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 at hand is a cup of coffee Connie prepared for him with the ‘good water’. He washes down an unfamiliar anxiety with it. It’s the brew’s deeper, therapeutic benefit he most desires now 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 already waiting for him.
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 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,” he says.
“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 her.
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 is a good 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 few hours.”
“Up and down?”
“No. Up and out. Mars One.”
“Get out of town!”
“That goes without sayin’. 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 me before you jump. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
A soft-spoken, “End call,” breaks the connection. She settles back into parade rest.
Her boss, with customary briskness, crosses the pad in long, purposeful strides. Poor, crippled Mr. Pruitt trails, a distant second. 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.
It’s difficult to guess his age. He moves like a broken down ‘older’ and there are tiny lines in his face that suggest age held at bay. It hardly matters, of course. Her job is to fly, not interpret.
“Thank you, young lady,” he casts back over his shoulder.
“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, having achieved 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 full 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 and imponderable fates, 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, 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.”
“Are you certain that’s what you want? The truth may not 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? 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 malignant 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 panatela to his lips.
A jet of orange flame with a blue core bursts from the tip of the small finger of his left hand. He holds this just close enough to ignite the tobacco without scorching it, 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, lifts his pinkie with its quivering tongue of fire between them, extinguishing it. Insubstantial waves of heat waver from the digit’s tip. Hergenrather vents breath through pursed lips across the aperture. There is a merry deviltry in his eyes as he gestures to the node behind his right ear and points at Pruitt, an invitation.
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 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 this place. It is the main street of his hometown, it’s only street, a long sweeping curve of quartz-rich dirt and gravel sparkling in sunlight and stirred by almost endless wind from the Miles.
A curving row of weathered clapboard apartments stands upon the plunging crescent of the mesa rim. One in particular with a wooden wind-clacker 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. 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.”
Inside the limo’s cabin, Hergenrather seems to stare out the window. Whether aware of the Sound traversing beneath their speeding craft or not, he draws the glowing tip of his cigar to incandescent life.
“Your friend, Jacob, was ten years old,” he 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 to live here.” 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 he died. You must have been three or four, living with your mother when Jacob befriended you.”
The boy’s form and features melt into those of the contemporary, alpha male. “See, here’s the part you’re not going to like so much. That wasn’t me.” He presses the cigar between his lips and sips it with apparent relish.
“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”
Hergenrather’s tari releases a slow plume of smoke. “Jacob was transformed too. While the ‘good water’ has sustained you since you were that small child, altering you physically, allowing you to develop and accomplish well beyond the scope of an average lifetime, I have opted for a different path.
“Who you were then is still who you are now, life experiences, formal education, and an unfortunate decrepitude notwithstanding. The unparalleled combination of Remert’s knowledge and resources and my own unique nature have given me a different form of longevity. What I mean is, this is the seventh iteration of Jacob Hergenrather’s distinctive genetic code. H’seven is the shorthand I prefer, as it contains less syllables and, despite my oft-loquacious manner, I appreciate the occasional nod to brevity. You know this, but you’ve failed to understand its obvious implications. While much of the original Jacob’s biology has transferred from one living vessel to the next, there is also much that has not. Friendship, for one thing.”
“That’s disappointing,” Pruitt laments.
“And yet, here we are at the hub of arguably one of, if not THE most powerful of corporate entities in the world. This is a platform that serves my interests perfectly.”
“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.”
All about them, the familiar structures around the crescent rim of the mesa’s isolated arm are leveled in a kind of accelerated 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 mound.
Knotted clusters of juniper gone rampant stipple a rugged, undulating landscape. Gritty soil strewn with weathered stone fragments and carpeted in patches of lichens and brown mosses fans out between low rock outcroppings. Only the curious lone edifice known as ‘Remert’s Shack’ remains; that and the unconventional wind turbine towering over its shoulder like half of a giant’s egg beater.
“No need to go all maudlin over it, Bruce. 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. We couldn’t have done it without you and, quite honestly, you couldn’t 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 farm house, 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 tireless, purposeful rhythm.
Pruitt watches the herky-jerky passage of subjective time. It feels like a memory. The wind gusting up the mesa’s stony face from the eastern desert plain buffets him, flagging his hair and clothing.
“You said ‘we’,” he has to shout above the blustering wall of air whipping through the low evergreens and rushing in his ears. It has a sharp, clean smell and scrubs at his face hard enough to make virtual eyes water. “You and Remert, I must assume. To what end?”
The figure beside him draws the business end of his cigar to an amber glow and stares out across the Miles with a look as remote as the horizon. “The end,” he says, releasing words and smoke into the wind with dreamy carelessness. Pruitt waits through a lengthy pause, wondering if perhaps the other has determined that truncated response to be sufficient. Whatever vista has engaged his awareness seems at an improbable distance.
The surging breath of the Miles rocks Pruitt where he stands, but breaks around Hergenrather without apparent effect.
“Someone else asked me that question once. From my vantage point today, I think my answer is necessarily a different one,” Hergenrather says, pinning Pruitt with a piercing attention. “When it comes, the end 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 respective 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 six times. I admit I have a particular innate advantage that pretty much ensures my survival and you, unfortunately, don’t. Remert and Dr. Ahn trust the data gleaned from my own transfers will give yours a better than eighty percent chance of success, 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. Which would you recommend, Jacob?”
Hergenrather stares out the window at the Space Needle, that iconic landmark of Seattle’s skyline braced within a sheath of scaffolding as long-forestalled renovations proceed apace. The mid-Sound urbanscape slides away from him as the limo begins a gentle banking curve southward, dropping out of one pattern beam and into another. 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.
“Disregarding, for the moment, the insincere nature of your question,” Hergenrather says, “if your belief is firm, I’m confident the Flying Spaghetti Monster would reach out to grace you with the touch of His noodley appendage. You could do worse. Ra-men.”
“If memory serves, Jacob, you have pretty much always been a dick. It’s reassuring to see at least that hasn’t changed.”
Hergenrather examines the tenacious cylinder of hot ash still adhering to the business end of his cigar and flicks it onto the carpet. He observes it smoldering there for a time, then grinds it out with the toe of his shoe.
“I’m glad you’re okay with that.”
. . .
Ahead at a bare five kilometers, the pitch-black monolith of the LocUS Tower looms. Soaring from the center of a siege-walled compound, the convex curvature of the central spire dominates the skyline, so dark it looks like a hole in the air. Charli can just make out the cryptic sigil gracing its upper reach. It emits a disquieting phosphorescence, a bilious glow the precise color of nausea.
Behind the structure, embraced within its inward curving surface, she can see, at the edge of perception, the trace: a pencil-thin 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 diameter.
At a proper interval, Charli disconnects from the public beam, burst-transmits her authorization string, and approaches 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 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 a dozen more just like it with adequate room to maneuver them all. There are only three other similar private vehicles berthed within.
She sets the craft down on a mirror-smooth surface without a bump, hands ranging across the control surfaces, powering down. A moment later 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 and no one bothers to pay Charli the slightest attention.