Leslie lay on his back staring at the cracks in the ferrocrete ceiling. He shifted, causing the makeshift bunk to creak mournfully under his two hundred fifty plus kilo frame. The bunk (actually, three bunks welded together and reinforced in the prison workshop) was set in the middle of his cell with about a meter of clearance on each side. His feet overshot the edge of the bunk by about ten centimeters, resting on a copy of The Iliad that set atop the only other furnishing in the cell—a toilet.
His legs ached. The spots where they dug out the 50 cal slugs, filled in with tissue weld, healed tight and throbbed with each beat of his heart. He had picked up the slugs about six weeks ago in a meadow outside of
He and two others had the bright idea (which Leslie had to admit wasn’t all
that bright) to rob an armored transport which was transporting some data drops
from a credit agency. The drops were small and movable and worth an
astronomical price on the street for the data they held. The information was so
precious that it could not be moved in the flow and was only accessed in-house
via dead-end terminals. Harry, the mastermind behind the heist, had gotten the
time and route as well as the guard complements (“Only two, plus the driver!
Can you fucking believe it?”). So Harry, Leslie and another walking knuckle by
the name of Spanner figured they’d hit it on a lonely stretch of road about
twenty klicks outside Ottawa . Ottawa
It was just getting dark as Leslie lay in the back seat with his knees jammed up under his chin, hugging the AR-19 with a full clip of 7.62 armor-piercing loads. Spanner was in the front holding a one shot anti-tank tube. Harry had the car’ access open, dicking with the fuel cell to make it appear they had broken down. He had two caseless Glocks strapped under his armpits and close proximity neo-EMP in his front jacket pocket.
The transport rumbled down the open stretch, riding low under the composite armor. Harry stood up and waved. Then he tripped the EMP. Leslie heard the pop and felt Spanner kick the front door open. Leslie jumped up and out just in time to see the truck roll to a stop. Spanner ran around to the back and dropped to one knee, triggering the tube. The armor-piercing lancet reached just over Mach 2 in the ten meters between Spanner and the transport’s composite hatch. Its depleted uranium lancet tore it apart as if it was made of paper. Spanner was hopping up and down and grinning like an idiot when Leslie and Harry made it to the back of the transport. It was an open bay with integral racks. Leslie could see what was left of the two guards in the back. He moved forward through the connecting door to the driver’s cabin and poked the driver who was slumped over the wheel. His head rolled boneless on a broken neck, blood seeping from his eardrums.
“Whatcha got, Leslie?” Harry yelled forward.
“Nothing, his ticket is punched.”
“Well let’s grab this shit and di di mau.”
“Right,” Leslie replied, letting the guard drop back over the wheel.
Once back in the main compartment, all three were looking at the rack of data drops. There were six of them, built like kettle balls, round and about the size of a toaster with an integral handle built in.
Spanner picked one up remarking, “Shit! They’re fucking heavy.”
“Enough with the commentary, just grab two and get them into the car,” Harry grunted.
Harry and Spanner duck-walked them out of the armored car. Leslie scooped up two in his right hand and hopped out into the gathering darkness. He started toward the car when he heard a whirring noise that made his neck hackles rise.
Turning to face the sound, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Out of the top of the truck arose a flattened disk with a rotor on top. It hovered at about five meters and rotated toward the three men. Two 50 cal muzzles dropped out from the underside. The click as the rounds were chambered was unmistakable. Leslie threw the data drops and took off across the field at a gallop. He heard the 50s open up. Looking back over his shoulder he saw Spanner and Harry come apart like rotten jack-o-lanterns, the slugs blowing huge gobbets of flesh into the cool night air. Leslie redoubled his efforts; each stride covered almost three meters at a clip. He heard the rotors change pitch and move in his direction, the slugs hit him before he even heard the shots. His legs shot out in front of him, flipping him on his back. The platform hovered directly above him as two spots clicked on.
“Freeze!” The command rang out from unseen speakers.
A little late for that, Leslie thought bitterly.
It was cold.
Not just cold, but an I wish I had on a heavier coat sort of cold. A some fucking lunatic dragged me out of a nice warm bed at four in the morning, at the end of Goddamn November in the motherfucking Catskills sort of cold.
Shadrach stomped his feet trying to get some life back into his toes. The stars stood out in a stark contrast against a matte black sky. His father was in the cab of a borrowed picker trying to coax the hydrogen cell to life. The method to bring the cell to life seemed to involve a lot of swearing, as well as carrying out a running narrative on what an unlucky man he was, adding at salient points that the added burden of an idiot son was only further proof of a cruel Universe against hard working men.
Shadrach wore a look of complete non-comprehension on his face. It was essentially his null state. When his father’s attention turned back to him, he would then become the focus of the aforementioned narrative. In addition, appearing to be too stupid to know what was happening gave the narrator the least amount of material to work with.
“Hey, numb nuts! Yeah you, Shifty. Any chance you giving me a hand here?”
Not being a cell tech or mechanic or even the least bit interested, he doubted it, but shuffled over to peer in the access. Yep, there was a cell in there.
His father looked at him with an expression he usually saved for questionable dairy products.
“You really are useless, aren’t you? What are you going to do? Who the hell is going to hire you?”
For the life of him Shadrach couldn’t have cared less, as long as it got him away from here. In fact, he was willing to go as far away as he could get, without actually winding up on his way back.
Shadrach’s father shook his head sadly. He was a small intense man with close cropped dark hair. He seemed on the verge of nervous movement even when standing still, notoriously bad in checkout lines; often leaving the item, he intended to purchase because the line wasn’t moving quickly enough. All in all a barrel of laughs. Shadrach was an echo of his father. At fifteen, he was a little taller and broader through the shoulders, but carried the same dark intensity. He was looking at his feet when he noticed an opened coupling underneath the picker’s frame. Bending down he snapped the two connections together.
“Now try it.”
His father sneered as he reached inside the cab and hit the power tab. The Telltales flickered to life as the cell came online.
“Well,” his father said, “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”
Shadrach stared back with bovine indifference.
Climbing into the picker his father put it in drive and moved toward the pile of alloy transmission pylons. The power company had pulled them down to make room for a microwave transmitter they were building. One of his father’s friends who worked for the power company called him and said he could have them if he got them out before morning. Shadrach could not imagine what he could use them for, but if they were for free, his old man was all for them. Case in point, all the blankets on the beds at home had scorch marks on them. During a hospital fire the firefighters had been throwing them out the windows. To his father, they were manna from heaven.
Crawling forward the picker moved in articulated jerks as the hydraulics sluggishly came to life in the November cold. Moving the boom over the heap of pylons. His father lowered the claw, the machine lifted a mass of pylons like a child grasping a pile of pick-up sticks. Lifting and swinging around, the picker placed the pylons in its rear payload area. As each new level of pylons was reached, Shadrach pushed a button activating the tethers which locked it down. This process went on for about fifteen minutes.
The old picker wheezed and clunked as his father loaded the last of the pylons. When the final one was in place Shadrach pushed the tether activation button. The tether would connect, but not lock, due to the overload of pylons. His father, in no small state of agitation, made repeated stabbing motions with his thumb indicating Shadrach should get the tether locked. Shadrach held the button down hard; the servos whined and released a thin acrid smell into the cold air. Shadrach heard the clunk as the tether locked. He turned and smiled at his father. His father shrugged, unimpressed.
Walking back Shadrach removed his gloves and put them in his front pocket. He was looking forward to climbing in to the warmth of the cab and heading home. Just then, a snap rang out like a gunshot. The tether broke free and recoiled, rubber band-like, slashing downward. The thin edge sliced down and caught Shadrach above his left eye cutting down, laying open a five centimeter gash. Falling back Shadrach landed on his ass stunned, not really knowing what had happened. The blood flowed freely, shocking in its warmth, hugging his cheek before moving down to the space between his neck and tee shirt. His father stood above him, looking less concerned then annoyed.
“C’mon, brain surgeon, we are going to have to get that glued. Jesus, you could foul up a High Mass.”
Shadrach sighed, pressing one of his gloves to his face as he rose to follow his father.
The Qwik Fix was lit with an intensity that Shadrach suspected had an antibacterial quality. The small waiting room was devoid of shadows. The Qwik was a chain of what was known as “boo-boo bodegas.” They were cheap and quick, and if you had coverage they would perform any procedure short of reattaching a limb with varying degrees of success. They were staffed exclusively by a med tech who was invariably a “Stan.” A “Stan” was an immigrant from Turkistan, Uzbekistan or in his father’s lexicon “a who-the-fuck-knows-where a Stan”.
Shadrach’s father gave the tech the once over as he came out to exam the gash. He was short and corpulent with skin that glowed with a sheen that appeared to be the result of some sort of applied cosmetic. Shadrach winced as cool capable hands examined the wound. He cleaned it quickly, applied an organic sealant, and closed it with a pistol-shaped instrument of Israeli design.
Shadrach could feel his skin tighten and pull towards his one ear.
“There will most likely be some scarring without some surgical intervention,” the tech said softly. “But it will heal quickly and cleanly without infection.”
Shadrach knew the chance of any surgical intervention was unlikely. His best hope was that the scar would add some character to his face.
The tech policed up his disposable gear quickly and dropped it into a receptacle. He moved behind the counter to bring up the billing.
“Nice to see he took time from driving a cab to help us out,” Shadrach’s father mumbled, breaking out his chip. Shadrach knew his father was critical of all ethnic groups—except his own—which seemed too made up of exclusively of white, loud and ignorant malcontents.
The transaction completed, they moved outside into the cold dawn.
“Well, whatever I could have saved we lost on that little visit.”
Shadrach moved his hand over the scar feeling it throb along the adhesive.
“Sorry,” he offered.
“You sure are,” Shadrach’s father agreed.
The new shoes pinched right along the edge of his big toe.
They had absurdly large soles, almost two inches thick. The clerk at the store where he picked them up referred to them as “Frankensteins.”
For Gideon, that pretty much summed up the whole outfit—from the idiot ball cap to the faux cop uniform shirt, pegged straight-leg black utility pants, finished off with required white cotton socks and aforementioned Frankensteins. The only way he could feel any more absurd was if they required a propeller on top of the cap.
Gideon sat in a waiting room in the Archer Daniels Midland corporate headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. The room had an aggressive organic feel to it. There was nothing loose, nothing that could be moved: the chairs, tables, drink dispensers; waste receptacles all seemed to have sprouted directly from the floor. There were no sharp edges. Everything was a pale tan; the space had a feel as if it had been designed to withstand the antics of especially inquisitive chimps. As he looked around, he had to admit that was a bit of inspired design. There were about thirty other men in the room, all within a ten year age range, all from the same economic spectrum. Gideon could see new patches of skin where gang tats had been freshly removed and replaced with derm analogs.
“Got a smoke?”
“Nah,” Gideon replied, patting down his pockets. “They don’t allow it in here.”
“Yeah, that isn’t all they don’t allow in here,” added the smokeless smoker.
“What’s your name?”
“Craig,” he answered, offering his hand. Gideon grasped it firmly. “You prior military?”
“Yep,” Gideon nodded. “You?”
Corps, mustered out about a year ago.”
Craig rubbed his closely shorn scalp; he still carried the build of his hitch.
A little shorter than average, his mass made him seem bigger. He was dressed in
a mirror image of everyone else.
“ I did four in the Nav, got out about six months ago, that puts us atop of the food chain in here,” Gideon smiled. It fit easily on his face. About two inches taller than Craig, he carried none of the muscle. His dark brown eyes held an implied smile that seemed at home there. His well-shaped head was shaved close and he wore a carefully trimmed goatee around his generous mouth.
“Trouble finding work after ya mustered out?” Gideon inquired.
“Yeah, not much call for grunt work.”
“Did ya try Security?”
Craig shook his head. “Isn’t much use. Most private or corporate is all Special Forces.”
Gideon shrugged. “Can’t win for losing.”
“Word,” Craig replied.
The smart wall blinked twice as the next set of applicants’ names scrolled across. Gideon watched as his name appeared third from the bottom with the room routing number.
“Well, that’s me,” Gideon said, standing.
“Good luck bro,” Craig commented to Gideon’s back as he made his way to the interviewing cubicles.
If the waiting room was nondescript, the interview cubicle was a testament to understatement. It was a small square room with a chair, desk, and some sort of a chair lamp combination that looked as if it had grown from a large coerced mushroom. The woman on the other side of the desk held a small data plaque and managed to look both bored and annoyed at the same time. Her business suit was just a shade lighter than the room/chair/desk. Her skin tone suggested that she may have been issued along with the other furnishings.
“Mr. Gideon, have a seat.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Right as rain thanks.”
“Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
“It’s your show,” Gideon smiled.
She glanced down at the plaque in her hand, her thumb hitting the scroll tab at irregular intervals.
“It says here you are a Veteran.”
“Four years, Navy.”
“And did you enjoy it?” she asked.
Gideon thought a moment, then answered, “Don’t really know if I enjoyed it. But it was something different, that’s for sure.”
“How do you mean?”
“I was stationed on a thirty five year old fast attack submarine. A dynamic situation at best.”
“I didn’t think there were any submarines in use any more,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“That’s what I mean.”
She looked at Gideon. Gideon looked back.
“Anyway, what did you do?”
“Anything they told me.”
Again the eyebrows.
“Mainly, hydraulics, pump repair. Things of that nature.”
She nodded. “What makes you think you could do security work for ADM?”
“I have no idea. The ad said entry level. And if I am anything it is entry level.”
“Of that I am sure,” the interviewer agreed.
“Although this is the first gig where I ever had to buy the gear before I was hired,” Gideon said pulling at his shirt.
“We like to think it helps weed out the applicants who aren’t really interested.”
“I don’t get the job I keep the getup?”
“No.” She shook her head. “It becomes ADM property.”
“How do you get away with that?”
She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Today’s climate is very...friendly to the corporate world.”
“When hasn’t it been?” Gideon asked
“That,” she responded, “is not a good place to start a working relationship.”
James Halbert gripped the cool porcelain of the sink and watched the green stomach bile puddle around the drain. Filling a cup from the faucet and he rinsed his mouth and spit washing the green stain from his sight. Standing looking around his small apartment he felt his stomach twist. He was a thin man, with a halo of gray hair that seemed to float about his head. Staring at his pinched features in the mirror he tried to remember the last time he felt good.
Moving back to his small single bed he crawled into sweat-soaked sheets.
“Time,” he said to the room.
“0438,” the room responded cheerfully.
“Great,” James muttered. Twenty minutes till he had to dress for work.
James had just turned 50 but looked 15 years older. He was a power board supervisor for Golden State Edison and it was slowly but surely killing him.
Pulling a can of Java Joe out of his cupboard, he stood looking at the empty space the can had left. Reaching up, he moved a can forward, making the row complete again. All five shelves of the cupboard were full of Java Joes. James lived on Java Joes and soy bars. It was the only thing that his body would tolerate anymore. Pushing the tab, he set it on the counter. Watching as the can warmed to the preset temperature. He knew that it was an oxidization process similar to rusting in the can liner that heated the coffee. He also knew that he actually didn’t give a shit…
Once in his combination bedroom-sitting area, he opened his closet and removed a shirt and pants. He didn’t turn on the lights. The only things in the closet were identical sets of white shirts and khaki pants. It was all he wore and as with the coffee, he truly didn’t give a shit.
Dressing quickly, he clipped his I.D. to his shirt pocket. Then back in the kitchen he grabbed a backpack and filled it with ten Java Joes and a handful of New Day soy bars. Looking at the label of the last bar as he placed into the backpack he read the label aloud.
“Make every day a new day to remember!!!” James said to the empty kitchen. The bars were the consistency of earwax, which funnily enough is exactly what they tasted like. James doubted if the three exclamation points were really necessary.
Stepping outside of his tiny apartment, he palm-locked the doorway behind him. The air was heavy with moisture and some sort of chemical byproducts from the fires in Oakland. A petroleum cracking plant had been blown up a week earlier by a militant Earth First! faction and was still smoldering. Having been to Oakland once. The thought of destroying anything because of its environmental impact was sort of like arresting a politician for acting in his own self-interest; a pointless exercise at best. James walked up to his eight year old Honda Katana and spoke.
The Honda beeped in recognition, deactivating numerous interlocks and antitheft devices.
Opening the door he put the backpack in the space behind the seat. Being a one-seater, it was a little scarce on space. Climbing in, the car came online, showing the status of its power plant and other vitals. A blinking readout indicated that fuel was down to twenty percent. He would fuel up at work. All state vehicles ran on used vegetable oil collected at numerous fast food restaurants around the state. He hit the warmup switch to heat and liquefy the solidified grease that had congealed overnight. The small car filled with the smell of fried food, causing James to power down both windows. The smell would adhere to his clothes. His whole workspace smelled like a chicken franchise from all the state employees jammed in the small space. James sighed. It was because of small absurdities like this he often thought about driving the Katana right into the Bay, leaving a only small French fry-smelling slick to mark his passing.
The dash chronometer; read 05:02. He just had to turn out of Harbor Way, cross G Street, take a left on Railroad Avenue, then a right on Rickover to Poplar Avenue—a total of 2.3 miles. It would take him a little under two hours. He read somewhere that rush hour had once only occurred at peak hours like six to nine in the morning or four to seven in the afternoon. Now the line of traffic was never ending, like an exercise in perspective stretching to the horizon.
Ninety-three minutes later he pulled into the Power Authority’s parking structure and into his assigned slot. The structure was located about a kilometer from the actual building and was made from interlocking, meter-thick slabs of ferrocrete to minimize blast damage from overenthusiastic environmental zealots or any other yahoo able to jam a hundred kilos of explosive into their French fry-smelling personnel conveyance.
The dew wet his pants cuffs while cutting across the brown burned grass to the Power Authority’s entrance. There was only one entrance through which three hundred employees had to squeeze every twelve hour shift change. Each employee had to pass through an identity kiosk. This would scan, sniff and otherwise match to a profile for each employee. Any employee who came up wanting would quickly be sprayed with Stayputt—a semi-liquid goo which instantly hardened into a molasses-like epoxy, sticking the helpless employee to the spot. James had witnessed about a half dozen Stayputtings. It was usually caused by a new deodorant or perfume not listed in the Authority’s identification lexicon.
Patiently James queued and waited , moving through the scanner. Making it through without being glued to the floor; owing, he supposed, to the fact that he reeked of fried chicken. He made his way to the elevator and rode down the ten levels to the power board. The Power Authority was built like an inverted cone buried so only a small amount appeared above ground; the majority was buried encased in ferrocrete with a polyceramic cell impervious to all but a multi-megaton strike. The entirety of air, water and power generated for the facility were site-dedicated. The whole place could be sealed off and remain independent for weeks, an option that caused James to wake up in a cold sweat at least once a month. As he approached the portal he hit the palm scanner; the door granted him access.
The control room was a circular chamber set with displays on all visible wall surfaces. In the Center were gathered the techs and usage governors. Seated separately were four facilitators in pneumo-couches facing the main power loads. The four facilitators were wired directly via spinal jacks into the grid, constantly monitoring and shifting the billions of kilowatts flowing through the portion of grid that was their responsibility. Facilitators were contracted for four years and then given full retirement with an obscene compensation package. James had yet to meet one who made the entire four. Most ended up as disabilities taken out while seizing on the couch. Seizures and emboli were hallmarks of their professions.
“What’s up, Boss?” asked Sean, the p.m. power board operator.
“I’m here, for what’s it worth,” James offered tiredly.
“Dude, in this place that’s worth its weight in gold. ” Sean chuckled.
Sean was a homesteader out from Napa Valley. He did six shifts on and eight off. Long and lanky, he seemed to be made of rawhide and bleached bone. His long blond hair was pulled back and tied with a strip of worn leather; he was always in good humor, which simultaneously both amazed and worried James.
“Well Jimmy, everything is five by five just like you left it. No fires to be put out. Just the chaos and turmoil that passes for normality around here.”
“How long have the Bees been on?” James asked motioning toward the facilitators.
“This group’s fresh. The longest about two hours, all looking pretty mellow.”
They were known as Bees—short for zombies—due to their marked lack of interaction on and off the wire.
“Well, thanks, Sean. You off for eight now?”
Sean nodded. “Yeah, eight days with the wife and climbers. You should stop out, we’re putting up our first Riesling this month.”
James shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.”
Sean reached out and grabbed James’ shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Dude, you got to get out sometime. This place is killing ya.”
“Truer than you know,” James said softly. “You take care, Sean.”
“You too, hoss; stay frosty.”
James watched Sean make his way out of the power board wondering—not for the first time today—what the hell he was doing here.
Facing the main screens James said. “Initiate shift clock.” A numerical countdown from 12 hours started. The power room was now isolated until the start of the next shift. James’ chest started to burn from the stomach acid splashing into his esophagus. He tore open a soy bar and gnawed into it grimly.
“Chief, we’re getting spikes. It looks like we’re going to lose the Alcatraz feed from the wind farm,” barked one of the governors.
“Shit,” James whispered, switching swiftly to the relevant screen. He could see the megawatts draining away as the farm dropped off line. “Balance out the drain with Diablo Canyon’s surplus.”
“I don’t know Chief, it’s going to be close. Their grid is barely in the black.”
James nodded. “I know, just do it.”
The governor punched in the command. A moan came from the pneumo-couch closest to James. A young blond woman writhed in pain as the power feed and drain balanced out.
“Put the facilitator’s vitals up on screen,” James said. The usage governor brought up the woman’s vital signs, all were green except for the neurotransmitter levels which had moved into the red.
“See if you can shift some of her load onto one of the others.”
“No can do, Chief, all facilitators working at max load now.”
Grimacing, James sighed. “Four dedicated organics are pushing the envelope with this responsibility level; even with two more we would still be functioning at eighty percent capacity.”
The governor shrugged. “You’re preaching to the choir, but you know upstairs they are not going to allot any more than just less than ya need.”
This was not news to James. There was very little in this place that was news to him.
He sat for the next hour watching the boards. The feed and drain balanced precariously, staying just barely in a non-critical state.
Gulping down a Java Joe he looked up at the shift clock; it had just passed the halfway mark. Still 05.59.06 left on his shift. James massaged the back of his neck.
“We’re getting reports of a large warehouse fire in Oakland.”
“So, Oakland as a rule is always on fire.”
The governor keyed in the appropriate commands bringing up the readouts at a selected substation. “I’ve got a twenty degree Celsius ambient rise at critical two at transformer.”
“Shit, how close?” James asked, although he already knew.
“Close, I got it inside twenty meters from the reported fire site.”
“Is there a redundant at standby?”
“Not a chance, Chief.”
Sighing James motioned. “Bring up the brownout cascade and start cutting all non-essentials.”
A scream rang through the power board as the blond facilitator seized, flopped off the couch and was torn free from her c1 coupling. The screens went crazy as the power grids controlled by the seizing facilitator went into automatic shutdown. Twenty square kilometers of some of the most expensive real estate in the country—two major airports and five major medical centers—fell from the grid. Icons began flashing on the screen as everyone from the state’s Chief Executive on down was now attempting to contact whoever was responsible for the shit storm that had just occurred.
“Unseal the power board and get medical in here, and call Personnel. We need a standby facilitator ASAP.”
The burning in his chest spread as he tore open another soy bar. James wished fervently that he could crawl up his own asshole.
The house sat back about three meters from Main Street. It was one of the oldest still standing in Yarmouth, Maine. Its shingles were faded to the requisite silver patina, giving it that authentic New England flavor. On the front porch was a lobster trap that someone had made into a table by nailing an old cabinet door on top. The screen door was so rusted, that when looking out it seemed like dusk even on the sunniest of summer days. Inside was a small living room piled with books and various pieces of sound-producing paraphernalia, from triangles and old wax tube phonographs to the latest ambient sponge emitters.
At the left corner of the living room was a hallway that ran to the kitchen at the back of the house. Along the hallway were two rooms. At the second doorway was a small mousy woman on her hands and knees. In the dim light she appeared much older than her thirty-three years. She was wearing a severe ankle length black smock with a black kerchief tied over her colorless hair. Her face, devoid of any makeup, was set in grim determination as she shoved handfuls of pamphlets beneath the locked door.
José Maganna was on the other side of that door watching the pamphlets appear one after the other as if by magic. He knew it was not magic. It was his wife Donna. Donna had gone crackers, one egg roll short of a combination plate, and one dwarf short of a full Snow White. José sighed. He could remember ten years ago when they had first married what a delight she had been: cheerful, open, carefree. But that was before Beverly, her sister, a former heroin addict, found religion and began the process of becoming a Catholic nun.
Now José Msc, PhD, Dsc(Manc), C. Eng, FIEE, FIEEE, FIPENZ, FRSNZ, Professor Emeritus at Colby College, had nothing against religion, organized, disorganized or otherwise, but it had taken over his formerly happy wife to an unhealthy degree. It had begun gradually, at first. She was so overjoyed that her formerly useless sister had given up drugs, prostitution, and rumored armed robbery, and turned her life around. She started making trips to Portland to help her sister at the diocese and it was good. But soon the changes began. No more makeup. No more nice sundresses. No more laughing, and not insignificantly, no more sex.
A thirty year old woman had transformed into a sixty year old dowager. He had tried to approach her, to talk sensibly about what he saw as a dramatic change in their lives. She would hear none of it, Jesus had entered her life. Amen… As bad as that was then, it was about to get a whole lot worse.
Her sister The Nun had somehow ended up pregnant. Considering she resembled a well-worn Ernest Borgnine, José suspected Divine intervention. Unfortunately, that was also the story she sold to Donna who, to José’s horror and disbelief, bought it: hook, line and sinker. So on a sunny October afternoon, his wife and her sister the immaculately-knocked-up-proto-Nun were in Portland watching the placement of a statue of the Archangel Gabriel on the roof of a newly opened church. They had craned it up a hundred meters. The connecting pin on the hasp failed, sending four hundred kilos of polished granite screaming towards the newly-knocked-up-aforementioned-Borgnine-doppelganger. There was nothing left of her but a pair of size thirteen sensible shoes. This, along with the fact that the statue was of Gabriel, who appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her she was pregnant with Jesus, was not lost on Donna. It sent her first class straight to wacky town, which brings us to today with the pamphlets being shoved under José’s door.
The timing could not have been worse. José rose from his chair, picking up the publications and putting them in a wicker basket which was already half full.
“Thanks hon, I’ll get right to these,” José said loudly.
The pamphlets ceased to appear as she went to pray or eat incense or see visions of the trinity in apple cores or any other way she now occupied her time. José went back to his desk and booted his home terminal to Colby’s mainframe. He held a professorship there but had no classes, or any students for that matter. He did purely research and he was on the verge of something big.
His specialty was harmonics. It was known that all matter vibrated or oscillated at a set frequency on the atomic level. His team had stumbled upon the frequency that triggered energetic reactions in a specific group of unstable elements. Elements such as weapons-grade uranium. The effect did not appear to be diminished by distance or shielding. He has been able to keep the discovery to himself, since he was the only one with access to all of the information. Acting as a Systems Analyst, he monitored and compiled all the data. Leaning back in his chair, he laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. In repose he resembled more the lobsterman than college professor. He was short-limbed and thick, with skin roughened from hours spent on his whaler hugging the coast when not on campus. His hair was still County Cork red, he carried little else of his father except his temperament. The rest was all his mother: a McCrae whose tongue was as sharp as her wit, and to this day could make him sit a little straighter with nothing more than a glance.
Leaning forward he rubbed his eyes. He knew what he had. It had the potential to detonate any fissionable material at considerable distance. Point zero two micrograms of plutonium had been brought to critical mass by an old Verizon com sat in a geo-synch orbit a little over a week ago. The transmitter that was used was almost thirty years old and the signal had been splashed over almost seventeen square kilometers. The test had been monitored by Department of Energy. The sample was encased in a lead alloy, impact resistant fail-safe container, specifically designed to determine its ability to contain release of any radiation in case of accidental or deliberate detonation. It was at a ridiculously small scale, for obvious reasons. José had disabled the triggers while attaching the frequency monitors, which were part of a separate experiment. Then he then initiated the detonation using a signal from his laptop uploaded to the com sat.
There was a short delay which the primary team attributed to substandard tamper plugs; that was fine with José. Why now?, while he wrestled with this, was he dealing with his wife going full-out Piper Laurie in Carrie mode? He could be within spitting distance of making nuclear weapons obsolete while at the same time his wife was seeing the Virgin Mary in ceiling water stains.
“Nothing is ever fucking easy,” he said to an empty study.
The graduation ceremony moved with a glacial slowness. To Shadrach, the pace was identical to the rest of his unremarkable academic career. He didn’t think he would have even graduated if social promotion hadn’t come back in vogue. His parents were a no-show; the old man had remarked this morning that somebody else probably needed his seat. The ceremony dragged on with a fever-like quality. His classmates were buzzing with what they were going to do afterward and couldn’t wait for the fall, a road of promise stretching out before them. The only road for Shadrach was some shit job to pay for some shit life.
Clutching his diploma he hung back as the rest of the crowd went on to many parties and celebrations. He had not been invited to any of them.
Startled from his self-absorption and noticed a man standing beside the walkway. He was dressed in a camo uniform and had the same molded appearance Shadrach had come to recognize as military.
“Can I help you?” Shadrach asked.
“No Son, but I think I can help you.”
Smiling sadly Shadrach shook his head. “I don’t think there is much you can do for me.”
It was the soldier’s turn to smile. “You got yourself a good school lined up for the fall?”
“Going to take some shit job? For shit pay?”
“Yeah, well my last reenlistment bonus was more credit that you’ll see in a year.”
Shadrach shrugged. “I didn’t exactly graduate in the top of my class.”
“Neither did I, but I was willing to work hard. Are you willing to work hard?”
“Sure, I guess.”
The soldier turned and grabbed Shadrach by the shoulders. “It is an exciting time, son. All the services are coming under one command, a unified defense force. Today’s warrior is the best trained, best equipped killing machine in history. Today’s grunt is equal to a platoon of soldiers twenty years ago. Isn’t that something you want to be part of?”
“Ahh...” Shadrach was a little overwhelmed.
“Well, here is a flow token, check it out.” The soldier handed Shadrach a round disk that glowed softly with a green luminance. “It will work in any public link. Don’t miss a real opportunity.”
Shadrach watched the token glow in his palm as the soldier walked away.
The public access looked just like everything else used by the public. His father, a man never short of a bon mot, once told him that no one ever washed a rented car. Since Shadrach had no web access at home this was his only option.
The exterior was built like a old style phone booth, tall and cylindrical, and designed to withstand an artillery strike. It had no corners or seams in which to gain purchase in the event of any attempt at forced entry.
Shadrach swiped the token across the reader. The glow from the token faded as the access stirred to life. A section rolled back into itself allowing a meter-wide slit which Shadrach entered. He seated himself in a well-worn couch as the section rolled back into place sealing him in. It was pitch black for a moment until the screen came to life. Ventilation fans kicked in, removing some of the faint piss-sweat smell that permeated the space. The screen ran him through the start up process, which for anyone of his age group was second nature. He pulled a permeable prophylactic skull wrap from the dispenser and placed it on his head, sealing it at his brow line. He pulled the interface crown down, fitting it over his head where it slowly molded to his contours. The site was keyed in through the token. Leaning back and forcing himself into passivity, he pressed the Go switch located under his right index finger.
The crown released micro-thin filaments which passed through the wrap, into the skin, and slid through the cranial fissures directly into Shadrach’s brain. The transition was instantaneous. One moment piss-smelling public access, the next green field, blue sky overhead and sun on his face.
“Eyes forward recruit.”
There about two meters in front of him was the most impressive physical specimen Shadrach could ever remember seeing. Tall and blue eyed with a gleaming scalp shining through his high and tight. Every major muscle group was outlined in his spotless military fatigues.
“Err…” Shadrach offered.
“I said eyes front!”
Shadrach did the best estimation of whatever the fuck “eyes front” was.
“That’s better,” said the impossibly military, military man.
“So you think you got what it takes to be a soldier?’
“Well, good for you. Every soldier in today’s United Defense Forces is equivalent to a full platoon of soldiers twenty years ago in means of firepower and information gathering. They are also the best protected in history. This is the wet gear body armor with Paladin helm head protection with battle con information and targeting system.
A black battle harness with helmet appeared out of thin air, then disappeared, reappearing on Shadrach’s body.
“Notice how light and flexible it is.”
Shadrach bent and swung his arms. He had to admit it was awfully comfortable for armor.
“The Paladin battle helm has wireless neuron pickups which give the solider real-time tactical info on retinal display.”
Shadrach jumped as printed data appeared about a meter in front of his face. He could see a compass heading, altitude, temperature, and a grid map indicating his position.
Shadrach blinked hard twice, and the readout disappeared. He blinked hard twice again and brought the display back up.
“Cool,” Shadrach said.
“That’s a firm worm,” said the very military, military man. “The standard close combat issued weapon is the Mark Two Energy Impeller.”
The weapon appeared in Shadrach’s hands, it was heavy but balanced. There was a large tube like opening at the end of the barrel.
“Bring up your tactical display.”
“Take aim at one of those targets.”
Shadrach looked as five man-sized cutouts appeared at, according to his tac display, fifty meters. A second gun site appeared. Shadrach put the rifle to his shoulder and overlapped the sites. “Discharge the weapon” flashed in the corner of his vision. Shadrach depressed the trigger, it produced a slight kick followed by a barely audible oomph. A fist-sized ball of white fire rocketed out, impacting and incinerating the target simultaneously.
Shadrach stared at the target opened-mouthed.
The very military, military man stepped in front of him almost nose to nose. “Do you have what it takes, recruit?”
The simulation blinked out abruptly leaving Shadrach sitting in the public access with a new feeling.
James rubbed his eyes. They felt like they were covered in a fine grit.
“Most of the western grid is looking hairy, we’re going have to shift some load.”
James nodded. “We holding any surplus?”
Sean shrugged. “What do you think?”
James looked back up at the screens and noticed something he hadn’t noticed before.
“What’s that indicator? It’s new. The blue one up above Seattle?”
Sean looked up a little flustered. “That’s Vancouver. Another country altogether. Ain’t got nothing to do with us.”
“Ever been there?” James asked.
“What? Yeah sure, couple a times. Nice strip joints. Now about the grid.”
“Nice up there?”
“Yeah I guess. Plenty of juice. Dug a big geo thermal off of Vancouver Island. Even the homeless shelters got electric heat. Now about the grid.”
James rubbed his face. “Pull five percent off anywhere that will tolerate it, see if it balances.”
“You’re the boss, boss.”
“Just lost two step-down transformers in Long Beach.”
“You know, I got family up there.”
Sean looked up at James. “Up where, Chief?”
“In Vancouver,” James pointed with his chin. “Up there.”
“Ah, yeah, Chief, the transformers?”
“Start the cascade; keep it local till the crews get out.”
“There is a primary care and two long term hospitals in that district.”
“Well,” James shrugged. “Hope their gennys are up to snuff.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
“My relatives left me some land up there.”
“Nice, farmland I believe.”
“Yes, what is it Sean?”
“We got incoming, the Montrose bead reactor just scrammed. A whole lot of real estate just went black.”
“Some vineyards maybe.”
“Chief, come back to me.”
James shook himself. “Feed in enough to the heavy urban areas for stoplights and traffic control. Get law enforcement up to speed. I’ll get on the horn with the Governor.”
“Yippee,” Sean said as the circus came to town.
He was on his fifth Java Joe and it was only two hours into the shift. His stomach sat like a rock in his gut pulling toward the floor. James felt steeped in hopelessness. He felt he could die where he was standing and it would be hours before anyone noticed. The Bees were real twitchy—there were just two of them—a gaunt teenager and a Malaysian double amputee whose vitals kept spiking.
“We are picking up coms out of San Fernando. Their entire grid is in a flux; they have lost all of their facilitators,” said Wendell.
James looked down. “Who the hell are you?”
“Where the hell is Sean?”
“Burning Man I think,” responded Wendell.
“Good for him,” grumbled James.
Audibles rang out in the enclosed space. “Boss we just lost the girl,” one of the governors shouted, “and if we don’t pull the other one out of the flow he’s going to go tits up sure as shit.”
James felt a sharp spike of pain behind his eyes. He swayed on his feet for a long moment. Taking a deep breath and opened his eyes. He looked at the blue light that was Vancouver and said, “My family left me some property in Vancouver; I better see how it’s doing.”
With that James pulled off his I.D., dropped it on his desk and moved to an exit, hit the palm ident and left the power board. Open-mouthed employees watched in stunned disbelief.
The sun was warm on James’ face as he walked into the parking area. Along the edge of the lot was a homeless man feeding a cat and her kittens. He was breaking off pieces of day-old bread, dipping them in a jar of clam juice and tossing them to the furry multitude. James walked over a little closer.
The homeless man jumped a little. “Uh, hi.”
James took a closer look and determined the man was probably twenty years younger than he initially appeared. Along both cheeks were strips of hospital tape covering some blackened skin tissue. The sun was not as kind as it used to be.
“Nice cats,” James offered.
“Yeah, thanks,” replied the homeless dude.
“She just have kittens?” James asked.
“Yeah, I guess,” said the homeless dude.
James stood there smiling at him in a way that made the homeless dude a little nervous.
“You want to sell one of those kittens?”
The homeless guy’s eyes narrowed. “For what? You’re not going to eat ’em, are you?”
“No, no,” James grinned. “To have as a pet.”
The homeless guy mulled this over. “How much?”
“Can you drive?”
The homeless guy nodded. “Sure, but got no license.”
James shrugged. “That’s the great state of California’s problem, not mine. Step over here.”
The homeless guy stood and walked over to the Katana. James opened it up and grabbed some stuff out of the glove box. “Change voice print ident,” he said to the car.
“Standing by,” the car responded cheerfully.
“What’s your name?” James asked.
“You’re kidding right?”
“Nope, serious as an audit...”
“Okay, Ruben, ah, Ruben Smith.”
“New voice ident now,” James told the car.
“State name following the tone,” the car said.
The sharp tone sounded. James motioned to Ruben. “Ruben Smith,” the homeless dude said uncertainly.
“Ruben Smith. New voice ident on file and accepted.”
James walked over and pointed at the kittens. “I’ll take the tortoiseshell one.”
The homeless dude looked a little stunned. “Sure thing buddy, rock on.”
James nodded, picked up the kitten and headed home on foot.
He got to his apartment about ten minutes faster than if he had driven. Letting himself in, he poured some milk for the kitten and went to his bedroom closet. He reached for his favorite light jacket and changed into his best walking shoes. Taking his credit chip he dumped both his accounts off his terminal, closing them both. From his cupboard he pulled down three packets of tuna then grabbed an old ammo bag and put a towel in it before setting the kitten into it. He put this over his shoulder, put the tuna in his jacket pocket and opened the door. He blanked the I.D. plate allowing anyone access and walked down the steps, leaving the door open behind him.
Moving toward the coast he worked his way toward old Route One. The coastal highway had been impassable to vehicle traffic for years and was considered a no-go zone. This would have been a grave concern at one time. Now it just seemed interesting. It was a twenty kilometer stroll to the outside of Inverness. Inverness had been gradually taken over by Cambodian oyster farmers to the extent that all signage was non English. The town border was gated off and you to enter you had to prove liquidity .
James smiled broadly as the gate sentry extended a scanner. The sentry smiled back, exposing gums stained dark from beetle nuts. James produced a chip and waved it over the scanner. The readout caused the sentry to smile even broader and pet the cat that rode on his shoulder.
James had named him Charles H. Littlefellow after a one-eyed hamster he once owned. He was a tiny tortoiseshell tabby who rode easily on his shoulder and was strangely content to sit at his perch and watch events unfold. James moved through the turnstile and made his way down the main drag. The houses were all built on stilts, allowing the fluctuations of the greenhouse encouraged ocean tides to go where they may. It was a happy town full of laughing running children which were almost outnumbered by a surprising number of Jack Russell terriers. Moving closer to the town’s center, James was assaulted by delicious smells coming from a clump of gaily colored restaurants. Picking one at random, he climbed up and seated himself at one of the outdoor tables. Looking around he noticed that nearly all of the tables were full; mostly brown faces and a sprinkling of obvious tourists. A small black and white terrier hopped up on the bench opposite him regarding him with strangely intelligent eyes. Charles H. Littlefellow puffed up against his neck giving a low growl.
“Shoo, shoo!” said a pale fleshy man, waving the terrier away. He squeezed onto the bench across from James, smiling and wiping his sweaty face with a wash faded bandana.
“Edward Thompson, at your service.”
“James at yours.”
“Yes, yes very well. Here for the food are you?” he said in a surprisingly high voice.
“Sure, good enough reason as any. Why all the dogs?”
“Dogs, dogs, yes, yes, place is filthy with them. But great ratters. Keeps all the rats down.”
James looked around nervously. “Are you in charge of rat control?”
“No, no. Biologist. Help with the oysters and mussels. Place is all mussel and oyster farms. Help keep them healthy. Whole local economy based on them.”
A pretty young woman with striking dark eyes walked up and handed them menus painted on smooth pieces of driftwood. “Thank you,” James said. She nodded, flashed a brilliant smile and left.
“Most of them don’t speak English. A point of pride with them really, makes it a little hard to work with, but one soldiers on.”
James scrutinized the menu closely; it clearly was written in some language other than English.
“Can you?” James asked.
“Yes, yes of course.” He waved the girl over and said something quickly in a sing-song dialect that sounded strangely melodious coming out of his fleshy face.
“My Cambodian is dreadful but passable.”
“Thanks. What did you order?”
“Mussels in green curry for you and oysters in saffron sauce for myself, both top notch, top notch. What be your purpose here if I may ask?”
“Just passing through, headed north to see family.”
“Well good luck. Godspeed. Yes, yes.”
The mains arrived, both in huge deep hand carved wooden bowls piled high. James’ was steeped in a green curry sauce that was pungent and sweet. His companion attacked his in a manner that would lead James to believe it may be his last meal.
“So you’re a farmer? Growing these in pots? With dirt?”
“No, no. No dirt. Mussels on rafts with ropes hanging down with pegs every few feet; mussels attached like crystals on a string. Oysters a little more complicated. Three steps. Start on upweller rafts on wires in clusters then moved to a nursery, finally to Japanese lantern nets. All to a good effect as you can see.”
James nodded. He was pulling a few of the mussels apart, rinsing the meat in his water glass and feeding them to Mr. Littlefellow who daintily scooped it with his paw and ate it heartily.
“No dirt, huh?”
“Yes, yes no dirt at all.”
A smile now settled comfortably on James’ face; wearing it seemed as natural as putting on his shoes; something he would need to start his day. He had been making good progress up the coast. Fourteen days on the road had put him in Ferndale just outside Eureka.
Then things got a little spooky. The closer he got to Eureka the more disturbing things began to pop up along the roadside. First cryptic bible passages on billboards along with crude religious statuary portraying Jesus or the Virgin Mary, often put together with what appeared to be animal bones (James hoped). On the outskirts of Ferndale he saw his first cross tree. On it he saw an ill-used man tied to it by an over-abundance of barbed wire. As he got closer he could see the man was dead, and from the looks of it, had been for some time. At the base in a camp chair was a small elderly woman who had seen better days as well.
“Hello, are you alright?” James asked.
She looked up slowly; her right eye was completely swollen shut.
“Yes, no not alright, not really,” she said softly.
“Can I do anything for you? Do you need something to eat or drink?” James rummaged around in his backpack. “I got some pizza Slims Jims.”
She shook her head. “No, I think I’m done eating. Or anything else for that matter.”
James looked up at the man. “Did you know him?”
“For forty three years. My husband.”
“Didn’t keep the Sabbath holy. They caught him using his roto tiller on Sunday.”
“Who caught him?”
“The Brothers of the Sanctified Wormwood, they pretty much run Eureka. Showed up about ten years ago, bunch of long hairs, barefoot and screaming about Jesus. Everybody laughed at them. Nobody laughing now.”
James put the Slim Jims back in his backpack. Digging through the outside pockets he found his multi tool. “Come, I’ll help you cut him down.”
“I wouldn’t. They find him down; one of us will go up.”
“Do you want to come with me?”
“Where you headed?”
“North to Vancouver, family left me property there.”
“Have you found Jesus?”
James thought for a minute. “Didn’t know he was missing.”
She smiled. “I’d head east to Burnt Ranch then north. Nothing good for you or anybody in Eureka.”
“Sorry about your husband.”
“Yeah, well sorry describes just about everything nowadays.”
At that moment the cat poked his head out of James’ jacket pocket and peered sleepily at the woman.
“Well, hello kitty.”
James smiled. “That’s Mr. Littlefellow. He’s a good kitty.”
“I’m sure he is. You and Mr. Littlefellow keep safe now. Head east then north. It’ll be the smart thing.”
“We will. And thank you.”
“Stay safe and God Bless, for what it’s worth.”
James walked away slowly. He turned and looked back a couple of times. The woman just sat with her head down; she grew smaller with every glance. The image of that cross remained with James longer than he would have liked.
Burnt Ranch was, as it turned out, an inspired destination. Lush verdant fields spread to the horizon filled to bursting with all manner of agricultural foodstuffs. The colors were almost cartoon-like in vibrancy. As James walked down the middle of the two-lane highway his shoulders were brushed by overhanging sunflowers with heads as large as trash can lids. He heard grunting and laughter in the distance, turning the corner he saw a well kept homestead in a small clearing. It was a neat little geodesic dome with each panel painted a primary color. There was a grouping of solar panels near an outbuilding and a scattering of farm equipment. The grunting was coming from a pretty young woman in overalls trying to hitch a wagon to a small tractor. Her long sun-streaked hair hung down, falling over one shoulder as she tried to muscle the cup onto the ball of the tractor’s hitch. The laughter came from two small children, a girl and boy who were pushing on the wheels trying to help. James stood and watched, a smile returned to his face.
“Hey Sonny Jim, you going to gawk or help?” she said, noticing James standing there.
“Ah, sure,” James said, quickly dropping his pack and hurrying over.
He grabbed the tongue and lifted up hard. The woman and the two children pushed on the wheels and the ball slipped into the cup with a metallic thunk.
“There,” said James.
“Faith,” said the woman.
“When warranted,” said James
“No, no my name is Faith. That is Hope.” The little girl smiled. “And that is Redemption.” The boy stuck out his tongue.
James looked a little blank.
“I know, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The boy also answers to Demp.”
“Hiya, Demp,” James winked. From the boy the tongue again.
“What’s your name?” asked Hope.
“My name is James.”
“Well, hello James, where you headed?” asked Faith.
“North to Vancouver.”
“Brave man—or stupid. Want to earn yourself a meal?”
“Good. We’re harvesting and could use the help.”
They all got into the wagon with Faith at the wheel and rode out into one of the fields. To the delight of the children, James pulled Mr. Littlefellow out and put him on his shoulder. They came to a patch filled with some of the strangest looking vegetables James had ever seen. They hopped out of the wagon. The cat jumped down and went exploring with the children in tow.
“What are these?” James asked pointing at the red spheres on long vines littered the landscape as far as the eye could see.
“Hybrids; an experimental boutique strand by Burpee, of tomatoes and pumpkins.”
“Are they good to eat?”
“Naw.” She shook her head. “A mixture of tomatoes and pumpkins. Taste like shit but goats love um and grow like weeds on um. And we got almost as many goats as Tonkins.”
“Here.” Faith handed James a pair of clippers. “Cut them about six inches from the tops.”
“Okee dokee.” James bent over, snipped through the tough vine, and picked up the heavy fruit. It had a strange texture, the skin felt leathery and thick with a squishy base underneath. The wagon filled quickly. They made several trips to the barn loading and unloading the Tonkins. They were dense and heavy; it was hard work. Removing his jacket James rolled up his sleeves. Sweat matted his hair to his forehead. Looking over at Faith he noticed that she seemed as fresh as when they started. He had to admit the real work felt good. The last couple of years all his work centered around anxiety. Good honest labor was just the tonic his body needed.
Littlefellow scooted by with the squealing children not far behind. Faith stood and stretched. “Come on, I’ll give you that meal I promised.”
Inside the dome was surprisingly cool. The interior was a riot of colors and jumbles of toys and books. Faith shooed the children toward the bathroom and showed James to the kitchen to wash up. A moaning sound came drifting out of a room just off the kitchen. James startled, peered in and saw a young man with long dirty blond hair tangled in bed sheets; he was tied down with padded restraints and appeared to be having a seizure.
“That’s Gerald.” A voice came from over James’ shoulder. “My husband.”
Faith went to the bedside and wiped his brow with a wet cloth. The man stopped struggling and slumped back into the pillow. Faith smoothed out the bedclothes, kissed him and moved quietly out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
Back in the kitchen she took two glasses from the drying rack and set them on the chopping block.
“Wine?” Faith offered.
“He built this place you know. Dug the vertical shafts for the geothermal heat pump himself. Place stays at a constant 68 degrees year round.”
“Is he sick?”
Faith shook her head a look of disgust passed over her face. “He’s a geothermic engineer. Or was anyway. He worked on the project up on Vancouver Island. Got hooked on thrust. The rest is history. We lost our insurance six months after he came back. Now he pretty much just seizes the day away. We had him on the wire till we lost coverage. That at least gave him periods of rest.”
“How did he start?” James asked.
Faith pulled out an earthenware jug from under the counter and pulled the rubber stopper. “Currant wine, tart but good. How’d he start?” She shrugged. “Who the hell knows, he was always a little impulsive. They were working crazy shifts, digging the shafts. It sure didn’t take long. About a month. He was home and fine. A couple weeks later a mess.”
She smiled. “Don’t be. No one to blame but him.”
The children, tow-headed echoes of each other, swarmed the kitchen. They were brimming with energy and delight. James slipped slowly at the wine and watched dinner come together around him. The children set a rough-hewn table with blue enameled plates and hand-hammered silverware. Faith started a fragrant hickory fire in a grill underneath a metal vent hood. She took out large skewered goat kabobs and put them on the grill. The kabobs cried out in a delightful hiss as the flames met the meat, releasing an aroma that brought James’ appetite to full awareness.
They all set down. Along with the kabobs Faith had made a huge herb salad with a balsamic honey dressing and artery-clogging chunks of goat cheese. Before she sat down she tore a slab of goat apart, placing it in a bowl on the floor for Littlefellow.
The two children chattered gleefully about their day and any other thing that entered their tiny delightful minds. Faith smiled and nodded, encouraging the exchange. James said little, soaking it all in, feeding a need for family that he did not know he had.
“You had enough to eat?”
James nodded, barely able to move. “Wonderful all of it, thank you.”
He helped clear and washed the dishes in a deep slate sink. The sun was dropping behind the low hills, casting the house’s interior in warm pinks and russets. James was sweeping the kitchen when Hope and Demp came to say goodnight.
“Goodnight,” they sang in unison.
“Goodnight and sleep well,” James sang back.
They skittered toward the bedrooms followed by Faith, with Littlefellow scampering behind. James poured himself another glass of wine and sat on the couch, letting the day drain from him at his leisure.
“Well they’re down, both exhausted. Your cat curled right up on Hope’s pillow. Needless to say she’s overjoyed.” A loud moan came from her husband’s bedroom. “I’ll be right back, have another glass of wine. We trade meat and cheese for it, got gallons.”
James nodded. She returned a short time later. Her hair was wet and she had changed out of her work cloths into a pair of cutoffs and an oversized man’s t-shirt. She sat across from him, folding her legs underneath in a fashion that James always found disconcerting.
“So, what do you do, James?”
“How do you afford nothing?”
James shrugged. “I used to work, a lot. Saved some. Just going to wander for awhile. Live a little bit…for a change.”
Faith smiled a sad smile. “Living ain’t a bad idea. Been surviving so long sort of forgot how to live.”
A silence stretched out like a long note. James broke the quiet with a question.
“A drug did that to your husband?”
Faith swept a stray lank of wet hair back from her face. “Yeah, thrust breaks down the myelin sheath; mimics MS that way. As long as they use they’re functional. When they stop…well you see what happens.”
“And being on the wire stops it?”
“Stops the shaking and the seizures. He was on it till the insurance ran out. He could at least sleep then.”
“What does it cost?”
“You got to buy the unit outright.” She told James how much. It was a lot. Almost all of the credit on James’ chip.
She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. “You ever get lonely James?”
“Yeah me too, sometimes. Sometimes so much it’s killing me.” She got up and grabbed some blankets along with a pillow from a cupboard and handed them to James.
“You sleep well, James.”
James woke to soft sounds. Opening his eyes he saw Faith standing over him. She was painted from a palette of shadows and half light. He knew she was naked from the sound of her breathing.
“You want some company, James?”
James had to admit he did. It had been a long time. And it was better than he remembered.
Waking early he dressed quietly. Faith had gone back to her room. James gathered his things, checked on the children and saw Littlefellow still curled up on the pillow. The data port was next to the screen. Finding the household account number written on a fertilizer receipt he dumped both his credit chips into Faith’s account. Standing in the cool morning he moved down the driveway and turned north. He felt good.
In retrospect, he had spent a lot more money on a lot less.
The barracks were long and narrow on the second deck of a structure that was old when the Hun was advancing. Shadrach was one of sixty lined up in front of bunks. They were a representative demographic of lower income classes. Whoever put forth that populist fantasy that only the best of the best was drawn to the volunteer military had never in fact set foot in the volunteer military.
There were sixty of them. Thirty male and thirty female. The military was indeed a truly integrated equal opportunity employer. If you couldn’t find gainful employment or had the desire to travel to foreign lands and meet interesting and exotic peoples and blow them to small unrecognizable meaty chunks for the furthering of corporate interests, think military.
“Good morning splittails, and you too ladies.”
This was Senior Chief Anderson. He is their drill instructor. He appeared to not have been born, but molded from some semi-precious resinous substance. He was just under 180 centimeters tall and not a gram of fat visible. His jaw in perpetual thrust shined as if just shaved moments before. Shadrach doubted that he ever shaved. He was pretty sure the stubble came to attention every morning and fell off in a military fashion. Ice blue eyes blazed out from under a geometrical high and tight fade. Military readiness oozed out of every pore.
He went down each aisle and pulled out all of the folded fatigues and skivvies and scattered them the length and breadth of the barracks.
“Terrible, like a bunch of clap-infested orangutans. Why me Lord, why me? What did I do to you to warrant such a burden?” He raised his eyes heavenward.
Sixty of them dropped to their bellies and “sharked.” Sharking involved lying on your belly, raising both arms and both legs up and waving them up and down. It was uncomfortable and stressful.
“Shark! You motherfuckers and ladies! Shark! Welcome to the United States Defense Force. No more Army, no more Navy, no more Air force, no more Marines. The ships sail themselves. The planes fly themselves. You ladies and girls are what are needed now. Grunts. Bullet soaking, IED eating, standard issue grunt. They ain’t going to pay you shit. And be assured ladies and gents, you will get the shit. The sooner you come to grips with this the better off you will be. On your feet!”
They all jumped up and came to attention. Across from Shadrach stood Summorald, a fleshy redhead from Odessa, Texas. For reasons beyond Shadrach’s understanding he began to snicker.
Senior Chief walked up and stared at him; a look of utter disbelief on his chiseled features.
“Is there something funny, recruit?” Senior Chief asked in a barely audible whisper.
“No Sir, nothing funny at all Sir,” responded Summorald.
“Then please stop laughing.”
Summorald, through a great effort of will, stopped. For a moment silence reigned in the barracks. Then Summorald began to struggle. His pale face started to turn beet red. Sweat began to trickle down from his fire engine red brush cut.
Senior Chief leaned forward as if the recruit was a new species of insect that had appeared on his breakfast plate. His nose was a bare centimeter from Summorald’s. Summorald, at this point, was engaged in a titanic struggle, his face stretched and pulled to unnatural contours. His body, as taut as a bow string, vibrated in place. Sweat now poured freely, soaking his fatigues and running down his pants legs, pooling around the toes of his Kevlar combat boots.
“Anything to say, recruit?” The Senior Chief asked sinisterly.
Summorald held for a second longer, then let go. Shadrach noted with some respect that he had managed to bite down on the bark of laughter that rose out of his throat. This unfortunately led to an explosive blast of air out of his nose, an unnaturally copious amount of gelatinous mucous blasted forth from Summorald’s nostrils. Shadrach for a fleeting moment saw in profile, the gob as if frozen in time, golden and glistening, amorphous and shifting It crossed the minute distance, impacting with an audible splat. It hung tenaciously to the Senior Chief’s nose before losing purchase and falling to the deck. The barracks gasped as one.
It became unspeakable.
Sam White sat in his office at The Pit. The office was shabby as was its proprietor. Sitting leaning back against the wall looking out a third story window on what was without question the seedier part of Bayonne (which was like arguing about virtue in a whore house). Sam was the sole owner of what once had been the premier cage fighting franchise in the United States.
That was ten years ago. Now with over fifty different leagues and organizations he was holding on to a very tiny market share, which he was now in danger in losing. He still held broadcast deals on the three major web outlets. He was due to renew next week. He knew he didn’t have the credit and more importantly, they knew he didn’t have the credit.
Sighing, he looked at the posters lining the walls. Back then he was King Shit of Turd Island. In retrospect he supposed he should have stashed some of that income.
“Sam, ya got company.”
That was Kelly. Kelly was his last employee. They had a thing going about two years ago. Now, no credit, no Kelly.
“Who the hell is it?”
“I think I better send them in.”
“Go ahead, who the fuck cares.”
The door opened and to Sam’s amazement, in walked Sir Walter Reid, Australian billionaire promoter, publicity hound and all around rake.
Sam just sat there with his mouth hanging open in amazement.
“What’s wrong, mate? A bad bit a vegemite?”
“Ah, no,” Sam managed.
“Well good. I have an offer that may interest you.”
Sam just nodded. Anything at this point would strike him as interesting.
Sir Walter pulled up a well-patched chair and sat across from Sam, lighting up what appeared to be a factory rolled marijuana cigarillo.
“Want some?” Sam just dumbly shook his head. “Cheers.” Sir Walter smiled, taking a long hit.
“What can we do for you?” Sam asked.
“I want to stage a contest under the Pit banner.”
“Really? You?” Sam asked incuriously.
“No, no mate. My special project so to speak,” Sir Walter said while adjusting his silver mane of hair. He was tanned a deep mahogany, which made his brilliant white teeth stand out in stark contrast. To Sam he appeared as to have never had a moment of doubt in his life. Sam, on the other hand, radiated doubt like a leaky breeder reactor.
“Indeed. You know a fighter by the name of Frank Palmer?”
The air went out of Sam’s sails at this point. Frank was a muscle-bound human growth hormone addict who, though monstrous in appearance, couldn’t fight off a cold, much less a trained fighter. Steroids and other substances were pretty well the norm in the fight game now but it did not make the fighter. It would make you bigger or stronger or recover faster. But it wouldn’t make you quicker or smarter or able to take a punch. Frank had been put to sleep so many times that he was likely to die from bed sores.
Sir Walter smiled. “You haven’t seen Mr. Palmer lately?”
“No,” Sam admitted tiredly. “I haven’t.”
Sir Walter stood and opened the door. “Mr. Palmer, if you would, please?”
Sam was not prepared for what walked in. Palmer had been big before. In truth, huge was a better word. But now, he stood in the middle of the office, dressed in a pair of slacks and a black t -shirt. Kilos of muscle were layered on his chest and upper body. His head and jaw bulged in almost comic proportions hiding his eyes under a shelf of bone.
“What the fuck is this?”
“That, Mr. White, is the future of combat sports and you are lucky enough to be on the ground floor.”
Sam snickered. “Sir Walter, no matter how you dress up a pig, it still is just a pig. No offense, Frank.”
“Things are not exactly all sunshine and daisies eh, mate?” Sir Walter’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “Not exactly no worries? Eh? To tell the truth Son, if it weren’t for the access to those three outlets of yours, we would not be darkening your rather threadbare doorstep. But, opportunity doesn’t always come in through the front door, eh?”
Sam couldn’t, for the life of him, see where this was going. “So what’s your sell, Sir Walter?”
A smile broke across Sir Walter’s features like a blazing sun on an azure morning.
“ Burt Iron.”
Sam White was stunned. Iron held five separate heavyweight belts and was as close to a human wrecking machine as ever strode God’s green earth. “You’re fucking kidding right? Iron won’t even return my calls. And he would eat our friend here for breakfast. No offense, Frank.”
Again the grunt.
“My friend, my dear, dear friend,” Sir Walter said, spreading his arms wide. “It is a brand new day. Mr. Palmer is not the man he was a year ago. Nay, he is not the man he was a mere month ago. Daresay he is not the man he was a week ago. It is a brave new world. Indeed a brave new time.”
White shrugged. “I don’t care how much ya juiced him out, Iron will take him apart.”
Sir Walter crossed the room. Pulling a collapsible pointer from his blazer pocket he pulled it to its full length and tapped the bulging right bicep of Frank Palmer.
“Attend please. Advances in immune suppression as well as neurotransmitter analogs have made available improvements to our Mr. Palmer here undreamt of as recently as a year ago. Grafted in here are groupings of synthetic fast-twitch fibers which almost triple his reaction times. HRT in the new parlance. His new HRT is HRTx3; which stands for human reaction times three.”
He moved the pointer to the knobby growths on his knuckles as well as the bulging jaw and forehead. “Here we have an example of an aggressive application of Wolff’s Law. The bone density at these points rivals stone.” He collapsed the pointer and moved in, leaning with both hands on White’s desk. “That, together with an augmented dura to cushion the brain to help avoid knockouts, and adrenaline analogs in permeable ceramic disks planted along his spine. All these make our Mr. Palmer a fighter not seen in today’s arenas.”
White had to admit he was impressed. “Yeah, but Iron.”
Smirking Sir Walter walked over to the door jamb running his thumb over the faded oak veneer.
“Mr. Palmer, if you would?”
Palmer moved over in two long nimble strides to stand in front of the door . Pulling back a tomato juice can-sized fist he swung his shoulders, powering the blow from his feet, sending it whistling toward the door. It exploded in a shower of splinters producing a basketball-sized gouge where the fist impacted. A lipless smile stretched across Palmer’s features as he warmed to the task. He struck the door two more times, smashing it completely away from the steel reinforced frame. The room fell quiet as the dust settled. The only sound was the squeak of White’s chair as he stood up. He walked over and examined the man-sized hole in what had been a alloy reinforced door seconds earlier.
“I only hold the licenses till next week. I don’t have the credit to renew them.”
Sir Walter smiled “I’ll have the credits transferred before the end of business today.”
“We’ll have to promote hard. All the outlets legit and pirate.”
“Not a problem.”
“You got a confirmation from Iron?”
“He’s under contract for one fight only. A ridiculous purse to go against a fighter to be named later. He thinks it’s to promote a new venture I’m unveiling.”
White rubbed his head in wonderment. Kelly was pensively peeking through the ruined doorway.
“Can I look at the hand?” White asked.
Palmer stretched it out. Sam turned it over inspecting it for damage. It was pristine.
“You got a title for this little shindig?”
Sir Walter made quotation marks with his thumbs and index fingers. “Demolition.”
“Perfect.” Shaking his head, Sam moved toward the phone.
Father Woolsey sat in his study studying the light passing through a glass of Jameson’s. It cast an amber glow across a letter on his desktop. The letter was from a parishioner requesting that her sister be buried as a nun. The sister in question was well known to Father Woolsey. She was a novice, and not a very good one at that. There were reports of substance abuse and fighting at the convent. In fact, she was on her way out for pregnancy when, according to eyewitness accounts, she threw herself under a falling piece of statuary, killing herself.
Sighing, Father Woolsey finished his drink, rinsed out his glass and placed it in the drying rack. He was due to meet with Mrs. Maganna momentarily.
Opening a closet he checked his hair in a mirror, and smoothed an errant strand. Still dark and full at fifty. He had gotten the calling late, only entering the priesthood after his wife died at forty. He had taught college physics for twenty years and enjoyed it. His brother was a top researcher at Los Alamos and was well aware (and impressed with) the work of Mrs. Maganna’s husband who was involved with some groundbreaking work with harmonics.
To Father Woolsey, his work seemed to involve mostly putting out small fires such as this and very little spreading The Word. He had to admit the Church was in decline. The last survey had the number of the faithful down over twenty percent.
Well, no one said it was going to be easy, he thought grimly.
There was a soft rap at his door. He opened it, stepping aside, to let the diminutive woman enter. She seemed smaller than she actually was, almost folded into herself. Father Woolsey steered her to a chair across from his desk. Moving to his seat he smiled one of his best “I’m just here to help” smiles. He recognized the look in her eyes. Reason would not win the day today.
“Mrs. Maganna, how nice to see you, how are you feeling?”
She twisted a handkerchief in her hands and stared at a space just above the Father’s head.
“I’m here about my sister, the Sister.”
“Yes, well…that may be a problem.”
At this she leaned forward, staring intently into the Father’s face. “What could be the problem?”
“Well, she wasn’t really a Sister, was she? Just a novice really, and with all due respect Mrs. Maganna, not a very good one.”
“She was touched by God.”
Flustered Father Woolsey rubbed his face with his hands. “That may be, but she wasn’t really a nun, was she?”
“I would like her to become a nun.”
“Well dear, there is nothing I can do, nothing anyone can do really.”
She came to her feet and brought up a large purse onto his desk. She opened the clasp and pulled out a data tab.
“This is very important.”
Father Woolsey reached over and took the tab. Putting it in his reader, he opened and scanned the face page. The office was quiet for long moments as Father Woolsey continued to read the document, his eyes getting wider by the second. He finished, crossed over and poured himself a large scotch which he downed in one swallow. His normally ruddy features were pale and his hands shook noticeably as he seated himself.
“Do you know what you have here?”
She nodded her head vigorously. “I know it’s important.”
“Does your husband know it’s here? That you have it?”
“That’s not really important.”
Father Woolsey shook his head. “It is very important. What would you have me do with this?”
“Give it to the Church. Something this important should be in God’s hands.”
“That may be true, but it is not yours to give. I’m afraid we will have to speak to your husband.”
“Don’t worry. He will agree. This is God’s will and it will be carried out.” Standing she shook her fist. “As with my Sister, this is God’s desire manifest and it will happen!”
Amazed, Woolsey could just stare. He was wishing for the moment just a few short minutes ago when there were only small fires.
Sitting for a time he stared at the tab on his desk. He had been out of the loop for a couple years. And even at his best he was an academic, teaching the principles, helping build the foundation for students to start their journey into the wonders of the hard sciences. Still he knew enough even at a cursory glance that what he had on his desk was of earth-shattering importance. Quickly transferring it to a storage node he then locked it in his desk and placed a call to his brother.
A hiss filled the study as the search took place. A few muted clicks followed and then his brother’s familiar baritone filled the study.
“Tom Woolsey, it’s your dime on my time.”
“Tommy it’s Wayne, how you doing bud?”
A laugh escaped from the speakers. “Wayne! Good to hear from you. How’s the soul saving business?”
“They’re dying to get in”
“I’m sure. What gives me the honor for this rare contact?”
“Well…” Woolsey hesitated. “Something just came across my desk that you might be very interested in.”
“Stand by, I’ll squirt it to your node.”
He keyed in his brother’s database, accessed the node and transferred the information.
“Got it, it’s coming up on my screen… Holy Shit!”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“Is this legit? Where did you get it?”
“His wife dropped it on my desk two minutes ago.”
“His wife? Does he know it’s gone?”
“I’m not sure. Is it what I think it is?”
“Well, it’s just a summary. I’ve heard of some research in this area. I’ve even heard Maganna doing some work at Colby, but preliminary at best. According to what I see here he has had a reproducible result.”
“What would be the real world applications?”
“If it’s legit? Whoever controlled this technology would make any nuclear arsenal obsolete. It would shift the global power structure. It is almost beyond my comprehension.”
Father Woolsey leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “What should be my next move?”
“Well, I would do two things immediately. One, contact Maganna directly. Is the wife crackers?”
“That is a description that could be applied safely.”
“Two, get a hold of someone in your legal and see what rights you have on something like this.”
“Yeah, that’s just about what I figured. Thanks a lot Tom. I appreciate it.”
“No problem bro. Any other world changing bequests from crazy women you get your paws on don’t be afraid to call.”
Father Woolsey smiled. “No problem, Tom. Thanks again—and call Ma.”
“You bet, fight the good fight.”
Father Woolsey broke the connection. He sat in his chair and stared out his window watching dark clouds gathering above the horizon.
“That is an apt metaphor if I ever saw one,” he thought. He had been craving relevance for years. It was the reason he entered the priesthood after his wife died. It turned out, as with most anything else, it was just a play. Just going through the motions of a half-remembered dance. Now it seems things were on the verge of becoming very relevant. Relevancy of historical proportions.
In the seminary his roommate, a very slight and effeminate young man from Groton, Connecticut, used to do needlepoint as a hobby. Beautiful detailed work such as a poster-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel. His roommate would listen as he wailed on about how he needed to be relevant. The day they left for their assigned parishes, he handed him a small package wrapped in brown paper. Inside was a small needlepoint in a simple wooden frame. It said: Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it.
Gideon hopped up and down attempting to get the feeling back into his feet. The ferrocrete leached the warmth right out of them, turning his toes into numb blocks ten minutes into his shift. He was at the non second gen seed storage facility outside Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was in full paramilitary mufti, tech vest, bead com link, battle helm and full auto barely obsolete assault rifle, complete with two fifty round clips of armor-piercing-Teflon-tipped-sub-sonic marauder ammo. Gideon thought it was a bit of overkill for a bunch of seeds. ADM didn’t think so.
“Fuck, it’s cold.” That was Dick Fentes, Gideon’s co-worker and the only blond haired blue eyed Mexican Gideon had ever met.
“Dude, it’s always cold.”
“It’s not the cold, it’s the humidity.” Snickers followed. Dick was one of the funniest guys Dick had ever met. He was always cracking himself up. Gideon and Dick walked the perimeter around twenty fortified hundred-ton storage bunkers of ADM’s finest seed technology. The seeds were of super yield hybrids of basics foodstuffs such as wheat and rice. They were very expensive, very effective and only one generation. So you had to have new seeds every season. This made a lot of hungry poor people very angry. Which Gideon supposed explained the bunkers and the paramilitary trappings. It wasn’t a bad gig. The pay was good as were the benefits and the chances of getting attacked outside Allentown was remote at best. The downside was it was a long twelve hours, duller than dishwater. But it made for interesting conversations.
“For a billion?”
“Yep clear, tax free.”
Fentes pondered this.
“Yep,” Gideon nodded. “All media. Prime viewing time. Saturday night.”
Intense concentration contorted Fentes’s light features. He stopped at a bunker to pass an I.D. chip embedded in his wrist under a scanner to log their scheduled round.
“Just let me make sure that I got the particulars. I get banged up the ass on live video Broadband on all outlets for a billion credits? Tax free? I heard tax free. For how long?”
Gideon thought for a moment. “To a satisfying conclusion, of course.”
“No mask or hood? Face obscured digitally?”
Gideon looked at him with disdain. “No, in fact your name would be at the bottom of the shot in large letters. In Britannic bold font no less.”
“Britannic bold font huh? I dunno, a lot of people calling me queer.”
Gideon shrugged “A lot of poor people.”
They walked in silence for a time. They turned the corner and started down the east side of the compound. Gideon stopped at the scanner to log in his chip.
“A billion credits.”
Gideon looked up. “O.K. I’ll bite. A billion credits.”
“To beat your grandmother to death with a stick.”
“Live? Broadband? Can’t spend it if you’re incarcerated awaiting permanent chemical rehabilitation.”
“No.” Fentes shook his head. “In the privacy of your own home. Following a light meal. You can even wait till the old girl is dozing. So she doesn’t see it coming.”
Now it was Gideon’s turn to quietly ponder. The two men continued to walk down the east side. The bright overhead high intensity lamps cast elongated shadows that pantomimed their steady progress.
“You left out a very integral detail. One the decision would hinge on.”
“Really? I don’t see where?”
“Think about it. What is the pivotal question?”
Fentes’s brow furled in concentration. “Got me, bro.”
Gideon stopped and stomped his feet to get some feeling back in his numb toes, then turned to face Fentes.
“How big is the stick?”
The Yvon Robert arena was a steel and glass monstrosity that crouched in downtown Quebec City like a fragment from a delirium dream. It was named for a popular wrestler who showcased in the area from the 1930s through the 1950s. The arena had also been the headquarters of a short-lived uprising that attempted to break away from Canada and form an Independent Quebec. It was put down brutally by the Canadian military. A fact not forgotten by the local populace.
Sam White had flown in that morning in a tilt from Portland, Maine. As he made his way to the arena he pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe the sweat that had collected under his limp collar. He moved dazedly through the empty parking lot to the main entrance. It had been only six weeks since Sir Walter had walked into his office. It had been an interesting six weeks.
“Sir, lean in and keep yours eyes open.” The guard said politely
Sam leaned in and placed his chin on the padded lip of the retinal scanner. The disposable covering crackled as the scanner matched the pattern of the blood vessels in the back of his eye to the pattern on file.
“You’re free to enter, Sir.”
Sam moved in to the arena, working his way through the maze of hallways to his temporary office. Outside his door was the events poster. Demolition was sprawled across it in huge blood-red letters. It was the most hyped event since Houdini made an Asian elephant disappear in front of five thousand gaping theater-goers at the New York Hippodrome almost a century and a half ago. The arena held over twenty thousand. Sir Walter had posted the tickets for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Ten thousand in the States, ten thousand in Canada. There had been riots at the ticket kiosks. Sir Walter was also was providing free buses from the States to the arena. This almost guaranteed all manner of hammered assholes by the time the gates opened. If the bout didn’t live up to the hype, Sam was sure they would pull this place apart with their bare hands.
Sam looked up. Sir Walter stood grinning down at him looking for all the world like an ad for rejuvenation therapy. His Caribbean blue eyes sparkled under his fashionable tousled mane. He was dressed in a suburban version of safari gear. Sam had to suppress a strong impulse to strangle him.
“Sir Walter, I hope you know what you are doing.”
Sam unlocked his office door, stepped inside and flicked on the lights. It was a small space containing just a chipped steel desk and two chairs. Sam stepped around and collapsed in the chair behind the desk. Sir Walter literally hopped, landing lightly in the remaining chair, grinning all the while.
“Why the long face mate? All a go. The fight of the century and all that; sit back and enjoy the show.”
Sam pulled a damp handkerchief across his face to wipe away the sweat. “I dunno. No gate receipts. All the merchandizing given over to the arena. You got credit to burn? If this falls through I’m done.”
Sir Walter turned up his famous smile another megawatt. “Son, you were done six weeks ago. This is a lifeline. If I were you I would grab it and not worry about what it’s attached to.” He stood and waved Sam out from behind the desk. “Let’s have a look at the fighters. Shall we?”
Iron’s dressing room like the fighter was a Spartan affair. It was just him, his trainer and his cut man. Burt was a deceivingly pedestrian looking figure. Average height, a little build up in the shoulders, his face was tight with scar tissue. He looked bored. He was famous throughout the fight community for his supercilious nature. The only time he looked interested was when in the cage. He was fifty one and zero. All by knockouts, all within the first round, he was impossible to take down and very few even tried.
“Sam, how are you doing?”
“Fine you feeling good?”
“Right as rain.”
“Burt, you know Sir Walter?”
The fighter shook his head. “Don’t know him, know of him. How are you doing?”
Sir Walter grasped the outstretched hand. “No worries mate. You ready to scrap?”
Burt smiled. “For what you’re paying there ain’t much I wouldn’t do with an attitude of enthusiasm.”
Sir Walter beamed back. “Well done.”
“But I ain’t going to carry him. First opportunity, I’m putting him to sleep. I know he’s juiced to the gills. A big strong boy, but you can’t muscle up a jaw. Just so it’s understood first chance I get he’s out.”
Sir Walter reached out and clasped the fighter on the shoulder. “I would expect no less. Good luck.”
Burt nodded. “Thanks, he’ll need it.”
Palmer’s dressing room was something different altogether. Sam had to squeeze into the room sideways. Palmer sat on the dressing table in the middle of the room. The table seemed to bow in the middle from the burden it held. The room was stuffed full of men in lab coats. Sam sensed more of an air of technicians than medical personnel.
“Who are these guys?”
Sir Walter shrugged. “Support personnel.”
“Blokes who keep everything up and running.”
Sam scratched his head. “He’s not a piece of machinery.”
Sir Walter shook his head. “Oh, but he is. He is a literal piece of fighting machinery. He has been designed to smash, rend and break. He is state of the art.”
Palmer was stripped to the waist. He was vaguely human in outline. His arms and shoulders bulged with kilos of muscle. Faint tracings of white scarring ran up and down his arms and across his trunk. His forehead and jaw were built up to almost comic proportions. He resembled a nightmare. There was a fine mesh net draped across him with cables leading to a console. Technicians were consulting the readouts and preparing dose pistols. The hisses of various pharmaceuticals being injected into Palmer filled the small space.
“Have you tested this? Are you sure it’s going to work? I mean that’s Iron we’re talking about.”
Sir Walter smirked. “He’ll wade into Iron like a warm bath. Believe it.”
A technician walked over with a hand readout. “Sir Walter?”
“Yes Robert. How are things looking?”
The small pinched man looked at the readout in his hand. “Things are looking optimal, Sir. The analogs read at good pre-fight levels. We are getting one hundred and five percent responses from both fast and slow twitch fibers. The density at strike points are textbook. The wetware chips for targeting and execution are all coming back green. One moment, Sir.”
Robert walked over to Palmer. “Could you please stand, Sir, and trigger a fight loop?”
The huge man stood. He towered over everyone else in the room by at least a head.
“OK gentlemen; let’s get this on all five inputs for the data sync. Mr. Palmer, if you would.”
The fighter began to breathe deeply, his skin flushed and veins protruded from all visible parts of his musculature. His respiratory rate increased and sweat broke out, falling to the floor in dime-sized drops.
“Fantastic. Larry what do you got on adrenal secretion?”
“Looks five by five. Endorphins also at combat levels.”
“Cardiac also optimal. Ninety-five percent of target rate. Good preload and stroke volume. Pulmonary also a go, gas exchange right on marks, spo2 a little high but blowing off right on the curve for pco2.”
“Give us a snap, Mr. Palmer.”
Palmer threw out a punch and pulled it back in a smooth liquid motion. Sam jerked at the snap it made. He could only make out a blur.
“Neurotransmitters are dead on. You got yourself a go, Sir Walter.”
Sir Walter grinned. “By all means, let’s go.”
The crowd noise rose and fell in a tidal pattern. It was near high tide as Iron made his way to the cage. Normally, as the titleholder, he would have entered last, but part of the contract stated he would enter first, and for what Sir Walter was paying, the sequence was of little concern to him. He entered the cage to the music of Bury Me With My Boots On, an old country favorite of his. There had been a couple of prelims so the canvas was littered with blood-based ideograms. He hopped up and down in place, rolling his head side to side to loosen his muscles. He felt good. No, scratch that, he felt fantastic. He figured he had two or three more fights in him and he was out. No reason not to go out on top.
The lights in the arena went black. The crowd, well lubricated with Labatts Blue, howled like the damned. A red spot picked out an entrance on the north side of the arena. A jarring buzz came over the arena’s sound system followed by a mechanical strumming Welcome My Son, Welcome to the Machine. Iron smiled; it had been years since he had heard this particular tune. The curtains parted as a hooded figure in an ankle length robe made its way to the cage. The crowd went crazy, screaming chants of “Machine! Machine!” Iron watched the figure grow larger as it got closer; he had to admit Palmer looked a lot bigger than he remembered. Since this was both a heavyweight and a non-title match, there had been no weigh-in. This was the first time he had laid eyes on him since a card two years ago when a Japanese savate fighter had taken Palmer apart in two rounds.
Palmer stepped in the cage followed by a small crowd of handlers, half of them in lab coats. Iron smirked; he hoped Palmer was feeling well. Palmer walked to the center of the cage and undid the belt of his robe. His corner man pulled the robe off him. A gasp ran through the arena. Oiled under the lights Palmer looked like something from a horror flick. His skin appeared parchment thin, absurd masses of muscle twitched and writhed, revealing every fiber and striation. His head appeared to sit almost on top of his collarbones; his shoulders coming almost to his ears. Turning he looked at Iron. The lantern jaw and overhanging forehead gave him a sinister cast.
Iron started to not feel good about this.
The announcer stepped into the cage.
“Welcome to Demolition!”
The crowd roared.
“On my right, undisputed World Champ with fifty one wins and zero losses, Burt The Done Deal Iron!”
“On my left, with a record of four wins and seven losses, Frank Palmer the Archangel!”
Burt was a little surprised by Archangel moniker. He was pretty sure Palmer couldn’t spell Archangel.
The fighters took the center of the cage. The referee gave them their instructions. Stepping back, he yelled. “Engage!”
Sam White watched the footage over a dozen times.
It all started innocently enough. Iron circling toward his right, looking to throw an overhand. Palmer stood hands down, turning, not attacking, and not advancing. Iron jabs with a left and follows with a hard right to Palmer’s jaw. Palmer didn’t even blink.
Sam slows it down to frame by frame at this point. And it’s still a blur. Palmer pistons out his left then pivots, throwing the right from his waist. The impact snaps Iron’s head to his left. The force of the blow tears Iron’s mandible from his skull. Blood falls in a large gout, painting Iron’s chest as his jaw spins across the cage, impacting and sticking into the mesh. Iron, with his tongue hanging down like an absurd necktie, stands still for a moment before falling flat on his back, going into shock before he even hits the mat.
The count was foregone to make room for medical personnel. Sam had gotten the report today that after fusing a couple of vertebrae Iron would walk again; solid food, on the other hand, was another question. The Qs were through the roof. It was almost in constant loop on all outlets.
Sir Walter had been right. Palmer was indeed state of the art.