa’s stony face from the eastern desert plain buffets him, flagging his hair and clothing.

“You said ‘we’ a minute ago. Something about, ‘we couldn’t have done it… without you’.”

He has to shout above the blustering wall of air whipping through the low evergreen shrubbery and rushing in his ears. It has a sharp, clean smell and scrubs at his face hard enough to make virtual tears. “You and Remert, I must assume. To what end?”

The surging breath of the Miles rocks Pruitt where he stands, but breaks around the figure beside him without apparent effect. Hergenrather draws his cigar tip to an amber glow and stares into an imperceptible distance, his expression as remote as the horizon.

“The end,” he says, releasing words and smoke into the wind that cannot touch him and the wind whips them to nothing.

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

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

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

“Fine. So what happens now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Me, Jacob. What happens to me?”

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

“Don’t burst a melodramatic artery, Bruce. First, you’re going to meet Mr. Gray and bring him up to speed on current events. Remert says to remind you to address him only by the honorific, ‘D’nal’.

“Don’t stare, don’t dissemble, don’t contradict him, and never apologize. Afterward, you and I are going to the Reservation where Dr. Ahn will prep you for the transfer. Remert will oversee the actual procedure.”

“Procedure. You make it sound routine.”

“I’ve done it at least six times. I admit, I have a particular innate advantage that pretty much ensures my survival and you, unfortunately, don’t.

“However, Remert and Dr. Ahn trust the data gleaned from my own transfers will give yours a better than eighty-seven percent chance of success. That seems encouraging, but if you have an imaginary friend you pray to, this would be the time to invite so-called divine intervention, I suppose.”

“There are so many deities to choose from, Jacob, and I’m out of practice. Who’s your go-to god these days?”

The mid-Sound urbanscape slips away from him as the limo begins a gentle curve southward, dropping out of one pattern beam and into another.

Hergenrather stares out at the Space Needle, that iconic landmark of Seattle’s skyline, braced within a sheath of scaffolding as long-forestalled renovations proceed apace. It is behind them in a moment.

To the east, mountains hunker beneath a mass of low clouds clinging to their forested shoulders. Unguarded sunlight paints the heaped and billowed mists in vivid, transient brilliance. He tugs down the window shade.

“Flying Spaghetti Monster,” he says. “Disregarding the insincere nature of your question, may It reach out to grace you with the touch of Its noodley appendage. You could do worse. Ra-men.”

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

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

“What do you mean, ‘pretty much’?”


Ahead at a bare five kilometers, the pitch-black monolith of the LocUS Tower looms. Soaring from the center of a high-walled compound, the convex curvature of the central spire dominates the skyline, so dark it often looks like a hole in the air.

From this approach, Charli can just make out the cryptic sigil gracing the tower’s upper reach. It emits a disquieting phosphorescence, a bilious glow the precise color of nausea.

Embraced within the arc of the structure’s inward curving surface, she can see the trace, a single thread of energy piercing layers of cloud up into the heavens. Or down, she knows not which.

What is certain is that nothing may interrupt that indefinable ray and continue to exist. Thus, in the interest of public safety and facility security, all pattern traffic is directed away from the tower and its surrounds, creating a buffer of unoccupied air over a kilometer in radius.

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

Ahead, the structure’s great height makes the edge of its curving profile seem narrow, yet the bay that opens almost sixty meters up that sheer black sliver to admit the limo is large enough to accommodate five more abreast just like it.  Within, however, is adequate space to park and maintain more than a dozen of them, although only four other similar vehicles are berthed.

She sets the craft down on a mirror-smooth surface without a bump, hands ranging across the control surfaces, powering down. The gull-wing gasps open and Charli swings out onto the deck.

A service team in immaculate black and tan coveralls is converging on the arrival, but her passengers have already disembarked without her assistance.

Mr. Hergenrather is helping Mr. Pruitt into an open two-seater. Moments later they are skimming away into the tower’s innards and Charli is left to either give the uniformed workers unnecessary direction, or seek the generous crew accommodations.

“The Director’s luggage is in the back,” she advises, hooking a thumb.

A stiff-looking woman with a clipboard and vaguely hostile expression, points to one of her technicians, then at the limo’s trunk.

It’s a long walk to the service door at the rear of the dock.



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