Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chapter Three - 2

Valerie Odjoy brushed at the long golden curls of hair that kept falling across her face as she ran down the empty corridor leading to the elevator, heels clacking noisily on the polished white stone floor tiles. She cursed herself for wearing high-heels; it was not something she often did at work, but she needed to do something to get on Nick's good side today. And she knew how Nick liked to see the delicate knot of her slim calf muscles working inside a pair of shear dark stockings. That always turned his crank. He would often look at the cut of her long slim legs, take a slow admiring turn once around her, shake his head and say it was impossible for anyone to have legs that looked that good.

"Well, it helps to have the high heels, dummy," she muttered to herself, head thrust forward as she strode purposefully down the hall, coat and hair and briefcase a flapping tangle about her. "Bloody men! Did they really think women were born with calves like that."

She secretly doubted that Nick would be in any mood to look at her legs today, but what else could she do? Why did she ever let herself get hooked up with him in the first place.

"Christ, Val, when will you ever learn! Of course the richest guy on the planet is going to be the worst lay as well! Didn't Newton or somebody like that write a law about it. What's worse is he scares the hell out of you! The guy is positively scary, and I mean as in gives you the worst possible creeps! How the hell are you going to get out of this one alive, girl?"

Val had heard all the stories about Nick. She figured she would need all the help she could get today, and then some.

"You fucked up on the job, Val. Boy, oh boy, did you fuck up! Now that mean son-of-a-bitch is really gonna screw you. The way Nick operates, he'll be twice as hard on you."

Everyone knew the Boss was especially unkind to those close to him that let him down.

"Val, you stupid no good boss-sucking slut," she said it out loud now, "what the hell have you got yourself into this time?"

She'd come up through the less populated back of the building, thinking it would be a short-cut, but the elevator would go no further than this curious floor, its long empty halls a criss-crossed labyrinth of smoky-grey featureless walls and white tiled floors.

"Where the hell is everybody?" She had come to the conclusion that there was something decidedly creepy about this place. Val had wandered up and down the corridors, finding no doors or openings of any sort in the smooth walls until she had reached some kind of a juncture in the middle of the labyrinth. From where she now stood she could turn to see down three long hallways, one running straight ahead, the other two fanning out slightly to each side of the first. At the far end of the right hallway was an elevator, doors wide like a leering funhouse mouth, and from somewhere within the gaping opening, dim yellow lights illuminated the eerie silent interior of the waiting cage.

"Where to from here, girl?" She whispered it under her breath.

On an impulse, she turned to take the right corridor, and as she did, her right heel slipped into the crack between the stone tiles. Val's ankle went over hard, a sharp stab of pain made her pull her leg up too quickly, putting her off balance. She let out a scream as she started to stumble face first towards the floor, her flailing arms and hands grabbing onto the only purchase available - the lifeless brown stalk of a neglected potted spruce, obviously dead for some time but still standing resolutely against the wall at the entrance to the corridor. Val was spun around by the tree as she checked her fall, but her equilibrium was restored and she managed to skid to a standing halt. The plant, however, continued to tip ominously in the direction of the elevator. The big red clay pot that held it finally gave into the energy it had been forced to absorb, bringing the tree crashing down, spilling its load of dry loam and dead needles out across the floor.

Val stared in shock at the mess she had created, the clay pot now broken and strewn about on the the white stone tiles, one big pink chunk of it spinning like a three-sided saucer. Dirt and needles fanned out a dozen feet or more from where the top of the tree had ended up. The tree looked like a primitive upended coat rack, its useless root complex now pitifully exposed for anyone to see.

"Christ," she muttered, "there isn't a needle left on it! No wonder," she looked down at herself, annoyed, "most of them are stuck in me".

Her hands and arms were stinging now from the hundreds of tiny pinpricks the hardened dried needles had inflicted on her. She looked around, afraid she was in trouble, as usual, but it seemed no one had witnessed the incident.

"Thank god for that," she muttered again, then pursed her lips and shook her head resolutely. "Val, old girl, you've just got to get over this self-deprecation thing." Then she remembered the cameras overhead; the ceilings bristled with them at TAFT.

"Shit!" she exploded, her famous temper flaring instantly, easily pushing aside any attempt she might have made with herself towards a more reasonable reconcilition of the matter.

She looked up at the closest camera and waved the palms of her hands towards it.

"Doesn't anyone water the goddamn plants in this building anymore? I've got two hand-fulls of razor sharp needles embedded in me. I'm a goddamn human pin-cushion! Look, you bastards," she had taken a closer look at her hands and now pushed them even closer to the camera. "I'm fuckin' bleeding!"

"Jesus!" Val flung her briefcase and overcoat to the floor in disgust and began to brush and pull at her palms and sleeves to get the needles dislodged. She then went to work on the front of her blouse and her skirt.

"You pricks will be hearing about this from the Boss! You won't get away with this!"

She pulled out all of the needles that she could find, grabbed her coat and purse and began clacking her heels again across the floor as she made her way toward the open elevator at the end of the hallway. She threw her hair back defiantly, a red burn now smoldering beneath the strands of golden tresses. She favored her right ankle but held her head high as she stomped resolutely along.

Val had one foot inside the elevator door before the alarm shrilled in her mind. The scream caught in her throat as she threw out her left elbow against the burnished steel jam surrounding the door. With the strength that comes from panic she pushed herself back from the waiting elevator and into the corridor, throwing herself up against the wall beside it. One hand, visibly shaking, went up to clutch at her throat as she gasped for air, her face now bleached white as the tile beneath her feet.

"Jesus.... Val.... what the hell.... were you thinking?" She bit off precious chunks of air between words, her chest rising and falling sharply as she waited for the flood of panic to subside.

Val knew all too well that company employees who had access to the upper floors of TAFT's corporate headquarters needed to clear security on each floor before venturing into a new area. She cursed herself inwardly for letting herself be so damn idiotic. She should have placed her hand more carefully over the ID plate of the security reader recessed into the wall outside the elevator she had ridden up in instead of giving it her usual derisive slap. That would have deactivated all of Nick's security "arrangements" and this elevator could very well be one of them.

Nick had cooked up all sorts of nasty surprises for interlopers. Val was familiar with most of them because he liked to brag about his creations, especially about the elevators that weren't really there. They were holo-projections designed to snare the unwary; there was really nothing there at all. Just long dark shafts dropping for God knows how many floors into the the subterranean basements of the building.

"You can't tell the difference - I defy you to tell me the difference," he would raise his head and hoot, "that is until you put your foot through the door. That's where the virtual part of it ends!"

She could still hear him howl with derisive laughter.

"That's one sick boy, Val," she thought to herself, "one very sick boy."

Angry at herself, she slammed her hand against the wall then slumped down in a crouch against it for a moment to regain her composure. She was terrified of going anywhere near the thing, but what choice did she have? When she got her nerve back enough she stood up and slid her back along the wall until she was right next to the elevator. She turned and leaned towards it, the palms of her hands pressed against the wall, feet planted firmly on the floor, until she was close enough to put her head into the open door. The elevator was still there, waiting.

Val willed herself to enter the elevator, her left hand firmly grasping the jam surrounding it. She put a foot down gingerly on the dark grey carpeted floor until her mind was finally convinced by her senses that this was the real thing and would allow the rest of her to enter. She took another step. Something, not quite a voice, but an animal apprehension that still held sway over her body refused to commit all her weight to it. She pressed down and her foot disappeared into the thin grey nap of the cage floor. She stared dumbstruck at the neat dun circle describing her narrow ankle, as if she had stuck her foot into a still dark pond. But no ripples spread outwards, just a flat slate sea of short pile carpet stretching towards the dimly lit elevator walls. Val pulled her foot out almost instantly; it came back bare, her shoe no longer where it should have been.

The whole thing couldn't have taken more than a second, but it was long enough to allow the paradox that had split her understanding mind from hopelessly confounded body to drag a sympathetic curtain across her unbelieving eyes. When she came to herself again some moments later she found herself sitting bedraggled on the floor outside the elevator, coat and briefcase strewn on either side of her. She stared dumbly into the elevator's beckoning yellow interior. A cold shudder took hold of her. She pulled her knees up under herself and began to rock herself forward and back, rubbing her upper arms with her hands.

She noticed her other shoe, overturned on its side and useless now, sitting on the floor beside her. Picking it up, she forced herself to crawl across the polished stone tiles beneath her and lean into the elevator again. She held the shoe a foot or so above the elevator floor and let it go. It passed through the carpet and deck of the cage without a sound, vanishing from sight. Val let herself fall back onto her haunches again on the floor outside, still disbelieving what her mind was telling her was just a 3D engineering parlour trick.

"Christ, who knows what's real around here anymore - this place is all smoke and mirrors and mad men." She began to rub at her head with her long pale fingers until her curling golden tresses were spun in a wild array around her face.

"Wait a minute", she stopped in mid-stroke and looked up at the ID plate on the wall beside the elevator, her eyes widening. " What the hell is going on here, Val?"

She got to her feet and walked slowly towards the ID plate, her eyes never leaving the hand-shaped imprint of its active scanning area. She hesitated a moment before raising her own hand towards it again. Maybe she hadn't given the scanner at the entrance to the elevator she had taken up here enough time to properly I.D. her. Or maybe she had missed with one of her fingers. Or maybe something else. Maybe she hadn't been able to deactivate the booby traps even if she had wanted to. Her disrespectful slaps had always ID'd her properly in the past.

One at a time, from thumb to pinky, she pressed her fingers against the scanning plate, carefully matching each engraved outline of the reader's fingers with that of her own. Slowly and deliberately, she pushed her iridium blue-nailed fingertips fully down into the shallow polished depressions of the plate until she had a perfect match with the reader. Val left her hand there much longer than she knew was necessary, making sure she had given the mechanism the time to do a proper job.

Now came time for the test.

Val knew that if her security clearance was still valid the elevator would not be there. The open drop shaft would be exposed and she would know to retrace her steps and try to find another route to the next floor. She moved towards the elevator again and for some reason wasn't surprised to see the cage still as it was; its soft brassy interior inviting.

So what did it mean? Well, she knew that Nick would probably have allowed her access to the meeting room on the top floor of the building, so she would still be cleared through to there if she had gone the usual way, but he couldn't have forseen her taking this other route to get there.

"You're so unpredictable, girl!"

So she had discovered by accident that her security clearance and probably her job here were both kaput. If she didn't show up for the meeting they would probably set the alarms off and there would really be hell to pay - she'd seen security do their job here before and they took it seriously - too seriously. She looked at the elevator again and shuddered.

"Christ! Case in point!"

She had to get up to that meeting pronto if she was going to try to save her skin. It was all she could do. She could go back the way she came, but she suspected that elevator had been a one-way ride up. Anyways, she was not sure she would be able to find her way back through the maze of corridors. It came back to her now from another of Nick's conversations that this must be one of the security buffer floors that protected the ones above it. They were easy to get on to from below, but if you didn't have security clearance they held a very sinister design for those unwary enough to get caught on one. A good way to filter out employees that were too curious or didn't have the companies best interests at heart.

"Val, if you ever get out of this one, it's back to Mom's flower shop. Promise me that!" She still had to figure how to get off this floor and up to the meeting room without setting off any alarms.

"Wait a minute, girl! How come those guys that run the cameras haven't set off any alarms." She looked above her to the ceiling and saw there were no cameras anywhere within viewing range of this elevator.

"That's strange," she murmured. "Guess they don't want any witnesses. Anyways, they must think I'm still O.K. or I wouldn't have made it to here. Why wouldn't Nick have told them?" She shook her head, unable to get to the bottom of any of these new facts and turned her attention back to the more immediate problem.

Val remembered that when she first stepped into the elevator, she had placed her left foot on solid ground just inside the cage. It wasn't until she had taken her second step that her right foot had disappeared.

She stepped towards the elevator again and took up the same position beside it as she had before, her left hand again firmly grasping the metal door jam. She swung her left foot in through the door about six inches out over the floor of the elevator. She let it drop down towards the floor until it reached the point where her toe should come into contact with it. It held. She flattened her foot against the carpet and slid it forward another six inches into the cage. She caught her breath as it disappeared once again into the seemingly reliable solid surface. So, she had about a foot to work with. It occurred to her that this might still be an operational elevator after all. Maybe they had just cut a hole in the floor, the VR projector creating the illusion that all was still well and normal within.

Val stuck her head in the cage now and looked left to where the contol panel should be located. She could see the row of vertical buttons; gleaming multi-faceted emeralds inset in the polished brass of the panel plate. Above it on the narrow display screen she could read the floor number.

"Number 13! So this is where you're hiding, you little bugger!"

Like a lot of buildings, probably to satisfy superstition, the13th floor did not exist in the TAFT headquarters main building. Oh, it existed alright if you stood outside and back far enough on the asphalt of the massive encircling parking lot and counted floors from the ground up. Or if you took the switch backing concrete folds of fire stairs to the 12th landing and then looked up to the next, you would surely have proven in your own mind at least, that the next landing would be the 13th.

But it did not exist in name, in the choices of elevators stops, or on the door that led from the fire stairs to what should have been the 13th floor, no matter how carefully you counted on the way up. The 13th landing fire door had the number 14 painted boldy in big squarish red numbers in the center of it, a purely utilitarian typeface, designed to deliver truth and clarity in lettering. You could walk down one floor and see 12 painted on the door below, and no matter how carefully you climbed the stairs again and searched for some sign of the missing level, you would be confronted once again with 14 when you reached the floor above.

But here it was, after all. Val had found it, sandwiched in somehow between 12 and 14. And she was not happy at all that she had found it. They were right to hide it away like this.

"Oh Nick, you sick fucking bastard!"

This must have been one of Nick's famous little inside jokes, one of those he liked to brag about in private, one the victims of this elevator ride would never be lucky enough to enjoy for themselves. If they found this floor, and especially this elevator, they would most likely already have plummeted to their death down the long dark shaft that lay concealed within it. Down 13 unlucky levels, wishing, if anyone felt inclined to wish in those horror-filled last moments, that they had never found this floor at all.

Except for Val. Val had beaten the odds. But only because she knew about the elevators. Lucky for that. Still, it had almost gotten her as well. She looked at the glowing green strip of buttons and wondered if her luck would hold? Was there a way out of this after all? There was if the elevator could function. She reached across to the brass panel and placed her outstretched palm across it. It passed right throught and disappeared, just like her foot had done, but it came to rest on a rough surface just inches beneath. Concrete! Disappointed, she moved her hand up and down and drew it back towards herself, feeling solid concrete all the way back to the door jam.

"That's how the bastards do it. I wonder..." She stepped back out to the hallway and looked at the grey shining walls that stretched away back into the labyrinth. Val put her hand up to the wall beside the elevator and felt its smooth featureless surface. Solid. She followed it along to the ID plate. Still solid. Past the plate a foot - then two feet. With a gasp she saw her hand disappear again up to her wrist, stopped against what felt like another roughly finished concrete wall.

"Jesus, the whole things a fake!" Val began to walk back down the hall dragging her hand, seemingly cut off at the stump of her wrist, along the irregular surface beneath. It occurred to her now that the fake shaft could have originally been intended to house another elevator. A real one. Perhaps Nick's twisted mind had conceived the deadly trap after construction of the building was well on its way, a last minute architectural detail that he had demanded changed. She remembered then that the other elevators in the building all seemed to have an accompanying set of fire stairs nearby. If that was so, then there might be a door close to this elevator that would open to a set of unknown stairs, the access to which was hidden from the public in the rest of the building, or at least placed somewhere where most people didn't or couldn't visit.

Val was about twenty feet down the hallway and so far had found nothing to indicate her theory might hold true.


She had hit an obstruction. She felt cold steel and ran her hand up and down its vertical smooth surface. Another door frame? She slid her hand over it and felt a metal surface beyond, this one a flat plane that seemed to extend again down the hallway. If it was a door there should be a handle about waist high. Now she slid her whole body across its smooth surface until she came up against another protrusion. It felt like the opposite door frame. She should have found the handle by now.

"What the hell...?" Val puzzled over it for a few moments, then something else occurred to her. If they hadn't finished installing the elevator, maybe they hadn't installed the hardware for the door handles. She pushed against it, but it wouldn't budge.

"Somethings holding this damn thing. Wait a minute..."

She felt higher now, maybe they had put in a simple dead bolt to hold the door shut.


Val twisted the handle on the lock and pushed hard until the door gave way. Fresh air rushed in to fill the space behind her and made her gasp. She hesitated for a moment. From somewhere on the other side she could hear the low steady drone of a great spinning turbine, a bass chorus murmuring the resonant frequency of some immense concrete cathederal that lay just on the other side of the door. Her arms had already half way disappeared into whatever lay beyond so she put one foot forward gingerly, wary of any more traps, until it too had disappeared through the grey veil of wall that separated her from the other side. The floor felt solid and she pushed the door open further, allowing the other foot to follow along, then hesitated again. She stood bisected vertically like that for a moment, then was gone like a ghost through the wall.

"Holy cow, will you look at that!" Val stood on the other side and craned her neck upwards, her voice still echoing throughout the great chamber that she had found herself in. Far above, too distant and obscured in the low light, was the roof of the TAFT tower; below she could hear the mighty fans forcing the vast column of air up through the building's central air shaft.

"Val, old girl, we're not through yet!"

Stairs led up and down, she must decide which to take. Down led to possible escape from Nick and whatever kind of trouble she must be in to have made him cancel her security clearance. But she was only fooling herself if she really thought she could escape the clutches of TAFT's security juggernaut. Even if you got out of the building, how would you get out of the compound itself? It stretched flat out for miles in every direction, the surrounding New Mexican desert forming a security perimeter that made escape impossible. The one road out was guarded, and it was a good fifteen minute drive past that to get to the overhead freeway.

Val shook her head and sighed and moved towards the steps that led upwards to Nick and the meeting room.

"Remember that flower shop, Val." She felt numb as she put a hand on the railing and looked up at the many flights of stairs she must now climb. "If you get out of this one, that's where you're going, girl. Promise me that."

Friday, January 07, 2005

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. "...my 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 I...will...not...be 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.

Friday, December 03, 2004

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 me...now 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 be...is 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.

Monday, November 15, 2004

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, November 10, 2004

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.

Friday, October 22, 2004

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.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

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.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

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.