H’seven

Transit

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

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

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

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

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

Then, nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Something is pounding on the side of her airsled.

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

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

Mr. Hergenrather is smiling up at her.

“Good job.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

     ~      

Transit Read More »

Margret’s Last Day At Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.

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

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

“Done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H’seven breaks the connection.

 

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

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

Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, H’seven.”

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

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

“Have you gone insane? You can’t…”

“Mark.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”

“ALL RIGHT! All right, goddammit!”

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

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

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

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

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

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

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

 

The last of Margaret’s motor functions are disengaging.

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

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

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

“Desk,” he says.

“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But H’seven has already broken the connection.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An affable Hergenrather is confounding.

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?” he says.

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

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

“We?”

Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.

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

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

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

The hatch seals behind him.

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

 

 

     ~      

Margret’s Last Day At Work Read More »

Pruitt’s Enlightenment

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

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

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

“He’s early,” Pruitt sighs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new arrival is waiting for him there.

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

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

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

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

“We’re burning daylight, Bruce.”

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

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

“See you,” Pruitt lies.

 

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

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

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

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

“It’s Kiry,” the voice informs.

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

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

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

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

“Up and down?”

“No. Up and out. Mars One.”

“Get out of town!”

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

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

“Well… it’s Mars, Mom.”

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

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

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

“There are no nice boys above the atmosphere.”

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

“That was pretty tall grass.” Charli says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’d like that.”

The airlock’s outer door opens into the courtyard.

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

“Love you too, Mom.”

Charli settles back into parade rest.

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

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

“Thank you, young lady.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enlighten me.”

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

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

“I don’t owe you shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure what that means.”

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

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

  

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

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

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

 

“Yeah. Sounds right,” he says.

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

“What do you mean it wasn’t you?”

“Jacob was transformed too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hhuseven?”

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

“That’s disappointing.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. So what happens now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Me, Jacob. What happens to me?”

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

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

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

“Procedure. You make it sound routine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, ‘pretty much’?”

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

     ~      

Pruitt’s Enlightenment Read More »

Remert’s Perspective

The door to Remert’s private office snaps back into the pocket behind the armoire and the Director’s hurried exit is blocked. The Deputy Director is an unwelcome obstacle to egress.

“I have business elsewhere,” Remert says.

“I’ll bet you do.” H’seven appears unwilling to step back out of the doorway. He speaks an abbreviated command to the media wall and excerpts from the incident at the Sandia Pueblo fill the multiplex projection.

“I do not have time for this now. I am needed…”

“Make time.”

The door has sealed again behind H’seven and he leans against it, pointing at the montage of images. Remert gives way with a scowl and turns in frustration to see the woman in white disappear with the young police officer.

“You had them bound in chains when I first saw them,” H’seven says. “If she’s able to pull shit like that, why do you suppose she didn’t?”

Remert’s thoughts are distant, attempting to process a rush of discordant, troubling possibilities. The Call, unexpected after all this time, will change everything. Exactly what, how much, and how soon will be known after this inconvenient episode has concluded.

He returns his intention toward the door and his apostate Deputy. “I can extrapolate two plausible reasons.”

“So can I. They were playing you from the jump.”

“Your hindsight is flawless.”

“What the Hell are they?”

“They have the potential to invite a level of trouble the likes of which we have not seen before. I trust you are following these events and individuals with diligence. I will be prepared to entertain your progress report when I return. My business now is urgent.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“My responsibilities here are not yours and I have imperatives that do not require your attention or participation. Let me pass.”

“It pisses me off when you try to lie to me, Stretch.”

H’seven strides forward. Remert takes two steps back and bumps up against the media wall.

H’seven sits in the chair that doesn’t touch the floor and says, “I think you’re developing a dangerously cavalier attitude toward our relationship. Your kind prides itself on its ability to absorb and incorporate the impact of important lessons. Odd that you’ve failed to do so. Maybe this place has rubbed off on you. Still, it has been some time since our little understanding, hasn’t it, D’kin?”

The use of Remert’s honorific sounds disrespectful, striking a defiant, scornful note. H’seven’s stare becomes a perturbation in the aether between them. Remert tries to look away and cannot.

He feels his pulse dancing, skipping, leaping. His heartbeat has doubled, tripled, but it isn’t pounding; it flutters like a bird on the ground, unable to rise. A sensation of lightheadedness is followed by a crushing weight in his chest and a rush of agony. His groan is stifled, reshaped into a few words of a familiar litany by an effort of intention only Mong and this grievous creature will ever witness.

A spear twists in his entrails, wringing a strangled cry. He gulps air like a fish and every muscle in his body tries to contract at once. He pitches to the floor screaming out his last breath with barely a sound.

Eyes wild, unseeing in a mask of terror, Remert experiences the crystalline recognition that all his single-minded purpose and sacrifice have come at once to nothing, his goal beyond his grasp, his commitment unfulfilled.

Writhing. Helpless.

Dying.

Like a bubble popping, the pressure in his chest, the auger in his intestines, the bone-shattering contraction in his limbs… gone, nothing more than a phantom of pain and a blistering memory not to be touched again. His heart rate is accelerated, as dying in anguish is likely to do to anyone, but its rhythm is strong and vital.

Quaking, drawing convulsive breaths as if he’d just run kilometers, Remert drags himself to a sitting position against the media wall. Stone against his back feels somehow reassuring. The damp squishiness in his trousers, not so much.

H’seven is sprawled in Remert’s chair. His voice and face are cheerful.

“How’s that for perspective, Remmy? Will that do you for a while, or would you like to go again?”

Remert raises a trembling, dissenting hand.

His relief at being alive has overshadowed his studied Methodic aplomb, but the brutal truth is this: his life, his survival, and the furtherance of his efforts to fulfill his mandate to Lord Shiric is bound by a tenuous thread of compliance and faithfulness to this being whose existence may well be beyond the vast comprehension of Mong Himself. If that be heresy, may Mong Himself prove him wrong. And soon.

“All right, then,” H’seven says, claps his hands and rubs them together. “Let’s get back to business, why don’t we? I was asking you to tell me about these two Blacks with the halfblood. I need to know what they are.”

Remert’s tremors have not subsided. His protruding Adam’s apple works up and down. Twice. His voice quivers. “They are of the Aca’chi Aht-U’chah, known everywhere on Hevn as the Fayneem Bloch—Fayne’s Hammer. The Faceless Ones. A warrior caste nurtured by and unquestionably obedient to The Fayne and no other.”

“What the fuck is a fain?”

“A glorified jailer and a despot. He is far from here, imprisoned by his responsibilities, and no threat to either of us.”

“I’m sorry. Perhaps I stuttered. Give me a straight answer, Remmy, or I swear to—what’s his name? Mung?—I’ll give you some more perspective until you shit yourself hollow.”

Remert swallows his instinctive wave of fear and compresses his fury until it looks and sounds like compliance. “According to excerpts from ‘The Book of Turns’, The Fayne is the emissary of the Tu’chah Aht-T’sungahn, the so-called ‘Lords of Order’. To place it in a Terran framework, he is the marshal in town and the Fayneem Bloch are his sworn deputies.”

“And these two are significant why?”

“They are progeny of Hevn’s Black Lands and exhibit the physical characteristics of their kind. How they came to be in company with the Fayneem Bloch is a puzzle only less confounding than how they have come to be here. Nevertheless, these are The Fayne’s minions. As such, in addition to any individual innate gifts either of them may possess, The Fayne has doubtless granted them augmentation. If allowed to gain proximity, these two could present a formidable imposition to our plans.”

“Two people? Don’t be stupid.”

“They are NOT ‘people’. They are thinking weapons of extraordinary capability.”

H’seven stands, towering over the Director. “I’m not exactly ‘people’ either. Pick your nasty ass up off the floor and get yourself cleaned up. Take care of your ‘imperatives’. I’ll meet you there.”

“What?”

“I think it’s time I introduced myself to him, don’t you?”

“Introduce… “ Remert realizes that somehow his mouth is hanging open again. “To HIM?! No… NO! That is an incredibly dangerous idea.”

“Yeah, I know, that’s why I like it.”

“No! I forb…” The Director is astonished to discover he is unable to complete his pronouncement, unable to make a sound.

The door snaps back into the pocket behind the armoire and the Deputy Director steps aside.

“You get along now. I’ll catch up to you.”

 

      ~     

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Remert’s Perspective Read More »

Pojade

The images displayed are as sharp and clear as the best law enforcement recorders can generate under the circumstances and the burly brown bear peering over the shoulder of a somber technician is experiencing an unaccustomed level of anxiety.

It’s not the content arrayed before him causing his misgiving, although the subject matter is disconcerting for a variety of reasons.

Nor is it the luxurious pelt of body hair matted beneath his clothing that’s challenging the efficacy of his anti-perspirant. Rather, it is the certain knowledge that the images the system has just filtered for review are going to require Henry Pojade to do something he most definitely does not want to do.

Sweat has begun to trickle down his back and beads upon the brow of his big, pink, baby-face.

“What do you make of that irregularity?” he says.

The technician, a slight Hispanic woman with a poker face, says, “The woman in white?”

“Yes. Has the record been edited?”

“No, sir. The corruption we’re seeing is sunfade.”

“The trainee?”

“Medical on-site reports he is physically unharmed.”

“Do you have a marker at the disappearance of the woman and the trainee?”

“Yes, sir. I have markers at each instance of her anomalies.”

“Show them to me.”

He watches each of the records twice, reviewing, despite the degradation, the detail from both officers’ personal recorders and the one in their vehicle. The unidentified woman vanishes from her place in front of the local civilian, materializes in front of the junior officer, and both vanish. A momentary pucker in the air marks the spot where they stood and nothing more. The junior officer’s body cam ceases working at that time.

Seventeen seconds later, the woman reappears alone to confront the senior officer who simply disengages and returns to his vehicle as though nothing had happened. He drives off the Pueblo property to a McDonalds drive-thru in nearby Bernalillo, where he purchases three Big Meals and consumes them with an eerie urgency.

There is nothing in Pojade’s experience to help him place this in a reasonable context.

“Can you clean it up so we can see more detail?”

He’s just stalling now and he knows it.

It is an aversion stronger even than his embarrassing and inexplicable fear of amphibians. While the proximity of a toad may drive him to an illogical state of apprehension, the thought of contacting the Deputy Director of LocUS, even in vee, spawns within Pojade a wave of unreasonable dread difficult to drive down or rationalize. After all he’s experienced in his often-violent career, something about Jacob Hergenrather repels him at a primal level.

Regardless, he’s committed and the connection is initiated.

The obligatory ‘announce and validate’ protocol is acknowledged without haste. Almost a half-minute passes before Pojade’s unease is rewarded.

The ‘accept’ cue is followed by full engagement in subjective space. Resolution is instantaneous and, as expected, troubling.

The Deputy Director is cast in near-silhouette against a sickly, greenish-gray phosphorescence. The color, intensity, and subtle motion of the envelope remind Pojade of things pustulent and poisonous. It never fails to make his stomach churn.

Hergenrather’s suit is a razor-edged shadow, but his eyes are the color of sunlight through an iceberg. Shaved head and scowling facial hairstyle only accentuate Pojade’s perception of malevolence.

He’s seen dangerous men before. Lots of them.

He’s experienced the deadly, surgical precision of a textbook military insertion, the randomized mayhem of a well-planned incursion gone hopelessly awry, and known the inhuman brutality of men to whom torture is a craft. He has survived mindless violence spawned of desperation and faced the murderous aggression of street thugs and professionals alike.

This one is like none of them.

No one has ever accused Pojade of being a churchgoing man. The constraints of organized religion have always tended to run more or less counter to his personal set of principles. The antithetical concepts of Heaven and Hell seem designed to keep the ignorant and gullible in line, and he perceives himself as neither.

He doesn’t believe in angels and yet, given all he’s seen in his circuitous path on this bloodthirsty rock, the existence of their dark counterparts seems more than likely.

He’s a big fellow, Pojade is—not Samoan rugby player big, but enough to make him a noticeable presence. Hergenrather is head and shoulders taller.

Perhaps it’s merely his experimental and, as yet, unbalanced anti-depressant talking here, but assuming for the sake of argument that the demon Beelzebub contrived to walk the Earth in the guise of a man, he imagines it would look and sound like Jacob Hergenrather.

The only thing that ameliorates Pojade’s anxiety and the knot in his stomach is his own self-loathing at the realization that this meeting is in vee, for Christ’s sake. Nobody dies in vee, not in a NoASR regulated environment, and certainly not with the kind of failsafes his agency’s interface has in place.

The smile on Hergenrather’s face carries nothing of warmth nor humor, his silence broken by neither greeting nor inquiry, merely a narrowing of the eyes and tilt of the head.

Instead of meaningless pleasantries or unnecessary verbiage, Pojade conjures a virtual portal cloned from his technician’s feed.

Within the vorp, five individuals are imaged near a well-used personal cargo vehicle, a roller with a vintage body type. It’s a custom job of a style popularized at the beginning of the transportation reboot, a cheap conversion, functional and unattractive, just the kind of heap one would expect to find on Indian land.

The vehicle and two of the individuals have linking icons afloat in the virtual air beside them, catalogued references. One of them is an indigenous man, a local, and the other, a short, rotund woman, is far from her home of record. The other three are unidentified, not in the uncharted depth and breadth of Sonder’s memory, unrecognized by any linked agency database.

A watchdog program, however, some kind of legacy routine embedded in the system, had lit up like a proverbial pinball machine, flagging them for immediate scrutiny.

The pair in white garb are unaccountably bizarre.

Of the two, the big one looks armored up, packing a hefty sidearm on his right side that looks as though it could use some counterbalance. The smaller one, a hardbodied female, appears unarmed and carries herself with a self-assured poise he’s seen before. Her cosmetic choice, an all-over blackface, is curious.

He thought she looked every bit as troublesome as her much larger companion, even before he saw what she is able to do.

The third among them is a male, early-mid forties at a guess, a lean, ropey fellow about six-foot nothing, maybe a buck sixty. He refuses to internally calculate the metric equivalents. Long, straight black hair, high cheekbones, prominent nose, hard lines, likely Amerind.

This one, Pojade surmises, might belong to any segment of a small, but recalcitrant population of unchipped, disenfranchised, rebellious trash who think their disdain for the society they reject insulates them from the responsibilities of citizenship.

Hergenrather walks around the vorp, a slow turn, stopping to stare at the man in the battered, wide-brimmed hat. It’s pushed back on his head enough to reveal a weathered, stony face, a hawk nose, and eyes green like new grass. His hair is long and black, but the stubble on his jaw and upper lip is an unexpected red in the bright sunlight.

If it had seemed Hergenrather could not appear more unnerving, Pojade watches his features transformed by undisguised joy. The effect is grotesque. And short-lived.

“Where is this?”

“It was recorded within the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, a sequestered community that does not embrace uninvited visitors.”

“How long ago was this acquired?”

“Four and a half hours.”

“And I’m just hearing about it now?”

“Tribal Police protocol doesn’t require continuous feed. This was captured during a global upload following the most recent sunfade and an algorithm that’s been running for—hell, I don’t know, so long it’s become canon—pushed these three records through CBP. The Assistant Commissioner handed it off to me thirty minutes ago. I allocated a drone to locate the vehicle’s transponder and acquire visual confirmation of the target before I contacted you. Who are they?”

“Walking dead. Where are they now?”

“Northwest New Mexico, near Four Corners. They’re off the trac network, westbound on an unconverted highway. We won’t be able to detour or shut them down directly, but I can have them detained within the hour.”

“No. Do nothing. Wait while I bring this to the Director.” His avatar recedes into the dead, gray-green backlight and the air of frigid malignance relaxes.

Seconds crawl past as Pojade observes how the phosphorescence seems to demonstrate occasions of fluid movement within. It reminds him of weirdly glowing urine. He works to relax the gorge rising again in his throat.

Hergenrather’s return to the conversation is not a relief.

“Show them to me,” says the Deputy Director. It sounds like an order.

Chaffing, Pojade delivers terse instruction to his operator.

A new vorp opens in the space between the two men and envelops them, each sharing an aerial panorama. Beneath them, a near-deserted highway stabs through hundreds of square kilometers of bleak, high desert barrens.

The highway begins to fall toward them, accelerating in a precipitous plunge that terminates an abrupt, gut-wrenching two meters above the pavement.

Neither man is moved, as anyone might be, even in the virtual realm, to clutch instinctively at a nearby stationary object. There are none and Pojade observes Hergenrather with grudging approval.

The eye’s relative position and speed is displayed in an unobtrusive optic in the upper left corner of Pojade’s vision. It does little to distract him from Hergenrather’s glacial stare as their view levels on the target vehicle.

Ocher light from a lowering sun washes the front end of the geriatric utility van and highlights the two individuals in the cab.

The abbreviated nomenclature of the boxy roller’s linking icon is sufficient to indicate its license and inspections are current, and another icon floating in the virtual air beside the roly-poly driver indicates her file has already been catalogued for reference. Right now, it is enough to verify the target has been correctly acquired.

The woman in the passenger seat with no linking icon and jeweled eyes confirms it.

“She looks like her skin is dyed black.” Pojade says. “What the Hell’s that all about?”

“Irrelevant. Are you sure the other two are in the back?”

“They made a rest stop twenty-five minutes ago. Everybody piled out, including those two big dogs from the pueblo. Everyone did their business, climbed back inside, and off they went. No stops since.” Are you certain you don’t want us to intercept?”

“Under no circumstances will you make contact with the subjects. Do you understand me?”

Pojade’s “Yes,” comes at the end of a reflective pause to reconsider his tone. “I understand you.”

“Then transfer full copies of all records to me and release the eye to my control. I’ll take it from here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can’t do what?”

“I can’t give you the drone.”

“Why not?”

“My operator is copying the SPD records to you, everything the eye’s recorded so far, and a stream of everything it continues to record, but I don’t have authority to turn the asset over to you.”

“I don’t think you want to start a pissing match with me over a fucking drone, Henry.”

“I have revised directives from the AC-IOC. Our inventory has been decimated by the so-called Vulcan storms. Models sporting avionics and telemetry hardened to maintain operational integrity against the electromagnetic interference are spread thin. I’ve stretched my own authority just keeping a valuable asset that’s been requisitioned elsewhere focused on your persons of interest, although the level of that interest has unquestionably been justified.”

“Wake your Operations Chief and have him give you authorization.”

“No, Mr. Hergenrather. I’m not going to do that.”

“And I thought we were pals, Henry.”

The technician, invisible at Pojade’s right hand, says in his earbud, “Sir, are you seeing this?”

The woman in the van’s passenger seat is pointing. Afternoon sun sets her jet features in vivid relief and, despite its glare in her face, she is pointing as though she has somehow seen the tiny thing pacing almost half a klick ahead of the vehicle. She appears to be pointing at them.

“Take it up. Now!” Pojade says and the technician’s response is a stomach-churning vertical ascent for those within the virtual portal.

The drone’s pressors slingshot it a full kilometer above the vehicle in seconds. Tiny, silent, its chameleon skin renders it effectively invisible.

Pojade straightens himself, shaking off the visceral effect. Hergenrather appears unmoved.

Below them, the van slows to a stop off the blacktop’s edge. The passenger-side cargo door opens. The largest of the subjects steps out and looks up. He’s removed his mask and he seems to be scanning the bottomless blue of late afternoon sky. His eyes cease tracking.

A swash of burnished metal sweeps up in his hand. A bright turbulence becomes a burst engulfing the vorp for an instant before man, van, highway, and desert are erased in a silent flash.

Outside her supervisor’s virtual envelope, the operator is pressed back against her seat, squinting at her deck. Save for a couple rows of small function tiles at its margin, her viewport is blank. Her hands twiddle virtual controls in an attempt to reestablish connection to the asset.

“It’s gone, sir,” she says.

Blinking against a dazzling afterimage for the moment it takes the agency’s AI’s physics to catch up, Pojade’s tari is surrounded by the envelope of putrid ambiance once more. Beelzebub is beside him and its expression is furious, a thunderhead.

The sweat rolling down Pojade’s back feels cold, though his tari does not exhibit the shiver he feels in Real. He silently curses this sense of dread he cannot shake off. This creature can’t harm him.

“I will contact the Assistant Commissioner and task another drone,” he says. “I’ll notify you when the target is reacquired.”

“You do that.”

The sickening backdrop and the razor silhouette wink out.

Two calming breaths are barely enough. Wrestling a pill bottle from a deep pocket, Pojade turns to his technician.

“You alright?” he says and pops a couple tablets into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

Poker face restored, she says, “I may have found another eye we can redeploy. Top of the call list. There will be some blowback.”

“I just lost a drone I misappropriated from the call list earlier today. Of course there’s going to be blowback. It’s nothing like what will happen if we lose that vehicle and its occupants.”

“I have your authorization, sir?”

“You have to ask?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“All right, then; you have it. Make it happen and alert me when you have a lock on them. And… don’t let them see this one.”

 

 

     ~     ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Pojade Read More »

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