Friday, December 01, 2017


I started working on this novel, Vitual Nations, several years back and didn't finish it due to circumstances in my life that forced me to abandon it for a time. Now I'm back more or less to where I was before and am interested in pursuing this thing again. The reason I say "thing" is because it's a monster; a gigantic future world that could take several books to tell the whole story. I'm afraid to start again to tell the truth. That's why I've started this blog... or blogel as I'm beginning to think of it.

I'm thinking that if I start feeding out what I've done up to this point in short, easily assimilated, daily blog bursts I might be able to get a sense of whether or not there is an interest in this "thing". If so, I'll continue to write it. Maybe even get a publisher interested in it.

At the time I started writing Virtual Nations I found that I was having a difficult time finding books that I could sink my teeth into and hold me, so I thought I'd try and write something that I would like to read.

Only you, the readers, can tell me if I've been successful.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Prologue To A Future - 1

The net was down....
Inspector Harry Monday rested in the sunlight, high up the river gorge, his back pressed against the warm mountain granite that lined the walls of the stony pocket he had taken refuge in. The mountain fell away in front of him, throwing the river cascading out and down into a steep forested valley that plunged towards the thin grey line of old Highway 99, and beyond that to the shining silver plate of Howe Sound.

He opened his eyes and brushed at the flies that kept gathering over the open burn wound on his leg.

"Not dead yet!"

He swore as he swept them away with an open hand.

It was just plain bad luck that had finally caught up with him. He still hadn't been spotted by any of the Special Forces search teams that were combing the tangled mountainsides for him, but he knew it was just a matter of time.

Harry leaned out to look over the edge of the cliff in front of him, then gasped as pain ripped through his body. The shock ran like bad electricity from his injured right leg up through the twisting nerve ends in back of his teeth, exploding somewhere just behind his eyes. He held his breath and sat completely still until things swam back into focus.

"Would've made it, if it wasn't for this," he muttered in disgust, wincing as he moved back carefully, waiting for his leg to quiet down.

Harry eased up against the wall again and reached around to check that his pistol was where he had left it, tucked into his belt behind him. For the hundrenth time that morning he ran his fingers over his police badge to make sure it was still hanging from the left chest pocket of his beat up old fatigue jacket. His fingers were scraped and stiffened from the climb and exposure to the cold of the night before.

"Won't be playing piano for a while," he said, as he held his hands out in front of himself to view them. He tried to laugh. A wisp of wind carried faint voices and the clatter of equipment up from the valley bottom, silencing him.

Harry rubbed with renewed energy at the filthy gold badge, polishing it with his dirty sleeve until it glinted in the sunlight like new. The lettering on it became clear; it read City of Vancouver Police Department - Homocide Division. Hopefully they'd see that first and slow up long enough to ask some questions. A week in the bush could change the way people look at you.

Harry had to keep reminding himself to keep his hands away from his body, but not too far. He might need his gun after all. It wouldn't do to give those totally freaked military types down there an excuse to just blow him away. He still wanted some questions answered, although he didn't think the people he wanted to talk to would be in any mood to talk to him. Judging from all the trouble they'd gone to, he suspected they had other plans for Harry Monday.

Harry had awakened earlier that morning to the rattle of helicopter blades approaching. He had fought through the fog that clouded his head, struggling to hear more clearly as the helicopter came closer. A kind of nameless peace had attached itself to the sound. It was as if the noisy machine was part of some forgotten scene from his own lost childhood, a moment where he had been truly happy. But he was uncertain; there were no pictures in his mind, just a sense of place, of feeling home. Was it memory or the first intoxicating flush of fever that was beginning to course through his body? Thirst took hold of him, and he had pulled himself close enough to drink from the mountain stream that plunged over the cliff before him and crashed into the rocks of the river bed far below.

The craft had approached unseen along the base of the cliff below, hovered for a moment, then seemed to turn at the foot of the falls, probably to follow the rocky riverbed downstream. He felt the sensation leave him as the blades thumped off into the distance, and he had slipped off to sleep again.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Prologue To A Future - 2

Harry swatted at the flies again, then fumbled through the pockets of his soiled jacket until he found a half-smoked butt and his old Zippo. He lit up the butt and hauled off on it a few times. The dizzy euphoria spread through him and smoothed his head out enough to let him take stock of the situation. So where do we go from here ? Harry thought.

With the net down, a lot of those young Special Forces soldiers down there would be bare-eyeballing it for the first time in a whole lot of years. The holowraps these kids had grown up wearing were good - too good. But if you had the credit, who could resist a designer reality? Or ever want to go back to realworld? Once you were hooked, the only escape from it was the old cold-eyeball, and that took some getting used to if you had been wearing a wrap since you could walk. What made it even worse for those young soldiers down there was losing the terrain scanners built into the holo-arrays of their battle helmets.

Jesus, those guys are running around like blind dogs with their noses cut off! He shuddered at the thought of how strange the world had become.

You're old man's money is no good here, kid - take a good long look at the real world. It was bound to catch up with you sooner or later.

"Seeing is believing!" The words hissed unexpectedly out of Harry's mouth, startling him. The reflection of his voice off the surrounding rock walls sounded like someone else, and he didn't like the sound of it.

He knew it really wasn't them he should blame. Maybe it was more his fault in the end than theirs. After all, he had been born into that world in the not so distant past where you trusted your own god-given senses - not the narrow lens of someone else's VR machine. Maybe he was as much to blame as anyone for letting it get away from them all the way it had. Not that it mattered now.

Harry lifted the cigarette to his mouth again and realized it had died. As he cupped a hand around it and thumbed the Zippo to relight it, he heard the helicopter return. He squinted through the smoke. This time it came into view, though still at a distance. It was an ancient twin rotor Chinook dressed in flat army green with the powder blue Virtual Nation Cavalry insignia painted on its nose.

Astonished, he watched the the thing fly past, blowing a long trail of blue smoke behind. It moved away to the far end of the valley, fading out of earshot for awhile, gradually beating its way back again to full volume as it passed by below his position. The helicopter was working its way up the mountain slopes, getting closer each time it returned. He knew it must be looking for him.

Where the hell did they dig that relic up from? Harry thought, shocked at the sight of the thing. And where would they find a crew to run it? Maybe the government had been prepared for the Net going down. Or at least the military. They couldn't all have been lulled to sleep by it.

Harry took another long drag off the butt, feeling the heat of it against his fingers.

They got burned. Boy, did they get burned.

The military had relied heavily on the Net; like everyone else they had bought into the idea that it was indestructible because it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They had gambled on it to give them the virtual eyes and ears they needed to wage successful war. They had gambled and lost.

Well, they weren't all that stupid, thought Harry. They must have had a bunch of old surplus stuff salted away for a rainy day like today.

He knew it would take awhile to reconfigure computers and cockpit displays before getting their flyers back into the air. One thing hadn't changed - you still had to be able to see where you were going. With the old Chinook all you did was look out the window and there you were. WYSIWYG. What You See Is What You Get. Beautiful. Couldn't be simpler.

Seeing is believing!

Harry ground the butt into the dirt beside him. That was his last, and he felt the ache of an uncertain future begin to open up ahead.

The ocean winds began to rise, sweeping up into the valley; sighing like surf as they pushed their way up through the thick stand of forest surrounding him. The winds brought the cold of the sea with them, filling him with an awful dread. He didn't want to die here like this; his bones picked clean by wild animals and left to bleach on this pile of rock. Would anyone even miss him? Probably not. He had no family that he knew of. He'd met more good women in his life than he deserved, and he'd turned his back and walked away from them all. He'd been a fool; he could see that now. It came to him now with an alarming clarity that he may have left the most important things in life too late.

Why do we always put off these these kinds of realizations until the worst of times?

Harry had never felt so alone.

He pulled himself back further into his rocky shelter as the chopper roared by again, quite near now, raising clouds of dust as it buffeted the air with its big blades. It might be a relic, thought Harry, but the waist guns the crew manned were deadly medium lasers.

The world will have to start all over again.. Will we learn anything from our mistakes?

Harry didn't like being a pessimist, but his life had ground it into him, one bad day after another. He looked up into the remarkable blue sky above him and he laughed: at his present predicament, at everything that had happened in the last six months, at his whole life up until that moment. He laughed until his leg began to take notice and sent him a message that made his face knot up in pain again.

A weariness swept over him now that could not be resisted. His eyelids, heavy as tombstones, slid down and locked shut. There was some kind of writing chiseled in wavy red strokes across the back of them, but it was too close to focus on. Anyways, he was more interested in watching his feet; they were slowly being swallowed up by a luminous hole that had opened up in front of him. A white flourescence shone from somewhere deep inside it, licking first at his feet and now his lower legs, surrounding them with a warm lambent glow. He could hear voices as well; one of them he recognized as his own. It was telling him he should run, run as fast as his legs could carry him. But it was useless to run any further, he told himself. Fact was, even if he could, he didn't want to. He wanted it to end now, one way or the other.

There was no running left in him.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Chapter One - 1

Six months earlier...

God abhors a naked singularity

Larco Bengolin sat uncomfortably in the back seat of the compact Martian taxi as it sped through Barsoom City's subterranean roadways to TAFT corporate headquarters. It was unsettling for him to feel the taxi ride so smoothly over cobblestone as it wound its way through the VR-generated old southern Portuguese cityscape. He knew he shouldn't dwell on the little paradoxes of Martian life - they could add up quickly to a disturbing reality. But there was nothing else to distract him; it was all he could focus on.

He had long since grown bored of the colourful hanging flower baskets and the picturesque white plastered walls reflecting the eternal summer sun of an Algarve frozen forever in mid-season. He knew every begging Gypsy child along the way, every wrought iron hanging sign painted the same tourist board regulated blue, the flock of sheep that blocked the road and the scores of old wooden Coke cases propped up against the shop walls full of wriggling snails, for sale by the scoop-full. He closed his eyes against them all, but couldn't shut out the unnerving sense that something was terribly wrong, that the damn taxi should be bumping along the stone roadway instead of riding smooth as glass.

The taxi filled suddenly and loudly with music:

Red planet Mars
Hiding like a thief amongst the stars
World of the dead
Red planet Mars

A pin prick of iridescent ruby light centered the dark eye that swung around to the back of the wrap encircling the driver's head and held on Larco.

"They'll be votin' for the new cityscape at the end of the month," the taxi driver yelled over the song as he divided his sight, one eye of his split viewer on Larco, the other on the road ahead. He was large and black, wore a dark beret and spoke through a gap between the two big candy white front teeth that Harry could see framed in the taxi's rear view mirror. He turned the music down.

"Probably end up lookin' like this one again, my man. One goddamn endless summer after another. But I know a lot of people sick of it, believe me. Maybe this time they'll change the motha'. You never know...never know."

Larco stared out the taxi window, pretending an interest in the passing scene and hoping the driver would stop talking. He didn't feel like conversation. He wasn't sure if he was capable of it at the moment.

It was disturbing to feel himself losing control, to feel the growing apprehension that was slowly but surely swallowing him up. He hadn't felt any of the panick attacks he had heard others talk about, but he knew there was a battle going on inside him. His mind was trying to reject this Martian reality, like a body rejects the alien tissue of an unwanted organ transplant. The whole thing was wrong and he felt it now in the cold wrap of his skin, in the fullness of a tongue that had never sat quite so prominently in his mouth, and in the icy little fingers that tickled at his gut and made him forget he hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours.

"Keep focused on the big picture when you get there," he had been told by the agent he was replacing before he left Earth. "It's the little things that get to you."

Like everyone that went to Mars for the first time, he had laughed off the advice. No one he had talked to that had been there could give him the kind of answers he wanted to hear. Everyone had spoken vaguely, in short noncommittal bursts or unfinished sentences ending in uncomfortable silences. It seemed that the things that bothered them the most were things that didn't exist, or couldn't be grasped, and that didn't make any sense to him. If he'd listened a little closer he might have recognized an evasiveness to their answers. But Larco was too young to hear that, and had already decided that Mars was going to be a cakewalk. Besides, each year served was three years taken off the twenty-five years of service required for retirement and a big fat pension. He'd still be in his forties with the good life stretching way out ahead of him when he completed his service.

Little bright knives of white-hot sun were flashing off the walls and windows of the buildings flying past outside the taxi window. Larco's head began to ache from the targeting. He ordered his wrap to filter out the bad light and set about worrying over his more immediate problems.

Larco had never been called into the Station before, as TAFT field agents liked to refer to their operational headquarters, and he didn't feel good at all about the way they had done it. There was a chance that they had blown his cover, and it only added to his uneasiness. Even if it hadn't been blown, the company had to assume he was finished. Sending him back to the mines now would be dangerous; he'd been pulled out in the middle of his shift and some of the Chinese had given him the kind of long hard looks that would require answers if he was to return. Sam Kwong and his boys ran the ice pit he had been working and you had to be good to fool them. Larco didn't know if he was up to it anymore; the prospect of facing them filled him with dread. The miners knew the company watched them, and if they uncovered company moles, they were usually merciless with them, especially the Chinese gangs.

The Chinese had been there from the start and as far as they were concerned they owned the mines they had emigrated to over sixty years ago. TAFT let them think that way as long as they produced the ice and ore they needed so badly back on Earth. The uneasy arrangement had held for the most part, with TAFT ruling the surface of the planet, the gang overlords wielding power in the mines and mining settlements beneath.

Larco began to kindle the hope that he was already blown and they were reassigning him. Maybe he would finish out his contract at the Station. There was always a need for experienced agents in training or communications.

The cramped taxi made him aware that he needed a shower and shave, but that would have to wait a little longer, along with the good night's sleep . They could at least have let him change his clothes.

"No time for that," the company pit boss had told him as he led him away to the giant crawler, its idling engines rumbling mightily in the thin air as it waited to haul its frozen load away from the Milankovitch Crater Mines. It was a twelve hour journey south across the bleak and icy Plains of Arcadia to Barsoom City.

"There'll be transportation waiting for you inside the city air lock," the boss had told him, indicating he should climb aboard quickly. He was nervous too, he had to live here with the miners, and knew all too well what could happen if you didn't watch your back.

I'll know soon enough what this is all about, Larco told himself, only too happy to be out the god-forsaken ice pits.

That thought helped snap him out of his growing depression. He finally succeeded in focusing on the scene rushing by outside the taxi window and tried for the umpteenth time to put his finger on what it was that always bothered him about Barsoom's cityscape. The VR projections were uncannily realistic, unmatched in resolution and attention to detail, but still...

"Personally?" The driver hadn't stopped talking. "I'd like to see a rainy Paris street scene, early 1950's, somethin' with some soul, you know, my man? How can you play jazz in a city like this?"

Jazz had found a home on Mars. It was smart music and it was honest and the people that lived here didn't like bullshit.

"You play?" Larco asked, mildly interested, glad for the distraction now.

" Tenor sax. Nothin' like it to free your spirit." the driver said. "Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, now that was livin' back then. Wish'd I'd been around to hear those cats blow.

Larco nodded in agreement. He had a point there. Larco had spent much of his time growing up listening to music in Moscow's jazz bars, although that was being generous. Most of them were really just abandoned basements that some enterprising young capitalist had set up shop in. Cheap Paristroika Vodka drank out of plastic cups soon brought an escape from the misery of their wretched, pointless lives in the blind drunkeness it offered. Vile handrolled Cuban cigarettes would set the whole place into coughing fits. And no one ever bothered to clean the dark stains dried on the walls and floors from the fights that broke out on too many nights. But the music made you forget all that. Larco knew exactly what the driver meant.

The taxi flashed through a zipper zone and they were back where they had started from, the myth proven true. If you travel far enough through Barsoom City, they say, you'll eventually end up where you started. Larco had soon found out that there was nothing profound attached to that notion, nothing behind it at all except the laughter of the city's good citizens at the expense of new arrivals to the great underground Martian colony.

"Revolution comin', you know what I mean, my man? People weren't meant to live like this. Know what's underneath this movie they've been holdin' over forever? Concrete walls, that's all. Shiny smooth concrete walls with VR projectors built in like big black assholes. Thousands of 'em spewin' out this shit we gotta live in day in - day out. Just one big goddamn 3d holo-fuckin' theatre is what we're livin' in here.

At least they change the movies in the theatres every week, Larco thought. You have to put up with this for a whole year before they vote in a new cityscape. And the whole thing repeats itself over and over again, stitched together by zipper zones every couple of miles. No matter what the ads claimed, it was still artificial reality; even a lifetime of conditioning couldn't change the fact that the brain is an animal not easily fooled. No wonder so many people lose it up here.

"I was here when the power failed once some years back," the driver continued. "Scared the hell outta me. Things livin' underneath all this pretty sugarcoatin'. Things crawlin' and scurryin' under the emergency lights like I never seen before."

Larco thought he felt a bump on the road.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Chapter One - 2

"Here we are, my man."

The driver stomped a big-footed boot into the brakes and they squealed to a halt in the middle of the street. Larco paid him and stepped out of the taxi in front of the steps that led to the great darkened glass doors of the TAFT corporate headquarters building. The taxi horn tooted twice and the driver flashed him a peace sign as he squealed away.

Nothing was as it seemed in this world anymore, he thought. Like most people who had been here for a while, he had an uneasy sense that they had gone too far with the holo-projections on Mars. It was supposed to make everyone that had to live here for any length of time feel at home, but almost everyone got spooked before too long. It had an elusive falseness to it that soon began to eat away at your insides. Larco thought he was beginning to understand what a laboratory rat must feel like. But being surrounded by your dream vacation fantasy was preferable to living for years buried deep beneath the Martian surface in the bleak realworld underground colony that was Barsoom City.

He pushed his wrap up just enough to see realworld and it was as the taxi driver had said. Miles of grey concrete tunnel, broken only by the gaping mouths of inset doorways; the shiny silvery snakes of electrical conduits and the cold blue artificial lighting overhead. And of course the endless black bumps of the VR projectors disappearing in long neat rows into the featureless distance in either direction. He was alone on the street except for the few TAFT company vehicles pulled up on the sidewalk aways up the road. Those were the ones you passed with care when you drove here - they didn't give if you drove into them.

A hollow roaring seeped into his head as he pulled the wrap away from one ear and let the low rumbling din of the great underground city replace the wrap's carefully treated ambience.

Don't see any creepy-crawlys out today.
He felt relieved about that as he slipped his wrap back on, admitting to himself that this place was a whole lot more agreeable with the VR projectors running. He was aware that most people wouldn't be able to do what he had just done.

Thank god for being born a poor Russian boy, Larco thought. He laughed shakily to himself.

They do look like assholes.

TAFT projected a custom VR display from the the facade of the building that housed their headquarters. It was a period piece 1930's Mediterranean-style hotel, and it blended perfectly with the old Portuguese cityscape. The outdoor patio bar was filled with a sophisticated crowd, sipping seriously on tall drinks and blowing clouds of smoke as they waved French cigarettes and chatted under the inevitable Cinzano and Perrier umbrellas. The street beside it had its usual complement of beggar children, grubby little hands outstretched, furiously demanding money from the well-heeled patrons who ignored them for the most part; the waiters sometimes taking runs at them to keep them at bay. A black 1937 Mercedes-Benz coupe, complete with German consular plates and Swastika pennants flying on both front fenders, squatted on the street outside.

Larco took little notice of the scene as he walked straight through the front door of the Mercedes, out the other side and dragged his tired body up the steps to the front door of the building. Somehow, he felt like the ghost here, the one that wasn't real. The projections were taking over and wouldn't need real people anymore. They seemed to be enjoying life on Mars. If we could just teach them to work, the rest of us could all go home.

He pressed his hand up against the security reader on one of the opaque, featureless glass doors and in a moment its great hinges swung it silently outward and open.

A grey uniformed guard met him inside the door, and held him by the arm as he did a picture scan of Larco. Matching him successfully to his own security wrap files, he led him towards the reception area, still holding him by the arm.

The lobby of the building was impressive. Polished Martian black marble flooring and walls, unique in all the solar system, disappearing upwards into a complex honeycomb of yellow and chrome coloured glass grids that reflected an even, comfortable light from some unseen source above it. The paintings, wall hangings, and plants were obviously projections that could be changed whenever desired. Van Gogh dominated the walls, but the plants scattered around the room were a shameful mix of artificially colored tulips and what looked like unripened lemon trees. Larco smiled to himself. Even with access to all the world's greatest digital galleries and conservatories, some bumbling fool could still make a mess of it all.

"She'll take you from here," the guard said pointing the way. He didn't like miners. They were trouble, and he'd had plenty of experience with that kind of trouble since he'd been on Mars.

Larco approached the woman seated behind the white swept-back counter located in the middle of the great lobby, the steel of his work boots ringing as he made his way across the marble floor. The TAFT single T logo was emblazoned across the front of the counter like a headless crucifix.

"I'm here to see Mr. Ernst Schiller, he said. His voice sounded close and sibilant, the room reverberation filtered out this close to the reception area. "I've an appointment. Larco Bengolin's the name."

"Yes, of course, Mr. Bengolin." The woman smoothed her skirt over her long legs as she stood and smiled. "You're to hurry right up to his office."

He could feel his guard come down as he smiled back at her, then felt like an idiot for allowing himself to be so easily manipulated. He hadn't seen a woman this pretty for a long time.

"Walter," she called to the guard, "will you take Mr. Bengolin up to security, please. The air around her rich voice was dry and intoxicating. "Mr. Schiller's office."

She gave him another wide smile but Larco had decided not to respond.

The guard's eyes narrowed in disapproval as he spun about and pointed Larco towards the elevator.

"This way." He looked Larco up and down. "Mr. Schiller doesn't get many visitors. Especially ones that look like you."

They emerged on the 7th floor, the guard leading Larco down a blue carpeted hallway that led to a set of large double glass doors engraved with the same TAFT insignia he had seen downstairs. The guard pulled at one of the shiny yellow T brass handles and motioned Larco into the busy offices of TAFT security.

They passed through a large open room full of men and women at work. Most sat at the long rows of desks, faces intent on display screens. Some stood bent over in small group huddles, speaking earnestly amongst themselves, glancing sideways at the newcomers. A few leaned against the far wall and stared out the windows into the cold Martian afternoon, clutching coffee cups and smoking cigarettes.

Larco allowed himself to dream just for a moment as he passed through the room and into the corridor beyond. Perhaps this would be a way out of the lonely drudgery of field work. And especially his present assignment: the cold, dangerous work of the ice mines. He longed for a clean, bright office and the companionship of others he could be himself with. Whatever they wanted him to do, he was determined to impress them with his abilities.

Larco knocked on the half open door the guard had led him to.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Chapter One - 3

"Come in, Mr. Bengolin, and close the door behind you." The little man in the thin grey suit motioned Larco towards the chair positioned precisely across from where he sat. He pointed with his pen, not bothering to look up as Larco approached. Larco took his seat and waited quietly as the pen scratched noisily across the sheet of paper spread across the desk.

The most reliable tools of subterfuge were thousands of years old, Larco thought. This man didn't trust the electronic devices of the world that surrounded him.

The room was furnished in dark wood panelling, thick plum carpet, plants and real leather, you could feel the weight of it all. And smell the plants. There were no VR projectors here.

That's it, Larco decided to himself. You can't smell anything on Mars, that's what's wrong with the damn VR projections. They haven't programmed them for smell.

TAFT’s headquarters rose several stories above the surface of the planet. Larco looked outside the tall windows that rose behind the man at the desk and saw the ore crawlers coming in from the north, pulling their long loads across the frozen ground towards the distant blackened concrete of the space shuttle pads.

"I'm Schiller, Mr. Bengolin. Welcome to the Station," the man finally said, fixing Larco with his small dark eyes. He did not wear a wrap.

"We have a very important job for you, Mr. Bengolin. A job that entails some risk, I'm afraid. Are you interested?"

Larco knew he had no choice in the matter. It was a senseless formality to have asked the question. But that was how things were done here. The careful formalities helped to give structure to a world that was always threatening to collapse into a personal nightmare. It was best to nudge people politely towards their assignments. He nodded quickly.

"Of course sir, I accept."

"Excellent. Well then. It's a courier job. You'll be taking a package back to Earth and passing it along to another agent. You've been chosen because of your anonymity and excellent field record. It could be a step up for you, if all goes well."

Larco was pleasantly surprised by this. He had never anticipated returning to Earth so soon. He almost smiled as he nodded again.

"This will not be a vacation, Mr. Bengolin," Schiller snapped. His eyes turned hard as little black buttons.

The door opened again. This time Schiller rose from his seat.

"Come in Doctor, come in. Is everything ready?"

"Yes, yes. I have it all here. It must be sent immediately, Schiller. It's too important to delay."

Larco turned in his chair to see an older man with an immaculately groomed head of shining white hair piled atop a thick pink face. He was dressed in expensively casual clothes, his wrap studded in the small gems the wealthy found de rigueur this year. He held a brief case sized metal security container out in front of him, his hands gripping the sides as he thrust it forward, offering it to the room.

"We don't want to raise suspicion, Doctor Brandt," Schiller said, ignoring the case for the moment. "He'll leave on the regular flight back to Earth. You can't change the departure time of a solar cruiser without people taking notice now, can you?"

"It should have been made to leave days ago. A find of this significance is beyond all measure. You people obviously have no idea of the importance of this or you would have agreed to send a veiled transmission to Earth immediately."

The doctors face was reddening now.

Schiller smiled thinly, his dark eyes, half-lidded, tilted up towards the ceiling.

"It will have to be studied more closely before we can decide how important it really is, won't it Doctor? No one man can know for sure now, can he now?" Schiller said evenly.

"You don't think I know the significance of an observable singularity growing on the edge of the galaxy? A hole through which Almighty God himself is staring us straight in the face! I'll tell you the significance of..."

"THAT WILL BE ENOUGH, DOCTOR!" Schiller barked the order with an authority that stunned both Larco and Brandt.

He looked to one and then the other of the two men, his face a tight mask of command.

"There is no need to involve Mr. Bengolin any more deeply in these matters than is necessary for the completion of his mission," he continued firmly. "Give him the case, Doctor."

Brandt pushed the case into Larco's upraised hands and turned away. It seemed that for a moment the relief of giving up his burden almost won over his great concern.

"The contents of this case must not fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Bengolin," Brandt finally said, a great weariness in his voice.

He took his wrap off to wipe the perspiration from his brow. His tired, waxy eyes protruded unfocused from the thin pink-edged lips of their sockets. Seldom exposed, they were not accustomed to hiding the truth from people. Larco could see real fear there in the darkness of his dilated pupils.

"This information could provide certain people with a power beyond your comprehension," Brandt's voice was almost lost in a whisper now as he turned his disturbing eyes towards Larco again.

"The world as we now know it is threatened by the existence of this phenomenen, Mr. Bengolin". He bent over and tapped a crooked finger against the case in Larco's hands.

"To unmask God himself...who would ever have thought it possible? It's unthinkable! Yet I believe it is possible! And if the unthinkable were to happen, Mr. Bengolin..." The doctor’s voice grew stronger as he swung around to face Schiller, the finger following, sweeping the room like a tiny scythe, now raised accusingly towards the little man behind the desk, "...the potential for destruction is almost limitless! That's why the information in this case must get back to Earth, so it can be stopped!"

The doctor stepped back again, turned and lowered his face as he put a hand on Larco's arm. His grip tightened as his dreadful eyes pleaded for understanding.

"You see then how important this is?"

Larco folded the metal security case in his big hands and looked up with great difficulty into the doctor's naked eyes, trying to read the terrible mystery that lay behind them.

"Of course, Doctor. I understand."

He didn't, of course. He wanted to ask about the hole, that had truly shaken him, but he thought better of it. Schiller would not take kindly to any enquiries, he felt sure. What the hell did he mean by God staring at us? Brandt had sounded convinced about that. Larco wanted to get off the planet as quickly as possible.

"Please step away, doctor," Schiller ordered.

Schiller came around from his desk and placed a length of smartsteel wire across Larco's sleeve cuff; the end curled around and joined back into itself seamlessly, forming a snug loop around his wrist. The other end was permanently fixed to the metal security case.

"Read this, Mr. Begolin, after I activate the restraint." He handed Larco a piece of paper and entered a command into the keypad on his desk. He nodded for him go ahead.

Larco read the words on the page and the smartsteel loop snapped open, slipped away from his wrist, and hung limply down the side of the case.

"Good, it works. You won't need to memorize the words, Mr. Bengolin. It works by voice recognition. Just tell it to open in your own way. It's the only way you can take the case off. Take it off only when you need to. Your voice and the voice of the man you are to meet are the only ones that can release that wire. You'll be met at Chicago spaceport. They'll pick you up on the field in a car. Take your wrap off before you approach them, Mr. Bengolin, we don't want any eavesdropping. And don't let anyone else touch that case! "

Schiller paused, letting it all sink in.

"You'll be put on board the Solar Cruiser first. We'll send you up in a company shuttle right away. Keep to your cabin and talk to no one. And Mr. Bengolin...any unauthorized tampering with the device will abort the mission." He dusted at an imaginary speck on his sleeve.

"And I do mean abort, Mr.Bengolin," he barely whispered, looking up into Larco's impassive face.

The gesture had not been lost on Larco.

"Do you have it all, Mr. Bengolin?" He was all fussy business again.

Larco nodded again.

Schiller put his head down, closing the open file on his desk and opening another larger one beside it.

"That will be all. A driver will be waiting for you outside."

He was dismissed with a perfunctory wave towards the door.

Dr. Brandt, his wrap still dangling from his hand, now stood quietly under one of the large windows behind Schiller's desk, staring up at the first evening star to appear over the eastern horizen. His head tilted slowly to one side like an inquisitive dog.

He did not see Larco leave.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Chapter One - 4

Larco Bengolin walked quickly across the darkened runway at O'Hare SpaceCentre, thick fingers wrapped tightly around the handle of his Level One Security carrying case. Behind him the great engines of the Mars shuttle steamed and sighed as they cooled under the thin drizzle of the Chicago winter night. The other passengers would be delayed before disembarking, but what Larco held in his metal carrying case was too important to wait.

As soon as the shuttle had landed a heat shield had been rolled up under its nose by a Special Forces team dressed as ground crew personnel. Larco had slid out the forward service hatch and dropped to the ground below to meet them.

Holding his breath and closing his eyes against the deadly shuttle exhaust fumes that swirled around him, one of the team had positioned an oxygen mask securely over his face, flushing the mask out with a blast from the attached tank before tapping it to indicate he could open his eyes.

When he could breath comfortably again, he had pulled on a black SpaceCentre cap, clipped an orange rain cape across his shoulders and within seconds he had been transformed into one of the swarm of workers converging on the shuttle.

One of the team motioned Larco to follow him and led him a little ways away from the shuttle. He pointed into the distance to where row after row of dark towers repeated themselves endlessly, each one crowned with clusters of blinking red approach beacons.

They only make any sense when you see them from above, thought Larco.

"Walk towards that one, they'll meet you there. Good luck." The man turned and walked quickly away.

Larco was suddenly alone. The empty SpaceCentre landing field stretched endlessly, disappearing into the night in every direction. He watched, fascinated, as the rain deepened the pools of water forming in the runway depressions. The landing beacons transformed them into flashing puddles of spilt blood.

He began walking towards one of the clusters of winking red lights.

It was hard to believe he was back home; he had been gone for less than two of his three year duty tour on Mars and had never expected to find himself Earthside before it was over.

No one outside the company and military security knew he had returned, not that there was anyone who really cared. He would remain undercover and return in a few days on the next shuttle out.

A commercial airliner roared suddenly and noisily overhead as it took off from the nearby airport and began its slow crawl up through the cloud cover to the open skies above. He wondered if it was going to Eastern Europe, perhaps even to Moscow itself. The bleak winter streets of home.

There's nothing for me there anymore. Larco sighed, dismissing his past.

The flight from Barsoom Spaceport had been a long one, made worse by the Level One Security status of the message he had been chosen to carry back to Earth. He had no reason to doubt what Schiller had told him a month ago in TAFT's offices on Mars.

Larco hadn't liked living alone with that thought for the last thirty days in his cramped space quarters. The magnificent Sun Cruiser and its gay home-bound complement sailed serenely across the vast inner ocean of the solar system between Mars and Earth orbit, unaware of any danger, the ship at long last giving itself up to the welcoming pull of the home planet. They had boarded the shuttle at the orbiting transfer terminal and were soon plunging into Earth's atmosphere. No one outside a few select crew members had seen him arrive or depart either vessel.

The rain was coming down harder now, and he could just make out the dark shape of a car speeding towards him across the tarmac, lights out, on a course to intercept him.

Larco stopped and signaled the approaching vehicle, waving the case over his head for them to see. The lights of the car flashed on and off once, and he relaxed. A bed and a good hot meal, then later, if he was lucky, a real woman. The hot-channels on Mars had been abysmal; everything had been old reruns of bad holo-sex for the entire time he had been there.

He stopped and took off the oxygen mask, pulled off his wrap as he had been instructed to do and lifted his face up to the heavens and let the water wash over it, welcoming it. It had been so long since he had been able to stand under his home sky and he wanted to enjoy it while he could.

He could hear the engine now, approaching fast. He wiped his face and squinted through the rain, trying to gauge the distance. It was close, he could tell, and it should be slowing down soon. It occurred to him then that it might not be coming to pick him up after all, perhaps there was someone else on the shuttle that was to be met.

He turned to see if any other passengers had disembarked, but saw only bare runway stretching into the darkness on either side of it. The shuttle, now some distance from him, was lit up by a circle of beaming spotlights pushed into place by the ground crew. The deadly trails of engine exhaust and steam were curling up through the crossed fingers of the lights; the shuttle itself, transformed by the stark bottom lighting, crouched on the feet of its landing gear like some great silver bird of prey.

Larco heard the pitch of the car's engine shift upward and spun around to find himself staring into the dazzling twin beams of the approaching vehicle. He threw his left arm up to shield his eyes from the lights, suddenly realizing that the car was bearing directly down on him.

"STOP, YOU FOOL!" he screamed. Larco hesitated, then turned to run sideways, away from the direct path of the car. To his horror, he saw that the car had changed direction to follow him, its engine now an ugly roar as it accelerated even faster. He ran, the rain sweeping into his eyes in blinding sheets, shoes and pants now sodden and heavy with the water he was splashing up from the little red pools on the runway.

Larco turned his head to look back. The carrying case broke loose from the grip of his fingers and began to spin about in its own haphazard orbit at the end of the length of smartsteel, throwing him off balance. Struggling to gain control, he came down hard, straight legged, his knee locked tight. The metal case swung around towards his head, hitting him on the temple with enough force to fill his vision with a shower of blinding sparks. He staggered headlong towards the tarmac.

As Larco fell, he turned again just in time to catch sight of the front of the speeding car before it hooked him on its bumper and threw him, screaming, backwards over the hood, twisting his body as he flew head first into the the windshield, the scream silenced as his neck snapped and he changed direction, up and into the air. He was projected clear of the vehicle, now a dark ragged doll journeying across a darker sky, arm held aloft by the weight of the carrying case and cape billowing behind him until he dove back into the ground, spinning over and over, the orange rain cape wrapping itself tightly around him, stopping at last in an unsettling tangle of arms and legs, the case still firmly attached to his bleeding wrist.

The car slid across the watery surface as it braked, then backed up fast, wheels spinning until it came to a stop, headlights illuminating the lifeless orange pile on the runway.

"Put him in the back, and be careful, we don't want any mistakes made now." The woman's voice spoke without emotion.

Two large men got out of the rear of the car. They picked the body up carefully, grabbing the two legs and the left arm, making sure not to touch the case attached to the other arm that dragged along the ground behind it. They eased the body into the trunk, rolling it over as they let go, the attached carrying case sliding in neatly after it.

"Hurry, we don't have much time!" the woman called out the open door.

The two men hurried back into the vehicle and it raced off across the field, disappearing into the dark downpour.

One of them looked at the silhouetted face seated across from him.

"How will you get the thing off, madam?" he asked.

"That's none of your concern. When we drop you off, you'll forget about tonight. Do you understand?"

They both nodded in the darkness, eager to be far away from this dangerous woman.

Larco lay in the trunk, a twisted smile frozen grotesquely on his face. He would never have to leave home again.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Chapter Two - 1

The trouble with Harry's feet...

Harry grabbed at the bed sheets in desperation. He was pointed straight down, feet first, and could do nothing to stop himself from sliding down the shiny stainless steel incline that stretched out in front of him.

He was gathering speed now, but instead of the sandy pit that should have been at the bottom of the slide he saw a blazing rectangle of white-hot light; a door opening to a fission furnace of splitting protons and spinning clock spring quarks.

Words appeared now out of the lights; he struggled to understand them but they remained obstinately indecipherable as they rushed by. His feet entered the fiery maw of the oven first and he thought it odd that they should feel so cold at the door to hell's atomic kitchen. A long silent scream caught in his throat as he slid into the final baked oblivion.

"STOP!" A terrible voice thundered and the giant hand attached to it grabbed the opposite end of the slide and began to shake it back and forth violently, spilling Harry in a tangle of sheets onto the ground in front of the open furnace door. It seemed colder now than ever.

Harry lifted his head up and looked at the lights again. Now he could see words emerging from the dazzling pinwheel sworl of shapes and letters.

“What is voice-activated, gesture sensitive, mood recognizant, and gender balanced? The NEW Dark Wing Headwrap from Sony of course... who else?

For three-d enhanced super-consciousness, complete with infinite sound, and superb masking filters for rebuilding your own personal landscapes.... the choice is obvious.

From the people at Sony.... they’ll make you believe the Sony promise.”

Harry blinked his eyes open, suddenly awake.

The words were painted in light on the pane of the sliding patio door across the room. It had been left partially open, and the winter wind whipped up the curtains in front of it and blew cold kisses onto the soles of his bare feet. Harry was lying in a bed.

He tried to remember how he had got here - wherever here was. As his eyes began to adjust to the darkness of the room he saw the sleeping form of a woman with her back to him emerge from the wrecked bed clothes. The bed was huge; she was on the far side of it, long dark hair flowing across her pillow towards him.

He pulled the blankets back around him, shivering now from fear as well as the cold. He hadn't had a dream like that one in years. Nowadays they seemed to happen only when he was at his worst. This one must have been brought on by the toxic-shock syndrome he had inherited from the party the night before.

"Christine...." Harry moaned inwardly, starting to remember.

The voice started again inside his head, only this time it was one of pain. A howling drill bit of a scream tearing into the bone of his right temple. Just as the last rev's began to whine away to a tolerable level, his stomach took a ten story drop on the old Otis freeway.

"Christ A'mighty, I'll never drink again!"

He could hear Paul's voice now from last night, egging him on. "Have 'nother scotch, Harry. I brought this all the way from 'ngland and 'm not takin' this bottle back home with me!"

"Ooooohhhhh..." He had to get up. He couldn't lie here like this. Harry squinted over at the digital clock display on the table next to the bed. 4:36 am.

He lay back again, his head pounding.

Across the room from the foot of the bed the floor to ceiling patio door looked from North Vancouver out across the dark waters of Burrard Inlet to Burnaby and the Sony Holiday Inn. The glass door was filled with the display of the holographic projector that lit up one whole side of the hotel with its colossul advertisements. Travellers incoming from the moon at night could watch the brilliant beacon pulsating with images far below them, a gigantic sorcerer's stone set in a sea of lesser stones, as they passed over Vancouver towards the spaceport at LA South.

He pulled the blankets tighter around his feet, still cold from the draught.

Harry Monday had always had trouble with his feet.

Since he was a kid in the orphanage in New York City he could remember having those dreams. They didn't happen in his head like most of his dreams; they seemed to pop right out of thin air around his feet. If he let himself go too far, they would just get more and more real. The voices he heard got louder and the pictures he saw began to take on shape. Soon he would see his little feet start to walk right into the widening dream hole at the end of his bed. His feet seemed to get even smaller then, and sometimes he swore he felt an icy wind blow over them. In horror he would close his eyes and with all his might will the thing to go away.

Once he felt his bare feet actually start to walk the gravel of a back woods road that led down hill to what appeared to be a small cove filled with a little fleet of white fishboats. He’d let it go on a little too long that time, until his legs started getting involved. Overcome with the terror of being sucked right out into another world, he had shaken himself violently, until at last, daring to open his eyes again, the fishboats and the road to them were gone.

The ad changed, catching his eye. The holograms were hard to ignore - especially when they were thirty story trailers for the latest red-hot wrap channel releases.

"You could ski down those tits, Harry."

Christine was facing him, raised on one elbow. "That stuff do anything for you? It does to me."

She pulled her long black hair back from her face and let the covers fall from her breasts.

Harry stared, transfixed by them.

"Jesus Christine” he whispered. Harry shook his head in wonder then regretted it almost right away. “I can't do this right now. I'm gonna puke all over your floor if I stay here any longer."

"Why are you always running away from me, Harry? We could have some real good times together, just like on the hot channels. We could do all that stuff, Harry, only it’d be so much better. We'd have the real thing." She slid her fingers down across the white curve of her belly stopping at the tight dark knot between her legs.

Harry was moving now, slowly, toward the lump of clothes on the floor. "Listen Christine, no offence, but I've got to get out of here. I'm not doing too well. I've got to make it home and get some sleep. Shift this afternoon, you know?"

"Don't give me that crap, Harry. I've heard that one before. You just wanted to come over here and fuck me and forget me, isn't that right? You were after my ass all night and got what you wanted. Now you think you're just going to pack up your goddamn badge and sneak out of here don't you?"

"Do me a favour and forget it, Christine. I told you I'm not feeling good, and that's all there is to it. O.K?"

She was sitting up now, arching her back, giving Harry a real show.

"Harry, be nice to me...." She was licking her fingers now and gently rubbing them up and down between her thighs, her eyes widening as they burned into his.

He could feel his loins start to smolder. She was really beginning to make things move down there.

"Oh... shit!" The elevator dropped another ten floors and Harry had to fight back the waves of cold nausea that were threatening to wash up all over the thick pile carpet beneath his feet.

"Gotta... go, Christine!" He started to try to untangle the dark knot of clothes on the floor, finally slipping a leg into his pants. Somewhere between the crotch and knee he caught a bra between his toes. He fell back out of his pants with the thing caught on the end of his foot, grabbing it with one lucky swipe of his hand. Harry stood there naked and smiling foolishly, holding it up like a prize fish.

"You lousy fuck, Harry. I oughta shoot your balls off!"

Harry turned towards her and began to realize that Christine wasn't herself at all. Christine was really quite upset about something. She'd had her fill of a variety of abusive substances last night, some of them illegal, so who could blame her for being a little edgy? But he didn't like that look in her eyes at all.

He finally managed to get most of his clothes positioned in the right places. Now all he needed were his shoes.

"Where the hell did I put my gun?" Harry put his head down sideways on the floor, one eye closed, the other scanning for bumps.

"Is this what you're looking for?" Christine held up Harry's police issue Barretta revolver. She made one fine picture, sitting there like that.

The gun was small bore, plastic - but deadly.

"Give me the gun, Christine. Just give me the gun, please."

Harry began to move carefully toward her but Christine had other plans. With a lopsided smile she waved the revolver towards Harry in a barely controlled motion that freaked him enough to dive to the floor. The little gun exploded in a blinding flash followed by a deafening crash as the patio door sailed out towards the harbour in a million pieces.

He was on her before she could get another shot off and grabbed the gun out of her hand. "You could have killed me, you crazy bitch!"

He looked down on her, all anger and adrenalin. Christine was out cold on the bed, her naked form now wasted on Harry who stood, shaking, over her.

"..could a' killed me..."

The wind blew up through the open patio door in cold gusts now. Harry turned, his eyes watering from the shock of it. The big sign still blazed across the inlet, clearer now in the cold and with no glass between.

He didn't like it at all.

Grabbing the blankets, he pulled them up over Christine and tucked them around her so she would stay warm.

"Life is strange," he said.

Harry grabbed his coat and left, the door locking behind him.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Chapter Two - 2

Harry was halfway down the hall before he realized he didn't have his shoes. A shrill scream brought his head up in time to see the terrified face of an elderly woman peering out into the hallway. She ducked back into her apartment and slammed the door shut, fumbling frantically with the chain on the inside as she tried to throw the bolt.

He looked down at the gun he still held in his hand.

"Great, just great!" Harry shook his head, pissed off at himself. He tucked the gun away in his jacket holster. Now he could hear sirens in the distance . He swore and punched viciously at the elevator button three times with his middle knuckle.


The street below was filling with a small group of curious people as he stepped out of the apartment. They slowly cleared a space for him as he descended the steps to the street. Every eye seemed to follow his footseps intently as he walked through the crowd. Some kid had a boom box with the sub-sonics dialed up way too loud, the bass thumping hard off the concrete apartment walls behind him.

Harry had to yell: "All right everybody, there's nothing to be alarmed about, just move back now, I'm a police officer - move back there please!"

He looked down to see what the crowd were staring at so damn intently and groaned inwardly as he saw Christine's hot pink smart socks flashing on and off on his feet, keeping perfect time with the kick drum ricocheting of the building and back down the dark street.

Officer Henry "Higgins" Bartholomew stood at the 24 hour order window of Ye Olde English Fish and Fries Shoppe next to the government wharf in Deep Cove. It was a cold night, and a thick wet fog sweeping down off Indian Arm was beginning to obscure the end of the wharf.

Henry liked things that were old, that had a sense of history about them. He liked the diner because it had been there for as long as anyone could remember. It had a faded look to it, like an old postcard. Even the little rectangular hologram of the British Union Jack that hung, flickering over the doorway was old. The red and blue of the flag dissolved at its failing edges into a thin pink halo and the painted backup flag on the wall behind it was peeling and flaking.

"Fish and chips , please," Henry said. "Cod - and plenty of ketchup."

"I'm sorry sir, but I don't think we have anything called chips here."

Henry pointed at the picture of fries on the menu he was holding. "The proper English name for them was chips, young lady. How many times have I told the staff here - it just seems to fall on deaf ears."

Henry liked words as well. Not the words of the wrap channels that were forging the new mass culture he disdained so much. Not the words of the hundreds of specialty langauges that had evolved to deal with all the dedicated Net applications in the workplace. Not the cool young chat of the school hallways or the swaggering, bravado lingo of the mall gangs. But the older words that people weren't using much anymore.

You could still find them waiting patiently to be discovered again in the dictionary if you ran your finger up or down an entry or two off the beaten track. That is if you had a dictionary at all.

"UNIT TWELVE - RESPOND TO GUNSHOT AT HARBOURVIEW APARTMENTS AT 326 SEA SHELL LANE!" The squawk box bawled the message out across the parking lot from the open window of the police cruiser.

"I'm afraid I'll have to cancel that order, my dear." He sighed and rolled his eyes in mock exasperation.

"You'd think they'd be kind enough to wait until I finished my meal now, wouldn't you? Nothing ruffles an officer of the peace more than being denied his dinner. I'll be thin as a leaf if this sort of thing continues on much longer."

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Henry Bartholomew was a fat man. Mysteriously fat, as only some fat men can be. In fact, Henry Bartholomew was as mysteriously fat as any fat man could be. No one ever saw Henry eat much. He was always the picture of restraint when it came to dining.

"Higgs, help yourself. Have some more."

"No thank you, no more please, I couldn't possibly. I'm quite stuffed thank you very much, appetite of a bird tonight," Henry would always say whenever Norm Stern, his shift partner, invited him for dinner. Norm and his wife Sally would both glance suspiciously at Henry's bulging waistline as he passed the dish on.

He hadn't always been fat. In fact, in high school Henry had been a reed thin, pimply-faced kid who had needed all the help he could get just to be noticed in the great cruel crush of adolescent society. At that age, it seemed the qualities most respected were physical attributes, all of which Henry lacked in abundance. He needed something to set him apart from the crowd. Something to make him special in at least one way.

He stumbled upon it one day quite by accident when he found his grandfather's collection of books and letters. They had been stuffed into trunks in his parent's attic after his grandfather died and had been forgotten about - until the day Henry had sneaked up there with a screw driver and pried the lock on the big old blue trunk. What Henry had opened was a door into another world.

Henry had never held a real book in his hands before and he fell in love with their dusty perfume and the heftiness of them. He understood most of the 20th century English, but some books were even older and were difficult to comprehend. There were also some books there in languages Henry could not understand at all.

He soon noticed that the Encyclopedia Britannica available on the electronic-pages of any good virtual library was very different than his grandfather's edition. The articles in his grandfather's edition seemed more informative and the maps, especially of his home state, caught his attention. The e-pages of the virtual edition seemed smoother on the coastline and a lot of the little towns, rivers and lakes were missing. There were also some big islands missing off the west coast called the Queen Charlottes.

His state, he knew, had once been a province of Canada called British Columbia; that was before the union. Now it was a Virtual Nation's state called Northern Columbia.

Henry was fascinated by his grandfather's letters as well. He had never seen a letter before, except in movies, and was shocked not only to find that his grandfather had a mistress, but by the fact that the letters had survived with their messages intact for so long and in such good condition. He wondered who the woman with the beautiful handwriting had been. There were no pictures, but a hint of some sweet scent still lingered within the folds of the pages and Henry's poor heart ached for a taste of what his grandfather had obviously enjoyed to the fullest.

These things became his constant companions throughout the loneliness of his adolescence, and Henry parlayed them into a currency of sorts: a small cult of outcasts surrounded him, eager to share his unique findings, giving Henry back a small society over which he was the undisputed governor.

"HIGG'S! Get your ASS moving!" Norm was leaning out the window of the police cruiser waving him back.

Henry put his head down and did his best impersonation of an Olympian, targeting the patrol car across the lot. He was most of the way there when he decided it wise to begin braking. Henry's massive backside had other plans; the inertia built up in there was now greater than the capacity of Henry's legs to stop in time. His ass swung passed him like a great moon freed of its orbit and carried on towards the car, Henry now being pulled along backwards by the weight of the thing. He slammed into the side of the patrol car right on target, still going full out, shrieking as the air was vented from him.

From his new vantage point on the pavement he could make out the fresh dent in the door of the cruiser and above that, Norm's head hanging out the window, peering down at him in amazement.

"Get in the car, Henry," Norm whispered in shock.

The cruiser was accelerating before Henry could get his door closed. Red and blues flashing, they came down hard off a speed bump as they gathered speed, fishtailing out onto Dollarton Highway before the tires grabbed, chirping. The powerful engine startled the quiet neighborhood as they roared off down the winding highway into the early morning darkness, siren silent.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Chapter Two - 3

"Display," Norm commanded. The display windshield snapped on; the road ahead now bright as day.
"An unfortunate miscalculation, Norman." Henry was breathing heavily, still not recovered from his dash across the parking lot and unfortunate encounter with the police cruiser. "Perhaps you could overlook my report tonight; I could write you out of the incident. I'm sure I can think of something to explain the damage."
Norm didn't answer as he gunned the cruiser through a red light. Henry was no ordinary partner. Norm had been around long enough to have seen it all, including all types of cops. But Henry took the cake.
Henry Bartholomew had joined the force about ten years ago right out of university. Why a brilliant young scholar with a major in English would want to become a cop wasn't something the police academy entrance committee could understand at first.
He showed a great aversion to sports, not a team player by all indications. His personal philosophy leaned towards some peculiar old-fashioned ideas, including some dangerous socialist tendencies; his only hobby listed was reading books.
"Mr. Bartholomew, it says here that you like to read the books." The committee chair stated. "That's a very unusual hobby. What value do you attach to such a pursuit, young man? Surely the more traditional sources of information and entertainment are more than adequate to provide you with all the material you need. Why waste your time on a dead medium?"
"I don't see it as dead, sir, only interrupted. There is knowledge buried in those books that will be lost to us if we're not careful to preserve it. Knowledge is power, as they used to say, and don't forget, sir, if I can find these sources, well...we all know there are some brilliant criminal minds out there, always on the lookout for a new twist to the old artful dodge."
"And do you think, Mr. Bartholomew that you know better how to conduct a police investigation than we do?"
"Of course not, sir," Henry didn't miss a beat. "All I'm saying is that there are a few tears beginning to show in the great cloak of human knowledge; the stitching is coming a bit loose, so to speak. We've already lost a few buttons and are in danger of losing a pocket or even a sleeve if we're not careful. The fine arts, as they used to be called, especially literature, history, and philosophy are in danger; science has taken over the universities and consumerism is the teacher of the masses. I consider myself a kind of keeper of the cloth. Someone has to make sure the old words and ideas are guarded and used properly. It's always been a hobby of mine.
"Well, we'll all sleep more soundly tonight knowing that, Mr. Bartholomew, I'm sure," he arched a shaggy white eyebrow and peered over his reading glasses, "but wouldn't some post-graduate field at university be more up your alley, something related to your interests?"
"I want to be a cop, sir."
The committe members exchanged glances, some smiling, some shaking their heads at the foolishness of youth.
He was interviewed again and again. No one could put a finger on why they were having such a difficult time making their decision until it became obvious to them all that they had encountered a kind of paradox. Henry was one man on paper and another in person. On paper he should have been run out of the recruiting office the first time he had set foot in it. But once he started talking they had changed their minds and sent his application along to the academy entrance committee. Let them deal with it.
In person he fit the profile of the perfect cop, at least what the city fathers deemed the latest politically correct version of the perfect cop.
Henry was sensitive, articulate, and seemed capable of defusing most of the traps the committee had set up to test his breaking point. With some work in the weight room he would turn out to be rather imposing, and he did seem eager to learn about weapons and self-defence.
What more could you want in a cop? The decision was made. Henry was accepted into the academy.
"HIGG'S, get an update on that call, will you?" Norm was looking at Henry, concerned.
Henry wiped away the thin film of moisture that had beaded up on his forehead with the back of his hand and smiled reassuringly at his partner.
"Unit twelve to control, display. Away to the ocean, away to the main, away to the pleasures of Sea Shell Lane.
Henry had found his voice again and Norm began to relax.
"That voice command is not recognized by Police Standard Protocol," the display answered. "Please consult Help for the appropriate voice commands of your dedicated Net system."
"I know someone who will help us, Norman."
Henry switched on the backup radio with a flourish and opened a mic channel.
"Unit twelve to control..."
"Go ahead, unit twelve," a woman's voice responded.
"Ah, could it be? Is this the lovely Lucy? The warm heart beating at the centre of the terrible machine? Is their still hope for mankind after all...”
Norm was grinning now.
"All right, Henry," Lucy was annoyed. "This channel is dedicated to emergency calls only, you know that. You're going to get me in trouble one of these days."
Norm turned to his partner, feeling much better.
"We'll just say one of the Russian gang members from downtown must have kicked the door in when we were having coffee, O.K. Henry? Don't worry about it."
Henry smiled one of his satisfied smiles. "I knew I could count on you, old friend."
Henry stabbed a tubby finger at the mic channel button.
"Any more on that shooting, dear Lucy?"
The radio crackled to life again.
"This is control to unit twelve. You won't believe this one. We just got another call from a wrap standing outside the apartment. Wait'll you see the image he just linked us to."
The vu.screen in the centre of the display windshield lit up a 3-d thumbnail projection of the holo-wrapper's link. The weird translucent toy miniature hovered over the hood of the cruiser.
"Jesus Higgs, will you look at that. He looks like some kind of perv. He's wearing woman's socks, what's he saying?"
"Volume plus three," Henry orderd.
"...nothing to be alarmed about, just move back now, I'm a police officer - move back there please!"
"We've got a live one here, Higgsy," Norm said in disbelief.
"Some people's children...wait a moment Norman, that man looks familiar to where have I..."
Henry grabbed his police issue holowrap and slipped it onto his face for a better look.
"Go in closer, wrap."
"That voice command is not recognized by Police Standard Protocol. Please consult Help for..."
"CLOSE-UP PLUS ONE, ALIGN CENTRE!" Henry snapped. "Oh no, it couldn't possibly that Inspector Monday?"
The display started to flicker on and off, lighting up only long enough to see the socks in the hologram flash in pink 3d bursts. In between bursts the darkness of the night ahead filled the windshield as they sped down the road.
"You lousy piece of shit!" Norm pressed his face close to the now clear windshield, trying to see the road ahead, eyes not yet adjusted to the dark.
"I can't see a damn thing, Higgs!"
Henry tore his wrap off and threw it aside. He gave the dash a couple of good solid kicks. The display lit up again, then died completely.
"Always worked before, Norman," he gave it one more boot, to which the display answered with a spatter of looping pink sparks over the hood before going down for good.
"Cheap chips, Higgsy. They don't make 'em like they used to. Nothing works right these days, you noticed?" Norm turned on the exterior floods to light the way.
"Yes indeed, old chum, that I have, that I have." Henry eyed the dent in the dash. Oh well. That wouldn't need explaining. All the cruisers had similar markings from officers frustrated with faulty gear.
Fact was, the whole city was beginning to look a little kicked in. It had been gradual, but Henry had become aware of the decline over the past several years. The autumn of the empire. He smiled to himself. Secretly he hoped this world would just collapse. Please, release us lord, Henry prayed to himself.
Norm pointed the cruiser's nose down Dollar Road towards the harbour and as they turned at the bottom of the short hill they could make out the small knot of people gathered at the end of Sea Shell Lane. Most of the crowd slipped nervously behind the cover of the patrol car as it came to a stop in front of the apartment, the reality of the situation finally starting to sink in. The two officers exited the car cautiously, using their open doors as shields as they confronted the man now sitting on the apartment stairs, socks still blinking in time to the boom box.
"Inspector...are you all right?" It was Norm. He spoke gently but he had his hand on his revolver as he stood crouched behind the car door.
"I couldn't be better officer." Harry didn't feel well at all. It occured to him to take off the smart sox as the pink flashing light was making him sick to his stomach. He ripped them off and tossed them towards the crowd which responded with a collective gasp.
Norm gripped his gun tighter.
"Inspector Monday, please don't make any sudden moves!"
Harry leaped up from the steps and starting walking in his bare feet towards the cruiser. The crowd surged back, gasping again. Norm and Henry looked at each other, unsure how to handle the situation. They both started to draw their guns, the crowd finally lighting off like a flock of dark birds into whatever cover the street could provide them.
"I need a lift home, boys." Harry saw the drawn guns and and the hard look in the eyes of the two men and froze in his tracks.
"It's O.K., you guys. Everything is O.K. Look, take my gun if you want and check the suite upstairs. You’ll want the manager to let you in. After you've done that I think you'll want to get me out of here A.S.A.P. Suite 304."
Henry took Harry's gun while Norm went looking for the building manager. "Sorry Inspector, but I'll have to hold this until my partner gets back, I hope you understand."
"No problem, Bartholomew," Harry was squinting at Henry's I.D. badge, "just let me sit in the car, my bloody feet are freezing."
Henry opened up the back door and locked Harry inside. He took his seat in the front, feeling much more at ease with the situation. They could take their time now and sort things out.
"Someone should blow that sign away, Bartholomew, it's a disgrace what we've come to, allowing such an eyesore..." He was nodding towards the gyrating naked woman that stretched the entire height of the hotel across the harbour.
Henry was watching the inspector in the rear view mirror.
"A disgrace is what it is, sir." Henry was beginning to feel on familiar ground again.
"I was just thinking to myself that in the end it's not injustice and evil that is responsible for every great civilization's downfall, but the pettiness and shallowness of the human condition. We create a world that is secure within its borders, a potential centre for the highest forms of art, a society where the greatest impulses of humankind can flourish. Then day by day, year after year, we pick away at it like peevish children until it all collapses in ruin."
Henry heaved his great body around in the seat so he could see his passenger face to face.
"In the end, sir, I'm afraid it's trivia that always wins. How do you guard against it? The great minds and institutions of the day are above it all. They don't understand the basic human appetite for pettiness and mindless pursuit. Even if they did, how could they protect the people from themselves? The public can't get enough nonsense to satisfy them it would seem, they have their collective heads stuck firmly in the shifting sands of dissolution."
He hooked a thumb towards the towering fulsome obsenity.
"I fear there's not much time left for us."
Harry looked at Officer Henry Bartholomew with new found respect.
"You're all right, Bartholomew."
"Call me Higgins, sir. That's what everyone calls me."
Norm was hurrying out the door of the apartment now, waving people away as he crossed the street towards them. Henry knew the look in Norm's face well enough to know there was trouble.
"We'll be wanting to get out of here, Higgins, believe me."
Henry twisted around again to give Harry a curious look as Norm pulled his door open and jumped in the car.
"Let's get the hell out of here! Wait..."
Norm grabbed the mic on the backup radio.
"Lucy, unit twelve here. Come in, please."
"Go ahead, unit twelve"
"Lucy, it's Norm Stern. Did anyone else see that link you showed us earlier?"
"Negative, Officer Stern. I'm all alone in control tonight."
"Okay, Lucy. Listen and don't ask any questions. Erase any record of it - have you got that? If you value your sweet ass, erase it. "Don't let anyone else see it. And all records of the call as well."
"I don't follow you, Stern. I should erase it? That's a breach...
"Just do what I'm telling you, O.K. You'll have to trust me on this. I'll explain it all to you later, when we can talk privately."
Harry reached over Norm's shoulder and grabbed the mic from his hand.
"Lucy, this is Inspector Harry Monday. Do what Officer Stern has requested. I'll take responsibility for it. Do you understand?"
"Uhh...yes sir, if you say so, Inspector. This is totally against procedure, but if you guarantee you'll take..."
"Yes, yes, Lucy. I'll talk to you later."
Harry gave the mic back to Norm, who closed the channel.
"Now just what the hell is going on?" Higgins looked at one and then the other. Norm finally answered.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry, Higgs. Christ I think I'm gonna cry after all."
"Just shut up, Stern. This doesn't go beyond the three of us, got that. I'll think of something to tell Lucy." Harry was feeling ill again.
"Pull over up there for a minute. I've got to get some fresh air."
Norm drove down to the end of Sea Shell Lane and pulled over to the edge of the park there. Harry staggered out across the grassy field towards the waters edge.
"Don't ask me, Higgs!" Norm retreated from Higgin's questioning stare. "You'll have to ask the Inspector."
Higgins pushed himself out of the cruiser and followed Harry down to the water's edge.
"Inspector, do you want to tell me what this is all about?"
Harry had been sick on the beach and looked up at Higgins' question, feeling a little better now.
"You won't believe it if I tell you, Higgins..."
The fog was drifting up onto the rocky shore and had piled up thick and high enough out on the water to blanket all but the lewd face of the virtual billboard hustler across the harbour. In another moment that was gone too. Off in the distance, the first low note of a big old fog horn filled the night with its mournful warning. They faced each other, surrounded now by the restless silent fog.
Higgins smiled, the question in his mind forgotten for a moment. It could have been a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Chapter Three - 1

"You made me look bad, gentlemen."

Nicholas Michael Dimitri Apolonio III, Chief Executive Officer of the TAFT Corporation, the largest and most powerful business consolidation that had ever straddled the Earth, and now beyond that into the outer reaches of the solar system itself, was arguably the world's most powerful corporate citizen.

But today, as he stood high up in TAFT's dark glass-walled administration tower and scanned the New Mexican desert outside the perimeter of the vast research and assembly area of the company's global headquarters, he felt full of doubt. He felt something else stir deep within him as well, something that was much more profoundly disturbing than the doubt that was visiting him, but it was too distant to see clearly, and if he could have seen it and attached a name to this thing that he had never felt before - he might have called it vulnerability.

He stood with his powerful hands clapsed behind him and leaned at a seemingly impossible angle towards the glass in front of him. His head, crowned with a thick mantle of coarse black hair streaked with feathers of ridged white, tilted slightly as his unblinking dark eyes surveyed the details of his immediate empire. There were no clues available in the dusty hills beyond or in the spotless southern sky above that might provide an answer to his dilemma. And no clues to show that Nicholas Apolonio was as close as he would ever come to feeling truly human at this moment in his life. An opportunity for a great awakening of his spirit presented itself - an opportunity that in his case fear alone could provide the emotional impetus for change.

He would get over it.

Even so, it did occur to him that he felt somewhat human in his doubt, a state that was unnatural and troubling to him. But to the assembled group of scientists and managers that sat waiting uneasily in the boardroom behind him, his uncanny resemblence to a great bird of prey was alarming. He stood as if hunched over on his perch, fathomless hawk eyes searching for prey, his total being absorbed in the cruel blood sport that gave life sustenance and meaning.

For the Boss, of course, that meant winning above all else.

His remarkably deep voice rumbled on. "Some of you here today have made me look bad indeed, gentlemen."

The sound came from everywhere, evenly, then it hissed at the edges of his speech as the invisible machinery that compressed his speech gently gave way to the rising white breath of the electronic noise floor below.

Nicholas Apolonio turned slowly towards the gathered room.

The room shrank before his terrible gaze even before the mood recognition algorithms built into the VR transceivers that ringed the room went off the scale and began to alter the holo-field he presented to those gathered in front of him.

"There are, of course, those that are directly responsible. I believe they know in their hearts who they are."

His voice grew, even as the words he spoke became a whisper, more measured, the spaces between each of them now turbulent inflections of air pushing in around them like the low concussion of distant ordnance, sinking the hearts of the even the bravest in the room.

Each man in the room glanced around him. Fifty swiveling heads, brows arched quizzically or eyes narrowed, examining the others. Then, as the heads slowly stopped and returned one by one to their natural repose, each began to look inside itself, terrified that it would find within itself the flaw that had brought them all here today to confront this terrible man.

"This is a problem of quality control, or, I should say, a lack of it."

Forty-nine heads pivoted suddenly, as if all were connected and yanked at once by the same string, stopping as one to gaze at the fiftieth, which stared down at the floor in anguish. One of their number sat off to the side of the room, isolated from the rest of them, the reason now clear in the minds of the others - he would be the unlucky one that would have to pay. But who was missing from the empty chair beside him?

"In particular, the problem is one of infection, as I'm sure you must all know by now," he sneered. Nothing stayed secret to them for long. Each man in the room had his own spies planted carefully throughout the corporation. The Boss knew this, tolerated it as inevitable, but was always disgusted at their protestations of ignorance when he knew every one of those shaking heads were often as well informed as he himself.

"We are in a race, the outcome of which could determine the future of the TAFT Corporation...". He turned his gaze fully on the room, making sure that all were with him.

He paused and almost whispered. " company, gentlemen."

The Boss's voice took a bad turn now, the first traces of a darkening wind pushed icy little fingers of wintry air out across the room, cold knuckles of the stuff brushing against unhappy faces, all straining forward now, as if in anticipation of the storm, and hanging on every word.

"My family built this company up to what it is today over three generations," his voice was rising now, "and the one to fail it - failure is not an option for me!"

The first disconcerting changes began at the corners of the room. Something nasty was beginning to crawl into the peripheries of each man's vision, that part of the eye least affected by the concious mind, the wild eye that still roamed free, in search of danger, ready to sound the alert as it had been doing through a million or more years in the service of self preservation.

"All I have asked of you is to create an implant that is serviceable, gen-tel-men ," he twisted the word now and spat it out in three short bursts, as if he couldn't suffer the flavor of the whole thing in his mouth at once. "What could be the problem, I ask myself?"

He began to move around the room now, the stalker moving amongst its prey. The fear was evident in every eye that followed him, in the soft wet defenseless palms slipping nervously across glassy tabletops. In the terrible silence. But most of all it was the room itself; the room was responding to the drama that was beginning to unfold, a "learning environment" crafted by the corporation's most talented multi-dimensional media production groups, mostly for use by military and intelligence organizations that needed to motivate individuals into providing information, this one designed specially for the Boss. The edges of the room were beginning to dissolve now, the lines that marked boundaries of floor, wall, and ceiling became featureless leaving those gathered with a disoriented sense of floating in an infinite space with no horizon.

The crackling white noise of a wall size portal snapping open behind the CEO caused the crowd to jerk in unison. A shared outburst of childlike giggles and glances about broke the dark spell for a moment.

"DOCTOR XIANG REPORTS FROM OUR SHANGHAI VOLUNTEER CLINIC!" The mighty basso profundo voice of the Boss was a low body blow. Every head snapped back to attention. The CEO stood in front of the portal, pointing upwards to the waiting towering face of Doctor Xiang. The viewing portal lent the room some semblence of proportion again, however absurd the dimensions of it, and every man there fixed his eyes on it. The giant face demanded their attention, to look away risked the vertigo of staring into boundless infinity.

"Run the report."

The doctor cleared his throat and began. He didn't look well at all. Those in the room that knew the doctor were shocked to see the once handsome face contorted, long furrows ploughing his fine wide mouth down on the sides, fearful eyes staring out at them from dark hollow pockets, the source of that fear beyond the range of the camera.

"The situation here in Shanghai has been a great disappointment to say the least," the doctor began. " We are running a mortality rate of over 25 percent in head implants and roughly 10 to 15 percent in body implants. The leading cause of death is a virulent infectious agent introduced by the chip itself, as far as we can ascertain here. We didn't suspect it until a few days ago. Who would have thought the problem could have originated there? But it is the only possible explanation. A saboteur must have infiltrated the plant. The shipping cases are arriving undisturbed here, as always. The virus seems to have been introduced to the packaging fluid that surrounds and nourishes the chip while in transit. I can't be certain, but I would look for someone in the packaging area of the plant. We feel here that the virus must be added to the fluid later, after it has been produced in the lab - the controls there are just too restrictive to allow it to pass."

The doctor paused for a moment, turning his head slightly, as if distracted by something. He began again, somewhat agitated.

"The Chinese government is becoming...impatient," Doctor Xiang's narrow eyes darted to the left like a pair of frightened bats and returned widened now by some new knowledge only he could see. He sped on.

"We can not anticipate a continuing supply of...volunteers...under the circumstances. Indeed, the project may not be able to continue in its present form."

The screen flickered, some of the content of the transmission dropping out. When the signal was reestablished, there was more of a sense of urgency in the delivery. The doctor was rushing now, his eyes taking on a more desperate quality as loud voices and a sudden crashing noise seemed to emanate from somewhere close by within the clinic. The sharp staccato of authoritative Chinese voices rang out as the doctor hurried on.

"I hadn't anticipated this. We will need all personnel evacuated by any and all means possible." Panic had seized the doctor now as the noise around him became almost deafening. He shrieked out his last words.

"The situation here has become perilous, please..."

The audio burst into a torrent of static as the picture disappeared into waves of digital noise. In the last few flickering frames of the transmission Doctor Ziang's body could be seen twisted toward the direction of the disturbance, his hands raised above his head, his strobing mouth open in a silent scream. Then the wall went blank.

Nicholas Apolonio turned the full fury of his gaze upon the man seated alone at the side of the room.

"That transmission was received just over an hour ago." The Boss's jaw was clenched in fury, rippling masseter muscles bulging along the sides of his face. "We have heard nothing since, despite our best efforts," he hissed.

The edges of the room seemed to begin a slow spin now, as if the entire conference area were staged on a giant merry-go-round. Everyone sat tensed with anticipation, guts gripped by a fine cold fear, wishing they hadn't bought the ticket for this ride. A sense of madness, full of the kind of dread that can never be remembered until visited again, lay upon each man there. Now was the time to steel oneself for the ride - now that there was no turning back.

"Mr. Folley, please present yourself here." The Boss pointed to a spot in the middle of the floor in front of him, no longer acknowledging the man with his eyes. Derek Folley rose from his seat, looking already, as he crossed the room, like the ghost he was soon to become.