The storm behind them now, Taggart watched shadows on the deck as the rising sun wiped away the last gauzy remnants of night. He stood and walked the deck again, the pain in his back much worse if he sat still for any length of time, his mind still full of unanswered questions. He walked aft, dropped the swim platform and stepped down just inches from their streaming wake, then, as if on cue the big male’s dorsal fin broke the surface about ten yards away, his immense body surfing along on Bandits’ foaming wake.
Eva? Had he done the right thing? Could she have made this leg of the trip?
Looking at their progress so far he knew the answer to that question already. Time Bandits was brutally efficient in a heavy seaway, and even ten foot breaking seas hadn’t bothered her in the least. Instead of slamming into waves she seemed to knife through them, cut them away and slip through unscathed, and he’d carried more sail through the night than he would have ever thought safe on the old Nauticat.
Dina and Rolf had had no problem sleeping, either. So, yes, Eva would have done just fine. Now the question came down to logistics, and to the female orcas.
With twenty hours elapsed since leaving Bergen’s inner harbor they’d made 160 miles, hideously fast given the rowdy state of the sea, and sitting at the wheel overnight he’d positioned Bandits on a broad reach and surfed her off a wave, grinning as she hit 12 knots before rounding up a little. She was a fine boat indeed, one his father would have enjoyed.
The two smaller males swam close and just then one of them came very close, swimming on his side with one eye planted on Taggart, and for a moment he’d wanted to lean over and rub the guy. Then the big male swam in close, in effect running the smaller males away, and Taggart did lean over and hold his hand out…but then the large male swam away too, leaving Taggart to wonder why.
He went back to the helm and pulled up the latest weather overlay, then zoomed out, pulling in information from all over the North Atlantic basin. Two more hurricanes had formed, one with probability cones leading to Florida, the other looking to turn northwest towards Bermuda again, and he’d have to keep an eye out for that one. Beyond that? A big, fat blob of high pressure was filling-in behind the storm, centered over the Irish Sea this morning, so he expected falling winds during the day – today, and possibly zero wind early tomorrow – just as they approached the Dutch coast.
The next waypoint was set a few miles miles off the entrance channel to Den Helder, and they’d avoid the treacherous low tides in the Waddenzee by entering the Dutch canal system there, taking a deep commercial barge canal directly to the center of Amsterdam. From there, the plan was to take the StaandeMast Route, so called because there would be no need to remove the mast for the trip through the heart of the city – and, indeed, all the way to Rotterdam. Looking at the drafts needed to transit these routes, he was glad this particular vessel had the shoal-draft option – because without this shallower depth the canal systems of Holland, Belgium, and France would have become out of reach, the water not deep enough to handle a boat so deep. As it was, Time Bandits was right at the limit…
He reached to move the radar’s range out to 72 miles, wincing as his body shifted and immediately regretting it. He took a deep breath and felt odd shooting pains in his chest and sighed, wondering where the crud was spreading next, and how fast. He’d learned enough to know that if it spread up to the cervical vertebrae it would be ‘game over,’ just as soon as the vagus nerve was compromised. He shook his head as he took another deep breath, not taking anything for granted now.
Only one target popped on the radar, and that was strange. They were about to transit the main shipping lane from the Kiel/Elbe waterway to the English Channel, and if this route was empty that meant most all the ships in the Baltic had successfully left that possible conflict zone. It was either that or the Kiel Canal had been closed to traffic…
He turned on the new Fusion radio and selected the transceiver, then hit the BBC’s World News broadcast and set the cockpit speakers to active.
“…repeating, at least four Russian mechanized groups have entered Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have asked that American forces attempt to form a new coalition to halt this latest advance. This comes two hours after Russian paratroopers landed around strategic routes connecting Helsinki to Sweden. A government spokesperson still trapped in Finland stated that the central government had relocated to Stockholm, and that almost all elements of the Finnish Navy and Air Force had relocated to pre-determined redoubts throughout the region…”
“Well, Hell,” he sighed, “so war it is. And Middle East oil is the objective. Again.”
He changed the frequency to Radio Deutsche Welle and listened as the reporter described a tense standoff in central Ukraine as Russian forces had violated the cease-fire and started a new push for Kiev. Warsaw had canceled all military leave and activated reserves, while Hungary had reportedly approached Moscow, declaring neutrality in any conflict. So Moscow now had a safe corridor to approach Austria and Bavaria…
France Radio reported that the French president had put all nuclear forces at the equivalent of DefCon 2, and that the Secretary General of the UN was imploring all sides to step back from the brink…
“Sounds bad,” Mike said, coming up the companionway with two cups of coffee. “Any news from Washington?”
Taggart leaned forward to change presets and winced again, then hit the button.
Taggart shook his head. “Something under the right ribcage. Sharp pain, probably in the liver now.”
“Damn…” Mike said as the radio came to life again.
“Reports from the White House would seem to confirm that the president has left for Joint Base Andrews, but we are getting some reports of heavy traffic on the roads leading to Mount Weather…”
“So,” Mike said, “the president is going airborne and key government officials are headed to the underground C&C center.”
“Sounds like someone is trying to push NATO into thinking an attack is imminent.”
“Which sounds like,” Taggart sighed, “the Russians are trying to get a response from whoever hacked their systems three weeks ago.”
“Okay…I’ll bite. Can you?”
“Me? Not without another back door, like another Mainstay flight – that also just happened to go active over the North Sea.”
“Talk about a stroke of luck…”
“Depends on your point of view, Mike. A Russian might disagree with you.”
“Well, yeah, but the action you took, that unilateral take-down, was a stroke of genius. With everybody offline, nobody appeared guilty. I take it the fuel thing wasn’t your doing?”
“So, what is their interest in all this?”
“I get the impression they’re kind of like a bunch of high school students, and we’re their science project.”
Mike grinned at that. “Now that’s a confidence inspiring idea. What about the one mind thing? What has that got to do with all this?”
“Ya know, a bunch of people a lot smarter than I am haven’t been able to figure this one out, but let’s go back to Schrödinger for a second.”
“So, Schrödinger was thinking that the universe looks less like a big machine than it does One Big Thought, and that this One Big Thought exists, in effect, in a unique quantum state. Schrödinger’s next postulate was the idea that consciousness, in the form of a quantum singularity, is out there, and I mean literally everywhere, phasing in and out within all sentient beings. So, what we were trying to wrap our heads around back in Seattle – especially after the whole 9/11 random number thing hit home – was that the speed of thought within a single quantum singularity is literally instantaneous…”
“You mean, like everywhere in the universe?”
“Yup. And I know, the idea seems preposterous, until Winky and his pals showed up just before 9/11…”
“Coming from Andromeda, you said. So, what you’re saying is that they’ve somehow been able to physically move around the universe at the speed of thought?”
Taggart nodded. “If we’d only had another couple hundred thousand years to evolve, we might have made it there, too.”
“You’re speaking of us in the past tense.”
“That’s right. They’ve pretty much written us off as a species, yet for some reason a few of them are still hanging around, like they’re waiting for the final results to come in. As I said, it feels like a high school science project, that was supposed to be turned in yesterday.”
“Only we’re the ones being put to the test.”
“Exactly, so as far as Russia goes, if this next little war proves be our extinction level event, you’d think they would just pack up their bags and go on to their next project, but no, that’s not quite the case, and personally, I think it has something to do with our friends over there,” Taggart said, pointing at the orcas.
“The Cape St George…”
“Right. I grew concerned that the ship might try to take us out, but they’d have had to use explosives and that would have injured, or perhaps even killed, one or more of the whales. So, I let Winky know.”
“And a guided missile cruiser became a lighter than air cruiser.”
“Elegant solution, I thought,” Taggart said, smiling at the memory. “Still, there’s one new wrinkle in all this. Those female orcas and Eva, and whatever they were doing out there, matters, because Winky was taking an intense interest in the process.”
“You think he was watching, or maybe even directing the process.”
“Watching. If he’d been involved there would have been physical contact.”
“You assume so, that is?”
“True. That’s my assumption. But I’ve never seen him act like that before.”
“How do you know it’s the same…what? – person? – being?”
“You get where you can recognize colors and patterns within the spheres…”
“Just how many do you know?”
“Me, directly? Four of them. Winky, Dinky, Pinky, and Finky. And no, I didn’t name them.”
“Is a major league asshole. Dark green sphere with purple polar areas. When he’s around clear your mind, fast. Zero sense of humor.”
“Sense of humor?”
“Yeah, that’s Dinky. He’s a stitch, and probably the smartest of the lot, too. I think this is his project, as in We are his project, and he isn’t prepared to write us off just yet.”
“And let me guess…Finky is ready to pull the plug?”
“See? This is easy, right?”
“You say so. What about Dinky?”
“Yellow-orange, red equatorial bulge. Usually very small, very dim and really hard to spot.”
“So Pinky is pink?”
“Yup, and definitely female. She’s their resident empath, and she doesn’t respect your personal space, at all. When she wants to know what you’re feeling she’ll find out any way she can.”
“So, that leaves Winky. What’s his role in all this?”
“I think of him as being like a mechanic, or maybe an engineer. He studies things, and when needed he manipulates what needs to be manipulated.”
“Hence the Cape St George. Can you call them individually?”
“I can’t, at least not all of them. I’ve had some luck with Winky and Dinky, none at all with the other two.”
“Where are they?”
“The spheres? What are they?”
“I think they’re more like a monitoring device, but in a way also like a drone – in that those things can take action when directed to.”
“So, the hologram is a projection of what ‘they’ look like?”
“Well, yes, but you actually met Winky, and I mean in the flesh, before you back-flipped over the rail.”
“I don’t remember that. But…you’ve seen him before…like in that form?”
Taggart nodded. “When the Seattle group was trying to reconstruct their first ARV. Yes.”
“And those ships work?”
“In a limited capacity. Most of them crash, as we just don’t have the means to reproduce the flight control systems.”
“What does that mean?”
“The controls seem to react to direct neural commands, and our brains aren’t structurally all that similar.”
“What are their power sources like?”
“Think of a fusion reactor with a power output sufficient to power California in a package about the size of a briefcase.”
“No kidding? And the Seattle group reproduced that?”
“Yes. So did the Black Widow team.”
“So, theoretically we could…”
“Yes, we could. But end poverty, hunger, or inequality? Doubtful. Groups are already in open conflict about who gets the technology and at what price. And that’s why the U.S. probably won’t go to war to protect the Middle East this time around.”
“Oh, from what I’ve heard, Jesus approved of the technology.”
“Mike, you need to wrap your head around the idea that their project has been going on for a long, long time. They’ve made a bunch of friends, too, but apparently our team in Seattle was the first to actually initiate contact. That marked a big moment of success for them, and that was the only reason why Finky didn’t terminate the project after the 9/11 thing.”
“That’s the random number thing, right?”
“Yeah, a group working out of Princeton and Yale. Computational Psychobiology, if you can get into that. Working on AI and their system accidentally picked up the 9/11 data, which led to contact after we got our ARV online.”
“But you’re not using any equipment to make contact…”
“Because none is needed, Mike. Remember, one mind, one conscious mind, so think of it as one part of the mind talking to another part.”
“Damn, Taggart, even my hemorrhoids are starting to hurt just thinking about all this…”
“Yeah? Well, wrap your head around this. Orcas have been in contact with them a lot longer than we have.”
“So, Eva and those females? They were…”
“Yup. And I don’t have a clue how or why Eva was able to do that.”
“You know, man, I think I’m gonna go clean my ears – with some Preparation H.”
Taggart nodded, then looked aft. “I just hope I haven’t fucked up the works by not bringing Eva along this time. If the Russians make a big move into central Europe then any ability to get to her will very likely be cut-off, and I’m thinking that her part in this equation may hold the key to their success.”
“So…we turn around and go back.”
“No,” Taggart said, shaking his head slowly, “I can’t take a chance on not getting where I want to be, and anyway, my guess is if they need her they’ll know where to find her.”
“Okay, so you’re willing to take that chance. Decision made. Let’s move on.”
Henry smiled. “Is that the naval mindset?”
“Damn straight it is. You can’t properly execute any plan if you’re always second guessing yourself. Get all that baggage out of the way before you decide.”
“Well, we’re into September now and according to Dina I’m officially running out of time.”
“And Russia is fucking up the works.”
“Aren’t they always?”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Mike said, gnashing his teeth. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been programmed to fight Russians.”
“So isn’t it just as likely that a bunch of Russians feel the same way, like they have been programmed to fight us?” Henry added, smiling.
“Sure it is.”
“So, consider this. It’s this tendency we have, to look for differences and then demonize those differences, which – in their eyes,” Taggart said, pointing up at the sky, “makes us a doomed species. That, and I think the whole religion thing really messes with their frame of reference.”
“Well, the one mind thing infers we’d be on the same wavelength as God. Dinky laughed his ass off when we mulled over some possibilities.”
“So, where are we headed now?”
“Den Helder. We cut in and try to find the right canal to take us to Amsterdam.”
“Why not just go to IJmuiden. Plenty of draft and no bridges to worry about. Only about twenty, maybe thirty miles further.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Yeah, on a port visit once, but I guess it begs the issue…why not just sail straight for the Seine?”
“I know,” Henry sighed. “I wanted to stop and smell the roses, I guess.”
“Tulips, Henry. Lots of tulips.”
“Oh…yeah. Well, the Russians may have made all that a moot point.”
“No, no, I say stick to the plan. If they’re keeping an eye on you, maybe they’re trying to gauge how you respond to all these changes.”
Taggart scowled. “Maybe.”
“So, maybe heading inland at IJmuiden is the safer option right now.”
“Okay, I’ll add it as a second route and we can decide when we get to the next waypoint.”
“If we stayed outside, out of the canals, how far is it from IJmuiden to the Seine?”
“Just under 300 miles,” Taggart said, looking at the chart plotter, “but remember, I’ve got a big medical work-up in Amsterdam.”
“Options and outcomes, Henry…just thinking about the available options.”
“Well, I’m going to go take a nap. Call me before we get close to Den Helder.”
“Right.” Lacy watched and waited until Taggart was below, then pulled a new sat-phone from his jacket and checked-in. It was a brief call.
Eva slept terribly the night after Taggart left.
She’d watched the storm’s approach, her mood as dark as the underbelly of the scudding clouds, a helpless onlooker now supposedly out of harm’s way – warehoused, put on a shelf to be watched-over like the incubator she’d been repurposed to be. It wasn’t that she was merely angry now; no, she felt disused. No longer loved or needed.
When Time Bandits disappeared inside the shredding white line of the squall, she had turned away and walked to the same bench Taggart and Clyde always went to when he had fresh salmon for the old boy. She sat in the same spot Henry sat and closed her eyes – soaking up memories like a thirsty sponge. In her mind’s eye she saw not Taggart’s eyes, but Clyde’s; deep, dark, full of purpose, the unknowable mysteries that spoke of love and devotion – and she felt at home for a moment, in those eyes.
Until her clouds began clearing the way forward, until other eyes became manifest.
Just as deep, just as purposeful. The big male and his scything dorsal full of latent purpose…
He was reaching out to her…she could feel him probing her thoughts, reassuring her. Telling her she would not be alone, that she would never be alone ever again and to trust him. Her mind reeled under the assault, under the weight of the utter unfamiliarity of something so invasively foreign, yet as her mind reacted she also began reaching out, probing the unfamiliar, feeling her way out of this inner storm under the sheer strength of her empathic abilities…
She went into the male orcas mind, felt the weight if his responsibilities, of his hopes and dreams, then she saw the world through his eyes…watching her that first time as she fell overboard and as Henry came for her…then she felt the love and wonder in his eyes…not just for his family but for her as well.
“Why?” she asked. “Why do you feel this way?”
And she experienced a rush of impressions that left her breathless. Impossible things, unreal places, and she basked under the full glory of his hopes and dreams – even as other minds began probing, seeking out the source of this new strength…
“After all this time, could she be the one?” the green sphere wondered.
Lacy hopped off Bandits’ bow and secured the forward spring-line to the pier while Rolf pulled in on the stern-line, making the boat fast to her new spot in central Amsterdam. Dina had bundled Taggart in a heavy coat – because he said he was freezing – even though it was almost 70 degrees F outside, and they set out for the hospital as soon as the power was hooked-up. Rolf took over the care and feeding of Clyde when Mike advised he had a few errands to run, and so Rolf took Clyde to a nearby park for a long-needed sniff of grass.
Lacy hailed a taxi and proceeded southwest out of the city to the sprawling US Embassy complex in Wassenaar, and from there he made his way to the second floor office of the local CIA resident director of field operations. She was waiting for him, and she was furious.
“So, you’re telling me the woman is still in Bergen?”
Lacy nodded. “He wouldn’t let her come. I tried, but if I’d pushed more than I already had I think I’d have blown my cover.”
The woman shook her head, looked out the window. “You know, we don’t have anyone near Bergen right now. Everyone is up north, at the border. Do you have any idea how many troops they have massed up there right now? Today? This morning…?”
“No. I’d assume…”
“Yeah? Well, double whatever you were going to guess and you’d still be off by a factor of two. And now I’ve got to find a warm body to hustle their ass to fuckin’ Bergen and get eyes on this woman. Goddamn! I just wish you’d have stayed on her…”
Lacy just stared at the spook, knowing things must have gotten out of hand for her to be this rattled. “Well, the good news is he says he can’t pull off a repeat of the Helgoland broadcast, so at least we don’t have to worry about that right now.”
“You mean he says he can’t. So far Taggart has been as slippery as eel snot.”
“I haven’t seen him working on anything and besides, he’s sicker than shit.”
“And you’re sure that isn’t an act?”
Lacy pulled out his phone and showed her a picture of Taggart he’d taken the day before and her eyes went wide.
“Okay,” she said softly, “how long does he have?”
“The oncologist traveling with us says she doubts he’ll make it to Paris. So…call it, well, maybe a month.”
“I don’t know why we can’t just kill him now, put him out of our misery…”
“I think that would be premature, and probably not in the best interests of the project.”
“Getting that goddamn woman back under surveillance is in our best interest right now,” the Chief of Station snarled. “Taggart was a dead end and now we know it!”
“I disagree, and don’t know that’s the case – not at all, as a matter of fact. We need to stay with the original plan, just detail someone from the CERN group to Bergen and let me see where Taggart takes us. I still think he’s the key player.”
“Assuming we can move people freely across Europe, you mean? No, we should kill him before he pulls off another Helgoland!”
“That’s not their objective now – and you know it. We need to stick to the plan, let it work. You know and I know the stakes are just too high.”
“You keep assuming we know what their ultimate objective is. Need I remind you…we don’t!”
“We’ll know…assuming we can keep him alive all the way to Paris…”
“Yes, yes…I know. Now get out of here, and let me have that sat-phone. We have new bugs planted, so we’ll know what’s going on before you do.”
Lacy nodded and left her office; he took a taxi to the nearby rail line that led back into the city and waited for the next train with a handful of commuters. He never noticed the small, yellow-orange sphere hovering almost inside a nearby hedgerow, nor did he spot the tiny orbs that raced out of the embassy to rejoin the larger orb.
As the train rolled to a stop beside the platform, Lacy stepped on board just before the doors closed. He sat beside a window and watched the countryside drift by, never aware of the tiny spheres that landed on his jacket and in his hair.
Dinky’s sphere resumed its station a few hundred miles overhead, joined for a moment by an angry red sphere – which left a few minutes later, streaking back down to the heart of the city far, far below.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next chapter will drop in a week or so.