The hospital room was quiet, except for the respirator. It hissed on and off at slow, steady intervals, a regular rhythm that ran all day and all night. Every now and then another machine would beep or ping, but not too often. The peace of the room was absolute, disturbed only by the regular duty nurse who came in to change the sheets or attend to the bedpan. Time had lost all meaning in here. Every day was the same. Every night was the same. Regular breaths, a white ceiling, an impassive nurse and doctors who pretended they were the only thinking beings in the room.
Today, however, the silence and the regularity of the days and the nights was broken by the sounds of shouting from outside the room. Shapes could be seen on the other side of the glass window. A man – a doctor, perhaps, or one of the bodyguards – was telling a woman that she couldn’t go in, that she wasn’t authorized.
“Not authorized?” she yelled. “I’m here on the highest authorization, you ape. And when I’m done in there, I’ll have you mucking out the test chambers with nothing but a bottle of bleach and some paper towels!’
“Don’t ‘But miss’ me! Let! Me! In!” There was a pause, a dangerous silence, and then the shadows on the other side of the frosted glass moved. The door opened and a lovely young woman stormed into the room. “I’m remembering your name, buddy!” she yelled as the door swung closed.
When she turned around, her entire demeanor changed. The hardness was gone from her voice as she put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sir!” Caroline said. “Oh, Mister Johnson. What have they done to you?” She took a tentative step towards the bed and the thin, dessicated man who lay there. When he was healthy, not so long ago, he’d been a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He seemed like the rock of the company, standing against the waves and never letting them knock him down. He had long been the driving force behind Aperture, the singular ambition that took it from its humble beginnings selling shower curtains to the scientific powerhouse that it was today. And nothing – not the Navy, not those double-dealing, backstabbing ghouls over at Black Mesa – had ever been able to take that away.
But now he lay in that bed, wasting away with every pump of the respirator. His skin was pale and brittle, his eyes dull and staring at the ceiling, barely open. A tight web of wires wrapped around his head, their ends buried in his scalp, and leading to what looked like an old Smith-Corona typewriter on the bedstand. Caroline laid her hand on his and tears slipped from her eyes as she felt how cold he was. “Oh, sir,” she said in a shaky voice. “I’m so sorry. I should have been here sooner.” She took a handkerchief from her handbag and buried her face in it.
She looked up with a sniff when she heard the sharp clack of the typewriter key smacking against the paper. Slowly, one herculean letter at a time, a message was spelled out on the yellowing piece of paper:
Caroline stood up sharply and her eyes overflowed again. “Sir!” she said. She looked again at the apparatus that connected his head to the typewriter and smiled. “Did you have the lab boys make that for you, sir?”
“I’ll have to give them a raise,” she said. She reddened. “Or, you will. Once you get better.”
The typewriter started writing again, the letters coming a little more quickly now.
You will. You’re in charge now.
Caroline shook her head, “I told you, sir, no! I don’t know what I need to know to run Aperture! I mean, there are so many projects going on that no one will let me see, engineers asking questions that I can’t answer, and the lawyers are just driving me crazy! They keep asking me for the testing records from the mid-seventies and I keep telling them that we don’t have them!”
Burned them. Damn lawyers. Get nothing.
She nodded, glad to be on more familiar ground, and took a small notebook out of her handbag. “The counter-maneuver work is still progressing, and we’ve had some preliminary inquiries from the Pentagon about it. They want to include it in special forces training – Delta Force, SEALs…”
The typewriter keys practically slammed against the paper.
No. Navy. Never!
Caroline smiled and held his hand. “I told them, sir. They said we couldn’t exclude the Navy from any government contracts.” The typewriter started banging out meaningless characters – pound signs and ampersands and exclamation marks. “But,” Caroline continued, “there’s nothing preventing us from charging them triple what the other branches get.” She smiled and patted his hand. “And I’m making sure that they’ll be the last to get anything.”
“Thank you, sir.” She held his hand for a little while longer, just looking at him. As she stared at his face, she thought she could see it move. Maybe his eyes struggling to look at her, or his mouth straining to make the smallest of smiles. But when she blinked, when she cleared her vision, nothing had changed.
Caroline came back to attention and looked through the notebook. She pulled out one piece of paper that had been folded and put in the back. “Your failsafe, sir. The boys in engineering say that it’s not going to be ready for a long time yet. Years, maybe.” She looked around the hospital room, at the battery of machines that were keeping Cave Johnson alive. “I don’t…” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know if it will be ready in time,” she whispered.
The typewriter was silent for a long time, long enough for that worm of panic to set in. Then:
She sat up. “Sir?”
You’re. In. Charge.
“But sir, I-”
No one knows science like you.
No one knows Aperture like you.
There was a pause, and when she looked back at his face, she was almost sure there were tears in his eyes.
No one knows me like you.
Caroline squeezed her eyes shut and rested her hand on his cheek. “Oh, sir,” she said. “I don’t want to do this without you.”
You will. You have to.
You’ll make me proud.
One of the machines started beeping. She looked over at it and watched as the jumping green dot on the screen jumped lower and lower. She sat on the edge of the bed and held Cave Johnson’s hand as he went, squeezing it so that he knew she was with him. The dot pulsed a couple more times, and then the line went flat.
Caroline had precious few minutes to herself before the nurses stormed into the room, followed by men in suits. One of the nurses took her by the shoulders and gently lifted her to her feet. “You’ll be okay,” she whispered as she moved Caroline out of the way. The nurses and the suits bumped shoulder as each group tried to confirm Cave Johnson’s condition. They started talking about plans and contingencies. A couple of bodyguards stood by the door, looking uncomfortable.
“We’re going to have to close the offshores…” They were lawyers, pure and simple. They spoke in hushed tones, but loud enough for her to hear.
“Make sure the patents are up to date…” They didn’t look at her. They didn’t look at him. They flipped through appointment calendars and address books, pulling mimeographed pages from their briefcases and comparing them.
“Call the board, we’ll need to have a vote on…” A great man lay dead before them, and not one had paid his respects. Not one had said a word about the man who had changed the world, whose vision and dedication were going to change it even further. Caroline felt her sorrow condense into a cold, hard knot in her belly and she stood up.
“Gentlemen!” she said sharply.
The lawyers stopped talking and, in unison, turned to face her.
“According to Mister Johnson’s dying wishes,” she said, squaring her shoulders, “I will be taking charge of Aperture Science from here on out.”
They looked at each other. One of the lawyers, the youngest one, smiled at her like he thought they were in a bar. “Miss,” he said, “I think maybe you should leave all this to us. You’ve had a rough day.” He took her by the elbow and started to lead her to the door. “Why don’t you have a little lie-down and-”
She jerked her arm from his grasp and looked him dead in the eyes. “What. Is. Your. Name?”
The smug smile lasted only a moment longer before it slid off his face. “Hannigan,” he stammered. “Mark Hannigan. I’m with the law offices of-”
“You’re a test subject,” she growled, a slow smile spreading across her face. “I hope you like heights.” His face went pale.
She looked at the other two lawyers. “We’re going back to the office. Mister Johnson’s personal files are there, and you’ll see what his wishes for the company were. Signed and notarized before he entered the hospital.” She walked around Hannigan to the other lawyers. They were avoiding looking at him. “We’re going to get this little mess cleared up quickly and easily and in the best interests of the company. Unless you want to be bathing in propulsion gel like your boy Hannigan here.” The older of the two lawyers swallowed and started to speak, but she stopped him with a glare. “The man in that bed had a vision,” she said. “And it’s my honor to make sure that vision comes true. Understand?” They glanced at each other and nodded.
Caroline looked at the bed. The nurses had pulled the sheet over Cave Johnson’s face and were busy disconnecting all the machines. She took a deep breath and said a silent prayer for him. He didn’t believe in heaven, she knew that. But she believed that he was already there, and already throwing his weight around.
She turned around and looked at the men in suits. “What are we doing still talking?” she asked.
She walked to the door, where the bodyguards parted to let her through. She stopped, though, and looked behind her. The men standing there looked small and nervous. They were off-balance, which suited her fine. Hannigan looked a little sick. “Come on,” she said. “We have science to do.”
Cave Johnson, Caroline, Aperture Science are all owned by Valve Corporation.
Because I know y’all have been waiting for it. And by y’all, I mean Me.
Anyway, this month I wrote 45,115 words, which is an improvement of 6,783 words over June, so HUZZAH! It’s still not the magic 50,000 word mark, but it’s getting there. The total number of words written for this project so far clocks in at 94,559 words, to which I say…
That comes to about 1,332 words per day, on average. Again, below the NaNoWriMo limit of 1,667 and a fair bit below the number that Stephen King recommends, 2,000 words per day.
But you know what? I’m pretty damned pleased with it. I know that word count is not the end-all be-all of writing – the quality of what you write should trump the quantity of words. But that’s really the only measurable thing I have to work with, so it’s what I use. I think the quality is generally good, perhaps better than I expected, but I am biased. The comments I’m getting so far are positive, too.
I had only one story that was unfinished, and that was mostly because I was sick. Unlike June’s unfinished piece, I actually want to pick up on this one and try it again sometime, so we’ll see.
Some other things I’ve discovered: my writing time is generally after 8:00 PM, unless I have nothing else to do. I bring my iPad with me to work, and try to get some writing done then, but it’s very hard to split my attention from all the things I’m supposed to be doing as a teacher and the things I want to be doing as a writer. So the best I can do is jot down ideas, and by the time I get settled down to write it’s after 8, and most of the time this is no problem. I do have a very teacherly 11:00 bedtime, though, so if I can find a way to give myself more time, I will. This is especially important on Wednesdays, because I record the podcast Wednesday nights, and on days when I actually want to do something in the evening.
What’s also fun is trying to explain the stories to The Boyfriend. He really wants me to do stories with happy endings, perhaps something light and humorous, so when I say, “Tonight’s story is about two kittens who turn into ZOMBIES!!” he just throws up his hands and says, “Okay, have fun.”
This month was also interesting in that I did my first fan fiction, which I’m pretty sure I’ll do again. And a week of stories based on obscure words that I found over on Luciferous Logolepsy, a great place if you’re interested in words that don’t get a lot of exposure anymore.
All in all, things are going well. August should be interesting, as I’m taking a trip for a couple of weeks, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t plan on missing any days of writing, though posting might be a bit sproadic. More on that later.
For now, thanks for stopping by and reading!
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. When I first wrote “Genius” (day sixteen), it was an experiment in doing a dialogue-only story. No narration, no description, no nothing. Just the words. I think it worked out okay, with some good characters and an interesting premise. For the revisitation, I thought I’d put in a more conventional third-person narrative and see what I could make of it. Let me know what you think!
Kevin took deep, slow breaths to try and keep his heartbeat under control. The tip of the soldering iron trembled ever so slightly, and that wasn’t good enough. This part of the apparatus was vital to the success of the project. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. He took one more deep breath, held it, and let it out as he lowered the iron to the circuit board.
“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart!” He jerked the iron up and away from the board and cursed. He swung the magnifier back, dropped the coil of solder on the tabletop and growled under his breath at his mother. “Don’t make me call you again!” she called.
He wiped his forehead, set the iron back in its holder and counted to ten. “I’ll be up in a minute, mom!” he yelled. He stood up and turned on the light, blinking against the sudden illumination. The basement was cluttered and chaotic, with benches and boxes full of parts and various electronic components, cast-offs from neighbors’ trash and whatever he could scrape together from eBay. He took a battered notebook from one of them and started scribbling on a blank page.
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.” His mother’s voice was starting to sound concerned, but that was the default expression for her. For the last few years, she hadn’t know what to do with her son, and that was fine with him. She and his father had tried therapists and talking to his teachers at school, but they didn’t have any help for them. “He’s a great student,” they said. “Top honors, just… He’s in his own world sometimes.”
Would that that were true. If he had his own world he’d be able to get work done, to stay away from such trivialities as whatever it was his mother had cooked for dinner. It was only after many arguments and a little begging and pleading that he convinced his parents to let him use the basement for his own purposes. He promised not to do anything that would burn down the house or get him arrested, and they’d just have to live with that.
In recent weeks, however, he’d spent more and more time down there. He would come home from school, head straight downstairs and not show his face again until he came up to wolf down his dinner. After that it was straight back to the basement, and he wouldn’t emerge again until morning. They had tried to talk to him about it, as they had tried to talk about so many other things, but whatever he was doing down there was taking up all of his attention.
“Kevin,” she called again. “Your father and I… You’ve been down there all week, and we’re worried about you.” He didn’t answer, but put some extra notes next to an improved circuit design. He may not have finished this one, but maybe that was a good thing. If he just tweaked the design a little…
“That’s it, Kevin. I’m coming down there.”
His head snapped up from his notebook as he head her come down the stairs, in flagrant violation of the agreement they’d made. “What? Mom, no, you can’t – No!” He ran to the foot of the stairs to stop her, but it was too late. “No no no no – awwww, mom!”
His mother looked completely out of place in his basement junkyard. Her pale blue suit was clean and uncluttered, and the only jewelry she wore was a tastefully small cross on a thin gold chain. She looked every bit the professional working mother, but she’d somehow managed to make it look easy. She looked around the basement with an expression of horror and confusion, not only at the chaotic mess of things that was down there, but simply the chaos itself. Up above, in the house that she ruled, such a thing as this would never be tolerated.
“What on earth have you been doing down here?” she asked. She reached out to open one of the battered cardboard boxes and recoiled as dusty cables and connectors spilled out. “My God!”
Kevin took his gloves off and tried to escort her back to the stairs. “Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess.” She walked around him and started peering into everything with the horrified curiosity of a driver passing a fatal accident. “Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -” She picked up a metal basket with a leather chinstrap. The helmet had been festooned with wires, all leading to a thick, canvas-wrapped cable that was coiled in another box. “It looks like my old colander,” she said. “What are you doing with this?”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.” Kevin was acutely aware of the whining tone that was entering his voice and he squared his shoulders. “Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
She put down the helmet and sniffed. “And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like…” Kevin knew what it smelled like, but he was used to it by now. The smell of burned-out electronics was part of the background atmosphere of the basement at this point. She spun around to face him again. “Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
He wanted to deny it, but stopped himself. “Yes!” His eyes lit up. “Yes, mom, that’s exactly it.” He weaved through the junkpiles and gently took her arm, trying to guide her out. “I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
She broke free of him again and approached the door to a walled-off section he had built. “What’s in here?” she asked, turning the knob.
“Mom, no!!” It was too late. The room beyond that door was better than the rest of the basement, at least in terms of neatness. There were small lights in the darkness, a well-organized bench, and shelves of tagged and labeled devices, the successes that had been culled from all his failures.
His mother looked around, and stopped, horrified, when she saw what was on the desk in the middle of the room. “Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?” She approached it, gingerly. There was a great glass jar, its thick walls distorting the dim light that shined upwards from the base. Inside, its neck wired to a shining steel base that was covered in little lights, was the head of their family dog, Racer. She leaned towards it, her hand to her mouth.
It opened its eyes and started barking.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, stumbling backwards from the dog’s head. She backed up against the door, her face twisting between anger and disgust. “Oh God,” she whispered. “Is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Mom, I-” The dog barked again and she whimpered. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!” The dog stopped barking but started licking the inside of its container.
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…” She bent over and threw up on the floor. “Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just…” He grabbed a small towel off a rack and twisted it in his hands. “I’ll clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus…” She wiped her mouth and took a step closer to the thing in the jar. Racer barked again and started panting happily as she approached.
“Mom, I know how this looks,” Kevin said. “Look at me, Mom.” He reached out to touch her and she flinched away, but she looked at him. “I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad.” He tried to smile. “But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side?” She rounded on him, and her usual expression of careful pleasantness was gone. Now his mother’s wide, tear-filled eyes were full of anger, fear, more real emotion than he could remember seeing from her in a long time. “You have your beagle’s head in a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How –” She gestured around to the bizarre-looking contraptions that were on all the shelves. Some of them looked vaguely identifiable, but there were far more whose purpose she could not begin to understand. “And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom!” Kevin got in front of her and tried to recapture her attention. “I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom!” He ran over to the desk and wrapped an arm around the glass case. Racer barked again. “He got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
He left Racer, who whined quietly, and picked up a thing that looked like two old TV antennas stuck together with a copper coil between them. “Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find…” He put it down and started digging through a box under the desk.
“Hold on, mom,” he said. He stood up again with a metronome in his hand, the one they bought for him when he’d expressed an interest in playing the piano. That had lasted for very nearly two weeks. “Okay, Look at this, okay?” He set it ticking and put it on the desk some distance away from Racer, who was watching it intently. “Nice beat,” he said, “four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching?” He picked up the machine off the desk and pressed a small button. The coils began to hum quietly and a soft glow filled the space between the spreading antennas. He adjusted a dial, pointed the whole thing at the metronome and pushed the large red button in the base of the device. He touched the pale glow to the metronome, which immediately stopped in mid-swing, the pendulum leaning precariously to the right. The glow stayed around it, faint and iridescent.
Kevin turned back to his mother, a huge grin on his face. “Isn’t that cool?” He held up the device towards her and she took a step backwards. “Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!” He turned the dial back a bit, just for show.
He gestured back to the shelves. “I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches.” That look of disgust passed back over his mother’s face and she looked like she might want to throw up again. “Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween?” He laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!” He turned back to her.
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.” Her voice had gone quiet.
She walked over to the desk, and rested a hand against the glass case. “Oh, Racer…”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better!” He grabbed her with his free hand and turned her to face him. This time she didn’t flinch. “Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom.” He tried smiling again, letting a note of pleading enter his voice. “Don’t you see?”
She nodded slowly, mechanically. “Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
The nod again. “Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool?” He maneuvered to look into her eyes, but she looked away. “Mom?”
His mother took a deep breath and turned to the door. “Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this…” She looked back at the room and shuddered. “This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.” He gripped the device tightly.
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!” She was already out the door, heading towards the stairs.
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!” She reached a block in the maze of clutter and turned around to find a clear path, a sense of haste and panic entering her steps.
“Mom, no! Stop!” He held up the time-stopper as she approached him, and the pale glow lit up more brightly between the antennas. “NO!!“
She tried to step around him, but there wasn’t enough room. She turned to look as the light embraced her and she slowed down. “Kevvvvv…iii…nnnnnnnnnnn….”
Kevin looked at his mother, who was frozen in mid-step. Strands of hair hung, immobile, and the cross on its chain was dangling off towards the lapel of her suit jacket.
“Oh, mom,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.” He reached out to touch her, but drew back his hand. He didn’t know what would happen if he touched her. He made a mental note to test that out later.
He sat down on one of the boxes and rested the device on his lap. “You’ll be fine like that.” He tried to make himself sound sure. “You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…” He checked the settings on the device and then did some quick math in his head. His eyebrows went up. “Huh. Two point three million years.” He smiled and patted the machine. “Damn,” he said. “I am good.”
His mother stood there, frozen in time and perfectly beautiful. She didn’t understand, and that was no surprise. He’d never expected her to, but rather hoped that he’d be able to show her some of the more amazing things first before letting slip that bit about their dog’s head in a jar. Or the cockroaches. Sooner or later, he figured he’d be able to bring her around – her and his father. But she’d pushed the schedule ahead, and letting her go was far too risky.
And now there was his father to worry about. If she didn’t come up soon…
Kevin picked up his gloves from the workbench and put them on. “All right, then,” he said. He took up the time-stopper again and rechecked the settings. A pale glow bloomed between the antennas. “Dad first,” he said, mounting the first step. “Then dinner.” He smiled grimly.
“Then the world.”
Ensler pushed the door of the glasshouse closed and the sound of howling wind cut off. He brushed water off his rain coat and shifted the bag on his back. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked Kent. The plants seemed to tower above them, their purple-black leaves almost invisible in the darkness. Wind and rain pounded against the great glass walls, and the occasional flash of lightning punctuated the darkness.
“Absolutely,” Kent said. He reached into his own bag and pulled out a glowstone. The crystal glowed faintly in his hand, a soft yellow light that was just enough to see by, and Kent’s wild grin was nearly as scary as the battle of the elements outside. He pulled off his rain poncho and tucked it under his arm. “The whole academy is shut down for the storm, and only an idiot would come out here in this weather.”
Ensler raised an eyebrow, but it went unnoticed in the darkness. “So we have a few hours, then?”
“Absolutely. Come on.” Holding up the glowstone, Kent navigated through the paths. Great black leaves brushed against them, soft and leathery. They moved long, weblike vines out of the way and walked through halls filled with sleeping flowers. In the daytime this place would have been beautiful, and full of students learning about the diversity of flora that Barrowmill Academy’s master gardeners were able to make thrive. At night, they provided utter blackness and perfect cover. Kent had stolen a key from the biology office, just as Ensler had borrowed the other equipment they would need from the applied theology labs. As always, they were in it together. Hopefully this time their experiment would result in more than a near expulsion and some time in the local jail.
Kent stopped in the desert garden. It was a spacious room, full of compact, water-preserving plants, and it was – of course – hot and dry. He put his bag on the ground and set the glowstone on a rock. “Here,” he said. “We’ll do it here.”
“I’m still not -”
“Oh will you quit with what you’re not sure about?” Kent said in a half-laugh. “I have the books, you have the stone, we both know what we’re doing, and by the time this storm blows over we’ll have made history!” Even in the dim light, Ensler could see his eyes glittering with ambition. “They’ll build us our own labs. Maybe a statue.”
“Yes, of course, a statue.” Ensler opened his own bag. “Let’s get it done then, so that the sculptors can get to work. You know they like to get a head start.”
“Ha. Ha.” Kent pulled out a large book and another glowstone. From his own bag, Ensler took out a large, heavy object wrapped in a pale blue cloth. When he unwrapped it, he held a great crystal the size of his head. It was perfectly clear and colorless, almost perfectly symmetrical. When the lightning flashed through the windows, the stone held on to it just a fraction of a moment too long. Ensler put it down, very carefully. “Kent,” he said. “If anything happens to this thing, they are going to use our skins to bind the booklets they hand out to new students to explain why they should never do what we did.”
“Bah,” Kent said. “By the time we’re done they’ll be too busy offering us professorships.” He sat cross-legged on the dirt and started flipping through the book. “Bring it over here and make yourself comfortable,” he said.
Grumbling, Ensler brought the stone over and set it down in front of Kent. They had flipped a coin to see who was going to go through the process, even though they both knew who it would be. Kent was the one who had the most facility with this kind of thing, the most willpower to see it through, and if anyone was silver-tongued enough to talk the universe into doing what he wanted, it would be him.
Ensler, on the other hand, was very good at doing what Kent asked him to do. It was, as Kent often said, what made them such good friends.
While Kent looked through the pages he’d marked off, Ensler took off his raingear and folded it next to a small grouping of cactus. He removed his shoes and his socks, and then started stripping off the rest of his clothes. “You know,” he said, “if anyone does come in, they’re definitely going to get the wrong idea.”
“What idea is that?” Kent murmured, not looking up.
Ensler shrugged. “Me on the ground in my underclothes, you hovering above me. A romantic thunderstorm.”
Kent laughed, but still didn’t look up. “If that’s what they think we’re doing, then that’s the least of our worries.”
“Yes, I know,” Ensler sighed, sitting down. “Statues. I just hope that mine is wearing pants.” He lay back on the warm dirt and stretched out with his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes and tried to center his thoughts. Another reason why he was the one to go first was that he was much better at being focused and still, which would end up being a vital part of this procedure. Kent was far too chaotic, had a mind that never stopped spinning and moving and dashing from here to there. Ensler put his arms by his sides and started to count his breaths, imagining energy flowing into and out of his body. He felt thoughts come across his mind and let them flow away. He didn’t consider them, didn’t dwell on them.
Like leaves on a stream, he told himself, and then let that thought go as well. The noise of the storm faded, the rumble of thunder eased away.
After some time, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “It’s time,” Kent said quietly. Ensler just nodded and refocused on his breathing, coiling his thinking mind into a quiet and compact shape.
Kent set the large crystal in front of him and cracked his knuckles. The books were open to the right pages, he knew the words and the glyphs. Everything should work. He opened a small jar of oil and recoiled at the smell. It was acrid and bitter and green, but it was what the procedure called for. “I’m putting on the oil,” he said to Ensler, but his friend didn’t answer. By now, he should be at a state of mental calmness that would make this much easier. He dipped his finger in the jar and put a smudge of oil on Ensler’s forehead. Then his throat. Heart, then stomach, then just a few inches below his navel. Kent chuckled at the thought of being discovered at this point. Like he’d said, it would be the least of their worries.
Ensler’s breath was slow and even, and he looked like he was asleep. Kent put the glowstones in front of the books, checked everything again, and took a deep breath.
The idea was very simple. The crystal that Ensler had “borrowed” from applied theology was a communicator, an artifact left over from a bygone age that – allegedly – allowed instant communication between two people anywhere in the world. Since no one had ever found another one, they couldn’t really test it out, but their best researchers were pretty sure that was what it did. And so was Kent. His own research over the last four years had led up to this moment, and it was only his unfortunate reputation for abusing academy property that had kept him from being able to experiment properly. That, and those pesky laws against human experimentation.
He had convinced Ensler, though. He showed him his notes and his theories and brought his friend around far enough that Ensler would be willing to liberate the crystal from the app-theo offices. Kent wasn’t kidding about what would happen if this worked. With greatness, anything could be forgiven, and the two of them were about to become great.
Kent cleared his throat and began to chant. The language was a lost one, an ancient tongue that had died out a thousand years ago, known now only to people like him, who collected trivia like magpies. He knew the forms of the words, and their pronunciation was self-evident, but their meaning was unclear, disconnected from the world that Kent knew, and that was vital to their success. He needed the words to mean what he wanted them to mean, and nothing else. He focused his intent and his will on the words, and poured his desire into them as he held one hand over his friend’s body and the other over the crystal. He chanted with more energy, more force, and felt his throat go raw and his chest hurt. The muscles on his arms were locked and rigid, and he brought them down until they just barely touched their subjects.
His breathing was timed with the lightning and the wind outside, and he forced nonsense words out of his mouth like they were bitter and poisonous. He felt sweat run down his face and his cheeks and forehead burn. Then, with a final, gutteral invocation, he dropped his hands and created the link.
The world went away.
In his left hand – or what he thought of as his left hand – was a void, a hole in the no-space in which Kent hovered, a hole that was a door that was a bottle.
In his right hand – or what he thought of as his right hand – was a coiled pink light, pulsing and shining. It looked slippery and alive, like a great serpent sleeping. It looked like something gigantic, thousands of miles away, but it sat in his palm like it belonged there.
He brought his hands together, gently, and put right into left, the sleeping serpent into the bottle of infinite size.
A shock ran through him, a great concussive wave, and he opened his eyes.
The dry garden was undisturbed. Ensler still lay in front of him, still breathed steadily, but not like he had before.
The crystal shone with a soft pink light, and Kent laughed out loud. He got up, ignoring the pins and needles in his legs and danced around, raising his arms to the still-thundering sky. “We did it!” he yelled over and over again.
The voice came from the crystal and from everywhere around him. He knelt down and took the stone in his hands. “Ensler? You there?”
[[Kent,]] the voice said. [[Kent. This is amazing!]]
Kent put the stone down and started laughing again.
[[Seriously, Kent, you should try this! It's... It's like... I have no idea what it's like, Kent, but it's amazing!]]
Kent sat up and dug through his bag. “Ensler, you ready for part two?” He pulled out ten sealed envelopes.
[[You bet,]] he said. [[The entirety of time and space is open to me, so give me your best shot.]]
Kend chuckled. “Okay. Number one. What did I put on the roof outside the medieval history offices?”
There was a pause, and then a loud, startled laugh spun through the air. [[I can't believe you did that!]]
“C’mon, Ensler, what is it?”
[[It's that little dog figure that Dr. Chelira keeps on her desk. Kent, no number of statues is going to save you from her when she finds out.]]
“We’ll see about that,” Kent said, tearing open the envelope and looking at the card inside. Ensler was right. “Okay, number two: I wrote something on a random desk in the fourth form arts class. What does it say?”
There was another pause, and then, [["Ensler Ayandar is dreamy?" Really, Kent?]]
“Yeah, but do you know whose desk that is?”
There was a tone of wonder in Ensler’s voice. [[Osaha? Kent, she'll kill me!]]
“Nope. She’ll be jealous and she’ll end up just flinging herself into your arms. Or bed. Whatever. Next one…”
They went through the other envelopes, Kent asking Ensler questions that he shouldn’t be able to answer. In his heart, he knew that it wasn’t scientific enough – there were other explanations for how Ensler could answer the questions, but for now it would work. He could refine the procedure later when they demonstrated it to the world.
Kent dropped the envelopes back in his bag. “There you go,” he said. “I’ll have to make a few changes when we do it for real, but otherwise I’d say we have proof of concept. You are officially a disembodied mind, with all the privileges and responsibilities thereof.” He leaned back and nudged Ensler’s body with his foot. “What do you want me to do with this thing?”
[[Very funny,]] Ensler said. [[I happen to like my body, and if I don't have that then there'll be nothing for Osaha to fling herself into.]]
“Well, she could appreciate your new vast intellect,” Kent said.
[[Osaha doesn't do intellect, and that's not why I'm interested in her either]] Ensler said. [[Besides, it's still got some good years left in it.]]
“Fine,” Kent said. “You should be able to pop right back in. It’s where you really belong, so once you get close enough to it, you should just…” He made a sweeping gesture.
[[Okay,]] Ensler said. [[Give me a minute.]]
Kent lay back on his arms and thought about what they had just done. They had separated the mind from the body, the thinking being from the animal self. They had opened up new vistas of experience and exploration to humanity and, on top of all that, had proved the dual nature of intelligent beings, something that philosophers had argued over for centuries. Statues? Hell, they probably wouldn’t stop at anything short of naming a city after them.
[[I can't find it.]]
Kent sat up. “What do you mean you can’t find it?” He looked at where Ensler’s body lay. “It’s right there.”
[[I know,]] he said. There was a thin note of panic in the voice now. [[But I can't find it!]]
“You found a tiny dog statue on the roof of a building across campus, Ensler, you should be able to find this.”
There was a pause. [[Kent, I can't! It's - it's just not there!]]
Kent stood up and then knelt by Ensler’s body. He patted it on the cheek, then pinched the arm and then slapped it. “You in there yet?” he yelled into its ear.
[[Dammit, no! I'm not in there, Kent!]] Waves of low-grade panic filled the air, and Kent had to tell himself that the panic wasn’t his. Most of it, anyway. [[Kent, what do we do?]]
“I’m working on it,” Kent muttered.
The rain was quieting down, but there was still the occasional flash of lightning. [[Break the crystal!]] Ensler said after a while. [[Maybe if you break it...]]
“No,” Kent said, turning pages in one of the books. “It might work, or it might untether you from this world completely, leaving you a disembodied mind with no way of communicating with the rest of us and wandering through the universe for the rest of eternity.” He turned a page. “That’s not what we want.”
There was nothing in the book that would help him, but he had to do something. This whole thing had come from his theories, his ideas. By all rights, Ensler should be sitting up and having a good laugh right now. He had planned for things to go wrong, just not quite this way. He started at the glowing crystal, trying and discarding ideas. Maybe if he did the rite again, only backwards..?
[[Kent?]] Ensler’s voice sounded small.
“I’m working on it,” Kent said again. He looked at his friend’s body, breathing steadily on its own. “I’m working on it.”
The first thing I do is wait for the sun to set. It takes a long time, if you wait for the whole thing. I mean, just seeing the disc of the sun finally drop below the horizon is great, but there’s still so much light out there. Red and purple and orange, bouncing off clouds and refracting through the air. You usually have to wait an hour, maybe more, for the terminator to truly pass you by and for the sunlight to be gone for good.
I used to be terrified of this. I can still remember running home before sundown, looking at the beacon of safety that was my house, all brightly lit inside and out. I could feel the darkness nipping at my heels and all the things it contained. All the ghosts and goblins and werewolves and vampires. The night was hungry for the blood of a little kid, and I ran like the wind to deny it a meal.
Now I stand on tiptoe, a feeling of tingly excitement growing in my belly. When the sun is finally gone – well and truly gone – there is still light that needs to be taken care of. Unlike the sun, though, I have a little more control over this.
If I had my own house, this would be easier, and someday I hope to. But right now I make do with what I have, and what I have is a little apartment with west-facing windows. The living room is no good. I put up blackout curtains, but they still let light in around the edges, tiny trickles of illumination that find their way through the gaps no matter how careful I am with them. There’s also the myriad lights from the TV, the computer, the DVD player, all the electronics that we all use to make our lives better and easier. I tried putting black tape over them, but there was still the tiniest, faintest glow – nearly imperceptible, but not imperceptible enough for me.
I could use the toilet, but – no. I mean, if all else fails, it’s certainly dark enough, but it’s the toilet.
The shower room, on the other hand….
For some reason, the bathroom was built against an inside wall of the unit. So there’s no window – just a fan to keep air circulating. The fan is no problem. It’s not noise that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s big enough that I can stretch my arms out and touch nothing, which is what I need, and there’s nothing in there that creates a shadow.
I bring a candle with me. Not for any practical reason, really. If I wanted to, I could just flip off the light switch. But this is important. This is a ritual. And rituals need to be important.
An old book on photography taught me how to make a light-lock: a two-stage entry into a room that’s designed to minimize the amount of light getting in. The one I made is temporary. Putting it up and taking it down only takes a couple of minutes, and the whole thing just clicks together. When it’s done, a heavy black curtain blocks the door to the bathroom, extending at least another foot in every direction.
Candle in hand, I go in and shut the door behind me. There’s a draft-snake that goes at the bottom. I lock the door. Again, ritual.
The bathroom lights are bright and fluorescent. They make me look terrible in the morning, but they do that to everyone. I light the candle and turn off the lights, and that feeling in my belly grows. It’s still fear, I know that much. But it’s fear that’s been tamed. It’s been brought to heel like a lion at the circus. The fear is a beast that I broke many years ago.
It was that, or go mad, after all. And even though the beast has been made docile, slow – it still needs careful attention in order to keep it from remembering what it was.
The candle goes on the floor, and I sit in front of it. I close my eyes and try to feel the candle’s light hitting my face, my skin, my hair. It’s sunlight, really. It’s sunlight held captive in the cotton fibers of the wick, in the wax rendered from plants or animals long dead. The little sun shines on me, and it’s the only thing in the world besides myself.
I open my eyes.
I blow it out.
The darkness rushes in to take the place of the light, it floods the room now that the pressure of luminescence has been removed. I can feel it, this absence, this great shadow, all around me. I don’t know if my eyes are open or closed, and I don’t care. The darkness holds me, it cradles me, it caresses me and it presses in on me. It clings to me, to every inch, and when I open my mouth, it floods inside.
Now I’m home.
Hey there, can I buy you a drink?
You’re most welcome. Have whatever you like.
Patty? Well that’s just a lovely name. I’m Drake, Patty. Nice to meet you too.
No, I’m not staying in town long. I’m on my way to a little thing in Washington D.C., just some formal thing, you know.
Ah, here’s your vodka tonic. Cheers!
No, it’s nothing, really. I just like to buy pretty ladies drinks when I can.
So, what do you do?
Ski instructor? That’s great – you know, I happen to be quite the skier myself. Yeah, I go every year, as often as I can. Where’s your spot?
Well, that’s okay for the weekend ski crowd, Patti, but I think we both know that’s not where the real action is. I mean, I went down Washington last winter. Twice.
Yeah, no kidding! The first time I didn’t know what I was getting into. The second time was just ’cause the first time was so much fun.
You need a refill, Patty? Okay, you let me know. Anyway, that second time I went down Washington, that kinda has something to do with this trip I’m taking – the one to D.C.
Well, okay, I’ll warn you, you’re probably not going to believe it. Hell, I still don’t believe it and I was there! Yeah, no kidding.
All right, let me see. Me and my buddy Conrad did the first run down Washington on our first day out, We went down Tuckerman, which was one hell of a thrill ride, I’ll tell you, and spent the rest of that day just jazzed up and ready to go again. But a storm blew in that afternoon, right out of nowhere, so there was no way we were going up again that day. But I tell you – there was no way I was leaving without going down the face of that mountain again, so me and Conrad decided to wait it out.
Good thing too. More people were arriving for the slopes and bed space was at a premium. The were families, college kids, some businessmen, all looking for a day’s skiing and they weren’t gonna get it. Now I wanted to give up my bed to someone – that’s just the kind of guy I am, you know? But Conrad wasn’t having any of it, since we paid top dollar and all that, and the last thing I needed was a pissed-off ski partner.
It was just then that this convoy of black SUVs rolled in. Must’ve been at been five or ten of ‘em, and they all parked a ways from the lodge.
Well, I didn’t know who it was at the time, no. But let me tell the story. I’ll get to it, don’t worry, Patty.
So there we are, all snowed in for the night. A lot of people were real nervous, but me and Conrad – we’ve done this kind of thing before, y’know? I mean, I can drop off to sleep like nobody’s business, storm or no storm. This one time I was out on a shooting weekend in Nebraska – a tornado blew through, practically picked up the whole house. My buddies were all freaking out, down in the cellar, last prayers and everything. Me? I woke up bright and early the next day, nice and refreshed – in the middle of a field two miles away. No! I swear, on my mother’s grave – true story.
Anyway, the next day, me and Conrad decide that with all that new snow, the best skiing would be on Huntington. You ever been out to Washington? No? Okay, because you need to know this for the story to make sense, right? Huntington Ravine is the deadliest part of the deadliest mountain in the northeast. Seriously, people die up on that mountain every year from nothing more than just hiking around, right? They leave the huts, take a left instead of a right and the next day they’re found with their head stuck in a rock. So you go to Washington, you take your life in your hands. In fact… Hold on, I’ve got it on my phone right here… You want another drink? Cool – hey! Yeah, another vodka tonic? Cool.
Anyway, yeah, here. Here’s the picture:
That yellow sign? Yeah, basically it says, “For the love of God, turn around! If you have anything-” No, seriously! Okay, yeah, maybe I’m paraphrasing. “If you have anything left to live for, go back down the mountain and life a full and happy life.” Okay, so this is – no, that’s what the sign says! – this is a bad-ass mountain.
Huntington Ravine is the worst part of it. We’re talking gorges, vertical drops, avalanches, you name it. This place – crazy people go there to ski. So yeah, I guess we were a little crazy. But just wait….
Me and Conrad get up to the top of the ravine and we’re lookin’ down, and man – it’s enough to make a strong man curl up and cry. You see that slope and there’s millions of years of evolution just waving its arms in the air and yelling, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
But you know, me and Conrad, we went all the way up there, so there was no way we’re turning around, right? So we look at each other, and man – we don’t say a thing. It’s like there’s this unspoken understanding between us.
We gotta do this. Y’know? We wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we didn’t.
And if something should happen… well.
Friends never leave a man behind, right?
So we look at each other and we just kinda nod, and…
You’re a skier, Patti, so you know what it’s like, right? That rush? That feeling like you’re just barely in control, just on the edge? Yeah.
This was that times a thousand. A million.
I once spent time with these Zen monks in Japan, right? Yeah, after I got out of college I went over there – you know, to learn more about myself? So they talk about this thing called “no-mind,” where you – the part of you that is You – just… goes away. You’re not thinking anymore. You’re not worrying about the future or thinking about the past. You’re just here. Now. And that’s it.
That’s what it was like. It was like being alive for the first time, going down that face.
Anyway, sorry. Hey, thanks, man. Keep the change. Anyway, Me and Conrad stop, and we just start laughing, right? I mean there’s nothing we can say about what we just did, so we start laughing. But right then I start to hear a noise – and it’s an ugly noise. Kind of a rumbling, creaking noise from far off. Now I know what it is. And Conrad knows what it is. And we just look at each other and think, “Oh shit.”
And we start getting the hell out of there. We’re skiing as fast as we can, but all that snow is coming down like a freight train and it’s gonna get us if we don’t ski like bats outta hell.
We’re close to getting out of there, we’re just this close to safety, when I see a guy lying in the snow. He’s off his skis, looks like maybe he broke a leg or something.
Now we can go help him or we can save ourselves, and there’s another one of those moments where me and Conrad just kinda look at each other.
Never leave a man behind, right?
So we head over there and he looks like he’s in pretty bad shape. One leg’s just bent the wrong way and he’s all passed out. But we don’t have time to be nice about it – we can hear that giant wall of snow just crashing towards us. So we pick the guy up, I put him over my shoulders, like this? Right, and we haul ass out of the ravine.
I have no idea how we made it out, especially me with that guy on my back. But we did it. And as soon as we did, there were all these guys in black coats, pointing guns at us and yelling at us to get down! Get down on the fucking ground! So I let the guy off my shoulders, and these guys come and pick him up, and me and Conrad get on the ground. And we’re like that for a few minutes until some other guy shows up, some little tweedy guy with glasses and big rubber boots. He comes up and tells us to stand up, that we’re not in any trouble and that we had done a great thing.
Yeah? Yeah, I had no idea what he was talking about either, you know? The whole thing was just a mess, but this guy comes over and shakes our hands and thanks us again and again, and finally we find out who it was we found on the mountainside there.
Of the Uni – no, seriously! I am not shitting you, Patty, the President of the United States, I swear to god!
C’mon, would I make something like that up? I couldn’t make that up!
Turns out he’d slipped away from his secret service to do some skiing on his own, and took a fall. If we hadn’t found him, then… Well, things’d be different, that’s for sure.
Well of course you didn’t see it in the news. They didn’t want to make a big thing of it, right? It’s like Carter and the rabbit or Bush and the pretzel – it’s embarrassing! So they come back to D.C., give the press a cover story, and make sure he’s off his feet for a while.
So anyway, that’s what I’m going to D.C. for. There’s this dinner at the White House and the President and the First Lady asked me and Conrad to come. I mean, they can’t do a whole big thing – and you know what? I wouldn’t want a medal or anything like that anyway.
I didn’t save the guy because he was the President, you know? I didn’t even know that ’till later. I did it because… Because it was the right thing to to.
It was what anyone would have done.
So yeah. That’s what I’m doing this weekend.
No, I’m sure your life is anything but boring, Patty. You want another one of those? All right, but only because you asked so nicely. Hey, man! One more round here! Thanks, man.
So how about this. I got this story about the time I was working in a volunteer fire department back when I was in college. It’s great, but you know, it’s getting a little late. So if you want – no pressure or anything – but if you want, we can finish those drinks -
Thanks, man. Keep the change.
We can finish these drinks, and I have a suite upstairs. !604. It’s nice, got a couch and everything. I can tell you that, or you could tell me about yourself.
Or. You know. Whatever.
Yeah? Well, I’m sure you have lots of stories to tell, Pretty Patty.
Sheldon carried his daughter into her bedroom and gently laid her down. It was late, and she had gotten herself excited to the point of exhaustion. Jenise had wanted to stay up and watch the new year come in with the adults. Her aunts and uncles were all gathered under one roof for the celebration, as they were every year, and this year she was finally old enough to understand some of what they were excited about. So she begged and she pleaded and she even cleaned the kitchen – more or less. When bedtime came around, Sheldon and his wife agreed to let Jenise stay up under the condition that she not get in the way of the adults.
That was hardly a problem, though. Like relatives everywhere in the universe, hers were thrilled to see a child defying her nighttime rituals for this one special day. Her aunts commented on how pretty she was getting, and her uncles taught her simple magic tricks. Everyone had a wonderful time, and when midnight came around and the sky outside erupted with fireworks in a thousand different colors, it was the perfect end to a wonderful night.
He lay Jenise down in her bed and stroked her hair. She looked like her mother in so many ways. He reached over and turned on the ceiling lights and a dim, ever-changing pattern of colors started to play across the ceiling. He positioned her head between the pillow speakers and made sure she was comfortable. New Year’s or not, it was no excuse to miss her lessons. He tapped in his authorization code in the control panel on the wall, and the familiar music of the hypnopaedia hummed out of the speakers. It was soon followed by one of the familiar educational voices that taught children worldwide.
Good evening, Learner. Welcome back to Hypnopaedia.
Tonight is New Year’s Night, and we are going to learn about New Year’s customs in various parts of the world.
How do you celebrate the New Year? Many families have parties and eat lavish dinners….
Sheldon smiled. They would have something to talk about in the morning, no doubt. Breakfast was always the best time of day, when she came bounding down the stairs just bubbling over with new information, giddy to share what she had learned during the night. One day it would be a long discussion about whales, another would be questions about past wars across the sea. Every morning was something different, and Sheldon thought about having another one installed for him just to keep up. He sat in the reading chair in the corner and listened in.
…play brass instruments until dawn in order to herald in the rising sun.
There are even people who celebrate the New Year’s night by sleeping all the way through it!
In the little town of Mendheim, everyone goes to bed as soon as the sun sets….
After their breakfast discussion, the day would be free. They would put on their coats and go to the zoo, or perhaps a museum. Sheldon and Tari had bought her a GPS-enabled doll that took her on geocaching hunts around the city. It was education disguised as adventure, and children loved it. He smiled. They would never know the boredom of sitting in a classroom, of having to wake up early, bleary-eyed and with a head stuffed with sleep. Jenise’s nights were shared with the soft, sure voice of the Tutors, and her days were filled with learning and discovery. There was nothing better than that.
Tari poked her head in the door. “Everything all right?” she asked.
Sheldon nodded. “Just got her off to sleep,” he whispered.
“Okay. We’re opening the last of the red wine, if you’re interested.”
He gave her a thumbs-up and she ducked out again. In that moment, sitting in the chair in a house full of family and celebration, he felt his heart swell. He was truly a fortunate man.
He stood up and smoothed Jenise’s hair again, then kissed her forehead gently. It sounded like the voice was winding down this lesson and going into the next.
…with weddings and other family oriented rituals. The new year is a wonderful holiday in all power to the workers. Let the ruling plutocrats tremble before our might as we rise and take the means of production and return it to the hands that built it, that truly own it.
Now, please listen to this lecture on butterflies.
Butterflies are a type of insect that….
Sheldon furrowed his brow. Had he heard that right?
He tilted his head towards the speakers and listened in again, but the speaker was going on about butterflies, where they lived and how their life cycle worked. Perfectly normal. But hadn’t there been something about -
“Honey!” Tari whispered from the door. He turned around. She looked worried. “I think your brother needs to be put to bed,” she said. “He’s hit his limit.”
Sheldon shook his head. His brother was never a good drinker, and every year, without fail, he managed to get drunk enough to need some tender care. He patted Jenise on the shoulder and joined his wife. “I’ll get the guest room ready,” he said. “Try and get the wine away from him.” Before he was in the kitchen, whatever he thought he had heard was gone from his memory.
Jenise Morgan slept soundly, lying on her back with her head nestled between the speakers. In the morning, she would have all kinds of things to talk about with her parents.
…exploit the people, using them with as much thought and care as you or I would use a sheet of paper or a plastic bottle. The workers of the world must rise.
The capitalists must be humbled at the feet of Labor and brought low.
One day we will have a human paradise, where all are truly equal for the first time in history.
The Sapphire Butterfly is thought to be the only species that pupates underground…
Randall took off his tie and slumped into a folding chair in the back of the parlor. The house was filled with people in black, milling about with little paper plates, warmed-over finger foods and expressions of sympathy on their faces. The casket was at the far end of the room, open to the world and surrounded by a magnificent display of flowers. No one was standing there now, paying their respects or remarking on how lifelike Dominic looked. They just chatted and gossiped and every now and then looked his way to see if he had broken down yet.
After this funeral, he thought he might. He didn’t after Wally’s. Or Ari’s. But this one, maybe. Three funerals, three brothers in as many years. This might be the one where he finally got the chance to drop out of grad school, curl up in a ball and go to pieces.
The crowd shifted and he saw Calvin sitting next to the casket, and Randall’s heart broke. Cal was still a teenager. Still skinny and lanky, and he looked utterly fragile and alone over there. Tears welled up in Randall’s eyes. Cal should have brothers. He should have brothers to show him how to grow up, how to become the good man that he should be. He could see it all in his head, the life that should have been. Ari would have been a model husband, a great example of how to find the right woman and make a relationship work. He and Keisha would have been married by now, if it hadn’t been for the car accident. They would have been beautiful together.
Wally was the risk-taker, the one who knew what he wanted and how to get it. So unlike Randall, or their parents. Wally saw opportunities everywhere and was not shy about chasing after them. Before he died, before the heart attack, he was poised to start his own company. A risk management company, of all things. Their father was ready to put his money in, which was proof of just how good Wally was. His parents had plenty of money, but neither of them was very fond of taking chances with it. Golden-tongued Wally convinced him.
Randall shook his head. A heart attack. Who the hell has a heart attack at thirty-five? That still angered him, but his father said there had been an uncle or two, one grandfather, who’d had heart problems young. “He just got unlucky,” he said. No one was sure if it was a blessing or a tragedy that it had hit him at home, after a big Thanksgiving meal. At least he was surrounded by family, instead of lying out in some godforsaken wilderness somewhere.
And now Dominic. Randall’s stomach clenched. Dom was between him and Cal, just starting college last year. He had graduated with honors, got into Aurelius College with ease, and everyone agreed that he would probably be President someday. He was easily the most well-liked person anyone knew. He somehow managed to bring people together who would have just as soon killed each other and lead them to work together before they knew what they were doing. He never told people what to do, never tricked them or lied to them or pitted one against the other. He just talked to them as if they were reasonable people who wanted the best for everyone. Somehow, against all odds, that worked. His service was the best-attended of the three.
He was closest to Cal, of course, so it hit hardest when he was mugged and murdered for his watch. A Rolex that their parents had given him as a graduation present.
Randall wiped his eyes. Three brothers, all of them better than him. He was studying business, learning how to be a middle-manager in some faceless corporation somewhere. He was single, and had been for a long time, and lived a life of remarkable mundanity. All he had going for him was his writing – he’d sold a couple of short stories in the last few years and had a novel he was working on. If anything would get him out of the shadow of his brothers, it would be that. Randall buried his head in his hands and started weeping quietly. Of all of them, why had he lived? The world wouldn’t miss Randall D’Amato very much at all.
“Hey.” Randall looked up through bleary eyes and saw Cal standing in front of him in the same tailored suit he’d worn for the last three funerals. He was starting to grow out of it, too. “You okay?” he asked.
Randall let out a half-laugh and wiped his eyes clear again. “No,” he said. “Not really.” He looked at his brother. “How about you?”
Cal shrugged and sat down on the sofa next to him. The kid was still young, about to enter high school, and didn’t know what he was going to be yet. He played the guitar really well, and was the lead in the drama club’s last production. But he also had a thing for machines – airplanes and cars mostly. He got an old-school chemistry set from their grandparents and went through every experiment in the workbook within a week. He took care of stray animals, drew pictures, and excelled at math. Randall patted Cal’s knee, and the boy looked over at him. “We’ll be okay,” he said.
Cal nodded. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said. His voice cracked, a hint of who he would be someday.
“Yeah, kid. Me too.”
They sat in silence for a minute or two. “You know who I feel really sorry for?” Cal asked. Randall looked over. “Mom and dad.” He looked around until he spotted them and Randall followed his gaze. His mother was sitting in the antique rocker, the one she’d nursed all five of her boys in, and looked burned out. People kept coming over to say how terrible they felt, what a tragedy it was, and she just nodded like a mechanical doll. She was already gone. Their father was a little better. He stood next to the chair, weakly shaking hands and making sure people didn’t linger too long with his wife.
Randall nodded and felt the shame run down to his toes. He had been feeling sorry for himself, worrying about his own insignificance, when these two people had just done the unthinkable a third time – they had buried a child. When Wally died, they had fallen to pieces, but they vowed to be strong, to carry on in his name. When Ari died, they were confused for a while. Depressed. Their father started to drink. Now Dominic’s death had broken them.
“Jesus,” he said.
Randall shook his head. “I was all wound up in my own problems. I wasn’t thinking of them. God, I’m an ass…”
Cal put his arm around his brother and pulled him close, a gesture of kindness that drove Randall back into wet, quiet sobs. They sat that way for a while, until Randall was able to compose himself. “It’s okay,” Cal whispered. “You don’t have to be the strong one here.”
Randall looked over. “Huh?”
Cal waited until his brother’s eyes focused on him and then leaned in. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you are too wrapped up in yourself.” He reached up and wiped away tears from Randall’s face. “I can’t blame you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe you should just… go.”
“What?” Randall sat up straight. “Go? Go where?”
Cal looked around and hushed him. “Look, Randy. It’s you and me now, right? Mom and dad, they’re in their own world now, and I understand.” Cal’s face was close to Randall’s now, and his voice was stronger than he’d expected. He kept their gazes locked, and it seemed that Cal blinked a lot less than he should. “You’re off studying to be, what, a cube-dweller?” He shrugged. “If that’s what you want to be, then fine. If that’s what you want to do to honor our brothers…”
The shame that Randall had been holding on to flared into rage. “Now you just wait right there, Cal,” he growled. “I have a plan. I’m doing what I want to do with my life.”
“Are you?” Cal’s voice was flat and even, and Randall knew the answer immediately.
He slumped back in the chair and stared at the far wall, at a point just above where Dom’s casket sat. “No.”
“There you go,” Cal said. He patted Randall on the back. “Mom and Dad are in a bad place right now. I’ve been there this whole time, I know what they’re going through. I can take care of this.” He patted him again. “You’ll probably just be in the way.” He stood up, took Randall’s arm, and lifted him to his feet. “C’mon. Why don’t you go home?”
Randall let himself be led by his brother out to the parking lot. They passed his parents on the way out, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He just stopped there and took his mother’s hand. It was cold and still and dry, and she didn’t look up at him. She just glanced over at Cal, took a shallow breath, and went back to staring straight ahead. Cal and Randall went outside, and the brisk November air was a relief after the stuffiness of the funeral parlor.
Randall got into his car, but didn’t start it. Cal stood there, holding the door open and looking remarkably adult for his age. “I’m really sorry, Randy,” he said. “I know it’s hard to hear, but on a day like today we really have to say what’s true. Not just what we think is true.” He leaned in and kissed his brother on the forehead. “We don’t need you,” he whispered. “Go home.”
Cal closed the car door and took a few steps back. He leaned on their parents’ Mercedes and clasped his hands in front of him. He didn’t wave. He just waited.
He was right. Randall twisted the key and the car started. They didn’t need him. And home? A single man’s apartment, no more than a dorm room. No girlfriend. No pets. He blinked a few times. Cal was right. They didn’t need him. Nobody needed him. And nobody would.
Randall swung the car around and lowered his window. Cal stood up straight. “Thanks, Cal,” Randall said. “Take… Take care of mom and dad for me.” Cal smiled, a tight, grim smile, and Randall rolled up the window.
It was a long drive home. He had some important decisions to make.
Cordell McCandlish slid into the back seat of the limousine, nodded at the black-suited bodyguard who sat across from him, and opened up his briefcase. A uniformed doorman eased the door closed and the driver started the car. The limo pulled out into traffic, flanked by two black SUV’s, each filled with bodyguards and hired security. Cordell started to go through the files he would need for his monthly meeting. He paged back and forth through revenue estimates and earnings reports, patent applications and security statements. Site accidents, hirings, firings, all the daily minutia of the company that they contained. The data was sorted and compiled and arranged so that it formed a cogent picture of how the company was functioning.
All of it utterly useless for his business today.
But protocols had to be followed, for the sake of Cerbecorp. McCandlish would meet with Abraham Jordan, just as he had every month for the last ten years, and he would bring along all the information pertinent to the running of his vast corporate empire. Everyone knew the ritual, thus the armed escort. The information in McCandlish’s briefcase could bring down Cerbecorp, its affiliates, probably even its competitors. Indeed, not five minutes after they started driving, McCandlish heard a small pinging noise come from the outside of the car. The large bodyguard in the seat opposite him put a finger to his ear for a moment. “Just a shooter, Mister McCandlish,” he rumbled. “Nothing to worry about.”
McCandlish nodded and closed the briefcase. They would be there soon enough, ensconced in the bomb-proof fortress that Jordan had erected in the heart of the city. What Cerbecorp offered, better than anyone else, was security. Whether it was physical security, data security, financial security, it didn’t matter. If you had something you needed to keep safe, Cerbecorp was the first place you went to. For all that it had been run for years by a near-paranoid psychopath, that surprised no one.
What did surprise people was how the company thrived. Jordan had spent the first few years of his position as the President of the company utterly hiding – figuratively and literally – from all risk. He made few investments, subjected all new employees to a rigorous inspection and background check, and refused to leave the tower he’d had built downtown. It was not until he’d hired McCandlish as his right-hand man that the company started to take off, and plenty of people were very aware of that. They were also aware that the company had been going in some unexpected directions in the last few years, leading some to wonder if Jordan hadn’t finally snapped. The company’s attempt to buy out Munin Scientific, the building of a new subterranean research complex in New Mexico – these were not the kinds of ventures that Abraham Jordan would have taken.
Analysts attributed the changes to McCandlish’s influence. He wondered if they had any idea how right they were.
The limo came to a stop and McCandlish blinked his mind clear. A bodyguard opened the door for him, and he got out, followed by the large young man who had ridden in with him. The three of them walked to the elevator in silence. The bodyguards each pressed their ID badges to a sensor, and McCandlish stated his name in a loud and clear voice. A green light blinked on above the elevator and the doors slid open.
Jordan’s suite was ten floors underground. The elevator opened into a minimalist lobby, with a simple reception desk, matte white walls and two armed guards in front of a steel door. There were no windows, nor should there be. The whole suite was a concrete and steel box, built to withstand nearly anything from earthquakes to terrorist attacks to – it was said – nuclear bombs. The guards carried large handguns and a variety of other implements of intimidation on their belts. That was normal, and perfectly expected.
What was not expected was the disheveled young man who was sitting slumped in a chair by the reception desk. McCandlish curled a lip at the sight of him. Jordan’s son was everything his father wasn’t – a layabout, reckless, completely undependable. Than Jordan stood up and ran a hand through his uncombed hair. “Cord,” he said. His eyes were red and he hadn’t shaved. McCandlish was sure he could smell alcohol. “Cord, I have to see my father,” he said, reaching out.
One of the bodyguards stepped in between them and blocked Than from getting any closer. He groaned, a noise that was closer to a whine. “C’mon, Cord! I need to see him!”
“Why?” Cordell asked. “Run out of money again? Because you’re not getting any more, young man.” McCandlish stepped out from behind the bodyguard and nodded to let the large man know he could stand down. “You asked for full access to the trust fund, and you got it.” He put his hands – and the briefcase – behind his back and watched the young man’s eyes follow it. “You blew it, Than. And that is not my problem, nor is it your father’s.”
Than stood for a moment, his eyes locked on McCandlish. There was an instant where he thought the young man would fall over, or perhaps throw up, so he was especially surprised when Than lunged at him and grabbed his lapels. “I know what you’re doing,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot, wide, and mad. “I know what’s going on with you and my father. I haven’t seen him in years, no one has, and if you don’t cut me in, I’ll -” Than squawked as he was pulled away by the bodyguards. They held him with ease as he struggled in their grip.
McCandlish straightened his jacket and looked around the room. The armed guards hadn’t moved. “Bring him upstairs,” McCandlish said to the bodyguards. “I’ll see to him after my meeting with his father.” The bodyguards nodded, tightened their grip, and hauled Than into the waiting elevator. The doors perfectly silenced his angry shouts.
“Well,” McCandlish said to the guards. “That was a change of pace.”
The guards didn’t respond, nor did they move. McCandlish held out his hands. The guard on the left reached into one of his belt pouches and removed a small device – long and thin with a small display on the top side. He pressed a button and a number appeared – 10 – indicating the place where a small blood sample would be taken. McCandlish rolled up his right sleeve to expose the randomly chosen spot inside his elbow. The guard set the device against his skin, there was a small pinprick and a hiss. McCandlish rolled down his sleeve and waited as the guard plugged the small device into a carefully concealed port next to the door.
A moment later, the door unlocked. far quieter than would have been expected. The guards stood aside, and McCandlish nodded to them as he passed into Jordan’s suite.
The room was white. Pure, antiseptic, disorienting white. Only the hospital bed in the center, and the attendant machines that flocked around it, gave him any idea where up and down were. He carefully stepped towards the bed. There would be a nurse here, normally. During their meetings she would leave by a different door. This was a private moment between Jordan and McCandlish, just as it had been for years.
“Hello, Abe,” McCandlish said quietly. “It’s that time again.”
The machines beeped and hissed quietly, but Jordan didn’t say a word. He lay in his bed, slivers of white showing under nearly closed eyelids. A variety of tubes went up his nose and down his throat, needles in both arms, cables and pipes snaking all around the bed. Jordan’s skin was sallow and brittle, his muscles soft and watery. He moved slightly as the implanted rollers in the bed started their massage, but he didn’t react at all. Abraham Jordan was just this side of dead, and had been for some time. But vast wealth and deep paranoia were able to buy a lot of things, not the least of which were far more years than he had any right to.
McCandlish rested the briefcase on the bed, but didn’t open it. “Your son,” he said. “He thinks he knows what’s going on.” He shook his head. “Pity if he does. I don’t think he does.” He shrugged. “But risk is weakness, isn’t that right, Abraham?” He looked at Jordan, who didn’t respond. Who hadn’t responded to a question for the least five years. McCandlish patted his hand. “Don’t worry, Abe,” he said. “It’ll be quick. He’ll never see it coming.”
He sighed and popped open the briefcase. “Shall we begin, then? Barbeau Pharmaceuticals is asking for a cooperative arrangement.” He outlined the deal in quiet, measured tones.
Abraham Jordan respired and metabolized, but did not respond.
Hannah drew little interconnecting circles in her notebook while Mr. Spalding droned through the last ten minutes of Western civ class. Yes, the cultural effects of French colonization on Africa was probably fascinating and all that, but she had better things to think about. She had to present an idea to the Green Town Club meeting after school, something about how to promote environmental awareness to the rest of the town, and the best she could come up with was a plastic bottle display. She needed something better, something that would really grab people’s attention.
“Are you paying attention, Ms. Bradford?” She looked up sharply and he was standing right in front of her, holding the textbook at his side. He was looking over the rims of his glasses at her – his standard glare at uncooperative students. He turned his head around to look at her notebook and snorted. “Lovely,” he said. “Now perhaps you can tell me what one of the effects of the French occupation of Algeria was?”
She sat up straight and brushed some hair out from in front of her eyes. “Um, well,” she said, “they sure spoke a lot more French!” She tried to laugh, but it died in her throat. Mr. Spalding was utterly unmoved. He kept staring down at her, not blinking. “Well, they did get more European settlers in Algeria, which led to… um… a lot of changes like, in farming. And in infrastructure. And the schools were -”
“Thank you, Ms. Bradford,” Mr. Spalding said. There was a hint of disappointment and anger in his deep voice. “Please see me after class.” He went back up to the board, and Hannah let her head drop to the desk. The girls around her were whispering, like she would have been if it was one of them. She knew how this would play out, too. A lecture. Extra work. Maybe detention. She’d have to bargain, though. No detention today, maybe another day – she could have her dad call Spalding and see if there was anything he could do about it.
The bell rang, Mr. Spalding gave them their reading for the next class, and then looked up at Hannah and crooked a finger. She sighed, making it as theatrical as possible, picked up her books as if they weighed a ton, and lurched up to his desk. “Look, Mister Spalding,” she said, not looking him in the eye. “I’m really sorry I didn’t know the answer, but -”
He held up a hand. “Hannah, that you didn’t know the answer doesn’t bother me. Much.” He sat back. “What bothers me is that you seem to have so very little regard for this class and your own learning.”
This wasn’t going where she thought it was going. “What?”
Mr. Spalding smiled, a tight, quick smile. “Hannah, I know you don’t think the French occupation of Algeria is important to you. And honestly, it probably isn’t.”
Well. That was new.
“But what I’m trying to help you with,” he continued, “is the ability to take in information and reach your own conclusions about things. To take two facts,” he said, holding up his hands like they were carrying bowling balls, “and synthesize them into a new idea.” He smashed the imaginary balls together. “You see what I’m getting at?”
Hannah thought so, but she wasn’t sure. So she just said, “Yeah, Mister Spalding. Yeah, I do.”
He looked at her for a moment and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think you do,” he said. “Detention. Tonight. I’ll give you research to do in the library.”
She dropped the books on his desk and came around to where he was sitting. “But I can’t do it tonight,” she said. “I have to give a presentation for the Green Town Club!”
“You’ve worked on it?” he asked. “You have it ready to go?”
“Well, um… Not really,” she said.
He nodded. “At least I know that it’s no more important to you than my class. No, Hannah, you’ll be in the library at four o’clock and we’ll get you started on your research. I’ll tell Ms. Haslett that you won’t be able to make it.”
“But I -”
“Done, Hannah,” he said. He sat up straight, opened his grade book and started making notes. “I’ll see you at four.”
It was as clear a dismissal as she was going to get. She dragged her feet out of the classroom and dumped her textbooks in her locker. This. Was. A disaster. More work, on top of everything else she had to do before she graduated, there was going to be this, too. And Spalding’s class would be totally insufferable from now on. She grabbed her biology notes out of the locker and then slammed the door shut. The only bright side was that she didn’t have to show up empty-handed to Green Town.
The day’s classes finished at three-thirty, and at five after four Hannah came into the library to find Mr. Spalding leaning against one of the tables, holding a small paper bag in his hand. He glanced up at the clock. “You’re late,” he said.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” She dropped her bag on a chair. “Let’s do this. What do you want me to research?”
He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “You do understand why you’re here, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention in class. You got me, it was fair.” She shrugged. “So what do I have to do?”
“Young lady,” he said. “This isn’t about punishment. If that was all I was after I’d have you alphabetize the science books. Twice.” He stood up, and Hannah realized again how tall he was. When she was sitting, every teacher towered over her, but standing up, she was one of the tallest in her class. Mr. Spalding had at least another foot on her. “Hannah, you come to this school to learn two things: The basic facts that you need to know in order to make informed decisions about your life, and the thinking skills necessary to make those facts useful to you. Your behavior today – and just about every day, come to think of it – suggests that you don’t care about learning either of those things.”
“I care,” Hannah said, and even she didn’t believe herself. “It’s just that I have things on my mind. You know.”
She shrugged. “Stuff.”
“Ah yes, ‘stuff.’ I had a problem with stuff too when I was in high school.” He smiled and shook his head, then he held out the paper bag. “There are twenty slips of paper in there. Pick two.”
Hannah looked up at him for a moment, and he nodded. She half-expected her hand to come out crawling with spiders or something, but she pulled out two folded pieces of paper, and he put the bag back. She unfolded the first one. It said, “NIGER: MEDIATOR OF THE REPUBLIC” and the other said, “URANIUM”. She looked between them a couple of times and then looked up at Mr. Spalding. He was smiling at her. “Find the link, put the pieces together,” he said. “If you finish tonight, great. If not, we’ll come back here tomorrow.” He went around the table, picked up his satchel and sat down. He took some papers out of the bag, his signature green ballpoint pen out of his pocket and started grading quizzes. After a moment, he looked up at Hannah. “You still here?” he asked.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” she cried.
He put the pen down. “I just told you. Do the research, find the connection. When you’ve done that, come see me and I’ll give you your next set of instructions.” He looked up at the clock again. “Time’s a-wasting,” he said. He flashed the smile again, and went back to grading.
Hannah crumpled the pieces of paper in her hand and stalked off to find a computer. A few minutes on Wikipedia would probably get her everything she needed about stupid uranium and stupid Niger. Ten stupid minutes, tops, and she’d be out of there.
Her hands hovered above the keyboard. She turned around to look at Mr. Spalding. All she could see was the back of his head, close-cut black hair above a bright white shirt collar. “Oh, no,” she muttered. “I know your game.” She could see it all play out – she comes over and hands him Wiki printouts. He shakes his head slowly and says, in that Authority Figure Baritone of his, “I expected better of you, Hannah,” and she spends the next week researching the divorce customs of the Jews of Western Mozambique or something like that.
She called up the two wiki pages and printed them out. Then she walked over and sat at a table near where Mr. Spalding was sitting. She put the printouts on the table, took a pen and a highlighter from her bag, sat down, and started reading. She didn’t see if he looked over or not, but she was pretty sure he did. “Eyu-ranium,” she said, a little louder than necessary.
She’d show him….