Dashel’s Interview

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

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


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

“Oh, right. Have they initiated yet?”

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

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

“Standard environment?”

“Clean slate.”

The greatroom dissolves into a featureless white emptiness.

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

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

“I think it sends the correct message.”

“At least let the socks match the tie.”

“You are a wild man.”

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

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

“God help us.”

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

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

The changes are instantaneous.

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

“The undisputed master of your own responses.”

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

“A good question.”

.     .     .


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

“Are you all right with this?”

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

Benn cues the entry protocol.

.     .     .


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

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

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

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

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

“. . .”

“. . .”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“I have several, sir.”

“Do they still call it freerunning?”

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds kind of timid,” says Germane.

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

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

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

“What’s your position?”

“I trade off, high anchor and outlier.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… and play three different woodwind instruments.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Name that tune.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s debatable,” Mr. Germane says.

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

“The porn?”


“Oh. Neither, really.”

“Why, then?”

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

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

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

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

“The Outlands?”

“You know, ‘The Frontier’.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like Fight Club?” says Crippen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir. It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit,” says Mr. Germane.  

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

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

“When do I begin?”

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

“Woah! Today?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir. Probably not.”

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

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

“I agree.”

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

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

      ~      ~

The Veep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bettencort’s blank stare suggests it does not.

“You know, Road Runner. Beep beeep!”

Still nothing.

“It’s a cartoon.”

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

“Never mind,” the general says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just you, Eric?”

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

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

Bettencort provides introductions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric nods without comment.

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

“How long?”

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

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

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

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

Eric nods again. “Containment?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Colonel?”

“We have not spoken of payment.”

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

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

Chernovich appears uncomprehending. “Island?”

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

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

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



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

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

Chernovich nods acknowledgement.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that it’s any of his business.”

“He believes it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mishandled,” Eric says. “Inadvertently.”

“Yes. An unfortunate…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Why?”

“Southern Baptist?”


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

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

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

Woolard opens his mouth to rebut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Afraid? Him? Of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His tari blinks out.

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Benn asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

“What does that mean?”

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

“How is that possible?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, good luck with that.”

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

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

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

“Have I? Tell me a better one.”

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

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

“An impressive deduction on your part.”

“How DID he do that?”

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


“You may go. Now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ~   ~

Komila Chandra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your son, Rahm, Mrs. Chandra.”

Komila blinks.

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

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

“May I ask where we are going?”

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


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

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

Eric’s chair faces hers at a discrete distance.

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

She’s had rougher transitions.

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

“I’m fine, thank you.”

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

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

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


“He’s not?”

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

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

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

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

Oh no, she thinks.

“No,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s in it?”

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

“Is this the original and only iteration?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~      ~     

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